My Latest Book–The Revolutionary Power of the Lord’s Prayer

Along with being one of the most powerful nations in the world, the United States is a highly Christian country. A 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that the U.S. had more Christians than any country in the world, over 246 million. The number has dropped over the years, yet the United States continues to have a majority of Christian citizens—slightly more than 70 percent of U.S. Americans identified themselves as Christian in 2014.

Have you ever wondered why, when we have so many Christians in our beloved country, it is still plagued with deep societal problems that seem impenetrable to all efforts to resolve them? Problems like the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world; a growing, staggering gap between the rich and the poor; entrenched poverty and all of the ills that come with it; an increase in both labor and sex trafficking, which includes children; a proliferation of gun violence; and racial animosity that continually shows up in racism, racial profiling, racial disparities, and racial discord.

Many Christians think they should not concern themselves with these type issues, other than maybe through prayer. They may believe these are governmental concerns, not connected to their faith beliefs. Lots of folks misinterpret the legal expression “separation of church and state” to mean “separation of my faith from our country’s problems.” If you believe that the welfare of people in your country is not connected to who you are as a follower of Christ, you should pay closer attention to what Jesus did and taught while on earth.

In his first sermon, Jesus said he was anointed to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus’ ministry was not just about saving spiritual souls, it was about helping people who faced earthly troubles. When John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah, Jesus responded by describing what he had accomplished: the blind received sight, the lame walked, the lepers were cured, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the good news was being preached to the poor (Luke 7:18-23).  And Jesus clearly expects us to do likewise: He taught that those who will be received into heaven are those who feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those who are in need, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners. Whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46). Could Jesus have been more clear about what he expects from those who claim to be his followers?

The Gospel of Luke tells us that after the disciples had been with Jesus for some time, one of them asked him to teach them to pray. At this point in their journey with Jesus, the disciples, both men and women, had given up their livelihoods, their families, their security, and their comfort to follow him. They had not only witnessed much, they had also done amazing things in Jesus’ name. They were not new in the faith when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray!

Jesus knew what the disciples would need to do the work he had planned for them. He also knew the great struggles they would face. Jesus’ response to their request to teach them to pray was clearly designed to help them focus on praying for what was most important to enable them to do his will. He gave them the precise words they should pray to become the best disciples they could be. Jesus’ response to the simple request of his disciples was short and straightforward, but as are so many of his teachings, it is packed with amazing depth and power.

This potent prayer is for all of us who claim the name “Christian.” I believe that when Christians think seriously about why Jesus taught us the precise words of this prayer, and when we pray the prayer with a sincere, deeply felt desire to be the best disciples we can be for Jesus, the true power of the Lord’s Prayer will pour out to change the Christian faith. Not only will Christianity be revolutionized, but Christians themselves will become empowered to revolutionize our communities, our country and the world. This is how we begin to solve the systemic problems we face in our nation, and it is what Jesus has always expected us to do—work together to help make our nation a place where God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven.

So we’ve titled my book “The Revolutionary Power of the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s a study for individuals and groups, including relevant life stories, “deepening” information and study questions. I hope you will read it, find it empowering, and share it with others. It will soon be released by Judson Press. You can go to their website to pre-order.

To my American Baptist family, I will be presenting the book at the 2017 Biennial Mission Summit in Portland, Oregon. I hope you will join me. It’s the learning opportunity on Saturday, July 1, at 3:45 pm, called “On Earth as in Heaven: Discipleship in Action.”  Preregistration is requested.

There is power in the name of Jesus! To wield this power, we must be brave enough to live our faith out loud and loving enough to care for others even more than we do for ourselves. Isn’t that just like Jesus!

Angels vs. Demons

Our country is going through a really rough time right now.  So much angst in our Nation’s Capitol: The House of Representatives’ attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act by refusing to pass a budget, resulting in an historically destructive shutting down of the federal government, the looming debt ceiling battle, which portends more of the same,  and the mayhem caused by people with mental illnesses–the woman who tried to drive her car onto the White House grounds because she lost her job and the man who used legally obtained weapons of mass destruction to kill innocent people in the Navy Yard.

I’m convinced that all of this is nothing less than an epic battle in the war between angels and demons.  What?  Did I really say that in such a public space???  Yes.  I did.  We are witnesses to a battle over the soul of our country.  Isn’t that what heavenly battles are always about, saving souls?

And the thing is, most of the humans who are being used to wage this battle think they are the good guys–believing they’re on the side of the angels, knowing that they’re fighting against the demons.  (I say most of them, because I know there are some folks, at the highest levels and most secretive places, who know that they are not angels.)  But most folks caught up In fights like this think that their side is right, and that makes them think they’re the good guys. So we need to figure out who really are the good guys.  Are we on the side of the angels or the demons?

One way to figure this out is to examine our behavior in the battle. When we find ourselves doing things that good guys don’t do, we can’t really be the good guys anymore, can we? Like when we find ourselves feeling it’s okay to cheat in order to get our way or thinking it’s okay to take away somebody else’s right to vote to keep our positions of power.  Another thing to examine is how we feel about the other side in this battle, like when we find ourselves being driven by hate rather than logic (did you see all those people who ‘chose’ the Affordable Care Act over Obamacare?) or when when we find ourselves thinking that all those people must be evil, even when we don’t know them.

Another way to determine who’s side we’re really on is to examine our priorities. Have we chosen the side we’re on because we want our lives to be more comfortable, regardless of what it means to the rest of the people? According to my reading of the bible, when our side takes the position that is most harmful to the poor, we are not the good guys. This is the most important point for me.

In Luke’s version of the sermon on the mount, Jesus pours out blessings on the poor (not just the poor in spirit, like in Matthew’s version). As theologian R. Alan Culpepper tells us, Luke was doing just what he intended to do, to make clear that Jesus came to “overturn every conventional expectation of this world” by pronouncing blessings on those who were the outcasts of society.”  Jesus made radical statements about altering the ways of the world, and when we pay close attention to God’s preference for the poor, we find it all throughout the bible. How many times do we see God protecting the weaker from the stronger, the poor from the rich and powerful, using the lowly and not the one the world favored?  LIke when God saved the Hebrew children who had been enslaved by mighty Pharoah.  Or when God helped little David defeat the Giant Goliath.  We hear Hannah singing that the Lord raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to sit them with princes.  We hear Mary sing that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Over and over again, we see God helping out those who are at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

Yes, when our side is the side of the rich and powerful, taking positions that will be harmful to the poor, we better watch out, because that’s not the side of the angels.  And God’s angels are always the good guys– and always more powerful than demons.

Angels? When you stop to think about it, in todays world angels are most often depicted as either sweet, little babies or gentle looking women with beautiful wings and harps.  And demons….whew!  They’re always depicted as powerfully frightening.  I don’t know how angels got to be so sweet and innocent looking in our minds, but we need to know that angels are way more powerful than demons.  Our bible tells us that over and over again. It was the demons who sent the giant Goliath to intimidate and kill the Hebrew children, but it was God’s angels who directed the rock from David’s slingshot so that it landed precisely where it needed to land. In the story of Esther, it was demons who used King Xerxes’ assistant Haman to get the king to sign an edict to kill all the Hebrews, but it was the angels who made Esther look particularly charming when she put her life on the line to go to the king, who couldn’t help but agree with whatever she asked him to do. And it was the demons working through people who put Jesus up on that cross–you know the outcome of that battle!

God’s angels are way more powerful than demons. The angels always win. Always.  So we must make sure that when the angels and demons are fighting for a soul–including the soul of a nation– that we’re on the right side of the battle. Jesus didn’t come just to turn the world’s priorities upside down, he came to turn them right-side up, back to where God always intended them to be.

May God’s will be done.

 

Why are so many people poor?

Why are so many people poor?  That’s really the question that Andy Kessler has no clue about.  He’s an Op-Ed writer for the Wall Street Journal who recently wrote that people are poor because there are so many people helping them.  Here’s a quote from his article, posted by Scott Keyes on the ThinkProgress website.

My 16-year-old son volunteers with an organization that feeds the homeless and fills kits with personal-hygiene supplies for them. It’s a worthwhile project, and I tell him so—but he doesn’t like it when our conversation on the way to his minimum-wage job turns to why these homeless folks aren’t also working. Perhaps, I suggest, because someone is feeding, clothing and, in effect, bathing them? […]

Given the massive wealth created in the U.S. economy over the past 30-plus years, it’s understandable that the mantra of the guilty generation is sustainability and recycling. But obsessing over carbon footprints and LEED certifications and free-range strawberries and charging for plastic bags will not help the world nearly as much as good old-fashioned economic growth. Gen-G will wise up to the reality that the way to improve lives is to get to work. If Woodstockers figured this out, so will they—as soon as they get over their guilt.

I was going to insert a direct link to the Wall Street Journal article, but, of course, you have to pay to get their news online. I didn’t want to pay, so I’m relying on the veracity of  the article’s interpretation by ThinkProgress. I chose to enter this discourse because I’d like to share some thoughts on why God created a world in which so many people are poor.

First, my response to Mr. Kessler’s article. I said in my April 12 post “In my opinion, it is nothing less than cruel–nothing less than cruel--to provide supportive services to those who are poor without also attempting to deal with the social systems that put and keep them in poverty.”  So in one sense, Kessler and I agree that helping the poor helps to keep the poor in place, but I never said that helping them was what causes them to be poor, or that we shouldn’t help them at all.  What I said was that we need to do much, much more than simply provide individual handouts and free food.

Kessler implies that creating jobs will send people to work, and voila!–no more poor people. Left unsaid is the understanding that those who create the jobs will also make lots more money. I think it is horribly naive, incredibly stupid or something worse to think that creating more jobs will make the poor go away. That’s the only solution the job makers can seem to come up with, I guess because creating jobs is what they do.

There’s nothing wrong with creating jobs.  Yes, we need plenty more living wage jobs for a healthy economy. But some people simply cannot work.  What are we to do with them, Mr. Kessler?  Ignore them? What are we to do with the those with mentally incapacities, mental illnesses, and those who are physically unable to work?  Blame them for not getting hired? Let them die on the streets?

Creating jobs is one way to help some poor people.  But if you really think that’s the only way to help poor people, then it is likely that you will also think that once the jobs are created it’s okay to blame those who don’t get jobs for not working, and wash your hands of them. How many times do we have to wreck our country with trickle down economics, giving free rides to the rich so that they can get richer and richer off the backs of the poor, before we get it? Every time we’ve tried that, the poverty rates have gone up, not down.  And the rich keep getting richer.

Those of us who believe in God must wrestle to understand why our world has so many people who need help in order to survive.  These are the poor that Jesus said we we will always have with us.  Some of them are poor because the strong have made this a difficult place for the weak to survive.  But some are poor because they don’t have the necessary physical or mental capacity to survive on their own. Maybe God uses poor people to offer opportunities for the rest of the world to become wiser and more loving. Maybe how we treat “the least” really is a measure of who we are as a society to God.

Aren’t we wiser people because we’ve had to struggle with how to cure so many different kinds of illnesses?  Isn’t the love in our hearts stirred up when we reach out to help people who experience great trauma and heartbreak? Aren’t we a better, more caring people because we created a system to help people who have physical handicaps? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could figure out how to cure mental illnesses, or at least better accommodate people with mental illnesses?  How wise and loving would we become if we could together reach out in all kinds of ways to help children born into broken and poor families?  Wouldn’t we feel good about ourselves, as a society, if we could pull together enough wisdom and pour out enough love to eliminate the continued impoverishment of those who are born poor?

We would be a better people, and we would feel better about ourselves as a people, if we simply helped people who need our help in as many ways as we can help them, even if that means we don’t get to keep so much for ourselves. Aren’t the real heroes and sheroes in our world those who’ve been willing to sacrifice some of their own privilege, comfort, peace, and even their own lives, so that others might survive?  Isn’t that what Jesus’ example teaches us?

Maybe that’s what God had in mind. Maybe God has given us poor people so that we might all become better people. Or not.

 

More Puzzling

In last week’s post I reported on a 2010 article I found by Steven Hawkins on The American Prospect website entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  Mr. Hawkins drew the connection between increased state spending for prison systems and the failure of inner city schools, and he predicted the school closings and reduction of support for poor children that we are seeing now.  Fast-forward to a May 2013 article in The American Prospect entitled Children of the Great Collapse, by Jared Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He was formerly chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economics team. Dr. Bernstein provides an extensive and informative report elucidating the economic benefits provided by the Obama Administration’s Federal Recovery Act, and how the success of that effort is now being undercut by a mean-spirited (my term) political climate that claims to be based on reducing deficits.

Dr. Bernstein explains: “The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault.” He analyzes what this means to the people who need help the most:  “….the data make a solid case that the policies we’ve put in place over the years…..worked well. But when you combine this perhaps under appreciated information with the well-known long-term stagnation of middle- and low-income working families’ incomes, we end up with the anomaly: A lot of folks get some insulation from the downturn but stagnate in the upturn.”

Here is where the puzzle pieces provided by these two articles come together. Dr. Bernstein concludes his report by wrestling with the question “What types of measures might help give families and kids a fighting chance at claiming more of the economy’s growth?”   The two things he suggests that will most likely help are income support for low income families and quality preschool. On preschool, he says “A large body of research shows both how important quality preschool is for later outcomes and how its returns over a lifetime far surpass its costs. In his State of the Union address, the president cited the well-documented finding that $1 of investment in good preschool returns $7 of benefits. These results are particularly strong for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.”

The connection with last week’s article is clear.  Both of these articles ought to help us see that we’re all in this puzzle together. If we help those who need it most, we will find that over time we spend less money and reduce heartbreaks all around. Providing quality preschool funding and early childhood education support will help prevent the dramatic costs we pay for the cycle of broken lives, the crime that touches all of us, our overburdened court systems and the overpopulated prisons and parole systems. When we direct more of our taxpayer dollars to help rather than to punish, we’ll replace the jobs that are lost in the prison industry by the increase of jobs in education and social services. The only ones who stand to lose in this scenario are those who aim to get rich by putting our children in prison. And they are a powerful lobby.

While this part of the puzzle ought to be clear by now to anyone who’s paying attention, what’s more puzzling is why we can’t seem to get anything done about it. Could it be the powerful lobbying? More to say on that next week.

I’m getting tired of ranting about this.  It’s time to take action.  So, for starters, I’m asking all who care about poor children to do something pretty simple:  Call, write, email, text, or twitter your Senators and Congress persons and tell  them you support our President’s initiative to provide preschool support for children. Here’s one of several websites that will give you contact information for Congress: http://www.contactingthecongress.org

That’s easy enough to do.  Let us know when you do it.

 

Puzzling

I like it when puzzle pieces come together.  I’m one of those people who will sit up through the night trying to get the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to gather in completion.  When the pieces come together, the picture becomes clear, and being able to see the puzzle’s hidden picture provides a great deal of satisfaction.

Steven Hawkins, the  executive vice president and chief program officer of the NAACP (who just yesterday was announced as having been selected to become the next executive director of Amnesty International) wrote a December 2010 article for an online magazine, The American Prospect entitled “Education vs. Incarceration.”  [Just in case you need to know, you can click on the green print to reach to the sites mentioned.] Mr. Hawkins provided some important information in that article to support some of the things I’ve been saying (or rather ranting about) in this blog about the importance of providing more financial support to educate the poorest of our children.

He provides information to document that most states are increasing spending for prisons and decreasing spending for schools. His premise is stated here: “Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, expanding from approximately 500,000 to 2.3 million people in just three decades. … We spend almost $70 billion annually to place adults in prison and jails, to confine youth in detention centers, and to supervise 7.3 million individuals on probation and parole. Indeed, confinement costs have claimed an increasing share of state and local government spending. This trend has starved essential social programs — most notably education.” He reports:  “In 33 of 50 states, corrections-related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.”

That’s one piece of the puzzle.  Another piece into which it fits is the connection between the increased spending for prisons and the failure of schools in poorer neighborhoods:  “NAACP research shows that …the lowest-performing schools tend to be in the areas where incarceration rates are the highest.” He then predicts: “When future budget years arrive… and states and counties try to balance their books without the assistance of the federal stimulus, young people will experience more of the same: school closings, teacher layoffs, diminished after-school programs, and rising tuition at colleges and universities. All of this will happen while prison spending grows.”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing now, in the recent reports of battles over school closings in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Chicago? Isn’t that the picture we’re seeing as we look at skyrocketing costs of higher education? Dr. Hawkins concludes from putting these pieces of the puzzle together:  “If states were to properly invest in reopening schools, keeping quality teachers, maintaining sensible classroom sizes, and sustaining the affordability of higher education, it’s quite possible — particularly for economic crimes like low-level drug dealing — we would not need to imprison so many people and could stop sinking our valuable taxpayer dollars into an investment that has demonstrated scant return.”

Is the picture of this puzzle becoming clearer for you now?  I hope so.  In order to help those who need it the most, children from poor and low-income families (i.e., “the least of these” according to Jesus in Matthew 25), we must provide them with strong education, beginning with pre-school, and affordable higher education.  Yet, instead of doing that, they’re closing down the schools in the neighborhoods where most of the least of these live and, through the sequestration, cutting back on services to help them.  We see the picture of that puzzle described by Mr. Hawkins coming together, right now.

So the question for us Christians is who will help the least of these? The least of these are those who need a hand up so they can make it in today’s system, but the political climate instead approaches them with a fist.  The least of these are children who are able to do better if they are helped, but those who have the ability to help them continue to engage in practices that instead make them fodder for the prison system. If we do nothing, we are the ones who help keep together this puzzle that shows a clear disregard for serving the least of these, who, in case you didn’t read the passage, are Jesus.

 

Is Poverty Inevitable?

I’m a Star Trek fan. Yes, I admit it. I wouldn’t actually call myself a “Trekkie,” wouldn’t dare dress like Lieutenant Uhura or attend a Star Trek convention. But I’m a fan. I love to watch the tv series and movie reruns. My all-time favorite Star Trek quote is made by an alien, beautifully made of pure crystal. When the crew is finally able to decipher what the angry crystal being is saying, it calls the humans: “You ugly bags of mostly water.” I can see how a crystal alien would see us like that.

I like shows that help us to imagine the future. To do that you have to pay attention to what’s happening now and imagine how the now might become better, or worse. Many of the futuristic technical ideas on shows like Star Trek have become reality, like laser technology. Maybe one day we’ll say “Beam me up, Scottie” and get transported!

The reason I’m going on about Star Trek is that in the future envisioned by the writers of the show, there is no longer any poverty. There also isn’t any more war or any use for money, either. But the idea that at some point we could actually become such a progressive society that we could eliminate poverty is quite intriguing to me. Poverty seems to be so ingrained in the fabric of our society that most people don’t think about a future without it. Poverty just seems to be an inevitable fact of life.

Having come of age during the 60’s, I remember well as a young black girl how racism felt inevitable. In our suburb outside of Chicago, the African American children all were assigned to one school and we all lived within a few designated blocks. When a few of the families moved out of our area and had to attend “white” schools, we cried. I was called the “n” word more than a few times by people who didn’t like my skin color. I went to a summer camp and the white girls wouldn’t do activities with me. The “black” night at the skating rink was on Mondays. And so on…

Racial hatred was just a part of the way things were, and we learned to deal with it. It never occurred to me that things could change until segregation was challenged by Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and all those brave souls who stood up against the injustice of it all. I imagine that slavery must have felt inevitable like that, too, until brave souls saw it as an abomination and stood up against the injustice of it all.

We’re not all born with equal capabilities, but we are all born as beautiful children, all loved equally by God. For us as a people to believe that we should try to eliminate poverty, we have to embrace the idea that all people are beautiful children of God, all worthy of our true love. We have to believe that every child born has a right to live safely, to adequate medical care, and to an education that will nurture their gifts. We have to believe that gaining more and more material wealth for ourselves while others go hungry or don’t have a place to live is an abomination, as abhorrent and backwards as racial hatred and slavery.  We have to believe that poverty is a tragic waste of human resources and gifts that hold the potential to benefit us all.

To eliminate poverty we’ll need some brave souls to take the kind of radical actions that will make others pay attention and stand against the injustice of it all. Radical actions, kind of like Jesus taught us when he told us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and give to others whenever they ask. Would Jesus accept poverty as inevitable? Some people think so, because He said to the disciples “You will always have the poor with you.” That’s the topic of next week’s blog.