Bring on January

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Matthew 6:3

 

I saw this meme making the rounds the other day, and it’s a good one. It seemed a little out of place on Giving Tuesday, however.

My response to one friend who posted that verse:

 

In other words, do in January what you do in December.

 

We Americans love to be generous around the holidays. We give thanks on Thanksgiving. For Christmas, we buy presents our relatives don’t need or probably even want, often with money we don’t have, just because that’s what the holiday is all about.

On Giving Tuesday – one day a year – we are reminded that there are other people in the world besides us. So, we are encouraged to throw money at them.

Can you tell that December is not my favorite time of the year?

I’m jaded.

Motive

It’s great that we give alms to the poor around the holidays. But what’s our motive? Is it to salve our conscience? Is it to keep up with the Joneses in a giving kind of way?

Or, is it that we’re doing something that we know deep in our hearts that we should do more often than once a year?

Many people have needs this time of year, certainly. The food pantry where I volunteer saw its busiest week of the year right before Thanksgiving. A couple of people asked if we were giving away turkeys (we weren’t, but we did give away extra meat, thanks to the generosity of our director.)

Many of us are lonely this time of year. We’ve lost loved ones, and we miss them during family times over the holidays. For them, some of the gifts we offer this month should be spiritual or even physical – our presence, I mean, even more than a present.

Everyone in my immediate family, including my parents, is still among us, so I have yet to experience this up close. But many of you understand this deeply.

Many agencies and companies are collecting toys and gifts for the needy for Christmas. That’s a good thing. I don’t want to downplay that.

I’m not one to jump on a bandwagon, that’s all. If the rest of you are donating to a cause, the cause doesn’t need my gifts too.

Like I said, I’m jaded.

In the dark

I just might wait until January, when most of you have put all this generosity behind you.

January is cold and dark. Winter has arrived in full force. Sub-freezing temperatures are the norm. There are no major holidays to look forward to. It’s back to the daily grind. Vacations are over.

And the needy are forgotten.

Hunger is not a once-a-year phenomenon. Neither is loneliness. Memories of our loved ones don’t fade after the calendar turns and we view December through the rear-view mirror.

Indeed, my mother-in-law’s birthday was in January. She passed away quite a few years ago. We don’t talk about that at home, but maybe we should. My in-laws’ photo still hangs on the dining room wall with other family photos, and it will remain there forever.

When Jesus talked about not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, I think this is what He meant. When the bright lights of publicity are gone and no one is looking, will we continue to serve the needy in our communities then?

When January comes

The quote from Jesus at the beginning of this blog is an action statement from Jesus. In the same breath, He talks about motive.

Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

Matthew 6:2

 

What is their reward? Praise by others. That’s all they get.

Praise by others lasts a day or two, and then we move on to another issue. That’s the way life on this Earth rolls.

 

… so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:4

 

This is why we give in January, as well as in December. It’s dark. We’ve moved on. No one is watching anymore.

But the living God sees. He knows what we’re up to. We can’t hide from Him. He knows the motive in our hearts.

Even in December, God knows what motivates us. Are we real, or are we just doing what we’re supposed to be doing?

I can’t answer that, because I can’t see your heart.

I volunteer occasionally with the American Red Cross. We don’t have to follow God to serve there. Motives vary among volunteers, I’m sure. The Red Cross is just glad when volunteers care enough to assist.

Rewards

Where does our reward come from, though? Is it from the Red Cross, or is it from the living God?

Our motive provides that answer.

Jesus said elsewhere in the Bible to store up treasures in heaven, and not on Earth. God is holding those rewards for us in heaven, even the secret rewards, and He will give them to us when we get there.

But we don’t have to wait for heaven to receive rewards from the living God. When I give in secret, God gives me a blessing right here, right now. Many of you understand this.

We give gifts because the living God gave us the best gift of all – Jesus, born on Christmas Day. It’s our feeble response to the gift of life and meaning that we have received.

That’s what Christmas is all about. Or supposed to be all about.

Where is your heart today?

Even more important, where will your heart be in January, when all the Christmas decorations have been put away for another year?

Does the Christmas spirit live on in you, year-round?

Just a thought.

Silent majority needs to be heard

The opposite of love is not hate.

Both are strong emotions. People with either love or hate care deeply about the issue at hand.

No, the opposite of love – and hate too, for that matter – is apathy.

I … just … don’t … care.

As a holiday weekend is concluding, I’m struggling with this. Perhaps I’m feeling emotional fatigue. Especially since I’ve never learned how to express my emotions verbally.

America the divided

Am I proud to be an American?

That’s a more complicated question than it used to be.

I am free to live where I choose, worship where I choose (or not), work in a career field of my choice (assuming someone would hire me), marry whom I choose, spend my free time however I choose …

Yes, this country offers many good things.

But not all receive those things equally.

This is the message of America today.

We hold up that ideal, but we aren’t close to it. We’re closer than we were a century ago.

Or are we?

Equality an illusion

evicted 2

I just read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, which described the substandard housing situation in inner-city Milwaukee a decade ago. We on the outside think the long-term poor often choose to live that way, that if they would just get a job or education, they could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve their lives.

But that’s often not possible. The housing culture in the wonderful United States of America is designed to keep poor people poor.

evicted 5

Rents are not much cheaper in poor areas than they are in the suburbs. The federal government subsidizes low-income housing for landlords, so they charge unaffordable rents in low-income areas because they can. And when poor people get behind on rent, far too often they get evicted.

The book follows eight families who faced this. Many of them made upwards of 90 or more calls and/or visits to rental properties to find a suitable place after eviction. Eviction is like a criminal record – often landlords make it difficult for the evicted to rent again.

And if the family, often led by a single woman, has children, that’s another strike. Kids cause damage. Teens do drugs and get into trouble. Claiming this, some landlords don’t want children.

And why are neighborhoods segregated racially? Because landlords make it so. They find creative ways to refuse renting an apartment or house to a minority in a “non-minority” neighborhood.

Us outsiders don’t get it. We can’t just throw a month’s rent at one of these families and think they are good to go. The issues run far deeper than that.

Are there any solutions?

The author suggests housing vouchers, which can be used in any neighborhood.

 

By and large, both public housing residents and voucher holders pay only 30 percent of their income on rent, with government funds covering the rest.

Evicted, page 302

 

Many poor people pay 70 percent or more of their income on rent, which means they often have to decide between rent and food, or rent and the utility bill. That’s why evictions are prevalent among the severely poor.

This problem is nationwide. In 2012, one in nine occupied rental households in Cleveland were summoned to eviction court (page 296). More than 10 percent of all renters in the biggest city near here faced eviction.

Do the rest of us even notice this? Even if we do, how much do we care? Enough to change public policy to improve the lives of the poorest among us?

Compassion helps, but compassion goes only so far.

Just ask the illegal immigrants at our southern border.

Standing for … what?

Pennsylvania Daily Life

And as we celebrated our nation’s birthday, I saw this at work in the way we treat our flag. Even the flag has become a racist symbol.

What does the American flag stand for, anyway?

Does it stand for all those freedoms we like to say we have? Does it stand for the bravery of our veterans and active military service people?

What else does it stand for?

And why do some people not stand for it at all?

When I see unbridled poverty, when I see far too much violence (there was a police shooting in our city last week), when I see broken homes as the norm … can I really celebrate living in the United States these days?

Are there solutions? Or have we given up the fight, given in to apathy?

We think only of ourselves. My rights. I can live with whomever I want, drive whatever speed I want on the highway, spend my money (or other people’s money) on whatever I want …

Without thinking of consequences.

Burying our dreams

We just don’t care anymore. There’s no bigger picture.

No ideals bigger than ourselves.

What is freedom, really? What did our forefathers live and die for?

Did they live and die to create the United States we have today? Is this the best we can do?

Can we learn to get along with each other again? To overcome apathy?

We like to throw around the word “hate,” but it’s often misplaced. Sure, there’s some hate out there, but I don’t think there’s as much of it as extremists on both sides of the political aisle think there is. Most of us, rich or poor, are just trying to live our lives.

Leave us alone, we are saying. Just chill out.

Maybe I’m mistaking this for apathy. Maybe we aren’t as apathetic as I think we are.

Perhaps we do care, deep down in our hearts.

We just don’t know how to show it.

Or, more likely, we’re not allowed to show it.

We get shouted down. The “hate” word is thrown at us if we disagree. The loudest voice is often the one that gets heard in this country.

Which is why I defended the United Methodist Church this spring for standing firm – as it has for more than half a century – to its convictions regarding homosexuality. As one voice swimming against the political correctness tide, I took some flak for that, but the discussion was excellent. Thanks again to all of you who participated.

The loudest, or even the most persistent, voice is not always the right one.

Sometimes, the silent majority actually has something to say.

We care. We really do.

But does that mean anything? Can the silent majority do anything with its passions and desires in this country?

Who’s listening?

Anyone?

A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

The best Christmas gift

I tried to do a little yard work yesterday, but it rained all day. Squish squish. Not good for raking.

Later in the afternoon, the rain turned to snow. We woke up today to this, taken from our front doorstep.

It’s pretty. I like winter.

The 14 mph winds make it cold, however. I can handle the 29-degree temperatures, but the biting wind cuts through me.

Since winter weather was predicted, the city was ready for it. The main roads, including through our neighborhood, are fine. I had no trouble running a few errands this morning.

But those final leaves got buried. Will the snow clear in time to rake them to the curb, where the city will collect them? Yes, I imagine so, since the leaves already at the curb are buried too.

I was hoping to mow the yard one more time before winter.

Right.

I know a guy around here who mowed his yard last February – in between snow showers. I’m not kidding.

I still might mow, if the ground hardens enough after the snow melts. I’ve mowed the first week of December before (after a late-November snowfall, as well). I’ve also stopped mowing at Halloween and called it good.

We’ll see.

According to weather.com, we’ve received almost 6 inches of precipitation this month. The average for November is 3.38 inches.

https://weather.com/weather/monthly/l/44035:4:US

No wonder my yard is slushy under the snow cover.

georgetown3

The city repaved the street in front of our driveway this summer. Hopefully we won’t see the potholes this winter and next spring as the temps warm up and the road thaws.

Safe at home

I’ve met a few of the neighbors in the year and a half we’ve lived in this neighborhood, but not very many, really. I see them doing yard work in the summer, when I’m outside too. A good New Year’s resolution might be to meet a few more of them, to learn their stories.

But most of the time, we remain inside our well-insulated houses. It’s easy to not get involved.

Since no one trusts each other anymore, I wonder how successful efforts to talk with neighbors might even be.

I can’t forget a trip I took to Mexico City almost 30 years ago where I saw Third World poverty up close.  It wasn’t unusual to see three generations living in a one-room shack. In crowded Mexico City, neighbors lived very close to each other, with thin walls between them.

When one family had no food to eat, the neighbors shared what little they had, because the favor would get returned. Neighbors took care of each other, literally.

Those Mexicans were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Rich materially, poor in spirit

Americans, in contrast, are lonely. Depression, stress, suicide, overeating, bullying … so many of us hide our true selves. It’s easy behind the walls of our mansions. All of us – and I mean all of us – live in mansions compared with most people in the world.

We don’t know how rich we are. And how poor in spirit.

The Christmas season emphasizes both extremes. We spend money we think we have on relatives who don’t need what we’re buying for them, while we miss the whole point of the holiday: Christ’s birth as a baby. God’s gift to us was a child who, when He grew up, showed us how to live in harmony with God and with each other.

Getting personal

Jesus didn’t give material possessions.

He and his father were carpenters. They could have built something tangible and offered that as a gift to their close relatives. Perhaps they did that.

But that’s not Jesus’ legacy. His gift to us? Himself.

A human’s heartbeat doesn’t wrap well under the tree. But I have nothing better to offer you than … me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with Christmas every year. I’m horrible at figuring out what material gifts are meaningful to those closest to me. (I don’t buy much for myself either. I suppose I should buy new sneakers one of these days, since my everyday shoes have holes in them.)

I’m also not good at giving myself as a gift. It’s easy to stay inside my warm, comfortable house, like everyone else around here does.

When we moved into the neighborhood last year, my wife baked some cookies and took a tray to several of our immediate neighbors. We rang their doorbells and introduced ourselves. The neighbors all said thanks and chatted with us for a few minutes, but nothing has developed since with any of them.

We stay in our own shells, in our comfort zones.

We live in our own worlds, and don’t connect with others who may think differently than we do.

Where’s the common ground? What connects us?

If we don’t share our lives with others, we’ll never find that common ground.

As an introvert, I use that as an excuse to keep to myself. I wonder if many extroverts are hiding insecurities, so that’s their reason not to take the next step. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

Perhaps we need each other anyway.

There’s a Christmas gift worth sharing.