ReNew: Poverty

I've decided to write the message from last week's ReNew as a blog so those who would rather read a message and check my sources can. The message was given the last Thursday of February 2017. It was a great night that started with beef sandwiches and the best cheese macaroni ever baked. I then presented this message after a powerful moment of music by my good friends Karole Masters and Mike Onken. 

Is poverty or wealth more physically or spiritually dangerous?

If we were to look solely at the environmental statistics, many would say it's physically more dangerous because accessing food, shelter, clothing, education, safe communities and healthcare can take its toll on people. However, statistics don’t often tell the whole story.

In full disclosure, when I was growing up my dad used to say, “You can be happy whether you are rich or poor, it's just easier to be happy when you're rich.” He also lived with a fear from his Great Depression childhood of going without. Being poor was associated with being both lazy and failure in his mind. He believed in the protestant work ethic and often joked when the markets would dip, “at least we will be going to the poor house in a Cadillac.” He believed status and having resources proved something to the world about your life.

I often wondered about my Dad’s drive to succeed and provide. I would question why was work so important and why would anyone allow himself to be less at work just to make sure your boss liked you.  I’ve come to realize that my dad, was like so many others in the neighborhoods in which we lived, middle managers who believed the greatest value in life was to sacrifice one’s time and effort for a better place in the world for family and coming generations.

But not all families operate had the same opportunities my World War II father had. In a recent blog, a woman commented:

My grandmother had my mother at 16. Two more daughters by the age of 20. When my mom died, my sister was going through her stuff, and found this note written by my grandmother. I'm guessing it was when my mother was four years old. Beverly was the youngest, an infant at the time.

"My daughters are hungry and we have no where we can go to get help. Beverly has not eaten in ten days except for water and sugar in her bottle and I have stolen the sugar. If God will only find someone who will feed my daughters, I make a solemn vow unless they want to find me I will never interfere in their lives in any way. I swear by every breath in my body. God help me - for they are my life." 

My grandmother gave up all three daughters to foster care, and spent the next several years prostituting to survive. Along came the guy I grew up knowing as my grandpa. Pulled her out of that life, married her, and they lived a prosperous life. 

To this day, I don't know how my mother and her two sisters reconnected with my grandmother.

The grandparents I grew up knowing we're happy, loving, joyful to be around. I didn't know until much, much later from what depths she had risen. comment (2014) from the question: what is the most pathetic thing you had to do to survive?

Can you imagine being so poor you had to give up your kids? I’ve seen it in Haiti. A working mom came to the gate and ask us to take her child. If we didn’t, the mother claimed she would have to send the child to a distant relative who would feed the child in exchange for slave labor. The word for this type of slavery is “restiveks” and there are an estimated 300,000 in Haiti. It breaks my heart to think of this but what other option does a semi-working class person do. The choices are often less than ideal.

It's helpful in my pursuit of hope and renewal and as a self avowed Christ follower to remember that  Jesus’ life began as a poor working class tradesman. He knew the daily grind of the poor and even though he was God with skin on (or the Christian term incarnate), he chose to remain poor and homeless. His entire ministry was a witness to God’s love, grace and mercy. It wasn’t about possessions or promises of a life with more possessions. It was to show us that the only possession that really matters is one’s life and what one chooses to do with it.

There were times when Jesus was hungry but He and his companions seemed to not been in any need. While Jesus would teach voluntary sacrifice and even abstemiousness, He did not require his companions to be poor. If fact some were not (Mark 1:20; 14:3; Luke 14:13). 

Jesus was a friend to the poor. He preached to them. He gave them hope through a vision of a heavenly mansion in the next realm and an incredible banqueting table filled with food. He was concerned about the poor and proceeded to give them alms (gifts) when waiting for the next excursion. He was never concerned about his resources or those of his disciples. He knew their suffering and wants. He was a focused on what was noble in them (Luke 21:3).

In the same way, he also refused to demonize the rich or the ruling class. He did not come to create strata or class division. Jesus steadfastly refused to allow class hatred or political rebellion (John 6:15). He encouraged those with power and money to experience a life without burden or guilt (Luke 19:8). He encouraged using God’s generosity with others knowing this would be hard for the immature leaders. (Rich young ruler).

In man ways the story highlights the truth. Poverty is not the greatest spiritual peril, it’s wealth. In wealth there is a capacity for great human service but it is not greater than personal service in the poor. Jesus was trying to show that life is independent of possessions and one’s faith and character are not dependent upon things.

It makes sense when you think about it. Any wise man will give all that he has for his life (Matt 16:26; 10:28). Possession can’t add to this life. Time can not be added either.  Beyond the basics (Food, water, clothes and shelter), the most valuable of all our possession remains the relationship with God. Any other possessions are not condemned but He would commend to the service developing character. Possessions are not about personal pleasure or amusement or diversion. They are about their use or distribution to grow the kingdom. I love the story of Chuck Feeney.

Most people have heard of the generosity of the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, as mentioned earlier, only a few may have heard of Chuck Feeney. That is because the Irish-American billionaire has always insisted on doing philanthropy as discreetly as he can. For the past 30 years, Feeney has secretly given as much as $6.2 billion from his vast financial empire to charities and causes worldwide.

It is estimated that the $1.3 billion he has left will be used up by 2016, with his foundation closing by 2020. Feeney, who made his vast fortune in duty-free shops, made no secret of his desire to be penniless before he dies. He hopes that his example will serve as a guide to his fellow wealthy philanthropists not to wait before their deaths before sharing their wealth. In fact, Feeney’s life served to inspire both Gates and Buffett to start their own foundations.

And if that didn’t hit you, what about the story of Zell Kravinsky

Zell Kravinsky knew he wasn’t cut out for the wealthy way of living. Sure, he had made millions investing in real estate in his native Pennsylvania, but Kravinsky decided his dollars had a grander purpose than just fattening his bank account. In 2001, he began donating money and land to various charities until his contributions reached $45 million dollars. By then, his family and friends thought that he was being too impulsive, but Kravinsky brushed their reservations aside and said that he could always earn more money—though he’d likely give it away as well.

However, Kravinsky still felt that donating money and land wasn’t enough. He decided up the ante and gave his kidney to a total stranger. His move was met with mixed views, ranging from praise to disbelief. Even his wife threatened to leave him, although that was later defused thanks to famous singer Pat Boone, who knew what Kravinsky did and urged her to forgive him for being too generous. As for Kravinsky, he said that he would readily give any of his body parts again for any who needed it.

This is the only economic scheme Jesus suggested. He shared a fact that the poor will always be among us (Mark 14:7;John 12:8). It was not a condemnation or a approval to ignore their plight. We are to accept the fact without further judgement understanding the future kingdom is theirs and their lot is blessed. I believe there are many who don’t believe this idea.  However, a person in poverty never has to wonder about the need for God or provision because every day is a practice in trusting God with all on has. A position we can encourage those with resources to live but who often don’t because of their security in their physical abilities, skills or talents.

Herein lies the reason wealth is more spirituality is more dangerous than poverty. Rarely will a human truly on on God until God is all one has. Comfort in one’s own ability to provide is the pride which comes before the greatest fall of all, one’s soul!