What’s Wrong with Making America Great Again?

President Trump campaigned on a simple promise: he would make America great again. His rhetoric about America’s decline and her need for renewal resonated with enough voters to usher him into the Oval Office.

The opposition scorned Trump’s message. Mrs. Clinton made light of it at every opportunity. America, she insisted, does not need to be made great again because she is already great. But Clinton was swimming against the tide. The Trump campaign had tapped into Americans’ sense of loss. They understood the feeling that the country has misplaced (or even abandoned) something she once had, something important, something that made the nation great.

It is possible to identify any number of developments that may have contributed to this sense of loss. In 1979, just prior to the double-digit inflation / unemployment recession of 1981-82, manufacturing jobs were at an all-time high. Since then, the number of manufacturing jobs has decreased by almost 27 percent, while the population has increased by 43 percent.

Following the dissolution of Soviet communism in the late 80s and early 90s, America thought of herself as the world’s only superpower. But repeated terror attacks and the failure to attain a convincing victory in Afghanistan and Iraq have robbed Americans of their sense of supremacy around the globe and their security here at home.

Changes in communication technology coupled with an almost constant immersion in media have left Americans feeling isolated. Many people have gained hundreds of Facebook friends but have left behind the routines and activities that made for face-to-face friends. It’s a tradeoff, but not one that leaves people feeling satisfied.

The proliferation of federally mandated laws and standards in everything from what we eat to how we educate our children has left many Americans feeling a loss of autonomy. These various losses are real (for the most part) and keenly felt, especially by the working class. The Trump campaign clearly understood this and took advantage of it. It was their “trump card.”

President Trump hopes to make America great again by lowering corporate and capital gains tax rates, reforming immigration, requiring other nations to underwrite the cost of U.S. military interventions, and changing the calculus on energy use. Most of his suggestions revolve around improving the U.S. economy.

What wrong with that? Maybe nothing. But if America is going to “be great again,” wouldn’t it help to know what made her great in the first place? A keen observer who identified reasons for America’s greatness was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. De Tocqueville came to America in 1831, and found much in America to admire. In his influential book, “Democracy in America,” he made this assertion: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Is that what happened? Did America cease to be good?

De Tocqueville attributed America’s greatness to her goodness, and her goodness to her religious roots, particularly among the Puritans. He wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” And he warned, “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.”

All this could be dismissed as the naïve musings of a puritanical moralist, who looked at life through religion-tinted lenses. But De Tocqueville was neither a Puritan nor a moralist; he was a diplomat and noted historian.

And might he not have been right? Is it a coincidence that doubts about America’s greatness have increased as America’s faith has been failing? Church attendance in America continues to fall. Religious liberty has faced an onslaught of challenges across multiple fronts. As regards religion, the fastest growing segment of American society are those who claim no religion.

If greatness depends on moral goodness, and goodness on faith, then stimulating the economy and banishing illegal immigrants will do little to make America great. It might even have the opposite effect by making America selfish. A rich America and a great America are not the same thing, and it is unlikely that one path will lead to both.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/25/2017

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Is it Possible to Say Anything True About God?

Do a Google search for God and you’ll have over one-and-a-half trillion results to wade through. People think and talk a lot about God.

What they mean when they talk about him, though, is not always clear. Who or what is God? Is it enough to say, with Paul Tillich, that God is humanity’s ultimate concern? Can God be adequately described by those characteristics commonly attributed to deity, such as eternity, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, and so on?

Unlike some philosophers, the Bible makes no attempt to define God; it only describes him. (I use the masculine pronoun for the sake of convenience, knowing that the use of gender terms for God is currently debated). The biblical writers were wise not to define God, for to define anything implies delimiting it. A being that can be delimited cannot be the unlimited, infinite being the Bible refers to as God.

While the Bible does not try to define God, it refers to him with a great variety of descriptors: he is eternal, immortal, invisible, wise, unchanging, all-knowing, almighty, awe-inspiring, joyful, and much more.

Additionally, the Bible describes God in terms of the roles he assumes: he is creator, sustainer, redeemer, savior and – perhaps most remarkable of all – friend. He is father, guide, and judge. He is provider, protector and lover. He is warrior, restorer and ruler. But who – or what – is all these things? That’s where we run into trouble.

God, the theologians insist, is incomprehensible. Of course it must be so, since humans would have to be greater than God to be able to fully understand him. If we forget this basic truth, we are likely to envision God as simply a more advanced version of ourselves. We reverse the creation process and make God “in our image, after our likeness.” But any God we make can never be more than an idol.

In the Bible, God says to humanity: “You thought that I was altogether like you.” This is not just a statement of fact, but an indictment leveled against people who should have known better. Unspoken but implicit in the indictment is the follow-up charge: “But you were wrong.”

The God of the Bible is not an enhanced version of human beings. God exists in a way that human have never experienced and cannot comprehend. God does not relate to creation in the same way humans do. His interaction with the physical universe is not dependent upon five senses, as is ours. He has no body: his experience of reality is immediate, while ours is necessarily mediated through the senses and the brain.

We learn things. God does not. He knows, completely and without the necessity of learning, everything there is to know. God is not one day older now than he was on the first day of creation. As Nicolas of Cusa put it, with God “later is one with earlier, [and] the end is one with the beginning.”

God, according to orthodox Christian theology, exists as three persons. We cannot imagine such an existence. In all our experience, one person equals one being, but God is three persons and one being. Perhaps there are beings in the universe that are two-personed or four-personed. Poor humanity may be the odd man out, with only one person per being.

Apart from God taking the initiative to introduce himself, we would have no more hope of understanding him than a fish would have of understanding a fisherman. God’s self-revelation was, of necessity, limited to what human senses and intellect could grasp. As such, the process is not unlike the transcription of a concerto (say, Bach’s Brandenburg Number Three) for piano. Much of the substance would necessarily be left out, but the result would be a true representation of the reality.

Only God could initiate a genuine revelation of himself and, according to the Bible, he has done so. He has transcribed himself as a human person, Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the doctrine of the incarnation. The unknowable God has made himself known in a way humans can understand, by giving us “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/18/2017

Epilogue: Since I write this to be published in newspapers, I have to limit myself rather severely sometimes. When tackling a big theological concept like God’s self-revelation or a philosophical subject like epistemology, that can be a real challenge – and frustration. There is more to be said than space allows (and I’d be glad for you to say more in the comment section!). I feel it necessary to expand on one point. I wrote above that “God’s self-revelation was, of necessity, limited to what human senses and intellect could grasp.” I feel that requires clarification.

Yes, God revealed himself in ways that our senses and intellects could grasp, but that does not mean that God can only reveal himself to our senses and our intellect. Pascal may have been right: The heart may have reasons that reason cannot know. It is possible that God’s self-revelation is made to us (and received by us) in ways that we are not yet able to fully understand. While it is true that we cannot understand God, who is greater than us, it is also true that we do not yet even understand ourselves.

But I take comfort in the fact that God does.

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Why Do People Fast During Lent?

The students in our church have begun what they’re calling “Fast Week.” It has nothing to do with how fast they drive their cars or how quickly they can get what they want. Quite the contrary: it’s about their willingness to temporarily give up the props they routinely depend on for satisfaction.

Fasting – going without or strictly limiting one’s food or other goods – has a long history. It has been observed in many religions around the world since ancient times. Biblical heroes practiced fasting. On at least two occasions, Moses undertook long fasts. King David fasted. The prophets Elijah and Daniel fasted, as did Ezra, Esther, St. Paul and even Jesus.

The church has historically given greater emphasis to fasting during the Christian season of Lent than at other times. Lent begins forty days before Easter (46, if you count Sundays), and is a time for self-examination and the practice of spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, and especially fasting.

Fasting is not a universal requirement in the Bible, though on specific occasions groups were sometimes called to fast. Likewise, there are no examples of individuals being commanded to fast, though many chose to do so. Regular fasting is not an obligation, but it does seem to be an expectation. When asked why his disciples did not fast like members of other religious communities, Jesus answered: “the time will come when … they will fast.”

The goal of fasting is not to get God’s attention but to be able to give God our attention. Fasting is not a way of twisting God’s arm, but a way of trusting him to meet our needs. Fasting temporarily removes the props on which we have supported ourselves so that we can experience God’s support.

Abstaining from food is not the only kind of fast. In the Bible, St. Paul sees abstinence from sexual intimacy with one’s spouse as a legitimate type of fast, if it is for a limited time and for the purpose of prayer. But one can fast from all kind of things: television or talk radio, social media or video games, coffee, alcoholic beverages or soft drinks.

What does fasting do for a person? It disentangles a person from life’s demands and allows him or her to connect more profoundly with God. It assures a person that God can satisfy one’s soul at the deepest levels, even in absence of other nourishment for body and soul.

Fasting has a way of shining a light on the things that have taken control over us. We don’t notice the things we “can’t do without” until we are without them. Without realizing it, distractions become demands and pleasures become slave drivers. Fasting shows these things up for what they really are: false gods.

Fasting helps develop the indispensable ability to say “no” to oneself. The inability to deny oneself stunts all spiritual and personal growth. Jesus told would-be followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself …” Almost any worthwhile goal, including the mastery of any discipline, skill or sport, requires self-denial.

But self-denial is not trending in today’s world. Last year, Americans spent 65 billion dollars on soft drinks, 117 billion on fast food, and 96 billion on beer. And this utter lack of self-control is occurring in a society where 40 percent of people struggle with credit card debt and the average adult’s net worth is estimated to be $0.

Americans don’t know how to say “no” to themselves. Fasting helps with that. The person who fasts discovers that life goes on without junk food and digital technologies. And it not only goes on, it is good.

One needn’t be religious to benefit from fasting, but fasting is most effective when combined with prayer. The two are frequently linked in the Bible, and it was often during times of fasting and prayer that biblical heroes shed the blinders of routine to experience God and his guidance in new ways.

Yet fasting is not a shortcut to God. It doesn’t cut time from our route but adds patience to our lives and helps us recognize God’s presence on our journey. It empowers us to say no to the many inviting paths that lead nowhere and yes to the risky life of love to which God calls us.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/12/2017

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Raise a Cup of Bile to Our Enemy

A recent study suggests that people bond more securely over shared dislikes than over mutual enthusiasms. Spouses will apparently attach more closely over a common hatred for hip-hop than over a shared love for Mozart. It’s the old, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to relationships.

It seems easier for us – more in line with human nature, perhaps – to gripe about what we dislike than to praise what we like. And in the age of social media, with its opportunities for instant expression, we can virtually congregate with people (called “friends”) who hate what we hate and oppose (at least verbally) what we oppose.

Americans are becoming positively tribal, but its tribes are not like those of the past. They do not share a tradition or history or even a common taste. They share a common distaste. This is especially apparent in politics. Conservatives have fewer things in common than they did in the past. What unites them now is their hatred of progressives. Progressives bond over their repugnance for conservatives. It’s not a shared vision but a shared aversion that increasingly unites groups.

Because our “friends” are people who share our hostility, we have a strong incentive to remain hostile. We may say that we want our cause to triumph, but we know that when it does, our “friends” will disappear. We find ourselves in the unenviable position of needing the things we despise while doing without the things we love. And so we raise a cup of bile to our common enemy, and give a curse rather than a toast.

It’s a sick way to live. Grumbling is a leprosy knowingly transmitted between people, and some social groupings are little more than leprosariums, filled with complainers with rotting souls. Grumbling is so contagious that only those with strong spiritual immune systems can be exposed without being infected.

But might it not sometimes be necessary to complain in order to get a problem fixed? That all depends. Bringing a complaint to your congressman (or boss or pastor) can be an appropriate way to begin addressing a problem. Griping to and with your “friends” about it is not. The rule of thumb is this: only complain to people who are in a position to do something about the problem. Otherwise, you are the problem.

What is causing all this grumbling? There are many contributing factors, both sociological and technological, but a significant one is found in the pervasive idea that an individual deserves to get his way. It is a part of the American credo: “I believe in my right to have my own way.”

What do people do when this sacred right is violated? They whine. If no one listens, they scream. And often, others around them join in.

After college, my first job – I, who knew nothing about children – was to manage a day care and nursery school. Sometimes I would hear a toddler outside my office begin screaming, either because he was hurt or because he didn’t get his way, and a group of other screamers would join in. What is currently happening in society, sometimes at the highest levels, looks a whole lot like that nursery.

Ecclesiastical leaders have warned that this infection poses a threat to the church. Christians, commissioned to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the world, are in danger of bringing the bad news of self-interest, transmissible through complaining, into the church.

Christians, however, have a ready vaccine for this disease, which might be called “Persistent Self-Interest Disorder” (or PSID for short). It works prophylactically (to prevent) and therapeutically (to heal) PSID. St. Paul says: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

To do something in Jesus’s name is to do it as his representative. Can you complain as his representative? If so, complain. Will a Facebook post or Tweet speak for Jesus? If so, post and tweet away. But if you can’t say what you want to say (or scream what you want to scream) as a representative of Jesus, you’d better not say it at all. You might infect someone.

First published as “Grumbling: A Disease Knowingly Transmitted” in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/4/2017

 

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Reading the Bible Through Red, White, and Blue Lenses

There is no reference to America in the Bible, though some prophecy buffs have tried hard to find one. I tried too, when I was a young Christian. Surely, I thought, the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world – the good guys, the nation of truth and justice – must come into the story somewhere. If nothing else, one of those apocalyptic images in the Book of Revelation must represent the good old U. S. of A.

I no longer hope to find any reference, direct or indirect, to the U.S. in the Bible, not even in the Revelation. I don’t expect to find the U.S. in the Bible, but I do expect to find the U.S. in me as I read the Bible.

Our culture conditions what we see (and, just as importantly, what we don’t see) when we read any text, including the Bible. That’s not just true of U.S. culture, but of any culture – German, Chinese, African, Latin – and of every culture. The more contact points a society has with Semitic culture during biblical times, the easier it will be for its members to understand the Bible. The fewer contact points, the more room there will be for misunderstanding – for reading cultural assumptions into the biblical text.

We all look through the lens of our cultural experiences and values when we read a text. Unless we are very careful (and even that is no guarantee) we will interject our assumptions into the text. The best we can do is remember our susceptibility to such misreadings, and so approach the text with humility and dependence on God.

Our cultural experiences and values provide the lens through which we read. My lens happens to be colored red, white and blue. The scriptural light is refracted and sometimes shaded by the lens through which I look; and I, for the most part, am not even aware of it.

Here’s an example. I read the Bible, as I suspect most Americans do, through a democracy refraction. I think of democracy as the highest form of government: everybody gets a vote, and every vote counts. So, when I come to something in Scripture that suggests I don’t get a vote – for example, that God will act according to his good pleasure whether I like it or not – I have trouble seeing it. My brain automatically corrects what seems to be a visual distortion. This makes it hard for me to understand (or even see) the Bible’s strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God.

Being an American born in the mid-twentieth century, I look through a lens that was ground to see progress. Because science and technology have steadily advanced, we Americans assume everything is advancing, including morals, values, and justice. We believe in progress. First century Bible cultures did not. We’d find it hard to believe in a God who wasn’t committed to our social advancement. People living in a biblical culture would find it hard to believe in one who was.

Americans also read the Bible through a lens ground by radical individualism, and we take it for granted that the first Bible readers wore the same lens. That lens magnifies God’s love for individuals, but it fails to bring his love for the church and the world into focus.

Our lens also distorts biblical passages related to honor and shame. In biblical cultures, shame was corporate. In our culture, it is individual. In biblical cultures, having a sense of shame was a healthy thing (as in, “Have you no shame?”). In our culture, it is an indicator of mental illness. Our culture is an innocence/guilt culture, as E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien point out in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. But the biblical writers lived in an honor/shame culture, which dramatically affected the way they wrote and read Scripture.

If all this is true, can we ever hope to understand the Bible? Yes, but we must read humbly, knowing there’s more there than we see. We must read collectively, with people from backgrounds other than our own. And we must read confidently, knowing that God will help us see what we need to see so that we can do what we ought to do.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/25/2017

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The Dance That Must Be Learned

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA - 2 SAM_3737, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23814211

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA – 2 SAM_3737, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23814211

St. Paul wrote that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” “That’s nice,” I say, but not with much enthusiasm, because deep down I want it to be all about me and this is about some other guy!

But here lies a truth about how the spiritual life works. Woven into the fabric of the universe is the principle of self-giving. What you try to keep for yourself, you lose. What you give away you keep. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it,” as Jesus put it. The idea is repeated so often by Jesus and the biblical writers that we are in danger of taking it for granted.

This principle of self-giving originates in God himself. It is how he is. The Father gives the Son. The Son gives himself back to the Father. The Father and the Son give the Spirit. Giving is the rule of his universe. We live to give. We live by giving. We love by giving.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: “…in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being . . . From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated and so forever. This is not a heavenly law we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ‘ordinary life,’ but simply and solely Hell.”

In the spiritual life, we receive to give, not to grasp. And as we give with one hand, we receive with another. It is a game. A dance. A dance that moves to “uncreated rhythms.” But it is a dance that must be learned. We must learn to give even before we receive, and to receive while expecting to give.

My wife and I recently attended a birthday party at which an instructor led people in a variety of folk dances: the Virginia Reel, a Celtic dance and more. Being good sports but bad dancers, we gave it a whirl (literally). We were taking one person by the right hand, another by the left, constantly moving (sometimes in the wrong direction), receiving to give and giving to receive.

The spiritual life is like this. It will seem as if we are being asked to give before we’ve received, and that is hard for us – hard to trust. But we must. We will be out of position to receive unless we are in position to give. When we stretch out a right hand to give, we will feel God’s grace and love thrust into our left hand. As a person learns to rely on God’s goodwill, the Dance really gets going, and becomes a joy in itself. But refuse to give – get scared and hold on to what you’ve got – and the dance ends; and it ends like a game of Ring-around-the-Rosie: they all fall down.

God gives comfort to one person so that he or she can give it to another, who receives it only to give it away to someone else. When the Dance dies down, God starts it again, from his ever-giving, ever joyful heart. The great ones in heaven will not be those who fasted the most meals or memorized the most verses, kept the most rules or wrote the most books (though some of the great ones may have done any or all of these things). They will be people who have stretched out their hands most quickly and most often to God and to others.

When we are going through trouble, the temptation is to recede into ourselves, grasp at every straw and take care of ourselves. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It is in those times, more than ever, that we need to stand up, extend ourselves to others, and join the dance. This is the way that Jesus, the Lord of the Dance and its instructor, taught us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/18/2017

 

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Living with Courage, Dying with Dignity

What does it take to die with dignity? If one looks at the website of the “Death with Dignity National Center” and “Death with Dignity Political Fund,” one will assume that a death with dignity involves certain standard components, among them: the absence of debilitating pain, the ability to care for one’s personal needs, and the ability to avoid placing a financial and/or emotional burden on family and friends.

I believe that euthanasia laws are wrongheaded for a variety of reasons, but that is not my concern here. As a pastor and a former Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator, I’m bothered by the idea that a person’s death will lack dignity unless she short-circuits the dying process by artificial means. The implication is that people who die in great pain and those who live without the ability to handle their personal care have lost their dignity.

I think of a red-headed kid named Farmer in our school. He was a few years older than me. He went off to Vietnam and died there, probably in the jungle somewhere, in pain and gasping for breath. They sent his body home in a box. But is anyone going to say that he died without dignity?

Over the years, I have been with many people during the last few hours of their lives on earth. I’ve prayed for them in the struggle. Occasionally I’ve closed their eyes when they’ve died. There was the mother and grandmother, surrounded by family and friends, who whispered her love to all while she still could. An hour or so later, she died.

There was my friend who died in the hospital, with her children and grandchildren around her bed. She was restless and agitated when I arrived. I encouraged her family, as I often have done, to tell stories about how they grew up, especially stories about their mom and grandma. It was a beautiful thing to see: the family laughing, crying, sharing one story after another for perhaps forty minutes. I kept looking at my friend. I saw her quiet down. Her breathing became regular, and then softer. She slipped into eternity in the presence of her family, to the accompaniment of their stories of love.

Then there was the man who, when I first met him, treated me like the harbinger of death. But in time he came to accept me and to accept the fact of death’s approach. He began to laugh again. He told friends how he’d overcome his fears. He died in his own home, surrounded by the people who loved and cared for him, in peace.

I think of others. The man who died from complications related to the AIDS virus. The man who smoked a filter-less cigarette, maybe an inch long, around his oxygen hose. Occasionally, the cigarette would flare, and I thought we were all going to meet our Maker. But he listened attentively to the story of God’s love and died a day or two later in peace.

There was my own dad: a two-fisted Marine who never backed down from a fight, but couldn’t beat the lung cancer that attacked him. After coming to faith, he had become gentler and kinder, but he remained as strong as ever. When, a few days before he died, I asked him if he was afraid, he answered (in words I’d heard many times growing up): “I can do this standing on my head.”

There was my own mother, who lingered in her final illness. I asked God to spare her, but her trial continued. And yet she never lost faith or hope. Nor did she lose her sense of humor. She was joking with the Hospice nurse on the day she died.

Don’t tell me these people died without dignity. They lived with courage and died in ways that evoked respect and assured their families of their love. Though I disagree with those who support physician-assisted suicide, I understand their reasons and respect their opinions. But please call it what it is, not by some euphemism that implies that these people, and millions like them, had no dignity when they died.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/11/2017

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