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Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity by Jim Palmer



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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Jim Palmer

Saturday, November 13

Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.
—Matthew 25:40


One night on the way back to my car from a downtown nightspot, I heard a voice call out from the shadows. Hunkered down in an alley was a homeless man. I stopped and walked over to check him out. 

He started into his story: he was down on his luck, out of money, and “trying to get home” to who knows where, blah, blah, blah. I’d heard it all before and started to walk away. As I did, he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks, “Please mister, I’m no evil person and I promise to go to church.” Strange thing to say, “I promise to go to church.”

Whatever the man meant, this is what I heard: “

Hey mister, I know right now you see me as a piece of worthless nothing, but maybe I can convince you to help me, because I’m desperate. How about this, I’ll throw “church” into my plea in hopes you’re one of those religious types I’ve run into who preach about getting saved and going to church. I know I have no value in your eyes, but if I can somehow associate myself with God, maybe you will be inclined to help me.

I had to fight down emotion as it struck me how willing I had been to walk away. This man was created in the image of God and loved by God. He didn’t need to go to church to get on God’s radar. I gave him $5, which he profusely thanked me for. I told him I had no sermon to preach but hoped he would realize he didn’t need to go to church to find God.

In case you think I’m some sort of Mother Teresa, I’m embarrassed to admit that I lied to him. I told him $5 was all the cash I had, but I had another $5 in my wallet. I did what made ME feel good by giving him a handout and washing my hands of the whole ordeal. Maybe the man needed a friend, someone to care, someone to get involved, someone to buy him a cup of coffee and hear his story, someone to show him some dignity.

Jesus personally loved and served those people whom others preferred to avoid. Certainly I know there are unstable and belligerent homeless people. Most don’t set out to be that way. I don’t know of one eight-year-old who would answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a homeless person.” For most, it’s a series of difficult life situations, adverse circumstances, bad decisions and ill-timed hardships, until one cold night, you’re hungry and shivering in an alley.

Giving the man $5 was the easiest way for me to respond in order to feel good about myself while remaining at a safe and comfortable distance. There are plenty of people I could have contacted to help respond in a more comprehensive way to the man’s need and predicament if I had been inclined.

Speaking of Mother Teresa, she once said,

I never look at the masses as my responsibility. I look only at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can feed only one person at a time. Just one, one, one.

I’ve got a long way to go, but my hope is that as I depend on Christ within me, I will see with his eyes, think with his mind, feel with his heart, and act with his will, one person at a time—whoever that person is.

God, open my eyes to see that one you would have me give a cup of cold water in your name.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2006.