The only phone I have these days is a cell phone which is used for both work and private conversations so I always have it with me. Normally, I remember to turn the ringer off before worship and Bible Study and other meetings. But this Sunday, I was busy and forgot to silence it. Just before worship was to begin, it started to ring. Since I didn’t recognize the number, I sent it to the answering function and turned off the sound. We began worship and it started again–this time, I could feel the vibration in my pocket.
After worship, it rang again as I was talking to one of the worshippers. Thinking it might be important, I checked and when I saw who it was, I excused myself and answered the phone–the caller wouldn’t have called unless there it was important. After the culturally appropriate greetings, he asked me if I had got a call earlier. When I told him about not answering, he explained that someone had called him and after telling they had had a long conversation at the Easter worship service, asked for financial help. He didn’t know what to do so he gave the called my number, for which he now apologized.
The interesting thing is that a couple of weeks before this, I had been at meeting with other pastors where one of the participants told us of a scam phone call he had received. The details he shared about his call matched exactly with the details the caller had given the person I was talking to. I was able to assure my friend that this wasn’t a real problem but was a scam and I wouldn’t be calling the person but if he called me, I would give it all the consideration which it deserved. I think he was relieved that it was a scam–the story he was told was a real tear-jerker and while he was a bit skeptical, he wasn’t completely sure.
This call was easy to deal with–I had some warning. But that is a rarity–over the years, I, like most clergy, have had my share of desperate sounding phone calls from people looking for help. Some are legitimate–and while I sometimes struggle to know how to respond, I want to help and try to find ways to alleviate the problem. But the depressing reality is that many of the calls are scams.
Some aren’t even good scams. This particular individual had done no homework–our Easter attendance was up to about 30 but even so, a stranger would have been immediately noticed. Another from a long time ago began his story to a Baptist pastor by saying he had been playing poker while drunk and lost all his money–not a story designed to tug on my heart strings. Every pastor I know has such stories because we are seen as easy targets.
I think Jesus probably had situations like this in mind when he spoke the words we find in Matthew 10.16, ” …be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (NIV). As believers we have an obligation to help others in any way possible, anything from a cup of cold water to a helping hand on the way to reconciliation to God. Often, helping people is going to cost: time, money, effort, increased stress and so on. But when we step in and become a channel of God’s grace to someone in need of that grace, we can rejoice.
However, when the person is a scammer, we can get depressed and cynical–and begin to ask questions and wonder if we should even bother. Well, I learned an important lesson a long time ago. If I want to help people, I have to accept the fact that I am going to get taken. My best response is to be shrewd enough to weed out the most blatant scammers but innocent enough that I don’t cut off people who actually do need help but have a terrible story or questionable presentation.
For me, if the choice is between getting taken sometimes so that I can help people or not helping anyone so that I avoid being scammed, I am going to accept the reality that I will be scammed sometimes–but that does bring with it the more important reality that I will help people receive God’s grace a lot of the time.
May the peace of God be with you.