Last night in Detroit at the Poor People’s Campaign Rally with Rev. Dr. William Barber II and many other clergy from different faiths, I wrestled with the first beatitude, which we hear in both Matthew 5 and Luke 6. Matthew’s narrative places Jesus on a mountain (similar image to Moses giving the Law to the Israelites), but Luke’s version has Jesus standing on a level plain where he was likely healing people, as well as preaching.
I realized last night while singing and holding hands with people who had not recently bathed due to their water being turned off in Detroit, that the reason I have always felt more comfortable on the mountain with Matthew is that he’s talking about spiritual poverty (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kin(g)dom of heaven”). I’ve always experienced middle-class and white privilege in my life; I’ve never wondered if the water I was giving my children was causing their hair to fall out, or if I would even have any water to wash them WITH. There’s no reason for me to feel guilty for my unearned white benefits and privilege, but it’s an important part of my story to own if I want to work for change like Jesus did.
The gospel writer of Luke was probably writing for a poorer community (the clan of people who would have had no clean water): “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kin(g)dom of God”).
So which is it? Are we more blessed to be well-off, but poor in spirit, or are we more blessed to be just plain poor? Which group gets to experience the presence of the divine more readily in life?
It’s neither and both, of course. Spiritual truth like that in the Beatitudes is always a paradox. This first beatitude is for people who have had torn from their hands what felt like the one and only rulebook for the Game of Life: it’s often lost through a devastating failure, a heartbreaking disappointment, a betrayal, expectations that were not met, a divorce, or a diagnosis. For others, their loss of meaning and purpose in life is connected mostly to the grief process of losing someone through death.
But this beatitude is also for people whose daily reality puts them on the margins of society, whether it’s because of financial poverty, disability, chronic health condition, addiction, non-traditional gender identity, incarceration, undocumented status or just simply dark skin color or inability to speak English. Even if people on the margins have their hands on what feels like the rules that will help them find meaning and purpose in life, society still often holds their status against them, which contributes to an ongoing spiritual poverty in being seen or treated as “less than.”
Each of us, if we’re lucky enough, will lose what we think are the rules to the Game of Life at some point, though it will likely take a long time before it might feel like something survivable, let alone like a blessing in disguise. For me, it took me 40-some years of trying to play by the rules I’d been given, trying to be “good enough” to finally break me so open and raw—that I could see the dark shadow side of my humanity as the rich soil of resurrection that it turned out to be. It took 11 years for this breaking and resurrection process to feel like a “gift,” though. And I’m not sure I could do it again.
However life unfolds for you…however you find the rules you’ve been given for the Game of Life lost or taken from you, know this: God is not the one who yanks them from our hands; even if in a moment of heartache, God watches as the wind blows them away. Jesus’ truth in paradoxical language is that the only way UP to experiencing the kin(g)dom of heaven—a life filled with joy and peace, compassion and justice—is by falling DOWN and losing what seems absolutely necessary to our happiness and well-being, even though what we perceive to be lost to us is always held in God’s graciousness, and will forever have its own place of belonging in the world.
This is not a process that God takes lightly. This is not a process that God abandons us to deal with on our own. In fact, I sometimes wonder how God can bear to watch Her beautiful children—billions of them— struggle through figuring out the REAL rules to the Game of Life and not collapse under the agony of watching people you love suffer through what they must let go of, but which they often feel will kill them if they ever figure out HOW to let go.
When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer about God’s kin(g)dom and power and glory, THIS is the kind of power we are referring to: the power to love so big and strong and without end…to constantly believe in us and our goodness—even as we are carried and supported by the grace God creates for us each day, especially the days we fall. THIS is what the creative, non-violent power of God is about—-not power-over, but power-with.
And this is what we are called to: to use our creative nonviolent power WITH others, not over them. To not dis-empower others by assuming we know what they need, or treating them with a different set of standards because they are poor or poor in spirit, and hard for us to be around. This is how we become co-creators of the kin-dom, the family of God. If we’re lucky, each of us will be graced by the experience of falling into the kin-dom of God through poverty of some kind. Not because we need it to grow or because we’re being punished or because suffering is necessary—only because it’s woven into the DNA of the universe. It’s what we refer to as the Christ principle. And it’s why we call Jesus the Christ, because he opened the door for us to find a way through the darkness to live fully human like this, whether rich or poor.
Blessed are you when you realize the kin-dom of God’s reality— and create your own rulebook to living in Her peace and joy, compassion and justice.