Church today, for me, was an experience of non-sequiturs tethered together by Coffee Hour.
On the heels of an experience that came close to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, we had our monthly Church Council meeting, which involved discussions about everything from window shades to stewardship. Everything we talked about was important to someone in the room and we all worked hard to listen to one another and respond. Compared to many church meetings I have attended, we do a pretty good job of being Christian to one another, yet — for me — the meeting was uncomfortable because I didn’t leave the Parish House with the same sense of joy I had when I walked out of the worship service.
Maybe it was just me.
There are days when I think – no, I feel – that really buying into the hope that comes from following the star to the manger is naïve. “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace,” sang the angels. It makes me wonder how long it was after they left the manger before the shepherds were dickering about whose turn it was to feed the sheep.
On the world stage, this week was marred by the Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran (I think they had a different name for it.), as people got together to show how hatred blinds us to truth (though that was not their agenda). “Love your enemies,” Jesus said; “be good to those who hate you.” He also told us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. He was serious.
I heard a story on NPR this afternoon about the record bonuses given out at the investment firm of Goldman Sachs: $16 billion.
That’s right: $16 billion.
It averages out to $600,000 per employee, though the distribution is not quite so equitable. The top tier of folks were getting $100 million each.
That’s right: $100 million each.
ABC News posted a great article giving some perspective on what a person can do with $100 million.
You could provide immunizations for more than 40,000 impoverished children for a year ($37.5 million), then throw a birthday party for your daughter and one million of her closest friends ($60 million). You’d still have enough to buy a different color Rolls Royce for each day of the week ($2.5 million).
You could feed about 800,000 children for a year ($60 million), recreate the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes and Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston weddings four times over ($16 million), buy one of Mel Gibson’s private islands ($15 million), and still remain a millionaire nine times over.
You could pay Harvard tuition for more than 1,500 students who couldn’t afford it ($70.5 million), provide health care to over 1,000 Americans for a year ($7 million), and still have enough to buy a different Brioni designer suit for every single day of the year ($6,000 suits for all 365 days would cost $22 million).
You could take everyone in the country of Grenada to a Broadway show, then buy the most expensive apartment in New York City (a triplex penthouse at the Pierre Hotel, $70 million), and still have an extra $15 million dollars in your pocket — over 300 times the median income of the average American household.
You could buy every person in Kansas City a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes (147,000 pairs of $400 shoes comes out to about $60 million) and still have $40 million dollars left — that’s more than 500 times the average doctor’s salary in the United States (about $80,000).
You could buy 1,000 gala tables at your favorite charity’s ball ($10 million), provide winter blankets for 350,000 children in developing countries ($14 million), personally pay Derek Jeter’s salary for a year ($21 million), and still buy your own private Boeing jet ($55 million).
My standard disclaimer at this point is I don’t understand how and why so much profit can be made without producing anything. From where I stand, I mostly notice the jobs that are lost in the mergers and acquisitions and the growing distance between the rich and the poor in this country and around the world. I must also say, as one who lives with a fairly steady feeling of anxiety when it comes to personal finances, it’s easy for me to become judgmental and indignant towards people who make that kind of money. Even easier when I have no idea who they are. I want to send them a copy of Jesus’ encounter with the one we have come to call the Rich Young Ruler and hope that most of those billions would end up building schools and hospitals around the world rather than buying new BMWs. Maybe some of it will.
I read tonight that TIME magazine’s Person of the Year is us. They didn’t pick a world leader or celebrity. The cover has a computer screen with a mirror so we can see ourselves, the great democratizers of the planet thanks to all the time we spend on the World Wide Web.
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Part of the reason Church Council struggles is we are trying to deal with specific issues and look at the bigger picture at the same time. Both are crucial and the creative tension between them is not a comfortable place to live. Church done well is rarely comfortable; meaningful, hopeful, welcoming, encouraging, challenging, embracing – but not comfortable because we are called to be faithful to the point of feeling foolishly naïve, trusting that we can both glorify God and bring peace on earth by the way we treat one another in Jesus’ name.
The only way the folks at the conference in Tehran or the offices of Goldman Sachs can believe their perceived reality is a credible way to live is to let their world be no bigger than themselves. If we stare too long into the cover of TIME this week we can fall prey to the same self-focus, just as we do when we are more concerned with the safety of our endowments than the expansiveness of our calling as a church. We didn’t earn our money anymore than the folks at Goldman Sachs earned theirs.
I was one of the Magi in the pageant today, which meant I stood at the back of the sanctuary until almost the end of the story. When the shepherds moved from the fields where they lay on the right side of the pulpit to Bethlehem on the left side, they came up one aisle, past us kings, and down the other aisle to find Mary and Joseph and the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger. They high-fived us as they went by saying, “We saw Jesus! We found the Baby!” Then we all sang together
let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing
Somehow, between shepherds in bathrobes and lighted sneakers, angels with cardboard wings, and Jesus in footy pajamas we brushed up against what it might have felt like for Mary and Joseph in the barn behind the Bethlehem inn watching what unfolded around the manger.
I’m sure it was amazing; I doubt it was comfortable.