Our Social Stratification and Its Role in Reaching the Poor

I’ve had the privilege of working in fast food for seven years out of my adult life (mostly as a side gig).

I say “privilege” because I think this matches up with Jesus’ value system: the lower you go, the higher you get. The service industry is an incredible opportunity to witness to hard cases who bounce around at that level of work, often with no path out.

It got me thinking, though – have you ever noticed that it often takes flipping burgers for some of us to ever meet these people in any quantity?

Let me set the table for this point. I attend a fairly well-to-do church. Most of my church family is middle- to upper middle-class with relatively stable incomes – a deft mix of business owners, farmers/ranchers, medical professionals, management types, educators, engineers, code geeks, and experienced tradesmen. That sort of thing. We live in comfortable homes, some of them rented, some of them remodeled by our own hands.

And it’s not just the money. Though we wouldn’t call ourselves filthy rich by any measure, we enjoy an assurance that many lack: we’ve got arrows in our quivers like degrees, certifications, references, and experience. Unexpected unemployment can still be dicey, but generally, we’ve got resources to fight it. There’s a lot of that blue-collar ruggedness mixed up in my church.

Now, the people I work with in the service sector are often not so blessed. Many have lots of mouths to feed, but without the resources to match. A fellow delivery driver lost the gig because her car got hit by a deer and she lacked the money to fix it. Another was trying to rise above a misdemeanor rap last time I saw him. It’s more common to find such folk living in humbler abodes – run-down apartment complexes, the less desirable trailer parks. Many of them have worked at dead-end jobs their entire life, without much in the way of resumes or references to catapult them to the next level. They also may never have learned where to even look for the button-up-shirt-and-benefits jobs that can widen a cashflow even without a degree, and many of them wouldn’t know the first thing about home renovation, or at least doing it right. (I emphasize that these are all general trends, not hard and fast rules.)

But while I was recently pondering the plight of the “first-world poor” in this country and the countless political solutions being bandied about, it occurred to me that probably the biggest gap between these two groups of people is their community.

The average attendee of my church potentially has an army of a thousand at their back should they ever want. It’s a remarkable position. At my church, you could quickly find a quality babysitter, mechanic, CPA, math tutor (ahem), veterinarian, property manager, plumber, graphics designer, pro bono attorney, or disaster restoration guy all in one congregation – maybe even all in one service, the way we’re going – without breaking a sweat. The overwhelmed mom has tight friends to help babysit (or be fodder for their internet business); the dad has buddies willing to jaunt over and help build the house he’s planning to flip and sell in two years. Basically, it’s much harder to crash and burn. You always have someone who can provide solutions and manpower.

What do the poor outside my church have?

Their community looks very different. Often, they have a few close friends, mostly family, and those folks are often as poor and unconnected as they. I’m not fixing blame; I’m stating a problem. There just haven’t been that many dynamics in their lives that would naturally bring them into contact with richer, more versatile folks. Community college, a big social and vocational enabler, often isn’t an option because of kids and debt. And it isn’t just that they don’t go to church – that’s not where I’m going with this – they’re often introverts, sometimes feeling vaguely unwanted by the world, and really don’t go that many places at all.

It’s a situation robs a family of momentum. Social collateral, of a kind. There just aren’t that many paths out of such a life, not without immense expense that just isn’t practical.

(And yes, alcohol, drugs, and sloth are certainly part of some stories. So are the $3,400 DVD collections in their living rooms. But this isn’t part of the post, because this post is for someone else.)

I almost used the word “castes” to describe this social layering. I decided that was a little strong. It makes it sound intentional when none of us really mean to contribute to any of this.

But when Jesus said to help the poor, I don’t believe he was giving polite advice. He knew what the causes and barriers of poverty would be, in every epoch and culture. That doesn’t surprise him. Yet the command stands. He wanted us to go the distance. He certainly went out of his own way himself.

Could it be that equipping the poor is one of the ways a church was intended to serve as a light to the world?

So I wondered – do we know enough poor people?

Do our professional and personal circles bring us into enough contact with the poor?

Are we sharing experiences with people who might lack the same gear, hobbies, or interests as us because they haven’t had the time or money to pursue them?

Are we spending quality time around people who make us nervous because we never know when they honestly might just baldly ask for money?

Because, sad to say, I don’t know how many of these poor people I would know right now without my pizza gig. Probably not enough.

Most of us know someone like these. But oftentimes, we “allow” the chance for deeper friendship to slip away. We turn to other priorities, often legitimate, or perhaps just choosing friends who are closer to our world. It leads to a form of unintended social caste system, one whose layers can be defied and moved between (more so in this country than any other, in fact) but still requires a helping hand. The two groups just don’t have much in common, and we don’t fight the lack of inertia.

How might these people’s lives instantly be changed if they were invited to church? Regularly invested in? Handed a few life skills we picked up along the way? Or even just smiled at?

Many of my friends do take advantage of these opportunities. They’ve been a huge inspiration to me. But it’s taken an intentionality. Inviting these folks over to the next drywall hanging, using them as a babysitter (assuming trustworthiness) instead of the sister, or just introducing them to friends. It makes a difference in their lives. They pick up skills, connections, confidence, and yes, some money along the way.

I think it’s the sort of thing Jesus wants us to do.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

The Man with a Cord Around His Neck

A couple summers ago, a shocking moment intruded upon a random delivery.

In a fading summer twilight, I was bringing pizza to the local emergency room (draped up in plastic amidst a remodel at the time). As I was walking in, I’d noticed a young guy sitting on the curb, head down, but thought little of it. As I came back out, I felt compelled to say hello to him – a risky move for an introvert like myself, but doubly so given this guy appeared to be in some distress.

Pay attention to those little urges to connect. They could shape eternity.

I drew near to this young man and hailed him. He didn’t answer, head bowed, face hidden. I now registered sniffling. I asked if he was all right; he again didn’t answer. I asked him his name; he gave it.

It was then that I noticed that he had twisted what looked like an iPod cord around his neck and was pulling so tight that it was starting to bruise his skin.

Alarmed, I told him that I was concerned and asked him to stop. He didn’t. I told him that if he kept doing it, I’d have no choice but to notify the people inside the ER. He said he didn’t care. I ran in and announced the situation to the front desk, and they sprang into action; a tall, imposing male nurse quickly sprinted out to the guy carrying a pair of scissors. While that happened, I took my leave and returned to my car.

My thoughts were unsettled for the rest of my shift, sinking with the sun. The fact that this young man chose to sit right outside an ER as he harmed himself suggested that he did not want to die, that he was really crying out for help. It wasn’t the way I would have chosen to ask. Then again, I have no idea what pain the man was going through, what his story was. And as the saying goes, “Be kind; everyone you know is grieving.”

I have not heard news of the man since. I hope he got the help he needed.

Many people would have done what I had the opportunity to do. I just happened to be there because someone nearby ordered cheese and sauce.

What I hope is that, if you are struggling today and you just can’t regulate, if it’s searing to burst from your mouth or body, you will seek help. Seek it from God, who sent his son to navigate himself into a position of “not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). And seek it from the people he sends. There are countless people around you – even strangers – who will listen without judging.

May we all be such people.

A Thank-You to Fast Food Managers

We all likely have fond memories of our first bosses.

Well, perhaps not all so fond. But I do.

At my first job (Taco Johns’, in case you were dying of curiosity), I had a GM named Cyndi. She was hilarious, compassionate, efficient, a great trainer, and on top of her job. Kind of like a mom to us young pups, she listened, understood, encouraged, and kept smiles on our faces. She gave us rides to work when we needed (and may or may not have handed her closing crew a Chaco Taco on the sly every once in a while). It’s so important to have someone like that to guide you over your first steps into the working world – or perhaps your return to it.

When someone is struggling to get back into the workforce – maybe down on their luck, perhaps without a lot of high-end skills, trying to finally beat a substance rap, or just fresh out of 9th grade – it’s typically not high-powered jobs that they search for. Most law firms won’t be hiring them, if we’re honest. It’s fast food, or grocery, or retail they’ll be going after.

And store managers are the ones holding the keys. They hire, they supervise, they develop. You’re not getting or keeping a job without them.

If you think about it, store managers play a underappreciated and frankly crucial role in our society. In light of that, perhaps McDonald’s general managers are not a target for mockery, no matter how they feel. A lot of down-and-out people rely on their goodwill to get back into the game. That’s power. They’re gatekeepers, in a way.

And there seem to be more and more broken people pounding on these gates with each passing year.

Such managers often lead pretty thankless existences. They have to deal with constant turnover; a competent crew lasting months would be a dream for them. They often don’t make much. They’ve got families they battle to feed, just like us. They get plenty of abuse from their own bosses and have to bear the weight of firing people (which, hopefully, is a weight for them, no matter how much the fired deserve it). They can’t please everybody, and there are days when it seems they can’t please anybody. And if anything goes wrong – the product, an employee, something completely out of anyone’s control – and the customer comes calling, guess who gets blamed?

Of course, not every manager is an angel. And with poverty and rising cost of living such a prevalent point of discussion, bosses are in the spotlight more than ever. It used to be that a household could get by with just one breadwinner. Now it seems to take both parents working – and building and selling a house. The pressure is on. And managers have a role.

To the fast food bosses out there, I’d say this: you’re not ruler of a henhouse, but a steward of the poor and suffering. You have not gained power and authority by accident; you’ve been given it by God. That’s a great privilege, and it holds great potential.

As Spiderman often heard, with great power comes great responsibility. In light of their struggle, I would simply say, I hope you will put your people first. Make decisions that treat your employees as more important than yourself. Their livelihoods depend on you. God does not give a person power for his or her own comfort or control, but for the welfare of those beneath you. And God brings it back around to you. I’d be glad to help out most of my former bosses even today. Remember the saying: we are judged not by how we treat our peers, but by how we treat those beneath us.

To the bosses who have helped salvage lives by bringing in the misfit, recovering, recently released, or marginally skilled, and getting a paycheck to them and their kids, you are part of what keeps the world turning. Thank you.

Just figured you wouldn’t mind hearing such things on a Monday. May your grills be hot and your hands fully washed.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

To My Future Daughter

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Sweetheart,

I was laid off from my primary job last month.

It happens. No hard feelings. It was a great gig while it lasted, good people and all.

No doubt this bores your yet-nonexistent mind to tears, so I’ll skip to where this affects you: though I’ve finally managed to save up a bit, I want you to know that it wasn’t an option to stay content with my second job (pizza delivery) after the lay-off. It wasn’t an option to just tread water financially. I found myself compelled to turn around and find new primary employment, go right back to sixty hours a week, even though I’ve been plugging away at that pace for eight years.

Because of you.

You’re the reason why I keep knocking myself out year in and year out, why it never bugs me to take a longer shift, why it didn’t bother me to skip the big-screen TV and streaming subscriptions, why I keep hitting the gym to secure some semblance of energy in middle age, and why I’m planning to buy and remodel a house next year without a while lot of experience.

Because of you, sweetheart. You’re worth it.

I want it to be the best version of me that finally, God willing, gets to hold you someday. A red carpet rolled out for your life, colored by Jesus’ blood.

This is all syrupily, comically premature, of course, because I’m so far back in the process that I don’t even know who your mother will be yet (I still hope you look like her – it’s gotta be an improvement). But still, somehow, I think about you all the time. Having church friends who are cranking out babies right and left probably has something to do with it – que sera sera.

I’ve got so many plans, God willing. We’ll talk about Jesus in the same breath as Daniel Tiger. We’ll be opening Bibles as often as candy wrappers. We’ll hit our knees in our igloo and gape at God’s handiwork from our treehouse. Your first guitar (or kazoo?) songs will be worship songs. Jesus is my hero, and I want him to be yours. He needs me to train you, and that’s why I train myself now.

If that happens, you’ll stand out. And that’s both awesome and terrifying.

Gosh, what an insane world you’ll be born into. The Joker would be proud. If it’s not a physical war, it’s a war of ideas on the worldly plane and of kingdoms on the spiritual one. The clash is fiercer than ever, and we’ve both been drafted.

If I do my job, if you know Jesus and the woman he’s calling you to be, if God answers my prayers, you’ll bear a spark nobody can miss. You’ll be functional. You’ll be kind. And, sad commentary as it is, that will probably make you stick out like a sore thumb in the 2030s. Your peers will look up to you. Employers will trust you. The church will see fit to send you to the nations, to those born less privileged. Colleges will court you. So will guys (I’ve already bought a shotgun) until they get bored and wander off because you’re waiting until God hits the horn and produces a guy who is just as enthralled with Him.

If I do my job. God have mercy.

But it’ll also make you a target. The Scriptural life isn’t popular anymore, and people also attack what they admire. Will we have to live off the grid to stand on the Word? I can’t say. But it does no good to mince words, sweetheart: you will be hated, just as I will be. Just as He is.

It almost makes me hope that you don’t stand out. That I can just hide you in a bunker, staple Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to your shoulders, or expose everyone who meets you to memory-blocking pheromones. But we both know these aren’t options. Follow Jesus and the world will see.

So I have to train you for that, too. I have to teach you to do what’s right even when nobody’s watching (or when everyone’s watching). I must model deriving identity and strength from Christ, not the world. I’ve got to serve, date, and prioritize your mom so you know what a real family looks like. I can’t spare the rod, even if it hurts me more. Because if I don’t yank you back, life and Satan will. And they won’t be gentle.

Maybe you’ll be all dresses and dollhouses; maybe you’ll be a true country girl with an ATV and a 17-point shed by high school. Fine by me, even if one hits my checkbook harder. Your essence will be seen and loved.

But no matter what, I know God’s got you. And that wonderful knowledge crucifies my fear.

If I don’t make it all the way to hand you off on your wedding day (definitely won’t happen if the Seahawks keep getting up my blood pressure like this), may this letter find you, dear daughter. May you know how much I adore you, even now, before you were a glint in anyone’s eye. Because you were in Jesus’ eye from the beginning, and he’s given up far more for you than I ever could.

With all my eagerly waiting heart,

Dad

P.S. Grandma wants you to hurry up and get here.

A Week on the Plains and Plain Truth about Reservations

Last week, fourteen high school students loaded up a van and drove across Montana with three leaders – including myself  –  for a week putting on VBS’s on a distant Native American reservation. It was our second annual mission to this site. We went with God preparing the way ahead, his glory as our rear guard, and the fervent prayer and support of our congregation going up to him.

I did miss the opportunity to spend the week blasting Audio Adrenaline’s “Blitz” with its refrain “Fourteen kids in an old church van”, but que sera sera.

(For those who don’t know our church, we’ve long run a tiered youth mission program intended to get students out of their middle-class comfort zone and set before them the struggles of impoverished and unchurched corners of our world. Tier 1 trips are our shortest, most in-culture and structured. This was a Tier 2, remaining on continent but removing students further from cultural norms and controlled conditions, demanding more work and initiative. Tier 3 is off-continent; Tier 4 is long-term.

The program has availed much. So many testimonies of youth setting hammer to nail, shovel to dirt, or Windex to window in a darkened battleground somewhere, returning home with their worldview flipped on its head, and finishing growing up that way. It spurs gospel and generosity, loosens their love of their material bubble. It’s one of my favorite features about my church.)

TLDR for those wondering how their prayer and money was used: the trip was terrific. Fruitful, providential, and foundational for the future.

peckGod had clearly positioned us for this mission. Just weeks prior, huge, potentially deal-breaking questions had loomed about manning and housing. They were all solved, albeit in that on-the-run fashion that God so often favors. In fact, some of God’s answers turned out to be improvements on last year’s situations.

The students did top-notch work planning and executing their VBS curriculum and activities. Several were visibly stretched, and welcomed it. Our team was solid and fairly inclusive; no real problems regarding unity.

The unpredictability so inherent to this kind of mission trip showed up for sure, given the tendency of reservation life to start at noon and the fact that we were running separate VBS’s in towns 45 miles apart. Schedules and key information were blurred and juggled. The students met it all with a deft willingness to pivot and adapt, to jump to unexpected tasks and fill in shifting vacancies. Few complaints. It was eye-opening to watch them embrace the whirlwind as a cost of doing business.

I heard some students, veterans of last year’s trip, remarking to their parents about how God was maturing and deepening their understanding of reservation life – the challenges of poverty, the darkness of abuse and addiction, the complex way in which social ills beget other social ills, the lack of easy solutions. There were moments that silenced them. Prayers were not skimped upon. You could see their resolve growing.

The team’s adult leaders got a chance to dream and pitch ideas with the local pastors. That was exciting. There are actionable possibilities to return and grow our partnership.

The work will not be easy. Satan holds these grounds and the barriers are considerable.

But there is progress. The local churches have secured small teams of workers, prayer warriors with rough stories of their own, who are building inroads in these communities. Thanks to the tougher moments, we have clear strategies in our pocket. Most of all, we know that God’s Word does not kneel or fade but accomplishes what he intends for it – and that he intends much.

For those who prayed and supported us, God used it. Thank you so much.

You Shall Be My Witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and…What, There?

browningThere’s a saying you often hear in my part of the world: “Don’t stop in Browning.”

Browning is the county seat of the closest Indian reservation, on which I taught for three years. There’s always the stories circulating around, stories of bad things that happen to white people when they stay too long. Thus the old canard, “don’t stop in Browning”.

It’s also a saying that my pastor likes to repudiate fiercely whenever the chance arises.

I love it. Thump that pulpit.

It’s a crap catchphrase, for two reasons. One, because it isn’t true. I’d know. I frequented that town for three years, stepped inside its gas stations, supermarkets, fast-food places. Nothing happened. Didn’t get ripped off, didn’t get pushed around. It’s just normal folk looking to live a normal life (without a lot of success). Maybe more people would know that if they stopped.

The second reason is, it’s not a very Great Commission saying.

Jesus didn’t place limits on our destinations for that “ends of the earth” thing. He told us to make disciples of all nations, which usually involves making friends first. And if there were safety concerns…

…well, you weren’t likely to argue with a guy who’d just had his hands and feet pierced bringing light to places that didn’t want it. Especially once he’d risen from the dead.

I’d run into my share of panhandlers and homeless in a town like that (even on the forty-second parallel). If you offered to buy them food, there was about a fifty-fifty chance. Some would accept, grinning happily through a sub sandwich and telling you their life story. The other half would quickly decline and shuffle off. They were obviously after something else.

The point is, by offering, you helped half. All it took was a little resourcefulness, a little brain-pushing, which we often don’t even do. We complain about systems and institutions and government. Is it just a cover for not wanting to lose five bucks? Who knows what eternal doors could be opened through those five bucks?

We’ve got so many poisonous attitudes clouding our evangelistic vision. The only way to vent them is often simply by walking right into them, and doing what we’re supposed to do.

How can you do so today?

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

 

 

What If Jesus Announced That He Would Return On…

The following scenario will not happen. “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows – neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son — except the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

I don’t anticipate the Lord going back on such long-laid plans. After all, the prior verse says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away” (v. 35).

But humor me for a moment, and consider this hypothetical exchange:

Church: “Lord, we faint. We long for your presence. Please, please tell us when you’re coming back.”

Jesus: “Oh, very well. The Father has relented and authorized me to tell you. I will be returning on…”

Global bated breath. People in every village, city, region, and nation await the next words. One of the most significant, weighty questions ever pondered on earth is about to be answered.

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