On Hunger Games and other rules we make up as we go along

March 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , , , , )

Recently, the justice circuit in Philadelphia has been active as churches, non profit groups, activists and anarchists and OccupyPhilly have all been wrestling with the new Board of Health regulations around sharing food  with homeless people in the city. This is not that story. But it is intricately linked to it.

This is not the story of me and my community making teeshirts and sandwiches and going down to the Municipal Buildings and having a “family picnic” in protest of these laws. This is not the story of The Simple Way’s public statement and the organization’s navigation of its history and its convictions in seeking justice in this particular area.  No, this is a different story; one that is altogether more sinister, shameful and hypocritical. This is the story that speaks to the “deceitfulness of the heart of man” (Jeremiah 17:9). This story begins with me making supper…

Two weeks ago I got an urge to cook. I was home alone, and the chicken was already defrosted and so I set to work, vaguely following a recipe but making a lot of it up as I went along. Experimenting with spices and marinade and yogurt and couscous and walnuts and spiced butternut. The end product was beautiful and so I took it out of the oven and placed it on the counter and took a photo to boast post on facebook. There was a witty and trite status update to go along with it – something about the irony of cooking sunday dinner on the one night noone was around to share it with me. As I was about to send, someone knocked on the door. I snuck quietly across the kitchen and inched open the curtains. Someone was looking through our trash, their back turned to me. I quickly turned around, grabbed the chicken off the counter and hid it in the oven. I then stood debating with myself whether to go and talk to the person and if so, what food I could give them. By the time I got to the door, they had left. And I was struck by deep shame at what I had just done – shocked at the deceitfulness of my own heart.

See I have realized that there are stories that I tell that I “wear like badges” – stories about how hard my life is, or the challenges I’m facing, or how spiritual I am, or how compassionate, self-sacrificing and filled with loving-kindness I am. Well, this story isn’t one of those. This one tells the dark side: the turning away and hiding my food as a brother went through my trash, when just a second before I had been ruing the fact that I had this beautiful meal and no-one to share it with. Truth is, I had noone that I wanted to share it with. It’s easy to stand in a hall and denounce homeless feeding laws; but harder to acknowledge the hunger games we all play. The needs we choose to meet or not meet, the set of usually selfishly driven rules that govern when we  feed, clothe, visit, and take in “the least of these” – the rules based on a confluence of feelings, comfortability, energy, convenience and, often, face-work. I can feed a hundred people a day – prep the food, put aside the time, invest energy and resources – but I wonder if they truly are “the least of these”  if I think they are.

Maybe the “least of these” is the one that interrupts my time and intrudes on my space and comfort with his inconvenient and messy needs. The one I have not prepared a face to meet. The one I have not decided to respond to in advance. The one that catches me off guard. The one who interrupts my quiet Sunday night, my boastings and postings, my puffing up and my pinning of badges. The one who goes through my trash while I hide my chicken in the oven… and later, my head in shame.

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On unglamorous redemption

November 14, 2011 at 3:07 am (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , , )

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself standing in front of a heap of rubble – the burnt out remains of a once thriving garment factory in Camden, New Jersey. Recently classified as “the most dangerous city” in America – based on crime data in 6 categories (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft) – Camden is one of the many left-behind cities of America; literally burning up amidst poverty, high rates of unemployment, low graduation rates, crime, gangs, abandoned properties and extremely high levels of ground and water-source pollution. This neighborhood shares much of the same sociological pedigree as Kensington. This was once a thriving site of construction and manufacturing, with neighborhoods built up around factories so workers could walk to work. The collapse of that system of life is evident throughout these streets. Slowly manufacturing moved out of this neighborhood, becoming globalised as wages became ever cheaper with production outsourced to third-world countries. Left in the wake of this exodus of production was the waste of years of noxious chemicals and pollutants, which have seeped into the groundwater and stripped the land so that little grows here. Those with the social mobility to move out of Camden did so, leaving behind the poorest with none of the social support systems to raise them up. Standing in a neighborhood with nothing left to attract corporate America, a community filled with all the waste of the American dream and none of the means for its actualization, I picked up a piece of brick from the now desolate factory and placed it in my pocket – a reminder, a memorial.

“Exegesis”, from the Greek “to lead out”: a critical examination and interpretation of, usually, a text, including investigation into the history and origins of the text, and study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience.

As we “exegete our neighborhoods” and our worlds, it is easy to become disillusioned and throw our hands into the air crying out “there is no hope”. But acquiescing to the desolation in our world denies the possibility of its redemption. If we sit back, overwhelmed by the social issues and their antecedents which we see all around us, we are saying redemption has no power, no hope. It is void. We cannot afford to deny redemption in our worlds since doing so denies its power in our lives. If we cannot hope for redemption in our streets we cannot hope for its work in our selves.

I don’t think many of us who have experienced this redemption would deny its work; rather, I think the answer lies in something Chris Haw said as he stood by the riverside talking of this place he calls home. In response to someone’s question of “What can be done?” he replied, “There are a thousand things that can be done, but none of them are sexy.”  There is little in the process of redemption that is glamorous or sexy or even attractive. But then again, neither was the act of redemption itself particularly glamorous, sexy or attractive. We hope for hope which looks like hope – bright-eyed and optimistic, happy-go-lucky and idealistic. Often the hope we get is the one which raises tired eyes and heads from the routine and repetition, and the messiness of human relationships and forces itself to look to the hills, from whence our help comes from. This hope is often unglamorous. It is tied in with shopping for groceries, and sweeping up trash only to have it reappear a few hours later. The redemptive process is undoubtedly restorative and powerful and can change our worlds even as it transforms our lives. It is the essence of our re-imagining. But it is process. Day in and day out. And it is rarely sexy.

“Christians get allured by the extraordinary: in mission, ministry, and witness the pull seems to be away from the ordinary towards the new, the exciting and the innovative. But maybe the real challenge of our times is to learn to affirm the ordinary things very deeply, doing our church and our theology and our praying whilst deeply engaged with these basic building blocks of life. This is a call for us to deal with the mundane things in our lives, but it is not a calling to dullness -it’s about discovering new possibilities of being creative, with the ordinary things of life.” (John Davies)

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On dreaming

October 30, 2011 at 4:38 am (Things I want to see changed, Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

It’s snowing today. This snow’s beauty lies in its falling down, reflected in the street lights. But that beauty fades as it hits the ground, mixing with the messiness of the lives which have passed this way throughout the day. Its promise dies as it becomes tied up inextricably with the dirt, trash and discarded mess which are mere symbols of structural inequality, poverty, cycles of abuse and destruction and violence, marginalization, and isolation from centers of power. The debris of the American dream.

I live in an inner-city neighborhood called Kensington in Philadelphia. Over 42% of our neighbors live below the poverty line, 46% have less than a highschool education, and most are unemployed. The neighborhood’s primary industry is the drug trade. Ours is a community full of violence and chaos, addiction, abuse and poverty – but it is also full of hope and beauty and good people trying to improve their own and neighbor’s lives. We are not naive about the challenges Kensington faces; nor are we overwhelmed by them. Fundamentally, we believe that another world is possible and that maybe it starts by dreaming, by relocating to the broken and neglected places of empire, by living with our lives what we speak with our mouths, by being good neighbors. We seek to re-spark imagination in our interactions. We have built a beautiful neighborhood park at the end of our street, and a neighborhood garden where folk can grow their own vegetables, we run a food distribution, and give out blankets and toiletries and bedrolls when folk knock on our door. We do homework help three days a week with kids from the neighborhood, throw holiday parties, hand out school supplies to over 550 kids, celebrate birthdays, put bandaids on scrapes, share our chocolate sprinkles, make popcorn, open up opportunities for summer camps, and play in the fire hydrant in summer. Most importantly we try to live our lives on our streets. And we always seek to dream.

A few short weeks ago, I thought that most of our neighbors had lost their imagination, their ability to dream of a different way. Many have. In places of violence, war, conflict, poverty, destruction and despair the privilege of dreams is often secondary to the necessity of survival. For others, years of walking a trail of broken dreams has only served to crush any hope for a future. I do not doubt that there are many in my community who have lost their imagination, their daring to hope and dream.

But I have also learnt that I have not had ears to hear the many dreams that do exist on my block. These are streets of pain; but they are also fields of gold. Some are dreaming of an orchard at the end of our road. Another longs to see an aquarium where children can learn to run their own businesses. Someone wants to paint all the post boxes on the block. There are dreams for a compost business which will serve Kensington, a vegetable garden which will feed our block and provide low cost healthy food to our broader community. A neighbor has a file full of contacts for emergency services, heating, food, jobs and education which she pulls out anytime anyone is in need. Someone else has a file full of clippings from magazines and printouts from online – of fences and parks and benches around trees. Someone sweeps our streets each morning – and each day it fills again with trash. But for those few hours this is another world. And slowly others are joining in.

I dream of the day when these dreams become stories celebrated not regrets mourned. I pray these dreams breathe life into the here and now, in the time when these dreams are not…yet. I dream that the debris of the American dream can be swept off our block so that the snow can fall, creating a new world on our streets.

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Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 1

May 12, 2011 at 8:18 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

A couple of weeks ago, Brett and I took the Live Below the Line Challenge, spending R12 a day each for all our food and drink. We did the challenge for five days. And we survived. Now, some people who have read about the challenge or heard us talk about it thought that it would be very possible and easy to live on R12 a day. And in many ways it was. Other friends were shocked and thought it would be near impossible and that we would be near starving. We weren’t but it was difficult. Here are some things I learnt and some of my thoughts on poverty.

1. We were ‘privileged’ to have 120 rand to play with at the beginning of the week. Pooling our ‘allowance’ for the week enabled us to buy in larger quantities and to save money. More on that later. However, the R12 (or $1.25 or 1 pound) a day poverty line is an average. That means that many people who are struggling to survive and meet their day to day needs live on less than R12 a day. And some have a bit more to live on. But what is true for most of those under the average, is that they are not assured from day to day that they will actually have R12. With no formal employment and subsistence wages, contract jobs, street vending, other jobs in the informal sector (e.g. being a car guard) and begging as primary sources of income, R12 a day is not a “budgetable” amount. Today I may get lucky and earn R20, but tomorrow and the next day I may not get anything. Our friend Lisa wrote a fantastic blog on this which you can find here, but I like this paragraph because it captures the essence of the problem of averages:

“Very few people living on or below that line actually have the luxury of knowing their R12 will arrive reliably each day. Living below the line is not an extended budgeting challenge. It’s not a challenge to Eat Healthy for under R12 a day. For many, it’s the rollercoaster of not knowing, from one day to the next, where the next mouthful of food will come from, if it will come. Which is a completely different thing.”

More thoughts can be found below…

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Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 2

May 12, 2011 at 8:16 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , )

The continuation….

2. Because we had the privilege of our 120 rand upfront, in many ways the challenge was what Lisa refers to as “an extended budgeting challenge” – sitting working out a healthy balanced meal plan for the week was stressful.  The list I started out with was completely different to the list I ended up with – for starters there was less meat on the second, no fruit, no dairy, more lentils, and less “excitement”.  Lisa wrote a blog on the challenge, and was concerned that  “One of the regular themes in the blogs and tweets of the participants of the challenge is that they’re bored of eating low-cost food.” She goes on, “This is part of what worries me about this challenge. If it were truly challenging people to bolster their sense of compassion and humanity, boredom wouldn’t be a major theme.” I disagree. The purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness, to “get a clue”, to recognize our own abundance – and certainly one of the major themes of that must be that living below the line is no fun! The food is boring, and bland and it is a struggle to make healthy choices.

3. On 120 rand we were forced to buy small quantities of food items such as rice and noodles. This for me was perhaps the greatest thing I learnt as I reflected on the poverty line. Unfortunately, small quantity items almost always come at a higher cost. Buying a small bag of rice is generally more expensive per kg than buying a larger packet. Here’s a quick illustration: Pantene 2 in 1 200 ml has a per/liter cost of 164 rand. The 400ml bottle has a per/liter cost of 99 rand! I dare not work out the sachet per/liter cost! So if you only have the cash to buy a small amount, you end up paying exorbitantly more for the amount you use than rich people do. Rich people get more stuff for less money than poor people do. This is gross injustice!

4. We had a fridge. Thus we were able to keep the food we bought in ‘bulk’, meat, left-overs and bread fresh. How many people living below the poverty line have a fridge, let alone electricity. This further curbs their ability to eat economically – to buy in bulk, cook and store food, and, in the unlikely event of leftovers, to not waste that food.

5. We only did the challenge for a week. We went into it healthy. Remembering that the 12 rand average covers food, drink, health care, accomodation, electricity, education, transportation etc for those on or below the poverty line, the knock on effect from an unbalanced diet (yes, vegetarianism may be healthier on balance but nearly all vegetarians I know supplement their diet with vitamins or with expensive protein alternatives such as nuts and seeds and low gi food) means the poor are less healthy and have far less (can anybody say nothing?) to get well on.

6. Brett and I ate well. We had reasonable quantities. We ate lots of vegetables and we even had some rice and lentils left over. But there was something lacking from the  diet. During the week we were doing mental work (i.e. transcription) but an hour or two after meals I would get incredibly drowsy and low in energy. Yes, with these minor side effects, the meal sizes sustained us through this work. But I cannot imagine doing hard physical labour on the meals we were eating! I really doubt it would have sustained us through a working day. Food for thought when you look at construction workers, or road cleaners, or gardeners and judge them for being so “lazy”. Think about how many bad character traits may merely be hunger disguised.

Many of you asked how it went. These are just a few thoughts. I may write more in the next few days. I do highly recommend that you take the challenge in your own time and hopefully catch a glimpse of the realities of the other side. I sincerely hope you don’t come out of that time and think you have done your bit. I also hope you don’t come out of it feeling guilty about all you have. But maybe a little conviction ain’t always a bad thing. And if you are a Christ-follower person then go and read this post because it talks about the true motivation for social justice and charity, and if that grabs you then definitely get Tim Keller’s “Generous Justice”.

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The menu

April 30, 2011 at 1:37 pm (Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

Here is the menu, and the shopping list is here.

Monday: (B) Eggs and Toast; (L) Mielies; (S) Roast Veg               (No-Meat-Monday!)

Tuesday: (B) Oats (butter, no sugar); (L) Toast and Lentil Soup; (S) Rice, bangers and Veg

Wednesday: (B) Eggs and Toast; (L) Mielies; (S) Noodles, bangers and Veg

Thursday: (B) Oats; (L) Toast & Butternut/Potato Soup; (S) Fried Rice and Veg (carrots,beans,etc)

Friday: (B) Oats; (L) Fried Rice, Lentils and Veg; (S) Noodles, bangers and Veg

So it’s sparse, I won’t lie, but that’s the idea. It is very, very difficult to eat healthy and balanced meals on this budget let alone to include VARIETY! That’s the point – if it were easy and nice and delicious and attractive then I bet you more people would be doing it.

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The shopping list

April 30, 2011 at 1:24 pm (Things I want to see changed, Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

I have spent a few hours putting together my shopping list and meal plan for the R12 a day Live Below the Line Challenge. It was challenging – I won’t lie! Buying food for the week for R120 is one thing (i.e. R12 x 5days x 2 people), but maintaining a healthy, balanced meal plan is quite tough. So here is my shopping list. Feel free to make alternative suggestions or adjust to your own likes if you are taking the challenge. More thoughts on the challenge itself will follow next week.

Shopping List:

Oats (500gr; 3 breakfasts) – R11.39

Whole Wheat Low GI Bread (1 loaf; 2breakfasts [w/ eggs] + 2 lunches [w/ soup] – R7.29

Eggs (2breakfasts) – R7.49

Brown Rice Parboiled (500grm; 2suppers) – R6.49

Noodles (2 suppers) – R7.78

Lentils (400grm; 2 lunches soup) – R5.99 – can also use soup mix with lentils, beans etc

Pork Bankers (8pieces; 2 suppers; can also put in other suppers or soup) – R16.49 – can rather use chicken pieces, or substitute for other protein such as kidney beans (R10.99 for 500gr) or for more veg (Swiss Chard at 4.99) etc.

Carrots (1kg) – R6.99

Butternut (1.5kg) – R6.24

Potatoes (1.2kg) – R9.70 – can do 600gr potato and 600g sweet potato for the same price

Beans (1 punnet) – R6.99

Onions (2) – R2

Mielies (4pieces; 2 lunches) – R8

Soup stock – R4.89

Lite medium fat spread (for cooking with too) – R8.49 – apparently a medium/low fat spread is better than butter if low in transfat

TOTAL: R116.22

What will we do with that last R4?? Ha ha – well, maybe cost out spices or add in more veg or buy an apple or two or jelly or orange juice concentrate (in the sachets). So many options!

So there it is – if you have any other creative ideas feel free to share – remembering we only have R120 for all food items! (and you can check out the rules here. Good luck to all who are taking on the challenge and I hope it really does change your perspective on the poor, the poverty line, and how you live.

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On living below the line

April 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm (Things I want to see changed) (, , )

One of the biggest things I have learnt over the last few months is how incredibly blessed Brett and I have been when one or both of us have had a fixed salary.  In December, Brett resigned from his job and soon after my bursary money came to an end. Since the beginning of the year we have not had any regular income and have had to trust God sometimes from day to day for our needs. This has taught me firstly, how many of the things I used to think of as “needs” are really just “wants” or “nice to haves”.  Secondly, it has taught me how little we can get by on without really actually struggling. We never ate or lived lavishly before, but our grocery bill has almost halved during this time and we are still eating healthily. Thirdly, it has taught me that living on less is not easy and comes with a whole set of  stresses, pressures, and relational challenges.

Earlier this month, I stopped writing out shopping lists and instead started writing what I called “wish lists”. I would put on there all the things I thought we needed and some things we just would have liked (like coffee and cheese) and hoped that by the time we had used the last eggs and milk, there would be money to take the wish list to the shops. There always was because our God is faithful and always came through. But waiting was not easy. Neither was counting out and making the difficult decisions on how to allocate our money towards petrol, electricity and food.

From May 2-6,  I will be taking the Live Below the Line challenge. I will be living on the equivalent of 1 Pound a day, or  R12.  I am doing this to raise awareness for and to better understand the challenges faced by the 1.4 billion people who live in extreme poverty. The money that I would have spent on food during the week (check out the rules), I will donate to a poverty alleviation project. This is not a warm-fuzzy-feeling initiative though. The truth is that most of us have absolutely no idea what it is like to live below the poverty line. Conversely, we lose sight of the abundance we enjoy daily. Yes, I will be limiting my food and drink costs to R12 per day while the truth is that for those 1.4 billion people living below the poverty line, their R12 or $1.25 or 1 pound has to cover far more than food. It is all they have to cover their health, housing, transport, food, education, hygiene, electricity and other needs. I cannot even begin to fathom such living.

“Almost a quarter of the world’s population face challenges that are varied and complex, and which prevent people from developing financial safety nets – ensuring they are unable to escape the cycle of extreme poverty. ” (Live Below the Line, on Extreme Poverty)

Redistribution of wealth must start with those who have. And what better way to begin than by realising what wealth we really possess.

(Here is my proposed menu and here is the shopping list for our week)

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on the motivating force for justice

February 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm (Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , )

Tim Keller writes, “The Bible…provides not merely the bare ethical obligation for doing justice, but a revolutionary new inner power and dynamism to do so” (Generous Justice, p. 82).

I am struck by this. The dynamism Tim speaks of is echoed throughout scripture:

“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:19-20)

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died…From now on we regard noone from a worldy point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:14-16)

“You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19)

Our compassion for the poor, our desire to see justice done, our drive to reconcile the world to Him, our feeding of the hungry, clothing of the poor, comforting of the sick, welcoming of the foreigner, and visiting of those in prison is a profound response to all that we have received from God. Even when they are dirty and broken, deserving of their state, seemingly to “blame”, unloveable, undeserving and ungrateful – because that is exactly how we were when God LAVISHED his love on us. Our response then is a right and fitting response to the grace we have received. Our lack of response is indicative of a lack of understanding of the grace we have received. A full understanding of God’s grace COMPELS us to respond in kind to those around us. Not doing so demonstrates that we have not fully grasped God’s grace towards us. This is what James speaks of: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

“The logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.” (Generous Justice, p. 94)

Tim goes on to write:

“”We tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does-through guilt. We tell them that they have so much and don’t they see that they need to share with those who have so little. This doesn’t work, because we have built-in defense mechanisms against such appeals. Almost noone really feels all that wealthy. Even the well-off don’t feel rich compared to the others with whom they live and work” (p. 107).

So often we give to assuage guilt about our excess. Even more often we are burdened into giving out of guilt; we are manipulated into giving and extending justice. How rarely does this flow from a true understanding of what we ourselves have received. How often is our giving, our acts of justice, COMPELLED but Christ’s love rather than by guilt and condemnation?

“When justice for the poor is connected not to guilt but to grace and to the gospel, this ‘pushes the button’ down deep in believers’ souls, and they begin to wake up” (p. 107).

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On bearing one another’s burdens

February 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm (Things I'm thinking about, What I'm reading) (, , , , , , , )

So I have been reading Generous Justice (Tim Keller)  and really just been challenged by this one section on the Good Samaritan. I will copy it out here:

“Another objection [to the duty of sharing money and goods with the poor] comes from people who say they “have nothing to spare” and that they barely have enough for their own needs. But one of the main lessons of the Good Samaritan parable is that real love entails risk and sacrifice. Edwards responds that when you say, “I can’t help anyone” you usually mean “I can’t help anyone without burdening myself, cutting in to how I live my life.” But Edwards argues, that’s exactly what Bibilical love requires. He writes:

We in many cases may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others, when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves . . .If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not likely to be releived, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule of bearing one another’s burdens fulfilled? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens, but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burdens at all?”(Tim Keller, Generous Justice, p. 70)

I feel quite convicted by this. Two other scriptures spring to mind:  “Bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality…” (2 Cor 8:13-14).

I know many many times I have said to beggars at street corners, Big Issue sellers, car guards, and street children, “I’m sorry but I don’t have anything.” or “I don’t have anything today.” Those are lies. Because I do have; but the truth is in those times I cannot give without taking a hit myself – without burdening myself and cutting in to how I live.

The really hard-hitting thing is that when there have been brothers and sisters, fellow Christians, even friends, who I KNOW are in a tough spot or are really struggling, I have used the exact same rationalisation. I have not helped because doing so would burden me and cut into my tight finances. I have given when I have had excess, but really, how often have I given when doing so would have meant me sharing their burdens?

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