Before entering academic life, Joseph Caddell, a military historian who teaches at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, spent many years as an Air Force intelligence officer.
When he entered the military in 1973, the United States had just signed the Paris Peace Accords, which marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, and was winding down its devastating and ultimately fruitless bombing campaign against Cambodia.
In the midst of that somber period, Caddell attended a continuing education seminar for Air Force officers. Because most of the class members were pilots, the group’s assignment for the day was to calculate what size bombs would be required to destroy various targets.
One hypothetical target got Caddell into trouble with his superiors. It was a 14-foot bamboo bridge, a common target for Air Force pilots in Southeast Asia at the time. Caddell’s class worked steadily until they reached consensus: a 500-pound bomb would do the trick, knocking out the enemy’s connection between two points of land.
As the instructor commended the class for their work, a puzzled Caddell raised his hand.
When called upon, he asked the question that had been bothering him the entire time his classmates had been calculating:
“Has our 500-pound bomb destroyed their 14-foot bamboo bridge? Or has their 14-foot bamboo bridge destroyed our 500-pound bomb?”
Hearing only silence, Caddell continued.
“They’re going to have another bridge up in an hour or two,” he said. “Our new bomb’s going to take a lot longer than that to arrive. Maybe we’re looking at this backwards.”
“Lieutenant,” the instructor finally answered, “you have a bad attitude.”
And the class moved on to their next exercise.
The truth. We don’t always receive it well.
That’s not just the case for those in politics and the military, whether today or in the Vietnam era. The church can be just as resistant. Sometimes even churches need a truth teller to shock us into awareness.
I was once a member of a parish that felt the jarring impact of a truth teller’s words. It happened more than a decade ago, when the dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, Ky., invited Deb, a Lutheran pastor without a parish of her own, to preach about stewardship.
Deb worshipped at the cathedral and knew the congregation well. As a friend but not a member, Deb stood somewhat on the edge of our church. That position gave her both the intimacy and the distance that allowed her to speak honestly.
Deb may have talked about individual giving that day, but that’s not what I remember about her sermon. Instead, I’ll never forget the truth she told about the parish’s attitude toward our endowment.
“I don’t see a church here,” Deb told us. “I see a bunch of people sitting around guarding the money.”
Her words hurt, because they were true. The cathedral congregation was sitting on an endowment worth several million dollars. We also owned an abandoned building -- a former cafeteria -- that had been set aside for outreach years before. Many proposals to use our wealth to benefit our downtown neighborhood had come up over the years but were always met by a variety of objections.
What if the cathedral needed a new roof? Shouldn’t we instead use the money for a new organ? If we created outreach programs, who would staff them? Did we really want more strangers wandering around our property? So forth and so on, and on and on, as our fears overrode both our imagination and our ability to listen for the Holy Spirit’s call.
Like the military officers Joe Caddell encountered in that long-ago seminar, we were locked by fear into an unthinking pattern of behavior. Where they were profligate, we were miserly, clutching at the wealth God had entrusted to us.
But just as they couldn’t acknowledge that their acts interfered with their mission, we too refused to face our own hard truth. Now, in the wake of Deb’s blunt challenge, we had to acknowledge that fear and hoarding were the antithesis of the gospel.
The implications were frightening. Had we become the rich fools Jesus had so often warned about? Were we only pretending to serve God, while offering our true allegiance to mammon?
Maybe Deb was right. Maybe we had grown away from living as the church. If so, it was time to consider the damage that our worship of idols -- in this case, a well-balanced portfolio of stocks, bonds and real estate -- might be doing to the soul of our church.
These uncomfortable questions led the cathedral’s governing board to begin a parish-wide discernment process about how to be better stewards of our endowment -- by spending it.
Eventually, we revived a long-abandoned dream: to build affordable housing on our premises. The idea had first come up in the 1960s, when “urban renewal” had devastated the city core, but the dream had been deferred for lack of funds. Forty years later, we had cash, an empty building and the promise of federal tax credits for rehabilitating it. It was time to get to work.
Over the next few years, the church built a 40-unit complex called “Cathedral Commons Apartments,” in the process spending down our endowment by about two-thirds. Staggeringly, that still left us with an endowment in the seven figures, in part because the project received a $500,000 grant from the City of Louisville’s Housing Department.
Even so, not everyone in the church was happy. Many still wondered about the roof and the organ, while others were concerned about the impact that the apartments would have on the already limited parking around the cathedral.
But almost everyone acknowledged that the new apartments answered a pressing need for below-market-priced housing in Louisville. They offered an affordable option for families moving out of homelessness or seeking desperately to avoid it. The fact that their rent provided the church with a modest source of income helped allay some lingering financial concerns.
In 2006, seven years after Deb’s stewardship sermon, the first residents moved into Cathedral Commons. The cathedral’s courtyard is a busier place these days, as church members and apartment dwellers cross paths and begin to recognize each other as neighbors.
From what I hear, most Cathedral Commons residents haven’t chosen to join the congregation. Yet their presence is a visible sign of the cathedral’s desire to witness faithfully and creatively to the gospel. It is a sign of their willingness to open their hands to let God’s gifts flow through and new gifts flow back.
And it is a sign of what can happen when a painful truth is spoken in love.