Thursday, February 12, 2004

Spare Change and a Flat Tire

I've been thinking about charity lately. Not in the institutional sense, or the "global impact" sense. Just kindness and generosity to the people around you.

Here's what I 've been chewing on: is a handful of change enough? I don't mean the amount of cash, and I know I could always do better. I often catch myself handing the person only a pocketful of coinage, pulling the few dimes and nickels past the guilty bills folded into fourths. Sometimes I have to be careful not to accidentally pull the bills out along with the change, though if pressed as to why I have to be "careful" about that, I'd color with shame.

But my question is, is giving a beggar some money enough? Why do we feel so great about ourselves for giving a potentially lost person a buck for coffee? Most times, if I catch myself, I'll sprinkle some generic religious cliche on my donation. " (God) bless you." "Have a blessed day." Such phraseology, while well-intentioned, is painfully bland and non-offensive. Almost everyone is down with being blessed. Even the non-/anti-religious will at least humor you. "Blessed? Yeah, sure pal. You too." *Smirk* *chuckle* *shaking head*

Go back to Acts 3. Peter demonstrates what real charity is. The lame man at the temple gate has been begging there for a while, everyone knows him, everyone sees him. The parishoners drop a few shekels in his jar every time they pass, so they can worship with a "clear" conscience. But when the lame man asks Peter for alms, Peter denies him. Peter realizes what the man's real need is. He looks him in the eye and says (roughly), "I don't have any money to give you. But I'll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus, stand up." And he grabs the guy's hand and lifts him (for the first time in years, if ever) onto his formerly limp legs. And the man went off "walking and leaping and praising God" as the song goes. And I'd be willing to bet that he left his jar of change behind.

So here we are. What good are we doing by tossing change at the poor and then rushing past. We may be buying them a burger or some coffee, but they need more. Most of them (most of everyone, really) need Jesus more than coffee. And for some reason, we can't seem to do more than give them a buck, "bless" them, and move on.

I know there's more I need to do. But I'm too...I don't know. Afraid. Lazy. Empty. Lacking love.

An argument could be made that our "quick fix" giving may be motivated on some level by a selfish desire to feel generous without the inconvenience of really going to much trouble. I won't make that argument, because to do so would be too much of a self-indictment.

Another argument could be made that we don't do more than say a quick "blessing" because we don't really care about the souls of the people around us. If we did, we'd be more desparate about sharing Jesus with them. We don't really care because we don't love them like God does. And we don't love them because we're not living totally in the Spirit.

I don't think that last statement is too great of a leap. If we live fully in the Spirit, and we are clothed with the person of Jesus Christ, then we will be passionate about the lost. We will be desparate. We will be heartbroken.

But we're not. I'm not. And because I'm not, I missed an opportunity that I should have seized.

Last night, I was walking from my office building to the train, on the sidewalk along the road. It was dusk, getting dark; the streetlights were turning on. When I was about a hundred yards from the crosswalk to the train platform, I heard a pop behind me. A white Cadillac blew a tire. It rolled up to the light, turned the corner and stopped in the parking lot.

And I heard God speak in my head. His instructions were clear: "Go change her tire."

I walked over and got the attention of the middle-aged woman inside. I offered to change her tire, and she said she had forgotten her cell phone at home, so she was glad for the help. I changed her tire, doing my best not to get my white shirt and tie greasy. While I was trying to work off the flat tire, I kept praying, "God, what do I say to her? What do I do? Please give me the words to say to her." When I got the tire changed, and tossed the tools into the trunk with the flat, the woman handed me some money, which I denied at first, but she insisted and I gave in. As she said thank you again, I realized the moment had come. This was it. I could tell her why I stopped to help, how God loves her and wanted to be part of her life. I looked her in the eye, and spoke.

"Uh...have a blessed day."

She chuckled, considering the circumstances, and said, "thanks." Sure, pal, whatever you say.

She drove off, and I walked to my train platform, dripping sweat and discouragement. I sat waiting for the next train, and thinking, "God, that was it. *The* moment. Why didn't you help me give her something good?" But as I thought, I remembered the day I had just had. It was a horrible day, full of anger, frustration, and a few muttered vulgarities.

I wasn't walking in the Spirit. I was able to hear the clarion call of direct command, but I wasn't in communion with the spirit, "walking in step with" it, like Paul writes in Galatians 5. Because of that, I didn't have any words of encouragement and ministry to give.

I always thought that if I ever behaved badly, if I allowed my anger and selfishness to affect my attitude, I could keep it to myself so that the only person who is affected by it would be me. Now I know it goes beyond that.

Now my prayer is that the next Christian she meets won't fail the way I did.

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