Archive for the ‘Poor’ Category

Hitting the Jackpot*

* All Bible citations are NIV

What would you do if suddenly you became very wealthy?  What, you say you’re already very wealthy?  Then I urge you to read on anyway. Imagine hitting a big jackpot.  Maybe you pull the arm on a slot machine in Las Vegas and suddenly the grand prize lights start flashing and bells start ringing. Or could it be that the white Publishers Clearing House van turns into your driveway carrying a very large check with your name on it. Perhaps you hit all the numbers in the Powerball drawing.  Or maybe you won the multimillion dollar “Dream House” giveaway on the HGTV network.

I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like to hit it big.  With no more concerns for my personal financial needs, I’d share some of the winnings with family members to pay off mortgages, car loans, student debt and such.  Then I’d set up a nonprofit foundation to help the needy and give it all away.  What fun it would be to help change lives for the better. How easy it would be to give away money from an abundance of wealth.  Jesus commented on this to his disciples in the story of the Widow’s Mite.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”  –Mark 12:41-44

I’ve wondered how being rich might change me.  Would I become more materialistic and spend on a massive house (or houses) and expensive cars?  Would I travel the world? Would I suddenly doubt the motives of people who tried to be friendly with me?  Would I change my phone number, delete this blog, delete my LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, and seek anonymity? Would I play the stock market and try to make even more money?  How much more would I need to satisfy me? Would I become miserly and try to hold on to all my wealth? Jesus cautioned about hoarding wealth in what is sometimes called as the parable of the Rich Fool.

And he (Jesus) told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  –Luke 12:16-21

An abundance of wealth can make one feel very content, very secure, and very self-reliant. How easy would it be to lose touch with God in such circumstances—to forgo daily communion with God through prayer and the reading of the Word? If all my worldly needs were already provided for, would I still be inclined to pray to the Father, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught his disciples:

“Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

It is a blessing to kneel and sincerely ask God to provide for one’s daily needs.  I am an Anglican. Anglicans follow a Christian tradition that evolved out of the practices, liturgy and identity of the Church of England following the Protestant Reformation. It should come as no surprise that the fastest growing group of Anglicans in the world are in the African churches—places like Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa. Many African Anglicans have suffered terribly from poverty, disease, famine, ethnic cleansing, and multiple forms of discrimination. Some were forced from their homes and lived for a time as displaced persons in their own countries or even spent long periods in refugee camps in a neighboring country.  

Many of these people became believers when they discovered hope in God when they had little else remaining. For many of them, losing everything led to a deep-rooted faith in God. How sweet it is to depend upon the Father for one’s daily needs.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  Matthew 6:28-34

Do we expect God to come to us with His blessings and save us? He says, “Look to Me, and be saved….” The greatest difficulty spiritually is to concentrate on God, and His blessings are what make it so difficult. Troubles almost always make us look to God, but His blessings tend to divert our attention elsewhere. The basic lesson of the Sermon on the Mount is to narrow all your interests until your mind, heart, and body are focused on Jesus Christ. –Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest

Helping those in need

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. —Proverbs 28:27*

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on US and global economies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed for varying pandemic-related reasons. The food service industry here at home has been hit particularly hard.  Thousands of restaurants have closed, with most having no hope of reopening. The middle class is shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have nots. History has demonstrated that as the middle class shrinks and the lower class grows, civil unrest often increases.

To survive, many American families have had to dip into retirement savings, placing the future in question.  When savings are exhausted, losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  The ability to pay a big mortgage, something common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of both spouses.  If even one of them loses their job, foreclosure becomes a distinct possibility! To stay afloat they must negotiate with lenders, which in the long run usually means increasing the size of their mortgages and/or tapping into short term savings and retirement accounts. Early retirement withdrawals are usually accompanied by additional fees.

On top of pandemic problems, even before COVID-19 economic globalization had given rise to thousands of large companies that are loyal to neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers, especially blue collar ones, are increasingly being treated like disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table. Highly educated and skilled working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I heard many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This can and must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when those affected are members of the church. Many churches have lost touch with early traditions. The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tell us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Even clearer instruction comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential to serving those in need outside the church.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop outreach ministries. One way for small groups to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in their church’s local area.  Charities are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.  The closest ministry filed for any church is the one inside its doors. The largest ministry field for every church is the one just outside the church doors.   

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. —Proverbs 19:17

*All Bible quotes are ESV.

Messy Christianity

Soup Kitchen

Many Christians love their big, opulent church buildings. They can be quite impressive, especially older ones that are massive relics of past centuries. Standing inside a pristine, beautifully ornamented Gothic cathedral can certainly give one a sense of awe. They’re a wonderful place in which to worship God.

The entire world was recently shaken by images of the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral on fire in Paris. Notre Dame is now closed for who knows how long, as the French government and people begin the long process of rebuilding. The church building is a mess.

Christianity is a messy business—in many ways messier than the scorched interior of Notre Dame.  In John 14:12, Jesus tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.”  Acts 10:38 tells us Jesus “went around going good.” As Christ’s disciples, we are to follow his example of doing good. Good works are not a condition for salvation. Salvation is a free gift for those who put their faith in Christ. But as the Book of James tells us, works are a manifestation of Christ’s love that is in those who put their faith in Him. 

We are to follow Christ’s example.  Matthew 9:35-38 says:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus is the Lord of the harvest. The harvest he is speaking about has many faces including the sick and suffering, people in trouble, those who don’t know Christ and many others. They all need caring, compassionate Christ-believers who care about the wandering sheep.

Unfortunately, many Christians are too comfortable in the places where they currently are in their faith journey; perhaps they attend church regularly, give money to the church; and participate in church social events. They enjoy this and aren’t eager for change. People in this condition can find it difficult to reach out to the sheep of Jesus’ flock. In his video series on the Good Samaritan, Christian author Rev. John Ortberg likens this to someone sitting on a comfortable bench in a beautiful park—a place one doesn’t want to move from.

Christians who find themselves in such a comfortable condition today but recognize the need for change can rise from their bench in small steps.  It might mean spending a weekend working on a church project with a group of volunteers, inviting a new family on the block over for dinner, visiting a church member in a hospital or nursing home, or leading a Bible study. Taking such baby steps isn’t very messy, but it helps prepare one for Christ’s messy work.

Messy Christianity requires getting one’s hands dirty in both the figurative and literal sense. It’s found in places like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, getting involved in helping someone  who is being physically or mentally abused, inviting someone on the down and out into your home for awhile, giving someone in need a loan with no expectation of being repaid, or traveling to distant places to perform mission work such as flood or hurricane relief. It often requires taking personal risks and/or experiencing considerable discomfort.

Early Christians in Rome were noted for fearlessly caring for the sick and diseased. Many non-Christian Romans admired the Christians’ selfless acts. The Western Emperor Constantine the Great decriminalized Christianity in 313 AD by issuing the Edict of Milan.  Ten years later Christianity became the official religion of Rome. This occurred through a different kind of revolution marked not by violence and warfare, but by countless acts of Christian love, charity and sacrifice.

The Rev. Ken R. Klaus, Pastor Emeritus of the Lutheran Hour said, “All too often the job of reaching others is left to others. That can be unfortunate. After all, there are times when you may be the best person to reach someone who is lost or wandering.” You don’t have to be an evangelist or great orator to succeed either.  All you need do is open the door for the Holy Spirit to begin His work in another person’s life. Share your joy!”

If you believe in Jesus, you are not to spend all your time in the calm waters just inside the harbor, full of joy, but always tied to the dock. You have to get out past the harbor into the great depths of God, and begin to know things for yourself. –Oswald Chambers

*Note: all Bible references are NIV.

Rescue the Weak and Needy

Homeless

 Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.

                                                                                                                                   —Proverbs 28:27

After enduring over 10 years with a dismal economy, many Americans today find themselves in perilous positions far exceeding anything they could have imagined. The middle class is quickly shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have-nots.

The average American family has somewhere around $5,000 in savings, placing them in a position where losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  Paying big mortgages, which is common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of two working spouses. Only two or three missed paychecks can lead to foreclosure! To stay afloat they tap into savings and then into retirement accounts, darkening their prospects for the future while also paying the federal government large tax bills for early retirement withdrawals.

The global economy has given rise to large companies having loyalty neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers are increasingly becoming disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table.

Highly educated and experienced working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I’ve heard far too many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when the strugglers are members of the church. Too many churches have lost touch with early traditions.

The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tells us,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (ESV)

Even clearer guidance comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35:

 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop many outreach ministries. One way to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in your church’s local area.  These organizations are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.

Look closely and see that behind the face of every downtrodden man and woman is the face of Christ.

                                                                                                                                        –Oswald Chambers

Recalling Some Life Lessons

Traffic Jam

Normal is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.   ―Ellen Goodman

Time has been called “a great healer” because it helps ease the pain of physical and emotional wounds.  Unfortunately, time also sometimes causes us to forget some of the best lessons life teaches—lessons we ought to have held on to.

Such was the case for a life lesson I recently recalled—something I originally learned while serving as a Civil-Military Operations Officer in southern Somalia some 20 years ago.

In 1993, Somalia was engulfed in civil war, much like today.  One day I visited a refugee camp run by the United Nations. Hundreds of Bantu people were housed there in small, igloo-like huts made from long bent sticks covered with plastic sheeting.

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The Bantus were brought to Somalia as slaves in the 19th century and remain so to this day. They are a small people of very different ethnicity and appearance than the Somalis.

The Bantus I saw that day were living in absolute squalor. Yet despite their situation they seemed remarkably happy.  When I asked a UN worker about the reason for the Bantus’ apparent joy, he provided a life lesson.  “These people were once slaves,” he said, “but now they’re free, well fed and together.”  The things they held dearest were freedom, family and a full belly.  They enjoyed all of these in the squalid camp where they were living.

Over the course of my time in Somalia and several other deployments during my Army career, I learned other lessons about how little we humans truly need.  For months at a time I lived with no possessions beyond what would fit in my rucksack and duffel bag.

With no car to wash, no lawn to mow, no gutters to clean, no leaves to rake, no Internet, no TV and no long commute to work, one has freedom to discover the gift of time.  Personal productivity can increase significantly in such situations, as can relaxation and renewal.

My unscientific observations suggest that as possessions increase, freedom decreases. A multitude of possessions tend to chip away at the gift of time. While I am not a practicing minimalist, I do believe it would behoove most Americans to consider reducing their material possessions.  Garages were designed for cars, not unopened moving boxes. The primary purpose of an attic is to allow proper ventilation of a house, not to store a lot of stuff.   According to the Wall Street Journal, only about 20 percent of the clothes in a person’s closet are regularly worn. You get the picture.

Relearning Some Past Life Lessons

After each long military deployment, I returned home with renewed enthusiasm for life and a deeper appreciation for my freedom, family and the many blessings God had given us. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and appreciation always slowly faded as I became increasingly re-engaged in the daily, mundane distractions of life and work. After awhile, many life lessons just seem to vanish.  Some of us are fortunate enough to be have an opportunity to relearn some of them.

About a year ago, two major changes in my life occurred.  First, my wife and I moved from a house in Johnstown into a condo near Pittsburgh. Then, only four weeks later, I lost my job.

I had wanted more free time and I got it.  Sometimes God has a real sense of humor!

Laughing Jesus

Two of the main reasons we moved into a condo were to reduce our material possessions and to escape the workload that accompanies owning and maintaining a house. We simply wanted more freedom to do the things we enjoy.  Losing my job wasn’t part of the plan.

However, over the course of the past year I’ve relearned some valuable life lessons, ones I should never have forgotten.

First of all, I remembered that I really don’t need a lot to make me happy.  We have a lot less space and a lot fewer possessions than a year ago, but we also have more time and more freedom to enjoy life.  It has been a great tradeoff—so much, in fact, that my wife and I are already discussing another major downsizing.

Living without abundance makes one more aware of God’s daily provisions.  Instead of asking Him for specific blessings, I’ve learned to pray each day that God will provide my family and me just enough to satisfy our needs and that His perfect will may be done in our lives.

During the past year I also remembered how little it takes to make me truly happy.  We have adjusted to living on my military pension, something that seemed nearly impossible a year ago.  I also have remembered that it doesn’t take much more than my freedom, family and a full belly to make me happy–just like the joyful Bantu people I observed in Somalia many years ago,

Well, there is one other thing. The gift of time has allowed me to dig deeper into the Scriptures than ever before, bringing me closer to the only true source of joy. As the Rev. Dr. Sam Storms so clearly explains, “Joy is not necessarily the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God.”

May you find true joy and peace in your pilgrim’s journey!

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.”  —Matthew 6:19-21 (ASV)

Religion and Politics Don’t Mix

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”     James 1:27 (NIV)

There has been much discussion about religion during the current presidential election campaign.  At one time or another, candidates from all of the parties have invoked the name of God to support their respective causes (the lone exception perhaps being the National Atheist Party).

With all of the problems in our national politics, it makes one wonder whether God could possibly support any party’s platform.  I recently heard an evangelist state unequivocally that, “neither the Democratic nor the Republican party supports the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  During the sermon he referenced a publication called “Christ and the Needy,” a piece penned by Abraham Kuyper in 1895.

I’d never heard of Kuyper (also spelled Kuijper), so I decided to Google him.  It turns out he was a Dutch politician and theologian. Based upon my subsequent reading of “Christ and the Needy,” which I found online, he appears to have been theologian first and politician second.

Kuyper, who was a Calvanist, noted that while some politicians might support reforms closely paralleling Jesus’ teachings on social justice, there is one profound difference.  The ultimate aim of a politician’s rhetoric is to get elected and consolidate political power for his/her party; the aim of Jesus Christ’s preaching was to lead lost souls to the Kingdom of Heaven.  For this reason, religion and politics can never successfully mix.

Following Kuyper’s logic, while it’s important for Christians to be informed on key political issues and to vote accordingly, it is unwise to tie one’s Christian beliefs too closely to one political party or another.  Therefore, after careful self-examination, Christians should vote for the candidates whose positions most closely align with their own religious convictions.  This approach does not lend itself to so called “straight ticket” voting.  Each candidate should be judged on his or her own merits.

Reading “Christ and the Needy” got me thinking about a recent trip my wife and I took to Harlan County, Kentucky, my birthplace. Harlan is situated in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, in the heart of Appalachia. Its entire economy is built around coal and little else.

Many if not most of Harlan County’s citizens are in economic dire straits to say the least.  The ramshackle homes of those living in abject poverty are a poignant contradiction to the scenic beauty of the area’s mountains.  Sadly, we don’t hear our presidential candidates talking much about Harlan’s poor or the poor elsewhere in the nation.  Could this be because a large portion of them don’t vote?  James 1:27 states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”(NIV)

Television comedian and entertainer Stephen Colbert, a Roman Catholic, is quick to comment on politics from a religious perspective.  He recently said of the United States, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

It is fitting and proper for governments to help the poor and needy, but the actions of government are by their very nature “polluted” by the world of politics. Jesus calls upon all Christians to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  He doesn’t tell governments to do this.  Unfortunately, as Colbert so clearly points out, far too many Christians and Christian churches have failed to answer this call.  For the individual Christians and churches that have chosen to lift up the banner of this or that political cause, perhaps your time could be better spent lifting up the cross of Jesus and following Him.