Doing the kind of work we do, you get to meet all kinds of people. Most of them are broken. And when I say broken I don’t mean at the end of themselves, unable to carry on sort of broken. No, I mean like broken toys – discarded, abandoned, lost, not fit for purpose. That brokenness can often manifest itself in anger and bitterness. Sometimes in pride. But mostly in behaviour that further isolates them from other people. A true vicious circle. Sometimes they don’t look after themselves. Others tell lies. And some will steal from you…even if you are the only ones willing to help them.
I am not trying to justify any of this behaviour on their behalf. That doesn’t solve any of the issues. It simply gives them a platform upon which to stand. No, I am simply explaining what sometimes happens in order to reveal a little of how God works.
You can always tell how broken someone actually is by their responses to your offer of help or acts of kindness. When we first started trying to help people, we had a guy come and live with us. He had no one. Literally no one in the world. He had spent such a great deal of time in one institution or another that he couldn’t help seeing our home in the same fashion. His life had been rubbish and he had been treated as rubbish. He knew the system inside out and knew how to ‘work his ticket’ in every situation. He believed the world owed him for the way his life turned out. The world disagreed. After a while of him living with us I realised that because of his brokenness, he was unable to show any genuine gratitude for anything. He was very good at lip service but rubbish at anything more real or authentic. As it goes, at the time, I learnt a valuable lesson from him about gratitude. I realised that as much as I disliked being taken for granted or being shown ingratitude, God hated it. It is hurtful, even when the ungrateful person doesn’t know they are doing it. As a result of being shown ingratitude, I learnt to show God gratitude for everything…even the little things. Next time someone shows you some appreciation, just pause and feel your heart swell and warm. That is just how God feels when we say thank you to Him.
My point is this: however the brokenness manifests itself you will always have to forgive. With our house guest we had to forgive. Why? Because if we didn’t we would never be able to help anyone else again. The next person that needed help from us wouldn’t get help. They would get cynicism, mistrust and suspicion. Forgiveness is the key. Jesus said you should forgive seventy times seven…and when you have done that, do it again.
What follows is an account of the events of Friday just gone. Without the key this post could never have been written…as you will see.
We serve breakfast to those in genuine need six days a week. It is often an eclectic mix of people who rock up each day. We have know most of them for a year or so but every now and then someone new turns up and you have to get to know them. Quite often they present themselves in one way but the mask will always slip if they continue to come and eat, and you see their real nature. Many of those who live on the street will try to make you believe that they are happy sleeping in a tent or a public toilet. But they are not. They would swap places with me in the blink of an eye, regardless of what they say.
We purpose not to bring our past experiences forward and so, when someone new appears looking through the glass of Cornerstone, we welcome them with open arms. One day last week such an occurrence took place. A couple (that is a man and a woman) who are homeless and living in a tent turned up. They hadn’t eaten a hot meal in three weeks. So we fed them. We clothed them with clean clothes, and we loaded them up with food to take away. All good.
The next day we did the same. As I watched how they went about things, it was clear (like the house guest I mentioned earlier) that the guy, in particular, knew how the system worked. Some will take and take as if they deserve it. As if it is their God-given right. It might be but gratitude comes from the heart and if people don’t say things like ‘thank you’ then you notice it. It doesn’t stop us giving to them or helping them. I tend to see those guys like dogs that have been mistreated at the hands of humans. You have to coax them into trusting again. At first they might growl or snatch the food and run. But as time passes you are able to show them love and they accept it. I could sense a bit of this but I wasn’t really paying attention as breakfast was quite busy and between cooking bacon and buttering toast, you don’t get a whole heap of time for people watching.
After breakfast had finished and we had cleaned up ready for the next day, my wife Caz and another helper were going to stay at Cornerstone to sort through some of the clothes donations. I was going to nip home and do something – I can’t recall what. So, I said I would lock up downstairs as the girls were going to be working upstairs. I went to where I always left the key and it wasn’t there. I looked around but I couldn’t see it. I tried retracing my steps and came to the conclusion that I had left it not in its normal place but instead on a small table which had an array of phone chargers on. People who are homeless have no where to charge their phones so we let them plug in and charge.
That morning this new guy had charged his phone and I could recall him being at the table trying different chargers. And then it happened. I assumed. Now we all know the old adage about assumption and how to assume makes an ass out of me and an ass out of you: ass/u/me. I did that. We say ‘I naturally assumed’. That is what I did. It was already in my nature to think the worst of people so I did…naturally.
Immediately I took stock. The old boot lace that had the shop key on also had our house key. My heart sunk. You know that feeling when you lose you wallet or phone or keys. It is horrible. From that point onwards your day changes direction rapidly.
I was now questioning everything this guy did that morning. I remembered him asking me what time we would be at Cornerstone until. I now used this against him as proof that he had taken the keys and was intending to rob us later. By now Caz was ready to go track him down. It had to be him. We knew everyone else well and they don’t steal from us. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. But this new guy. Well, we don’t know him. He might move from town to town just ripping unsuspecting folks like us off. Only, we weren’t unsuspecting. We suspected him.
I knew Caz was fuming but I asked her to go and do something to keep her occupied whilst I searched for the key. Caz said she would go home for a while but not before looking around the town for this thief. We were both cross. And hurt. We have nothing but what we do have we will willingly give to someone in need. Often, in a crisis, I go all quiet. It is my way of processing stuff. So, I set about doing two things. Firstly, I started to remove the lock at the shop so I could go and get a replacement. And secondly I prayed. Father, I prayed, either show me where I have left the keys or if he has taken them please prick his conscience into returning them. No harm done.
No harm done. Except it would be wouldn’t it? The harm would have been done. If he had returned the keys I would have said thank you but also made it known that he and his partner wouldn’t be welcomed any longer at Cornerstone. Caz returned and was ‘spitting feathers’, mainly because she hadn’t been able to find him. I set about going to the hardware store to find a replacement lock for first the shop and them our home front door. After all, even if he returned the key what was to say that he hadn’t had copies made?
By the time I had changed both locks and reissued keys to those who had need of them I was a hardened man. My heart had grown cold. I had just spent the past four hours or so formulating a plan; imagining conversations I was going to have with him and deciding how I would catch him red-handed by sitting in the dark in the shop all night until he tried the key in the new lock. I planned to shame him.
Caz went home and left me at the shop. What followed was fairly normal for me and God – a wrestling match. One that I could never win. God always maintains and defends the moral high ground. So after wrestling for some time I figured that I would have to choose to forgive this guy totally…even if we never caught him. Even if we could never prove he did it, we would have to treat just as we did the first day we met him – as just another broken toy who needed help. This took a while to make it to this place. I mean I didn’t really have a choice because if anyone had asked me what they should do in a similar set of circumstances I would have told them that you have to forgive. No choice. Totally forgive. Ask God not to punish the offender. Ask God to bless them. Not keep any record of the wrong. Never bring it up or tell anyone else. Let it go.
So I did. I let it go. I purposed in my mind not to hold it against him. I asked God to forgive me for being angry and allowing hurt to cloud my judgement. I asked God to bless him and not to punish him for it. After all, we were likely to meet more and more broken people who were likely to take from us. When I had got to this place and could feel the peace of God settle my heart something happened. I found the keys. They were in the place I usually kept them. They had just got hidden beneath a chopping board which I had moved earlier on. No one had stolen them.
When the realisation hit me you could have knocked me down with a feather. The lesson was important. Vital even. Expensive too. But worth every penny.
Do you know what else happened? The next day when this poor guy turned up – totally unaware that he had been on trial with me as the prosecution the day before – I noticed his humility and gratitude towards us. My clouded judgement of him had gone and I saw with fresh eyes someone whom God loved and cared for. And at that point I was grateful myself. Grateful that the grace of God is such in my own life that I have the privilege of helping others, and grateful that God had chosen to discipline and teach me in this fashion.