Monday, December 17, 2012


When Nancy and I left for a ten day river cruise on the Danube a few weeks ago we were hoping to get away from the pervasive violence and political tension in the world and the increasing commercialism and emptiness of the American Christmas season. We succeeded, but only in part.
The Danube was every bit as beautiful as we’d imagined it to be. From the 6th, when we arrived in Budapest, to the 15th, when we left Passau, the Viking Njord, our floating hotel, slipped effortlessly from city to city.
In Budapest we were treated to the incredible food and wine, a spectacular view of the Chain Bridge between Buda and Pest at night, the galleries of the Fine Arts Museum, and the sights and sounds of the Great Central Market.
The ship then meandered from Budapest to Bratislava, Slovakia, then to Vienna, then on to the small villages of Durnstein and Melk in Austria’s spectacular Wachau Valley. Each stop brought new and pleasant experiences. The mulled honey wine we sampled at the Christmas Market in Bratislava was to die for. We brought a bottle home as protective insulation against Kansas’s cold winter winds. In Vienna we rode the subway, visited the modern art and Jewish museums, and sampled mini sandwiches and tiny mugs of Austrian beer at a local deli whose name now escapes me. In Durnstein we were graciously given the gift of a pipe organ concert at the town’s beautiful cathedral. In Melk we toured the Benedictine abbey and cathedral. I’ve never seen so much gold in one place in my life.
We spent our last two days in Linz, Austria and Passau, Germany. The day in Linz was particularly pleasant. We took a leisurely stroll along an outdoor pedestrian mall and Christmas market, occasionally stopping to make a purchase or two. By the time we got back to the ship we had a small bag of clothing, a hand painted Christmas ornament, a pair of mittens and a wooden Nutcracker doll for a little girl Nancy knows, and a small straw hedgehog that I suspect will keep our cats amused. In Passau we spent a couple of hours touring the city, including a gingerbread making demonstration, our last sips of mulled wine, and a tour of one of the city’s most spectacular cathedrals. As with the cathedral in Melk, the gold leaf was everywhere. In addition, the frescoes on the ceiling were mind boggling. It took a father and son over fifty years to create them.
We’re home now and I’m reflecting on the trip. More often than not along the way we felt a warm, peaceful feeling. I think Europe transmits that sense quite well. But, we never could quite escape the world’s realities. A few days into the cruise we got word of a mall shooting on Oregon. Then on Friday we heard the news from Connecticut. We were stunned.
It’s now Monday and I’m hearing the explanations. Few of them seem satisfactory to me. There’s more to it than mental illness and misunderstood young people. Will more mental health counseling fix things? I’m not so sure. Will eliminating guns solve the problem? I don’t own one so they can take all 300 million of them away as far as I’m concerned, but it won’t solve the problem.
 It’s written that evil is always “crouching at the door.” It seeps through society’s cracks. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s there, often hiding in the most unlikely places. Nancy and I saw this quite clearly in Budapest. There’s a very simple memorial on the banks of the Danube, not far from one of Budapest’s beautiful cathedrals. There, fifty or sixty pairs of shoes once worn by Budapest’s Jews stand as stark witnesses to the evil man is all too often willing to inflict on his fellow man. In late 1944, thousands of Jews were marched to the riverbank and shot to death. Before their bodies were dumped in the river the Nazis took their shoes. The logic was as grisly as it was impeccable. Leather was a very valuable commodity and couldn’t be wasted.
In Budapest, guns were the transmitters. But, evil doesn’t need just a gun. Zyklon-B was a gas. In the Ukraine, depriving Kulaks of food was the tool. In Cambodia’s killing fields all it took was plastic bags to suffocate millions to death.
In the end, I think any solutions to our violence problems lie in the human heart. We can work against it, but I suspect evil will be crouching at the door as long as there are men. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed, The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
-          Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife (1909-1999)


I’m often taken to task by city and county officials. They say I tend to focus too much on what’s wrong and not enough on what’s right. I suspect they feel singled out when I write about our 27% poverty rate, slum lords, high taxes, neglected properties, or the great social and economic gulf  between our haves and have-nots.
They may or may not believe it, but I have some measure of understanding of what they’re going through. I don’t believe they like our 27% poverty rate, nor are they in the business of finding ways to make things worse. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to see our household incomes above the national average, our poverty rate at zero, and a community of well-maintained homes with wrap around porches that are the envy of the nation.
Isn’t that what we all want?
If that’s true, and I believe it is, how have we gotten so far off track? And, how do we solve the problem?
With that in mind, I think it’s time to shine the light in another direction – toward our churches. In doing so I realize I risk incurring the wrath of many people I share a common faith with. But, I believe it’s time for people of faith to reclaim their God-given responsibility to share more generously from the wealth and grace they’ve been given.
Since the days of the Great Depression there’s been a tremendous shift in how we Americans allocate our financial resources, particularly when it comes to solving problems like poverty. Up until that time the Church was the nation’s primary instrument for support of the poor and downtrodden. That changed in one very dramatic way with the advent of New Deal programs like Social Security, the W.P.A., the Civil Works Administration, etc. The primary burden bearer for the poor, the elderly, and the unemployed became the government.
Over time, right to the present, the government’s role as the nation’s primary social benefactor has grown and the Church’s role has diminished. Today, if you were to ask someone from within or outside the Community of Faith whose responsibility it is to solve the problem of poverty, well over half would say, “The government needs to fix things.” The Church is now seen as a backstop.
The reality of the shift begs three questions. Can the Church solve the problem? Isn’t the Church being generous enough already?  Does the Church have the resources equal to the massive task?
The answer to the first question is obvious. Of course! The Church is a community of faith. It’s not a static faith, but an animated faith that not only believes, but also acts.
There are two answers to the second question. First, government hasn’t solved the problem. In fact, the problem has gotten worse over time.  Statistics like Emporia’s 27% poverty rate aren’t figments of overactive imaginations. Second, it depends on the measuring stick that’s used to measure generosity. During the height of the Great Depression the average church goer gave 3.3% of his or her income to charity. These days that number has declined to 2.6% (John L. Ronsvalle, “The State of Church Giving”) If one were to judge solely by that standard it could be argued that Christians today are about as generous today as they were a few generations ago.
But, the Church has, or should have, a far different standard of measurement. As it’s written, “To whom much is given, much is required.” When seen in that light the trends are troubling. The Francis Schaeffer Institute of Christian Leadership has reported that 17% of adult Christians claim to tithe (give 10% of their income), while 3% actually do. According to statistician George Barna, Protestant Christians give, on average, $17 per week to their church or other charities.
When giving is measured against that standard, it’s clear that there is plenty of room for growth.
Does the level of current giving reflect a lack of resources? Far from it. In 2000, according to David Barrett and Todd Johnson (“Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus”), the United States’ total Christian income was $5.2 trillion. Today that number is well over $7 trillion. And, that number doesn’t include the trillions invested in facilities or the billions held in endowments.
The truth is, if the Church would move from its current level of giving to the standard/ideal, hundreds of billions of dollars could be freed up to find meaningful solutions to the problem of poverty. It’s not a matter of whether or not the problem can be solved. It’s simply a matter of willingness to solve the problem.