Monday, First Week of Advent
December 3, 2007

"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' " -- Matthew 25:40 

Help for the Helpless

When I was growing up in the South, here is how people would typically respond to an offer of help.
Say that my mother was having some people over for dinner, and one of her friends would call up to help out with things.

Mom: Well hello Mary Ann. How're you doing these days?
Mary Ann: Why just as fine as I can be. How're you?
Mom: Fine, fine. We're looking forward to you and Floyd coming over for dinner on Friday.
Mary Ann: You are so marvelous to have us over. What can we do to help you? How would it be if we brought over a pecan pie?
Mom: Oh, I wouldn't hear of putting you out like that! You're such a dear.
Mary Ann: It'd be no trouble at all. Do let me do that little thing.
Mom: No, no, bless your heart. Y'all just come along and don't bother yourself with bringing anything.
Mary Ann: Well, now I just won't take no for an answer. It'd give me such a great pleasure to help out.
Mom: Well, now if you're sure it wouldn't be any trouble.
Mary Ann: No trouble at all, honey. One pie or two?
Mom: Two would be divine.

"It is more blessed to give than to receive..." You know the familiar Christmas mantra. (Interesting side note... no extra charge for this: Did you know that this is one of the very few New Testament sayings attributed to Jesus not recorded in the gospels? See Acts 20:35) A person who gives of themselves, we say, for the benefit of another is a GOOD person. But as Garret Keizer, author of the book "HELP: The Original Human Dilemma" says, the word "help" -- for those with resources -- is a verb, but the word "help" for the poor is always a noun. Those who need "help" are not allowed to be the GOOD person, because that is reserved for those who serve the needy.

Is this why we sometimes appear to wrestle each other about who is offering help to whom? Or why we feel awkward if we receive a gift, but have none to offer? If you want to offer help to someone in the South, be ready to offer it three times. That way they know you're serious about wanting to help, and the person about to receive the help makes you aware of how honored the role of helper is, and with what deliberation one relinquishes it.

Have you ever volunteered to serve at a soup kitchen and been mistaken for a guest receiving the food? That happened to me once. And I was quick to say, "No, no, I'm here to help! I'm not here to BE helped." I wanted to hold onto my honorable role of the helper. When we set out to help "the least of these" we contribute to their position of  "least" if we suggest to them by our actions, "You have nothing I need, but I am the one who can help you."

It is hard for us human beings to admit we are in need of help, mainly I suppose because it drops our status precisely "to the least of these." We want ourselves to be seen with some distinction and admiration. We want to be in control. We want to be independent enough not to need help, but can manage just fine in the dignity of self-sufficiency. But we like to give of ourselves to others because it reinforces our sense of being a good person.

The only problem is, if we don't have any need, if we are fine on our own, if our self-reliance is complete, then not only do we not need help from people around us, but we don't need help from God. We don't need Jesus to be born into our lives this year as we anticipate and celebrate the divine presence who took on flesh and dwelt among us. Can we really be that help-less? Maybe this year during this time of Advent preparation we might examine ourselves and notice the ways we need healing, or the ways some of our relationships are broken or shallow, or the ways our vocational lives seem empty or without purpose. Maybe then the arrival of a Savior will actually be good news when we are ready to admit that help -- even for one as broken as we are --  is on the way.

May these days of Advent be a blessing to you and yours...
Jeff McArn
College Chaplain