Thursday, February 28, 2013

Impossible to Exploit

God told me to give a homeless guy twenty bucks. Now, you don't have to be down with the whole "word from above" thing to recognize the feeling of urgency. We all, whether through divine intervention, conscience, or a chemical imbalance can understand what it means to feel a sense of calling. Often it's something out of the ordinary that catches us off-guard.

I don't often give money to homeless people; I'm more likely to buy them lunch and sit and talk - hopefully it helps them to feel valued as a person and not an object or a charity case. This time it was different. All my training in American Evangelicalism had told me I must be efficient and responsible with my money. Giving it to a homeless person who may use it for drugs or booze was a waste of money. After all, I'm responsible to God for that twenty bucks, responsible to use it well.

Still, the compulsion was almost overwhelming. I gave the money. I gained something more. I had an epiphany. God does entrust things to us for our use - and we are responsible for how we use it. However, God was telling me to give - and that means unconditionally. Something is not a gift if it comes with strings attached. My gift to that man was God's way of entrusting him with something. Whom am I to stand in the way of that?*

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says a lot of difficult things. Most of my teaching on these difficult things growing up was people trying to explain why Jesus didn't really mean what he seems to mean in those chapters. Towards the end of Matthew, chapter 5, we get the famous phrase "turn the other cheek" as Jesus' radical command to non-violence. It's followed by some lesser known words:

And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Luke's version of these words includes an admonition to "lend without expecting to get anything back," which is an awful lot like giving. The underlying theme here is that nothing is really yours, but deeper still is this response to being taken advantage of. That's what's happening. There's a bully trying to sue you for everything you've got - and Jesus says, don't fight it, give him literally the shirt off your back. The way to keep from being taken advantage of is not to bully the bully, but to refuse to be the victim. If there is no victim, there is also no bully. You're saving both parties - you and him - from being in damaging positions.

It's not about being naive, it's about placing trust in someone, perhaps someone who doesn't deserve it. It's not about being naive, it's about recognizing that no one owns anything; everything belongs to God. I don't deserve this thing (whatever it is) more because I have it and he doesn't or because I worked for it and he didn't.

Life might seem to work that way, but reality is different. It's all part of this scarcity myth. There is some idea out there that there's not enough for everyone, and therefore we must hoard and protect what we have. We might run out or someone else could hoard it all and refuse to share. You see where this is going? In protecting ourselves from the greedy or selfish, we become greedy and selfish.

I give because giving is good. I trust because trusting is good. If someone seeks to abuse my trust or to take advantage of my generosity, I give more. You can't take advantage of me if I refuse to be a victim.

It hurts, of course. Giving costs us something - usually comfort and often peace of mind. It almost always costs standing or reputation. You look weak because you're not conforming to the patterns of the world.

Today, in our town, there is a school board referendum to raise property taxes to support the school. It's become a pretty contentious issue. Most people who oppose the increase think it's too high. We all agree the school needs more money, but some think they're asking too much. They don't trust the school district to spend it wisely or to spend it in the way they think best.

This is a perfectly natural response, one that fits completely with the way our world seems to work. People with power tend to abuse it, so why give them more? I don't begrudge anyone voting their conscience and I would certainly not wish to impose my worldview on anyone.

I'm voting for it - mostly because of what I've said above. I choose to trust. It's not as if these people are nameless, faceless politicians somewhere. Our town has 18,000 people - these are our friends and neighbors. The Superintendent, someone I've known to have integrity and good judgment, said this is what they need to do a good job educating students. He may be right, he may be wrong, he may be ignorant, he may be downright lying. I choose to trust.

This money isn't my money. I didn't earn it (despite what the paycheck says) and I'm not going to prioritize it's importance over a commitment to lend without expecting something in return.

I hope and pray the funding is there to bring back some of the support structures that have been cut. My wife and her co-workers are under serious stress this year, much more than the normal stress of teaching in a public school. They're doing more with less and if it continues, it will effect her ability to teach well and our overall quality of life.

If this doesn't work out. If the funding isn't there or even if the doubters prove correct and nothing gets better - I'll be sad, but I won't be surprised. It might mean a lot of tough changes for us - but they'll be worth it.

I won't be the victim, and I won't be the bully. I'm happy to trust, not naively, but with eyes wide open.

*Quick side note: My friend and former boss, Oliver Phillips, tells a great story about relating that same responsibility to homeless man once. I can't do it justice, but he said something along the line of "God has entrusted me with this money, to use it wisely and be responsible. One day I will answer to God for how I've used it. I'm giving it to you - and now you have the same responsibility and one day you'll answer to God for how you use it." And the guy gave it back. I can't tell you how often I heard that story, but it cracks me up every time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


You may know I'm a bit odd. If you know that, you also know that first sentence is a bit of an understatement.

One of the ways this manifests itself is my intense hatred of contrived holidays - Mother's day, Father's day, Valentine's day, etc. I'm not opposed to celebration or even frivolous celebration. While I am an introvert, I don't think you need an excuse to have a party (my definition of "party" may be vastly different than yours, but the maxim holds true).

I'm a little less excited when the frivolous celebration someone else conceived becomes mandatory for the rest of society. St. Valentine had his head chopped off for trying to convert the Emperor - not exactly hearts and flowers and chocolates, you know?

I've also believed (and continue to believe) that if the people in my life don't know I appreciate them through the normal course of life, if I am not thinking of them in intentional ways all year, then it's almost a lie to make a big deal of one day.

I never thought I'd end up on the negative end of that sentence, though. I've always tried to bring home flowers or chocolate for no reason at all. I keep saying I'm not opposed to a nice dinner, gifts, and celebration, I just hate doing what everyone else is doing. I've tried to be spontaneous (as much as my obsessive personality will allow) and special. I'm not sure I've done it enough.

My wife has put up with a lot of things over the years. In fairness, she does invite chaos into her life on her own, but she certainly has often been blindsided by mine. She works really hard at a pretty thankless job. Sure, she gets 7 or 8 weeks off each summer, but in the other 45 I don't think I've seen her put in less than 70 hours a week. She taught school the day before she went into labor. She makes all of our daughter's food herself.

She does more around the house, in our neighborhood, and in life than she needs to, because she's good at so many things (and, let's face it, I'm kinda lazy).

We talk often about the difficulties, at times, we have in our marriage because we are absolute opposites. Even after 8.5 years we're both pretty terrible at reading the other's mind. There are probably other people each of us could have married and had easier lives, but I don't think they'd be better.

My wife, through love, grace, stubbornness, and sheer force of personality, is making me into someone better than I was. Also, without her I would not have this beautiful little girl, who is absolutely the best thing I've ever done.

I hate contrived holidays. This is a source of relentless displeasure for this wonderful woman. So today I'm beginning to make things right. I want my daughter to know how to love other people and I want her to know how special her mother is to me. Today, and on the 26th day of every month, we're going to have "Mom Day," where we celebrate the wife and mother who holds our world together.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Propriety, not Privacy

Ok, this may now no longer be a topical post, but I've been thinking about it since the prank phone call and subsequent suicide of the nurse at Princess Kate's hospital. Some other big things got in the way - not to mention a holiday - so the post got put off. But I still think there's some relevancy to speaking about society and privacy, so here it goes.

Any death is tragic, especially a suicide. It speaks of unfathomable hurt and loss. In this case, it was possibly a result of public embarrassment, which itself was the result of a joke gone wrong. Our immediate reaction is to cast blame. We have to find someone responsible.

I'd like to argue that there's no one to blame - this is the result of a society we created, one with priorities way out of whack in a number of ways.

Privacy is not really of utmost importance. I laugh at CEOs who have bodyguards, mostly to make themselves look important, and at celebrities who bemoan the paparazzi for following them everywhere, despite the examples of many big-name stars who are never seen. Not that anyone should be able to get your medical records without your permission, but it shouldn't be such a big deal if it happens.

I think this obsession with privacy comes from our societal push towards self-control and competition. We want others to know as little about us because it might reveal weakness. Or, perhaps we want to keep things hidden to project a certain image to the rest of the world - how accurately are you represented by your carefully crafted Facebook persona?

Somehow we think if we can control how people see us, we can actually be different. We reject our failures and weaknesses as somehow other than who we are when our sins are almost always worse in our own minds - at least to the people who love us.

It's those other people - those strangers, enemies or frenemies?, I guess. Those people who will leap on our "private" matters to put us down, gain an edge, or try to change how we're viewed (by ourselves and others). Sometimes just the knowledge that I'm self-conscious about something will make it an object of ridicule, even if objectively there's no reason for it to be.

There's a fine line between laughing at some guy who falls down the stairs and dehumanizing him. If you have to say, "I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you," you're not, and they know it.

All of this leads us to a place of absolute guarded-ness. We think that everything needs to be secret - the results of my blood test, my salary, how much I paid for that purse, the fights I have with my spouse, etc.

I think perhaps we're better off not worrying so much about privacy as propriety. Obviously, I'm not going to put all the things about my wife that bug me in a newspaper column, or tell random strangers how much cash is in my wallet, but there are certainly times for discussing everything.

I've often said that Christians don't have the luxury of privacy - and I believe it strongly. We are accountable to each other for the way we participate in this shared life in Christ. We're responsible to others for our actions - talk about a counter-cultural idea. We have the right to ask each other just about anything.

Of course this - and every other path to escape the tyranny of privacy - requires relationship. We have to have people we trust not to abuse us, and people who will be similarly vulnerable to us. That's how we begin to find a way out, to actually become the kinds of people we'd like to think we are.

I made a vow to myself when I joined Facebook that I wouldn't censor myself - I wouldn't present a picture of myself that was any different than the me my friends and family know. I think they'd all say I've stuck to it (to my wife's chagrin, at times). But part of that was learning what things I should be saying or thinking at all. Knowing others might see it or be offended by it gave me pause to think.

Some would call that censorship, but I call it growth. I've found that the discipline of refusing privacy in that way has help shape me into the kind of person who considers others all the time. My thinking and speaking have changed. Perhaps not always in socially acceptable ways, but ways I can live with, ways I can defend, for the most part.

I do believe my life's an open book. I think there's an appropriate place to share anything - but the key is not content, but situation. Propriety.

There are still things in my life that embarrass me. There are times where I've been blind and foolish. I'd rather not everyone know about them, but I won't be upset if you ask or if they come out (at least I'll try really hard not to be with varying success), because, like it or not, they're me. I hope they aren't always me, but for now, they are who I am. They're not worth losing sleep over, let alone someone's life.

I don't think this is license to just go rousing into everyone's business and exposing the deep, dark secrets of the world. But we do live in a world where such secrets are exposed and their exposition is a favorite hobby for many. On top of watching our lives and working to become people whose secrets are less deep and less dark, we might also think about surrounding ourselves with people who won't be surprised by our secrets and won't love us any less if they are.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Physical Spirituality

It's been a busy week for me. I had the privilege of spending Friday evening and all day Saturday with an awesome group of teenagers and college students from West Chester Church of the Nazarene. Then, early Sunday morning, I enjoyed a wonderful drive through South Jersey, from the retreat in Ocean City to Rising Sun Church of the Nazarene in Maryland where I had the opportunity to preach.

I didn't plan on the themes of these events dovetailing together, but they did. I suspect it's a subconscious effect of my current fascination with how our practices form us as people. At the youth retreat, we walked through God's plan of resurrection and redemption, talking about the hope and joy we have in God's continued creation in setting the world right. The final talk I gave began to deal with the ways in which we become the kind of people God can use in this mission of redemption. The Sunday sermon ended up in about the same place - with an emphasis on fasting, during this season of Lent.

Then I arrived home today and listened to the sermon from Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene and pastor Scott Daniels. This is a practice I try to maintain weekly - and he was preaching from an entirely different passage in the midst of a series on the core of our faith. However, he ended up in the same place. The things we do shape who we are - our practice, our physical action, have the most profound effect on who we become.

The things we do make us who we are. The things we believe only matter if we embody them in practice. An embodied gospel. That is the challenge I've been undertaking and avoiding in recent years. Undertaking because I believe it true; I believe my purpose on the is planet is to live into reality, into God's intended once and future way of life for creation. Avoiding because, well, it's dang hard.

I've always been an analyzer - I'm always asking why. I can be pretty stubborn if I don't see a good reason to do something. "We've always done it" or "everybody does it," are not going to help your case.

Why? Because what we do matters. Every little thing reinforces something within us.

I'm amazed how drastically, over time, a few little things have so damaged my discipline. There are so many things in my life I do without thinking. I am grateful for the practice of fasting - and for the season of Lent to show how much I need it the rest of the year.

Good intentions and right belief - even the best analyzed and thought out beliefs - don't mean much if you don't follow through.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sense and Senseless: Searching for Perspective on Public Violence

I was awoken today by a CNN news alert at 6-something in the morning. Usually if news is breaking then, it's a big deal. Today it was the announcement that Pope Benedict the XVI is resigning at the end of the month. I (eventually) dragged my tired butt downstairs and turned on the news to get more information. I found all the local channels covering a shooting at the New Castle County Court House, just up the road in Wilmington, DE.

Even as I write this, the details are unclear. It appears the shooting involved an ongoing custody battle and the shooter knew and chose the victims purposely.

I hate to admit, but that made me feel better, somehow. Learning that the man had a reason to do what he did, to kill, somehow made it seem easier to handle or explain or deal with emotionally. I'm not sure it should be that way. Shouldn't we be shocked and saddened at the loss of life and not immediately ask why? Have such killings become so accepted, so commonplace that we take the actual loss of life for granted and fixate on the justification (even if it's poor justification)?

As a follower of Christ's way, I am committed to non-violence and I've intentionally sought to foster practices that shape me and my reactions in that direction. Thankfully I live in a place where violence is not even an occasional occurrence. It's not as though I have ample opportunity to exercise my alternative responses. What I've settled for is an attempt to expand my gospel imagination. In what new or different ways could I handle such a situation. What is the gospel approach, the non-violent response here?

Sadly, there have been ample opportunities over the years, and especially in recent months, to think about the tragedy of encountering violence. I won't pretend to be an expert or even a novice; so many people in this world respond to violence every day - and do so with more humility, grace, and commitment than I could ever muster. Still, I think the exercise worthwhile.

When we thought the worst, that this shooting in Wilmington was random, an act meant to instill fear, it was more confusing. In cases of targeted killing or specific threats, it's at least easier to imagine how one might respond. If the shooter is angry or upset or sad or depressed, but not at you, there's room for loving intervention. It may not be likely, but it's within the realm of our imagination. Perhaps there is someway to connect with this person, beloved of God, who is angry enough to take life.

When there are indiscriminate bullets flying at anything that moves, that response becomes less likely to result in peace. I am amazed at how paralyzing it can be to encounter a situation where neither fight nor flight is a morally acceptable response. I've never even been close to such a scenario, but even the thought of it this morning created intense anxiety.

Ultimately, the logical, theological side of me says this is the result of living in a broken world. There are violent and destructive acts which are truly senseless. There just may not be an answer. I appeal to the notion that Jesus always knew the right thing to say or do. On countless occasions he disarmed hostile crowds with incredibly creative responses the likes of which I could never hope to imagine. But then I realize, despite all of these effective, non-violent responses, even Christ didn't solve the last conflict. He ended up on a cross.

Still, it sits wrong deep inside that I lack the imaginative and creative abilities to solve (or even attempt to solve) such problems in the world, problems that seem so fundamental to God's redemptive work in which we've been invited to join. Then again, the taking of life is supposed to sit wrong with us. That's what drives this longing for non-violent response in the first place. Death is not a solution to death, nor killing to killing.

In the end, all violence is senseless. It doesn't have to happen. But it does happen. Our attempts to make sense out of the senseless really distract us from the opportunity to breathe life into lifeless situations. The only response to violence is love. Comfort the hurting. Pray for the aggrieved. Refuse to accept such violence as simply the way the world works.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Love and Happiness

I don't want my daughter to be happy. Don't get me wrong, I'm not rooting for her unhappiness either, I'm merely trying to communicate my desire that happiness not be the central motivation of her life.

So often today it seems we, as a society, operate on a scale of hyper-individualized self-satisfaction. It stems from this notion that the opposite of misery is happiness. I suspect those two things are far more alike than they are different - at least in contexts with which I'm most familiar.

I think about the friend who says, "I'm quitting my job to go to art school." Now I have no problem with that, per say; I applaud non-economic decisions in general and I think we could use far more artists in the world. However, when you go deeper and ask why - often the response is: "I'm just not happy."

I don't think it's an issue of happiness. How many people do we see in enviable positions - with money, power, fame, or success - who claim to lack happiness? I imagine it's more a lack of purpose.

We humans have this insatiable desire for fulfillment. We recognize that individually we lack something and we're desperate to figure out what it is and to fill the lack. Despite the passe nature of seeking happiness in money, possessions, power, or fame, we still do it. We've also added some socially acceptable pursuits as well - domestic tranquility or philanthropy (Peter Rollins would add religious tranquility, and I think he's right).

None of these are, on their own, anything other than the age-old attempt to fill our inherent emptiness with something other than another person. I think this comes from a bastardized understanding of love.

We've whittled love down to a solitary act - something we do for or to someone or something else, usually in support of another's journey towards happiness. We do it to make ourselves feel good and we do it to make someone else feel good, but there is no relationship, no transaction taking place.

Love is something that irrevocably ties us to another. This is the antithesis of happy. For if we love in this way and ever become unhappy, we're stuck. It's one thing to quit a job because of unhappiness - likely your employer has no more loyalty to you than you do to them, but we hesitate a bit (although seemingly less and less everyday) when someone quits a marriage for the same reason.

Why? Because there's some implied commitment there (or at least there's supposed to be). When we tie ourselves to others we forfeit the right to make our personal happiness the primary motivation of our life.

Our society has responded by avoiding commitment like the plague. We've removed the stigma around breaking agreements and incentivized not forming them in the first place. From independent contractors at work to pre-nups in marriage (if you get married at all) to individual state, cities, and sheriffs deciding which laws are worth enforcing - we've embodied the idea that "you can't make me do anything I don't want to do."

And that's fine. I believe in every person's right to make those decisions. I just don't think it's healthy - and I know it's no path to happiness, no path to finding purpose and contentment.

The irony, if you will, the paradox of human life is that our innate desire for self-fulfillment cannot be filled by on our own. It can't be done by seeking happiness. It can only be accomplished by giving up that individual desire to be fulfilled. It happens by loving others irrevocably, by giving someone else the right to control what we do. It means loving in such a way that we tie ourselves to others.

I don't want my daughter to be unhappy - that's not the idea - I want her to love and be loved. I want her to have purpose, to be apart of God's redemptive purpose in the world. I'm fairly certain this doesn't always make one happy, but there' more to life than simply enjoying it.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

This is the fourth and final post of reflections from my retreat. The retreat is always a wonderful time to relax. I mean relax in the true sense of the word - to almost collapse in on myself. I think about a lung after you breathe out; it contracts to its smallest size and fewest functions. It relaxes.

I relax on retreat. I'm always asking others what time it is, because I really try to minimize my stimulation and get out of all my routines. I bring books to read and a pen and paper to write, I walk in the fields, pray, and sit in silence. I breathe. I move from one thing to another when the task seems done, not based on any schedule.

Growing up in evangelical Christianity, especially as an already emotional teenager, there was lots of talk of peaks and valleys - it was usually using the scriptural image of the mountaintop. We'd go away to summer camps or youth group weekends, get out of our normal routines, sing songs, listen to speakers and generally have emotional experiences.

While there can be problems with such emotionalism in faith, I don't have ill feelings or confusion about most of those experiences. I believe them to be genuine and I value those times of emotion, because they are often the times God breaks through transformationally in the lives of people.

And usually the leaders and mentors were careful to warn us that the emotionalism of camp is far different than the "valleys" of normal life, where outside pressure and influences can make those mountaintop experiences seem less than realistic.

I've always sort of used this metaphor - peaks and valleys - at least subconsciously to think about the emotionalism and the ordinariness of faith and life.

This week at retreat re-oriented that notion.

You see, retreat, for me, is a valley. It is generally unemotional. It is ultra-ordinary. Much like those peak experiences of camp, retreat is a place of removing distractions and refining life to hear from God - but while the peaks are busy and active, the valley of retreat is calm and restful.

God speaks to me in different ways in the peaks and the valleys, but both illustrate unique places of divine interaction.

The picture, to the right, is one I took from Boundary Peak, NV. It immediately came to mind as I thought about peaks and valleys. We drove up an old mining road to reach the trailhead, then had to walk along a series of valleys before finding the peak itself. The difficult part of the hike was ascending a long, steep scree field; and indeed we did not make it to the top. Weather and poor acclimation, along with further hiking in the coming days turned us back, but I will always remember the contrast.

Climbing up was hard. You'd slide back six to ten inches with every step you took. There was a lot less oxygen at 11,000 feet and we were not used to it yet. My climbing partner sent me ahead near the top, he was done. I walked another half hour and noticed I was only maybe 100 yards ahead of him. I gave up too.

Going down was just as hard, if not harder. You still slid on the scree, but with your weight and momentum behind each step, it took more effort to stop.

I think it's a good metaphor. It takes work to get to the peak and it takes work to find the valley. We were really content staying put, sitting and enjoying the view. That's the danger of everyday life - of settling into a routine and forgetting the peaks and valleys.

Spiritual life, faith, is not about enjoying the peaks and surviving the valleys, it's about making space for both peaks and valleys as a means of shedding our complacency. We need to go up and to go down. In the end, both times of intense emotion and times of immense relaxation help to orient us towards a purpose, a vision, bigger than our everyday lives.

If we had chosen simply to follow the valleys, we would have gone up, but we would have never reached the true heights or witnessed the spectacular views. Of course if we'd stayed on the peaks, well, we wouldn't have really ever gotten anywhere. When climbing mountains, you have to go up to come down and you have to come down to go up.

In life it works the same way. Peaks and valleys. I don't think you can simply have one or the other. You can't hum along with occasional bursts of emotion, and you can't survive with occasional retreats into solitude. We need the up and down to make the space in the middle worth living.