Last week I hit the two year anniversary mark of being laid off. I was laid off by a non-profit so I have not been eligible for unemployment. I got what was, all things considered, a very generous severance package and in the months before the lay-off I even considered that if a job at my organization had to be cut it should have been mine. Suffice it to say the day I got laid off I wasn't happy! I also did not want to be so very right in anticipating that if the recession kept having the dire results it was having that my prediction would turn out to be the right one!
This sermon is something I've been mulling over off and on for a few weeks and it's difficult for me to unpack its significance in a way that lends itself to writing. There are some people who are Christians are who are not sure they will continue to call themselves Christians because they are unhappy about the legalism and judgmentalism of other Christians. In some conspicuous cases I have observed as carefully as I can in the last ten years these are people who, it must be said, are themselves remarkably judgmental and callous people. There's a term that could be readily applied to these sorts of people and you probably know what the term is so I don't need to say it, and there may be brothers and sisters reading this blog who don't need that language brought up so I defer to them. The point is that there are points where people find most detestable in others those acrimonious traits in themselves; furthermore, there are some people who have tired of Christian company because Christians tend to act the way these people act.
But there can be a paradoxical other side of struggle within faith. That struggle can be Christian kindness. When God feels absent and seems to not answer your prayers for yourself but blesses others, and you receive kindness from Christians, it can paradoxically feel as though the kindness of Christians is more tangibly real then an abstract notion about the kindness and generosity of God. There are a lot of unbelievers and nominal Christians who choose the Paul McCartney axiom that evil is just the devil if you take the d off the word. Evil can't be transcendent. And per McCartney level thought, god is just what happens if you take an o out of good. This is sloganeering of the sort that McCartney (and Lennon, frankly) excelled at.
There is, however, a time and place when there is some strength to the mundane and obtuse axiom. There are times when the kindness of people does not always seem to indicate that there is a "Christian" let alone a "Christian worldview" motivation. Not that these things don't happen, I've benefited from the generosity of various sorts of people who are various sorts of Christian, but some folks more in the "worldview" camp have doubted the sincerity of those Christians who are "liberal" who, unbeknownst to the worldviewer types, have done far more to help me in tangible ways than they have. I don't wish to name names here but the "liberal" who "may not even be a Christian" gave to me so generously it broke down any sense of personal restraint or dignity I might have tried keeping up. Now I'm not saying conservative Christians haven't been helping me, they have, I'm just sharing that sometimes a crisis about faith in practice comes from seeing actions and outcomes that seem counterintuitive given what people would say about themselves verses those other Christians they judge to not quite be Christians.
All that is sort of a rambling preamble to discussing this sermon. In the last two years I have become familiar with lacking things. I have lacked money, and I have lacked income. I have also lacked the gain of continued employment I can live off of. I have ended up on food stamps and that because I relented when everyone in my family urged me to go on them. I have lacked the financial stability to consider the continuing education that some of have urged me to. I have lacked the marital status that would be needed to qualify for most of the worker re-education programs that are available, just as I have discovered that because I got a B.A. I lack the qualifications needed to be eligible for the few programs that fund worker retraining for people who aren't married. I have in the last few months discovered that I have a cataract growing in my left eye that has brought some new, unhappy impairments in my vision. I also lack the money or resources to obtain cataract removal surgery. Being unemployed, without money, and having a disability, these are all substantial lacks. Depending on which circle of Christians we're talking about I am also single and in my later 30s, which means I lack in other ways, particularly by way of what is considered "God's design". :)
The family that put on the wedding at Cana lacked wine. The social failure of this moment could be difficult to fully articulate. The groom's family and the groom were the ones to fund the wedding celebration, which usually lasted for days. The wedding was also a town-wide affair and in smaller villages people from adjacent villages were invited to participate. To run out of wine in such a setting would be a huge disgrace and not just on the level of "party foul" here in the West. This would not signal that the guests ate all the food you spent your money on because people eat a lot. No, this would signal shame and disgrace at being unable to pull off the kick-off party of one's own wedding. This would permanently mar your standing in society and signal to your in-laws that you were an abject failure.
In Western cultures the bride's family covers the wedding and this is not necessarily how it works in Eastern settings, either in the ancient near east nor in the far east but I don't want to digress into too many nerdy points about how these cultural expectations play into ancient Near Eastern or Asian story-telling. Yet I believe it would be useful to provide a case study from a pop culture tale from Japan to help unpack a basic difference between East and West here. There's a fun, low-key but momentous moment in a Rumiko Takahashi comic book (Maison Ikkoku, very far in the series' run) in which a man opens up his balance book to show a woman he loves that he's, in that culture's idiom, proposing marriage to her but showing that he's worked out the budgetary concerns of pulling off a wedding. Anyone who knows the series knows that Kozue accepts the proposal but I'll try to save any discussion of Takahashi comic books for some other time. Suffice it to say that in an Eastern setting it's a big, big deal if the man and his family can't pull off the wedding celebration because they lack the funds. In some Eastern settings demonstrating that the groom and his family can handle the expense is considered something necessary to share as part of the marriage proposal itself. See, my readers, it's not entirely useless to know trivia about Japanese culture from manga!
So when the wine runs out at Cana I don't think that it's possible to overstate the shame of that lack to a Westerner. "Party foul" doesn't even begin to cover the significance of this. This might as well have been a public, unintentional announcement on the part of the groom and his family saying "We don't cut it, we're failures." It's not necessarily material whether the guests drank too much or the groom was a poor planner the result ended up being the same. And that is, to some degree, the thing about how a lot of people can think about poverty. It doesn't matter why someone thinks you're poor. They could decide you're poor because your stupid or evil. They could decide you're poor because society is evil. They could decide any number of things but the lack remains the same either way.
I've certainly gotten the feeling I don't cut it. Two years of having no job and being ineligible for unemployment because I got laid off by a non-profit is no fun. In the last two years I've had one acquaintence die of cancer, another got murdered by her stalker, one of my cousins died of skin cancer, one of my uncles died of a diabetic coma that he (in his hermitic existence) didn't get help for in time, another of my associates finally succumbed to decades of battling brain tumors, and in the last few months I learned I have a cataract that needs to be removed from my left eye. I have not managed to sell anyone to hire me for a job in these two years and the non-profit I worked for had a set of proprietary systems that aren't full of the most obviously transferrable skill sets for either for-profit or non-profit work. There's a lot that sucks about my life at this point.
However, a lot of people have shown me kindness. I think that in the sense that followers of Christ show kindness that can be a kind of unsettling moment because when Jesus said "They will know you are mine by your love for one another" this invites the question of how many people, really, know we belong to Jesus by how we love one another.
I have managed to just barely obtain even four digits of income in either of the two years I have been unemployed. I have come across some fellow Christians who, surprisingly, have been willing to say I'm not really poor. I beg to differ ... well I don't beg to differ, I've got food stamps. ;) I've managed to adapt in a few ways, like learning how to cook a whole slew of meals I never thought to cook at home in my employed days. And friends and family and church have stepped in to support me in all sorts of ways for which I am grateful. In that respect Jesus' fills a lack in my life in that Christians inspired by Jesus' teaching have helped me. I can't hope to return the favor that has been shown me but I hope one day to display similar kindness to others who may need help. When I worked at the Salvation Army for nine years I certainly felt that in my own small way I could say that I was part of a Christian organization dedicated to helping meet people in their need.
So when friends give me food left over from a speaking engagement they were attending they were able to collect for me I'm grateful, very grateful. When friends and family run jobs leads by me I'm grateful even when the job turns out to be something I'm not able to get. I'm grateful for roommates who help me keep a roof over my head. I do have a lot to be grateful for despite my circumstances but that does not mitigate that I need a lot of help and lack a lot of things.
I used to be the person to get groceries for my disabled friend who couldn't get out of the house. I'd ask him what he needed for the month and go get that for him. I even picked up food for his cat while I was at it. As long-time readers of this blog will remember I don't have great vision. I had a macular detachment in my good eye (fixed up years ago thanks to a surgeon) and now have a cataract in my bad eye. I was calling my disabled friend about an item on his grocery list and then had a thought I couldn't help but share, I told my friend that I just realized that a partly blind guy grocery shopping for a cripple and playing phone tag about how to find items was actually pretty funny. We both chuckled but I did find what my friend needed.
I admit that being on the needing side of that equation feels a lot different than being on the helping side of that equation but not in the way I expected. I don't mind receiving help when I'm sure I need it I just wish I didn't have to say I need help as often as I have needed to. I don't know if I'd say that it's because I feel like a bad person for needing help, it's more like I wish I could be better than I am because I would like to be able to live up to the level of generosity I have received. Maybe that's a problem? There's a certain type of pious imagination that would tell me that that's pride. I have no use for that type of pious imagination (maybe I do and don't consciously realize it but that's not for me to work out at this stage in my life). Apparently to go by how Mary approached Jesus she didn't have that kind of pious imagination either.