Tag Archives: current-events

Addressing Poverty – one by one by one by one

In the wake of the recent head tax hysteria in Seattle, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mother Teresa’s famous quote about poverty. Answering the question “Which is the poorest nation on earth?” in a very Mother Teresa-like manner, she said, “Yes, yes, yes. I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America.” Somewhat shocked, the reporter informed Mother Teresa that America was one of the richest countries and questioned how it could be the poorest. “Because,”,she replied, “America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

This relates to the head tax, and to the liberal dream that money and programs can eventually solve homelessness.  Money, the increasing divide between the rich and poor, the disappearing middle class, and cost of health care are all, as the left  points out, contributing factors to the present and increasing crisis. I, for one, agree.

But the left often seems blind the fact that a strong social network and strong family ties are even more foundational.  When these are in place, individuals in crisis are offered a web into which they might fall, giving their lives a resiliency, emotional strength, and confidence that they are loved. These things, believe me, go a long way in mitigating a myriad of social problems, including homelessness. To believe that addressing all the real problems in the above paragraph without naming the demise of family networks as a scourge is pure folly. The elephant in the room is that we suffer from a depth of relational poverty that isolates, leaving people without the safety net that first and foremost should is the purvue of healthy family systems.

Normalize divorce, encourage endless consumerism in the name of economic growth, steal childhood from young lives by hiring phones and iPads as babysitters, substitute “staying married” for “intimacy,” allow political divides to make family members enemies, toss in a good dose of hypermobility, stay too busy to visit family, raise your children with manipulation to fulfill your unmet ambitions, and presto – you have the recipe for isolation. Isolation is a factor in addictive behavior, which itself becomes an employment factor, and a factor in domestic violence. Can you see the storm arising? The results are people living on the streets who are cut off from family, victims of domestic violence, or opioids, or foreclosure.

You could buy a house for everyone on the streets, but until you address the all the factors that elevate hyper-individualism to the status of an idol, homelessness will continue to mature into an economic pandemic.

The good news is that there’s plenty each of us can do to shine as light in the midst of this dark problem.

1. Recognize the value of family ties. I just returned from speaking at a camp in the coastal redwoods where my grandma was a cook. Every time I’m there, I need to tell the guests to whom I’m speaking that this place is holy ground for me, because when I was a child it was literally the safest place on earth for my young soul. I still have memories of gramdma’s delight as she picked me up, hugged my little four-year-old body and delightedly cried, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here.” The ensuing days as a child where filled with the scent of redwoods and cinnamon rolls, coastal air and bacon. There was laughter, storytelling, rock skipping at the creek, sand castle building in Santa Cruz, and a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Last week, I went and sat outside her still-standing house and could nearly see the ghosts of my whole family, laughing, reading, resting. Heaven on earth.

Her legacy is why I’m so delighted that my oldest daughter, her husband, and my granddaughter are living with us.  I hope and pray that when little Luci is 60, she’ll look back on her time in the fir forest east of Seattle as a safe place, a little heaven on earth. We’ll watch World Cup together, toss a ball, roast hot dogs on a campfire, wade in Coal Creek across the street, maybe even sleep under the stars a night or two.  Hopefully she’ll learn, not by preaching, that people who love God also love people, laugh a lot, are curious, and love the world God has made.

The notion that any program will ever be able to create that is rubbish. Yes, by all means we need to care for the current generation living on the streets and provide both food and compassion. But if we take the long view, we’d be wise to also elevate the value of healthy marriages, of enough time for hugs and freshly cooked food, of family systems where truth and grace and prevail. These, though, are moral issues, solvable only by saying there are things we can value that increase the odds of making families healthier.

2. Name values – and the greatest of these is love. I’ll forever declare that healthy marriages aren’t made by people “staying together” because “the Bible says so.”. Rather, healthy marriages require love, and love requires vulnerability and truth-telling, confession and forgiveness, mutual servanthood, and time, and energy.  I’ll forever declare that sexual intimacy belongs in covenant relationships, that sex isn’t just a form of recreation, that “serial monogamy” is destroying the possibilities of real intimacy, even as evangelical shaming does the same.

This brings me to the next important observation which is that, when our values differ among family members regarding sexuality, money, politics, or any other divisive thing, love needs to win.  You don’t disown your children because they don’t share your view. You don’t spend your meals together endlessly trying to convince the other party. You have the conversation once, or once in a while; never proportionally more than spice to the omellete. Life’s too short for that kind of hostility, and it’s not the way of Jesus.

3. Practice hospitality. The couple in this picture came up to me at the camp where I spoke and told me that they were the “young kids” on staff when my grandma was the cook in the early 60’s.  “We loved your grandma,” he said. “They were hospitable!”  Another old man at the conference told me he was single when he arrived at Mount Hermon and that my grandma had the only TV in the area in the early 60s.  “She invited all the single people over on New Year’s Day for pancakes, the Rose Parade, and the Rose Bowl.” Yes. Food. Sport. And a welcoming home.

We can and must address acute social problems. But we cannot, and must not, kid ourselves into thinking that money solves the most glaring poverty on the planet – the relational poverty that comes from thinking individualism and more stuff can solve all problems.  One of the best things you and I can do in the wake of our multiple national crises is embody the values that make for strong social networks and strong families.

Silence, Suicide and the folly of our “left vs right” polarization

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life!  – Jesus the Christ

Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there.  Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team.  But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.

Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically.  45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide.  It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic.  As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.

We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well.  When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.

It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days.  I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian.  When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left.   The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world.   We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.

But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide.  A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide.  Another young gay man commits suicideTo the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer:  yes.  

In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him.  This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it.  There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something.  A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.

On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change.  Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity.  Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story.  It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now.  Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…”  Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something:  Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.

So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.

Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere.  There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.

We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.  

Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843.  Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain.  Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.

 

 

The Collapse of Everything, and Why it’s a Source of Hope

I’m on holiday today, and went hiking, which can be an exciting activity during spring in the Cascades.  I begin my ascent at 1900’ and over the course of three miles climb to 3800’ before a slight descent down to my mountain lake destination.  There’s not a hint of snow until I get close the lake, but then the trail crosses several avalanche chutes still filled with snow debris from a wild winter.  Avalanche chutes are stripped bear of any trees so this means I’m crossing snow that has warm rock just beneath the surface, which means that I’m walking on snow bridges, often of unknown strength.  The snow’s been melting out from the bottom up so that the thickness of the snow can vary from a foot or more to less than an inch.  Add in the fact that the strength of said bridge varies not only by it’s depth, but by it’s temperature, and suddenly walking across these bridges can feel like you’re playing Russian roulette with every step.

Plunge your pole, hard, into the place you anticipate placing your foot.  Look carefully.  Step quickly.  Go! They’ve collapsed under my weight more than once during spring hiking, but thankfully I’ve never been seriously injured by it.  Not everyone is so lucky.  There are lots of ways to mitigate this risk, but I’m using snow bridges as a metaphor today to remind you that every bridge in your life will collapse someday.  If a bridge is what we depend on in our lives for security or meaning, the reality is that nothing lasts forever; vocation, health, marriage, children, are all destined for change along our journey.  Like snow bridges these blessings are dynamic.  One day everything appears solid and then, BOOM!  There’s a heart condition, or a financial trial and the risk of foreclosure.  Even the best of marriages usually end with one party dying first, leaving the other alone, grieving over the loss of that bridge which gave so much meaning to life.  Economic boom periods are cyclical, just like the building of a snow bridge through the winter and its eventual collapse later in the spring.  The same could be said of political parties, and even of nations.  Nothing lasts forever.  There’s a cycle of birth, vibrancy, decay, and death, that’s woven into the fabric of world.

Those who embrace this inevitable temporality of all things are standing on the threshold of freedom and peace!  This is because there’s a single exception, in all the universe, to this reality.  We who believe that Jesus rose from the dead see that resurrection as the shining light of hope, offering “the power of an indestructible life” as the prototype of where history’s headed.  IF this is true, then we have a bridge that will never weaken, melt, or be destroyed.  In fact, this is the langauge we find in the Bible…

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea – Psalm 46:2

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. – Hebrews 12:26,27

(Jesus) has been constituted a Priest, not on the basis of a bodily legal requirement [an externally imposed command concerning His physical ancestry], but on the basis of the power of an endless and indestructible Life. – Hebrews 7:16

There’s an indestructible life which cannot be shaken, and this life is united with the lives of all who call upon him, so that we become partakers of eternity.  This means that we’re part of a better story, a story where God is making all things new, moving the cosmos away from the cycle of birth, death, and decay, to “life for the ages” which is the literal meaning of eternal life.

Where are you putting you weight these days?  What bridges are you trusting in to give you meaning and security.  I stood on a path today and at one point plunged by pole into the place where I intended to step and it broke through, collapsing the bridge and revealing huge rocks.  A fall could have been serious.  We need to put our weight where we know we’re safe, where we know that, come what may, our source will always be with us.

We need these truths, all of us, eventually in our lives.  My hope is we’ll learn to seek the eternal rock sooner rather than later.

 

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 

Thanksgiving Tips for Civil Conversation: Embrace the Exile

The political and theological left and right have become so tired of both shooting each other and being shot at, that there’s little stomach left for honest conversation about ethics, faith, and the relationship of faith to politics.  So when you go over the river and through the woods to enjoy a family gathering at Grandma’s house this coming Thursday, what will you talk about?  Here’s a little guide to help:

  1. Christ followers are exiles.  Accept it.  We always have been, always will be.  When Paul said “maranatha” in I Corinthians 16:22 he was declaring that our deepest and most profound hope is rooted in the return of Christ.  He’d know well, of course, that the state wasn’t ever going to provide some sort of theocratic rule of law.  He never hoped for it, never advocated pursuing it, never even indicated that it was a possibility.  Paul never said, “If we can just get a few more red seats in the halls of congress then we’ll protect life in the womb.” Nor, “If only we had a blue emperor, there’d be health care for all, and housing for the poor.”  It’s not that issues don’t matter.  It’s not that we shouldn’t care.  It’s not even that we can’t have robust discussion about these matters.  It’s just that, in the end, our calling is to create an alternative ethic and kingdom that will thrive right in the midst of Rome, or Babylon, or the European Union of Socialism, or the United States of Shopping.   We have a better hope than the trinkets of any prevailing culture.  We have the assurance of the end of the story, an end where all life is honored:  the unborn, the homeless, the refugee, the sick, the aged…all!   I hope that, no matter your party, or your conviction on particular issues, you can agree with other Christ followers that we’re exiles.  Learning to live as exiles is a great topic for conversation.  Instead of cursing the darkness, how about we light a candle.  We are, after all, the light of the world.
  2. There’s still beauty in the world.  See it and give thanks – There’s beauty in intimacy, in friendship, in creation, in children whose eyes are filled with hope, in generosity, in forgiveness, in music and sport, in good food and good conversation, and in stories of transformation, as people move toward wholeness and joy and hope.  So perhaps we can look for beauty this week, and take seriously the admonition of the scriptures to “give thanks in everything.”  The truth of the matter is that all of us easily become myopic, so fixated on our personal problems, or the global state of things, that we lose sight of the reality that much, much, much, is still beautiful.  My neighbor met a man this summer who had ridden his bicycle around the world twice, both north to south and east to west.  He told my neighbor, people are still beautiful, still generous, still sacrificial, almost always, almost everywhere.  Of course, its not in the news cycle, but it’s true, or at least likely true.  Let’s learn to be people of gratitude in spite of temptations to fixate on the darkness.
  3. You are made for joy, so rejoice.  The apostle Paul never solved the unjust problems of Rome.  It was a culture of peace for the wealthy landowners, all of whom were male.  If you were slave, woman, a renter or someone in debt, a non-citizen, the so called “peace of Rome” wasn’t for you.  Paul knew this, just like we know this.  He also knew, unlike some of us, that no political system, no kingdom of the world, will even last – let alone solve our world’s ailments.  He also knew that Christ would bring joy to each human heart, right here, right now.  Yes, he fought for justice, addressed social issues (though covertly most of the time); but he also rejoiced, in nearly every circumstance, the joy of Christ remained evident.  So he, the one who was beaten, imprisoned, and persecuted as a threat to both Rome and the religious establishment, he was able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always… again I say, rejoice.”   He didn’t write that from a position of privilege.  He wrote it from a position of privilege lost.  And still, he found joy.  So can we.

 

Here’s hoping you embrace your identity as exile so you can relax and live into the confidence of your citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.  May you find beauty there, and hope, and may the light of your joy and gratitude radiate at your Thanksgiving table, wherever you are.  

Amen 

 

COMING SOON:  Let me help with your Christmas shopping, as I’ll be giving away three copies of The Map is Not the Journey and two copies of The Colors of Hope.   Details next week!

#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.

United Airlines, Holy Week, and Missing the Forest for the trees

Behavior needs to match mission, right?

They did it “according to the book”.  With too many passengers and not enough seats, they asked for volunteers to give up their seats on this flight for a reward, and fly later.  You know, by now, what happened on UAL flight 3411.  Before it was over, a passenger was forcibly, violently dragged from the plane, getting bloodied in the process.  This gave birth to a viral video of the scene, leading to a public relations nightmare and an over 6% decline in UAL stock as outrage over the event filled social media.  In my own facebook feed I saw pics of cancelled UAL flight tickets, and declarations of breakup with “the friendly skies” (a breakup I made years ago because of my own encounter with “less than friendly” customer service – but I digress)

The point for the moment is simple.  By contract and policy, the airline had every right to remove the man.  The man’s refusal to leave led to a need to call security, and security did what security does: they resorted to force.  That’s how the man ended up blooodied, being dragged down the aisle while a full flight of paying customers looked on, as seen here.  The flight would, of course, end with a steward or stewardess thanking everyone for “flying the friendly skies”.  Ugh.

I don’t write to do a post event analysis.  Most of us have pondered why too many passengers were allowed to board; why they didn’t up the ante even more in hopes that eventually someone would volunteer; why the security people treated the guy with a level of force that would be the same as if he was a threat to other passengers?  We can ask these questions, but have no way of knowing the answers.

Here’s what we do know: This doesn’t look like “friendly skies.”   People who belong to a company whose mission statement and slogan elevate customer service as a central value need to be empowered to maintain that core value.  Further, if they are empowered, they need to always, always, ask the simple question:  “does this action make us look friendly?”

REI gets this.  Nordstrom gets this.  Starbucks gets this.  Amazon gets this.

If your actions are contradictory to what you say you’re about, then you need to rethink your actions.

This is important for every Christ follower to ponder because the Apostle Paul says that it was God’s intent to “reveal his Son in me.” We come to discover God’s intent for humankind in this verse.  In other words, our mission statement as Christ followers is to look like Jesus.  You know: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, cross social divides, be people of peace, give dignity to those suffering on the margins, don’t cling to your own personal rights, bless and forgive generously – preemptively even.   These are the means by which we fulfill our calling, the corollary statement is equally important:  any action derived from our policy manual (the Bible) that misrepresents Jesus’ heart, needs to be reconsidered!

And this means a few elements of church history would have played out differently:

The church wouldn’t have fractured again and again and again over words and secondary doctrines, because Jesus’ heart was, above all other things, for Christians to live in peaceable unity.  The east/west church schism, the multiple popes debacle, the protestant reformation, and the over twenty thousand denominations?  Poof!  They’re gone.

The sanctioning of Slavery in Jesus name?  The anti-semitic edict declared by the church, forcing all Jews to leave Spain (and leave their wealth behind, by the way) in the late 15th century?  The horrific genocide in Rwanda, even as this country was being touted as a Christian missionary success story?   All these things change dramatically if Christians stay committed to the vision and mission of their calling, which is to look like Jesus.

I’ve lived long enough to remember specific times when I had the doctrinal moral high ground, but my posture of pride, anger, and a cynical tongue, discredited my doctrine.

So the next time you win a political argument by calling the other person stupid, remember that you’ve lost.

The next time you’re debating same sex marriage, whatever your position on the matter, if your anger toward the other person means you stop listening, stop loving, stop treating them as image bearers even though you disagree, you’ve lost, even if you won.

The next time your reading of the Bible leads to behaviors of racism, or xenophobia, or leads you to withdraw from a group of people in either fear or disgust, I don’t care what the letter of the text you’re reading leads you to believe, you’re reading it wrong.

I say this with confidence, not only because of the clarity of our calling to look like Jesus, but because we’re also told, in numerous places in the Bible, that Christ is the full and final revelation of God’s character.  So instead of microscopically proof texting your way to arrogant, violent, fear based, or isolationist behavior, how about becoming obsessed with the character of Jesus instead?

You’ll likely find a gentler voice, throw a party for your neighbors, celebrate beauty more often, and choose peace, patience, and joy more consistently.  Yes, there’s a manual.  But more important, there’s a mission statement, a vision: making the real Christ visible on a day to day basis.  As we walk towards Good Friday and pondering the sacrifice of Christ, I’d suggest that is a mission worth pursuing.

O Lord Christ; 

You’ve shown us the way, but we confess that too often we’ve coopted your name and used it to create a thin religious veneer over hate, violence, greed, and fear – all the while quoting the Bible to justify it.  Have mercy on us Lord.  Grant that we might see your heart with greater clarity, and have the courage to to allow your life to find fuller expression in each of us during this Holy week, and beyond.  

Amen 

 

Beauty, Beast, and the Gospel of Identity

When Christians are outraged over a movie, it’s nearly certain that, not only will I like it, but that there will be an element of the gospel clearly presented.  It happened years ago with Avatar.  Now it’s happened again with Disney’s new version of “Beauty and Beast”.

Though I didn’t want to go because our pre-purchased tickets collided with an important basketball game on TV (yes – I’m that shallow),  it was a family event, and I was persuaded it was “the right thing to do”.  My intent was to check the score regularly, ducking under my seat and checking my phone, becoming one of those rude people in the theater who can’t seem to just sit and enjoy the movie.  I checked early, but was soon deeply drawn in and forgot about the game entirely because something better was unfolding before my eyes:  the timeless story of redemption, seen through the lens of fairy tale.

New to this version is the notion that the villagers once had a relationship with the prince, before his heart was hardened and he was ultimately placed under a curse.  Part of the curse, though, was a sort of amnesia descending on the whole village, so that they forgot their identity with the prince, and identity which was recovered only after acts of profoundly sacrificial love led to the breaking of the curse.

The loss of identity and relationship is, to my mind, why the village is trapped in xenophobia, illiteracy, fear, and a destructive patriarchy.   The cycle of darkness continues as the villagers, in this heightened state of anxiety, are prone to listen to voices that feed on fear, inciting more fear and anger.   Rational voices and truth are drowned out by the loudest voices, lies, and insults.  Sound familiar?

In Mark 6:34 we’re told that Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd”.  Forgetting their identity as the people of God, forgetting that they were made for peace, generosity, the confident rest that comes from receiving deep love and blessing, they lived as if they were on their own.  This led to various forms of legalism, pride, anger, and violence.

Nothing’s changed, of course.   The profound human dilemma is that we’re seeking to know who we are – in relation to each other, to creation, to eternity, and to our creator.  Until we get this right, the identity vacuum renders us vulnerable to all manner of voices inciting us to fear, hate, and violence.

The curse is broken in the movie, of course.  It’s broken in real life too.  The profound word of Christ on the cross that “it is finished” means that his act of sacrificial love has opened the way for us to live once again as free children of God, enjoying shalom, living in joy, and blessing our world.

The difference between the move and reality, though, is that we seem reticent to live without fear and hate, even though the curse has been broken.   Why is this?

The answer to that question is, perhaps, for a different day.

For now though, I’ll note that Paul had the same habit of finding gospel truth outside the Bible and building bridges between the questions/critiques offered by artists and authors and the eternal truth found in Christ.

We’d be wise to take a cue from him.  After all, when he quotes Greek poets, he’s quoting polytheists, and doing so as a means of defending and inviting people to Christ.  He doesn’t care that he doesn’t agree with polytheism.   Wherever he sees a kernel of truth, he celebrates it!

Many Christians have lost that capacity, preferring instead only to point out areas of disagreement.   So there you go.  You’ve shown where you’re right and they’re wrong.  You’ve entrenched a stereotype that Christians are haters.  You’ve built a wall.

Congratulations.  But make no mistake.  You’ll pay for your own wall.

The better way?  Paul rejoices wherever he finds a vestige of truth and so Greek poets find their way into his preaching, just like Eminem, Beyonce, Van Gogh, Disney, Billy Joel, and more find their way into mine.   Truth is truth, and wherever it’s found we should rejoice.