Before church the other day, I was driving through the southern and downtown parts of Colorado Springs, in areas where a lot of homeless people tend to hang out.
And as I was studying faces, something hit me.
You know how many elderly people begin to seem almost indistinguishable from each other?
It’s the same with babies. Most look (relatively) the same.
What traits do most of us tend to notice about the elderly?
Canes and walking sticks.
What traits and characteristics do we commonly associate with babies?
Baldness or short/sparse hair.
Flabbiness, tininess, and helplessness.
Sadly, it is our human tendency to value or disregard others based on what they mean (or don’t mean) to us or because of the trouble or inconvenience they cause for us (the level of merit or beauty they possess that pertains to us), rather than to see the individual beauty or merit in them – when that beauty or merit is hidden or promises no apparent or tangible reward to us.
The elderly are rarely valued. Because what do they have to offer that we could possibly want?
Wisdom? Life experience?
Who wants wisdom any more? Who has the time to stop and listen, or to ask questions? Especially to listen to and ask questions of someone who doesn’t have a) sex appeal or b) much money or a vibrant career (as is true for the majority – though certainly not all – of the elderly population)?
Well, it struck me yesterday, as I was driving, that…it’s not too different with the homeless.
What do we tend to notice or remember about the homeless?
Long, mangy beards.
Often, they cannot afford to shave (or perhaps choose not to, if they have the option, in order to protect their skin from the elements).
Their faces often appear gaunt, withered, and weathered. (And yes, some of this can be from drugs, but isn’t always. Yet our brains are quick to jump to assumptions about the reasons for a person’s emaciated appearance.)
They are often clad in dirty, decrepit attire, and appear as though they haven’t showered for a month (which may be true for many).
We see them as people without value. Burdens to society.
Because we are so money-and-stuff-bent, anything or anyone who gets in between us and our money or stuff is seen as a nuisance.
The idea and practice of capitalism is fine.
But when we begin to use it as an excuse for stinginess – to buy all the stuff we want (because we earned it) while passively watching others suffer (because they didn’t earn stuff) – we need to ask if we’ve gone too far by elevating capitalism to the level of Christianity, spirituality, or righteousness (conservative Christians often seem to equate the two).
We make the mistake of worshiping political or economic models such as capitalism, sometimes going so far as to honor these systems above the words of Jesus.
“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Where selfish desires and the call for selflessness conflict, we often choose our selfish desires, slapping the “capitalism” label on our selfishness, because doing so eases our consciences.
And am I saying it’s wrong to buy anything for fun? Any frivolities? Trinkets?
Some people might reach that conclusion. Others would not. I think that’s between you and God.
Personally, I don’t take from this passage that we should refrain from buying anything that would make our lives more productive and effective, our work more efficient and less tiresome, our personal presentation more aesthetically coherent (God did create color and beauty, after all, and made us creative like Him), or our (safe, responsible) recreation more fulfilling.
I don’t think that the gist of this passage is that we’re not supposed to enjoy life or any of the fruit of our labor.
Maybe I’m wrong.
But I think here that Jesus is telling us not to become attached to money or stuff. This doesn’t mean we can’t make use of money or stuff – or enjoy the things we buy – just that we should hold all things loosely.
If we are truly holding all things loosely, it shouldn’t generally be so difficult to give to someone else in need. Because it’s no longer “my stuff vs. your stuff” so much as it is “all God’s stuff”.
I’m mainly saying that the majority of us – in the Western world – are richer and wealthier than we know.
Even though I feel personally “poor” (financially) right now, the truth is, I’m still wealthier – materially speaking – than most people in the world.
Most of us at least have a bit of food to spare, or an extra article of clothing, or a blanket, or a couple dollars to buy someone a warm drink. Most of us at least have something we can give.
Big or small, much or little, we need to start asking how we can show the love of Christ more in our community.
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” – Luke 21:1-4
It burdens me to see homeless people disregarded and their needs ignored due to the “conservative” or “capitalistic” mentality of “you get what you work – or don’t work – for”, and the “lazy person or beggar does not deserve to eat”.
But how do we know that that person doesn’t want to work? Or wouldn’t if they could?
And then comes the cop-out “Teach a man to fish, rather than giving him a fish.”
We sometimes use this as an excuse not to meet people’s immediate needs.
How are they even going to survive to “learn how to fish”, if we don’t give them sustenance first?
And often, the people who use this excuse aren’t even teaching people to fish anyway.
I’ve begun to wonder: what would these homeless people look like, were they well-employed?
No doubt many of them would appear incredibly kempt, sharp, alert (if they had proper nutrition), competent, energetic, peaceful. Many of them would earn our respect, if they only had the means (and sometimes, the mental health) to “move forward” in life, and consequently, the means to present themselves differently.
Mental illness is overrepresented among the homeless community. It’s possible (and probable) that many cases of homelessness stem from mental illness.
Homelessness and mental illness – when combined – form a vicious cycle.
Being homeless for a long time could cause one to begin to suffer mentally. It could then become a challenge to think clearly, to care about good nutrition (for those who did care in the first place), and this in turn could create more mental health problems, because mental health is often correlated with (and partially dependent on) physical health.
What if the long, raggedy beards were shaven? The facial redness soothed and diminished with ointment? The wary, untrusting, sad, tired, or even angry eyes transformed to a joyful sparkle?
How then would we perceive these people?
Would they suddenly become of more value to us or to society (in our estimation)?
Faded pictures always tell stories.
I often wonder, when studying the face of an elderly person, how they must have looked in their twenties or perhaps thirties. At a time when there were no wrinkles, their hair was colorful, and their lovers or friends or family were still around – to witness the gifting and abilities and beauty of these people. I wonder how they glowed in “their day”.
I wonder if they ever think now, “If only people knew what I once was, they wouldn’t pass by me without notice or respect. If only I could tell them! If only they’d believe me! If only they’d care to listen! Perhaps they would show a little more compassion or understanding for me in my weakened state.”
And if the elderly have such thoughts, I speculate that many homeless individuals do as well.
I remember very well a homeless man with whom my mom, brother, and I interacted several months ago.
His face was gaunt, and appeared as though it had been terribly injured (IIRC, he had been in a severe accident in the past).
I discovered him in a college, playing the piano. He had talent and ability, but was clearly tired and malnourished.
I wonder how he might’ve played had he had a steady diet of nutritious food. I wonder how he used to play. I wonder if he had his “glory days”. Maybe before the car accident.
But now…he’s just a faceless stranger to the public. A “crazy dude” or “crackpot” lurking around college campus grounds and “fancying he can play the piano”.
Faded pictures always tell stories.
I wonder if these people – the elderly, the homeless – have stories to tell.
I wonder if the homeless and hungry will ever again be well-employed, well-fed, and have a stable source of food and shelter.
And I wonder if – when they reach “successful” or “stable” points in their lives – they’ll remember any of the faces who passed them by, gave them a judgmental glance, ignored them. I wonder if they’ll remember us, and if so, how.
I wonder if those who again see “better days” – and perhaps rise to positions of power – will choose not to hire, promote, or support some of the people who ignored them.
I wonder what number of the homeless might be angels.
I wonder if I’ll ever end up homeless, and if so, what I’ll learn about how helpful and caring – or unhelpful and uncaring – my community is. I’m a little scared of what I may find.
Because I know that I have often turned a blind eye to the faces of suffering people on the streets.
I’ve often assumed that those people carrying cardboard posters are probably just lazy or lying (or both).
And maybe some of them are.
I think discernment and judgment – per the circumstance – are important.
And there have been times when, for my safety, I’ve chosen to ignore someone (perhaps “just” pray for them) and drive away, even when I wished I could extend my hands to help them.
I do feel the need to be self-protective, and there are some situations in which I just think it is wisest for me not to engage.
Sometimes, I’ve been in a hurry or “on a mission” when driving past panhandlers. And so I haven’t bothered to stop and help or talk.
And sometimes, the places that people choose to panhandle are not the safest or most convenient spots for a driver to stop.
Maybe these are good excuses. Maybe they’re lame.
Not every need is a call.
But we must remember Christ’s words.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:12-14
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