Recently I sent off a little newsletter to family members and friends, updating them on two recent events in my life. The first was our annual school camp for SCO members (‘Students’ Christian Organisation’). A team and I work with these young people once a week at a local township school, which caters for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our metro. We took a group away to a camping centre in the scenic Elands River Valley, where they had an absolute ‘ball,’ enjoying the open air, three square meals a day, clean sheets, workshops on ‘life skills’ and ‘opening up to Jesus,’ swimming and games, walking a trail. Nothing much for well-off youth, but paradise for those living in tiny houses and tin shanties amid grinding poverty, drunkenness and abuse. The second event was being ‘one link in a chain’ which found a second-hand but almost new wheelchair for a needy home in another, sprawling township. The mother has a son in his late teens who is mentally challenged and unable to walk or speak. For medical care she has had to carry him on her back to the local clinic! One of our house church members noticed this and shared the need, and after united prayer God miraculously provided the right chair at a bargain price. When my co-workers delivered it to the shanty where mother and son live, the son came from his room, dragging himself along on his stomach, squealing with delight and grabbing Mimie by her face and hair to smother her with tears and kisses. Having sent this report, I received so many encouraging responses, including one from my good missionary friend in Hong Kong, Rod Lam. He mentioned that he had just heard Lawrence Tong of Operation Mobilisation share his vision on organic sustainability among the poor and forgotten children of the Far East and Middle East. On visits to the East I have personally witnessed the tragedy of deformed children, spastic and autistic children, despised and abandoned by family and society, only receiving help here and there at the hand of caring Christian groups and missions organisations. I was reminded again that in a world where approximately 80% are poor and young, we as Jesus-people and kingdom-people, are compelled by love to incarnate our Lord and ‘work the fringes!’
Witness the concern of Isaiah in Is. 58, dealing with True and False Worship. This great poet-prophet to Judah, conveying God’s great ‘salvation symphony’ to his world, begins the last ‘movement’ (ch. 56-66) with the theme of full-orbed ‘worship.’ Let the text speak for itself: 58:2-14 (NLT),“They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws… They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed?’ [sound familiar??] I will tell you why! It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting… No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you… I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them… Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day… Your children will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities… I will give you great honour and give you your full share of the inheritance I promised Jacob, your ancestor. I, the LORD, have spoken!”
Was this not Jesus’ way? Should it not be our way as those redeemed at cost and indwelt by his presence? Of course Jesus engaged with those in power, the religious centre, the affluent. But let’s face it, more often than not you would find him ‘working the fringes,’ dealing with the poor, the diseased, the broken, the shunned and forgotten, even the ‘dregs of society.’ Look at his ministry manifesto for himself and his followers, spelt out in his home-synagogue of Nazareth (Lk. 4:18-19, quoting from Is. 61): Spirit-empowered ministry to the poor, the captives, the blind and the down-trodden.
So also with the early Church. The apostle James, writing to the young Church, urges those new believers to a lifestyle of ‘Listening and Doing.’ He defines ‘pure and lasting religion in the sight of God’ as ‘caring for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refusing to let the world corrupt us’ (Jam. 1:17).
The renowned Mahatma Gandhi was apparently often asked if he was ‘a Christian?’ His stock-reply was: ‘Ask the poor’ (what would they say about you and me?).
Do yourself a favour and get yourself Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistable Revolution, telling the story of his burden for the forgotten of the world. Amongst other things he relates how he learned to read the Bible with new eyes on the streets of down-town Philly (Philadelphia), ministered with Mother Theresa to dying lepers in India, and stood with Iraqi families whose homes had been bombed to bits under the reign of Saddam Hussein. He records the testimonies of affluent people who read the Gospel accounts in the Bible, ‘and it messed up everything!’ He writes of fat-cat believers in the West, suffering from spiritual bulimia, vomiting up Bible information and teaching but not touching the poor and needy. He quotes the Catholic Sisters working with ‘The Simple Way:’ ‘We are trying to shout the Gospel with our lives.’
Let’s get practical. What are the essentials for us as followers of Jesus in the 21st century?
- While most of us reading this blog would consider ourselves as ‘middle class’ or even ‘poor’ when compared to the mega-rich around us, we are actually very well off materially!
- Begin by, in a very small way (because that’s how God works), getting involved with ‘fringe people’ others may not have noticed. You won’t have to go far to find them, just leave your church building! And work with ‘saints’ from other church groups, who have as common denominator the lordship and love of Christ.
- Churches generally, especially the bigger ones, have departments for everything. What happens is that our personal responsibility to the needy gets relegated to a church department, and we ourselves are left untouched and unbroken.
- God loves working in and through small groups, communities, house churches, etc. He works from the bottom up, rather than top down.
Let me begin with myself. I am still so proud and self-sufficient. I was deeply moved a year or two ago by the words of a Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, reflecting on the heart of Jesus: “I say to you, Blessed is he who exposes himself to an existence never brought under mastery, who does not transcend, but rather abandons himself to my ever-transcending grace. Blessed are not the enlightened whose every question has been answered and who are delighted with their own sublime insight, the mature and the ripe ones whose one remaining action is to fall from the tree. Blessed rather are the chased, the harassed who must daily stand before my enigmas and cannot solve them. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who lack a spirit of cleverness. Woe to the rich, and woe to the doubly rich in spirit! Although nothing is impossible with God, it is difficult for the Spirit to move their fat hearts. The poor and willing are easy to direct. Like little puppies they do not take their eyes from their master’s hand to see if perhaps he may throw them a little morsel from his plate. So carefully do the poor follow my promptings that they listen to the wind (which blows where it pleases), even when it changes. From the sky they can read the weather and interpret the signs of the times. My grace is unpretentious, but the poor are satisfied with little gifts.”
And I thought I was taking the good news to the poor… all the time they were bringing the good news to me. Nothing like ‘working the fringes!’