We walked a few paces down the road and settled down in front of an apartment building; there were some steps there that we could sit on, so we did. About halfway through our meal, this beggar man came up. He stood maybe five feet from us, watching us, occasionally saying something in Chinese that I'm guessing was a plea for money. We carefully avoided looking at him, trying to carry on our own conversations, but it was difficult. He was just standing there, asking for help, and every American tenet and stricture to foreigners told us we couldn't help him--even though I had plenty of yuan in my pocket.
I came across this in Zambia, too. I come across it at home. Maybe not so blatantly--nobody's (hopefully) going to accost me while I'm sitting down and eating my breakfast. But it does happen. How many of us drive right past a homeless man on a street corner nearly every day without a second glance? Wherever we go, needy people will be an ever-present reality.
Our culture tells us that poor people, and especially homeless people, must somehow be at fault for their position. We see a man on a street corner with a ratty jacket, broken-down shoes, and a carboard sign, and the first thought that pops into our mind is "free-loading druggie" or "alcoholic who doesn't want to take care of his kids". We see a woman with a hat jammed down over her hair, her clothes old and worn, and we might think "prostitute". Our entire culture tells us not to give these people money; that they'll just use it for less than honorable purposes and you'll have wasted it. When we go overseas, we're told we'll get thronged with needy people if we help one, that it's too dangerous to help because we might get hurt (at least in our pocketbooks).
Yet there's nothing like this attitude in scripture. We look at Jesus, the man who would walk through a crowded building, a building full of the stench of death and disease--so many people who needed helping that it was quite possible if he touched one he'd be stifled by the rush of people yearning for healing--and yet his only thought was for the one person before him. He dealt with the lame man, then moved on to the woman with leprosy, and then to the child who couldn't see, and then to the grandfather that couldn't hear. There were always a few that he couldn't get to, that couldn't make it to him through the crowd. Some had good friends who would pull up a roof to get their friend to him. Some would crawl through merely to touch the corner of his robe. But Jesus always focused on one thing--the person right in front of him and what they needed.
I wonder if maybe we shouldn't practice this as well. Yes, we can't heal all the hurts in the world. We can't even come close. But that's not what we're supposed to do. The effort (and the worrying about it) would drive us mad. Instead, I think we're supposed to focus on one thing at a time, and that's the person right in front of us and their problem. We're not supposed to give thought to tomorrow, to our bodies, to what might become of us because, ultimately, everything is in God's hands. And it could just be that he's going to use us to speak to someone, even if it's through something as simple as extending five bucks or a happy meal.
We are called to be the light of the world, not the lighthouse keepers that are so afraid of making someone angry or getting hurt that we never turn on the light.