OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners

TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY

Bob Hughes stood on the porch on a sunlit November Saturday morning, looking out over the gathering of about fifty people who had come to celebrate, and choked up as he tried to finish the ceremony. The longtime director, and sole (part-time) employee of Tri-River Habitat for Humanity was reading off the names and organizations that helped build Tri-River’s fifteenth home in twenty years.

It wasn’t the names that brought the tears, just the gratitude. Bob knows better than most what a struggle, what a team effort it takes, and how many hurdles have to be crossed every time our small local chapter of this global ministry cuts the ribbon and hands over the keys to another harassed family. Permits, weather, coordinating volunteers, smoothing over misunderstandings, securing materials donations, following up endless details, and making sure that everyone gets properly recognized in the end is a process programmed to stretch the patience of Job. And though he will no doubt deflect this praise, Ole Bob, as he often calls himself, is better at it than most.

Bob’s aw-shucks, self-deprecating style and twinkle-eyed grin, combined with his white goatee, and somewhat Santa-Clause shape, make him easy to like. But underneath that cheerful, ever-encouraging demeanor is a truckload of smarts and quiet determination. The only thing Bob loves more than fishing the Outer Banks is seeing the words of Jesus fulfilled: “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”  When it all comes together and a family of six can move in before Thanksgiving, well, that’s better than the icing on the celebratory sheet-cake. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

I served with Bob and a half-dozen others of Halifax’s finest in his first few years with Habitat. We are blessed to have citizens like him and all the others who serve the boards of our volunteer organizations. As we enter the Thanksgiving season, let’s take a few moments not only to give thanks for their leadership, but to consider how we might follow in their footsteps.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him … Luke 24:30-31

Are you happy? If not, do you know why?

Several things can make us sad and stress us out. Illness, family problems, financial set-backs have their place in our day-to-day contentment quotient. But all things being equal are you a generally happy person, satisfied with the life you live?

Many of us would have to answer “no.”

Peter Moskovitz, in his article America’s Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy, reports that we have a multibillion dollar happiness industry bent on helping us find contentment, yet over forty million of us have diagnosed anxiety disorders.

We are obsessed with happiness, yet not finding it. Perhaps we aren’t finding it because we are pursuing it the wrong way.

Read Mercer Schuchardt suggests as much in a recent CT Mag article, The Future of the Church is Analog Not Digital, when he wrote, “The most important and biblical pieces of technology in a church today may not be the projector and the amplifier, but the crockpot and warming plate.”

Schuchardt’s peice struck a chord in a song the Spirit has been singing in my soul for some time. I hear it in Sunday School as Jamie Laine leads us through Ray Vanderlaan’s excellent video series, Becoming a Kingdom of Priests in a Prodigal World. I see it in the faces and hear it in the stories of friends attending our Alpha Course this fall. I read about it in books like Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered and articles like Peter Moskovitz’s interview with Ruth Whippman, author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1]

If the song had a title it would be something like: NO MAN IS AN ISLAND, (but somebody already took that one). The chorus would be:

Sit at table with new friends,

Make room in your life for them,

You never know what God may grow,

By simply inviting them in.

Corny, I know, but it gathers up the power of God at work community. Let me explain.

Whippman notes that, “If there was one thing that’s consistent in happiness research it’s that the main source of our happiness is our relationships with other people in our communities (emphasis added). It kind of cuts across class, race, gender, age, and everything. But the focus in America is very much on happiness as kind of a personal, individual journey; looking deep inside yourself, about mindfulness, about your own thinking. All of that being inside your own head, and remaking your own thoughts from the inside.”

Here’s the thing, as long as we pursue happiness as strictly personal, as a goal only to be achieved as individuals, we will remain isolated, empty, and anxious. Happiness is found in community, in common purpose, in shared successes and sorrows, the great and the small threads we weave with others to create the fabric of a meaningful life.

I know the objections, “Other people rub me the wrong way!”  Indeed they do, but the point is, we need them to. Their idiosyncrasies reveal the cracks in our characters that Christ has yet to fill and force us all to pursue him higher up and farther into life in the Spirit.

More to the point, the life, the Shalom, that flows from the Spirit of God cannot be found, or lived, or shared in isolation. Technology can deliver a sermon to your “personal device” (see the irony?) but cannot include you or others in the body of Christ. Only you can do that as you commit to be there, both body and spirit, and to welcome others to the table.

[1] Whippman is the author of How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, and the interview can be found at:  https://flipboard.com/@flipboard/flip.it%2FBDcPRo-americas-search-for-happiness-is-drivin/f-869a36fce5%2Fvice.com

HEAL ORLANDO: Helping the Hurting Without Losing the Gospel

Islamofacism marches on and carries the headlines with it as Istanbul reels from yet another Muslim massacre, yet the wounds of Orlando are still fresh.

Many churches have stepped up to help heal those wounds. One is less than a mile away in fact, DISCOVERY CHURCH’S (DC) Central campus. Website: http://www.discoverychurch.org/.

I spoke with DC Central’s pastor, Ralph Howe, this week to learn what they were doing and how we could help. As of Tuesday, he explained, ONE ORLANDO, the public fund established to help the victims had raised $8M. That money, according to Orlando’s WESH News (NBC affiliate), will be distributed through area non-profits after the groups convene with the Central Florida Foundation to assess the needs, how each group plans to meet the needs, and where they have gaps in funding.

Equality Florida, the LGBT advocacy group which has raised over $4M to date, will also be distributing funds to survivors and victim’s families via The National Center for the Victims of Crime Compassion Fund.

All of that takes time and will no doubt be linked to more LGBT advocacy, which is understandable. But those of us who follow Christ and want to help can do so immediately with the confidence that our gifts will be distributed quickly, with integrity to the gospel, by giving to support HEAL ORLANDO, DISCOVERY CHURCH’S fund.

Pastor Howe reports that HEAL ORLANDO has raised $14,000 to date, and some of that money has already been used to provide rental cars and hotel accommodations for victim’s families, many of whom are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. One such family, unable to access aid from anywhere, was camping out in order to be near their loved one. DISCOVERY CHURCH members located them and got them into a hotel. Also, because of the way terrorism riders are written in insurance policies, many will find that their health insurance won’t pay and some of the survivors can expect to spend six months in the hospital. HEAL ORLANDO hopes to help with some of those bills.

Finally, DISCOVERY CHURCH recognized something that had gone unnoticed in the news. Area businesses within a three quarter mile radius of PULSE were stifled for a week as law enforcement officials cordoned the area off for their investigation. Many of these are small businesses with limited cash reserves and employees who lost wages due to the investigation. DISCOVERY CHURCH sent teams out to visit the businesses and, in some cases, helped to pay these employees so that they wouldn’t be victims as well.

WELL DONE DISCOVERY CHURCH!

If you would like to participate in this ministry DISCOVERY CHURCH’S HEAL ORLANDO FUND is located here:  http://www.discoverychurch.org/give.

WHEN A WARRIOR FALLS

When a pastor’s phone rings late at night it is never good news. That was true one year ago this week, when Marilyn, the wife of my friend Hank called from the local emergency room, clearly in distress. I jumped in the car, heart racing, uttering the only prayer I could manage: “Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.” I knew from past experience that when the nurse had me turn left, into the staff lounge, instead of right, to the exam rooms, that Hank was gone.

I have lost so many youngish friends and family like this, suddenly and without warning, that making sense of it has been a lifelong endeavor. You know the deal: a few seconds one way or the other, a decision to go left instead of right, a slight medical miscalculation, fragmentary details that tip the balance between life and death. That huge two letter word IF. Who can calculate the odds? And what does it mean?

Some things can only be understood by faith. I want to share my conclusions about that shortly, but first I want to remember my friend Hank.

Hank the Warrior
Hank gave a talk at our 2014 men’s retreat on success and told us about several occasions with various companies where he had been given the privilege to, “resign to pursue other opportunities.” He said that most of us would share that privilege and told us how to handle it: “Never lose your confidence. Get up, brush yourself off, and say, ‘Well, that was fun,’ and get back in the game.”

For that and many other reasons, I saw Hank as a warrior. Not a Seal Team Six kind of warrior. Hank was a spiritual warrior, an Ephesians six kind of warrior.

Eph. 6:10-12 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Hank was the kind of guy that the world could just throw stuff at and he could stand there and take it, and not lose his cool, and not betray his Captain, Jesus, and then lead.

For me and our church he had so many of those spiritual warrior qualities that a Church and a pastor need: A cool head, sober judgment, sound theology, engaging personality, the gift, with Marilyn, of hospitality, the abilities to teach, and lead and administrate. Hank was a good and faithful steward of everything that was and is our church, and all that with the heart of a servant. Because of that he was my personal friend and mentor, a guide stone when I was clueless, and a true partner in faith and ministry.

So what do you do when you lose a man like that? What do you make of it? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
That Hank and you and I and every other follower of Christ serve the Creator of the universe in the Great War between good and evil. Jesus is our great Captain and we serve at his pleasure, in life or by death. He chooses the day we depart.

That He loves us beyond anything that we could ask or imagine.

That He takes care of his widows and orphans. How well I know this.

That in his own life of poverty and service, and unjust and brutal death, Jesus has identified with all who suffer, with all who are taken “before their time.”

That His resurrection proves that this life is not all there is. That Hank now lives in a world more real and so glorious that when we see it, all of life on earth will seem a mere shadow.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
What the Apostle Paul wrote in the last few days before his martyrdom:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day– and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8 NIV)

Remember that he goes to a reward, to be with his Captain. Remember to long for Christ’s appearing.

When a Warrior Falls Remember:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24 NIV)

I know that Hank prefers his current location over this world. And I have this great fear that I’m going to outlive everyone that I love. But that is up to my Captain. Either way, I will keep doing what he made me to do.

When a warrior falls remember to keep doing what your Captain made you to do.

Hank became an elder at our church in 2005 and I wouldn’t let him resign until 2014. Our board meets twice a month and begins every meeting by praying; first for the needs of people, then the various ministries of the Church, and finally for ourselves and the things before us a board. We go around the table and pray.

It’s easy for prayers like that to become perfunctory, like saying grace at meals. Sometimes you’ll hear yourself or another man drop into a pattern and you wonder if he’s “checked out.”

Hank developed a pattern over that last year, a close to his prayer that sounded a common theme, but it was never perfunctory. In fact it was so urgent within him; it was coming from such a deep place, that it became at once a riveting call as well as a benediction from my friend. It went like this:

“Father, no matter what we are able to do as a Church, no matter what we get involved in, never let us lose sight of Christ. Always draw us back and keep us centered on Christ and his Cross; the salvation and grace that come through him alone.”

And now dear friends, we cannot tell you how much we long for you to have the same hope and to follow the same Captain that Hank now knows face to face.

KOINONIA IS SHARED LIFE

KOINONIA IS SHARED LIFE

2015

Speed skating is a Dutch sport. It originated in the 14th & 15th centuries when people figured out how to make a blade run on the ice. They began skating on their frozen canals as a form of transportation. Then, like good sports everywhere, they figured out how to race with skates.

The Dutch are true fanatics of speed skating. They all wear orange. They paint their faces. They wear funny orange hats. They even have their own band called “Little Beers” that travel with them to each event. Every ice rink is home field advantage for the Dutch because their fans go to every race in Europe. Nobody tells the Dutch that they have to go to the speed skating races. They go because they love it. They love the sport. They love each other loving the sport. They wouldn’t think of missing it.

The Dutch speed skating fans are a good metaphor for the Christians in Acts 2: 46-47 who “met together every day in the temple courts, breaking bread and eating together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” Nobody had to tell them to meet together every day in the temple and eat together from house to house. They spent time together because they loved Jesus together. They loved each other loving Jesus. They wouldn’t have thought of missing it.

The Greek word used in Acts and throughout the New Testament for the life they were sharing is Koinonia, often translated “fellowship.” Koinonia means “sharing in common.” They shared a common life: a common table, a common purse, a common set of values, and a common love for one another. Most of all they shared Christ and what he had done for them. They were eager to share what he had done for them with others.

The kind of love that builds a body of believers isn’t just a human love. It isn’t “affinity group love”, a love built on commonalities of education, income, race, outlook or profession. It’s supernatural love. It’s an affinity built on the Christ we have in common, the salvation we have in common, and the continuous life-change we are experiencing together in him.

There are some hurdles to building this kind of community. It requires vulnerability, enough transparency to talk about what God is doing in our lives. That takes trust. It also requires belief that we are just as needy before God as the neediest person in the church. That takes humility. Finally, it takes commitment, the determination simply to show up and be part of what is going on. That takes, sacrifice; maybe not as much as painting your face orange and riding trains all over Europe to shiver while others race, but sacrifice nonetheless.

As churches grow in size it becomes more and more important that they build those connections with each other. Some churches do it with small groups on week nights, others through Sunday school programs and various Bible and book study ministries. Whatever your church does I encourage you, as you gather, to build the trust that enables vulnerability, to share with others what Christ has done and is doing in your life. Acts reports that as the early church did this, “the Lord added to their number daily, those who were being saved.” I believe that as you build koinonia in your church, he will do the same.