Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hunger Is Not The Problem

Hunger is not the problem

I know I'm going to get into trouble saying this, and will probably be misunderstood by a lot of people, but hunger is not the problem. At least not in our country. And maybe not in the world. Maybe.

Don't get me wrong. I fully support all our hunger ministries. Food banks and food pantries, soup kitchens, meals served to the needy. I give, urge my church to give, and get up early to go to a parking lot in a poor section of town once a month to give a hot breakfast to about 200 people. (And the number is growing.)

But hunger is not the problem. At least, not in most cases.

Hunger is a symptom, not the problem. Just like sore throat, high fever, and aching muscles are symptoms of the flu, they are not the problem. The flu is. And hunger is a symptom of a greater problem.

Think of it this way. If hunger were the real problem, and we gave people food, enough to last a month or two, and they never showed up again, we would have solved the problem. But people show up, over and over again. We feed the hungry people. They are satisfied, at least for a while. But then show up again needing food.

The problem may be economic. People may not have jobs, or the ones they have do not pay enough to help them maintain a "minimally adequate" lifestyle (to use a phrase loved in South Carolina). Or it could be economic in that people are not taught how to manage their money, so that they may have enough money but not be planning well. Economic development and education are the answers to these problems. Both are sorely needed in South Carolina, and I would guess in most of our country. I rode through a "ghost town" near Florence recently. Buildings are boarded up, the streets are terrible, and there are only a few stores and no industry. There are lots of people still living in the area, folks who cannot afford to move, but also can't afford to stay and eat. They are trapped. Many of them are hungry. Food will help for a day. Economic development will help for generations.

People have often stopped by my office looking for help with food. I have sat with many and talked about their income and expenditures. An overwhelming number have become trapped in title-loan prison, always going from one place to another, putting off the inevitable payment of outrageous interest. They have mortgaged their future on credit cards, and rarely ask the question "Can I afford this?" but ask the question "What are the payments?" These are good people, children of God, who have not been taught how to deal with their money. Budgets, they think, are for someone who has more money than they do. We usually give them food, because it is easier than trying to help them learn to budget and live within their means, or increase their means. "Here's a box of food. God bless you. We'll see you again in a few months." Education is hard. It takes time. But it changes the future.

There are a few situations where people are overfed and undernourished. This, too, is an educational issue. The April 9, 2013 issue of The State Newspaper (Columbia) had an article "Eating Healthy on a Food Stamp Budget." A nutritionist walked through a local grocery store, and was able to buy healthy food for a family of four for $118. Maximum weekly benefit for a family of four is $135. Of course, you have to cook, and that takes time and planning, and for some hungry families, that is hard. But that is where being a part of local church that cares for each other, as well as for those outside of the church, can help. What would it be like if this problem were addressed by members of a local church, helping those in need. Of course, it's still easier, if we just give someone a box of food.

And I hate to mention this one, because this is the only thing some people will focus on. But it must be dealt with. There are some people who will not work; whose job is to go from one place to another finding someone else to take care of their symptoms. Paying utility and rent bills, food and clothing, gas and transportation issues. Once again hunger is not the issue. It is the symptom. Responsibility, or lack thereof, is the problem. And while some people have been pressed down so hard that they have given up, the answer comes in helping them to take responsibility. Even standing with them until they can stand on their own. And for those who absolutely refuse to take responsibility, they must face the consequences of their actions. Children and the elderly, who are usually part of these families, too, need to be protected. But people find self-worth when they are able to take responsibility for their life.

Jesus talks about the kingdom in Matthew 25 and says "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." Yet, in John 6 when he feeds the five thousand, the next day when they coming looking for him and another free meal, he does not feed them. Instead he talks about feeding on him, the "bread of life." The response- most of the people leave. I wonder if a modern day translation of Matthew 25 would read, "I was hungry, and you helped to develop work for me so that I could eat, feed my family, and live decently."

All this is not to say that there are not people who are in need. And it is definitely not to say that we should stop feeding the hungry. There are times when people need help getting through a rough time. Medical emergencies occur, job loss happens, other unexpected events cause us to need help. 

But until we address the real problems, until we ask "why do we have hungry people" and follow it up with "what can we do about that and when will we do it," we will never stop hunger. Not now. Not ever.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Surrender.

It's not a word we like to use. Most of us think of it in terms of a criminal, giving up to the law. Or an army, vanquished in defeat. According to Dictionary.com (where would we be without the internet?) it means "to give oneself up, as into the power of another; submit or yield."

I've been thinking about that recently. The hymn "I Surrender All" has been going through my head, and I find myself singing it. Mostly when I am alone, so as not to disturb other people.

"All to Thee my precious Savior, I surrender all."

Surrendering myself to Jesus means accepting whatever comes my way as a gift from him. Whatever comes. It all- the good, the bad, the hard, the easy- is a gift from him.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1890) was an Episcopalian minister, who is most well known for writing the words to "O Little Town of Bethlehem." He once wrote 
"O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! 
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! 
Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. 
Every day you shall wonder at yourself, 
   at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God." 
(I have this in calligraphy in my office.)

Brooks wrote the following prayer which deals with surrender. The language is a little hard for us (he prayed using King James English), but it is worth working your way through.

O Lord, by all Thy dealings with us,
   whether of joy or pain, or light or darkness…
   let us be brought to Thee.
Let us value no treatment of Thy grace
  simply because it makes us happy
  or because it makes us sad…
  because it gives us or denies us what we want.
    but may all that Thou sendest us 
      bring us to Thee.
 That knowing Thy perfectness, we may be sure 
   in every disappointment that Thou art still loving us 
   and in every darkness  Thou art still enlightening us
   and in every enforced idleness Thou art still using us;
yea, in every death that Thou art still giving us life,
   as in His death Thou didst give life to Thy Son,
      our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many people I know (and even more I don't know) are going through some tough times. I've found that those who have "surrendered all" have peace. Peace that passes understanding.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Boston

Boston

In my library at home there is a section of old books that were formative for me in my younger days. The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom. God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew. The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And a whole slew of small books of poems and poetry by Ann Kiemel. 

For those of you have have never heard of Ann Kiemel, she was a popular author and speaker from the mid 1970's through the early 1980's. She lived and worked in Boston, working in a college and doing work among the poorer neighborhoods, which is where she chose to live. She was known for her simple (but not simplistic) faith. She knew that God loved her and everyone around her, so she would sing little songs to cabbies and people in grocery stores. She would write notes and leave them in hidden places for people to find. She talked to Jesus all the time, asking him to help her make "her little corner of the world" a little better. Though she was in her late 20's and mid 30's when she was sought after as a public speaker, she sounded like a little girl, almost breathless at the end of each sentence. Her writings were marked by never capitalizing "i" when referring to herself nor capitalizing anyone else's name. Jesus was the only capitalized name in her books. Every young Christian male in America wanted to find a woman like her, it seemed.

(Ann, it turned out, also had a darker side to her life, a part not revealed for many years, then painstakingly told in her book Seduced by Success. But that is not pertinent to this rambling.)

Last night, after posting my reflections on The Bible, I pulled one of her books off the shelf and read it again before going to sleep. I don't know why I chose this one, but it was I'm Running To Win, a book about her deciding to enter the Boston Marathon. I honestly did not realize that the marathon was today (April 15). I just picked it up, and read through it, remembering how I was inspired by her desire to do something "just for Jesus."

I have always wanted to run the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, I have never wanted to prepare for the Boston Marathon. And you have to have the second desire in order to complete the first one. I have stood in Copley Square and wondered what it would feel like completing the 26.1 mile run. 

I thought about that today after hearing about the bombing. I thought about those who have tun thousands of miles preparing and did not get to finish the race. I thought about those whoa re grieving because of the death of friends and family, and those who are in the hospitals now recovering from the terrible act of evil.

In her book about running Boston, Kiemel talks about her setbacks. Shin splints, injuries, disappointments, pain, hurt. She talks about obstacles that she never thought about before, but suddenly- there they were. She writes about pouring out everything to Jesus and being honest with those closest to her, while still trying to help everyone she meets. The word is perseverance.

In the midst of all this that has happened, I pray for perseverance. Perseverance for those who have to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Perseverance for those who have to learn to live with injuries that may never heal- physical, mental, and spiritual ones. Perseverance for the doctors, nurses, emergency workers, public safety people as they seek to find ways to prevent this from happening again. Perseverance for those who are working hard to find the responsible parties, so that they can be brought to justice (and maybe even, please dear God for their sake, repentance). Perseverance for those who realize that life can never be the same again, that (in the words of Stephen King) "the world has moved on." And perseverance for all of us who seek to find ways of living as people of the peace of God in a world increasingly filled with violence.

Help all of us to persevere, O God.

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you."- The Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 4:7-12)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reflection on The Bible mini-series

Reflection on "The Bible"

What I am about to say may get me in trouble. And this is a little long, so bear with me.

Like about a zillion others of us, I watched The History Channel's mini-series "The Bible". I thought it was interesting, but was not overwhelmed with it. It was interesting by what the chose to include and how they chose to represent it. It was even more interesting in what they chose to leave out. Here's a few thoughts.

First, I liked that it did get a few million people to talk about the Bible, and maybe about spiritual and religious things. It may have opened doors for Christians and others to talk about their faith. I don't know that it did- frankly, where I live most everybody is already talking about their faith. But maybe it did in other places.

Second, I hope that it got people interested in reading the Bible. However, our society seems to be getting less and less literate. The Great Gatsby is coming out in a new movie in a few weeks. It may increase the sale of the book, but I don't think many people will actually read it. Which is a shame (both for the Bible and Gatsby), because there's some great writing in there!

And third, I know a lot of families watched this together. I think when we can families to do anything together, we are doing something good. 

There are several problems with trying to bring the Bible to video. The Bible is not a novel. Sure there is a story line that runs through it of God's creation, our fall, God's redemption, and God's ever-lasting love for us. But this is not a story like even James Michener would write. The Bible has history (which can be made into video story pretty easily), but it also has poetry, proverbs and saying, letters, genealogies, prophesy, and all kinds of other literature. All of it, ALL OF IT, is important! And when we make a movie of something, people tend to think, "Well, the most important parts were included." Future video-oriented generations will have this conversation- "Have you read the Bible?" "No, but I saw the movie." Not the same. Not the same at all. Sorry. It just doesn't work.

But even the story line leaves off so much. I know you can't include every thing. None of Pat Conroy's novels that have been made into movies carry all the story. Prince of Tides, my favorite, has the movie leaving off...oh......about half of the story. It omitted the white porpoise, the grandmother stories, the mansion, all of those things and more. But it did include Lowenstein wearing 9-inch heels and ordering in French. (Can you tell I was disappointed in the movie?) I know you can't include all the stories in the Bible. Jepthah's daughter, the love between Jonathon and David, Paul's friendship with Priscilla. But to leave out Jacob and Esau? That divided family still is fighting today, and they left off the roots of their rocky relationship!

And a movie leaves off cultural context. In some cases that's okay. I just saw Lincoln , a great movie. No one had to explain the cultural context to me. I live in the south, where some people still think we are trying to secede from the nation. Over 150 years later that war is still being fought around here. I know the cultural context.

But most people today, even those in our churches, do not know the cultural context of the stories of the Bible. We have an amazingly Biblically illiterate society, even for those who live in the Bible belt. So we see Saul being told to go conquer his enemies and to kill everyone and everything- warriors, women, children, aged, infants, cattle, dogs- everyone and everything- by God, and Saul does not do that, then Saul is punished by God. 

An acquaintance- I really can't call him a friend- said to me as we went into the war with Iraq, "We need to go in and kill them all. Men, women, children. Everyone. I don't think we need to nuke them to the ground, because then we wouldn't be able to get their wealth. But we need to kill them all. After all, that's what God commands in the Bible." This is why preachers and teachers and wise elders are needed to teach the Bible. Just to lay the story out there and not put it into context, then to say, "This is the Word of God. Thank be to God." causes some mighty bad things to happen.

I also know that the point of a television show, any television show- whether it is Fox News, HBO's Game of Thrones, ABC's Dancing with the Stars, or the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives is to get viewership and sell advertising. So things must be presented in a way that will make people watch, watch the ads, then go buy. So we have Biblical characters who sound like they have come from the BBC. And Jesus is a mighty handsome man, though, if we believe what the prophesy from Isaiah says "He had no beauty that we might admire him." (Probably the most realistic Jesus in the movies was in the old black-and-white Italian film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Jesus was not a particularly handsome guy, just another person on the street, who was overweight. Hey! I can identify with that Jesus!) But I'll put up with Ninja angels, and people who never seem to get too dirty though they spend most of their time in the wilderness. I can give way for some artistic license there.

I did like the fact that the LifeChurch.tv's Bible app YouVersion was one of the main sponsors. YouVersion is a free Bible app for mobile phones and tablets. As a matter of fact, LifeChurch.tv makes all of their online resources free for the asking. It is not a business plan that most churches or ministries would adopt. I can't see Cokesbury or LifeWay or Group saying, "Hey! It's only electrons, and those are free, so download all you want. We've already made this stuff. And if you want to donate, thanks. If not, that's okay." I sort of like those LifeChurch.tv people. And I highly recommend their YouVersion.

It was to be expected that a week after the series ended the DVDs would be available. What I didn't see coming was the book that went along with it, a week later. The Story of God and All of Us is the companion novel to the miniseries. So....they make a movie based on the book then make a book based on the movie. Why not just say, "Want to learn more? Stop by your nearest church and they'll be glad to give you a free Bible, even discuss it with you!" But then, what would people buy? When I was a child we would often get these Gold Key comic books. They were the classics put into a simple comic book form. Don't want to read Silas Marner? No problem, here's the comic book. The thing is you miss so much.

And finally, for all it's wonderful stories and letters and songs and wisdom, the Bible was not written as a book to be read alone. We do, and that's okay, but it was written to be told to groups of people- families, tribes, friends, churches. It is a communal book. I read it and study it deeply by myself, and urge others to do the same, but it is in sitting with others and talking about what it says, listening to what others say, discovering the meanings of words and the current application of eternal truth together that brings life. And that what's the Bible is supposed to do, bring us life. John ends his gospel with these words- "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:30-31)

The mini-series did not bring life, at least not to me. All it did was entertain.






Saturday, April 13, 2013

Old Knife/New Knife

Old Knife/New Knife

I served a small mill-village church in the 1980's in Glendale, a dying mill-village just outside of Spartanburg, SC. Worship was at 10, with Sunday school following (I had another church nearby with worship at 11). I wold always arrive at the church around 9 a.m., cup of coffee in hand, and sit on the steps to greet the "old guys" who got there about 9:15. These were five older men in the church, the youngest being around 68 and the oldest in his late 80s. They had been life-long friends, and I loved to sit, listen to their stories, and throw sin some of my own. For around 30 minutes we would stand or sit outside on the steps and tell tall tales, actual events, parables, and lies. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was which, but it didn't really matter.

I remember one time talking about things we had in our homes that we remembered for the first time. "I remember getting our first tv set," one of the guys said. "It was huge, weighed about 500 pounds, and had a tiny black and white screen that took forever to warm up." "I remember when we got our first radio," another chimed in. "Used to listen to Arthur Godfrey on that thing." "I remember when my coffee-maker didn't automatically grind the beans for me," I said. "I used to have to grind them myself in my electric grinder the night before and put the grounds into the coffee-maker so it could automatically brew the coffee and have it ready for me in the morning when I woke up. Finally got one that grinds the beans and brews the coffee for me," I said. "Yep, them was the hard ol' days." One of the old guys looked at me and said, "How do you live with yourself?"

One Sunday morning one of my friends pulled out a pocket knife, a single-blade one, and started cleaning and trimming his fingernails the way all of us older guys do it- the point carefully scraping along the underneath side, back by the skin, getting all the dirt and grease out from the previous week, then the blade being dragged up underneath the nail causing little bits of fingernail to splay out from the edge, then carefully cutting all that off.

"Let me see your knife," I asked my friend, in that telling-yet-asking way we old guys have. He folded the knife closed and handed it to me. I reopened it and looked at it. It was a nice knife- shiny sharp blade, wooden handle with carvings on each side, and the requisite metal cap over each end. On the blade near the handle joint was stamped the name of the manufacturer, and there was the little fingernail indention along the blunt edge of the blade to help you open it. "Nice knife," I said. "Yep," he replied. "Actually belonged to my grandfather who bought it in the 1880's. He gave it to his son, my father, who gave it to me, and one day soon I plan to give it to my son, who will give it to my grandson. It will have been in our family for five generations then. Imagine that. Same knife, five generations."

I looked again at the knife. "This knife is over a hundred years old," I said. "It's in great shape!" "Yep," he said. "I keep it oiled and sharpened so that it will last. Of course, over the years it's had a few new handles and a few new blades, but it's still the same knife."

A few new handles, a few new blades. I wondered if his grandfather would recognize the knife his grandson held. 

I told this story to a friend of mine, and he said, "It's the spirit of the knife that counts, I guess." I said that I thought it was because the knife still did the same things.

I thought about this early this morning as I thought about the Church. It has been handed down for 200 generations now, and we do not look like the church that met in the home of Philemon (Philemon 1:2....well, since it only has one chapter, I guess I could say Philemon 2),  but yet it is the same church. Like that knife, we still do the same things- worship and praise God, pass the faith on to others and teach the next generation, serve those in need, care for each other, stand for justice and mercy (always two things hard to combine). But we do it differently than the previous generations, and the next ones will do it differently from us.

Like my friend's knife probably did not start out with a stainless steel blade with the thumbnail indention, or the handle with a stamped wood carving on it, it still cut string and rope and cleaned fingernails for generations.

I think about that as I think about how the church is changing today. It is not the church I grew up in as a child, teen, and young adult. And it is not the church I started serving almost 34 years ago. I don't recognize a lot of the music, I struggle to master the technology, and I have a harder time texting when I really like to talk face-to-face. And the world around has changed, too. Growing up for me, summer was the slowest time of the year for families, and the busiest time of the year for churches. Churches used to hire "summer youth workers" to do nothing but lead the youth in the summertime because the kids had nothing to do. Now most churches shut down their youth ministry in the summer because kids are so busy. But people, much more creative than me, are constantly finding new handles and new blades, so that we worship and praise and care and teach and invite and love and serve and proclaim.

I just pray to the Lord above all time that, like my friend's knife, he will keep me sharp.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Chimes in the night

Cathy and I have several sets of hanging chimes outside our house, most in the back. We have some of the very cheap "tinkle-tinkle-ding-dong" kind, some that are works of art tuned to various kinds of music scales, and some that are the large kind that remind you of church bells in ancient cathedrals. We have been collecting them for some time, and a few of them are gifts from friends. We love the way they sound.

Last night (Thursday, April 11 - Friday April 12) I could not sleep so I went into the study to read. In the early morning  hours a large storm came through, and the wind blew tremendously. I sat in my study and listened to the chimes ringing.

I could hear all of them, sounding in the night. (I hope they do not bother my good neighbors- they have not yet complained!) It occurred to me that I do not often hear those large "church bell" chimes. It takes a lot of wind to make the clapper hit the tubes. Sometimes I relax by lying in the hammock and when a gentle breeze blows, I hear the cheaper lighter "tinkle" chimes. When the wind blows more, I hear the heavier ones. And during the storm I hear the heaviest of all.

I think our faith is like that. We are all a combination of the various kinds of chimes. When things are going well, people hear us "tinkle" about how good God is. When harder winds blow, people hear the more tuneful parts of our faith ("Yes, things are hard, but God is with us"). And when the storms are raging in our life, they hear from us the deep, resounding sounds of faith ("Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him"- Job 13:15).

Into everyone's life storms will come and winds will blow. And we are God's chimes for others to hear in the midst of storms. It important that we are anchored. All our chimes are securely anchored to the carport, to trellises, to trees. The wind is not going to detach them. Blow though it might, all it will do is make them make more noise, more music.

And when we are anchored to Christ, securely anchored there, the storms will come, but they just cause us to sound out beautiful music. Even in the night.