I was sitting on the couch helping my son with his school when I saw the flash of a person on a bike go past my front window. While this may not be unusual to some people, as I live on a dead end this is not a normal occurrence. Recent thefts in the neighborhood and my own experience as a police officer led me to believe that (after a reasonable amount of time had passed for this person to have realized that the brick wall at the end of the street signified a dead end) this person may be intending to help themselves to something from my not-so-organized front and side yard.
Armed with the righteous zeal to stop this theft, I walked to the front of my house, looking down the street to see a woman on a bike, who abruptly stopped riding and was now helping herself to some oranges from my uncle’s tree a few doors down. Standing in the street I quietly watched, as seeing her get back on her bike I was content to let her simply leave our quiet corner of this changing city… But, as she sampled her newly acquired citrus, she spit it out (finding it unripe), and then threw it on the ground.
Now my ire was full. You see, in this neighborhood many people have their citrus trees planted in their front yards and, as a result, many have returned home to find their trees picked bare of either ripe fruit, or picked bare and the unripe fruit left on the ground to rot. In truth, many trees have fruit that is never eaten, but it still doesn’t stop the frustration when a tree you have faithfully watered and fertilized is stripped of its fruit and you haven’t eaten even a single one!
So, what did I do, full of indignation for this offense? Well, of course I yelled at her, ‘Hey, what makes you think you can steal fruit and throw it away!?!’. I mean, can you believe the gall? Frightened, I’m sure, by the unexpected voice and seeing the equally unexpected large man in the roadway hollering, this young woman began to ride away. I felt justified, satisfied, for while I had not been able to save those two unripened oranges, I certainly let her know this neighborhood (occupied by a significant amount of Church of Christ members, incidentally) was no place to get a quick meal…
Now before I go on, I am not meaning to say that those things we work for should be free for anyone to walk off with. I’m not saying that we should be okay with people stealing or taking advantage of us. But, I am hopeful that we consider some other things which I know are simply a reminder to those of us who claim the name of Jesus Christ.
…the Lord asked me, “That’s it?”
Now, where was I? Oh yes, my righteous indignation for a pair of unripe oranges. Well, having felt I had done my part, I watched this young woman ride off, when I felt the tug at my heart of the Lord. I heard no voice but there was something interjected specifically into my mind- I felt a sudden compassion for this young woman and the Lord asked me, “That’s it?”.
Convicted, I called out even louder, ‘If you are hungry I am willing to give you some food; you don’t have to steal from people!’. She slowed the turning of her pedals and the front wheel of her bike wavered its direction from the path before her (away from the angry fruit guardian), and turning to take me up on my offer. Slowly, she turned and rode toward me, and as I approached her I could see her crying. No doubt this was for several reasons, which I understood without a word being spoken. I’m certain there was some shame; shame for stealing, shame for being called out in the act, shame for having a need. Surely she was hungry, for if she was simply looking to take something of value, she would never have reversed her course. There was likely shame for having to come back to the person who, in her mind, had already passed a judgment on her as a thief (and certainly I had passed a judgment on her action, and such a minor thing at that).
I could see that she was weathered, thin as a rail and dirty. I knew if I were to guess her age based on what I saw, I would guess her to be much older than she actually was, as the lifestyle I felt certain she was living ages a body significantly. With all my years as a police officer as foundation, I knew most of her life story without her speaking. Working backwards I knew that she was homeless, most likely on account of some drug addiction. This isn’t a fast process, as most addicts find themselves homeless over the course of time, having slowly burned bridges; first with family, then friends, then institutions, so I could surmise she had been using drugs for a while. She likely had no father in the picture from a young age. She probably had a child or children who are now wards of the state due to drugs or homelessness. As is the story with many women I have encountered over my many years as a cop, she had probably been the victim of some sexual incidents throughout her childhood. As I found later in our conversation, I was right on all accounts. This story is nothing new, it seems to come from a template and over my years as a police officer, I’ve found we are surrounded by souls affected by these very things, heavy and destructive.
As she neared me, I asked the Lord to give me charity. We are often going to lack sufficient charity as we interact with this world, yet it must form our actions and conversations, even (and especially) when the conversation may have some negative aspects, or with those who we may rather stay on the other side of the street from. I’m sure most of you are no different than I, we often choose to keep our head and eyes down so as not to have to address some of those broken souls in this broken world… But that’s not Christ or His gospel.
Her name was Sarah and she was 26 years old. She had grown up in Kentucky and her mother lives outside of Phoenix but will no longer assist her. She had a blonde-haired daughter who was 9, whose father had custody of her after he was released from prison. She had been homeless for 8 months, although that was just her most recent stint. She had been using heroin for many years; this had been to cope with having been a victim of sexual assaults through the consent and direction of her mother when she was a teenager. She was indeed hungry, eating from garbage cans and trying to find some new clothing which had been discarded by others.
She told me she is tired of living like she has been. She is scared living on the street, as she has been further victimized while there. She doesn’t like using drugs but it helps her to handle this life that she is overwhelmed by. She knows that the path she is on isn’t sustainable but she feels like she cannot change. She is too far gone, she is unintelligent, she has no hope.
It would be hard to give a cause for one to believe and have hope in Christ without acknowledging some tough things:
First, tragedy happens, victims exist and these things have lasting scars. There is nothing that can be done to take these events away. But can you give a good reason why evil exists, why bad things happen to innocent people? Can you explain the blessing and curse of freewill (everyone can choose, good or bad)? Can you explain the importance of there being an opposition in all things? Can you explain the importance of hope for something that is beyond what we experience here?
Second, life isn’t doled out fairly. There is not true equality on this earth. Can you explain why some people have lives that seem to be without trouble and others do not? Can you give the hope of your confidence that in spite of all this, the fair and unfair, that our loving God is present and able to help us overcome?
Third, we have a choice in how we act, react and feel about the circumstances we face. We may not choose everything that happens to us, but we do choose how we feel and how we respond. There are many things that help form how we respond to life, but ultimately it is up to us. Can you speak with experience about how making the difficult, yet correct and Godly decisions in times of trial led you to blessing? Can you speak about times when God helped you to see or react differently to difficult situations in your life?
Fourth, we believe in a God who helps but doesn’t force. For Him to force would remove our freewill. He doesn’t force us to change, doesn’t make us change, but He helps us if we can even summon a small particle of faith. Can you explain how He interacts in situations, bringing people into and taking them out of lives, opening and closing doors, offering direction, peace, comfort and joy?
So how did our conversation go? Well, it’s hard to say. She was receptive as I spoke to her about having hope in Christ, making tough decisions and some personal testimonies. I listened to her as she poured out her heart to me and I tried to simply listen. We probably spoke for a half hour and she left with some cans of food, and hopefully, hope. I’m confident she left with a different opinion of me, that angry bearded guy yelling at someone over a few dumb oranges. She left knowing where our church was and when we meet, with the invitation to come.
I’m finishing this article several months after this incident. To date, I have not seen this young lady again. It would be easy to think that the time spent was worthless, and yet that would simply be a temptation to doubt the power of the Lord, and to doubt His direction for how we are to interact with this world.
We don’t follow God’s word, share the love of Christ and the hope of the Gospel, then judge its effectiveness by whether someone shows up to church or not. We don’t follow God’s word, share the love of Christ and the hope of the Gospel, then judge its effectiveness by whether the person who is rude or mistreating us at work ever changes.
We don’t follow God’s word, share the love of Christ and the hope of the Gospel, then judge its effectiveness by whether one or one thousand conversations, or monetary donations, or minutes spent in the service of others result in changes we can see or quantify.
I look at the parable of the sower as an answer to this problem. The sower did his job; he walked about spreading the seed. Some of it grew, some didn’t. Any of us who have planted gardens from seed know that some seeds germinate and grow, and some never do. But there is another thing that sometimes happens; Some seeds take longer than others to grow. I’ve had times as I’ve gardened that some seed which must have been lacking some essential thing when I planted it (at the same time I planted others) suddenly sprouted weeks or months later, sometimes outside of what I would consider the normal season, and become quite productive.
I feel the account of Alma, the son of Alma, in the Book of Mormon is a prime example of this. Raised by a man of God from childhood, hearing the word, seeing its effect in the lives of others, yet Alma (Jr) wasn’t interested. Something was missing which was provided later in life and suddenly, the seed which had been planted so many years (and so many heartaches) ago sprouted.
We love God because He is faithful and we are not
We follow God’s word because we love Him. We love Him for His mercy, His patience, His faithfulness. We love Him for His Son, who gave His life so we could have forgiveness, so we could have hope, so we could receive His Spirit. We love God for His Son, who sits on His throne and petitions the Father for us, prays for us. We love God because He is faithful and we are not. We fail, we sin, we doubt, we second-guess; we are faced with challenges and do not step up. But in spite of all these things, God is faithful. We are asked to share these things. To share hope. To have and give love. To be quick to speak on His behalf.
You’ll notice I’ve written all this yet have not referenced a single scripture. I hope as you’ve read this you’ve had several come to mind. I will give you this scripture to consider:
Matthew 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment.
I hope this is you, that you love the Lord as Christ directed us. And because of that love for the Lord-
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
It is a new year full of new opportunities. Or, perhaps old opportunities we have neglected. I hope and pray that the Lord is able to work with and through each of us in this new year.