Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Church and The Big Short

I just finished reading Michael Lewis's book "The Big Short" about the crash of the U. S. Stock Market in 2008. He tells the story of how it happened (from his perspective) through the lives and stories of several of the folks who figured out what was going on but couldn't get anyone to pay attention. The bottom line to that (though not to the point of this post) was once the whistle blowers gave up on anybody listening to what they had to say - many just bet against what everyone else was doing and in the process won big (for themselves and their investors).

The reason I am writing about it in my blog though is because when I read it I just felt like this was the story of the Church (note: big "C"). I noticed this from nearly the beginning -- but the following quote jumped out at me, as well. "Lippmann soon found that the people he most expected to see the ugly truth of the subprime mortgage market--the people who ran funds that specialized in mortgage bond trading--were the ones least likely to see anything but what they had been seeing for years. Here was a strange but true fact: The closer you were to the market, the harder it was to perceive its folly."

It seems to me that one could substitute the word "church" for the word "market" in the last sentence of that quote and that would be about right. I have been struck, recently, by how hard it is to see even the things that we actually see. I know that sounds strange, but hang with me for a moment.

I spend some time every year talking with folks in congregations in other parts of the country (and in some years in other parts of the world). I find myself often telling them the story of how we went and talked with the local hospital to see what the food problem really is in our community - we asked the hospital "what do you see people for related to food in our city - and, in particular, in our neighborhood?" Now for years (in many cases decades) the congregations I have been apart of for 25 years have all had food pantries. I have spent a great deal of time getting food and giving out food. But I never really asked "What's the real food problem?" Instead, I just assumed I knew. When we would open the food pantry - there would always be people to get the food that was offered.

So - when I tell this story, I ask the people of these congregations who I'm meeting with to tell me what they think was the answer I was given. Over 90 percent of the time the answer people give me is "Obesity." And that answer is wrong. The answer I was given was, in fact, diabetes. There were no cases of starvation and very few cases of malnutrition (and most of those seemed to be focused not on people who didn't have food, but on older folks who lived alone and seemed to be forgetting to eat). But here's the strange thing - what people seem to believe is the biggest problem (no pun intended) is obesity - and their answer? Food pantries. Now, if you think that the problem is obesity is the answer to that question really more food?

But let's get back to the real problem - diabetes. This really embarrassed me. Because when I found out that the main food problem was diabetes - I figured out that I had not only not been helping with this problem, I had been actively making things worse. So I decided that no matter what I would stop giving people crappy food and start giving people only good food. And if I was going to listen to the words of the prophets (Isaiah in particular was jumping out at me) I was probably going to find myself eating together with folks - rather than giving food to folks.

It is one of the things I'm really glad for around Broadway - these days we are not doing "community gardens" we are supporting community gardeners - those who are growing in their own backyards, front yards, and porches. They are even working towards having a Farmer's Market at a local hospital (Methodist Hospital). We are working to see if this effort will end up with more people growing gardens on their own property - and thus eating healthier. If it happens that way it will be much more likely to last. And it is a good example, I think, of being leaven in the loaf of community.

But back to "the big short." What really dumbfounded me was this reality that what people see with their very own eyes is that their is a problem with obesity - but the only answers are the ones that we've always given. Let's give more food.

The problem with "shorting" the Church on this idea is that there is no money to be made on betting against this (at least as far as I've been able to figure out).

But it has become emblematic to me of so much that we struggle with in the church - particularly in areas of mission - at least the mission efforts I see in this country, particularly in urban communities. Congregations are much more committed to "doing something" than figuring out what is really going on -- or trying to. We want to feel better by doing something - and doing something isn't bad. But the leadership of the churches - both clergy and laity need to do a much better job of laying out the real questions that are before us and helping us see things clearly.

Jesus seems to heal more people of blindness than any other illness. And he seems to battle with the disciples more about their ability to see than anything else. My biggest prayer for myself every day is that I not be blind to the presence and power of God's grace in and around me as I move through the world. It's not easy. But we follow a Jesus who told us that one of the real signs of the realm of God is that "the blind see" and from where I stand that isn't much about having sight.