A Little Refreshment! A Little Comfort!

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Comfort. Refreshment. Rest. Things we all need. This is the time of year when people hope to get some refreshment. We hope to slow down a little, play a little more, have more time, here in the midsummer, to refresh ourselves and the people we love. Take a trip, if we can afford one. Relax a little at home, if we cannot. We are tired. We need a break. A little refreshment. A little comfort.

Our grandchildren spend a lot of time with us in the summer. Sometimes one of them will hurt herself slightly -- scrape a knee, bang a funnybone, shut a finger in a drawer. She will pause, absorbing the shock of a sudden pain, and then, if I am nearby she will look at me. Sometimes the content of that look will determine whether she goes on to wail at the top of her lungs and end up on my lap for five minutes or else just laughs and says ouch. If I seem receptive, a small injury becomes a good opportunity to soak up some serious comfort. If not, there are better things to do. Interesting, for a child, crying is not just a private response to grief or pain. It is also a form of communication, and a most effective tool for influencing the behavior of others.

This is so often true, in fact, that a lot of us who are no longer children come to believe unconsciously -- that the people we care about will know we are crying even if they can't hear us. That the people we love will automatically know when we are sad. I remember luxuriating in solitary tears in some obscure hiding place when I was little; I was able to get quite worked up about the fact that nobody was coming to see what was wrong with me, even though I was hidden from sight and nobody knew where I was! Nobody loves me, I would tell my self -- a patent untruth, dubiously documented by the isolation I myself had sought. But it was seductively sad, a little glamorous, this lonely sorrow of mine, for nothing quite equals the dark pleasure of being an innocent victim, and many of us are prepared to go to considerable lengths and ignore a fair amount of history in order to savor it. Sometimes we use our tears to get us a comforting lap to sit on; sometimes, perversely, we use them to insure that there will be no lap.

I remember crying in school once, in the second grade. My teacher spoke firmly to me: "Stop right now!" she said, and I did, whispering silently to myself about how mean she was. She called me to her later to explain. If I had spoken gently to you, you would have cried harder and found it harder to stop yourself. I didn't mean to be sharp. I only wanted to help you strengthen yourself.

Little as I was, I appreciated that explanation. She was right, her tone did help me pull myself together in a situation where crying was not appropriate. Comfort and refreshment isn't always a gentle, "There, there." Sometimes it's a sharp "Here, here." Comfort and refreshment doesn't usually fall magically into our laps from the sky. Usually, we must put ourselves in its way. Often, it does not come from someone more powerful than we are. Often, God sends us refreshment through another person who also needs it.

I was standing at the door of St. Paul's Chapel in New York City one noontime, helping with the distribution of bag lunches to the hungry who gathered there every day. There were always 150 lunches to give, never more, never fewer. The 150th man in the line reached out and took his lunch; I told number 151 I was sorry. The 150th opened his bag and pulled out the sandwich in it, he held out half to 151, who took it. The two of them walked off together. They had nothing, and they split it. The refreshment of God.

Another time, years ago, it was on one of those very bright winter days. It was bitterly cold. My first child was a baby. We were poor -- we had no car, for instance, and there were a lot of other things we didn't have, either. I had bundled up the baby and taken her on a city bus to the doctor for a checkup and was on my way home again, having written the doctor a painful check for her inoculations, a check that completely wiped out my grocery money for the next week. We waited for the bus. I stamped my feet in the cold and tried not to think about what I was going to do for food. The bus didn't come and then it didn't come some more. The wind grew colder and colder. I bent down and hugged Corinna in her stroller, trying to keep the cold from her. More than a half hour I had crouched there. She was crying now, and I was trying not to. Where was the bus?

A truck driver stopped and offered us a ride. I looked up into his face and said yes. We got in. It's too cold to be out there with a baby, he said. I know, I told him. I really appreciate the ride. Please let me pay you the bus fare. Nah, he said.

Can you let me out at the grocery store? I asked. I had three dollars, maybe, which was more in 1968 than it is now but still wasn't very much. Might as well buy what I can now with what I've got, I thought, and just make it last.

As I got out of the cab, I sneaked the thirty cents onto his dashboard where he'd find it later and thanked him. Wheeling Corinna through the grocery aisles in a shopping cart ten minutes later, though, I came face to face with him. He looked angry. He shoved the thirty cents into my hand. I could kill you for doing that, he said. And he turned on his heel and walked away, my thank you trailing uselessly along after him.

He was genuinely angry, I believe. I've thought of him often. After all these years, I still don't know why he reacted that way. I could kill you for doing that. Doing what? Depriving him of the privilege of doing a good deed? Treating him like a cab driver instead of like the good Samaritan he was? It seemed an extreme thing to say. And I don't really know why I insisted on paying him the thirty cents. I think it was because I was ashamed of being so down and out, and paying my way in that little exchange helped somehow. Maybe he felt the same about himself. Maybe we both needed to give and receive comfort.

It's a terrible thing to feel so powerless. Terrible that thirty cents should assume an importance so beyond its worth. The main thing about being poor is that something you know is very small to most people becomes very big for you, and there's not a thing you can do about it. Very hard on the spirit. I've never forgotten how it was to live that way.

Prosperous people already know they matter. They are already so secure in their human dignity that they usually don't give it much thought. It is the poor whose attempts to claim their own dignity -- small, but often so costly -- need affirming. It is the poor and the weak, who are most aware of the need for comfort and refreshment all of us have. When things are going your way, it's easy to forget that you depend on God for everything you have. It's easy to begin thinking you don't, that your power resides in yourself. The powerlessness of all human beings shows clearly in the lives of the poor. The rich can hide from it -- for a time.

But there is nobody who will not one day find himself bearing a load too heavy to carry alone. None of us are self­sufficient, however strong or weak or rich or poor we may be. We are all in need of comfort, in need of refreshment. Blessed are those who know their need of it early; they are the ones who will put themselves in the way of the Comforter.

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