Weak, Sick, Poor, Tired: A Story for Losers

Nobody wants to be sick. The dependence it fosters, the way it changes and shapes a life are a form of powerlessness that holds no attraction. Poverty (however it is measured) is a massive struggle against forces that steal human dignity. Most homes in poverty include children and are headed by women. Their daily efforts to pay the rent, work a job (or two or three), tend to childhood needs and face another day are quiet works of heroism that fall beneath the radar of most. They are not only poor, but tired (working jobs and raising children alone is a formula for perpetual exhaustion).

So, who wants to be weak, sick, poor and tired?

I could add more categories to these. Who wants to be handicapped, physically or mentally? Who wants to be constantly overwhelmed by the noise of the world, unable to read emotions, awkwardly moving through the world, somehow unable to see your own awkwardness? Who wants to be incompetent? Who wants to fail despite good intentions and best efforts? Who wants to be told that they are simply inadequate and should shape up or ship out?

It is little wonder that the American Dream is so powerful and popular. The alternative is nothing anyone would choose.

And yet, the American Dream may be the greatest obstacle to salvation the world has ever known.

The New Testament is quite clear: we are saved through our weakness. We are not saved in spite of our weakness. Nor is our weakness healed so that we can then be saved. Our weakness is precisely the point at which, by which and through which God saves us.

And our weakness can be found in places where our brokenness most resides: weak, sick, poor, tired, handicapped, dysfunctional, awkward, incompetent, inadequate – these all describe the place where Christ intends to meet us.

The good news is that despite the popularity of the American Dream, even those who find it most successfully remain weak. Their success can make them blind to their weakness, or can be so alluring that their weakness remains unacknowledged. But the very best of the successful remain broken enough to be capable of salvation.

Why are we saved through our weakness? There are many ways to answer this question, but I will choose but only one: Weakness is the path that is most like Christ Himself.

Christ specifically describes the path as “taking up the Cross.” In the Sermon on the Mount, those singled out as blessed are “poor in spirit”; “those who mourn”; “the meek”; “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; “the merciful”; “the pure in heart”; “the peacemakers and the persecuted.” These characteristics do not belong particularly to the strong and the successful. They are hallmarks of weakness. Psychologically, our strengths protect us from the vulnerabilities of weakness. We need no help other than in managing and hiding our weaknesses. Not so strangely, almost no one ever went into treatment for an addiction because they felt so well that they only wanted to feel better. Interventions work through failures. The only question about hitting bottom will be between a high bottom and a low bottom. But bottoms are required.

The virtues required in the process of salvation include humility and self-offering. The noble virtues of compassion, kindness and generosity are certainly valuable, but even these virtues are most commonly found among the weak. The greatest givers, in terms of proportion of income, are found among the poor. If you need a few dollars and you’re on the street. You are most likely to get it from someone whose situation is little better than your own. The rich are the most able, but only in terms of resources. Their strengths shield them from the pain of compassion.

Many weaknesses are accompanied by shame – particularly in a culture that celebrates strength and success. Things such as incompetence and failure can be particularly shameful. Shame is a feeling about “who we are,” rather than what we might have done wrong (that is what we call “guilt”). The weaknesses that inherently produce failure are often experienced as shame. Psychologists say that the pain of shame is “unbearable.” We try to cover it. We lie, we cheat, or we find ways to tune it out. America has a name for such shameful sorts of characters: “Loser.” It is an epithet spoken and heard with sneering disdain.

It is both tragic and unsurprising that such shame looks for a winning identity. Sports teams provide a modern surrogate for success. I might personally be a loser, but my team is a national champion. I wear their logo and cheer them on. It is a mild and passing form of salvation.

Salvation comes to us at the point of weakness. To become whole we must become broken. Only in self-emptying can we be filled. The teaching of Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex states this most clearly:

…the way of shame is the way of the Lord, and when we put ourselves in the way of the Lord, we immediately beget Him as our companion. It was through the Cross of shame that He saved us; so, when we bear a little shame for His sake, in order to repent and come to confession, He considers it as a thanksgiving to Him, and in return He gives us the comfort of the “Comforter”.

The tender mission of the Church is to preach the gospel to all, but to know especially that it will find the greatest response among the weak, the sick, the poor, the tired, the incompetent and inadequate and all those who struggle with their shame. The pastoral task of the Church is to always be the kind of place where such people may find shelter and support. The Church must clearly be a place where the bearing of shame is possible. This is the very definition of “safe.”

It explains clearly why Christ was surrounded with harlots, tax-collectors, lepers and the like. He saw in those filled with shame, kindred souls. For he voluntarily walked a path that carried Him into the heart of human shame. It was in that very place that He entered death and hell and saved us. We cannot meet Him there by any other path. If we would live with Him, we must also die with Him.

And, of course, the good news is that everybody qualifies. Losers one and all.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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61 responses to “Weak, Sick, Poor, Tired: A Story for Losers”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for writing and posting this article, Fr. Stephen Freeman. God bless you and yours in all ways!

  2. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I love your line about Jesus seeing the “sinners” as kindred spirits. This is a radical departure from my oft-reinforced explanation of God as being too holy to look at sin. It also resists the temptation to see Jesus as the “fixer-upper” who swoops in, holding his nose, to quickly polish us up so that we can get back to being respectable. It makes me think of Flannery O’Connors _Revelation_. How much I need to be reminded of these things! Pray for me.

  3. Fr. Mark Lovett Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the post (for all your posts, really). I am a Lutheran pastor and am preaching this week on Lazarus and the Rich Man and I find your post here quite helpful in it. May I have your permission to use your post as the meat of my sermon?
    I don’t publish my written manuscripts (I used to), but I do publish an audio recording of them on our parish website. I can put, “This sermon was drawn largely from the blog post “Weak, Sick, Poor, Tired: A Story for Losers” by Father Stephen of Ancient Faith Blogs”. I can link to it too, if you’d like me to.
    Please let me know. Thanks. If you’d prefer to contact me privately, that’s fine with me.
    (I tried to find a way to contact you privately, but couldn’t, sorry to post this on the Comments. You don’t need to publish this comment if you don’t want to.)

  4. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!!!

    Today’s homily in the Prologue of Ohrid (Saint Nikolai Velimirovich) complements your post quite well.
    About the poor man and his Creator – “He who mocks the poor, blasphemes his Maker ” (Proverbs 17:5).

    If you are wealthy, in what are you wealthy, if not in the property of God? The things which constitute your wealth, whose are they, if not God’s? Therefore, if you become proud in that which you possess, you become proud with the property of another, you become proud with that which is loaned to you by God. Why do you then mock the poor man who has less of someone else’s property in his hands? Why do you mock him if he borrowed less from God than you? If he took less, he owes less; and you who took more, owe more. Not only should you not mock the poor man, you should admire him. Behold, he leads a struggle on the battlefield of this world with much less means than you. Both of you are soldiers, only you fight as a soldier abundantly equipped with all the needs and he fights naked and hungry. If the both of you succumb and surrender to your enemy, he will be judged more leniently than you. However, if you are both victorious, he will receive a greater reward than you and his victory will be more celebrated than yours.

    He, who mocks the naked and hungry soldier, mocks his king. He, who mocks the poor, shames his Creator. If you know that the poor man’s Creator is your Creator, the one and the same, you would not mock him. If you know that the poor man stands in the same military rank in which you are also, you will cover him, feed him and you will bring him closer to yourself.

    O, Omnipotent Lord, boundless is Your wisdom in the economy of Your creation. Illumine us by Your Holy Spirit that we may marvel at that economy and, with reverence and love, gaze upon all of Your creation, gazing upon them through You.

    To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.

  5. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father. Perhaps, the Lord seeks the weak, because the weak will listen. They have no strength of Self to rely on. Only when the Self is vanquished (bottom is reached) can we truly be open and willing to commit all of ourselves to Him.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what you preach here is exactly what the world hates about Christ. It infuriated Nietzche to the point that he developed a whole demonic philosophy against it.

    Despite the fact that the fruits of that philosophy have been on display for the last 117 years or so with wars, destruction and death, we still tend to think it’s a good idea.

    Lord forgive me

  7. Randy Evans Avatar

    Wonderfully articulated Father. Helps greatly to expand St Paul’s awakening that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. May God continue to teach us how to “boast” in our many weaknesses.

  8. Byron Avatar

    I love re-reading these articles! It is also enlightening to go back and read the comments from the original post. Many thanks Father. Glory to God!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Believe it or not, I like reading them, too. Sometimes it seems quite fresh, as though I were reading somebody else’s work. There are something over 2,000 articles, going back to late ’06. I do not expect many to have read them all (how tedious!). It also seems apparent that many have not read a number of things that are commonly understood by our “regulars.” So, I’m taking a bit of time this summer to repost a few things – with some brushing-up here and there. The conversation always keeps thing new.

  10. Dean Avatar

    You often have said that the poor give more freely than those with means. I once read that based on income, Mississippi leads the nation in charitable giving. When we lived in Mexico we saw poverty firsthand. Once we were visiting a Christian family whose home only boasted a dirt floor. But what a sweet family. Gave us from their pot of soup some to take home. I come from a poor family of 6 kids. Fathers can be heroic too. My father sometimes worked 72 hours a week 6 months at a time just to put food on the table. I am a lot better off than my father, eventually getting an M.A. However, living in a mobile home park, I assume because of my Ozark background, I feel quite comfortable associating with those whose life circumstances are a lot like my father’s. They are very unassuming. I enjoy their plain talk. I know from your writings you enjoyed being with the mountain poor you ministered to those 2 years as hospice chaplain. Thank you Father Stephen for this article. Just an aside. The gerontissa of our monastery brings homemade loaves of bread with her on forays into town to hand out to those on street corners.

  11. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    There is, I think, an interesting tie here with Christ’s message that it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While we are used to hearing this Gospel passage, it must have seemed incredibly radical when Jesus first proclaimed it. Usually the rich can enter (or buy or take) whatever they want. It is the poor who have difficulty.

    I have found, much to my dismay, that the more I have, the more attached I feel to it. I am not saying that I do not give. But even when I give what many people might consider “a lot”, it is always from my surplus (and thus not really “a lot”). I often have to struggle more to be truly generous as well, even though I do not want to feel this way.

    I reflect on this a good deal and trust that God is helping me. I do not think that I am alone with this dilemma – for one of the greatest lies inherent in the American Dream is that money brings security. This belief is toxic to our souls because, humanly, we can never feel we have enough security. And a sense of security is such a core need for us.

    Yet there can be no true or lasting security in any created thing. It is only Love that can fulfill this need, this longing in us. But frequently it is only when we have “hit bottom” and recognized that we can do absolutely nothing to make ourselves safe or secure, that we turn to Love.

    Stripped naked and utterly desperate, we are finally ready to allow the Light to enter our wounds and dispel the darkness that enslaves us.

  12. nancy Avatar

    I take the “good news to the captives” every Monday, i.e. teach Bible to the women at the local jail. Some form of what you have said is what I “preach” to them every time I go. How blessed are they for they are far closer to God than so many who are not incarcerated.

  13. Debbie Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen…

  14. Helen Avatar

    Mary Benton: you are not alone in this dilemma …

  15. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    This all makes sense. It is beautiful to behold. And yet I find that “choosing” the way of weakness is – moment to moment – exceedingly difficult. I have not really gotten any better at it. It almost always needs to happen outside of my choosing.

    Looking back, I can sometimes – certainly not always – see how these weaknesses have been acts of grace – ones that I otherwise never would have chosen. But even then, not always. I am not sure. It transcends a purely rational cause and effect.

    My hope is that these things bend each and every one of us towards the God who is the end/telos of all things.

  16. Robert F Avatar
    Robert F

    Thank you, Father. I’m a certified and self-conscious”loser” (something I likely would only admit under cover of internet anonymity). Probably I’m writing this very comment in an attempt to feel more like a winner. But I needed this word of hope today. Thank you again.

  17. David Avatar

    Father, Bless.

    I am so grateful to have found your blog. One of my greatest struggles in the Spiritual Life is embracing this weakness, this brokenness.

    I see the Prayer Books full of prayers, and read about families who read Small Compline and multiple Akathists in front of their Icon Corners, and I think that I should be doing the same. I even tried to do so, and what I found is that I mouthed the words but my heart was not in them. It was pure, unadulterated Pride. My “Rule” now consists of the Usual Beginning (Trisagion Prayers), The Axion Esti, and a few spontaneous prayers for others and myself. Very short, but I try and keep my mind and heart in every word and even repeat a prayer if my mind wanders. Psalm 50 and the Jesus Prayer are interspersed throughout the day (No Prayer Rope, I find myself counting prayers and “comparing” myself to others). In the evening I repeat, and then if I have time (which sometimes I don’t because I have a year old baby) I will sit in the darkness in front of my Icon Corner, praying the Jesus Prayer silently when my mind wanders, and just otherwise embrace the silence as best I can.

    I struggle with this, because it isn’t “enough” for me, even though my Spiritual Father has told me that the most important thing is that I keep that repentance, that remembrance of God.

    I want to do more, I want to be a Spiritual Athelete. I don’t want to be broken, I don’t want to be the Publican. I don’t want to be weak. Your comment on American Culture has really hit home, because on reflection I see how engrained in our culture it all is. The speech from George C. Scott at the Beginning of Patton “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” “You’re poor and on welfare because you’re lazy, etc….”

    Heavy food for thought. Thank you, Father from my heart.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. I think we want all these things, because we want something other than God – or we look for Him where He will not be found. The Elder Sophrony said, “The way up is the way down.” It is in self-emptying that we will find the fullness of God.

    A short way to practice this is to give thanks always for all things. The more thoroughly that is practiced, the more completely it leads to self-emptying and humility. And there is where we find God.

  19. Karen Avatar

    Father, do you have a few concrete examples of what giving thanks for all things looks like as we move through our day, week, etc.? I seem to be able to grasp and apply principles better if I have some concrete images to consider. Also, besides the word from Elder Sophrony, are there any written resources that come to mind? The best I know for just setting the fundamental mindset for prayer is Met. Anthony Bloom’s, Beginning to Pray. That’s about my speed!

  20. Patrick Tutella Avatar

    It was a poor homeless man whom I first encountered the riches of faith. He challenged me to te core. “You talk about faith,” he said, “Then you lock your doors before you say your evening prayers. I have no door to lock,” he continued. “My trust is only in the Lord.”

    Two great quotes along this line:

    “The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich. ” St. John Chrysostom

    “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself. Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”
    Mother Teresa (Catholic – Saint Teresa of Calcutta)

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I find it interesting that there are hundreds of comments on the theoretical thread about the nature of salvation and relatively few here.

    I work in an area where there are a lot of homeless. From time to time I encounter them. Many of my co-workers are afraid of them. I understand that fear. I share it to some degree myself but occasionally I am able to share with them food money.

    Here is a question though, there is what seems to be an organized group who recruits people to stand near busy highway interchanges with virtually identical signs asking for money.

    I have difficulty discerning whether or not to give these guys anything. They could be professional beggars like some my late wife encountered in San Francisco. Or like the folks I met in Detroit who would ask me for money for food. Often if I suggested we go someplace and I’d buy them a meal, they frequently declined. They wanted to feed their addiction.
    To give or not to give, that is the question?

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When we encounter the poor, we meet an individual person, but we also meet a range of decisions we have decided to tolerate or foster as a culture. Our system is extremely unjust in certain respects, and the injustice contributes to the destruction of virtue. We have to remember that our alms are not given in order to correct the injustice, but as a sacrament of the mercy of God. What people do with that mercy is fodder for that other conversation…

  23. David A Foutch Avatar
    David A Foutch

    I just came back from DC and I had forgotten how common place the homeless are there. On a previous visit I had stopped to talk to a homeless man outside of a book store who seemed approachable, but somewhat agitated. He shared some of his story with me, but not much before he began to yell out incoherent statements at people who passed by. He is schizophrenic. I felt powerless to do anything for the man. After I had seen the homeless and remembered the fellowcoutside the bookstore I felt ashamed for having complained about the AC not working very well in our room at the Hilton.

  24. Byron Avatar

    I have found, much to my dismay, that the more I have, the more attached I feel to it. I am not saying that I do not give. But even when I give what many people might consider “a lot”, it is always from my surplus (and thus not really “a lot”). I often have to struggle more to be truly generous as well, even though I do not want to feel this way.

    I find that I have so much surplus that I cannot really give sacrificially. No matter what I give, I have come to the realization that I still have resources upon resources on which to draw. I think that it is more important to give with a heart of sacrifice than anything else.

    I have difficulty discerning whether or not to give these guys anything. They could be professional beggars like some my late wife encountered in San Francisco. Or like the folks I met in Detroit who would ask me for money for food. Often if I suggested we go someplace and I’d buy them a meal, they frequently declined. They wanted to feed their addiction.

    My priest has told several of us to simply give. It is not up to us to judge how our giving is used. It is only for us to give with our hearts set on God. The needs of poverty are not the true issue.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This past Christmas season, I started making a point to carry some cash with me every day – simply for the purpose of giving it away. There were always so many chances! It was tremendously helpful to intentionally start with that cash already designated as alms – simply looking for an opportunity. It destroyed the mind’s casting about and wondering about giving.

    Perhaps we should set aside a pocket for alms. Put the cash in that pocket, and pray for God to direct it. And give thanks!

  26. Dean Avatar

    Yes, we don’t always have to know for what purpose the money we hand out is going. Think of Christ feeding the 5000. He tells his disciples to have the people form lines. “Okay Peter, have those who look really famished stand behind you. We will feed thrm first. And you Phillip, have those who seem healthy and strong behind you. Judas, get those you think are here just for the food, you know, panhandlers and the like to form behind you. We’ll feed them last from the crumbs!”

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Unknown to most, Judas was charging for the crumbs…

  28. Karen Avatar

    Michael writes: “I find it interesting that there are hundreds of comments on the theoretical thread about the nature of salvation and relatively few here.”

    Yes, clearly the perplexing problem of the nature of evil and theodicy (what underlies discussions of the nature and meaning of salvation and Hell in my opinion) are thorny issues that easily become distractions for my mind (and apparently a few others as well)! Listening this morning to an interview with Fr. George Aquaro about Orthodox discernment of spirits from his perspective as a Priest trained in exorcism was a sobering reminder to me of the dangers and challenges inherent in our walk as Orthodox Christians–in particular, how focused our Adversary is on derailing our efforts to pray. I suspect if I put as much energy into developing habits of prayer as I sometimes do into trying to make some sense of the problem of salvation from Hell, I would at the very least have no more interest in unanswerable theoretical questions! Only through prayer can the underlying anxiety and grief I experience that drives this distraction, which is triggered by exposure to subChristian teaching from all angles on this issue and its effects on those I love, find its resolution. This post is as rich with meaning to ponder and reflect on as any Fr. Stephen has written–the mystery of our weakness being the very place from which we may be saved.

    Father, I don’t know whether my question upstream in this thread about what “giving thanks in all things” looks like got overlooked with all the sound and fury on the other thread, but I wanted to call it to your attention again, in case you have some thoughts.

    Pray for me.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, some of the professional beggars drive luxuary cars and live in condos.

  30. SW Avatar

    Thank you, Karen. My thoughts exactly. Whatever merit the salvation/hell discussions have, this blogpost has reached deep inside me, especially the little paragraph on the New Testament being clear about our being saved through our weakness and the words, “Nor is our weakness healed so that we can then be saved.” It is so hopeful! I’m becoming more and more aware of how distracting good discussions and reading can be. I think Fr Stephen may have mentioned trying to pray more than read. That sure stops me dead in my tracks! This blogpost draws me to God in a more personal way, beckoning me to pray, to be with Him in my weakness and shame. You’re right – this is worth pondering!

  31. Byron Avatar

    <i.This past Christmas season, I started making a point to carry some cash with me every day – simply for the purpose of giving it away.

    Love this, Father! I basically plan to give all the $1 bills in my wallet away as I travel about so the amount tends to vary according to what I have. But I hadn’t considered just putting money in a separate pocket. The simplest things…. 🙂

  32. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I have found one sure way to deal with folks who ask for money. I invite them to a local restaurant for a meal. Those who truly need jump at the chance. The professionals get mad.

  33. Victoria Avatar

    As far as giving and whether they are professionals verses those who truly need – ours isn’t to search the hearts of those begging. But I’ve done that (will this person just buy booze or drugs) and literally felt my own heart harden – really reminding me not to judge. Luke 6:30 merely says “give to everyone who asks you” Once I invited a homeless man to a meal but with the conversation I realized that was not wise – better to just hand them a sandwich and a few dollars… they can do with it what they will – no strings attached.

  34. Matt Z. Avatar
    Matt Z.

    Forgive me, I’m sensing there’s a mindset here that beggars are either looking for a meal, or for drug/alcohol money. The neither/nor seems to have been pushed to the wayside. While someone begging for money to eat who absolutely refuses a meal (when given the option of where/what to eat, within reason) ought to throw up a red flag, it’s possible that someone might be out on the streets begging because, to give but one example, they’ve recently lost their job or had their hours cut and therefore can’t pay the rent and have nowhere to go. There is, after all, no jobs fairy who magically zaps people into employment unless they are unwilling to work, despite what some people believe. A meal, while nice, is unhelpful in such situations.

    A little over a year ago, I was out with a friend when we saw a man with a small handmade cardboard sign which he held up to passersby. I was willing to give him a few dollars, but held back for the sake of my friend, in case the guy was violent or something of that nature. However, my friend suggested we give him something, so we each pulled out a few dollars and went over to him. We gave him the money, and conversed with him briefly. The details of that conversation have been largely forgotten, but one thing has stuck with me — his name: Jordan. Just like the place of Christ’s theophany.

  35. tess Avatar

    If I may offer some insight, anytime we give money even with well-intentioned strings attached, we are using the money we have (which is a gift from God) to coerce and control. I’ve come to feel like that may be spiritually dangerous.

  36. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    The question becomes, are you in any way responsible for what happens after you give money to a person? Are you liable for enabling a person if you provide them with the means to buy drugs or alcohol? Will you be accounted by the Lord as a part of the problem? As I said earlier, I buy them a meal. There are no strings attached and it meets a human need. They don’t have to come to church to get the meal. But what if I were to give them money and they bought some of that new Gray Death and died unrepentant because I provided them the means? I am not passing judgment on any action but asking the moral question do we assume responsibility when we provide the means for a person to kill themselves, even if it is unintentional on are part and theirs? I suggest that before answering that for ourselves, we read the Lord’s words to Ezekiel in Chapter 3 about responsibility for another. I am not saying the words apply but they are well worth hearing and meditating on.

  37. Karen Avatar

    When I was in college, I took the train home for a visit once. I was in the large Chicago hub station feeling very vulnerable as a lone teenaged female from the suburbs. I was aware thieves or perps sometimes scope out their potential prey by asking a small favor first. A youngish (late twenties, early 30s?) guy with long hair approached and asked me for a quarter to buy a coffee (obviously a different era!). I wasn’t rich, but I certainly had a quarter, and the Gospel command “Give to him, who wants to borrow from you” popped right into my head. I hesitated for a split second, realizing if I had my wallet out, I was vulnerable. But other than the circumstance, no particular warning bells were going off. In fact, with his long hair, holdover-from-the-60s look, he rather reminded me of a cousin of mine about the same age for whom I had always had a soft spot. I handed him the quarter, and he thanked me very sincerely and headed off in the direction of the vending machines, while I heaved a sigh of relief that a tiny decision to obey a Gospel command was rewarded in such a way. I’ve never felt good about giving with strings attached either.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nicholas, I have done that and you are correct, but better for me lately is to give to those who don’t ask. I like Fr. Stephen’s method too. Have an “alms pocket”.

    My late wife was a street minister in San Francisco and other urban areas for a few years. One time she saw one of the locals coming and before he could ask, she said, “Hey, can you spare a quarter for a cup of coffee.?”

    He was stunned. Then he started laughing, reached into his pocket and brought out a big handful of quarters which he gave to her saying, “You got me there, sister.” Then went on his rounds.

    It is a different world.

  39. victoria Avatar

    Nicholas – forgive me if I came across the wrong way – that wasn’t my intent to sound like I was picking on your comment. I was writing it quickly before making dinner.

    I think my point is that we don’t know how the Lord judges but we know He is merciful. If a person is living on the street something somewhere has gone wrong – I think so many are mentally unstable – but it’s easy to get caught up in whether someone is capable of work or if they are working me for my charity. My take on it is that if they are hungry enough to ask me for money then what can one do? You give and ask their name. If they are working the system is that mine to sort out? The reality is I don’t know their story. The man I offered dinner was a regular panhandler at a street corner in Georgetown. I was in college and I took him for fast food. I learned that he was an outpatient from St Elizabeth’s which was a local mental hospital. At one time he actually had a job and a stable life. Almost every single homeless person I have ever given money has told me God Bless you. Once I borrowed my daughters money – we were at a stop sign and the man put his head in my car ( his name was Michael) and he looked at each one of my kids and said “you girls remember to always take care of your mom, okay?” It would be one thing to offer a drunk a beer but to offer a kind word and a sandwich or some money now he / she has the freedom to do with it what they will.

    I think I read once about a monk in Mt Athos who couldn’t stop drinking and all the other monks made fun of him but when he died he smelled of Mrrhyr. We just don’t know people’s hearts or their wounds that led them to a life on the street or a life with drugs and alcohol.

    I once was told by an Elder at a monastery (and I am paraphrasing) that it’s only sometimes that it is important to be right and it’s important to know when those times to be right are. It’s stuck with me all these years. For the homeless on the street I don’t need to be right about their intentions – but it is needful for me to care and not walk over them as did the rich man to Lazarus.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m certainly loathe to assist in buying drugs. Strangely, I don’t feel quite as bad about providing money for a drink – I will, if I have the time – talk with someone and offer to take them to a meeting. I am able to say, “If you want help, I know how to get it, and you won’t be judged.”

    Primarily, if I might make a suggestion, you should consider yourself no different than the one you are helping, certainly no better than…only you’ve got more in your pocket.

  41. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    In my time as a military dependent and as an active duty serviceman I logged almost 14 years overseas often in very underdeveloped countries. I have seen truly poor people. People who have to eat garbage to live and who literally live in the garbage dump. They are poor, truly destitute. I found that those who begged, truly had a need and whatever they were given went to sustaining their lives. In my last parish that was in the SC sticks, we found that those who came to demand money had more than we did. They had android phones, cartons of cigarettes, DVD players and nice cars and homes, much better ones than the priest in charge, who lived in a ratty trailer. Based on 2 Thessalonians 3:10 we decided that instead of funding these people blindly that we would offer them work around the church at $10 an hour. We only had one fellow take us up and he was a parishioner. The rest got mad that we would ask them to fulfill a Scriptural obligation. One has to wonder.

  42. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    My comment was not directed to you or anyone. It was a rhetorical question that asked for us to search our hearts and the Scriptures and to see what our real obligations are. It was designed to encourage a conversation on the merits of providing assistance and it what form. We all have very different experiences with ministry to the poor and a healthy conversation on the subject may be very helpful to us all as we face the very needy and dying world. I certainly have only experience and no answers.

  43. Victoria Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    YES! 😊 to your comment. “Primarily, if I might make a suggestion, you should consider yourself no different than the one you are helping, certainly no better than…only you’ve got more in your pocket.”

    That is so true.

  44. Matt Z. Avatar
    Matt Z.

    I suspect we shall bear some measure of responsibility if our giving leads to someone’s death. However, shall we not also bear responsibility if our belief that one is merely looking for the means to get drunk/high is what leads them to drugs/alcohol in order to “cope”?

    Seems to me it’s easy to err in either direction. May God grant us wisdom in those times. Perhaps we err because we see them as either con artists or humanitarian projects, therefore we miss the person. If our charity is reduced to a means to fulfill a human need, rather than the need of the person in front of us, is it really anything more than an exercise in self-worship?

  45. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Regarding giving to people on the street, here is a link I came upon, with words from Mother Gavrilia:

    I often forget the heart of her message – to relate with love, to ask them their name and what trouble they are having. (It is easier to give a bit of money and hurry on my way.) Sometimes when I have stopped to talk, it has been a profound exchange. I remember one fellow who admitted that he needed a buck for beer because he was going through alcohol withdrawal. I gave it to him and asked a bit more. His brother had died and he hadn’t been able to cope with it. He looked bad and could have died from the withdrawal. I have prayed for him and hope that he found his way to help (which, of course, I encouraged him to seek).

    “…you should consider yourself no different than the one you are helping, certainly no better than…only you’ve got more in your pocket.” So true, Fr. Stephen. We never know what it is like to live someone else’s life.

    When I hear what some of patients have endured, I know that I could not have handled it as well as they have – even if, on the surface, they appear to be handling it poorly (alcohol, drugs, sin). For all I know, some may be great saints who have moved further down the path toward God than I have – we just started the journey from very different places.

  46. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    The only answer I have found that leaves me in peace is to take the person to eat. Eating is a level one human need. Drinking and drugging do not help a person, they substances just mask the problem, they don’t alleviate it so I, for myself, find it much better to feed the person and give of my time than to simply get rid of them for a few bucks. If we just pay them to leave us alone, we have not addressed the person either in my point of view. But lets continue to see what others have to say. My solution works for me, but I am not always or often right.

  47. Dean Avatar

    I’ve been around sloppy teary-eyed drunks and mean spirited tee-totalers.
    Not much of a choice as to the ones I’d rather be around. I thank God that I know many tender hearted brothers and sisters in Christ, so usually I don’t have to make that choice. Right now we are in an RV park behind a casino. We just walked through it on the way to the bowling alley. Wow! So many stories there of those sitting in front of the slots! Even saw one playing while hooked to an oxygen supplement. Unfortunately, many of those playing look like they have little means. Some downright poor, I’m sure. But still looking for that lucky win though perhaps going into greater debt. Not sure why I’m rambling on, however, I certainly can’t and won’t judge any of them. While speaking of the poor, check out the documentary, American Nomads, Gnostic Warrior on U-tube. The young homeless teenager in it tugged at my heartstrings.

  48. Karen Avatar

    One of the most Orthodox words I ever heard which truth has stuck with me to this day was from the Pentecostal pastor who led us, as a group of young adults, on a missions trip to share the gospel in the streets in L.A. during the 1984 Olympics. He said no matter who we met or how bad their condition–it could be a street walker or a drunk in the gutter–we were to assume that had we shared their circumstances, we would have done worse things than they did. There, but for the grace of God….

  49. Byron Avatar

    I suspect we shall bear some measure of responsibility if our giving leads to someone’s death….

    I do not see any act of mercy and love as making us responsible for the poor use of that gift. I think this manner of argument is mis-focused. Certainly there is wisdom involved in ascertaining the danger of any situation, but when we are confronted with the simplicity of someone in need, then (I believe) the idea of not giving in case we become responsible for the poor use of our gift(s) is to not act as God has called us. That God placed the Tree of Life in the Garden did not make Him complicit in the Fall of Man.

    If our charity is reduced to a means to fulfill a human need, rather than the need of the person in front of us, is it really anything more than an exercise in self-worship?

    Our charity, in my view, has nothing to do with fulfilling a need (I will leave that to the SJWs of the world). It has to do with loving as God loves. The needs of our fellow man will naturally be filled as long as our hearts seek God. To paraphrase one of the Fathers, if we love as God loves, we will not bear to see them suffer.

    It is all high talk, of course. I can think of few times in my life I have honestly lived up to it.

  50. Justin Avatar

    There was once a king who had a servant to whom he had given many talents worth of alms (despite that servants habitual misuse of them). But that servant, after receiving so much from the king, went out and found a homeless bum who needed a single denarius and refused to give it, exclaiming “you owe the proper use of it!” And when the kings other servants reported to the king what that wicked servant had done…

  51. Matt Z. Avatar
    Matt Z.

    I do not see any act of mercy and love as making us responsible for the poor use of that gift.

    Perhaps responsibility was too strong of a word, and how one uses the gift is certainly beyond our control after it’s been given, but following how St. Basil in one of his canons, (LVII, I believe), penances involuntary murder, I’m not sure we could say that there’s no consequence.

    Nevertheless, if things do go awry, perhaps if genuine mercy and love were what fueled our actions, then those who face the consequence of their abuse of the gift may entreat God to grant us the mercy they had asked for amiss. But, if we act out of selfish reasons, who shall ask that we receive mercy?

    That God placed the Tree of Life in the Garden did not make Him complicit in the Fall of Man.

    Certainly, God is not complicit in our fall because He placed the tree in the garden. But, because man partook, God watched those He had made according to His Image move toward corruption. God has no guilt in this whatsoever, it’d be blasphemous to suggest otherwise. However, I’m not sure we could accurately say there were no consequences that God faced because of the fall. (See St. Athanasius’s “On the incarnation”)

    It has to do with loving as God loves.

    May it be so. But consider: Does God love an abstract “humanity” for which we may embark on certain “projects”, or does He love human persons, through whom and in whom we may encounter Him, inasmuch as whatever we’ve done to the least of these, we’ve done it unto Him?

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a movement to give. If we listen we shall know how and to whom to give but such knowledge is only gained in the giving.

  53. Byron Avatar

    Matt, I think we’re essentially talking about the same thing. If we love as God loves and give from that love, there is no issue. I would say that selfishness would be our giving and then insisting that we are still involved in the use of what was given. It’s a mindset of control, not grace. In giving, we should give up control.

    As for the Tree, I never meant to say that there were not consequences with which to deal. Any time we are in relationship, there are consequences. Involvement is messy; such is life.

    The last bit is jumping into more theology than I intended to address. I think of humanity as existing in communion. We have individual presence but I don’t think our existence orsalvation is found within that definition. God called Israel, not just Moses, so to speak. There is no abstraction in communion, IMHO.

    (And now for a “SQUIRREL!” moment, because this popped into my head just now).

    I’m partial to a song by Sawyer Brown entitled “Thank God for You” in no small part because of this lyric:
    I’m just a part of the greater plan;
    it doesn’t matter which part I am

  54. Matt Z. Avatar
    Matt Z.

    Humanity is certainly a concrete thing, after all, Christ did not partake of a mere idea in the incarnation, but of real human nature. However, the view of humanity prevalent in various forms of “charity” and “social justice” are often abstractions preventing us from encountering the person.

    Our existence is not as individuals, separate and separable from one another; but as persons-in-communion. I find it interesting that when Christ spoke about the acquisition of eternal life in the Gospels, the three to whom he spoke didn’t hear the same speech. To Nicodemus, “You must be born again/from above.”, to the rich young ruler, “give up what you have and follow me.” , and to the lawyer, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I suspect Christ’s reason for giving different answers is that he was meeting each of them at the point of their particular weaknesses. It is through communion with Christ that we shall be saved, a communion which is made at the cross at the point of our weaknesses — common or “individual”.

  55. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Father, I like your point about affiliation with successful sports teams as a ‘mild form of salvation.’

    It reminds me of the ‘salve’ aspect of salvation, the need for an oil of gladness and an oil of comfort to rub into our wounds.

    That sports team is a type of distraction and comfort. A few years ago I heard a comedian on TV call professional sports the new opiate of the masses.

    What gladness that Christ and the Holy Spirit make our wounds the point of contact!

    This is why math in college became a sacred space for me (an English Lit major and now I teach math and stats after continuing the adventure with more school).

  56. Debbie Avatar

    The thing that hurts so much is the rejection in the churches I have attended and when I share words I have been attacked with those using scriptures as weapons and not shared with love as I have experienced the love of God. It is not at all a mystery to me why people have left the churches. I have not attended a Christian Orthodox service as of yet. I come here to attend. The words here I read I can accept and the scriptures I do respect-not when used as weapons. Truly I feel safer with the ones that the churches reject. The jealously I have seen among those-it saddens me.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen for these blogs.

  57. Maria W Avatar
    Maria W

    What an excellent post/writing or article this is. I can not come to grips with this mindset of winners and losers. It is and was so foreign to me and is a way of being that is so destructive all around because it produces and perpetuates exactly winners and losers as a social construct and way of life (FORM). A vicious web of dealing, being and handling life. Living in this kind of social construct is poorly hell and I’ve been told to change to this kind of construct and live this American way of Life. I think I am beginning to know and understand my problem with my Life here. Such a good and truthful writing….thank you Fr. Freeman, and it is so very helpful…..I was on the right and neutralizing side all along and did not know it. Every loss is a gain, there is no such thing as losers in Christianity and in every loss/death there is a new life. The old has past away ….and in newness we walk. If we need heroes, then Jesus is the greatest hero that ever lived and showed us the way. It is staying on the WAY what becomes difficult and gets us into trouble. Thank you Fr. Freeman for your great insights into what is real and matters to us of all stripes. You are a wonderful tool in God’s hands to all who hold dear and fast, but get lost at times along the way. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, if that means anything …. for me it is to be grateful, grateful and more grateful.

  58. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    I give money to whoever asks for it. I used to worry about what they might do with it, but then I realized that I was trying to decide whether they were “worthy” of my charity. It is not my job to judge. That is God’s job. My job is to share.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christ was quite capable of elucidating a theory of “responsible” charity. Instead, He says “give.” Indeed, He clearly suggests that we give to the evil as well as the good. It’s modern theories of making a better world that makes us want to control the poor and fix them. If we actually wanted to help them, we could address many of the systemic injustices of our world – by which so few are enriched. Too many Christians hide behind theories of the “market” and American self-help myths. May God help us repent.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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