Thursday, October 30, 2014

Coffee and Other Drugs

So, my favorite story from my time working at the denominational headquarters for the Church of the Nazarene is actually a second-hand story. Like all legends, it may have grown and morphed over time, but the general tenner rings true enough, I'm ok retelling it.

Someone had been tasked with bringing one of our General Superintendents (Six GSs are elected to provide spiritual and ecclesial leadership for the denomination) to the airport. It was an early morning flight. One the way, this driver asked about the rationale for our stance on addictive substances. Ultimately, the reasoning seemed to boil down to avoiding things to which we might be addicted both because not having full control of your actions is potentially dangerous, but also because doing things that may harm your body is, well, harmful. This intrepid driver asked the GS, "So, if this is the reason we avoid potentially addictive substances, why do we drink caffeine?" To which this gracious and amicable leader raised his coffee cup and smiled, saying "Because those of us with power are already addicted."

This humorously and tellingly helps understand the choice we all make in what we consume. Last week, when I put the call out for blog post ideas, one came back asking what my thoughts were on addictive substances with low health risks (specifically coffee). The request came from someone who tired, unsuccessfully, to quit coffee - and, I assume, was hoping for either a guilt-trip motivational lecture or perhaps some guilt relief.

Practically, caffeine fanatics will get little help from me (and I make a point to say caffeine, not coffee, since Red Bull and Mountain Dew seem like far more dangerous caffeine mules than coffee). I ran cross-country in high school. I was mediocre - literally - finishing almost dead center of both the pack and my team in almost every race. I did go to high school in Colorado, where cross country is taken pretty seriously, so I always delude myself into thinking I was slightly above average nationally.

Our coaches really challenged us to give up soda, because it's pretty bad for performance. Me, being a cheapskate and not a huge soda drinker to begin with, decided I'd stop drinking anything but water. Sure, I do occasionally indulge in fruit juice - and I might have a Sprite on the rocks at New Year's Eve - but I've mostly maintained that position, even as nothing I do anymore could even remotely be called "running."

I also like coffee. I don't drink it every day or even every week (see above: cheapness), but say, while enjoying a crisp, sunny morning sitting at an outdoor cafe overlooking Kailua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island, a 16oz double mocha cappuccino made from the darkest, most smooth fresh local Kona coffee might just be the most glorious thing imaginable.

If I haven't enabled at least a dozen addicts by now, I'm not really doing my job.

In all seriousness, addictions are no joke. Some of them can be really debilitating and I do believe all addictions are dangerous. The very definition of addiction is a desire one can't fully control. People are addicted to what are generally assumed to be important and necessary activities: eating, shopping, sex, exercise - I can't imagine my life functioning properly without all of those things.

Yes, some addictions, like meth or heroine, have literally no positive qualities, but I don't think anyone is looking for some excuse to justify them. It's the other ones - a drink here or there isn't going to hurt anything, caffeine helps me get up in the morning, etc - that drive people nuts. Some people. A lot of people engage in these activities without any real moral difficulty whatsoever. Are some of them addicts in denial? Sure. But not all.

I think the bottom line is, if what you're doing hurts yourself or others, you should probably stop - get professional help, if necessary, non-professional help for sure. If someone you care about believes what you're doing hurts someone, stop, please. If you, and the people around you, don't honestly believe your habits really control you, why would you even ask a question like this?

I tend to be someone very fixated on things. I have a hard time putting down a good book or not binge-watching whatever show appeals to me next. I get caught in repetitive practices all the time just because I like the comfort of it. Some might be addictions, some might not - none of them are healthy.

I'm a person who struggles with discipline. When one part of my life becomes undisciplined (buying a candy bar every time I check out at Walmart), chances are the rest of my life will spiral into an undisciplined, depressing mess.

I have to constantly be checking myself, setting goals, exercising my miniscule willpower - not because any of those habits are terrible on their own, but because they collectively make my life miserable.

So, I don't think that sort of question is one anyone should have to ask, especially of me, unless we're really good friends. I don't know you. The people who do are much better sounding boards for that sort of thing.

If you want my opinion in general: drink more water, get plenty of sleep. Those are both very healthy things to do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Manna and Mammon

I know various economic systems are not proscriptions, per say, but more descriptions of the type of systems that evolve naturally between human beings. When we start talking about "isms" it's more an explanation of how some central authority acts to manipulate these systems. A government itself can certainly be more capitalist or socialist based on it's policies, but these labels are really more descriptive of which natural threads on the existing economy are being hampered or helped through intervention.

Most proponents of these economic systems believe there is some sort of natural state by which, if left alone (whatever that means) human society would naturally gravitate towards. In (very broad, overly generalist) terms, extreme capitalism is attempting to free people to interact in ways they would naturally, while extreme socialism is attempting to remove allegedly artificial barriers of historic development to return people to some natural state.

I suspect most anyone will tell you perhaps there is a necessary tension between these two ideas - which are really just competing notions of communal and individual responsibility. Again, crudely: "being selfish helps everyone" vs "being selfless helps everyone," when in reality human beings are neither selfish nor selfless. We tend to be both.

Underlying all of these economic theories, however, is one universal theme. They're consumed with more. the assumption of economics is the production of more wealth. It's the old, "bigger house, better car, more luxury" mantra of human society. Capitalism might use this drive to elicit competition, while socialism might use this drive to elicit compassion, but they're ultimately in search of the same thing.

I've been thinking about this in light of what I guess we call Biblical economics (although that's a pretty terrible term). I'd prefer to use "Kingdom economics," but that's entirely insider lingo and tough to access without help.

In any event, I'd describe such economics as Generous Simplicity.

God calls people to less. Use less, need less, be happy with less. God calls people to less so we can be givers and recipients of generosity. A people who need and want less, have plenty to give, but also receive simple gifts as great treasure.

We often simplify things to say, "God doesn't want anyone to go without," but fasting and sacrifice have always been a real part of God's formation of people. Those practices exist to show us just how little we really need. Of course, no one should be hungry or thirsty - but how few of us really know what those words mean? Especially those of us immersed in the economics of more?

God doesn't want anyone forced into poverty, but God does want us to desire simplicity.

Jesus, through words and example, calls people to be downwardly mobile. Our eyes and aspirations should not be on those above us in the prosperity ladder, but on those below. We should not be working to need more, but to need less. There are a lot of ways to interpret the literally meaning of those words; I believe all of them are correct.*

In truth, simplicity works against a capitalist system; it works against a socialist system, too. Perhaps when we talk about economics, the real inherent tension is not between which particular ism makes the most sense to us, but the tension between the drive for more and the drive for less.

This speaks powerfully to our understanding of "security." God speaks powerfully that our economic hope should not be in wise investments or proper planning, but in the provision of God - which is most real only when the cupboard is truly bare.

I can't tell you exactly what it means to live simply in the midst of our complex economic age. It seems straightforward that followers of the man with no place to lay his head, of the man who brought abundance from a severely lacking meal of loaves and fishes, of the man who relied entirely on the generosity of strangers - would embark on similar lives. It also seems straightforward that this lifestyle is irresponsible in our day and age (in fact we have a whole industry of non-profits built around helping people leave it).

So, I can't tell you exactly what it means to live simply in the midst of our complex economic age. And I'm not going to say that "less is more," because less is usually less and more is usually more - there's no deep paradox there.

I can say the real economics of life revolve around less, not more - and it's vitally important with wrestle with that notion as we seek to live well in the world.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Royals and America

Blog By Request Alert!

On several occasions I've used this space to respond to inquiries or ideas from other people. I am glad to do it, although such requests are few and far between. I try to write twice a week (Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon) although I do not stick slavishly to that schedule. This week I had nothing - and since it's already Friday, I threw out a request for topics to the twitterverse and got this timely one in reply from Chuck Sailors:

Write about Why the Royals are America's Team.

When the Major League Baseball playoffs began, I was rooting for a "Revolutionary War" World Series, one between the Royals and Nationals. Quite frankly, I thought the Nationals had a much better chance of making it. In the end, we get Royals and Giants.

I spent six years of my life living in Kansas City and watching sparsely attended baseball games where parking cost more than tickets. Everyone loved the Royals, but sort of the way you love your fifteen year old, arthritic dog - there's no way you're ever going to kill him, but you're secretly looking forward to the day he died on his own.

This team was historically bad. Often. So it's no surprise that America jumped on the bandwagon for a young team, from a smallish Midwestern city, supported by a traumatized fan base, and sporting a playing style completely anathema to modern baseball strategy (or even common sense).

America does like the underdog, after all. It's how view ourselves. It's part of the reason I didn't push the "Revolutionary War" angle early on - no one wants to be the British in that scenario and I wanted people to root for the Royals.

But in thinking about Chuck's suggestion, I realized this Series is a perfect metaphor for America. We're rooting for them because we think of ourselves as the plucky underdog - but subconsciously that Revolutionary War persona might be the one shining through.

We're the largest nation on the planet, the dominant force economically and militarily. We're the empire now. We've become Britain in that scenario (including the fighting of losing wars in what amount to economic colonies around the world). Even better, America is the giant bully in the room convinced it's David and there are still Giants out there to beat. Low and behold, who are the Royals playing in this World Series? The San Francisco Giants.

This thing comes together all over the place.

It goes deeper, though. The Royals are comprised of young players who use speed, defense, and making contact with the ball to score runs. They've also got an extremely talented pitching staff. These are all things that typically make up an underdog in baseball - but the Royals are not really what they appear to be.

Major League clubs play 162 baseball games over the course of the regular season. An old adage says "every team loses 54 games and every team wins 54 games - it's what you do with the other 54 that matter." This is true, but some teams are richer - they have more depth and by sheer force of numbers, have a better chance of winning more games. It's tough, especially for young outfield players, to keep focus day in and day out for six months. It's far easier for pitchers, who don't play every day, to do their job consistently. This is exactly what we see with the Royals. The pitching is great and the outfield players, while including many highly praised prospects, were relatively inconsistent.

What it takes to win during the regular season is not the same thing it takes in the playoffs. There's no difficulty focusing when nearly every game in a must-win. Playoff pressure creates an entirely different atmosphere. Now, those young, talented hitters are concentrating on every pitch - and they're coming through. Added to the underrated talent and constant presence of the pitching staff you have a virtual juggernaut running rampant over the best teams in baseball.

An outsider (non-baseball fan) watching these games will instantly conclude that the Royals are dominant and outstanding; it's the baseball people who have trouble seeing the might and power these Royals bring forth.

So yes, the Royals are America's team - an obvious superpower to everyone but themselves - facing Giants of incredible lore (two titles in the last five years), but perhaps currently of inferior substance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ebola or A Case Study in Selfishness

During halftime of the football game Sunday night, I switched channels and stumbled upon some local news - the lead story of which was a school in New Jersey where parents were up in arms because two kids from Rwanda were supposed to start school Monday. Parents were scared of Ebola. The school sure didn't help matters, saying they were following the state recommended guidelines for monitoring, even planning to take the kids' temperature three times a day.

Not once was it mentioned that Rwanda is roughly as close to the ebola outbreak as Madrid. If there were two new students from Spain would the paranoia be so high? Stories since have presented a bit more of an even perspective, but the interest in the US and the slant of media coverage is an embarrassment to all of us.

Exactly three people in the US have ebola: one guy who didn't get screened properly (partly his own fault) and two nurses who helped him in the hospital. Ebola is deadly and spreads more easily than most serious diseases, but it's not airborne, you can't just breathe it in.

What's more - and this is where it gets more than a bit sad - thousands of Africans have contracted ebola; thousands have died. They're predicting a lot more before they get the disease under control. This is a real and dangerous crisis - just not for Americans.

As rich Westerners, we're protected from a lot of tragedy considered normal in large parts of the world. Yet we always find ways to make even the most remote problems about us. I mean, I guess that's the human condition, right - asking "How does this affect me?" But, c'mon people, can we focus on reality as opposed to possibility?

I read an awesome article today entitled "How Did Nigeria Quash Its Ebola Outbreak So Quickly?" A great read, but my first thought seeing the title? I didn't even know Nigeria had contained its outbreak. Shouldn't this be headlining our news instead of encouraging the self-centered fear that leads to - I'll just say it - racially (or at least ethnically) tinged paranoia.

I know it's en vogue to believe the US government is completely useless, paralyzed, and incapable of handling anything - but honestly, Nigeria is tackling this thing. Nigeria recently had a finance minister discover $20b (with a b) worth of oil revenue unaccounted for - when he brought this up to the President, the President fired him. No one has spoken of it since. Twenty billion might be what our government spends on toilet paper each month, but it amounts to a third of Nigeria's oil revenue (which in turn accounts for 70% of the government budget in the 7th most populous country on earth). THIS government is handling ebola well. I'm pretty sure, despite all the useless haranguing of CDC officials by Congress (because of course three days in DC is more important than actually handling a disease response), our nation can manage to contain the problem.

There are no direct flights between the US and affected African countries (save two routes going less than daily to Lagos, Nigeria - a port city hundreds of miles from the CONTAINED outbreak area).

I'm not saying you should ignore the (extremely slim) possibility you might catch ebola. If you want to be concerned, please do. Washing hands and being careful with personal interactions will keep you healthier and avoid spreading diseases - things that will come in handy as we enter flu season, a disease far more contagious and from which more than one person in the US will die in the next few months.

Yep. Flu. We all know it's out there and yet we somehow manage to be vigilant without scaring the heck out of our children and making some immigrant family needlessly keep their kids home from school for a month (again, Rwanda is about the same distance from Liberia as Miami is from Seattle).

In closing:

It is ok to be concerned about your friends and loved ones catching a deadly disease; it is not ok to be more concerned about their potential illness than the actual illness of thousands of people in immediate danger.

It is ok to be concerned about your friends and loved ones catching a deadly disease; it is not ok to act before you think. That harms other people. It brings you some sense of peace and security at real cost to other people. That's not ok.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I read Yankoski's first book - Under the Overpass - quite recently, even though it was written something like ten years ago. In it, Yankoski recounts his journey, with a friend, to experience homelessness in cities across the US. It is a powerful look into both homelessness and the spiritual journey of youth.

The Sacred Year finds Yankoski a decade later: married, attending graduate school, and living a successful career as a writer and speaker on the Christian conference circuit. He has, essentially, an existential crisis, retreating to a monastery for reflection and serious spiritual direction. A monk there recommends emergence into some historic practices as remedy. Yankoski dedicates a year to exploring and embracing things like attentiveness, contemplation, simplicity, confession, service, and pilgrimage, among others - finding new rhythms and balance in his life and faith.

It's a beautifully written book, with poignant narratives. Dealing with dense topics can be difficult, but Yankoski manages to mostly achieve proper depth without overwhelming the reader. By the end, Yankoski is practicing and advocating some things he and many of his readers may have written off or ridiculed near the beginning of the journey; it is a testament to God's faithfulness and Yankoski's talent that these fall perfectly in line with the narrative thrust of the book.

Perhaps I find this work more important than it is because I resonate so well with the author. I gather we are of similar age; his story is familiar. I was dealing with many of the deep faith issues he touches on in Under the Overpass at the same age; I am learning to appreciate my faith in greater depth and context now. If nothing else, it is important to see the real and often difficult process of spiritual formation present in Yankoski's (accidental?) chronicle from one book to the other. For that reason alone, it would be worth his continuing to write. Thankfully his prose and perspective are even more worthy of our continued attention.

There's nothing simple here, although The Sacred Year is immanently accessible, yet there is also a refreshing simplicity - an exploration of faith far more about personal development than goal-oriented self-justification. This should be a benefit and blessing to any who attempt to journey with Yankoski through his sacred year.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”