Thursday, March 15, 2012

Starting Small

When we first arrived in South Africa, I wrote about being constantly asked for money, food, clothing, and other things. Here in Cape Town, I don't know the landscape. Who am I to judge? We know that we have been blessed with a lot, and that we don't deserve what we have- we work and are frugal but we have more than plenty of people who work harder and are more frugal.

So I went from not giving anything to anyone, to giving everything to everyone. The latter lasted about 2 or 3 weeks, until I noticed I was unconsciously avoiding having cash in my pockets, sitting in the kitchen (away from the road) rather than in the living room (where I could hear the beggar at my gate knocking), and walking a route that was quieter.

I'm totally unable to connect with people I hoped I wasn't so different from. There's a fake connection that's easy- you need something, times are hard, oh yes they are (as if I know), oh I'm so sorry, here you go, bless you, no, God bless you.

In Boston, we did a course on God's take on giving (and jubilee and justice) called Lazarus at the Gate. The story of Lazarus at the Gate is, in crude summary, the story of a rich man who presumably never noticed that there was a poor man, Lazarus, lying at his gate. They go to heaven (Lazarus) and hell (the rich man) and a major take-home of the story is that God cares about the suffering of the poor. One thing I seldom thought about in the context of that story was that the rich man and Lazarus may have been quite different. I generally thought of it being me, in different circumstances, at the gate. The challenge is that life experiences really change us. We become hardened or proud or addicted or angry or guilty, often because of our wealth or lack thereof. And we cannot connect across our pride or guilt or addiction.

Jesus is able to see the beggar and the rich man rightly. And if I managed to break through the pretense and guilting and pain (on both sides), maybe there's still connection to be had. It's very risky, and it seems silly to seek connection when someone needs food or money (you shouldn't say "be healthy and well fed" and ignore that you have the means to provide for those needs). It's so hard to live justly in a deeply unequal society, to even know what's more real than the scripts given to white liberal returnee and Obs beggar.

The two or three weeks when we gave whatever someone asked felt miraculous and good- it felt innocent- and I'm sorry that the sense of scarcity returned.

Now, as we think about how to give here in SA and in the U.S., I really hope we can learn how to see people rightly and break out of the roles we force on each other. I hope we can wrestle with systemic change and not give out of guilt. But I hope I can still notice the person in front of me and allow the occasional miracle; maybe do something radical and invite them in.

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