Learning to serve the poor

When I was in college I was fortunate to serve as Mission Intern at a big-steeple downtown church. When people came to the door seeking financial support, I was their liaison with the church. I had afternoon office hours and a monthly budget – I always exceeded both. Each month my supervisor would meet with me, show me the budget and how much I had given away, point out the overage and grimace in a way that expressed compassionately, “This can’t happen next month.” “I know,” I’d smile back, both of us recognizing that it probably would, and it did. I also coordinated the church’s running of a Saturday Soup kitchen, using the model known as Second Helpings – where restaurant food is collected, deep frozen, and reserved to those in need. A small group of us from a campus ministry, full of the idealism and indefatigable spirit of the young, cornered the senior pastor of the above mentioned church and said, “We’re going to start a soup kitchen, and we’d love it if you all help.” Without missing a beat the pastor responded, “We’ll do it at our place!” and sure enough, over time that’s exactly what happened.

These experiences, along with time spent as a volunteer coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity chapter, left me frustrated. I kept feeling like we were putting on band-aids, doing triage, but not helping people to address their foundational issues that put and kept them in need of help. I wrote my senior thesis on “The Socialization of the Homeless: A Call for Change” wherein I argued that the homeless in general, and the poor more broadly considered, need more than for someone to hand them resources; they (like all of us) need to participate in a community of support where transformation can occur and inner capacities can be discovered and developed to their fullest capacity. This is also the argument made by Robert D. Lupton in TOXIC CHARITY: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it).

Dignity is a key theme for Lupton – he emphasizes maintaining and even enhancing the dignity of the poor through all policies, programs and practices intended to help alleviate poverty. This also results in heightened dignity-with-humility for those who serve – doing for is dehumanizing for those with power as well as those without. This focus on dignity then leads to numerous shifts or outright reversals. from “doing for” to “doing with”; from focus on need to focus on relationship; from emergency assistance to development assistance; from focus on meeting our needs to meeting the needs of those being served; from “charity to parity”; from “going on tourist mission trips” that displace local labor and leave little long term change to sending skilled community developers; from food pantry to food coop; from gentrification to re-neighboring; from “experts” leading to community leaders leading with “experts” (i.e. people with knowledge, skills, resources and networks) serving in support capacities. All of these shifts result in heightened dignity for all involved.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, a phrase oft used in literature and perhaps originating with Bernard of Clairvaux, certainly applies in this present context. Churches and charities (and governments and individuals) mean well. We need to look at the unintended consequences of our actions before we take them. We need to act in partnership and community with those being served. We need to develop opportunities for reciprocity wherever possible. We need to build on strengths while filling asset gaps.

I am also now fortunate to serve in a community where some people understand these premises and are seeking to develop community awareness while enacting policy and developing program. We have much to learn. Jesus called the adults around him to learn from the children; I think a parallel principle applies here – the poor have much to teach those who would want to help them. Needing help does not make one helpless – meeting needs unilaterally does.

When is it too late?

When is it too late?
When does the door close?
When does the bridge fall?
When does the gate shut?
When have I missed the opportunity to be or to become what I might have been in an earlier time. Even if it is or was what God had wanted, what God had said. When does the time pass. What is the expiration date on my dream, on God’s dream for me?
Could it be that God wanted something to become in my life, but I refused to hear and heed and now there’s too much water under the bridge, I’m too long in the tooth, I’ve walked to far to turn back now. What does it mean for God to grieve my failure to receive the calling laid out for me. Surely each time Israel turned its stubborn back on God, refusing the gift, the calling, the blessing, the challenge, surely then God wept, as Jesus wept standing outside Jerusalem’s gate, wishing things could have been different.
“If only.”
If only they had not killed the prophets, the very ones God sent with second chances, third chances, fourth chances, trying, hoping, longing, loving to see Israel turn.
If only they had not filled their eyes and imaginations and hands and mouths with every idol to distract them from the one true calling, the one true being God had destined for them.
If only you and I had chosen differently, had seen AND perceived, heard AND understood. Then perhaps we might have yielded, paused, reflected, relented. Then perhaps we might have given our lives fully to the dream God had, the first dream, the pure dream, not the redemption dream, the rescue dream, the broken and torn patchwork of love which became a Gospel, a message of good news to those who were used to the 24-7 talking heads conveying nothing but our own self deceptions with beautiful faces.
If only you and I would stop now.
But what happens if I stop, if I listen, if I yield
But you refuse.
Or vise versa?
What if our full calling is communal
But only some of us commune?
What if two are called, but only one answers? What then? Does the shape of the calling, or our response, change? If you and I are called to go together, and one of us refuses, out of fear or anger or confusion or doubt, then can the other still say yes? If we don’t all say yes, can any of us say yes? And what pain ensues for the YES in the face of the NO? What heartache and sorrow and loneliness comes to the faithful heart because the calling can not be fulfilled in light of the unfaithful heart. And to free oneself of the unfaithful heart would be unfaithfulness itself.
Jesus never broke free from those who opposed his fulfilling the call of God on his life – except in his death. The suffering of Christ was to walk crippled through this world, handicapped by the fear and doubt of others – “He could do nothing among them…”
Lot’s wife did not refuse to go. In the biblical narrative (Genesis 17) she left, nameless and uncertain. God called, and she went together with her husband and their two daughters. But she hesitated, wanting to hold on to what they were called to leave behind. In the process, she was destroyed, and her family forever altered. Her daughters were driven to panicked insanity, thinking themselves the only women left on earth and thus responsible for the survival of the whole human race!  What sorrow ensued. Because they were not able to go together, God’s dream for Lot’s family could not be lived out as God had likely intended. What if she had simply refused to go at the beginning, rather than leaving and then hesitating? Would Lot, could he, have left her? Would it have been the ‘godly’ thing to do? Would righteousness have dictated to leave her behind, take the girls and go? Or would it have been more right to stay behind and console her in her fear, seeking to continue a righteous life as things came apart around them?  (Remember, Lot’s the same guy who, because of the high value he placed on hospitality offered up his two virgin daughters to the riotous mob in exchange for the visitors. What a great dad!)
There is an interesting exchange in Luke 18:
28 Then Peter said, “Look, we have left (our own) [OR] (our all) and followed you.”
29 And [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
What kind of leaving was this? Some translations interpret vs28 and decide that ‘our all’ means ‘homes, families, etc’ probably because of what Jesus says in vs29. Perhaps not. Did the disciples abandon their wives and children, all who relied upon them, in order to follow Christ? Would it make any sense to think so? Now of course, they were living in a culture where women and children had little if any say over the course of their lives. Even so, what did the disciples do in ‘leaving our own/all’ to follow Jesus? If we compare the story of Peter visiting Cornelius (Acts 10) we see that there ‘Cornelius’ whole household’ came to faith, so that none were ‘left’.
What if Peter’s thought in Luke 18:28 is rather: “We have left our own agendas, our own plans, our own course for our lives and have chosen instead to follow yours for us.” And if that is the case, what then does that say to a modern disciple of Jesus who experiences the call to follow Christ as an interruption to an otherwise pleasant, productive, and even godly quiet life of family and work and leisure. Is the modern called to leave behind, abandon, all attachments and more importantly all covenant commitments? OR, is the response to Christ’s call rather to be understood as shaped, colored and informed by those very covenant commitments?
So then, we are left in the midst of our complicated, committed lives asking Jesus, “OK, now what? What does it mean for me to serve you without neglecting them? If my spouse
rejects the impact on our family of certain ways of living out my call, then what am I to do? Does that deny my call, your call on me? Are certain ways of living out my journey prohibited because of the entanglements of my life? IF so, what then? Is there a way for me to honor and grieve those losses, and move on to what is possible?”
Paul said, “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Cor 6:12) Could that apply to this notion of how I am to live out my calling?
God has called me to serve, and I’d love to be a missionary in Africa, but I know my wife would not go with me. So, would it honor Christ to leave my wife behind in order to serve the church in Africa? I think not. Is it unfortunate that I may not get to live out that dream? I think so. Is it an exchange I am willing to accept. Yes.
One of the reasons it is so important for us to place before children and youth the prospect of a life spent in Christian services is so that all future choices are made in light of that first commitment. Then, if at the age of 14 my daughter understands that Jesus wants her to go to Africa, she will either choose a mate who also wants to go, or go before settling down and making a home together. Paul’s instruction to remain single (1 Cor 7) is based in this simplifying premise – the fewer commitments and entanglements, the freer you are to follow your heart in following Christ, and the fewer times you will be confronted by opportunities cut off by the circumstances of your covenant commitments.
Might be nice if it were otherwise, but alas…