Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Lessons Learned on the Streets of Cleveland (Column Version)

[This is the column version of my post of the same title. The column I write appears in the Community Press newspapers.]

Shortly after leaving her, I defended myself. "I didn't understand her at first," I said.

But the fact is I hadn't really wanted to understand her.

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 Hall opened at 10:00 and, at our pace, we likely would get there well before that.

But on our way, we encountered a woman. “Do you have change for a ten?” I thought I heard her ask. I was almost relieved. I never carry more than five or six bucks these days and I knew that all I had was a five. I wouldn’t have to stop and fork over any cash. "Sorry," I said, "I can't help you."

"Wait a minute," the woman told us, "I'm no bum, I'm a nurse." The phrase was repeated three times as though part of 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 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: "...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 [and presumably others] in their distress..."

Many times, as a preacher, teacher, and writer, I've told my fellow Christians and 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."

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 seemingly dying man may have been a decoy, bait for 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 such 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.

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