Sunday, July 16, 2006

If you have faith, you should be caring for the needy

I’ve posted on internet message boards several times about Matthew 25: 31-46. I accept that the responses I’ve gotten are the best that I’m likely to get. They are intelligent and logical. They are faithful by a traditional standard of faith. They say that some people are called to evangelism or to fight against abortion, not so much to care for the needy. It’s all good, they almost said.

It seems to me that this is wrong. When it comes to evangelism or certain other issues promoted by the church, there is a massive response, in my view more than what is needed. Yet when it comes to caring for the needy, there is much less than is needed. I might be wrong. Maybe God’s priorities match those of the church of all believers exactly. I resist believing that God’s will for His church is in fact very different from what the church is doing, because if that’s true, there’s a big problem somewhere. Yet the possibility that this is the case never leaves me.

My current attention to this is prompted by a client I saw this week at the interfaith charity where I volunteer. He is in his forties. He worked steadily as a roofer until he came down with heart failure 8 months ago. He didn’t have health insurance then, and hasn’t managed to negotiate the system for Medicaid in the meantime. He has been seen through the local community clinic, but the mounting bill he has with them makes him nervous. He’s not the sort of person who’s accustomed to ignoring automated requests for payment. And while they will see him at the clinic without being paid, he has had to find ways to pay for the medication that has helped him some, though not enough for him to work again. The county helped him with that at one point, but then he got a single check from the state for his disability, and was dropped from the county program because of that. The thing about the state help was that it was just that one check because he had used the state disability program for a time previously, and his payroll deductions for the quarter that determines his benefits were used up with just that one check. So since then, he has been haphazard about taking his medicines for high blood pressure and the heart failure, taking neither in recent weeks. If the medicines can’t put him back to work, it doesn’t make any difference to him if he gets winded after 50 feet or a block.

Ordinarily I have a scary speech for people who aren’t taking their high blood pressure medicines, no matter how good the excuse. If they feel needy not being able to pay for medicine, just wait until they’re blind or have had their stroke, especially at a young age. I didn’t get to it this time. I impressed upon him how he must be relentless with getting Medicaid. It makes a difference whether his heart failure is because a virus attacked his heart or due to hardening of the arteries. As limited as Medicaid can be, not having it means his doctors haven’t even figured out that much of what’s wrong with him. For now I wrote a check from our fund for helping with prescriptions for $91.41 for the ones he needed most urgently, but we can’t do that for anyone more than once. We do better with food. He needed that, too. Fortunately he can stay with his brother, as he lost his apartment shortly after stopping work.

He needs to be persistent with Social Security, too. I don’t know his complete medical history, but from what I do know, it’s open and shut that he qualifies for Social Security disability, even before the first year is up. He has to follow up on his application, though, not the easiest thing to do for someone who is technically homeless with no money. We’ll help him with that, too.

Is it enough? Yes and no. My clients constantly make me think of how better off they are than they would have been years ago. No one in San Diego County needs to go hungry. There are enough resources for that, though the logistics of making that happen can be a problem. As much as I get angry at political propaganda minimizing the problem of homelessness, the lie that it’s just the mentally ill not taking medicines, that most could work if they wanted to, the life of being homeless, even on the streets, is not so bad that people set themselves on fire in protests, like the Buddhist monks did in Vietnam in the sixties.

But my clients also show me how hard it is for them. Many times I picture myself in their place and know I could do better with my experience than they are, but sometimes I know I would be just as lost as they are as to what to do next. Many do what I would do, pray a lot. I try to get across to many types of people I meet what a revelation it was for me to learn I could pray for direction, strength, and comfort, and receive exactly that. People in crisis are more ready to hear that than anyone.

Yet only so much neediness is necessary to make someone a ripe target for evangelism. My client above was impressed by his disability just as anyone is the first time they have a disability that is not going away. People get the message that they are not immortal, but they never think much how dependent they can become long before death, until it happens. And the only one available to help with that 24/7 is God. Only it’s hard to pay attention to God if you’re hungry or worried about problems where the only solution you can see is if you can suddenly start working again.

The idea that we need all the suffering that we have to learn from it and be shaped by it is ridiculous. We need some suffering for that. Beyond that, more suffering interferes with the opportunity for evangelism that a little suffering creates. I’m sure the threshold for that varies from person to person, but I’m also sure that most of my clients are suffering way past that threshold. They suffer because all they have is God, what they already know to do for themselves, and an inadequate, hodgepodge of a system to try to get help. They need more, in all sorts of ways.

Can you imagine standing before God with just one of my clients and have God ask you what you did for him or for her, even indirectly, knowing from Matthew 25 that whatever you did or didn’t do is just the same as what you did or didn’t do for Jesus? Would you like to tell God that it was just as important for you to fight against abortion?

Maybe you would. That’s the comparison that got to me this week. There is so much fervor against abortion, even against the destruction of human embryos, conceived in a dish, that will never come close to a uterus, but exist in a freezer until someone throws them away. Yet what about universal health care? Given the politics of it, I guess most conservative Christians are actually against universal health care. I see casualties of that position each day. Do you want to tell God why that’s not your fault? Or that you didn’t care because you think you have a get-out-of-jail-free card, somewhere, in heaven maybe? Fine, go there and get it. We’ll have a five-minute recess.

What does God say now? I feel myself resisting that God is even less of a traditionalist than I am, that He might look at Christianity and say, “What a waste.” Not that the blood of Jesus was wasted, but that the process by which the blood of Jesus is transforming this world is much, much slower and more in need of followers than most Christians can even imagine.

I was raised a liberal Christian, but still it was the usual Protestant message that I heard, that salvation comes through faith, not works. Eventually I knew what James wrote, that faith is evident in works. Lip service is not faith. It could be so much worse than that. I let God take me in my prayers, and I know that it’s possible that for many of the churches I’ve attended in the last twenty years, some liberal, some conservative, with many other variations, no one, absolutely no one is saved.

I know how to refute such an idea biblically, but such refutation doesn’t matter. That God is whoever and whatever He is matters. Some hold the Bible in their hands and say that is their faith. Where does that lead? For many it leads to neglecting the needy, despite what the Bible says. My faith leads me to prayer, again and again and again, to follow my Lord and my Savior Jesus Christ in saying, “not my will, but Yours”. A conservative ridiculed me for sharing about this once, saying that I do that only to pretend that everything I do is directed by God. No, I mean what I say in prayer. If God has no will or capacity to direct me, then maybe whatever does is better called God. Either way I leave it to Him. I’m not God. I receive direction from something that I never did naturally. If someone wants to call God a demon, that’s his or her fight, not mine.

My fight is that I recognize my resistance to saying that the problem with the church neglecting the needy is huge. That some say it’s not a problem at all means it’s either not a problem or it’s a huge problem. I’d so much rather it be a little problem, something that can be fixed, but like my client’s heart, it’s beyond that. I resist saying I believe that, just as he resists saying his heart failure will just magically stop one day, and he can go back to roofing. Well, such a miracle could happen, but I’d do the paperwork for Medicaid and Social Security ASAP, because I think that’s what is going to be needed, as it’s been needed for months now. So the course for the church might also be to keep doing what it’s been doing or something radically different. Are you sure you know which of these God wants?

As with all things I’ve learned to trust God, not passively, but in prayer. I look for God in reading, too, but with reading one is limited by the words on the page. Prayer is much more than that. I accept His direction, not the direction of those whose pride and idolatries are obvious. They really are obvious, yet it takes courage to say that, that it’s not just those obviously evil people that are sinners, as is human nature to say. It takes direction to go from that to the conclusion that those who wallow in such holier-than-thou sin have no faith whatsoever, no matter how pious and articulate they can be.

The Pharisees are always the ones who make Jesus angry the most. Why couldn’t they listen?

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