Exploring the tough questions about life, faith and Christ.
I sip on my coffee as the sound of dozens of clanking porcelain cups surround me. The room is colored by the dark finishes of the wood trim as what's left of the moon shines in through the glass windows. The smell of the coffee and tea hang above each passing conversation and eventually settles over mine. A friend of mine I hadn’t seen for months sits across from me. Consequently, we had plenty of thoughts to talk ourselves through as our coffee grew colder with each passing sentence. I see his eyes stop and look over my head at the bell that had just rung behind me. I felt the cool air hit the back of my chair as I turned my head to see the new guest. To my right there is a man who speaks in sloppy mumbles, asking a group at the next table, “Do ya’ll have a couple dollars so I could run to the store and get some meat?” He shakes where he stands and cannot manage to stay still. The group offers him no help and he turns to the table where my friend and I are sitting. The man turns and leans toward me. The lights glisten off of his lips as the spit jumps toward the sleeve of my shirt, his eyes were black to the core and shining with helplessness. He stared into my eyes like a child asking his father for a quarter to put in the gumball machine. Unable to tell if there were teeth in his mouth, I lean in and try to make sense of what he’s saying. “Hey man, you got a couple a…” The barista had quickly walked from behind the bar toward the man begging to those who chose to sit near the door.
“No, no, no, you can’t come in here. You have to leave.” The barista lays his hands on the man’s shoulders and urges him out of the door.
“Wha...I wa...Hey I…” The bell rings on the door and the man is pushed back into the chilling winter air. The barista might as well have had a spray bottle and urged a stray cat to get out of his house and back outside. I sat there, red in the face, trying to process what had just happened. My heart began to pound against my chest and my throat began to swell. I sat there speechless. The man’s saliva sank into the carpet below the table. Before I could collect my thoughts, the barista went back behind the counter. The man was looking through the window where I sat, shaking again, motioning his hand for me to come outside, his eyes still wide open and beckoning me. I lift my index finger to tell him, Wait just one second. My friend sitting across from the table continues to speak. I can’t hear a word he’s saying over the sound of the man’s hand waving. I lift my hand once again. The table next to us stood up at once and walked out the door. The man turned toward the bell atop the door and immediately began to walk alongside them as they took him over toward McDonald’s.
The man was out of sight, but not out of mind. My heart was climbing up my chest, pumping blood throughout my cheeks and making my hands tremble. Rotating the coffee cup before me, I look back into the eyes of the friend that sat in front of me and interrupted him. “I’m sorry. I’m just really shaken up right now. I don’t know why. I’m shaking right now.” The tremble in my voice is evident and my friend simply nods his head at me. “I want to give him money, but I know he’s just going to spend it on drugs.” I assumed why his teeth were falling out, why he shook where he stood and why he wandered around begging for money. I believed I would only kill him faster. That wasn’t what was important. Maybe he wasn’t hustling. Maybe he lost his teeth some other way. I may never know what brought him to wander the streets begging for money. But thinking about his eyes and his hands asking me for food, I tell my friend, “it’s like watching a man die right in front of you.” I met the man multiple times and knew he was helpless. I learned his name was Sheldon. On this night, the last night he approached me, I watched him get kicked out of a coffee shop because he might have genuinely been hungry. Whether or not he was addicted to drugs or just mentally ill and left on the streets, I did nothing to help him. I saw no way to help him. Instead I made my friend and I leave the coffee shop and try to forget what happened. All the while I claimed to be part of the Church, whose main goal is to bring hope to the hopeless and lend a hand when nobody else does so. Instead I watched a helpless man get shooed out the door, and had the nerve to wave a finger at him and tell him to wait.
As he continues to wander, the weekend passes and I am in church service once again. The lights are shining across the stage and then slapping me across the cheek. The service is orchestrated, telling me when to take my seat and wait for the announcements. The head pastor, dressed in modest yet stylish clothing, gracefully walking within a tracking spotlight. A somber look of the face and a gentle hand raises the microphone to his lips. The audience waits for the blessed words to proceed, prepared to eat up every aphorism that follows. “Sometimes in life we are approached with situations that test our faith. Maybe your marriage is in a bad place. Maybe you're struggling with your finances. You might have gotten a bad report from the doctor. But, God promises us that he will walk us through our trials and bring us out better on the other side!” Promptly, a round of applause, an emotional prayer, and a plea for help through a plethora of first world problems ensues before a final amen. Outside of the auditorium is a foyer with tile floors that lay between a bookstore and a full cafe. Once the service is complete, we’ve sang our songs and taken our notes, we can buy a snack while I take a seat next to a flat screen on the wall. The University of Washington did research on churches like mine, saying that large churches “...use stagecraft, sensory pageantry, charismatic leadership and an upbeat, unchallenging vision of Christianity to provide their congregants with a powerful emotional religious experience…” (Kelley). Truthfully, this description matched identically to what others have said about my church, and rightly so. I’ve had my doubts as to whether or not my church was “challenging” or really focused on the right things. There are flaws within it; this is where I began to realize that the Church is not a perfect body. It is easy to be spiritual when you are in the midst of people who all seem to think the same on Sunday. It’s easy to sing loud when the music drowns out each voice except for the gifted one on stage. The lights, the music, the building, the signs, those are not inherently bad things. What’s damaging is when we become comfortable or entitled and refuse to leave our cushioned seats and sacrifice for the love that was given to us when we least deserved it. When I had the opportunity to back up my convictions, I was able to talk myself back into my perfect little bubble, sip on my four dollar cup of coffee, wait for Sunday and raise my hands when the lights die down to pray against all of the struggles facing the middle-class. As I back away from that night in the coffee shop and look at what happens each week when I attend service, why is it like I had never gone in the first place? I’ve spent four years riding the vision of my church and the vision of my head pastors. I’ve gone every week, I’ve read my bible like they told me to, I’ve heard the same messages over and over.
When I raise my hand and tell God that I am following Him above all else, do I really mean it?
It’s comforting to know that others have shared my embarrassment. Shane Claiborne, in his Letter to Non-Christians, writes, “I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity” (n.pg). I am sorry--to Sheldon and all others that I’ve failed--because I am part of the problem. More often than not, people have only seen the televangelist or the angry hell-and-brimstone street preacher. They have only seen the suburban white parent in the mini-van with the “Jesus Fish” emblem next to their license plate, soon to find their middle finger sticking out the window when they get cut off in traffic. Perhaps just as damaging, they have heard nothing when they needed to hear Jesus the most. Shane Claiborne verbalizes what I ignored when I hung on to the milk money in my pocket as Sheldon’s stomach grumbles in the streets. “It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors... a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth” (n.pg.). Jesus was accused of being a sinner by religious leaders during his time on earth. When I read my bible, I didn’t meet a Jesus who chose to stay above those he served. I met a savior who washed the feet of those who would deny Him. I met one who gave to a humanity that couldn’t give Him anything in return. I confused him with the handy pocket Jesus, who gives us a ticket to heaven and an easy life full of white-picket fences, two and a half kids, and a religious experience that was reserved for an hour on Sunday mornings.
There is a song I hear and a parable that I think of each time I imagine Sheldon wandering the corner of Walnut and Cherry avenue and my eyes continue to watch him shiver in his one change of clothes. In Matthew 25, Jesus is speaking a parable about a King dividing those who had faithfully served Jesus and others who hadn’t. Verse 40 states this: “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” The least of these are anybody who was in need: the hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger. I was moved by the slobbering man who begged me, for help, and my audacity to let him leave me unaffected. Around the same time I had this experience, I began to listen to Kendrick Lamar. Sitting on my couch, one of the last verses in his song, “How Much a Dollar Cost,” plays in my ears. In his song he is approached by an addict who asks him for money. Kendrick refuses, seeing past the man's facade and becoming more and more angered as the man demanded his attention. It eerily parallels the night that challenged my theology and called my biggest bluff. Sheldon walks up to my table and asks for money. With my silence I look at Sheldon and echo the man in the song.
I looked at him and said, "Every nickel is mines to keep" The panhandler then paraphrases scripture,
He looked at me and said, "Know the truth, it'll set you free.
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"
In the traditional Christian community, one might not typically draw theology from a Kendrick Lamar song. But the rapper who might never be called a theologian or the image of the “perfect Christian” tells me in his lyrics what I found in my Bible: what is done to the “least of these” is what we have done to God. God spoke to me first in a flurry of conviction when I rejected the man in the coffee shop. He convicted me again through my headphones, putting his hands through, grabbing both sides of my head and sticking my face where he wrote, “...inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” In my comfy seat and behind my overpriced cup of coffee, I was moved by a man who seems to be withering away. I, like Peter, had denied my Lord the worship which he deserves, to serve with all that I have. I had the ability to take Sheldon across the street for some food, but I waved my finger at him and told him to wait. But this isn’t about one man I failed to help. It’s about the reality that I accepted when I lifted my hands in church: to represent the God who stepped down from his throne to serve the lowest of the low, the lowest of a humanity that is forever beneath Him. Whether you believe that or not, you can see how I’ve fallen short of that. Whether I am surrounded by crumbling streets or cushioned pews, I know that the next time my heart jumps into my throat, I can’t push it down and act like it doesn’t demand my attention. The call of God is no place for spectators or consumers. I pray that when God comes up to me dressed as the least of these, I would recognize His voice, His eyes, and put my treasure where my heart is.
Tyler Howell is a sophomore English major at Malone University. Aside from reading and writing in his spare time, he plays on the football team. He was recently invited to present one of his essays at Taylor University at the Making Literature 2017 conference.
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