August 2011


“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Jesus] said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:8-14).

Reportedly, Kim Kardashian’s wedding cost $10,000,000 for 500 celebrity guests. Each of her Vera Wang wedding dresses was $20,000. Her invitations had a real crystal border. And despite all that expenditure, she’s no more or less married than somebody who spent very little and went down to the courthouse or had a quiet ceremony in a church chapel with a minister and a couple of friends. Not much cash outlay is actually necessary if your main interest is getting married, not showing off for the media.

Such self-indulgence and expenditures like it, such as huge bonuses for corporate moguls, should be condemned for what they are: an obscenity and idolatry, an affront to decency and a dismissal of the concerns of those in our nation who are unemployed, underemployed, and struggling financially. Most people in our nation will never make $10,000,000 in their entire lifetimes nor will their families realize such gain over two or three or more generations. Yet this “celebrity” and her family spent that amount on one party! (And by the way, shame on the American public for making this woman and those like her famous by watching their “reality” shows and shame on the starry-eyed, superficial media for following her around.)

For comparison to spending $10,000,000 for one self-centered event, consider the following:

  • a Habitat for Humanity home in a midwestern city I know of costs a total of $80,000 when administration and program expenditures are added in; “hard” costs for construction amount to $63,000. The Kardashian wedding could have housed 125 families. Internationally, the figure would be 10 times that.
  • the median household income in the US is $51,425 according to the US Census Bureau (figures from www.ask.com); one event thus cost almost 200 times the annual income of the American family on the middle of the income scale.
  • in Mississippi, where I live, the median household income is $37,790 (2008 figures; http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/rankings.html), making us 50th on the state ranking; Ms. Kardashian’s elaborate nuptials cost 264 times more than what a Mississippi family can expect in a year; in other words, her party budget would provide for one MS family and its descendants until the year 2275.
  • my congregation helped found and continues to support a local food pantry; a significant percentage of its food is donated, for example by Wal-Mart through its “Feeding America” program or obtained free, from the Mississippi Food Network. Still, that was not enough to feed the 11,567 people/4204 families who needed its help (and received it) in 2010. The Food Pantry had to purchase $50, 795.48 worth of food last year. 
  • at Wal-Mart in Amory, 2% milk is $4.33/gallon; one dozen large eggs, $1.78; basic whole wheat store-brand bread, $1.50 a loaf; a 32 oz. bag of carrots, $1.48; cabbage, 54 cents/pound; and a five pound bag of potatoes, $3.97. You do the math.

If Kim Kardashian and her ilk have the money and want to spend it on idolatry and partying, they will be held accountable for that by the Judge of us all. Perhaps the judgment against her kind would be tempered if at least she would at least give an equal amount to charities that help put food in the mouths and roofs over the heads of those who would never be on her wedding banquet guest list.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

“Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away—here in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day” (Marty Haugen, “Gather Us In,” © 1982, GIA Publications, Inc.)

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There’s a trend in our culture that’s disturbing to me. Politicians, parents, and preachers with a certain spin or take on Christian faith consistently discount and dismiss particular scientific theories and/or warnings as so flawed as not to be believed or some sort of scam or not worthy to be taught in the classroom or funded by the government. Science itself is seen as the enemy of faith and the results of careful observation and experiment are referred to as “just a theory.” (That phrase itself shows how little these people understand science. A theory is not just a guess; it begins as a hypothesis, which is tested and refined until a theory based on observed behaviors of, for example, people or particles emerges.)

Contrast the approach of someone like the popular and now controversial preacher, writer, and pastor Rob Bell. In his “Everything is Spiritual” talk, Bell uses string theory, quantum mechanics, and contemporary cosmological thought to explore what it means to be human. Bell is an evangelical, but he sees science, obviously, not as the enemy, but as an ally in the overall quest for Truth. If indeed, everything is spiritual, and simply being human means we are spiritual, then science is inherently a spiritual pursuit, honoring to God as we explore his creation.

The biblical wisdom tradition, largely ignored by every kind of Christian (the mainline Revised Common Lectionary has only a few passages over the course of three years), leads us to the same conclusion. The everyday stuff of life is the basis for theological reflection; exploration of the world and the cosmos is a holy task and can open our perspectives in ways we never imagined. For example, the long speech of God from the whirlwind in the book of Job is intended to awaken Job to the undreamed-of possibilities for his life and broaden his viewpoint.

Recently, I’ve begun to think about how science could help us approach the question of Heaven. If we think about it at all, we may assume Heaven is somewhere “out there” beyond the stars; it’s “up.” But what if we baptized M-theory or string theory, for example, which posits the existence of parallel universes (http://www.npr.org/2011/01/24/132932268/a-physicist-explains-why-parallel-universes-may-exist)? Suppose we began to think of Heaven not as “out there” but contiguous with our reality.

Such an idea would open up possibilities for passages like Revelation 4:1: “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!” A door is a portal, an entrance into another reality existing side by side with this one like one room with another. The prophet would simply need to step through in order to enter the parallel realm. Or how about Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….” Heaven as a parallel universe would allow us to understand that text quite literally. We’re surrounded, but we can’t see the saints, because they live in a different dimension. And of course, there are all the texts in which Jesus suddenly appears to and among his disciples. Could he have been traveling instantaneously from his universe into this one and vice-versa?

Of course, there’s no way of knowing short of our actual going to Heaven. But I think these things are fun to think about. And it’s important to affirm science as a resource for faith. Whether Heaven is a parallel realm or indeed somewhere beyond the farthest galaxy, as the old song says, “it’s a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.”

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

I spent much of my career until 2007 in campus ministry. I first fell in love with working with college students, faculty, and staff at the University of Montevallo outside Birmingham, beginning in 1982. Even as a pastor in Owensboro, KY, I was involved with higher education as chair of a state campus ministry board. I ended that phase of my ministry in 2007 when my position as Associate Executive for Campus Ministry for our presbytery came to an end due to funding cuts.

Campus ministry has for many years now been a rather peripheral and undervalued work in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We have been painfully slow on the uptake recognizing the special needs, gifts, and characteristics of today’s collegians. For a time, we had no national staff person exclusively devoted to higher education ministry. Fortunately, the 219th General Assembly last year corrected that mistake by re-establishing an office.

Despite that action, my colleague Jerry Beavers complains in the April 9, 2011 blog of the Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministry (PACHEM) that the PC(USA) has “high regard in the abstract and low regard in the tangible for collegiate ministry.” He asks: “When will we take seriously the notion that ministry on campus to college students is a missionary endeavor? When will we start treating campus ministers and chaplains as missionaries and colleges as a mission field?  Campus Ministry is not just an older youth group, able to provide nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, and perhaps a choir member. Campus Ministry is a missionary outreach to a different culture” (emphasis his). Obviously, what happened and happens at the national level did not and does not change the common perception and practice of congregations. Or not yet, anyway.

More recently, The Christian Century noted that mainline churches have had some success in building connections to social movements or even to people of other faiths. But, says the journal, “[a] bridge that has been harder to build is one that connects to a generation born outside the church—young people interested in spirituality but allergic to organized religion.” Echoing and confirming Jerry’s comments in his blog, the article goes on to quote Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She says that young city dwellers have an indigenous culture that requires them to “‘culturally commute’’’ in order to attend most mainline churches (Jesse James DeConto, “Camp Meeting,” August 9, 2011: 13).

My experience with campus ministry over the years has made me hopeful and excited about the gifts and potential of collegians and all emerging adults (that is, ages 18-25), but deeply concerned about the understanding of, and outreach to, them inside and outside the church by congregations and my denomination. To so many churchgoers, I fear, this age group remain lumped in, as Jerry points out, with what a well-meaning but misinformed lady in one of our churches called “our youth.” (She introduced me to someone as “Tom Cheatham; he works with our youth” when I was a campus minister at Mississippi State.) Few will expend the effort even to seek to understand the difference betweeen youth and emerging adults and try to find creative ways of doing ministry in the culture of higher education and postmodern people.

August 14 is Higher Education Sunday across the PC(USA). Whether or not you are a Presbyterian, I encourage you to find out how you can be a part of and support ministries in higher education. There are lots of resources out there both about Millennials and emerging adults. For the latter, the place to go first is www.jeffreyarnett.com/articles.htm, which includes downloads of some materials. Presbyterians can begin to find out about current PC(USA) ministries with http://gamc.pcusa.org/ministries/collegiate . Jerry Beavers’ blog is at http://pachem.blogspot.com .

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Last Saturday when I exited I-65 N at Prattville, AL, I saw a young guy standing on the median holding a homemade, but nicely lettered, sign that read “Laid off and new dad.” It was a new twist on the “will work for food” placards, and as I sat at the light, a number of thoughts went through my mind.

The first was that this was some sort of scam. But then, I wondered, who would be standing out in the sweltering heat next to asphalt if he were not truly desperate? And besides, the guy looked like he hadn’t eaten a decent meal or gotten a good night’s sleep in a week. His clothes were dirty, his features gaunt. This had to be for real.

But then I asked myself what he expected me to do for him. I suppose he thought that someone with a business that was hiring (good luck in this economy!) might pass by and stop and maybe he could get a new job. Again, a sign of desperation, since the chances of that happening were slim.

Finally, I felt guilty and thankful at the same time. I knew that as soon as I got off the ramp onto Highway 82, I was going to go use my Visa card, which no doubt that young man could not qualify for, to fill up my SUV. Then I was going to go use the same card to buy a nice lunch. I complain sometimes about not having enough, but that young man and his family had so little he was reduced to begging by the side of the road in the hope some stranger would be kind.

Seeing that young man, I was reminded of the scene at the end of Bruce Almighty where a dirty and emaciated homeless guy is holding up a homemade sign. The camera morphs his features to reveal that he in fact God. “In as much as you have done it to the least of these,” Jesus said, “you have done it to me.”

I won’t soon forget that desperate dad at the off ramp.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham