When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" (John 6:5, NIV)
Philip considered briefly, then said, "Verily I say to you, the megatemple downtown has a 10-week program that addresses this very issue. I shall download it forthwith."
That's from the NVIEHO - No version I ever heard of.
For the past few months, I've been working with a group that is trying to transform North Carolina, to reclaim it for Christ. They hope to empower Christians to use prayer and the power of God to transform schools, businesses, even governments. But one of the hardest transformations of all has been to get support from most pastors.
I had a dream the other night. God was calling pastors across the city to help reclaim it for Jesus. Dozens of pastors emerged from their churches in flowing robes. Behind each pastor, walking single file, hands on the hips of the person in front, came entire congregations.
As I neared the head of one of the lines, it became clear that the pastor was blind. In fact, where his eyes should have been I could see only shining white orbs like marbles. And each pastor was carrying a bucket.
As the pastor I was observing neared a section of the city frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers, he paused and dipped a large brush into the bucket. Then he began to spread whitewash liberally on the dilapidated structures of the neighborhood.
Eventually, every pastor was so employed. Soon, members of the congregations had their own buckets and brushes. Before long, those dark areas were looking pretty good and they snaked their way back to their churches and shut the doors.
The prostitutes and drug dealers, untouched, shrugged and went on about their business.
I interpreted the dream as follows: Pastors heard God's calling, but determined to put it into practice their own way. They got out their programs, dusted off their study guides and directed their congregations to earnestly address one of the symptoms of spiritual decay. But the root problem remained unresolved.
Biblically, whitewash usually covers up a problem -- often one God wants resolved.
"'Because they (false prophets) lead my people astray, saying, 'Peace,' when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth." -- Ezekiel 13:10-11
Many pastors in our city have been praying for spiritual revival, then turning their eyes to Heaven and awaiting a definitive word from God. They never seem to receive the word they are looking for -- an endorsement for programs they have instituted in their own strength.
Instead, a curious phenomenon is occurring.
Around those churches, God is bubbling up people in need. Some are homeless, some are ill. Some are addicts, some are criminals.
Mother Teresa, tirelessly working in Calcutta, grew to recognize this as God's answer to prayer.
"The poor are our prayer," she said. "They carry God in themselves. God created the world and saw that it was good. ... How can we complain against God for the poverty and suffering that exist in the world? Can we honestly do so? God saw that everything was good. What we do with things is another matter."
Christians are passionately praying to find Jesus, yet many fail to look where He told them He would be -- in Matthew 25:35-40:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
When we are trying to fix something, we are so careful not to "reinvent the wheel." Why, then, are we so eager to rewrite the Gospels? When Jesus wanted to transform, not just cities, but the world, he sent disciples, two by two, to real people. When these people witnessed miracles, thousands came to have faith in Jesus. Why should we be surprised if God, in answer to our prayers, puts people in our paths to accelerate the process?
There is another reason God would place the "least of these" outside our churches. Ministering to them prepares Christians for the much harder task of ministering to the rich -- and often to people inside their own churches.
Mother Theresa puts it this way:
"You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor much more than you have the physically poor. Often among the rich are very spiritually poor people. I find it is easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person, to furnish a bed to a person who has no bed, but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time."
One man who ministers to the poor in our city said he was surprised to find it was easier to talk to drug addicts and prostitutes about Jesus than to speak to people in his own church about anything spiritual.
"I guess the greatest difference we see between the outcasts of society and those people who might be sitting next to us in church is this," he said.
"The outcasts are happy to see us."
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