Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Purpose Driven Life

At the beginning of this year the small groups in our congregation began a study of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. I had skimmed the text fairly thoroughly before we started working with it, and at the time wasn't quite sure what all the fuss was about this book, but certainly didn't think it could doo any harm. It seemed to me to be a pretty unremarkable guide to Christian living by a man who has been successful in church planting and spreading the Gospel.

Each week I have prepared for each chapter of the book a small bible study to accompany Rick Warren's material, thinking (rightly, in this case) that the book while long on good advice for Christian living, is a little short of actually getting into the text of Scripture. These studies and sets of questions have, for the most part, been well received, and we are now in the home straight as far as completing the book is concerned. (If you would like copies of these let me know and I will see how we can get them to you).

While I wouldn't say that The Purpose Driven Life has grown on me, I would say that I am much more enthusiastic about it, because there is a lot of good sense about Christian growth and discipleship within these pages. One of our congregation said to me that she felt I wasn't that enamoured by it because lots of the substance within it is something with which I have been familiar for a long time. "For someone like me, for whom all this is such new stuff, it is a most exciting book." That's probably right.

One reason why this book is a such a winner among so many Christians, I think, is because so much of postmodern life is without shape, purpose, or objective values, and people crave these things. Here, at last, is something that tries to fill that gap and give them the essence of what living purposefully as a Christian believer is all about. Each chapter of the book focuses on one issue or doctrine only, and each is practical and helps the individual apply the lessons to their daily life. I am wondering now how we are going to follow up on this study.

My sense of Rick Warren has changed as we have taken this journey together. I don't know what I thought of him before we started, but there was a certain snootiness toward him that made me take him less than seriously. Then there was that young woman in Atlanta who used "The Purpose Driven Life" to talk that escaped murderer to give himself up to the authorities, and suddenly Rick Warren was on every news program, as was the book.

I caught him on CNN with Larry King, and was deeply impressed by the way he talked and presented himself and the Christian message. What impressed me more was when he told Larry King how he has from his royalties paid Saddleback Church back his whole salary over the last quarter century that he has been their pastor, as well as making considerable other donations. He sounds to me as if he has put money in the right perspective, and it using it to the glory of God rather than self-gratification or self-aggrandizement. Here is a man who walks the talk. I am glad that he will be speaking at an Anglican gathering in Pittsburgh in November, because we need to hear more from men like him.

Now, I have not become a Purpose-Driven junkie, but I have been given a fresh set of insights into Gospel living by a man from a tradition very different from my own -- and his teaching has been a great blessing to people I pastor. This makes me profoundly grateful for him.

Once or twice in the last year or so I have seen reviews or comments by Episcopalians who disparage the contribution Warren has made. While I respect those who have weighed up Rick Warren's book and found him wanting, I would humbly suggest to those who have discounted it because he is a Baptist, or something absurd like this, take a serious look at what Warren is saying. There are some fundamental lessons that we can learn from this man who has planted a single congregation that is much larger than many of our dioceses.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Something is Stirring

Something seems to be stirring deep within me. I tend to find that when some kind of inner rearrangement is taking place, the discomfort is at times almost physical. I continue my daily round and appointed tasks as vicar of a small, but beginning to grow, congregation, as well as the various responsibilities I have in the diocese, but the stirring does not go away. I have abandoned any work in the wider church, or perhaps it is fairer to say that the wider church, especially the denomination, has abandoned me; yet now able to stand back from the whole sorry picture I find that an immense task of reassessing going on.

Somewhere at the root of all this is what I would describe as yearning for spiritual integrity: a consistency of life and faith that is more than just a few small successes in the on going quest to narrow my own personal hypocrisy gap. What I think I am feeling after is a manner of life as a Christian that has a cascade effect outward from the re-formation and renewal taking place within.

I know that my life is confronted by constant transition, and that if I am to grow I must engage that transition that the Spirit through the circumstances of existence are pressing upon me. Yet I also realize that the place I have reached in my development as a human being is one that demands thought and prayer that I might be generative in this later chapter of my allotted span. This is something of a wrestling match because for the first time in my life I can hear the siren song of retirement, and there are moments when it is enticing.

The question behind this is whether I want to retire, or whether that is, indeed, a faithful thing to do. Besides, if the actuarial tables are anything to go by I could still have a good few thousand miles of servicabilty before me yet. I have watched far too many priests and pastors during my years of ordained life reach their sixties and then slow down and begin to prepare for retirement while they are still on the job. As I think and pray I believe God has something more significant for me to do than that.

And yet during the last couple of weeks I have found myself in the presence of enthusiastic young leaders from other traditions. Watching and listening to them talking about the new ministries they had launched has been exhausting, because although this is something that has been a hallmark of my ministry over the last thirty years, I know that I no longer have the resources to take the world by the scruff of the neck and attempt to have visions and dream dreams that would require me to build something new. Exciting as it is to watch younger men and women who are so in love with the Gospel that they will go to the ends of the world, that door is now closed. It is no longer my calling.

Sure, I work in a relatively new ministry, and long for the Church of the Apostles to acquire land (something that looks as if it might be happening), construct our first facility, become a self-sustaining congregation, and then call into leadership a younger priest who will be able to take the reins from me and lead this fellowship forward. However, doing that is the task to which God called me several years ago, and I am merely doing my duty to the Lord who invited me to take up this challenge. It might take two, five, or seven years, but we will see.

Meanwhile, against this backdrop the inner work goes on, and what I am finding is that I am being attracted to folks who, like myself, are discomforted by what the future holds for our culture and our church, but who are engaging the possibilities constructively and without rancor. Much of what I see in the churches in general, and our denomination in particular, is the triumph of various self-interests over collective responsibility, which is a recipe for a slow, drawn-out death. We need real change, but most of us do not seem willing to engage the change necessary, and instead hold onto past forms and past resentment. Of course, that change begins within the heart, which brings it back to my own inner spiritual work to be done.

The couple of years since August 2003 have been for me years in which I have been in mourning, and as Shakespeare put it, "He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend." I have been mourning in order that I might mend. While romantic longings about an idyllic past that never existed within the Episcopal Church are immensely attractive, such notions are neither tenable nor relevant any longer. We have been asked to adjust to new circumstances, and then to make something beautiful for God out of those circumstances.

Right now, none of this is taking place. The underlying reason seems fairly simple, on the political left of the controversy that has torn us apart is a triumphalism that seems determined to push forward with an agenda that is having the domino effect of pulling both ECUSA and the Anglican Communion apart. While on the political right of the issue is an anger that is either forcing people to give up and leave (which is what the left wants), or to dig in and be obnoxious. Now, I realize this is an over-simplification, but anyone with any sense of reality must be able to see that this is a pitched battle in which there can be no winners.

If we take seriously the observations of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the grieving process, those of us on the orthodox side of this conundrum have not done the work necessary for health because we have not yet got beyond denial, anger, and depression, and to move into acceptance. Meanwhile, those on the left are oblivious to the fact that they might have done anything amiss. While two armies are dug in like this, death and destruction are the guaranteed outcomes.

Now here comes my confession, and it is one that might alienate me further from my conservative brothers and sisters, and that is that while I believe it vital to stand firm upon Scripture's revelation, it is an issue of how we stand. I am either too old or too stupid to want to continue being mad at the revisionists, not because I think they are right but because I do not believe this is the way to build for the future. As Robert Quinn puts it, "When internal and external alighment is lost, the organization faces a choice: either adapt or take the road to slow death" (Robert Quinn: Deep Change, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996, page 5).

Quinn goes on and says, "Usually the organization can be renewed, energized, or made effective only if some leader is willing to take some big risks by stepping outside the well-defined boundaries. When this happens, the organization is lured, pushed, or pulled into unknown territory. The resulting journey through the unknown is a terrifying experience, with the possibility of failure or death a reality rather than a metaphor. At such times, organizational memebers face wicked problems, problems for which there are no existing answers" (page 5).

Now, if that does not describe the situation in which we find ourselves, I don't know what does. The truth is that if we are to take such a journey, then we need to be prepared for deep changes to take place within us personally. The question is whether we are prepared to open ourselves to such changes, or whether we want to dig comfortably into our present destructive pattern. The time has come to lay ourselves on the line, to step outside the safety of our traditionally prescribed roles and strive for the new birth that is inherent in faithful Christian believing and living.

Thus the inner struggle goes on. The choice before us is to make significant changes based upon the wholeness of the Gospel, or alternatively to commit ourselves to a pathway whose end result is death, entangling us in a web of fear, anger, helplessness, while we inexorably move toward what we fear. The future does not belong within the boxes in which we still live, boxes that were constructed in the past. The challenge before us is to go back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, which is what happened at the Reformation, and then to see how that rooted faith propels us into a different, more Christlike and generative kind of tomorrow.

What I guess I am saying is that I find myself uncomfortable with the stance of just about everyone. I find my inner being want to dive back into the faith of our fathers (and mothers), and then to see what we can make of this under God. As I have scratched my way deeper and deeper into 2 Corinthians this year, I find in Paul an instinct both to affirming the truthfulness of truth, while at the same time seeing within Christ and his redeeming death a focus for reconciliation.

Those on the left who have been shouting for reconciliation have done so on terms that are unacceptable to orthodox believers, because they want us all to finesse revealed truth, while those on the right who affirm truth seem determined to do all they can to avoid any kind of reconciliation. In all this I have to confess that I do not find myself looking into the face of Christ.

As I have already intimated, however, I find that there are a handful of fellow-travelers who share my angst, but right now few want to walk this road. The reason is simple. If we are to remake the church, we must first allow Christ to remake who we are. Going in this direction will be a difficult, even terrifying journey, that is why I find myself almost in physical pain over this for we are, as Scott Peck put it, "traveling naked into the land of uncertainty." I have gone this way before, and, quite honestly, it is neither easy nor nice. It is, however, only by getting lost and losing those landmarks that are so familiar to us that we will be able to explore our way into a new kind of future and ecclesial organization.

Clearly, this is the place where the inner journey of the individual and the outer journey of the fellowship meet and merge. There is a lot of hollering and finger-pointing going on, and I have done my fair share of it, but this solves no problems. This is the place of discomfort beyond which we need to be prepared to move if something new is to emerge. The alternative, as I see it, is both a spiritual dying and an slow institutional death.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Country Parson's Advice To His Parishioner

A few years ago my old friend, George Koch, a priest in West Chicago, Illinois, gave me a copy of a book that had been written and published anonymously during the reign of Charles II. A Country Parson's Advice had never been reprinted or republished until George re-edited it to make it accessible to contemporary people, but it seems to have been an influential book in the development of English-speaking Christianity.

Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles used it in his ministry, as did his illustrious sons, who made sure that their younger contemporary, George Whitefield, thoroughly digested the volume. Its teaching on small groups was clearly seminal to the whole Methodist movement, as well as being to cell group ministry in congregations today.

George Koch writes in his introduction to the book, "I first came across a reference to this book during research I was doing on evangelicals in the Anglican and Episcopal Church. Early attempts to locate a copy of it proved fruitless, and only after several worldwide book searches was a microfilmed copy found" (page 21). These words should be a warning to any author who thinks he/she has written something significant that will have a long shelf life!

This book had sat unread on my shelves for several years until I had some time to kill while manning the church for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who live across the street to come and go if they wanted. The earliest pages fed straight into some thoughts I had been having about the post-Christian lifestyle, the rampant secularity of Europe, and the impact this has had upon my own family. My ponderings about Europe are largely true of the scene in North America, as well.

In some ways the opening chapter of A Country Parson's Advice To His Parishioners is a 300-year-old prologue for The Purpose Driven Life! The opening sentence is a difficult one (and Koch has simplified it), but sets the tone of the rest of the book. "Foreasmuch as you know that you are God's creature, and received being and life from him, and subsist altogether in him, you must necessarily acknowledge that you are and ought to be at his disposal, and to live and act according to his intention, and the end for which you were made" (page 31). In a long-winded way he is saying roughly what the Westminster Confession has said, that a human's purpose is to worship God and enjoy him forever.

That is the Christian presupposition for life. A couple of paragraphs later he asks, "Can you think, when you consider your own faculties and capacities, that you were made merely to get a little money by burdening and caring, by toiling and sweating, by plotting and contriving? A poor business surely for such an excellent creature! And you debase yourself extremely, and reproach your maker, if you imagine it. But you know that money is not a thing desirable for itself, but for its usefulness as it procures necessities, and pleasing to appetites and desires. Therefore, you must enquire further, whether you were made only to eat and drink, and having made provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (page 32).

When I read these words they tuned into precisely what I had been thinking about our extended clan. I am deeply attached to my family, being something of a patriarch of the brood these days, and I look at my relatives who are financially so much more successful than me living what they believe to be the good life. They are on a treadmill of getting and gaining so that they might go a-pleasuring. I see huge sums of money being shelled out on nice cars, fancy hotels, rich dinners, lovely homes, trips to the opposite side of Europe just to go to the theatre, and so forth.

As I listen to them talking what I hear is men and women whose entire raison d'etre is literally to eat, drink, and be merry, and therefore they are in the marketplace enduring rather than enjoying their work in order that they may have more leisure time to indulge. What comes after this life is over? Well, nothing, of course, so let's make the best of what we have in the here and now. The older the members of our tribe are, the more they seem to be into this lifestyle, desperately seeking to eke out their remaining years according to the "pleasure principle."

Ours truly is what Christopher Lasch described it to be three decades ago, a culture of narcissism, and as I have treated myself to a tour of the Internet in the last weeks I have found this being reinforced again and again. The Country Parson writes, "Here is your end, and this is your work, a work worthy of so excellent a creature: to serve God" (page 33). With every thoughtful believer I say "Amen to that."

But then the Country Parson restates this even more strongly, "We were made in the image of God, not to live like beasts, no, nor to please ourselves in any way; but to serve and please and glorify God here, and to possess and enjoy him for the hereafter" (page 34).

During the last years we have heard a lot from our political leaders about defending and preserving what they describe as 'our way of life.' After the London bombings in July, this seemed to become Tony Blair's mantra, and we have heard the same song being sung by everyone from George W. Bush to John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia. But the question should be what is the way of life that we are supposed to be defending from attacks? Certainly, there are freedoms that we cherish, but what are we free for... to cram every moment with pleasure, living in fear that it might be our last?

Hurricane Katrina has been nature's way of jolting us, challenging the triviality of our culture. Yet the other morning I almost choked on my coffee when I heard a report that suggested the most important thing to do in Biloxi was to get the gambling boats functioning again because they are such a source of income for the state of Mississippi. Is this the best lesson we learned from the storm?

What was it that the Rich Fool said? "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." And what was God's reply to the Fool: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Luke 12:20-21).

While there are components of our culture that I am most passionate to preserve, there is much about our way of life that I think should be challenged. It is obvious that we are called to be counter-culture people, rather than allowing the prevailing culture to squeeze us into its image. Indeed, I think I would assert that if we are to live holy lives then they will be counter-culture lives.

One of the reasons I am at such odds with the denomination to which I belong is that it has like a puppy dog with its tongue hanging out, followed every twist and turn of the sensuous narcissistic culture to which we belong. A little later on in his book, the Country Parson writes, "Ity was the sayings of a devout man many years ago, 'That it had been better for us never to have been, than to dwell in ourselves and to our selves" (page 39). This, I fear, is exactly what we have done, shaping the faith to suit the culture, rather than challenging the values of the culture with the essence of the revealed Gospel.

I haven't finished with the Country Parson yet, and I am even a little frightened what the implications will be when he has finished with me.


(If you want to buy a copy of A Country Parson's Advice to his Parishioners, then go to www.georgekoch.com. The book was first published in 1680 and George Koch's edition of it was republished by Monarch in London in 1998)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina Blows In On The Church of the Apostles

All of us have been staggering under the blow of Hurricane Katrina, and suddenly the whole business landed right in the front yard of our little congregation. Here we are worshiping in an old boot warehouse and suddenly the city of Franklin, TN, the Red Cross, and Lasko Products, agreed to house 500 evacuees from New Orleans in the facility immediately opposite our church.

We have prayed for visibility in the community: we now have it in spades! Yet it is stretching our slender resources - human and financial - to the limits, and we are attempting to draw on other parishes and other denominations to help us.

We have offered the Church of the Apostles to the community as a place where volunteers, all the churches, etc., can hang out, see folks, and perhaps even be a "safety valve" from the institutional living of the Red Cross Shelter for the folks who will be there 90-180 days.

God is being wonderfully good, however. This afternoon our volunteer who is there at the moment had to leave and I found myself wondering how we would have the place covered. At that very moment that I winged an (angry) prayer to the Lord, my computer intimated an email, and I hear from a college student from St. Bartholomew's, Nashville, saying he has time right now, can he help for the next few hours!

We believe that God has given us a great opportunity, right now we are working out how to use that to the glory of God, as well as in the service of those who have experienced the loss of everything. I have during the last 48 hours been heartened by the kindness of people as well as infuriated by some of the meanness we have seen.

We don't know what this means about how Church of the Apostles develops in the future, but it does mean that we have more than we are able to say grace over for the present. Please keep us in your prayers.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina, 2 Corinthians, and Giving

As some of you are aware, I have spent most of 2005 immersed in Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, and have found it one of the most fruitful bible studies that I have undertaken for a long time. While I feel that I do not spend enough time in in-depth study of the text, I believe this is a shortcoming in all church contexts -- and accounts for the incredible ignorance of Scripture that there is in so many settings, even those that claim to know it. Much of the narcissism we confront in the churches comes from an ignoring of Scripture because we remain ignorant of it, but that discussion is for another time.

The other evening I got an email suggesting that in the light of the response we now make to the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast, it might be helpful to have some insights into Paul's thinking on giving from 2 Corinthians. As you know, 2 Corinthians 8-9 are two of the key chapters about the nature of Christian giving in the New Testament. In past times I confess that I have come to this passage with stewardship eye, wanting to interpret what the Apostle says in terms of what the church's needs might be. In other words, how can I use Scripture to help people to understand the nature of Christian giving? This has been selfish eisegesis -- reading into the text what I want to be there.

Behind that, of course, is the realization that there is a budget that needs to be met, and it is one of my responsibilities to raise those funds. Thus, how can I tweak the Word of God so that it means what I want it to? I became conscious of my bias when handling 2 Corinthians a couple of years ago when a member of my congregation quizzed me on what I was actually trying to say when I preached a short series on this passage.

However, it was not until this year, when I started to look at this section within the context of the whole letter, and with the help of half a dozen commentaries written by far greater minds than my own, that I was able to face up to the fact that I was coming at the text in a totally wrong manner. These two chapters are about grace, God's riches poured out upon us. The key verse, if there is one is 8:9, where Paul writes, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."

The starting point for giving must always be the person and work of our Lord Jesus. As Tom Wright puts it, "What counts is a work of grace in the hearts and lives of ordinary people," not whipping up sympathy or guilt over a particular project so that people will shell out in support (Paul For Everyone: 2 Corinthians). It was about four or five months ago that I found myself suddenly reading these chapters through the eyes of grace and not the eyes of giving, and I found them making sense as never before.

The word "grace" (charis) appears a number of times in these two chapters, yet as you go through the text word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence it is implied or described time and again. Grace is about the God who gives, Paul tells us. Paul was Christocentric through and through, and as he coaxes the Corinthians to think about fulfilling their commitment to this great project of sending relief funds to the church in Jerusalem, he effortlessly links the liberality of God's giving (which is his grace), with our responsiveness.

It would appear that the Macedonian believers, far poorer folks that the Corinthians, had already been overwhelming in their support of the Jerusalem project, and Paul does not want either the Corinthians or himself to be embarrassed by footdragging (9:4). In this, he spoke like every fundraiser I know!

We also see woven within this Paul's recognition that checks and balances should be in place to ensure financial responsibility. It isn't just him that is involved with this purse, but there is also Titus, "the brother who is famous among the churches," and depending on how you read the text there are others. Just as Christ was above reproach in what he did sacrificially on our part, Paul implies, so he is above reproach when it comes to raising and handling funds. This is a lesson we should all take seriously.

But from beginning to end the theme of these chapters is the gift of God. 8:1 begins with we want you Corinthians to know about the grace of God that has been shown by the Macedonians in their response to God's loving self-giving, and at the end of chapter 9 he writes, "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!"

One of the problems with those of us who are preachers is that we tend to concentrate on passages about God loving a cheerful giver (9:7), and less on God being an overwhelming giver to whose grace we respond. We also play up the rewards of giving, as it were, with great play on verses like those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully (9:6) -- in effect functioning like hucksters who always want there to be something in it for the donor... "Have I got a reward for you!"

What is in it for the donor is that in giving we are reflecting the nature of God, at whose heart is the determination to give and give and give. This isn't going to appeal very much to those who are not overwhelmed by God's love and grace.

The Creator gave us the universe, the planet on which we live, the air we breathe and the food we eat. Above all, and capping all other gifts, he gave us our salvation in the person of Jesus, the Messiah who Paul had persecuted but now whom he served with all his being. 2 Corinthians is about what apostolic service and ministry really mean. Three times in the letter Paul spells out what it costs to be an apostle, but there is nothing whining about his description because he gives of himself willingly, just as God gave to us willingly of himself.

Throughout Chapters 8 and 9 there is the steady reiteration that giving can never be coerced, but must be from the overflow of the heart as we look at what God has done for us in Christ (9:12). We give because God has given, and with all our being what we want to do is reflect in our lives and actions the face of God.

What does this mean in our present circumstances? Well, I believe that as we look at those who have suffered and lost everything, we need to understand that we see the face of God. Didn't Jesus tell his disciples in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:40), that "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me?"

As I have watched in horror rescues taking place from streets that I know from my own visits to New Orleans, fellow-Episcopalians worshiping in Mississippi on the concrete slab of what once used to be their church, children screaming from hunger and fear as they hung on their mother's clothes outside the Superdome, and the hopelessness on the faces of elderly people sitting resignedly in lawn chairs, I realize that I am seeing the face of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, and these words of Jesus have eaten themselves into my heart with fresh urgency.

We respond to our fellows in need because of our common humanity. We respond because we cannot imagine, perhaps, what it would be like to be in their shoes. We respond because we have friends and family caught up in this tragedy. But whatever our subordinate reason for responding, we do so because of what Christ has given to us, and because the compulsion is upon us to reflect by our giving the indescribable gift of grace and salvation.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians in flattery, "It is superfluous for me to write to you about the offering for the saints..." (9:1), and it should be superfluous for us to remind our fellow-believers of their obligations to give as God has given to us. Yet, here's the rub, while it might be relatively easy to open our hearts and give to fellow-Americans who have fallen foul of the worst the climate can throw at them, the test of our generosity will come when the crisis is overtaken by other news and we see other faces further away and in different lands who require our generosity, faces that are "the least of these my brethren."

The rub will also come when the bill is totted up for this crisis in the USA and the government, perhaps despite its instincts about taxes, requires us to pay more of our own means to underwrite the expenses that are being incurred. We have been shocked, perhaps, by the fact that the response was so slow in coming, but now, having demanded that response, are we prepared to pay for it? I like taxes no more than anyone else, but there is a place were civic responsibility in obedience to the Gospel takes over from my desires or wants. Will we be generous givers or will me-first materialism take over?

One of the things I have always loved about America is that it is a place of possibilities. I have been given opportunities and possibilities here that I would probably never have received in my homeland, and for that I am profoundly grateful. By and large, the USA has given me a fulfilled and fulfulling life, but part of the reason for this is that before America came onto the scene, the Lord Jesus reached out and redeemed me, calling me to be his own. So in the end, as Paul writes so clearly, it all comes back to him. If my life is surrendered at the foot of the Cross, what can I do but to give it all back to him. The question for each of us is whether we are prepared to glorify God in our response to his grace with overwhelming generosity(9:13-14)?

Let me leave the last words with Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham.

"When Jesus, for the sake of us all, became poor, we became rich; now, when people who follow him are ready to put their resources at his disposal, the world and the church may benefit, not only from the actual money but from the fact that when the Jesus-pattern of dying and rising, of riches-to-poverty-to-riches, is acted out, the power of the gospel is let loose afresh in the world, and the results will be incalculable" (Page 91).

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina and How Others See Us

It is my practice each morning to get up sometime between 5.00-6.00 a.m., make tea, and then ride my exercise bike for 20-25 minutes while watching the News on BBC America. Not only do I usually get a good overview of what is going on in the world, but I catch up on important issues like how England are doing against Australia in cricket, and the latest goings on in the world of rugby football! Obviously, much of the focus of the last few days has been on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. A news source outside the country also allows one to see ourselves as others see us.

Yesterday evening I happened to be home and tried to first read, and then to watch a movie, but my mind wouldn't stay on it and I found myself hungry to know every minute detail of what was going on 400 miles or so to the south of us. Several times yesterday, particularly when watching babies airlifted from Charity Hospital, New Orleans, I found myself in tears imagining how I would feel if one of those little ones was my granddaughter.

Like everyone else I am horrified at the slowness of response and the total breakdown in law and order. Which brings me back to the BBC this morning. As I watched they wheeled in the Professor of Organizational Psychology from the University of Lancaster. I shrugged as I peddled and thought, here's another Brit about to pontificate about the misfortunes of the USA.

Well, this professor turned out to be an American (although surmising from his online profile, he is now a UK Subject) who is watching from that distance and obviously is intensely involved in what is going on -- much as people in Britain were when 9/11 happened, or Americans were when the terrorists bombed London in July. He was asked the usual questions and then he started to make some of the most incisive comments that we in the United States, and especially in the churches, ignore at our peril.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have deteriorated to worse than Third World status in a matter of days, he pointed out. Within 24 hours there was news of looting in the Big Easy, and yesterday there were reports of shootings, women being raped, babies being abused, and there were the awful, awful pictures of thousands of sheep totally lost and without a shepherd. Also, it cannot have escaped anyone's attention that most of the faces of suffering that we saw on our screens from N. O. were those of a permanent black underclass.

Professor Cary Cooper from Lancaster was saying this ought to be a wake up call for the United States as we review our values in the wake of this catastrophe. I cannot remember his precise words but he suggested that a lot of what we are seeing is the fruit of a materialistic, me first society, in which dog-eat-dog individualism prevails, and where an impossible gulf exists between the rich and the poor that there is virtually no sense of commonality and community. The professor was, in effect, asking America not only to get its organizational act together, but also as a result of this to look very carefully at its soul.

I realize that there are a lot of folks doing heroic things at the moment in circumstances that are close to impossible. However, I think that when inquiries take place after the event there will be an awful lot of blame to go around, not least to our politicians and leaders who not only feed off, but also feed, the radical individualistic selfishness that is at the root of a lot of the anarchy that we are seeing. Now, it is easy to blame our politicians, but we should not forget that they probably reflect our values because we put them there.

A lot of what we have seen in the last few days is rooted in generations of history in the United States, a corporate history that we all of us, native-born and immigrants, in one way or another share. We have tended to avoid or downplay issues like the lasting legacy of slavery, or the manner in which our social structures provide such a limited safety need for the needy. The middle class and wealthy were the ones who fled the city and the Gulf Coast before Katrina hit, but who gave a thought to the plight of those without money or vehicles who would be left behind whether they liked it or not? They got warehoused in the Superdome.

I admire Bishop Charles Jenkins for coming straight back to Louisiana and into the eye of the hurricane from his visit to Hawaii, as soon as he knew what was happening. I pray for him and his clergy and lay leaders almost every hour, that God will use them in some way as a result of this horrific crisis. Yet how does one pick up after a crisis this big?

This morning I feel guilty and have a nagging depression deep inside. I am implicated in Professor Cooper's indictment, and I find myself asking how now do I... we... honor God in the midst of this appalling crisis. Perhaps one of the fruits that will come out of this situation is that we have been jerked around enough by what has happened to start asking questions about our core values, and then as Christians might begin to be able to work toward a modification of them.

The core values that have until now shaped most of our lives have more to do with American capitalism than with what it means to be the servants of King Jesus, and this is something I will be sharing with my congregation on Sunday. I don't know what the right way forward is, but perhaps a starting point is to strip down and examine the message that we proclaim, its undergirding worldview, and the values that we live by, and to ask ourselves, whether we are conservative or liberal, how much of this is selfish narcissism and how much is from the Lord.

American brothers and sisters (and I chose to become an American), we have been humbled by the weather and we have been humbled by the inadequacy of our response to this situation. The time has come for us to sink to our knees to confess our sins, and then to rise onto our feet and do our part in making both a church and a country so that when the day comes when we meet him face-to-face our Master will say, "Well done, good and faithful servants, enter into the joy of your master."