Last night was a chilly March evening, at least by southern California standards. Michelle and I made our way to our Saturday evening fishing pond in Burbank. There, we were eventually joined by the Sandoval Family and their team from Calvary Chapel Rialto; Judy, Steven, and Jackie (from my church); Dru, Anita, and Pastor Mike. As always, the fellowship with the brethren was sweet.
We distributed hundreds of gospel tracts. The new Obama Million Dollar Bill was very popular, as expected. I enjoyed a good conversation with a couple of 16-year-old boys: Jeffrey and Cel. Dru and I open-air preached to small crowds and the occasional passer-by who stopped for a moment to listen, and at least one “drive-by” heckler who stamped his comments by giving me a one-finger salute.
As Michelle and I approached our usual fishing spot, we noticed two large boxes stacked in the middle of the courtyard. And atop the boxes was a large plastic drink cup–the kind you would fill with soda at a gas station convenience store. An inscription was written on the top box which indicated the owner’s hope that someone would place their spare change inside the plastic cup.
Sitting on the bench adjacent to the boxes was a very heavy-set man. His full head of black hair and equally-thick and dark goatee stood in sharp contrast to his dusty camouflage jacket. His clothes were dirty and torn.
Leaning against the bench were two crutches. And parked near the bench was a shopping cart containing a couple of plastic bags. On the ground behind the bench, against the wall of the book store, was a very thin, black blanket.
Shortly after we arrived, the man struggled to his feet, walked to the blanket, and laid down on the cold, hard ground. Although he closed his eyes as if to rest, pain was continually etched on his face.
Michelle and I handed out tracts and greeted our friends as they arrived. While I was glad to be there and while the mission at hand was clear to me, I was completely distracted. I could not stop glancing at the man. I could not stop thinking about his plight. I could not stop speculating what set of circumstances, self-induced or imposed upon him, brought this fellow human being to such a desperate state.
I could not stop seeing my dad. His hair. His goatee. His height and weight. The look on his face as he tried to sleep on his side–desperate to find peace where there was no peace. You see: like this man, my dad spent a short season of his life living on the streets–living in his car. Homeless.
I continued to hand out tracts while a war of emotion raged inside me. Guilt. Shame. Anger. Remorse. Deep sorrow. Reflections of a very dark time in my relationship with my earthly father. At times I had to check myself, reminding myself that the man was not my dad. I could not stop thinking about or looking at him, although I didn’t try very hard.
The man could not get comfortable. I watched as the man slowly lumbered to his knees, wincing with every movement. Slower still he got to his feet. He staggered under the weight of his own body and the infirmities that crippled him.
I decided to try to meet at least one of the man’s pressing, physical needs–not in an effort to make up for things I did not do for my dad. This was not penance. Rather, the decision was born (I hope) as a result of spiritual growth in my life since that not-soon-to-be-forgotten season when I failed as a son.
While it is not necessary to elaborate, and while sharing what I did for this stranger certainly runs the risk of causing friend and foe alike to draw the conclusion that I am looking for a pat on the back; to not share would undermine the beauty of what happened after the gesture–a gesture for which I take no credit and will accept no praise. It was a small gesture that resulted in a God-exalting moment to which I played no part whatsoever. To God and God alone be the praise and glory.
I placed a bag containing a meal and a large soda on the bench. I motioned to the man and said, “This is for you.”
He thanked me. For a moment it seemed that the pained look on his face was replaced with a stunned smile.
I quickly walked away from the bench with the hope that no one saw what I did. When I looked at Michelle she smiled at me–the kind of smile dads cherish from their daughters.
He sat down next to the bag of food and stared at it for several moments. And then he prayed. His eyes were shut so tight that they looked like clenched fists. It was as if he was desperately clinging to something or Someone. Was he being religious or spiritual? Or was he truly, at that precious moment, in communion with his Creator–with his Lord and Savior?
I walked to Michelle and told her to look at the man–not to see what I had done for him (she had already figured that out), but rather to see what the man was doing at that moment. “Honey, look. He’s thanking God for the food.”
I held my daughter and watched. I was torn between feeling like I was intruding on the moment while, at the same time, completely captivated by what I saw. Part of me felt that to take my eyes off the man in prayer would be to avert my eyes from a glimpse, of the glory of God.
I had to look. I had to stare. I was in awe of God.
The sun now fully-set behind concrete and steel gave way to the night. The teens on the team interrupted my thoughts of the man with their gleeful question. “Tony, are you ready for us to be your rent-a-crowd?”
I love these kids who are not my own. They remind me that in Christ there is hope for their generation. It was time to preach.
I attest that my open-air was far from eloquent. The Law and the Gospel was clear, but I felt I was less than articulate. I found my attention and preaching repeatedly drawn to the homeless man still sitting on the bench. I preach for an audience of One–my Lord and my God. I preach to whoever will listen, hoping to connect with at least one person in the crowd. But I could not shake the feeling that my begging and pleading, my admonition and exhortation, were for one man–the homeless man on the bench.
When I stepped down from the box, I walked over to him. “So, what did you think of what you heard?”
“Oh, that was beautiful, sir.” His eyes glistening with tears.
Did he misunderstand my question? Did he think I was looking for praise? Did he feel some sort of obligation to compliment me because earlier I had done something for him? Or was the preaching of the Law and the Gospel truly beautiful to him? Was this a brother in Christ?
His name was Efrain.
“Sir, when you brought me the food I thanked God for it and I asked God to bless the hands of the man who brought me the food, and his family.” Efrain was weeping, now.
“In July, it will be eleven years that I’ve been on the street. My wife divorced me and took my five children. I haven’t seen them since. My life fell apart. I started drinking. It got so bad that even if I was hungry, I would ask people for quarters so I could buy alcohol. But the Lord took that away from me.”
“How long have you been sober?”
“So, would you consider yourself to be a Christian?”
“Oh, yes sir. In 2005, I wandered into the Church on the Way. I was in bad shape. My hair was a mess. My beard was really long. I was dirty. After I heard the pastor’s message, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior.”
“Did you repent of your sins?”
“Oh, yes sir. Just like you
said when you were preaching; I am saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. No good works can save me.”
Efrain continued. “Why did he save me?” Efrain asked, both with wonder and rhetorically because he knew the answer. “He saved me and he loves me because even a man like me is of more value than a sparrow.”
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. ~ Matthew 10 29-31
“Efrain, I have to ask. Why have you been on the streets for so long?”
Efrain shared with me his myriad medical problems. He opened his medicine cabinet (a plastic grocery bag) and showed me a wide variety of prescription medication, for everything from diabetes to swollen feet to kidney stones. He once was a truck driver; but alcohol destroyed both his career and his health. As far as I could tell by the evidence thus far laid before me, Efrain was a redeemed child of God who, sadly, continued to suffer the consequences of past sins.
Somewhere along Efrain’s shelterless odyssey, a woman he described as an angel gave him a car with insurance to serve as his home. He spends so much time in the county hospital because of his various ailments that work has been impossible to find.
“Mr. Tony, do you know what someone once said to me?” Efrain had stopped crying for a while, but now the tears began to flow again. “I once asked a lady for a quarter. Do you know what she said? She said, ‘A child of God would not have to ask for money. God’s children don’t need anything!’
My blood started to boil. What the woman told Efrain sounded like it came from someone who held to the doctrine of demons known as the “Word of Faith” movement or the “Health, Wealth, and Prosperity” false gospel.
Sobbing now, Efrain said, “I began to question my salvation. Maybe she was right. Maybe the way I live means I’m not a Christian.”
“Efrain, what that woman told you was a lie. It was a lie from the pit of hell!”
He slowly lifted his head and looked me in the eye. “Thank you. Thank you for saying that.
“I know God is with me. I know I’m going to heaven. This may sound strange, but I like the number 33. Every time I see the number 33 it reminds me of Jesus; because He was 33 years old when He went to the cross. Every time I see that number, it reminds me that God is with me and it reminds me of what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross.”
Efrain and I spent several more minutes in fellowship. I encouraged him to go to Calvary Bible Church, which was close by, in the morning. He told me that David (one of my Burbank fishing buddies who attends Calvary) had already invited him to the church a couple of weeks ago and even offered to pick him up and take him.
“So, why haven’t you gone? It’s a good church and God wants you in fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Efrain reached down and grabbed his torn pant leg. “Look at me. I can’t go to church looking like this.”
“Yes you can. If Calvary Bible is a Bible-believing church (and it is) then not only would they welcome you as you are, but they would give you the best seat in the church. If the only reason you have not accepted David’s offer to come to his church is the way you look, then you need to repent. You need to repent of the sin of pride. Don’t let sinful pride get in the way of receiving blessings from the Lord, through His people.”
I hope he goes. I don’t think he would be the only one blessed.
Altogether, Efrain and I spent about an hour talking before we shook hands and said good-bye.
“You are of more value than many sparrows.” That’s what the Word of God says.
Do I know with certainty that Efrain is born again? No. But I believe that last night the Lord graciously and lovingly allowed me a glimpse of the life of a sparrow–a sparrow who has been kept safe for many years, in His loving, gracious, holy, and protective hands.
The same gracious Lord convicted me last night of many sins–sins like discontentment, grumbling, coveting, and fear. I confessed my sins before God and begged for His help to repent and forsake my sin. The fight continues.
Having been in the midst of such a God-ordained encounter, it is very difficult to step back and reflect–to place myself on the outside looking in. As I’ve repeatedly made the effort to do so since last night, I cannot help but to believe in my heart that, at present, Efrain enjoys a more intimate relationship with Christ than I do. I cannot help but to believe that he knows Christ and trusts Christ and loves Christ more than I do.
I do not share this self-evaluation with a covetous spirit (at least I hope not). Yes, I want more of what it appears Efrain has (even if he doesn’t fully realize that he has it)–not with jealousy toward Efrain, but with a longing for Christ.
Since Efrain has talked to my friend David in the past, I am relatively certain that I did not entertain an angel unawares last night. But of this I am certain. I was allowed to look into the life of a sparrow. And yes, more than a sparrow. A child of the Most High.
Oh my Lord and my God, thank you.