Ann Voskamp: We Must Trade Charity for Solidarity
If you only knew what fire every person is facing, there isn’t one fire you wouldn’t help fight with the heat of a greater love. The day the homeless man moved into our loft, a heat wave broke over us.
Gordon literally had nothing the day he showed up, nothing to his name but the sun-faded T-shirt sticking to his back, emblazoned with the words, “Normal people scare me.” A mingling of alcohol and tobacco seeps from his burning pores. My brother and a buddy, they’d found him wandering down an empty back road after a court date, the tongues of his boots panting open, longing for relief. Now he stands in the shade at our back door, asking for water.
“You got anything to drink?” he asks me.
My brother wonders if we have some work for Gordon. Wondered if we may have a place for him, and maybe—just to start—a glass of water?
Gordon uses the tattered edge of his T-shirt to mop this mask of sweat puddling in the etched lines of his face. A silver cross hangs around his neck on this heavy chain. Before I even think, I touch my wrist to find the small black cross I penned first thing this morning. We both have our crosses. We all have our crosses. “To be a follower of the Crucified means, sooner or later, a personal encounter with the cross. And the cross always entails loss,” writes Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes.
The sun’s losing light as it edges across the floor. I can feel the world tilting a bit, its truth slipping right out and onto the floor between Gordon and me: Why do we rush to defend God to a broken world, and not race to defend the image of God in the world’s broken? Gordon’s eyes search mine. The light’s caught in his hair. Yeah, I’ve got no idea if he’s packing something, dealing something, trafficking something, but something holy’s caught in my throat. We’ve all got our crosses.
Maybe the struggle for good isn’t waged as much around us as it’s waged inside of us. I could get Gordon a glass of water. Could I offer him a place to stay? Why in the world do we spend more time defending God to the critical around us than defending God to the doubting, critical voices within us? What if it is not God who needs us to rush to his defense in the world as much as we need to rush to the distress of the broken who carry the image of God into the world?
Give Your Life Away
I think of Queen Esther, the young Jewish girl who found herself a Persian queen when her people faced genocide—Esther, right where she was, for such a time as this, to give a glass of cold water, a desperate hand to another, to open a door, a hand, a heart, and give her life away.
This man is standing penniless and parched in my kitchen and I’ve stood in a kitchen of sorts in a dump in Guatemala City and looked into the whites of kids’ eyes eating whatever they could find in piles of rotting refuse, the vultures circling overhead. I’ve knelt beside a little girl in Uganda who held a bowl in her two hands, held it up for me to see what she’d caught for dinner, those dozens of crawling bugs. In Iraq, I’ve sat in a cold shipping container with refugee women whose brothers and fathers were shot in front of them by terrorists, women who had to make a split-minute decision which child they could take with them and which would be left behind, women who had nothing, yet offered me their rationed tea and we sat on the floor and wept because shared tears are multiplied healing. And I’ve stood at a chain-link fence in Haiti when a small boy appeared out of nowhere, the barren foothills bloating malnourished up behind him as he rattled the fence with one dirty hand and pointed to his cracked lips, begging for food—even a sip of water.
And they come again to me now in my kitchen, Esther’s cousin’s words: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die” (Esther 4:13–14, NLT). You can look into eyes and hear the whisper from those outside your door, outside the gate: You’ve got to risk your position inside for those on the outside or you risk losing everything, even your own soul. You’ve got to give your gifts or they may become your idols, your identity, and you become the walking dead. If your living isn’t about giving, then you’re already dying. You’ve got to use the life you’ve been given to give others life. If your life isn’t about giving relief—you don’t get real life. Give relief or you find none. For what does it profit a woman to gain the whole world, but lose her own soul? (Mark 8:36, my paraphrase).
You are where you are for such a time as this. Not to gain anything, but to risk everything.
Those Outside the Gates
Gordon doesn’t need me to beckon more than once and he’s in the cool of the house, yanking off those boots. I’m in the kitchen finding a cup. My brother’s standing in the doorway, waiting to see whatever’s coming. The water streams from the faucet like it can’t wait to give itself away, and I hold out all our cups for the filling.
I turn, hand Gordon his, one to my brother, and I swallow my own right down. We’re all more than a bit parched.
We all could have been Gordon, fallen on hard times into hard ways; we could have been the one fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army slitting our child’s throat in the middle of the night; we could be the one born into a slum, violently raped and left for dead, the one born into AIDS, into starvation, into lives of Christ-less desperation. The reason you are inside the gate for such a time as this—is to risk your life for those outside the gate.
If I perish, I perish.
An Esther Generation
There are so many of us sucking down lattes and dying of thirst, dying for something more, for something abundant. There are so many in need, and so many Esthers who thirst for more than vanilla services, sweetened programs, and watered-down lives, hungry for some real meat for their starved souls, some dirt under the fingernails, some real sacrifice in the veins. I know why I keep writing a cross on my wrist.
There are those who are saved, but only by the skin of their teeth because they cared most about the comfort of their own skin and only minimally about anyone else’s. They will have a hardly abundant entrance awaiting them in heaven. But those will not be the Esthers. There are those who would rather turn a blind eye to the needy than turn to the needy and be like Christ. Those who would love playing at being Christian more than actually being one and loving giving. But those will not be the Esthers.
There’s a whole generation of Esthers who want to be the gift, want to give it forward, whatever’s in our hands, who want holy more than hollow. There’s a whole Esther Generation, and it is we who want the abundant life of going lower to love the least, the lonely, and the lost. The world needs people who will defy cynical indifference by making a critical difference.
Every one of us can start changing headlines when we start reaching out our hands. What if we gave up charity for solidarity? What if we gave up giving from the top down and gave ourselves in reaching out, less the vertical and more like the horizontal beam of the cross? All on the same beam, all of us in need of the cross, all with our own crosses. We each have our own pack of addictions and predilections, and we’re dying for a cold drink to soothe the burning edges of our wounds. For all our masks and pearly smiles, we’re a whole world of Gordons.
Ann Voskamp is a popular speaker, blogger, and New York Times bestselling author. Her newest book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path to the Abundant Life, releases October 25, 2016. Learn more at her blog AHolyExperience.com and at TheBrokenWay.com. This excerpt is taken from The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp. Copyright © 2016 by Ann Voskamp. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.