Monday, December 13, 2010

The Church of the Holy Snow Blower

During my years in parish ministry, there was nothing I dreaded more than a major snowstorm on a December weekend. December services were carefully planned and rehearsed. They often involved many people – an orchestra, perhaps, or all the children of the church school dressed like shepherds and wise men. I wanted a large congregation present to appreciate their efforts. More importantly, I needed all the participants to be there. And then there was the financial impact to worry about. Most Christian churches in America receive about 30% of their annual income during the month of December. Having a single Sunday wiped out by a storm could be the difference between making the budget and finishing the year with a deficit. So I stewed and worried when the snow started falling on a Saturday evening.

In the 23 years of my Appleton pastorate, I never canceled a Sunday service. There were a few Sundays where I somehow managed to make my way across town in treacherous conditions to lead a service for the handful of people who could walk to church. Our services were broadcast on the radio, so I preached my sermon to a congregation still at home in their jammies.

The storm this past weekend was as bad as or worse than any I ever had to contend with. I was sending prayers and good thoughts to all the priests and pastors of the area on Saturday night as they struggled with the decision to cancel or not. Clergy have competing anxieties in such situations. What if we cancel but an 86-year-old lady somehow fights her way through the storm only to find the church cold and dark? What if we don’t cancel and someone has an accident trying to get to church? Safety should always be the bottom line, but people of faith do not cancel a worship service lightly.

So when I awoke Sunday morning to howling winds and heavy snow, I was grateful to be the Goodwill chaplain rather than a parish minister. And when I looked at our unplowed street and the deep drift blown against our garage doors, I knew that I would be worshiping at the Church of the Holy Snow Blower that day.

Our street has many men – and this is pretty much a guy thing – who normally cannot wait for the sun to rise before they fire up their toys. But on Sunday it was eerily quiet until well after nine. When I heard Bob, my next-door neighbor, starting his machine, I figured it was time for me to bundle up and head outside as well : morning services were about to begin. The Prelude consisted of shoveling enough snow away from the garage to get the snow blower outside. The Call to Worship was issued when the engine fired up. The theme of the Sermon was “an ill wind blows no good” (lifted from Shakespeare rather than the Bible) and therefore the wise will not attempt to blow snow into said wind unless they sincerely want it back in their faces.

But my favorite part of the service was the Offering. When Bob and I had our driveways and sidewalks clear (at least until the snowplow came through to launch the second service), we fought our way across the street where several neighbors were trying to clear the snow using only shovels. The ice on Bob’s beard made him resemble a deranged Arctic explorer, but he was grinning as the wind roared and we forced our way through the big drifts. This is what neighbors do for one another. This is how community works.

I regret missing church services on Sunday. But loving your neighbor as yourself in the most practical way possible is not a terrible substitute.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Giving a Death Sentence for Christmas

It takes some of the bloom out of this joyous season when I read about the Medicaid patients in Arizona who are going to die because that program will no longer pay for needed organ transplants. One man finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a donor liver only to learn that funding for the procedure was no longer available to him. His family scrambled frantically to raise the $200,000 that would have allowed him to have the operation. When they failed, he went back to the end of the list, and someone with private insurance received the organ.

This puts it into stark relief: while politicians posture and claim that they can miraculously cut taxes for everyone, including the very wealthy, while creating new jobs and getting the country on the right track, people are dying. Some people will simply shrug their shoulders and say that times are hard and we cannot do everything for everyone. Fair enough, up to a point—yes, times are hard and we cannot do everything. But the gauge of a society’s morality lies in how it treats its most vulnerable members, and the state of Arizona is consigning them to death. That is unconscionable.

I fear that with this precedent set other states with equally strapped budgets will follow suit. Many politicians were elected to office because they promised to balance budgets – federal, state and local – without raising taxes by “eliminating waste.” From where I sit I do not see a great deal of waste left to be eliminated, which means that the only option is to further trim programs and services for those in greatest need, services that have already been stretched perilously thin. If some people need to make sacrifices, we seem to be saying, let it be the poor rather than the rich. When times are hard, it can bring forth a society’s best or worst. I fear we are tipping towards the latter—we are allowing ourselves to become mean and cold-hearted.

I believe there are still people of conscience in both political parties. People who are capable of compromise and cooperation. People more dedicated to finding workable solutions than to standing on “principles.” People who will not turn their backs on the legitimate needs of our nation’s most vulnerable. I read about a small, brave group of Republican and Democratic legislators seeking to build a new centrist coalition with the motto “not left, not right, just forward.” Theirs is a lonely voice right now, and they are being dismissed (or attacked) by many of their colleagues. But they are the sort of leaders who give me hope.

Are we as a society ready to reject mean-spiritedness, extremism, and the dysfunctional rejection of any form of compromise and insist that our elected leaders work together in the greater interest of our society? Are we ready to stop demonizing taxation and accept appropriate increases if the only alternative is to further punish the poor for being poor? That would be the Christmas gift I would most like to find under the tree this year.