Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

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A Church Calendar Fanatic Comes to Grip With Mom’s Day

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Mother’s Day was yesterday.  Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about it.  Despite my wife’s claim late Saturday night that I had not mentioned Mother’s Day once in the weeks leading up to it, I had bought some cards and presents for the leading ladies in my life.

My church did a bang up job too, giving every woman (not mom, but woman!) in the sanctuary a potted plant.  I was incredibly proud of our stewardship team because when they discussed Mother’s Day they were very mindful that we have wonderful and holy women in our congregation who are not mothers but who are just as valuable as the moms.  Also on their minds were those who have lost their mothers in the last year as well as those mother’s who have lost children.  These are the types of great questions that a people who worship The Holy Trinity ask.  They are also questions and concerns that I share every second Sunday of May.

But my concerns run a bit deeper.  I am a church calendar nut and have been for some time and Mother’s Day always lands right in the middle of a “trinity” of holy Sundays meant to cap off the first half of the church calendar year.  In fact, the month of May is an awkward month for Christians because most Mays there are three major Church holy-days (Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays), one Hallmark holiday (Mother’s Day) and one national holiday (Memorial Day).  How is a pastor in the Christian tradition supposed to juggle all these things?!

My gut response is to prioritize the church days.  The first two, Ascension and Pentecost, are huge and important events in the life of Jesus and in the church.  In fact if Jesus hadn’t ascended and the Spirit had not descended there wouldn’t even be a church!  Even more telling is that our “family friendly” church spent 1,900 years creating holidays and never once did it occur to them to create one for mom’s or dad’s.  This despite the fact that honoring your parents is one of the top ten commandments!  With that said the first Mother’s Day was held at a church but apparently founded to encourage mom’s to join together to work for peace.  (Source and source)

Be that as it may when Mother’s Day, or even Memorial Day, conflict with the holy-days, I give them lip service at the top of the service and then move on to the more important topics, like Ascension and Pentecost and Trinity.

However, some days there is no conflict.  When Mother’s Day and Pentecost overlap it is fun to talk about the Spirit as our nurturing Mother.  When Memorial Day and Ascension overlap it is really fun to talk about that life which we remember the most, Jesus’s life, which did not end but goes on forever.

Putting those clever pairings aside, I still have always found Mother’s Day just too problematic for a church.  There are dozens of problems whether they be liturgical (isn’t Pentecost more important?), theological (the Bible tells us to give orphans and widows priority) or just plain practical (we have some women who struggle with infertility).

But last week I read something that made all this a bit less complicated for me.  I was reading a fascinating little commentary on the book of Lamentations written by Soong-Chan Rah.  Rah doesn’t pull any punches when he compares the honest heartache of Old Testament Judea with the dishonest and fake triumphalism of modern Christianity.  At times his words are down right insensitive, especially to this white suburban evangelical pastor whose very existence runs contrary to the heart of a book like Lamentations.

Halfway through the book Rah writes a very poetic paragraph about his mother.  Here is what he says:

“My mother has lived through a very difficult set of life circumstances.  She endured a very difficult marriage.  For most of her married life, her husband was not around, resulting in her raising four kids on her own as an immigrant in a foreign land.  Her minimal English skills as a first generation immigrant meant that she took miminum-wage jobs (often two of them at a time) to keep her family together.  During one stretch, she worked two jobs: a day shift at an inner city carry out and the graveyard shift at an inner city nursing home.  She was working twenty hours  a day, six days a week.  Throughout all her trials, she never lost her faith.  To this day, even with her eyesight failing her, she faithfully reads chapter after chapter of Scripture.  She would wake up at dawn to pray for hours every day.  Several years ago, I noticed that her knee caps had split into several pieces from the many hours of prayer she spent kneeling.  When she kneels, her broken caps conform to the flat surface of the floor.  My deep disappointment with American evangelicalism is that stories like hers are deemed less worthy than the stories of the latest greatest, evangelical superstar with his megachurch.” (p. 61 in Prophetic Lament)

I read that paragraph at the end of my sermon yesterday.  I had some clever but ultimately stretched tie in to the sermon, something about how Rah’s mother has something to teach us about a relationship with the one who ascended into heaven.  But in the end I couldn’t not read about that mom on Mother’s Day because, well yes, a mom like that does have a lot to teach us about what the Christian life looks like.

Later in the day I was talking to my church board about holiness.  I asked for concrete examples of the holy life and they all mentioned people they knew who lived it out, but lived it in ways that are hard for words to describe.  But the stories of their lives describe it well.  I believe Rah’s mother is one such example.  And if we want to live out the theology formed on Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sundays, Rah’s mother might help us considerably in that endeavor.

I am sure there are thousands more mom’s just like her.  Maybe it isn’t so bad to take a Sunday out of the year to commemorate them.