Friday, April 24, 2009

The Gospel of Prosperity?

Today's Word:
Acts 5:34-42 (The Apostles rejoice that they are found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name of Jesus)
Psalm 27:1-14 (One thing I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord)
John 6:1-15 (The Bread of Life Discourse, Part I: 5000 men are fed with five loaves and two fish)

I have to be cautious - in the process of exploring my thoughts, I might find myself at odds with people whose presence in my life I honestly appreciate.

Having said this, I must step into a foray in which I find myself straddled once more.

Last Sunday, while at Cornerstone, my son and I learned of an 'event' that took place yesterday; Dave Ramsey's "Town Hall for Hope." Dave Ramsey is a financial counseling 'guru' (I know that's not his title, but let's just leave it at that). His philosophy - to get out of debt and stay out - was born of his own experiences and yes, even his own misfortune. From this came Financial Peace University, a series of weekly seminars designed to help people get control of their finances.

I wrote back toward the beginning of this series that my autistic son expressed an interest in attending these seminars. For several reasons it was determined that this wouldn't work out: my schedule; cost; and also that my son doesn't fully understand what this is all about. My wife and I did some more research, and have considered picking up Dave Ramsey's course materials and using this as a basis for our son's ongoing education curriculum. At the moment that's tabled but hasn't been ruled out. I borrowed one of Ramsey's books from our local library and read through it in the meantime.

The early publicity regarding yesterday's event, "Town Hall for Hope," left me with the impression that this might be a closed-circuit event; a website was given in Cornerstone's bulletin, and I went to the site to get more information. I gathered the same sort of thing; although I thought there might be a slight chance that the program would be streamed on the Internet or available on YouTube after the live event. I told my son that it would be better for us to watch this at home on our computer if at all possible. Call me whatever you will for doing this, but I felt it better to do so on our own turf if possible.

Ramsey also hosts a radio and TV program; the latter airs nightly on the Fox Business Network on cable/satellite. When we first heard of FPU we figured it was a good idea to watch his show, to test the waters as it were; a 'try before you buy' which coincided with my reading the book I'd picked up at the library. We watched his show a couple nights a week for two or three weeks. My son would happily announce "and tonight we watch Dave Ramsey!" And the show would start, and after ten minutes or so, he'd get more interested in his computer, or whatever was the next thing on his mind. It had all but been forgotten until last Sunday.

Last evening, as I kept refreshing the couple of websites that were publicizing the town hall meeting (looking for a live stream), I decided to flip on the TV and figure out what Fox Business Network would be airing in Ramsey's absence; most likely a repeat of one of his regular programs. I discovered that not only was the channel covering the preview to the event; it would be broadcasting it live as well. (So much for all the elaborate hook-ups at the reported 6000 venues - mostly churches - who covered the event. Everyone who went could have saved the fuel it cost to drive there and back. Most of those venues could have saved the cost of the electricity and the time it took to make sure they were on the closed internet connection carrying the meeting.)

By being able to watch this at home, I became aware of several things about which, while still hopeful, quite frankly, I'm not encouraged.

The venue at which the town hall meeting was held (and the four that Fox chose to follow-up with additional live coverage) were all what Pastor Paul calls 'megachurches.' A year ago, he had bristled with the underlying concept of what the Christian Church was becoming at places like this - a purveyor of spiritual goods and services as opposed to the model community of the infant Church described in Acts, chapter 4. You won't tend to find this type of place in the trenches; those places already hit hard by a slowing or failing (take your pick) economy. And while the host site is a church, there's almost nothing inside of the building apart from the name of the place that would indicate in any way that it's one of the houses of God. Perhaps it's covered in the multimedia presentations when an actual service is taking place. I'm also reminded that it's people who make up the Church. However, when neither is readily apparent, one has to wonder where the presence of God is! The multimedia presentation showed nothing - perhaps they could not, given that this was going out over commercial television - but there was no indication of anything else, either - no invocation before, no prayer of those gathered after. For that matter, there was only scant reference to God at all. Is Ramsey so naive as to assume we're all on the same page as Christians as he is? I don't know.

If this event had been broadcast on one of the Christian-based networks such as TBN, this oversight might not have occurred. If it had been made a closed-circuit event only, as it appeared to have been publicized, there would probably have been less over which to show concern. If it were available for internet viewing only after the live event had finished, it would have at least postponed those concerns for a few days or even allayed some of them. But this was broadcast by the Fox News media. And it has all the appearances of having been planned that way from the onset. Toward the end of the event, I went back to the website for to refresh the screens - and a prepared, after-the-fact statement was now posted - though the event was still taking place!

Keep in mind that the Fox news media's philosophy is on the far right, perhaps only second to the likes of Rush Limbaugh. This is the wing of journalism supportive of the Republican Party, the one now fear-mongering further the financial and business communities (let alone the public at large) by smearing the new president's plans for economic stability/recovery (take your pick) before the administration has even held office for 100 days. I realize that there are many groups of people who are concerned about President Obama's positions on many issues. That's a big reason for media blitzes on so many fronts; but can we at least give the person the opportunity to lay out the changes for which we the people presumably elected him to office?

There's no doubt in my mind that there are many people who are helped and will be helped by Ramsey's program. The one who stands to gain the most, though, is Ramsey himself. And in words he comes off more about worshipping the dollar than the God whose name appears on it. Yes, he has a step-back, face things calmly, tested and working approach, but there's nothing in it that's new. My wife reminded me at 3:30 this morning that these ideas were being discussed in Christian communities - perhaps not so big and not so deeply indebted - fifteen years ago.My dear wife reminded me this morning that Amish communities have lived 'debt-free' for nearly 400 years. In my life and the life of my family, had I listened then; had I applied that logic fifteen years ago I might have avoided some if not all of what took place in the last ten.

I am thankful that the light bulb moment came for me sooner this time rather than later. I do not discount Dave Ramsey's mission, vision, or even ministry, if he chooses to call it that. But God is the ultimate giver of hope, and turning to Him - or even getting out from under the strain of financial bondage without turning to Him first - involves a personal conversion of mind and heart, and a change in lifestyle. For far too long we have interpreted the Scriptures in terms of fiscal prosperity. While it is one such outcome among the cultures of biblical times, it is not necessarily a personal one. We are at a crossroads. I cannot tell you if life as we know it  will get worse before it gets better. Ask ten people and you may get ten different answers. How many of us are willing to live with less, so that others might have more?

There are a couple of things I have learned over the last 9-1/2 weeks over which I confess guilt, here and now:

1) I confess that there were lots of things to which I did not listen; nor was my mind open, and I am sorry for any and all pain suffered as a result of love/concern/respect for me. I do not know, nor should I pretend that I know, every means and every situation. I am no expert at any one thing. I am better at some things and worse at others. That is part of normal human life. I'm happy about my successes and not so with my failures; but as much as I dislike failure I will embrace it and take responsibility for it if it is mine.

2a) I believe now, more than ever, that ministry should be collaborative, as it was in the infant Christian Church; and that everyone - should be encouraged to participate to the level that can be accomplished without severe pain. That means those who want to serve and need help doing so due to some handicap should do so with loving assistance. Nobody - and I mean nobody - should have sole possession of first place, as it were.

2b) In that light, I offer myself -who I am- on an 'as needed' or 'as desired' basis. I have no longing to be on top. I'd be lying if I said I don't want to be in the spotlight on occasion - but I am happy just to be part of the group and be recognized as such.

3) We must not dispense with tradition at the expense of the latest innovation. At the same time, we must not turn down innovation at the expense of tradition whose meaning is no longer applicable to the present or future.

4) While Jesus said, "Nobody comes to the Father except through Me" and "Whatever sins you forgive are forgiven; and whatever sins you retain are retained"; He also said that sinners were entering the gates of Heaven ahead of the righteous. This speaks of a great mystery and come-uppance that the Church has yet to resolve. It may never get fully resolved as long as people are involved, no matter how good they are.

5) If I claim to be Christian, I had better be able to live up to it. I will fail, but I will also make good. I must be open and respective of the multi-faceted path Christianity has become - God is Lord of ALL, and Jesus died for ALL. This means that I will jump fences and I will appreciate it. And if my heart and soul become fixed in the wrong way because I sat on one side of the fence too long, it is time to jump it; or even knock it down if it's a fence I arbitrarily put up.

For Lent I took as a discipline an avoidance of the broadcast news media. After eleven days of returning to it, it's clear to me that I should reinstate the discipline. I cannot ignore it completely; that would be the wrong thing to do. But love and thankfulness for each new day should not be pre-empted by how much the cost of living has increased, or how many people are out of work. Jesus said that would always be with us, and we have to manage it - but not as the first nor the last order of the day. I have said this more than once: I don't need horror stories or movies to get scared; all I have to do is watch the evening news.

The reality portrayed on the news is not my reality. Both realities must co-exist; yet inasmuch as I am able, I will promote what is good; what is the better portion.

If, after reading this, you are hurt, I apologize; I hurt too, and don't like to see others hurt as a result of my own shortcomings. If you are confused, you are not alone: I can also get confused and send mixed signals. I can hear the same thing twice over time and have different reactions each time.

I appreciate your presence in my life. Thanks for walking with me on this journey, no matter how long or in what capacity it takes place. Thank you also for allowing me to walk with you, wherever you are.

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