Sunday, October 26, 2008


Joshua 1:7 “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.”

I was watching a news anchor during one of the days in the past couple of weeks that the Dow was falling off the face of the earth. It was after the congressional rescue package had been passed and the commentators were asking each other why that seemed to have little effect on the market. One person noted that it was fear that had gotten out of control. The anchor then asked a question that hit me between the eyes, “How do you turn around fear?” she asked.

The question hit me because it illustrated that, like with the issue of the greed that got us here, we have left the realm of policy discussion. “How do you turn around fear?” is a psychological and theological question. Once fear takes hold, you can’t legislate your way out of it. Fear moves behavior out of the purely rational realm and into the realm of spirit. In biblical terms, we have “sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7) and now the whirlwind is pretty scary. “How do you turn around fear?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since hearing the question, and my mind naturally jumped to one of my favorite biblical passages: 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” That’s the short answer. Fear is a gaping hole that threatens to suck us into its vacuum. We eliminate it, not by trying to hang on to other things in order to resist the pull, but by picking up a shovel and filling the hole with love. The trouble with the short answer is that it’s pretty vague and easily misunderstood. How do you love the Dow Jones? What does it mean to love in an economic meltdown? That’s where I think Joshua comes in.

Rev. Peter Gomes in his new book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus says, “The opposite of fear is not courage, but compassion.” He then references the same 1 John passage above. I basically agree, but I would like to tweak that a bit more. I think courage actually is compassion. I think courage is the form love takes in the face of fear. Courage happens when someone stops running from a threat and turns to face it for the sake of love. Courage happens when a father runs back into a burning building to save his child. Courage happens when a Marine goes into enemy territory for the love of country or to retrieve the body of a comrade. Courage happened when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat for the love of justice. Courage happened when Bobby Kennedy ignored law enforcement advice the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination and spoke to the African Americans of Indianapolis for the love of peace. Courage happens when a woman faces down breast cancer for the love of life or when anyone faces death filled with the love for family and friends and looking to the love of God in that great unknown. When we meet fear with compassion, we call it courage.

So what does that look like in our economic crisis? Think about it. Greed is often a form of fear. We hoard money or possessions when at some level we fear that we will not have enough. Greed is also a lack of compassion for others. When we keep more than our share of wealth (which is one way to look at debt), we fence off God’s resources from others. The prophet Micah says this quite plainly, “Will you rob God?” Our greed over decades has robbed God and God’s poorer children and now, in the end, it is robbing us as well.

Now is the time for courage, which means living the economy of God for the love of God and humanity. It means living within our means and giving excess to others—not because it is forced on us, but out of compassion. In times when our fear tells us to close our fists tightly, we open them and honestly look at what’s there. In Massachusetts we are about to vote on a ballot provision to eliminate the state income tax. Our economic fears make that sound appealing, but the movement in the churches calls for compassion for those whose services will be eliminated without that revenue: the elderly, the disabled, the children, the poor. The church calls for courage in the vote…to eliminate the fear of taxes by arousing loving compassion for others.

Joshua cautioned the Israelites that it would take courage to act in accordance with the Law of Moses (which had huge economic implications), but that such courage would lead to success. It is no different now. Taking the courageous steps to show compassion for others in hard economic times will turn around the fear and restore hope. When economists say we are sinking because of fear, that is a challenge that people and communities of faith are uniquely suited to address. May we have the courage to do so.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Facing Up

Philippians 4:12 “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Of the seven deadly sins, the only one that has appeared regularly in the headlines is lust. Now, in our current financial crisis, another of the deadlies is grabbing all the attention. Greed. Nobody is questioning that greed is the underlying factor in all of our financial woes. And I mean nobody. Democrats and Republicans agree. Business owners and blue collar workers acknowledge it’s true. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor all recognize that we are in this fix because of greed.

While I’m as upset as anybody that we are where we are and that nobody was apparently minding the store, I am pleased that the topic of greed is grabbing headlines. Jesus talked more about issues surrounding money and possessions than about any other topic outside of the Kingdom of God. To me that’s a sure-fire indication of where Jesus thought our spiritual danger lies. I have been convinced for many years that greed is our national sin and have railed in both my preaching and my writing that our neurotic obsession with issues like gay marriage has been an attempt to avoid facing up to what’s really killing us.

The desperately sad thing is that it’s not just killing us. Our greed is taking down the innocent in other countries as well as in our own. The financial crisis caused by our greed needs a solution, and I’ve come to think that the bailout is the lesser of two evils. But we need to do more than solve the crisis. We don’t just need a bailout. We need repentance.

Repentance, of course, is not just saying we’re sorry. In its biblical context it means to turn around and actually go in a different direction. Repentance is not about what we say so much as how we prove our words by our actions. While it’s natural to turn and point our fingers at the enormous greed evident on Wall Street, each of us needs to face the role that greed plays in our day-to-day lives. And then we have to repent. Turn around. Change.

That’s where these words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians come in. In order to curb our greed, we need to learn to be content with what we have, even if it’s not as much as my neighbor. Anyone who has lived the life of keeping up with the Joneses can tell you that you never do catch them. The Joneses always have more and will make you feel small by comparison, even if you live like a king compared to most of the rest of the world. Paul, on the other hand, says he has learned the secret of how to be content even when he has so little that he goes hungry. Verse 13 gives us a window into that secret, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Our greatest resource is not our material assets but the power of God within us. It’s wind power, renewed by the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit. It’s the power of a little boy willing to share his lunch of loaves and fishes with 5,000 people. It’s the power of leading through service and of dying in order to gain eternal life.

These next years are not going to be easy, no matter what the final bailout plan looks like. But we have an opportunity in this crisis to build a foundation for our country on a rock instead of shifting sand. Each of us can learn to be content with what we have. During the Great Depression people learned that lesson and we have come to call them “the greatest generation.” Contentment led to service. The sharing of hardship led to empathy for the poor and a willingness to create policies to help all Americans dig out.

We have the opportunity now to be the next “greatest generation,” not just for America but for the world. We can do it through Christ who strengthens us.

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