Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christmas - A Time to Reflect on our Shopping Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thankful, not Greedy

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

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

It is good to give thanks.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

One Small Step for Women

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For God and Country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Time for Change

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Prayer for Election Day

I have received numerous requests, invitations and exhortations to pray for the outcome of this election. Most of the time these requests come with an expectation--stated or not--as to what that outcome should look like. I've heard time and again that this is the most important election in the history of our nation, quite a statement considering that this is the 57th presidential election in this nation's history. I wonder how many previous elections were deemed at the time to be "the most important"? Do we have a false sense of our own significance?

Leaving that question aside for the moment, I do believe that we as followers of Christ should pray for this election, but not necessarily in the way that many may think. I do believe there are important issues at stake and I certainly have my own opinion on most of them. I know how I would like to see the results turn out Tuesday evening. I also know that many of my friends and acquaintances fervently hope for exactly the opposite outcomes. And in many cases we would all say that our result is more in accordance with God's will. Since elections cannot end in a tie, one side will be disappointed in every instance. Tuesday night (or perhaps later in case of a close race), some people in this country will go to sleep rejoicing that "good has triumphed" while others will go to sleep grieving over the demise of our nation. A bit melodramatic really, considering that the God of the universe has been known to work through some pretty amazing circumstances ranging all over the spectrum. Do we really think that God's will may be thwarted by the outcome of our little election? Can God not take into account our choices and still transform them to bring about their kingdom on earth?

So here, in broad strokes, is my prayer for election day 2012:

I pray that regardless of the outcome, we as a nation will realize that our strength lies in our unity (not uniformity) and that the road forward lies in working together, not in holding tightly to our precious agendas.

I pray that those who celebrate their victories would remember that many are grieving over those same results and act with grace and dignity.

I pray that we as a nation would learn humility and turn from arrogance and pride.

I pray that we would learn again to converse civilly and reasonably.

I pray that we would realize that this nation is not going to hell in a shopping cart just because any particular candidate gets elected. The world will not end on Wednesday just because B.O. or M.R. has won the election. Let's stop pretending otherwise and dump the hyperbole.

I pray in particular that those who call themselves by the name of Christ would demonstrate love in word and deed, not only to those we agree with but even more to those we disagree with. We dishonor Christ when we speak words of hatred and demean other humans who are created equally in God's image.

I pray that even as we all long for economic recovery and better days ahead, that we would remember that God's blessing does not reside in our financial or economic well-being. May we actively care for those who are in need as Christ has taught us and demonstrated to us.

In summary, I pray that God's kingdom will come and God's will shall be done here on earth as it is in heaven, affirming that this can happen whatever the outcome of any political race.

I get the sense, at least from Facebook, that many are anxious about the future of this country. Although I hardly consider myself an optimist, I don't feel that same anxiety. I trust that God's will shall prevail no matter what the results of the election are. God's kingdom is so much bigger than the United States and the outcome of our elections. I find great assurance in that. So yes, I'll be watching the results Tuesday night, and I hope to have some reasons to rejoice and probably will have others to grieve. But in the end, God's kingdom will not be hindered by this and I shall continue to pray and act that God's will may be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What about purple?

Red or blue. Black or white. It seems these days that everything must be cast in dichotomy. We've lost the middle ground, the shades and variations that bring color and diversity to our world. We reduce people and issues to labels, either A or B, red or blue, black or white. I see this in so many areas. What has propelled us to cast nearly every aspect of life in two tones? We can't just blame it on the media, because we perpetuate it every time we post something on Facebook that takes one position and vehemently denounces the other as un-American or unbiblical or un-something. We bear the guilt for erasing the shades of color from our world.

I too am guilty of participating in this dichotomous system. Many years ago while working as an intern with the junior high youth at my church I prepared a talk (that's what we called the youth sermons) based around a song by Leslie (now Sam) Phillips entitled Black and White in a Grey World. I no longer have the text of my message, but I remember that the main point focused on how we as believers needed to see things as black and white, right or wrong, good or evil. This, I argued at the time, was how we needed to stand out in a world that had blurred everything into shades of grey.

Now, many years later, I see things quite differently. Yes, black and white do exist, but those shades of grey (or of purple, if we refer to the contrast as red/blue) define the world in which we live. I find now that so many issues cannot simply be reduced to right or wrong, black or white, red or blue. Even issues that once seemed clear cut to me I now recognize as having far more complexity and nuance to them. I may oppose abortion, but the issue cannot be reduced to whether it should be illegal or not. That won't solve any problems really, although it may make it seem like it has. Casting the issue simply in terms of pro-choice or pro-life limits us to two colors, ignoring the many facets of the discussion such as the factors that encourage or reduce abortion. But it's so much easier to slap a label on myself or others and have done with it.

The political sphere in our nation has come to be defined in this way. A person is either red or blue. They can't possibly fall somewhere in the middle, because that's too complex and cannot be easily summarized in a nice chart or color-coded map. Don't consider any colors outside of that duality. Green? Pink? Orange? Forget it, there's no room for that in our two-tone world.

Unfortunately I see this same mentality within the Church, or at least within the parts of it that I frequent. If one is a Christian, one must adopt position A and not B, position X and not Y. A person is either saved or a sinner. Women are either virgins or sluts. We've cut out any middle ground, which may be part of the reason that many people feel uncomfortable in the Church. There's no room for diversity and color. Apparently we fear the middle ground, because in the middle the answers are not clear cut and we can't quickly define people. We're uncomfortable when we don't know how to label those around us.

Looking back now at that Leslie Phillip's song, I see that in one verse she sang: 
It's not so easy finding answers in the shade.It takes some patience, takes some gritBut it's better than throwing all your colors in the streetWhat's life without color in it?
In the song she uses these words to argue for a black and white perspective, but as I consider the world now, I would understand these words differently. Yes, it is not easy finding answers in the shade. Living in a world that has diverse shades of meaning, a world in which there are not easy black and white answers to most questions presents great challenges. We cannot just cite some “authority” and have done with the matter. We must wrestle with the questions and the many nuances involved. We have to actually deal with real people and real situations which are inherently messy and complex. It does take patience and grit. But it is indeed better than throwing all our colors in the street, abandoning them in favor of a world where we can quickly label and define people as being one of two shades.

How do we move beyond a world limited to dichotomies? We need to stop limiting ourselves to sound bites and simplistic positions. Especially as followers of Christ we need to get to know the messy, colorful, complex world in which we live and stop seeing things as either black or white. Some issues can come down to that, but the vast majority of them not only allow for but demand greater diversity. We need to engage with people and hear their stories, rather than trumpeting little snippets of information that support our position. Even if we choose to define ourselves as black or white or red or blue, we can recognize that the issues are far more complex and that our perspective is always limited and imperfect. Let's stop reducing people and issues to labels and affirm the diversity that exists in society and creation. After all, what's life without color in it?