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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Another Look at Elijah

I was listening to a Rich Mullins song this morning.

The Jordan is waiting for me to cross through.
My heart is aging I can tell.
So Lord, I'm begging for one last favor from You:
Here's my heart--take it where You will.

This life has shown me how we're mended and how we're torn;
How it's okay to be lonely as long as you're free.
Sometimes my ground was stoney,
And sometimes covered up with thorns.
And only You could make it what it had to be.
And now that it's done,
Well, if they dressed me like a pauper,
Or if they dined me like a prince,
If they lay me with my fathers,
Or if my ashes scatter on the wind,
I don't care.

But when I leave I want to go out like Elijah
With a whirlwind to fuel my chariot of fire.
And when I look back on the stars
It'll be like a candlelight in Central Park.
And it won't break my heart to say goodbye.

There's people been friendly, but they'd never be your friends.
Sometimes this has bent me to the ground.
Now that this is all ending,
I want to hear some music once again
'Cause it's the finest thing that I have ever found.

But the Jordan is waiting,
Though I ain't never seen the other side.
Still they say you can't take in the things you have here.
So on the road to salvation,
I stick out my thumb, and He gives me a ride.
And His music is already falling on my ears...

It is an insightful reflection on the uncommon life of the prophet.  It suggests the roller coaster of emotional and mental states the itinerant messenger of judgment must have faced.  Of course, Mullins intermingles his own life with Elijah's, bringing them together in the refrain by saying he wouldn't mind going out like Elijah.

At the heart of the lyrics (the quote above is only partial--for more click here) is the weariness Elijah must have felt after so many difficult years spent in isolation, under threat, and bearing the heavy weight of a message it seemed no one wanted to hear.  He felt like a pariah, and he wondered whether he had a friend anywhere.

But Mullins also captures what must have been a deep assurance in Elijah's being.  "Only You could make it what it had to be."  That abiding hope in God would allow Elijah or Mullins to ask one last favor:  take my heart, and take me where you will take me.  It is the basis on which he can say that his hope for salvation means risking it all on God:  "I stick out my thumb, and He gives me a ride."

Having turned the screws on Elijah recently by employing the hermeneutics of suspicion, let me come back to him with a sympathetic reading by means of Mullins's theological imagination.  Elijah bore the burden of unwanted leadership in one of the most difficult episodes of the history of Israel.  It is understandable that he resented how he was treated and that he wondered why he got stuck with this gig.  

Whatever else one might say about him, he stuck with it and pushed back the darkness to let in the light.  He set a standard of boldness (even though he sometimes ran away) that nourished the subsequent prophetic tradition to stand against the crowd.  So with Little Brother Rich, I think I can feel the old prophet.  Going out on a chariot of fire, looking back on a world that treated him bad--that's a pretty fine poetic ending.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Attacking Health Care, Medicare, Social Security: Class Warfare Waged by the Wealthy

Dean Baker reiterates two of his key ideas in this critique of a recent article full of poor analysis of the economy, published in a major newspaper.  First, the high cost of health care is the major cause of the deficit and a major contributor to economic problems for most Americans.  Second, the political struggle over who gets the most financial benefits from government economic policies is not a philosophical debate--it is a political war waged by lobbyists trying to allow a very small group of citizens to keep more of their wealth at the cost of the rest of us.  It is not philosophical.  It is class warfare waged by the wealthy.

It is also worth noting that, at least in the U.S. case, the projected long-term budget problem is due to our broken health care system. If our per person health care costs were comparable to those in any other country then we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses, not deficits.

While the health care industry is incredibly powerful in the United States, making cost reductions difficult, it is in principle possible to open the sector to trade, which would allow people in the United States to take advantage of the more efficient health care systems in other countries. Unfortunately the NYT and most other major media are such hardcore protectionists when it comes to the health care industry, they do not allow the topic of freer trade in health care to even be discussed.

Finally, this piece tell us that at its core this debate is about philosophy:

“Everywhere, though, the debate is about much more than just partisan advantage or the next election. It is a philosophical debate.”

The only evidence for this assertion is a quote from Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. There is nothing obvious philosophical about this debate. The issue is whether we are going to cut benefits like Social Security and Medicare that the overwhelming majority of the working population depends upon now or expects to in the future. The protection of these programs is supported by large majorities of every demographic and ideological group. Even large majorities of self-identified conservatives and Tea Party supporters are opposed to cuts in these programs in poll after poll.

Of course paying for the programs will require some amount of additional tax revenue (presumably mostly from upper income taxpayers) and also restructuring of the health care system in ways that will hurt the incomes of insurers, drug companies, medical instrument manufacturers, and doctors. These powerful interest groups will fight the effort to reduce their incomes in any way they can.

Since they are a small minority of the population it is understandable that they would want to confuse matters by turning this into a debate over philosophy. However there is nothing obviously philosophical about whether we should pay more than necessary for prescription drugs and medical equipment so that some people can get very rich.

Monday, November 07, 2011

An Honest Preacher

In mid-October, I participated as one of several teachers in a course for seminarians and college students as part of the Christian Community Development Association annual conference.  Jimmy Dorrell of Mission Waco coordinated the course.  He is one of the bright stars of Christian ministry in recent decades.  You can read about his work in his two books:  Trolls and Truth and Dead Church Walking.

I gave a presentation on the church and the economy, and if you follow this blog you would be familiar with much of what I had to say.  I was on a panel with several leaders discussing Community Transformation.  There were students from a dozen colleges and seminaries participating, including a pastor from North Carolina who will soon complete his M Div degree at Shaw University Divinity School, Elder Henry Rodgers, of Bethlehem Disciple Church.  Among the other students present were Jeff and Kathy Burns of Truett Seminary of Baylor University.  As we became acquainted, I found out that they attend a church not far from where I am living in Salado.

Miller Heights Baptist Church is on the southeast side of Belton, Texas, in a neighborhood that reminds me of parts of Durham.  There are small houses and some multifamily dwellings, some built for working class families and others likely built as subsidized housing for the working poor or disabled.  A little research revealed that the neighborhood is multiethnic and transitional, as a generation who first settled there gives way to new arrivals.  Having been part of urban churches for my adult life, I recognized these characteristics of the neighborhood, common from small towns to big cities.

I went to worship with the folks at Miller Heights Baptist Church this week, and there were many ways in which it felt like home.  Their web site told me I could come dressed as I felt comfortable, so I wore my standard uniform of a guayabera, slacks, and sandals.  I was a bit early.  A few dozen people were conversing the sanctuary, but the Sunday School classes had not arrived.   I found a pew near the front and hoped I was not taking someone's "assigned seat."  I apparently chose well, because people came in to sit all around me, saying their polite, smiling hellos.

Soon Jeff came in, making his way through the crowds, greeting, chatting, and doing those important pastoral things he has to do on the run before service.  Along another aisle came the pastor, Bro. Mike Meadows.  I took it as a good sign when I found the website listing him with the title "Bro."  I've always held a deep respect for my dad's commitment to be one among many, a minister set aside but not set above the people.  He always chose the title Brother, refusing to be Reverend as long as he was a pastor.  As he got older and no longer served a single church except in interim roles, it was harder to enforce, but he never changed in his convictions.

Jeff introduced me to his pastor.  Bro. Meadows made the obligatory self-effacing remarks upon finding out I was a seminary professor--he would have to go back and work on his sermon some more.  I continued to watch him work the crowd, and he has the face of someone who cares for the people God is sending his way.  Near the front of the sanctuary, he passed through several rows of children who sat together with a few adults mixed in.  They seemed neither awed nor afraid of him, but greeted him playfully, or blissfully ignored his passing by.

Having mentioned that the children were sitting in the front, I should remark on the arrangement of people in the sanctuary.  The building has a traditional central-aisle arrangement, with pews facing the front; there is a small, low platform area with a pulpit and a choir stand behind it.  The piano was moved forward toward the congregational seating, and a group of four miked singers stood just behind the piano.  One of the singers also played a guitar.  Opposite the younger children on the front left side, many of the teens sat in the front pews on the right side.  Jeff, whose duties include youth ministry, sat in that general area, as did Kathy and a few other young adults.  The rest of the pews were not stuffed full, but a respectable sized crowd mostly filled them.  Overall, the congregation looked like many urban protestant churches of this era, with many senior adults. 

One of the clearest signs that the church is making transitions from what it once was to what it will become was the music leadership.  In the more traditional location and arrangement for a choir sat a group of mostly older women.  As already mentioned, there was also a group of what many churches call "worship leaders" off to one side, and these four plus the pianist had individual mics for leading the songs.  The singers blended together well, and we sang a collection of songs of the sort that I like to see:  some hymns from the hymnal along with some contemporary chorus or worship songs that were strongly tied to biblical texts.  The congregational singing was robust, but what was more notable to me was that I did not see anyone opting out of the songs to listen or let the mind wander. 

Finally, to get to the point of my title, I want to comment on the pastor's worship leadership and preaching.  My judgment on this day was that far more significant than his sermon content (which was fine) was the way the pastor offered himself to the people through his leadership.  I use the phrase "an honest preacher," knowing that it could be interpreted differently.  Some preachers think that being "honest" means saying whatever thought they have on their minds.  They think it means telling people off by "being honest about what I believe."  There is a difference between honesty and arrogance, and there is a difference between honesty and untested emotive outbursts.

What I am talking about with Bro. Mike is an honest presentation of himself.  He chose what he knew would be a controversial topic, and he chose to deal with it in a nondogmatic way.  That in itself is admirable.  But even more important was his willingness to open up his own reflective process and growth to the congregation.  He gave them a picture of himself as a real person, and in the process created the reflexive space for them to be real people before one another and before God.  He assured them that even if they did not agree on everything, they would be able to continue to grow together and serve together.  He was respectful toward the people in the pews. 

Let me emphasize again what I saw as the key opportunity for communion with God in this worship service.  Along with everything else, the pastor lifted up God as he offered himself to the people.  He gave them a person on pilgrimage with God, and through that narration offered them a glimpse of what walking with God can be for all of us.  If this Sunday is in any way a snapshot of the ongoing work of God at Miller Heights Baptist Church, they should have many opportunities to be blessed and be a blessing in the place where God has planted them.
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