Caring about Country and Community

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Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4 …. It’s difficult for me to ignore the fact that we’re in the middle of an election season. If I turn on morning news, then there are ads with a predictable pattern: smiling candidates in beautiful places interacting with happy people, their opponents pictured in unfavorable poses with stark lighting fit for a horror film. When I drive to work, there’s a sea of election signs on the lawns. When I return home, the mailbox is fuller than usual with election mailings. There are signed candidates cards attached to my front door with sorry-I-missed-you notes. On my social media feeds, there are articles and comments than I have time to read.

Among my young-adult social-media friends, I notice fewer postings about politics, which may in some respects reflect a phenomenon that researchers have been writing about for years. “Most young people don’t vote,”[1] says a recent headline in the Washington Post. According to analysis conducted by CIRCLE, i.e. the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, in the 2014 election, only 47% of the population under age 30 was registered to vote, and only 19.9% cast ballots, both figures the lowest ever recorded.[2] There are many explanations about low turnout, which isn’t a totally new phenomenon, of course. Some say that younger voters don’t care as much about established parties, or that candidates ignore issues that are a priority to them. Quentin Kidd, a professor who specializes in studying voting habits, says young adults “might be less attached to a community. When [young adults] graduate college they are likely to move around multiple times and not feel settled in a certain place.” Often they don’t feel they have a stake in a particular city or community, so they don’t feel motivated to participate in the building of its future.[3]

In the 29th chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah, we read a letter addressed to people who probably were experiencing a similar feeling.  These were the members of the Jerusalem community who had survived the purge and deportation conducted by the conquering Babylonians.  It’s likely that most of these people had been spared death because they possessed certain skills or abilities that were of value to the Babylonians.  If you sympathetically place yourself in the shoes of a person who has watched his or her people killed, who has been forcibly removed from his or her home, and placed into slavery in a foreign land, then you can imagine that the Jews in Babylon did not feel attached to their new community.  Apart from avoiding the punishment of their captors, it’s not likely that the Jews felt any positive motivation to participate in building the future of Babylon.

The Jews are telling themselves that the community in which they inconveniently find themselves is not their home, but then God through Jeremiah sends a contrary message.  Jeremiah says that they are to build houses, plant gardens, and have children. They are going to be in Babylon for a LONG time. The healing they want is going to require their participation: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Six-hundred years later, when the Apostle Paul wrote his letters, the people of God were again in an unpleasant situation, subjects of the hostile Roman Empire. Young Timothy is in charge of the new congregation at Ephesus, and the focus necessary for that work means that Timothy quite possibly could ignore the needs of the world outside his congregation. Writing from prison in Rome, Paul is ever mindful of the ways that political context can oppose or support ministry. And so he encourages Timothy to remember and pray “for kings and all who are in high positions,” so that life may be quiet and peaceful, so that circumstances may be conducive for people to hear and believe the good news.

Like Jeremiah’s audience in Babylon, and Timothy at Ephesus, Christians today may have reservations about seeking the welfare of our country and community.  The phenomenon may be more pronounced among young adults, but is not limited exclusively to them. It’s something some members of all generations feel.

Recently, I’ve been reminded of the Church’s role in caring for country and community within the context of a graduate course at UMSL on Nonprofit Management and Leadership. One subject of our study has been the role of nonprofit organizations in political advocacy. For churches, electioneering activity for or against particular candidates is prohibited, of course. Otherwise, even so-called secular textbooks describe the long and proud history of American churches engaging in education on issues and lobbying for causes. As one author put it, out of the churches have emerged groups to end drunkenness, to abolish slavery, to work for peace, to promote women’s suffrage, Social Security, civil rights, environmental protection, food safety, government support for the arts, and more.[4]

Yet, today, less than half of nonprofit organizations engage in political advocacy of any kind, even on issues that are of vital concern to their mission. Many leaders are unsure about what the law allows, or worry they will alienate donors. Perhaps the most common reason is the general feeling that there is a shortage of time and money: schedules are too full, and resources too meager, to pay attention to the larger community context in which non-profit staff and volunteers live and work. Church staff and volunteers often feel too overwhelmed to care about the community.

And yet the God who so loved the world that He gave his only son calls us to love the world too.  We see it:

  • in Jeremiah’s call to seek the welfare of the city in which God’s people live in exile;
  • in Jesus’ Great Commission;
  • in Paul’s admonition to pray for political leaders, and all in high positions;
  • in the concern of the early Church for the physical needs of people;
  • in the history of American Christianity’s engagement in issues that further the public good.

I see engagement of the world in many of you. Dr. Andre’s visit prompted me to think about our collaboration with the district through our P.A.L. mentoring program.  I asked Lucia Weber to remind me of some statistics. Through eleven years, approximately 40 volunteers have worked with 65 children, some for multiple years. Lucia tells me if you add it all up, it amounts to 106 years of mentoring, 106 years of positive, loving impact on the lives of children. This is just one example of many I could highlight represented among you.

The call to care about country and community is perpetual, and each new season poses questions for our consideration:

  • As we rush through the streets on our journeys from one event to the next, will we slow down enough to grapple with some of the needs and issues all around, and seek the welfare of the country and community in which God has placed us?
  • Will we risk putting aside some of our personal interests so that we have time to extend the gift of love?

I’ve included hymn 351 in the order of worship, a hymn that some people find rather disconcerting and somber.  The Presbyterians I served in Springfield treasured this hymn: I would say it was a “top ten” song in that congregation. I grew to love it, too. The final verse presents a question and prayer that I believe is at the heart of today’s message: “Risen Lord, shall yet the city be the city of despair? Come today, our judge, our glory. Be its name ‘The Lord is there!’”

[1] Jessica Contrera, “Most young people don’t vote. Condescending to them isn’t helping.” The Washington Post, 30 Aug. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/08/30/most-young-people-dont-vote-and-these-awkward-efforts-to-woo-them-arent-helping/ Accessed 5 Oct. 2016.

[2] 2014 “Youth Turnout and Youth Registration Rates Lowest Ever Recorded; Changes Essential in 2016,”

http://civicyouth.org/2014-youth-turnout-and-youth-registration-rates-lowest-ever-recorded-changes-essential-in-2016/

[3] Collin Brennan, “Why college students aren’t voting (and why it matters)” USA Today, 25 Sept. 2015, http://college.usatoday.com/2015/09/25/why-college-students-arent-voting/ accessed 5 Oct. 2016.

[4] Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, as quoted in “Effective Advocacy: Lessons for Nonprofit Leaders from Research and Practice,” Gary D. Bass et. al, chapter ten in Organizational Politics, Strategy, and Tactics.

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~ by JohnH1962 on October 16, 2016.