Yesterday, someone asked me for a bus fare, and I didn’t give it to him. Today, someone asked me for a bus fare and I did give it to him.
Either way, I feel guilty.
When I don’t give money, I feel like I’m turning my back on the hungry and helpless, failing to care for the “least of these," failing to show mercy. Jesus’ words about the sheep and the goats comes to mind. Am I, who think I am part of the Kingdom of God, merely a goat, because I don’t care for those who are hungry, thirsty, and naked?
When I do give money, I feel guilty because I have heard from enough people in ministry that just giving money is one of the worst things you can do for those on the streets. It perpetuates the cycle. It undermines the work of great organizations that seek to empower rather than enable those on the streets. Buy a bus ticket or a coffee or a meal, but don't just hand out cash.
I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm involved with a local organization that serves the homeless. I buy my "Real Change" street vendor newspaper. But it all feels inadequate and impractical in my day-to-day. For the woman with two kids sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk. For the disabled man. For the same two people that I see on 15th Ave day after day, always in the same position of unbroken misery, speaking the same two words over and over again: "Spare change?"
I realize that money is the cheap fix. But I haven’t figured out the long fix, the real fix. I’ve tried to engage in conversation while buying a meal... but usually it’s just the meal that’s wanted, not conversation. Not a life story. I've tried to look people deeply in the eyes, to say those powerful words that will make them know they're loved. But everything I say sounds inadequate.
And so I find my heart growing cold to those in need. I shut them out of my heart and I shut my eyes to their need, because any solution I can provide feels either inadequate or counter-productive.
Let’s be honest, often (not always) people on the streets have something about them that is ugly or difficult, something deformed (and not physically). Past abuse. Trauma. Inadiquate support systems. Something that make it difficult to really help. And I'd like to think that if I just show them a momentary glimpse of kindness, it will change everything. And maybe sometimes it does, but more often than not I see them same people asking for the same help over and over again, no matter how many times I've stopped and talked to them. What’s needed is long-term support, counseling, budgeting help, job support (services that sometimes people will take and sometimes they won't); or even a change to systemic systems of mental health and public services. So it feels like my kindness is unhelpful at best, and at worst might be contributing to a system of dependency.
I'm rattled by my own inability to address all the problems I see. I've never felt more helpless, more lacking in compassion.
And yet... I can't bow out of helping, even if my help feels inadequate. Because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Came into our weakness. Dwelt in the ugliness of human experience: vomit and poop and illness and hatred and violence. Even when people just took what he had to offer and rejected a relationship with him. Even though I still do that - take gifts from his hand as my right, and blame him when he does not sufficiently meet my wants.
So even if I’m not going to do it perfectly, and they're not going to respond perfectly, maybe it’s worth entering in anyway, doing it all wrong, and feeling guilty, rather than slowly growing cold as I choose not to see or care.
Does art have value?
Since I became a graphic designer, I've always done practical work; catalogs, websites, brochures. Selling tools, for which I am paid by the hour. That work has value, a pre-determined value that I decide with my boss in a meeting every year. I can measure my value in terms of the money I earn and the money I help generate for my company.
But I've begun a series of side projects, just art, flowers, animals and patterns, anything that strikes my fancy; nothing world-changing. My current profit is hovering around $3; and I've begun to think a lot of the value of art.
So much of art is waste. Wasted time spent working on projects that don't end up being as good as I thought they would be. Wasted materials. Throwing out page after page of writing that doesn't fit the story, whole characters and plot lines that don't make the cut. Chipping away at marble until a David emerges.
And even then, after David emerges fully formed, what is Michelangelo left with but a huge pile of valuable marble chipped and wasted, destroyed and unusable, and a massive statue of a naked man that could never have practical value? It wouldn't feed the poor, pay the rent, clothe the cold, or really accomplish anything.
As Christians we can be utilitarian. We know that the time is short. If what we do isn't actively making converts or showing mercy, then why do it? Why make art that doesn't obviously preach the gospel? Why read mystery novels, browse Pinterest, go to art galleries and concerts? Why make pretty but innocuous pictures of cats and pine trees?
Art is inherently waste. Its value is not in what it does but what it is, what is says, and what it shows.
Art pulls us out of a utilitarian view of life. Art shows that we are not mere machines, whose value is solely in our function. Art points to a Creator in whose image we are made. Art points to God's gratuity, the great excesses of beauty that God poured into this world: colors that are unnecessarily vibrant, and sea creatures in the depths that might never be seen by human eye. Art makes us long for another world, a world where beauty reigns, truth is spoken, and our value is not in our contributions to the world but in our created nature.
A woman with expensive alabaster came to Jesus and anointed his feet, pouring out value in pure waste. Expensive. Costly. Pure. Value that could have been sold and spent on the poor. But Christ said, "She has done a beautiful thing to me." And somehow, beauty was enough.
I have been deeply troubled, like many Americans, since oh around last November 8th. Troubled by where I see the country going; troubled by the excuses that Christians have made for certain behaviors that twenty years ago would have been impeachment-worthy; troubled by what might happen in the world as people fight with people and nation fights with nation. Troubled by the attitude of America First and the rest of the world can go burn in hell. I have prayed more deeply in the last year and taken more political action than I ever have before.
But in the midst of that general sense of malaise and deep concern: Eddie got a new job, we sold our house, we moved cross-country, we found an apartment, we furnished that apartment, I began expanding my graphic design presence, I made friends, I started getting involved in a church.
And I have frequently wondered, what’s the point? Why not just hunker down and build myself a fallout shelter? Why go on with an ordinary life that might be disrupted by wars and rumors of wars? If everything’s just waiting to go wrong, then how can I feel excitement for the future? What’s the point of moving to a new city, starting a new job, saving for retirement?
Here’s why: because when Israel had been torn out of their homeland, carried into exile, lost everything they’d worked for, and were living in a new place with just as much uncertainty about their futures, this is what God told them to do:
“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 19:5-7
Loosely summarized, live your life. Do good work in your job. Pray for your neighbors. Don’t be so resentful of the past (exile), or so anxious for the future (returning from exile) that you neglect to do good in the place where God has you. As Elizabeth Elliot said, “Let not your longing slay the appetite for your living.”
This is where we are. In a world of turmoil and uncertainty; where picking up the phone might alter the course of your life. Where you feel hopeless and out of control. Plant vineyards anyway, whether you will drink their wine or not. Obey God anyway. Live in the hope of eternity, but live today. This is the day of salvation.
I was sitting in a darkened basement living room in our temporary housing; I looked up at the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside the window, and next thing I knew, two bricks were thrown at the window, making an unexpected popping sound. With each pop, I screamed, involuntarily, like this piercing sound was jerked out of me; like being startled at a scary moment in a movie. The would-be burglars must have heard me and run away; I was conscious of nothing but tremblingly trying to dial 911 before they came back.
When you’ve been nearly burgled, have looked into the eyes of a would-be burglar before he throws a brick at your window, there are suddenly things you’ve experienced that your imagination couldn’t dream up. As a writer, I’m always imagining how it would feel to be someone else, to experience different things. But here are the things I didn’t imagine I would feel: