Stream of Consciousness

Here is further proof that the after-effects of sermons are often different than the preacher may have intended, and different for the various listeners, and also proof that the Spirit does what it will.

This Sunday’s sermon was by a guest preacher, the Rev. Wil Howie from Living Waters for the World. A wonderful organization (I love their technique of training people and sending them out–sort of the mission version of “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; if you teach a man to fish he eats for life.”), and a wonderful sermon.

But the preaching text has been haunting me all week for completely different reasons:

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. (Isaiah 41:17-18)

The reason the text hit me square in the text has nothing to do with good exegesis or placing it in a broader context. And it’s very different from what Rev. Howie was using it for in the sermon. I’d spent the last week looking at pictures of the flooding in the towns where I grew up, near Binghamton, NY. Life in these towns is deeply connected to the realities of hills and rivers. To get from one place to another, you have to know where the bridges are. It is nothing like the flat midwest where cities can easily follow a grid pattern. Streets are at odd angles, and there are fewer bridges because bridges, like roads, have to navigate the hills in the area. When a river or creek floods, it makes a huge mess of the houses and roads in its particular valley.

I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys. Listen to that verse and then think about pictures of the city of Binghamton covered with water, and of roads in the hills completely washed out by an out-of-control creek turned into a roaring river. It’s such a reminder that water is a source of great good and a source of great evil.

Continuing down this stream of thought, I was also viewing pictures of people looking pretty depserate as they tried to dry out their lives and homes, and some of the pictures were heart-breaking because you knew that this flooding had really taken away all the security these people have. The Binghamton area has been economically depressed for decades, and there is some great poverty in the cities and in the surrounding hills. It’s a beautiful place, but underneath that beauty is a lot of desperation and economic hurt. I wonder how some of the people affected by the flooding will recover. I don’t think I ever understood how much poverty there was until after I moved away. And I feel awful that I didn’t see it until I didn’t live there anymore.

But wait a minute…how often do we miss the reality of poverty in the places where we actually live and work? In downtown Chicago, I learned to ignore the homeless people as much as possible because otherwise I felt overwhlemed. I’m grateful for the lunch times I spent at the last church handing out brown-bags with the fabulous director of the church’s social services center, because it forced me to look at homeless people downtown again (especially since I now recognize some of them from those lunches!).

And what about the new place I’m living in? Just last week, the Chicago Tribune carried this news:

Illinois has about 724,000 residents living in what experts call “deep poverty,” the highest rate in the Midwest, according to a recent report.

Deep poverty is defined as a family of four living on $9,675 or less per year.

The number of people living in deep poverty has spiked in the six-county Chicagoland area since 2000, according to the U.S. Census, the 2004 Community Survey and the 2006 Report on Illinois Poverty by the bipartisan Heartland Alliance.

McHenry County has shown the sharpest increase, up 81.7 percent from 2000 to 2004, followed by Kane County at 77.8 percent.

Though Illinois has the fifth-largest economy in the country, it also has the highest poverty rate in the Midwest. Those living in deep poverty account for 5.8 percent of the state’s population, figures show, followed by 5.5 percent in Michigan and 4.6 percent in Ohio.

Yikes! That’s where I live now!

So what’s the sum of this whole stream of thought? The big question for me: as a Christian, what do I actually do about poverty that is around me, about the command to love neighbor? The world is a big, messy place, but the mess includes the very spot where I actually live, and poverty encompasses people who I actually come into contact with. And what does this mean for ministry? How do I help the kids I am called to work with to recognize the presence of poverty nearby, so that they don’t wind up like me–a bit shocked that they never recognized it when they were younger?