Points To Ponder/Elevating Otis
by Pastor Dennis Whitmore
There’s a worn down embankment on the corner of our church parking lot. Homeless men and women have often parked themselves there. Most of them are alcohol and/or drug abusers. We know most of them by name and they know us.
One of the guys reminds me of the character Otis on the old Andy Griffith Show. He’s the affable town drunk, whom even the mayor knows by name. Like most of the men and women who sit there, he’s not interested in treatment or changing his lifestyle. But he’s a nice guy and everybody is just kind of used to him.
An alcoholic once told me you can tell when an alcoholic is lying. How? “His lips are moving,” he said. Old “Otis” is a sweet guy, but he’ll also lie to you with a straight face if it will get him what he wants. But, everyone knows that, having seen him on the street for some 15 plus years. He’s a fixture, a part of the landscape.
But that has troubled me. I wonder about his soul condition more than his physical condition. We’ve talked about faith and he says “all the right things,” but his lifestyle says something else. Last year, I wrote it down as my goal to see him come to the Lord before he dies. But how, I wondered?
One day he was gone. For several weeks, no sign of him. Then the call came; a message on the voice mail from “Otis.” He’d been in the hospital. Now he was confined to a nursing home because of various ailments. He only had the clothes he’d been wearing when he was admitted. In a sad, pitiful voice, he asked if we could give him some clothing.
Yes! What exciting news, I thought. “Now we’ve got him,” I told some of our members. I mean that in a good way. First, he is being forced to dry out and will have to stay that way for months. The nursing home is located far from any bar or liquor store. Wonderful!
Secondly, he wears my size in clothes; so it was easy to get a bag of things together. This was a great opportunity to meet him at his point of need and to love him.
Finally, we’ve been in the “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, using Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life book. The emphasis of this forty day, small group study is to answer the question, “What on earth am I here for?” What better question for a sobered-up man who’s thrown away more than a decade of his life on the street. Now he’ll have a clear mind, in a safe and clean place where he can really listen to God’s voice if he will choose to hear it.
I asked a couple from the church to visit him weekly and lead him through the study. Old “Otis” was excited to see them when they came, and was ready to do the work with the book. I had asked the Lord long ago, how could we reach this guy and really help him. It appears that He has provided that way. The story is not finished yet at this writing, but what an opportunity!
How often do we take for granted the anonymous homeless and drunk and drugged people, and assume they are just part of the landscape? Like trash in the gutter, stray dogs on the street, and graffiti on the walls, we get used to them. But these persons are known to (and created by) God. It is easy to overlook. In fact it is more comfortable and less risky if we overlook them, having done that myself.
Because we often assume that these are “social justice issues,” we fail to look at the real problem. What we’re seeing on the streets are manifestations of spiritual problems. Blame the economy, the wealthy, the President, or whomever; however, the sin nature of people is the root of it all. Unless the inner man is changed, the outer man will remain a mess. Paint over rust and it’s just a matter of time before it pushes through.
Notice our “Otis.” Because we have a relationship with the man, he thought to call me at this church. As we go to meet him where he is, he’s thankful for the relationship. We care. Folks want to sit and talk and study the Word with him. He’s open to that now. Why? He’s not a social justice issue - he is a man who needs to know God loves him. Yes, he needs alcohol out of his body, but he needs Christ in his heart. One day his body will die, but what will be the fate of his soul? The social justice aspect is useless in the cemetery. And if that’s all we do for the homeless, the substance abusers, and the destitute, then what real lasting good have we done?
I’ve learned (and am still learning) some lessons in this. One is that these troubled individuals are persons in God’s eyes. As hard as it is at times, I have to see them as He sees them.
Secondly, if you know the truth and the truth has made you free (John 8:32), shouldn’t these folds be given an opportunity to know it too? It’s not likely you discovered it all by yourself; so who’s going to care about these lost souls if you and I don’t?
Finally, if we think of these needy people from this perspective, we are more conscious of their soul condition. I found myself at various times thinking about “Otis” and discussing him with my Heavenly Father. I’m not trying to sound pious, but I find that if I try to see things through my Father’s eyes, my mind dwells more often toward conscious, prayerful concern.
I’m excited he’s in a home. It matters to me. Bumper sticker platitudes about social justice are easy; but daring to care about the souls behind the issues is both risky and exhilarating. Why do these people wind up crossing our path? You already know.
“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14 NKJV)
Pastor Whitmore serves God at The First United Methodist Church in Laurel, MD. Visit www.fumcl.org.