My recent trip to northern China left me with many strong memories. One vision that stands out is of the beggar in front of St. Sophia Church in Harbin. The Eastern Orthodox sanctuary acts as a drawing card for visitors to the city. The beautiful bulb-shaped domes tell of an earlier time of Russian dominion. The church operates a small museum for the curious. In front of the church is a large plaza where vendors sell refreshments and people talk and laugh. Two or three steps off the plaza take you to a wide sidewalk that faces a major downtown street in Harbin. That is where I left the beggar.
The beggar was a small man; made smaller by the fact that his legs were only stumps. Then, as if to emphasize his lack of stature, he sat on a small wooden platform with wheels. It reminded me of one my father used to roll up under a car when he was working on it. The man, with his worn face and pleading voice, moved around by pushing his hands against the ground as if he were rowing a boat. I remember wanting to get away from him. I escaped by going up the steps to the plaza. I escaped. But he is still with me.
China astounds the mind: its history, its geography, its people, its energy; they stimulate each of the five senses and challenge the understanding. The Chinese want more than anything else to return to what they see as their proper place in the world. They have felt the heel of the boot too long. Yet, despite its amazing growth and development, the country displays much poverty. And, whether in the ancient neighborhoods of Beijing (called hutong) or in the countryside villages, it presents a stark reality to western eyes.
But throughout much of the world, poverty survives as the norm and not the exception. Why are they poor and we are not? It is not the lack of a work ethic. If anything, they put us to shame by their industry. And the ingenious ways in which they survive testify to their intelligence. Perhaps it is culture, corruption, government, heritage, or lack of opportunity. But it makes me think. Why them and not me? Some say our wealth comes from our Christian heritage. But Japan shares the wealth of the western world without sharing her God. The answers do not come easy.
Jesus told us that we have the poor with us always. But why are they here? Certainly, they give us an opportunity to minister. But there must be more. What are we to learn from them? David, though king of Israel, testified that he was “poor and needy” (Psalm 40:17). God promised to look to him “that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). The first beatitude is reserved for those who are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). What can I learn from the poor? How am I to be poor?
This takes me back to the beggar in Harbin. Please consider him. He is small of stature. If I would please God, I must be small in my own eyes. He cannot walk where he would please. I am helpless to live the holy life my God demands or to accomplish anything of lasting value on my own. The beggar depends on the generosity of others for his very existence. I must rely entirely upon the grace of God for my spiritual life and well-being.
We want to feel good about ourselves. God wants to find us poor and needy. We seek our own importance. He seeks those who deny themselves. We desire the comforts and pleasures of this world. God desires to have us wholly and without reservation.
Am I willing to become poor for the sake of my Saviour? Would I become the beggar on the sidewalk in order to please God? This is exactly what Christ did for me. Paul told us that, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He left all the riches of heaven so that He could be born as a babe in a manger and give His life a ransom for all. Lord, You became poor for me. Help me, that I may become poor for Thee.
(quotes from the King James Bible)