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Thinking Out Loud

Shedding Greed

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 12, 2016


Grace Winn EllisEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by teacher and playwright Grace Winn Ellis (pictured), who is the daughter of the late Dr. Albert Curry Winn, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1966 to 1973.

A few years ago I participated in a medical mission trip to Haiti. Since I do not have any medical training, my role was to help count and label pills the night before we held a clinic, and the next day, to give out numbered cards, take blood pressure, and hand out worm pills and hand sanitizer.

When we arrived to set up our first clinic on the grounds of a church, about twenty people—most of them elderly—were waiting outside on benches.  Many had walked two or three hours to get there. Once we set up the areas for consultations and the pharmacy, people began to press forward. A man from the local village took dirty tattered bills (worth maybe a quarter) from each person as he or she was given a card.

More people came, and everything moved fairly smoothly until the noon break.  At that point, our driver told us that we should leave by 2 p.m. because the water in the stream we had forded was rising. It was clear that we would have to leave before we could see everyone who was waiting.

When this was announced to the crowd, pandemonium broke out. There was pushing and shoving and yelling. The “money-changer,” as I called him, tried to direct the flow, occasionally calling to the front someone who had just arrived. Our check-in table was nearly overrun.

Although I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, I was distressed by the anarchy and commotion. I did not blame these Haitian people. Instead, I felt that I had witnessed something fundamental to human nature. When a resource is valuable, when there is not enough to go around, and when there is no fair set of rules for distribution, anybody will put up a fight. I remember feeling and acting the same way at an airport counter after a flight had been canceled.

My experience of chaos at the clinic gave me a new perspective on the stories of Jesus’ healing miracles. Those crowds were surely pushing and shoving. And Jesus couldn’t just settle down in one village until he healed everyone. He was on the move. So people called out loudly from the side of the road, climbed up into sycamore trees, sneaked up and touched the hem of his garment, and even removed the roof of a house to lower their friend on a stretcher. No wonder Jesus was worn out and kept slipping off into the hills to pray.

This kind of struggle among those who have next to nothing is understandable. What is less excusable is the behavior of those of us who have enough. Although we have plenty, we constantly worry about keeping what we’ve got. Thinking about this, I felt a spotlight shining on many of Jesus’ teachings. Stop trying so hard to hold onto your stuff, he keeps saying. When you’re obsessed with what you have, you can’t leave your nets beside the lake, walk away, and follow me. You can’t accept the invitation to the banquet. And you’ll waste your energy building bigger barns to hold your bounty.

The point is not that the poor need our help—although they certainly do.  The point is that we need to divest ourselves of the things that consume so much of our time and energy. As we say in parts of the South, we need to “get shed” of them.

The concept sounds simple but, of course, the action is far from easy. Because if we don’t store up for ourselves treasure on earth, if we don’t fight to get our fair share, we are denying a basic human instinct—part of the struggle for survival. But that is not the whole story. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, sometimes calamities unleash a different impulse—to act together as a community, taking care of each other. The major influence on Dorothy Day’s life was the outpouring of love she saw after the San Francisco earthquake. Following Jesus means tapping into this kind of compassion. It means trusting God to remake us, to set us free from selfishness and greed.

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