Monday, April 22, 2013

Hungry Bellies and Hungry Souls

When I am teaching I like to draw on the board.  So as I tried to work through this mental morass of questions  I drew some circles on the blackboard in my mind.  In the smallest circle was my family.  Inside that limited circle I am obliged to see to the physical and spiritual needs of the members. No questions here.

A larger circle encompasses my brothers and sisters.  Inside this circle the first Christians set the example of selling pieces of land and giving the money to the church leaders to alleviate the needs of the poor (Acts 2:41-47, Acts 4:32-37). In another early church example money was collected by the outer ring of mixed race churches to support the impoverished church in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Here I start to feel unsettled.  The examples from Acts are far more radical than I see played out in most congregations.  Usually when you start hearing sermons on sacrificial giving there's a new building in the works not a brother in want. 

Finally there is a still larger circle of those outside of the faith.  Each of them stands as my potential brother or my potential persecutor.  I am required to love them either way (Matthew 5:44, 1 John 4:20-21). Each of them is by Jesus' definition my neighbor and as such requires the same love that I give to myself (Luke 10:25-36).  A statement in itself so radical as to be dismissed at every turn. 

Notice that each of these is a personal response.  God set me in a family and I should care for them (1 Timothy 5:8).  God added me to the body of Christ and there I am a member who should support the whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-30).  God gives rain to the just and the unjust and requires that I love His creation the way that he does! (Matthew 5:43-48) 

So now, could you close the computer and say, "Thanks Helene! Now I've got it." and be done with this whole topic?  I wish. James says if we stop with merely understanding what God wants us to do and don't bother do it we do not have saving faith. 

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself (James 2:14-17).

So what if we jump right in and start doing something, anything? In another recent conversation, Shawn, our amazing tech guy, gave me some insight.  He divulged how uncomfortable he feels with the money the church pours into "short-term missions."  Especially when those missions are not directed evangelistically but at doing some kind of medical aid or building a school or church building.   He wondered if the money was well spent or if in some way they were just being smug 1st worlders patting themselves on the back for "helping."  Were they really spreading the gospel this way?

Shawn's observation reminded me that even when we recognize that someone far away is our neighbor, we haven't answered all the questions that must be asked.  It's not enough to throw money at a problem.  It's not even enough to throw ourselves at a problem-especially if it's a salve to soothe a conscience wounded grievously by our own comforts. So what should we do?

I wish I had sweeping answers that encompassed a program for the church worldwide.  Something that would be powerfully evangelistic as well as meet the immediate needs of ordinary people from the Indian subcontinent into post-communist Russia and down deep into the urban centers of Africa.  

But I don't.  All I've got is an old call.  One made a thousand times before.  Let's follow Jesus. 

I am going to strive to take the words and steps of Jesus more seriously in my ordinary life.  He never once in all of his ministry turned down one person who came to him looking for help.  Not. One. Time.  Does this mean I'll never turn a beggar down again?  Nope, probably not.  I see lots of them and sometimes I'm out without my wallet.  But I am going to try to be more generous. First and most especially in the church.  

Jesus was a healer, a feeder of the hungry, and a friend to sinners.  I can do that too.  I don't have miraculous power but I know a dentist who does dental work for nearly free if you have no way to pay.  I can't feed every hungry person in the world but my congregation at home is bringing food into my grandmother while she recovers from her broken hip.  I can't evangelize the whole world in an instant but I can see every single person I meet as someone to be loved.   I am going to look around with new eyes, obedient eyes, Christ-like eyes and I'm going to see what I can do.  

I am also going to remember that following Jesus also means adopting his priorities.  He had the power to feed ALL the hungry in ALL of world.  But he didn't.  He had the power to forcibly transform Rome's political situation, defeating slavery, infanticide, and a thousand other evils out of hand.  But he didn't.  It was a real temptation.  Take these stones and make bread; fall down and worship me and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours.  Jesus responded with a resounding scriptural NO! (Matthew 4)  He died instead.  From Jesus' point of view, atonement is better than feeding the hungry and redemption trumps political change. 

Following Jesus means knowing that hungry souls are much more important than hungry bellies.  It means filling the hungry bellies and being broken-hearted tomorrow when the hungry souls go on being hungry (John 6).  Following Jesus means that "kingdom work" is expanding the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven one soul at a time, not imagining that political change can ever transform the hearts of men.  Following Jesus doesn't usually mean solving the problems of the church universal.  It usually means starting by reaching a helping hand out into the lives of my neighbors-those next-door, those downtown, and those on the other side of the world.    

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