Necessary reminder

3 in tree.jpg

A totally unrelated pic for this post, but here are            “3 in a tree”

A few weeks ago a man told me he never gives to poor people asking for money. He did that once, many years ago, bought lunch for a man begging on the street. “I felt good for a few minutes after,” he told me, “felt like I’d done my good deed for the day, but then I realized I’d simply made that man successful at asking for money. I hadn’t given him a reason to do anything else. Now I only give to people who are already pursuing their goals, who are already successful.”

He’s not alone in this practice. Marketing operates on this principle: success breeds success. When you need support for an organization, you don’t start with your needs; you start with the stories of change, growth, transformation. Then you talk about need, only then.
Sometimes I wonder if those begging on street corners understand this. Many, when you stop and talk with them, tell you they were successful in their past. Last week one man—sitting out on a day when the high was in single digits—told me he’d been a stock broker, he’d scored incredibly well on the test stock brokers have to take, he’d lost it all paying for his mother’s cancer treatment bills.
Was he trying to convince me? Trying to tell me the cash I’d pushed into his mittened hands wasn’t wasted, was being spent on someone “worth it”? Or was he trying to convince himself?
Maybe a bit of both?
Here’s what struck me, as I drove away from him still sitting on the corner: I wasn’t so much giving to him as paying him, paying him for a very important service he was providing me. As a plumber repairs my pipes and a lawyer prepares my will, this man reminds me of several important things. His very presence on the side of the road speaks truth to me. Take away my background, the economic stability of my childhood home and neighborhood, the education I was encouraged and enabled to pursue, the mind I’ve been given to study and do work that pays well enough, my health… Put me in different circumstances, and I, too, could be sitting on the side of the road or, as I tried to convince him, in a shelter till the weather broke. His presence reminds me of my frailty, of the frailty of humanity collectively—we are all like grass, easily withered, easily chopped low, easily blown away.
He, sitting out in all weathers, enduring the disregard of so many, is doing much harder work than I, and it is work that, in one way or another, must be done. Without reminders of our innate weakness, we assume we have actually earned and deserved the good we enjoy. And then we lose gratitude, humility, love…
His presence leads me to prayer, to connection with those near and far away, with those in need in my city, those in need in my world. His presence on the corner reminds me of Aleppo, of Sudan, of North Korea, of prisoners and persecuted Christians, of those lonely or in sorrow, of my friend who just lost her father. His presence reminds me we are all in need. We are all connected. John Donne’s words come to mind: No man is an island,/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me,/Because I am involved in mankind,/And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/It tolls for thee.
The cash I pressed into his hand now seems a very small price to pay for all that.
*Several of the links above are to articles related to homelessness and cold weather: one deals with reasons some homeless people sleep in the cold rather than go to shelters; another suggests ways you can help (and has hotline numbers in major cities to call if you see someone sleeping outside in dangerously cold weather).
*Other links are to Scriptures that deal with our weakness–and our reliance on Christ!

 

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Made for Good

Chicago night skyline, Em's

photo by Emily Underwood (to see more of her work, click on her name.)

This past Sunday my family and I attended the Missionary Baptist church right around the corner from our house. It was their annual outdoor service, so we sat under a tent in the church parking lot and sang, danced, listened, worshiped—and fanned ourselves—along with the church’s very welcoming congregation. Pastor Turk, speaking about how Christ’s purpose gives us purpose, reminded us near the end of the service that not one of us—not one human being given being by God, made in the image of God—was ever created for evil purposes.

“You were made for good,” he said. “You were made to be a blessing.”

The very next day—Monday—as Em and I drove and walked along North Avenue to shop for her school uniform pants, we saw several people holding signs, asking for money. Begging.

I want to set the record straight right now. This post is NOT about whether those with means should or shouldn’t give cash to homeless people. It’s not about the reasons they are homeless or begging or about what they might do with the money they receive.

This post is about the people themselves: the woman and teenage girl sitting outside one of the upscale clothing stores, jacket hoods pulled tight against the rain; the man who squats with his back against a metal fence, his leashed cat next to him; the guy, clearly strung out, asking for train fare; and the lady who chants the same phrase, “Just a dollar. Only need a dollar,” over and over and over again All. Day. Long.

These human beings make sorrow rise in my heart every time I see them. And whether I give them money or not (I’m not telling.), I try to make eye contact, to say “hello,” to smile, to see them.

This past Monday, there was one man, one man in particular…

An older gentleman, standing at an intersection, his head up, his eyes looking straight ahead, his sign reading, “Lost job. Need help to get back on my feet.”

Grey haired.

And there was something about him that felt like a punch in the gut.

The words of Pastor Turk came back to me. “He was not made for this,” I thought. “He was not made for sorrow and humiliation. He was not made for other human beings to pass by, some obviously trying their hardest NOT to see him, some scanning him as if he were an animal in a zoo. In God’s kingdom, he will not be doing this. No one will be. We will each have a clear understanding of each other’s dignity, of the God image in every single person, including ourselves.”

This—some humans walking past and around those who hold cardboard signs as if they were no more than a tree or a light pole—is not right.

This—those humans holding signs, most of them with their eyes downcast because it’s less painful to not know you’re being blatantly ignored—is not right.

The sorrow lingered. As I prayed, a question wandered into my mind. Jesus, is this how you felt all the time you were on earth? Was there always a sorrow because you knew this is not what we were made for? Because you saw each human, created to be citizens in God’s world, walking around instead without true knowledge of Him, oblivious of each other at best, downright cruel at worst, full of fear and anger.

Did you walk through each day looking at those around you and thinking, “This is wrong. This is not Kingdom life”?

Is this what I am meant to think, to wonder? Is this sorrow supposed to linger, to always color my perspective, to remind me this is not the Kingdom? And is this sorrow ironically supposed to lead to hope? Because a Kingdom must, by definition, have a King—and ours is coming.

And he is good, and He works good.

He works good—even through and among and in his broken people.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

 

*If you’re a regular reader, you’ll recognize a new look to the blog. The header photo was taken by daughter Emily, and she chose the new format as well. Hope you like it!