Free and Cheap

A couple of weeks ago my senior minister made a comment in her sermon about grace being free but not cheap. For those theology students out there, you may recall this is not a new idea and was popularized by Bonhoeffer.

It got me thinking some about the difference in free and cheap, which I open to the larger wiser community.

This is where I have been musing...

Cheap things are cheap on both sides of the relationship.  Things are cheap to make and thus become cheap to sell.  Something that is "cheaply made" is "cheaply sold" and has little value to both the producer and the consumer.  Cheap costs little for both parties.

Free things, however, cost a great deal to the provider and cost nothing to the recipient.  For instance, hospitality is free.  It costs a great deal for those who are providing the meal, the place, the entertainment, the conversation, the drink and on and on.  But it is free for those who receive this hospitality.  Make no mistake, hospitality is not cheap - but it is free.

Likewise, in the church we are called to share all things free.

But make no mistake free is not cheap.

Perhaps this is why the Church is in decline?  We have made what is free cheap and thus it costs little to everyone involved.

How can we as a Church reclaim the idea of a free that costs and discard the idea of cheap?

Freakonomics and Church

In a continuing and lame effort to co-op the brilliance of others and put forth content that is psudo-original, here is another installment of my take of Freakonomics and Church.

There is a wonderful little book titled 30-Second Economics (which can be found on here)  Near the end of the book, there is a little economic theory written about known as "The Tragedy of the Commons".  Here is the explanation given:

Several herders graze theirs cows on common pasture. From each herder's point of view, it's rational to add more cows to his herd, because his profits will increase. However, every additional cow depletes the pasture's resources. If every farmer acts "rationaly" by adding more cows to his herd, the common land will eventually be overgrazed, grass will stop growing and all the herders will suffer. In essence, actions that are rational for the individual may be irrational for the group.(emphasis added)"

While it is easy to see how this tragedy is common among environmental situations, but how does the tragedy of the commons play out in the church?  A few thoughts:

  1. Ministers:  The UMC is a church that has ministers who are appointed to the congregation. So in essence, the ministers of the conference (a large geographical region) are shared by all the churches. While it is rational, good and logical from one congregation's point of view to have "minister A" it may very well not be rational, good or logical for the conference for that congregation to have "minister A" because there are other congregations that would better benefit from the resource of "minister A". As a United Methodist, I have bought into a system that places a greater importance on what is rational, good and logical for ALL churches not just a few.  
  2. God's Grace: On the flip side, many Christians hold to an idea that God's grace is limited.  While not using those words, the idea is expressed in a number of ways such as "Only these type of people are real Christians" or "You 'get saved' only after you accept Jesus by way of a prayer." The idea that God's grace is limited to a select, or the 'elect', is arguing that God's grace is limited.  And if we think there is limited Grace then we are going to act differently than if we believe Grace is limitless and boundless and endless.  When we believe Grace is limited then of course we will live in a such a way as try to get as much grace as possible and, just like the herders above, that is very logical and rational.  However if Grace is thought of in these ways, then we also will indirectly restrict other's access to Grace because there is only so much (grass/Grace) to go around. So the question for the Church becomes - Do we hold to an idea that Grace is limited and thus fall victim to the "Tragedy of the Commons" in which we act rationally in self interest but ultimately to the demise of others? Or is Grace unlimited and we believe no matter how many cows there are there is always enough grass?
There are other applications to this economic theory, but these are just a couple of jump starts to consider.

Myth of "lazy jobless people" busted again...

There are a number of seemingly intuitive myths that operate in our culture.  One of those myths is that we give too much support to those who are unemployed.  The idea is that if you give someone an unemployment check for any period of time, then "those people" become addicted to the handouts and you remove the incentive for people to find a job.  So the policy becomes we ought to cut unemployment benefits because we are just 'enabling' people.  

Whelp, that is just crazy talk to me.  I sit and listen to people talk about being so depressed and at a low in their life when they are unemployed for long periods of time.  Depression sets in.  Suicide attempts increase.  People feel hopeless and helpless.  The only thing that is keeping them able to pay the bills, and thus focused on looking for work, is a meager unemployment check.  At least with that money that comes in through social services gives a sense that someone cares about them.  Society cares about you even if you are not in a position to "produce" at this time due to there being 5 people for every 1 job opening or the fact that some businesses are adopting a "do not hire the unemployed" policy.  

Then this little study comes across the interwebs:

It is this sort of counter-intuitive news that, in my understanding of the message of Jesus, is congruent with the Biblical witness.  Jesus is constantly sharing news with people (we call it Good News) that sounds like crazy talk.  

Equal wages for all.
Love the enemy.
Self-sacrifice is the way to life.
"Sinners" will see the Kingdom of God before the righteous.  
In order to lead we must serve. 
Give to Caesar what is Caesar and give to God what is Gods.
Leave 99 sheep to find 1.
Throw a party when you find all your coins.
Peacemakers are blessed.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter into the Kingdom.
Care for another is care for God.
Sharing can create an abundance of bread and fish.
The king invites to the party those who society believes to be 'hell bound sinners'. 
Forgiveness of crushing debt.
Forgiveness to those who blow the inheritance.

Jesus is constantly proclaiming a counter-intuitive message.  Sharing with people that, that which they think is reality is in fact a myth that holds little water.  

Providing benefits to the unemployed sounds counter intuitive.  

Some say they are not comfortable giving people something they did not earn or work for.

Christianity calls that Grace.

Ordination Questions

Ordination in the UMC takes a bit of time. I am not complaining, I think there are strengths and weaknesses to this process.  However, one thing I have encountered while I go through this process is that lay members do not have much of a clue as to what the process involves.  I want to take a few posts and share some of the questions that all those ordained in the UMC must answer in written from to a credentialing body for review.  Upon submission of these responses, one is interviewed to go over the responses given.  The questions that I will post in the next few posts are questions for those people later in the ordination process than those who are just beginning.

Even if you do not read the response I think the questions are interesting to consider.  How would you respond to these questions if you were asked by someone?

So here is the first question and my actual response (unedited) that I submitted to the Board of Ordained Ministry:

What effect has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace?
     The more I have the opportunity to talk with people outside the seminary context, the more I have become aware of the cycles of blame and scapegoating we are all held hostage to. We seek to blame people for the situations we find ourselves in and all the while justify the search as ‘just’ and ‘right’. For instance, the outrage over the pipeline leak in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010 was a global effort to blame BP for the massive environmental damage. Of course BP has their part to play but it is interesting to me to notice that BP did not become one of the largest energy providers without the demand of people for cheap energy. We are quick to blame BP for their lack of response or emergency plan, we are quick to blame governments for acting too late or interfering with a private company, we are quick to even blame the CEO as he attends a sailing race, but I have yet to hear anyone raise their hand and say, “I helped contribute to the spill because I helped raise the demand for oil and encouraged companies to seek risky drilling.” We are all quick to see the fault of the other and blame them for causing the problem while maintaining our own innocence in the situation. I see all of us move though life throwing so many stones that we do not even see the damage we are doing when we throw those stones. We are not a very forgiving species on a whole, and we quickly forget the past in order to seek an immediate desire. Humanity desperately needs Grace for we are all involved in creating the problems in this world. It is interesting to me that the stories which are the most profound and deeply moving are the stories which are rooted in Grace, Forgiveness and Peace, not the stories rooted in hate, blame, and violence. When we encounter that divine Grace we are moved in ways that are beyond our primal responses of seeking a scapegoat. 
     It saddens me in a way that some of the most vicious blaming that goes on in the world is located in the Church - Lay members blame pastors for the problems of the local church; ministers blame the cabinet for the problems of the conference; the conference blames heath insurance or pensions to the problems of the denomination. We all are involved in blaming someone or something and it is rare to find anyone in that chain of blame standing up to say, “it is partly all of our fault and I contributed to the problem as much as the next person.” Grace is made visible when we are willing to stand up and take some of the blame and recognize that we all are interconnected and intertwined – that our survival is dependant upon one another. When we have more individuals willing to own their part of the problem then we will begin to see the further manifestation of the Kingdom of God. I believe, in part, this is why humanity is in need of divine Grace. In order to help usher in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Peace, reconciliation, justice and mercy, we need to be willing to help make manifest Grace and stop blaming and seeking out scapegoats. It is my prayer that God will continue to guide and uphold the United Methodist Church as a place in which we all can have the courage to stand in the midst of the mob and declare the end of blaming and scapegoating. It is my prayer that the Grace of God will be made manifest in the UMC for it is desperately needed to break us out of the cycles which hold us hostage.