How about something more lighthearted today.
Years ago, my daughter brought home a corn snake – it had been a whole-class science project in her senior year of high school. When summer came, someone had to keep the snake. She named it Carmel (corn snakes are predominately orangish brown in color). When summer ended Sarah went off to college – Carmel continued to live in our basement.
I inherited the duty of procuring a mouse per week. Nature is harsh. Snakes are also a little moody in the appetite department. Sometimes a mouse lasted no time at all. Sometimes Carmel and the mouse became room mates for several days. Either way I generally felt a little guilty – especially since the place I got the mice from put the poor little things in a box with a picture of a cartoon mouse jumping up in the air, clicking its mousy heels and proclaiming ‘Yippee, I’ve found a home!’
The feeding I most recall took place when Carmel had just about finished molting. This meant she had pretty much skipped a feeding and was ravenously hungry. It also meant her eyesight was poorer than usual. Still, somehow, she perceived I was coming and began anxiously striking the glass front of her cage in anticipation. The way the cage was set up, I had to lift the sliding glass door with my left hand and make a quick thrusting motion with my right – holding the box, open end facing the cage, to propel the mouse into the feeding grounds. This had always worked very well.
On this occasion however, the mouse seemed to have caught the vibe and clung with tenacity to the still closed end of the box. I thrust the box forward, but no mouse came out. Carmel struck just the same and closed her serrated jaws on the tip of my right pinky. As far as she was concerned, she had caught something alive and meaty and she immediately went to work trying to constrict and swallow it. I was not overly worried about being eaten by the snake. I was more concerned that the mishap had resulted in at least a third of Carmel’s body being extended under the sliding door – still held up by my left hand – and that her efforts to choke me down were pulling more of her elongated form out of the cage by the second. The mouse, recognizing an opportune moment to flee, leapt from the box onto the floor. The basement was rife with places a mouse could go and I could not follow. Both my hands were otherwise occupied. I quickly reached out with my left foot and stepped on the mouse’s tail. Now both my hands and one foot were occupied, the remaining foot pretty much tied up with bearing my weight.
I shouted to my wife that I needed some help. Note: my wife only barely tolerated Carmel’s presence in our home in the first place and is only slightly less anti-mouse than anti-snake. She came down the basement stairs, took one look at the situation, said ‘No way!’ and went back up. After a moment’s stunned silence, I dropped the box, used the other digits of my right hand to pry Carmel off the pinkie, pushed her back into the cage and closed the door. Hands now freed, I got the mouse back in the box. A few moments later, after a little re-engineering, well, my marriage survived. The mouse did not. The above is true in its entirety. I share it because I figure we could all use a laugh right now. I hope you got one.
So, the coronavirus – which I’m sure everyone is already tired of hearing about. And, on the medical side, my opinion only carries so much weight - I am not a biologist, epidemiologist or any other kind of ologist that would give me expertise in the areas of predicting or combating viruses. I have only the anecdotal experience of having lived through the swine flu, the bird flu (I think the corona virus only narrowly avoided being called the snake flu!) SARS, MERS, etc.
With that background, I do not take the corona virus lightly. People have already died. More people will die. I can also tell you with absolute certainty that people will die from the organized response to the pandemic. You cannot make decisions for 300,000,000 people without killing some of them. Kids out of school will spend more time with their vulnerable grandparents. Statewide business closures will result in fatalities. Those who rushed out to strip store shelves of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer all increased their risk of exposure exponentially by getting elbow to elbow with their fellow hoarders.
And even with all those measures and their attendant harms, the pandemic will get worse. All the others did. I believe 60,000,000 Americans were infected with H1N1 and nearly 20,000 died. I remember visiting children from our congregation with SARS/MERS and being legitimately worried. So, yes, I expect the coronavirus pandemic will get worse. Then, like every other viral plague, it will either burn itself out or become a permanent part of the landscape – with, I predict, a mortality rate in line with all the other viral plagues we’ve endured. In the latter case, there will be a vaccine that will work about as effectively as all the other virus vaccines and we’ll all argue about whether-or-not we should get that shot.
I do understand trying to slow the advance of the virus so as not to overwhelm the system and to give more time for testing improvements, vaccine development, and other responses. But I think everyone should realize that cancelling every event on earth, blocking travel beyond township lines, bathing daily in hand sanitizer, and doing whatever it is people plan to do with all that toilet paper- will not stop the virus from blanketing the earth at this point.
Of course, my special concern is the mission of the church – and the church has a mission regarding this pandemic! God has prepared grace for this hour and the church has a mandate to present it. In part, this begs the question of whether or not local congregations should cancel services. I have received criticism in varying degrees because IRCC has not cancelled services – though we are making every effort to keep any particular gathering below the ever-changing numerical recommendation, taking extra measures to minimize the kind of personal contact that spreads the virus, advising anyone concerned to stay home, learning to live-stream our service and working daily to increase and refine our response.
Still, we have not yet cancelled services. Other congregations have. I am not party to their calculations. If anyone is interested, I would be happy to discuss our calculations.
But – whatever decision congregations make on that front – there is that mission I mentioned. It has three prongs
I promised back in the first installation of this blog to discuss what it means to be an evangelical (a title I do not claim for myself) and, perhaps, to consider how we ever got so confused about it. Here goes. Evangelicals are not a church or a church movement – rather, an 18th century adjustment in the way Christians in general saw themselves. About 1740, Christians, suddenly, as these things go, found themselves in a new situation. Christianity was now a firmly linked trans-Atlantic community exceeding former tribal, national, and philosophical borders. In the prior century if you were, say, a German and not a Catholic – you were Lutheran – like all non-Catholic Germans. If you were British and not a Catholic you were Episcopalian or, a little later, Methodist. This was an English thing. If you lived in Geneva and were not Calvinist, mean old Jean wouldn’t let you stay! But the expansion of European protestants to America changed things. Capitalism and Humanism took root and grew. Slavery was being seriously questioned. The world was all at once, different – both larger and smaller.
Into this period (The first Great Awakening) walked the great revivalists George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, preaching a ‘good news’ (evangelion) that existed above and beyond all national and denominational barriers: a good news shared by German Lutherans, English Methodists, and American Puritans alike – those pesky Swiss too! Never mind all that other stuff written up in handbooks, bylaws and catechisms – there is a core good news – an evangelical truth - that defines all Christians.
This new evangelicalism was strengthened in the second Great Awakening (1790 to 1830 or so – seems like we fell back asleep pretty quick!), becoming the dominant expression of American Christianity which had now moved as far west overland as it did over sea to get here in the first place! But while Methodism or Presbyterianism had official headquarters, sanctioned literature, designated spokesmen, etc., evangelicalism was a more free-range operation carried west by circuit riders who got considerably ahead of denominational organization.
Perhaps because it was so generalized and thus hard to stomp on, evangelicalism emerged from the Civil War in better shape than the denominations from which it arose: a strength still present in the early to mid- 1900s by which time World Wars and a Great Depression caused a lot of questioning about God’s nature and even existence. Evangelicals felt they had the best answers to such questions but, lacking formal organization, the weakest voice. Enter the National Association of Evangelicals – circa 1942 – born in a conference of 147 Christian leaders from 40+ American denominations.
Spoiler alert – organization both strengthens and stifles! And now we’re ready for the part where the understanding of evangelicalism gets really messed up! In 1976 Jimmy Carter became the first ‘born again evangelical’ to be elected President of the United States. Newsweek declared 1976 – the year of the evangelical! But – there were other evangelicals (remember that free-range thing) accepting the same core good news as Carter but living far enough to the political right of the erstwhile peanut farmer turned politician as to need a separate philosophical zip code. These evangelicals birthed the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority et al and became known collectively as ‘The Religious Right’ – as opposed to the original evangelical coalition that formed behind Carter. The Carter evangelicals didn’t go away – but no organizational genius stepped up to help them compete with their right leaning brethren.
This is one of the reasons the number of evangelicals is so hard to pin down. Are they 7% of the American population? Or 50%? Both things have been asserted! In 1967 were there 10 million of them? 20 million? 50 million? Well, it depends on which ones you count – which depends a lot on who does the counting! To a preacher the definition is theological or doctrinal. To a sociologist the definition is demographic. But to a politician at any time after 1980 the definition is a voting block or, to put a finer point on it – white Christian Republicans.
Herein lies the trouble. Maybe the first political pollster in line really meant to understand the forces that caused a certain segment of the population to turn out for a certain candidate in a certain election. But after that evangelicalism became no more (to politicians) than one more mailing list for use in the endless process of hitting people up for money and votes. This in an era where political voices get a lot more airtime than the preacher or the sociologist. To wit: the most commonly accepted non-political definition of evangelicalism was put forth by historian/sociologist David Bebbington in 1989.
A moments thought will tell you that the current politically driven definition of Evangelicals is far too narrow – even when recast as ‘white Evangelicals’. Funny how politics desires to take a movement created to ignore forced boundaries and shoehorn it into a narrower and narrower space.
Now, if this hasn’t bored your socks off, you might look sometime down the road for another post explaining why I do not consider myself an evangelical. If this did bore your socks off, put them back on! Spring is still some days away!
As the famous Disney character said – ‘Let your conscience be your guide.’ It pretty much goes without saying that conscience steers action. Perhaps it does not always go without saying that this phenomenon rises beyond the personal level. In my case, at least, my conscience has steered a lot of the ministry of Indian Run Christian Church. The recycling ministry is a case in point.
Several years ago, I was cornered by a reporter at the Stark County fair who asked how much I recycled. I replied honestly, ‘Well, not very much.’ The reporter then asked me why. I formulated the answer in my usual slow, methodical way (many people lack the patience for a real conversation with me) and with not nearly enough consciousness that I was talking to a reporter! ‘I guess, if I’m honest with myself, it’s just so much easier to put it all in bags by the road knowing it will all go away.’ When my name and that quote appeared in the paper, I was much dissatisfied. But, I was being honest! I determined to do better and I think I have. However, my life is ministry and I also feel strongly that it is part of any Christian congregation’s obligation to address the ills of the community.
In case you didn’t know, Stark County, Ohio is famous/infamous for our landfills. Yay us!? This post would grow too long if I went into the details – suffice it to say I perceive certain ‘problems’ with our landfill situation. Others, perceiving the same problems, launch law-suits or pursue legal reforms. I do not disagree in principle with such efforts. I’m just not wired that way. My game is always on the ground in front of me. For all these reasons, my determination to do better at recycling enlarged into a recycling ministry for the congregation I lead.
As I am also slightly compulsive about goal setting and record keeping, I can tell you that since launching the recycling ministry in 2012, we have recycled 654,446 pounds of metal and 390,013 pounds of paper*; meaning that 2020 is the year we exceeded 1,000,000 pounds of material kept out of the landfills and injected back into the economy in more useful forms. As the recycling numbers have grown over time (other consciences aligning with mine) I suspect (Lord willing) it will not take eight years to recycle a second million pounds. In 2012 we recycled 27,605 pounds of metal and 17,875 pounds of paper. In 2019 we recycled over 105,000 pounds of metal and over 80,000 pounds of paper.
My main reason for writing this post is to encourage you to look around. IRCC is not unique. Thousands of local congregations have conscience driven ministries that benefit their community in concrete ways. The church is more than you think and the church is good for the world! It is also true in my experience that the local church accomplishes these things on a budget that is CONSIDERABLY less than government or corporate programs would require. And I bet your conscience aligns with some of these ministries. Let your conscience steer your actions. If recycling isn’t your ‘thing’ find out what ‘things’ other local congregations are doing. Though I suspect any local congregation would welcome you as a full-time member, that probably isn’t necessary for you to pitch in. Get involved!
*I personally recycle plastic but have not yet found a good way to expand that practice to a congregational ministry level.
** Full disclosure: IRCC receives money for metal and paper recycled. I can assure you the dollars received divided by the volunteer hours invested would not rise to minimum wage – not counting fuel, cutting blades, and other necessary investments. It is a ministry in the truest sense. The money that does come in is turned into food to feed the hungry – it doesn’t pay our light bills, insurance, etc.
***We also grow food for the hungry. Over the same time period (2012-to present) we have grown or gleaned 270,000 pounds of fresh produce for the various feeding ministries in Stark County.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church