How do Christians give?
A letter addressed “Dear Pastor” recently arrived from an inmate at Camp Hill Correctional Institution. In it, Matthew (not his real name) tells me his mom, who is older and in poor health, is taking care of his young daughter. Matthew said his mom barely has $5 left at the end of the month.
Matthew is asking for help. He hints toward financial help but doesn’t ask outright.
Matthew’s letter includes just a few more specifics, but for all of us Christians and those today looking at Christianity as a boggled down, imperfect construct, here comes the question: what do we do?
Edward Bloom, the character I played this July in the SPARE Productions musical BIG FISH, has a line in his first song as he meets a fisherwoman who can’t feed her family. Bloom, a true Southerner, says, “Listen, you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, and you feed his soul!!!”
Christians are charged with caring for those in need. Scripture is loaded with verses making it clear that we are to care for others. I count at least 17 verses about the call to care, not including what we are to do to help widows and orphans, and here there are 3 specific verses (Exodus 22:22, Deuteronomy 24:19, and James 1:27).
Here comes the next question. What exactly does this care look like? Is care meeting immediate needs only, or, using Edward’s lines as a metaphor, is care teaching someone with no fish how to fish?
It should be a two-part process. Care is meeting immediate needs. Care is also providing specific means and measures for self-sustaining long-term goals.
Too often, this two-part process stops with fulfilling immediate needs only. I taught in a classroom. Other educators will agree when I say you cannot teach a student who is literally hungry. You have to feed a soul before you can teach it.
The second of this two-part process often fails and shouldn’t. If someone really comes looking for help, and here I’m speaking to those authentically looking for help—and, over time, this is all of us seeking something—the best help involves our best helper, Jesus, the One who changes lives. When we start following this radical, then radically things change for us.
We all know what happens when churches provide immediate care only: that care wanes. However, when churches engage both immediate and lasting care (and none of this is easy or easily measurable), then those like Matthew, his mom, and his daughter eventually do something far greater than an Alabama Stomp: they move from being care seekers to care providers, from having a hand open to being a hand holding what others need.
Call me an optimist, but I see this: those who receive care are the best to share care in the future.
I do not know Matthew—yet. But I’ll write back and ask what help he’s really seeking. Do the same with the next Matthew in your life. The easier thing to do is supply them with a meal or two; and this should be done; but you are not done.
The greater call is to companion the Matthews in your world not as you would want, but as Jesus helps you to do.
This blog first appeared in The Susquehanna Independent on August 1, 2018.