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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Seeking Lazarus

Seeking Lazarus

By Randy Hain

I find this to be a difficult and complex topic: Being good stewards of God’s blessings and truly helping those in need. Donating money to good causes is very important, but actually lifting the burdens of the Lazarus in your life is even more essential. If you will recall Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31, Lazarus was the poor man covered with sores lying outside the door of the Rich Man. Lazarus would have been content with simply the scraps from his table, but the Rich Man did not take notice of Lazarus until it was too late-then Lazarus was in Heaven with Abraham while the Rich Man was tormented in Hell.

Proverbs 21:13 says, “He that stops his ear against the cry of the poor shall also cry himself, and shall not be heard.” Let’s prayerfully consider how we can return to basic human interaction with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling and share not only through charitable giving, but also through love, prayer, witness, listening or even a warm embrace. Let’s also expand our definition of Lazarus to include not only the countless poor, sick, homeless and hungry of the world, but also more locally: the jobless neighbor, depressed co-worker, sick relative, financially struggling friend or special needs child that attends school with your own. Lazarus is everywhere in our lives…if we have the courage to seek him.

Consider the possibility that in today’s society our problem is not that we don’t see Lazarus. We see him, accept his plight and either throw money at him or ignore him. I realize that sounds harsh, especially in light of these statistics from a 2006 report written by Giving USA on American philanthropy:

  • In 2006, Americans gave $295.02 billion to their favorite causes, an estimated $11.97 billion more than they gave in 2005. This accounts for a 4.2 percent increase over the previous year.
  • The greatest portion of charitable giving, $222.89 billion, was given by individuals or household donors. In 2006, gifts from individuals represented 76 percent of all contributed dollars.

We obviously live in a financially-generous country. The enormous sums of money that flow from individuals and corporations to good causes is overwhelming. So, what is the problem? I recognize that many people generously give their time, talent and treasure to good causes and they are truly a blessing. But, many of us may be hiding behind walls of our own creation from which we only dispense money to address the problems of the world or worse, we do nothing at all.

As I thought and prayed about this article, I recalled Christ’s words in Matthew 25:35-46: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

This scripture is the source of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy, which have helped me more deeply understand our obligation, as instructed by Christ, to help the less fortunate. They are:

To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To shelter the homeless
To visit the sick
To visit the imprisoned
To bury the dead

Nowhere in the scripture or this list do I see instructions to “write a check” or “donate online.” I recently took stock of my own stewardship and was surprised and disappointed that most of what I do consists of raising money for charities, writing personal checks and attending non-profit board meetings. Less than a quarter of my time actually placed me in front of those who needed me the most. I care very much about the charities and groups I help, but I have allowed a wall to be formed around me that keeps me from the personal interaction needed to really make a difference. I know the money I raise and the influence I wield is important, but “showing up” and really ministering to the people in need is what is required. Using our expanded definition of Lazarus, I have countless opportunities around me on a daily basis to help others, but I own the responsibility to be more proactive and reach out. “If a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food, and one of you say to them: Go in peace, be you warmed and filled, yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit?” James 2: 15-16.

If you reflect on the many references to almsgiving in scripture, you must remember that in biblical times, people were most likely seeing, touching and talking directly with the people to whom they were giving alms and showing mercy. Today, however, the size of the world’s population, the economic segregation within our cities, the distance between us and advances in technology often reduces our almsgiving and acts of mercy to a “point and click” exercise on the computer. I know full well that the counter-argument to this article will be that I am negating the impact of financial giving and that there is not enough time to physically be present and reach out to others. I strongly and respectfully disagree. We are running the risk of losing our basic humanity if we continue to avoid the personal interaction I am advocating.

Again, donating money is very important, but showing up and lifting or sharing the burdens of the Lazarus in your life is even more important. My friend and fellow St. Peter Chanel parishioner John Ruane, author of Parish the Thought, An Inspirational Memoir of Growing Up Catholic in the 1960s, gave me his thoughts on the struggles he faces with this issue, “We are all so busy dealing with our own schedules and problems that it has become very easy to walk by Lazarus without seeing him. I find it very easy to recognize and help Lazarus when he or she approaches me on the street asking for food or money. We get into our own pace in life. We have our own habits, our priorities and focus. I have got to get a hundred things done today. I just have to get it done. We are focused on our mission. Taking time to stop, step outside of our habits, our pace - to recognize and help Lazarus, is the new habit I am working to develop.”

How do we reach beyond the cultural, emotional and spiritual walls we have created to show mercy to Lazarus as Christ intended? How do we meet our obligations to help our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we overwhelmed by the world’s problems or do we feel that they don’t affect us? Is it uncomfortable to be vulnerable enough to admit the problem and act on it? Are we afraid that people will want more from us than we can give? Do we even know where to start? I struggle with these answers myself, but humbly and prayerfully encourage everyone to embrace the following actions or ideas to help us develop the courage and commitment to change our attitude towards Lazarus and make a difference:

· Pray
Pray for the clarity of sight to see Lazarus all around you. Pray for the courage to break free of the silos we have created and help Lazarus. Pray for the Holy Spirit to guide your actions. I am grateful for this insight from my friend and fellow Catholic Charlie Douglas, author of Rich Where It Counts and Awaken the American Dream, “Prayer today is so often about informing God of our wishes and our will. The truth is, however, that prayer is about conforming our will to God's. Jesus made this clear in the Garden of Gethsemane when he earnestly prayed that above all his Father's will be done. And part of our Father's will is to sacrificially carry our crosses in service to the homeless, the poor, the despondent and the unloved. To be the hands and feet of Christ to the Lazarus' all around us is a beautiful prayer.”

· Be Present….and Act Today
Watch, listen and act. Look daily for the presence of Lazarus in your family, friends, co-workers and strangers. Someone is struggling at this very moment with any number of personal ailments or challenges. In fact, we spend the majority of our adult lives at work, so your best opportunity to directly help others may be through your work colleagues. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern who needs your help today….don’t wait until tomorrow. Francis Fernandez shares this insight from In Conversation With God, “We cannot let a single chance of doing good slip through our hands. Today does not come round again, ever, and God expects us to fill it with love and with little acts of service towards others.”

· Love Your Neighbor
God is love. He loves everyone the same without prejudice. From Genesis 5:1-2 we know God created man in his own likeness. We need to remember this as we regain our humanity through the loving generosity we show our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus shares the Great Commandment in Luke 10:27, "First is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. Second is to love your neighbor as yourself."

· Practice and Encourage Generosity
Consider another passage from In Conversation With God, “The greatness of soul our Lord asks of his own will lead us not only to be very generous with our own time and economic means, but also to assist others to feel moved themselves to help, according to their own means, for the good of their fellow man. Generosity always leads people closer to God. On countless occasions this is the greatest favor we can do our friends-encourage and foster their generosity." Scripture says the Lord loves a “cheerful giver.” We must let the love for Jesus that we feel in our hearts be obvious to all we encounter. Forced giving or obligatory assistance to others is not pleasing to Christ and absolutely runs counter to His teachings.

· Faith Without Works is Dead
Get involved by physically being there. There are countless ministries and charities that need help, not just money. Serving at soup kitchens, visiting the elderly, participating in prison ministry, volunteering with the Special Olympics, building homes and schools in Haiti are some of the countless opportunities available. My friend Glen Jackson, head of an Atlanta based PR firm and a faithful servant of Christ recently shared these thoughts with me: “In the Book of James in the New Testament, we read an often quoted and discussed passage: ‘For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.’ This scripture reminds us that as the body of Christ, we are to work-really work- for our Lord. We are to be men and women of action and joy because the Holy Spirit lives in us.But how should we work? James gives us the answer in a later passage when he says ‘show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.’ It is the type of work that it’s recipients respect, appreciate and are touched by because of its unforced sincerity. Now, you simply can't do this by just sending a check. Our time on earth is a mist that appears for a little while and vanishes. So make the most of it. A prayer to say to help us stay focused is: ‘Lord, help me make a difference for you that is utterly disproportionate to who I am.’ Amen to that and let's press on and be about our work of advancing the kingdom with our time, talent and treasure.”

· Practice Detachment
This may well be the hardest for us to accomplish-detach ourselves from the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake and put more time and energy into our relationship with Christ and helping others. Remember Lazarus and the Rich Man? The Rich Man’s wealth and abundance blinded him to the plight of Lazarus and in the end he lost everything while Lazarus was comforted in Heaven. Pope Benedict XVI says, “According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of His providence for our neighbor. In the Gospel, Jesus explicitly admonishes the one who possesses and uses earthly riches only for self. In the face of the multitudes, who, lacking everything, suffer hunger, the words of Saint John acquire the tone of a ringing rebuke: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?’ (1 John 3:17). In those countries whose population is majority Christian, the call to share is even more urgent, since their responsibility toward the many who suffer poverty and abandonment is even greater. To come to their aid is a duty of justice even prior to being an act of charity.”

· Serve Quietly
We can’t honestly provide aid to Lazarus and honor the Lord if the motivation is recognition and glory for ourselves. As Christ said in Mathew 6:1-4, "(But) take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

My friend Jacqui Welch, VP of Human Resources for a local Atlanta company and a devout Christian, gave me her thoughts on this topic: “I've found in my own life that the most frequent and uncomplicated opportunities to embody Christ are when only you, Christ and "Lazarus" are watching. Rather than seek opportunities for a "BIG" impact, what has been most fulfilling for me (fulfilling in terms of where I've best exemplified what I think Christ teaches us) have been those quiet moments in the shadows- clasping hands in prayer with a fellow believer, silently wiping tears and simply bearing witness. The checks are necessary but they aren't sufficient. To experience what Christ experienced we have to vigilantly seek those opportunities to serve quietly, to roll up our sleeves and get in the muck and mire of humanity.”

It is a sad indictment of our times that the more perceived gain we see from technology and the pursuit of wealth, the more distant we are becoming from the less fortunate. I have explored the scriptural basis and moral imperative for helping Lazarus, but we are also encouraged to do so through countless scriptural references to “blessings we will receive” and the “building up of treasure in heaven.” Consider the simple and compelling scripture references found in Proverbs 14:21, “He that shows mercy to the poor shall be blessed.” and Proverbs 11:24-25, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer, others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched.” Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not forget to do good and to impart; for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained.”

God will show us the way if we only ask it and His pleasure is clear and unmistakable when we give freely of ourselves and our treasure to those in need. Jim Schippers, my close friend and the founder of the St. Peter Chanel Business Association, recently shared with me a touching story about his encounter with a homeless person in downtown Atlanta and the struggles he had leading up to that encounter, “Let us be real with God… The more we are honest with God the greater our graces will be. I realize that is such a simple statement, but let me explain what I mean. I work in downtown Atlanta and as I walk to and from work, and during my lunch break, I come across a number of homeless people. As I walk by each and every one of them, conflicts and reasons for not giving rise up within me. What will this person do with the money? I can’t give to every “beggar” that comes across my path, right? Or, I have left my wallet in the office- so no guilt there… I have struggled with this, and interestingly enough as I pass by each homeless person, I find it difficult looking them in the eye. Yes, I have these excuses per se, and after much struggle and stubbornness on my part I asked Christ to help me – I gave to Him my doubts, the whole lot of my feelings (good and bad) regarding this situation. A few nights later I was leaving a Braves game and a homeless person asked me for money. I looked him in the eye and gave him a dollar. He smiled, I smiled back, and peace entered my soul. It took awhile for me to get there, but Christ was with me prodding me along the whole way, all I had to do was be honest with myself and ask for His graces.”

In conclusion, I would again ask that we broaden our definition of Lazarus to include those people you see every day as well as the less fortunate in our community and around the world. Avoid the trap the Rich Man fell in, which cost him a life in torment. As my friend Dr. Ron Young observed, “Most of us are more like the Rich Man than the beggar, Lazarus. We have abundance, especially when compared to the rest of the world. There is so much we can do to reach out to those in need in our everyday lives, but unfortunately we can become so consumed with the trappings of success and relative prosperity (emotional and financial) that we fail to see the people who need us most.” I believe a majority of us want to help and that most are well intended. Try to reflect at different points each day on your actions towards others and examine those missed opportunities to help someone who is struggling, so you can rectify them later. Expanded horizons and active engagement is what is required. Let’s evolve our good intentions to a higher standard where we begin to recognize Lazarus more clearly and frequently and our first words are “please let me help you.” Also, remember that we all have the potential to be Lazarus some day-“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”