Some years, the true meaning of Christmas gets lost in the hustle and bustle of wrapping presents, getting ready for family visits and dozens of other holiday activities.

Then there are times when you’re just minding your own business, and suddenly the spirit of the season comes upon you in a powerful way. This recently happened to me.

I debated writing about this experience. It’s a Christmas story and talks about God, so if you’re not into that, now’s the time to turn the page. Still with me? Good. Here goes:

The first weekend of December, my husband and I went to church and sat in the general vicinity we normally do. This day, however, there was an unusual smell, and I realized the odor was coming from the man sitting in the pew in front of us.

I’d never seen him before. He was huge … probably 6-foot-5 and broad-shouldered. He had a scowl on his face and spoke to no one. I noticed he had a knapsack which he repeatedly pulled toward him. I was supposed to be reflecting on preparing for the birth of Christ, but my attention was distracted by the stranger. His behavior was odd. He didn’t sit or stand or sing, but was writing notes on a steno pad. Then I noticed a huge bulge under his coat.

Thinking of recent tragedies in the news, I started to worry. What if this guy was a crazed person? I wasn’t the only one who noticed his peculiarities. When the collection basket came around, he reached under his coat. I stopped singing and watched him pull out a black plastic garbage bag. But when he removed his hand from the bag, he was holding nothing but a single, crumpled dollar bill for the collection.

This man is not a threat, I thought. Perhaps he’s homeless and the garbage bag and knapsack are the sum total of his worldly possessions. And he just generously gave a precious dollar to the collection. In my own pocket was a folded $20 bill my husband had given me earlier in the day. I should give it to this man who needs it, I thought.

Just before the service ended, he headed for the door. My head said, you don’t know this person; he could be unstable or insulted if you approach him. But my heart said, follow him, and my feet listened. I have to admit I was nervous; his demeanor was very intimidating. We were the only two people in an empty hallway.

“Excuse me,” I said. He turned and gave me an angry look. Oh no, I thought, why didn’t I stay in my seat?

Then, to my horror, when I tried to speak, I started to cry. “Someone did something nice for me today,” I stammered, “so I want to do something nice for you.” I pulled the folded bill from my pocket and held it out to him.

He looked down at me, straight in the eye, and slowly took the bill. To my utter astonishment, he was as choked up as I was. “Thank you,” he said. I had the feeling he was grateful for more than mere money. Maybe he needed to know somebody cared?

But now I was crying harder and eager to escape. “Merry Christmas,” I said, and quickly left.

That was three weeks ago and I haven’t seen him since. This story is not about my gift to the man, but God’s gift to me by putting this stranger in my path. It was God’s intensely powerful reminder to me to act with love. I was grateful for the chance to share in the spirit of charity, but even charity is meaningless without caring. God was offering the opportunity to do more — to put aside suspicion and fear, to make a direct connection with another person, to be kind.

Christmas arrived a little early in 2017 with a reminder of the true spirit of the season and a chance to share it. What an awesome gift.

Contact Susan Hazlett at susanrhazlett@yahoo.com or write to her in care of The Pantagraph, 301 W. Washington St., Bloomington, IL 61702-2907.


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