Gift Bags for the Red Lights

It happened again last week.

As I was approaching a red light after exiting the expressway, I saw the man sitting on the side of the street holding a cardboard sign that said Anything Helps. I watched the light, hoping it would turn green so that I could slide on through without having to stop right next to him and either a) pretend I didn’t notice him, or b) hand him a dollar simply because my 11-year-old daughter was sitting in the passenger’s seat. If it’s just me, I can make excuses. If she’s with me, not so much.

“Why don’t we help him?” she used to ask when she was younger. I don’t think my answers to her questions held much water:

We can’t help everyone that holds a sign.

We really don’t know if he’s in trouble. Sometimes people run scams pretending to need help.

I don’t have any money.

“I do!” she piped up once, but the light turned green and it was time to move.

“What’s a scam?” she asked another time, and I spent the next two miles trying to gently explain that sometimes things are not what they seem, and then sometimes they are, and sometimes we help when we’re not sure simply because it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes we don’t help because we have to be cautious because bad people use other people to get money. She nodded, but my rambling, convoluted explanation was lost on her two green lights back.

Now she stays silent because she has seen the sign and others like it so many times, and she has watched me inch my way past the sign-holder without even a glance. But I know what she’s thinking. The unasked question rings in my ears every time I see that cardboard sign: “Why don’t we help him?”

Why don’t we help him?

Sometimes I really don’t have any money, so I’m off the hook. And other times the light is green, so I’m off the hook with that, too.

But there are times when the light is red, and he (or she) is directly next to my driver side window, and I have multiple bills in my pocket. It’s at that moment that I have to wrestle with the question of why I stare straight ahead and pretend the person isn’t there holding a sign asking for help. Maybe she’s a phony. But maybe she isn’t. Maybe he’s being pimped. But maybe he isn’t. Maybe if he told me the truth about why he sits in the heat and the cold holding a cardboard sign in front of his chest, his story would break my heart. Really, what should my response be?

I don’t want to come up with an answer that either assuages my guilt or protects my self-interest. I want to find the answer that plunges me into God’s restoration project, even if it doesn’t make very much sense. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this restoration that God is doing. That’s what he does, in case we’re not very clear on that. He is about the business of fixing this broken world and the people in it. If that’s all you ever know about God, that’s all you need to know. He makes the dingy shiny, the ugly beautiful, the crooked straight. It’s his delight. But he almost never does it the way we think he should. His ideas about how to restore the broken world are way off our radar screen (think baby born in stable to impoverished teenager). And the most unbelievable way God does this (not the way I would have chosen) is to use broken, dingy, crooked people like me to join him in the restoration project.

So, I have to ask myself as I sit at the red light next to the man with the cardboard sign, what exactly is God wanting to restore?

Here’s what I think: He wants to restore that moment when I look at another human being, a deeply-loved creation, and care not one whit about why they are sitting by the side of the road. He wants to restore the cynicism and the apathy in me because they really bring nothing of value to his restoration project. He wants to restore me (certainly an ongoing and frustrating process) so that I can link arms with others and continue what began in the stable.

So here is what Alison and I are doing, crazy as it may sound. We’re assembling gift bags for the red lights.

We are placing in a gallon-size ziploc bag:

1 stocking cap

1 pair of socks

1 granola bar

1 $5 Quik Trip gift card (yes, I know they could buy beer with it)

small toothbrush and toothpaste

a personal note

The total cost of the bag is about $8. I’d like to find ways to cut the cost so that we could give out more bags, but this is my starting place. And I completely stole this idea from the book The Missional Mom lest you think I am creative. And lest you think I am strutting around boasting about my good deeds, I am not. I believe when we come together and share ideas for how we might might make the world a better place, we take another small but beautiful step in this restoration that God is doing through us.

4 thoughts on “Gift Bags for the Red Lights

  1. What a beautiful experience for Alison – and for you. I remember Mark McAdow carrying bags in his trunk with similar items and thinking, “What a good idea!” It doesn’t count that I think it’s a good idea for you, or Mark, to do it, if I don’t take the good idea and replicate it. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. If you have ideas, Jan, on how to cut the cost on this, please share. If anyone could do that, you could! I just need to think more creatively (ask dentists for toothbrushes/toothpaste maybe?)

  2. Thanks for sharing something with which we all struggle. Again, you MUST read When Helping Hurts. Then we could talk about it. . . 🙂

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