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Telling Secrets

faith, fatherhood, and culture


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

I was digging through my old writings and found this one that I wrote for a church newsletter back in 2001 -- it made me laugh and remember my old more activist days. Thought I'd post it - the message is still good even if it is a little preachy and strident!

Let me tell you a story of when I failed. I finished my 3 hour long class about how to “do therapy” with someone suffering from an “Axis 2 diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder,” and I walked out of the School of Social Work building, blinking against the sun. I was bored and a little lonely, so I decided to engage in a little economic therapy. This is a coping mechanism that is easily rationalized: “I'm feeling lonely and sad,” I say to myself. “I think I'll wander into a book store and look at all the books I'd like to read someday.” “But you always buy something—lots of things—whenever you do that, and you don’t have much money,” I sternly remind myself. “True, but that’s why I’m going to go to a used bookstore this time. Besides, I'll be smarter after I've read them and that’s a good thing.” So, I headed across campus toward the Dawn Treader Used Book Store. The stately red-brick library and science buildings I passed were bedecked with ivy that waved cheerfully, the American flag fluttered and snapped coolly, the fluffy white clouds lazily dissipated into the empty blue. The four coffee shops competing on the same block were delightfully empty of the undergrad riff-raff that crowded noisily into them during the school year. I smiled smugly to myself, already smelling the hot cup of Caribou coffee that I would sip as I perused my soon-to-be new purchases.

I turned a corner and triumphantly walked past Ann Arbor’s two-story flagship Borders bookstore and crossed the street. On the corner was a man with a dirt smudged face and rough hands dressed in obviously second hand clothes. His shoelaces were untied. “Hey, man, you got any change?”

Let me interrupt the story for a second because you have to understand something about me. First, not only was I training to become a social worker (do-er of good deeds, caretaker and friend of all), but I was also doing an internship in Detroit’s inner city where I was organizing churches to battle the social and economic inequities that Detroit is most known for. Second, I was a Bible study leader for Intervarsity’s graduate chapter in Ann Arbor. I had on the previous evening taken my group through 30 Bible passages that talked about the special place in God’s heart for the oppressed and the poor and I told my group that if we Christians were at all interested in God’s kingdom, then we had better get with it and make these people a top priority on our agenda as well.

And then I met this man. He looked at me and he said six words. I walked past and mumbled something like “I can’t” or “Sorry.” Are you kidding me? I had visions of John Updike, C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner dancing in my head. My nostrils were flaring in anticipation of that first waft of coffee beans ground especially for me. I swung open the door to the Dawn Treader and the first thing my eyes beheld was a rare, U.K. printed 1967 hardback edition of the Fellowship of the Rings trilogy—all three for a mere $150. I knew I was in the right place.

Forty-five minutes later, I was 10 dollars poorer and 5 books richer. I took the bulky Dawn Treader plastic bag from the cashier and turned toward the door. That’s when I realized that in order to get to my Caribou coffee I would have to go back with my now full hands past that man who had asked me for money. I peeked through the window to make sure he was turned away and then slipped out of the store and down the street away from him. I went all the way around 2 blocks to get back to the coffee house without passing him.

“But what else could I have done?” I asked myself. “I'm a student with limited income. Ann Arbor has tons of homeless people--they all flock here because it is 100 times better to be homeless here than in Detroit, and there's no way I can help them all.” I was not enjoying my coffee. “Am I supposed to feel guilty about buying books and drinking coffee whenever I want? Am I supposed to live in poverty too?”

These are tough questions with no clear answer. We have the blessings of resources, freedom, education, and an environment conducive to our health and progress. We know that God has given all these things to us and that they are good. We also know that as Christians we are supposed to serve and to “do good” in the world with what we are given, to be “light and salt.” But when we look at the disparities that surround us, we often feel guilty. We sit in the turn lane on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Colfax where that poor obese man with severe congestive heart failure sits in a wheelchair with a sign that asks for mercy and money. The pulmonary edema from his condition makes his feet so swollen that they look more like hoofs than anything else, and four thoughts speed through our minds—1)“Holy Mackerel! Look at him!” 2)“That poor guy is probably not going to live much longer.” 3)“Ok, so what should I do about it?” 4)“When is that stupid arrow going to turn green?”

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense needs that poke at us through the dense atmosphere surrounding our little worlds. We haven’t the first clue about where to begin to help, but we feel like we ought to do something, if at the very least to make the poking stop. And then we sit staring at the traffic light, waiting for the green arrow. It's easy to sit and wait, because urges often die down after a while. It's also easy to go oversees, dig a ditch for Jesus, and pat the grateful little native on the head because his gratefulness makes us feel like we did a job well done. We have served, we have been a light in a dark land, and now we can go home happy, drive our SUVs, and blissfully complain about how busy we are.

Can you see a pattern yet? The language of the self: all-pervasive, all-consuming. It is unsatisfying, the nagging and poking always return, frustration sets in and we become graceless in our self-defense (“Don’t bother me—there’s nothing I can do”).

The 16th century priest and poet George Herbert wrote a marvelous psalm called Employment:

If as a flower doth spread and die,
Thou wouldst extend me to some good,
Before I were by frost’s extremity
Nipped in the bud;

The sweetness and the praise were thine;
But the extension and the room,
Which in thy garland I should fill, were mine
At thy great doom.

For as thou dost impart thy grace,
The greater shall our glory be.
The measure of our joys is in this place,
The stuff with thee.

Let me not languish then, and spend
A life as barren to thy praise,
As is the dust, to which that life doth tend,
But with delays.

All things are busy; only I
Neither bring honey with the bees,
Nor flow’rs to make that, nor the husbandry
To water these.

I am no link of thy great chain,
But all my company is a weed.
Lord place me in thy consort; give one strain
To my poor reed.

Herbert recognizes his use of self-language. He begins by thinking of himself as a flower in God’s great garland. He has much to offer and he wants God to use it quickly before he dies. He is anxious to experience the glory that will accompany his work. It is the shortness of life that is the turning point for him—life is meaningless if he uses his blessings and gifts to make himself feel good. Herbert then wonders what in the world is he good for anyway. Humbled, he finally admits that he is not a flower in God’s great garland after all, but a weed, and his only use is the weak and broken monotone of a hollow reed if only God would blow on him.

We are hollow reeds that make horrible music, and we can’t even do that on our own. We can’t toot our own reeds. If any good comes out of us, it is because someone else is doing the work. John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress and contemporary to George Herbert, writes “Christ can use gifted people to affect the souls of the people in his Church, yet when he has finished using them, he can hang them up without life…I perceived that although gifts are good to accomplish the task they are designed for—the edification of others—yet they are empty and without power to save the soul unless God is using them. And having gifts is no sign of a person’s relationship to God. This also made me see that gifts are dangerous things, not in themselves, but because of those evils of pride and vainglory that attend them.”

I am a weed, and the good news is that so are you and so is that man on Colorado and Colfax. We are not that different from each other. This is the foundation upon which we can silence our small, demanding selves and be honest about who is really at work.

Now when I walk past someone homeless who asks me for money, at the very least I look him in the eye and acknowledge his presence. We are both humans after all. If I have some money, I give some of it to him. If I am carrying food, I offer that. None of these acts of giving will help him longer than a couple of hours. But I have learned that it is the connection you make, the gift of yourself, to the person you are helping that makes the difference. Imagine yourself homeless—you are there because of a terrible tragedy or a serious mental illness. You are ignored, sneered at, and patronized by “well-meaning” helpers who are really out to make themselves feel better. Imagine the effect this has on you. If you are treated like you are worthless for long enough, you begin to believe that you are in fact worthless. Then someone comes along and acknowledges your presence, they are not afraid to look or smile at you, and if they don’t have anything to give, they say so honestly and directly. They have shown that you are worth talking to and being honest with—they have expressed their human commonality with you. What is more, they are active icons, or images, of Immanuel—God with Us who did the same thing a long time ago.

I believe that it is not wrong to be able to afford an SUV, or to enjoy a cup of coffee. It is not wrong to feel good when you give someone money or build a village outhouse in Nepal—God knows we need a lot of positive reinforcement when we do something right. But remember that the line of circumstance dividing you from the one you are helping is only certain from moment to moment, because you are in the hands of an unpredictable, unsafe Diety who thankfully has extended his mercy to you.

So, let us praise God for his blessings. Let us praise him for the summer times in life. Let us praise him when those we serve express their gratitude, because it means they have heard the weak, monotone music being blown out of us. And let us fervently pray that God will take another life-breath to blow another strain.

  1. Blogger Petronia said:

    Interesting you posted this because I just listened to an Orthodox podcast series on giving to beggars. Here is part 2, it has a great story:

  1. Blogger Petronia said:

    I like the new look :)

  1. Anonymous Anonymous said:

    Sample posting

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