Thursday, February 18, 2010

Give Us Your Poor. . . For Lent or for good?

A couple of Minnesota pastors have taken on a new discipline for Lent: living for 40 days out of a suitcase packed in 10 minutes:

It's a good start. Jean and I lived out of very small suitcases for a month in 1973 after my overseas discharge. We had two meals a day and walked nearly everywhere. We came home to the U.S. very skinny.

On the blog post above, there is a photo of one suitcase that a youngster had crawled into. The bag is on nice, clean carpet in front of a coffee table. That living room photo made me see again just how much I take for granted. And how easily.

Take away the living room, coffee table, the carpet, the electric lights, heat we take for granted like the automatic thermostat. Take away the coffee maker, the fridge, the kitchen, the windows, the doors, the roof. Take away the bed, the shower, the toilet and the paper.

Take away the sink and the towels, the washer and dryer. Take away the closet and the clothes. Take away the car, the TV, the laptop and the phone. Take away the paycheck, the ATM and the health insurance card.

Take away the address where you can be reached. Take away home.

Take away the hugs and daily recognition we take for granted. Take away the reliable love of another human being. Now we're getting down to it.

Add darkness, the weather, the cold, the snow, the rain, the heat and the sun. Add the police. Add tired feet in wet shoes. Add recovering from a cold and the flu in these conditions. Add bedbugs, rats and body lice, sometimes. Add signs that several times a day warn, "FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY." Add signs that say, "No Loitering", "No Camping". "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted."
Add a family history that likely includes violence, abuse, addictions, abandonment and maybe time spent in war. Add losing all your stuff several times a year to thieves or to the police. Mental illness.

Now live, not for 40 days but for the foreseeable future. And don't forget to smile because Jesus loves you although your community doesn't.

Some folks come to Operation Nightwatch worship with their stuffed backpacks. Sometimes it's a loaded roller bag weighing 115 pounds. One man has a Zoomer covered with a tarp. It's nearly as large as the Honda 600 sedan I used to drive.

The title of that CD in the photo? It evokes a line from Emma Lazarus' 1883 poem "The New Colossus":

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

For years we've heard that first line tossed about like a plastic shopping bag in the wind. Out of context, the emphasis always ends up on the adjectives: tired, poor, huddled masses, etc.

Sure. Name me a municipality or a neighborhood whose goal is not to make all those adjectives go somewhere else.

But in its entirety, in context, the poem has exactly the opposite emphasis. It paints a stark contrast between the aristocratic, closed societies of Europe where the few were wealthy and the many were under the feet of the few. With hopeful pride in the different way of doing things in America, the writer emphasizes the pronoun me.

"Send 'em to ME!" America says. "Send ME your human trash, your throw-aways, your worn out junk seen as way beyond salvage. Send ME your waste humanity--by the boatload."

Of this lot of refuse, America promises, "We will build something that outshines all your castles, kingly wealth and imperial vastness. We will build what human beings have always been envisioned by God to be. We will succeed where others have failed because it's different here. We are different."

Comes pretty close to being a working definition of Jesus' hallmark message about the good news of the kingdom of God. Do we still believe that?

Every journey can only begin with the first step, however small. If you're not sure what that is, dial up a link or two and purchase a music CD for 15 bucks, probably less than many of us spend on coffee in a week.

Journey safely and well these 40 days. Here's hoping that we all arrive somewhere that is not where we were before. And thanks.



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