Last week, in an ill-advised fit of barely-righteous indignation, I fired off a way-too-long e-mail to a local newspaper columnist in response to her diatribe against churches. I thought the columnist’s logic was flawed, because her argument implied that the proliferation of churches was somehow related to the scarcity of public libraries. I resented her simplistic assessments about people of faith and her outright disdain for the good works that many congregations (regardless of denomination or theological persuasion) do for the communities beyond their doors. I confess, I probably felt a bit too smug in my response and some of that smugness undoubtedly came through in the e-mail. I would have been better off to keep my electronic mouth shut and spend more time in prayer.
Yesterday, I received the columnist’s response. I include it here as it was sent to me — without salutation or signature:
“Yep, but in the end you ask for donations to keep the whole thing running smoothly. If there were such things as miracles, then why do you guys always need to get bucks from the congregation? I mean, wouldn’t God just hand you down a few benjamins from time to time?”
Suffice it to say, this was not the sort of response I had anticipated. Admittedly, I had to read it several times before I understood her use of “benjamins” as a euphemism for hundred dollar bills. I’m not too hip, but I do know when I’ve been “dissed”. After twenty-four hours of chewing on those few lines, I think the columnist is speaking like plenty of people in our culture and I should pay better attention to her.
We can talk all we want inside the church doors about faith and Spirit and love and peace and commitment and community and sacrifice and Sacrament, but to plenty of folks outside our doors (including those who have been hurt or in other ways scarred by the church), it just looks like one, big money-making, or at least, self-serving, racket. We use God-talk to justify lots of things in church, not the least of which are all the reasons the local congregation or the judicatory or the denomination needs money. Of course, we dress up our money talk in the language of “stewardship in support of mission and ministry” so it sounds a bit more palatable, but at the end of the day, there is a budgetary balance sheet and the bills have to be paid.
As a person who derives my full-time income from my work in service to a community of faith, I’m not in a position to actually respond to the columnist’s accusations about money. I’m not ashamed of the work I do or the money I receive for it, but I can certainly understand how people come to resent clergy comments about money since we obviously have a vested interest in the matter. Until I can figure out a way to earn a full-time salary outside the church so that I can serve the church full-time in a non-stipediary fashion, though, I’m stuck with the moral ambiguity inherent in receiving a paycheck from a congregation.
But buried in the columnist’s slam about churches, clergy and money is a deeper, far more complex issue. She accurately reflects the sort of God our culture is agnostic, and in many cases, outright atheistic, towards — the God who works miracles. The line of reasoning seems to go like this: “If God is a God who can do all things and the Bible, as the ‘Word of God’ states repeatedly that ‘whatever we ask, we shall receive’, then what gives? Wouldn’t this God who allegedly wants Her/His message proclaimed slip His/Her servants a few bucks here and there to keep the thing moving along? For that matter, why would God even need our money? In fact, why would God need us at all? And while we’re at it, what about all of the hunger, poverty, sickness, war and injustice in the world? What about hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and tsunamis? If God is so all-powerful, where’s the proof?”
Now I’ve been schooled to engage those sorts of questions. I can prattle on about the difference between miracles and magic. I can wax eloquent about the participatory nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. I can attempt to reframe the term “miracle” and offer up examples of the miraculous that surround us every day — a sunrise over Lake Michigan, the peacefulness of a snowfall, the unsolicited act of kindness from a stranger, or the unexpected expressions of love and gratitude from friends or family.
Let’s face reality, though. The above examples of God’s presence and activity in the world, which mean so much to people inside the church, ring hollow to folks like my columnist friend. They don’t need “God” to appreciate the good things that come along with being human. Such examples sound like double-talk, side-stepping and hedging our bets. My columnist friend seems to be looking for God to act like Charleton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” — parting the waters, writing on stone tablets, smiting the enemy and making sure that everyone’s life is pain-free, tragedy-free and death-free. As people of faith, it looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us. Before we can get anyone to take us seriously, though, we will have to earn their trust. And that will take a lot more than a few benjamins.