Sunday, August 09, 2015

Praying and Poverty

South Central Kenya
“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. 
I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. 
I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. 
I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. 
I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. 
I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.”

Translation of Matthew 25 by Richard Stearns, The Hole In Our Gospel

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 are part of New Life Mission, a network of over 150 churches. 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!” (Some of the world’s greatest long-distance runners train in Eldoret.) Later my host, Cliff, gently informed 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. When they have a chance to eat, they eat a lot.

My heart sank. Who am I, what have I become, that I am so out of touch? 

The prayers of many Kenyans and Ugandans is that they would have food today. I, on the other hand, fight overeating. My problem is not trying to secure my next meal, but that I would not overeat.

Back in the land of over-plenty, over-eating, and struggling to diet, I am being processed by God. I don't know how it’s all going to shake down for me. Here are some things God is telling me.

1. I am not to see someone who has no food 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 lack. There is something evil about this. It uses another person’s bondage as an occasion for rejoicing. Jesus never looked on hungry people and said, “Thank God that I am God and am not like these hungry people.” Instead, he had compassion on them. He became one of them, for “the Son of Man had no roof over his head.” I must be praying 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 other people.”

2. If the 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 a person poorer than I as a means of making me feel thankful? I must understand that 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 Redeemer worship services God was processing me about these 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 this: “John, when you see someone who has nothing and 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. When I feel thankful when I see someone who has no food it is because I feel I do not have enough myself. I think, “Whew, I’m not so bad off after all!” One only says those words if one feels, after all, “bad off.” Real thanksgiving has nothing to do with any of this. I confess I’ve been living under a spirit of poverty and now revolt against it.

I’m praying for a true heart of thanksgiving, because it has been revealed to me that I do not yet have it.