But the fact is I hadn't wanted to understand her. To have done so would have meant making a choice I preferred not to make, a choice between believing her or not, a choice between living my faith or not.
Cleveland's downtown streets were nearly abandoned on this perfect Labor Day morning. My family and I were walking the few blocks from our hotel to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a few hours of fun. The doors opened at 10:00 and, at our pace, we likely would get there twenty minutes early.
To our right, a solitary figure, an overweight, reasonably well-dressed black woman laden with bags, could be seen. She was walking on a street running east-west; we were on one running north-south that would soon intersect it.
Although we were four, I was already slamming my interior drawbridge tight against this solo intruder. After all, I thought as I regarded her, aren't there operators on the streets who distract people in friendly conversation to allow accomplices to rob them or worse? I picked up my pace.
But the woman slowed hers. She timed things so that she met us just as we arrived on the northwest corner of that empty intersection.
I was almost relieved to hear what I thought she'd said. I heard her say that she wanted change for a ten. I never carry more than five or six bucks these days and I knew that all I had was a five. "Sorry," I said, "I can't help you."
"Wait a minute," the woman told us, "I'm no bum, I'm a nurse." She repeated that phrase three times as though it were a well-rehearsed routine. "My car broke down and I need to get to work. Buses don't run as often today and I need to get a taxi."
I was ready to move on. But my wife stopped and asked the woman how much she needed. "Ten dollars." She pulled out her purse and handed the woman the money.
As we walked on, my wife explained, "She may well have taken me. But if so, she'll have to answer for it. I don't want to have to answer for not giving to somebody who might really have a need."
Less than twenty-four hours before, I had preached a sermon on James 1:17-27, stressing the importance of living one's faith in Christ in the real world:
"But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves...Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."Many times, as a preacher, teacher, and writer, I've told my fellow Christians, along with others, who ridiculed followers of Jesus for being chumps when hit up by strangers that "...[Christians] understand that sometimes, people will take advantage of them...[but they prefer erring] on the side of mercy [rather] than on the side of judgment."
And many times, I'd reminded people that Christ calls us to view every person who has a need as though he or she were Christ Himself. Loving our neighbor is a way we love God.
"Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters," John the Evangelist writes in the New Testament, "are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen."
The call to serve God and neighbor always comes at inconvenient times. In Jesus' famous story of the good Samaritan, the religious leaders--the Scribe and the Pharisee--had no time to help the man lying wounded on the road. After all, they had places to be and this could have been an ambush. A Samaritan, a foreigner whose kind were hated by Jesus' fellow Jews, happened by, stopped, and helped the wounded man. "Who," Jesus asked his original hearer and us, "proved to be the true neighbor?"
Fortunately for me, I have a wife who is a better theologian than I am. And a better Christian. She never upbraided me with a single guilt-tripping word. Instead, she gave me an example of Christian faithfulness.
I've repented for my cynicism and insentivity, ways of thinking that lead us to regard the needy around us as less than human. Jesus calls our sullen hostility to others murder.
I thank God that, in His hospital for hypocrites, the Church, I have experienced the forgiveness of God and that as a believer in Christ, God fills me with the power of the Holy Spirit, to live a changed--and constantly changing--life.
I also pray that the next time the call to love a needy neighbor comes, I won't regard it as an inconvenient interruption, but as a holy opportunity, as an appointment with Jesus.