The other day, I had to pop into my local supermarket to pick up a prescription. As I walked toward the front door, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk, holding a cardboard sign asking for money.
Until a few years ago, panhandlers were unheard of in my middle-class neighborhood in Calgary’s utaupia, but with the recent economic downturn, this sight has become quite common outside the local stupormart.
And without exception, they conduct their business quietly, respectfully and with dignity. They rarely speak to the throng of humanity walking past them, never making a scene or laying a guilt trip. They let the cardboard sign do the talking for them, and receive anything they’re given with grace and gratitude. Quite often, I give them money – and several times when I’ve been without cash, I’ve picked up a $10 gift card while I’m in the store, and handed it to them on my way out.
On this day, though, I was in a hurry (as usual), I had challenges of my own to deal with and I was a little indignant in my heart about the beggar’s audacity. I felt offended, suddenly and inexplicably, like he had no right to ask something of me when I give intentionally to church and charities and often give spontaneously to guys like him when they’re camped out in front of the grocery store. So when I saw the man with the sign, I groaned impatiently in my heart (hopefully not out loud), avoided eye contact and walked past as quickly as I could.
Once I was inside the store, though, I realized I was being selfish, ridiculous and profoundly un-Christlike.
‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ – Matthew 5:42.
I preached on that passage earlier this year. You’d think I’d be better at practising it.
OK, OK, Jesus. You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I even happen to have two fives in my wallet. I’ll pick up my prescription, give the guy one of my fives, look him in the eye and say, ‘God bless you.’ Five bucks won’t solve (or greatly exacerbate) his problems, but it’s something.
Unfortunately, by the time I finished my business in the store and left, the guy was no longer there. Hopefully he’d collected enough money to meet the day’s needs and was headed home – but it’s just as likely that he gave up, after being ignored by one shopper too many, and left defeated and demoralized. I’ll never know, and that’s been eating at me this week.
Looking back on the encounter, I’m quite disturbed about my initial reaction. Clearly, I’ve got some growing to do. But I’m also tempted to let myself off the hook because I eventually came around and had decided to do the right thing – even if I missed my chance to actually make good on that plan.
The trouble is, once I came to my senses, I still put my pharmacy agenda ahead of the stranger’s needs. I’d have been obedient eventually if the guy hadn’t left, of course. But as some of my favorite podcast preachers have said on more than one occasion …
Delayed obedience is immediate disobedience.
Now, it’s pretty unlikely that my $5 would’ve made much of a practical difference in the life of the panhandler, but maybe an encounter with a bespectacled cueball that involved eye contact, a smile and a blessing would’ve made a significant impact on his spirits or provided some comfort.
But regardless of how that five-second interaction might have impacted him, I know it would’ve been good for me. I missed out on a chance to put someone else’s needs ahead of my wants; I squandered a tiny, little opportunity to say yes to God – first by succumbing do my hard-hearted default posture, and then delaying my obedience until it was convenient for me.
In a sense though, this unhappy ending is potentially more useful for me than if the guy had still been there when I left the store and I’d given him the money. If he had been, I’d be able to say ‘All’s well that ends well’, and move on with my day, satisfied that I’d done the right thing.
Since things turned out as they did, though, I’m forced to deal with my hard-hearted default posture and realize I clearly have a lot more growing to do. I also get to live with the fact I didn’t immediately turn on my heel and do the right thing, as soon as I decided to do it. Not ‘just as soon as I finish my business in the store’.
The right time to do the right thing is always now. Not later.
I share this story primarily to confess, but if your ears were burning at any time as you read this post, consider yourself convicted and called to go and do better than I did that day.
Peace be with you.