Before my Great Aunt Esther died, she lived in downtown
Minneapolis in poverty. Oddly, this is not embarrassing to my proper,
upper-middle-class, Christian family. Esther simply continued to live as she
had when her husband, my grandmother's brother Ludwig, was alive. When we describe
someone as living in poverty, we usually add an adjective-grinding,
devastating, dreadful, something like that. Of Aunt Esther and Uncle Lud, and
at the risk of sounding cloying, I'm tempted to add "blessed."
Esther and Lud were committed to God as I have never seen in
anyone else. They were Christian missionaries in Africa for decades. Whatever
else you might think about that old-style missionary work, many babies with
mahogany-dark skin were baptized with the names Ludwig and Esther during those decades.
I knew my great aunt and uncle as a kind, elderly couple
eclipsed by the energy and drama of my extended family when we gathered for
occasional Sunday dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember Esther's
remarkably soft skin when she would take my hand and say, "Now let's talk
to Jesus," and I remember their gentle but determined rejection of all
offers of a ride home after dinner. They preferred to take the bus so that they
could visit and pray with all the people-"girls and boys,"
"God's children"-who rode those buses.
After Lud died, Esther continued to minister to the poor
downtown, unattached to any particular organization but encouraging the
homeless, the drug-addled, the alcoholics and mentally ill, quietly praying
with desperate, hopeless and tired individuals in doorways and on the sidewalk.
Remarkably, Aunt Esther and Uncle Lud didn't seem crazy. They knew these
pitiable neighbors by name and were loved in return. Their lives were rich as
they saw it, so over-flowing with the generosity of their good God that they
just kept giving everything away.
A decent coat is crucial in the Minnesota winter. Before an
aging Esther finally agreed to move into the nearby Lutheran retirement home, I
distinctly remember a shopping trip with my Aunt Jean. The goal was to find a
winter coat for Esther that was warm enough to keep her comfortable (and,
frankly, alive) yet ugly enough that she couldn't give it away. We settled on a
shapeless quilted number in a bronze-ish hue unflattering for any human complexion.
She was terribly grateful when we dropped it off. But by the time of our next
visit, she had already given it to "some poor girl who really needed
something to keep her warm."
Esther lived with the certainty that she had enough. She
figured this out not through calculating her savings, income and spending but
through her extraordinary faith in God. I witnessed firsthand how this
translated directly into her care for others. There is a wide-reaching
practical effect of such faith, and it is nothing less than to participate in
God's work in the world.
I'm reminded of that great exemplar of peace, of change
through non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi identified seven "sins"
as the root of injustices, destruction and violence: wealth without work, pleasure
without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality,
science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without
principle. Although as a Hindu he didn't ground his observations in the
traditions and language of the Bible, they are in profound agreement with
Christian faith. The faith that allows us to receive God's gift of a sense of
enough not only obviates such "sins" but goes farther to ease
suffering, promote peace and partner with God for good in the world.
Additional lectionary columns by Swenson
appear in the September 21 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.