Option for the Poor

Option for the Poor
Photo Source: Free Images/ Jon Ng

In 1983, a young man by the name of Paul Farmer finished his college degree and applied to medical school. While waiting to see if he would be accepted, he traveled to Haiti to help with relief work. Haiti was then (as it is now) one of the poorest countries in the world, and Farmer soon found himself amongst the sickest and most destitute on the island.

When word came that he had been accepted into the combined MD/PhD program at Harvard University, he didn’t want to leave. He made an unprecedented decision to commute to school. He would study and work in Haiti, then travel to Boston whenever he needed to take a test or participate in laboratory exercises. Despite the grueling schedule, he maintained top grades and finished his dual doctorate in a mere six years.

Farmer went on to specialize in the treatment of infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis, both of which were rampant in Haiti. His studies and work intertwined in such a way that he soon became a recognized authority on the treatment of those two particular diseases, and his expertise became increasingly called upon in various regions of the world whenever there was an outbreak of either or both.

But his influence was not limited to academics. He talked drug companies into lowering their prices for life-saving drugs by 95%. He found donors to help build schools and provide safe drinking water. He consulted with governments and influenced public policy.

A founding member of the charity, Partners in Health, Paul Farmer was relentless and indefatigable in his efforts to help those most in need. He essentially revolutionized the way health care for the poor is delivered. On BookBrowse.com, his biographer, Tracy Kidder, describes him thus:

I was drawn to the man himself. He worked extraordinary hours. In fact, I don’t think he sleeps more than an hour or two most nights. Here was a person who seemed to be practicing more than he preached, who seemed to be living, as nearly as any human being can, without hypocrisy. A challenging person, the kind of person whose example can irritate you by making you feel you’ve never done anything as important, and yet, in his presence, those kinds of feelings tended to vanish. In the past, when I’d imagined a person with credentials like his, I’d imagined someone dour and self-righteous, but he was very friendly and irreverent, and quite funny. He seemed like someone I’d like to know, and I thought that if I did my job well, a reader would feel that way, too.

The thing that has spurred Paul Farmer on is a concept he calls the “Preferential Option for the Poor.” It is the idea that the poor have a special place in God’s heart.

The poor have a special place in God’s heart.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God is constantly intervening on the behalf of the poor, giving instructions on how the poor should be treated, and promising rewards to those who act with benevolence towards them.

In Kidder’s biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, there is a Haitian proverb: “God gives, but He doesn’t share.” God leaves the sharing to be done by those to whom He has given much.

He expects those He blesses to act as channels of blessing to the less fortunate.

Paul Farmer is one of those extraordinarily rare individuals who have learned to share, both generously and sacrificially. As you ponder his amazing example:

  • Can you think of other individuals who share with the needy in special ways?
  • Do we always agree with the politics or theology of those individuals?
  • Does our agreeing or disagreeing negate the good being done?
  • Can a person with imperfect theology still reflect the image of God when they help others?
  • Who will have a greater influence on the needy, a person with imperfect theology who helps lend a hand or a person with perfect theology who doesn’t?
  • Should people wait until they have their theology completely figured out before they help others?
  • Ideally, we should deal with both the physical and spiritual needs of those we are trying to help. What does the Bible say about addressing spiritual needs without first taking care of physical ones? (See, for example, James 2:15-16) What does Scripture say about focusing on physical needs without giving thought to spiritual ones? (See, for instance, Luke 12:23 and Matthew 4:4)

In John 12:7-8, Jesus points out that there will always be poor people. It is almost like saying that there will always be old people. By definition, someone will always be the oldest or the poorest.

  • Why is poverty always with us? Is it simply a mathematical truism or is it a function of our fallen nature? Is it a natural outgrowth of our free will?
  • Are there things that we can do to alleviate poverty? Can we defeat it completely? Should we continue to try anyway?
  • What are some examples of how we can fight it?
  • Are there things that can be learned from being poor that cannot be learned from being rich?
  • Are there character qualities that can only be developed by helping the poor?
  • Does God seem to have a special concern for the poor? Does the church as whole share that concern? Do we as individuals share that concern?

In these verses, Jesus is discussing the poor with Judas and points out that helping the poor is not the only goal.

  • What are some other goals?
  • Is it possible to get so caught up in serving the poor that one loses sight of other important things?
  • How does one find balance? Is the idea of a tithe useful as a guideline?
  • For most people the tithe is something they have to build towards and strain to achieve. Is it possible that for some, the principle of tithing acts as a restraint to keep them from doing too much? Is it possible to do “too much?”
  • If someone audited you checkbook and your calendar, would they say that you tend to give too little or too much of your money and time to helping others? Is it time to re-examine where you stand?

The poor have a place and purpose in God’s kingdom and a special place in God’s heart. Relative to God, all of us are poor, whether we realize it or not.

Relative to God, all of us are poor, whether we realize it or not.

Whatever our condition, God is at work in our lives and has unique lessons He is trying to teach us through our circumstances. The goal is to discover those lessons, learn them well, and share with others along the way.

If you are interested in knowing more about the above mentioned ministry, please visit the Partners in Health website.

You can also visit the website for Compassion International, which has had a wonderful and distinctly Christian ministry to the poor since 1952.

NOTE: Life's Big Questions: Colossians Study Guide. Great for families!Life's Big Questions - The Gospel of John (Vol. 1) This post is adapted from my Life’s Big Questions Series, which encourages readers to examine all of life’s questions in the light of Scripture. Whether used for personal devotions, as family discussion guides, or in a study group, this series provides an invaluable resource for enhancing your spiritual walk.

The Gluten-Free Gospel

Gluten-Free Gospel

Mankind has been eating bread for thousands of years. It has been one of the cornerstones of nutrition since the dawn of time. Egyptian hieroglyphics show stalks of wheat and a “bread recipe” that has been used by modern researchers to recreate perfectly edible loafs. Grains have been considered one of the “Basic Four Food Groups” in the United States since before most of us were born, and they are a big segment at the base of the “Food Guide Pyramid” that came out in 1992.

Then something began to change. Life-giving bread gradually became the “bad guy” in our national dietary narrative. First it was the way we processed the bread. The big industrial machines were removing the fiber and the vitamins and leaving us with snowy white bread that looked and tasted good, but was missing much of its natural nutritional value. “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’re dead,” became the new mantra.

Then we became obsessed with carbohydrates, the primary nutrient in breads and pastas. It was stimulating insulin production, making us fat, and giving us diabetes. We promptly came up with a myriad of ways to reduce “carbs.” There was the Adkins diet, the South Beach diet, and the Paleo diet. Everyone had a new approach to “busting sugar,” and it was hard to keep pace with the latest trend.

But then there came the trend to rival all dietary trends: the “Gluten Free” diet. In less than a decade, a relatively rare condition called Celiac Disease and its less severe cousins, Gluten Intolerance and Irritable Bowel Syndrome had swept the nation. One third of the United States population was suddenly afflicted and a multi-billion dollar industry had sprung up seemingly overnight. Gluten-Free living was touted as the cure-all to virtually every ailment that faced the modern man.

People quickly became divided into camps of “believers” and “skeptics.” The skeptics felt that the sudden popularity of the gluten-free diet indicated that, “peer pressure does in fact extend beyond high school,” as one blogger, commented. Yet, the believers gave personal stories of having their lives improved in every way imaginable ranging from mental illness to diabetes and everything in between. It was hard to know what to think.

Then two new pieces of data became available that indicated there might be some legitimacy to the concerns about gluten, only it might not be the gluten alone. First was an analysis of some blood samples that had been stored during the 1940s and 1950s looking for the chemical markers of celiac disease. It showed a dramatic increase in those markers in the blood of people today, compared to those from just sixty to seventy years ago. Something had changed. Then researchers at MIT showed there was a link between the increasing use of the chemical Roundup® on wheat and the subsequent increase in reactions to the gluten in that wheat. The new theory postulated that the Roundup® was somehow making people sensitive to the gluten that humans had been safely eating for thousands of years. Eliminate the Roundup® and you would eliminate the problem.

But why were farmers using Roundup® in the first place? There were two basic reasons. The first was to kill weeds. The second was to make harvesting of the wheat more plentiful and convenient. Farmers had noticed that poisoning wheat would actually cause the wheat grains to swell even as the plant died, thus leading to a more profitable harvest. Furthermore, by chemically killing the wheat, it caused the wheat to die in a synchronized fashion, which was far more convenient for harvesting than waiting on nature. It appeared to be a win-win for the farmer, but at what cost to the consumer, if the new theory proved to be true?

  • Do you or someone you know have a “gluten” intolerance of some sort?
  • Have you had it your whole life or did it just appear in the last five to ten years?
  • Did switching your diet help?
  • Is keeping track of your diet difficult or easy?
  • Do you sometimes miss getting to eat “regular” bread?

In John 6:35-59, Jesus talks about being the Bread of Life. He refers to Himself elsewhere as Living Water. Bread and Water — they are food and drink in their simplest and most basic forms. No fancy multi-layered wedding cakes. No elaborate reductions, extractions, glazes, or sauces.

  • Is it at all surprising that Jesus refers to Himself as things that are as simple, yet as life-giving, as bread and water? Can you think of anything that would be more appropriate?
  • In Matthew 18:3, Jesus talks about coming to Him with faith like “children.” Was faith meant to be a complex intellectual response? Was it meant to be accessible by all, regardless of age, intellect, or culture?
  • Do we sometimes make the gospel more complex than it needs to be, both for ourselves and for those around us? What might be a consequence of over-thinking the gospel?
  • What are some ways we can “dial back” the complexities we have layered onto our faith and get back to the “bread and water” of the gospel?

Our bread today might appear strange to someone from Jesus’s time. The rough, stone-ground flour made by hand two thousand years ago would hardly be recognizable next to the uniform white powder we have now. The stuff we have may be prettier to look at, but much of the fiber and vitamins are gone as a direct result of the processing we use.

I recently travelled around the United States visiting various famous churches. One of the things that stood out to me was the uniformity across regions and denominations. Everyone was singing off the same sheet of music — both literally and figuratively. This may be a good thing, but it did have a certain McDonald’s-on-every-corner vibe that smacked of American consumerism as much as it did a “unity of the Spirit.” The music was from the top 40 countdown of popular Christian songs. The sermons were on “safe” topics with an upbeat spin. I got the distinct feeling something was missing.

  • Is it possible to “over process” our faith — to turn it into a uniform, white flour sort of thing? Can it become commercialized like Christmas?
  • What if the rough, ugly fiber portions of our faith turn out to be important? Should we try to reintroduce them into our diet?
  • What are some examples of “fiber” that we have removed from our Christian diet to make our faith more palatable?
  • What happens when we are accustomed to refined white flour and suddenly we have to eat rough whole grains? Does it taste weird? Do we care for it? Do we question the competence of the cook?
  • What about “carbs” or the sweet portion of our faith? Is it healthy to eliminate those things? Is it healthy to gorge on them? Is there a balance?

Lastly, let’s look at the Roundup® equivalents that we may have introduced into our faith over the years — often with the noble goal of a richer, more uniform harvest. One historical example is the use of celibate priests in the Catholic Church. The theory was that they were following the example of the apostle Paul by being fully dedicated to the gospel. I am empathetic to this calling and admire those who can pursue it. There is even a resurgence of this idea amongst young Evangelicals who want to be fully committed to Christ. However, to make a unique and difficult calling the “standard” to which all must comply, has had dire consequences for our brothers and sisters in the Catholic community over the years.

  • What are some things that Evangelicals have tried to add to the gospel over the years that have backfired to some degree? Were the intentions good at the beginning? Were the results good at the beginning? Were the harvests plentiful but ultimately poisoned?
  • How do we remove the spiritual Roundup® we are using? What if our harvest shrinks initially? What if things aren’t as synchronized as before and start appearing a bit haphazard? What if we no longer feel we are in control of the harvest?
  • Are there unique or difficult things that God has called you to do that maybe aren’t meant for all believers? Should you push those things on others just because they are meaningful to you?
  • Has God called others to do unique or difficult things that you can’t or won’t do? Are you “less” for not doing them? Are they “more” because they do? Do we criticize their choices out of true concern or out of jealousy and envy?

During Jesus’s time, many flocked to Him to feast on the Bread of Life. Nonetheless, the Scribes and Pharisees of His day seemed to be spiritually Gluten-Intolerant. There will always be those who are. However, we must make sure that we are not processing the gospel or adding to it in such a way that we are making it less nutritious or even poisonous to those we are trying to reach! Jesus said of someone who causes little ones to stumble that, “It would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6 NASB) That is a warning we should not take lightly.

Life's Big Questions: Colossians Study Guide. Great for families!Life's Big Questions - The Gospel of John (Vol. 1) This post is adapted from Life’s Big Questions: The Gospel of John, which encourages readers to examine all of life’s questions in the light of Scripture. Whether used for personal devotions, as family discussion guides, or in a study group, this series provides an invaluable resource for enhancing your spiritual walk.

Satan Knows Your Bliss Point

The fact that we crave sweets is no surprise to anyone over the age of two. What is surprising, however, is how precisely food scientists have pinpointed our cravings.

Satan knows your bliss point. Don't let him use it against you.
[photo source]

To make any food taste better, just add a little sugar. Add a little more sugar and it will taste even better still, but only up to a point. Too much sugar and we start to feel the food has become “too sweet.”

The trick for the food manufacturers is to find that perfect amount of sugar for any given food that will make us really, really crave it. This is referred to as the “bliss point.”

The bliss point varies from food to food. It also varies with race and gender and is typically higher for children than for adults. Kids, as a rule of thumb, like their foods to be twice as sweet as adults do. This is why sugary cereals are so often marketed to youngsters. Some cereals are actually so sweet that they risk being relabeled as cereal flavored candy!

Over time, our foods have been slowly “optimized” for maximum flavor as the food manufacturers have gradually found the bliss point for nearly every food out there, then carefully targeted their marketing to the appropriate demographic.

Unfortunately, keeping our taste buds happy has come at a price.

Obesity is at all time highs, and in children, obesity has reached epidemic proportions. The current generation of children is the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents, almost exclusively due to obesity.

Diabetes is up. Blood pressures are on the rise. Basically, the foods we love so much and crave so strongly are slowly killing us.

  • What is your favorite food?
  • Do you think of it as sweet?
  • Have you ever looked at the label to see how much sugar it contains?
  • Even foods we don’t think of as sweet such as bacon, hot sauce, and pickle relish often contain added sugar. Are the food manufacturers wrong for making their foods as delicious as they can by adding a little sugar, even if that might pose a long-term health risk?
  • Aren’t they just giving us what we want?

The third chapter of the Gospel of John contains the most well known verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16. It is followed by several lesser-known verses that give it some context:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
(John 3:16-18)

The passage clearly states that Jesus’s purpose in coming to Earth was not to judge, but to save. The judgment part has already happened. It is built into the system.

If you don’t believe in Christ, if you want to have nothing to do with Him, then fine, you get to have your way, but being separated from Him is the judgment. He is the lifeline; He is salvation. When you reject Him you reject your only hope.

Sadly, people have a hard time distinguishing between who is judging them and who is trying to save them.

For example, if a man goes into a casino with cash in his pocket and a smile on his face, the first thing the casino owners try to do is to judge how much of that cash they can get out of his pocket and into their own. If they judge the number to be significant, the man will get the VIP treatment – little perks to make him feel special and lower his guard.

They may even arrange for him to win a little, so that he starts to think of himself as “lucky.” When they judge that they have squeezed him for all that they can, say ten thousand dollars, they will give him a free room for the night and maybe a limo ride home in the morning, lots of little things to keep him happy and hopefully coming back. It is a good investment from their perspective.

When that same man starts to have financial problems and turns to his parents or siblings for help, one of them will likely raise the question about his gambling. Invariably, his answer will be, “Don’t judge me!” But the judgment and sentencing have already taken place; they occurred back at the casino; they are built into the system. The family member is simply trying to help in the aftermath of the gambling losses, yet somehow the gambler always manages to believe that the family member is his enemy and the casino owners are his friends.

We see a similar pattern play out with other vices:

  • Are smokers happy to hear that smoking is bad for them?
  • Do alcoholics want to be invited to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?
  • Do drug addicts welcome interventions?

It seems clear that the judgment for something like smoking or drinking is built into system in the form of disease and early death. Why do you think that people who are addicted to these things would rather “shoot the messenger” than address the problem?

Let’s look at the rest of the passage following John 3:16 and see if we can find some clues.

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)

And there is the answer to every mystery of self-destructive behavior you will ever encounter: Men love the darkness and hate the Light. We come prepackaged with a sin nature.

That sin nature will manifest in different ways based on age, gender, income, culture, and any number of other variables, but manifest it will. And when it does, Satan will be right there to cheer us on.

He has been doing market research on the human condition for thousands of years. He knows the “bliss point” for every sin. He has judged us to be weak, susceptible to his trickery, and an easy mark for his ploys. He has judged rightly, for so we are, all of us having “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The only question that remains is this:

When Christ comes knocking on the door of your heart, will you shoot the messenger or embrace Him?

Life's Big Questions: Colossians Study Guide. Great for families!Life's Big Questions - The Gospel of John (Vol. 1) This post is adapted from Life’s Big Questions: The Gospel of John, which encourages readers to examine all of life’s questions in the light of Scripture. Whether used for personal devotions, as family discussion guides, or in a study group, this series provides an invaluable resource for enhancing your spiritual walk.

Immunize Your Marriage/ Energize Your Life

Immunize Your Marriage

We have all heard that the divorce rate amongst Christians and non-Christians alike is around fifty percent. There is some evidence that this number may be falling — not because more people are staying married, but because fewer people are bothering to get married in the first place. If you include couples who live together for a few years and then separate, the numbers go right back to that unfortunate baseline.

The one thing that has been shown to protect marriages better than anything else is prayer. Couples who pray together regularly have a divorce rate of less than one percent. Sadly, only about four percent of Christian couples actually do this (pray together regularly). If you happen to be a pastor, then that number goes up to six percent!

It seems that if we want to protect marriages, we need to teach couples to pray together. We read books, attend seminars, go to counseling, and do a myriad of other things of unknown benefit to those trying to stay married. Yet,we don’t do the one thing that is virtually guaranteed to work.

If you contracted Ebola and had a fifty-fifty chance of dying, but your doctor offered you a vaccine that would give you a greater than ninety-nine percent chance of surviving, would you take the vaccine? Your marriage has a fifty-fifty chance of survival, but a vaccine exists called prayer. Only a small percentage of married couples have actually taken this vaccine. Are you one of them? Should you be? Is today the day to start?

Of course, marriage is just one facet of the Christian experience. Perhaps the reason we lack spiritual power in other areas of our lives is because we aren’t plugging into the spiritual power Source through prayer. Churches aren’t lacking in plans or programs — just in prayer.

In Colossians 4:2, Paul urges Christians to “devote yourselves to prayer.” In fact, he encourages prayer over and over throughout all of his letters to the churches. If someone is sick, pray. If someone is in jail, pray. If someone is suffering persecution, pray. His answer to virtually every problem is the same: prayer. Even in the Old Testament, people would “call upon the name of the Lord” or “cry out to God” in times of trouble.

Prayer is a central theme of Scripture, yet it seems to be less central with modern believers and modern churches. Perhaps that is why today’s Church appears so anemic. We’re trying to do things in our own limited power, when what we need — now as desperately as ever — is God’s supernatural power.

Could it be that modern affluence and technology has tricked us into believing we can do things on our own that we actually cannot? Maybe we have all been busy building a gigantic spiritual supercomputer, but no one has bothered to plug it in.

  • Is prayer a central component of your personal life?
  • Is prayer a central component of your family life (spouse and children)?
  • Is prayer a central component of your church’s life?
  • If you are not relying on God’s power through prayer, what are you relying on? At work? At home? At church? Can you change?
  • Consider your ability to lead the lost to Christ. Has God used you to lead anyone to Christ recently? Ever?
  • Is it a lack of knowledge that is limiting your witness — or a lack of power?
  • Is it a lack of opportunity or a lack of perception that is holding you back?
  • Are you willing to pray that God opens your eyes to the needs around you and that He gives you the power to meet those needs?

Power and perception are only a part of the equation. Wisdom, in both conduct and speech, is the other part of the equation. Paul addresses them both in the second portion of this passage.

  • If a nation has empowered someone to be an ambassador to a foreign country, how is that person expected to behave while serving abroad?
  • When that person speaks on behalf of his home country, should he be rude or diplomatic?
  • Whom are we representing in our conduct and speech? Are we representing Him well, as good ambassadors?
  • Paul uses the phrase “seasoned with salt” concerning our speech. Is salt sugary sweet? Is it bitter and offensive?
  • In addition to adding flavor, salt also acts as a preservative. Could Paul be communicating the idea that we are trying to preserve relationships in the way we speak?
  • Is this always possible? (See John 15:18 or Matthew 10:22)
  • Should we try anyway? (See Romans 12:18)

Those who name the name of Christ are ambassadors for Jesus wherever we are. We don’t get to take off the uniform and just “be ourselves.” We have been purchased with His blood and we are no longer our own.

Our goal is to represent Him well in all that we do or say. This is a daunting task, one for which we have not the strength. God, however, does have such strength and is willing to give it to us, if only we will ask. Isn’t it time to stop trying to do so much in your own power?

When it comes to your marriage, your chances of success on your own are the same as the flip of a coin. When it comes to leading others to faith, your chance of success apart from God’s empowering grace drops to zero.

Isn’t it time to stop treating life like a Vegas casino with the odds so heavily stacked against you and to call out to the only One Who is a sure thing?

Life's Big Questions: Colossians Study Guide. Great for families!This post was excerpted from my book, Life’s Big Questions: Colossians, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and through fine booksellers everywhere.

Strength through Weakness

His power is made perfect in weakness... When it comes to raising children, we’ve been told, “Affluence is a handicap you must work to overcome.” Kids who have everything are hard to motivate, so as parents we’ve chosen to consciously withhold some things we could easily provide.

Our children buy their own toys and, once they hit the teen years, most of their clothes, as well. We send them to serve the poor via mission trips and community service projects. We expect them to do chores.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then wealth can sometimes have the opposite effect: It can stifle creativity and resourcefulness.

The same is true of talent. It is easy to rely too heavily on our own abilities, to become overconfident, to say, “I got this.”

But talent only goes so far. Heads will nod in agreement at sermons, feet will tap along to songs, but heart change requires a supernatural act that God alone can accomplish.

My pastor sent me a link this afternoon to the following article by J.D. Greear. It was so good that I wanted to share it:

Are You Weak Enough for God to Use You?

“There aren’t many societies that praise weakness. Ours is no different. Whether you’re a pastor or a police officer, an on-the-go salesman or a stay-at-home mother, weakness is seen as a liability. Nobody wants to be weak. Strong is the name of the game.

“Sadly, our obsession with strength blinds us to a key biblical truth: God uses the weak. It’s so pervasive that you’d be hard-pressed to find a book of the Bible that can’t be summarized this way. And yet despite being hard-wired into the very DNA of Scripture, we don’t really believe it. We still clamor after strength. But God doesn’t need our strength to deliver us. In fact, our strength is actually more of a liability than an asset…” [continue reading at jdgreear.com]