“You will find your solution where you least expect it.”
So read the words on a little slip of paper that was nestled in a Chinese fortune cookie that I was given yesterday by the owner of a Chinese restaurant here in Conyers. He told me that the numbers on the other side of the paper would by very, very lucky ones. They were 10, 12, 16, 18, 35 and 40.
Two winning tickets had the lucky numbers in last night’s Mega Millions lottery. I did not buy a ticket. But none of my numbers matched, anyway. The jackpot was $636 million. One ticket was bought in San Jose, Calif. and the other in Atlanta. Big changes are in the offing for some very lucky people.
As far as the phrase on the back of the fortune cookie paper goes, I confess that I did not open the wrapper until early this morning. Actually, I sat on the packet and felt and heard the crunch. I opened the wrapper and read the message. And I thought about it.
It was nearing Christmas and millions of people were seeking all kinds of solutions — the right gifts, the right words for Christmas cards and gift tags, the tender words for marriage proposals, the right place to place the tree, arrange the gifts, the lights. Indeed, the mystery of Christmas presses upon us to look into our hearts and delve into the lingering secrets of why we are here and what we can mean to each other.
When all our solutions are said and done, wrapped and delivered, something wondrous and unexpected happens that moves us even deeper into the mystery that is right here in our midst.
I went to another Chinese restaurant today. I am doing the mail run for the monastery, which means that during the Christmas season I drive the outgoing mail to the Conyers Post Office and pick up the incoming mail.
There is a lot of mail these days. The post office people are so friendly — always eager to help me carry in the baskets of mail and always ready and willing to wish me and the monks a happy and holy Christmas. I feel good going there.
I like to grab a quick lunch on the way back since I usually miss the main meal here. I go to a nice Chinese restaurant, just a mile or so from the monastery. The food is cheap and very good.
I parked the van and walked in and the hostess directed me to a table by the window. There were about 10 or 12 other people in the place. I briefly noticed a man sitting to my left as I passed his table. He was alone and was reading a newspaper. I did not look his way again.
The buffet costs $6.95 and it is very good. I took a bit of this and that and headed back to my table. I was not there very long — I kept an eye on my watch and wanted to get back to the monastery to sort the mail before the monks began to suffer postal dehydration.
The hostess came over, smiled at me and said, “The man paid your bill. He paid for everybody.”
I asked “What man?” She pointed to the now empty seat where the man I had noticed coming in had been seated. I never saw him leave. I asked the lady who he was and she told me that he comes in every day and sometimes pays for everybody in the restaurant but does it especially at Christmas time.
The couple in the booth next to mine was talking about how that man knew and showed the real meaning of Christmas. How true, I thought. But there is more.
Most of us strain to do our best to make this Christmas the best one possible. I suppose there is something in us that expects our efforts each successive Christmas to be akin to a “seasonal upgrade.” We look for new ways of expressing our fresh young hearts or our weary and tired hearts.
The season tugs young and old alike to renew the spirit of love in a world that longs for it and desperately needs it. It is as if God draws intimately close to the human heart and breathes a fresh breath of life into it, allowing us to see and feel once again the magic of this life, that we are here at all and that we want to gift each other the best way we know how.
But the most important gifts can never be bought, or upgraded, or measured or arranged in a store window. The most important gifts are of the most ordinary kind, because they are of us and from us, from our lives, our labors, our efforts to live loving and intelligent lives with each other.
I wonder about that man in the restaurant who paid everybody’s bill. I do not know if I will ever see him again, or even if I would recognize him. He apparently wanted to remain anonymous, the way he quietly paid for us all and then left.
I wonder what in his life made him like that, a giver of gifts to strangers, a man so moved by the Spirit of Christmas that he wanted to share what he had with people he had never met.
I would bet he was given a lot of love in his life. Somewhere through his years, he was loved by some very wonderful people. I do not know if they lavished him with gifts. I tend to think not.
I would like to think that through all the ordinary exchanges that are the living welter of any life, his life had some extras. He was taught to be interested in people, to love them regardless of age, race, color or nationality.
Maybe these gifts came from his parents, over dinner table conversations, or rides in cars through the Georgia country side, or while sitting in a pew listening to a gifted preacher. Whatever he picked up along the way, he learned and learned well.
I drove back here to the monastery. I thought of him all the way home, an unexpected delight in a Chinese restaurant. Christmas is, yes, a time when we strain to do our best and find the best for those we love.
But I was reminded today that God strains, too. He stretches himself to fit into the most unexpected places and to remain there, waiting to show who he is and what he is about. He picks up the tab for our lives, and walks out the door, hoping that we learn something about strangers, something about ourselves.
If we find it hard to learn this day, I was told he will be back again during the week, sitting at the same place, sharing the same gifts.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.