“We will not be silent”… will we?

Taproot Theatre in Seattle is presently running a play about one of my faith heroes, Sophie Scholl.  Along with her brother Hans, these two were German students, members of the “White Rose”, whose mission was to incite German people to resist the reign of Hitler. The play is well-written and well-delivered,  consisting primarily of dialogue between Sophie and her interrogator.  If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you don’t miss it (running through the end of April), not only because it’s a good play, but because it will provide you with a window into the heart and mind of a woman who embodied the kind of heart and mind needed today.  Here’s why I believe the White Rose’s catalyst to action is worth pondering today:

Seeing the play provoked me to re-read this book.  It’s about the role of the White Rose in the German resistance movement of the 30’s and through the WWII.  Some books are live, in the sense that they speak differently each time you read them because you’re different, your world is different.  We’re living in a time of global polarization between haves and have nots.  Were living in a time of mass migration, as people flee death squads, poverty, violence, hunger, and disease.  This migration has led to a backlash rise in unhealthy nationalistic fervor and neo-Nazi/white supremacist groups in Europe and the Americas.  Shootings in Black churches, and synagogues are just the tip of this hate-filled iceberg.

The White Rose was awakened to action by two things:

I. An awareness that their culture had lost its anchor.  One author says it this way:  “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions.”  The shattering of values that began in Germany in the early 20th century continues on, globally, at an accelerated pace, right to this very moment.  Social structures such as marriage, and institutions such as the church and university, along with the meaning of family are all “up for grabs” as we’re cut free from the moorings and anchors of western civilization.

Members of the White Rose were horrified that the Nazi movement was creating new meaning by calling people back to a mythical golden age of Aryan supremacy, full employment, and the ouster of those who were different.  Even though such an age never existed, its appeal in the wake of all the economic, political, and social chaos was strong enough to create a movement, and it was this movement that the White Rose stood against.

What enabled them to stand up against this romanticized future wasn’t simply a counterpoint set of ideals pulled out of thin air.  Their convictions were born from revelation about the dignity of all people, and the dangers of all forms of idolatry, including the idols of materialism and nationalism.  Their resistance literature essential said It’s not enough to end unemployment by building a vast military machine.  It’s not enough, never enough, to enthusiastically swear allegiance to a leader, any leader, if said leader is asking you to believe lies, diminish and marginalize other people, and sacrifice your freedom of thought and expression on the altar of national loyalty.  It’s not enough to believe that our strength is only gained through the diminishing of other peoples, other nations.  We’re made for more than this.  We are, as a nation, better than this.

What made these ideas better?  Their source!  Behind the curtain, Hans and Sophie Scholl were friends with Carl Muth, a theologian whose small magazine had been banned from publication by the Reich.  Hans and Sophie met with Carl on a regular basis in his small house in the forest, which was, “nearly bursting with book, journals, and manuscripts.”  Muth became a mentor of sorts for these two who would put their ideas into print and distribute them widely throughout Bavaria.

We too, have access to better ideas, ideas that speak to racism, addiction, loneliness, materialism, nationalism, and the many fears that inflict our culture presently.  We have the same source of revelation Hans, Sophie, and Carl had – the scriptures.  Do we know what those ideas are?  Do we believe them?  Or have we, through our own lack of discernment, allowed ourselves to be passively carried along?  The White Rose serves as a perpetual reminder that ideas matter, and that the mark of Christian maturity must, among other things, include discernment.  I say this, because lies and idols are often, as they were in Germany, couched in the same scriptures, used for dark ends instead of liberation.  Without discernment, we run the risk of unwittingly aligning ourselves with hate, fear, and violence, and doing so in Jesus name.

II. A conscience stricken by silence.  “‘Where are the Christians?’ Hans shouted after hearing an ‘enemy broadcast’ reporting that German Communists and Social Democrats had resisted the Nazis and been caught.  ‘Should we stand here with empty hands at the end of the war when they ask the question, ‘and what did you do?'”

The White Rose spoke because, as Sophie said, “somebody needed to make a start of it”.  MLK spoke for the same reason.  So did Sojourner Truth.  So did St. John of the Cross.  But for every soul who spoke, there were too many… far too many… who remained silent.

While Sophie and Hans inspire us in the play, the interrogator is perhaps, the most important figure.  He agreed with her convictions, or so he said.  He was sympathetic.  He understood.  But he could not speak; would not speak.  To do so would be too costly.  His job; his reputation; in his time, even his life was at stake.  The risks were too great, so he allowed himself to be carried along by the tides of culture rather.

For those who give voice to their call for racial justice, or environmental justice, or for those who call lies and idols what they are, or who speak up for life in the womb, victims of sexual violence, and human trafficking, or the countless others who have no voice – the risk of loss will always be there.  But a life lived to carefully, is a life lived contrary to the fundamental principle and example of Jesus:  “he who seeks to save his life will lose it… he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Our silence, at times, is our greatest sin.

“We will not be silent” is what Sophie said.  May her tribe increase.

 

Seattle is Dying…for a third way view of justice

If you care about poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, or the morale of law enforcement, I hope you find some time to watch this excellent documentary, regardless of where you live.  If you live in Seattle, this is required viewing in my opinion.  KOMO News in Seattle does an outstanding job exposing the depth of our homeless problem in Seattle, and it’s inextricable link to addiction.  It’s raw, difficult viewing, exposing visually and viscerally, the rise in homelessness and its attendant trash, human waste, and crime.  The affects of our city’s laissez faire approach to petty crime and drug use is exposed, and an anonymous survey of Seattle Police reveals frustrations to the extreme over new policies of tolerance regarding drug use, illegal parking of RV’s, property destruction, and so much more.  The lack of consequences and accountability for offenses have created a culture of anarchy and disregard for the law, resulting in Seattle being among the national leaders in property crimes last year.

The weight of these revelations should feel like a gut punch to anyone loving Seattle, and Christ followers, who are encouraged by Jeremiah to “work and pray for the blessing of the city in which they live”, must allow themselves to feel the pain of that punch in the gut.  The crime, the trash, the human lives imprisoned by poverty, addiction, and despair — this is our city!

I can tell you, as one who travels for work, that it doesn’t need to be this way.  Large urban cities across the globe are dealing with the same growth pains, the same income inequities, but they’re dealing with it better than we are, because our way of dealing with it seems to be driven by a thoughtless “tolerance” that, while emotionally appealing to many in our city, is neither loving nor just.

After the revelation of problems like these, the conversation often denigrates as people move to their respective corners and either advocate for continued tolerance or “crack down” with retributive justice.  Put another way, we’re arguing about whether to spend more money on tiny houses or just sweep everything clean, locking up violators and throwing away the key.  Thankfully, the documentary points us to a third way, by showing a Rhode Island program that’s essentially an expression of  restorative justice.  Violators of the law are cited, as violators should be if law is to have any meaning.  They’re arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated.  But the goal of their time in prison isn’t retributive; simply a punishment to ‘get them off our streets.  It’s restorative.  It includes a program to treat the addiction.  There are mentors who stay in contact with the person once they’ve served their time and are free.  There are check-in centers on the outside where they can continue to receive the meds that are freeing them from addiction.  And of course, woven through all this is the investment of healthy relational capital, the very thing that nearly 100% of the homeless people living on our streets and battling addiction demons are missing.

We are reaping the fruit of what our hyper-individualistic culture has sown, as the number of people who’ve no “tribe” to walk with them through life’s painful valleys continues to rise.  Our entire culture needs to look in the mirror and ask whether the rising relational poverty all around us is worth it because, though its beyond the scope of this post, the reality is that our current cultural values fracture and isolate us.  In the meantime, though, Rhode Island has decided to intervene and provide the relational capital offenders so desperately need.  They offer a model:

Arrest offenders.  Provide addiction treatment and counseling.  Provide follow-up after care upon release.  If Seattle began to think this way, act this way, the landscape of our city would change, literally – the landscape itself would change.

“Leave them alone” isn’t love.  It’s cowardly enabling, made all the worse by a city council that sometimes won’t even look up from their phones during council meetings to listen to offer common respect to law abiding citizens seeking to engage democracy.  Talk about relational poverty!!

“Lock them up and forget about them” isn’t love either.  It’s self-righteous anger that fails to see what people ultimately need isn’t just punishment, but intervention.  I counted at least five people in the Rhode Island story who said, in various ways, “the day I got arrested was the best day of my life… a turning point… it saved me life… I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been arrested.”  Those testimonies don’t happen when people are locked and forgotten.  They happen when they’re locked, treated, and equipped to return to culture and live whole lives.

“Actions have consequences” and “We’re committed to making this moment of your failure a catalyst for your transformation” IS what love does, and what people in crisis need.  What’s more, this documentary shows Seattle that it’s doable — but it requires third way thinking, and that’s a rare commodity these days in a world where the political right and left both seem to see their ways as the “only way”.

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.

The thing that mustn’t change: Use Your Gifts!

My predecessor just keep using his gifts day after day for 38 years.

The difficult truth that few seem interested in hearing these days is that the stuff we receive in our social media feeds is overwhelmingly not convincing anyone to change their minds about anything.  Minds were mostly made up, one way or the other, about the supreme court nominee, long before the hearing on Thursday, and as a result, everything that has happened since only served to confirm predisposed biases.

It can be tempting in such an environment to think that shouting louder or editing our writing or footage better will somehow persuade.  I doubt it.  We’re living, overwhelmingly, in tribal, self-referential echo chambers.  I’ve never seen a more divided time, and I’m not alone in my assessment.  After the exhausting work of trying to either persuade, or at the least, point people to ‘third way’ alternatives that are neither (for example) “Do away with ICE” nor “Summarily Evict” young people who have grown up in America” – it’s tempting to simply give up.  I mean, when shouting louder doesn’t work, or posting more doesn’t work, what’s left?

“Fan into flame the gift that God has given you…”   which means that you and I have each been wired uniquely by our creator to bless and serve this broken world.  If perfecting and using our gifts is the road we’ve been called to travel, the truth of the matter is that there are about a million seductive side roads along the way.  You can be tempted to pursue success instead of using your gifts, because success can soothe your insecurities.  You can be tempted to persuade people who, in all likelihood won’t be persuaded by you, precisely because they’re already deeply entrenched, and your attempts are born out of rage, or pride that you’re enlightened, or some other dark place.  When the shouting’s done, nobody’s convinced.  You can be tempted to invest your time in self medicating your fears, frustrations, and sorrows.  You give a finger to the world and say, “A curse on all of you… I’m redefining my life as the consumption of good coffee, good wine, and the pursuit of good ski conditions.”   And just like that, you forfeit the life for which you’re created.

There’s a better way forward:

  1. You’re blessed to be a blessing.  This means that you are still here, breathing and eating, enjoying beauty and feeling pain, because God wants you to be a blessing in some way.  Writing.  Woodwork.  Hospitality with the neighbors.  Mentoring someone younger than you.  Teaching.  Healing.  So get on with it… as you’re exhorted to do here and here.
  2. This implies that you’ve come to discover how God has made you; what your unique capacities are.  Many spend the precious commodity of time on the earth never intentionally even asking the question:  What unique contributions does God want me to make to this world?  Just asking the question is a good starting point.  As I began asking this question years ago, I realized that my best strengths are almost always related to creating.  I studied architecture because I like creating space.  I studied music composition because I like creating a collection of sounds.  And now, almost every day, I create – usually using words that become books, or sermons, or classes.
  3. Stay in the Zone.  A favorite book of mine called “Flow” talks about how 100% focus on what we’re called to do leads to a beautiful space, where time almost stands still and we’re no longer anxious about things “out there”, whether that be the leaky pipes, or the state of politics in America.  While we’re at our task(s) we’re all in – and we’re intentional about getting all in every day because we have some short term goals that keep us going back to the drawing board, or wood shop, or library, or writing software, or the homeless shelter where we serve, or medical clinic, or courtroom.  We know our craft, our calling, and are committed to it regardless of the noise and villifying and arguing that’s going on out there — we’re not scattered.

This is liberating friends.  Some people have shared that they’re disappointed I don’t write as much these days about politics or divisive social and theological issues.  I don’t write as much because ironically, while such posts easily generate four or five times more readers, they persuade almost nobody, and leave acidic and hateful words in the comments section from people who seem to enjoy nothing more than calling those who disagree with them ‘idiots’.  This isn’t helping anyone, so I’ve drastically reduced such posts.

Instead, my commitment to you is to help you shine as the light God has created you to be, and I’ll leave the shouting to others.  This isn’t intended to lead to withdrawal or silence – but engagement – it’s just that engagement that comes out from a commitment to use our gifts, build up and encourage others will be the best foundation for changing the world.

I welcome your thoughts.

Your “Sphere of Influence” is calling and You must go

As happens every September, there’s a feeling of newness in the air.  It’s not just the crisp morning air and footballs flying, it’s a returning from the unusual syncopations of summer activities to the more rhythmic routine of autumn. I’ve returned from vacation this year particularly refreshed and focused, and for particular reasons.  I’ve watched with growing concern as America has become increasingly polarized politically, so much that our fragmentation is becoming, more than either party’s ideology, the biggest present threat to our future.

The church hasn’t been immune to this polarizing.  We’ve mirrored the culture’s political tribal hatred, enough so that it’s increasingly rare to find people of differing political parties willing to worship together, let alone dialogue about their differences.  We then add theological layers to the debate, elevating particular ethical issues to the status of litmus tests for fellowship, while knowing full well that there are good people who love Christ and hold to a high view of scripture who hold the opposite view.  But for too many, that fact is of no consequence as they withdraw from fellowship because of “those people”.

Toss in a healthy dose of #METOO, courtesy of a NY Times article regarding a well known evangelical church, and an ever expanding sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and I find myself, on my worst days, wanting to pull out completely.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”.   I hear them calling too but there are two phrases, each different than Muir’s, that keep me coming to work, day after day, as I soon enter what will be my 24th year of ministry in the same place.

1. The mountains are calling and I want to go…  Of course I do.  My wife and I enjoyed our first dates on hikes and snowshoeing.  The mountains are reminders for us of so much that is true and life giving:  our smallness in the light of eternity – God’s grandiose generosity and immense creativity – glimpses, in the majesty of mountains, abundance of waters, beauty of wildlife, silence of a starry night, of life as it should be:  glorious, peaceful, interdependent, thriving.  Yes, I’ll keep getting out:  for morning runs, sabbath hikes, photography meditation walks, ski tours, and more.  I need to read God’s other book, the book of creation, as much as I need to read the Bible.  Maybe you do too.

But it’s also true that….

My sphere of influence: develop leaders and invite people to body/soul/spirit wholeness

2. My sphere of influence is calling, and I must go.  Sphere of influence is a little phrase I picked up decades ago in one of the best books I’ve ever read.  The author spoke of our sphere of concern, things about which we care, but are outside our control.  We care about politics, climate change, health care, increasing urban density in Seattle, the lazy employee on our team at work, the senior management that are incompetent, etc.  But many of these things, for most of us, are well outside our authority to fix.  Of course for some of them we can vote on, and perhaps if we’re motivated, we can and should organize as well, or do something more dramatic.  But what we shouldn’t do at all is spend time worrying, complaining, lamenting, gossiping, grumbling, whining, posting social media grenades, or being vexed, if it’s a matter outside our direct sphere of influence.  If we do we’ll be paralyzed, overcome with worry, and ultimately feel like disempowered victims.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Increasingly, the Victim card is the most popularly played card in the game of life.  But it’s often misguided and disempowering.

It’s far better for me to focus on my sphere of influence.  I’ve developed a personal mission statement, which I’ll share in the next blog post.  My goals come out of this statement, and my to do list, at my best, comes out of these goals.  That way, no matter what’s going on in Syria or Washington DC, I needn’t succumb to the anxiety, fear, anger, and hand wringing that is the soil out from which our current cultural crises are being born.  Instead, I can follow the advice of Paul when he prayed that his friends would “live a life worthy of God’s calling…”.

Be faithful on your path because nobody else can!

My commitment to you:

I have a goal this fall of using this blog  as a means of encouraging you to define, refine, and excel in your calling.  I’ll write about finding your gifts, writing your own mission statement, and developing a set of core values by which to live.  YOU CAN HELP in this process by engaging with the material, subscribing (see below), and sharing the posts you like with your friends.

I’m asking you to share the material because my hope and prayer is that more and more people will step away from the negative and cynical culture wars, disempowering victim mentalities, and disengaged cynicism, and instead live fully into their callings to be people of hope in this very difficult time.  Will you join me on the journey?

O Lord Christ…

With each headline we sense a vast machine at work, destroying some things we hold dear, no matter our party, even as those operating the machinery do so in the name of preservation.  Forgive our fears, our cynicism, our anger – all of which have blinded us to the seminal truth that each of us have a place in this world: gifts to use; neighbors and children and enemies to love; our own souls to nurture toward wholeness; joy to impart.  May we get on with it, each of us, in our spheres of influence, doing whatever our hands find to do, with all our might.  And we’ll thank you for the joy, and privilege, and adventure of it – in Jesus name.

Amen

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