Post Modernity Grows Up, Functioning Shuts Down

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire.

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. Jesus.

I often remind people who look disdainfully at philosophy and history as “impractical subjects” that ideas have consequences.  What begins in academia and the arts eventually overflows the confines of those containers, staining everything else.  “Postmodernity” is something I’ve been hearing about for a few decades now, though its roots are much older.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I’ll note that a skepticism about knowing anything with certitude is a view that runs deep in postmodern thought.  It’s resulted in the deconstruction of literature, the doubting of certain historical narratives, and even the notion of holding science with an open hand, as Newtonian physics gave way to quantum physics and a measure of “mystery” and “uncertainty.”

Postmodernity didn’t arise in a vacuum; it arose because people lie; not even maliciously necessarily.  They lie toward a justified end.  They lie because they believe the lie created by their cultural lens.  They lie because they only know part of the truth.  But untruth, whatever the basis, happens. When people lie, and later it becomes evident that they were lying, it creates a cynicism regarding truth.  The prevailing narrative about Columbus Day is one example.  When I was a child, we celebrated “Columbus’ discovery of America” as three ships sailed from Europe to expand European ‘influence’ among the uncivilized who needed it.  Today we tell a different story.…or should.

Politicians regularly tell lies, like these told by Obama:

FEB. 24, 2009.“We import more oil today than ever before.” (Oil imports peaked in 2005.)
MAR. 10, 2009.“Our high school dropout rate has tripled in the past thirty years.” (It had actually declined by a third.)
JUNE 1, 2009.“If you actually took the number of Muslims [sic] Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” (Almost 60 other countries were home to more Muslims.)
Bush was no better, of course, with his “weapons of mass destruction” basis for the invasion of Iraq, along with his VP’s declaration that our inability to find any evidence merely proves how good they are at hiding them!
The seeds of cynicism and doubting that truth is knowable, though, are ripening.  The challenge, of course, is that none of us can live forever in the land of agnostic uncertainty.  It’s unendurable, because our values need to be rooted in, at the least, what we believe to be reality.  So, needing to find  a reality in which to believe, we’ve increasingly chosen to simply identify with the view that appeals to us.  Then, we stay there, closing our ears to any possibility that our tribe, our view, might need adjusting.  “The other side is lying” we say to ourselves, and they likely are, at least a little bit.  The lies of the other, however, don’t make your view true!!  
When Speaker Pelosi calls a wall “immoral” she neglects to mention that Democrats have supported walls, and fences, and barriers in the past, recently offering a much higher number of dollars to border security which would have included walls.  When Democrats say that arrests at the border are at an all time low, they neglect to mention that families seeking asylum are coming to the border in record high numbers, and are crossing, on foot, barriers designed to stop vehicles, not foot traffic.
This flood creates a backlog of asylum seekers that’s now growing even more rapidly due to the fact that none are being processed during a government shutdown.
Why I don’t I hear democrats talking about these things?  It’s because they’ve chosen to believe a narrative that is in need of nuanced clarification, at the least.  It’s their tribe’s talking points, so they parrot.
The other side’s no better – in fact, is worse – much worse.   Trump’s bent toward lying is well documented, beginning with crowd size at his inauguration, and continuing on to his talking points about the reason we need a border wall.   In spite of reality, Trump and his team continue to offer “alternative reality” and his followers seem to parrot it, just like the left does with theirs.
The result:  “Morality is at stake!”  “Security is at stake!”  Both sides shout, louder, longer.  Both sides dig in.  As a result, healthy food, safe flights, small business loans, vital surgeries, mortgage payments, car payments, and a million other things, all conspire to shout that lies “steal, kill, and destroy”, just like Jesus said they would.
I can’t unpack all the cultural trends that have brought us to this new low, but I’ll observe this:
Unless “we the people” recover a longing for truth from those we elect, and demand that truth be told, and hold leaders relentlessly accountable for lying, the future will only be worse.  Weaker.  More violent.  Louder shouting.  Poorer. Hungrier. More tribal.
Yes, I know there are politics involved in this particular example, but the peace we’ve made with lying, the peace we’ve made with calling accurate reporting “fake news”, the peace we’ve made with “alternative facts” will sink our ship.  Both sides are guilty.  The guiltiest party of all though:  We the people, who’ve created a culture void of thoughtful discourse, reason, and the spirited pursuit of truth.
NEXT UP:  Knowing Truth in a Post Modern World.

A Case Study in Bible Questions – “I do not permit a woman to….?”

While teaching a series currently about women in the Bible, I’m mindful that the notion that women empowered by God to lead in settings where there are men isn’t a concept on which all good people of faith agree.  Someone recently wrote me who is clearly a student of the Bible, conversant in original languages and texts.  She draws a dramatically different conclusion from mine.  As I shared last week in my preaching about women in leadership, my views on the matter aren’t a matter of cultural convenience; they’re a matter of submission to my understanding of the Biblical witness.  To explain what I mean, I’d like to address my understanding of a highly controversial passage from I Timothy 2:12.  (It’s so controversial it has its own Wikipedia post) Here’s how it reads:  I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.  She must be quiet.

On the surface of things, it appears simple enough right?  Women can’t teach or have authority over men.  Done.

On the other hand.  The obvious interpretation isn’t always necessarily the most accurate interpretation, especially when:

1. We don’t apply the next section literally – ever.

2. The literal interpretation conflicts with Paul’s own teaching, since he assumes women are prophesying here.

So we need to dig deeper and ask some questions:

1. Why does Paul move from plural in earlier verses to singular in this passage?  He’s telling Timothy some things that apply to all women, using the plural pronoun in v9,10, and then he suddenly shifts to the singular when he writes (v11,12), “but I do not permit a woman to teach, or have authority over a man”.  This is a highly unusual shift in grammar, often made as a move from a universal principle to a specific situation.

2. Why does Paul use the word he does for what we translate “authority” – One scholar writes:   The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as a simply “authority”, implying it has to do with normative relationships in the church or marriage. This unusual Greek verb is found only here in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.

A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a different word (“exousia”) when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that many versions translate “authentein” simply as “authority”.  Considering the context of I Timothy 2:12, it is likely that Paul was objecting to some sort of abusive authority.  One scholar notes, regarding the use of “authentein”:  “The verb authenteō refers to a range of actions that … involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force”, which is a very different conversation than “Who gets to preach this Sunday?” 

3. Why does Paul, in v15, say that a woman will be saved through childbirth?   Those who appeal to v12 as applicable today (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) never apply v13-15 literally, for it would mean that infertile women are not saved, a ludicrous and shameful notion.

4. Why, in spite of this word, do women have, authority over men in the Bible?  Why is Junia, a woman, named as notable among the Apostles if women can’t have authority over men?  Why is Huldah, the prophetess, the one who Josiah seeks out for interpretation from God regarding God’s word?  Why do Priscilla and Aquila, both women, correct Apollos, a man, in Acts 18?  All of these are clear instances of violating I Timothy 2:12 if it’s an absolute injunction against women having authority over men.

The answers to these questions lead to a seemingly more plausible conclusion:

1. I Timothy 2:12 is writing about a particular woman in a particular congregation.  Timothy was dealing with some specific heresies in the Ephesian church and Paul is writing in order to address them.

2. The region of Ephesus was party to a feminist movement which marginalized men and reduced them to slaves.   This is precisely the kind of authority Paul is referring to in this passage.  Historians Ferguson and Farnell write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration.  These men also were required to abstain from certain foods and, of course, could not marry.  Interestingly, Paul addresses all these ascetic practices as heresy in his first letter to Timothy, because Timothy was a leader of the church in Ephesus. (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21).

3. Paul is writing to prevent the abusive “authority by force” because false women teachers requiring male castration as a precondition for leadership, as was happening in the Artemis cult, would qualify as “authentein” – abusive authority.

4. Paul, in the same text, is writing to remind people of the true nature of salvation.  As one scholar declares:  In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities. So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall.  What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery. 

Conclusion:  These texts are interpreted in various ways and divide the church for a reason.  The most obvious literal reading of I Timothy 2:12 leads to a conclusion which has been reinforced in both the Roman Catholic church and most of Protestantism for nearly 2000 years: Women are not allowed to teach or lead.

The reason there’s division though, is because of the unanswered questions surrounding the literal reading, for it is clear that the Bible isn’t always to be taken at literal face value.  Literal application has led to the justification of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, all of which have become scars on church history.  There are times to challenge the literal meaning, and without questioning the faith of good people who disagree, I’d suggest that this text is one of those times.

Jesus’ treatment of women, the fact that the first evangelist was a woman, and that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women both point to the fact that Jesus has no problem allowing women to be voices of hope, instruction, correction, or authority. Neither should we.

 

 

 

Facebook, Nazis, and Fake News – History shows our ongoing need for Discernment

I recently watched Come Before Winter, a short documentary about two foes of Hitler.  Sefton Delmer was a propagandist who broadcast fake news into Germany as a means of changing hearts and minds.  Pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer was the other protaganist in the film.  I’ve written extensively about Bonhoeffer in other places, so I’ll leave him alone for now, other than to note that this documentary is perhaps the best articulation of his last days before execution you’ll find, and for that reason alone, is worth watching.  I say that because dying well, especially as a martyr (he was hanged for his part in the resistance movement in the final weeks of the war), can only happen as the fruit of living well.  Now, on to Delmer and the subject at hand.

Born in Germany and educated both there and at Oxford, Delmer was uniquely qualified to have a foot in both German and British culture, a trait which, during the 30’s caused both nations to accuse him of being “in service of the enemy”.   By 1940, however, he was recruited by the British Government to organize ‘black propoganda.’  He created several fake German radio stations broadcast by short-wave from England into Germany.  They were a mixture of truth and lies – enough truth to make the lies credible.  The intent was to demoralize, confuse, and divide the German people.  So if you think fake news is something new, think again.

Cambridge Analytica is just the most recent version of what’s been happening since the Garden of Eden.  Two things, though, make todays environment  more challenging than the past:

Everything is called “Fake” by someone.  Trump calls CNN and (“the failing”) New York Times fake.  Fox News is considered fake by most who read the Times and watch CNN.   As a result, we who digest the news increasingly ‘consider the source’, but not in a healthy way.  Instead we’re pre-emptively dismissive of a report precisely because of the source.  As a result, thoughtful people speaking important truths aren’t heard.  We’re both tribal (gathering in groups that only think like us) and post-modern (skeptical that truth is knowable) at the same time.  These two conditions, taken together, are a deadly combo.  They’re the soil in which fear, cynicism, isolation, and skepticism grow.  Sound familiar?

Here’s the deal though.  Everyone spins their news, at least a little.  CNN fact checks their stories.  So does FOX.  The problem isn’t the facts (at least in major news sources).  It’s the spin on the facts – which facts are elevated, which are hidden, and how they’re interpreted.

Our response primarily blames the source.   Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was grilled this week by congress, and the goal of the grilling seemed to be this:  “We want you to prevent liars from selling lies on your website” (along with other privacy concerns).  The notion, however, that we’ll be able to prevent lies from proliferating on the internet is, to be polite, rubbish.   Just today I learned, on the internet, that the world is ending on April 23rd, in fulfillment of hidden Biblical prophecy.  That shark cartilage will prevent and heal all forms of cancer, and that James Comey, former head of the FBI is a “leaker”, a “liar”, and an “untruthful slimball”.   Why even bother eating the cartilage, or reading Comey’s new book, if the world’s ending on April 23rd anyway? 

The Real Need:  Discernment 

Jesus said that Satan is a liar, the father of lies.  Paul said that lies come wrapped in truth sometimes.  Jeremiah said that there’d always be false prophets around.  Paul said that its in us to listen only to voices that reinforce what we already believe, and that we need to fight this tendency.

It’s as if God has gone to great lengths to shout at us in all capital letters:  YOU NEED TO LISTEN CAREFULLY AND WISELY SO THAT YOU CAN DISCERN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRUTH AND LIES – BECAUSE LIES WILL ALWAYS BE RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU TO BELIEVE.

They’ll be on the sidebar of your Facebook feed.  They’re present as “slants” in the news.  Two examples: 1) The NY Times only offered criticism this morning for Trump’s role in a united allied response to Syria’s ‘crossing the line in the sand’ with chemical weapons, a response Obama promised to deliver, but never did.  2) FOX news remains remarkably silent about hush money paid to prostitutes, nepotism in the Oval Office, and the president’s inability to work with people who view the world differently than him.

These biases shouldn’t surprise us.  They should, however, remind us that there’s no cave into which we can crawl, where pure truth will be spoon fed to us.  In fact, Hebrews 6 says that maturity is defined precisely as our capacity to discern between good and evil, lies and truth, because both are coming at us 24/7 – not just in our newsfeed, but even the voices inside our heads.

Jesus taught us, outlandishly, that an obsession with him would enable us to know truth, and the truth would set us free.  Truth doesn’t mean easy, prepackaged answers that we learn when we’re children, and then spend the rest of our lives defending.  Truth means the answer to the question (as Bonhoeffer taught us when he wrestled with the question of whether to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler), “what is God asking of me in this exact moment?” – as a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, a voting citizen in a fearful and polarized society, a neighbor?

The right answer won’t be found in The NY Times or on Fox News.  But it also won’t be found in cultural withdrawal or disengagement.  It will be found by those living fully IN the world, enjoying its gifts, celebrating its beauty, mourning it’s ugliness, and fighting against its systems of oppression.  And who should be able to do that better than anyone else?

Disciples of Christ.  They don’t hide.  The engage.  They don’t call for censorship.  They call for discernment.

Here’s how Bonhoeffer said it: To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depths of things. And so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom

Such wisdom is needed; now more than ever.

A Pilgrimage to find Courage

a few of the thousands save by courage, hospitality, and generosity.  

Every time I travel in Europe I try to read some European history, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and culture.  In the past I’ve shared stories of Sophie Scholl (regarding her martyrdom for the distribution of resistance literature against the Nazis in Bavaria), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (regarding his denouncement of Hitler from the pulpit and his underground seminary).  Knowing that I’d be in France this spring, I recently read “Village of Secrets”, which is the account of the people living Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during WWII.  These remarkable people sheltered thousands of Jewish children, hiding them throughout farms in this high mountain plateau. 

Theirs is a story of courageously resisting the powers and offering radical hospitality, qualities which, for them, weren’t seen as exceptional, but rather “to be expected – it’s what God’s people do.” As I read the book, I knew I needed to go there and see it for myself.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

The church where a pastor mobilized people to risk their lives rather than cower in fear

Donna and I made a three hour pilgrimage up to Le Chambon yesterday through pouring rain, wet snow, and periodic bursts of sunshine.  We arrived mid-day, and soon found the Protestant “Temple” where Andre Trocme taught non-violent resistance of state powers and was instrumental in mobilizing people to hide condemned Jews. 

There are far too many details in the story to explain it all here, but I must say, while it is still fresh in my heart, that this story matters as much today as it did then, for never in my lifetime has the need for spiritual and moral courage among God’s people been both so evident, and so lacking.  Trocme and others warned against “the slow asphyxiation of our consciences” and called God’s people to absolute obedience to God alone, warning against the idolatrous seductions of power and personal safety.  I see three qualities as vital in enabling the people of the plateau to do what they did.

1. Intellectual Leadership:  Courageous convictions only germinate in the right soil though, and as it turns out, there were some French pastors in 1941 who were thoughtfully engaging with the questions of how to respond to the Reich.  A fictional book had been written at the time called “The Village on the Hill” about a pastor who refused to proclaim that Hitler was the creator of an eternal and indestructible Reich.  Eventually a Nazi mayor had him removed and he took his meetings into the forest.  This work of fiction was digested by pastors wrestling with their responses to the times.  In the end, these pastors declared it to be a spiritual necessity that they resist all idolatrous and totalitarian influences. 

Pastor Trocme taught that “violence was never the way of Christ”

2. Thoughtful Ethics: The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in France had produced a movement called “Social Christianity” which fundamentally declared that the value of our faith is determined by the extent to which God’s people care for the weakest and most vulnerable in a community.  That would include the unborn, young single mothers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and of course in 1941 France, all Jews.  Pastor Trocme added a deep conviction that non-violence is the way of Christ, and that it was therefore the antithesis of the word “Christian” (which means “little Christ”), to use weapons as a means of bringing about God’s will. 

3. Brokenness:  The people of the plateau were, themselves, offspring of families persecuted for their Protestant faith since the seventeenth century.  They’d had their church buildings burnt to the ground, family members executed, properties lost.  And what fruit did this suffering create generations later?  A solidarity with “the least of these” and a willingness to risk everything to shelter them from harm. 

Trocme ran a school, and the museum commemorating this rich history is adjacent to the school.  As we finished our tour, I was looking at a certificate given to Le-Chambon which honors them as righteous Gentiles.  At that moment, children poured into the adjacent play-yard for recess, with the sounds of laughter and play, and jumping on an old pile of snow. 

I was filled with gratitude for that time, for this place, for those people, for the tens of thousands living today because of their courage. 

I left, though, with an ache in my heart because intellectual leadership, thoughtful ethics, and brokenness are, to put it mildly, in short supply today.  As a result we’re collectively rudderless, ready prey for any leader willing to make vain promises of power and greatness while silencing all detractors and thoughtful discourse through petty name calling.  I for one, can only pray that I’ll find the blend of courage and prudence, grace and truth, and commitment to non-violence and caring for the weak, that I’ll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

O Lord Christ – 

We who have been given the privilege of voices must speak for those who cannot.  We must give voice to your heart for peace, and courage, and love of the other.  We must embrace your cross.  Forgive us for being seduced by trinkets, honors, and all the glitter that passes for spirit.  Grant that we might know your power to love, to serve, to shoot the moon in obedience to your calling.  Give us eyes to see your light, ears to hear your voice, and grace to follow both.    Amen 

Leadership Beneath the Surface: Paying attention to the Invisible

There are over 100,000 books in the “leadership” category on Amazon.  If you’re a pastor, there’s an excellent Leadership Network, and a Willow Creek Network, Soma, church planting networks, and potentially a seminar to attend every weekend, not to mention the possibility of filling your twitter stream with inspiration and equipping for the job of leadership.  I’ve been to enough of these events to know two things:

  1. This stuff has value.
  2. This stuff has limited value.

It has value because everyone could use a motivational shot in the arm, a reminder that God has created each of us, whether pastors, stay at home moms & dads, code writers, marketers, health care workers, teachers, artists – we’re all made by God with gifts to contribute to this broken world.  We’re all made for influence.

These leadership tools are valuable too, because influence is never automatic in life.  Influence is the fruit of actions, what leadership people might call tactics.  There’s a change in the voting rights of African Americans because there was a march in Selma, and an uproar, and another march.   Of course, before there are tactics, there needs to be strategy, and strategy is the fruit of vision.  Leadership tools often inspire people to embrace vision, creating what some call BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).  Gaining voting rights for Blacks was, without question, a BHAG.  So was putting a man on the moon.  So was ending slavery.  We’re encouraged, usually, to think big, and we hear from people who do.

And it’s right here that I move into seeing the limited value of much that is our leadership equipping culture in North America.  It’s limited, not because it’s wrong (it often isn’t), but because it’s incomplete.  It’s as if we’re encouraged to think big, see some need, and then follow the blueprint for making it happen:  vision – strategy – tactics – all leading to the promised land of fruit and influence.  Done!

I want to stand up and shout, “Not Done!”  It’s as if our leadership culture teaches framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and finish carpentry, as if those things can build a house.  They’ve vital, but unless there’s a solid foundation, these skills are meaningless, and even worse than meaningless.  I say “worse than” because to the extent that we believe they’re the bulk of what we need, we’ll respond to our frustrations by reaching for a more powerful dose of strategy and tactics.  “We need change management”  “We need better metrics”  “We need an alignment strategy”  Yes!  We do!  But not yet….

First we need to know that we’re doing the thing God has wired us to do, in the place God has called us to do it.  Things break down here more often than you’d think.  People have de-facto assumptions that their vision’s the right one, that they’re called to create a certain kind of influence in a certain place.  Maybe.  But not so fast!  When the Bible says “Without a vision the people are scattered” the word vision actually means “declared revelation from God” so we’d be wise to make certain that we’re in the habit of hearing from God on a regular basis.  That word, by the way, isn’t just for pastors.  It’s for all of us who believe that our Designer has made each of us for unique contributions to the world, and our role is to find what that contribution is by hearing from God.

“Yes, but how does one go about hearing from God?”  We hear from God the same way we hear from anyone.  It requires paying attention and listening, and two disciplines that are central to any relationship of intimacy.  I know how my wife wants a box of kindling before I go to work in the city, how she likes wood to be in the house drying before it’s put into the wood stove.  This is her “declared revelation” to me, as I’m in charge of the wood while home.  I only know what she wants by listening.  I only know what God wants, too, by listening.

I write about habits that will help develop intimacy with God here, but let’s dig deeper, because just telling someone to read their Bible and listen for God’s voice isn’t very motivating.  What would inspire a person to open their Bible and read, to journal and pray, to pay attention to what they perceive God is saying to them through creation, and text, and community, and trials?

I’m only motivated to seek God to the extent that I have a good dose of humility coursing through my veins.  We might be tempted to think of humility as a self-bashing exercise, telling ourselves and others just how worthless we are.  In reality, the Bible teaches that humility is simply one’s capacity to have an honest assessment of oneself.  That means you know your strengths, and as I’ll write soon, are learning to play to them.  But it also means that you’re brutally honest about your weaknesses, not just your presenting weaknesses, but the stuff that’s lurking inside you as well, waiting to push you over the proverbial cliff.  I know, for example, that I’m in over my head on the tactics and strategy side of running a giant church.  Some parents know they’re in over their head too, as do some CEO’s.  I also know that, apart from Christ, there are dark places in me that would rise up, leading me down destructive paths rather than life giving ones.

Humility, once embraced, is at risk of being “treated” in one of two ways:

  1. “Yes.  You are a disaster waiting to happen.  Better to get out now before the damage is done.”  As a result, lots of people are sitting on the sidelines, not serving, not risking, not leading, as they’re called to do, because they’ve listened to the lie that they need to be worthy  before getting into God’s game.
  2. “No problem.  Another ‘upper story’ seminar can fix you.  You just need to learn how to articulate your strategy with more passion, or diversify your tactics, or manage change.  In other words, we can solve your inadequacy problem with better ‘above ground’ skills.

Nope.  Your inadequacy isn’t a problem to be solved.  Rather, it’s a gift intended to lead you to a life of intimacy with your Guide.  When I don’t know the mountain, I stick with the Guide.  And here’s the reality folks:  Whatever it is that’s staring you in the face in the moment – you don’t know the mountain.  So you need the Guide!

“Thanks for that Richard, but I’m OK.  My business is doing well.  My kids are healthy, 4.0, starring on their soccer team, and 1st chair musicians.  To quote the favorite phrase of culture these days, ‘I’ve got this’.

Fine.  If you want to continue living in fantasyland for a little while longer, go ahead.  The reality though, is that every one of us will eventually find ourselves in the land of brokenness, and that’s precisely where all the good stuff starts.  Brokenness, the existential awareness of our failures and inadequacies, is exactly what leads to humility, which leads to intimacy, which leads to the revelation that takes you above ground, and eventually, to the land of influence.

My dad’s death.  My terrible year one in an urban church.  My melancholy.  My fear of rejection born from adoption… these are all part of my brokenness, yes.  But they’re also gifts – the bedrock out from which intimacy with God is born.

My complaint with American leadership culture is that it minimizes brokenness, or even vilifies it.  In my view, it’s a gift.  One author says it this way:  “…so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say.  And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here.  We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide!” Yes indeed.  So let’s start teaching and learning the foundational principles of Underground Leadership, in hopes that each of us will find the life for which God has created us.

 

 

 

#metoo

It’s not just that it’s been happening throughout history.  It’s our collective complicity with it, through knowing and not speaking, through seeing and not saying.  It’s the “this is just the way it is” of it that is at the heart of the blight.  Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, misogyny, and the abuse of power in relationships has been happening for millenia.  These dark sins have, it seems, been so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that they’ve gone tragically unnoticed.

Thanks be to God, the tide is turning.  Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner occurred at a time when they were viewed as isolated incidents years and decades ago, and presidential liaisons before that were hushed up completely.  But the rapid recent succession of Donald Trump, Bill O Reily, Roger Ailes, and now the Weinstein situation have brought the issue out onto the mainstage of culture, front and center.   That’s good news, but only if we respond rightly and become part of the healing solution.  So how should we respond?

Reject all objectification of women.  It’s too easy for those who’ve never been guilty of overt abuse to wash their hands in false self righteousness, ready as they are to throw their stones.  But the wise person will see abuse clothed in power as the presenting problem and travel further upstream to find the source of the malady.  When he does, he’ll find that always, before there’s abuse, there’s an objectification – the reduction of a woman made in God’s image to nothing more than a body, a thing that exists solely for the satisfaction of the onlooker, as he uses her to fill some destructive void in his life.   If this is the real problem, perhaps there’s not a man among us who isn’t guilty – and perhaps this is why Jesus took lust so seriously here.

Overcoming habits of objectification will require an active re-training of our senses, our interior thought life, because the reality is that our culture is complicit in the sex abuse problem, reducing women to objectified images in advertising, bait click portraits, movies, sitcoms, and shopping malls – let alone the vast world of porn.  Every time I reduce a woman’s image or her presence to an object existing for my pleasure and satisfaction, I become part of the problem, feeding the purveyors of objectification yet another reason to continue and intensify their offerings.

I get it guys.  You’re lonely, stressed, frustrated, insecure.  You want comfort, intimacy, less stress, or at least a momentary hit of plelasure – and they all seem out of reach, so you reach for what’s so readily available in our culture and presto – problem solved.  You leave satisfied.  Except the problem isn’t solved – at all.   The only thing that’s changed is that you’ve become weaker. You’ve made an offering to the gods of darkness intent on deepening the strongholds of abuse.  O, and one other thing happened.  Another woman was used – another story, another wall, another wound.

There’s a better way, and it starts with walking away from every whiff of objectification.  And the courage to walk away usually begins by believing that I have a life and calling all my own, a completion in Christ that is real.  Because of this, though I might feel lonely and frustrated at times, to the extent that I embrace my deepest and truest identity, I’m freed from letting the false void of inadequacy drive my behavior.  I’ve no need to grab, fondle, or even fantasize about doing so, because I’ve an actual life to live, full of serving and sharing, blessing and building.   Real life trumps fantasies and objectifications every time.

Restore the primacy of character in our voting, employment, and education.   The words of Mr. Trump, caught on “access hollywood” tape should have been a warning:  this is a man driven to conquer people, to use them, to acquire them as objects for his own purposes.  “… and they let you get away with it…”   He’s not the first president with the problem, by any means.  Just the crassest, and most cavalier – on tape anyway.   The scourge is well resourced with presidents from both parties.

The point isn’t perfection.  One look at Abraham, or Noah, or David remind us that perfection isn’t the point.  What’s happened in our culture, though, is that our silence, and our collective turning the other way, and our voting, have all become forms of tacit approval, not of those who have failed and know it, but of those for whom the misuse of power as a means of using a woman for sexual satisfaction became normal, even a matter for boasting.

All people are created in God’s image, and as such, none are ever to be treated as objects existing for the profit and pleasure of those with more power.  Sadly, this has been one of the most violated truths in the history of the world, including American history.  Blacks were literally property, for centuries, as confirmed “on the books” of insurance companies and banks whose records go back to the times of the colonies.  American Indians?  Objects.  Women?  Objects for sexual pleasure, void of voting rights, employment rights, equal pay rights, or even the most basic right of all – the right to walk through the world with the confidence that you’re being seen as a whole person, not an object to be used and discarded.

Are you intent on putting people in positions of power who believe in the dignity of all people, precisely because all are made in God’s image?  Are you interested in ending the objectification culture that has wounded women in America for centuries?  Are you going to take steps, as you’re able, to break down the dividing walls of racism, classism, and sexism that are a blight on both American culture and (too often) the church?

#metoo

 

 

 

Words Matter: It’s high time we believe that!

I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends.  It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers.  “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket.  After she left the room I read it.  She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19.  It read: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  

I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket.  It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution.  Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:

peer groups in school 

Work place gossip 

Social media rants 

Political parties with all their posturing 

Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion 

The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it.  Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted.  Crooked Hillary.  Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”  

Of course you’ll be elected president.  

Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.  

Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world. 

What’s wrong with this picture? 

My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland).  My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective.   We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.  

I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders.  Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric.  Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.  

In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations: 

1. Words Matter.  One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression.  Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says:  “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.  So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.  See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!  And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)

I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words.  There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.  

2. A leader’s character matters.  Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles:  As goes the king, so go the people.  I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”.  Two concerns are cogent at this point. 

I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine.  Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground.  The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end.  People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies.  The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence. 

I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character.  No.  No.  No.  Ask the Bible.  Ask anyone building a business from the ground up.  Ask coaches.  They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes.  Policies matter.  Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad.  But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.  

By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter.  As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision.  A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball.  And people no longer trust each other’s words.  No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative.  We can’t control our president or other politicians.  We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean.  Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.

New Axioms in a Post Truth World

Do you remember eighth grade geometry, and the subject of axioms?  An axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”.  An example in math would be:  “if x and y are real numbers, then the sum of x+y is also a real number”.  There’s no need to prove it because it’s self evident.  Axioms are important because mathematicians and philosophers build structures on their foundations.

Get the axiom wrong and the whole structure will ultimately be unsustainable.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction”.   This gets practical in our moment because there are claims floating around in our social/political world and they’re being accepted as axiomatic.

“The lyin’ media”

“My inauguration crowd was bigger”

“I won the popular vote”

“I was wiretapped by the previous president”

I’m not writing here as democrat (I’m independent and voted both sides in the last election) and I’m not writing about health care, or the philosophy that lower taxes will be good for the economy. Both the conservative and progressive voices are vital in shaping our democracy; their ideas need collision with each other in order to arrive at next steps in moving a country forward – at least that was the intent of the framers.  Further, the conservative world won the election and has both the right and responsibility to govern.  All of us are on the bus, so we’d all do well to press for success.

It’s the very desire for democracy to succeed, whoever is in power, that causes me to write today.  Whatever your party loyalties, know that a very dangerous foundation is being laid when a country is asked to believe things as if they were axiomatic, simply because they’re spoken by people with authority.  While not technically axioms, we’re being asked to believe more and more things,  “sans evidence”.

My plea is that you not go there, that we not go there as a nation, that we not allow our leaders to take us there.

Promises gone awry are one thing.  (“If you like your current health care plan you can keep it”).  They’re named.  Apologies are made.  We learn.  Hopefully we move on.

This is a different time; a different leader.  As David Brooks writes: “Everything about Trump that appalls 65% of America strengthens him with the other 35%”.  This is an axiom problem.  It stems from a readiness to believe things, simply because they’re declared by someone, in spite of the fact that, not only are they not self-evident, but all available evidence points in a different direction.

And so we come to the importance of character.  Nobody is perfect, of course, and we know our previous presidents well enough to know that feet of clay have been in the Oval Office from the beginning.  Still, the accumulation of spectacular declarations lacking any evidence is new territory.  The credibility gap that is nothing more than fodder for late night comedians presently, will become the soil of national crisis when we’re asked to enter a sacrificial war because our leader makes an axiomatic declaration demanding it and, no surprise, most of the notion won’t buy it.

When I teach German students, I’m happy to report that they don’t take what I say at face value.  They ask hard questions.  They challenge my statements.  They ask for evidence.  I was taken aback by this years ago, when I first began teaching in Europe.  When I asked why they’re “so skeptical” they told me it had to do with their history, that they’d learned the dangers of following blindly, and so built healthy skepticism into their education of youth.

“Following blindly” is becoming a habit these days and that shouldn’t surprise us, though it should alarm us.  It’s in our nature to believe what we want to believe, rather than allow ourselves to be shaped by revelation that would be disruptive to our held views.  Can I suggest that, rather than elevating any human leader, or source, to the status of infallible – all of us commit to thinking both critically, and open mindedly – to engaging with those holding differing views both civilly and honestly – and that we do it all with the goal of building on a foundation of  finding truth rather than defending fallacious axioms.

So here we are, with truth claims being offered and the expectation declared that we believe them axiomatically, simply because authorities have spoken.

Well Mr. President, and speakers of both house and senate, and minority leaders of those same chambers, if there’s any good news in your deplorable, unabashedly partisan behaviors of late its this:  your lies have become unbelievable, even to yourselves and the people of your own parties.  Your truth claims are, I can only pray, creating a vast sea of skeptics who will no longer take what’s said at face value.   And in the wake of your collective integrity failure, my hope and prayer is that the next round of elections won’t be the circus this previous round was.  Instead, perhaps, people will once again look for people with integrity and elect them, weighing character above everything else.

…because one thing is certain throughout the history of the world:  as goes the king, so goes the nation.

It’s axiomatic

Immigration is about Kingdom Ethics, not Party Preference

A letter in the Washington Post

This week World Relief bought space in the Washington Post in order to invite President Trump to reconsider his executive order banning refugees from several countries.  They also invited pastors of many congregations larger than 2000 to sign their letter.  The church I lead partners extensively with World Relief in Rwanda, and one of their refugee resettlement ministries is located in Seattle, so when I learned of this opportunity, it didn’t require much thought.  I signed as soon as I was able, and the reasons were obvious to me.

1. The insider/outsider paradigm is a ruse.  The assumptions that terror or violent extremism are mostly imported are, to put it politely, “alternative facts”.  Never mind the reality that not a single terror act on our soil has originated from any of these countries; the notion that evil and violence are “out there” and we need to keep “them” at bay is simply wrong, both historically and theologically.  In the country of Timothy McVeigh, Omar Mateen, and Dylann Roof, the elevation of “external terror threats” is theologically tantamount to what Jesus spoke of when said “Why do you try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own eye?”  We, in other words, ought to be asking questions about why we lead the developed world in per capita gun violence and what it is about our culture that breeds internal violence and terror.  It’s far too convenient to vilify “the other” in a way that blinds us to more real problems, and threats, that are already here.

2. The vetting of immigrants has been working, as evidenced by the total lack of incidents from anyone residing in the USA from these countries.

3. The executive order is a chain saw, rather than a surgical incision.  There’s a woman and her four children (all under age six) about to enter the USA from Iraq.  They are, in no way whatsoever, a threat to our security.  To the contrary, they are the people who need exactly what we have offered to immigrants throughout our history – a fresh start amongst the most generous and hospitable people in the world.  When we no longer wish to welcome these, we’ve lost our moorings, lost our great idea.

4. Hospitality and Grace are more in keeping with our Christian calling than Fear and Exclusion 

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

When Jesus talks about this stuff, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, and in this story it’s the “so called” pagan who demonstrates the compassion of Christ by entering into the risk and cost of crossing a social divide to help someone in need, while the religiously upright people ignored him.  Whether from pride, fear, or risk, we’re not told.  But we’re not told because it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that someone who’d been tossed aside was cared for, and that caring is exalted by Jesus as a Christian virtue.  At the least, the vast, vast, vast, vast, majority of those who are seeking entry into America aren’t coming for the free health care, or wonderful social safety net.  They’re coming because Alleppo is burning.  They’re by the side of the road, beaten down and afraid.

The punchline of Jesus’ story is simple: 

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  (Being unwilling even to say the word “Samaritan”!)

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)

So I did…

.And that’s why I signed the petition.  

Is this political?  No.  The kingdom of God, and God’s ethics transcend any party line.  I called out President Obama regarding his views on late term abortion too, because these aren’t political issues; hey’re theological; discipleship issues.  Christ followers who are truly intent on advocating for the vulnerable should be willing to advocate for life in the womb as vocally as for the lives of refugees, and vice versa.  That we’re slow to see this and rise above partisan politics is both what saddens me, and why I’ll continue to advocate for life in the womb, life for the refugee, life for the uninsured woman dying of a treatable disease, and life for the victim of gratituitous gun violence.

I leave you with words from one of my favorite magazines:

“Muslim refugee children are sacred.  Police officers are sacred, as are young African Americans with names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Ganern, and Freddie Gray.  Unborn babies are always sacred.  And so too, with all their grave guilt, are their abortionists.  Progressive hipsters, prosperity gospel televangelists, members of Congress, gender-transitioning former decatheletes, Confederate flag waving white nationalists.  All are sacred.”  

Perhaps we can drop our political labels and dialogue about the ethics of the kingdom.  It’s the only way we’ll move toward an informed unity of Christ’s body to which we’re invited.

A letter to men:

 When it comes to sexual abuse, and the treatment of women in general:

Words matter. Mr. Trump spoke on the bus about making unwanted sexual advances and literally grabbing women. He spoke to Howard Stern about walking uninvited into dressing rooms at beauty pageants (a word confirmed by beauty pageant participants). He has spoken numerous times throughout his campaign about the appearance of women, objectifying and judging them.  “Locker room talk,” he says. He’s “Sorry. But Mister Clinton was worse.” Let’s take a look at two things that have come out from hiding because of his words.

First, his words have exposed the pain of a nation. Men should read just a few of the #NOTokay posts on twitter, as Trump’s words have led to an outpouring of women empowered to share their story. To say he’s exposed something would be an understatement. Women, by the millions, have been victims of unwanted sexual advances. Many don’t have a voice to fight back, don’t know who to trust with their story. As a result, they suffer in silence. I know this because in the wake of his words, I sat in a room and listened to the anger, the hurt, the stories from women.

There’s a culture of sexual abuse in our country, and it must be named, condemned, and stopped. The problem isn’t the past; it’s the present. And the problem in the present isn’t just a presidential candidate; it’s an entire culture.

Men, we should be offering Mr. Trump a stiff reminder that words matter. “By your words you will be justified and by words you will be condemned,” is how Jesus put it. He also said that, “out of the abundance of the heart” the mouth speaks. So when a man calls women pigs and says the things he said to Howard Stern and Billy Bush, and there’s an outcry from women, Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.

There should be an outcry from all of us, as well. This is not just locker room talk, or typical banter, but even if it were, it’s not OK. Words matter, and words that treat women as objects to be used for men’s pleasure are far, far from the heart of the life for which any of us are created, men or women.

Second, Mr. Trump’s words have exposed the depth of sexual victimization, misogyny, and sick patriarchy in our culture. I know this because the other trending hashtag has been #repealthe19th, which is a wish-dream to remove the women’s right to vote. That there’s a group of people who are both Islamaphobic and only want men to vote is a bit of irony. That the group is large enough to gain notice is both sad and angering. Our nation has a long way to go, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Women vote. Anyone can sit anywhere on a bus. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back.

History reminds us that redemption is often born out of the depths of darkness.  Rwanda’s genocide becomes fertile soil for a profound reconciliation movement.  Germany’s implosion in the wake of WWII becomes a context for the rebuilding of a nation on an entirely different footing, where every person has dignity and worth, and the common good matters.

If we can listen to those hurt by Mr. Trump’s words, if we feel the pain of what’s been going on for generations and let the weight of it sink into our souls, this darkness can be a low point, a wake up call when we say “enough” and begin fighting to make honor, respect, dignity, and empowerment the norm.  It needs to happen now.  Who’s in?