Friday, September 28, 2012

"...You Did for Me"

    Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...
    Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
-Matthew 25:34-36, 40 (NIV)

    Truth be told, it’s easy to get frustrated with the poor.
    You know what I  mean. You feel it when you walk past someone begging on a corner, or drive past someone holding a sign at an intersection, or maybe when you hear about another government program funded by you and me that will benefit the poor.
    One of our presidential candidates recently gave voice to that frustration a little more publicly than a presidential candidate maybe should have, in fact; though I imagine for everyone who voiced outrage, there were plenty of voters who nodded their heads and lined up behind him when they heard him write off 47% of Americans as “victims” who are dependent on the government.
    It’s easy to get frustrated with the poor. Their lives can be messy, disordered, chaotic. Long-term poverty can create a victim or entitlement mentality, making it that much more difficult for them to escape their circumstances. Sometimes folks who struggle with poverty day in and day out wind up pretty cynical and kind of unpleasant to be around. Sometimes they have substance-abuse issues and  physical and emotional disorders. Sometimes some of them lie to get what they need.
    Then again, as I look back over that list, I have to acknowledge that all of it can be true about wealthy people, too. And middle-class people. So maybe the frustration we sometimes feel for the poor has more to do with the fact that they have no way to insulate themselves from life’s difficulties. They’re all exposed nerves and raw skin, and can’t feign whatever we call “respectability”. Or maybe it’s just that they have little interest in a pretend respectability that doesn’t put food in their bellies and a roof over their heads.
    This Thursday, Kate wrote to me. “I’m writing this with just a bag of rice, a jar of peanut butter and a few eggs to get me through the rest of the week,” she said. Kate won’t starve this week, but she certainly won’t eat a well-balanced diet, will she? Her situation points out exactly what the poor lack, and exactly what I have. It’s not about money, or skills, or whatever. It’s about options. I have them, but a lot of people in my city - and yours - don’t.
    They don’t have options when it’s time to cook dinner. They don’t have options when their kids are sick. They don’t have options when they’re out of money for transportation, or when a prescription needs to be filled, or when they send their kids off to school in gang-infested neighborhoods with a hug and a prayer - not a prayer like mine, that the child will do well on a test, but that he’ll come back home that afternoon alive.
    Whatever frustrations I might feel about the poor, whatever their cause, I have options. They don’t.
    Kate, by the way, is Kate Maehr. She’s the executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The GCFD is the food bank for Cook County, where by some estimates 1 in 5 people live with some degree of poverty. More than 82,000 are exactly in the situation Kate’s in this week. For her, though, it’s by choice - she’s choosing to eat for the week on $35, which is the amount those 82,000 people receive through the SNAP program (formerly known as Food Stamps).
    Half of those 82,000 are children.
    “I’m seeing first-hand just how hard it is for people in our community who are on SNAP, and how important the program is,” Kate wrote yesterday. “It’s very often the only thing standing between a family and hunger.”
    I don’t know Kate well. Don’t know anything about her faith, or her reasons (beyond her job title) for being concerned about hunger. But by sharing her experience, Kate is humanizing the problem of poverty. She takes us beyond our frustration with a system that sometimes seems to reward best those who figure out how to game it, our frustration with people who take advantage of that system at the expense of other people who work hard to make it work. She reminds us that “the poor” includes parents trying to provide for their children. It includes some of the people I’ve met making my embarrassingly meager contribution working in our church’s food pantry: people who aren’t trying to game the system or get something for nothing, who aren’t at fault for their circumstances any more than I can take credit for mine, but who are just trying to live life and give their kids a chance and hope for something better tomorrow.
    By choosing to live in the circumstances of the poor, even for just a week, Kate reminds us that there’s another way to respond to the problem of poverty - not with frustration, but with identification. It’s the way of Jesus, who didn’t shun the poor or turn away from them, but in fact chose to identify with them. He was poor, dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers for food and shelter, and even buried in a borrowed tomb. He challenged prevailing notions of success - notions that are still with us - by calling the poor “blessed.” He spoke of God’s kingdom that would one day break into the world and turn our value system upside-down, and he announced that in himself that “breaking - in” had commenced. And then he challenged the people who would follow him and wear his name and look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom to go around and make sure that the poor were, indeed, “blessed.”
    “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That’s what we must remember: the poor, with whom we can often feel such frustration, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. If it comes down to a choice between those who are comfortable and well-off and those who are poor, Jesus identifies with the poor. He feels for them, cares for them, and expects his followers to share his concern. And, in fact, you can’t be his follower if you don’t.
    That’s not a political statement. It’s a theological one. It isn’t a plank in a party platform - it’s part of the fabric of the gospel. It’s not about the preservation of government programs, but about followers of Jesus like you and me replacing our frustration with identification, and then loving and helping those who Jesus identifies so closely with that ministry to them is ministry to him.
    And it’s hard to feel frustrated with him, isn’t it?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Being Heard

    In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit  came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
    “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
    “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
    Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
-Mark 7:25-29 (NIV)

I was riding the Chicago El this week, and a couple of stops after I got on a young man in his late teens or early twenties stepped into my train car. I was reading, and didn’t pay much attention when he first got on. But when he started speaking, I looked up and took notice.
    I couldn’t help but take notice, in fact. He was talking to the whole car, at a pretty high volume.
    He asked for our attention, politely. I looked around a little, and noticed most of the other riders concentrating even more intently on their newspapers, phones, or the view out the windows. He noticed too, because he asked again for us to listen, this time a little more urgently. He wanted us to hear his story, as it turns out.
    His father had kicked him out, he told us, just the latest in a long series of disagreements between father and son. He had spent the previous night trying to sleep on the El, and most of that day trying to get people to listen to his story and give him enough money to get a bus ticket to Rockford, where he had a cousin he could stay with.
    In between telling the story, he begged - literally begged - a couple more times for people to listen. And a quick look around the train car said that he wasn’t having much luck with that. The other riders had probably never been so interested in whatever they happened to be looking at. Maybe it was the buzz-cut hair and neck tattoos that made people uncomfortable. Maybe it was the strangeness of the situation. Whatever the reason, nobody was looking at him, even though they couldn’t help but hear.
    I don’t know how genuine the young man’s story was. I’m sure there was more to the story than he was telling. But I know that it can’t be easy for someone to stand up in a train car crowded with Chicagoans who have seen and heard everything and try to get them to listen to you. And, as much as he wanted the money, he desperately wanted someone - anyone - to hear his story. To hear him.
    It occurred to me, as the kid talked, just how many people I have in my life to listen to me. That’s one way to count your blessings, I guess: to tally up the people in your life you could call if you needed someone just to listen, to really hear you. Most of us have two or three people, at least. Quite possibly a lot more than that.
    This kid didn’t know who to talk to except a train full of strangers.
    I wonder if the Phoenician women Mark tells us about could have related to the kid I met on the train this week. It must have been difficult for her to get anyone to listen when she talked about her daughter; what could anyone do, after all? I think of parents I know whose kids are sick, or disabled, and how they’ll talk to anyone and do anything if they think it’ll help, and I imagine that everyone in her town knew who this woman was. I wonder if they crossed the street when they saw her and her daughter coming. I wonder if the town’s doctor closed up shop early on days she had an appointment. I wonder if former friends had stopped coming by to see her. I wonder why the girl’s father isn’t mentioned in the story.
    When your child is demon-possessed, it must be hard for people to listen and care.
    So when this heartsick, weary, lonely mom hears that Jesus is in town, she has to see him. Surely he’ll listen to her story. Surely he’ll help her daughter. She’s used to asking for help, so it’s not even hard for her to beg. She falls to her knees, hands reaching out in supplication, tears springing from her eyes, and she begs him to help her daughter.
    And Jesus...Jesus dismisses her.
    “Let the children eat all they want,” he says. “It isn’t right to give the childrens’ food to the dogs.”
    It sounds harsher to our ears than it would have to hers. Most likely, Jesus was simply pointing out the priority of his mission to Israel. Non-Jews would have their chance with the good news too, but first, God’s covenant people would have the chance to receive him. This woman’s faith is admirable, but her timing is terrible.
    She could have dropped her head and shuffled home. She could have given up, abandoned hope when the one person that she just knew would listen to her story pushed her away. Then again, she’s a mom with a daughter who needs her help, and so, no, she really couldn’t give up. Instead, as Jesus turns to go, she speaks up one more time: “You know - the dogs can eat the crumbs the children drop....”
    And Jesus can only shake his head in amazement.: “For that reply, go home and you’ll find your daughter well.”
    Two things. One, people who follow Jesus should listen to the stories other people tell. Even those who we think we have little in common with, those who we struggle to understand and whose stories don’t make much sense to us at first hearing - they need someone to listen, too. They need us to care enough to look them in the eye and hear what they think is important enough to tell us. We might be the only ones to listen, and even if we can’t solve their problems we can care enough to listen, and pray for them, and point them to the One who heals and saves and forgives.
    Second, we always have someone who will hear us. When there’s no one else to listen to your story, no one else who you think might understand - Jesus listens and understands. He won’t always tell you what you want to hear, or do what you want him to do exactly when you want him to. But he’ll listen, and he’ll stoke whatever embers of faith he finds glowing in your heart.    

Friday, September 7, 2012

Redeeming Failure

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

-Habakkuk 3:17-19 (NIV)

    Recently I was talking with some leaders from some other nearby churches, and the conversation turned to what was going on in our congregations. At some point during the few minutes that followed, I realized that the only thing anyone was sharing was success stories: “here’s how God’s blessing us” kinds of stories.
    Now, I wouldn’t characterize any of these leaders as big ego guys. They certainly weren’t taking all the credit for the successes. But it occurred to me that all of us - including me - were emphasizing our churches’ successes and downplaying our failures, as though failure was something none of us knew anything about and had never experienced. As though even the mention of failure was to be avoided in the tidy little worlds we had built for ourselves. As though failure was something to be ashamed of.
    It seems as though that attitude toward failure isn’t confined to the church.
    Dag Kittlaus isn’t a household name, but one of his creations is quickly becoming one. Kittlaus is responsible for Siri, the voice-interaction software on the iPhone. Apple liked Siri so much that they bought Kittlaus’ Silicon Valley company, which allowed Kittlaus to move back to his home in Chicago to do whatever a person does after Apple buys your company. In an interview with Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune this week, Kittlaus said something interesting about the attitudes toward failure that he’s found in the corporate world in Chicago, as opposed to the highly experimental tech companies in the Silicon Valley:
    “One of the biggest challenges ... Chicago has in getting a real entrepreneurial community set up (is) the culture here doesn't really allow for failure in the same way it does in the valley. People have to embrace the fact that (when) you're trying something, the reality is more fail than succeed.
    “Most people don't start new companies that hit a home run out of the gate. Most people first go through several iterations, different companies and different products, and there's a whole vernacular in Silicon Valley on not finding the right thing and changing course. They call it 'pivoting.' Companies pivot all the time because the original idea just didn't work or people didn't like it and they have to change directions. It happens all the time ... in highly innovative environments. It's crucial that failure is recognized as something that is a natural part in the innovation process.”

    That last sentence deserves emphasis” “It’s crucial that failure is recognized as something that is a natural part in the innovation process.”
    That recognition is as important in the church as it is for innovative companies. Churches are too often held hostage by tradition, by dogma, or simply by fear that “someone might leave.” That kind of thinking leaves little room for the idea that God’s work sometimes demands that we go into uncharted territory and try things that we haven’t tried before.
    And sometimes when we try new things, we don’t do them well. Or we do them well, but they’re the wrong things for the situation we’re in. Or in trying new things, we lose sight of the old ones that shouldn’t change. Or, for whatever reason, we fail. It doesn’t work.     
    We can see that failure as something to be ashamed of, covered over. We can see it as an ending. Or, we can recognize that God is powerful enough to work in failure as well as in success. We can see failure as part of the process of innovation, and let failure teach us to “pivot,” to borrow Kittlaus’ term. To change direction, ask ourselves again where God is leading us, and set out on a different course.
    Sometimes, that pivot is repentance. We have to turn from moral or ethical failures, and trust in the blood of Jesus and the grace of God to restore us and redeem us. Sometimes, it’s a direction change, a different focus of ministry, a different emphasis, or style, or way of communicating. Sometimes it’s a restoration of broken relationships. Sometimes, it’s picking ourselves up in the ruins of devastating loss, dusting ourselves off, and taking a step forward in faith that God has not left us.
    Knowing God’s grace, forgiveness, and redemption should equip us to handle failure without fear or despair - to face it as unflinchingly as the prophet Habakkuk did. “Whatever form loss and failure may take,” he promised, “I’ll rejoice in the LORD, I’ll be joyful in God my Savior.” Habakkuk knew that failure wasn’t the end, that sometimes the road to God’s new places and life takes us through what could only be considered failure.
    The fact is, there will be “no-buds-on-the-fig-tree” kinds of every human life. There will be times when prosperity seems far away and failure seems the norm. During times like that, there is something in us that rebels, that resists, that wants to move on as quickly as possible to better times. We’ll embrace whoever and whatever offers hope for improvement, convince ourselves that any path toward renewed prosperity for ourselves and ours is the right one. But shortcuts that promise to lead us around failure aren’t to be trusted, because they shortcut some of God’s best work.
    Peter could have told us all about that. On the night Jesus was crucified, he huddled in the anonymity of the crowd and claimed three times not to know him. But later, on the beach, when it was just Jesus and him, he affirmed his love three times, and three times received Jesus’s charge to take care of the people who had chosen to follow him. And not too long afterward, he looked some of the same authorities who crucified his Lord in the eye and told them that he was a new person, empowered, “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.”
    The difference for Peter? That phrase about resurrection. He learned through his failure that God raises the dead. And that, with a God like that, his failure wasn’t fatal.
    Neither is yours, whatever form it’s taken. God still raises the dead, and can redeem even the worst failures. Take joy in that, and move forward in gratitude and trust.  
    He’ll be your strength. He’ll help you to tread on the heights.