homeless

Heaven's Gaze in a Child's Eyes: An Eight-Month-Old Teaches Us How God Loves the Outcast

We love rags-to-riches stories.

Andrew Carnegie went to sleep as a child just to forget his hunger, but grew up to be the richest man in the world.

J. K. Rowling spent seven years scraping by before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone skyrocketed her into fame and fortune.

The lesson is simple: keep looking up, keep moving up until you reach the top. That’s the only way you’re going to make something of yourself. Our icons are the famous, the beautiful, the intelligent, the wealthy. "Everyone strives after that which is above him, after honor, power, wealth, knowledge, a life of ease, and whatever is lofty and great,” as Luther once wrote.*

Everybody wants to look up. Nobody wants to look down.

Nobody, that is, except God.

The Lord only looks down. That’s the single direction his eyes point. And what is unique about him is that the farther away from him someone is—the deeper they have sunk into oppression or grief or despair or rebellion—the more clearly he sees them.

An Eight-Month-Old Teacher

As God is prone to do, He sometimes shows us who He is through people whom we would never think of as teachers, much less imitators of God. One such teacher is the eight-month-old son of one of my friends, Michael Dennis. Michael shared this story on his Facebook wall the other day.

Today, my son was my teacher. I visited a church this morning, because my wife was hired to play violin for a Christmas service. I was holding Peter somewhat towards the back of the church, amidst a crowd. A lady walked in, apparently homeless, her face disfigured with sores. I found myself hoping she wouldn’t ask me for money or come too close. She sat down alone. The next thing I knew, Peter was staring at her, then smiling and reaching his arms out to her, as if to hug her. His attention didn’t leave her until she looked up and smiled. It suddenly hit me that his response to this woman was a picture of Advent, of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely, and to change the cold hearts of the self-righteous Pharisees like me.

Peter has not yet learned what his father and all of us grownups know: that if you look down, if you stretch out your hands toward those who are disfigured and poor and hurting and lonely and have nothing to offer you, you’re doing it all wrong. Look to the pretty woman a few pews over who’s wearing the diamond ring and the fur coat. Stretch out your tiny arms toward the CEO in the Armani suit. Reach for people who are above you, who can repay you, give you upward mobility in life, share with you in their success. Peter has not yet learned that if you’re going to do well for yourself in this life, there are certain kinds of people you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Peter has not yet learned these things, and I pray that he never will.

When I grow young, I want to be just like Peter, whose outstretched arms and grace-filled gaze speak more eloquently of God than any learned theologian ever could. He is an imitator of our Lord Jesus, who is the image of our Father above, who has eyes only for those who are below. As Michael realized, his son’s response to this woman was a picture of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely. As the mother of Jesus sang, “God has looked on the humble estate of His servant,” (Luke 1:48). Or as one of the psalms says, “He looks far down on the heavens and the earth…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” (113:6-7).

Our Lord has His ways of moving us farther below through trials and tribulations so He can see us better. “In fact,” Luther reminds us, “sometimes He even lets us fall into sin, in order that He may look into the depths even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show Himself a true Creator, and thereby make Himself known and worthy of love and praise,” (AE 21:301). When we pray, “Out of the depths have I cried unto You, O Lord,” we are right where He wants us to be (Ps 130:1).

Why? Because in those depths we hear a voice above us, beneath us, to our left and to our right, that says, “Lo, I am with you always and everywhere, but especially here. I was born in the darkness of the night that you might know that I am with you in the blackest days, in the midnight of your suffering. I was pursued by a murderous king that you might know that I am with you when your enemies hound you. I was hated and despised and rejected that you might know that I am with you when all turn their backs on you. I touched the leper so that you might know that no matter how polluted you think you are, I will embrace and hold and kiss you. I died that you might know that, even in your last hour, as you take your final breath, I am with you, will take you from this life to a better life, and will raise you up on the last day.”

God looks down, only looks down, always looks down. This is not only good news; it is the best news imaginable. Jesus left His riches to wear our rags, in order to clothe us with the riches of His grace, His forgiveness, His life, yes, even Himself. Like young Peter, the Babe of Bethlehem stretches out His arms, all the way to the cross, to embrace us with His love.

*Commentary on the Magnificat (AE: 21:300)

Dumpster Diving for Good Deeds

She’s standing in front of the dumpster. The grayish brown of life on the road staining her face and clothing. Her eyes scanning the parking lot like a sentry. I roll up behind the convenience store; she hears the swoosh of the air brakes and pivots in my direction. In her sunken eyes that forlorn stare. I knew she would come to me. And she did. I step down from the truck as she walks up, wringing dirty hands. “Sir,” she says, “could you help me?” Now I’m not there to help. I’m there for a cup of coffee. I’m there because it’s one of the few stores in the area with a parking lot spacious enough for my semi. I’m there to put my feet up on the dash for thirty minutes and just breathe.

“My husband and me, we just got to San Antonio last night. We slept under the bridge. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat.” Then pointing, she says, “He’s in the dumpster, digging around, looking for us something.”

Strange how my mind can become almost schizophrenic at times like this. Instantly, I hear this jumble of competing voices in my head, “She’s scamming you…You should help her….God, she stinks…What are they running from?...You’re a Christian…Make an excuse…She’s probably on drugs…Jesus is watching you….Why should I give a damn?…You just ate two slices of pizza...Buy her something…Maybe God will pay you back…“For I was hungry and you fed me not”…Thanksgiving is coming…All I wanted was coffee…”

I walk on as the voices continue their cacophonous debate. I mutter a cowardly noncommittal, “I’ll see what I can do," and disappear around the corner, into the store.

One of the sad truths I realized about myself long ago is that I do nothing from completely spic-and-span motives. I mean nothing. When I hear someone say that they’re “utterly sincere” or they’re doing something “from pure motives,” I smell a lie. In this world, where we still lug around a nature that's selfish to the core, a nature that has its finger in everything we do, there is no 100% purity. Even if I decided to help this hungry, homeless couple, I wouldn’t be doing it only for the right reasons. Yes, I'd be doing it because I wanted to help them, but also because the wife had guilted me into it; because I’d feel better about myself afterward; because maybe God would then be good to me; because I could write a blog and tell all of you about it; because of a million self-serving reasons. It wasn’t really the woman’s husband who was digging through the trash; it was me, dumpster diving for good deeds.

About five minutes later, I walk out of the store. They’re slouched around a rusting table, their backpacks and plastic bags heaped about them. At the man’s feet is an old Dr. Pepper box crammed with sausages and corn dogs he’s scrounged from the trash. They look up. I hand them a bag with a couple of submarine sandwiches inside. “I hope this helps,” I say. They thank me profusely. He shakes my hand; I can feel the grease and the grime. He tells me, “God bless you.'' I say the same and walk away.

Good deeds, they’re a messy thing, aren't they? Put the best of them under a microscope and you’ll still find traces of hypocritical dirt, bits of selfish trash stuck to them. Put them to your nose and take a deep whiff; there's the faint hint of a dumpster about them. Even when we try to do something for godly, loving reasons, the hands that do it are still the unwashed hands of a sinner. As Isaiah says, ''All our righteousness is as menstrual rags,'' (64:6). And if such be our righteousness, how bad must be our unrighteousness.

But here’s the good news: in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You see, our failed attempts at good deeds are fixed, cleansed, made truly good because of someone else's good deeds.

Jesus died not only for our sins; He died for our good works as well. His perfect sacrifice perfects those imperfect strivings of ours to do what is right. He’s the only one who’s ever done anything from completely unselfish, loving, others-oriented motives. So even as I pray that He will forgive my sins, I pray that He will forgive the pollutants in my good deeds. I need His blood to wash away the traces of hypocritical dirt, the bits of selfish trash stuck to my acts of charity. And He does. God does indeed love a cheerful giver, but He also loves the forgiven giver, all for the sake of Jesus.

So, yes, I'll pray for a cleaner heart. I'll work on my less-than-chivalrous motives. I'll try to be a better person. But I know that, no matter how good or bad I wind up being, every time I hand a sandwich to the hungry, it'll actually be the hand of Jesus that is stretched out to give. He's got me covered. And He does all things well, even for the likes of me.