WRITTEN BY: ERYN AUSTIN-BERGEN
We pray before we eat a meal together. Often, my three-and-a-half-year-old volunteers to “say grace”. She’s perfected the art of a two second prayer to get us to eating as quickly as possible. “Dear Jesus, thank you for this food, you bless it to our bodies, in Jesus name, amen.” And while I always want to encourage her to pray, it can be somewhat lacking in sincerity. So, sometimes I insist on me or my husband praying.
When it’s my turn, I bow my head and begin, “Dear Jesus, thank you so much for this good food you’ve given us, please bless it to our bodies,” and then I add, “…and help us know how to feed those who don’t have food. In Jesus name, amen.”
Then we dig in!
But I’m often left with a lingering discomfort, a vague itching guilt, that as I fill my hungry belly with fresh, nutritious, and tasty food, the man standing in the intersection just down the road is still hungry. I want God to feed him, but somewhere along the way I have realized I can’t ask God to feed him. I must ask God to show me how to feed him.
“Lord, please help us be generous with those who don’t have enough to eat.” But then I say “amen”, eat my portion, and move on to the next thing…brushing my daughter’s teeth, washing the dishes, finishing an article, watching a TV show. Not really giving a thought to how I can actually be generous with more than my prayers.
I do believe in prayer. Not only are we taught by Jesus to pray, I have experience personal transformation as a direct result of others praying with and for me. Prayer is not a glib or costless exercise. But prayer is also not a one-way street. I don’t put in my requests, then close my ears, eat my supper, and go merrily on my way. We have to listen to what God has to say, too…and dare to obey. We can’t go on asking God to do what he has actually commissioned his Church to do. But one-way prayers are more like well-wishes than they are genuine exchanges with the Creator of the Universe.
And the man down the street needs more than well-wishes.
So what, then? Do I need to sell all I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow a 1st century preacher across the Judean hillside to feed the world’s hungry (Mark 10:20-22)? This seems highly impractical and likely to result in me becoming homeless, too. Besides, Jesus isn’t walking around Israel today; the call to follow him is not quite so straightforward as it was all those years ago.
There must be a path in the narrow middle, between saying a few well-wishes and selling all your possessions. A relational path that requires listening and sacrifice. A path that is both balanced and radical, wise and extravagant, mature and selfless.
James 2:16-17 says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The nonsensical nature, the cruelty of saying to someone who is hungry but unable to feed themselves, “eat your fill” without giving them food is meant to be obvious. It’s a metaphor for how faith functions.
How can we say we have faith in Jesus, but never act on it? It’s an inherent contradiction…an offensive contradiction. As it turns out, contrary to how many of us grew up thinking about it, faith is not a feeling or even an intellectual assent. Faith is action, rooted in a deep trust of a good God. If I pray, “God please provide food for that man at the end of my street,” but never take a risk to be generous with those who are hungry, my prayers and my faith are dead.
That’s heavy stuff! I don’t want to live trying to stifle guilt, but I also don’t want my generosity to be motivated by guilt.
I think it’s right that I feel a pang of dissonance when I eat a hearty meal after praying, “Jesus, thank you for this food…help us know how to feed those who don’t have food.” But I want that pang to be one of urgency, excitement, joy, and creativity. I want that pang to start a family discussion about how we can feed the man at the end of the street. I want that pang to grow into something that changes the very fabric of our family, one that makes generosity a guiding value to all our financial and relational decisions.
I guess I want a lot from that little prayer.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful that I don’t pray over my meals alone. I’m grateful to have a partner in this Christian journey so we can figure it out together. I’m grateful to have friends who are asking the same questions. I’m grateful to be in a church that is actively seeking to live out practical generosity. Because, friends, you are not meant to do this alone! We are not meant to do this alone.
So here are some of the things my husband and I have come up with together while ruminating on how to feed the hungry.
1. Choose to live from Abundance (which is another way to say, have faith)
Living from a scarcity mindset means we let the fear of not having enough dictate how much we share with others. Living from scarcity afflicts us with anxiety, discontentment, and guilt. Living from an abundance mindset, however, means we let our faith in a generous God dictate the limits of our generosity. Dwelling in HIS abundance fills our lives with joy, gratitude, and freedom.
My husband’s family excels at living out of an abundance mindset.
Whether they’re in a season of having a lot or a little, they are always generous. They give impulsively (as the Spirit leads) to strangers. They give consistently to friends. They give lavishly to family. And there is ALWAYS enough.
2. Choose Acts of Mercy
My husband and I decided how much money per month we wanted to give to strangers, and we stocked our car with that amount in coins. Whenever we’re at an intersection where a hungry-looking person is standing with a cardboard sign, we roll down the window and offer them a few coins. We also plan to start carrying granola bars and fruit in the car so we can offer food. This might sound like a trite response to an overly literalistic reading of James 2. But we feel it’s important for that person in need to receive immediate grace, in the moment, even if it won’t resolve the complex set of circumstances that landed them on that street corner in the first place. This practice also models generosity and mercy in a way our young daughter can understand and begin to emulate.
3. Choose to walk in the Spirit
Pray with your community and ask God to reveal the particular area of poverty or justice or want that he is asking YOU to participate in. Maybe it’s being a champion for your local food bank. Maybe it’s consistently donating to a charity that works to overcome poverty. Maybe it’s regularly inviting people who don’t have as much to join you at your dinner table. Whatever it is, embrace it and walk in it confidently – you don’t need to feel guilty that you can’t do everything.
4. Choose to look at the big picture
Feeding the hungry isn’t only about sharing your food with those whom you know need food. It’s also about taking a step back and looking at the big picture. It’s about asking complex questions and being ready for complex answers. For example, asking yourself / your family / your community, “What practices are we engaged in that oppress the poor? What systems do we support that cause others halfway around the world to go hungry?” Then hearing answers like, “Choosing to buy cheap goods that are manufactured in countries where the workers are paid below a living wage,” or “Voting for politicians who aren’t serious about addressing climate change when it most severely impacts the world’s poorest.” These are hard issues that take time, open-mindedness, and more than Facebook memes to really think through.
5. Choose to be grateful
When you pause to pray over your meal, do just that – pause. Pause to take in the incredible lavishness of a good God to give us a good creation that produces such good food to nourish our bodies, hearts, and relationships. Pause to let your heart well up with gratitude, to be overwhelmed by the incomprehensible grace that allows you to satisfy your own hunger and to feed your children all that they need. Let the tears of gratitude flow. Let the joy of abundance break your heart for those who cannot feed their children. Let thanksgiving go up to your good, good Father.
About the Author: Eryn Austin-Bergen
Originally from the United States, Eryn grew up in The Gambia and Senegal, and as an adult, made her home in Canada. A student of culture and the Bible by education, copywriter by trade, and preacher by passion Eryn worked for FH Canada for four and half years before moving to South Africa with her husband and three-year-old daughter. She now spends her days writing, housewife-ing, mothering, and neighbouring. Check out her website Writing for a Change.