The Worthy Poor

The following is a guest post from Eric Schubert, a provisional member of the Iowa Annual Conference, serving as lead pastor at Greenfield United Methodist Church in Greenfield, IA.

I recently gave a sermon series in my church based on the Scriptures about being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20). During that series we talked about what it means to belong to Christ and the Kingdom of God and represent that Kingdom on Earth. One aspect we discussed was how easily ideas of the world come to seem natural or even Christian when in fact they are not. One idea we discussed was that of the worthy poor.

The idea of the worthy poor was firmly established in Western thought by the philosophers of Greece and Rome (especially Plato in ancient Greece, reinforced by the Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in Rome) as well as by the economic systems of the pagan Roman Empire. The economic system during the time of Jesus is known as patronage. Patronage is a wealthy or powerful person taking care of less wealthy or powerful people. These (strict) levels of power and wealth were determined by familial, political, financial, or national relationships. The idea of the “poor” or “needy” as we understand it now did not exist in Roman pagan thought. Instead, a person with money was obliged to financially support those within the rich person’s patronage expectation.

So what did one think about those in need outside of a patronage relationship? Frankly, they rarely thought about them. When someone in need outside of a patronage relationship was thought of the view of those in need was quite negative. Plato, hundreds of years before the time of the Roman Empire, stated the idea of the worthy poor perfectly when he wrote, “it is not the starving as such or the similarly afflicted who deserve sympathy, but the man who, in spite of his moderation or some other virtue or progress toward it, nevertheless experiences some misfortune.” Plautus, a famous comedic playwright who lived in Rome around 180 BC, developed a character role for beggars in his plays which derided and mocked them. He wrote it was better to let beggars starve, since “he does a beggar a bad service who give him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost, and the lives of the poor are merely prolonged to their own misery.” Seneca, the great Roman leader and Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, believed one should only assist those who were deserving. “The good leader and judge ‘will not avert his countenance of his sympathy from anyone because he has a withered leg, or is emaciated and in rags, and is old and leans upon a staff; but all the worthy he will aid and will, like a god, look graciously upon the unfortunate.’ ” And thus, honestly, ends the writings found about those in need. This lack of record is in itself telling, but what has been found is all negative.

The Christian record of the time, from the earliest recorded writings leading into the Cappadocian period of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, is very different than that of the pagan leaders. The Bishops worked very hard to introduce the concept of the poor and needy and attempt to drastically change how people thought of those in need. Early Christians led radically different lives than those around them, both in economic and physical relationship. A part of weekly worship in the time of St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) was the collection and distribution of funds so “the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word take care of all in need.” There are examples of Christian care for the sick throughout the second and third centuries from Syria to Rome. Though unable to build institutional structures, early Christians served the sick, poor, and otherwise distressed to the best of their ability.

The Cappadocians (Basil, Nazianzus, and Nyssa) and Chrysostom publicly and directly challenged the Stoic and cultural views on how to treat those in need. They did this in several different ways. By embracing the many and various Biblical texts from the Old Testament through the New, the Bishops re-described the poor as kin (that they were sisters and brothers, related by the blood of Christ, and therefore to be cared for in a reinvented patronage system), argued the poor share the Image of God and as bearers of the image deserve help, that Matthew 25 really means what it says and the poor person you help truly is Jesus, and taught that acting like Christ makes one more like Christ (how Wesleyan!). Along with these teaching principles, the Bishops lived a life which practiced what they preached, doing all they could to help those in need.

Basil, after being elected Bishop in 370, took his families’ seemingly large land assets and used them to care for the poor and needy. This place came to be known as the “basilias” in honor of its founder and served as a poorhouse, hospital, and hospice for anyone in need for several hundred years. Chrysostom “reduced expenditure on the bishop’s palace and transferred it to a hospital. He founded new hospitals, including one for lepers.” The four also established an incredible theological foundation for these acts, and for the encouragement of others to care for those in need.

In expanding the concept of kin, the poor and sick were named by Nazianzus “brethren,” “brothers,” “your own member,” “equals and kindred,” “equal rank with us and of the same race,” and “one common reality.” These terms would be shocking to a pagan raised in the patronage system and an incredible expansion of the obligation of the converted Christian. Nyssa stated “Do not tear apart the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature…You see a man and in him you have no respect for a brother?…For you yourself belong to the common nature of all. Treat all therefore as one common reality.” The Bishops were working with language the Roman people understood (kinship language used in the patronage system) but completely redefined that language to help people understand what it meant to be a Christian.

Another important facet of the Bishops’ beliefs and teachings about actions toward the poor was that of the Image of God. For the Bishops the text about being created in “our image” (Gen. 1:26) and the implications of the incarnation were very important. If people were created in the image of God, and if when God the Son came to earth Christ put on human form, this human form is incredibly important. So much so that anyone who shares that form needs to be treated accordingly. Nazianzus addresses this issue by saying “Our brothers of God…born with the same nature…compounded of nerves and bones as we are; more than this, they also have received the same divine image as we have, and have perhaps guarded it better…They have put on the same Christ and have been made sharers with us of the same.” Notice the use of the term nature. This term that was being used by these same Bishops in when talking about Jesus’ relationship to God: they are both divine and both of the same nature, of the same substance. In the same way all people share the human nature of Christ and deserve the respect of that nature no matter what economic place they may be. Nyssa supported this, stating “Don’t despise these prostrate one as if they merit no respect. Ask who they are and discover their worth. They have put on the face of our savior. The Lord has given them his own image that they might be the stewards of our hope, the guardians of royalty.” For these Bishops the incarnation had tremendous consequences for how we treat all of fellow humanity.

The Image of God ties into a very close and literal reading of Matthew 25. To help a poor person was to literally help Christ, and to not help was to turn away from Christ, with all the concerns that would come from such an action. Nazianzus preached to his people:

“I honor that purse of Christ which encourages me to the care of the poor…I am fearful of that ‘left hand side’ and of ‘the goats’…because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…[W]hile there is yet time, visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh…but let us give him this honor in his needy one, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…”

Chrysostom states that “Jesus is alive in strangers, in the naked, the poor, the sick. Whatever has been done for those in need has been done to Jesus,” as well as “it is Christ who is clothed and fed in the person of the poor man.” There is not leeway in what they said. Help the poor or abandon Christ.

Finally, the Bishops taught that to help the poor was to act like Christ, and to act like Christ was what discipleship is all about. This aligns with Wesley’s understanding of perfection, though the Christians at this time (and still in the Orthodox Church) understood this idea as the process of divinization. As one grew closer to Christ one acts more and more like Christ, becomes more like Christ, and hence, becomes more divine. Though not exactly the same as Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both beliefs strongly rely on an understanding that the life of the Christian is a participatory one. We as Christians bear the fruit of Christ, and the more we participate with Christ (Wesley would say through the means of grace) the more we become more like Christ.

Nyssa talks about this process in relation to how to treat to the poor: being merciful as God is merciful. “Mercy and good deeds are works God loves; they divinize those who practice them and stamp them into the like of goodness that they may become the image of [God].” Nazianzus based part of his belief on right action regarding the poor in Matthew 5:45, “Resolve to imitate the justice of God” whose gifts are “equally upon all, the just and unjust alike, upholding the dignity of our nature by the worthiness of his gifts.” To state this in a Wesleyan way, since God’s mercy is over all His works, so we should be merciful to all we meet, and this mercy is demonstrated by service.

The theological foundation given us by the Bishops helps us avoid two major issues in our care for the poor today: a vision of the worthy poor taken straight from Stoic thought, or a paternalistic view that “we” can and should come save “them” from their present condition. On the first hand, we have seen that any view of “the worthy poor” is theologically unsupportable. On the other hand, if the poor are not only our sisters and bothers but Christ in the flesh, we would not approach helping someone in need without anything but grace, love, respect, and even a holy fear and trembling. Then we would serve not to “fix” or “bring them up to our level,” but instead to be with someone whom Christ is present. When we serve others this way we realize we will learn as much about Christ from whomever we serve as we bring to them, since we are serving Christ when we serve another. Looking at the writings and example of the Bishops gives us a different way of approaching the poor than many current perspective, one which I believe will do a much better job of truly being ambassadors for Christ and representatives of the Kingdom on Earth.

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No Excuses: Solar On Every Church-Guest Post By Deacon Wil Ranney

Is there anyone out there that still needs to be convinced of the devastating effect that climate change has on the world’s poor? Is there anyone out there that still needs to be convinced that people (we) are creating the problem? Is there anyone out there not convicted by Scripture to be good stewards of the earth?

If you can answer yes to one of those questions, email me, we’ll talk.

The next question is a harder. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel like they can make a difference? This is where Solar comes in.

Solar’s PR Problem

Solar has something of a PR problem, one that’s cleverly perpetuated by fossil fuel lobbies. In the 70’s when solar first hit the scene, people quickly discovered how pathetic solar was at harvesting energy. They could only capture about 10% of the energy that was hitting them. However, even in the last five years, there have been major improvements made in Solar panel efficiency. Some of these improvements have been made right hear in Iowa.

The latest solar innovations are pushing 40% efficiency, meaning we’ve experienced a 400% increase! The cheapest mass market options are around 25% efficient, still great. This is not your parent’s solar we’re talking about!

It’s Too Cloudy in Iowa

Germany, has roughly the same cloud cover as Iowa, and had a day last month where 75% of their power came from solar! They average above 30%.

It Takes Too Long to Get Your Money Back

According to CleanTechnica, the average payback for a solar project in Iowa is 17 years. Remember, these figures are based on older technology. 17 years might seam like a long time, but divide that by 100 and you’ll see that your rate of return is about 5.8% a year! What other safe investment will give you that rate of return. You’d be lucky to get .58%.

Where Will We Find the Money?

This takes a little creativity, but not too much. There are investment boards (like the Board of Pensions) that are always looking for safe investments and would be natural partners. Not surprisingly, there are lots of finance companies that are popping up to help out with solar projects because to the reliable rate of the return. Many of these are non-profit. Also, you could always offer bond options to your congregants. Solar panels are hardy, and last more than 25 years, which means at least 8 years of pure profit.

It Doesn’t Look “Churchy”

Sure it won’t fit in with your Akron Plan, red brick building; but what says “churchy” more than putting your commitment to God’s justice on public display!

Do You Have the Will?

It all comes down to this question. There are no other excuses that make sense. This is the very picture of a “win win” situation. There is little know financial risk and you meaningfully reduce your carbon emissions. What are we waiting for Iowa?

Photo: By Dietrich Krieger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Iowa Storm Response

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With reports of severe weather rolling in every day, I wanted to share this update from Rev. Catie Newman, Disaster Response Coordinator of Iowa. Click these links for a report on the damages in Iowa June 16 and June 18 . For contact information and information on how your faith community can best respond:

Suggested Action Steps for Iowa Response

1. Please pray for everyone affected by the water and flooding! We are expecting more rain and that means more runoff and that means more water everywhere!! Several more towns downstream are at risk if we get much more rain, AND because we are still “underwater” that there is not too much for volunteers to do at this time, we are however getting ready for when we can help.

2. We are collecting Clean-up buckets and clean-up supplies and getting them in place,

3. I anticipate that within the next week to 10 days we will begin needing volunteers to help clean outflooded homes, basements, businesses etc…after that we will have a time where things need to dry out and wait, after that we will need volunteers for longer term and rebuilding work.

4. NOW is the time to start planning when you can come and getting a team together. At this time we will want to have teams led by UMVIM Trained volunteer leaders (and yes!! we can get some trainings in right now!!) please contact Melissa Bracht-Wagner for scheduling(melisa.brachtwagner@yahoo.com)

5. There are UMC congregations close-by that you can contact for housing, please do not plan to stay in the town that you are volunteering in, really no space or useable water is available and we do not want to be a burden on top of the flooding. We would hope that teams will come prepared to be self-sufficient, food, tools, sleeping arrangements. If this interests you, send an email to me (Catie Newman, disaster.response@iaumc.org or johnstruckfarm@wiate.net) with the dates you are looking at and how many people on your team, we will put you in contact with the contact person in the town that needs your help.

6. Right now I need some help moving things around, delivering water and clean-up buckets and supplies and general assistance. I would prefer to have people volunteer with a partner, so that we always have a team. IF you have a vehicle that can pull a trailer (loaded with water, we have the trailer) and have a day to volunteer (in the next 14 days) please let me know 712-899-4067 phone or text, I can offer a church floor for sleeping and a place to shower.

Keep Alert, the weather forecasters are predicting, more and more serious weather systems. This can and will affect all of us.

Be Well

Catie and John Newman
IAUMC Disaster Response Coordinators
disaster.response@iaumc.org
712-899-4067 phone or text

It takes ALL of us to make a difference for EACH of us!

 

Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

When Faith Leaves the Museum

 

Samuel House
Samuel House

Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known for his exhibit Sunflower Seeds, is a conceptual artist who creates “social or performance-based interventions.” He is one of a number of artists who have decided to take art out of the museum and into society. For Ai Weiwei, these interventions are a way of “merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals.”

‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’   (Tate Museum)

The Women Are Heroes project is another example of an artist using the real world social order as a canvas on which to paint challenging ideas. The artist, JR, did this particular project “[i]n order to pay tribute to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism . . .”*

When art leaves the museum like this, it is transformed into social witness. It becomes something publicly available.  It eludes censorship, yet is  exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

For these two particular artists, these interventions are also intentionally meant to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. Their works expose inconvenient truths and somehow point to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

I think that vital faith is faith which has chosen to leave the museum. It is faith which endeavors to give voice to the voiceless-to bring the lives of unimportant and disregarded people into public view. It exposes inconvenient truths and somehow points to the cracks in our well-reasoned ideas about how the world is supposed to work and how it actually works.

Vital faith, like the artwork of Ai Weiwei, JR, or Iowa’s own Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, shows the light of God shining through those cracks, and brings the world’s attention to it.

This work-this faith in the world work-this social intervention-is social justice.  It is faith made publicly available. It is faith which eludes censorship, yet allows itself to be exposed to raw and sometimes violent criticism. It somehow moves back and forth across the line of legal and illegal, sanctioned and under sanction.  It is vulnerable and open to whatever interpretations, ideas and reactions it causes.

Social justice is a public faith witness which has the the power to break hearts and inspire people to moral elevation and awe. It paints compassion, grace and the irrational and extravagant love of Jesus on the canvas of the world.

What Are We Going to Do About It?

Conversations

A significant part of my job involves travelling long distances in my car, and I have found that I really enjoy listening to podcasts of TED talks during those times.  Here’s why: they expand my world, and they make me aware of the amazing capacity of human beings for doing marvelous things. The ideas and perspectives of the speakers can sometimes hurt because they are so different from my own. It is as if my own ideas have been running barefoot on a treadmill and suddenly find themselves out on Bear Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early Spring: the view is amazing, but it is steep, rocky, cold and their feet hurt.

Across Iowa, there is a sense that people are really struggling to make ends meet. Churches have seen increases in the number of people coming to food pantries and free meals. Food banks are asking for more donations. Especially in rural and bedroom communities, more of us are unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. I don’t know the statistics. I am simply reporting what I have been hearing: “People are hungry and hardshipped, and my church can’t seem to get on top of it.”

So, what are we going to do to get on top of it? There are ideas out there. There are Bible verses and trained theologians that can help us out. There are connective structures in place so not one of us has to do it alone. There are city, county, state, and local agencies that want our help. So, what are we going to do about it?

I think it may be time we started expanding our world a little bit. Let’s start celebrating the marvelous ingenuity of God’s creatures in God’s creation, and look for the startling and unexpected possibilities in our midst. Can we challenge ourselves to reach beyond the narrow scope of the NRSV and steal the coolest ideas from disciplines outside the church: architecture, zoology, and biomendicine? Is there a way to transcend our own biases toward particular economic or political models to simply gather concerned people together and start having conversations? Asking questions? Discovering skills, abilities, and ideas for engineering solutions for our eroding economies?

What would that look like? Who would you invite to the conversation? Are we prepared for the discomfort and adjustment that may occur? What’s God got to do with it? What might it look like for something to change for the better, and what would we feel like when it did?