The Rough Places Plain

One of this week’s Advent scriptures comes to us from Isaiah 40 verses 1-11:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

What do you think it means that the coming of Christ shall lift up the valleys? How do you imagine the hills and mountains being “made low?” How do you envision Jesus as the Savior who will level the uneven ground and smoothing out the rough patches?

Please leave your comments below and add to our collective understanding.

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What Are Our Storehouses For?

In the coming months, you will likely hear a lot about abundance and scarcity, luxury and lack. We, as a culture, are obsessed with these things. We are obsessed with who has what, who has not, and how each of them got there. We take investment courses and offer classes in our churches designed to help individual people reduce their debt. We drive our children towards careers that will make them economically successful, and we think in terms of profit and loss when it comes to our support of camps, campuses, Appalachia Service Project, McCurdy School, or the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference of the United Methodist Church. We tell ourselves stories about what we can and cannot afford and turn the power of our disdain upon those who can’t seem to find a way to get by.

President Barack Obama said that income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.”  In his TED talk, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies, public health researcher Richard Wilkinson claims that the wider the gap between the richest people and the poorest people in any given group, the more instability there will be in society. More violent crime. Higher infant death rates. More women dying giving birth to children. More children giving birth to children. Lower math and literacy scores among children. Overall life expectancy. It even shows up in intangibles such as trust and social mobility, satisfying relationships and how much bullying someone will experience in her lifetime.

And that is simply the difference in income between the poorest and the wealthiest within a group, not the amount of money (land, investment capital, etc.) that either the poorest or the richest have. In many instances, poorer nations have better social health than wealthier nations. The wider the difference, the less healthy the society is, if Mr. Wilkinson’s data and interpretation are accurate. [I highly suggest that you click the link above and invest the time to watch his TED talk.]

United Methodists like to trace our family tree back to people who believed that Salvation is not just for each individual soul, but is also the gift of Jesus for the whole world; it is an idea that the Good News is made visible where social ills begin to fade. Historically, those ills have included unjust work conditions (including subsistence wages, unregulated work hours and the use of children in the workforce), intemperance (the abuse of alcohol, specifically) and games of chance (gambling, cards, and casinos).

I believe that as your churches spend more time with MissionInsite data via the Healthy Church Initiative and as individuals challenge themselves to truly look at the social conditions which surround them, those social ills, along with many others, will become readily visible. To test Mr. Wilkinson’s theory, how wide is the gap between those with too little and those with too much in your town, neighborhood or county?

So, what does this mean for the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? I think it means that we need to look a little bit sideways at the mission and vision of our church. Are we a church obsessed with economic success? Are we focused on our profit margins, investment returns and the self-sufficiency of our ministries? Are we collecting and hoarding  resources? Are we building bigger barns and burying our talent under six feet of topsoil and a crop of King Corn?

Or, like Joseph, is the United Methodist Church in Iowa bringing God’s abundance into storehouses so that it will be ready to give away to those wiped out by famine and flood? Are we bringing together all that we have so we can share it back out to the world around us in a more just and kindly manner? Are we leveraging the power of our government to level the opportunity gaps around us? Are we ourselves living sacrificially in an understanding that by having less others can have more? Are we using our money power to lift up those in need, to rebuild that which has been destroyed, and to invest in a more equal society such that it may be accounted a glory to our God?

I believe that the Church’s storehouses are meant to be perpetually empty. The only reason resources come in is so that they can go back out again.  We succeed when we spend more than we have to clothe, feed, educate, visit, empower, liberate, and heal. Christ’s economy is a budget perpetually in the red.  So, affluent churches, affluent Christians, affluent people: what are our storehouses for?

Deeper Life Is Calling

The trouble with living the kind of fast-paced, modern, opportunity-rich lifestyle our American culture is designed to provide, is that deep living becomes almost impossible, while those who are less skilled at skiing across the surface find themselves treading water while the speed boat races on ahead.

I hear this in the voice of the middle-aged mother whose deepest spiritual thirst is to have a sit-down dinner with her family; in the timid desire of the District Lay Leader to see more United Methodists at District fellowship events; and in the exasperation expressed by a Mayor at the Governor’s Task Force on National Service with the fact that no one wants to run for his office, leaving him unable to retire and spend more time with his spouse pursuing travel and the dreams he put on hold to be of public service.

There is no time in the race to the top for a child whose family life has come unglued to mourn, rest, heal and grow. There is only a timesheet of State mandated hours in the classroom. There is no space for unscheduled and unstructured play. There is almost no patience for slow things to grow, and there is no part of an organization’s life cycle which accounts for Winter: the time of rest, death, fallowness and hibernation which allows expectation and hope to take on dimension and form.

And in the life of faith, this pace and dimensionless living leads to writing checks in lieu of stopping by to visit. It leads to an individual, internal and intellectual engagement with Christian ideas while the living, breathing, embodied and incarnated Gospel stands unrecognized among us in the pews. It also leads to a kind of greed and possessiveness when it comes to “doing good.” We want to meet all the needs ourselves or in our own way.

Partner with that ELCA church across the street to develop an after school tutoring lab? Inconceivable! Invite a group of mental health care providers from our town over for lunch so we can compare notes on services needed and barriers to those services? Forget it! And imagine inviting that schizophrenic daughter of one of our members to come take part in that conversation? That’s just plain crazy! We already know better. We know best.

Over the past week, I have seen beneath the surface, and I am telling you there is a rich and beautiful reality most of us never get to see. A pastor’s spouse from another country finding a language partner and cultural ambassador in an employee at Casey’s while the 6 to 10 other pastors’ spouses in town likely never even knew he had arrived. The systems of care that already exist  that are completely unknown to pastoral leaders simply because organizations like NAMI, AmeriCorps and United Way don’t know how to connect more deeply than by dropping off a brochure.

When you put on your snorkel and mask, put your face in the water and simply look around, opportunities to connect with other people, with deeper things, emerge like phantom schools of fish. Fair warning, though, your progress toward the shore will slow considerably. Your friends on the jet skis will make it back to the resort hours before you. You may spend your entire afternoon simply contemplating the coral and may never even realize there is an octopus there.

We are not taught to tread water. We are taught that survivors swim. We are not taught to value the small kindnesses that lift our days. We are taught to scrap and fight to make sure our own dignity is never seen to suffer. We are not taught to value the time spent making a bread dough. We are taught to exert our power to buy bread that has already been made. We are not taught that really living means we accept the fact of our own dying. We are taught that real life is the consumption of sugar water and air.

Yet, that deeper life is calling, and the pursuit of that deeper life is the life of the Church. It is the vocation of students of Christ. It means we live always in a future which isn’t here, a present which never gets where we hope it is going, and a past whose perfection never actually was. It is accepting losses and limitations. It is giving up our spot in line. It is admitting we actually didn’t do it all on our own. It is deciding that our neighbors’ financial stability is more important to us than our own, and it is living as though other people’s children have a right to the same privileges as our own. It is a life which does not avoid sacrifice, yet carries compassion for those who suffer. And its satisfaction finds expression where peace, justice, and gratitude are seen to grow.