My Generation’s Failure

The YMCA where the signers of the Chicago Declaration of 1973 met.

It was a wet, cold day at the end of November in 1973. We were in the middle of Watergate. It was during this month that Richard Nixon said, “…people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” The Vietnam war was winding down. Arab cartels were limiting oil production. To conserve speed limits, the U.S. lowered speed limits to 55 mph. A group of evangelical Christians met in the basement of the YMCA in Chicago and hammered out a statement declaring the incompatibility of racism, economic materialism and inequality, nationalism, sexism, and unholy political alliances with biblical teaching. Here was the statement they came up with, titled The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. This is the statement in full, reproduced from the Center for Public Justice site:

As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.

We must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services. We recognize that as a nation we play a crucial role in the imbalance and injustice of international trade and development. Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.

We acknowledge our Christian responsibilities of citizenship. Therefore, we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might–a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad. We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.

We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.

We proclaim no new gospel, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.

By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.

We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship until he comes.

November 25, 1973

I came across this statement recently in something I was reading, and it was the saddest page I’ve read in a long time. It was an indictment of the failures of my generation.

I was a college sophomore in November of 1973. I learned of this statement, and a similar one at Lausanne 74 the following summer during the summer of 1974. This statement expressed the rallying cry of my generation of young evangelicals, written by a group barely a few years older than I was.

Here I am 47 plus years later. I’m dismayed by the continued complicity of white evangelicalism in the racist divisions in our country. I’m dismayed by the unholy alliance of at least three-quarters of white evangelicalism with one political party. I’m dismayed at the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m dismayed by story after story of abuse of women in Christian circles. I’m dismayed by the indulgence in and defense of economic materialism and inequity–more pronounced than 47 years ago. I’m dismayed by the trillions of dollars spent on endless wars. I’m dismayed by the climate change-induced dislocation and hunger faced by millions of the world’s poorest.

I’m dismayed because we knew better, and aspired to better. I’m dismayed because we used power to perpetuate and enlarge all these things we knew were incompatible with biblical teaching. I’m dismayed because instead of not proclaiming a new gospel, we are not interested in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, preferring endless partisan political harangues, whether on the left or the right. I’m dismayed that about the only things that carry over and are as true in 1973 and 2021 are these:

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

Perhaps most of all, I am dismayed at our unrepentance, at our hardness of heart. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a near coup attempt upon our government, natural catastrophes, and deepening social divisions that should drive us to our knees, but seem to only drive us to endless tweeting and posting, and trying to act as if life is “normal” in a most abnormal time.

I write this on Ash Wednesday evening. When ashes are applied to the forehead it is customary for the officiant to say either “Repent and believe in the Gospel, or more customarily, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday begins a season of self-examination and repentance as we look toward Eastertide. It is a time to renounce all earthly powers, all our idolatries of money and power and earthly kingdoms, and to acknowledge the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection for us as our only hope as we approach our own inevitable death.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the white evangelical church will use the Chicago Declaration of 1973 as a statement against which to examine ourselves and as a call to repentance. And yet I do, because this is my “tribe,” those with whom my life and work has been most closely identified. But whether or not this happens for others, it will for me, along with prayer that the generation rising will not go our way.

Faithless Fears

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I’ve watched friends go down dark corridors of fear and suspicion. You likely know people like this as well. I don’t need to talk about the issues and have no interest in the arguments. I’ve seen them all. And weighed them, as likely you have. I wonder, though, why some go down these dark corridors.

I’ve been thinking about the fear and suspicion that seems to run through many narratives. Now, I don’t absolutely dismiss fear and suspicion. Every time I open email or hear the phone ring, I exercise a certain amount of suspicion. When someone asks me to “verify” my account I am suspicious. When someone calls demanding payment for a tax bill via a gift card, I’m suspicious. While I am not afraid to die, I have a healthy respect for COVID, having known friends who died or got very sick from the virus. Insofar as I can avoid it, I don’t want to find out which side of the probabilities I would end up on.

Andy Crouch, in a book called Culture-Making makes a distinction between gestures and postures. Gestures are situationally determined. Postures are hardened, fixed ways of carrying ourselves. In a fallen world, suspicion and fear are warranted gestures in particular situations. Being suspicious of a telemarketer makes sense. Being suspicious of friends and associates, people of a certain descent or political affiliation, just because of that origin or affiliation suggests a gesture becoming a posture.

Some signs of a fearful or suspicious outlook becoming a posture:

  • You spend significant amounts of your time online surfing websites providing information confirming your suspicions. Then you re-post them to your “friends.”
  • You have limited your news sources in the same way, dismissing any differing accounts, no matter the reputability of the news organization as “fake.”
  • Your conversations have increasingly focused on the things about which you are suspicious.
  • You notice that many of your friends, apart from those sharing the same suspicions, are avoiding you or try to get out of conversations with you as soon as they can.

Some of us by disposition or life experience may be more prone to hardening into postures of fear and suspicion. Perhaps the best thing we might do is suspect ourselves more and others less in these cases. And get help!

The truth is we were not made for this. We were made for love and trust, and fear and suspicion are a distortion, a twisting of the good intent of God. In the Genesis account God places the man and woman in a garden that provides for their every need. Amid all this abundance, God has forbidden eating from a single tree. Why would God do this? Most theologians think that this one prohibition made loving and trusting God a choice, and thus meaningful. If there were no other choice but to love and trust God, what would these words mean?

It is this trust that the serpent attacked (by the way, never trust a talking serpent!). The serpent asks, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” What’s going on here? In addition to distorting the truth (it was one tree, not any tree) the serpent’s question is designed to cast doubt on God, to undermine trust, and ultimately their relation of love. It insinuates the suspicion that God is not really good, and not to be trusted. Then the serpent says, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This deepens the suspicion. God is holding them back. Even though they already are in the image of God, the serpent suggests God doesn’t want them to be like him.

What it comes down to is that God made us to love and trust and enjoy God forever–and each other. When the couple give in to their suspicions, it goes wrong all around. Suspicion is not of God. We were made to live in a posture of love and trust. The apostle Paul extends this to our relationships with each other: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). This does not mean in a fallen world that we close our eyes to evil. But our default is a focus on truth rather than one on evil. John the apostle speaks about how “perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18). For lovers of God and followers of Christ, our default posture is one of love and trust, not fear and suspicion.

This does not mean people will not betray our trust. Even Jesus was betrayed. But his last act with Judas was to offer him food, a mark of honor and affection. Far more often, I find that when we believe the best of others, many try to live up to that belief. Flowing from this, those whose narrative is one of fear and suspicion send up red flags for me, no matter what they are purporting. I’m not going to live that way. That’s not what we’re made for.

The title for this post comes from a phrase in a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019):

FOR TRUSTFULNESS IN TIMES OF WORRY AND ANXIETY

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is where I want to live, as long as I live, in the place of “trustfulness,” “in the light of that love which is immortal.”


Do We Need New Metaphors for Argument?

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One of the delights of reading is when you come across an insight that feels like that missing puzzle piece you have been searching for. In this case, I was reading Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III’s new book, Charitable Writing. Gibson and Beitler teach together in a writing program and are writing as Christians thinking about how Christian virtues, like humility and charity ought shape how one writes, and how one teaches writing. One of the obstacles this aspiration bumps up against is that writing is often about making an argument. It can be as simple as who has the better team, Alabama or Ohio State?

The challenge is that arguments often descend into rancor, and many of us shy away from argument, even when we have a significant disagreement with some. We’ve seen this end badly, whether on Facebook where stock clichés and one line repartee substitutes for real conversation, or when shouting matches and physical violence jeopardize the safety as well as the future of a marriage. Arguments split churches and undermine business partnerships.

Gibson and Beitler observe, drawing on the research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, that our basic framework of argument is war. They offer these examples:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms are right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree! Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.

The way we think about argument shapes the way we think of the person with whom we argue. We consider them as enemies or opponents or adversaries. They may be colleagues, classmates, fellow citizens, business associates, part of our religious community, or even family members. But the “war” framework turns them into enemies.

Lakoff and Johnson (and Gibson and Beitler following them) propose that we need different metaphors. Some of these include dance, cooking, barn-raisings, joining pieces of wood into furniture, and conversation. I like the idea of performing a musical composition. Compositions have a variety of instrumental and/or voice parts. They don’t all sound the same. Musical pieces often involve parts where a tension is developed, and then resolved. Most of the time we like to sing in harmony, but dissonance has its place. It wakes us up, and often the resolution takes us to a new place.

What all these have in common is that everything or everyone is needed. Applied to argument, that means both, or all the parties to an argument are needed. In fact, in many situations, they have common interests and goals, but different ideas of how to get there. In a war metaphor, where someone wins and someone loses, what is really lost or diminished is the overall capacity to reach a common goal–whether it is a flourishing marriage or a flourishing nation. Just as all the instruments or parts are necessary to achieve the composer’s intention, we need each other in an argument. All the ingredients are needed for a good bowl of chili. The whole community is needed for an Amish barn-raising with some doing carpentry, some roofing, and some cooking!

This does not mean we should not believe in our own arguments or seek to persuade others of them. But in a good argument, one must hear and answer what the argument of the other. Where someone differs, if we do not understand why they differ, we cannot address the difference. In good arguments, we sometimes discover considerations left out in our own arguments. Sometimes, understanding differences makes the resolution better than what either of us has proposed because we’ve been forced to think about how is this good for all of us, for our shared interest, and not simply our personal interest. Good arguments refine our thinking (another metaphor), getting rid of the unneeded to focus on what is pure gold.

Whenever you have two or more people together in a room or an enterprise, you are going to have an argument sooner or later. Will it be a war with wounded or even dead (hopefully only metaphorically, although even this is bad)? Or will it be like a group learning to make music with each other? When you first “read” through a choral piece together, the result is often not pretty. The beauty and power of the piece are not apparent. Entrances are late or tentative, wrong notes are sung, rhythms are out of sync, some sing too loud or soft. It comes together both when each does their own work of practice and all follow the director, keep time, and not sing so loudly that you can’t hear the others in your section, let alone other parts.

And so it is with argument. Often it is the power of “and.” Adversarial arguments are framed as either/or, win-lose. In dramatic improv, the basic rule is that when one makes a statement, the other actor’s response is, “Yes, and…” and so it goes. Reaching the point of singing a piece as it was meant to be, where all the parts are working together can be exhilarating. So it is with a good argument, when the sum of our ideas are better than what either could come up with alone, where each of us refines the thinking of the other.

Our metaphors matter. I’d rather make music, dance, cook, and build than make war. How about you?

New Year Reflections

December Vectors by Vecteezy

Happy New Year!

I find myself coming into this year saddened, grateful, waiting, and hopeful.

Saddened: So many lives ended too soon by COVID-19, including at least one friend. The divided state of our nation that can’t even agree on something as simple as wearing masks, that can’t unite around a common enemy in the form of a virus. The deepening unsettling recognition of how deeply engrained racism is in our country and my own complicity. I grieve today for Andre Wells and Casey Goodson from my city who won’t see the new year. I grieve for a warming planet and the existential threat that we refuse to face. I grieve the culture of deception and the death of truth in a grave of universal suspicion. I wish all this would have ended with 2020. The trouble is that time passes, but we carry these things embedded in our lives. I’m not pleased with what I’ve seen of myself and as I move into the new year, I want to look at what God wants to change in me.

Grateful: Quite simply, I’m grateful to be alive, for each and every day. With so much closed down and so many at home, I’m grateful for all the conversations I’ve had with friends during 2020–so many I’ve not spoken with in years. Our church hasn’t met in person since March yet I’ve been touched by the mutual care we’ve practice from prayers to porch fairies with bags of groceries for shut-ins. We’ve still been able to serve a community through a garden, a food pantry, school supplies and Christmas gifts and winter clothes for children. I feel our pastor has been touched by God to speak into our hearts to help us all live through this time. Significantly, so far, none of us have been sickened. There has been time to read, to think, and to realize that we don’t need to shop and eat out to be entertained. I’m grateful for deck, patio and driveway visits with our son and his wife. We’ve enjoyed plein air painting with friends and participating in a virtual choral work. I hope I can learn the lessons of gratitude and its companion, generosity, in 2021.

Waiting: Our pastor spoke honestly and thoughtfully this past Sunday about waiting, and that waiting would continue to be part of our lives in 2021. This year, and these past weeks of Advent, have taken me more deeply into how waiting is so much a part of my faith–the coming of the Savior and his good rule. It has made me long more deeply for that coming. I do struggle with knowing those for whom waiting is difficult–businesses going under, those wrestling with depression–I don’t see easy answers as long as infections are high and we must “hunker down.” I also know of stories of many who have stood by those who wait, whether with patronage and GoFundMe campaigns, or simply by being present. This time of waiting, particularly as we look toward vaccines and the hope of a return to some kind of new normal, can also be a time of taking stock of what we have learned. I suspect there are some things we might not go back to, and some things that will be all the more precious. I want to use the time of waiting both to wait with others and to discern what God’s invitations are as we come out of this.

Hopeful. I am hopeful for the impact of the vaccine. I’ve seen vaccines eradicate other diseases. I know some of the scientists who have worked on these vaccines and believe they can make a big difference in suppressing the disease if we work together and accept the vaccine when it is our turn. But ultimately, I’m hopeful because of my faith. My hope in the resurrection leads me to hope for many mini resurrections. Creative new work arrangements, new businesses and rejuvenated ones, new educational methods, and hopefully new initiatives toward racial justice in our country and my own city. Will the lessons we learned about reducing energy use be ones that lead to permanently reducing our carbon footprints? And like many of you, I’m looking forward with hope to many of those deferred celebrations, all the sweeter because we’ve had to wait so long.

This blog is in its eighth year. I am so grateful for all of you who take time to read and comment, some of you regularly. It’s been a place of sharing so many favorite things: good books, important ideas, and great memories of Youngstown among other things. Lord willing, we’ll get to do a lot more of that this year. I will leave you with a thought I came across recently in Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder:

We’re all blessed and we’re all blighted, . . . . Every day each of us does our sums. The question is, what do we count?”

I do wish all who read a Happy New Year. Stay safe and count well…you all are dear to me!

Light in the Darkness

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“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”
–Matthew 4:15-16

I’ve been meditating of late how Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Savior from the margins. He was from an oppressed nation under Roman domination. Nazareth was in the remote north, far from the religious center of Jerusalem. He was likely of darker complexion. From a human point of view, his conception seemed questionable. The circumstances of his birth were “lowly.” The first to pay him homage were shepherds, people who lived on society’s margins. His early years were as a refugee, his parents fleeing to Egypt to save his life. His was in the building trades, working as a carpenter. 

I’ve read a number of books by people on the margins this year–people of color, women who have been abused, even in the church, climate refugees, the poor. It strikes me Jesus would have much in common with these people, and it was for such as them, those living on the margins in the land of Galilee that he came, light into the darkness.

In one sense, I’m one of those, apart from our shared humanity, with whom Jesus had the least in common. The wonder of it all is that he came even for me. The truth is I am no more deserving and perhaps less than these. What has become increasingly clear is that I don’t get to remake him into a middle class, educated, American, white guy. This reminds me of a book of poems from my Jesus movement days, “Good Old Plastic Jesus” by Ernest Larsen, which is about all the ways we try to re-make Jesus. Instead, he came to those in darkness and dying to remake them, to bring light. So I find myself, especially in this tumultuous year of protests and pandemic, asking, “how would Jesus come and remake me?”

For much of my life I’ve been taught that those on the margins are “them,” the “other,” and to be feared and guarded against. I like to think of Jesus as with me. What a shattering thought that Jesus may likely be with “them,” that he is the “other.” One thing I’ve noticed about Jesus though. He doesn’t exclude. Sinners, tax collectors, women of questionable reputation are all at his table. Pharisees and religious leaders are as well, when they choose to be, and outside when they choose that. Usually they are outside to distance themselves from “them.” When I distance myself from others, I distance myself from Jesus. Then who is in the light of Jesus, and who in the darkness?

At the end of this year of protests, politics, and pandemics, I am weary of those who would separate us and them and make me choose. I want to choose to be where Jesus is, bringing light into darkness rather than cursing it. And I need Jesus to come and shine his light into all the hidden, dark places in me, the places where I still divide the world into us and them, the enlightened and the benighted.

Come, Lord Jesus and bring light into our darkness!

Will I Accept Vaccination?

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As I sit down to write, word came that the FDA had authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. This followed authorization of the vaccine in the U.K. this past week. There is a great deal of controversy about the vaccines, some from those who oppose all vaccines, and others with concerns about the vaccines for COVID.

I do not want to argue about this. I don’t have the time, and your argument really isn’t with me but the scientific experts and public health people who know more about this stuff than either of us. I simply am going to share my own thinking and decision. In short, when my turn comes, which likely won’t be for several months yet, I will accept vaccination.

Here’s how I think about it. While there is a very small risk of side effects with any vaccine, the risk of death at my age with COVID is significantly greater. I have not been infected and so am susceptible. I am not afraid of death as a Christian who believes that when death comes I will rest in peace with the Lord and rise in glory at the resurrection. But I treasure the gift of embodied life and here, as in other matters of self-care, I choose to care for the body with which I have been entrusted.

I have been vaccinated throughout my life without ill effect. I was born about the time the first polio vaccine was approved. I have friends a few years older suffering the lifelong effects of polio. I’ve not had concerns about tetanus (a gruesome way to die) or diptheria or pertussis because of vaccines. I had measles, mumps, rubella as a child. I’m glad my son didn’t. I harbor the chicken pox virus in my body because that vaccine wasn’t around when I was a child. I’ve had the shingles vaccine to prevent the adult version of this childhood disease. I’ve had yearly flu vaccines and pneumonia vaccines. I think I’ve had the flu only twice in my adult life. I do realize some people have allergies that may rule out vaccines and they should discuss this with their health care provider.

Beyond my own health is the wider health of our society. That society begins with my wife who has the same risk factors and is a cancer survivor. Vaccines work by interrupting the chain of infection. COVID must find an organic host or die. I think we have had enough COVID. Enough (and more than enough) have gotten very sick or died including dear friends. I don’t want to be the cause of sickness and death in another. I want COVID to run out of hosts and die, or at least be severely suppressed. That can only happen if most of us get the vaccine. I suspect we always will need to be watchful, but vaccines, when used widely, have eradicated some diseases. I’m glad to do my part. We don’t need more years like 2020 with its losses of lives and livelihoods and all the other impacts on our society.

I’ve read all the claims about dangers or conspiracies (so don’t post them or send them to me). I’m not convinced. What does convince me is the process. I have friends who have been in trials, and all spoke about the informed consent, the monitoring, and deliberate care. Some of these friends are scientists who recognize when corners are being cut. None were. No, the vaccine doesn’t change my genetic code. No Bill Gates is not inserting microchips in all of us. The animus against Bill Gates puzzles me when he and Melinda Gates have done so much with their money to save lives, with nothing to personally gain except the satisfaction of doing it. Yes, he was pretty cut-throat in building Microsoft. But maybe his life suggests the hope of redemption. Personally, I don’t have any time for the Gates-bashing crowd–I’m just challenged by his example of generosity which makes me ask myself how generously and generatively I live. But I digress.

I hope vaccination will not be a political football in the U.S. The current occupant of the White House lent his endorsement to the effort to develop the vaccine in record time. The presumptive president-elect has signaled a target of 100 million vaccinated in 100 days. Former presidents of both parties have said they will be vaccinated on screen. I don’t see being vaccinated as a litmus test of political loyalty any more than any other vaccine I’ve ever received.

I’m most glad that our front line health care people have first access to the vaccine. I want those who have not already gotten sick to be spared. I also hope we cooperate when it is our turn, so they will not have to keep seeing the horrors of these past months of watching people say good bye to loved ones on a I-pad, of being the only one with someone as they take their last breaths. Yes, this is part of medicine, but not in the heart-breaking numbers they are seeing right now.

I decided to write about this because I sense many who read me have at least some regard for some of the things I say. If you differ, it does not change my regard for you. If you think I’m out to lunch or deceived, pray that I might see the light–but don’t argue or send me articles. I’ve likely seen them or ones like them. I just wanted you to know how I’ve been thinking about this decision and what I’ve decided. I look forward to the day when this is in the rear view mirror, when we can make up for all the celebrations we’ve missed. I hope we can be there together or enjoy each other’s pictures on Facebook. Stay safe my friend.

[I am serious about not wanting to argue about this. I consider it a waste of time and energy. And I will take down posts that try to do this.]

Thanksgiving in a Pandemic

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“Rejoice always,  pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).

There is one imperative that hasn’t been hard to follow during the COVID pandemic. I’m constantly hearing of people to pray for who have tested positive, are sick, and maybe very sick. Equally, I hear of many who are struggling with isolation and depression from months of physical distancing from others, and the sheer length of this virus.

Rejoicing and thanksgiving? That is harder, and were it not for some prayer practices that my work team follow in the collegiate ministry with which I work, I probably would not do much of this. Thank you, Carrie and Kathy, for this. But it is hard. Monday night I learned of a long-time acquaintance who worked in Student Life at Ohio State who passed from COVID. His smile will no longer light up any room he is in, nor will students know the care of this big bear of a man. As I write, Ohio topped 10,000 new cases in a day and set a single day record for COVID deaths.

How can one give thanks amid all this? I certainly cannot give thanks for it. That would be cruel and heartless and perverse.

Paul’s urging is to give thanks in all circumstances, not for them. He writes to a church that has faced intense persecution in an empire where Christians were not a legal, recognized religion. And life for many in these times was often nasty, brutish, and short.

Paul’s urging to give thanks is situated in the middle of passages that speak of Christian faith and hope, between the faith that assures one of God’s saving work in this life and the one to come, and the certain hope of that coming.

This leads me first to be thankful both for the life in which I enjoy God’s love and approval and that I’ve nothing to fear in death. Because I treasure the life in which I can live out that faith, I heed the measures that offer protection from getting sick. I don’t practice these out of fear but thankfulness for public health officials who offer this advice. If, despite this, I get sick, I am at peace.

I give thanks each morning when I awaken healthy, and at the end of the day.

I give thanks for all the public officials and health care workers who care for those who are sick, sometimes despite public resistance, and often putting their health on the line.

I give thanks for first responders, grocery and other frontline workers who are at greater risk, who serve us, many at relatively low wages.

I give thanks for my wife, and that I do not live alone during this time. Her daily companionship and the ways we help each other when we get too obsessed with the news, helps us both to keep a sense of proportion

I give thanks for the small blessings of daily life, meals prepared and shared with each other, working together on home projects, de-cluttering, and maintenance. Not going out so much gave us the time to work together on those tasks we avoided–like the first cleanout of our garage in ten years or more.

I give thanks for my son and his wife. I admire their good sense throughout the pandemic without any expressions of parental concern. We won’t be together for Thanksgiving or Christmas (apart from a drive-by outdoor gift exchange). We’re grateful for outdoor, physically distanced visits from time to time and that they have also remained healthy.

I give thanks for our church. We have not met in person since early March but I feel, if anything, closer as I pay attention to the prayer lists and stay in touch with a number of individuals. And it might be that I pay even closer attention to our pastor’s sermons when he is staring me in the face on Zoom!

I give thanks for the glorious sunsets I’ve seen on walks during these months. I’ve thought of some time posting a photo spread of the sunsets of the pandemic.

I give thanks for the glorious music I’ve listened to (and the chance to be a part of one virtual recording) even while I miss our local choral group. We all have recognized more clearly than ever the treasure of singing together.

I give thanks for the opportunities to join our plein air group in safe, outdoor painting outings this summer and online gatherings with artist friends.

I give thanks for books (of course!). I’ve kept company with writers like Hilary Mantel and Marilynne Robinson. I’m thankful for publishers who usually say “yes” to review requests. As always, I’m thankful for the incomparable Byron and Beth Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. I’m so thankful for all my book-loving friends who help turn reading into a community conversation.

I give thanks for meaningful work encouraging emerging scholars as they connect faith and their academic calling. I get to write, edit, and interview people far more intelligent and gifted than I. This old dog keeps learning about various social media platforms, web analytics, marketing. Everyday brings conversations with a variety of partners inside and outside our organization. Fortunately, I am able to do all of this at home.

The pandemic has taught me in new ways to focus on all the things we have and may do, even in a time of loss. Perhaps confronting so much that I cannot control has challenged me to greater prayerfulness throughout the day.

By God’s grace, next year’s list may include so much we’ve had to leave aside. There is so much I look forward to be “over with.” But I don’t want to forget either those we’ve lost or the particular goodness of God in these times. Most of all. I am thankful and rejoice in the unchanging and certain hope our faith affords us. As we sit down to dinner today the abundance on our table will reflect the abundance in our hearts and lives.

Thoughts and Words

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I reviewed Adam Smyer’s You Can Keep That To Yourself yesterday. He make’s this interesting observation at the beginning of the book:

I will tell you what not to say, but I will not tell you what not to think. Think whatever you like.

Let’s review.

THOUGHTS are the things on the In side of your head. They are invisible. Your thoughts are yours. No one else’s. No one else wants them.

WORDS are the things that exit your hole to the Out side of your head, where we are. They are a lot like thoughts, except that we can hear them. We don’t want most of those, either. You can keep them.

Adam Smyer, You Can Keep That to Yourself, p. 9.

Smyer’s book is about the insensitive things “well-intentioned people of pallor” say to Black people. But there is a principle here that is worth considering in all situations: you don’t have to say everything you think.

This is a principle I’ve called to mind again and again during the past election season. Whenever I’ve failed to observe it online, I’ve ended up responding to those who disagreed with me, wasting too much of my one precious life. How liberating it was to realize that I didn’t have to respond to an objectionable comment. I could respond in my head and hit mental “send” and let it go.

There are so many times when I’ve wished I could stuff words back into thought-land. Unfortunately, you can’t. All you can do is clean up the mess.

I personally wonder why people feel compelled to disagree on matters of taste. If you don’t like butter pecan ice cream, you really don’t need to rain on my parade. Why not just share your own favorite, like cookies ‘n cream–or whatever!

I like how the New Living Translation renders Proverbs 10:19:

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.

There are times, though, when we do need to speak. It’s one thing to think about what not to say. What tests may we apply to discern what we should say? There is a test developed by Herbert J. Taylor and introduced to the Chicago Rotary Club that was eventually adopted by the Rotary International and called the Four Way Test for these four questions:

1. Is it the TRUTH?
2. Is it FAIR to all Concerned?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Imagine applying this to work conversations, our marriages, and everything we post online. Imagine if we could get all our politicians to pledge to this simple test and keep everything that doesn’t meet the test in thought land.

I suspect using this test, if nothing else, will incline us to say less. Sometimes, by pausing and using this test I find my initial thought was wrong and not what I really think, or would say. If I am not sure in some situations how to answer, it can help. After all, should I say what I’m thinking when I’m not sure of the answers to the questions of the Four Way Test? Probably not.

Just remember. You don’t have to say everything you think. Less is more.

Pandemic Fatigue

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What day is it? They all seem alike. I haven’t been out to eat at a restaurant since early March. I haven’t hugged my son and daughter-in-law since early in the year. All my conversations, except with my wife, are on Zoom, except for brief exchanges when I’m out for walks in my neighborhood. I miss singing with my choir–except for virtual recordings (I did last night). I hadn’t reckoned on this going for seven months, and perhaps that many more.

I don’t think most of us did, and it is hard on all of us.

And it is very tempting to just say, “I’m over with this.” Can’t I just throw a big football party with all my friends? Or celebrate Thanksgiving with lots of friends and food?

And then I remember I’ve made it through seven months. We are in our sixties, and that is good news. By God’s grace, we haven’t gotten sick when others in our age group have gotten very sick. We personally know of people who have died–our age or younger. Perhaps you do as well.

I’m also reminded of life challenges that have lasted into years. And there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel. Caring for a parent with terminal colon cancer. Walking through each parent’s final years, the calls in the night (never good), the emergency trips home. There was a graduate degree while working a full time job with a young family. There were the half marathons I ran. Walking with my wife through close to a year of cancer treatments and recovery. Working a number of years to accomplish work goals that couldn’t be done in a year.

I’ll bet you have stories like that. You were tired. You even were tempted to quit. Why didn’t you? Those memories and the answer to why you didn’t quit might be important in your life right now. It might be your love for someone else who was dear to you. It might be a goal that answers to a deep calling in your life. It might be a faith that believes goodness and truth triumph in the end.

What practices sustained you when you had to say “no” to many good things in life? Maybe it was a few quiet minutes with some music and a glass of wine. Maybe it was a walk in the park. Maybe you read the Bible or said your prayers. Reaching out to a trusted friend with whom you can be your unfiltered self. And you kept doing these things as you were able.

While none of us have gone through a pandemic before, many of us know what it is to go through hard things that aren’t over in a few days or weeks. We know what it is to be fatigued, and find the resources to keep going.

And if we haven’t? Then this is our time to develop the grit, the resolve, the stick-to-it-iveness that will serve us well in any other challenges we face in our lives. What story will you tell about this time?

Why does it matter? Because the infectiousness of this disease means the action of one could affect 10 or 50 or 100 others. In a highly individualistic country, it reminds us how our lives are inextricably intertwined. That party could result in the deaths of grandparents who weren’t even present.

Have you ever thought, “I’ve made it this far, I don’t want to lose all I’ve worked for when I’m getting closer to making it through.” We’re a lot closer to a vaccine than last March. We’re closer to when this virus will recede if not disappear.

As a Christian, I do not fear death. But my faith also teaches me that life is never to be thrown away heedlessly. These have been good months of reading and writing, communicating and planning, building and clearing out. They have been months of clarifying and simplifying. They have been months of trying new things. I’ve been fortunate to work, and work as hard in many ways as any time in life. They are months for which I’m glad I’ve been alive. By God’s grace I hope to be doing these things for a while yet and I want to be around when we can gather and party and sing again–without masks.

I want that for you as well. Let’s hang in there together.

How Then Shall I Vote?

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There are numerous discussions on how one should make decisions about for whom to vote. I approach this question as a Christian and the first thing I note is what an exceptional thing in Christian history it is to be able to vote for those who serve us in government. For much of history and even today in many parts of the world, Christians have no say over who leads their government and must figure out what Christian faithfulness looks like in these circumstances, sometimes under regimes openly hostile to Christians. The U.S. recognition of the right to vote for all our citizens (with certain exceptions) is a precious right that should be vigorously protected for all as a recognition of our common humanity in the image of God.

For many Christians, their primary criteria is where their candidate lines up on the issues. My difficulty is several-fold. One is which issues? My difficulty is that when I consider biblical teaching, I find no party whose platform conforms to biblical teaching across the board. Also, there are differences among Christians about how to achieve certain aims, or whether the aim of Christian political engagement is the conformity of a pluralistic country to biblical morality specific to followers of Christ. There are many issues, for example local issues, for which there may not be a clear biblical principle.

I would contend that the Bible prioritizes character and competence, that I might summarize in the phrase, “skillful shepherds.” Psalm 78:72 pays this tribute to David: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

First of all, the psalmist emphasizes the integrity of David’s heart. David wasn’t perfect, but when confronted with wrongdoing, he admitted his wrongdoing and the justice of God’s judgments. I grew up in Youngstown and saw the impact of a half century or more of political corruption, where political leaders would say they were serving the people when they were beholden to criminal elements and lining their own pockets. As a young voter, I saw how Richard Nixon betrayed the trust of the people in the Watergate cover-up, helping undermine confidence in those in public office.

Second, he describes his work as leading with skillful hands. I want to find not only a person of integrity, but one who has demonstrated skill in the requirements of the office to which that person aspires. I want to see that in their family life, their business affairs, or whatever prior office they have served in. Perhaps this reflects the experience of hiring people based not on their aspirations but on the basis of their deeds done. Doris Kearns Goodwin highlights Lincoln’s skills in Team of Rivals in uniting and calling out the best from a cabinet made up of Lincoln’s political rivals.

Finally, David is described as a shepherd. Good shepherds do not drive sheep, they lead them, going ahead, interposing their own bodies between any threat and the sheep. In John 10, Jesus says that he knows sheep by name. Elsewhere, he says good shepherds care for all the sheep, going after the stray. A good shepherd does not have favorites or those they ignore. A good shepherd serves the sheep, not oneself.

One of the challenges of leadership is that one cannot know the future. No political leader in the world had a platform article or position on responding to a pandemic in 2019. The character and competence of leaders has played a significant role in the differences in outcomes in a virus that knew no distinctions of people, or state or national boundaries.

No political leader is perfect, nor are any of the rest of us for that matter. What I want to look at as best as I can determine is the basic trajectory of the person’s life up to now. Only then do I turn to issues, especially when the contest is between two people of integrity and skill, a choice to be wished for, but not always achieved. I also keep in mind the important but limited purpose of political leaders in God’s economy. At their best, they uphold justice and maintain order and pursue the flourishing of all our citizens, but they cannot bring in the new heaven and the new earth, nor can they effect the inner transformation of the gospel. They can create or abolish laws, establish programs, make policies and appoint judges. But so much of the fabric of society is sustained by how we “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” in our neighborhoods, businesses, and wider communities.

I neither think it is my place to tell you how I am voting, nor how you should (if you have not already!). But I know there are some of you, like me, who are conscientious about making these decisions and wrestle over the question of issues and campaign promises, and I hope my own discernment process is helpful. It is how I think about voting, whether for presidents or local officials. It is how I’ve made these decisions for much of my life. It’s how I will make these decisions this November. Stay well, friends.


[I have no time to respond to standard campaign slogans or tropes or gaslighting or trolls. I will just delete such comments. I’ve not advocated for or against any candidate. If you do, I will delete that. Serious questions and discussion are always welcome.]