I had to work this past Sunday. It was unfortunate, because I had to miss church. To make matters worse, I had to wake up earlier than usual and it was quite literally FREEZING outside. Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do 😉 Even worse then working on a Sunday is having to stay late to do more work after everyone else heads home to enjoy the rest of their day. However, that’s the nature of my job at times, so I really can’t complain.
The beauty of it is that I had my own little life sermon right at work. As people were heading out the door and wishing each other a good evening I started to assemble my equipment, planning to spend another two hours or so working quietly. About 30 minutes after I started my work I realized that it was going on 2:30pm. Looking for any excuse to take a break I realized I had never ate lunch, and it was getting late. So, I threw on my coat, headed out the back door. I slowly jogged out to my car, with my shoulders shrugged – because, you know, that’s what you do when it’s cold out. Why is that anyway? Does it help or is learned behavior? HaHa! Anyway, I jumped in my car, immediately turned on the heat, and headed out to grab something. As I ordered, paid, and drove off, I veered to the right to travel behind the strip mall/plaza, heading to a light where I could exit out and head back to work. It led me down one of those eerily quiet, long driveways that often inhabit the back of strip malls and plazas. The place where semi’s often pull up to the loading docks to unload their goods to retail stores. As I drove slowly behind the plaza, I saw a man sitting, arms crossed, in a nylon folding chair. He was slumped far down in his seat with his back arched over. It looked he was sleep, but it was difficult to tell because a white towel covered his face and baseball cap that he wore over his head. Next to him was a black bookbag and what looked like two shopping bags by his side. It seemed odd, but I immediately realized that he was homeless. Because it was so cold, he probably was doing everything that he could to cover his face from the strong wind. My heart broke for him. Maybe I should turn back around, stop the car, and head back to give him some money? “Nah, I need to get back”. I pulled the car back around and realized he was sleep. At least that’s what I told myself. “Who knows what the guy will say to me, or how he’ll react if I catch him off guard like that.” So, I kept going. My heart breaks for people who are destitute like that. I felt convicted as I continued to drive along the back of that plaza. I was unconsciously asking the Lord to forgive me if I was being disobedient out of fear. Hey, I’m just being honest here 😦
As I made my way to the end of the plaza and headed toward the stop light, I saw another man standing down at the corner holding a sign. His sign read something like…. “Please help, I lost my job and I’m homeless now.” The light was green, cars were behind me, my wallet was still in my pocket. I passed him too. Sheesh!
Now, before I tell then end of this story, let me clarify…… I’m not the type to share my charitable acts or good deeds with folks. In fact, I’ve refrained from using my blog to do anything of the sort, in general. One, because I’m keen enough to know that my heart is deceptive, and posting my kind deeds or acts of charity to social media and the like too easily smacks of vainglory. Letting the left hand know what the right is up to. Two, I believe Jesus when he says that if people give you praise in the here and now, then you’ve already received your reward. I want His reward more, whether it comes here or in eternity (See Matthew 6:2-3). Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s continue……
My first thought was “Why did I pass him, and miss out on another opportunity to help someone in need”? I quickly turned into the next entrance to the same plaza, did a three-sixty, opened my wallet, and grabbed a good amount of cash. As I rolled down the passenger-side window and approached him, he stood up seeming surprised (maybe because I had just passed him by moments ago). As his hand reached into the car to grab the money I realized he had on nothing more than a mechanics jacket. In a feeble and high-pitched crackling voice he said thank you several times before I could say anything. I was prepared to, as usual, give the same old cliche Christian charitable one-liner……
“God bless you sir.”
Maybe it was simply spur-of-the-moment. I still can’t explain it, but for some reason without even thinking about it AT ALL, my mouth boldly and sincerely stated……. “The Lord loves you.” I’m not the type to blurt out anything without first thinking about what I want to say. It’s just rare. Maybe it was the Spirit speaking through me? There was an awkward two second pause as he stared me in the eyes. He slowly and calmly backed out of the car, as he continued to say thank you, but the tone of his thank you’s changed. Perhaps he was thrown off by my own shocked demeanor. Or, maybe he was moved by what the Spirit said through me? Only God knows, maybe it was just what he needed at that moment, besides a cup of coffee or a warm meal.
As I headed back to work my mind drifted for a moment. I couldn’t help but think about how many people will attempt to make it through this evening in below freezing temperatures. How many more meals during the week could I give up to buy coats for people that need them so badly? What item am I currently coveting (because it’s usually something, if I’m completely honest) that I could easily go without? Then it struck me like a ton of bricks all in one moment. I honestly believe that God placed a special burden in my heart for the poor and oppressed. But as much as I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever clearly drawn the conclusion that I did in that moment.
It’s difficult to satisfy and unmet need
It may be paraphrased, but that was a nugget of wisdom shared by the pastor of the church I previously attended. It’s always stuck with me because it syncs so well with scripture. So often, when Jesus or the apostles/disciples ( All four gospels and Book of Acts, etc…) encountered people with needs, they met them. They never left people destitute and in need. Sometimes it was healing, at others times it related to their physical needs.
At times, in modern American Evangelical circles sharing the gospel is held in such high regard that meeting people’s needs is seen as an afterthought. One of far less importance. While I understand the eternal/scriptural ramifications of that rationale it still begs so many unanswered questions. What does meeting people’s needs mean? While it may often be financial or physical, perhaps it’s equally if not more important for people to be discipled, loved, sympathized with, and told that “God loves you”. It’s difficult to satisfy an unmet need.
I wonder if Jesus knew just that? We’re spiritual beings wrapped in flesh and bones. Without addressing the mind and body of the person first, how can we realistically restore people to spiritual strength? I’m not speaking as if I know the answer to this, I’m just proposing the question……..
That leads me to my closing statements. I attended a conference this past Saturday about discipling in the “Urban context”. The first speaker, Dr. Carl Ellis, did a wonderful job at breaking down the need for true relationship building as an effective means of discipleship. As well as the need to contextualize hardships and the complexity of life using scripture (not always with the intent of explicitly sharing scripture, but biblical truth). In closing, he gave a historic breakdown of minority culture in America wrapped neatly in three categories. Although I thoroughly enjoyed his talk, which was a good blend of academic and historical information, it left me feeling empty (translation: disappointed). I felt that my friend, the second speaker, closed a gap that Dr. Ellis left open. As he shared his experiences with discipling in an urban context he dropped a bombshell of a point. It messed me up so bad that I had to come and blog about it 🙂 As he recounted his story of an exchange with someone who desperately needed both physical (by way of service/counseling) and spiritual help, they confided in him the following, and I paraphrase as accurately as I can recall:
“We’re tired of people coming by once or twice a year, dropping off turkeys, and then leaving…..”
Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll go a little further into what Dr. Ellis shared, and why I feel that balance must be restored to how we view and treat people in need.