Holy God, your Scripture points beyond conventional understandings to the heart of the matter. Who is rich? Who is poor? How is it that your abundant life is often so apparent among those who have relatively little and so hard to find among those who have so much? And who are we? Rich or poor? Like the widow who “put in everything she had,” teach us to step past conventional understandings of poverty and wealth into the limitless provision of your boundless love. Amen.
[Explanation: For over 20 years my spiritual practice has been Zen meditation. I am currently a member of Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA. I study koans under the instruction of David Rynick, Roshi. “Koan” comes from the ancient Chinese practice of law and simply means “case,” as in the record of a legal proceeding that points to the truth of the matter at hand. Koans are statements of proceedings usually in a monastery context, that point to truth. Another one of David’s students and I have taken up the practice of writing verses in response to some of the koans we study. My dharma name is “Setsusho.” Below is the koan. The koan translation from the original Chinese is by poet David Hinton. Rather than transliterate the character names, Hinton uses a literal translation of the Chinese characters: “Lucid-Black.” Confusing, but perhaps opening up more nuance of meaning. Following the koan is “Setsusho’s” response!]
Lucid-Black asked Master Twofold Mountain: “I am perfectly alone now, perfectly impoverished. I’m an alms-beggar here. Won’t you please grant me the sustenance of your teaching?”
“You are Lucid-Black, acharya, great dharma-sage!” Twofold-Mountain called out in response.
“Yes, replied Lucid-Black.
“You’ve savored three cups of clear wine from our ancestral household of green-azure origins. And still you say you haven’t moistened your lips?”
Side pierced, legs broken
Friday, third hour past noon
In sun-blotted dark, crowd’s mockery
wafts on the sweetest breeze
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 10-30-19
This coming Sunday, November 3, First Congregational Church of Granby welcomes guest speaker Clive Rainey to our 10am worship service. Clive is Habitat for Humanity’s “first volunteer. Clive joined founders Millard and Linda Fuller soon after they founded Habitat in 1976. You can read more of Habitat’s story here. Clive has served in many different capacities and played a key role in the development of the organization. In his 40 + years with Habitat, Clive has lead thousands of builds all over the world.
When asked “What is the first feeling you have when you put a hammer in your hands?’ Clive responds, “A feeling of power! This hammer is more powerful than guns or bombs or terrorism or dictators; more powerful than poverty or hatred. With this hammer I can change the world! I can begin that change with this house, this family, this neighborhood, this community, this country.” I think Clive would agree that the power he is speaking of does not reside in the hammer itself but in what the hammer represents. In the context of Habitat, the hammer represents a particular approach to changing the world called “partnership housing.”
It’s Habitat’s model of partnership that has made it truly transformative–the kind of organization that high capacity leaders like former president Jimmy Carter would give their lives to. My understanding of the model is that it’s less about charity and more about solidarity. When one is building a house in partnership with a family, a neighborhood, and a community, a context is created in which authentic relationships across race, class, and cultures can emerge. Charity keeps social hierarchies in place. There is the helper and the helped. No matter how the situation of the helped might be changed, the helper maintains her status as “not the helped.” In partnership characterized by solidarity, it’s clear that we’re all in this together. My fate is inextricably linked to yours. In the case of Habitat, clients are literally co-builders with volunteers. This social leveling creates an opportunity–even if for a moment–wherein helper and helped have the opportunity to meet together as equals in an authentic relationship of mutual love and respect. The helped is no longer an “object of charity,” but a full human being, no longer “other,” but, in some sense, me.
I have found that solidarity can scare the pants off most white, middle class, mainstream Americans. We don’t want to consider the possibility that given different circumstances, we might need housing assistance. We don’t want to consider the possibility that our relative privilege has little to do with our own personal worthiness and much more to do with chance and the fact that we live in an exploitive system that tends to benefit the few at the expense of the many. We don’t want to give up our sense of status and superiority. We don’t want to stand in the place of those who have experienced misfortune, discrimination, or exploitation. My guess is that that’s why there is a lot of charity in the world. Much rarer is true partnership. Habitat has developed an authentic, partnership model.
For me, solidarity, not charity, offers an opportunity for a more authentic walk with Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8). It turns out that the model of authentic partnership is also a model for authentic Christianity.
For critiques of the charity model read Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It by Robert D. Lupton. I hope you will join us this Sunday to meet Clive and learn the meaning of authentic partnership.
This weekend our nation celebrates Memorial Day. In the UCC this weekend also marks “Rural Life Sunday.” Though I grew up working on my grandfather’s dairy farm, much of my ministry has been in cities and suburbs. Up until now. As a town, Granby has a distinct rural flavor that connects to my memories of childhood and my love of the natural world. So we’re celebrating both this Sunday: Memorial Day and Rural Life Sunday. This is a fortunate convergence. It creates an opportunity for important conversations around the role that military service plays in the life of rural communities.
In particular I’m remembering a conversation I had with a student at Narraguagus High School while I was substitute teaching there during the winter of 2008-2009. Here’s the context. It was the Great Recession. My wife, Nicole, and I had taken a call to do a church start in Indiana. Starting with no one, we had managed to gather 25 people in a town hall for weekly worship when the denomination told us that our funding had disappeared in the stock market crash. We suddenly found ourselves without income. Many people don’t realize that there is no unemployment insurance for clergy. The saving grace was that we managed to sell the house we had purchased a year earlier.
We packed everything we could fit into a station wagon and a Pontiac Vibe, put the rest in a storage locker, and drove with our two young children to Milbridge, Maine. Nicole’s grandmother owned a house in Milbridge. She had recently passed away. The house had been emptied of some its contents, but it hadn’t been sold, so we slept on the floor of the master bedroom under a pile of blankets that cold, cold winter while the girls slept in a couple of twin beds. As a part of our church start strategy, we had worked as substitute teachers in Indiana. As a part of our survival strategy, we now worked as substitute teachers in rural Maine.
Not enough people know this, but Maine is the second poorest state in the U.S., it’s poverty rate just below that of Louisiana. And Washington County, Maine, where we spent that winter, is the poorest county in Maine. Like most poverty in the U.S., Maine’s poverty is rural and, therefore, mostly invisible to the wider world. Nicole was already aware of Maine’s rural poverty. Her father grew up in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He escaped poverty by joining the Air Force. He served in Vietnam and returned with PTSD the effects of which ended his life at the age of 52. Grandpa Philip never had the chance to meet any of his grandchildren. Nevertheless, upon returning from Vietnam my future father-in-law earned a college degree and created life for his children in which they would not have to experience the poverty he had as a child.
Generations later, this continues to be the path for poor young people in rural Maine. I’ll never forget the day I was teaching and one of my students came to class with an excitement I hadn’t seen in him before. Usually quiet and sullen in class, words spilled out of his mouth. The other students looked up from their desks to hear the news. He had been accepted into the Air Force. He was getting out of what he and the other boys in class considered a dead-end town. This class had the reputation for being the worst in the school. It was a class consisting only of boys with serious emotional and behavioral problems. There were very limited social services for them. No other teachers would take the class, so I was put in the class as a long term substitute. Celebrating the news of a classmate’s acceptance into the Air Force was a very brief respite from what otherwise was an extremely grim situation.
So this Memorial Day weekend/Rural Life Sunday I want to celebrate the slim ray of hope that military service provides to young people locked in cycles of poverty, particularly the invisible poor people of rural areas who continue to have too few options and little support. And I would like us as Christians to reflect on whether it is just to ask poor people to shoulder a disproportionate burden of sacrifice for freedoms all of us enjoy.