A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 3, 2012.
God of all power, and God whose name is love, we, your children, confess that we try so very hard and make such little progress in filling our own souls. Do for us today what we cannot do for ourselves. Free us from bygone hurts that we might let go of bitterness toward others. Help us to look upon family, friends, and people who have disappointed us with the same kindness that we hope to receive from you. Convict us, change us, and inspire us so that we might let go of remembered wrongs and the bitterness within our hearts. Free us to love again. O God, we ask that you would do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Control our tongues. Teach us to refrain from saying the things we regret. Teach us only to bless. O God, fill these empty souls of ours. Do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grant us a vision of purpose and goodness, a vision of something beyond ourselves. Take these empty hearts and fill them with a passion for some person, some ministry, or some cause that would be aligned with your purposes in the world. Call us into your mission. We pray that in these things we would find the fullness that has eluded us and the joy that we crave. Do for us those things in our hearts and in our spirits which we cannot do for ourselves. Rescue us from all harm. Fill us with your spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Our Lord tells us that the poor in spirit are the lucky ones. To be so, we have to stop thinking simply in terms of money and begin to look at the world through the eyes of the poor, and to feel as they feel. It is not just occasionally missing a meal or not being able to afford a packet of cigarettes which will help us to do so, but every snub, every deprivation, every time we suffer rejection, every occasion on which we are ignored or contradicted. It is that experience of poverty which will give us some share in the condition of the poor, and spark the emotion which is needed for their defense. And it is through that experience that we slowly come to learn what is truly precious in ourselves and in the world that lies about us. —John Harriott
With last weekend being the Memorial Day holiday, there was a fair amount of discussion in different places about veterans. When you talk about veterans, we always think about the Greatest Generation. For decades now, we have been losing hundreds and thousands of members a day of the Greatest Generation. I have thought a lot about why we call this particular generation great, those who fought overseas and those who sacrificed at home. I am convinced that part of what made them great was the Great Depression.
The Great Depression came ahead of World War II and forced a lot of people into circumstances that toughened them. It made them ready for other challenges that would come ahead. When you read about the Depression or hear someone in your family talk about it, there are a number of circumstances that for us today are almost impossible to imagine. Many people say we have been through the worst recession since the Great Depression and we think what we have experienced has been bad, but when you go back and compare it to some of the experiences of the 1930’s, nothing we have seen really comes close.
As a seminary student, I went to a barber shop in Louisville where Bill, Ken, and Shorty were the three barbers. I always liked to sit in Bill’s chair because he was the most interesting. Bill was from the rural hills of eastern Kentucky, and he told me that during the Depression his father had died. It came to Bill to care and provide for his family. The only way he knew to make a living was to hunt and trap. At that time, there were no synthetic furs. If a woman wanted to buy a less expensive fur, those were often made from skunk. Bill told about how he trapped and hunted skunk. He said, “I always smelled. I was always relegated to the porch. If it was wintertime, we put up paper or cardboard so I wouldn’t freeze out there, but I didn’t go in the house for months. I didn’t have any contact with anybody I classified as a friend for months because I always smelled like skunk.” That would toughen you up, would it not? That would make you ready for anything that might come along.
There are other stories. One of the famous stories was of a teacher who was frustrated with a young girl who kept falling asleep in class. The teacher asked her, “Did you eat before you came to school this morning?”
The girl said, “No ma’am. It’s my sister’s day to eat.”
As you come out of the Depression era, there are other stories that develop character. One of the things we will often hear someone say is, “We were poor and didn’t know it.” You will hear someone who was raised in the rural part of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi or any of the other states say that a Christmas present was a piece of fruit or perhaps a doll that was made out of a corncob with a scrap of material put around it, and they thought it was great. People will say, “We were poor and we didn’t even know it.”
When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, it begins with the stretch that we call the Beatitudes. If I were relegated to only preaching a small part of the scripture for the rest of my life, I would choose the Sermon on the Mount because there is more breadth, depth, and challenge. There is enough here to unpack for a lifetime. It begins with these Beatitudes, “Blessed are. . .” A number of people try to explain into English what this means.
Several years ago, Robert Schuler had a book entitled, The Be Happy Attitudes, which really seems to miss the point. Happiness can just happen, but blessedness never occurs in a vacuum. There is always someone who blesses us. A blessing is happiness that comes from someone doing something for us, giving something to us. The first of the Beatitudes talks about the poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the way that Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who have poverty in their spirit because the presence of God, the reign of God as it would be in heaven, can be in their lives right now.”
What does that mean about being poor in spirit? The assumption is that when a person is truly economically poor, at some particular point when destitute, we would turn to someone else for help. When we are absolutely destitute, we recognize our need and we turn for help. The idea of the poor in spirit is not simply that their spirits are poor, but the kingdom of heaven is theirs because they would turn to God in their need and ask for God’s help.
I keep playing with this analogy about poor vs. poor in spirit. To say, “I was poor and didn’t know it economically” demonstrates character that has been built, but when we are talking about our spirits, maybe this is one of the critical spiritual problems we, or our society, faces. When it comes to a spiritual problem to say, “I was poor and didn’t know it,” is the root of the problem. It is the obstacle. Is there any one of us that would have a doubt that in our society today one of the great problems is that we have a tremendous poverty of spirit and we don’t know it. Souls are empty, hearts are empty, activity is mindless, and actions are passionless. We go through life as drudgery and it is because of a poverty of spirit and nobody seems to understand what the real problem is.
I mentioned in my Spire newsletter column this past week that during the summer, I am going back as far as 15 years to pick up the ideas from some old sermons and to try to bring new life to them. I originally preached the core of the idea for this message in 1998. There are many things that I have observed that demonstrate this poverty of spirit in our society.
Many of you may have read a book by Viktor Frankl entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. This was a great book that came out of World War II. He describes what he called Sunday neurosis. He said, “One of the reasons why, in the developed world, everything is now open and all opportunities are equal on Sunday is because none of us can stand the thought of being quiet and being silent.” If we had to go back and live like people on the prairies did when they did not do anything at all on Sunday, we would go crazy. We would not be able to stand ourselves. We would not know what to do with ourselves. Frankl said it is a Sunday neurosis that comes from the inability to focus, be quiet, and listen for God. We would rather everything be open, and he says it is an example of the poverty of spirit that we have and don’t know it.
There are any number of things that we could fill our lives up with that would, in some way, distract us from life—work, any kinds of drugs, alcohol, prescription medication, and shopping. In every community, at some point along the way, there will be a bankruptcy or an estate sale. A situation I know of personally was a woman who had committed a number of crimes and had stolen money. When investigators came to her home, they wheeled out racks of clothes with tags still on them. It is because shopping was filling up the emptiness of her life, constantly, constantly, and constantly filling the void and the emptiness of spirit.
Since 1998, there are a couple of things that I would add that I think demonstrate the poverty of spirit that we have. One is the many expressions of the internet. It is hard to believe, but in 1998, the internet was still a bit novel to us all. Now, it is just a matter of course. People have filled up their lives with online porno, with the Facebook obsession, video games, and texting. Have you been in a restaurant and you see a family of four come in together and everyone of them is on a mobile device and none of them are talking? Mom is looking for something on Pinterest, dad is trying to memorize the depth chart of his favorite college football team, and the two kids may even be texting each other across the table, but nobody is talking. We cannot engage each other, and I believe it is representative of the spiritual poverty that we possess as a culture and don’t even know it. The thing that makes the poor in spirit blessed is if they would recognize their poverty and turn to God for help.
There are two words in the Greek for a poor person. One is akin to what we would probably think of as working poor and the other is destitute. It won’t surprise you that the one here is the one for being destitute—destitute to the point of nowhere else to go, destitute to the point of not knowing who else to ask and turning to God.
Here are a few things that I would say either might be a test of, or a way to try to move past, this poverty of spirit. One is, can you sit in a room for 15 minutes of quiet and just be with God? I have read that many of the world’s problems today are caused by the fact that people cannot sit alone in a room by themselves. We are afraid of what we might hear. We are not comfortable enough with what goes on in our hearts and we fear that we might have to examine it.
Let us also ask ourselves, What mindless and useless activity do we engage in? Is this an expression of poverty of spirit in our lives? If it is, let us do something as simple as praying before it. If I am going to text for 30 minutes or get on Facebook for three hours, what would it be like if I prayed before I did that and asked God to fill my life with something that was more according to God’s purpose and more fulfilling in my life than that? Maybe God would speak to me. Maybe God would show me a direction. Maybe God would put me to a task that is aligned with God’s purpose so that there might be fullness in my heart.
Before I do these mindless things, what would happen if I really brought God into the equation and said, “God, is this an expression of poverty of my spirit? What else would you have me do? What else could I invest in? Where else might you use me? How could I give myself away for the sake of Christ’s kingdom that would be better for my heart and my spirit than what I had planned to do?”
If we were economically poor and we turned to someone for help, we would not expect that person to lay a million dollars on us and say, “All your problems are answered.” We would expect someone to help us along as we go. I think that one of the problems that we have with this particular situation is we think that after years of living with this emptiness and poverty and refusing to address it, somehow one thing is going to turn it around. This will be a continual receiving from God. This will be a continual prayer, openness to God, and God leading us to new, fuller, and better things. If we could be quiet and listen in a room for 15 minutes, maybe the day would come when we could be quiet in a room with nothing else on and listen to God for 30 minutes or 40 minutes. If we could be quiet and alone with God and receive the blessing of God’s spirit into our hearts and minds and let God direct our thoughts, what blessing might there be that we have been shutting out with all the other things?
We were poor and didn’t know it. I think it is a great mark of character for those who came through the Great Depression, but spiritually for us it is a great sadness to be poor and not know it when we could have turned to the one who is all giving, to the one who loves and would give to each of us as if there were no other one to give to. If we are poor and know it, the kingdom of God can be ours.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.