Sunday, June 27, 2010

One Tenth of Everything Part 2

I have posted three newer entries that seem to have vanished into thin air! Weird. I apologize to anyone who might be waiting for me to write something. I don't know what happened there, but the material is all gone, so I'm going to start over.

Explaining tithing to a child is really great practice for explaining stewardship to a congregation. Our kids get their allowance every Sunday morning: $2.50 for a week's worth of chores. We settled on the $2.50 amount because it is easily broken into 1/10 increments--the kids can bring 1 quarter to church and put it in the offering plate. The kids get the money on Sundays so they can see a direct transfer of that quarter from their pockets to God.

This morning things weren't as smooth as I'd hoped. "WHY do I have to give MY money to something that I can't even SEE?" asked my oldest. Direct and to the point, I think she just gave the title for my next Stewardship sermon! Why indeed? It made me ask the question of myself. Of course, God is real, and I explained to her that even though we can't see God, we were made in God's image and everything we have is from God. We enjoy good food, a good place to live, and each other. We should joyfully, thankfully give back 1/10 of our best harvest to God.

"But I EARNED that money!!! It is mine. God didn't give it to me." But honey, God put you in the position to have good things. Everything we enjoy is sort of on loan. Yes, you worked for that money, but you have been given an able body to work, you are healthy, with loving parents. We remember that God is the author of everything when we give some of our hard earned money every week.

"But WHERE is it going? WHO gets it? WHY don't I have a CHOICE??" A harder question. It goes into the church budget. We pledge money to keep up church operation. Our pledge and membership helps to sustain the organized body of Christ. I didn't say any of that to her. I didn't think she'd get it.

I'm not sure I get it anymore either. With so many of the conversations around church Sessions revolving around "getting folks in the door and pledging" it seems we are working hard a propping up an institution that no longer serves the original purpose: to glorify God and serve humanity. That isn't to say there is no good working happening in churches--there is! But we've become obsessed with surviving as a mainline denomination. And, my church friends, the people who are eating bagels and reading the paper on Sunday morning hate us for that short-sightedness.

On the other hand, there are many I know who give at least 1/10 of their earnings to good causes. This is wonderful. The trouble with that approach, however, is a sense of entitlement and ability to withdraw those funds if economic times become strained or the giver becomes disgruntled. We owe EVERYTHING to God. The tithe is more than just a charity case, it is a way of life. If we are truly tithing to God, we need to give, and then let go of the idea that we can strong-arm that money into our own pet projects. The money is God's. The question then becomes, do we trust God to handle it properly?

Our family continues to make our tithe to God through the church. Do we feel this is a perfect arrangement? No. Do we agree with everything the church is doing? No. Do we have ideas on how that money should be spent? Sure. But it's out of our hands. We try to think of it as God's, even before we give it. And even though the institution of church as we know it is going by the wayside and is broken in so many ways, it remains the best attempt to be a faithful people of God in the world that I can see.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One Tenth of Everything

We've got one of those yards that is more clover than grass right now, especially in the back. We laugh because we can imagine the golf course maintenance guys coming over any minute to ask us if we could please get that under control so it doesn't spread to the green. The clover everwhere in Knoxville is flowering with soft, round, white flowers and kids are loving it. With dandelions done, it's the next best treasure to offer mom or dad.

I like that kids pick flowers spontaneously and offer them to adults. I like that kids really honestly think it's something special to give another person a colorful plant grabbed straight from the earth. Usually the flowers are weeds, although occasionally they are plucked from the neighbor's garden. The kids don't know the weeds are pests or to be avoided. All they know is the flower is colorful and it makes adults smile. Similarly, offering up one of the neighbor's tulips does not harm the garden but creates another glad event.

As I drove into the driveway last night I noticed our Magnolia was blooming, and there was one white flower hanging within arm's reach. It appeared as if the tree itself were reaching down and offering the flower to whoever would come and take it. It occured to me then that although we technically own the land where that tree goes, we have not ourselves produced the flower that it gives. We don't know how to make flowers!

This is the basis of stewardship, I think. Recognizing that we are not entitled to the land where we live but that we are recipients of its good graces.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Laughing With Black People: A Revelation

Ed note: I am having a revelation trying to write this blog. Why? Because it deals with race. I am trying to speak about race relations in a positive way, but I find myself starting sentences over and over, for fear of being offensive, or sounding too trendy, or desperate, or whatever. So take this for what it's worth: the language I use here is the best language I know how to use to present an insight into how race assumptions played into a church meeting I recently attended. I intend this post to be positive, amusing, and maybe even thought-provoking. I am going to just write it as it comes and stop worrying about being politically correct. (end disclaimer)

Yesterday, I presented our idea for cafe style worship to the Session at 4th United Presbyterian church in Knoxville. They had previously voted to allow our small group of worshippers to use their gathering hall for our service, and we were giving them a taste of what the service would be like: non-traditional, sitting around tables, powerpoint, interactive prayer.

It was a positive and friendly atmosphere, and an interesting group. We were 6 black people and 3 white, 4 women and 5 men. 4th United has been a predominantly black congregation, and our group of about 10 is all white.

As we talked about our plans for the church in the coming months, it came up that a young couple (white) had been attending services for several weeks. We shared our joy about that and were comparing notes to see if anyone had known them beforehand. One of their co-pastors, a black woman named Sonya, said, "Oh I just assumed they were with your group!"

Instantly my comedic self began to war with my politically correct self. It was obvious why she thought they were with our group, because they were white. But do I dare make a joke about this and risk an awkward moment? Fortunately, I know Sonya well enough to know that she has a very strong sense of humor. Comedy won: "Why did you think that Sonya? Because they're white? I don't know all the white people in Knoxville, you know!" Sonya's reply was quick, "Frankly my sister, that's exactly what I thought!" Thank the living God, everybody got it and everybody laughed.

And in that moment, I realized how very freaked out I still am, and I imagine most of us are, about race relations. After that exchange the room itself seemed to relax a little bit. I felt as if the subtext for me and Sonya in that moment was, "Hey! We're blacks and whites talking together. How strange and potentionally hilarious!" I realized in an instant that it is one thing to respect the congregation at 4th United for their dedication to God and each other; it is one thing to feel profound gratitude for their generosity with our house-church group, but it is quite another to feel free enough to laugh about racial assumptions with people of a different race.

We all say we want to be "color-blind." But I'm not sure that's the best approach. It is clear that there are black people and white people in our city, and that for the most part we live separate lives. We pass each other pleasantly enough on the street or in our work places, but as groups we circulate in cultural bubbles that rarely mix. It does us no good to dwell exclusively on our racial differences but to act like we don't notice the difference is artificial and denies us some potentially rich relationships.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pastoral Care vs. Personal Agenda: Helping the Homeless

I attended a fundraiser lunch today. The speaker was Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, who wrote the book "The Soloist." This book has been recently made into a movie, and is the story of a friendship between Lopez and Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a Julliard level musician who had become homeless because of his condition as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Lopez first saw Ayers on the streets of LA, playing a beat up old violin in the shadow of a statue of Beethoven. Lopez decided Ayers would make an interesting column, so he began to learn about his early life and subsequent decline into mental illness. The resulting columns earned both Lopez and Ayers national recognition. As the writer put it himself at the lunch this afternoon, "I have never before had such a reaction to a column. I think it is because everyone who reads about Nathaniel thinks 'there but for the grace of God go I.'"

As recorded in the book, Lopez continually tried to help Ayers by coaxing him inside, getting him sheet music and passing on donated instruments. Some of this help was met with gratitude, but other overtures, such as coercing Ayers to participate in a mission community, providing him an apartment to sleep in, and offering him a chance to perform for an audience were initially rejected. Lopez reported that today, 5 years after they first met, Ayers still hears voices in his head and is on no medication, but that he is now part of the LAMP mission community, and is still living in the same apartment he had 4 years ago. These are all considered part of a success story.

Certainly Nathaniel Ayers' life has been blessed by friendship with Steve Lopez, there is no doubt about that. Friendship is a theme in both the book and movie, and the social workers who know Nathaniel say friendship alone has been the most helpful aspect to his healing.

So my question is this: who is more helped by moving Nathaniel off the streets and into an apartment? Who is more helped by introducing him to a mission community? Is 'normalizing' Nathaniel Ayers truly in his best interest? We can never know his internal struggle, but we have all decided that his life appears better now than it was, at least from the outside looking in.

I am not asking the question to be rude or argumentative. I sincerely wonder what it is that motivates us to house the homeless. The CEO of the sponsoring organization stated emphatically today that, "some homeless people say they choose to live on the streets. But this is not true. Their illness chooses to live on the streets." I'm just not comfortable with this blanket statement. Who are we to say that living without a home is lesser in every case? When does, "there but for the grace of God go I" morph into "not in my back yard?"

I think the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is a wonderful tribute to friendship and the breaking down of barriers and misconceptions about mental illness. But most compelling for me is the columist's struggle to find a balance between "fixing" and "walking alongside" Mr. Ayers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

New Heaven and New Earth: What was wrong with the old one?

An old friend posted on his facebook profile the other day, "I've seen the new heaven and the new earth and as an Episcopalean I'm wondering, what was wrong with the old heaven??" This made me laugh, in light of my recent sermonizing on Revelation 21:1-6, the passage from which the "new heaven and new earth' line comes from.

In my sermon I stressed that Revelation 21 had the following three things to say to people who were feeling oppressed:

1. God is good.

2. God cares.

3. God is powerful. Powerful enough to beat out whatever evil assails us.

The book of Revelation is nerve-wracking with all the apocalyptic language: crazy beasts, cryptic symbology, messages of doom, a graphic war between good and evil. And chapter 21 declares that all that we know, this old earth AND heaven are going to pass away and be replaced by a new one. Panic sets in as we all dash to rescue the photo album before it goes.

But I believe that Revelation, like all apocalyptic texts in the Bible, points us to something that is already happening, rather than warning us about events that are yet to come. Perhaps the old heaven and old earth come out of the old way that we humans have related to one another and have understood God before the resurrection. This knowledge of life beating death in such a dramatic way is nerve-wracking in its own right. It just isn't natural. It's like the earthquake that shakes everything.

Think about it. We thrive on stories of death and destruction. For example, it is much easier to play the blame game with British Petroleum over the oil spill while driving our SUVs than it is to put our neck out there and make personal changes that free us from our dependence on oil. BP was only giving us what we want, after all. We are arm-chair critics for everything, and we LOVE to hate "those other guys." That is the world where death is the final word.

A world where resurrection is realized is one in which life is celebrated, in which we recognize good in the midst of corporate evil, and where we participate in the creation ourselves by taking responsibility for the Earth--old and new.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Learning About Mission on the Elementary School Playground

Last week my daughter, a first-grader, shared with me that one of the kids in her class had "thrown a beer bottle" at another during recess. I pressed her for more information, and was told that the whole playground was covered in garbage. I knew that her school was in a run-down neighborhood, but had just assumed someone at the school would take on the job of keeping the playground beer-bottle free.

I considered what to do. Write a letter? Cowardly. Talk to the PTA president? I'd probably have to get all sorts of permission and it might take forever. Complain to the principal? She is a woman who never looks like she has time to eat, let alone talk to me about the playground problem. None of those were real "get-something-done" options.

So I decided to just go clean the place myself without asking anybody permission. I invited one of the other moms from the class, the kind of person who gets things done and asks questions later, and we showed up one day at the school with plastic bags, ready to take the place on.

I was concerned that we'd be stopped at the office, or that we'd see a sign I hadn't noticed before: "No unauthorized helping allowed." But there was none. When my friend told one secretary what we were doing, I cringed, ready to receive a reprimand for not going through the proper channels. Instead, she said, "that's fantastic! It's about time somebody went out there and cleaned up!" (I know you're wondering what the janitor is doing all day...and so am I...but that is a different post.)

When we got out to the playground, the whole first grade happened to be out playing. The teachers waved at us, and as we started picking up garbage around the fence, a few students came by to ask us what we were doing. Before long, we had about 20 kids fanning out in all directions searching for trash, and returning to put it in the plastic bags. They were beaming with pleasure! One girl screamed, "this is FUN!!!" and another boy yelled, "I think I got the MOST of ANYBODY!" With the kids' help, we cleaned up a huge area in about 20 minutes. The teachers thanked us sincerely, and my friend and I had a great time talking about all sorts of things while we were working.

It occurred to me as we were doing this important but neglected job that perhaps the most effective mission projects are those where folks see a need and just do something themselves to make it right. Furthermore, I am sure that it would have taken up alot more of my own energy to complain about the junk in the playground than it did to just clean it up myself. I'm not saying we should take on all the problems of the world without help, but I am saying that if there seems to be a need, and we are capable of meeting that need, then we should act first and ask permission later.

It is also worth noting that a bunch of 6 and 7 year olds left their playground to help us, and had a blast doing it. This tells me that working together to improve our surroundings and take care of the earth are concepts that kids not only can understand, but that they can enjoy. They probably had almost as much fun as I did.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Resuming: Life After Lent

Well, sorry everyone about April, the Great Black Hole of blog posts. April felt sort of like the down-hill part of a rollercoaster. It was a little out of control and the blog suffered because of it.

But the long hiatus has given me a chance to reflect on what it's like to be back on Facebook, and to talk about moving this blog in a new direction. (Does anyone know how to change the name of a blog when the previous title is outdated? Or should I just start a new one?)

Being back on Facebook feels like coming back to a positive community, although I do find myself falling into the same old patterns of thinking up status updates and wanting to check it constantly. I realize that my compulsion surrounding Facebook is more about me being compulsive than it is about Facebook per se, or any internet community for that matter. During Lent, my compulsive habits channeled themselves into other avenues such as email, blogging, and TV. It's good to know this about oneself, and to wonder what is going on that causes us to become obsessed by one thing or another.

I do currently feel a bit separated from some of the friends that I've made through Facebook, but I think this is a matter of reconnecting with intention. Friendship is, in great part, habit. However we order our days, the friends that fit into that routine become close for that time. In my own life I observe that if I change a habit, it does change the pattern around which my friendships are based. Of course, I'm lucky to have a few really good friends with whom I'm close no matter what is happening in my life or theirs. Those are people to be treasured! that I'm back to the normal compulsions, and now that April with its many distractions is finished, I will resume this blog.

I am currently helping to lead a small faith community here in Knoxville, which has formed around a desire for a meaningful prayer life, an open minded faith, and a place where people can truly come to worship as they are. We have been having weekly theological discussions around various issues, passages of the Bible, and 'burning questions' that some of our members have. I'll write about those, and what it's like to be part of a church community which looks so different from the traditional.

I hope you'll continue to read and comment!