Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blessed are the Poor

Luke 6:20-21 Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Those are the words of Jesus. I know they are true, but not on any literal plane. The poor are not blessed just because they are poor. The hungry have no blessing inherent to their hunger. You look into their eyes and you know that it is so. Those poor and hungry I have met who have discovered life in the kingdom of God, however, do know and express a blessedness to their life that is remarkable.

Yesterday in the village of Kiyanja (chee-YAN-jah) I sat in the combination home and store of a young woman named Ruth. She is an AIDS patient. Her "store" was a small room from which she sold used clothing and did some sewing. Her bed, no more than a cot really, is in the front of the room, near the window. She is tired and weak from the disease and is losing weight. The rent on the building strains her ability to provide for herself and her five children.

On the wall hangs a sign that says, "Jesus is the Answer." When I asked her about that, light returned to her eyes and she affirmed that she has become a follower of Jesus. She says she depends on the presence and strength of God in her life to live each day, and I believe her. I offered to pray for this sister in Christ and she said, "Pray for me to know peace. Pray for me to have strength. Pray for me to have enough to feed my children." Ruth is blessed, not by her poverty, but in spite of it.

Harriet lives a half mile from Ruth’s shop, just down the highway that runs from Mbarara to Busheyni. Jenna and I walked to Harriet’s home, accompanied by our guide and translator for the day, a 40 year old woman with bright eyes and a ready smile, named "Peace." Peace took the opportunity to teach us as we walked, asking us to repeat common greetings in Runyankore, or pointing out the people digging through the tall grass with their fingers, "They are looking for mushrooms." She bent down and picked up a handkerchief full of the fungi someone had gathered. She told us of her life – daughter of an Anglican (Church of Uganda) pastor, coming to faith as a child, marrying an Independent Baptist pastor who now serves in the Church of Uganda, and of her sense of calling to work with HIV/AIDS patients through Words of Hope.

Harriet’s home is a mud hut located behind a better looking house. I suppose a half-dozen of the mud structures were back there. A man stepped out of one of them as we approached, offering us the same hospitality we have found in each place: "You are welcome!" Peace called for Harriet and she came to the door of her place and quickly invited us in. Another 8’X10’ house like others we’d been in. A sheet draped over a rope divided it into two rooms. Harriet had a bed in one corner and a simple bench against the wall. She offered Peace the bed as a place to sit and insisted that Jenna and I take the bench. Harriet sat on the floor.

We asked about her health and how she was doing managing the disease. She spoke of all she had to do and of her weariness and of the pains in here back and neck. She, too, was one of the blessed poor because she, too, knew life in the kingdom of God. Harriet talked about her faith. When we asked her how we could pray with her, she asked prayer for strength and for her poverty.

We attempted two other visits that morning, but found no one at home. So the three of us looked for a place to sit and await our ride back home. The Heavy Duty Bakery was next to Ruth’s shop. The bakery’s front door was propped open by a small bench. We asked the owner if we cold use the bench while we waited. He offered it gladly.

We sat for an hour. Three small poor children played around us, teasing each other or chasing the two chickens that were running loose. Lunch time was approaching and the aromas coming out of the bakery door made my mouth water. But I did not have any money with me. Not a penny. I watched people come and go right in front of my face. They arrived on foot, on bicycles, or on bodas (small motorcylcles used as a taxi service). They walked past us, into the bakery, and came out with bags of rolls or loaves of bread. My hunger grew as I saw the food and breathed in the smell. But I had not a penny to buy anything. A moment of hunger and poverty. But not a life of it.

The stories could be multiplied, you know that. But is there really anything I can do other than feel sad about their condition or guilty for all that I have? Yes, there is.

You can act on a personal level. Compassion International is a reputable organization that provides support for poor children in nations around the world. Most of the money actually gets to the recipient. Sponsoring a child is one personal touch. (Our family sponsors a young teen-age girl in Uganda.)

You can act on a social or political level. We Americans imagine ourselves a generous people. Yet less than one percent of our national budget is shared with the poor of the world in the form of humanitarian aid. A movement is afoot to change that. The movement is called ONE. It calls on our President and Congress to take several concrete actions, including allocating an additional one percent of our budget to address the issues of poverty in Africa. ONE is supported by a variety of individuals and organizations, including well-known Christian leaders and Christian ministries. You can click on the link in the right column and visit the ONE website. You can sign a petition that requests our President to act.

What difference would anadditional ONE percent of our budget make?

With an additional ONE percent of our budget:

  • We can help prevent 10 million children from becoming AIDS orphans
  • We can help get 104 million children into grade school. 30 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to schools. Getting girls into school is one of the best ways to improve their futures, their health and the health of their families.
  • We can help provide water to almost 900 million people around the globe.
  • We can save almost 6.5 million children under 5 from dying of diseases that could be prevented with low-cost measures like vaccination or a well for clean water.

ONE percent of the U.S. budget is $25 billion. (You might recall the President asking for an additional $80 billion last January to continue the war in Iraq). Redirecting that much money would have to be done over time. Directed to honest governments, private charities and faith-based organizations, this support would provide the tools and resources they need to really make a difference. American support would be part of a compact with poor countries who fight corruption and use their own resources to help their people out of poverty. American leadership would be an example for rich countries in Europe and Asia to do their share to help the poorest people in the world. This is actually something that could be done in this generation.

You can act on a spiritual level. Pray for the leaders of the eight richest industrialized countries in the world when they gather next month at Gleneagles, Scotland in the G-8 Summit. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia will consider forgiving more than $16 billion in debt owed by many developing nations, mostly in Africa.

This past weekend I preached for the first time since mid-April. My text was a saying of Jesus recorded, not in any of the four Gospels, but in the Book of Acts. The apostle Paul, speaking to the leaders of the churches in Ephesus, says: "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.’" (Acts 20:35). Pray that those who have so richly received will do the hard work of helping the weak, experiencing the truth of Jesus’ teaching, the more blessed state of giving. And pray that we, as a church, might live with this same spirit.

"Blessed are you poor," said Jesus, "because yours is the Kingdom of Heaven." The Kingdom is theirs, not because they are poor, but in spite of the fact. And so they are blessed.

"And blessed," said Jesus, "are those who give." They are even more blessed than those who receive.




Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you on this, Robert. In the last 40 years the United States alone has given $568 BILLION to Africa and the only change is the despots are richer. Instead of pressuring our government to send more of my money over there, we need to pressure our government to hold their government responsible and make them accountable for what they receive.

Robert said...

No one wants to follow a policy that has proved to be fruitless. If you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll keep getting what you've been getting. I trust that we might be able to fashion a better policy that uses non-profits, faith-based organizations, and governments that are willing to demonstrate a stand against corruption and a concern for the poor of their land. That is the agenda of the ONE movement. Would you care to see some of your tax money invested in something like that?

Robert said...

"Blair lost his push to get all summit countries to commit to boosting foreign aid to an amount equal to 0.7 percent of national income by 2015. Instead, a summit document said the European Union had agreed to that support but did not mention the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush had refused to be bound by the 0.7 percent target. The United States is giving 0.16 percent of national income, the smallest percentage of any of the G-8 countries." (From CNN Website reporting on the results of the G-8 Summit, 07-09-05)