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Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

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Life Notes

 

Cures That Do not Heal

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Matthew 10:8

On the afternoons of my recent mission trip to Honduras, several of us led Vacation Bible School for the kids. It was a blessing to have fun with the children, even though we could not understand most of what they said. For my daughter, Grace, and me, the interactions with the children were among the most enjoyable.

Honduran homesThe picture on the left is of three Honduran homes located beside the church where we worked. On the left, above and below, are two homes, with a third under the tin roof on the right. More homes are in the background. Although the condition of these homes is worse than some we saw, this scene is common. There were two boys in Bible School who lived next door to these houses. Angel and Daniel, aged about 6 and 4, were happy, cute, well-behaved, slightly ornery boys, not unlike typical youngsters in my hometown. They did not appear undernourished or under-loved, and I have no reason to believe they were. They lived in conditions like those pictured, however. I did not see the inside of their home, but it is likely they had little of the “stuff” we consider necessary for a normal upbringing in the U.S. Did they have TVs or Internet access? Could they watch movies or play video games?

Grace and I talked about how easy it would be to “rescue” one or more of these children into our home, where they would have access to our abundance. Wouldn’t their lives be improved? As the week progressed, the answer seemed clear: No, probably not. Different, yes; better, no. One of the many realizations I made in Honduras is that our “first world” lives are largely lived vicariously in the past and the future. We relive the past and dream of the future, often missing the present moment. Many Hondurans do not have that luxury. The realities of their environment force them to live in the moment, focusing on the needs of now – food, water, work, togetherness, etc. – so there is little energy left to regret the past or ponder the future.

We worry about the future of Angel, Daniel, and the other children. Will they become victims of the prevalent gang violence? Will they be sold into sex trafficking? Will they live their entire lives in housing conditions like these? We cannot know. We also rejoice, however, in the pure joy Angel, Daniel, and the other kids found in the moments of Bible School. Singing, coloring, jumping rope, kicking a soccer ball – they savored moments fully. Their depth of being and their joy in fellowship with us and the other children was beautiful and inspiring. I doubt that could be duplicated here.

I am convinced the solution to the dilemmas in Honduras is not to (north) “Americanize” the people. Rather, we must find ways to preserve the uniquely beautiful parts of their lives and culture, while moderating the violence and poverty that so endanger them. Otherwise, the cures we export may be worse than the illnesses we attempt to heal.

Come home to church this Sunday. Join with others to heal our broken world.

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Life Notes

 

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 3

For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. Mark 14:7

I live a fortunate and blessed life. I have never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I would have a roof over my head. I have always had people in my life who loved and valued me. I confess this so you know I do not write about poverty from first-hand experience. I have observed it from a distance on a few occasions – most recently in Honduras – but I have never lived in poverty, nor do I have a desire to do so. In Life Notes the past few weeks, I have written about the desperation I observed from the poverty in Honduras.

All four Gospels accounts have Jesus saying something to the effect that the poor will always be with us. Some use this to argue that there is nothing effective we can do to address poverty – and they may be right, at least on a global scale. I think, however, they miss the point. Certainly, poverty is a pervasive issue, but it is also an individual faith issue. Whenever we encounter poverty, suffering, or human struggles, we have decisions to make. Can I help this person or situation? If I can, am I willing to help this person or situation?

A third manifestation of the desperation of poverty is personal – it is my desperation to understand how I can best help. Many of us, me included, regularly walk past people asking for money on our streets. There are reasons why we do that, some of which have a measure of validity. If I give money to everyone who asks, how long will it be before I am on the streets begging for money? What if I give them money, and they buy drugs or alcohol with it? I work hard for my money, and they should, too. How do I really know these people are worse off than I am? These are pretentious questions, however, because in most cases we cannot know the answer. Again, we miss the point of being confronted by the poor. The point is how we decide to respond, and how we justify that choice. I am less convinced there is a right answer to the question and more convinced the poor pose a universal conundrum meant to illicit serious soul-searching on our parts – individually and collectively.

We are not called to solve world poverty. Indeed, the poor will always be with us. Jesus made clear by his examples, however, that we are to help. The fact that we cannot do everything does not negate the fact that we can do something. What we do and how we respond is the faith issue facing us. Some will respond with money, others with non-monetary gestures, others will feign ignorance. All of us make choices about our responses, however, and one day we may have to answer for those choices.

Come home to church this Sunday.

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Life Notes

 

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 2

For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10

During my recent trip to Honduras, a line from the movie Still Alice lingered in my mind. The movie is about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice is asked to share her experience with a group of researchers while she is still lucid enough to do so. She writes out her thoughts over a period of weeks so she can read them on stage. The line in her speech that struck me was this: “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” I thought it was odd, as it seemed to me she was both struggling and suffering – at least that was my interpretation of her condition.

I just named what I believe to be one of the biggest obstacles to helping those we label as in need of assistance – we impose our interpretation of their condition upon them, and then seek to interject our solution. We do this with the most charitable and best of intentions. For me, I contemplated the difference between struggling and suffering in the context of the people I met in Honduras. Certainly, there are conditions they struggle with – clean drinking water, for example, but they also found ways to cope with most issues. They struggle with high crime rates and an inadequate infrastructure, at least by our standards. I saw much of what I considered substandard housing. What I did not see, however, was a lot of suffering. In fact, and in retrospect, I think the cross-section of folks I met in Honduras suffer less than a similar cross-section of folks in the U.S.

Our interpretation of the condition of another is pivotal to how we react to them, as well as how or if we try to help them. For a suffering person, we offer comfort and support. We may feel pity and offer sympathy for their condition, sometimes even empathy. We may try to assure them things will get better, even when we do not know that to be the case. Often, we respond to suffering with acts of mercy to try to ease the distress.

For a struggling person, however, acts of mercy, pity, and sympathy may not be well received or helpful. A person who is struggling is attempting to better his or her own condition, but circumstances beyond their control often work against them. They need assistance, but not interference. Consider beavers. They build dams in streams to form water pools for their nests. Unfortunately, a beaver dam stops the water from flowing as it normally would, causing problems for those downstream. Sometimes, a beaver dam must be removed in order to restore the water flow. I think this image illustrates the plight of many struggling people. One way we can help is by identifying where the “flow” of resources is blocked and assist in getting materials flowing as needs demand.

Two manifestations of the desperation of poverty are suffering and struggling, and if we are to help those in poverty, we need effective tools for both. Everyone deserves the respect to say how or if they receive assistance. Suffering and struggling are two very different conditions, and if we are to help, we must recognize and honor the difference.

Come home to church this Sunday. Bring your poverty to the cross.

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Life Notes

The Desperation of Poverty, Part 1

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Luke 6:20-21

As I prepared for my recent mission trip to Honduras, I checked the State Department’s website for information. There were 3 countries with travel warnings for U.S. citizens: Chad, Syria, and Honduras. Robbery, kidnapping, and murder rates of U.S. citizens are particularly high in those countries. I had not thought of Honduras as a particularly violent country, but there were hints of the violence visible immediately on our arrival. There were armed guards at the airport – military personnel grouped in twos or threes, all carrying machine guns, patrolling the corridors. In addition, most housing and business areas looked like fortresses. Concrete walls, razor wire, barbed wire, and electric wire surrounded most of the homes and housing areas we saw. Doors were metal and windows barred. Many businesses had armed guards standing at the door. As we drove to and from a church service on Sunday, we were warned to keep the tinted windows of our van closed so locals could not see the van was full of white people. Beggars and panhandlers populated worksitethe street corners, walking into traffic seeking money. The church where we worked during the week was locked down tight, and at least one worker (and two dogs) were there 24/7 to discourage looting of the tools. You get the picture – crime is rampant, and the measures taken to keep violence out also kept people like me locked inside. Honestly, one of my initial thoughts was whether I was being protected from the people of Honduras, or if they were being protected from me. Perhaps the truth was some combination of both, and I found that sad.

The parts of Honduras I became most familiar with – the work site and the mission house – were hardly filled with anything likely to be stolen in the United States. They were, however, valuable in Honduras – basic as they were by our standards. For a hungry person with few options, even a worn-out shovel could be traded for a meal. Our landfills are full of items that would have much utility in third-world countries. No doubt, many U.S. families throw out more food in a week than some Honduran families consume.

The poverty I witnessed in Honduras led to various types of desperation. People went to great lengths to protect what little they possessed. Large numbers of people sought tips for providing various unsolicited “services” – pumping gas, carrying luggage, helping guide cars into parking spots, selling cookies or pirated CDs at restaurants. What I witnessed was the desperation of poverty, and it was a side of humanity largely foreign to me, at least to this degree. I remember the line from an old Bob Dylan song, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.” I think I observed the conditions that breed criminals and terrorists. I witnessed hard realities in one small area of one small, third-world country among the dozens that populate so much of our planet. I do not know the solution to poverty or the desperation it brings. I only know that having witnessed it, I can no longer not see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Pray for those caught in the desperation of poverty.

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Life Notes

 

The Poverty of Wealth

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks.  Luke 10:38-40a

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes:

“It always strikes me that rich people have much money, while poor people have much time. And when there is much time life can be celebrated. There is no reason to romanticize poverty, but when I see the fears and anxieties of many who have all the goods the world has to offer, I can understand Jesus’ words: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Money and success are not the problem; the problem is the absence of free, open time when God can be encountered in the present and life can be lifted up in its simple beauty and goodness.”

I read this passage last week while I was on a mission trip to Honduras. I am convinced the juxtaposition of the reading and the trip was divinely arranged.

While in Honduras, I expected to meet a suffering mass of people living in poverty. What I found was happy, joyful people – many living in poverty – but with time to spend with others: Time to sing, time to worship, and time to enjoy life. It hit me that while many Honduran people live in material poverty, many of us in the United States – myself included – live in spiritual poverty. The people of Honduras lack many of the material benefits we have in abundance, like clean drinking water and adequate sewage treatment. Because of the time-sucking obligations of our material abundance, however, we have little time left for others or life’s simple pleasures. The two worship services I attended in Honduras (at two different churches) both exceeded two hours in length, not including fellowship time before and after. At my church, people get antsy when a worship service approaches one hour. We have things to do and possessions to care for – yards to mow, sports teams to follow, children’s activities to attend, and housework to be done. We are busy, busy people and must actually schedule visits to see friends and family.

I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke. Martha is so busy preparing for Jesus’ visit that she misses the blessing of the actual visit. Mary leaves the housework alone and sits at Jesus’ feet to experience the blessing of his fellowship. Do not get me wrong – cooking, cleaning, dusting, mowing, and painting are all important activities, especially when there is an abundance to be cooked, cleaned, dusted, mowed, and painted. The contrast is stark, however, between seeking a blessing from our “stuff” and being blessed by the presence of others. I think there is need to find a balance. We can help the Hondurans with some basic needs. They can help us learn to live with less, freeing up time for relationships with each other and with our God.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing to another and be blessed.

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