Hey Buddy, Ya Want More Food?
It was one of those raw November days when the squalls off Lake Michigan come sweeping in to affirm Chicago's moniker as the "Windy City." I had driven into the city to pick up Deb, who was returning from San Diego. It wasn't a good time in our lives, because we had been struck by unexpected financial hits at a time when we were already dealing with a staggering emotional crisis. Life seemed overwhelming, and in spite of a renewed sense of God's Spirit in our lives it was a challenging time.
As a family law attorney, Deborah had been aspiring to develop her law practice in the direction of mediation and collaborative law instead of the divisive litigation that so often characterizes divorce proceedings. In fact, she was returning from a collaborative law conference where all sorts of enthusiasm and excitement had been generated. But back home, she knew it would be slow going. Litigation typically generates more "billable hours" and many attorneys are loathe to embrace peacemaking in place of conflict – even when families are involved.
Consequently, Deb had spent many hours networking with other professionals in our community, trying to sell them on the idea that attorneys can collaborate with clients to help resolve family disputes instead of creating more conflict. Her collaborative practice was just beginning to trickle, and my meager salary from the small Christian university where I taught psychology courses, didn't do much to brighten our financial picture either.
Even before our recent financial disaster, I worried that in our old age we might be unable to travel or enjoy the fruits of our hard work. I sometimes wondered if all my years working in a Christian institution for minimal pay would leave me regretful. A number of my high-school buddies had already retired and were drawing incomes comparable to what I was earning while still working. Such were the worries rumbling through my mind that chilly November day as I turned onto Cicero Avenue to head north to Midway airport.
There had been one bright spot for me recently; I was cast as Aslan in a stage production of C. S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." It was an honor to be playing the Christ figure in this production, and we were performing in a 700-seat theatre with high-tech sound and lighting capabilities to enhance our efforts as actors. The rehearsals served to focus my mind on something besides worry about our financial future.
My cell phone rang, Deb's flight had been delayed – she was just now leaving San Diego. This meant I would have several hours to kill while awaiting her arrival. Fortunately, I had brought my play book and could spend the time rehearsing my lines. I'm not one who likes to sit still for long, so I parked our nine-year-old Volvo and began walking up and down Cicero Avenue saying my lines out loud, adding gestures when there were no other pedestrians in sight. That's how I memorize best – walking around, imagining I'm on stage, incorporating appropriate actions along with the words.
After a couple hours of walking/acting/memorizing I realized that I was hungry – very hungry. Now, there are few things I enjoy more than a genuine Chicago hot dog – not an imitation made elsewhere, but a genuine Kosher, all-beef hot dog cradled in a warm, steamy poppy-seed bun, surrounded with green relish, tomato slices, chopped onions, ketchup, hot peppers, with French fries on the side. That's a gastronomical delight that takes me back to my boyhood days when I used to live in the city.
Rehearsing my lines, I had walked up and down the street repeatedly passing one of those authentic hole-in-the-wall Chicago delis that specializes in hot dogs, pastrami, corned-beef sandwiches, and gyros. I had noticed a large sign in the window BUY ONE GYRO – GET ONE FREE. My type of place! On this particular day, as I had been walking up and down the street I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass windows of storefronts, and I appeared more like a homeless person than a professional psychologist practicing his part for an upcoming play. I had let my whiskers grow in order to appear more lion-like, but with only two weeks of growth my beard was scruffy and I appeared more as a skid-row alcoholic than Aslan the Great Lion. Dressed in faded jeans, sweatshirt, and a stocking cap, with my nose red from the cold wind, I could have drifted into the Pacific Garden Mission in downtown Chicago for a charity meal instead of into this little Greek diner for a hot dog.
I entered the deli and studied the marquee above the grill where black letters presented the menu against a fluorescent white background. Unable to decide on what to order, I stared at the small, plastic letters, noticing how they fit into the horizontal grooves, wondering if the menu ever changed. Should I just get a hot dog now and have a meal with my wife when she arrives? Or, should I buy their 2-for-1 special, eat one gyro and save the other for Deb when she deplanes?
Finally, I decide: I'll just get a hot dog now, that will leave us the dine-together option and she can tell me about her conference over dinner. We'll still get home before midnight.
I walk over to the cash register and place my order.
"One Chicago dog."
"No, just a cup of water."
I pull a crumpled dollar bill out of one pocket and fish among my toll-road change in the other pocket. I return to my booth and sit down. My mind fills with images of this delectable dog, and my mouth waters as taste buds anticipate the hit. My reverie is interrupted by someone yelling from the grill: "One Chicago dog!"
It tastes as good as I remembered, and I make quick work of it. I'm a habitual "inhaler" when it comes to food. Early in our marriage Deborah tried to convince me that if I ate slowly I would enjoy it more. She suggested that I lick my ice cream cone instead of biting off great mouthfuls at a time. "It will last longer, and you'll enjoy it more," she assured me. Most importantly, I wouldn't end up staring at her half-eaten cone after mine had been long gone. But to no avail, "licking" an ice-cream cone strikes me as a form of torture similar to cutting off a dog's tail an inch at a time.
So, sitting in this little deli I eat in my usual scarf-it-down style (especially since Deb is thirty thousand feet in the air somewhere between San Diego and Chicago—not nearby enough to notice how rapidly I'm devouring my food). I dispatch my Chicago dog in four or five bites.
I'm about to leave when the proprietor, a small Greek man with a heavy Chicago accent, approaches my booth. He lowers his voice, speaking in a hushed, conspiratorial whisper, as if we are arranging a mafia hit or a drug deal.
"Hey, Buddy, ya want more food?"
My surprise must show on my face. What's with this guy? Is he like some used-car salesman, hawking his hot dogs to reluctant customers?
"No, I'm OK."
But he persists.
"I don't mean for money," he continues, "you can have anything you want. No cost!" He points to the marquee with a broad sweep of his arm.
It hits me in a flash-like the blinding light that struck Saul on the Damascus road or the burning bush that riveted Moses' attention. This is God's Holy Spirit offering me food – all the food I could want – without cost. God is speaking with a Chicago accent—sounding more like a Mafioso than a minister-but the message is unmistakable; as unmistakable as "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" or "Take off your sandals, the place where you are standing is holy ground."
The owner had apparently seen me pass by his deli several times, talking to myself as I practiced my play. He might even have noticed some strange gesticulations, of the sort schizophrenic street people are prone to produce, leading him to believe that this unshaven man was hungry and homeless. My pondering the menu for several minutes before ordering a single hot dog served to confirm his suspicions. If he had any remaining doubts regarding my hunger, my devouring the food as if I hadn't eaten in several days served to affirm his assumptions. He responded as Christ would have – feeding the hungry stranger.
My eyes fill with tears—tears of wonder, tears of gratitude, tears of epiphany—I can barely mumble my thanks:
"Really, I'm OK. Thanks a lot though, you're very kind."
I stumble out onto the street, my vision blurred by tears. I have just encountered God in a Greek deli. God with a Chicago accent. God with a huge heart. God who would care for me if I were homeless and hungry.
Most of my life I've struggled with doubts: doubts about God's presence, doubts about God's caring, doubts about whether S/He hears my prayers. I've made skeptical statements along the lines that "I've prayed to God, but I've never heard Her/Him speak to me "–adding, cynically, "If I did claim to hear God's voice I would probably need to be locked up."
No more! I have heard God's voice. God speaks with a Chicago accent.
"Hey Buddy, ya want more food?"