Saturday, March 28, 2015


There are different kinds of poor people, different ways people experience poverty, and different ways they respond to it.

   Some people are momentarily poor, due to a sudden circumstance that throws them into some need they find difficult to meet or satisfy by themselves at that particular moment.  This can be anything from being robbed of your wallet in a strange city, to being the victim of a hurricane or tornado that wipes out your home; or any event or dynamic that suddenly forces you to need help from others.  These moments can be terrifying, fill you with grief over your loss, give you panic, overwhelm you with feelings of desperation.  They don’t usually permanently define you or destroy your self-image, and if you live through the moment might even give you a sense of resilience.

    I don’t mean to be casual or careless about such moments.  For many people such moments are traumatic and even life changing, but unless one falls into depression over it most people pull out of it if they have the spiritual, emotional, social, and familial resources to help them, though they might need outside intervention even to survive through the first hours, days, or weeks.

   Some people are aspirationally poor, and due to their circumstances are in a context of scarcity and want, yet have the ethic, the ambition, and the hope to pull out of such a context.  Not everyone in aspirational poverty is successful in this effort.  They may be in such a context where their freedom is limited, their resources almost non-existent, and out of time or health to change things.  When one is aspirationally poor and have their attempts to change their situation crushed, discouraged, or denied by powers they cannot thwart they can eventually be made to feel as if they are in some way cursed, or inferior.

       Yet, when those obstacles are removed or overcome they can thrive.   We see many such people in developing countries who have nothing, but when given the opportunity are able to grab it and improve their lot.  We see this in immigrants who overcome the obstacle of living in a context of no opportunity by moving to a context where their efforts are met with reward.

    We see others in generational poverty, where the value system that leads to a strong work ethic, personal ambition, and hope are crushed at an early age.  These folk are usually in families that no longer function as a healthy family, no longer providing the nurture and encouragement children need nor the complementary discipline to emotionally mature them.  They live in families where no one seems to be sacrificing or delaying their gratification, but only learning to survive, and even pulling each other back down if someone seems to be making progress.

     If the systems that make up the context in which such individuals live are also failing (extended family, education, neighborhood, religious, municipal) it is difficult for such individuals to climb out of this kind of poverty on their own.  Even if they were given the same amount of help say a person in circumstantial poverty might have been given, or someone in aspirational poverty might have been given, it will not usually bear the same positive results.

    I think I need to add another category, and this one would be chronic poverty.   This could arise from any of the preceding causes of poverty but is especially aggravated when the person or family that is poor doesn't have the value system to take advantage of help that is given.  Chronic poverty is a problem for families, churches, and governments because these folks may need sustained help over the years.  Widows, orphans, physically or mentally handicapped individuals may need years of supplemental help from their church.  It takes a willful effort to be there for them over the long haul.

   Still another is the poverty of soul.  This is exactly opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit.  To have a poverty of soul means to be in the process of losing it by attempting to gain the whole world, or even by building one’s life on the things of the world.  Poverty of soul means to be someone who in his mind says, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. “  But they do not realize that they, “…are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”  (This according to Jesus in Revelation 3:17.)  In this context it is a local church, which helps us see we can do this as individuals and as groups.   We often self-segregate to groupings similar to ourselves.

   All five of these groups need the missional love of the Church of Jesus Christ through the preaching and living out of the Gospel.  The Church should be there for people who suffer from disaster, we should be quick to respond.  The Church should be there in communities around the world that exist in a context of scarcity, and we can help them not only with material resources but with teaching them skills to grab hold of the resources they actually already hold in their own hands.  We should be there for the immigrant to help them get up on their feet, on which they seem so determined to walk.  We should be there in historically devastated communities and build a new context for them in the planting of the church, creating a new sense of family and new value system as they come to Jesus, and in turn creating a new community.

    We should be there for the rich man, and the well off, and the smug and self-satisfied to show them the shallowness of their lives, and the danger of an eternity without God.  We should be there to show them the joy of generosity, the greatness of living for something other than ourselves, and to proclaim to them that all of us are absolutely beggars in our souls if we don’t have God.  Jesus holds the answer for every kind of poverty.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


   In my devotional reading, every once in a while, I see a connection between my Old Testament reading and that which I have read in the New Testament.   I am often convicted when I read what Paul says in Philippians 4:11 thru verse 13, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

    Man, do I need that “secret.”   The answer of course is in verse 13 where we understand the power that Paul had, and it was a power that came straight from Jesus. 

   The connection that I saw in the Old Testament comes from 2 Kings 5, and it is the story of Naaman the Syrian, and Elisha, and Gehazi the servant of Elisha.   Recently Mark Belz wrote a book for Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing on this wonderful story and I encourage you to get a copy as Mr. Belz unwraps so many wonderful ideas from this passage. 

   Now what I noticed in this story is how much money is involved in it.  First the King of Aram sends a great deal of money to the King of Israel so he will heal his successful general, Naaman, from leprosy.  The King of Aram absolutely loads down Naaman with cash, and in spite of that the King of Israel realized his limitations.  “Am I God?  Can I heal and bring back to life?” 

    There is a lot of good and profound understanding in the King of Israel’s statement, no faith of course, but a solid appreciation of the limitations of money.  There is probably no other place where “money is no object” as much as the place of sickness for the rich and powerful.  See any doctor, go to any country, endure any treatment, and pay any price to get well, if you have the money.  Naaman had the cash, but money can’t buy miracles, and that is the profound human limitation and it is sometimes just what we need to learn so that we as humans will ask, at least to ourselves, “am I God?”   And admit in our boundaries of power, in our finiteness, “no, I am not!”

   But there was a prophet in Israel, and as you know the story Naaman was sent to Elisha, who wouldn't even come out to meet Naaman but sent a messenger and told him what to do, and if he did it he would be healed.  In spite of an initial refusal to humbly accept what he was told, and listening to his own servants, he did bathe in the river Jordon, and he was healed.  This was a miracle, because Jordon’s waters are just that, waters, plain old river water.  Jordon only does special stuff by the word of God, and not by any intrinsic power within itself.

   Here comes the issue of money again.  Naaman is suitably grateful, and has become a man of faith in the true God.  He asks Elisha to take a gift, and Elisha refuses.  So after some other conversation Naaman heads back to Aram, but the servant of Elisha was paying attention, and he says, "My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from  him what he brought.  As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from  him.”

   So Gehazi lies, makes up a story, and asks Naaman for some material goods, and Naaman gives him even more than he asks for; and I absolutely agree with Gehazi that Naaman absolutely owed the prophet and since he was an enemy there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with shaking him down a little.  Except of course Gehazi was lying, and lying to not only Naaman but Elisha too, which seems weird considering the stuff Gehazi had seen Elisha do.

    Have you ever been in ministry and felt you were being taken advantage of and not being given your material due?   Have you ever felt you deserved more recognition, more reward?  Have you ever resented your financial limitations, the squeeze you and your family have to put up with to remain in ministry?  Have you ever coveted those wealthy pastors whose parishioners seem to buy them tailored suits, give them golf memberships, lease them cars, and pay them well?   Gehazi must of thought it nuts to depend on the power of God to stretch the oil, the bread, and other sustenance when here was wealth being offered as a just return for an incredible gift.

   Elisha says to Gehazi, “Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or menservants and maidservants? “  I’m thinking, “heck yeah, I’m due an olive grove or two.”  And then the comparison with the passage from Philippians is there to kick me in the teeth.  “I have learned the secret of being content.”   I pray over this, and I pray over my heart, because that is where the issue really lies.  It is not my need, it is my constant ease into coveting and envy.  It is my avaricious lust for more, it is my reasonable desire to have enough security not to worry, it is my refusal to trust God. 

   Gehazi gets leprosy for his troubles, and I am reminded Whom I serve, and my constant need to relearn the “secret,” by really believing that if Jesus is giving me strength I can do everything, especially getting though this day, and this vocation, and this calling without resentment, and complaining, and constant comparison with everyone else who seems to be doing just fine and having enough.  Of course, I expect they, and you, have a similar struggle.  May the Lord make us more like Paul and a lot less like Gehazi.  Jesus, help us all.