Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bending Low

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, v. 3: “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”

I thought a lot about burdens yesterday. Not because my life is so overwhelmed with them, but because the trees were. If you’ve watched weather reports recently, you know that we in the northeast have been hammered with storms. While I escaped the devastating ice storm, this last snow came in full force, heavy and wet. I looked out in the morning and it was a winter wonderland. I took video. Every tree, every bush, covered in pristine white.

Then I took Ruckus for a walk. Huge limbs were down all over the neighborhood, blocking roads and turning yards into brush piles. The air had a lovely scent of pine, but it came because pine trees were gashed open as their snow-laden branches could take no more and broke from the trunk. Children sledded down a nearby hill, their shrieks of delight melding with the groaning of the pines. One tall, slim tree was bent all the way over in an arch to the top of another tree where the snow pack connected them like Siamese twins. If I were a bit taller I would have hit my head on branches hanging low over even the middle of the road.

I stopped and freed a young oak, bent so that it’s top almost touched the ground. Even shaking the limbs would only do so much. I had to knock off the snow clumps by hand. Then I went back to my yard and did the same, knowing that either high wind or more precipitation would do them in (and maybe do in the power lines as well). Overnight, those weary branches caught their breath and this morning they stand back tall, several feet or more above where the snow had brought them.

As braches shed their snow and sprang back (sometimes whipping my face on their way!), I thought about the Christmas carol, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear. There’s a lot of bending in that carol. In the first verse it’s the angels bending near the earth to pluck their harps of gold so that mortals can hear. In verse three, which I cited above, it is humanity that is bent low beneath life’s crushing load. Our lives often end up like those trees—so much falls on us all at once that we are bent over from the weight and simply can’t spring back up on our own.

What Christmas reminds us is that God noticed and sent help. God bends low first and works in our lives to get the burdens back to a manageable level. It’s a slow process, and sometimes when a branch in our lives finally springs free, we slap God in the face on the way back up, but the stripes God receives from our branches do not deter the work. Branch by branch, limb by limb, tree by tree, God lifts the burden of life’s storms—maybe not completely, but enough that we can make it through.

And what God did for us in that baby in a manger, we are called to do for others. Jesus spent three years in ministry bending low to help those under the crushing snows. But it wasn’t just about those he helped. It was about showing us what a life as his disciple was supposed to look like: Healing the sick, feeding the hungry, finding the lost.

If you look around and see the beauty of Christmas and hear the joy of children in the season, look a little deeper. The very thing that causes the beauty might also be bending some to the breaking point. Bend low with them, and help them up.

“For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old, when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” Amen.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008


Matthew 1:21 “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

It’s almost Christmas and we’re in the midst of economic crisis. When it’s Christmas time and banks are failing; when Congress is trying to decide if US automakers deserve a bailout, this season gives us stories to ponder.

We’ll get back to the biblical Christmas story in a moment, but there’s another Christmas story that speaks to our situation quite directly. “It’s A Wonderful Life.” We often remember this classic film simply as showing how our lives have ripples out well beyond what we can see. We remember how Clarence the angel gets his wings by showing George Bailey how different (in a bad way) the lives of his family and friends would have been without him, thus convincing him not to end his life.

But what I want to remember now is that the plot device of the story is a large corporate bank (owned by Mr. Potter) trying to own a town and, through scheming and corruption, put the only competition—the Bailey Savings and Loan—out of business. The economic story in “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a perfect education in fundamental banking systems. We see the seamy side as Mr. Potter is exposed as a slum lord who will quickly foreclose on someone to gain a buck and who will steal from the competition to put them out of business. And, of course, we see the good that banks were meant to do when Potter causes a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan and people try to take out all their money.

Faced with angry customers, George tries to explain to them:
No, but you...you...you're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The, the money's not here. Well, your money's in Joe's house...that's right next to yours. And in the Kennedy House, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can. Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?

The bank closes $2 in the black and is saved. Potter, of course, is not done and later steals $8,000 during an audit and then threatens to have George jailed for misappropriation of funds. That prompts George’s suicidal thoughts, which is when Clarence the angel steps in. The film closes on Christmas day with the loyal friends that George has made through his generosity bringing as much money as each one can, capped with a telegram from his old buddy, Sam Wainwright, promising a $25,000 bailout.

I think many are offended by the bailout of the financial system because the criterion for receiving funds has been whether an institution is “too big to fail” not whether their practices have been good and fair. By the government’s criteria, Potter would get the bailout and George Bailey would go under. But let’s circle back to the Christmas story. Another way to talk about the birth of the Savior is to talk about the birth of the bailout, because that, in essence, is what saviors do. We call it grace, or mercy, or forgiveness, but we’re all there as sinners with our hands out.

The rest of the Gospels try to give us an insider’s view into how Jesus makes bailout decisions. Moneychangers in the Temple are going home empty-handed. The woman caught in adultery is pardoned with a warning to “go and sin no more.” Blind Bartimaeus, who keeps hollering at Jesus until Jesus pays attention and stops, gets a full healing while presumably those who were not the “squeaky wheel” are left in their condition. Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. step into a handbasket bound for you know where, but a thief being executed for his crime gets full absolution, simply by acknowledging that he deserves what he’s getting and asking Jesus to remember him. The rich young ruler was offered a bailout but turned it down when he learned that the terms included his willingness to bailout others. Of course that is how Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (The economic “debts” reflects the original Greek much better than “trespasses” or the more generic “sins.”)

Make this Christmas relevant to our time by using it to think about bailouts. Watch “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and think about whether some banks really should get some help and why. Read not only the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke but the rest of at least one of the Gospels. Think about who Jesus bailed out and why. Then do the hard part. Think about what sort of a bailout you need at this point in your life, and then turn to the one born to “save his people from their sins.” I have always found him to be more merciful than I am. Maybe Lehman Brothers should have thought of that.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fair Balance

2 Corinthians 8:13-14a “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

Friday night I was at an event co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society and the Boston Faith and Justice Network. It was called “The Gratitude Economy” and featured three people who told about the ways they have adjusted their lives to increase their giving for the poor.

One woman explained that she has joined with a group of thirty other women who all pledge to give 1% of their income (over and above their tithe) to a cause they would select jointly. That group gives $35,000 - $40,000 per year, living frugal lives to enable their giving. The next speaker was moved by a photographer’s exhibit of 70 orphans to render those photographs as oil paintings. He painted 70 oil portraits and sold them for $70 each, money that was contributed to services for orphans. More than that, each purchaser was required to pledge $70 per year for the remaining years of his or her life to that same cause. All 70 were sold and so he painted another 70.

The third speaker, a well-paid technology executive, told of his family’s decision to live on the income of the average American household and to give the rest away. When they began, that average income was $38,000. Today it is closer to $50,000, but he makes $200,000. They give away about $150,000 per year, and live in a poor area of one of California’s poorest cities to make ends meet. They find themselves in ministry in many ways in that setting, from leading Bible studies for gang members to taking neighbor children to school.

The most notable thing about the evening, however, was not the stories of any of the speakers. It was the audience. We were in a room at a local Lutheran church with about 80 chairs set up. Not only was every chair filled, but people lined every wall and were jammed in so tightly that some couldn’t even get in the door and strained to listen from outside. This to hear about how to live simply and give more. But (as they say in cheap advertising) wait! There’s more! Not only was the crowd spilling out the door, I was one of only about 5 or 6 people in the room over 30. That’s right, it was young people, many of whom have joined economic accountability groups themselves through the work of Boston Faith and Justice in order to address the concern Paul speaks about above—the “question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” When the third speaker cited a Bible passage, about a third of the young people there pulled out Bibles.

As I sat there in the midst of this sea of young faces, I thought of the many, many churches that have trouble attracting people under 60, let alone under 30. In fact, even churches with healthy numbers of 30-50 year olds have significant gaps in under 30. “What do they want?” our committees moan, often spiraling down into conflicts about whether or not to change the worship style. While worship styles are not unimportant, Friday night’s event taught me that the under-30 crowd wants relevance. The world they are inheriting is spiraling out of control and it will be up to them to right it. They organized in massive numbers to bring change to government, and they are taking seriously the need to live balanced and just economic lives. Maybe there wasn’t a bigger over-30 crowd because we might feel too threatened. We make too much.

The Bible has much to say on this topic. In fact, if you cut out all the economic passages in Scripture, you would be left with tatters. The passage above is just part of two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians that Paul devotes to urging the churches across Asia Minor to support an offering for the poor of Jerusalem. While his goal is specific to the time, his urging is straight from the prophets. There is abundance in God’s economy. God has created a world where there is enough for everyone. But if some of us keep more than our fair share, others will experience scarcity. While we have seen through history that legislating that balance leads to abuse, the way of God is different. These two chapters in 2 Corinthians are where you find Paul’s famous statement, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Our economic crisis has already caused great pain. But it also provides great opportunity for people of faith to get back to our roots in God’s economics. It is up to each of us to figure out “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” We need the help of our religious leaders and institutions both to learn what that means and to have the courage to live it out. Our young people, at least, are hungry for it.

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