Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Death of Children

Before I begin, I just want to disclaim a bit. I'm struggling to process and understand my own personal reaction to the Connecticut tragedy and the responses to it - I very well might express opinions or thoughts contrary to your own responses and feelings on the matter. I don't intend to condemn or condone any reaction, my own included - simply to process how I've reacted.

That being said, I find it more than bit troubling how the world so easily claims this tragedy as it's own. Of course every death is a tragedy and the death of children even moreso because we recognize the loss of what could be. I don't have any problem expressing remorse and voicing the reality of the injustice and evil of an act like the killing of kindergarten students in Connecticut this week. I don't think we should ignore it.

I do think we should have firm and sensible boundaries. A Facebook meme with a lengthy quote attributed to the actor, Morgan Freeman, made the rounds in the wake of the tragedy - it expressed a desire for us to stop focusing so much on these mass killings - making the perpetrators defacto celebrities and perhaps incidently inciting more. I'm not just talking about the media - after all journalism, as tasteless and exhausting as it can be sometimes, is an important service. I don't think we need 24 hour coverage. I don't think we need interviews with little children who just escaped such a terror or a high school classmate of the shooter. They do it for ratings and because we have this inherent desire to know.

I'm not sure it's good for us to have that need satisfied.

I'll just say I don't understand how so many people find a tragedy like this makes them think more about their own children. I saw all the Facebook posts of people hugging their children. I've tried to figure out what mindset brings people to those posts - my only answers are unkind and likely untrue; I won't share them here. I do have a child now, one I love quite a bit - but I don't find myself more in love, more sentimental or more anything in the wake of this tragedy. One thing I do resonate with - I can't even imagine losing her.

I think that's what bothers me most. Those who haven't lost children really can't identify - we'd like to think we can, we'd like to think we have something to offer besides prayers and condolences. We don't. We're helpless and we're disconnected and we don't like it.

I think it's entirely appropriate for the President to stand up and acknowledge the tragedy and loss - to pledge the nation's support. I don't think it's appropriate for him to show up. It's not a national tragedy. It's a very localized tragedy in a small Connecticut town, specifically for 27 families and those who are a part of their lives. It is certainly evidence of a troubling national epidemic, but it shouldn't be treated as part of a larger problem. That's a disservice to those in mourning.

Certainly there are things we can do to help - but its a general help, not a specific one. There's absolutely nothing we can do for these families but allow them time and space to mourn. We can have those discussions of gun safety and the mental health process - we can work to shape our society into one where things like this occur less.

I also think we can leave the grieving to grieve. I am not saying we abandon the families of the dead - not at all. But we can't mourn with those who mourn when we have no connection to them. Ninety-nine percent of us don't have any connection to these deaths - allow those who do to represent us in comfort.

We want to express outrage - to feel like we have some power over the evil in our world. These are good honest responses, but sometimes focusing on a problem from which we're disconnected keeps us from addressing similar problems in our own communities. In 2011, more than 14 children were killed by guns every day of the year, just in the US. The number rises precipitously when the age goes to 18. 40,000 children die of starvation in the world every year. Nearly a dozen kids are killed by their own parents every day as a result of abuse or neglect.

I suspect, more than better gun laws or improved mental health services, we're most likely to prevent things like this from happening by being present and available to suffering in our own neighborhoods and communities.

If you need to hug your children extra, please do so. If you need conversation in your workplace or congregation or around the dinner table to help deal with the trauma, by all means have it. I am not trying to diminish your response or the tragedy that has happened, I just hope to remember, for myself if no one else, that pain and tragedy exist all around us. Our society has gotten pretty good at hiding it, which is why these times it smashes out into the open trouble us so deeply.

I'm not upset, necessarily, with what's being done. The desire and urge to help those far away from us is righteous and positive. At the same time, it's difficult to stomach in a culture where everyone and everything seems kept at arms length.

We have grandiose ambitions and we live in a super-sized world. We want massive solutions to massive problems - when likely the most effective course of action is, once again, to love your neighbor.

That's when things get messy. That's exactly what the people of Newtown, Connecticut are discovering in the wake of this terrible event. For me, at least, it seems disrespectful to assume I can have some part in that from far away. As much as I desire to comfort and solve. I just can't - not as a stranger hundred of miles away.

I'd like to hope (I am an optimist beneath all these contrarian ideas) that the legacy of this disaster could be a renewed sense of community around the country and perhaps the world. That we could find, on the other side of this loss, pain, and confusion, a sense of community and connection - some small piece of the relational world in which God created us to live.

I have to embrace my place, my town, my people - to own my pain and the pain around me. This just doesn't work from a distance.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gay Students, Christian Colleges, and the Thought Process

There's been a bit of hubbub surrounding a proposed LGBTQ club at Point Loma Nazarene University. As an ordained Nazarene minister, a fifth generation member and a graduate of two Nazarene institutions of higher learning, this has been an interesting story to follow.

The group was founded in 2009 by a student leader who used an invitation for dialogue to challenge and undermine the school. They got burned and it's not difficult to see how the administration could be leery of the same group, albeit under different leadership, seeking a similar platform.

With the back story (and my lack of knowledge beyond what's been made public), I have to applaud the mission statement this group submitted:

We are aware that LGBT students are a suffering population on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), and we have realized that the common exclusiveness of the Christian community can overlook the spiritual and interpersonal needs of LGBT community. Through entering this place, we hope LGBT students at PLNU can share their neglected stories, lingering questions, and increasing trials with their Christian comrades, and together, we can learn what it means to practice listening to and dignifying your political or theological enemy and actively learning to live and love in real-time. We hope to seek reconciliation not based on a change of belief system but rather from a commitment to live in relationship with opposing worldviews while seeking to understand and dignify the humanity of the “other.”

This is a pretty powerful statement of charity and reconciliation, one that dovetails pretty well with what I've often used as an ethical motivation - we have to live together. If we believe in a future of peace where the world is as it's intended to be, then we're all going to get along. We might as well start now.

I don't think this means we have to agree. I think things work better when we come to different conclusions about things. I think things work poorly when we refuse to listen and learn from one another. I happen to believe that God's Holy Spirit is at work in the world, speaking and shaping us, even if we don't know it.

I am grateful for a school (Eastern Nazarene College) that created a supportive Christian community without dictating belief. I struggled mightily with issues of faith, belief, and ethics during my college years. I am convinced that were those struggles not undertaken within the context of a Christian community, I would not be a Christian today.

I said, did, and believed a lot of things that I disagree with today - but I did so in the midst of a community drenched in a commitment to God's prevenient grace. My peers and professors, for the most part, trusted that sincere questions of faith would be answered. People prayed for me and with me.

I didn't have a lot of direct conversations with people about faith - but I have a strong group of friends and a wonderful chaplain who were merely present and provided the kind of atmosphere necessary for me and the Holy Spirit to work things out.

Mike Schutz was the chaplain most of my time at ENC, but I don't recall having very many interactions with him during those four years. I do count his influence upon my life as extremely great - mostly because of the spiritual atmosphere he fostered and the space it provided me to grow without pressure.

I'm not sure Point Loma needs a group like this - I'm not really in a position to have an opinion one way or another - I do think the conversation suggested by the mission statement is a necessity. Conversations on faith and sexuality will take place, formally or informally. I think a Christian college does a great disservice to its mission and purpose by ignoring them or limiting them.

I think there's still some perception that we send our kids to a Christian school to protect them from the dangers of the world. Those dangers are just as real at a Nazarene school as they are anywhere else. We shouldn't be fueling this idea that our schools are bastions of purity. They're colleges with a specific mission to serve God and help young people learn to think critically. Refusing a group like this, at least from my perspective, fails to represent both Christian love and our confidence that God is bigger than theological differences. It makes us look scared - and we should be exhibiting a perfect love that casts out all fear.

If we are convinced of the Truth of Jesus Christ, the sufficiency of atonement, the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, we don't have anything to fear from honest (and by that I mean openness and a willingness to be affected by the other) dialogue.

We're going to lose a whole generation of young people in the Church of the Nazarene, not because of our positions or doctrines, but because we seem unwilling to allow a new generation to contribute to our understanding and actually participate.

I have said time and again that our position, at least the position officially outlined, is perfectly defensible and a responsible interpretation of scripture. I think there are reasonable and defensible positions on both "sides" of the debate (just as I think there are unreasonable and indefensible positions on both "sides"). If people who disagree (meaning both sides) are willing to have honest discussions, there is no reason why there can't be a building of respect, even if the end result continues to be disagreement.

Ultimately, I do think the problem is one of fear. We're afraid that people who accept even committed, monogamous homosexual relationships (marriages where denominations allow) might end up in hell - and if we're party to a discussion where even one person changes their mind from our position to the other, that we could be responsible for their eternal damnation.

I don't think that's an irrational fear at all.

I disagree with that line of thinking in a number of ways, certainly, but it does make sense to me. I can see were any kind of open engagement would be difficult to swallow.

I welcome this kind of dialogue because I don't share that fear - and what's more I see every day more and more young people I care about who are questioning faith altogether because of the fear inherent in that mindset. I welcome this kind of dialogue because I believe in hell - that it is full of selfishness and anger and fear all of which lead to pain - and that we experience hell when we allow any of those things to control our lives.

I cast no aspersions on anyone but myself here. I don't want this to sound like an attack. I am merely trying to illustrate the journey I've taken.

I faced down the fear I outlined above - what if I get swayed from the right path, what if I inadvertently sway others to their detriment? I've wallowed in that fear often. In the end, I had to make a choice not to let that fear or any fear - even a well-intentioned fear, hold me captive.

I believe God is in control and that God is big enough and smart enough to handle any problem we might create, but I have to move forward boldly without fear and in love.

Finally, (and I'm sorry this post is so long, but I've taken more than a month off, so you get what you get) I've been processing this alongside an investigation into why this kind of dialogue - not just about homosexuality and faith, but about anything - appears dangerous to many. I wonder if there isn't a bit of a modern-postmodern disconnect at work.

I do think the generation emerging is more comfortable with disagreements if relationship is strong - there's sort of an idea that if I can be confident you're earnestly seeking God, I can trust the Holy Spirit to work things out. It doesn't work so well for building and maintaining institutions, but then again the generation emerging doesn't care much about that either. I do think Nazarene higher education is as best placed to tackle this problem as anyone else. I have hope.

I'm not sure exactly what the solution is - beyond grace and love - but I do think it says something about the way we process and dialogue. I've been taught and value the idea that you enter every conversation willing to be changed or it isn't a real conversation. I want to hear how others have answered tough questions differently than I answered them. I want to share ideas or perspectives someone else might have missed or not considered and I want a light shined on my blind spots as well.

I'm excited about the possibilities that lay beyond the comfort and security of my decided opinions. I'm excited about people who wish to engage diversity of all kinds beyond our own labels and definitions, united solely in Jesus Christ.

Yes, the "other side" might be lying. They might not be willing to commit to the same honesty. They might be up to dirty tricks and sneaky schemes - maybe. I am willing to get burned a thousand times rather than be false myself.

*Big thanks to the community at Naznet for helping me formulate these thoughts - much of this post is adapted from my comments there.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Just in time for Thanksgiving, a post about consumption. No, not the 18th century name for TB - or really even the gluttonous nature of our Thanksgiving feasting - well, maybe a little about that.

We do tend to eat ourselves silly on Thanksgiving. It's as if we've set aside this holiday in particular to stop worrying about self-discipline. I even heard an commercial for a local nightclub boasting that the Thanksgiving Eve party is the biggest of the year.

We've even turned it into an economic feast, shopping and buying all night long. Just go crazy. Who cares what you spend, everything's on sale and you're getting a great deal.

Of course it's easy for me to rain on the consumption parade and criticize the way our culture and society is built around the consuming of things (we even design our products to break easily to ensure their quick replacement). However, I've been convicted this week about my own terrible consumption habits.

I've read every word of every ESPN Magazine since its inception - even the articles on stuff I don't care about. I've done the same thing with TIME magazine since we started getting it a few years back. I troll Facebook for interesting links and articles from my friends.

I'm a helpless consumer of information.

Now, many who know me personally understand I know a lot of useless crap. Part of that is the way my brain works - I remember lots of useless crap. But another part of it is the sheer volume of information I process on a daily basis. I'm always reading or watching or listening to something. I've cut down recently, but there's still at least one sermon, two podcasts, two magazines and a dozen blogs, and half a dozen TV shows, I come back to every week. That's not including the various links that come across my news feed and email or the (generally) 2-3 books I'm reading at any given time.

It's a lot of information.

Can I say there's nothing valuable there? No; I do get a lot out of those thing. Can I say there's enough valuable things there to make it worth the time and effort? I'm less sure about that.

But I don't think it's about the amount of information I process, so much as the process I go through to get the information.

I'm constantly busy trying to occupy the mind. I've worked a few moments of quietness and solitude into my life as a spiritual discipline, but I'm afraid they've just become part of the routine rather than an escape from it. I go from one thing to next, always nervous I'll miss something or be left out of a conversation because I'm not up on this event or that idea.

It's not about buying. I'm notoriously cheap. It's about consumption - the need for more. Our society has filled us, whether we like it or not, with an innate desire to have more, do more, know more, be more. The things we measure ourselves by are constantly growing and changing - so we have to keep consuming to keep up.

We even do it in the faith community. We push people to be more involved, more committed, a better Christian. I don't have issue with those things in the generic, but almost universally define them through consumption.

It's rarely about depth or balance; it's usually about more and the next big thing.

Why haven't I gotten to know more people? Maybe because they're low on my priority list. I'm not the kind of person to consume people or relationships, so they tend to take a back see to my information addiction.

I don't know how exactly to navigate this problem going forward (it just hit me yesterday over breakfast - and yes, I was reading), but I am determined to figure out how to keep myself informed and entertained, without being consumed by consumption.

We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


I don't vote for President because I don't want to betray my beliefs with my actions. Government, like all human institutions is deeply flawed. It can be terrible or less so, but it can't be good. For me, the decision not to vote for President is a decision to remind myself that there's only one hope for this world - Jesus Christ. That's the only endorsement I can give.

It's been challenging for me lately. Rocky Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, and nominee of the Justice Party, seems like a great candidate. He believe things should be done that mirror my own thoughts and ideas quite closely. He's everything I could ever hope for from the leader of our nation.

By all accounts, he's someone I'd like to vote for.

It's here where I can finally get some perspective on how many of my GOP and Democratic friends live in election season. They really believe their guy is best for the country, that their guy will get things right. All evidence points towards the inherent goodness of this vote.

It's difficult.

But much of God's Kingdom is not yet evident in our world. The way the world seems to work is still a fading shadow of the world as it was - not an accurate representation of the world as it is becoming.

One of Israel's most egregiousness sins was to ask for self-governance, for putting faith in a King to make things right. It was the repeat of Babel - the idea that we can build something to equal God.

In the end, God knows our tendencies; God made them. And so God provided us a King and a Kingdom - one that would fulfill all our wishes and desires - a King to make things right.

But this King didn't reign the way we wanted. We killed him.

But that didn't end the Kingdom. The King didn't stay dead. The world is different. The Kingdom is here, the Kingdom is coming. The Kingdom comes through the Church, the physical embodiment of that King who reigns in humility, wields power by refusing it, and commands without asking anything, but living selfless love.

Our system doesn't look like that Kingdom. It never can. Our system, no matter how perfect - no matter how aligned with the way I or you or she thinks the world should be - will not satisfy.

Let me be the first to say my candidate will not make things better. Yours won't either. That doesn't mean we can't vote for them - by no means. We just can't put faith in them.

For me, that means not voting. I don't have the discipline to vote for someone and not believe in them.

I'm voting for Jesus. I'm voting every day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Follow the Rules

While watching old home movies of my wife's family I witnessed an early religious lesson. When asked what we should do because Jesus loves us, this five year old answered, "obey him." In thinking about it, obeying was the first religious lesson I can recall as well. It might not be universal, but it's certainly common that our earliest lesson for our kids about God is "follow the rules."

Something about that seems off to me.

Of course obedience is a great lesson for kids - we want them to obey us and other appropriate authority figures, so obeying God fits right in. But is that the kind of relationship we want our kids to have with God? Is that how we want to introduce them?

It might make no difference in the long run. I'm no expert on how adolescent development works (I took sociology in college to get out of those classes). There might be no lasting effect. However, as an adult, the admonition to obey implies something unnatural about the obedience. You may want to do other things, but you need to do something different because God says so.

While technically correct, I think it misses out on the beauty and depth of God's relationship to creation. I'm sure I'm over-thinking this, but isn't "obey God" the first step down the road of a vengeful God, just waiting on you to slip up so he can hit you with the lightning bolt?

We might even have to back up a bit, there. How do we know God loves us? Well, Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and was raised again. Great! Why? So you can obey God. Really? God went through all that so I can follow a set of rules? Doesn't sound too much like love to me - certainly not something to be thankful for.

I was reading this book someone gave me the other day. It's on Celtic prayer and spirituality. I was excited about it; I love that sort of thing. The introduction went something like this: "I've spent 20 years studying Celtic prayer and I've broken them all down into seven types - through the course of this book I'll examine each type, explain its scriptural and theological significance and teach you how to implement these valuable resources into your life."

I put it down quickly.

I love Celtic spirituality because it's rooted in a Christianity before institutionalism, before Constantine, before Christendom. Celtic spirituality is rooted in creation itself, in the beauty and mystery of life. In the Celtic tradition, faith in Christ is something you put on like a robe, not something you input like lines of code.

This is the essence of spiritual formation, right? That is really how things work. God so loved us that Jesus came to live, die, and be raised again. So? So we'd know how to live in this crazy universe - something we're all pretty excited to discover. But it's not a list to check off or a plan to follow or even a program to download.

You can't order the Christian life to go.

Ok, ok, so obedience is a part of it. We have to listen to the leading of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, following the example of Christ, to develop those practices that work to change us, transform us into the kind of people God created us to be. But it's still not a list (at least I haven't found the list yet). A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about this. The word I came up with was abiding.

We need to abide in Christ, not obey. What's the difference? I explained it this way:

I've been taking care of our daughter for a couple of months now - all by myself, while the wife is teaching. I knew enough not to schedule things too strictly; babies don't really worry about the agenda too much. I did, however, make the mistake of listing each morning the things I wanted to accomplish during the day. My nights kept getting shorter and there seemed to be more to do after she went to bed each night. I couldn't keep up, no matter how much I cut from the list from one day to the next.

I figured it out pretty quick. I have to abide with her. I have to learn the rhythms and practices that make her life run. I have to figure out the signs and the signals she's sending and I have to be ready to move at a moment's notice. I have to be more focused on the mission (keeping this infant alive) than on the specific steps to achieve it, because they're changing all the time.

Who knows, when she's two years old and screaming her head off if she doesn't get her way, maybe I'll revert back to the old "obey" line; it seems to work, especially for oldest children who want to please everyone. I'd like to think I'll choose "abide," although I'll need to come up with a simpler explanation by then; this one is way over the head of a two year old.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Which Team?

The other day, one friend described another as being "an observer in the system, rather than a participant." He also used the word apolitical. What he was describing, in my opinion, is someone who doesn't choose sides in the election process.

I don't mean that to say he doesn't vote. This isn't about voting or not voting; it's about being invested in the outcome.

I like this image of observing the election rather than participating in it. As I have been wrestling with my own thoughts (and those of others) - and also as I've been thinking about Election Day Communion, I've been trying to put into words the appropriate position for Christians to take in a process such as this.

I don't mean which candidate a Christian should vote for - or even whether they should vote at all. I don't think there's anything more to be said on the matter. Christians of all shapes and sizes will choose what they think most satisfies their conscience.

I am more concerned with how we approach the general topic of power in society, and the process of bestowing power.

I think we need to get beyond the cliches flying around (especially that bumper sticker claiming "God is not a Democrat or a Republican") that seem to put God within our own political processes.

It's most clear with Saul, but it's evident even to the beginning of scripture that God has told us "I'm in charge; I'm your leader - follow me," and we've chosen other leaders - whether it's ourselves, a King, or a President. God has been gracious to grant us our request. God allows us to choose who rules over us.

Of course, that allowance also comes with a caveat - those we choose to rule over us will use us and abuse us and we'll inevitably want someone new, who will do the same thing. When we hear that oft-quoted verse from Chronicles, the healing of the land is not about spiritual condition (at least not exclusively) - it's about proper authority. In times of trouble and great distress, we call to God, but we look to new leaders.

I hope, as Christians, we can look upon elections without giving in to the prevailing narrative that salvation (political, economic, ideological, or otherwise) comes from new leadership.

I don't want to denigrate the ways in which our collective will (that being the definition of democratic government, after all) can produce positive results. But at the same time we must recognize that, as Christ said, there is none good but God - and the collective will of not-good people doesn't ever equal good.

I firmly believe the purpose of the Church, the reason Christ commissioned his followers for a specific purpose is not to save souls. I believe the purpose of the Church is to serve as a community of reconciliation, to be the tangible presence of redemption as God restores creation to its intended purpose.

I believe our call is to model the kind of world God intended all along. Not mistake-free or otherworldly holy, but a messy, dirty, sticky model of how God's love can truly bring about peace.

As a reminder to myself, one prone to be far too involved in places of power, I choose not to vote for President. It helps keep me focused on the task at hand, of loving those around me and trusting in God. It also keeps me from putting too much faith in politicians or from worrying too much about the calamity they might bring.

At the same time, many of my fellow followers of Christ vote carefully and conscientiously. I applaud them. There are so many people, throughout history and around the world, with no say over the conditions of their own lives - our exercise of this privilege can be important.

At the same time, I hope to challenge Christians everywhere to stand outside the system. Favor one candidate over another, sure; make wise choices. But please don't join a team. Don't buy into the name calling and denigration that so inhabits out election process. Don't buy into the myth that a President or a Senator or a Congress or a Supreme Court can be the answer to life's troubles.

I hope we can stand alongside our civil society as the Church, as an example of how to get along with one another. Over time elections have proven better than authoritarianism - perhaps we can demonstrate how holy love works even better.

If you want to vote, please do. If you just can't stomach the idea, don't feel obligated. But be observers of the process and not participants. In the waters of baptism we chose our team - no need to join another.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Motivating Factor

One of the politicians running for local office near me has built his campaign on securing "happiness, success, and fulfillment" for his kids and mine. A fine goal - one likely to appeal to everyone. It's the sort of thing we just take for granted - everyone wants happiness, fulfillment, and success.

We see the same in education. When I was growing up and now when my wife talks to er students, there's just a general understanding that basic education is the key to all the good things we want out of life. Why do we send our kids to school? Why do we pay for them to go to college? Why do I have to learn geometry or the capitals of African countries? The answer has always been the same - to put you in the best position to succeed, find happiness, or be fulfilled.

As a Christian, however, none of those things are a motivating factor for me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that happiness, success, and fulfillment are bad things or dangerous things or things to be avoided. I'd rather be happy, successful, and fulfilled than not be - I'm just saying they can't be the goals or the motivation behind our actions.

The more I think about it, even that idea of success, for ourselves or our loved ones, is a bit too self centered to make much sense in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps our better motivating factor is the Kingdom itself. We are to live with the goal of making the Kingdom more evident in the world.

My dreams for my daughter are not that she'd be happy, successful, or fulfilled (although those things would be nice), but simply that her life would point towards Christ - that the things she does would benefit God's redemptive mission in the world.

What does that mean, exactly?

Well it means we're not our own. Christian freedom is entirely different than the civic definition that gets tossed around so cavalierly these days. We're not individuals. When we step into our role as followers of Christ, we step into a larger people - we assume our intended place in a created order that was meant to function as one.

We're not in it for ourselves anymore.

Scott Daniels talked about marriage in a sermon once - he said his advice for those young couples who come doe-eyed to his office to announce their engagements is something like: you don't get married because you love each other, you get married because the Kingdom will be better off if you do.

It's a challenging remark for marriage, but it applies equally in other areas of life. Are we doing what we do because it will make us happy or because it will make the Kingdom more evident?

It's not an easy answer. I mean, has your reading of this post made you happier? Has it made the Kingdom any more evident in the world? Can the same questions be asked of the time it took me to write it?

Last summer, my wife and I spent ten days in California. It was our first real vacation together in our seven years of marriage. (Real vacation meaning that we were not on our way to some place else and visits to family were not involved.) I was called out, point blank, by someone asking - "you're always talking about sacrifice and humility and caring for the poor - how can you justify the expense of a vacation like that?"

It was a good question. It still is.

My response that day (and I can only chalk my presence on mind up to divine intervention - more evidence that the vacation was appropriate!) was that we're not here to run ourselves ragged making things right. Justice is God's business. We are supposed to be living into the Kingdom - and celebration, relaxation, rest, is a part of that.

Our vacation transportation was provided by frequent flyer miles, we rented the smallest, most fuel efficient car possible, stayed half an hour from the beach, made our own meals half the time, skipped almost everything with an admission cost, and stayed the second half of the trip at the home of friends. I feel like we did our best to avoid self-indulgence (although beachside mahi-mahi tacos was walking a fine line) and to focus on rest.

Is that the right answer? I don't know.

Is the Kingdom more evident in the world because we took that trip? I don't know.

I hope so. Education isn't wrong. Success isn't wrong. Happiness isn't wrong - we just need to keep the proper goals in mind. Whether it's a mathematics degree, advanced training in spiritual direction, or a lifetime of hours on the serving line at the soup kitchen - we need to be shaped and formed and prepared to participate in the Kingdom in the ways God created us to participate. We might not all need Calculus to do it - but occasionally we need blog posts and vacations.

Saturday, October 06, 2012


Yesterday, the Atlanta Braves were eliminated from the Major League Baseball playoffs, thus ending the 19 season career of Chipper Jones. His career has been both remarkable and unremarkable. Remarkable in that he ranks among the best switch hitters and third basemen in baseball history by the numbers. Remarkable that he played his entire career, from draft to retirement, in one organization. Remarkable that he'll be one of the few players from the recent past to enter the Hall of Fame without talk of steroids.

That also makes him unremarkable in a way. Few people will think of Chipper Jones when asked to discuss the best players from the past 20 years. He'll come up, but it won't be first. He's been a strong, solid, consistent performer for a very long time.

At first I didn't think much of his retirement. I've never been much of a National League fan and I haven't followed baseball that closely for years. But there's a special connection I have with Chipper Jones. It's as if we grew up together.

I was the oldest child in a non-sports family. I came late to a lot of things. It was 1990 when I really began to get into baseball. One of the first baseball cards (because back then baseball cards were still something kids bought and collected) I got was Chipper Jones' draft pick card. He was selected first overall, right out of high school and he was a can't miss prospect from the very beginning. He made the majors a couple years later at the start of the Braves' dominance.

I didn't follow Chipper closely. I wasn't a Braves fan - I didn't even realize how impressive his career numbers were until I saw them in an article last week about his retirement. He's just always sort of been there.

I grew up a Yankee fan - I recognize the oddity of such a statement, and let me alleviate your concerns: the stereotypical understanding of Yankee fans just didn't exist in northern Vermont at the time, the Yankees were terrible and most people had never been to a game in the Bronx to have personal experience - I loved the history and nostalgia of the club. The pinstripes, the championships - my favorite baseball player, to this day, remains Lou Gehrig.

George Steinbrenner drove me away shortly after college. I just watched baseball to enjoy the purity and atmosphere of baseball itself. Then things got convoluted. Steroids and performance enhancing drugs were everywhere. MLB, like every other sports league, became more concerned with money and celebrity and ratings (and money) and much, much less about the game. Few people in attendance even knew the rules on the field anymore, let alone the unwritten rules of watching from the stands.

It just wasn't fun anymore.

I hung on a few more years playing fantasy - getting lost in the numbers and buying the occasional ticket when one of the dwindling number of my childhood heroes was in town. The last few years, I've just been out.

I still watch the World Series, but not every game anymore. Most of the players switch jerseys so often it's tough to keep track. A lot of the distinctives have been bred out of the game - what's more, most of those playing on the field grew up in this new era of numbers and money and showmanship. There's very little that's familiar - and what I see just isn't exciting anymore. When I want to teach my daughter about baseball, we'll go to high school or minor league games - where the game itself still matters.

All that being said, Chipper's retirement hit me hard. He's the last of the era. There is literally no one left. He's the last one who came in with me. I'm still younger than a lot of players, but I remember the beginning of their careers, and that beginning came after I was already a part of things.

As he retires, it seems my child-like wonder at America's Pastime is retiring along with him. There are still some things that excite me. I was really hoping for a good run from the Yankees and Braves so Jones and Jeter could each get one more shot at reliving the good ol' days of 1996. Grudgingly I have to admit that the things which excite me today are just those things which remind me of the past.

I really hope my daughter finds something to be as excited about in life as I was about baseball - to learn all the history, talk about it nonstop, successfully persuade her mother to stay up way, way past her bedtime because she can see how much it means just looking in our daughter's eyes - I want her to find that thing, I just hope its not baseball. I don't think I could take it.

Farewell, Chipper. All the best.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Gandhi III: Even Gandhier

The third social sin from Gandhi's list (Parts 1 and 2 here) is Pleasure without Conscience. This one resonates deeply in our culture today. We are a deeply indulgent society, one that has been carefully taught no to think of consequences.

Our consumer mentality has trained us to satisfy immediate desires and this has crossed over into our politics. We pass our economic woes down the line - then the other party points it out and we vote for them because we want to feel good about ourselves for caring about future generations - of course, then we expect the new party to also pass the buck... and they do.

It's a vicious cycle.

We are constantly seeking gratification. Like any addiction, we must constantly be upping the ante. Why were the three stooges so funny? (No, seriously, why are they funny? I was never much into slapstick.) People laughed at getting hit in the head with a hammer precisely because it wasn't real. Fast forward a couple generations: we only laugh if the problems are real. The outcomes of wrestling matches might be fake, but the chairs are real.

We are morbidly fascinated by The Real Housewives and The Jersey Shore because these are people living completely for the moment, completely without responsibility. It is our most intimate human drive: total self-indulgence.

Why do most people avoid such frivolity? We have a conscience. We have lives, families, responsibilities. If I get blackout drunk on a Tuesday, I get fired the next morning. If I take off for Vegas after lunch, my kid get stranded at school (and maybe spend the same weekend in foster care).

Of course we'd never actually do the things we laugh at on TV.


We might not, but our kids certainly will. Our culture is not reflected in our entertainment choices, our culture is formed by our entertainment choices. Check out this video for some insight on how MTV is actively shaping culture. It's a little dated these days, but the principles are the same.

One book I read earlier this year spoke eloquently about how our decision to become a consumer economy forces us to act like teenagers. If we weren't constantly making impulse purchases, we'd not be as well off as a society as we are, financially anyway... for those who don't actually buy into the impulse purchase game.

That's sort of the point. What's best for the top end is usually not what's best for the bottom. The election focuses on this economically, but it plays out across the spectrum of life. The partying culture works out well for those who can hold their liquor, manage their relationships, and avoid addiction - it works out terribly for people who don't have that kind of money to spend, don't know when to stop, and end up alcoholics.

It plays out in our sexual culture, our religious culture, our social culture - there is an elite who "succeed" by building, inheriting, or possessing better natural defenses. They can enjoy the pleasure without conscience because the bad stuff happens to other people.

Conscience is what turns our attention from ourselves, our wants, desires, and limits, and focuses it on others. Conscience makes pleasure less pleasurable when not everyone is in on the fun. Our society works hard to keep conscience out of the picture. It encourages anonymity and discourages intimacy. We have lots of friends, but few relationships. We can post a sympathy comment on Facebook when someone is hurting and never have to enter that hurt and suffer with another.

Is there a way for our society to make money without some ending up homeless? Is there a way for our society to enjoy alcohol without some ending up in AA? Is there a way for us to serve a God of love without some feeling rejected?

Gandhi seemed to think so; I believe Jesus would agree.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Hard Day's Work

I've been challenged by all of Gandhi's Social Sins - but this particular one about Wealth without Work has really captured me. Perhaps it's because I was thinking about this long before I saw the poster that clued me in to the Mahatma's list.

The US seems to be in a quandary when it comes to social services. We want to help those people who don't have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep or anyone to address their health problems - at the same time we do seem to have created a system of generational dependence.

Some argue, and it's easy to agree, that we've separated the fulfillment of our basic needs from real work. However, when I begin to think of the logical and theological implications of that idea, it just doesn't cut the mustard.

First, if a visceral understanding that the daily work you do is directly connected to your survival is paramount, there's just as many people well-off enough to never fit into the category. My family makes less than $50,000 a year, but we'd have at least a few months without income before we began to worry about food and housing (even then it wouldn't be an issue as we have plenty of equally capable and willing family and friends who would help us survive. The connection between wealth and work goes both ways.

Secondly, it just doesn't fit with a Christian understanding that our work doesn't earn us anything. God gives us what we have and everything we have is God's. That's pretty paramount. That is the reason for Sabbath. We need to be reminded that our wealth and our work are not connected - as much as it may seem so. Don't believe me? There's millions of people around the world who work twice as hard as you or I who still can't feed their family or provide decent housing.

What then do we do? How do we address the real relationship between wealth and work if it's not a direct correlation? I've been puzzling on this and I have an idea. It might be crazy, but hear me out:

What if work is not just a responsibility, but also a right?

There are some basic rights. Everyone pretty much acknowledges that. Whether you subscribe to the US Declaration of Independence's "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," a more general "respect and dignity," or a very specific list - we all tend to agree that society (not necessarily government) owes something to people.

What if one of those things was a hard day's work?

No one wants a life of backbreaking labor, but there is something emotionally, spiritually, and physically profitable in exercising your mind and/or body in pursuit of a goal. People need to be engaged in something meaningful.

Both the left and the right seem to fall short of this understanding. The Left (and I know I'm generalizing here) seems to view work as a luxury and the Right seems to view it solely as a responsibility. In a sense, they're both correct, but they miss the bigger picture.

During the Depression, the government was feeding and clothing and housing a lot of people - but they also came up with public benefit projects where they put people to work. The work didn't cover the benefits economically, but it kept people hopeful and invested. I know our economics are a little different today (if the government hired people at minimum wage or less to work on National Park improvements, the construction industry would be rightfully upset), but the notion is praiseworthy and I suspect the creativity exists to figure something out.

I've often been accused of hating efficiency. I'm certainly not a fan of it as an unquestioned proposition, but I do think efficiency is a valuable tool. I think about how much more land one farmer can farm now - an area that would have taken a dozen people fifty years ago can be cultivated by one. That's great. But is it less great if only half of those other eleven found meaningful work to replace farming?

Again, these are more theoretical questions than practical. I'm not an expert and thus you won't get genius ideas. I've been trained to think, ask questions, and see the world differently. I'm also committed to optimism. I believe all things are possible. Gandhi did, too.

I am convinced that the creativity exists to see everyone engaged in meaningful work - just as I'm convinced the creativity exists to get everyone clean water. I think our collective life depends on it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gandhi for President?

Obviously, Mohandas Gandhi would not make the best President of the United States. It would be tough to get him elected. First of all, there's the nebulous religious background, plus the criminal record, the vegetarianism, the non-violence - not to mention his distinct lack of a birth certificate. Then, of course, the largest hurdle: he's dead.

In any event, Gandhi was dedicated to the welfare of society. It would be difficult to place him in a partisan category in the US - there's some educated, elite stereotypes there, but he also fought hard for the right of people to work and be unconstrained by the government. He believed in people and in people working together. I don't think any politician could argue with that.

One of the most intriguing things about Gandhi's life (and there are many) is the enduring legacy of his "Seven Social Sins." They are, in his view, the deadly sins of a society - violation of such will result in the failure of society. Important stuff, in other words.

Gandhi believed that violence was the premier destructive force in the world and that ignorance of these seven principles incites violence. He talked of them often, but there remains little printed, recorded evidence of how he explained them.

It seems to me, in this time of deeply divided rhetoric and partisan battles surrounding the US Presidential election, it might be interesting to examine these social sins more closely. They speak prophetically into the false divide created by current US politics.

Perhaps that's precisely what's addressed by the first sin: Politics without Principles.

We live in a system in which re-election is more important than governing. Power has become the only goal and preserving or regaining power the only principle. Nobody stands for anything besides whatever the other guy is against. Our politics is one of division.

This may not be true of each individual, but we've allowed the whole to become a game. We do not enter politics with an interest in getting along and living together, in building a world where everyone is at peace. We enter politics to win.

I suppose it could be argued that making everyone come to my side or bend to my will is a principle in itself, or that there are real principles behind the battles - I'm just not that sure what it says about those principles. It certainly says that the principle of winning, of self-determination is more important than anything else we believe.

That may be true for some, but it results in little more than "convert or die."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hidden Camera Soundbites and Gotcha Politics

By now just about everyone has heard the comments made by Mitt Romney at the fundraiser this spring. People are a little upset. Obviously, putting a specific number on the people who are entitled and lazy was his biggest mistake (although there's some other terribly unfortunate comments on that recording that aren't getting the same kind of press). Making it a specific claim and not a generalization is going to hurt his campaign down the stretch.

However, I'd prefer to talk about the generalization itself. Again, outside the specific number, I thought about the last election and President Obama's comment that some people react to the challenges of society by "clinging to guns and religion."

I'm struck by the similarity of these claims. Obviously they're generalizations from opposite sides of the aisle, politically - but they seem no less important for a solid public debate. The media gets riled up protesting how thoughtless the candidates are for making such outrageously unflattering claims.

The problem is: they're partly true.

I wasn't outraged at Obama for talking about people clinging to guns and religion. I know a lot of those people. It's a natural human reaction. When things seem tumultuous in the world, we seek out security. One of the places people find security is in God - another is in their own ability to control a situation (for many, with a gun). Certainly the President (candidate, at the time) was speaking derogatorily (I'd've preferred compassionately), but the truth of the statement stands.

When I heard about the Romney comments, I was upset at his use of a specific number - that's dangerous territory (especially because - as just about every media outlet in the world has explained - the number is silly) - but I also understood the implication. Some people are overly entitled, steeped in a culture of victimization, and often unwilling to work for what they deem is owed them. This number is far, far below 47% of the population, but it's not zero. I know some of them, too.

I think this response is equally about security. A lot of times these people live in unstable environments, where there's no guarantee of a place to live, food on the table, or a job to go to. As a response, they cling to the idea that society owes them something - and they want government to cash that check. They want the safety and security of (a quite literal) check in the mail.

Romney's lack of compassion is no less troubling than Obama's. Although I suspect that these two, both steeped in ideology and partisan politics, can't fathom why so many people who they'd love to help if they'd just be allowed to do so, could possibly think the other party would do it better. It's more an exasperated frustration over a different way of thinking than it is any real animosity.

From a theological and philosophical perspective (As I've written before) I do think society owes all of us some basic things: healthcare, nutritious food, education, shelter, a full day's work, and a loving community. I'm not convinced government is the way these have to be provided.

When these sorts of honest statements are made public, it is a great opportunity for us as a people to discuss how we want to live. There's a place for discussing how much government intrusion we want in our lives - but beyond that is a discussion of how we want to live with each other.

There is a basic dignity in all persons - something God-given and inherent. We do have a moral obligation (if not an existential one) to treat people in accordance with that dignity.

There exist people in this culture (likely some part of this exists in all of us, as it is indicative of the human condition) people who want the security of being left alone, self-reliant; and there are people who want the security of dependence, that they'll be ok even if they're not able to provide for themselves. Likely we've all experienced both of these desires at one time or another.

It seems that by refusing the acknowledge the truth and validity of both these positions, we're unable to win the right to speak into them - to remind those inclined to self-sufficiency that we need each other and we must stick together in tough times, and to remind those inclined to dependency that they have something essential to contribute.

It's almost as if we use the lack of political correctness as an excuse to avoid hard truths. We want to take the easiest path in times of turmoil; we must not let ourselves or each other do so.

Monday, September 17, 2012


There's no doubt fear is an easy motivator. If we are afraid, it triggers our fight or flight response: we react. Everyone knows this. If people can be made to fear precisely the right thing, the reaction can be predicted.

We see it everywhere. We see it in the political race, "vote for my opponent and the world will crumble around you!" and it reared its ugly head again in a Newsweek article about the need for infrastructure improvements in the US.

That article is probably a better case study than a Presidential campaign - a little less controversial. It was titled, "America's Coming Infrastructure Disaster," and used historical failures of infrastructure to push the point that attention is needed.

It is a classic appeal to fear.

The articles actually does a half decent job of laying out a logical case for needed infrastructure improvements in the US. The lack of security and efficiency in our electrical grid. The postponed maintenance on roads and bridges. Even an economic argument about the impact that the $2 Trillion in needed works would make on the current recession.

Still, the headline, the pictures, and the overarching theme is fear. It's as if the author doesn't think anyone else will take it as seriously as he does.

I wonder if that drive to use fear to motivate others comes from an internal fear in ourselves? Even if a political group is using fear of one thing to get another (scaring people about a foreign invasion to get a candidate more likely to give them tax breaks) it still comes from a position of fear, right? I'm afraid I will be harmed or otherwise disadvantaged with a different outcome.

This sort of fear tactic can lead to outright lies. We tell people whatever will scare them enough to get them to do what we want. At some point a parent through it was ingenious to tell their child a monster lived under the bed to get them to stay in it.

This is another ends vs means issues.

We're so afraid the ends won't come about that we resort of rotten means - we do it out of fear. Those people we attempt to control are only secondary victims. We are the ones in the grip of fear.

As Christians go back and forth over which candidate should be President of the United States, you hear a lot of fear language. "Barack Obama wants our country to fail." "Mitt Romney wants to give everything to the rich and let the poor die." These are statements intended to make you afraid of the future.

If I can say anything to my brothers and sisters - both those who speak about such things and those who listen - it is simply "be not afraid." The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of love. Jesus was constantly telling his followers to be not afraid. There is nothing to fear. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear."

If someone is trying to make you afraid, if something has already made you afraid - God is not in that. If the world seems like it would crumble under a certain eventuality - this is a lie in the vein of the serpent in the garden.

I know we can't actually control when our emotions rise up - when we feel terror or fear. It happens. I do believe we can discipline ourselves, that we can change how often or how easily those fears come upon us. The first step is taking rational control of those emotions. Be on the look out for fear tactics. Recognize them and ignore them.

So often our fear is tied to difficulty. I might have to work harder or suffer more if this comes to pass. That is still no reason to fear. Love wins. Death has been defeated.

Let's avoid the pain and the worry and fear this election season. There's plenty of real, actual things to discuss. And the world won't end if ____________ is elected. At the very least, the world ending won't be caused by his election.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Super Sized Sodas and the Myth of Individualism

I can't believe I'm writing a second post about this, but the first one wasn't really all that good - and it was months ago. The New York City big-soda ban has officially gone into effect now. Lot's of people are upset. I don't think this is necessarily a high priority, nor do I think it's the best way to do what they're trying to do. That being said, I'd like to make a humble defense of the idea behind this ban.

The main argument against this ban is that it's too heavy-handed in telling people how much soda they can drink at one time. It is an invasion of individual freedom - and that people should be allowed to do what they want - even if it's bad for them - so long as it doesn't affect anyone else.

The problem is that everything we do affects someone else. We really aren't individuals. Maybe, if you were to hike into the wilds of Northern Canada, build a cabin from wood you'd hewn yourself, and live off the land - there might be an argument for individualism. Whilst we live in a society, we are in relationship to each other.

Health care costs are skyrocketing in this country. Whether its paid for through government programs, private insurers, charities, or straight from your pocket, we all end up paying for each other's health care. It all comes from the same place and ends up in the same place. One of the big drives now, is to figure out how to get our health care dollars from point A to point B most efficiently. We don't need to go into that here.

About 10% of our healthcare dollars are spent combating diabetes (57% of the money spent on diabetes patients goes directly to treating the disease) - this number is rising rapidly. Most health insurance plans do not cover preventative measures, only emergency and management procedures - which means a lot of poor people (who disproportionately have diabetes) are not getting all the preventative interventions possible - and costing all of us money in the long run.

One of the main causes of diabetes is too much sugar in the diet - hence a ban on large sodas in New York. I personally think ending the subsidies that make corn syrup so artificially cheap - and doing what's necessary to make healthy foods competitively priced is a better route.

You may say, "People who want more can get more, they just have to fill their cup more often or buy multiple cups or stop more often." That's true. No one is actually impinging on their freedom to drink as much terrible soda as they want - we're just making it a little more difficult. If there's one thing we know about ourselves as Americans, it's that we're lazy. If we have to work hard for soda, we might find it less worth it (although our addiction to the caffeine will likely push us to make the extra effort).

Ultimately this is not about affecting the consumption enough to save money on the ban alone. You can walk out of a New York McDonalds and into the 7-11 next door and buy a three liter bottle of soda. What this is is the beginning of a stigma.

At one point in this country it was odd if you didn't use a tobacco product on a regular basis. Doctor's prescribed them for people's health. All of our role models - newsmen, politicians, actors, athletes - they all smoked. When I was a kid, you could put a few coins in a vending machine, pull a lever and get cigarettes in every restaurant.

Now, there's a strict age limit and pretty severe penalties for adults to provide tobacco to minors. We've put billions of dollars into a stigmatization campaign that has driven tobacco users to the periphery of society, like those who frequent strip clubs or adult book stores. You can't even smoke inside at all in many states. We're working to put pictures of diseased lungs and tracheotomies on cigarette packaging (they already have in Europe).

Effectively and efficiently, our society decided that while tobacco should be accessible in whatever quantities an adult desires, it shouldn't be easy or cheap or fun to do so. We're encouraging people to cut down, cut back, cut out tobacco in an effort to save lives and to save money. Lung cancer and emphysema treatments aren't cheap.

Sugar is pretty ubiquitous and certainly not everyone is an addict, although some are. Likely the same could be said for cigarettes in the 1940's and 50's. We laugh at the Mormons for avoiding caffeine, much the same way my own denomination was laughed at for avoiding tobacco. Things change.

There's nothing wrong with sugar. I love it. I have a difficult time resisting a bag of gummy worms when I pass them in the grocery store. We buy too much ice cream. You know what - none of that is good for me and I'd certainly buy less of it if it cost more money.

Maybe the individual isn't better off having small sodas, paying extra, or having to go up for more refills. I'll grant that it's true. But I do think we can argue society is better for it - or things like it.

As much as we dislike government (and I am all for as small a government as necessary) one thing it's incredibly good at is making us do things we know are good for us, but are tough to follow through on. Keeping ourselves healthy might have to be one we add to list - along with providing for our security, infrastructure, elderly and poor.

I'm ok if you're against the ban (heck, I already said I don't think it' the best way to get the desired result). I'm ok if you're offended by the idea. I'd just like you to admit that, for some people, it makes sense. There is a logic to it - even if you don't think the costs are worth the benefits.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


This third entry in what has come to be known as the "politics not Politics" series borrows heavily on the concepts in the previous post - Peace. The concept of shalom weighs heavy in any discussion of justice.

Justice is perhaps the most misused word in our culture today (except maybe love). We have everything from the Justice League (which is a fictional organization) to the Justice System (which we only wish were fictional). But throughout our world, the concept of justice is all about punishing bad guys and restoring good guys. There's a lot of retribution, perhaps not the violent kind, but retribution nonetheless.

Now don't think I'm again consequences for behavior or restoration for the aggrieved; those are both essential elements to society. No, my question involves why we divide ourselves into good guys and bad guys and what standard we use for "making someone whole."

We hear that Osama bin Laden's death brings justice to the victims that died under his various attacks. We hear that justice is served when a criminal is locked behind bars for the rest of his life. In those instances, justice has become synonymous with punishment. Someone commits a crime, thus they are penalized - monetarily, with time, or with their own life.

This is a perversion of justice (again, not that consequences for bad actions are wrong, but that this system is incomplete and is not really justice). Like many things in our society, justice has become too individualized.

Our legal system is based on making individuals whole. If I steal $100 from you, I must pay back that $100 and any interest that would have been earned during the time you didn't have it. You are made whole. If my drunken driving causes you to be paralyzed, I owe you a lifetime of medical bills and lost earnings. If a woman is raped, well, there's nothing to make her whole - so we do the next best thing, the guilty party pays as much as possible, by forfeiting freedom and spending time in jail. Sometimes the crime is horrific enough that it requires the perpetrator's life in payment. All in attempts to make the victim, or their loved ones, whole.

You can see, as crimes and violations increase in seriousness, the ability to make an individual whole diminishes. We can never think of an appropriate way to restore lost innocence or lost life - even torture, while satisfying on some primal level, doesn't do the job.

It becomes even less realistic when we move beyond one-on-one crimes and speak of sociological atrocities. How does the world compensate Africans and their descendants who suffer from the effects of the trans-atlantic slave trade? How does a nation compensate its indigenous people for the loss of a way of life and for near genocide? It would bankrupt our societies to make these individuals whole, so we give lip service to the injustice.

We celebrate justice or our attempts at justice until justice gets in the way of our way of life.

What if justice were not about making a group or individual whole, but about making creation itself whole? Justice, at least in its biblical sense, is about restoring shalom - about bringing society back (or at least closer) to what God envisions for the world.

This is where our idea of punishment as justice comes from. Of course, for justice to be done, some who have must have less and some who lack must have more. This is not a socialist utopia; God never said there should be no rich and poor. God did say that we should leave the gleanings of the harvest and the crops at the edge of the field so the poor will not be hungry. God did say that those who are foreign residents among you must be treated as native born.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those with wealth and power because they must give it up. Is it right to buy bottled water when a billion people lack access to the kind of clean water that runs out of your tap all day, every day?

Justice is not about Robin Hood robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Justice condemns stealing, even if it's from a greedy, heartless corporation. Justice does not recognize victimless crime. Of course, justice also asks if the greedy, heartless corporation is acting justly in its dealings. Profits may have to be sacrificed for justice. Justice does not recognize a victimless crime (even if society doesn't recognize it as a crime at all).

But I earned this, I worked for it. Justice takes that into consideration as well. God created this world with enough. In a just society no one should be afraid of not having enough. We are afraid because we don't trust each other to be just.

Justice costs something.

Justice costs something for those who lack power and standing because they must submit. Justice does not mean punishment or retribution. After decades of slavery, it may seem only fair for the roles to reverse, for the slaves to becomes the masters and the masters, slaves. This is not justice, for people still suffer, for society still fails to live up to its created purpose.

Justice costs something because it requires repentance and forgiveness.

Justice is the restoration of shalom.

When Dr. King quoted the prophet Amos - "May justice roll down like waters..." he was not calling for an overturning of the tables, but a meeting at the table. Party allegiances aside, when John Lewis speaks of meeting one of the men who beat him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, heard his confession and offered forgiveness, that was the beginning of justice. Justice is seen in the ongoing relationship of perpetrator and victim as friends.

Justice is George Bush and Osama bin Laden having a meal together.

That is, of course, impossible now - and likely was always impossible. Human nature is opposed to justice; we have to work at it. And likely we can't start with the biggest rifts, the biggest problems, the biggest injustices. We have to start with the small ones. The spats between husband and wife, the way we treat rebellious children and irresponsible neighbors.

Justice is not about demanding individual or group rights, justice is about commitment to making creation whole. It is about working for the good of others at the cost of your own. Proper justice rests on a proper understanding of peace and freedom.

True, justice is not expected in this world of sin and filth. Even those of us who are committed to the cause of Christ may never expect to see justice on a grand scale. But it is possible. Justice is not a pipe dream.

As we approach our politics and our Politics, justice should be an important foundation. We should be working for justice and supporting others who do as well. We should be celebrating those who sacrifice, both those with power and those without, for the cause of justice.

Most of all, we should not be fooled into calling our legal system a justice system. I don't think it's worthless. In our world, it is the best we have to keep order - and it certainly avoids some wicked calamities. We can always work to make our legal system more just - to make it more focused on the redemption of those who break the law rather than on retribution.

And we can work to make society more just, even if it's only where you live and with the people you know. We can work for justice so those in the legal system have a more just community to come home to, so we all have a more just place to live.

Monday, September 10, 2012


So often, whether consciously or not, we understand peace to be the absence of conflict. In fact, a quick survey of three online dictionaries reveals a nearly identical definition. They each used a different word - expressing an absence of violence, conflict, or hostility.

The last one may get closest to a proper definition.

Our public politics tend to push for peace as the result of winning a conflict. We take sides and fight and may the best man win. Sort of the old school battle tactics (think Hector and Achilles or David and Goliath) - if my ideas defeat your ideas, then you must submit. Even when we have real battles, we tend to seek peace through dominance or victory. If I kill enough of the enemy, they'll stop fighting or fight to the death. Eliminate the enemy, one way or another, and we will have peace.

We may be able to end violence or conflict by intimidation or force, but we cannot bring peace that way.

The biblical concept is the Hebrew word shalom (the Arabic salaam comes from the same root) - translated to English as peace. It means a bit more than that, though. Shalom is about wholeness, completeness. This peace is one in which all parties come together in unity. It is not about competition or dominance; shalom can't exist in that environment.

Peace cannot be limited to simply the absence of conflict. As I said, the absence of hostility is closer. Even a defeated party is hostile. They may be powerless or disarmed, but the fact of defeat generally increases hostility. Our drive for revenge is often greater even than our original desire to win. True peace cannot be achieved this way.

As a Christian I believe that we all have to live together. We are united in our humanity as caretakers of creation. We are not a democracy, but one people who must move forward together. This is why I oppose divisions and labels. Our national boundaries separate us from each other, as do our flags and military uniforms and political parties. We are, in the end, just people, and we have to get along.

That is what politics are all about, after all. Politics is our way of getting along with one another. Peace must be the goal of our politics.

Whether its a dispute with the cashier over the price of a tomato or two Presidential candidates facing off in a debate. Our politics must be about peace. We have to live together. That means working, sacrificing if need be, to see the value and humanity in my opponent. It may mean refusing to have opponents.

I get excited when our politicians set out a positive vision of the future. I become despondent when they attack, defame, and degrade the "other side." I truly lack the ability to understand political parties - to understand why one would rather have be seen as representative of a brand than as an individual.

How much better off would we be if the Republicans and the Democrats could openly respect and acknowledge the good ideas of the other party. If they do think an opponent has a good idea - they can't say so without hurting their reputation and re-election bids. That's not entirely their fault; after all we are the ones voting for them.

But peace is more than just our day to day interactions, our families, our congregations, our communities, States, and Nations must be exemplars of shalom. The same rules apply. We must not seek to dominate or consolidate our position. We must refuse to have opponents and enemies. Peace comes when we recognize and actualize the reality that we're all in this together.

In the end, though, our understanding of peace only works so far as our opponent also accepts it. Shalom can be nothing but a universal principle. If someone is throwing rocks at me to take my food, shalom exists neither in throwing rocks back nor in starving.

There may be shalom through starving, through suffering - if that act softens the heart and wins over the opponent - but there is no guarantee. There is one truth, though: peace never comes until someone chooses to stop fighting.

There will never be true peace until more people are willing to die not fighting than are willing to pick up arms (material or otherwise).

Finally, we have to separate peace from violence. We live in a violent world; I suspect we always will. However, our world is less violent now than it has been. Our visions and views of violence are different than they were in the past. Our world is no more peaceful. We have shifted our perspectives and our expectations. We have so utterly associated violence with peace that we fail to recognize the lack of shalom.

We celebrate the "peaceful" transfer of power in many nations around the world. Something that was once unheard of. Yet our transfers of power do not embody shalom. There is regular talk of "healing the nation" after a bitter election, even after a decisive court decision or legislative battle.

Peace is more than an absence of violence or conflict - peace is shalom, a unified world ruled not by a gracious majority, but by sacrifice and cooperation. Only a truly free people can ever be at peace.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


There's a lot of talk of freedom during election campaigns. In the US we also have a semantic love for liberty. Overall the idea is to be as unconstrained as possible without negatively affecting anyone else.

I've always had a hard time with this idea. I've never been able to figure out exactly how we determine the effect of our actions on other people. When are we doing harm to others? When are they just being too sensitive?

Freedom and liberty work great as campaign slogans, but the details can bog you down.

Can someone use their freedom to give up freedom? Could a democratic election result in a dictatorship, if the free voters freely chose?

There's a lot of issues surrounding freedom, which is why philosophy exists and why there's no shortage of libertarian debates to be had (go to any message board anywhere and type five simple letters: obama - and if your posting privileges aren't immediately revoked, you'll understand the cultured nuance of the topic).

But what if our idea of freedom isn't really freedom at all? What if our striving for unconstrained rational pursuit of our own good isn't the end all and be all of life? That might make things a bit more complicated.

That's exactly my proposal.

As a Christian attempting to live in this world of ours, it seems important to understand how to approach freedom from the perspective of the God who created it in the first place.

The Bible is full of paradoxes and unexpected reversals - it's what keep us on our toes. Freedom is no different. Christian faith calls the ability to make unconstrained choices a kind of slavery - and the single-minded adherence to someone else's preferences, freedom.

It blows the mind a bit, I know - but stick with me.

In Corinth, Paul encountered some Christians enjoying their freedom - doing anything their hearts desired, living unconstrained. He rebuked them saying, "everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial." Beneficial to whom? Certainly not to me. I know we humans are prone to immediate gratification over long term benefit, but I'm smarter than that; I'm rational. I can plan for the future and make the right decisions for me.

I'm responsible - even more so because I have the moral code of a Christian. I can use liberty better than anyone else.

That's not freedom. We can't take our selfishness, bless it with faith, morality, and reason - and call it righteousness. When our own benefit/happiness/desire is the focus of our actions (even good, moral actions), we're enslaved.

In Romans Paul calls it the law of sin and the law of grace. Sin is our desire to put ourselves first - that doesn't change when we do it in a way that is culturally and morally acceptable. Christ came to free us from our slavery to self.

This law of grace, though, is not just a free-for-all; it is deeply rooted in the creative purpose of the world. We are interconnected. Everything that happens affects everything else. Human beings were not created to look after themselves - but to maintain God's creation in the way God intended.

We're supposed to make sure everything goes according to plan. This is real freedom - when we're relieved of the need, the drive, the desire to satisfy ourselves, to look after ourselves. Only then are we free to enjoy the world as it was intended. We no longer have to think about when it's ok to indulge ourselves; we are free to truly love others.

How does that work? Christ serves as the model of freedom. He came with a single-minded devotion to love. That love, so extreme, it could only be proven by a brutal, but willing, execution for an innocent man. That's what freedom looks like - it's sacrifice.

Of course that doesn't entirely leave us off the hook for making decisions. None of us has that direct a line to God, to know instinctively what to do in any given situation. We can't either simply say that we'll do only for others - that is also a form of slavery (no different, really, than chattel slavery, except it's willing).

No, true freedom involves living into the creative purpose for the world. Read Genesis 1 and 2 again - creation is not a gift for humanity; humanity is a gift for creation. Jesus took time for himself. He partied. He vacationed. It's not just about self denial. This freedom is a bit more complicated.

I can't tell you exactly how to live free (I think we're supposed to reason that out together - which might just be a useful purpose for government), but I can tell you it never involves asking the question, "what's best for me," and it never involves envisioning ourselves outside the community.

The United States gives people the right to live enslaved to themselves. We have a thing, often called freedom, that allows people to cut themselves off from others, to live independently, to do what they want (so long as it doesn't overly upset others). That is not freedom, but slavery - and it doesn't have to be rewarded.

We can value individual choice as a nation, as a society, as a people. We can, and should, be a place where people are unconstrained to do as they please. We do not have to collectively celebrate it. We do not have to idealize it and praise it and lift it up as an example.

Ultimately what people want is not freedom to choose, but freedom from consequences. That freedom just doesn't exist.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Government, Politics, and Hope: A Mea Culpa

The last couple of weeks I've been floundering a bit. I've been struggling to reflect on the US Presidential election in the midst of the party conventions - and to somehow communicate my perspective on the whole thing. I don't think I've done a great job. You may have seen the evidence on Facebook or Twitter.

As a Christian, I am called to embody and live into a different culture. The people of Christ are to be formed in love with different (if often complementary) values to those of the dominant culture. It's difficult to explain or embody those differences as I am as co-opted by this US culture as anyone.

I feel like a child, re-learning the ways of the world around me with a different set of values, attempting to change my reactions and foundations. (Incidently, it's just as difficult to try and teach a child to understand the world differently the first time around).

Part of the counter-narrative, the counter-story that the gospel presents is a different take on power. Christ ignored the power structures of the day. The religious leaders, both inside and outside the temple, as well as the Roman governmental and military rulers. He acted as if they were unimportant for life. Jesus called collaborators and zealots (people who hated each other more than Democrats and Republicans).

I don't believe Christ came to found a religion, but to remind us of God's creative purpose for life. I believe the mission of the Church, of God's people, is to embody that purpose in an alternative community.

I find it more and more difficult to put my hope and faith in God's mission when I'm being pulled and pushed to put faith (even if its reserved faith or skeptical faith) in a political system. The type of power that infuses government is the type of power from which God has delivered God's people time and again throughout history.

I struggle to participate in that power, even in a small way - like voting.

I also struggle to put such faith in an ideology other than love. When choosing a candidate, we're choosing a way of looking at life. No political candidate has the Christian perspective: love, love love; give, give, give; submit, submit, submit; sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice; love, love, love. The ethic, the ideology of the gospel is the exact opposite of the ideology of power (no matter what stream of politics you subscribe to).

I believe strongly that life is about relationship. God's relationship to the world and our relationships with each other. We need each other; we were created for cooperation. There is nothing in scripture that speaks to the individual - we receive the gospel personally only as we participate in God's people, in relationship.

For that reason I am a lot more amenable to politicians and elections the smaller and more local the race. I believe the election of block captain or school board is more important than the election for President or Governor - because they're the people we deal with on a regular basis. They are the people responsible for enacting our values within our own communities.

Now I understand that there's some real benefits to a federal system, be it a county, state, or nation. There's a lot of things that are streamlined and simplified by scale. I'm not trying to say or infer that governments can't be a part of our life together.

I think the most important role government can play is holding us accountable to do the things we know to be right, but that are hard for us to follow through on. We want to take care of the poor and the elderly (there's a lot about widows and orphans and strangers in scripture), but we don't always want to make big sacrifices when those needs present themselves - so we put money in trust with the government to do that for us - to help us follow through.

You can already see the pitfalls, even in that example. Now we've moved ourselves one step away from the relationship. Those in need are now helped through a middleman, an intermediary. The same problem applies if its a private charity rather than the government.

In the end, our politics are simply our way of living with each other. Politics is not limited to governments and elections. I believe strongly that, for Christians, the Church is the avenue in which we express our politics. We love each other and we take that love out into the world - we bring that politic to everything else we do. Our jobs, our schools, our neighborhoods, our communities, our government.

So often our culture has attempted to confine our politics to our government - so that we outsource our responsibility to live together to someone else. Life is not a competition. People with different politics don't disappear just because they lose an election. When we're neighbors, we still have to see each other when we put the trash out. We have to live together - and not in dominance or victory, but in peace.

I don't see our government working for the good of anyone, for the end result of peace. We have lofty goals, things like justice and freedom. I'm not sure we really understand what those words mean. In the end, government is a play for power - for the authority or the ability to enact our politics, our vision, on the nation, the state or the school board. As great as the opportunities are for good, that kind of power doesn't bring what we seek. It just doesn't.

It is part of the paradox of faith. The gospel finds power in weakness and authority in submission. The gospel finds influence by avoiding power. The politics of Christ is humble love.

I have not been humble or particularly loving. I see a strong correlation in the two parties to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee. The tax collector comes to worship and prays for forgiveness - have mercy on me, O God, a sinner. The pharisee prays - thank God I am not as sinful as that tax collector. One is attuned to the heart of God, the other is not. Our reaction, however, is too often to say, "thank God I am not like the pharisee" and thus become him.

The political parties point the finger at one another like the pharisee toward the tax collector. I pointed the finger right back.

There is a better way. There must be. I haven't yet found it. I'll keep trying.

I treat the political conventions like a baseball game - tweeting my comments and trying to be funny and mostly failing. I truly don't view them as much more than a spectator sport. A lot of people take this stuff deadly serious, more than they should. But elections and governments have the opportunity to be more than a sport - there is some value there, we just can't let it be the source of hope.

I included the video above. Emmanuel Cleaver is a United Methodist minister and the Representative from Kansas City. He's a great man, a good pastor, and a strong man of faith. He's doing his best to bring the politics of the Church into the public sphere. You can see in the speech above how much he believes in hope.

I think it's a bit misplaced to associate those politics with government and elections - Republican or Democrat. A party means a platform and an ideology - and we've covered that already.

I do think we can and should speak together on big issues. One of the travesties of our political system (one with two parties) is that our public debates are generally limited to either/or options. We tend to view every major issue with one of two solutions. There is always another way.

I think we'd be more likely to find those ways forward if we'd stop associating ourselves with an ideology or a platform and just talk about issues.

I tried to do that a few weeks ago with the voter ID situation. I will do that in the future as the election approaches. I don't think I'll vote; I just don't think either man represents a workable politic, nor do I think any human should be given the kind of power the President of the US has - it's unhealthy and unloving to put anyone in that role.

I believe that candidates who get our hopes up for change, for success, for a future that meets our expectations, they represent a temptation to think we can make things work through the sheer force of will, through our own power.

In the end, I don't vote because we cannot build the tower to heaven, no matter how just, how free, how virtuous we craft our government, it will not satisfy the longing we have for peace, freedom, and justice. I just don't like fooling myself or getting my hopes up. For me, that's what a vote does. I want to stand up and cheer Rev. Cleaver in his video, but I just don't believe his God-given vision is possible through governments and elections.

The next three blog posts will be concerning those three words - peace, freedom, and justice - the ways we use them and my understanding of the Christian perspective on each. I hope we can have a conversation about how our politics plays out across the many spheres in which we live together.