This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series On Papers and Poverty

I’m writing this post from downtown San Francisco, where I just finished attending the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) conference. Every year, thousands of leading evangelical theologians gather together at an upscale hotel to present papers on various biblical, ethical, and theological issues. “Logical Contradiction and God’s Omnipotence” and “Foundationalism and God’s Eye View” are just two titles of the 300 papers that were read (literally) over the last 2 days.

Overall, the conference is a great time to see what’s going on with evangelical scholarship. Sometimes the papers are informative and intellectually stimulating. Most of the time, however, they are quite boring and abstract. Admittedly, I battle against cynicism (or sometimes anger) when I watch certain ivory tower theologians wax eloquent about God in a way that promotes their self-perceived wisdom, or makes the Bible seem boring, dry, or impossible to understand (or all three). Sometimes I attend papers for the same reason I attend the zoo. It’s entertaining, bewildering, and sad all at the same time. Kind of like watching monkeys and apes behind bars at the zoo. They’re almost human, but oh so different.

But ETS can also be a great time to meet new friends, hang out with old ones, and learn about what God’s doing around the country in various theological institutions. In a love/hate sort of way, I enjoy the 2 days of papers I listen to at the annual ETS meeting.

After the conference, I hung out with Francis Chan for a couple of hours. I visited City Impact where he serves and had a great conversation over some killer Vietnamese Pho. We then delivered food and toiletries to some people living in low-income housing in the inner-city—just 3 blocks from the upscale hotel where ETS met.

The comparison between the 2 days at ETS and 2 hours in the inner-city was mystifying.

During my time with Francis, I met lots of cool people in the “Boyd,” the name of the apartment where we did our rounds. They lived in one-room flats with a bathroom down the hall. They all lacked basic necessities in life. Food, clothing, toiletries, and much, much more. One lady, Lisa, lacks more than food; she lacks four fingers on her right hand and gets by with just a thumb. She also lacks her two kids, who were taken away from her and now live in Texas. Moses, the man down the hall, hasn’t seen his family in almost 3 years, but luckily he’s going to see them next week at Thanksgiving. For Moses, this year’s Thanksgiving will be much more than suburban gluttony. He was truly thankful that he’ll get to see his family, and his thankfulness welled up in his eyes as he imaged his future encounter. Everyone I met lacks hope. There’s a glimmer of it left in their heart, and we were able to harness this hope with an invitation to a thanksgiving banquet, where they will be fed steak, shrimp, and pasta (Lisa’s request). More than that, they will be waited upon hand and foot by the volunteers—including Francis. This is just Brilliant! A Christian celebrity waiting hand and foot on a bunch of marginalized ruffians who don’t know who he is. He loves it, and I’m pretty sure that Jesus loves it too.

Most impactful was meeting Shelia Wheeler. Shelia also lives in the Boyd, but she’s given a $175/month stipend to act as a liaison between the city and the tenants for whatever needs arrive. If the carpet needs cleaning, she’ll find ways to have it cleaned. If the washer and dryer needs to be fix, she’s find someone to fix it. (Currently, the building doesn’t have a washer or dryer, though; so no fixing is needed.) Shelia is their advocate, their friend, and their hope. In many ways, she’s their “pastor,” and she couldn’t help but laugh when I said that to her! She tried to funnel her $175 stipend back into the building, but the city wouldn’t let her. She must—against her will—keep her robust salary and spend it on herself. We in the suburbs have so much to learn.

In reflecting on the last 2 days and especially the last 2 hours, I couldn’t help but note the irony. I listened to theological and exegetical papers for the last 2 days, but I learned more about God, Christianity, and the Church in the last 2 hours. Proverbs says that “he who mocks the poor, mocks his Maker” and Matthew 25 says that “as much as you did it to the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” However you slice it, the Bible identifies God with the poor. Sometimes I wonder how much we miss God when we study Him as we are locked up in the confines of middle-class Christianity, away from the poor whom He identifies with. As I talked with Shelia, Moses, Lisa, and other tenants of the Boyd building, I wonder who is really reaching out to whom.

I was touched and wrecked by God today, but it wasn’t at ETS. I was wrecked by the fact that I study, teach, and talk about God every day of my life, but I learned more about God by experiencing a few hours with His image bearers who are far from the life that He desires of them.

“I dwell I the high and holy place, and also with him who is of contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15).

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  1. Living in Sacramento, I get the opportunity to go to San Francisco and serve on a regular basis, most of the time through City Impact. It was neat to see Francis Chan (whom you called a celebrity, lol) serving right alongside me and the other volunteers down there. It’s not like he was up on stage saying we should do something and then going and living a comfortable life. He’s not above those things, and as a leader I think that’s really awesome.

    On another note, the contrasts in that city kill me. On my most recent visit, I spent most of the day serving, and then went to the mall and ate dinner. The contrast between the inside of the mall and what happens just outside its’ walls literally stunned me. Inside, a sale at Nordstrom’s was $50, and outside people lived on the streets in utter poverty. It makes me wonder how they can just walk by and not see the desperate needs around them, and it makes me sad.

  2. I’ve been at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) this weekend in San Francisco, which has, in some ways, been dissatisfying as well. It reminds me of J.I. Packer’s quote ““If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both. . .” Thanks for sharing this man.

  3. My wife and I have been thinking through this issue. What do you do with the destitute and how do you help people in dire straights? This is still the US, if you leave it then you get to the situation where 80% are destitute and only 20% are rich in a society with no middle class. In this overseas setting, if you were to help each person with $5 then soon you will have nothing. If you don’t help then your heart becomes hardened or you start making excuses such as I worked hard for my education (which is more a product of what family you were born into and many resources available to you). What alternative is there to helping them? And then it comes back that they need continuous help. They don’t just get out of that situation. I do not have the answer to this one….

    • I don’t have an answer either, Dan. But have you read the book When Helping Hurts? It addresses these issues in great detail. Overall, I think we need to help people get out of the cycle of poverty rather than just providing constant relief which ends up fostering endless dependency. Also, we need to figure out creative ways of restoring human dignity as image bearers in the poor.

  4. Preston, that was incredible, encouraging, and challenging!

    Next time, if possible, please share with our NT backgrounds class. I asked you to share about your experience, and you left out the details of the 2 hours! That would have been worthy of class time. I love it when you preach! 🙂