Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

The Cause of the Poor

// September 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Plus: Saints 2016

Y’all may have noticed that I’m not great at details or schedules.  That makes following the lectionary a danger zone for me, so I keep telling you we’re going to talk about things that, it turns out, we are not.  I am truly thankful for your grace.  This is all said to preface the news that we will not be explaining everything about Christ-Sophia this week.  The lectionary, unfortunately for a smooth pedagogy, decided to give us some wisdom from Proverbs a week before reading the beginning of Proverbs that sets up the whole thing.  The good news is that the text we are assigned is perfect for Labor Day weekend.

We seldom notice that Labor Day is not just summer’s last gasp, filled with swimming pools and grills.  It is actually about labor.  Not just a rest from working, but a celebration of the labor movement that created labor unions that gave laborers bargaining power against management – management that worked people to excessive hours in unsafe conditions for little pay, management that created company stores that kept their employees in virtual slavery.  In this period of unfettered capitalism, great wealth was generated, but most of that ended up in the pockets of the people at the top, the people who had the means to manipulate political and economic systems to their own ends.  Because laborers fought for their rights, corruption was contained and income inequality shrank in the first half of the 20th century.  When labor was at its strongest, the country prospered and the lives of ordinary people improved.

The power of unions has shrunk drastically over the last 50 years and the results are stark.  Those at the bottom of the wealth ladder earn low wages in mostly part-time jobs.  (I saw one study lauding the “increased leisure time” for people at the bottom!)  Those in the middle now inhabit a perpetual state of quasi-labor: cell phones on, checking email, retraining, laying awake at night wondering how to not be fungible.  Those at the top continue the hiring freezes, wage stagnation, and reduced benefits that they discovered people – unorganized people – would live with during the recession and make short-sighted investors happy in the recovery.  Corporate profits skyrocket while labor struggles: CEOs now make 354 times the wage of their lowest paid workers.  Perhaps most concerning, the graft of the 19th century is now mostly legal with the wealthiest people attempting to buy the political process.  It does not have to be this way.

Certainly, this is not as God would have it.  As Proverbs tells us this week, God pleads for the cause of the impoverished.  Repeatedly, we hear about how any regulation, any organization of labor, any protection of the common welfare puts a stranglehold on business.  Frankly, God doesn’t care.  God instructs farmers to leave a portion of their harvests for the poor.  God instructs lenders not to charge interest.  God instructs debt-holders to forgive debts regularly.  Such things do not maximize profits; they do not produce excess capital for investment.  Instead, they care for those who are impoverished.  They interrupt the cycles of poverty in which people find themselves to give hope.  They contemplate a common welfare that is only maintained when it is maintained for everyone.  God gives these instructions, but people must carry them out.

The solution to the problem of poverty is complex, so complex that it might seem to be impossible, but if we begin, as God does, by pleading the case of the impoverished, maybe there’s a chance.  Rather than concerning ourselves with the economy as an abstraction with its own intrinsic value, perhaps we should, as God does, concern ourselves with those in need.  Perhaps we should, as God suggests, organize our lives, our society, our political will around those who struggle the most.  This may deny a few the opportunity to amass the wealth of Solomon, but it might more closely mirror the world of God’s dreams, a world where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone can eat their fill.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about poverty, equality, and labor.  And probably robots.  Robots are important.

Grace & Peace,

Saints 2016

As is our annual tradition, we gather the Tribunal for Canonization of the Saints (that’s you!) to consider the cause of certain individuals, now deceased a minimum of five years, who have performed miracles that have set the world on a different (and better!) course.  In particular, we select people who are in some way indicative of what Church in the Cliff is about and, in some cases, without whom Church in the Cliff would not exist.  We have five slots and seven nominations this year, so I’d like to get some feedback from people.  I would also appreciate it if people who are passionate about one of these individuals would participate in the canonization service.  Here are the nominees:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Church in the Cliff was formed, in part, to provide greater opportunities for women in ministry.  Almost everything we do is informed by feminist discourse.  More importantly, the life of Church in the Cliff is enriched by the strong, brilliant, passionate women who have participated in church leadership from the beginning.  It is unlikely that any of them would have done that without Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She was one of the first to assert the equality of women in the church, to suggest a liberating reading of the Bible, and to advocate for the use of feminine language for God.  To that effort, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895.

Martin Luther King.  It is unusual that a Sunday passes at Church in the Cliff without mention of Martin Luther King.  In fact, his name is invoked so regularly that it has seemed cliché to canonize him, so we have chosen to highlight others ahead of him.  But perhaps the time has come.  In addition to the profound effect he had in civil rights, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” could arguably be an amendment to the canon.  He was truly a martyr, his life cut short just as he was setting his sights on even larger problems than those in which he had already triumphed.

Fred Rogers.  Many of us grew up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  We learned about kindness, compassion, and puppets.  Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, became the moral center for a generation growing up in a world wracked with cultural upheaval, violence, and corruption.  Even now, any time something bad happens, there is probably a Fred Rogers quote to give us hope.

Samuel Mockbee.  Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, Samuel Mockbee was driven by a need to right wrongs using the talents that he had in art and architecture.  He created the Rural Studio program at Auburn University, which taught students about the social responsibility of architectural practice. The program built sustainable architecture in impoverished areas of Alabama using novel materials that would have otherwise been waste.  He helped revitalize Hale County, Alabama, while protecting the environment and inspiring young people to shape their world for the better.

Pseudo-Denis.  Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Denis wrote a body of literature that was hugely influential in Christian theology, particularly Christian mysticism.  His work often functions as a bridge between Christianity and non-Christian thought and practice, ranging from Zen meditation to deconstructive philosophy.  If you practice centering prayer, you owe a debt to Denis.

Johnny Cash.  This almost needs no explanation.  Not only was he one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, the Man in Black was driven by his faith and his experience of the shadowy sides of life to care for those that no one else cared for.

Roger Williams.  Williams founded the colony of Providence, in what was to become Rhode Island, on the principle of religious freedom.  Though he was a Christian, he had the novel idea that Christianity should succeed or fail on its own merits rather than by government coercion, that each faith is enriched in dialog with others.  As a result, Providence was open to all.  In fact, in addition to founding the first Baptist church in the New World, Williams helped build the first synagogue.  He advocated for fair relations with Native Americans and was an early abolitionist.  Whatever Baptist identity Church in the Cliff clings to, it is embodied in the life of Roger Williams.

Please email your thoughts to pastor@churchinthecliff.

Sheep and Goats

// November 22nd, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Our series on the Rapture culminates this Sunday in what is traditionally known as “Christ the King” Sunday.  This is not language we typically use at Church in the Cliff.  It is hierarchical and patriarchal and we prefer more expansive and inclusive images of God.  However, this highlights some of the things we’ve been talking about with Rapture theology.

As it is commonly understood today, due to the influence of writers like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, Christ’s return will be marked with violence and division.  God will judge everyone, separating the believers from the non-believers.  Believers will be vindicated and rewarded for their faith and non-believers will be punished.  Those who have suffered so long for the glory of Christ will finally be spared the indignity of hearing “Happy Holidays!”

Most Rapture enthusiasts I encounter today are privileged in a number of ways: straight, white, Christian, and relatively prosperous.  In fact, there is a curious intersection of prosperity gospel and self-help gospel that tell people that good Christians have good lives, and a Rapture theology that tells Christians that they are always under threat, that their way – God’s way – is in decline.  The result is that God’s judgment is rendered to protect the privileged – from the gays, from the Muslims, from the immigrants, from the lazy poor.  Some folks are anxious for the division of the sheep and the goats, but maybe they shouldn’t be.

Maybe they should read the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25.31-46, which is one of our lectionary passages this week.  Yes, God comes as a king and sits in judgment.  He separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep go to mansions in the sky and the goats get the coal chute.  But look at the criteria for judgment.  How did you treat the poor?  How did you treat the hungry?  How did you treat the homeless?  How did you care for the least among us?  Then he says something remarkable that, in a very Jesus-y way, undoes all the hierarchical, patriarchal stuff in which the story is framed.  Jesus says that the way that we treat the least among is the way that we treat Jesus, that Jesus is, in fact, those very people.

To backtrack a little bit, the reason that we so often see images of kingship in ancient writings is that the king was understood to be subordinate only to God.  Many times, the king was seen as the Son of God, carrying God’s full authority.  Philosophically, this defines a great hierarchy of being that carries God’s nature into the world.  If you want to know who God is, look at the king.  If you want to please God, behave like the king, support the king.  That is not only the ordering principle of society, but the very nature of reality itself.  When the early Christian writers speak of Jesus as king, they are saying he is the image of who God is, the definitive vision of the nature of reality itself.

Yet, here Jesus identifies himself with the least among us.  God’s vision of kingship is a complete reversal of everything it means to be a king.  The definitive vision of the nature of reality itself is, in fact, those who are impoverished, those who wander or have no home, those who are hungry and naked.  If we want to know who God is, look at them.  If we want to please God, we should live our lives in solidarity with them.  If we want to avoid the coal chute, we should not see God as the protector of our privilege over against those who suffer, those who ask for food to eat and a roof over their heads.  Jesus is not the king, but is instead the presence of God in the world seen most of all in those who suffer.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss sheep and goats and which one we might become as we construct our vision of hope.

Grace & Peace,

St. Francis: To Walk in Jesus’ Footsteps

// September 29th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Let me start by admitting that I know little about our selection for this week’s saint: St. Francis of Assisi.  I have an image of him, but I think I get him confused with Snow White.  But as I read the Wikipedia article on him, I found some bits of information tucked away in the recesses of my shabby memory.  Most notably, Francis was a reformer.

By the Middle Ages, the Church had acquired quite a bit of power and wealth.  It was a relatively prosperous time.  Because the Church was the gatekeeper for Heaven, the wealthy were generous.  And, although priests and monks could not technically own property, they had use of what the Church owned.  Beginning in the 12th century, this generated a reaction, not unlike we have seen in Pope Francis eschewing the luxurious trappings of the papacy.  A reformer named Valdes established a mendicant order committed to poverty.  There was some question about whether such an order could be truly Christian, but they were accepted when they acknowledged that not all rich people will go to hell.  However, they were not allowed to preach unless by permission of local clergy, the ones with all the land and money.  Conflict ensued and soon poverty was equivalent to heresy.

Francis followed in the tradition of Valdes, choosing to be poor.  This son of a nobleman humbled himself, gave up his birthright, and lived in poverty.  In so doing, he found an infinitely deepening compassion that extended to every part of creation.  He reportedly preached to the birds.  Another story has him acting as a peacemaker between a wolf and a village it was terrorizing.  He thought of the sun and moon as his brother and sister.  And he thought that this kind of experience, this solidarity with those are impoverished and those who suffer, was the key to reform.  He was a great preacher, but his real strategy was to simply live as Jesus lived.  If he could walk in Jesus’ footsteps, it might change the Church and change the world.

Today, Francis is the most popular saint.  I fear this is because we do get him confused with Snow White.  Who doesn’t like a man who is kind to animals?  But we shouldn’t forget why he was kind to animals.  For Francis, like Hildegard, all of creation is the arena in which we encounter God.  If we humble ourselves and forget, even for a moment, about the things made by human hands, we might notice God at work.  We might see ourselves and our neighbors more clearly.  We might understand that everything and everyone is an opportunity to know God.  Perhaps, the animals will talk back.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Park by the West picnic tables, as we celebrate St. Francis.  There will be a pet blessing, so please bring leashed pets or pictures of those who are unable to attend.  There is currently a 50% chance of rain.  If we’re on the wrong side of that 50% on Sunday morning, we will move back inside to the Rec Center, which means no pets.  In that case, bring pictures of your pets and they will be with us in spirit.  Also, the service will end with a potluck meal.  If you would like to bring something, please visit our VolunteerSpot page for the event.  See you there!

Grace & Peace,

Bread for the World Sunday (Program and Homily)

// October 23rd, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff



If it’s alright with you, I’m going to preach a little today.  There’s a lot on the program today, so I just wanted to share some things I have on my mind, things that came up while working on this service.  I’d also like, instead of having the immediate feedback of a conversation, to have folks go home and think about it, meditate on it a bit, and continue the conversation over the next few weeks or months.  Let’s call it an “introvert defensive move.”

This week I asked you to fast.  Did anybody do that?  As I wrote this, I guessed that most did not.  I’m guessing most lead lives where fasting is, at best, inconvenient if not downright impossible.  If you did, you probably found it difficult.  I missed a couple of meals, but it was easier for me.  I didn’t have class this week, so I reverted to my normal, unhealthy sleeping schedule.  And my normal breakfast is small, just some juice and a cereal bar.  When you sleep through half the day and then eat only slightly less than you normally would, it’s not a big deal.  I claim no particular merit.  But, much worse, I didn’t think about it.  I spent no time contemplating what I was doing or reflecting on the plight of the poor and hungry of the world.  In the end, what I couldn’t give up was not food, but time and attention.

We’ve talked about Sophia here a lot, though probably never enough.  Sophia, for those who don’t know is the embodiment of God’s wisdom, the feminine divine, the ordering principle of the world.  In Proverbs chapter 1, Sophia stands on a street corner shouting at passersby.  I’ve looked at that part of the book a lot.  It’s fun.  She’s bold and insulting.  She calls everyone idiots.  But I’ve never really looked closely at the end of that chapter.  There, she promises the people that, if they will listen, they will have a life of ease. Proverbs 1:32-33: “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

What Sophia wants for us is the good life.  The good life is not a life of idleness, a life of accepting the way the world is.  It’s active.  It’s focused.  It’s focused on God and God’s way.  The good life is life in God and God’s justice.  The good life is secure, free from worry.  The good life is peaceful.  The good life does not include the threat of destruction.  I want to think about these things on three levels: the personal, in the church, and in politics.

First, the personal.  I don’t get the feeling that many of us are at ease.  We’re all busy.  Some are busy trying to survive.  Just going to work and having a family is enough.  And some are going to school or volunteering through other organizations.  Some are overwhelmed by new jobs, old jobs, changing relationships, finding a safe, stable place to live.  When people aren’t busy, they’re trying to forget about all the stuff that makes them busy.  They want a break.  They want some fun.  They want a drink.  They want a nap.  Is this the good life?  Is this life in God?  Struggling to survive and then struggling to forget?

I don’t know if I have the solution to this.  Clearly, I don’t.  But I can offer a way of thinking about it, a way to be mindful of how we spend our time and attention.  See, fasting is not about food.  It’s about becoming conscious of a basic drive and how we fulfill it.  I’d like to suggest that we fast with our time and attention.  Try this week to ask a few questions.  Where is this activity coming from?  Who am I when I’m doing it?  And where does it take me?  I’m not asking you to change anything, but just to ask these questions.  Commit a little time and attention to your time and attention.

Second, the church.  It’s hard to get people in this church together in any organized way.  We spend a lot of time together, for many of us a couple times a week.  That time is precious to me and I think to others.  But then, when we ask for more, when we ask for service or study, it seems to cross a line beyond which the demand is too much.  This is not a judgment, but concern.  My fear is that I’m just adding to the problem.  My first semester at school, every professor in every single class started by exhorting us to some variation of “go slow and pay attention.”  Then they each assigned a hundred pages of reading.  I don’t want to do that.  Some, by personality, will keep taking on more.  Some, by personality, will disappear.  We risk burning people out and driving people away.  I don’t want that.  If you can’t find the good life, life in God, the life of ease that God promises is God’s way, in the church, where can we find it?

Again, I don’t have the solution, but I want us to become mindful of the problem.  As a church, how can we make each other’s lives easier instead of harder?  What models exist in our tradition?  As a church, we are supposed to take care of each other, support one another.  Acts 2:44 tells us that “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”  Some of the greatest advances in culture and science in the West came out of monastic communities where people kept a rule of life, simple lives held in common.  Or consider the Beguines.  The Beguines were women who had no dowry and, so, little prospects for marriage.  They banded together in communities, shared housing, worked, saved, and focused on God.  Sometimes they were able to save enough for their own dowries and moved on to marriage and family.  But sometimes they found that they liked the life they had, working for their own money, sharing it with people they cared about, studying and meditating and working for justice.  They had found the good life and wanted nothing else.  Maybe Sophia is on to something.

Finally, government.  In a few minutes, we are going to write letters to Congress asking them to support programs for the hungry and the less fortunate.  Take a moment to think about how these programs impact the lives that people actually live, how they might move someone toward the good life.  When I worked in an office, I was usually there late.  I got to know the cleaning people a little bit.  One woman told me that this was one of three part-time jobs she held down.  Her oldest kid, 21, was unemployed and getting in trouble with the law.  Her 16-year-old was struggling in school.  She couldn’t go to the parent-teacher conference because she couldn’t afford to take off work.  Even if she could, she would probably be fired if she missed a shift.  There’s always someone else to take her place.  She struggled.  To put food on the table, to keep a roof over her head, and to try to give her kids a chance at something better.  The schools were underfunded, the teachers overworked, and if something went wrong, there was no net to catch her and her family.  Is that the good life?  Is that life in God?  A lot of activity – she wasn’t lazy by any stretch; she worked a lot harder than I did – but not much came of it.  There was no security, no peace, and disaster loomed every moment of every day.  How do you find God in that, even expect the possibility of God in the middle of that?  Where can her time and attention go?

Now, imagine a world in which her children were guaranteed to have something to eat, guaranteed to have a roof over their heads, guaranteed to have healthcare.  How would she be spending her time?  How would they grow up?  Instead of watching their mother struggle in futility, maybe they see her finish her education, fulfill her dreams, and maybe they think they can have dreams, too.  In a democracy, we get to make choices about the lives we create for the people in our world.  We don’t just have to imagine what if.  Remember that when you vote and remember that as you ask your representatives to care for the poor and the hungry in our community.

The essence of worship, of study, and of relationship is time and attention.  Where is yours?  Where is ours as a church?  Where is ours as a nation?  What kind of world are we building in our personal lives, in our spiritual lives, and in our lives as citizens that allows our time and attention to be spent on the things of God, that allows life in God to flourish?  Isaiah tells us that life in God is a life of justice.  Let’s begin to think about how we can structure our lives together so that we might share our bread with the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked so that our light breaks forth like the dawn.  That is the good life.

Empty Bellies, Open Hearts

// October 17th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday, we celebrate Bread for the World Sunday. According to their website, “Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.” They lobby politicians to do the right thing, to live into the faith that the overwhelming majority claim as their own. To do so, they leverage a lot of facts and figures about the need for and the success of anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs. I encourage you to look at those sobering facts. But more than that, this week I encourage you to live in solidarity with the hungry by fasting.

Try missing a meal. Or a day of meals. Allow yourself to feel what the hungry of the world feel. I can’t say it will be fun, but millions of people do it every day. Only they do it without choice, without the luxury of knowing they can end it at any time. You may think that person sits in Africa, suffering from drought and war – and certainly that is true – but that person also lives on your block and works in your building and sits next to your kid at school.

I understand that the demands of your life may be such that you can’t fast. Don’t worry. I have an alternative. Set aside some time to pray for those who hunger. Spend an hour or five minutes – whatever you have – meditating on hunger, praying for relief, being transformed into the sort of person that sees the problems of the poor and seeks to bring them good news.

Whether you are able to fast or not, please join us on Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center. We will be taking up a collection for Bread for the World, perhaps the money you saved fasting or a “matching program” for the money you spent on food. And we will do a letter offering, writing to policy-makers to encourage them to support programs to alleviate hunger. Hope to see you there!

Grace and Peace,