It’s a Sunday several weeks ago. My friend Greg and I are sitting in the Starbucks inside the grocery store. We meet every week. It is a time of personal discipleship and accountability. It is also a time for me to get my doughnut on. Apple fritters for the win!
Greg has been talking about finding a ministry to call his own. He is looking for the unique way he can be involved in the work of the Kingdom of Christ. I love his heart to do more. He is my sounding board and I hold no part of myself back from Greg. He sees my greatness, what little there is, and he is privy to every failing. He lifts me up, holds me up, and encourages me.
We agree to pray about him finding a ministry. After a few weeks it occurs to me that we need someone to head up our homeless ministry. Our homeless ministry is barely a ministry. If I am being honest it is a very loosey goosey, not sure what we are doing, not sure if it helps kind of ministry. Springfield has quite a few ministries and outreaches for homeless persons. I have had many ideas for trying something unique but I lack the drive, time or passion to really get them done.
I mention to Greg that we need someone to take the homeless ministry, make it theirs and run with it. He says he will pray about it. Now I know that most of the time when you ask a Christian to do something and they really don’t want to do, but also really don’t want to hurt your feeling they say, “I will pray about it.” But Greg isn’t that way. After a few days he tells me he wants to try it out.
We talk through some ideas and timing. At first we tend towards the stuff we have always done, like giving out hats, gloves, and coats to any homeless people we find. We feel led a different way this time, though.
We decide God is leading us to bless someone. Just one. I know that sounds crazy, and maybe wasteful or ineffective, but we don’t really care how it sounds. We decide to head out on February 14th. I had talked to friend of mine in the police. I asked him if he knew of any places there might be a homeless camp. He told me the police weren’t really aware of very many, but he mentioned there were always a lot of homeless people around a certain Walmart.
Greg meets me at our house and we get ready to go. I have $100 in my wallet to spend on the one person Jesus leads us to. We sit in the truck before we leave. “We should pray.” I say. “I was thinking that too,” says Greg. We sit in the truck and I ask Christ to lead us. I ask him to show is the one person he wants us to bless today. I ask him to let us find the one person who doesn’t want to be found, who isn’t looking for a handout. Someone who truly has needs. I pray Jesus would speak, walk, and love through us.
We start driving up to the Walmart my cop friend mentioned. We pull in the parking lot and there are homeless folks everywhere. Some are at the corner, some are sitting up against the building, and some are huddled near the Sam’s Choice vending machine. We look at them and several look as though they have some needs. But you can’t always trust what you see.
When we first started doing homeless ministry a few years back we were duped several times. Perhaps the most glaring was a time we met a lady who told us all about how she was living out of her car with her kids and they had no money for anything. We listened and asked her what she needed. “Anything will help she told us. It’s hard with the three of us sleeping in the car,” she said. She told us about how the father of her kids was gone and it was hard not having a man around because they were afraid a lot of the time. We loaded her up with quite a bit of food, clothes and blankets. We continued on our way helping people we found all day. Towards dark we met a man who said he really needed some new underwear. We headed off to Walmart to get him some. As we walked through the store we turned the corner to see the same woman with a cart full of stuff. Nice things. Things for a house. She almost jumped out of her skin when she saw us. The man with her picked up the air furnace filter that had slid of the top of her cart full of stuff.
This is what we hear a lot about our homeless ministry. “How do you know who you are helping?” “Most of those people are probably living in a big house and making more than you by panhandling.” The points are valid and we don’t know. However I have always held that we are serving the kingdom of Christ. Either by helping the truly needy, or by showing light to the deceitful. The love of Christ is proclaimed either way. Now back to our story:
We are both a little hesitant to just pick up a guy off of the corner. We want someone God led us to, not just someone looking to be found or looking to be helped. We drive around the back of the Walmart and don’t see anyone. “Well, do you want to see about one of those guys?” Greg asks. “No. Let’s go look in those trees.” There is a section behind the store that has a small wood in it. There are some trees on the other side of the drainage ditch. We park the truck and take off. We walk a few feet in and immediately see a trail. The trail looks pretty fresh and we follow it.
Quickly, we see a spot that is cleared off. There is a sleeping bag that has been rolled up and a few canned goods. I walk a little closer and see the remains of a fire. I notice three Bibles laying on the ground. No one is home.
The trail continues and we find three more camps. Some appear quite large with tents and have spaces marked out for 4 or 5 people. Fire pits have been built up. There are piles of trash to the side of each camp. But no one is home. We trudge out of the wood and think about heading to Walmart.
“Before we go back to Walmart. Let’s check out a little further back.” I tell Greg. There is an edge to the wood. It’s not so much a trail as a maintained area between the building and the trees. There is a ton of trash piled up and rotting along the way. It smells pretty bad and I tell Greg, “This is what India smells like sometimes.”
After we walk a little ways back, there appears to be another trail. We start down it. It looks over grown and I can’t be sure it leads anywhere. I do notice a small scrape in the dirt that could have been a fresh footprint, but I’m not sure. As we continue I start to smell burning plastic. We turn the corner and there is a camp. There is a short man rummaging through the trash. He is opening up an abandoned deodorant container to see if there is anything left. There isn’t and he throws it back into the trees. He looks up and sees us. I wave. “Hey.” I say.
There is always that moment. First contact. Will this guy be high, or crazy, or drunk? Will he want to talk to us or will he want to run us off. Is it safe? Springfield is turning into a pretty rough town (rated the most dangerous city to live in according to a recent study) and this part of town is the epicenter. Greg and I have talked a little bit about the danger of what we are doing, but lay it at the feet of Jesus to be used.
“I’m Andrew and this is Greg.” I say, extending my hand for a handshake. “I know this sounds crazy, but we are a couple of Christian guys and we want to take you to lunch.” He looks at me for a minute. He blinks. He shakes my hand. “Will you come with us?” I ask. “My name is Clint,” He says. “Yes. Lunch would be great.” Clint starts gathering up some things to put in his tent before we leave. “I just got into town yesterday.” Clint says. After Clint has everything where he wants it we start hiking out. It’s not far and we small talk on the way back to the truck.
“Why don’t you sit up front?” I say. Clint jumps in the front seat and I climb in the back. “Where do you want to eat, man?” Says Greg. “There is a McDonalds over there.” Clint says. “Clint, we can eat anywhere you want. Is there something you’ve wanted for a while but haven’t had? Italian or something?” I say. “McDonalds.” Clint says. “OK, well you can pick anywhere, so if you want McDonald’s then that’s where we are going!”
We get to McDonald’s and Clint takes off for the bathroom. When he gets back we all order. He gets a big mac and fries. I’ve told him to get as much as he wants and whatever he wants. I have a hard time believing that anyone’s dream food is a big mac.
We all sit together at the booth and eat our lunch. I ask Clint about his life and what brought him to Springfield. I am trying to get to know Clint as a friend. One of the things Greg and I talked about is treating whoever Jesus led us to as a friend, not a project or a mission, but a friend.
As we were finishing up our burgers I told Clint why we found him. I told him how we had started the day praying that Jesus would lead us to the one person he wanted us to bless. I told him we had never been to the wood he was in. I told him he was very well hidden in the trees. I told him I felt like Christ had brought us directly to him to bless him. I told Clint he was hidden in the trees to everyone but Jesus. I told him that Jesus saw him and loved him and wanted to bless him today. I told him he is not forgotten or overlooked by Christ.
Clint sat and listened politely. He’s heard it all before. That is one of the most difficult things about homeless ministry. You aren’t going to meet someone who is homeless who hasn’t had the gospel preached to them a lot. There is something about us as Christians that I despise. To be honest I have done it time and time again. We don’t preach prosperity gospel openly, but we assume if someone is homeless then they must need Jesus. To be sure, everyone needs Jesus, but we tend to look at the homeless or the trailer park or single moms and go “oh, they need Jesus.” We project our norms onto others and assume they just need Jesus.
The problem is they have heard it all before. They have gotten hats and meals and coats and blankets from people who refuse to look them in the eyes, but mutter, “Jesus loves you” as they speed away. And we feel so good about helping those poor people…
I am so guilty of everything I just said. The first place I ever preached was a mission in Joplin, called Souls Harbor. I went in as a vastly under aged, cocky, institutionalized Christian and screamed Jesus to a group of homeless folks who had to attend the sermon before they would be given food. I’ve been on countless mission trips where we minister to the poor by preaching at them while they eat their lunch. I am guilty of assuming. I am guilty of projecting. I am guilty of requiring listening to the gospel as payment for service.
So how is what we are doing with Clint different? Maybe it isn’t. But our hope is that by spending time with Clint, by talking for hours with Clint, by treating Clint as a grown man who is our equal he will see the gospel he has heard so many times before. Greg and I make the effort to be real with Clint. We look him in the eye. We tell stories about our life as we ask him about his. There are many awkward pauses. We are not going to go over the Romans road to salvation. We are going to try to lay aside our prejudice and treat him like a man, a human being.
After I explain to Clint why we found him, I ask him if he needs anything. He says “No. I am good.” I’m looking at him. I can see all kinds of needs. He needs a haircut and a shave. He needs a new coat and some gloves. The sweater he is wearing is ripped to shreds. I wonder if he needs toilet paper or underwear or socks. I want be the way God blesses Clint.
I ask him about everything thing I think he might need. But the answer is always “No. I’m good.” Or “No. I’m fine.” Clint is truly the most unique homeless guy I’ve met. As best I can tell he is not an addict, or a drunk, or crazy. He says he took the bus here from Las Vegas. He is an enigma. He has family in the area that he hasn’t seen in 15 plus years. He wants to get a job and a place to live before he looks them up.
I tell Clint if I am being too pushy to tell me get lost. I tell him the weather is about to get cold. “Do you need some gloves?” I ask. “Well, if I get a job in the spring I will need some work gloves.” He says. “Let’s go to the store!” I say. We head off to the store and start looking for gloves. I find a rack of winter gloves. I hand him a nice pair that are on sale for $17.00. “Those are way too expensive.” He says. “I won’t take those. They just cost too much.” We putter around and find a pair of gloves in the lawn and garden section. They are thin leather gloves with no padding and only cost a few bucks. Clint decides they are the ones he wants. We walk up front to pay for them. On the way we convince Clint to let us buy him a good flash light and some batteries.
We walk out to the parking lot and Clint speaks up. “Guys this has been a great day. I really appreciate lunch and this stuff. You don’t need to give me a ride. I’m just going to walk.” I reach out my hand, look him in the eye and say, “It was great to meet you and spend some time with you.” “Be careful out there, man.” Says Greg as they shake hands. Clint heads off and we head back to the truck.
We are silent for a second in the truck. Then we start to mull over the last couple hours we spent with Clint. As we drive back to my house I can’t help but think over how things went. I start a post mortem. Was this good ministry? Did we treat Clint like a friend and a man? Were the things we said good or prejudiced? Were we led by Christ? Why wouldn’t he take more from us? What held him back? We wanted to really bless this guy and in the end he got a big mac, a gift card to McDonalds, some gloves and a flashlight. The sky was the limit, so these things seem paltry and small.
As I’m thinking things over there is more than one voice in my head. I am trying to fix things, but Christ is trying to teach. “I want to bless you, too.” It dawns on me that I am being hard on Clint in my mind, when I am guilty of the exact same thing with God. He wants to bless me and has promised to bless me in many areas. I am not talking about money, a big house, a new Cadillac, and fake eyelashes and big blue hair for my wife. I’m not talking about Christ moving heaven and earth so I can get a better parking space. I’m talking about the blessings Christ has promised.
Christ is king. He is God. He is ruler of all things. And he loves me. He wants to bless me with things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. He wants to rid me of sin. He wants to fill me with purpose and motivation. He wants me to be great in his kingdom and to understand that means being the least in his kingdom. He wants me to understand the scripture. He wants me to be a great father and husband. He wants to keep me from sin. He wants to bless me with abundant, everlasting life. That life is his life. That life and his presence is available to me through the spirit of Christ living in me. These are just some of the blessings he wants for me. There is no end to them. There is no part of them where he might tell me, “That is too much.” He is continually looking me in the eye and saying, “What do you need? How can I help you live the life I’ve called you to?
I keep answering the same way. “No. I’m good. No. I’m fine. I got this.” I live my life in the battle ground of temptation. Whichever sin has come knocking I fight it. It consumes my thoughts and my time. The more I fight the less I prevail. The more effort I put in the less result I see. Meanwhile Jesus says, “I’ve defeated all sin. Give it to me. Let me take care of it.” And I say. “No, I’m good. I’ll fight it.”
I have a strong desire to be used in Christ’s kingdom. I plan and work. I try to pour into people and ministry. It burdens me. It weighs me down. I worry about the lives of the believers in my life. I dread that I didn’t do enough to be effective in the kingdom. Meanwhile Jesus says, “It’s my kingdom, I am the king. Give it to me. Let me take care of it.” And I say, “No. I’m fine. I’ll try harder. I’ll spend more time and money. I’ll make it work.”
I want to live by the Spirit of Christ. I want the fruit that comes from a life in the Holy Spirit to be on display, but I am filled with hate, unhappiness, worry, impatience, cold heartedness, wickedness, unfaithfulness, and indulgence. Meanwhile Jesus says, “It’s my spirit. Those are my qualities. I know how to show them. Give them to me. Let me take care of it.” And I say, “No, I’ve got this. I will just study these qualities more. I will fake it until they become real.”
I want my life to have purpose and meaning. I want to finish well and matter to the lives in my life. I want the kingdom of Christ to complete me. Meanwhile Jesus says, “I created you for a purpose. I made you for more than muttering through. I have a part for you to play in my story. You are already great to me. Give yourself to me. Let me take care of you.” And I say, “No. I’m afraid. It might cost me too much. Let me take care of myself. I know I can’t do it, but I can keep trying. I will leap forward and fall back. I will list in the storms of life. I will focus on me. I will become something somehow.”
So often in life Christ says, “Choose any place you want to eat. No matter how big or how fancy or expensive it’s on me. I want to lay out a banquet before you of all the blessings found in me!” And we think for a bit and say, “McDonalds.” The God who inspired Paul to write, “Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us” says, “McDonalds? If that’s what you want….”
In the end it’s a lot like the Bible in the wood. Somewhere in those trees is a camp where three Bibles lay on the ground. The person who received them has seen them before. He wants to be nice so he takes them and brings them back to his camp. He lays them on the ground. Inside is Christ. He is fully revealed through the scripture to be God, king, redeemer, and friend. The man who accepted the Bibles is sure he’s heard it all before. He is sure he knows that God and what he can do for him. So the Bibles lay in the wood, unused.
How many times have I written, or preached, or counseled out of my own strength? How many times have I refused the blessing of Christ working and living in my life? How many times have I thought McDonalds is the best blessing available to me from a king who owns everything? How many times have I taught such a small savior? many times because I was sure I’ve heard it all before, because I was sure I knew what God would do for me.
God wants to bless us. He is waiting to show off. Not with cars and riches and worldly success, but in a life worthy of his calling. He is waiting to show off through you! He wants to fill us up so much that we burst out. It’s easier to say then to do, but it starts with accepting who he really is and what he can do in us and through us. Believe him, when he says he can do more than we can ever ask or imagine. Give yourself to him. Lay on the cross and walk out of the grave. Live life in the full blessing of Jesus Christ!