Tuesday, December 12, 2006

thoughts on being a sucker versus selfishness

Thanks, Kat, for giving me something to think about besides pregnancy woes and labor apprehension. Here is my opinion, for what it's worth.

When we lived in Birmingham, we became friends with two couples, JR and Tammy, and Rebecca and Marlin. We had dinner with them a few times - JR liked barbeque, though none of them were picky. Tammy called every few weeks to let us know how everyone was doing, how JR was helping a friend fix her plumbing while her boyfriend was out of town, how they'd gone to visit JR's grown son the day before. JR's brother had died a few months before we met them, and it was easier for him if he stayed busy. Rebecca was pregnant, and the bigger she got, the harder it was for her to get around. Tammy helped her out as much as she could. Tammy was never able to have children, and though I suspected she was jealous of Rebecca, she regarded her with a sort of maternal protection. Rebecca was younger than all of us, and, far from home, needed mothering. In April Rebecca called to say she thought her water broke, and what should she do? To which I responded, "Honey, I can't do anything for you! Go to the hospital!" She had a little boy, Marlin Jr., the next morning. After the baby was born, Rebecca and Marlin moved back to Tennessee to be around her family. JR and Tammy gave them going away presents, and Tammy cried when they left. In the fall, I lost touch with both couples. Tammy called a few times, but I wasn't very good at responding. It wasn't her, it was me. I wasn't very good at doing anything productive by that point. I went to see them before we left, though. No one was home, so I left a note and told them we were leaving, and that we loved them and enjoyed the year we'd spent with them.

JR, Tammy, Rebecca, and Marlin are homeless. They lived (and live) in a tent at the top of a hill behind a strip mall in midtown Birmingham. Does this story read differently to you now? I hope not.

I never talk about this, because I never want to use them as a badge. Look at me and my homeless friends - this is what I want to avoid. They weren't a badge, or a project, or a problem to be fixed. They are people, with thoughts and experiences and emotions just like us. We talked about Jesus a few times. They all had stories about churches that had turned them out because the preachers thought they weren't doing enough to get their lives in order. Tammy liked to remind us that if Jesus were here today, he'd rather be around people like her than anyone else. She was right. I learned a valuable lesson that year: you can't love and serve someone if you're afraid of them. And you can't follow Christ without loving people. So following Jesus means, in effect, that I have to set aside my fear and rhetoric and get to know the person in front of me. I can say whatever I want, but until I can do this one thing, until I can love and serve the person that's staring me in the face, I'm not really following Christ.

A month or so ago, Brian and I ran into Tammy in Prattville. She had come down for the day with a friend. She and JR are fine. They haven't heard from Rebecca or Marlin since they moved, but everyone was healthy and happy. Tammy was excited that I was pregnant. We hugged one another and promised to stop by the hill the next time we're in Birmingham.

My response to Kat's question is, I'd rather be the fool that gave away my money than the one who withheld from someone in need. I'm not responsible for their salvation or their productivity in society, but I will have to stand before God and explain how I treated others. That in itself feels like an overwhelming responsibility. It would be profoundly arrogant of me to think that I've done anything life changing for Tammy and JR in the time that I've known them. I can't say if any of them have said a sinner's prayer or had a salvation experience. They still live on the hill, and neither of them have jobs or cars or houses. All that I've done is what I've been told to do - to follow the example of Jesus, and to leave changing lives up to Him.


Valerie said...

This is a huge issue in Memphis- there are a lot of homeless people, and there is a huge income divide. It's a big problem, and I have a lot of guilt about the fact that I can provide for myself, but I can't do more for other people.

This is what I think. I am not responsible for the way other people treat me. If someone scams me or lies to me or uses me, that is their shortcoming. The only thing I can be responsible for is the way that I treat other people. Because that's really the only thing you can control in life.

That said, I am going to go post a blog about a related issue now, and I'd be glad for anyone's input.

Heather said...

I said almost this exact thing (your last paragraph) in Sunday school, 2 weeks ago. *grins*

I love this line, from this post: "I can say whatever I want, but until I can do this one thing, until I can love and serve the person that's staring me in the face, I'm not really following Christ. "

kat said...

What a great story...and perspective. I think I've figured out where I stand on the issue now.

buf said...

Jesus was pregnant and carless and jobless :) He had the shoulders of a homeless man, as a smart guy was wont to say. I <3 you, Stog. - Janet

buf said...

and I would ALWAYS rather squander on someone who might not really need what I have than withhold from someone who really needs what I have. - jab

buf said...

HAAA! You've got me thinkin about pregnancy. Jesus was HOMELESS is what I meant to say in the first comment. NOT PREGNANT! Sheesh.