Making Friends

This weekend, the futon in our guest room celebrates its tenth birthday with us. I don’t usually remember when we bought furniture, but this was one of those high-charged experiences when a confusing parable suddenly becomes clear—and you suddenly know what you need to do to obey it.

It was the Saturday after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Our daughter had just gotten married on September 1, and her bed became the marriage bed in their matchbox rental unit. We knew we needed to find a replacement bed for our now-empty second bedroom and thought perhaps we’d try a futon. Then 9/11 happened, and like everyone else, we became glued to the TV day and night, asking why, asking who. Within a couple days, our collective national finger was pointed at Afghanistan. Soon reports were surfacing of harassment and even violence against Middle-Eastern looking people living here. And still the incessant 24-hour news reports went on and on. Everyone seemed to be frustrated.

That Saturday afternoon, Janet and I realized we needed to get out of the house and just do something “normal”. There was already a reported slump in consumer purchasing, and we needed to start shopping for a futon, so off we went to check out a few stores and begin the process of doing our homework.

At the very first store, we were helped by a nicely-dressed man in his 40’s, wearing a solid blue dress shirt with a tie. He showed us their merchandise, and we focused on one futon. Between his features and his accent, it was easy to tell he was a native of the Middle East. In light of the charged atmosphere in our nation toward people who looked like him, we simply wanted to interact normally. But as we continued to talk, I noticed that the top of his dress shirt began to get dark and realized that sweat was soaking right down his collar.

Finally I told him that our daughter and her new husband had served in Jordan and asked if he was originally from that region. He said yes. Oh, what part? “I’ve lived here for 20 years, paid my taxes, had a family here… but I’m from Kabul” he blurted out, perhaps hoping I didn’t know where that was.

Our interactions alternated between touching furniture and this touchy subtext. At some point, I eased us into a discussion of the past few days and asked if he had personally experienced any of the harassment mentioned in the press. He warily recited several incidences of name-calling and gestures made from passing car windows, and then said, “Finally, the pressure was so much that last night I told my family we should go out and eat at Burger King, just to get out of the house and do something normal.” I could relate. “But as we were sitting there, a man at the next table began to speak louder and louder to his own family about how all Middle-Easterners should leave America or be thrown out…or worse. The man wouldn’t look at us, but it was clear what he was doing. I wanted to blurt out to him, ‘I’m an American citizen! My children were born here!’ But by that point he was swearing and I didn’t think it would do any good. I tried to distract my kids from hearing him, but it was impossible. We finally got up and left. I felt so ashamed in front of my children; ashamed of America.”

By now, the dark stains of perspiration were covering more than half his collar and working down even farther. I empathized and apologized, reminding him that America wasn’t founded on such xenophobic principles. But it sounded a bit hollow from my safe Anglo perch.

While he was checking on some futon covers or such, Janet and I looked at each other and knew we both wanted to buy a futon from him, today. Forget the shopping around, forget the waiting a few weeks. Our actions just might speak acceptance to him, only in some little way, but in a way that our ‘cheap’ words never could.

And suddenly I understood that peculiar parable of the “unrighteous steward” (Luke 16:1-9), where Jesus tells of the crooked manager of a rich man’s businesses who is about to be fired, so he makes secret deals with each debtor to lower their debt to his master … abusing the owner’s resources so as to make friends who might give him a job after he loses this one.

The kicker is the ending, where the rich man–and Jesus–actually applaud the crooked steward (v8-9). “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

I believe that I’m to be a “steward” of all of the time, talent and treasure with which God entrusts me, not just the portion I donate. And that day we learned something new about “good stewardship”… as important as it is to spend judiciously, there is ultimately a much more important function for money: using it to make friends for Kingdom purposes. If the owner in Jesus’ parable apparently doesn’t suffer from this seemingly major fraud committed against him, how much less will the Lord of the universe, the owner of everything, suffer if we use the resources he entrusts to us in order to gain friends?

For us, purchasing a piece of furniture like this was not a trivial exercise, especially coming on the heels of our daughter’s wedding expenses. But that day, we were given a very clear opportunity to dispense with our normal caution and see how God was inviting us to be used in a small way in this man’s life, provided we were willing to abandon our plans and accept the invitation.

It turned out to be a great purchase. After all, we’ve had ten years of reminders from that faithful futon of how things work in God’s economy.

September 2011

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