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There has only been one article written about The Gathering since we began in 1985 – and that one had a negative slant. It was titled “Hush-Hush: What Makes Christian Philanthropy Christian?” This was the opening paragraph: “Two years ago they gathered at the swank Four Seasons in Seattle. Last year they gathered in Cancun. Next week to the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia they will doubtless come again, bringing their checkbooks with them for a Nov. 1 and 2 conference. ‘They’ are scores of wealthy believers looking for ways to use their earthly riches to advance the heavenly kingdom. In a good example of upper-class understatement, their organization is called simply The Gathering. What the group lacks in rhetorical flourish, however, its members more than make up for in net worth. Imagine Abraham, Job, and the father of the Prodigal Son getting together for a seminar, and you have a pretty good idea of The Gathering.”
Since then, I have been reluctant to talk about The Gathering with the press, but during a trip to Portland this month a columnist, Steve Duin of The Oregonian, was part of our group and seemed to be more positive about who we are and what we do. So, with some hesitation, I sat down and talked with him about The Gathering. I’ve included the article that was published after our visit. I think I was right about him and thought it would be useful to share what he wrote. Tell me what you think.
“Oh, I get it, I tell Fred Smith:
You want to mobilize Christian philanthropists so they can combine resources and aim them at the most significant target, right?
Smith -- president of The Gathering -- is a Southern gentleman, but he looks at me as if I've lost my mind.
We've all seen, he says, where that strategy ends: "Power corrupts. We rationalize it. We baptize it. We call it 'influence.'
"I don't care about that. I'm a schoolteacher, not an evangelist. This is education. Applied learning for people who give money."
The Gathering grew out of a casual 1985 meeting of five charitable trust program heads in Arlington, Va. It has evolved into a community of 1,500, each of whom gives at least $200,000 annually to Christian ministries.
That level of generosity has its traps and snares.
"You can either fall into the ditch of cynicism and disillusionment, or the ditch of pride and arrogance," Smith said. "People don't do what they say. Or they say what they need to say as they entertain you, feed you and laugh at your jokes."
To educate this "community of givers" on the issues competing for its attention, Smith organized recent trips to Burma, Cuba and Cambodia, the last to confront the complex forces that drive the sex-trafficking industry.
Last week, 20 members of The Gathering toured Portland, eager to discover what happened in "unchurched Oregon" when the churches united to meet the needs of a city.
"Portland is the first place I've seen a cohesive effort instead of disconnected ministries," Smith said. "Someone has connected the dots. This was an effort to understand the phenomena."
To that end, the group hit Roosevelt High, the most visible beneficiary of the Luis Palau Association's "Season of Service," which partnered churches like SouthLake with area high schools.
They lunched with a half-dozen pastors at Imago Dei and were briefed on the latest gang violence prevention efforts.
"These are people," Smith said, "who have been given the opportunity to give away money. I want them to do it well.
"You need to take your giving as seriously as you take your golf game. It's a calling. It's a craft. I don't think there's genuine joy in anything unless you're competent."
The Gathering group included Bob and Sylvia Caldwell -- Bob was a classmate of author Pat Conroy at The Citadel -- who are seeking ways to transform Christian philanthropy in Spartanburg, S.C.
John and Charlene O'Shea flew in from Houston, where their foundation serves inner-city Catholic grade schools. Charlene O'Shea was looking for a better understanding of what inspired a corporation like Nike to join the festivities at Roosevelt.
Oh, I don't know: Kirsty Dickinson's pasta feeds? Christian Swain's coaching? Rich Recker's work ethic?
Christine Sommer's definition of love? Mike Schrunk and Norm Daniels' comeback? Kevin Palau's trust? Deborah Peterson and Neil Lomax and Ahoefa Ananouko and Charlene Williams and ...
"The sheer energy of the vision is what spoke to Nike," senior designer Wilson Smith told the group. "We like to come alongside things that are happening."
Happenings that are sometimes years -- of sacrifice, promise and serendipity -- in the making.
"For me, this was a seed," O'Shea said. "It may take a few years for the tree to grow."
And that's just the sort of lesson plan Fred Smith wants to leave with another Gathering of the students of Christian giving.
I know you may be expecting me to write about the true meaning of Christmas today - but I'm not. Instead, I am thinking about something more personal because I have never liked Christmas. For whatever reasons, I have never found myself in the "Christmas spirit.”
While I would not say I have been Scrooge, I have come close. In fact, the whole period between Thanksgiving and the end of the year has seemed like an unnecessary drag on productivity. People don't return phone calls or start new projects. They go on vacation or leave early to shop and spend time with visiting family. I know part of it can be traced back to my own family growing up...but I have to admit that while I have changed any number of things I learned growing up that are not healthy, I have kept my learned attitudes toward Christmas.
These attitudes suited me, and I have carried them on despite everyone else in the family loving Christmas and the holidays. Well, that is until this year and for whatever reasons I find myself wanting to change and create a Christmas experience that is more in line with what some would call the "Christmas spirit" but what I would label as the original Christmas. It is not only Immanuel (God with us) but our being with each other and fully present. So, to that end I want to share a story I read years ago and have kept in a file.
A Christmas Story
It’s just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past 10 years or so.
It all began because my husband, Mike, hated Christmas. Oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it…overspending... the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma…the gifts given in desperation because you couldn’t think of anything else.
Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.
Our son, Kevin, who was 12 that year, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended, and shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler’s ears.
It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat.
Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, “I wish just one of them could have won,” he said. “They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.”
Mike loved kids - all kids - and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse. That’s when the idea for his present came. That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church.
On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years. For each Christmas, I followed the tradition, one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on.
The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.
As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn’t end there.
You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.
Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down the envelope.
Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit, will always be with us.Comments
Every year we take small groups of Gathering participants on trips outside the country to visit work being done by people who are involved with The Gathering. Earlier this year we went to Cuba and decided we would do something inside the United States in December. We had read about Portland through a series of articles in Christianity Today titled "This Is Your City" that had featured innovative cooperation of government, corporate, church and civic organizations. As one of the participants put it, "This is what the church looks like in Babylon when it seeks the peace of a city in which it is in exile and not in charge." That was true...and would prove to be as interesting as any outside-the-country trip we have made. We learned a few things, and I want to share just three:
1. Going back to Robert Schuller and the 80's model of church growth, congregations filled with boomers have concentrated their efforts on growing attendance, giving, facilities, staffing and programs. They have been "attractional" churches creating ways to bring people to the church and giving what Bill Hybels called, rightly so, "the home court advantage." It worked and hundreds of megachurches now ring urban areas. The younger pastors we sat with made a clear distinction between what they are doing today and the Boomer churches: "We are more about being interested in people and not just interesting to people. We see our mission as serving the city - not conquering the city."
2. Instead of "homogenous" growth, these churches are looking for intentional diversity. And rather than congregational growth, they are focused on encouraging people to be actively engaged in their community in ways that benefit the community - not just Christian or religious organizations. This means working with secular groups that do not share their values but they share a common goal. We met with city commissioners in Mayor Sam Adams’ office, and they described the three major issues for city government: family homelessness, violence and hunger/food security. The Christians have found ways to work on those - much to the delight of the city government.
3. All this requires a well-respected and neutral convener who has knowledge of the community. Kevin Palau and the Season of Service play this role in Portland. Kevin "connects the dots" in a way that everyone (even those who have seen many "one and done" projects) trusts and does it with grace and enthusiasm.
If you are interested in knowing more about how your own community can begin to move toward cooperation and serving, please contact Season of Service at www.seasonofservice.org.Comments
Some friends who have seen Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" have come away disappointed that the film did not emphasize his faith as much as they had hoped. To that objection Stephen Mansfield wrote an insightful review in USA Today: "The challenge is that Lincoln lived through widely differing stages in his journey of faith. There is always the temptation to see his entire religious life through the prism of only one of these stages. To do this means missing the grand tapestry of faith that Lincoln wove during years of spiritual struggle."
As I read the latest New Yorker article on Rob Bell titled "Hell-Raiser," I wondered if the same is true of Bell. Bell is the author of "Love Wins," former founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Michigan, and bright rising star of the evangelical world. In what some would call a career ending move Rob resigned his position with Mars Hill and moved to California - not to start over but to start whatever was next.
In a three-act play each act serves a unique purpose. The first act is used to establish the main character and the world they live in. Somewhere in the opening act an incident occurs that confronts him and leads to the first turning point.
In the second act, the character attempts to resolve the problem only to find themselves in a worse situation. Here, they learn who they are and what they are capable of to deal with the defining challenge.
The third act features the resolution of the story but is also the source of the most intense point before the climax.
As I write this I am wondering if F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "There are no second acts in American lives" is true for Bell. Clearly, there was a second and third act for Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln we meet in the first act of his life is far different from the man we revere as one of our greatest Presidents. Yet, if we dipped into any isolated period of his life we would have misread him. He was complex and inconsistent but he grew into who he was at the end of his life.
I thought it was interesting that the author of the New Yorker article said this in his closing paragraphs. "From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale; his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect. But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions."
Is it "a cautionary tale" or is it the first act of a three-act life? Only time - and the second act - will tell.Comments