I love my job. I’m blessed to work with music and musicians, to be creative, pray and worship God as a career. And serving in the Lutheran Church, it’s humbling to think that some of my predecessors are people like J. S. Bach. I mean, seriously? Not that I think of myself as a Bach, per se. But to know that the musical heritage of the Lutheran Church is so rich and so excellent really gives me perspective. I lead a seriously blessed life…and I haven’t even mentioned my lovely wife and awesome children! Seriously, seriously blessed. That’s what I am.
But today I had an encounter that gave me some additional perspective.
This morning I made my way to downtown St. Louis to go to the office of the Secretary of State. (The reason I needed to go there will have to be a story for another blog post – it is yet unfolding.) I’ve done this routine a few times now, so I know that I will have to find a vacant parking meter, put in my credit card – because it will be a fancy, credit card-taking
parking meter – pay $.75 for 30 minutes and walk a couple blocks to my destination. But today, between my parking space and my destination, I found Mike. Mike is a thin African-American man, most probably in his 50s. I didn’t ask, but I’m 100% sure that Mike is homeless. No place to sleep, no place to worship, no community of people who know him and love him. With him was a shopping cart filled with recyclables – well, not yet filled really – and a blanket. You know, the kind that was probably donated by a church like ours. I could see Mike from a block away, just as I rounded the corner. I could also see several pedestrians walk…right…by…him. I don’t know if they were ignoring him, or not paying attention, or what. But I saw him. So as I walked by, I looked at him. And he looked right at me, right in the eye. So I nodded one of those “hello” nods, and he nodded back. And I said the first thing that came into my mind, which was, stupidly, “How’s it going?” Really? I asked a homeless man how it was going? And he said, “Not too bad today.” I replied, “That’s good!” in a tone that was cheery enough to be equally as stupid as the first thing I said to him. And I kept on walking to my destination.
All the way there, and through my business transaction at the Secretary of State’s office, and on the walk back, I was perturbed at myself. I couldn’t believe my ignorance. And I prayed. Not a big “Our Father” prayer, but just a little mental dialogue with God, who knows my thoughts and my heart. “Ask him if he’s eaten anything today.” I didn’t really have time to debate, because I was crossing the street just then – right over to where Mike was camped. He was standing up now, though, leaning on his cart and looking much more fragile than when I first saw him. I stopped. “Is this all your stuff?”, I asked. “Yeah.” “Do you live around here?”, I pressed gently. “Oh, I’m around everywhere down here,” he replied. I asked him where he stayed at night. “Over on St. Charles street.” “Have you eaten anything today?” He looked away quickly, then looked right at me a little sheepishly and said, “Well, no…”, his voice trailing off. “Can I buy you a sandwich or something?” There was a deli on the opposite corner, between us and my car. It was then I asked his name, and I gave him mine. Now I wasn’t just talking to some random homeless guy. I was talking to Mike. Made-in-God’s-image Mike. I asked him if he liked roast beef – “Oh, yes, I haven’t had that in a while”, he said, in a voice that sounded like it had probably been a decade since he’d had a roast beef sandwich. So I told him to wait, that I’d be right back with that sandwich for him. And he said, “I’ve got to walk up that way anyway, no sense in you coming all the way back here…” As if a block was way out of my way. And he began to walk with me. He was slow and frail and I had to wait up, and even then I was ahead of him. And I felt ashamed that I seemed to be walking so impatiently.
We got to the corner deli, and I went in and bought food. Not just a sandwich, but the normal stuff you or I would want with that – bottled water, a side item. Bought it to go. And it felt like it took the deli guys FOREVER to make a simple sandwich. Mike waited quite patiently outside the deli, very much minding his own business, hardly even looking up at the traffic going by. All the while, I waited impatiently inside, wondering what I would say to him. “Jesus remembers you, Mike.” “Mike, can I pray with you?” I procured the food and took it out to him. He looked at me – again, square in the eye – and said a humble “thank you”. I put my hand on his shoulder, and all I could muster was a quiet, “Bless you, Mike.” And without taking his eyes off mine he said, “Bless you too, Chris.” He remembered my name. I don’t know why, but I was shocked to hear it. Then he put the bag in his cart and wandered away.
I turned to go to my car. There was still 20-odd minutes left on the meter. And, getting in my car, I felt the whole of my blessed – spoiled? privileged? – life come crashing in on me. As I drove away I felt like Oskar Schindler at the end of the movie “Schindler’s List”. I felt that maybe I fumbled the ball somewhat, that I hadn’t done enough. And I had that after-the-fact internal discussion – you know, the “shoulda said” stuff you get after an argument. I shoulda prayed with him. I shoulda told him about Jesus’ love for him. I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda. And you know what? Maybe I shoulda…
But let me share with you instead the perspective I got today. See, we are First World Worshipers. In the world of my profession, our concerns, our debates, our likes are often centered around things like what musical styles are appropriate for church services, whether the pastor should dress up or dress down or wear a robe, what translation of the Bible we should use. And today I brushed elbows with a world where literally NONE of that matters. Yes, really, please really, HEAR this. Our opinions DO NOT matter. Our favorite Bible translation DOES NOT matter. What matters is, is the church being the church? Are we reaching ANYone besides ourselves with the Gospel, the GOOD NEWS of Jesus Christ and His salvation? Are we? I know some of you are. Please do not take up offense with me. You’ll have to agree, these are fair questions. And I didn’t tell you all this story so I could be held in any esteem, or be patted on the back or applauded or whatever. I told you this story because it made me think today. My encounter with Mike made me reevaluate, suddenly and without warning, everything I do on any given day. Because I sit at my desk most days, and I do my musical things, and I enjoy my comfortable existence, and I don’t give a second or third thought to any of it.
So please, if you take anything away from this story today, let it be this: please don’t let your worship be “First World Worship.” Be as blessed as you are, but be twice as thankful. Be a worshiper, yes, but don’t hang your hat on preferences that are available to you because of privilege. Be a hearer and a doer of the Word. There are places in this world – even here in St. Louis – where, in under 10 minutes, your perspective can get rocked by the Holy Spirit. And I recommend it to all of us.