Ministry for Hire?

I understand that journalism is a contact sport and that the competition for readers is intense. That does not justify the exploitation or creation of controversy, but it does help explain it.

Recently I was directed to an article in the Huffington Post on the compensation of those who head up some high profile religious organizations. Also popping onto the radar was the story of the suspension of the German bishop by Pope Francis after the bishop reportedly spent $42 million to upgrade his residence. As well, a report was recently released charting the compensation of a variety of college majors, in which religious professionals come in near the bottom (at around $42 THOUSAND, not million).

All this attention calls for comment, particularly given our human love for scandal and judgment.

The Huffington Post article especially brought out the worst in my judgmental spirit. That proponents of the so-called prosperity ‘message’ (I can’t call it ‘gospel’) show up near the top of this list, is no surprise to me. I find it odious, but at least their lifestyle is consistent with their message.

Harder to swallow is the presence in this list of those heading up organizations devoted, ostensibly, to ministry to the poor. Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse reportedly receives $500,000 annually, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners $200,000. I could only think of how our small church in Bradenton a few years ago scraped together boxes of basic supplies to be shipped to needy kids overseas under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse. If these reports are true, Graham could have used pocket change to hire someone to provide these in our place.

Such reactions, however, are precisely what Huffington is after. Scandal used to sell papers; now it produces hits, and hits add up to advertising dollars.

I don’t question the figures (though they are inflated as they include all benefits, something that most in calculating their salaries never do). But we who see such figures should not be so quick to judge.

After the wave of condemnation passed over me, I pondered the situation of Jim Wallis. We do not know what happens to this money once it touches his fingers. The article does not ask those questions. We know nothing of his lifestyle, we know nothing of his giving habits. For all we know, he’s living on $42,000 of it and giving the rest away. He may not be. But we do not know, and yet we judge.

But why is he being paid $200,000 in the first place? Perhaps that is not his request but rather the wise judgment of a careful board. They of course will see Sojourners as an important ministry doing significant work, and they have to know that it takes an extremely talented person to manage, inspire, and oversee such a work. They may be astute enough to know that though Jim Wallis as the founder may be willing to do that work for far less, not everyone would be. Responsibly, then, they build into their budget what would be required to replace one such as Jim Wallis should something sudden happen to him. To be responsible to the ongoing viability of the work, they pay their leader not what he demands but what it would require to replace him. They may do this in order to prevent a crisis in the ministry in the face of his sudden death.

I don’t KNOW that this is the case. I’m just saying that it is a very real, and in my judgment a very responsible, possibility.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, had in the last years of his life an unusually high income, due largely to royalties from his published works and sermons. He no doubt would have made Huffington’s list and we would have wagged our heads in judgment. But would such judgment have been deserved?

Wesley died with almost nothing, having resolved early on to give away nearly all he made. He had vowed:

“If I leave behind 10 pounds, you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.”

The point is, giving only one side of a story generates page hits and stimulates our judgmentalism. But it does not necessarily give us the truth.

I don’t know the backstory of these figures. But what I do know is that our sinful and judgmental hearts find in scandal the opportunity at self-justification, giving the occasion for us to stick in our thumb, pull out a plum, and say, “What a good boy am I.” Jesus condemns greed, for sure. But he condemns the judgmental spirit as well. And both are in need of a gospel cure.

A $42,000,000 home makeover may be scandalous (though, again, the backstory and the bishop’s defense never make it into our tweets). As well we may want to judge the average pay for pastors as scandalously low.

But clearly scandalous is our tendency to leap to the most judgmental conclusions on which the worst in journalism and politics depends.

The Middle Man

Ron Unz of the American Conservative has thought for some time that so-called ‘gay marriage’ was an inevitability. What is somewhat troubling in his re-statement of his position here is his cynicism regarding the power of the church to shape thinking. I post this not to take a position on marriage, but to encourage thought about preaching. The relevant passage is this (emphasis mine):

Above all, the transformative power of the American media is once again revealed. Some time back I joked with a conservative friend that after a few years of relentless media pressure the very same preachers then denouncing Gay Marriage as the “sin of Satan” would probably be uniting same-sex couples in holy matrimony at their own churches, and so far the social trend lines seem to be supporting my prediction. After all, in modern American society the Word of the Almighty and His Holy Book may have a powerful influence, but they are regularly trumped by whatever our electronic media tells us to believe. Perhaps churches should just install television sets in front of their pews and cut out the middle man.

What do you think? Too cynical?

All the Least of These

I just finished reading Mike Beates’ helpful book Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace. The book is important and necessary, and is disarming in its direct honesty. It is a disturbing challenge to consider how the Christian church has successfully excluded the ‘different’ and the ‘imperfect’ from her community.

Disability and the gospel how god uses our brokenness to display his graceThe book stimulated two tangential thoughts which I think call for some more long term thinking.

Once again I’m struck with how God has used the non-Christian to shame the church. If any should be the champions of the weak and powerless, it should be Christians who have a deep appreciation for the gospel of grace. And yet the most forceful, effective and prophetic voices in fighting for accessibility in the broader culture have come not from Christians, but from those outside the church. Our blind spots have been legion (see slavery, civil rights, poverty). When will we have eyes to see the causes worth championing and the courage to champion them?

One cause that we have championed has been a concern for the unborn. But labor in this field, while producing local and individual victories, has not produced much in the way of a fundamental shift in public concern. After 40 years, abortion is still legal and prevalent.

And so I wonder if there is a connection between our embrace of the ’cause’ of life for the unborn and our lack of embrace of the actually disabled all around us. Causes are always easy to embrace, but broken people are not. Letter writing, petition signing and sign carrying are all fairly easy and antiseptic. But actually engaging our lives with those whose brokenness makes us uncomfortable is all so much more difficult.

Perhaps what this exposes is hypocrisy in our camp. We OUGHT to care passionately about the unborn and the women who carry them. But the reality of our caring is tested and measured by our lack of concern for the born, but different. Perhaps God withholds his blessing until we learn to love in deed all the least of these.

Boycotts and Power

Getting older does give one a sense of historical perspective.

I’m old enough to remember when Christians were supposed to boycott Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ giving it well needed extra publicity but accomplishing little else.

Then there was the angst among those planning denominational meetings when Holiday Inn began allowing the purchase of pornographic movies in units which were to be inhabited by their attendees. Boycott’s were called for, which was tough for the planners to heed.

And I can remember a national assembly of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, meeting in Florida the year the Southern Baptists approved a boycott of Disney. As the PCA debated whether to support that boycott, one beleaguered delegate pleaded that if the assembly were to approve the measure that its effective date be put off a week, as he’d brought his whole family to Florida with the promise of a Disney treat.

I’ve seen boycotts come and go with no positive impact. And so when asked by a member of my church to respond to a current drive to hold Starbucks accountable for it’s position on marriage, I answered very quickly:

I tend to ignore such things for several reasons.

1. If I chose products based upon the political activities of the company, I’d have a pretty narrow range of products available to me. I’m pretty sure Apple would go, as would Disney, and probably the NYTimes, a primary news source for me, down to the products I buy in the grocery.

2. And then I’d have to determine which political causes would be worth opposing. SBUX perhaps for its liberal social views; but then perhaps WalMart for what it does to small town economies. Where would I draw the line? Amazon sells some pretty lousy stuff, as does Books-a-Million. It’s kind of hard to make all one’s economic choices in this way.

3. A strategy is only so good as its prospects for success. If one wants to fight SBUX’s political views, pulling out in protest will gain little. Bearing a case up the chain as a loyal and supportive customer is going to have, relatively, greater impact.

Anyway, I am taking the time to respond only because I, as have you, have seen dozens of these protests come down the pike over the years, and as well intended as they are, they have little success.

I see now that my response was very pragmatic, though I stick by it.

Crossing my desktop this morning, however, was a much more theologically perceptive and reflective response by Russell Moore. His post digs deeper into the reasons why boycotts are not a fit vehicle for the Christian message.

But we don’t persuade our neighbors by mimicking their angry power-protests. We persuade them by holding fast to the gospel, by explaining our increasingly odd view of marriage, and by serving the world and our neighbors around us, as our Lord does, with a towel and a foot-bucket.

We won’t win this argument by bringing corporations to the ground in surrender. We’ll engage this argument, first of all, by prompting our friends and neighbors to wonder why we don’t divorce each other, and why we don’t split up when a spouse loses his job or loses her health. We’ll engage this argument when we have a more exalted, and more mysterious, view of sexuality than those who see human persons as animals or machines. And, most of all, we’ll engage this argument when we proclaim the meaning behind marriage: the covenant union of Christ and his church.

I encourage your reading the whole.

The are occasions to make stands and to suffer the consequences. But an economic boycott aimed at strong-arming a position is not one of them.

Seeing Blindness

Questions for a Monday morning:

As I was driving to my Monday morning office, I was pondering this question: What is justice? Apart from its meaning as just retribution for wrong, what is its meaning for the Christian wanting to act in a way true to his God in a world filled with inequality, oppression, and want? What is justice?

When I got to my ‘office’, I had a long and fruitful conversation with a colleague which raised a number of related questions, the crux of which was this:

As Christians in 2011, what are our blind spots? Pundits around us expect us to be exercised about abortion, homosexuality, and economic and political freedom. But what are our blind spots? What should concern us that we are not seeing?

The white church in the antebellum south was blind to the horrors of human bondage. The white evangelical church of the mid-twentieth century did not take the lead in the further fight for the civil rights of all people. They were blind to the oppression around them. From an historical vantage point, we can see THEIR blind spots.

What then are ours?

That is a real, and not a rhetorical, question. Comments are open for charitable contributions!

Response to a Terrorist’s Death

Rarely does my first open of the newspaper in the morning produce such surprising news as this morning when the headline announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. This had been so long in coming and so often frustrated that I never imagined anything ever happening.

My initial surprise then bled over into reflections upon what the proper response to this should be, particularly among Christians.

I find that I cannot be a fan of death in any of its forms. Death is in this world as a judgment, a curse; the Bible teaches that death is an enemy. I am appalled at the aberration of human thinking that leads to the murder of 3000 innocent men, women, and children simply going to work ten years ago. I’m appalled at the twisted thinking that leads those trained to save life to determine that that unborn child is not life and qualifies for termination. Death is the enemy of what it means to be human.

And yet, death is an enemy which in this world has to be mustered to our use. It is in this broken world the currency of justice, and a weapon given to those who rule for the cause of peace.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3, 4)

I have said before that because of the possibility of misusing this weapon that the government should take great care in, if not abandon, its use. But it is a just weapon which has its place and I would be loathe to suggest that the government had anything less than a calling to find this man and bring justice to him.

But somehow I find the celebrations to be unseemly. Death is death. No matter how evil is the one who has received justice, death is still an awful thing in a broken world.

Several Twitter posts helped bring this to a sense of perspective for me.

Author and critic Jeffrey Overstreet rightly challenges the sentiment which may underly our celebrations:

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,
lest the Lord see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from him. (Proverbs 24:17-18)

Challenging words for those who honor the God in whose book they reside. Death should not be the catalyst for a party, should it?

And yet, there is a desire to celebrate. Musician Derek Webb pinpoints the proper context for that celebration in his short post:

dont celebrate death, celebrate justice

In celebrating justice we celebrate an attribute of God which his kingdom brings in increasing measure. Justice is something to cheer, albeit inwardly. And our celebration ought to be focused upon the God in whose hand is justice.

Finally, I was encouraged as well by the thoughts of minor league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (aka @TheGarfoose):

While I understand the God Bless America sentiment, how about God Bless every nation terrorism has caused senseless pain and suffering?

Such encourages us to subdue the nationalism and recognize that an enemy of something greater than our country has been brought to justice. And this is good.

Messianism and Realistic Thinking

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post which referenced the scandal regarding Greg Mortenson, I found wisdom in this, again from Megan McArdle. We look for Messiahs who can do anything and fix everything. But mere men are mortal and the problems of the world resist instant, overnight, single-handed solutions. And yet we look for such.

If we refuse to fund anything but the most ambitious products, we are vulnerable to con men, or starry-eyed optimists who don’t understand what they’re up against. We can’t transform the lives of the global poor overnight. We can make them better. But only if we are clear-eyed about the projects that we undertake.

There is great work being done in the world. But it will tend to be small scale, limited in scope, and incapable of grand claims of success. But there the kingdom of God is being built.

For sober thinking on development, I encourage people to go here.

I’ll Be Dumber

I’m sad. I have benefited a great deal from free digital access to the New York Times over the past several years. However, this was announced via email today:

Today marks a significant transition for The New York Times as we introduce digital subscriptions. It’s an important step that we hope you will see as an investment in The Times, one that will strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform. The change will primarily affect those who are heavy consumers of the content on our Web site and on mobile applications.

Their decision to move to a paying model is, no doubt, what an ailing news industry has needed. But the end result is that those of limited resources are cut out of the loop. The $60 I would need to pay, annually, is far beyond what I can justify.

I knew this was coming, and was hoping for a pricing strategy similar to what one finds with iPhone apps – a low price offset by huge volume. Here’s hoping that market pressure brings the price down.

Until then, I’ll be dumber.

Let’s Be Honest

Few news organizations have as many people in as many places covering as much stuff as the New York Times or National Public Radio, and so I trust them as sources of good and relevant and accurate information. And yet try as they might to be objective, and they do try, that they cannot succeed should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the strength and blindness of human bias.

Several articles in the NY Times lept out at me this past week or so as revealing this blindness. Two address the recent efforts of the majority Republican US Congress to reduce spending. One is an op-ed piece about those cuts whose headline is “The G.O.P.’s Abandoned Babies”. The other is an editorial headed “The War on Women”.

In both, the pro-life tilt of the Republican party is used as a foil against which to portray the party as having no compassion for children or women. They are, the author of one says, “pro-life before birth and indifferent afterward”. Their efforts to restrict federal funding of abortion services are nothing less than misogynistic.

This is, of course, no better than a conservative paper trumpeting the extension of abortion rights as “The War on Babies”. And it does not matter who is in power and who is making cuts, when budgets get cut, those cuts are made as carefully as possible to effect those with the fewest number of votes. As David Brooks pointed out, in the same publication, the problem does not lie with ideology or party, but with politicians unwilling to face their difficult task.

So, pardon me, Mr. NY Times, your biases are showing. I know these are opinion pieces. But the headlines you gave to them suggest the tilt.

Ironically, the Times this week as well ran a story about the New York City Council being incensed that crisis pregnancy centers in New York do not advertise themselves as ‘not providing medical or abortion services’, ‘tricking’ women into walking into their ‘trap’ and then feeding them loads of mis-information, contrary to honest service providers like Planned Parenthood.

Okay, I know that there are crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose operational practice is less than stellar. But they are rare. If I might make an observation on those that I have had the privilege of being associated with, their whole goal is to give the information that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are denying women. The mis-information is not on the CPC side of the street, but in the halls of the abortionist who will not provide the woman an ultrasound to see the baby’s beating heart to make sure she wants to go through with a procedure that will stop that beating heart. The ‘war on women’, rests with those like Planned Parenthood who happily support efforts to get pregnancy centers to fill their advertising with disclaimers, but staunchly oppose bills to require that THEY THEMSELVES give accurate information to the women whose abortion fees fund them.

I’m all for civility. But I treasure honest clarity as well. Not seeing a whole bunch of it here.

And finally, in the Irony of Ironies Department, Life Division, NPR ran a story this week on Republican efforts in the House to alter EPA funding. One concern is that changes in the regulatory power of the EPA will reduce the agency’s ability to control mercury emissions, a pollutant particularly dangerous, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “for young children”. To raise awareness of this danger, the Environmental Defense Fund is running a television ad stressing this danger by using footage of an ultrasound of a fetus. The same ultrasound that Planned Parenthood refuses to show their patients, unconcerned, it would seem, about an abortion’s danger for “young children”.

The human heart is incapable of impartiality. Read. But read with discernment.