Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sophie Scholl - Woman of Valor

Last night my wife and I watched another fascinating movie (and a second that was entertaining but not nearly as engaging and shall, therefore, not receive further mention). Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is a powerful account of a young woman who opposed the Nazis and was executed for her stance. As a student of German language, culture and history, I should have known more about Scholl and the movement known as Die weiße Rose (The White Rose). I had certainly heard both the name of Sophie Scholl and of the movement but had never taken the time to become better informed.

 Having watched the movie, I can say without hesitation that Sophie Scholl is an Eshet chayil – a woman of valor. The movie, which was based on material from her trial (alongside her brother Hans) found in the archives of the East German state after 1990, depicts Scholl as a courageous, bold young woman with clear convictions and the willingness to stand for them even when doing so will cost her life. Confronted with the opportunity to shift blame to her brother or to betray others involved in the movement, Scholl accepts her responsibility and more. She tries to allay suspicions against her brother and others, ultimately unsuccessfully. But she does not take the easy way out offered by the investigator, who seems to want to find a way to safe this bold young woman – even as he rejects and despises her convictions. In the face of insulting statements by the presiding judge at her trial, Scholl speaks out boldly in defense of freedom of conscience and against the murderous policies of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi state. For this she earns only more abuse from the judge, but the viewer recognizes who in the courtroom occupies the morally superior position.

I am not a film critic, but I found the style of the film very powerful as well. Although filmed in color, shades of grey dominate the film's scenes. The only real splashes of color are the red of the Nazi flag and paraphernalia, the red tones of Scholl's clothing and the blue sky that brings a smile to Scholl's face whenever she gets a glimpse of it from the jail and prison. I felt that the Scholl's colored clothing stood out against the dark, dim grey of the Nazi surroundings, visually depicting where the light truly radiated in that dark place.

The film has little action as the majority of scenes take place in the office of the Gestapo investigator or in the jail or prison. The limited action allows for powerful confrontations between the forces of the Nazi state, advocating for their vision of a glorious future, and the stalwart Scholl, who refuses to recant her convictions or violate her conscience.

While depicting very clearly Scholl's strong character, the film does not idealize her. She remains human and we see scenes of her fretting over her family and friends, worrying about how her actions may affect them. We see her uttering prayers to God, asking him to be with her through her trials. According to other sources, Scholl's Christian faith played a definite role in shaping her convictions and giving her the courage to stand for them. In one moving scene after she has been convicted and is in prison awaiting her execution (which occurred the same day as the trial), she has one final opportunity to briefly see her parents. She grieves for the pain they are experiencing but asserts that she would not do anything differently had she to do it over again. To this her father responds that he is very proud of her and her brother. I would hope that such words of affirmation helped carry her to her execution with a greater sense of peace and certainty.

I read on Wikipedia that in a competition held in 2003 by the German television station ZDF, Scholl and her brother (and co-conspirator) Hans placed fourth in a listing of the most important Germans of all time, beating out Bach, Gutenberg, Einstein and others. Among the youngest voters the Scholl siblings placed first. I applaud this affirmation of these two valiant youth. I wish American culture would choose to honor people of character like this more than our sports and music stars. In our culture, which so often upholds women only for their physical beauty or occasionally for their athletic skill, we should celebrate women like Sophie Scholl. She (and many other women of valor – see Rachel Held Evan's series for many such stories) represents the best of human nature and all of us, women and men, can be inspired and encouraged by her testimony. If you haven't heard about Sophie Scholl, I wholeheartedly encourage you to see the film. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Call to Men

How does our male-dominated, "man-up" oriented culture affect both men and women? This video from Tony Porter provides some great food for thought and discussion.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hope Springs in Autumn

 As I watch the sun set on another Arizona day, I can feel a hint of fall in the air—Arizona fall that is. In Arizona fall means that the daytime highs normally remain under 100F and the nights once again cool off to the point that one can turn off the air-conditioning and draw in the cool evening air. It also means the end of our summer monsoon. I will miss the refreshing rainfall and the dynamic thunderstorms that have marked the last two and a half months. However, I won't miss the high humidity that comes with them. I like living in a dry climate, one in which I can open a bag of chips and leave it unsealed for a week without the contents going soggy. Last week I left a granola bar on my desk and when I came back a couple days letter to eat it found it soggy. No, I'm not going to miss that.

I love the powerful thunderheads that build over the mountains during the summer storms. I love the vivid colors that splash across them as the sun sets. But I also love the clear sun-drenched sky that characterizes most of our days. Living in Arizona, a cloudy day counts as a rare treat rather than a typical day. I lived in Seattle for six years and while I truly loved it, I wonder sometimes how I endured the persistent cloudy grey skies. I thrive on sunshine and we certainly have it in abundance here.

When I moved to Arizona many years ago to attend graduate school, I certainly didn't anticipate that I would end up calling this state home. I'm not really sure what I envisioned. Life in those days went forward without a master plan. Now that I think about it, much of my life seems to have played out that way, guided by a master designer who thankfully has orchestrated my steps and missteps into an intricate tapestry.

Last year at this time my world was being turned upside down. Pulled away from the work and life we had invested in for several years, I found myself struggling to define my focus and purpose. I felt myself adrift, even abandoned. I could have sang with Elton John “Don't let the sun go down on me.” Now, a year and many trials and hardships later, I can say that the sun has not gone down on me. Often we think of fall as a season of closure, a time when the green of summer comes to an end in the vibrant colors of fall (not so much here in Arizona though). Spring is the time of new beginnings, not autumn. But for me, this year, autumn seems to be spring, and as the weather cools from the egg-boiling summer temperatures to the pleasant warmth of fall, I sense new hope and new perspectives. I don't know what the future holds and there are still many obstacles and challenges even in the immediate future, but God is renewing my heart, mind and spirit.

Hope springs anew – even in the autumn.

(Note: Not all pictures in this post were taken in Arizona.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Living in Our Sweet Spot

Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

After months of waiting my turn to read Susan Cain's book Quiet finally arrived this week. Our local library has only one copy and when I first reserved the book there were over 160 people in line in front of me. I guess I'd better complete it during my check-out period!

In her book Cain speaks out in defense of introverts and provides a number of interesting arguments and powerful conclusions related to the importance of introverts in society. My family contains four introverts of varying degrees. My wife and daughter are quite strong introverts. I drift more toward being an ambivert (one with characteristics of both intro- and extroversion), which may be where my son is as well. We all need significant amounts of solitude and our home might strike many as excessively quiet and dull. This used to trouble me. I felt that our home should somehow be more dynamic and exciting. We should “do” more.

Over the past few years I've become much more comfortable with being who we are. In chapter 5 of Cain's book I found affirmation for this. As reflected in the citation at the beginning of this entry, Cain argues that the ideal place for any person, extrovert or introvert, lies in a “sweet spot” where she or he experiences an optimal level of stimulation. This spot will differ from one person to another, and probably differs for most individuals at different times of the day or week or season of life. My son needs a higher level of stimulation than anyone else in our family, which leads at times to conflict as he seeks to interact verbally with the rest of us more than we desire. I also have a higher stimulation level than my wife and daughter, so when I press my wife to do an activity that surpasses her preferred level, she naturally feels uncomfortable or reluctant to engage, although sometimes she will for the sake of relationship.

In order to find the optimal level of energy and satisfaction, Cain encourages her readers to identify their “sweet spots” and build their environment as much as possible in such a way as to achieve that. I like this idea and can see where I have taken some steps in this direction even before reading her book. I need a quiet place to work, free from major distractions. Thankfully I have been able to create such a place. I also need a certain level of social interaction though. Since it would overwhelm my wife to invite people to the house as often as I might prefer, I must look for other ways of social interaction. We both prefer smaller social settings though, so this works to our advantage. We're very happy to have a small group of friends to our house and tend to avoid large social gatherings, even when we may know a number of people there.

A challenge comes because we all (or at least most of us) live in a social framework and do not have complete control of our environment. We may not have the ability to set up our workspace according to our own preferences. We may be married to someone with a strongly different temperament in terms of introversion and extroversion. Reality compels us to find compromises, but knowing one's personal preferences helps even in such situations. If we don't know what environment we most prefer, we can't seek to make the best allowance for our needs that a given situation allows.

Cain actually touches on the question of how introverts fit within evangelical church culture, with the conclusion that most American evangelical churches don't really seek to accommodate them. Often our churches push us to live as extroverts, to be engaging in social outreach, to be exhuberantly outgoing, to be sharing the Gospel as often as possible. For some people this works very well, but for introverts, no so much. I would like to see our churches making more room for introverts to live their faith in ways consistent with their personalities. This may mean promoting quiet reflection. It means allowing people to find their niche and serve in their strengths, rather than pushing everyone to be an outgoing evangelist. Too often I have found myself asked to fill a role simply because the role needed filled and not because it suited my personality and strengths. I am thankful that our current worship community, while encouraging and inviting people to be engaged, does not adopt a one-size-fits-all model of ministry.

I recognize that there are times at which all of us must stretch ourselves and go beyond our comfort zones. We cannot always be in our “sweet spots.” Sometimes by stretching ourselves we may discover new interests and talents, or find areas that we would like to expand our skills in. Sometimes in the discomfort God may show us aspects of our character that need refining. But on the whole I think we all serve best when we can serve out of the character God has placed in us, whether we are extroverts or introverts, whether we are gifted at construction work or talented in writing and drawing. I am embracing more fully the unique balance of intro- and extroversion that God created in me and learning to live from that. I'm finding it to be a much healthier and happier place.

You can hear some of Cain's key conclusions in this TED video:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Speaking - and Listening - in Love

As we head into the heart of the election season, I keep being told to “vote my values.” I wholeheartedly concur with this statement, except that usually those who make it have a clear set of values that I'm supposed to vote according to. What they really should say is “vote our values.” That would be more honest. Because in fact I think most voters vote according to their values. The problem doesn't lie in not voting according to our values. The problem, if we choose to see it as such, lies in our different values. This shouldn't surprise us, given that we live in a pluralistic society that values freedom of opinion and expression.

Even if we try to narrow the message of “vote your values” to “vote your Christian values” we run into difficulties. Despite what we like to think, Christians take different views on many issues and, in most cases, argue that their views are “biblical.” I don't know whether we could even define a list of values that all who call themselves by the name of Christ should vote according to, because ultimately what defines us as followers of Christ is not a set of values that inform our voting, but a set of beliefs about a certain person named Jesus the Messiah. The last time I checked his name wasn't on the election ballot this fall.

A lot of polemic is flying these days over which candidate more fully represents “biblical” values (there's that problematic phrase again). The answer you give will depend on how you define those values. In fact, neither candidate can or should make the claim to be “the” godly candidate (and I don't know that either has, in those words at least.) Their supporters, however, seem quite willing to do this on their behalf. I am tired of hearing that President Obama is ungodly, that he is leading this nation away from God, that he's not a Christian, and on and on it goes. I find it quite interesting that so many who call themselves by the name of Christ have such difficulty acknowledging that our president views himself as a follower of Christ as well. Just because he doesn't line up with a certain list of political viewpoints doesn't mean he's outside of the Kingdom of God. Only God gets to determine that. You may legitimately differ with his policies and politics, but don't tell me that the man is ungodly and anti-Christian.

Having said that, I must say that Mitt Romney also should not be charged with being ungodly. Although I take issue with key theological points of his Mormon faith, ultimately he does not stand or fall before God based on his political views and policies. Neither candidate, no candidate in the election for any position, can stand as “God's candidate” because God doesn't have a candidate running in any electoral contest. He doesn't need to. God will accomplish God's purposes through whichever people we elect. Regardless of the outcome of the election and the resulting impact on our nation, whatever it may be, God will continue to do God's work through God's people.

I have spoken out on several issues I feel strongly about in the last few months. I do not regret that nor disclaim what I have written. But recently, at the encouragement of Caris Adel, I started to read Gregory Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation. I haven't made it far yet, but his first chapter struck me squarely on the forehead. As followers of Jesus Christ we are not called to advance a political agenda. Yes, we can and should engage in the political arena. But we are called far more to represent the Kingdom of God and to do so through acting in love and grace toward one another. When our political rhetoric becomes such that we deride those we disagree with, our we really demonstrating the love of Jesus? I recognize that I have been guilty of this. I see that my voice has often been unnecessarily strident. I acknowledge that I have often spoken more than I have listened. I appreciate the challenge of Danielle's words at From Two to One earlier this week. In reflecting on what she wrote and what I am reading from Gregory Boyd, I want to adopt a different approach in the remaining weeks of the election period. I may still speak out at times, but mostly I want to listen, ask questions and engage in respectful, civil conversation. The result may not be that you persuade me or that I persuade you, but at least we can learn from one another and in the process recognize that we don't always have to agree to live in harmony with one another. Unity does not require unanimity and those who differ from my beliefs and opinions are not inherently my enemies. In the end it's not about who wins this election. Our nation will not go to hell in a handbasket regardless of which candidate wins. This country is more than our political leaders and following Jesus is about far more than getting “our” candidate into office.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Gospel of True Colors

While driving the car the other day I heard a song on the radio that brought back fond memories: True Colors by Cyndi Lauper. I'm sure to date myself by saying that I listened to this song back in my high school days. I'm not a big fan of Cyndi Lauper in general, but this song and her hit Time After Time resonated with me then and continue to do so to this day whenever I hear them. I wonder if the song True Colors doesn't contain important echoes of the gospel.

You with the sad eyes
Don't be discouraged
Oh I realize
It's hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small.

But I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors
And that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors
Are beautiful like a rainbow.

I can hear Jesus singing this to me, or to anyone else who finds themselves lost in a sea of voices that tells them how worthless and insignificant they are. I can see Jesus speaking into a person's darkness and showing them their true worth. This is a message of redemption and hope. When Jesus draws out our true colors, we shine like rainbows.

True Colors reminds me of another song, this one a contemporary hit: Firework by Katy Perry. Caris Adel drew an intriguing parallel between this song and the beautitudes which drew my attention to it. Listening to it carefully with Adel's analogy in mind, I recognized that Firework speaks a similar message. Perry invites her listeners to let the light within them shine out and illuminate the darkness. We need not live our lives in shame, regret, humiliation and fear. The world tells us every day how worthless we are, but the message of the gospel speaks a different story.

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag,
drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?
 Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin,
Like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?

Do you ever feel already buried deep,
Six feet under screams but no one seems to hear a thing?
Do you know that there's still a chance for you,
'Cause there's a spark in you?

You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July.

'Cause baby you're a firework
Come on, show 'em what you're worth

Even as I draw connections between these two songs and the gospel message and I can hear objections being raised. I can hear them because they come from within myself. I grew up primarily in a Presbyterian environment and therefore have a strong Calvinist background to my theology. That Calvinist background emphasizes the total depravity of humans. In the interest of affirming the majesty and sovereignty of God, Calvinism denigrates the worth of human beings. The extent to which it does so varies on the shade of Calvinism, but the underlying message that comes out often in many churches speaks of the inherent worthlessness of humans. God doesn't need us. We can do nothing apart from him. We should be thankful that God doesn't squash us like an annoying pest that one finds crawling across the living room carpet. 

I acknowledge that Calvinism contains an element of truth. But too often because of its emphasis people who are already broken, crushed and reminded regularly by the world of their worthlessness hear a similar message from within the community of Christian faith. In the interest of helping people recognize their sinfulness we actually end up breaking them down even further. Some of us (perhaps all of us) need to be broken down, but that is the work of God, not the message that needs to come first from the lips of God's followers. To a person already feeling worthless, a message that proclaims his or her absolute depravity may not offer a lot of hope.

Thankfully Calvinism is not the whole picture. The Church, especially some branches of it (I think in particular of the Orthodox churches), have historically affirmed the divine element within each of us. We are, after all, created in the image of God (and by all I mean all, not just white men or even men as a whole, or any other particular subset of humanity). Yes, we suffer the effects of turning away from God in rebellion. Yes, we cannot regain that state through our own effort. But that does not, as I now understand it theologically, mean that the divine spark within us has been fully extinguished. We are still God's children and still retain the stamp of our creator in our innermost beings. 

With that perspective, the message I draw out of True Colors and Firework does speak truth. It calls us, if I dare say it, with the voice of Jesus to embrace who we were created to be, to turn in faith and allow Jesus to ignite that divine spark within us so that we radiate with the brilliant rainbow of colors that he stirs within us. For we are valuable and precious in his sight, worth more than any of us can ever begin to imagine. What if we focused first on this message and allowed God then to work in each person's life to illuminate and cleanse those elements that need to be transformed? 

Like any analogy, this one can be overstated. I don't claim that True Colors nor Firework proclaims the fullness of the gospel message. But I do think that they both resonate with an important element of that message. Now when I hear these songs that's the message they speak to me. I do not deny that humans are sinful. That fact is painfully apparent every day. I don't claim that some humans have not reached such a point in their brokenness and fallenness that the divine element within them seems impossible to see, much less to ignite. Simply because we have the divine spark still within us doesn't mean we live or act in accordance with it. Many people, aware of their divine nature or not, choose to live in open and clear rebellion against it, doing things that harm themselves and others. This does not mean that they are without hope. If they were, Jesus would have nothing to offer them, which would mean that some people are beyond the salvation of Jesus. I don't believe that. We are all created in the image of God and retain that stamp of our creator, but we also need the healing, restoring hand of that creator to be renewed in the fullness of that image.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ten Reasons to be Thankful Today

(Listed in no particular order.)

1. Looking out my front window at the sun filtering through the trees.

2. Time for relaxation.

3. Sunday morning worship left me feeling refreshed not frustrated.

4. The hummingbirds that visit our bird feeder.

5. The anticipation of teaching again starting tomorrow.

6. Watching a movie with my wife.

7. My daughter's creative ability.

8. Redemption and forgiveness -- the opportunity to start over again, and again, and again

9. Good books (and the ability to read them)

10. A nice cold glass of cherry cola.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Feminism Arises from Faith

Embracing feminism comes as part of an extended journey of spiritual transformation that I began last year and which continues to reshape me. Feminism ties integrally into my faith, because I believe that all humans, men and women alike, are created equally by their Creator. The distinctions that have developed in human history in which men have come to be viewed as superior and women as inferior, men as more intelligent and women less so, men treated as strong protectors and women as weak ones who need defending, all these arise from culture and from the broken nature of this world. They are not inherent in God's good creation. In Christ we see the true nature of the universe restored and one key aspect of that should be that women regain their rightful place as full equals of men. 

Unfortunately many in the Church do not accept this, which grives me deeply. As I grew up in various branches of the Church I never really confronted questions about the roles and nature of men and women. In the vast majority of churches I have attended over the years the default assumption has been that women are subordinate to men. Women were created to “help” men, to submit to their leadership and serve them as they (men) live out their divine calling. The ideal role for women, in the world in which I grew up, was to be a godly wife and mother – end of story.

Only recently have I really begun to awaken to the grievous error – let's call it sin, because that's what it really is – that the Church has perpetuated throughout so much of its history and which much of it continues to perpetuate to this day. In the interest of upholding a particular interpretation of the Bible, but in reality in the interest of maintaining a patriarchal system where men hold all the power and influence, much of the Church has silenced and marginalized women. In doing so we have robbed the Church of the voices and talents and gifts of more than half of its members and we have hindered the realization of God's Kingdom in this world by restricting women from living out their calling and utilizing their God-given talents. Of this we must repent. We men must relinquish our stranglehold on power and influence and allow the women of the Church and the world to flourish as God created them to. I truly believe that our muzzling of women causes God immense pain and sorrow – and therefore should cause us sorrow as well.

A year or more ago I read the phenomenal book Half the Sky by Sheryl Wudunn and Nicholas D. Kristof. I can say that this book planted the key seeds that have grown in me and brought me to embrace feminism as a key element of expressing my faith in God.  They wrote:

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

As I wrote earlier this year, I not only affirm this statement but I have come to recognize that this struggle remains a key moral challenge in the developing world as well, and particularly within the American evangelical church. As Carolyn Custis James argues in her book Half the Church, the Church cannot afford to squander the talents and resources of half (more than half really) of its members. 

I now struggle with the application of this conjunction of feminism and faith in my life. Much to my sorrow, the church I most regularly attend holds to a very patriarchal worldview. We don't even allow women to collect the offering, for crying out loud! My wife and I have considered looking for a new church home and may yet come to that point, but for now are choosing to remain and raise our voices in advocacy of the equality of women (and others). Sometimes I feel like a lone coyote calling in the desert, expecting stones to be thrown at any time to silence me. The church should be the most welcoming place on earth, the place where each person feels embraced and cherished and where she or he finds the freedom to develop and express her or his gifts and talents. I hope and long for the day when all churches, including my own, will realize this dream. I may yet reach a point where I feel like I must seek to realize this dream in another community, but I do care for the people I worship with and want them to come to recognize that feminism is not only not incompatible with our faith, but in fact expresses deep truths about that faith. With that in mind I keep writing, talking and raising my voice on behalf of women, while at the same time I seek to listen and learn from the many talented women in and outside the Church. It's a great, humbling learning curve and the more I learn the more I recognize that feminism arises from, expresses and strengthens my faith.

This blog entry is a part of the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival, Fourth Edition, hosted by From Two to One. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Power and Surrender

Yesterday I discovered a new-to-me blog, From Two to One, whose author composes well-written, thought-provoking pieces on topics I resonate with. Over the past two days she has written a solid two-piece look at how we turn our worldviews into idols. I encourage you to read what she's written in part one and continue with part two. I think she's very much on target with her analysis.

I agree with the summary her teacher gave of politics: that ultimately it's about power. The citation from Thomas Friedman hits the heart of the issue:

“People with power never think about it; 
people without power think about it all the time.”

This year I have been on a journey, an awakening really, as I begin to understand how much my worldview has been shaped by my background of power. Not that long ago I would have argued that I didn't have much power. Based on some scales I don't. But I come from a privilege class of white men living in the most privileged and powerful countries in the world. I have had the opportunity to live outside of this country for many years, which has helped open my eyes and my mind to seeing and understanding the world differently than most people like me. Now that I'm back in the United States I continue to have my worldview stretched, expanded, deconstructed and reconstructed as I begin to listen to voices that previously I had not heard. It's a challenging, often painful process. It pushes me to change my behaviors, my beliefs and my actions. Sometimes it compels me to be silent where previously I might have spoken out, and at other times it compels me to speak out where before I would have remained silent. It has left me feeling like an outsider and stranger in many of the social circles in which I live.

I feel more and more that the American church, at least the more conservative branches of it in which I have generally been at home, has come to hold to a worldview shaped by a particular cultural lens more than the Kingdom of God. Yet we have managed to blur the two so thoroughly in our theology and practice that we cannot see the difference. We have, as the author of From Two to One argues, made our worldview into an idol, and now we fight viciously and desperately to protect that idol from all threats. In the process we present a false image of Christ, we promote hatred and injustice and all the while claim to be God's ambassadors to our society. Thankfully there are many voices, represented by From Two to One, Kathy Escobar, Caris Adel, Julie Clawson, the Sojourners and others, that strive to speak for the truth of the gospel even though it runs contrary to the worldview idol that many in the American church strive so hard to defend.

What would it look like for the American church, and I'm thinking particularly of the conservative evangelical community, to surrender power and authority rather than fighting so hard to preserve it? What would happen if we allowed God to demonstrate love through us, if we opened our doors to those who are different from us, if we welcomed them not with the goal of “fixing” them but simply with the goal of listening and entering into their stories? What if we stopped fixating on being “right” and admitted that we've been wrong far too often, that we have judged too quickly, that we have far too often caused more hurt than we've healed? Isn't this the model Jesus gave us?