September 21, 2020

One Message the Mountain Preachers Get Right

I’m very fortunate to live in one of the poorest areas of the country. It’s unlikely that there will be much panic here in southeastern Kentucky if we have a depression.

Adult unemployment in our area has been over 50% for the entire 16 years we’ve lived here. Large numbers of my neighbors receive various kinds of government assistance with food, utilities and medical care. Most of us are driving cars that are well past ten years old and a 150,000 miles. We don’t have too many people depending on a stock portfolio in order to fund their house at the lake.

In some ways, my corner of southeastern Kentucky has been in an economic depression since the 1930’s, if not earlier. When we drive to the suburbs of Lexington or the prosperous outskirts of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, it’s another world. I’m uncomfortable. Our world hasn’t seen economic prosperity in the memories of several generations.

Economically, we’ve been in a crisis for a long time. You could say we got here early and fixed the coffee for the rest of you.

Appalachia has its own religious take on poverty. Most of our preachers- no matter the denomination- know they are talking to many people who live on government assistance or in deep poverty. Pensioners and working families are a minority of the population, and though they may be disproportionately represented in some churches, poverty is a factor in almost every church around us.

The message in these churches bears witness to what can happen in such circumstances. Some churches preach a poor man’s version of the prosperity Gospel. Others preach a pietistic evangelicalism that never seems to notice the reality of poverty at the doorstep. Still others are mired in moralism or seeking after miracles.

Some churches faithfully preach the Gospel, but it is fewer all the time. But they believe that God is good, even in bad times.

One thing you are very likely to hear on any given Sunday is that God will get you through. He’s a powerful, miracle working God, and if you call on him, he will answer and bring you through whatever crisis you are facing.

Some of those churches go out too far with this, and some are downright cruel in the way they portray God and his willingness to intervene, but the more frequent message is that God has been taking care of people in these hollers and hills for a very long time, and he will continue to do so in the future. Have faith. God will provide.

I’m never sorry that I live in the midst of people who are clear that times are hard, poverty is normal, and God is exceedingly and abundantly good. We may quibble about how God intervenes and downright disagree about how to express that confidence in God, but I’ll never disagree that we should direct one another’s attention to the hope we have in God.

In the story of Jacob- which I’ve been teaching to my students- Jacob and Esau are able to say to one another: I have enough. They had been blessed by God. They had found peace. They were reconciled to one another. God had answered many prayers.

So they were able to say, “I have enough, because God has been good.”

Jacob gave his brother six flocks and many gifts. Esau invited his brother to come and live with him. They had enough, because God was good. They held one another and wept, grateful for family and God’s reconciling grace.

I have a feeling that will be the message we’ll need to be saying to one another more often in the future. We need to learn to say that we have enough. That God is good. That he doesn’t need to prove himself, but that we’re living in the confidence that God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness will prove itself day by day.

It would have been easy for the people of my part of the world to say long ago that they were under God’s curse. It would have been easy to see their poverty as the devil’s work. (And don’t get me wrong: much of what goes on here is the result of sin. There is genuine evil. Look at someone ravaged by meth or at abused children and you won’t doubt that evil exists.)

And I’d love to see them prosper. I really would.

But if we’re going to be poor, let’s trust God. Let’s say we have enough. Let’s remember the goodness of the Lord to our parents and grandparents who saw far tougher times.

Let’s say, “God is good. He will supply. He has provided. And we have enough…..even to share.”

Comments

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking and helpful post. I wonder how each of us would define what is “enough,” and how much that is influenced by a kind of set standard that applies anywhere, or how much of that definition is influenced by our surroundings (i.e. what is the norm is one setting vs. another).

    And at some point in the conversation we should consider what it means to have contentment in any circumstance, as Paul did.

  2. The parable of the rich guy comes to mind where he asks Jesus what he must do get eternal life?

    “21Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
    22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

    Guess he couldn’t do it, eh? It must be harder to do when you’re used to having a lot and I guess we all kind of have a hard time with that on some level, rich or poor.

    I heard that days after the bailout, AIG sent it’s executives to a spa to the tune of some $440,000. I guess they’re too rich to be embarrassed.

    In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis recalls something a friend told him about how we have a tendency of regarding God like a pilot regards his parachute. “It’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.”

  3. There are similarities to my hometown in East Tennessee. I understand more and appreciate more the hope given in the simplicity of that faith.

    Today I had one of the hardest hits I have taken in some time. My 81 year old mother called to ask how a certain thing went. I told her. She said, “Well, that’s just old Hatch (her term for Satan). I prayed for you last night and I’ll keep praying. Don’t give up. God has a purpose.”

    It always comes back to God and His sufficiency. Thanks, Michael, for this post.

  4. Ted, my dad’s the same way with the wisdom thing. I never feel like more of an asshole than when I have some big theological point I’m dying to make and he’s got one of those maddening platitudes in return. Even when we agree, his simple statements have his life and his hopes in them, and everything that comes out of me is just passionate trash.

  5. an excellent post Micheal. In most of our country there is such a shame, not in “not-having-enough”, but “looking like you don’t have as much as everyone else”. Even in the church, we lack a penchant for being honest about things. I know from experience; my family was having stressful financial problems early this year and unfortunately I only felt like I could be honest enough with my pastor to talk about it, being that I consider him a fatherly type friend.

    I was recently ill and I missed the equivalent of 1.5 weeks of work. I get paid by the hour, and only if I’m there. I have 2 kids and a wife that works part-time. No savings at the moment. You get the picture.

    I was floored when an elder of my church told me he was glad to see me back at church, and discreetly asked me if I was doing ok financially after missing so much work. I know he was prepared to whip out a checkbook and give freely to me, but I didn’t feel like I could take it. I’ll pay my mortgage a week late, skip driving anywhere but work and church, eat some mac and cheese, and not buy any books or music for a couple months, but I feel rich that a friend in Christ was bold enough to be generous instead of avoiding the issue of money.

  6. Are you a member of any of them? Reading your bio, I get the impression that this is your “church” and you are the “pastor”.

    My firstborn lives in Lexington and attends a megachurch there (Southland). Having lived in two poor developing countries in southeast Asia, she thinks Americans very ethnocentric to be worried about the stock market fluctuations as if that is the only thing happening in the world.

  7. Wow, puritan, it’s wonderful to hear about that elder.

  8. Thank you so much for this post.

    My husband and I learned a hard lesson a few years ago. We sold real estate, both of us being agents, when the market crashed and came to a halt. Suddenly we had no income.

    We were told by our church (pastors and congregates) that we needed to ask God for direction. Which we did ~ alot.

    But instead of being told that God is good, He will provide, He will supply. He has enough. As you have shared in this post…

    We were told that we had hidden sin in our lives that we needed to repent of ~ we searched in desperation for that sin or sins. Finally, we were told that we just didn’t have enough faith. We were scorned, humiliated, ridiculed for our lack of faith. We left that church completely devastated. And we were dangerously close to leaving our faith behind as well, but God had mercy on us.

    We spent years trying to undo the harm the church did to our concept of God.

    I thank God for people like you that preach the real Gospel of God.

    God WILL get us through. He DOES provide for all our needs and His hand IS big enough to catch us when we fall. That’s the truth of who He is.

  9. I was eating free lunch at the Church of Christ student center Thursday with the Marketing professor of our small college. She commented on her concern with the markets and the economy.

    We both agreed that the beans, cornbread, and fellowship were wonderful. Even in a recession/depression, we can enjoy some of these better things in life because God will provide.

  10. PostmodPuritan-
    “Even in the church, we lack a penchant for being honest about things.”
    So why did you not accept God’s provision through a brother? What if your refusal to be honest enough to admit your need hampers that brother’s willingness to let God use him next time he is sensitive enough to recognize a need (financial or otherwise)in another person’s life?
    God is good. He does supply. But sometimes we don’t like His methods.

  11. “My firstborn lives in Lexington and attends a megachurch there (Southland). Having lived in two poor developing countries in southeast Asia, she thinks Americans very ethnocentric to be worried about the stock market fluctuations as if that is the only thing happening in the world”

    Charis,

    I teach a bible study at my church and I told them last Sunday night that Americans could have their standard of living cut by a half and still be materially better off than 90% of the world. I think your firstborn is right on the mark.

  12. My dog drinks cleaner water than about half of the world’s children. Let’s be honest, and take Mike’s idea a step farther; even if this economic cirsis causes the entire system to collapse and the American way of life as we know it comes to an end, God has been and will be good. As Job sat in ashes surrounded by his friends, he said “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Our nation is young. Could this whole enlightenment experiment be on the brink of failure? I don’t think so at this point. But even if our nation dies tomorrow, we have been blessed beyond measure for the past 200 years, and furthermore, will give an account for what we did with that prosperity. Everything not build on the foundation of Jesus Christ and his gospel will be burned away.

  13. After that lengthy comment, I went ahead and wrote a whole post on that line of thought: http://themasterstable.wordpress.com/2008/10/11/a-scriptural-perspective-on-economic-collapse-and-financial-bailout/

    How many Christians are screwed in this crisis because their 401K tanked and they haven’t been laying up treasures in heaven?

  14. “Adult unemployment in our area has been over 50% for the entire 16 years we’ve lived here.”

    Why don’t folks migrate to where there are more jobs?

  15. Thoughtful post. Belated response. Presently out of work, again due to factory closure. No 410K to worry about.

    Some darker thoughts that pop into my head as I wrestle with God’s level of provision, and do the poor of SE Kentucky share these thoughts.

    God may provide but the state has to help a lot.
    No health insurance so am I worthy to go to the doctor?
    God has perfect peace but I still have to take Xanax for anxiety.
    Thousands of Christians recently fled Mosul,Iraq and many have been killed in Hindu India. What about them?
    If I question God’s motives will it jinx me and bring me even worse misfortune?
    I am the poorest in my family (or church) and some look down their noses.

    I tried OTR trucking but left the trucking company because I missed my wife after having been gone for over a month and still made little money. Did I do something foolish?

    Indeed this has been a long storm and I’m still here, I still eat well and am content with the simpler life. My wish list is somewhat small- merely make enough to fix what breaks, and have the strength to sweat it out before I finally die, hopefully the same time as my wife.

    I freely admit to God that maybe I’d like him more if he restored what I once had. I hope He understands. Same God as always. I’d make a poor God but a good contender to be the Enemy. God’s goodness is hindered by my philosophies.

  16. We just realized in our church that we help druggies and the usually unemployed more than we help the youth of our church when they are just starting out. We are in Northern Appalachia not nearly as financially challenged as Imonk’s area, but not 90210.
    Angie K I am so sorry for the churches behavior towards you. I got that same response when I had cancer. It hurts when your family kicks you when you are down.We need to realize Hebrews 13 was ment for us to share with… us. Take care of each other first. It is Biblical.