Friday, November 16, 2018

When The Gospel Looks Like A Tent & A Sleeping Bag

"For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
James 2:26
Emphasis added

It was cold, dark, and raining and the parking lot was crowded as Zach and I drove closer to the front door of Walmart.  Kevin had gone inside to get a quick head start on shopping for Zach's Christmas and birthday, and I wanted to save him from having to walk back to the car in the rain.  There were a few other cars in front of us, and as we waited I noticed an African American gentleman around 60 to 65 years old approach the car directly in front of us.  After exchanging a few words with the driver, he returned to where he had been standing against the wall next to the door.  Soon Kevin appeared, and as he was on his way to our car, I noticed the gentleman approach him, too. When Kevin got in the car, he told us the man had asked for money, and he had given him the only cash he had—$1.00.  Kevin said he overheard another customer asking the man how much he needed.  The man replied that he was trying to get $14.00 to buy a tent, As Kevin listened, the manager came outside and told the man he needed to stop asking customers for money. 

As we started to pull away, Kevin said something that caused me to apply the brakes and reconsider our decision to shrug off the encounter as yet another random scam attempt.  "He told me he's a Vietnam vet."  Kevin's voice was full of compassion.  He rarely prays a prayer without asking God to bless and look out for our veterans and those who currently serve in the military, on the police force, and the firefighters.  We have a soft spot in our hearts for all of them.  Dad was a veteran who served in the Army in Korea, Kevin's Dad was a WWII Navy vet, and in our opinion, no one deserves kind treatment and support more than our veterans.

I turned to look back at the man one more time, and something about his dejected stance as he hovered under the narrow overhang, unsuccessfully trying to find shelter from the cold, stinging rain melted every excuse I could muster to drive away and leave him standing there like that.  I just couldn't do it.  "So all he needs is a tent?" I asked, then quickly followed with, "Do they only cost $14.00?"  "I don't know, but I don't think you can buy one for that,"  Kevin replied.  My eyes were fixed on the man's reflection in the side mirror of my door, and I felt tears coming to the surface.  The three of us kept discussing his situation, weighing it against our own, and ultimately, compassion won.  $14.00 or whatever the cost, soon, Kevin and Zach were out of the car making their way inside Walmart.  On their way, the man told them he needed a tent, then he said, "No, a sleeping bag would be better.  Just a real cheap sleeping bag—the cheapest they've got."

As I waited, I watched the man closely.  At one point, I saw him reach into both of his pockets at once.  It looked like he was trying to locate a cigarette and a lighter, and I muttered, "Don't tell me he is going to smoke."  Self-righteous frustration came to the surface at the thought of the possibility that he would waste money on cigarettes when his basic needs were so sorely lacking.  As soon as I mumbled those words of judgment, God spoke words of reminder, and I was deeply convicted.  "Don't you know how it feels to be bound?  People become addicted and can't help doing some of the things they do.  It's not for you to judge."  I was put in my place real quick and realized with fresh understanding that it doesn't matter how a person gets into the predicament they're in—the reality is that they are in it, they need help, and it isn't up to us to fix them or force them to do the right thing.  Our job is to extend unconditional love, human kindness, and compassion, just like Jesus would.  I sat there feeling like we should do something to "get the Gospel" to that needy man, and again, the dear Lord spoke.  "The best way you could ever get the Gospel message to that man is to reach out and meet his need." 

I am reminded of the quote, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

It wasn't long until I saw Kevin and Zach emerge and hand the grateful man the best quality sleeping bag they could find in Walmart—one that promised to keep a person warm in up to as extreme cold as 10 degrees—and a three-person sized tent.  The man was overwhelmed.  "Are you sure?" he asked.  Kevin and Zach profusely assured him and let him know how glad they were to help him out.  Zach said, "I'll be praying for you.  What's your name?"  The man answered, "Don.  Please, when you pray tonight, please pray for Don."  

Heart-wrenched, Kevin and Zach returned to our car, and for just one, brief second I made eye contact with that weathered veteran standing against the Walmart wall.  I don't suppose I will ever forget the way he looked at me.  I can't really explain the look—the only way I know to put it into words is it was somewhere between astonishment and disbelief and a need to defend what little dignity he had left.  I smiled a smile that I hope conveyed what I most wanted to say—I care, you are important, you are special, you matter, and don't you ever forget it, as we pulled away.

Some would say we were scammed.  Some would argue that the man probably walked the merchandise back into Walmart to exchange for a gift card.  Maybe he did, but I have to say, I don't think so.  I have a feeling his needs were as legitimate and dire as he conveyed they were, and I'll tell you what, regardless what happened afterward, we drove away with one of the best feelings in the world.  That feeling you get when you know deep inside that you just did something for Jesus.  Didn't He say that is the way it works?  Kevin reminded me of His words as we drove along.

"Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  for I was hungry, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in:  naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me.  Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee hungry, and fed Thee? Or thirsty, and gave Thee drink?  When saw we Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and clothed Thee?  Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me."  Matthew 25:34-40

Granted and sadly, there are a lot of wrong-intentioned people in our world who truly do not have our best interests at heart, and a person has to be more guarded and careful than we used to need to be.  Scammers are real, and it is only wisdom to stay close enough to God to hear His still, small voice offering Divine guidance and discernment and then to follow His lead with open hands. 

I don't tell this story to flaunt anything the three of us did last night.  I write it with a heavy heart because this world we live in right now is SO filled with hate, vitriol, and a seemingly ununifiable divide.  I have never, in all my years of life, seen such a spirit of blatant evil unleashed with such unprecedented anger.  As followers of Jesus Christ, it is up to us to make the positive difference our world sorely needs.  Jesus said, "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one to another."  John 13:34-35

We are the salt and light, and if we don't bring that to our world, who will?
"You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world."  Matthew 5:13,14

Did you ever notice the significance of the correlation between John 3:16 and I John 3:16?  There are no coincidences in God's Word.  Just look at the two verses in consecutive order.  

"For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  John 3:16

"Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."  I John 3:16

See how that works?  Jesus laid down His life for us.  In like manner, we are to lay down our lives for each other.  Let's look a bit farther to the very next verse.

"But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?"  I John 3:17

How can we say we love God if we don't love our neighbor?

"We love Him because He first loved us.  If a man says, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.  Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth Him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of Him.  By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep His commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous."
I John 4:19-I John 5:3

If we really love our brother, can we overlook and ignore his need?

No matter what our lot or station in life, we all have something to give.  Sometimes, it has nothing to do with monetary giving.  Sometimes, it is our time that someone needs the most.  Sometimes, it is a smile or a kind touch.  Sometimes, it just means being there.

"Dear Lord, help us to be Your hands and feet.  Help us to really see the needs around us.  Help our hearts to be so concerned that it is impossible for us to turn away.  Fill us to the brim with Your love.  Help us to follow Your example and lay down our lives in service to You and the people around us.  In Jesus' name.  Amen."