Matthew 9:36 – When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
I try to go to a mall that is near our church, every Tuesday afternoon just to look for opportunities to talk to people and possibly share some Gospel truth with people that I meet. I have no desire to be famous but I do want it known that I am the pastor of the church next to the police station and I want it known that I am a happy part of the community in which I pastor and live. I want it known that the church next to the police station is a welcoming place with people who care for the community. I want it known that the church there is a people who really believe what they say they believe, and that they know the God they preach about, and that they live accordingly. I want it known that we take the Bible seriously and live for the glory of the God we worship. I want it known that we are real followers of Jesus Christ. And I want them to know Him.
I do not meet people easily. I am not a gregarious guy. For me to meet strangers takes a very large effort. I am outside of my comfort zone. But it is part of my calling and I am glad that I am able to get to the mall and give it a go. As I walk over to the mall I always pray that the Lord will put people in my pathway with whom I can engage in some meaningful conversation. I remind myself of a plaque on a friend’s wall that says “Lord, make me right. You know I am not going to change my mind.” I feel a little like that when I am praying on my way to the mall.” Lord, give me someone to talk to. You know I will not make it happen on my own.”
I do not envy those who meet people easily. I revel in the experience of God overcoming in me the natural tendency to get away from people and be alone. If this came naturally to me I do not think I would be as understanding of the fear that grips so many believers who have trouble witnessing of their faith. I am hoping that the fact that I do this even though it is not my nature, will be an encouragement to them to do what is right even if it goes against the grain. Also, when I talk to people, I know that it is a power beyond me that is enabling me to do it.
God answers my prayers in ways that never cease to amaze me. The last four visits to the mall He has put people in my path with whom I was able to talk and steer the conversation to spiritual things. These answers to prayer always amaze me and when the conversations are over I always feel invigorated, which I would not if I had followed my natural inclinations.
On Tuesday this week I had bought my coffee and was reading a book when I spotted them; a married couple who came to the church twice last year and then just stopped. They both have mental problems. He is bi-polar and she suffers from depression. They are poor. She was helping him get his suspenders adjusted and running to McDonalds to get coffee. They were the answer to today’s on-the-way-to-the-mall-prayer. I fought the pull to simply walk away and say nothing. They didn’t recognize me at first but once I told them who I was they did – kind of. They have their reasons for not coming to church which have nothing to do with us. Past experiences have caused him to not trust clergymen. His mental state prevents me from pushing too hard on that one. I encourage them to read their Bibles, which they believe to be true. I encourage them to pray for God to make Himself known to them.
I leave that conversation with an ambivalent heart. On the one hand it is bursting with joy that I have been able to speak just a little bit of spiritual truth to someone. It is bursting with joy because while this man is ill mentally and his wife has her own demons to deal with, her love for him is obvious. She watches him with a compassion and affection that cannot be hidden. She is a gift to him in many ways. I see them leaving the mall later and she is leading him by the hand. She is not put out. She is not complaining. There are rich, intelligent, sane people who should want to give up everything they have in order to experience the love that these two problem defined people share.
On the other hand my heart is crushed at the brokenness of these people’s lives. I was with them for twenty to thirty minutes and they spoke of how hard life is, how they are maintained by medication, how the building they live in is unsafe because of drug dealers and violence of other kinds, how they are kept up all night by the drug induced parties next door. My heart aches because they are far from the only ones in this mall and in this community whose lives are broken and filled with pain and sorrow and whose minds are sending funny signals that they believe are true.
Our community is economically depressed and has an inordinate number of people with mental illness, partly because the low rental apartments are a convenient place for them to be placed by various welfare agencies. I look around the food court and I see single moms with over active kids. I see old men who gather every day in that court to philosophise. I see the security guards escorting people out amid screams of “brutality”. I see people in oversized clothes that were probably obtained free from some clothing bank and clothes that are too big are better than no clothes at all. It is difficult to watch people so obviously living on the edge, standing in line at the lottery booth with a vain hope of getting rich and getting out of the horror that they now call life. I see groups of people who gather at table according to language and culture. I think of the man with whom I tried to engage in conversation the last time I was here. He said he could speak four languages. When I told him I could speak only English he laughed at me and walked away. I see women who if they were downtown would be called bag ladies and I see people who you know are just surviving. I see armed police guards at the liquor store because of the number of times this particular store has been hit by robbers. I hear language that would peel paint. I hear parents railing on their children. I hear couples swearing at each other. I hear the philosophers losing their tempers on each other. It is heart breaking. And they congregate in this mall every day and find it to be a place of safety. No one pays any mind to the signs that say the limit at a table is twenty minutes. No one, not even the mall management seems to care about that.
I love this mall. I love coming here. There is community in action. There are people who feel welcome. They come here everyday and they laugh and they greet one another and they seem genuinely glad to be in each other’s company again. They are finding help in hard lives. I go to the coffee shop and do not have to tell the owner what to get me. She knows. And she knows the way the person behind me takes her coffee and the man behind her. What a mixture of emotions fills this place.
I cannot imagine anyone who claims to know Christ who is less like Him than I am, but I think I understand a little bit what He was feeling when He saw the crowds that were following Him. He was moved with compassion when He saw them because they were helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. And then he turned to His disciples and said “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send labourers into his harvest field”.
O Lord, I thank you for sending me into this harvest field of harassed and helpless people. Help me to see them as Jesus did; as Jesus does. O Lord, they are so broken. Sin, sometimes theirs and sometimes others, has put them into an awful state. Help them. Heal them. Give them hearts and minds to receive the truth that will liberate them even as they suffer. Help me to give them the Gospel in ways that they will understand. I thank you for not putting me in a place where people have money and resources and opportunities. But Lord, O Lord, reach down and rescue these people, and use me as you do – please. Lord, surely I do not love these people as much as you do. Help them to know the wonder of knowing the Creator of all that is, and may that wonder be a great joy for them. Put real joy in their hearts. Thanks for the visit Lord. Help me not to be over scheduled next week and miss the joy and heartbreak of this place.