Guilty Bystander: Confessing My Apathy

Lord, it’s me again. Tonight, I think I have to confess that I am a guilty bystander – not an innocent bystander – a guilty one. I’m the opposite of a Good Samaritan. I’m the cast of the final episode of Seinfeld, sitting in jail because I just, well, stood by.

I see the suffering of the world; I hear the cries of injustice and suffering; I smell the stink of decay and death; I feel the coldness of a world that lacks even common decency on my skin, in my heart. And yet, with my senses all alert, I more often than not, do little or nothing about any of it.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, author and survivor of the Nazi death camps Elie Wiesel has said, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” If he is right, then perhaps one of the greatest sins against the God of love is apathy.  Hate bothers to expend the energy to turn a child of God into an object of scorn. Apathy… well, it just refuses to give a rip. I confess that this analysis – this accusation – cuts me to the bone with its sharp edged truth.

I know well that there is no room for apathy in a life of faith. Apathy is condemned in the words of I John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)  How does the rich man, who plainly sees Lazarus starving at his gate as plainly as he sees his own image in the mirror every morning, do nothing to love his neighbor? (Luke 16:19 ff) I understand the reality. But it about more than just understanding, isn’t it? How do I let things slide so easily?

I John calls – demands – “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And yet, I am too often unmoved by this demand; this holy, Christ-like demand. Why?

To be honest, it seems to me an overwhelming demand. There is so much suffering in the broken and busted world and frankly God, I’m busy. I can’t fit it all in. How can I solve the problems of the world with my calendar already full of things you call me to do? Well, to be honest, maybe you don’t call me to do all those other things. Maybe I use that as a little bit of an excuse. Honestly, I guess, my schedule is often full not of things you call me to do, but the things this world expects me to do; things I think I must do. The loud voices of Madison Avenue, pundits, social media and my deep desire to be accepted call me to fill my calendar. I’m really bad about saying no and making you a priority. I have to confess that while I’m busy, it is not with things that may be on your list of priorities for my life.

And yes, before you say it, Lord, you don’t ask me to solve the problem of world hunger or poverty or human trafficking. I John just points me to the one in need who is standing right in front of me. You don’t call me to solve the problem, just to be part of the solution with what you have already given me.  My apathy Lord, I confess, is sometimes due to my own lack of priorities.

So, OK, it is not that I am too busy. But it is still hard. I love the life you have given me and I really need to be a good steward of what I have, don’t I? The problems of this world are always, it seems, interruptions in the order of my day. Acting differently today than I did yesterday is a disruption and it seems to me to risk losing track of other important things. OK, I’ll be honest – we both know how we humans feel about change. As your servant, Richard Rohr has said, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future.” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)

Acting is one thing. But acting differently is change, and I really prefer the status quo. Respectfully, God that is a problem I have with you. You are really not a God of the status quo are you? I mean, resurrection is an ultimate stand against what was for something totally new. So I get it, but I don’t like it. How can I see the person suffering before me and not be the agent of new life and hope for them if I believe in the resurrection? Because I’m comfortable – and that is a terrible reason. For my love of the past and satisfaction with the way things are; for my resistance to change and new life, I must confess.

Lord, is it that I just don’t care? I think I do. I hope I do. I care about the things that are wrong with this world; the people who suffer. I feel pain in my soul when I see what goes on. But I still don’t do anything. Maybe it is deeper than not caring. Dare I admit to you that I’m afraid? Afraid that if I do anything, that what I do, we do – even in your name – just doesn’t matter? There. I said it.

If doing what you call me to do doesn’t matter, then perhaps I must confess not my apathy, but my despair; my hopelessness. I must confess then that I have come to believe that the suffering and evil of the world is more powerful than you; that I believe in the rottenness of this world more than I believe in or trust your love. And if that is true, I’m in trouble, Lord. Because that means that what you did on the cross doesn’t matter either.

Mercy, Lord – to say that my actions don’t matter also means that I don’t matter. And that is what I fear the most – meaninglessness. I mean, you created me; you reside in the deepest part of me. How can I think I don’t matter? How can I not matter if you are part of me? And then the question comes back, How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The truth is that when I do not act in your name I evict you and you cannot abide in me. Wow. For that sin I must confess.

You once told a parable about sowing seed on different kinds of ground that made it impossible for the good news, the new life, the reign of God to take root and thrive. (Mark 4) I love that parable. It has taught me to be aware of the ways that the concerns and cares of the world; the fears of my own heart; the noise of the voices of hate and sin can lead to desolation. As I stand before you tonight, I wonder if there is not another dimension of this parable that could be added. When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

For my apathy, despair, and hopelessness; for my refusal to let you in to my thoughts and my actions; for my excuses and for leaving the fruits of the kingdom rotting in the field, I confess, gracious Lord. Redeem me and take root in my life; take up residence in me so that I may love as you love. Amen.


 

Copyright © 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Timothy V. Olson. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Tim.

The Worthy Poor?

Jesus said, “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

As the thunder thunders and the rain falls outside, I find myself thinking about this verse from Matthew. If you have water in the basement or a lake where you backyard used to be, you may not think of rain as a blessing right now. Sunshine? Absolutely. Precipitation? Not so much. The point of the verse is that good things (sunshine) and bad things (more rain) come to people regardless of their worth or standing; no matter whether they earned them; and in spite of whether they are good or bad people – however we determine that. Maybe the reason that the verse sprang to my head as the drops fell against the window was because I also have had on my mind the response to poverty in our culture. All too often I hear things like, “We should support the poor, as long as they deserve the help;” or “We don’t want to create dependency in these people and help them too much, after all, they made their bed…” It is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy poor people, just as it is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy rich people. The sun and the rain fall on everyone.

I encountered a good article on the subject by Scott Dannemiller – check it out: There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor | The Accidental Missionary.

poor jesus statue

Jesus is the one who reminds us how wrong we are when we start judging the worth of other people. The statue of “The Homeless Jesus” (you can only identify the body on the bench by the wounds in the hands and feet) is pulled from Matthew’s gospel too. When we see people who are worthless, Jesus is incarnate in and through them. That’s what he said. “As you do to the least of these you do to me.” “I was hungry and you… I was in prison and you…” The artist has a series of such works:

thumbs_jail-ms-new-thumbnailthumbs_thumbs_whatsoever_you_do

http://www.sculpturebytps.com/large-bronze-statues-and-sculptures/religious-statues/statues-of-jesus/

You see, you can’t dismiss anyone because Jesus died for them and is united in death and resurrection with them. We are all unworthy. It is Christ who grants us worth by sharing himself with us.

Ever since I first saw the Homeless Jesus, I have thought that the forsaken figure should be on the bench in the north side of our church. It would remind us that we don’t only meet Jesus inside the church, but we often walk right past him on the street in the guise f a person we deem unworthy. Today, we would look out and see Jesus on the bench in the pouring rain. I think of that and my heart breaks. Jesus on that bench beckons us to come out in the rain and walk in his reign with him.

We are a congregation that proclaims our “open arms.” Today, that has to lead to a wet embrace. – Peace to you.

The Food Stamp Diet

I think this article from the CEO of Panera Bread is an important article to read.  After I talked about the SNAP program in a recent blog I received some  “anonymous” critique by mail (which I shredded with all the other “anonymous” input I receive).  Lots of people seem to spend a lot of anxiety on how hungry people might waste assistance (mostly people who have plenty to eat, I note, like me). This article may help bring home the point that as long as one person is hungry in this world, we are all starving to death in some way (to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr.)  Further, I always assume that when I stand before my Lord on judgment day, whatever that may involve, I will want to be guilty of giving too much to people who may not have deserved it than to be guilty of seeing the hungry “and giving nothing to eat.” (Matthew 25).  Just what I’m thinking today.

New Pittsburgh Courier – Panera CEO clueless about hunger till his food stamp diet.

SNAP and God’s Concern for the Poor

So, I was thinking as I read about the fact that too many kids in our country don’t have enough to eat; as I noted that we have used up pretty much all the money we had for assisting the poor already this year; as I learned about cuts to the SNAP program; as I read the advice from one pastor that we should not talk about the plight of the poor because it is too political, that God must spend a lot of time weeping.  In an age where we seem very concerned about rights: marriage rights, gun rights, freedom of speech, etc., we don’t seem to spend much time thinking about what Jimmy Carter (among others) called the two most basic human rights: to live in peace and have enough to eat. I was also thinking that life would be easier if I just kept my thoughts to myself…. but, there is this call I received, and vows I took.  So, here’s my thinking today.

Whether we agree with the position of the prophets and Jesus on the poor or not, it is clear that God seems to, on the one hand have infinite concern for the widows, orphans, those aliens in the land who have nothing, the poor, the people who live on the fringes and on the other, gets very impatient with those who have means and don’t take care of the poor.  The prophet Amos says in this week’s lesson “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…” (Amos 8:4)  Is the warning of God’s anger for us? Read through this article from Sojourners about the poor and the SNAP program: Just Picking On the Poor: The Facts and the Faces of Cutting SNAP – Jim Wallis | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Now, I know that there are concerns that some programs for the poor create dependency and keep people from work. I support every effort made to find long-term solutions to problems and to help people become the people God calls them to be — which biblically speaking, includes meaningful work. But, as one who meets the people who come in our door desperately searching for help, very few are the “lazy reprobates” everyone seems to fear. They are quite the opposite, in fact.

I also know that government excess is a problem and that “the government” is everyone’s favorite bad guy (even though in a Democracy, the enemy is us). But we can’t be a people who allow the “pain” of fiscal responsibility trickle down so the poor pay the freight.

It comes down to compassion and love, for me. If my God cares about the poor; if my God died to save me as a poor brutalized human; if I am called to love God AND my neighbor (read “humanity” ala the Good Samaritan) then caring for, supporting and giving voice to the poor is a calling for all who call upon the name of Jesus. That’s just what I was thinking today.

Pax Christi, Tim