[February 2012 Synchroblog] Economic Inequality: Coming Back to Our Senses

Our Synchroblog this month explores the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor in our country and others. Reports show that this gap is has reached its highest level in 30 years. One only needs to look at history to see that money equals power in this world. And when so much power is in the hands of a few, the many are disadvantaged. The extremely poor are even more at a disadvantage. Dr. Cornel West says, “Poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people.”

I didn’t want to be part of this blog. It gives me a pain in the gut to think about these things. I have seen few issues create more anger and divisiveness than this one. I have seen it turn seemingly civil and kind people into raging, snarling foes. Even for those who can contain their anger, there remains a certain unwillingness to see the plight of others who are impacted by their views. And I have no solutions. I do believe that re-regulating Wall St.* and insisting that the very rich and the big corporations pay their fair share in taxes is the right thing to do. That’s just common sense. But I don’t know how to change our love for this beast that ensnares our lives. We need to try. There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that reference the poor. That’s a significant clue that this is supposed to matter.

In all honesty, all I know to do is call out to the church, for we are the embodiment of Jesus now. Jesus turns power upside-down. He is the one who takes an axe to the roots of systems that exploit and oppress. Like Jesus, we are the persistent little stream of water that gradually softens the rock hard foundations of the structures of power. I don’t know so much about what to do, but I do think we can explore who we are meant to be.

I have come to believe that money stands in opposition to the Kingdom. There is nothing else about which Jesus gave such an explicit warning. He made it very plain in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6:24) Jesus is rarely so dualistic in his thinking. But here He is very plain. It’s either/or.

Money seems to break down the very essence of who we are meant to be as human beings. It disembodies our faith. It quickly divides us into the haves and have-nots, distancing us from the realities of each others’ lives. The money/power thing exposes how one of the saddest questions in the scripture has played out throughout time: “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” With the heart of Cain, our answer is a loud and definitive, no. We do write out our checks to a local charity or dish out food at a homeless shelter. But truthfully, we are the jealous workers in the vineyard, so afraid that someone will get something they don’t deserve, especially when we’ve worked so hard.

We have forgotten that the source of the goods we produce buy and sell were never ours to begin with. We are divorced from the acts of others in our communities that make it possible for us to work at all, to manufacture, create, transport materials, or buy and sell anything. The further away we have moved from tilling the earth to forth food in order to survive, the more disembodied our lives and services have become. Trading stocks and making decisions that affect the lives of millions have become an a-moral acts, truly distanced and disconnected from the men, women and children who are affected. Finally, we have dared to believe that what we have earned is our own. We have hidden ourselves away from any reminder that in truth we all are needy, dependent people because our very ability to think and create and work comes from God from the start.

Christianity involves coming back to ourselves as a whole. Jesus is not just a ticket to heaven, but the means of reconciliation and restoration to a communal life of Shalom, which is a community of universal flourishing, wholeness and delight**. Even the Our Father prayer invokes community. Together we say, “Give US this day OUR daily bread.” This Jesus thing is all about being intimately connected with the needs and realities of the other.

In small ways and within small groups, some things are beginning to change. Churches are connecting with those who create community gardens for themselves and others in need. This allows for the dignity of taking part in working for all, as well. Interest is growing in establishing more local, sustainable food supplies. There is a renewed interest in handmade goods and skills. People are simplifying their lives and getting rid of stuff. With less to protect, perhaps we’ll have more to share. With less to protect, we may recover faith in a new way. We might actually remember what it means to trust for our daily bread, trusting God by trusting each other. Maybe we’ll also remember what is means to be grateful.

In light of all this, I celebrate a woman with a level of faith I don’t know yet: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

[*Seriously, how did de-regulation happen? Was everyone asleep? That de-regulation happened was a clear example of the power wielded by those with extreme wealth.]
[** The word shalom is described in “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin”, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.]

LInks to the other Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in:

Marta Layton – Fear Leads to Anger. Anger Leads to hate …

Kathy Escobar – Pawn Shops, Empty Refrigerators, The Long Hill Up

Carol Kuniholm – Wondering About Wealth

Glenn Hager – Shrinking The Gap

Jeremy Myers – Wealth Distribution

Liz Dyer – The First Step Is Admitting There Is A Problem

Ellen Haroutunian – Economic Inequality: Coming Back To Our Senses 

K.W. Leslie – Wealth, Christians, and Justice

Abbie Watters – My Confession

Steve Hayes – Obscenity

Hope is Held Between Us [Provoketive Magazine]

[This month our Synchroblog partnered with Provoketive Magazine. See below for links to other Synchrobloggers.]

Sometimes, ok, perhaps it’s often, I weary of the discipline it takes to stay faithful to the routines of tending life. I begin to skimp on the practices that nurture body, mind, soul and community. Fortunately, every now and then something wonderful comes along to enliven my efforts.

My husband and I met with friends for dinner a couple of nights ago. They are the type of friends with whom you always wish you could spend much more time. We enjoyed delicious food, wine, conversation, and heaping platefuls of hope. Interestingly, we had decided beforehand that we would discuss the end of the world. We were only half-joking. This idea was instigated by the distress of another mutual friend, a very wealthy man, over his fear of an impending world-wide economic collapse. He was ready to liquidate all his assets, pack up and move to South America. (I am not sure why South America would be better if the whole world was in trouble but there you have it.) One of our dinner mates is also in the financial world and well acquainted with the inner workings of the struggling economy. We looked forward to hearing what she might have to say.

We agreed that the mutual-friend-turned-conversation-starter is very bright and very rational man. This reaction seemed very out of character for him. But this sort of thinking is entrenched in our collective psyches and probably has been since the beginning of time. We are all afraid of what we cannot control. We are all afraid of loss. This fear is amplified through the lens of round the clock disaster movies and documentaries, and the Mayan, Nostradamus and Left Behind theories that all seek to interpret many world events in catastrophic terms. In response, there are survivalist websites selling packaged food and gear. Self-protective instincts run deep.

Our conversation moved to what if? Specifically, if major calamity does strike, how do people of faith respond? How do we create safe space for ourselves and how do we care for our neighbors? How do we share meager supplies with those who have run out? How do we offer the hospitality of God?

And, what would it be like? Would desperation finally push us to the faith that we have not grown into yet? You know, the kind of faith that feeds 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes, the faith that heals sickness and that finds the coins we need in the mouths of fish? We had no answers. These probably weren’t our real questions anyway. We have not been asked to live this way, not yet.

It was in this context that one friend brought up the idea of spiritual eldering. Spiritual elders are the folks who have been around a while. They have seen suffering and they have seen great beauty. They have seen heart-breaking betrayals, and they have seen love and sacrifice like that of Christ himself. They have seen faith fail and they have seen grace overflow. These are the ones who have “set their faces towards Jerusalem”, that is, they have set out finally on the journey that is Christ’s. They have seen Kingdom and can do nothing else but live in a way that brings it forth. They have let go of what brings only fleeting hope here on earth. They have learned what is truly important.

And there we were, the four of us, each moving into our sixth decade on earth. We recognized that we are entering the elder stage. And of course, none of us felt ready or adequate. My friend then asked, “So, when will we be old enough to give it all away?” It became apparent that while we are not old enough yet, our shared conviction was to move in that direction together as community. This is never a journey that we need walk alone. In that realization, we felt the growing potential, desire, and joy of the possibilities held between us.

Therein lies the hope. We were sitting in communion with friends who hope for Kingdom. Their hearts were for the left behind, the people in need. They were not thinking about preparing for disasters as much as much as learning to be good shepherds. They were concerned about growing into the people we would each need to become in order to bring forth the equities and the sweet, inclusive shalom of Kingdom life, no matter what happens. We all felt caught up in a quiet thrill at the thought of this communal dream. And just for once, the cost didn’t seem to obscure the prize.

None of this stuff would be surprising to my dear mentor nun, Sr. Marilyn. She is a spiritual elder in the truest sense of those words and she is helping to grow us up. She once told me a story of a priest whose South American monastery faced apocalypse when it was invaded by gunmen. The humble priest greeted them with open arms. They shot him. “It was the practices,” said Sister, “that prepared his heart to meet them that way.” Indeed, it was the practices that prepared him for anything.

Richard Rohr notes that in our younger days, we typically use the type of prayer posture that we feel will help to build our careers, fill our coffers, and create a life. As we move towards eldering, we need the kind of prayer practices that help us to let it all go. We need what will bring us to the place where being emptied enough to truly open ourselves to the reality and need of the other, becomes as compelling a desire as any other we have known here. Then, instead of grasping and protecting what is ours, we can begin to walk this earth with arms held open wide.

How do we get there? “Do the practices,” says Sr. Marilyn. “The practices will get you ready.” And the hope birthed by good friends does, too.

[The practices she refers to include regular engagement with faith community, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, the daily Examen and others.]

Synchrobloggers at Provoketive Magazine :

The Trouble With Hope: John Ptacek

Hope = Possibility x Imagination: Wayne Rumsby

Little Reminders: Mike Victorino

Where Is My Hope: Jonathan Brink

Hope for Hypocrites: Jeremy Myers

Now These Three Remain: Sonny Lemmons

Perplexed, But Still Hopeful: Carol Kuniholm

A Hope that Lives: Amy Mitchell

Generations Come and Generations Go: Adam Gonnerman

Demystifying Hope: Glenn Hager

God in the Dark: On Hope: Renee Ronika Klug

Keeping Hope Alive: Maurice Broaddus

Are We Afraid to Hope?: Christine Sine

On Wobbly Wheels, Split Churches and Fear: Laura Droege

Adopting Hope: Travis Klassen

Hope is Held Between Us: Ellen Haroutunian

Hope: In the Hands of the Creatively Maladjusted: Mihee Kim-Kort

Paradox, Hope and Revival: City Safari

Good Theology Saves: Reverend Robyn

Linear: Never Was, Never Will Be: Kathy Escobar

Better Than Hope: Liz Dyer

Caroline for Congress: Hope for the Future: Wendy McCaig

Fumbling the Ball on Hope: KW Leslie

Content to Hope: Alise Wright

Hope: Oh, the Humanity!: Deanna Ogle

Ash Wednesday, 2010

It’s hard for us who have come up in a very cognitive faith to embrace the idea of a God who loves celebration. We like to qualify it: Yes, God does like celebration but only after all the serious business of dealing with our sin and stuff is done. But celebration seems to be a part of who God is, and it’s definitely (and delightfully) a major piece of the Story.

Last night was Fat Tuesday, historically a last night of eating rich, fatty foods before Lent begins. It has expanded in scope to be a celebration of excess and partying, as the French say, laissez le bon temps rouler, let the good times roll! I think the Church needs to learn to party really well. There is precedent for it, believe it or not. There’s that remarkable story in Nehemiah when the temple had been rebuilt and the people listened to Ezra read the Law of God. They finally got it– and they wept with remorse. But the response of their leaders was not to ask them to grovel or be shamed or try harder, but to celebrate:

And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!” Nehemiah 8:10

In short, they were ordered to party and to re-orient themselves to God.

On Fat Tuesday we expose and even celebrate our shadow sides. It’s not because our shadows reflect our truest substance, but because we can finally come out of shame and hiding and be just as we are before God. This is a time of both confession and encounter. And I believe this helps us to see that what we truly celebrate is something that is far better than we knew. A favorite memory of mine is when our small group of a few years back got creative about “confession” on Fat Tuesday. In the spirit of partying, we each came to the gathering dressed in costume. Or rather, perhaps we came without the costumes that we present daily – the selves that we like to project out to one another, deftly hiding flaws and sin, commanding honor or attention. Like the Israelites, we became openly aware that we were sinful and needy. It was strangely freeing.

One woman came to the party dressed in a robe and carrying a gavel. “I am a judge,” she said, “I have judged all of you.” Another came dressed as Dorothy from Kansas, with a basket of various goodies that she gathered along the Yellow Brick Road, each designed to help assuage the pain and stress in her life. Another was a man with a tool belt, determined that he could fix all that ails us. Still another came as a ninja, dressed all in black, reflecting her secretive, hidden ways in her relationships. One man didn’t dress up but came as cynical and snarky, revealing attitudes that he often kept hidden. I came dressed as a bag lady, reflecting the inner fragility I often felt even as I projected a confident, learned church lady on the outside. We shared our stories and ate and sang, clothed yet soulishly more naked. It was a picture of the hope that binds us together– we see that we all are stark need of transformation, and that our religion is never a lonely, private matter. We partied and helped each other re-orient towards God.

And so, with confession and celebration as a response to God and our humble states, we are prepared for Ash Wednesday. Today we are painted with the ashes that remind us of our common humanity and our common end. “You are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news.” It is an invitation to repent, literally, to change direction. It is an invitation to stop pretending we are better than we are and just be human, for it is in that dependent, humble place that we meet God. There is something about the God who came to us dressed in our own skins, wearing a face like ours, fully human and frail, that informs our journey. It is that God that has won my heart.

As we enter into Lent, may it be a time of humble reflection. Again, it is not about groveling or deprivation. It is about shedding what is false and learning to live in our true selves. It is about being transformed to something more Real that can take in and hold the New Wine. It is about Someone who is bigger than us, who is our strength for this path that so often takes us to places that we would never expect. Maybe celebration and welcome are in and of themselves transformational.

It’s a real relief to admit I can’t change myself. Perhaps what we need to “give up” for Lent is the illusion that we can create ourselves. Therefore, let us re-orient towards the One who continues at all times to speak us into being. He continues to whisper about who we truly are into our ears. Sit with the joyous Lover who celebrates with us even as we are exposed as needy and false. Listen, celebrate, and be transformed. Party well. Repent and believe the GOOD News.

Click here to read more beautiful Ash Wednesday/Lent posts from Christian Century bloggers

It’s Really All About God – book review (sort of)

itsreallyall3It’s Really All About God
By Samir Selmanovic
286 pages including study questions

When recommending an important book one of my favorite profs used to say, “Go, sell all that you have and buy this book.” There’s not many books that can truly earn such a strong endorsement but I think this is one of them. But I must recommend it with a warning: it will rock your world. Perhaps it’s only suitable only for those whose thirst for God has exceeded safety limits. For through his personal stories and engagement with the stories of  Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Atheists and more, author Samir Selmanovic points the way to a life with God and each other that is bigger and better than most of us have ever dared to dream. It is the only non-fiction book that has brought me to deeply felt tears in recent years. And there’s laughter as well to be sure, flowing easily from his descriptions of our humble human condition. (Really, who writes about their hemorrhoids?) Yet in this warm sharing of very human realities he draws us into a brother and sisterhood of humanity in which we may encounter God in the midst of our ordinary experiences. I am writing this not so much as a book review than as an expression of gratitude.

Samir Selmanovic is the founder and co-leader of Faith House in New York City. He shares his own journey from his beginnings amidst a close atheist/Muslim family in eastern Europe to his conversion to Christianity through a Seventh Day Adventist Church and through the realization of having embraced a way of understanding religion that limited the scope of God’s love in this world. “Religions are meant to lose their luster to God’s larger presence,” he says. And, are we willing to make [our] religion “take a back seat to something larger than itself?” The eye-opening time for him was when he reflected on the fact that his early years had been encompassed by fullness, celebration, hard work, kindness, laughter, generosity and warmth within his secular Muslim home and he realized that “Life was complete, until I became a Christian and it all came apart.

He came to realize that in his early days of conversion he had shut out his former life and relationships. Rather than growing into more life, he had merely switched sides. In my early years as a Christian, I also learned to compartmentalize my life, ignoring family celebrations for Christian retreats and pouring less of me into connection with dorm friends and others to go to Campus Crusade meetings. I ignored my heart for years, assuming that to want to drink in regular old life, side by side with family and neighbors of all persuasions was to step away from the Kingdom or compromise myself. (Yes, I was actually taught that.) Selmanovic demonstrates beautifully that the Kingdom was to be found in those places all along. God inhabits the lives of all people.

At first glance it might seem that this is just another attempt at asserting the idea that Christians dread- that there’s good in all religions so why can’t we all get along? However, I believe he rescues us from our shrunken vision of exclusivity and superiority. He gently and beautifully challenges Christian triumphalism and leads us to a healthier place by recalling our virtue of humility- we are not the only ones who serve and do for the world. He gives us back the wonder of the deep enjoyment of the presence and expression of God in all others. The gift of other religions, he says, is that “They pose difficult questions we don’t want to ask, make assumptions we don’t want to acknowledge or examine, create meaningful arguments against us we don’t want to consider, and expose harmful practices we don’t want to stop.” They make us better Christians and in that vein, they can help us to become better lovers as a more generous expression of God’s heart for this world. Perhaps trying to “own” God has distorted our self-understanding.

So how far can our hearts expand? Christians have considered atheists to be the enemy. Selmanovic draws us into an even more expansive heart that is able to embrace the gift that atheism brings. He says, “Atheism at its best grabs us by the collar and throws us to the ground, demanding to see lives well lived, forcing us to dig deeper and live up to the best of our own religions.” Atheism calls on us to live out the integrity that our “converted” hearts have claimed.

In my tribe I know that a knee-jerk reaction will be that the author is advocating relativism – that all faiths are the same so we should just blend together. We fear the loss of specialness, as God’s “peculiar people”. But he asserts that our uniqueness is a gift that we offer to one another and that the boundaries that maintain our distinctiveness are also essential in order to love well. However, the author reminds us, these boundaries do not need to be cement walls. Why can’t they be bridges? Or doors? If God is relational (and of course He is), so are we, and we need a path towards each other.

But here is the real gift – as we lay down our demand to be first and best and only and that all others must become like us, won’t we then look more like Jesus who laid down all of His privilege, even equality with God, to become one of us and live in our reality, even unto death? We will become lovers in the best sense as He was, serving up, making room for the other and dancing with God as He plays in 10,000 places. As we give up our stake in protecting Christianity, we are freer to follow Christ. Through this gentle, winsome call out of a religious expression which sets up rigid walls between human beings, we may paradoxically find and therefore express more of Him. In losing ourselves, we will find Life. Selmanovic says, “We can either stay with the Christianity that we have mastered with the Jesus we have domesticated, or we can leave Christianity as a destination, embrace Christianity as a way of life, and then journey to reality, where God is present and living in every person, every human community, and all creation.” Sounds like the Kingdom to me.


Read the New York Times Review
Mystery Over Certainty
Video of Samir Selmanovic

(I once again apologize for my lack of gender-inclusive language. There is no appropriate pronoun to describe God who transcends gender and creating hybrids makes me crazy. But the author of this book absolutely includes women fully and freely into this wonderful mix.)

reflections on MLK Day

In my sermon yesterday I spoke about transformational community – a community that is committed to gathering in and unity, which is in itself, healing. There’s one part in particular that has lingered in my thoughts as I reflect on MLK Day. The text was Luke 24: 13-35 which is the story of the road to Emmaus. Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and two men walked along the road together and tried to make sense of all that had just happened. Can you imagine what their conversation was like? Then someone came along and asked what they were talking about. They must have felt that this guy had been hiding away under a rock to be so unaware, but they told him all about what had happened to Jesus. This stranger began to talk to them of what the Prophets and the scriptures had said about how Messiah would suffer and die. They were stunned.

After they had offered hospitality to this stranger it says that he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave. Then, Jesus was recognized by them and He disappeared from their sight. They went immediately to Jerusalem to where the other followers of Jesus had gathered and told them how Jesus was revealed to them, in the breaking of the bread.

Though there were several points about this story, the one that I am lingering with this morning is that the stranger was revealed to be Jesus. He has said that when you feed and clothe the least of these, and visit those who are sick and in prison – you do it to Me. As so it follows that the mark of God- the revelation of Jesus in an inhospitable world -is care for the stranger. This had long been a theme throughout scripture. Hospitality was literally a matter of life and death back in those times. It was the godly person who welcomed the stranger.

This is truly transformational not just for the stranger as he/she learns to receive God’s welcome, but for the rest of us as well. God’s hospitality enlargens us because there is only one Table from which our heavenly food is given. We are tempted to think there’s a table for conservatives, one for liberals, one for Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, gay Christians, Pentecostals (I can’t list every group out there but you get the idea) and even in 2009, different ethnicities. And we secretly or not so secretly believe that ours is the right Table. But just as we all stand on One foundation, there is only one Table. One Lord, one faith, one Baptism. One Body- broken and given for all. When we have dinner with Jesus, we learn to sup with the stranger. Or even more simply, with someone who is merely different.

The Table offers hospitality to the Stranger in that it teaches us that no-one “deserves” communion. All are invited freely. This is in complete opposition to the corrupt world order which says, just take care of your own, seek your own needs first, create an exclusive club. This world order loves the center stage, the power, the success, entitlement, special honors and privilege. Jesus loves the margins, the least important, the voiceless, the outcast, even, as Kathleen Norris says, the surpassingly strange. He teaches us how to gather them in.

All of the electric excitement that we feel on this day by remembering Dr. King and by anticipating the history-making inauguration tomorrow reveals the deep longing in us all for real community, for oneness, unity and welcome. People long for communion. I believe the meal that Jesus serves to us has offered that all along. But we miss out if we do not get the point that it is not truly received if it is not shared. He is still revealed in the breaking of the bread.

Dr. King was truly a prophet. He spoke of a unity and brotherhood that we couldn’t begin to imagine in those days. Of course we have a long way to go but what can we imagine for community now?

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4:19-21