The Lesson of James
This is a picture of James and I that was taken by my wife. She insisted on taking it. We are standing in the library of my 125 year-old church--a library that also doubles as a huge reception/fellowship space. When this picture was taken, my church had just held its annual Christmas concert, which is only the biggest event of our entire year. We had over 530 gaily dressed folk at the concert, which was a record, apparently. There was a huge reception after the concert with four long tables filled with food, cookies, pastries, goodies, punch, eggnog and other assorted holiday fare.
James had been standing outside the library door, afraid to come inside and wanting to talk to me. Quite a few folks ignored him or walked around him until someone came inside and told me he wanted to see me.
Here's the thing, James is a homeless man, who lives on the screened-in porch next to my office. The reason he is living on my office porch is complicated and almost entirely Mark's fault. Mark was one of my professor's in seminary. He basically saved my whole Middler year. Mark is a passionate lover of Jesus, a frequent activist, pastor, teacher, friend and one of those people who speaks words of conviction to you when you don't want to hear them.
Mark is a prophet, in other words.
I'm telling on him here, but it's too late to matter. In my Middler year of seminary, we were supposed to read and discuss these dry, sort of impractical texts on ministry as part of this year-long class called "Reflections on Ministry." Clever, right. Well, Mark happened to be my small group discussion leader. He took one look at us on our first night. We were all weary. Each of us was involved in a ministry of some sort as part of the class we were taking. Almost all of us had families, some of us had other jobs. It was a night class, to boot. Mark tossed the book aside and just started asking us how things were going. We all started telling him.
That class became some of the best group therapy I ever had.
Mark and I came from different backgrounds, and we didn't always see things eye to eye. I tended to be a lot more conservative then, and he was not---and isn't. He didn't hold it against me, though, and I am eternally grateful for that. Now, I haven't started getting arrested at sit-ins by any means, but I've changed a bit since those days. Mark would probably get a good chuckle out of the fact that a former parishoner of mine actually told me that one of my sermons was "liberal." That was the first time that anyone had ever used that term in relation to me, and I didn't quite know what to say, except, "Thanks." I wouldn't actually consider the phrase, "the church needs to help the world see that immigrants are not just numbers, facts and figures---they are children of God, created and loved by our Lord," as a liberal statement...just Biblical. Oh well, you say "tomato" I say "to-mah-to."
So one day I was updating my status on Facebook, which I am wont to do more often than I should. And in my status update I indicated that I was reading and studying for my sermon while sitting in the screened in porch adjacent to my office. Now I must tell you that my church's office used to be the manse, where the pastor and his family lived. Quite a few years ago, it was renovated and turned into office space. My office is downstairs in what used to be the living room. There are big french doors that open from my office out on to a screened porch. I know. It's fancy. I can't help it, though and I won't apologize or feel bad about this, especially after you hear what happened.
So Mark, who happens to be a friend on my Facebook, responds to my status and says something like, "that would make a good sleeping porch for homeless people."
I didn't really want to hear that, to be honest with you. I was enjoying my porch and the nice table and chairs that were on it. During the fall and winter in Florida, it is a wonderful place to sit, relax, wax theological... you know. Then Mark had to go and be all prophetic and make me feel....excessive.
So then not even two or three weeks after Mark's prophetic calling out of my crap, James showed up in my life.
James has a bit of a drinking problem on top of being homeless. I am pretty sure that the first caused the last. James showed up early one Sunday morning before church. I was at my office preparing for a day of pastoring and preaching. I didn't have time to deal with James, but there he was on my doorstop, wanting some money to get something to eat. I gave him five bucks and some cookies that we had in the office. We had food to give out to needy folk, but James had no can opener or stove, so his culinary choices were limited.
That afternoon when I showed up to drop my kid off at youth group, it was raining. James was hanging out in front of my office. He was soaked. He told me that he'd been living in the woods outside of the church. The forecast was for cold, heavy rain. And that's when I thought of what Mark had put on my facebook and I cursed him a little for it right then. So, I told James he could sleep on the porch, and I went home and got him clothes, my 20-degree sleeping bag, and some food. That was over two weeks ago.
The other day James asked me if I would give him $200 to pay his child support. I told him I couldn't float him that kind of cash, but asked if there was something else that I could do. He seemed pretty stuck on the $200, though, or a week at a hotel. I had stopped giving him more than 5 or 10 bucks at a time pretty early on in our relationship. I made the mistake of giving him almost $50 one day, and he showed up to the church that afternoon looking for me, and he was so drunk he could hardly stand. I decided then that I would sort of try to help James help himself.
But on the day in question he wouldn't get off of the child support assistance. Finally, out of desparation, I said, "Could you use a bike? You seem to have a hard time getting around." He told me that a bike would be just fine. Then for the next two days he called me almost constantly throughout the day asking me if I had gotten his bike yet. I had been looking in thrift stores, and cruised neighborhoods surrounding the church looking for bikes that were for sale. The last thing was kind of creepy and people looked at me funny as I drove slowly through the neighborhood, so I stopped.
I finally made it to a thrift store not too far away from the church, and found a bike for $50. It was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but I was at the end of my rope, and I didn't want to get arrested for trolling the neighborhood. I got to my car and opened the trunk only to quickly realize that there was no way that I was going to stuff the bike into it. At that moment a lady pulled up next to me with a bike rack on her car. She got out, and surveyed the scene. You can see where this is going.
"You're not going to fit that into your car, are you?" she said. I agreed. She asked me where I was taking it and I told her. I also told her what it was for just to sort of sweeten the deal. Needless to say, she toted the bike over to the church for me, and I put it on the porch for James. The implications of that whole exchange and the arrival of the woman with a bike rack are still sinking in even as I write this.
We walk around expecting miracles and when they happen we call them coincidence.
So I put the bike on the porch, and when James inevitably called me fifteen minutes later, I told him he had a surprise waiting for him...when he got home. The implications of my porch being someone's home are still sinking in even as I write this.
On the night of the Christmas concert James stood outside while all of us were inside listening to the orchestra, "Chancel" choir and the handbell choir do their Christmas thing. He stood outside because he needed $20 and he figured I was inside somewhere. James needed the $20 because he was leaving that night and didn't know when he was coming back. He never did really tell me what he was doing, or why he had to leave right then. All he wanted was $20 to help catch the bus, and get some food.
It was actually my 13 year-old son who came and got me. One of the church members saw him standing inside the library door and told him that James was wanting to talk to me. My son knew all about James---that he was living on the porch, the bike...the whole deal. Jay tapped me on the shoulder. I was deep in conversation with someone who was visiting the church that night, and who I was trying to convince to return on Sunday for a visit.
"James wants to talk to you," Jay said in my ear. I turned and through the glass in the door, I saw James standing outside. That's when I really started confronting stuff.
I had been doing my best to sort of keep James a secret from my parishoners. I didn't want anyone to hassle him or get upset that he was sleeping on the porch, you see. Check that. I didn't want anyone to get upset with me that he was sleeping on the porch. As I stood there in the library looking at James through the window I was reminded of a phrase I threw out to a former congregation when I was preaching about mission.
"If you don't go out into the world," I told them, "God might just bring the world to you."
I had been trying to keep my relationship with James quiet, but God was having none of that. So I opened the door and waved him inside. He hesitated for a moment, but came in to the warm, festively decorated library with its three tables of food and drink. I told James that I was going to get him something to drink and I stepped away from him for a moment. I was scared to leave him alone for too long because I didn't want members of my church asking too many questions or freaking out that he was there. When I turned back to where James was standing I saw one of the elders of my church talking to him. She had an empty plate in her hand, and as I approached she was asking him in the most unbelievably sweet way, "Can I get you anything to eat, anything to drink, sir?"
"No ma'am," James said to her. "I'm straight." She hovered for a moment out of pure kindness, but saw that I had him taken care of, and stepped away. People stared at us. We walked the table and James gathered up a plate of fruit and nuts, studiously avoiding the sweets, which he said he didn't need. He told me that he needed the $20, but was vague about everything else. My wife came over and introduced herself. She shook James' gnarled and filthy hand and gave him her 10,000 watt smile. I snuck $20 out of her purse while she was talking to him. She usually doesn't trust me with cash---hey, that's one of the ways we make our relationship strong, people!--because I spend it or give too much of it away.
Then she insisted we take a picture.
Sometimes my wife does things by instinct--moved by the Spirit, if you will--that don't make a lot of sense to me at the moment but then seem so perfect afterward. That picture was one of those things. I have this picture to remind me that God is working on me, hasn't given up on me, is still trying to reach me, teach me, help me to be a better man, father, husband, son, pastor, human...Christian.
If Mark hadn't been prophetic, if it hadn't rained that night and James had stayed dry, if the lady hadn't had a bike rack, if my son hadn't been standing there watching me, if my elder hadn't been so much more like I was supposed to be, if my wife hadn't flashed that 10,000 watt smile and taken that picture... I might not have---well, who knows what I might not have done. I would like to believe better things about myself, but I am learning that I shouldn't.
I decided to read James chapter 2 after reflecting on this story a bit. It seemed appropriate, after all. This is what I read:
My dear friends, don't let public opinion influence how much you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, "Sit here sir, this is the best seat in the house!" and either ignore the street person or say, "Better sit here in the back row," haven't you segregated God's children and proved that your are judges who can't be trusted?" Listen dear friends. Isn't it clear by no that God operates quite differently? He chose the world's down-and-out as the kingdom's first citizens, with full rights and privileges. The kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens!
That is a challenging piece of biblical prose: "And here you are abusing these same citizens..." Another translation of the same passage reads, "But you have insulted the poor." I don't know about you, but that hits me right where I live.
How often do any of us who all ourselves Christians ever think of how we insult the poor by our apathy, our neglect, our scorn and preference for the not-poor? Most of the time we are put out by the presence of the poor. We feel insulted when we are forced to confront them. We are burdened by them, and their incessant need. We feel guilt and it makes us angry rather than breaking our hearts. And in the end, most of us shut them out, move on and tell ourselves that we really wouldn't be able to solve their problems anyway so why bother?
The fact of the matter is, according to James (the epistle writer), God has a preference for the poor that our culture and even the majority of those who bear the name Christian don't seem to understand. It doesn't compute for us. According to James (the man who lives on my porch), it's all about treating someone with the respect they deserve---just for being human, for being a child of God.
James tells me that one of the main reasons that he comes to me for money is because so many other people treat him as if he is trash. I am sure that part of the reason he comes to me for money is because I give it to him from time to time and try not to make him feel like I am doing him some immense favor. I don't always succeed. I don't always want to see him. I have to admit that before the night of our Christmas concert, I had started coming in late some days so that I wouldn't run into him first thing in the morning. God forgive me.
Now that he's gone I find that I miss James. Maybe that's a sign that I am becoming more like the person God intended for me to be. I'll watch James' stuff for him until he comes back. I don't know what comes next, to be honest with you. I just know that his bike, his clothes, sleeping bag and other belongings will be here at home waiting for him.
And so will I.