Stories of atrocities committed by and insensitive acts attributed to “organized religion” fill history books and newspapers. Stories about people long dead or individuals we’ve never met carry within them an insulation that precludes or diminishes the empathy we might otherwise feel.
Occasionally, though, we experience the insensitivity first-hand. My first reaction is normally shock (I can’t believe what I’m hearing or seeing), followed by outrage (usually manifested in some sarcastic or caustic comment), then exasperation and finally, resignation.
A former vestry member (vestry is what we call the group of people elected by the members of the church to handle the day-to-day church business) came to a meeting I was chairing with a letter in hand he had written some twenty years ago. The letter spelled out the original intent of the vestry in setting aside the funds realized from the sale of a piece of church property some two decades earlier.
The current vestry, the one I was on at the time, had borrowed some twenty thousand from the half a million-dollar fund to meet operating expenses at year-end. This fellow showed up at our meeting so upset he was shaking. He announced that we were all in danger of going to jail because we would, by borrowing from the fund for operating expenses, invalidate the fund and thence our tax-exempt status. Since we had not paid taxes, his reasoning went, we could be guilty of tax evasion and could all go to jail.
Now, the point here is not that he was confused about tax law. The point is that this had become such a huge issue for him that he was in danger of having a stroke. The fund that occupied his attention this night was the rectory fund, traditionally used to finance the purchase of a home for the rector. It was his intent to protect the sanctity of this fund. It had grown to nearly half a million dollars; more than double what any church would, or should, spend for a rectory. Those of us who threatened the integrity of that fund had become the enemy, criminals even.
The fund had taken on an import far in excess of its intrinsic value. Here we sat on top of a huge mound of cash that could feed people, house people, teach people, and instead we were hell-bent on protecting it so it could be used to seduce some minister into taking the job we offered. That we had used it to fund the day-to-day operation of the church represented, to him, the height of irresponsibility.
Doesn’t he get it?
I attended a retreat a few years back. A four-day retreat where forty people gather under the tutelage of a “team” of twelve lay persons and three clergy. The purpose was to “reconnect” to our spiritual roots. One of the functions was a voluntary nightly confessional, heard in private by one of the clergy. I was the logistics guy on the team and had to direct people interested in confessing to one of the private locales where a clergy person waited. All three clergy complained about what awful duty hearing confession was and how they would do anything to avoid it. Two of the three conspired to “stick” the third with confession duty every night. They managed to do it.
Didn’t they get it?
I once served on the committee that coordinated the annual pledge drive. One of the functions was to contact people who hadn’t pledged and gently remind them that their pledge was due. More than once I heard that no pledge would be forthcoming as long as “women are allowed at the altar,” or “those (gays) keep coming,” or, fill in the blank. For these people, giving was about what you got back. Conditional pledges, we called them. If you promise not to spend the money of x, y, or z, I’ll give it to you.
Don’t they get it?
I sat in on a meeting once where the topic was providing care and connectivity to members of the church who were too sick to come to the service. One particular fellow’s name came up with the suggestion that both members of the clergy staff should make themselves available for a lunch meeting with him on Wednesday. I asked why the poor soul was unable to get to the Sunday service and was told the drive was just too far. He was willing to come in on Wednesday, though, since he had an office in town and had to come in to get some things done anyway. Moreover, a committee member added, he has loads of money and has always given plenty to the church. This fellow needed help getting connected, but only on his terms and, the members of this group of “caring angels” fully supported his demands because of his money.
Don’t they get it?
Another homebound soul called the other day in a panic over “the end times.” Seems a couple of popular religious authors have produced a series of books based on the Book of Revelations. Seems those people who “confess the name of Jesus” and are “right with Him” get to go straight to Heaven while the rest of us are left behind to suffer the nightmare of the tribulations. This is the same passage from the Bible that David Koresh was working so hard on figuring out when the ATF fired off a few grenades in the direction of the wooden structure that housed the Davidians. Revelations reads like a hallucination, with multi-headed beasts and trumpet blowing angels announcing the death of one-third of all the trees, the sinking of all ships at sea, and so on and so forth. This dear woman was calling looking for some assurance that she wasn’t going to be “Left Behind” (the name of the series of books which are enormously entertaining). Several of their “saved” survivors struggle regularly with a murderous rage. These are people who’ve “seen the light” and want to join their relatives in Heaven. These “Biblical scholars” appear to have deciphered the full and complete meaning of what is, without any doubt, the most complex book of any in the Bible. Surely they don’t assert to “know the mind of God,” yet they make no effort anywhere in or out of their text to reassure the reader this is their interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Disclaimers please.
Don’t they get it?
Last night while looking for something on TV I stopped on a televangelist. He was striding up and down rows of telemarketers in booths taking calls from “the faithful.” He was repeating in a staccato fashion, “go to your phone now, go to your phone right now, sow your seed of thirty seven dollars and the Lord will double your portion, go to your phone now, go to your phone right now.” I didn’t stay around long enough to see it but he had seven earthen jars lined up on a table into which he was putting the $37 pledges. He planned to crash the jars to the ground resulting in the pledgers receiving a doubling of their portion. “Just like Jesus’ miracle at Cana.” The alarming thing was it looked like all the telemarketers were busy taking pledges, dozens by the minute.
All these folks, the former vestryman worried about the nest egg he wanted to use as a luxurious fringe benefit for the new rector, the clergy trying to avoid the confessions of their charges, people who’ll only give money if their conditions are met, the caregivers who want to make sure the big money givers get first-class treatment, the authors trying to win converts to their brand of faith by terrifying people with apocalyptic horror stories, the televangelist hypnotizing the lonely into giving their 37 dollars all have one thing in common. They all belong to a faith founded by an impoverished rabbi who hung out with the bottom rungs of the social ladder while advising the monied to give all their possessions away. Give your money to the beggars and your coat to the homeless, he said. Give without reservation. Love without qualification.
One of Jesus’ followers was worried about money, worried the expensive perfume used to anoint the teacher could have been sold for money. His name was Judas.
Doesn’t anyone get it?