I am away from my usual place of ministry today visiting with some folks about an entirely different type of ministry. As can be expected, the topic of finances came up. This is a good ministry. It has been in existence for many years, and there are many people who have been touched by its services and the men and women who have served it.
And like virtually every other ministry or mission it is struggling for financial support.
Everyone needs money. Every ministry or mission needs money. Finances are one of the ugly truths of ministry. Jesus relied on people to assist his ministry. Paul certainly spent a fair amount of time discussing the collection of funds and their intended uses. He talks about receiving funds to help his ministry.
On the other hand, I firmly believe there is a lot of money available “on the sidelines” as our pundits like to say, that is waiting for a good mission, ministry, missionary or minister to explain how it could best be put to use. I see and hear a great amount of wailing and woeing about finances being tight and outgo exceeding income. For a large number of Americans that may be true. But, I go to Wal-Mart and I see an awful lot of new vehicles. I see shopping cart after shopping cart full of toys, electronics, and other very much non-essentials leaving the store. I see cases of beer and cartons of cigarettes being purchased with virtual abandon. Football stadiums and basketball arenas are full to overflowing. Movie theaters are doing just fine. Our politicians are raking in donations by the millions. Do not tell me that there is a shortage of finances out there.
What we have in the church today is a lack of connection between ministers, missionaries, missions and ministries with the available money. And, on the flip side, there are many who would like to support a viable work who are looking for a reputable destination. There are fewer and fewer men going into the ministry these days. Missionaries are leaving their fields of service. Much of this has to do with retirements, but some of it has to do with the frustrations of ministry.
Somehow, we have got to stop and reverse this vicious cycle. We need to create opportunities for young men and women to serve, and we need to open the flow of financial support to these men and women who are dedicating their lives to the service of Christ.
One very powerful slogan in a public service announcement a few years back said, “It should not hurt to be a child.” I could modify that to say, “It should not mean financial hardship to be a minister of Christ.” Some faiths require their leaders to take a vow of poverty. Other faiths simply impose poverty upon their ministers by proxy. Many young men (and women) who might otherwise consider a life of ministry or missions look at the financial hardship of their mentors and decide that business, law or medicine is a much more appealing career choice. At the same time there are men and women who have achieved success in their career field who would like to help a young minister or missionary, but they do not know where to turn. The are discouraged about giving to their local congregation because they never see their contributions used for expanding the kingdom. It is nickel and dime’d away for this and that, but there are rarely any results reported, and those that are, are very frequently disappointing.
I’m not sure I have an answer here, but I do see a real problem. I have been (actually, I still am) on the “minister” side of the coin (pardon the pun), but I have also been on the other side of the pew. I know the frustrations on both sides. One side complains about the other not giving, the other complains about the first side not sharing needs and results.
Brighter minds than mine will have to work on an equitable solution. But the problem is real and we need to fix it.
Let’s work on getting these 5 m’s together!
So, if what I have said in previous posts is true (and because I wrote it, I will vote for myself if no one else will), how is the church going to address the issue of poverty? The idea that we are going to get the US government to change its policy of free giveaways is just plain lunacy. We have created a culture of victimization and on one side of the political aisle there are too many people who earn their money and derive their power by keeping people in poverty. On the other side of the political aisle there are people who earn their money and derive their power by exploiting the irresponsible behavior of a few very visible individuals struggling with poverty, so there is just not going to be any change from Washington any time soon. Maybe ever, who knows. So what is the church to do?
First, I think we need to realize that attacking the problem of poverty is going to be a multi-generational task. Therefore we should not set our sights on a measurable change within 5, 10 or even 25 years. We need to aim for long-term systemic change and consider the immediate gains that we might achieve as an extra benefit.
First, I believe the church should respond immediately to dire financial, housing, and medical needs. If someone is in need of immediate food, housing, or other critical area of human life the church should respond with due haste and diligence.
Second, I believe the local congregation should have a focused plan for benevolence and community involvement. Simply having a “benevolent fund” or “benevolent committee” is not dealing with the issue of poverty. It would be far better for the congregation to say, “this is how we are going to reduce or eliminate one area related to poverty in our community” and to stick with that plan for an extended period of time. What follows are just some suggestions, some of which are being used by congregations already, some may not be.
Create a learning center in your building or a building you can rent for that purpose. Use your church members as tutors. Renovate an old warehouse to have table saws, lathes, sanders and work benches on one side and sewing machines, computers and maybe some cooking tools on the other. Encourage boys to learn to be tailors and girls how to build a cabinet. Give young people a chance to build self-confidence and experience the joy of creativity, and keep them off the street for a couple of hours a day.
Create low-cost or no-cost babysitting services for young mothers or fathers to use in order for them to attend classes to better their hiring prospects or to get a job so they can begin to earn a livable wage. Demand progress, but make sure that the parent has a chance to succeed. This will be a long term investment, but with the proper structure you can teach self-sufficiency and demonstrate that working toward success is in itself a measure of success.
Check with your area schools and see if they need new books, furniture, audio-visual equipment, etc. If they have everything they need (doubtful) them move to an inner city school and repeat the same question. Many schools are in dire need of just the basic equipment needed to teach. Do not use the worn out expression, “I pay taxes, isn’t that enough?” It did not work for Ebenezer Scrooge and it won’t work for us. Clearly our taxes are not enough, or the money is being sucked into too many administrator’s pockets, but the kids are not seeing much of our tax money. If you have several schools that need books, A/V equipment, furniture, etc., maybe you can set up a quarterly special contribution where you help one school every three or four months. The point is to give our schools the tools they need to educate our children for a chance to succeed when they graduate.
Provide simple tutoring opportunities if your local schools have none. Many schools provide tutor sessions taught by staff teachers so they can earn some extra income. Do not compete with these situations, but if none exist, this is a huge area for a congregation to make a difference. Create a math club, an English club, a History club or just an old fashioned chess club. The point is to help children learn and comprehend what their daily lessons are about.
Begin English as a second language classes in your building, or offer your building for meetings of community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, etc. Providing adults with the opportunity to overcome addictions is a significant way to alter the cycle of poverty. Giving seminars for wise investing, marriage counseling, and child care are also meaningful steps to altering the cycle of poverty.
Consider giving no-interest loans to individuals who have solid business ideas and plans for opening their own business. I relate this to the Old Testament idea of loaning a man a bushel of seed grain so he can plant his own field. At harvest time you would get your seed grain back and he would have the harvest to sell or to eat for the winter. By helping a man open a repair garage or a woman begin a floral shop we could not only help an individual move into a productive life, we can enhance the value of our community. And the loan should be non-interest. Make the agreement one that benefits the worker, not the congregation!
Do you get the idea(s)? All it takes is a little creativity and a little compassion and the ways we can help individuals are limitless. For those of you who are concerned, yes, we will get abused in some way at some time. But just think of the eternal consequences for those we help. We not only give them a reason for living in God’s restored kingdom on this earth, but we show them that the church’s message concerning eternity has validity and meaning. We fulfill God’s message of loving others as much as we love God. We use our wealth to create a sustainable living for others. We give freely as we have been given. We lift someone out of poverty (or more properly, we allow someone to work themselves out of poverty) and we are blessed by their success in the process.
A win/win situation carved out of the raw material of desperation and despair. Sounds pretty good to me. I know many congregations are implementing some of these ideas, and even many more. Let’s take the issue of poverty away from the government. The government is utterly incapable of handling it. Let’s address the issue of poverty with God’s wisdom. We will not eliminate it, but we can certainly do a much better job than Washington!
As a brief review, let’s look at the ground I’ve covered so far. I believe God hates poverty. I believe he wants his people to join with him in alleviating the pain of poverty. But I’m enough of a realist to know that God has not created a world in which poverty will ever totally be eliminated. I also believe that the causes of poverty are many and multi-faceted, and that many factors usually collide to force a person or a family into poverty.
So, what is the Lord’s church supposed to do about poverty? I want to first approach that question by looking at the larger context of our American social system. And, as I mentioned in the last post, I believe this system is toxic when it comes to the subject of poverty.
We must look at this issue from two different extremes. On the extreme left are those individuals who view poverty as a cult of victimization. I have to be careful here, because to an extent I agree that many fall victim to forces beyond their control. They truly are victims in that sense. But where I see the far left making a fatal error is in declaring that these individuals are then relieved of any responsibility in solving their situation. In other words, once a victim, always a victim, and it is up to someone else to solve the problem. Loosely translated, that means rich people and those mean, nasty, horrible corporations.
Those on the extreme right fare no better in my analysis. As I mentioned before, many view poverty only through the lens of laziness. For them every situation of poverty can be traced back to some sin of laziness or lack of preparation. Those in poverty are simply dismissed unless and until they move to solve the “sin” problem in their life, which usually means they have to get a job and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In addition, there lurks another issue in many far right opinions concerning poverty – racism. Because the majority of those living beneath the poverty line are minorities it is assumed that hard working anglos are superior intellectually, morally, and spiritually to all these African-Amercian, Hispanic, or Asian deadbeats. Few will speak thus openly, but you don’t have to listen very long to hear obvious racially charged comments. Never mind that in the pages of the Bible it is invariably the poor who are praised for their deep spirituality! But we do not want facts to get in the way of our opinions.
Now here is the strange part of this situation. These two radically different viewpoints have crawled into bed with each other to create a political system that not only cannot solve the problem of poverty, but in reality works to deepen it. The whole poverty issue has been made an ugly step-child of the government, and so in a development that defies all explanation both the extreme right and the extreme left are absolved of any responsibility to truly help the poor. The government saves the extreme left because it levies taxes to pay for social services, so those on the left do not have to look to themselves as solutions to the problem, all they need to do is pressure the government to raise taxes and increase programs for the poor. Those on the extreme right just shrug their shoulders and declare that poverty is a societal problem best taken care of by the government. To quote Ebenezzer Scrooge, “I pay my taxes, is that not enough?” That is simultaneously a profoundly liberal and conservative statement.
Now, before anyone starts pointing out the tremendous works of religious groups such as Catholic Charities and all the myriad of non-catholic benevolent works, I admit that these works are present and do much good. But you have to admit that these are peripheral works, applied only after the government has done its job. The fundamental thought process in the United States is that poverty is a governmental problem, and while we might feed a few folks or build a few houses, the church is not the primary source of help for those trapped in poverty.
And here is where I am stumped. Because this viewpoint is so entrenched in our culture I simply do not see a way to remedy the situation without a wholesale (and politically suicidal) dismantling of the welfare state. If we pay people not to work, if we penalize couples for marrying and therefore encourage single parent families, if we pay single mothers more money for having more babies, if we make it more advantageous for single mothers and fathers to stay home than it is to get a job, if we create minimum wage structures that make childcare more expensive than a person can pay by holding an entry level job, if we perpetuate education inequality by making sure that underachieving schools do not get adequate funding and high-quality teachers, if we focus our educational system entirely on preparing students for college knowing full well that many do not want to go, and many cannot go then the result will be exactly what we are observing right now! The levels of poverty will only deepen and the consequences will only get worse!
So, insane as it may be, we as a culture must work toward getting people off of welfare, we must make marriage a financial benefit, not a penalty, we must stop the cycle of unmarried pregnancies, we must create situations where individuals can get the necessary job experience to earn a livable wage without making them spend everything they earn on childcare, we must invest heavily in providing equal opportunities for learning (note: not guaranteeing it!) and we must provide a viable option for those students who are not gifted academically, but can be excellent producers within our society by attending trade or other specialty schools. And this is going to require the concerted efforts of both those on the left and the right to put down their prejudices and work together to solve these basic human rights kind of issues.
I believe the church does have a role here, so my next entry will look specifically at God’s plan for taking care of the poor, and how a church might take steps to help the poor in their immediate area.
It seems to me to be one of the greatest contradictions in the Bible. The Bible tells of a God who can create a universe out of nothing, who can heal the sick and raise the dead, a God who establishes kings and destroys nations and yet this God cannot do something as seemingly simple as eradicating poverty. It just seems to me that making a universal law similar to gravity would have been a whole lot easier than making a human out of a lump of clay. But then, I was not there at the beginning so I am just guessing here.
This apparent contradiction is nowhere more visible than in Deuteronomy 15:1-10. I already mentioned this text in the first of these articles. Moses tells the people of Israel that no poor should exist in their land, then within the same paragraph tells them that the poor will always exist in their land. Is Moses confused, or are we confused when we read this passage?
I do not claim to be an Old Testament scholar, and certainly not a specialist in the Hebrew language or the Pentateuch as a whole. But I see in this passage a very real window into the heart and mind of God. While I do not believe that God intentionally confuses or speaks with a double tongue, I do believe that he challenges his people with the reality of paradox. There are opposites in this world that we cannot deny, and these opposites are signposts to a greater truth. Consider: truth/falsity, light/dark, heat/cold, love/hate, war/peace, and should (ought)/reality. There are many should’s and ought’s in this world, and just as many contradicting examples of reality that oppose those should’s and ought’s.
In the case of poverty we see both the ought and the is in the Deuteronomy passage. The ought is that there should not be any poor. The is cannot be denied – there are multitudes of poverty-stricken people in the world. The reasons have been discussed in the last article – sometimes people are lazy or make stupid decisions, but by far the greatest causes of poverty are situations in which the person is passive. Events happen that cause poverty. If God were to have eradicated poverty he would have had to eradicate virtually every other aspect of our universe. Poverty in some segment of our world is as endemic as health and prosperity is in others. We are fools if we think we can eliminate one without eliminating everything else.
So, if I am correct in that assessment, what has God called his people to do in the face of this sometimes crushing poverty? I do not want to be trite here, but I think he wants us to do what he wants us to do in every other situation that arises from the human condition. He wants us to join with him in his mission to care for those who cannot care for themselves. And that starts with the realization that God has given wealth to the wealthy for this very reason.
We were all poverty-stricken and helpless until God intervened and made it possible for us to have the blessings we enjoy. None of us created any of our wealth outside of God’s gracious provision. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to share those blessings with those who (temporarily) have lost those physical blessings.
As Jesus told his apostles as he sent them out on what is referred to as the “limited” commission, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8, ESV) In grand theological terms, we enter into the missio dei when we take what we have been given and make this world a better place.
(Digressive rant warning: why is it that if we use a Latin or German or French term we somehow come across as being more intelligent or more spiritual, or both? For instance, why is the mission dei more spiritual than the mission of God? I read all over the blogosphere of the missio dei, but hardly anything about the mission of God. Pipsqueak theologians are all atwitter about the missio dei as if they just discovered a new planet or something. It drives me up the wall. End of digressive rant.)
More than any situation in the world today, it is through our attitude to poverty that Christians can reveal the image of their Father in heaven. While the biblical text does clearly condemn laziness and making foolish decisions, nowhere is poverty itself condemned! In fact, all through the Bible there are repeated injunctions for the wealthy to provide for the care of the poor, the weak, the oppressed and those who have no visible source of protection (Lev. 19:9-10, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Matthew 9:13, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27, just for starters!) What is specifically condemned is the abuse of those classes of people. All too often we have it reversed. We protect the oppressors and abuse the defenseless. God can not be happy with this situation.
We have all freely received, so we should freely give. That is, give without making moral judgments. Give without demanding interest upon repayment. Give with no hope of return at all. In a phrase, we are all to be God to our neighbor, because we all depend upon God for our existence.
I have much more to say about this in future entries. As a transition (a segue, for all the theological pipsqueaks out there), let me just say that our American culture is toxic to this concept of Biblical care for the poor. How so you ask? Please return to this space in the very near future, as I seek to explore how our culture has made the biblical mandate for the care of the poor virtually impossible.
In my last post I pointed out that in Deut. 15:1-11, Moses said both that there should be no poor among the Israelites, and that there always would be poor among the Israelites. I raised the question as to how both propositions could be true. Eventually I will get to that question, but first some more background stuff.
What causes poverty? In our Sunday night discussion we had several good answers, which I will summarize here. NOTE: this is not an exhaustive list, as I am not a sociologist. But I think we did a pretty good job of at least hitting the major sources of poverty.
(1) Laziness. I hate to say this, because those on the left disregard this as a cause of poverty in any form, and those on the right think it is the only cause of poverty. I will address those on the far right at then end of this post, but for those on the left let me just say that you cannot read the book of Proverbs and deny that God equates a large part of poverty with human laziness. It can be seen in a third grader trying to get someone else to do his homework, and an adult who refuses to take care of his or her work, house, or family. Laziness all too often results in poverty.
(2) Serious illness/death. How many people have been driven into poverty as a result of a family member becoming seriously ill, suffering an accident, or losing their life. Suddenly a home that might have two incomes only has a partial income or none at all. Added to that are increased medical costs.
(3) Natural disasters. Think of how many livelihoods are destroyed when a hurricane, tornado, or fire strikes a populated area. Fishing trawlers and barber shops can not be purchased with one’s pocket change. Well, what about insurance, you say? Not everyone can afford to completely insure their livelihood, and some insurance companies refuse to pay under some circumstances and it can be as expensive to force them to pay as it is to recover the loss. Insurance is not the golden parachute that so many people think it is.
(4) The loss of a job for other reasons. Many thousands have discovered that a comfortable lifestyle on Monday can totally disappear by Friday with one simple little pink slip. With the real unemployment rate being well into double digits it is not realistic to suggest that within 3 or 6 months a person trained to do one highly specific job can find employment somewhere else.
(5) Lack of education. Our economy is becoming more technologically demanding and also more demanding of communication skills. These are fields that demand high levels of education. At the same time education costs are skyrocketing (funny how Democrats never complain about the inflation rate of higher education. Don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them??) While this may not be strictly a cause of poverty, it is a factor that makes it virtually impossible to break the cycle of poverty.
(6) Single parent families. Look at any chart of individuals and families in poverty and the largest percentage will be those in single parent families. Now, as with education, this may not strictly be considered a cause of poverty, but it cannot be ignored in the scheme of analyzing the continuation of cyclical poverty.
So, maybe you can add a reason or two. What should this communicate to the Lord’s church? I think the biggest thing we need to see from this list is that only one can be directly controlled by an individual – laziness. Every other cause listed is outside of the control of many living in poverty. Even with single parent households the one parent may have become single due to death or abandonment. If so many causes of poverty lie outside of an individual’s control, we must be extraordinarily careful about assigning guilt to those who live beneath the poverty line.
This is my main grief with those on the right wing of the church who believe that poverty is always a mark of sin and therefore should be dealt with like a spiritual problem. They have a carefully constructed syllogism in their mind: Laziness leads to poverty. John Doe is poor. Therefore, John is lazy. He might be. Or, he could have lost his wife after an 18 month battle with cancer and he suddenly has to deal with three young children by himself. Or his company could have sent his job to India. Or he could have lost everything in a flood, fire, tornado or hurricane. Or he might have become obsolete to his company because his job is now being performed by a robot. Life, and poverty, cannot be neatly summed up in one three-part syllogism.
In part one I stressed the golden rule for churches in terms of poverty: recognizing that the ability to create wealth (and very often the wealth itself!) is a gift from God. In one word, the church needs to learn humility. Now we see that the causes of poverty are many and multi-faceted. Have I changed any minds? Are we beginning to see poverty in a different light?
We now have a pretty solid foundation to move on to the big question: if we are supposed to do away with poverty, why are so many people still poor?
I recently started a series of lessons on the subject of poverty. Based on what I know about the subject it will be a very short series. I am not poor. I have never been poor. I have been raised in one of the most prosperous countries during one of the most prosperous times that human kind has ever experienced. For me to examine poverty is like a dog to examine the lunar rocks returned from the Apollo space missions.
That having been said, I find it increasingly uncomfortable that as I read the Bible I find God deeply concerned with the situation of the poor. I say uncomfortable not because I think God should be unconcerned with the poor, but because I am so unfamiliar with the terrain. As I mentioned in my class this past Sunday night, one passage I find very interesting is the first 11 verses of Deuteronomy 15. In this brief paragraph we are told (1) that there should not be any poor in the land based on how God has blessed his people, and (2) there will always be poor in the land (a passage that Jesus repeats in Matt. 26:11). Why, right after saying there should never be any poor in a land of plenty and blessing, would God say there will always be poor people?
I am concerned about the attitude many Christians display openly, or sometimes carefully conceal, about those in poverty. A pervasive attitude among Christians today is, “Well, I had to work hard to get what I have, I am certainly not going to give it to someone who will not work, and if they want what I have let them work for it like I did.” The problem with such a statement should be obvious (which is why I think we do not say such things openly). However, God’s point of view is this, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.” (Deut. 8:17, 18) There we go. God may not have given us the wealth we have in a pretty wrapped package, but he gave us everything we needed to produce that wealth. But that is just so difficult for us to accept. We want to think we did it all ourselves. We are good Americans, and good Americans pull themselves up by their bootstraps and we don’t take any charity and we build our fortunes by the sweat of our brows.
Except we don’t. Everything that we have, everything that we use to produce our wealth, everything that we think we have produced ourselves has been given to us: it has been provided to us by our God. That is the plain, simple, unvarnished truth. We are all charity cases. And it is only with the humility that truth demands that we can honestly begin to approach the issue of poverty today.
Now, before anyone quotes 2 Thess. 3:10 to me, yes I know that passage is in the New Testament. But we are not talking about labor here. The Old Testament also makes clear that one is to work for his or her support. But the point I am trying to make is that even the labor that was expected of the poor and alien was made possible by a gift of the landowner. An owner was not to reap to the edges and corners of his field, and was not to go over the vineyard a second time, so as to allow the poor and the alien to “work” for their food (Lev. 19:9). Along with this teaching was the year of the sabbath and the year of the Jubilee, in which the land was to lie fallow and all lands were to return to their original caretaker (see Lev. 25). I was about to say “owner,” but the point of the year of Jubilee was to reestablish that the real “landowner” was God himself. The economic system that God devised would be so radically different from our free market capitalism that we could scarcely survive if we were somehow to implement it today. It is so totally, well, unAmerican.
So, my first observation in this topic of the Lord’s church and her response to poverty is this: we have to realize that we are all recipients of God’s gift of wealth. Even if we think we’ve done everything by ourselves we must stop and reconsider that idea. Who gave us our primary education? Who provided the textbooks and buildings? Who made it possible for us to go to college? Who provided us the capital to start our own business? Who provides the labor for us to earn a profit? Who provides us the food and water we need to survive and thrive? Is it clear yet? No one, and I emphasize NO ONE has created their wealth by themselves. We as Americans are the recipients of the greatest gift, and gifts, of any people alive, and I might suggest, who have ever lived.
If we can understand that one golden principle I believe it makes the rest of what I want to share so much easier to accept. More on this in the days to come.