Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Listening to Amos and Jesus

Helping the poor is part and parcel of being a Christian and is a hallmark of any community that claims the name of Christ. Like everything else it is often easier to assist "the poor" in the abstract than it is to recognize someone in need right before your face and feel convicted by that person's concrete need.

It is true that many people are poor in non-material ways, making it important for us to recognize their need and discern how best to help them too. Nonetheless, there are materially needy people in our midst. Many Christians in need would never think of turning to their brothers and sisters, their parish or congregation, for help. The reasons are many and varied: they don't know specifically who to ask, or how the community might help them, they feel that asking for help would be looked down upon, jeopardizing their standing in the community, etc. The latter of these is the most heartbreaking because it cuts across many issues, whether it's needing material assistance, or struggling with some addiction or compulsion, too many Christians believe that being a Christian means having your act together. In reality, being a Christian means exactly the opposite- recognizing that you don't have your act together, at least not completely. Stated differently, it is easier to recognize another person's need when you are conscious of your own need and have some experience with how your need is met.

As a deacon I have long felt that not enough of my ministry, my service, is devoted to serving the poor. It's not that I feel the bulk of the service I give is useless, perhaps just a bit incomplete. I was very struck by our reading from Amos this past Sunday. I am also struck by the one from Amos, the sheepherder and sycamore tree cultivator from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who God called to prophesy to the Northern Kingdom, for this upcoming Sunday, as well as by the Gospel for this Sunday; the story of Lazerus and the rich man. Cutting to the chase, Amos' message was that acting justly is more important than ritual. In other words, if worship does not result in taking care of the widow, the orphan, the person in need, then what is it good for? If ritual and worship do not have this result, then it is truly empty. If our love of God expressed in worship does not result in loving our neighbor, then we can't even truly say that we love God, at least not nearly to the extent we should.

I am not coming at this in a self-righteous way. These thoughts provoke me tremendously, which is why I am writing this. The need of just one poor person is so great that it can quickly discourage someone who wants to help. As Bl. Teresa of Calcutta observed, "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love." Let's be honest, for many of us the challenges of our own lives are enough for us, some days too much for us. It's in doing what we can for someone in need and doing it with love that helps us maintain a hopeful disposition, even as it makes us aware of how much human need there is.

Alms-giving, along with prayer and fasting, are the fundamentals of any authentic Christian spirituality. As I have shared several times, I am convinced that there is a connection between these three disciplines. Personal prayer, deep prayer is interior. Alms-giving, which includes selfless service to others for Christ's sake, is exterior. I believe fasting connects these two and bears the tension these generate. I am also convinced that there is more than a theoretical relationship, a correspondence, between these disciplines and the theological virtues: love corresponding to faith, alms-giving corresponding to love, and fasting corresponding to hope. Prayer can take, needs to take, various forms. The same is true of alms-giving. But fasting is an anchor of sorts. Sure we can "fast" from many things, especially those things that get in the way of prayer and alms-giving, in the way of our personal relationships (i.e., watching t.v., being on-line, etc), but the spiritual discipline of fasting, which includes abstinence (abstaining from certain foods and certain kinds of food), is about eating less food, even non at all.

Richella Parham, in wonderful resource, A Spiritual Formation Primer, which she composed for Renovaré, shared an insight about fasting that I was rather struck by. After noting that the devil tempted Jesus with food after His forty days of fasting in the desert, she pointed out that how this is usually explained, even in preaching, is that after fasting for 40 days Jesus was hungry and so particularly vulnerable to being tempted by food. She concedes that this was likely at least part of the devil's calculation. I would add that we have to keep in mind that Jesus was free, like we are free. His response was not pre-programmed and inevitable. Parham asks, "what if those 40 days of fasting actually made Jesus stronger? Jesus was not fasting to make himself weak so that his resistance to the devil would be impressive. He spent that time fasting so that he could devote himself completely to being with his father. After 40 days of unbroken communion with God, Jesus's spirit was in a state of great strength, not weakness. I think that resisting the temptations of the devil was actually pretty easy for him at that point."

In addition to people I have encountered personally as of late, I was struck by something else I read recently on the Christianity Today website about the provocation of living as a "rich Christian in an age of hunger."

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