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On Papers and Poverty

Preston Sprinkle —  November 19, 2011 — 7 Comments
This entry is part 1 of 2 in the seriesOn Papers and Poverty

I’m writing this post from downtown San Francisco, where I just finished attending the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) conference. Every year, thousands of leading evangelical theologians gather together at an upscale hotel to present papers on various biblical, ethical, and theological issues. “Logical Contradiction and God’s Omnipotence” and “Foundationalism and God’s Eye View” are just two titles of the 300 papers that were read (literally) over the last 2 days.

Overall, the conference is a great time to see what’s going on with evangelical scholarship. Sometimes the papers are informative and intellectually stimulating. Most of the time, however, they are quite boring and abstract. Admittedly, I battle against cynicism (or sometimes anger) when I watch certain ivory tower theologians wax eloquent about God in a way that promotes their self-perceived wisdom, or makes the Bible seem boring, dry, or impossible to understand (or all three). Sometimes I attend papers for the same reason I attend the zoo. It’s entertaining, bewildering, and sad all at the same time. Kind of like watching monkeys and apes behind bars at the zoo. They’re almost human, but oh so different.

But ETS can also be a great time to meet new friends, hang out with old ones, and learn about what God’s doing around the country in various theological institutions. In a love/hate sort of way, I enjoy the 2 days of papers I listen to at the annual ETS meeting.

After the conference, I hung out with Francis Chan for a couple of hours. I visited City Impact where he serves and had a great conversation over some killer Vietnamese Pho. We then delivered food and toiletries to some people living in low-income housing in the inner-city—just 3 blocks from the upscale hotel where ETS met.

The comparison between the 2 days at ETS and 2 hours in the inner-city was mystifying.

During my time with Francis, I met lots of cool people in the “Boyd,” the name of the apartment where we did our rounds. They lived in one-room flats with a bathroom down the hall. They all lacked basic necessities in life. Food, clothing, toiletries, and much, much more. One lady, Lisa, lacks more than food; she lacks four fingers on her right hand and gets by with just a thumb. She also lacks her two kids, who were taken away from her and now live in Texas. Moses, the man down the hall, hasn’t seen his family in almost 3 years, but luckily he’s going to see them next week at Thanksgiving. For Moses, this year’s Thanksgiving will be much more than suburban gluttony. He was truly thankful that he’ll get to see his family, and his thankfulness welled up in his eyes as he imaged his future encounter. Everyone I met lacks hope. There’s a glimmer of it left in their heart, and we were able to harness this hope with an invitation to a thanksgiving banquet, where they will be fed steak, shrimp, and pasta (Lisa’s request). More than that, they will be waited upon hand and foot by the volunteers—including Francis. This is just Brilliant! A Christian celebrity waiting hand and foot on a bunch of marginalized ruffians who don’t know who he is. He loves it, and I’m pretty sure that Jesus loves it too.

Most impactful was meeting Shelia Wheeler. Shelia also lives in the Boyd, but she’s given a $175/month stipend to act as a liaison between the city and the tenants for whatever needs arrive. If the carpet needs cleaning, she’ll find ways to have it cleaned. If the washer and dryer needs to be fix, she’s find someone to fix it. (Currently, the building doesn’t have a washer or dryer, though; so no fixing is needed.) Shelia is their advocate, their friend, and their hope. In many ways, she’s their “pastor,” and she couldn’t help but laugh when I said that to her! She tried to funnel her $175 stipend back into the building, but the city wouldn’t let her. She must—against her will—keep her robust salary and spend it on herself. We in the suburbs have so much to learn.

In reflecting on the last 2 days and especially the last 2 hours, I couldn’t help but note the irony. I listened to theological and exegetical papers for the last 2 days, but I learned more about God, Christianity, and the Church in the last 2 hours. Proverbs says that “he who mocks the poor, mocks his Maker” and Matthew 25 says that “as much as you did it to the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” However you slice it, the Bible identifies God with the poor. Sometimes I wonder how much we miss God when we study Him as we are locked up in the confines of middle-class Christianity, away from the poor whom He identifies with. As I talked with Shelia, Moses, Lisa, and other tenants of the Boyd building, I wonder who is really reaching out to whom.

I was touched and wrecked by God today, but it wasn’t at ETS. I was wrecked by the fact that I study, teach, and talk about God every day of my life, but I learned more about God by experiencing a few hours with His image bearers who are far from the life that He desires of them.

“I dwell I the high and holy place, and also with him who is of contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15).

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the seriesOn Papers and Poverty

Last week, I posted about the striking contrast between the annual ETS meeting and the grinding poverty of inner-city San Francisco where the conference was located. This was a thought-provoking experience to say the least! But it wasn’t the first time God opened my eyes to realities of poverty and the ethical demands of the gospel toward the poor.

A few years ago, I was deeply struck by the Bible’s condemnation of the misuse of wealth as I was preparing to teach a class on Ezekiel. I read Ezekiel 16:49 for what seemed like the first time and the rest is history. (You can read about my retelling of this story HERE.) I then quickly found out that there are over 2,000 passages in the Bible that condemn greed, the misuse of wealth, or indifference toward the poor. I quickly realized that something is wrong. How is it that I’ve listened to well over 1,000 sermons in my life, attended (at the time) both Bible College and Seminary, and yet had never been told about the relentless concern God has for the poor?

It takes an insane amount of interpretive creativity to dodge 2,000 passages. Perhaps we need to stop talking about being biblical and start reading the Bible with fresh lenses. Think about this. The Bible condemns the misuse of wealth, more that it condemns the misuse of alcohol, sex, and drugs combined!

Could it be that our value scale of what makes a good Christian is terribly skewed? If someone struggles with alcohol abuse, pornography, and drug addiction, yet devotes his life to serving the poor, we condemn them as an unbeliever. But if someone never drinks, uses drugs, or looks at a porn site, and yet has no heart whatsoever toward the poor, we call him a saint. In fact, if he’s a good speaker, we call him pastor, shower him with praise, and—ironically enough—bless him with a 6 figure salary.

I’m not advocating for less concern for alcohol or drug abuse, nor am I saying that helping the poor constitutes salvation. Plenty of unbelievers are concerned for the poor, but aren’t doing so out of a deep love for Jesus. But I am advocating that we reconfigure our ethical value scale more around the Bible than the Christian culture we grew up in. What would it like if the ethos of our churches reflected the blistering critique that the Bible levels against the misuse of wealth and lack of concern for the poor.

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