September 6, 2013

Free to Choose

Yesterday afternoon I was breaking down cardboard boxes in the back room of the Free Market. It's our food pantry, clothing closet, and toiletry supply store all rolled into one. We lay all of the food out like a grocery store, or really more like a corner convenience store (it's small). It would probably be more efficient if we organized the food into basic categories like breads, proteins, vegetables, etc., and then packaged them all up into a ready-made bag that we could just hand to people and say, "Here it is, have a nice day!" That would take maybe one minute of our and their time, and we could move on to the next person. But we do it another way.

We set everything out and let people take their time shopping. It's a pale imitation of going to a supermarket, but that's what we shoot for. The idea is to let people have a choice in what they get. It's a dignity that many of us take for granted. We can go to the big grocery store and shop for food, deciding for ourselves if we're going to get cereal or brownies. Personally, I like to make bad decisions of the Krispy Kreme variety with a side of chocolate milk and a dash of cigarettes. Menthol, please and thank you very much. And I have the freedom to do just that, if I so choose.

That being said, we're in no position to criticize other bigger, probably better run organizations that more efficiently distribute groceries. It's just that we're small and so we can get away with doing it this way, at least for now. 

It's common to criticize homeless or poor or struggling people as needing to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, their own needs, their own lives. And they should, as we all should, inasmuch as we are able to do so. But responsibility is an outgrowth of freedom. You can see this in between the lines of the evangelist John's story about Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed.
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 
Christ gave the man a choice, and implied in that choice was both freedom and responsibility.
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 
The man is so caught up in his living as a crippled beggar that he can hardly take this seriously, he can only see the reasons why he isn't healed, but his reply indicates clearly his desire.
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Jesus does his God thing, weaving nerves and muscle together in a way that knocks the wind out of the laws of physics, and the man is healed. And in that healing Jesus tells the man to get up and walk. While this sounds (and must have been) wonderful, it also meant that he was now responsible for his own life. He could no longer shrug his shoulders (but he could wiggle his toes!) and say that he was just a crippled beggar. He would have to work, he would have to tire himself out, he would have to decide how much effort he was willing to put into his own survival. Maybe he would even find a woman to marry and start a family and work even harder for their survival as well. Such thoughts were once little more than a dream; in that moment they became real possibility. So much work, so much responsibility, born out of this newfound freedom. 

Last time I checked, none of us here at the Well are able to miraculously cure the sick or disabled, but we may just be able to play a part in their healing. The physical condition is often beyond our skill to change very much, but the effect of it, the stigma or the warped self-conception, the lessening of their sense of freedom and responsibility, we can by God's grace speak to those things in little ways. Ways like offering them a choice and leaving it in their hands to decide. 

As I was breaking down boxes, I planned to use them as part of a garden bed in my back yard. The cardboard is helpful at keeping unwanted grass from growing up through the composted soil where I plant growing things. And then it it hit me that these boxes are often the only choice that our neighbors on the streets have to sleep on. A person's bed is my garden bed. And that's just looking at the extremes of poverty locally. Globally, the disparity is much worse.

I have so much more choice while another has so little, and this is called poverty. It is not the lack of nice things that constitutes poverty. It is the lack of a choice in the matter. I can chose to live in this or that neighborhood and to work this or that job and earn so much or so little money and eat this or that food. If I live where I do and work where I do and eat what I do, even if any of those are simple or meager or poor, it is my choice. I have options, and so I am wealthy. 

In whatever ways we can give people a choice, in whatever ways we can defer to their own decisions for their own life, we bear witness that they were made to be free, and to be responsible for those choices; in other words, a human being. Whatever change or growth or healing or restoration God works in their life, now or down the road, it will be a move towards becoming the freely choosing person that God made each of us to be.

May we work to alleviate each other's poverty. And in the end, may each of us choose life, abundantly.

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