Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A New Explanation

A week or so ago I watched Ragamuffin, a movie about Rich Mullins, a Christian singer-songwriter who died in a car crash in the mid-90's. I am not generally a fan of the Christian music industry, and I knew very little about Mullins going in - other than that he was an outsider. He broke the rules and did things his own way (especially eschewing wealth) not worrying about who he might offend.

It's not a typical "Christian" movie - which is a very good thing. There were some clunky acting moments, but the guy they got to play Mullins was phenomenal, and he's in every scene, so that helps. It's also a movie that doesn't wrap things up in a nice bow. There's no soft sell for belief, but a real, honest depiction of someone struggling to make sense of faith in the world. Heck, it ends with a car crash and no resolution!

I found it to be honest and ring true, especially the quote that begins the film,

In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question, “Did you believe that I loved you?

It sort of perfectly encapsulated a post I've been working on for most of the summer.

I grew up in the midst of evangelicalism, so it's been a bit of a lifelong pursuit to figure out exactly how to define Christianity, salvation - to discover a way to define the basics of life following Christ in ways that people will understand and will also satisfy my own conscience. I guess it's been a struggle because we so often confuse things, complicate things, overburdening the gospel in ways that make it unattractive and inaccessible.

I think many of us have now easily moved beyond the old tropes of "say a prayer you really mean and you can go to heaven when you die." We're well beyond the dominance of a logical, orderly system of belief that will be content to live there. At the same time, we've not really hit on something else so simple. We can talk about "living like Jesus" all we want, but that's not an easily definable, understandable, or even agreeable notion across the board.

We're never going to find something everyone agrees on (that's why we've got 3,000 separate Christian denominations out there), but I think we can do better. That quote above goes a long way.

Salvation is an important concept for Christians, because it was important to Jesus, to his Hebrew ancestors, and to his Christian followers. Salvation - being saved - was the center of faith practice. We can go through all the permutations of being saved from what, to what, by whom, how, but in the end, I think just leaving the concept sort of vague makes sense. People might not understand or care to parse all the technical language, but most people recognize (even if they won't admit) there's something in their life they wish wasn't there. Most all of us (and I'd argue "all of us," but we'll save that argument for another day) recognize something in our lives bigger and more powerful than us. We need help.

I think the best way to talk about salvation is to say it comes when you internalize the reality that you are really and truly loved, that you're lovable and worthy of love outside any thing you do or say or are. Salvation comes in knowing love.

That's easier said than done, of course. Knowing and knowing are two different things, right? To really feel that sense of love, acceptance, peace inside is sort of like an impossible fantasy. I can't say I can provide the road map or even great advice - I think most of the time I'm just as much on the journey as anyone else. I do believe with my whole heart, though, that salvation is real and it's possible. I know in my head that I am loved, that all of us is loved, even if I'm never quite sure I know it in my heart.

The quote from the movie comes from a preacher and author, Brennan Manning. He's a great writer to read. He talks about this stuff all the time (the same people who did Ragamuffin are doing a movie about his life, too). He gets at this in the longer version of the quote above:

In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question,

“Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”

But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.”

And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.

No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love, but at the same time no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.

Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God.

Remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in His own image, and man returned the compliment.” We often make God in our own image and he winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow-minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, and unloving as we are.

In the past couple three years I’ve preached the Gospel… (all over the world) … and honest to God, the God of so many Christians I meet is a God who is too small for me, because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says,

“I have a word for you.

I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.

And my word is this:

I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”

Now that sits a little hard for people in my holiness tradition, because we do talk about becoming what we're intended to be. The whole point of sanctification is that we're made whole in Christ through the power of God's Holy Spirit. We've gotten in a lot of trouble in the past talking about sanctification as perfection - because John Wesley, the guy who sort of founded this theological movement, called it "Christian perfection," but even that was a misleading name.

He talked about it as perfection of love - not that we get everything right, but that we make everything right. We're going to screw up and make bad choices, but it's how we respond to those choices - do we double down and keep right on stubbornly hurting ourselves and others, or do we come with humility to fix what we've put wrong. It's a complicated concept, too, one that we continue to argue about hundreds of years later (and one that only seems to get more difficult).

But I do believe in transformation - that somehow, the love of God can make us different. I don't know if it fits all the criteria and academic longings of the theologians, but I do know love changes things. That's precisely how I'd like to define it: if salvation means understanding our inherent loveableness, then sanctification means seeing and understanding the same thing in absolutely everyone else.

We've often talked about it as an orderly process, at the very least one that happens simultaneously. Certainly you must be impacted by love to be changed, but I think the relationship may be less tangible and far more amorphous.

We are constantly doubting our worthiness for love, through our actions, the response we get from others, the mess going on inside our heads, and just the mixed up science of brain chemistry. Life in this world is complicated and it's tough to live in a state of confidence, even if that confidence is in the love of God. At the same time, I hope, we're at least occasionally, if not frequently, exposed to moments of genuine love - times and experiences where we get it, we know we're loved unconditionally - whether it comes from someone else, an emotion, or just the benevolent grace of the universe (that some people might call the working of God).

Those moments can breed compassion - they can help us see even the most vile, offensive, hateful other as a human being not unlike ourselves. Those moments, too, may be fleeting. This isn't the dull weight you feel in your stomach when those horrible guilt-inducing starving child commercials come on the TV - you're supposed to feel that way then - but those moments of total understanding when you should be angry. I'm talking about at least patience, grace when you have every right to be upset. It's feeling a love for someone who doesn't deserve it simply because they're alive.

Now those second experiences may be rare, I don't know. What I do know is they come directly from our own experiences of love. We can relate to others because we relate to being wrong, the enemy, the unworthy, the villain. That's the easy part. Recognizing and expressing that such a villain can and should be loved, even doing the loving, is far more difficult. That's the kind of calling, life that we holiness nutsos are determined to pursue.

I've come to realize, though, these states of being where salvation and sanctification make sense - those times when we really internalize our lovableness and, in turn, those moments where we can truly love the unlovable, well, they come and go. We don't always exist in those states. That's semi-blasphemous for a Nazarene minister to say, but it's definitely what I've observed.

I guess what I'm saying in all this is, so what?

Who's told us we have to be perfect? We might have told ourselves this, of course, but no one else did. I get that we should be growing - we should certainly be more like Jesus today than we were two years ago, but we don't actually have to be Jesus. In faith we believe that's down the line somewhere, but not until after some serious divine intervention. Holiness people believe we can be in right relationship with God here and now - we can be the kind of people we'll be in "heaven" (whatever that means to you) here and now - but what if that relationship, that sanctified state of being, is simply someone who's learning? What if it just means we're working to accept and live into our status as beloved and working to treat others the same way. What if this moving back and forth between success and seeming failure is really all success?

Because if we beat ourselves up about not being good enough, not acting out the sanctified life we're supposed to have, we're just going to wind up back at the beginning of Brennan Manning's quote - where we don't really, deep down, believe God loves us. Trying too hard to be sanctified might just keep us from living in the joy of salvation.

So when people ask what it means to be a Christian, I think I'm just gonna say: "learning to believe you're worth loving," and let God take care of the rest.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Art and the World of Direct Connect

So, last week I had a few experiences with the new economy. I signed up for an online course from Philosopher Peter Rollins. It takes place in November, so I'm not sure all the specifics as yet, but for $25 I'm getting (along with 100 others or so) 7.5 hours of interactive time with a pretty fascinating thinker. It's going to be a mixture of lecture and Q & A on his latest book, which is sort of the conclusion of a five book project that's covered the better part of the last decade and really helped to reinforce my own thinking in a lot of ways. Rollins is constantly challenging just about everyone who claims faith of any kind of dig deeper and examine what we believe and what it means for life in new and unique ways.

Then, on Friday night, for just $10, I (and about 100 others) were treated to 90 minutes of musician Derek Webb, playing and talking from his living room via the interwebs. He took requests and interacted with the relatively small audience and is going to start doing similar broadcasts regularly. Derek Webb is a fantastic songwriter and one who inspires my own writing with his creativity and skill. He's an evolving spiritual thinker who provided and important soundtrack to much of my own growth and maturation during college years and after.

Both of these things are quite mundane for the world we live in now, but they're pretty revolutionary ways for artists and thinkers to not only have their work engaged and critiqued, but to make a living. Concerts are really starting to price out a lot of people (myself included) with their associated costs and expenses - this is a great evolution, allowing someone like Derek Webb to interact more directly with listeners.

For Rollins, who can only speak so often and in so many places, but perhaps has a widespread, eclectic audience, he can bring people together in ways that are mutually beneficial and cost effective for both parties. I'm not sure exactly what all these possibilities hold for the future, but it's exciting to know and experience the new possibilities.

It's gotten me thinking more about art and it's place in society. For a while now we've (the collective, societal 'we've') really only valued art for what it fetches in the open market. Someone may be very talented, but they're a good artist if they can sustain themselves with their art. It's led to this crazy market for fine art and, as mentioned, crazy expensive concerts. Even those artist who tour constantly or sustain themselves with niche communities of support, it's often a day-to-day, week-to-week existence often supplemented with something else they do.

We've lost the real, intangible value of art in society.

Artists help us put expression to emotions and thoughts we can't, on our own, express. They give us pause to imagine things differently. They inspire us to live different stories in the world. Most importantly, they present reality in such a way that we can move beyond the intellectual to some deeper, visceral understanding. Artists put a mirror in front of our lives, challenging us to see ourselves in new and different ways.

It doesn't always pay off. Sometimes good art isn't worth a dime because it's not entirely comfortable or welcomed. This means art is rarely appreciated for its own sake - for its contribution to society. When politicians talk about budget cuts, the Arts are often the first to go. Symphonies and museums are working hard to build self-sustaining endowments, expecting an inevitable end of public support.

The fact those endowments are, in places, succeeding is testament to the reality that some people still value art for more than it's monetary worth - and are willing to put some monetary value on the intangible benefit it provides to all of us, individually and as a collective. Hopefully this new direct connect-ability will provide a better way for our society to recognize and support the artists among us - that it becomes not just a benefit to me, sitting on my couch, but to the artists themselves and the larger world.

*I include Rollins in this conversation about art, because as much as he's incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, he is ultimately a storyteller. His best work is framed narratively, using his extensive background to inform the larger art with which he teaches and attempts to live.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

God and History: My Journey Through Christian Patriotism

I know sometimes I can get a bit testy when it comes to Christians and politics. I view politics in general as mostly a spectator sport - I want people to be represented fairly, but I try to call out BS from whoever spouts it. Things get a little different when it comes to attaching faith, especially Christian faith to our politics and patriotism. I wanted to share a personal story about why it matter so much to me.

I've always been a hound for facts. I consume knowledge for its own sake - with all the good and bad that comes with it. I've always been this way. My parents, until they sold it, had a set of encyclopedias with a bookmark in it marking how much I'd read. The book mark was a library pass from 7th grade. Yeah. That's me.

I did the Geography Bee as a kid in school (and did very well), I still love maps far too much. I like dates and timelines and any display of any kind with even remotely interesting facts on it. You do not want to play me in Trivial Pursuit (and you really wouldn't have wanted to play 22 year old me, before the ravages of age took hold on my memory). Needless to say, I became a history major in college. I've got a degree in it. I find the past fascinating, mostly for what it tells us about who we are and what's going on today.

In high school I geeked out over this guy, David Barton (I feel like I've written about this on the blog before, but I can't find it, so we'll go again). He was a Christian historian who traveled around telling people how Christian the founding fathers were and making a really strong case for Christian patriotism. Being the uber-evangelical kid I was, I latched on to this pretty heavily. I read his books and touted his information all over the place. At one point, he even came to our church and spoke. It was really, really cool. I'm guessing he was a big reason I became a history major in the first place.

I was a pretty good history student, I like to think, maybe a bit lazy at times, but good. When I was introduced to real historical research and set loose on primary sources, I ate it up. That part of the gig is a lot of fun.* Being in college in Boston, revolution-era stuff was everywhere. I began reading a lot of writings from the founding fathers. A lot. I've read the collected writings of most everyone who gets more than a mention in your junior high civics book - private papers and published work.

As I began this process, though, I had a rather unsettling discovery. A lot of those quotes David Barton used to prove his points, the ones that he put on the personalized checks you could buy and posters for hanging on your wall, a lot of those quotes were taken way, way out of context. Some of them were even mis-attributed - words that, say, a biographer had written about one of the founders. I had been told, by Barton, that all but two of the singers of Declaration of Independence were Christians, which is mostly true - but the implication was that they were Christians the way an evangelical Christian is a Christian in modern times. It was like a whole room full of Billy Graham's creating this country. I found in actually checking up on this historian, that he was doing pretty much everything wrong.

Then I started checking up on Barton. Turns out he's not even a historian at all. In fact he's got less training in history than I did after my first semester of college. He's written a lot of best-selling books on "history," but in 2012 (long after I'd peeked behind the curtain), his book on Thomas Jefferson had to be removed from publication - a number of Conservative Christian historians examined his claims and found them outright false. He continues to tour and speak and spread what are actual lies about the founding of the country for the purpose of equating US Patriotism with evangelical faith.

That revelation was a little bit shocking.

So I went back to square one. I started reading the primary sources for myself, asking just what does Christian faith and the US government have to do with one another. It turns out, most of the founders were indeed Christians - but sort of in the same way Ted Cruz is Canadian. Outside perhaps the Quakers, there was no equivalent to modern evangelicalism in that time (at least not on any scale in the US). These guys went to services most Sundays because that's what prominent citizens did. George Washington bought the best pew in his local parish (because you bought pews back then, rather than just claiming them like we do now), but refused to receive communion or bow his head in prayer.**

These guys were men of the times - a time when science was explaining so much that was previously chalked up to the supernatural. There was an unprecedented human confidence that we could figure out and master the world. Combined with the cultural acceptance of rich white men doing pretty much whatever they wanted in private, there was very little impetus for faith to impact life - that sort of thing was for monks in cloisters and the odd fringe group, like the Amish.

The history of Christian intersection with government has been one of convenience on both sides. Constantine got unity for the empire and Christians stopped getting killed. Charlemagne got his rule and conquest legitimized and the Popes got some say in government. The United States drove out the French, then the English, enslaved Africans, and took genocidal sweep at Native Americans under this banner of manifest destiny, that God somehow blessed the country and gifted its leaders with unrivaled primacy in the world - and that was backed with faith. You tell someone God wants to do something great for them and they'll generally believe you - it's how prosperity gospel survives.

It's also the stuff of false prophets. Throughout the Old Testament, the false prophets were those voices in the ears of the kings telling them to keep on, conquer, oppress, God wanted them to be strong and powerful. The prophets recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures were those calling for humility and repentance. In the New Testament the false prophets were those calling the people of God to a way of life contrary to the gospel - those calling for entitlement and self gratification.

I don't think I've used the term for anyone else in my life (maybe those prosperity preachers as a group), but David Barton and his ilk are false prophets. I believe that strongly. The words they say and the message they impart aren't even accurate historically, let alone in line with the life of a homeless, wandering rabbi. Our nation's leaders cloak their words and actions in Christian language precisely for same way politicians have done so for 1700 years: it works to motivate the people. You're never going to die so the rich guy can get richer, but you're probably going to sign up if it's a call from God to defend your faith and way of life.

That's not really the story of our history and it's certainly not the story of our faith.

So if I go a little overboard on Facebook or speak too cringe-worthily in my critiques sometimes, just know this is pretty personal for me. Much of my life has been shaped by this false battle raging in my country, and in my faith. The God of scripture is never on the side of the politicians and the power - whether they be Hebrew kings in the Old Testament or Pharisees and Romans in the New... or even Popes and Presidents in the historical age that followed. God is always on the side of the poor, the broken, the outcast, the forgotten. If our political efforts are not on their behalf, then while they may be "American" to the core, they're not of Christ.

Every nation on Earth has, at one time or another, believed God chose their nation... and they've all been wrong. God does not choose nations; God chooses people - we need to live like it.

*I had much less fun in the "writing about what you learn" phase of history, which is also the phase that earns you a living: thus I am not a professional historian today.

**This is awkward news for the cottage industry that exists depicting Washington kneeling next to his horse in full uniform on coffee mugs and paintings and commemorative plates.

***Just sort of an extra credit history lesson for those brave souls who made it all the way down here - Washington was never against oligarchy and rule by the rich and powerful (Adams and some of the New England guys were, but they got overruled in the Constitution, which is why it took 100 years for direct election of Senators). Washington was opposed to that oligarchy being hereditary. He wanted people to be able to earn their way into the elite, which sounds sort of American on the cover, but ultimately is very elitist - the rich prosper and poor melt away. I'm generally a fan of Libertarian ideas, but not the social darwinism aspect of it. Those who "win" have an obligation to those who don't. There's no indication George Washington much believed this.****

****Now the caveat being, there was little evidence in their world, or history at the time, that this was possible. The idea that the poor could be given some semblance of basic human rights was still 150 years away - so there is some excuse built in for these guys - just not any excuse for the rest of us, especially Christians.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Death on Hold by Burton and Anita Folson

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 this book because addressing the way we talk about life and killing is very important to me. The death penalty is one aspect of this issue that I've been involved with recently. Death on Hold, the story of a death row inmate, intrigued me. I was interested in what it would say, especially since so many of the books on the BookLook review list tend to skew pretty conservative. I figured, even if it's the story of a couple do-gooding white people trying to save the poor black guy, it would be focused on a topic I'm interested in.

I found a lot to like in this book and some real head-scratching questions.

Death on Hold is the story of Mitch Rutledge, a young boy growing up in poverty in Georgia in the 60's and 70's. His father left early in life and his single mom died when he was 15, leaving Mitch alone and illiterate. Not willing to admit he couldn't read, his only choice for survival was a life of crime and drugs, using his natural intelligence and abilities to scrape together some food and place to live. Eventually this lead to an attempted robbery wherein he killed a man - certainly intentional, but not pre-meditated.

The murder occurred just over the border in Alabama and Mitch soon found himself in Death Row. Shortly thereafter, Time Magazine did a story on death row and visited his prison. When the story was published, it discussed Mitch by name, calling him "defective" and concluding, he was "not worth killing," a crushing condemnation of his humanity.

This story spurred Mitch to learn to read, which he did, on his own, slowly, using a bible and the TV which was on constantly during the 23 hours he spent in his cell each day. It also drove him to take faith seriously. He prayed for someone in the world to care about him. Other people saw the Time article, a nun in California, a married, college professor couple in Kentucky, and a housewife in Virginia, who all began to write and visit Mitch, encouraging him in his education and eventually working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to get him re-sentenced to life without parole.

As Mitch entered the general prison population, he earned a GED and then most of an associate's degree, began mentoring other prisoners and was soon a leader, teaching coping classes and speaking to at-risk youth, eventually filming a video that became part of the regular curriculum in Alabama schools. Mitch went to prison in January 1981 - a few months before I was born - he is still there.

It's a pretty inspiring story and it's well told in short chapters, written by Mitch himself, interspersed with some sections from the perspective of one of his adopted family members from around the country. It talks of life transformation and the power of love. Perhaps those who wrote to him were just do-gooders at first, but it becomes apparent by the end of the story that they really had adopted Mitch as part of the family, sometimes closer than actual blood relations. It's a great example of what Christian community should be.

There's not a lot of direct address in terms of the death penalty and policy. The authors, the college professor couple, are politically conservative and even say they support the death penalty for some people, so it's not at all an "issue" book. The tale of Mitch's life, though, gives a harrowing depiction of life in prison, the tragedies and injustices that are so often hidden from the outside world. He doesn't comment on them much (since he has no real frame of reference outside prison to draw on), but it should provide enough impetus for any moral human being to hope for change.

I really wonder why Mitch's name is not on the book. He wrote 95% of it, but Burt and Anita Folsom have the copyright and author credit. I hope this is simply a legal issue (perhaps prisoners in Alabama aren't allowed to collect royalties or something), but it would really help if there was some note in the book explaining this - otherwise it would be pretty easy to draw the conclusion that this couple is profiting off Mitch's life. (If they are the way they're portrayed in the book, this isn't likely, but then again, they got to control how they're portrayed in the book).

Overall, Death on Hold is engaging and I think it would be a really great introduction into issues of prison reform and capital punishment, especially for conservatives who may be turned off by the rhetoric of liberal crusaders. It's well written and I hope Mitch Rutledge both finds a way to get out of prison and is able to write more books in the future. I think he's got a unique voice that deserves to be heard, and a lot of positive things to contribute to the larger world.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® 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.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Never Forget... What?

I apologize if this feels trite or inappropriate; I hope it won't. But when I see the "nEver Forget" hashtag or bumper stickers it always strikes me as odd. I get uncomfortable and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the ambiguity - what will we forget? No one, certainly, who was old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001 will ever forget them. It's the Pearl Harbor or JFK Assassination of our generation, perhaps even more vividly, since we watched the whole thing live and in color.

I was a junior at Eastern Nazarene College, sleeping late since one of the privileges of being a junior is not having to get up early for class. I had the largest TV on the floor (and was the RA), so I was awoken to a knock on the door and guys piling into the room saying something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. The way they talked about it, I pictured a little two-seater prop thing and some hopeless, undertrained hobby pilot. We turned the TV on pretty much right when the second plane hit - the guys kept saying, "this must be a replay," but I saw smoke coming from the other tower. Over the next few minutes I just remember silence. I'm sure everything was loud and humming, but it was utterly surreal.

I'm never going to forget that.

I'm not going to forget the kids camped out in the student center lounge, watching coverage practically 24/7 for months, as daytime news covered nothing else. The country was consumed with this event and, in many ways, it still is.

I wonder, when they say, "Never Forget," if they mean teaching the next generation what happened and the lessons learned - because the next generation can never know and thus will be almost certain to forget. Besides that, I'm not sure what lessons we've actually learned or whether they're worth passing on. We've responded to violence largely with violence and helped make the world a more dangerous place than it way. We've polarized the nation and the world and we operate far more often on fear than we ever did before.

Those aren't things I want to remember.

Of course, there are also the victims. People who lost lives doing unimaginably heroic things. People who lost lives making impossible, unimaginable choices about which way to die. People who never had a chance to think. The families of those people, some of whom never even had the smallest bit of remains to mourn and bury. We certainly don't want to forget those people.

One the morning of September 11th this year, ESPN released a documentary short called, "First Pitch." It's twenty minutes or so about President George Bush throwing out the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. I wept. I wept through the whole thing. I didn't expect to get so choked up, but the footage of first responders and scenes of NY and around the country shortly after the attacks brought back a flood of memories - those same emotions none of us could ever forget.

I think part of my emotions were also from that World Series - it was really the last moment I gained any pure joy from baseball. I've written before about my childhood love of the game and my evolving understanding of sports, but this was slightly different. On top of 2001 being among the most exciting and greatest World Series of all time, it came on the heels of the life changing 9/11 attacks. The President throwing out that first pitch in NY (and throwing a strike) imbued it with a little more meaning. Even more so, the narrative was impressive: the storied New York Yankees (my childhood team) working to extend an impressive dynasty against a relatively new team from Arizona comprised of a lot of veteran players who'd never won before. It went all the way to the end of Game 7. My team lost, yet I found myself profoundly happy with the outcome - those guys deserved what they got. They earned it.

There was some measure of cosmic satisfaction in the outcome. Even if it wasn't my team, it was a great story. Prior to that moment I thought I liked baseball because my team was the best. I realized I liked it because it represented something bigger - that cosmic satisfaction is, in some sense, a realization of perfection. When the narrative works out just like it's supposed to, there's something really, deeply satisfying. These days I'd call it a connection to the divine - an inner drive in all of us to see the world as it was meant to be, as it will be one day. In those moments of deep satisfaction, when things just work out the way they're "supposed to," we're catching a glimpse of heaven.

I realized at the end of that 2001 World Series that I didn't need baseball to do that for me. I still enjoy sports for that reason - it's one of the purest ways to find some sense of rightness in the world - but it's also got to be looked at with a cynical eye these days. The reality of steroids hit home right about the same time and baseball has never been the same for me.

I realized, though, fourteen years hence, watching that documentary, I didn't need baseball to carry me through. The emotions that came flooding back, the reality of what happened September 11th, 2001, the reality of living here then was something different, bigger. It was the start of a journey towards recognizing that cosmic satisfaction in things larger and more important than sports. Prior to that time, whether due to upbringing or immaturity, I never expected things to get better. I'd been taught the world was hopelessly lost and doomed - hope was for another time and place.

Since then, I've developed a much fuller understanding of hope, destiny, and humanity. I've discovered a profound hope for this world and the people in it - that those glimpses of heaven don't need to be representative in sports, but can really take place in the world around us. When you see the video of the search teams, combing the wreckage for friends who were not coming back, the hearts and homes opened, the careers dropped at a moment's notice to help others - that's hope for this world; it's the sort of "perfection" I'd always wanted to find in baseball. And it was, is, real in the world around me.

It wasn't ever real in baseball. The beauty and hope came from my love and devotion to the game. Those two months, September and October of 2001, even though I didn't realize it at the time, were the start of a journey that's lead to finding real purpose, real hope in life. The same love and devotion I spent my childhood giving to a game can be and is directed towards hurting people everyday. The human capacity for evil is immense, but the human capacity of love and grace is even bigger - thank God.

As I look back of September 11th, as the day rolls around each year with remembrances and celebrations that don't always sit well with me, I don't have to look back and think of war and violence, I don't need to remember terrorism and the foreign policy mistakes that have been made in its name. I can think of the genuine love that permeated a nation* if only for a short while - it's a love worth never forgetting.

*I don't want to minimize the tragic backlash against muslims and sikhs (who wear turbans and apparently looked like muslims to some ignorant, hateful people) - but at the same time I remember being shocked with how quickly communities turned out to repair broken windows and guard shops and mosques from further damage - things that I doubt would've happened with the same fervor before 9/11, things I can't imagine happening even now.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

You've Already Voted for a Socialist

I'm pretty big on using precise language (for example, I try not to say "church" when I mean the building where the Church meets). Sometimes people call me nitpicky, but the words we use really do shape our understanding of the world around us - probably more than we know. This is never more on display than in US politics right now! Senator Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination for President. He describes himself as a Socialist (although, to add to the confusion, he's not actually a member of the Socialist Party). Often, I see critiques of the man using comparisons to Soviet Russia, but having almost nothing to do with socialism. We also see people (according to polls Americans are more likely to vote for a muslim than a socialist, showing us all how little we know) and politicians themselves (some of whom actually know better) running from the term and using it derisively.

Let's get our language correct people - and perhaps gain some perspective on ourselves and the world around us.

The truth is, comparing Bernie Sanders to Soviet Russia is sort of like comparing a pile of freshly raked leaves to a hard boiled egg - there are certainly comparisons to be made, but they're not going to be helpful.

First, let's talk a little about the difference between Socialism and Communism. Communism is a form of government (like a monarchy or a parliamentary system or a representative republic). Socialism is an economic system. Yes, Soviet Russia was indeed socialist, because socialism is the only type of economic system possible within communism (unless you count corruption, in which case Soviet Russia wasn't socialist at all).*

Most nations on Earth today are basically democratic. There are some failed states with virtually no government, a few military dictatorships, and the odd monarchy - but for the most part, everybody is a democracy of one kind or another (which just means people get to vote for the people in power). Yes, there are varying degrees of effectiveness and freedom here, but that is a discussion for another day.

Economically, those democracies that exist (and no, just because the UK or Thailand has a monarch, they really aren't monarchies) have economic systems incorporating elements of both socialism and capitalism. In the extreme, capitalism means every man (or amorphous corporate "man") for himself; people use whatever resources they possess to leverage their ability to survive (or enrich the few and starve the many). Socialism, in its extreme, means every resource is collected together by society and used to meet individual and collective needs (or enrich the few and starve the many).

Every economy on Earth (except maybe Somalia) works along a spectrum between socialism and capitalism.

One of the easiest ways to look at this might be a rather un-contentious issue like roads and bridges. A purely capitalist system would keep gob't completely out of the transportation business, allowing private entities to control and toll roads that cross private property and allow market forces (ie trial and error, essentially) to control safety and prices. A purely socialist system would commandeer land for roads and bridges, then construct and maintain such using a corps of transportation workers on gov't payroll. Most societies use a mixture of the two - often using competitive bidding to keep construction costs down, but using regular payroll labor for maintenance.

Another way of looking at this spectrum might be the recent economic recession. Most gov'ts around the world used public money to keep banks and other institutions from going bankrupt and closing. This is a socialist intervention meant to prevent further losses in other parts of the economy. A purely capitalist solution would have let every failing business fail, leaving those bankrupted or impoverished to learn their lesson and do better next time. A purely socialist solution would have been to nationalize the banking industry, with the gov't taking over investment institutions and running them as departments of the gov't. Most nations fell somewhere in between, propping up institutions that could be saved and hoping to avoid future problems by enacting regulation to better keep such business in check.

There is a lot of strong opinion about how well these efforts have failed or succeeded in various places, but they represent elements of both socialism and capitalism. I'm not really aware of anyone anywhere (outside of maybe North Korea) who advocates for a straight socialism or a straight capitalism. Even places like Cuba, avowedly communist in gov't, collects only about half of its country's production in a given year, and could thus be said to be, maybe (grossly simplified) half socialist.

Now that last example, finance, is a great way to illustrate that whether your economic system is largely socialist or largely capitalist doesn't matter as much as how well its managed. Sweden and France, very similar European countries each take roughly 45% of GDP (money made in the country in a given year) for gov't expenses and provide lots of public services (free health care, education through college, etc). They have among the highest rates of taxation in the world and are considered among the most socialist. They are both strong, advanced democracies with stable governments and high average incomes. France is a giant economic mess, with skyrocketing public debt and a stagnant economy, while Sweden is swiftly ridding itself of debt and growing rapidly.**

All this to say, the United States has always been, in some sense, socialist. Granted, following the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal, we're a lot more socialist than we used to be. Things like medical care for children and the elderly, along with unemployment and emergency housing measure are socialistic by nature. I'm sure everyone would agree these things can be done more efficiently and effectively than they are, but that is, again, a conversation for another day.***

What I'm saying is: every Presidential candidate from both parties is a socialist (yes, even Rand Paul). The degree to which any candidate is a socialist is certainly up for debate, it's just not that productive a discussion. It's a much better idea to evaluate candidates based on actual plans to address actual problems (which will all be a variety of socialist and capitalist solutions whatever candidate you pick). And let's stop bringing Soviet Russia into things - they haven't really been relevant since Taylor Swift's been alive (but I'm sure that's merely coincidence).

*Yes we also have the example of modern China, which is trying to keep communism as it adds elements of capitalism to its socialist economic system. As we'll see later on, nothing is purely socialist or purely capitalist.

**In Frace's defense, they are roughly 6 times bigger than Sweden, population-wise and have a more varied set of difficulties to work around, however, their situation isn't really all that different from Germany, which isn't quite so far up on the socialist ladder, but still totally has its house in order.

***Just to be clear, there's no "Christian" backing for socialism or capitalism - a "Christian" economy would look something like benevolent anarchy in which people worked hard each day for what they needed and gave away the rest, but nothing was required or anyone. In other words, it wouldn't work in the US anyway, so don't worry about it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Judicial Review and Religious Freedom

I'm not a lawyer, so my lawyer friends out there might correct some of this for specificity, but overall the concept of judicial review is pretty simple. We all got, in school, the three branches of government: Legislative (Congress and various state and municipal bodies) makes the laws; Executive (President, bureaucracy, etc) enacts the laws; Judicial (court system) interprets the laws.

Interpreting means figuring out if the ways the Executive branch has enacted and enforced the law is itself legal. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, has a slightly different mandate. They do indeed rule on issues of legality in regards to enactment and enforcement, when necessary, but they're also looking at the legality of the law itself - also known constitutionality. Does a given law, passed by the Legislative branch, line up with the Constitution.

So, while it's absolutely true that no court can make a law (only the legislative branch can do so), the Court can nullify a law, essentially erase all or part of it, because that law is itself illegal. The judicial branch can't make laws, but they can change laws by removing parts of them - that's been the case since the beginning, pretty much.

There are some sketchy areas of off-books checks and balances along the way (check out what FDR did with some washed up Germans in 1942), but generally this is how things go. The only way to overturn a Supreme Court ruling is to either get them to change their minds (which happens when new members show up or people have a change of heart) or to pass a Constitutional Amendment (which is ridiculously hard to do).

The law of the land is whatever the Supreme Court says it is. The Constitution says whatever the Supreme Court says it says. Of course people will argue and disagree and sometimes the Court will be right and sometimes the Court will be wrong, but the Court is always the final say. That's how our system works and how it was designed to work.

The way someone gets the Court to decide something is, basically, to break the law. Now for things like theft and assault and tax evasion, the law is pretty much settled - the Court has long ago decided the legal questions surrounding most things (although sometimes you'll get a special circumstance or consequence that begs for fresh eyes). Largely, the judicial review process that been pretty thoroughly worked through for most older laws.

New laws, though, continue to be reviewed - it's how we decided whether those laws themselves are legal or not.

Gay marriage has been a series of laws almost entirely decided in the courts. Years ago, civil servants in a number of municipalities started granted marriage licenses to same sex couples in attempts to begin a judicial review process. They were sued and went to court and, for the most part, lost. When the courts ruled against them, they went back to issuing only legal licenses.

This is much the same with the Kentucky case of late. Once the Supreme Court nullified any law prohibiting marriage of same-sex couples, a county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses at all because she could not, in good conscience, issue licenses to gay couples. She was sued. The courts ruled against her. She appealed and asked for a stay. A stay is essentially, permission from the court to keep breaking the law until an appeal can be heard. Her petition for stay was denied - meaning, she had to grant any legal marriage license. She refused to do so and was found in contempt of court (basically she ignored or refused a court order). She was jailed for this, as is procedure. You see this a lot for say, journalists who refuse to give up sources. Sometimes people spend a very long time in prison for contempt issues. The Kentucky clerk will be in prison until she either resigns or agrees to allow other people in her office to give out marriage licenses.

That last sentence has an important word - allows. This isn't about one person's individual choice - it's about a boss speaking for her office. There are six deputy clerks in that particular Kentucky county, five out of the six are more than happy to follow the law and give licenses as appropriate. The clerk was refusing to do so, since her signature is on all of them - whether she personally gives them out or not.

The one deputy who's refused to give licenses to gay couple (the clerk's son, by the way) will never be in danger of prison. The law only states the office has to give the license, there is room both in law and in practice for someone to pass that responsibility to another member of the office if they feel their conscience is violated. One clerk can simply have another clerk grant the license.

This is what we see in the other lawsuit making waves this week - a Muslim flight attendant is suing her former employer for firing her over her refusal to serve alcohol (against her religious beliefs). The argument is simply that the airline didn't make enough effort to accommodate her beliefs. She may be right - a court will decide.

There's a fine line between reasonable and unreasonable accommodation. A pretty small percentage of a flight attendant's duty is serving alcohol, it might very well be reasonable to pass that duty off to someone else. Whereas is she worked in a bar, it might be very unreasonable to require her employer keep her on if she wouldn't serve alcohol. This is precisely the kind of thing judicial review is designed to figure out: where to draw that line.

In the coming days and years, we're going to see the courts draw a lot of those lines - can a business refuse service to someone based on sexual orientation - or maybe refuse some specific services, but not all? Lines will be drawn and laws will be defined. All of this is legal and traditional and in line with the historic arc of American jurispreudence - it's the same system that battled racial segregation and defined the terms of religious freedom in the first place (check out Engel v Vitale which saved us from being legally required to recite government authored prayers in public).

The problem I continue to see for Christians (also for Muslims and Jews, although Christians seem to be the most upset about things) is that Christian tend to view the law as an arbiter of moral right and wrong. If something is legal, it's ok to do; if it's not legal, it's bad.

We really, really, really need to get away from that notion. It's never done us any good and it's, in many cases, really damaged our understanding and practice of the gospel. Christians are not called to change the world through government and elections - we are called to be different, an example of a people who love without ceasing, love everyone - even those who wish to do us harm, and love even to the point of giving our own lives. The world be changed, we proclaim by faith, through the love of God working in our lives to show people a better way. Christians are called to be an alternative community to the ways of the world, not to try and shape the world to our predilections and in so doing, lose our very Christian nature.

It is not what we do that makes us distinct, but the way in which we do it.

Forcing people to cow to my views or bringing lawsuits or demanding rights are the exact opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians are not vindicated by courts or governments or elections. That's just not how it works. Judicial review is the law of the land, but it's not some moral arbiter. We'll agree with some court decisions and disagree with others. Interacting with the large society will sometimes create conflicts - in those instances we have a choice: fight or sacrifice. Christians never choose fight; it's not the Christlike way. Christ went to the cross in love, not with anger on his lips.

No doubt the Kentucky clerk's decision was difficult. She was choosing between prison or the loss of her job and livelihood. I believe the Christian response in such a situation is to sacrifice your job, trusting in the God who created the universe (and those people who love you) to provide for your needs.

We don't need to fight in courthouses, because the results of those decisions have no moral bearing on Christian life. We cannot cry persecution if Christian participation in the large society is blocked or hindered. That's simply not persecution. We have the right to free exercise of religion, not the right to incorporate our free exercise into the large society. Persecution may come for us in the US, perhaps, some day - if our private life and worship is ever infringed upon. I don't see that likely in this country, but should it come about, we should take the words of Jesus to heart - rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

How Do We Pick Evangelical Celebrities?

To start, I've taken to using "evangelical" to describe the sort of amorphous, generically Christian subculture that sort of dominates American conservatism (when it deigns to touch on religious or moral matters). I still call myself an evangelical mostly because I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does have a life-changing impact on people. I certainly don't line up politically (and increasingly, troublingly, theologically) with what has come to define the group - yet it is still my group. These are my people, for sure - like it or not, we're in the same family.

Growing up in this evangelical subculture (specifically the traditional Nazarene one from which I hail) we'd often be handed "our" celebrities, to celebrate and follow with the same fervor everyone else supported the mainstream pop-culture celebrities of the day.* As a sports-loving evangelical child I remember getting Sports Spectrum magazine (which, low and behold, still exists). It was full of athletes (many famous) who were also Christians.

This is where things became incredibly confusing for me. Yes, these guys talked about God and went to that special baseball chapel and did team bible studies, and huddled for prayer after games - they used the right insider lingo and, no doubt, genuinely seemed to find Christian faith an important part of their identity.

But I also read the sports section of the newspaper (ha! newspaper - I'm old) and I knew that the on and off field lives of these same guys would never pass muster in my church. Now I'd been lectured about the differences in denominational theology and how different people can believe different things and still be Christian (although this rarely seemed to apply to Catholics, but whatever), but as a child who was taught growing up (something I believe to be pretty central to evangelical thought) that what you do says a lot more about what you believe that what you say (something I still believe to be true), it was incredibly confusing.

Guys impregnating waitresses, cheating on their spouses, getting arrested for some drunken brawl, visibly swearing with the TV cameras on them. I didn't get why these "celebrities" should be celebrated any more than anyone else, just because they said they loved Jesus. If anything, evangelical culture, as I know it, deems people like that worse than those other generic sinners.

I know some of those christian celebrities really did fit the bill - David Robinson was pretty prominently featured and, by all accounts, he lives up to the evangelical hype. I'm sure there were others, but it always felt like a real (and unnecessary) tension - as if evangelical culture was trying to say, "look, we're just like you, only Christian," when that is pretty much the opposite of what it means to have a Christian culture. The difference is important.

Things all went to heck with Amy Grant. She was the evangelical celebrity darling, who not only sang well and got popular, but crossed over into mainstream pop music and kept talking about Jesus (for the most part). Then, famously, she left her husband to marry country-star Vince Gill (who also left his wife at the same time). If this was anyone in my church, it would've been a huge scandal. It became more like a secret scandal amongst evangelicals. People didn't want to give up the Christian cache of claiming a big star and some people were willing to give her a pass on judgment because of it.

Now, in the end, you know what, marriages are often broken. I believe in marriage. I think divorce is really sad and shouldn't necessarily be undertaken as easily as it sometimes is today (even among Christians) - at the same time, I recognize how unfair it is to put the kind of pressure on someone like Amy Grant to be perfect. I recognize perhaps that kind of scrutiny and pressure contributed to her relationship problems - she wouldn't be the first evangelical to have that happen, famous or not. Plus, she's still pretty vocal about her faith and has, by all accounts, been a pretty good example of marriage and health relationship for decades following.

And I know that a 23 year old guy (who seemed so old, grown-up, and mature when I was reading about him in a magazine when I was eight) who gets a million dollar check with almost no accountability, might get himself into a fair bit of trouble, despite his religious commitments and upbringing. I also recognize that some people really do have a cultural faith that fits pretty well within the realm of generic american evangelicalism - and most people are (rightly and graciously) willing to forgive a few flaws and failures.

In other words, things aren't actually as black and white as we'd like to believe.**

Life is far more intricate and convoluted, but that doesn't seem to stop the evangelical celebrity machine. I saw this article about Jim Gaffigan a few weeks back. Jim is the kind of Christian you'd love to promote - he's a sort of progressive catholic who's just trying to live out his faith well. It's a great story to have out there (and surely it helps promote his new show, which he and his wife did on their own and can use all the promotional help it can get).

But it's utterly confusing why he'd be lifted up as an evangelical celebrity (even beyond the whole catholic thing, which we seem to be getting over, finally). Yeah, he works clean, but in interview after interview he talks about how he's not against swearing (and swearing while he does it), explaining it just doesn't make sense to do jokes about his kids full of profanity. He's not on the evangelical side of any political issue and he's all but refused to really speak about anything theological ("I know nothing. And so I don't want to be presented as someone who knows what they're talking about.").

Maybe this is all a good thing. Maybe I'm picking nits about evangelicalism being lax on famous people, when really it's a transformation of grace and openness. Then again, I do read the news - plus I spend way too much time on Facebook.

Maybe I'm just being selfish - maybe I'm just uptight because I can (and do) conform to most of those quintessentially super-Christian lifestyle choices and yet I'm constantly prodded and pushed and challenged when I happen to espouse a theological (or political) position that might be a little outside what's expected.

It's as if evangelicalism wants to include anyone who might make them look cool, but exclude anyone who might make them think. Well, I guess maybe we've gotten this celebrity thing down after all.

*Now. obviously there's a real critique about celebrity and celebrity culture itself that's problematic in this instance, but that might be subject for another day.

**Man, it took a long time to get around to something so seemingly simple.

***There's no corresponding reference to this above, but if you're in the mood for a pained groan today, google "evangelical celebrity" on image search. Rough.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Katrina, Poverty, and Community

Hey, I got a request! I really enjoy writing to an assignment. It's a good discipline and I think it's one in which I shine. This week I got a question specifically for the blog: namely, in light of the 10 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina, what is the difference between a natural disaster and disasters like poverty or homelessness that makes people rally together in one instance and largely argue in another?

I think there's a lot that can be said there. The easiest (and also most difficult answer) is that cleanup from a hurricane is tangible and has an end date. You can go and clean rubble, rebuild homes, hand out food, etc - and at some point, the job is more or less done. It doesn't require an investment beyond our comfort zone. Tackling poverty, though, really requires us to dig in, to invest our lives in something with no end date. To do it well, we need to tie our own future to those of the people we're trying to love and help. It has to be a working with, not a working for. And that is, quite understandably, terrifying.

It's something that's likely not going to end. Jeffrey Sachs' famous book, The End of Poverty, laid out a tangible, achievable plan for ending poverty - but that was defined as no one in the world living on less than $2 per day. It would be a great achievement, for sure, but calling it the "end of poverty" is a little bit of overselling. Jesus told his disciples the poor would always be with them - which many people have used as an excuse not to tackle the problem at all - I tend to look at it as an acknowledgement that poverty is a demonic force in our world.

You may have read here my take on demons at some point - I don't go in for the supernatural sentience or anything like that - I tend to think of it more as a force that's gotten beyond our control - hatred, addiction, psychoses of one kind or another. Poverty is certainly in that category. People don't like tackling problems they can't solve. This one is a doozy.

So what do we do?

I think it's particularly interesting that President Obama is quoted in one of the articles that came with the question. As much as we ascribe a lot of power to the President, but he's got so little ability to do anything positive to alleviate problems. I know we're sold this big, happy narrative that our votes can change the world - and they do in some sense - but they're completely powerless to tackle real problems. Problems like poverty.

In fact, this President likely had a much greater impact on the world when he was an organizer in Chicago working for better community policing and fair housing practices, than he does sitting in the White House wielding phenomenal cosmic power.

Even thinking about this, just being elected President has essentially exempted Barack Obama from ever again really being part of truly tackling poverty. Hopefully he'll follow the example of Jimmy Carter and invest his post-Presidency in the tangible work of helping people, even if he can only do it second hand - but he's not going to be able to volunteer in a homeless shelter or develop real relationships with people who need community - he'll have TV cameras and armed guards following him the rest of his life. It's almost as if we've gotten it backwards - protecting the people at the top of heap as if they're our greatest, irreplaceable treasures and treating those people getting their hands dirty in the midst of the mess as essentially faceless drones.

Maybe that is the difference between Katrina and poverty - the President wields a lot of power to help in one instance and very little ability to do anything about the other.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29th, 2005. On September 5th, I was on a plane taxiing past Air Force One in Baton Rouge. We went down to assess the situation, set up a base of operations, and begin planning the protracted, unprecedented response my denomination could take to help with recovery. I saw a lot of things that still seems like movie creations. I experienced a lot of stuff and have a ton of crazy stories from just a few days on the periphery of chaos. But it was simple to see how money was going to help. Money goes a long way when you need to build homes and roads and levees.

At the same time, the people who really made a difference in New Orleans are the people who are still there; the ones who moved in. Those people who found hurting communities and set up life among the broken. New Orleans may be an extreme example - although I know people who've been there ten years and will likely never leave - but it's not so far fetched in our own communities.

My family had the opportunity to move to Middletown - a growing, largely middle and upper income area of Delaware. We intentionally chose a neighborhood with diversity and need. I won't say we're living amongst poverty, but there are certainly demons present that need some attention. The longer I live, the less convinced I am we can do any good addressing such things from our safe little enclaves. We have to dig in; and it's gonna get messy.

I remember shortly after Katrina, people were literally volunteering their homes, taking in displaced families from the Gulf Coast. Most of the reporting on these stories involved those people who really regretted their amazing acts of generosity. It's tough living with people, especially people suffering the effects of trauma, people from different cultural backgrounds and social classes. People with different expectations. Life together is really hard. But it's also the answer.

Maybe it starts with some short term. There are hurricanes and floods and tornados every year - and there are lots of organizations that will gladly facilitate your help. But be prepared for the pull - the tug towards community - not just other people, but people with needs, the same way we have needs.

Human beings are meant to live communally. We're designed to be tied together through good and bad, to walk with each other and to tackle problems together. Throughout history, our greatest successes have been those time when we've banded together for some great cause. Those great successes don't start on a grand scale, though, they start from getting to know the guy next door.