Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What really matters

We were called "pathetic" in the Pitch Weekly last week--my congregation, that is. Or the part of it which had gathered in a very cold wind to pray for a sea change in the budget-making process of our nation.

Now, some would say we weren't really being called "pathetic"--my wife among them. The article was supposed to be satire, after all--the writer told us that himself. So "pathetic little gathering" was supposed to be some Swiftian turn of phrase. I'm an English major (and that and a few bucks will buy coffee these days, but I'm still proud of that degree). The satire didn't work for me, at least not in that section of the article. It just felt like a community of people whom I love dearly was being called names.

Maybe if he'd said "paltry," it would have been a less bitter pill. The point was (and this did work) that liberal Christian communities like ours don't often have numbers on their side. Point taken.

But that "sad little congregation" (which is, indeed, a congregation, and not large) is pretty amazing. And Christmas morning, when I was certain I'd be worshipping with the five people scheduled to lead worship and a handful more, we were the liveliest "little gathering" around. I was quite pleased to see the fifteen people who had arrived by five minutes to ten. That was more than I expected.

Imagine my true delight when Ricky Williams came running into worship, followed by his little sister, mother and father. They were at church the night before, and I didn't expect to see them again. Then Bill, who sits in the back and smiles at me while I preach, arrived.

It was a most excellent service, due in small part to my preaching and worship leadership, and in large part to the joyful presence of those in the room. This is a community of people who truly love one another, as evidenced by the cookies being passed around, and the hugs gleefully exchanged at the passing of the peace.

That was my first lesson in What Really Matters this week, and the Pitch article, which really wasn't so bad anyway, just melted away.

Then this morning, Richard Williams, father to Ricky and Gwen, and husband to Niki, went to the hospital. He had chest pain and that awful tightness that usually means something bad, and it was indeed bad. Four stints later, he'll be okay, though he'll likely have to slow down some.

Richard works very hard, taking care of a family in a world which throws up a lot of roadblocks. He is a man I like very much and respect even more. I spent the day trying to keep orders straight at the Bristol and saying a prayer every couple of minutes.

Talk about a lesson in What Really Matters. It's not so easy to be parents, these days, and Richard and Niki do it well. Their family is central, and that is apparent by the way they prioritize their time and energy. That family was blessed today, by the gift of skilled doctors and technicians and nurses. But what is more striking is the way they bless each other every day, and the way they bless our "little congregation" and those who know them.

When Jesus said "I give you this commandment: Love one another," he wasn't offering an abstract platitude that we might reach for but we'd never achieve. He was talking about love, the kind that is simple and oh-so-human. He was talking about real love, the kind one witnesses in a family like the Williams family--love that is patient and kind and strong and constant.

On a day like today, when all that mattered was that family, and the health of its father, it was sure nice to talk to Jesus, and to ask him for help. And to know that his love was there too. When I couldn't get there soon enough, that was what really mattered. In this time of recovery and healing, it will be mirrored by the love of a family, and a community, both of which are pretty darned good at loving one another.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Being Vigil-ant

So Rick tells me I should post more blogs, and I try to do what he says, wise man that he is.

We did this vigil last Wednesday night, and it went quite well. It was called the Vigil for a Moral Budget, and it was just that--prayer for a change in the tide of the budget process, which seems bent on rewarding those who have already rewarded themselves (through hard work, certainly, but I'm not the first to say that the rich "have received their reward"). The federal budget, when all is said and done, will likely be one of the most lopsided, rich up/poor down, budgets ever written. So we gathered to pray about that, and mainly to pray for those who will be left out when the goodies are distributed.

Wednesday, it turns out, is not a great night to invite people of faith to a vigil. I invited a lot of folks who had other engagements. December, it turns out, isn't the best time for folks either. But there were twenty folks there, on a chilly, windy Kansas City evening, gathered in prayer for our elected officials, who don't always seem like "ours" any more.

I believe in the power of government. I believe in democracy. I believe that there are many women and men serving in our democratic government who really want to do the best for the citizens of this country. Unfortunately, there isn't one great answer to the question "what is best?" Well, maybe there is. It is found in the words of the prophets--Amos, my favorite cranky proclaimer among them. It is found in the words of Jesus. It's also found in the proclamation of the Buddha, Muhammed, the Tao, and the scriptures of virtually every religion.

Those with more should give to those who have less--that's pretty much The Answer in a nutshell. And they should do it directly, toute suite. Not by "investing" it in business and waiting for it to trickle down. Come on, we can't really with a straight face (or as close as we can manage) ask a mother trying to raise four children by herself on a meager salary to wait for some help to "trickle down." In fact, we probably ought not to have governmental practices that involve the word "trickle." Language has power, and that language has the power of actually conveying what's really going on.

So the process is broken, and the government seems broken, and soon all of those who've read those scriptures and try to live them may be pretty brokenhearted. Brokenheartedness isn't enough. As hard as it is to try to speak a word of justice to the nations (see Isaiah), it must be done. And we can feel good about ourselves after we speak that word, but our work is not yet done. There are still a lot of people without food in a country with more than enough.

What would happen if we redistributed the wealth of this nation to those who need it the most? Some of them would make really poor purchases. Some would buy drugs and X Box 360's (which may not be that different). That's always been the argument, hasn't it, for keeping the poor on a short leash? They just spend their money on things they don't need. But if "spending your money on things you don't need" was a real reason for the government to control people's access to wealth, then all the yacht companies--not to mention the restaurant where I earn student loan payments--would go out of business.

I happen to think that most hungry people, if given enough money to live on, would buy food.

S o let's just give them the money. And wait for it to "trickle up." What an interesting world we'd live in then.