How Long O Lord?

I probably put my foot in my mouth very recently, in a brief discussion about what to expect from a new parish.

“If they are not prepared to do mission,” I said, “then the rector is there just to start shutting it down.”

It sounds, now, as if I have no patience. This is true.

I certainly do not have patience with “keep the homefires burning” churches. They aren’t interested in fulfilling the Great Commisssion; they are interested in maintaining the status quo. And I am so not status quo. I am also so not take-it-easy, get-concensus. I’m not. Just know that.

But can it be changed? I think so; it’s happening all the time. The Holy Spirit is moving through the churches, lighting new fires. It will be up to ministers, priests, and church leaders to fan that flame and feed the fire.

I’ve said previously that the churches must take on mission. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned. The church is cool water in the desert, literally as well as figuratively.

Expect this, parish-to-be: I will change things. I will shake things up. I will challenge the status quo.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to give you some new liturgy, introduce a new hymnal or change the hour of worship. I might, but that is the least of my concerns. What I will do is redirect your energy, away from maintaining the building and the structure and into making change in the world, into feeding and healing and clothing and visiting. There’s only one reason for doing that, though.

Jesus told us to. He wasn’t polite about it. It was a commandment: If you follow Me, He said, this is what you will do.

How we do it depends on who we are, where we are and what we have. There’s no formula, no plan, no training course to do this.

We just must do it, and do it now.

If we don’t do these things, all the water of baptism and all the bread and wine on the altar is meaningless. “If you have a quarrel with your brother, leave your offering and go apologize. Then your offering will mean something.” The exploited world has a big quarrel with the exploiters; the have-nots have good reason to demand from the haves. Can we meet Our Lord’s expectations?

There’s no one answer to injustice. Each case is different. But here are my suggestions.

Reduce your consumption by the end of 2010. Sell a car, cut your driving, grow some food or shop locally. Buy nothing new unless you absolutely must. Stay out of shopping malls and big box stores. Dump your television. (Well, send it to recycling.) Don’t go on a travel vacation; stay home and volunteer at a shelter or food bank or training centre.

Set up a regular time for family and personal prayer and scripture study.

Talk to other Christians about how to change things. Organize a food drive or daycare at your church. Raise money for an orphanage in Asia, South America, or Africa. Go door to door collecting unwanted shoes and boots to donate to a homeless shelter. (I know this sounds weird and patronizing, but better that your old Nikes and Hush Puppies get some use before they are completely dried out. Homeless shelters can almost always use good recycled shoes; people without transportation go through them quickly. Call first and ask if they can use them.)

If you change your attitude and how you do things – if you draw closer to the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ sent as our aid and comforter – if you live out the gospel – then many things will change around you. Your family will change. Your neighbours will change. Your church will change. It doesn’t take money, but it wil take prayer, effort and sacrifice.

Advent Discipline, Ekonomia

Most Christians haven’t heard of an Advent fast. The Orthodox keep it quite seriously, as they do all four of the major fasts. But Western Christians, even those raised in the traditional Roman church, have forgotten or never knew about the disciplines of Advent. While keeping a strict fast may only be possible when one is living a monastic life or in a fasting community, some discipline is a good practice in the seasons of preparation before the festivals.

For those of us whose lives overlap the world, we may not be able to be so strict without causing others discomfort or great inconvenience. Honestly, I don’t like cooking two sets of meals myself if a member of the household is not able to fast with us. I know I can’t starve myself on bread and salad for six weeks, either. So this year we have a modified discipline, because I am the only one in the house who is able to fast.

We have another, more practical discipline – a freezer full of meat that needed to be used before it was unusable. Now this is an odd kind of fasting, to eat beef in a fasting season. But it was the most sensible thing to do. Instead of buying fresh meat or even vegetarian foods through the month, our goal is to use up what we have before it is wasted. There are other foods in the pantry as well that we have bought but not used; it is time to clear that out and start over. I don’t want to realize some day that “uh-oh, that has gone way past its sell-by date!” or that a forgotten bag of flour is actually rancid. We have decided to be more mindful of what we have, and give thanks to God by utilizing it.

Some things have gone to the food bank for those who simply can’t keep frozen or fresh things – canned soups, pudding mixes, and so on, that are convenient for those with limited cooking facilities. Right now, we have time, power and appliances to cook almost everything from scratch. This saves money that can be better used to help others.

Our gifts to God, especially when used for the support of others, should be the first fruits, not the last fruits. When the prophet Amos has a vision of a basket of late summer fruit, the Lord tells him it is Israel, and it is not satisfactory. That is because it is the last fruits – the overripe, left behind produce no one really wanted. It is the sacrifice that a negligent people made to God. The people kept the best for themselves, and gave away what they did not want at all. This is no sacrifice.

Most financial advisors will tell their clients, “Pay yourself first,” meaning that you should set aside money in savings at the top of your budget. God tells Christians this: Give generously of your first fruits. Charity is not the last item on the budget; God puts it first. The Lord says, “What you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.” If it were Jesus standing in line at the food bank, or without the money for winter shoes, would you give him something you didn’t want? Wouldn’t you take him home for a beautiful holiday meal, hand him the new boots you were wearing? Would you hand him a stale tuna sandwich or roast a turkey for him? Would you see him walk away in your old gym shoes or your new leather dress shoes?

I have often regretted what I have bought, and I have never regretted what I have given away.

Hoarding, Ekonomia and the Kingdom of God

We watched a program last night called “Hoarders.” It is about the intervention offered people with – what to call it? – possession disorders? Ownership obsessions? Of course, it was pretty awful for these poor people. They have completely ruined their lives, their relationships, and their finances by hoarding. Some buy things they don’t need and stash them in their houses and apartments. Others drag home trash finds, ostensibly to fix up and resell or use. Some just keep everything, mostly food container trash, that is normally thrown away. The rooms in their dwellings become filled to overflowing, and they have to navigate by narrow pathways through boxes and piles. Of course it’s unsanitary. Of course it’s ugly. Of course it’s even dangerous. But they keep doing it unless they get help. Many refuse the intervention and therapy; they don’t want to get well.

Maybe it is because I had a sheltered childhood or because I grew up in a poor community, but I don’t remember any hoarders from my young years. There would be a hushed word among the adults sometimes about someone having to go to the nursing home because they weren’t able to care for themselves, that they hadn’t cleaned or taken out trash, but it was attributed, I think, to old age and infirmity.

I realize that I have known many hoarders in recent years. Some were extreme – piles of moldering clothes and furniture, broken appliances, derelict cars full of junk and garbage. Some were more subtle – packed closets and spare rooms, tables covered with packaged food, stationery, hardware, but always an excuse as to why it was there and how long it would stay. I mean situations beyond the stack of books, the newspapers on the way to recycling, or the art supplies on the work table. That’s just a sign of a busy life. This goes beyond the string-saving habits of our depression-era grandparents – how many of us have found their kitchen drawers full of bread bags and aluminum foil, good enough to re-use? That’s just moderate hoarding. I think there has been a huge surge in major, out-of-control hoarding, just as there has been an upswing in compulsive shopping.

This is more than a displacement disorder, a psychological aberration. It is, I believe, an indication of a pervasive spiritual illness in our culture. Owning is emphasized; status is more important than relationship. We are what we have. Instead of seeking friendships and stable family situations, we are encouraged to buy, to surround ourselves with the fruits of the consumer culture, sterile and even dead. (You can’t plant a toaster and get a toast tree.) Instead of personality we have veneers of sophistication, and when someone senses that their veneer is inadequate, they seek to build it thicker with acquisitions. Clothes. Make-up. Jewelry. Furniture. Cars. Electronics. When a person is so left behind in acquiring status and sophistication that they feel their relationships are terribly inadequate, then they may develop an acquisitions disorder, turning to accumulation of possessions to compensate – “I am nothing, so I must have everything.” They literally build a thicker wall against the outside world that is so threatening.

Many people suffer this to some degree. It may get very focussed – buying only designer label clothes, for instance, or an obsession with collecting a category of item. These people are already overidentifying with objects, transferring their personalities to things. They lack essential relationships and in this, they lack trust of others. Even God can become a possession to them, as they acquire religious objects, Bibles, spiritual artifacts of many descriptions. They are too frightened to have a true, trusting relationship with their Saviour, so they sometimes try to own Him in small pieces. They will often fall for a prosperity preacher, expecting that God will provide more acquisitions as a reward for faithfulness.

Our culture does not emphasize generosity and true charity. The commonality of goods is refuted by most of the mainline denominations. Tithing is over-emphasized, as if ten percent is all that God could possibly expect of us. The ekonomia of the house of God is that we provide from our own substance for those in need, not just for the heating bill and the rector’s salary. It will take more than ten percent to make the world equitable. It will take everything.  We have to stop being hoarders.

The Lord left us the keys to the Kingdom. We don’t use them, though. We are locked out by lack of love, lack of warm charity, lack of relationship, lack of shalom, that peace which is the peace and wholeness of God.