(Book begins with the Preface in the January 31 post.)
First, We Swing to the One Side
Most of us know God is supposed to be our guide. Yet so often we end up living at the extremes. We’re adamant on an issue, but feel guilty if we cannot seem to live in harmony with our chosen opinion. Usually it happens like this: We hear a sermon, or read the Bible, and are confronted with a verse that seems to present no middle of the road, only all or nothing. Depending on our own behavior at the moment, the passage may dismay or delight us. In either case, there seems to be no arguing about its meaning.
For example, take Luke 14:33, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Add Matthew 19:21, “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” These seem to deliver a straightforward message right from the mouth of Jesus: Don’t claim you’re a follower of Christ unless you have denounced possessions.
Those who feel it is a God-given mandate for all believers to live at the poverty level and serve the poor are delighted to expound on these verses. And even in context, they seem to present little wiggle room. Indeed, Matthew tells us that the rich man whom Jesus advised to sell all his possessions went away sad. There is no indication that Jesus ran after him, assuring him he had been using hyperbole and didn’t really mean he had to sell all his possessions; he just had to recognized they belonged to God.
So we begin to grapple with the concept, and it’s a difficult one. Most of us enjoy our possessions, take comfort in our homes, receive pleasure from our gizmos, and don’t want to give them up. Can I really not follow God if I have clothes enough to fill a walk-in closet or an flat-screen TV that commands a wall in my spacious home?
For a brief time, like a trapeze artist, we may swing for the extreme that is demanded. We may begin to divest ourselves of some possessions, give more money to social causes, consider relocating our families or switching careers. But the arc is difficult to sustain.
When my husband Les graduated from seminary, the country boy who always pictured himself serving in a rural church ended up in a small inner city. The city was small, but the drug problem huge. While we lived in a parsonage on the “nice” side of the city, the church location was in the thick of things. The church staff couldn’t even get pizza delivered at lunchtime. They had to walk two blocks out of the “bad neighborhood” to await the Domino’s deliveryman.
Steve, the church’s minister of community outreach, had a variety of organizations functioning in our church building. He began to introduce us to them. We learned the church made a difference by offering things people needed to escape the cycle of poverty—adult education to earn a GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma); inexpensive, quality child care so single moms could work; mentoring in job skills and discipleship for ex-prisoners; and tutoring and kid’s clubs so children did well in school and stayed out of gangs.
And because Steve lived in the neighborhood and knew everyone in a four-block radius, he began to introduce us to the poor themselves. God was teaching us to see them as real people, individuals with goals and dreams just like ours, people he loves.
Thanks to the programs operated in the church, I learned how I could become involved rather than just feel sorry for people. I tutored adults for whom English was a second language. I helped others in developing résumés and interview skills. I saw my efforts make a difference. And I liked the feeling of satisfaction it gave me.
But I was still working full-time, helping with the youth group, teaching Sunday school, and attempting to keep my house clean enough to keep the Board of Health away. Tutoring was one more responsibility in my busy life. I often felt I wasn’t juggling those obligations well.
Even though life felt jam packed, I never thought I was doing enough to make a difference in my world. I still wasn’t living in the midst of the need like Steve. What made me feel even guiltier was that I had no desire to be. The books I read about our need to identify with the poor, to chuck it all and live among them, indicated I was not really a disciple.
So I would allow the guilt to propel me into heavy-duty activism. I jumped at every opportunity, threw money at every cause. But more opportunities kept presenting themselves; more photos of starving children showed up in my mailbox. I couldn’t stem the flood. I couldn’t do it all. The guilt and exhaustion grew in spite of my actions on behalf of others.
Eventually I gave up. I collapsed. I couldn’t sustain the edge of the arc. If I was going to feel guilty anyway, why do anything?
Most of us feel defeated before even trying to live the ideal. We give up, we fall back. But it doesn’t change our belief that only those who have sold it all and moved to the slums to minister to the poor are true disciples. Suddenly, discipleship itself is marginalized. It’s not something for the average person. It’s a call only for the truly spiritual—and that isn’t us. We’ve become second-tier Christians.