Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enough is Enough

Usury is defined as the practice of charging excessive, unreasonably high, and often illegal interest rates on loans. Originally, when the charging of interest was still banned by Christian churches, usury simply meant the charging of interest at any rate. The book of Exodus says, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest (22:25).” The writer of Proverbs says, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).”

A coalition of community and faith groups is currently supporting an initiative petition to be placed on the Missouri November ballot to cap the rate of predatory lending in our state at 36%. Only a few years ago Missouri usury laws capped these loans at an even lower rate; however, driven by the payday loan and related industries these laws have been dramatically relaxed. Now, payday lenders in Missouri are charging an average of 444 percent interest—and can charge as high as 1,950 percent. Some have suggested that this is legalized loan-sharking. These predatory loans carrying triple-digit interest rates create a long-term cycle of debt, exploiting a family’s budget crisis, and driving these families into deeper debt. Even more remarkable they thrive by oppressing the most vulnerable in our communities.

Incredibly, we have more payday lenders than Starbucks, McDonald’s & Walmart’s combined. They saturate our cities, and they can found in almost all of our small towns and many rural areas. These payday, car title, and other high cost lenders drain millions of dollars in predatory fees annually from our communities. Missouri loses $317 million annually in payday loan fees alone taken out of our state. That’s a lot of money that could be spent investing in our neighborhoods and families. Where does all this money go? Most of it goes to out-of-state predatory lenders. Some of it comes back to Missouri legislators who protect these predatory lenders’ ability to charge these high interest rates.

For more than 10 years Missouri’s legislature has failed to take action on numerous bills and countless appeals from faith and community leaders from across our state. I believe it is time for people of faith in Missouri to make our voices and values heard. It is time for us to say, “This is wrong—enough is enough.” It is wrong to take advantage of the working poor. No one in the middle or upper income brackets would stand for these ridiculous interest rates and fees. Many in the payday and related industries will say these loans are needed and we must be able to charge these rates to cover our risk, but studies indicate the repayment rate on these loans (even with current rates) is between 90 and 95 percent. The default rate is much lower than the default on credit card debt. These lenders charge these rates because they can.

Missouri has some of the weakest payday loan laws in the nation and some of the highest rates. I believe this is wrong, and it is contrary to my faith and the teachings of scripture. For me to fail to speak or to act on behalf of the working poor in our state is to betray my faith and my Savior. If you would like more information I encourage you to visit Missourians for Responsible Lending (www.moresponsiblelending.org). This is not a political issue—it is an issue of faith and justice. I hope you will join the effort as we seek to lead our state to greater justice and hope for all Missourians.

This article was written for this week's Churchnet page in Word&Way.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What does God Expect of Me?

Happy New Year! 2012 is here! Have you made you New Year’s Resolutions? Maybe a better question is have you broken them? For many people New Years Day is a time when we think about the coming year…what we expect or hope for. What does this passage (Matthew 25:31-46) about the sheep and the goats have to say to us? How can it help us to be better prepared to face a new year?

God has expectations for us. He has plans for us. He has expectations for all of his creation, and he will judge us on the basis of his expectations. The passage provides an incredible picture of the final judgment. The one who took the form of a servant will ultimately return in glory to judge. All the nations will be a part of this judgment. What will be the standard for this judgment? What does God expect of me? The good news is this final examination is an “open book examination.” The questions have been announced in advance. God is not trying to trick you. He has laid out his expectations.

His expectations are all about relationships. He will judge on the basis of our relationships. Ultimately, he will judge on the basis of our relationship with God through Christ. But, our relationship with the Son of Man is in separately tied to our relationships with each other, and more specifically, our relationships with “the least of these brothers (or sisters) of mine.” It is no problem to treat our loved ones and friends with love and compassion. We have been doing that for the past couple of weeks as we celebrated the birth of the Savior.

It is easy to be generous to our family; however, the real test of our relationship with God is how his presence impacts our relationships with “the least of these.” Jesus holds the destiny of all people in his hands, and he cares about the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers, and prisoners. We all have our list of “the least of these.” They are the people who are outside of our circle of compassion and concern. Obviously, it could be some of the same ones Jesus mentioned, but it could be another race, nationality or ethic group. They might be individuals of another social economic group, someone with more or less education, people in another political party, or people from a another culture or lifestyle. We need to throw away all these lists that divide us and acknowledge we are all children of God. An unknown author penned these lines: There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us, to talk about the rest of us!

Those ministering and serving did not realize they were doing so. They did not think about it. Their actions were not religious acts designed to make them look good to God or to gain his favor. They were just spontaneous acts of love and compassion. They were their normal response to another person in need. “Doing good” is not in the deeds themselves. Someone with selfish motives may choose to feed the hungry. It is the motive that reveals who we are.

Compassionate and serving love is the fruit of genuine religion. By this fruit one’s true relationship to God is revealed. God does not judge us on the basis of religious activity or justify us on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Remember the question which confronted Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel? What must I do to inherit eternal life? It is the same question. What does God expect of me? In response Jesus said, Love God with all you are, and love you neighbor as yourself! The follow-up question was Who is my neighbor? Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and he encouraged the inquirer to go and do likewise. Go and live like this man. Live a life characterized by compassionate love!

Those judged and sent away in the parable of the sheet and goats were not condemned for the “big sins.” Their guilt was in what they failed to do. We get to choose how we live, and our choices have eternal consequences. The story is told that just before the death of actor W.C. Fields, a friend visited Fields' hospital room and was surprised to find him thumbing through a Bible. Asked what he was doing with a Bible, Fields replied, "I'm looking for loopholes." There are a lot of people trying to find a way to live the Christian life without investing their lives in service to others, but there is no loophole.

God’s judgment will be surprising. God’s judgment always surprises us. He sees things so differently than we do. One of the characteristics of true saints is that they forget themselves in service to God and man. Ironically, those on the right and the left hand in the parable respond to the king’s statements with the same question. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a stranger, or a prisoner?

The loving in the parable were so humble that they could not imagine their service could have been a service to the king. They did not anticipate a reward for their actions. A genuine child of God loses himself or herself in loving service.

The unloving were so unobservant, their religion so routine, that they never thought of Jesus as being tied to the least of these. They did not anticipate he would ask from them acts of compassion. Their faith was only a ritual observance or a set of correct beliefs. They had separated Jesus from the routines of their daily lives and their everyday interactions with other people. Their insensitivity is revealed in their question, When did we see you? If you have to ask “who is in need,” then you do not understand the nature of our Savior. Their defense was their condemnation!

Christ goes about everyday among the poor and the imprisoned. He lives among all “those people” we try to avoid. The nature of this oneness of Christ with each person is beyond human expression. All of us have an understanding of the bond between a parent and a child (from one or both perspectives). The pain of one becomes the pain of the other. The bond between Christ and every person in our world is closer than any human tie. It is bound by creation and his eternal Spirit. The pain experienced by the least of these moves the very heart of our Savior.

The Christian life is not primarily a list of things to believe—some type of orthodox theology. It is about a relationship with God through Christ that forever changes us. This relationship changes all of our other relationships. It changes the way we see the world. It actually enables us to begin to see the least of these. Baptists are fond of saying we are “people of the Book.” We believe the Bible is the Word of God. In the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel as Jesus tells his disciples “good-bye,” he says: You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

I have come to believe what Jesus really meant was we were not merely to believe he was the way, but we were to adopt his way of living as our way of living. Jesus said to Thomas, I am the way…I have been showing you the way…My way of living is the way to God. He showed us all we need to know. The Message translation of the prophet Micah’s words (6:8) says it like this:

But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.

My resolution for this New Year is to see the world through my Savior’s eyes. To ask him to help me see and serve the least of these. My resolution is to live justly, with compassion and humility.

This post is a summary of a message I shared on New Year's Day.