They didn't know us from Adam. We were just the latest of many families to sojourn for a season on Capitol Hill, a well-integrated inner-city neighborhood adjacent to City Park, the Denver Zoo and the Museum of Natural History. Admission was free to these attractions and we frequently walked through the marble halls at the museum and through the animal exhibits at the Zoo. I liked the aviary best.
We attended Stevens Elementary. I was in the fourth grade and loved science - we were studying the solar system and when I turned in extra credit work on the sun, my science teacher predicted I would be the first woman on the moon.
The year was 1965. The year of the big flood. A Sunday drive later that summer would reveal the watermarks up to the windowsills of the house we had vacated days before the flood, but we were safe on the hill.
It was also the year of the big break-up. Anyone who has endured the rending of a fabric meant to remain woven forever knows that the rending too frequently results in instant poverty.
We must have been a sight. Four school-age children, suddenly motherless, left in the care of our father, who scarcely knew how to take care of himself, let alone the four of us. Prior to the break-up, mom had been a stay-at-home mother and I have no earthly idea how the laundry got done. Especially after my younger brother Dave and I stripped every hanger bare, believing an ill-founded rumor that the dry cleaner at the bottom of our block would pay us a penny for each hanger. We were bold enough to take the hangers in, but not so bold that we asked for compensation. When none appeared, we turned tail and trudged back up the hill, leaving the hangers with the bewildered clerks.
Come time for the holidays and a knock came at the door of the two-story duplex where we lived. Arms laden with wrapped and unwrapped presents and wonder of wonders, a cooked ham, hot and ready to eat, several strangers entered, left their offerings and retreated into the cold winter night.
It was our next-door neighbors from the Presbyterian Church.
Mind you, my dad believed he had been "born a Lutheran" and would "die a Lutheran" and so never crossed the threshold. Mom had only lived there scant weeks, but wouldn't have defied Dad in any case, even if she had never left. Dave went to Cub Scouts in the basement of the church and Debi and I somehow found ourselves singing in the choir, but I never remember attending a Sunday morning service.
Many years later, I was delighted to discover that although Dad had been baptized in a Lutheran church, he had taken confirmation at a Presbyterian church. God has a sense of humor.
All joking aside, his misguided loyalty reveals a serious problem with the church at-large. We have too many names, when all we need is the Name of the Lord. Small wonder that the world so often misses the message.
It was Jesus' arms, his words, his truth and his mercy that brought such largess to that wounded family so long ago. And it was then that I first realized that I was indeed, one of the "least of these." Act I in my faith journey. I have spent the rest of my life pursuing the one who loves the "least of these" and hope to someday learn how to, in turn, serve the "least of these."
If the church, corporate and universal, would do likewise, welfare in its many forms, would become unnecessary once again.
By the time we left Capital Hill for Kidder Dr. (the all-time favorite neighborhood of my youth), Mom and Dad were reconciled and although it would take them years to overcome the financial fall-out and we were never again recipients of this odd form of grace, none of us Carlson kids has ever turned a stranger away, naked or hungry.
Through the intervening years, this scenario was played out less and less often as the church retreated and myriad government programs increased, and the war on poverty, much like the war on drugs, was lost. Co-dependent and inter-dependent are two very different things.
It is time for the family of God to once again love open-handedly, without expectation, the "least of these," because we are all the "least of these," in one form or another.
I know what a blessing it is, when receiving is all you can do and I know what a blessing it is to be the anonymous arms that bring that needful blessing.
More to the point, I have come to realize that whatever we do to the "least of these" whether in the form of a blessing or a curse, we do so unto the Lord.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'" Matthew 25:34-36 (NIV)
I don't have all the answers, but I know and love the One who does. Let's walk in his love and discover him together.