I’m a believer that whether we admit it or not, we’re all searching for something greater. The things of this world that we’ve been given to live for are not satisfying. We try to convince ourselves that more money, success, sex, and pleasure will bring us joy and contentment, yet it is never enough. To quote Switchfoot, one of my favorite bands, “I refuse to believe that all we are is material, it’s nonsensical.” I constantly see people who care only about the present and only about pursuing objects and things to own, and I question the hope that a life lived for these things offers. I don’t expect everyone to understand the purpose to which I’m called as a follower of Jesus; that is to love God and to love people. It is in this relationship I have with God that I find my greater purpose. I know not everyone can relate to this, however I think we can all agree about the importance of relationships in this life. I think relationships are what we’ve been made for and they are the most important thing in this world. I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, although those are important and obviously a driving force in most of our lives. All human relationships matter, whether they are between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister, or the other many relationships we have the opportunity to experience.
Weighing heavily on my heart this week is the relationship I and many other people had with my Aunt Mary. The 17th of May would have been her 60th birthday had we not lost her about two and a half years ago after a difficult fight with cancer. My Aunt Mary was an amazing woman who I admired in many ways. She played many roles to many people; a daughter, an older sister to seven, an aunt, a friend, and most importantly, a mother to my cousin Ally. Aunt Mary was a single mother who had the responsibility of raising Ally, and I truly believe she did a fabulous job. Many of the great traits that make Ally such a fun and enjoyable person to be around can be easily traced back to the way her mother raised her. I could probably write for hours about my relationship with my cousin Ally, but I’ll spare you that today (it would have to include at least a page about our obsession with the Jonas Brothers, and I understand why you might not want to read that). All I’ll say now is that I’m eternally grateful to Aunt Mary for bringing Ally into this world and always loving and being there for her. I’ve known Ally my whole life and have considered her one of my best friends since before I could speak, and I’m realizing now more than ever before how important an influence Mary played in the forming of Ally’s strong character.
“We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.” –
Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Trying to understand God’s will is nearly impossible. To take a step of faith is something we rarely want to do but God requires because it exposes that our hearts are inclined to doubt Him and trust in ourselves and what we can control. If we make following Christ our priority in life, we’ll be faced with many challenges that we can’t explain, but what is important is our response to these things. This story is about how God showed me my heart’s tendency to be selfish and how He reignited my passion to love those who are outcasts, broken, and hurting.
To give you a little background to this story, I’ll begin with the call I received from one of my friends here at U of A. Ghub called me Friday night and told me there was a guy who wanted to meet up with a student to talk because he wanted to walk away from his relationship with Christ, but had made a promise that he would talk to another Christian before making this decision. No pressure, right? Ghub was willing to meet up with the guy, but he said he didn’t trust staff in Christian organizations or pastors. So I gave Gary a call that night and we agreed to meet up the next day. I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was hurting inside, but he didn’t tell me much about himself. He just asked for 15 minutes of my time to get some stuff off his chest before walking away from the faith.
The next day, just a couple hours before I was scheduled to meet with Gary, I received the following in a text from him: “I’m not going to waste your time by meeting. I think it’s best for me to just walk away from the faith…” I asked why it would be a waste of time, and he replied “because there is no argument to convince me to continue being Christian… besides, things are really messed up for me right now.” Side note: I don’t think anyone’s ever been argued into becoming a Christian, I think it’s much deeper and more personal than that, but I’ll get back to that point. I couldn’t force him to meet up with me, so I just told him I’d pray for him and would be willing to meet up anytime. Later that day, he called me and apologized for his flakiness and asked if we could meet up, so we agreed to later that night.
Gary is in his early 40s, although he looks worn down by a life lived mostly in the streets and could pass as older. I introduce myself, he offers to buy me a drink, and we sit outside of Starbucks and begin to talk. The following is what Gary told me about his life story and his experience with Christianity, so I will tell it from his perspective in the first person.
“I grew up in north Florida and graduated from high school in 1987. I didn’t have much direction at this point, so I worked at a convenience store for about 6 months. During this time, the store was robbed 3 times, and on the third time, I was shot in the groin. I quit this job and enlisted in the Air Force. About 5 months in, I was parachuting out of a plane when my parachute malfunctioned, and when I deployed the emergency parachute I separated my shoulder. I was too injured to be useful to them so I was discharged from the military. I tried to move back in with my family, but my father and I were not on good terms so he wouldn’t allow me to and I was forced to live on the streets. I spent the next couple years as a severe street bum, and at one point went 19 months without a bath. In the year 1990, I was living on the streets of Virginia Beach, when I was approached by some students involved in a Christian college ministry. We had spiritual conversations for about 2 weeks before I decided to place my faith in Christ. They encouraged me to attend a church to continue growing in my faith, but when I asked them if I could go to church with them, they replied that I wouldn’t fit in at their church because I was homeless.”
Gary stopped at this point in his story. I prayed for something to say, but came up pretty much speechless. I apologized to him for the way he had been treated by some Christians, and tried to remind him that the central focus of the Christian faith should be Jesus and what He has done for us, and that Christians are sinful and messed up people too, despite what some might want you to believe. I asked him to continue in his story, and he shared about two times in his life when he helped people out. If I remember right, I prompted him in some way on this, because in no way was Gary the type to boast about himself in any way.
“I ended up living in Idaho for about 9 years because I had a job with Direct TV. I went into work one day and one of my coworkers was crying, so I asked her what was wrong. She told me that her husband had left her the previous night, taking her car and leaving her alone with their children. She was now a single mother and had no way to get to work and would lose her job. I told her to come over that night, and when she did, I signed over the title of my truck to her without accepting a dime as payment. I figured I lived in walking distance from my job and the grocery store and she needed the truck much more than I did. The other good thing I did for someone in my life was when a friend I worked with lost his job and needed $4000 by the next day to keep his house that he had invested thousands of dollars in. He had a family and kids, and they were in danger of becoming homeless. So I pulled out the two bonus check I had received from Direct TV and all of my savings to give him $3700 to keep him afloat.”
Let me be clear when I emphasize that Gary didn’t have even the smallest ounce of pride when he told me about these selfless deeds. It was with all humility that he recounted these stories, and when I praised him for his generosity, he shrugged it off as if it was the obvious choice that anybody would make in those circumstances. When dealing with people, I have a pretty good gauge of when people are or are not being genuine, and I can assure you that Gary was very genuine and had a very sweet heart. His heart had been hardened some by the way he’s been treated as a person, which leads me to Gary telling me about where he’s at now.
Gary is not what some people might call a “typical” homeless person, in that he isn’t an alcoholic, a drug addict, or anything else looked down upon in a society where we are very quick to judge others by their circumstances. He told me his only addiction was to Diet Pepsi, which attributes to him getting up to go pee at least 3 times during the course of our conversation. The truth is, there in no such thing as a typical homeless person. Each one is a unique individual made in the image and likeness of God and loved the same as you and me. I think we should start treating them as such, not just in our actions, but also how we speak about them. Back to Gary’s perspective for the final part of his story…
“Earlier this year I was attending a couple different churches here in Tucson. In February, I had some health problems and found myself in the hospital for 9 days. I called the churches I had been attending and asked if someone could visit me, but no one was willing or able to. I then called 19 other churches in Tucson. No one offered me the time of day. I was a man with nothing, and all I needed to feel God’s love was someone willing to sacrifice a little bit of their personal time to be a friend, yet it did not come. I had asked for financial help to get me to Portland because I have a job opportunity there that would turn my life around, but none of the churches or homeless organizations helped me. These things had been the last straw for me. I have all the head knowledge about Christianity, but I can’t believe it in my heart, for all I had seen from Christians was hypocrisy and not the teachings of Jesus being lived out. Every piece of advice I have been offered by Christians is to “pray more” or “just trust God.” These things have not worked for me. If the devil was standing right over there, I would sell my soul to him right now for $325, enough to get me to Portland and back on my feet.”
This is where Gary wrapped up his story. Even looking back, I can’t think of a good response at this moment in the story. I’ve been told I’m a good listener, which is pretty much all I had been doing to this point. When it came time to speak, it was incredibly difficult. What could I say to this man? I asked the Holy Spirit to speak through me and use me before we started the conversation, so at this point I let Him do His thing. I had no idea what I could say to this man, but started at square one with the gospel. I asked him to forgive those Christians who had wronged him and to not base his feelings toward Jesus on the recent actions by some people that had turned him off to Christianity. The truth is we’re all broken and sinful people and any good we do is solely by the grace of God. I told Gary he is loved, and if he needed proof, the place he can always look is to the cross, where Jesus gave himself up for me and him and every other twisted person on this earth. If he could find love nowhere else in this cruel world, I hoped Gary would look to the cross as the ultimate sign of love.
I knew it was important to tell Gary that I cared, but I would be totally missing the prompting of the Spirit if I didn’t do something to show it. I felt like I needed to ask him what I could do for him. He shrugged off the question, saying I had done more than he expected by staying to listen longer than the 15 minutes he asked for. I knew he was just being polite, so more directly I asked him if I could help him out with a physical need, such as food or money to get back on his feet. He once again declined my offer, but I wanted dinner so I crossed the street to La Salsa and had to practically beg him to let me buy him a burrito, because he said he had already eaten that day. We sat down and ate, and he asked me why I had asked if I could help him out. I told him the truth. God was tugging at my heart. The whole time I was listening to his story my heart was breaking as he told me the way he had tried so hard to believe in God and live the Christian life, but he hadn’t been loved by a Christian in forever. I told him that God uses us to be blessings to each other, similar to how he had to that woman he had worked with. God commands that His followers give to the poor, and I told Gary that I was being told to help him. This seemed to be convincing enough for Gary, and he asked me if I would consider giving him the money to make it to Portland and for a place to live for his first month there. He knew this was a lot to ask, so he told me to think and pray about it and he left me there alone. He left the option up to me, and just asked that if I decided not to give him the money to tell him so he could at least say goodbye.
I struggled a lot with conflicting feelings at this moment. I was excited at the opportunity to give to Gary and show him love that he would never expect. However, my selfishness and doubt began creeping in more than ever. Questions like “What if he doesn’t use the money for the intended purpose?” and “What if this is all just a waste?” crept into my mind. I prayed fervently, and recalled a sermon I had heard about giving to the poor. I can’t remember enough to give a good synopsis, but I remember this sermon rocked me, as the pastor said that if we truly trust God and His will, then when asked to give to the needy, we would be disobedient not to. Also, to deny giving someone money on the basis that they “might use it to buy drugs/alcohol” is an act of doubting God’s will and provision. Jesus sums this all up pretty succinctly in the Sermon on the Mount, when He says in Matthew 5:42 “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” So I decided God was telling me to give, and possibly more surprisingly, I decided not to be succumb to my usual selfish ways and chose to be obedient. After that night, I came across these two quotes which have a lot to say about the decision process I was in at this moment and have helped settle my heart that I made the right decision. C.S. Lewis said “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. The only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” The other quote was from a pastor named Louie Giglio, “Too often we equate being moved with actually doing something. Hearts that are touched must move our hands/feet to action.”
I withdrew the money and returned to Gary. I made it absolutely clear that I wasn’t helping him out because I was a good person. I’m not a good person. I have so many faults and have made so many stupid decisions and have hurt people in ways I never could have imagined or intended. It’s a reality that I become more and more aware of everyday. Another reality, the one that brings me hope everyday, is that I am not identified by my own actions and brokenness. My identity is found in Jesus Christ, who loved me enough and loved you enough (this is assuming anyone has actually kept reading to this point, haha) that He took the penalty for our sins. Now when God looks down on me, he no longer sees my disgusting sin and destitute heart, but He sees the righteousness of Christ who died in my place.
How many times have I failed to help out a homeless person or someone else in a desperate time of need? So many. So many times I’ve looked at someone in that position and not seen them for the person God loves and created, but for the situation they find themselves in and have judged them for it. This passage gives me hope despite myself.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:23-26 (ESV)
I asked Gary if I could pray for him, and he said of course. I prayed something like this: “Thank you God for allowing me the privilege to meet Gary and hear his story. Thank you that Gary was so open and vulnerable about his life. Jesus please heal the wounds Gary has received on his heart and replenish his soul with the love only You can give. I pray for protection and peace for Gary in his future and that God would give him peace of mind and soul. Thank you Lord for the precious gift you sent us in your Son Jesus and for the love we can now receive. In your Son’s holy name we pray, Amen.”
Gary accepted the money, then we exchanged contact information so we could keep in touch in the future. We agreed that in the near future when I visit my sister who lives in Portland that we would meet and catch up. I felt like I was saying goodbye to a longtime friend. I reached across the table as I was getting up to shake his hand. I could see him fighting back tears in his eyes, and he took my handshake and raised me a hug. I could tell it wasn’t a normal occurrence for him (he told me that he didn’t do this often) and we ended up doing some sort of handshake to bro hug. It would have been awkward in any other setting, but in that moment, it was perfect. I felt blessed that I was probably the first person to receive a hug from him in a very long time.
I left that conversation changed. My heart was changed, as I was able to witness God performing on it to remove doubts and fears and truly trust in Him. I felt so blessed and honored that God had pre-ordained that conversation and experience for both mine and Gary’s benefit. I was so grateful that God would use me, despite all my failures, to be a physical and emotional blessing to a brother of the faith. The verse that simply and perfectly described this experience and stuck in my head was 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”