Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 4)

The recent public displays of outrage by some members of Congress, people who both knew about the dangerous, deceptive, and greedy practices of the mortgage lenders and investment banking firms and encouraged them, may be imbued with the moral purity of Claude Rains, who, in the film, Casablanca, closed down Rick's Cafe Americain, where he did his gambling because he was "shocked, shocked" to learn that gambling was going on.

But grandstanding or no, House Government Oversight and Reform chair Henry Waxman stood in for millions of Americans the other day when he doggedly questioned the CEO of now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld. Whether between 2000 and 2008, Fuld pocketed the $480-million claimed by Waxman or the $250-million claimed by Fuld, the guy raked in a lot of cash from a company he was apparently steering toward oblivion.

Is it fair that while thousands lost their jobs, thousands more lost their shirts, and the whole country was thrown into a financial crisis, people like Richard Fuld make off with millions?

Is it fair that a company that got bailed out last week had the gall to spend millions to take its execs to a spa?

Clearly, the answer to both of those questions is, "No."

But what makes us say that?

The Bible is quite clear in saying that God commands honesty and fair dealings of those who do business. It condemns usury, the levying of steep and imprisoning interest rates by those who make loans, like those charged by today's pay day lenders. It commends forthrightness in weights and measures, what we would call "truth in advertising."

When God came into the world in the person of Jesus, He dramatically underscored God's command for honesty in matters financial, as well as God's condemnation of greediness in business dealings, when He "cleansed" the temple in Jerusalem.

You may remember that Jesus entered the temple, the center of Jewish religious life and the place that the presence of God was said to dwell, and turned over the tables of the "moneychangers." He let loose the animals they were selling for use as sacrifices there.

Who were the moneychangers? They were unscrupulous business people who conspired with the temple authorities on a moneymaking scheme that preyed on people's piety and trust.

To the temple, you know, pious Jews came to offer sacrifices to God. The wealthiest could afford to sacrifice lambs. Poorer worshipers could offer birds and the poorer still were allowed to make cereal offerings. Lambs, doves, and cereal were all to be purchased from vendors in the temple courtyards. But they could only be purchased with temple currency.

And how did the faithful get that? They got it by exchanging their currency from the "real world" with the moneychangers, also in the temple courtyard. They charged exorbitant fees for the temple money. Along with the temple priests and elders, the moneychangers got very wealthy with this scam, while the true believers who lived in occupied Judea struggled to get by.

By His "temple tantrum," Jesus condemned these practices and most people who read about it today will say, "Right on!" But why do the preponderance of people who read about and have Jesus' action explained to them side with Him?

Simply put, the Biblical laws commending honesty and fair play and the Scriptural passages that condemn fraud and gouging, are written on our hearts. Theists and non-theists, irrespective of the wide variations in their specific codes of morality, seem, instinctively to know and broadly agree on what might be called the basics of financial fair play.

This is why those who say that you can't legislate morality are wrong. Of course you can legislate morality. In fact, when government is operating with something like integrity--or as close as any of us is capable of operating with integrity, all it ever does is legislate morality.

Take something as innocuous as speed limits or traffic lights on our highways. Why do governments impose them? Speed limits exist because, as part of our common morality, we value life. We want to ensure safety. We have traffic lights and STOP and YIELD signs for the same reason.

We live in a pluralistic society, not a theocracy. Yet our laws usually reflect a moral consensus, a common appropriation of the moral standards I believe that God has imprinted on every one of us, applied to particular times and places by people trying to live and work together.

Of course, there are lots of times when governments behave immorally. (That's to be expected of human beings.) But, interestingly, when governments misbehave, pass immoral laws, or administer immoral policies, they seem never to say, "There's no such thing as moral right." Instead--whether it's a legislator on the take caught on videotape claiming that he only appears to be doing something wrong or a dictator perpetrating a holocaust, the wrongdoers try to twist our common moral standards, portraying themselves as being in the right.

But, in the end, we don't buy it.

And it isn't just the actions of government that are viewed through the prisms of our common moral awareness. Our inborn sense of fairness can also be stirred by the actions of others. (Though it should be said that, given our common human weaknesses, we're generally quicker to see others' faults and wrongs than our own.)

That's why so many people, irrespective of their political affiliations, react to the financial crisis and say, "It isn't fair and something needs to be done about it."

And even if members of Congress charged with oversight have spent most of the past two decades overlooking the practices of unscrupulous lenders and investment bankers, fnow affecting a Claude Rains-like horror, from where I sit, from one Christian's perspective, I agree: It isn't fair.

[To read the first three installments of this series, see here, here, and here.]

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Importance of Rest

I may have to work on my communications skills.

I said something today during a group discussion that elicited a gasp from at least one of my clergy colleagues.

It happened at a workshop for the ELCA pastors here in our portion of southern Ohio. The workshop was called Recognizing and Dealing with Depression. The event was initiated by Pastor John "Jack" Jackson, who serves as president of our grouping of twenty-or-so congregations which make up what we call the Scioto Conference. Jack, who is observant of human behavior, capable of sniffing out denial readily, had discerned that many clergy, who spend their lives as caregivers, often don't take very good care of themselves. This was true, he saw, not only with physical health, but also with emotional and spiritual health as well. Many clergy, as hard as it may be to understand, are depressed.

I got to hear two of the three presenters: Dr. Evelyn Kirkhart, a counseling psychologist, and Dr. Yvette Hensley, professor of pastoral care at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Both were outstanding as, I'm told, was Pastor Mark Nodo, a psychologist and counselor, the first presenter of the day. Sometime, I may write more about the numbers of things I learned, as well as those things I already knew but found reinforced in what they had to say.

But now, back to the gasp I mentioned at the beginning.

Both Kirkhart and Hensley, in their own ways, emphasized that getting sufficient rest is an important strategy for staving off depression. Now, that ought to be obvious, I guess. But as I heard these two experts articulate that fact, I thought of all the people I've known through the years whose struggles with varying levels of depression were either triggered, or more commonly, exacerbated, by the frenetic paces at which they lived their lives. They failed to get rest and that made their depression worse.

It wasn't just to give us a day to worship Him that God established the Third Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." God wants us to take a day to recharge our batteries by laying low and getting reconnected with God and God's people. It's energizing to do that. God also wants us to close our eyes and sleep.

After the presentations, we were encouraged to join in on conversation. It was at this point that I decided to make a confession, one which I think was misunderstood.

The point I was trying to make was that before coming to my current parish, which has had a high number of deaths and hospitalizations since I arrived here and which also has an atypically high number of shut-ins (elderly who live in nursery facilities or are homebound), I realized that my previously loosey-goosey approach to sabbath rest wouldn't work. For the first twenty-three years of my pastoral ministry, I admitted, I decided on Sunday nights which day of the coming week I would take off. I might take any one of the six days other than Sunday, a workday for a pastor no matter what.

I elicited a gasp because at least one of my colleagues evidently thought I was saying that in the first twenty-three years of my ministry I had never taken a day off. Looking back, I understand how that impression was created.

But, not true. Had it been that long since I'd taken time off, I doubt that I would still be around. All work and no play not only makes Joe a dull boy, most of the Presidents in my lifetime stand as vivid testimony as to how unremitting work ages a human being.

One of the problems with the approach I used for twenty-three years is that if you're so flexible about your day off, it's easy to justify letting time away from the job to get squeezed out of your week. It can be too easy to never get away and to be hurtful to family, relationships, one's body, and effectiveness as a pastor. I think that by having my office at home, being available as a room father when my kids were smaller and as a coach or a chaperone for events as they grew older and by having regular dates with my wife, I think that my family would report that I avoided some of the pitfalls of that overcome workaholic pastors.

But when I came to my new parish last November, I realized that my old ways would have to go the way of the passenger pigeon.

So, I announced when I arrived at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan last November that I would take a set day off. Whenever my work necessitated my working on the designated day off, I've taken a different day away from the job that week.

My sabbath rest, which includes spending a bit more time reading the Bible than I do the rest of the week and a little more extended time of prayer, has also included the chance for me to spend time with my wife in seeing friends, going shopping, or just hanging out. Last week, my day away included hiking some of the several beautiful caves here in Hocking County with my wife and two of our friends visiting from Cincinnati. The day after these days off, I come back to my work the next day a better pastor and a recharged person.

On this day-of-rest business, I've tried loosey-goosey and I've tried intentional. Intentional works better. I urge you to do the same.

Okay, I'm done. As I resolve to do a better job of communicating my true meaning and save my colleagues from gasping, I'm going to take another bit of advice from today's presenters: Get a good night's sleep. Maybe as I go into REM, I can do some of my lucid dreaming to discern ways to communicate clearly.

[About the pictures above: The one on the left is President George W. Bush in 2000. The one on the right is the president earlier this year.]

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Financial Crisis from One Christian's Perspective (Part 3)

In the previous installment of this series, I named four major ways, from a Christian perspective, that we can avoid making bad financial decisions. They were:
  • Recognize that money is morally neutral. It's neither good or bad. It's only what we do with it or do to get it that are good or bad.
  • Recognize that money is a power. Either we will control it or it will control us.
  • Recognize that some people are more adept at making money than others. Those who can should be encouraged to make and use money for the glory of God, the giver of every perfect gift. Those who can't should avoid jealousy. Helping others is an important way that wealth can be used.
  • Avoid covetousness.
Note that in none of what I said there did I give any "practical" advice on investing in 401K's, 403B's, IRAs, money market funds, real estate, the stock market, gold, baseball cards, Beanie Babies, or anything else. I haven't said that you should save a certain percentage of your income. I haven't told you to go into plastics.

Frankly, I have no idea what practical advice I might give you on that stuff. More importantly, the Bible is silent on such matters, although I hope that you have sense enough to see that some investments are wiser than others. The Bible does promise that if you ask for wisdom, God will grant it to you. (So, ask for it!) I also believe that God gifts people who can give you good advice on finances if you're willing to listen to them. (Those financially savvy advisers may be one way God answers your prayers for financial wisdom.)

But here's what all four of the above principles have in common: They deal with our attitudes. And really all four of them could, in a way, be subsumed under the fourth one, avoid covetousness.

It's interesting that we have, in the traditional reckoning recognized by my Christian tradition, Lutheranism, ten commandments. Eight of them deal with actions, or at least the implication of actions.*

But then come two commandments, the ninth and tenth, which deal with our attitudes:
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's house (ninth)
  • You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his cattle, or anything that is your neighbor's (tenth)
To covet is to want something obsessively, desperately. And it isn't just wanting something, like we may want to pay off our mortgage or save enough to put our kids through college. Those desires have more to do with needs or legitimate aspirations for the good of others. They're perfectly legitimate.

Nor is coveting the desire for a better life, the ache for intimacy, or the pining for God which, I believe, lives in everyone of us. Saint Augustine wasn't exhibiting covetousness when he famously said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." As John Eldredge convincingly argues in his book, The Journey of Desire, we are fashioned for eternity. So, we have eternal appetites. And while God's eternity has been revealed to us in the experiences of ancient Israel and ultimately, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we aren't there yet. It's our home and we ache for it. That isn't covetousness. That's being human.

Covetousness happens when we confuse the eternal for the temporary, when we mistakenly think that we are God, with a self-conferred right to own, manipulate, or control whatever we want. We covet when we think that the hole in our soul can be filled by the trophies of the world.

Covetousness can lead to actions. But covetousness is an attitude of mind, a bend of the soul. To overcome covetousness, our attitudes need changing. But how does that happen? Here are a few ideas.

First: We need to change our god. Paul Tillich said that whatever is most important to us is our god, our "ground of being." Our ground of being must change if we're to overcome covetousness.

One of the bad things we inherit as members of the human race though, is an inborn orientation away from the real God, the One Who made this universe. We don't have to be taught to be self-worship. It comes naturally to us. We need to turn away from our sins and our selfish orientation because it's this turning away from God that leads us to believe that everything we want should be ours simply because we want it. In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, and one of the simplest, the Gospel of Mark summarizes the substance of Jesus' ministry before He died and was resurrected:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
To repent means to turn around. It means to quit following ourselves, our sin, or whatever else we see as most important in our lives and to instead, follow the God ultimately revealed in Jesus. The good news Jesus talks about is that we have new and everlasting life with Him as a free gift.

Second: We need to change our minds. In a passage of the New Testament many of us read or heard in our churches a week ago, the apostle Paul quotes a hymn commonly sung by first century Christians when he writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...(Philippians 2:1-13)
When we turn to the God we meet in Christ (and do it again each day because it's so easy to fall back into the bad attitudes that can lead to Wall Street crashes, personal morality crashes, or relational crashes, among other bad stuff), God begins to reconstruct our minds and our lives. We become, in Martin Luther's phrase, "the Holy Spirit's workshop."

Notice though that we can do little to change our attitudes, even though doing so requires hard work on our parts. We can only make ourselves available to God, giving God access to our whole lives, then watching what God does.

And we can only give God access to our lives by being part of the body of Christ, the Church. As Kathryn Kleinans says:
...the Word of God [through which God imparts life and changes us] comes to us from outside ourselves, breaking into our sinful self-centeredness. We hear God's gracious "for you" most clearly when we hear it in a voice other than our own. We feel God's gracious "for you" when we are splashed with water from the [baptismal] font. When we taste the bread and wine, we confess that Christ is really present, his own body and blood giving life to ours...Faith plugs us in to an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. We have power because his power flows through us.
When that happens, God will begin to set aside our self-propelled agendas. It's God's doing, affected through the community of the Church.

But, putting our egos, ambitions, actions, relationships, and wallets under the control and direction of the God made known in Jesus is the hardest thing in the world to do. I've been a Christian now for thirty-two years and I often fail miserably in this surrender business. It hasn't gotten any easier. In fact, in some ways, it becomes harder. But I have learned an ironic lesson:
The more I yield control of my life to Christ, the more Christ frees me to be my truest, best, and happiest self. The more I follow the dictates of my selfish ambitions, the more miserable I become and the more imprisoned to things, people, and shifting whims.
We covet because we think it will free us from the pedestrian concerns of the great unwashed masses. But in the end, the things we covet enslave us to grave-bound stuff, earmarked for oblivion.

A passage in the Psalms, the Old Testament songbook, says:
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
Our greatest, if often unacknowledged, desire is to be connected to the One Who made us and gives us life and to experience the peace and purpose for which we were made. That fulfilling connection can't be monetized or counted. It's a qualitative change of heart, mind, and life that will, if we let God work on us, change what we value, what we seek, and what we do.

When we put God first in our lives, God will begin to change us. What we want will change and what we truly want and need will be ours.

[Next installment: God's justice and the financial crisis.]

*The first eight commandments proscribe the following positive behaviors:
  1. Offer worship to only one God (first)
  2. Only use God's Name for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (second)
  3. Use one day a week for corporate worship and to heed God's Word (third)
  4. Give honor to your parents and others God has put in positions of authority (fourth)
  5. Preserve and safeguard the lives of others (fifth)
  6. Keep yourself sexually clean, reserving intimacy for marriage (sixth)
  7. Refrain from taking your neighbors' property and help them to keep what they own (seventh)
  8. Speak the truth in love about others, refraining from gossip or slander (eighth)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Seed, Weed, Feed

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

Matthew 21:33-46
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus quotes Psalm 118, an Old Testament passage that comes up repeatedly in chapter 21 of Matthew, and describes Himself as the stone rejected by the builders. Jesus claims to be the foundation stone of the universe, the God Who makes us and Who makes new and everlasting life for all who believe in Him possible. But he’s also saying that many who claim to build their lives on God will spurn Him and demand His execution on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. The crucified and risen Jesus ushers the kingdom of God into our world and into our lives, but He says that this kingdom will be taken away from those who fail to bear fruit.

What on earth does that mean?

And how does a person go about producing fruit?

Before tackling those two questions, a little background is in order.

Jesus often used fruit as a metaphor for Christians and the lives we lead.

In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying that believers should produce the fruit of repentance. He says that trees that produce bad fruit will be cut down. He says that every tree produces either good fruit or bad fruit. He also says that a tree will be known by its fruit.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that He is the true vine and the Father is the vinedresser. Each believer, drawing life from Him, is a branch. Occasionally, to foster our growth, to prevent us from being disconnected from God, and to ensure that we keep bearing fruit, God will cleanse or prune us, subjecting us to challenging circumstances that will find us either depending more deeply on God or turning away from Him. God’s purpose is to help us to live fruitful lives.

So, what does it mean to lead a fruitful life? Simply put, a Christian bearing fruit is someone who, by their daily interaction with Christ, is living a life that honors God.

Often, Christians who are, in Jesus’ terms, “bearing fruit” will hardly notice what God is producing in them. They’re focused on following Christ, not on looking like Christians.

I once knew a man, we’ll call him Joe, who worked as an engineer for a major manufacturing firm. He learned that another man, I’ll call him John, had joined the congregation where I was the pastor.

“John is an incredible man,” Joe told me. “We worked briefly side-by-side twenty-five years ago and occasionally in the years since, we’ve come in contact when our divisions had to work together on things.”

Joe went on to explain that among the things that impressed him about John were that he was ethical, a hard worker, deeply dedicated to his wife and children, and, in spite of his busy-ness, one who managed both to be involved with his church and to take excellent care of himself, eating right and running several miles a day.

“And John is such a real person,” Joe went on. “But what I really appreciate about him is that he loves Christ without pushing his faith onto anyone. That earned him lots of chances with me—and I was a hard case at the time—to talk about faith issues. In his way, John, more than anybody I know won me over to Christ.”

When I told John about my conversation with Joe, he was shocked. “I don’t remember any of that,” he told me.

There’s a lesson in John’s reaction. Sometimes we Lutheran Christians feel guilty because we don’t go door-to-door asking people if they’ve been saved. Now, I absolutely believe in sharing our faith with others. I absolutely believe that we should tell others about Jesus and invite them to worship, study, pray, and serve with us in Jesus’ Name.

But I’m convinced that the Christians who have the biggest positive impact on others aren’t the ones who spout four spiritual laws and try to guilt others into following Christ.

They aren’t the ones who go around shouting about the need for justice and compassion in our world and then treat those who disagree with them like dirt.

Fruit is a byproduct of our connection to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. John was unaware of the good fruit he was bearing, the witness of his life with Jesus, because he wasn’t following Christ to impress anybody else. He was following Christ because He knew that it’s Christ Who gives us forgiveness, life, hope, confidence, and joy, in good times and bad here, and in eternity. Fruit is Jesus working in our lives, just as the apples from a healthy tree result not from anything that the tree itself has done, but from sun, rain, and cultivation. The more connected to Christ you and I remain, the more fruitful our lives will be.

But unlike a fruit tree that has no control over its exposure to sun, rain, or cultivation, you and I can choose whether we’ll remain close enough to bear the good fruit Jesus talks about. As Pastor Scott Salsman wrote some years ago, “God will produce fruit in our lives if we honor him in the garden of the soul.” So, how exactly does that happen?

First: We seed the garden. One of my favorite passages of Scripture in Isaiah 43:19. It’s in the Old Testament and comes as part of a section of that book, written at least five centuries before Jesus’ birth, which foretells the coming of a saving king. In the verse, the prophet quotes God as saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

The point? The living eternal God isn’t stuck in the past. God is always doing new things and often God is doing them in older people. Pastor John Maxwell cites an interview with a doctor he read. The doctor had studied people 100 years of age and older. This doctor found that all these people had one thing in common. Maxwell thought it might be good diets and exercise programs. The doctor could have mentioned good genetics. (In line with that old saying, "The best way to ensure a long life is to pick the right partents.") No doubt each of those things are helpful for long living. But, Maxwell says, “the one thing these centenarians had in common was purpose.” For them, “the future looked bright; they had a reason to live.”

I meet a lot of people who are stuck in ruts. You know what a rut is, don’t you? It’s a grave with the ends kicked out! But people who keep bearing fruit are people who keep seeding their garden. They continue to look for new ways to serve God and neighbor. They keep trying to learn new things so that they can continue living useful Christian lives. So, seed the garden. Be open to God doing new things in your life.

Second: Weed the garden. I’m a terrible gardener. Back when we lived in northwest Ohio, I tried for several years to keep a garden. I should have had a great garden. The soil up there is rich, as you know, part of the old Black Swamp. On top of that, the farmers would always disc the soil for me and then bring good manure for me to spread. In spite of all that though, every year I tried my hand at gardening, I managed to let the weeds get the better of me. But we can’t afford to let that happen to our relationship with Christ. We need to weed our garden.

A fellow I read about had developed a bad habit of misusing God’s Name. That happens any time we use God’s Name for anything other than prayer, praise, or thanksgiving. We tend to think that misusing God's Name is an insignificant thing these days. But whenever we use God’s Name in ways other than God intended, we cheapen God’s Name and dishonor God, we clog up the line of communication between God and us with pointless static.

This fellow became convinced that he needed to break his bad habit. He enlisted his wife and a good friend in helping him to do so. He put a thick rubber band on his wrist. Every time his wife or friend heard him misuse God’s Name, they were to snap him good. After a while, the fellow got tired of having a sore wrist.

However you choose to weed your garden, you’ll be clearing the way for God to bear fruit in your life.

Finally, to bear fruit: Feed the garden. By this, I mean, for one thing, doing what you’re doing right now. (No, not sleeping!) I mean worshiping. We also feed the garden when we regularly spend time in prayer, whenever we receive Holy Communion, and when we read the Bible on our own and with others, in Bible studies. We feed the garden when we connect with Christ every day and with the Church whenever it's possible.

Finding time for this can be really hard, I know. A young mother once told me that with her three kids, all under age of five, the only peace and quiet she ever got was in the shower. She used this time to pray. Her daily shower became the most important few minutes of her day.

A man I know bought a small Bible--one of those slimline editions--and kept it and a daily devotional like Christ in Our Home or Our Daily Bread, in the top drawer of his desk at work. Each day, just before he had lunch, he pulled out the Bible and the devotional and read and prayed.

A farmer, profiled by Mosaic, the ELCA’s video magazine, always gathered with farm hands in the barn in the predawn hours each day in order to read the Bible, what he called “the owner’s maual.”

Each of these three people were feeding the garden, keeping in touch with Christ and the Church.

Jesus Christ came into the world to give us citizenship in the kingdom of God. It’s a free gift to all who turn from sin and trust in Him.

But sometimes our life with Christ can be choked off by indifference and the demands of daily life. If we will commit ourselves to a lifestyle that includes
  • being open to the new things God wants to do in our lives,
  • ridding ourselves of the old things that drag us away from God, and
  • staying in daily close contact with Christ and His Church,
we can bear the fruit Jesus speaks of today, whether we’re 6 or 106, or any other age.

Jesus, the cornerstone, builds great lives in those who follow Him intently.

[Seed the garden, weed the garden, and feed the garden are the three points for this text suggested by Pastor Scott Salsman in the sermon cited above. I'm grateful for the inspiration!]