“Dad, can I ask you something?”
Being the father of three teen-aged daughters had lots of scary moments like this. I learned to fear health and relationship questions, but this question almost made me drive off the road.
“Are we poor?”
My immediate reaction was, “why would you think that?” I took my role as the great provider very seriously. I worked long hours to make sure my family had everything they needed and more. We lived in a nice four-bedroom colonial house. We remodeled it inside and out, adding central air and a fireplace, and a quaint front porch and garden. We had a huge back deck with an attached pool. Each child had her own bedroom with a television, DVD player and computer. We had four cars to accommodate the two teens who reached driving age. We were living large by all accounts. “Why would you think that?” I asked.
“Well, all my friends go away on vacations every summer. We never go away. And our cars are small and when I told mom I needed to buy new sneakers, she said I had to wait a few days. And our pool isn’t in-ground and my friend said that’s how you can tell where poor people live.”
I can’t remember exactly what I said to her after that. I’m sure I compared her plight to the kids I cared for at the inner-city public hospital all week. But it is still kind of a blur to me. It hurt my heart to think that my kids felt I wasn’t providing enough for them, which wasn’t really what she said. Unfortunately, I was probably further away from Christ in that time than at any other point in my life. My reaction was “I need to work even more to afford a vacation this summer.”
Our conversation was a classic example of conflict in the definition of poverty. I was proud we were driving in my own Jeep Cherokee Sport. My daughter saw it for the base model it was, lacking air conditioning and power windows. It paled in comparison to what her friends’ parents drove. I was proud to own my nicely-sided and roofed house after growing up in a series of rentals where five drivers shared a 12-year-old Chevelle. My daughter saw the above-ground pool as a public display of our lack of money. And a base-model jeep, ford escort wagon and two Chevy cavaliers didn’t do anything to counter that notion.
This conflict is very common. The American dream tells us to acquire what we can and be all we can be. Marketing experts perpetuate the dream by enticing us to move things from our “Things that would be nice to have” list to the “I HAVE TO HAVE THIS!” list. This leads us to view our own status in relation to the “haves” of society. We look at co-workers and neighbors with fancier clothes and cars and feel the need to improve our own visible material worth. We hear friends talking about their trip to Paris and we feel somehow inferior because we’ve never been there. To not have everything our neighbors have is to feel “poor”. It is a ridiculous notion at best. It is a societal crisis when you step back and examine it.
The cure for this crisis is closer than you think. There are other people who struggle to get by every day. They are forced to scavenge for what they have. Often, they live on the streets for long periods of time, praying for help in the form of inadequate government assistance or scarce charitable donations.
To realize how rich you really are, all you have to do is to compare your “plight” with theirs. Compare shuffling through a stocked refrigerator and lamenting that someone ate the last of the leftover turkey to digging through trash bins for scraps of food. How do we complain that we can only afford coach tickets to fly to Disney while other people walk in worn shoes for miles each day in hope of finding work? When you feel angry that you forgot to put $2 in your pocket to buy a coffee some morning, think of one and a half million households in just one country, with 2.8 million children that are living on less than $2 per day.
That country, of course, is the United States of America.
Did you think I was going to say “Guatemala” or mention some obscure African nation? No, the problems there are even greater. Worldwide, there are over 2 billion people living below the extreme poverty line set at $2 per day. If you don’t think they are every bit a brother and sister as your neighbor down the road, you are wrong and I would love to talk to you about that later. But the fact is that each state in the USA has people living in extreme poverty. 40 million more Americans live below the “regular” poverty line and struggle as well. We don’t have to look far to find brothers and sisters who need our help.
I wish I could re-live my life. Praise God that he forgives me for wasting so much of what he blessed me with over the years in a vain attempt to keep up with my neighbors. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have bought a house and lived comfortably; but does every child need a car, a computer, a smart-phone, and a $200/month phone plan? I understand that living on $50,000/year can seem pretty tough in many places. But consider that $50,000 per year puts you in the top one percent of wealth world-wide… and try to figure out why that is. Try to explain it to someone scraping by on $23,000; or $4000.
The point is that most of us are wealthy. We have means we overlook because they are not in the right place. They are obscured by malicious marketing, peer pressure and our own pride. By the time we work through our desires, there is little means left to follow Jesus’ direction to help our neighbors.
When teaching about tithing and charity, the Old Testament instructed to give THE FIRST ten percent of our harvest to the church so they can tend to the priests, as well as the poor, widows and orphans. This is a good notion to put in your mind when it comes to budgeting your monies in the future. Too many of us budget for everything we want first and then dare to feel self-righteous because we give just a portion of what is left to charity. We need to put our means in front of our desires and distribute those means more appropriately as “cheerful givers”, letting our heart guide us.
Think of this anonymous conversation the next time you are thinking of making an extravagant purchase:
“Some days, I really want to ask God why he allows poverty and injustice to continue when He has the means to change it all.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Because I’m afraid He will ask me the same question. “