Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 in Review - Writers who have influenced me this year

I have significantly expanded my blog reading this year, as much as my schedule allows. There are many interesting and excellent writers out there, but of all those I follow, a few stand out in terms of their influence on my own thinking and development.

Rachel Held Evans – her blog stands out as a center for healthy, open discourse about faith, gender and a variety of other topics. Rachel's blog has often been the catalyst that has spurred much of my thinking, as well as the nexus that has connected me to many other interesting writers.

From Two to One – Danielle writes about the junction of faith and feminism in her very articulate and thought-provoking style. Among her many great articles I particularly appreciate her series on modesty.

Kathy Escobar – Kathy writes from her own experience in downward mobility and challenges me to keep thinking and looking for ways to move downward myself.

Katie Axelson – I only recently discovered Katie's blog, but I find her writing articulate and her areas of interest overlap significantly with my own. I look forward to hearing more from Katie in the coming year.

Caris Adel – I've followed Caris most of this year and appreciate very much her exploration of issues of faith.

One Hand Clapping – Julie Clawson writes about social justice issues and has helped further my own thinking about what it looks like to act justly and live sustainably. She also wrote an excellent series of articles on feminism this year.

All Things Beautiful – I really like Alyssa's perspective on the world. She reminds and encourages me to look for and celebrate the beauty in life and the world around me.

I won't even attempt to suggest the best posts from each of these authors. I would encourage readers to explore their blogs for themselves and discover the great, thought-provoking writing each one offers. I look forward to reading more from each of them in 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Review - Part 2

In this past year I awakened in a meaningful way to the need to change the way we live. Our very lifestyle is poisoning ourselves and destroying our environment. As disciples of the Creator God, we must adopt a different mentality toward the created world. We must stop treating it as disposable, exploiting it for our personal pleasures without concern for the rest of the people with whom we share the planet, nor the others who will come after us. This also ties into the issue of equality, since our wealth and privilege as Americans thrives on and perpetuates economic inequality. I continue to be challenged to live more sustainably and justly.

How do you understand the relationship between faith and the environment? What does sustainable living look like?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 in Review - Part 1

This year was the first one in which I made a deliberated, focused effort to write regularly for this blog. I have enjoyed developing this outlet for sharing with others what I am learning and thinking about. Simultaneously I have been challenged and enlightened as I have expanded my own reading on other blogs. As the year draws to a close, I want to take the next few days and look back at some of the issues and posts that expressed some of the most issues most important to me.

In 2012 I understood clearly and affirmed for the first time that I am a feminist. As a feminist I believe strongly in equality and in the worth and dignity of all persons, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sex, or any other factor. Alongside this I have begun to recognize that people like me – white American men – need to relinquish the hold we have on power, control and privilege in our society, in the church and around the world. The time has long since passed when the “table” should be dominated by such a limited group of people. We need to make room for and encourage the full participation of women and other voices in our societal conversation. A few key posts in this area:

Woman up! (6/11)

Check in tomorrow as I explore other key posts from the past year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Breaking Down Walls

For he himself is our peace
who has made the two groups one
and has destroyed the barrier
the dividing wall of hostility.

In this Advent season, we remember not only that Jesus Christ brings hope, joy and love, but also that he brings peace. Peace can be understood and expressed in a number of ways, but the words of Paul to the Ephesians which I cited above communicate one of the most significant expressions of peace: that Jesus breaks down the barriers that divide us.

Most importantly Jesus has destroyed the barriers that separated us from God. No longer must we approach God with fear and trembling, hoping that God might look upon us with mercy rather than wrath. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we can now approach God with boldness and confidence, not because of what we have done but because of what Jesus has done. Paul says this quite clearly in the same letter to the Ephesian church:

In him and through him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

Jesus has established peace between us and God, if we choose to embrace it.

But the peace that Jesus brings extends beyond the relationship between humans and God. If we understand his peace only in that single dimension we have failed to grasp the powerful transformation that Jesus brings to us. For as the earlier words of Paul told us, Jesus has broken down the dividing walls that separate us from each other. In the specific context of that verse Paul refers to the divisions that existed between Jewish-background and Gentile-background believers, or perhaps to the general distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Elsewhere Paul makes it quite clear though that Jesus destroys all barriers between humans. In his letter to the Galatian church he states in profound words:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Some mistakenly interpret this to mean that we must all be uniform, clones of one another. But Paul doesn't say that. He says that the differences to which we humans ascribe so much importance matter not one bit to God. Jesus has destroyed the walls we create between ourselves. Jesus is the author of diversity. He celebrates it, so when we speak of all people being one in Jesus, we are most certainly not saying they must all look, think and act alike. By continually creating walls that separate, by defining who is “in” and who is “out,” we destroy the very peace that Christ brought to us.

If we would live in this radical peace that Jesus has established, we would stop trying to force men and women to follow certain prescribed gender roles. We would stop judging and condemning people because their lifestyle looks different than our own (for ultimately it is God who judges each of us). We would see our fellow humans for who they are, as God has created them, and affirm the worth and dignity of each individual. We would set aside our own “rights” and surrender our privileges so that others might live in freedom and dignity. We would stop othering those we view as a threat and embrace them in the bond of peace through Jesus Christ. This would be what the kingdom of God on earth would look like.

I'm sure some will tell me that I'm a hopeless optimist, that my vision of the kingdom of the kingdom is hopelessly utopian. I'm under now delusions that the peace of God through Jesus Christ has not been fully realized on this earth. As much as I hope it will, I cannot say that I expect it to come in my lifetime. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't work towards this and in my relationships and my attitudes. I can choose to practice the peace of Christ towards others, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that continue to plague us two millennia after the birth of Jesus. Peace doesn't have to be some ideal dream we sing about only at Christmas. The prince of peace is with us now and if we choose to live in and through him, we can be his instruments of peace here and now.   

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Masculinity and Violence

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut we have seen the usual heated discussion about gun control flare up again. We've also seen some conversation about mental health issues. We need to talk about both of these topics and I certainly have my own thoughts on each of them. But we've seen very little conversation about another key issue: the role of violence in our society and how we socialize ourselves, especially boys, in such a way that violence becomes a natural, even expected, expression of masculinity.

Our culture promotes the idea that being a man means taking charge, getting what you want, exerting power and control. We see this in movies and on TV. I was just at the movie theater and was appalled though not surprised by the predominance of weapons and violence – largely led by men – in current and upcoming films. We see it particularly in video games, where it combines with blatantly misogynistic memes that denigrate and degrade women. (I'm looking forward to Anita Sarkeesian's video on this subject.) We tacitly and even explicitly affirm it in the messages we give to our boys and young men. We condone violence as a solution to problems and yet are surprised when people act violently outside of the ways we deem “acceptable.” As tragic as the killings in Connecticut are, they are only an extreme example of the fact that American culture has embraced and celebrates violence. Among nations with similar socio-economic levels, our country has one of if not the highest level of murder, the majority of which are carried out by men. Domestic violence plagues our society. Men abuse, mistreat and denigrate women and yet we all-too-quickly excuse such immoral behavior saying, “Boys will be boys.” Even worse, we turn the blame back onto the very victims of this abuse and violence, saying that they should have done X differently in order to not stimulate or provoke men. Our concept of masculinity and our devotion to inaccurate and outdated gender stereotypes contributes to the culture of violence in which we live.

Masculinity in our society has come to be defined largely as a rejection of anything deemed “effiminate.” This includes any expression of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We teach boys that physical weakness correlates to moral weakness and inferiority. Boys understand from an early age that the most physically attractive and strong boys are the most respected. Our sports culture reaffirms this not only during school years but into adulthood as well. We affirm certain colors, clothing, and behavioral traits as “feminine,” and we mock and deride any man or boy who should express a liking for or interest in them, once again reinforcing gender stereotypes that have no real basis.

We also train boys that they should expect to be in charge of their world. This has a reasonable side in so far as it promotes personal responsibility for our choices and actions. But in our society we go well beyond that and promote the idea that men are natural leaders while women are naturally passive followers. Unfortunately we hear this particularly in our churches, where we affirm the value of women as long as they remain in their “proper” spheres of activity and influence. But when a young man finds that he cannot control his environment or those around him, we express surprise that he lashes out in violence, seeking to destroy or harm that which he cannot control.
We need to change our whole perception of what it means to be a real man. We must teach our boys and men that expressing themselves through violence is not a healthy outlet, nor does it make them more “manly.” We should encourage them to embrace the value of empathy, gentleness and compassion. We must stop thinking of and referring to these qualities as “feminine” because this gender-labeling only promotes a false understanding of what manhood is all about, as well as continuing to denigrate anything associated with women as inferior. Caring for and valuing others are not qualities that we should expect only in women, nor are they inferior characteristics..

The apostle Paul writing to the Colossian church said:

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

He didn't write these words just to the women in the community. He wrote them to everyone. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience are manly. Well, actually they are neither manly nor womanly, they are godly characteristics. Let's move away from the whole idea that certain qualities as masculine or feminine and affirm those proclaim and uphold the worth and value of all humans.

We men need to radically rethink what it means to be a man. We need a new image and understanding of masculinity that doesn't promote exerting power and control over others, that doesn't denigrate compassion, kindness and humility, that doesn't glorify violence as the solution to problems. Our current limited view of masculinity fails to prepare men to treat others with respect and dignity. It robs us of our own worth and dignity as well by dictating that real men have to act in certain, stereotyped ways in order to not be perceived as “effiminate” as if that in and of itself were somehow bad.

Men, we need to have this conversation. Our response to a tragedy such as the one at Sandy Hook should not be limited just to questions of gun control or even mental health issues. Let's use this as an impetus to redefine manhood, letting go of power, control and violence and embracing humility, compassion and gentleness. Let's stop robbing ourselves of half (or more) of our humanity. Let's teach ourselves and our sons that there is a different, better way to live.

Women, you also have a key role in redefining masculinity. As mothers, wives, sisters, friends and in every other way in which you interact with men, you either affirm and perpetuate the dominant truncated view of masculinity, or you support those who strive to redefine it in healthier, more wholistic ways -- the unguys we might call them. We need you to tell men that manliness does not lie in physical strength, in control and dominance, in the suppression of all emotions other than anger. Many of you are doing this and I appreciate that. But too often the message of false masculinity is proclaimed and upheld not only by the men of our culture, but by the women as well. We must work together to change this.

I recommend this thought-provoking article as well as this one by Soraya Chemaly for further reflection on this topic. She also gives many links to other articles for further exploration of this important subject.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Joy in the Darkness

When I read the Bible, I find that joy has a close connection to suffering and sorrow. I recently read these words in Psalm 126:

Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

In Psalm 30 we read:

Weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.

In the words we know as the Beatitudes as recorded by Luke Jesus says,

Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.

This seems counter-intuitive. How can joy arise from sorrow, suffering and persecution? Surely joy comes from the absence of these things, not from passing through them. But that's not what Scripture says. Joy arises as we pass through the valley of dark shadows. It comes in the darkness, as we long and hope and cry out for the light. Joy, as Katie Axelson points out, ties into hope. If we were only joyful when things were great, many of us would find few opportunities for joy. Even if things are going great for us personally, we must be aware that we live in a broken world, one in which people lack access to the most basic needs of life like clean water, one in which so many are marginalized, abused and silenced, one in which little children are gunned down in an unfathomable outburst of violence. No matter how nice our own personal worlds may be, we must acknowledge that this world gives precious few reasons for joy.

Yet in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us and threatens to consume us, we have reason for joy, because we have hope. We believe and affirm that because of the birth of Jesus this world has hope. With hope comes joy, because we audaciously hope and believe that the future does not have to be the same as the present. In fact we know the end of the story: God wins.

We live in this world as those who go out weeping. We mourn over the brokenness of our world. But we can sow seeds of hope. We can sow seeds of love. We can sow seeds of transformation. And in time, perhaps not in our own lives, but in time, we believe that these seeds will bear fruit and the kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven. In this knowledge and in the strength of God's Spirit who works through us in this still-being-redeemed world we can find joy. At the present time it remains mixed with a strong measure of sorrow and grief, but still we can find joy if we hold on to our hope.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time to Change our Lenses

When one lives in Arizona, at least the part of the state where I live, many songs about Christmas ring completely fanciful.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! 
(Yeah, right.)

Oh the weather outside is frightful 
(only 65 F today, pretty terrible really)

Walking in a winter wonderland 
(wearing shorts and a T-shirt while the sun beats down on my head)

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the one we had last year 
(or maybe it was the year before, or the decade, maybe last century?)

I have no problem with singing nostalgic songs of snow-covered Christmases. But living in the dry Sonoran desert I am reminded each winter that much of our Christmas mythology arises from a very particular cultural perspective. We present an image of Christmas that suits what we think Christmas should be like. And that's okay, except when we start to insist that this should be how everyone experiences Christmas. If you live all your life in Florida, or Arizona, or even more so in Australia or South Africa, Christmas is not likely to bring to mind images of snow-covered pine trees. How about saguaro cacti covered with Christmas lights instead?

Today at the weekly study I attend, one man raised the all-too-common complaint that the phrase “Merry Christmas” has been forced from our society and that this indicates how unchristian we have become. I wholeheartedly affirm the right of this man and anyone else to say “Merry Christmas” as much as he wants, but I also don't think that saying it or not saying it indicates in any way whether we as a nation are in accord with God or not. Rather, it reveals another way in which we create a perception of how Christmas should be and then insist on everyone affirming that perception. But what about those for whom Christmas does not, in fact, have much to do with the birth of Jesus? Do we bring them closer to Jesus by insisting that we greet one another with the words “Merry Christmas”? I resonate with Karl Wheeler's call to surrender Christmas as a “Christian” holiday. He writes: “Why should my faith have more say or power than someone else's? In fact, I think we have less chance of inviting someone to Christ when we rise up in power imposing what we believe to be right.”

In reality, Christmas in America long ago ceased being a Christian holiday. Although Christmas as a Christian celebration does date back quite some distance in Church history, the significant emphasis on this event developed only relatively recently. We make Christmas what we want it to be and we could, should we so choose, celebrate the birth of Jesus on any given day of the year. I happen to like the symbolism of celebrating it in the darkest part of the year—but even that symbolism only works for those of us in the northern hemisphere. For those in the southern hemisphere Christmas comes at the height of summer. Much of the imagery in our traditional Christmas songs must sound particularly out of place when sung on a sunny Australian summer morning.

I am not advocating that we scrap all of our Christmas songs and the imagery we have built up around this holiday. However, we do well to stop and recognize that so much of our thinking about Christmas derives from a particular cultural background – a mythology. This extends not only to images of snow-laden fir trees, but also to the image we have of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the stall in Bethlehem. We create a nice sanitized image when in fact it probably was quite noisy and messy. (I am not saying that the birth of Jesus did not occur. I am only pointing out that much of how we perceive the actual birth event derives from our own image of how it might have or should have been.)

As I reflect on the humor of singing songs about white Christmases here in Arizona, I recognize that our cultural lenses affect us not only in this season. We all see the world through a particular set of cultural filters and experiences based on our background, our upbringing, our life experiences and the voices of the people we listen to the most. This is natural. But when we cannot recognize that these lenses also limit and distort our perspective, we became prisoners of them. We need to listen to the stories and experiences of others so that we can regularly remember that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. We do not have the one true understanding of the world, anymore than our image of Christmas as a time of snow-covered scenery and warm fireplaces matches the reality in many parts of the world.

As Christians in America, we must begin to recognize that we live in a multicultural society, one that does not see the world the way we see it. Let's be honest, even those who call themselves by the name of Christ do not all see it the same way. The time has passed when we could insist on defining the narrative that shapes our society solely on our terms. In reality that narrative has been largely defined by a rather narrow portion of society: white men who call themselves Christian. But white Christian men (a group that includes myself) don't have the whole story. We don't have the only perspective on the world and we certainly don't have the true one by which all others must be measured. We need to recognize that figuratively speaking we are living in Arizona but still singing songs about the white Christmas we're expecting this year. Let's wake up, stop dreaming and hear the songs those around us are singing instead. We might just find them to be more meaningful than the old melodies we've so cherished.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Love is a Decision

Each Christmas we Christ-followers affirm to the world that in the birth, live, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God expresses love in the highest, most complete form ever. Although not usually recited in Advent, the words of John 3:16 are surely appropriate here as well: “God so loved the world...” I like the words of the song sung by Michael W. Smith:

Love has come to walk among us
Christ the Lord is born this night.

Jesus, the God-person, demonstrates in practical, tangible ways what God's love looks like. God chooses to engage with the world. Jesus interacts with people, not shunning or rejecting them. He breaks down barriers, smashes cultural and religious taboos, all to demonstrate love. Jesus defines love for us.

But I'm not Jesus. I hope that ever so slowly I am being transformed into his image, but I'm not there yet. I don't love perfectly. I don't even love all that well. Years ago, when my then-fiancée and I were preparing for our wedding, we attended a series of pre-marital sessions based on a series called “Love is a decision.” Honestly, I don't remember a lot from the series, but I remember that basic point: Love is a choice. It's not primarily a feeling, though at times it is that. It's not primarily an emotion, though that may be involved as well. Love is a decision. It's a choice. Every day in every situation where I interact with others, be it in direct contact or virtually, I choose whether to act in love or not. Katie Axelson says it quite well when she writes “Love is a verb. It's how we respond both in favorable and unfavorable situations. It's a constant choice. A deciding moment.”

Faced with the brokenness of this world God could have chosen to scrap it all and start over again. God could have chosen to reboot the program, so to speak. But God, out of her very nature, chose to engage with this hurting world. God chose to enter into the brokenness, to take on our flesh, to encounter our pain, suffering, oppression, hurt and everything else in order to demonstrate love to us.

Love has come to walk among us.

Now that Jesus has returned to heaven until some point in the future, we have the choice whether to continue to live in that love or not. We first have the choice whether we will embrace the love offered to us by God. Then we face the decision to love one another. Sometimes that's easy to do. Some people are easy to love. Others, not so much. And some seem to be downright impossible. But Jesus didn't say we could love only those we like. He told us to love our enemies. He taught us to embrace those who were different from us. He showed us that love means breaking down barriers, surrendering power and privilege, affirming the dignity of those around us (as well as those who may be physically quite far away from us.)

God's love is an amazing, powerful thing. I cannot begin to say that I fully grasp or experience it, much less live in it day by day. But without that love, I cannot love my neighbor as God has shown me in Jesus. I don't have it in me. I can make a decent effort. I can demonstrate love, to a point. But without being renewed and filled with God's love, my tank will run empty in a very short time. At the same time, God's love isn't just something for me to fill up with and keep to myself. God invites me to be a conduit for his love to the rest of the world. We are the hands and feet of God, the expression of God's love to the world around us. To quote again from Katie Axelson, “When we call ourselves followers of Christ, His love should radiate from each one of us.”

Love is a decision. God chose to love the world. Will I choose to do the same?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Equality is a Moral Issue

In our world today God's name and identity are still defaced. They are slandered by poverty, by injustice, by corruption, by disease, and by human exploitation and suffering. And God's name is defiled when his people willingly and apathetically accept the status quo, lacking the vision to lift up God's holiness, goodness and justice in a crumbling world.

                                                     Richard Stearns in The Hole in Our Gospel
I continue to be troubled by statements I heard earlier this year (about which I wrote previously) to the effect that inequality and poverty are simply the reality of our world which we must live with. In fact, the person who made these statements argued that in fact inequality is good, that we wouldn't want to live in a world where everyone is the same. But this confuses equality with being identical. Just because people are equal doesn't mean they are all the same. Equality recognizes and affirms distinctions in people, in their characters and personalities and in their gifts and abilities. But equality denies that those differences should allow one person to have authority or privilege over another simply because of a particular characteristic. For example, why should I have the right to utilize an excessive amount of the world's resources simply because I happen to have been born in the United States? Why should the fact that I happened to be born with an X and a Y chromosome make me acceptable for certain roles, while my wife and other friends who have two X chromosomes are not, by virtue of that fact? Obviously there are real differences between a person who lives in the United States and one who is raised in a poor country in the world, just as there are biological differences between men and women. But these differences do not justify inequality.

The fact that inequality does exist in the world doesn't mean we should be content with it or accept it as an unchangeable condition. We can choose how we will respond to the advantages and benefits given to us by virtue of our background. We can determine that, because we happened to be born in the United States and therefore had access to great opportunities and privileges not currently available ot the larger portion of the world's population, that we therefore have the right to take full advantage of that position, whether we consciously choose to exploit the rest of the world or not. We can say that we have a right to keep all our money and resources and use them for our own benefit (perhaps, if we feel generous, doling out a small portion to the needs of the world's masses). After all, inequality is just a fact of life and while we may feel sorry for the poor of the world, well, in the end that's just the way the world is.

I can choose as a white man that my biological sex and my skin color entitle me to privileged treatment. I can fight vigorously against any attempts to encroach on my power and privilege and complain vociferously whenever any portion of it is taken away from me. I can insist on my right to keep my hard-earned money and use it for the benefit of my children and those who are like me, preserving the privilege that I received for the next generation. I can maintain a wall between men and women that designates certain, limited environments as the acceptable spheres for women to conduct their lives. Sure, I affirm them as equal, as long as they don't try to actually live that out too fully. After all, inequality is just the way the world is.

Or maybe I could recognize that inequality reflects the fallen nature of this world. I could acknowledge that the power, privileges and benefits I have do not come to me so that I can keep them for myself, but so that I can surrender them. I can give away power and privilege. I can affirm the dignity and worth of others. I can invest the resources God has given me (however great or small they may be) so that others might have more opportunities and choices and over time experience greater equality.

I've been reading Richard Stearns' book The Hole in Our Gospel, which is a bit of a biography but even more a call for the church of Christ to embrace God's call to act on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed of this world. In the book Stearns points to Paul's words to the Corinthian church in his second letter as a reminder (among many others in Scripture) that God cares deeply about equality—that in fact equality is “a justice issue or, stated more bluntly, a moral issue in which those of us who have plenty seem willing to allow others to have nothing.” In his letter Paul writes:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there may be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”

God calls us to work to eliminate inequality, using any benefit we may have to serve those who are in some manner disadvantaged. Stearns and Paul both address the issue of economic equality, but the issue of equality goes far beyond economic equality. If those of us who have privilege and power cling to it when we could and should be giving it away, we may some day find that the tables have turned on us despite our efforts and our own unwillingness to treat others as equals now will in that day come back to haunt us.

I acknowledge with great sadness that inequality does exist in our world. One would have to be blind not to see this. But I refuse to accept that this is simply the way things are, much less to affirm that somehow inequality is a good thing. Equality is, as Stearns states, a moral issue and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who affirmed the dignity, worth and equality of all people, I want to work and speak for equality in the name of Christ. To do otherwise would be to deny the very name of the God I claim to serve.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hopefully Engaged

Advent began today – and we very nearly missed it. Only the adamant insistence of our teenage daughter convinced us to change our worship plans for the morning, to the benefit of us all. When our children were younger we regularly observed Advent. It formed a significant part of our Christmas preparation. But as the years have passed and the children grown older we have not done so well keeping this focus in our home. Although a bit surprised, I was also very pleased when my daughter insisted that celebrating Advent was important to her. She reminds us that Advent carries a special significance for those who follow Jesus Christ. Christmas is important, but let's not rush too quickly to that day. We need to stop and remember along the way.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel

As I listened to the words of this classic hymn during worship this morning my mind pondered the powerful message of Advent and Christmas. I've heard this message time and again from my childhood, but I cannot hear it too often. I cannot be reminded too frequently of the significance of the Christ-event. I don't get caught up so much in the images of babies lying in mangers (who, amazingly and unlike most human children, apparently doesn't cry). I no longer picture it as some perfect, silent, holy night. I think the actual event was far more humble and earthy than that – and probably a lot more human. Let's not overspiritualize the actual birth scene.

Yet, no matter how we choose to imagine that scene in Bethlehem, we must not forget that this birth marked the beginning of a radical new episode in human history. In the person of Jesus, God entered the world. God took on the sorrows, struggles, grief and pain of the human condition. We often speak of Jesus as the measure of God's love for the world, but Jesus is equally the measure of God's hope for this world – and he remains that hope in a world that continues to suffer in so many ways.

Jesus offers hope to all who suffer under injustice, oppression and inequality. He offers hope to the hungry, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the enslaved. He proclaims the year of the Lord's favor, in which all people are affirmed for the dignity that God instilled in them at their creation, without regard to gender, ethnicity, or any other defining characteristic. At Christmas we celebrate each year again the beginning of this radical transformation by which this world is being remade into the kingdom of our God.

In this Advent season though, we remember that this transformation remains incomplete. Yes, Jesus won the victory of death and evil on the cross and in his resurrection, an event we shall celebrate with equal joy in a few months. But here on this planet that victory remains incomplete. The world continues to suffer. Inequality, enslavement, marginalization, patriarchal power structures and a host of other ills continues to plague us as humans, both individually and socially. Christ has set us free, but we do not yet live fully in that freedom. At Advent it seems particularly appropriate to cry out as did the Israelites of old for God to come and ransom the creation, to set free once again the people of this world who still live in darkness.

Do we acquiesce to easily to the continued influence of evil in this world? Do we see injustice, inequality, oppression and other evils around us and just regard it as “the way things are”? Have we so narrowly focused on Jesus as the one who brings individual salvation that we forget the bigger picture? I fear that this may be the case. I have been challenged a lot this year to consider how I live and how I can change my attitudes and actions to more actively engage in bringing God's kingdom on this earth. I don't want my faith to be primarily a message of gloom, nor one of individual escape, but one of hope and joy and love. As a disciple of Jesus I want to radiate the hope that he brings to the world. Yes, we are not there yet. In that sense we are still in the season of Advent. But at the same time the One has arrived who can bring hope to the world and he invites us to join him in spreading this message. Let us not give in to despair or escapism. None of us can transform the entire world, but each of us can make concrete and specific choices in our own lives that will can bring hope to others. We can choose to stand against oppression, injustice, inequality and the status quo that perpetuates these things. Or we can live in our little bubble, oblivious to the darkness that persists in this world, and wait for the day we get to “go home.”

I choose to live for hope and as we finish this year and move into the new one, I want to continue to learn how I can support the dignity of all of God's children through my actions, my words and my attitudes. I'll continue to right about my journey here, but I would love to hear what my readers are doing and want to do in the coming year to bring the message of hope to a world in darkness.

I'm joining with Caris Adel and others today to reflect on Hope during this first week of Advent. See what others have written by following these great links and add your own to the list!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christmas - A Time to Reflect on our Shopping Habits

No sooner have we finished our Thanksgiving dinner than the invasion of the Christmas shopping season begins. This year as we are painfully aware many stores moved their opening times back into Thursday evening to capture still more sales. This blatant consumerism offended myself and many others, but apparently didn't stop many people from rushing to the stores to get that great deal. I shouldn't be surprised really, because consumerism is one of our American idols, although it receives precious little attention from the pulpits of our churches. It does strike me as extremely sad that a country which so warmly embraces and affirms a celebration of Thanksgiving follows it immediately with an orgy of buying more stuff.

In some years past I have adopted a quite negative attitude toward gift-giving. I would argue that it detracts from the “true meaning” of Christmas, that it promotes greed and consumption and really runs counter to the very message of the Gospel. In many ways it does. But I now look at it differently and recognize that this season of gift-giving can be a time of blessing, a time when by promoting giving we do emphasize a very positive quality. By refusing to give or receive gifts, I may very well rob myself and others of the joy that can come from giving. By adopting an anti-gift mentality, do I become like Scrooge?

This year I want to be more open and free in giving and receiving gifts. This does not mean I should go into debt to buy gifts or that I need to buy multiple gifts for everyone—including my family. But it can be a time to express my appreciation and love for others by giving a significant item or two. I want to recapture the joy of giving that I have lost in my tight-fistedness over the years.

Because Christmas does include gift-giving, it presents a great opportunity to stop and think about our purchasing habits. What are we buying? Where did it come from? What does our quest to pay the lowest price mean for those who produce the items we buy? What does it mean for the environment? We should be conversing about these things as a society and certainly as followers of Jesus Christ. We shouldn't engage in mindless consumerism, mistakenly thinking that our shopping habits have nothing to do with morality or justice. They do, very much so.

I doubt that any of us can completely abstain from shopping. If nothing else we need food to live and things do wear out and need replaced. But I greatly admire Danielle at From Two to One for her goal of not buying anything new this year. I also appreciate her desire to move beyond tokenism in buying goods that are fair trade or support various ministries. We do well to consciously think about how we can purchase gifts and everyday items in ways that benefit the producers and promote sustainable economic practices. We can look for vendors who sell meaningful items and not just cute trinkets so that by our shopping we affirm the value and dignity of those who produce the items. PerfectNumber628, on her blog Tell Me Why The World is Weird, correctly reminds us that fair trade shouldn't be about cute and adorable. It should be about changing the way we shop and the way we produce so that the entire transaction becomes one that affirms worth, affirms dignity, creating value for both producer and consumer and at the same time respecting the world in which we live. I really appreciate these two authors and many others who are helping us to think more carefully about our shopping habits and offering us alternatives that go beyond cute, adorable tokens that we really don't need.

Of course shopping this way does take more effort than simply looking for the greatest deal on or at the local Walmart. It may mean at times choosing not to buy. It also requires that we shop realistically and recognize that unfortunately not everything can yet be found from fair-trade, sustainable, dignity-affirming producers. Rather than judging others for their purchases, we can encourage them to think about the implications and impact of their purchase so that perhaps next time they (or we!) will consider what they buy more carefully and make changes where possible. We will not change the economic structure of our culture or globally by our changing our shopping habits, but we can each make a small but significant impact as we carefully spend the money God has provided for us. We won't eliminate the consumerism of Christmas in America, but in small ways we can transform it for good.

I'd love to hear how you are creatively transforming not only your Christmas shopping but your overall buying habits. What creative ideas and dignity-affirming vendors have you found?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thankful, not Greedy

As I begin this Thanksgiving Day, I want to stop and reflect on the many reasons I have to be thankful.
  • For my wonderful wife, an Eshet Chayil (see Rachel Held Evans' blog if you don't know what that means!), whose talents go far beyond what most people recognize. We've enjoyed a long and memorable journey together and I hope will have many, many more ahead!
  • For my daughter, who continues to develop her unique personality and to grow in maturity with each passing year. The time is coming all-too-quickly when she will launch into the world on her own, but she will always be my precious girl.
  • For my son, who entered the challenging teen years this year. He's amazingly smart and even as a teenager still at times shows that tenderness of heart that leads him to wrap his father in a hug or cuddle up to his mother.
  • For my parents. I am so thankful that we have the opportunity to live close to them and enjoy lots of time together during this period of our lives. I'm thankful that they continue to enjoy good health in their retirement years and have the time and energy to be actively engaged with us.
  • For the other members of my family, both near and far. It's nice to have a family that you enjoy getting together with, even if we don't do it as often as we'd like.
  • For faithful and dear friends, both near and far. I'm particularly grateful for the friends I've had the privilege of getting to know all over the world, who have broadened my perspective and enriched my life in so many ways. And for new friends who continue to stretch me and keep me growing, especially the many women of valor I know both in person and virtually.
  • For the ability to sit here in my comfortable home and write this on my computer to share with all of you.
  • For the fact that my refrigerator has food and my cupboards are far from bare.
  • That I can open the faucet and have fresh, clean, drinkable water arrive instantly.
  • For my own health and for the great doctors I've met this year who have helped me with various health issues.

I could add many more items to the list because God has provided for me and my family in so many ways. I appreciate that my country has chosen to set aside a day to stop and give thanks each year. That's a very healthy and rather unusual practice. Of course we don't want to limit our thankfulness to a single day, but to cultivate an attitude of thanksgiving each month and each day, because the very reasons I just listed for giving thanks continue throughout the year, if I choose to remember them.

It is good to give thanks.

Even as I give thanks this year though, my heart grieves. I grieve because the very culture that chooses to focus today on giving thanks, will then immediately turn around and engage in an orgy of consumption and greed that should shame all of us. Black Friday is bad enough, but now we see the shopping frenzy pushed back into Thanksgiving day itself. I am, frankly, appalled.

But I'm not surprised, because the real god of America is consumption. We pause briefly to give thanks but our whole society is oriented toward getting more stuff. Our economy depends on it. As much as most of us would adamantly deny it, we are greedy people. The stores play on that. We could stop the creep of consumerism into Thanksgiving day by simply choosing en masse to not shop today (and for that matter on Black Friday as well). It's like the old question, “What if they threw a war and no one came?” – What if they threw a big sale and no one shopped? Unfortunately I seriously doubt that will be the case. We're too addicted to getting the next great deal. Does God weep over our behaviour?

Interestingly enough, in all the sermons I heard and articles I read during the recent election on what it means to be a “biblical voter,” not once did I hear someone talk about issues of greed and consumerism. Are these not issues of righteousness as well? Surely they are, but they hit too close to home and to take them seriously would mean we actually have to change our lifestyles. It's far easier to post a statement on Facebook decrying the creep of greed into Thanksgiving day than to choose a lifestyle that rejects it altogether. As I write this I recognize that my finger points back at myself. Although I won't be out this evening or tomorrow engaging in the shopping frenzy, I could choose to buy less and be content with what I have as well. It doesn't mean never buying anything or refusing to engage in the economy, but it does mean changing my attitude, shopping less often and more wisely and turning away from greed.

So on this Thanksgiving day I want to look around me and give thanks for all that I have and not stray into thinking about what I wish I had but don't. If I'm going to wish for anything, may it be that the millions and millions of people in this world who don't enjoy some of the basic luxuries I have (such as clean water and daily food) would have these things. That's a goal worth working toward - are there any stores offering a special on that today?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Small Step for Women

There are so many things I would like to see change in this world, so many areas where the Kingdom of God has yet to be fully realized. As readers of this blog know, I am passionate about affirming the full equality of women and men in this world. I grieve over the many ways in which women are still excluded, marginalized, treated as inferior and silenced. Progress often seems painfully slow, but slow progress is still progress. I was reminded of this when I read a report from an acquaintance of my wife and I, who serves with her husband in training local health care workers in Kenya. Recently she made a trip to a remote village to celebrate the opening of a new medical dispensary.

We arrived for the first big meeting of the community to celebrate the new dispensary and to see how things were going. As is the custom the men sat under the community tree. It is called the tree of men. It is where the real business of the community happens. The women sat in a group separated and to the side. In Rendele culture women would never talk or even sit in such a meeting. Only men are allowed under the “tree of men.” But today was to be different. A historic first. A cultural shift was about to happen before our eyes. A mandatory condition of building and supporting the clinic was was that women had to participate in the leadership and in oversight. This is a standard requirement in the AIC clinic oversight committees. It is designed to begin to bring women into the leadership process, to give women a voice. This was a bold change.

So, for the first time ever, after a series of negotiations that had occurred with the men long before our arrival, women were going to be allowed into the meeting that would happen under the “tree of men.” The compromise was that the women would sit separately but still be included in the circle under the tree. A women would be allowed to speak and she was to give a greeting to the visitors (I was one of the visitors), but she could not stand and speak in front of the men. As long as she sat, she could give a greeting.

On the one hand there's still so much more room for progress in this situation, but what a wonderful, significant step. The women of this village have, for the first time, a voice in the affairs of the community. They may not yet be viewed and treated as fully equal, but they have a place a the table, or under the tree in this case. I hope and pray that in a generation or two the "tree of men" will have a new name, one that reflects the equal status of men and women in the community. That day may still be far off, but this meeting marked a significant step in a positive direction. Traditions and cultural norms can change. It takes time and willingness and often a strong push, but they can change.

You can read the rest of the brief update as well as other interesting stories of life in Africa at Equipping Africa.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For God and Country?

I had a very short-lived discussion with an acquaintance on Facebook the other evening over this article by World Vision president Richard Stearns. The discussion was short-lived because it quickly became apparent that pursuing it would be pointless, as the other party had clearly either not read the article or had failed to grasp the message. This person wrote: “We need a Christian America to show to the world who Christ is...” to which I responded with the question “What exactly does the phrase 'Christian America' mean?” I fear that many have merged their patriotism so strongly into their faith that they cannot see any distinction between the two. I have encountered this type of thinking far too often of late for me to ignore it.

Those who exalt America as a Christian nation generally have in mind that by our moral superiority and our acts of goodness across the world we proclaim the message of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it. They see the relative economic and political decline of this country as a serious threat to the kingdom of God, because after all how will the world know Jesus if we don't have the political and economic might to make him known? Because of our world dominance, they argue, the Gospel has spread across the earth. In fact one person tried quite strongly to persuade me that the current economic downturn represented a serious hindrance to the advance of the Gospel because it kept American Christians from being able to fund Christian activity.

That may be true in so far as we may not be able to provide as much material support to Christian ministries, but does that mean the kingdom of God cannot still advance? Does God require us Americans in order to accomplish God's global agenda? It seems to me we grossly overestimate our own significance if we think that God's purposes are hindered because we can't (or won't) give as much to Christian ministries. To put it quite bluntly, God doesn't need our dollars, although God gladly accepts and uses them when we surrender them and we do well to freely surrender them.

My discussion partner the other evening argued that America has blessed the nations because America, after all, was founded on Christian principles and has always been a “Christian nation.” Unfortunately such a mindset ignores the fact that those Christian principles viewed black people as not fully human, ascribing to them in the Constitution the worth of only 3/5 of a person—and that only so that the southern states could have more representation in the Congress, not that those black people would have any representation no matter how much they were worth. Those Christian principles affirmed slavery for nearly a century after the founding of this country and even after its abolition many Christian Americans continued for another hundred years to view and treat blacks as inferior. Unfortunately some still do to this day. Those Christian principles didn't view women as equal to men until after World War I, when we finally recognized that they should have a say in their government as well. Now, nearly a hundred years later, women still continue to fight for full equality in our society. What exactly are the Christian principles represented here? Certainly they are not the ones Jesus demonstrated when he interacted freely with women, when he crossed cultural and religious barriers and mingled with unclean foreigners. They are not the ones that Paul affirms when he tells us that in Christ we are all one. It seems hard for me to claim the moral high ground for America when we have so often been very far from it. It takes a very selective view of history to ignore the many ways in which we have not been a beacon for the Gospel, but rather have hindered it by our very actions.

Unfortunately this continues to be true today. While many Americans see our nation as leading the fight for freedom in the world, often those affected see us only as a big bully throwing its weight around in order to get its way. We act with pride and arrogance and even our most generous actions (and there are indeed such actions) are often done out of self interest, seeking to protect our own way of life from all perceived threats. Along the way we care far too little for those who are crushed or marginalized by our pursuit of the American dream and our protection of freedom. In the end we tacitly act from the belief that American lives are more valuable than the lives of others.

I do believe that the United States can be an agent of good in this world, but I don't think that we should claim to be a Christian nation. When we merge our understanding of the Gospel with our sense of patriotism, the result rarely turns out well. Another acquaintance commented in my Facebook discussion that given the size and influence of the United States, the “unhealthy combination of power and religion has greater impact on how Christianity is perceived in the world.” The Gospel has power of its own. It doesn't need American political or economic might to succeed. It doesn't even need the Ten Commandments posted in courtrooms and schools. As the same person said, “Christ showed us a different way. The Gospel works through humility and by the Word and Spirit.”

As believers who live in America we must break the unholy alliance of American patriotism and Christian faith and recognize that our faith should trump our patriotism. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the sins of our nation—both past and present—and adopt an attitude of humility and servanthood. Let's stop worrying about protecting our way of life and think about how we can use the abundant resources God has given us to improve the lives of others. Let's repent of the sins of our past and where possible take steps toward restitution and reconciliation. Yes, it may be costly, but that would be far better than trying to ignore or cover those sins and allowing the wounds to fester. America is not a Christian nation. It is nation with many Christian people who would do well to remember that being a Christian requires more of them than being good Americans who defend their way of life.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Time for Change

Today you'll find me over at All Things Beautiful. I really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the great work Alyssa is doing on her blog and am honored that she invited me to write for her. I think that this post is particularly pertinent in light of comments made after last week's election. I hope you'll take the time to visit All Things Beautiful and be sure to check out Alyssa's great articles!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Prayer

As I write this a young woman we know, only nineteen years old, lies in the hospital fighting for her life against a serious infection. We learned today that she will need to begin kidney dialysis 24/7. Her life hangs by a tenuous thread. Her situation is complicated by the bone marrow transplant she received this summer which has left her immune system severely weakened. She needed the transplant to give her a chance against a rare blood disorder. All of this affects a young woman with a loving, generous and warm personality, someone who cares about others and who, out of her love for Jesus, wants to make a positive difference in the world. In the face of this latest threat to her life her family has again called for prayer.

And naturally we respond. We respond because we care about this young woman. We answer the call to prayer because we recognize how much she means to her family and so many others. We pray because we want to see her live and thrive and take part in bringing God's kingdom into reality in this world. We cry out because the thought of a nineteen year old girl dying strikes us as fundamentally wrong.

But even as I pray, I struggle with questions about this whole enterprise called prayer. Why do we pray? What effect do our prayers have? We cry out to God on behalf of this young woman, as we do in so many other situations, because we want God to intervene and restore her health. We want God to act so that she will live a long life and bring glory to her name. We pray because we believe that prayer is powerful and effective. But what if we didn't pray? Would that mean that God would not act? Would God allow a young woman to die simply because people did not raise their voices and ask for intervention? Surely that would make God quite cruel and heartless; not at all the compassionate and merciful God we proclaim. Does God act only if and when we pray?

What if we pray for healing, but in the end she dies? Some will remind us that “no” is also an answer to prayer, and that is true in so far as it goes. But it certainly leaves us wondering about the power and efficacy of prayer when we pray for something like the healing of a sick young woman and receive “no” as an answer.

In addition, Christian theology, or at least certain lines of it, asserts that God has our lives fully planned. God knows the number of our days, say the Scriptures. God has already directed the course of our lives before a single day comes to pass. If we affirm that, what is the purpose of praying for anything, because everything has already been determined? By asserting the sovereignty of God in this way do we render prayer an exercise purely for our own benefit? Or perhaps somehow God delights in our prayers, but those prayers don't actually change anything because God has already determined how to act. If God already knows the outcome of this young woman's illness, why do we need to pray at all?

On the other hand, if we affirm that pray can change the outcome of events, how can we then say that God already knows the events of our lives before they ever happen? If our actions and prayers alter the outcome of events, then those events cannot be already known. I have a book on my shelf entitled The Openness of God, which I remember created quite a storm when it appeared by promoting the idea that God's oversight of our lives doesn't mean that everything is already planned and determined. If our prayers and actions really do have any significance, then somehow there must be some flexibility in the pre-ordained plans of God.

I realize that I am raising arguments which have been raised before by others more skilled with words than I. These are not new thoughts or doubts. But that does not render them insignificant. I do not know how to reconcile these apparent contradictions in the nature of God and the world. I do not know how to understand the purpose of prayer. My human logic struggles to understand these things. Can God both know the course of our lives and yet allow for our prayers and actions to influence that course? It seems logically contradictory, but Scripture does say that God's ways are higher than ours. That seems like an easy way to avoid a tough question, but it may be the only way open to us.

Despite my questions I will continue to pray. I will pray because, as I said before, I want to see this young woman live a long life bringing glory to God through her loving, joyful, caring spirit. I will pray because I don't believe that nineteen-year-old women should die. I will pray because in my prayers I protest the injustice of sin and death and cry out to God to continue to crush them by restoring this young woman to fullness of life. I pray because I cling to the hope that God's kingdom can come and God's will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. I trust that God doesn't require my prayers in order to act, but somehow I recognize that my voice needs to be raised in chorus with others on behalf of this young woman, as well as on behalf of so many others.

I just wish I understood better the purpose of prayer...