Forget Wall Street: Occupy Small Towns

I believe in hard work and doing your best. I also believe some people need our help in order for them to do their best (or even just survive). I don't fault the super-rich for having a lot of money. Just as Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, so will the rich. There are corrupt systems out there; only the naive would think otherwise.

This past week the boys and I spent a couple days on my family's farm. I grew up nestled between Laurens and Albert City, Iowa. Haven't heard of them? It's not surprising. Laurens--where we would go to the library, dentist and grocery store--boasts a population of right around 1500 people. The only reason you might have heard of it is if you happened to have watched David Lynch's 1999 movie, The Straight Story. Albert City--where we went to church and school--has around 700 residents. It is best known for its Threshermen and Collectors Show during which the population of the town explodes exponentially as people from all over come to show off antique farm equipment and farm the way they did over a century ago. I have lived in places like Chicago, Vancouver and Minneapolis, but I still love getting back to small towns. I hope to return to the country someday when it becomes feasible for our family (my wife is pursuing a doctorate right now which is hard to do in a small town).

I feel that our nation would be better off if we occupied small towns instead of Wall Street. Less than a century ago part of the American dream was to have a home in a small town where you could sit on your porch and chat with your neighbors. This is the subject of almost every Norman Rockwell painting.

Then during the middle part of the 20th century, population demographics began to switch. Before then, the majority of Americans lived in rural areas. But then large cities began to grow. Farming became a corporate business and not a place where farmers could sustain their families. Larger stores with more inventory, wider selections and cheaper prices opened in the cities making it difficult for small town stores to turn a profit. And so went the jobs to the larger cities as well. Ever since, many small towns have been fatally in decline--population wise at least. Most small towns are kept up beautifully. There is a spirit of hope there that exudes a determination to rise above circumstances.

Small towns are where community happens. While helping my father on the farm, he took us into town for lunch. The little restaurant was full. Tables were intermingled with people who came in together and others who just showed up. They all knew each other. Conversations weren't just contained at one table, but they occurred amongst everyone. Some complain about this notion--feeling that there is no privacy in a small town. But it's not that you don't have privacy, it's just that you have community. Others do know about you. And you know about them. Simply because you share life together.

Friday night, everyone is at the football field cheering on the high school team. On a Tuesday winter night, everyone is in the school gymnasium cheering on the basketball players. On Wednesday morning the cafe is full of farmers grabbing a cup of coffee while taking a break from their morning chores. If a farmer is injured or hospitalized, neighbors bring their equipment over to do the work that needs to be done. People's lives are intertwined. They depend on one another for their livelihood. And they simply care about one another.

There is no corporate greed. Some may be well off, but very seldom is there exploitation of the labor class. Small town people are hard workers. They are skilled and knowledgeable in many areas. This starts in school. I was involved in basketball, cross country, speech, drama, band (trumpet and baritone), choir, FFA (Future Farmers of America), student council and yearbook among other things. I had farm chores to do before and after school. I was involved in youth group and church choir. This is small town life. People are involved in many capacities in their church. They may be a volunteer fire fighter. They may be on city council or involved with the chamber of commerce. They probably have a few ways they are involved at the local school. If there is a community even, they will be at it.

Main Street is a destination. It is where business occurs and it is where lives are shaved. Your cashier isn't just there to take your money or simply help you make a purchase. They may know what you need before you walk in the store. They ask how your family is doing because they know your family. They care about how your job is going because your well-being will impact theirs. Small towns are where life happens.

Small towns may not have art museums filled with Monets and Van Goghs. They may not attract Broadway plays. They won't have a professional sports team. They probably won't draw a big name concert venue.

But they have local artists whose love of their hometown inspires them to create a beautiful mural. Your next door neighbor surprises everyone by bringing the crowd to their feet in the community theater's latest production. High school athletes play their hearts out, not for the sake of millions of dollars, but for school pride. And the community band's summer performance in the band shell is a wonderful way to end a summer evening while enjoying ice cream a lemonade with your neighbors.

Here's my plea for those on Wall Street and corporate America: stop merging your corporations and outsourcing your jobs overseas for the sake of making more money whilst hurting those who are your source of income in the first place. Give small town America a chance. Revitalize a small town. Bring some business and jobs back to one. These are people with character and morals that won't let you down. They are loyal and committed to their work as well as their community.


Occupying For A Cause

The "Kitchen" area--free food for those who needed.
With compost buckets. There was a public safety section,
a library, a family play area, and a medical area among other things.
Trying to stay dry and sleep
I biked downtown today to get out of the house (taking a break from frustrations of job applications) and get some exercise. I happened to go by the plaza where the local protesters were staging Occupy MN. I thought I'd check it out.

For those of you who know me, you know I'm not much into politics. I haven't been following much with the Occupy Wall-Street movement or its local spin-offs. I haven't read other's blogs on it. So I acknowledge right off that I'm not well-educated. What I know mainly comes from facebook and listening to talk on the radio when I'm in the car.

Today was a wet, cold day, so the plaza wasn't full by any means. Maybe two-dozen people at most (including those sleeping). No body was yelling chants or even doing much interaction with those passing by (including all the "suits"). It was a very peaceful protest.

This older man from "Vets for Peace" wasn't allowed
to have a tent-like shelter over him to stay dry under.
Yet, he was undeterred.
There were a large number of "hippie types" and twenty-somethings whom you would expect, but there were people from almost every generation--including the retired man at the Vets for Peace booth.

Everything I've heard has been peaceful
There is a lot that Occupy MN is protesting...everything from the war to health care to subsidizing big corporations to Monsanto (noting far out of hand we've gotten that its illegal to plant a seed from an apple grown by the company). I guess it mainly comes down to people who believe things have gotten too out of hand with our government and their interaction with corporate America--pushing for a separation of government and Wall Street, almost as if Wall Street has become a religion.

Even the port-a-potties got in on the action.
While I don't agree with everything about Occupy Wall Street, I do have some level of admiration for those who are there. It takes a deep passion to sit out in the wet and cold autumn weather of Minnesota. They may not change much in the immediate future, but they're doing something to try and bring change to places where they feel change is needed need. This is American. We should applaud people without apathy. This is what freedom is about, especially in seeking the rights of the majority to be upheld (whether or not you feel they are appropriate "rights").

Much of what they're protesting is stuff that people who follow Christ can get behind: ending war and seeking peace, taking care of the health needs of the sick, helping the poor. These are things Jesus talked about and taught His followers about.
This one has been going
around on facebook

Politics aside, I wonder what the church would look like if we had the same sort of passion for what we believe in--for what we believe is right? I think that sometimes we forget that being a Christian means that we follow Christ...we follow His teachings, we follow His actions, we love like He did. What if we started occupying our faith?


Thoughts on Work

Tonight at church we had our three different "Re-Rooting" options to choose from. It's been a hard choice each week. All the topics are interesting. Some are offered twice, so that helps. I often choose based upon if I'm in the mood for a lecture, a discussion or an experiential option. I ended up going to the discussion on the dignity of work tonight. My good friends Pete and Peter were leading. They started with Genesis--with God creating humans in His image and giving them the mandate to fill the earth and have dominion over it. Work is part of who we are and what we created to do. Of course, after the curse of sin, the toil of work was part of the punishment. Work is a gift; toil is the curse.

They read from Ecclesiastes where the writer encourages us to eat drink and enjoy our work. They also referenced the Rule of Benedict where St. Benedict tells about the importance of work. Work is prayer, prayer is work. Everyone had a job and they needed to do it well, as if working unto God. And of course, they touched on Brother Lawrence's Practicing the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence felt that washing dishes was the most important part of his day, for it was there he connected with God. He disliked having to stop to take time out for the offices of prayer.

We didn't have much time, but good discussion followed. It's one of those topics we don't touch on very often, but we could look at for hours. There are days I fail miserably at working well, I will confess.

I believe that work is meant to be a place where we connect with God, serve others and discover ourselves. I find that I work best and get the most out of manual work. I also find that shortcuts--conveniences--take that away. Unfortunately, the conveniences are often needed for getting all the work done in a day. Loading the dishwasher gives me time to spend with the boys or my wife in the evening. Putting clothes in the dryer gives me time to clean the bathroom. Kneading bread in the Kitchen Aide lets me get soup made.

But washing dishes by hand gives me time to reflect and pray. Hanging clothes on the line gets me outside where I can pray for the neighbors. Kneading bread or pizza dough by hand is therapeutic. I think we even miss out by not having to take our rugs outside and beat them with a rug beater; I wonder if our anger levels would be more manageable if we did...Above all else, work is a place where we can meet God.

I believe work has become an issue for us in today's culture because either we're married to our job (and forsake the other parts of our lives like our family--even though we may convince ourselves that we're working for our family's sake) or we try to avoid work at all costs. Our job should be a vocation--a calling. But it is not the end nor beginning of our work. We have work at home. We have work in relationships. Marriage is work. Parenting is work. Friendships are work. Our commitment to a church is work.

Our work becomes overly burdensome because we don't Sabbath well, either. We consider going to church our Sabbath duty. We seldom rest. Not well at least. God gave us the gift of the Sabbath as a change in our week. In order to have a good discussion on the dignity of work, we also need to have a discussion about reclaiming the gift of the Sabbath.

We're in a time when having work means you've got something to be thankful for. But we've all got work to do. We can choose to do it well, honorably and with dignity--as if unto God.


Doing Church

(This wasn't the church I drove by, but another similar
billboard--it sounds like it has gotten quite a few
people into the church)
Earlier this summer we drove by a church whose sign said, "Church for people who don't do church." I frankly don't even know what that means. If people don't "do" church, how can there be a church for them? I somewhat get the sentiment behind it all--that the church has frustrated and alienated a lot of people--but I wonder how that can really be a church.

The problem today is that "church" has come to mean a building and the programs it runs. And we think that the more programs it runs and the bigger the building (with more people in it), the better the church.

I recently came across this quote on a church's website: "Christ did not come so that we could have church and that more often. He came so we could have life and that more abundantly." (St. James Church, Picadilly London)

I appreciate the sentiment of St. James Church. In many ways it is true. Christ did come so we could have life abundant (John 10:10). And while He didn't intend that we would have church more often, in many ways He did come so that we could have church. That is, if our definition of church is different than what you'll find on dictionary.com (definition #3 is closest).

First we have to take a step back and address the fact that Jesus didn't come to make Christians. The word wasn't even in His vocabulary (it wasn't coined until years after He was resurrected). Jesus simply invited people to follow Him and become His disciples (a disciple is simply a follower of a rabbi--teacher--who learns to be like that rabbi). And then Jesus said, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20, NIV). That's what church is: followers of Jesus getting together (well, mostly--"church" encompasses all followers throughout history). Which is happening every minute of every day throughout history.

Church is not about the programs we run, but the Savior we follow (the One who told us the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves). Church is not about the building we gather in, but about the whole world that is loved by God.

So people don't "do" church anyway. People are the church. But most likely, the people who don't "do" church haven't seen that many people who are following Jesus. Not people who put on a label that says they are a Christian, but people who live like Jesus lived: loving the outcast, undesirable and enemies; helping the orphan and the widow; acknowledging God in all parts of life; dwelling in God's Word; spending time in close, intimate spiritual community; spreading the Good News about the Kingdom of God; praying in quiet places and bringing peace to the places of unrest. That is how we "do" church.


Getting to Know You...

A week ago Sunday the text for the evening was the ten commandments. Pastor Jan shared about how as God gives the instructions, He shares what their purpose is. God says, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). The ten commandments--and the rest of the Law that follows--are not a checklist of do's and don't's so that you can get into Heaven. They are how to live to stay free. If Israel didn't follow them, their freedom was in vain. The same is true for us: ignoring them keeps us in bondage to sin.

Yesterday I preached on Exodus 32:1-14. In the passage, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for a while. The Israelites are getting anxious that he's not coming back. They want time with God, too. So they talk Moses' brother Aaron into making them an idol so that "God" can be in their midst.

But of course, this blatantly went against God's recently given rule about not making any graving images. So God gets upset at their disobedience and is about to punish them when Moses steps in and asks God to show them grace and forgiveness.

Often when we think of God--especially in light of the Old Testament stories--we think of Him as being vengeful, vindictive, angry and down-right murderous at times. And, true, there are times when God had enough of the sinfulness that filled the earth that He originally created without sin. And there are plenty of things God does I don't fully understand. But this isn't the fullness of who God is.

When we first meet God as He creates the world, we discover a loving, albeit powerful, creator. Then, of course, Adam and Eve sin and loose their face-to-face relationship with God. So in many ways, much of the Bible is us regaining that relationship. And as we do we learn more and more about God.

For example, in the story of the Golden Calf, we learn that God desires to have a relationship with us. Not just Moses, but all of us. When we have that relationship, like Moses did, God will listen to us. I don't think I can convey how incredible this is. The all-powerful God of the universe will listen to us! Not only will He listen to us, but He may change His mind based upon our intercessions. He didn't wipe out the Israelites because Moses asked Him not to. Moses, of course, had spent time with God and knew God's will. He knew God is forgiving, full-of-grace and loving (since Moses had all experienced it before). And since He knew God's will He was able to change God's mind.