Mine! What Really Belongs to Me?

I was having lunch in a local restaurant recently. Just me, my salad (yippee) and some time to catch up on overdue reading. Across the way mom and dad and their toddler were having lunch too. The toddler was learning about assertiveness and materialism. Every object that could be touched or pointed to was claimed with the announcement, “Mine!” This applied to her food – and mom and dad’s. It applied to her pacifier, and dad’s cellphone and mom’s keys. When mom or dad disagreed and said, “No,” tears flowed.

Everything “belonged” to the toddler. The world was hers for the claiming. It doesn’t take long for us humans to pick up the fact that life is often measured by what we claim to own and possess. It was all rather sweet and cute… until I thought about it. That little girl had learned something that was going to lead to lots of tears and disappointment. And being a spiritual nerd, I realized that her desire to possess, unchecked or unchanged, would lead her to live a lie about her place in the universe, and in her family and relationships, and… well… everything.

We spend a great deal of our adult lives wrestling with “ownership.” What belongs to whom is a big deal. From the perspective of eternity, or the point of view of all time and space, what really belongs to me? John Chrysostom, the great 4th-5th century preacher and Bishop of Constantinople thought about the notion of ownership a lot. Here is what he wrote those long centuries ago:

“Do I possess the house in which I live? No, it is only on loan to me from God while I remain in that place. Do I possess the clothes I wear? No, they are on loan to me until they wear out, or until I give them away to someone in greater need. Do I possess this body that you see before you? No, it was lent to me by God when I was born, and he will take it back when I die. Do I possess the mind that is composing the words that I speak? No, that too was lent by God at my birth and will go when I die. So do I possess anything?”

Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, nor even – dare I say – Donald Trump can claim that they somehow made or supplied their wealth and possessions. It seems to me that they are examples of toddlers who managed to grow up and be really good at asserting that things were “Mine!” Sure, they may have worked hard, they may have great gifts. But ultimately, they brought nothing into the world and we will take nothing out of it. Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet seem to have realized, at least in part, that giving what seems to be yours away to those who need is the real blessing of possessions. Good for them. So, we may ask, what is the point of life is if it isn’t about stuff being “Mine!” Can we really possess anything? St. John Chrysostom offers this:

“Yes, I possess the virtues which during my life have grown and flourished within my soul. Inasmuch as I have grown in love, I possess love. Inasmuch as I have grown in faith, I possess faith. Inasmuch as I have grown in gentleness, I possess gentleness. These things are immortal; they are divine gifts which God will not take away, because he wants heaven itself to be filled with virtue. And, of course, I possess my soul, in which these virtues have their roots.”

When I find myself in possession of material things, faith in Christ pries my hand open and teaches me love. I come to realize that I’m just a distributor of blessings to others in the world. I find that, through the practice of faith, I can stop my infantile urge to claim everything as “Mine!” and think like an adult, think like a person of faith, a person with an eternal view of things that transcends material things and even death. After all, things that die, things that rust, things that cannot stand the death of the cross, really don’t matter anyway. That is faith that sets me free from the toddlers obsession with grabbing at everything. That is faith that trains me to desire what can actually be mine and to let go of everything else.

Quotes from On Living Simply, Robert Van de Weyer ed., (2012-07-20). (Kindle Locations 290-297). Liguori Publications. Kindle Edition.

Begging for Grace

Martin Luther’s last written words, found on a scrap in his pocket, were, “This is true. We are all beggars.” While he could offer no insight into his exact meaning, a lifetime of teaching and preaching the gospel holds some clues. Luther was absolutely committed to the belief that we all live by God’s grace. We neither earn nor deserve anything we have. So, in the end, like beggars on the street, we are all dependent upon what the most generous benefactor plops in our hats.

This is a heresy in a world where we all think that the person with the most stuff at death wins; where accumulating fame, wealth, success, titles and other honors seems to win the day. Donald Trump seems to believe that he earned and deserves what he possesses. “Mine” is among the first words a child learns. But the toy, the ball, the bit of food all came through grace. A gift from a parent or adult willing to share.

Even if you don’t believe in any god, you still have to note that it is through more variables, intangibles and eruptions of chance that you have anything. For the Christian, the source is not chance, but a gracious God, revealed by a dead man on a cross giving away love — for free.

I’m reading some writings by John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers of the Christian faith. His surname means “golden mouthed.” He was bishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century. His words to the 4th century world ring loudly in an age beset by a deepening divide between rich and poor:

“The rich usually imagine that, if they do not physically rob the poor, they are committing no sin… The rich person who keeps all his wealth for himself is committing a form of robbery…The rich may claim that they own many fields in which fruits and grains grow; but it is God who causes seeds to sprout and mature. The duty of the rich is to share the harvest of their fields with all who work in them and all in need.” (“On Living Simply”, by John Chrysostom, ed. Robert Van de Weyer, 1996, Ligouri Publications).

Being a beggar is not a bad thing. As long as the benefactor is generous and faithful you’ll receive more than you need. Chrysostom knew it. Luther knew it. Jesus revealed it.

Stained and Broken: A Matter of the Heart

David went from heroic boy and courageous king to rapist and murderer. He was God’s chosen. Was God mistaken? Though we all assume we are “good” people, David’s story shows that we are not. What does God do with people whose hearts become stained and broken?

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The Hungry at Our Door

the hungry at the gate are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

The local news website We Are Iowa reported yesterday that business is booming at local food pantries. When business booms at the mall, I suppose that is a good thing overall (aside from the spiritual morass of consumerism). When business booms at the food pantries, it is disconcerting because it means there are more and more folks who just can’t make ends meet. We started our own food pantry here at Holy Trinity so folks would have one more day a week to access help. We have seen a steady increase in clients for the pantry and our assistance program.

Now, before you wonder about whether these food pantry “customers” deserve the handouts, or are “worthy” of such grace, I would point you to the sculpture of the homeless Jesus on the bench below. The only way you can tell this is Jesus is by the nail scars in his feet (hard to see in this photo). The caption says it all. Jesus stands with the poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, and even the undeserving. I am as undeserving a character as you’ll see and I have enough to eat. So, as the meme says…

 am-worthy-poor

I expect that this trend toward busier food pantries will continue until our culture, our nation, our leaders manage to pull our collective heads out of… um… ah… the sand about the economy. Look at the way costs associated with living have grown since 1978:

inflation-comparison-growth-1975-2012

Note that food prices have grown 243% in that time period. Now look at what you and your neighbor have likely seen when it comes to paying for that food:

income trends since 1978

If you are fortunate enough to fall into the top 5% of wages, your wages have grown 52%. If you are with 90% of your neighbors and friends, your income has risen only 16%. When it comes to the growing hunger problem, as one former president liked to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Today’s food pantry shopper is not always indigent, living in their car or receiving government assistance. They are, more and more, middle class moms and dads caught in a world where only a handful of folks get better off and the paycheck – which never seems to get bigger – just won’t buy the food the kids need.

We help the hungry in our community through the HTLC Food pantry, support of DMARC and the network of food pantries they support. We help with the Love Lunch program in Ankeny that makes sure hungry kids get lunch in the summer and we work with Backpack Buddies during the school year. We support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – one of the most efficient hunger organizations in the world – to aid, assist and advocate for people as close as Des Moines and as far away as Africa and Asia. But it looks like we are going to need to push to do more, my sisters and brothers. Especially since the hungry at the door are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus blesses those who saw him hungry and gave him food, even though they had no idea it was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him because he comes to us laying on a park bench, in a soup kitchen and at the food pantry. That we feed any who show up means we heard Jesus’ command to love. That we feed the hungry at the door means we feed Jesus himself, every single time.

The Death of Hostilities: A White Preacher on Racism

Racism is the wound that seems never to heal in our nation. While we can look back and see what appears to be progress, the news reminds us that people of different colors struggle to understand each other and live in peace.  What does God have to say about this?  Quite a bit actually.

 

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Border Crossing, Barrier Breaking, Boundary Smashing Jesus

There are endless ways we order our world and lives into neat and tidy categories. Some of this is helpful. Much is not. When the borders, barriers and boundaries we erect get in the way of the God of love and cause hatred, violence, bitterness and anger, Jesus is in the business of breaking them down. He is the “violator of boundaries in chief” when it comes to what keeps us from God and one another.

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Open Arms: Making the Vision Reality – Part 3

To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive if we are to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God.

If you have followed this series you have heard about an Open Arms Vision rooted in Jesus and his call for us to imitate him, becoming his hands, feet and outstretched arms to each other, the community and world (Part 1). You also know that we have spent a great deal of time discerning our congregation’s unique identity and how we offer or gifts in a unique way in a community filled with diverse models of “church.” (Part 2). My hope is that you have been able to understand the direction God is pointing us and at best, getting a little excited (or at least curious) about how this vision becomes a reality. That is what this third installment is about.

To become this congregation, we face many challenges. We will need to do more than survive if we are to thrive as a missionary outpost for the reign of God. Each and all of us will need to become part of what God is doing among us. If we are to be a place that welcomes, we need a space that welcomes. If we are to be a place that worships in with roots in the ancient traditions and has an eye to the future, we need to space that allows us to do so. If we are to reach out to the world and be the place that feeds the hungry, we need space that works for our mission not against it.

Over the next three years, we will need to make these things a priority. We must:

Refuse to be defined by what others congregations do or don’t do; Refuse to be defined by our memories of the past (no matter how fond); refuse to be defined by our fear of risk, failure, being wrong, or any other source of anxiety. Instead we must claim our identity and mission as defined by our values and beliefs and be the people God has called Holy Trinity to be. 

Stop fretting over perceived scarcity in giving, in volunteers, in leaders, in faith. Stop saying “will there be enough?” and believing there will not be.  Instead, we must live into the abundance of a God who promises to provide what we need – including the time, the money and the leaders to move us forward. We have to get re-acquainted and reconnected to the God who made us, redeemed us and sanctifies us with the power of the Spirit through renewed worship, study and prayer that seeks transformation.

Renew our 50-year-old worship space so that it does not defeat our open arms vision before we get started. The space itself needs to welcome newcomers; it needs to retain its beauty, but look and work like a 21st century place for worship; the sanctuary “competes” with brand new spaces offered by others and . This includes a worship space that will:

+ Focus us on the three most important parts of our identity – Word, baptism and Holy Communion. That can’t happen with a hidden font and multiple places for presenting the Word. We need a font that can be seen and accessed always. We need one pulpit that speaks to the one Word proclaimed.

+ Allow space for musicians (like the praise band, bell choir, and others) to lead worship instead of forcing existing space to work in ways for which it was never designed. The balcony works for some things, but the space up front needs to allow for greater use.

+ Allow leaders to see the content projected on the screen and hear what people say and sing so they don’t have to guess and be more effective worship leaders.Right now, leaders can’t see or hear and that diminishes our worship.

+ Allow flexibility for large groups to sing, perform, present in the sanctuary without working around rails, lecterns, and other impediments, since we have no alternative space available. A commitment to the choral traditions of our faith means inviting choirs. Music means groups.

+ Through great generosity, we have already been able to allow people to see bulletins, handouts and each other in a warm inviting space with new lights.We can accomplish the rest!

Revitalize our building to reflect open arms of welcome. Our building cannot hinder our commitment to welcome and feed; to worship and transform. We need to repair and remodel facilities so that we provide:

+Bathrooms on the first floor that are big enough for handicapped people;

+Bathrooms that don’t smell and appear 50 years old.

+Narthex (lobby) space that says “Welcome” before we utter a word.

+ A roof that does not leak water on the organ and furniture and force worshipers to sit in puddles.

+ Long deferred maintenance items so that it does not appear we are going out of business or can’t afford to be open. This includes parking lot sealing, other roof repairs, to mention a couple of items.

+ A kitchen with a stove(s) that does what we need it to do, refrigeration that makes sense, and a dishwasher that is not broken all the time so that we can actually feed the hungry.

Augment our space – we don’t have enough room. We need to rent space in the SW part of the community, (where little or no churches are building anything), that can house ministry and facilitate growth of hunger ministries, worship venue, adult education, learning for kids or whatever is possible based on the space we find.

Develop the most aggressive, progressive hunger ministry in the Des Moines area; a ministry that partners with existing agencies and organizations while it expands to meet unmet needs of children, homeless, and under-served people who God loves.

Give – especially financial support – to establish a working mission trust fund that makes grants every year instead of earning a little interest and strengthens our partnerships that feed the hungry, send missionaries, teach seminarians and plant new congregations.  

Reduce our debt while we teach that debt is an effective tool for mission and not to be feared.

To do this, we will need to raise $1.2 million over three years expended as follows:

  1. 10% ($120K) given to our mission partners (LSI, Mosaic, SE Iowa Synod, World Hunger Appeal)  to be a tithe to the Lord – to feed the hungry, support the disabled, help our global partners.
  2. 5% ($60K) to our own Mission Trust Fund so we can begin to disburse grants, as described in our bylaws, to spread the love of Christ
  3. 30% ($360K) to complete the short-term facilities plan goals in the sanctuary, kitchen, narthex, bathrooms and other key areas;
  4. 33% ($400K) to provide 2-3 years rent and the development cost for a space to house ministry at another location to augment space and expand presence int he community.
  5. 22% ($264K) to reduce debt OR invest in above areas as seems financially prudent.

God is calling us to take up the challenge of a new day, a new era, a new vision in Ankeny, Iowa. With this plan we can embark on the beginning of a blessed journey of faith from wilderness to promised land; from chaos to creation; from death to resurrection. Who is on board? You?

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim