March 26, 2008

Off to (Plan) the Races

2008 1509 page5 capHE CLOUDS WERE SILKEN COTTON candy. A caramel apple sun stood tall. A festive breeze pirouetted around the cars that idled companionably around my own. Even the radiant stoplight colors seemed to rejoice. The only thing that did not match the merry mood was my own face. I was off to a planning committee meeting, and I was glum.
I was going downtown as a fill-in to a meeting where I would have the privilege of representing the Samaritan Center to a room full of important people I didn’t know.
They were organizing a race and letting us benefit from part of the proceeds. We needed to be there to say thank you. Even so, I felt so shy that all I wanted to do was hide myself (and my car) under a giant bushel until the event was through.
“Lord,” I prayed, “give me strength and wisdom and confidence at this meeting. Help me make a good impression for the Samaritan Center.”
2008 1509 page5But all He helped me do—it seemed—was get lost.
As always, I had printed off directions to help me arrive safely and on time at my destination. I’d hoped to arrive while other people were going in so that I could blend in and trail behind them into the right building. As it was, however, I would just have to take a guess.
A late guess, I grumbled to myself.
“Even so,” I prayed, trying to coax myself out of my cynical quagmire, “give me strength and confidence, Lord. You know how important this is. Help me make a good impression in spite of it all. I get so shy—I can’t help it! But I know You can help me. . . .”
Taking one last deep breath of the frolicking air around me, I hushed my pounding heart, chose a random building, crossed the parking lot, and flung open the door.
To my double dismay, no people were inside, only a billow of smoke that darted its head out of the door frame like a snake’s quick tongue. I jumped back, astonished. Long-suppressed memories of cheese-fries experiments gone wrong flashed through my mind, and I stilled my panic. People burn food all the time, I reasoned.
“Hello?” I called. “Hello!”
“Hello!” someone answered.
“What’s going on?” I pressed. “Why is there smoke?”
“Smoke?” the voice queried. “I thought I smelled something . . . but I couldn’t see . . . I’m visually impaired.”
“Are you the only one in here?”
“Of course . . . everyone else is at the meeting . . . what’s going on?”
Increasingly alarmed, I pressed my way farther into the building and into the thickening smoke. The air over the receptionist’s desk seemed the darkest. I couldn’t see much—besides the smoke, an elevated sign-in ledge laden with a sloppy stack of race pamphlets that blocked my view at first. They didn’t explain the smoke.
Peering over it, I caught sight of the desk, where a flaming candle proffered an additional but inconclusive clue. Finally, my eyes moved to the floor where I spotted the real culprit—a stack of flaming pamphlets that had apparently kissed the candle on their fluttering route to the floor. By now the blind woman had stumbled into the hallway.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“There’s a fire,” I answered.
“A fire?”
“Yes . . . where’s your fire extinguisher?”
She faltered. “I don’t know.”
“Well, what about the bathroom?”
An answer didn’t come immediately, and I couldn’t wait. I started checking rooms, first finding a kitchen—a kitchen with a big Tupperware container. The 30 seconds the Tupperware took to fill felt like an eternity—an effective eternity, though. The first Tupperware’s dousing made a good dent in the flames. Encouraged, I repeated the action four more times. It finally went out.
“Whose desk is this, and where is she?” I asked the blind woman.
“Karen. In the meeting.”
“And where’s the meeting?” I persisted, glad I hadn’t known the answer to that question five minutes earlier.
“The other building,” she gestured unsteadily.
We both needed fresh air. Leading her outside and propping the door open to let some of the smoke out, I hightailed it over to the other building. I wasn’t quite sure what to say.
Entering the meeting hall was like a new kid’s worst nightmare. Everyone swiveled their office chairs in my direction, looking annoyed at being interrupted. Luckily, I now had more to say than just that I was with the Samaritan Center and arriving late.
“Who’s Karen?” I called. Confused, one woman raised her hand. “I just put out a fire in your office.”
“What?” she shrieked, streaking out of the room and toward the other building.
It was as if her shriek burst a tension bubble that had filled the air. After that, eager inquiries flowed freely from the faces that had been so closed only moments before, and I was given the pleasure of responding to them all.
The last question they asked was the one I had expected them to ask first. “Who are you?” one person finally squeaked.
This had been the question I’d been dreading. But now I had saved their building, and now they wanted to know.
“I’m Angela Baerg, and I’m with the Samaritan Center,” I said with a smile. They smiled too, and with much ado, welcomed me in.
I knew that my internal tank of boldness and charm was running on empty. Even if I had found the right room, I wouldn’t have known what to say to make a good impression while the other building burned to the ground.
But God had a plan, and because I asked Him, He let me play a role. Sure, I put out the fire, led the blind woman out, and broke the news to the crowd, but God put me in that place—certainly not providing that bushel for me to hide under—and gave me the composure I needed to get the job done—and address the crowd.
After the question-and-answer session concluded, the meeting dispersed. There was little smoke emanating from the other building’s entrance now, and my view of the cotton candy clouds and caramel apple sun was unobstructed. I clomped across the blacktop again, my heart pounding as before—this time from a different cause.
“I was poor in spirit, and You made me rich”—praises wafted from my heart. “Talk about a good impression, Jesus! I asked You for an apple, and You gave me an orchard! May I have the wisdom to ask for Your wisdom in every situation, to live as if every day were planning committee.”
Angela Ford Baerg, a 2006 graduate of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee, is marketing and communications coordinator for the Samaritan Center, a Seventh-day Adventist thrift shop and social services agency in Ooltewah, Tennessee.

issue header 2008 1509 7
2008 1509 page5 cap’M THE FIRST TO ADMIT THAT THERE’S nothing in this world for which I consciously seek to be poor. Whether it’s money, food, confidence, ambition, or whatever—I don’t like knowing that I am in some way destitute or substandard. I don’t like feeling powerless.

Yet while giving His famous sermon on the mount, Jesus notes first that it is the poor in spirit who are happy and blessed because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This notion confused me as a young Christian. To me, a person poor in spirit was someone weak in their religious beliefs. Yet I had always been taught that a good Christian was unshakable in their faith and remained resilient even under intense persecution. I couldn’t understand how someone poor in spirit could epitomize God’s ideal celestial citizen.
But a few years ago, during my freshman year of college, I began to understand that Christians who are poor in spirit are, in fact, the most faithful and resilient of believers.
2008 1509 page7At college I met my share of typical students. There were those who chose majors in hopes of someday accumulating great wealth, and those who chose majors that indulged the passions of their hearts rather than the whims of their wallets.
But I also met another group of students: those who chose majors and made life choices based on what they believed God was leading them to do. They weren’t all planning to be pastors or missionaries; some were majoring in social work and other areas of academia. But what set them apart from the other students was that they studied and toiled with a peerless passion and purpose.
In them I first began to recognize the poor in spirit, about whom Jesus preached.
Concession of Weakness
Christians who are poor in spirit are not confident in their own ability to hold fast to their faith or direct their own lives. Instead, they concede their personal weakness so that reliance on God becomes paramount.
These individuals depend completely on God. They realize that while their strength is fallible and finite, the infallible and infinite strength of God is not only sufficient but perfect as well.
Thus the “poverty” related to being poor in spirit is a selflessness of the individual, the individual who denies self for the glory of God. It was to such individuals that Jesus promised His kingdom.
Soon I began seeing the poor in spirit motif in other parts of the Bible. In the Old Testament, for example, is the story of Abraham, who lived a nomadic life because of his willingness to go where God commanded him. Abraham allowed his life to be so directed by God that when ordered to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as an offering, he was willing to do it, even though he knew that to do so would break his heart.
I thought of several Old Testament characters such as Ruth, Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and other brave people who exemplified being poor in spirit. Life for these individuals often wasn’t easy. Even King David, who wrote what may be the anthem for the poor in spirit in the form of the twenty-third psalm, faced persecution and ridicule. Others, such as Isaiah, were martyred. But Jesus made it clear in the Beatitudes that lives lived in dedication to God through spiritual submissiveness to His will are not lived in vain.
A Recruitment Tool
I’ve come to the realization that when Jesus began calling His disciples, He did so by beckoning them to become people who were poor in spirit.
When He first encountered Simon Peter and Andrew fishing in the Sea of Galilee, He recruited them by saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (see Matt. 4:18, 19). Jesus didn’t invite them to lead alongside Him, or propose that He follow them. Rather, by saying “Follow me,” Jesus invited the brothers to relinquish their ambitions and become followers who traveled where their Lord led them, and did as He directed.
The disciples’ lives did not focus on spreading Simon Peter’s legacy, or Andrew’s legacy, or John’s legacy, or any other disciple’s legacy. Instead, their lives were dedicated to spreading Christ’s legacy—even if that meant facing hostile crowds who turned deaf ears to the gospel truth, or enduring persecution at the hands of Roman officials who sought to squash the then-upstart Christian religion before it became widespread.
Living in Poverty
For the disciples, being poor in spirit meant living a life preaching the gospel throughout the world. It also meant living a life being poor in money. Despite Jesus’ translated use of the word “poor” in describing those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, I am not inclined to believe that He intended for spiritual poverty to correlate inherently with financial poverty. However, this does not mean that one is not a potential by-product of the other, as was the case with the disciples, John the Baptist, and many other followers who experienced both types of poverty.
Being poor in spirit means more than the willingness to live a life of financial poverty. God requests our tithes and offerings, but that amounts to only a portion of the money we earn.
However, when it comes to our love and devotion to God, that is when He requests we give Him our all. God does not say, “Give 10 percent of your heart to Me, and that will suffice.”
In Matthew 6:24 Jesus says that no one can serve two masters. It is for that reason I’m inclined to believe that being poor in spirit is about individuals turning the direction of their lives over to God completely. A life of financial poverty may be required as part of this spiritual submission. God may call someone to leave a six-figure job to become a missionary in a remote location. But that isn’t the essential message of Jesus’ words.
I’ll admit it: I have yet to reach a point where I am poor in spirit. I still clutch too tightly to the idea of living life as I see fit. I still seek too eagerly to find fulfillment and solace in the accolades of my fellow human beings. And I still continue to measure my success in increments of how much I’ve grown by worldly standards, rather than in terms of how much I’ve grown like God.
I can only hope that, like some of my fellow schoolmates, I may someday know what it is to be poor.
Daniel Alexander Granderson is a graduating senior at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland, majoring in print journalism.