Saturday, November 8, 2014

What Really Matters

No matter how bad things got in my family growing up, I always held out hope that things would get better because of my relationship with Christ. 
It didn't matter if we were homeless, unable to pay the bills, if I was outcast at school, had no friends, went to bed crying some nights, etc. I always knew deep down in my heart that as long as I had Christ, there was hope for us.
Growing up there wasn't much circumstantial evidence to point to the existence of God. Things were pretty chaotic and crappy. What ultimately pointed me to Jesus and enabled me to trust in Him through even the darkest nights was the love of God I experienced through many of the people he had put in my life.
Before I could give a theological argument and a thoughtful presentation for the validity of the gospel of Christ and the existence of God, I experienced God through the love of his followers. Long before I knew it in my head, I knew in my heart that God was real.
The fact that God chose flawed people like you and I to be the ones who show the world his love and transforming power simply blows my mind. Yet it is clear through the testimony of scripture that God chose his church to be his messengers, He chose us through his strength and power to be ministers of reconciliation to a hurting world.
My friend Chad loves to say that the way we live and relate to each other may be the only Bible some people ever read. Based on my experience as a kid, I know in my heart he is telling the truth.
That's why a conversation I had today at our Laundry Project hurt me so deeply.
You see, at our Laundry Projects we strive to create a positive community atmosphere where families can receive the tangible blessing of free laundry, but more importantly experience the love of God through relationship.
That's why it took me by surprise when I overheard one laundry customer giving account to another of a very bad experience at a different agency also designed to aid struggling families. When I inquired further, both of the families proceeded to recall numerous bad experiences they have had at charitable agencies over the years where, from their standpoint, they were treated as lowly due to their circumstances.
Many of the agencies that operate in a charitable fashion are created to help struggling families, but what I heard spelled out to me in no uncertain terms was these moms feeling more hurt than helped after their experiences.
In my experience in non-profit world, an often quoted passage is Matthew 25 where Jesus begins giving account of what will happen when people enter into eternity. He describes a scene where God will separate people into 2 categories based on the practical love they showed to those in need. The people standing before God go on to say:
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ - Matthew 25:37-40
It's pretty clear from that passage (and many others in scripture) that God cares greatly about the poor and downtrodden. However, there is one other passage that is highly important to consider in light of who God is and the heart he has for the poor. The apostle Paul elaborates on this charge to care for the poor when he says: 
"If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." - 1 Corinthians 13:3

When I talked with these families it made me recall my own experiences as a child in poverty. I began to remember all the places my mom and I went, many of them agencies with a clear Christian message, yet our experiences often left us feeling like the least of these, but in the worst way possible.

Many a worker in food pantries, welfare agencies, Christmas giveaways, etc treated my family and I like second class citizens when I was growing up. We didn't feel welcome, we felt like a burden.

As an adult I can empathize from both perspectives. My heart breaks for these families and their stories of being treated badly at certain agencies, but I also feel a measure of brokenness for the workers who may have treated them poorly.

The reason being the way most charity is done. Most charity would fall under the category of what Robert Lupton in his book "Toxic Charity" calls "bad giving." It's where products or services are freely given so often that families come to depend on them to survive or worse yet, develop an entitlement to the free thing being given.

Shane Claiborne describes this tension in his book "Irresistible Revolution" when he says that unhealthy relationships are allowed to exist because the poor are getting what they need and the people giving it are allowed to feel great about themselves, so no one complains.

Most workers in the compassion industry are desperately suffering from compassion fatigue. Tired of the entitlement and dependency being displayed by the families they are serving, they often become burned out and irritable toward those they had a heart to help in the first place.

Not understanding why they are getting nasty looks when they line up for the "free thing," many families leave this form of charity feeling worthless and hurt.

One of the families said to me "I would rather not get the help I need than go to some of those places again."

That's very disturbing. At what point did our compassion turn us into jaded and frustrated people? At what point did we put meeting needs over actually loving others?

The solution is simple to say, but is very hard to understand how it is practically played out. We must be more concerned with developing people and empowering them to grow than putting a band-aid on their situation.

If I always give to others what they could be gaining by their own initiative, I am essentially treating them as second class citizens. This is not to say that giving or being generous is bad, but what is the end goal? Wouldn't it be better to give less frequently money and products and give more of our experience of community and relationships?

The groceries left on our doorstep as a kid is not what pointed me toward Christ, it was people sticking by my side and recognizing that I was created in the image of God and therefore important enough to be invested into as a person through relationship. They recognized that I had potential and all it needed was some love and time to develop.

Those in poverty, whether it's America or a third world country, are not hopeless. We are not their saviors. Christ is. God wants us to engage and show others His love, to be involved, to care for their needs both practical and spiritual. But nothing will ever change unless we take ourselves off the throne and remember that Jesus is Lord. 

I want to make sure that I am loving "the least of these" and doing it in a way that helps people and communities come one step closer to looking more like Jesus. I want to point people to Jesus, not act as their savior. I want the least of these to feel like the best of these.

May we think on what draws us near to Christ, may we love others like we want to be loved, may we regain focus of what really matters. 

Obviously there is more to this discussion than can be put in one blog post, and there are more experiences both positive and negative than just the families mentioned. These issues are vast and complicated, and my simple encouragement is to engage with the brokenness in our world, be humble, lean into Christ, point others to him, and never stop learning how to best love those around us. 

All it requires sometimes is a willingness to listen and treat others as we would wish to be treated. I believe in the Church, I believe in Christ, I believe in his followers. I have seen the people of God accomplish great things and bring so much to the world. It is my heart that we would simply continue to let Christ develop us, so that we may give that to others.