that word we gave up for lent

There is a song that I love, a song about love. You probably know it. It is called “Hallelujah,” though it doesn’t claim to be a religious song and as far as I know wasn’t on any religious top-40 charts. In Ann Arbor recently, I found a book about the song, which is why it has been on my mind again. (Plus, I discovered there are way more verses than I’ve heard before.) The book is “The Holy or the Broken,” which doesn’t really sound much like a book about love. You’d expect something more like “The Joy and the Passion” or “The Ecstasy and the Mere Giddiness.” Somehow we have in our cultural daydreams the notion that love is always supposed to be upbeat. Even if we know better, the drumbeat of our society is the feel-good love we’re all supposed to be seeking. And it can carry over into our lives of faith. Some kinds of Christianity pressure us to be high on Jesus all the time, always singing praises and feeling good. Breathlessly we’re supposed thank God for all our blessings, expressing over-the-top delight in even the most mundane bits of the day. But life isn’t like that. And the lyricist knows better:

Well Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch, but love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

Counter-cultural? Sort of. And maybe why the song has resonated with so many different kinds of people in its 30 years.

Now maybe there’s a God above, but all I ever learned from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s no complaint you hear at night, and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

This is someone who has failed, who has been betrayed, who has been hurt by love. And who can still hope. If you don’t know the song, you should hear it. Haunting melody, biblical allusions, and a realism that often escapes us.

Of course, many of us have given up speaking “hallelujah” for Lent, in order to try to reflect more deeply than rote expressions of praise and gratitude allow. But this song, this Hallelujah, takes us deeper into recognition that all is not as it should be, that we are not the people we mean to be, that our lives haven’t been all that we hoped or all that was possible. Lent is the time when we dump all that at God’s feet and let it become something more than it ever could otherwise.

Maybe “dumping it at God’s feet” for you means formal confession time, or the congregation reciting Psalm 51, called the “Miserere:” Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Or maybe you’re not so religious, or not on friendly terms with religion in general:

You say I took the name in vain; I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.

Maybe for you, a painfully honest journal is your confession. Maybe you participate in a 12-step program, relying on step 4, that “fearless moral inventory.” Or maybe, as one congregation is helping folks do, you jot whatever you need to jettison onto an anonymous postcard and mail it to the writers of Post Secret – a growing collection of anonymous posts written by people who can’t speak aloud the thing they really need to get out of their bodies.

Or maybe this song. It isn’t so much HOW we purge, but more a matter of realizing again that we are creatures, not creator, of joining once more in the humility that it is to be human. This is perhaps the most private, personal part of faith. And yet we need community to do it well.

I did my best; it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Blessings on the way.

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it doesn’t add up

The numbers have to work.

Of course they do. If I’m going to buy a house, I have to know I can make the payment, afford the taxes, factor in utilities, and plan to insure it. Plus it would be nice to be able still to have money for gas and groceries. Which all adds up to “don’t buy more than you can afford.” A lesson my parents drilled in my whole life.

So, I picked a house that is not at the top of my approved budget. Substantially below. In fact, the house I’d like to buy costs a fraction of the amount I’d expected to spend. Win!

Except not.

Lending rules have changed, because we’re trying to fix the problem of high fees and irresponsible borrowing. Here’s the fix: as of January 7, there is a rule that for new mortgages, fees cannot add up to more than 3 percent of the total loan amount.

If the goal is to reduce or eliminate predatory lending – you know, the way we charge loan-shark rates to desperate people who can’t qualify for credit any other way, who then borrow from some pawn or pay-day lending operation at higher rates and often end up in a downward spiral of debt and interest-only payments that leave them unable to breathe debt-free air ever again – then it may be a good rule. Maybe.

But it isn’t working out well in these first couple of months since it took effect. Here is apparently what is happening: banks, instead of lowering their fees to make the percentages conform to federal law, have raised the minimum amount they will lend.

So, I found a lovely house at a fair price.  A really low price, actually, because the city is still recovering from the devastation of industrial abandonment, one result of which is many, many vacant houses. In fact, the house I picked is under $30,000, which, according to Zillow, should amount to about $100 month. Perfectly affordable. For me, and perhaps for a lot of people who have low monthly income. And isn’t having people living in homes sort of the point? So, I made an offer and called the bank to ask for the “pre-approval letter” the seller needed. Sorry, said the lender; we can’t lend an amount that small. I need to spend about $50K for the numbers to work. Bank fees, transfer fees, title fees, loan origination fees. All those fees are capped now at 3 percent of the total loan. So, instead of reducing the amount of the fees, in order to help people buy homes they can afford in neighborhoods that desperately need the stability of home ownership, banks have increased the minimum loan amount, in order to keep the profits they make relatively stable. It means people who can’t pay with cash are now steered toward higher cost homes (or end up renting, which doesn’t build wealth in a family), and communities where home values are suppressed can’t attract buyers who would be great neighbors if only…

This sucks. Certainly bank profits are a major culprit, but one lender also pointed to legal and other fees, as co-culprits. Apparently, as it stands at this moment, I will either have to a) find a way to pay cash for this house; or b) put it on a credit card. Of course there is option c: buy a more expensive house. Which recreates the problem of people buying more house than they believe can afford. Which takes away from money they can save for emergencies or retirement, spend on goods or services or home maintenance, or use for education, health, child care, or a host of other things that make a life healthy and good.

Home ownership is good for people, good for communities. Flint has a lot of vacant houses and is threatened, in fact, by blight and arson. We NEED people owning and living in houses. But if banks are unwilling to be good to the very people who bailed them out when they, the banks, damn near killed us all, then maybe we can do something else.

Time for conversation. If indeed the title transfer fees are part of the problem, is there a mechanism in place for lowering or waiving those fees for purchases by owner-occupants in targeted communities? (If so, do folks who could benefit know to ask?) Are there are some lawyers in our churches who could be persuaded to add real estate closings to their list of pro bono services? Could churches see in this an opportunity to put their endowments and trust funds to work? Can we imagine granting money to cover those closing costs? or lending the entire purchase price to people who will buy houses and live in them, who will build equity and invest themselves in their neighborhoods? Wouldn’t that be a better alternative than watching houses burn, or continue to be gobbled up by “investors,” which all too often translates into slumlords or absentee landlords, neither of whom feels a personal stake in the community? What laws would have to be amended to make these things possible?

At the very least, we can clear up misperceptions. When you hear the new law discussed, be aware and make others aware that the primary operative rule is the “law of unintended consequences.” Once more, reformers tried to fix something and opportunists found another way. It seems to be always true. But I believe we can do something about it. What’s possible in your community? With whom can you have a conversation?

It isn’t just mortgages where numbers have to work. It applies to ballot boxes also.

on jesus’ blood

This week, I found myself in a conversation, an interesting conversation with lots of potential, a conversation that really didn’t get the time it deserved, because I was between meetings. The conversation was about blood, about spilled blood, specifically about the blood of Jesus. Way back, when the Jesus movement was new, before the “new testament” was even scripture, some people expressed their hopes and longings, as well as their experiences and perceptions, in stories they told aloud, and in letters to groups of people forming around the Jesus movement. They told the stories in ways that were truthful and faithful. Sadly, over the course of not too many generations, followers of Jesus got lazy and contentious, and the movement got co-opted (see also “Constantine,” “imperialism,” “political oppression”), just as religion always does by people who have a stake in systems remaining intact. These days, we find ourselves too often parsing – or reciting – ancient language rather than telling our own stories of faith about the world and its Creative Source.

That doesn’t really accomplish anything, except draw lines around who’s in and who’s out. And I’m so pleased that my new congregation, Woodside Church, has committed itself to a wider theological lens. Woodside is American Baptist and United Church of Christ, and committed to living in the tension.

I’m pleased, but I’m also challenged by Woodside’s wider approach. Spending our time in groups of people who think exactly like we do is easier, of course, but it makes us dull, soft. We start to speak in shortcuts, in a language that we assume needs no examination. Which is how the language of “blood” became a conversation this week.

One of the things church has said for a long time is that Jesus’ blood was shed for us. It’s in the bible; we say it in communion; we sing it in myriad hymns new and old. It’s worth asking, not whether it is true necessarily, but what we mean when we claim that. And this week, I was compelled to think about it again.

I don’t take lightly the proclamation I make whenever we share communion: the body of Christ, broken; the blood of Christ shed. I believe it, even as historical truth. Jesus of Nazareth, who for me is Christ chosen of God, was beaten and killed. His body endured torment, he bled and died. The rub is the next part of the sentence. What do you say next? Body broken, blood shed “for you”? “as a payment (expiation, we like to say) for our sins”? “to satisfy God’s ledger book or thirst for blood”?

In the broad theological spectrum at Woodside, (and perhaps in your place too) there are folks who cringe at this language as well as those who take comfort in it. Personally, it is not the language of my faith. If Jesus’ death was God’s plan, then the people who killed him should be celebrated as faithful, obedient saints, I think. If his blood was a payment for my inability to live as God imagines, that suggests to me something about God: that God requires a settling of accounts by human sacrifice. That’s not something I am willing to claim, although I respect those who do, and I’m so glad there is room at Woodside for all of us. When I think of Jesus’ bloody death, I think more about Jesus’ rebellious life: he was crucified for insurrection, for trying to change the system, for believing and teaching that power was in the wrong hands. That’s not about deb, except as deb is part of humanity, suffocated by those with misplaced power, at the same time enjoying extraordinary benefits from sharing in that power. I am part of the system, part of the problem, so yes, Jesus’ death was about getting me, getting US, out of that and onto a new path. Jesus’ blood was spilled for me, not because I was his target for individual redemption, but because the whole of creation is dying a slow death from an unsustainable system and he saw it and tried to tell us there is something better, if we’d only be willing to open our minds to God’s imagination. So, I claim that bloody death as a grace to me because I need what he was trying to bring – a world of peace and justice for all its inhabitants. The blood of Christ for me? Yes.

I’m telling you this because it is Lent. During this season particularly, as we Christians head toward Good Friday, we ponder “atonement,” the reconciling work of God in Jesus. We’ll sing hymns with language that makes us squirm and hear scripture readings we’d prefer to clip out and toss. My hope is that in the discomfort, we’ll examine anew just what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to God through him, and why we continue to claim a place in the movement that bears his name.

Happy Lent. May the conversations always be so uncomfortably enriching.