Jim Cymbala is the Pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle Church in New York City. Many people know him because of the amazing Choir ministry they have had there at their church in Brooklyn that has reached people all across the world for decades. There is, however, a much more substantial part of their ministry that is a shining beacon to the dark areas of that city that surrounds them. Often when I start losing a proper perspective on what ministry is really about, I think of the following story that Pastor Jim shares….
“It was Easter Sunday and I was so tired at the end of the day that I just went to the edge of the platform, pulled down my tie and sat down and draped my feet over the edge. It was a wonderful service with many people coming forward. The counselors were talking with these people.
As I was sitting there, I looked up the middle aisle, and there in about the third row was a man who looked about fifty, disheveled, filthy. He looked up at me rather sheepishly, as if saying, “Could I talk to you?” We have homeless people coming in all the time, asking for money or whatever. So as I sat there, I said to myself, though I am ashamed of it, “What a way to end a Sunday. I’ve had such a good time, preaching and ministering, and here’s a fellow probably wanting some money for more wine.”
He walked up. When he got within about five feet of me, I smelled a horrible smell like I’d never smelled in my life. It was so awful that when he got close, I would inhale by looking away, and then I’d talk to him, and then look away to inhale, because I couldn’t inhale facing him.
I asked him, “What’s your name?” “David.” “How long have you been on the street?” “Six years.” “How old are you?” “Thirty-two.” He looked fifty—hair matted, front teeth missing, wino, eyes slightly glazed. “Where did you sleep last night, David?” “Abandoned truck.”
I keep in my back pocket a money clip that also holds some credit cards. I fumbled to pick one out thinking, I’ll give him some money. I won’t even get a volunteer. They are all busy talking with others. Usually we don’t give money to people; we take them to get something to eat. I took the money out. David pushed his finger in front of me. He said, “I don’t want your money. I want this Jesus, the One you were talking about, because I’m not going to make it. I’m going to die on the street.”
I completely forgot about David, and I started to weep for myself. I was going to give a couple of dollars to someone God had sent to me. See how easy it is? I could make the excuse I was tired. There is no excuse. I was not seeing him the way God sees him. I was not feeling what God feels.
But oh, did that change! David just stood there. He didn’t know what was happening. I pleaded with God, “God, forgive me! Forgive me! Please forgive me. I am so sorry to represent You this way. I’m so sorry. Here I am with my message and my points, and You send somebody and I am not ready for it. Oh, God!”
Something came over me. Suddenly I started to weep deeper, and David began to weep. He fell against my chest as I was sitting there. He fell against my white shirt and tie, and I put my arms around him, and there we wept on each other. The smell of His person became a beautiful aroma. Here is what I thought the Lord made real to me: If you don’t love this smell, I can’t use you, because this is why I called you where you are. This is what you are about. You are about this smell.
Christ changed David’s life. He started memorizing portions of Scripture that were incredible. We got him a place to live. We hired him in the church to do maintenance, and we got his teeth fixed. He was a handsome man when he came out of the hospital. They detoxed him in 6 days.
He spent that Thanksgiving at my house. He also spent Christmas at my house. When we were exchanging presents, he pulled out a little thing, and he said, “This is for you.” It was a little white hanky. It was the only thing he could afford.
A year later, David got up and talked about his conversion to Christ. The minute he took the mic and began to speak, I said, “The man is a preacher.” This past Easter, we ordained David. He is an associate minister of a church over in New Jersey.
And I was so close to saying, “Here, take this; I’m a busy preacher.”
I wish I could say I have learned my ministry lesson about this. In the spirit of true confession, I find myself re-learning it over and over. We obviously have a job to do here at Wanamaker whether we are clergy or laity. It is easy to get caught up in the machine of ministry. We can get so full of ourselves and lose sight of keeping the main thing…the main thing.
I think it is important to thank the Lord for sending others our way. The reality is we need them as much as they need us. Matthew 25 reminds us that in the presence of the one who needs a cup of cold water we see the face of Christ. John Wesley would claim that only as we consistently find ourselves in the presence of the needy and downtrodden will the Church truly be sanctified. May we never stop seeing the ones that God sends our way as His precious children no matter how busy or tired we become.