The Poor Still Sit On The Back Row With The Baptists

I’m pretty sure that my Baptists friends (if I still have any), don’t always appreciate my affectionate humor when it comes to them.  However, in my defense, since I am an ordained Baptist preacher (I know, I know), I feel like I can poke fun at the “fan damily” and hold my head high while chewing gum at the same time.

You see in America, Baptists get pegged as being the group that sits as far in back of the church as humanly possible, thus we call them “back-row Baptists”.  Yet the truth is, this is a tendency of American Christianity I think as a whole.  The reason is, that most of us are eternally inoculated to any chance of catching the real stuff of Christianity, so sitting on the back row suits us as the perfect way to get just enough of something churchy without getting the real thing.  It’s safe there, no one is really going to call us out, and we can exit out the back door before the preacher finishes the closing prayer without anyone giving us a passing glance.  It’s like we really do have a cloak of invisibility.  I guess that’s why I decided to sit the poor on the back with us for this short visit to church, because they too hardly get a notice anymore inside of an institution that used to be notorious for championing their cause in the world.

Back In The Day

Now as one can imagine, this is much too broad of a subject to unpack rightly in a blog post.  But hopefully, I can at least chime in on something that I think we should be able to notice readily.

Of course, it’s no secret that the church in its early beginnings was one that attended to the cause of the poor, the widows, the sick and dying; and took in all of the dregs of society the roman world deemed expendable.  In fact, several of the Pauline epistles were written in the context of Paul and others collecting funds to give to the church in Jerusalem for a famine that they were experiencing.  In addition, the book of Acts tells us that the early apostles had to appoint men for outreach to the poor because the need had become so great; and as they took up the quandary of the poor, the watching world took eye-dropping notice, which is documented historically ad nauseum.  In fact, even as the apostle Paul was coming into the faith after his persecution of Christians, biding his time till he would be released to the gentiles in full measure; in the book of Galatians, he reminds us that he was given the “right hand of fellowship” by the other apostles, and was simply asked to “remember the poor”.

And the truth is, the old testament also bleeds care for the poor and the needy, and it’s obvious extension into the new testament adds to the already exhaustive case for it being one of the people of God’s highest priorities in complementarity of taking the good news to those who have not yet had the chance of either accepting or rejecting it’s truth claims.  And yet, if this is the case, one wonders if we are by and large now still known for being those with this task as our chief modus operandi.

Part of the Problem

And of course, you can bet dollars to doughnuts, that the first rebuttal in questioning my brief thesis here are accusations of the church not wanting to be accused of a mere “social gospel” stance, where we give people a sandwich as a cheap substitute for the “good news” as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.  The truth is, as lines are drawn in the sand, one can’t help but notice the irony, in that the more conservative branch of the church (who actually still believe the scriptures) have a tendency to err on the side of rejecting the social gospel’s implications, as the mainline branch of Christianity (which seems to believe anything the cultural wind now blows up their skirts) seems to be holding up the biblical standard of ministry to the poor as the only thing that now keeps their skin in the Christian game. And as I contemplate this with a watching eye, I wonder how we have come so far as to separate two things that seem to be a part and parcel of the same gosh-darn message.  As a result, I think those looking in at what we’re up to these days are rightfully bewildered.

Equally problematic, is the fact that part of our hesitation in aligning our cause to the poor is due to not wanting to be guilty of helping those who should have been helping themselves all along (we’re almost sure there is a verse that says that somewhere). The equal faulty logic is that of lumping all the poor into the same basket, which causes us to overlook or simply ignore the obvious casualties that living in a capitalistic economy (the best we’ve come up with yet) can leave lying on the ground all around us unawares.   This includes those of us who can no longer continue to adapt and reinvent ourselves vocationally, or who have no support network to help us pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; and as a result, can be left holding up a sign clearly visible on our way to Walmart.  This is not to mention the vast number of poor children and the elderly who are the real tragedies of the never ending story which is simply not accurately told by left or right leaning pundits, and whose book has been shut and simply tossed into the “Obama phone” basket.

The Expediency that Crept In

 O.K. I realize we all know these things, if we are at least honest with ourselves a little longer than a nanosecond, but for those of us who call ourselves Christ’s followers, our reaction should not be so simplistic and superficial.  You see part of the problem is that the church, who was once known as the defender of the true poor caught up in the tailspin of this thing we call life, has turned what was once a calling and apprenticeship to Christ as true followers on a mission, to a career path whose specializations have choked out the remaining month at the end of the money.  And in this current hour of the mass marketization of the franchise of the church and its mavens in tow, what we find is that sometimes 80 to 90% or more goes to the upkeep of the now finely oiled machine.  As a result, very little is left to send true pioneer missionaries to unreached lands, or to help subsist the poor in the household of God (whom we’ll always have with us); or to also reach out and own the cause of the homeless and poor just outside our stain glassed window.  It is of course no secret that with a church on every corner, and some that span the circumference of a city block, the church collectively (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants) could solve the problem of homelessness in mere seconds flat.

At the very least, we could do so among those who failed the “dog eat dog world” of our American experiment, and simply need to buy much needed time to reengage in a world that virtually ignores their true existence on any given day.  To be sure there are multiple variables in this equation for consideration outside the scope of this blog.  However, the fact remains, that while the church by and large will continue to bypass the implications of my brief critique and other voices like it, those we are supposedly called to reach with our “good news” secretly know that we are the last true beacon of hope for those who have no power and no voice, and yet they sit back and wonder why we’ve abdicated our one last true apologetic in this late hour.

Back to Business As Usual

And the truth is, the poor really aren’t on the back row though with the Baptists.  That’s my bad.  Oh, they are there with us, but they are in the front and in the middle, desperate for all the hope they can muster before Monday’s realties settle in like an all too familiar friend.  They are there with their predicament, yet afraid to show their true hand for fear of the waxing generalizations of their circumstances, which is always nothing more than a problem of their own making.  They are also down the street, they’re the neighbors who went and took our neighborhood, and to be sure they are also the basket people walking around and mumbling for perhaps some of your loose change.  They are also the kids with a heap of family dysfunction and yet always broken pocketbooks, and those who can’t even buy a job, much less “get” one that can take them out of the “working poor” status.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch; the back-row stumbles in.  Hush now! For the show is about to begin.

Selah

 

Reading From the Wrong Script

A Bad Funeral

It’s been several years ago now that I had the grave misfortune of attending a funeral none of us ever want to attend.  It was the service of a once precious little girl that grew up way too fast in a mad, mad world, assimilating all too naturally from her life’s’ pedigree into the all too predictable “fast lane”.  A lane we’re told is sure to make anyone lose both their mind and life—and yet the latter was to come to her first.

I had a brief smidgeon of time to be involved in her life before the end of her innocence, and my wife and I bumped into her again as a girl all grown up with babies of her own; extremely lost, but continuing the fight that was hers since the day she first put her foot on the ground.

As we plopped into our seats that somber early afternoon, one could not help but notice the clientele by the litany of escalades in the parking lot–and by the clear demarcation of illegal apothecary types dispersed among the audience.  It was a population riddled with those who were living on life’s jagged edge, and yet ripe for hearing a message in this captivating hour that pointed to some north star of truth and hope for those with ears to hear. Or shall we say, it was an audience prepared for a preacher of good news.  Yet as the minister began his message, after a few quite interesting eulogies and the like, the hopefulness I had for help to be forthcoming for this audience that were lost in a masquerade of their own making, was quickly drowned out by words of a man holding the wrong script.

Who Stole the Pastor’s Lines?

It seems that the pastor, though not really having a precedent from the lips of Jesus nor his apostles, felt that the majority of his homily should be focused on the fact that they were all…well, sinners.  I guess he figured that somehow they were unaware of this fact.  And though I believe there is a time and a place in a message for this reality to come to bear on an audience, due to the travesty of this particular moment in time, the need of the hour seemed to be in pointing them to an absolute in a way that they could both understand and receive.  A truthfulness that would lead them to begin asking the deeper questions and wrestling with their life as a “to go bag”, rather than “preacheresque” dreams of an altar call of nothing more than jailhouse religion at a bloody funeral for goodness sakes!  But my analysis of the necessity at hand would not have its day, the true gospel was not preached, and I’m quite sure most business was carried on as usual as everyone exited the missed opportunity.

Christianese

This led me to ponder the fact that this is all too characteristic in Christendom even today, where we speak in “Christianese” rather than in the language of the kinds of people we are engaging.  And the reason is, because we are merely reading from a script we have well-rehearsed after eons of bad Sunday School, a faulty hermeneutic, and best-selling books by those who assure us that the gospel absolutely has to beat the Hell out of you before you can even begin to have hope for that uncloudy day.  And there is indeed a grain of truth in every lie, so let me briefly explain.

Read the Book Man!

 Jesus himself gave us some examples of knowing your audience.  For instance, when talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who was also a curious seeker of the truth, he chided him a bit, but was gentle in getting him to understand why there was a need to be born “again”.  Yet with the merely religious and patronizing scribes and pharisees, his patience wore thin; as he riddled them with questions they could not answer, and diatribes of which they would not soon recover from.  Yet all the while, it was the sinners who in fact “knew” they were that he gave the greatest freedom and latitude.  It was an open invitation to walk with him for a little while and take a little look see, and perceive if perhaps there was a way, a truth and indeed a life they should follow other than the false gods of their own making. He brought the best wine to their parties, healed their lame and dying, and once they took it upon themselves to actually decide to follow the man from Galilee, he implored them to “go and sin no more”.  In short, Jesus patiently loved people into the kingdom starting with where they were at. He was not in a hurry to count the “decisions for Christ”, because he wanted to make sure that people were “all in” for the long haul, or not at all.  In that sense, everything was black and white for Jesus.

We then have some examples from others, although the greatest soul winner of the last two millennia, the apostle Paul, gave us the insightful lessons in “non”-scriptedness. It was instead a speech rooted in none other than the law of Christ, that reminded us in I Corinthians chapter 9 that he became “all” things to “all” people in order to win some.  To the Jew, he became like a Jew, to those without the law he became as one without it, and to those who were weak, he became as weak.  This should cause those of us who call ourselves heralders of the gospel message to retune the antennas of both our ears and our speech.

Again, Paul reminds us in Colossians 4:3-6, as he asks for their prayers for himself as a communicator of the gospel where he writes:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a doorfor the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.  Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (ESV)

I’m going to go on a limb here and resign to the fact that some things are as plain as the nose on our faces, and thus need no further explanation.  But I do think Paul even gives us an actual example many times of what this might actually look like.  His most famous one of all however would have to be his sermon on Mars Hill where he engages every Tom, Dick and Harry wannabee philosopher in Athens who constantly gathered to hear the next “new thing”.  He does so by at first quoting from their own poets whom they respect, gives a passing credence to their own belief system, and then used a tangible bridge builder by talking about an “unknown” god they perhaps seek but know nothing as of yet about, in order to begin an exercise in winsome conversation.  He reminds them that it is indeed man’s quest to both seek and even find God, and then assures them that even in their sinfulness, God is so very near to them, and indeed can and will be found if they so desire.  And in fact, it is not until he has done a lot of fancy footwork in laying out the gospel, that he politely reminds them that God is most emphatically calling them to repent.

The God of the Living?

I am reminded of these clear signs from both the Master and His most successful missionary, and yet one wonders if any of us have been listening at all.  And as a result, I secretly weep for those who continue to have to listen to a script nobody is even remotely paying attention to anymore. It thus becomes evident to me, that the ones doing the preaching no longer read the headlines, and that to most truly lost people, God is still dead indeed.  And it’s not the overabundance of Nietzsche’s disciples who are still killing Him I’m afraid, but rather the evangelists who have clearly disregarded how to actually raise him from the dead!

 

Selah