Category Archives: Poverty

True Religion

World Vision President Richard Stearns opines in the Wall Street Journal  concerning the falsehoods Americans believe concerning how much aid the government provides the poor around the world.   Many believe that 25% of the federal government goes to foreign aid when the actual number is 1.5%.    Of that 1.5%, 0.5% is poverty focused.  In addition, a Pew Research Center survey revealed 56% of evangelicals think “aid to the world’s poor should be the first thing cut from the federal budget.”   Stearns also points out a Baylor University survey found that Americans who strongly believe that “God has a plan” for their lives—as evangelicals do—are the most likely to oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor.

One of the great mysteries of our present state of Christianity is how clear Scripture is concerning our role in helping the poor and how often we divorce that thought from our value set.   How can one read James 1:27 (“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”) and then come to the conclusion that it is a bad thing to help the poor?   As they say in the text world SMH.

One common argument of being against government providing poverty focused aid both domestically and internationally is that its the church’s job to take care of the poor, therefore government shouldn’t interfere.  Besides, the narrative goes, in order for ministries to effectively carry out their mission if the government is involved financially the possibility rises of ministry being controlled by government regulation.

Really if we call a spade a spade what such skepticism is rooted in is not Scripture but political leanings.  The fear of being “controlled” by government is understandable.  However oftentimes the same people who express this fear applaud when corporations get involved in aiding the poor.  Where then is a healthy skepticism of being “controlled” by corporations who give aid to ministries?  Furthermore, when one realizes the common good that  government plays in providing poverty aid (especially for many people of color) such skepticism between government and corporations needs to be justified, not merely accepted as government aid=bad and corporate aid=good.

This is not an partisan issue.   We as the church need to take the biblical imperative to take care of the poor seriously and accept all the help we can get from the outside.

When Hurting Helps

The title of the blog post is obviously a twist on the very excellent book, When Helping Hurts, which is a very good read for anyone who has ever lifted a pretentious finger without knowing how pretentious fingers could be.

But in my own little mind, if there is a point at which helping others has diminishing, if not adverse, returns, than hurting, has potentially increasing marginal gain.

Simply put, experiencing hurt helps your credibility and capacity to help. Pain, suffering, tears…namely, the things we all seek to avoid on a daily, hourly, minutely basis, they are the only merits that lead to badges of courage. It’s strange to me that many churches “know” this, but rarely read from those texts deeply or begin to worship from this reality. I am always struck by a sense of absurdity when worship bands begin to rock out to “Blessed be Your Name” by Matt Redman. That’s a serious song that’s somehow never set to an appropriate arrangement featuring solo cello and background wailing. It is even more culturally evident that it is the rare hymn that goes to the depth of a Negro spiritual. I have yet to hear a credible rendition of “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” by a white crooner. Suffering helps cut through the craft of music writing and gets right to the heart of where worship begins and often leads, pain.

The fact of the matter is there is no spiritual growth without wilderness, be it Abraham, Moses, David, or Jesus himself. Further, the Scriptures we tend to gravitate towards (Ps. 139 – in short,” I’m special and He knew me before I was born!”; and Jer. 29:11 — “He has a plan for me to prosper!”) are still dotted lines around difficult texts that continually dredge up life’s harsh realities. That’s right, we avoid reading tough scriptures or we tend to read those texts that display suffering as a product of personal sin, which understandably is helpful to the young, but rarely do we dialogue about suffering that is the product of nothing that we know of. Birth defects, miscarriages, random deaths, natural disasters, shootings, wars, accidents, disease…and that’s just a short list of realities we could get anyone to talk about at any bus stop or dentist’s waiting room. Just about everyone knows someone who has dealt with cancer or miscarriage, at least adult. And this is where hurting is a great source of compatibility for us. Pain is one of the lowest common denominators for us all.

I remember serving food one day in the projects of Nashville, TN, and when the men had all been served, I sat and ate with them as a young college student among calloused, hardened men. And one large Black man named, “Big Willie” took a couple of looks at me as I tried to greet everyone and ask them how their week was, said to me, “You come here and serve us food, but this is nothing to you. You leave here and go back to school; you have a nice life; you got it made. But let me tell you something: You don’t need to talk. You need to listen. Just listen if you don’t know nothing.”

And I took great offense to Big Willie’s remarks back then in my twenties, but now in my mid-thirties, I wish I had the courage to be that frank with many young people I see now. I have seen a little bit of pain now. I have my share of regrets. Sat in a few hospital rooms for many hours and spent a few more at funerals and wakes. I have limped down a stairway before and pushed myself in a wheelchair once or twice since that Saturday morning when Big Willie was honest with me. Hurt has helped me listen more. Pain has made my words softer. When I read that Jesus was “a man of sorrows” in Isaiah 53, I see more clearly how he knew deeply the desperation and the anxiety his followers faced. I’m not trying to glorify pain here or somehow idolize suffering, nor am I trying to say that those that suffer are always better off for having been in that state, but with regards to mission and outreach, reconciliation and forgiveness, I think hurting helps. It helps us be fully human. I’m not saying that it makes us divine, but often I feel that many good-intentioned Christians aren’t fully human, they’re detached, they’re already looking for their angel wings and “third spaces”, and twittering about this and buying tickets to that; but rarely is the church fully present in the human experience. We are so unlike our savior, and therefore we lack the sense of incarnation that Jesus fully displayed. I wonder sometimes that we find it hard to project the presence of God because we avoid the presence of humanity.

Grading the Middle Class

The Atlantic which is one of my favorite mags has an excellent article on the shrinking middle class.  It’s long but worth the read.  Essentially it talks about how the gap between the haves and have nots is growing more and more.   My thoughts as always is how will this effect the Church?   Talking about this with one of my colleagues via email about the article he made an excellent observation that I will share with you:

I read this. Interesting. I can’t help but see ways in which history is repeating itself.

The glory of ancient Rome was preserving the Republic, with it’s failure due to greed (cf. the Historian Sallust) and a lust for power and control, representative government shifted to oppressive injustice under the Empire.

In the days of Christ there were basically the rich, the poor and the destitute. The rich in the Scriptures did not have to work, but had others work for them. They owned the land, were merchants, tax collectors, or inherited their wealth. New Testament scholars estimate that only a few percent of the population, much like this article were rich. The other 90+ percent were either the poor or the destitute. The poor were people who lived on their daily wages, or as we say today worked “paycheck to paycheck.” The destitute were those who were blind. In the NT, both the poor and the destitute are translated (or mistranslated) “the poor.”

So why ramble on this…your article makes me wonder too…Wondering backwards to look forwards…

When Jesus arrived in a world where NT scholars say there was virtually no middle class, he called His people to live in communities of grace, justice, love in a world…Those who were not rich were not to try to be rich, but to be content with basic necessities. Those who were rich were to realize the purpose of their provision was to do good, be rich in good works, be generous sharers of possessions…

I guess I am saying we should create the communities of care because soon, those on top won’t care, and most of us will be on the bottom anyway. Let those who think they control the world do so, for what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, right? I guess what I mean is Jesus did not launch programs, he called for a different way of life that compelled people in droves…

Some pretty challenging thoughts to chew on.