Saturday, October 04, 2008

Friday, October 03, 2008

Series Resumes on Monday

My new series of posts on the financial crisis will pick back up on Monday.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 2)

The first installment in this series appeared in a shorter form yesterday over at The Moderate Voice, a site to which I've been contributing posts since last November. One of the commenters there said this:
You seem to be blaming all borrowers as if they all knew they would be in trouble with those mortgages. Some of them were not too bright (surprised?) and others too ambitious, hoping they could make it. Some lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
It was never my intention to paint with too broad a brush. My intent, simply, was to say that the greedy lending houses would not have gotten themselves--and the US economy--where they are right now were it not for the success they enjoyed in selling their ephemera to greedy consumers. Not all consumers who are apt to be hurt by this crisis by the time it runs its course were greedy. Not everybody who took out a loan was greedy. But some were. As I said yesterday, "Only those willing to be seduced are seduced."

The question before us is, from a Christian perspective, how do we avoid making bad financial decisions? How do we keep from being willingly seduced by those trying to palm off financial sugar water?

First: Recognize that money is neutral. It's neither bad or good. It's a tool, a means to ends. One of the most misquoted passages of the Bible says:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil...(1 Timothy 6:10)
Notice that Paul, the writer of this passage doesn't say that money in itself is evil. He says that the love of it is the problem.

The love Paul describes here is what we might refer to as an addiction, a force at the bottom of a person's every motive and decision. For people like this, money is everything: the scorecard by which they measure their worth, the toy factory, their pleasure-maker.

People who love money make it the central force in their lives. It then supplants all of their relationships, whether with God or with others. It's no wonder then that Jesus says that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person, who is likelier to have succumbed to the addictive power of money, supplanting God in the person's allegiance, to get into God's kingdom.

Second: Recognize then, that money is a power. This insight was first brought to my attention by Richard Foster in his incredible book, Money, Sex, and Power. As Foster explains there, either we will get control of our money or our money will control us. Often, those with a lot of money think that they are in control. And it is true that in many ways, the wealthy can do more than those with less. No one could deny that.

But I have also seen how wealth allows the wealthy to indulge fantasies of invincibility that come to grief when the normal downs in life that can rock all of us hit them harder than those more attuned to reality through their more modest finances.

I've also seen the wealthy become understandably distrustful of others. The wealthy are often assailed by people who "want a piece of the action." This, in turn, can lead to deep cynicism, which is unhinged from reality, too.

Whether it results of delusions of invincibility or the acid of cynicism, money is a power, an addictive power. When we see it as a tool, a means rather than an end, we are on the road to controlling our finances and the impulse to greed.

Third: Recognize that some people are more adept at making money than others. I have several long-term friendships with people who simply have a facility for generating income and making the right choices on what to do with their money to make it grow. They're shrewd about making money. Shrewdness is not a bad thing.

I'm not financially shrewd. I've never been a money-making machine. Now, I could resent that and I won't say that there haven't been times in my life when I haven't been resentful. But the Bible teaches that each of us has gifts, talents, both natural and supernatural, from God. In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren, who gives something like 90% of the royalties from his writing to the church, says that the thing for the Church to do with members who have the facility for making money is to encourage them to make more. Christians who make a lot of money, aware that this ability, along with every other good gift, comes from God, will be will be able to use money to support a broad array of church, charitable, and community projects. I agree with him.

Those of us who aren't financially shrewd should, instead of being resentful, use our gifts and abilities to their maximum positive effect.

Fourth: Avoid what the Bible calls covetousness. I hope to say more on what that means, why it's counterproductive, and most importantly, what can be done about it, tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Look at The Bible Lessons for This Coming Sunday (October 5, 2008) (Part 1)

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday. For information on the Church Year and the plan of lessons called the lectionary, see here. This week, this look at the lessons will be broken down into several installments.]

The Prayer of the Day:
Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Comments: Isaiah 5:1-7
1. Those who read Better Living regularly are familiar with the consensus theory of much modern scholarship that Isaiah was composed during three different periods of ancient Judah's history, composed by at least three different authors. (It was thought legitimate back in Biblical times for authors operating in the "school of thought" of an esteemed religious leader to write in that leader's name.) Whether all of the theories about Isaiah are correct or not, it's undisputed by scholars of all stripes that our lesson is among the earliest sections of the book to be composed.

2. Based on Isaiah 6:1, it's thought that Isaiah began his activities as a prophet during the last year of the reign of King Uzziah, meaning 743BC. Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of three subsequent kings of Judah: Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Hezekiah's reign ended in 687BC.

3. In the Bible, a prophet was not someone who necessarily predicted the long-term future, although some of the Old Testament prophets, notably Isaiah. did that. But Isaiah, particularly in the lesson for Sunday, exhibits key characteristics of the prophet's work. Prophets:
  • saw themselves as messengers who
  • addressed current situtations and
  • pressed people to deal with those situations in order to avoid future difficulties or even punishment
4. The verses of our lesson come near the end of what is seen as the first major section of Isaiah, chapters 1 through 6. They contain oracles from God with both threats and promises for rebel Judah. (Judah is referred to, basically, as Judea in the New Testament. It's the southern kingdom that resulted from the split of ancient Israel shortly after the reign of Solomon.) In these chapters and in our lesson, God addresses Judah's rejection of God and explains the dire consequences for a nation that owed its existence to God.

5. As both Lutheran scholar Ralph W. Klein and The Jerome Bible Commentary explain, the first two verses of the reading are ambiguous. In what's thought to be a song, are these the words of the singer or of God? But the identity of the speaker in v.3 is clear: God.

6. The lesson presents us with a parable in which "the Beloved," God, is said to have worked hard to create and nurture the vineyard. He did so with the expectation of a great harvest. But, instead, the vineyard "yielded wild grapes." Here, the vineyard is Israel, which because of its increasing separation from God, is living worthlessly.

In v.3, God says, choose whether you'll live for yourselves and your momentary pleasures or for me. If you live for yourselves, death will inevitably follow. If you live for me, you'll not only have Me, but life thrown into the bargain, because I'm the maker and restorer of life.

7. The "fruit" of life without God is injustice, bloodshed, and futility. Injustice, of course, is never God's will for our lives. (See here and here.) For the prophets, justice meant loyalty to God and a commitment to caring for one's neighbor, even the foreigner in one's midst. The New Testament writer James' definition of "true religion" would do well as a definition of Old Testament justice:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
8. Both Klein and the Jerome Commentary point out that the lesson ends with a pun in the original Hebrew (the Old Testament writers loved puns). The Jerome commentary says:
[In the play on words in v.7,] God looked for "judgment" (mispat) and all he found was "bloodshed" (mispah), for "justice" (s'daqa) and he found an "outcry" (s'aqa). Mispat was basically a judgment, the revealed will of God covering the totality of man's [sic] duties, to God, to man [sic], and to himself. S'daqa was the correlative of mispat and it meant whatever accorded with this divine demand. It could be applied to some particular duty or to the quality of the man who lived according to mispat. We translate it as "justice," which meant both the doing of one's duty and the state of being resulting from doing that duty.
9. When Israel goes bad, God says, it isn't for lack of care and attention from Him. Israel is responsible for its own fate.

The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 1)

Only those willing to be seduced are seduced.

Nobody persuaded into doing the wrong thing can credibly argue, "He tricked me," or, "She jumbled my thinking," or "The devil made me do it." The evil all around may pull at us, but we are the ones who cave into our inborn tendency to do the wrong thing, no matter what the wrong.

Believe me, I know. I do things that are wrong and, in the end, I realize I only have myself to blame.

Only those willing to be seduced are successfully seduced. I've been thinking about that a lot lately as the nation grapples with the financial crisis. It was caused, it's said, by the reckless policies of major lending institutions. Obscene compensation and benefits packages given to corporate CEOs and other company hot shots made things worse.

It's all true, of course. And these realities are among the reasons that both Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives offer for not passing the $700-billion bailout or rescue package forged by the White House and congressional leaders over. "Why should we give $700-billion to these greedy corporate honchos?" It's a fair question.*

I hate it when legitimacy, such as that enjoyed by the captains of the lending industry in recent years, is given by the government. For several decades now, Democratic and Republican Presidents and Congresses have endorsed and allowed the practices of the big investment bankers and mortgage lenders. Presidents lauded the ever-increasing homeownership rates, ignoring the fact that this "progress" was a house of cards erected on financial quicksand, bricks and mortar stacked on onion skin paper. It's high time that the illegitimate practices of the big mortgage houses were changed.

But others' practices need to be changed as well: Those of the borrowing public.

Nobody forced people to get sub-prime loans. Nobody forced consumers to buy houses with no money down, with insufficient income to make loan payments, all on the less-than-shrewd bet that property values would inevitably increase and, borrowing from projected future value, they could refinance their way out of debt. And nobody forces consumers to use their charge cards as revolving loans.

The greed of the now-pilloried corporations was rewarded for the past twenty years by equally greedy consumers who were working the angles to get into houses, to own other things, to effectively steal their ways to more comfortable lifestyles.

Greedy lenders seduced people. But they couldn't have been successful without greedy borrowers who were willing to be seduced.

The Biblical bases for today's Our Daily Bread devotion is Proverbs 1:8-19. For those not familiar with the passage or with the Old Testament book of Proverbs generally, a little background is in order. The book is a collection of wisdom sayings given by God to King Solomon.** These specific verses underscore how important it is for young people to listen to the wisdom given to them by their parents. "Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother's knee..." It goes on to say:
Dear friend, if bad companions tempt you, don't go along with them...[when they say]...We'll load up on top-quality loot. We'll haul it home by the truckload."...Don't give [the enticers] a second look; don't listen to them for a minute.***
Then it concludes by saying that the greedy who want to haul in truckloads come to bad ends:
...they lie in wait--to kill themselves! And set an ambush--for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors."****
Here in Ohio yesterday, voters began deciding the fate of two state issues. One will reduce the interest that payday lenders can charge. The other will allow casino gambling in the middle of the state. Payday lenders are predatory, charging as much as 392% in interest rates and casino gambling rarely brings the economic benefits proponents trumpet, resulting instead, in low-wage jobs and in preying most on those who can ill-afford to part with their money. So, I intend to vote yes on limiting the payday lenders and no on casino gambling.

But, don't be mistaken, greed merchants can't make a sale if people aren't buying.

Tomorrow, a few thoughts on how we avoid the enticements of the greedy.

*Proponents argue equally fairly that the bailout is really for the entire economy, restoring liquidity so that deserving consumers and business owners can have the credit they need to buy homes, invest in inventory, and make payrolls.

**Solomon is an interesting case. He began his reign recognizing that to compensate for his lack of experience, he needed wisdom. God was impressed that, rather than asking for wealth or power, Solomon asked for the wisdom to do his job well. But Solomon came to a bad end. He didn't go to the poorhouse. But with his wisdom came the capacity to acquire lots of money, women, property, and power. He became so consumed by these things that he wandered far from God. He oversaw the conversion of Israel into a society of greed-merchants, everyone on the take. Shortly after Solomon's death, the nation divided and, eventually, was conquered by foreigners. When the major object of a nation is to acquire stuff that's of no use to us after we die, the nation, no matter how much it's been blessed, dies.

***This is from The Message's rendering of Proverbs 1:8-10

****This is from the translation in The New Revised Standard Version of Proverbs 1:18-19

[Go here for thoughts on the meaning of 'the American Dream.']

[A shorter version of this piece appears on The Moderate Voice.]

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three preachers got on a bike...

No, that's not the start of a joke. And actually, it should be written in the future tense.

Three pastors will be riding across the United States on a bamboo bicycle built for three next year and, over a period of several months, challenging fellow members from congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to help meet denominational financial commitments to the hunger relief efforts of Lutheran World Relief (LWR). Here's a video about their tour:

As you can see, Tour de Revs is interested in more than just feeding people who are hungry around the world, but like LWR, in fostering sustainability, so that those currently dealing with chronic hunger issues will be able to have food in difficult circumstances.

I also love the suggestion made by "the three revs," that congregations and individuals get involved with local food banks. Here in Logan, our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, gives monthly offerings of spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, soup, and macaroni and cheese for a local emergency food bank. This bank, CHAP, a local ecumenical effort, "fills in the gaps" for those who suddenly find themselves without food. Another group to which we have given financial support is part of a regional Second Harvest organization. We also give to the hunger relief efforts for which the three revs will be making their ride next year.

With financial uncertainties and the high unemployment here in our state and community, I'm sure that hunger relief efforts will be increasingly important in 2009. At Saint Matthew, we'll be remembering our neighbors, here and around the world.

If you get an opportunity to meet the Three Revs during their bike tour, be sure to say, "Hello." Then, find ways in which you can help alleviate the unnecessary tragedy of hunger, in our own country and everywhere else.

For more information on the Three Revs tour, including their itinerary, go here. There, you'll also find ways in which you can help the Tour de Revs, as well as links to information regarding ELCA Hunger Relief efforts.

Monday, September 29, 2008

When Your Past Sins and Your Faults Torture You

This comes from Faith Alone, a daily devotional composed of Martin Luther's sermons, essays, lectures, letters, and "table talks," the spontaneous comments Luther made over dinner to visitors and students who took notes. The Scriptural bases of the devotion is Hebrews 2:14. I love this:
Because he is God's Son, [Christ] was able to reclaim us and free us from our sins when he shed his blood. If we believe this, we can rub it in the devil's face whenever he tries to torment or terrify us with our sins. This will quickly defeat the devil. He will be forced to retreat and leave us alone.

Here's an illustration that can help us understand how Christ defeated the devil by dying. The fishing hook, which is Christ's divinity, was concealed by the earthworm, which is Christ's humanity. The devil swallowed both when Christ died and was buried. But Christ's divinity ripped open the devil's stomach so that it couldn't hold Christ anymore. The devil had to throw him up. The devil ate something that proved to be fatal. This truth gives us wonderful comfort. Just as the devil couldn't hold onto Christ in death, so the devil can't hold on to us who believe in Christ.

[Above: Martin Luther, Reformer of the Church, 1483-1546]

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Saying "Yes" to God with Mouths and Lives

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 21:23-32
This morning, my sermon has two points.

By way of introducing the first point, here are two real life experiences. Experience #1: Back in Cincinnati, I was part of a committee appointed by the thirty-three Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations in the area there to create a united mission strategy. We were to identify common goals and ways we could work together to share Jesus with others and see our churches grow spiritually and numerically.

In this connection, I was invited to meet with the Church Council of an aging congregation whose membership was dwindling. Attendance on any given Sunday was less than thirty and few of the worshipers were actually from the neighborhood. Finances were in shambles and it appeared unlikely that the congregation would keep its pastor for long. “What steps could we take to improve things?” one woman asked me.

“I can’t be certain,” I told her honestly. “But one thing you might try to do is create a second worship service that would interest the people living in the homes across the street and in the next few blocks.” As soon as I said that, you could see a wall go up around this woman. “Why should we give up what we like?” she asked me. “Keep what you like,” I replied. “But try adding something that’ll demonstrate that you care about your neighbors here and want them to know Jesus. And if that doesn’t work out, try something else with the same aim.”

The rest of the discussion was cordial, but curt. The council thanked me for coming to see them. Within two years, with a mission field of thousands in need of Jesus Christ and His love, that congregation closed its doors.

Every Sunday for decades, the people of that congregation had faithfully worshiped, sung God’s praises through the liturgy, prayed, and said the Creed together. By all exterior measures, they were a faithful Christian community. But something was missing.

Experience #2: Consider the story of a Christian organization called Operation Bootstrap Africa. Headquartered in Minneapolis, it was founded by a Lutheran pastor and his wife, who worked as missionaries in Tanzania. They had been telling others about the new life of eternal forgiveness, hope, and peace that comes to those with faith in Jesus Christ. But they came to believe that something was missing.

That’s when they formed Operation Bootstrap. Their mission was simple: to give witness to their faith in Jesus Christ not just with their words, but also with their actions.

For forty years now, Operation Bootstrap Africa has worked in partnership with the people and government of Tanzania to build more than 3200 classrooms. The organization is now also involved in projects, such as providing youth scholarships, teacher support, student quarters, school desks, and primary health care assistance not only in Tanzania, but also in Zimbabwe and Madagascar. The work of Operation Bootstrap has inspired and uplifted all involved, from the teachers who work hard in primitive conditions to the students who find reason to genuinely praise God and live their thankfulness in a tough environment.

These two stories remind me of the two sons in Jesus’ parable we hear in today’s Gospel lesson. A father has work to be done in his vineyard. He goes to one son who says, “No, I won’t do it,” then thinks better of it and goes out into the vineyard to work. The father goes to his other son, who says, “Yes, I’ll get right on it” and then does nothing. Jesus asks, “Which of the two sons did the will of the father?” Even the chief elders and high priests, the leaders of Jewish religious life who so hated Jesus, conceded that it was the son who initially said, "No," had done the father’s will.

But if Jesus had asked a different question, he might have gotten a dramatically different answer. Bible scholar John Pilch writes about a man who told Jesus’ parable to groups of people in a modern Middle Eastern country and then asked, “Which of the two sons honored the father?” To a person, they said that the first son had honored the father. After all, when the father came to tell him what to do, he had very politely said, “Yes, Dad, I’ll get on it right away.” You see, Middle Eastern culture, ancient and modern, so values the outward show of respect that even though this first son was lying through his teeth, having no intention to honor his father’s will, he had said the right words, shown the right respect, gone through the proscribed hoops.

Now, that may seem strange to us, but this reaction is a lot like the Cincinnati congregation that died. The people of that church certainly talked the talk. But they didn’t walk that talk. They weren't interested in being a church that reached out to others with the Good News of Jesus Christ. They wanted a place where they could be comfortable.

And what makes the story of Operation Bootstrap Africa so inspiring is that it shows real people committed to walking their talk, putting their faith in Christ into action in daily life.

Point #1: God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk. In Old Testament times, God expressed frustration with His people through the prophet Isaiah, when He said, “These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…”

At another place in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Now, we must be careful here. Jesus isn’t saying that if we do good things, we all get into heaven. But He is saying that if He is truly our Lord, if we really have repented for our sin, really do believe in Him, and really seek to follow Him, all of that will be evidenced not just in the words we say on Sunday mornings, but in the lives we lead on Mondays. God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk.

Point #2: God will show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives. Remember that Jesus first told this parable to the chief elders and the priests of the temple who indignantly asked Him by what authority He had thrown the religious extortionists whose presence they had licensed out of the temple. Jesus scorned them for not being willing to acknowledge His authority. They honored God with their lips, but when confronted with Jesus, God in the flesh, they wouldn’t say “Yes” to Him. Yet, tax collectors and prostitutes who had spent most of their lives saying, “No” to God did acknowledge Jesus, believe in Jesus, and follow Jesus.

This is sometimes difficult for we good religious people to understand or accept. We can get so comfortable with talking our faith without acting on it, that we’re surprised by the fervor exhibited by people God has touched.

At a conference years ago, I heard Lutheran pastor Don Abdon speak of sharing the Gospel with a person he’d never met before. As Abdon told this man more about Jesus, the man became increasingly receptive. (Now, keep in mind, that Abdon wasn't forcing a bunch of Bible verses down this man's throat! The man was, with increasing excitement, asking Abdon to share more with him about Christ.) After a while, Abdon asked the man, “Would you like to confess faith in Jesus right now?” He enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Abdon was so unprepared for that response that he found himself asking the man, “Are you sure?”

And sometimes the unwillingness of Christians to believe that God shows up in the lives of who they deem as unlikely people can be almost nasty. Another Lutheran pastor, Brian Stoffregen, tells about receiving a telephone call in his office one day. Here's some of what Stoffregen wrote about it:
[The call was from a woman I don't know.] She had been active in a church...Her husband hadn't been involved in church. He lost his right arm in an accident at work. While in the hospital, he had a life-changing experience with God, who had given him the choice of going or staying. He decided to stay. His life has been changed. Prior to his experience, his wife had said to him -- and she didn't know where it came from: "When you see my mother (who had died), don't go with her." With hindsight, the wife is certain that such words could have only come from God. Her life and her understanding of God has changed. The difficulty that she is having, and why she called me..., is that people from her church -- even close friends -- [couldn't] buy her husband's experience with God. "God wouldn't do something like that for someone who didn't believe in Jesus," [seemed to have been] the essence of their message to her. [Or,] "It must have been the devil speaking to him." [Or,] "Going with that person must have meant going to hell."
That woman's fellow church members were like the chief elders who, Jesus said were in similar disbelief about the responses of the tax collectors and prostitutes, first to John the Baptist and then to Jesus. They couldn’t believe that these sinners would say, “Yes” to repentance or “Yes” to a gracious, forgiving God! But God always shows up in the lives of of those willing to welcome God into their lives. God will even show up in our lives!

One of the questions I’ve been asking people at the Getting to Know You Dinners here at Saint Matthew is, “How do you see God at work in the life of this congregation?” I can tell you that the God we know through the crucified and risen Jesus is truly present and working among us. I was moved at last month’s dinner, when a certain Homecoming Queen* mentioned that through Saint Matthew, she was learning how to place herself and her life in God’s hands. God really does show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives.

And who of us knows for sure all the ways in which God wants to show up in our lives? I surely don’t! That’s exactly why I urge you in your prayer time not only to ask what God is up to in Saint Matthew, but also to ask, “God, what are you up to in my life?" And,"What do you will for me in my life and what do you will for Saint Matthew’s life?” After you’ve prayed that prayer, be prepared to be surprised by God. Be prepared to walk the talk of your faith.

And every day, remember those two points: God is looking for believers who walk the faith they talk AND God will show up in the lives of those willing to welcome God into their lives.

*She is a seventeen year old member of Saint Matthew, as is another member of the Homecoming Court.


This promo currently appearing on the Big Ten Network purports to show the conference's head football coaches on home visits to high school recruiting prospects. I love Penn State coach Joe Paterno's bit of intense thespianism at the end.

Also love Jim Tressel's, "You do know about our Buckeye leaves..."