Pastor’s Bookshelf: White Trash

I mostly read “churchy” books (ones on theology, biblical interpretation, pastoral leadership, ministry, and the like), so this recent “history” one I finished was quite different. Historian Nancy Isenberg explores how American society, even from its earliest days, has not taken kindly to the poor. “White trash”, “redneck”, and “hillbilly” are often used humorously or in a self-depreciating way today. But there’s a dark history behind such words. In year’s past, people at the bottom of society were frequently labelled waste people, refuse, rubbish, crackers, and clay eaters.

America is often envisioned as a place where anyone can get ahead from their hard work and grit. This has not been historically accurate, Isenberg argues, as we clearly separate ourselves on the basis of class—working class, blue and white collar, business owners, and the poor. She examines some lesser-known writings and ideas from the founding fathers, who would often speak of humans in terms of breeding, just like with livestock. The overall implication was that some people are inherently admirable and hard working, and other groups of people are disposable and beyond hope.

Near the time of the Civil War, many Americans (both north and south) believed that the rural poor literally ate mud and dirt. This kind of thinking also gave rise to the eugenics movement, where many thinkers proposed sterilizing poor people for the sake of the common good. Just as people like Thomas Jefferson had spoke of the poor as unfavorable “stock” and “pedigree”, the early 1900s brought the belief that some people and families are simply better dying off rather than helping.

There have been several efforts to raise people out of poverty, including programs such as the New Deal. But even in America’s most charitable interventions, an underlying pride never seems to disappear. People often view the poorest with contempt, believing that someone is ultimately to blame personally for their problems, as opposed to structural issues. Americans commonly struggle with feelings of resentment, especially if they feel like someone else is getting too much help.

To paraphrase one of Isenberg’s central observations: It’s not enough for Americans to get ahead in life, we often want someone to look down upon. The poor usually fit this mold, living in run-down homes, rural areas, and lacking educational or employment opportunities.

Isenberg definitely does not dismiss the issues America has faced regarding race, but argues that this form of class oppression ought to be considered a problem as well. We have a stain in our country’s legacy for how we have historically handled racism. We also have a stain on our legacy for how we’ve treated the poorest of the poor, and she writes to shine a light on this problem and its lasting effects.

This book provided a unique take on American history, particularly our shortcomings. To tie this in with matters of faith, I would argue that humans continually struggle with the sin of pride. We sure love thinking boastfully about ourselves, which means we usually think less of some people. I frequently hear others complain about and criticize the poor for receiving “handouts.” It’s not uncommon to hear people gripe about another receiving a tax credit for having children. “Work ethic” is something we often judge others by. Cities and towns frequently ban structures like mobile homes, leaving the poorest citizens to move to the outskirts. Rural areas tend to lack adequate or maintained infrastructure. If you ask me, these are all subtle ways we put others down and continue to oppress our poorest neighbors. In the more explicit ways, you will hear folks on social media or TV talk about how other people are “undeserving” poor, entitled, good-for-nothing, or trash.

Journalist Brooke Gladstone once put it this way: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. If you’re poor, you pay more for public transit because you can’t afford a monthly pass or you rely on old cars that break down and cost more to fix, while paying gas prices that have outrun your wages. You pay more for car insurance because of where you live. You pay more for rent than your place is worth. If you’re poor, you’re unlikely to eat healthy meals because healthy food costs an average of $45 more a month–tough on a minimum wage. You can’t buy any food cheaply because it costs more in poor neighborhoods and, without spare cash, you can’t even save by buying in bulk. You’re less likely to have a bank account because of soaring fees and penalties, you cash checks at places that take a cut. You also pay a higher percentage of your income in state and local taxes than the rest of us do, and so on. It’s death by a thousand cuts and no way to staunch the bleeding.”

How do you treat the classmate who probably cannot read this blog post, because his house doesn’t have internet, and the internet provider won’t install it unless his family pays thousands of dollars in costs because they live in a rural area?

How do you treat the senior who lives entirely off social security checks, all while she cares for other family members who are also in tough times, sometimes forgoing meals herself to feed others?

How do you treat the homeless man on the side of the road who has dealt with a myriad of problems?

Are you loving to all these people? Do you seek their welfare? Or in Jesus’ words, are you loving that neighbor in the same way you love yourself? Do you see them as a brother or sister?

God cares for all people, and we are called to do the same. We also have the opportunity to live in mission, providing assistance to those who need it, whether that be preaching the gospel with our words, or through our actions like with a food box or serving a meal. In fact, I would say the two (spiritual and physical wellbeing) have to go hand-in-hand. The church has an opportunity to welcome people from all walks of life into God’s family.

Miracles and the Fullness of God’s Kingdom

Our recent bible study on Daniel ties in well with Sunday’s sermon topic. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, passages dealing with prophecy show us how God’s plan is continually unfolding throughout human history. This relates to biblical figures like Daniel, who interpret and prophesy concerning God’s salvation. This idea also relates to our discussion on miracles and the early church. Below is a writeup I did for the study group, and how miracles teach us that God’s salvation plan is both already here, and also “not yet”…

Many of the prophecies of the Old Testament (particularly Isaiah and Daniel) tell of a future where God would establish an everlasting kingdom. For instance, Isaiah 65:25 famously reads: “‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.” This certainly sounds like a miraculous act. How do we interpret passages like this one?

Those in the Jewish faith point to prophecies like this one as evidence that Jesus Christ was not the true messiah. They may argue that because we do not have peace on earth, the savior has not come yet. After all, where are the wolves, lambs, lions, and serpents who peacefully coexist? Why isn’t God’s promise fulfilled around us if Jesus was the messiah? Where are all the miracles today?

Christians adopt a different interpretation of messiah prophecies like Isaiah 65. Yes, God will eventually make peace over all the earth in the future. But at the same time, however, a relationship with Christ can grant the world peace right now. God can live inside our heart and transform the world through the work of the church. We can see countless examples of “wolves” and “lambs” coexisting in our lives if we only embrace the love of God. The kingdom begins in our hearts, and flows out through our lives as we are shaped by the love of Christ. Miracles are but a preview of the future reality with God.

Nevertheless, there is a tensions between these ideas of prophecy, the future, and God’s salvation. When exactly will restoration come? Is it already here? Or has it not come just yet?

In the 1900s, theologians developed a way to talk about this issue called “kingdom theology.” This idea has been embraced by many diverse denominations of Christianity, from Pentecostals, Methodists, evangelicals, and Presbyterians. The central argument is this: God’s kingdom is already here, but it is not yet fully developed. The completion only comes at the end of time where God judges all and establishes his kingdom here on earth. Right now we can experience a foretaste of the future, just as the famous hymn “Blessed Assurance” describes (“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine; Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!”).

Miracles also have this quality, too. They are opportunities to witness the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, lives, and world. Yet the “miracle” (regardless of what it might be) still exists in an imperfect world. We look to the future for God to finish the work of salvation throughout all creation. Miracles point towards that heavenly reality.

Jesus was clear that we can experience the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus’ first recorded words in the Gospel of Mark 1:15 are “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” You may be familiar with this idea in our faith. We are to repent, ask for God’s forgiveness, and believe in the good news of Jesus in order for us to be saved. This transformation allows us to live in God’s kingdom. This relationship could be described as an already-but-not-yet kingdom…

We can already experience the healing of Jesus… but full healing will come in the future. Miracles remind us God is continually working.

We can know what eternal life is like right now… but “full” eternal life in heaven can only happen after we die. We all will eventually die on this earth.

We can already know what perfection looks like through following Jesus’ commandments… but we are not perfected just yet—God will purify us at the final judgment.

We can already see the kingdom of God moving around us in the church… but it’s completion is “not yet.” In the meantime, be a Godly miracle to someone with your words and actions!

The Church as a Lifesaving Station

One of the first sermon illustrations I used at Concord was the “Parable of the Lifesaving Station.” I’m not sure who first authored it, as I’ve heard the story used many different times by a handful of people. This definitely applies to our sermon from yesterday about the Acts 2 church, so I figured I would share it once more!

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. They hung up memorabilia and pictures of great lifesaving expeditions of old and sung songs about lifesaving. They would even have lifesaving potlucks.

Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired professional lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up first before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities altogether as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they hiked up the shore a half mile and did just that.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, there was a split, and yet another lifesaving station was founded up the coast. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but most of the people tragically drown.

When we meet together as the church, are we fully living out our mission? Do we realize God calls us to help rescue other people? Or do we sometimes struggle with being inwardly focused?

Never forget that we as Christians are in the lifesaving business!