Friday, November 14, 2008

On Doing Theology With The Poor

Tuesday night was a good night.

My placement as part of my Master of Divinity program is to serve weekly at a local homeless shelter. Thursday is my usual night, but I had to make up a missed week, so I went Tuesday with some fellow seminarians (such a goofy word).

I knew beforehand that one of my fellow classmates leads an hour-long Bible study every Tuesday night for any guests staying at the shelter who are interested. Though I am planning to become a teacher in both the church and the academy (paid by the latter, in service to the former), still the idea of leading a Bible study like that, cold, off the cuff, not knowing anybody in advance, remains terrifying. Furthermore, and more importantly, what in the world do I have to say to people experiencing homelessness? I have no integrity, no ethos, from which to share anything of value with such a group.

But, I knew that, as the resident "Bible guy/theologian" serving that night -- and being called to such ministry and leadership in general -- I simply needed to accept that I would participate, and leave it at that. So I did.

When the time came, I did as I was told and walked over to the room where the study would be taking place. Only a couple people were there, and it was almost time, so I was breathing easy, thinking I was off the hook. I can handle this.

Then, of course, one by one people start to show up, and by the end, it was 13 residents (diverse in both gender and race) plus me and my leader friend. No, thank you, I'll be stepping out right about now. But (alas!) I stayed. Then, however, something remarkable happened.

God showed up.

Our site supervisor at the shelter speaks often about doing theology with the poor. Not praying "at" the poor (where they don't have a voice), not praying "about" the poor (where they aren't even present), but praying with the poor. Learning that the work and practice and discipline of theology is incomplete, void, divorced from the life and experience and presence of the poor.

I "knew" this before Tuesday; that night, I experienced it for the first time.

(I want to respect names and details, but I also want to share what it was like to be there.)

The most apparent feature of nearly everyone present was an uninhibited, gratuitous, all-encompassing love for and reception of Scripture. The Bible was it, the thing we can all trust, the way home and the way forward. Each and every word read aloud was a blessing and, in the deepest power and profoundest pleasure, good news. Anytime someone pointed us to a different passage, the person was thanked profusely and God was thanked for his grace. The Spirit present, the theological air we were breathing, was simple and twofold: God is faithful; may we give thanks.

There was much more spoken and shared worth passing along, but (for now) I will leave it at that. Instead I simply want to say:

What a wonderful gift.

Now, the worst kind of condescension is when the privileged (read: me) dote on the glories of the downtrodden (read: them) as if those in hard times exist for the sake of stately bourgeois benefit. If that is what I have portrayed, then I apologize.

What I want to do, rather, is remember the story of Jesus. Jesus is the one who, in his inaugural and programmatic sermon in his hometown, states unequivocally that he comes having been anointed and called to preach good news for the poor. And that is the story from beginning to end -- and after the end. When the church is reported in Acts to have no needy among them, they are in fact fulfilling God's promise in the Torah that "there shall be no needy among you." The church embodies in its communal life the call and story of Jesus, Israel's Messiah, as seen in his life and ministry. The disciples remember Jesus's story, their story, and act accordingly.

Just so for us. God's kingdom is a kingdom of upside down values, where the poor are first and the rich are last. As the vanguard of God's coming kingdom, can we as the church be a community that bespeaks God's upside down values, the values of the blessed poor, of the powerful weak, of the crucified God? Is there good news apart from such values?

Before, I "knew" these questions in the abstract. After Tuesday night, after receiving the gift of being allowed to share in listening to God's good Scripture with those in need -- those for whom God has a special place in his heart, his "preferential option for the poor" -- after doing theology with the poor, I actually know that it can be done. I actually know that it is a reality. I actually know, with my own eyes, that my endless critical methods of study, all of my academia and all of my braininess, are foolishness before the witness of these homeless brothers and sisters, who find in the Bible a survival text that speaks endless good news for those with ears to hear it.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

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