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Christian Response To Wealth And Poverty

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Here are some wonderful resources for helping your congregations become more intentional and serious about following Jesus' way and teachings about the Christian response to the poor and poverty.


1. Attached is an article called "Does Jesus Want Me to Be Poor? A middle class Christian seeks to understand how to live in a needy world," by Carol R. Cool. This article was included in a recent issue of the e-newsletter the PRISM E-PISTLE put out by our more evangelical friends at ESA - Evangelicals for Social Action (Ron Sider's group)


2. Ron Sider's famed book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, is a terrific book for an adult Sunday School class and it includes questions for leaders to ask for a class series.


3. Community With Children and the Poor: A Guide for Congregational Study, is EXCELLENT and is based upon the United Methodist Bishop's Letter of the same name. It is available through Cokesbury. This would be a terrific book for a 6 session study series.


4. Tony Campolo's video study series Affluenza - is superb and likely available through your denominational/ecumenical media resource center.


5. For those who wish to go deeper, check out Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics, by Theodore Jennings, Jr.


May God bless your Kingdom-building ministries!

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"...we might have come to serve the poor, but we will only stay if we discover that we are the poor, and that Jesus came to announce the good news, not to those who serve the poor, but to those who are poor! It is the broken ones who lead us to our brokenness, and to the knowledge that we need a healing Savior. Thus they lead us to Jesus, to healing, to wholeness, to resurrection.”

- Jean Vanier (THE BROKEN BODY, Paulist Press, 1988)


DOES JESUS WANT ME TO BE POOR? A middle-class Christian seeks to understand how to live in a needy world,

by Carol R. Cool.


Got a Dollar?

Pretending I don't see her, I keep walking, a bit more quickly. When I get to the corner, I glance back to see the homeless woman still on the bench, still hoping to find a sympathetic passerby. I tell myself she would just spend it on liquor. Then I hear Jesus say, "Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Matt. 25:45). And I feel guilty...again.


There is no getting around the abundance of Scriptures that command us to care for the poor. Neither can we explain away Jesus' declaration while addressing the crowds that "any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33).


On the other hand, Proverbs tells us that "prosperity is the reward of the righteous" (13:21). And Deuteronomy 8:18 declares that "the LORD your God...is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth." The context of the verse is Moses directing the Israelites to remember Who is responsible for the prosperity they will enjoy when they cross into the "good land" where they will "lack nothing" (vv. 7, 9). The implication is that prosperity is a good thing.


How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory scriptural views?


I've been struggling with these questions for years. Sometimes I've felt like Tarzan, swinging from one side to the other. First I would move fully into a social-justice mode, responding to every plea that came my way to bring about a more equitable society. I would jump at every opportunity, throw money at every cause. But more needs presented themselves; more photos of starving children showed up in my mailbox. I couldn't stem the flood, and guilt and frustration set in.


Then I would give up. If I was going to feel guilty even when I was doing something, wasn't it easier just to do nothing?


So for awhile I ignored the do-gooder stuff that only made me feel more guilty and instead tried to enjoy the "abundant" life. But soon guilt set in again, propelling me into heavy-duty activism.


I didn't really want to believe that what Jesus told the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21 - "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" - applied to me. But the message seemed pretty straightforward: There is no claiming to be a follower of Christ unless you have renounced possessions.


How are we called to live as middle-class Christians in a needy world? I began to look for some answers.


Some 25 years ago, Ron Sider's book RICH CHRISTIANSIN AN AGE OF HUNGER was my first exposure to evangelical social action. My mindset was radically different for having read it. Unfortunately, while I was more aware of the needs around me, I was also filled with guilt that I wasn't measuring up.


It was with some dread, then, that I recently approached Sider and asked him my questions: Can a Christian be a disciple of Christ without becoming poor? Can a person continue in a middle- or upper-class lifestyle and still be living as God desires?


His answers surprised me and made me wish I'd asked two decades ago. I might have found the way of balance much sooner.


First I asked him: Do we have to be poor to follow Christ? "Absolutely not. The biblical perspective is for us to live in wholeness, which includes a generous sufficiency of things. Poverty is a bad thing; God wants us to have all we need for a joyous life. God wants no one to be poor."


Sider said we needed a biblical understanding of possessions. God made all things and declared them "very good." He then put humans in charge as stewards to care for, nurture, and create new things from what He had given them.


As Sider put it, "God could have created Beethoven's music or spaceships, but instead, it was His choice to let us create...to produce things that never were before." In other words, producing more material abundance was the Creator's intention for us.


But God gave us a few restrictions: First, don't abuse the earth. Genesis 2:15 tells us that God put the man in the garden "to work it and take care of it." We are custodians of the earth, not its owner. God told the Israelites they could not sell the land permanently because the land was His. They were merely "aliens and [His] tenants" (Lev. 25:23). As such, we have the responsibility to care for the earth. He is Lord of creation and its sustainer (Heb. 1:2-3); we must not thwart His work.


The second restriction: Don't worship our own creations. The Bible calls possessions dangerous because we often treasure things and neglect God and others. True fulfillment comes first from a relationship with God and then relationships with others. Only then do possessions bring any fulfillment.


Sider believes that the average Christian hasn't developed a godly attitude toward possessions and the poor because of the omission of that topic from the pulpit. The care of the poor is the second most common theme in the Bible, according to Sider, and while evangelicals claim to teach the Scriptures, they don't talk about the poor as much as the Bible does. Sider calls this neglect "biblical infidelity."


We live in a world where at least a billion people have never heard of Christ and 1.2 billion struggle to live on a dollar a day or less. Those numbers alone underscore the need for expanded evangelism and economic development throughout our world. And that, Sider says, means we as believers are "called to live more simply."


According to emptytomb.inc., average churchgoers give only 2.5% of their net income to charity, and Sider says evangelicals approach that norm. "The typical American Christian could easily give 10 to20%. Our motivation should be to spend radically less on ourselves to free up resources for ministry."


Next I contacted Crown Financial Ministries, the combined ministry of Larry Burkett's Christian Financial Concepts and Howard Dayton's Crown Ministries, to get the perspective of Christians who teach money management.


The book BIBLICAL FINANCIAL STUDY, from Crown's adult small-group study materials, says, "The Bible does not demand one standard of living from

everyone." Scriptural principles should influence our lifestyles. We need to learn to be content, which Crown defines as "knowing what God requires of us in handling our money and possessions, doing those requirements and trusting God to provide exactly what He knows is best."


Howard Dayton, Crown's president and CEO, believes the church has failed to teach proper stewardship of all our resources. "Too often the church has concentrated solely on teaching people how to handle10% of their income,...[and] they have neglected to teach people how to handle the other 90% from God's perspective." This results in Christians' adopting the culture's viewpoint when deciding how to use their money.


Crown's brochure "Establishing a Benevolence Ministry" asserts that "Christianity has failed to comply with one of the most fundamental principles God ever established: 'At this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality; as it is written, "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack"' (2 Cor. 8:14-15NASB)."


In essence: There should be enough for all. Great imbalances of wealth and poverty do not please the Lord.


Agreeing with Sider's assessment, the brochure goes on: "The surpluses that the church must have in order to minister to the needy are always available. Too often, Christians are consuming or wasting them. Statistics prove that about 20% of the people tithe in the average evangelical church."


Next I consulted friends whom I knew wanted to follow Jesus. Michael and Debby said that while they routinely give to one hunger organization, mostly they just respond to solicitations for money or help that come their way. They really don't have a thought-out plan; they just meet needs that are presented to them as they can.


"It's easy to let time go by and do nothing," said Debby. "That's why we find it helpful to have other believers who talk with us about ministering to others." Both Michael and Debby agreed that it helps when the church provides opportunities to give and to do.


Ann doesn't really have a plan either. There some organizations she consistently gives to, and occasionally she responds to heart-wrenching mailings. But mostly Ann takes advantage of the monthly needs list her company sends out. Ann responds to those she can "fit in." Unlike many of us who are irritated by direct-mail pieces begging for funds, Ann sees them as helpful reminders not to get too wrapped up in herself.


Experts and laypeople alike agree that the church needs to be talking about money and the poor and also providing opportunities for people to give of their money, their time, and themselves. As believers, we need to be talking together about giving and world needs, not to make each other feel guilty, but to help each of us discern God's desires.


No one I talked to believed that God called all or even most believers to voluntary poverty. That was a relief. They all believe God wants us to enjoy life while caring for the needs of others. But what about the apparent extremes presented in Scripture? One place that seems to reconcile them is 1 Timothy 6:17-18:


"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share."


True life comes as we recognize God as the source of all we have, enjoy all the gifts He's given us, and seek opportunities to be generous and share with others. God's balance does not involve swinging on a vine from extreme to extreme. Instead, I now envision God's balance as a tightrope. There will always be tension; in fact, there needs to be tension if I am to walk it successfully.


I find encouragement for this tightrope-walking I Galatians 6:4-5 in THE MESSAGE, which says: "Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don't be impressed with yourself. Don't compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life."


So what was "the work I had been given"? I began to investigate my passions and my gifts and abilities I'm enthusiastic, an organizer, and able to teach and write. I enjoy showing hospitality. I always root for the underdog, for I love seeing someone succeed against the odds.


As I prayed about the unique way God had created me, I began to choose opportunities that used my talents and gave me joy. I chose an "underdog" country, Haiti, and now work to make a difference there, sponsoring a child through Compassion International, building homes through donations to Habitat for Humanity, and providing food and livelihoods through gifts of livestock from the Heifer Project. I'm using my writing and organizing skills on my local Habitat's fund-raising committee, and I organize service projects for our church.


My husband also has the gift of hospitality, which has led us to invite people in crisis into our home for extended periods. With a sense of how God has created us, we now have a plan for our giving. This frees us to say no without guilt to opportunities that don't fit. We want to use our gifts to mirror Christ in our world.


And that's the goal of all who walk the tightrope. We learn to step carefully so we don't fall to one side or the other, landing on the soft pillow of materialism or the hard floor of asceticism. And we have an advantage over the typical tightrope walker - we walk with God. If we hold onto Him, our feet will stay on the rope, and we will stay on course.


(Carol R. Cool is a freelance writer based in Bear, Delaware. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of MOODY Magazine. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author. Cool wrote "Running for the Exits: How to be a social activist without being a bore!" in the Mar/Apr '03 issue of PRISM.)

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