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 ...

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