What Abides

In April, the U.S. lost 563,000 jobs, and who would have thought that this labor statistic could be cause for cautious optimism: The numbers are down 100,000 or so from the 663,000 jobs lost in March; we may have reached the bottom. Since December 2007, 5.7 million jobs have been cut – that’s about ten times the population of Nashville.

These numbers are important, but they don’t tell us how dramatically life has changed for the individuals and families directly impacted by those losses. This summer, high-school students are competing for summer jobs at Nashville Shores and for other seasonal work with men and women who must make a living for themselves and their families. Every day the church office receives multiple requests for financial assistance to pay rent, utilities, medications, gas or food. We use my discretionary fund to help individuals and families stay in their homes – and last month, for the first time in five years, it was almost depleted. Rooftop, one of the key non-profit agencies in the city assisting people with housing expenses, ran out of funds for the month of May after only two days.

We are currently working on a proposal to the Official Board to double our outreach funding by strategically using endowment earnings and designated funds. We want to use those funds specifically for housing here in Nashville, because once a family loses the roof over their heads, issues like loss of work and income, lack of education and health care become a lot more difficult to address.

I am telling you this because this is what the staff here is working on every day. I am telling you this on mother’s day, because this year, whenever I call my mom, she asks me three questions, and I know today will be no different: First, how are the kids and Nancy? Second, what’s new at Vine Street? And third, how are people dealing with the depressed economy?

My mom taught us that love isn’t a word we write on a card on occasion, but our response to the world and to the needs of others. In her life and her faith, love has always been a lot closer to solidarity than to sentimentality. She taught me that love is the power that keeps us from getting lost in fragmented isolation.

When people lose their jobs, they lose more than their income. Work is our way to make a living, but it is more than that. Work is how we each turn the gift of life into our life. Work is an important part of who we are, it gives us a sense of purpose, the deep satisfaction of having something to offer – skills, products, and services that others need and appreciate. The work we do is an essential piece of the story we tell about ourselves.

Let me tell you about Emilio. Emilio was sixteen at the end of World War II when he came to the U.S. from Sicily. He married Flavia and they had two boys. [My thanks to Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character, for insight and inspiration]

Emilio had little education, and he worked as a janitor all his life. Working hard, saving regularly, and playing by the rules, he and Flavia were able to buy a little house in the Boston suburbs and send their two sons to college. Whenever the boys talked about their class work, Dad didn’t understand a word, but that didn’t diminish his pride. The little house and his sons’ education were visible results of his life’s work. To his colleagues and neighbors Emilio was a friend they could rely on, and he was a respected member of the catholic parish in what was once an Italian neighborhood.

His son Rico graduated from a local university in electrical engineering, went to business school, and married a fellow student – Jennifer was neither Italian nor Catholic, but that was OK. School prepared the young couple to move and change jobs frequently, and they did, following the demands of an economy that values flexibility. In fourteen years at work, Rico and his wife have moved four times, from New York to California, then to Chicago and Missouri, and back to the east coast.

The world they live and work in is very different from the one Emilio and Flavia knew. Stable routines and predictable career tracks are things of the past. Staid bureaucracies and hierarchical management have given way to flatter, more fluid networks. Flexibility has replaced long-term commitment. No more gold watches after thirty years with the same company.

In some ways these changes are positive; they make for a dynamic economy. But they are also destructive.

There was a time when the word “career” referred to a carriage road – a means to help you get from one place to another. Applied to work, a career was a path with fairly predictable stops and turns. You would start at the bottom and work your way up over time in just one or perhaps two companies. Or you would choose a field, get the required training, and all you had to do was fine-tune a skill set that would remain valuable for decades.

We can no longer count on that. The estimates change constantly, but college students are advised these days to anticipate more than ten job changes during their working life. Flexibility is key – colleges are preparing young people for jobs for which no job descriptions have been written yet.

And it’s not just flexible minds that are needed, the demand for flexible bodies is also growing. Recently, when IBM closed a facility in California, they told 200 engineers they could keep their jobs if they were willing to move their families to India.

Flexibility makes for a dynamic economy, but it cuts roots and makes it more and more difficult to sustain family ties and friendships.

Rico makes more in a month than his dad made in a year, but he is worried. He grew up with values like mutual commitment, self-discipline, loyalty, and trust. “You can’t imagine how stupid I feel when I talk to my kids about commitment,” says Rico. “It’s an abstract virtue to them; they don’t see it anywhere.” Flexibility means, there is no long term; stay loose, keep moving, don’t be dependent, don’t get too attached, it only hurts when you have to leave.

I find it curious how changes in our economy lead to the loss of homes for thousands of workers and their families, and at the same time create a sense of being uprooted and disconnected, a sense of homelessness among those most successful in this new world of constant and rapid change.

I have thought much about housing recently, simply because the number of people looking for help to prevent eviction has gone up. I have thought about the things that can give us a sense of stability when everything is in flux, a sense of being at home in the world, if you will.

Some of those thoughts were triggered by an old-fashioned word, abide, repeated again and again in today’s readings from the gospel according to John and from First John. We don’t use the word abide much anymore, and even in parts of the country where traditions and the King’s English are honored, highway motel signs don’t read, “Abide with us.” They simply flash, “Vacancies” or perhaps, “Stay here.”

“To abide” has to do with staying, even if it is only for a night. But it also has to do with dwelling, persevering, and lasting.

Perhaps you remember the ending of chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where the Apostle writes, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

All things come to an end, but love outlasts them all. Love is the power that keeps us from getting lost in fragmented isolation.

In the gospel according to John, Jesus gives us this beautiful image, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

We want to lead fruitful lives, we have a need to lead fruitful lives, and we need a sense of belonging that can outlast the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. Jesus points to himself as the place where we can stay. He gives us roots we can rely on no matter where in the world we are. He invites us to draw strength from him and bear fruit, fruit that brings joy to the vinegrower, to us and to those with whom we share the gift of life.

Love abides: not as a principle or a virtue, but as the living relationship we have with God and with each other through Christ the Vine.

Love abides because Christ abides, because Christ lasts, endures, perseveres, hangs in with us, holds on to us.

Love abides because Christ binds us together across boundaries of income, education, ethnic origin, and political philosophy.

I am not sure if we will be able to create just and sustainable ways of producing and distributing goods around the world, but I hope so. I am not sure if we will be able to build political and economic institutions that serve the well-being of all, but I hope so. I am not sure if we will ever be able to promise each other that none shall have to live on the street, but I hope so. I have the courage to hope because I believe that love abides. I have the strength to hope because Christ is risen, Christ abides.

The love of Christ is the power that saves us from getting lost in fragmented isolation. The love of Christ bears fruit in our lives in all the ways necessary for God’s planting to flourish: we become generous and creative in making sure individuals and families have a roof over their heads; we encourage our children and each other to trust God and think about more than just ourselves; and we practice disciplines that help us to abide in him who so faithfully abides in us.

The love of Christ is the power that saves us from getting lost in flexibility.

Make yourselves at home.

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