Get the door...

"Knock, knock, knock."

"Geez, not again," I thought. I had been locked in my office for three hours hoping inspiration would hit. I was putting together my sermon for Sunday, and needed the perfect illustration to drive home my point. And I was close. Really close.

"Boom, Boom, Boom."

Whoever was at the door was persistent. They were afraid I hadn't heard them the first time. I had. I was toying with the idea of ignoring them, but the last time I did that I found out I had ignored a matrairch of the church who left her casserole dish in the kitchen and desperately needed it in order to entertain company that night. She had driven thirty miles to the church (uphill both ways), and couldn't figure out what I was possibly doing in there.

It wasn't about her, honestly. If I had been certain it was her, I would have been thrilled to answer the door. But I'm the only pastor who offices at the church, and never know who will be on the other side of the large glass doors when I come around the corner. Often it's a delivery man. Sometimes it's a church member, although most of them call before they come. But often, it's them.

Anyone who has spent time in a church office knows who "them" is before they read it. "Them" is the steady stream of people who stop by the church on a regular basis looking for assistance. They always have a story, and it's almost always the same. Their husband couldn't come because he's sick at home. They lost their job two months ago and are living in a hotel. They're down to their last and only need to keep their family off the street. Can I find it in my heart to help them out?

They couldn't do any better if they removed my heart from my chest, tied it in knots, and shoved it back in my chest. These people are good. They're believable. They're polite. They're contrite. And everything in me wants to give them whatever money I have to help them out. After all, their sick husband can't be put out on the street, can he?

But I've been burned before. I've seen these people leave the church, to see them thirty minutes later drinking their sick husband's "medicine" out of a brown paper sack. That hurts, because I know there are people in our culture with legitimate needs. There are people with spouses who are truly suffering, who are truly down on their luck, and who could truly be helped by the token amount I give them. But I can't tell the difference.

Our church gives money to Mission Arlington, who is designed to help these situations, and we send a lot of people there. But most return, having been turned down by Mission Arlington for one reason or another. That makes my decision easier, but still not easy.

In the past, I used to be haunted by James 2:15-17. "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to themn "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?" Nobody wants to be a hypocrite, especially as a pastor. And I certainly don't want to tarnish the name of Christ because of my unwillingness to give money to someone who may or may not need it.

There's a part of me that even leaned toward giving money to people I doubted, in hopes that Christ might be magnified through my graciousness, and that these people might be drawn to Christ through my willingness to give. But that didn't work. These people have a network, and as soon as you help one of them, the line starts to grow outside the door. Then there's no money left for legitimate needs.

But not long ago, I started looking at James 2:15-17 again, and I have a new philosophy for dealing with my friends who are down on their luck.
Number one, I rarely answer the door. It's dangerous for me to be here by myself speaking to people I'm about to make mad. Number two, I try to listen graciously to their story, and ask as many questions as possible. Sometimes this is enough. When they find out I'm serious about understanding their story, some of them get up and leave. Number three, I only help out with food, shelter, or clothing. Period. James 2:15-17 doesn't say anything about gas to visit grandpa, or hotel stays, or anything of the sort. If I can get someone some bread and lunchmeat for a sandwich, or a coat for the winter, I'm happy to help out. But I don't do cash. I don't want to cause them to fall into temptation when they're standing in Tom Thumb trying to decide between baby formula and Jim Beam. Instead, I buy some $5 shopping cards for Walmart and Tom Thumb. I can distribute those as need be, and they don't work on liquor or cigarettes.

Finally, as they leave, I ask to pray for them. I share the Gospel with them. And I almost always tell them about how bad I've been burned in the past, and how I'm going to pray as they leave that if they're taking advantage of me, God would not allow them to look themselves in the mirror until they made things right with Him. That way, I get to be gracious, and a good steward of the finances over which I've been given care.

Just some ideas. But I should wrap them up... someone's knocking at the door.