I really do love this time of year. Being with family, relaxing with no school work, catching up with friends in Colorado, and turning our focus back on Jesus Christ collectively make this season great. In my human frailty I am prone to point my attention on other things besides Christ throughout my daily life. And when it comes to Christmas time, there is a thick tension between my two trains of thought, one focused on the worldly view of this holiday, and one focused on the true origin and meaning of this holiday.
I've been thinking a lot in the past several months about what it means to have God's heart in respect to the world. How much more important is this during the Christmas season! What does it mean to have God's heart during a season dedicated to the birth and gift of His Son?
Before we look into one of the answers to that question, let's backtrack a little. A little over 6 months ago I started praying that God would break my heart for what breaks His heart. Some of you may have heard the line in the song Hosanna asking just that. I had a difficult time singing that line while not really wanting God to do that. It is a dangerous prayer because it opens up your eyes to the unjust things of this world and starts to tug at your heart and compassion more than you've ever felt before. Despite my fears and reservations I decided that I wanted to have God's heart in respect to the world because part of discipleship is learning to deny myself and take up my cross (Luke 9:23). I want to be focused on righting the wrongs that we have brought upon the world because of the Fall and our sin.
Well, God heard my prayer, and He has done just what I asked for. I never would have thought I'd come to the mindset I'm now in, and it's both difficult and exciting at the same time. Slowly but surely my heart has been breaking for different issues around the world that just aren't how God intended. Probably the biggest issue on my heart is poverty.
Poverty. So many thoughts and emotions come up when I hear that word. Thoughts of hopelessness, burdens, darkness, and sorrow. Questions of "Why?" flood my thinking. Why are some people poor? Why are some people rich? Why are there people who barely have enough to eat while others have fridges and cabinets stocked with enough food to last them several months? Why are there people sleeping on the streets while others have extra rooms in their houses? Why are there people in the world who have no shoes when America (by itself) buys enough pairs of shoes in 1 year to "shoe" almost half of the world's population? Why are there children around the world dying from curable-common-sicknesses like the cold while others at a distance can buy the medicines for these sicknesses for almost nothing? Why, why, why??
The truth is, I can't really give a good answer for these questions. It's easy to justify our actions out of guilt or conviction, but that just won't suffice. Some hold to the answer that people are poor because of their own bad decisions, and they have brought poverty on themselves. In some cases, this is true. There are several verses in Proverbs that support this notion, such as Proverbs 12:27: "The lazy do not roast any game, but the diligent feed on the riches of the hunt." Laziness can lead someone into poverty. That is a given. However, that is not always the case. Oppression can also lead someone into poverty. In fact, oppression of the poor is one of the main reasons God led Israel into exile. The prophets Amos and Jeremiah warned the people of this injustice, but they did not listen. Jeremiah 7:5-7 states: "If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow... then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever." But Jeremiah 34:8-17 says that the Israelites went back on their word and continued to oppress the poor (their slaves). God yearned for freedom for the poor amongst His people, but the Israelites refused to listen to God. They were more concerned for their wealth and affluence than for the poor (who, ironically, were their own race and blood).
Does that sound just to you?
It is the responsibility and privilege of those who profess faith in Christ to care for the poor and the oppressed! In joyful obedience we should desire to bless those with a lack of resources (financial, yes, but also emotional, physical, spiritual, etc.). Isaiah 58:6-10 says,
(**If you read nothing else in this blog, read these verses. These verses have transformed my thinking and I have not been able to forget them since the day I read them**)
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter - when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday."
That is powerful stuff! "Then your light will break forth like the dawn..." In other words, as a result of our care for the oppressed, the poor, and the hungry, our Christian witness and the glory of God will burst upon the landscape of our lives as never before. The whole passage speaks of an irrepressible light that will overwhelm our lives when we spend ourselves in behalf of the poor. There is such hope! As desperate as the situation may seem, all God wants is our faithfulness. Notice that there is no legalistic mention of "success" in the passage. God does not say our light will shine only if we solve the world of all poverty. He says that our light will shine when we simply respond to His call to care for the poor. Sometimes I think we can get overwhelmed with thoughts of hopelessness when thinking about this issue. But the important thing, as always, is that God calls us to be faithful, not necessarily successful. How are we being faithful right now to this calling?
This was obviously not just an Old Testament word for God's people. James 2:14-17 says this: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." This is one of the most practical exhortations we can read in the New Testament. Additionally, 1 John 3:17-18 says, "If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."
Last week at the Mill, the college ministry here in Colorado Springs that I attend while I'm home, the people really accepted this call. Aaron Stern, the Mill pastor, spoke about giving sacrificially, not out of obligation but out of love and joy. Aaron had asked us the week before to bring pairs of shoes to this week's service. At the end of his sermon, he told us about a ministry called Soles for Souls, which provides shoes for those in poverty around the world who cannot afford even one pair. The Mill is partnering with Soles for Souls, and Aaron asked us to bring our shoes to the front. Aaron did say, however, that many of us probably forgot or didn't know that the Mill was collecting shoes for this ministry. He then reached down, took off his own shoes, and threw them in the pile, asking, "What about the ones you are wearing?" He challenged us to give up the shoes we were wearing, again not out of obligation but out of love and joy. I watched in amazement as at least half of the 1,200 college students there gave up their own shoes in order to bless someone who didn't have any. Now that is love in action and in truth and not just in word or tongue. (I think there were between 800-900 pairs of shoes collected that night.)
Christmas is the season for giving, right? Let's look outside of ourselves and the materialism that easily comes with this holiday and start blessing those in poverty both around the world and right in our backyard. Take intentional steps to give to the poor and oppressed. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, check out Compassion International and their work with children in poverty around the world. You can sponsor a child monthly and build a relationship with them through letters, pictures, and other things. It's a great ministry that I highly recommend.
For some great reading on this topic, I also highly recommend Ronald Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Another great book that will challenge your thinking is Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution. Happy birthday, Jesus!