Helping People is Messy Business

While embroiled in the season of Lent I want to remind you that helping people, being charitable, is messy business. They always want more. You want to keep things personably distant, under control, and people with needs want to be uncomfortably near. If churches, synagogues and service organizations, helped people like Jesus did, we’d do much more than only give money, clothes we no longer use, and pack canned food off to people we’ll never meet. Rather, like a few rare churches I have known, we’d give everything. We’d get dirty, roll up our sleeves, freely share our lives and live with troubled people.

Most religious and service organizations, in my experience, remind me of a fat, indulgent man watching football on TV. He bandies a remote, controlling everything. He yells orders at players he doesn’t know, he consumes constantly, and, and, this is most important, he NEVER himself plays football.

How do I know? I know because I did it. I thought my money (actually, my church’s money) bought me the power to dictate how the people lived their lives. Since I was the pastor/missionary, I thought I was to be obeyed, honored, respected – after all, not only was I the great White Hope but also I had God on my side. Although at the time I could not have seen it, I thought I deserved adulation, obedience and more. “Those people” needed me. Clearly their ideas did not work. They were short on manners. Slow. Uncreative. They were desperately in need of my superior ways. Besides, here I was sacrificing everything (well not exactly everything) in order to help them be more like me.

I met Temba (which means “hope”) when he was nine and looked like he needed my help. He lived in a squatter camp, an “informal settlement” of cardboard and mud houses without running water, toilets or electricity. People used what they scrounged, borrowed or stole – plastic trash bags, iron sheeting and wood merged with ancient skills using mud and stones, to build their homes. It was in such a settlement I met Temba.

He stood out from the other children and was very bright, and, although he was often moody and aggressive, there was something about him that I immediately liked. Since he was suitably grateful for my help, and always pleased to see my car arriving at the squatter camp, and came running to see what I’d brought on this occasion to ease his burden, our relationship blossomed.

And then one afternoon Temba arrived at my home in the middle of a very decent white suburb, wanting to come in. This is what I mean by “always wanting more.” He’d run away from his home and was determined and creative enough to find mine. And his being at my front door – banging loudly enough to get the attention of neighbors – was embarrassing and unsettling for me. Here was this black child, at a time when South Africa was yet under apartheid, banging on my front door! Did he not know that I came to him? Did he not know how these things worked? I called the shots. Had he forgotten that weekly I got into my car and, leaving my home (anonymous to all whom I helped) came to him and did my good deeds? Now here was this boy coming to me, breaking the rules I’d set up of how we at our church, helped people.

Temba taught me a lot and, since I was seldom a willing student, learning was not without pain. He showed me that if Jesus modeled His approach to ministry from churches (rather than the other way around) he would have commuted to Earth, perhaps He’d have docked on our planet one day a week, sometimes even stayed over at some top-notch hotel. He’d have gotten limousine rides to meetings and bodyguards would have kept people at a safe length while he preached routine sermons to admiring masses. Thank God he emptied himself, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, lived among us and embraced the messy business of helping you and me, then commanded that we do the same.

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One Response to Helping People is Messy Business

  1. Ben says:

    Wow. Good, good, good point. Thank you.

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