Tuesday, December 6, 2011

seeing God in the poor

It's one of the more unsettling invitations of the social justice movement, the hospitality movement and the Catholic Workers movement-- this invitation to see God in the poor.

My friend remarked: "I can see the need for God in the poor," she recalled droves of homeless on the streets of San Diego, "but to see God himself in the poor. That's something else."

I've thought a lot about that conversation, about that question. How do we see the Holy One, the Creator of the Universe, the Sinless, Guiltless, All Good, All Sufficient, All Powerful, All Knowing One, in anyone of us?

This question is important to me for two reasons. First, I want to see God. Second, I live among the poor. My community does not have the desperate poverty of third-world countries or even this country's worst neighborhoods, but my neighborhood is full of folks who don't have much in the way of financial resources or power, and that this lack has an obvious affect. I will say more about my beloved community later, but let that stand for now. I want to know how to see God in the poor because I know the poor, and most of all, because I want to see God. If he is to be found in the poor, that's wonderful news for me, and yet, I've found, when it comes to seeing God my eyes are often clouded.

So how do we see God in the poor? I want to take several blog entries to unpack that question. But my first disclaimer is to say that I have seen God over and over in the friend who posed it to me. She has put up with me, and she has loved me, and she has shown me again and again the grace and gentleness and wisdom and love of God. If I answer this question and sound like a know-it-all, I would have to beg her forgiveness and say how grateful I am to her for having the true heart (so characteristic of her) to ask the question, to wonder it out loud, to work at it. I am confident of her depths--they go far beyond mine--if I ever reach a wise thought as I ponder this, I'm sure she has been there before and gone deeper.

Still, she let me start my own exploration, and for this I am grateful.

How do we see God in the poor? How do we see God in any of us, hounded as we are by hungers and loneliness and the stalking of our own death always at our backs... ?

It must be the most beautiful, the truest thing about God-- even if it is a Sunday School answer-- it's the Advent season, and our God actually, literally became the poor--the lonely, the hungry, the tear-stained, death-hounded poor. Mary and Joseph were wandering around Bethlehem desperate for a place to stay; they were in a crisis, about to give birth, and they were turned away again and again until finally they set up camp, struggled through labor and birth, in a stable, in a rude, unlit, dirty cave. Take away the romance and the story book images and you have a couple that was simply and utterly poor--lacking in money, they had no worldy power.
And there with them in a way unparralled in the history of this universe was God-made-flesh.

I count amont my friends and neighbors those who have been desperate for a place to stay, desperate for a place for their children to stay. They have called on family members and landlord after landlord hoping to avoid a shelter. I know friends who have been thankful when they found a shelter, and have ridden the bus back to that cot each night after a day spent looking for work. God decided to become one of them.

I know friends who are refugees, who have travelled across impossible distances and differences in culture and language to be safe... just as Mary and Joseph and Jesus did when they became refugees in Egypt. God was willing to be one of them.

This is simply the truth of Christmas. This is what Mary was crooning about when she sang out to Elizabeth--"He has looked with favor on the humble state of his servant."...

So maybe the bigger question is why do we not see God in the poor? But that is for another night. For this night my friends, be well.

May you and your children rest in comfortable beds this night. May doors swing open to welcome you. But most of all, may you see God in all you meet.

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