Much of what I bring to this post will be direct quotes from the book or the Bible. All attempts will be made to be exact and any omissions are very much unintentional.
As I said, this book, A Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns (the current president of World Vision U.S.) has been sitting on my desk shelf for many, many months. Actually over a year. While the book was published in 2009-2010 and is not exactly a "new" book, the concepts found within were challenging and appropriate. Some of what the author outlines could be considered common knowledge for anyone who has spent any time considering the plight of the less privileged or has served in situations in or out of country, where life is considerably different in its pace, culture, priorities and focus.
This book is written from a Christian biblical world view, by a man working as the president of a Christian organization. Much of what is said can be a bit offensive if you are not currently exposed to the plight of those that the Lord calls us to care for; the downtrodden, widows and orphans. As a side note, I would like to state that there are many organizations that are non- Christian based, who do amazing things in the states and in other countries that offer considerable help to those who are afflicted. This book however, has opened my eyes to not only my obligations as a believer, but has me readjusting my thoughts in regards to how I viewed those who are less fortunate than myself.
Each of us could read this book, and come away with different details that would speak to us. Keep in mind these are my personal musings. I am going to outline the things that spoke to me, in the setting of Africa, free from the distractions of my American life, that may seem to you as known facts, and are not particularly striking to you in this moment, but that in that moment in time, spoke to me more clearly and poignantly than ever before.
"Light dispels darkness, it reverses it. Likewise truth dispels falsehood and goodness reverses evil" (pg 3)
"A genuine commitment to Christ will be accompanied by demonstrable evidence of a transformed life. In contemporary terms, those that talk the talk but do not walk the walk will be exposed as false." (pg 59) "I only propose that a genuine concern for the "the least of these" that finds tangible expression must be woven into the pattern of our lives and faith." (pg 60)
Ouch! I can say a lot of things but if my actions and words do not match up, then I am a hypocrite. When my actions and my words match up it has to be in all that I do and say. Not one part or the other. As I sat in the early morning at Fiwagoh, listening to the calls of a bird that seems to be shouting "HA-HA" at the top of his lungs, I had an "ah ha" moment. I am blessed beyond measure to have spent years traveling to Jamaica and most recently Peru and now Africa to share the gospel and be the hands and feet of Christ, but what did these trips actually "cost" me? Have I lived a life that has been intentionally and fervently seeking daily to make a difference in the lives of others less fortunate than myself? The truth is no. Literally, the opportunities that I have had, have come in through a short and specific season of time. I signed up for a trip, then launched out to raise support, or picked up extra shifts at work, or gone without some indulgence for a few months so that I can travel to these places to serve. But what did it cost me? I say I want to serve and share, but I do not make, nor even consider making a daily plan that cares for anyone other than myself. If I budgeted $3 a day to sponsor children, or selected a project such as Shoes that Grow, and budgeted $15 dollars a week to purchase a pair of shoes each week for a year, that would be an intentional and purposed plan that would be woven into my daily life. The question for me is this: will Christ find evidence of my genuine concern for His beloved poor when He looks at the fruit of my life? Taking it a step further, will my children, grandchildren, co-workers and neighbors see the evidence of a life spent intentionally being concerned with the "least of these"?
Who is my neighbor?
I have had, and currently have, some great neighbors! What makes a great neighbor? Folks that would drop anything to lend a hand. Individuals that are intentional about greeting one another and seeking after their well being. Neighbors turn into acquaintances and sometimes friends, the longer we live in a location and as they and we, work to build relationships with each other! Webster defines "neighbor" as "someone living beside the person that is speaking". We all have neighbors, but have we considered that in todays' age our neighbors can and are in far away places?
"The second greatest command is this: Love your neighbor as yourself" Mark 12: 31a
I am right back to the original question of "who is my neighbor?' A summary of the eighth chapter of The Hole in our Gospel talks about how, for thousands of years, we could only put this principle into play with those in close proximity to ourselves (like the Webster definition) because we were unaware of those hurting in far away places. Prior to the 1800's, disease, inadequate health care, lack of clean water, crop failures, famines and epidemics devastated all countries. All countries were on a similar playing field. Additionally, illiteracy was common world wide. It was the legacy of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution that ultimately resulted in the advancement of some economies (countries) over others. While there were those in the early 1900s that served the poor and tackled the issues as they became aware of them, the general population was unable to respond because of their own personal lack of awareness, access and ability.
Radio did not become popular until the 1920's. Television not until after the 1950's. When Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, retuned from Korea with 16 millimeter films that documented the suffering of children and the devastation of the war, he brought back the living images of destruction and despair of which the average person had never seen. He went from church to church with his projector showing the films and securing donations for the fledgling organization, and average people began to become aware of the plight of those less fortunate. A picture is worth a thousand words! Today is an era that is saturated with internet technology. We can see the images of joy and tragedy in an instant and can replay it as many times as we like. Lack of awareness is no longer our problem. We can no longer claim we do not know whom are our distant neighbors.
Each year tens of millions of people now fly internationally vs in 1949 when the recorded number of international flights was only one and a half million. Access to other countries is no longer a excuse!
The ability to minister to those in far away lands has also skyrocketed through research of cultures, economics, tool availability and programs. However, while this should be good news, it is not because we are not doing our part to deliver this information and these services to our far away neighbors. It is pretty simple. "If we are aware of the suffering of our distant neighbors - and we are - and we have access either personally or through charitable organizations to provide aid - and we do - and we have the ability to make a difference through programs and technologies that work - which is the case- then we should no more turn our backs on these neighbors than the priest and the Levite should have as they walked by the bleeding man on the way to Samaria." (Luke 10:25-37 the parable of the Good Samaritan pg 104)
The world is unraveling, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer not just in our country but in all the world. There is a hole in our society. As believers there is a hole in our gospel. Yet we stand by and watch this take place, while each of us possess the awareness, the access and the ability to set in motion practical solutions for aid to those less fortunate than ourselves.
"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to the them; thats the essence of inhumanity - George Bernard Shaw
I can not do any better than using the direct words of the author for this next section. If his words are thoughts that you have already had, then you are ahead of me. I will tell you I am as guilty of judging and being presumptuous in my thoughts about poverty. " I do not like the word poverty. It is one of those loaded words that carries a great deal of baggage and stigma. It sounds like a disease or a bad character trait that some people have and others don't. It's also a word that divides the world into two unequal groups, the poor and the rest of us, as though somehow we are different. Each of us brings different association to the word poverty based on our past understanding and misunderstanding. In America, which has prided itself as being a "land of opportunity," it is not uncommon for us to make value judgments about those who are poor. If they are poor in America, we reason it must be because they don't work as hard as the rest of us or have made bad choices. We may think that the poor are lazy or stupid , even if we would not say it out loud. When we discuss the poor in Africa or Southeast Asia, we bring other stereotypes into play, perhaps racial or cultural. We may shake our heads at why this nationality or that race just can't seem to get their act together. We wonder why their governments are so ineffective, their leaders so incompetent or corrupt and their economic development so weak. Or we may look at them paternalistically, feeling sorry for them as a parent would a helpless child. All of the biases are patronizing at best and prejudiced at worst and lessen the human dignity of people created in God's image. If we are going to see the poor as God sees them, then we first have to repent of our judgmental attitudes and feelings of superiority. (pg 116-117)
Poverty is fundamentally the result of a lack of options. It is not that the poor are lazier, less intelligent, or unwilling to make efforts to change their condition. Rather it is that they are trapped by circumstances beyond their power to change. Robert Chambers, a British researcher, stated that "People so close to the edge can not afford laziness or stupidity. They have to work and work hard, however they can. Many of the lazy and stupid poor are dead." I have found that the poorer people are, the harder they work, usually. In fact their daily labor is more strenuous than most of us could tolerate. It is their circumstances that conspire to prevent their hard work from bearing fruit. (pg 118)
These two passages from the book, have me with tears in my eyes. I have been that person, while I did not necessarily say these things out loud (oh who am I kidding, in frustration I sure have...) I know that I have thought them on many occasions. I have judged. It is not my place! If I re-align my thinking to the fact that ALL people are made in God's image, I have to be broken about my harsh judgmental attitude, and I have to be broken by what breaks the heart of God.
For most of the poor people in our world their hard work does not matter. They are trapped by social, cultural, political and economic systems that do not reward their diligent efforts. And because of that they loose hope. It is not my fault that there are poor people in my neighborhood, my state, my nation, or my country or other countries, but it is my responsibility to do something about it. Sadly there is no quick way to remove someone from poverty. There is no magic pill or cure.
Consider that if you are poor and hungry how your ability to function is compromised. In an attempt to combat malnutrition, ( I do not mean you missed a meal or two) the body slows down all mental and physical processes to conserve energy. A hungry mind (child or adult) can't focus and there is no strength of labor or play. It causes mental illness and stunts physical growth. Our world produces enough food to feed all humans, yet sadly it is not equally distributed throughout the world.
Lack of water, disease, inadequate dental and health care. The list is exhaustive of the things that we assume everyone has access to. We take all these things and so much more for granted. It would never occur to us how we would flush our toilets or do laundry or cook if we had to haul the water that we would use for the day to our home. Even if I had to walk to the closest grocery store to purchase gallons of water, (I am assuming I have the money to do so) I would be walking a mile round trip and could never carry enough gallons of water in one trip for the amount that my family will consume in just one day. If the average water consumption in the US is 80-100 gallons a day per person, and my average family size is now a family of 5, I would need to return home with 400 - 500 gallons of water. Then turn around and do that again the next day and the next day... how would I work a job? When would I find the time to cook and do laundry? My main concern would be my getting enough water for my family for the day.
All of these challenges have solutions, and if I may be bold enough to say, we all need to consider what we can do to help. A hand up is a solution. Teaching and training or involving ourselves in organizations and programs that do just that, provide a way for us to serve our neighbors. There is no doubt that our country and others around the world have the resources and the skills and influence to be able to help those in need be successful. Nothing will change overnight, but overnight if more people made commitments to do just one thing and be faithful to that one thing, we can begin to influence the trends. The church proper can't be held responsible for doing all the work either. As a member of a local body, or not, it is unfair to think that some one else will do something to help. The thought that someone else will step up, as it is just "not my thing" is just another excuse.
"Remember it is sin to know what you ought to do and not do it." James 4:17 (NLT ) If the word "sin" is too harsh of a word for you, plug in "transgression", "crime", "offense"... you get the picture. As a culture we should be deeply burdened for those that we encounter who need a helping hand. We should be investing in lives intentionally so that we are creating a legacy for our families to continue and uphold even after we are gone. There are far too many instances in our world today of those that seek to harm and hurt others. When will enough be enough?
Each of us has the ability to make a change, the question is will we? If we commit to considering the widows and the orphans and the downtrodden in our neighborhoods or our world, how much must our attitudes and our prejudices need to change so that we can get out of our own way and do good?
There is so much more that this book has opened my eyes to. Believer or not, we all should desire to show compassion and kindness to other human beings. Statistically speaking, many in our world today are one devastating life situation away from being poor, homeless, without basic necessities. We can't plan for devastation. Cancer, catastrophic accidents, loss of income, death happen each day to unsuspecting individuals. It is time to take action. It is time to be okay with not being recognized for our efforts. It is time to start making it a priority and a way of life to serve others before we serve ourselves. In no way does this call us to a life of poverty ourselves. Nor does it say that we can't enjoy the wonderful American life that we lead. But to have our eyes opened and our hearts willing to step in and become involved even when others do not because it is the right thing to do, will make a difference in someones life! “Who you are tomorrow begins with what you do today.” ― Tim Fargo
"Last year I met a Korean man who lives and works in New York. He knew I was the president of World Vision, and he told me how important the work of organizations like ours had been to him when he was a child right after the Korean War. He and his family, he said, desperate and dislocated by the war, had been helped enormously by shipments of clothing and food, even school supplies that they received by the people of goodwill in America and other countries. These donors had given their time, treasure and talents to help the people suffering in a foreign nation. The young Korean boy benefited immeasurably from their kindness; he was able to finish school. He was so grateful for the generosity that he and his family had experienced. Today that "boy" is the secretary general of the United Nations (2007-2106) and his name is Ban-Ki-moon. I wonder if the people that donated their time, treasures and and talent in the 1950s had any idea of the impact they would have?" (pg260)
If you are interested in reading the book from cover to cover, because believe me I did not even touch on but a fraction of the "meat" of this book, here is the link, A Hole in our Gospel. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to be called to change your thinking. Be prepared to make a plan that includes weaving the care of our neighbors near and far, into the fabric of your life.
You can't make this stuff up, and I am grateful for other faithful writers that are able to put words to paper in clear and tangible ways that encourage and push me out of my comfort zone.