For the past three years or so, God has been utterly messing me up. I’ve always leaned towards the side of the underdog and the down and out, but through a series of books and my own journey through scripture, I’ve felt a paradigm shift and my ideas get more radical…more like Jesus. He has exposed blind spots in my life that at first, were very uncomfortable for me to deal with. My world is pretty homogeneous, my circle is filled with a lot of like me’s. White, middle class, moms who have the luxury of staying at home with their children. Sometimes it gets mixed up with my working mom friends, but for the most part, the mold is pretty similar down the line. I’ve realized the more and more I get in to God’s word, He thinks and talks a lot about the poor and those on the outskirts, and if I want to obey His commands, I’m going to have to go somewhere to find the people He is talking about.
Thus began my search for finding those who were nothing like me. It started with getting involved with a local refugee ministry and has now expanded to include the local food pantry. It’s been a great avenue to discussing the things of God’s word with my 8 year old, but as I was serving today in the giant food pantry warehouse without any air conditioning (the heat makes a girl think sometimes), it got me thinking about how while God has used these experiences to make some great strides in my thinking and my views of the world, it has also exposed some ugly thought patterns that I, as a member of the “fortunate,” tend to have. Things that we don’t talk about, but that can best be seen in our actions and reactions to the poor.
If you’ve ever served in any sort of ministry or organization serving the underprivileged that receives donations, you’ve seen the gamut of “stuff” that is given to these places. So much of our collective thoughts on the poor can be seen where donations are received. In our blame shift culture, it is easy to start picking apart the people and places doing their very best to serve with what they’ve been given. But hear me clearly on this one, any “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “need to’s” are only to be reserved for us, the resourced consumers in the community, not the organizations trying to do something to alleviate hunger and meet the needs of the least among us. Our rhetoric is perhaps one of the greatest instigators for this perpetual thinking that most of us silently harbor when it comes to the poor.
Here are the thoughts I’ve found myself battling against at times that just remind me how little I get “it” sometimes:
1. Beggars can’t be choosers:
How many times have we muttered this under our breath when giving away something for free? I see myself struggle with this sometimes when I’m handing a bag of random meat to an impoverished stranger or giving away an old, hole-y pair of shoes. Why is the freedom to choose reserved only for the haves of this world? Shouldn’t our poor neighbors have choices in what they feed their families or the clothes they wear? Isn’t that a part of being human? Isn’t that giving someone the dignity of acknowledging them as a human: freedom to choose? My husband once told a story about when he went to Haiti after the earthquakes and the people there would refuse the peanut butter rations. Cultural tastes most likely played into that. But from the perspective of a person who encounters a multitude of choices every time I open the refrigerator, why do I believe that the poor shouldn’t have that same ability to choose? The choice may be between the offerings at hand or nothing, but why should I be the judge of the choice they make?
The majority of options we offer the poor are the least healthy. Prepackaged, sodium laced, high in calories and fat. At the grocery store the other day the cashier asked if I would like to donate a box of Pop tarts to the local food bank. Pop tarts or cheese doodles. An almost rotten tomato or a wilted cabbage. Those are the choices we as a society are willing to offer our poor neighbors. We can and we must do better than that.
2. Take what you can get:
This is perhaps the greatest underlying current in our collective “generosity.” When it’s time to donate to the places changing the world, what do we usually offer? Our leftovers. It is all the clothes and canned goods I’ve rejected. I’m saving the best for who else? Me. I’ll give you the shirts I never wear or the cans of beans I bought randomly and will never fix for my family, but ask for my best or even something new, then that’s when I get stingy. That’s when I start scaling back my generosity. Two bags of stained, outdated clothing no problem, but brand new anything, I’ll get you maybe one, the cheapest one I can find, if I remember the next time I’m at Walmart, buying a bunch of things I don’t need for my people.
I’ve seen this in the produce given away at the pantry. Moldy strawberries, lettuce on the verge of expiration, bruised and battered vegetables. Again, the onus for this one is not on the organizations that give this stuff away, they are doing their best with what WE have given them. No, the burden of responsibility is on us as a community. Why aren’t we stockpiling these places with our best offerings instead of our scraps? This isn’t merely a guilt trip, this is a Biblical mandate.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”-Luke 21:1-4
Put that in the context of what we give to others. The widow gave until it hurt, the rich gave out of their richness. Are our unused leftovers really the best we can do? Is that doing the hard work of denying ourselves more so that we can give completely openhandedly? Do we honor Jesus in the highest way when all we are willing to contribute is our overabundance of junk? Don’t think I’m lecturing you on this one, this is a big fat note to self.
3. It just shows me how #blessed I am:
Oh, how often do I reduce my changed perspective after working with people outside of my zone of comfort to this? This is when blind spots turn from stupid ignorant underlying beliefs to dangerous, destructive core principles. Material and monetary abundance have absolutely no correlation with God’s blessing on us. If it did, we are telling the majority of the world that God just doesn’t care as much about them, which simply put, ain’t true.
“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.”- James 1:9-11
Did you catch that? Stuff is not the reward to those who love Jesus. In fact, the poor are higher on this totem pole of faith than the rich. Why? Because more often than not, our possessions can quickly become the very things that seek to destroy and distract us from our actual blessings. The comforts of this world are the very things that can assuage me in to a false sense that I don’t need God, instead of the daily, hourly or even minute by minute reminder that only the pangs of hunger and the lack of shelter can give.
“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”-James 2:5
The faith of our impoverished brothers and sisters around the globe is the kind of faith that impresses God, not the miserly, tight fisted confidence of his spoiled kids. I’ll trust you God when I’m full, start taking things away and that’s when my faith gets shaky. But true faith gets richer in depth and color when our bellies and bodies ache for hunger and warmth. When those eyes turn to the heavens, this stuff gets real. The kingdom moves frenetically at the sound of the cries of those saints.
So, what do we do with this all? It’s easy to take this as a call to sell everything, move off the grid, and seek out poverty a la David Platt or Francis Chan. For some, that may be the exact thing He is calling us to. I don’t think that’s the only point of what Christ is saying, but I do think we have to do a few things as we wrestle with this tension:
- Start giving our best away: Don’t stop giving away all the stuff we don’t use anymore, but start looking for ways to give that hurt too. It’s Cross work, Holy Spirit training that will get us to this point where that insatiable American need for more is replaced with a kingdom minded perspective of consuming less in order to give more.
- Margin, margin, margin: We like to live our lives to the edge of everything: our time, our finances, our square footage. We cannot give more until we have the room and space. At some point, we’ve got to take our name out of the rat race and get off the hamster wheel of busyness, stress and debt so that we can dip deeper in to our pockets and our hearts.
- Pray: We can’t merely do some magic behavioral modifications and call it a day. We’re only going to get this thing even semi-close to right through the power of the Holy Spirit. I can never, on my own accord, be less selfish or less of a consumer. Our American culture is shiny and glittery and the shelves of Target are all aiming their sights at my friends and me. This place is gunning for us and won’t stop. It’s only an act of God moving within me that is going to keep me from getting hit by another tranquilizer dart of comfort and excess.
This stuff is so stinking hard. Sometimes I just wonder how my faith would be different had I been born in the majority of the world, where hunger and poverty is as much the norm as abundance and excess is here. God has just encouraged me as I’ve watched numerous Christian authors and my friends repeatedly echoing the same things, I want to live with less so I can give more. Let’s do this thing together. Let’s make radical choices and come up with crazy, hair brained schemes about how to fix the mess we’ve created.
Your turn: what’s the hardest part of this all for you? What is your biggest struggle in the chasm between doing the stuff God says to do and living out the American dream?