“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” –Benjamin Franklin

Now before you prohibitionists get all up in arms, no, this post isn’t going to be about booze. This quote is one of old Benny’s that makes me chuckle, but today something about it made me pause. I was struck by the last statement, the idea that God wants us to be happy.

And I couldn’t help but think to myself, is that truly something God desires? My happiness?

And suddenly I felt very burdened by the notion of happiness and the way in which it has infiltrated our approach to our God and our walk of faith. To start, I do believe that God wants us to be healthy, balanced individuals able to love Himself and others to our fullest capacity. But I don’t believe those things are a pre-requisite to service.

What an American notion, at the heart of it all, to think that our happiness is God’s desire. American in that it’s our definition being described here, a happiness based on wealth, possessions, safety, and comfort. When using this general description, I tried to think of a time when these things were a top concern of Jesus’ for any of his disciples. When I picture those closest to Jesus, presumably the ones with whom he had the most intimate relationship while on earth, they were people most of us would refer to as “disadvantaged,” “vulnerable,” “underprivileged.” Poor, hungry, overworked, persecuted. How happy do you think Paul was while in jail? How safe were the disciples preaching under Caesar’s rule? How comfortable was Jesus himself, feeding thousands, walking through dirt and stones?

Over the summer it seemed like every day, or at every Bible study I was being confronted with Jesus’ demand for love and disinterest in comfort. Jesus’ lifestyle was one of homelessness, sacrifice, and immediacy. No! he says. There’s no time for you to bury your dead. Come, come, go. It is so hard to hear these words, words that say something as essential as home, as close as family, as comforting as possessions cannot stand in the way of you living a life of radical love. The message of Jesus’ word is harsh and painfully clear.

And yet who was more joyful than Paul, singing in a cell? The disciples dwelling in the Love of Jesus Himself? I think to better understand what tiny bit we can of God’s purpose for mankind we should turn towards Eden. A place of peace. Community. Joy. Worship. Direct and utterly uninhibited access to God. I think that is the place where God’s people, beloved creations, can experience true joy. And I think journeying to that place, making that other world possible in our own world today is what demands such sacrifice.

I think what I’m getting at here is this: Does God want me to own a nice car? Does God want me to live in a safe neighborhood? Does God want me to have nice clothes, hot water, good food?

I don’t know, and I don’t think any of those things are the point.

God wants me to serve others.

God wants me to love him with my utmost.

God wants me to love my neighbor, no exceptions.

I think if more people focused on that rather than whether or not they are “happy,” we would be on our way to finding true joy and increasing its presence in our lives and in the lives of others.

Even further, I also think that focusing our own (often material) happiness does two very dangerous things:

1. It aids in taking the focus of discipleship off the teacher and puts it on the follower

2. It can create pre-requisites for commission. Remember that worship song? “If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.” There’s some wisdom to that. It’s bad enough when people can convince themselves that their material happiness is worth pursuing because that’s what God wants, but even worse when it continually encloses people in stagnant church without them ever acting out Agape as the living Church. This can happen when we wait for This That and the Other Thing to fall into place before we take the first step towards service. That is such a powerful tool to be used against the potential of a force of a love capable of changing the world.

To summarize I think that God loves us. I think that the lives he wants us to live are lives of love, worship, peace. I think that in this world today there are those who are unable to live that kind of life. And I think that as disciples we must be willing to set aside our own comforts until they are made available to our neighbors. To me, that is Agape. An unconditional love focused on others. I think we are all capable of it. I hope I can have the selflessness to exhibit it.

Old Guy lives next-door, behind a thick wooden door with chipping green paint, and a pair of thin curtains. I saw Old Guy for the first time ever sometime in mid-September. It might even have been October. For a long time we wondered if anyone lived in there at all. Sometimes when we were out talking with Theresa on her stoop (she lives next to him) I’d notice the windows would be slightly open, dingy curtains rustling in the summer breeze.

I was sitting on the ledge outside our door one day,  a book propped up on my knees, just reading in the sun. Unexpectedly the neighbor’s door creaked open and there he was, evidently very surprised to see me sitting on the stoop. ‘Oh! Hello,’ he said, and smiled. He walked down his steps and down the block, carrying a brown grocery bag on his hip.

I’d tell you what he looks like but I can barely remember, just that I think he was wearing a blue baseball cap, and had short grey hair. He’s probably about 70. He was pleasant and the only other encounter I’ve had with him was several weeks later, when I was sweeping our stoop/sidewalk. It had been a frustrating day and it was such a release to sweep. I couldn’t stop and noticed he had a pile of wayward litter wedged at the bottom of his stoop, and attacked it with aplomb. This time I was the surprised one as I heard someone behind me say ‘Well that was very nice of you,’ and there he was, blue capped, brown bagged. The bag was full of groceries. Of course I said he was welcome and almost heard myself blurting ‘You know sometimes when you just get so mad and you just have to clean something??’ but the words didn’t come and I watched as he disappeared behind his green paint-chipped door.

Old Guy loves television or at least avoids the silence of an empty house. The TV is almost constantly on. I don’t know what programs he watches but I feel like he has a TV from the 1940s that can only play 1940s shows. Always there is the sound of big band music, trains, WWII fighter planes, smooth talkers in suits, women in high heels and pearls. That’s what I picture anyway. It seems like he is weaving around himself his own world, a sort of nest made of twigs from his past. From afternoon to late at night it’s Fred & Ginger, wild Westerns, Casablanca.

Then again, sometimes it is the news.

On Tuesdays Old Guy puts out his modest contribution to the neighborhood trash. Two plastic grocery bags neatly tied stand along the front of his house, proud to have made it outside but still not venturing to the sidewalk’s edge. Tonight Old Guy has put out the most trash I have ever seen him do, which is seven plastic bags filled with newspapers stacked squarely on top of each other.

Since I’ve seen him I’ve wanted to talk to him, learn his name. Then again, part of me doesn’t want to disrupt his quietly veiled world behind thin curtains, beyond the paint-chipped door.

Tonight I’m remembering a conversation I had with our neighbor, Theresa, sometime in September. There had been a bit of a cold spell that week, and by cold spell I mean about 40 degrees at night. I was outside for one reason or another and caught sight of her. 

“Hey! I haven’t seen you in awhile. You been working a lot?”

“Yeah. I just go in after work now. Plus, it’s getting cold. Nobody really sees each other in the wintertime.”

I remember laughing at the time. It was hard to picture the block’s stoops being quiet, and vacant.  

Well my friends, you can attribute most of my own silence on this blog to the silence of my neighbors. Theresa was not kidding! It’s a hibernation of sorts. I walked to the corner store this evening and it was almost comforting to walk down a quiet block, strands of yellow light peeking around doors and windows, thinking about my neighbors sitting inside, keeping warm. At the same time the block feels so different. I listen for the comforting sounds of Val hanging out of her 2nd story window, shouting greetings to her friends in the morning. I know Dave is alive because I can hear his blues guitar everyday. And of course on Tuesday mornings I am reassured by the crooked rows of contained refuse along the sidewalk on Trash Day.

It’s a little hard though, being separated from our neighbors by this invisible force, this glass wall of habit; the shield of a season. When you live somewhere intentionally, and that intention is deeply rooted in the formation of relationships, it feels like losing purpose. But far be it from me to prevent opportunities from arising. We will just have to look a little harder for a chance to share some love, and wait patiently for those happy accidents that come when we least expect it.

It’s been a rainy day, quickly going from drizzle to downpour. After running some errands this morning, James & I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on bills, housework, etc. Around dinner time, James stepped out to snag the soggy newspaper from our stoop. Val was out on hers, shouted over to see how we’re doin’. James said good, did some grocery shopping today. Val responds, Oh! Is she gonna cook?!

Val is always asking me if I’m gonna cook. Of course she always catches me on the weekends, when we usually have leftovers, or succumb to the siren song of our local cheesesteak place (hey, we’re human). She got tired of yelling from across the street to James, anyway, so she came on over. She wandered around inside asking me what’s for dinner, I told her ice cream. She started laughing. So I asked her what she made for dinner. “Chinese!” she said enthusastically. She said it’s because her granddaughter was over and wore her out. (This is the HUGE grandbaby mentioned earlier by the way, grandbaby-zilla). She’s learning how to walk and all the neighbors tease her saying now she can finally get some exercise and lose some weight. It’s pretty hilarious. Val brought her by the other day, and there was ‘zilla, hanging on to grandma with one hand, the rest of her body dangling. She stared up at me wide-eyed, never blinking, a thousand neon barrettes dotting her hair. Her expression was somewhere between desperation and determination, and I thought how strange this must look to a passerby. Some white girl standing on her stoop, looking down on a black, neon-barretted monster baby’s half-hearted attempts to walk. It felt special, it feels neat to be a part of grandbaby’s growing up. (No, she still doesn’t have a name. All the neighbors call her Little Mama).

Anyway after chatting for awhile Val asked if we were doin’ ok (again). She’s even more attentive now that there is a huge for-sale sign on our stoop (more on that later… maybe). She opened the front door and there in front of us was a roaring deluge, rain slamming down sideways. “Shoot!” she said (or something like it). We offered her the umbrella but she refused. “It won’t hurt me! Man!” she said. “I ain’t never visting y’all again!!” And off she ran into the dark.

It’s trash night, so everyone packs up their unwanted things in opaque black bags, hauls them to the curb. 

I love watching the stray cats on trash night. I love the way they sit softly at the base of a tall trash can, their tails swishing against the sidewalk, their heads arched back, staring at the top. I love how suddenly, with a tense and release of their bodies, they are on top of the trash can, picking through it for crumbs & bones.

Such a smorgasbord for the little kitties.

James and I were talking about the harshness of our neighbor’s remarks in regards to Joe’s eating disorder. Dave made some inappropriate jokes, things along the lines of “You gotta be dumb to be that skinny, eat something, then throw it back up!” The ladies kept saying he’s not really sick, he just has bulimia! After learning more about Joe as we have hung out with him, I’m starting to think that there is some cause for their criticism. Joe is very, very dependent. He has good parents, and the basic means to care for himself but prefers to seek the help of others. This may be laziness but I think in part it can be attributed to his mental condition; he seems to me to have convinced himself that he CAN’T help himself. He has very low self-esteem and few opportunities to gain even the smallest achievement. What the kid needs is some serious empowerment.

Anyway; I think the world my neighbors grew up in required that every individual work hard to better their situation, that they rely heavily on themselves as people were risky to trust. I think working hard and personal responsibility were such core elements to survival that when they see someone like Joe who has the means to help himself, but refuses, that behavior is totally unacceptable. If they had done that, they would have gotten nowhere.

One more thing. There’s no way to say this without it sounding horrible and circa the 1600s, but I do think that also contributing to their lack of sympathy is a basic lack of education about mental diseases. Even people who are educated about the seriousness of these conditions sometimes struggle with seeing them as equally debilitating as a physical condition. I really think that in their range of education it’s hard for them to understand the severity and fatality of eating disorders, especially when the disorder makes someone physically reject a vital necessity like food.

 

Just wanted to briefly discuss the neighbors’ standpoint a little bit further so you didn’t think they were totally off the wall. They are actually great caretakers who take pains to watch over us & our home and always make sure we’re doin’ ok. We love them and wouldn’t want to give them a bad rep!

Joe lied to us. He straight up lied! He has never had a kidney transplant.

He tells James this as they sit in our living room, and when I overhear the admission my heart stopped. I couldn’t believe it. Immediately my mind was flooded with thoughts of self-censure; how could we have given him groceries so freely? How could I have written a glowing blog entry about the joy of helping Joe? I felt, in a word, idiotic. I felt the little basis of trust we had started to build this relationship on slowly dissolve.

After he left I was awash in emotions of shame, and guilt; embarrassment and offense. As a person I was so insulted that he deceived me, and under that deceit enjoyed the fruits of our generosity. I think it hurt even more because we had so desperately desired & needed to reach out to someone in our neighborhood, and the first person we got wasn’t even legit.

But what made me the most offended was that he felt that he needed to lie in order to get my help. We approached him with a spirit of trust, we approached him as a fellow human being (although, as you know, I had my judgements). Why could he not give us the same respect?

The answer was illuminated a bit by our other neighbors, who informally caught James & I in a little “intervention” session out on the stoop. We had had Joe over for dinner. When he was on the stoop I could hear Val screaming and hollering at him. “How can you take their food! You oughta go back home, you ain’t got NO business over there!” etc. were her general admonishments. I was horrified and quickly pulled him inside.

He left for the night, with a backpack we had filled with some food for him, so he could smuggle it home without notice of the neighbors. While James walked with him down to his house, I sat with Dave and Val and Theresa on their stoop.

“Listen,” Val said. “We ain’t tryin’ to tell you what to do. You can do whatever you want. We just want you to know you can’t trust him. He started just this year goin’ ‘round to everyone’s house, askin’ for food, or money, or this or that. So we gave him some, but he is sneaky. He will get you in his little trap. He got me, ‘n’ he got Theresa too, so I ain’t help him no more. And you just ought to know, so he can’t be takin’ advantage of you. ‘Cause we know y’all are just nice.”

They all chimed in with their own opinions, how he’s not really sick, and he has plenty of food in the house, how he just likes to see how much he can get from other people. I tried asking them what bad thing happened to them as a result of helping him out, but they never gave me an answer. I was the boldest I have been with the neighbors so far in any context as I stated I appreciated them looking out for us, and we’ll be careful, but so far it’s not hurting us any to help the guy out.

To be honest I was chilled by some of the things they said. Things that acknowledged his severe weight problem but dismissed it as no excuse for being a leech to the neighbors. Things that suggested other health problems he has, but stated they weren’t “real” diseases (these included some mental issues including being bi-polar). Their complete lack of compassion haunted me for the rest of the week. How could they know he needed help, but send him away from their doors?

In the light of this news of his lying, however, I was stuck between two extremes. Perhaps our free giving wasn’t really helping the root of the problem, but I knew the total rejection of Joe wasn’t really the right response, either.

Throughout the week or so of this deliberation, this questioning of how to help someone, I had some interesting thoughts of our Standards  & Requirements for those we will help (or not). Here’s what I found to be the biggest qualifying factor for whether I or anyone else will offer help:

We will help people on the condition that we will not be taken advantage of. This danger lurks in the form of hobos who lie about situations/veteran status, drug addicts who want money for the “subway,” and starving neighbors who lie about a medical procedure. If our personal sense of honor is at risk due to the dishonesty of the needy, then help is not offered. When this thought came to my mind I was shocked and humbled by my own natural emotion. Will I really not welcome neighbors into my home, because they might map it out and rob me later? Will I truly not feed Joe because he lied to me about the cause of his emaciation?

And I think this idea, that we will help someone only at no risk to ourselves, points straight to the things we value. I mean, what does this mindset say about the value of personal property, of personal pride, of another human life? Will I shut out those around me to protect my Wii? Watch Joe starve to protect my honor? I believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect, to be dealt with honestly, but I refuse to offer that same respect to others only conditionally.

It all came down to this simple question: Do I want to be someone who revokes a spirit of generosity at the slightest risk of personal loss?

No. No, I really don’t. That vulnerability is exactly the same that enabled Jesus to heal the sick, eat with the sinners, and guide the misguided, with no exceptions. That’s the new covenant! Love is complete vulnerability, selflessness, and Love is for all people, period. Yes, we have messed up relationships but shutting down or fighting back after the slightest offense is no way of healing them.

 *      *      *

Joe lied to us. He never had a kidney transplant. The truth was much worse. He has an eating disorder. He lied to us, but that didn’t change the need. It did however change the way we should address it, in our capacity and role in a network of support Joe thankfully has (to include medical professionals and a therapist).

James & I are working on developing a more strategic method of helping Joe, in light of his confession as to the true root of his weight problem (which was confirmed to be his true ailment by the neighbors, making their claims that he was “not really sick” more hurtful)*. We still must help him, and we are continually trying to show him that we do not require anything of him in exchange for our help. We are trying to show him that love has no need for lies or excuses. Because it’s unconditional. And it’s what we must do.

*The standpoint of our neighbors will be discussed in a future post. They are not heartless beasts but simply influenced by their own upbringing and environment; just like you & me!

Please discuss or comment on this and any of the Culture of Charity mini-essays. We value your ideas and opinions as we sift through a neighborhood of need and try to reconcile it with the commands of Jesus. What do you think? 

[Who will we help, and why? How much is too much to give? Can someone ever deserve charity? These are a few questions that will be explored in the Culture of Charity posts. Today’s topic is the effect President Obama’s various bailout plans have shaped the culture of charity.]

When I’m not out saving the world, romping around a Swiss mountain range with my personal herd of golden retriever puppies, or teaching unicorns how to read after school, I work for a local non-profit housing counseling agency. The organization was started with a main goal of increasing and sustaining homeownership, with a focus on first-time homebuyers. This is accomplished through education via group classes, credit counseling, budget counseling, etc. However, in the last 2 years or so, much of the organization’s focus and energy has been put towards loss mitigation- sustaining homeownership by staving off foreclosure. I started as a volunteer knowing NOTHING about the housing industry (including the definition of “mortgage”…yikes) and today manage the list of about 180 clients we serve every week. In the past year, the organization has gone from getting 1 new loss mitigation client every other day to getting 2 new clients every day. That’s a lot, my friends.

What I found most rewarding about my job (which involves communicating with both the lenders & clients, trying to modify their loans and/or work out repayment plans to cure the delinquency) was the sense that I was helping people. Many of the people were victims of unforseen, undeserved circumstances, for instance a death or illness in the family. The gratefulness they expressed during the weekly phone calls was enough to propel me through endless hours listening to mind-numbing holding music. Of course, there was a not-so-grateful client here and there, but crazy freak-outs were rare.

Crazy freak-outs today? Not so rare. It seems as though the thousands of delinquent mortgagors have found a certain strength in numbers. There’s not so much “Thank you!” as there is “Why is this taking so long??” Also with the increase in number of clients has been an increase of the number of clients in these sad financial situations for not-so unforseen, uncontrollable circumstances. I believe that though there are many factors that are contributing to this changing mindset (panic in response to a weak economy, spread of foreclosure myths, etc.) I feel that the federal bailout programs have had a great deal to do with it all.

I’m in no way qualified or prepared to discuss the political/financial merit of the various bailout programs, and do not desire to do so. This is just a personal experience with the psychological effects. I think that when the government acknowledged that the economy was a mess, that there was a shared blame for the cause, and stepped in to financially bolster the victims, something clicked inside people’s heads. And what clicked was this little thought: “I deserve this.”

This summer I noticed the changed atmosphere almost instantly. Our services weren’t sought, they were downright demanded. Clients began looking upon the policies and procedures of both our organization and their lenders as arbitrary, and became upset when the process was slowed down, not realizing that the complications were a direct result of their non-compliance. As a charity worker, this made my job really, really hard. I struggled to compassionately serve ornery, ungrateful clients. I guess I took some of it a little personally. I thought to myself, why should I help them? Their sense of entitlement is offensive, they show no appreciation for the work we do, and they are the ones who got themselves into the situation in the first place! There were days when one of us in the office would burst out “YOU signed the title that said you will pay no matter what! Not ME!!”

I became conflicted. What used to be the joy of my job was now the bane of my existence. I still wanted to help people, but they were being so hard to help! Could I really deny them services on the basis of them being ungrateful? Can anyone really ever deserve charity? I found it ironic that I was so frustrated with them feeling like charity was something they deserved, while expecting them to meet some vague qualifications before I would help them. Kind of futile, right? And I think the situation I found myself in and the questions I was asking were really telling of the way we as givers determine who we will help, and why.

So as not to leave you thinking I hate my job and everyone I work for, I’ll catch you up on the last few months. After deciding that my job was to help people, no matter what, that’s what I worked on doing to the best of my ability. I started listening for the cues from my clients that told me what they really needed. They’re often desperate, stressed people who wait for months and months for any communication at all from the lenders. OK, so I make sure to call them every week, even if I don’t have much of an update for them. Just to say hello, we are helping, you are not alone. We didn’t forget you. The difference has been…amazing. My weekly voicemails/calls from clients has nearly halved. I am getting more appreciative gushing, even when my update is “Uh..there’s not really much of an update.” So perhaps there’s a lesson in there somewhere too. No one can deserve charity, or even love, although people can be more or less prone to receive either. And yet our shared humanity obligates us to love each other. And that includes cranky delinquent mortgagors.

Hey all,

Just wanted to quickly note that NO I am not currently letting this blog die in a wordless vacuum like I did with the last 2, it has just been a very, very Weird Week. Between working my at-home job, driving to Allentown (1.5 hrs) for teacher training, driving to Moorestown for teacher observations (30 mins), having friends over, and navigating a dubious maze of diplomacy efforts with various neighbors, I have had much to write about and no idea where to start. It’s kind of like, if we were characters on the Sims, instead of a green diamond above our heads indicating our mood, we would have a giant question mark, and maybe our heads would be cocked a little to the side like a puppy. Yeah. It’s been kinda like that.

Anyway, I plan on sorting that out shortly, so kindly stay tuned for a couple of riveting posts. I’m hoping for some real firey commentroversy on these ones people, so get those heated opinions & vague scholarly references ready!

All right folks, time for a little fun.

One of the most interesting/entertaining things about living here has been the reactions people have to us, well, living here. This pertains mainly to delivery persons of various assortment. Most recently: last night we had some friends over and ordered pizza.  James was greeted at the door with some excitedly garbled exultations from the Asian delivery man. “OH! You are white! You don’t look like people on this block!” Um, yeah. Thanks for the heads up.

🙂

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