The Poor Still Sit On The Back Row With The Baptists

I’m pretty sure that my Baptists friends (if I still have any), don’t always appreciate my affectionate humor when it comes to them.  However, in my defense, since I am an ordained Baptist preacher (I know, I know), I feel like I can poke fun at the “fan damily” and hold my head high while chewing gum at the same time.

You see in America, Baptists get pegged as being the group that sits as far in back of the church as humanly possible, thus we call them “back-row Baptists”.  Yet the truth is, this is a tendency of American Christianity I think as a whole.  The reason is, that most of us are eternally inoculated to any chance of catching the real stuff of Christianity, so sitting on the back row suits us as the perfect way to get just enough of something churchy without getting the real thing.  It’s safe there, no one is really going to call us out, and we can exit out the back door before the preacher finishes the closing prayer without anyone giving us a passing glance.  It’s like we really do have a cloak of invisibility.  I guess that’s why I decided to sit the poor on the back with us for this short visit to church, because they too hardly get a notice anymore inside of an institution that used to be notorious for championing their cause in the world.

Back In The Day

Now as one can imagine, this is much too broad of a subject to unpack rightly in a blog post.  But hopefully, I can at least chime in on something that I think we should be able to notice readily.

Of course, it’s no secret that the church in its early beginnings was one that attended to the cause of the poor, the widows, the sick and dying; and took in all of the dregs of society the roman world deemed expendable.  In fact, several of the Pauline epistles were written in the context of Paul and others collecting funds to give to the church in Jerusalem for a famine that they were experiencing.  In addition, the book of Acts tells us that the early apostles had to appoint men for outreach to the poor because the need had become so great; and as they took up the quandary of the poor, the watching world took eye-dropping notice, which is documented historically ad nauseum.  In fact, even as the apostle Paul was coming into the faith after his persecution of Christians, biding his time till he would be released to the gentiles in full measure; in the book of Galatians, he reminds us that he was given the “right hand of fellowship” by the other apostles, and was simply asked to “remember the poor”.

And the truth is, the old testament also bleeds care for the poor and the needy, and it’s obvious extension into the new testament adds to the already exhaustive case for it being one of the people of God’s highest priorities in complementarity of taking the good news to those who have not yet had the chance of either accepting or rejecting it’s truth claims.  And yet, if this is the case, one wonders if we are by and large now still known for being those with this task as our chief modus operandi.

Part of the Problem

And of course, you can bet dollars to doughnuts, that the first rebuttal in questioning my brief thesis here are accusations of the church not wanting to be accused of a mere “social gospel” stance, where we give people a sandwich as a cheap substitute for the “good news” as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.  The truth is, as lines are drawn in the sand, one can’t help but notice the irony, in that the more conservative branch of the church (who actually still believe the scriptures) have a tendency to err on the side of rejecting the social gospel’s implications, as the mainline branch of Christianity (which seems to believe anything the cultural wind now blows up their skirts) seems to be holding up the biblical standard of ministry to the poor as the only thing that now keeps their skin in the Christian game. And as I contemplate this with a watching eye, I wonder how we have come so far as to separate two things that seem to be a part and parcel of the same gosh-darn message.  As a result, I think those looking in at what we’re up to these days are rightfully bewildered.

Equally problematic, is the fact that part of our hesitation in aligning our cause to the poor is due to not wanting to be guilty of helping those who should have been helping themselves all along (we’re almost sure there is a verse that says that somewhere). The equal faulty logic is that of lumping all the poor into the same basket, which causes us to overlook or simply ignore the obvious casualties that living in a capitalistic economy (the best we’ve come up with yet) can leave lying on the ground all around us unawares.   This includes those of us who can no longer continue to adapt and reinvent ourselves vocationally, or who have no support network to help us pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; and as a result, can be left holding up a sign clearly visible on our way to Walmart.  This is not to mention the vast number of poor children and the elderly who are the real tragedies of the never ending story which is simply not accurately told by left or right leaning pundits, and whose book has been shut and simply tossed into the “Obama phone” basket.

The Expediency that Crept In

 O.K. I realize we all know these things, if we are at least honest with ourselves a little longer than a nanosecond, but for those of us who call ourselves Christ’s followers, our reaction should not be so simplistic and superficial.  You see part of the problem is that the church, who was once known as the defender of the true poor caught up in the tailspin of this thing we call life, has turned what was once a calling and apprenticeship to Christ as true followers on a mission, to a career path whose specializations have choked out the remaining month at the end of the money.  And in this current hour of the mass marketization of the franchise of the church and its mavens in tow, what we find is that sometimes 80 to 90% or more goes to the upkeep of the now finely oiled machine.  As a result, very little is left to send true pioneer missionaries to unreached lands, or to help subsist the poor in the household of God (whom we’ll always have with us); or to also reach out and own the cause of the homeless and poor just outside our stain glassed window.  It is of course no secret that with a church on every corner, and some that span the circumference of a city block, the church collectively (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants) could solve the problem of homelessness in mere seconds flat.

At the very least, we could do so among those who failed the “dog eat dog world” of our American experiment, and simply need to buy much needed time to reengage in a world that virtually ignores their true existence on any given day.  To be sure there are multiple variables in this equation for consideration outside the scope of this blog.  However, the fact remains, that while the church by and large will continue to bypass the implications of my brief critique and other voices like it, those we are supposedly called to reach with our “good news” secretly know that we are the last true beacon of hope for those who have no power and no voice, and yet they sit back and wonder why we’ve abdicated our one last true apologetic in this late hour.

Back to Business As Usual

And the truth is, the poor really aren’t on the back row though with the Baptists.  That’s my bad.  Oh, they are there with us, but they are in the front and in the middle, desperate for all the hope they can muster before Monday’s realties settle in like an all too familiar friend.  They are there with their predicament, yet afraid to show their true hand for fear of the waxing generalizations of their circumstances, which is always nothing more than a problem of their own making.  They are also down the street, they’re the neighbors who went and took our neighborhood, and to be sure they are also the basket people walking around and mumbling for perhaps some of your loose change.  They are also the kids with a heap of family dysfunction and yet always broken pocketbooks, and those who can’t even buy a job, much less “get” one that can take them out of the “working poor” status.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch; the back-row stumbles in.  Hush now! For the show is about to begin.

Selah

 

How to Save a Life

An Encounter

 In one of those rare moments of late, this week I had the great privilege of witnessing humanity at it’s best at just about the time I had concluded western civilization’s (and more specifically America’s) fall into the abyss as an ever increasing and most imminent certainty. This series of episodic events over the course of the last few months started with my brief encounter with a homeless man whose morose and disheveled appearance struck me to the very core, much as the plight of the forgotten and dismissed in our society always has. Yet this man’s humble and yet acutely saturnine eyes began to tell me a story that I needed to hear for myself.

It started as an occasional dash to the golden arches on a Saturday or Sunday morning for a satiating sausage McGriddle for my wife and I after a weeklong observance of abstinence from life’s fonder pleasures. As I entered the drive-thru, I saw him out the corner of my eye, sitting there like someone uninvited yet nonetheless out front and center lingering abashedly for a few morsels from any rich man’s table. Then, as I ordered my food, I said to the drive-thru attendant, “make that a double order please”, as I then moseyed my way back around to roll down my window with his bag of food and drink with a simple “God Bless” as I then skirted by. This is of course something very easy to do, which at least bespeaks of a heart headed in the right place I suppose. However, it is as also an all too easy “pass” for most of us to skate by the obvious plank in our society’s eye that we like to pretend is simply not there while the time-release nature of our increasing desensitization capitulates once again. And then as I ride off into my middle-class coastal weekend of sunbathing, cold beer and a Sabbath observance and rest on Sunday, I begin to contemplate about what I have witnessed as I often do; and yet again to what the Lord himself would have me do about it.

After guilting myself about my own lack of response to simply open my doors to one such as he, I am quickly reminded of all of societies justifiable reasons one cannot open up his home with a wife and kids to a stranger of his kind. This of course is all quite evenhanded in both a protective and financial capacity; and yet at the same time a very clear watering down of a gospel that once upon a time was the church’s golden rule rather than a now more normal exception to it. And the thought occurred to me that it seems that it must take just about 2000 years or better to go from losing our lives to saving it again. And I’m also reminded very quickly why nothing much happens worthy of a powerful notation to a people who have somehow now lost their first love, and who have clearly forgotten that Babylon is not their home.

A History of College Tries

Nonetheless, on another note, I guess you could say I have been an advocate of the poor and downtrodden for most of my life, to at least give myself a grade on the curve. And throughout the course of my life, on any given day, our family was joined with weary life travelers who stopped in for a time of rest and a little helping hand. Of course I’d like to say that as a result of this ongoing practice I’d have an entourage of successful stories of how my rescue resulted in some “happily ever after” for those in my care. However, the truth is that most accepted my help, all the while rejecting my offer of the one who could really help them, and who then exited out my door to either an untimely death; a trek deeper into their favorite mire; or with a contumacious resolve to simply do it their way yet again. Perhaps the messenger was not as good as he should have been, or perhaps what I learned is that it’s mostly about our obedience to an open-handed life rather than the possession of a pragmatic catalog of “winning” at any heroic rescues to speak of which sell books and ushers one into some church hall of fame. Many who watched as result were sure that we were fools full of naiveté and grandiose ideas in trying to make this wretched world some better place, while others chilly obtuseness resigned them to a comfortable and lingering judgment of our endeavors, towering behind a infectious and rampant belief that “there but for the grace of God go I” applied to everyone but their miserable selves.

Yet even as a person with a track record of at least playing at “losing one’s life” for the sake of the gospel throughout the last 26 years of my life, I’ve gone through periodic bouts of joining the ranks of the naysayers, and then back again to someone who increasingly scratches his head as to why those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ have softened so much of the gospel’s loudest commandment’s around wealth and money to a very sanitized and distant undertone. And as I muse through these things, I make my way back through the drive-thru line again for a fast food fix; drop off another bag of goodies to my new and comfortably detached acquaintance; and off to my next first-world excursion.

And then the day came when I finally decided to engage him. I asked him about his story, and where he’d been in his life. He then proceeded to tell me as a man in his late fifties to early sixties about a family that had all now passed away, and about multiple heart surgeries that left him as someone with already limited skills incapable of full sustainment in this “swimming with the sharks” economy. In addition, he told me about countless tries to gain consistent employment yet continually being let go as a result of his obvious health liabilities to his employer. I then gave a feeble smile, told him I would be praying, and casually mentioned that I wanted people in the community to know about his plight. And then, like a well-intentioned do-gooder, I whisked away to yet another fantastic distraction until this week brought his memory again to my mind.

The Ray of Hope

 It seemed that someone posted something on our community Facebook site inquiring if anyone knew the story of this humble yet familiar untouchable of our seaside community. Then within moments, many began to chime in along with my wife and I about our individual interactions with him and the desire to help in some way. These comments continued amidst an occasional stone cast from Scrooge-like posts bidding us to in essence allow the decreasing of the surplus population to take its evolutionary course. All the while, one brave soul took it upon himself to start a “GoFundMe” page for our new nomadic friend. Within hours, a large sum of money was raised to help get a myriad of essentials this man would need to at least have a chance to breathe but for a moment. All the while, many more have pledged to give longer term support to a man who found himself caught up in a tailspin of life of which he had no ability to recover from. Many more have vowed to work with him to chip away at the barriers in his life preventing him from any type of hope or survival in this dog-eat-dog world of which we are all but a paycheck away from homelessness inside of ourselves. And I’ll have to say that this old dog has been given a new found faith in humanity this week, and with a new resolve to constantly be wiling to speak out and for the vulnerable of our world that the scriptures uniformly and exhaustively compel us towards. So I guess you could say that this week I learned firsthand again how you actually save a life; which most always comes by being wiling to lose some of it first of all.

A Plea to the Church Idea I Love

I’ve been an advocate for some time now of the church taking one homeless person, or family at a time, and to go beyond “feeding the homeless” to actually doing what I witnessed this week in “homing” the homeless; since that is clearly what they need. And as I say this, I know many individuals have actually done this, and many more have spawned organizations that do their best to take many off the streets who have no hope unless a truly good Samaritan should pass their way willing to stick it out over a much longer and messier haul. Yet the truth is, that most of us would not give to organizations that expend most of their resources to the machine itself, with very little left for the propagation of the gospel and to the poor Jesus said he came specifically for. And yet even as I say this, I know that the church has done more to alleviate the ills of society than any other organization known to man “hands down”. Yet somehow I believe that we have allowed the professionalization of the ministry and the needs of those within it’s comfortable and long-term ranks to supersede the needs of the one’s Jesus said were “the least of these”, and to whose humble care is sure and eternal criterion for sitting on his right hand. By choice, however painfully, I finally chose to be an unsuccessful minister in a system that many times fails to read the so obvious writing on the church wall in regards to this fly in its ointment. And to a system that actually once turned a watching world “upside down”. And yet even as I say this, I know that the hope of the world still remains with the church; or at least by those within her ranks. I only mean to say that this week, I learned how to save a life from the roadies and not the boys in the band.

 

Selah