Thursday, November 10, 2016

Prayer, Poverty, and Thanksgiving

A meal of rice and vegetables in Kenya
I embarrassed myself when I was in Kenya. 

It was at the Pastor’s Conference in Eldoret. I was with sixty wonderful men and women from Kenya and Uganda. They were all pastors who were part of New Life Mission, a network of over 150 churches in Kenya and Uganda. 

I ate many meals with them. The meals were real Kenyan food – vegetables, cooked raw bananas, rice, maize… I loved eating this food.

I noticed that some of the pastors took very full plates of food. A lot more than I took. I made a joke, saying “Kenyans and Ugandans eat a lot, but still are slim and run so fast!” My host, Cliff, later told me that one reason these men and women put a lot of food on their plates is because, for the most part, they only eat two meals a day. So when they have a chance to eat, they eat a lot.

Inwardly I sank. Who am I, that I am so out of touch? 

The prayers of many Kenyans and Ugandans are for food to eat today. I, on the other hand, fight overeating. My problem is not securing my next meal. It's that there is so much food around me and before me that I approach our American Thanksgiving hoping I do not overeat.

I live the land of over-plenty, over-eating, and struggling to diet. In the midst of abundance, I am being processed by God. Here are some things God is showing me. 

1. I am no longer to see someone who is foodless and thank God that I have food. I am to thank God for food, for a roof over my head, for clothing. But this thanks is not to come at the expense of someone else’s poverty. There is something evil about this. It uses another person’s bondage as an occasion for my thanksgiving. 

Jesus never looked on sick or hungry people and said, “Thank God that I am God and am not like these sick people.” Instead, he had compassion on them. Actually, he became one of them, for “the Son of Man had no roof over his head.” 

My focus must be on my own need for God’s mercy rather than giving thanks that I am not among the mercy-deprived. I am not to be like the Pharisee who prayed, “I thank you God that I am not like these other people.”

2. If this thought comes to me - "Thank God that I have more than these poor people"  - I must assume this is God calling me to help. Why would God show me someone poorer than I as a way to make me give thanks? Authentic thankfulness results in overflowing, sacrificial giving. To those who have much and thank God for it, much is expected. Thankfulness is hypocritical and meaningless if it does not overflow to others. Pure Pharisaic “thankfulness” thanks God that I am not poor; true thankfulness to God impacts the poor. Self-centered gratefulness is faux-gratitude.

3. At one of our worship services recently God was speaking to  me about such things. It was a beautiful time of worship and intentional thanksgiving to God for how he has blessed us as a church family. That day God told me:,“John, when you see someone who has nothing, and then give thanks for what you have that they don’t have, that is the spirit of poverty on you.”

A spirit of poverty, a spirit of “lack,” whispers to me, “You do not have enough.” This heart of not-enough-ness, when it sees someone worse off than me, feels thankful. This is the spirit of poverty’s solution to my dilemma; viz., to keep me perpetually enslaved to a poverty mentality by comparing me with others. 

Some people drive a new car and I feel deprived; some people have no car and I feel thankful. A spirit of poverty is never satiated, and in this way it continuously punishes. 

Feeling thankful when I see someone who has no food comes from feeling I do not have enough. One thinks, “Whew, I’m not so bad off after all!” We only say words like that when we feel “bad off.” 

Real thanksgiving has nothing to do with any of this. I confess I’ve been living under a spirit of poverty, and renounce it.