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He who is Kind to the Poor Lends to the Lord
All the passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Making Life Work” published in 1998 by Inter-Varsity Press.
Every neighbourhood has one. It is someone’s worst nightmare to be one. I am referring to the unfortunate child who has been selected by unofficial vote to be the butt of jokes, the object of ridicule and the victim of bullies. It is the little boy in the grey house on the corner who is smaller than all the other boys. It is the little girl in the blue house by the railway line who wears the hand- me-down clothes that never fit properly. It is the child whose ethnic background places him or her in the minority, the child who is bad at games or perhaps the child with a physical handicap. It is hard to believe how cruel children can be.
Anyway, there is always some child who pays a high price for being who he or she is. There is always someone who gets mercilessly picked on. . . unless there is an advocate nearby. In some neighbourhoods---not all, by any means, but in some---there is a big lad who decides, for reasons known only to him, to come alongside and protect the little child living out the daily nightmare.
At first no one believes the protector will defend the outcast, but then one day some bullies go too far in making trouble for the little boy who lives in the grey house. Like in a film the big lad, Jason, faces up to the bullies who are picking on his new friend. ‘Meddle with Jimmy’, he growls, ‘and you meddle with me.’ The former bullies back off and whisper, ‘Hang about.’ Slowly they turn their heads and look at each other. Then they look back at the self appointed protector---the really big self-appointed protector.
‘Personally’ says the bully ringleader, ‘I have always liked Jimmy. In fact, I was thinking of having lunch with Jimmy next week. And the blokes here, I think they were planning to join us. Weren’t you?’
As long as the advocate is in the vicinity, Jimmy’s troubles are over.
In this chapter we’re considering the plight of a group of people who, for a variety of reasons, often face the same plight that Jimmy faced. They get picked on. They are treated like outcasts. They feel helpless in the face of forces that, like bullies, assail them day after day. The book of Proverbs generally refers to them as ‘the poor’. Obviously that term describes those who struggle financially, socially and in their work, but it can also mean those who struggle mentally, physically, emotionally or spiritually.
The theme of this chapter is how we as Christ’s followers should respond to this broad category of people described as the poor. But before we look at that I think we need to remind ourselves that the poor have a powerful advocate in their neighbourhood, an awesome advocate who says, ‘If you meddle with the poor, you meddle with me.’ I am talking about God himself. Throughout the book of Proverbs, God reveals his special concern for the poor and makes it clear that he considers neglect or mistreatment of the needy as a personal affront.
‘He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,’ says Proverbs 14:31 (NIV), ‘but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.’ What does it mean to show contempt for God? It means that we are dishonouring and disgracing God or regarding him as worthless. Do you think God is going to take that lying down? God is not mocked. Those who mistreat the poor will have to reckon with Him.
God offers an equally strong promise to those who show mercy to the poor. Proverbs 19:17 says, ‘He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.’ The writer of this proverb uses the language of finance to reveal Cod’s attitude towards those who are kind to the poor. Whenever we offer to the poor our gifts of time, treasure or talent, it is as if we are making a loan to God, and God promises to pay back the loan with plenty of interests.
This theme is repeated throughout the book of Proverbs. ‘A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor’ (22:9). ‘He who despises his neighbour sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy’ (14:21). ‘He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses’ (28:27). A dozen similar passages make the same point: the God of the universe is so concerned about the plight of the poor that he promises his blessing to any of us who will respond to their needs and act on their behalf. Those of us who are indifferent or cold-hearted towards the poor can count on feeling the heavy hand of God’s wrath. ‘Meddle with the poor’, says God, ‘and you meddle with me. Bless the poor, and you will be blessed by me.’
The point is not to say, ‘Do you want to be deluged with good gifts from God? Then give to the poor.’ This is not about giving so we can get. This is not about discovering a lucky charm that will assure us health and wealth. This is about realizing how closely God identifies with the poor and how deeply he feels their pain. It is about realizing that if we truly want to follow God we need to care about what he cares about, let our hearts be broken by what breaks his heart and become advocates for what he advocates.
That brings us to the purpose of this chapter: to provide practical advice from the book of Proverbs about how to cultivate compassionate hearts. In other words, how can we learn to show mercy and grace to the poor? How can we break out of our selfishness or apathy? How can we expand our hearts so we are concerned about more than our own families and close friends? How can we embrace more than the little world that exists within the comfort and safety of our home? How can we develop a ministry, a career or a vocation that offers us a concrete means of serving the poor?
Opening our eyes
Part of the answer to how to cultivate a compassionate heart is hidden in the second half of Proverbs 28:2,7: ‘He who closes his eyes to them [the poor] receives curses.’ The hidden implication in those words is that the first step in opening our hearts to the poor is to open our eyes to them. We need to resist the temptation to look away. We need to choose to look into the faces of the suffering. We need to make ourselves see the everyday reality of those whose lives are badly broken.
Every person I know who has a heart of compassion can describe in graphic terms the specific time and place when his or her eyes were first opened to the needs of the poor. I remember when it happened to me. I was sixteen. My father, an eccentric Christian businessman, wanted to help me grow up. So he gave me a pile of airline tickets and sent me off alone on a two-month journey throughout Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
One of my first stops was Nairobi, Kenya. One of my first sights in Nairobi was of people dying in the streets. I can still see in my mind the bloated bellies, the rotting limbs and the fly-covered faces. I can still feel the churning in my stomach. I can still hear God’s voice saying, ‘This changes everything, doesn’t it? Because now you have seen it.’
Until that point in my life, I had seen little real need; even the poorest part of Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a far cry from the streets of Nairobi. Abject poverty and starvation were nothing more than abstract and distant concepts to me. But when my eyes were opened to the true condition of the poor, the abstract became real and tragic and haunting.
I had a decision to make. Would I keep my eyes open, or would I close them? Would I let what I had seen fill my vision, or would I quickly look away? Would I intentionally arrange my life in order to keep the needs of suffering people at the forefront of my mind? Or would I allow a self-centred agenda to push the poor to the back of my mind where they could no longer make me feel guilty or sad or responsible, where they could no longer ‘bother’ me?
Whether or not we keep our eyes open determines whether or not we will grow in compassion. Expanding our hearts always starts with what we choose to see.
I once had dinner with a well-known and successful singing group that frequently performs at large events. During dinner, members of the group, who are all followers of Christ, told me about their work with inner-city children in some of America’s largest and most dangerous cities. Using the money they earned through their music, they established youth clubs, teaching programmes, music and art festivals and Bible studies. In addition to financing these various projects, each member of the group works on the ground in one of their projects at least once a month.
When I finally had a chance to interrupt their enthusiastic descriptions of their various projects, I asked them why they took the time from their programme of performances to work on the ground. One member said, ‘We donated our money to start these projects because there was such tremendous need. The children we work with are at risk, they basically have no hope unless someone intervenes.’
Another group member added, ‘But the reason we go beyond financial involvement is because we need to see these children at first hand. We need to be reminded every month of what real life is like for a lot of real children. It is too easy for us to get caught up in our own lives and forget.’
A third member continued, ‘We don’t want to become like so many other music groups that drift into narcissistic oblivion because they care only about themselves and the size of their next gig. We want to care about other people and about real needs, but we won’t do it if we isolate ourselves in our own little world.’
What were they doing? They were intentionally arranging their schedules in such a way that they had to keep their eyes open to the plight of the poor. What was the result? Their hearts were growing bigger. They were cultivating compassion.
Have you opened your eyes to the world beyond your safe and comfortable existence? Is your heart growing because of what you are seeing? When you ask yourself honestly if you are more compassionate now than you were five years ago, what do you discover?
It is not difficult to open our eyes to the poor, the needy, the weak, the oppressed, the neglected. There are many ways to begin seeing. We can visit a local nursing home and sit in the dining room for half an hour; go to a local hospital and peer through the windows of the intensive-care baby unit at the sick babies wired up to machines; park our cars outside a Crisis at Christmas centre and watch the hungry people who pass through the doorway; walk with a friend through the streets of an inner-city area; visit a drug rehabilitation centre or a ward for AIDS patients. Even a more thoughtful reading of the newspaper can open our eyes to needs and concerns we typically ignore.
At Willow Creek we frequently take groups of fifty or sixty adults into Chicago for Vision Trips specifically designed to open the eyes of our suburban church members to the plight of the inner-city poor and our partners who directly serve them. On the bus ride into the city a leader from our Extension Ministries describes the various projects with which we are involved. Throughout the day, group members have the opportunity to visit a number of these projects. What happens to these people when they stand on the pavement in poor inner-city areas and open their eyes to the need? More often than not they hear the words I heard on a pavement in Nairobi: ‘This changes everything, doesn’t it? Because now you have seen it’ And they know that this is true.
Extending our hands
Opening our eyes inevitably makes our heart begin to swell with the seeds of compassion, but what cultivates that seed is to touch the poor personally through acts of practical service. Proverbs 31:20 describes a person of compassion as one who ‘opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy’.
One of the most famous men in the world has long been extending his hands in service to the poor. Ten years ago Paul Newman started a food company called ‘Newman’s Own’. Since then he has poured eighty million dollars of the profits into hundreds of charities.
I recently read an article about the camp Newman started for children diagnosed with cancer. Periodically he visits the camp and stations himself at a little lemonade stall and pours out lemonade for these desperately sick children. When asked by a journalist why he does that, he shrugged and said, ‘Well, I guess because I love doing it.’ It sounds to me like writing cheques for charities and pouring out lemonade has expanded his heart.
I read a similar article about a man from my own church who came up with a creative way of serving the poor. After volunteering for a week in the Dominican Republic, where he helped to build a house for a homeless family, he decided to begin importing the coffee beans that some of the peasants were growing behind their huts in a Spanish district. His little business is helping to provide these hardworking men and women with stable incomes so they can feed their families and it is helping to stimulate their local economy. What motivates him to pour his time and energy into this venture is the knowledge that every pound of coffee he imports and sells represents a potential blessing to a Dominican family.
There are Christian men and women with expertise in business, marketing, importing, nutrition, education, economics, banking, retailing and every other field. More often than not all that expertise is devoted solely to profit-making. What would happen if Christians around the world began to think creatively about how they could use their expertise, resources, opportunities, networks, products, influence and power to improve the lives of the poor? Think about you, your family or your company. What possibilities do you see?
There are so many options for serving. In the United States, many colleges have teaching programmes for inner-city children; others offer opportunities for work in the Third World during vacations. Most communities have canteens and shelters for the homeless that use volunteer staff. Habitat For Humanity uses skilled and unskilled volunteers to help build affordable housing for the deserving poor. Prison Fellowship uses volunteers to minister in prisons. Organizations such as Youth For Christ, Youth With a Mission, Young Life and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship offer opportunities to serve young people in need. Organizations for retired people often seek volunteers for a variety of projects, as do many denominations.
Many individual churches also have projects similar to those at Willow Creek, offering church members opportunities to serve the poor by helping to renovate blocks of flats, teach schoolchildren, care for the children of teenage mothers, stock the shelves of charity shops that provide low-cost goods for poor families or offer some other form of hands-on service as a wonderful means of expressing the compassion that is growing in their hearts.
Other people, like our coffee-bean importer, express compassion by signing up for weeklong projects in the Dominican Republic or at an orphanage in the Baja region of Mexico. Still others do so by helping out closer to home. Some at our church serve the families of children with special needs. Parents of these children can rarely attend church because they can never leave their children unattended, nor can they put them in an ordinary Sunday-school class. So a group of volunteers meets in a room at church and provides one-to-one care for these children while their parents attend the church service.
Undoubtedly there are similar opportunities to serve in your country and in your church---and they don’t have to fit within a structured project. What about the widows in your church? Or young families struggling with the continuing illness of a parent or a child? Or single mothers trying to hold down jobs and get transport and cook meals and read bedtime stories? All of these people, and so many others, could benefit tremendously from simple acts of compassion offered by people like you and me.
Recently one of my friends was buying groceries for her family. She was hurrying because she had guests coming for dinner, so she was frustrated when the discovered she had ended up in a slow-moving queue. She looked to the front of the queue and saw a woman rummaging through her purse; then the checkout lady shouted, ‘What do you mean, you don’t have any money?’ My friend’s first thought was, Why do I always pick the wrong queue? Doesn’t she care that I’m in a hurry? Everyone else in the queue behind her began complaining.
But then my friend felt God tugging at her heart suggesting that she pay the woman’s bill! ‘But, God,’ she said, ‘you know I hate giving up my money. And I don’t think my husband will understand. Besides that, I . . .’ Then she looked at the woman---at her worn-out look and her shabby clothes---and she imagined the children who might be waiting for the woman at home. Then she thought about all that God had done for her. Smiling, she leaned over to the checkout lady and quietly said, ‘Can you add my groceries to hers, and I’ll pay for it all.’
My friend said she felt like she was floating as she drove home. In an unplanned and unpretentious way, she had opened her eyes and extended her hand, and God had blessed her with joy. I can’t read that story without tears coming to my eyes. The opportunities are all around us and God’s Spirit is whispering, ‘Go for it. Do it. Offer compassion.’ All we have to do is respond.
. . . . . . .
What song, Frances?
The third way to cultivate a heart of compassion is to build loving relationships with the poor. Once we open our eyes and then extend our hands in service or giving, our hearts will start to enlarge. But nothing will nourish a compassionate heart better than establishing personal relationships with those in need.
My father spent nearly every Sunday afternoon for twenty-five years leading a little sing-song for a hundred forgotten, poor women with learning difficulties at the local hospital. It was something he felt called by God to do, and I am sure that if he were alive he would still be doing it. Recently I was reflecting on what sustained that consistent flow of compassion from a tough, high-powered, globetrotting businessman. What kept his heart soft through all those years?
I think a big part of it was that he had got to know those women personally. He wrote plenty of cheques to meet certain needs they had, and knowing that his money increased their wellbeing brought him a great joy. But what kept his heart continually expanding and what kept him seeking new ways to serve them was that to him those women had become individuals with personalities and life stories worth caring about and honouring.
Occasionally he would drag me to one of these services. I would listen while he asked if any of the women had a particular song she would like the group to sing. When any woman raised her hand, he would call her by name. ‘Frances, what song can we sing for you?’ Then again, ‘Joanne, which song would you like?’ Then, ‘Helen?’ And, Annie?’ I can still remember the names he called because I was so impressed that he knew them. At the end of every service he would stand at the back by the door and hug every one of those hundred women. Sometimes they would give him a soggy sweet or a little hand-scrawled note. At Christmas time, he bought small gifts for each of them. How could such personal involvement not nourish the compassion growing in his heart?
Recently I talked with a college student who works for an organization that initiates personal relationships between college students and persons with Down’s syndrome. The organization sets up the first meeting and then the college student takes over, inviting the individual with Down’s syndrome to join him or her to watch sporting events, attend social activities or participate in Bible studies. What had softened the heart of this college student and prompted him to be a spokesman for this organization was his own long-term friendship with a young man with Down’s syndrome. That relationship has so affected him that he wants other people to have the same kind of heart-expanding experience.
In a recent fax, a colleague in the Dominican Republic described a meeting she had had with a group of Dominican women who are trying to establish community banks that can enable them and their neighbours to invest in small businesses and thereby support their families. She hears the same stories over and over again from these women, stories of the pain and frustration of crashing into yet another wall of discrimination and injustice---the walls that so often surround the poor. On most days this staff member feels like she is fighting a losing battle in her attempts to be an advocate for women like these. But she perseveres. Why? Because she knows these women---she knows how hard they work and against what odds. Her compassion for them motivates her to keep going.
Catching the Spirit
The reason that establishing personal relationships with those in need so deeply transforms us is that doing so is a genuine ‘God Thing’. I call it that because that is what God did, through Christ, when he saw us living in spiritual poverty. Look at a Corinthians 8:9: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you, through his poverty might become rich’
What this means is that Christ was so moved by compassion that he left the spiritual wealth and splendour of heaven and lived for thirty-three years on this needy, suffering planet, so that spiritually impoverished people like us could be restored to God, have our spirits enriched and be guaranteed the gift of heaven for all eternity. But he did even more than this. In living and dying among us, he offered us not only our salvation but also the incomparable gift of his friendship. ‘I want to get to know you,’ he said through word and deed. ‘I want to extend my hand of fellowship to you. I want to walk beside you every day of your life.’
In an earlier chapter I mentioned that we tend to become like the people with whom we walk. If we walk with foolish people, we tend to become foolish. If we walk with wise people, we tend to become wise. And if we walk with compassionate people, we tend to become compassionate. The point is obvious. If we walk closely with the Lord, we will find his love beginning to take root and grow in our hearts. We will find ourselves wanting to follow his example. We will find ourselves wanting to open our eyes to the poor, extend our hands to the poor and build relationships with the poor.
And we will not be doing this out of a mere sense of humanitarian duty but because we have truly caught the Spirit of Christ, and that spirit of se1f-giving love will propel us into consistently compassionate action. (165-178)
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