Wednesday, February 25, 2009

questions for lent

As Lent approacheth, still working through some of my spiritual dryness, thanks to all who left encouraging and helpful comments. I believe that I will be giving up my selfishness and self-centeredness as well as my self-created complacency regarding my actual, physical involvement in real ministry with those on the margins. It is on this note, ministry with the least of these, that I feel compelled to ruminate upon today. Still working through this so please poke holes and challenge my assumptions.

I recently read Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor by Dr. Robert Lupton, which was compelling for a number of different reasons: one being that it was succinct and compact handling without being over-simplified and another being that it dealt frankly with the church's approach to ministry with the poor, which one can do with years of real-life experience working in ministry with the poor like Dr. Lupton. This book got me to thinking about what I am seeking to accomplish when I work in ministry with the poor. In my experience working with those in need (which really is all of us isn't it?) I am often the recipient of a request: "I need...fill in the blank" So often, I get caught up on meeting that most immediate need of the person I am working with: food, clothing, bill payment, gas, etc. and lose sight of involving that person in acquiring whatever it is that they may need. So often I hand over money or buy the gas or a bag of food or pay the bill and forget that Christ calls us to much more than this.

Yesterday, I took part in a Faith Community Leadership Summit on mental health organized by Texas Health Resources and involving leaders of faith communities all over Tarrant county. Dr. Len Sweet and Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, among others, spoke about the issue of health and spirituality. Dr. Len Sweet is also engaging as a speaker and teacher and yesterday was no exception. He spoke of our need to implant Christ rather than our desire to imitate Christ. Imitation, he maintains, leaves little to no room for innovation or creativity while implantation allows Christ to work through us and become implanted in the lives of those we work in ministry with, including the poor. He also went on to say that as faith community leaders, what we seek to imitate about Christ is incomplete. We try to be great preachers and teachers, while failing to imitate Christ as healer. I do not believe Dr. Sweet was advocating we all become faith-healers but that we acknowledge that what Christ did more often than preach and teach was heal and in acknowledging this truth seek to be healers more than teachers or preachers; that in our relationships with those we minister to and with, we must seek to provide authentic, transformative, healing moments in which Jesus Christ is revealed rather than expounded upon. Dr. Stevenson-Moessner chose the framework of the parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10 for her presentation. She reminded us that as we read the parable and focus on the Samaritan's solitary, self-less act of compassion we not forget that the Samaritan enlists the assistance of the Innkeeper and the donkey to care for the traveler and that the Samaritan views his assistance to the traveler as a long-term project, which would need follow-up and re-visiting rather than simply getting the traveler what he needed, filling his most immediate need. Dr. Stevenson-Moessner also reminded us that the directive is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, which means we must love ourselves, know our limitations, and know when to resource. She pointed out that though Jesus feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and raises the dead that there were still hungry and sick people and that people still died during his ministry here on earth, Christ did not heal and save everyone and Christ did not work alone in feeding and healing those he was able to while he was here.

What if, instead of the "least of these" or the good Samaritan we took seriously our directive to be healers (not just triage workers but real HEALERS) and used "Go and make disciples..." from Matthew 28 as the model for how we minister with the poor, the hungry, the homeless/houseless. What if instead of just simply meeting the immediate need (which certainly needs to be met) we established a relationship with those we serve, challenging them to take the blessings that they receive and share them with those around them who may need them just as much or even more?

I cannot recall who originally wrote this story but it was shared in a sermon I heard recently. A pastor was delivering Thanksgiving baskets in an apartment complex with church members. They found that they had a whole basket of items left over, with no particular individual in mind. The pastor approached an older woman whose door was opened and said, in an attempt to cover and appear non-creepy, "Excuse me, we seem to have some leftover, do you know someone that could use this basket?" He fully expected the woman to say yes and accept the basket. Instead, the woman grabbed her coat and led the pastor to another apartment where a single mother and 4-5 children lived. This story tells me that amazing things can happen and our gifts may get into the hands of those in real need when we engage and involve those we are seeking to help as co-conspirators in the ministry of care in the name of Jesus Christ. This is what Dr. Lupton seems to be advocating for in his book, the real involvement of the poor in our ministry and not just targets for our ministry.

I am also reminded of the story in the book of Acts of Peter and John heading to the temple to pray and stumbling upon a man unable to walk who asks for an alm. Peter and John's response is, "Silver and gold, I have none...but what I have, I give you..." and heals the man then and there. This story reminds me that the alm would have been enough to meet the man's immediate need but what Peter shares with him is life-changing. If we are handing out money, filling gas tanks, and filling bellies we do great work but if we share Christ in an authentic, incarnational moment that seeks to form a relationship then we offer something so much more transformative.

What if instead of simply handing someone money, a sack of food, or a sack of clothes we asked them to join us in our work, asked them to be a blessing as we are seeking to be a blessing to those around us? What if with every plate of food you asked the person you were serving it to to pray for someone they knew who was in need? What if the next time someone asked you for gas money that you prayed with them as you put your hand in your pocket to get the money out or asked them to share themselves with someone around them as you are sharing yourself with them? I don't know, maybe I am asking too much but it seems to me that Jesus himself saw the hungry, hurting, and sick, heard the cry of those in need, and acknowledged that we would always have the poor with us. In light of all that he himself experienced, Jesus leaves his church not with the directive to feed, clothe, and alleviate suffering and injustice (which he was certainly interested in and wanted his church to be interested in) but instead left his church with the directive that began "Go, and make disciples..." I am not asking us to stop assisting and ministering to those in need, I am asking us to look at how we can offer much something much more lasting, something much more transformative alongside our assistance: the relational love and grace of God through the life of witness of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ by implanting Christ rather than simply imitating Christ, by sharing our work with those we are seeking to serve.


Flip Caderao said...

I need to talk to you. what's your phone #?

Jason said...

The kicker is, how do we as church leaders empower lay members to do such a thing?

When there is someone hungry and we get them a meal, what are some things a person can do which would reach to this deeper healing you speak of?

It also sounds like you are advocating a "pay it forward" sort of system. Which is great, but perhaps I am missing something more.

If I we are all entangled with others then do you think on some level we would have the ability to physically heal people (even at a sub-atomic level)? In that case wouldn't we all become healers?

Flip sounds like he wants to beat you down. Watch out!!!

Ron said...

Thanks for the great post. I have been questioning what to do for lent or if I want to do anything at all. Still haven't decided.