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Everything changed for Pam and John in 2008. They lost nearly everything.
Their successful lives in Los Angeles were turned upside-down when they became refugees from the real-estate crash of the urban West Coast. They loaded up their R.V., their two young girls, and headed northeast to the Selkirk Mountains of the rural Inland Northwest. They parked their R.V. near our back yard and began to lick their wounds. Feeling beaten up and worn out, one Sunday they warily poked their heads into the church where I was pastor. With eager, earnest Christian hospitality the church descended upon them like a litter of Labrador puppies on baby chicks. It was too much. So, Pam, John and the girls disappeared back to the safety of their R.V. in the woods.
One late Saturday afternoon I was hiking along a trail that I knew well and which never showed much sign of human life. But this day I happened up on an impressive Airstream Bullet. John’s head popped out. He recognized me from the church and I could hear him laugh to himself. He invited me to stay and the three of us sat outside absorbing the easy autumn tamarack, aspen and mountains. They shared their pilgrimage story and I realized that not only had they been beaten up by the economy but also by their former big box mega-church. When the bottom fell out they made an appointment to meet with one of the church’s many pastors. After listening to their story, the pastor paused and concluded that they had not had enough faith. The next Sunday in church, a sharp, young preacher whose coolness Pam had always admired proclaimed that amidst the economic crisis, prayer would sustain the faithful because God wanted his own to be WINNERS not losers. That was the moment. That was it. Pam said that she wasn’t angry. She was done. She knew that they were big-time losers in the economic collapse, but she also knew that her material losses had stirred and awoken her faith in ways that she had never experienced. It was time for a change.
After a decade now, I’ve been thinking about Pam and John lately. I’ve also been thinking about others like them who have not been able to rebound from the ruthlessness of our economy. The good news is that Pam and John built a new life together. The last time I saw John, we were eating breakfast at the Mangy Moose with the church guys who had helped him build their new house. Several of those guys had their retirement accounts decimated by the same crash.
I have heard people talking about 2017 as a year of unprecedented change. And I get it. What a year! Who would have expected an undisciplined, late-night tweeting U.S. president comparing the size of his button to a dictator’s? Who could have guessed that Matt Lauer had a hidden button under his desk to lock the door on unwitting interns? Who would have known we would go crazy about fidget spinners? Change is all around and within us.
But we are not experiencing something completely new. We are feeling the rising fullness of changes long in process. Ten years after the banking industry collapsed, we are feeling the deep and unstoppable economic forces that were already at work long before 2008. We have an economy that is tearing apart the intricately woven threads of the common good. We have an economy over which citizens and government have lost control; one which threatens a sustainable habitat for the human species. Michael Lewis in his book, The Big Short, described the market implosion of 2008 and the madness of ordinary people losing nearly everything while Wall Street casino operators were bailed out with money from Main Street. He writes, “The world’s most powerful and most highly paid financiers had been entirely discredited; without government intervention every single one of them would have lost his job; and yet those same financiers were using the government to enrich themselves.”
That is the world that we live in today. Many of the more visible, media sensational changes that we obsess about are simply the effects of this economic tsunami of change. The dysfunction and ugliness in our political leaders is not the cause of these changes but rather the culmination of them. This tidal wave has created a whole new population of economic and societal losers. And the market is so fierce and unpredictable that it is difficult for economic winners to stay on top for long. Where does that leave the large number of people who are, in the words of that mega-church pastor, losers?
We rarely talk openly and honestly about such things. It makes us anxious and afraid. Let me share with you that the church is anxious and afraid about these things right now too. This is especially true for church leaders who are in positions where they are finding themselves being forced from a “winning” cultural location to a “losing” social status. I empathize with their loss. But let me share some good news about this situation. There is no better place to do church than amidst losers. By this, I mean the kind of “losers” like Pam and John, who lost their status and wealth and yet created a new life of love and meaning. This paradox is at the heart of Christian faith and most religious traditions – a person can only gain their life by losing it. It is a freeing experience to be rid of the compulsions of competition. Letting go of what has become a toxic game creates space for new possibilities like faith, hope and love, especially love. And love overcomes the cold logic that divides the world into winners and losers.
In this new season of American empire, the church is losing ground when it comes to money, influence, numbers, and social standing. And the strange irony is that this loss is good news.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.