Church Under the Bridge: March 22, 2009

Rev. Cliff WarnerCliffNotes

While worshiping at Church Under the Bridge was in many ways a blessing, I walked away also with a sense of disappointment and guilt. The most difficult part of going into the heart of the city to worship with the “least of these brethren” was, for me, the constant temptation to assume a sense of superiority, a smug pride in my own charity that divided the congregants into those helping and those being helped. At the end of the service, I left with more questions than answers about how to love those whom Christ has called us to love.

In his feature article in World Magazine last month, local Austinite Marvin Olasky wrote, “We tend to think of generosity in a linear way as the opposite of selfishness, but there’s actually a spectrum: Generosity is in the middle, the selfishness of not giving at one end, and the selfishness of giving that warms the giver’s heart but hurts the recipient, on the other.” One event from the weekend, in particular, stands out in my mind. At the beginning of the service, an angry, though ostensibly sane and sober, man began heckling the worship leader, holding a makeshift wooden cross and repeatedly yelling “Jeremiah 23.” The man eventually quieted down enough for the service to continue, but he remained standing directly in front of the worship leader, brandishing his cross as if to be a witness against him. Later in the service, when a noticeably intoxicated man was given the microphone to share his testimony of how God had delivered him from drugs, the heckler turned to the crowd and shouted, “Delivered from what? He’s high right now!”

The anger and chaos engendered by the heckler left my spirit unsettled, and his challenge seemed not to be about whether we should help the poor but rather how we should help the poor. Christian morality demands that we take that question seriously, as the most frightening parables in the New Testament are directed at those who neglect to attend to the needs of the lowly. For me, part of that challenge is learning how to meet others as equals, as brothers and sisters, with no presumptions and no ulterior motives. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “. . . our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

As I went to bed on Sunday, I found myself wondering where the people I had met were at that moment, what they were doing, and where they would sleep that evening. And I began to think about what a truly selfless love toward one’s neighbors might look like.