A Welfare State of Mind

Poverty isn’t economic.  It’s relational.  People are poor, not because they don’t have enough money, but because they don’t have enough friends.  Or they don’t have the right kind people in their friendship circle.

Charity, the simple act of extending a helping hand in a time of critical need, is essential.  Right now, for example, Japan desperately needs help, and gratefully, people around the world are responding

As I write this, our son Matt in the Navy is aboard the USS Blue Ridge in the western Pacific.  No sooner had they dropped anchor in Singapore and, wham, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.  Everyone was called back to the ship, and within a day they were underway to offer aid to the countless thousands of victims.

One of my wife Marilyn’s friends, a Canadian, remarked, “Whenever there’s trouble in the world, the United States always seems to respond immediately and generously.”

It’s the Christian thing to do!

One of the better-known teachings of Jesus is in Matthew 25:35-36:  I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Charity, though, is transactional, not transformational. Giving food, clothing, or even a generous amount of money certainly gives me a deep sense of significance and joy, at least for the moment, and it may help the recipient for a day, a week, maybe a year.  But no matter how much I give, it doesn’t change me deeply–and it doesn’t change the reason why people are poor.

Conservatives decry the “welfare state,” the idea that government money can change people’s lives.  Yet so much of what so many of us Christian do for others is, if I may dare say this, a church form of welfare.  I give.  You receive.  And we both walk away a little happier but unchanged.

What transforms people is not an intervention, but an investment, a long-term commitment to a relationship that changes both the person who gives and the one who receives.  It’s like the difference between giving your kids nice gifts for Christmas–and everything you do for them, happily and unhappily, the other 364 days of the year.

Do you know someone who’s expecting a baby?  They have a teenager in there!  That darling little life popping into the world and, oh what a relief, ending the last couple months of dreadfully uncomfortable pregnancy, is about to change mom and dad’s life forever.

The apostle Paul touches on the shortfalls of charity in his first letter to the Corinthians when he writes famously, “If If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.  So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (13:3-7).

Paul is talking here not about helping hands, but agape, the most sacrificial kind of love.  Love God’s way.  Love that lays down life for the life of another.

Charity is making booties for babies.  Agape is raising children.

Charity is taking food and clothing to an orphanage.  Agape is foster care or adopting an orphan.

Charity is visiting someone who’s sick.  Agape is taking care of them.

Charity is taking a Saturday to build a Habitat house.  Agape is spending any number of hours every week for the next year or two teaching the new owners of the “free” house how to take of it responsibly, manage their money, and pay their bills.

Charity is a transaction.  Agape is transformational relationship. Transactions don’t transform people. People transform people.

Even though you may gasp and gulp writing out that big check, charity is gratifying.  Agape, though, is painful.

Giving money may hurt inside but giving your life just kills ya.  Greater agape has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  And that’s what God did.  He so agape-ed the world that he gave his only Son to lay down his life for us, to go to hell so we can go to heaven.

To lose your life for someone else, to give up the things you cherish–your time, your rights, your freedom, your very life–to suffer for someone else’s benefit is gut-wrenching.  One of the fruits of the Spirit, you probably know, is longsuffering.  Yet suffering long is transformational.  It has the wonderful potential of making me more like Jesus!

Paul put it this way, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:11-12).

Sounds like pregnancy, a woman giving up everything, literally risking her life to give life.  Children change women.  Children change  marriages forever.  They drive us to madness and despair, or lead us deeper into our relationship with God, the wisdom of scripture, and the loving support of family and friends.  Maybe that’s what the Bible means when it tells us a little child will lead them.

People in poverty, though, may have relationship with God.  They may go to church to hear God’s word, but they don’t have the loving, stabilizing support of mature family and friends.

This is the thinking behind Open Table, an extraordinary ministry based here in Phoenix (http://theopentable.org) founded and led by Jon Katov.  Jon’s focus is transformation through relationships.  Literally across the country, people are rediscovering the power of commitment to one another and especially to the helpless.

People in economic crisis–or chronically poor–are offered an “open table,” a regular meeting around a literal table with a dozen or so mature adults who commit themselves to that person and their family for a year.

Going to church or attending a Bible study is easy.  Helping people dig out of the rubble of their live (think about images of the tsunami in Japan) is tough.  It takes time and patience.  It takes love that doesn’t falter, even when the person you are helping doesn’t do what the people around the table counsel her to do.

Yet it’s not until we face the disappointment and disillusionment of relationships that we discover how much or how little of the love Christ is working in us.  The honeymoon of every relationship inevitably comes to an end.  What then?  Do we press thorough the pain in the relentless pursuit of agape?  Or do we retreat into the great American value of the pursuit of our own personal happiness?

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