Thursday, May 4, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

What do you do when there is someone in despair literally on your front doorstep?

What do you do if they are homeless?

Do you pretend not to see them? Ignore them?

This week I have begun meditating on and praying Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." So what does God do? Puts the poor in spirit on my very front doorstep. Doesn't God realize I'm busy? I don't even have to ask if God brought this man here because it's that obvious. I feel like God is saying, "Okay, you're studying this verse, but are you living it? Really?"

If I didn't want to, I could hear this man groaning in his suffering. I peek out my front door and see him sitting there, on the sidewalk, slumped down wearing an old, dirty Carolina Panthers jersey. It's dirty and worn. He's a large guy. Much bigger than myself. He's right in front of my house. If I go out there, he knows that I live here. I don't have the safety of being somewhere else where the stranger has no clue as to where I live. I don't know anything about this man:

Is he on drugs?

Is he violent?

Does any of that really matter? God has him there, as if to remind me that I cannot distance myself from the poor. One is right there before me.

"God," I pray, "I get it. I don't like it, but I get it."

I unlock my front door and go out to him. Unable to think of anything better to ask, I ask the obvious, "Are you okay?"

"Nobody sees me! Nobody sees me!" he keeps repeating.

"But I see you," I tell him and I sit next to him, despite the overwhelming smell, especially of sweat and urine. His face is unshaven and his hair is unwashed and matted to his head.

Despite my being right there next to him, he just repeats himself. "Nobody sees me! Nobody sees me!" He doesn't stop until I touch his arm. He startled and recoiled back. His eyes look at me: filled with confusion and uncertainty,

"I see you," I say again and this time he hears me. "I'm here because I see you - and I hear you."

He looks baffled. He just stares at me: puzzled, as if trying to figure out if I'm real or just in his head. "Who are you?" he finally blurted out.

I introduced myself and asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

He continued to stare at me for quite a good minute or so, which is unnerving, but I kept his gaze. In his eyes I saw disorientation and perplexity. When he saw that I saw him, he finally replied, "I'm hungry."

"Okay, I can make you a sandwich," I said getting up from the sidewalk and he immediately said, "But not a ham sandwich. I don't like ham."

I walked back inside and fixed him a sandwich and put it on a paper plate with a pickle and some chips before grabbing a bottled water and taking it back outside to him. As I handed him the plate, he looked in disgust, "I hate pickles."

"So don't eat it." And he didn't, but tossed it onto the street.

He took the plate and began to scarf down the sandwich and the chips. I sat down again next tom him. We must have looked like quite a pair to those who drove past us - or my neighbors.

Overhead I noticed a hawk in the beautiful, blue Spring sky. I thought of my younger son and how he would love to see it right now. The air was full of birdsong and him chewing with his mouth open.

Once he'd finished his sandwich and chips, the guy tossed the plate in my yard like it was a Frisbee, got up from the sidewalk and headed off down the street, drinking from the bottle of water and muttering to himself. No thanks or gratitude or even conversation. I don't even know his name.

As I stood up, I thought about what I have been reflecting on, studying and pondering all week long: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

No one looking at that man I just fed would think, "Yup, his is the kingdom of heaven."

Would they even think that of me?

What does that statement even mean?

It's baffling. Of course, all of the Sermon on the Mount is and must have been with its mixture of paradox: comforting and confronting all at the same time about what the kingdom of heaven is. Was it good news? To some. Maybe. Those who were poor might have been more receptive than those of wealth, power and prestige would have been. How many of us, would have, like the rich young ruler, turned away at some point during the Beatitudes?

All must have been baffled and confused.

Christ was redefining for them what a Messiah was every day by his actions and his teachings and who he associated with. Now, here he was, redefining what the kingdom was. He was telling Israel, "You long for the kingdom of David when you should be longing for the kingdom of God instead." He was teaching them the difference between their expectations and the reality of what a messiah and the kingdom looked like. It was just as baffling to the Romans, who's concept of kingdom was an empire built on conquering and bloodshed and a religion that sought to bolster their political system.

"Blessed are," Jesus begins after he's seated himself as any Rabbi of authority would do before proclaiming the word of the Lord. "Blessed are" has lost its meaning in our modern culture (particularly American culture) where blessed means health and wealth and the American dream. Some translators write "Happy" instead of "Blessed" but that brings about its own problems in a world where personal happiness is seen as the ultimate goal and should be pursued at all costs. As I struggled with both, the hymn "It Is Well" played on my iPod (three times during one morning commute). That's when it struck me that "Blessed are" could be translated as "It is well with . . ."

"It is well with the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"It is well" is not circumstantial (based on the good feelings and good times being had) but on the eternal (a hope beyond the present).

But what does this verse mean in my own life?

Having grown up in a fractured home that was, in many ways, toxic to my own development, I have been plagued with self-doubts, insecurities, anxieties, depression, and became very guarded. Added to this, I was a shy, introverted, day-dreaming, small kid: all of which made me prone to bullying (verbal and physical). Because I didn't feel secure at home or at school, I felt shame and helplessness. I wondered why all of this was happening to me and why did God even create me because there was clearly something wrong with myself. None of this is a plus when I got married. It wasn't easy for my wife to be married to a man who was, in may ways, still a scared, hurt child inside. I was about self-protection first (never a good thing in a spouse) and I hid behind a wall of silence where no one else could get in or hurt me if I felt overwhelmed. It was a mechanism I had developed as a kid and never lost. It's also why I live so much in my imagination and books. Retreating into myself was my way of saying, "I will reject you before you can reject and hurt me."

After years of counseling, I began to learn how to unlearn all the harmful patterns I had and learn to begin to trust others, especially my wife. I had to be vulnerable and allow her to be able to sit with my pains, hurts, and fears. It's what BrenĂ© Brown writes about the process of moving from shame (disconnection) to empathy (connection). I had to be willing to risk my shame to see the empathy and love my wife had for what I had been through and to trust that she would love me anyway. And I have had to undergo the same process with God. This is poverty of spirit.

I also learned from my wife that to be poor in spirit is to have empathy, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.

Poverty of spirit is understanding connectedness: not only to God but to others. It's realizing that we are not only wanted by Christ in spite of our woundedness but because of our woundedness. It's those scars that reveal the pathway to healing and the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is full of such wounded warriors: the least of these, the lonely of these, the broken of these. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God" is a promise. It is a welcoming to those who so often have felt unwelcomed, alone, and marginalized.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit" are the ones Jesus is telling, "Let go." It's not just a holding on to of money and possessions, but of fears, losses, hurts, broken promises, abuse, anger, shame, low self-esteem, insecurities . . .

This is radical relationship built not on equality, but on Jesus saying, "You will never measure up. You will never be good enough. You will never love yourself or accept yourself enough. But I do. I accept you and love you and want you."

He wants the forgotten, the unwanted, the unloved, the broken, the oppressed, the persecuted, the discriminated against, the bullied, the battered, the abused, the violated, the poor, the undesirable, the refugee, the neglected, the orphan, the widow, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the disconnected and lost.

God told the prophet Isaiah, "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word" (66:2).

"Trembles at my word."

As I thought about that, I thought about how the word trembles can have more than one meaning. Trembles can mean that one shakes out of fear and terror.

The other, which I find more appropriate, is the trembling one has at the touch of a lover, not out of fear, but of expectation and want. It is trembling with desire. God as a lover who longs for relationship with us and wants us to return that affection, who "trembles at my word."

It makes me recall the white stone with our new name on it that Christ gives us in heaven. This name is our true name, our true identity. Part of me wonders if, when we open our hand and look at that white stone, all of us won't find engraved on it this single word: Beloved.

Beloved as all our true names, our true identities.

That is the promise.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

That is not some platitude, but a promise. It is not only the veil being lifted to give us glimmerings on the edge of the kingdom's workings, but a call, an invitation to worthiness. "You may not matter here," Christ says, "but you do to me, you do in the kingdom. You are why I came."

Christ sees the beautiful in the ugly, the beloved in the broken, the chosenness in the companionless, the worthiness in the worthless, and the priceless in the poor in spirit. We are all undeserving. We are all poor in spirit and have nothing to offer but ourselves and Christ looks at us with loving tenderness and reaches out his hand to say, "Yes, come with me and be my beloved." Our empty hands are not meant to hold the things of this world, but his hands in our own.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

He came because he loves those poor in spirit.

We only need open our hands, open our hearts.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit . . ."

Blessed, beloved, indeed.


  1. This is beautiful, Elliott. As I was out walking and doing errands this morning I found myself paying closer attention to the people I passed on the street. I found myself being more aware of how God might see them, and of the fact that these words ("Blessed are the poor in spirit") are being said to every one of them -- and to me. I like the way you describe this beatitude as promise and welcome. Jesus is sharing the Father's heart here, not just making a theological pronouncement. It just becomes more amazing the more you think about it.

  2. Simply magnificent, Elliot.