For nine years I served a church in rural Maine. I loved it. The people were great, and Maine is beautiful. I had no plans to leave. I really thought I would retire there. Things do not always go the way we expected though, huh? Perhaps that’s why the Bible tells us, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps” (Proverbs 16:9). My version of that verse is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans for the future.”
Quite unexpectedly, I was called to serve a church here in Hartford, CT. It was six hours south, but still New England. I didn’t think it would be that much different. I was wrong. There is a significant difference between rural and urban ministry. Neither is more important than the other, but the issues one encounters regularly does vary.
Now, poverty and drug use are obviously not exclusive to Hartford. They are rampant all over the United States, but the level of addiction and resulting homelessness is often concentrated in cities. On a daily basis, I interact with people struggling with heroin, Oxycontin, fentanyl, alcohol, and methamphetamines. They have burned all of their bridges with employers, family, and friends, and the result is no roof over their head or food to eat. My first reaction when arriving here was more judgmental than I would care to admit. “How could they have let themselves get this way? Why don’t they stop? Why did they start in the first place?” It has been fifteen years now and the Lord has taught me a lot. First of all, when you get to know some of these folks, you discover, they are just people like you and me. They have moms and dads. Some had good jobs, wives, and still have children. All of it now gone because of substance abuse. I understand that at some point a decision was made to start using, but no one foresaw this for themselves. It is like an ocean undertow. You planned on just going swimming. People warned you about the undertow, but you’re a strong swimmer. You could handle it. Suddenly, you realize you are not as strong as you thought. You get caught in the current, and before you know it, you’re drowning. I promise you. No one makes a conscious choice to be an addict. In fact, it didn’t take long for me to realize that “there but by the grace of God go I.” One bad decision years ago, and I might be the one ringing the doorbell asking to speak with the pastor.
Today, I have a different attitude. The truth is my heart breaks for these folks. I know they do not want to live a life like that. Who would? They simply cannot seem to escape. What can we do? What can I do when they ask me, “Pastor, do you have just a couple of dollars so I can get something to eat?” I know full well they have no plans to purchase food. Sadly, food and shelter are just not as important to them as their next fix. The goal, every single day is to find, steal, con, or panhandle enough money to support their habit. Period. I do not say this disparagingly, but with great compassion. Would you want to live like that? Totally controlled by a substance you simply cannot quit.
Too many well-intentioned people think handing out a couple of dollars helps. They convince themselves, “Maybe they really will buy some food,” or rationalize it, “Hey, I gave with good intentions. What they do with it after that is up to them.” They are trapped. They are not capable of good decisions. Have you ever tried to talk to a young person about saving money up to buy something versus starting with credit cards? How did that go? Yeah, well, the success rate here is about the same.
If we want to really help. Buying someone food or giving someone food is always a good choice. Money? The Bible addresses this scenario in the Book of Acts.
Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money.
Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ The lame man looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, ‘I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!’
Then Peter took the lame man by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them” (Acts 3:1-8).
We have something so much more valuable than money – Jesus! He can do so much more than feed them. He can heal them. They will be able to jump up and walk again! So, why do we offer money? For many, it is easier to handout a couple of bucks (even though that will not really help) than to spend some time sharing the gospel (which can really help).
Think about that the next time someone asks you for assistance. Ask yourself, “Will silver or gold really help here or is it just enabling more destructive behavior?” Instead, offer some food (not money for food). Walk into McDonald’s with them and purchase something. Or, even better, like Peter and John, offer them what you have – the bread of life – Jesus Christ!
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