Interstate Gas, God and the Panhandler

The interstate mega gas station was bustling with travelers filling up with fuel, coffee and snacks. Kids were rolling out of minivans to stretch, dads seemed tattered, moms working to control the scattering ankle biters. A wonderful element of the family road trip. In all this organized confusion was Robert. Robert was pulled over to the side of the pumps and made his way to the guy refueling just a few aisles over. I could not make out the words, but I saw the fellow pumper pull out his wallet and give Robert some money. I figured out what was going on; he was panhandling.

Robert made his way over to me next. I watched him as he came my way, intentional, obviously well versed in his request. My online dictionary defines panhandler: to approach strangers and beg for money or food. To approach and beg from (a stranger).To obtain by approaching and begging from a stranger.

In the bustling city of Austin, Texas where we reside it is common to see folks of every shape and size standing at intersections with signs. “will work for food,” “need bus money, “I won’t lie, need beer money.” I would not be far off if I said I saw 20 or more a day. I have given cheese crackers, water and even leftovers. I personally do not give cash to the panhandlers on the corner. I have on many occasions given them my number and told them I would love to have them work for me a day or two. I have stopped and prayed with them, asked them to church.

I lived on the street for years as a young man. I slept in Goodwill boxes and prayed for food, warmth, love. I carried 2×4’s and picked up trash, cleaned pools and did anything I could to take care of myself. I only once asked for food stamps. However, I never panhandled. I am not above anyone, quite the opposite I am sure. I never remember thinking that way. I was always trying to figure out a way to work for some money. Do something.

When Jesus asked the wealthy young man if he wanted to be with Him, wanted to join in, he said yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  But then Jesus laid out the requirement He knew would hurt, that he had to give everything away, the young fellow faltered. Mathew 19: 21, Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, confused, disoriented. He would have to abandon his great wealth.

Now I have had money and I have been without and of course having some has always been better. Today I don’t like going anywhere without just a few dollars in my pocket. It is, I am guessing, a mental quirk from those days I went without food or shelter because I had no money.

Today our ministry gives almost every kid who asks a scholarship to our camps. Generous folks donate, and we get to bless those in need. So the question is how do we know who is really in need. How do we pick from so many who have needs? How do we discern the truly needy?

Robert began talking. “Hey can you help me? My vehicle is out of gas and my family is just down the road waiting for me to come back and get them, can you spare some money?” I was prompted to ask my new friend, “well bring your truck over here and I will fill it up.” He pulled around, and when he got out he spoke fast and seemed nervous. I plugged in the hose and, about 20 seconds later, it clicked off, I tried again, click.” Well Robert it seems your full of fuel.” “Yes, I was down the road at another gas station and someone gave me some gas, I didn’t know how much.” I didn’t believe him.

Then God said, pray with him. So this guy is scamming folks and You want me to pray for him, ugh. “Hey Robert, let me pray for you, your family, your vehicle, safe travels.” I laid my hand on his shoulder and began. When I was done, he said thanks, got in his truck and drove to the gas station next door.

We need to learn to listen when we have these questions. When we are led by the Spirit, when our heart tells us, when we have explored the reasoning why. God can tell you while you wait at the light to give the guy with the sign a dollar or a burger coupon. You can be prompted to give at a fundraiser or banquet. As Jimmy, my dear friend and mentor always tells me,  “you can’t out give God.” The blessings from giving, tithing,  are only experienced by giving.

Sometimes giving is not about money. It can be a silent prayer at the stop light, when an ambulance goes by, helping a neighbor move or rake their yard. I am not sure what happened to Robert, but I loved giving him what was on my heart. I was willing to give him money, I was open to just pulling the handle and letting the pump go to wherever the dollar amount stopped, but God had another plan. God wanted to humble me to listen to Him, to be obedient and pray in public, to speak to Robert’s heart and even more so, mine.

TJ Greaney is founder of Kids Outdoor Zone Youth Outdoor Adventure Ministry.

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