Sitting on the platform as a visiting speaker, I feel as if I have entered a time warp from the late 1950s. I look out on a church sanctuary packed with people dressed in their Sunday finest. These days, pastors where I live in Colorado tend to wear jeans and untucked shirts; here, in a 125-year-old church in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, they are wearing robes over tailored suits.

In advance of my visit the senior pastor sent me a draft copy of the church bulletin, and I noted the organ prelude, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.  I complimented him on the choice, a lyrical piece that has been used in the soundtrack for such movies as Platoon, The Elephant Man, and Lorenzo’s Oil.  He wrote back, “Samuel Barber was once the church organist here.”  Hearing that, I worked a bit harder on my sermon.

Behind me gleam the pipes of the current organ, a modern replacement for the one that Barber played.  Members of the large choir, who are also dressed in robes, stand to sing a classical piece for the offertory.  As they sing I scratch through my notes, cutting extraneous details.  “The second service is the most time-sensitive of the three,” the pastor has warned me.  “We live-stream it, so please don’t go longer than fifteen minutes.”  And now comes my time to speak.

I’m ten minutes into my sermon when a man strolls down the right aisle.  In this white-bread congregation anyone with brown skin stands out like a granite rock in a snow field, and the congregation’s eyes follow him all the way to the second row, where he takes a seat.  I can’t resist looking that way too.  He has a shaved head, and a diamond earring in his right ear catches the light.  I note his muscular build, biceps bulging beneath his short-sleeved dress shirt, and then turn my attention back to the sermon.

60 seconds, 45, 30—I watch the countdown clock in my peripheral vision and end just in time.  As I turn toward my seat behind the pulpit, suddenly the visitor in the second row stands up and says in a loud voice, “Excuse me, Reverend.”  I stop in mid-step.

“Thank you for what you said there.  I really appreciate it,” he continues.  “And now I have something to say to the folks here.”

A cloud of tension descends on this prim and proper church service.  Clearly, nothing like this has ever happened here before.  I glance at the senior pastor on the platform, who is staring at the bulletin.  A trained usher moves toward the front, reaching discreetly under his sports coat for a firearm, just in case of trouble.

The visitor faces the crowd and says, “I love Presbyterians!  You’re beautiful people.  I spent 27 years in prison on drug charges, and while I was there two beautiful Presbyterians visited me and introduced me to Jesus.  They changed my life.  I was driving by here and saw the church and decided I just had to come inside.  My wife doesn’t even know I’m here.”

I can sense the tension going down a notch.  I don’t know when this church last held a testimony meeting, but so far we’re feeling relieved, liking what we hear.

“Things are going well for me,” he says.  “I cleaned up my life, served my time, and got a decent job.  My family’s living in a house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two decks.  Life is good.”  Interesting detail, I think to myself—two decks.

He’s not finished.  “There’s just one problem.  I lost that job.  I got another one, but I won’t get paid for a couple of weeks.  And if I don’t come up with $853.50 by tomorrow, they’ll change the locks on that house and I’ll be out on the street again, homeless.”  He keeps talking as the congregation sits silent, not knowing what to do.

I catch the senior pastor looking at his watch, and remember his warning about the strict time limit.  With my headset microphone still on, I step down off the platform, walk over to the visitor, and say, “God bless you, brother.  That took some courage.  And I know there are people in this church who will want to hear all about it after this service.”

The choir director approaches the music stand to lead a closing hymn.  The armed usher backs off.  The visitor collapses on the pew, sobbing.  The service draws to an end.

All this time my wife is sitting one row behind the visitor.  A trained social worker, she has heard scores of similar stories at our former church in inner-city Chicago.  This man, is he a skilled spinner of tales or a visiting angel come to test the spirit of a wealthy church?  She watches as a few people gather around him to talk while a parade of others stuff his pockets with folded bills.

I have just spoken on Mark 9, a chapter in which Jesus scolds his disciples for their lack of faith, their selfishness, and their attitude of intolerance.  In a flash our unexpected guest has cut right through the theoretical sermonizing and brought a dose of the real world to a county that the 2010 census ranked as the 25th richest in the nation.

“From what I could see,” Janet reports later that day, “he more than covered the money he claimed to need.  And even if it was a scam, it certainly didn’t hurt the people who gave.  They had a chance to put into practice what you were speaking about.”

 

After returning to Colorado, I email the senior pastor and ask about any follow-up on the visitor.  What did they learn?  It turns out that he was from Washington, D.C., not Pennsylvania, and earlier that Sunday he had given the “Methodist” version of the same speech at the town’s Methodist church, where he collected $500.

The pastor seems unperturbed by the deception.  He writes,

The best part of it—the congregation’s generosity and desire to assist him was genuine, heartfelt, and engaged.  I told them so the next Sunday, and suggested that however he chose to use the funds he received from us was not our worry—only that God would use the seeds of generosity planted that morning.

Extending grace always involves risk.  A gift can be ignored, rejected, or exploited—a fact that applies to God’s grace toward us as well as our grace toward others.

 

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44 responses to “Unexpected Guest”

  1. Rebecca Patrick says:

    As a former deacon in our church with some experience in working with people who request financial assistance, I feel like it needs to be said that we need to be wise as well as loving to those in need. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, being wise is often the most loving thing, because it means you need to take some time to get to know someone and their situation and not simply hand out money to make the person and their problem disappear. Certainly we can all be surprised and not know exactly what to do in a situation like this, but what if…the church’s leaders had spent some time after the service talking to the man, getting the name and phone number of the landlord for follow up, asking the man more about his life, and asking him about his faith? The lie would have been exposed, but the man could still have been loved and needs could still have been met, and perhaps a relationship formed.

  2. Just an hour before I read this email for the first time, my wife and I were talking about how our Creator seems to have built in a level of risk into everything, therefore requiring faith in order to make decisions and move forward on so many things in life. Maybe everything. I then acknowledged all the effort I put into trying to eliminating risk, or at least minimizing it, and getting all the facts up front that I can. I empathize with the congregation because they had little or no facts to go on, just the man’s word. I think the pastor had it right, it’s our outward love and generosity for others that defines us, even when someone else’s actions are fraudulent. That’s on him. Maybe the “coals of fire” spoken of in scripture will someday make it’s way to his conscience. Great story.

  3. Margaret says:

    Well, leave it to God to gift this beautiful church with a living illustration of your message! As with most of God’s commands, there are no conditions with the command to give. Jesus simply said, “When someone asks you for something, give it to him.” He doesn’t say to give only if you are sure you are not being scammed, or have the one asking for help to be checked out by an organization before you give. As you said so well, Philip, “God’s grace always involves risk. A gift can be ignored, rejected, or exploited – a fact that applies to God’s grace toward us as well as our grace toward others.”

  4. Kent Washburn says:

    Great story, points beautifully made. Greetings to you & Janet.

  5. Jeff Quandt says:

    I have one question: what did the pastor learn about himself from his failure to lead in the critical moment? He clearly punted, hoping someone else would bail him out. Did he even make eye contact with the visitor?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      It’s hard to know what to do when you’ve not encountered anything like that before–believe me, I know! He went up to the visitor right after the service and followed up with him several times. I imagine he’ll be well-prepared in the future. –Philip

  6. Randy Umble says:

    Just today I was teaching my kids about God’s generous heart. These words from Luke 35-36 shocked me:
    “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
    Am I kind to the ungrateful and wicked? Hmm…

  7. Chris Istrati says:

    Philip, your story reminded me of when I was a young Christian in Cape Town, South Africa. I came to Christ through a dramatic conversion and was convicted by the Holy Spirit of my wealth that seemed a stumbling block. I had sold my Rolex watch that seemed excessive as a Christian, and had given the proceeds to the church. I had a great compassion for the homeless on the street, for by the grace of God, I realized I could have been one. A homeless man I had befriended gave his life to the Lord and expressed a desire to repent and change. He confessed that he didn’t have suitable clothes for a job interview. I gave him my best, expensive suit and encouraged him to look for a job. A few weeks later I saw him on the street looking a little worse for wear. When I asked him what happened, he told me with a breath marinated in alcohol that he had sold my suit and had gone on a long booze bender in a hotel, which is why I had not seen him. At the time I had scolded myself for being so naive in thinking that my gift of a suit and prayers could change an alcoholic who needed a proper rehab center. However, I believe that God honored my gift and faith and one day would answer my prayers for the rehabilitation of the homeless man.

  8. Sue says:

    Denise…You Rock. Must be a Southern Woman. 🙂

  9. Sue says:

    Nehemiah Chapter 3:12 women working alongside men re-building the wall.
    Nehemiah 4:17 “Those (men & women) who built on the wall, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction, & with the other held a weapon.”

    A smart, well-trained woman can handle a hammer & a Smith & Wesson just fine.

    Keep writing Phillip.

  10. Cathy C says:

    When I reached the line “reaching discreetly under his sports coat for a firearm,” I heard the sound of a needle screeching across a record in my head.

    No one is in more need of grace these days than the church.

    Cathy

  11. Thanks for the post. Each time we attempt to help in whatever way, God blesses us and the receiver in ways we don’t always know. We are blessed as we learn just what our gift did, and sometimes it encourages / enables ones who only seek to take advantage, and sometimes it helps in the ways we were aiming at. In each case we learn some things about giving and receiving. May we continue to learn in God’s grace to Love in all the genuine ways that get past our “need to not be taken advantage of” and to become increasingly able to listen to God’s direction and grow in discernment about a best way for us to love the one that comes given our current growth in the practice of letting God’s genuine love be given to each one that comes. Peter, with Ananias and Sapphira was well along in loving discernment and calling out those trying to take advantage. May our practice with God’s Spirit mature us to such a place.

  12. Sean Hart says:

    Something often overlooked in the accounts of Y’Shua is the fact that he picked Judas as one of the twelve even though he knew what Judas would do later. This story helps to remind me of that, as well as Y’Shua’s own words, “God lets his sun rise each day on the righteous and the not so righteous”. Thanks Philip.

    -SeanKH

  13. Marcus DeHart says:

    Here’s a perspective on generosity I’ve often tried to convey with only moderate success. Too often we worry about getting “played” by a con—that our genuine efforts to be generous will somehow be nullified if we’ve been duped. That’s not how God deals out grace. He forgives me knowing that I will turn around and sin tomorrow or the next day or next week. My unfaithfulness does not diminish the grace God has poured out on me.
    By forgiving me is God “enabling” me to sin so that grace may abound? On the contrary, He is opening a door that leads to righteousness. He is redeeming me.
    Does God march me off to church and tell me to straighten up my act and only then will He forgive me?

    I have a long way to go before I am “perfect like my Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). I can’t help but believe that God’s grace to us is the model we should be following and that I shouldn’t rely solely on human reasoning. Matt 18

  14. John B. says:

    Denise, it screams freedom to me. Freedom to worship in safety and peace.

  15. Avenel Grace says:

    Thank you Phillip.
    As you know, through my experience with J , giving was a matter of urgency too. …just like this young man. True, we never know what they are going to do with the gifts we give, but that is never the point.
    I have a new young man who I have committed to from Kenya. He has dragged himself out of the slums to earn scholarships to go to University, and learn Agriculture and Business practice. He wants to buy land and teach the poor, … in particular the youth to farm their own produce. I have partnered with him and set up a face book page HOPE AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES PROJECT so we can keep people informed. My love as ever,
    Avenel.

  16. David Pearson says:

    Just last night in a Bible Study I made the point that the Church needs to create and support more agencies that can detect fake from real needs among the many “scammers” that hit on us. Having read your story and the comments I am again seeing that even where such facilities exist we cannot ignore our need to be God’s hands and feet in a direct way in the lives of people in need. Thanks for you really wonderful post.

  17. Greg Denholm says:

    I thought I knew where your article was going. I didn’t.

  18. Jean Cortese says:

    I am surprised by the negative comments regarding the usher and his gun. This past year there was a tragic mass shooting in a church during a service. I think it is important to give as the congregation did but I also agree with the idea of giving to organizations who specialize in helping not only with money but with guidance. All the comments about God’s grace are a reminder to me of the many, many times it took me to finally follow Christ and make needed changes in my life.

  19. Francis says:

    As another mentioned, for a Canadian the mention of an armed usher is a shock. As does a poster saying she “has concealed carry”.
    Rolls out so easily.

    Cultural differences. Significant ones.

  20. Caralyn Haglund says:

    We are to give. God will sort it all out. He knows the motives of those who ask for help, those who give and those who don’t give.

  21. NO! There are better ways to help. All these people did was enable. Take the guy to the Salvation Army, and, while you are there, read their rules.

  22. About our “gun saturated society” – – would there be fewer shootings if we had fewer guns or more fathers?
    I recently spent a couple of weeks making a special gift for a Christian brother. I never heard back from him. What to do? Confront him with a speech about the virtues of gratitude or ignore the slight and give it to the Lord? I decided on the latter. Thank you, Philip, for reminding me about the risk of grace and that grace is always the best choice.

  23. Paul Yin says:

    “Extending grace always involves risk. A gift can be ignored, rejected, or exploited—a fact that applies to God’s grace toward us as well as our grace toward others.” The entire story seems to have served as the commentary to this insightful conclusion. Most of us face similar situations daily when we encounter another street panhandler. Perhaps we may justify our struggle with whether we should help a needy or risk being scammed, but you insert a fresh thought in our thinking process: Extending grace always involves risk. My life is deepened by this thought. Thank you.

  24. Denise says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    2 things: before my husband retired ‘needy’ people came to the church door regularly. He finally started taking them to get food or gas or night in a motel and some to places which were hiring. ( No one ever actually took a job).
    I am a 72 yr old female and have concealed carry. I carry in church – not for the church people but a deranged person who might show up.

  25. Janet Cline says:

    This is special. I hope every member of that church was blessed by their opportunity to help, even after they learned that it wasn’t all it seemed to be. Sometimes our caution not to be duped robs us of the chance to be blessed.

  26. Gary Miller says:

    You took me through a forest of emotions I didn’t know I had! I was encouraged by the generosity, saddened by the “scammer,” raised my eyebrows regarding the usher with a gun, and was pleased with how well the situation was handled by you and by the congregation.

    Mostly I was amazed, once again, by the power and mystery of grace. The power of grace will make itself known in the lives of the givers over time. The mystery of grace will work behind the scenes in the heart of the scammer. This, too, will occur in a time frame we can neither see nor comprehend.

    Thanks for sharing your “Drama in Real Life” experiences once again, Philip. It takes me back to stories you shared with us on Harvester Island.

  27. Suzanne Yemen says:

    “A trained usher moves toward the front, reaching discreetly under his sports coat for a firearm, just in case of trouble.”
    Much as I appreciated your story, the way you handled it and the gracious conclusion of the senior pastor , the line in quotations above screams at me! At first I reasoned this was because I am Canadian. Then I realized that no, as Christians this line should scream at everyone!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I agree completely. It’s unbelievably tragic that large churches see the need to provide that kind of security in our gun-saturated society. –Philip

  28. Bruce Dennis says:

    A great parable and testimony of faith! And an excellent response to the objection I have (too) often heard: “But what are they going to do with it?” It is so heartening when people demonstrate their awareness that generosity grows the soul of those who give freely and joyfully!

  29. Magdalena says:

    Our late Croatian Catholic cardinal Franjo Kuharić used to say that when he meets a begger he always gives him some money because he would rather be deceived than meet a man in real need and not help him. I always remember that when I meet beggers in the street. To each one on their one conscience!

  30. Thank you for this real life reminder of risky grace and God’s risk on me.

  31. Katie Stoner says:

    Philip, my favorite post ever! It’s all up to God………whether you’re a giver or a receiver. HE determines the blessing!
    May God bless you, Janet & your ministry!
    Your forever friend,
    Katie Stoner

  32. Elizabeth Workman says:

    Just this week I had a similar situation, though not so public or grand, when a shaggy man sitting in the car next to mine asked me for $2 so he & his wife could buy gas. $2 won’t even buy a gallon so I suggested he follow me to the gas station where I filled the car up—it truly was empty. They are local people, he told me. I can only guess if they’re law-abiding citizens, but as I drove home my thought was: “well, if they siphon it out to sell for drugs that’s not my concern.” Perhaps the gesture will create a crack for God’s love to shine in. If that’s how we can be used, so be it! Shine, Jesus, shine.

  33. James Abana says:

    The problem the world is in today is the wrong place we give to money and material things… That’s why people are doing anything to get it. It’s good that people of God are willing to give irespective of how the gifts are used. God loves a cheerful giver.

  34. Rodney Otto says:

    Just finished a Bible study focused on your book prayer. Loved the emphasis on contemplation and hooks to the Joan of Norwich, etc.
    Some say this contemplative approach is the key to the next wave of revival…something more than liturgy, more than doctrine, more than morality…and that is a personal relationship to our dancing God…re: Richard Rohr. What do you think?
    By the way thanks for your encouragement 15 years ago…I finally finished my little historical fiction stories on our family farm and shared with my family. It was a life fulfilling moment. Keep on Keeping on Philip! Shalom! You are the ultimate story teller…and remind me of Y’shua!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I learn a lot from Rohr. Some of what he says seems fuzzy, some makes me scratch my head in puzzlement, but most of the time he makes me think, and that’s good. Slowing down, silence, contemplation, relationship–our culture and the church badly need that correction. –Philip

  35. Linda Whicker says:

    As I left the local Department of Social Services offices, a lady approached me asking if I had two dollars I could spare. Having left my purse in the car, I was not sure if I had even that amount to give, so I said no to her request. But on checking my billfold I found I had a ten dollar bill, and a feeling such as described in the last paragraph of your blog came to me. I opened my car window as I drove back to where the lady still stood, told her I had been mistaken when I said I did not have two dollars, found that I ten dollars instead, and asked if that would help. Her thanks and smile were genuine. The Lord gave us one gift, that of choice, which does involve risk in many instances, but that day I felt grace in full measure and prayed that she received a share also in the gift.

  36. That sounds like it was a good exercise for the church to offer help on the spot. But much more than that, the congregation was moved to action – being the hands and feet of Christ. That’s true religion. And as for the unexpected guest, may God show him more grace.
    That’s a powerful testimony. Thank you for sharing.

  37. Peter Reece says:

    As you can imagine, here in South Africa these situations are legion and its impossible to tell truth from fiction. The overwhelming majority of the stories are just that; stories. We try and solve our dilemma by supporting ngo’s that take care of these people and are more capable of determining the fakes. I guess that this is just a “cop-out” on our part but its a survival strategy for most of us!

  38. Rob Acton says:

    A poignant example of grace extended. Thanks for saving this, Philip.

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