BOMB Magazine Gets Me All Theological

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
I freaking love this guy.

Harnessing both my theological and literary training, I present the curious parallel between BOMB Magazine’s “tips for writers” and Romans chapter 7.

Please do not send genre fiction. Please read the magazine before you even think of submitting work. Sample copies are available for purchase.

Setting aside the fact that samples aren’t usually something one pays for, BOMB has, by the sly legalism of these suggestions, already made me an offender.  Had I not thought of submitting to BOMB, I never would have read the commandment to read BOMB before thinking of submitting.  Sisters and brothers, this is a quandary.

I’m inevitably reminded of St. Paul’s lament in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Roman church:

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b]8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.


Then, one of my favorite Pauline images:

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

It’s quite the predicament we’re in.  Even if the language of slavery and sin doesn’t resonate with you, I’m reminded at a very basic level how quickly our good intentions can turn to crap, or how, from one moment to the next, our tempers flare and we lose the plot with peers, co-workers, and loved ones. We do things we don’t mean to do.  Say things we don’t mean to say.  Hurt people we don’t mean to hurt.  Having to balance the tradition of the law and the freedom he felt in Christ, Paul does some exhausting footwork getting us to the point that shame for our shortcomings is only such because the law has named them.  The law has, in a sense, enshrined our every failing.

Paul loses me when he says next that it’s not him sinning in these moments, but sin in him.  I mean, I get it, I guess: if sin is the manifestation of the all the marks we miss, and we wouldn’t think of it as sin without knowing the marks the law sets, and if knowing what the standards are entices us to miss them, then, yes, okay, who can really blame us?  Except for when we choose to miss the mark, when we fail, on purpose, to help the poor, speak justice to the powerful, or extend care to those who need it.  I think what Paul’s groping for is some explanation of why our good intentions don’t keep us from both kinds of failings: the harsh treatment of a friend in a moment of stress or the convenient overlooking of a neighbor’s plight.  Why do we do the things we do?  Why aren’t we perfect?  Why does Paul suffer from this thorn?  Why intrusive thoughts, anxieties, distractions?

I don’t know.  What I can say is that theologies of guilt, of fear, of shame, can lead to dangerous places.  I’m back on track with Paul when he talks about God’s power being made perfect in our weakness.  When he points us to the cross and encourages us to see the world through the lens of a broken, beaten God.  A God who mourns when we mourn, who’s mourning even now, with you, with me.

I don’t know if the law makes us sinners, but it can make us feel like shit.  It made a dead man out of Jesus…it made a mourner out of God.  And that makes God our ally, help, and hope.

And so we hope.

Sixth Street Shelter Expansion: A Mission in Allentown, A Call to Faithful Engagement

I want to thank Scott Kraus of the Allentown Morning Call for his reportage on the Sixth Street Shelter expansion. Alan Jennings, Marsha Eichelberger, Tony Sundermeier, and I are quoted in Scott’s piece in yesterday’s edition.  Please read it here, and whether you’re near or far to the locales and missions we’re talking about in Allentown, consider how you might help this project or projects like it near you.

We’re not doing this because it’s a “mission project” and churches “should do mission.”  We’re doing this because we are learning that missional living is the Gospel. The church, any church, exists for mission, and mission doesn’t merely touch everything we do.  Mission, being missional, is how we are learning to see.


Baffled by Resistance, the Greedy and the Blessed, and That Time Jesus Said “You Tell Me.”

Most of you know that I wrote a piece last week about how the global Church could abolish extreme poverty to the ash bins of cosmic history if we only had the will.

Lots of people tweeted or liked or talked about or emailed me about that article, and I’ve been talking back to some of you on some rather personal levels.

In all of this, I think I’ll always be baffled by the Christians I know, rich by all global accounts, who refuse to do something as paltry as send a goat to Africa via WorldVision because they’re already giving to their local church and/or denomination. That’s like saying “I gave at the office,” isn’t it? Yes, yes it is.

If you had the means to buy one goat for one needy family or community for 70 dollars and you knew it could be done through a reputable, well-respected, transparent, Christian organization, why wouldn’t you do it, know matter how much you already gave at the office this week? Seriously. What’s the honest-to-God, good-enough-to-God answer?  There are none. And as long as we’re being honest, lets get real about some more numbers:  we all know a lot of people who could afford the $70 once or twice.  But if you’ve got the money, God has the crises.  Brings a new meaning to the old concept of  70 x 7, doesn’t it?

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’

Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

“Then Rich Christians came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how much shall I give in your name to feed and clothe and heal your children? Ten percent of of my income?’

Jesus pointed to the 17,000 children who die of hunger every day, to the billion without ready access to clean water, to the homeless, sick, and destitute. Then Jesus said ‘You tell me.’

Lord, help us.

Below is a follow-up post that should be going live on Huffington soon.

Rich, Greedy, and Blessed: God Wants to Save Us, Too
Christopher Cocca

Last week, I published a piece in this space called “Ending Poverty With Global Christianity’s Phantom Trillion,” in which I noted that the global annual income of Christians and Christian institutions worldwide exceeds $10 trillion and that a mere 10 percent of that, if given to the right kinds of direct action organizations (Christian or otherwise), could eradicate the most dangerous and preventable forms of poverty on the planet.

I’ve been very grateful for the responses I’ve received here, on Twitter and elsewhere. By and large, people in my age group (I was born in 1980) and younger are saying “amen” to idea that the time to fundamentally change the way Christians think about giving is long overdue. Folks from some of the amazing organizations I mentioned last week have tweeted or emailed their encouragement and the shared belief that we, the Church, could actually eradicate extreme global poverty if we simply had the will.

And the agreement doesn’t end with young Gen-Xers and our Gen-Y friends. Across generations, traditions, doctrinal and political differences, and other bogus barriers we so often use to keep ourselves from having to do the hard work of justice and reconciliation, many Christians understand that the time has simply come to get serious about curing the curable disease of gross inequity.

The time has simply come to say that clean water for everyone matters to us because everyone matters to God, that no child should die from mosquito bites that could have been prevented for the kind of money we don’t even bother pulling from our couches. The time has come to say that no matter what you tithe to your church or denomination, $60 to plant 10 fruit trees in a community that gravely needs them is a bargain, or that charity: water‘s $12 economic impact for every dollar given is the stuff of loaves and fishes here and now.

“But Jesus said the poor will always be with us.” I’ve heard this more than once this week. It’s one of the archetypical responses from people very much concerned with the “more spiritual” ends of the church and one of our classically tragic adventures in missing the point. I don’t believe for a second that Jesus wants anything less from us than a real commitment of our time, talent and treasure toward ending the immense human suffering and accompanying evil that gross inequality and extreme poverty breed. Do you? Is this not the same Jesus who told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give his proceeds to the poor? When will comfortable Christians realize that we’re all rich young rulers? Visit Compassion International’s Who Are The Joneses project if you don’t believe me when I say that if you can afford the device and the data plan you’re using to read this, you’re probably wealthier than at least 90 percent of the world.

“But I give through my church.” I gave at the office, too. But how good is your church or your denomination at getting money to where it’s needed most? How much of your church tithe goes to administrative expenses? How much of your special offerings for specific anti-poverty projects goes to administrative expenses? How efficient are the organs of your denomination? How much do they spend to raise every dollar? Find this information. Charity Navigator provides it for groups like World Vision (it costs them 7 cents to raise a dollar), Save The Children, Compassion International, charity: water, Children International and so on. Are your churches and your denominations more transparent and efficient than these organizations? Maybe they are, but my hunch is that they aren’t. Find out.

And look, I’m not saying stop giving money to your church. That’s important. I work in a church. I get all of that. But if you’re choosing between buying a dairy goat that might mean the difference between hunger and sustainable nourishment for a family in the Horn of Africa or the Parking Lot Fund at All Saints Mainline Evangelical Tabernacle House of God, well, the choice is clear, isn’t it? Is it? (Yes.)

The truth is that many Western Christians could give a full tithe to their churches and a full second tithe toward the eradication of extreme poverty in efficient, responsible ways without losing much of our lifestyle. Isn’t it something of a scandal that so many of us can even talk about lifestyle when so many more are barely clinging to life? (Yes.) If your tithe or double tithe knock you down a peg or two in the social strata, thank your Father in heaven for the opportunity to clothe and feed and save the lives of people you will never meet in places you will never visit with names you can’t pronounce. If bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in tangible ways isn’t a priority for wealthy Christians, what the hell is?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” That’s Jesus, not Karl Marx or Nancy Pelosi. In the larger context of this quote from from the Gospel of Matthew, these things aren’t options or good ideas or lofty works. They are the brick and mortar pieces of God’s Kingdom, here and now. They are what God requires, and it’s only when I begin to think about how little we do in response that the concept of hell makes any sense to me. And it’s then I also realize the real profundity of grace, that God, in God’s stubborn Godness, wants to save us, too.

And so we have an opportunity to change the world, and an obligation. Not just we the wealthy Church, but we the mingled body of marginalized and marginalizer, we the sinners and saints, we the poor and we the poor in spirit. In the sharing of our global wealth in a global context, we find a chance for our own healing, a test of our own faithfulness, and the promise of abounding grace in the lives we touch and the lives that touch us back.

It’s almost too much, isn’t it, this concept that we will be blessed by our giving? We should do the work we’re called to because we’re called to do it, yes, but on a more basic level, we should do it because it’s right. I’m almost ashamed to say that we the wealthy can find our own strains of redemption in the sharing of our wealth when our relative greed has rendered us so basically undeserving.

But powerful as we may be, we’re thankfully not the masters of God’s economy. In God’s stubborn system, God calls us from the brink with faithful service to the people God is most concerned with serving. It’s almost absurd, isn’t it, that this grace is there for we the wealthy, too? Absurd and foolish? Yes, the Gospel in a nutshell: radical grace, radical service, radical absurdity from the vantage of political, social and economic systems that keep failing. And a radical dependence on the terms of God’s radical provision.

Lord, help us.

How Should We Talk About How We Spend our Part of the Phantom Trillion?

A second (in some cases third or fourth) thank you to everyone sharing and talking about the phantom trillion piece on Huffington.  Yesterday I asked people for ideas about mobilizing their share of the phantom trillion toward direct impact in places where it matters most and how to encourage others to do the same.  Brian Sun had this to share:

Initial thoughts about how to start change from the ground up:

I need to change first.

Meaning, the individual people who read, commented, shared, and agree that the phantom trillion from the Body of Christ could “feed everyone, clothe everyone, give everyone access to water, heal the land, clean the water, and clean the air in perpetuity” need to examine their individual lives’ and ask: Am I tithing?

If the answer is no (yet you still said amen to article), then why not? Then identify the barriers, talk to a friend about it, and make the next step towards giving a tenth part of your income. That’s change from the ground up.

If the answer is yes, then why? Then share why you’re tithing with one of your Christian friends who is not tithing. That’s change from the ground up.

Once we (Christians) understand “the economic power we possess and the practical implications of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, this phantom trillion would find its way to points of need.” The action step in this is if you’re tithing to your church: find out if you can be a voice in where the money is spent. Granted, the lights need to stay on, but “investing 10 percent of its (the Church’s) annual income to overcome the systems of injustice, hate, and other things we still call sin” is essential. That’s change from the ground up.

Or if you’re a Christian who is cool with tithing to charity:water, Compassion, World Vision, and other legit charities, tell your friends about them. That’s change from the ground up.

Now let’s get started.

These are important points.  Each starts with honesty in relationships.  Being honest with ourselves, being honest with friends about why we do what we do, being honest about our expectations that other Christians  wrestle with this issue (and come out on the side of ending poverty), being honest with church boards (or non-profits) and demanding honesty from them.

Immediately, I thought of tweeting something like “I just bought _X___ fruit trees and donated _$Y__ to the Most Urgent Need Fund through WorldVision. Will you match me?”  But there’s a whole lot of stuff that comes along with filling in those blanks with actual numbers, isn’t there?  On one hand, I’m of the mind that the time has long come to stop being polite about our expectations of each other.  Even so, there’s a thousand degrees of nuance I know should be reserved for that kind of statement.  Twitter is not a vehicle of nuance.  Neither are hunger or thirst or famine or war.  But using numbers invites the old charge that we’re doing this to show how good or giving we are, even though I’m saying the time has come to get serious because of how bad we’ve generally been.

I looked again at Brian’s comments, and I noticed that he said we ought to be sharing why we give.  He’s also implying, I think, some heavy one-one-one conversations where filling in those blanks isn’t boastful or embarrassing and might mean real encouragement for others.

In the context of WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc, I’d encourage everyone to talk freely about which campaigns they support and why they support them.  Tell us why you tithe or how you think about tithing.  Tell us if you believe that a tithe to charity: water, WorldVision, or Compassion International can (should!) take the place of a “church tithe” in your context.

In the meantime, I’m going to tweet my Will You Match Me? tweet with blank spaces intact.  And I’ll make a point of talking to my friends in person about why I think they should match me if they can.

No, this is not a master plan.  But we need to give with these intentions and share these intentions with others.  People already making a point of doing these things or who are just starting to also need each other for encouragement.  Please come share your experiences with me/the readers of this blog any time.

I just tithed 10 percent of my first paycheck as Director of Mission at First Prebyterian Church of Allentown, PA to buy __ fruit trees and give __ dollars to the Most Needed Fund through WorldVision.  Will you match me with a 10 percent tithe of your income this week?

Keith Olbermann Just Took Me To Church or The Phantom Trillion

In the 90’s, Keith Olbermann was part of a flawless thing called SportsCenter. Even though the political commentary and overall style he’s developed since then isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, this Special Comment from the July 11th edition of Countdown is essential viewing for anyone who cares about the justice issues tied to humanity’s basic failures of compassion, empathy, and care.

“Face it,” Oblermann says, “we do not take care of one another. Not we as in progressives, not we as in Americans, not we as in the West. We as in a species.”

If we’re being honest, we know that Olbermann is right. And even though he’s not saying anything particularly new, the bluntness of the charge is just a little jarring, even in the context of waning hope in hoped-for change. We, the People, do not take care of one another. It’s no wonder that They, our leaders, do no better.

And what about another set of “we’s?” We the stewards of the planet,we the image-bearers of God? What about we who believe loftly things about the the Holy? For Christians, what about that we called the Body of Christ? I read a ten-year old stat estimating the global income of organized Christianity (churches, denominations, and parachurch ministries) hovers around $270 billion annually. I’ve read elsewhere that the yearly global income for Christian individuals (the compensation they get from having jobs) is $10 trillion. Extend the tradition of a 10 percent tithe from each of these groups toward eradicating poverty, and you’d do it in a year. We’re talking about $1,027,000,000,000. Don’t know what $1 trillion can buy? Look here and here. One Trillion Dollars can purchase all the homes that foreclosed in 2007 and 2008 or pay the rent for every US renter for 3 years. Universal preschool for all American 3 and 4 year olds? No problem! That only costs $35 billion. American Christians could pay that themselves.

But my 1 trillion number (see Ron Sider’s Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger) represents a global tithe, so let’s consider global implications. According to VisualEconomics, access to clean water for everyone on the planet now without it only costs $8.84 billion. That’s with a B. Christendom has $1 trillion, with a T, to play with every year. Clean water, then? Fine. What, Christians? You want to sponsor a million kids through Children International for a year? That’s just south of $300 million (with an M). No problem, Church! One new home at $175,000 a pop for each one lost in Katrina? You’re thinking bigger, but that’s only $48 billion. You’ve got $1 trillion and change to spend every year (plus the other $9 trillion you’ll use for basic needs, creature comforts (in developed countries), and, in some contexts, unprincipled extravagance). You could feed everyone, clothe everyone, give everyone access to water, heal the land, clean the water, and clean the air in perpetuity. Talk about an endowment. Oh, and you could send kids to school, heal diseases, and bring animals back from the brink of extinction. You could (and would) eliminate the root causes of war. Or you could keep trusting the bulk of the money you give away (via taxes) to people who keep finding new reasons to make war so vital.

The Church could end poverty, scarcity, sickness, and famine without a dime from the rest of the world. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it should do so by some centralized economic fiat. The last thing anyone needs is a megalith, even one as diverse and nuanced the global church really is, setting this kind of agenda. Noting that the Church could foot the bill for the saving of the planet doesn’t mean that the Church is otherwise equipped to do so, and it doesn’t even mean that something called “the Church” exists in any sort of organizationally connected way across the world. We may (and I do) believe in the mystical Body of Christ, but can you imagine the impossibility of mobilizing every Christian group under some sort of prime directive?

Then again, that’s what Jesus did by giving the Great Commission and promising the Holy Spirit. Perhaps if all Christians understood the economic power they possess and the practical implications of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, this phantom trillion would find its way to points of need. Perhaps if the Church was busy consciously investing even 10 percent of its annual income to overcome the systems that breed injustice, hate, and other things we still call sin, Jesus’ talk of the Kingdom of God being here even now would make a hell of a lot more practical sense.

Brennan Manning has said that one of the biggest causes of atheism with reference to Christianity are “Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That,” Manning says, “is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” I’d go even further and suggest that the conformity of so many Christians to the status-values of consumption, possession, and unsustainability is also one of the biggest enablers of global scarcity and the atrocities that come with it. Faced with the kind of evil that flourishes where hope and charity do not, perhaps the oft-repeated “Where is God in this?” isn’t quite the question. Consider this instead: “Oh, God, where are the Christians? Where were the fraction of their resources that could have stopped this in the first place?”

Yes, I’m claiming scandal as a member of the movement. I’m appealing to classic Christian expectations of ourselves. I’m not saying the Church must act because all other faiths or governments have failed. I’m saying the Church must act because it has failed to be the Church. We’re good at giving time and talent, but what is it about the way we’ve spent our treasure that allows inequity and scarcity to run and reign so freely? Do we have a misplaced trust in the structures of church government and Christian organizations? Or are we, paraphrasing Jesus, seeing where our hearts don’t lie in the faces of all those who will die before this post is finished because we’ve finally let them?

Help us, Lord.

Yes, much of the phantom trillion gets used in responsible ways by good people towards precisely the things I’m talking about. But what if global Christianity were led from the margins (even as Jesus led)? What if we recast the idea of tithe as a fraction of our treasure given back to God in the world and not our institutions? What if we empowered charity: water to complete its mission? The enraging thing about that proposition is that we could really do it. And we aren’t. Not in intentional, global ways. Often not with the recognition that the outright care of other people is the Gospel. What if we helped WorldVision, Compassion International and other groups with scant administrative footprints put themselves out of business? Nothing would make them happier! What if we used our economic clout to be a global force against genocide in Darfur and Burma? What if we empowered local Christians and other people of good will already working in those places in system-changing ways? And what if the Holy Spirit helped us?
Even without a moratorium on traditional patterns of giving, and even recognizing that our poorest sisters and brothers can’t often give something as concrete as money, the rich Christians in the industrial world could raise a second trillion every year without denying themselves or their churches very much of anything. So far, we haven’t, and that’s the even greater greater scandal.

Help us, Lord.

Recovering Pietists In Good Company: One of Many Lessons from the U2 Concert

Thanks to my sister and F. Bil (future brother in-law), my wife and I got to go to the U2 concert in Philly on July 14.  I have many thoughts, pictures, and reflections to share, and this post will be the first.

The show was great and, in a good way, exhausting.  There was so much content beyond the music, and I found myself analyzing every bit of video, every factoid on the massive screen before the show, every partnering of song-choice, faith, hope, and activism.  It was really, really great.

I’ll offer the cartoon below as my first bit of commentary.

I feel like I should say more, but I won’t.  We can do that in the comments. Or when I get around to writing about the thin line between (oops, there I go.  I said I wouldn’t say any more!)