Truth will out

by Torey Lightcap

The truth, they say, will out.

A few nights ago I was in a dimly-lit eatery in Denver International Airport, lingering over a panini and watching people watch their phones. The people at the bar were lingering over ESPN with the same artificial interest you see around almost every TV at almost every bar. Virtually all the human beings in the room had their backs to me, and everyone felt distant - the whole environment a constructed reality, distantly held.

The government shutdown had been all over my friends’ Facebook feeds for better than a day, and this had me feeling a little spiky to boot. The cavalier attitude with which some were treating the subject was truly shocking. Trying not to feel too self-righteously indignant, I wondered what it would be like to wake up and to find oneself labeled Nonessential.

Gradually, as the food on the plate and the beer in the glass disappeared into me, two disparate streams of thought began to flow into one another. The first was that I get a little testy about working extra hours whenever someone on a plane innocently asks me that sixty-four-thousand dollar question, “So what do you do?” Over the past nine years I have enjoyed enriching conversations in the answering of that question on airplanes, and equally have been able to learn about other people’s lives and loves. God, and the hidden truth of our lives in Christ, has often been at the center of such conversations. But tonight I was just tired. Tired and grumpy.

The other stream of thought was that crazy shutdown and the hubristic intransigence that had given rise to it. There had to be better ways of dealing with conflict than shuttering government services for what looked to me to be nothing more than a childish political revenge scheme.

By the time I had signed for my check and walked off, I made a decision to lie about something. I decided that if asked what I do, I would lie and say that I was “a nonessential government employee.” This, I reasoned, would have the double benefit of bringing both awareness of a much larger issue and and keeping me from hearing an hour-long confession I was not prepared to hear.

All the way to the boarding area, standing around waiting, and finally in my assigned seat, I tried to expand the size of the lie to cover any questions my seatmates might have. I anticipated such questions, remembering that “Once you tell a lie, you need ten more lies to cover the lie.” How far out did this net have to stretch?

I’m not proud of it, but this is what I came up with: if prompted, I would say I was a civilian teacher on contract to the Pentagon and worked with most branches of the Armed Forces. I worked nine months out of the year as a teacher, spent an additional month conducting research, and then laid out the other two months. My fields of specialization were mob psychology and deprogramming(!). The deprogramming thing had been receding ever since 9/11 because of administrative policies of non-negotiation, which meant that I was spending increasing time teaching the intricacies of mob psychology and crowd supression. (To spice it up, I might say that I worked hard at promoting the more humane approaches of this often tricky craft, and that I wondered if this somehow set me apart from my colleagues.) I made up terms that seemed conceivable (to me) coming out of the mouth of such a person, and I thought about what kinds of things scholarly journals would say about these areas of work. I thought about what it would be like to spend hours and hours watching recordings of satellite imagery and drone footage, and then listening to top military brass hash them out. And anything beyond any of that -- anything I could not easily imagine a response for -- I would just say that my security clearance didn’t permit me to say. Above all, in tone I was to be pragmatic yet hopeful about the government shutdown because that’s who I really am (hopefully pragmatic), and anything else was going to just sound blatantly phony.

It didn’t feel -- well, it didn’t feel all that good to find within myself the capacity to do this mental legwork just to make and spread and cover over a lie. But I was committed.

You know how these conversations go. “So what took you there?” or “Business or personal?” or whatever. You can see the question coming. I got the business-or-personal? one, swallowed, and hedged. I was playing chicken with myself and losing.

“Bit of both,” I said truthfully. “I was with a cohort of friends who are all involved in roughly the same work I do.”

The double-bind! Not only had I made the next question inevitable (“Oh really? So what do you do?”), I had also opened up a new aspect not accounted for in my planning. Quick: How many people could there possibly be who teach depogramming and/or mob psychology in the Armed Forces? Five? Could there be five? Because there were five of us on the trip. Oh, but that’s real life. That’s immaterial. I never said a number; there could have been three or ten or twenty of us.

There was, however, no next question. Just a weird quiet. “What takes you to Omaha?” I asked.

“I’m from the area north of there. I have a very close cousin who died the other day. The funeral is on Friday.”

Turned out north of Omaha meant close to where I live. I was sorry to hear about her cousin. Was it sudden? I’m sorry. Cancer? That’s terrible. What was your cousin like? Small, engaging talk about important things. Who I really am in my vocation as a priest received a small mention, but it was coming out of my mouth without the need to protect or explain it.

And just like that -- as carefully as it had been born, as thoughtfully as it had been knitted, as pragmatically as it may have been needed -- the lie expired. Whatever I actually had to offer this conversation was good enough; the lie, now dead, would have been an insult to someone’s humanity in a moment of vulnerability. Worse, it would have come disguised as an object lesson, delivered with impolitic ego.

Empathy and compassion are like microwaves that zap our exterior stories and lies into submission. When we hear of another’s pain -- when it’s not a constructed reality but a real-live pain with a name and an address -- the opportunity arises within us in less than a heartbeat to be aware of another, to be human, to answer pain not with smothering platitudes or even theological precision, but with listening care. Just care. Just being-present-to, and letting everything else rest for a minute. For all our “skill,” our “tools,” and sometimes in spite of them, there’s no substitute.

And (especially in the Midwest) that minute can be a fast one. To the rest of the world it’s just a couple of people being decent towards each other. No hugging, no tears. No big epiphanies.

I had boarded the plane outfitted with a hubristic lie about being nonessential. For the briefest of hours, I met someone, whose name I don’t even know, who reminded me about what it meant to become “essential” when called upon to be that, to be whatever that meant. The truth had gotten out, and it proved, as it always does, to be entirely sufficient in and of itself.

Then it was on to baggage claim.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.

Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff

by George Clifford

Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances. The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation’s number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office’s website.)

What can $162,000 – or even $244,000 – in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members’ expectations.

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I’m guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC’s equivalent of the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds’ principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived “essentials” (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians’ average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

I do not intend this essay to be an message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

Christmas is a season of expectant new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management – a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy – is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC’s anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:

(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;
(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);
(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today’s young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);
(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;
(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That’s okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity.

Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church’s practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

The promise of Advent – that God has not finished creating the world – offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God's presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child’s birth. TEC needs leaders – our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members – who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God's people.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Boycotting Walmart. Because Christ is King

By Noah H. Evans

It all began at a Thanksgiving Day clergy family meet-up at the local playground in Medford, Massachusetts. We all talked--three Episcopal and two Unitarian Universalist clergy families--as our kids played. We talked about our congregations, families who were visiting for the holidays, and about the awful commercialism of the coming season. Rampant consumption has led to environmental crisis as well as massive income inequality, the cost of which is suffered by some of our society’s most vulnerable people. Someone finally said, “Hey, want to Occupy Walmart tomorrow?” With facebook and tweeting started at the playground, the movement continued and by the time we all had sat down to our various Thanksgiving dinners, we had recruited six cars full of people to join us. Our group will include four kindergarteners and two preschoolers—offering them a vision for a world in which they know how to make themselves heard.

This year on Black Friday, we are standing with Walmart workers who are picketing at over 1000 stores across the country. On Friday morning, at 9:00AM, my family and I will join Walmart workers in front of the North Reading, Massachusetts Walmart Store. We will stand in solidarity with their cause, and help to give their suffering a voice and honor the courage of picketing Walmart employees. We will give the luxury we have been blessed with of an extra day off to help give rights to the 1.4 million Walmart workers in the United States right now.

Walmart is our nation’s largest employer, bringing in more than $16 billion in profits last year, mostly going to its corporate shareholders. Walmart workers struggle with low wages, positions without benefits, and negligible job security. Walmart has fought against efforts to unionize and is now taking action against picketing workers across the country. Because of its size and market strength, what happens with Walmart has ramifications far beyond the company. It will affect workers at other retailers and in other sectors as well.

By the end of the day Walmart will have made millions in sales and profits, but many Walmart workers will not be able to make ends meet, and many will go without the basic necessities of food and clothing. The call to stand for justice and in solidarity with those without a voice is throughout our sacred stories. This coming Sunday, we will proclaim that Christ is King, not corporate interests or shareholder profits. We will stand in the Walmart parking lot in hope of the world were justice rolls down like waters, and were the dignity of every human being is recognized. And hopefully, our kids will learn their own power to speak up and make a difference in the world. That will be something to give thanks for!

The Rev. Noah H. Evans is rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. He is on twitter at @NHEvans827

Can this temple stand?

by Phil Brochard

Readings for November 11:
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Heb. 9:24-28, Mk. 12:38-44

Thank goodness Melissa Mercogliano was at home that July morning. You see, Melissa lives across the street from her cousin Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire in suburban Boston. And that July morning Melissa could not believe her eyes as she looked across the street and saw a crowd of about thirty strangers gathering on the front lawn of Jennifer’s home. Melissa ran over to find out what was happening. The person leading the group––it was an auctioneer––said that it was simple. Wells Fargo was foreclosing on the property and in a few moments the sale would commence. Neighbors came running. Panicked phone calls were made. Because of all the sudden chaos around the house, one by one the buyers began to leave. No one was willing to bid in the middle of the uncertainty. And so, instead of being sold at auction, the house was foreclosed, Wells Fargo took possession, but the family remained in their home for the time being.

Now here’s some more of the backstory that led to that day. The Voltaires had owned that home for about four years. And made their payments faithfully. Then Jennifer’s husband had his hours cut back. And their payments were now just out of reach. So they then did what many did, which was to apply to the Obama administration’s loan modification program, so that they could keep their home while making lower payments. They filled out the paperwork and sent it in, all the while making those lower payments during the trial period. Several times they faxed in to Wells Fargo the information required––proof of income, tax documents. But somehow the paperwork never seemed to make it where it was supposed to go. It was always lost in transit. And every time, Jennifer sent it again, phoning the call center to make sure that everything had arrived like the bank had asked.

But somehow, that fateful summer day, Wells Fargo still sent representatives, attempting to sell the house right from under the Voltaires. What the Voltaires were later told, is that it was all because of one missing tax document. That a Wells Fargo representative had confirmed receiving. By this point the Voltaires sought legal advice and found that they were not alone. Scores of homeowners had been denied legal loan modifications because of “lost paperwork.” From Wells Fargo’s perspective their hands were tied. “We were never able to obtain the documentation required and as a result, unfortunately, we needed to do a foreclosure sale,” a Wells Fargo spokesmanexplained.

This might seem familiar to Christina King of Neenah, Wisconsin. When the Kings bought their home the interest rate they received from Countrywide was over ten percent. Which was doable until her husband’s hours were cut back as well. Now through the Home Affordable Modification Program their interest rate would have dropped down to around four percent, making their monthly payments possible. Same principle, just lower rates, where the market was at the time. When she applied to the program through the Bank of America, though, her paperwork just kept getting lost.
Eventually, BofA foreclosed on her house because they said that she had missed payments during the trial period of the program. Even though she had copies of the cleared checks. Apparently there was nothing the bank could do, they changed the locks on the house and Christina King, her husband and their eight children were forced to move out, thankfully to their local church’s rectory. It was over a year later, after a Wisconsin winter that flooded the basement, ruined the furnace and destroyed much of the ground floor, that the King’s received a letter from BofA stating the following, “We told you that your loan was not eligible for this program because you missed a trial period plan payment. However this was incorrect. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.” Inconvenience. Friends, these stories are not unusual, they are systemic. And by the way, Bank of America, because of tremendous losses in segments of their corporation, including legal services department, “eked” out an $85 million profit for the year while the King’s foreclosure process was ongoing. Wells Fargo exceeded expectations during the time the Voltaires were being foreclosed, making $3.9 billion in profit that quarter.

One of the recurring themes throughout the Law and the Prophets centers on the concern which God expresses for the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. Remember that the widow in the culture of Naomi and Ruth’s time was almost universally vulnerable. In a culture which placed near total importance on the pater familias, and the relationships that extended from it, a widow, separated from that relationship, had no support. They owned no property. They often did not have a way to make money. On occasion, her deceased husband's family would take pity on her and she could live with them, but this was not the standard practice. Often, widows were at the mercy of those around them for survival. The Greek word used to describe the poor widow in Mark’s Gospel is not the word for someone who is poor and doesn’t have a steady job. It is the word used for one who begs. It was for this reason that our sacred text is clear that it is paramount for the People of God to care for widows, those who are vulnerable.

Since this was the case, for those widows whose deceased husbands owned property, sometimes an arrangement was set up so that the estates of these widows could be managed. For in this context, an elderly woman, or women in general, couldn’t be entrusted to manage their own affairs right? So, who might you turn to in a situation like this? Who might society trust to act ethically and honestly? Those who have studied the Law since childhood, those with the long robes of authority and with seats of honor. Yes, the scribes. It was a practice known as scribal trusteeship and it existed into the 1st century. Now it may not come as a shock to hear that the scribes earned a percentage of the estate as compensation for their efforts. Someone has to be compensated. And, as you might imagine, without rigorous oversight even the most pious of individuals can be tempted. Contemporary scholars have found 1st century documents that show that there was, indeed, abuse of this system. The very funds that were meant to care for the most vulnerable often ended up in the hands of those in charge of the system. (Derrett, "'Eating up the Houses of Widows': Jesus' Comment on Lawyers?" NovTest, (1972) 14, pp. 1ff.)

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” (Mk. 12:38-40)

Our word hypocrisy comes from the Greek. Hypo, or under and krisis, or decision, judgement. Underdecided. Our colloquial usage, though, comes from the Greek stage. A hypokrites was an actor who plays one thing to our face, when in fact is doing another altogether. If you hadn’t guessed yet, Jesus has little patience for hypocrisy, especially when it comes to those who are vulnerable and on the margins.

To be clear, his judgment of the scribes is not universal, though it may seem that way. No, his judgment is reserved for those who like, who desire looking pious, respectable, honorific. Over time they have come to need the greetings of respect. When they come to the synagogue, they take the best seats, literally in the Greek, the first couches. At a banquet they seek the places of honor, of power, of prestige, as if entitled to them. These things are called trappings for a very good reason. It is to those scribes that this teaching is directed. Because they have failed to live up to the trust which was placed in them. Outward appearances to the contrary, these same used these places of honor and responsibility to systematically dominate and exploit the weak.

Why? Why did some of those scribes choose to oppress, to devour those whom they have been taught to protect? Why have some, though clearly not all, in positions of power in these enormous, too-big-to-fail banks, why have some engaged in this deceit and exploitation? Because they can. And because often those who are caught in these traps don’t have the resources, the connections, the where-with-all to challenge a multi-national corporation who repeatedly loses your paperwork. What is one person or one family against the aggregated might of a Wells Fargo or a Bank of America?

Friends, these structures were created to aid those who need to borrow in order purchasing a home (that’s most of us), lending to us even as they earn the interest. And yet this very system is actually serving to consume some of those it was designed to assist. For in the settlements that various individuals and governmental authorities have extracted from several of the national banks, especially Wells Fargo and the Bank of America, from these recent settlements we have learned of the reprehensible hypocrisy from which they operated. Even as these banks had been working with many homeowners like Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire and Christine King, indicating that they were agreeable to loan modifications and that their applications were being reviewed, (though somehow that paperwork never got here), at the very same time these same financial institutions were proceeding to foreclose on the homes. Friends this is a moral injustice. This temple, as it has been constructed, cannot stand.

All Souls Parish began our banking relationship with Wells Fargo Bank at least as far back as 1928. It is well possible that our relationship goes back further. But because of the participation of Wells Fargo in these deceitful and destructive practices, the Finance Committee and the Vestry of All Souls felt that we could no longer contribute or participate by being customers of this banking institution. Earlier this year, All Souls Parish ended our relationship with Wells Fargo and we moved our money, every penny of it, to a local, privately owned bank.

This fall, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation began a national campaign called Move Your Money. It’s a simple campaign and one that nearly all of us can participate in. To end our complicity with this injustice––so much as we can––congregations, businesses, families and individuals across the United States are moving their money as a practical and theological statement. They are finding local banks or credit unions, interviewing them about their practices and then choosing where best to steward their resources. If you haven’t yet moved your money, please consider it. And if you have already, consider being a resource, a guide to those hoping to do the same. Many, including those in leadership here at All Souls have found this to be liberating. It may well be seen as small change amidst the billions, but acts like these just might be the way that change begins.

The Rev. Phil Brochard is a partner, parent and priest. He spends some of his waking hours as the Rector of All Souls Parish in Berkeley, California.

Episcopal Church finances

by George Clifford

The Economist recently featured a scathing indictment of how the Roman Catholic Church manages its finances (“Earthly Concerns,” pp. 19-23, August 18, 2012). Settlements in child abuse cases totaling $3.3 billion over the last 15 years, which have averaged more than $1 million per case, and the bankruptcies of several U.S. dioceses combined to pique the authors’ curiosity about the Roman Catholic Church’s finances.

The Roman Catholic Church has 196 dioceses in the U.S., divided into 34 metropolitan provinces with 270 bishops and about 100 million members. They comprise approximately 18,000 parishes, served by 40,000 priests and 17,000 married deacons.

Estimates for 2010, the latest year for which data is available, show that the Roman Church spent $171 billion. Healthcare institutions, colleges, and universities spent almost $150 billion of that total. Only $11 billion went to parish ministry and a relatively paltry $4.7 billion to charity, although Catholic Charities provides important services and is the nation’s largest charitable organization. Altogether, the Catholic Church has about 1 million employees in the U.S. By way of comparison, General Electric’s 2010 revenues were $150 billion and Wal-Mart employed 2 million people that year.

The Roman Church routinely comingles funds, mixing operating, pension, endowment, and other accounts. Dioceses facing bankruptcy move funds offshore, beyond the reach of claimants and creditors. The Roman Church provides no public accounting of its funds; a corporation sole holds all of the assets of each diocese, over which the diocesan bishop has complete authority, subject only to the Vatican.

The recent Vatican scandal over leaks from the Pope’s butler suggests that financial problems extend across the Roman Catholic Church. No for profit entity could legally manage its finances using the unorthodox methods, accounting principles and secrecy upon which the Roman Catholic Church routinely relies.

The secrecy is counterproductive. The lack of transparency discourages donor support, a conclusion ample anecdotal evidence supports. The lack of transparency also promotes a culture of deceit and tacitly suggests that laity, clergy, and members of religious orders lack the spiritual maturity and intellectual ability to comprehend ecclesiastical finances.

Evil flourishes in the dark; light dispels the darkness and brings health. The Roman Catholic Church, of all institutions, should understand this basic spiritual concept that is so deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Financial management and use of funds express values and beliefs more powerful than can any amount of verbiage.

So, how well does The Episcopal Church manage its finances? Errors in budget proposals for the next triennium that were published before this year’s General Convention implicitly raised questions about the competence of our financial management. From my review of national documents, reading several dioceses’ financial reports, and hearing complaints about a lack of financial transparency in at least some TEC congregations, I know that our financial management is much better than what happens in the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., we require regular audits) but leaves room for significantly improving transparency.

No good reason exists to keep TEC finances shrouded in mystery. Shadows invite, even encourage, wrongdoing. Dioceses should publish a full accounting of their income and expenses – with three exceptions. First, financial reports rightly aggregate assistance provided to individuals into a single line item. Identifying the individual recipients of such aid demeans the recipients’ dignity and provides no essential information to donors or other interested parties. Annual audits and appropriate oversight can ensure that the funds do not benefit the wrong people.

Second, financial statements rightly aggregate staff salaries and benefits – except for key employees. Donors and other interested parties do not have any legitimate need to know how much an office assistant or receptionist earns. Budget committees, managers, and auditors appropriately manage such matters. Organizations with salary scales or wage guidelines will usefully publish that information to promote transparency, demonstrate good stewardship, and model paying living wages with benefits.

However, financial reports should specify salaries and benefits for key employees, e.g., bishops, canons to the ordinary, etc. Making this information public helps to ensure that leaders do not manage the institution for personal benefit. I have served in key leadership positions where donors knew my pay. Although I’m an intensely private person, I knew of no other way to establish appropriate accountability and transparency. Conversely, religious organizations that have not followed this policy have too often experienced shattering scandals.

Finally, the diocese should report aggregated unrestricted gifts from individual persons without identifying the individual donors or the amount each gave. The diocese should identify donors and amounts of restricted gifts because the donor’s restrictions, when the diocese accepts the gift, impose a form of control on the diocese and its operations. Similarly, a diocese should identify any grants, loans, or other funds received from foundations, corporations, or other entities because acceptance of these funds almost always entails an obligation to spend the funds in a particular way or use them for a particular program.

These same principles apply to TEC’s national offices, its provinces, and all of its congregations. Most people will ignore published financial reports. Some will read the reports and find the reports uninteresting or too difficult to understand. But making a full public reporting of ecclesiastical is an essential step in establishing the transparency and accountability that God's people deserve. TEC and its constituent components have no “proprietary” or “trade” secrets to hide from the competition. We do have an obligation of full disclosure to our various stakeholders.

Full accountability and fiscal transparency are essential elements of good stewardship. Thankfully, TEC, its dioceses, and its congregations have had relatively few documented instances of financial wrongdoing. Regular audits help to ensure fiscal integrity and to encourage sound accounting methods and financial management.

Promptly acting to meet the standard of good stewardship through greater financial openness is the right thing to do, will proactively reduce the opportunity for fiscal abuses, promote healthy conversations about mission, and avoid both attempts to circumvent our democratic decisions making processes and ill-informed conflict about who has access to what information.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

A foreign country called Poverty

by Kevin McGrane

First, we need to understand that the poor in the United States live in a foreign country. Without understanding that first, nothing else about the poor makes much sense.
Walking into the Ozarks or an inner-city neighborhood is not like walking into another section of our country. It is much more like walking into the South Sudan or a ghetto in Calcutta – a third-world nation with its own culture, foreign to us tourists.

Chronic, generational poverty deeply shapes the worldview of the poor, forming their own reason, values, dreams and aspirations which are alien to the rest of us. That is why such things as common sense, discipline, morals, intelligence, and education seem to be in such short supply there. That also is why the poor seem to make such bad personal decisions – in the Nation of Poverty their “bad” decisions make complete sense to them.

The poor drop out of school because they see no authentic reason for education. It has zero to do with their culture and there are no “careers” in their world where education is necessary, anyway. There are no jobs to be had in the Nation of Poverty, let alone careers.

They eschew marriage because so many relationships fail under the crush of living, and divorce is only for the rich who can afford attorneys. However, you can simply walk away from a living arrangement.

They have children out of wedlock because they will never be financially/domestically ready for children, so one might as well have them now and let tomorrow take care of tomorrow. They are going to be poor anyway, so they might as well enjoy whatever happiness they can snatch.

The missing key to their lives is Hope as much as it is money. The pervasive ethos of their world is despair and anger. Despair and anger paint everything the poor see, feel, and think. Hope is living somewhere else in an unknown country. Occasionally, the young reach for hope by enlisting in the Armed Forces, searching for a way out, and some of them do find their way out. But the majority return two to six years later with little to show for their service. Slowly, they return to the Nation of Poverty.

As disciples of Jesus, how do we respond? If we take seriously Jesus’ teaching, “Whatsoever you did for the least of these my brothers and sister, you did to me,” what do we do?

First, we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom with our presence. While the GC dithers over how much money to spend on church planting, we can plant ourselves into the Nation of Poverty right now with a “ministry of presence”. Live there; not just visit. We can be the church among them.

Secondly, we can teach and nurture them by changing their vision, by showing them a different way to see and live. We must be careful here and first “learn the language” – to challenge their illusions about the hopelessness of life without respecting their culture is to suggest they are fools. They will never speak to us again. They may still talk to us, but never “speak” to us again.

Thirdly, we need to address the unjust structures that helps keep them poor. We cannot be squeamish about this, and cave to the charges of being too politicized. The deck is stacked against them in our country both politically and economically, and it needs to change. When we read that our nation ranks 34th in the world in infant mortality, we really are reading about their nation, not ours.

The response to poverty is friendship and hope, and the church needs to be there in a real way to be a friend and share hope. Friendship and hope are the passports out of the Nation of Poverty. Without them, the poor will continue to think this is all there is to the life that God gave them. Is despair and anger the boundaries of the Kingdom of God, or friendship and hope? It is up to each and every one of us to answer that question.


Kevin McGrane and his wife Catherine live on a ten acre homestead in the Missouri Ozarks. They are members of Emmanuel Episcopal parish in Webster Groves, MO. Kevin is a postulant for the diaconate.

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 3

by Bill Carroll

Part 3: Christ the King (November 20, 2011)
The lessons appointed are here.

Two weeks ago, on All Saints’ Day, we heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with this programmatic statement of its meaning and purpose. Think of it as his first inaugural address. Luke has a version of this as well in the sermon Jesus preaches in his hometown synagogue in chapter 4. In that sermon, Jesus proclaims the jubilee year, in which debts are cancelled, captives released, and the oppressed set free. Here in Matthew, as Jesus pronounces the joyful blessings of the Beatitudes, he is also showing us the kind of kingdom he came to bring. In God’s Kingdom, the poor, the merciful, and the pure in heart, to name but a few, find themselves blessed with the divine abundance. They find themselves with pride of place. That’s something for us to ponder today, as we celebrate Christ the King.

But, on this occasion, I’d like to draw our attention to the fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

That reminds me of something we read this morning, though it was written some six hundred years before the Advent of Christ. The words of the prophet Ezekiel were in fact written during the exile of the children of Israel in Babylon. Ezekiel is a priest, one with particularly strong loyalties to the House of David and the Temple. And yet he finds himself carried off into a strange land by invading armies.

Like other prophets before him, Ezekiel discerns God’s judgment in historical events. Again and again in Scripture, prophets confront the idolatry of Israel’s kings, as well as their society’s exploitation of the poor, particularly widows and orphans. Again and again, they remind the children of Israel that they were slaves in Egypt and that freedom, life, and land came to them as the gift of God. In God’s Name, the prophets call the People to repent and keep God’s commandments. They remind them of the requirement to be holy, just as God in the midst of them is holy.

And yet, in the end, even a prophet like Ezekiel, for all his profound sense of the holiness of Zion and its sacred places, finds himself far, far away, longing for the courts of the Lord. He finds himself in exile, trying to be faithful to God in a new situation.
But he doesn’t give up hope. Rather than giving in to cynicism or despair, he preaches a message of hope. He hears and proclaims a promise to sustain the People in their exile. In his bones, Ezekiel knows that God is about to act. “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them from the places where they have been scattered…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”
And—here comes the part that recalls the fourth beatitude—“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord.

I thought about these words last week at our diocesan convention, when I heard Bishop Breidenthal preach to us. He spoke with great pride about the many ways that our local congregations reach out to those in need, including here at Good Shepherd. But the bishop didn’t stop there. It would have been easy for him to stop, but he didn’t. The bishop went on to say that although “we must never slow down this outreach or step away from it…the task that now lies before us is to move from outreach to systemic change.”

“For example,” he said, “how do we move from providing school supplies to needy children every fall.” (as many of our churches do) “to combining our voices and our collective political clout to addressing Ohio’s failure to support public schools?” It was a very brave thing for him to say. And, in an aside, he noted that Cincinnati had just failed to pass a levy—a badly needed levy. We might think about this in more detail here in this parish. We might also ask ourselves how our many efforts to feed hungry people connect with the struggle to remove the root causes of hunger and poverty, or how our prison ministries connect with efforts to reduce recidivism or reform conditions within the prisons and for those who are seeking to reenter society.

“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord. How often do we really think about that, here in this parish church named for Christ the Good Shepherd? In the Scriptures, shepherd is a royal image. To shepherd the flock means to rule God’s People. And the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep,” is unlike the idolatrous and unjust rulers who came before—and many since. Jesus is the King, the Son of David, in whose Name the prophets spoke, condemning injustice and announcing the coming day of the Lord. In Jesus the Messiah, in God’s anointed King, God has drawn near to us in love, to seek the lost and strengthen the weak. And he will feed all those who hunger and thirst for justice.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the shepherd judges “between sheep and sheep,” strengthening the weak but destroying the strong. It’s not hard to see how this image lies behind the vision of the last judgment that Christ presents in today’s Gospel. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.”

The basis of this judgment? It’s how we respond to the needs of the least of these—to those who are hungry or thirsty, to immigrants and strangers, to prisoners and sick people, to those who lack clothing and their daily bread. For we are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially those who have no other helper. And we will find Christ here, in these brothers and sisters—or not at all.

And, though we may hope in the mercies of God, which are wider than this stark vision of judgment suggests, we dare not ever presume that this is so. How dare we presume the blessings of the Kingdom will be ours, if we do not follow the King? We who drive away those whom God would gather, who harm those God would heal and starve those God would feed, or who turn a blind eye to any form of suffering will have to answer to Christ the Lord when we stand before his judgment seat. The very thought of it makes me tremble. For we all fall short by his righteous standard. Every political party. Every candidate. Every platform, manifesto, and plan. And every last one of us—ALL of us. The gate is indeed narrow that leads to life. Thank God the mercy of Christ has opened it.

Some ninety years ago, in his closing address to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress, Bishop Frank Weston gave a rousing sermon entitled “Our Present Duty.” I’d like to close with part of it today, because I think it points us to the implications of today’s Gospel in times like these, with hungry people everywhere and people taking to the streets. The final section, in particular, speaks to what it might mean for us to seek and serve Christ in all persons today.

If you say, Bishop Weston writes, that the [Christian] has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the level of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary -- but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet…I am not talking economics, he said, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians, then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly -- it is madness -- to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.

There then, the bishop continued, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us…Now go out into the highways and hedges…Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

I speak to you in the Name of Christ, the King. Amen.


The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 2

by Bill Carroll


Part 2: The Sunday After All Saints’ Day (November 6, 2011)
The lessons appointed are here

When he was here with us last Sunday for a workshop, Donald Schell alluded to something controversial that our Presiding Bishop said a couple of years ago As often happens, her words were taken by detractors and used out of context. It caused quite a stir at the time.

And, as I was thinking about today’s sermon for All Saints’ Day, I decided to look up her remarks and see what she actually said. I found that they were part of her opening address to the 2009 General Convention. The theme of that convention was Ubuntu, an ideal present in many African cultures, perhaps made famous by Desmond Tutu and other heroes of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Ubuntu means that “I am, only because you are.” For the Ubuntu philosophy, the community is always prior to the individual.

And I think that’s what got our Presiding Bishop into trouble. Because in that sermon to the General Convention, she spoke about “the great Western heresy, namely “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”

And she spoke with great passion about the implications of that heresy, which we see all around us. Implications for how we care for the earth and how we care for one another in a global economy rife with greed and violence and injustice. As we put ourselves and our desires at the center of the universe, without regard for our neighbors, the common good, or the purposes of God, we become guilty, she said, of a form of idolatry. We turn in on ourselves, so that our desires and our wants become our gods--the only objects of our worship, the things before which we would sacrifice all other values and persons.

It is a grim picture, one that points to an even grimmer reality. We see it all around us. We see it in lengthening breadlines, in overwhelming unemployment and foreclosures, in stagnant wages, and in desperate, hopeless people. We see it today in Europe, with the debt crisis giving way to general strikes and rioting in the streets. And we see it in a groaning creation stretched to the point of breaking by human overreach. We see it in growing cynicism that anything we can do will change the future or make a better life for our children.

Now, I’m here to tell you that our Presiding Bishop was right. On this All Saints’ Day, I am here to tell you that we are saved together--or not at all. When God calls someone, God always calls that person into a community. And, in the Bible, again and again, God is calling all of us into a universal community. Not just the privileged few. Not some. Not even the 99% that we’ve been hearing so much about. But ALL of us. Because all of us are made for community with one another, and we are redeemed as a People—set free by the living God.

And so today, as we celebrate the communion of saints—that great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, bound together in Christ. Today, as we celebrate those whose rest is won as well as those who still labor and struggle here on earth. Today, we are given hope, because we hear in the Scriptures that the final chapter of the human story has not yet been written. In the words of John the Apostle, it does not yet appear what we shall be. And so, we wait in hope for God’s future--with a militant patience. And we know that when Jesus is revealed in his glory, we will be like him. For we shall see him as he is. And each one of us, each in his or her own unique way, will be like him. Indeed, we are already on the way. For we have drawn near to Jesus in faith, and by his Spirit at work among us we are being made holy.

Brothers and sisters, the image of God into which we are reborn is SOCIAL. Like the Trinity, the communion of saints is one without destroying personal differences. In Christ, we are joined each to each in a community of equals, without ever becoming the same.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus points out some of the great obstacles to the unity of the human race. In the blessings he gives us, these obstacles are removed, one by one, as the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers find themselves sharing in God’s abundance.

As a result, we don’t have to live out of scarcity in a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all. Rather, we are brought to eternal peace by the blood of the Lamb. And we are caught up in a cosmic symphony of praise by a love that breaks down every wall that divides us from our neighbors. And so, with John we behold a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They are here with us now—these holy ones. They are present at God’s Table, praying, singing praises, and giving thanks to God and to the Lamb. And neither poverty nor war nor death itself can stand before this victorious band of apostles, prophets, and martyrs. For, in them, Jesus and his love have triumphed. In us, they are about to triumph. He is our Shepherd, who brings us to the springs of the water of life. Who shelters us and feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

And we have been made into a community of brothers and sisters, children and heirs of his generous Father.

We are members of a single Body, a single blessed fellowship divine, with Christ himself as our Head.

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 1

Three Sermons on Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street
Part 1: Proper 23A (October 9, 2011)
by Bill Carroll

The lessons appointed are here.

How funny it is, in light of this day's Old Testament reading, that one of the iconic images of this week in history is that of some police officers standing guard over a bronze statue of a bull. The bull in question is on Wall Street, which, in case you haven't heard, is under attack. And the marauding hordes laying siege to capitalism's holy of holies are protestors acting in the name of what they term the ninety-nine percent. The call to "occupy" Wall Street made use of the very same statue: it had a picture of that golden calf with a dancer doing an arabesque on the top of it. But I sort of like the picture with the cops. If I had to give it a caption, it might read "These are your gods, which brought you out of Egypt."

And I have to wonder, really: How many children would we sacrifice to Molech, in order to get that bull charging forward again?

The rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street, a church that sits next to a park where many of the protestors have camped, issued a carefully worded statement, the kind of statement that only a rector could write. It reads in part: "Trinity Wall Street respects the rights of citizens to protest peacefully and supports the vigorous engagement of the concerns that form the core of the protests – economic disenfranchisement and failure of public trust."

Then comes the careful part. He goes on to say:

With its long history, Trinity is...a place where meaningful conversations between people with divergent viewpoints can happen... As the protest unfolds, I invite you to hold all those involved in your prayers: the protesters, neighborhood residents and business owners, the police, policy-makers, civic leaders, and those in the financial industry – ALL – and to consider the ways we might take steps in our own lives that improve the lives of others.

Not too bad a statement as these things go, and surprisingly sympathetic to the protestors. Though, as one might expect from that quintessential establishment church, the statement does lift up business owners, cops, politicians, and the financial industry as well. The Episcopal Church is, after all, the church of J. P. Morgan--and many of our nation's presidents and founding fathers, including John Jay, the First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, writer of many Federalist Papers, and a one-time warden of Trinity Church. Jay is the one who wrote that "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

But the Episcopal Church is also the Church of Vida Scudder, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. Vida was an English professor at Wellesley, a labor activist, and a self-described "socialist Churchwoman." She once led a protest outside the General Convention, because it was filled with the likes of Morgan and Jay. In her book, The Church and the Hour, published in 1917, Scudder writes the following:

This is the hour of opportunity; this is the hour of the Church. In the last fifty years she has accomplished a great preparation, by her rediscovery of the purpose of Jesus. Few and hesitant, however, have been her attempts to realize that purpose, to strive boldly, through profound labors of readjustment and reconstruction, to establish the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, on earth. Perhaps one cause of her semi-paralysis has been her failure to recognize that the central incident in the process of establishing the kingdom must always be a Cross.

It must always be a Cross.

Now, if Good Shepherd is like most Episcopal churches, it includes people all over the political map, from John Jay to Vida Scudder and everything in between. Athens being Athens, I'm sure we tend to cluster toward one end of that spectrum, but that doesn't mean we all agree.

If I may, however, I'd like to draw our attention to one word in that statement from Fr. Cooper of Trinity Church. That one little word "All." All means all. It doesn't mean "some." And therein lies the radical power of the Gospel. Therein lies the radical power of love. In an era of "diminishing democracy" and unaccountable elites, the Church remembers that all means all.

And, as a result, we don't take our stand with one class or party. We don't support the agenda of property owners or some self-appointed revolutionary vanguard, either of whom may be certain of the rightness of their cause. As followers of Jesus, we take our stand with the one God of ALL reality. Not the golden calf of this or that tribe but the liberator God, who creates a world from nothing and sets people free.

And that's what's at stake in today's Gospel, isn't it? The king holds a wedding feast for his son. But it's not like the wedding feasts we see on the cover of the tabloids or some episode of "Real Housewives," is it? It isn't some fancy affair for the privileged few, the fabled one percent.

In fact, when the king holds a wedding banquet for his son, the in-crowd makes one excuse after another, refusing love's invitation. Until at long last, the king has to throw wide open the doors: "Go therefore into the main streets," he says, "and invite everyone you find there inside."

And so they go. And they invite them in--really, they break down the doors. They invite everyone--the good, the bad, and the ugly--until ALL alike take their seats at God's table.

There is that poor fellow who gets tossed out. What do we make of him? What is the wedding garment that he lacks? One traditional answer is charity. Or maybe it's that holiness without which we will not see the Lord. And the closer we get to love, the closer we get to God, and the more we are made holy. After all, it is love's banquet. But those of us who aspire to be one-percenters, who try to wall ourselves off from our neighbors (and, if need be, from God) may well find ourselves cast out.

All does mean ALL. We worship the God of the one lost sheep, as well as the ninety-nine who never left the fold.

And God really did give God's only Son for the life of the world.

This is his banquet. This is his feast. It is the feast of feasts. A feast not like any other.

And all are invited. Not some. Not a privileged few. But ALL.

So come. Come to his table. Come to his feast.

Come and eat. Come and drink, without condition or price.

Because all means all.

And God so loved the world.

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

What would Amos do?

by George L. W. Werner

What would Amos do? from time to time I urge members of the church to return to the Book of Amos. To be more specific: the background to Amos was a country with a newly wealthy merchant class caused, at least in part,by the death of the Assyrian King and weakness of other traditional enemies.

As often is the case, it seems that hubris came along with the new wealth and the idea that they were blessed because God favored them. They apparently crowded the places of worship to express this hubris in a form of thanksgiving. But at the same time, as you read the prophet, they abused those who had not shared in the benefits of the new wealth. Some of Amos' rebukes to the wealthy are frighteningly close to today's expressions. For example:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." Amos 8:4-6

The problems we face in this moment of history are huge and complex. But each group and individual needs brutal self introspection. Pointing fingers only at others different from us without confessing our own weakness and seeking clarity for our own areas of obliviousness is not hungering and thirsting for God's truth. As I say often, if this was really about capitalism and socialism, it would be the Reagan Republicans who were furious at the examples of excesses and inappropriate behavior by some leaders of the corporate and financial worlds. It would be the Humphrey Democrats who would decry the excesses and inappropriate behavior by some leaders of the "safety nets" of our society. The fact that the rage is directed at "the other side" tells me that this is less about principle than ideology and selfish interest. What would Amos do? It might be a good question for each of us to use in meditation.

The Very Rev. George Werner, a trustee of Church Pension Group, served as the 31st President of the House of Deputies, is Dean Emeritus of Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh and a member of the Diocesan Standing Committee

You cannot serve two masters

By Bill Carroll

Over the past five years, I've presided at a dozen funerals. More often than not, perhaps because of the name of the parish I serve, families choose the Good Shepherd reading for the Gospel. But, even when they don’t, we tend to use the twenty-third Psalm. Like other Christians, we draw strength from the Lord our shepherd as we make that final journey across the Jordan. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus guides, feeds, and protects us. We are reassured by the Psalmist’s vision of still waters and green pastures--and the divine abundance that makes our cups overflow. Many of us know these words by heart. What a powerful prayer they become in times of anxiety, grief, or fear.

In the forty ninth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet presents a similar vision of God shepherding Israel. To a people in exile, God offers sure and certain hope of return. But it's more than that: God promises Israel they will be a sign of God’s own faithfulness—that they will be given as a covenant to the people. Nevertheless, the heart of this prophecy concerns the shepherding of sheep. Speaking to a people who have suffered violence, captivity, and extreme want, God promises that

on all the bare heights shall be your pasture; you shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike you down, for he who has pity on you will lead you, and by springs of water will guide you.

In the Book of Revelation, the risen Christ makes similar promises to us. When God makes all things new, the slain Lamb will become a Shepherd and guide us “to the springs of the water of life.”

It's against this backdrop that we must hear the Gospel about the lilies of the field. When Jesus asks us not to worry about our life…when he asks us not to be anxious about what we should eat or drink or wear, he is not embracing a naive optimism. He's nothing like the prosperity preachers who invoke his name, certain that God will provide for the faithful as a reward for righteousness.

If the Bible is clear about anything, it's that God's People are seldom more righteous than their neighbors. God’s People have never lived up fully to our calling. Indeed, in times of calamity, the prophets are prone to interpret exile and defeat as signs of judgment, which begins with the household of God. Even in better times, whatever holiness we possess is the gift and work of God. God didn't choose Israel because they deserved it, but because they were poor and oppressed in the land of Egypt. God took wandering, landless tribes of Hebrew slaves by the hand and made of them a great nation.

When Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the air or consider the lilies of the field, he is inviting us to adopt the perspective of faith, which means radical trust in God and God's coming Kingdom. Jesus is inviting us, in other words, to shed our defenses, to rely more fully on God and each other, and to become once more the creatures we were made to be.

That brings us to the difficult saying in the Gospel. "No one can serve two masters," says Jesus, "for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Too often, I think, we read our own resentments into this Gospel. We make it sound like it's a sin to have money or be concerned about it.

The poor have no such illusions. They know better. So too do those working families who have taken to the streets in Madison and Columbus. These teachers, cops, and firefighters are members of the vanishing American middle class, fighting to keep from being pushed into poverty. Polls show that most Americans, whether or not they happen to like unions or agree with everything they do, do support their right to exist.

Many church traditions would agree that people have a natural right to assemble and organize to promote their interests. Pope John Paul II, for example, in words that came out of his experience in Poland, wrote that unions "are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions."

The Episcopal Church has a similar teaching, though not all our members would agree. Meeting in Columbus in 2006, the General Convention reaffirmed the "right to organize and form unions as a means to securing adequate wages, benefits, and safety conditions for ALL workers" and encouraged "all levels of the church to be informed about, and act accordingly, when rights of workers to associate is being jeopardized." Voluntary poverty may be a powerful witness some of us undertake in a world rife with injustice and excess, but the poverty that most of us work so hard to avoid is contrary to the will of God.

What Jesus condemns is not wealth per se, but rather the injustice that lies at the root of so many fortunes. He also condemns the attitude that serves wealth as our master, rather than using it to meet human needs. This attitude springs from our denial of death. We want to have so much that death cannot touch us or those we love. We want to accumulate enough, so that our children will never want for anything and our achievements will live on beyond the grave. After a while, the pursuit becomes an all consuming passion, perhaps destroying even those good things that led us to want money in the first place.

The birds and the lilies have no guarantees. They all will die, and some will die before their time. But they are beautiful. And, by and large, they enjoy being themselves. Animals may know sorrow, but it is a natural sorrow—an intrinsic part of what it means to be God’s creatures. Animals love and praise their Maker by their very being. Humans alone know the sorrows of injustice and broken fellowship with God. We alone choose to be less than what God made us to be.

When we truly serve God (and we do it best by serving our neighbor), we can enter into that self-forgetfulness that characterizes children at play, before the violence, lust, and greed of adulthood set in and limit our imaginations. And in that harmonious alignment of our will with God's will, we can experience a deep and lasting peace. We can come to place our trust in God’s coming Kingdom.

This is a profound mercy, and it comes as a gift or not at all. According to Jesus, it will not be given to those who choose any master besides God. Indeed, the service of mammon--wealth personified as a kind of god--against which Jesus warns us so sternly today, has hardened many a heart and blinded many a would be follower of Christ to the just claims of our neighbor.

So seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and do not worry about the rest.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

The lessons of a cluttered life

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementoes, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house on Scott Street, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementoes made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon." That book, and a few others, I can't bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

If you feed them, they will come

By Susan Carter
It is painful to watch the transitions taking place here in Michigan, the Mitten State, the once proud home of America’s automotive prowess. The parishioners in our pews are facing challenges they never thought they would confront. A number encounter regular furlough days, or have had salaries reduced, or – worse – have lost their jobs. The cans and boxes of food they once brought to our food pantries they now take home with them.

And thus, we are broke. Or almost, so it seems. Detroit, once hailed as the “Paris of the Midwest” has seen its housing stock gutted, its jobs evaporate, and its people searching for a future different from the present. Michigan, as a state, lost more than 150,000 service, construction, and manufacturing jobs in 2009 alone. Of all the American manufacturing jobs that were exported or eliminated during the past decade, fully one-quarter of them were in Michigan.

Many are affected and seeing their lives or their landscape changed. Twenty-percent of our children, in both peninsulas, live in poverty. Flint – once the heartbeat of American automobile production – is looking to turn vacant lots back to farmland. Even the Episcopal Church is hurting. Staff cuts have hit all four Michigan dioceses, the Cathedral in Detroit is stressed to remain viable, and the majority of parishes seeking priests cannot afford full time clergy. Are we the canary in the mine or, we hope, the vision in the rearview mirror?

Yet we are rich in ways not measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the latest Consumer Confidence Index. Research from Michigan State University reveals that nine out of ten people have continued to give to charities, though admittedly in smaller amounts. Further, virtually one-half of Michiganians volunteer, a percentage that remains steady. (Notably, women are volunteering at higher rates than men, and that gap is widening.)

In our own churches, vestries are working hard to implement balanced budgets. In many parishes pledges have remained fairly steady, driven down principally when congregants lose their jobs or depart to find work elsewhere. We are managing.

In this confusing and jumbled time of transition, when a recession feels like a depression, God is giving us an opportunity to change, to step away from the Seven Last Words: “We Have Always Done It This Way.” It is apparent that if we, as Episcopalians, hunker down in a bunker mentality, we are not fully hearing God’s call to love one another – really love one another – and proclaim the Gospel.

It is true that, as people of faith, we can hang on to what we have, improving at the margins, but not manifestly moving forward. Or, we can look to Paul and his experience with the Jerusalem Council. In Galatians 2 Paul, in his own words, lays out his encounter with the leaders in Jerusalem. He had taken the radical move of fully accepting the uncircumcised; they were different and not eligible to join, according to the rules. We are told in Acts that some from Judea even held that the uncircumcised could not be saved. The circle was narrowed, not widened.

Paul, along with Peter, wisely and bravely fought against the distinctions, instead trusting that salvation comes through grace and not blind obedience to rules. In so doing, these early leaders threw off the yoke of intransigence and flung wide the doors to all. There was no longer a Dr. Seuss differentiation between those with stars on their bellies, and those with none.

In Michigan, we are given the marvelous gift of being a laboratory, a modern Council of Jerusalem nearly two-thousand years later. We are called to meet the needs not only of those who look like us, share common background with us, or even worship with us. Rather, we are being asked by our loving God to meet God’s people where they are, not only inside our churches but, more especially, on the other side of our Red Doors. We are asked to feed the sheep, tend the sheep, to feed the lambs. All of the lambs.

If you feed them, I believe, they will come. And when they arrive, let’s fully open our arms so that those who come may experience Christ’s love.

The Rev. Susan Carter is rector of St. John’s, Howell, Mich. She teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

There is no individual salvation, in this world or the next

By Jennifer McKenzie

In a column last week, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, decried the actions of Ronald Reagan as the precursor to our current national economic woes. I agree with his assessment and remember clearly the warnings that my Democratic Aunt and Uncle and Mother and Father doled at that time: “This is NOT good for America. This is NOT good for Americans.” But I’d like to take an even bigger picture look at these economic woes from a religious perspective.

The whole gamut of conservative attitudes on government that I believe have gotten us into this (and other) messes seems to verge on one very dangerous premise – one that is surprising in that it runs contrary to the collective conservative religious views. The premise is, “I know best what I need; therefore, let me decided for myself.“ Now, on the surface that seems to fit the religious viewpoint well: Individual choice, individual decision, individual salvation. But a superficial-only look will not do. At the root of this attitude is a different decision, a choice to ignore the belief that in Judeo-Christian tradition there is no individual salvation. And shame on those conservatives who still buy into a political viewpoint that upends their church- and synagogue-going natures. Community is the nexus for all decision and choice, both rational and emotional. I cannot make any decision without creating an impact on others. The community in which we live, move, and have our being is first our local community and state, then our nation, then the world. And all of those levels of community are governed in their contexts by…wait for it…a government. Just like we need our churches to be strong so that we have both nurture and accountability in our spiritual lives, we also need government to be strong and, yes, accountable.

But beyond that, the real curiosity inherent in D v. R politics is this: The conservatives who tend as a group to be more overtly religious are the very ones who seem to be denying the fact of sin. In other words, if we operate on the premise, “I know best what I need; therefore let me decide for myself” (i.e. small government) then we are eradicating the understanding of and belief in our tendency toward sin – failing to always do what is right where the other (my ‘neighbor’) is concerned; ignoring that every single human being is a beloved child of God; putting ‘me’ first and turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor, outcast, marginalized. Why is it, for example, that the most politically and by assumed extension religiously conservative counties in Virginia are the very ones who oppose again and again to care for Christ (ref. Matthew 25) by denying financial resources to the last and the least: homeless children and adults; mentally ill adults; resident aliens (ref. Leviticus 19:33-34)? Does anyone else find it ironic that the liberals are the ones who seem to operate more concretely under the premise that the individual cannot and therefore should not fully be trusted and that the accountability and therefore shared responsibility lies in the collective?

The clear corollary is that the sinful “me first-ness” has found a way into the political landscape surprisingly under the guise of conservative “family values” doctrine. And so, the rich cows of Bashan get richer, the poor marginalized get poorer, the economy goes sideways and no one wants to take responsibility because there appears to be no collective conscience from which to do so.

The Rev. Jennifer McKenzie has served at St. David's Church, Washington, D. C., and Christ Church, Alexandria, Va. She keeps the blog, The Reverend Mother.

Redistribution of wealth: It's in the Bible!

By Daniel J. Webster

Tax day has come and gone. News video of tax protests is still being shown. There were images of President Obama wearing a Mao hat with the Chinese Communist red star. There were images of makeshift American flags with a hammer and sickle replacing the stars. One news photo showed a woman holding a sign that read, "My God, My Money, My Guns."

My God and my money, indeed.

This Sunday millions of American Christians who attend churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary will hear a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It's a short reading. In just four verses those who hear Acts 4:32-35 may be a little surprised about how the early followers of Jesus handled their money and possessions.

They will hear "...no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." The story tells us followers sold their homes and property, gave the proceeds to the apostles who distributed the funds so that there "was not a needy person among them."

I'm going out on a limb here and suspect that, like the woman holding the sign about God, money and guns, most of those protesting on April 15 really and truly believe the United States is a Christian nation. Many of them truly believe the economic stimulus actions by the federal government amount to socialism. That's what they've been told by their favorite radio talk show hosts or cable news antagonist anchors.

The brief reading for Sunday is actually just the beginning of a longer section of Acts that details those who redistribute and those who refuse to share their wealth. St. Barnabas is singled out as one who does right in selling his land and giving the money to the apostles.

But Ananais and his wife Sapphira don't fare as well. They hold on to some of their possessions. Peter calls them agents of Satan. And the consequence for withholding wealth for yourself in this story is death. Both Ananais and Sapphira drop dead when told of their inaction. They might as well have been holding the sign, "My God, My Money, My Guns."

This is one of those uncomfortable readings that are dismissed by millions of modern Christians who believe capitalism is God's will. Don't get me wrong. Capitalism is not evil if it has a conscience. But when capitalism is perverted to create a society that proclaims loudly, "I've got mine. You get yours," then we have a system that promotes death among the least among us.

There have been other images on TV and in the news. A recent "60 Minutes" report on CBS profiled uninsured patients at a Nevada hospital who had their cancer treatments canceled when state tax dollars were withdrawn because of the economic downturn. One patient said it amounted to a death sentence.

In that same story a doctor was shown treating some of those patients for whatever they could pay. He and other physicians were donating, or redistributing their wealth, to take care of those who were needy. They were acting today in the spirit of Barnabas and those early followers of Jesus.

Living in that spirit will really make us a Christian nation for all Americans whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or those of no faith. President Obama, the man vilified as communist or socialist at the TEA Parties, often refers to the multi-religious golden rule when he discusses tax increases for the wealthy. Maybe he should refer to Acts 4:32-35 in the future for those who believe in "My God, My Money, My Guns."

The Rev. Canon Daniel J. Webster is canon for congregational development in the Diocese of New York and Vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Montgomery, New York.

The flame shall not consume you

This is the first of three meditation on the role of faith during difficult economic times. All three originally appeared in Washington Window.

By Joseph Trigg

My mother was 10 years old and my father was 12 when the stock market crashed in 1929. Just as I told my children about the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, my parents told me about the Great Depression and World War II. I heard about the grandfather who lost a farm because he co-signed a note for a less provident brother, the grandfather who kept a farm because a New Deal program enabled him to pay a mortgage note just in the nick of time, a once prosperous great-grandfather who managed to pay off all his depositors in his small town bank before dying a broken man, and the year my father and his brother shared $13 between them after sweating all spring and summer to bring 10 acres of tobacco to market. Many of you have heard or could tell similar stories.

In the accounts of the Great Depression I heard growing up, people sometimes spoke about feeling helpless. More often they spoke about finding capacities for self-discipline and inventiveness they did not know they had. They spoke about how they learned the value of money, but also how they learned the value of friendship and cooperation. They would never want to go through such a time again or wish it on anyone, but they cherished their memories of it.

Their story was a story we hear again and again in the Bible, the story of finding a way through hard times and finding a better life on the other side of them. It is the story of the Wilderness and the Babylonian exile in the Old Testament, and of the Passion of Christ in the New Testament. The Bible gives us no assurance of avoiding hard times, but multiple assurances that God will be with us and help us through them. My favorite is Isaiah 43:2, echoed in the hymn How Firm a Foundation:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I have no idea whether or not we face an economic collapse as serious as the one my parents went through in their teens. It is possible that we may have to learn lessons they learned the hard way. I hope not. Bitter experience is a terrible way to learn, even if it is the most effective way for many of us. If so, I am confident that one of those lessons will be that God is with us in hard times.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Trigg, author of Origen, is rector of Christ Church, Port Tobacco, in Charles County, Maryland.

Corporate sin and economic collapse

By Adrian Worsfold

Reinhold Niebuhr was of the view that sin was both individual and corporate, and that corporate sin was complex.

Like in the United States, in the United Kingdom we have had bankers come to the House of Commons and attempt to explain how they got what they got wrong so wrong.

They said sorry, and then seemed not to mean it. It was the banking equivalent of just following orders. Then there is the question of bonuses and whether these should be received for failure, regardless of contractual obligations: after all, if the state had not semi-nationalised the banks, there would be no contracts any longer, and certainly no bonuses.

Perhaps even these leading bankers were as much locked into the system as everyone below them. Yes they had more freedom to act, but they were acting systemically. This is the point about corporate sin: it puts its systemic tentacles around everyone.

The example we can use is the worker who is full of high ideals, whose employer demands they act for their pay a little dishonestly. Cogs in the machine are forced to act more sinfully than they would like. But the workers include high management. And we are not talking about the clearly fraudulent, like the ones that made off with millions.

It's why Reinhold Niebuhr regarded the gospels' Kingdom of God as a remote idealism, and he followed a pragmatic path (that is also an American tradition when contrasted with Europe, especially Germany and France). You end up tackling sin at the margin, and sometimes the dialectical nature of Niebuhr's theology, like that of Marx's political theory, ended up in dialectical clashes in the industrial arena. Even strikes and negotiations are about improvements at the margin.

In the last ten years we have had growth based on debt. Now we used to have inflation but this was squeezed out in the 1980s and 1990s, but we still had the same delusions. It was squeezed out because industrial production went east and to cheaper labour. We in the UK were in front of the USA in terms of a "post-industrial" economy. Thus we had cheap imports suppressing inflation.

The government here encouraged the building of the financial sector, about which deregulation and cheap money was key. But, actually, all it became was Iceland on Thames, an explosion of means to move silly money on credit to the West so that the goods could be bought from the Far East. The credit found its way into property prices, that gave a false view of assets and debt and a means to keep expanding money.

The economists say manufacturing isn't the be all and end all: it's all to do with anything value-added. But it must be so that the service sector - distribution and transport, and finance - adds value in the servicing of manufacturing, which clearly adds value to the resource extraction that happens in primary industries. Normally older economies solve the problem of migrating work by going up-value (up-market), but today technology and reverse engineering means even the cheapest economies can do low value and high value output.

Plus, the Chinese suppress their wages and currency, because it is a state directed and human rights deficient economy. Vast numbers into cities are employed in huge factories virtually sleeping on the job. A middle class is passing backhanders to state authorities for all the preferential treatments and, in some cases, joining those who make the laws. The Indian economy in contrast is expanding in a more organic and market responsive manner. The Chinese make and they save, and the West buys by borrowing their savings.

So what of the future? The over-developed finance system simply cannot go on, and it does mean that Western economies are going to have to learn to make things again. The equilibrium it leads will be more than the current depression, but will be less than an inflated fantasy economy.

Iceland may be an example here. It is a tiny place in population, but a wealthy place, and even when the banks went bust the people carried on doing what they did before. Their banks' immersion into a fantasy world of finance for sheer money making has crashed to nothing but rotten debt. Yet, perhaps adopting the euro, there is no reason for Iceland not to return to its former pre-greedy existence.

The same is true for all the bigger economies. The necessity is for the State to take a bigger role, and start with the real value added of essentials and fundamentals: education, health, social welfare for all, decent housing, movement, culture. Build an economy around these wants and these values. Build an economy, in other words, and a productive one, around human dignity.

Communism crashed in the late 1980s, and China has since developed a quite nasty form of state capitalism, which has led to capitalism crashing in the early twenty first century. Pure free trade and open money is not the way of the future, though international co-operation is, and also means towards governance over both productive and money facilitating international corporations.

We also need much more that is locally sourced, locally made and locally sold. This is to do with the quality of life.

It is impossible to remove corporate sin within capitalistic sin; indeed, to a large extent sin is the motor of the economy. But the economy works for us, not us for the economy, and it is time that those we elect got a grip and reined in all that the corporations think they can do.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr's social and economic theology's predecessor, thought the Bible's Kingdom of God could translate directly into the physical economy, and Niebuhr was right to say that such is not so thanks to embedded sin. Nevertheless, it is just possible to manage sin by democratic controls so that a little bit of human idealism can actually come into the productive and servicing sphere.

Exchanging money for goods in the market place is both a contract and a covenant (the covenant is the trust: "my word is my bond", the trust in currency, the trust in the economic operation overall); the State has to do its job regarding assisting the covenantal side of the economic operation, so that value added is real and not the fantasy of sinful greed that we have seen for too long.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

The Gospel according to Dopamine

By Phyllis Strupp

Some time ago, a wealthy businessman made one of his rare appearances at church on a November Sunday and was treated to an especially heavy-handed stewardship sermon. It sounded something like this: You need to have LESS MONEY so we can have MORE MONEY. The negative energy rising up from the pews was palpable.

At coffee hour, he made a beeline for me. “Phyllis, I want to ask you something. Over the years I have heard repeatedly at church how bad money is. If money is so bad, why is it that every time I come to church they are trying to get some of mine?”

Well, the businessman asks a good question that many church leaders have not answered with clarity if at all.

The current global economic crisis offers a rich opportunity for clergy and lay leaders to offer up some inspired money talk in the church. Too often, Jesus’ teachings on wealth are ignored and it’s easy to see why. They are contrary to human nature.

When it comes to money, evolution has produced in our species a very strong gas pedal called “emotions” and a very weak brake pedal called “rationality.” Scientific findings indicate that the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, has been evolving in mammals for 225 million years.

Through the ebbs and flows of the neurotransmitter dopamine, our emotions motivate us to seek tangible rewards for ourselves and our families. Dopamine should guide us, but it often ends up controlling us. Logic and rationality hardly stand a chance in overcoming emotionally driven money habits mediated by dopamine.

Besides, the gospel according to dopamine’s teachings are so much easier to understand and live by than Jesus’ teachings.

For example, the golden rule of the dopamine gospel is “He who has the gold makes the rules,” whereas the golden rule according to Jesus is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You see what I mean, right? Speaking of right, dopamine says “Might makes right” and Jesus says “The truth shall set you free.”

The gospel according to dopamine encourages us to use money to enhance our status and control over people and decisions. That’s the allure of wealth: power. Any chimpanzee in the jungle could teach you that.

When we live by dopamine’s teachings, the richest people call the shots. Profits receive more attention than prophets. Sunday bible readings about the hazards of wealth are quietly ignored in practice, especially by the clergy. Stewardship season is a nagging, whining ritual, awkward and uncomfortable. Tithing is pitched as a solemn duty to God to wrench the cash out of tightly clasped hands.

Today, people are looking for a new set of values around money. The gospel of dopamine has led them astray to disappointment and despair. The time has come to take another look at the Gospel and find a way to make Jesus’ teachings manifest in us.

First, for those who are hoping to have both spiritual wealth and a large net worth, this is the most important line in the Gospel:

“This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
—Luke 12:21

In this passage, Jesus points out that it’s OK to have money—if it helps you grow rich toward God.

So how do you grow rich toward God?

It’s easy—just remember the color green.

Green is the color of money and the color of life. God is the author of life. Money isn’t for picking fights and wielding power over others—money is for affirming the life that God has created in you, other people and all the living species that share the Earth.

Secondly, the gospel of dopamine says you can’t take wealth with you. However, Jesus teaches us that there is such a thing as permanent wealth:

“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself, so when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
—Luke 16:9

You have the power to help or harm people through your use of money. Turn worldly wealth into the permanent wealth of kindness and friendship—and then you can take it with you!

So next time I see the wealthy businessman, I’ll tell him that money isn’t bad when it is used to affirm life, show kindness, and make friends.

Kindness is associated with a different neurotransmitter called serotonin. If serotonin outweighed dopamine in parish life, maybe our spiritually hungry friends and neighbors would be more interested in worshipping with us.

Why spend your money on what is not bread,
And your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
And your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
—Isaiah 55:2

Phyllis Strupp is a brain fitness coach, author, recovering MBA, and Chair of the Nature and Spirituality Program for the Diocese of Arizona.

How the Church can help laid-off workers--like me

By Derek Olsen

The January unemployment numbers are out and things don’t look good. In January alone the American economy lost 598,000 jobs. The official unemployment number is 7.6% but that’s an artificially low figure; it doesn’t include those unemployed for over a year or contractors who have no work once a corporation has canceled their project. Some look at this figure and see a crisis needing swift and solid government intervention. Others see it as a system reaping the fruits of failed fiscal policy. Me, I look at it and I see—competition.

I already got the call.

While I may pontificate on things historical, liturgical, and obscure, none of that pays the bills; I’m an IT consultant who, until recently, had a secure long term contract. With a bank. I’m sure you can see the problem here…

I consider myself quite fortunate. My boss called me a week or so ago and broke the news that due to the economy and conditions at the bank my contract would end on the final day of February. In truth, I had been expecting to hear this news ever since the company announced major staff reductions at the end of last year but, as time had passed and I heard nothing, I crossed my fingers and prayed that I was safe. I’m thankful that the call gives me a little time, at least a few weeks, to cast about and find something else.

I’m not alone, of course. A lot of Americans are finding themselves in this predicament and our numbers seem to be growing daily. The toppling edifices of Wall Street are crushing Main Street, where we live, work—and worship. In fact, this financial crisis is not just coming into our homes, it’s already in our churches through me and the thousands others like me. Its times like these that the church needs to step up and remember exactly what it is called to be: a nurturing community intent on proclaiming the Good News. Not economic news, not even social news, but the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus that transcends economic info—that God loves me, Jesus cares for me whether I’m employed or not, and that the Body of Christ cares too.

To get some thinking start on what churches can or could do, I’d like to address the two topics that are foremost on my mind:

1. Recognize that I’m freaking out! And that it’s both ok and normal…

Now let me say while IT work is my current occupation, it’s not my vocation. I don’t feel that God is calling me to be an IT guy for the rest of my life. In my eyes this lessens the lay-off blow a bit in that I don’t feel that my personhood has been assaulted in the same way as if my self-identity were deeply connected to my job. Nevertheless—this is a big hit for us. The past few months have been the first time in our almost ten year marriage when both my wife and I had jobs due to schooling, children, and a variety of unpleasant circumstances. We were finally shifting out of grad student mode and were looking forward to enjoying things that our peers have been savoring for years. Now that may have been cut out from under us—again.

I’m going through a grief process. Most clergy and many informed laypeople are familiar with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. Let me remind you that these don’t just apply to death! Job loss can take you through these stages as well: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Me—I’m still swinging through them all… And that’s both normal and necessary. You need to realize that too. Don’t tell me to “buck up” or that “tomorrow will be a new day.” I can think of clichés as easily as you can—and do you think your platitude will put food on my table? Just let me know that you care and that you’re there “if” I want to talk. That doesn’t mean bringing up my job search every time you see me, it just means giving me space to talk or not talk about it, giving me space to freak out my way…

Whatever you do, do not even contemplate using the words “God” and “plan” in the same sentence. As in—“Well, things may look bad now but remember that this is all part of God’s plan for you…” It doesn’t make me feel any better—and it’s bad theology. God is not a puppeteer pulling strings to screw things up so I learn “life-lessons.” A worldwide recession and the concomitant human sufferings that it causes (far worse than mine) is not God’s idea or plan. Can God make good things come out of it? Most definitely. Can I learn valuable lessons from this experience if and when I keep my eyes focused on God? Oh yeah. God can bring resurrection out of the bleakest situations—that’s the message of the cross and empty tomb. But that doesn’t mean God causes or plans these things. I have great faith in human freedom and therefore human sin—both individual and collective—to really screw things up. Thankfully I have an equally great faith in God to bring resurrection to flower in the midst of it.

2. Have some basic resources in place to give me a hand

The church is not first and foremost a social services agency, but that is one of its peripheral functions. The first way that the church can help—short of handouts or help with rent—is simply to identify community resources. Prepare a one or two page handout that identifies local government assistance programs, social service agencies, and other area programs that could help me out. You’d be amazed how helpful a contact sheet with phone numbers, contacts, and websites could be—yet so few churches actually have something like this on hand for the clergy and staff to hand out to those who need it. Get on this one!

A church I visited recently was promoting a support group meeting for people looking for work. I thought that was a great idea. Too—it shouldn’t just be for those looking… If anyone in the community is hiring, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t look for qualified individuals in the congregation first. Having a résumé book on hand for those who would like to participate in it would seem to go right along with a support group.

Like I said, I’ll fight hard against the notion that God plans or causes situations like these and yet an environment like this one is an opportunity for the church. We’ve been accused over the years by our communities of being too self-centered, too distant, too otherworldly—sometimes justly, sometimes not. However this gives us an opportunity to go beyond bickering and rhetoric. This is an opportunity for us to get down to the work of both proclaiming and enacting the Good News in tangible, visible ways in communities that need us now and—I believe—will continue to need us for quite a while to come. You got a chance and a choice—go ahead and do it: be the Body of Christ for me. Be it for those like me. And in the process you’ll be it for yourselves as well.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Coping with hard economic times

By Margaret Treadwell

Our family has a history of making lemonade out of lemons during hard financial times. Thinking about our ancestors who found unexpected blessings during the adversity of job loss is one way we deal with the current economic crisis; after all, it is the way we THINK about a situation that makes a difference in the outcome.

My husband’s grandfather lost his job as a bridge engineer during the Great Depression and had to draw on all of his creative skills to support his wife and three daughters. He became an entrepreneur using his talents to build and sell window fans from which he created a good enough business to see the family through. Imagination and perseverance are his legacies to us.

My father used to say about the Depression, “We were all in it together; not two nickels to rub together.” He and Mother had to postpone their wedding for several years, and Dad moved far from their families to a town where he could join a surviving law practice. Mom tells the story of their honeymoon when they were able to take a night away at an hour’s drive to another town in a borrowed car with a broken door handle which required tying the passenger door shut. She says, “We didn’t think much about it because nobody had anything for years; I believe that made our friendships stronger.” My parents worked together to build Dad’s practice and gave us the twin gifts of endurance and faith triumphing over fear.

During my husband’s job loss in the 1983 recession, we learned useful lessons that we put into our “ NOWork Workshop” for families who wanted to survive and even thrive during those scary years. We based our coaching on a team approach to job loss that stressed the importance of maintaining one’s individuality without becoming a victim or allowing the crisis to consume the family. Now twenty-six years later, we remember how applying our research to ourselves helped us grow up, especially with the following three healing experiences important to our family’s well being:

1) Family financial inventory: Assess and budget spouse’s income, unemployment benefits (Yes! Sign up for them ASAP) and any other family resources. Questions: How can you enjoy a simpler life? Cut all non-essentials from the budget? Involve children who are old enough in these discussions and encourage them to take some responsibility in positive ways and certainly with home chores necessary for family functioning. Talking calmly and openly about financial issues can be a freeing, new experience.

2) Grieve: Job loss is like a death, especially when it represents the family’s community and social life as well as income. Couples move through the stages of grief at different times and in different ways – a healthy response when acknowledged and one that frees families to focus on practical day-to-day functioning.

3) Time Discipline:
• The job seeker is not out of work; it takes hours everyday to market oneself – networking, assessing strengths and weaknesses, rewriting resumes, follow-up. If an unemployment support group would be a benefit, start one, check local churches or on line. Volunteer in your career field or simply help others.
•. Set aside a specific daily limited time with your spouse to discuss the loss and how you are coping and moving forward. Could this be your prayer and faith time as well? Occasionally share this time with children who are old enough to understand. Very young children sense when something is wrong, and they “get it” when a parent explains that he/she will have more time to spend with them while searching for meaningful new work. Extend this to relaxing family time when a) spouses are alone or b) the children are involved. Laugh. Exercise. Appreciate leisure time, especially in the Washington area where there are so many free cultural and recreational opportunities. Unemployed parents say that more nurturing time with children turned out to be their greatest blessing.
• Take time to be with friends. A few want to know the details of your search and how they can help. For others, a brief, carefully chosen sentence that doesn’t focus on the past (ex. “I lost my job.”), but rather helps define what you are moving toward (“I’m looking at several opportunities to tell you about later.”) suffices to open other topics of conversation.

Turning the crisis of job loss into opportunity involves slowing life’s fast pace to stay awake for serendipity. Otherwise, you might miss the dormant skills that need space to bloom, the basic values that give sustenance, and the truth that your job is not you. Our God is a God of surprises.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The currency of trust, the currency of faith

The Daily Episcopalian will be the Somewhat-Less-Frequent Episcopalian during the Christmas holidays.

By Adrian Worsfold

There is a closer relationship between the worlds of finance and religion than we might imagine.

My ten pound sterling note says: I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of Ten Pounds. This once meant gold; what's more important, and what actually functions, is the promise. Money is trust and relationship, and when it breaks down so does the economy.

Life is full of encounters, and the economic encounter is the one where we pay money hoping to receive goods or services we think are of greater or equal value as the money we hand over. Profit or surplus is the name of the game at every transaction. So it is with work: is my work worth more than the wage? Plus, money allows us to defer products and services: to save, invest and consume with a greater surplus because it is functional at times different from the restrictions imposed by barter.

However, something else happens at exchanges: we develop relationships of mutual dependency. This happens in small towns between customers and traders, but it also happens multinationally. The theory of the European Union is that if every economy is tied in together and we have common identities through economic activity, then no country in the EU would ever fight another country in the EU. It pushes old tribal boundaries outwards through exchange.

This binding effect is an extra product of our economic activity: and binding is religious.

When we go to a group meeting we do exchanges of interest. I used to be a member of a camera club and also a painting group. The camera club was contemporary-technological, individualist, competitive and male; the painting club was old-technology, collective, supportative and largely female. Each of these had a different binding effect, of different qualities, but both arguably instrumental and specific. We give materially to such groups and receive a benefit, and associate with the like minded.

Now religion should be an overview, and not specific. It involves material giving, but should involve too a hoped for gift. Of course much religion is specialist, dogmatic, narrow and focused on its gathered number, not unlike the camera club or painting society. I would argue that this reduces the sense of overview, and that something much more communal should be aimed for.

There is another parallel too. Like the ten pounds is a promise, the material itself being worthless, also the handshake of the Peace, and the tokens of the Eucharist, are pretty worthless actions or tokens in themselves. The discs are nutritionally nil, and the wine is not the sort you'd have at parties. But there is an intention and promise attached, and the simple gesture and worthless tokens bind one another together, and give the impetus to go out and serve the community.

There is a further parallel of our time, too. Too much money, and you get (simply) inflation; clip the coinage, and you get a lack of trust. I'd suggest that too many gift-exchange rituals reduces their impact, and that rushing them and lack of reverence does too. Also, if we continue to express beliefs that actually contradict what people actually believe in day to day living, then that reduces the trust in the product too. We should be careful that we don't have the religious equivalent of the lack of trust as in Lehman Brothers.

Our religious meeting houses are quite precious places, because of what they represent. They are like assets, and real assets that are involved when we carry out ritual gift-exchanges. If these assets are debased, by undermining what is precious, either through church politics emphasising internal superiority and, again, excessive claims to truth, then that false expansion of claims and self-importance will be exposed. It is very dangerous to trade on purity over pollution (moral superiority), because when the scandals come (as they do) the bubble bursts and the mess is everywhere. It takes a long time to clean up.

One of these phenomena is evidenced in the UK in the rise of importance of the church car park, if there is one. Ideally, the church is in a parish and there is a reasonable walking distance. Some drive, of course. However, in some places we see the development of, in particular, evangelical and charismatic churches where cars park after considerable journeys across cities and over country. Such churches advertise their numbers as evidence of success. Yet, where these expansions happen, we see a churn effect on similar churches in the area, where they too seem to be 'doing the right thing' but struggle as groups of religious drivers change their destination car park. The expectation of growth and more growth, often centred around these expanding places, simply does not equate with the overall figures of attendance in society. Bubbles of expectation will burst.

Such churches often complain that they gather the money and send it to the diocese, and other churches of different theologies spend it. It is by no means as simple as this, but the issue is whether such surplus churches want to see a broader coverage, or keep surpluses to themselves. There may be strings attached, say of dogma and belief, but such holding back debases the connection between communities and churches, a relating to people as they are rather than to a specific kind of gathered faithful.

There is a common theme here, that runs between the operation of exchange and the realisation of gift-exchange, and it is that of trust. When trust is sufficiently weakened, the system collapses.

There is always mistrust in the system; there are crooked and distorted parts of the economy and in the world of churches and religion. Nevertheless, there is that moment, the undetectable moment, when the marginal event takes place, where a system comes crashing down. What was once inflated then has to deflate before matters can begin again, with a new equilibrium to be found at a lower level than before.

Some people have tried to bring down The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada by persistent campaigning and misrepresentation. Now that there has been a separation, the currency of TEC and ACC can be re-established. We will see just how relevant and continuous the separators will be. They will continue, even when separated, to attack the former home (as a means to recruit), but this is likely to be their own obsessive debasement, and they will be seen more widely to be a peculiar sect that cannot let go. The bigger body continues, and tries to engage with broader currents in society and build up trust with that society. It is what all Churches have to do - connect - and do it without inflation of whatever kind as they carry out their gift-exchange activity.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks where he explored this issue in greater detail.

Christmas and the ethics of celebration

By Lauren R. Stanley

New York City is a lovely place to be this time of year. Decorations everywhere, lights, lights and more lights, big, colorful signs, special displays in store windows (and special areas set aside on the sidewalks so you can move slowly from window to window) …

It’s fascinating and delightful and designed to bring a smile to your face.

And, like so much else about America, it’s overwhelming and comes with completely unintended consequences.

I love the decorations, truly. I love driving down streets in Virginia and seeing them; coming to New York City at the height of the season is a special treat.

But every time I see the lights, the decorations and the special window displays, that one part of me that is grounded in dirt-poor, dirty Sudan rebels. I wonder at all the money that is spent, all the electricity that is being used (do stores have to put special money in their budgets to cover the added electricity for all those beautiful lights?).

Every time I have this feeling, I realize how much I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be one of those people who live overseas in poor lands who rant and rage at all the excess that is America. After all, I am an American. I’ve lived the majority of my life in this country. I’ve put up the lights and decorations myself; granted, never to the extreme I am seeing on this little trip to New York, but still … this is part of my heritage, my culture, my history.

I remember stringing the lights myself. I recall wonderful nights spent trimming Christmas trees. I’ve decorated my own home and the homes of others. This is part of who I am.

But now my circumstances are different and I live in a small town in South Sudan, where we only have electricity a few hours a day at most, and would never dream of using it for tiny colored lights flashing on and off, changing colors …

Never mind the fact that I am an Episcopal priest, with a current theological focus on Advent, not Christmas. I’m not ready for Christmas yet, because I need this time to move through this season of waiting and watching faithfully.

So in the middle of the wonderful, bright, flashy displays that I see while walking the streets of New York, I struggle. I want to find a place within myself to enjoy that which I see, the gifts that are being offered to me, without forgetting the other part of my life, the one grounded in serving Christ in a faraway place where we don’t have enough of anything, much less the extra needed to decorate lavishly.

Alas, I haven’t yet figured out how to find the balance I seek. I still don’t know how to feel the joy of the season, accelerated as it is by this society, without feeling the angst at the wasted money that, to be honest, we all know could be put to better use.

It’s not that I don’t want to figure this out. I really do want to go Christmas shopping for the children in my family and in my friends’ families, wee ones who expect to get something and for whom a “donation has been made in your name” card isn’t going to cut it. I want to search out the toys, the books, the gift cards for music, and wrap up those gifts nicely and see the joy on the kids’ faces when they find that something special under the tree.

At the same time, I want to make sure I raise enough money to help those in need in Sudan, to take care of my “family” there, to be able to buy medicine for the sick and food for the hungry and clean water for as many people as possible.

But the balance that allows me to enjoy as well as serve – to serve as well as enjoy – still eludes me.

This feeling of being out of balance isn’t limited to New York or Christmas lights, either. It pervades all portions of my life, and is among the biggest struggles I have.

Recently, I watched a TV show in which a doctor/humanitarian in Africa returned to the United States and fell ill. He was ranting and raging about how we actually have all the money we need to care for the sick overseas, how we have the medicines stockpiled in this country, but won’t share them at a cost that poor Africans can afford. When this character took ill, he used his illness to call attention to the poor and needy overseas. He was grandstanding, and knew he was grandstanding, and he was willing to do whatever it took for this cause in which he believed so passionately. Even I was at least a little bit offended by his tactics. He was, I thought, going too far, turning himself into too much of a celebrity.

But part of me worried as well: Am I like that? Do I push too hard (this character truly engaged in ethical emotivisim to make people do what he wanted them to do)? Am I perceived as too “one-track,” unable to see the need elsewhere in this country and around the world?

By the end of the show, I decided that I wasn’t quite like this character, that I have a bit more balance, that I talk more about hope than despair – that I am not “just like him.” That was a comforting thought, but I realize I may have come to that conclusion simply to salve my conscience. Perhaps I am avoiding truths I don’t want to look at too closely.

All these thoughts swirl through my head as I wander the streets of New York these days. I see the displays and smile in wonderment, both at their beauty and at the complete waste of resources that could be much better used for those in tremendous need. And I wonder, too, at how to balance my need for beauty and joy in my life with my need to help those in greater need. I have no answer for this dilemma, not yet.

If nothing else, I do know this: My emotional struggle isn’t going away any time soon.

Which might not be a bad thing after all.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Death by shopping

By Melody Shobe

There’s a news story that I just can’t seem to get out of my head. It’s not the one about the current economic crisis, or the recommended bailouts. It’s not the one about the new president-elect and his selections for cabinet positions or hypotheses about what he’s going to do once he takes office. It’s not the one about splinter groups of the Episcopal Church. It’s not even one of the many stories about disease and poverty and civil unrest in Africa. It’s the one about a Wal-Mart in New York on the morning after Thanksgiving.

Maybe you heard this story. Here’s how it goes. In the predawn hours of “Black Friday,” Jdimytai Damour arrived at Wal-Mart. He’d only recently been hired there as a temporary worker for the holiday season to try and make some extra money to buy Christmas presents for his kids. Across the street from the Wal-Mart, a throng of shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot. The store was scheduled to open at 5 o’clock, and many of these shoppers had arrived hours before so that they could be the first to take advantage of the Black Friday sales.

Around 4:55, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors. Ten workers inside, including Mr. Damour tried to push back, but it was hopeless. The doors shattered against the onslaught, and the crazed shoppers surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. Caught in the melee was Mr. Damour, who was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in a stampede that streamed over and around him. Fellow employees and onlookers attempted to move into the onrushing crowd, but were thrown back. By the time rescue personnel got to his crushed body, Jdimytai Damour was dead. Hundreds of people had stepped on his body on the way to grab their purchases.

The crowd that trampled Mr. Damour was not rushing toward a food relief convoy. They were not starving as a result of some catastrophic drought or flood. This mob that broke down the doors of that Wal-Mart in Long Island was after discounted televisions and the hottest new toys. One person present at the Wal-Mart told a reporter that when the store managers announced over the PA that all shoppers must vacate the store because someone had been trampled to death, she heard several people remark flippantly that that they had waited a long time to get those bargains and weren’t going anywhere.

I am not sure what, exactly, has made this story stick so firmly in my mind. It was an awful, tragic death, but there were hundreds of thousands of other awful, tragic deaths that day. It wasn’t even a big news story; I had to search around to find it after someone told me about it. So why, of all the things that happened on Black Friday, is this the one that I can’t seem to shake?

I think, in part, this one stays with me because it hits pretty close to home. I am outraged and saddened by the tragedies happening in Africa and India that same day, but they seem very far away. The economic situation and the bailout numbers seem so large and distant from my experience to be ridiculous. I don’t have any stock, I’ve never lived in the developing world, I don’t know what it is like to be at war. But I waited in really long lines—more than once—to get the new iPhone when it came out. I went to the bookstore at midnight to get more than one of the Harry Potter books. I, too, have been bit with the bug of wanting to have a thing, a superfluous, silly thing, so badly that I would do crazy things for it.

What stuck with me, what appalled me about the Wal-Mart story, was that it could have been me. I’ve never pushed and shoved and been a part of a mob, but I could have been. The Wal-Mart story convicted me, as one of the wealthy people living in this wealthy country who has everything I could ever need and still wants more. It reminded me of what I am capable of, and cried out for me to confess my complicity in a society where these things happen.

I think this story also stuck with me because it is so apropos for this holy season of Advent. While the rest of the world tells me that it is already Christmas, that I should shop until I drop and sing out “Joy to the World,” the church tells me to wait and listen and watch. While the world tells me about the promise of Santa Claus to come, the church tells me to walk the pathways of the desert to hear the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. While the world shows me manger scenes with the Christ child already in them, the church reminds me that I are waiting and watching for the Christ who is yet to come. Thinking about Mr. Damour’s life and death has made me hear the readings for Advent in a new and different way. I have heard Isaiah tell me that Advent it about looking at the world and seeing it for what it really is, a world that is broken and desperately in need of salvation. And I have heard John the Baptist urge me to look at myself, and honestly acknowledge that I, too, am a part of that brokenness.

Because then, and only then, will I really be able to feel the longing for Christ to come into the world and save it. Then, and only then, will I be able to experience true joy when he actually does.

The Rev. Melody Shobe is a stranger in a strange land; she's a southerner now living in Rhode Island and working as Associate at Christ Church, Lincoln. She and her husband, the Rev. Casey Shobe, stubbornly continue to insist that "y'all" is much better than "you guys."

Mass-produced madness

By Luiz Coelho

Nobody can resist the capitalist Christmas madness. After all, everybody loves presents (some love receiving them even more). Some, who have children, might be engaged in the well-known pilgrimages to different malls and department stores, with whole-page toys lists (which usually include the most expensive and recently released toys). Other, more fortunate, have the possibility of actually choosing what to buy and give to their beloved ones. In both cases, however, many of our Christmas gifts may bear the ubiquitous tag: “Made in China.”

All of us, especially in these times of economic hardship, have wondered why all of a sudden, every single manufactured good seems to be made on the other side of the world. However, such reality only jumped to my eyes when, right after doing some religious shopping, I realized that even the statue of the Virgin Mary in my hands was also made... in China.

Suddenly, several questions came to my mind. How was the plant that produced the statue set up? Who made those little statues? Were they Christians? Probably not. But did they have any clue of what they were doing? I am scared to admit the answer is once again: probably not. And this leads me to the striking conclusion that even objects of devotion that are so dear to us are now produced in the coldest way possible.

In the last three months, my artwork was focused mainly on studying the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality, applied to the visual arts. Such exploration will probably go on for years, as I more properly dig into the equivalent contemporary visual arts style. As an initial result, however, this exploration led to two series of paintings that expose the overwhelming presence of mass made imports on our shelves nowadays.

One of them, composed of twelve 12 inch by 12 inch acrylic paintings on panel depicts random objects which can be bought at any supermarket or department store, with their tags “Made in China” exposed to the viewer. Most of them were really made in China, but some others had their tags deliberately changed, in order to engage the viewer with the not-so-unrealistic possibility of having such objects really made in an environment of mass-production. At the end, is it possible to realize with certainty where an item is made?

made_in_china_set.jpg

Allow me to relate such topic to our initial discussion: Christmas and other religious gifts. Not so long ago, gifts – especially fine ones – were still produced in a way that somehow honored their final purpose. Imported products were frequently of very good quality, and different regions and countries were known for their fine crafts. That was the way, after all, that designer brands started. Nowadays, however, even local businesses rely heavily on cheap imports, mostly from China, that cover almost every single type of possible products.

My point here is not to criticize China, or imports from China per se. In fact, for centuries, the West has imported high quality goods from China. What worries me is the kind of reaction we should have to ubiquitous cheap imported products – especially at a time it is very hard to find alternative options. These products generally come from far away lands, and often look better, and “more real” than their hand-made and unique predecessors. Nevertheless, they do not point to any real past, and are the mere sub-product of industrial plants built only a few years ago. Human rights concerns, and the depletion of local companies, which cannot compete against the cheaper imports, are also issues that must be addressed, especially by people of faith, who theoretically espouse values of economic justice.

I do not have any pre-conceived answer to this problem and I am pretty sure that any “boycott” can be easily be forgotten after listening to the plea of a child who dreams about the newest electronic toy. Even everyday shopping duties, and objects that are necessary to modern life (such as computers and cell phones) force us to “close our eyes” and not question the evil we might possibly be supporting. But is there a way of implementing more responsible shopping practices, especially at Christmas, when we feel so compelled to look for sales and cheaper gifts? And, in the long run, how can people of faith help change this scenario? Are we still relevant enough to do something? What would Jesus do in this case, after all, especially since this is his birthday?

Taking the parable of the talents literally

By Sam Candler

Christians in the developed world usually forget that so many of the parables of Jesus deal with money. The usual suspects for our parish theological discussions are topics like church structure, or sex, or the general matters of biblical authority. We tend to consider what Jesus said about money only during stewardship or fund-raising times.

However, during these last two months of global financial anxiety, suddenly the way Jesus talks about money has some striking application. “You cannot serve God and Mammon” has become self-evident. The parable of the “unjust steward” who “made friends for himself with unrighteous mammon” also makes a lot of sense when assets in our own time have been de-valued (Luke 16:1-13).

It is the parable of the talents that I am fascinated with today. Again, during usual economic times, Christians tend to interpret that parable figuratively, so that “talents” are our God-given gifts and abilities. The lesson is that we are to use those for greater glory and the kingdom of heaven.

But what if the parable of the talents is really about literal finance and economics, after all? I think it is. We all remember the story. A wealthy master went on a long journey and left one asset manager with five talents, another asset manager with two talents, and a third asset manager with one talent. When he returned, the manager with five talents had traded and made five more. The manager with two talents had traded and made two more. The timid and fearful third manager, with one talent, said, “I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow; so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25:14-30).

Today, maybe the first thing to admit is that if this scenario had been played out in the last six months of the United States, the manager who hid his talent in the ground would probably be the only one ahead right now!

But the power of this Jesus story is that the managers traded; they engaged others. They risked relationship and trust. According to my meager financial expertise, one of the primary problems in our time is that banks and businesses are too scared to offer loans, not confident enough to trade. With no credit and no trust, economic transaction is paralyzed.

This parable of Jesus is about overcoming fear and taking the risk to grow and to invest. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, but he is also talking about building up the economy in general! In fact, the word for “economy” in the Greek Bible means the management of a household; it means “stewardship!” Our economy should be the way we manage our cultural and political and financial household.

The key word in Jesus’ parable is “trade.” The asset managers had the courage to go out and trade with what had been entrusted to them. They took risks. They engaged in relationships. Good business, and good economy, is always about good relationships, not about money, or the “mammon god.” Good economy is always about trusting relationships. In Jesus’ parable, the asset manager who loses out is the one who was afraid, so afraid that he was unable to take the risk of economic relationship.

In the uncertain situation of our present time, Jesus’ parable reminds us to engage in relationships – not just our domestic or familial or friendly relationships—but our business and financial relationships, too. Maybe especially our financial relationships! This is not the time to hide our talent in the ground. This is the time to use whatever we have, no matter how great or small, to build up trusting and trading relationships. Jesus said this would be like the kingdom of heaven.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Lost in the supermarket

By Lauren R. Stanley

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Grocery stores in this country are incredibly amazing places; really, they are. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale.

But they’re also incredibly scary places. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale. Which makes them very scary indeed for those of us who don’t have regular access to them.

So I have this love-fear relationship with grocery stores. I love to go to them and see all the wondrous items they have: fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal, teas, coffees (oh, the smell of the coffee aisle!). But I fear going there, too, because they overwhelm me: Why do we need all those varieties of cereal? Where, pray tell, is the tea? And how can I possibly choose from all the varieties of apples?

I’ve just come back from three months in Sudan, living in a small town called Renk. It’s growing rapidly, with the return of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, but it has very little in the way of food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. There’s running water on a sporadic basis only, and it’s not clean. Electricity generally comes from generators for a few hours at a time. The roads are dirt, most homes are mud huts, most roofs are thatch. Life there is very, very basic.

So whenever I return to the United States, I find American grocery stores pretty overwhelming. There are simply too many choices and it takes time for me to adjust. I waited five days after my return before going to the store. I used up the last of my travel toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby oil, ear swabs. Much as I wanted to resupply, I couldn’t bring myself to face the complete overload that I knew awaited me there.

But then my little tube of toothpaste, which was turning a tad bit … um … yucky from all the heat in Sudan … began to flatten ominously. So I finally had to give in and face the great boogieman, the American grocery store.

The store I went to recently underwent a renovation, making it even bigger, even brighter, even more spacious. And it had even more items to sell than before. Just looking at all the fresh produce made my head swim. Apples! Oh, my, nice crisp apples, such a difference from the mushy ones in Renk. Bananas! Look how big they are! Five, six, seven kinds of lettuce … what a change from jejeer, the bitter greens we eat. Only the tomatoes didn’t faze me; we have a tomato farm on an island in the White Nile, so fresh, beautiful tomatoes, up to six per day, are a norm in my life.

Then I saw the cereal aisle … how in God’s name can we have so many varieties? Why? (Note: All those choices didn’t stop me from buying a box …)

And on and on, up some aisles, skipping others. Buying only those things I thought I needed, trying not looking at all the options. Every once in a while, I’d forget to keep my eyes averted and would see rows upon rows of pastas, or canned soups, or soaps, and I’d feel a moment of almost panic. Then I’d remember my list, pick one item, go find it, and move on.

Whenever I try to explain American grocery stores to my friends in Sudan, they don’t understand. They think I’m making it up. I’ve shown them pictures, even, but still, they can’t believe that Americans would have so much food in just one place, with so many choices to make. I have this dream of bringing a bunch of my friends to America just so I can take them on a tour of our grocery stores. It would be great fun to see their reactions, but then again, I’m worried that even one quick trip to the store might overwhelm them completely.

We are blessed in this country with an abundance, an overabundance, of goods. We have more choices than we can possibly need, more than we even can handle. In reality, we have too much. I know that by the end of my three months here, I’ll be fully adapted to all this abundance. Then I’ll go back to Sudan for another three months, and when I return next summer, I’ll have to work out this whole love-fear relationship all over again.

My prayer is that one day, I won’t have to do through this anymore, not because we have any less here, but because one day, there will be at least a modicum of abundance in Sudan as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Prayer in a time of anxiety

By R. William Carroll

It’s no secret that these are troubling times. I’ve found myself talking, writing, and preaching a great deal about how we might be faithful in such times by what we do. In an editorial for the Covenant Journal, I found myself urging both political engagement that serves the common good and conscientious stewardship of finances:

If you belong to a congregation like ours, you are probably facing some difficult budget choices as you enter a season dedicated to financial stewardship. As an outsider to your congregations, I would urge those of you who can to consider giving more. There will be anxious people who tighten their fists, and there will be others who need to trim back on charitable giving of all kinds in precisely the hour when it is needed most.

In the congregation I serve, my own stewardship sermon relied heavily on the Convention address of Thomas Breidenthal, the ninth bishop of Southern Ohio, one of the best sermons I have ever heard. You can download a copy of it here. In that sermon, Bishop Tom reminded us that it was at the time of the Great Depression, that Bishop Hobson, the third bishop of our diocese, established the Forward Movement and that he did so as a way for those in the grip of poverty and despair to begin moving forward together, day by day. He also reminded us that it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, with Europe on the brink of starvation, that our diocese helped establish the fund that became the Presiding Bishop’s fund for World Relief, now known as Episcopal Relief and Development. He also used an image that I found quite compelling. He told us that we are called to be like trees at a time of drought: to sink our roots deeper (in prayer) and spread our branches further (in service).

Having already tended to the branches in several different contexts, I would now like to turn to the roots. I do so in precisely the same spirit as my earlier calls to action. For Christians, action is always rooted in prayer. The heart of this prayer, of course, is corporate worship, above all the Eucharist, in which through the Church’s Spirit-graced act of giving thanks, the Lord Jesus gives himself to us anew and draws us ever more deeply into his dying and rising. It is here, above all, that we become rooted in the vine, so that the branches might bear fruit. It is here, above, all that we find strength to expend ourselves for our neighbor, because Jesus, in his Body and Blood, has given himself for us.

But it is also necessary in times like these, to clear space for personal devotion, both in the context of the community’s celebration and in private. We need to ask for God’s help for ourselves and intercede for the needs of others. There is a danger here, however, because this praying can become just another form of action. We also need to sit still and listen for God. We need to empty ourselves of the many thoughts, to let go of the many distractions, and pay attention to the still, small voice of God.

One reason we are so anxious is that the problems we confront are bigger than we are. There is no obvious place to begin. If we thought too much about the challenges that face our country and the world right now, we would find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to act. The problem with prayers of petition and intercession is that they lie far too close to action. When we pray like this, we are in danger of asking God to help us with our priorities rather than asking how we might get in on God’s.

In true prayer, our roots need to go deeper, or we will never find the living water for our desert journey. We will not find the serene joy and power to face the difficulties of the present moment with confidence. Nor will we even know what to ask for. To intercede effectively, we need to do so from a posture of listening for God—of radical availability to the Holy Spirit. We need to break in to the heavenly throne room, in a way that’s only possible if we relax in God’s bosom and discover how deeply and completely we are loved.

Another reason we may be anxious is that the present crisis is unveiling to us the depth of brokenness in so much that we formerly took for granted. Above all, it is revealing our own brokenness, poverty, and finitude. Only in the near presence of God and in the light of God’s countenance can we face the mess we have made of our lives without shame or fear. The contemplative tradition, with its insistence that we listen to God with no expectation for how God will answer, has much to say to us in times like these.

For Christians, contemplation is never an end in itself. It is meant to serve love. Centering prayer, to name one form this tradition takes on the contemporary scene, must never become “self-centering prayer.” But to rush to action, or even to petition, without taking time to hear God’s painful silences and bask in God’s loving presence, is just as dangerous as a contemplation that turns in on itself. In paying attention to our relationship with God our Creator, we receive guidance and renewal for times like these. More than that, however, we also receive the greatest gift of all, quiet confidence that our Being is not in the end our achievement but instead a gift from God’s most generous hands.

Friends and family may let us down. We can lose our job, our home, and even our life. Even our young and gifted president-elect, in whom so many of us have placed our trust and hope (pray for him!), can and will disappoint us. But still the love of God abides.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

Can private virtue be public vice?

By Sam Todd

My parents were very difficult to shop for at Christmas. They already had everything they wanted, let alone needed. My wife and I now find ourselves in the same situation. We are not the consumers department stores were hoping for this Christmas.

A lot of other consumers are not either. ‘“Consumers have thrown in the towel” commented Nariman Behravesh, chief economist, at HIS Global Insight, on the 3.1 percent drop in consumer spending between July and September, the first period of decline in 17 years’ (Newsweek, 11/10/08, p. 25). In previous economic slow downs the American consumer was the hero; he kept on spending even when businesses were cutting down on investment and hiring. But our hero used up his savings and then some. “The personal savings rate dropped from 11 percent in 1982 to almost zero by 2005. … By 2006, household debt was 134 percent of personal income” (Ibid. p. 28).

The consumer began following the very bad example set by his government. The 1988 Vice-Presidential debate is most remembered for Senator Bentsen’s ambush of Senator Quayle: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Etc.” But what most struck me was his response to Quayle’s lauding the prosperity of the Reagan years. “I can give you prosperity too,” Lloyd said, “If you let me write billions of dollars of hot checks” (or words to that effect). Increasing government spending while decreasing its income (taxes) produced a fool’s paradise.

The American consumer was not so foolhardy as the financial geniuses running great investment banks and brokerage houses who made extravagant bets on dubious securities with borrowed money. The consumer simply put more consumables than he should have on his credit cards. Now he is pulling back. And the world trembles. Can the American economy survive if we only buy what we need? What will happen to that part of the advertising industry which makes its living persuading us to buy things we do not need with money we do not have?

I have had numerous conversations with people who, like me, were merely inconvenienced, not devastated, when Hurricane Ike hit Texas in September. We had revealed to us how much we could do without. Our needs are rather modest. We all need food but not nearly so much as we have been eating. Phil Graham accurately, if indelicately, pointed out that America is the only country in the world where millions of poor people are fat. We all need clothes but not nearly so many as we own. Is the dress which was smashing last year really not fit to be worn this year? And of course we can only wear one outfit at a time. Our present cell phone, TV, iPod, automobile is quite serviceable though not the latest model.

God knows, I am not against wealth but it is worth asking what it consists of. If you Google the richest man in the world, you get names like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim. Here are some other answers. An anonymous rabbi said, “The richest man in the world is the one who is content with what he has.” But can the auto industry survive my contentment with my car?

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “that man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest” (Journal 3/11/1856). But will frugality doom the economy? Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel prize in Economics this year, explains the paradox of thrift, “how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income” (New York Times, 10/31/08, p. A27). So deficit spending by the government which was once profligate is now a necessity.

John Ruskin had a notion of riches which will not wreck the economy. “That man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others” (Unto This Last, Sect. 77). Ruskin’s definition would certainly fit Christ. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9 RSV).

“Once in royal David’s city…he came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy. …And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child who seemed so helpless is our Lord in heaven above; and he leads his children on in the place where he is gone” (hymn 102 vv. 1, 2, 5).

Meanwhile my wife and I attempt to share the wealth by participating in an alternative gift market which many parishes sponsor. Instead of giving me a tie I do not want, for $35 Sara can, in my honor, buy a goose for a family breeding a flock of them (Episcopal Relief and Development catalogue item FS2301). She is easy to shop for too. I wish the Heifer project had been around when my parents were.

The Rev. Sam Todd is dean of the IONA School for Ministry and retired associate rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston. This column will appear in the December issue of the Texas Episcopalian.

Betrayal and reconciliation with Wall Street

By Jean Fitzpatrick

The crisis of confidence on Wall Street is so bad that not only are consumers angry these days, but banks are even afraid to lend to one another. Lately the financial pages are full of trust and faith and loss -- words I use all day in my therapy with couples -- and it strikes me that rebuilding trust between Wall Street and the rest of us might be a lot like healing a marriage after an infidelity.

"How could you do this?" the betrayed spouse asks her cheating partner. "How long did you think you could get away with it?" The truth has hit her like a ton of bricks: "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach," she says. "I can't believe how stupid I was." As she begins to grasp that this thing she would never have predicted is not only possible but has actually happened, she worries that she's lost her whole grip on reality. Now she wants all the details -- where did he like to meet the other woman? did he make an excuse to leave the house on her birthday? what was the sex like? -- each one a knife in her heart.

That's you and me. Looking at the dismal numbers in our 401(k), we can hardly believe how much we've lost. Feeling powerless and angry, we're looking for someone to blame.

In a marriage the partner who has strayed is usually eager for a speedy resolution -- a bailout, you might say. The discovery of his cheating is almost as shocking to him as to his injured spouse, because he does not think of himself as the kind of guy who does this sort of thing. Up till now he has somehow managed to split his mental reality onto two separate tracks, one for each of the two women in his life, neatly holding onto an image of himself as a good husband. Now, recognizing that he has risked foolishly and may lose everything -- both the marriage and the affair -- he is usually remorseful but also thinks his hurt partner is making too much of a fuss. Do they really have to talk about the infidelity so much? Does she expect him to account for all of his movements from now on? "It's like she wants to know what I'm doing every minute of the day," he says. "If I don't answer my cell phone when she calls, it's World War Three. She's the one who's going to kill this relationship."

No surprise to me that Wall Street started out insisting on a huge sum with no oversight.

Where do we go from here? In the couples therapist's office, each partner needs to be willing to put the relationship first. That means the cheating partner shows newfound respect for the needs and wishes of his spouse and redirects his time and energy toward her and toward the marriage.

The betrayed partner needs to move past a blaming, hopeless stance ("I'll never trust him again and I don't care what he does") and summon up the courage to insist on a richer, more fulfilling connection -- one that will demand more honesty and more caring from her partner and from herself. She needs to trust that the marriage can once again thrive and nurture both partners. Only then can she move beyond despair and work toward the future. More often than not, she needs to be willing to look at how through neglect she may have contributed to an emptiness in the marriage, not because this in any way justifies her partner's unfaithfulness, but because it is one aspect of rediscovering closeness and joy. This reordering of a relationship toward shalom -- which is so much more than the absence of war or conflict, encompassing, as Walter Brueggemann wrote, orderly fruitfulness, generous caring, and equitable justice -- demands something that is in very short supply in the midst of a colossal crisis of trust: hope.

The same is true in societal relationships. As we recover from betrayal by the financial sector, we must move beyond anger and despair and grab onto hope. We need to demand more of our leaders and ourselves. We need to educate ourselves about the workings of money and power, recognizing that through our own neglect we allowed our financial institutions to run wild and collectively chose to live on credit. Together we need to put our energies into building a stronger, more truly productive global economy. Holding onto that kind of hope -- not pie in the sky, but the stubborn, humble, transformative kind -- is our only way out of this mess.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Counting treasures

Reprinted with permission from the Anglican Theological Review. For a list of the books discussed in this essay click Read More at the end of the article.

By Gawain de Leeuw

Last year, a member of my vestry asked me to consider purchasing Fair Trade coffee beans to serve during fellowship hour after our Sunday service. The workers who cultivated the beans owned the farm and shared the profits cooperatively. The beans were organic. Although it cost more than Folgers, a greater amount of the income would go directly to the farmers. In essence, “charity” was added as a fifty-cent tax to the exchange between consumer and producer.

Fortunately, such a tax is affordable where I live, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, in a zip code that has an average annual income twice that of other Americans. My first car, a beat up Honda Civic, was such an eyesore that a parishioner gave me a used Volvo. The disparities in our county are still apparent: in our soup kitchen we serve fifty individuals every Sunday, generally men, some undocumented, some working, and some insane, a few of whom I employ with petty cash, putting money in the underground economy.

We have a small endowment that balances the budget. From our resources we purchase services from local vendors. A few parishioners, such as our resident architect, assist the church for supernatural rewards. Volunteer labor, however, still constitutes the church’s
everyday work. The thrift shop raises the most money of any single income-generating source. It is run by a handful of women in their late 70s, who ran the church in the days when it depended on voluntary labor.

The economic work of the church is not merely about church growth and management. Economic exchanges are an intrinsic, practical part of church life from paying the plumber to offering praise and thanksgiving. Intangible incentives, such as denominational loyalty
and the merits of regular church attendance, lose to the offerings of mega churches, sports, and entertainment. Churches develop property to finance their congregational life, selling services: after school programs; the opportunity to volunteer and satisfy school community
service credit; or rooms to pay for the daily costs of maintaining the building. Clergy negotiate packages with employees, ask overworked parishioners to volunteer, compete with soccer on Sunday morning, and discern what sorts of investments to make. Churches also may participate in the underground economy through their work with individuals who are poor. If part of our mission is to ameliorate the precariousness that engulfs most of the world, or even understand how we work in our communities, we must understand the rules that govern economic analysis.

Although I consider it a brave choice to link the direction of mission, as the Presiding Bishop has done, with a clear set of economic goals, I recognize the sensibility that the United Nations represents Satan and that ending poverty is secondary to supernatural warfare. But I insist that we do not advocate any particular ideological love of the UN or dismiss a supernatural worldview. It is enough to say that for the church to be credible, it merits taking contemporary economics seriously.

Fortunately, economists have begun to examine incentives much more broadly, in a way that would be comprehensible to Christian ethicists. As theologians and mystics have explored the limits of desire, economists have begun to broaden their understanding of incentives, expanding a sense of the “good” to include personal “happiness,” “freedom,” and “externalities” including the environment. The role of incentives and the contours of desire have been more accurately mapped, with interesting consequences for clergy and theologians. Economists now incorporate research from other disciplines, with some insightful consequences.

I suspect my own suspicion of economic thinking is shared by other clergy. We are trained to be skeptical about the overarching claims that the market makes about the rational person—we know people as sinners, as irrational, as gluttons, eager to eat and consume more without thinking. We are less practical than economists, who prefer to tinker than transform. Priests envision, however, an egalitarian kingdom where the lamb lies down with the lion. There will be no more monarchies, save Jesus. Ethicists will argue that, contrary to the protestations of economists who believe that their discipline is value-free, thinking economically creates meaning around money, implicitly fragmenting the various relationships that make up society. “Economic” thinking ignores our environment, and is clumsy in computing intangibles such as social order, feelings, religious values, and beauty. It disorients and dislocates culture, hypothesizing an economic man—a consumer and producer—who is unrecognizable to those of us who encounter the daily irrationality that makes up human behavior. This man is a mythical creation that trumps all other descriptions of the human person, a person full of unlimited desire. Although the market effectively organizes the system of cooperation that enables manufacturing, sales, and services, with some public goods and relationships it falls short.

Our economic choices matter. As globalization continues in its intensity and speed, churches seek effective ways to articulate and frame their roles as international consumers (or distributors) through mission. With the election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding
Bishop, and the General Convention resolutions D022 and A010, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have taken center stage as a conversation partner shaping the mission of the Episcopal Church.

Although the MDGs might look, at first glance, to be instructions for charitable work, the many reasons for such work aren’t always obvious. How do markets or charity assist or hinder our ability to reach our goals? And what are these goals? Anglicans, in particular, have been well served by theologians who understand economics, in particular Archbishop William Temple, who gave a theological justification for the modern welfare state; the layman Paul Heyne, professor of economics at the University of Washington, who clarified the positive moral nature of capitalism; and most recently, Kathryn Tanner, who has given a very informative and useful framework for understanding the relationship between theology and economics.

The central truth in economics, and in capitalism, is that incentives work. Clergy would do well to understand the incentives in their own parishes. Economics is, first, a tool that is useful for explaining these incentives. The economist Steven Levitt, with help from the writer Stephen Dubner, demonstrates how incentives work, for example, by exploring the cheating patterns of sumo wrestlers and teachers. Through the story of a bagel entrepreneur who would leave bagels in offices—people would be trusted to pay for them by putting money in a basket—we learn what might create environments of dishonesty (morale and size seem to have important repercussions, but 87 percent of people seem to be honest). They also reveal the incentives in withholding or sharing information by real estate agents and online daters.

Levitt helps us perceive the limits of what passes for conventional wisdom. The decline in crime over the last ten years, for example, has more to do with abortions than with excellent policing; and “perfect parenting” has little to do with parental obsessions, and more to do with who the parents are (thus, perhaps, “why worry?” Jesus asks). Levitt demonstrates how we are poor at assessing risk.

Levitt isn’t taking moral stances. He simply reveals connections and incentives. Finding the right incentives and correlations is the way to understand our decisions and consequences accurately. The help for us, in churches and not-for-profits, is that incentives include more
than money.

Incentives might, for example, include happiness. In Happiness, the economist Richard Layard searches for why wealthy societies are no happier than they were fifty years ago, even though living standards have doubled. Layard examines the literature on human motivations. He discovers, for example, that extra income matters more to those who have less income. Ten dollars will bring greater happiness to someone very poor than to a millionaire. Losing hurts more than gaining feels good; that millionaire still feels bad about giving that ten dollars away. We compare ourselves to our immediate neighbors rather than fifteenth-century royalty or to a community living halfway around the world. Our values change; what is important to us in our twenties is different than what we value in our fifties. And we are inconsistent in our desires.

Layard suggests that true happiness means enjoying aspects of our lives without comparing them to any other. What are the root aspects of happiness? Family, work, community, health, freedom. He shows how we are easily misled by television, which creates discontent. And he demonstrates that social trust decreases where there are great differences between the classes.

There is ultimately one common strand that can make us happy: “it is love,” Layard says (p. 199), concluding that we need a common good. Happiness means being a “pilgrim” who “fights the evils in the world out there and cultivates the spirit from within” (p. 235). It is not the hedonic treadmill, but relationships, that matter. This should sound familiar to Christians.

The hedonic treadmill is referred to as the “insidious cycle of work and spend” (chap. 5, pp. 107-138) by Juliet Schor. In The Overworked American, Professor Schor explains the history of how modern workers are working more. She illustrates how our urge to consume is robbing us of time. Is this simply our fault, our inability to control our desires? Against those who argue that workers are getting what they want, she argues that workers “want what they get” (p. 127). We thoughtlessly spend what we have.

Schor discusses the incentives employers have to keep hours long and the reasons employees work those hours. Like Layard, she illustrates that the perpetual consumer is not easily satisfied. She argues that “Americans need time for unpaid work, for work they call their own. They need the time to give to others. . . . Today many haven’t got the time to care” (p. 160). People are too tired from their jobs to participate in their communities, preferring resting and television to activity. She advocates a “right to leisure” which seems a lot like what God demanded of us on the Sabbath. There seems to be an implicit reminder for us: the market is made for humanity, humanity is not made for the market.

The rationale for the Millennium Development Goals is explored in Jeffrey Sachs’s book The End of Poverty. Using personal vignettes, historical analysis, and economic data, he demonstrates how the right social investments can end extreme poverty. Sachs examines his own participation as an advisor to governments, candidly describing the
myopic decisions of donor institutions. He cuts through the myths—that Africa’s corruption is the main problem, that enough has been given already. If anything, we have been miserly and neglectful. He makes the case that small investments by us can save millions of lives a year. If we made deliberate, public investments in different sorts of capital—including health, machinery, infrastructure, agriculture, legal institutions, and education—impoverished households could break the poverty trap that inhibits development. By providing primary education, proper nutrition, anti-malarial nets, safe drinking water, and paved roads, we would offer more freedom. All this would cost $110 per person in the developing world—peanuts to us, but a grand sum to the poor—per year until 2015. But for donor nations, this is deemed to be too much. Sachs offers a comprehensive understanding of what the MDGs are, their practical basis in policy and data. What we lack is the political will.

Amartya Sen offers the philosophical foundations of development economics, describing development as freedom—a precursor to markets. Sen responds to those who would make economic wealth, as measured by imperious international banks, the main benchmark for
development. Economic freedom and social freedom cannot be neatly disentangled, Sen demonstrates. Sen describes freedom carefully. Freedom is both the means and the end of development. Not merely instrumental for wealth, it is of intrinsic value (p. 37). Poverty
is not freedom because it is deprivation of capability, where people cannot lead lives that they themselves value. He then examines how famines, fairness, education, and basic health came before broad economic growth as examples of types of freedom. Sachs emphasizes that investment in public institutions will result in greater wealth, whereas Sen demonstrates how this investment develops freedom. Sen also describes how women’s literacy and work are crucial to establishing freedom to live lives that women will value.

Communities experience many sort of exchanges, some of which are not easily measured. Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, a sociologist, explores how the inner-city poor make economic exchanges in an underdeveloped neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Through the
lens of major players in the underground economy—the “hustler,” the “preacher,” the “entrepreneur”—he explains how these economies survive their own poverty. He details hiring “off the books,” exchanges for security and public space, and why people decide not to move out of the underground economy.

Venkatesh’s book reveals how the dimensions of human feeling and relationship become a part of economic exchanges. “Hustlers,” for example, men we might call “squatters” or more pejoratively “the homeless,” have clear roles in the local economy and create exchanges (through offering safety) in public spaces. Clergy provide their own services: connections to political power and mediation skills. They may retrieve stolen property, mend a broken relationship between a pimp and prostitute, and prevent a gang battle (p. 259).

The urban poor make choices to keep their public spaces safe and food on their table. The shady economy brings goods and resources into the home through the available field of social relationships. But by creating dependency upon each other, resources run out in the short term, and violence becomes part of the exchange. The poor accommodate and fear underground work, understanding that, eventually, the loan shark must get paid. The violence is a consequence of being abandoned and marginalized by the rest of the economy.

How would we create a political environment that would be sympathetic to investing in poor neighborhoods? Benjamin Friedman’s answer to the question is that greater prosperity leads to moral progress. When we believe our lives are improving, our tolerance and generosity increases. When our economy is deteriorating and there is greater economic disparity, intolerance increases. Arguing that “economic growth matters because it enables the majority of a society’s population to feel better off compared to benchmarks that are still recent enough to be meaningful,” he derives his argument from another insight: we adapt to our incomes. Growth, which may bring better health care, more vacations, or larger salaries, makes our lives happier because we have more hopeful futures. Our satisfaction depends less on the level of income and more on how it changes for the better (pp. 82-83).

Friedman provides a welcome corrective to an anti-global sensibility. Advanced globalization may foster cooperation and force people into recognizing shared interests (p. 390). He doesn’t offer easy answers to the challenge to both increasing the freedoms of the developing world and ensuring environmental sustainability, stating plainly that markets and policy must work together, especially as policy helps account for the externalities that markets are clumsy in calculating.

Friedman ends his book by arguing that governments promote growth. He demonstrates how law and policy are essential for markets, protecting the law-abiding entrepreneur, and helping to reward initiative. By protecting movement and rights and discouraging crime and corruption, governments encourage growth. Friedman advocates repealing the recent US tax cuts and restoring the estate tax to restore fiscal sensibility and investing in human capital. America’s greatest need, he ends, is to restore the idea that people are moving forward (p. 436). Even saying “enough” to our consumptive patterns presumes that saying “enough” means our environmental economy will improve.

Christians can easily cobble together an ethic that affirms the portrait offered by these diverse economists. Christians especially challenge economists to examine the limits (or the lack thereof) of desire. Standard economic thinking, while considering itself valueless, implicitly frees desire from any moral constraints. Timothy Gorringe, who is antagonistic to capitalism, argues that it is fundamentally predicated on human inequality (p. 48). He states, “the only ultimate satisfaction is life together, in peace and justice, with others. The market needs not only to forget this, but to cause others to forget it” (p. 153). The market, as described traditionally, rewards greed, ignoring competing incentives such as community, sabbath, or other values.

Does economic thinking—or capitalism—implicitly reward greed? Isn’t greed “good”? Christian theologians would argue that greed corrodes social exchanges. But we should be careful: desiring luxury objects, like John Lobb shoes or fancy cars, does not implicitly indicate greed. But an economy that lets greed run rampant destroys the community that has made these goods possible. Desiring them in opposition to human needs is intuitively analogous to idolizing them. It is such idolization, not the desire itself, that is at the root of Christian ambivalence toward accumulating wealth. Greed illustrates a culture’s narcissism, because commodities, rather than relationships, identify the self (Schweiker, p. 267).

Mark C. Taylor is sympathetic to markets, holding them almost in awe, as he describes the way markets and exchange have become infinitely complex. Confidence Games explores money as sign, unpacking its use in a virtual world, examining the relationship between meaning and money. How does money become light within the power of the internet? What are the consequences of moving money around instantaneously? Disrupting easy interpretations of work and reward that are part of the capitalist myth, in his world “casinos, it seems, were more responsible than banks” (p. 175). “As the economy evolves from level to level, it becomes increasingly spectral until it is virtually nothing but the play of floating signifiers endlessly recycling in recursive loops that are unmoored from what was once called the ‘real’ economy. The real, however . . . is temporarily repressed and eventually returns to disrupt what seemed to replace it” (p. 180). Is money real? Or is it merely an idea, a consensual illusion? This is the specter.

Examining the growth of Yahoo and the failure of Long-Term Capital Management, Taylor demonstrates how the financial world makes people more interrelated and interconnected. The consequence is a world that is always moving from chaos to order to chaos. He states, “insecurity is unavoidable. In such a world, to call investments ‘securities’ is to misunderstand the dynamics of markets” (p. 301). Taylor reveals how the idea that investors are rational and markets operate efficiently is, in effect, a “religious vision in which the market is a reasonable God providentially guiding the world to the Promised Land where redemption finally becomes possible.” Not that Taylor opposes such a vision. His is one that is virtual, redemption against endless, eternal life.

Risk, uncertainty and insecurity are pulses of life . . . For the canny player, life is not a crapshoot but a game of poker. Since one is never sure when the chips can be redeemed, the best strategy is to keep the game going as long as possible. In the final analysis, the problem is to learn to live without redemption in a world where the interplay of light and darkness creates infinite shades of difference, which are inescapably disruptive, overwhelmingly beautiful and infinitely complex. (p. 331).

Such a vision makes the Christian vocabulary of “eternal life” comprehensible in this networked world. Still, it says little about being on the margins, about those struggling for food, or about the unlucky who do not operate in the virtual world.

Taylor’s ability to connect high finance, art, and architecture is dazzling. He illuminates our current state of affairs, revealing how high finance is a religious enterprise. It seems that the God that inhabits the world of the internet and the financial markets is analogous to the fickle and volatile God of our Bible, one that is alive, that moves, that brings us together, if only virtually. Yet, I wonder if the world without redemption Taylor offers is also a world without hope, a VIP room in a casino where there are many out in the back alley, waiting to consume what is discarded by the anxious gamblers inside.

Kathryn Tanner’s smaller book Economy of Grace, however, is much more relevant. It is, in my view, the most important recent book on theological economics and ethics: brief, precise, and useful. Mark Taylor demonstrates the limits and the death-dealing of redemption.Tanner, however, offers a reflection on God’s grace and abundance. She describes the nature of property relations, contrasting a market view of owning property to one that understands God as loaning property. She explores the relationship to property and grace. God’s giving demonstrates his desire for us to be givers also. Tanner’s vision is firmly Trinitarian; our economic cooperation mirrors the noncompetitive relationship between the persons of the Trinity. We share ourselves for the good of others (p. 85).

She suggests a comprehensive yet simpler welfare arrangement: a distribution of the tax burden. The consequences of generosity, such as a strong welfare provision and universal health care, allow for more security among persons and less pressure on corporations. The benefits outweigh the costs of the imaginary moral hazards that fester in the conservative imagination.

Tanner recommends policies that could be justified to both corporations and the impoverished. After describing how International Keynsianism was sabotaged, she suggests that international institutions provide cash and investment to increase employment and demand, the same provisions that resulted in the West’s economic growth after World War II. I would also relax international intellectual property rights to encourage the development of indigenous technologies, and support international initiatives like the Tobin Tax, to discourage volatility.

By drawing attention to the internal tensions in our societies, we can choose between different sorts of capitalism, for the market, despite its ambitions, cannot address all social modes. As a nation, we can make decisions about employment, the tax rate, health care, social security, and regulation—those parts of our social life that help people live more happily. What matters is if we want to or not.

Economists, however, remind Christians that numbers matter. Appeals to beauty and charity, while commendable, require empirical defense. Christians must support programs that can be evaluated; and we must hold institutions accountable. It may seem that this dehumanizes the work of caring, but such rigor will clarify the complicated desires that human beings have. Although commodities may depersonalize aspects of our every day life, we could become better counters in measuring these costs. Counting admits that we make many value judgments, and that some choices will make us happier than others.

Christians do not oppose the creation of wealth. We merely insist that any conversation about wealth and the formation of our economy must attend to categories missed by some economists: freedom to make choices, better health (healing), education (wisdom), and economic security (social trust). Merit, incentives, and competition have a place in public life for the purpose of creating social value, but they do not replace the simple fact that we are responsible for each other.

I have not examined environmental economics at any great length. With economists such as Joshua Farley and intellectuals such as Bill McKibben, I have great hope that we can talk about what economic “costs” are, and what it means to say “enough.” Where capitalist
economics and Christian economics diverge is in the understanding of desire: capitalism does not make any judgment on whether desires are good or bad, merely allowing that more is more. This has consequences, also, in the way our culture is framing sexual ethics. Although conservatives distinguish between sex and property, isolating desires of status, wealth, and power from genital pleasure, this is empirically untenable. What is evident is that people make decisions about sex and sexuality for reasons not limited to pleasure or children. Fortunately, economists are creating more accurate models of human desire and social incentives, models that can find suitable examples in Scripture.

An examination of biblical ethics in the light of contemporary economic thought merits serious work. I wonder if the parables of Jesus reveal aspects of our economic life that had been formerly counted as social wisdom rather than as economic insight. Clearly the parable of the talents, “rendering unto Caesar,” and the laborers in the vineyard were examples of exchanges and incentives. How can these be described? Scripture tells unmediated stories about human desire for wealth and God. God blesses our wealth, but wealth alone does not bring redemption. Perhaps when Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he was not merely making a moral judgment. He summarized the economy of the world.

The Rev. Gawain de Leeuw is rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, White Plains, New York. He blogs occasionally at http://stbartswp.dioceseny.org/saltyvicar. This piece is reprinted with permission of Anglican Theological Review.

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The Episcopal Church: excelling in irrelevance?

By Phillip Cato

With each passing day, the profound irrelevance of the Church becomes more and more evident. In this irrelevance, the Episcopal Church excels.

Even a superficial knowledge of the events which are overtaking our nation is enough to make the case that our church has no direction to give and nothing intelligent to say.

Our economy is at the brink of total collapse. This is so self-evident that no argument needs to be made. Kevin Phillips, several years ago, in Wealth and Democracy, made the case that the United States was following the same pattern that proved the economic undoing of Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. We abandoned a producer economy for one that is primarily financialized, with all our wealth in the form of traded paper.

What he predicted has come to pass. Wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands; the middle class (the former productive class) is greatly diminished, and regularly exploited for the benefit of the wealthy. Political power is oriented primarily toward benefiting those with wealth. The paper instruments upon which this wealth depends increasingly do not represent much that is tangible, the very conditions which preceded the 1929 stock market crash.

The current administration has accrued and claimed exceptional power to act as they choose without constitutional constraint. With sleight of hand, and a willful lack of truthfulness, they have led our nation into an ostensible “war on terror” which changes identity with predictable regularity as the need to justify preemptive war presents itself.

Almost every abuse of executive privilege and power has been on full display. Justice is regularly disregarded and trampled under foot. Disregard for the poor and antagonism toward the strangers in our midst are now a consistent and macabre caricature of Biblical teaching.

In the midst of all this, our Church, the Episcopal Church, squabbles with its internal critics, and behaves as if settling issues of sexuality, and its expression in the Church, are the only serious moral issues in view.

Our bishops waste time at Lambeth and in earnestly disciplining their recalcitrant colleagues while the moral, economic and political world is collapsing around us.

Somewhere in all of this, there is a mistaken hierarchy of values.

The church stands unprepared to deal with economic hard times; it spends unconscionable amounts of money and human resources on propping up failing congregations that have no sense of mission; it is completely unprepared to deal with either natural or health disasters; it eschews any prophetic stance against a corrupt government and a moribund Congress; and it seems to have no sensitivity to the plight of its own members.

When the Church becomes totally irrelevant, and that time is near upon us, those who have looked to it for spiritual and moral leadership will have to look elsewhere.

Though God loves the world; our Church apparently loves only itself and its institutional survival. And that survival increasingly makes very little difference.

The Rev. Phillip Cato is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington. His current work is in bioethics, for the National Institutes of Health, and professional ethics.

Jesus Economics

By R. William Carroll

Recently, from the pulpit, I issued a call to our parish to raise significant funds, beyond those in our parish budget, to support our ministries that feed the hungry. In the past year, we have added support to the Good Earth Hunger Mission, a new ministry led by a parishioner, which is growing food locally to support area hunger ministries. Our thought was to begin to address the systemic causes of hunger, a global food system that presupposes an oil-based economy (both for transporting food and for making petroleum based fertilizers), a point which was driven home for us by a local organic farmer at a sustainable agriculture workshop at the Mt. Grace Appalachian Ministries Conference, co-sponsored by the Dioceses of Southern Ohio and West Virginia. We want to continue to meet immediate need but begin to think more systematically about the interdependence of social and environmental justice.

My point of departure in the lectionary was Psalm 149:4: “For the LORD takes pleasure in his people, and adorns the poor with victory.”

The context of my remarks came from some statistics cited in the Winston-Salem Journal:

A blizzard of pink slips pushed the jobless rate from 5.7 percent in July to 6.1 percent in August, the Labor Department reported yesterday.

Worried about the economy and their own business prospects, employers cut payrolls by 84,000 in August, marking the eighth straight month of losses.

So far this year, a staggering 605,000 jobs have vanished -- slightly less than the population of Alaska. The economy needs to generate more than 100,000 new jobs a month for employment to remain stable.

A separate report showed that a record 9.2 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of June.

Both sets of statistics are staggering. The mortgage figures point to the effects on Main Street of the crisis that is affecting Wall Street as well. There were nods of approval in the congregation when I noted that things are even worse in Ohio (and certainly in Athens County, where I serve) and that they have been for some time. As I observed in the sermon, these statistics are confirmed by the witness of our local hunger ministries and homeless shelter, which are seeing an increasing number of requests for assistance from people who would have previously thought of themselves as comfortably middle class. It is going to be a VERY hard winter.

In this article I want to do something that I didn’t do in the pulpit. (Don’t worry. I’m getting round to it.) My sermon’s purpose was to awaken us to local need and local response. But that is always insufficient. We also need to be politically engaged. Politics is (or can be) a means to address matters of mutual concern, the common good, which the framers of our republic, in the Preamble to the Constitution, called the “general welfare.”

Now, I believe passionately that preachers should avoid advocating parties or candidates from the pulpit. Not only is this the law, but it shows profound respect for the wisdom and conscience of the People of God, a respect that must be maintained if we are to be true to our baptismal ecclesiology. And so, even though I have some strong views about politics and the current presidential and congressional elections, I adhere to the law.

At the same time, though, I think it is the duty of those of us who are responsible for proclaiming Christ to draw attention to the real issues in this election. Surely, the central issues include those concerning war and peace, human rights (where do the candidates stand on torture?) and the rule of law, health care, and the economy.

At the same conference I mentioned above, the keynoter, Tupper Morehead of the Diocese of East Tennessee, who is my brother in Christ and in the Third Order Franciscans, spoke about what he calls “Jesus economics.” He noted that “the Church has the authority to preach Jesus economics in the churches of Appalachia.” We also have the authority to preach this economics in our cities and suburbs. We should take it to the streets, and proclaim it, by word and example, in town and country alike. The Reign of God preached by Jesus has social implications. In it, the first are last and the last are first.

First and foremost, as we cast our vote in November, we must remember the needs of the poor, who lack their daily bread and who are being forced out of their homes. The Republican Party and Democratic Party, and their respective nominees, offer very different perspectives on economic policy. Third party candidates differ even more greatly. They differ on taxation, on the relative roles of markets and regulation, and on what kind of social “safety net” they would offer to the poor among us. All would argue that their policies, in the long run, will create more general prosperity for the American people, and presumably for others around the world.

Christians have a non-negotiable imperative to assess these policy proposals carefully. And, although people of good will may differ about which approach will be most beneficial in fixing an economy in crisis, we have a moral obligation to keep the needs of the poor front and center. Christians can’t approach an election asking “What’s in it for me?” They must always ask themselves, “How does this affect other people?” and especially “How does this affect God’s poor?”

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people, and adorns the poor with victory.”

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

We all paid for Polly

Second of two parts

By Andrew Gerns

Recently I presided at the funeral of a woman named Polly, who I had come to know a bit in the months before her death. I was familiar with her medical care, and it struck me that in her last years almost all of her energy she spent on paying for it.

The more I thought about Polly’s situation, the more I realized that we are all at risk of the very same fate. Not just the poor and the working poor, but everyone who stays in a job “for the insurance” or who considers putting off a doctor’s visit or filling a prescription either because of the cost, the hassle of dealing with insurers, or an inability to handle growing “co-pays.”

Other healthcare systems around the world handle sick people the way we handle sick pets. No one is cared for unless they pay the money up front and even then they must bring their own food, bandages and relatives to care for them during recovery. We are in a system that guarantees a minimal level of access but which often saddles a person or family with a mountain of debt and which often does not cover the cost of providing the care in the first place.

The way we structure paying for healthcare poses serious moral questions for all of us. Namely, who pays for Polly? Because of the way the system of reimbursement is structured and because of the way the health care market works, we are all complicit in the health care mess.

Today we work under an operating principle that assumes that I will only pay for the cost of my care, and I want that cost as low as possible. Know it or not, we are all caught up in that game: insurer, employer and consumer. None of us want to pay more than what is supposed to cost to care for me and me alone.

And no one of us wants to pay for overhead.

The choices that are made because we only want to pay for own costs and no one else’s left Polly out in the cold.

When the Great HMO Experiment collapsed in the late 1990's and early 2000's, we were left with a system that contains many elements of everything that came before it. Which brings us back to how providers and insurances negotiate rates.

Each insurer group will go to each hospital or network and say "We will only pay $M". The hospital says well, we want to charge you "$X" because it really costs us "$Z" to provide this service. But at the end of the day, the provider will negotiate a "special rate" of $M and hope they make up for the short-fall on volume. But to justify this, to make "$M" really look like a discount, the published rate for any given service must be somewhere between $X and $Z.

So here's the formula: "$M" = rate paid, "$X" = rate charged and "$Z" = actual cost of care plus overhead. Hospitals and providers that survive and prosper are the ones who can build enough cash reserves to operate and grow based on getting as many people as possible who can, through their insurers, pay somewhere between "$M" and "$X" and enough patients who can actually afford to pay "$Z" when the insurance runs out or won't cover what they need.

The truth of the matter is that most providers have to get by on "$M" and from that pay for staff, supply and overhead. They have to staff and deliver care accordingly. Most of what passes for cost-containment doesn't contain costs at all, but shifts the actual costs someplace else.

And neither your (or your employer's or your government's) insurance premium nor your provider's negotiated rate of "$M" fully takes into account the cost of the competing bureaucracies, the one designed to maximize collections (provider) and the one designed to minimize payments (insurer). Every time you compare an explanation of benefits and a provider bill, you are caught in between the competing bureaucracies.

In truth, a provider in a reasonably busy market will charge a wide variety of rates for a wide variety of contracts looking for that magic balance of volume and reimbursement just to stay in business. If you think that you are only paying what it costs you to get the care you got, think again.

But wait, there's more. This is where we move from craziness to immorality.

If the provider has to post "$X" as their rate, even though most of the insurers that insured patients used has negotiated "$M", does any one pay "$X?" You bet! Polly paid.

Those without the "buying" power of a group pay full freight because they cannot negotiate a “discount.” That means the uninsured. That meant Polly.

When your local hospital, be it tax-exempt or for-profit, publishes it's "charity care" numbers, a large part of what you are seeing is the write-down between what it charges its poorest clients (because those with insurance including Medicare pay at a rate far below cost) and what it can ever possibly hope to collect.

In poor rural or urban areas, the cost of the write-downs can be greater than their collections, even if they are filled to the brim with patients. Without a healthy margin (or profit if the hospital is not tax-exempt), there is not enough cash to go from day to day and that means more debt. Which means that hospitals in poor areas spend much more money managing debt than paying for care.

Of course, the insurers have to make a profit to stay in business or, if they are the government, spend as little as possible for legislative and budgetary reasons. So they will do all they can to cap, limit, direct and ration care while at the same time paying as little as they can to the ones who provide the services.

The system is ripe with immoralities. Of the many immoralities of our "system" of paying for health-care, the biggest one of all is that we have broken the social contract that says that the majority of us who have help pay for the care of those who have not.

We have broken the contract that says that we are who are healthy, or even relatively healthy, and who have resources either in terms of insurance or wealth help pay for the care of those who are sick or poor, or who need extra care. We have devolved a system which will only tolerate what it seems to cost to pay for me alone and the system tries to make up for that fact with decreasing service, increasing overhead, and evermore limited access.

Having entered the system, Polly was all but bankrupted by it. One of the other documents that she never completed was the final order declaring her bankruptcy. She did not have the money to pay the court and lawyer fees to complete the process.

Polly's health suffered because her nutrition was compromised. Her baseline health was in the basement. Her dental care was non-existent, which left her open to all kinds of new health problems. She lived in substandard housing because that was what she could afford. She avoided follow-up care and basic care for things like colds and sore feet for obvious reasons. When she could, she bought her shoes and clothes at the dollar store or the Salvation Army.

On the other hand, she used to tell me or her doctor at the filling station that she had the best exercise program on earth...fifteen blocks each way. Only one way uphill!

We have a system so weighted towards the payers who can obtain the lowest rates, that there are many with no insurance or inadequate insurance who are charged the highest, unnegotiated rates out there. We have a system in which many with insurance are bankrupted because the more specialized care they need, or the longer they are in the system, the less likely it is that they will find providers who will accept only the payment assigned to them.

This is one reason why healthcare causes the most personal bankruptcies, why we have the most expensive health related bureaucracy and why we have the most inefficient and haphazard basic care delivery system of the major industrial economies.

I am not so naive to think that Polly is alone in this. Just look around your parish. There are probably many in her shoes, but perhaps not as obvious. These are the ones who are one serious illness away from disaster.

If we as a society are going to seriously and adequately address the health-care crisis in this nation, we will have to come to terms with the moral question of how we all share in the cost of each other's care. Are we responsible for each other, or not? Do we have obligations to each other, or not? We will bear, even on the most minimal level, each other's burdens, or not?

The sad truth is that one way or the other, we all paid--and will pay-- for Polly. We just didn't help her.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem and keeps the blog Andrewplus.

Who pays for Polly?

First of two parts

By Andrew Gerns

We all paid for Polly.

The other day, I did the funeral for a woman. Let's call her Polly. She lived alone, worked as a cashier in a gas-station/variety store 50 to 60 hours per week saving $5 here and $20 there to "pay off" the bills she carried after a being hospitalized for a seizure. As far as we can tell, her care was very good. Care was not the problem. The problem was that she was never going to pay her bills in anything like a normal lifetime.

She died of a massive stroke. She was able to have some of her organs donated to another. We prayed over her body at her bedside and did a pauper’s ceremony after she was cremated in a cardboard box.

I saw some of Polly's healthcare bills before she died. She was charged the highest possible rates that her hospital and most of her providers could charge. I know because I carefully track my own, everyday costs—and I am reasonably healthy—and I saw the difference that the same hospital charged Polly and what they charged me and my insurance company, and what my insurance company and I actually paid.

Between the two of us, I was the lucky one. Not only do I have insurance, but generally I do not have to pay the difference between what the hospital charges and what the insurance pays, except for a comparatively tiny co-pay. Part of my premium goes to pay for the negotiating power of the plan that my church-employer can pay for. Polly had no one to negotiate for her.

The only provider who cut her a break was her physician who often wrote off his care for her. He would make sure he bought his gas where she worked so he could check on her without her going to the office. On her death, she had mounds of charity care forms that were incomplete and unprocessed because either she did not understand them, was too busy working, or was too darned depressed.

Polly's story is everyone’s story. She is not alone. She was a little luckier because she had a small circle of folks who cared for her. But her story is a story about how astoundingly backwards our so-called health care system is: how fees are structured and how contracts with providers are negotiated.

I'm a priest not an economist, but I have spent nearly half my ministry in healthcare and this is what I have learned about how we pay (or don't pay) for our healthcare and what it meant to Polly and how we all pay in the end.

Most health insurance plans negotiate the rate they will pay with the provider or network of providers they will use. This provider could be a hospital and it might also be a pharmaceutical company.

This is why someone’s insurance will tend to emphasize one or two pharmaceutical companies over another regardless of what medication is needed and why most plans require extensive paperwork and appeals if a patient is prescribed a drug that is "off-list" and why patients are often "encouraged" to use generic or "clinically equivalent" brands through the creative use of co-pays. And why doctors are forced to use a ladder approach moving from the most general drug up to the most specific, in an attempt to keep that drug either generic or on-list, but which many times ends up costing patients lots of money in co-pays both in drugs and repeat visits and in mind-boggling waste because of both the paperwork and the volume of unused prescriptions.

But the thing I want to focus on is how hospitals and other providers have to negotiate rates with insurers and how that affects both the Pollys of this nation as well as the insured. The idea is this: the insurer wants to pay as little as possible for health care services but the provider needs to earn as much as possible through the money it collects.

In the "old days," a hospital had one rate system, usually covering three distinct operational areas: "room" which paid for the care the person received while in hospital, "board" which paid for support services that made the stay possible, and physicians who were paid separately. Often other providers and specialist areas were paid separately, too. In these "old days" there was an old-style Blue Cross, which covered hospitals, and a Blue Shield, which covered physician costs.

The system was simple, but was based on several assumptions that no longer apply about how health care was delivered: longer stays, a building boom in hospitals (that was both government-encouraged and market-driven) and the fact that providers were pretty much in charge of setting the costs.

The big disadvantage was that there was no way to contain costs and no incentive either. When the revolution of medical technology really took hold and every hospital, no matter how big or small, got into a space race of having to provide all the services and technologies that a competitor might provide. Every new technology both drove up costs and increased what hospitals charged. The old system had lots of flaws and it left many people out. It was also based on assumptions about who worked where, for how long and for what kind of company that no longer apply. The whole house o' cards collapsed in the 1980's.

The first attempt to contain this was the invention of DRGs. You know: the idea that the average appendectomy or child birth costs "$X" so that's what insurers would pay. If hospitals could keep costs below "$X" then they kept the difference, and if it cost more, then they'd eat it. The hope was that over the broad average of a typical year there would be more money kept than lost. It looked good on paper but had problems in reality. Still, some version of this tool is still with us today.

The next thing that happened was that it was decided that "cost-shifting" was bad. Very, very bad.

Cost-shifting means that a provider would pay for its poorer or money losing patients (who might not have been poor or uninsured but whose DRG-related insurance did not cover the cost of care) by spreading their costs over the whole pool of all their insured and wealthy patients. In other words, thems that had coverage helped pay for thems that did not.

When looked at micro, it seems unfair that my insurance rates should be higher because somebody else could not pay their bill. Cost-shifting became anathema in the era of the infamous Reagan "welfare queen." It was a rhetorical flourish describing a reality that never really existed but surely won votes! Cost-shifting was deemed to be bad because it seemed to encourage waste, fraud and personal irresponsibility.

But on the macro level, the end of cost-shifting meant the end of an important social contract that all of us together would share our resources to care for those who have fewer resources available to them.

The inability to address that basic social contract is the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about paying for health care today. The question comes down to this, who pays for Polly?

Tomorrow: Confronting the moral questions.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem and keeps the blog Andrewplus.

Affluent beggars

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Leafing through this week's classifieds in New York magazine, I came across the following ad in the real estate section:

WE NEED HELP BUYING AN APT on the UWS (editor's note: that's Upper West Side), 3bd2bath. YOU are a philanthropic, wealthy person who would not miss a million bucks and would be interested in donating (or even investing) in a highly targeted manner: to my family. WE are a wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community, is entrenched, happy and desperately wants to remain on the UWS (lest the city lose yet another wonderful family to the burbs). We can afford 600-700k, so you see the predicament. Can you help us??

Well, I thought, here are some grown-ups who believe in Santa Claus. So this is what Manhattan real estate prices have come to, that people who can afford to pay more than half a million for an apartment are looking for handouts. There's an absurd Little Match Girl tone to the whole ad: urban Mom, Dad, and kids standing on the sidewalk outside the Upper West Side's elegant prewar buildings, filled with longing, fingers numb in the cold. In a borough where many pay exorbitant sums to live in apartments not much bigger than a sectional sofa, the ad's Manhattan real estate envy is familiar to most of us, writ large. Now, there's something to be said for the idea that not every condo and coop in the city should end up owned by Wall Street people or international real estate investors. And with the richest two percent of people on earth owning more than half of the household wealth, maybe it's inevitable these days that middle-class people will feel poor. Maybe soon we'll be seeing similar requests from people asking for a Sub Zero kitchen ("WE are fabulous cooks!") or a Bose stereo ("WE only listen to classical music played on authentic period instruments!") or a $4,000 Capresso cappuccino maker ("WE only brew coffee with whole, fair-trade beans!").

I couldn't help noticing the theology here. In explaining their "predicament," the ad's writers appeal to the good old Protestant work ethic: they are a "wonderful, hard working middle class family who contributes to our UWS community." It's the word "wonderful" that got to me. Here's a chance, during this Advent season, to consider the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus. We are brought up to believe that if we're good boys and girls, we'll get everything on our Christmas list. Most of us recognize, by the time we reach adulthood, that life just doesn't add up that way. "Wonderful" people, we discover, experience suffering, disappointment, and loss. There are "wonderful" people living in cities and suburbs -- in New York and all over the world -- who who go to bed hungry, lack basic health care, and have no roof at all over their heads, let alone a home with two bathrooms. Talk about predicaments.

No wonder the story of a holy child born in a filthy manger touches us so deeply. We are invited to imagine, in the midst of so much hardship, the presence of joy. We're reminded that we can avoid experiencing a kind of envy that is not only unappealing, but painful, if we turn our gaze to people who have less than we do and focus on reaching out with prayers and help. And in doing so we feel blessed -- no matter where we live.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst, is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

G-forces shaking up the Church and the world

By Kit Carlson

Forces are at play in our world and in our church, and one of the best assessments I have heard lately of those forces came from a community reform expert. Peter Plastrik, co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy and The Reinventors’ Fieldbook, spoke recently at a training session for community leaders in East Lansing, Michigan. He outlined five forces, five “Gs”, that are affecting communities across America.

As he spoke, it struck me that these forces are the same ones affecting our church.

Plastrik’s “Five G’s” are:

Grand Rapids – as a metaphor for the global economy. The internet, easy international travel, and the ability to move jobs anywhere in the world have changed the economies of communities once based on manufacturing and local enterprises.

Goat meat – as a metaphor for immigration and all the challenges it brings. Consumption of goat meat in the U.S. has skyrocketed as immigrants from countries that eat goat arrive, bringing their national cuisines with them.

Greenland – as a metaphor for global warming. The ice on this large Arctic island is vanishing, and with climate change comes a host of new challenges for each community.

Gay people – as a metaphor for all the cultural challenges surrounding gender, age, and sexuality.

Geoffrey Canada – creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-based organization that seeks to serve 9,000 children, providing support from birth through college. Canada serves as a metaphor for self-empowered citizens, who don’t wait for government or other institutions to solve community problems.

A member of the audience added a sixth “G”, the Graying of America, as the long-promised demographic shift of the Baby Boom into old age begins at last.

Plastrik’s “G-forces” made a lot of sense to me. When people ask, “What is happening to our church?” they often think in terms of political movements -- liberals versus conservatives, progressives versus traditionalists. Instead, one might look at the power of these forces, playing out in the parishes and dioceses and provinces of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion.

G-1: The worldwide Anglican Communion was not so prominent 30 years ago. As the global economy has taken shape, a global Communion emerged in prominence and consideration along with it. And just as a global economy knows no borders, ecclesiastical relationships that cross borders and jurisdictions follow the same pattern of connections that criss-cross the planet and minimize the importance of local communities.

G-2: Rapid immigration into the United States brought Anglicans from around the world into American parishes. No longer is Anglican worship uniform across The Episcopal Church. Inculturation has come to us, and so we sing from many traditions, read scripture in other languages, practice Pentecost every day of the church year. The values and expectations of other cultures become part of our conversations about sex, worship, politics and a host of other issues.

G-3: The churches of the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina understand how climate change can affect our churches and communities. There is more to come, and Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana has already seen it coming. His call for the church to focus on ministries of relief and development instead of on schism and division comes out of hard experience.

G-4: There is not much to say that hasn’t been said about the cultural challenges of inclusion and acceptance of GBLT people. Joan Chittister said it best perhaps … the Anglicans just got to the issue earlier than most.

G-5: Self-empowered citizens, entrepreneurial community activists … the church is full of them. Duncan, Iker, Minns and those who would develop an alternate structure are entrepreneurs in their way. Why wait for the agonizingly slow movement of the Communion and its provinces to address Windsor, gay bishops, a Covenant, or any other issue? Why not set up one’s own alternative diocese, alternative province, alternative Communion?

Finally, there is that sixth G-force, one that Plastrik dismissed as not of interest to him. But the Graying of America, the graying of the Episcopal Church, is a real force. As I look across the faces of my parish, I see a community that has failed to effectively share the gospel with the generations coming after it. There are faithful elders and faithful Boomers … most of whom have grown children who do not themselves attend church, who are not raising the grandchildren in any faith, and who have abandoned religion as irrelevant. The leading edge of the church is dying off, and it is not replenishing itself.

And so the question is probably not – what to do about gay bishops or authorized rites of blessing. The question is really: How will we navigate these powerful forces? In a global, migratory, entrepreneurial, aging, culturally conflicted, climactically threatened world … how are we going to be Church? How will we proclaim the good news of Christ in the face of forces beyond our control?

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. In 2003, she played the apostle Paul on the world's first internet reality series, The Ark, a project of the Christian humor website Ship of Fools.

The Long Tail of the Episcopal Church

By Micah Jackson

Before I entered the seminary, I worked in business. I don’t think I’m at all unusual in that way. Many of the clerics I encounter previously earned their bread in the for-profit business world. Some of them were very successful by any measure. It’s also true that a great many of the people sitting in Episcopal pews each Sunday are businesspeople of one kind or another. So perhaps it’s not so surprising to find that many think of a typical Episcopal parish as if it were a small business. After all, any business with an annual budget of 300-500K (not unreasonable for a medium size parish) or more, with hundreds or thousands of loyal customers and committed paid and volunteer staff, would have to be considered worth the attention of a competent manager who keeps up with the latest trends in the business literature.

But despite the many similarities between a typical Episcopal parish and a typical small business, the advice given to the latter may not automatically fit the former, at least so it seems to me. For one thing,parishes are not designed to maximize economic value for their
shareholders, as one classical definition of a business puts it, and they are not free to start manufacturing another product when market forces shift. Variations in the product are good and necessary, of course, but we are all in the Gospel business, and that’s just all there is to say about that.

So it can be tricky to evaluate the effect that a particular trendy business idea might have on the Church. Doing so faithfully requires, at least, tremendous creativity and a good hold on the values of that church body. One such trendy business idea is “The Long Tail” a reconsideration of Pareto’s Principle, which most of us know as “The 80/20 Rule.” In business this would suggest that the top 20% of a business’ customers generate 80% of the sales. In the church world, we might see the principle predicting that the top 20% of pledges bring in 80% of the budget, or that 80% of the sermons come from only 20% of the Bible. In an individual case, of course, the actual ratio may be different, but overall, Pareto’s Principle has stood the test of analysis.

Chris Anderson, in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, notices an interesting thing about the way that technology (especially the Internet) affects the 80/20 rule. (Click here to see an interactive demo of The Long Tail, skip down to the asterisk to avoid the even slightly technical language to follow) He sees that as it becomes possible to reach customers farther into the niche markets (at the extreme end of the power curve) eventually there comes a point when the area under the curve (revenue) past the inflection point is greater than that before it. In other words, it is more profitable to serve these niche customers.* Consider Amazon.com. Despite the huge number of hit books they sell, the lion’s share of their sales (and therefore revenue) are books that are best described as unusual or obscure (the industry term is “backlist.”) It’s the same with Netflix, or eBay. Websites that cater to small markets, like egg noodle sculpture enthusiasts, also leverage the Long Tail.

There’s an argument to be made that websites like this one are benefiting from The Long Tail, as it would be difficult or impossible to distribute this content in magazine form, especially if we had to resort to traditional advertising support to do it. I know for sure that my feast-daily podcasts about the saints at St. Jerome’s Chapel draw a far, far larger audience than they ever could have if people had to come to my church to hear those sermons. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the Episcopal Church should start thinking of running parishes that way.

A traditional brick and mortar business (like a parish) simply can’t reach the number of customers necessary to benefit from The Long Tail. And if it could, it would be a tremendous burden, both from the parish end (where it would result in an endless schedule of low-attendance specialized services) and from the National Church end (where lots more tiny missions would be necessary, with the increased stress on clerical resources that comes with it). But thanks to the ease of reaching people via the Internet, the National Church and the Anglican Communion are not brick and mortar entities only, and neither is an individual parish. We can reach out to and minister with people from all over the world, greatly magnifying the Gospel’s impact in the world. Maybe that will benefit our parish, or another one, but we’re all really just divisions of the same company, right?

Jesus told the disciples to go out into the deep water, where there are lots of fish, just not all gathered together. When they hauled in their nets, they were full to breaking. The Internet is the deep water of contemporary society, and paying attention to the Long Tail could make or
break evangelism in the 21st century. Besides, Jesus never said “And if I am lifted up from the earth, I will gather the most profitable 20% to myself.”

The Rev. Micah Jackson, a priest of the Diocese of Chicago, is a doctoral student in Homiletics at the Graduate Theological Union. His personal blog is St. Jerome's Library.

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