About five years ago, on a trip from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee to Nashville, I stopped off in the town of Cookeville, my halfway point, to grab some gas. It was freezing cold that night and as I stood huddled by the gas pump filling my tank, a scruffy looking gentleman came walking up to me and asked if I could spare some money to help he and his family get home to Oneida; about two hours east of where we were.
In my pocket I knew that I had several bills including a twenty, a couple of fives and a few singles. I half-grudgingly fished around until I came out with the singles and handed them to the man. He took them eagerly, looked me in the eye and said “God bless you sir-thank you” and walked off. I saw him immediately approach another patron at the next row of pumps and thought cynically to myself “Wow what a racket. He probably sits out here all night and hits people up for money over and over, and by morning I’m sure he’s amassed a small fortune.”
After I finished filling my tank I went inside to grab a cup of coffee and a candy bar to tide me over for the rest of the trip. When I was walking back to my car, I happened to notice the scruffy man now standing beside a beat up old station wagon, pumping gas into the tank. As I passed his car I glanced inside and saw a lady bundled up in the passenger seat and, lying across the back seat and covered by a blanket, slept a little girl of about eight or nine. The man finished pumping his gas quickly, having obviously not collected enough to fill up his tank and therefore probably facing a similar dilemma somewhere down the road. He flashed a smile and gave me a quick wave, and as I watched him drive off toward the interstate, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just ignored a significant opportunity.
Had I chosen to give him the twenty dollar bill in my pocket rather than the two or three single bills I actually offered him, I could have completely changed the circumstances for that little family, at least for that night. He might have been able to not only fill up his tank enough to get home but also buy a little something to eat for his wife and little girl. For that twenty dollar bill (that I undoubtedly spent on some unremarkable dinner the following night) I could have purchased that father some dignity.
And I didn’t.
As I drove off in the opposite direction that night, I remembered something that my father once told me many years ago. He had just offered a few dollars to a man down on Market Square who was obviously a beggar by trade, and after the man tottered off, I asked my father “How do you know he isn’t going to take the money that you just gave him for “lunch” and use it to buy liquor or drugs instead?” My father just smiled and said “Son, he may very well do just that, but what that man chooses to do with that money is now between himself and God. Whether I chose to offer him help when he asked me for it- well, that part was between ME and God.”
I humbly pray that God will always remind me that I need to help more, and more often, than my comfort level would dictate; and that I never again ignore an opportunity, as I so cynically did that night, to do something that is truly Good.