Encountering the Other


By: Matthew Johnson

It was a beautiful morning in the early autumn. Several folks had gathered at the community garden to enjoy the fruits of the sweet potato crop. Up walks Joseph, listing a bit and slurring his speech. I had never met him before. He began talking to anyone who would listen, telling us which nearby bridge was his temporary shelter. About five of us gathered around to listen to him. Everyone in that circle was a calm presence. He shared, in fragmented bits and pieces how he had served in the military, like his father before him. And he shared about the pain and struggle of family relationships. And he shared about his faith.

The group listened generously. As he concluded his story, someone in the group suggested that we pray together. I immediately began crafting a prayer in my mind: key points, scriptural phrases, metaphors. While I searched for the right words, Joseph began to pray.

His prayer was honest and courageous and brief. He apologized to God and named his hopes with rough cut language. Then he said “Amen.” Simultaneously, the Spirit whispered to me, “That is a beautiful prayer. It isn’t the words or the imagery, it is the heart. You can learn a lot about prayer from Joseph.”

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus compares the Son of Man’s return to separating people like sheep and goats. The goats are those who did not offer care to the the king, the sheep are those who did. Importantly, both groups are baffled that they ever served the king. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The king then identifies with the “least of these.”

That neither group recognized the king has helped reframe my mindset as I interact with people who are different than I am. If Jesus is present in confusing moments, it isn’t all pumpkin spice lattes. Instead, I think Jesus leaves his calling card; an invitation to unlearn something. It can be so unsettling not to recognize the King—I rarely suspect Jesus is involved. But as I have looked again at the gospels, I see him doing this time and time again.

To unlearn the illusions we have about God, ourselves, and others is unsettling, but it also sets us free for a much more expansive experience of love and grace. Through Joseph, the Spirit invited me to unlearn one of my illusions about prayer. It was an invitation offered in love to enter now into an eternal type of life.