Doorstep and LamplightI encountered the wrath of God, on a doorstep facing Gratiot Avenue at 12:29 am.
The time was memorable because my first shift was starting in one minute as a volunteer for MCREST, the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team that hosts the homeless in various churches of the county. I was trying to find my shape, or my ministry specialty at Freedom Christian, and a friend told me where to come get a sense of the program. I was trying several doors to find the right building entrance, when I approached one where an overhead lamp wasn’t working and found a man sleeping by the door.
He looked like a dog curled up at the foot of his master’s bed, throwing a coat under his head and trying to be comfortable. I had already read up on the statistics of mental illness rates in this population, and since this was the women and children’s shelter it was not a good sign that a man was lingering out here. So I didn’t engage him, and reported it to the other volunteers when I came inside. They weren’t aware of him, but I was told that families often enter the program together but cannot be admitted at the same time. Men and women are admitted and housed separately, for safety reasons, and if a wife gets a bed before her husband he has to fend for himself, until an opening comes.
I couldn’t shake the sleeping guy from my mind. I want to say one of the volunteers I relieved might have taken some bread or a small bag of crackers out to him, but memory is tricky and I couldn’t swear to that. Since the women and children in the building were asleep for most of my shift, I kept picturing a man sleeping there, as close as he could be to the family he could not take care of anymore, with no one but the Lord to care about him.
I often tell people in my volunteer team from Freedom that Jesus takes this kind of ministry seriously – in fact, he takes it personally. In Matthew 25:41-45 we get an account of Him talking to the people who didn’t help the downcast, and he is not just mildly clucking his tongue and wishing they had done a little better. No, instead he says “depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, and I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ And He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
I used to think this passage was just an admonition to believers not to get complacent in your faith – not to become afterglow lunch Christians, who socialize and exchange favors without facing the needs outside your church doors, when you should “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phillipians 2:12). And the Matthew passage does work that way. But it’s more, I’m convinced of it. We get to see how strongly he feels for and identifies with those to whom society ascribes no value. I don’t need to put myself into that man’s place, because Jesus has already done it. Even now, when I can’t drum up volunteers or one of the programs I participate in runs out of money, I can picture Jesus sitting on a doorstep, half visible in rim light from one of the exterior lamps, watching over man 34 (when there is a 33-bed capacity in the men’s shelter) at 12:29 am.
Maybe he will be out there tonight. Standing watch. Feeling heartrbroken. Maybe cracking a smile as He remembers when this man was a child and his mind was a little clearer, or times weren’t so hard, while he studied a box turtle one of his brothers had fetched from the creek – the little critter always makes his head and flippers go in and out through the same holes in his shell, and never messes that up. Then thinking about the long path from that day to this one. Simmering about the calloused ex-coworker from this man’s old job who wouldn’t take his wife and kid in when things started going bad. Because charity begins at home, don’t you know, and she didn’t want her family to become “part of this guy’s issues.” Raging about every other church on this block who has more time for a building fund bake sale, or a craft fair, than to figure out where this man can sleep, or if he’s hungry or cold. Taking all of this very personally, because when we don’t have time for the least of these, we don’t have time for Him.
I am not a fire and brimstone guy. As a Christians go I’m in more danger of being called a sensualist than a legalist, and I generally think wrath of God sermons are highly theatrical and bring only a temporary repentance. But my perspective is different now. Don’t know about you, but I kind of like this pissed off Jesus, sitting stalwart in the lamplight and caring enough to cry and rage and plead for help.
I once heard a college ministry pastor at the Faholo Conference Center in Grass Lake preach that God’s wrath only ever burns against the things that become a barrier to God’s love. When I picture him there on the doorstep I can see that. There's something beautiful about that kind of wrath, and it makes me love Him even more. Let’s just hope that the next time he’s sitting out stewing by the lamplight, He’s not thinking about you or me.
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