F.A.Q.: The Age of the Scam

A friend recently approached me with an idea for a post. His question was a good one, and a fairly common one. Well, common in that we all address it at some point, not so much in the “I get asked this every day” sort of way. Simply put, today’s topic is this: how are we to give to those in need at a time when everyone seems to be running a scam?

I think there are a few underlying assumptions to the question. First of all, no one should argue we simply tighten the pursestrings and stop giving completely. As long as there’s need in the world, Christians should give — and (spoilers!) there will always be need. As Christ says in Mark 14:7 (referencing Deuteronomy 15:11), “The poor you will always have with you.” Our broken, sin-ridden world will always contain poverty, always have the “have nots.” We, as followers of the Way, must do kingdom work, things which help usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Part of that work is sacrificially giving to anyone who asks, including our enemies: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:40-42). That’s sacrificial giving; this is the command of Christ to all who give.

But the question is about more than just recognizing we need to give, isn’t it? There are two other key elements at play here. One is the recognition of a depraved world, and the other is a matter of stewardship, or, to put it another way, how I share and store my resources in ways that honor God.

Taking these two in order, then, presents us with the reality of sin. As I said before, sin is directly responsible for poverty; it is an evil condition which would not exist were it not for the fall of our first parents. (In case anyone misread that, let me repeat: poor people aren’t evil just because they’re poor; poverty itself is a societal evil resulting from systemic sin [and probably the personal sins of other people, too].) The real sins being addressed by a question about scams, though, are greed and deceit. Human beings can be so greedy, so selfish, so full of avarice, they lie and cheat their way into wealth. Some people asking for money are professional panhandlers. I distinctly remember one woman in Wichita who stood at her place every day, cardboard sign in hand, smoking cigarettes and wearing various rather fashionable outfits, any one of which would have taken me a while to pay for on a pastor’s salary. People play on the pity of others to rob their peers to support themselves. It happens.

That leads us to the final point, the heart of the question itself: if we are to give, but if some people wanting help are schmucks, how should I take care of the resources God has given me? The concept of stewardship appears as early as the creation mandates of Genesis 1-2. Humans were tasked with ruling the rest of the created order, to tend the garden and take care of the earth. We can’t do that if we destroy it all (one basis of the Christian argument for environmentalism and conservation). We instead care for these natural resources and use them wisely. Our wealth is no different and is subject to the same stewardship concerns. We must use wealth properly, both rightly (for the proper causes) and wisely (for the proper reasons). To that end, many churches have established set processess to manage their giving. Some have lengthy applications which are then checked against a database to see if someone has regularly requested aid and thus might be trying to bilk yet another church. Others have committees who meet with people at a specified time, utilizing group discernment in the process. Both are good models, and so are many others out there. In this way, the church protects herself and acts as a good steward of the treasure given by her members.

Individuals rarely have access to this kind of thing. Sometimes we have time to sit down with the person, hear his/her story, and listen to the Holy Spirit. If we can invest this kind of effort, we should. It enables us to check the story for consistency, ask appropriate questions, and pray over the person and the situation. With facts in hand, it’s easier to decide if they genuinely need help or if they’re trying to take advantage of you. Unfortunately, most of these requests don’t allow us that much time. People on off-ramps and at red lights require us to make snap judgments about them. Here are my personal guidelines for these situations (but if you know of a better way, let me know — I’m always open to suggestions).

  1. Don’t give money; directly address the need. If the person says they’re hungry, either take them out for a meal or buy food to bring back to them. If they need a place to stay, pay for a room for a night or give them a lift to a shelter. This way you can control how you money is spent and ensure it goes where it’s needed.
  2. Know the aid organizations in your area. For most things, aid programs exist to help specifically with that need. Familiarize yourself with what is available in your area and connect the person with those organizations. If a person says the program refused to help them — or if they’re unwilling to go there to seek aid — it should be a red flag for you.
  3. Try to get a read of the person. If you have to decide whether or not to help immediately, make sure you know who you’re dealing with as best you can. Is the person in obvious need given their general state (appearance, attitude, etc.), or do they give a different impression (like the woman in Wichita)? Trust your gut.
  4. Always pray. Always. The Holy Spirit will direct you, whether you have two seconds or two hours. Always ask God about what to do in each circumstance.
  5. When in doubt, give anyway. If I personally can’t discern what to do, I give and pray God will move them to use the gift properly. Some will call me naive or a “soft touch” for this, but I ultimately place my faith in God that if I give both shirt and coat, He can handle it from there.

Again, if you know of better approaches, please let me know!

Those guidelines apply more to people than organizations. If a group sends you a letter wanting money, laugh all the way to the paper shredder. Wait. No. Do your research first. Check out their website. Read their profile at Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or a similar watchdog site. Ask others if they know anything about them. Pray. Then do what you believe God wants you to do.

Sadly, even the most cautious of us will get burned eventually, whether we ever know it or not. That doesn’t mean we stop our charity, though. It means we resolve to give even though people cheat us. That gives me my final rule about giving in the age of the scam:

Love them like Jesus.

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Counter-Narrative

My generation is the generation of storytellers. We may not necessarily rally ’round the bonfire to relate spine-tingling tales of fiction (although we might), and we may not all be hooked on the latest trilogy of best-selling novels (yet we probably are), but we are the ones who sit down together and say, “Tell me your story.” Social media gives us the ability to heard hundreds of anecdotes and reports a day, and we absorb them all, connect them all. What’s more — we treasure them. We greatly value hearing about each other’s lives, the good and the bad together. We prize having a voice and giving voices to others who may long have been silent.

In fact, we’re so hooked on story we view the world through the lens of narrative. Everything is part of a narrative. For example, while we may know the pertinent historical data about slavery, those data matter less than the narratives of African-Americans from start to finish — the greater story, the metanarrative, of those people. Slavery may be chapter two (or seventeen or whatever), but there are also chapters on emancipation, the Tuskegee Institute, Jim Crow, civil rights, gang violence, poetry, music, and the NAACP. It’s a story of a people, and stories convey emotion and depth history texts lack. Those kind of narratives and metanarratives are what people like me pursue.

The world is full of them. Everyone has multiple roles in multiple stories. And our culture offers a jolly good one.

When you think of yourself as an American (if you are one; if not, as a citizen of your own country), what pops into your head? What’s the (American) story? For us in the States, I’d say it’s one of an obsession with liberty. Liberties seem to have been our main concern for the past 240 years. Early on it was political and economic freedoms, but it’s shifted now to personal liberties. All of us were given at birth what my minor advisor in college dubbed an “LLPH injection” — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That became our story, our American metanarrative. The government of any country (including our own) as well as private citizens cannot interfere with our liberty, with LLPH. Anything else would be un-American. And so our story is written with an eye towards that.

Recent chapters of that story have refined the narrative somewhat. Personal liberties trump all others, even the constitutionally-protected ones. The glorification of individualism via secular humanism is the new story about liberty. Liberals and Conservatives alike are equally guilty here: one group pushes a revised (or removed) sexual ethic, the other a fear of the Other (because the Other threatens their freedom). Drugs are my choice; you can’t take my guns. I can murder my unborn child; I’m under no obligation to pay taxes for your healthcare. And on and on and on and on.

It’s the story of our people. A story of violence and hate and laughter and freedom. A story which has obtained cultural dominance, a sort of hegemonic metanarrative, if you will, one that has been retold and accepted as true again and again and again. A story which all too frequently leaves out God.

So what if there’s another story? What if there’s a counter-narrative to our cultural metanarrative?

Thankfully I know just the story. Even better: it’s a true story. Even even better: it’s a true story about an unfading, unending love.

The story of God begins in the unknown. What happened before this universe existed is best left to the realm of speculation. Once we were spoken into being, though, the fun starts. And so does the pain. One of His first creations rebelled and inspired others to join him. Later the same rebel would entice a new race of beings into rebellion against God. Yet God still loved them, those all-too-human human beings. He made covenants with them, promised to bless and care for them, and said all we had to do in exchange was to let Him be our God.

If only we could have done that.

Instead, the story went another, darker direction. Every time God brought us back to obedience and blessing and worship, we rebelled anew. We rejected Him as king and God over us, preferring instead our own attempts at rule and happiness, attempts which invariably ended in exile and horror. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

But there’s a better story.

God never abandons us. He continues to love us. And so it was that, in His great, unfailing love, He came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. God put on flesh and blood. He bled and died to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to Himself after our rebellions. He came to life again the third day to defeat death, hell, and the grave. We can share in that victory and gain eternal life.

That’s the story of God. A story which compels us to love as we are loved, to forgive even as we have been forgiven. To go and serve and help and laugh and weep and mourn and rejoice. All because there’s more to life than ourselves. More than the individual. More than the subjective. More than the story our culture tells us.

Donald Miller, in Searching for God Knows What, writes this: “I wonder if when we take Christian theology out of the context of its narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God. This is, perhaps, why people are so hostile towards religion.”

He’s right. The love story of God isn’t a how-to guide for living out another narrative. It demands to be the only metanarrative, the only story for which we live our lives. It requires us to reorient our existence around that story, to live it out day by day until we’re called home. When we don’t do that, when we try to stop serving God and instead force Him to serve us, we lose the story. It’s not the right narrative. And people know. They know about the story of God. They know how that narrative should impact our lives. When it doesn’t? When we twist it to suit us? When we make it a secondary story and live out another instead? They get hostile. They belittle God’s story because it effectively doesn’t matter in the lives of those who profess to believe it. So they remain locked in the “long terrible story of man [sic],” a story in which nothing matters but their own LLPH.

Folks, we must tell the better story. We must live out the metanarrative of Scripture, a story of love, hope, community, sacrifice, and eternity. We must present the world with an old, old story, a tale which alone can offer them salvation. This is our story to tell; we are the only ones who can offer the Christian counter-narrative.

Let’s go be storytellers.

Skin

When I sat down to write this post, it was with a heavy heart and a weary soul. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not a violent man. I recognize its occasional necessity, yes, but I still deplore violence, regardless. The last week has seen me an earthly citizen of a violent land. Two men were killed by police, and five officers were killed in a retaliation which ultimately left the shooter dead as well. An additional three people are dead in a courthouse shooting unconnected to the other three. Eleven citizens and police officers dead in a week — and that doesn’t count those who didn’t make the news, the hometown heroes and the innocent victims of racially-motivated violence. Much like the martyrs of Revelation 6, my heart cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true? How long?” The violence brings to the forefront of the American consciousness a variety of things: gun control, police brutality, media bias, racism, race relations. Normally I would be hesitant to discuss any of these topics, but these are not normal times. Today, then, I want to run the risk of exposing my own ignorance to talk about race.

Our society seems given to two extremes, both of which are in error (as extremes so frequently are). On the one side, we make too much of race. It becomes our primary identity, the main way we see ourselves and the main way we want other people to see us. Organizations are created to preserve our differences, but they permit only those of the designated race to participate. Skin color becomes the deciding factor in everything from hiring policies to the church one attends. On this side of the spectrum, then, lie the errors of exclusivity and partiality. To make race a “greater than” in any fashion is to ignore the equality of creation as well as the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The error inevitably devolves into racism in its more violent incarnations (physical, social, and otherwise).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is, well, the opposite error. Instead of making too much of race, we become “colorblind.” Proponents of this philosophy “don’t see color anymore.” Colorblindness takes Gal. 3:28 and similar texts to the illogical conclusion that race doesn’t matter at all just because Christ makes all races equal. Race itself and all its implications are ignored: its contributions to how one experiences life, cultural distinctives, benefits, detriments, all of it. This can lead to racism as well, but in a different way. If an over-emphasis of race can lead to violent racism, then a de-emphasis of race can lead to apathetic racism. Problems are ignored, stories marginalized, beauty and pain both unacknowledged just because they’re connected to race — and, after all, we’re equal, and “I don’t see race anymore.”

I may not be an Anglican, but I still believe we need a via media here. So what would a middle way, a healthy view of race, look like?

For starters, it requires us to admit that race exists, as do racial differences. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, yes, but our fallen world may never see us as truly one. We must work to end racism in any form. Racist institutions must be brought to account. People should recognize the diversity of ethnicities and celebrate it — and them. The media and the justice system must be taught to treat all races with equality and justice. Churches should integrate; truly, we are among the last bastions of accepted segregation. Whites should worship with Blacks, Blacks with Asians, Asians with Latinos, Latinos with Whites . . . you get the picture. This is what eschatological worship will be (Revelation 7:9-11). Shouldn’t we try to bring a bit of heaven to earth?

We should go a step further, too. Whether in church or elsewhere, persons of all races should be free to celebrate who they are, to say, “I am _____, and I ______.” Freedom of expression is beautiful. It can even be godly. So let’s celebrate the wonders of the human race together, taking the gifts offered to each of us by our races and using them in the service of each other and enriching each other’s lives.

To do these things, however, we must back up a step and reclaim a biblical concept so basic it appears in the very first chapter of the Book. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in the image of God. Each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, bears the image of the divine. We cannot believe others to be less-than or more-than because they don’t look like us — because we all look like God. (The image isn’t physical, but you know what I mean.) All races are comprised of persons who are relational, rational, moral, and commissioned to have dominion over the earth. And if that’s true, then perhaps race is another gift from God, a blessing to be celebrated and enjoyed.

We must learn to love each other. If we don’t, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). We must end the hatred, the evils of racism. We must work for a world wherein race is seen as a gift, not a curse, a world which sees, yet looks beyond, skin tone and recognizes the image of God in the Other. We can stop racially-motivated violence, regardless of its origin. We can open our hearts to listen and love those who are different than us. Then we can begin healing the broken heart of a broken land.

Hats and Books

Upon seeing the picture of me in my office, a picture taken while I was still in college (the last family portrait we had made), my visitor remarked, “You look like a geek off of a TV show.” Well, yes, I did. Do. Whatever. My designated on-screen counterpart isn’t Sheldon Cooper for nothing, you know.

About a month later, the same member returned, walking in on me to find my desk littered with papers, my Bible open, and a Greek New Testament in my hand. “Oh. Sorry,” she began, “I just forget you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Study.”

Bewildered, I asked, “Are you not used to pastors who study?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment before finally replying, “Well, no. Not really.”

On the one hand, I was horrified. Never saw a pastor study? Never witnessed a minister in the midst of digging into the word of God, making notes, consulting reference texts? Unthinkable. But on the other hand, I knew exactly where this church member was coming from. Pastors are private people, when we can be. And while we all have walk-ins, many make appointments to speak with the minister, so the opportunity to just walk in during sermon or lesson prep is minimal. For another thing, most preachers in Appalachia don’t do that kind of study. They are devoted men of God and better ministers than I’ll ever be, but they don’t see a need for it, or else they lack the training/resources to do the work of research. Another consideration is simply that the full role of the pastor is largely unknown to the average churchgoer. They wonder why we get paid a salary to see people in the hospital and talk for 20-30 minutes a week, never knowing we make house calls, teach in the nursing homes, plan events, write lesson plans, plan worship services, coordinate volunteers, keep up with the latest articles, serve the community at special happenings, counsel the hurting, handle people who come in needing financial assistance, fix the toilets . . . Well, let’s just say there are reasons the average workweek for the average pastor is well over 50 hours.

It should be apparent by now that pastors wear many hats. Different ministers excel at different parts of the job, so there are different archetypes for ministers: administrators, preachers, scholars, counselors, spiritual directors, etc. And we all know it — and know which one we are. In fact, in seminary, I was tempted to order t-shirts for the guys in my cohort featuring nothing but our archetypes: “The Administrator” (for the guy who scheduled making his schedules), “The Theologian” (for the guy who came to seminary a better theologian than I left it), “The Pastor” (for the guy who could do it all), and “The Mystic”(for the guy who took all the spiritual formation classes). In the interest of full disclosure, my roommates, two of whom were The Theologian and The Mystic, decided my archetype was “The Exorcist” (but that’s a different story for a different day.) Every pastor may wear any one of these hats at any given moment, but we all have a default role.

Regardless of that role, clergy friends, part of our calling is lifelong learning. We spent years receiving the training and education to do what we do, but we will never know all there is about our faith. Our task as shepherds of the flock is to get that knowledge into the hands of the people in the pews. They have questions, doubts, disbelief. We have to be the ones with the answers. Granted, sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know,” but that should always be followed with “but I’ll find out.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not mandating we ministers keep up with our Hebrew and Greek (although I think we should) or other things you may not find particularly valuable in your ministry context. But I firmly believe part of our job description is to study our trade. Leadership, theology, current events, all of it. Especially those things which don’t correspond to our default role (or t-shirt archetype). Oh, and fiction. We should be readers of fiction for two main reasons: 1) our congregations are reading it, thus culture is influenced by it, and 2) it can tell us about the messiness of the human heart in ways other things can’t.

Let me broaden my scope a bit. It’s not only pastors who need to constantly brush up on matters of faith. I encourage everyone — Christian or otherwise — to get their hands on solid books about our religion. Study your Bibles, study church history. Systematic theology isn’t for everyone, but I think we’re all interested in things like salvation, heaven, the end times, angels, and things like that. Find something you’re interested in and go for it!

One other word to the laity: please understand the various roles — and varying gifts — of your shepherds. I know we all want the perfect pastor (who, by one survey, would work about 114 hours per week), but we’re mortals, too. We’re great at some things, good at a few more, and terrible at the rest of it, even if it’s part of our pastoral ministry. Please be kind, forgiving, understanding, and patient. We cycle through all of our roles on any given day, so give us time to swap hats and chug along beside you. Help us in our weak areas. Love us the way we love you; after all, we’re family.

And sometimes, families have geeks who study a lot. So come study with us.