Thursday, January 31, 2008

Looking Poverty in the Face

What happens when poverty has the face of a child?

It can mess you up.

But poverty is too big to have a face, isn't it? It’s an enormous, blurry, ugly reality … out there. Half the world’s six billion people live on less than $2 per day. Global poverty’s not a face, it’s a blur. We are left to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of it. What could we do anyway? The attempt to make a difference feels like we are emptying a pail of water in our hand. Anything caught is at best a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Something as big as global poverty can’t have a face of someone so small anyway, can it? Even if did, how would we recognize a face that doesn’t live in our neighborhood?

I met Marcello in rural central Ecuador the day before yesterday. I was there to see the work of Compassion International first hand. Marcello is a handsome, soft-spoken 12-year old boy. He lives with his four sisters and parents in a small two room, dirt-floor home. Most reading this blog may consider their humble home too rundown to use as an outdoor shed.

I was humbled by their hospitality and graciousness. Marcello’s mom and dad love their children and sacrifice daily for them. They are filled with hopes and dreams. In that way, they are not unlike any parents in our own neighborhoods.

They also love God and trust Him - for their very survival. Marcello and his family give a face to the oft preferred, easily ignored, vague blur of poverty. They give a godly face; faces you cannot ignore. When I look away from Marcello’s face, I look away from the face of God. Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40.

Jesus was talking about the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned. He was talking about the poor. Jesus didn’t say “whatever you did for all these brothers and sisters of mine.” He said “whatever you did for one.” Poverty is addressed one life at a time, one Marcello at a time, one face at a time.

Facing poverty is at the heart of God because it is facing people made in His image. Perhaps the greatest form of poverty is the convenient attempts to see it as an ambiguous distant blur rather than the reality of people loved by God. Half the world lives on two dollars a day, and half the world is under the age of 16. Can there be a more compelling call for those set apart to bear witness to what is at the heart of God? In an interview with Christianity Today, Bono said:

"A third of the Earth's population is incarcerated by poverty. It is, as they say, the drive of the Scriptures. Why isn't it the drive of the churches?"
All the resources necessary to stamp out the degrading affects of global poverty are available, should the hearts of Christians break for what breaks the heart of God. It is doable, one life at a time through communities of Jesus followers in partnership with ministries like Compassion International and World Vision.

How we treat the poor, Jesus said, is the same as how we treat Him. If you knew Jesus was poor, how would you respond? Really; what would you do? Even more, what did Jesus do in the face of our poverty? How far did He willingly go for you, me and our impoverished world? Marcello (and his sister in the photo above) give poverty a face. In their face we discover Jesus.

So, what happens when poverty has a face?

What do you think? Please click "Comments" 6 to leave yours.

Monday, January 21, 2008

What's Your Dream?

“I have a dream!” These words of MLK are known by people of all ages and used by those across all political persuasions. MLK has become a symbol and these four words the banner. They evoke emotion and imagination. Of all the millions of words he spoke before equal numbers of people, these four from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial remain synonymous with his identity. His influence continues, already making an adolescent appearance in the current presidential race.

Today businesses, schools, banks, post offices – and even churches take a rest to remember the man and his mark on our culture. He is more universally popular today in America than he was when he walked in Birmingham, or when he stood on the steps in Washington or when he died in Memphis. He had a dream – a prophetic dream. Unfortunately, the content of the rest of his speech and dream is less remembered than the inspiration that he had one.

King’s life and work are most often and rightly remembered as prophetic inspiration. I will never forget first visiting Ebenezer Baptist Church and the MLK National Museum and Memorial in Atlanta. The museum preserves much of the content of his life in the past while inviting conversation and imagination for the future. The site includes MLK’s elevated tomb in the middle of a reflection pool. I found it so profoundly moving that I brought the rest of my family to experience it during our summer vacation only a few months later.

With my profound admiration, there are details of his life and work I don’t completely agree with. He didn’t expect people to. How we remember King’s legacy would be more important to King than the fact that we do. An Associated Press article put it this way:

That does a disservice to both King and society, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. By freezing him at that point, by putting him on a pedestal of perfection that doesn't acknowledge his complex views, "it makes it impossible both for us to find to new leaders and for us to aspire to leadership," Harris-Lacewell said. … "If we forget that, then it seems like the only people we can get behind must be popular," Harris-Lacewell said. "Following King meant following the unpopular road, not the popular one."

In that way, King’s life followed Jesus’ example. Jesus’ life challenged the dominant power structures of His day. Jesus’ identification and advocacy for the marginalized were dangerous for the status quo. His Kingdom dream was revolutionary and unpopular. He was on the unpopular road to Calvary. Nobody wants to be on that road. Yet, it was the necessary and only road that led to the redemption of the world.

Jesus said:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? If any of you are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Mark 8:34-38

What are practical ways you and I can follow Jesus’ prophetic inspiration in our real world today? What is the most pressing “social” issue in America for you? (Before you read further, take a moment to cast your vote with one click using the poll at the top of the page).

The Barna Group released its most recent findings today on what Americans say are the current top social issues in the country. These are especially interesting in an election year. The top three might surprise you. Based on their polling research across the country:
Americans are troubled by a diverse palette of concerns. Three types of issues are of particular concern, perceived as "major" problems facing the country by three-quarters of the population. Those included poverty (78%), the personal debt of individual Americans (78%), and HIV/AIDS (76%). (You can find the rest of their detailed findings and where other issues ranked at:
What do you think these results say about us? What does Jesus’ Dream of the redemption of the world mean in practical terms for our daily life and society? What do those who follow Jesus need to recognize or do to make a real prophetic difference? What is your dream?

What do you think? Please click the comments 6 to leave yours.

Thursday, January 3, 2008



~ The thrill of flying down a mountain on skis with the sun and wind hitting your face.

~ Gorgeous vistas only possible at these elevations. (This photo was taken on a ski summit at a little over 13,000 feet overlooking the Loveland Pass in the Rocky Mountains).

~ Enjoying the day with my family on the slopes filled with new memories and comfort zones.

The list sounds a little like a MasterCard commercial that ends with the word ... Priceless. In some ways it was.

Yesterday we spent the day skiiing and snowboarding as a family in the Rocky Mountains. It was a rare opportunity and gift. My sons ventured onto snowboards for the first time and tore it up. My daughter was awesome on skis. It felt great for my wife and I to be back on the slopes together. It was a day of awe and worship.

The conversation in the car on the way home was animated and interesting. One of my kids said "What a great day! It pushed me beyond my comfort zones, which is good for me." Another said, "I realized that one of the secrets of skiing and snowboarding is confidence. When you hestitate you fall. You just have to relax and go for it." I loved where the conversation was going. I was thrilled for their new discoveries about skiing - and life.

Successful downhill skiing is counter-intuitive. For example, there is the importance of putting your weight on your downhill ski. Everything in a new skiier wants to keep the weight on the uphill ski. It sounds safer and less risky. It is also the sure fire way to go nowhere, or more often, to become intimate with the snow! It leads those who keep doing it to ask "is this all there is?" Making a turn with your weight on your downhill ski feels more risky at first. It aims you, at least for a moment, straight down the hill. However, it is in that risk one gains momentum and direction. As my son said, "you just have to relax and go for it."

The exilaration of life and following Jesus is similar (John 10:10). Our inclination is to put our weight on the uphill ski of self-preoccupation and self-preservation. Everything in us and around us promotes what one author called "self-addiction." Those who keep putting their weight on this uphill ski go no where, or worse. It also leads people to ask "is this all there is?"

Jesus said counter-intuitive unexpected things like "The Son of Man has come not to be served, but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). He later said "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15).

Mark Labberton has done a marvelous job in his new book The Dangerous Act of Worship to call us back to the urgent neighbor-loving world-changing worship rooted in God's radical and freeing love. It was recalibrating for me as I begin this new year. In his final chapter he challenges all of us who put our weight on life's uphill ski:

The consequence of this unshakable love of God is that it sets us free from the compulsion we have to protect and provide for ourselves, so instead we can turn our hearts and energies toward others. When we are held by the unbreakable lifeline of Jesus Christ, we can reach out to others. ...

Jesus says wake up! ...
  • Are we ready to live life in God in our town, or do we still insist on living in our town and try to fit God in? .
  • Are we willing to let the gospel do the deep redefining work of establishing us in our new humanity, or will we only let it do a little sprucing up?

The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton, pages 182-184

Putting our weight on the downhill ski is an intentional choice - on the slopes and in life. It is the only way to experience the thrill of flying down the mountain with the sun and wind hitting your face. It is the only way to experience gorgeous vistas only possible at these elevations. It is the only way of making new memories and comfort zones. It is the only way to follow Jesus and live the life we were created for.

How will your new year be intentionally different? What does keeping your weight on the uphill ski of your life look like? What would it mean to put your weight on the downhill ski of radically trusting Jesus in this new year? What would it mean for a community of Jesus followers?

As my son discovered again: relax and go for it!


What do you think? Please click the comments link 6 to leave yours.