lenten journal: I don’t want to be nice


    Curious George has gone to Africa.

    Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Bush is making a whirlwind tour of The Largely Ignored Continent, visiting countries not in crisis where he can point to what he has done to help them. Yes, my cynical sap is definitely rising. Kofi Annan has been in Kenya for a couple of weeks trying to do something to stem the violence firsthand, but Bush chose to go next door to Tanzania and let his Secretary of State go to Nairobi. None of them is going to Darfur.

    Before you skip to wherever you’re going next, this is not going to be a rant. I’m headed to one particular thing I heard today on NPR related to the $19 billion Bush pledged five years ago to help fight AIDS in Africa. The money has been spent on AIDS and also to try and lessen the damage done by malaria and tuberculosis, and the money has helped. The NPR reporter noted before the aid was pledged, less than two percent of people with AIDS were able to get any help. That number has now risen to over thirty percent. Yes, that’s good news and . . .

    We’ve spent twenty-six times that much on the war in Iraq, a number that is truly impossible for me to fathom. Over twenty million dollars clicked by on the counter here on the blog in the time it took me to write this post. It will only take five months to spend $19 billion in Iraq, not five years. Beyond feeling frustrated and helpless at the way the government spends money, I’m pulled by the numbers in a more personal way that makes me contemplate my generosity and values.

    Some years ago, when the news still talked about Brad and Jennifer, Ginger talked in one of her sermons about the big deal that had been made because they gave a hundred thousand dollars to something. For the organization receiving the money, a $100K was a big deal, but when Ginger did the math as far as the gift as a percentage of income, it was the equivalent of she and I giving about five bucks to the cause.

    All of it flows together for me when I look at the story of Abram because I keep thinking about what was at stake for him, and for Sarai, even though she doesn’t get equal billing. Genesis 12 opens with God telling Abram to pack up and move – no context or explanation. I looked back into the previous chapter to find that Abraham’s father, Terah, had been the one who originally left Ur (Iraq!) for Canaan, but only made it as far as Haran and settled there. We aren’t told why; he just stopped. Who knows if the prospect of taking up the journey was ever the topic of discussion over dinner, if Terah was going because God told him to go, or if he just felt like moving west and then got tired like the guide in Waiting for Guffman.

    Abram and Sarai got to the land they were promised and built an altar of thanksgiving, but a famine came, so they went south to Egypt, as did Moses and Mary and Joseph, to name a few. As they came into the Negev, Abram got a little nervous. His wife was beautiful and he didn’t fancy himself much of a fighter, so he told her to say she was his sister so they wouldn’t kill him to get to her. She “went to live” with the Pharoah and Abram became a wealthy farmer, getting comfortable in Egypt the same way his father settled in Haran.

    Abram’s plan worked well, I suppose, if you’re Abram. Sarai was the one who had to pay the bill. I imagine “going to live with” the Pharoah was a euphemism for more than doing housework and looking pretty at dinnertime. Sarai, who was barren and wanted children, was being forced to have sex with the Pharoah so Abram could get set up in business and not get killed. He probably thought he was doing her a favor.

    Being compassionate is not the same thing as doing someone a favor or doing something nice for those in need. Being philanthropic – making sure we spread things out so everyone gets a little something – is not the same as being generous. One of our folks in Marshfield was so deeply moved by the plight of the victims of Katrina in Mississippi (who, FEMA said today, were given trailers contaminated with formaldehyde) that he continues to figure out how to get down there as often as he can to help people rebuild their homes. He isn’t being nice; he identifies with those folks, hurts with them, and hardly goes a day without thinking about what he can do to help. One of these days, we’re going to get a call and find out he retired as a CPA and moved to the Delta.

    It wasn’t Abram’s idea to leave Egypt. Left to his own devices, I think he might have been the same sort of settled footnote as his father had Pharoah not found out he had been fooled and told them both to get out of the country. Abram made sure to take all of his wealth and comfort with them. But God’s promise wasn’t that Abram would be rich and comfortable.

    “I’ll make you a blessing,” God said. Abram may have stopped listening after, “I’ll make of you a great nation.” (I like the way The Message puts it: “I’ll make you famous.”)

    Being an American Christian means, for most of us, growing up with Abram’s sense of comfort and wealth, particularly compared to the rest of the world. We like feeling as though we are the chosen ones, God’s celebrities, able to do nice things for those in need from time to time without really grasping what our choices are costing those around us.

    I say, “we.” I should begin by saying, “I.”

    I’m thankful this story and others shows God works with and loves flawed people, otherwise I don’t know I could say, “I’m bound for the promised land.”



    1. wowzers…this one really got to me today. thinking about all these nice things we do to raise money for different organizations and my youth telling me that they want to do missions because it is a nice thing to do but they don’t want to do it around town, nor do they or myself really want to give up our comfort.

      Never really thought about Sarai had to endure as well. thanks for making me think today.

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