Friday, June 29, 2012

No Longer Ashamed

On Thursday I watched in distress as “my” team, the German national football team, went down in agonizing defeat to the Italians in the UEFA Euro 2012 tournament. Although disappointed, I managed to make it through the remainder of the day and the following day without suffering severe emotional distress. There was a time when this would not have been the case – when a loss by a team I supported would make me irritable and cross for a day or more. Not only did seeing my team lose used to cause me anguish, I really hated the stigma of having sided with a loser. I didn't want to have to face even casual ribbing at the hands of those who supported the winning side. So often I would keep any allegiances I had to myself. That way I could at least avoid any negative treatment from those on “the other side.”

This behaviour extended not only to sports, but to most areas of life. For most of my life I have hesitated to openly take stands on issues for fear that I might offend someone. I want people to like me and I have always worried that in expressing an opinion someone disagrees with I will also incur their rejection of me as a person. I also feared committing myself to a cause or idea lest in the end it should fail to “win,” in whatever sense that might be understood. I have kept my opinions to myself in order that I would be likeable and in order to avoid conflict with others. Not any more.

I do not want to remain silent any longer. I do not want to live in fear of what others might think of me. I do not want to avoid expressing opinions and supporting people and causes because doing so might cause someone else offense. Yes, I want to be tactful and civil in my discourse, but I am learning to overcome my fear of rejection. As I reach midlife I am finally understanding that my identity and my worth do not rest in what others think of me. I do not require their approval. Some issues and causes are worth standing up for; too important for me to remain silent. I'm learning to listen to the voices of those outside the circles of power. I'm raising my voice in concert with those whose voices have been silenced far too long. I'm not the solution. I'm not a superhero who is going to single-handedly solve all the world's problems. But I can take a stand for those things I believe in and let myself be counted – even if it makes me unpopular in certain circles, even if it means I will be misunderstood and possibly even rejected.

Of course this isn't really about football or any other sport – although I apply it there as well in a willingness to affiliate myself with particular teams or athletes that I admire, regardless of their stature in others' eyes. Far more importantly it applies to speaking out and acting against injustice. For me it means standing up for the equality and dignity of women and others who have been silenced by society for too long. It means speaking out in favor of sustainable living and taking care of the creation God gave us. It means taking a stand on the side of immigrants and seeing them as fellow humans, and affirming actions that support and enhance the well-being of society's weakest and poorest. It means raising my questions about theology and Scripture and a host of issues related to the Church, no longer quietly acquiescing to the viewpoints of those around me.

I guess I've become an activist of sorts. I will use my voice and my words to advocate for those things I believe in, regardless of how others respond. I don't want to remain silent and in fear any longer. I don't want to live for the approval of others. I've done that for too long.

I'm okay with Germany's loss on Thursday. I'm learning to take a stand and not be ashamed.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Obamacare -- A Step in the Right Direction

When the law now commonly referred to as “Obamacare” was first debated more than two years ago, I was strongly opposed to it. I rejected as a matter of principle the idea of government involvement in healthcare. I did not think that the government could do anything to help the problems our country faces regarding affordability and availability of medical care to all. On the day the law passed Congress and was signed by President Obama I was attending a business meeting in England. An English colleague rejoiced at the news, while I expressed serious reservations and disappointment. She saw it as a small victory that our country finally took a step to providing medical coverage for all its citizens. After all, we were the one remaining major industrialized country that still did not do this. By European standards the healthcare situation in the United States was simply barbaric. Sure, they recognized that we have some of the best quality healthcare in the world, but for significant portions of our population this remained inaccessible due to costs. At the time I acknowledged the problems she pointed out but argued that Obamacare and government involvement in healthcare did not offer a helpful solution.

Today, when the Supreme Court upheld the healthcare act, I rejoiced. This obvious contradiction can be explained by the shift in my own viewpoint over the last couple years. This shift comes from my frustrations with skyrocketing healthcare costs and the lack of any other realistic proposal to begin addressing them. It comes also from my growing awareness of the growing number of people who either have no healthcare insurance or whose insurance premiums and costs are increasingly burdensome. My family would be in the latter category. Thankfully we do have health insurance, but each year our premiums climb and I can only mitigate that climb by continuing to increase our annual deductible. Our health insurance premium alone takes a serious bite out of our pay each month and there is not a thing I can do to reduce it. Even with that insurance available to us we avoid going to the doctor unless we really have to because the deductible costs us so much. But again, we are fortunate in that we at least have some type of coverage.

I recognize now that enacting this law is a matter of justice. It is a matter of making sure that the most disadvantaged members of our society do not fall through the cracks. Those opposed to Obamacare will raise all sorts of arguments against it. They will rail against the growing infringement of government on our lives. They will discuss the political impact and a multitude of other issues. But as this article from Sojourners points out, for believers these shouldn't be the main issues. As Jim Wallis, the author of the article states:

“Our bottom line is different. We don't start with politics, but rather with how these decisions affect real people.”

As God's people we should be raising our voices in defense of those who are left behind by our economic system. We should be looking after those in need. We should not leave them at the mercy of an impersonal market economy. The market economy, despite its strong advocates in the conservative political ranks, is not going to solve the healthcare problems we face. The market economy doesn't look out for the outcasts of society. It chews them up, tramples them down and grinds them to dust. We should be doing all we can to counteract that. It's not a perfect solution by any means, but this healthcare act takes us a step in the right direction.

I am not familiar with all the provisions of the act but from what I understand, as someone who already has insurance, the impact on me will be minimal. In fact it may be positive, if it can begin to reign in rising costs. I am pleased by many provisions of the act such as those described in this chart.

I no longer share the fear of the government compelling us to buy health insurance. In fact I do not understand why we tolerate requirements to purchase insurance for our vehicles but vehemently resist any suggestion that we be required to carry insurance for our health. Where are our priorities?

I'm open to changes and improvements in this law, but I think that lobbying for its repeal would be a huge step backward. I would love to hear some meaningful proposals from those who oppose this act. I don't consider healthcare savings accounts to be a viable option, because they require that you actually have money to invest in them in the first place. Even if I were freed entirely from my monthly insurance premiums and put that entire amount in an HSA, an unlikely possibility, I could easily be bankrupted by a serious medical problem. So if you oppose Obamacare, bring some real suggestions to the table, suggestions that look out for the most needy and disadvantaged in our society. I'd love to hear some suggestions that see medical care as something other than a for-profit business. But I suppose that in suggesting this I mark myself already as radical. I'm okay with that, because I think we need some radical new ideas. I don't think Obamacare is the final solution, but I do believe that it is a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Even Superheros Can't Do Everything

While watching the movie Hancock with my children the other night – an entertaining though not outstanding anti-superhero movie – I thought to myself that I would not want to be a superhero. It seems to me that, regardless of one's superpower, the hero can never really counteract all the evil in the world. I don't know of a superhero who can simultaneously be in multiple places, yet evil acts occur all the time in places near and far. So how is a superhero to choose which events to respond to and which ones to ignore? If I had superpowers, this dilemma could potentially paralyze me. At the very least it would leave me with enormous feelings of guilt because for every good deed I accomplished I would know that there were any number of other potential good deeds I couldn't do.

Although I am not a superhero, I still wrestle with this dilemma. I am aware of far more situations where I would like to help than I can possibly respond to. I don't have the physical, financial, time or other resources to do all the good deeds that I would like to. I try not to let this paralyze me, choosing to do that which I am able rather than throwing up my hands in despair, but at times the burden of what I wish I could do but can't does weigh on my mind. In some degree I wish I were a superhero so that perhaps I could at least increase my ability to do good in this world.

When I feel this burden of my limitations, perhaps it would benefit me to think again of Jesus. Although he was God and had potentially all the powers of his deity (godness) available to him, when he walked the earth he to some degree limited those powers. Although he healed many people, he didn't heal them all, neither those who were physically near at hand nor those at a distant. Was he aware of the sufferings of people outside of the place he was at any given moment? Did the injustices of the world weigh on him as he walked the dusty roads? Did the limitations of his humanity place a heavy burden on his mind and spirit? I don't see a clear answer to these questions in the Bible. What I do see is Jesus responding to some needs but not all. Surely he does not ask more of us than he himself was able to do.

Confronted with my own limitations I should also remember that I am not alone. I am not the only one who can respond to the needs of the world, not the only one who can speak out against injustice and offer healing and comfort to the wounded and suffering. This job is not mine alone. The body of Christ known as the Church has been called to this task. In some areas the Church responds quite well. We give very generously to meet certain needs. Unfortunately others remain hidden, unknown or simply unpopular. I think of the response much of the evangelical church in America had when AIDS first came on the scene. Rather than demonstrating compassion and care, some chose to judge and condemn. Thankfully we have seen improvement in this, although I still see too many instances where AIDS sufferers are treated as pariahs, responsible for their own misfortune. This is only one example. When it comes to suffering, need, injustice and other expressions of evil in the world, is it the place of the Church to judge whether those enduring evil “deserve” it or not? Or should we simply do all we can to defeat evil where possible and where not possible to at the very least offer comfort and assistance to its victims?

I don't want to be a person who lives content in his own little world, oblivious and unconcerned about the needs around me and the injustice in the world. I cannot respond to all of it, but I can respond to some of it. I can ask God to lead me by the Spirit to know where and how I should act. I can regularly evaluate my use of my time, energy, finances and other resources and ask where I might give more. Then, when I have done that which I am able to do, I need to leave the other things to God and not feel the pressure to be a superhero. Because even superheros can't address all the evil in the world.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Watercolor Ponies

The ringing of the alarm slowed penetrated my sleep-heavy mind. Despite the early hour I quickly climbed out of bed because I knew this was not a morning on which I had the luxury of pressing the snooze button, even at 3 AM. To make the flight on time, we didn't have the luxury of extra moments of sleep.

Usually I am the one getting ready to catch a flight. But today I would be staying home and my daughter would be the one taking wing. My job was simply to get her out of bed in time to travel with her aunt and uncle to the airport. This would be her first big trip apart from her mother and I. Was she ready? Perhaps more importantly, were we ready? Sure she had been off to summer camp a couple of times, but this time she would be traveling some legs of her journey completely on her own, navigating new airports, having to catch flights on time and connect with family friends at her destination who had graciously agreed to pick her up and deliver her to her aunt and uncle again (a complicated story, involving different flights and an international border.) She's quite experienced at international travel, but she's never really had to travel on her own. I admit to being a bit nervous. I'm pretty sure her mother was as well.

Despite our nervousness, I can safely say that both her mother and I are also delighted. We are delighted because we see our daughter growing more and more independent. The past couple years have been really rough ones for her for reasons that I shall not go into here. Last year she had to negotiate the adjustment to American culture (having lived most of her life outside of the country) at the same time as she had to learn the ways of American high school life. It took her some time, but she has thrived and flourished. Last summer we would have hesitated strongly about sending her off on her own, even if it were to visit family, because she was not at a place to undertake such a journey. This year she is. And for that we are very glad.

She'll turn sixteen this summer. She just got her driver's permit a couple weeks ago. (Unlike most teens, she has no eagerness to begin driving.) Sometimes I wonder how she reached this point. How did we reach this point? Surely I can't be old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter? Can we really be looking at her graduation from high school in two short years?

They tell you when you're a young parent that those childhood years pass quickly. You nod politely and acknowledge the truth of this statement, while not really comprehending it. Some days when they're young you wonder if they will ever grow up fast enough. Even when they hit their teens you sometimes wonder if they will ever grow up. But time rolls persistently onward and one day you find yourself with a 16-year-old who is heading out the door to travel without you. And the thought leaves you glad and sad at the same time. Being a parent is full of many such bittersweet moments.

Wayne Watson sang a song years ago entitle Watercolor Ponies that comes to mind at moments like these. Referring to the drawings made by children that decorate the walls or refrigerator doors of every parent, the chorus goes:

Baby what will we do, when it comes back to me and you?
They look a little less like like boys [girls] every day.
Oh the pleasure of watching the children growing
Is mixed with the bitter cup
Of knowing the watercolor ponies
Will one day ride away.

Travel well my beloved daughter. Enjoy yourself and know that you will be missed and loved every moment you are gone.

[Out of respect for my daughter's privacy I do not add any pictures of her to accompany today's post.]

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Serve Humbly in Love

While reading Galatians 5 recently, I noticed a theme repeated clearly throughout the chapter. In verse 6 we read:

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

In verse 13 we read:

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

This thought continues into verse 14:

“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Finally in verse 22 we are introduced to the famous “fruit of the Spirit.” 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love...”

A friend of mine argues that there is in fact only one fruit: love. All the other attributes or characteristics listed are expressions flowing from that primary quality of love. 

Are you catching the theme here? It seems amazingly clear what God asks of us and what God most highly values. Living in step with the Spirit (to reference verse 25), means living in love.

I'm not saying that doing this is easy. In fact it can be the hardest thing of all to do. When Jesus told us to love our enemies, he wasn't telling us that doing so would come naturally or easily. But it strikes me that of all the attributes and characteristics that should mark followers of Jesus, demonstrating love stands out as the clear forerunner.

Rather than calling for the Ten Commandments to be posted in our courts, schools and who-knows-where-else, we would do better to remind ourselves of the basic command of Jesus repeated here: “love your neighbor as yourself.” As Jesus says, this along with the command to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds, sums up all of the law. We don't need a bunch of regulations to judge one another. We need to look into ourselves and ask God to help us live with greater love.

I can't imagine we couldn't go too wrong by living out the injunction of verse six.

Serve one another humbly in love.

Let that be the hallmark of God's people and I think we'd see a radically different society.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Gay Agenda

In the media, particularly the conservative and Christian media, we often hear criticism of the “gay agenda” and the “gay lifestyle.” What exactly are these and should we really be afraid of them? In this video I came across recently LZ Granderson takes a humorous, thought-provoking look at these two phrases and what they look like in reality. 

Not so long ago I would have been among those who spoke out against the threat of the “gay agenda” and decried the “gay lifestyle.” As my views transition, I see that my response arose from my fear of the unknown. I painted the homosexual community with a broad brush so that I could demonize (or “other”) and thus disregard them. It's much easier to ignore, reject, dehumanize or mistreat a group of people if you can simply lump them all into a category, paste a label on it and then associate that label with all sorts of negative and undesirable connections. So the “gay agenda” obviously seeks to overthrow all that is good and decent in American culture. The “gay lifestyle” obviously promotes debauchery of kinds that are scarcely imaginable (although Hollywood seems to try harder every year to make sure we can in fact imagine it).

This video pointed out clearly one thing that I have come to understand. To the extent that one can speak of a “gay agenda,” it is simply that those in the GLBT community deserve equal treatment before the law. Whether I agree with their lifestyle or not is irrelevant. Our constitution affirms the equality of people. Unfortunately it took us 100 years to begin to apply that to black people – a process still going on – and longer than that for women, which is also still an on-going process. What about GLBT people should exclude them from this same equality? Do they really threaten my identity, my lifestyle or my culture that seriously that they should not be treated equally? I don't think so. It is probably an overused comparison, although it has been and is reality in other parts of the world, but what if those who hold power should decide someday that being a Christian was aberrant and Christians should not receive equal treatment under the law? We can't ask for that which we are not willing to extend to others.

What do you think after watching this video? What was your perception of the “gay lifestyle” and the “gay agenda” prior to and after watching this?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Divine Wretch

In the past year I've experienced more days of discouragement and depression than of encouragement and joy. I've questioned my purpose in life and wondered whether I had accomplished anything of value in my work of the last ten years. I doubted whether I had anything worth offering to God and the world. It's been a dark time, the most difficult period I have experienced in all my years of life.

Ever so slowly I am emerging from that darkness, finding renewed focus and purpose in life and, along with that, reinvigorated joy and passion. This week I started teaching in a summer program focused on phonetics and language and culture learning skills for people preparing to work in cross-cultural situations. The course is conducted virtually, so I do not have the opportunity to interact in person with my students. This brings with it definite challenges, although it also allows me to tailor my instruction to the specific needs and situation of each individual better than I could in a classroom setting. After a day spent in back-to-back Skype sessions I felt worn out by evening, but at the same time I was wonderfully invigorated. I love teaching. I love working with the students. I enjoy using the talents and skills I have along with the experienced I have gained living and working cross-culturally for the past ten years. I take delight in knowing that through my teaching I can help others enter their new roles better prepared and therefore experience greater success and deeper satisfaction in their lives and work. I believe that my small role in teaching them can help them to thrive in their cross-cultural contexts.

When I go through dark periods such as I have experienced over the past year, my theological background becomes a weight that adds to the downward spiral. I was raised in a theological tradition that emphasizes the depravity of humans. Confronted with personal questions about my value and worth, I hear the voices that remind me that of course I have no value. I am worthless. I am a dirty rotten sinner who deserves nothing other than God's scorn and wrath. This view emphasizes my worthlessness in order to increase the focus on God's holiness, grace and mercy and the unique act of Jesus in redeeming someone like me. As the classic hymn says: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  When I'm doubting my own worth, I don't really need to be reminded of my wretchedness. But that's the message that most often repeats in my mind, because I have heard it so often in sermons and read it in books.

At one point in my life I would have said that this view of humanity, the emphasis on our fallenness, was the only biblical doctrine of humanity. Any other perspective, and I seldom heard of any, obviously failed to appreciate the gravity of The Fall and therefore cheapened God's grace and holiness. Yet, as I've read more widely in theology, interacted more with people from different christian and non-christian backgrounds and reflected on the Scriptures in light of my own experience, I see that the message of human worthlessness isn't the only message in the Book. There's a strong theme of our inherent worth as children of God, as people that God created in their image. While some theological viewpoints see only the fallenness of humanity, others choose to emphasize the divine element that remains within us. Yes, this spark needs the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus, working in our lives through the Holy Spirit, to fully flame again, but the spark has not been fully extinguished. Although fallen, we are still divine beings, with inestimable value and worth because of who we resemble and to whom we belong. Another song, of which I remember very little, quoted God as saying “This one is born in Zion. Make no mistake, this one is mine.”

Both of these perspectives coexist in Scripture. We ignore one or the other at our own peril. Focus too strongly on the divine and we may come to think that we don't need redemption and transformation. But focus too strongly on the fallenness and we may come to believe that we are so worthless that God couldn't possibly be interested in us. Given my inclination to self-deprecation, I need to be reminded of my worth as God's child. I don't need to keep being told how worthless I am. I've got that one figured out pretty well, thank you. I am learning to embrace who I am in Jesus, to celebrate the me that God has created, and whom God is in the process of renewing and transforming, not because the base model is inherently deficient, but God wants to bring me to that glorious state in which I was originally conceived and created. I am fallen, redeemed and divine all at the same time. I am a divine wretch.

Kathy Escobar wrote a great piece on this topic a while back. I encourage you to read it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Time to Rejoice

I am celebrating today. The more I read about the change in immigration policy that President Obama announced yesterday, the more I like it. It's a good move. It's the right move. While I do not doubt that the change, or at least the timing of it, was politically calculated, that doesn't make it wrong. It simply makes President Obama an astute politician.

My enthusiasm for this positive change is tempered only by the strong negative reaction I hear from so many. I must confess that I do not understand those who oppose this move. The opposition seems to derive from a mindset that views strict enforcement of laws over basic humanitarian principles. But I think that such a response to this change in policy really demonstrates the values of God's kingdom. Those affected by this new policy did not choose to break the laws of our country, so to say they must bear the full penalty for doing so seems to me extreme and unnecessary. It says that justice triumphs over mercy, which is not how I read it in my Bible.

The people who will benefit directly from this policy are in all significant ways Americans already. They may lack the official documents of residency and citizenship, but they have grown up here and identify this place as their home, not Mexico or some other country from which they came years ago. Sending them back to a place they don't really know, whose language and culture are in fact foreign to them, is cruel and unjust. Furthermore, the policy supports those who have the potential to contribute to the United States. They have received or are receiving an education here. Some have served in our armed forces. Deporting them robs our country of valuable members of society. These young people contribute to society, not take from it. In a newspaper article I read this morning, one young local woman of Mexican origin said:

“We want to give back. We're not here just to take, we want to give back to this leaders, great leaders who inspire others.”

The same young woman also stated:

“I was raised here, my culture (is) here. I wouldn't call (Mexico) home.”

The largely partisan objections to President Obama's announcement ignore the reality of the individuals who will benefit from this change. They focus on the politics of the decision, ignoring the roadblocks Republicans have put in the way of enacting similar legislation in Congress as well as the fact that the policy change Obama has implemented comes largely from a proposal by a Republican congressman. Apparently if Obama adopts an idea originally promoted by Republicans, the idea suddenly becomes toxic. Those who object to this change also seem to see the world in black and white. You're either an illegal immigrant or you're not. If you are, you're a criminal and a drain on American society and the only suitable and appropriate way to treat you is to get you out of our country as fast as possible. There's no middle ground, no recognition that many cases are not so clear-cut. It's a false dichotomy and it's a wrong, unhelpful approach, especially since it affects the lives of real individuals.

This change in immigration policy is a sensible, humanitarian response to a difficult situation. It is not the final solution, but it is a positive step. I celebrate this as a small victory in the effort to adopt a more open, inclusive immigration policy, as I have written about over the last few days (here and here). If those who oppose this change would adopt a more cooperative, constructive approach to resolving immigration issues, the president would not be compelled to accomplish positive change through presidential decree. But until that day, I'll gladly welcome such small steps as can be taken.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

SB 1070

Two years ago my current home state of Arizona passed a bill, commonly referred to by its senate designation number SB 1070, designed to hinder illegal immigration and to remove illegal immigrants from the state. Its location on the Mexican border, along with tighter enforcement of border crossing in California and Texas, has made Arizona a popular place for illegal migrants to enter the United States. Given its already sizable Hispanic population, many of these migrants naturally chose to stay, live and work in the state. Many in the state, including a majority of our state legislators, view these migrants not only with distrust but with outright enmity. They see illegal immigrants as a drain on our state economy and a threat to our health, welfare and security.

At the time it was passed, I was living outside of the country and had been for several years. My initial information and impression of the bill came through online sources and personal contacts back home. Most of those contacts are strongly conservative and favor very strict immigration policies and enforcement of those. They, naturally, supported this measure. I also initially favored it. I have lived as a legal resident in other countries in which I was required to carry immigration documents at all times, so that if questioned by authorities I could always demonstrate my immigration status. So it did not strike me as unjust or even unusual for the state of Arizona to require the same thing. 

Since returning to Arizona my view on this has shifted significantly. My objection comes not along the lines that the federal government is contesting the law. I am not particularly concerned with the question whether the states have authority in these matters or not, although I understand how some see this as a key issue in the debate. That appears to be the issue that the Supreme Court will decide this summer, looking specifically at Arizona's law. My objections come rather from two different fronts. These are not unique to me.

First of all, the question of racial profiling. The law not only entitles but requires state and local law enforcement personnel to inquire about the immigration status of any person during a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” or during a “lawful contact.” Supporters of the law claim that this does not involve racial profiling, but in a state located on the southern border of the US, where the overwhelming majority of immigrants are of Latin American origin, how can it do otherwise? I hardly imagine that the state police would be inclined to question a white guy like me about my immigration status. The default assumption is that white guys like me are here legally. So it's the Hispanics who will get the extra attention. That's called racial profiling. 

Furthermore, I object to this clause because we do not have standard documents in the United States that prove someone is a legal resident or citizen. More accurately, such documents do exist, but we are not required to possess them or to carry them at all times. So a Hispanic who is a citizen or legal resident when stopped by the police and asked to produce his or her papers showing proof of legal residency, has no legal obligation and may not have any document to prove this. Most Americans don't own passports and even those of us who do will not normally carry them with us while traveling around our home city, state or country. This marks a big difference between the situation I faced while living overseas and the Arizona law. In the countries where I lived, all citizens have a residency document, usually called an “internal passport” that they carry at all times. So in such a situation, it is less unreasonable to ask resident foreigners to have a similar document with them.

My second objection relates to the first in that the whole immigration issue focuses on people from Latin America. I don't hear many calls to tighten the Canadian border. I don't see us building big walls to keep the Canadians out. Naturally not, because they aren't trying to come across illegally. They don't need to. They have decent (better, in fact), living conditions in their home country. So our call to crack down on illegal immigration stems from our fear of people whom we view as different from us, people who threaten our cultural way of life, who make us feel uncomfortable. I don't buy the argument that they take American jobs, because more often than not they are doing jobs most Americans don't want for wages most of us would not accept. In fact, I argue that these immigrants (including the illegal ones) add value to our economy. I don't have the facts to back this up, but I'm confident they exist. Our efforts to stop illegal immigration come from our fear of the "other." It's not a new issue in the history of immigration in our country, although it seems to have taken a stronger, more virulent form.

As I wrote yesterday, I read my Bible and hear God calling people to welcome foreigners and strangers, and to provide for them. God reminds people that they too were once strangers and slaves in Egypt. I hear God calling us to reach it and include those who are in need, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, desperate. I don't hear God telling us to build bigger walls of exclusion, to circle the wagons and try to protect what is ours, to react in fear to those who are different than us.

What would an open, inclusive immigration policy look like? I'm looking for someone to offer such a proposal and I'm looking for others who would dare to step up and support such a proposal. I'm encouraged by the small step taken at the instigation of Sojourners, which you can read about here. Are we willing to put God's kingdom above our own sense of country, our own sense of safety and security, and our own fear? Are we willing to stand up for those in need? 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our Wall of Shame

I grew up in a world where the biggest perceived threat my country faced came from that place that our president-at-the-time labeled the “evil empire.” This evil empire, also known as the Soviet Union, exercised control or direct influence over a number of other countries, among them those in Eastern Europe know as the Warsaw Pact. One symbol came to define this evil empire and its satellite states: the Berlin Wall.

I won't detail here the history of the Berlin Wall. Thankfully, on November 9, 1989, while I was a student at university, this wall came down. It happened quite suddenly in the end and rather unexpectedly. The removal of this wall symbolized the victory of freedom over repression.

Twenty-some years later I find myself living in southern Arizona, not too far from the border with Mexico. We can't see it from here, but I could drive there in about an hour. This border has been the source of much controversy over the years, a controversy that only seems to be growing stronger in these years of economic downturn. In some places the United States government has erected a wall to keep out the unwanted migrants from the south. Many voices, including one that to my great relief just lost a by-election for our congressional district, advocate finishing this wall along the entire border and even doubling it just to be safe. The country that once celebrated the destruction of a wall in defense of freedom now builds one of its own. 

Some may see a significant difference between these two walls. I acknowledge that there are differences, but I'm not so certain that the underlying motive in building the two walls is all that different. Both the German Democratic Republic and the United States of America build or built their wall out of fear. The GDR feared losing too many of its citizens. The USA fears being swamped by too many migrants, despite that fact that we are a nation of immigrants.

In our region of southern Arizona, most people talk of “border security.” All conservatives and most liberals speak of the need to defend our border. Few, if any, dare suggest that we look for an alternative to bigger fences and more border guards. The climate of fear and defensiveness is too dominant.

I don't pretend that the issues are simple, but I find myself asking increasingly whether there's a different way than what has been or is currently being pursued. Especially as a follower of Jesus, I wonder whether instead of trying to keep migrants out because of our fear (whether it is based on economics, crime, or as is often the underlying issue, racism) we are called to a radically different approach. I read the Bible and hear God telling their people to welcome foreigners, to remember that they too were once foreigners in Egypt. The underlying ethic welcomes the other, not excludes them. Admittedly, Israel all-too-seldom practiced this in its own history, but we look not to their example but to the ideal that God set before them.

I am ashamed that my country, one of the wealthiest on earth with a standard of living that remains among the world's highest, a country that is built on immigration, now seeks to exclude others and particularly does so by erecting walls and physical barriers. I do not think that we really face the threat of being overwhelmed by migrants should we adopt a more humane, open policy. In fact, immigrants have been the strength of our nation, have spurred our economic growth and enriched our cultural stew.

A friend of mine offered a radical suggestion to reform American immigration policy. He stated that the government should welcome the poorest immigrants, the ones who are most oppressed, marginalized and hopeless in their home countries, and allow them to begin a new life here, Their energy and motivation could provide a helpful stimulus to our economy, while giving them opportunities they would never have at home. At the same time, the wealthy, highly-educated immigrants who we prefer to welcome today should be turned away so that they can utilize their skills in developing their own countries. Again, the idea needs some further development, but the underlying principle appeals to me because it speaks of the justice and grace that should distinguish God's kingdom. If those who call themselves by the name of Christ in the United States really want to demonstrate their allegiance to God's kingdom, our attitude and response to immigrants would be one good place for some radical change.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Woman Up!

Among all the idiomatic phrases regularly used in American English, two in particular irritate me beyond measure: “Man up” and phrases or sentences related to “having balls.”

“Man up” – what does this mean anyway? I hear people use it when they want to challenge a man (or even at times a woman) to be decisive, to take action or control of a situation. Perhaps it implies having courage or boldness. But what do any of these have to do with being a man? More specifically, what do they have to do with being a man as opposed to being a woman? Can women not be decisive, take action or demonstrate leadership in a given situation? Do women lack the ability to show courage or boldness? Or do we believe that, by doing so, they are really acting more as men? Are these qualities really more “masculine” or “manly?” And if you affirm them as such, does that somehow make them more desirable or laudable than a quality or characteristic that you would label as “feminine?”

The phrase “to have (or show) balls,” used either as a description of a person or as an admonishment, comes from the same mindset. Men have balls. Men should be strong, courageous, aggressive or assertive, confident. Therefore men who lack these qualities lack balls and need to grow some (yes, that expression gets used too). Women who demonstrate these qualities are displaying masculine characteristics. Whether that is good or bad depends on your view of what women should be like. But she is certainly not being a “lady.” She's acting like a man. At least that is what our use of these expressions implies.

Our very use of language indicates that we view certain qualities as being more male and therefore more desirable. We affirm certain characteristics in men and use them to define manliness. At the same time we either devalue such qualities in women or, if we allow women to display them, we view her as being less feminine and more masculine. But the character traits we have in mind do not depend on gender. They do not define us as men or women, nor should they. Women are fully as capable of showing courage, confidence and leadership as men. Often they do it better, but the fact is that these qualities vary from person to person regardless of gender. 

Unfortunately particular groups and leaders within the Church seem intent on exhorting men to be more masculine, as they define the term. Godly men must “reject passivity” and develop the following characteristics, (borrowed from Karl Wheeler's challenging blog post):

  • a strong backbone—a sense of moral conviction
  • courage in the face of opposition
  • the ability to lead by setting a strong example of moral purity and devotion to Christ
  • taking the initiative in matters of faith
  • a servant's heart (willing to do some “women's work”)
  • a desire to rescue women

But, as Wheeler points out, we see these same qualities in many godly women. The problem is not with the qualities—it is with the idea that these qualities are somehow “masculine” and should define a godly man. They can't define godly women, who are told that their image of godliness is to be passive, meek, submissive, gentle and kind. Never mind that these same qualities can and should be demonstrated by godly men. 

When I read Colossians 3:12 – As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience – I don't see any indication that these are directed only at women, although these character traits would likely be viewed more as “feminine” than masculine. Despite this, I've never heard anyone admonish someone to “show some ovaries” (to again borrow from Wheeler), although if we affirm the idea of some qualities being more masculine and others more feminine, we should do exactly that if we want to encourage men to be more godly. In fact, I think these “feminine” qualities fit far more closely to the image of godliness that we see in Jesus than any of the ideal “manly” qualities that are more often pushed on men. Maybe we should start exhorting one another to “show some ovaries” or to “woman up.” We could do far worse. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Feminism is Not a Four-letter Word

Earlier this year I identified myself openly as a feminist. I did this because, as I wrote then, I believe in the radical notion that women are people. I view feminism as the next stage in the journey toward recognizing and affirming the inherent dignity and worth of all of God's people. It took us far too long to admit that slavery was wrong and take the steps to abolish it. Although it unfortunately persists to this day, most people would denounce it as fundamentally immoral because it exalts the value and worth (along with the power and control) of one human or group of humans over another. 

As people began to recognize and fight against the immorality of slavery, they also saw that the denigration and marginalization of women, their treatment as inferior beings, was also morally untenable. It has taken longer for this truth to gain traction and acceptance in society, but as feminism continues to speak out against the injustices women suffer globally its message grows stronger, as does the reaction against it. This doesn't surprise me, although it saddens me. In order to achieve the full equality of women, the patriarchal systems that have dominated human society throughout its history must be dismantled. This threatens those who enjoy the power and privilege that comes with the current structure—namely men. Julie Clawson stated this quite well in her series of blog posts describing her journey to affirming feminism.

“The feminist movement is a threat to patriarchy, there is no way around that fact. And any voice or movement that attempts to challenge the power and prestige of those supporting the status quo is bound to receive some major push-back. Since actually engaging in conversation about whether women are fully human, worthy of respect, and intelligent would be devastating to the culture of patriarchy, feminism isn't debated in our culture; it is simply slurred.”

In her series Clawson describes the obstacles that hindered her initially from identifying with feminism. The campaign against feminism, against affirming the full equality, worth and dignity of women, has been so successful in this country that even many who believe in the inherent value of women often hesitate to identify themselves as feminist. My wife would be among them. She absolutely affirms her value and that of other women, but she resists identifying herself as a feminist because of the negative baggage associated with the term. I imagine there are many others like my wife, and like myself and Julie Clawson for so long, who fear the negative response they will get if they identify themselves as feminists. As Clawson says:

“Yep, that was me. I was all ready to escape from patriarchy's lies, to live into my full potential as a woman, and to benefit from the work of feminists of the past, but I was scared to actually call myself one. I didn't want to be mocked or called a feminazi simply for suggesting that women were people too.”

Clawson provides a helpful, honest description of her journey to feminism, and I would strongly encourage readers to take the time to read her story, contained in five parts, to each of which I provide direct links here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. I appreciate Clawson's recognition that too many people identify feminism with one or two specific issues which they oppose and use that to dismiss the whole idea. These two ideas are that feminists all support abortion rights and all feminists are man-haters. Clawson unpacks the fallacy of these limitations nicely, but in order to work to debunk these false stereotypes, let me state that most feminists are in fact not anti-men, and not all feminists support abortion-on-demand. Feminism is not about exalting women over men, but affirming the full equality of men and women and building a society in which men and women work and live together in partnership. Yes, feminism advocates the dismantling of patriarchy, but not the establishment of a matriarchy nor the denial of the worth and dignity of men. Clawson describes it in these words:

“While I agree that for respect to flourish, patriarchal attitudes that denigrate women or privilege men at the expense of women will have to be sacrificed, those things are sins that need to be repented of and not the core aspects of male identity that some have argued they are.”

Like Clawson, I am no longer afraid to be called a feminist. I choose to deal with the negative labels and slander that come my way as a result because, to again cite Clawson, “As a Christ-follower who cares about the truth (not to mention justice), I believe it is necessary to oppose these lies and dismantle misunderstandings with the light of reality.” Clawson also refers to a comment left by a woman on her blog, in which she wrote: “If I don't self-identify as a feminist, then that allows people to maintain their stereotypes of feminists and who we are.” Feminism is ultimately a positive belief – the affirmation of the value, worth and dignity of women for who they are, without prescribing what that must look like. There is diversity within feminism, but the essential core message should resonate with all who call themselves by the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus in his words and his actions actively affirmed the dignity of women, and so must we. That is why I am a feminist.

“I no longer think of 'feminism' as the f-word or a term to be avoided, but a way of life to be embraced. A way of life that helps women break free of the cage of patriarchy and find the space to become whole.”

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What Has Crossed My Screen This Week

This has been a great week for reading in the blogosphere, particularly with Rachel Held Evans leading a conversation about mutuality. As we close out this week, I offer here some links and excerpts from some of the many interesting things I've read. Not all of these relate to the mutuality theme, but all offer some great food for thought.

The image of God is reflected most clearly when we come together in community, not when we engage in a patriarchal marriage relationship. The image of God that we get from orthodox understanding of the Godhead is fundamentally egalitarian; it is fundamentally based in the love of equal partners, not in one part taking leadership over the other. All lead, and all are saved. Together.

Equality in marriage gives husbands and wives the freedom to express their God-given personalities to work together honestly, without guilt or shame that they’re not doing it right.  Living life together with an equal partner creates balance, acceptance, and the joy that exists in freedom.
The possibilities that exist when the shackles of tradition are lifted are infinite.

I think Jesus is making me softer. In the words of my dad I’m becoming more of a “sissy.” I am trying to take seriously Jesus’ command to love my enemies. I want to be like Jesus. I want imitate a man who like Jesus could experience a slap in the face and not feel the need to return the insult. My dad, and several prominent preachers, would advise me differently.

Courage is laying oneself down for the sake of another. Courage is humbly seeing ourselves as not only man and wife, but also brother and sister in Christ. Courage is encouraging each other, supporting each other in every season of life, working as a team and not as competitors. Courage is following your convictions and seeking after the heart of God, even when others tell you that you are not. Courage is working out your Faith in fear and trembling and finding that Jesus is your anchor, and trusting that that is all that matters.

5 actions for men:
1. “advocate” – i love the Greek word for this–parakletos–because it is used to describe the holy spirit and means “summoned, called to one’s side or aid”.  advocating for equality means coming alongside and using voices & power & influence on behalf of change, supporting women in all kinds of ways, and calling out injustices instead of remaining silent.
2. “invite” – ask and ask some more. invite your wives & sisters & daughters to show up more fully to dreams, to  friendship, to leadership, to heart-to-heart conversations, to partnerships, to life.
3. “risk” – actively risk your pride, power & control, reputations, comfort on behalf of change. these are all things Jesus tells us are worth losing as we follow him. put them on the line and trust God will show the way.
4. “submit” –  listen deeply to each other and respond humbly. let go of winning or being “right”. defer to wisdom and giftedness tempered by humiity. lead and follow.
5. “encourage” – draw out your wives’ & sisters’ & daughters’ gifts and passions and give them love & tangible support to try what needs trying. celebrate what’s good, honor courage, affirm.

This view that you’re either a man and all the roles that come with “manhood,” or you’re a woman and all the roles that come with “womanhood” is reductive and dehumanizing. It ignores God-given talents. It ignores the hard work that it takes to prepare for some roles. It ignores socialization. It ignores personality. It ignores personal happiness. It ignores the complexity of human beings.
It puts all people, regardless of who they are, into one of two tiny boxes and calls that freedom.

I haven't put a link to Rachel's posts for the week because they are all worth reading. I'm sure I've left off many others that I should include. Share with me in your comments what you're reading. I'm always interested in thoughtful writing!

Friday, June 8, 2012


In his book Cross-Cultural Connections author Duane Elmer relates a statement he once heard from a Bible teacher. That man said: “What John 3:16 is to the non-Christian, Romans 15:7 is to the Christian.” Elmer has the humility to admit that despite his years of Bible school and seminary, he could not recall what Romans 15:7 says, although at the time of the incident he sort of bluffed his way through a response. Reading the story in Elmer's book, I had to admit the same.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Simple, yet if we reflect on the implications, very profound and very challenging. In order to understand this verse, we must understand the meaning of acceptance. Elmer offers this definition:

Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, regard, worth and respect to others. It is the ability to make people feel significant, honored and esteemed.

Elmer speaks of acceptance in the context of learning to relate cross-culturally. I concur with him on this, but I would take it further. (To be fair to Elmer, he probably would as well outside of the context of a book specifically focused on cross-cultural interaction.) Paul doesn't tell us to accept only certain people. He doesn't say we should only accept those who are like us, with whom we feel comfortable. He states that we are to accept one another, without qualification. In the context of the surrounding verses and chapters in the letter to the Romans, Elmer considers that Paul argues for the Romans to demonstrate acceptance of one another as the key to overcoming cultural (and other) differences that divided their community. Acceptance means that we proactively, intentionally extend regard, worth, and respect to all people, including those whom we'd rather ignore, shun or worse.

Such acceptance can only be shown to others when we recognize and believe with all our hearts in the inherent value and dignity of each person. Elmer states it very well: “We must show acceptance toward all people, because deeply rooted in the soul of every person is dignity. God himself bestowed dignity upon every human being when he shared his image with us.” If we do not believe in the inherent dignity of each person, we will not be able to accept her or him. We will set ourselves or some other person or group up as the ideal standard by which all others must be measured. Those who fall short of that measurement we consider to be beneath us, to be unworthy, to have little or no dignity. And we treat them accordingly.

Looking around me – and more importantly looking inside myself – I see that a great lack of acceptance. I see us dividing society into groups, into those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are accepted and those who are rejected. The exact definition of who is in or out depends on the particular person or group drawing the boundaries. But we all draw boundaries. And Christ came to erase those boundaries. Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Does this mean that those distinctions cease to exist, that we all become one large mass, without any kind of differences? Not at all. Americans and Chinese and Germans and Indians and every other culture still has its distinctions. Men and women still differ (although as some have pointed out, not nearly as much as we often are led to believe). But these distinctions do not indicate worth, value or dignity. They do not define who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is unacceptable, who can fill certain roles and who cannot. 

We are called to accept one another first of all because we have all been accepted by God. In addition, we must accept one another because each one of us has inherent worth, dignity, and value because we are created in God's image. No differences we have can outweigh those two factors.

In light of this, I'm thinking about my own behaviour. I'm evaluating how I treat others and where I have drawn boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. I want to choose to extend acceptance, even to people I deeply disagree with (acceptance doesn't mean the disagreements will or even should disappear), recognizing that even those whom I am most strongly inclined to reject possess the same fundamental value and dignity that I do. As a mental exercise it's not so hard. But the application...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Magnificent Creation

We stand in awe of the ocean, the thunderstorm,
The sunset, the mountains;
But we pass by a human being without notice
Even though the person
is God's most magnificent creation.


Our Amazing Brains

As I have shared previously, I enjoy watching several different sports (as well as playing some, despite my lack of athleticism). This week and last I have been watching the women competing in the French Open at Roland-Garros. As I watch the skill of these athletes I am again astounded not only by their talents, but by the amazing complexity of the human brain.

Watching a talented athlete perform, we may fail to appreciate all that their performance requires. Before going further let me acknowledge that this by no means applies only to athletes. Talent comes in many forms and I do not intend to exalt athletic talent over any other. I focus on it for the moment only because it provided the stimulus for today's reflection, as I flip between windows on my computer to keep an eye on the semi-final contest between Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova. They make tennis look so easy, but I am amazed when I stop to think about all that happens in their brain each time they hit the ball. Sharapova hits the ball across the court to Kvitova. In the few seconds from the time the ball leaves Sharapova's racquet, Kvitova's brain must analyze the trajectory and speed of the ball, determine where it is likely to be, direct her muscles to move her body to a point where she can intercept that ball, prepare her arms to swing the racquet, carry out that swing and, in a successful scenario, cause the racquet to make contact with that ball and direct it back across the court on a trajectory that will ideally cause Sharapova to miss it herself. All of this occurs in far less time than I took me to describe it in words. Her brain processes all of these variables and issues all of the signals required to complete the action. Computer scientists are making progress in imitating such activity in machines (robots), but it requires thousands of lines of computer code and still falls short of the elegance, beauty and ease with which the human mind and body can do it.

The brain fascinates me. A few years ago I read an amazing book by John Medina entitled Brain Rules. I would rate it as one of the most interesting books I have read. At the time I had made notes on it, but after a couple changes of computer since then I appear to have lost the file. Otherwise I would share them with you. Instead, we shall all have to obtain a copy of the book and read them for ourselves. 

Not only does Medina present twelve rules about how our brains work, written from his knowledge and experience as a developmental molecular biologist, but he does so in a way that is engaging and accessible to the non-specialist. Medina now writes a blog for the university where he works, which happens to also be my alma mater—Seattle Pacific University. I recently became aware of his blog and have added it to my list of regular reading. I highly recommend it to others. 

I could diverge here into a discussion of how our brains came to be what they are. I certainly have my beliefs about this, but today I don't want that to be the focus. I simply want to encourage us to stop and reflect on this amazing organ that sits on top of our necks. As you go through your day, stop at various times and realize how the brain enables you to do what you are doing, or simply on the fact that our brains allow us to think and reflect on any topic we want, include about ourselves and our brains. Consider how many routine activities you perform that require the activity of your brain, almost all of it subconsciously. Consider what your brain is particularly strong at. Mine enjoys learning and using different languages. Yours may well have other talents. Then stop and give thanks to our Creator God who—in whatever manner you understand it—formed this amazing organ and made it a foundational part of our bodies.

Just in case you are wondering, Sharapova won the match 6-3, 6-3 to advance to the finals, where she will face the Italian Sara Errani.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Reflections of a Flawed Egalitarian

Rachel Held Evans has devoted this week to a discussion of what it means to be egalitarian. If you haven't checked out her posts so far, I strongly encourage you to do so. You won't be disappointed. Rachel conducts her conversations with passion blended with humility and openness, so that all can join in whether they agree with her point of view or not.

As she has invited others to join in this conversation through their own blogs and tweets, I want to take today to share some reflections on this topic from my own 20+ years of marriage. My wife and I both come from traditional patriarchal families. Neither of our fathers ruled as tyrants, but in both of our families it was clear that dad was ultimately in charge. Our mothers could make decisions within certain parameters, but in the end, dad had the final say. This was also true within our church backgrounds, where male headship within the home and church was assumed as much as it was actively proclaimed.

Yet from the time we married, we have sought to live differently, more in keeping with an egalitarian model. This has, naturally, expressed itself in very practical ways, such as the division of household tasks. Despite my upbringing I did not enter marriage assuming that all housework involving cooking, cleaning, care of the kids and such would naturally be my wife's work. I never saw that as fair or appropriate. Although I won't say I've been perfect in this area, I think we have had a good balance overall throughout our years together. However, we have also never considered equality in these areas to be a question of dividing the work 50/50. We have tried for a healthy balance, and certain tasks generally fall to one or the other of us, but we have also sought to serve one another, stepping in to do whatever is necessary at the given moment. For example, my wife normally does the cooking as she is a better cook than I. But I don't see this as only her role, and some evenings I will cook if I see that she is tired, or she has something else that she needs to do. I like to think that this arrangement wouldn't look all that different if we were a traditional patriarchal family, because I hope that most men of my generation or younger would recognize by now that when it comes to the home, you can't say that certain tasks are “women's work” and others are “men's work.” I am probably too optimistic in this regard, but I don't view the division of household labor as the defining element of being egalitarian.

We have also sought to make key decisions together. When we chose to move to Arizona so I could attend graduate school, we made the decision together, even though my education was the motivating factor. I would not have forced her to go had she been opposed. Later, when we felt led to join an international ministry and move overseas, we made the decision together and as we moved to various locations and took on various roles, we did so in concert. At one point my wife agreed to not make a major move because I did not feel peace about it. A couple years later I felt peace about it and God ended up redirecting both of us to a third option that we had not previously considered. Had I forced my way upon her at any point in this journey it would have been detrimental to our relationship, our ministry and our family. 

Despite these positive egalitarian traits in our relationship, I'm growing in my awareness of areas in which I have operated from my background paradigm of male leadership rather than from a conscious effort to practice equality. I have often made decisions based on my own goals and plans, rather than seeking consensus with my wife. I have pursued my own development while not supporting hers as I ought. I have not invited and included her in decision-making within our family as much as I could have. I see that I have often clung to my limited power and control, fearful of sharing it because that might mean that I have to do things I don't prefer to do. It might (does!) mean that I have to acknowledge that I don't always know what's best. I don't always have the right answer. I'm not superman. 

I am learning, as I let go and invite my wife into greater equality, that it is immensely liberating. I don't have to always have the answer. I don't have to always be right. Together we can benefit from the wisdom, insight and talents we both bring to the relationship. Together we can accept responsibility for our mutual decisions, not feeling the need to defend ourselves or judge the other if a decision does not turn out as we had hoped. 

To borrow the words Rachel's husband Dan wrote yesterday: My relationship with my wife is not a hierarchy, it's a partnership. I don't want a weak partner who defers to me for the final word. I want a strong, confident, stable partner who will walk side-by-side with me mutually supporting one another as our roles change continually throughout our marriage. I'm thankful that I have such a partner and that she has patiently walked with me even when I have not fully lived up to the equality I so strongly profess.