Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Taking of K-129

I picked up this new book mostly for the subtitle: How the CIA used Howard Hughes to steal a Russian Sub in the most covert operation in history. Non-fiction is non-fiction. Hopefully it's informative and engaging, but rarely is it earth shattering. I loved this book, though. This isn't one I was paid to read and it doesn't offer any real insight into life and purpose - it's just fun.

Rarely do you find a piece of history so interesting that's not already in the common knowledge. A few books have been written about Operation Azorian, but it was all new to me. In 1968 a Russian nuclear sub had an accident and sunk, mostly intact, in 17,000 feet of North Pacific water.
The US wanted to recover the nukes and any coding information on board and thus concocted a crazy scheme to essentially invent a whole slew of new technology and build a huge, experimental ship, strictly for this purpose.

We could get caught up in the follies of war or the economics of spending $250m in 1970s dollars for such a project, but I'd rather just focus on the well-written, enthralling history of this unlikely mission. Josh Dean gives detail, but not so much as to bog the story down. He gives background that's interesting and mostly leaves out what's not. It's a pretty dense 450 pages, but they fly by with great anticipation. Chapters are short, and it reads like a novel.

Being a real story, the ending is a bit of a letdown, but there's great joy in discovering and learning about a really fascinating piece of history. I didn't really have a blog post topic for today I was excited about, but if even four or five of you pick up this book, the time and space will be worth it. I think a lot of my regular readers would really appreciate The Taking of K-129.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Click Bait with Depth

So, I've been sitting on this for a while. I clicked on some click bait a while back - I do that occasionally, I'm sad to admit. It was about a man who refused to take off his Marine Corps hat for his driver's license photo. You may have seen it around. Essentially, the story was that an older gentleman was asked to remove his hat for the photo, as is general practice, but he refused, pointing to a man allowed to keep his turban on. When told the only exemption is for religious items worn daily, he claimed his hat was such an item and, after a flurry of phone calls, was allowed to wear it for the photo.

We have no real way of knowing if this is true. Even Snopes says it's anybody's guess, although the details are plausible. I believe the quote from the story is that his marine corps oath was "to one nation under God, which makes it as good as religion." Whether fabricated or not, it's a pretty telling statement about the perception of nationalism and the ways in which Christianity has been distorted to serve powerful and violent interests. We've essentially sanctified "common sense," when the gospel is foolishness to the wisdom of the world.

What's more telling, perhaps, is that this was designed to get people clicking. It's popular. It's the kind of feel good story people are willing to read and share. I sure hope my Christian friends are uncomfortable with it, but I've also seen plenty defend this kind of analogy. I've long heard people say you can serve God and country as long as you have them in the right order. Those are often the same people who say its un-American to welcome immigrants, for example - without much thought to Biblical teaching on the matter; who choose war over peace.

It's a broad brush and perhaps the characterization doesn't fit you - for that I'm glad - but it's been true in enough of my conversations to warrant comment. We simply can't combine nationalism and Christianity - even if there is some purported "right" order of allegiance, in any conglomeration of the two, Christianity always loses. Power is a wily foe - it's why Jesus says a man cannot serve both God and Mammon. We typically take that to mean "money," and greed is probably the best translation, but it's not always about money. Greed speaks to accumulation, typically at the expense of others. This is a power game.

When we seek to be "the best country in the world," there's tacit implications that this means others are less good. Perhaps we could be the best country in the world while also helping the rest of the world to achieve what we have. However, our typical fallback for maintain "greatness" is not magnanimous generosity and sacrifice; it's military might, force, and power. We hoard those things and in doing so, give worship and honor to Mammon.

The guy in the click bait, if he really exists, has nobly given his life to a certain set of principles and assumptions. They're "noble" in every sense of our vernacular, but they're not Christian values and the Church can't continue to strain between two pillars moving in opposite directions. That edifice, of God and country, is simply unstable. Better for it to fall and us pick up the pieces than to kill ourselves in an unwinnable task.

That's not to say nationalism or American patriotism doesn't have elements of true virtue embedded within it - just that they're in service to a worldview that's dead and dying. The sooner we cut the cord, the better we're all going to be.

I still don't advocate giving in to the clickbait - it's the surest way for your to spread fake news or contract a computer virus - but here's one, at least, that speaks volumes beyond simply the words on the screen. Our lives are telling; they reveal information about us we may never have intended or known. Let's serve God and keep Mammon out of it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Navel Gazing

My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, has a PR wing, for lack of a better term. It's called NCN News and generally they put out some really good stuff. The people there work hard and I appreciate their effort.

Way back in the dark ages, when I was in seminary, I worked for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, another arm of the denomination that coordinates all kinds of community ministry around the world. It's also the entity that helps directly in times of disaster (and we've had a lot of disasters lately, so if you still have more to give - - is a great place to do it). Anyway, I found myself in a position to exorcise a pet peeve of mine.

When NCN News covered a disaster event, the accompanying story usually just described the Nazarenes and Nazarene congregations affected by the disaster. This makes sense on one level, since its news specifically for Nazarenes about Nazarenes - however, in the burgeoning internet age, Nazarenes were certainly not the only audience. It struck me as a bit short sighted to not include the total number of displaced, dead, or injured people along with our Nazarene numbers. Others agreed. It was a quick fix and I think it helps us keep focus on the larger picture of need and response in a disaster (after all, most of the people NCM helps aren't Nazarene anyway).

In a related case, over the past few years there's been no small amount of controversy over a directive from the President regarding salaried employees and working-hour requirements. I don't want to bog us down in detail, but the basic gist is that some companies were giving people titles and putting them on salary in order to work them more hours with no real responsibility that might traditionally accompany a salaried position - think assistant manager at [insert fast food chain here] working 80 hours a week for $30,000 a year (which is about $7.50 an hour).

The new rule raised the minimum salary for exempt employees (workers not eligible for overtime) to somewhere around $48,000 a year - meaning people making under that amount, even if they are salaried, are still owed overtime pay. Now pastors are always overworked and underpaid, but the federal government has always assumed those ridiculous working conditions come with the job (since it is a divine calling and all) - so clergy haven't been included in any of these rules.

A court recently knocked down the raise in minimum salary and the battle will undoubtedly continue.

My beef was with how the Church of the Nazarene talked about this rule and it's journey through the legal system. It's obviously of import, since congregations are typically cash strapped and do often rely on salaried employees, even beyond clergy. I'm not entirely sure if this was something NCN News covered themselves or relied on the pensions or finance departments to keep tabs on - regardless, whenever the subject came up, it was always as bad news. The raise in minimums will hurt churches! Look out for this new rule! It may not have been so overt, but the negative coverage was always right there under the surface.

When the rule was halted by the courts, we got this piece: - a reflection of relief, if nothing else. It just struck me as a little self-interested, especially for a denomination built upon work with and among the poor, that the end of a rule that would bring much needed financial help to hard-working, but low income people would be met with relief.

As I said, this wouldn't really apply to clergy, so those affected would be office staff or custodians, perhaps daycare staff (I'm not entirely up on the specifics). I can't imagine the population of people who are both salaried employees AND regularly putting in more than 40 hours a week as non-clergy in the employ of a Nazarene congregation is all that big. It's certainly dwarfed by the many people this rule was designed to help. (And it avoids entirely the question of why congregations would be upset paying low-income employees for overtime they earned anyway!)

I feel a little bad using this as an example, but I do think it's a good one. One of the great problems for Christians is just how insulated we tend to be. We get so caught up in the programs and inner-workings of our congregations and our denominations that we're not engaged (or not as engaged as we should be) with the world around us. I know employees of a denominational headquarters are far more involved with the inner workings by necessity, but there's also a responsibility for leadership, for pointing us out of our bubble and towards the needs of the world.

We get too caught up navel-gazing and we miss the world we're called to be deeply invested in. We spend our time trying to be different, but we end up just being separate. We can do better - all of us - and I hope we will.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Football, Respect, and Assumptions

Last week there was more than a little hubbub about Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers Quarterback and all-around mercurial dude. He answered a question about the routes one of his receivers was running - asked by a woman - by saying it was "funny" that a female was asking about routes.

It was a terribly awkward thing to say, made worse by the accompanying body language that came off as more than a little dismissive of someone just trying to do their job. The reporter said as much in a statement following the press conference - she was insulted, both personally, and on behalf of women and female sports journalists everywhere.

I think it's very likely Cam Newton is a sexist - or at the very least, felt like one in that moment - sexism is the devaluing of a person because of their sex, in our society, it's women, valued less than men for no real reason whatsoever. However, the actual words the man spoke merely expressed his feelings receiving that question in that moment - the interpretation of their meaning is left up to the beholder.

We know how the reporter felt - and rightly so - it seems most of the world agreed with her, again, that is their right. But the way in which this "story" was covered in the media took a slightly different tack. Instead of discussing what those words could mean and having opinions on those various meanings, most outlets I saw, heard, or experienced, decided that Cam Newton meant that women shouldn't be covering sports and proceeded to fill their time arguing against that point.

It may be a slight difference - and one not worth really arguing about since almost no one is giving Newton the benefit of the doubt here (although, in subsequent statements, Newton both admitted the reporter's interpretation of his words was correct and argued she didn't understand what he was trying to say). There's a large cultural point at play here, though: namely that we've reached a point where almost everyone is comfortable treating their own opinions as fact.

We don't really know what Cam Newton meant. In fact, in statements since the incident he's apologized for saying exactly what everyone thought he said and also defending himself, claiming he was merely commenting on how rare it is, still today, to see a women covering sports and that his comment was intended to be a complement.

The proper response to all this is to argue what should be the interpretation of the comments and explain why. We just didn't do that - we extrapolated meaning from the words and then claimed that meaning as fact.

It then happened again, in a different way, on Sunday - when the Vice President of the United States and the owner of Dallas Cowboys made statements that equated kneeling during the national anthem with disrespect of the flag, the country, and/or the military. These echo the comments of the President, but as we all know, in the current administration, the words of the President don't count until someone else repeats them.

Equating the various protests taking place at NFL games during the anthem with disrespect is certainly a valid opinion, but, of course, stating that opinion works against the direct statements of most of those very players - and, indeed, with Colin Kaepernick, the originator of the protest, who moved from sitting on the bench to kneeling specifically because he wanted to avoid the kind of disrespect Mike Pence and Jerry Jones happen to see.

Now I get that someone could mean no disrespect, but have their words or actions perceived as disrespectful anyway. Both parties, in that case, have a right to their intentions and opinions. But it is a far cry from fair to simply state your opinion as fact and cluelessly defend it. It's the kind of behavior you might expect from a twelve year old, whose brain development hasn't yet let them truly grapple with the reality of a non-binary argument. It's not the hallmark of mature individuals.

Yet here we are.

This is the world in which we live.

I find it particularly interesting that we're quick to call out those who devalue others. Sexist, racist, traitor - yet we seem to do it in such a way that we devalue those we accuse of devaluing others. If people are indeed people and worthy of respect simply because of that fact, then we should probably treat them that way.

That's not to say we don't oppose those ideas, actions, words, and opinions we deem to be wrong - but we need to do it in a way that honors and values the person who said, did, thought, or expressed them. People come up with the stupidest, most inane, illogical, and all-around terrible ideas out of great earnestness of thought. Not that every idea is a well-wrestled achievement, but many of even the stupidest truly are.

We should be able to say to or about Cam Newton: the words and actions he used the other day really make it sound like he doesn't think women should cover sports without automatically making our interpretations truth. The frickin' Vice President of the United States should be able to say, "your actions during the anthem bother people who love this country," and those players should be able to say to the Vice President of the United States, "the inaction of the country in the face of injustice bothers people (like me) who love this country," without having to denominze, devalue, and denude the dignity and respect of those who disagree.

I guess it's better radio, better tv, better click bait, to just make the most outrageous claim possible and wait for the fireworks. We can excuse it as business or marketing or entertainment all we want, but most people don't see it that way; they see it as life and death or at least a matter of honor. It's not just in good fun when its so pervasive and half the audience isn't in on the joke.

We've engaged the post-modern post-truth world in exactly the wrong way. Instead of coming into every conversation holding our facts and opinions lightly, willing to have our minds changed, we enter in combat mode, willing to denigrate the different and deny the validity of anything but my own ideas. One of the biggest problems we have right now in this country is that everyone thinks everything they think is a fact. When in reality, we could all use a little bit of humility...

...or maybe a lot.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Christians and Guns

The Ten Commandments say "Do not kill;" Jesus said "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies," and then he went out and did it - even when it cost him his life. We can parse all the various real-time possibilities where one might agree killing is the least bad of many terrible options, but those possibilities, in the grand scheme of things, are few and far between - far fewer and less likely than the attention we give to them - all so we don't have to feel the guilt of falling short of the ideal. There is a difference between justifying our weakness and apologizing for it. We need more of the latter.

I tell people my position on life is simple: it's precious; we should protect it. Don't kill. Don't do things that might endanger the lives of people. Be willing to give up your own life rather than take the life on another. The what ifs and the maybes are simply unlikely to matter in my life or yours. Thought experiments are far less important than real people - even enemies and those whose actions might make it harder to love and protect their lives.

Our typical answer to the problem of violence and killing is to make more laws. I'm not opposed to laws, especially when your job is to make them. A Congress doesn't do any good if it sits on its hands. Maybe you're one of those who'd rather they do nothing - which is fine by me - but then let's disband the system rather than stacking it with gridlock.

I don't believe laws will solve anything, though. Forcing people to do something will only result in rebellion. Radical freedom is the way to go. Some call it anarchy - where a society rises and falls on the health and strength of relationships between people. That's a scary proposition, but it's what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (I wrote about this the other day). When it comes to guns and violence, you can't outlaw them with integrity - as I tweeted after the Las Vegas massacre, who would enforce a ban on guns?

We've got to get beyond the notion than power and control are the way to run the world. If you want to stop something from happening, you need to stop doing it and let your example be the evidence for others to see and follow. Jesus' solution to violence was to not be violent. His solution for the abuse of power was not to use it. His very words were to take that slap in the face and then turn your cheek for another. If it takes your death, my death, to condemn the violence of another - so be it. A violent response to violence justifies the violence.

My denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, was founded on some basic principles - one of them, strangely and tangentially enough, was the prohibition of alcohol. Many early Nazarenes worked among the poor - drunks and prostitutes, among others - and knew firsthand the dangerous of alcohol. Many of them were caught up in the prohibitionist movement - a movement so forceful and persuasive that 2/3rds of the US House and Senate (with vast majorities in both parties) along with the legislatures of 46 states approved an amendment to the Constitution to that effect.

It was ultimately a practical failure and later repealed with another, similarly overwhelming series of votes - but the root causes of alcohol prohibition remained dominant in the Church of the Nazarene. My forefathers and foremothers saw the perils of alcohol use - not for every individual, of course, but for society as a whole - and moved strongly and willingly to abstain in solidarity and out of love for those hurt by alcohol.

It's still an issue for our denomination. Personally, I would love for us to have maintained the historic position - that we're simply a people who choose not to drink out of love for others. Christians can certainly make different choices and be just as obedient and faithful as us, but the Church of the Nazarene is a place where we don't - not because it's against the rules, but because we've made a particular choice.

We'd be a lot smaller if that were the case. At some point along the way we decided being bigger was better and went a little "don't ask, don't tell" on the alcohol thing. So now, we've got a lot of faithful Christians who choose to love and serve God and neighbor while also drinking responsibly from time to time that call themselves Nazarenes. And we've welcomed them into membership and ordained them and I certainly wouldn't want us to get rid of them.

Personally, I'd love for us to be clear and united and small - but we're not - at least on this issue - so we move forward together and in faith. We maintain our position of abstinence, because that's who we are. I hope we can do it with grace and freedom - not making rules, but choosing to abstain out of love for our brothers and sisters. I even authored a change to our official statement to that effect last summer - it wasn't passed, but it wasn't killed either. I have hope.

The key, I think, is the emphasis on freedom and grace. Prohibition is a bad idea. It's why laws will only ever control "bad" behavior and never eradicate it. People bristle at being told what to do. The Church of the Nazarene calls its members to abstain from alcohol - with lots of good, sound, biblical and theological support and a grand historic narrative that stems from our profound belief in self-giving love.

We do the same thing in other areas as well. Gambling is a big one. Maybe one I can speak to better, because I enjoy it. I'm an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene, so, for integrity's sake, my gambling days were over a long time ago - and were never much to begin with, because I'm inherently risk-averse and incredibly cheap. Still, a good poker game is a lot of fun. We abstain - and I join in - not because there's something wrong with gambling in the abstract, but because there's no real way to disconnect my actions from the larger gambling environment that ruins families and destroys lives.

We might say "there's nothing wrong with alcohol or gambling; it's the addiction that'll ruin you," and that's a true statement, but there's no such thing as the abstract in the real world. The five bucks my friend wins off me might end up being lost to a lottery or a casino when he's having fun over the weekend - that money used to entice the gambling of someone else who can't afford it or can't stop. As much as we third or fourth or fifth generation Nazarenes like to talk about the over-eager prohibitions of our past (which included, officially, movies, dancing, mixed-bathing, and circuses - along with unofficial prohibitions on jewelry, playing cards, and, sometimes, wearing the color red, among others) - the logic and the theology are sound.

We're called to give up good things that might harm others. I've spent several weeks studying, teaching, and preaching from Romans 14, and I've yet to figure out exactly where the line is - how much should I be willing to sacrifice for the good of others? I don't know the limit of my sacrifice, but I know there was no limit to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and I'm certainly not better than him.

All this to say - whatever the lawmakers decide about gun laws (or alcohol or gambling) is their business - but what I'd like to do is call my fellow Christians, and especially my fellow Nazarenes, to just give up the guns - not because of some rule against them or even because they're bad on their own, but simply because our society can't handle guns responsibly and we're connected to that, whether we like it or not.

I'm not going to make it a campaign or a crusade and I won't (or at least it's not my intention to) shame anyone. People who make a different choice than me should have the same grace we show to people who make different choices about gambling or alcohol or anything else we tend to avoid. I'm just saying, for me, and I hope for others, this is an issue that's taking on a different tone.

It's a bit tricky for me, since I've never been a gun guy and don't own any. I do think, though, that hunting for food is a near universal good - something we should have more of, not less. I believe deeply we'd all be better off getting our meat at the end of a gun than out of a slaughterhouse. As much as I'm not a gun guy, the loss of that positive indeed feels like a sacrifice. I don't think guns are bad - any more than I think alcohol is bad (or gambling or marijuana or movies or the NFL, for that matter).

We draw lines all the time about when to do things responsibly and with limits and when to avoid them altogether. We make choices about our health and habits. For Nazarenes, we've sworn off gambling and alcohol for a long time. I'd like to suggest we add guns to that list - not maniacally or forcefully or with shame, but of our own free will, out of love for our neighbor.

Laws can control behavior, but they cannot eradicate problems - only sacrificial love can do that. I'm not opposed to the former, but I'm deeply committed to the latter. In fact I think it may be the only truly gospel means of responding to the tragedy of gun violence in all its forms: senseless murder, police shootings, war and whatever else we do to each other.

It may be more than we "should" have to sacrifice, but the world certainly doesn't work the way it "should," and there are no limits to what we're called to sacrifice out of love for each other.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Alternative Politics

The problem with having theological discussions of governance issues is that American Christians often feel a responsibility to govern. This is the toll participation in a democracy takes on us. When everyone gets a vote, when it's government by the people, we feel responsible for having a governing solution. This is why I'm so convinced we have to reclaim Christianity as an alternative politic. My responsibility, as a Christian, is not to a nation or a government (or even a form of government), it's a responsibility to love -
to love the people around me, to love my enemies, to love the whole of creation.

Christianity is an alternative form of politics that exists within, contrary to, and separate from the political machinations of the world. When I say, "all people deserve healthcare" or "borders and citizenship shouldn't dictate how people are treated," often the response is "how do we make a law to ensure that" or "how can we fit that within the constitutional framework." A Christian response really is - and should be - who cares?
It's not our responsibility to ensure the United States of America functions properly - or even exists. We're here to live into the Kingdom of God. To love people, to suffer patiently, to act like Jesus.

This is ultimately why I'd argue a Christian perspective on governance is anarchy. It's not the anarchy of Purge movies, but a place in which people aren't forced to do anything, but challenged to sacrifice for the other.Governments and forms of government come and go - there are always attempts by people to gain, seize, exercise, and maintain power. Christians are called to avoid power games - to renounce them and condemn them.

The Church is an alternative politic where those who have give willing to those who don't - where there is a race to the bottom, so to speak,
where people are glad to do with less and less so our neighbors can have enough.

I'm not sure you could ever run a government that way, but it's not really my concern.

I can say, "there should be no borders," because there shouldn't. All people are equal - race, creed, nationality, none of it matters - that's truth. People should have access to healthcare, food, education, work, a loving community. If that messes with your constitution or causes problems with your government, so be it - it doesn't make the truth any less true.

Governments are, at their core, attempts to isolate "us" from the problems that exist elsewhere. Christians are called to immerse themselves in those problems, to suffer with those who suffer. When we allow ourselves to be constrained by the laws or Constitutions of the governments in which we reside, we are putting those things above the core tenets of our faith.

Too often American Christians (and perhaps Christians around the world) really expect their faith to inform a reformed version of government -
this is certainly the perspective of many evangelicals who run for and/or are elected to office - but really Christianity was designed to be a way of life outside those manufactured human institutions. The gospel of Jesus ends religion itself; it ends government.

Our core belief is that the Spirit of God can and does change people, that God's love - expressed in and through us - can and will overcome whatever inevitable ugly reaction we get from sharing it unconditionally. The road isn't easy - Jesus said as much, if the whole crucifixion thing didn't prove it - but it's the only one worth living and suffering and dying for.

We need to reclaim the gospel as a true alternative and not the magic elixir that will fix the world we've created.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Value and Validation

I was reading an interesting article about the place of Macklemore in the cultural conversation.* The article included a video from his new album - a song featuring Kesha. I thought the song was below average, in fact the only parts I enjoyed were the parts Kesha sings. It got me to thinking that she, herself, just put out a tremendously well-received album that I hadn't yet listened to. So I listened to it.

It's tremendous, by the way, ranging over a bunch of different styles and musical genres, all of which are pretty good. Kesha, herself, has an improbable story - the daughter of a semi-successful songwriter, she came to prominence as her family hosted Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie during their ill-fated reality show The Simple Life. She was soon after handpicked by mega-producer Dr. Luke and signed to a record deal. The Song Machine - a book about the manufactured pop sound of the last two decades - makes it seem like Dr. Luke (not a doctor) chose Kesha specifically as part of a project to literally create a pop star from scratch; it depicts her as more of a tool, from his perspective, than even an artist.

This all came to an ugly head when Kesha accused Dr. Luke of sexual and financial abuses and sued to be released from her recording contract. This request was denied and it was ruled that the statute of limitations on the rape allegations had expired. She was left to release her newest album, the one I listened to, through Dr. Luke's label, even though he had nothing to do with its production.

Kesha's carefully curated persona through most of her career had been as a drugged up, sexually adventurous, party queen - her songs were generally about drinking and laughing off disastrously bad decisions in a way that makes teenagers excited and parents concerned. Typical pop music to the extreme. With the new album Kesha is being more personal, exploring the depths and breadth of her actual reality, and dealing with all the crap in her life (of which the above description is just a tiny fragment).

We went from seeing this Kesha

To this one

It's a little jarring, both to see how pop culture is manipulated and to see what it can do to real people. Kesha's new album isn't polite - there are a bunch of tracks marked explicit and while there are some potential Top 40 hits there, it's mostly about an artist expressing herself. In other words, it's real art. I recommend the whole thing - it's not too long and it's insanely real, especially if your aware of Kesha's journey to making it.

One of the songs that really caught my attention is called "Hymn." I tend to enjoy music that uses religious language or overtones, especially the songs that challenge the staid assumptions of religiosity. This one, in particular, talks about being a "hymn for the hymnless," a song for "kids with no religion."

I got it, immediately; it really resonated with me. She's not talking about religion persay (and you can read a longer description of Kesha's thoughts on the song here), but about people who feel left out. It's a song for people who don't fit in.

I wouldn't say I've been an outcast in my life; I've rarely felt alone. I have, however, often felt like I don't fit in. I tend to challenge the status quo, mostly because I believe deeply that somebody should. I also tend to think differently. I like this song in particular because of the religious language. Christianity, a movement of outcasts, specifically designed to include and accept everyone, has become one of the most exclusive, homogeneous movements around. Even in the midst of our deep Christian divisions, we tend to be people who like to congregate with people like us.

I love that the very fact this song includes explicit profanities, it'll be rejected by many Christians as bad or troublesome or dangerous, when, to me, it seems downright prophetic. I get that it sounds like an unapologetic apology for all things hedonistic and sinful. It's got overt celebration of selfishness and individualism - generally things Christianity frowns upon. I think, though, above it all, "Hymn" is a declaration of human worth - that's something the Church could use more of.

We have theological statements about how grace and salvation is a free gift from God, but we tend to supplement those statements with actions that show we really do expect a specific standard of behavior to really belong. A lot of the things Kesha has done or sung about are not the kinds of things I want for myself or my children; they're not things I'd condone - and not because they're inherently bad, just that they tend to be harmful. However, when we hold the ideal up as the standard, we all end up falling short. It produces shame and guilt that only lead to a devaluation of self-worth and, often, a devaluation of someone else's worth in our eyes.

Yes, there's a balance between judgement and grace, especially when we actually have the kind of relationship with people where they can hear hard truths as love. The problem we run into is that almost everybody already knows their guilty, but almost nobody really believes they're loved (and lovable). The balance can't be 50-50, because we don't need to hear judgment in equal measure with love. We need a lot more of the latter. It is love and acceptance that's truly transformational.

I believe that. More lives are changed, more positive, healthy decisions are made, because people are loved and accepted in spite of their faults, than will ever be changed because those faults have been highlighted and condemned.

People aren't perfect and they certainly aren't all the same. The expectations we have for each other might be made with the best intentions, but if they're not true to who people are, they're not expressing the kind of value and validation we need to be loved - to be truly human. Just this week I heard and friend and mentor of mine say some powerful words. They perfectly express the reality of this seeming paradox and they fit perfectly with this post, that I'd already been constructing.

He said, "I don't mind the 'I'm okay, you're okay' culture we're in" - this is not what you'd expect from a pastor, for sure - "because what it's really saying is that I'm valuable and so are you."

This culture of acceptance - "I'm okay, you're okay" that's so often decried in religious circles is not meant to be a discussion of the individual merits of an opinion or action or belief - it's meant as the validation of someone's humanity. We're saying, "You are a human being, with experiences and insights that come from real living; you have the right to believe what you believe, even if we disagree."

There's no ability to even get to a discussion of our various views, until I accept your right to come to your own conclusions. That kind of fearless freedom is, truly, at the heart of human life as Jesus understands and explains it. It should be at the heart of Christianity - although it so rarely is - and it's definitely at the heart of Kesha's new album.

I may not agree with the content and substance of the words in these songs, but they express a fierce determination to prove personhood and value in the face of inexplicable tragedy. For someone who's been dehumanized and devalued in ways we can't fully understand to be able to stand up and produce such a strong statement in defiance of those circumstances is entirely worth celebrating.

This new album, Rainbows, is a triumph of the human spirit - and there's a particular, if unintentional, gospel lesson there, if we've got the ears to hear it.

May it be so.

*It's a pretty intriguing topic - a white rapper comes to prominence with culturally conscious and often challenging lyrics and takes the world by storm, winning Grammys with solid, but inferior material over a black rapper (Kendrick Lamar), who's essentially a better, more credible version of the archetype Macklemore was chosen to fill. It wasn't really a position Macklemore asked for, but one he really struggled with.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Worry and Helplessness

My father had brain surgery this summer. Due to, I believe, a miscalculation with his blood thinners (those things are no joke), there was bleeding on his brain that had to be drained. Living 2000 miles away, I wasn't quite aware of just how serious this kind of thing is until afterwards, when I saw the percentages. Let's just say Dad would've made a lot of money in Vegas with his luck that day - although, if he'd been gambling, he probably would've died.

Through this process I learned yet another way that my brain seems to work opposite from how most people process things. Visiting Colorado this summer, I made a joke about Dad maybe having died that was not met with the laughter I might've thought from my family. I do understand, intellectually, why my Mom and brothers wouldn't find that thought funny - there's a part of me that doesn't understand.

I tend to worry about things I can control. "Tend" is a misnomer; I worry about things I can control. I take weeks - months, sometimes, if the Burlington Coat Factory is out of options - to buy new shoes. I replay board game decisions over in my head for days. I don't like thinking about what to have for dinner until almost the point of eating. If I have a choice to make, chances are I will second guess it, often to the point of over-stressing my brain.

I don't tend to worry, though, about things I can't control. My father's brain surgery seems like a strange place to discover this, but: there it is. In my head, at least, while Dad was undergoing surgery and recovery, he was essentially Schrodinger's cat. He could die. He could live.
He could be afflicted with all sorts of damage or disabilities; there was really no way to know for sure. My mind did, briefly, start thinking about what he'd have to do with each or any of those eventualities, but the options are quite vast and without any real indication of the direction to think, I decided not to.

If and when we knew more, I'd worry then.

Through many conversations with people asking if I "was ok," (which, by the way, is a strange thing to be asked when someone else is in surgery) I came to realize other people do the opposite. They don't worry about things they can control; they make decisions and move on. It seems like most people worry about things they can't control. When the options or outcomes are up in the air, it stresses people out.

I'm the opposite.

In many ways, this stinks for me. I literally get stressed out if the competing brands of facial tissue are unit priced in different units (Seriously, why would one be 'per 100 count' and another 'per ounce?' That makes no sense and requires an insane amount of math.) I don't seem to be phased by my father's brain surgery. I get that this is odd, but I also get that this is reality.*

This whole thing has given me pause to ponder worry. Is it really a fear of losing control? I don't know? I worry about landing in an airplane, partly because most airplane accidents happen when moving at high speeds very close to the ground, but also partly because we're moving from what seems like a carefree position, floating peacefully through the air, to one of turmoil, engaging the tarmac. With an emergency surgery, we're moving from a life-threatening scenario to one where life might be saved. My Dad's brain was never going to fix itself, so even if he got a below average surgeon (and he didn't - the guy, by all accounts, is pretty darn good), his chances are still better than they were before.

In the end, this is probably just an extreme example of my control-freak nature. If there's even the slightest hint that I might be able to do something, I want to do it - and not just well, perfectly. If it's out of my control, I guess I'm pretty content to let the chips fall where they may (which is a logging idiom, in case you were wondering). It also comes from selfishness - I worry about things I can control because they reflect on me (or at least have the potential to do so). If it's not something someone can pin on me, who cares?

It's not really "who cares;" I most certainly care whether my father comes through brain surgery ok. It's more, why worry? Worry, at least to me, reflects anxiety over my own actions. I'm concerned about things I can't control, but, if I can't do anything, I'm not going to upset myself over it.

In the end, I think the difference between worry and concern is really the crux of the matter. We should care about those things that matter and not care about those things that don't. I'm not sure we should really worry about anything, especially if we've given our full attention to doing the best we can.

So, for me, I guess the next step is learning to be ok with mistakes. I probably should've figured out how to do that by 35 years of age - let's just hope you can teach an old dogs new tricks. Either way, it's probably out of my control... or is it?

*To be fair, had I known that a huge number of people with brain bleeds die and a huge percentage of those who don't have permanent brain damage,
I might've worried a bit more. I don't know, since I didn't find out until afterwards, but that does seem like something that would keep me up at night.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Echo Chamber

I enjoyed watching parts of the Emmys on Sunday. TV actors tend to make for better speech-makers, because they're a little less self-important and there's a lot of awards set aside for comedians. There are also a lot of awards - and writers sometimes get to receive them, which makes for better-written speeches. I like comedy, so this is a good awards show at which to laugh.

Stephen Colbert hosted the Emmys and one of his early gags was to joke about the size of the audience and then have Sean Spicer (one-time Trump spokesman) come out on a rolling podium (reminiscent of the Melissa McCarthy parody of Spicer on SNL) to joke about the size of the audience,
the way he once, very seriously, lectured the White House Press Corps about the size of the Presidential inauguration crowd.

I found this funny. I suspect lots and lots of the home audience found it funny. The attendees of the event and the pop culture press found it tasteless and inappropriate. All I've heard, in interviews with actors and writers, and in commentaries on the event, are critiques of this moment "in an otherwise great awards show."

I want to call BS.

This is the kind of hypocritical self-importance that plays directly into the hands of people the left tends to criticize for hypocritical self-importance. Is it totally absurd that Trump, and his administration, spent the better part of his first few days in office persisting with the obvious falsehood that his inauguration crows was the largest in history? Of course. That's hypocritical self-importance. Is it equally absurd to demonize a professional PR guy (a profession that basically gets paid to lie for a living - excuse me "massage the truth" or "accentuate the positive") because he worked (and got fired by) a guy you don't like?

I know, I know, "Trump is the antithesis of morality and decency, a dangerously incompetent President and the worst person alive" blah, blah,
blah. He's portrayed a Satan by a certain class of left-wing elitists and thus contaminates anyone in his orbit. By not taking a joke, Hollywood is sort of proving a point.

The left characterizes the right as a greedy, heartless mob of rich businessmen willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor for personal gain.
The right characterizes the left as sheltered intellectuals with no real grasp on how most people live. Each side calls those characterizations baseless. This is the message of the echo chamber - "am too," "are not."

The reality is both of those bogeymen do really and truly exist, but those aren't really characteristic of the majority of the opposition. I imagine most people, both democrats and republicans, can laugh at Sean Spicer making fun of himself. Stephen Colbert knows this, which is why he's a pretty popular guy (much to the bemusement of the head-scratching pop culture media). The guy understands regular people and they like watching him.

Ricky Gervais was the best Golden Globes host of all time, because he made fun of celebrities honestly. He played to the TV audience and not the one in the room. The actors hated him for it, but the ratings were fantastic.

Now what I'm not sure of - what has yet to be proven - is if this overemphasis on the echo chamber can really change reality. If all we're given is the propaganda of the extremes, will it, in turn, change the vast middle into a polarized confusion. I'm fairly certain Breitbart and DailyKos don't represent the majority of people they claim to represent; what I'm unsure of is whether that will always be true.

I'd like to think there will always be a sane middle, that can recognize the positives and negatives of whatever is presented to them, but I'm not entirely confident that's true. What causes me concern is the seeming inability of the extremes to admit their own absurdity. It's even more troubling if we're refusing to let the opposition laugh at theirs.

If we've really gotten to a place where we can laugh at you, but you can't laugh at yourself, then we may have moved beyond the place where we can even talk to one another. Don't let the caricature become the portrait. The best thing you can do to turn enemies into friends is agree with their critiques when they get them right and be willing to laugh at yourself.

I've watched most of Spicer's recent late night interviews. I still cringe and disagree with most of the things he says and the opinions he expresses. But I'm much happier about the guy who's stepped out of the echo chamber than all those who've double down and settled in (on both sides). At least we can talk to each other - and we should be able to laugh at each other, too.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Lessons and Limits

You may have noticed that the blog schedule has been a bit sporadic since the school year started. There's good reason for that. One, the school year represents a really big change in schedule for our family - we're very school-year centric here - and I'm just not good at change. It takes me a while to get into a new schedule (in fact, I'm not even there yet - notice this Tuesday morning post is coming out on a Wednesday).

The other reason is that I got called to sub on the second day of school. I was a substitute teacher, when I could, for half days last year (while my daughter was in school). With her starting Kindergarten this year, I'm available for full days (when I'm available), but I never expected to get called the first week (teachers tend to want to be there to get the year started well). One of the local schools has a teacher out on maternity leave and they were having trouble finding a long-term replacement and needed some extra help in the classroom.

It was great - same kids every day for a couple weeks - students I had subbed with pretty frequently last year. Smooth sailing. Then the school went through two long-term subs in about four days without much hope on the horizon. I got offered the chance to take over the class for two months, so I thought I'd give it a go.

Listen, I only signed up to sub last year because they were short. I wanted to fill a need and help the public school system, which has become the community space our family is pretty heavily invested in. I've served on district committees. I try to make most school board meetings. It makes sense. I knew the kids; I'm ok with seventh grade math. Shoot, I've lived with a middle school teacher for more than a decade.

Despite having lived with a middle school teacher for more than a decade, I just simply had no idea the skills and abilities one really needs to teach. I don't know many people who have more respect and admiration for public school teachers than me - but I gained a whole lot more over the weekend. Trying to get a handle on everything required to even take over a class for a few weeks was literally overwhelming. I couldn't sleep,
riddled with anxiety (not something to which I'm prone - it took me some time to even realize what was happening).

I also learned the difference between someone who can teach and a teacher. I've done Sunday School classes and tutoring - I've even taught actual classes in the ministry training program on two districts. It's a lot different getting a class of kids through the day and being a consistent,
positive presence there with everything on your shoulders.

I knew this. Of course I knew this - but knowing something intellectual or through observation is a lot different than knowing through experience.

I'm a wimp, for the most part. I don't tend to attempt things I'm not certain I can complete. Risk is not my thing. However, when I'm pretty convinced something has to be done, I buckle down and do it. There aren't a lot of things in my life that I've attempted and failed. Yes, that's because I'm cautious, but it's also because I'm a pretty quick learner and I'm good with systems and organization.

In the end, I probably could've done it. I could've taken my lumps, endured sleepless nights, learned from my many, many inevitable failures and possibly survived. My sanity might not have been intact, but it could've technically been done. I opted out though. There's a sense of shame in that. One, I don't like to admit defeat. I've gotten less obsessed with winning over the years, but I'm still darn competitive. This feels like a loss to me, and that's a big ego hit. I also feel like I'm letting people down who work hard and a tremendously difficult job. My not being there created extra work and more headaches for people who have an impossibly tough assignment to begin with. That stinks.

It was a good lesson in limits, though. Just because I can do something or something needs to be done, doesn't mean I have to do it. I probably should've known this was a bad idea from the beginning. I'm not a teacher; I don't really want to be one. I can fake it through a day or two -
which is really useful and helpful in its own right - but that's about it. So many great people have a passion for it, and skills to be really good - and, despite my close proximity to one of them, I'm not sure I ever truly appreciated that, certainly not as much as I do now.

My life is not where I thought it'd be. I'm not upset at all; I really like my life. It's just that I don't really have a job description.
I find great joy in being "of use," although I never know from one season to the next exactly what or where that will be. I keep trying to jump into new thing where I'm needed, but I learned over the last few weeks that perhaps a little more self-reflection might be important in figuring out where that is.

Even more so, other people might have a different perspective of what I am (or should be) capable of doing. I need to trust myself a little more. It's a difficult balance between challenging one's self (or accepting the challenge of others) and knowing one's self well enough to say 'no.' Hopefully I got a little better at that this week - and maybe it'll mean I can make more of a difference in the right places moving forward.

Anyway, we should be back to a better posting schedule now - at least until basketball games start November 15th.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Love Like Family

I was listening to Scott Daniels' recent sermon from Romans 12. The version of scripture he used translated one line as "love like family." That really struck a chord with me. It seems like we have a wholesome image of family in our minds, even though most people don't have the most functional or idealistic relationship to their own family.

When we think about the "love like family" line (as a way Christians should treat each other, by the way), we tend to go towards one idealistic extreme - a sort of utopia, where stress and anger and dissent are absent, replaced with nothing but warm fuzzies and lots of affection. That's not how real families function, though, is it - people who have actual family relationships understand that things aren't always easy or rosy or particularly fun. We commit to them precisely because there's something about family that means something to us. Even when you don't have any real relationship with your relatives, we tend to form families anyway - people we treat the same way, people we're committed to despite whatever roadblocks or disagreements might arise. While those are powerful and meaningful, they're not perfect either.

As I was thinking about this analogy of "loving like family," I'm wondering if the idealistic extreme that comes to mind oughtn't (that's a real word, I promise) be more like Game of Thrones. I'll admit some bias here - my wife decided to start watching the show very recently, so I've seen something like 40 episodes is three weeks - it's on my mind a bit." The show is full of regal families, reminiscent of the nobility of European past - people whose family name means something - something valuable that they're trying to protect.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we should be callously marrying off children to fulfill social or economic purposes, and, obviously, secretly plotting to kill each other whilst publicly displaying loyalty and honor seems a far cry from anything remotely Christian, I wonder if the concept of family that underlies the dysfunction isn't a more apt analogy for what Paul's trying to convey.

There is a duty present that overwrites any personal emotion; a communal consideration that outweighs individual preference. This is important. I don't want you to hate your fellow Christians - far from it - but I think Paul's calling us to respond to them with the same kind of Christ-like selfless love, even if you do.

We're certainly not going to feel ecstatic love for one another all the time - real relationships exist within the entire gamut of emotions - and we obviously disagree about all sorts of things. Love like family should trump all of that, though. In Game of Thrones, everything is a means to an end (the characters for whom it's not almost always find themselves unceremoniously dead) and if you've read just about anything I've written, you know I don't look kindly on that way of viewing the world. This is why it's an extreme - it's one thing to sublimate your own happiness for the greater good; it's quite another to force those whom you purport to love to do the same (often against their will).

Our preferred extreme isn't any better, though. Envisioning a world in which everyone loves each other so much there's never any conflict denies people their humanity in the same way. It respects no individuality or choice - it's also only imaginable in a world where our preferences are everyone else's. We've essentially composed our ideal in our image and just image everyone else in total agreement. That's as arrogant and selfish as anything done on TV.

As with most things we'd prefer to be black and white, we have to find our way in the murky middle. Obviously either extreme is problematic, neither one is "right" or desirable or something to aim for - one of them, however, is others focused. If we see family as the move towards kumbaya serenity, any disruption is going to feel personal - we're all supposed to be happy; why am I not happy? If we see it as duty, as an obligation we have to others above and beyond our own happiness, disruptions become externally focused - why is she not happy; how can I make his life better?

I suppose the gospel answer to all of this is that we find whatever "fulfillment" we need by not seeking it. We are satisfied by forgetting satisfaction. The real ideal is, in fact, an oxymoron. There's no guarantee we will be rewarded for loving others above ourselves, but there's some beauty in the logic of everyone doing it; it just seems like that would create the kind of family that both reflects reality AND our desires.

We all fall short of that, of course, but in doing so, let's remember that "loving like family" is most certainly not about our happiness -
and let's try real hard not to chop off anybody's head.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Living the Dream

None of us earned the right to live where we do. We just didn't. Yes, there are laws that govern who can go where and we've created this thing called "citizenship" that gives some people more privileges than others, but nobody earned anything. I get that there are legitimate debates about how a country should be organized and although I am not a believer in borders or nations,
I can set that discussion aside for today.

This who DACA thing makes me sick. If you're unaware, this is the program that allows residents of the US who were brought here or sent here when they were children to get enough legal recognition to live, work, and go to school in the US. Again, I get that there's a series of laws that govern this sort of thing and some people would like to see them followed more closely than others - but I want to come at it from a different angle.

How are these people any different than you or I? They live in the same place, attend the same schools, work in and contribute to the community.
They pay taxes, take their kids to dance class, and volunteer in the same places we do. What makes them different? They were born somewhere else. They might have a different cultural heritage and history - maybe, but that's not even true in all cases. What makes them different?

I get that some people are rooted in one place for generations. I'm a wanderer. I lived in ten different states by the time I turned 30; my family has always moved around. I'm not "rooted" anywhere. I share a different history and cultural understanding from the people with whom I live right now.

Maybe I can only speak for me, but I'm not any different than the people affected by this DACA policy. Well, I'm white, I guess - but, you know what, so are some of the immigrants covered by this policy. Not every undocumented resident is Hispanic - some grew up speaking English. That's the difference, though, right - it's people who look and sound different from us that we want to target. Maybe not even that - it's probably strangers who look and sound different from us; if we know one of these people, live or work or go to school with them, we're much less likely to support their deportation, to send them back into the shadows.

It's the different and the unknown. Those should never be things to fear.

At one point, the English-speaking white folks were the immigrants to this country. They claimed divine right to be here - something higher than whatever law or custom the native people's might have valued. The documents they brought to justify their presence were signed by a foreign monarch who never set foot within the borders of their new land. When the natives objected, we killed them.

Maybe that's what we're afraid of? That the sins of our past will come back to haunt us. That's the message, right? That these immigrants will replace us, remove us, overtake us - that we'll be left unemployed and impoverished and morally defeated, struggling to survive and maintain a once glorious way of life?

I can't help by think about all those laws and regulations, borders and nations - this whole system we've set up to regulate who can be where,
when, and why - I can't help but think about how that process if viewed on the native american reservations scattered across this land.

Even if every bit of racist, fear-mongering propaganda concerning immigrants were true (and none of it is) - we've still got no moral right to object to any of it.

Either the dream is for those who take it or it's not - we can't have it both ways.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The North Korean Cop-Out

With all the troubling threats coming from the 'hermit kingdom' these days, it's easy to get worried. I mean a third-generation madman has nuclear weapons and seemingly no incentive not to use them. I don't appear too concerned about any of this - something that came as a surprise, even to me. Maybe part of it is living on the East Coast, where Kim Jong Un's missiles are unlikely to fall - I know, how selfless and caring of me, right? I think mostly, though, it's the knowledge that the US government, which has spent close to 50% of its annual budget on military preparedness for decades now, will likely just blast it's way out of this problem, regardless of the consequences.

Now, I don't think that's a wise solution for any number of reasons - the most being my general opposition to violence and war. However, I've been trouble by how easily I'm willing to let someone else do my dirty work in this instance. The number one critique of non-violence is that it's easy to do when someone else will do it - it's a typical retort from police officers or soldiers - and one I am generally challenged by. I work hard not to use that excuse, to be prepared to put my life in danger for peace, if need be, specifically because it's a valid critique. It's not really non-violence, if you're counting on the violence of someone else.

Yet I still find some measure of comfort if the notion that the US army could utterly reduce most of North Korea to rubble, if need be? It's a contradiction one doesn't have to ponder much when it's just a far-off possibility - however, as in recent weeks, when it looks like a more and more likely solution, it's an obstacle that must be faced.

I don't think it's likely that any world government will choose an alternative to violence, especially if other options have been tried extensively, so as much as I've been thinking and researching non-violent ways to potentially deal with the North Korean crisis, that's not really what this is all about.

How do I look at a situation in which people are almost guaranteed to die in large numbers with just about any outcome and not choose utility?
It's that means to an end thing, again - something I decry over and over again here - something I am absolutely opposed to on philosophical and theological grounds. The ends aren't ever ends. History is linked - stopping the madman today has influence on what happens tomorrow. Abandoning principles for a momentary victory might feel good to me and the people who are alive today (rather than dead) because of it, but is that reallt a better solution than choosing death now in the hope of a greater peace down the road?

I don't honestly know the answer to that question, because there's no evidence by which to make a decision. Violence has always been met with violence - at least on a national and international scale. The large-scale non-violence that characterized the Church in the first few centuries after Christ were not in the realm of global politics - it was not nation vs nation. The closest you might find is when Russia burned Moscow and withdrew from Napoleon's invasion, knowing he could never maintain supply lines through a harsh Russian winter - but that was really more tactical than noble; it was being willing to live with a problem, so long as the problem was far away.

Here, I think, it's important to point out the problems inherent with associating ourselves with a nation. The underlying Christian doctrine has always seen the people of God as an alternative nation, a separate construction, a different people. We get into trouble when we begin to associate ourselves with more than Christ. Being an American Christian (or a German Christian or a Korean Christian or a Christian from Lesotho, for that matter) is automatically a conflict. It might not always show up in our day to day lives, but we can't just let the passive be passive,
for passivity is a lie.

That's the real issue - we want to know how the US or China or Nigeria or Europe of whatever nation we associate ourselves with should address the problem in North Korea. For Christians, the prior issue is that we really shouldn't be associating ourselves with those nations in the first place. 1 Peter 2:9 call's Christians "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation." We've too often taken that metaphorically, rather than quite literally, which is the alternative way of life proclaimed by Jesus and reinforced in the practice and teachings of Paul. It is not that we should become a nation to rival other nations,
but that we should avoid falling into the trap of nationalism.

The US may very well enter into war as a means of keeping North Korea from using nuclear weapons. Christians must mourn this - and any other violence - for war and violence are not part of the Kingdom of God. The very rational response from the US might be, "what else would you have me do?" Christians reply, "Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. If your enemy is thirsty, give them something to drink; if they are hungry, feed them."

I don't know if that's a rational or even feasible option, especially given the history between the US and North Korea, but it's the only answer I know how to give - and it's the national call of God's people.

I'm not sure what that means for my initial problem? Does it mean being willing to die rather than kill? Yeah. But it can't mean being willing for other people to die so I don't have to. On the other hand, I don't think, say, moving to the west coast so as to be more in the path of any rogue North Korean rocket really makes much sense either - it's not going to guarantee my sacrifice any more than staying here - no should looking to die really be the way to deal with such a situation.

In the end, I believe the answer is not looking to avoid suffering. That's really at the root of this reliance on someone else's violence to spare me my own. So what if millions of impoverished, suffering North Koreans suffer even more - I'll get to keep my way of life. That's the mindset we need to fight. The reality is, I am safer and better off than most people in North Korea could ever dream to be. Even living simply,
being sacrificially generous, and avoiding the trappings of the typical US way of life will not change the disparity between us and them.

Maybe my call is to go - sneak into North Korea and simply suffer with the suffering. It's a holy, noble, and worthy act, perfectly in line with scripture and the witness of the Church. I suspect the world would be better off if we were all able to do it. We're not. What we can do,
though, is live in peace - active peace - here and now. Love people. Give to those in need. Suffer with those who suffer in our backyards and around the block. Be the people God has called us to be with the sincere hope that this war will be the last one.

What we can't do is avoid the problem. We can't continue to live in our isolated peace and quiet, just expecting things to change on our own.
The comfort we have was not one by righteous means, no matter what the national myths around us say. Christians are called to live into a different story - it's one of love and grace and peace for sure, but one achieved through sacrifice and suffering. If we're not committed to those things, we can't really enjoy the benefits.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Power and Control

I don't typically share my sermon's like this on the blog, but this is the one I preached two days ago in Chestertown, Maryland. It's timliness is obvious, I suppose. The only comment I'll make is that I'm aware of the position I'm in even addressing such things as a well-educated, straight, white male - that comes with its own problems and blind-spots. I apologize in advance for how that colors my response. I agonized over this, far longer and with more prayer than any other sermon I think I've ever preached - but at some point, you have to say what you have to say - and this is it. The sermon text is Romans 12.

I was asked to preach today the weekend of the violence in Charlottesville. I imagine I’ll associate that event with this passage for a while. The whole thing is troubling, obviously, for a number of reasons, but I’ve been haunted these last few weeks by one line I heard in an interview with one of the participants. The man said, “These people are worthless; they’re making the country worse and they should go back where they came from.”

I want to be careful here. I don’t want to get into the “both sides” game that’s become so problematic. However, I do think this quote is a good illustration of where this passage is going today. When it comes to the ideology of race – there is a clear right and wrong – it’s because this is an issue with such a clear distinction between opinions that I think it makes a good illustration.

You see, that quote above – “these worthless people should go back where they came from,” – is the kind of hate we might associate with racists and bigots, but it came from one of the leaders of the counter-protest, the defenders of equality.

Now, let’s be clear, being the subject of hate and scorn does not give any credence whatsoever to this “alt-right” movement or whatever they’re calling themselves. We are all human beings. There is just one race: the human race – and we should, collectively, be lamenting the thousands of years we’ve spent acting otherwise and the terrible toll it’s taken on people around the world. We, especially we, should be working to heal and repair that damage as much as we’re able.

But, as much as there is a right and wrong ideologically, it pains me to see how often those in the right have used hate to condemn hate. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am a student of non-violence – many of my personal heroes are leaders of the civil rights movement, not just because of their cause, but because of their commitment to non-violence and the belief that love wins.

It’s troubling, mournful, to see how this generation – my generation – seems to be abandoning those ideals. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard language not just advocating the destruction of racism, but the racists as well. I’ve been seriously conflicted with how to affirm that the cause of justice and equality is righteous, while also rejecting the means by which it is so often delivered.

This is a timely and difficult example of a much larger problem. It might not be what you expected when we read that familiar verse from Romans – Be not conformed to the pattern of this world – but this is what I think of immediately, at least in our current context and reality. The pattern of this world so ingrained in us we don’t even know there’s an alternative, the pattern that we’ve largely come to think of it as part of our faith, when it is the exact opposite:

Power and control.

These are weapons of strength, rooted in fear. White supremacists fear the loss of power and privilege that’s long been the purview of white men. It’s a real and justified fear, even if it is completely lacking in perspective. White men do have less power, even if we’re still, by far, the most powerful group on the planet. But the fear is real. In fact, it’s basically the same fear that sparked the counter-protests: people with a real vision of justice and equality who are afraid that whatever progress has been made on those fronts will be turned back or snatched away. That’s a real fear, too.

When we are afraid, our first reaction is to recover control. That’s human nature. If someone is mugged on the street one night, they might respond by taking self-defense classes, or they might respond by never leaving home again – both responses are attempts to take back power they lost at the hand of another. They are fear reactions. It’s the pattern of this world.

It’s this notion that we should be in control that really gets us in trouble. And this is at the heart of Jesus’ gospel message: the actions of others are not your responsibility. That might sound strange, since Jesus didn’t say any of those actual words, but perhaps it’s more familiar this way:

Do not be afraid.

Our fear is entirely based on our inability to control other people. Even when we’re afraid we can’t do something – I’m not strong enough to be a good parent, I can’t do this assignment the boss just gave me, I don’t have enough money to make rent this month – the fear is not about our inability, but about how other people will respond. We’re afraid of being judged; we’re afraid of being fired; we’re afraid of being left alone and abandoned and exposed.

Even those existential fears, about food or money or shelter, are really fears that no one will provide for us if we can’t provide for ourselves. It’s not about our actions, but about how other people respond to them. We’re afraid of losing control.

So Jesus comes in and says, “You aren’t in control, and you never will be.” And that’s supposed to be our hallelujah moment for today, our good news. You aren’t in control and never will be; Praise the Lord! I know it sounds terrible, but that’s because we’ve spent so long being conformed to the patterns of this world. We’ve been so ingrained with the idea that we need to be in control of as much as possible as often as possible that we don’t see the good news when it’s right in front of our face.

We never look at it from the other side of the equation. Even if we control everything in our lives we could possibly conceive of controlling, it’ll never be enough. People will still die. We still argue with spouses and kids. Jobs are lost. Mistakes are made. Control is just an illusion.

When Paul says here, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he’s saying, “stop trying to control everything – in fact, stop trying to control anything at all.”

Why are we challenged to give sacrificially? Most of the world, if they’re generous, is taught to make a budget, figure out what you need to live, and then spend a sizeable portion of the rest on others. That’s sort of the worldly principle of generosity. Christians are different, though – Jesus calls us to give everything, even, quite literally the shirt off our back, if need be. We’re called to give until it hurts and then give some more. We’re called to figure out what others need to live and then budget for ourselves with what’s leftover. Why? Why do we do this?

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but one big one is simply to remind ourselves that our bank balance does not equal control. No matter what’s in the investment fund, our future is more dependent on the grace of God than the sweat of our brow. We have a different motivating factor than mere survival or even personal happiness. And that is foolishness to the world around us.

We are living into the Kingdom of God and this vision of the world in which there is no fear. Attempting to shout down an angry, hateful mob does not eliminate fear, it heightens it. God has instilled within us a greater creativity than that – we have the ability to respond to hatred with love and to violence with peace, if we’re willing to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

I struggled for the longest time trying to figure out why verses three through eight are where they are in this chapter. If you skip from verse two to verse nine, it makes total sense with what I’ve been trying to say. “Honor one another above yourselves” is exactly the kind of outrageous thing Jesus calls us to. The world tells us to secure our oxygen mask before assisting others – because it makes sense – but Jesus has a different way of life in mind. “Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction. Bless those who persecute you. Be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not repay evil with evil. If your enemy is hungry, feed him.”

You can move from verse two to verse nine seamlessly, yet Paul puts this thing in between – something we’ve seen him write in many other letters as well – we are part of one body with many members; we’re all different, but important. He talks about spiritual gifts and contributing to the people of God through your strengths. But why is that here, in this position?

Well, after some time pondering, I think it’s about fear again. We’re afraid because we don’t know how other people will react to us. We’re afraid of what they’ll do – or not do –so we try to gain and maintain control. We try to wall ourselves off, if not from people, than from needing people. We love having friends, but we hate to depend on them.

This is precisely what Paul is telling us we have to do in verses three through eight. He says, You can’t do it all yourself. No matter how hard you try, how much you work, all the effort in the world, you do not have everything you need. We need each other. In fact, you’re not even ‘you’ without me.

We forget this sometimes, because in English “you” is both plural and singular, but 99% of the time we see “you” in scripture, it’s plural. “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” It’s something we do collectively. We’re in this together.

So ,what does that mean when it comes to Charlottesville? In that case, you’ve got a group of people saying exactly the opposite. “If you’re not white or male, we don’t need you.” It’s a message of hate spawned from fear – it might even be a universal fear, that we’re not needed, that we are worthless – and out of that fear, we attempt to grab power by making those around us worthless and lesser. Hate flows naturally from fear – that is the pattern of this world.

Too often our response to hatred and fear is doubling down, is meeting hatred and fear with more of the same. Christians are called to end that cycle – to be not afraid – and we show our trust, our lack of fear, not by acting powerful and in control, but by responding in love. When someone comes at us with hatred and violence, the Christian response just might be, “You may not need us, but we still need you.”

This doesn't mean we allow hatred and violence and evil to go unopposed, but we must not oppose them with power and control, but with love. It’s a dangerous position, for sure, but it’s not weak and it’s not backing down – it is the turning of our actual bodies into a quite literal living sacrifice. It is putting our money where our faith is, believing that sacrificial love, in imitation of Christ, can really change the world. It is showing, with our bodies, that we are not in control, and breaking the cycle of hatred and fear.

It sounds impossible, but it starts here, folks. We aren’t just transformed into living sacrifices at the drop of a hat. The whole purpose of the Church is to be a place where the Kingdom of God is lived out as an example to the world. We have to love each other, before we can love our enemies. We have to reach across whatever divides exist here – class, race, gender, income, age – as a means of training ourselves to take this good news to the world around us.

The people of Jesus Christ do life differently. We are not conformed to the pattern of this world. We remind ourselves of this every week as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This is a small scale enactment of what Paul calls our true and proper worship, which is to live our lives like we really believe what we’re doing here today. We come to the table together, one body, one family, united – everyone is welcome and everyone is equal – then we have to live like it, even when it hurts.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Around noon on Monday, we pulled into the parking lot of the public library in St. Stephen, South Carolina - it's a stately old building, occupying the corner of a public park, complete with walking paths, a pavilion, and a number of athletic facilities. The library was closed Monday, but soon after our arrival, more cars began to park. Eventually the lot was full, as were the surrounding streets. We gathered in the pavilion and unpacked our homemade lunches, folding chairs, table games, and glasses.

The first order of business was introductions. People had arrived from all over the eastern US - New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, you get the idea. In an instant we were friends. The excitement bubbled over as we anticipated 1:16, when the moon would begin its slow march across the face of the sun. As far as I can tell, no one there had ever seen a total eclipse before. Some were clearly weather nerds - one family, toting an infant, had searched through three other locations and a plethora of cloud cover maps to choose this location. Another guy seemed almost embarrassed to be happy to be there.

Eventually the time came, we all stood, necks craned, staring at the sun. Then the real wait. It took 88 minutes for the moon to fully block out the sun's rays. Things were pretty normal right up until the second we achieved totality. It got dim, of course, but barely noticeable if you weren't looking for it - then all of a sudden it was dark. I've never taken much time to marvel at the power of the sun, the source of life on this planet (and any others where life might be hiding, in our solar system, anyway), but it's incredible. Just the mere sliver was enough to light the planet and in the blink of an eye it was gone.

I've seen pretty skillfully captured photographs of a fully eclipsed sun (my wife took the one on this post) - the dark circle with a ring of light around it - and they're beautiful, but nothing could ever capture the experience of seeing it. Celestial bodies, the size and scope of which we can barely begin to fathom, moving in intricate orbits, at predictable times. More than just the aesthetic wonder of the moment, is the subconscious realization of the profound expanse of existence.

We were just people, I suspect people who might not otherwise get along all that well, sharing an experience we'll never really be able to explain. I recognize that it's just mechanics, no different than the sun rising and setting every day, but there really is something more. I won't say a "spiritual" experience, both because its cliche and because spirituality is sort of my field and this was different. It's almost the opposite of a spiritual experience - a profoundly physical one - the eclipse grounded us firmly within the universe. We might be small and insignificant, but we're a part of something majestic and beyond imagination, and that something is real, physical stuff. We can see and touch and observe it as easily as we can our own arms (well, technically, not AS easy, but you get the idea).

There's not really a point to all this. When the eclipse was over it was a race to pack up and hit the road, where at least 90 minutes of extra traffic were waiting on us. Along the way, roads were littered with cars, people still watching, through those silly little eclipse glasses,
as the moon made it's exit from the scene.

It really does seem a silly little thing - certainly not one worth driving with a five year old for 1200 miles in three days - but I am insanely glad we made the trip. I enjoyed connecting with strangers - fellow humans - for a few moments, in a shared experience that represents something important to those of us who got to see it.

The next one's April 8, 2024 - it'll be coming up from Mexico, through the middle of the US once again, through Michigan and northern New York and New England. Totality will be right over the part of Vermont I grew up in; I hope there's still a few familiar faces there with an extra bed and some hospitality, because I'm going. Absolutely. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hate, Conscience, History, and Ugly Truth

I'm floored by how effective these racist displays of violence and hate seem to be at accomplishing the exact opposite of their intentions. Granted, lots of hate-filled racists are being emboldened by these moves and the words of the President, but it's also become an impetus for the removal of statues all over the South, in the same way the Charleston shootings precipitated the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. While the Republican Party does still have a troubling racist element in its ranks, for the first time in my memory it's leaders are largely stepping up to the plate to denounce hatred, bigotry, and violence.

This all has to be said in the context of exasperation that we're in 2017 and this is what we're happy about. It shouldn't take 150 years to get to this point, but we are where we are. The words that people like Lindsay Graham, who's accent sounds like a caricature ripped from Django Unchained, use to condemn the President of the United States from his own party are pretty amazing. The critique that these words mean less than the votes these GOP leaders tend to cast in the opposite direction is entirely true, but the words aren't meaningless; it's progress, albeit small.

We like to think that the world which changes so quickly in some areas, should easily be transformed by truth and justice. It should. It really should, but it isn't. Love is patience; it takes time - painful, frustrating, unjust time. And despite the ease with which we see war and violence and hatred and racism rear its head around the world, there are plenty of signs that love does change people. It's not much, but it's something. Even if this show of conscience is, in its skeptical extreme, entirely politically motivated, the very fact that politics is playing in this direction is, sadly, progress for the United States.

For many white people, it seems like things are getting worse, but the reality is we've just largely isolated ourselves from the national racial tension, ignored it, and avoided the discussion that is now being thrust before us. The reality is, most of us haven't faced up to the prejudice that lives inside each of us because we just haven't had to do it.

That prejudice is real. The implicit bias test, conducted by Harvard researchers, shows that just about every person - black and white - has at least a subconscious bias against dark skin. We react differently to black people than to white people. The cliche shortening of breath, clutching of purse, walking to the other side of the road is not perception, but reality. Regardless of how we act, think, or speak, we should be able to say, "Sometimes, my first reaction is not one I'm proud of."

The difference between that - between you and me - and those lunatics rioting in Charlottesville is that they lean into it, they embrace it.
While I do believe the world is changing - and for the better - there is a reality with which we must deal before we can move on. There will always be prejudice; there will always be outsiders and "other," at least for the forseeable future - but the battle of prejudice doesn't have to be about race. That can change, but it's got to be dealt with.

Rarely, if ever, in the history of civilization, did the losing side get to keep its culture and identity relatively unchecked. There have been thousands of volumes written that analyze the aftermath of the Civil War, but the truth is, enforcing a culture change, resultant from war,
would've been a more difficult task than a still fledgling nation was willing to bear. The South got left with a don't ask/don't tell racial policy for generations as the can was kicked down the road.

Southern culture has made 150 years of gradual improvement - much as was expected (and hoped) when the nation left it to its own devices - but that underlying culture of racial superiority still exists in some measure and it's not just going to walk out the door on its own. I'm a student of history (literally - I've got a degree to prove it), more than anything I rue our current inability to understand historical context.
Well, I guess I thought I rued that more than anything - now it appears, even worse is the understanding of historical context poorly.

There might - and I say 'might' with the generosity possible understanding that this is merely hypothetical and not at all reflective of reality - be some case for statues or monuments erected in the 1860's, commemorating fallen loved ones with historically and culturally appropriate descriptors. That's an at least defensible use of historical context. When it comes to statues and memorials erected during the most intense periods of racial strife, celebrating "heroes" with incendiary and inaccurate descriptors, it's hard to make any sort of respectable defense. Real historical context, at least in the case of the vast majority of southern monuments, includes a lot of facts that don't appear on the plaques. That's reality, too.

Robert E Lee may have been a paragon of manners and civilized society, acting in accordance with a disciplined code of perceived honor, especially in contrast to many of the other less educated, less refined personalities we associate with the confederacy. That doesn't make him a saint. Maybe Lee really did fight for the South entirely because of his belief in States' Rights, and his association with those virulent racists was simply because of a common foe - that's best case scenario, right? Still, he didn't free his slaves to prove his position - and there's certainly evidence to the counter the long-held perception of the man that's worth looking at.

In the end, though, even Lee felt holding on to the culture and memory of the Confederacy was detrimental to the healing of a nation. He specifically spoke out against the kind of monuments so many towns would one day dedicate to and of him. The families of these "heroes" don't want the statues to remain, neither do the majority of the populations in most of the municipalities where they reside.

Some cities have changed the plaques to better represent the reality of the Civil War; sometimes they've added statues of civil rights heroes alongside to tell a more fleshed out story of our nation's history. There are ways to do this that really do keep history front and center, but which also avoid the whitewashing (now there's a word that's right on the nose, am I right?) or avoidance of the realities of race in the US.

I can't finish this overlong post, though, without at least mentioning the difficulties these kinds of considerations create for our future. People have gotten mad at Trump for asking if George Washington is next. I'm not sure why - it's a fair question. The man had no more forward-thinking or enlightened opinions about slavery than General Lee - he was a generally selfish and belligerent guy who was unfairly lionized due to some accidents of timing and his refusal to become king.

That doesn't make George Washington a "bad" guy - although I wouldn't want him as a role model to my kids. He's like just about everyone else in history: unfailingly human. We've got few true saints out there - and they'll be the first to argue there's none. We've got no real saints when it comes to people of power and influence - those things just don't go hand in hand.

I'll admit its difficult. Princeton has been dealing with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson for years now. The guy was smart - PhD, Ivy League President, Governor, President - he served through WWI and is generally listed among the 5 or 10 best Presidents we've ever had. He was also pretty darn racist, in overt and activist ways - an above-average racist at a time when average (or even below average) was still pretty darn racist. How do we deal with people who aren't just imperfect, but seriously flawed?

I suspect old George Washington gets a pass because we all agree on the value of the country he helped to found, we've all bought into the mythos well enough to leave things be. Would the mythos around Washington or Jefferson (or, God-forbid, Andrew Jackson) be any different than that surrounding Lee if Native Americans had survived in the same numbers and with the same voice as African Americans? Or if they'd simply lived a hundred years later?

I'm in total support of our difficult embrace of the racial problems in this country. Let's take down the statues and take a second look at the history books and the mythology and the stories we take for granted about who we are. We just can't stop when our liberal comfort is comfort is challenged or our white guilt starts to fade.

The world is a mess. Life is a mess. We are a mess. The solutions will not be easy or pretty or fun. We're gonna have to be okay with that and we're going to have to sacrifice as much, if not more, than what we're asking "those others" to sacrifice right now.