The Thanks I Get

“Her shoes are nowhere to be found!”


“What?” I said aghast, not really believing that Bree’s nice tennis shoes were really swiped just like that.


The youth group volunteer and I continued the frantic search around the front entrance of our “empowerment center,” a place set in a poor Indonesian neighborhood, designed to empower people out of poverty.  Tonight we had just held a party there for homeless teenagers who live around our city’s town square.  We played games with them, taught them some English, fed them, and honored their graduation from a free graphic design class we offered to them.   We clapped and cheered when the ones of them who completed the course stood to receive their certificates.  It was a lively night of celebration.


After the meal, the 18 honored guests shuffled their way out of our empowerment center to the waiting public transportation mini-van that we had rented for them.  As per Indonesia custom, both ragged street beggar and wealthy ex-pat teenager had slipped off their shoes before entering our building at the start of the party, and now it was time to find their footwear amid a tall mountain of 40 pairs of sandals and shoes. 


Apparently some of our new friends thought this would be a great opportunity to upgrade.  We waved the guests goodbye, the van drove them back to the town square and we started cleaning the party’s aftermath.  That’s when the shoe search started.  As we were looking for the first girl’s tennis shoes, another youth group member approached me.  “I can’t find mine either,” he said dejected.


“Oh, Willy, I’m so sorry.”


I felt a rise of anger in me.  You mean to tell me the very people we threw this party forthese poor street kidsstole two pairs of tennis shoes right off our front porch?  How is the youth group going to feel about this, especially the barefooted ones?  Will their parents be angry at me? This is the thanks I get? 


All of these thoughts swirled through my head as I continued the fruitless search, grasping at some unlikely scenario that the two pairs were simply misplaced.  But deep down I knew better.  I imagined those shoes were tucked away inside a tattered backpack and riding back to the town square even as we searched.


Before the event, I read to the youth group this statement from Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).


“You guys are going to be blessed tonight,” I promised the youth group as we were gathering together all the boxes of fried rice.  “Jesus said so.”


And yet, especially for two members of our youth group, they weren’t blessed. They were robbed.


The shoe theft was an initiation of sorts for these teenagers into the world on serving the poor.  It’s something that sounds very romantic“serving the poor”until you spend a lot of time around poor people.  Some of them can be lazy, manipulative and sinful just like all of us can.  They can even steal your shoes.  After getting burned a few times, it’s easy to keep a radio talk show host distance from poor people and judge them as maybe too lazy to help themselves.  That’s why the poor are easy to avoid—we seldom run in to them unless we are intentional.


Also if you are serving the poor because you are waiting to get positive feedback from them, you are going to be disappointed.  I’ve talked to many relief workers frustrated that while they worked hard in the hot sun to build houses for people displaced by some cataclysmic natural disaster, the people they were serving were just sitting under the shade and passively watching.   It infuriated them.   So forget about getting a Mother Theresa warm fuzzy all the time.


Another bad motivation—if you’re serving the poor to assuage some materialistic guilt, you’re not going to make it for the long haul either. Look at these wretched poor people!   How can we drive these nice cars and they have to walk everywhere?  How can we eat in nice restaurants when they barely have enough to eat?  That kind of motivation doesn’t last very long, maybe long enough to throw a few coins at a social Santa in front of a mall for an annual shopping spree.  But it’s not sustainable for the long haul.  Human compassion is a very low octane fuel. 


That’s why the motivation for serving the poor and broken has got to be God’s heart to serve the poor and broken.  The high octane fuel we need for the job is the heart of God.  He loves the poor.  He wants to lift them.  We can continually plug into that power source, no matter how much our emotions wane.  We may even feel nothing, and we can be honest with that.  “Lord, I don’t feel like getting into the complexities of needs in the lives of the poor. But I know you love them and want to lift them.  Please infuse me with your desires for them.”


The poor and needy are well, very needy.  Ever read Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goat ?   The hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the sick and prisoners are all featured prominently in it—those are some needy folks.  Their lives are complicated.  They can drain us.  They can even deceive us.  That’s why it’s so important to keep going back to Jesus for a refill of our hearts until they are overflowing again.


What I said to the youth group last week was true: “You are going to be blessed!”  I just shouldn’t have added the “tonight” part.   My timing was off—Jesus never promised immediate returns.  He did promise, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  In other words, one day this youth group will feel the pleasure of God and the applause of heaven for throwing a banquet for these street beggars.  It will be well worth it on that day.


Serving the poor for an audience of One.  Feeling the pleasure of God and His very own joy for lifting the ones He loves.  That’s worth a couple of pair of sneakers.