Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Relational Benevolence

Several months ago I received an email from a friend in Nashville, Tennessee. Ginny is a dedicated believer, a mother of a 14-year old boy, and was recently widowed when her husband of 20 years died in a tragic car accident. She wrote:

“I was writing to see if you have any suggestions. My son is struggling not having a father and just needs some fatherly guidance from a Christian man. I have spoken with the elders at my church and all they do is point me to programs. ‘Check into the Big Brother Program’ they say or, ‘Maybe they have a program at his school’. Those are all fine things. But what he really needs is just a real relationship! Not another program! Nobody wants to get involved!”

Though the Church struggles with financial deficits during this time of recession, the far greater and more threatening deficit is the scarcity of relationships. If a Christian sister…who is a widow…earnestly searching for a Godly mentor for her son…in the middle of the Bible belt…can’t find a man who will step up and take a young, fatherless boy fishing once a month…how will even a non-believer see the transformative power of Christ manifested in his people?

We are commanded time after time to do good to those around us. But in addition to being good, we are given numerous examples of how we are to do that “good” in relationship with others. We are to practice, “Relational Benevolence”.

Bryant Myers, a Christian development thinker, notes that the God-head is a relational arrangement. Since we are made in God’s image, we humans are relational as well. Myers believes that in the beginning, God set-up four foundational relationships for each human: A relationship with God, a relationship with themselves, a relationship with others, and a relationship with the rest of creation.

Each day, we encounter people who have strained or broken relationships – some may be with God, some may be with others, or some may be with their physical health. An important fact to remember is that we are included in the previous statement. We are broken people in need of a Savior.

But aside from that, let’s talk about these four relationships briefly.

First, Our relationship with God is the primary foundational relationship. We cannot have a healthy relationship with God if our relationships with our self, our neighbors, or the rest of creation are out of balance.

Second, Our relationship with self is the idea of how we view ourselves. This relationship is closely linked with our relationship with God because we are told we are made in the image of God. A fractured relationship with self may manifest itself as depression, pride, or egocentric behavior.

Third, Our relationship with others is one of the more obvious relationships we encounter each day. When we are able to view our neighbors as creatures dearly loved by our Father, everybody looks a little different.

And finally, or relationship with the rest of creation catches everything that wasn’t mentioned previously.

So why do we stray from diving into relationships like these? Well, relationships are messy. If you form relationships long enough, you will get hurt. You will get disrespected. You will get taken advantage of and you will be fatigued beyond comprehension.

A friend of mine works with a large mega church in Cincinnati. Each year they organize a huge Thanksgiving meal for those in need of food. The ministry ends up serving 10,000+ people and it continues to grow every year. I asked her, “How in the world do you get that many volunteers to help with this?” She replied: “You know, volunteers flood in by the hundreds to serve the meal, cook the food, donate supplies, and clean up the trash. The church members definitely enjoy the feeling of serving and ministry in this way. But each year, the one role that we have trouble filling is the role of the person who sits and eats the meal with our guests! You wouldn’t think we would struggle to have someone come in, sit down, and eat a delicious thanksgiving meal! But this role involves relationships that are sometimes uncomfortable. It may involve sitting next to someone who hasn’t bathed in a month or whose conversation is distorted by severe mental illness.” Relationships are much more challenging than superficial service from afar.

Last week was the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the, “War on Poverty.” But 50 years later and trillions of dollars spent in this battle, we ask our selves if that money has really done all that good. Again in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, the authors describe what has been called, “The Great Reversal”. Fikkert argues that the “Social Gospel Movement” from 1900 to the early 1930s caused some evangelical Christians to begin to get concerned that pure evangelism and preaching of the Gospel was being neglected.  He says that, “As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. He goes on to say that, “the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not–as many have asserted–to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.” Following this exodus of the church, the government filled the void left by the church in the 1930s with FDR’s “New Deal” and then in the 1960s with LBJ’s “Great Society”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I feel the government plays a role in poverty alleviation. In fact, Paul says in Romans 13:4 that the government or those in authority are “God’s servant to do you good”. Jennifer Marshal in her article entitled, “It’s Not Enough to Care About ‘The Poor””, says this: “Government protects what family, church, business, and other communities cultivate. Government welfare programs may be able to provide temporary material assistance for those who have nowhere else to turn; but they also hurt when the helping hand creates dependence.” One of the abilities that the government lacks, is the ability to provide relational benevolence-this is-or should be-the skill set of the church. Unfortunately, the church has been slow to re-fill this void and as a result, the church is grossly underrepresented in our social services, which also explains the limited effectiveness of our nation’s social welfare programs. In a sense, the discussion is not as much about the need for a weaker government, but instead, the need for stronger churches.

There are numerous negative spiritual ramifications when there are deficits of relationships in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in our churches. Let’s talk about some of these problems for a few minutes.

First, when there is an absence of relationship, we misdiagnose. In order to effectively treat a medical malady, any good clinician knows that a proper diagnosis needs to be made. In December, 1980, Episode 199 of M*A*S*H aired a story about the unit throwing a party for the local orphanage. Winchester had sent a great deal of expensive chocolates to the orphanage and at one point discovers that the children did not ever get the treats.

Winchester confronts their director, Mr. Ho and he admits that he sold all the chocolate. Winchester is enraged, calling him a “parasite”, but Mr. Ho explains that the chocolate was so valuable that, on the Black Market, it could buy enough rice and cabbage to feed the kids for a month. Winchester, stunned, apologizes, realizing, as he says, “It’s improper to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.”

Though well-intentioned, Winchester failed to delve into the relationship and discover what were the actual felt needs of the orphanage. In his arrogance, he felt he knew the needs…but the result was a misdiagnosis. When we practice relational benevolence, appropriate treatment is paired with the actual malady.

Second, when there is an absence of relationship, we burnout. Jesus knew this feeling far better than anyone. He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11). But thankfully, the verse did not end there. He went on, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He said, “Rejoice”! Galatians 6:9 also says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” And then finally, Scripture says, “…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. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:10-11). When we practice relational benevolence and truly get to know the people we are serving, and when we are in close relationship and communication with our Lord, he promises us that we will be renewed.

And Third, when there is an absence of relationship, we underachieve. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African proverb. Big changes can always be linked back to significant relationships. In an article entitled, “Invincible Kids”, the author said, “Locate a resilient kid and you will also find a caring adult-or several-who has guided him.” When we form relationships, lasting, transformative change happens.

We’ve talked a great deal about what happens when we try to do good in the absence of relationship. But what are some practical ways we can practice relational benevolence?

First, work to like the people you love. Tyanna came to our weekly community meal one week. 29 years old, homeless and 9 months pregnant, she had reached the end of her rope. That night, we did not give her the money she was requesting. Though that was her request, it was not her need. My wife Melissa and I took her home and invited her to stay with us overnight and we promised to help her find a shelter in the morning. All the shelters were full and the ones that had open beds would not take her in because they considered her, “high-risk” being pregnant and did not want to take on the liability. A night turned into days and days turned into weeks. Melissa went to the hospital when the time came and comforted Tyanna while she was in labor. Due to a number of unfortunate circumstances, child protective services took her child and she has struggled immensely. There is no doubt Tyanna wants to straighten her life out and she came to Melissa one day saying that she wanted to become a Christian. Together, Melissa and I baptized her into Christ and she is now a new creation. It’s been a challenging road we have had with Tyanna. In fact, Tyanna was homeless again even last week and was again living with us just a few days ago. As you can imagine, Tyanna’s presence in our home adds a great deal of stress. There was never a doubt in my mind that we loved Tyanna. God commands us to truly love our neighbor and love the poor and love our enemies. That’s pretty hard in itself at times. But what I have found is even harder is learning to like the people we serve…and I can’t say I always liked her. She has about a 6th grade level of education and it’s reflected in her decision making capabilities. She has gotten in serious fights, lost her children, smokes a lot, and smells up my house with her body odor and smoke soaked clothes. She eats us out of house and home and she dumps enormous amounts of salt, ketchup, and ranch dressing on every bit of food we serve her. She destroyed our vacuum cleaner when she vacummed out her ash tray and slips up with her profanity around our kids from time to time. Without this relationship however, my frustration and arrogant indignance for her would have ended there. I would have served her or given her some money to get her out of our hair and I would have “loved her” as I am commanded. Job done. Check. Check. But because we have strived to practice relational benevolence, we not only love her. We like her. We like her because we now know that she has lived in and out of foster homes all of her life. She doesn’t know her dad and her mom is a crack addict. She has some developmental delays and she is in an abusive relationship. She desperately longs for love and belonging . Her story is heartbreaking and her hurt is palpable. None of this history justifies her behavior, but it certainly helps us to understand her, love her, and yes, even like her.

Second, consider relational benevolence a privilege. What if we changed our mindset: “The poor, the outcast, the widowed…they are not merely our ministry, but by encountering them, we are truly encountering the presence of God?” My times in which I was working with an overly white, homogenous, wealthy, Bible-belt church have been my least spiritually stimulating times. The times where I have been most spiritually stimulated are the times when I am hanging out in a rice mill, grinding rice in the bush of Tanzania, or talking with a drunk man, sobbing outside my work in the inner-city about his prostitute friend just getting gang-raped, or praying with a dying patient who had no family in the middle of an Arkansas ICU. Relationships are challenging-but they are deeply rewarding.

And finally, humility, humility, humility. Let’s turn to Luke, chapter 18:9-14. To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Humility and repentance removes the callouses from our hearts and makes us vulnerable to relationships. Until those callouses have been removed, truly meaningful relationships cannot be formed. Unfortunately, repentance and humility are not one-time occurrences. They are disciplines and postures that we must renew daily.

I challenge you to dive deeper into relationships around you. Find the widowed, the fatherless, the hungry, the lonely, and draw near to them. That may look different for each of you – for some, it may mean that you will sell your possessions and move to Africa. For others, it may mean walking across the street to meet the neighbor who lives alone. And still others, your first step may be a prayer on your knees tonight, asking the Lord to remove the callouses from your heart, bring humility to your life, and a desire to practice relational benevolence as he calls us to do with our lives. May God bless you in your journey-as you get your hands dirty, and see what beautiful things he grows.

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A recent post has gone viral around Facebook:

“Last month, the Senate Budget Committee reports that in fiscal year 2011, between food stamps, housing support, child care, Medicaid and other benefits, the average US household below the poverty line received $168 a day in government support. What’s the problem with that much support? Well, the median household income in America is just over $50,000, which averages out to $137.13 a day. To put it another way, being on welfare now pays the equivalent of $30 an hour for a 40-hour week, while the average job pays $25 an hour. And the person who works also has to pay taxes, which drops his pay to $21 an hour. It’s no wonder that welfare is now the biggest part of the budget, more than Social Security or defense. And why would anyone want to get off welfare when working pays $9 an hour less?” (1)

This post refers to a Senate Budget Committee report lead by U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee. As much as I am for budget reform and fiscal responsibility, I immediately saw several flaws and/or disturbing aspects of this report.

1. The “Welfare Programs”: The 83 “Welfare programs” that total up to the $1.03 trillion in welfare costs include programs such as the “Additional Child Tax Credit, Pell Grants, Federal Work Study Programs, Child Support Enforcement, Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, Adoption Assistance, Foster Care, Weatherization Assistance Program (2). These programs are portrayed as the programs that directly go into the pockets of the poor. This is hardly so.

2. Below the Poverty Line: This report divides the total “welfare expenditures” ($1.03 trillion) by families living below the federal poverty level (FPL). In 2011, the U.S. had an estimated  61.3 million people below 100% FPL (3). However, the key problem with these numbers is that many of the above, “welfare programs” are provided to individuals with incomes up to 200% FPL. For example, in Ohio, children and pregnant women may be eligible for Medicaid services if their income falls below 200% FPL (4). If you include the individuals whose household incomes fall between 100% and 200% FPL, you add tens of millions of people. An estimated 8% (25 million souls) of the U.S. population have incomes falling between 100% and 138% FPL (5). Add in those falling between 138% and 200% FPL and that number nears the 50 million mark.

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3. Simple Math: If you take $1.03 trillion and divide it by 61.3 million souls, you will get a number that is (falsely) higher than if you took $1.03 trillion and divided it by 100 million souls. It is not clear exactly where the committee got its numbers but I did a little calculating on my own.Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 12.38.57 AM

If the average household size is 2.64 souls (U.S. Census Data, Average Household Size, (6), I figure that with my numbers, the “below 100% FPL” should be $170.14 ($30.94/hour) per household of “welfare program costs”. When you include those with household income “below 200% FPL”, the per household welfare costs drop to $104.30 ($18.96/hour). Even using this committee’s math (which I feel is faulty), the numbers change dramatically when you near reality.

4. Painting a Picture: Probably my biggest problem with this entire report is that it paints the picture of the poor getting wealthy off “the system”. It implies that all of these welfare dollars are going to people in cash form when this is simply not true or accurate. It compares government assistance (apples) to hourly wages (oranges). It “villainifies” a people who are oppressed by their circumstances (and sometimes bad decisions) and who have complex socioeconomic challenges (mental illness, chronic disease, criminal histories, developmental delays, histories of abuse, and drug use). My friends, I dare to go so far as to say this is sinful. We as Christians are to be the champions of the oppressed. At the very minimum, we should be accurately portraying the truth (truth in love would be icing on the cake). Is the system broken? Absolutely. Is abuse of the system rampant? No doubt. But we as followers of Christ should be the fighters on the front line working to give “cups of cold water” in His name.