Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Thank You Taxes... No Seriously

The myth of control is a brutal.

 Most of the New Testament took place in a time when social justice was a joke, political corruption was the norm, religious persecution was bloody and encouraged, people pooped in the streets, sex with almost anything was accepted if not encouraged, dying was how you treated most illnesses, warlords ruled the outskirts, and megalomaniacs sat in judgment of the masses. That said, everything was non GMO and organic, fertilizer was produced exclusively by animals, global warming happened when the Sun cam up, no health insurance premiums, and no one payed extra for designer water. So you know, pick your battles.

When Jesus told people to love and pray for those around them, including their enemies, when he told people to fix their perspectives on God and let Cesar have what was his, when Paul said to pray for those in leadership (Bush, Clinton, Bush 2, Obama, Trump or Hillary, etc), when we were called to rejoice in all things, give generously, treat the foreigner as a friend, love those who are actively oppressing us and our families, forgive everyone for everything, etc. believe me, it was harder for them than it is for you/me/us. Regardless of how bad or tragic you think we have it, things are still pretty good.

It is the fantasy of control that kills us. Having a vote and being able to talk with my friends makes me think I have some control over opinions or the final outcome, having an income and some form of free will makes me think I control my financial destiny, knowing better and being able to talk makes me think I have some control over the choices and beliefs of my students... I don't.

I just went through this thing with God where I let go of some small perspectives and empty attempts to get control of some things. I was all, "this and that and wouldn't this be great and isn't this fair", and God was all, "Okay... what's your point?". And I felt like a little kid and was all, "Actually God, I want what you want." And he was like, "Cool, that sounds good." you know? Which was great... and then I started doing taxes... (insert yelled profanity of your choice here)! And I was immediately frustrated by the stupidity of the whole thing, of not having much, of being told to buy stuff we don't need or want at prices we cant afford, and then finding out we owe a bunch more because we got married at the end of the year, which changed our bracket for the whole year, which means we need to give a bunch of money back for something we were forced to get, etc. (whispered profanity).

The bullet point is this: God tells us to control the only thing we can, ourselves. How we choose to think, how we treat others, what we choose to want, these are the things He guides us in. After that, we trust and move forward. Anything else is choosing to live in fantasy land, destination broken. Acting like I control things I don't only makes me angry, what good is that?

I'm grateful for taxes and broken bureaucracy. I'm grateful because I choose to be, because without them I'd be tempted to live in a fantasy. In the end, I'd rather be grateful for what dealing with them teaches me than rage about what they cost me. I'm grateful because the elections, terrorists, bureaucrats, taxes, and all other sorts of stupid, remind me to want the things God wants and to breathe, because any other approach to life is a joke, not even a funny joke at that.

Love you guys, have fun :-)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Selfish Christian

In the mortal words of Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good”. There is a truth to this most of us are too self-conscious and insecure to admit. Sure, greed is bad, greed places a quest for material wealth beyond need, above relationships, above personal health, and devolves us to selfish survivor mindsets more fitting to surviving a zombie apocalypse than the Costco unreal-reality TV culture we find ourselves in. But maybe (a la Louis C.K.), greed drives us to produce, to evolve, become more efficient, and create. Greed, if connected to a stronger sense of morality and an understanding of long-term consequences, can be useful and even good. This isn’t a moral argument, just a broad perspective on the complex reality of life.
In his book “A Failure Of Nerve”, Edwin Friedman lists five characteristics of emotional regression:
-       Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another.
-       Herding: a process through which the forces of togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members.
-       Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny.
-       A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.
-       Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four.
Though early in the book, there is a strong Machiavelli vibe to Friedman’s work. This is a good thing. Ideals are good, but reality must be accounted for. What does this have to do with Christianity? When was the last time you talked to God?  Not prayed at a meal for everyone to hear or showed off at a Bible study, I mean, had a deeply intimate conversation with God. I ask this question because it matters.
The Church is too big and diverse to label or generalize, but a type of Christianity exists where people live their Christian life for others, for the approval of community, and to impress those around them. These Christians react rather than act, blame rather than change, herd rather than lead, and look for quick emotional “spiritual” fixes to the deprivation of foundational health and healing. For all of that, they aren’t selfish… at least not in a healthy way.
Yes, selfishness is bad for many of the same reasons greed is bad, but maybe, there is a healthy application. What if many of the most dynamic and influential Christians are the ones who place their relationship with God above all else, who don’t care what the community thinks or values that day, but instead, chase after Jesus where he is and as he is, who don’t care about public approval or looking the fool, who are so selfish for intimacy with God that they aren’t controlled by expectations or groupthink? It’s not that they don’t care about other people, it’s that they care about something else much more.
Yes, greed and selfishness are both bad, but what if they are also the best words to describe the healthiest type of relationship with God?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Objectively Bad

Because everyone else is sure to write something about Easter I decided to be part of the fad.

I was spending time with some friends, trying to act spiritual on Good Friday, when I stumbled into seeing something that was always there. Within the passion section of Mark there is this bit about the Jews, influenced by their leaders, asking for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. I've always been sidetracked by the petty, sinful, arrogant, self-righteous, stupidity of the people in this moment, and while that's there, there is another part as well. Pilot knows Jesus is innocent and good, so he tries to give him freedom. He does this by offering the passover tradition of letting a prisoner go. Contrary to his hopes and intent, the people choose the criminal sinner instead of Jesus. The obvious point here is that that, while the people are sinful and stupid, even at this stage of the story, in precursor to the crucifixion itself, Jesus literally takes the punishment intended for a sinner and a sinner gets the freedom intended for Jesus. The big picture of God's will and the action and nature of Jesus was working itself out even here.

The beautiful and theologically relevant part of this moment is that Barabbas is a truly bad person. He isn't some generalized sinner according to some theological principle, or in comparison to the perfection and holiness of God. He is objectively bad. He is an unrepentant insurrectionist murderer with anger and malice in his heart, and he is the one who gets the freedom intended for Jesus - he is the one Jesus takes the place of. Jesus didn't come to set the arguably good people free, he came to take the place of the objectively bad.

Happy Easter, He is risen...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Immorality of Mass Charity

Friends have helped me before, sometimes in big ways. I am not against charity. I'm in the early stages of recovering from three years of personal "charitable" endeavors, and even now looking to the next thing I can give my life to. I am not against charity.

Feelings and intent aren't enough. For all our faults, and they are many, America is a charitable society. In addition to everything else we've picked up, as a people, we learned how to give. My favorite piece of Ronald Reagan mythology is the story of an older black lady who came to the Oval Office and petitioned Reagan to give more money to welfare programs. As part of her petition she shared her story and how she had a hard time buying food for her family. Reagan told her he wasn't going to build up the Federal welfare system any more, he then wrote her a personal check to help her feed her family. A short time later he balanced his checkbook and saw the check hadn't been cashed. Concerned, he contacted the lady and asked why she hadn't used the check. She told him it was framed on her wall. Reagan put a second check in the mail and told her to feed her family. Love or hate Reagan, you have to love this moment and the character it reveals. Ideologically he was unwilling to throw more money into a system he thought broken, regardless the intent of that system, but he loved his neighbor and acted to help her even when it cost him personally, both in time and money.

There are large charities that do good work and times of tragedy and disaster when throwing gobs of money at a problem may be the right stopgap. There is the rest of the time as well. This is not a petition to end Federal entitlements or chastise national leaders. We have the system and the leaders we deserve; we are the ones who chose them... good and bad. This has to do with the intent of Christian charity and loving our neighbors wherever we find them.

Regardless the action of government, our neighbors are our charge. The government will never be able to fulfill the great commission or reach the standard of love set by Jesus and the early church. Government isn't human and is incapable of relationship. Regardless political interpretations of the gospel and justifications for our vote, the gospel only exists in community and is therefore beyond legislative intent. We are called to love our neighbors with our own actions, money, and, most importantly, time. We are never given permission to surrender this right and responsibility to some soulless blob of good intent. The poverty, socioeconomic division between the races, and depressingly high rate of abortion our community faces is not the responsibility of our government. It is the responsibility of we the people. Government will do what it thinks best and we will say yea and nay with our votes, as we should. If we stop there we fail as people of compassion. If we think our votes and checks free us from acts of compassion and real relationship with our neighbors we fall short.

How we relate to God is revealed in how we relate to those around us. The Good Samaritan didn't walk by the bruised and battered man expecting government services to get involved in his care and he didn't walk by blaming government for the social ills that led to his abuse and its failure to help him. He got involved in the man's life and helped him. The early church didn't criticize Roman rule for endemic infanticide and a social system that abandoned widows to the choice of starvation or prostitution, they went to the trash heaps to save babies and spent their resources to protect and care for widows. The community who loved Jesus didn't demand others live in community and share resources, they chose to live that way themselves.

For all the bravado and self-righteousness of grand social programs and mass charity, the reality is love only exists when expressed in community. Positive transformation doesn't come through lump sum impersonal donations, but through personal interaction and targeted support made effective when built on relationship and an understanding of specific situations and communities. We, as the church, are uniquely capable and commissioned to do what the government is fundamentally unable to.

We have the same opportunity we have always had. Will we love God and our neighbors, thereby making government irrelevant, or will we find peace in statements of "should" and the justification of intent? Will we be known by the way we love, or by our ideology? Neither is wrong, but one is useless without the other. Questioning the impact of government programs on the family down the street who uses food stamps, the drunk homeless man on your way to work, or the single mother on welfare in that other part of town is fine, but it doesn't free us from acts of love. When we see them and concern ourselves with government failure, rather than loving Jesus in relationship with them, we turn our backs on Jesus and place ourselves in the condemnation of Matthew 7:23 "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

Most of the problems and negative social consequences often associated with international and domestic charitable action can be fixed through community. The problem with community is it's painful, difficult, and comes at a high personal cost. The fire and forget it of writing a check or voting for new government programs may make us feel better, but there is a moral cost to ignoring the real consequences. The economy is never strengthened through taxation and welfare only makes poverty more comfortable, yet there is some twinge of self-righteousness when we support these things. Some form of taxation is necessary and welfare may sometimes be useful, but they are never the answer. God is the answer and we are his action, how then will we live?

I understand the frustration or hope we instinctively feel about the direction our nation is taking, but as Christians, this emotion is wasted. We have something greater to hope in and have something greater to do.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I was talking with some friends and filling them in on Haiti when one of them asked about the earthquake and the judgment of God. He wasn't pulling a Pat Robertson or anything, he was just trying to connect dots between faith and the brokenness of the world. It was the second time in as many days I heard something connecting natural disaster and God's judgment. Jeff Daniels character on Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom makes the statement, "I’m a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage." For being in the Christian clique and far more conservative than liberal, the mindset of God orchestrating disaster is much less common than others seem to think.

The hundred thousand or so deaths in Haiti were the result of poor construction practices. Those buildings failed because stupid people built them in a way that demanded failure. The tragedy in New Orleans was the result of building a city below the water line and trusting a faulty levy, both of which were human decisions. Earthquakes, natural fires, floods, and hurricanes, as destructive as they are, are natural creative aspects of the dynamic world we live in, the results of which (minus human tragedy) are often good from a long term perspective. It isn't God's fault we build crappy buildings on fault lines, ground level anythings on floodplains, mobile homes in tornado country, or poke bears with sharp sticks. Natural disasters are often only considered disasters because some group of people already did something stupid. This isn't always the case, but it accounts for the majority. The rest is usually just bad luck.

If God didn't make it happen, then why did God let it happen? This seems to be the unstated question driving most Christian thought on the whole smiting/natural disaster/all-powerful God topic. For some reason I've never connected these dots. Scripture is pretty clear about God laying waste from time to time, but he is always pretty clear about the why, what, when, and where. It's never something to be guessed at. If you bump into a smug Christian talking about God's judgment, I know they exist somewhere, be sure to remind them God's judgment tends to come when the faithful have failed. Noah's decades of preaching had no impact in his community, Lot lived in a city where he was somewhat respected yet made zero impact in a spiritual sense, and Ananias and Sapphira failed to connect with the core principle of the community surrounding them. As for Nineveh and Jonah, it was Jonah that wanted Nineveh to be destroyed - not God. God, as he always seems to do, provided a way to avoid the destruction he intended to bring. In other words, even if we find ourselves in a situation where massive disaster is clearly the judgment of God, the correct response is grief and repentance, because I guarantee you God won't be smugly happy about the thing and it wasn't his first choice.

Looking at David's response to his son Absalom's death in II Sam 18 gives us an idea about God's response to the tragedy that follows human rebellion. Absalom was trying to kill David and take his kingdom from him yet died in the attempt. Instead of rejoicing or being indifferent about the striking down of the rebellion, David wept for the son he loved. I think this is one of those times Davis was close to God's heart.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sean Of The Dead

Sean could have said it in a clearer less offensive way, but I don't think he could haves said it better.

We were in the desert covered in sand, sitting around a campfire, and periodically shooting each other with airsoft (not so soft) guns while talking about a wide range of topics. Dirty Jimmy, a man who lived up to his name, was doing his best to hold his weight in a conversations about spirituality and kept coming back to the beauty of the stars and how he had read the Bible when Sean dropped his bomb.

Sean is an ex-addict who at his low point crashed his car into a church while loaded. Since then his life had been radically transformed and knew the restoration that comes through knowing and loving God (or more aptly knowing that you are known and loved by God).

In a moment of frustration Sean blurted out, "F@#? the Bible, do you know Jesus!?"

I was flabbergasted and headed quickly toward offended when I realized what he actually said. He was right. A little flustered and out of sorts, but right. The Bible isn't bad, but it's only a book. If it doesn't help us know Jesus, it's useless.

As Christians we often identify with our totems rather than the thing that gives value to them. Jesus ripped on the hyper religious in Matthew 23 because they differentiated between aspects of the temple and the thing that gave them value. The Bible isn't magic nor is there special power in our church buildings, if Jesus is absent they are empty, useless, and dead. If Jesus is present, then it is the presence of Jesus that has power and value.

I love the Bible, but I love it because through the Bible I've come to know and love Jesus. If every church and Bible disappeared tomorrow the reality of the person, power, and action of Jesus would not dissipate one iota. There is nothing wrong with the symbols and practical tools of our faith, the things we sometimes identify with, but they are only useful when they are accomplishing their purpose, when they are bringing us closer to Jesus. If this practicality is missing they, and possibly we, are dead.

When you find yourself loving and placing your hope in something say, "Toss this thing, do I know Jesus?" If the answer is no, perhaps it's time to make a change.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hey Everybody...

If I had a life theme for the last few months it would be Reading and Siestas. If there were something deeper it would be Selfishness and Esteeming Others More Highly Than Myself.

 Living an isolated life in a large group of people creates a strange dynamic. I'm always with people, but hampered by language issues, I'm rarely "with" people. The interactions and friendships are real, but limited. I'm familiar with, and enjoy, the challenges and loneliness of truly being alone and the interaction and growth that comes from living in community, but this middle ground is messing with me. Having a crack-load of downtime doesn't help much.

I don't want to be self-centered, but it's hard not to be when you are human and you spend a lot of time in introspection. I am selfish and thinking about my selfishness doesn't fix anything. Getting down on myself for being self-centered only adds fuel to the fire, like a narcissist calling everyone's attention to how narcissistic he is and telling them how awesome he is to have seen his flaw and to be doing something about it. So yeah, I see the irony of writing an introspective blog about being self-centered.

For the lat few months, when faced with one of those dinky moments of frustration founded in someone screwing with my perfect little world, there has been a voice in my head repeating, esteem others more highly than yourself, esteem others more highly than yourself, esteem others more highly than yourself... baby steps.

I don't think I'm more selfish in Haiti than in the U.S. it's just a lot harder to hide in the distractions of life out here. I get to see more of my brokenness and then feel stupid for paying attention when there is other stuff to do. Hopefully that voice will have more of an impact on my actions when I get home, hopefully I'll think of others before myself, hopefully I'll be better at loving others rather than being frustrated by trying to figure out how to be better at loving others... hopefully Anchor Man 2 doesn't suck.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:3-4