Thursday, March 17, 2011

Poor and Needy

But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay. (Psalm 40.17)


City life constantly exposes one to extremes. Walt and I are blessed to live in a fairly upscale neighborhood on the Chicago lakefront. Yet one block from us stands the largest of many transient hotels in our vicinity that, together, house hundreds of people impoverished by mental illness, substance abuse, and other tragedies. They too are members of our community. We meet on the street, recognize each other by sight, and some of us even know one another by name. Take Dee-Dee, for instance, a short, sturdy woman who’s no doubt much younger than she looks. When not in the throes of a schizophrenic episode requiring hospitalization, she holds court, seated cross-legged in front of a small grocery wedged between a theater and Starbuck’s. When she spies me walking her way Dee-Dee calls, “You got my five, Tim?” If I’ve got five dollars in cash, it’s hers, no questions asked. If it’s less, she asks by how much and says, “Catch me later.” I can be gone for hours. But the moment I round the corner, Dee-Dee reminds me of my outstanding balance—to the penny. “I keep you honest,” she’ll say, occasionally adding something like, “A lot of people don’t like to be honest. But I see ‘em.”

In ways she might not understand, Dee-Dee does help with my honesty, though not as something to feel proud or comfortable about. Her face and words always come before me when I think how the first disciples instantly, almost impulsively, walk away from their families, homes, and jobs at Jesus’s call. There are no lengthy negotiations. Jesus doesn’t outline His plan or indicate what it will require of them. He doesn’t offer them anything remotely comparable to incentives that would get our immediate attention—no fame, fortune, or insider perks we’d expect as members of a rising celebrity’s entourage. In Matthew 4’s account of Peter and Andrew’s calling, for instance, Jesus spots them fishing. “Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people” is all He says, whereupon we read, “At once they left their nets and followed him.” (v20) The three of them walk farther down the shoreline, where James and John and their father are mending their nets. Without recording the exchange, Matthew writes, “Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” (v22)

Nets and Networks

These men aren’t rich by any measure. They’re rough-hewn, working-class, self-sufficient types whose incomes rise and fall on the weather’s kindness and lake’s generosity. That encourages us to imagine it’s easy for them to drop everything and follow Jesus—particularly when we compare them to the rich young man who reneges when he learns discipleship will cost all that he owns, or the eager candidate who doesn’t make the cut after he asks to say farewell to his family before joining Jesus. Yet even if our conclusions about the disciples are accurate and they haven’t much to lose, we still have no good answer for what they hope to gain. They’re savvy to the itinerant preacher gig; the country crawls with bands trailing behind self-proclaimed prophets, healers, and activists. Still, they forsake nets and networks—livelihoods and family and social circles—for street life. They volunteer to live like Dee-Dee, except what they sign up for makes matters ten times worse than hers. It ties them to a controversial Rabbi Who will alienate all but a few of the rich and powerful. They’ll not just be public nuisances; they’ll begin as pariahs and end as associates of a wanted Criminal.

Honestly? If Jesus came to my door and said, “Follow Me,” I can’t conceive abandoning everything I cherish—Walt, our home, family, friends (including you), church, and cats—our dreams—my work, computer, books, this blog, and the precious mementoes gathered through the years—for a life of poverty and need. And on the chance I did walk away with no more than the clothes on my back, how long would I last before I tiptoed back home, ready to face the fall-out for my impetuosity? I’d probably make it through the early phase, when excitement was at its peak. But honestly? Once the tide turned, I’m not sure I’d hang around. This troubles me. If you’ve thought about it, I’m sure it troubles you, too. Yet there’s a piece missing from the scenario—the most vital one, in fact. The call of Christ is like no other. It speaks to the depths of our beings and our inherent longing for God. When Jesus calls us to discipleship, what we hear resonates so powerfully our thoughts shift from what we stand to lose by accepting His invitation to what we’ll never find if we don’t.

Walking Away

Although Psalm 40 doesn’t meet the criteria of Messianic prophecy, in a sense it qualifies by voicing tensions endemic to Christian discipleship. Penned by David, the most famous, talented, and richest man of his time, it begins with a dismal picture of being bogged down. When the offer his soul aches for arrives and Gods lifts him from muck that paralyzes him, his life dramatically changes, for better and worse. He has a new song and revolutionary insights about God’s grace that cause all hell to break loose. Yet despite uncertainty and duress, David answers God’s call, letting all he possesses go, if need be. Unless one is alert to the poem’s discipleship dynamic, its final verse reads like a downer: “But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.” (v17) If we’re sensitive to what’s really going on, however, we sense triumph in David’s declaration.

David isn’t literally poor and needy. He’s Israel’s greatest king. Yet all he’s achieved and the wealth he’s amassed hinder him from securing his faith in his Creator. Without abdicating his throne or quitting his palace, David walks away from all it represents. Seeing himself unencumbered by status and riches enables him to embrace obedience and sacrifice that answer God’s call.

“Follow Me”—a call unlike any other that opens paths unlike any we’ll ever explore. Some respond like the fishermen. They drop their nets, sever all ties, and adopt monastic lives of poverty and isolation. But most of us respond like David. We shed pride, materialism, and false security that bog us down to follow Jesus freely. We walk away without leaving. Either way, what we stand to lose by answering Christ’s call is miniscule compared to what we’ll never find if we don’t.

We see ourselves as poor and needy to be free of anything that hinders us from following Christ.


Sherry said...

I have pondered this on many occasions. I always come up short I'm afraid. It is sad to realize that I don't have this strength to just follow as I should. Not even as I am, let alone in the face of the Messiah at my door.

Perhaps this is the penance we do, in realizing our inability and asking for help.

Thank you dear Tim for this.

genevieve said...

Committment goes beyond possessions and fame. It's being willing to stand up for something in the face of ridicule, scrutiny, and rejection. This is what Jesus did. Millions over the centuries have done so.

Material things are nice but they really aren't what life is all about. I'm happy for the little god provideds for me. Most of all I'm happy for eternal life. When I sit in an empty church or in nature, this hits home.

Tim said...

Sherry, I believe we all come up short in this area--even those we might suspect don't. We live in a world overrun with the cares of life. Much pruning is needed, so much that I think we don't know where to begin. And you're so right, in our repentance we need to ask God's help. Without it, we'll never be free!

Gen, I think you touch on something that I missed in the post: strength of character. Even in their weakest moments, the disciples were extraordinarily strong individuals. Perhaps that what Jesus saw in them from the first. That's what our prayer should be: Give me strength. And as that prayer becomes reality in our lives more of us will find you've discovered: Life.

Thank you both for your comments here. They bless my soul!

Blessings always,