Soul Poverty

Friday, December 28, 2007

There are wrongs done by people in the grip of poverty that can be understood on some level. A man steals because he's hungry. A child too young is left to fend for herself because mommy has to go to work or she'll lose her job. Wrongs that shouldn't be, of course, but understandable in the face of real, honest physical poverty. I've been doing much study this year about this kind of poverty, the root causes and what we can do to help. Scripture demands that we help people faced with this kind of poverty.

But there is a poverty that I encounter weekly, maybe even daily, that I cannot comprehend and cannot combat. It is the poverty of the soul.

I once had a friend who had spent his Christmas holiday in Breckenridge Colorado with family. As I understand it, Breckenridge is a charming and very affluent ski town, (sound familiar?), and he had come home annoyed by the affluence he met there. He said, "I hate people who drive brand new, freshly washed Volvos in the wintertime."

"What?! So if I drove a Volvo and had just washed it you would hate me?"

"No, it's the people like that who wear designer clothes and stuff."

"I'm wearing Tommy Hilfiger jeans. Do you hate me?"

I remember his wife laughing from the kitchen. "That's the beauty of prejudice," she said. I remember thinking it was not very beautiful or funny. The comments have stuck to me like icky tar on white pants, and that conversation was probably 4 years ago. There is a poverty of soul that causes an otherwise good person to cherish a kind of hatred within themselves, and that confounds me.

I went walking this morning. We live in the brand new neighborhood that was built right next to our old neighborhood. At the time the development started, the neighbors in the old neighborhood decided to be annoyed that the field next to them was going to be houses (albeit beautiful houses) instead of a field. They did everything possible to make sure that the roads of the new neighborhood would not be connected to their roads. Their wish was granted and the roads that would have joined theirs were blocked, but it wasn't enough. Now they have spent thousands of dollars installing gates to close off paths that were already blocked from cars and still constantly complain about the new neighbors. I know because I still own houses in the old neighborhood. I walk there still (I pay the dues...) and this morning found myself blocked from my usual path by a bright red padlock. I get their newsletters, and before they knew I was "one of those people" they would voice their agonies to me. And what was their complaint? "Those people are using our streets to walk on! Yeah! I caught one standing looking at the pond the other day and had to tell them these ponds are only for Tillicum residents!" Wow.There is a devastating poverty there.

Our new neighborhood has a pool. Perhaps the old neighbors think that we think our pool is better than their pond or something and so they want to "show us"...I don't know what it is. Like I said, it's a poverty that confounds me. And I think, man! What if we were friends instead? What if you were nice to me? I would invite you to my pool on that hot August day and we'd swim together. You'd invite me to fish in your pond and my boys would make you laugh (they're so funny...) What if we shared the beauty each of us has been given instead of horded it?
But alas, you feel poor, I guess. Not that you would call it that.

But it is. Soul poverty.

Jesus addresses physical poverty. Helping widows and orphans in their distress is considered true religion. He also adresses spiritual poverty...the poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven! But when Jesus encounters this sort of soul poverty...all he can do is rebuke it. "White-washed tombs," he calls them. "If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy not sacrifice' you would not have condemned the innocent," he says.

I've learned that when someone speaks to you out of their soul poverty, you should believe what they say. I have made the mistake of believing that friendship went deeper than soul poverty, and unfortunately, it doesn't. That same woman who laughed at me about her husband's "prejudice" also expressed hating coffee drinkers...especially if they made the grave error of actually carrying around a paper cup from Starbucks. She also hated runners. Again, I don't understand it, I just report it.

I still wear my Tommy Hilfigers. I got them on sale at Macy's for $12 for goodness sake, but I think about the hatred I unwittingly stumbled into every time I put them on. I drink coffee and have been a runner for years, but I naively thought my friends were joking about those things. I mean, if you called them on it they'd laugh and say..."no, of course I don't actually hate anyone...that would be wrong." But our lives have a way of proving what is true in our hearts don't they. Our friends poverty was real and powerful and today's reality is that we are no longer allowed to call that couple friends (by their demand, not ours). I don't think they even knew the wrongs birthed from their poverty landed hard on me, and they'd certainly disagree that it had anything to do with coffee or jeans or exercise, but I've never been more hated in word and action by anyone than I have by them. Good Christian people too...they probably go to your church. I don't even think they realize they are poor.

It gets me fired up. We should give to the needy. We should fight injustice and poverty. So I wish to fight this sort of poverty too...but what weapon is there against such a thing? I've tried every one I knew...believe me. How do you fight a problem that even Jesus answered with disgust and rebuke? there's a topic for discussion.

Don't be hateful. Be careful what you say you hate. There's probably a real person behind that coffee cup...and she probably has some really lovely qualities and cooks a mean Moroccan Tagine and wants you to swim with her this summer! Hatred of anything will shape your life the same way love will. Hate evil only. Love justice and mercy and walk humbly. That is wealth.