It’s up to us to change the political climate

It feels like we’re standing on the shoreline, watching a storm building in the west. Another general election is on the horizon, the rhetoric is heating up, and accusations are beginning to fall like thunderbolts on the talk shows and faux news channels.

And this is just the beginning. It’s going to get worse. The candidates are trading barbs now, but they’ll be getting out their swords soon. Oh, for the days when the worst thing a candidate called his opponent was “egghead.” (Adlai Stevenson took it as a complement.)

The political culture is degraded. Politicians are degrading. Everyone deplores the hostility and contempt in Washington, but the situation doesn’t get any better. In fact, it has gotten much worse. Courtesy and the respectful exchange of ideas has all but disappeared.

Where is the eye of the storm? It’s no longer in the Capitol. It’s on social media, where a nightmarish dust storm of accusations, fabrications, and malicious slander is constantly swirling.

Last year Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, published a paper on the polarization of the American electorate. His findings suggest that there is more political animus in this country than there is racial animus, a conclusion drawn by other researchers as well. In the light of Ferguson and Baltimore, that’s saying a lot.

Can anyone change the climate of the political sphere? Politicians could, but they won’t. They talk about cooperation but rely on negative campaigning and partisan news media, and in so doing destroy the very possibility of cooperation. The negative campaign ad is a sharp and effective weapon, and no one wants to be the first to lay down his or her sword.

The partisan news shows, both on the left and on the right, could change the climate, but they won’t. Their ratings, not to mention their earnings, are directly linked to the practice of demonizing their political opponents. The louder they shout, the higher their ratings.

Well, if the politicians won’t change the political climate of hostility and partisanship, and neither will the pundits, who does that leave? It leaves you and me. It’s up to us. But we’re not doing a very good job.

According to Stanford News, in issues like race and gender, “attitudes and behavior are constrained by social norms of civility and tolerance,” but “there are no similar pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. People feel free to say bad things about their political opponents.” And they say them from the relative safety of their computer and their smart phone.

Of course, the person who professes to follow Jesus will not feel free to say bad things about others. Or will he? Unfortunately, he seems all too free, in spite of Jesus’s strong warnings to do no such thing: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Only the most willfully ignorant enthusiast dares to say there are no brothers on the other side of the political fence. And yes, it still counts if you say it online rather than face to face.

Someone may counter, “Yes, but issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, African-American relations with the police, and first amendment rights are too important for us to remain silent.” I agree completely. But those of us who speak as followers of Christ had better do so as he and his apostles instructed us: with gentleness and without malice. We need peacemakers who sow their ideas in peace and water them with rational arguments, not with insults and affronts.

Where are the peacemakers whom Jesus blessed? One thing is for sure: they’re are not on Facebook calling their opponent “Raca” (Aramaic for “Numbskull”) or their political rival “Fool.” Yes, it’s time for Jesus’s people to stand up and speak the truth, but they must do it in peace. If they can’t, then they should sit down and be quiet—and pray.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/1/2015

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We were made that way

Lady Gaga sings about Mary Magdalene, the friend and disciple of Jesus. Katy Perry refers to the biblical hero Esther and writes about being called and chosen. The Clash refers to the floods of God, the walls of Jericho and believing in Jesus. Coldplay sings about St. Peter at heaven’s gate (and uses many other biblical or religious allusions).

Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which John Legend called “as near perfect as you can get”) is full of biblical allusions from start to finish. Amos Lee sings, “Oh Jesus, can you help me now, ’cause I’ve never felt so alone,” and elsewhere prays, “Oh please Lord, deliver me to love.” U2’s “40” quotes Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord / He inclined and heard my cry.”

Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” begins with a reference to Psalm 23. It is a reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” which refers to “the day when the Savior of love will come to stay.” The fascination with all things spiritual has been around for a long time.

Bob Dylan’s lyrics are full of biblical allusions. “Highway 61 Revisted” references the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In “Pay in Blood” he repeats, again and again “I pay in blood, but not my own.” According to Dylan, even his famous line, “everybody must get stoned” was not a reference to drugs but to the biblical book of Acts and the stoning of St. Stephen.

Johnny Cash is another artist who often referenced biblical passages or doctrines. “Ain’t No Grave” is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:55. “The Man Comes Around” calls to mind the four horseman of the Apocalypse. On “Redemption” Cash sang, “The blood gave life to the branches of the tree / And the blood was the price that set the captives free.”

Tommy James and the Shondells had “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The Byrds made a giant hit of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which comes directly from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Jackson Browne, in “Song for Adam,” alludes to the story of the Fall from Genesis with this line: “Now the story’s told that Adam jumped, but I’m thinking that he fell.”

Some of these artists (Cash, James and Dylan) claimed faith in Jesus at some point. Most have not. So why this fascination with the Bible and with spiritual ideas and themes?

The cynic might answer that spiritual allusions are an easy way to add depth to an otherwise shallow song. And the cynic might be right. Songwriters desperately want to be thought deep. But that doesn’t explain some artists continuing fascination with, and inquiry into, biblical and spiritual themes.

A more comprehensive answer might be that humans are fascinated and frightened by the transcendent. As a race, we cannot help but search for our origins and our destiny, and we sense that both lie outside ourselves, that we are coming from and are going to God. In every age, the search for human purpose and dignity has led serious searchers back to God.

The question might (and should) be asked, “From where does this relentless longing for God come?” Numerous answers have been suggested, including the materialist’s: the idea of God was useful in the early evolutionary stages of humanity, and as a race we (with the exception of the materialist) have not yet grown up enough to dispense with it.

But there is another answer I think more credible. God created humanity with a “homing instinct.” That was St. Paul’s answer: “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Why do we seek God? Because we were made that way.

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal described human emptiness as a hole, an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Songwriters, like all the rest of us, are just trying to fill that hole.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/25/2015

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Discontent is a two-edged sword

Each year the Gallup organization polls people from 120 countries around the world to find out if they are satisfied with the freedom they have to choose what to do with their lives. In 2006, the U.S. ranked as one of the most contented nations in the world in that regard. In 2013, it did not even make the top 25 percent.

Americans are increasingly discontent. They are discontent with their freedom to choose what to do with their lives, with the politicians running for office, with the Supreme Court (only 18 percent of Republicans approve of the court), and with Congress (an all-time low approval rating last year of 14 percent).

One wonders if this increasing level of discontent among Americans is a bad thing. Or, to put it more generally, is discontent necessarily evil? The answer depends on who you ask.

The Dalai Lama has said, “When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied.” Benjamin Franklin, speaking along similar lines, said: “Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor.”

But not everyone sees discontent as an evil. Thomas Edison said, “Discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.” Florence Nightingale agreed: “Were there none who were discontent with what they have, the world would never reach anything better.”

Perhaps a more nuanced view of discontent is in order. In and of itself, it is neither evil nor good. When it motivates a person to positive change, it serves a good purpose, but if it leaves a person wringing his or her hands or demeaning the neighbors, it promotes evil. Discontent is a two-edged sword.

Everyone experiences discontentment. The Bedouin is discontent with the speed of his camel. The commuter is discontent with the speed limit on the bypass. The gourmand is discontent with the freshness of the basil in his potato gnocchi. Discontent is universal. It’s what a person does with it that makes all the difference.

Discontent is a playground for temptation. An unhappy husband may be tempted to think he would be content with another woman. The discontented employee decides to give less effort to his work. The discontented citizen complains that he’s been denied opportunity and so feels justified in lying about his income on his 1040 form.

But discontent is also a playground for creativity and cooperation. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell was weary of going to the next room for Mr. Watson’s assistance; discontent gave us telecommunications. Discontent leads husbands and wives to new levels of intimacy and companies to new levels of productivity. And every great piece of music is birthed in discontent. The composer is discontent until he gets the song in his soul out and into the world.

Both edges of discontent are apparent in the spiritual life as well. Discontent can move a person toward God in faith and toward others in community, but that doesn’t automatically happen. When the great Old Testament prophet Elijah was agonizingly discontent, he moved away from God and from others and entered into despair. Likewise, in a moment of profound discontent, even Moses forgot about God and berated his community.

But the biblical record is full of examples of men and women who turned to God in their discontent and, as a result, made great advances in their spiritual lives. Psalm 73 is a case study in the way to use discontent to grow spiritually and move toward God. Discontent moved the prophet Habakkuk to a level of faith he had never before realized.

St. Paul wrote that he had “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” Perhaps the secret he learned is that discontent always leads to contentment, when it leads to God—and he was content with that.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/18/2015

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Conckle's Hollow

Conckle’s Hollow

If you read my blog, you know it’s pretty much the same old thing. The subjects might vary, but the style is … Shayne. I write about ideas, about God, and about culture. I’m fascinated by the place that ideas and God and culture meet.

Today, in a middle of the week blog post—that doesn’t usually happen—I wanted to change things up a little. Instead of writing about God and ideas and culture, I wanted to tell you what happened on my vacation.

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My wife Karen and I, together with our son Brian (in from Santa Barbara for a couple of weeks) and our son Kevin, daughter-in-law Beth and grandson Phinehas, went on a short vacation. We drove to the Hocking Hills area south and east of Columbus, Ohio. Karen and I have been there before, but the rest of the family has not.

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We try to go on some kind of vacation every year, but planning a trip for all of us is a nightmare. Our oldest son Joel is a teacher in Waco, Texas, and a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in theology. Our next oldest, Brian, lives in Santa Barbara, California, where he is working on a PhD in philosophy. Our youngest, Kevin, and his wife Beth and their son Phinehas, live here in Coldwater, Michigan. Kevin is the youth pastor at Lockwood Community Church.

Finding a week when we are all free is usually next to impossible. This year it was impossible. I tried hard to make it happen. We juggled dates, tried early and late, but couldn’t all get free for the same week. Disappointed, I made arrangements to vacation last week, sans Joel. Or I thought I did.

I reserved a cabin in the beautiful Hocking Hills from Gary and Karen at Creek’s Crossing Cabins. On Monday, just an hour out from our destination, I realized I did not have the directions to our cabin, so I stopped at a Macdonald’s for dinner and internet. I found Gary’s phone number online and called for directions. I left a voicemail and, a few minutes later, Gary called back.

He said, “Uh, you’re not supposed to be here until next week. There’s a family in the cabin you’ve rented right now.”

I was stunned. “Not until next week?” What were we going to do? I asked if I could get my money back, minus a deposit. But Gary reminded me that the rental agreement stated that no money would be returned within a week of the reservation date.

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But a few minutes later, Gary called back. He said, “I’ve got an idea. We can put you up in another of our other cabins for one night. Then we’ll figure out what to do from there. We’ll get you taken care of.” So Gary met us at the first cabin, planned to move us to another cabin on Wednesday and said he would try to find us a different place to stay on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, he called and told us he’d found another owner who had a cabin open for Tuesday night. I was grateful for the work he’d gone to, and asked how much the other cabin would cost. He said there would be no charge. He would take care of it out of our original payment.

He didn’t have to do that for us. He didn’t have to find us accommodations or move us between open cabins. He could have just turned his back on us. But he didn’t. He helped rescue our vacation and saved us a lot of money in the process.

So I’m telling the story of how a man I didn’t know treated me like a neighbor and friend. Jesus, following the Law of Moses, told us not to turn our backs on our neighbors but to love them as we love ourselves. He then went on to explain that our neighbor is the person near us who happens to be in need. Last week, I was the needy neighbor. Gary was the guy who didn’t turn his back.

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If you’re thinking about a vacation in a beautiful place, check our Hocking Hills. And if you can stay a few nights, call Gary at Creek’s Crossing Cabins. Tell him Shayne says “Hi.”

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A brief defense of long marriages

I stood next to my wife and below us, on the counter, was a card-sized envelope with my first name written in her hand. Its purpose totally escaped me.

“What’s this for?” I asked. She answered by saying, “Happy anniversary!”

I had forgotten.

But I had earlier bought her a card. Now I just needed to find where I’d put it.

It was our thirty-sixth year as husband and wife. She’s used to me.

A few days later we were at the video store. Our kids were here and we wanted to eat pizza and watch a movie together. But after a ten-minute search, I’d given up on finding a movie that I wanted to watch. I walked up to my wife to tell her we might as well give up.

Without really thinking about it, it registered as odd to me that she was looking at an action-adventure movie. She’s more likely to go for the boy-meets-girl-they-fall-in-love variety.

“Babe, I don’t think we’re going to find anything. Let’s just get the pizza and go home.” I said this as I scanned the movies on the wall just beyond her, but something struck me as odd. She was taking too long to answer. So I looked down (I’m six-foot-four, she’s five-feet-five) and saw a woman I didn’t know looking up at me, with a startled expression on her face. My wife was standing about ten feet away.

I turned several shades of red and apologized profusely. She seemed relieved that I wasn’t some kind of crazy stalker. Crazy, maybe, but not a stalker.

Full disclosure: this was not the first woman I absent-mindedly mistook for my wife. Years ago at the baseball field, I took a woman by the arm and walked with her for about three seconds before I realized something was wrong. She had the same look on her face. I hope I’m not getting a reputation.

Did I mention my wife is used to me? That’s because we’ve been married for thirty-six years. I’m used to her too.

This article is a brief defense of long marriages. Or put another way, it’s an argument against divorce, as it is now practiced.

When people divorce, they almost always divorce too soon. Statistics show that if people in deeply troubled marriages, even on the verge of divorce, stay together for another five years, they overwhelmingly testify to being happy.

My wife has never considered divorce. I know that because she told me so. I’m not so confident she hasn’t considered murder.

We’ve had our arguments. Some of them have been heated and ongoing. We’ve sometimes stopped liking each other for a while. But we’ve never given up our commitment to each other and our greater commitment to God that binds us together. And after thirty-six years, we can testify to being happy together – even when I forget our anniversary.

I’m not making a case that divorce is always wrong. Jesus did not make that case, so I dare not either. But divorce as it is currently practiced in western culture is nothing short of a sociological and spiritual disaster.

Frequently when people divorce, they short-circuit the work (the sometimes painful work) that is shaping and maturing and fulfilling them. They start a new relationship at the same place they left the old one, and can expect many of the same problems.

This is one of many reasons St. Paul discouraged divorce, as did Jesus himself, when he said, “…what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They understood that life is not about meeting the right person, as in the boy-meets-girl movies, but about becoming the right person. And marriage, intelligently entered, carefully guarded, and resolutely pursued can help us become that person.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/11/2015

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How to pray in times like these

In the light of recent events in the news – the ISIS threat, the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, the continuing erosion of religious freedom, and the slaughter of nine Christians at a Bible study in a South Carolina Church – I’ve been wondering what Jesus must think of all this.

More specifically, I wonder what Jesus, who according to the Bible “always lives to intercede for us,” might be praying for us. In a time when traditional morality has been turned on its head and Christians around the world are again losing their heads to vicious religious zealots, how is Jesus praying for his Church?

Before attempting to answer that question, it is necessary to remind ourselves that things weren’t any better in the early days of the Church. Christians were hounded by pagans and Jews alike. They were imprisoned and beaten, killed and sometimes beheaded.

There was nothing like a universally accepted moral code in those days either. The sexual behavior sanctioned in places like ancient Corinth was as shocking as anything that happens in the world’s red light districts today. Greed and violence were just as powerful in the first century as they are in the twenty-first.

So, if we want to know what Jesus is praying for today, we ought to start by asking what he was praying then. What was on his mind? Was he praying for a regime change in Rome or for the liberation of Israel? Was he praying for an expansion of religious freedoms or for an end to sectarian violence?

We don’t know. He certainly may have prayed for these things, but none of them are mentioned in his recorded prayers, including the great prayer of John 17. There his concern seems to fall into two categories: God’s glory and his followers’ protection.

Jesus prayed for God’s glory. He knew that the world cannot be healed until its people have experienced it. Now it’s true that God’s glory has been used to justify the violent suppression of religious (and sometimes non-religious) groups, but that is a smokescreen. In such cases, it’s not really God’s glory people care about, but their own. The propagandist’s job is to convince the world the cause is divine, but you can be sure God has nothing to do with it.

Jesus prayed for both God’s glory and his people’s protection, but it was clearly not protection from violence that was uppermost in his mind. He told his disciples plainly and repeatedly to expect suffering. They would “be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and … hated by all nations…” In the verse that immediately precedes the great prayer of John 17, Jesus as much as guaranteed his followers that trouble (and, eventually, victory) was coming.

How does this guarantee fit with his prayer for their protection? The answer seems to be that it was not protection from bodily injury but protection from “evil” or “the evil one” that he was requesting. It was the protection of their souls that concerned him most. And the greatest threat to their souls, if gauged by the space given to it in Jesus’s prayer, was the threat to their unity. He asked God to protect his people so that they might be unified. He did not ask God to make them prosperous or to place them in positions of influence. He did not pray for political success. He prayed that his followers would be one.

He made that same request for those who would believe and follow him in the future, which would include today’s Christians. In a setting not unlike our own, one of violence, moral anarchy and religious persecution, it was the unity of his people that was uppermost on his mind. He wanted his followers to be united, not in an abstract propositional ecumenism, but in a shared life and love. He knew that this, more than anything else, would protect his people and bring glory to God. In times like these, this is how he prayed, and how he would have us pray too.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 3, 2015

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Christianity’s Answer to America’s Identity Crisis

America is going through an identity crisis. The “live for today” approach to life – or, more precisely, the “live for how I feel today” approach to life – has disconnected us from our past and from our roots. The relationships that have helped define a person’s identity (family, community, church, and nation) have far less influence today than they did a generation ago.

The question of identity affects us on all kind of levels. The continuing debate over taxes, budget, and social programs is part of a bigger debate about who we are, and who we want to be, as a nation. And since Americans don’t clearly know who they’ve been, they struggle to know who they are. Unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, we cannot say that “We know what we are,” And if we cannot figure out what we are, we will never get a handle on “what we may be.”

This national identity crisis is particularized in the identity crises of countless individuals. Caitlyn Jenner is not a just an example of gender dysphoria, but an exemplar of identity instability. Gender was once a person’s most basic identity marker, but that is changing. Consider Bellevue College in Washington State. It now lists seven possibilities for gender identity on its application form: “Feminine,” “Masculine,” “Androgynous,” “Gender Neutral,” “Transgender,” “Other’ and “Prefer Not To Answer.” Other organizations have followed suit.

And gender is not the only identity issue in flux. Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was born white but identifies as black, has generated heated controversy over race identity. Race and gender were once the most stable planks in an individual’s identity platform. Not anymore.

Whatever one thinks about the mutability of race and gender (my own views on the subject would be considered conservative), the loss of a stable identity is worrisome. People who lack their own identity will almost certainly take on someone else’s identity – often without knowing it. As Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” One only need look at Germany in the 1930s to see where that state of affairs can lead.

The Christian faith speaks to the issue of identity in unique and profound ways. It does not begin with those traditionally stable planks of race or gender for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Christian identity does not even begin with the person himself or herself. It begins with Christ. A person’s relationship to him transcends all other relationships, and provides the Christian with his or her core identity. He or she is, on the most fundamental level, Christ’s person and God’s beloved child.

When a person believes in Jesus, he or she becomes, as St. Paul makes clear, a new creation. Race and gender do not disappear (indeed, they continue to be a cause for celebration), but they cease to be one’s primary identity markers. Christians so identify with Jesus that they share his life and participate in his death. His history becomes their history and his future their future.

But while the Christian’s identity is stable because it is fixed in Christ, his or her experience is fluid. The Bible brings this out by saying that believers in Jesus have been “made perfect forever” (their stable identity) even as they “are being made holy” (their changing experience).

Because this is true, a stable identity does not lead to a static lifestyle. Quite the opposite. Christians “grow,” “strain,” “strive,” “press,” fight,” and “pursue.” The Christian has to grow into his or her identity, to “grow up into … Christ.”

That dynamic – a strong and secure identity coupled with a vigorous and evolving experience – provides the Christian with the security of knowing who he or she is and the excitement of becoming who he or she longs to be. And so the Christian can join Soren Kierkegaard in confidently asserting: “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/27/2015

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