Archive for August, 2011

Doing Something About Hunger

August 30th, 2011 No comments

You may not be aware, our church is one of four that supports a local food pantry, the Joshua Tree Community Food Pantry. (Watch the video some of our kids made about it.)

There are still hungry people in America:

However, national food insecurity data reveal that about 45% of those struggling with hunger actually have incomes above the federal poverty level and 53% of poor households are food secure1. Thus, measuring need based on local poverty rates alone provides an incomplete illustration of the potential need for food assistance within our communities. More accurate assessments of need across all income levels within our service areas can assist Feeding America and our network of food banks in strategic planning for charitable food services that best support hungry Americans, as well as inform the public policy discussion so that vital federal nutrition programs can better serve those in need.

And by “America,” I mean “next door.” (See the map here.)

There are a lot of reasons for hunger, including the utterly insane use of food for automobile fuel. We can hope and work for non-stupid public policy to help with the problem. But in the meantime, one of the ways you can help is to donate food to a community food pantry, or volunteer at one.

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Financial Status Update

August 30th, 2011 No comments

We were all surprised (and I expect, very pleased) last month, when we learned that Desert Hills had received a large bequest. The gift was all the more surprising because the giver hadn’t been part of our church, except as the widower of a member who passed away in 2009.

What you may not have realized is that, when we received the gift, our church was already operating in the black!

This September marks the end of my fifth year as your pastor. The first four years of my ministry here were largely dominated by our finances. Each year we spent more than we took in. The economic problems our nation began to experience in 2008 only made things worse.

By this time last year, our reserves had dwindled to about $20 thousand. That sounds like a lot of money—at least to me, it does!—but it was only enough to cover our deficit for about about 12-15 months.

Something had to be done. So we did it.

Your leaders on Session approved a budget with deep and painful cuts, mostly in the area of personnel. We reduced the pastor’s take-home pay by about 10% and my total compensation by about $6,000. We eliminated the part-time office administrator position. We built in an unpaid summer furlough for our music director. These cuts were painful, but they put our budget close to balancing.

To close the gap, our leaders asked each of you, the members of our congregation, to increase your giving by at least a dollar a week. And you’ve done it!

Since I don’t look at individual giving records, I can’t say who was and who wasn’t able to increase their giving, but I do see the totals. Collectively, our congregational giving this year has consistently been more generous than it was last year. During January to August of 2011, we have received about 8% more than we did that same portion of 2010.

The result of this effort—cutting expenses and increased giving—has meant that, for the first time in my five years at Desert Hills, we are now running a modest surplus. We are on track to end the year in the black, even after we fill the music positions we are currently advertising. We will have achieved this without drawing a dime from our reserves, and without reducing our traditional level of support for ministries of compassion through our mission partners.

To achieve our goal, two things still need to happen: first, we need to continue to hold the line on expenses. Second, we are counting on you to continue to give generously. We aren’t asking you to stretch any further—if you can, that’s great; more money’s always welcome—but we are asking you to keep giving at your current level so we finish the year in the black.

I am so grateful that we did not receive this bequest last year, or earlier this year. Instead, God gave us time to embark together on this scary journey of faithful spending and giving. God held back the bequest just long enough for us to see that we already had within us the financial resources to function as a church even in a time of economic hardship.

This fifth year here at Desert Hills has been satisfying to me because we turned the corner on our finances. I want to thank each of you for all your work and sacrifice to make it happen. I especially want to thank our lay leaders, developing our financial plan and refining it along the way.

Now, finally, we can lift our heads up from the ledger books and begin to think and pray and listen together to what God has in store for our church in the years ahead.

(Cross-posted at the Desert Hills Presbyterian Church website.)

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Ordinary People

August 29th, 2011 No comments

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

C.S. Lewis wrote that in “The Weight of Glory.” Later in the essay he says that, apart from the sacraments, neighbors are “the holiest object presented to your senses.”

It’s a staggering idea. When I hear the word “holy,” I usually start with places: places that intimidated me as a child, or, as an adult, touring Europe, perhaps a cathedral, quiet and dark except for candles flickering in corners. But as Stephen, the first Martyr reminded his accusers, “the Most High does not dwell in places made with human hands” (Acts 7:48).

The Temple and its surroundings, where Stephen made his confession, was destroyed in 70 AD, leaving only a portion of its western wall. The Roman Empire that destroyed the Temple? It’s gone too.

The things we encounter every day are the same: they may have been around a long time, and they might endure long after we’re gone, but they’re passing away.

They’re all passing away, that is, except us—our neighbors, and ourselves, and strangers driving through town. We’re immortal—and that makes us extraordinary. The most exceptional thing you’ll encounter today is the friend or neighbor you encounter every day.

How much more so, then, the stranger? Perhaps that’s what the writer of Hebrews meant:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

To our cynical ears, it sounds like the writer wants us to invest in strangers only because one of them might pay off. But perhaps the writer means this: the people we already know are such extraordinary creatures that the only things more amazing are strangers—who are so incredible that some may even be angels.

How would it change your relationships if you saw people this way? If they are the holiest objects available to your senses, who would you invest more time getting to know? Who are some strangers, and what kind of hospitality could you show them? Who would you invite to dinner, or to church? Who would you help out in a fix?

(Cross-posted at the Desert Hills Presbyterian Church website.)

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Being less Biblical

August 25th, 2011 No comments

I liked this point by Don Miller in his blog post “Being Less ‘Biblical’ and more ‘like the Bible.'”

Even Christ’s biographers depict Him without sparing us His humanity. He gets angry, He gets annoyed, He is hard to understand (and indeed hard to follow) and while He seems to love the world, He’s as alien as E.T., pointing always toward the heavens rambling about going home. It’s brilliant stuff when you stop reading it to figure out if you’re right or wrong about something. It’s life-changing, actually, the way your life gets changed by a friend over time.

I don’t do it enough, but I’m always rewarded when I just read the gospels. (Or really, any of the Scriptures, but it’s especially true in the gospels, as you read about Jesus.) Not to find that passage where he says this or that, or where it teaches us about this thing or another. Just to read the story and enjoy it.

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The Church and Working Class Americans

August 21st, 2011 No comments

Here’s an interesting finding, reported by LiveScience today:

In the 1980s, the researchers found, there was little difference in religious participation between high school- and college-educated whites. But by the 2000s, a gap appeared. Today, 46 percent of college-educated whites go to a church, synagogue or equivalent institution at least once a month, compared with 37 percent of high school-educated whites.

Whites without a high school diploma were the least likely to attend church in the 1970s and remain so today. In the 1970s, 38 percent attended church at least monthly. Today, only 23 percent do. (Blacks and Hispanics do not show the same declines.)

I wonder why this is. Are better-educated people more responsive to outreach? Do churches seek out and minister to better-educated people? And is there a difference between those questions? How can churches be more effective at communicating the gospel to people who aren’t as well educated?

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Calvin on Tradition

August 15th, 2011 No comments

Preparing for my last sermon, I found some choice quotes from Calvin on submitting to traditions. (These are from the Institutes 3.19.7-11, with tiny modifications for readability).

We are not bound before God to any observance of external things which are in themselves indifferent (“adiafora”), but that we are now at full liberty either to use or omit them. … Once the conscience is entangled in the net, it enters a long and inextricable labyrinth, from which it is afterwards most difficult to escape.

In one word, we see whither this liberty tends viz., that we are to use the gifts of God without any scruple of conscience, without any perturbation of mind, for the purpose for which he gave them: in this way our souls may both have peace with him, and recognize his liberality towards us.

“A haughty mind often dwells in a coarse and homely garb, while true humility lurks under fine linen and purple.” Let every one then live in his own station, poorly or moderately, or in splendor; but let all remember that the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury….

… We should assert our liberty before men. This I admit: yet must we use great caution in the mode, lest we should cast off the care of the weak whom God has specially committed to us.

… Our liberty was not given us against our weak neighbors, whom charity enjoins us to serve in all things, but rather that, having peace with God in our minds, we should live peaceably among men. What value is to be set upon the offense of the Pharisees we learn from the words of our Lord, in which he says, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind,” (Matt. 15:14).

Bend over backwards to accomodate the weak, and ignore the Pharisees. How easy it is for me to do just the opposite!