Monday, February 18, 2013

Acts of Repentance

Last week I read chapter 3 of Luke's Gospel. In meditating on this passage, the words of John to the masses caught my attention. In the contemporary German translation Hoffnung für Alle in verse 8 John says:

Zeigt erst einmal durch Taten, dass ihr wirklich zu Gott umkehren wollt.

Show first through deeds that you really want to return to God.

This translation emphasizes what doesn't stand out so strongly in the English translations I have read, that those who claim they want to come back to God should demonstrate this not with empty words or by undergoing some ritual, but in living transformed lives.

John continues by warning the people that the axe is ready to cut down any tree that doesn't bear fruit. In my church background, bearing fruit has most often been understood in terms of “winning souls for Christ.” Those who are not making converts are unfruitful and therefore in danger of being cut down and discarded (into the fires of hell?) But I don't think John has this in mind when he speaks here. The context of the passage doesn't support it, nor do other parts of the New Testament, where we find the fruit of God's spirit within us being evidenced by the manner in which we live (consider Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3:12-17)

What does the evidence of repentence look like according to John the Baptizer? He tells those who have two shirts to give one away and to share their food with those who have none. He tells tax collectors and soldiers not to exploit and abuse their positions but to be content. Interestingly, he doesn't tell them to be more diligent in their personal devotions. He doesn't tell them to cut themselves off from interacting with the world around them. He doesn't tell them to pray more or to evangelize more. He doesn't tell them to be more spiritual. He tells them to demonstrate their transformed hearts through loving action that affirms the dignity and value of others.

In this season of Lent, many Christians choose to give up one or more things as a sacrifice to help focus body and soul on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. I think there can be value in this, although I do not see it as an essential aspect of Christian life. However, Julie Clawson writing about the potential conflict between Lent and Valentine's Day, caught my attention with her focus on going beyond personal spiritual practices during this Lenten season.

Instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, we could work to aid those our culture dictates we exclude. We could provide the blessing of marriage to those our culture forbids to let marry. We could provide aid to those our culture says are unwelcome sojourners in our midst. We could work to ensure that our churches truly are a welcoming house of prayer for all peoples. It may be uncomfortable and perhaps even difficult to work for the good of those our culture would rather us despise or exclude (although I doubt it will get us beheaded), but perhaps that’s what being a martyr for the sake of love means these days.

I think she is right when she states that “It is a lot easier to focus on our personal spiritual development than it is to work for the good of others.” Certainly the two are connected, as working for the good of others flows out of our relationship with God. I see a connection as well with the words of John in Luke 3. We demonstrate our repentance not primarily through acts of personal piety, but through acts of loving service to others. The first may be difficult, but the second is more so.

How do we best demonstrate that our encounter with God transforms our lives? Do we do it best through more church activities, attending worship services as often as possible, joining multiple Bible studies, listening only to Christian radio? Some of those activities may be useful, even necessary. But surely we should give evidence of our transformed lives even more in the way we work to express love to others, to affirm their dignity and worth, to create a more equal and just society, to worship God through caring for creation. May our lives produce bountiful fruit—for the benefit of the people and society around us, as well as for our global community. In this way we honor and worship the God of our salvation.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Drink Milk, Get the Girl

While listening to the radio the other day I heard an advertisement that caused my blood to boil. In the ad, designed to promote milk consumption, two school-age boys are negotiating the exchange of various lunch items. One boy offers to trade his unhealthy lunch items to the other boy for his healthy lunch items. Among the healthy items in the exchange is a container of chocolate milk. After they complete their trade, we hear the voice of a girl expressing how much she admires boys who choose healthy drinks. She indicates that the boy who has made the healthy choice will be rewarded by her at recess in some unspecified manner.

This advertisement offends me because it perpetuates the tired and sexist meme that women are the reward for particular choices. Put succinctly, drink milk, get the girl. This meme has been and continues to be used to advertise an untold number of products. Drink this beer, buy this car, wear this clothing and this sexy woman (or these sexy women) will be all yours. Women are a commodity—objects who exist only to reward men. That the milk producers chose to perpetuate this exploitative mentality to sell milk to boys only makes it more offensive. By choosing this meme to market their product they continue to instill in boys and young men the idea that girls/women are the reward they will get for their choices.

We find this meme all too frequently in advertising. It dominates beer advertising and is a common theme in car advertisements. One need not ponder long to think of several Super Bowl advertisements that used this appeal. I will not provide links to such advertisements because I do not want to give them any more attention than they already receive. I appreciate the campaign promoted by MissRepresentation to call out these sexist advertisements through their “Not Buying It” campaign. Businesses respond primarily to one thing—revenue. So our most effective response to sexist advertisements is to make it clear that we will not purchase products advertised through the objectification of women. If enough of us make it clear to them that we will not tolerate and support such demeaning stereotypes, we can make a difference. Carl's Junior stands out in my mind as a particularly egregious abuser of women in their advertisements. As a result, I avoid eating at Carl's Jr. although I do like their hamburgers. I can list numerous other businesses as well.

Thanks to MissRepresentation and other articles I've read from feminist writers I have become much more aware of the extent to which women are objectified in the media, not only in advertising. Becoming aware of this is the first step. Now I must choose how I will respond. I don't want to support anything that removes or denigrates the worth and dignity of women actively or passively. Of course this takes conscious effort and I cannot say I am fully successful yet. But I am growing in this area. If this idea is new to you, I would encourage you to check out the MissRepresentation website and learn more about how women are routinely portrayed in the media in ways that demean them and treat them as objects for male gratification. We don't need to tell boys that they'll get the girl if they will drink milk. Nor do we men need to tolerate those who tell us that women are our reward for our choices. Surely advertisers can find ways to sell their products that affirm the dignity of all people.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Broken and a Contrite Heart - Guest Post

I have written several pieces lately on the issue of violence, so when I received a newsletter from some friends of mine, written by the mother of one of them, I immediately resonated with the author's argument. She graciously allowed me to repost her article here for the benefit of my readers. I trust that others will find it as challenging as I did.

Jan Wood is the Executive Director of GOOD NEWS Associates. She is also an Associate with a ministry of speaking, writing, consulting and spiritual direction. She is the author of Christians at Work, Not Business as Usual and co-author of Practicing Discernment Together, Finding God’s Way Forward in Decision Making

Be sure to check out the organization's website at


Kudzu is a fast growing invasive species that snuffs out the plant life in its path. To folks’ dismay this plant that was originally imported to the US for its usefulness quickly covered everything in its path, covering roads, cars, trees and buildings and killing off other plant life by shading it from the light. It takes constant vigilance to keep it at bay.

Similarly, the national conversation after the Newtown school shootings have illumed that we Americans have become blind to and smothered by violence. Our national heart has been rightfully broken. We know that enough is enough. Things must be done. Yet the words, opinions, the self-justifications of every sector of our society pour over us like a tsunami. We feel both angry and numb. Broken and belligerent. Hopeful and helpless. But mostly helpless. This is so much bigger than any one of us.

The spirit of self-idolization and its ever-present servant—violence—has spread over and through our American culture muting and smothering the multitudes of individual goodnesses in the world.

The clinging vines of a violent, self-centered culture enwrap us all. They shape us. They enlighten us. They blind us. They shade us from the Light. Violences are pleasantly deceptive. There seems to be no direct connection between what we are immersed in and what we do. No direct connection between what we do and the pain we cause others. And we never notice that our souls—individually and nationally—have gradually become dimmed to the acute, unfiltered radiance of goodness and Light.

Changing a culture seems as impossible as trying to catch a cloud. Yet cultures are constantly changing. We have all seen this happen before our very eyes. As Americans we have cultivated a garden where violence is our ally and friend, our pleasure and entertainment, our safety and our inalienable right. It has become part and parcel of our worldview, our words and actions, and ultimately, our delusions. We have made all other lives and futures dispensable when violence suits our aims. And this part of our culture is destroying our souls, our relationships, our communities and our nation from the inside out. It is the kudzu of our souls.

There is something deep that is calling God’s people to the prophetic; a place of voluntary standing-with and repenting-for a deeply corrupted American culture. It isn’t enough to just try to be better than the culture. Deep compassion and broken hearts compel us to call out to God on behalf of our culture. As folks lustily call for their rights, their pleasures, their freedoms, their safety, their profits, let us simply stop. Stop inwardly justifying our own choices and sink into the broken heartedness that is called for. The list of what-everyone-else-should-and-must-do goes silent. In that space we can feel a deep well spring of repentance. A broken and contrite heart that simply collapses before God and cries out: “Oh God, forgive us!” We don’t know what to do. This is much bigger than us. Yet, we echo the Psalmist by praying

Create in us a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within us.
Cast us not away from thy presence
and take not thy holy Spirit from us.
Restore to us the joy of thy salvation
and uphold us with a willing spirit.

May it begin with us.