Soul Poverty

by Dr. Susan Smith

I read in Lisa Sharon Harper’s book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right that people in Haiti are so poor that they eat mud. Specifically, she writes, “To get by, the poorest of the poor have taken to eating mud. Patties made of mud, oil and sugar calm the stomachs of hungry humans.”

That kind of poverty in the world is sobering. There is enough food produced in this world for nobody to starve – and yet, juxtaposed next to the most wealthy, the poorest of the poor live and scrounge for food and some end up eating mud.

It occurred to me that the poverty we see with our eyes replicates the poverty in our souls that nobody can see and which we work to keep carefully hidden and protected. There are those of us “eating mud,” meaning our souls are starved of the capacity to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Too many of us do not see that, or believe it. A clergy friend of mine, whose step mother is dying a horrific death due to cancer, asked me, “Does God care? Is God present?” When we get to those places in our spiritual walk and searching, we are in effect “eating mud,” i.e., the elements of life which allow us to survive, but not to live and thrive, and certainly not to realize the power and potential God put within us all.

What causes soul poverty? It is different than mental illness, which responds to treatment and medication. Soul poverty comes from the vicissitudes of life for which there are no pills, and which no medical doctor can “fix.” Soul poverty comes from having been beaten down by powers and principalities which desire to shred our very spirits and make us doubt the power and presence of God. When our souls are poor, we cannot see the beauty of God’s holiness. Poor souls ingest and digest the lies that people have told us about ourselves our whole lives. Them telling us those things is not the problem. What has caused our souls to be poor is that we accepted  and digested what they said. The seeds of our souls’ poverty were planted when we were very young, and too few of us recognize the problem or have the spiritual strength to take ourselves off the garbage heaps where we scrounge for our soul’s nourishment.

In spite of church, good church, where the preaching and the teaching and the music are all good, too many of us are still eating mud. We are getting by, living on the underside of life. We drink too much, eat too much, gamble or do something to try to lift the heaviness that soul poverty causes, but nothing works…nothing, that is, but being close enough to God to trust being honest with ourselves.

When our souls are so poor that we metaphorically eat mud, we put blinders on our spiritual eyes and plugs in our ears so that we cannot see or hear ourselves. To be get off the garbage heaps on which we have spent so much time, we have to be willing to look inside of ourselves to see where the seeds that have caused our poverty are planted. We have to see where they are and remember who planted them.  We have to see them, and dig them up. We have to be willing to remember, and, as we dig them up, be determined to keep digging until they are out.We have to risk what we will feel as we come face to face with those seeds, which have spawned and nurtured our demons. We have to risk looking at the dis-ease which those seeds have caused, and risk feeling the pain that comes with rooting them out. We have to be willing to bear the stench of the parts of our souls which the seeds have rotted, and understand that those little seeds, which we chose to ignore, have been like cancer, starting small and spreading throughout our bodies. It is not pleasant to go to the source of our soul’s poverty. It does not feel good, but if we can do that, if we can risk moving away from the garbage heaps looking for strength and life, and, finding none, resorting to eating mud …we can begin a journey which will be liberating and exhilarating at the same time. We will be able to see God in a new way; we will be able to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” in spite of the work of the demons within us to convince us otherwise.

It is troubling that people are so poor that they eat mud – made “better’ with a little oil and sugar. It is equally as troubling that so many of us have souls that are poor, and cause us to search for meaning in places where meaning will never be found. The thought of having to eat mud in a world where there is enough food for everyone is troubling, and the thought of so many people have souls that are poor in a world where there is God is equally as troubling.

It’s time for us to come off the garbage heaps and stop eating mud. It is time for us to “taste and see that the Lord is good – “ anyhow and in spite of the seeds within us which have caused us to be poor and dis-eased.

Prayer: Lord in your mercy, help us move from the garbage heaps where too many of us have been for too long. Amen and amen.

About The Author

Dr. Susan Smith Dr. Susan K. Smith is the former pastor of the Advent United Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio. She received her education from Occidental College, Yale University, and United Theological Seminary. She is the author of five books and the proud mother of two children.

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