Will you recognize Him when you see Him?

Will you recognize Him when you see Him?

It had been a long day. Not long because I had crammed one activity after another into a very small window of time, but long in the tangible way I had felt every hour pass. Even though I arrived late to pick up my son from track practice, his older brother and I ended up having to wait for him to come out of the building. As he opened the van door, pitched his backpack into the van, and hopped onto the seat, I skipped my customary “Hi, how was your day” greeting. My mind was too harried to bother with perfunctory courtesies.

I swerved into the exit lane of the school driveway, but just then a man walking alongside a bicycle stepped into the crosswalk. He appeared to be talking to himself. At the precise moment when my car stopped to wait for him to pass, he turned and saw me. Now he was coming back toward the van. Oh no, not today, I thought. But yes, today was the day, and it has now become to me an act of mercy and life-altering grace that I will never forget.

I rolled down my window, lowered the radio volume so he wouldn’t hear the Christian music playing, and fixed my face with an impassive look that I hoped would indicate an absence of hostility but also a need to finish quickly whatever our interaction would be.

When he came to the window, I was expecting him to start explaining what he needed. But instead, he handed me a piece of notepaper that I could see was about half full of writing. As I started to read, he began saying something that I couldn’t quite make out, but I could tell he was probably hearing impaired. His note basically related that he was new in town, didn’t have a place to stay, had no friends or family in the area, and hadn’t eaten in three days. He concluded with a simple request for money to buy food.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that should have been my first clue that something unexpected was about to happen. Even with all his apparent needs—without a home, physical and perhaps cognitive impairments, hunger, no family—he had narrowed his request down to one thing: I’m hungry. Can you help me get some food? I see this now for what it was: raw humility.

I looked up from the note and explained that I didn’t have any cash. Usually I at least have some loose change in my ashtray or the well in the driver side door, but not today. So being satisfied that I had dispatched my obligation as best I could, I apologized for being unable to help and began rolling my window back up. Unlike other people in his situation I’ve met before, he didn’t look angry, nor did he become aggressive. He took the note back from me, smiled, and started walking back in the direction he was originally going.

As I pulled out onto the road, I said to my sons, “I really need to start carrying some cash so I can help when situations like this come up.” They both mumbled, “Yeah,” and I could hear in their voices that surly cynicism people get when they hear someone say something that they knew would quickly be forgotten. They were right. I had said this before.

But this time it felt different.

Continuing in the vein of my day, I started mentally processing what had just happened. Unsolicited, I heard and felt God’s whisper in my heart, saying, “You don’t have any cash, but you can still give him something to eat.”

Duh, of course … I did have my debit card! In a flash, it hit me with such intensity that it came bursting out of my mouth without me really intending it to. “Hey, I have a card!” I shouted.

Now my sons were energized too. They both sat up straighter in their seats and started looking for a place we could stop and buy our stranger something to eat. At the same time, we all spotted the Burger King to our left. In my new excitement and haste to rectify my original un-helpfulness, I swung the van into the turn lane and practically skidded into the BK drive-thru line. We were all thinking the same thing: we needed to hurry because he might not be in the near vicinity for too long. My sons both started yelling things we could order, and we settled on grilled chicken, fries, and a sprite. We figured if he hadn’t eaten in three days, his stomach might be sensitive, so grilled rather than fried seemed to fit the bill. I also was price conscious because my own finances were pretty slim.

After we ordered and paid, we started looking for him. Panic began to rise as we scanned the street in front of us and the sidewalk on both sides and didn’t see him.

“There he is!”

My younger son spotted him in the parking lot of a corner convenience store where he appeared to be talking with another driver about his plight. I made a half u-turn into the store parking lot and pulled up beside our friend. When he shifted on his feet to face us, I could see on his face a flicker of recognition, but just shy of familiarity. My older son was closest to him, so I handed the bag of food to him and he reached out the window. A look of sheer surprise spread over the man’s face. Clearly he couldn’t believe we were back. My son handed him the bag, and tears welled up in the man’s eyes.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, and God bless you,” the man said. We blessed him back and pulled off.

I knew what had just happened, but I also knew something else had happened. That simple hand-off of food had ushered something “other” into our midst. A hush fell over all three of us, and my spirit bore witness that the interior of my van had been transformed into holy ground. The presence of God was overwhelming. Tears started running down my face, and I saw that my younger son was struggling to hold back the tears that sat pooled right behind his eyelids. Finally he said, “Gosh, he was so grateful … poor guy.”

I heard what my son said, but I also heard someone else speaking: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me. Thanks for feeding Me when I was hungry.” Then again: “When you give to the poor, you lend to the Lord. Thanks for the loan; I’ll pay you back.”

I was speechless. On a day when I felt the burden of so much of my own need, and was almost near the edge of panic about my own money situation, the Lord Himself visited my little tribe and gave us an opportunity to see Him, and to be blessed not just by Him but with Him. God was there as real as I’ve ever experienced Him. I saw Him in the man’s unashamed humility, his open gratitude, his peaceful demeanor despite what had to be a grinding existence, and his ready forgiveness of my earlier rejection. This man may indeed be a pauper by earthly standards, but he was just as sure a prince by eternal standards. In that simple act of obedience, I had received so much more than I had given.

Since my meeting him that day, now more than a month ago, I have thought of him every day and prayed for him when I thought to do it. He makes me wonder how many times, in our harried and distracted living, we miss the opportunity to see Jesus because we don’t recognize Him when we see Him.

Our cities and urban areas are full with people who need to be fed, clothed, comforted. But I believe we pass Him by because of the “distressing disguise” in which he appears to us. Run-down tenements, trash-strewn alleys, and overrun housing projects are not usually our idea of heavenly places. But heaven is where Jesus is, and I think maybe He’s waiting for us to realize that truth.

I almost wish I could see my hungry friend again, just so I could thank him. Through his humanity and his need, he gave me a glimpse of Someone I desperately needed to see. He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Antidote for a Dropout Culture

The Antidote for a Dropout Culture

I am the product of the American public school system. There was only one high school option in the city where I was raised; I assimilated to this school where approximately 96 percent of the student population was African American. Like so many others, I had big dreams, so I did the best that I could for the possibility of exploring opportunities outside my small town. Thanks to the love, support, education, and training that I received from teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators in that school, I was able to walk across the graduation stage and shake the hand of former Vice President Dick Cheney as I received my bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy in 2002.

Less than ten years later, I find myself perplexed at the lack of preparation of so many students graduating from the public school system, if they graduate from high school at all. The 2010 Waiting for Superman documentary revealed that there are over 2,000 high school “dropout factories” in the United States. These are failing schools in failing neighborhoods where students do not have the caring guidance counselors, mentors, or teachers that I had while growing up. These kids do not have choices, so their dreams die, and as far as they are concerned, all of their life’s hope dies with them.

My brother attended schools where the cafeteria ran out of salad before his lunch hour, or maybe the leaves on the remaining salad were brown. I have seen first hand the old, worn textbooks with missing pages. I have tutored middle and high school students that were making As and Bs in the public school system, yet could not read, write, or walk you through the steps of a basic algebra problem.

What happens to all of these children? They sometimes end up in prison or on the streets. And many rich and middle-class (or what used to be middle-class) Americans sit idly by as we have victimized these children and forced them to fail for no other reason than being born into the wrong womb in the wrong neighborhood where they attend the worst schools. They are not prepared to embrace the opportunities that are now failing even some of the most educated and hardworking Americans.

It is comfortable to pretend as if this tragedy is not going on because it is not happening in your neighborhood, but I ask this question: “What about the least of those among us?” We are raising an illiterate generation; what does that mean for the church?

It means that young people are not being taught to know God intimately and grow in their relationship with Him. After all, mature Christians frequently point to the Bible for revelations of our faith. We point to the Bible for those who desire to know God. The Bible is a book that consists of various genres of literature: narratives, poetry, similes and metaphors, allegory, and other types of figurative language that are not all accurately interpreted in the same manner.

Instead of confronting this challenge, we set the standards lower. In the same manner that the public school system is passing students through school, American Christians are giving the silent nod in support with sound-bite theology for our young people — give them a devotional, show a video, invent a quick phone app, after all their attention span is not that long (so there are no expectations for them to sit and learn through the oral traditions of old). Our young people need to be educated and they need to know the Bible.

When addressing issues of abstinence, life’s purpose, failing expectations, homosexuality, developing Christian character and the like, Bible literacy is more important than ever for our young people. Here’s the bottom line: it is our responsibility to teach our youth, to come alongside them, and help them see the importance of getting a good education. It is also our responsibility to paint the big picture for them about how a solid academic foundation can lead to God’s greater good for their lives.

I believe that the failing educational system is one of the greatest domestic justice issues of today’s American church. God requires us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. We are to care about the same things that He cares about and the last time I checked, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

I wonder what would happen in this country if the church rose to lead the charge to provide educational options. What would happen if churches spent money to build and resource more schools to support free Christian education instead of building bigger sanctuaries for themselves? Or what would happen if those same churches with resources bought buses to bring students to their churches and financially support a tutoring ministry for the children who need it?

What would happen if the homeschool moms decided to also homeschool a child who lives across the tracks or across the bridge? If they had the same concern for their neighbor’s children as they do for their own?

What would happen if Christian men made this injustice a priority? Or if housewives, stay-at-home moms, singles and widows, unemployed and part-time workers, and retirees committed their time and resources to tutoring youth in the neighborhoods where the schools are failing? There is more than enough work for all of us to do.

I wonder if the church stood up, would we continue to see a lost generation of children whose lives of struggle are sure to end in poverty, prostitution, jail, unhealthy relationships, or homelessness? I wonder if any of this matters to the church.

Republicans Want Health Care, Too

Republicans Want Health Care, Too for urban faithI’m a registered Republican. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. I believe in free-market enterprise. I like smaller government. There, I said it. It’s out!

That said, I think government plays essential roles in any civilized society. Defense, interstate highways, basic education to name a few. And there is one more role I would add to the list. Health care!

I know we have the most advanced medical treatment in the world — and the most expensive. I wouldn’t want to see it compromised. But I have to admit that something is wrong with the picture when the working poor and a sizable portion of the middle class don’t have access to these benefits. I am coming to believe what the rest of the modern world has concluded — that health care is a basic human right. To be last in line of industrialized nations to provide medical treatment for all our citizens is not something I am proud of.

I like government close to home. That’s one reason I’m a Republican. But I also have to admit that Social Security has served us fairly well, and I have no real complaints about how my Medicare is working. Oh, yes, the bureaucratic paperwork is aggravating and I hate talking to a computerized recording, but I guess that’s not too different from the way most large corporations function these days.

I seriously doubt that health-care reform can be accomplished without raising our taxes, but, frankly, that’s one of the taxes I wouldn’t mind paying. Compared to the costly wars we have funded recently, health care seems like a rather redemptive investment.

Do I like what Obama is proposing? Actually, I do. While I wouldn’t want a government takeover of our health-care system, I do see the value in a system that insures every citizens’ access to competent medical treatment.

Obviously it’s a very complex issue. And I’d be the first to acknowledge my ignorance in many of the complicated realities of this confusing medical world. I do know, however, that it makes no sense to see my low-income neighbors go to the hospital emergency room for ailments that could be treated inexpensively in a community clinic. And I do know from personal experience that physicians prescribe expensive and unnecessary procedures just to protect themselves from lawsuits. I guess these are a couple of the reasons why they say the system is broken.

I like competition. That’s one reason I like what Obama is proposing. I think I’m ready to let the government give health care a try. Our free-enterprise approach, while propelling us to the top spot in medical advances, has failed to figure out a system that shares the benefits with the whole of society. And that’s a justice issue.

Say what you will about Obama, on this one I believe he’s on the right side. We may disagree strongly about his politics and his methods, but his push to see that all citizens are being rightly cared for — especially the poor — is a push in the right direction.

And I’m still a Republican.

The Heart of Reform

Five reasons why the church should support health-care reform. An urban pastor’s view.

The Heart of Reform for urban faithI approach the discussion about health-care reform from the perspective of an urban minister. I’ve worked with urban core neighbors, neighborhoods, congregations, and community groups for more than 20 years. I’ve watched people struggle to access basic health services in the shadow of world-class hospitals. I know hardworking people caught in the “catch-22” level of income: They make too much to access Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance premiums. They work for companies that either don’t offer health insurance or offer it partially at a level these employees can’t afford.

Workers are forced to use a patchwork of health fairs, free clinics, and doctors who will see them occasionally without cost (God bless these). They put off illness or pain until it becomes chronic or unbearable and then make a dash to an emergency room. The health costs they incur are a greater portion of their household income than most Americans. The cost to their dignity is inestimable. But the cost to America’s integrity is even higher.

At the same time, I know that health-care costs are spiraling upward for higher-wage neighbors. The monthly cost for my family’s health insurance is higher than our mortgage payment. Our benefits are stripped down and our co-pays and deductibles are higher than ever.

I know people whose prescriptions are no longer covered, whose important procedures are denied, and whose insurance has been dropped. Many people have filed bankruptcy due in large part to unpayable medical bills.

In short, while the health-care system has not been working for the working poor for a long time, it is not working for more and more middle-income neighbors. None of this begins to factor in the significant levels of abuse of the system by those who game it — professional health-care providers, the insurance industry, and consumers of health-care services. The current system is not sustainable, it is not reasonable, it is not just. It does not reflect what we know is best about or for America.

So, I am completely on board with the call for quality, accessible, affordable health care for all citizens. I’m advocating for this from the perspective of an urban Christian minister on the one hand, and as an American citizen on the other.

As a Christian minister, I am convinced that quality, accessible, affordable health care for all is a moral imperative. As an American citizen, I am personally convinced it is a right that’s implied in the very intent of our Constitution and historic social contract. But it is as a Christian minister that I offer the following considerations on health-care reform to the church I love:

1. The Samaritan principle sets the tone for the Christian church regarding care for the poor, uninsured, and desperate in our land. Simply put, in the care a Samaritan extends to a wounded, helpless victim, Jesus declares what it means to be an authentic neighbor. If we have the resources to help and heal, we should. Not because we’ll get reimbursed. Not because there’s profit involved. Not because we’ll get recognized or rewarded. But because it reflects the caring, healing intention of God for God’s people in relationship to one another and in witness to the world.

We cannot pass by because we presume somebody else will take care of uninsured people. We cannot ignore what’s happening because it’s just bigger than us or beyond us. Jesus calls us to see, respond, help, comfort, and restore — as if those left out and wounded were our very own.

2. Jesus’ ministry of healing was conducted in the face of structures and regulations designed to control, limit, and exclude. I’ve been reading the Gospels again during this time of national concern about health care. Health and healing was front and center for Jesus. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ healings were a sign that he was the anticipated Messiah and that a new era was beginning. However, Jesus’ healings also confronted, exposed, and undermined age-old systems that, in the name of health care, prevented healing from occurring.

Jesus cut through the red tape, system-serving regulations, and control-oriented rituals to actually offer what God desired for people — healing, restoration, and a future of dignity and hope. Instead of defending the current status quo practices that place ordinary folks in similar binds, the people who follow and claim to reflect Jesus should consider how he judged and exposed the ineffectiveness and meanness of structures that served themselves at others’ expense.

3. The context of community, inclusion, and sharing resources to assist the neediest — central in the early church witness — is a pattern and principle to renew. Beginning with Acts 2, we see the earliest believers holding things in common, pooling resources, and selling off assets in order to meet the needs of the weakest among them. It was not about me and mine, but we and ours. In the perspective of that early faith community, my personal self-interest includes your well-being. They realized that we are deeply interconnected with one another.

The apostle Paul affirmed this principle with his counsel to the church in Corinth that we are members of one another, that no part can say to another, “I don’t need you.” To what extent are there such awarenesses or practices in the church today? And to what extent is our sense of community — over against asserting individual privilege and private rights — bearing witness to the larger community and nation of what is good, possible, and godly?

4. Christian leaders should be leading the health-care dialogue by seeking the truth and speaking the truth. To this point, it doesn’t seem to me that there has been a debate or dialogue about health-care reform. Much of the so-called debate to this point has focused on myths, distortions, and outright lies about proposed health reform legislation. The news media focus has been on misinformed people shouting down congressional leaders, calling them Nazis, and burning them in effigy.

I’m convinced Christians should not only not be a part of those scenarios, but that we should make a contribution to the dialogue that is fact-based, truth-seeking, civil, and that moves all to find the common ground necessary to ensure that quality, accessible, affordable health care is available to all American citizens.

If the news media or partisan groups play to distortions and extremes, then people of Christian faith have a significant role to get the facts, convey them in understandable ways, and create conversations that deal in what’s real. We are the people whose scriptures declare, “you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We are the people who are reminded that “God has given us, not a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

5. Let us embody and advocate for the principles, practices, and norms of the beloved community toward which Jesus pointed. Christians have no stake in propping up old-order systems, or aligning ourselves with self-serving institutions, or playing to sub-Christian social stratifications. At personal, community, and systemic levels, Christians are challenged to practice now the norms and promises of the future described in the Scriptures.

I love the way Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: “God’s future is enacted as present neighborliness.”

Is not quality, accessible, affordable health care for all one such act of “present neighborliness” that is a signal of the direction God intends the future to move? I think so. And I invite Christians and people of other faiths to join me and others in this kairos moment — this period of unique opportunity to witness something magnanimous and restorative in our generation.

This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Sojourners.