After 30 years in homeless ministry, you'd think I would have it all figured out, that I could coast along to retirement. I'm chuckling at the thought. No doubt, I've learned a lot over the years, but one of the things I love about this job is that I'm still learning. Every single day.
Right now, I'm wrestling and praying over what appear to be two conflicting themes in Scripture: compassion and accountability. As you've most likely heard me say time and time again, God commands us to love the poor. Here at UGM, that is our clear purpose. But what does that purpose look like translated into everyday activities?
Certainly, it looks like providing meals, clothing, shelter and medical care. 1 John 3:17 says, "If anyone 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 that person?" No ambiguity there.
James says something similar: "Suppose a brother or a 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?"
Jesus himself is quoted in rescue missions throughout the country: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." He praises people for feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and visiting prisoners.
Everything seems pretty clear so far, right? But now consider these words from Paul: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat." In admonishing the thief, he says, "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing good with his own hands, that he may have something to share with the one in need."
In the feeding of the 5,000, we tend to focus on the miracle of turning five loaves and two fish into enough food for a massive crowd, but we mustn't forget that prior to feeding these people physically, Jesus had been feeding them spiritually. He had been teaching and telling stories for hours.
Scripture says to love the poor and give to them freely. It also says that work is good and the goal is to become a giver, not a taker only. It calls us to share the gospel along with the tomato soup and grilled cheese. And the message of repentance and change runs from Genesis to Revelation.
The book, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, has challenged me recently. Lupton says that much of charitable giving "is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help." He argues that repeated handouts to people capable of helping themselves creates dependency and diminishes dignity.
I hope you are beginning to see my heart and why we here at UGM are wrestling with these issues. I would encourage you to consider these questions along with me: What is "need"? What is enablement? What does it look like to believe in a person, to bring out his/her God-given talents and all that God created that person to be? When does helping actually hurt?
I end where I began. Without all the answers, but standing on a few fundamentals: UGM has always existed to meet both physical and spiritual needs. We unashamedly proclaim the gospel along with making beds and ladling soup. The end goal for us is to see a person return to society as a God-dependent, contributing member. Please pray for us as we seek to hold and balance these challenging truths.