Sermon illustrations


Bearing Secrets

In his book Prayer, Phillip Yancey shares the testimony of a man named “John” who has spent the past 25 years working in street ministry, primarily with the homeless population of his city:

I help run a coffeehouse where they can drop in, and then on Sunday we hold a small urban church service upstairs. We never know what will happen there. Some of the people smell bad, disturbed people pray too long, and visitors wander in and out of the service. The other week one person prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for Metamusil,” and another chimed in, “That’s a 10 – 4, God.”

I was surprised to learn how many street people are fundamentalists, at least those who claim any kind of faith. No wonder: the missions they go to preach a steady diet of hellfire and brimstone, and many street people carry around some notion of a mean God from their childhood. There is plenty of shame and worthlessness to go around. I have a theory that both street people and fundamentalists suffer from attachment disorders. Somehow in childhood they never learned to bond with parents and never learned to bond with God either. How can you trust another person with who you are, much less God?

My friends in AA tell us we’re as sick as our secrets. I know many folks with dark secrets, and nowhere to take them. Sometimes they go crazy, literally insane, because they can’t stand being alone with their dark thoughts and secrets. Or they get loaded, or get high.

…We all bear secrets. Those of us fortunate enough to have a spouse, a friend, or someone we can trust, have someone to share our secrets with. If not, at least we have God, who knows our secrets before we spill them. The fact that we’re still alive shows that God has more tolerance for whatever those secrets represent than we may give God credit for. If I’m right about attachment disorders, the best ministry I can offer is a long-term relationship. I tell people that I hang with the poor all day, and that sums it up.

I hope that over the years and decades they learn to trust me as someone who can handle their secrets. I hope that trust will gradually spill over to God. And I tell people who encounter the homeless on the streets and are confused about how to respond, that eye contact and a listening ear may be more important than food or money or Bible verses. They need to connect in some small way with another human being.

Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, Zondervan, 2006, pp. 34-35.

A Bit-Part in a Story of Redemption

Kevin Blue has spent much of his ministry career serving the poor in inner-city Los Angeles. This reflection show how the investment in the poor can pay big dividends:

Loving the poor has cost me something. There were weekends and whole summers when I could have done other things. The work took time. Sometimes it was inconvenient. Sometimes—like when a fourteen-year-old in our youth group was shot and killed—there was heartache. Some people I’ve worked with had to deal with their family’s harsh criticism. Resources could have been spent in other ways. But I and those whose stories I have told have no regrets; it was entirely worth it.

A few years back I knew a guy who worked at the corner gas station. He would pump your gas for you and clean your windows for change. He wanted to work for what he was given. (Interesting that nor long ago these services were provided by gas stations that employed people to serve their customers, before the days of self-service.) When asked, he called himself Red, and he could be found at the station most days of the week. Two of us got to know him a bit over about a year, and we were glad to pay him to clean the windows on our car.

But then he suddenly stopped showing up at the station, and I never saw him again.

After some time my friend ran into someone who knew Red and found out that he had begun working a regular job, had found faith in God and was now a deacon in a church in another city.

We were glad that God let us see some of the fruit of our love for him, small though it had been, over the months. What an amazing thing. We could rejoice with others, people we didn’t even know, about God’s redemption of Red, while people who had walked by him and ignored him could not. We had been given the opportunity to invest in the work of God in him.

And such investments had sustained him and had been used by God, along with many other more significant investments, to minister to him and redeem his life. As we had talked with him, we did not know what God was doing. We had just a bit part in this story, not a starring role, and we had to trust that God would make use of the love we gave, even if we never saw the fruit of it. Who would have thought that God would use our small acts of kindness to help Red on his way?

Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Birth (or Re-Emergence) of Evangelical Social Action

In 1947, budding theologian Carl F. H. Henry wrote a short book titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it he surveys the American fundamentalist movement’s engagement with the most important social issues of the day. Henry does not so much attack the fundamentalists for their social ethic as for their lack of one. Within their ranks, he finds little or no contribution to politics, economics, race and labor relations, intellectual life, or the arts. He paints a picture of fundamentalists with their backs turned to the world as they devotedly dissect the minutiae of obscure prophecy, taking pride in their total disconnect from a society destined to perdition.

Such a characterization might not seem an unusual interpretation of fundamentalism for a theologian trained at liberal institutions like Boston University and Harvard, as Henry was. But what makes Uneasy Conscience stand out is that Henry was himself a fundamentalist, intent on provoking his compatriots to apply the insights of conservative biblical theology to their contemporary context. Skeptical that fundamentalism’s old guard could rise from its slumber, he placed his hope in a younger generation who called themselves evangelicals—a group he hoped could reinvigorate the social consciousness of conservative American Protestantism.

Sixty years later, after the dawn of the twenty-first century, the largest privately funded global relief and development organization in the world is evangelical, and hundreds of smaller organizations funnel more than $2 billion overseas to meet the needs of the poor. For more than a decade one of the most famous evangelical megachurch pastors in America has been attempting the complete socioeconomic restructuring of a small African nation.

Evangelicals are zealously campaigning against child slavery and sex trafficking. Bringing their voices to formerly complacent churches and also to the broader public through social media and traditional television and newspaper outlets. Furthermore, thousands of neighborhood renewal ministries have enlisted millions of American evangelicals in Christian community development of various kinds. In just two generations, evangelicals have “moved from almost complete silence on the subject of justice to a remarkable verbosity.”

Soong-Chan Rah and Gary VanderPol, Return to Justice: Six Movements that Reignited our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience, Brazos Press, 2016.

The Causes (& Solutions) of Poverty are Complex

The poverty of an inner-city neighborhood like Sandtown was not initially the product of individual irresponsible behavior or family breakdown. A complex range of structural factors led to the exclusion of the neighborhood’s residents from the resources they needed to thrive. And before that, the poverty of African-Americans emigrating into Baltimore from the South was due in great part to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws.

But the results of these factors were addiction, family breakdown, criminal activity, depression, the disintegration of community, and the erosion of personal character. This is why the problems of the poor are so much more complex than any one theory can accommodate. What it takes to rebuild a poor neighborhood goes well beyond public policy or social programs. It takes the rebuilding of families and communities and individual lives. This is why [Mark] Gornik not only established programs of social service, but he also began a church that called people to spiritual conversion.

From Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, Penguin Publishing Group.

Christians and the Poor

I asked participants who claimed to be “strong followers of Jesus” whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did.

I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” 

Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Zondervan.

The Cry

In his book, We Need Each Other, Jean Vanier shares the story of his vocational shift from the military to serving the extremely disabled at L’Arche:

This was the beginning of my vocation in L’Arche. I was introduced, to people with disabilities, who at the time were living in an institution. Theirs was a constant question, “Do you love me?” I later realized that in the Gospel Jesus asks the same question: “Do you love me?”

It was at this point that I discovered that people with disabilities, those who have been hurt, rejected, looked down upon, and sometimes tortured, those who have been pushed away, locked up in institutions, and who are not listened to with respect and love, have this same cry, “Do vou love me?” This touched me and called me forth as I realized that in their cry there is also the cry of Jesus, “Do you love me?

Jean Vanier, We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together, Paraclete Press, 2018, p.16.

The Cycle of Brokenness in Poverty

For some people the brokenness in these foundational relationships results in material poverty, that is their not having sufficient money to provide for the basic physical needs of themselves and their families. For example, consider Mary, who lives in a slum in western Kenya. As a female in a male-dominated society, Mary has been subjected to polygamy, to regular physical and verbal abuse from her husband, to fewer years of schooling than males, and to an entire cultural system that tells her that she is inferior. As a result, Mary has a poverty of being and lacks the confidence to look for a job, leading her into material poverty.

Desperate, Mary decides to be self-employed, but needs a loan to get her business started. Unfortunately, her poverty of community rears its ugly head, as the local loan shark exploits Mary, demanding an interest rate of 300 percent on her loan of twenty-five dollars, contributing to Mary’s material poverty. Having no other options, Mary borrows from the loan shark and starts a business of selling homemade charcoal in the local market, along with hundreds of others just like her.

The market is glutted with charcoal sellers, which keeps the prices very low. But it never even occurs to Mary to sell something else, because she does not understand that she has been given the creativity and capacity to have dominion over creation. In other words, her poverty of stewardship locks her into an unprofitable business, further contributing to her material poverty. Frustrated by her entire situation, Mary goes to the traditional healer (witch doctor) for help, a manifestation of her poverty of spiritual intimacy with the true God. The healer tells Mary that her difficult life is a result of angry ancestral spirits that need to be appeased through the sacrificing of a bull, a sacrifice that costs Mary a substantial amount of money and further contributes to her material poverty.

Mary is suffering from not having sufficient income, but her problems cannot be solved by giving her more money or other material resources, for such things are insufficient to heal the brokenness of her four foundational relationships. Mary’s brokenness manifested itself in material poverty, but for other people the effects of these broken relationships are manifested in different ways. For example, for most of my life I have struggled with workaholic tendencies, reflecting a poverty of stewardship, a broken relationship with the rest of creation. Instead of seeing work as simply one of the arenas in which I am to glorify God, there are times in which I have made my work my god and have tried to find all of my meaning, purpose, and worth through being productive.

This is not how God designed humans’ relationship with the rest of creation to be. Of course, I am unlikely to experience material poverty, as my high level of productivity will usually put food on my table; however, at times my poverty of stewardship has had serious consequences, including strained relationships with family and friends, physical and emotional ailments resulting from stress, and spiritual weakness from inadequate time for a meaningful devotional life. The fall really happened, and it is wreaking havoc in all of our lives. We are all broken, just in different ways.

Taken from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (©). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

Dreaming of a Better Future

Honoré de Balzac would eventually become a celebrated writer in post-Napoleonic France. He was renowned for his complex characters and realistic writing style. Like most young artists, de Balzac lived the stereotypical “starving artist” lifestyle in Paris in the 19th century. As a different illustration demonstrated, his extremely dire living conditions in an unfinished attic led him to lose a significant amount for his first commissioned novel.

Nevertheless, de Balzac had aspirations of better living. To help him conjure up this preferred future, he decided to write on the wall what his future residence would look like. On one wall he wrote “Rosewood paneling with commode”; another said “Gobelin tapestry with Venetian mirror”; and above the hearth, the pièce de résistance, “Picture by Raphael.”

Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.

The Front Doorstop of Christianity

As the center of Christianity shifts from the West (North America and Western Europe) to the Global South, grinding poverty is on the front doorstep — and in the front pews — of the church of Jesus Christ. The Global South includes 2.6 billion people who live on less than two dollars per day, and it is amongst these very poor people that the church is experiencing its most rapid growth.

As church historian Philip Jenkins notes, “The most successful new denominations target their message very directly at the have-nots, or rather, the have-nothings.” Moreover, as the church’s missionaries strive to take the gospel to unreached people groups, they will necessarily be doing so amongst the poorest people on the planet. According to one estimate, more than 80 percent of the “poorest of the poor” live in the “10/40 Window,” the band of countries that contain the vast majority of the remaining unreached people groups.

“The poor are the lost, and the lost are the poor.” Reflecting on these developments, missiologist Andrew Walls states that the church of the twenty-first century will be a “church of the poor. Christianity will be mainly the religion of rather poor and very poor people with few gifts to bring except the gospel itself. And the heartlands of the Church will include some of the poorest countries on earth.”

Similarly, Jenkins notes, the typical Christian in the world in the twenty-first century is not a businessperson attending a megachurch in an American suburb but rather a poor woman in a slum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, or a poor woman in a village in Nigeria . . . or a poor Masai woman in rural Kenya.

Taken from Brian Fikkert & Russel Mask, From Dependence to Dignity p. 18,. Zondervan.

“I Know Why You’re Here”

One summer, Johnny was ministering among the poor on a six-week urban project with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles. Part of his assignment was to spend time in a convalescent home in the central part of the city. The elderly who are in need make up a segment of the poor who are easily overlooked in our society. Since many are tucked away in homes and hospices, they are not as visible as are those who are younger and on the streets.

This convalescent home was smelly, understaffed and poorly kept. Few residents had visitors. For a new guest arriving to serve the residents, it was very awkward. Some residents were mentally ill; some were not responsive at all. Others were even hostile. Members of Johnny’s team were struggling in the first few days with why they had been called to serve there. “Why are we here?” “This is depressing.” “We can’t do anything to help.” Such remarks began to be made openly.

One day, after Johnny had been there for about a week, an elderly woman slowly walked up to him in the hallway where he was standing. She drew close and pointed a finger at him. “I know why you’re here,” she said in an accusatory tone. She paused as my friend looked at her, wondering what this was about. Realizing he didn’t know what she meant, she went on. “I know why you’re here,” she said again. “You’re here because God wants us to know he hasn’t forgotten about us.

The woman turned and shuffled away. Johnny was stunned. Another team member was so moved she nearly cried on the spot. By the end of that summer, many of that team cried as they left the friends they had made, because in many of those relationships they had found something of the kingdom of God.

Kevin Blue, Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World, InterVarsity Press, 2006.

A Little Girl and The Founding of World Vision

In 1947 huge crowds came to hear a thirty-two-year-old Californian preach at mass evangelistic rallies throughout China. Although Bob Pierce had no knowledge of Chinese language or culture, his message of American old-time religion was warmly received, reportedly reaching tens of thousands and even converting twenty members of General Chiang Kai-shek’s personal bodyguard. But despite these impressive results, Pierce’s trip to Asia would be most remembered for his brief encounter with a single little girl.

In Xiamen, Dutch Reformed missionary Tena Hoelkeboer invited Pierce to preach to four hundred girls at her school. When one of her students, White Jade, informed her father that she had converted to Christianity, he beat her and threw her out of the house. Hoelkeboer was distressed at the prospect of taking on yet another orphan and demanded of Pierce, “What are you going to do about it?”

Deeply moved, Pierce emptied his wallet of the five dollars it contained and promised to send the same amount every month. When he returned to the United States to report on his evangelistic exploits, Pierce told the story of White Jade in churches across the United States. In 1950 he founded World Vision in order to sponsor more needy Asian children like her.

By the turn of the century, World Vision had become the largest privately funded relief and development NGO (nongovernmental organization) in the world, and White Jade’s story continued to be used both in advertising and in recounting World Vision’s history. Even at the time of this writing, White Jade remains central in defining World Vision’s identity and approach for its employees and donors.

Because of its deep rhetorical resonance and staying power, Pierce’s encounter with White Jade and Hoelkeboer might possibly be the single point at which North American Evangelical Christians began to reprioritize compassion for the poor.

Soong-Chan Rah and Gary VanderPol, Return to Justice: Six Movements that Reignited our Contemporary Evangelical Conscience, Brazos Press, 2016.

Incarnation Essential to Reconciliation

In their thoughtful book on reconciliation, Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice share how Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement showed up in the lives of the working poor, which ultimately enabled them to do the work of reconciliation:

In connection with reconciliation, incarnation means learning to be there in broken places and developing the patience and discipline necessary to stay long enough to see the needs. That is why every time we think about incarnation, we think about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she founded.

Her testimony of how it all started is very telling: We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form saying, “we need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded. We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “let’s all go live on a farm.” It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

Taken from Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice Copyright (c) 2008 by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Living out the Words of Isaiah 58

Isaiah 58 tells us that the Lord wants us to share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our homes, share our clothing with those who need some and not hide ourselves from the rest of humanity. How might we work this one out?

On one cold night, Bill met a beggar. They stood talking outside a restaurant, and both men were cold. The beggar shivered, wearing only a thin shirt. The guy was not literally naked, but in the cold of that night he might as well have been. Without being asked. Bill took his shirt off and offered it to the man.

Richard, Ellen, Tim and Caroline picked a drunken man up out of the gutter and cared for him until he was better. I know people who have taken hungry beggars to lunch and sat down with them to share a meal, taking the opportunity to get to know them and sometimes to pray for them.

Then there was the kindness that Reid, Dave and John showed to Robert. While in college these young men developed a friendship with Robert, who was struggling on the streets. One night they invited him to join them for dinner and treated him to a meal at the school cafeteria. Then they invited him to stay over in their room that night after their Bible study. He agreed.

Before long, word had gotten around the dorm that there was a homeless man on the floor. The resident assistant heard and called security, and three of the largest security guards we had ever seen showed up in the hall. They were so big that two of them could not walk side by side as they went down the hall. They proceeded, along with the RA, to ask the guys about the incident. The conversation went something like this: “Is there a homeless man in the dorm here? We heard that there was. Our friend Robert is here. Is there a problem? We are allowed to have friends in the dorm, aren’t we?”

Silence, awkwardness and an eventual departure ensued. Dave, Reid and John washed Robert’s clothes and offered him the chance to take a shower. By the end of Robert’s stay, they knew what it was to be hated by the world. But they also had a witness to what the kingdom was about like few others, and people either hated or loved them for it, depending on their perspective.

Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Mother Theresa: Everyone Can Do Something

Zombie phobia kicked in as I climbed the hospital’s dimly lit cement steps. For some reason, every hospital scene in every zombie movie I’d ever seen came flooding back. But this was no ordinary hospital or hospice. It was Mother Teresa’s Home for Dying Destitutes in Kolkata, India. I had arrived in the city just twenty-four hours earlier to write a book on legendary missionaries Mark and Huldah Buntain.

They had arranged for me to interview Mother Teresa—the chance of a lifetime. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’d heard stories of her work my entire life. I guess I imagined she had a halo over her head. I said to myself, I’m just a kid—I don’t know the proper etiquette. Am I supposed to bow, shake hands, or kiss her cheek? Trying the latter seemed risky, so I decided to wing it and follow her lead.

Garbed in her distinctive white and blue sari, she shuffled to a bench. Smiling, she asked, “What’s your name, young man?” Several beats passed before I could respond. “Hal Donaldson.” “Where are you from and what do you do?” she asked. “I’m a writer from the United States. I came to Kolkata to write a book on Mark and Huldah Buntain.” Her face seemed to light up. “They have helped many in our city.” “Yes, they have big hearts. May I ask you a few questions?” She nodded. “If it will help them and their work.”

For the next twenty minutes, I scribbled her quotes in my reporter’s notebook, trying not to miss one detail. As I wrote I thought, I feel like I’m talking to my grandmother—without the milk and cookies—rather than a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Repeatedly she deflected my praises. “It’s all because of God,” she said. As our time came to a close, she leaned forward. “Young man, can I ask what you do to help the poor?” Her question wasn’t accusative, demanding, or condescending. It was just a question. But to me it felt laced with expectation. If I lied to Mother Teresa, I was surely putting my life in jeopardy. So I told the truth. I glanced away and said, “I’m really not doing anything.” She could have condemned me, chastised me, or struck me with a lightsaber and I wouldn’t have blamed her. Instead, she smiled and said, “Everyone can do something.

Taken from Hal Donaldson, Disruptive Compassion: Becoming the Revolutionary You Were Born to Be, Zondervan, 2019.

One Step Away from Disaster

I was teaching an English class in a high-rise apartment complex full of low-income families in Minneapolis—mostly immigrant and refugees from East Africa. The tenants’ association paid for me to come and teach English, primarily to women who had never had access or exposure to education. It was a dream job for me, chaotic and joyful and never, ever boring.

The women straggled into my class and settled heavily in their chairs, the first time perhaps in hours they had a moment to themselves. Papers and pencils were scattered on the tables in front of us. I taught them about the ABCs, how to hold pencils, how to have our eyes rove from the top left of the paper all the way down. We talked about our families, about grocery shopping, about rent problems, life in Africa versus life in America.

… My classroom was loud, full of laughter, chairs scraping, women commiserating in languages that were decidedly not the one we were supposed to be studying. And none of it bothered me, except one thing: the phones. Every woman had a small, compact, black cellphone—not a smartphone, just a utilitarian way for people to be reached in the case of emergency or missed appointments or reminders to pay bills.

These tiny back phones never stopped going off, especially on Fridays. One such day I reached my limit. “Turn the phones off,” I said, loudly. “Off.” My students looked at me in surprise. They were quiet, for once, in the face of me trying to wield my influence, trying to muster up what little authority I was supposed to have. Finally, one of the women held up her little rectangle, the screen glowing green.

“Teacher,” she told me, “teacher, we cannot read, we never know who is calling.” The women around her nodded their heads. I stood up front, abashed at my ignorance. As their teacher I should know that to most of them, the numbers blurred together into the same indecipherable squiggles that covered the rest of our worksheets.

They had to take every call because they had no way of knowing who was on the other line. It could be a family member in the camps in Kenya telling them they have no food and need money. Friday is payday, which is why the phones ring on this day. To ignore those needs would be a travesty, it would be unthinkable. I went home that day and looked at my own phone. It did not light up on Fridays full of stories of people with no food in their bellies, of babies who were sick and the mothers who needed formula, of an illness that wiped out a caregiver.

Living and working in refugee populations for the past decade had led me to feel secure in my belief that I was close to poverty, that I was starting to understand a bit how it worked in the world. But now I knew better: I always had been, and always would be, cushioned by the affluence of my life, by the community I was born into. I didn’t know what it was like to be born hungry. And I didn’t know how to be in a long-term relationship with those in the world who never, ever got their fill.

Taken from The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield Copyright (c) 2020 by D.L. Mayfield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Poverty and Indedbtedness: Ibu Emptat’s Story

Consider the following summary of an interview conducted by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two of the world’s leading researchers on poverty:

In a village in Indonesia we met Ibu Emptat, the wife of a basket weaver. A few years before our first meeting (in summer 2008), her husband was having trouble with his vision and could no longer work. She had no choice but to borrow money from the local moneylender — 100,000 rupiah [$18.75 US] to pay for medicine so her husband could work again, and 300,000 rupiah [$56 US] for food for the period when her husband was recovering and could not work (three of her seven children were still living with them). They had to pay 10 percent per month in interest on the loan.

However, they fell behind on their interest payments and by the time we met, her debt had ballooned to 1 million rupiah [$187 US]; the moneylender was threatening to take everything they had.

To make matters worse, one of her younger sons had recently been diagnosed with severe asthma. Because the family was already mired in debt, she couldn’t afford the medicine needed to treat his condition. He sat with us throughout our visit, coughing every few minutes; he was no longer able to attend school regularly. The family seemed to be caught in a classic poverty trap — the father’s illness made them poor, which is why the child stayed sick, and because he was too sick to get a proper education, poverty loomed in his future.

The family is trapped: Sickness causes poverty, which causes sickness, which causes poverty, which causes a loss of property to the moneylender, which causes more poverty, which causes sickness, which causes . . . Note that there is no single solution to the entrapment.

Health insurance could have helped to cushion the blow of the father’s illness, but such insurance is often unavailable in poor countries; and even if it existed, it is unlikely that the family could have afforded it anyway. Moreover, even if they had insurance, there is the additional problem of inadequate healthcare services to provide the necessary medical care. The problems are multifaceted, and the solutions must be as well.

Taken from Brian Fikkert & Russel Mask, From Dependence to Dignity (p. 77). Zondervan. 

Poverty from Differing Perspectives

We have conducted the previous exercise in dozens of middle-to-upper-class, predominantly Caucasian, North American churches. In the vast majority of cases, these audiences describe poverty differently than the poor in low-income countries do. While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences.

Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc..this mismatch between many outsiders’ perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.

Taken from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (©). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

The Power of Privilege

In January 1999 I was flying on Saudi Arabian Airlines from Mumbai, India, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then onward to London. I arrived at the Mumbai airport to find a long line. Perhaps seventy-five people were waiting to check in, and nearly every one was an Indian man with a very small suitcase…Like all lines in India, this one was packed closely together, and we were all sweating in the mid-day heat. But I was fairly sure the plane would not take off without us, so I was in no great hurry. As the single ticket agent checked in each traveler at the far-off counter, I prepared myself for a long wait.

I had been in line for under five minutes when the agent came out from behind the counter, walked down the line until he came to my spot, and said, “Come with me.” When you’re several thousand miles from home and an airline agent says that, you obey…So I followed him, up to the front of the line, past all seventy-five Indian men with their suitcases…Without another word he took my passport, examined it, printed out a boarding pass, and said, “You may go.”…

When I realized that I had just been singled out and effectively ordered to cut in line, I was shocked, not to mention embarrassed. I felt a momentary urge to make a small speech…“I didn’t ask for this!…Flushed with surprise and embarrassment, I could not detect the slightest surprise or discomfort in that line of men. It gradually dawned on me that not only were they not surprised that I had been ushered to the front of the line—they had expected it the moment I arrived. They knew about something I was only beginning to understand: the power of privilege.

Taken from Playing God by Andy Crouch. ©2013 by Andy Crouch.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

The Sabbath Reveals Economic Disparities

The discussion of the sabbath leads to an interesting reflection. Some of our economies and cultures actually are put together in such a way that the poor either struggle to get enough work or have no time to rest. A job that is fair allows the worker to rest a day a week.

Rest would also imply sleep, since the way God initially structured life provided time for sleep and human beings were created to need to be refreshed in this way. So the poor should have opportunity to work for a living wage-one that enables them to be self-supporting in their society—and should have opportunity for rest. How might a church create a means for the poor to rest in this way?

Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Shortcuts Can’t Fix the Human Heart (And Poverty)

What is the solution? I once asked the former head of a major Christian relief and development organization what he had learned in his decades of experience in the field of poverty alleviation. …he said, at the foundation of a community are human beings, and the fulcrum of the human being is the human heart. Unfortunately, we keep on trying shortcuts.

We rush in with all sorts of buildings and programs, but unless the people’s hearts are properly oriented, we are just building on sinking sand. There simply are no shortcuts. There is no other way. The human heart is the foundation of the community, and we need to address the human heart before we do anything else.

Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, Moody Publishers, 2019.

Sometimes Serving the Poor Can Be…Messy

Kevin Blue has spent much of his ministry career serving the poor in inner-city Los Angeles. In this excerpt he describes working with a war vet named Clarence:

Richard, Tim, Caroline and Ellen moved into a poorer part of Los Angeles …During their first year in the neighborhood, this team of friends also met a man named Clarence. Clarence was a veteran, and, possibly due to his war experiences, at times he had difficulty remembering accurately and talking coherently. He was a large, barrel-chested man and a very kind soul.

One day Clarence showed up at my door looking for Richard, with whom I was renting an apartment. He seemed troubled. I introduced myself, and we talked on the front steps for a while. Clarence did not look well, but as I found over time, this was not uncommon. He was generally a bit dirty, and he was also incontinent. His pants were regularly stained with urine marks, and the smell drew flies.

Richard showed up. As we considered whether to invite Clarence to stay over, God reminded me that my father had served in the Korean War. I was challenged by the thought, What would I want someone to do, if this were my dad? The answer was pretty obvious.

We had a meal together, washed his clothes, put out a mattress with a blanket and made it easy for him to get to the bathroom in the night. We left the bathroom light on, cracked the door open and put the mattress about ten feet away from the bathroom door. Then we all went to sleep in our respective rooms.

I woke up in the morning, came out to check on Clarence and found out that I had slept through quite a ruckus. Clarence had woken up in the middle of the night, needing to go to the bathroom. Knowing he had only a moment, he rushed to get up, and instead of grabbing the doorknob to the well-lit bathroom, he grabbed the knob to Richard’s bedroom door.

He threw it open with some force and rushed inside. Richard awoke to the noise and, half-awake, saw the silhouetted image of a large, agitated man in his doorway. Startled, he jumped up on top of his bed, ready to do battle. Clarence was just as surprised to see Richard, and he went—right there in the doorway…We laugh about it now, but in the moment it wasn’t so funny. Sometimes love is a little messy.

Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Suspicion Towards the Poor

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Therefore, don’t give a man a fish.” This is the cultural mantra of much of the middle and upper class. While Jesus says directly to give to those who ask (Matthew 5:42), we are encouraged to interview, be suspicious of and ultimately not give to beggars.

Why? It seems we think that people are poor because they ought to be. Or is it like a disease that can be caught if you associate too closely? We are taught that those who are poor don’t want to work, are manipulative, don’t care about themselves or others, are criminally dangerous, or are unmotivated to do better. Yet Jesus doesn’t mention any of these conditions as reasons not to give to someone in need.

Truth be told, I know a fair number of people who make plenty of money of whom we should be suspicious, who should be investigated, who are pretty darn lazy and manipulative, and who care little about others. So why is there all the noise about beggars being this way? We are taught that there is abundant opportunity for all who are willing to work hard. Thus people with wealth cannot believe that we should relate with or help anyone who is poor. The poor should be able to help themselves.

Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Threat of the Christians

The fourth-century emperor Julian (AD 331-336) feared [Christians] might take over the empire. Referring to Christians as “Galileans” and Christianity as “atheism” (because of their denial of the existence of pagan gods) and believing their religion to be a sickness, he penned this directive to his officials:

We must pay special attention to this point, and by no means effect a cure. For when it came about the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan priests, then I think the impious Galileans observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendency in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices.

For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away form their friends and cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves…by the same method, I say, Galileans also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables-for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names-and the result is that they have led many into atheism [i.e. Christianity].

Quoted in Michael Frost, Surprise the World, NavPress, 2015.

These Impious Galileans

A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD).

Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors:

These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes….Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.

Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today.

Introduction by Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Julian the Apostate, quoted in Michael Craven, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome,” Crosswalk.com, November 8, 2010.

Two Gods on My Side

The Athenian general and politician Themistocles eventually alienated a large number of Greek City-States that came under their rule in the late 6thand early 5thcenturies B.C. With his fleet of ships anchored off a small island, he sent a message to one such vassal state, saying he had two powerful gods on each side of him that would compel them to pay up-Persuasion and Force. The leaders of the small island sent back a message that said they had two equally powerful gods on their side-Poverty and Despair…

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Smell and Prejudice

I read George Orwell’s book about class and working conditions in early-twentieth-century England, The Road to Wigan Pier.

The book’s most famous passage considers smell:

Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West—the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood.

The words were: The lower classes smell. That was what we were taught—the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier…It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done. And in my childhood, we were brought up to believe that they were dirty. Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help.

Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God, HarperOne, 2015, p.86.

Violence is Intentional 

In his excellent book, Just Courage, founder and CEO of the International Justice Mission, Gary Haugen articulates some of the realities behind the systemic oppression of the poor around the world:

The first thing to notice is that violence is intentional. For example, one of the most brutal forms of violence affecting millions of poor women and girls in our world is sex trafficking. Lured away from their villages with promises of a good job in another city or country, millions of women and girls are abducted into forced prostitution and compelled to endure an endless nightmare of sexual assault inside the backrooms of brothels and bars.

Rather than look away from such ugliness, Christians have to actually go looking for it. At [the International Justice Mission] IJM, that is exactly what we do. Almost every night, somewhere in the world, IJM undercover investigators are infiltrating the dark, violent underworld of sex trafficking to find the women and children who have disappeared into the blackness.

These women and girls suffer alone, out of sight and out of mind—so someone has to go find them. It’s different, but that is exactly what my IJM colleagues do. And when we find the victims, we find they are not suffering by accident. They aren’t suffering because of bad luck or a bad storm or a bad harvest or a bad bacteria. They are suffering because violent people want them to suffer. Violence is intentional.

Taken from Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christianby Gary A..Haugen. ©2008. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

The Wake-Up Call

For most of us, it’s a personal experience of poverty that helps us transcend our often narrow experience of the world. In this excerpt from theologian Marva J. Dawn, the former Regent College professor describes her own experience of poverty and its unintended consequences. While not completely unique, this excerpt strikes a chord with many from the west who travel to a part of the developing world:

My own personal wake-up call shook me to the core in the summer after my junior year in college, when I sang in a college choir traveling around the world to strengthen churches. During ten days in India I was overwhelmed by the thousands of beggars. I saw countless numbers of dead bodies in the streets, and I watched the workers who scooped them into large wheelbarrows and hauled them to the city dump to be burned.

My naive life was turned upside down there; I knew as a Christian that I could not ever ignore the poverty and injustice I had seen. I felt called by God always to work to counteract world hunger and deprivation. Since then I have become increasingly troubled by the state of wealthy U.S. churches. Why do we not pay more attention to God’s commands to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? We seem to ignore the real situation of the unfairly divided globe. What kind of wake-up call would be effective?

Marva J. Dawn, Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

What Do You Do?

I recently had lunch with a former British boarding school chaplain. He remembers being with the boys in his school the morning thirty years ago that the very first pictures of widespread starvation in Africa were shown on the BBC. “We were dumbstruck. Having the children’s faces in our faces made a tremendous impression. I will never forget the feelings I had that day.” He has seen and heard a lot since then, given who he is and what he does. “But then, after awhile, what do you do?” he asked. That is the most difficult dilemma for thoughtful, serious human beings: What will you do with what you know?

Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber, © 2014, p.110. Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


The Well-Intentioned Couple and the Vagabond

When I was in college I sometimes visited Bel Air Presbyterian Church, as did many of my friends. At that time Bel Air was known for being a place celebrities liked to visit. (This was not my favorite reason for attending, but I digress). One Sunday, a friend of mine’s sister was there and got to observe the following interaction. So there was a man sitting by himself in a pew, in torn clothing, looking fairly disheveled. After the service had ended, a well-to-do couple (this was the home of the Fresh Prince, after all) in the pew next to him began a conversation with the vagabond. They informed the man that there was a shelter not far from the church that he could easily get to via the bus. After patiently listening, the man simply responded:

“I’m Bob Dylan.”

Then walked away.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

See also Illustrations on Brokenness, JusticeNeeds

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