It started with cheeseburgers. The other day while my wife and I were finishing up some work on the outskirts of Detroit and heading back to our car we encountered a man that wore a long season’s worth of hard times all over his face. Our meeting was caused by a literal bumping into each other on the street to which his reaction was defensive and a bit combative. I apologized for running into him and shook his hand. We introduced ourselves casually and I caught the faint scent of stale alcohol on his breath. I turned to walk away heading back to my car to move on with my day. But, this meeting wasn’t over.
As I walked back towards my wife and my car the man called out to me. After some back and forth and my assuring him I had no money to offer him he asked if I would be willing to buy him a cheeseburger. I begrudgingly (just being real) agreed and sent him on ahead towards the McDonalds just around the corner. I assured him I would meet him there. Before he walked away he looked me straight in my eyes and said “Bill, don’t bull $h!t me” (A deep theological conversation on why we shouldn’t use curse words didn’t seem appropriate at the time). The look on his face brought a new level of seriousness to the situation and his eyes assured me that this meal was important to him. I said “I won’t” and walked back my car.
I picked him up some cheeseburgers and met him on the side of the street to give them to him. He thanked me for the food and was very appreciative. I wanted to stop there but I knew God was telling me to pray with this man. So, I asked him if it would be ok if we prayed and that is when everything changed. His body language shifted dramatically, his face softened, he said “yes” and leaned in close to me as if to give me a hug. We started to pray and to my surprise this man didn’t just receive my prayer, he participated in the prayer with “amen” and “yes God” punctuating my statements. He prayed with me like an old friend.
As we prayed with our heads together and bowed I opened my eyes for a moment and caught the imprint of the gun he had tucked in his waist band. It was visible through his shirt. I found myself torn between two reactions. The remnants of hardwired law enforcement training that set off every safety alert in my body called for the immediate creation of a reactionary gap to be placed between myself and this man. The Jesus in me screamed do not break this embrace! Pray with this man, pray over this man, love this man…and know that I am standing in the gap for you and your reaction to what I’m putting in your heart is the only reaction that matters right now.
We finished praying and when we lifted our heads and said “amen” I saw tears running down his face. This man whose hard exterior was a bit intimidating moments ago was now softened. He said “Bill, they say men don’t cry but that is just a myth. Real men cry too”. I agreed completely. His tears no doubt fueled by what seemed to be a life worth of education in the school of hard knocks. I pretended for the moment to understand his pain as I gave him my best re-assuring nod, but of course I have no idea what it’s like to walk in his shoes. I can only introduce him to the One who does. We shook hands one more time and I walked away returning to my car.
Something about this whole situation left the encounter Peter and John had with the lame man outside of the temple in Acts 3 on my heart. I went to that text today to see why…
Acts 3: 1-10 “3 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” 5 So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” 7 Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 9 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (NIV)
The man was “expecting to get something from them”. As a matter of fact it seems based on this text that the lame man’s expectation of something in return is the ONLY reason he bothered to give them his attention beyond begging for money. It’s what he had learned through experience. No doubt after years of begging outside of the temple the man had just become accustomed to asking the passing people for money expecting rejection. Surely the ratio of success was not in his favor. It seems logical the that he become used to only giving his attention where he felt a genuine seed of hope existed. Can you really blame him?
He expected something! But, what he got wasn’t really anything close to what he was expecting. That’s how God works though, isn’t it? We often expect one thing because it’s what we want and He provides something different because He knows it’s what we need. This man had been lame from birth! He only knew a life of dependency on other people’s generosity, which let’s be honest, doesn’t always lead to a life of abundance. It says that “he was put” at the gate to beg! IN OTHER WORDS: there were obviously people in this man’s life who were willing to do the work to put him somewhere to beg for help from others, they just weren't willing to be the source of help. I wonder if they thought they had nothing to offer him?
There are many people wrapped up in circumstances that are not of their own making who have fallen on hard times. It’s easy to form opinions about people who seem to only want something from us. It’s easy to feel turned off by people who only seem to give you attention because they feel like you might give them something…but, we have to remember that sometimes our potential generosity is the only source of hope that someone may have to hold on to. Sometimes, you “bump into people” who God puts in your path because He knows that you are the one best suited to demonstrate His love to that person in that moment. I wonder how often we miss these moments because we think we have nothing to offer?
Peter and John were headed to a time of prayer. It was important! Where they were going and what they were doing was important. But they stopped anyways. How easy is it for us to get so caught up in the importance of what we are doing (sometimes in the Name of Jesus) and look past the God moments He is placing right in front of us? There is so much in this text that is worth unpacking! I suppose that is for a different day.
I realize the reason God put this story on my heart following my encounter with the man on the street. I was guilty of thinking that I had nothing to offer this man simply because I didn’t have any cash. I couldn’t see beyond my own vision of what I thought it meant to “help” him. God had another plan. I believe with all my heart that God used this encounter to give this man far more than he wanted…I believe God used this meeting to give this man exactly what he needed. A reminder of the open channel of communication he has with his Heavenly Father because of what Jesus did on the cross. A reminder that no matter what he has done God still loves him. A reminder that regardless of the alcohol on his breath or his intentions with the gun on his hip he could never outrun the reach of God’s grace.
My heart hurts when I realize that this whole thing almost didn’t happen because I forgot in the hustle of my schedule…the only thing of real value I have to offer anyone is Jesus. Eyes and ears open. God wants to use you today.
-Pastor Bill C.