He who looks at the pain and suffering in the world and concludes that there is no God is like a hammer that complains that a pile of lumber and a box of nails is not a house. It forgets that there is an architect, and a carpenter, and that it, after all, is a hammer.
There is enough beauty in the world to assure us there is a heaven and enough ugliness to remind us that it is not here.
The tragedy of the church is that we are often about cross purposes instead of being about the purposes of the cross.
How long will the poor remain docile? How long will they patiently endure as more and more wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands? The poor are powerless as long as they are few, but when they are many that balance can change quickly. Social conflict can escalate. Historically, underprivileged classes have shifted the balance of power, overthrown governments and formed nations when the rich failed to recognize a moral imperative toward the poor. Those with the most to gain and the least to lose have been the spark that has ignited many a revolution.
Not since 1929 have so few people controlled so much of the wealth in our country. In his new book, Perfectly Legal, New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reports that between 1970 and 2000 average income for the top 13,400 households in America increased from $3.6 million to nearly $24 million. That’s a staggering 538% increase. At the same time, the average income for 90% of US households actually fell from $27,060 to $27,035. These 13,400 households account for just .01% of the population, according to Johnston.
The Gulf Widens
A widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots is a dangerous condition. Left without remedy it is inevitable that those without resources will feel justified in taking what they need from those have more. Even now, a kind of class conflict is beginning to emerge. At its baser level, it is substance abuse that drives some of the poor, either toward an escape from hopelessness or toward the promise of wealth from drug trafficking. Of course all those who live in poverty are not substance abusers. This is no organized warfare of the weak and poor against the rich and powerful, but it is a redistribution of wealth from one class to another, fueled by the drug trade and a rising indignation over persistent inequality. Either way, those who have a surplus or at least enough, become the target for those who feel deprived of what they need.
In fact, there is a growing crowd of clear-thinking poor, victimized by an unsympathetic economy, who may well be growing impatient for opportunity. This was the message of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement. “We are the 99 percent!” became the slogan of an economic class increasingly dissatisfied with income inequality. What will be the outcome of their dream deferred; of the wasted potential of their children, and their shame? Will there be a tipping point when the “99%” explode with contempt toward the rich and aggressively intolerant of the powerful?
Can it happen in America? History argues that it can. All the more likely because nothing inflames and aggravates social conflict like frustrated goals and un-kept promises — “a dream deferred.”
Social Conflict and the Church
And where will the church be when the impatience of the poor becomes rage? I suppose it depends on whose side the church appears to be on. Will Christ-followers be found in the camp of the Republican economic agenda or among the power brokers of the Democrats? Will the church be perceived to be among the “Republicrats?”
Will the church be found washing feet or toasting the elite? Will they be found in the home of the beggar or in the back pocket of the wealthy? At the moment when social conflict becomes revolution, will churches be burning along with courthouses and corporate offices?
Or will the followers of Christ be found among the poor? Will it be understood that followers of Jesus are advocates of those who have the least? It is an important question that will need to be answered if the poor are to be ignored much longer. Perhaps it is time for churches to consider the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:
The manager said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes” And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors…
When the manager recognized that he could no longer hold on to his status among the powerful, he became a friend to the poor. The motive of the church ought to be more noble than that considering that Jesus came to the poor first.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community. And as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle for me, it is sort of a splendid torch, which I’ve got hold of for a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
~George Bernard Shaw
â€œBut Jesus didnâ€™t stop with stories; he also gave us way to authenticate themâ€¦He told usâ€¦that you tell whether a story is true by the lives of the people who tell it. You judge a story by its tellerâ€¦You will know them by their fruit, he said. A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad one bad fruit. If the people telling a story love each other and live together with depth and grace, then their story is true. If they donâ€™t, then their story is sillinessâ€”or worse. A good story enables people to lay down their lives for each other and become one.â€
Picking up on an earlier entry about shopping locally in the interest of developing relationship, perhaps this web link will be helpful. Since it’s doubtful we can “save the corporate soul” perhaps we should do our best to preserve the relationships where true souls reside.
Even so, to talk about the business of the church is to talk also about disagreement, tension, and conflict. As more people participate there will be more ideas as to how things should go, and thus there will be more controversy. So there is no doubt that the larger, commissary-type churches have the easier time of it. The proper people are in charge and the average churchgoer is not consulted, his opinion is not welcomed, and he probably does not realize that he has a right to one. The views of a single member-or even a small group of members are not given serious attention. In the large, professionally organized church, it takes a major rebellion to endanger the peace. In â€¦ caravans, tempests in teapots are the order of the day.
Vernard Ellerâ€™s insightful book (available online in its entirety—yeehaw!) divides gatherings of Christ followers into two types, commissary and caravan. He also uses other contrasting pairs, but it would be easier if youâ€™d just read the book rather than make me summarize them. Hereâ€™s how Eller defines the two types I mention above.
Commissary: A commissary is an institution that has been commissioned to dispense particular goods, services, or benefits to a select constituency.
Caravan: A group of people banded together to make common cause in seeking a common destination [picture a slow-moving wagon train]â€¦Its validity lies not in its apparatus but in the performance of its caravaners–each and every one of them.
The quote I started out with is taken from the fifth chapter of the book, â€œHow a Church Can Give Its People the Business.â€ The author makes it amply clear that decision making in the caravan church is a messy business and I have to agree. Over the last fifteen years since we left the institutional church, there have been many uneasy meetings where people express themselves and we have to work through disagreements and hurt feelings.
Is it worth it? You bet.
The alternative is to become a commissary and allow the decisions to be made by a group of insiders who believe they know better the mind of God than the rest of the group. Iâ€™ve been there and done that. Iâ€™ve sat in elderâ€™s meetings and made decisions that affected the lives of people in the church without even considering whether those people ought to be given a say. Efficient? Sure. We made decisions and moved on to the next agenda item. Check. Check. Checkâ€¦
In those days I was a part of very large churches. In such environments you have to be concerned about efficiency, I guess, but in the mean time, a subtle caste system develops. After a time, I concluded that there had to be a better way. Thatâ€™s one of the main reasons I felt drawn to small groups of people in a caravan—a rickety bunch of squeaky wagons that break down and get stuck in the mud along the way. That is more consistent with what I see described in the New Testament. A bunch of squeaky wagons better resembles the churches in the New Testament than the well-oiled machinery that we sometimes aspire to in contemporary churches. As inefficient as that is, as uncomfortable as it is, I think itâ€™s preferable.
Weâ€™re going through one of those uncomfortable times in the â€œSunday Summitâ€ right now. A couple of us are feeling restless to â€œgo outâ€ and plant another fellowship. Of course that means change and change is always a pain. Personally, Iâ€™d rather just stay put. I need—or think I need— the security. But the clear command of Jesus is not to become entrenched. His command is to become fearless and take risks. Our leader calls us to adventure.
But that doesnâ€™t mean that any of us can make the choice alone. If it affects all of us we all need to be involved in the hard work of seeking the mind of the Spirit. Already we have discovered some baggage canâ€™t afford to carry. There has been emotional cost, but the temporary pain will be more than worth it as this part of our passage becomes part of our shared history. The difference between tenderfoot city-slickers and trail-hardened pioneers is a lot of hard miles.
Thank God that his Spirit is along for the journey.
Iâ€™ll finish with a this from â€œWestern Theologyâ€ (another great little book) by Wes Seeliger:
The church is the covered wagon. It is a house on wheels–always on the move. No place is its home. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die. It bears the marks of life and movement–it creaks, is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves in on the future and doesn’t bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn’t comfortable, but the pioneers could care less. There is a new world to explore. (http://www.westerntheology.com/WT/WTBook.htm)
Because women in the twenty-first century [in the U.S.] have basic human rights, we often take for granted the revolutionary aspect of Jesus’ bold efforts to elevate women in a society that degraded them. What seems like a normal action to us—Jesus intimate conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, for example—was really a dramatic act in a culture in which it was inappropriate for a man to speak with a woman in public.
~J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women. Pg. 11.
Occasionally, I get a call from a guy who wants to visit our faith community. During the discussion I always point out that our gatherings are participatory and inclusive just to make sure that we aren’t being checked out by somebody that has a problem with women. There are guys like that out there looking for that little pocket of orthodoxy that fits his idea of what the “true church” is, a place where he is safe from the contributions of the sisters. It is what such men call a “biblical” church.
I have no patience with these guys. Here’s how I see it:
If wives are not regarded in the equality of the Spirit, then husbands, in the weakness of their flesh often will attempt to enforce balance in the relationship by what I call “New Testament Law,” a statutory approach to faith. Husbands should never expect to achieve by control a result that ought to be engendered by their own character. A godly wife should inspire men to greater maturity not intimidate them to inactivity or domination. Inspiration draws the body (the church) upward. Intimidation leads to stubborn complacency in men and frustrated rebellion in women.
Men who feel the need to control the women in their lives would be better served by forgiving the women of their past and encouraging the women in their present rather than attempting to control them—seeking to be protected from them—via “statutes” drawn from the New Testament.