O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau about poverty are heartbreaking. How is it possible that, in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth, 1 out of 6 people are living below the poverty line? Many of us will never have to know what it feels like to be poor (thank God). But when so many people in our cities and neighborhoods are in the grips of poverty (especially blacks, Latinos, and children), we need to pay attention and take it personally.
I remember being in a tight financial situation in college. I was a sophomore renting a room from a family in my church. I grew up poor and was the first in my family to go to college. Fortunately, the family I lived with during my freshman year shared my precarious situation with their friends before they moved. They knew that my chances of finishing college were slim without additional help. I was always struggling to work, carry a full class load, and eat. One anonymous person made a deep impression on me through her unexpected generosity. Every few weeks, I would randomly receive a check from this person with a note that said, “God told me to send this to you.” The checks usually came when I was at my lowest point. When they came, I cried out of sheer joy and relief. Years later when I inquired about my anonymous benefactor, I discovered that she was a single, middle-aged woman living on a fixed income. At first I felt guilty — this woman who had very little sacrificed to support someone she didn’t even know — but then I felt a sense of awe. This woman gave out of her scarcity in a way that challenged my ideas about wealth, prosperity, and poverty. Ever since, I have followed her example in helping others.
As I have matured in my understanding of the Bible, I have noticed that God rarely extols a person simply because of his or her wealth. For wealth to be meaningful, wisdom has to be nearby. If not, we can end up like many celebrities and lottery winners: miserable. Solomon demonstrated this when God gave him a choice between wisdom and riches. He chose wisdom, but God blessed him with both. And his later life is a cautionary tale on the connection between wealth and pride. Godly wisdom is the sure sign of God’s blessings. We have it backward, which is why we forget that God can give His wisdom to anyone — even those we consider poor.
God’s Concern for the Poor
According to the new census report, 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty, the largest on record dating back to 1959 when the census began tracking poverty. This has considerable political implications considering the uptick in the unemployment rate and the debt ceiling legislation that just passed.
Defining poverty is not an exact science. For instance, by current standards, a white family of six would be considered poor even though they may make $50,000 a year combined, own their home, and live frugally. Yet the face of poverty in the U.S. media is usually a black single mother with children. Politics and election cycles often decide how the media will see poverty.
In his book Just Generosity, theologian Ron Sider makes it clear that there is room in God’s economy for the less fortunate. He points us to the Old Testament, where Yahweh charges the Israelites to remember where they came from and care for those who need help within their community. Once they settled in Canaan, the concept of gleaning (leaving leftover crops for the poor) in Leviticus 19:9-10 and the Year of Canceling Debts in Deuteronomy 15: 1-6 applied to everyone. Jesus said he came to preach the good news to the poor. There are many other scriptures that support God’s concern as well.
The Widow’s Example
The crazy thing about wealth is that as we accumulate more of it, we typically find ourselves becoming ever more desperate to preserve it. We may not even be greedy or materialistic people. But the natural instinct is to get as much as we can, and then hold on to it. This is one reason why people with great wealth are rarely as happy as you’d expect.
One of the best antidotes to spiritual discontent is giving. And, paradoxically, it’s often those with the least who give the most. According to a variety of recent studies, lower-income Americans are the most charitable persons in our country. But our media would have us believe that the most generous people are the wealthy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful when a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg donates millions to education or a third-world country. But I’m even more encouraged by my high school students who took up a collection to help a classmate’s family with funeral expenses. Most of them come from impoverished communities. This is one reason why the story of the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4 should have relevance for us: the widow sacrifices exorbitantly while the rich hoard their wealth.
Those who don’t have a lot have recognized the simple wisdom that God loves a cheerful giver and that He truly provides. The anonymous woman who helped me get through college believed this. And today’s Christians, along with our current crop of politicians, should work harder to remember this as well.
In part two of this post, I’ll share some ways that we can learn from those who are living in poverty. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts about poverty, wealth, and generosity in the comments section below.
It’s not just a global economy that makes us “one world.” The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan remind us that humankind exists in one fragile and complex bond with the earth and each other.
As Americans were complaining about all the snow this winter, arguing about the value of NPR and PBS, and learning that we suffer from an “enlargement of self,” the Japanese were dying by the thousands as solid ground gave way and the sea roiled and raged, consuming whole cities.
The raw, elemental power of nature can shake us from our preoccupations like nothing else. (Though a few million of us will obsess about Division 1 basketball over the next few weeks — the men’s game, of course, never the women’s — elevating it to an importance that borders on the obscene.)
The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity — the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence).
This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways-a loved one stricken with cancer, say — but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that as a collective — a nation-state, say — we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).
A decade of rhetoric about “homeland security” has trained us to think that we can make our country safe from outside attack, that, indeed, we must value and pursue security above all else. Politicians routinely campaign on such ideas, counting on an edgy, fearful electorate to latch on to any promise to keep us from harm — no matter how dubious or contrived.
But life is fragile, peace is always precarious, and the earth itself no respecter of persons or property. One gigantic wave and whole populations are decimated; one seismic shift and time itself is altered.
If there’s a lesson in this most recent tragedy (and it’s generally a bad idea to go looking for one), it’s that humans exist in a complex, interdependent web of relations with each other and with a planet that is sometimes inhospitable to our habitation of it. It was as instructive as it was terrifying to anticipate and track the waves that washed up on the California coast as the tsunami made its inevitable way westward. What happened in Japan didn’t stay in Japan.
Because corporations have written the dominant narrative of our time — that we exist to consume their products and that this is made possible by the easy flow of capital, goods, services, and labor across increasingly permeable borders, we might think that it is free-market capitalism which binds us together, making us “one world.” But in fact the earthquake and tsunami have revealed our common humanity and common destiny, reminding us that we have always been linked to our neighbors near and far, and that consumerism won’t save us but acknowledging our mutual dependence and shared vulerability just might.
If you’re looking for a way to help the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan, here are a few faith-based organizations and ministry efforts that are working to provide food, supplies, and direct emergency relief. If you know of other trustworthy organizations that should be added to this list, please let us know in the comments section below or at our Facebook page.
• World Vision
• World Relief
• The Salvation Army
• Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
• Convoy of Hope