Friday, July 20, 2012

The Girl Effect

In the book Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James, which I wrote about yesterday, the author makes reference to The Girl Effect. If you haven't heard of this, take a minute and watch this video.

What do you think? Studies and practical evidence indicate that indeed investing in girls and women has a profound effect on a society. I fear that the potential impact may be overstated in this short video, because I think it underestimates the inherent sexism in most societies, where men will hold on to their power and prestige even in the face of clear evidence that the whole society benefits when girls and women are empowered and treated as equals. Despite this potential obstacle, I believe in the girl effect and have shifted the investments I make into charitable projects accordingly. While I don't exclusively support projects that promote the girl effect, I do actively seek to promote such work because I believe in the inherent dignity of women and I believe that when we affirm their worth and give them opportunities to succeed, entire societies benefit.

Consider this video:

Most of us don't have to worry about the future of our daughters. We keep them in school and provide them with good healthcare and opportunities for life. The girl effect isn't apparent to us because we already experience many of the benefits that it brings. Of course there are far too many exceptions to this even in North America, but it's nowhere near the situation that exists in much of the world.

What can you do to promote the girl effect? There are many ways you can invest in the development of girls around the world. Consider sponsoring a girl through an organization like Compassion or World Vision. You can also support women as they develop businesses to support their families, so that they can experience some of the benefits and pass them on to their children. Consider making loans through Kiva or Global Giving. These are only a few ideas. Find someone who works in a developing country and see if you can't directly sponsor a girl's education (because in much of the developing world even "free" education isn't really free and most poor families lack the resources to educate their children, particularly girls.) Check out the Girl Effect website for more ideas. 

I'll be off-line for the rest of the month. Look for new posts beginning again in August.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Half the Church

A couple years ago I read the profoundly worldview-changing book Half the Sky by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof. That book opened my eyes to the huge challenges, obstacles and burdens the women of our world face and moved me to action on their behalf. As I have written previously, I recognized that Kristof and WuDunn were right on target with their statement:

We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.

I also came to realize that a similar statement could be made about women within the Church. I believe that the paramount issue in this century within the Church will also be the struggle for gender equality. So when I saw Carolyn Custis James' new book Half the Church, I knew I had to read it. I had already read her book The Gospel of Ruth and was moved by her examination of that well-known story. Half the Church was just as powerful.

In Half the Church James makes a concise and powerful argument for God's global vision for women. This vision stems from the very beginning of creation, when God created men and women in the divine image.

So God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

James would insist that we not skip quickly over these words lest we fail to recognize the profound statement being made here. Both men and women are divine image-bearers. Women are not an afterthought. James writes:

“He gives both male and female the exact same identity – to be his image bearers. He gives both the exact same responsibilities when he entrusts all of creation to his image bearers, calling them to be fruitful and multiply and to rule and subdue the whole earth.”

From this basis James examines Scripture and builds a strong case for not only the equality of men and women, but for the fact the without both genders the Church cannot fulfill the mission of God. Women weren't created to be the “helpmeets” of men. Women were created to bear the image of God alongside men, so that together we can accomplish God's purposes. She makes the point more than once that by placing women in a subordinate position, the Church has crippled its own ability to bear the divine image. The Church is trying to carry out its mission with only half of its potential strength. By failing to appreciate and live in accord with the fundamental nature of creation – in which men and women both bear equally the divine image – the Church has sold the Gospel of Jesus Christ short.

“At the heart of this discussion is the very real question of whether the gospel's message for women is merely a kinder, gentler version of the world's message. Are we only dealing with a sliding scale, where our beliefs move women to a safer, more acceptable zone of human value, or does Jesus bulldoze that system and reconstruct in its place a radically different gospel way of valuing women?”

I find it profoundly tragic that this book needs to be written. The truth that James argues should be inherently apparent and practiced throughout God's Church. Sadly this is not the case and has not been throughout the Church's history. Although Western culture has made significant strides in affirming the value of women, much of the Western Church still lags far behind. For this reason James' book is necessary. Although she writes it for women, I think it has great value for and needs to be read by men as well. We need to have our thinking about women in the world and particularly in the Church radically transformed. James has laid out a good fundamental argument to help stimulate that transformation. I would love to see this book used in mixed small groups so that God's children, men and women together, could talk about these important issues and together initiate changes that will unleash the half of the church that currently finds themselves restricted, hindered and undervalued.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ideal Men or Real Men?

There is a lot of healthy conversation going on about how women are portrayed in the media, much of it spearheaded by the Miss Representation campaign. My perspective is being reshaped as I educate myself and look more critically at films, television shows, books and magazines.

But, some may say, what about men? Aren't we being overlooked in all this? Well, not really. Men are still the ones who hold power and who determine most of what the media portrays. The attitude of men toward women is a key part of the problem, so we also need to be part of the solution by changing the way we view and depict women and by speaking out against biased, inaccurate and prejudical portrayals of women wherever we find them.

Another aspect of the problem, one that is less addressed, is the way men are depicted in media. We too suffer from unrealistic and prejudical images of what it means to be a man. Take a moment and watch this video:

I don't know about you, but I can relate to what she is saying. I certainly don't fit the "ideal" male image. Thankfully I have a wife who loves me despite my lack of ripped muscles and stunningly handsome good looks. I can't say that I've thought too much about this, but I do know that I have spent most of my life feeling like I wasn't "man" enough. I'm not particularly gifted athletically. I'm pretty inept with most construction tools. I'm not physically strong. So when society keeps telling me through various channels that this is what it means to be a "real" man, I see myself as a failure. Unfortunately the Church hasn't done me any favors in this area either. They may add to the categories, such as a "real" man has to be an ideal husband and father, but so much of the chatter coming out of the so-called biblical manhood camp simply reiterates the message of the world in defining manliness.

As I reach mid-life I am slowly coming to accept myself for the man that I am. I'm not going to measure up to the ideal male image pushed on me by our culture. As we work to change the way we view and portray women, we would do well to also reimage manhood so that it allows for a much broader picture, one that accurately reflects the vast majority of real men.

What do you think?

Monday, July 16, 2012

GMOs and Global Hunger

Last week I began an exploration of Genetically Modified Organisms, the corporations that are developing them and the implications these organisms have for the future of our food supply. You can read the first two installments of the series here and here.

Today I want to consider the argument made by these corporations that the work they are doing will significantly help to reduce hunger in the world. I'm all for that. Who wouldn't be? I can't think of a single person who when directly asked whether he or she would like to reduce or eliminate hunger wouldn't say yes immediately. Which makes it a very powerful argument when a corporation tries to promote the use of GMOs. Too give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe the people running these corporations really do believe that their genetic modifications will help increase global food supply. But I'm skeptical.

From the documentary The Future of Food I learned that several staple food items that we produce in the United States cannot be sold profitably by farmers. So the government subsidizes farmers to grow things such as corn and soybeans. Much of what cannot be sold domestically is then sold or given as food aid to developing countries. We say we do this because we care about hunger in the world. As I said before, I'll give us the benefit of the doubt and agree that we really do want to do the right thing. But here's the problem. In our efforts to do the right thing, what we're really doing is simply subsidizing our own farmers while driving local farmers in developing countries out of business. They cannot compete with our subsidized imported product. They cannot grow their domestic crop and sell it profitably when the market becomes flooded with cheap American imports. This drives the farmers out of business and eventually off their land and into the growing slums of urban centers, where they join the ranks of the un- or underemployed and hungry. I don't know how to solve this issue, because there are real hunger needs out there, but most of it has to do with getting supply to the right places, not with producing more. We certainly need to do more to support and stimulate local crop production, not imported food supplies.

The corporations pushing GMOs say that these new crops will allow greater harvests, but we don't need larger harvests here in North America. We're already overproducing staples and farmers can't make money off them as it is. Nor do farmers in developing countries need GMOs because they cannot begin to afford pricey GM seed, nor the fertilizers and pesticides necessary for industrialized agriculture. In most situations they have suitable local crops. They just need the ability to get that crop to a suitable market and receive a fair wage for their product.

Related to this issue is that the increase in GM farming adds to an already alarming trend toward eliminating diversty in the global food supply. Instead of 100 varieties of a particular crop, we may now have only 20, or 10, or even less. (The film gives some specific examples which I do not have at hand at the moment.) With less genetic variety each crop becomes more susceptible to disease and pests, which means we are at greater risk of major crop failure, not less. When these GM seeds are introduced into developing countries, they can cross breed and dilute or even eliminate local varieties of crops that may be far better suited to the local environment. And let's not forget that according to US and Canadian law, if a GM plant does cross pollinate with another, the resulting seed would belong to the corporation holding the patent for the GMO, not the local farmer. Can you see a problem here? Rather than helping local farmers in developing countries, rather than reducing or eliminating global hunger, the growing use of GMOs actually carries a significant possibility of increasing it.

One final comment for today. The corporations that are developing GMOs have now put a rider on an agricultural bill before Congress that would require the Department of Agriculture and other government agencies to allow the use of GMOs without question upon the request of any of these corporations. No safety reviews. No peer-reviewed studies. No independent testing. This is bad news for the farmers and consumers of this country. Take a moment to read about it and then sign this petition or contact your own congressional representatives and senators and tell them to oppose this rider.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why aren't GMO products labeled?

On Thursday I wrote about a documentary my wife and I had watched that opened our eyes to the radical changes happening in agriculture with the proliferation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The companies driving these changes (Monsanto being one of them that gets particular attention in the film, but they are not the only one) claim that they have the best interest of consumers in mind. They want to improve agricultural production and increase food supply. I remain skeptical.

As I shared on Thursday, the potential impact of GMOs on other organisms, most particularly on humans, remains largely untested. The corporations that own the patents on GMOs and which are developing new ones resist any attempts to conduct unbiased testing or to introduce government oversight. This alone should deeply trouble us. What are they afraid of? These corporations do provide funding to scientists, but only those who will provide sympathetic and supportive results. Scientists who dare to challenge the proclaimed benefits of GMOs face pressure, funding cut-offs and even damage to their reputations and careers as a result. 

At the same time, these corporations resist all efforts to require labeling of products containing GMOs. The European Union has required such labeling, as has Japan and other countries. But any effort to introduce such requirements in the United States is met with an overwhelming campaign very well-funded by these corporations to ward off such regulations. They claim that these modified products are completely safe (despite not allowing independent testing to determine this) and therefore don't need to be labeled. But what they really don't want is for consumers to have any way to hold them accountable for the effects of their products. If we know that a product contains GMOs and those who eat that product then develop any negative effects, doctors and researchers would be alerted by the labeling to consider the GMO as a possible source of the problem. This can then be documented and tracked and the companies producing the GMOs could be held accountable for the effects of their products. Without the labels, the consumer has no way of knowing that what he or she eats contains a GMO and therefore has no way to track whether the GMO has affected his or her health. If the corporations behind these products have nothing to fear, they should not be so resistant to the simple act of requiring labeling. We already require labels to contain a wealth of other information. Shouldn't we require that it inform us when our food contains a radically new biological substance?

Unfortunately our government is not defending the interests of the consumer in this area. The collusion between large corporations such as Monsanto and key government agencies such as the EPA, the Department of Agriculture and the FDA is astounding. Frankly I think it is morally and ethically wrong. Individuals work for or serve on corporate boards while either simultaneously or in alternating cycles working in key government positions. Can we trust someone to police a corporation with which they have an intimate connection? If there are not laws against such influence there should be. I would like to think that corruption exists only in poor, developing countries. But when I hear about arrangements such as those between large agricultural and food producers and the government bodies that should be regulating them, I realize how corrupt our own system has become. We cannot trust or expect that the agencies that should be seeking to protect our food supply are actually doing that. They often seem to be more concerned about protecting the corporate interests of the producers. 

The corporations driving GMO development and implementation claim in their defense that the changes they are introducing will significantly help reduce global hunger. In my next post we will examine that claim. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

In Memoriam

I request the reader's patience as I diverge from the topic of GMOs that I began yesterday. Look for a return to that topic soon.

In 1996 I was a young graduate student nearing completion of his degree. My beautiful wife and I were expecting our first child. Our limited budget had us living in a roach-infested apartment (you know it's bad when a roach drops off the light over your dining table onto your plate) and my wife and I were not eager to bring our new child home to such an environment. But what to do with such limited resources and a plan to move to another city soon after the birth?

Enter John and Betsy Moll. We had become friends with John and Betsy through a homegroup at the church we attended. Although we had known them less than two years, we had grown close to them and appreciated the warm, generous, serious and yet light-hearted spirits. They graciously opened their home and offered us a room of our own and full use of their house rent-free until we were ready to move on after our child's birth. We stayed with them several months, including the first month of our daughter's life. Their generosity blessed us immensely. Although in the nearly 16 years since we have had only infrequent personal visits, we have kept in touch and maintained a warm bond of friendship with this dear couple.

Last Saturday Betsy Moll ended her journey in this life after a four-year battle with cancer. She had not quite reached her 46th birthday. Today we had the bittersweet joy of attending her memorial service. At the end of last year as her health deteriorated we took the opportunity to drive the two hours to visit with John and Betsy. At the time she was quite weak but still able to sit and converse with us for a short time. We're so glad we had that time to visit and share that time with them. Listening today to the various testimonies of how she affected the lives of so many people, we were reminded of the amazing woman she was, a woman who loved deeply, prayed intensely and worked persistently to achieve the things she believed in. I won't try to capture all that Betsy was in this life. Suffice it to say that the world is a poorer place without her in it.

Betsy's death makes me angry. People shouldn't die when they are only 46. Death at any age is a sad event, but death in mid-life or younger seems particularly tragic. I want to ask God how it is he allows such a death. I don't understand his ways. And don't tell me that he loved her so much that he wanted her home with himself. That makes God out to be extremely selfish rather than loving. Death is a blight on our world, not the act of a loving God. Death reminds us that this world has fallen from what God created it to be, that the Kingdom has not yet been fully realized.

Listening to the testimonies and the message from the pastor today, I heard frequent reference to Betsy being home with God now. I used to think that as well. Now I am more inclined to believe that she is in a waiting place, an in-between state until the time when Jesus returns and heaven and earth become one. I believe with all my heart and all my hope that the day will come when Betsy will be reunited with John and all of us in a glorious, redeemed, recreated world. I don't know when that day will come. But come it will.

So while I grieve Betsy's passing and while I wrestle with questions about why God allows a person such as Betsy to die in the middle of life, I hold on to hope. I understood again today that hope is a core element of the Gospel message. We do not mourn as those without hope (1 Thes 4:13), because we know that the day is coming when death will finally be undone and all who have died will be restored to a new, resurrected, bodily life. How we understand that to happen and what exactly heaven will be like are secondary issues compared to the fundamental fact that God will bring life out of death. Although death still carries us from this life, it has been transformed into the gateway into real life. The pain and sorrow of Betsy's passing is not reduced, but even as we grieve we cling to this sure hope. This is not the end. It is the beginning. We shall see Betsy again and know her as a she fully is.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

In memory of Elizabeth Moll, 1966-2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Future of Food

Earlier this year reading the book Silent Spring opened my eyes to the impact of pesticides on our world. At the same time I watched the documentary Plastic Planet, a challenging look at the influence of petroleum-based products (plastics) on our environment and our health. These two items prompted me to ask myself a basic question:

Is the way we are living killing us and destroying the future of our planet?

Yesterday I saw another documentary (available on Netflix) that raised further concerns along the same line. This film – The Future of Food – examines the growing control that a few mega corporations have on our food supply. But that simple sentence understates the issues at stake. I had heard and read bits and pieces about Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs. I had no real concept what this term meant and the role it is increasingly playing in our food production. In this post I want to highlight a few crucial elements of what is happening to our food supply.

Within my lifetime companies have begun to patent living organisms. Prior to the late 1970s or early 1980s such patents were regularly rejected by the US Patent Office. That is no longer the case following a court decision in that time period. Now companies can patent any type of living organism. They can place a patent on a particular strain of corn, for example. Or they can modify a gene in corn, tomatoes or any other organism and patent that gene. Once that patent is approved, the company then owns that gene and anyone who wants to use it must apply to that company for the right to do so and, usually, pay a fee for the privilege. This has already created problems among those working to find a cure for breast cancer, because some company patented a gene related to breast cancer and now requires significant payments for use of that gene. The potential impact on our food supply is enormous.

The idea of a company owning a gene or a particular variety of a crop is bad enough, but it gets worse. Once a patented genetically modified organism enters the world, the law states that any descendents – intentional or otherwise – of that GMO are also owned by the company. For example, if you as a farmer plant a field of unmodified corn but some GMO seed or pollen strays into your crop, even without your intent, and cross-pollinates with your own seed, the resulting seed crop is owned by the company that owns the patent to the GMO crop and you must pay them to use that seed. This has been affirmed by the Supreme Courts of both the US and Canada. If you don't want to use that cross-pollinated seed or pay the required license fee, you must destroy your seed supply and start with a new one. The implications of this are enormous, because once a crop enters the natural environment, no one can control how it cross-pollinates with other strains and even other species.

According to the companies, their goal is to produce better strains of crop that will be pest-resistant and more productive. The original GMO crops were modified to allow the spraying of pesticides that would kill everything but the actual crop. That was only the beginning. Now we have strains of corn that have been modified so that the corn itself is a pesticide, lethal to any pest that might try to eat the corn. Companies have also developed GMOs that neutralize their own reproductive cycle, so that the second generation of a seed would not be viable, requiring the farmer to purchase new seed every planting.

Despite their best intentions and their repeated affirmations of the benefits of GMOs, these modified plants raise serious concerns that the companies do not want to hear, much less address. No one knows what the long-term effects of these modifications will be on the plant world, much less on humans who consume these plants and their derivative products. We don't know because never before in human history have we messed with plant DNA as we are now doing with GMOs. This is not simply a matter of cross-pollinating the same or similar species to produce a different variety of a crop with certain characteristics. These new plants are genetically modified by combining snippets of DNA from entirely different organisms to create the desired resistance or other effect. They are introducing into a food crop bits of DNA from viruses, animals and who knows what else. They are creating plants that resist pesticides or actual produce their own pesticide, and then telling us that these products are safe for human consumption. The companies assure us these are safe modifications, although they actively thwart any efforts to critically research the impact of these manipulations or to require outside regulation of their activities. Whose interests are they really interested in advancing? 

In future posts I will continue to explore the serious issues raised by genetic modification of plants and animals. The more I learn about this the more troubled I become. What can be done about it? At the end of this series of posts I will look at this question and suggest steps that we as consumers can take.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

24 Addict

My name is Andrew and I am addicted to 24. That's 24 as in the television series starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. I don't like that I am addicted to this show. If you've never watched the show, it's hard to explain. It's like one adrenalin rush after another, each moment and episode waiting for the next tense situation to be resolved. Although I resent it, I have to acknowledge that the writers and producers have created an addictive masterpiece – a show that hooks viewers and compels them to keep watching throughout the season because you just have to see how Jack gets out of each situation – each time wondering how he can possibly survive.

I resent my addiction not only because it keeps drawing me back to watch the show. That's bad enough. But the contents of the show alternately stimulate and appal me. 24 glorifies violence not by making it look spectacular, but by making it look commonplace. We have seen so many depictions of torture in various forms, seen so many sadistic people – terrorists and those fighting them – use means and methods that should utterly sicken us, that we have become numb to them. Which in turn means that in order to keep that adrenaline rush flowing in the viewers, the producers have to keep raising the level of violence. The first season was brilliant, with events building to a single traumatic climax in which all the various threads were resolved, with one new provocation left dangling as a lead to a second season (a lead which, in the end, the producers made nothing of although they did go on to make several more seasons.) Since then we've seen nuclear bombs detonated first in the desert, later in Los Angeles itself. As we started the latest season my wife and I joked that we should keep a body count. We didn't and I'm not sure we could have, given how many people are killed in an average episode. As I said earlier though, it's not just that people are killed, it's the way in which they are killed. Oh for the old days of the original A Team, when people were blown across the screen routinely yet there was precious little blood or actual dying portrayed. With 24 we get graphic displays of pain, suffering and death.

The frequency and graphic nature of the killing in the show is bad enough. The depiction of torture is worse. Introduced in the second season, it has become a common aspect of the show's storyline. Although not a part of every episode, it does seem to come up in every season. I'd like to think that the writers want to open the eyes of viewers to the extent to which torture is used not only by terrorists but by those we consider “the good guys.” If that were their goal, I might feel more at ease about it. I'd like to see a more vocal protest against the way in which our government, particularly under the previous administration, adopted torture as an acceptable form of investigation. Unfortunately I don't really sense that the writers of 24 really include torture as an awareness-raising device. The frequent depiction of it serves more to numb the viewer to what is happening. The more I watch, the more desensitized I become. I have some friends who stopped watching the show over this issue (and perhaps others). I admire and applaud them. Unfortunately I am an addict and can't seem to break the hold this drug has on me.

One final aspect of the show greatly troubles me. In every season we always find one or more corrupt people on the inside. This could just be a useful plot element, but with each season I find myself increasingly angry over the people who put self-interest over the welfare of society. Worse still are those who believe they are putting society's best interests first by perpetrating crimes and murders. I suppose this type of thing occurs in many television series. I never watched West Wing, but I can imagine that you found similar plot occurrences there. But in 24 these acts of self-interest or false national interest result in significant tragedies and losses of life and I find it heart-wrenching to watch it unfold. Being a “good” series, in the end the “bad” guys always end up getting something resembling a just reward, but the journey to that point twists me up inside.

As I said, I'm an addict. I want to turn it off, but I keep watching. Since we're still catching up with past seasons on Netflix, some nights we can watch a couple episodes back-to-back. But I don't go to bed feeling a healthy catharsis. I go to bed feeling troubled by what I've seen without any idea or sense that I can do anything about it. It's like I've been mainlining adrenaline for an hour or two and gotten an emotional rush, but in the end it has left me empty, unsettled and dissatisfied. So why do I keep watching?

I know many who really enjoy this show and I'd love to hear any thoughts on redeeming aspects of it, if there are any. As for those who have wisely chosen to cut off their addiction, I'd like to hear what aspect(s) of the show prompted you to make the break.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Eating to Live

Some people eat to live, others live to eat. I fall into the first category. Although I enjoy eating – far too much so in fact – I don't view it as one of life's great pleasures. I am not a foodie. I'm not a gourmand and I'm not really that creative nor do I joy experimenting with food. I enjoy my food fairly basic and simple. Don't bother trying to sell me on that gourmet fancy burger for an exorbitant price. Just give me something nice, basic and savory at a fair price and I'll be quite happy. 

My view on food causes my wife great distress. She falls into the second category above: one who lives to eat. She would love to have a husband with exotic tastes and not only a willingness but a passion for culinary exploration. Sadly I have greatly disappointed her in this area. And our children are no better than I. Poor lady. She's probably got a gourmet chef inside her just waiting to be unleashed all these years and she's been chained by a husband and family who wouldn't appreciate the chef even if she were set free.

For my wife's sake as well as my own health, I am trying to expand my culinary appreciation, if not my passion for food. I try to receive gratefully and appreciatively the new dishes she prepares, although I know I fall far short of offering her the praise and affirmation that she really craves. It's tough when most often I'd be quite happy with something very simple and non-creative. I am truly a fortunate man that she tolerates me in this area, but how does one create enthusiasm and passion for something that one finds largely a matter of indifference?

As I get older though, I am finding I need to pay more attention not only to what I eat but more importantly how much I eat. I have to discipline myself to not mindlessly graze on snack food while I am working at my computer or doing other things around the home. (Since I work out of our house, the kitchen is essentially always accessible to me – not such a great thing.) When we lived overseas I did not have such an issue with this. My lifestyle was much more active and I had less access to snack foods that I didn't need. But returning to the US has not done well for my waistline.

Ultimately I know that I must take responsibility for my diet and lifestyle habits. However, I must add my voice to those speaking out against the way our society treats food. The issues with fast food are well known and widely discussed. But the fast food restaurants are not the only ones guilty of pushing an unhealthy lifestyle. Most restaurants are guilty of this. Yesterday evening my family and I went to the Texas Roadhouse at the invitation of my parents. They served great food. I have no complaints in terms of quality. But I do have a complaint in terms of quantity – not that it was too little, but that it was too much. We simply didn't need all the food that comes with a standard meal. My wife and I chose to purchase one entree and split it between us, adding an extra side to round out the divided meal. This proved to be a very nice solution, though even at that it was probably more calories than either of us needed. But what would we have done had we been single, or could not come to agreement on a shared entree? (The latter is most often our challenge.) Why do restaurants push such large portion sizes? Couldn't they offer smaller portions for a smaller price?

We are blessed in this country with an overabundance of food – and it's killing us. I bemoan the rising food prices as much as the next person, but maybe they are a hidden blessing. If we cannot afford as much maybe we won't eat as much, although so far it doesn't appear to really be slowing us down. I don't think that being responsible in eating requires that a person become vegetarian or vegan, although I can respect those choices. It does require that we eat in greater moderation. I know there are a lot of good books and blogs on this topic, with better insights and reflections than I have to offer. As for myself, I am going to strive to eat smaller portions and to expand my culinary appreciation so that I can enjoy more of what's good for my body. I probably won't ever become the foodie my wife would like me to be, but I hope we can find a healthy balance together.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Not-so-simple Faith

Caris Adel recently wrote a poignant tribute to her grandmother, in which she also considers her faith in comparison to her grandmother's. She speaks of how her grandmother's life was “infused with the daily goodness of God,” and how her grandmother epitomized the words of the old song (which she loved to sing): This is my story, this is my song / Praising my Savior all the day long.

Adel obviously loved and admired her grandmother and the faith that flowed in her life. Yet, she shares, “Now, as an adult, I can't figure out how to infuse my life with that same type of daily song.” I relate to Adel's struggle. Although I did not see the same degree of innate faith in my grandparents (though I loved them dearly), I have seen it in others and wondered why I can't have that same simple faith myself. As much as I wish it would be that way, faith has rarely been a simple thing for me, certainly not in my adult years. I cringe when I hear phrases such as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” and as much as I want to believe it, I wrestle with the well-known statement: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Statements like these are so nice and simple and package the complexities of the world into such a convenient bundle. But they don't ring true, certainly not all the time. They don't capture the true complexity of life and faith.

I grew up in the church. I went to Sunday School and participated in a great youth group, which played a significant role in my formation. After high school I attended a Christian liberal arts university, where I began to encounter people from faith backgrounds different from my own. Although I did not grow up in a highly legalistic or fundamentalist environment and in fact had a fair degree of exposure to models of faith outside of my own, I had not really encountered significantly different ideas about the Bible, God and theology. In my sophomore year at university I took an introductory class on the Old Testament and nearly had my faith destroyed by it (remember, this was at a solidly Christian university) because the professor challenged my understanding of what the Bible is, how it was written and therefore how we should approach it. Eventually I recovered an equilibrium in faith but since that time I cannot say that faith has been a simple thing for me. The older I get the more I feel like I have more questions than answers and with the experience that comes with life I find myself less certain about many of the answers I once thought I did have.

Sometimes I envy those who, like Caris Adel's grandmother, can approach life with a simple faith that reflects the oft-quoted phrase “Trust and obey.” I try to trust and obey, but then I look at the world and my life and I begin to ask questions of God. I doubt God's goodness and faithfulness because I see that many do not experience the benefits of these, although when I look at my life with a more balanced eye I realize that I have little cause for personal complaint. I've become more comfortable with my doubts and questions. I'm confident that God can handle them and that they don't preclude me from being part of the Kingdom. But, like Adel, I wonder sometimes if in my struggle to have an authentic faith I am missing out on something, some simple treasure that could be mine if I just lay aside all my doubts and questions and accept God as he has been presented to me by the churches I've been a part of. (I wanted to write “he/she” but then that would not be accepting God as presented to me for most of my life.)

Unfortunately being honest with myself does not allow me to just set aside all the issues I have with the Bible and the questions and doubts I have about God. But maybe, somehow, while still working through those I can find a way to express praise daily, to worship this God whom I do not claim to be fully at peace with, to accept that his or her involvement with this world and with my life is working for good, both for me and the world. I don't see it all the time because it's not fully realized. But I want to walk in faith that it is being realized and will someday be fully so. Faith, at this point in my life, requires holding a lot of things in tension. It means accepting antimonies and paradoxes. It asks me to embrace mystery rather than seek certainty. The Church as a whole, and particularly the branches of it I have most often belonged to, is uncomfortable with this type of faith. It prefers certainty. It likes clear doctrinal statements with definite points. Small surprise then that I often feel out of place in church these days.

I continue to hold on to the hope that someday I may find a place of peace and rest in regard to faith. I'd like to have a faith like that of Adel's grandmother. Maybe someday I'll get there. For now I continue on with my journey.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Lemon Tree

I recently finished reading a most interesting book entitled The Lemon Tree. Written by Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree explores the conflict between Palestine and Israel from the time before the creation of the modern state of Israel by following the stories of two families united by a single house. The house was built by Ahmad Khairi, a Palestinian, in the town then called Al-Ramla, located northwest of Jerusalem. Following the establishment of the state of Israel and the war that followed in 1948, the town came under Jewish control and the house eventually came into the ownership of Moshe Eshkenazi and his wife, recent immigrants from Bulgaria. In the ensuing years, Bashir the son of Ahmad and Dalia the daughter of Moshe would see their lives become intertwined because of this house. They develop a close bond but yet struggle to overcome the huge obstacles that separate them as Israeli and Palestinian. 

I liked this true story and the way the author presents it. By placing us in the context of these two individuals and their families, we can see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a very different and much more personal level. This isn't just about two nations and their destinies. It's about real people living real lives in real homes. As he tells the stories of Dalia and Bashir, Tolan fills in larger details about the establishment of modern Israel and the wars between it and its neighbors over the years. But he does so evenly, not favoring one side or the other and always keeping the impact of the events on the lives of our two heros in the forefront. It is a moving story and I highly recommend it, particularly if you are inclined to favor one side or the other. Tolan will help you see that neither group is entirely innocent of the problems that now divide the two and will also demonstrate through the relationship between Dalia and Bashir that solutions remain difficult and elusive.

I come from a faith background that unwaveringly sides with Israel. It sees the Jews as God's chosen people and embraces the idea that the establishment of the modern state of Israel was an act of God, a step toward the fulfillment of prophecies made centuries earlier. For much of my life I unquestioningly accepted and agreed with this perspective and the theology behind it. But over the years I have come not just to question this perspective but to actively reject it. The Jews may still have some status as God's chosen, although I am inclined to believe that the Church universal are the people of God now, but that does not mean that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was an act of God. Reading this book showed me how much it was the act of human beings and how significantly their visions, dreams and weaknesses (on both sides of the divide) played into the events of 1948 and the years since. I do want to state clearly that I am not inherently opposed to the establishment or existence of Israel. In a certain since, I view it as a fait accompli, something that the world must work with as it seeks a way forward, rather than something that can be undone as part of any “solution.” Whether this was the best way to make amends to what befell the Jewish people in WWII could be debated endlessly. Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to give them land in Germany, for example? But that question was never asked and to raise it now would be pointless.

However, accepting the existence of Israel does not require us to unwaveringly take the side of Israel in every conflict that occurs between them and the Arab world. The modern Israeli people, just as their forefathers of old, are fully capable of sin and error and in their efforts to secure their future in the land of Israel, they have far too often behaved in ways that prolong and fuel the conflict and must certainly grieve God Almighty. One of the steps required for any process of reconciliation to occur is for Israel to acknowledge these crimes and to change its ways. But this takes us into a discussion of how one might find a way forward, which we will come to shortly.

I cannot support those in the American Christian community whose support for Israel blinds them to the failures, sins and crimes of Israel. God is the God of the Jews, but he is also the God of the Palestinians and other Arabs. Does God favor the Jews more than those other people? I don't believe so. I believe that God's grace and mercy extend to all without difference, yet by our uncritical support of Israel because of a particular theological interpretation (and perhaps out of enduring guilt from WWII), we hinder these Arab peoples from hearing and receiving the love and grace that God extends to them as well. By our actions and words in support of Israel we say we want all people to hear the Good News, except the Palestinians and those who support them. Those people don't really have a place in God's kingdom.

Can there be a way forward? As Tolan demonstrates in The Lemon Tree, no easy one exists. But I think that the followers of Jesus can offer the only realistic one – the path of forgiveness and repentance, the path of grace and mercy. This requires acknowledging wrongs done to us and by us, followed by seeking and offering forgiveness. It requires a willingness to be wronged. It demands that we see our enemy no longer as an enemy, but as person whose dignity and worth come from God just as much as mine do. I don't know that it is humanly possible to live in such a way, particularly in such a heated situation as that between Palestinians and Israelis. I do believe that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus must speak out in support of these radical notions. We must speak in favor of peace rather than continuing to uncritically and consistently take the side of Israel regardless of her actions.

In a highly polarized world and in this particularly polarized conflict, stories like those told in The Lemon Tree are especially needed. A similar story is told in the movie of the same name, although the book and the movie are about the same people or exact situation. We need to remember that these conflicts involve real people and not reduce them to blocks of people whom we can support or oppose without critical engagement. We need to prayerfully read and watch the news and remind ourselves that God loves the people on both sides equally.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Principles of Openness

An aspiring young leader with whom I am acquainted shared this video on her Facebook page recently. The speaker Don Tapscott explores four meanings and principles of openness:

  • Collaboration
  • Transparency
  • Sharing
  • Empowerment

Tapscott illustrates these principles with examples primarily from the world of business, but as I watched the video I was thinking about them in regard to the Church in the modern world and in regard to Christian organizations. If Tapscott correctly describes the powerful shift that is occurring right now, how should the Church engage with the “new” world and what will the Church of the coming generations look like? What do we need to change to become more open? How do we increase transparency and sharing? It strikes me that, among other possibilities, we must release hierarchical control and direction and invite open conversation and dialog within the Church.

Of course some might disagree with Tapscott's fundamental arguments. He states: “The arc of history is a positive one and it's toward openness.” Some worldviews and some theologies would not affirm this statement. They do not see the world's trajectory as positive and therefore tend to resist and reject transition as moving away from some earlier ideal state. At best they remain sceptical toward change. Coming from such a perspective, one might fight against increased openness because of fear. Increased openness certainly threatens traditional power structures, so if one's position or worldview depends on the maintenance of those structures, one could be expected to fight against any threat to that power.

What do you think? Is the move to increasing openness inevitable and is it positive? If so, how should we respond within the community of Christ-followers, both in the Church as the global body of Christ and in organizations where Christians come together to work toward kingdom purposes?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Faith and Freedom

I often dread attending church on the Sunday nearest the 4th of July, and particularly if the 4th falls on a Sunday, which this year was fortunately not the case. Too often this Sunday becomes an orgy of religious patriotism, a fusion of God and country in which patriotic songs displace solid hymns and songs of praise to the true Lord and patriotic symbols are splashed across the sanctuary. It can be enough to make my stomach churn. I remember one Sunday some years ago in which I entered the sanctuary and saw the front wall covered in paper printed in miniature US flags. I don't know how I kept myself from turning around and walking out the door.

I am not unpatriotic. Well, I'm probably not as patriotic as many and probably not nearly enough so to satisfy many conservatives. I am not one to say “my country right or wrong,” nor do I believe that we are the greatest country on earth, as if the United States were God's gift to the rest of the world. I really don't think we're THAT special and I chafe at expressions of religious patriotism that imply that we are.

But I do love my country and I am glad that I had the privilege of being born here, growing up here and now have the privilege of living here. There is much I appreciate about being American and my appreciation has only deepened and strengthened through the years I have lived outside of this country. I grow teary-eyed at the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner and there are moments when the sight of Old Glory brings an emotional swell. But my experience living beyond this country's borders has opened my mind to other viewpoints and ways of life. I affirm much of what our culture values, but I don't uncritically embrace American culture nor do I view it as the pinnacle of development. We have much to give thanks for and it is appropriate to do so on this, our national holiday. But we must also as God's children always consciously recognize how far short we fall of realizing the fullness of God's kingdom on earth. As a nation we have done many positive, good things at home and around the world. But we have also sinned grievously against those within our borders and those outside them in pursuit of our own selfish interests – although we often fail to recognize and rarely accept the responsibility for the impact our selfish actions have on others. Unlike what some believe, our most glorious days do not lie in our past, as if we had climbed to some pinnacle of godliness and have sense fallen away. No, we have yet to embody the fullness of the message of the gospel of Jesus. We have failed to demonstrate love to our neighbors and to our enemies. No matter how much we would like to think of ourselves that way, we are not God's special nation, anointed uniquely by God to carry out the divine will on earth.

Today's worship service strayed a bit too much into a display of patriotism for my taste, though not as badly as I have seen and had feared might happen. The choir sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is indeed a rousing song if one can put aside all the background and negative implications carried by it. A soloist performed God Bless America, never one of my favorite songs because most often it seems to be a demand and expectation as much as a plea and petition – as if we deserve God's blessing because we are, after all, God's nation. But the soloist did a nice job and we as the congregation were asked only to listen, not to join in. The sermon avoided any statements of patriotic sentiment, except for one tongue-in-cheek comment about Canada Day because the pastor giving the sermon is actually Canadian and today is, after all, Canada Day.

One song, our closing hymn for the service, actually raised my spirit far more than any of the patriotic songs or other hymns we heard during the morning. We sang the hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing, often referred to as “The Black National Anthem.” I first sang this song more than twenty years ago when I worked in inner-city Philadelphia with Tony Campolo's Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. This hymn, along with several other black spirituals, spoke really powerfully to myself and my fellow volunteers as we worked alongside some of the poorest communities in our country, most of them consisting predominantly of black people. Songs such as Lift Every Voice raise the cry of a population that has not enjoyed the full blessings of liberty and freedom that many of us and our ancestors have. It serves as a reminder to all of us how much we still have to attain. As it has done for over a century for those suffering under oppression and injustice, it also offers us strength and hope that come from faith enduring and strengthening through dark days. I'm not ready to lobby for this song to replace the Star-Spangled Banner as our national anthem, but I would love to hear it become a more frequent part of our national repertoire.

If asked, I would not say I am proud to be an American, because I think pride is not the right word. I think pride leads to (or perhaps arises from?) arrogance, and arrogance is never pleasing to God. Unfortunately it seems to be one of the hallmarks of American identity in the world today and one of the chief reasons that many around the world despise us. I think that we as a nation need to adopt a more humble posture, not kindle greater national pride. This does not mean we should not be grateful to be Americans. It does not mean we shouldn't appreciate the benefits and blessings that come with our citizenship. They are a gift. But our true citizenship lies not in this nation, but in a kingdom that does not have physical boundaries on this earth. So as we celebrate our freedom this week, let us continue to give even greater thanks for the freedom we have in Christ and raise our lift our voices and sing on behalf of those who do not yet know freedom.