Sunday, February 03, 2008

walls to fix

During the sermon todayon Nehemiah 3 -- and admit it, almost all of us zone out at some point during a lecture because we find our own line of thought more interesting than someone else's -- I started listing some of the areas where I see problems in society that need to be addressed, and I started wondering about what wall had been breached to let those problems in, as well as what steps we could take individually and corporately to stand in the gap within the wall, and begin the salvation of this area. Because Tom's right -- every social ill that has been solved has been solved because someone took the initiative, a small but dedicated group of people joined in, and society had a Christward awakening: abolition, suffrage, Civil Rights, child labor laws, labor unions -- although the Church today too often is part of the establishment, these are all examples of times the church has been countercultural and worked hard to improve the condition and situation of people who had been marginalized by society as a whole.

Here are three problems that I think we can all begin to address in our own lives, and that our churches could begin to make some contributions toward overcoming:

1. Poverty. Back when I was a missionary, I would hear stories from time to time about how this church or that church in some impoverished area, had raised the means by itself to construct a new building. The story usually came coupled with a moral about the importance of tithing and the usual and expected citation of Malachi 5 that God would pour out blessings on Israel if they would bring the whole tithe in to the Temple. You know the drill.

Whatever can be said about the concept of tithing and whether it applies to churches as it often is preached, this also can be said: It's an interesting form of economic stimulus. Think about it. Let's say we have 20 families in a church community, earning an average $60,000. If each family donates the 10 percent that preachers usually say God requires, that mean the church's annual income is $120,000. For simplicity's sake, we'll assume the pastor is paid $60,000, since that's the average salary of his parishoners and he feels it would be selfish to insist on a higher standard of living than the average in his church.

That $60,000 doesn't stay in his pockets. If he's wise, he's investing some for his eventual retirement, and he's putting some into savings, giving a bank the capital it needs to offer mortgages, car loans, and small business. This is especially true if he's saving his money at a local bank, which has a real and important relationship with the community and is more likely to reinvest its money in the local community than a national or internationally owned bank like Commerce Bank or First Fidelity, or whatever their names are these days. Additionally, the pastor buys his groceries, his children's school supplies, books, newspapers, clothes, furniture and everything else he needs from businesses and contractors in the area.

What's more, the church's operating and outreach expenses also go back into the community, in the form of rental money for a meeting place and office space, the paper it uses for Sunday morning bulletins, office supplies, and so on. The offering that church members give, in other words, is plowed right back into the community where they live, at least if the pastor cares enough about the community where he is a pastor to live there. Every cent that church members give in the offering goes to maintain and even create new jobs, particularly if the church receives enough money to offer grants to start-up businesses.

This assumes, of course, that the church is spending its money locally. If the church decides to go out of area to get its supplies, this benefit to the area is diluted, if not lost entirely.As a church and as individuals, we can make a commitment to do our shopping as locally as possible, and preferably with small, locally owned businesses. Those are the businesses that are rooted in the community, and ultimately they're the ones that give the most back, from the local banks like First Star Savings Bank, down to the plumber up the street who puts in your new water heater.

2. Environment. I think we're all aware that environmental concerns pertaining to global warming and pollution are at the top of the list these days. As a culture we're more than a little slow to turn that awareness into any meaningful action.

Natasha and I are pretty proud that we have to fill the gas tank only once every week-and-a-half to two weeks. We're especially proud because that means we're not getting soaked nearly as much at the gas station as we would be if I were still working in Union Township. (Or, I should add, if we were driving twenty minutes or more each way to get to church as I used to when I lived in Bethlehem, Pa., and as I believe many Christians do each week in this state and country.)

How much gas would we as a nation save if we made it a priority to work closer to where we live (or vice versa), and if we made a commitment to attend a church within 10 minutes' drive of our homes? We're a nation of commuters, but that mobility has cost us financially, environmentally, and in terms of national security. How much carbon monoxide would we stop putting into the air if we limited our work and church commutes to 10 or 15 minutes each way? And that doesn't even begin to consider the benefits to our lives if we were to worship and work alongside people who live in the same cities, towns and neighborhoods as us. We might even rediscover the advantages of "community."

Beyond issues of fuel efficiency, how much do we throw out each week that can still be used? Fully 50 percent of what we throw out as a nation can be recycled. About 40 percent can be composted. All of that is natural resources that we could be reharvesting, to reduce the energy we consume in our manufacturing process. At church each week Natasha and I harvest about 30 or 40 paper bulletins from the trash, and often a few plastic bottles and aluminum cans as well. As a church we COULD make this a priority, reminding people each week not to throw these things out, and drawing attention to recycling bins that we never put in the hall anymore. (The kids church, incidentally, recently started using reusable plastic cups instead of disposables -- that's a tremendous step up in good stewardship, and I hope the rest of the church follows the kids' lead.)

In terms of waste, Natasha and I throw out about one garbage can full of trash each month. Everything else is recycled or composted, and we're trying to find ways to reduce our waste output more. If every family in our church -- it has about 40 families, I think -- reduced its waste that much, I'm guessing we'd eliminate about 8,000 gallons of garbage each month.

I regret to say that many Christians today, particularly those who call themselves evangelicals, fail to see any of this as the moral issue it is. What can I say? "The earth is the Lord's -- the earth, and everything in it." When God created the world, he said that it was good -- all of it, no exceptions, no optional species or useless ecosystems. Consuming the world's resources and filling it with waste at the rate Americans do will mar what is left of Eden for generations to come, and it will poison not only our children,but their children, and their children's children the world over.

It's not as comfortable a bogeyman as the "other" we like to single out, whether gays and lesbians, liberals and conservatives, or members of other religions, but that's precisely why we need to single it out.

3. Consumerism. According to a recent story in the Star-Ledger, consumer spending accounted for about 70 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 2007, up from 62 percent in 1981. Savings is zero, credit card debt is out of control, and record numbers of home mortgages have been foreclosed. On top of that, our trade deficit was $811 billion in 2006, the dollar has weakened, and more and more of our manufacturing and even agricultural has been moved overseas with the result that we are more dependent than ever on other countries for our most basic needs.

Years ago, I read a book by Richard Foster called "A Celebration of Discipline." It's a book I think we all need to read -- not as popular as "The Purpose Driven Life" or "Your Best Life Now," but far more relevant and meaningful -- especially when it comes to the discipline of simplicity. Making do with less. I don't know about anyone else, but even though I don't think of myself as someone attached to material things, I have more clothes in my dresser than will fit there, more books than I can read in a lifetime, and more DVDs than I will ever watch.

So I don't have cable or satellite TV, don't have TiVo, and don't have the latest cell phone or personal electronic gadget. Big deal. We Americans are enslaved to Mammon, and I'm no exception. We need to break free.

The pastor listed some breaks in our church's metaphorical wall today, mostly (and disappointingly) some positions where the church can use some more help with existing programs. These are three areas I think the wall is really breached in a serious way, and I'm curious to see what other people think. What can we do to fix up the walls in our neighborhood?

One thing the preacher brought out of the chapter that really has struck me the longer I've thought about it, is who did the work, or, rather, how the actual workload was distributed.

Nehemiah 3 makes the claim that the effort to rebuild the wall was widespread and had currency with just about everyone in Jerusalem. It notes that even the perfumers got involved. (I never really had thought about that before, but perfumers are not the sort of people you normally would expect to work on rebuilding a wall with one hand on a weapon the whole time.)

But the book notes two other things about the reconstruction effort that I think we all see played out time and again, no matter what the story. First is that the men of Tekoa repaired two parts -- "from the great projecting tower to the wall of Ophel" and a section somewhere near the Fish Gate.

Second is that the nobles of Tekoa didn't help with the work. Isn't that so often the story? There's work to be done, important work that will benefit everybody, and we who are wealthy don't contribute our share to the effort. Did they feel the work was beneath them? Did they think it would hamper their lifestyle, or keep them away from their important affairs, too much to help out? (Their money wasn't needed, since Nehemiah was paying for the work from the royal treasury of Artaxerxes.) Or did they not see a need, since (being wealthy), they could afford to keep their assets protected with guards, and therefore didn't grasp how the broken walls affected the lives of the lower classes?

It makes me wonder, especially with all the metaphorical walls we can see that are damaged in our society and in our churches, how often we justify leaving the work for someone else to do because we can't be bothered for whatever reason, and so some people end up carrying twice the load they're supposed to, or more.

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