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June 9, 2014, 4:00 PM

Spiritual AND Organized

   The Illinois Great Rivers Conference recently announced that it exceeded its goal of raising $2.5 million to support the United Methodist church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign.  The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has poured tens of millions of dollars into this effort, and thousands of members of the church…both native Africans and visiting American volunteers…have put countless hours into it.

  You can find out more here...

   The goal of the campaign has been to end deaths due to malaria in Africa.  The program has already significantly contributed to a dramatic drop in malaria deaths.  Overall, the mortality rate has dropped by 50% across Africa since the effort go underway.  In some countries, the death rate has dropped even further than that.

   The bottom line of all this is that hundreds of thousands of people, most of them children, have had their lives and the health saved by this effort, which was made possible because the church organized itself to do it.

   But, I’m guessing that you didn’t hear that good news broadcast in the secular media.  It’s far more likely you did hear or read about the ghastly discovery of the bones of hundreds of infants and toddlers which were found in the septic take of an abandoned convent in Ireland, where unwed mothers and their children were housed in decades past.

   The horrific discovery of hundreds of children who probably died of poor care is genuinely newsworthy.  Such sickening atrocities should not be covered up or ignored. 

   But, a little perspective is in order…

   It’s common to hear people refer to “organized religion” with an air of disdain, and facial expressions that make them look like they just smelled something really rancid.  They will point to the babies’ bones and other genuine crimes and scandals and insist that this “proves organized religion is a thoroughly corrupt and misbegotten enterprise.

   Many will also proclaim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  Meaning that they don’t bother to congregate with others in icky organized ways that could possibly do anything but stifle and poison their pure spirits.  Besides, if you let too many people into your little circle, someone is bound to suggest that you're wrong about some things.  Who wants that grief?

   I’m sure these spiritual people are revolted and disheartened by dreadful and monstrous  stories, like that of the 800 dead babies, placed in the care of organized religion.  I suspect at least some of them feel a certain moral superiority, because they have no part in the institution which caused, or allowed, this tragedy to take place.

   But, here’s the flipside…

   They also had no part in the epic and highly organized work which has saved hundreds of thousands of babies from death or lifelong disability, due to malaria.  The church did that.  And it could do it, precisely because it is organized to do such things.

   When it fails in that mission…that makes news.  I’m not complaining about that.  Failures, and especially criminal failures, must be exposed and confronted honestly.  Churches shouldn’t whine about such exposures, but should face them, admit to them, and fix them with courageous integrity.  The cover-ups which have attended some of these failures have only compounded the misery of the victims and done nothing to truly help or protect the church.

   But when it succeeds, who notices?  People often seem to shrug and say, “Well, isn’t that what the church is supposed to do?  Why should that be treated as news?”

  Maybe because telling half a truth is little different from telling an untruth.

  Yes, organized religion does some dreadful things that merit exposure and correction.  But right now, millions of people are alive and well, because people who are spiritual and organized came together to do something wonderful and heroic.

   The world should know that.  Because the world needs hope and inspiration.

   Tomorrow, all sorts of “spiritual” and many decidedly non-spiritual people, will render more verdicts and spew more invective against organized religion, claiming it does not and cannot do enough good to justify its existence.  They will point to the bones of hundreds of babies as damning proof of their indictment.

   But, tomorrow, the people of the United Methodist Church will carry on the work of saving millions of people from a deadly disease.  They will support hundreds of schools and colleges fighting ignorance.  They will support homes for battered and abused children, where no bones will ever be found.  They will support homes for the aged.  They will support ministries to the homeless and imprisoned.  They will do all these things, and much more.  Even though the world takes little notice and offers only occasional praise.  Good news is rarely seen as news, at all.

   They will do all these things because that is how they practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who identified with the sick, poor and imprisoned.  And, they will do them for millions…because they are organized to do it.  They couldn't do it otherwise.

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