Jesus said it bluntly: “The poor you have with you always.” I think about my friend Lenny.* His family broken, at age 8 he entered “Christian foster care,” there to be tied to a chair and sexually abused for two years. He struggles with mental illness and has done jail time. Lenny is homeless and an alcoholic; he has little capacity to work or simply function. Nor, save a staggering miracle, is he likely to change much.Our flock has others like Lenny. I see their faces, beautiful people whom we love, deeply broken and poor by any measure, financial or otherwise. Many are unlikely to ever have what we might consider a functional life.I expect that Jesus’ words are about people like Lenny—not just poor, but damaged and living at poverty’s lowest level. Found in every society at every time, one generation gives way to another, and then another, on and on and on. This kind of poverty seems implacable, resisting every program, brushing off kind acts, ever trudging along. At day’s end it stands, arms folded across its chest, and we can only echo Jesus, “The poor we have with us always.”
My wife, Diane, and I live and serve in a community with multiple levels of poverty. For some there are paths out. Much has to do with functionality. The more sound you are—body, mind, emotions, relationships—with a capacity for hard work and change, the better your chances. Some combination of a hand up (versus a handout), coupled with grit and an encounter with Jesus brings change. Redemption and lift is a long-time pattern in the history of the church, central to many of God’s great moves among the poor. We must work and pray for such movements today.Lenny, and others like him, are not in that category. Most lack basic functionality, living with mental illness and handicaps. Many have experienced trauma in their lives—physical abuse and sexual abuse. Brain science shows that in such circumstances, the capacity to hold a job or make sane decisions is sketchy. Many turn to addictions to self-medicate and numb the pain. Hopeless and trapped, some women sell their body. Trapped, barely surviving, they bounce from motels to the streets to an apartment and then back again.
Even at this level, by the extreme grace of God, a few get out. Most don’t. Stability—requiring much help—is a more realistic goal.Why? Why will so many of our friends stay trapped in mind-numbing brokenness? Why does God, in his sovereign wisdom, leave it so, despite the love, prayers, and efforts of many? Answers are few, other than to point to the pervasiveness of sin and the shudderingly deep impact of the fall, a shudder I feel daily.Here among our friends, two things have become clear. The first I knew: These most broken ones need our help. They need to be loved, treated with dignity, and given assistance that calls them to accountability. They need mercy, not just charity. Those of us who know Jesus—individuals, families, and churches—should lead the way. Any healthy society should support that. These are our gifts to them.
The second thing surprised me: We also need them. We need their help and the gifts they have to give. My friends help me see myself more clearly. Their brokenness is often unmasked; I have spent decades in a world where we mask brokenness, pretending things are fine. Only a rare person in that world takes their mask down voluntarily. Mostly, we only reveal our pain when it is so overwhelming that it leaks out, almost against our will.Here, I talk to my friends, and in their addictions, I see my own. In their mental battles, mine. In their broken relationships, their endless struggles, their long, slow, slog, mine. Somehow, a student at their feet, I find a little more courage to be honest about my own life. As I show them compassion, I also learn to show it to myself. All that is a gift.
The physical poverty of Lenny and others makes clear to me the abundance most of us have, even if we would never think of ourselves as rich. I see more clearly than ever how money and possessions can lull us into a life that is mostly about ourselves, our own comfort, our own desires. Dare I say it? Their poverty helps me see more clearly the shallowness of my own attachment to money and stuff and calls me to live more deeply. This too a gift.I sit with a friend and realize that his next stop is going to be a shelter or the street. Meager money gone, he has no choice, nor do I have a solution. Yet I hear words of deep faith in Jesus from people who daily face things that would crush me. From them I am learning, ever so slowly, to trust Jesus more deeply. One more gift.But one gift transcends them all: I have found Jesus among friends like Lenny in a deeper way than I thought possible. Here, I daily see Jesus, the compassionate one; Jesus, who shows up and loves. Not Jesus the magic wand waver, but Jesus who heals partially in this world and offers the full healing of heaven. Jesus the Savior.
Partly this comes from my awareness that Jesus walked among people like my friends, loving them, befriending them. It is one thing to know that Jesus was a friend of prostitutes when you don’t know any; it is another when you know many. That simple knowledge makes Jesus seem more real.Jesus is here now, here in places dark and dirty, here with my friends, brilliant in love, crisp in presence. He still walks among people like these. Amazingly, Jesus is not just here for them but also for me. Here, among people who are broken, Jesus finds me and I find him and I am forever changed.
These poor we have with us always. That is simply true. But this too is true: They need our help and gifts; we also need theirs.*Name changed to protect identity