“Take the next 30 seconds or so and write down specifically what you have done in the past three months to help the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or in prison,” our pastor asked us this morning. He was preaching from Matthew 25
, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and making a list like this would be a “dry run of judgment day,” he told us.
I found some white space in my journal where I had been taking notes, and I actually adjusted the pen in my hand, poised to write. But the pastor kind of kept talking, to make the lack of congregational writing less awkward, probably, and I had a headache, so I didn’t actually write anything.
Not that there was much to write. Thankfully, the holidays fell within those last three months, so there actually were a couple of attempts to love like this. But it would have been a paltry list at best.
An easier list to make would have been to write down all of the things I had thought about doing for the hungry and naked. All the children I thought of sponsoring, the homeless I thought of reaching out to, the poor I thought of befriending. Unfortunately, that’s not the list our pastor asked for; it’s not the list Jesus wants, either.
It could be no coincidence that later the same day, this very afternoon in fact, I read LaVonne Neff
‘s essay, “My (Self-Righteous) Food Stamp Fast” from The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God.
In 2009, Neff embarked on a Lenten “fast” of sorts
, in which she and her husband lived for six weeks on the budget of a typical couple on food stamps, roughly $11 per day.
While one of her goals was to understand more fully what it meant to be poor in America, to be one of the “least of these,” a friend very quickly set her straight. Neff writes,
‘If you really want to know how it feels to be poor,’ said a friend as we ate at an Indian restaurant the Sunday before the experiment was due to begin, ‘first come clean my house for two dollars an hour, then clean three or four other houses, and then go home and try to cook a meal for your family for less than twelve dollars.’
Her comment struck home, ‘I’m all for showing solidarity with the poor,’ I wrote on my blog on Tuesday, ‘but this experiment is not going to do it.’ (169)
Even as I read her early realization that she was just “a pampered tourist on a short-term excursion into the land of poverty,” I felt a surge of energy in my heart. Maybe this is a way I could solve my Lenten fast dilemma AND give to the least of these. I could live like they do. I could attempt to stay organic and local and live on a budget, to show the poor that they, too, could have a healthy diet on a food-stamp budget. And if I couldn’t do organic and local on $35 per week, I would have a six-week experience of knowing what it meant to not eat healthy. I could do this.
Then I continued reading Neff’s essay.
Yes, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! I had just lived for five and a half weeks on a food-stamp budget, but my emphasis was all wrong. ‘Look what I can do,’ I was saying, when I should have been asking, ‘What can I do for people in need?’
The prophet Isaiah speaks God’s condemnation of people who fast for the wrong reasons. ‘Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,’ he says. What counts is not giving up things, but giving of oneself. (171)
So, I don’t know what to do with all of this. I don’t know what to make of the goats and the sheep, of the hungry brothers, and the food-stamp fast.
I do know that tonight I am thinking of the the faces of an unemployed woman at church and the homeless man at the corner near my work. I am looking forward to a coffee date with a new friend who works for a non-profit organization that ministers to the poor. And I am considering the extravagance of the $50 meal out I enjoyed last night with friends.
I am also pulling out that list of good intentions. Maybe the answer lies somewhere between those lines.