Unemployment, Poverty, and Politics: A Personal Testimony

I grew up conservative in every way—theologically, socially, and politically. But things change. Circumstances change. Perspectives change. People change. I changed. And here, as succinctly as I can make it, is an example of how and why.

As a faculty member in my eleventh year of teaching at a small, conservative, Bible college in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, I taught a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity. Prior to that, I had preached several series of sermons on the text of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). When I taught that course, however, in the spring of 2005, I read that passage as I had never seen it before, and I heard Jesus saying things I had not previously understood. Continue reading

The Arthur Book: Where Things Stand

The manuscript for the Arthur Lough biography—an autobiographical novel called The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey—is complete and ready to be printed. I started writing last August and finished the first draft in January. In early February, I Writer at Work (1)submitted that draft to a professional editor for evaluation. Based on suggestions and recommendations from that evaluation, I spent two months revising and rewriting the manuscript. (The excerpts from chapter one that I published last winter as posts to this blog were drawn from the first draft and do not reflect the later re-write, which includes a prologue and new chapters not in the first draft.)

In May, I sent the unedited manuscript to five beta readers. All of them liked the book and encouraged me to publish it. In late May, I began exploring a variety of publishing options, most of which were companies that required me to pay for their services and assume all risks related to sales and marketing of the book. During that process, I consulted a well-known writer who has published several titles using a variety of methods (trade publishers, self-publishers, etc.). In the course of our communications, he advised me to hire a professional copyeditor no matter which method of publishing I ultimately chose. Continue reading

That Was My Mistake

We’ve all been there. We pour out our hearts, about a matter of great personal significance, to someone who appears willing to listen, only to hear, in response, some i-dont-careversion of this line: “I’m sorry, but I believe you have mistaken me for someone who cares.”

Perhaps the response has never been that crass or that brazen, but we’ve all encountered folks who, we think, ought to share our concern or our fear or our commitment in a certain matter. Trouble is, they don’t, and the consequence, for us, can be disappointing, if not devastating.

It has taken years, but I finally understand the degree to which this principle has been at work in my own experience. I thought somebody would care. They didn’t. That was my mistake.

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Podcast No. 13

??????????Podcast No. 13 is now available. It is called “God Save Us From The Successful Church,” and it is around 7 minutes long. To download it as an mp3 file, click here. To listen to the podcast now, click on the button below. This podcast is also archived on the “Podcasts” page of this blog. Thanks for listening.

Here’s My Dilemma

This may surprise or even annoy some of my readers, especially those who are also bloggers, but I don’t read many blogs. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but I want to be absolutely forthright in what I communicate here.

There are two reasons why I don’t read blogs. First, I don’t have time. I know, I know. TheBlog concept vector illustration. more I write in this post, the more trouble I’m in, since I admit I don’t have time to read blogs, and yet I write one which I hope other people will read. Truth be told, I am amazed that anybody finds the time to read my blog. And believe me, I don’t take my readers for granted.

Second, most blogs are not very good. Good writing, like any proficiency, is a blend of innate ability and hard work. A combination of talent and sweat. A melding of gift and discipline. Let’s face it, few bloggers achieve that level of proficiency. If we did, our work would probably be picked up by a reputable publisher instead of being relegated to the internet.

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The Arthur Chronicles—No. 11

Arthur called on Saturday to tell me we would not be able to meet at our regular time on Monday afternoon. His wife is a breast cancer survivor. She meets with her oncologist for follow-up exams every few months, and Arthur accompanies her. One of those regular Week planningappointments was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Arthur had forgotten about it when we met a week ago.

I thought he might be happy to have a legitimate excuse not to meet with me this week. Some of our recent conversations had taken on an unexpected intensity. That was especially true last week, and Arthur had hinted, at the time, that he might be inclined to take a week off.

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My Hope Is In The Diocese

Like many Christians, I grew up with what I now believe to be a grossly deficient view of the role and purpose of the church. My parents were Baptists. I was baptized, and eventually ordained, in that tradition, which is characterized by a strongly congregational polity (i.e. form or system of government). That is, while Baptist churches may link together for certain kinds of cooperative endeavors, each local congregation is viewed as an autonomous entity, not subject to any kind of outside authority so far as its decision-making apparatus is concerned.

In some Baptist churches, the form of government in the local congregation is something close to a pure democracy, where a vote of the membership is required for virtually every decision of any significance. Others operate under a system in which the pastor, as the lone “elder” in the church, pretty well runs the show, assisted to some degree by a board of “deacons” who presumably advise the pastor and, in rare cases, may actually possess sufficient authority to override a pastoral decision.

A similar polity is favored by “independent, non-denominational” churches, many of which use terms like “Bible Church” or “Community Church” in their names. My first two pastorates were served in churches of this sort, without denominational identity but decidedly congregational in polity. I was in my thirties before I began to think of “church” as anything other than a local, autonomous assembly, responsible for its own program, accountable to nobody except its own membership, and sometimes not even to them.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As a Bible college graduate, I understood the term “church” to be used in the New Testament with reference to the “body of Christ,” composed of all Christians, everywhere, across the centuries of “church” history. But this “universal church” was sometimes called the “invisible church,” and a church that you could not see was, in practical terms, nonexistent. The only church I knew anything about, so far as personal experience was concerned, was a local, independent entity, operating according to its own perception of Christian doctrine, and often in competition with similar local churches in the same general area.

Eventually, I came to believe that affiliation with a local church assembly alone, to the exclusion of formal and official identification with a broader, more diverse community of Christian believers (as in a denomination), revealed an inadequate understanding of the concept of the church as the “body of Christ.” I had read the Nicene Creed, with its declaration that “we believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” and I wanted to do something, in terms of formal identification and official membership, which reflected my commitment to that church.

The proliferation of Christian denominations, I maintain, is one negative consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Thus it is not possible, in organizational and institutional terms, to identify formally and officially with the “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Even the Roman Catholic Church, since Vatican II, recognizes that there are genuine Christian believers not covered by its umbrella. The best we can do, or so it would seem, is to identify with a denomination—ideally one with worldwide membership—which also recognizes its place within the family of churches, denominations, fellowships, coalitions, and alliances which, ostensibly, worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and King of the Universe.

That was the decision to which I came, nearly thirty years ago, when I became a member of what is now Mennonite Church USA. MCUSA is a tiny denomination, but it is linked to a worldwide Mennonite/Anabaptist network. Moreover, at the time, affiliation with even a small denomination was a big step for someone with my background to take.

I took that decision seriously. I could have embraced many of the distinctives which drew me to Anabaptism—an emphasis on radical discipleship, Biblical nonresistance, simplicity, and a commitment to social justice, for example—without actually joining the Mennonite Church. But I was ready to identify with an entity that included brothers and sisters in Christ outside of my local congregation.

Twenty-five years later, I was captivated by the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship. For a time, I tried to “scratch the liturgical itch” without identifying formally with a denomination in the liturgical tradition. Initially, I wanted to be an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities. The more I learned about Anglicanism, however, the more I was drawn into the communion as much for its polity, its history,

The Flag Of Worldwide Anglicanism

and its worldwide witness as for its liturgy. Today I consider myself an Anglican with Anabaptist sensibilities.

Anglican polity is decidedly not congregational or democratic. It is episcopal, which is the English form of a Greek word often translated “overseer” and is the etymological root for the English word bishop. In Baptist churches, authority rests with the congregation. In Anglican churches, authority rests (or is supposed to rest) with the bishop. The bishop’s authority extends to a specified number of local congregations (known as parishes) which all together comprise what is known as a diocese.

In congregational polity, the local church is the fundamental unit of ecclesiastical identification. In Anglican polity, it is the diocese. Local parishes exist to embody the vision and mission of the diocese in a particular community. They are the means by which the diocese interfaces with a specific neighborhood. Clergy are not members of a local parish. They are members of the diocese only, and their role is to represent the bishop in the parishes where they serve in a variety of roles.

This system of government, which is based on a particular understanding of terms and patterns found in the New Testament, has some weaknesses, but overall it is workable and efficient. Its efficiency and its effectiveness depend on the character and competence of the bishop and the faithfulness and commitment of the diocesan clergy to the system and to their vows of loyalty to the bishop.

I believe that episcopal polity (i.e. parishes in a diocese living under the watchcare and authority of a bishop) is not only efficient and effective (at least in theory) for the organization and operation of local churches or parishes. It is also tailor-made (again, in theory) as a mechanism for the planting of new parishes.

Here’s what I mean. A single local parish within a diocese may not possess sufficient resources, either human or material, to support the birth and development of a new church in its area, even when the need for such a new congregation is obvious and indisputable. By pooling the available resources from all the parishes in the diocese, the cost of planting a new church could be underwritten for a year or two. As the new church grew and took on responsibility for its own support, diocesan funds could be re-directed toward another area with a need for a new church. In this way, each new church would be a joint effort of the diocese, and the entire diocese could rejoice in its success and benefit from its ministry.

I have proposed a pattern such as this for consideration by the parishes in my own diocese. So far, it has gone nowhere. That makes me sad, since I have pretty much concluded that this approach may be the only way our vision for St. Patrick’s Church can be realized. And it may be the only mechanism by which I can find a context for vocational ministry in the Anglican communion.

Why God Doesn’t Sell The Cattle

Have you ever noticed that our awareness of an issue or our dedication to a cause expands proportionate to the impact of the matter at hand upon our daily lives? It is an indisputable quality of human nature. The more something affects us personally, the more interested in it we become. Sometimes almost to the point of obsession.

Parents who once could barely spell “autistic,” let alone define it, develop an intense interest in the condition soon after their child begins to show signs of autism. Breast cancer survivors and their families frequently devote themselves to programs that promote early detection and the search for a cure. And the list goes on.

I have served in vocational ministry all my adult life. In that role, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois, “I have always relied on the kindness of donors.” That is, whether as a pastor, a parachurch executive, or a professor in a church-related Bible college, my salary has been tied to the generosity of my constituency. That reality has tempered my expectations regarding financial compensation and has deepened my appreciation for frugality as a spiritual discipline and liberality as a mark of spiritual maturity. It has also heightened my sensitivity to the ways churches go about formulating their budgets and the means by which Christian agencies and institutions allocate their financial resources.

I know that God is infinite and His wealth is boundless. As the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 50…

1 The Mighty One, God, the LORD,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to where it sets;
7 “Listen, my people, and I will speak…
I am God, your God.
9 I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
10 for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”

God needs nothing. Everything belongs to Him already. That means…

  1. Sufficient resources exist to accomplish all that God wants done in the world. If He chose to do so, He could open the windows of heaven, or sell some of the cattle on those hills, and pour out unlimited prosperity so that every Christian enterprise would be fully and generously funded from its inception.
  2. For His own reasons, God has chosen to limit the resources that are available for use in Kingdom ministry and to make them dependent, for the most part, on the faithfulness and generosity of His people.
  3. Since everything belongs to God already, we don’t actually own any of the wealth or resources in our possession. God has merely entrusted them to us for a time, and it is our privilege and responsibility to use them in ways that reflect Kingdom values and bring honor to God.

There is no more accurate measure of spiritual maturity and sensitivity to the Spirit of God, for individuals and institutions, than money—how we get it and how we use it. But Christians don’t like to talk about their personal finances. How we use our money is nobody else’s business. Bank balances and investment portfolios, like bedrooms and voting booths, are off limits to outsiders. This attitude has blinded us to the relationship between financial stewardship and spirituality.

That blindspot extends to institutional and organizational finances as well. Many Christians assume that if the leadership of their church or the board of their alma mater or their favorite televangelist authorizes an expenditure or allocates funds for a particular venture, it must therefore be the best and most prudent use of those resources. Au contraire, mon frère.

A church budget is as much a moral document as a financial one. Since the church is the agent of the Kingdom of God, a church’s budget must reflect the values of the Kingdom. Church members are obliged to ask, with regard to every penny of expenditure which the budget allocates, “Is this absolutely the best and most prudent use of these resources which God has entrusted to our stewardship? Does this budget (or even this line item) reflect Kingdom values? Will this expenditure enhance our effectiveness in advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom? Could this allocation of funds be put to better use in some other enterprise?”

It is remarkably easy to talk about Christianity in contemporary America, but it is exceedingly difficult, in this culture, to implement the characteristics of cross-bearing discipleship. One reason for that discrepancy is a fundamental flaw in our thinking about money. We have more money than most of the rest of the world, we interpret our affluence as a sign of the blessing of God, and yet we fail to recognize that this great “blessing” is also the means by which God tests the true character of our faith.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus had more to say about money and its effect—both good and bad—on Christian believers, the citizens of the Kingdom of God, than any other single subject except for the Kingdom in general. That’s one reason you read about money and financial stewardship so often in this blog. That and the fact that my future ministry depends, in large measure, on the faithfulness and generosity of fellow-believers, my compatriots in the Kingdom of God.

I hear you ask, “Why are you so drawn to this subject these days? In the old days we never noticed your near-obsession with the role of money and the importance of stewardship for Kingdom citizens. What has changed?” “Well,” I respond, “in the old days I didn’t have a blog, now did I?”

 

Effective Leadership And The Rule Of Three

The “rule of three” suggests that groups of things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying or more effective than things in other numbers. It has many applications. Who could ever forget the Three Stooges, the Three Blind Mice, or Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

Three points are generally optimum for a sermon or speech, since they can be used in a progression to create tension, build it up, then resolve it. An equilateral triangle is one of the strongest geometric shapes employed by architects and engineers. And one of the most famous biblical images to make use of the rule of three is found in Ecclesiastes 4:12—A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

The rule of three I have in mind today has to do with the factors which contribute to effective leadership. I’m not thinking so much of the character traits which are absolutely essential for a good leader. I will have much to say about them in the days ahead. Rather, for today, I’m thinking particularly of the context or the conditions which enable a good leader to be effective. And I believe that the most desirable context for effective leadership involves a proper balance between three components: authority, opportunity, and accountability.

By authority I mean all those things which are necessary to qualify a leader for his or her position and which enable the leader to accomplish the task of influencing people to make particular decisions or take specific actions. It includes natural giftedness, formal and informal preparation, and often a credential which may be symbolized by some sort of ceremony, ornament, or attire. Authority assures those who are being led that their leaders have met some objective requirements for their role and gives confidence that leaders are trustworthy and will use their gifts and exercise their influence in prudent and careful ways.

Opportunity is the setting in which leaders operate. It may be an organization, an institution, or simply a situation which requires a leader to use his gifts and exercise her influence for the good of the people involved. It will entail an obvious need along with the potential for resources required to address the need and resolve the situation.

Accountability is the mechanism by which it can be determined whether or not leaders have acted responsibly, prudently, and efficiently in the exercise of their gifts and the use of their authority for the good of those they lead.

I am no expert in effective leadership. I’ve read a few books, attended a few seminars, taken a few courses in subjects at least vaguely related to leadership. But my qualification for addressing this subject lies mainly in the fact that I have been both a leader and a follower, I am a keen observer, and I have learned a few things along the way. That’s where these three components for effective leadership came from. I didn’t read them in a book, at least not one that I can remember. They just seem to make sense.

I believe that failure, inadequacy, and incompetence within the church today, among those who make up the body of Christ—and there is a lot of it about—arises, first and foremost, from failures, inadequacies, and incompetence on the part of those who ostensibly provide leadership to the church. If there is a crisis of spirituality, a crisis of commitment, a crisis of effectiveness in the church, it is first of all a crisis of leadership.

Most of this crisis in leadership has to do with the inner character of the leader. As noted, I will have much more to say on that subject. Some of the ineffectiveness of contemporary leaders among the people of God, however, can be traced to an imbalance among the three components for effective leadership which I have noted above. When one of the three elements is decidedly weaker than the other two, or absent altogether, that imbalance impedes the efficient and productive exercise of leadership gifts and influence. When this happens within a church context or among the people of God, the consequences extend to the effectiveness of the church in embodying the character of the Kingdom of God and advancing the Gospel of the Kingdom.

After forty years of vocational ministry, I am prepared to suggest that leadership among Fundamentalists, where I began my career in vocational ministry, is too often marked by authority and opportunity without sufficient accountability. During more than twenty-five years of ministry among Mennonites, I found leadership to be sometimes limited by opportunity and accountability without sufficient authority to enable leaders to carry out their tasks.

I am today an Anglican priest. When Anglican polity is functioning effectively, there are ample mechanisms in place to confer appropriate authority and to provide for proper accountability. What is lacking is opportunity. Oh, there is plenty of need. There are simply too few resources to enable leaders, with adequate authority and accountability, to take advantage of opportunities, or to initiate the same, through the exercise of their gifts in fulfillment of their calling.

The problem is not really that there are too few resources. The problem is one of distribution. Too many resources are being directed toward too few opportunities. The work of the Kingdom is being hindered because of inequality and disproportionality in the distribution and consumption of Kingdom resources. I have spoken to this situation in earlier posts, and I shall do so again, anon.

Tithing To Ourselves

Before I started writing this blog, I would periodically experience a “brain spasm,” brought on by something I had read or heard. Or it might have been an idea that just entered my thought processes without my conscious awareness of its origin. Often, on those occasions, I would lament the fact that I still had not started my blog. After all, reducing a “brain spasm” to writing and expanding on its implications is one major reason for having a blog in the first place.

So, I started this blog about two months ago, and almost immediately the spontaneous bursts of creativity ceased. That has been OK, though, since I had warehoused some of my earlier ideas, and I was able to dust them off and expose them to public scrutiny via my blog.

Today I experienced another of my spontaneous “brain spasms,” brought on this time by an Op-Ed column published in Monday’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch. This time, I immediately reminded myself, I do have a blog, and so I dashed (that, of course, is a relative term for a 62-year old, overweight boomer) upstairs, sat down at my computer, and what you are reading is the product of that burst of creative thinking. I had planned to devote this post to a follow-up to my last entry on radical discipleship. Look for that next time.

I am not a political activist, but I do try to be a good citizen. I don’t litter, I do vote, and I pay my taxes. (I even paid income tax back when I was fortunate enough to have an income.) Although I have been unemployed for more than three years, I have never drawn a dime of unemployment insurance or any other type of tax-funded public welfare, and we have never purchased Food Stamps, although I believe we were eligible. We have also received no assistance from any church or religious organization. Our situation has been ameliorated, however, through the generosity of a dear friend (not a wealthy man) who has taken substantial tax-benefit losses on the cash gifts he has provided that have helped make it possible for us to pay our bills.

We live frugally, on a mainly pay-as-you-go basis, and we have been able to weather the current downturn in our financial circumstances because we don’t spend a lot of money, we had some savings to draw upon, and God has been faithful to us. I have often likened our situation to that of the Widow of Zarephath, whose story is told in 1 Kings 17. It was a time of drought in the land, and when the prophet Elijah asked the woman for something to eat, she was willing to feed him although she knew it would exhaust her meager supply of flour and oil. For her faithfulness, God cared for her so that “the jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty” for the duration of the drought. That is our testimony too.

Not everyone is as fortunate as we have been. For many, during the current economic hard times or perhaps over an even longer period of time, tax-funded government assistance programs such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC), etc., have been their only means of survival.

Now, I know all the arguments against tax-funded welfare programs, and I have heard the stories about people who abuse, misuse, and defraud the system. I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, who draw money from these programs could find jobs if they tried hard enough. I am not joining that argument, on either side, in this post. My gripe today is with the church.

Back to the Op-Ed piece I read this morning. I read virtually every Op-Ed column that is printed in the Dispatch, from the fairly balanced (on both sides of the political spectrum) to the lunatic fringe (again, on both sides). The author of the column to which I refer here is one of the most liberal columnists published in the Dispatch, but I mention that only in the interest of full disclosure, since it is of little consequence so far as my point is concerned.

The writer devoted Monday’s entire column to re-printing a blogpost by a 23-year old, married mother of a 15-month-old son. The young blogger is the daughter of a meth-addicted, uneducated, single mother of six children. Her blogpost, which the liberal columnist re-printed, is titled “Dear American Taxpayers,” and here is what she writes in the first paragraph.

Since 1987, you (American taxpayers) have supported me as you paid your taxes. You are the sole reason I am alive today. I am writing to thank you for doing it.

In the remainder of the post, she describes, succinctly and articulately, how tax-funded government assistance programs, like Medicaid, WIC, etc., provided her with food, health care, and education so that she became a healthy, educated adult who is now committed to contributing to the system which made it possible for her to survive and thrive. You can read her entire post here.

Once again, my purpose is not to argue the pros and cons of public welfare.  It is to ask the question, “What is the church doing to address this kind of need?” If our society is ever to wean itself off the public welfare teat, which contributes to our annual federal deficit and our growing national debt, then churches and other privately funded agencies will need to do far more than they are doing to meet these needs.

Christians need to be honest. We cannot decry the out-of-control government spending on welfare programs, which encourage waste and fraud, without recognizing the responsibility we have to help those in genuine need. And our contribution cannot be limited to food pantries and holiday gift baskets.

Whenever a church member says to me that government should not be involved in social welfare, and that care and assistance for those “less fortunate” should come from churches and other private enterprises, I want to ask, “How much of your annual budget is devoted to this kind of ministry? For that matter, how much of your annual budget is devoted to any kind of ministry, spiritual or social, outside of your own walls?”

When I see church budgets with 80% or more of their expenditures directed to mortgages, building maintenance, and liberal staff salaries, I wonder how it will ever be possible to reduce the government’s role in social welfare. And if we persist in “tithing only to ourselves,” how will the work of the Kingdom outside of our four walls ever get done?