Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What is Poverty?

We, at least in the countries I have lived in, tend to throw around the word poverty quite often. I've been thinking lately that maybe we haven't thought about it enough... what is poverty? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that poverty is: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.

Since coming to Ecuador, I think my personal definition of poverty has changed, or at least my understanding of it. This has come from several discussions with people in my community about their own economic situation and lifestyle as well as that of "Americans" or people living in the U.S. More than once I have been asked about poverty in the United States, specifically if it even exists in my country. People have commented to me that they thought poverty was not present in U.S. There is an assumption that everyone there is rich, lives in a big fancy house, and owns at least one new car. At first I was shocked at this thought, because it is far from the truth. Then I remembered how twisted the world media is. Probably the only news Ecuadorians hear from the United States is about celebrities, the President, and big companies like Apple or BP.

However, I also started thinking that poverty does look different in my present country than in the U.S. The current U.S. Poverty Rate, according to the 2012 Census Statistics, is $12,000 a year for single persons and $23,000 for a 4-person family (https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/index.html). Even the amount for a single adult is more than most people I know in Ecuador make annually, and they have families to support. A friend of mine from church is the father of six, with three children in college, and makes around $6,000 each year.

Another example: The federal minimum wage in the U.S. is currently at $7.25, and bills are being introduced to raise it to around $10 an hour (http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/03/05/1673141/harkin-miller-minimum-wage/?mobile=nc). This means in a typical 8-hour work day, a person will make about $60 a day. In Ecuador the minimum wage is $240 a month, which comes out to $12 a day, if the person works a normal 5-day week.

If the definition of poverty really depends on what is considered a socially acceptable amount of money, then it makes sense that poverty in the U.S. looks in fact very different than poverty in Ecuador. The standard of living is higher in the U.S., which means that not only do people (in general) make more money, but things also cost more. Here in Ecuador I can buy my groceries for the week for around $15-20, whereas in the states it would cost me $50. A simple hotel in Quito costs about $30-40 per night, whereas in the U.S. it would be about $80.

(Recently I had a great conversation with other extranjeros, or international friends here. Two of them are from countries in Africa. We had a profound talk about the stereotypes about each of our home countries. You know, those typical things we say, like "Eat your peas, Tommy. There are starving children in Africa!" And we imagine a tiny black kid with his ribs sticking out, begging on the street. Or "Let's go to the America to make a fortune!" Thinking that everyone in the U.S. is a millionaire, that the whole city of Toyko owns iPads. These things are just not true. According to my friend, some of the richest people in the world are from Nigeria. I know for a fact that there are homeless and unemployed individuals in the U.S. So we must not group an entire country into one category, when in fact there is much diversity within most nations as far as welfare and income go.)

So maybe we can't realistically compare two countries as different as the United States and Ecuador. There are many factors, such as our economies, inflation, salaries, etc. that affect the well-being of its respective citizens. But I think it is safe to say that in both nations there are both happy people and unhappy people, rich and poor, those suffering and those thriving. It's all relative, anyway, right? A matter of comparison. So what is poverty? It depends. For me, it comprises of anyone and everyone who is suffering: financially, emotionally, socially, or even spiritually.

Are you familiar with the term spiritual poverty? The basic idea is that a person is not on good terms with God, or doesn't have a relationship with him at all. This quote by Michael Davis sums it up pretty well: "...when people do not believe in the spiritual or neglect the spiritual part of their lives, they experience poverty, because they are lacking a part of what makes us humans whole." We need to start seeing our spiritual deficiencies in the same way we look at physical necessities.

 "The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them." Isaiah 41:17

This verse is not referring just to the physical need of water. The author uses a metaphor to express the deep human need for God. And He answers this need.

Each of us experiences poverty in a different way. Maybe it's not super obvious, as with finances or the type of house we live in. It could be that we are struggling emotionally because of the death of a loved one, or we have felt distant from God. Instead of labeling certain people as "living in poverty" and others as "living in luxury", let's examine our own lives to see our own deficiencies. Then maybe we can begin to create a society where each individual helps others in the areas where they are lacking.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lent: Removing our Barriers to Christ

Last Sunday I was invited to share about Lent at church, which led me to do some research and reflection on what Lent means in the Christian church. Recently we have entered into the church season of LENT. As a former pastor of mine would say, it's "Lent", not "lint". That's the fuzzy stuff that gathers in our belly buttons. 

So what is Lent? How did it start and why do we do weird things like put ashes on our foreheads and try not to eat chocolate for a few weeks of the year? Lent originated in the Early Church as a time to prepare for Easter, the resurrection of the Lord. In the past the English word "Lent" was used to refer to the season between winter and summer. Because of the church observance, the word eventually came to mean the religious season, and we came up with the word "spring" for the season of the year. While some newer churches currently do not practice Lent, many of the mainstream Protestant denominations, like Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, continued in the tradition, one deep in significance.

The season of Lent lasts for 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday, and leading up to Easter, the resurrection of Christ. The 40 days exclude Easter because every Sunday is meant to remind us of the resurrection of our Lord. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent with a time of solemnity and repentance. The ashes serve as a symbol of the remorse of our hearts. We are entering into a time of suffering and sadness, but also of closeness with the Lord. We are getting a taste of the difficulties that Christ faced on Earth.

Lent is a time for not only repentance, but also removing all the distractions from our time with the Lord. It is an opportunity for discernment, for renewing our relationship with God. The idea of giving something up, like coffee, chocolate, or TV, is meant to be a fast. The goal of fasting is to bring us closer to God. Many people today give up something for the 40 days of Lent, without understanding the purpose or commitment behind it. It has become more of a health-conscious behavior or self-improvement tactic. But in reality the act of giving something up is a way of experiencing the sacrifice and the suffering that Jesus went through during his time on earth, specifically his 40 days of temptation in the desert. The time we normally spent doing other things should be spent in prayer or communion with God. It is a time for growth.

So Lent is a time to grow closer to God. It's a time to feel the suffering that Jesus felt. It's a time to renew our spirits, to remove the things that hinder us.

Hebrews 12:1-3 comes to mind. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

Lent is a time to remember. To remember the life of Christ on Earth and his ministry to us.  It's a time to return to Christ in the areas where we have distanced ourselves. It is a time where we hope to learn patience, self-control, and faithfulness to God. And He is with us throughout this special time, hoping that we will once again choose Him and rejoicing with us when we make that decision.