Monthly Archives: February 2015

Are All the Children at the Table?

 

 

Recently on TED Talks the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, retired pastor of the Riverside Church in NYC spoke about compassion.   He spoke of how he learned a living definition of compassion from his mother at home around the dining room table.    Forbes was one of eight children who gathered with their mother and father around the table in the evening.   As the children grew older, inevitably one or more of the children would be missing when they sat down to eat.   His mother showed her love and care and compassion by requiring that before anyone ate and fixed their own plate, a plate would be fixed for those who were not there at the table. 

Dr. Forbes says that his Mama reminded him of how God looks around the world table and asks those of us children who are enjoying the blessings set before us—-“Are all the children around the table?”   When you bellied up to the table to get your needs met, the question Mama Forbes asked,  and God also asks, is:  “Where is your brother? ”   “Where is your sister?”     Forbes says:   “Just as Mama Forbes asked her children seated at the table about those missing, so God asks us to look after one another, to serve one another and to include one another.   It is not enough to live and provide for myself, that I put food in my own mouth, or that I even pass it to my left.  I must remember the ones still making their way to the table.  

God requires  us to remember those still trying to get to the table.   We are not to shun them, we are not to shame them.   We are to remember them and honor them by serving them first.    This is a theme that runs through both the New Testament and the Old Testament.   Those who are blessed by food and shelter are to help provide for the vulnerable, the elderly, the jobless, the homeless, the poor, the widow, the orphan.

The question for us as Christians is:   “Are we asking who is missing from our table of blessings and making sure they will be able to make it to the table?.”   In the state of Kansas with one child out of five living below the poverty level-–a level set in the 1950’s based  on food prices at that time—-I’m afraid our answer is:  NO.

Priest or Prophet?

 

Priests and Prophets aren’t usually very friendly toward each other.  In fact, they’ve been known to kill each other.   If you read the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament Bible that is a theme that runs through both.   While both think  of themselves as religious, that is about all they have in common.

Priests are administrators for institutions and their chief goal   is to maintain the institution.   They are big on celebrations and rites held in beautiful religious surroundings and on being intermediaries for God for the lay people that they lead.  Therefore, maintaining the beauty and the sanctimony of the rites and the buildings where they are held is their chief concern .     The perpetuation of the religious establishment is the raison d’etre for the priestly profession.

Prophets, on the other hand, are the critics of the religious establishment, rites and institutions.   They remind all of us that the rites and the buildings and the institutions are not the important things.   The important thing is to do God’s will in loving God and  being servants. This is a very different message.   Prophets are the ones that take us back to the basics.   Who remind us that “This is the Word of the Lord!”   They tell us as individuals and as corporate bodies that the raison d’etre for being Christians individually and as a church  is to serve God by loving God and our neighbors.   Listen to some of them speak:

The prophet Micah  speaks for God and asks:   “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?   Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”   Micah 6:5-8

And the prophet Amos thundered God’s word to Northern Israel:  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.   Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.   But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”      (Amos 5:21-24)

And Jesus speaks with the same prophetic voice when he answers the man who asked him which commandment in the law is the greatest:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it:   “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matthew 22:36-40)

As Richard Rohr says:  “Prophets step in to disrupt the social consensus—“How wonderful our group is!” —and say, “It’s not entirely true!”  ….Prophets expose and topple each group’s idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God’s eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important.   As Jesus so cleverly puts it, “You strain out gnats and you swallow camels)   Matt. 23:24)

I am not saying that priests are not important.     I am saying that when the voice of the priest is dominant in religion and the prophets are kicked out of the group—- that when the prophetic voice is missing in our religion, then in a short while the group will lose its sense of mission and will circle their wagons to perpetuate the status quo of the group, rather than thinking of others outside that circle.   We will turn inward as individuals and as a church and not carry out the mission that Jesus gave us as Christians and as a church.  Priests alone will focus on the rites and the establishment, and the church building,  and forgo the mission and the message that the church is commissioned to give about the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Gospel.   As Rohr says:   “Jesus and the prophets are speaking to every age, addressing universal themes of illusion and our universal capacity for self-serving religion.

We need the prophets to remind us what our role is as individual Christians and as a church.   Listen to the prophets in your midst!!

The Kansas “Herd”—the GOP, not Buffaloes

 

 

We Americans like to think of ourselves as “rugged individualists“, but in reality we are often like a “herd” that blindly follows the leader.   The problem of course with blindly following a leader  is that if the leader happens to be a “lemming” we will all be led over the cliff.

One of the lessons  I learned as a Park Ranger about directing traffic at the San Diego Wild Animal Park was that if you got a car to go in the right direction all of those behind that lead car would follow.   Sadly, the same thing was true if  the car went in the wrong direction!     The cars behind followed the car as it went in the wrong direction!

German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche had a name for that—“the herd mentality“.  He framed his philosophy of the ubermensch (the superman) on that premise—a strong leader could lead the masses in any direction that he desired and they would blindly follow—as the lead cow leads the herd.   That premise led to a further  premise that “might makes right” and that those who have the power decide what is right or wrong.    Adolph Hitler adopted this philosophy and proved it to be true, to the woe of the German nation that he led into World War II and disaster for their nation.

In Congress, the majority of the Republican Party exhibit a “herd mentality” as they blindly follow their leaders.  They do not consider the legislation they pass or defeat on any basis other than maintaining their power by re-election as they let the Tea Party and those who contribute to their campaign funds  tell them what to do.    Truth, morality, the common good, all suffer from this “herd” mentality when our law makers do not think for themselves.

This is what troubles me about politicians and their followers today, and specifically about Kansans who at present are being led into fiscal disaster by a leader and legislature that are convinced they are right, regardless of the facts,  and are using their power to decide what is right and good for everyone whether it is good or not for the common welfare.   And we just went through an election that proved Nietzsche correct, as Kansans blindly  re-elected them to another term, even though complaining that they had lied to them and that their situation financially and economically (except for the privileged businesses who received the tax breaks) was worse than when these politicians began their previous term.   Many Republican voters have confessed they voted Republican because that is the way they always have voted and regret that they elected these folk now.   But they are all in the same boat now—“lemmings ” following their leaders over the financial cliff for the benefit of an elimination of income taxes for around 100,000 “small businesses”, and are paying the price in reduced education funds, reduced programs for the most vulnerable of our state—the homeless, the children, the elderly.   Even Kansas roads are going to be full of potholes as the governor shifts funds to pay for an “experiment” in economics that has proven to be as unproductive and disastrious as most economists initially predicted it would be.

Recently I saw a poster on Face Book that speaks to this:    “Be careful when you blindly follow the masses.   Sometimes the “M” is silent!  

Why people can’t hear what the church is saying….

 

“Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear a word you are saying!!!     Perhaps this should be inscribed in the chancel area of every church in the nation.    This is probably the main problem that mainline churches have and it is the reason they are decreasing in number and size—their  actions and their words are, too often, not matching.

I recently ran across a poem called “The Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman.   It reads:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

 The work of Christmas begins:

               To find the lost.  

               To heal the broken.

               To feed the hungry.

               To release the prisoner.

               To rebuild the nation.

               To bring peace among people.

               To make music in the heart.”

We Christians love the Advent Season and the Christmas Season.    They are times of Joy and Love, and Peace and Hope for most of us—-and rightly so—-the coming of the Christ Child (God with us—Immanuel)  was a time of “Joy to the World” as the hymn we sing says it.     But it is not Jesus’ coming that is so important, it was what Jesus did after he got here and the message of the Kingdom of God—-a different and better way to live—-that is important.   

I’m afraid that message of what life can be like if God is at the center of it. as om the Kingdom of God,  and the messenger’s life of sacrifice and service to God that models life in the Kingdom,   have been lost among the Christmas wrappings.   The work that Jesus set his followers to do was what Thurman wrote about.  It is the ministry Jesus described in his sermon at his home synagogue:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

I am going to use only one of the items on Thurman’s list  to illustrate my point, because it is a problem that is near to my heart, and I feel it is near to God’s heart….Feed the Hungry.  

Recently the Kansas Food Bank that serves more than 215,000 Kansans annually, combined with the Hunger in America national organization to issue a report on Hunger in America.   They used rigorous academic research standards for their report which was reviewed by a technical advisory team that included researchers from American University, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and the Urban Institute.    The study was funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation the data was gathered by over 6000 trained data collectors.   This is not “a bunch of crying, do-good liberals” reporting.   This is hard data gathered and put together by trained researchers.   The results are frightening!  I will share a few of them with you.   The full report may be seen by going to Google and entering  Hunger Statistics, Kansas Food Bank Warehouse.

1 in 7 people in Kansas—an estimated 215,300 people, turned to the Kansas Food Bank meal service programs for help in feeding themselves in 2014.   Of these 215, 300 persons  68, 900 were children and 19,900 were senior citizens 11% were adult students..   Among all clients, 14% were black, 37% were Latino, and 42 % white.

The above reported that 82% were buying inexpensive , unhealthy food because they couldn’t afford the healthier.  They also reported the tough choices and trade-offs they had to make to try and keep food on the table this past year:

71% reported choosing between paying for food and utilities.   35% had to do this on a monthly basis.

73 percent report making choices between paying for food and paying for transportation to work.   35 percent made that choice every month.

66 percent had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine and medical care.  30 percent of thse households had to choose every month.

60 % reported choosing between paying for food and paying for housing.  28% reported having to do that every month.

Ways they tried to cope with food shortages included,  52% who ate food past the expiration date.  37% pawned or sold personal property in order to buy food.  33% reported watering down food or drinks.

Why does this happen in a wealthy country?   The report gave the following reasons:   Low Wages; underemployment; and unemployment.  Of the 60% who were employed last year, they were only able to work part time and at minimum wages.   For families with both husband and wife working part-time at minimum wage of 7.25 per hr. it has been shown that even if both parents work, they cannot make enough to live on and pay rent, utilities and food expenses.   Therefore the choices that they have to make that are  listed above.

So far the churches have been mostly silent in dealing with the causes of poverty.   They are involved,  at least some of them, in treating the symptoms and helping those caught in this vicious cycle survive—-but not in dealing with the causes of the problem itself.

Can you imagine the impact if churches as a group were to demand that their legislators at state and national levels take action to raise the minimum wage to one that a family could live on?    What if churches boycotted those business who paid their employees just the present minimum wages of $7.25 an hour?   What if we said—-we’re not going to buy your hamburgers, McDonalds, until you pay your employees a living wage and provide benefits for them.   We don’t care if you raise the price of a Big Mac in order to do so!

Behind unemployment is often the lack of an education.   It has been proven since the days of John F. Kennedy’s Head Start Program that Early Childhood Education to get poorer children ready for public schooling improves their chances of success in school and acquiring the education they need in today’s labor market place.    Yet in Kansas,  our Governor and Legislature is currently taking the Tobacco Funds earmarked for Early Childhood Education and putting them in the General Funds  as well as taking funds from Education,Kindergarten through College, in order to continue allowing  over 100,000 small businesses in Kansas to not pay income taxes at all.

What would happen if churches were to demand that this not happen?  What if we demanded that everyone pay their fair share of taxes—including businesses?    Most of the legislators and the governor are presenting themselves  as Christians.   Governor  Brownback and your legislative toadies—your actions speak so loudly we can’t hear a word of what you are saying about being Christians!!

There are many other ways of attacking the problem of poverty.   The problem is not lacking ways but lacking will to do so.

In my opinion, if churches are not actively involved in doing something to change  at least one of the above 7 things—actively involved—-then their action, or lack of action, is speaking so loudly to the world that the world can’t hear a word of what they say to each other on Sunday a.m. at the worship service.   If they are not working to correct the above problems at their root, then they have no right to proclaim the Kingdom of God that Jesus commissioned his disciples to proclaim.   Jesus gave few commandments, but one that he did give was the Great Commandment  to “love the Lord your God with all your heart soul mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself!