Wineskins Archive

December 16, 2013

Naming Names (Jan 2012)

Filed under: — @ 10:50 am and

By Adam Gonnerman

A few years ago, while detoxing from a very narrow-minded, legalistic period of my life, I began discovering how much the Scripture speaks about concern for the poor and solidarity with the weak. Though I’d been reading the Bible for years, had preached from it in the United States and Brazil and had even completed a degree in ministry, this came as news to me. That the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has a preference for the underdog should have been obvious all along, but it wasn’t. Somehow I’d missed it, just as years before I’d missed all the verses about baptism in my evangelical commitment to “faith alone.” (Sometimes I wonder how much else I’m missing.)

In any case, the more I studied and read about poverty ministry, the more videos I watched and the more reports I heard from folks working in this area on the mission field, the stronger I felt my convictions become. In a way, I became pretty proud of how I’d worked it all out and I began to say “tsk tsk” in my mind to those who didn’t “get it.” Then one day I stumbled across this quote from Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“So you say you love the poor? Name them.”

With those few words it was clearly revealed to me that for all my “progressivism” I was just doing the same thing I’d done thing as a “traditionalist.” In college I’d learned to read the Bible to figure out the correct pattern, the way that God expects things to be done. I still hesitate to denounce “patternism” because I believe that there will always be some sort of pattern. Even saying “be like Jesus” is a call to understanding and following a pattern. The trouble, it seems to me, comes when we nail down the details in theory, but never work out our faith in practice. How could I say that I love the poor if I can’t name a single name or call to mind any faces?

My opportunity came this year when it was announced at church that the Central Jersey Chapter of HOPE worldwide would be sending a team down to Jamaica. The church would help subsidize the trip, but each participant would chip in a set amount towards expenses. We’d be away from our families the week of Thanksgiving to be with little children who didn’t have families. I’ll admit that I hesitated, but I signed up anyway. I then kept second-guessing myself (especially around the times I made my monthly payment toward the trip), right up until the day came to get on the plane. I didn’t like the idea of leaving my wife and children behind for a week, something I’d never done before, to go off on some mission.

I’m so glad I went.

Without going into a detailed description here of the children’s home we worked with and the people we met, I can say this: I can now name names and recall faces.

It isn’t at all glorious. The bulk of what we did in Jamaica was hold little children who rarely get much attention. Some of them refused to be put down each day when we had to leave. It was hard to say goodbye, even the first day we were there and knew we’d be there all week. I found myself telling an undersized two-year-old boy repeatedly that I’d be back the next day, and I realized with a start that I was using the same tone of voice and verbal mannerisms I’d used with my own children when they were little.

When I returned home my wife and children were waiting for me with open arms. My wife showed me a prayer list my 9-year-old son had written, including a commitment to grow up to “preach the Gospel” and go help people in need. My heart melted. Later that week my 14-year-old daughter told me how she’d thought about me while I was gone and what I meant to her. Once again, my heart became a puddle. Rather than be detrimental, my absence – as that old cliché goes – made their hearts grow fonder toward me.

We Christians believe that God became human once in history, and that the Son of God continues as fully human and fully divine. This is a doctrine that, like most, can seem pretty dry if left on its own. It’s when we try to live out its truth that we begin to plumb its depths.

Incarnation means sacrifice. It involves setting aside privileges, taking risks and enduring hardship. This is what it meant for the Son of God when he came to us as Jesus of Nazareth. Those familiar with video games know about “god mode.” With many games there are secret codes or other means to play through a game with invincibility or limitless ammunition. It’s easy to think that this is what Jesus did, but it’s highly inaccurate. I tend to think it’s this misunderstanding that causes so much perplexity among commentators when they reach the shortest verse in Scripture: “Jesus wept.” What we go through, he went through. Sorrow, joy, pain, satisfaction…he was human, but without sin. He embraced the poverty of our fallen experience in order to redeem it.

What I don’t want to have happen is for that trip to Jamaica to become a trophy I put on the shelf, bringing down to dust off and show to friends from time to time. Rather, it needs to be a beginning, an act of faith that is merely one of many. It was a modest first step, at that.

In Ocean County, New Jersey there’s a Tent City in a wooded lot owned by Lakewood Township. It’s inhabited by people who have no place else to go. Homeless people in a county without a shelter system. The local chapter of HOPE worldwide heard about it recently, although it’s been there for around four years, and we’ve begun sending teams to help winterize tents (did you even know that’s possible?) and do other work around the encampment. The community leader, Steve Brigham, works tirelessly to make certain that his band of around 75 people, including families, have food and means to keep from freezing during the rigorous northeastern winter, all the while battling an eviction effort mounted by the township.

I’ve gone on team projects to Jamaica and Tent City. I can name names and recall faces, but I have yet to reach the level of “incarnational ministry” I see in people like Steve.<br><br>Instead of looking at the sacrificial efforts of people engaged in ministry to the least of these and saying, “Good for them, but I could never do that,” I’d like to suggest we take into account their humanity. No one I’ve met or heard about who is working with those on the margins of society are super-human, and even Jesus set aside the rights of divinity for a time while he walked among us. God isn’t calling us to do more than we are able. He’s telling us to be a flesh-and-blood presence to those in need, guided and empowered by his indwelling Spirit.

Being “incarnational” means making sacrifices and being able to name names.

Who do you know?

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