One opportunity I did not want to miss at Christmas was to serve dinner at a homeless shelter downtown. After being relegated to the church's substitute list in September, I jumped at the chance when a friend called to say she'd need me one Wednesday in mid-December. Besides wanting to get better acquainted with members of a new church we'd been attending, I had been longing for a more tangible experience of faith to round out my spiritual resumé. For too long my faith had been living in my head, with no other work to do but memorize facts about God and figure out my personal life.

Indeed, my head had become a lively Parisian salon to which a variety of voices paid regular visits. Jesus had come in recently, commanding me, "Feed my sheep," while an aging Miss America reminded me to "help people," if only to impress the judges. More often, especially since the month when I'd passed my 45th birthday, the conversation was dominated by the topic of death—specifically, mine.

After miscues in both December and January, waiting in vain for fellow church members to join me (two homeless shelters with the same name?), I was more determined than ever to do my selfless good works, even if for selfish reasons. Those mishaps, which had seemed like a supernatural test, turned out to be a kind of scavenger hunt for an after-Christmas gift God had hidden for me.

On a freezing night in February, I finally found myself at Freedom House, standing behind a long table, serving up cornbread. As more than 100 people came in from the 20-degree weather, they walked along with their trays and thanked us often. One man was handsome, except for a few missing teeth, and could have been a basketball star or banker in another time. Then came a huge man with beautifully chiseled facial features, wearing not only a knit hat but also a bulky scarf knotted on the front of his forehead, making him look like a swami or one of the three wise men. Another short, timid man with thin strands of hair plastered over his scalp in a severe left-to-right orientation shuffled by, muttering the whole time he was there, "I should be in the hospital. They wouldn't let me stay."

I was feeling a certain lightness of heart. In fact, I hadn't thought about death the whole evening. Then a tall man with a voice like a sports broadcaster came up to the serving table, directly in front of me. Would he want something? Should I think of something spiritual to say? Instead he asked, "Hey, are you all Christians?" Like a modern Elijah, in his wonderfully clear voice, he began his story.

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"I want to tell y'all what happened to me. It was September 10, 1999. September 10th. I was in North Carolina lying on my bed. I know I did not fall asleep. This was not a dream. An angel came to me to show me heaven. Man, you guys, it was real. I'm telling you, it was real. There was a river, a huge river, flowing right through the middle of where I was walking, and it flowed into a fountain but never flowed out. There were lots of buildings, real architecture that was mostly white and beautiful, huge, man. You know how Jesus says 'In my Father's house there are many mansions'? Well, it's true. There are houses in heaven. And the angel was showing me around. I recognized her because it was the same one—like she was my guardian angel—who came to me 15 years ago when I tried to commit suicide. Both times I told her I wanted to stay there, but she said it was not my time. I'm telling you, guys, it was real. I didn't want to come back here, but it wasn't my time. And there were people there, not really flesh and bones, but there were men and women and children. They were kind of clear, but everyone was like a bronze color, kind of see-through bronze or something. You could definitely recognize people."

His voice began to crescendo, slightly preacher-like. His tone was prophetic. "Heaven is real, man. I'm telling you. So you gotta' keep on doin' what you're doin'. It's all worth it. Keep on doin' what you're doin'."

You could have driven a truck through my slacked jaw. The picture he painted of heaven was so vivid and somehow strangely resonant, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Call me naïve or softheaded, but I didn't want to relegate this man's vision to the effects of a substance or mental illness, even if that were the case. I didn't care. I chose to suspend my rationality and enter into the imaginative promise and hopefulness of what he shared. After all, the birth of Jesus sounds a little crazy, too.

The man next to me spoke first. "Have you written this down for your family?" Our prophet looked blankly at him, but with a twinge of interest while buttoning his old Navy peacoat.

I broke in and said to him, "You know, I really needed to hear you tell me this tonight. I've been worried too much about dying. Thank you. It really helped me." He looked at me and again said, "Just keep doin' good. Keep doing what you're doin'." Again, my church friend said to him, "You really need to write your vision down."

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Then it hit me. I am a writer—sometimes.

I looked up at him and asked, "What's your name?"

"Derek," he answered, by now prepared to go out into the weather, his backpack in place and holding a piece of cardboard.

"Thanks, Derek, for telling me this. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to meet you tonight. I'll write it down for you."

Those of us from church swept up, got our coats, and headed downstairs to the back parking lot. I was still a little stunned and wasn't able to tell my friend Connie what had happened yet. We crept up the alley in my minivan, and ended up right next to the sidewalk in front of the shelter. Among many of the others we'd just served, there stood Derek, right next to us at the passenger window, holding a cardboard sign.

For some inexplicable reason, I very consciously and quickly looked away from him, focusing instead on the approaching traffic to my left. I just felt so useless all of a sudden—and ashamed of my self-importance and tightly wound brain. But maybe that was a good starting-over point, a way for faith and hope to come back to life. I also may have avoided any eye contact because the scary truth about our common humanity—especially on a 12 degree F. night—hit me hard as I saw him there. That may help too, to nudge my earlier misdirected intentions about good works into a more true line, and action. "Just keep doin' what you're doin'."

Once I pulled out into traffic, I did catch a glimpse of the sign he held: HOMELESS, PLEASE HELP.

I keep thinking about Derek's vision, letting my imagination take me there to see those buildings we're promised, trying to distinguish the faces in bronze that I may know, to hear the flow of that river. God knew I needed Derek's vision. I'm glad for whatever selfish reason or Spirit-led impulse that prompted me last Christmas season, so I could be in the right Freedom House at the right time minding the cornbread to hear about it.

Lee Knapp is the author of Grace in the First Person: Growing into Life and Faith (Revell).

Related Elsewhere

Also posted today Following the Star's Christmas page has more holiday thoughts.

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