Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Man Who Forgave Debts

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Matt. 6:12

Most people have never heard of Edward Tuckerman, Jr. I never had either, until I started researching the founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society for our bicentennial this past year. Artists might know him, since his portrait (pictured here) was painted by Gilbert Stuart, but the only other people who might know him are those who have studied the history of bread.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. was a baker. He was born Dec. 27, 1740 and spent 50 years as a baker in Boston's south end, taking just a bit of time out to be a second lieutenant of the train of artillery in Boston during the American Revolution. What set Mr. Tuckerman apart as a baker, however, was not his longevity in the field, but the fact that he discovered how to keep biscuits fresh on long ocean voyages.

That discovery meant that his business grew by leaps and bounds, and soon he had over 300 employees and was serving all the ports of New England. He had many notable accomplishments, was a founder of several charitable societies and was even a state senator, but I'm writing about him here at the threshold of the New Year because of what Edward Tuckerman, Jr. did every New Year's Day.

If you owed Mr. Tuckerman money as the books were closed out for the preceding year, you got a call from Mr. Tuckerman. If any delinquent borrower, whether an individual or a business, could show that they did not have the ability to pay, Mr. Tuckerman forgave the debt. Large, small, didn't matter--every dime was forgiven. Not put on a payment plan, not deferred, forgiven. Debtors prisons would not be abolished until the middle of the 19th century, but Mr. Tuckerman took a higher road, perhaps because he followed a higher law.

Edward Tuckerman was an Episcopalian, active in Trinity Church in Boston as was his father before him. He would have known the Lord's Prayer since childhood. As a baker, I have to wonder how often he thought of "Give us this day our daily bread" in relation to his business, and of course the very next line is "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

While many churches, including my own, substitute "trespasses" or "sins" for "debts," the word in Greek is an economic term. As hard as it is to forgive sins, I think there are more people willing to forgive sins than there are willing to forgive debt. Not so with Mr. Tuckerman, and if it had a negative impact on his business, it was not enough to impact his ability to give generously to the Massachusetts Bible Society, the Charitable Mechanic Association, his church, and others in need.

Edward Tuckerman was able to forgive all his debtors every New Year's Day for two reasons. The first is that he was not deeply in debt himself. He did not need to collect the debts of others to pay off his own debts. He built a business through persistence and creativity over 50 years, not through a capital loan overnight.

The second reason he was able to forgive debts, however, is because he knew that neither the bread he made nor the money that came as a result really belonged to him. He was a steward of God's resources, and knew that the opportunities and inspiration that made him a successful businessman were God's gifts to him. God gifted him so that he might in turn pass God's gifts along to others. So for 50 years, Edward Tuckerman, made the daily bread upon which people depended. And when they could not pay, it became a gift. He did not just pray the Lord's Prayer, he lived it.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. died on July 17, 1818 and his obituary called him "one of Boston's most worthy, useful, and respectable citizens." I'm sure he had his flaws and, like all of us, I'm sure his life knew sin as well as the good. But I'm also sure that when he met God face to face, it was all forgiven, even as he had forgiven others.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Undeserving Neighbors

Romans 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

We live in pretty strange times. During the Bush years we heard a lot about the Christian influence on government and how we were a “Christian nation.” And there was a lot of emphasis on social values related to abortion and gay marriage. Christians differ about those things (although you never would have known it from the media) but you did have the sense that the religious community was thinking about policy and at least trying to apply it.

Now, in our new reality, we are really in trouble. We have major, major issues that affect not only all of America but the entire globe. What strikes me is that for at least six months now, the “secular” media has been devoting large chunks of airtime to what are, in essence, religious issues and questions. Even specifically Christian ones. The table is prepared for us, yet no one is coming to the feast.

As the collapse began, it was the issue of greed. Everybody talked about it. The Roman Catholics have named it a deadly sin. The Bible is so full of talk of greed that if you cut those passages out, you’d be left with tatters. Even now that first course of the meal remains largely untouched by people of faith, although it is an issue that we agree on across the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Next came depression and despair. I wrote here about TV anchors wondering aloud how to give people hope. We had a huge election that was all about hope. Some of that salad course might have been consumed in the privacy of local churches, but I didn’t see the religious figures on the news in the way the gay marriage and abortion folks had been. Hope is a uniter, not a divider in Christian faith. We could speak together, but largely we haven’t.

And now, the entrée has been served, and if we don’t get our butts into those dinner chairs, liberal and conservative alike, then we deserve every bit of criticism that has been heaped on the Church and organized religion. Since Congress began putting together the meat of a stimulus bill and now into the rich sauce of a housing proposal, almost half of every news program I watch is people arguing against any part of a proposal that will help people who don’t deserve it. More than that, this course is so rich that the mainstream, secular media is asking almost every single night, whether it is right and proper to help our neighbors, our honest-to-goodness-live-next-door neighbors, if they contributed to their own misfortune.

Neighbors. Get it? Love your neighbor?

The core of the Bible for mainliners is generally the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The core of the Bible for evangelicals is Jesus dying for our sins even though we didn’t deserve it. Grace is the church word for receiving what we don’t deserve. That’s why we sing that it is amazing.

It is completely understandable that those with different faith systems or no faith tradition at all would worry about helping out the guy across the street who doesn’t deserve help. But, literally for heaven’s sake, not a single Christian on either the right or the left, should be objecting on those grounds. You may not like it for other reasons, but if you profess anything at all like Christian faith, you should be able to recognize and support grace when you see it.

My new book, God with Skin On, is all about the concept that the job of Christians is to continue to do to others what Jesus did for us. By doing so…by giving others the experience of God in the flesh—God with skin on—we help others recognize and accept God’s love. If you have never received something you didn’t deserve on this earth, recognizing that God would do such a thing for you is too big a chasm to jump. There are proposals on the government table that would offer grace. Will Christians oppose it on that very point? Oppose it on other points if you will, but not that one. Has there been any climate since the Great Depression when it was more fitting for Christians to speak out on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”

Where are the Christians at this meal? The main course is served!

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