When I was in my twenties, at a crisis moment when my emotions threatened to overwhelm me, I was listening to a B.J. Thomas song and as I heard the words, "He's the hand on my shoulder", I broke down and cried out to God, telling Him that I felt so alone and there was no one to put a hand on my shoulder when I needed it. That evening, there in my car as I drove down University Avenue, for just 30 seconds or so I felt a warm, comforting hand on my shoulder but when I looked, there was no one there. Yet I knew I was not alone.
Over the decades since that evening, the memory has come back to me from time to time. When it happened, it encouraged me, strengthened me, awed me. But it didn't mature me. Over time the warmth of the moment faded and spiritual growth came through slow, consistent soaking in God's word, hanging out with others who were dedicated Christ-followers, trying my best to follow the One with nail prints in His hands.
If God were to physically touch me today or demonstrate His power in any tangible way, I think I would be overwhelmed with gratitude. I often pray for healing for myself and others and I have no doubt He can do it, both in the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual realm.
It's just occurred to me recently that while Jesus performed miracles when He walked on earth, He also basically said that people who specialize in miracles such as casting out demons, calling out "Lord, Lord", and prophesying in His name may still hear some shocking words at the end of time: depart from Me - I never knew you. In other words, as wonderful as supernatural manifestations of God's presence are, they can still turn out to be fake, they can be counterfeited, and in the end, they can leave the one who is highly invested in them eternally high and dry.
But I have never seen such a rebuke towards those who help the poor.
I've seen Scripture where God has trashed religious people for fasting and offering burnt sacrifices while ignoring the poor (Isaiah 58). And as I've indicated, I've read where God has trashed people who were demonstrating that they were tight with Him because of the supernatural things they could apparently do. (Matt 7:21 - 23). And I've seen passages where God trashes His people for vicious talk, jealousy, dissension, arrogance, lack of compassion, and hypocrisy. (The book of James). But I haven't seen anywhere in Scripture (although it may be there and I've just overlooked it - I'm not a Bible scholar) where God says, "Depart from me, you who help the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger within your gates".
Does helping the poor automatically get you into the gates of Heaven. I don't think so.
But it does seem to be a sort of litmus test for those who claim to be Christ followers.
I live in a poor area where houses are small, yards are open, meth houses are not unknown, and everybody pretty much knows everyone else's business. Unlike in nicer areas where most people have privacy fences, remote control garages, and large homes which sort of buffer one family from another, the raw tensions, passions, needs, and rough edges of people around us occasionally hang out for everyone to see and sometimes those unbridled passions culminate in tragedy.
I know about the family down the street where both the mom and the dad have had horrendous health issues while both sons have done their best to mess their lives up big time. I know about the widow a few houses down who faithfully works in her yard, volunteers with Hospice, attends church, and carefully locks her door against the crime which is probably present on most people's minds in this area. I know about several families that have gone through divorce and about families where their kids are out of control, struggling with anger issues. I know that I live on a street where great compassion and courage live side-by-side with great depravity and endless need.
Jesus attracted adulterers, murderers, white collar embezzlers, turncoats, occupying soldiers, secret followers from the establishment, rough edged, foul mouth "dock workers", disenfranchised political zealots, and prostitutes. He walked the mean streets of Judea and I know He walks the mean streets of our neighborhood today. I know He was here Friday night when everything came down and a man lost his life, a young boy lost what little innocence he had left, and lives were forever changed.
Even though I was thrown for a loop by what happened, He was not.
To Him alone belong the issues of life and death. And to Him alone belongs the power that can break iron bars asunder and release the captives from prisons of their own making.
Jesus loves every broken heart, every broken life on this street.
Church is where we go to have our batteries recharged.
But the street is where our faith is lived out as we follow the dust covered sandals of a poor carpenter from Galilee who helped the poor, rebuked the respected, and willingly died a criminal's death.
And for every broken life on these mean streets.