Tools? Or, Props?

We live at cross-purposes. When the church says something is important, but then lives as though something else is important, it is called “hypocrisy.” In the world it is called “business as usual.” What we say is important in either place varies from person to person, from situation to situation, from time to time. What is important in both places, all the time, is money. Everything else serves the money motive. In the church, nothing is said or done that the members won’t like because they will leave the church, or quit giving. Things work the same way in the world. We don’t do anything that isn’t smart, meaning “that hurts the Bottom Line.”

The United States hasn’t ratified a treaty calling for an end to the use of land mines, because we manufacture land mines, and because the military finds them to be very useful, and because no one is placing them in our neighborhoods, pasture lands, and scenic vistas. We won’t work for an end to global warming because industries would lose billions of dollars reducing emissions, taxes would increase, the cost of goods and services would go up, and the American people would vote politicians out of office who voted for clean air. It wouldn’t be good for business to end global warming. If it isn’t good for business, it isn’t done. In the church or out of it.

“Business” is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It has a life, and a mind, of its own. No CEO ever recommended, and no Board of Directors ever approved, and no meeting of the Stockholders ever ratified, a business strategy that was designed to produce less profit for the sake of a cleaner environment or a better world. American automakers could have been producing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars for the last 50 years. Larger, less efficient cars were more profitable. We go where the money is. If a profit can be made, a profit will be made. Profit At Any Price. We go where the votes are. And, between the two, we’ll choose the money as the primary vote-getter.

We talk about values, and about being “value-driven.” We write mission statements about service and love. But money is the value. The mission is to make money, and to make more money this quarter than last quarter. We will do whatever it takes to achieve that end—and not do anything that might prevent the realization of that end. We like the idea of compassion and the Golden Rule, but we have to pay the bills—and the more bills we are able to pay, the better–never mind whether they are the right or wrong kind of bills in the first place.

As a nation, we are experiencing the Revenge of the Canarsee Delawares. The Canarsee Delawares, you will remember, sold Manhattan to Peter Minuit and the West India Company for a handful of glass beads and a couple of silver mirrors (Okay, that can’t be substantiated, but it makes for good copy, and it was for next to nothing no matter what actually changed hands, and no matter what was used for barter, my point remains untouched). Well, the joke is on us.

The Curse of the Canarsee Delawres drives us to sell heart and soul, and the worthy future of the whole country, and the entire world, for glass and plastic, which we regularly send to the landfill to make room for more glass and plastic. The ghosts of Native Americans gather regularly on the edge of the Happy Hunting Ground, to peer over the side, to look, point, and roll about laughing. But, unpacking our latest purchase of glass and plastic and admiring its sheen and shine, we cannot imagine a life that didn’t promise more of this stuff forever. And running up the wrong bills is what we do best. This is so it, it’s disgusting.

How much of the stuff that does not satisfy is enough? How much do we need? Of what, really, does life consist? The church should be able to explore these questions. The church should be able to conduct experiments in living that are immune to the cultural fascination with money and profit (and with glass and plastic). Ah, but, the church has bills to pay, too, you know. As long as there is overhead, the church is going to be compromised in its ability to be the church. Or, to put it another way, the church is going to compromise its ability to be the church in order to “take care of business” and pay the bills. How to be the church and pay the bills is not a question we ask. We just pay the bills. And it also leads me to suspect that we cannot be the church and pay the bills—which throws “being the church” into a different way of doing church.

Progressive Christian congregations talk about being inclusive, but look around. Mostly middle to upper middle class, middle-aged to elderly, well-educated and socially astute people in every progressive Christian congregation. Mostly people just like everyone else there. And how many of us would keep coming if lots of people not like us showed up? If the Religious Right, say, moved in, and wanted gospel music sung to CD’s played over the sound system, and took over the announcement portion of the service (if not the sermon) to rail against the things we approve, and to applaud the things we oppose, how long before we stopped coming?

We talk about being inclusive, but if we include only gay people who think like we do, and African-Americans who think like we do, and Yuppies who think like we do, and Octogenarians who think like we do, how inclusive is that really? How many people can we include who don’t think like we do, and still have enough of us to pay the bills we think should be incurred and paid? You see the problem. The problem is that the church can be the church only if it doesn’t have to pay the bills. When it comes down to being the church, or paying the bills, the church pays the bills.

The smart thing to do would be to incur the right bills. What are the bills that we need to incur in the course of being the church? At what point do the bills that enable us to be the church become the bills that keep us from being the church? When the church has so many bills that the focus of the church is on how to pay the bills, and not on how to be the church, the church has crossed the line.

I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, and served 5 congregations in that time. That’s a lot of church board meetings. In every church board meeting the major portion of the time spent meeting was spent talking about paying the bills. I have never served on a church board that spent its time imagining how to be the church, wondering how to be the church, discussing new and better ways to be the church. Every church board has spent most of its time imagining, wondering, discussing how to pay the bills in order to keep doing what the church has always done. Every new program idea, or proposal for ministry and service, was evaluated in terms of its potential impact on the church’s ability to pay the bills. In order to be approved, a program or ministry idea has to be so innocuous as to be invisible, because, otherwise, it might offend someone, and they might leave the church, or stop giving, and then where would we be?

On another level, all the programs in all the churches look exactly alike. What is a church without Vacation Bible School, and music programs, and choir practices, and bell choirs, and covered dish dinners, and Bible studies, and Sunday schools, and men’s groups and women’s groups and youth groups, and mission trips to Mexico? If you don’t do church the way church is supposed to be done, people may get the idea that this isn’t a church, and stop coming, and stop giving, and then who will pay the bills?

At some point, the bills stop enabling us to be the church, and start preventing us from being the church, and no one has any idea of where that point is. The same thing applies in our own personal lives, and the same thing applies to the country as a whole, and to the world at large. At some point, the bills that enable us to have a life begin to keep us from living. At some point, we begin to live to pay the bills. And, we have no idea of where that point is—or, of what bills we should incur, and what bills we should never consider being responsible for.

We have to do a better job of paying attention—and of being right about what is important, and of living in ways which honor and serve that. We have to have a better idea of what it takes—of what we need, and why we need it. We cannot just spend our lives collecting glass and plastic. What are we about? What do we mean, intend, with the lives we are living? How do the bills we pay serve that meaning, that intention? At what point do our bills begin to compromise that meaning, that intention? What do we want to do with the lives that are ours to live? What do we need to do with the lives that are ours to live? How does what we buy serve the life we need to live?

Hugh MacLeod, in his book Ignore Everybody, points out that there is a vast amount of difference between a tool and a prop. A tool helps us do what is ours to do. A prop serves to project an image. We have an image in mind of a successful life. We think we know what success looks like. To look successful we need the props. The image requires the props. A sailboat, say, and a house on the beach, and one in the mountains. We spend our lives collecting the props that sustain the image.

Do you see how empty that is? How sad it is? We buy success! We own the props, which project the image, which announce “Success Here!” We exhaust ourselves maintaining the props that sustain the image, that create the illusion that we are successful, have it all together, and are the envy of our peers. But, the props don’t enable us to do anything other than appear to be successful, and require us to maintain the props.

There are people, maybe you have known some of them, who have Steinway pianos in their home, which no one knows how to play, because they create the right effect. Other people own horses, which no one rides, for the same reason. How many of our bills pay for props, and how many pay for tools?

Before we make a purchase, we need to ask, “Is this a prop or a tool? What will it help me do what needs to be done?” We have to find ways to reduce our bills by incurring the right bills—by asking if, and how, our expenditures enable us to accomplish what is ours to do—by asking if, and how, they are enabling us to do what needs to be done.

Of course, to make that inquiry, we have to know what we are about. We have to know what constitutes our work. We have to know what we are doing here, and what we need in order to do what needs to be done. We cannot afford to pay for things that maintain an image, that create an impression without actually enabling us to do what we need to do in order to be who we are.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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