LENTEN MEDITATION: Charity — The Goods by Caryn Rivadeneira

Charity — The Goods Caryn Rivadeneira

From Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed about God’s Abundance

I had gotten used – if, I suppose, you can get used to charity – to unexpected financial gifts from family members.  Once my husband shared a bit of our story and the direness of our situation, we were overwhelmed by generosity and love, which took the forms of “widow’s mites” to no-interest loans.  but one particular bit of charity caught me off guard.

I held the stack in my hands, a pile of $100 gift cards for the local grocery store, and fought back tears.  Not that long ago – at least, it didn’t seem that long ago – the man who had sent these had talked with my husband about merging businesses, aligning their two individual, successful financial management companies into one.  It didn’t come to be.  Even at that time, my husband sensed he needed a switch, knew that God had something different in store for him and that a merger would not be the right path.

But as I held the cards, I cried at how quickly things had changed.  Just a few years prior, this man would’ve been a business partner.  Today, he was our rescue.  I reached for the cabinet where I kept my own stack of cards – thank-you notes.  I had no idea where to begin or how to thank this man, didn’t know which words could convey what this generous gift of grocery-store cards meant to us, to me.  And yet, I needed to find something, some words, to let him know that his action – taken immediately after a lunch, where my husband told of letting his business go and of looking for a job – left me reeling with humility and gratitude, left me dizzy with God’s presence and goodness, and left me feeling as though Jesus himself had sent the cards.  Which of course, by appearing in the form of this good man, he had.

“Not good,” the teacher said.

And we – a circle of fourteen-year-olds on one side of the church nursery, fighting for space next to cradles and ride-on trucks and rocking chairs – had gathered for our weekly Sunday-morning catechism instruction, and we rumbled our objections.

In 1986 – the age of Farm Aid and Live Aid and Hands Across America – you could not tell a group of newly minted, freshly angst-ed teenagers that what these aid organizers had orchestrated, what we were jabbering about that morning in response to the Heidelberg Catechism’s Day 3, Question 8, was not good.  You could not tell us that it was “not of God,” even if his name wasn’t really invoked, and expect us to believe it.  These events, these actions were good.

But our teacher read the question and answer again:

Q: But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?

A: Yes, unless we are born again, by the Spirit of God.

And our teacher snapped the book shut.  End of story.  End of discussion.  Unless these musicians and organizers knew Jesus, our teacher told us, what they did, even how they tried to help, was “not good.”

At fourteen, I refused to accept this.  Just as when this same catechism teacher said a week later that it was also “not good” for girls to go to college because it was a “sin” for them to work, I refused to accept that.  As did the elders of our church who, thankfully, promptly removed the teacher from instructing young minds.  And thus ended my instruction in the catechism.  I never got beyond Day 3.  It would be more than twenty years before I would read the final forty-nine days.

And yet, those few weeks in that man’s class have stayed with me.  In fact, though I never completed catechism, four years later I would stand before the same congregation and profess my faith, promising to take on the church’s joys and sufferings as my own.  I publicly agreed with the doctrines and teachings and became a full-fledged member of a church that did, indeed, believe that we are inherently sinful, totally depraved.

I believe it still.  It is but by the grace of God alone that we broken, sinful people are capable of good at all.  It is but by the grace of God alone that this broken and fallen and full-of-death creation can still sparkle God’s glory at every turn.

What I do not believe – what I disagree with in this quick Q&A – is that people must be “saved” to do good.  The answer rightly says it is only through God’s Spirit that we can do good, but it wrongly asserts God’s Spirit only affects those who are “born again.”  As my church’s lead pastor, Reverend Peter Semeyn, told me, it “seems to fly in the face of general grace.  These wickets stick.”

Indeed it does.  And indeed they do.

There are all sorts of reasons to disagree with this.  Total depravity and its various sticky wickets have chopped through Christians and churches for decades.  I can look at John 3:3-5, the passage the catechism authors cite to support their claim, and pick it apart (isn’t being able to “see the kingdom of God” different from being able to do good?  I think so).

But what has always driven me to disagree most strongly with this is less specifically theological: it’s simply that if Christians are the only ones able to do good, any good of any sort, then it seems that we have to limit how we see God, how we see God’s image reflected back toward us in one another, in the workings of our very flesh.  It seems we have to limit how and when we see Jesus when we offer glasses of water or when we offer a sweater or when we offer a prison visit to another human being.  For if they are not born again and, therefore, not good at all, then we cannot possibly see our good and perfect God – and yet, Jesus tells us the opposite.

I walked not ten feet behind her, my own stride lengthening and my own pace quickening so I could catch the “walkin’ man” signal and make it to Mario’s Pizza, just under the “L” tracks.  Normally during a summer weekday in Chicago’s Loop, lunchtime is busy, buzzing with enough bodies – feet clicking across hot sidewalks or bottoms resting on shady benches or against cement walls – that no one stands out much.  But this woman, this woman I walked not ten feet behind, had caught my eye blocks back.

She was probably thirty (old, nearly) to my (then) twenty-two.  She was beautiful – her sleek blond hair pulled back into a low ponytail that swished across the taupe of her jacket.  But it was the way she moved – fluid yet angular, effortless but with purpose – that struck me.  At one point, I looked around to see if she was being filmed.  I would not have been surprised to see her strutting across my TV screen to the beat of a hair-care jingle.  But there were no cameras.  It was just her, well-bred, put together, “classy,” and striking.  I had been imagining her elegant life, her high-powered job, her cocktail parties, and her yacht excursions when I saw her swoop, mid-street, and bend her knees.  Her hips wiggled and knees knocked and flayed a bit as she caught her balance.  Then I saw her elbows jut as her hands – her palms up – scooped at the ground, over which she now squatted.  This pose would have to be edited out of the commercial.

But then I saw the gray and heard the coo.  This woman had squatted to scoop a pigeon – a pigeon! – out of harm’s way.  My eyes widened as she straightened her skirted-and-pantyhosed legs and crossed to the other side, where she knelt, this time with knees together (this could go back in the commercial) and opened her hands.  The pigeon – this filthy, city pigeon – hopped out, its left wing dragging a bit, and hopped forward along the sidewalk.  The woman walked on – as if it never happened.

But it did.  And I smiled the rest of the day remembering it.  In fact, eighteen years later as I replay the moment, I smile still.  Her simple act was one of the best things – the best good things – I’ve ever seen anyone do.  Mostly, probably, because it was so unexpected, seemed so “out of character.”  But that’s what made it so terrific.  Out of this perfect, clean, glittering image comes a woman willing to stoop in a city street and scoop to rescue a flee-filled, feathered beast.  I still have a hard time coming up with a better image of Jesus than that.  She did good – and the image of God seeped through her skin and through that act.

Of course, I have no idea what her “faith walk” was.  I have no idea if she’d been born again, if she had accepted Jesus into her heart, or if she was personally filled with the Holy Spirit.  Maybe she was.  I like to think that this is what every Christian would do: see a struggling bird (or a struggling anything or anyone) in the street and, never mind what they looked like or what germs they picked up, bend to help.  But we don’t.  And this woman did.  In her act I saw good.  And I saw God.

I saw this good and this God again recently, in a video clip from WGN’s Morning News show.  On one of Chicago’s 100-degree, humid-as-all-get-out, had-been-storming-so-we-lost-power summer days, the traffic helicopter caught sight of a loose poodle-mix running along the Stevenson Expressway (I-55).  As car chases in L.A. capture our attention, so it goes for loose dogs in Chicago.  (I’m quite proud of our interest in seeing lost dogs found.)

All the while, a man sat at home watching the story unfold on the news, watching cars slam on brakes and freeway traffic pile up, watching people throw open car doors and leap out trying to capture the dog, watching state police patrol cars creep along behind the dog on the shoulder.  He watched until he heard that the dog on the loose was just blocks from his house.  At that point, he leapt up, threw open his front door, dashed into his own car and went to find the dog.  And find it he did!

He and another man ended up gathering the terrified dog – whose rear paw was dotted with broken glass, whose fur sat clumped and matted, whose body lay weak from exhaustion and dehydration – in a tangle of bushes and roadside scrub. When the men emerged triumphant with the dog, I saw – once again, without knowing their faith or their hearts – good.  And I saw God.

Perhaps the catechism writers would argue that seeing good and being good aren’t the same.  Of course, for all I know, the pigeon-woman and the dog-man could’ve had the most evil motives ever. Perhaps the pigeon-woman only rescued the pigeon, only scooted it out of the street, so that she could head back to her office and change from her heels into steel-toed, pigeon-stomping boots.  Perhaps the dog-man only rescued the dog so he could boil it up later that night and pair it with a nice Chianti.

Perhaps not.  Probably not.  Most likely, the Spirit of God is loosed enough on this planet, is so vigorously at work, that there’s enough to pour over and move hearts toward good acts even if those same hearts don’t recognize the Spirit or know or believe in any ultimate Source of good.

But, perhaps it depends on what one’s definition of good is.  If good means “righteousness, or some act that recognizes its source as from the Holy Spirit and repents of its imperfections,” then perhaps those catechism writers are right after all.  Only those who have been “born again” can do that sort of good.

However, if we’re talking about good, old-fashioned good, as in a generally recognized human condition, as in something that the very good nature of God himself has allowed to spill out over every square inch of this world and its inhabitants, then they are wrong.  Still.

And yet I’ll give the catechism writers this: as Christians, we believe that doing good is not about us.  It’s not about our personal piety or our virtuousness or our high moral standing.  Doing good is about serving others and pointing to God.  Whether the do-gooder recognizes God in it or not.

Interestingly, the catechism writers use John 3:3-5 to support their troublesome answer to their can-we-do-good-without-God question:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

“How can anyone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked.  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”

What initially bothers me about this as a “proof” to their answer is that the passage speaks nothing of do-gooder-isms, the very thing the catechism asks.  What this passage does, however, is reveal a tricky little tête-à-tête between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and persumably a do-gooder, at least in that strict, rule-follower sort of way.  We don’t read Jesus talking about changes of heart, about desiring to do good deeds, but instead, we see Jesus talking about how people can see the good by recognizing the kingdom of God at hand.

So, assuming that the pigeon-saving woman wasn’t going to come back and stomp the thing, when she saved the pigeon that woman may very well (and should very well) have felt good about herself, may have smiled as she walked, patted herself on the back as soon as she caught a private moment when elevator doors closed in front of her.  Certainly the pigeon she saved felt good, as the beneficiary of her act of mercy.  However, the Bible passage above, the one that leads to that most famous verse in John 3:16, seems to be less about the person doing the good or about the feeling of the good.  It’s all about the people seeing good, as we are the witnesses of the good.

So I wonder if Jesus thinks the pigeon-woman’s feelings or the pigeon’s feelings matter as much as the recognition that was God at work, that his kingdom was right there, at the intersection of Wells and Washington.

The writing prompt I offered was “the beautiful and the broken,” and I gave everyone ten minutes to write.  Free-flowing.  Whatever came to mind as we considered the beauty that came from the broken in our lives.  As we went around the tables, sharing what we’d written, the stories varied: some wrote about getting evicted from apartments; some wrote about losing loved ones; some wrote about worry over children who had wandered off into the world and had never come back; some wrote about addictions and rock bottoms and recoveries and relapses; some wrote about waiting for God (lots of us wrote about waiting for God).

Grace, however, wrote about being and seeing Jesus.  She wrote about being raped and beaten in an alley by a man who had offered her drugs.  About being stripped naked, then wrapped in a blue, plastic tarp and tossed in a truck where she stayed – for days – while her attacker drove around and around and around the city of Chicago.  She wrote about being soaked with urine and feces in that trunk.  About not being able to breathe.  About crying out to a God she wasn’t sure was there.  And then she wrote about how she ended up at Breakthrough Urban Ministry’s women’s shelter, where my writers group met with theirs that night.

Her rapist – coming down from his high – came to his senses.  When he remembered what he had done, he pulled over on a random street on Chicago’s west side, in its notorious Garfield Park neighborhood.  He popped open the trunk and found Grace, barely alive, and asked her what she needed.

“Water,” was all she could say.

The man walked up to a door – the very door I had just walked through to lead this writer’s group – the door to Breakthrough’s women’s shelter.

Grace got water and her release.  Her rapist dropped her off blocks away.  After a stay in the hospital and at another homeless shelter, Grace found her way back to Breakthrough, the place she knew she could find help and healing and hope, and all the other things her life lacked.  Because she knew it was where she could find Jesus.

When Arloa Sutter – Breakthrough’s founder and executive director – asked her how she knew this, how Grace knew she’d find Jesus at Breakthrough, amid wide eyes and sniffles, Grace looked across at Arloa, shrugged and said, “When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” (see Matthew 25:35).

I love when a story, a concept, an idea, a long-held belief gets flipped on its head.  And I love when God goes ahead and does this for us.  Like he did with the story Grace wrote, titled aptly, “Amazing Grace.”  Because, of course, the way Jesus tells it in Matthew 25, Grace – bloody and pee-soaked and covered with her own crap – would’ve been Jesus.

In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Though I confess to cringing at Jesus calling anyone the “least,” if ever a human is reduced to “least” status, she’d be a raped-and-beaten-and-left-for-dead woman (or man or child) in the trunk of a car.  Hard to get much “less” than that, as far as humane treatment is concerned.

So Grace is Jesus.  The person who gave her water (her rapist? the woman at the center? Arloa? Breakthrough’s volunteers and donors? We don’t know who it was) gave that water to Jesus Christ himself.  This is how we understand it most of the time.

And yet, in that moment, Grace saw Jesus in that person’s good act.  God was all around, present and visible in everyone, and that bloody, horrible, wretched, crime-scene trunk of a car became holy ground.

It all gets back to how we see one another: Who we see reflected when a family member or near-business partner sends financial help.  Who we see shining through when a debt is whisked away.  Whose hand we believe is at work whenever we see good – whether the person knows they are doing it or not.

Because how we see ultimately shapes whose kingdom we see when we look around this world.  Which is exactly the point of John 3:3-5.  When we are “born again” in the Spirit of God, yes, it means we will someday enter God’s Heavenly kingdom, but it also means we can see God’s kingdom right here on Earth.

And while we can see it and feel it and smell and taste and hear it when we are on our own, stomping through woods or splashing in lakes or traipsing through deserts, we see it best when we see it in each other – no matter what sort of mess we’re in.  Because when we are Jesus to one another – when we are Jesus to pigeons and lost dogs and women locked in trunks – we shine light into the darkness, and we find God and we find God good.


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