Thursday, January 28, 2010
The Preacher’s Corner
Now is the time churches are most needed
As a rule I do not comment on current political questions, believing that the Bible speaks in general principles that are best left to individuals and entities to apply as they think best.
Still, there are exceptions, and the current move to severely cut funding for schools and colleges, as well as mental health care prompts my concern. I think religious people have a vital interest in these things, at least I do.
Times are bad all over. I know that. I also know money does not grow on trees. There is an article this week in the Christian Century magazine about the catastrophic financial situations facing the big churches along Fifth Avenue in New York City.
But it is in times such as this that churches and helping agencies are most needed. To meet such needs is why, for example, our state has a “Rainy Day Fund.”
I will leave it to the politicians to work out the intricacies of budgets and funding. But I do want to say, from a theological perspective, that I think a society is judged by the way it provides for its young, as well as the poor and downtrodden in our midst.
I cannot imagine Mississippi going back to the point that mentally ill persons are kept in the jails. No one wants to pay more taxes, but how can we live with ourselves knowing that people who are sick may soon be treated as criminals?
Back in the 1980s, during the last big recession our country faced, I was serving in Chicago when a seriously disturbed young man began frequenting our church.
He would interrupt the services with violent acts, screaming Bible verses at the top of his lungs to oppose what he felt were heresies being uttered by the preachers. We tried to befriend him and reason with him, but it was a medical issue, and we could not force him to take his pills.
One of our ministers was a woman, and this man took great umbrage to that. He was determined to shout her down if she was in the pulpit and he stood outside the church all week watching for her to walk outside, so that he could condemn her sins.
He was very menacing — unwashed, bloodshot eyes — it is a miracle he did not procure a gun. Several times the police had to come in and remove him from the morning service.
One Sunday he punched out an usher. It was sobering to see the burly Chicago police striding down the aisle week after week to forcibly remove a man who desperately needed help the state could not or would not provide.
Each time the magistrate would lock him in jail for a day or two, after which he would be committed to a mental health facility, but policies and budgetary concerns being what they were, they would release him in a matter of hours. The state could not help; the church was all he had. But, humanly speaking, there are limits to what prayer and pastoral concern can achieve.
Finally, in a time of unimaginable frustration and despair, he went to the railroad yards south of the city, braided a noose, and jumped from the roof of a boxcar.
I had to go to the morgue to identify his body. I also had to write to his mother and father. They were lifelong Presbyterians in another state, deeply concerned and under all the rules and regulations, as powerless to help as the rest of us.
I tried to explain the church’s position, offering such consolation as I could. It was the hardest letter I have ever had to write.
We will never go forward until we educate our young and care for our sick. It is no use wishing for the good old days when life seemed simple and things did not cost so much.
I cannot see how progress can come without good schools and enlightened mental health care. I also fear that once these things are cut, it will be very difficult to ever bring them back.
Just because things are hard is no reason to give up. I cannot believe our Lord would want us to go forward by leaving our weakest and most vulnerable at risk.
I know that simply spending money does not educate people or cure sickness, but on the other hand, I do not know anyplace that has good schools or quality health care where a good deal of money is not expended.
I am dreading April 15 already. But I believe that being a Christian is not just about getting my own, personal, private soul to heaven. Indeed, I believe that an all-powerful, all-merciful God is in charge of that.
What my Bible reading impresses on me is that Jesus seems to relate salvation very closely to what we do for the helpless in our midst. That is what church should be about. At least that is the way I see it. How about you?
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