Matter And Money On The Other Side Of Thanksgiving

November 29th, 2008  |   

By the time you read these Notes, our turkey will be leftovers. The pie will have disappeared. The two neighbor-dogs I fed bones to on my Thanksgiving Day walk downtown will be back to my door for more treats. And our daughter Deb and our grandchildren, Alex and Sarah, will have gone home to New Hampshire.

Thanksgiving Day will now exist only on a new calendar which stands ready to replace the 2008 one—the one running out of oxygen on the kitchen wall.

On this side of Thanksgiving, terror reigns in Mombai, India. These are dark black days there as violence has caused red blood to flow and people to die.

Meanwhile, here in the United States we’ve had our own black day. It’s that day after Thanksgiving, called “Black Friday.” It’s given that name by retail businesses hoping that a horde of shoppers will catapult their earnings into the black and out of the red. 

The world trading markets and market-watchers are waiting to see if the bloodshed in India will affect business around the world. Wall Street will also be watching Main Street to see if folks are using cash and credit cards to bolster a sagging economy.

Red and black are the basic economic colors around the world. Credit and debit, gains and losses, red-letter debt and black-letter profits drive the global market and affect people searching for work, health care, a good life and a respectful death.

Three Subjects Not To Be Talked About At The Dinner Table

Margaret Atwood, a favorite novelist of mine, has slipped under the radar with a new book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. The book contains a series of lectures she delivered in Canada and which were heard on CBC Radio. I suspect this book will not show up on the bestseller list. What a shame. The economy hasn’t just gone south; it’s gone ballistic into interstellar space. These lectures bring a clear and understandable meditative narrative to the complex subject of economics.

On top of that it’s fun to read. When’s the last time you read something about economics that included references from Star Trek and Plato, characters from the comics, like Scrooge McDuck, and insights from the works of Dickens, George Eliot, Marlow, and Shakespeare? It’s personal, political and prophetic writing at its best, spun cleverly around the nasty subject of money.

The author describes one aspect of her growing-up years in a way that may resonate with some of my readers. Growing up in the late 1940s, Atwood says there were three things you did not ask questions about, and, I would say, certainly not talk about at the dinner table. The three subjects were money, religion and sex.

Now that we’ve pushed back from the Thanksgiving table, let’s talk money, religion and sex, and begin that conversation with a word about the subject of thanks-giving.

Thanks At All Times And All Places?

In the Sunday Eucharist (a fancy word for thanksgiving) I implore the people in the pews to “give thanks at all times and all places” for the lives they live. I must confess, these are not easy words to utter, and I will tell you why.

When I look into the faces of people who are going through some kind of hell in their lives, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone were to yell back at me. “Easy said, not so easy done, Reverend Lewis. Say ‘thank you’ for the hell I’m going through? I don’t think so.”

I suspect you know what I’m talking about. Sure, it’s a piece of cake to say “thank you” when things are going well. When the cup is full, everything’s coming up roses. But how about when trouble rears its ugly head and a person has to drink the dregs from the bottom of an empty cup, and there aren’t any roses, only a garden full of weeds?

Two months ago Judy was diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer—the third recurrence in twenty-three years. Does anyone expect her to say “thank you” at that time and place in her life? Am I expected to invite friends over, open a bottle of champagne and have a party and offer a toast because I should feel thankful at all times?

The news this morning out of India is bleak. The scenario is full of bombs, blood, death, and injury. Am I to expect the families of the hostages, and those with dead relatives, to say, “thank you, Lord, for the pain and the suffering we are experiencing”?

When I look out over the congregation and see people who have lost their jobs, have no health care, have a son in Iraq, have a marriage on the rocks, or have a son in prison, does it make sense to urge them to “give thanks at all times and in all places?”

Who am I to deliver such a message to folks struggling hard to grab hold of something they can be thankful for? And yet, somehow, I do find a smidgen of courage that allows me to say these words. It’s as if there was some deep and inexorable truth to be found in these nine little words—words meant to challenge me, and those who are listening

A Crisis Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

I bumped into eight little words in a New Yorker article about Tom Friedman, the columnist for the New York Times and author of books dealing with global economics. I underlined them with a yellow marker. They come from Paul Romer, a Stanford economist: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste? Does this somehow open the door to an understanding of “give thanks at all times and all places?” Are we to see our troubles as an avenue into some kind of growth, some kind of renewal, perhaps a change in the way we live our lives? Can Professor Romer’s words be translated into the simple, homespun aphorism I once saw on a poster? “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Too simple, you say—too Pollyannaish for your taste? Maybe—maybe not.

Last week I visited two friends in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia where I had my first parish back in 1968.  I had known them as teenagers and performed their wedding ceremony.

On my drive over the mountains, I recalled old memories of this couple. I remembered the Christmas Eve Eucharist at the church in which this beautiful young girl, not yet married, came forward, knelt at the holy table, and put out her hand for the bread and the wine. When I handed her the bread, she looked up at me, smiled and said, “I got my horse!” Thanksgiving was written all over her face and radiated in her voice.

Last month she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This week she began radiation and chemotherapy on the five percent of the cancer left in her head after an operation. It is important to remember, as I pray for her, that some people live extended lives after treatment. Cancer is, in many ways, unpredictable. It hides and reappears, often sleeps only to awaken on its own timetable—if it awakens at all. In the end, who knows what the outcome will be? They are in a crisis without a predictable outcome.

Gathered around a fire in the living room, then around a table for soup, cheese and crackers, we talked. What’s to be said about a cancerous tumor that could prove to be deadly? Is there anything to be thankful about, since I refuse to bless a cancer?

After lunch we went to see the horses. We fed them pressed apples that looked like wood chips. Feeding the horses, I saw that happy girl once again, the one who took the bread from my hand on Christmas Eve. “Let heaven and nature sing,” says the Christmas hymn “Joy to the World.” If I had had the sensitive ears of one of their dogs, I might have been able to hear Heaven and nature singing in that barnyard. If I could have stayed into the evening, I would have been able to enjoy even more music. A couple of their musician friends were due to arrive for some strumming and singing.

Here’s an old saying: “It’s an ill plague that blows no good.” Ambiguous you say? Sure. Ambiguity needs deliverance from the eye of the beholder. On the one hand those words could mean that an ill plague allows for no good to come from it. Or it could mean that it’s an ill plague that allows no room for something good to come from it.

On the way out the door, my friends gave me a big apple from a neighbor’s tree. Their biggest gift to me, however, was the assurance they gave me—the assurance that they are not wasting this crisis. While they have time, and that’s all any of us really have, they know that this ill plague, this health crisis, has not left them bereft of hope and life no matter what the outcome may be. This tumor has disrupted their lives, but it has not squeezed out of them their passion for life, the courage to fight for health, or their commitment to enjoy each and every moment with one another. 

The Cross Transfigured Into A Dollar Sign

Margaret Atwood writes this: “The recent fundamentalist Christian Church…has identified sinning with sins of the flesh—especially sexual sins…The Catholic Church has also been in the sin-as-sex business for quite a long time. Whatever the intent, the effect has been to divert attention from money sins to sexual ones.” So true!

What is forgotten in this diversion is the fact that Jesus stood firmly against the corrupt economic system imposed upon the Jews by the Roman Empire. Publicans (Roman tax collectors) were constantly categorized as “publicans and sinners.” Levi, Matthew and Zacchaeus (the little man who climbed a tree to see what Jesus had to offer) were men who abandoned the oppressive Roman system in order to follow the Jesus way of life.

The Christian symbol of the Cross is displayed in so many places, both religious and secular, that it seems to have lost its political sting. Perhaps the Cross should be transfigured into a dollar sign—the sign of mammon gone mad—abusive economic power—imperial greed that relies on militarism for its existence—a nation/state that seeks our adoration while claiming our children for war and soul-deadening consumerism.  In short, Caesar always yearns for a citizenry it can offer credit to and, therefore, hold them in debt. If we see Jesus as a redeemer, that means that he is the one who claimed the debt, picked up the tab, and freed us to resist soul-stealing creditors.

Let’s remember that usury—the lending of money with interest—was considered a sin not to be engaged in by Christians. That is, up until the Protestant reformation. After Henry the Eighth, interest charging was legalized for Christians in England. When I see some Protestant churches rediscovering a concern and a monetary mission about poverty and environmental stewardship, with less interest in making abortion and gay marriage the centerpiece of their religion, I gather some hope for the future of the church.  

Credit And Debit

The axis, around which Margaret Atwood spins her lectures, is the relationship between credit and debit. Living on borrowed time, what kind of debts have we incurred—what bills are about to come due in our lives, personally and as a nation? 

At the heart of the economic crisis is the fact that the credit-debit account is drastically out of balance. Personal credit card debt is beyond payment; credit extended by deregulated banks and lending institutions through bad-ass mortgages is beyond payment; our nation is in credit trouble as a result of borrowing beyond our limits from other nations such as China.

On top of that, we have spent beyond our limit on a war in Iraq and Afghanistan—almost half a trillion dollars. And now we are headed for over a trillion dollars worth of debt by bailing out banks and businesses, such as the auto industry. That’s not fair, for fairness is at the heart of justice, and a nation incapable of justice soon loses its capacity for empathy and mercy.

Folks always want to talk about taxes, so let’s talk taxes. Atwood writes: “A nice way of putting the whole matter of taxation is that government borrows from the people…and then they owe their people a debt that should be repaid in services.” That being the case, I say we’ve been shortchanged. We’re in debt, and debt always comes with a date on which payment is due. I have a due date on my debts, and a nation has a due date on its debts. It’s called payback and we are now living in payback time.

So let’s talk religion. As Christmas approaches, church folks would do well to look at Jesus crucified on a dollar sign and give some thought to what this Prince-of-Peace Babe-in-the-Manger came to challenge and defeat with his nonviolent way of life. We should be reminded that the income tax in Great Britain began in 1799, to finance the Napoleonic Wars. In our country, the income tax began in 1862, to support the Civil War.

This Christmas, perhaps we preachers might consider giving our congregations more than a Sugar-Plum Jesus—the religious equivalent of Old Saint Nick. Maybe we should mention the fact that the Babe in the Manger had to take flight from a tax-imposing imperial power desirous of his loyalty and furious at his unwillingness to worship a tax-based system built on weaponry and conquest. Maybe we could hear this Jesus, as he rises up from the quiet of Silent Night, urging Christians to resist the temptation to follow a bankrupt credit-debit system hell-bent on more war than we have right now.

Scrooge Nouveau And The Spirit Of Earth Day Past

In Canada, where Margaret Atwood lives, there is a ritual exchange that takes place. Here’s how it sounds: First Person—“Lovely weather we’re having.” Second Person in response—“We’ll pay for it later.”

You don’t have to be a Presbyterian to understand that exchange. What’s required is an understanding that all life is on loan to us and we will be held accountable for it. The earth and its inhabitants will be God’s accountants. And if we aren’t faithful stewards of what has been loaned to us—our children will pay the price. 

Margaret Atwood transforms Ebenezer Scrooge, that greedy, tight-fisted character in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” into a modern character she calls Scrooge Nouveau. It’s Earth Day, not Christmas, and she has The Spirit of Earth Day Past take Scrooge Nouveau back to the time of the Black Death in the 14th century. He is forced to witness famine, ecological disasters, malnutrition, and the plague that took 75 million lives.

“Maybe a pandemic plague is Nature’s cost-benefit analysis,” says the Spirit. “A way of wiping the slate clean and balancing the accounts. When Mankind becomes too irritating—too numerous, to filthy, too destructive to the Earth—a plague results. Farm animals crowded together are equally prone to disease. Think of a cat coughing up a hairball and you get the picture.”

And how, asks Scrooge Nouveau, might one react to such a crisis? Six choices are offered human beings living through any crisis, says the Spirit. “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.”

A crisis, be it a personal one like illness, or one that strikes the larger community, such as the economic crisis we are experiencing, is no doubt painful but it also has a way of calling people to account for their lives. It forces choices upon us. A crisis becomes an opportunity to get beyond the superficial desires that drive our lives, and dig deeper into who we really are and what we value in life.

Crisis is an un-welcomed opportunity to readjust our spiritual gyroscope so as to reaffirm what is good in our lives while making much-needed changes to our way of life. This applies not only to our personal lives but to the systems which govern, control and shape us. Barack Obama’s campaign and victory came about primarily because people are feeling the crisis up-close-and-personal and are hungry and desirous for change. 

The Spirit of Earth Day Future arrives on the scene to show Scrooge Nouveau what the world could become. That is, if he is ready to engage in what the church calls “amendment of life,” sacrificing an old way of living for a new one. Like buying a Christmas gift, we’re back to choices again, and returning gifts we don’t need or want.

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