NEW UPDATE about Robert at the end of the post
Robert. The street preacher. We met him in September or so. Big, burly man, likely in his mid 40s. Normally slightly intoxicated when he stops by the Corner.
Booming voice. Huge heart. Always talking about God, how he loves being around other folks like him, “my people,” as he calls us.
We’ve heard pieces of his story along the way. How his mama raised him. How a good friend of his mistreated his own mother (not Robert’s mother but the friend’s mother), and one day mistreated her so badly he killed her. Robert has told me that story at least 3 times now. I’m not sure if it’s because he doesn’t remember having told me before, or if it’s because he nearly relives it, and therefore processes it more fully, every time he speaks of it.
It's been at least 30 years, and he still cannot believe his friend beat—and ultimately killed—his own mother. The shock of it comes through every time he tells me the story.
Robert is from New Orleans; he is a Katrina transplant. He does not stay at the shelter; he has a band of brothers, 4 or 5 of them, that stay beneath a nearby bridge. One day, when I was talking to him, his friend, old Bartholemew, kept hurrying Robert up. He wanted to get to the liquor store before dark so they’d have something to warm them up on a cold night.
It is not for kings, O Lemuel,
it is not for kings to drink wine,
or for rulers to take strong drink,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed
and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
The verses quoted above speak about who should and should not be given “strong drink.” Curiously, it tells rulers not to take strong drink, so that they do not pervert the rights of the afflicted, yet it is said to give strong drink to the one perishing, to her in bitter distress, so that they “forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”
To the ruler, it further admonishes in verses 8 and 9:
“Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Two weeks ago, my friend and pastor, Jonathan, who works for CitySquare, told me about a homeless friend of his who drank while he lived on the street, but as soon as he got a roof over his head stopped drinking altogether. It may be a common tale. The alcohol takes the edge off of the hard life on the street, but is unnecessary when someone gets in a home?
Oh how we judge those in whose shoes we have never walked.
Oh how I judge them.
We will give account for every careless word we speak.1
As Robert and I continued talking on the porch (well, Robert did almost all of the talking), Bartholemew stood to the side, trying to coax Robert away from “[his] people,” to go get that strong drink before nightfall. Robert didn’t want to leave, and he showed his feelings by simply ignoring Bartholomew altogether.
A few minutes later, Robert suddenly got serious, and looked me in the eyes and said, “Elisabeth, I just hope when I get to heaven, Jesus lets me in.” Huge tears suddenly filled his big brown eyes, as he choked up, “It would just break my heart so bad if I got there and Jesus said, ‘No, you can’t come in.’ It would tear me up.”
My antennas went straight up. Here is this man who weekly speaks of God and refers to us as “[his] people” because he thinks we are Christians, and yet he is telling me he is worried that, when he dies and meets Jesus face to face, he might not be let in.
From Scripture we learn that trusting Jesus for salvation means we never have to fear whether or not we’ll be “let in."
If we understand we are sinners and can never work or be good enough to earn God’s favor, and if we then trust in Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection in our place, this Jesus would never refuse the one who has accepted his work on the Cross.
So how did Robert think he got to God in the first place?
And so I asked, ever so gently, “Robert, how is it that you think you get to be with Jesus?”
Without missing a beat, he replied “You obey the 10 Commandments.”
Inside, my heart wept. This wonderful, lively, jovial man had all his life been working hard to obey the 10 Commandments as a means to get to Jesus. All his life he had thought salvation depended on his ability to obey the 10 Commandments.
“Robert,” I almost whispered, “that is not how you get to heaven.”
He was confused. “It’s not?” he questioned.
“No,” I replied. “It’s never been about what you did. It’s about what Jesus did…how he came to earth and lived a perfect life when we do not. How he lived and died in our place, and through his life, death, and resurrection, when we believe in him, brings us to God.” I paused, and then continued, “Robert, you don’t have to work to get to God. Jesus came to us, to earth. He lived a perfect life. He died. He died in our place, for we deserved his death. We are sinners; he never sinned. And then he rose. Because of his life and his death and his resurrection, when you trust in him, you get to God—not because of anything you have done.”
He did not grasp it. I repeated this same thing to him at least three times. In his slightly inebriated state, I could tell it was perhaps harder for him to take in what I was saying. He continued to try to absorb it. I continued explaining, as our conversation proceeded.
And then, fast as lightning, time was up. Bartholomew had lost his patience. Robert had to go. Here we were, having what could have been the most important conversation of Robert's life, and he was suddenly gone.
I have since wondered if I missed something. You see, I thought we had more time to talk. Or at least that Robert would be back the next week. I have not seen him since.
That day on the Corner, I also reasoned with myself, "He's slightly drunk. I'm not sure he fully understands what I'm saying."
And so I didn't do it. I didn't grab his big hands in mine, and look into his beautiful brown eyes, and ask him, "Robert, do you want to pray to Jesus to forgive you of your sins and get you to God, so you don't have to worry anymore about whether or not Jesus will let you in when you meet him?"
What if I had done that? Might he have been freed that day, on the Corner, from the prison he had lived in his whole life, the one that said it all rested on his shoulders to be good enough to get to God?
I don’t know.
I hope I have another chance to talk to him again, to ask him that question, and if he is ready, to grab his big hands in mine, and witness the prayer that has the power to set him free.
UPDATED: Thursday, December 19, 2013 @ 6 p.m.
Robert came back today, for the first time in a month. He is in an apartment, thanks to CitySquare. He told me he had a new book that had parts of the Bible written into it, including the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John). We had talked about his reading Scripture when we last met. He did not read the Bible, and now he is. I asked if he remembered what we talked about last month, how you don't have to be good enough to get to God, but that he accepts you because of Jesus. He did. He was excited about it, and some of what he had been reading reminded him of what I had told him.
I asked if he had ever prayed to accept Jesus, and then I said out loud the prayer, something like this:
“Dear Lord Jesus,
I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness.
I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead.
I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.
Guide my life and help me to do your will.
In your name, amen.”2
He said he had never prayed anything like that. I said, "Well, Robert, do you want to pray it?"
He beamed and said "YES!"
So here's what we did: we sat down on the porch, we grabbed hands, I said the prayer, and he repeated after me. Just like that.
I can't believe it! All of it! That he came back today of all days, that he has an apartment, that he was much less intoxicated than normal. He looked like he had lost weight. He was so grateful for his new home. And then for what he prayed...
As if it weren't enough, before he left, he looked at me, and said the opposite of what he said a month ago, "I know he's going to let me in."
Wow. Praise sweet Jesus for his indescribable gift!
 Matthew 12:36
 from Billy Graham's website.
Click here to see it.