A while ago a friend challenged me about listening to sermons: do I ever really learn anything truly new or behavior-changing from them? After a lifetime of listening, is there anything now I'm ever really taught - that I didn't know already? It sparked an interesting conversation, but also some longer term thought.
Lately I've been going back and listening to Mars Hill's (in Michigan - Rob Bell is their main teaching pastor) recent series on the Sermon on the Mount. It's been fun to see how one after the other they've brought up thoughts I've never considered before. One such thought was on the verse mentioned above. Rob was teaching on the passage, and he talked about this not being about those who are already "righteous" – those who have got it all figured out. No, it's talking about those who hunger and thirst for it. These thoughts came up again recently as I read the following from the book Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle. Kurt Annan writes about living in Haiti and how he feels about being asked for stuff because he’s from the ‘States.
I feel occasional resentment. Why do I have to fend off this daily assault of need and requests when rich people back in the States never have to deal with it so personally, so in-your-face, so real, so everywhere? "Hey, at least I'm making an effort," I want to say, pointing a finger into the aggressive asker's chest. "Go bother the people lounging on those cruise ships! Or bother the people who don't even try to help!" But of course there's a chain link fence to keep that from happening -- and the Coast Guard patrolling the warm sea between here and Florida.He captures so well the challenge of living in the most affluent country in the world and in the history of the world, and from that place SO wanting to be conscious of the world’s needs and in some meaningful (even if small!) way to help meet them.
Trying to give through this fence, across this sea, is complicated. On birthdays we gave colorful stickers to the kids, which were a hit. We had a whole pack, but we just gave one sheet at a time since any more would have outshone the little gifts from others in the family. At the same time, they know we have access to more resources, and we don't want to be cheap.
We don't want to be seen simply as foreign patrons, reinforcing an unhealthy historic paternalism (combined with exploitation) that can lead to unhelpful relationships of dependency. We don't want to be seen primarily as giver-outers-of-stuff (whether food aid or cheap toys). But we also want to give everything we have, everything we could possibly get our hands on.
How to convey how complicated this feels? The "foreign aid" dynamic here is charged. I do know that when we've asked other long-term foreigners here for counsel, they've responded with phrases like "Good luck" or "Let me know if you find the answer" (pp. 47-48)
Here’s where I’m at right now. I want so to be thankful. To notice often that I’m in no pain, not hungry, that I have a hot shower, that I can drive myself to work every day, that I live in peace, health, and security. I have opportunities – because of where I was born, my education, my job – that such a small percentage of people in today’s world or throughout history have had. It would be terrible if I didn’t at some level simply acknowledge that and just wallow in gratefulness.
I also want to be generous. Pretty self explanatory, right? But I do want those things I’ve been given – money, time, whatever, to be things I freely appreciate, and freely give. I would like to be willing to give to the point of discomfort, even, if/as it’s called for. This can be as simple as the “giving up a cup of coffee a day to sponsor an orphan” or into the more challenging realm of living on a smaller income so that I have more to share.
Unfortunately, those two desires don’t mesh together all that well, at least for me. How do I know when “enjoying what I have” has sunk into self indulgence and self centeredness? How do I ever know when I’ve given “enough”? I’ve talked to several of you and know I’m not the only one to feel a continual tension between the two.
That’s where the Rob Bell sermon really did have something new to say to me. I guess I just felt encouragement that there is blessing in the struggle. Giving is complicated: to whom? how much? how often? how careful should I be about the integrity of the recipient? All the “Haiti” questions above. What with being human and all, I so want sometimes to just have things clearly laid out. What’s the amount I should give/do to help, so that I can just do that and then have the rest of my time/money/life to do with as I like and still feel good about myself? Oh so the wrong question! Hungering and thirsting after righteousness means a continual process of listening, paying attention, being open, trusting, and knowing I’m loved. Before the sermon, I felt that if there was struggling, I was in the wrong place somehow. Now I’m learning to see the struggle, the hunger, as part of the deal. I’m so glad that it’s a promise: that there really is blessing for those who hunger and thirst for things in this messed up world to be somehow, some day, put to right. Guess I’ll keep listening to sermons!
Oh – and check out this NY Times Op Ed article on a related topic – interesting! Learning from the Sin of Sodom.