Seeing Christ Incognito
When we serve those He loves, we discover the joy of serving Jesus Himself.
© 1987 by Paul Thigpen
When I was a child, the story of Jesus' birth sometimes left me a bit sad. I was glad to know the Lord was born, but the circumstances of His coming seemed cruel. I fretted about the noise and dirt and cold of the stable, and the rejection St. Joseph and Our Lady must have felt in being turned away from so many places. I wished I could have been there to help in some way. With typical childish confidence, I thought, Even someone my age could have given up his own bedroom for the night, or brought some blankets, or kept the animals quiet.
Only years later did I realize that if I'd been there, I might well have been as selfish and unconcerned as everyone else in Bethlehem that night. But at the same time I grew to recognize that ever since that first Nativity, the needs of Christ continue. Even today, I have a chance to ease His suffering.
Perhaps I saw that reality most clearly one Christmas Eve a few years ago. Our home was buzzing with anticipation: It was the first Christmas for our first baby, and her proud grandmother had come from far away to help celebrate. My brother, his wife, and their daughter were driving in from out of state as well, bringing with them an older single man who would have been alone otherwise. The house was bursting with delicious aromas, colorful lights, and nostalgic music. It was one of the most exciting Christmas Eves I'd ever known.
As we were setting the table for the feast, the phone rang. It was the young mother of a refugee family from Vietnam whom we and another family had "adopted." For several months, we'd been spending most of our free time with them and other refugee families we'd met through them. We collected food, clothing, and furniture for them; took them shopping, job hunting, and for medical care; and taught them English as a second language in a weekly class we began in their home.
Given the circumstances, a call from this young woman was nearly a daily occurrence, so I wasn't surprised. Since they were a Buddhist family, this day was like any other for them. I knew they were unaware we were celebrating. With the guests due to arrive any time, I thought I'd wait a minute to be polite, and then offer to call back later.
My heart sank, however, when I heard her say the phrases she'd had to learn almost as soon as they came to our city: "Baby sick. Go doctor." Her little daughter, only a year old, had been plagued with recurring ear infections and sore throats for months. We had taken her to the doctor many times before.
I wish I could say that at that moment I was glad to have another chance to help these friends in need. But that wasn't the case. I answered, "I'll be there soon," but only with half a heart. Then I told my wife gloomily, "If I'm not back in time, go on without me."
"It's Christmas Eve, Lord," I mumbled. "Our guests will be here soon. Why tonight?" The doctor's office was closed, so that meant finding a hospital emergency room or a twenty-four-hour clinic, and scraping up the cash to pay for it. I grumbled all the way out the door.
Seeing the Lord in the Least of These
In the car on the way to their home, however, I came face-to-face with my own selfishness. My eyes began to burn. I was angry at myself for having such a shallow love. It wasn't the first time our commitment to these new friends had been tested by inconvenience, but somehow the contrast of my frustration next to the joy of the season brought into sharp clarity the limits of my caring. I was ashamed, and I prayed for forgiveness.
As it turned out, we found a clinic rather easily, and the child only had a minor throat infection. After a stop at the drugstore to fill the prescription, I took them home, explained the prescribed dosage, and hurried home myself. There I discovered that my brother's family was running several hours late and hadn't arrived yet. I was even more ashamed for having worried.
The evening, when it finally got going, was warm and happy, one I'll long remember. But longer still I'll remember the grateful look on that mother's face, and the peaceful look of the child as she fell asleep in relief. And I could never forget what the Lord seemed to say to me that night as I was dropping off to sleep, words I had to write down:
Son, you've often thought what joy it would be to see Me in the flesh and care for My physical needs. You've wished you could have lived when I walked the earth, so you could walk with Me.
Tonight, you had your wish fulfilled I walked the earth again in that frightened mother. I cried out again in the flesh of that feverish child. Tonight, your town was a Bethlehem, their home was a stable. And when I had nowhere else to lay My head, your arms were My manger. I was sick and a stranger, and you took care of Me.
Though you acted with only half a heart, with the eyes of your whole heart you can see Me now. I was waiting for you to find Me in the least of these, My brethren. Don't ever forget what you saw tonight. For wherever you go, Bethlehem is all around you.
That night I knew that just as Scripture says, I had seen the Lord in the needs of people I served (Matthew 25:34-40). And because of such a vision, that Christmas turned out to be the most joyful ever.
A Joyous Banquet
Even so, that wasn't the last time we saw the Lord in our Vietnamese friends. I remember well the evening I went to visit that same young mother, who was quite ill, in the hospital. I prayed for a miracle, and when I finished praying, her face was radiant with the light of the Lord. By the next day she was healed and at home again. Then, only a few days later, she and her husband called us to come over and tell them the good news about this Jesus who had healed her.
The last time we saw them before a new job took us three thousand miles away was at a farewell dinner they held for us. When we first entered their tiny apartment, we could hardly believe our eyes: The entire Southeast Asian neighborhood had brought their chairs and tables and their finest native dishes to lay out a royal spread for us.
We had to fight back the tears, because we knew it was a banquet purchased with the widow's mite. They had so very little, and yet with joyous abandon they had lavished it all on us. That night I thought of another glad Banquet that is yet to come, of how very much it also had cost the Host. And once again, I saw Jesus in their faces and rejoiced.
Finding the Place to Serve
You can imagine how our joy grew in serving and being served by these precious people. Each glimpse of the Lord we caught in them stirred in us a deep and abiding delight. We came to realize that even if the Lord had no direct needs in Himself, we could nevertheless meet His needs in those for whom He'd laid down His life. Through them we learned that the vision of service is the vision of Christ in the least of His brethren.
Even so, in the years since then, it has not always been easy to recognize the least of Christ's brethren, that is, the people we should be serving. That's not to say that the world isn't full of need, for it is. In fact, the magnitude of the need is precisely the problem. It often paralyzes us because we don't know where to begin, and we can't do it all. Or we may plunge ourselves into the needs around us indiscriminately, then rapidly burn out. Either way leads eventually along a joyless road.
I suppose it's a matter of calling, though many use that idea as an excuse to do nothing: "I just don't feel called to feed the poor." My wife and I would never want to make a standard out of our experience, but we've come to two simple conclusions as we've sought to serve God joyfully.
First, we believe that everyone is called to serve. However vague the Lord's leading may seem to be at times, it's better to be doing something than nothing-unless, of course, God has instructed us to take an intentional, well-defined season of rest. Otherwise, a life of minimal service is a life of minimal joy.
Second, we've found that when we seek the Lord's will diligently in prayer, fasting, and studying the Scriptures, He makes it clear to us how we're to be serving. Instead of assuming that we're to say yes to every opportunity that comes along-especially the typical "busy" work that can so easily fill church programming-we try to imitate Jesus by doing only what we see the Father doing (John 5:17; John 5:19-20).
The way we came to know those Southeast Asian families provides a useful example of how God can work. We and another Christian family set aside a day to pray and fast, asking God to place us in ministry to someone truly in need. We'd recently realized that most of our free time had been swallowed up by our parish's activities-things that were perhaps good but were all directed inward, for the benefit of the congregation itself. We were beginning to sense that our service had become mostly selfish, and thus joyless; so we were looking for an opportunity to turn outward.
Within three days, God slowly began opening a door. First we read in the local paper that there were refugee families in our city who had escaped from Southeast Asia with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Then our friends gave us their old bed, so we had an extra to give away. When we called Catholic Social Services, the agency working with the refugees, to offer them the bed, they asked if we could deliver it to a family ourselves. We agreed and arranged to meet them in the housing project where many of the refugees were located.
Still not realizing that God was answering our prayer, we arrived at the Vietnamese family's apartment-and were horrified by the poverty we found. That night we gathered up all the clothes and household items we didn't need, loaded up some bags of groceries, and went back with a small truck full. Day by day, we learned of new needs, and gradually we became collecting agents for things needed by people in the neighborhood. Before long, we were providing transportation, looking for jobs, teaching English, and praying more than we'd ever prayed before.
A Place of Gladness
It wasn't long before we knew that we'd been called to the work we were doing. We hadn't planned it, though we'd sought it. God honored our willingness to serve by opening the right door. Knowing that we were doing what we saw the Father doing gave us great joy as we labored. It kept us from being overwhelmed or from burning out.
Someone has wisely said that the place where God calls us is that place where our great gladness and the world's great need come together. By the same token, I think, the place where God has not called us may also be a place of the world's need, but it won't be a place of gladness as we attempt to serve. My wife and I know, because we've tried it both ways.
This isn't to say that joyless service for a season is necessarily misguided; we often have to sow in tears before we can reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). But avenues of service chosen haphazardly or in desperation, without seeking God's plan for our lives, will almost certainly lead to frustration. We'll have a hard time finding the Lord in it all, and thus a hard time rejoicing in Him.
Who are the least of His brethren? We must ask Him to show them to us. My wife and I have found them among refugees whose poverty was material, and among American families whose poverty was spiritual. We've found them among handicapped children whom we've cheered in the Special Olympics, and confused college kids who've come to us for counseling. We've found them among the Christians in Soviet prisons for whom we send our letters and our prayers, and among the young believers we've invited to live in our home for a season of discipleship. Truly, Bethlehem is all around us.
In each of these places, because we've seen the least of God's brethren, we've seen God as well. The vision of service is in fact a vision of the Lord, because being a servant takes us to the very place where Jesus is already at work in the world. "Whoever serves me must follow me," He said, "and where I am, my servant also will be" (John 12:26).
When we care for the least of the Lord's people, we find our feet fitting into His footprints behind Him, and we rejoice at the sight of Him serving with us. Thus our service is a discipline of love. It channels the delight from our view of God at work past the borders of our own garden, where He wishes to extend the area of our cultivation out into a thirsty planet.
The world turns in darkness, Lord longing for light. Make me Your star in their night, a bright sign that You've heard their cry and invaded their place of need. Make my soul a stable, though it may be poor, so that the least of Your brothers and sisters may seek You and find You in me, even as I find You in them. Lord Jesus, come walk in our streets, and make our home the site of Your continuing Nativity, so that we, too, might bring "good tidings of great joy."
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