Lighting a Candle

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By Rolf Schweizer Fotografie from Hoffeld, Schweiz (Pourquoi?) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So much has been said and written about Charlottesville (including some by me over on my Facebook page). It’s pretty simple for me. Any group that says that America is only for white Euro-Americans is un-American (and un-Christian) and is espousing an evil ideology–particularly in the denigrating remarks made about Jews, Blacks, and others. Others have said this and more, and said it better.

I want to light a candle rather than add to the curses of this darkness. As a white American of German-Scots-Irish descent, I am so thankful that much of the country is not white like me, and how much richer we are as a nation because of this.

There are the Native peoples who were here before us, from whom we took the country. From Squanto without whom the Pilgrims may not have survived their first winter, to Will Rogers, the American humorist, to contemporary author Sherman Alexie whose writing has opened my eyes to contemporary reservation life, Native peoples contributed to our life. Many of our rivers and place names recognize their presence here before us.

The ancestors of many of our African-American citizens came here against their will. I sing in a choral group led by an Africa-American who has taught us about spirituals, and how they came out of the experience of slavery. Spirituals give voice to deep laments and hopeful longings, and have not only been a joy to sing but provided means to express emotions of the heart that my Anglo-Saxon upbringing failed to offer. Jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop all trace from these. Black athletes like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were childhood heroes. Jesse Owens, a Buckeye alumnus, courageously competed and won in the 1936 Olympics to the intense displeasure of Hitler and the Nazis. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to a distinguished career on the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as a mentor for Justice Elena Kagan. Patricia Bath is a path-breaking ophthalmologist who pioneered laser techniques for the treatment of cataracts. Colin Powell gave distinguished leadership in Operation Desert Storm, restoring freedom to the people of Kuwait.

Hispanic and Latino Americans have influenced our country since the 1700s when Fr. Junipero Serra engaged in missions work in California and shaped an architectural aesthetic that continues to influence California buildings. Joan Baez was one of the voices of folk music from the 1960’s on, whose songs gave voice to Vietnam protests. A collection of Christmas music featuring her clear, soprano voice is one I try to listen to every year. While we may think of many Latino entertainers and musicians from Jennifer Lopez to Carlos Santana, scientists like Luis Walter Alvarez, a Nobel prize winning physicist have advanced our scientific understanding. I don’t know who came up with salsa, whether we are talking about music, dance or the sauce, but I’m sure glad they are now part of our culture!

How grateful I am for Jonas Salk and his work to eliminate the scourge of polio! Gertrude P. Elion likewise pioneered treatment for childhood leukemia.  Blue jeans are, I think, one of the most practical articles of clothing. Thanks, Levi Strauss for making those first “Levis”! Another music icon of my youth, and Nobel Prize holder is Bob Dylan. “The Times They are a-Changing” articulate the turbulence and transformation taking place in the 1960’s. Irving Berlin and Barbara Streisand in music, Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall in film, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok in literature all enriched our cultural life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings brought insights into my own spirituality. Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld make us laugh. All these are Jewish-Americans.

Asian-American architect I. M. Pei designed the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in my former home of Cleveland. Likewise, architect Maya Lin helped begin to heal the wounds of Vietnam with her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Satya Nadella is the current CEO of Microsoft. Asian-Americans founded many of the technology companies that have transformed our culture, from Sun Microsystems to Linksys to Wang Laboratories. I’ve personally appreciated the writing and art of Makoto Fujimura. His illuminations of the Gospels are stunning. For years, I’ve delighted in recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral works by Seiji Ozawa.

I could go on and on. There are Middle Eastern peoples, more recent migrants from African countries, and other corners of the world. Some of the people I’ve written of have touched my life personally. Others have enriched our national life and shaped our world. You may disagree with some of my choices, and certainly you could add to them. Certainly European-Americans have also contributed to our national and cultural riches, but I can’t help thinking how impoverished our nation would be in so many ways without all these others. In everything from food to literature to medicine and law, to business and technology, our political life and our spirituality, we are much richer, I think because of the mosaic of peoples who make up our country. Sure, at times, it is complicated, and maybe we think privileging a single cultural heritage would make things simpler. I like to think of our culture as robust, made up of many different influences. Like a rich sauce, take out all those ingredients, and maybe things would be simpler, but also dull and uninteresting.

To my fellow citizens who are not Euro-Americans, I am so glad you are here. I know the words and acts of some would suggest otherwise. Perhaps those of us who think otherwise need to get better at raising our voices and reaching across our cultural differences and standing firm against the evil and the vile. What an interesting country we can make together. Might we begin by joining together to light a candle. . . ?

 

What Mr. Erickson Knew

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Julian Fractal, By GARDEN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite high school teachers was Mr. Erickson. He taught math, and also an introductory computer science class in the early days of computers. I did pretty well in math, even though it wasn’t a favorite subject. Mostly, I enjoyed Mr. Erickson because he enjoyed math (and some corny jokes)–it wasn’t just numbers and equations and laws to him, but rather something beautiful that could describe the order of the world and translate “the music of the spheres” into an equation.

I haven’t thought about Mr. Erickson for a long time. But two occurrences in my life recently have brought him to mind. One is that my son, a software engineer for a local company spent his vacation at a conference in Waterloo, Canada exploring the intersection of math and art. Back in elementary school, he had a teacher kind of like Mr. Erickson, who introduced him to fractals. He has never lost his fascination with this geometric patterns that often look like objects in the natural world (and sometimes not) that can be described in mathematical equations and produce repeating patterns at smaller and smaller scales. He has a shelf of graduate level texts at home on fractals (guess what is on his Christmas wish list!) and even has several fractal-related publications (as well as a work of fiction) you can purchase. The conference brought mathematicians and artists together to explore the connection between these two seemingly unrelated aspects of life–in visual art, music, and even opera and poetry from what I’m told.

The other occurrence is reading Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s SakeCaldecott argues that one of the great deficits in our modern educational program is the divorce of the liberal arts from math and the sciences.  This reflects a loss of vision for the unity and interconnectedness of all truth, and perhaps belief in the One in whom they are connected. In a chapter on math, he explores numbers and their expressions geometrically, their significance in a variety of areas of life (musical chords, the use of numerical and geometric properties by visual artists, recurring numbers in the Bible, and the ways mathematics maps onto the world, and more). Somehow, numbers and equations connect to imagination, and reflect beauty. Why is that?

Math and beauty? What Caldecott, Mr. Erickson, and my son all seem to get that I think I’ve lost sight of is the beauty that lies hidden in the equations. In my world, math gets reduced to spreadsheets, financial reports, columns of figures, raw data. Perhaps I’ve bought into that divorce between math and the world of the imagination and the beauty of the world. Perhaps it is time to recall the joy Mr. Erickson had when he explained the beauty in the equations. Perhaps…

Watch Your $%&*@^# Language!

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Chris James, (No Cursing??) Sign (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Have you noticed that language is getting coarser? We were shopping yesterday in a bookstore (during National Book Day!) and I wandered over to the bestseller shelves. Two of the titles that greeted me were, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and You Are a Badass. At least the former title used an asterisk, but we all know which vowel it was replacing.

Book titles are just symptomatic of the proliferation of profanity in our media. It’s common to see either abbreviations or actual profanity on social media and to come across blog posts liberally laden with profanity. More than that, coarse words for defecation, urination, and sex lace everyday conversation. We use a word for excrement for getting our act together. We routinely use a word for urinating to describe the experience of being angered by something. The f-bomb seems to be an all around adjective as well as a favorite expression of anger. I could go on but you know what I’m talking about.

It’s not like I’ve never used these words. Particularly as a teenager hanging out with my buddies in urban Youngstown, our conversations were richly laced with profanity. For a period of my life, I thought it was kind of cool or edgy. I’d argue that it was only “dirty” because some people said it was. I’d argue that we were getting “real.”

My Christian journey started changing that. It wasn’t so much rules against certain words, as principles that spoke to the power of words in a community, and to shape the community around us. The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).

I began to realize words have the power to evoke the best or worst angels of our natures, that our words build up others or undermine them. Words can hurt or heal. Actually, this extends beyond profanity to things like gossip where we feed on the meager fare of tearing someone down when they aren’t present to defend themselves. Cyber-bullying might be an example of the destructive power of our words, amplified by social media.

I won’t say that I completely refrain from these things even to this day. Catch me on a bad day struggling with the plumbing in my house, and it won’t always be pretty. If profanity occurs in a text I am quoting, I won’t delete it. I also realize that in both writing and speaking, there are times that a profanity may be the most apt word, and a euphemism or softer term doesn’t cut it. I can see a case in literature where contexts warrant profanity. The test for me is whether it fits or is gratuitous.  The restrained, but appropriate use of a profanity may actually capture attention that a profanity-laced dialogue does not.

That said, I am troubled by the increasing acceptability of profanity in our social and public discourse. I think it reflects an angrier, coarser, bleaker view of life. People might answer that this is the way they see it. Some, I’ve heard it suggested, use this as a “language of resistance” as in “since______ has been elected, everything is all f-ed up.”

I think I would answer that our words not merely reflect reality but help shape it. By words, Genesis tells us that God made the world. Our words can convince us that we live in a stinking latrine or that we are turning manure into gardens that are fertile and fruitful. Our sexual vocabulary can take one of the most beautiful experiences of human intimacy, and reduce it to a tawdry bodily function that sounds like simply another form of relieving ourselves. Or it can elevate the tender, and sometimes clumsy, coming together of two people who really care for each other into enduring love poetry.

I don’t want to argue for any form of censorship or a new prudery. The First Amendment protects even profane speech except when it is with the specific intent to incite unlawful acts. I happen to like the First Amendment, even when I disagree with the people and ideas it protects. But if you care about pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful, does this not extend to our use of language and choice of words? Should it not be of concern that the use of profanity in private conversation and increasingly in social media and public discourse is increasingly common not only in the general public, but even in faith communities? We may think we are simply describing the world or “telling it like it is” as we used to say. Do we stop and think that we are not merely evoking memories or a sense of things as they were and arebut also invoking a view of reality as it is and could be? What do our word choices reveal about the vision of reality toward which we are living? As a Christ-follower, how do I speak if I believe I have been called into a beloved community and into a life of infinite wonder and purpose and hope?

It’s not so much that I’m against “bad” words. I think I’ve already suggested that all words, even these have a usage or purpose in some contexts. Rather, I constantly find myself wanting for better words, for clearer thinking, for higher aspirations, to set goals for nobler actions, and graceful expression in spoken and written words. Am I out of touch with reality to want that and pursue it? Must I settle for a coarse world when we have so many hints of a world of goodness, truth and beauty? What do you think?

Chomsky, Evangelicals, and a Letter to My Senator

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By Duncan Rawlinson [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, July 14 Salon posted an interview between Charles Derber and Noam Chomsky under the title “Noam Chomsky: The Left Needs to ‘Find Common Ground’ with Evangelical Christians.” I found it surprising that Chomsky would propose this and perhaps reflective of a certain desperation of the Left to recapture national influence. Reading on, I found that Chomsky had in mind progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, who would be sympathetic to many of the same causes those on the Left embrace. That, of course, makes sense and reflects a reality not apparent to many in the media, that evangelicalism is not monolithic, and that there are many who would not align, apart from a common faith in Christ, with the putative leaders of evangelicalism–Franklin Graham, James Dobson et al. Still, I’m not sure that this is all that helpful and might only perpetuate the existing divides in our national life. I’d suggest something different that I have framed as a letter to the Democrat Senator from my state, Sherrod Brown. Here it is:

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Sherrod Brown, by United States Senate, Public Domain

Dear Senator Brown,

I’m writing to you in response to an interview with Noam Chomsky suggesting that the Left in our country reach out to evangelicals. I’m one of them, an Ohio resident, and I think that is a good idea, with a few cautions.

The first is that the worst thing, at least for the health and vibrancy of evangelicalism, is to treat us as a political block. The alliances between some white evangelicals and the Right have alienated many of our youth who are leaving our churches in record numbers. Part of this is that we are a diverse body, particularly along generational lines, as well as along lines of ethnicity. It would be great if you could bring some of our younger and older leaders together, some of our black, Latino, Asian, and white leaders together, if for no other reason than to hear each other. It would certainly help you begin to appreciate the complexity of the real evangelical movement, and not simply the one its putative leaders represent.

It would help you to understand that many of us don’t recognize the “evangelicals” being portrayed in the media and among the intelligentsia. Many of us don’t have the time or access to readily counter those perceptions. In a church like mine, what energies we have are much more devoted to running our food pantry, hosting our community garden and free clinic, collecting school supplies for a growing number of children from low income households and figuring out how to stretch what resources we have further if our country decides to further eliminate some of the safety nets on which those on the margins have relied. We know you care about such things as well.

It would help if you to understood that evangelicals have had reason to be nervous about religious liberties, and responsive to appeals to uphold these. When Bernie Sanders questions Russell Vought, a nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget on his religious views, in violation of Article VI of the Constitution and does so unchecked, it worries us. When religious student organizations on university campuses have faced de-recognition and loss of privileges simply because they wished to choose leaders who affirmed their religious beliefs, it worries us. When an order of Catholic nuns are forced to include contraceptive coverage in their health plan, violating their deeply held beliefs, it worries us. Yet concerns for First Amendment freedoms extend far beyond us and could be a place for forging common ground as we protect conscience, association, a free press, dissent as well as religious belief.

We are often written off as anti-abortion rather than recognized for the deep care we have for an ethic of life. You might press us to be more consistent with that. How concerned are we to protect the lives of those across socio-economic lines and from childhood to old age? There are a number of us who are consistently pro-life and an important conversation might be had about how to protect the lives of our children in neighborhoods riven by drug overdoses and gun violence, and our elders whose lives may be shortened and made more painful by sub-standard care.

Evangelicals from Cincinnati to Oberlin were on the forefront of nineteenth century movements to end slavery and to advance women’s suffrage. In recent times, evangelicals in this state have been on the forefront of fights against human trafficking and other social causes. At the same time, we could learn from you about some of the structural challenges under-girding some of our most pressing social problems.

We would hope you might understand more of how important marriage and family are to us. Most of us don’t want to campaign against those who see these differently, but we do think families are important places in the formation of the character, faith, education, and vocational aspirations of our children. We sometimes feel that families, and parents are marginalized in some education systems by “experts” who sometimes disparage the values we teach in our homes. Many of us don’t want to eliminate public schools, but do want a greater sense of participation as stakeholders in the education of our children.

There is much more we could discuss, but one last area I might touch on is care for our creation. Christians are often disparaged for their ideas about creation (although here as elsewhere, our views are quite diverse), but this is in fact basic to better care for our planet because we understand we will have to give an account for the care of the creation to the Creator, as well as to our children and grand-children. We differ among us about climate science, but any of us who are conscientious about our faith recognize that in our care for the earth, as elsewhere, we must answer to God.

I do hope you will reach out to evangelicals, here in Ohio and elsewhere, not to win us over as an electoral block, but for our common interest in the good of the country. It could be one more of many steps in healing our divided land, and finding ways to pursue the common good, rather than particular goods.

Your fellow citizen,

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking and Believing

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The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio. Public Domain

I help people discover how it is possible to both think and believe.

This is often what I say when people ask me what I do. I work in a Christian collegiate ministry with graduate students and university faculty. I say this because it is not obvious either inside the church or inside the university that one person may do both.

In the university world, it is often thought that if one is serious about thinking, that this rules out believing. One study, by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, found that only 36 percent of university professors still claim some form of belief in God whereas 90 percent of the American public does. Sometimes this has to do with the perceived conflict between science and faith, most often due to the evolution wars in this country. Yet there are leading biologists like Francis Collins, who led the effort to map the human genome, for whom this has never been a problem. Sometimes this is a consequence of what I call, “stupid things done in Jesus name.” For some, the wounds they have experienced at the hands of Christians are serious. And sometimes, I’ve met people who simply do not want there to be a God.

I also find that some really do not think authentic faith has room for authentic questions. And yet questions are at the heart of what a university does. Jesus loved questions. He loved it when his disciples asked him questions. And he probably asked more questions than anyone in the New Testament. He even asked questions in response to questions! This runs so contrary to the idea that a person who believes has lots of answers and lots of certainty. For me, it is much more the case of finding someone who I can really trust with my questions, and who often uses questions to transform me and my outlook on the world, if I am patient and persistent enough with them.

Sadly, I’ve often found the church to equally be a place where, if one is serious about belief, it means that one must rule out much of what some people think. Often it comes in the form of some conflict with what we understand the Bible to be saying. Most often, I’ve found the conflict to be apparent rather than real, more often the result of trying to make the Bible answer questions its’ writers didn’t intend to answer. Sometimes there are real conflicts, but then there are also real anomalies in the data of any field, and the worst thing you can do is force a solution, as much as you’d like to “neaten” things up. And sometimes, the conflict is really one between cultural ways of life in society and the counter-cultural life of God’s people. Here, it seems, the answer is to not simply ask what but why–to understand the reasons behind a different way of living.

I think it is equally the case here that people struggle with the idea that an authentic life of faith does not have room for questions. Yet in the gospels, I see that faith is acting on what one does know about God or Christ, even while asking about what one does not know. After all, none of us gets to one hundred percent certainty about anything. We live and act on knowledge about which we have far less than 100 percent certainty all the time.

To the contrary of what some think, I am convinced that the life of faith may actually open up the life of thought and research. First of all, at the heart of the formative practices of Christian faith is the practice of attentiveness, first of all to God, but also to one’s own life, one’s neighbor, and one’s world. Often, attentiveness is the seedbed in which the curiosity that leads to good questions grows. And good questions are at the heart of good research. Don’t get me wrong. I know lots of people who are not believers who are attentive and ask good questions. I’m simply saying that the attentive life that flows from faith prepares us to be attentive, whether in the lab or the art studio, or when we are studying a musical score or a balance sheet or statistical table.

I could go on. The conviction that we worship and follow the one who is Truth ought make us dogged in the pursuit of truth, because we really believe it is out there, and isn’t just a masquerade for who has power. The paradoxes of the faith–the incarnation, the Trinity, humans as the imago dei and yet as finite and fallen–leads, I believe to a flexibility or suppleness in thinking that is open to the answer being “both this and this” rather than an oppositional binary. Certainly, the belief in a Creator who thinks (the ultimate, it seems to me, reconciliation of believing and thinking), gives a powerful rationale for hypothesizing theories, and searching for lawful order in the cosmos, and even for the power of mathematics to map onto the physical world.

At the end of the day, however, what I am about is not an argument about whether it is possible to think and believe. Rather, what I am about is deeply desiring that my friends engaged in the “heavy lifting” of academic or professional life are able to live with this deep sense that the joy they experience in the joining of prayerful pursuit of knowledge and attentive inquiry, the wonder of those “aha” moments, is the pleasure of the Creator upon them, for which they were made.

St Irenaeus wrote:

The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of god: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.”

My longing? Human beings fully alive discovering in the creation of God the glory of God, bringing thought and belief together. That is joy indeed.

Preparing for an Earlier Death

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A Silent Calling, by Alyssa L Miller, CC BY 2.0, unedited via Flickr

One of trends I’ve watched through my lifetime is lengthening life expectancy. When I was young, life expectancy was around 70. Now in the U.S, it is 78.8 years. Both of my parents lived into their nineties. A significant reason is treatments for cancer and heart disease, and, in general, advances in both preventive care, and treatments for many diseases, that if not curative, allow for longer life. Both of my parents recovered from illnesses from which they might have died in earlier times. My wife is a cancer survivor. I’ve recovered from an infection from which I might have died. My son had a heart procedure that cured an arrythmia that might have killed him.

All this was possible not only because of research advances and access to good medical care, but health insurance that allowed us to contribute to our health care costs without bankrupting us or exceeding our means. For many years, we and our employers paid health premiums, and my parents had medicare and supplemental coverage. In the case of my family, a job loss during one of these health crises might have led to very different outcomes.

Might we be facing the possibility of declining life expectancy, and the possibility that we might die sooner? Will it be the fate, at least for some of us in the U.S. to have life expectancies much more like those of the past? Will families see more deaths of infants and children (in my own city, infant mortality already is a function of zip code, with those in more prosperous zip codes seeing fewer deaths)? Will middle age people with treatable cancers die because they lack the coverage to afford the needed treatments, or bankrupt themselves trying to pay for it themselves, at higher rates than insurers pay?

It appears to me that as a country we are saying that it is morally acceptable to contemplate the possibility that some of our citizens, those whose employers don’t provide health coverage and cannot afford it, those with pre-existing conditions, those who have exceeded or cannot afford COBRA coverage, and perhaps the aged, may die earlier, simply because they cannot afford the health care and medications available to the more prosperous, that would extend their lives.

Truthfully, we’ve been saying that for a long time, and the latest health care measures only seem to enlarge the number of people who may not be able to afford treatments that may save or extend their lives. And I think it is likely that more of our citizens will need to face the sobering reality that death will come to them or those they love earlier than it might have. What will it do to the fabric of our society when the prosperous few receive care for which the rest can only hope?

I think part of how this happens is the illusion that “it can’t happen to me.” Yet for many, they may be one job loss, family crisis, accident, or illness, or chronic condition from facing this reality. The truth of it is that, no matter how much you feel in control, no matter how much money you have (for most of us), you are vulnerable.

Yes, health care is complicated. I’m glad our president finally figured this out. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on this, but it seems we need to have a national conversation and solutions that are not partisan efforts if we are truly going to address the issues of health coverage in our country. It seems we need to talk about:

  • Whether we consider it morally acceptable to have the inequities that exist in our health care system, particularly when these impact the most vulnerable–children, the unemployed, the aged.
  • What good health care for all costs and how we will pay for it. It is true that we have been asking government to provide more than we are willing to pay for and this cannot continue indefinitely.
  • Ensuring that those who provide health care services and products and insurance receive a reasonable return for their work or investment allowing them to sustain their efforts without exorbitant profits.
  • What responsibility we have for our health choices — diet, exercise, preventive care, lifestyle.
  • A better understanding and compassionate stewardship of good end of life care that neither hastens nor prolongs dying.

If we can’t figure out how to have that conversation, then it seems that we need to figure out how to talk about the fact that many of us may be dying sooner. It may be that we have to face the reality of dying sooner ourselves, or desperately using all our resources to save our lives. It may be that we have to figure out how we are going to remain one people when some receive care denied to others.  Are we ready for that?

I Hadn’t Thought of it This Way…

becoming curiousI’ve just begun reading Casey Tygrett’s new book titled, Becoming Curiouswhich proposes that the asking of questions, of being curious, is actually a practice that may be spiritually transforming (and one we often lose as adults as we think maturity equates with having answers and certainty).

That’s not actually the point of this post. Rather I want to focus on an observation he makes about the word “repent.” We most often hear it as an imperative, but he asks the question of whether it might be understood differently, similar to an ad he saw for a certain airline saying, “Fly _____”. The ad is not a command, but an invitation in the imperative form, kind of like what I am doing when I answer the door at my home, see a close friend standing on the doorstep, and I say “Come in!” It’s not a command but an invitation of welcome.

We usually think of the word “repent” being spoken in angry tones by an adult (like a grim father figure) who is really put out with how awful we are and is warning us to clean up our act or face the consequences (“turn or burn”?). Most of us usually respond pretty negatively to this kind of stuff. Perhaps it is a “sez who” response. Or maybe it is disbelief that people could be so obsessed with “sin.” Maybe we just put our hands over our ears.

What if this were framed, and heard as an invitation? What if we heard it as the chance for life to begin again, anew? What if we heard it as a second chance being offered, saying that we can change our minds, change our ways, and this will be honored and received with gladness? What if we heard this as the words of the father to his prodigal son, saying “come home”?

Are there any of us who has not desperately needed this invitation? We know we have screwed up, made bad choices for which we are utterly responsible, done things that have deeply hurt another. We know in our deepest selves that our “transgressions” were not noble acts of rebellion, but rather a self-absorbed descent into the darkness. In our most honest moments we wonder and despair whether there is any way to escape the cloud of shame and the pangs of guilt. We cover it well, put a brave face on our self-justifications, and maybe even start believing the lies we tell ourselves.

What if we heard in the invitation of repentance a chance at forgiveness, a chance at a new beginning? This only stands to reason, when you think about it. Wouldn’t the invitation to repent be the most ultimate act of cruelty were it followed by condemnation? That, I think is why the invitation to repent is often followed by the words “and believe the good news.” What if there were One who so radically loved us that he paid what we could not possibly pay or repay? What if there were one who could empower us to live differently, to become the self we know we ought to be, even as we are delivered from self’s tyranny?

What if repentance were an invitation into this kind of life? Would you say yes? Will I?

What I Learned From My Father

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My father, on a beautiful autumn day in 2011. (c) Robert C. Trube

I’m writing this on the evening of Father’s Day and I’ve been remembering my own father, who passed nearly five years ago. Remembering him is cause for profound gratitude for the kind of man he was, and the ways he gave himself to shape the man I would be. Whether I’ve lived up to that or not, I’ll leave to others to judge. All I can say is that while he was never famous, he is truly great in my eyes, a member of “the greatest generation” not only by association but by character. These are some of the things he taught me:

  • Any work is worth doing well, if for no other reason than you know whether or not you’ve done your best.
  • He taught me to assume responsibility to earn my own spending money. When I was ten he fronted me the money for a lawn mower to cut lawns. He helped me sign up for a paper route, and got up early on winter Sunday mornings to help stuff and deliver the Sunday papers.
  • He treated people with dignity, no matter who they were. I saw him treat hourly employees and company presidents and people of all races the same way.
  • I grew up in the Vietnam era. Dad taught me that military service could be honorable and something to be proud of. The military salute he was given at his burial was a fitting closure of his life.
  • Perhaps because he never finished college, he valued education and encouraged all of us to excellence. He took our grade cards seriously and responded to teachers’ comments and talked to us about them.
  • He communicated how proud he was of whatever achievements I made in school. Years later, he gave me a file he had collected of these various recognitions. He tracked my career and he gave me the wonderful gift of never having to wonder about his approval of my work, or wife, or anything else.
  • He taught me what love and faithfulness means in marriage. I watched him holding my mother’s hand as she passed, loving her to her last earthly moment before death parted them after nearly 69 years of marriage. Perhaps it is no coincidence that between us, my siblings and I have celebrated 123 wedding anniversaries of our own. Mom and dad taught us well.
  • Because of dad, I never struggled with the idea of God as Father. When I was little, we took walks in the park together and I loved the time where he taught me about different trees, birds, and plants and where I could ask him anything. It is what I think of when I think of “walking with God” or what we call prayer.
  • I work among academics and it is easy to intellectualize and “complexify” almost anything, including matters of faith. Dad often brought me back to earth with what I call his “watchword” which summarized for him what it meant to live as a Christian:

Read and pray;

Trust and obey;

Live God’s way.

My son and I had an interesting conversation today. I happened to use the word “adult” as a verb in a sentence, as some in his generation do. He rebuked me for that. He said adult isn’t something you act like, it is something you are. I think that would have made my dad proud (actually it made me quite glad that he felt this way). Whether it was military service, separation from family, scrambling to make ends meet, dealing with health emergencies, and more, my father just kept showing up, just kept being responsible. In a word, he was an adult. And so much more. He was a father.

 

 

“Do You Do Well to Be Angry?”

anger-1007186_1280“Do you do well to be angry?”

It’s a question God asks the pouting prophet Jonah sitting outside Nineveh, angry with God for sparing this city, Israel’s arch enemy. It’s a question we may well ask ourselves.

Yet another mass shooting resulting in the serious wounding of a senator and several others and the death of the 66 year old shooter, underscores the danger of unchecked anger. He called the President a “traitor” on social media, had been involved in a variety of angry altercations, and was deeply dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country.

Truthfully, he’s not so different from many, except that he made the fatal transition from anger to violence. We seem to live in a society with many angry people. It is dangerous to challenge rude or reckless behavior in a public setting. You could find yourself in a gunfight without even a knife.

Why are we so angry? I wonder if some of it is that everything from advertising to our schools suggest to us that we are the center of the universe and that we should fulfill all our longings. Reality doesn’t work like that. We share the planet with 7 billion other people. Maturity often calls upon us to live with unfulfilled desires. Yet we believe no one should get in our way on the road or delay us even a minute or two when we are running late for work or another scheduled event.

I also wonder if we are angry because we spend too much time listening to angry and inflammatory voices. Online pundits and much of the new media build their followings around arousing and feeding their following, no matter what the political persuasion. At times it can be quite entertaining, and then there is the twist, the inflammatory accusation, or even the suggest that the world would be a better place without X.

Most of us have enough of a sense of proportion to just laugh at this, or even the good sense to change the channel. But a steady diet of this can take its toll, kind of like too much refined sugar. Combined with personal frustrations and perhaps a sense of inadequacy, and inflammatory rhetoric ceases to be a laughing matter.

All this emphasizes how important it is to teach our children, and ourselves how to act constructively with our anger. We all experience anger, but the trick is figuring out how to use it constructively. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Be angry yet do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” Yes we do get angry, but it doesn’t have to end badly. You can write that letter to your congressperson, propose that compromise with a co-worker you don’t see eye to eye with. Maybe going for a walk, a run, or digging your garden gives you time to work off the adrenaline and get some perspective.

Paul also makes a good observation, that anger is best when it is a brief moment, rather than a way of life. It is when it festers and grows bitter that it can become lethal. Anger is a place we are all going to visit, but none of us should live there.

So we might ask, “do we do well to be angry?” And with this, we might also ask, do we do well to arouse another’s anger, and to feed a lingering, free-floating sense of anger at the world, toward a particular group of people, a particular party?

It’s not just for ourselves that we might ask these things. It is also for those most vulnerable to giving way to anger. Contrary to the angry Cain’s question, we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. While I think people are responsible for their own anger, I would not want to be the one to help ratchet up the anger of another.

“Do you do well to be angry?”

After Paris

Paris_Night

By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).

I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.

1.  Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?

2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?

3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.

4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.

5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.

6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech.  He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?

In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.