Developing your personal spiritual disciplines is good, of course. But there’s more to our faith than that.
All of that is great, of course, and right in line with the gospel’s demands. But the gospel also calls us to embody our faith in service: in caring for the poor, for the widowed, and for the orphaned. We are called to be people concerned with justice and charity. We are, in the words of the prophet Micah, enjoined to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8b, NIV).
I will admit that practicing justice and mercy toward others is a place where I need to grow. I love “spirituality.” I dig praying. I like spending all day in silent contemplation before the Lord. (And I like writing about those topics, too.)
I am, to be blunt, less enthusiastic about going to soup kitchens, working on Habitat for Humanity houses, or hanging out with the homeless man who sleeps outside a coffee shop a mile from my house.
For some years, I told myself this was OK. No one person can be the perfect Christian; we all have different strengths and weaknesses, I reasoned. And as long as I’m supporting other Christians in their soup kitchen service, in their acts of justice and mercy, then, you know, the Body of Christ will be doing OK. I’ll be sitting in silent contemplation while Suzy clothes the orphans.
And, up to a point, those self-satisfied statements weren’t completely wrong: People do have individual strengths and gifts, and mine doesn’t seem to be activism.
But just as Suzy is not exempt from the mandate to pray, neither am I exempt from the mandate to love my neighbors — including my poor neighbors. Quite the contrary: It is precisely because I am not naturally inclined toward acts of service that when I do engage in serving others, my faith grows by leaps and bounds.
Serving the Poor
Service, mind you, doesn’t only mean soup kitchens. My husband and I have good friends — let’s call them Jason and Ramona — who’d been dating for three years. And one day, fairly out of the blue, Jason dumped Ramona. Just kicked her to the curb.
In addition to her emotional devastation, the break-up rattled the very structures of Ramona’s life. For three years, Jason had been there to help her do things like pack boxes and move when she switched from one apartment to the other. Now she had to face tasks like that alone. So when, a few months after the curb-kicking, Ramona had to move, my husband went to help her pack. “This may be one way of caring for the widows in our own context,” he said.
(Ramona and Jason’s story may also contain a caution about the wisdom of letting yourself stay in a meandering-along dating relationship for three years, but that topic is for a future article.)
Still, there’s something in Jesus’ life that prods us to hang out with actual poor people — not just with brokenhearted Ramonas. In becoming human, in emptying His divine perfection into a finite human body, Jesus became poor. And He dwelled among the poor. When we read the Beatitudes, we find the statement, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20b).
If you’re sitting in a college dorm room or coffeeshop reading this on your laptop, you are, by definition, not poor. I am not poor. Many Christian heroes, like St. Francis of Assisi, became voluntarily poor, and a good case can be made that becoming poor is the essence of living a Christ-like life (that’s for another column, too). But even if you or I are not prepared to become voluntarily poor, we should at least want to be near the poor, since the kingdom of God is theirs.
Working with the poor can be hard. Poor people make us wealthy Americans uncomfortable. Poor people make me feel uncomfortable.
This summer, I worked in a hospital, and I encountered patient after patient who was poor in every imaginable way — their bodies were broken, their spirits were broken, they were homeless, they didn’t have $10 to their name. Sometimes I wanted to flee their hospital rooms and go sit in the cafeteria with a $5 mocha latte. And then I remembered what Jesus said: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). So, to serve those brothers and sisters was to serve my Lord. And to flee them for a latte was to flee Him who became poor to save me.
Acts of Service
There are lots of ways to begin serving the poor. It can feel daunting — the pain, suffering, injustice, and poverty in the world are overwhelming, and it can be tempting to say, “Since I can’t fix it all, since I can’t really make a dent in the world’s injustice, why bother with this little act of service?”
More than once I have thrown up my hands and thought, I’m not Mother Theresa — my little contribution isn’t really changing much. And then I remember a powerful sentence from the Jewish text Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to stop working on it.”Pirkei Avot 2:16.
There are all sorts of ways to begin works of justice and mercy in your community. For example, at Duke, where I teach, students have the chance to participate in a dizzying array of service projects — from raising money for hunger relief to rocking crack babies at the hospital. Or students can choose to advocate for patients and families in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, or tutor local school kids, or answer phones at a crisis hotline. Your local church is also probably involved in service projects (if it’s not, you might want to ask your pastor why not).
Jesus’ words and life are marked by radical abundance. In the Kingdom of God, which is breaking in here and now, but which is not yet fully realized, there will be no scarcity. There will be more copious abundance than we can imagine.
But we live now in an in-between time — in between the moment when Jesus inaugurated that Kingdom and the time when that Kingdom will be fully realized. We live in an in-between time in which many people experience scarcity instead of abundance.
When we do volunteer work — when we rock those crack babies or tutor those children, when we share our time, money, and heart with the poor — we participate in the abundance of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The poor neighborhoods in which we might help build houses or help children with their homework are the places where five loaves and three fish become a meal for the multitude.
Acts of service help us remember that in our society many hard-working people don’t earn the wages they need to provide their families with the basics of life — healthy food, medical care and housing. My husband works for a non-profit organization that provides housing for homeless people with mental illnesses. Each day he comes home chastened, reminded that our city is home to countless people whose mental illness or developmental disability makes it impossible for them to work. His job offers us constant reminders that our own lives are contingent upon God’s blessing, and the help and support of other people.
Devoting a few hours a week to tutoring a child or answering phones at a domestic violence helpline are really only introductions to what our lives should look like. For, central to the Christian call is participation with the poor in places of narrowness and oppression. When we serve the poor, we are helping God’s abundance break through.
And we can expect not only the transformation of the people whom we think we are there to help — we can also expect to be transformed, to become people more fully able to recognize the living God who became poor for our sake.
Copyright 2006 Lauren F. Winner. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Lauren F. Winner is the author of numerous books, including Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath. Her study A Cheerful & Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia will be published in the fall of 2010 from Yale University Press. She has appeared on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Publishers Weekly, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today. Winner has degrees from Duke, Columbia, and Cambridge universities, and holds a Ph.D. in history. The former book editor for Beliefnet, Lauren teaches at Duke Divinity School, and lives in Durham, North Carolina. Lauren travels extensively to lecture and teach. During the academic year of 2007-2008, she was a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, and during the academic year of 2010-2011, she was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. When she’s home, you can usually find her curled up, on her couch or screen porch, with a good novel.