Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who Are the Poor?


As I've said, oh...let's see...5,222 times David Platt's book, Radical and all the scriptures in it about the poor, the helpless, the orphan, and the oppressed really stirred something up in our souls last year.  Plain and simply put, although God's Word talks an awful lot about the poor and advocating for people in helpless situations, as a couple we were living lives that rarely, if ever, even considered the poor.  Yes.  Please.  Pass us the awesome award.

One of our favorite minor themes of David Platt's book, Radical is this revolutionary idea that goes a little something like this...

What if we quit over analyzing scripture and explaining away the hard teachings of Jesus?  What if we simply read the difficult things Jesus said and believe that as the author of communication, Jesus may not have a problem saying what He means?  I know.  What a mind boggling concept.

If you're like me, you're tempted to read the seemingly ridiculous things Jesus said, like the passage below and explain these unsettling ideas away.

"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’  “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46
Is it just me or do you read those words and immediately want to reason away what Jesus is saying?  I know He says, "this" but what He really meant was "this."  The "this" I tried to turn Jesus' words into was always a lot more palatable than His own actual words.

Although Jesus says some crazy things, the first step of this journey as God softened our hearts toward the poor was pretty simple and kind of embarrassing.  Do we believe that Jesus is capable of actually saying what He means?  Can we read scripture and simply absorb the words of Jesus without any "but what He really means is..."?

We nervously decided to give "letting God speak for Himself" a try.  When we did, we found a lot of scriptures we had ignored about the poor, the helpless, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed in the Bible.  Clear teachings.  Clear instructions.  Clear commands.  Clear warnings.

After taking a few weeks to really read and study the passages in the Bible about the poor, the helpless, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed we said something like...  "Uh......Hmmm....Well.  It's pretty clear that these things are really big deals to God.  Things God talks about an awful lot are not even things we ever think about.   So maybe we need to ask God to forgive us and then start to figure out how to actually live out God's clear commands."  Not to make God like us.  Or like us more.  Not because God is a butt head who likes to put us in awkward situations, but because God is good and gracious and His Word was sent to heal us.  Learning to care about what God loves ultimately results in a richer understanding of our own sin, the gospel, and God's grace, mercy, and love.

After we got over the shock of how many times passages about the poor are listed in scripture and how many times we had managed to ignore them (as well as the fact that we'd both been raised in church our entire life and never really heard much about the poor in sermons that was not immediately explained away to mean something else) we started asking some hard questions of ourselves.  Not our church.  Not other people.  We can read.  We belong to God.  We were the ones calling the shots with our finances.  We controlled our schedules.  We were ignoring Him.  We wanted to own this sinful oversight and let God work in our lives. Although it's always more fun to point the finger (or give it) and accuse everyone else of not caring or doing anything, we figured that was kind of silly if we ourselves were not doing anything either.

After telling God we were sorry and that we want God to grow our faith (and ultimately our joy) as we learn to understand God's heart towards the poor, the first thing we did was ask some hard questions.

What does the Bible mean when it says "the poor?"  Who is poor?  Who are "the poor?"  I had heard many people (myself included) say things like, "Well...the person down the street from me does not know Jesus. She's not financially poor, but she's spiritually poor. So I'm serving the poor."

I'll be the first to admit that sectioning off our relationship with Christ into something that resembles Richard Simmon's Deal a Meal program creeps me out.  Richard Simmons on his own is creepy enough. But I think it's important that we don't confuse the poor with the lost.  In some ways those areas can overlap.  Some people who are poor know Jesus.  Some poor people are not only financially bankrupt but spiritually bankrupt as well.  We could spend all day coming up with different kinds of "people combos," but that's a little ridiculous.  Where we landed is this:  Yes, we're supposed to be sharing the gospel and the "good news" is the most important thing we could ever offer to another human being, but we simply can't deny that, for some reason, God says to serve the poor in tangible, needs-meeting ways as well.  We were doing neither of those things.

2 Corinthians 8:9 says that for our sakes, Jesus became poor.  Obviously He did not become spiritually poor.  Jesus is God's son.  In some freaky-I-don't-understand-the-Trinity kind of way, Jesus is God.   The same word for poor and poverty used in that passage is used all throughout scripture and the definitions are exactly what any regular ol' Joe would think of when they think of the word, "poor."  Destitute.  Beggar.  Helpless.  Worthless.

Which makes sense when we think of Jesus' words to John the Baptist that I referenced yesterday.  "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them."

God seems to have a special place in His heart for those who would be completely destitute and helpless unless someone intervened.  The blind.  The lame.  The outcasts.  The sick.  The deaf.  The dead.  Without intervention, these people are doomed.  They can't work their way out of their situation on their own.  A dead person can't come back to life on their own.  A crippled person can't will themselves into walking.  The same goes for the oppressed and the orphan.  On their own, they will forever be stuck in the same sad, oftentimes horrific situation they are in today.

God is asking us to be tender towards people like these.  And how can we not if we have been saved by God's sweet grace?  Is this not who we once were?  Who we still are in a lot of ways?  Helpless.  Unable.  No hope in ourselves.  No boot straps.  Nothing.  We could not save ourselves.  We were oppressed and imprisoned.  Without Jesus intervening on our behalf, we would still be in the same sad place.  Without Jesus intervening today for me, I have found myself in that same sort of spiritual poverty.

Befriending and loving the friend down the street who does not know Jesus is wonderful.  She's made in the image of God.  She may need a friend.  She may in turn be a loyal, loving friend to you.  But let's not jump into this lady's life and claim that we're serving the poor.  This new relationship may honor God, but let's not rewrite or redefine scripture.  This isn't the "poor" Jesus is talking about when he says to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give water to the thirsty.

Aaron and I spent weeks on just this one aspect of trying to figure out how to care for the poor.  No more calling people "poor" who were not "poor" in the way Jesus was describing.  Yes, everyone needs to hear the gospel.  God is clear about that.  But He's also clear that the poor, the helpless, the voiceless, the oppressed, the widow, and the orphan are dear to Him and He desires for believers to pour their lives out for people such as these.

Next we got busy trying to figure out who was poor in the world.  We didn't want to assume we knew, because our record, when it came to the topic of "the poor" was pretty bleak.  So we pulled up Census Reports.  We googled until our eyes felt like they might fall out.  I read charts.  I hate charts.  So really I attempted to read them.  Okay fine, Aaron is the only one who actually read the charts.  He would tell me what they said.  He read reports from respected places like The Heritage Foundation.  Reports like this one.  There are a lot of reports like this one from varying sources, but this one puts together a lot of data from various reports in one document.  We'll let you read it and come to your own conclusions.  Then we'll share ours.

How Poor Are America's Poor?


kayder1996 said...

So much of interest in your post. I like how you expressed a need for distinction between the lost and the poor. And I find the parts on American poverty interesting. I live and teach in a community who has a packing plant and has a very high immigrant population. I also live in a state with a very rural population where many families might consider themselves middle class but the reality is they are actually poor by certain standards. I'm assuming you've read A Framework for Understanding Poverty but if you haven't highly recommend it. Also The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher is a great read on the way immigrants have changed us a nation and does address money, poverty, and immigrants.

krispindanielle said...

Hi! I live and work with refugees and immigrants--to me they seem to be the very "least of these" in American society, both for their economic status and the discrimination they face. Your post is so timely as I have been reconsidering my education and job--I teach English to speakers of other languages. Overseas, this seems low on a hierarchy of needs in relation to poverty. Here in America some of the poorest people need a better understanding of English in order to provide for their families. I have always thought one day I would be overseas, but I am beginning to wonder. What do you think--should the hierarchy of needs be something we consider in missions?

Hendrick Family said...

I have read several books lately about refugees. Not even on purpose. Three books in a row ended up being about refugees. I'd love to hear more about the work you are doing.

The hierarchy of needs is such a hard question, but I'm hoping to at least touch on that in this short series of posts.

Will you email me (hendrickcrew@gmail.com) about your work with refugees?



Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

Oh. No. You di'int.

I was hanging on every word of this post. Every word. I always do, but this. THIS. You are writing parts of our story. It wigs me out (in a good way) that we didn't even know each other and we were sharing a sidewalk.

But then you go and drop Robert Rector? The beloved boss of my entire professional career?

I swear, I got a little dizzy.

You and I? We were meant to be.

I miss RR. I want to hug him. He's very grumpy and cantankerous.

I love you. I do. Thank you for saying the truth here.

Diane Mannina said...

Wait. Who are you Flower Patch Farmgirl? I just finished working in RR's department at Heritage a few months ago to raise our new baby girl. Too funny!

Heather, I just started a "Her Hands" study this morning with sweet, summer DC interns at Heritage of all places. Pretty cool how the Lord works, huh?

Also, in regards to this report, I agree with the conclusion that America does not experience poverty like the third world. But whether you're seeking to serve the poor here in America or those truly destitute in the 3rd world, there is one thing that is always the same. Poverty, in whatever form you find it, is always more complicated than mere economics. And in seeking to alleviate poverty, one thing is certain regarding our role as Christians. We cannot expect to effectively address poverty outside of real relationships. We must be willing to get our hands dirty, to be inconvenienced, to be disappointed at times, and to give up of our time, money, and energy. Gospel-centered solutions are always found in relationship.

The position/willingness of our hearts is key, and I think if we continually come to God broken and humbled, He will lead our hands and feet to the exact place He desires for us.

That's just my two cents. I'm usually one of your "silent followers", and I so enjoy learning from you. Keep it up! :)

Singing Pilgrim said...

First of all, I want to say I totally agree with your point that the poor of other countries are poorer than the poor here. But I did want to share my point of view as well, which is not contradicting at all, it's just personal insight into those figures.

I am one of America's poor. I have been unemployed and looking for 14 months. Before that, I had a slightly above minimum wage job for less than 40 hours a week, which was a temporary position. It lasted 3 1/2 months. Before that, I'd been unemployed for 11 months. Before that, I'd had an even less well paying job for five months. I'd been unemployed three months prior to that... when I'd graduated college. Because I've never worked a job for 6 months, I've never collected unemployment insurance.

I graduated in 2008. I have never owned a car. I live 5 miles from the nearest store, so that means I am stuck at home unless someone gifts me with a ride. There is no public transit, because I live in a rural area.

I just got back health insurance and went to the doctor yesterday for the first time in three years, thanks to Obama's health care bill. It will expire in February, when I turn 26. So I have to hurry, but my family struggled to pay the co-pay.

I am blessed to live with my parents. So I've got food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over my head. My dad works hard at a good job. My mom has fibromylgia and could only work a part time job with understanding bosses, so while she's not collecting disability, she's also not employed right now as bosses don't need to be understanding, the work force is filled with young, healthy, able, educated adults desperate for employment.

My peers are split about half and half with those who are doing well and those who are un or under employed. For example, I have a married couple as friends, who just had their first child. They live at home with her parents and both work part time jobs for minimum wage. Without WIC and foodstamps they couldn't feed their family, even without having to pay rent, because gas, car payments, diapers, and other little necessities like toiletries and clothes basically exhaust what they make.

I have other friends, another married couple with a baby, who live on their own, renting, who don't know how they're going to feed themselves this month because their foodstamps just got turned down because the husband made an extra ten dollars this month, so the $300 of foodstamps they counted on to feed themselves was taken away.

The report you shared was from 2005. Starting in 2008, things got bad. They've only gotten worse, despite what the news claims. Unemployment figures are vastly underestimated because people like me were never counted. It's 2011, and things are not great in America...

That said, America's poor are doing much better than elsewhere. This recession is a global issue. If it's gotten worse here, it's gotten worse in most places (though not all. India's booming, for one). I know about India because I am probably moving there soon.

I do not dispute that the poor are more poor elsewhere. But I do say that is only BECAUSE people help the poor here. Whether those people are family (like with me), friends, churches (like my church runs a food pantry), charities (there's a charity that gives out blankets in the winter, fans in the summer here as an example) or the government, the reason America's poor is not as bad as in other countries is because of help.

Just thought I'd throw that out there. But honestly, I'm not contradicting or arguing with you. Just thought I'd share my side. I am very, very grateful for the help giving to me by family and friends. I would definitely be homeless without them.

Rachelle said...

Thank you so much for this. My heart needed it today, to remind me to keep pressing forward. We are in the process of adopting a US foster care sibling group. I got an email from my pastor's wife yesterday stressing the hardship and grief this is going to bring into our "innocent lives" and the lives of our 4 bio children. She also wanted to make sure I understood that these kids from hard places are going to have "lots of issues"...can I just say I was speechless. You think they might have ISSUES?? Then have the audacity to bring them to my house?...
I pray that God forgives us for not seeing our blatantly sinful hearts and grasping what Jesus sacrificed on our behalf. We are so unworthy to be considered sons and daughters of the Most Holy God.

ManyBlessings said...

Ouch and amen.

And Singing Girl's comment?

We need to DO. We just need to.


ManyBlessings said...

Singing Pilgrim.


Lisa L said...

Thank you for your post - this is also a passion of mine, and I share your frustration with the North American church's choice to stick our collective heads in the sand and pat ourselves on the back instead of actually following what Christ taught.

The Heritage Foundation article, however, reads like thinly-veiled racism to me, "if only those lazy brown people would stop whining and get a job, they'd be fine, and if those foreigners would stop showing up and messing with our demographic data." "If only those brown-skinned single moms would marry the fathers of their babies they wouldn't be poor" ... only holds true if there are jobs for those now-married parents, and if the school they attended prepared them for those jobs. "Poor kids are fat, so they can't be malnourished" - Spam and Mac&cheese are cheap. I'm pretty sure the authors wouldn't feed their Pwecious White Pwincesses and Football Heroies a diet solely consisting of the foods available at stores in poorer neighbourhoods and communities. "Only 15% didn't see a doctor because of cost" - that's still 5 million people, with untreated acute and chronic medical conditions, but I guess the HF would say that's their "individual freedom" to do so, heaven forbid the Evil Evil Government (or anyone else) interfere. The HF's mandate is to promote "free enterprise and individual freedom," neither of which I see mentioned terribly often in Scripture. I think the Religious Right spends entirely too much time defending their God Given Rights (which,oddly enough, are never mentioned in Scripture) and entirely too little time actually *living* the life that Jesus described in the passage you quoted. And that attitude carries over into an unwillingness to see suffering in the developing world as being caused by choices we/our institutions make instead of blaming the brown people Over There in subtle ways for their own suffering.

You can feel free to dismiss me, as the HF does in that report, as a "liberal activist," but I can only speak from my own experience, which has shown me that there are suffering people in North America (true, many aren't destitute to the extent that you have experienced in Haiti, but it is real).

Bekah said...

Do you mind if I put a link on my blog to all of the posts in your series? I have been silently struggling through these issues for way longer than I would care to admit with zero change in my lifestyle. I more just pat myself on the back that I had a guilt trip and at least thought of the poor, and then move forward in the check out line with my new superman Gap t-shirts for my boys. Oh mercy. I have a hard time verbalizing the battle in my soul regarding all of this but the Lord has totally gifted you with the ability to put words to this inner struggle. I have followed your and the Livesay's blog for some time and must say that you are two of my favorite writers of all time. God has anointed you with the ability to kick my butt. You are humble, honesty, lovely women and I am blessed and prompted to pray for you both. Thanks for keeping it real.