Thursday, May 29, 2014

Life, Choices, Conversation, and Religion

I'm not sure religion exists. I mean, I know there are religions out there - organized faiths of one kind or another, but they're not really faiths at all. I don't think they're religions either - at least in the way we often think of religion. Religions are just sets of practices based on some core beliefs. When we think of religion, we usually think of people who have the same beliefs and share common actions. But when you look at religion, the actual common practices are few and far between. Most people actually live their lives the way they see fit. Sure, our lives are often influenced by our religion, but there's nothing particularly religious about it.

This is essentially ethics. Everyone has ethics and, I suppose, we could say everyone has a religion. It might not be formalized or commonly recognized or particularly geared toward spirituality, but we all have a religion.

If everyone has a religion, we could say no one has a religion.

We just live. We make choices. We act - and our actions reveal our beliefs (whether we know it or not). Even when we share our beliefs with others (sometimes many others), even when we share a few joint practices, even then we're making individual decisions.

When people talk about joining a religion, more and more I don't know what they mean. Sure, there are basic principles and faith statements we make and agree with, but (probably sadly) these don't often predict the way in which we'll live them out - if we live them out at all.

I imagine this sounds strange, coming from a Christian - and a pastor at that. To me, it seems quite natural. I suspect most people's impression of Christianity has more to do with the religion (ethics) that people have built around the idea of Jesus Christ than his actual life and teachings. Jesus has become more of a guilt trip or a scare tactic to most people, rather than someone with a unique perspective on how to live.

I'm interested in the way people live life. I'm curious about the choices people make, the beliefs they have and why we choose what we do. I think its important to act intentionally and to understand exactly what our actions say about our beliefs. If you and I believe differently or act differently, it's either out of ignorance - because I've never come across your particular way of life - or because we answer certain questions in different ways, and thus make different choices.

I'd love to get together with people and discuss life - things we encounter in our own lives and things about the world that make us think. I'm curious as to why people respond the way they do, why people think differently. That's the kind of religious discussion I like. I want to do more of that.

For me, it's not so much about finding the right answers, but examining why we do the things we do and maybe finding a better way to do life than we had before. It's not about converting or convincing; I don't want to make you believe what I believe or act the way I act. I do want to understand where and why we differ.

I know. I've been told. I often come off too obnoxious and aggressive when I have these conversations. I keep asking questions and people feel badgered. I'm sorry. I'm genuinely excited and, most of the time, I'd genuinely like to be convinced to change my mind. I spend a lot of time thinking. I ask myself a lot of questions and I'm usually desperate for other ways of looking at an issue, something I hadn't thought of before.

Anyway, whether it's because I'm a parent now and life is busy with other things, it seems like I have less of these conversations than I used to. That, in turn, means I've developed fewer deep friendships than I have in the past.

So I guess I'm asking. Anyone want to get together on a somewhat regular basis, share a meal, and talk about things beyond the typically superficial?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mourning and Memorial Day

A number of years ago now, I posted about November 11th and elucidated some of my struggles over how to deal with war and people who go to war. I've re-posted it a couple of times, but I've mainly let it stand for itself. As I re-read it (which I do often), I don't know if there's anything else to add, so I don't.

As we finish what is another difficult holiday to navigate I've been asking myself why it's so different? If I've worked through a dealt with issues of war and violence, why is the last Monday in May so much different than November 11th?

The answer should probably have been obvious, but, like a lot of things, I was slow to catch on. The difference is death.

Veterans Day often includes ceremonies at cemeteries and stories of long-ago wars, but it's really a day about people who've fought - many of whom are still alive (and too often forgotten). I hope I can separate the value and needs of people with my objection to war.

But death is different.

Memorial Day is about those who've fought and died - not just those soldiers who have died, but those who died in war. I don't like war - and it's not just the typical hatred of something inevitable; I don't believe its inevitable or necessary. I hope the post above and Brian Zahnd's great piece this week explain some of the theological underpinnings of that.

But what I'm realizing more and more, when it comes to Memorial Day, that doesn't really matter. People are dead and they are not coming back (at least not until the resurrection on the last day). With the possible exception of pain-ridden, terminal situation, where the suffering is too much to bear, all death is tragic, all death in painful.

When it comes to losing the people we care about, the why or the how aren't really important. We talk like they are sometimes - we like to think a heroic death (like one in battle) is better than a drug overdose or a car accident - but in the end, a mother or a brother or a daughter have lost someone irreplaceable and it is the loss we feel.

Ironically, this year, I saw many comments from people emphasizing that Memorial Day is not about military service in particular, but about remembering those who died in war - there was a general sense of emphasis on remembering, on loss.

I know it's attached to military service precisely because the cultural assumption is that these are noble deaths - deaths that earned us something: freedom, peace, security, etc - but the more I see comments from soldiers and family, the more it becomes apparent that this is simply a day of mourning.

All death is tragic. Death is an enemy. Death is a terrible thing. I know it's a part of life; I know it's inevitable, but it's not good. There is no such thing as an honorable or dishonorable death. Death sucks. It is universally bad.

I struggle, I do, with the patriotism and the celebration of war that so often goes with Memorial Day. At times it almost feels like we're celebrating certain deaths because of the bravery and sacrifice inherent in them.

Memorial Day is certainly not a day of celebration and I'm not even sure it's a day of remembrance. It's a day of mourning - of recognizing a loss, of naming and standing up to the gaping hole in our lives that death creates, and, by doing so, removing its power.

I have a different perspective on war than many. I have a different perspective on life and death and the future because of my belief in resurrection. I have real difficulty holding up soldiers as examples since I don't believe war is beneficial for anyone. But I do understand loss.

On this day, when a specific group of people are mourned, I mourn. I don't have a close connection to anyone who's died in war; I think I've only ever met one person. I can't claim this day as my own in any particular way. But I do hate death. I hate the memory of losing loved ones; I hate the thought of losing any more. I hate seeing other people experience the sorrow of death - no matter the reason.

On Memorial Day, let's mourn with those who mourn, and let that be enough.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


In the summer of 2002 a lot of things were happening in my life. A lot of things that made me feel like a grown-up, but really exemplified that I was just another stupid college kid.

I spent that summer working on campus at Eastern Nazarene College. Which means I was living in 80 year old brick dorms without air conditioning. I literally had seven box fans strategically placed around my couch. For a week or so, I snuck into the office where I worked and slept on the floor. I at nothing but hot dogs and bagged salad all summer. I grew a beard - a large, shaggy, red beard. I went on a couple quasi-dates with a crazy girl who already had a boyfriend. I lost so much weight that, coupled with the beard, it looked like I'd survived an Andean plane crash and spent two years in the woods eating grubs and berries.

The summer of 2002 was a strange summer, but beyond most of those other memories I'd be happy to forget, is the one I hope to remember for a very long time. The World Cup was played in Korea and Japan that summer, which meant most matches started at 1am or later. I convinced the night security at the college to let me into the student center to watch said games. I spent a lot of nights there.

I was 20 years old and the stars of the US Men's National Team at the 2002 World Cup just happened to be a pair of 20 year olds - Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley, who'd previously taken the world by storm in a youth tournament the year before. They were surprise additions to a squad reeling from a terrible 1998 performance and even more surprising: they got big minutes.

Both players contributed mightily as the US team knocked off heavy favorite Portugal and then drew with co-hosts South Korea. They lost to Poland, but somehow managed to advance - beating Mexico - MEXICO! - in the first knock-out round and then losing to Germany in the quarterfinals because the referee refused to give a clear penalty for a handball in the box - a slight my generation will never forgive.

It was the greatest performance in the history of US soccer and it was lead by guys my age. I spent a lot of lonely nights jumping and screaming around the ENC student center. If the denim-clad misfits of 1994 launched soccer in the US - these boys cemented its position. An entire generation of us will forever be linked to those late nights in 2002.

Donovan and Beasley had a lot of ups and downs through the next decade. Donovan more ups than downs (and vice versa for Beasley). 2014 found him the all-time leading goal scorer for the US and hands down the greatest player we've ever produced. It also found Beasley surprisingly apt at left-back and reviving his career on the back line.

Beasley had done so well this year, in fact, he now seemed a lock to make the World Cup, with Donovan, the fourth time each would represent the US at the biggest sporting event in the world. Donovan was a given, after all.

Or so we thought.

Today, #USMNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann released his final roster for Brazil - which, as it turns out, is just a preliminary roster for 2018. Landon Donovan's name is not on it.

This turns my stomach. Literally.

I can't even think about watching US World Cup matches this summer without Donovan at least on the bench. It's just not fair. I know Klinsmann is taking a young team to get them some experience before 2018. He's written off this summer in favor of future development, but that is such an un-American way of approaching things.

US Soccer deserves the chance to bid a proper farewell to Landon Donovan. We need to see him donning that ridiculous jersey and sprinting onto the pitch for a standing ovation from Sam's Army. This guy is single-handed responsible for the growth of the sport in the US over the last decade. He's born unbelievable pressure and paid a steep price.

At this point it all seems like a Zombie World Cup. Something that happens - it will have a life, or sorts - but something that's not quite there, not quite real.

I'm going on vacation to Hawaii during most of the group stages (and the US has very little hope of making it beyond the group - less now that Klinsmann has launched a grenade into his own locker room), so it was going to take work to see the US play. I'm not sure any work will be worth it.

I know. I'm delusional. I'm still holding out hope this is part of Klinsmann's master motivational plan. He'll leave Donovan at home only for Julian Green to be mysteriously "injured" during practice in Brazil and Saint Landon will have to come flying in to rescue the tournament. Then the US can ride that wave out of the group stage and who knows how high?!

There's a part of me that wants to believe, but there's another part that recognizes unemotional, German pragmatism when I see it.

I've been on the Klinsy bandwagon from the beginning - from 2006 really. I have, and I think I still do, believed in his philosophy and plan for the development of the #USMNT. I just think he downright missed the boat here. US fans aren't going to stand for this. It's a travesty, a betrayal - at least for those of us who came of age on uncomfortable couches in the wee hours of 2002.

I gave up baseball a few years back. The steroid era ruined things for me - took all the joy out of the game. I can't even describe the disconnect, really. I replaced baseball largely with soccer - the English Premier League and the US Men's National Team. The #USMNT is the only team whose games are scheduled on my calendar (I haven't missed one in over 18 months). I'm feeling the same way, right now, about that beloved squad, I feel about baseball. Emptyness. Disconnect.

I sure hope this isn't a feeling that lasts. I don't want to think one move like this could sever a really happy part of my life so quickly and completely. I'm not optimistic right now. It really is a travesty - a betrayal - at least for those of us who came of age on uncomfortable couches in the wee hours of 2002.

US Soccer needs to do something about this or they risk losing the generation they thought they had for good.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Blindness of Me

So, I read this brief article on NPR, reviewing or previewing a new book out by a porn star. It's a memoir of sorts, subtitled: "Porn - a love story," which is an intriguing enough title. According to the article, the author recognizes that there's a lot of trouble in the porn industry, that lots of women get used and abused and a lot of people have a bad experience, but she's always been fascinated with the idea and has thoroughly enjoyed her career.

Now, we could get caught up in judgment - claiming she's lying or fooling herself - and really there's no way to even begin to make those sorts of assertions without reading the book. Based on the description given here, while I'd like to know more about the psychology involved in this position, it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that I'd read.

What's more fascinating to me is the way in which this perfectly illustrates our societal obsession with hyper-individualism.

What this woman is essentially saying is that she recognizes the vast majority of people who get involved with the adult film industry are objectified, taken advantage of, bullied, abused, hurt, and degraded - but it's ok for her to be a part because she's doing it "for the right reasons."

Again I'm not even going to question her opinion. It is her opinion to have. Perhaps her friends and family know her well enough to judge its veracity - I don't. I do, however, question the ability to say what she's said.

Maybe the book goes into more detail and this was left out of the NPR piece, but it strikes me odd that one could divorce their own participation (no matter how pure it is judged) in something so admittedly harmful to so many people, from the reality of such harm. There's really no other way to look at this situation than that she's participating in the abuse and objectification of lots and lots of people.

Well, there is a way to look at things differently - that's the radical hyper-individualism so prevalent in our society. I'm ok, so it doesn't matter what anybody else does.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for radical freedom. I think people need to be respected enough to let them make their own choices, no matter how much we disagree with them (at least in general, things are certainly different in more intimate relationships). But I do think individuals have the responsibility to take into consideration the way their own actions affect others.

This seems very similar to the way many pro football players talk these days. Yes, we all recognize that, in general, playing football is terrible for your health and well-being. There is documented evidence of head trauma leading to a real brain disorder (CTE), not to mention all the regular long-term effects of hurtling your large body at other large bodies every day for a decade or more.

Yet, despite this near-universally admitted reality, most players willingly accept the risk and play the sport - for a variety of reasons. I have seen a few, but not many, players think about how their individual actions effect the lives of others. Is their willingness to take risks having a negative impact on fellow players or kids who may aspire to be professional football players someday? I know I, as a fan, have considered whether its appropriate to even watch a sport with such detrimental side-effects.

We tend to avoid these conversations because we've been shaped to believe we're only responsible for ourselves, when that's just not true.

We're responsible for everyone. It's why we have all these people out there trying to tell everyone else how to live. They may be annoying, but their a step closer to reality that the "live and let live" crowd.

As I said, I'm all for freedom. I think people need to make their own decisions. Me telling them how to live or act or think without a real relationship of trust and permission between us is just disrespectful. At the same time, I don't think live and let live makes any sense.

More and more I think the sad reality is we need to be responsible for people even as we watch them make bad decisions. There is no room for "I told you so" in life. We may have the freedom to make whatever choices we want to make, but we also have the responsibility to celebrate or suffer through the consequences of those decisions together.

You can't play football without also accepting responsibility to look after those who emerge less lucky than you. That's part of the reason why the NFL's settlement with former players has been overturned in court. This is not a business litigation expense to be written off the bottom line. It's a shared responsibility.

You can't be part of a corrupt industry - whether its porn or banking or tulip production - without taking ownership of that corruption. There is such a thing as guilt by association - although I think its described better by another name: responsibility.

Sometimes we're allowed to shirk those responsibilities. Sometimes we're given a choice whether to step into them or walk away. A society shaped by hyper-individualism doesn't want to punish one person for the choices of another - and it really shouldn't be forced. What it should be is voluntary.

We have to look beyond ourselves and our own choices to the world in which we live. Our choices have consequences not just for ourselves, but for others. Many of us never take those connection into consideration - and it leaves the people who do holding the bag of responsibility for all of us. We can't make people care for one another - and I wouldn't want to - but we can do more to encourage it, incentivize it, and make it part of the fabric of social consciousness.

Let us never say, "my motives are pure, therefore I have no responsibility for the the problems that arise from my actions." Life is bigger than ourselves - a mantra we need now more than ever.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

History Lesson

So, I studied history in college. I really liked names and dates and learning new stories that other people didn't know in high school. History was fun. Then I got to college, and like every other subject, realized that what we'd been doing for 13 years in school didn't really resemble history much. Now we were analyzing what happened to draw conclusions about various influencing forces, discussing repercussions, and making connections to present day realities. This was little more difficult, but it was more engaging. I learned a lot about how to look at the world in proper historical perspective. I also learned how to use all those names and dates and stories for some real purpose in life.

So, it sort of bugs me when our culture in general, and our news media in particular, seem to be blind to even relatively recent history in covering major narratives around the world.

I can't tell you how many "rise of China" stories I've seen where casual lip service is given to the potential of the Chinese economy, military, society, etc, but ultimately conclude that it is so inefficient and developmentally lagging to pose any real or immediate threat to the rest of the world. Yeah, there are some aggressive skirmishes over land rights and economic interests, and they seem to be taking a more active role in influencing nearby governments, but on the whole, they're just not set up to be a superpower, at least not any time soon.

The history student in me hears all of this and there are immediate warning sirens and flashing emergency lights in my mind. No, I'm not scared of China and I don't think anyone else should be either, but I do think we're fooling ourselves if we don't recognize that all of those same descriptions were used for the US in the early part of the 20th century.

At that point, we were still viewed as Britain's backward cousin, with our frontier lifestyle, endless open lands, and continued struggles to deal with racial and regional internal strife. Our economy had great potential, but little of it was realized. We fought over some small pieces of land and influence in the oft forgotten "wars" with Spain and Mexico, and we meddled quite heavily in the equally unimportant governments of Latin America - but no one of any importance gave much thought to the US being a world power. And this was just 100 years ago!

Things change quickly. Whatever indication the world had of our potential after a very late entry into WWI was forgotten by the depth of the depression - just another nation who can't handle it's own business. But we figured out a way to beat economic doldrums - ramping up for war.

The US economy took off at a rapid pace, shooting us to the top of the pile, internationally (leaving the only legitimate competitors, Europe, in literal heaps of rubble didn't hurt either), and has been there ever since.

I'm not saying the past is predictive. China may never decide to ramp up for war, but it's foolish (and probably arrogant) for us to continue to beat the drum of their irrelevance.

Again, this is not about fear-mongering. I think the world is probably better off without one dominant superpower; I don't think things would get worse if China were stronger or even if they overtook the US as primary influencer in the world. Life would go on. Differently, sure, but assuming the future will be like the present is always a fantasy.

In the meantime, if you're into that stuff, you might want to check out the boring section of your US history textbook between the end of the Civil War and the start of WWI. There may actually be relevant information there you'll find interesting - or at least pertinent.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Hope Rising by Scott C Todd

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

I chose Hope Rising, by Scott C Todd, a VP with Compassion International, as a book to review mostly because I really enjoyed The Hole in Our Gospel by Rich Stearns. Stearns' book was a powerful, formative part of my life in recent years. As the President of World Vision and with the success of the book, I thought perhaps Hope Rising would be a similar attempt to connect with people by Compassion International.

*Another little disclaimer here: I know about half a dozen people who work for Compassion. I, myself, was an employee for about 16 months over the span of four years during and immediately after college.*

When I compare the two books, you can see the real reflection of the organizations behind them. While both are evangelical development organizations, Compassion was always known as the more conservative - not just in theology, but practice as well. World Vision partakes in a variety of different systems and avenues to alleviate all kids of different problems. They accept a lot of different funding sources and work with many different people, including government.

Compassion has kept a single-minded focus on children. They do primarily one-to-one sponsorship and all the extraneous programming revolves around the care and well-being of children and are administered through partnerships with local congregations around the world.

These do not represent a good way and less good way of working. They are different, but equally important and valuable. They're two of the absolute best charities in the world - but they are different.

Rich Stearns in a businessman; he understands the power of a story. His personal story is quite remarkable and his candor in sharing it is inspiring. Scott Todd is more of a scientist. He's a doctor or works in the medical field (it's not quite clear in the book). He's much more comfortable with numbers and explanations. That shows through.

I am a strong supporter of care for the poor. People say that, I suppose, to sound righteous and generous and all that, but relief and development is my thing. I am interested and committed. You do not have to do any convincing to get me to sign up to help. I am the kind of person Hope Rising was written to engage.

Still, I had a hard time getting through the book. I wouldn't have finished it if I didn't think reading the whole thing was important for this review, which I agreed to write. The first half of the book is the strongest part - it lays out some of the misconceptions about poverty within evangelicalism, builds a strong case for the need, and presents solid biblical foundations for action. It is, however, a bit repetitive. The same case could have been made better in about 40% the space.

The second half of the book is supposed to be the part laying out specific actions and concrete steps each person can take to participate in the elimination of extreme poverty. There are some steps, but they're rather vague or sparse. I finished the book with many of the same questions I had going in. It's great to show us how most congregations spend 96% of their income on themselves and to encourage us to do better, but outside of giving the Compassion website a few times, there isn't much in the way of guidance for going about it. I have similar issues with the personal engagement side of things.

Nothing Todd says in the book is wrong. I am not a huge fan of some of his biblical interpretation or his political assumptions, but I can recommend the book - at least given the critiques above. There's a lot of good stuff here and he represents an organization doing it well.

It's not the easiest book to read and it doesn't engage the imagination in profound ways, but I suppose I'd describe Compassion International the same way I'd describe Hope Rising - they're relentless. Nothing special, nothing overly emotional, but straight-forward efficient work towards a worthy goal.

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

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The Profane

So, someone asked me for a comment on a particular post from a blog. It's a blog that often upsets me (although, in fairness, I did share one post last week that I thought was helpful) from a person I believe to be inconsiderate, illogical, and generally ill-informed - particularly so in this instance. As part of my response, I used the word "ass" to describe this writer.*

I spent a good deal of time reflecting on the use of that word in that context. I was raised in a pretty conservative home and that was certainly among the words we did not say. In fact, it was not even among the words we might say if we were trying to walk the line with our parents (those would be more like 'sucks' or 'crap,' you know, words Bart Simpson taught me). I don't like offending people and I recognize that this particular word is offensive to many (perhaps a large portion of my acquaintances that for most other people). I don't generally use what are traditionally considered profanities or crude language, but this somehow felt like a rare, appropriate use. I think I still believe that.

I don't like the contradiction that this decision embroils within me. It didn't make things any easier when my Dad called today, I think, primarily, to mention that maybe I shouldn't be using that word on the internet. It's a valid point. Perhaps I shouldn't.

I wasn't very old when I realized the incongruity of using the biblical mandate to "not take the Lord's name in vain" to cover a whole list of vulgar and offensive words that have nothing to do with God (not to mention the flip side of the coin - saying hurricanes are God's judgment of sinful cities, for example - which is likely more what the Ten Commandments had in mind there). Some words are just harsh, abrasive and offensive - they'd likely be offensive whether or not we were culturally conditioned to recoil from them.

In the end, though, it comes down to this concept of profanity - what exactly is the profane. In strictest context, it is misusing holy things for common purpose. I imagine there is a long, interesting argument about language as a "holy thing," that I'm just not going to get into here.

I do think, though, that this concept, taken more generally, can be real helpful dealing with these "strong" words that are oh so controversial (at least in my life).

Strong words are strong for a reason; they communicate extremes - pain, anger, sorrow, depression, frustration, etc - in ways more deeply felt than those words (and yet somehow less deeply felt than guttural screams). They're supposed to be rare and shocking - its the whole point.

I recoil or roll my eyes or bemoan human existence when I see just how many people are littering their everyday speech with words set aside for a purpose. It's jarring, grating, and downright offensive (on multiple levels) - but ultimately it removes all power from the words themselves.

I suspect - I don't know this of course and I'm not qualified to do the research - but I imagine you might see more violence among persons who use profanities the way stereotypical SoCal girls use "like." I imagine this because we need something to express our deepest frustrations - and if the words meant to provide that rare, emotional outlet no longer mean what you need them to mean, physical reaction may be the only other recourse.

I do think language is precise. It communicates something very specific (which is both the problem and the answer). Calling someone a jerk is slightly different than calling them an ass. Synonyms are words than mean similar things, not identical things.

This may be splitting hairs for most people - and in general I agree. Why use an offensive word when a less offensive one does 98% of the job without ruffling feathers. That makes sense to me. It really does.

Sometimes, though, you need that extra 2% - you just do.

It's wise to take into account the audience. This is where my dad is likely correct. The internet is a pretty big audience. It hurts me to potentially offend the people who might read that word and be offended. Certainly the subject of the comment is not worth offending people over, but I think - in spite of it all, I still think - the expression of that sentiment at that moment in that context might be worth the potential offense. That notion is still lingering, and if it's still there after 48 hours of internal second-guessing, then there might be something to it.

We're all likely going to have a different measure of profanity - when certain words are used in ways they shouldn't be. For many, especially those who shared my upbringing, the appropriate ways are none. For me, there is still clearly a line - a pretty strict one, I think, which will seem harsh and puritanical to a lot of people.  I imagine, like Potter Stewart and obscenity, when it comes to profanity, we know it when we see it - which isn't quite an exact science.

*I was and do intend that description to speak only for the persona that comes through his writing and not the actual person himself (a person I don't know and have never met), but I realize that intention was not entirely clear and for that I am sorry.