He was so right, and I wish I could go back in time to tell him how wrong I was.
It was a bitter cold night in Harlem when I met this gentleman, a man whose name I am embarrassed to say I don't remember.
Coming up from the subway that evening, I was in no mood for conversation. It couldn't have been past 5pm but already it was mostly dark, one of those short days of the year that feel so very long.
The day at the office had been mostly disappointing. I wanted to get home, slump into the armchair, and zone out on ESPN.
But I couldn't avoid him. "Father, I need to talk to you", he forcefully blurted out, in Spanish, just loud enough and in the perfect tone to make sure everyone around us knew I heard him. He didn't bother to stand up or even move his head. Seated, with his back and head against a building and his forearms rested on his bent knees, he waited for me to come to him.
"How can I help you, sir?" "Have a seat, Father, next to me." He was sitting on a wet, partly shoveled sidewalk on Broadway and 116th St.
"But, sir, I need to get home", I told him. "I've got someone waiting for me at the church. But, are you cold? I can send someone to get you some food and into a shelter for the night?"
"Have a seat, Father. By the way, your Spanish isn't too bad for a Gringo."
I wasn't in the mood for compliments either.
"Father, you asked me how you could help me, and I'm telling you. Sit down next to me. I want to talk to you. I just got here on a bus from Chicago."
I knew the right thing to do, but convinced myself otherwise, with the perfect excuse. The safe thing to do--in a big city like New York, when it's dark and cold -- is to tell him you are in a hurry. After all, you never know...
He didn't give me time to give a definitive "no." I'm sure he saw it coming.
"Father, here's what I would have told you if you had time. I just got word from home that my son got accepted here at Columbia University," pointing just to his left to the main gates of the university at 116th and Broadway. "He'll be coming to New York City in six months. I haven't seen him in eight years since I left my country.
"The glow of paternal pride on his face verified his authenticity.
"Oh my goodness", I responded, "congratulations!"
At this point I truly wanted to stay and get to know more, but I had painted myself so forcefully into a corner of busyness, of needing to go home, that I couldn't reverse my story with the slightest bit of grace.
I asked him his name, shook his hand firmly, and went on my way. He smiled graciously.
This man's story still haunts me. I blew it. I didn't have time to celebrate a miracle, or even to remember his name.
Looking back on it now, I'm certain this man wasn't homeless. And he wasn't cold. He had traveled across country by bus in order to see, touch, and sit down on the rock solid, hollowed ground of his son's future, of his whole family's future.
For eight long years he had toiled far away from family so that one day his son might have a better life than him. He was eager to share that sacred moment with me. But I was busy.
Sacred moments are not new. You'll remember the Torah and Bible story of Abraham and Sarah being visited by three angels that looked very much like needy travelers. Although Abraham was unsure of who they were or why they were there, he sensed in them the presence of God. He was not scandalized by their messy humanity, their hunger and thirst, their ruddy demeanor.
Eventually Abraham and Sarah would hear from these angels the announcement of the miracle of Sarah's pregnancy at an old age, and the promise of generations of descendants. But that announcement came only after Abraham reacted with reckless charity to their basic needs. For three strangers, Sarah baked bread and Abraham slaughtered a calf.
I have no idea what would have happened to Abraham, and therefore to us, had he not welcomed the guests into his home. After all, God seems pretty good at "Plan B," when we pass on participation. I am convinced, however, that our participation matters. Our decisions for or against love are consequential. They affect others, and they change us.
The world is a very messy place right now. It might even be messier than any other moment in our lifetime. Our powerlessness to reverse the course of evil can be overwhelming. But the great news is that amidst this chaos, no matter who we are or what people are doing around us, sacred moments still happen.
Saying yes to sacred encounters with very normal, messy people, is a very big part of the way of serenity, of holy peace of soul. It is the manifestation of the courage we ask for when we pray my favorite prayer, "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I hope my new book, "The Way of Serenity," based on that prayer, is a blessing to you and the people you love.