Last year, I wrote about how moved I was watching the Visual Bible**. And I often mention seeing some of God’s small treasures in the world around me, His amuse-bouches.** But there’s another experience of seeing I’ve had recently: seeing the person in front of me. That doesn’t sound very earthshaking. I see people in front of me all the time as I go about my daily business. However I generally don’t pay much attention to them because I don’t want to be distracted from my task. Seeing often gets in the way of comfort, ease and efficiency.
For ten years, I used to work in one of the wealthiest and brainiest towns in America. Every day I’d leave my house and drive five miles past woods and gentlemen farms. When I reached the town, I’d drive slowly, happy for the 25 mph speed limit. Then I would gaze lovingly and longingly at beautiful, five-million-dollar mansions, the old classic kind made out of brick and stone and slate.
But in the state capital, ten miles in the other direction from my house, there was appalling, unsightly poverty. When I first moved to the area, it was an entire year before I had a reason to go to that city and when I did, I didn’t look longingly at the abandoned row houses or the homeless pushing their shopping carts, or idle men sitting on the stoops. The place was a war zone of urban renewal and I never liked to linger there. I’d do my business and leave as soon as I could.
Now I live in a developing country where there is no ten-mile cushion between rich and poor. If I have a meal at a beachside restaurant, I’ll see a hunchbacked man selling flowers, two street kids doing gymnastic tricks to hustle up some change, and a woman begging with a baby strapped to her back. Waiting at a traffic light in my car, I’ll see disfigured beggars without limbs, and I’ll quickly look away.
There is another kind of poverty I’m exposed to here which is more pervasive than begging, and yet easier to over look. Every day when I leave the house, I see people who are living a hand-to-mouth existence. Many of them sleep in makeshift houses without electricity or running water [which means no heat when it is cold or fans when it is hot]. Or perhaps they live in one room, or share a small apartment with eight or nine family members.
This poverty is so widespread that I feel overwhelmed by it. I close the eyes of my heart because it feels too difficult to see the pain, the suffering, the not-yet redeemed. My attitude is like the disciples who looked at the hungry crowd and asked Jesus to send them away.** It feels like a helpless, hopeless situation.
Recently I walked to the nearest store that sells fruit and vegetables. For the first five years I lived here, I drove by this store every day on my way to run in the park, and I never once stopped and bought something. It looked too scrappy, too gritty. When I finally did go, I discovered my judgment was pretty accurate. Outside of a dark, cramped shop, the vegetable stand offers a basic selection of fruits and vegetables which are often not the freshest or nicest-looking. However, because it’s within walking distance, the store has become my stop-gap when I need just a few things and I’m too lazy to get in the car and battle the ever-growing traffic to go to the larger supermarket a mile a way.
This particular day as I walked to the little store, I was multitasking as usual, listening to a lecture on my mp3 player. A former Buddhist who later taught at L’abri** was giving a very thought-provoking talk about the trinity, the incarnation, and about how we have a primal, instinctive need to be in relationship. He talked about how children are always saying, “Look at me, look at me.” We want to be seen and known.
Then I reached the store and turned off the lecture. I started my usual routine, telling the employee who mans the stand what I wanted. He picked the vegetables out of their crates, weighed them on a scale and bagged them. Since it is tight quarters without much to look at, and since I had just been reminded about looking at people, I focused my attention on the employee.
He was wearing an old blue tracksuit jacket and flimsy pants that were grubby and worn, with frayed hems. He had cheap plastic sandals on his feet. As I stared at him, I thought of how Jesus came down to earth to incarnate God’s love to us and my heart was filled with compassion. But the gap between myself and the employee is great: age, gender, culture, language, education, money, religion, status. The only way to reach this man with God’s love would be to somehow come alongside of him, as Jesus did. But I didn’t see how I could bridge the gap. All I could do was pray for him, which I did while he worked.
Then I got the idea to give him a tip. Now I had never given him a tip before. I am by nature a miser and a Pharisee who can always find a good reason why I don’t have to give a token of my appreciation, especially in a culture where people expect to be tipped for the smallest job. Reasons like: it’s too inconvenient to dig it out of my coin purse, the person is getting paid anyway, if everyone tipped him he’d be getting rich, he’ll start to expect something every time…
But as I thought of God’s love for this man, I was moved to give him more than would be expected. Inside the store, as I waited for the owner to total up my purchase, I took out a small bill, the equivalent of $2.50. Tipping is not done publicly here, so I folded up the bill and put it in the palm of my hand. I walked out with my vegetables and the employee followed, to return to his place by the crates of vegetables. I shook his hand and thanked him, putting the bill into his hand without anyone seeing what I had given. I walked home, feeling good that I had really seen someone and responded to them from my heart, not judging them, not closing my eyes or turning away.**
A week later I went back to the store to buy more vegetables. I had forgotten about my tip until the employee saw me. He beamed at me and then gave me a little salute in a genuine and spontaneous show of gratitude for what I had given to him. When he went to help me, he made an extra effort to choose the freshest vegetables. He helped me put them in my backpack after I paid. In short, he treated me like a queen.
I was so humbled that tears came to my eyes, to know that so little could affect him so much. I began to wonder about his life. How much did he get paid a day? [probably $5 if the store owner is generous]. I was sobered to think how I go through my daily life without grasping what it means to be poor here. I simply close my eyes to it, not wanting to admit how big a difference there is between my standard of living and 99% of the people around me.**
Every day as I walk by the poor, my own poverty of spirit is exposed. I have been given so much, materially and spiritually. Yet my default position is to take God’s provision in my life for granted, and then to be blind as to how I might help those around me. And when I do think about being generous, I often hold back, not trusting Him to continue to provide for me. Because I don’t have an answer for what it means to be rich in a poor world, I put the question away, and close my heart to the unfairness of life.
There is no triumphant end to this story. I have no wise lesson to offer. Since this experience with the vegetable seller, I have lapsed back into blindness and hard-heartedness. I am still very poor in mercy even though I am so rich. I still hold on to what I have, thinking it is mine and not God’s gift to me. I still fail to be a channel of His mercy in the lives of those around me, even though I could so something as simple as handing out a dollar every day to a random poor person. I am left needing mercy for not showing mercy.
All I can say is that I want to develop both a gift of gratitude and a gift of generosity. I want to see people around me through the eyes of God and with the heart of God, and then to give as it has been given to me. I want to feed Jesus. I want to be a sheep and not a goat.** And I think the place to start is before I leave the house. I need to watch God first thing in the morning, by reading His word. Then He’ll become my vision and His compassion will become my heartbeat. I don’t have to look hard to find this either. Here is what I came to this morning:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young.
**Notes and Links
**See what you hear: The Visual Bible
**One of God’s Amuse-Bouches
**See Matthew 14:13:21
**Ellis Potter: The Real Problem with Buddhism
**The fact that I felt so good about such a small act of kindness is a subject for another post…
**The official minimum wage here is $10 a day if you work in a factory. Farmworkers are supposed to get $6 a day.
A monthly household income of $700 a month puts you in the upper-middle class here. If your household income is $1000 a month, you are upper class [aka rich].
**“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”