Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Work of Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our superficial adoption of it in our lives. Even before Jesus is born, in the messages brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring an unsettling message of social justice.

This year in America we will spend about $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. What amazes me is that after I do the math, I am actually surprised that it isn’t higher.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what can I give him; give my heart.

But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years, wrote a wonderful poem about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Social Security Is Not Broken . . . Yet

“Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
Genesis 41:35-36

Joseph was one of the first advocates of delayed gratification. The economic plan he presented to Pharaoh called for increased taxes in prosperous years in order to prepare for the inevitable lean years that would follow.

Our national program for the lean years is called Social Security.

Although Social Security has been an enormous success by every measurement and has been the most effective anti-poverty program in American history, and has dramatically reduced poverty among our elderly, it seems to be constantly under attack.

And that worries me.

There is a widespread belief that Social Security is broken. In fact, some polls show that a majority of Americans believe that Social Security will not be able to pay them a benefit when they retire. And one poll shows that 51% of Americans believe that scientists will clone dinosaurs before Congress fixes Social Security.

But Social Security is not broken and it is not broke. If we do nothing about Social Security, the program will be able to pay all promised benefits for the next 27 years. If we do nothing between now and 2037, then at that point the program would have to reduce benefits by 25%. But even in that worst case scenario, the benefits paid in 2037 would still be higher than the benefits paid today after adjusting for inflation.

The old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” (Although sometimes it’s a good idea to fix something before it breaks. As for example, in the case of the timing belts on old Toyotas, which worked flawlessly right up until the moment when they failed catastrophically and destroyed the engine.)

In the case of Social Security the plan seems to be to break it first, and then fix it. Which reminds me of the recent incident in North Providence where some guys (not kids, older men) agreed to trash a woman’s house in order to help her collect insurance money. It did not go as well as they had hoped and they will all probably spend some time as guests of the state. But my guess is that the bipartisan group in Congress won’t go to jail for trashing Social Security.

The plan sounds benign. As part of the massive tax cut deal there will be a significant reduction in “payroll taxes,” which means Social Security. In other words, we will intentionally underfund it, at least for a year. The cuts will benefit all working Americans, from the wealthiest to the poorest, and that’s a good thing.

But it means more stress on the Social Security system. And that stress will further undermine public confidence. In a recent opinion piece in the Providence Journal, Mark Weisbrot wrote about what he sees well orchestrated campaign against Social Security and he argues that “if you are going to take something away from people, the first step is to convince them that it wasn’t really there in the first place.”

In order to fix Social Security, two basic solutions have been proposed. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility has suggested raising the retirement age by two years to adjust to our increased longevity. And some have argued for a “means” test, since there are many senior who don’t “need” Social Security. This line of argument is based on the idea that Social Security should be a safety net, rather than a retirement program.

Both ideas sound good at first. But both ideas worry me.

The problem with increasing the retirement age (see the November 26 blog on Social Security and the Fifth Commandment) is that it might work okay for those of us with desk jobs, but for those who do physical labor it is not realistic.

The argument in favor of a needs test typically ends with the rhetorical question, “Does Warren Buffet really need Social Security?” Of course not, goes the argument, so let’s direct those resources where they can do the most good.

My fear is that if we institute a means test we will change Social Security from a retirement plan into a welfare program. And if it is a welfare program, then those who do not benefit from it will soon resent paying for it. Part of what makes Social Security successful is that everyone pays into it and everyone gets something out of it. People don’t receive Social Security checks because they are poor; they receive those checks because they worked and contributed to the program. There is a dignity in that process which is important. And it should be protected, even if it makes life harder in the short term.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The War on Christmas

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
Matthew 7:21-23

In other words, maybe saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” is not as important as living out the Gospel message.

The Puritans were first responders in the War on Christmas. And they were against it. Their influence was strong enough to minimize Christmas celebrations until well into the middle of the 19th century. Apart from their general (though overly stereotyped) opposition to anything that might seem like fun, they were against it because they believed it detracted from the real issues of the Gospel.

There is a Lexus ad which says, “No one ever wished for a smaller holiday gift.” Apparently, the best Christmas present anyone could ever have would be a Lexus. Can you hear Cotton Mather saying, “I told you so!”

But in today’s controversy, the pro-Christmas side would be happy with the Lexus ad if it said “Christmas,” instead of “Holiday.”

The best thing about the War on Christmas is that although many may claim psychic wounds and battle scars, at least so far there have been no reported deaths. The worst thing is . . . well, actually there are too many to name. But somewhere near the top of my list is that it is not the right argument. And somewhere else at the top of the list is that it does not bring out the best in Christians or in our interpretation of Christianity.

It reminds me of Gandhi’s famous quotation, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.”

In New York City, the American Atheists paid $20,000 for a billboard showing a Nativity Scene and displaying the message, “You know it’s a myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason!” The Catholic League responded with a sign of their own at the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel that declares, “You Know It’s Real. This Season, Celebrate Jesus.”

Can I declare myself a conscientious objector?

Doesn’t God want us to celebrate reason? Isn’t it a gift? And isn’t that how we understand faith? (And science, and philosophy, and everything else?) Faith and reason are not natural enemies.

In Tulsa there is a parade sponsored by a downtown pub that includes all sorts of holiday decorations and (if stories are to be believed) many Santa Clauses. What is does not have, is “Christmas” in its name. And some folks have been appalled at this latest assault on our sacred Christmas traditions. They argue that if there is to be a parade it should be officially called a “Christmas Parade.”

Allow your mind to range for a moment over all of the problems confronting our world, especially those that relate directly to the Gospel messages about peace and justice.

Decades ago when the great Methodist preacher Henry Hitt Crane spoke on college campuses across the country he reminded his audiences of the danger of “majoring in the minors.” And this is what he was talking about.

As Christians, there are lots of things that ought to keep us up at night. And there are plenty of real wars in the world, but the so-called “War on Christmas” is not one of them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God and Elizabeth Edwards

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17

Before she died, Elizabeth Edwards posted a final goodbye on Facebook. In the opening lines she wrote,

"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."

There was an immediate buzz. Not about what she had said, but about what she had not said. She had not said anything about God, or Jesus.

And in the criticism that followed, there was not much of what Elizabeth Edwards would have called “saving graces.” Nothing brings out the unchristian nature of Christians like their zeal in pointing out the unchristian beliefs of another Christian.

Her funeral was at the Edenton United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, and it was on C-Span Saturday night. In his sermon, the pastor went to great lengths to assure the congregation that Elizabeth had really been a confessing Christian with perfectly orthodox beliefs.

He said that when John Edwards had called him and told him that Elizabeth wanted him to preside at her funeral, he readily agreed. And he immediately arranged to visit with her at the Edwards home. First he visited with the family and then he spent time with Elizabeth alone. And when they were alone he asked her two questions. After reminding her of the faith she had professed when she joined the church, he asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” And she answered, “Yes sir, I do.” Then he asked, “Do you want to have forgiveness for your sins and be made right with God?” And he said that she answered, “even more strongly,” “Yes sir, I do.”

(Before I go any further, you can go back and read what I wrote about the zeal of Christians in pointing out the failings of other Christians. Guilty as charged. Luther said we should “love God and sin boldly.” I will sin boldly, and you can judge the rest.)

The pastor seemed to be a very caring and devout man. At the close of the service he implored the media people to give the family their privacy, and he spoke with concern for Elizabeth and John and their children. To his credit, he emphasized John 3:17 as much as the more famous verse it follows. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But I was troubled that he would share what might reasonably be understood as a pastoral confidence. I would never ask those questions of a person who was dying, but I understand why he did. If you believe that the gates of heaven are open only to those who profess their faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior, then you cannot let someone die without asking that question.

For that pastor and for many other Christians, it all comes down to what you believe. In fact, it really comes down to what you say you believe.

And I confess that makes no sense to me.

Elizabeth Edwards’s Facebook affirmation is outside of the general understanding of Christian orthodoxy, but maybe there is a place for Christians to speak in more humanistic terms, and in any case, I am confident that God’s understanding is much broader than our orthodoxy. As the old hymn says,

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Comes to the Red Sox

“For to all those who have,
more will be given,
and they will have an abundance;
but from those who have nothing,
even what they have
will be taken away.”
Matthew 25:29

Recently a friend posted on her Facebook page, “In honor of the holiday season, I have decided to be jolly. Will you be jolly with me?? :)”

I am not jolly. I am giddy.

The Red Sox (according to reliable sources) have signed Carl Crawford. First Adrian Gonzales and now Carl Crawford. Some might point out that neither one of them is a catcher. Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia the answer? And some (not me!) are skeptical about Jed Lowrie playing shortstop. But for now at least, I feel a sense of optimism.

In Red Sox Nation we have an abundance.

For weeks we wondered whether they would sign Gonzales or Crawford. The fear was that they would get neither. And the assumption was that they could not afford both. (Sort of like politics in Washington. One side says we cannot afford to extend unemployment and the other side says we cannot afford to give tax cuts on incomes above $250,000. And the compromise is that we will do both.)

Red Sox fans can no longer complain about the Yankees “buying championships.” There are whole teams (and probably a few small countries) whose entire payrolls will be less than the amount paid to Gonzales and Crawford.

The rich get richer.

Although it sounds like Jesus is reaffirming the economics of Major League Baseball, a closer reading shows that is not the case. In the verse from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was not talking about baseball, and he was not endorsing more tax cuts for the wealthy. The verse comes at the end of the Parable of the Talents. And (ominously) it comes just before the Parable of the Judgment of the Nations. In the Parable of the Talents, the issue is stewardship. We need to make wise use of what we have been given. And if we don’t, there are consequences. In the Parable of Judgment, we learn that in the end we are judged by what we have done “for the least of these” because when we care for the poor and dispossessed we are caring for Christ among us.

On a personal note, I was looking forward to seeing Ryan Kalish in left field. And even though (or maybe because) he did not do much after that first pitch grand slam, I would be happy rooting for Daniel Nava. And what about Josh Reddick? There is a part of me that misses the decades of Exile and the many near misses between 1918 and 2004. It was long before my time, but I can still give you the details of Dixie Walker’s hit scoring Enos Slaughter from first in the 1946 World Series. My identity was formed by the memories of Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, and Bill Buckner. (Is there anything in baseball more tragically unfair than the way Buckner’s amazing career has been reduced to that one play?)

In the Parable of the Talents, one servant gets 5 talents, another gets 2, and the third servant gets just one. The one with the five makes five more. And the one with the two makes two more. But the servant with the one talent just buries it, afraid to risk losing it. In Major League Baseball today, the Yankees and the Red Sox each have ten talents (some will argue that the Yankees have twelve), a couple of other teams have five, and everyone else has just one talent.

The latest news is good for the Red Sox, but it is not good for baseball.

But not to worry. Has Cliff Lee signed with anyone yet?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mary and the Tax Cuts

"His mercy is for those who worship him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made
to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants
Luke 1:50-55

In Luke’s narrative of the birth of the Messiah, he describes Mary’s encounter with an angel, a messenger of God, who tells her that she will bear a child. The angel also tells her that her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is much older than Mary and beyond the normal age for having children, will also give birth, “for nothing is too wonderful for our God.”

When Mary visits Aunt Elizabeth, they share together in the joy of their pregnancies. Mary’s song of praise, called The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56), contains a vision for what Biblical Scholars call “the great reversal.” In that vision, which also serves as a foretaste of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God, the mighty are cast down and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

But if the Senate has anything to say about it, the rich will not be sent away empty any time soon. Instead, the unemployed will be sent away empty and the rich will be filled with tax cuts, at least that seems to be the vision.

You may have read that Thursday the House of Representatives passed what some are calling “middle class” tax cuts. And you would also have seen that they did not vote to extend tax cuts for the “rich,” those with annual incomes above $250,000.

Actually, that’s not what they did.

The House voted to extend tax cuts for everyone.

Under their plan, everyone would receive a tax cut on income up to $250,000. Everyone, from Bill Gates to the laid off steel worker, would receive a tax cut on the first $250,000 that they earned. And everyone would pay a higher rate on income over that amount. Under that plan, the rich and the poor all get a tax cut. And no one gets a tax cut on amounts from $250,000 up to infinity.

But that is not enough for the Senate. Until the rich are completely filled with tax cuts, the unemployed will be sent away empty.

Their argument is that the tax cuts will stimulate the economy, while extending unemployment benefits will add to the deficit. And they are right on both counts. What they don’t say is that extending extra tax cuts on income above $250,000 will also add to the deficit, and extending unemployment benefits will also stimulate the economy. The independent Congressional Budget Office calculates that unemployment benefits are a more effective stimulus than tax cuts, and economists generally agree that upper income tax cuts provide less stimulus than middle class tax cuts.

For Christians, there are really two arguments here. One is about economic effectiveness and the other is about economic justice. Both are important and both deserve a lot more attention than they have received to date.