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August 2020

fear the poor

When I was a little kid, the epistle of James held a special attraction for me.  (Can you possibly guess why?)  Please understand, the fact that I found it interesting doesn’t mean that I really knew what it was about.  I didn’t understand it any more than I did the rest of the Bible.

If we have to think of a term that sums up James’ message—or a category that we might use—it would be “wisdom.”  Other books in that category are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  James is a fount of wisdom.  In chapter 1 he counsels us, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (v. 5).

1 jaToo frequently, I find myself in that category: “lacking in wisdom.”  I need help in choosing wisely.  In Biblical thinking, wisdom is more than a measure of intelligence; it also involves character.  It’s a question of what someone values, where someone’s heart is leading them.  In that regard, it also involves courage.

I imagine we all can think of cases in which even a Ph.D. education fails to include some common sense, as well as a decent, compassionate spirit.  And on the flip side, there are those who cannot read or write, but who have an understanding and perception that just astonishes.  These are people who are truly centered.  They use the wisdom that comes from the God who created them.

James isn’t very impressed with those who believe something in theory, but never put it into practice.  I’ll confess that that’s one of my struggles.  Sometimes I have a great idea but translating that into meaningful action is a totally different thing!  (Banu often helps me in that regard!)

A good example can be seen in James 2.  I like the way the Revised English Bible puts it.  Here’s how it begins (vv. 1-4):

“My friends, you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ who reigns in glory and you must always be impartial.  For instance, two visitors may enter your meeting, one a well-dressed man with gold rings, and the other a poor man in grimy clothes.  Suppose you pay special attention to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Please take this seat,’ while to the poor man you say, ‘You stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my footstool,’ do you not see that you are discriminating among your members and judging by wrong standards?”

We’re presented with the age-old problem of favoritism of the rich over the poor, as well as judging the book by its cover.  We may say, “Of course, everyone should be treated equally.  Who would disagree with that?”  But when we’re put to the test, a whole other thing might be the result.

Other religious traditions have similar stories.  Here’s one from 15th century Japan:[1]

“Once upon a time, the Zen masters teach, wealthy donors invited Master Ikkyu to a banquet.  The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you showed me away.’”

2 ja

[Ikkyu, 1394-1481]

No one is eager to admit to being apprehensive when confronted by someone in shabby clothes.

Still, it’s a role we play all the time.  I know I have played it too often.  When we lived in Jamestown, there was a certain lady I noticed walking through our neighborhood.  Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she would be dressed in a winter coat—and it was a grungy winter coat.  She looked “different”; she was the kind of person we’re “supposed” to avoid.

One time, as I was walking our dog, he noticed her and went right up to her.  She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before.  To my great shame, I must say I had made some pre-judgments concerning her.  Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money.  What a horrible thing that would be!

No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes, to turn away from the poorest of the poor.  (When I say “us,” I’m especially referring to us proper, middle-class types.)  But when we give in to that temptation, we behave like the people James addresses in his letter.  What’s going on with that?  What’s behind the reluctance to engage with the poor?

Why do we too often suffer from aporophobia, fear and loathing of the poor?  (The Greek words for “poor” and “fear.”)

I’m reminded of a story that’s been told about Mother Teresa.  I don’t know how accurate it is, but it does reflect the way she lived her life.  Apparently, one day she was washing the wounds of a leper.  Someone who was watching said to her, “‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.’  To which Mother Teresa replied, ‘Neither would I.’”[2]

3 jaSometimes I think that hesitation is similar to the reluctance we often feel in facing our own mortality.  (I don’t know about you, but in the dinner parties I’ve attended, death is rarely one of the topics for the evening’s conversation!)  Poverty reminds us of our limitations.  And we should be aware that poverty is about more than the lack of money, the lack of wealth.

The late Henri Nouwen did a good job of describing it:[3]

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs.  The Christ who lives in our own poverty recognizes the Christ who lives in other people’s.  Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’.  We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness.”

We all have a place of poverty.  We all are poor in some way.  To be honest, we are poor in many ways.  But it can be difficult to see it or to admit it.

Nouwen continues, “By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us.  But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”

I find that last thought to be really compelling.  When we discover God in our own poverty, we lose our fear of the poor—and that is where we find God.  This seems to be so upside down, but God is rarely found in our successes.  There is too much of “us” in the way.

I’m talking about the God of Jesus Christ, whose life, by any reasonable accounting, wound up as a complete failure.  He was executed in a way reserved for the most despicable, most contemptible of criminals.  His disciples fled (that is, his male disciples fled.)  He was dead.

We fear the poor, because they represent all the stuff that we don’t want.  It sounds so backward, but that’s often the way that wisdom works.  The stuff that we try to deny and hide is where God longs to be found.  We’re asked in verse 5: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith,” and furthermore, “to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?”

James gives the scenario of finding out that someone is in need.  Speaking fine words like, “Go in peace!  Stay warm!  Make sure you get plenty to eat!”—but not taking steps to make that happen—is useless.  We can look at that from a different angle.  We can ask, “If our church were to disappear, would the community miss us?  Would our community be worse if we weren’t here?”

4 ja

Especially now, is the community missing us?  How are we reaching out to those who are alone, lonely, disabled, missing human touch?  How will we be “the community” in this new normal?  I shared last week that it’s said we cannot go home again.  How can we create a new home—new sanctuary, both physically and virtually?  How can we present our poverty to result in an abundance of riches?

Even the smallest of steps—the most bumbling and clumsiest of steps—if it is done with the blessing of God, accomplishes far more than we can ask or imagine.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10216

[3] henrinouwen.org/meditation/meeting-god-poor


going home

“You can’t go home again.”  We’ve all heard that one.  You can’t go home again.  Why not?  I go home on a regular basis.  (By regular, I mean at least once per year.)  Home for me is Tennessee.  (That is, it’s my second home.  My first home is wherever Banu is!)  Tennessee is where my mom and sister live.  Home includes both space and time.  Every time I return, things have changed.  There are new stores and restaurants.  Some stores and restaurants Banu and I liked have disappeared.  (A couple of examples include the breakfast place, “The Egg and I,” and a lovely gyro place owned by an Egyptian family.  We do miss that place—and them.)

Of course, who knows how long it will be before we can enjoy sitting in a restaurant?

1 gn

More fundamentally, “you can’t go home again,” refers to memories: of people, of events, of good times and bad times.  For some people, home never really felt like home.

Regarding not being able to go home again, think of Jesus in Matthew 13.  He goes back to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue.  There’s no problem with that, right?  Wrong.  The people look at each other; they look at him.  Where is he getting all this stuff?  Son, we know your family.  You weren’t raised to be some kind of philosopher.  The scripture says, “And they took offense at him” (v. 57).

Jesus couldn’t go home again.

In Genesis 32, we see another fellow trying to make his way home: Jacob.  He has left his Uncle Laban, and not on the best of terms.  Let’s go back many years, and briefly sum up.  Jacob leaves home in a hurry because his brother Esau sees red and wants him dead.  Jacob has been up to his trickery.

(And if you recall, along the way he has his vision of a stairway to heaven!)

As he approaches Laban’s place, he sees Rachel, who we’re told is really good-looking.  There’s also her older sister, Leah, who apparently is not quite as good-looking.  Laban says, “Work for me for seven years, and you can marry Rachel.”  Seven years go by and Laban says, “Oh, I just remembered.  The older sister has to get married first.”  Seven more years go by.  (I wonder how Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has fared!)

In time, Jacob figures out how to arrange for his goats to breed and become stronger, while Laban’s goats are the weaker ones.  He’s back to his shenanigans; maybe he feels justified this time.  Anyway, Jacob is found out, so he takes his family and possessions and hits the road.

There’s one little obstacle between Jacob and his destination—Esau, his aggrieved brother.

My obstacles in going home have been along the lines of road construction, a traffic accident, or bad weather.  I can’t claim to have ever had a family member blocking the path.  (That’s a claim I wouldn’t want to make!)  And I must confess, as I’ve gotten a bit older, stops at rest areas have become more frequent, as Banu will testify.

2 gnAs I said, it’s been many years since he last laid eyes on his brother.  Jacob wonders, “What will he do when he sees me?  How will he feel?”  Jacob decides to err on the side of “furious.”  He sends some of his guys ahead to take Esau’s temperature, so to speak.  When they return, they tell Jacob that Esau is on his way—and incidentally, he has 400 men with him.

We’re told that Jacob “took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had” (vv. 22-23).  He has everyone go first, including his beloved Rachel.  I wonder how she felt being used as a human shield.

{"Rachel: Noir Bible" by James C. Lewis}

Jacob has sent everything and everyone away.  He is all alone.  He is all alone in the darkness of night.  I imagine we can relate to that.  I’m sure there have been nights in which it seemed like dawn would never arrive.  We’re left with our thoughts, our fears, our hopes.  And we are struggling.

For Jacob, that struggling is quite literally true.  He is wrestling with a mysterious man all night long.  Who is this man?

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, who teaches at Mercer University, has some suggestions.  “Theories abound concerning the identity of ‘the man’ with whom Jacob wrestled.  Was the man God? Was it Esau?  Or was it Jacob’s own inner being wrestling with itself?”[1]  She favors that last one.  Maybe there are hints of all three.  Maybe it was his fear of Esau—I don’t believe it was the man himself.  There was certainly that inner struggle, that inner conflict.

It was all wrapped up in Jacob’s wrestling match with God at the Jabbok stream.  It might be helpful to know that the Hebrew words for “Jabbok” (יַבֺּק, Yabboq) and “wrestle” (אׇבַק, ’abaq) sound very much alike.  We have a showdown at Wrestle River.

So what happens when dawn finally comes?  Jacob’s combatant hasn’t been able to pin him.  But before the match can end with the ringing of the bell, he gets one more whack at Jacob.  He sucker punches him in the hip socket, and it’s put out of joint.  Consequently, Jacob walks with a limp.  It sounds like Jacob needs hip replacement surgery!  Still, he is hanging on to his opponent, and he’s demanding a blessing.

After that long night of struggle, that long night of inner struggle, Jacob is still hanging on.  We’re told, “Jacob wrestled and received a new blessing (not one obtained by trickery, but this time by honest struggle).”[2]  Jacob is given a new name.  Says the man, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28).

Jacob has held on.  He hasn’t let go until he receives his blessing.  That takes stamina.  That takes determination.  That takes a stubborn resolve.

Terence Fretheim has an interesting take.  “God may encounter people in conflictual times by taking the very form of the anticipated difficulty.”  I find this interesting.  [quoting Walter Brueggemann[3]]  “‘In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.’”[4]

I’ve heard it said that dreams prepare us for similar events in the waking hours.  They prepare us for life.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to avoid a lot of the stuff that happens in dreams.)

Of course, this is about more than dreams.  He continues, “Having been through such a time with God provides a gracious rehearsal for the actual life circumstance.  To refuse to engage with God in that struggling moment denies oneself a God-given resource.”

It’s said, “The only way out is through.”  Encounters with God, and by virtue of the Holy Spirit within, encounters with oneself, can be annoying, fearful, painful—and yet, not without a certain joy and revelation of love and grace.

3 gn

Jacob has traveled that path and made the awesome discovery: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30).

Still, there is that limp!  He has been injured, and he will carry that injury, that scar.  Nevertheless, that dislocated hip is a sign of grace.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  That area of vulnerability, whatever it is, is where God can especially work in our lives.

Last spring, I spoke of my surgery to remove a brain tumor, and I spoke of the scar left behind.  What I didn’t mention were the changes that experience made.  I came to new insights and understandings of people who suffer mental problems.  (Actually, for me, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!)

The steroids I was taking gave me a glimpse of those with wild mood swings.  (I’ve never been accused of that.)  Here’s one quick example.  One year when we lived at the seminary, people were decorating for Christmas.  I was upstairs in our apartment, watching Star Trek.  Banu, who was with two of our female friends, called and asked me to come down and help them hang a decoration.  As I descended the stairs, I became angrier and angrier.  How dare they take me away from Star Trek?

I noticed they had a ladder poised at the spot.  Any of them could have easily climbed up and attached the decoration.  They didn’t need me to do it.  I gave them the silent treatment.  It was clear how incensed I was.  Later on, I apologized for my unwarranted behavior, explaining about the steroids.  One of them replied, “Now you know how PMS feels.”

Understand, I’m not saying God gave me the brain tumor, but it could be seen as my own wrestling match.  I still carry that limp.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would learn anything.

4 gn

One way in which we all are going home is the return to our church sanctuary.  There are precautions to take, based on New York state guidelines, the CDC, and no doubt most of all, our calling to love one another—to love our neighbor.

As we go home, how have we been struck on the hip socket?  How are we limping?

We are limping, but as I said a moment ago, it is a gift of grace, as strange as that might sound.  In this time of pandemic, we hold on for the blessing.  We hold on for the blessing of the earth, for the blessing of the suffering, for the blessing that rights the wrongs.  If there were anyone who understood holding on for the blessing, while bearing scars, it was Jesus.  Even now, Jesus as the risen and ascended Christ, holds onto us.  He travels with us as we go home.

 

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,” Review and Expositor 111:1 (2014), 75.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 75.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 267.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 569.