Helping without Hurting

'Smokehouse' photo (c) 2000, Don O'Brien - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I just finished Miss Willie by Janice Holt Giles for book club.  It was a book I honestly wasn’t too excited about: a middle-aged woman goes to take on the challenge of being a a school teacher in the poverty of Appalachia.  I feel like I’ve read this book before (Christy, anyone?).  But I ended up getting immersed in Giles’s beautiful language and her portrayal of Miss Willie’s realistic inner life.  Miss Willie also comes to an epiphany at the end of the novel that coincides with another book I’ve been reading — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.

This book talks about the best ways to help others, mostly the idea of working with the poor, not foisting our “help” upon them.

Miss Willie comes to a similar conclusion and Giles writes this inner process in such a true way that I will quote it at length here:

“She had come to the ridge thinking:  These poor people!  They need help so badly.  They need me, Miss Willie Payne, so badly.  She had been horrified and shocked at conditions, and she had gone about preaching and lecturing. She had known the right way to do all things, and she had never hesitated to say so.  She had pitied these people and patronized them.  And what people of pride ever wanted pity or patronage!

But she had tried so earnestly to help them!  She had tried.  The wrong way, maybe.  But she had tried everything! Everything? Now her heart told her.  Everything…but love! She remembered crying out to Mary: “Where can you start? Where can you start?” You start with the people…and you start with love for the people! ‘The gift without the giver is bare’! And she had never given of herself! Her time, her energy, her knowledge. But not herself! She winced from that thought, but she faced it in all its bitter gall. She had never loved them!

Love was the way.  And lovelessness had been her greatest sin.  Out of a dim, long memory Miss Willie remembered a text of her father’s. ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ The words came back to her now, and repeated themselves over and over. ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take my yoke.’ That most perfect One had lived ‘together’ with the people. What did He mean by his yoke? ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ Could He have meant — was it possible His yoke had been living and working with people who never understood Him? Common, ordinary, ignorant people, who didn’t listen and who wouldn’t change? People who didn’t want anything better than they had? People who were dirty, diseased, and foul sometimes, and who were clean and noble and fine other times? People who loved and hated, fought and made peace, witnessed against their neighbors and then stood by them? Could He have meant living with them and loving them just as they were, unchanged and unchanging?

Like the eastern sun flooding the sky with light, Miss Willie understood in a flashing, transfiguring moment what it meant.  It meant to live together…under the yoke, together! Not one standing above, reaching down to pull the others up! Not one saying, ‘I must help these people’! It meant, instead, the banding and linking of people, one to another, in love and pity and yearning. It meant saying, ‘My people’; not, ‘These people.’ It meant getting under the yoke alongside of people, one with them, pulling the load with them.  Not standing aside telling them how to pull! It meant grieving with them, and sorrowing with them, and laboring with them, and laughing with them, and most of all, it meant loving with them. ‘Take my yoke’! He had been yoked with the people.  He had meant, then, live with them where they are.  Love them as they are. Take the yoke, and life it.  All lift together!”

She says it well: words I have thought myself, words I’ve been ashamed of, words of challenge, words of the true Kingdom of God.

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Fall, my Favorite Time of Year

'Fall' photo (c) 2010, Danielle Tsi - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Fall is my favorite season.  Perhaps it’s because all the routines of old seem fresher.  Cleaning dishes while looking at a cold, wet sky seems right somehow.  Folding laundry when the air is crisp and the towels are fluffy warm feels like home.  The tradition of going to the Fair feels more exciting than Christmas.  The cinnamon rolls, the corny dogs, that enormous slice of pizza.  They all wait around the corner.  The blue ribbon jams and jellies, the photo with Big Tex, the ride on the carousel.  They are here waiting for me, and will be again next year.  Even though we go to the Fair, year after year, eat the same foods, and go to the same events, they always seem fresh, like I’m experiencing them for the first time.

Perhaps Fall is my favorite because it feels like the beginning of something, the way every morning feels full of possibilities.  I don’t know if it’s because school has begun anew or because the air seems to have slugged off its weight into cooler temperatures, but the sky is charged with the electricity of the new.  I find myself wanting to make resolutions, to finish off old projects, to ring bells that announce the coming of our Lord.  It is now that God seems more real to me, more tangible, even if only in the smell of charcoal smoke.  To me, Fall comes to remind us that He is here and will make all things new, starting now.

Service in a Worship Service?

In April, I visited friends and family in Abilene. I found out that our friends’ church is planning something called “You are the Sermon.”  Instead of having a regular worship service, they are doing service in the community.  And that got me to thinking…why can’t my church do something like this?  Why isn’t this what we do all the time?

First of all, I need to do a bit of language analysis.  Why do we even call what we do on Sunday mornings a worship service?  Who exactly is being served?  I sometimes feel like we are the consumers, taking in God in little cracker-sized pieces (no disrespect to the Lord’s Supper).  I know that I have frequently acted like someone in an audience, letting “worship” wash over me.  Many times I go to the church building so I can get something out of it, but I really think our idea of what we do at church should be different.

So, why don’t we do actual service to others during our worship service?  There are those who would say a Wednesday night or even a Sunday night is a more appropriate time for that kind of thing.  It is a good thing, to do service, but that’s just not what we do Sunday morning.  Sunday morning is for worship.  But can’t service be worship to God, maybe even the best kind of worship to God: obedience and loving others?  He desires obedience and practical love, not hymns (though I think praising God in song is a great, good thing).

We could start out small – not even venturing out from the building — at first.  Everyone could write a note to a kid at the Village of Hope.  It would take about 10 minutes of our worship service.  Maybe we could do something once a month, helping 12 organizations or 12 current projects of our church — during service, when all of us are gathered.  Just imagine how powerful it would be if we all committed to doing something for others, together, on the day we have set aside for worship.

It would be a big undertaking and I couldn’t do it alone, but I think we would all be blessed by service in our worship service or even instead of our worship service.

My church has recently begun the process of dreaming about what kind of church we want to be and what we want to do.  I’m encouraged that something along the lines of what I am mentioning here is also on the hearts of others in my church.

What do you think? Has anyone else ever done this in their church?

Forget about Heaven

I’m infamous for saying this once at a small group Bible study in my formative college years.  The context in which I said this shocking statement was in a heated discussion about whether baptism was necessary “to get into Heaven.”  The idea that we, as a group, were so focused on what happened to us after we died and not on the power of God’s transformation in our lives on this earth, didn’t sit well with me.  It was at that moment that God started leading me on a path to explore what Christ’s power can do for us and to us in this life.  At that moment, after I said those fateful words, I realized, that to me, Heaven just doesn’t seem like the point.

The kingdom of God is not near — it’s here!  We are ushering in God’s Kingdom — right now!  We are doing it by taking care of the poor, feeding those who are hungry, educating students so they can strive for a better future.  Our hope, our salvation lies in obeying God on this earth, doing his will for those who are suffering now.  Our salvation lies in allowing God to transform us, to free us from sin — in this life–not just the next.

I’ve been thinking about this idea for years, but only recently has it become a passion of mine to help others understand the saving work that God is doing for us today, on this earth.   In my 24:7 class at church, Bill Buckley Jr. has been teaching us lessons on the works of Christ in this life, and for that I am so thankful.  This discussion is already beginning.   Just yesterday, I read an excellent post by my former psychology professor,  Dr. Richard Beck, about this very issue. If you read this post, don’t freak out about the title that includes the word Universalism.  I’m not a Universalist — at least not yet 🙂 I’m so glad that this discussion is being had in Sunday school, on blog posts, and among friends.

Now don’t get me wrong: I still like the idea of Heaven (though my views on what the afterlife will really be like have been heavily influenced by N. T Wright’s Surprised by Hope).  I hope to go there when I die, but I would also hope that we focus more on bringing Heaven to earth right now.

Scripture as Temptation

A few days ago I read Matthew’s version of the Temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4: 1-11).  In it, Satan attacks Jesus with scripture from the Psalms.  I’ve always known that Satan used scripture to tempt Jesus, but I’ve never thought before about Satan tempting me in the same way.

Lately, I’ve been on a path of rethinking my beliefs about Christianity.  This does not mean I am becoming an atheist or an agnostic or a bad Christian.  It just means that I’m really trying to understand some of the things the church does and believes.  Actually, I am asking these questions now because I feel secure enough in my faith to do so.  And thanks to Rachel Held Evan’s Evolving in Monkey Town, I am ready to be open about my questions and my thoughts, my process of rediscovering my faith.

Let’s look at it this way: my knowledge of God so far in life can best be described as a large knot; a big ball of tradition, scripture, my experiences, and books I’ve read.  In asking some of the questions I’m asking, I feel as if I found the magic string to pull, undoing the entire knot.  Now all I have are pieces of string, unconnected, forming no discernible shape.  My end goal is to create a shape of God that I can understand.  Perhaps I’ll recreate the knot or perhaps it will resemble something more like a knitted scarf.  The shape is not so important as how I arrive at it.

Now back to scripture as temptation.  In putting back together this shape of God, I will need to read a lot of scripture.  I’m already starting to do so and am reading it in a new way, trying on different lenses in which to filter my interpretations.

Basically, I need guidance, guidance from God and from others who have been through this journey.  Reading scripture for what I want to be true and reading scripture for what actually is true is a dangerous tightrope to walk.  So here is my prayer:

Lord, help me to read for truth, not because I want to find a certain outcome.  Help me to be like the Bereans and test new ideas with your Word.  Help me to read your word without all my baggage.  Help me to read it as if it were the first time, even more than that —  as if I were reading it in another language, one where I would need to keep a dictionary close.  Lord, help these questions of mine and my reading of scripture, to not only piece back a shape of you, but to enhance my spiritual walk.  Help me to continue acts of kindness, learning how to be like you.  Remind me that there is more to scripture than understanding — there is action.  Lord, open my eyes to who you truly are and not all the meanings we have patched onto you over time.   Lord, help me to see you and only you.