Frustrations from serving in 'The Field Hospital'

by Bill Tammeus

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I've been enjoying the stories in NCR's new reporting effort, "The Field Hospital," about how various parishes and ministries are responding to the lead of Pope Francis to care for the poor and needy.

And I'm happy to report that many of the same kinds of in-the-trenches ministries are happening among us Presbyterians, including several springing from my own congregation.

But it's not without some challenges and second thoughts. And because I don't want just Presbyterians to be challenged and second-guessed, I thought I'd throw some of that your way to see whether and how Catholics are dealing with that, too.

The first challenge comes from the frustration of endlessly repeating the same types of ministry efforts because hunger never seems to end, homelessness seems an enduring problem and it's hard to find ways to attack the causes as opposed to simply responding to the symptoms. So, as one person quoted in a "Field Hospital" report said of a bag lunch program she coordinates, she has seen "some of the same people for a long time, for almost as long as I have been there. We have grown old together."

Her persistence is laudatory, but isn't the goal to get people not to need such assistance?

The book to read is Toxic Charity, by Robert D. Lupton. In it, he maintains that often people of good will actually hurt the people they're trying to serve because they don't become true partners with those people to get at the root causes of what is bringing them to the streets or to the soup kitchens. (I'm not accusing people in "The Field Hospital" reports of that because I don't know enough about their circumstances to be making any sort of judgment like that.)

One problem, Lupton insists, is that generosity can produce expectation and eventually a sense of entitlement, all of which undermines the sense of control and responsibility that even the hungriest and poorest in our midst crave and need to be fully human. So we must be intentional about not simply being do-gooders who think we know what people need and how to get it to them. Instead, we must be intentional about helping people obtain freedom from want and freedom from relying on others for basic needs.

Another challenge for "Field Hospital" kinds of ministries is the idea that we are earning brownie points with God that, some day, will allow us to enter heaven with a big celebration for a job well done.

Both Catholic and Protestant theologians now are insistent that we are saved by grace, not by works. But, oh, brother, grace is hard to understand.

Author Marilynne Robinson, in her book The Givenness of Things, notes that there used to be a wider split between early Protestants and Catholics about the matter of grace.

The Reformers, she writes, "rejected 'salvation by works,' by which was meant pilgrimages and donations, vows, crusades and anything else that was undertaken with the thought that it would mitigate sin in God's eyes." Rather, they relied on "grace alone."

The problem, as she notes, is this: "How is life to be lived in this fallen world, with all its dangers and temptations, if grace is taken to be the standard of a virtuous life? Who can rise to such a standard or be loyal to it?"

Indeed, the life of faith would be easier to understand if -- as is true in all the St. Peter at the Pearly Gates jokes -- it were simply a matter of earning our way into God's favor. Then at least we'd have some idea where we stood and what more we might need to do to cross the finish line.

But, no. We are both freed by -- and, in turn, burdened by -- grace. And we'd do well to remember that as we dole out lunch at a soup kitchen.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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