An encounter on the street with James

The other day I met James. I had just finished a last minute Christmas purchase of art supplies for my wife and was sitting in my car scrolling up my GPS to get me to my next extravagant expenditure. My car was facing out onto the street, and as I looked up from my cell phone, my eyes met the gaze of a thin man in a rumpled coat. He looked directly into my eyes and, after giving me the universal motions of imaginary feeding, he shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands, clearly indicating he needed me to provide money for his food.

His gesture was not done belligerently, and I did not feel like he was just pan-handling me, but I was locked into task mode and his appearance was unexpected and a little unwanted, so, in a blatant display of selfishness, I shook my head, “no.”

“Why not?” His question startled me. “Why not? Why won’t you help me out?”

“I don’t feel like it,” was my heartless answer.

“Why won’t you help out a hungry veteran?” he shouted in reply. “You have a chance to help out a fellow human being.” Then he pointed to a hole in the side of his neck and said, “That’s where a bullet went through my neck. I have served my country and now you won’t even help me out!” And he turned to walk away from me across the street, disgusted with my stubborn stinginess.

I jumped out of my car and yelled, “You’re right! You make a very good case. Hey, come back here! You are right!”

By now the man had crossed the main traffic lane and was in the turn lane, shouting at the cars as they drove past, too close for his comfort. “Hey, you almost hit me!”

Now I was on the curb, and he was in the street but walking toward me. He was thin, but not quite gaunt, with a full brown beard. His speech was sober, and I sensed he was an intelligent man. “You seem to be angry,” I said. “Why are you angry?”

Why was he angry? What a naïve question! The answer was obvious. He was angry because life had been cruel to him. He hadn’t planned to be homeless and living in trash dumpsters as he begs for food on the streets of the city. Every plan had failed, and each road had been a dead end. It was a life of opportunities squandered, of unwise choices, and of hard providences. Now this human being, this highest of God’s creatures, this one created in the image of God, was dodging cars to try and scrounge his next meal. Who wouldn’t be angry?

He was now only a couple of feet away from me, but he was still in the edge of the traffic lane. “You need to get out of the street,” I said as I put my hand on his shoulder and pulled him onto the sidewalk.

“Well, you were right to ask me for some money for food. You do need money, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes, I need money for food.”

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a twenty dollar bill. “Are you able to find work? Or are you looking for work?” It turns out that, because he did not have a cell phone, he was not able to find employment.

“I do have a place to live, though,” he said. “I live in that storage bin beside that shop over there. You want to see it? It doesn’t smell too good.”

“No, thanks. What’s your name?”

“James.”

“How old are you, James?”

“I’m fifty.”

“Has faith ever been a part of your life?”

“Faith is part of my life now. Faith that I will be restored. Faith in Jesus Christ.” His words had a ring of sincerity to them, not the usual “faith talk” that you here from beggars who know that talking about Jesus with people is sort of expected. “Do you know John 1:1?” he asked. “Go ahead, James, tell me John 1:1.” And he quoted it verbatim. I added John 1:2. “Wait here for a second, James.”

I ran over to my car and grabbed a “Who is Jesus?” tract and gave it to him.

“Oh. ‘Who is Jesus?’” he said. “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. John 14:6.”

I affirmed his quote of Scripture and encouraged him to read the tract and think about what it said. We talked a little more, then I shook his hand and said, “I have to get moving, but God bless you, brother.” As I got in my car, I shouted, “Maybe you can find a church that needs a good preacher!” Then we waved goodbye, and James disappeared into my rear view mirror.

The first thing I learned from my encounter with James is that I can still be self-centered and greedy and heartless. There are evidently times when my heart is hard and when I feel inconvenienced because a fellow human being pleads for my compassion and assistance. O, how I need to repent of my greediness! Our Lord Jesus commanded me to “Give to everyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30), and I reject them because I am slightly inconvenienced or just don’t feel like helping. “Lord, please change me more into the image of Jesus with the heart of Jesus! Amen.”

I still think about James, and here’s why. I know that, except for the grace and providence of God, I could be where James is. If at certain critical points in my life, the Lord had not turned events in His providential and favorable direction, I would be sleeping in a storage bin and asking cruel strangers to give me the means of survival. If God had not been merciful and generous to me (And why has He been so good to me, the one who deserves His wrath and who should receive the consequences of so many foolish choices?), I would be living like James with no plans for the future and no hope for the present. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us . . .” (Ephesians 2:4). “Lord, let me ever praise You for Your mercy and grace.”

Finally, I pray that James reads the tract and that causes him to get a Bible and read it. I pray that his reading of the Bible creates the spark of faith in his heart and mind, and that he seeks the Lord with all his heart. I pray that he believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and that he finds a good church. How James’ life can be restored and straightened out so that it is useful again and that he is useful to the Master, I have no clue. Those things are too difficult for me (Psalm 131:1), but there is nothing too difficult for God (Jeremiah 32:17; Luke 18:27). I know that Jesus Christ is the only hope for James. Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). He finds the prodigals in the pigsty and restores them to a joyful life in the Father’s house. If Jesus is willing, He can and will save (Matthew 8:2). So, I pray that James seeks Jesus with his whole heart.

SDG                 rmb                 12/26/2021                 #475

Where is the right path? (Proverbs 14:12 and John 14:6)

My friend Doug and I have had a weekly phone call appointment for more than 14 years, and for those 14 years we have walked through life together, experiencing highs and lows and seeking to pursue the Lord and to live for His glory. This week we were talking about our mutual feelings of yuletide incompetence, how the Christmas season offers virtually unlimited opportunities for us to disappoint others by not fulfilling our basic duties, when Doug changed to a more serious topic. “So, I got a text from Jonathan this week.”

The tone of our conversation was abruptly more sober. “The gist of his text was something like ‘How does it feel to be a future grandfather?’” My friend went on to explain that his son has apparently gotten his current girlfriend pregnant. We spent the rest of phone call talking about his son and about this turn of events and about how this is yet more evidence that Jonathan seems bent on destroying his life.

This morning I was reflecting on Jonathan’s situation. Despite being at an exclusive private high school and having a godly father who poured into his life, this young man had become involved in drugs in high school, first using and then dealing. He had escaped high school and had bounced from place to place, becoming a heroin user and a member of the opioid addiction community. He has spent significant time in jail. He has overdosed multiple times on heroin. At one point, it looked like his organs were shutting down, but he survived and, like a dog returning to its vomit (2 Peter 2:22), he returned to his destructive habits. He has lost jobs that were basically given to him to help him pull out of his long-term nosedive. He has been in and out of innumerable halfway houses and recovery programs. In fact, Jonathan had done basically everything he could do to ensure he would mess up his life, except get a woman pregnant. But now, even that disaster he has now inflicted on himself. With immense advantages and every opportunity to choose a path offering some degree of success, the young man has consistently chosen the path of disaster. Not the path of lesser success that could have turned out well but providentially did not, but the path that is obviously bad and that will almost certainly produce pain and misery. Jonathan seems bent on his own destruction and on ruining his life.

ALL FALLEN MAN

But isn’t that the state of all fallen man outside of Christ? Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” We are all born broken, with flawed wisdom and with selfish desires and sinful passions. All of fallen man is born blind (See Isaiah 6:10; 43:8; John 9:25.) and stumbles along life’s path, groping for some sort of light or trustworthy direction (Isaiah 59:10-14; Acts 17:27). We all pursue a path that seems right to us, that seems “right in our own eyes” (Judges 21:25), but the end of that path is death. There is only one way that leads to life, and His name is Jesus (John 14:6). All other paths are false trails, dark and slippery, that lead to death. There is only one gate, small and narrow, that leads to life, and the name of that gate is Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14). All other gates, gates wide and broad to admit the many who rush through them, are gates of destruction that lead inevitably to death.

Jonathan is manifestly on a path of destruction, but he is not alone on that path. While the degree of damage and ruin is more evident in Jonathan’s life than in most others, the trail he is walking is well trodden. The prophet speaks not of heroin addicts only, but of all mankind when he says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our old heart of stone is deceitful and leads us down dark and slippery paths to our own ruin. The only solution for our deceitful heart of stone is replacement with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And the only one who can replace our sinful heart with a new heart is Jesus.

A SAVIOR WHO SAVES

While there is pity and sadness when we see someone like Jonathan making a shipwreck of his life and running headlong down the path of destruction, we need not despair. Jesus is a Savior who has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Humanly, we may see the sinner as being far down the path of destruction, but distance is no obstacle for the Lord, because nothing is too difficult for Him (Isaiah 59:1; Jeremiah 32:17, 27; Luke 18:26-27). The Lord can deliver any sinner from his circumstances, no matter how deep the well into which he has fallen (Jeremiah 38:9-13). There is no place the sinner can go from which the Lord cannot deliver him unto salvation. The distance a sinner has wandered is of no consequence to the Lord.

The situation for Jonathan appears bleak. He seems to have wandered into a place from which there is no rescue. And if Jesus Christ had not been sent from heaven to earth and had not lived a sinless life and died an atoning death; if Jesus had not been raised from the dead and did not now offer His atoning blood as payment for all the sinner’s sins; if Jesus was not a glorious Savior, King of kings and Lord of lords, mighty to save so that anyone who places their trust in Him will be saved (Acts 16:31), then there would be no reason for any hope for Jonathan.

Like Jonathan, all mankind outside of Christ is on the way to destruction. Titus 3:3 says, “For we were once foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.” A bleak situation, indeed, but not hopeless. “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for all mankind appeared, He saved us” (Titus 3:4-5). Because of Jesus Christ and His glorious gospel of salvation, all who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus will be saved.

SDG                 rmb                 12/24/2021                 #473