Social Justice

Dear Church

Church, if we just decided to be The Church, there is so much WORLD to which we could be attending*

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we don’t want to.

Instead, we want members. We want people to come to our church events. We want people to like our linoleum and our pastors. We want to entertain, sustain, enliven, and energize public crowds, but we are not as good at that as are the stadiums, restaurants, dance clubs, and farmer’s markets. Instead what we want is a secure compound with a secret tunnel into Heaven for the day the zombie hordes finally breach the wall. Except, we aren’t very good at administering that, either.

You know what we are good at, though?

Theology.

Hugs and empathy in a world which celebrates toughness and stoicism.

Preparing and sharing food in ways which make everyone feel like a friend.

Talking about the dead, and holding hands with the dying. The worst experience in the world is a death devoid of meaning and a funeral among people without a faith.

Being friends with murderers. Don’t believe me? Read about United Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, and Jürgen Moltmann .

Feeding strangers-even the dirty, crazy, lazy, unworthy ones.

Communion.

Entrusting the management of our organization to the hands of just about anybody who comes through our doors.

Honoring sheep.

And what resources do we have to help us offer these gifts to our neighborhoods and communities?

Houses and churches-empty or underused spaces which we can employ free of charge; and they are in every town in Iowa. Some of them were even built where there is not a town.

If we could wrap our heads around it, we have a shared bank account with tens, hundreds, thousands, and through the Connection, millions of other people. (This in a culture which rewards people that hoard, hide, and password protect every possible resource they can get their hands on.)

Families that are not related by blood-we have cousins, grandparents, children, parents, and siblings to spare.

Oodles of people with time, flexible schedules, and unique life experiences who can bridge the space between faith communities and their local School Boards, Chambers of Commerce, Housing Authorities, Hospital Administrations, Parent-Teachers’ Associations, Insurance Companies, Retail Stores and Sports Booster Clubs.

Hands on opportunities for people to gain experience in:

Fine Arts, Business Administration, Volunteer Management, Computer Literacy, Grant Writing, Journalism, Audio/Visual Technology, Public Speaking, Financial Management, Web Design, Systems and Information Technology, Spreadsheets, Wood Working, Plumbing, Electrical, Auto Mechanics, Nursing, Meeting Management and Facilitation, History, Humanities, Social Studies, Biology, Food Science, Event Planning, Hospitality, International Relations, Cultural Exchange . . . 

A story that always ends with a Beginning.

The world has issues. The world has problems. The world has patriotism, politics, and Oscar nominations to worry about.

You know what we have? We have the memory of God. And that memory, that reminder of who and whose we are, it has the power to do nothing less than transform the world. What would you rather spend your time attending to?

http://afterhoursdenver.org/
Social Justice

Homesick

Monday night, my significant other and I worshiped with AfterHours Denver, a United Methodist Church which meets in a bar and lives into the motto: Love More, Laugh More, Judge Less. That night, a member of the AfterHours community shared about how serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Civic Center Park every Tuesday for the last three years has changed his life. During the message, there was time for people to talk with those around them. There were five of us at the table, strangers when we sat down, and by the end of the discussion time I had received these amazing stories of how AfterHours had changed the lives of those seated there-given meaning, made a difference, touched Divinity.

One man shared that he did not know the Bible very well, but that he experienced the love of Christ every time he made eye contact with someone at the park. Another shared that it had taken almost a year of weekly visits to the park before the folks there trusted AfterHours enough to come and receive. He seemed humbled and grateful to have been given that trust. At the end of service, people hung around for about an hour of fellowship. During that time, three other people dropped by my table to share about AfterHours. I could tell that AfterHours is the highlight of the week for many there: an evening of deep connection, Spiritual engagement and an open environment for questions and religious seeking.

I experienced a similar vibe at a Sunday School class in an Iowa United Methodist Church whose members requested that I not share their names or location. The Sunday I attended, there were about 13 people at that class. There were people ranging in age from 17 to . . well, it probably would not be polite to say. The group was sharing with me a mission project they had taken on a couple of years ago. The members of the group had read Max Lucado’s Outlive Your Life: You Were Born to Make a DifferenceThe book had spurred a desire to do something more than simply read and discuss books. They started looking for ways to make a difference.

Inspired by a story they read in a newspaper, they decided to take up a collection. The money was then given to one member of the group who was tasked with keeping an eye open for a way to help out someone in the community. No strings, no names, no credit-simply to use that money to make someone’s day better or to help someone with a difficult situation. That member would report back to the group and the next month, a different member of the class is given the money to give away.

I sat for over an hour as the members of the class shared the ways they had been moved to touch their neighbors’ lives with the money their group collected: a family swimming pass, a Wal-Mart gift card, paint for someone whose home was damaged in a flood. The magic, they said, is in being anonymous. One woman shared how transforming it is to be used by God. Their words and stories tumbled over one another as they joyfully shared not only their own stories, but the stories from others in the group.

Their pastor said that the excitement that Sunday School class generates has had a significant impact even on the church members who don’t attend the class. It has created a bit of contagious generosity and has raised the congregation’s self-esteem, but the members of the class are clear: participating in this ministry is not about them being generous benefactors. It is about being people called by God to make a difference, and the overwhelming generosity of God in supplying opportunities and resources to make that difference.

At a visit to Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, someone asked me how I liked the church. I said, “This will probably sound odd, but being here makes me feel homesick.” He said, “Not at all, Sister. You know what homesick is, don’t you? It is the feeling you get when you remember what it feels like to be loved.” I experienced that same homesickness in both Denver and that Iowa Sunday school class. It is the feeling, or thirst, if you will, that calls me into discipleship and out into the world with whatever of Christ I can manage to share.

I wonder where it is that you experience that “homesickness,” that feeling you get when you remember what it feels like to be loved. Do you find it in your church on Sunday morning or Saturday night? Do you experience it at your workplace or in your Sunday school? Maybe you encounter it while stocking shelves at the pantry or serving meals through some sort of outreach. Does it encourage you to protest and to disrupt? Does it keep you from losing hope when all the media knows to feed you is bad news?

If not, seek it out, because God is in it. Christ inhabits the homesick you feel when it isn’t home you’re missing, and the Holy Spirit breathes through communities of people all living into that same hope: a world where we can love more, laugh more and judge less.

Social Justice

Bearers of the Good News

‘Tis the season, but we should not jump too soon and too quickly to the joyous occasion of Christ’s birth. Still, today, God grows in the waters, and in the darkness. God is still a seed germinating, hidden beneath Mary’s heart. God is still, today, but a scrap of hope which has yet to breathe on its own.

God is a hope and even on Christmas, will be born weak and dependent on human nurturance to survive. I wonder if we jump too soon to expectation of salvation and forget our own roles as the midwives, mothers, cooks, babysitters, daycare providers, teachers, and foster parents of Messiah. Hope, peace, joy, light and love may well be born on Christmas Day, but it takes a life (several lives, in fact) for them to develop, grow, flourish and thrive.

As you look around this Advent and Christmas season, I invite you to notice those who have nurtured hope. I invite you to encourage those who have given food and drink to peace. I invite you to celebrate those who sing, dance and foster playful joy. If the Christ knew to love, it is because the baby Jesus was born, not only to a manger, but to a community of love; and still today, it is people of radical humility and love, communities of outstanding peace and embodied joy who emanate the light of Christ into a world which sometimes seems barren of possibility.

You and I are in this thing together, together with Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit to carry, bear, birth and nourish that better world to which we aspire.

-Inspired by the contagious witness of Katie Meyler and the  More Than Me Foundation

Adoration of the Magi: image used with permission: capl@washjeff.edu 

Abundant Life

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?