Am I Now Officially Out of Excuses?

Just last week, the Census Bureau unveiled some fairly disturbing statistics with regard to poverty in the United States. A breaking news alert from CNN, received at 9:20 a.m. Thursday morning, carried the subject line “1 in 7 Americans Live in Poverty.” Stating that the 2009 poverty rate closed out the year at 14.3%, the “highest in decades,” that news brief was followed up within the hour by a nearly-identical alert from The Washington Post, which provided a bit more detail:

The number of people living in poverty has climbed to 14.3 percent of Americans. The Census Bureau says that about 43.6 million people, or 1 in 7, were in poverty last year. That’s up from 39.8 million, or 13.2 percent, in 2008. [More]

I’m not sure why, but it took me a minute or two to realize that these grim statistics were stacking up 2009 numbers against those from 2008, just the previous year. If, then, the Census Bureau statistics are to be believed, within 12 months time, the percentage of Americans living in poverty increased by just over one full percentage point, which translates into 3.8 million people (and their families) slipping below the poverty line. That averages out to well over 300,000 families per month.

Getting all worked up over poverty statistics is easy; getting involved and doing something about it is something else altogether, but perhaps easier than you might think.

In God’s gracious providence, He has very patiently drawn me into relationship with other Christians who take Jesus quite literally over that whole “care for the poor and marginalized” command (Matthew 6:2-4; 19:21; James 1:27; 2:14-17; Galatians 2:9-10; Hebrews 13:12-13). The sad truth is that my darkened heart is not naturally predisposed to helping others less fortunate than myself. Quite the opposite, in fact…I am far quicker to envy those who have more than I do, and dwell on various plans and schemes for obtaining more than I actually need. So I really need other Christians to help me remember that I worship a God who commands us to give of ourselves (John 15:12-13) and modeled self-sacrificing servanthood throughout His entire earthly ministry, most scandalously by submitting Himself to death on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:3-8).

Pat McMurry, president of Columbia Love INC, is fast becoming one of many fellow believers who regularly reminds me – without using words – that true faith in Christ always manifests itself with acts of giving, and self-sacrificial giving at that. Pat is one of those guys who has that unmistakable crazy-for-Jesus look in his eyes, never more so than when he starts talking about how the entire Body of Christ really needs to set aside its ecclesiastical and denominational differences, mobilize and work side-by-side to alleviate suffering in the local community. I asked Pat to share some thoughts on last week’s Census Bureau statistics, and here’s what he had to say:

What struck me most about last week’s statistic of one in seven Americans now living below the poverty line was that with just one outreach effort per week, Americans could touch the life of every needy person in America, every day.

In their book When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkart and Steve Corbett outline four relationships God created for Adam, and every subsequent human. First is our relationship with God; second is our relationship with ourself; third, relationship with others; and last, our relationship with the earth, or our work. The authors go on to point out that poverty comes in many forms and is always the result of a breakdown in one or more of these foundational relationships.

Material poverty is the outcome of improper relationship with work, but that is often exacerbated by compromises in the other relationships as well. One very important dynamic to realize is that when we come to a “helping” relationship with another we can easily imply that “we” are here with resources while “you” are over there with your need. Corbett calls this a God Complex, an example of poverty of relationship.

The reality is that God has all the resources, and we are all needy. God stripped himself of His rights, became needy and brought His resources alongside us. He learned obedience through the things He suffered. Our posture toward those in need is more accurate when we acknowledge that we are both fellow strugglers and that we can learn from each other. Truly, God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith.

Jesus’ assessment of the rich is much less flattering…think camel going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:23-24), your gold is corrupt and testifies in judgment against you (James 5:3), etc. With all the news this week about the number of Americans living in poverty, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the presenting need. But if it’s true that God has given the poor richness of faith, then there is a huge reservoir of faith available for us “rich” folks to access. But we’ll never access it if our understanding of our relationship with the needy is skewed.

My life was changed forever in 2007 when a small group of us went to a “Loving Help” program administered by the Hudsonville, Mich., Love INC at a large, older, reformed church. On Thursday evening, about 400 volunteers from churches all over Hudsonville came together to share life with about 500 folks in need of assistance. There was childcare, food, homework help, activities for the kids, life coaching, budgeting, holiday gift-making, cooking, resume writing, Bible studies and GED classes for the parents and adults.

Everyone was completely engaged.

Those receiving assistance were so excited to be part of a process to better themselves and their community; their faces were radiant! There was no trace of entitlement so often associated with the handouts that often define benevolence; these people were partnering in their community for a better life. The volunteers were also thrilled to be making a significant contribution to the welfare of others. One pastor who volunteered as a teacher said, “Thursday nights, I go home and I just can’t sleep, I’m so overwhelmed by the impact of the Gospel in the lives of people.”

It’s incredibly significant that when Jesus started His ministry in Galilee, He stepped onto the stage of human history and quoted His biography from hundreds of years earlier, namely Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Jesus was coming alongside our need, leading us in proper relationships and setting us free from our oppression.

Right here in Columbia, Mo., Granny’s House has opportunities every weekday afternoon to fall in love with someone whose life can be greatly impacted by a friendship. Love INC of Columbia has a similar program to the one in Hudsonville called Living Large For Real. Once a week, month, or quarter there are numerous opportunities to discover what Jesus meant when He said, “Those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.” There are childcare opportunities, mentoring possibilities, teaching, transportation, even opportunities to create a teaching track of your own.

Alleviating poverty, then, is ultimately not about emptying your wallet…it’s about emptying yourself. It’s not ultimately about dollars, incentives and programs, as important as those things are…it’s about relationship. Pat mentioned the all-too-common feeling of being “overwhelmed” by the scope of the poverty problem, but I think this mental roadblock was effectively shattered by Mother Theresa’s famous idea that we are all called to “minister to the face in front of us,” not waste time and energy wringing our hands over the global scale of poverty.

There are, however, several other half-truths that can prevent us from serving. Some of the more popular ones might look something like this:

  • “Hey, I am not rich…I am barely getting by myself!”
    A sentiment such as this makes the false assumption that local charities are only interested in your dollars. As much as benevolent organizations do, in fact, require funding, the plain truth is that what is really needed is
    you. Your time, your talents, your passion. Know a little something about car repair? You are needed! Know how to cook? You are needed. Can you teach someone else to sew? (You get the idea…service to the poor is not first and foremost about your bank account.)

  • “I don’t have a skill that would be useful.”
    Not true. Everyone is able to help, albeit in different ways, because God very deliberately made us this way, to teach us to rely on others where they are strong and we are not (
    1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Even if you can’t immediately name a skill or gifting you have that you can use to serve others, I suspect the folks at Love INC or Granny’s House could; talk to them for more than three minutes and I am confident you will come away having had the idea that you “have nothing to contribute” blown completely out of the water.

  • “My life is so busy; I don’t have time to serve others right now.”
    Focusing all of our time and effort on ourselves and our priorities is probably the single-greatest flat tire on the road to helping others. The great truth we tend to ignore is that we can help ourselves by helping others. Reaching out to others can quickly draw us into relationships where we find, to our great surprise, that we are in fact the person being blessed. Somehow, in God’s economy, He has ordained that we find our lives when we give them away (
    Matthew 16:24-26). It doesn’t make all that much sense to our natural minds, so we resist blessing others with our time, talent and resources. We think we are merely being sensible and prudent…when in fact we are robbing ourselves of Kingdom blessings.

As last week’s Census Bureau statistics clearly show, there really is a tremendous need for the Body of Christ to rise up and be a redemptive presence in our local community. In the city of Columbia, Mo., there are plenty of ways to get involved right where you are, with whatever you have. A quick phone call or e-mail to the folks at Granny’s House and/or Columbia Love INC will get you rolling.

Getting involved is never without risk, of course. For me, the thing I fear most is that by surrounding myself with people who are so clearly bonkers for Jesus, I will one day cast off everything that entangles and run with perseverance the course set out for me (Hebrews 12:1-2), without so much as a glance backward at a corrupt lifestyle that encourages me to acquire, acquire, acquire…but this is all I’ve ever known for most of my adult life. The need is overwhelming, the means for getting involved could not be simpler, and now, in my opinion, we are all officially out of reasons why we can’t empty ourselves in the service of another.

Romans 12:3-21 (ESV)
3-8: “Gifts of Grace”
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Verses 9-21: “Marks of the True Christian”
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Photos provided by Scott Patrick Myers.

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