Thank you to the Christian leaders who are speaking out and taking risks to do so. I see you and I appreciate what you are doing. Keep going.
Today we pause to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s life is one we can point to and agree, “Yes, in his lifetime his work moved nations.” One man brought voice to millions and inspiration to billions.
Many people will reflect on Dr. King’s work and build a wall around his legacy, affirming his works and bravery while simultaneously distancing themselves by labeling him as uniquely gifted by God. As if to say, “I could never be like Dr. King. He was special, gifted, talented, extraordinary– I am ordinary.”
My challenge to you would be to examine Dr. King’s work closely for yourself. Read his sermons, watch speeches given at rallies, and wander through the nearly 1 million items in his online archives.
Then ask yourself this question: Was Dr. King gifted or merely obedient?
As I’ve examined Dr. King’s life, his works, his writings, and his early ministry I’ve discovered a man wholly ordinary but extraordinarily obedient to the calling God placed on his life.
Remember Moses? A man with a speech impediment who murdered a guy in his early adult life? When God called him he was overcome by his ordinary-ness. He complained back to God, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) and “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13)
Imagine the lunacy of Moses trying to educate God on his personal history and faults? Moses gave God a few good reasons why he was too ordinary to lead a million people out of slavery and God replied back over and over again… I’m not asking you to be extraordinary, just merely obedient.
Ultimately, Moses is recorded as a hero to the Jewish people, not for his bravery in standing up to Pharaoh, but for his obedience to God. He didn’t lead a million people out of slavery. But he did show up and was obedient.
Don’t make the mistake today of honoring Dr. King’s life work without asking yourself, “Am I being obedient to the calling God has laid on my life?”
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
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Cumulatively, the American church is likely the largest private land owner in the country. Most zip codes contain at least one house of worship. In my zip code alone there are more than 30. In many communities around our nation the church occupies some of the prettiest property in town. It’s square footage competes with all other public buildings in girth and consumption of natural resources.
Cumulatively, the American church is likely one of the largest private employers in the country. Each of those congregations in my zip code employ at least one individual. But when you include secretaries, janitors, and associates, the number goes up. Nationwide hundreds of thousands of people are employed by churches.
- Churches pay no property taxes
- Most church staff do not pay full payroll taxes.
Think about the fiscal crisis your state is going through… not taxing churches and their staff comes at a pretty high cost, right?
Why is that so?
Have you ever thought about it? Why don’t churches pay property taxes? And why are clergy taxed differently than other types of employees?
The best I can tell there are two main reasons for this:
- In the last 70 years, there has been an increasing desire to keep church and state separate. The Supreme Court has, again and again, affirmed a desire to not sniff around in the churches business too much. Collecting property and payroll taxes would probably require audits which the federal government wants no part of.
- Historically, there was an understanding that the local church was the primary provider of social programs. It didn’t make sense to tax the entity taking care of the sick, feeding the poor, and often providing meeting space for the community.
Closed to non-members
If I were to walk to the front door of most churches in our country today and pull the handle of the door I’d find it locked. (And not because it’s a holiday, it’s locked nearly every day. Even if unlocked I don’t have access to use the space.) I’ll quickly be told it is private property.
The simple truth is that the church is one of the largest private land owners and largest private employers, but it is generally closed to the public. The possibility of its existence is financed by 100% of the community whereas the benefits of the property, staff, and resources, are functionally only available to the 5% or so who attend.
For years I’ve heard the local church referred to as a country club and scoffed. But largely, it is true.
The public is not welcome.
My dream for the church
It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I will watch the speeches. (And make my kids watch them, too.) I will remember the effects of his ministry. And I will be inspired by the quotes on Twitter.
More importantly, I am empowered by Dr. King’s message to keep dreaming.
When I close my eyes these are the things I dream about:
One day, the churches facilities will embrace the implications of its tax status. It will be a place truly separate from the world because it serves the world. So separate that people coming into her doors will wonder if they are in an alternate reality. I dream of a church who flings it’s doors open to the public Monday – Saturday from 6:00 AM until 10:00 PM. It’s a place the poor are served. A place the sick go for healing prayers. A place the elderly use as a resource. A place high school volleyball teams practice. A place kids go for tutoring. A place of civic debate. A place the arts are celebrated. A place local business people use for meetings. And a place where people go to find out how they can serve their fellow neighbors.
One day, the churches staff will see themselves as employees of the community. The skills Paul talks about in Titus 1 & 1 Timothy 3 will be used not just to run programs attended by the faithful but cast upon the community for the common good of all people. Sure, there will be sacramental duties performed by the staff. But they will be kept in focus by the needs of the community. The pastor will see himself as not just the pastor of the people who come on Sunday morning, but as the pastor of the community he’s been called to serve. (Using “he” in an inclusive mode, my egalitarian friends.)
The church will no longer be dictated by fears of lawsuits. They will rise above the desire to protect its assets in realization that the assets came from and belong to the community in the first place. The church will no longer be stricken by a separation of church and state because it is too busy embracing the needs of the state’s citizens. You want to sue us? Then sue us because we have made our property open to all. You want to close our doors? Then you are closing the doors on the place of refuge for refugees and the place of stability for those lacking the stability of a family. Let our good works be our best defense.
The church will be a physical manifestation of the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. The church will be a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. It will be a place every person can both be served and serve in the fullness of their spiritual gifts.
What will we see than? We will see Jesus at work. We will see the irresistible draw of our Savior on the hearts of the community. The church will cease being a place for the 5%-10% on the fringes and regain its place as the centerpiece of our communities. We will see that the church will be the waypoint when giving directions to people around town. We will see that the community will look at offering tax breaks to churches and clergy will be a bargain and a burden its people happily bear for the greater good of the community.
This won’t wallow in a social gospel. Instead it will embrace that the Gospel is social. It’ll be the embrace that the Gospel isn’t just about renewing of our hearts but also a renewing of our community.
Let the religious among us be skeptics of what can happen when we embrace our role in society. In the meantime, when we step into these things, we will see today’s skeptics give their hearts to Jesus when they finally see the Gospel alive with their very own eyes.
(Yes, the title of this post is sensationalistic. But it got you to read it, right?)
All of my life I’ve grown up with versions of this phrase, “Don’t judge someone by their color, race, ethnicity, gender, or religion– judge them by their character and abilities.”
I grew up in a college town, with the University of Notre Dame within my elementary, middle, and high school’s boundaries, we were as melting pot a community as you could get in Indiana. Lots of ethnicities, lots of religions, lots of races. Growing up with that sort of diversity makes you hungry for it. It’s one of the things I love most about San Diego, where we live now.
“Stuff like that just doesn’t matter.” That’s what we were taught. That was really our mantra growing up. And if I’m really honest– that’s what I believe in the core of my being. In fact, given the choice I still prefer to celebrate diversity. Kristen and I exhibit this by where we chose to live and the schools we chose to put our kids in and the church we chose to worship in.
Perhaps that’s why I was so shocked to read this piece in Sunday’s New York Times:
But Justice Stevens cuts a lone figure on the current court in one demographic category: He is the only Protestant.
His retirement, which was announced on Friday, makes possible something that would have been unimaginable a generation or two ago — a court without a single member of the nation’s majority religion.
— [moving to the end of the article] —
For his part, Professor Stone said there were ways a justice’s religious affiliation could have an impact on the court. President Obama, for instance, could nominate an evangelical Christian.
Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard, had another suggestion.
President Obama, he said, could use Justice Stevens’s retirement as an opportunity both to honor tradition and to break new ground.
“The smartest political move,” he said, “would be to nominate an openly gay, Protestant guy.” read the full article
So, if I read that right the Supreme Court nomination is open to anyone who isn’t… a white protestant straight male.
I’m not calling it discrimination. But I find it odd. I’m all in favor of choosing people for the Supreme Court for political reasons. That’s certainly a tradition and one of the major privileges of being elected President. And I understand that as our nation has fought to make diversity a value, we had to intentionally place individuals in places of power and decision to communicate that value. All things equal, for more than a generation, we’ve chosen to elevate someone of another race, gender, religion, or whatever.
This has helped significantly communicate, “It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from you can get anywhere in our culture.”
But I wonder at what point does the discussion get back to purely, “Who is the most qualified?” and “Who would keep the courts balanced to represent a variety of worldviews?”
In other words– I’d like to think we’ve arrived at a place in our nations history where it truly doesn’t matter the color of your skin, what nation your parents came from, where or if you worship, what your gender or sexual preference is, or even where your degree comes from.
Have we reached a place where white, protestant, straight, males are not put on the sidelines because of their race, gender, and sexual preference?
Declaration of Independence
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Luther’s 95 Thesis
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