The Thing is Not the Thing

My husband’s primary area of gifting is working behind the scenes. He’s a fixer. He enjoys a task to tackle with his hands, a specific process that works toward an end he can see with is own eyes. So it was never any surprise to me when he signed up to go rebuild neighborhoods after hurricane Katrina, after ice storms in the midwest, after the devastating earthquake of 2010 in Haiti.

He’s worked with Samaritan’s Purse and Vineyard Mercy Response. These organizations are well-equipped and always ready to descend on any area that needs rebuilt after a widespread disaster. So when they get the call that help is needed, they go into action immediately. Volunteers and materials are organized, temporary command centers are established. There’s no time to mess around. They can’t be late. The well-being of entire communities depend on their ability to know what to do, how to do it, and to do it quickly.

My hard-working, task-oriented husband is just the kind of dude they need. And typically, it’s folks just like him who volunteer to give up a week of their lives and vacation time to take on long days of manual labor to help others in need. It’s a really cool thing.

So when you combine the well-oiled machine of a disaster relief agency and teams of folks who are all about gettin’ it done, you’d expect that everyone from the highest person in the organization down to the newest volunteer would be all about the tasks at hand.

But one lesson my husband brought back from his trips tells a different story:

The thing is not the thing.

One of the mission leaders, a man who had been on staff with disaster relief organizations for many years, held that as his mantra: The thing is not the thing.

The first time my husband heard that, he understood what the guy was trying to say, but at the same time, he thought okay, but the thing kind of IS the thing when you need to rebuild someone’s home in a week so they have a place to stay. But it turns out, they were really both right.

The team got the message. The thing is not the thing. The thing is not hanging drywall when the homeowner starts telling you about how she lost her husband in the storm. The thing is not clearing tree branches when some of the folks from down the street need a few bottles of water. Caulking windows or installing piping or rewiring electrical boxes aren’t the thing when a family needs prayer to keep looking for their still-lost loved ones in piles of memories and rubble.

The people are the thing. The thing you’re really there for. Connecting with them, listening to them. helping them understand that no matter what’s been lost, hope can always be found… that’s the thing.

And here’s the deal: What I’m noticing is that the thing is not the thing whether the disaster around us is a hurricane or just a bad day at work. Because it’s true that all of us are fighting hard battles that no one else may know anything about. But the thing is us. Every one of us. The thing is that we all keep that shred of hope, and that we all help others see it in the midst of our big and little disasters, and in our joys and in the plain old humdrum days.

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I hate this question.

I’m in the second week of the James read-along and I literally just had the thought that maybe my current near-nervous-breakdown (don’t freak out on that one…I use that term fairly regularly to describe my ridiculous overly-dramatic reaction to things) might be related to it. It’s going to take a while to piece it all together, but I’ll put that little idea in my back pocket for a sec.

Anyhooooo….moving right along from that ADD moment…Here’s the killer verse this week:

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Flashback to The Help movie, which I just saw a few weeks ago with my book club gals. I keep thinking about how Hilly the Terrible (that’s my personal name for her,  a high-society, self-righteous, racist snob in the 3rd degree)  responded when her maid asked her for an advance in pay in order to be able to send both of her boys to college, rather than choosing which one she would be able to afford to send. Hilly the Terrible responded by saying that she, as a Christian, was going to “help her out,” and you could see the smile faintly crack on the maid’s face. That is, until Hilly the Terrible continued on to explain that “God doesn’t give charity to those who are able” and told the maid that she’d just have to find a way to come up with that money herself.

Nice.

So what does that have to do with the book of James? Specifically that chunk above? Well it has a lot to do with me, a high-society (aka richer than 99.9% of the rest of the peeps on this planet,) self-righteous, (albeit non-racist) snob in the 10th degree. You know why? Because even though I have my moments where I feel that double-edged sword cut through me and divide my self from my spirit and I truly feel love for someone else to the point where I would just meet their needs (like Danny, for example) …the other side of that coin is that most of the time I catch myself thinking: How far does that verse really go? I mean, if I have the means to do anything I can to meet the needs of a fellow human being, how detailed do we get here? Does that mean in the big stuff that comes my way, like sponsoring a child in a faraway land? Because I have that box checked, twice (yay, look at me, right!?) But does it even “count” if there’s no sacrifice involved for me? I mean, I can provide education, clothing, food, shelter, medical care, stability, and spiritual growth for  a child for less than it costs to fill up my gas tank 1 and 1/2 times. So….what did I really do that cost me anything?

And even if that stuff counts, then how much am I expected to give, really? Giving (money, anyway) is not really an area where my husband and I struggle. Now I’m not saying that to sound all awesome, because believe me, there are a million other areas where we do struggle that others just plain have it goin’ on in, you know? But that’s one we’ve always been on the same page with since we’ve met, and I believe God has given us a great measure of grace regarding that area because He led us to begin teaching others about financial responsibility and giving. Makes sense, right? But if I think I’m doing just fine and then I’m holding a $6 Starbucks, did I really show my faith? That $6 could go a long way in India, my friends. The other night I was at a party where goods were being sold from a catalog.  Accessories, not necessities. (UUUGGHHH I can’t believe I’m telling this story….) When it was over, the total sales were tallied up and they amounted to several hundred dollars. HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS. Enough to sponsor another girl for an entire year. I pushed down the little twinge of guilt I felt when I heard the total because I wasn’t sure if it was real conviction or a piece of equipment on the devil’s playground, so I pushed it away and decided I’d deal with it later, that I’d ask God to clear all that up for me. This is the first time I’m revealing it at all. In fact, I kinda forgot about it until just now.

So did I, in effect,  silently say, “go, be well and have a good day” to an orphan somewhere overseas because I pushed away that feeling, that thought of Oh, my goodness, a room full of people just spent enough money to take care of an orphan for the next year without saying anything or doing anything differently? I mean, I did want my new purse, after all. And plus, mentioning that after everyone has purchased their items isn’t exactly the best way to keep a party going, now is it? [Here comes Debbie Downer!]

Now, I am certainly not against Starbucks or pretty purses or any of the people who buy them. But those are good examples of the things that race through my mind when I hear this whole “faith without works” verse. HOW MUCH is really expected of us? I know we are allowed to enjoy some pleasures here on earth, but at what point is it just too much excess? Is it wrong for me to enjoy something even though I know choosing not to enjoying it could benefit someone else? In my mind I think well, it’s not like I’m directly hurting anyone or taking something away from someone who needs it. Or…am I?

The fact that I am even thinking so much about the details involved with how much good I have to do is disturbing to me. Since when did my faith become that I-still-want-to-get-away-with-enjoying-as-much-as-I-can-for-myself-while-still-meeting-my-Jesus-quota kind of thing? While I don’t consciously think that whenever I’m going through my daily life, this digging through the book of James business is making me want to get to the bottom of this It’s  like digging out a splinter. Ouch.

Lord, help please dig out this splinter before a full-blown infection takes its place.

What about you? Is this a valid concern or more false guilt? If faith without works is dead (and it is, because, um…the Bible already told us so) then how are you doing? Thoughts, please.

I am being torn up.