Knowing How to Ask

When I was a pastor, people called me often to ask for help. While I had to exercise a certain amount of discernment in addressing these requests, I was, most of the time, fairly uncritical. It is difficult for most people to call someone they don’t know well and ask for help.

The requests ranged from a need to get to the doctor for an appointment to requirements for several hundred dollars to pay a delinquent bill. I know I turned down a couple of requests from people unknown to me because they did not present a good case as to why my church community should help them. These were cold calls made by someone who may have had a genuine need, but were asking  the wrong person, or they may have been from someone who scammed local churches for cash whenever they ran short of drinking funds. Sometimes the help I could give was a referral to the food bank or another agency. A couple of times I referred people to the local police department. If a young man called me on a cold fall or winter night, looking for food and a place to sleep, that’s the number I would give him. The local police were not averse to letting a traveller sleep in an empty cell and getting him a pizza or burger.

We local clergy heard from a certain couple twice a year. I don’t know their back story, but they would land in a  local town, check into a motel, and start calling around. They were always on their way to somewhere else to work or live with family – Halifax, Ottawa. They always seemed to have enough money for the first overnight stay, but not for a second night, while they waited for someone to send them funds to continue the trip. They needed food or money for medicine. One pastor tried to get to the heart of the matter and confronted them at their hotel room, accompanied by another clergyperson. I think they just got the same story as always – they had hitched a ride with a trucker into town, couldn’t get any farther, were waiting for bus fare from someone’s mother or sister, and all they needed was…

They caught me the next season. They were in a nearby town, just up the river, and didn’t have the money for a second night at the motel but couldn’t get their bus fare until the next day. She was too sick for them to sleep rough; they were out of cash and food. I inwardly scolded myself for picking up the call. No, I wasn’t supplying any cash. I could drop off food but it really was in the opposite direction of where I was headed at the time. I got their room number and called the motel manager. I arranged to pay for their room for the night and allowed for their supper and breakfast at the restaurant. I called them back, explained the deal, and blessed them on their trip, cautioning them that the next time through I would expect them to ask someone else if they stopped over locally.

They stayed within the dollar amount I had allowed for meals, and I did not hear from them again. Nonetheless, the following season they came back through, and got some other minister down river to put them up and provide meals. I think they were just travelers; not gypsies (Roma) or Irish travelers, but people who always had been footloose, working migrant jobs for a couple of decades, who had taken to the life on the road and knew no other. I am not criticising that; they seemed to know that there were limits to our charity and stayed within them. I found it easier to deal with them by being forthright and business-like, and maybe that is all they expected. They always offered to pray for those who helped them. They were just wayfarers, and God expects us to protect them, too. They may have been called bums or hobos at some time, but in a way I admired their simple life, and their unwillingness to be tied down to the status quo. They didn’t bargain with me or offer repayment they couldn’t make. They never offered to work in exchange for a meal and a cot. They were, in their own light, honest.

I wonder how often we secretly bargain with God when we tell Him our woes and troubles and want help. “God, help us find the money-the job-the home-our health – and we will be Yours forever. We will work for You. We will reform and be better people. We will make You proud, if You just help this time.”

When we pray like this, we aren’t being honest. God needs nothing from us, and if He has a mission for us, it will be presented according to our abilities now. God doesn’t wait around until we have completed the training course. He just sends us out, to do His will, and we do it as best we can. Postponing doing that work until He has made us better is a lie we try to tell Him and we most certainly tell ourselves. He sends us out on the road, seemingly  unprepared, except that He also promises to hear every prayer and answer every request as we need. We sometimes ask for what we don’t need; God will gently lead us to see why we don’t need it. God doesn’t miss the call, or get it too late, or finds that He doesn’t have enough funds to help out this time. And there is nothing we can do for Him except be honest, and listen in all honesty.

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