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Archive for March, 2008

On this first day of spring break, my children are staying an extra day with their dad. I’ve been meandering my way through work I need to do and restfulness I need to have. In the middle of doing some cleaning, there was a holler at my front door, “Mailman”. Hooray, my package from Amazon had arrived!

I had a certificate for Amazon money, and placed an order last week. Some time ago,  somebody’s blog somewhere (I’m thinking, if my memory serves me right, it might have been Musings of a Christian Psychologist), introduced me to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

I’ve never been too great at understanding poetry. But, every once in a while, I’m surprised to find how the poems of a particular artist resonate deeply around in my heart, putting beautiful words to some of my complicated thoughts and feelings and making me ponder and feel things I’d never otherwise have thought about.

Ruth Bell Graham was one of those types of poets. I realized, as I looked up more of Langston Hughes’ poetry, that he was another. So, into my Amazon shopping cart went The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, just waiting for the day I had some Amazon money sitting around. By the time that day came, the other item in my cart was the CD Long Walk to Freedom, by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, of South Africa.

617 pages of Langston Hughes’ poems and nearly a hundred more pages of notes. How nice. Some of his poems make me laugh. Some are astoundingly simple. Some of his poems make me feel like crying. Some disturb me deeply. What a nice treat to have so many different emotions stirred in little tiny bits.

It’s time for me to end my little pause, reading random poems and listening to beautifully stirring music. I’ve got work to get back to, but I leave you with one of Langston Hughes’ poems. It is impossible, I think, to find one poem that represents the variety in his work, so this one is chosen for no deep purpose other than that I just read it, and it made me smile at how simply he states a seldom admitted, but quite profound reality.

It Gives Me Pause

I would like to be a sinner
Sinning just for fun
But I always suffer so
When I get my sinning done.

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Boundaries, Part Three

OR: Will Power

I was thinking that the more boundaries we put down around something, the more of a magnetic pull the thing we are trying to avoid has. The boundaries keep us thinking about this thing and how badly we want it as well as how satisfying we think it would be.

My favorite story about Willpower comes from one of the books in my favorite series about friendship: The Frog and Toad books, by Arnold Lobel. I wish everyone who is reading this post would go check out Frog and Toad Together from the library and read the chapter called “Cookies”. Since that is not likely to happen, I wish I could copy the whole story here, but I am afraid that might not be legal. So, I’ll compromise and summarize the story, quoting parts of it, but hope that maybe it will make you want to go read the whole story for yourself. Find a kid somewhere to read the whole book to. It will make you both happy.

As a little aside, last year as part of a speech class my sixth grade son was in, the students were asked to memorize a selection from a young children’s book and recite it dramatically. As they could do this particular speech with a friend, my son and another boy in the class chose to present this story. They did a great job, and I never tired of hearing the story as they practiced. It is still delightful.

So, in this chapter called “Cookies”, Toad bakes some delicious chocolate chip cookies and takes them to Frog’s house to share. The cookies are so good that they cannot seem to stop eating them, even though they both keep affirming they should stop after “one last cookie”.

“We must stop eating!” cried Toad as he ate another.

“Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie, “we need will power.”

“What is will power?” asked Toad.

“Will power is trying hard not to do something that you really want to do,” said Frog.

“You mean like trying not to eat all of these cookies?” asked Toad.

So, Frog comes up with the idea of putting the cookies away in a box. But Toad points out that all they would have to do is open the box. Frog continues to come up with boundaries they can place between themselves and the cookies and for each one, Toad brings up how easy that boundary would be to override.

After Frog takes the box of cookies, tied up with a string and puts it up on a high shelf, the dialogue continues:

“But we can climb the ladder and take the box down from the shelf and cut the string and open the box,” said Toad.

“That is true,” said Frog. Frog climbed the ladder and took the box down from the shelf. He cut the string and opened the box.

Frog took the box outside. He shouted in a loud voice, “HEY BIRDS, HERE ARE COOKIES!”

Birds came from everywhere. They picked up all the cookies in their beaks and flew away.

“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly. “Not even one.”

“Yes,” said Frog, “but we have lots and lots of will power.”

“You may keep it all, Frog,” said Toad. “I am going home now to bake a cake.”

 

In the end, willpower doesn’t cut it.  As I said in the original post in this series, as soon as the law is laid down, the red carpet is rolled out for the loophole. The boundaries, themselves, which are designed to stop us from doing wrong or keep us doing right, seem instead to keep our focus on the very thing we are trying so desperately to avoid. And the more we are focused on that thing, the harder it becomes to resist or avoid it.

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Boundaries, Part 2

OR: The If… Then…. Worry Trail as a motivator for boundaries

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff.

Are you familiar with this children’s story? The general idea is how something as simple as giving a mouse a cookie can spin off into many other complicated and thoroughly unanticipated happenings. It’s an adorable and absolutely ridiculous story.  There is also If You Give a Moose a Muffin, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, If You Take  Mouse to the Movies and If You Take a Mouse to School, the same general plot line revisited in a variety of different ways.

My youngest daughter asked me to read the original mouse story today. As I did, I was amazed at how it fit into some of my current thinking on boundaries.  It is not, of course, making a point about boundaries, but the silliness of the story made me think about how I can trip out on cause and effect, if… then… thinking,  and then try to deal with the resultant fear by placing down more boundaries of protection.

When I do this, the placement of boundaries (both the interpersonal kind as well as the kind intended to keep me from “slipping up”) is so driven by fear and a need (compulsion?) to be proactively protective, that it almost becomes ridiculous.

If I do this, then that might happen, and then this other thing might happen, and then that would lead to this thing that I’m trying to avoid. So let me stop way back here, because I’m so afraid of ending up there. If I don’t want this and that and the other unfortunate or wrong thing to happen, the best thing I can do is avoid “giving a mouse a cookie”, because, of course “everyone knows where that leads”.

And it makes me sad to realize. Sometimes I think I miss out on receiving joyfully and exuberantly God’s provisions and gifts in my life because I’m so afraid of becoming dependent on those gifts.  So, today, I’ll place a boundary to restrict something out of the fear that IF I whatever, THEN this other feared thing might happen, so I might as well stop myself way back here.

And other times, I miss out on trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide and convict me, when necessary, because I’m so busy trying to self-control myself (instead of letting that self control be a fruit of the Holy Spirit), that I’m drawing a very big line in the sand of what I will not let myself do in order to avoid one potential danger or temptation that’s still pretty far out there. I become (or try to be) my own Holy Spirit.

Even as I say this, let me repeat again that I’m not disregarding the need for boundaries or for lines in the sand (I’m a parent, so, trust me, I know that rules and lines and boundaries are very important). But, today it struck me how ridiculously far and sometimes legalistically, I draw  lines and lay down boundaries to protect myself or my children  from “what might happen”.

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Boundaries

Boundaries. I have a real love/hate relationship with this word. I know many people who have found freedom, relief and hope in their relationships by learning about and implementing boundaries. And, I know boundaries are good. Boundaries put a line in the sand, where this is okay, but that is not. I have four children. Those lines in the sand give them safety, bring structure to our life and also add safety so that people can coexist in rewarding and good ways, true to who they are but without using who they are as an excuse for tromping on those around them. So, boundaries and limits are a good thing.

In principle, I’m sort of drawn to the safety that boundaries offer. In practice, however, I find the result of such boundaries to sometimes be much more harmful and restrictive than they are helpful. And sometimes I find them to have unanticipated consequences which make me wonder if things might be worse with the boundaries than they would have been without them.

Ahead of time I want to acknowledge again that I’m not ignoring the very real realities that make boundaries attractive and necessary at times. I’m acutely aware of those, even as I push up against some of the weaknesses in putting too much trust in boundaries for keeping ourselves safe or protected. (And I’m not saying safety and protection are bad things. I’m just wondering if boundaries offer as much as they seem to promise, and if the pay off in exchange, is always worth it.)

I can think about two categories that we tend to think about boundaries in relation to:

1. Relational boundaries to protect us from each other. I know that’s oversimplifying it and Henry Cloud and John Townsend are probably (or would be if they read this blog) jumping up and down screaming that that is missing the point. I think, from what I understand that the term boundaries in relationships is really referring more to the idea of understanding where I (with my personhood and responsibilities) stop and where you (with your personhood and responsibilities) begin. But, still, when I take that down the road, a lot of what drives an emphasis on this kind of boundaries seems to be the idea that if we aren’t on guard, other people will be a threat to us (or we will be a threat to them). 

2. Boundaries we place to keep ourselves doing right. Like an alcoholic not going in a bar. Or a chocoholic like myself avoiding sales of M and Ms so that I don’t have them readily available in my house next time I have a craving.

I think I’ll start with the second one first. The need for this kind of boundaries depends on a few factors:

1. How convinced we are that the thing we want to protect ourselves from is actually wrong.

2. How strong a pull that thing has on us. Somebody else can eat a handful of M and Ms, but can I stop there? One person can drink wine socially and stop at a healthy limit. Another person can drink wine at communion and be compelled to go out and get drunk.

3. Personal sense of  responsibility. Obviously, someone who has very little sense of responsibility is not going to be proactive in putting down boundaries to keep them from sliding into behavior they want to avoid. But, on the other hand, someone who feels an extremely heightened responsibility (as if everything depends on them and only them) is going to be extremely conscientious in putting down as many boundaries as possible.

4. How we feel about failure. This partly ties into number one. Obviously, if the thing I’m trying to avoid doing is really devastatingly wrong, to fail at keeping myself from it will be proportionately huge. But, this point goes deeper than that.  Because if everything in my life depends on keeping myself from failing (again) or giving in (again), then it becomes a lot more essential to my own sense of survival to protect myself as extremely as I can and to distance myself as far as I can from anything that might make the possibility of failure easier. In any area that I might potentially do wrong. If I fail to get or do right, what happens and how much does that matter to me? Do I mess up my life? My children’s lives? Do I disappoint God? Or my parents? Or my spouse? Am I enfuriated with myself? The answers to some of those questions about the implications of my failure to always do right will affect how strongly I feel the need to proactively protect myself in every imaginable way from anything I might do wrong, any area I might fail or even any area where I might possibly miss the will of God.

So, that leads into some of the problems I see with boundaries:

1. It feeds legalism. If alcoholism is wrong, and I can conceivably imagine myself becoming an alcoholic, I should draw my boundaries regarding alcohol as far out as possible.  And that’s probably good if I know alcoholism has a pull for me. But, laying out explicit boundaries for the use of alcohol to protect everyone everywhere from ever falling into that ends up looking pretty legalistic. How about sexual immorality. It’s wrong. So, how do we protect ourselves? It’s important to care about avoiding sexual immorality, but as soon as we try to do that by laying out rules, where do you stop? Do you say, I’ll never be alone with a member of the opposite sex? Do you say, I’ll never go swimming in mixed company? Do you say, I’ll dress modestly (which comes with its one meta boundaries that then need to be defined? How long do my skirts need to be to provide a safe boundary? How high does the top of my shirt need to be? How long do my sleeves need to be? Shoot, maybe I should just wear a burqua and cover it all?) Do you say, I’ll always turn off the TV if I see someone wearing something seductive or engaging in sexual immorality? Do you say, I’ll never go out in public because I might see someone dressing immodestly, which might tempt me to immoral thoughts?  Now, I’m not saying any of those boundaries are wrong. Some of them are good, and some of them are rules in my home. But, if the point is that the rules and boundaries are what we are demanding to keep us safe,  at some point, there needs to be another rule and another.

2. Inconsistency. Back to the modesty thing. I believe modesty is good and important. I’m not silent on the topic with my children. We talk about it, but more in terms of principles and the heart attitudes relative to it. Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m still my kids’ mom and there is a place and time (and I do exercise it) to say, “No, you’re not wearing that.” But, if I’m focused only on laying down boundaries and rules of exactly what is modest and what isn’t, at some point I’m going to be inconsistent and I’m going to miss a rule that could have protected my daughter (or that is how it will seem to me). It’s impossible, I think, to be consistent  if we are depending on ourselves and the boundaries we lay down to catch and prevent every danger.

3.  Following out of inconsistency is hypocrisy. If firm boundary rules are what matter and are what keep behavior “right”, then a way will be found to get around every boundary. I’m thinking of the Pharisees and their piling rules upon rules. And then totally missing out on the spirit of the law for all the following of the letter of the extra laws they piled up. You lay down the law, you roll out the carpet for the loophole.

4. Pride. I have one son who is super perfectionistic. He can’t stand to fail, and he will do anything to avoid it. Left unaddressed, though, this tendency in him already leads him to try to control his surroundings so that he will not ever have to fail or even make a mistake. If fear of failure or a drive to perfect ourselves in our own strength is what is driving the boundaries we place, then, indeed we are feeding pride and an impossible delusion that we can be perfect if we regulate ourselves enough. The delusion seems to be along the lines of: If I can lay down enough boundaries, I might not ever have to face that I let someone else down, I might not ever have to be humbled and admit I’ve done wrong, that I’ve hurt someone or that I’ve grieved God.

5. Tied into the last point, I believe that boundaries can also feed or drive an unbalanced focus on self sufficiency. If I can lay down enough boundaries for myself, then I can keep my behavior in line. I can lick this thing. I don’t need God. I don’t need other people. If I’m so proud that I need to hedge myself in from this side and that to keep me from any potential wrong or sin, then I’m also probably depending only on myself to accomplish that. Willpower. If I try hard enough, if I anticipate every possible trap and avoid all of them like the plague, I just might be able to keep my behavior in line.

6. This type of boundaries, designed to keep my behavior in line, seems to make the fruit of the Spirit of self control into something I can tack onto my own life or create for myself. I don’t need the Holy Spirit if I can be my own Holy Spirit.

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The Lord has come!

Yesterday I got up while everything was still very dark and got ready for the community sunrise service. After my week of pondering the darkness and heaviness of life and what it meant for Jesus to have stepped down into the darkness, I was already filled with anticipation as I looked forward to the rising of the sun and the resurrection celebration with other believers in my town of at the time of the daily transition from darkness to light.

When I got into my car, the CD that was on was one my daughter had chosen the day before when I drove the children to their Dad’s house. It was a Celtic Christmas CD. The song that was playing was an instrumental, Irish jiggy version of “Joy to the World”. It started out a bit somber and then picked up. As I listened to the music, the first words to run through my mind were from the third verse:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.

And from there, as the music become progressively jiggier, my heart burst into delightful rejoicing:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.

And there in my car on my way to celebrating the resurrection, Easter and Christmas kind of collided in my brain in a wonderful way. At Christmas, earth received her King, as a little helpless baby. At Easter, earth and all it’s worst limitations and realities, could not hold the King.

Hallelujah, He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Last week I focused on the darkness and how extensive and invasive the fall and the curse is. On Easter morning, listening to this Christmas carol, my heart overflowed with thankfulness that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is not one place that the curse has extended that His blessings do not also cover and reach. I may not see it all yet, but I believe it is true, and I am grateful. I have hope in the darkness. My heart is rejoicing.

Joy to the World!

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…You stepped down into darkness.

That is the song that has been running through my mind this whole Easter week. Last Sunday, some people in my church performed a dance skit to this song (by Tim Hughes), which moved me powerfully and left me in tears for much of the day. The dancers lay collapsed, weeping over the body of Jesus taken down from the cross, while choir members and youth went throughout the church stripping it of all of its finery–the flowers, the banners, the candles–and covering the alter and communion table with black cloth.

As I left church, the CD that was playing in my car was the book of Ecclesiastes, the dramatized reading on The Bible Experience. Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Riches, wisdom and love. All the pleasures we can gather for ourselves–enjoy them while we can, but in the end, nothing is new under the sun, nothing goes with us to the grave (and those we leave it to, who knows what they will do with it). And in the end, it is all a chasing after the wind. Eat and drink. Treasure companionship. But, still, sorrow and pain and warring is always there with the joy and pleasure and peace. Meaningless chasing after the wind, without satisfaction or fulfillment.

Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness.

And so I wept. Feeling the weight of the darkness, of my own pain, of the suffering of so many I know specifically, and others I know only as numbers, here and in other countries–victims of war and violence and devastating physical afflictions. The lonely. The hurting. The questioning. The desperate. The overwhelmed. The broken. Jesus came, Jesus died. Did it make a difference? Why has the Light not obliterated the darkness?

But Jesus is not a cosmic Star Wars character, on the side of the light, come to fight the darkness with the hope that good will always win over bad, the light side over the dark side.

Jesus stepped INTO the darkness. This darkness. The meaninglessness. The little pleasures we allow ourselves to try to make life more bearable. Jesus stepped into the darkness. I cried, listening to Ecclesiastes and thinking about the world that Jesus stepped into. My world. The world where there is nothing new under the sun, even with all the technological advances and knowledge and everything. Still, the pain and the sorrow, the chasing after relief. The darkness is heavy. But Jesus stepped into the darkness. And the darkness could not overcome the light of the world.

I want that to mean that there is no more darkness. But that’s not how or why he stepped into our darkness. He stepped into this place with us. God with us, Immanuel. Here in the darkness with us. Not as another weak, blind person fighting the dark. He most certainly changed everything (and the darkness indeed could not overcome him as it threatens to overcome me. But, now, he is with me.)

He is here with me. He died for me, here in the darkness. He overcame sin and death. So that, even while I live on this earth where I still see sin and death, it’s not the same.

Remember your creator in the days of your youth. Yes, Lord, I am still surrounded by darkness. Sometimes it seems the heavy half of “there is a time for everything” is going to consume me. But, I am looking to you.

Oh, Lord, Jesus, Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness. The darkness still weighs on me, but in it, I am free. I am with you, God With Us. And you opened my eyes, let me see.

This Holy Week, I’m so glad for these days of feeling the weight of the darkness, the suffering, the pain. To rejoice too quickly in the resurrection as I’ve done in the past, lessens the impact of (1) How dark the darkness is that Jesus stepped in to (2) How great His suffering was, almighty, all powerful God stepping down into this dark world, sharing our pain, carrying our burdens, bearing our sin and all the resultant complicated pains from that and (3) How great His victory in and over the darkness really is. If the darkness is not that big of a deal, what does it matter that he stepped down into darkness?

Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness,
Opened my eyes let me see,
Beauty that made this heart adore you,
Hope of a life spent with you.

So, here I am to worship,
here I am to bow down,
here I am to say that you’re my God.
You’re all together lovely,
all together worthy
all together wonderful to me.

And I’ll never know how much it cost
to bear my sin upon that cross;
I’ll never know how much it cost
to bear my sin upon that cross….

Here I am to worship, feeling the weight of the darkness, the suffering, the pain, bowing down in worship and relief and awe and gratefulness, not able to comprehend what it cost for Jesus to willingly step into the suffering I’d so willingly step out of.

Oh, Light of the world, you came into my darkness. You opened my eyes. Who can see in the dark? But now I can. It is still dark here, but you opened my eyes. You made me see!!!!! The darkness can’t keep me blind and hopeless. You are with me. I can see. I can see you. I have hope. It is oh so dark and threatening, and I am still afraid. But you are here with me and the darkness cannot destroy me. I still weep at all that I see (as well as all that I don’t see and cannot comprehend or make sense of), but you are with me in the weeping. You have opened my eyes and filled my heart with beauty and with hope. And, even with all my tears and the weight and the grief, truly I can never know or comprehend how much it cost you.

Thank you Lord. Tomorrow I’ll rejoice in some of what I can comprehend about the victory of the resurrection. But today, at the end of this week, I sit and weep with a heart mixed with heaviness and joy, weeping and rejoicing, that you stepped into the darkness, here with us. And we are not alone in the darkness. You know. You understand. You have felt and, indeed, carried our pain.

Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness.

Thank you, Lord. I worship you with a grieving and joyfully grateful heart.

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I am sort of interested in environmentalism. Meaning, I care about the environment, but I’m not very good at making that concern a top priority in the midst of all the other things I care about. To a true environmentalist, I probably look totally uncaring and unconcerned.

At the same time, some of my relatives are convinced I’m a bona fide tree hugger because I will hardly ever use a paper towel. (My dad used to buy a roll eveytime he came to my house, because he couldn’t survive without them. Then someone else gave me two 12 packs of paper towels. At least they were the rolls with each towel being half size. I kept one of the packs because I figure they won’t go bad in the 12 years of visits from my dad it will take me to use them 🙂 and exchanged the other for a more necessary paper product to have on hand for a family of five. )

The areas I am environmentally conscientious don’t seem like anything profound, more like I’m slowing down my impact on the environment just the teeniest bit. I enjoy hanging out some of my laundry. I still use my dryer, but when I hang clothes on the line, I always feel a little thrill. Because there is all that sunshine, doing its thing, and I’m making some of it work for ME. And it isn’t costing anything, and no energy is being wasted, because, well, the sun and heat and wind are already doing their thing, and I’m just tapping into it.

When I was looking at houses a couple of years ago, the realtor said he had never seen anyone so concerned about ventilation. But, if you live in a warm place, ventilation can make a huge difference. Older homes in Florida, built before the advent of air conditioning, were designed to make the environment work for them–excellent cross ventilation and sometimes a peak in the middle with vents for the air to escape out of. When the heat rises, and then goes out the vent, the resulting movement can make a house feel a few degrees cooler. Now that is REALLY cool! The house I am currently living in was built in 1920. The layout and resultant cross ventilation is great. It has an upstairs which gets really toasty in summer, but the downstairs temperature can get to 82 and only feel like 78 in someone else’s home. And, it also takes longer to get to 82 in our home than in some of my friend’s homes with different orientation and lower ceilings.

Part of what keeps me from being more green is laziness. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. It’s just way easier, for example, to buy food from the grocery store instead of growing it in a garden (and I manage to kill just about everything I grow anyway).

But, another thing that keeps some of my green tendencies in check is, well, a shortage of the other type of green, the money kind. If I had more of that kind of green, here are green things I’d love to do or have:

Solar cell phone charger (this one is really rather inexpensive)

Push reel mower (probably the most surprising thing on my Amazon wish list) and European scythe (my son, who mows our lawn with a gas mower we got from the trash, is glad we’re not that rich.) European scythes are very different from American ones, and from what they say, are very easy to use.

I’d buy HEAT YOUR HOME FOR FREE E-BOOK and pay somebody to help me understand and implement some of the ideas.

And if I had even more money, I’d buy THE SOLAR HOUSE: PASSIVE HEATING AND COOLING and build (well, have someone else build) a house that makes the Florida environment work for me.

I’d drive a Prius. Codepoke’s story of his experience driving one in California, made me think this would be my dream car.

An exercise bike that generates electricity (I’m not very good at talking about energy in correct terms. Perhaps such a bike is capturing energy rather than generating it?).

A solar oven that really works. (I’ve tried to build one with my kids, but obviously my design and building skills aren’t too great, since the problem is definitely not the lack of sun here; actually, now that I think of it, I was trying it in the autumn. I should try again in the summer)

Obviously, I’m not a sold out environmentalist. But some of these things just make sense. If the sun is shining, why not make it work for me? If you’re pushing the lawnmower anyway and exerting that energy, why burn gasoline, too?

Mainly, I love reading, learning and dreaming about stuff like this. So, perhaps it’s more a personal entertainment thing for me rather than noble conscientiousness. Here are two of the more entertaining articles I’ve read on the topic lately:

The Top 5 Weirdest Ways to Power Your Home

and

Generating Energy with Revolving Doors

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I’ve had a lot of second thoughts since that last post. I knew I would, as I was exploring questions, so my own uncertainty was built into the fiber of the words I was trying to express.

I’m afraid, though, when I challenge or question the whole idea of helping the poor or fighting poverty as an established goal or agenda, that I sound like I don’t think we are to concern ourselves with the poor or the needy, with relieving poverty and alleviating the causes of suffering. I do believe we are commanded to care for those who suffer. I am not sure at all how that should look. And I recognize that what I’m reacting against are plans and programs that address the poverty, feed the poor and alleviate the causes of suffering, but somehow miss the people.

So, even as I’m struggling with the concepts of “feeding the hungry” or “eradicating poverty” as agendas, what IS my responsibility? I find that many of the programs or plans that purport to do those things do so quite inadequately and even seem to complicate matters more. But is it better to something poorly than do nothing at all? What should I be doing to care for people who are suffering in general, and as a result of poverty, in specific?

I don’t totally know. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the bottom line or starting point is a compassionate heart–the ability to feel the suffering of another, to step into that place of suffering with another person, to weep for the things they are weeping about (and also rejoice with them for the things they are rejoicing in). It’s hard, though, because grieving with someone, of course does not fill bellies (or cure AIDS or rebuild houses destroyed by floods).

Compassion is not an excuse for overlooking practical caring. But, sometimes I think we jump into the practical caring and forget the value of entering into another person’s suffering, of sitting with them and connecting with them as people (as opposed to seeing them only through the lens of their needs), of crying together, of feeling another person’s pain as if it were my own.

Maybe I’m saying that our heart for those who suffer should not end with tears, but perhaps we should make more space for it to start there. I know tears don’t fill bellies, but tears do connect people and sometimes connection gives hope. (Can you tell I’m still really conflicted on all of this?)

Today I was reading something Lingamish wrote about how deeply he was moved while taking a picture of a simple African church and knowing that affluent westerners would be seeing it via the internet that same day. He says,

“[moblogging] confronts us with the world we otherwise might never see. In the process we are richer for knowing about their poverty if it moves us to cry for brothers and sisters who are suffering while we sit in comfort.”

Those words and his affirmation of the value of tears and a heart that weeps for those who suffer, reminded me of the lyrics to on of Michael Card’s songs on his CD The Hidden Face of God:

TEARS OF THE WORLD

In any split second of a moment in time,
in a blink that is one single day.
The sum of the sorrow that wraps ‘round the world
could catch ev’ry soul up and sweep them away.
As vast as the ocean, as deep as the sea,
swept up in one toxic tide.
By the warm salty waves the world weeps its woe,
so how could it be that my own eyes are dry?

Open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

When God walked among us, in the fullness of time,
He wept tears as old as the world.
Acquainted with sorrow, He took up the cup,
and drank ev’ry drop of the poison that heals.

So open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

And so comes the call of this sorrowful Man,
to set our small sadness aside.
And to weep sov’reign sorrow, no matter the cost,
to follow Him boldly, and wade in the tide.

So open my eyes, and open my heart.
Grant me the gift of your grieving.
Awaken in me the compassion to weep
just one of the tears of the world.

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An express invitation is extended to the needy to share in the Passover, in accordance with the original command ׳which emphasizes that no family unit, no matter how destitute, should be excluded from its observance (Ex 12:4, 47). In another sense, everyone is needy, and awaits redemption, and prays that it soon will come.

Because my brain is all about networking and making connections, sometimes one thought trips my brain to go in a certain direction, which may seem to other people to have nothing to do with the original thought. 

I have been thinking about the topic of this post for a long time. I did not seem to be able to put into words my thoughts. But when I read the above quote from John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, (sorry, I don’t have the link to the exact post) thoughts started to come together. Where my brain went with his quote had very little, if anything, to do with the bigger point of his original post. But,  the connection happened, and now I think I’m finding words to at least begin exploring what has been on my heart for a while.

For many months, I have been troubled by one explicit statement and several implied ones along the lines that it is the responsibility of Christians (or at least that it should be one of our goals) to eradicate poverty or at least to fight poverty.

Several questions, maybe even concerns, have been niggling around in my brain as I think about this line of thought (and I know there will be some overlap and redundancy in the questions):

1.Who are the poor and needy, and who determines who falls into that category?

2.Is something missing when “eradicating poverty”  is the starting point or the goal? And, if so, what is it? (This is a question I’ve asked myself in a variety of ways, based on my feeling/assumption that something is wrong, but I’ve not been sure what)

3.Is the point the poverty or the poor and needy? And what are the implications of the point or focus being one or the other?

4.Who is missed and what needs are overlooked by an insistent concern only with the poorest of poor? (I am not questioning this on the personal level. That is, if God has called you, personally, to minister to the poorest of the poor, or even to fight against poverty (or fight for its eradication), I feel no need to call that into question. On the broader level, however, what part of that is a mandate for the body of Christ as a whole, on the corporate level? What needs do we miss right beneath our nose, because we rank neediness according to standards of poverty and human suffering?

5. In trying to “help the poor” (or, for example, Save Africa), do we end up demeaning needy people in the process?

6. What is our role as followers of Jesus in the face of extreme suffering by people around the world, most of which certainly is exacerbated by poverty?

7. What is our role as followers of Jesus in relation to wealthy people? If the focus is on fighting or eradicating poverty, how do we view and relate to spiritually needy people with sufficient or even excessive physical wealth?

8. What are the responsibilities of followers of Jesus who ARE wealthy?

9. Who draws the lines of when a person is sufficiently needy to be “worthy” of serving? (I hate even saying it that way, but sometimes it is what I wonder when I hear the criteria for ministry being tied into a person or group of people’s poverty)

10. Who draws the line for how much wealth and materialism, how much luxury is allowed in ones home before a Christian is judged to be selfish or living too excessively when there are so many people living “in poverty”?

11. Where is the line drawn for consumption becoming a contributor to someone else’s poverty?

Helping the poor and fighting poverty seem like noble causes and also spiritually important. But, when they are the focus and starting point, something seems to go askew or awry or get messed up. 

I have, in small ways lived on both sides of the coin. As a missionary, I felt the tension of living extremely simply compared to what I was accustomed to, and yet, by nature of being able to pay for my airfare to get there, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind in the village we were living in that we were extremely wealthy.  Yes, we had an outhouse. No, we had no running water. But, we had a tank to store water. Which put us in firmly in the luxury lifestyle. When the pipe to to the storage tank at our house sprang a leak, our immediate neighbors went out into the potholes in the road that were filling up with water and did their laundry. Were we selfish and extravagantly wealthy because we had stored water, while our neighbors still went to the center of town and waited in line every day for water? Possibly.

As a single mom, I have received much charity and help. Sometimes I have felt awkward and dehumanized in the process of trying to get the help I qualify for. Mostly, though, I have felt real gratitude at the generosity of others. Am I poor? Sort of. Not really. Don’t know. Depends. If you knew my income, you’d say yes. I qualify to receive food from the food pantry, four times a year (that’s the total amount any family is allowed to go), plus Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I have a nice car–purchased by my church.  My computer was a gift. As was my second computer when my first one started having troubles.

I’m embarrassed when people come into my bedroom/office, because there sits a very large screen TV . And we all know that if you can afford a large screen TV, you shouldn’t be living off of charity.

Only, it was a gift from my neighbor when he upgraded to a flat screen TV for the Super Bowl.  He thought my kids would like his old TV. Even though I told him we don’t ever watch real TV, and only occasionally watch DVDs. Still, he wanted us to have it. So, there it sits, a mockery. You’re poor? You need financial assistance? But you have a big screen TV.

I read this article, called Charity Tourism, and the rather controversial dialogue that followed out of it with interest, because, again, I’ve been on both sides.  (I’ve fed the homeless at Christmas before. This past year, lots of people generously brought food and gifts by for us, just because it was Christmas and because our finances are really limited. This year, to many people, I am the poor.)  The article was posted in December, and the questions raised, especially in the comment section, continue to rumble around inside of me.

Do we criticize and judge the poor? Am I poor enough to receive such charity? Who is or isn’t? Do we criticize and judge the benevolent? Was I serving my own purposes when I fed the homeless? Was I helping or making things worse? How and when do we decide who fits in which category–truly poor vs. leaching off the system; truly generous vs. arrogantly throwing trinkets to soothe ones conscience?

First, I think it is not too wise to draw such blanket conclusions and make wide assumptions as were made in the Charity Tourism article.  If (being wildly speculative to the extreme), 99 percent of all people who helped the poor were doing so out of pride and conscience-soothing attempts, would that negate the sincerity and humility with which the 1 percent truly gave from their hearts and made a difference? If (being just as bizarrely speculative), 99 percent of the poor just weren’t trying hard enough or were lazy or were using their resources frivolously, would that negate the neediness of the 1 percent?

Of course, I’m being ridiculous in these numbers. I hate stereotypes, though, and it feels like when the talk turns to poverty and generosity, stereotypes, even well meaning ones, abound. And being a literal person who cares about details, I wonder what important realities (and more important, what actual needs of very real people–both the poor and the generous–who do not neatly fit the stereotypes) are missed.

I read another quote from an article on the Lutheran perspective on vocation. The author is talking about “the common order of Christian love.”

This is the realm of the Good Samaritan. People of all three orders [church, household and state] come together here, ministering to each other and “to everyone who is in need.”

“To everyone who is in need.”  I guess where I’m at right now is preoccupying less about who is needy and who is not, who is suffering and who is not. I still care about those who are suffering, and I hope I am passing a great compassion on to my children. But, I do not want to define or limit compassion according to specific criteria. I want my children to have eyes that see suffering and need in the lives of people whose paths they cross, regardless of the degree of the lack of wealth or even the presence of great wealth. Yes, I hope my children have a part in alleviating the suffering in the world. But, mainly I hope that they make a difference by caring for specific people who suffer, by loving people where they are, and by communicating the love, peace and salvation Jesus offers, in the place of suffering, whether or not they effectively relieve suffering or knock down poverty. If my son were to take in a homeless family, and my daughter were to show kindness to Britney Spears, is only one helping a truly needy person?

Even as I write this, I’m aware of injustices, of extreme poverty, of great suffering, far away and nearby (and yet, even as I say that, I hear the disqualifiers that are often used to minimize the suffering and poverty nearby: how can an American, after all, be really, worthily poor? Even the poorest is wealthy compared to the rest of the world). I do not want to make light of the realities that people are living in and with. I do not want to live blindly or so comfortably that I neglect those who suffer from great poverty. But neither am I comfortable with rigid standards and elevation of certain types of poverty or suffering above another as more worthy.  Nor I am comfortable with blanket judgment of wealth and individual resources as innately bad when there is any inequity left in the world.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I have answers. I really don’t. And I also hope it does not sound like I am judging in a blanket way those who are committed to helping the poor and fighting poverty in big, corporate ways.  I am not. Again, I don’t have answers, but  I  do have lots of questions. 

I was thinking–I don’t want to be ashamed of either my resources or my need. But, I have struggled with shame because of both. Are my needs really important in the bigger scheme of things? Should I spend money on this or that when people are going without food someplace else? Do I need this new refrigerator? Is it wrong for me to buy this thing? Can I really receive this gift of charity? Am I truly needy enough? A jumble of questions, all over the map, in the mind of someone who is both poorer than many and wealthier than many more.

Okay, maybe I’ve just realized how the opening quote ties into this rambling topic for me. At Easter, I want to be able to take communion next to you. If you are rich and live in a mansion and have no debt and seven cars and paintings that cost more than the total value of my house which I can’t afford to buy, I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel guilty on my account. I am your sister. We are in this walk of faith together. Feel guilt when God convicts you, but not because I am kneeling next to you.  Give when and where God shows you. Keep your eyes open to needs around you. But, please don’t focus on my neediness or poverty.  Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all needy.

And if, at Easter, you who kneel next to me, are homeless, I want to be able to take communion with you. I want to be able to drink the cup after you and not have you feel pitied by me. If God moves me to give you the coat off my back, I hope I will do so. But, more than that, I hope when we are there at the table together, that it is not your needs that move me and draw me to you.  I want to join with you, there sharing the bread and wine, because I am your sister.  Please, let’s share the bread and wine together, because in Christ there really is no rich and poor. And before the cross, we are all blessed beyond imagination.

Together we go out–I, along with the one who is loads wealthier than I and the one who is loads poorer than I– singing a hymn, joined by our shared neediness and poverty, rejoicing in our shared blessing and wealth. Ready to bless those who cross our paths, no matter the need. Ready to receive whatever generosity another is moved to pour out onto us, regardless of where we fall on any standard of need.

Idealistic? Probably. But, it’s the cry of my heart, and this picture, dream, longing (not sure exactly what it is) is in the place of my heart that longs to make a difference in the lives of “the poor and needy” while simultaneously feeling quite turned off by that as an agenda.

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I’m going to share part of a poem. And I’d better warn you ahead of time, it’s morbid. Like the Great Word from my previous post, I heard about this poem in the book When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, by Peter Godwin, a journalist who grew up in Zimbabwe.  (I realized today that I didn’t tell you where I’d gotten that word from. So, now you have the reference, in case you wondered. You can read the first chapter of the book here.)

The poem is about death. Peter Godwin quotes it when he is talking about Zulu graves, which are dug under aloe plants, because they are poisonous to hyenas. Hyenas, of course, are scavengers, and so this is a way of protecting the bodies of those who have died. I’m not quoting the poem to make a point about death. Nor am I quoting it to make the same point the author makes. You can read the whole thing to discover that point (follow the link with the title below). I’m quoting the following part of the poem to make a point about  life.

The Hyaenas
by Rudyard Kipling

After the burial-parties leave
   And the baffled kites have fled
The wise hyaenas come out at eve
   To take account of the dead.

How he died and why he died
   Troubles them not a whit
They snout the bushes and stones aside
   And dig till they come to it.

They are only resolute that they shall eat
   That they and their mates shall thrive,
And they know that the dead are safer meat
   Than the weakest thing alive.

“The weakest thing alive”.

I have been thinking about some friends lately who are feeling very weakened. Well, to be honest, there are days when I still feel impossibly and overwhelmingly weak. There are days when I am not too encouraged by people who comment on how strong I seem to be and their admiration for how I’m making it through various trials. They may see strength, but it feels like I must be faking whatever they see, because in reality I’m about to collapse just around the next corner.

When I, myself, recently alluded to a friend’s strength in an awful situation, she was adamant that she is not strong, that she feels weak and broken and barely able to keep going.

And so, in one way, I want to make space for that weakness. To not forget to grieve with the one who feels weak and broken. To acknowledge how real that place of weakness is. To not minimize it with platitudes. To give comfort to the place where my friend is hurting and afraid and weak.

But, in another way, I want to acknowledge that the weakest thing alive is still…well, alive. And that is a good thing. That, in itself, is a huge thing. That is a sign of strength. The hyenas know it is so.

You might feel weak today, even when a friend is looking at your situation and  calling you strong (saying not so helpful things like, “I could never make it through what you are going through”). And I want to say, You’re both right. You’re right about your weakness.  And your friend is right in calling you strong.

You are acutely aware of your own weakness.  And your feelings which recognize that weakness are not lying. God, who knows we are but dust also knows your weakness (and is not dismayed nor surprised by it).

But you are also strong. Today, again, whether it was conscious or not, you have chosen life. You got out of bed when you felt dismay and despair with your first breath. You took that breath and chose to keep going. You are still going, no matter how stumbling and flailing you are in the going. You may not know where the next breath will come from. You may not be able to comprehend how you are going to take the next step. You may feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. You may feel that you are “the weakest thing alive”.

My friend, that gasping for breath and stumbling along with the next step is its own kind of strength, and I want to celebrate that with you and for you, even while I grieve alongside of you the brokenness and pain and feel your uncertainty about how you are going to keep going.  I don’t know how you are going to make it. I don’t know what the next step should be. But, I want to tell you that I’m glad that you are still living and still going, in spite of all that has happened to you. All the things that you have faced and are continuing to face have weakened you. But you are still going, and you are not “safe meat” for the hyenas.

Who am I talking to now that I’ve switched to the 2nd person? No one in particular and at the same time a few people specifically (most of whom don’t even read this blog). Maybe I’m giving myself a pep talk here. Certainly, the poem encouraged me in a way that also made me smile (A two-for-one bonus!). And it made me think of and pray for one friend, in particular, who is feeling especially weak tonight.

Maybe I’m talking to you, too. I’m not sure.

If you are feeling yourself to be the weakest thing alive, I hope that even in that, you can stop a moment, smile and acknowledge the strength God has still granted you. The strength to keep going against all odds, when you have felt the pull to collapse and give up, from every side and many times.

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