“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
During this Lenten time of self-examination, we pause to consider our brokenness and great need—our vulnerability and inability to do enough fasting or law-keeping to earn even an ounce of righteousness.
One of my first encounters with true vulnerability was in elementary school. I had arrived at my small Christian school like any other day, getting out my purple TrapperKeeper and greeting my friends. The mother of one of my classmates rushed in, followed by a Mexican woman with a teary baby on her hip and a wide-eyed toddler at her feet. My friend’s mother was frantically explaining to the school principal how she normally did not pick up random people from the side of the road. This was somehow different. She couldn’t pass by a crying woman with two children alone in the middle of nowhere, amidst dust and orchards. With a language barrier keeping the story undiscovered, they were brought to my tiny school with hopes someone else would know what to do. I anxiously stepped in, offering to call my pastor who was fluent in Spanish. They spoke on the phone and he learned her story of being abandoned without so much as milk for her baby. I was so young, I don’t remember more of the details, if I was ever told. But I will never forget the fear, helplessness, and vulnerability in her eyes.
After graduating from college, I began working for a Christian organization whose mission was to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” While my theology of poverty was still in process, I was introduced to a friend who continues to teach me about what it looks like to follow the heart of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Flooded with her passionate stories of what community development looked like from the slums of Lima to the rural areas of Kenya, I began to understand the verse in Jeremiah, “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD.” And I knew I wanted to pursue the work of shalom-weaving in the lives of the vulnerable as an essential part of the pursuit of knowing God.
Several years later, I found myself weaving through the streets of Beira in Mozambique with an Ethiopian staff person at the wheel. He was telling me about the work being done in rural communities to teach vulnerable children about the holistic flourishing God intends for their lives. As he joyfully explained the ins and outs of the programs to me, the song on the tape deck changed to “Mighty to Save.” After a short pause, he began sharing his own story of vulnerability with me. He grew up in Ethiopia during a time of communist political upheaval, with a father high up in the government. After learning about Jesus, almost accidentally, my friend became a Christian. This angered his father, who chased him out of the house, the last time with spears flying. Laughing at the absurdity of a strong and skilled man missing the easy target of a child, my friend said, “You see, that is why I love the words of this song. Because he IS mighty to save. He CAN move mountains.”
As I reflect on many more memories among the vulnerable, the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized; I am reminded once again of what I have to learn about who God is from those who have His special attention. I am reminded of the variance between my prayers and actions—the time spent talking about faithful following instead of actually giving voice to the voiceless. I am reminded of how God has called me to live, according to Isaiah 58. And what the conquering of the grave is all about—the breaking of the chains of injustice and offering life to those who embrace what Jesus did on our behalf. Our God is indeed mighty to save.
What have you learned from working with and for the vulnerable? How has that pointed you away from empty fasting and toward embracing the resurrected Christ? How has the power of the resurrection been visible?