Serving in Intractable Situations
SERVING IN INTRACTABLE SITUATIONS
Matthew 25: 37-45
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?
This week we are tackling systemic poverty and of the issues we have tried to discuss, this was the most depressing. Only after a week of thought have I begun to see why. Struggling with issues as pervasive and long standing as poverty will rapidly confront us with our limitations. We will be confronted with what it means to live dependent upon God for outcomes we cannot control. To paraphrase and aphorism I love, we never have enough information or capability to deal with poverty, but we are still obligated to respond. Both are true and it is a hard place to live.
I asked the FIRL groups what came to mind when we mentioned the word poverty and then what came to mind when I mentioned poverty and the church. People told personal stories about their own encounters with poverty—working in Title One school systems, meeting people on the street, volunteering for tutoring, concern for third world nations where both food and water were scarce, etc. The general theme was to be confronted with the enormity and intractability of the problem. And it got worse when we added ‘church’ to the equation. We struggled with the responsibility to respond and the knowledge that governments with vastly more resources had failed in the ‘war on poverty.’ Our efforts seemed almost token in the face of such need.
The question became what to do, what actually works, and how much should we extend ourselves? But, even when we tried to limit the problem to a micro rather than macro level, it didn’t get any easier. Virtually every family I know has at least one person who is under-performing, someone who is at financial risk, someone that can’t seem to make it on their own. Sometimes the problem is acute, sometimes it is chronic but the question of how and how much to respond is excruciatingly difficult. Parents outlive their pensions—or don’t have one. College graduates cannot find jobs and come home to their parents. Illness can bankrupt a family in a heartbeat. Unemployment can rapidly deplete savings. Covid unemployment has created food lines we have not seen in years. I haven’t even mentioned the addicted, the disabled and the mentally ill—the people who cannot possibly survive without assistance. If that doesn’t overwhelm you, look beyond those you know, to slums, to third world despair, to people devastated by drought and flood. Each of those people also have children and families they would like to protect. But they cannot. There are lots of hungry and at risk people. So the biblical question: ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…?” is easily answered. We only have but to open our eyes and we will see plenty of need. But in real life, even if we open our eyes, we are more likely to be paralyzed than effective..
Seeing human need, and poverty in particular, will bring us to our knees. The need is so great and so chronic and our efforts are so limited, it is like we are asked to move a mountain with a spoon. Even with our most diligent efforts our lives will end with the mountain firmly in place. The poor are quite literally always with us and have been throughout human history. It is enormously tempting to use that reality to disengage and refuse to see. Very few of us want to invest is a task that we cannot see completed. Our impact in the world and our self importance take a serious hit in the face of systemic poverty. But when we close our eyes or abdicate, we allow ourselves to stay insulated from the needs of others as well as insulating ourselves from our own limitations and our true place in the world. .
In real life, all too often our desire to help is well intended but misdirected. Linda LeBron told us about a time her husband was volunteering to help a man seeking a job. He worked with the man, helped him get a job but two weeks later the man was fired. He was frequently late to work. Only later did Linda’s husband learn the man did not have an alarm clock. When our own lives depend upon punctuality, it would not occur to us to teach such a basic skill. Yet this was the stumbling block to employment. When we do not see the whole problem, it is easy to think the problem is with the one we are intending to help.
One of my grandchildren is ‘on the scale.’ He regularly misses basic social cues. He is very smart. He is kind. But he has no clue when he is interrupting and he misses most of the jokes at the table. If you don’t know those things, it is easy to never know him. And if no one knows him, he will be at very high risk in the social and economic world ahead. There are reasons people are poor that have nothing to do with their work ethic or intelligence. The myriad factors are well beyond most of our abilities to discern.
Even if somehow, we are willing to swim in the Tsunami and we are wise enough to discern what will be effective in a particular situation, that still doesn’t mean there will be the outcome we desire. Sometimes we do not have the willingness or the energy to respond. In real life there is always more that we could do—or think we should do. In FIRL the difficulty was not in recognizing the massive disparities in our world. The problem was guilt about ‘what should we do.?’ Almost everyone in the group had an encounter in which they just walked by. They felt bad about it but they just walked by.
Then, of course, we must face the limitations of the receivers. In real life, no matter what we offer, our gifts can be misused. I had a client whose son was addicted. She paid a very pretty penny for him to go to rehab. When he relapsed, she again paid for his rehab. The third time she was troubled but what could she do? This was her son. She paid again. When he relapsed yet again, she realized not only could she not afford to support another rehab, she no longer had money to retire. With 20-20 hindsight, she might not have sacrificed her savings for her son. But she could not know the future. It is a terrible dilemma and one many families have faced. Some people use and appreciate what we have been given and others keep their hand out waiting for more. That is not news—but neither is it a good reason to disengage.
Whether it is in our families, government programs or offering help on the street, offering help always carries the risk that it will be unappreciated and misused. We cannot measure acts of kindness by how they are received. God shows us a way. God invites into a life that lasts. And, as the passage points out, we can always choose otherwise. We as ‘helpers’ discover our helplessness. We can not force people into good choices. When we learn that we discover our true place in the world. We face our own helplessness. In that moment we can choose humility, gratitude and mindfulness—and leave the rest to God. It is up to us to do what we can within our abilities. We will always live in the paradox that we will never be enough and we will always matter. It is the way to life.
One brief note before I close. Both FIRL groups brought up the story of the boy walking along a shore filled with starfish that had washed up beyond the water’s edge. There were thousands of them doomed to death if they could not get back to the water. The boy started picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. When confronted with questions about his efforts—’You know, there are so many, your efforts don’t really matter.’ The boy replied, ‘It matters to this one—and threw another starfish into the sea.’ It is a wonderful story but I want to add a twist. In real life, we don’t know what happened to the starfish that were thrown back into the water. They could have become moving targets for predators. They could have misguidedly scrambled back to the shore.
Humility demands that we do our best without knowing or demanding a particular outcome. Gratitude demands that we recognize the inequities of the world and appreciate what we have been given. If you live those two attitudes, mindfulness will follow. Mindfulness demands we live in uncertainty and continue to respond—as best we can. We must leave the rest to God. Most of the time, our lives are far too short for us to know the outcome of our efforts.
We are foolish and prideful if we think we can eradicate poverty but we are selfish and entitled if we think we can ignore it. Our faith plants us squarely in the middle of an intractable dilemma—again.
Give us the knowledge of our limitations and the courage to serve. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.