Back to the Beginning

As I think about this Poverty 101 Blog it can sometimes be difficult to know what to talk about.  The reality is that there are so many things to choose from that it can be overwhelming.  Kind of like that kid who walks into a playroom that is wall to wall to ceiling full of toys.  They often just sit there looking at it all without really making a decision about which toy to play with.  It has been a little bit like that for me trying to decide what we should cover in this.

So, this morning I have decided to go back to the beginning.  And where do we begin?  Well, as those who call Jesus “Lord” and strive to follow God’s Word, that must be the place to start, with God’s Revelation through the Scriptures.

One of the passages that first led me to begin thinking about our call to serve the poor comes from Paul in Ephesians.  I remember reading it during my quiet time one morning in Seminary.  In Chapter 4, verse 28 while telling the Church in Ephesus what the Christian life is supposed to look like, Paul says, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with those in need.”

I remember thinking to myself that there were a lot of other ways that Paul could have finished that sentence.  Based on my understanding as a young man I would have said something like, “so that people will ask about the change in your life and you can share the gospel with them.”  Or, “so that people will know that God is at work in you and the Holy Spirit can use that to draw people to God.”

But Paul doesn’t do that.  And we might think that Paul misses an opportunity there to share the Gospel.  But he doesn’t.

Our call to spread the Good News is wrapped up in that call from Paul.  If we are going to attempt to evangelize the lost and not do anything about caring for the needy among us then we are just pretending.  When we care for the “least of these” the Gospel is lived out and the Kingdom of God is advanced.

Upward Stability

A number of year ago I was teaching a Poverty 101 session and we were having a little Q & A at the end when I was asked what should have been a simple question. The woman wanted to know what our goal was in working with our neighbors, specifically what we were trying to help them accomplish economically. The first thought that came to my mind was to talk about upward mobility. But as the words were about to come out of my mouth they just didn’t sound right.

So I thought for a second and said that we were really after upward stability. And that is the idea that your life is more stable today than it was a couple of years ago. And that your life is on a trajectory that it will be more stable a couple of years from now than it is today.

And this idea is about understanding that economic class is really about how stable your life is. When my life is stable and all of my daily needs are met without too much effort, I can think about the future.

But if I live in a constant state of chaos and I spend my life wondering daily how are we going to get enough food today, or how are we going to pay the bills, or get to work then I have little margin to think about the future.

If we can come alongside our families and empower them to provide a more stable environment for their children then those children can begin to look toward their futures with hope. And this is the primary differentiator between children who grow up middle class and those who grow up in poverty, whether they are future-oriented or present-oriented.

And the key to helping present-oriented kids become future-oriented kids is Upward Stability.

Poverty is Complex

In my last post I mentioned that there were two things I want everyone to remember from Poverty 101. The first is that “It’s all about relationships.” The second is that “Poverty is Complex.”

Everyone who has lived in poverty, everyone who studies poverty, everyone who works with those in poverty understands that poverty is about a lot more than money and that there are no simple definitions. And my experience is that attempting to describe it is a little like a blind man trying to describe an elephant from the experience of touching the side of the animal. There will be so much that we miss in our description and in our understanding.

No matter what your source of news, it is likely that you will someday hear a pundit, regardless of their political persuasion, talking about poverty. And they will likely say something like this, “Poverty is caused by…” And they will complete that sentence by articulating only one cause. I always tell people that if they ever hear that, they can stop listening to everything that person has to say, because that “expert” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And a fully fleshed out understanding of the issue of poverty is so important. Because as the authors of When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out, our definition of poverty will determine how we attempt to address it. Or as they put it, the “Diagnosis Shapes the Prescription.”

If we are going to make of difference in the lives of those living in the cycle of generational poverty we have to humbly approach the subject. We have to study, we have to read, we have to dig deep. We have to seek God’s wisdom. And we have to listen to the voices of the poor, because it is from those children of the King that we will learn the most.