Archive for February, 2009

posted by Amy on Feb 20

The founder of Friends of Justice, which broke the stories of “The New Jim Crow” in Tulia, TX and Jena, LA, asks, “How and where can racial injustice and the need for racial reconciliation be broached in public without creating the social fractures we witnessed in Tulia and Jena?”

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posted by Amy on Feb 13

The author of this post says, “I have never been able to confirm the adage that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the characters for disaster and opportunity, but if it isn’t true it ought to be. . . .The death of capitalism, or rather the revelation of its profound diseasedness, is an opportunity it would be ironic to call golden.”

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posted by Amy on Feb 11

Pastor Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, talks about his journey from ultra-conservative Oral Roberts University to being the pastor of the largest United Methodist church in the U.S.

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posted by Amy on Feb 11

A lot of my friends are non-religious. Some are deists. Some are atheists. Some are agnostics. They ask me questions I can’t answer, or they say things like “I wish I had your faith.” I wish they did too. I think it would help them. But I don’t know how to help them see God. I can’t even explain how I went from not seeing to being able to see.

It is a huge mystery to me why I wound up in seminary. I’m not all that religious, if by religious you mean sanctimonious, or holier-than-thou, or sure about things. Yet, I know without a doubt that I belong here, and that God wants me to be here. Do not ask me to explain to you how I know that. How do you know the sun will rise tomorrow morning? How do you know your keys will fall on the floor if they drop from your hand? The truth of these things is not contingent on your belief. They just are. To me, everything I see is God at work. To you, if you are not a believer, such is not the case. I wish to hell I knew how to bridge that gap.

Maybe it’s just biological. Some of us have a “God gene” and some don’t. That’s possible, but I don’t think so. Without getting into details, I know, without a doubt, that God has intervened in my life at certain critical moments, and saved me, sometimes from death itself, sometimes from fates worse than death, or just really stupid, destructive ideas.  The most critical God-interventions occurred when I was an atheist or agnostic, or too young to have more than a primitive, superstitious kind of faith. It’s not about “tit for tat.” God does not dole out grace and blessings to the “right” people and punish the ones who don’t do the right things. God loves all of her children. I know God loves me and has saved me, more than once. Other people, without a God-perspective, would call it coincidence, or happenstance. If I did that it would knock out the last thing tying me to any kind of rationality or hope. I would lose my mind.

So how come I can tolerate all the doubt and paradox and not-knowing? That’s a good question. To me, it’s the only way to make it work. I am not superstitious. I do not think any particular outcome is contingent on saying the right incantations or believing the right things, or suppressing who I am in order to gain favor or avoid punishment. I do all I can to figure everything out and have it make sense. Part of that, for me, is being grateful to God, and being in an active relationship with God, and submitting to God’s will.

I’ve seen the downside of making gods of other people, or of earthly rewards. A verse from my favorite hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” is, “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise. Thou mine inheritance now and always. Thou and thou only, first in my heart. High King of Heaven my treasure thou art.” I can say this, without equivocation: Before I started actively putting God first in my life, I was miserable and wretched. When I decided to do God’s will, as often as possible, as well as possible, the misery and wretchedness went away.

I hope it doesn’t sound trite, or like a cop-out, but a lot of things come down to the realization that, although we are made in the image and likeness of God, there is only one God, and God is not like us. We are God’s children, God’s beloved ones, but to some extent God is and will always be unknowable. To judge God and describe God by human standards is to commit the most common and eggregious error. God is God, and we are not. If you want a God you can understand and relate to all the time, you’re stuck with Zeus or Odin.

There’s a great line from the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I can’t quote it exactly, because I gave away my copy of the book. But as I recall the author is in an ashram in India having some kind of spiritual or emotional crisis, and she’s meditating, and, all of a sudden, she gets this message blasted at her, “YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS.” I have experienced that same God. I have been in the depths of despair. I have been knocked flat by circumstance. And God has seen me through, every single time, and has transformed me in the process.

God did that because God loves me. But there’s a price. God’s love involves relationship, and responsibility. The Bible says, “We love because God first loved us.” It is our obligation, our duty, our privilege, to express the love of God in our lives, in our interactions with others, in the way we spend our time, our money, and our energy. God wants us to serve him. This is not because God needs us, but because we need God.

The thing is, it’s the best way to live. It isn’t hard. Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We were made to love God and to love each other. It is our truest nature. So it isn’t that hard. OK, some if it is hard. Working out in real life the essential message of the Gospel can be challenging. But what’s the alternative? Making it up as you go along? Putting something that’s not eternal, perfect, all-loving at the center of your life? Have you tried that? How did that work out for you?

Don’t think you have to know everything before you jump in. God loves you the way you are. God made you. God is constantly inviting you to come home. I had my first profound religious experience on the basis of a half-assed, hedge-my-bets kind of prayer. I opened the door the tiniest little crack, and it was enough for me to feel the love of God and to permit God to intervene and create a situation of love and healing inside something that, had it been left to me, would have been only conflict and bitterness. This was at a time that I didn’t even believe in God. So when people say “I wish I had your faith,” I think about the mustard seed. It doesn’t take much at all, only the tiniest little bit. That’s all I had. God loved me and rescued me anyway.

posted by Amy on Feb 4

Paul Polak treats the world’s poor as customers rather than charity recipients. He gives them affordable, market-based ways to lift themselves out of poverty. He has an exciting and empowering approach to economic development and to creating long-lasting, structural change.

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posted by Amy on Feb 4

For my entire childhood and most of high school, I attended Sunday services and went to Sunday school classes. I belonged to the youth group.  What I learned about Christianity in those years was characterized primarily by its lack of distinctiveness. The Methodist church of my formative years was a bastion of “civil religion.” People went to church because it was the thing to do, and because neighbors and friends were there. There were potluck suppers, weddings, baptisms, and confirmations. It was what a friend of mine calls a “Christian country club.” Not one revolutionary notion ever floated down from any of those pulpits. When the protest movements of the late 60′s and early 70′s occurred, although I realized there were religious people like Daniel Berrigan involved, it did not occur to me that there might be biblical underpinnings to their actions, because I had never heard a word about justice, or any political concept, when I was in church.

Not long after I began attending Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, I took part in an adult education series based on a booklet by Ched Myers called “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.” By this time I had learned that there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible dealing with poverty or social justice, that liberation theology teaches a “preferential option for the poor,” and that the sabbath laws in the Hebrew Bible were not just about “remembering the sabbath day to keep it holy”, but were also about maintaining a just and equitable economic system. My lifelong hunger for justice had led me first to a number of secular activities aimed at righting wrongs and redressing inequities, and then, ultimately, to seminary. Even with that background, I was struck by the contrast between the civil religion of my youth and the earnest seekers in that classroom.

The first principle behind Sabbath Economics is that the earth, and everything in it, belongs to God. It was created to be “enough,” to feed all the creatures, to water the plants, to provide for every need. From the stories about manna in the wilderness, we learn that God not only feeds us, but also that God disapproves of hoarding. When people gathered more manna in a day (other than the day before the Sabbath) than they needed, it would become inedible by morning.

People like to deal with the uncomfortable parts of the Bible by “spiritualizing” them. It is especially interesting when fundamentalists do this. Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. He said the first would be last and the last would be first. These are not ambiguous statements, yet some people like to say that it’s only those who don’t have the right attitude toward their wealth who have trouble. And what is the right attitude toward wealth? And where does Jesus say that? I’m quite sure there are no true biblical literalists. At any rate I’ve never met one. Just point out something obvious, like one of these statements, and watch them start interpreting and “reading in” things. But I digress.

What about the early church? After Pentecost, people began to live communally, to pool all their resources and provide for everyone. The Bible tells us that no one was in need. This is especially striking in light of the fact that the vast majority of people in that time were extremely poor. What are we supposed to make of that? Are we actually supposed to follow suit? John Wesley thought so, although he was not successful in convincing his movement to do that.

I am not actually knocking wealth, or wealth creation. I think more people should have more meaningful opportunities to support themselves and their families, to do useful work, and to have the dignity of being self sufficient. I am excited about things like the “social business” ideas of Muhammed Yunus and the entrepreneurial solutions to poverty created and marketed by Paul Polak. (See a Business Week article about him, posted elsewhere on this blog.) But people are greedy, and insecure, and materialistic. Once they have more than they need, they want to protect it, and get even more, and keep others from taking it away. They start thinking they deserve it (and thinking that those who are poor deserve to be poor.) Christians have no excuse for giving in to these baser instincts. We have a Savior who told us not to worry about food or clothing or shelter, but instead to love God and love our neighbors, and to seek first the kingdom of God.

It’s obvious that Jesus prefers the poor, and that they are the “sheep” that he told Peter to feed. What’s not so obvious is that he loves the rest of us too, and he loves us too much to leave us in our illusions of self-sufficiency and in our spiritual poverty. I am convinced that if we do as Jesus said, we will be richly rewarded for it. If we claim to be his followers, if we say he is our Lord (meaning, our boss, right?) then how can we disobey? Why don’t we trust him?

I’m including myself in those questions about “us.” The “civil religion” of my childhood did nothing to prepare me to think in terms of radical generosity and hospitality.  I have finally become aware of the issue, and am beginning to notice those 2,000 poverty and social justice verses in the Bible, and I am beginning to step out into this radical (but ancient) faith.

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