Becoming Children of our Father in Heaven

This isn't the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This isn’t the woman I met, but this photo reminds me of her. (HT to Getty Images for this photo.)
This post started as an email to the pastors of Mill City Church. I wrote to thank them for the many ways they help us discern what God’s up to and challenge us to join in. The first two sermons in the current series, on “Success and Security,” coming on the heels of the last few from the last series, about Mill City Church’s “Mission Priorities,” have been particularly helpful. They’ve been especially so because they so clearly resonate with what we’ve been hearing God say to us as a family already. I wrote about all that in my last post. The super short version is that as a family we’ve been feeling very called to make ourselves small. We’re learning that we’re not just called to help the poor; we’re called to learn from and be helped by them. We have so much more to learn about interdependence with one another and dependence on God, to which we’re called. Some of this has come from our decision to do the monthly recommended readings for January from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (again, see my post; it’s a resource we’ve been using for years but never in the way we are now). The four books recommended for January have been simply life-changing. We had read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger years ago; so we moved on to the other three. Economy of Love started things off, and was profoundly moving and challenging. Next came God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and I can’t even begin to describe how reading that book is changing us. It’s interesting because of some of the stuff in these books we’ve “known” for a while, but clearly just weren’t willing to do anything about. We were stuck on the “wide road.” Anyway, I’m just now finishing up Sabbath Economics: Household Practices by Matthew Colwell. It’s a follow-up to Sabbath Economics by Ched Myers, which comes from Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries and was one of the books recommended in Common Prayer, but is unfortunately out of print. Sabbath Economics recommends a “Sevenfold Household Covenant,” which looks like this:
Basically, the idea is that in God’s economy, Jesus has something to say about all the areas of our life or practices identified above. So, as I recently read in Sabbath Economics:

Solidarity is therefore not a form of disengagement with those who are not poor. It is instead an engagement with the whole world from the vantage point of a deep connection with those who have been excluded, confined to the margins of society, or made poor by the economic systems and structures of that world. It is the practice of aligning one’s hopes with the poor and marginalized by placing one’s self in proximity to those people. (Italics added)

I found this particularly insightful and challenging. I’ve known God has a “special concern for the poor” for a while (though I did little about it). And I’m learning that I understand the New Testament especially, but also Jesus, much better when I attempt to do so as a person on the margins, since it was written by folks on the margins to folks on the margins. It was written from “under,” not “over.” Rod White’s several post(s) about this were very helpful. Moreover, I’m learning again that poor folks have something to teach us, that they can help us just as much or more than we’ll ever “help” them. I’m learning especially that there ought not be a them and us. We must work much harder to make sure there is only an “us.” So our family has been working to get “small.” So far we’ve:
  • given the church the TV and sound bar that are in the Mill City Church Commons now
  • cut cable and just have local channels now, plus Netflix, etc.
  • got rid of our PS4 and a handful of games
  • gave up our smartphones for basic flip phones (this alone we’ve experienced as an incredibly counter-cultural, near revolutionary act)
  • canceled our credit cards and started (another, sadly) Debt Management Program
  • gotten as creative as we can with things we’re bound by contract not to let go of yet. For example, sadly we both have Massage Envy accounts. Kirsten has chronic neck pain that causes migraines (hear the justification?) and I got mine when I was running, which I desperately need to get back to (again, hear the justification?). We can’t cancel these contracts, but I’ve been talking to Mile In My Shoes about donating my remaining massages to them.
  • We’ve also ended our contributions to our retirement plans. In God’s Economy by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (one of the January books, again), which was and is incredibly and amazingly challenging, he makes a compelling case for following Jesus so closely that it’s hard to see how (for us, as far as we can tell, anyway) using those resources in that way is faithful. When we dug in and did the hard work of seeing how Kirsten’s retirement funds were being used by Lincoln Financial (and it was, interestingly, hard work just to follow the money), for example, it became incredibly easy to see that our participation in the plan Kirsten was in is sinful. The money God gave us to steward that we gave to Lincoln Financial is being used to build drones and missiles; to get teenagers to smoke; to oppress poor people with bad mortgages, debt, and financial products; to poison the earth, produce GMO’s, and insure generational poverty among subsistence farmers; and I could go on and on. This begs lots of questions about what it means to “retire” and what we would be “retiring” from or to. We have some ideas about this. It also obviously raises questions around stewardship and whether or not to have, for example, an “emergency fund.” Historically, our family has struggled to do this and has been largely unsuccessful, largely due to selfish financial choices in the midst of a few extravagantly generous ones. Still, our generosity has not been supported by a lifestyle that was consistent with following Jesus instead of Mammon.
We had another idea, too. Wilson-Hartgrove talks a little about basically using the world’s evil economic system from time to time to subvert that very system. So, we attempted to trade in Kirsten’s 2013 Ford Escape that we never should have bought. We owe something like $18,000 on it, with 9% interest. We were hoping to trade it for a much older, cheaper car. We explained a little bit of our motivation to the person we approached to do this, whom we know. He said he wasn’t able to help us, and he told me I should “educate myself” and quoted Mark 14:7 at me, where Jesus says: “The poor you will always have with you…”. However, there’s a second part to that verse: “…and you can help them any time you want.” The first part of the verse echoes Deut. 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land…”. There’s more to that verse too: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” This comes in the part of Deuteronomy that is dedicated to canceling all debts and freeing all slaves every seven years, and can be tied to the concept of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-13, in which debts were canceled, slaves were freed, land was returned to its original owner, and the land itself was to lie fallow, to give it a break from all its labor on our behalf. In the Deuteronomy chapter that Mark hearkens back to, the point is clear:

 …there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today…If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

Moreover, when Jesus says in Mark that “you’ll always have the poor among you,” not only does he follow it up with “…and you can help them anytime you want…” (which perhaps should read: “you can help them anytime you want,” as you should have been doing all along), but he’s making a point. A jar of expensive perfume has just been poured over his head, and “some of those present,” likely including Judas, the betrayer, are upset because this is an act of gratuitous extravagance, and the year’s salary the perfume was worth could have been spent on the poor. Jesus isn’t making a normative statement for all time about poor people (like: “I, God, say there should always be poor people”); he’s making a descriptive statement about the faithlessness of God’s people (like: “you could help poor people any time you want; but you don’t, or don’t do it enough; so you’re likely to always have them around. Therefore don’t use your lack of love for the poor as an excuse for this woman not to do what she just did, which was to prepare me for burial.”)

The weight of Scripture is astoundingly clear: God has a “preferential option” for the poor. We are to help them, and to be helped by them, for they have something to teach us about holding possessions loosely, about being ready to receive God’s good gifts, about relying on God’s provision and not worrying about tomorrow. Moreover, there’s strong evidence for the idea that drawing near to the poor is to draw near to Jesus himself, and that standing in solidarity with the poor requires proximity to them (affluent suburbs notwithstanding).

So, I told the pastors in that email that this is what we’re learning, and what we’re doing. In the meantime, we’re encountering some resistance. I wouldn’t call it a “spiritual attack;” what I would say is that the resistance we’re experiencing helps confirm for us that we must be moving closer to, and perhaps even down, the “narrow path.” In addition to the response I talked about above from the person we approached in an attempt to “downsize” one of the cars we drive, we found that when we traded in my smartphone it had been reported stolen in TN (I bought it “new” here in MN). The police investigator that called me said, confirming an unfortunate stereotype, that the suspect was a “black male” and he knew I was not, but our decision to give up that bit of power and means of control by the Empire/Domination System/”World”/Call-It-What-You-Will got some attention, apparently.

Then, last week I took the other care we drive in for some repairs. As it was being worked on Kirsten called to say the 2013 Ford Escape we were trying to trade in, which she was driving, had a flat tire on I-35. I had no way to go help her. Our car insurance includes roadside assistance (one of the many perks of our power and privilege), but accessing this was made a little more difficult by Kirsten’s lack of a smartphone. She got help, but we eventually “had” to put 4 new tires on it. At the same time we learned that the work on the car that I had in for repairs, which was starting when Kirsten called me to say she was stuck with a flat tire, is going to run about $750 (again, plus the cost of the Escape’s tires). All told, this will run us over $1,100. We don’t exactly have that saved up, but all the work we’ve been doing to get “small” means that we can probably come up with the funds soon, right about when we might need them, I hope. We got the new tires on the Escape already, and the parts for the Focus aren’t in yet and won’t be until close to when we get paid again, when more funds will be there than would have been otherwise if we hadn’t made all the changes we’re making. Kirsten and I have also had a few little health scares recently too, but those seem to be mostly resolved and aren’t worth talking about more now. So, again, I’m not saying all this is any sort of “attack;” I’m just saying that following Jesus instead of the Empire is hard, even if only, so far, in the “white people’s problems”-y ways I’ve just described.

One thing we’ve been thinking about is how individualistically we’ve been (not) following Jesus in terms of money, despite our professed love for all things communal when it comes to everything else. This must change. Thus I’ve been thinking again a little more about Common Change. Common Change came out of Relational Tithe, and is a resource for sharing money to meet one another’s needs and the needs of those around them. We’re thinking that instead of Kirsten and I laboring to build up an emergency fund for the next time we need new tires or car repairs and also to build capacity in our “personal” budget for the kind of generosity we feel called to, if instead it’s not more faithful to join with others we know (including especially, we hope, from Mill City) in opening a Common Change account and committing to contributing to it. We’d have much more capacity together than we would alone, and could again, I suspect, be much more faithful in this way.

Finally, I have a co-worker with whom I largely agree about secular politics. He’s not someone who would say he’s following Jesus, not by a long shot. I have another co-worker with whom I largely disagree about secular politics. He is a professed Christian. I’ve found myself in a position of not having anything helpful, really, to say to either of them. I don’t know that my “evangelical” co-worker and I will ever agree about secular politics, and it has been a real challenge to put to death any hostility between us with Jesus on the cross. Likewise, it’s been hard to find a way to even talk about Jesus with my secular progressive co-worker….until the other day as I was telling the story of all the car issues and what we were trying to do with the car Kirsten drives and how that was connected to all the bigger changes we’re making in our life. As I told him how we got rid of our smartphones and a big TV and were ending our 401k contributions because they were supporting war and environmental degradation and the like and how we were switching banks and on and on; it only made sense to mention that we were doing those things because we were trying to follow Jesus. What I’m reminded of, again, is that we don’t have anything to share, at least in my experience, if we don’t have a story to tell about what following Jesus looks like in our lives as we swim upstream amidst the Empire we live in today. I didn’t have much of a story to tell to my co-workers anyway until recently. I actually have quite a story to tell about my life, but that doesn’t come up in every day conversation unless every day we’re living a life that’s worth talking about. I’m praying now that each day will lead us further into such a life. It’s what we’re here for, after all.

With such thoughts swimming around in my head, I found myself in downtown Minneapolis the other day. I went into the soon to be closed downtown Barnes and Noble. I like bookstores, sadly even the commodified, homogenized, big chain variety. From there I went through the skyway into the soon to be closed downtown anchor Macy’s store. As I reached the threshold of Macy’s and passed into the store, I saw her. It was hard to tell if she was a “her,” actually. What I saw was a person clearly experiencing homelessness, obviously world weary and weather beaten, curled up in a corner, leaning against the wall, asleep. She had a cardboard sign, but it had fallen over and I couldn’t make out what it said. I had Sam’s allowance cash in my wallet, a total of $30 ($20 for this month and $10 we owed him from last month). I walked into Macy’s, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and walked back out. I went to a sandwich shop I had passed in the skyway and bought her a hot sandwich and some chips. I went back and touched on the shoulder, waking her to offer her the food. She thanked me, said she was very grateful, but then explained she had arthritis, and showed me her hands. They were visibly swollen. She said what she really needed was $20 to pay for a room she rents in St. Paul, when she can, presumably. She said she had a bus pass which she would use to get there tonight, if she had the money. She said she had been cold and just “couldn’t take it any more,” and came in to try to sleep for a while. She said she didn’t want to bother anybody; so she put up her sign (which had fallen), and then fell asleep, hoping someone would help her. It wasn’t long before I pulled out the $20 I had and gave it to her. I was reminded, as I constantly am now, of this bit from God’s Economy:

Whatever our political persuasion, we’re always tempted to blame our political enemies for the troubles in the world and think that real change will happen when the policies we endorse are put into practice. But whatever good we might effect on a national or global scale, we can be sure that it will come with unintended negative consequences. Not so with relational generosity, however. Jesus doesn’t teach us to practice relational generosity because it will “fix” the poor. He invites us to give to whoever asks so we might be children of our Father in heaven. Yes, God’s love transforms lives. We know this from our own experience and from the testimony of others. But God doesn’t ask us to change people- God asks us to love people. When we share with one who asks, we are changed. Little by little, we grow into the love of our Father, whose love is perfect.

I asked her what her name was, and she told me. Sadly, I’ve forgotten it already; I’m not good with names. She asked me mine, and I told her. She exclaimed that Robert was her son’s name. She asked me for a hug, and I gave it. We parted, and I wandered back in to Barnes and Noble on my way back to the car. I had about $3 left. I bought a cookie for $2-something (just what I need, I know) and walked outside. There, I passed by another person potentially experiencing homelessness who was “signing.” I gave him the coins I had left, and the cookie I had just bought. I walked back to the car, pockets empty, and a little lighter, literally and metaphorically.

Look, I know I did nothing to solve the economic and housing insecurity either of those people I met are experiencing. I know I may very well have perpetuated their “problem” and the systems that create such insecurity. But then again, as Wilson-Hartgrove said, I’m not called to “fix” the poor. They are not problems to be solved. They are people made in God’s image, people God loves, and whom I am called to love. They are folks who have been marginalized, pushed to the sidelines of the economic and political systems of our day. In very real ways they are folks who have less because I have more. Maybe the woman I met has a son named Robert; maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she used a bus pass and went to a room that night and slept in a warm bed. Maybe she didn’t. What I do know is that we exchanged names, and a hug. She got lunch, and she knew that a stranger stopped to love her, if only for a moment. Now, the real work begins. Now, my family and I, both my “nuclear” family and church family, must work to not just subvert the system that marginalized those folks, but to build a better one. We must work to live as if God’s kingdom is already here. We must work to build God’s economy, an economy of love. In such an economy, no one has more than they need, and therefore there is more than enough for all. God, help us.

6 thoughts on “Becoming Children of our Father in Heaven

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