10.24.2008

What's in the front of your mind?

Luke 12:54-59

Today a lot of eyes are turned on tomorrow’s weather. Will the first World Series game in Philadelphia in 15 years be rained out? What will happen to schedules if the game is postponed? Can the forecast — near 100% chance of rain — be trusted?

Eyes are also turned to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Will the “cratering” across Asia and Europe continue here? What does this mean for our mortgages, our credit, our retirements?

We are a people who are very skilled at reading the signs of the weather and the economy — well, at attempting to read these signs, just like the people of Jesus’ day were. Sadly, we really just distract ourselves with things that don’t matter? Who’ll remember a rain delay by next year (except for the commentators who will trot it out as another time-filling statistic)? Whether the Phillies win or lose, what will be different for us the day after the last game? Knowing stocks are likely to tank, what can we really do about it?

Jesus’ audience is good at reading the weather (though how they do this without a 24-hour weather channel is beyond me), but they’re missing what is really going on in their times. They are paying attention to the wrong things…or, more correctly, not enough attention to the right things. Jesus’ presence among them, teaching and healing, proves that he isn’t just another rabbi. Yet they don’t perceive that this is one of those moments when things don’t just change a little, they really *change!*

We may be in one of those times now…a time when we have to examine our fundamental assumptions about our economy, what the “good life” really is, what our dreams and aspirations can be. People are already looking at those assumptions, deciding which ones really apply any more. The question will be, are we looking at the economic and political weather, scratching the surface of our hopes and values, or will we look deeply at what God might be doing behind these events?

The good news is that we don’t need special knowledge or insight, or inside info or special tools, to discern what is happening around us. As the Message says, “You don’t have to be a genius to understand these things. Just use your common sense…”

More simply, “pay attention!” The real change in the season right now isn’t the election, the Dow, or even the Series. It’s what God is doing right now in and around you. Are you paying more attention to that than the events that are swirling around us?

10.15.2008

Generosity in uncertain times

An older gentleman shuffled his shopping cart to where our church was collecting food for the local food pantry. Very deliberately he placed two cans on the table. Then he paused, and took a full grocery bag out of the cart and left that on the table.

"I might as well be generous," he said to me as he guided the cart toward the parking lot. "I may need the food pantry myself before too long."

"The pantry is there for you if you need it," I told him.

He stopped to explain how he's struggling to manage food, heat, and medicine costs on $900 a month in Social Security. "I may need you before long," he said again.

With a plummeting stock market and governments' increasingly aggressive bailouts of bankers and financiers grabbing the headlines, its easy to forget that there are so many, like the food pantry's unlikely benefactor, for whom the struggle has been going on, and will continue no matter what the Dow does.

A couple of days later, an NPR story featured a couple who had bought a business, financing it on credit cards, not long before the real estate bubble burst. Now struggling to buy inventory, they were making do with an on-the-fritz washing machine and borrowing a car to replace one they couldn't afford to repair. Among the items on their "used-to-do" list: giving to charity.

It's interesting how many of us who never thought poverty was a possibility for us -- at least until now -- have to learn what people who live near that margin take for granted: That we need to make sure there is a safety net, because we might need it ourselves.

The food pantries and feeding programs in my area, a relatively wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, are all experiencing a spike in demand and, if our current tumble into recession continues, the need will only get worse. Already, pantry volunteers report a surge of newly homeless clients and many, including working moms and the elderly, who never thought they would need to rely on such a program.

At the same time, donations are drying up and managers worry about "donor fatigue." Rather than picking up extra items for the pantry, people seem to be cleaning out the old and unneeded from their cupboards. On a recent pantry shift, I was overjoyed to receive a huge box of donated pasta and rice. But as I went to stock the shelves, I found that nearly every package in the box was three to five years out of date.

As people of faith we are called to share our first fruits, not our leftovers, with God's work -- which includes feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick and prisoners, as well as the institutional church. Yet as the economy worsens many charities find that assistance to groups that serve the poor and marginalized are among the first places people tighten their belts. This trend will continue, because people of faith and those committed to social justice have not been immune from the debt-fueled overconsumption that has brought the economy to the tipping point. Indeed, middle class workers have been squeezed by policies that shift the risk for health care, retirement and other "benefits" to them.

How can people of faith maintain a capacity to be generous, to help those who are in desperate need, in the midst of our current belt-tightening, spending freezes, and the reimagination of "the good life" that is now beginning? In a great article called "Preparing the Middle Class For Life in Uncertain Times," Tom Sine and Penny Carouthers of Mustard Seed Associates suggest that managing our vulnerability to the vagaries of the economy by reducing debt and consuming wisely is a good start. But that can be difficult when it's getting harder and harder to buy milk for the kids and gas the car for the commute to the job you hope you still have.

It can help to stay in touch with the fact that, even if you are struggling, it feels good to help. One of our people at the food collection booth that day said, "You know it feels good to take the money I would have given to church to buy food to donate." Being part of a faith group putting belief into action made him feel like a better person, he said.

He raised a real challenge, though. Note he said he used money he once would have given to church. As leaders, we are challenged to figure out how churches can be leaner and require less fuel and energy, less of our people's money and time, so that they can retain their capacity to give.

It also helps to keep perspective. Those on the margins, I have learned, have a sense of generosity that ought to shame many of us with many more resources. We can learn a lot from the man I encountered at another of these food drives many months ago.

I approached him with a request for a donation, and he told me that he had just been to the pantry, and he was just stopping in for milk. I wished him a good day and he entered the store.

A few minutes he came out and quietly handed me a bag containing a single bottle of shampoo.

"I was just at the pantry," he said. "There was a lady there who asked for some shampoo, and they said they didn't have any. I want to make sure there is some if she comes back."

If you want to know how to stay generous while your 401(k) vanishes and your retirement moves farther away, listen to those who already experience that reality. You may need their wisdom...and the services they depend on... yourself someday (soon).


10.13.2008

My God's bigger than your god?

Wonder why so many people see Christians as intolerant and hateful? Exhibit A: Pastor Arnold Conrad before a McCain rally Saturday:
I also would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god--whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah--that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their God is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and election day."

(I'm not making this up -- audio at the link.)
I am, sadly, not shocked that a "Christian" would use God to incite fear and anxiety about another Christian. This is a more obviously religious take on Gov. Palin's coded claim that their opponent "doesn't see America the way we do." Clearly this prayer suggests that Sen. Obama is in league with terrorists and infidels. It's also a not-so-veiled call for divine retribution upon unspecified others, who by virtue of not sharing the American religion obviously have nefarious interests at heart. (Somehow, I doubt that Osama bin Laden is praying for either of our candidates.)

There is so much wrong with such religious intolerance. Let's look at a couple points.
  1. Jesus is clear that it's not religious labels and externals that make a person good. "But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’" (Luke 8:21) The requirements of God -- mercy, justice, humility (Michah 6:8) -- are met in many cultures and religious traditions. Consider Ghandi, the witness of the Dalai Lama, the Muslims and Jews who reach across the Wall to seek peace and understanding. At the very least we are to see the similarities among traditions instead of only fearing the differences.
  2. God is really not as insecure as Pastor Conrad needs God to be. Were that true, God might have been a little more concerned about his reputation instead of eating with riff-raff and unclean outsiders, annoying the high priests and being executed as a terrorist. A God who takes on humanity, who empties himself of privilege and accepts death on a cross to reach out to those who killed him, surely has a very different kind of reputation in mind.
  3. Jesus' strongest complaints were not aimed at "others" but at those in his own religious tradition who were so sure they were right that they refused to even consider the evidence of another way that walked and taught and healed right in front of them.
Sen. McCain needs to condemn this kind of prayer at one of his rallies much more strongly than the carefully worded, Bill Clintonesque "distancing" statement released by the campaign.

10.11.2008

Global perspective on the bailout

What would $700 billion do in the global fight against poverty? Thoughts from an Oxfam researcher:
· Would clear the accumulated debt of the 49 poorest countries in the world ($375bn) twice over
· Is almost 5 times the annual amount of extra aid needed to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, health, education etc ($150bn a year)
· Is about 7 years of current global aid levels ($104bn in 2007)
· Is enough to eradicate all world poverty for over two years (UNDP calculates it would take $300bn to get the entire world population over the $1 a day poverty line).
On the other hand, he notes that the rescue package is 1/4 the to-date cost of the Iraq war and half of annual global military spending. (HT: Brother Maynard)

Digging further, a World Bank economist notes that while the African banking system is relatively immune from the domino effect of the banking crisis, if the recession reverses the increasing flows of capital into Africa, growth and poverty reduction programs could be hurt and millions of lives could be at risk.

10.05.2008

How dare you?

A great comment on the Bush-Cheney culture of indisputability, which looks to be more of the same with McCain-Palin.

10.04.2008

A moral crisis

In a post called "Blaming Wall Street Is Too Easy," Chris makes the excellent point that Wall Street and Main Street share blame for the fiscal mess we're in. "You see, we Americans like to spend money. We don't like to cut back," he writes. "The word sacrifice is something we want our war hero politicians to have, but nothing that we want to touch ourselves with a ten foot pole."

We don't even want to sacrifice for war these days. When my dad fought in the South Pacific in WWII, the whole nation was in on it -- sending sons and husbands to war, doing without gas, and cars, and some necessities, not just luxuries. Today we give the rich tax breaks during wartime, and far fewer families feel the effects of the conflict.

Chris goes on to talk about how we can cut back on expenses and luxuries and, working from the grass roots up, lead our "leaders" to make better economic decisions. I applaud this, but it seems a very middle class solution. I can exercise restraint. I can eat out less, and I could cancel cable (TV, but they'll have to pry my internet out of my cold, dead hands). I'm already driving old, paid-for cars, and I use shoes and clothes as long as I can.

But I wonder. What about the poor? What about those who are already just getting by? What about those whose lack of access to education and capital made their pre-meltdown future look pretty bleak?

As seen on TV at the Biden-Palin debate, both parties are falling all over themselves to identify with regular folks. While they rightly blast Wall Street greed, neither seem to recognize any limits that the rich or middle class might have to live under in order to have a just economy. Only the moderator mentioned the poor.

America has been seen for (and criticized for) how it takes care of those with the most when tough times hit. I think it says much more about who we really are, and how moral we are, to look at how we will care for those who are struggling the most.

Here's what I wrote on the comments section of Chris' blog. What do you think?

You make a good point, Chris, as far as it goes. Yes, there is a lot of blame to go around. Yes, I have probably benefited from what has been going on, even without a subprime mortgage or a credit card balance.

Cutting back cable, vacations and fancy chips may be a solution for the middle class (all praise be to us). But what about the people who already look at military service as their college savings plan, who have to sit at the kitchen table and figure out if they'll pay for food, medicine or heat, who can't get college loans (which are probably less of a good idea now, anyway)? In the midst of this plenty a lot of people have been hurting, and now they're really screwed.

It is a moral crisis, that goes beyond moderating the obvious greed of recent years (or, as you so charitably put it, expecting a lot for a little). If God has truly given us enough for all, if we really believe in sufficiency rather than scarcity, then we need make sure everyone gets enough. And that's another area where we're going to have to lead house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood.

10.03.2008

Straight talk?

We’ve come to an Alice-in-wonderland time. A time where politicians of all stripes are bashing the untrammeled greed of the very financiers that the politicians set free (thanks to lobbying) to be greedy. A time when a time when the only way to curb the greed of the wolves is to give them most of the cash left in the chicken coop. A time when a conservative administration is proposing moves that, in the words of conservative pundit George Will, make it the most leftist administration in American history!

This is trickle down economics taken to its absurd conclusion: If we don’t cough up heretofore unthinkable bailouts to the entities whose greed created this problem, we’re told, nothing will continue to trickle down to us on Main Street.

We may be at a time where the only reasonable option to protect the poor and developing economies, as well as regular Americans, is to do whatever it takes to prop up broken parts of our economy. It certainly is a time when we need new kinds of regulation to protect against the greed unleashed by deregulation.

But it is also a time to admit the truth. The operative principle of the economy for at least 30 years, that a rising tide lifts all boats, is a lie.

As we have spread and grown our faith in the belief that only unfettered markets can sustain growth, we have watched while a few amass incredible wealth while less and less trickles down to those of us on the main streets and in the cul-de-sacs. Even less trickles down to the poor, to developing nations. The richest nation in the history of the planet hasn’t shared well with the least of these within its borders, and is one of the stingiest nations in terms of foreign economic aid.

This philosophy has given us less, financially and in terms of well-being. Its given us generations now of Americans working harder and being more productive and still barely able to sustain a modest life. It’s created an egregious and escalating gap between the rich and the poor. Many poor Americans don’t have access to the means to get out of poverty, and developing nations are crushed under relenteless debt. It has pushed massive amounts of debt neatly out of sight onto our children and grandchildren. This birth tax just magnifies the advantages that accrue to the well-off.

Let’s face it. After nearly three decades of this approach, Americans are less secure – financially and geopolitically.

In addition to bailing out the troubling waters that threated to swamp our economy, its time to ask our leaders for a new moral vision for that economy. Such a new moral vision should be one in which:
  • No child left behind is not just a slogan but a reality, where the benefits of success based on use of common goods, such as education and natural resources, to name a couple, are reinvested back in the society and the world as a matter of structure, not charity.
  • There is a sense of “enough.” Many have faulted the American drive for more, more, more, the unrealistic expectations of endless record growth, for causing the current crisis. Ancient Israel’s prophets often chided those who were only concerned for their own gain and comfort while their fellow citizens struggled, and promised divine intervention on behalf of the poor. Those passages speak to all of us who strive for trappings of wealth while so many, here and abroad, struggle just to earn daily bread and find clean water.
  • There is concern for sustainability. The ability of the world’s richest few to consume staggering percentages of the globe’s resources comes at the cost of consuming those resources – oil, food, coal, diamonds, etc. – at alarming rates. Scientists warn that if we don’t curb our consumption and its negative byproducts (such as carbon emissions) our planet may not survive. A sustainable economy will have to be driven more by common investment and less on personal consumption, which is the main engine of the US economy.
  • The playing field is leveled. Our recent policies have not only widened the gap between haves and have-nots but have made those gaps permanent. By making it easier to amass, shelter and pass on wealth, and cutting taxes that could be reinvested in better education, access to college, health care, and lowering barriers to entry to business and professions, we have made it harder for many to try to improve their status. Ancient Israel knew that bad decisions, idleness, and luck would force some persons into poverty and even into servitude, and recognized that there are those who can not provide for themselves. So they set up systems, such as the Jubilee year, that ensured that debts and being disadvantaged did not last forever but were occasionally righted, and lived under a mandate to care for the unfortunate.

There are elements of all these points in the US and global economies now. But they are now byproducts rather than drivers of the economy. We need a new moral economic vision that respects our creation by living within its limits, and respects the imprint of our Creator on every man, woman and child by requiring responsibility for the common good of all in accordance with their means.

10.02.2008

Like children?

Matthew 18:1-5, 10

It's very human to try to make the Kingdom of God fit into our paradigm. Leaders -- the disciples in their time, just like us today -- are often tempted to want to be "the greatest." We want bigger, more successful churches, to be more "spiritual," sometimes to have influence and political power. Jesus makes it clear here that the Kingdom -- the way God works with us in the world here and now -- doesn't play by our rules.

I don't think Jesus is glorifying children here. I doubt that he was recommending the view of his day, which saw children as workers and much like property, ways of assuring family wealth, any more than he would recommend the modern American view, in which children are the suns around the lives of their families revolve. Certainly Jesus is making a statement about the intrinsic worth of children (and women, and men, and old people -- of all people). But there's more.

In different eras and societies, children share one characteristic. Children are their essential, true selves, and must learn the roles that their societies socialize them into, whether that of producer or consumer, of subservient or self-actualizing. I hear Jesus saying here that we must become like children -- that we must let go of the rules of this world and the desires for power, wealth and greatness that they engender in order to truly bring about God's kingdom here and now. We must get in touch with our true selves -- our child of God selves -- and let go of the shackles imposed by seeing ourselves as a specific job, or status, or family role. Only then, he says, are we free enough that we can respond to God's invitation to "greatness" -- defined as humility and service -- in the kingdom. This doesn't mean actually leaving all these things, as long as we know where our true self and our true "greatness" lies.