Coming Out of the Cave

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It feels a bit like climbing out of a cave. Since the middle of March 2020 we have basically been sheltering at home. Not utterly, but pretty close. We have grocery shopped, bought take out, and only gone to other stores during periods when infection curves have dipped. Our main in-person interactions have been plein air painting with art friends, a few outdoor visits with our son and daughter-in-law, and doctor and dental visits. I am one of those fortunate who can work at home and, thanks to good internet, have had tons of interactions with friends, and even those I’ve not talked to for years.

We’ve stayed healthy, by the grace of God. Simply being the age we are is a co-morbidity, so this is a blessing. We’ve followed the health advisories. And we’ve been fully vaccinated for over a month.

We’re taking our first tentative steps out of the cave. A few more shopping outings. Painting with our friends. This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day with our son and daughter-in-law who are also fully vaccinated. We expect to hug them for the first time in fifteen months. Unmasked. We have a few other such meet ups on the calendar with vaccinated friends this month. We’re having a crew in to do radon mitigation on our home (something probably most homes in Ohio need–it’s just the geology). We’re starting to plan the bathroom re-model we’ve been using our stimulus checks to save for.

It still feels a bit weird and awkward. We’re not ready for indoor dining at restaurants or other larger gatherings where not everyone is vaccinated, especially indoors. I wish I could figure out how to help those who won’t accept vaccinations understand that this fact alone restrains me, and I think others from engaging in many gatherings, especially where mask-wearing is intermittent. There are counties in my state with low vaccine acceptance and higher infection rates. They depend on tourism and we’ve obliged in the past. Not now. You want me back? Get vaccinated and get your COVID rates down.

Have you noticed the new dance when we talk about getting together? We often mention when we reached our full immunity date as do others. Then we know we’re “safe.” I wonder what the etiquette is when someone is not vaccinated. Do we just ignore the risks (more to them, really) and feel awkward.

Our church has not met in person but will start to do so this summer. It’s a place where there has been high vaccine acceptance. Still, it will probably feel a bit strange at first.

I hope to catch a Clippers baseball game this summer. Enjoying America’s pastime on a summer evening in the open air ranks among my favorite things. There will probably be a few more trips to bookstores. There are some in the area I’ve not been to that I’d like to check out and write about. And if things keep getting better, I hope to rejoin my local choir in the fall.

You can tell we’re still on the cautious side. This all still feels provisional. We wish we could just get the whole world, especially the poorer parts, fully vaccinated, so this virus would run out of hosts that offer it opportunities to multiply and mutate. Until then, we run the risk of variants that break through the protection vaccines currently offer, and the variants spread fast in our global village. I don’t think of vaccines as making us virus proof. They make us harder to infect. But with the vaccine, we will start edging out of the cave and doing some of the things that are less risky to us now than before.

I hope we don’t have to return to the cave. But we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The worst nightmare is that it keeps getting more infectious and also causes more severe illness with high mortality rates. As long as it is out there, especially at significant levels, that is possible, especially with over half the country and much more of the world un-vaccinated. Because of that, I can’t think of a return to pre-pandemic “normal.” That is living in a dream. But like most of you, I will enjoy a bit more life outside the cave this summer.

Living Christianly in a Changing Climate.

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I wrote a post last week titled “Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal,” discussing how the pandemic is really a test of how we will respond to the challenges of a changing climate.” A friend of mine who shares my Christian commitments wrote back, “Now, in next column, tell us what are a few Biblically correct ways to respond to the frightening facts you put before us today!” This is my attempt to do so. I don’t claim to speak for all Christians by any means, but rather of the biblical convictions that are formative for me.

I would begin in response, that I believe we are called not to live in a “spirit of fear but of power and love and a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). It is one thing to confront frightening facts (or hide from them which I believe is one species of fear). I believe living in and acting out of fear thwarts our capacity to live with power, love, and a sound mind.

Power. Often this is seen as a bad thing, and certainly can be. However if we understand power as agency, or even better, as vice-regency with God in the care of his creation, this means we’ve been given capacities to act for good or ill in the care of creation. Sadly, we have often understood our dominion over the creation as license to exploit it. If, however, we see creation as a trust from God to be cared for, cultivated and developed for the flourishing of humans and other creatures, and conserved for those who will follow, we will act differently. A principle of gardening is to put as much (or more) into the soil as you take out, and it will keep feeding you. In our changing climate, we do not need to surrender to fear or hopelessness, because to do so would be to surrender our power or agency to care for God’s world. Scripture? Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 begin to address these matters. There are things to be done to address build-ups of greenhouse gasses and the effects these are already having. But how ought we do them?

Love. The greatest command to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31) summarizes the ethic of a Christian, with the other commands elaborating how we do this. It seems to me that we cannot love God without loving what he has made. It is sad that I see many Christians spending more of their time fighting about how God created than devoting themselves to love his creation. We cannot care for places or people well without loving them. Do we recognize their intrinsic worth, whether the trees of the Amazon rain forest or the people living on islands or coastal regions facing inundation from rising sea levels. Often, sadly we only consider the economic, extrinsic worth of so many things (and people) and how they may enrich those of us with more access to wealth and power.

Love means love of the soil, of rivers and oceans, of the tiniest creatures of earth and the rarest. If we believe God made them all and that not a single sparrow if forgotten before God (Luke 12:6), then the extinction of a species surely grieves him and is a loss to the fabric of creation, weakening it and rendering it less lavish and full. Loving means we will take steps to care for those whose lives are ravaged by extreme climate events–shelter, food, and for those from other countries who lose their home or livelihoods, a welcome to find these among us, as challenging as that may be. Mother Theresa spoke of doing “small things with great love.” There are a thousand small things we may do from our dietary choices to the vehicles we drive that may be done with love. Both cows and cars are significant factors in contributing to greenhouse gas buildups. I can also envision technological interventions implemented lovelessly. These will not be good.

Sound mind. There is no other creature that devotes the energy to studying everything from genomes to galaxies that we humans do. As Ecclesiastes 7:25 say, there is something in us that wants to search out “the reason of things.” I’m struck in Paul’s encouragement to Timothy that he speaks of a sound mind. Elsewhere, in Romans12:2 he speaks of a renewed mind. Christians are to live contrary to those who accept whatever their “itching ears” want to hear. They believe there is such a thing as truth that may be distinguished from falsehood. No wonder that science grew up in a Christian atmosphere that believed both in our abilities to observe and study the world’s phenomenon, and to search out the truth about them through rigorous processes. We have great need for those with soundness of mind not only in science but among those who develop technology, who model data, who develop public policy, and who seek to skillfully marshal public support for the changes that need to be made.

Beyond all this, I believe we need to live as people of hope. My pastor preached this past Sunday on Jeremiah 29 which includes this passage:

Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Jeremiah is writing to exiles in Babylon. This should ring true for all of us who Peter also calls exiles (1 Peter 1:1,2:11). We live in hope of a better home. It might be easy to become indifferent and say “let it burn.” Jeremiah tells people who are tempted to indulge false hopes of a quick return home to build homes and gardens, have babies and grandbabies and seek the peace of the city of their exile. That is how they live in hope. For us, caring for our home and seeking its peace prepares us for our new home, the new heaven and earth. No matter what happens to our climate (and I believe things will get worse before they get better), our care of creation reflects hope, not that we will bring a new Eden on earth, but rather in some dim way prepare for the new creation to come.

Faith. Finally, this is an uncharted journey for all of us. But we are not the first to take uncharted journeys. Abraham gets that honor, for leaving his family in Haran to go wherever God would take him. The scriptures say, “Abram [Abraham] believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). And God kept his promises to Abraham to give him offspring, land, and to make him a blessing to the nations. Someone has said that what matters is really not the size of our faith (a mustard seed is enough) but the size of our God. Another friend observed that the big question of the Bible is, “is God good and can we trust Him?” I believe within the next generation, we will face serious tests of faith. Will we trust that the God who did not spare his own son will bring us through?

So to my friend who suggested I write this, here is my humble and far from complete reply. Whole books have been written about this (and I should probably write a post listing some of them!). Surely my friend and many others may add to what I’ve written, which I welcome. It is an important conversation I believe we need to be having about how then we shall live in these times.

Pandemic as Dress Rehearsal

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OK. I’m just going to put it out there. I am convinced that the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a more serious challenge that makes infection control, treatment, and a global vaccination campaign look like child’s play. The challenge is our rapidly warming planet and the ways it will change and imperil life on our planet, the only one we have.

An article from 2013 states that the last time CO2 levels on earth were as high (then 400 ppm, recently as high as 420) was before we humans were around. The oceans were 100 feet higher, the arctic was a tropical paradise. Since 1800, planetary temperatures have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, and far more in some locations. The evidence of a changing climate is evident in rising sea levels, melting glaciers all over the planet, more extreme storms in some areas, drier, prolonged drought and fire seasons in others. The growing season where I live is at least two weeks longer than when I moved here 30 years ago. In some places, summer temperatures have hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, levels that challenge human habitability. Coastal cities globally face inundation.

At this point CO2 outputs continue to rise as the rest of the world catches up to the US in outputs, and likely global temperatures will follow. If the permafrost melts, large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas, will be emitted, further accelerating global warming. Now some forms of life survived while others died during this previous time of high CO2 levels. One thing that is clear is that some people will die from heat or famine or flooding. Many others will be displaced and what will happen when they (or we) try to share the remaining habitable places. We haven’t even begun to reckon with other creatures on the earth. Even if we make the requisite effort to reduce CO2 output to “net zero” by 2050 or earlier some of this will happen. If it is not evident yet to everyone, I believe we are facing an existential threat.

It is one that:

  • Threatens our very existence.
  • That will wreak significant global devastation even if we take the necessary actions, which may mitigate but not eliminate the consequences of what we have already done contributing to global climate change.
  • Will require significant changes in the way we live.
  • Will require concerted efforts to address the primary causes of CO2 emissions–cows, coal, and petrochemicals.
  • Calls for a shared ethic of pursuing the common good.
  • Cannot be accomplished without global cooperation and coordination.

Do you recognize the parallels with our global responses and sometimes lack of responses to the coronavirus? I think the verdict is mixed. We did mount a global scientific effort to study the virus, sequence its genome, and develop highly effective vaccines in record time. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s impact worked to a certain extent, more in some countries than others. In the US where personal freedom is more highly valued than acting for the common good, these efforts have faced a tug of war between public health and personal freedom that has led to an acceptance of infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths that have outpaced the rest of the world. At this point, there are great inequities of vaccination rates reflecting distribution of vaccines in various parts of the world. Meanwhile the virus continues to mutate becoming more effective in spreading itself, especially in parts of the world where it can continue to spread unchecked, which imperils us all.

The thing is, we have seen human beings at their best and worst through all of this–selflessly caring for the very sick in ICUs and hoarding toilet paper. We’ve seen the capacities of researchers to study something that was novel and learn immense amounts about how it infects and spreads and effects the body and where it can be attacked in the space of a year. Medical personnel have made major advances in treatment. And we’ve seen it turned into a political football, where nearly every insight into prevention, treatment, and the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been contested.

It makes me wonder how we will respond to the coming climate challenge. Now some of you don’t buy that this is really an issue. I do. Truthfully, I’d rather you were right. I respect you if you think differently. But I would hope you might think about the “what if?” Because if “what if” turns out to be true, this will be one of those situations where we either choose to “hang together or hang separately.” We can choose to listen to our better angels and work for the global good. Or we can choose a “survival of the fittest” (and the richest) ethic in a hotter and less hospitable world. Ultimately, what happens to the earth is beyond me. But what kind of person I will be as we face these challenges is not. At this juncture of the pandemic, it seems time for me to consider how I’ve played my own part in this “dress rehearsal” for the greater challenge before us.

Surveillance Policies

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That is what Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, calls privacy policies, whether they are ones we sign when we apply for a loan or seek medical care, or when we click on a website or install a phone app. She contends that basically what we are doing over and over in daily life is agreeing to how a variety of organizations may surveil our behavior and mine and distribute the data that every click we make, everywhere we go with our smartphones, how we drive our vehicles, and the conversations we have with Alexa or Google Home.

We think we are accessing sites like Facebook or Google at no cost. Actually, we are the raw resource that these companies use to mine tons of data. Our “likes,” the articles and ads we click on, our location, our demographics are all used to supply targeted information to us. It is also shared, often without our knowledge. It can go badly wrong as occurred with Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to attempt to manipulate voters.

But increasingly, it is not simply our behavior on our computers and phones. The expansion of the “internet of things” all offer data about us. Computers in our cars provide insurers and others information about our driving behavior, determining insurance premiums. Lenders who do not receive payments can literally turn our cars off! A variety of devices are being installed in our home. If I wanted, I could connect my garage door and washer and dryer to wi-fi and control them by my phone. Thermostats can feed information about the interior of our homes. There are beds that transmit sleep data and even can record sounds. Not sure I like that! In addition to the phones we carry, there are fitness wear that record and transmit a variety of biometric data. Personal digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home are always listening (as are SMART TV’s).

Of course, our customer cards and apps that we use for grocery shopping, at pharmacies, and other retail outlets appear to offer us discounts on our purchases, but what is really happening is offering data about us. Sure, some of it is anonymized, but the coupons and offers mailed to us seem keyed to our purchasing history. Likewise, our credit cards offer and record of our commercial habits, our recreation preferences, our charitable giving and more.

I’m reading Zuboff’s book and it is chilling both to realize how much of our lives are rendered into data sources often distributed to parties of whom I’m unaware and the relative contempt with which various entities view the privacy of our information. Furthermore, we willingly comply in the surrender of this information in most cases. Most of us never read the “privacy agreements” allowing various entities to obtain and distribute our information. We click or sign without reading, and some estimates suggest we could spend a good part of each year reading these if we chose.

I have a friend who prefers to use cash and works hard to minimize his electronic footprint. He’s accepted the fact that this limits his access to many things. He stays off all social media. Yet it’s hard, he carries a cell phone, a huge source of data about us.

What, then, can we do? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Assume that nothing about your life is private. Maybe that has a silver lining. If we believe in an all-knowing God, we already believe that nothing in our lives is private!
  • Assume that anything you have ever done online, anything you’ve said is still out there and accessible to someone, and that every click yields information about you.
  • Review the “permissions” for each app on your phone. The defaults for some ask for far more than the app needs to function. Deny these.
  • Be aware of all the devices in your home that are or may be connected to the internet, usually via your wi-fi, or to your phone via bluetooth. Think carefully about enabling each of these and what information they collect. Assume all of it leaves your home and you may not know where it goes.
  • Consider the wearables, like fitness trackers, that are uploading biometric information about you. Any health and fitness apps on your phone also upload any data you voluntarily or involuntarily provide.
  • Assume that all privacy policies are surveillance policies. They are not intended to protect you, but rather whoever is providing service.
  • You may consider DuckDuckGo for internet searches, which has greater privacy protection.

The challenge right now is all these “applications” have you over a barrel. Unless you agree to their surveillance policies, you either can’t install the app, or use the service, or it only has highly limited functionality. Companies don’t need to do this but there are huge financial interests that favor this surveillance. Probably only broad-based advocacy with legislative support can change this, unless someone figures out how to protect privacy and make money, creating an alternate business strategy.

Caveat emptor friends!

My Thoughts on Receiving the Vaccine

This picture was taken moments after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 9. We were sitting in the parking lot outside the Celeste Center at the Ohio state fairgrounds for our fifteen minute wait after receiving our shots from the efficient volunteers working with the Columbus Health Department. As I reflect on all this, I find myself filled with a profound sense of gratitude to God in so many ways:

  • For those volunteers–EMTs, nurses, and other health professionals serving on their day off.
  • For our local public health officials, who organized this vaccine site and have provided invaluable health advice throughout the pandemic.
  • For genetic sequencing technology that made it possible for scientists around the world to have the complete genome of the COVID virus, the operating instructions that make the virus work.
  • For the researchers who invested years in their academic training and long hours in vaccine research.
  • For new vaccine technologies, including the mRNA technology that helped reduce the time to initially make the vaccine and is tailored to activate my body’s immune response to the spike proteins on the virus that enable the virus to infect us. From what I hear, it is also easily tweaked, as the virus mutates.
  • For the regulatory agencies like the FDA that ensured that the vaccine is safe and effective through the standard process of testing the vaccine.
  • It is amazing that it is over 90 percent effective. Flu vaccines are typically 40-60 percent effective. The hopes with COVID was a vaccine that was 50 percent effective.
  • For both the Trump and Biden administrations who facilitated the development, production, and distribution of the vaccines (although companies did not receive payments from the government until vaccines were delivered). Despite the highly partisan nature of our politics at present, both parties and administration contributed to this amazing effort.
  • For our state’s governor who has wrestled with the hard decisions balancing lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic, and opening vaccination to all adults a month ahead of the president’s target. We can argue ways it might have been done better or differently, but I’m thankful for not having to make those decisions and our governor’s willingness to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions. That is good servant leadership.
  • I’m grateful that we are already seeing lower case numbers, lower hospitalizations, and lower death numbers, especially among our elderly population (and I hope we all team up to keep it that way).
  • I’m grateful for the possibility in the next week of being able to share a meal in person with vaccinated friends in safety.
  • I’m grateful that because of the vaccine that even if I should be infected, it is far less likely that I can infect others. Throughout this, my concern is less that I’ll be infected than that I could infect and be the source of serious illness in someone I love.
  • Perhaps above all, I find myself in wonder afresh that the vaccine and the research that produced it is an expression of what it means to be created in the image of God and given dominion under God for his creation. It means the capacity to create vaccines that subdue viruses. I see vaccines like the one in my arm as yet another way in which we were made to glorify God and love our neighbors.

Finally, as I mentioned, I’m glad for a chance to do something tangible to love my neighbor. I see vaccines (like masks) as not so much about protecting me as protecting others. Because of the requirements of social distancing and our age, we’ve not been able to do things with people. We’ve found other ways to care, but it is nice to do something physical and not virtual that makes a difference.

Side effects? They’ve been minimal for both of us. I had a sore arm for a day or so after–like most vaccines, and was a bit tired the night of the second shot. My wife had a bit more–tiredness for a couple days and a rash near the injection site that disappeared within three days–all within the range of normal.

As I’ve noted previously, I’m not into vaccine arguments. I studied the information and made my personal decision a long time ago. Now I’ve acted on that decision. I’m won’t argue with you about yours. But I will give thanks that I could make the decision I did.

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

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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!