It was easy to feel sorry for them. The poor, displaced, battered citizens of New Orleans confronted us with the disparity of economic life in America.
But as the days turned to weeks, another subtext began to surface, showing an even greater disparity. A surprising number of the poor were, in fact, rich in spirit. Despite having little, they showed an enormous depth of spiritual understanding and a remarkable display of extravagant faith.
An elderly woman, finally pulled from her house after days of waiting, seemed surprisingly peaceful as television crews filmed her rescue. When a reporter asked if she was glad the rescuers had finally arrived she said, “Yes, I’m glad to see them. But I had the Lord with me whether anyone else showed up or not.”
Unlike many of us whose wealth obscures our spiritual sight, this woman gave contemporary meaning to the Bible verse written by the Apostle Paul: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12)
While many people of faith would have seen the arrival of the rescuers as the answer to prayer, this woman preached a sermon to a national audience in just a few words. God was not a cosmic cash machine or a holy version of FEMA. He was not someone who dropped in to rescue those who said their prayers. God was with her whether she became a statistic or was featured on television. Others might be confused about what was really important, but this woman demonstrated profound faith in the midst of chaos and disaster.
Another reporter asked evacuated children what they missed most. Many named a favorite toy. One little girl said, “My Bible.” There was nothing in her answer that seemed staged. While some children wanted their teddy bears for comfort, this child sought solace in Scripture. It is hard to imagine how many wealthy, suburban children — even those who attend church — would cherish their Bible over their video games or ipod.
Television interviews in shelters became spontaneous testimonials as the poor and disadvantaged spoke with grace and confidence about a God who loved them and would show them the way in the days to come. While some still searched for relatives and wondered aloud how to rebuild their lives, few expressed ultimate hope in their government or long-term faith in humanitarian relief.
An amazing number went straight to their personal bottom line: Whatever else they received was great, but they were placing their hope and faith in God. They had lived their lives without the financial security most of us rely upon and they understood how transient it could be.
The Bible itself speaks more about the poor than the rich. It warns that wealth creates spiritual cataracts, and demonstrates over and over again that God’s economy is in direct contrast to man’s. “Blessed are the poor,” states the first of the Beatitudes, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Yet even those of us who read the Bible regularly are apt to gloss over the discomforting parts about our comfortable lives. We don’t want to believe that having credit cards and nice cars and the latest fashions take us away from God. We want to believe that God likes it when we look nice and feel secure. We feel sorry for the poor but it rarely occurs to us that they may actually be able to see God more clearly or that our wealth contributes to our own spiritual poverty.
But after days of seeing true saints, it is clear that America is greatly divided between the haves and have-nots. Spiritually speaking, many of those who started with little and lost even that still came out ahead of the rest of us. Their theology was not based on lines of credit or insurance claims or disaster plans.
Many of the poorest people in this country understood what the rest of us still struggle to comprehend: Faith is not based on circumstances, and true riches cannot be washed away by storms.