Monday, August 17, 2009

Who Wants to Hear About Grace?

One of the most insidious devices used by Satan to destroy us (personally and socially) is the story of the self-made woman ... who, by dint of her own energies and creativity, masters the world and achieves success.

American mythology is filled with images of frontier women and men bravely hacking their way through the impenetrable wilderness, fighting off wild beasts and staving off savage attacks from those who would foolishly resist progress. The loner. The entrepreneur. The successful!

American religion, as well, has drunk deeply from the well of this salvation-by-works view of life, turning many an American pulpit into a podium for motivational jargon and silly stories that always bring a tear to the eye without the genuine transformation essential to the gospel of a real Christ - a living Christ who invites us to deny ourselves, trust God radically, give away profoundly, take up our cross and follow unconditionally.

Why is this notion of a self-made woman such an insidious idea?

Well, for one, it's patently false!

If one probes beneath the surface of the lives of the successful, one discovers the hidden imprint of grace, an imprint discernible through the lens of faith, itself a gift from God.

That's the point, I suppose - life is a gift from God, every bit of it, determined by God. Though we must be careful - this idea has been used by the powerful and the wealthy to justify the poverty of others and the maintenance of the social status quo as if it were the will of God, forever and immutable. Hence, the Victorian objection to Darwin who suggested that systems actually change. Churchly high pulpits linked arms with positions of privilege to fight Darwin's ideas and to promote the "created order ordained by God" to keep others in slavery and some in the lap of luxury. How convenient to believe that poverty and privilege are ordained by God.

But the point remains: the Bible and the work of good theologians point to the mysteries of grace that bestow wealth and power without our participation. Wealth and power - gifts from God, irrespective our character, our morality, our faith or our intelligence. Ouch! Did I just say that?

Socially, the myth of the self-made woman perpetuates the kind of pride that divides a society against itself - the "successful" person, imaging her success to be of her own making, looks down her snoot at everyone else, and then publishes a book or two about how smart she is, and if working-man Pete and single-mom Susie could only be as smart and as hard-working as she's been, why, they'd be successful, too, living on easy street and enjoying the well-deserved fruits of their labors.

Clearly, one of the fiery darts used by the Evil One to puff the soul and destroy our social conscience.

On the other hand, when one confronts the mystery and the joy of grace, one realizes, quickly, just how fragile our success is - how a million little factors, way beyond our purview and control, have brought us to this point in life. It truly is "amazing grace," and such grace leaves us spell-bound and grateful and utterly humbled.

In the face of grace, we begin to see why God has blessed us ... so that we might be a blessing to others (without questioning and judging their status even as we question and judge our own status in the light of grace), and use our position to fight the larger evils that oppress and destroy body and soul.

The wealthy and the powerful, if they truly understood the source of their wealth and power, would all become deeply radical, working tirelessly to change the hideous systems of disparity and death, even supporting a much higher tax rate for themselves, because taxes are the means of a shared responsibility to care for one another, paying their taxes with joy, giving thanks for what they have without demanding ever-more.

Living in the power of grace, the wealthy and the mighty would devote themselves to legislation and programs to provide the best of schools for every child everywhere, to promote unions for the protection of the guys and gals who turn our beds and serve our food and wash our cars and clean our streets and fight our fires and solve our crimes and fight our wars. Living in grace, the powerful would work to change the world rather than using charity as a sop to the poor and a salve to a greedy conscience.

Grace no longer asks the question: Why are poor people poor? As if it were their fault.

But asks the larger question: Why has God given me so much?

And then grace rolls up her sleeves, figures out how to spend a whole lot less on the self and engage a whole lot more in making this God's world, as it should be, after all.

Grace - who want's to hear it?

But it's the truth, and only the truth, the gracious truth, shall set us free at last.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is the Prosperity Gospel Sick?

When I was a young pastor in the coal country of West Virginia, south of Charleston, up the Kanawha River, and then to Nellis and Brush Creek, I was confronted the first time with the spiritual pickpockets of the American prosperity gospel ... a sick system playing upon the fear and dreams of America's poorest.

These days, millions of Americans buy into this corrupt version of the gospel, and folks like the Copelands continue to enrich themselves at the expense of middle class folks hoping to be rich and the poor hoping to be middle class.

For more about this hideous distortion of our faith, click HERE.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Promise, So I'll Stay

Been thinking a bit … always slightly dangerous …

Sure, we have our ills, who doesn’t?

Been reading 2 Samuel … who doesn’t have their ills?

But it’s the promise of God …

To be faithful … faithful to the likes of us … Joabs and Davids and

Absaloms and Bathshebas and Uriahs and lusters and lovers and

Killers and plotters and avengers and women and men who still

Somehow, are after God’s own heart, because God is steadfast in faith.

That’s what counts … that’s the story … that’s the gospel.


And, sure, we have our ills.

But it’s the promise that sustains us.

We can’t build it.

We can’t kill it.

We don’t get there.

It comes to us!

The promise.

Glad to be a Presbyterian … we have some of that promise-sturdiness in our gut …

Something of that hope, because God is greater …

And maybe it’s God who’s shrinking us …

Like reducing a good sauce, to intensify it’s flavor ..

And teaching us to weep.

Some would quit and walk away to their own peculiar brand of ills.

But I’ll stay, and I’ll weep, and I’ll hope and work and stay the course.

Because of the promise.

It comes to us.



Gratitude …
Sure, it’s a good word.
Who doesn’t want to be grateful?
Or at least, to talk about it.

But gratitude can be a surface thing.
Like a suntan, fleeting for a season …
Words we say, or sing, or pray.

But deep down, something strange and dark.
We actually believe in ourselves more than God.
That it’s our work,
Our diligence,
Our intelligence,
Our drive,
Our ambition,
Our dreams,
Our … whatever … fill in the blank …
That made the day and spread the table,
And filled the bank account and filled
The gas tank.
And I did it my way.

I mean, is it me that provides the daily bread spread upon the table?
Or is there some hidden mystery here that I prefer to ignore.

Some might call it chance.
Or fate.
Or the luck of the draw.
Or it is what it is.

A mystery, that I’d like to ignore … that I have things … and a home … daily bread … and work.
Some would call it grace.
Even God.

But if it’s grace that provides …
If it’s God that gives …
Then I can’t be anything but really grateful …
And humble …
And never again look down my nose at anyone who has less …
And never again suggest that I did it, and so can they,
If they would only work as hard as I have worked hard …
As if I could make the sun rise,
And the wheat grow,
And the stocks rise,
And the world go around …
By my work.

Paul the Apostle, in a fit of disgust with those who pinned
Medals on their chest, wrote,
“I’ve worked harder than all of you.
But it really wasn’t me.”
It was grace at work within in me.”

Poor Paul.
He can’t escape grace.

Grace gives him the work, and
The strength.
The vision.
The moment.
The opportunity.
The “luck” as some would say.

Just grace.
Damn it all!
Just grace.

To shape these hearts into something sweet and soft.
Kindly and gracious.
God gave it all to me: every bit of it.
And God might well take it all away, if that’s what it takes …
To transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

To say the prayer with simple trust:
“Give us this day,
our daily bread.”
Now is the time ...
a test
a moment
a word
a fire
a rush
a sound