Get Rid of the Litter in Your Life

My wife and I walked down our country road this week, picking up litter. We took a thirty-gallon trash bag with us on our usual two-mile walk, thinking that we would pick up trash as we went. But we had to turn around after about 700 yards to get another bag. And then another.

We found beer cans, pop cans, liquor bottles of various sizes, water bottles, plastic grocery bags, fast-food containers, construction materials, and more. I felt sympathy for the poor man or woman who tosses the beer cans each night (there seem to be new ones each day) before arriving home to spouse and family. I suppose he or she is trying to hide the evidence

Most of that trash will be hidden from view within a week or two. The grass will grow, the mayapples will push up, and the stinging nettles and other weeds will emerge. The roadside will grow a lovely green that motorists will admire, but behind the signs of life will lie the evidence of corruption and decay.
When the grass and weeds die in the autumn, the trash will be visible again, but only for a time. Then the fresh, white snows will cover it under their cold blanket until spring. There are certain times when clean-up is best done. At other times it cannot be done at all.

Because we live at the bottom of a small valley between low ridges, water runs down the ditches from high to low, especially in the spring. Sometimes enough trash collects in the ditch to dam up culverts and force the water aside into rank pools or to spill over onto field or road.

As we climbed in and out of the ditch, I couldn’t help but think of the trash-strewn road as a metaphor for people’s lives. The road itself remains clean (for the most part), just as the part of our lives that most people see remains clean. But out of sight, in the ditch and hidden recesses, lies the litter of our failures and excesses, our sins and our pains.

I have been in pastoral work long enough (and have had a long enough acquaintance with myself) to know that a casual Sunday drive through someone’s life will not reveal what’s really there. Most people look good to the casual observer but conceal, in the hidden places of their lives, the residue of broken relationships, fears and failures.

The lives we live, like the roads we travel, are often in need of a clean-up. Sometimes the task seems so daunting that we hesitate to tackle it. We cling to the hope that no one will notice (or call attention to) our trash while we wait for life to provide some kind of cover to hide it.

In our lives, as on our roads, there are seasons when clean-up can best be done, and seasons when it can hardly be done at all. Put another way, there are times when we cannot overlook the stuff that is polluting our lives, and those times provide the best opportunity to do some clean-up.

But cleaning up can be hard, and even dangerous, work. Some of the stuff strewn along the periphery of our lives may be quite toxic, while other litter may be, simply put, embarrassing. How are we supposed to go about cleaning up?

First, don’t think of cleaning up as something meritorious. If you do it to earn moral or spiritual bonus points, you’ll be disappointed—and most people won’t even notice. Do it, rather, to be happier and more productive.

Second, don’t do it alone. Find a trusted friend or spiritual director who can help you think rightly about yourself and be honest about what you find.

Third, ask God himself for help. We cannot always see the things that litter our lives or prevent us from being happier and more productive—but God can. Like the biblical poet, ask him what he sees: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/8/2017

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Shame and Shamelessness in Contemporary Culture

“I feel like a garbage can, full of ugly, nasty things.”

That’s how a young woman once described herself to me. She was in her late teens or early twenties, and had been raised with a sexually abusive father until her parents divorced. She then lived with her mother, whose life was punctuated by binges with predatory men and alcohol. She remembers getting her own breakfast, dressing herself and going to school on mornings when her mom failed to come home. She was five-years-old at the time.

She has since married, had children and worked in a successful career. But she struggled for years with depression, self-mutilation, and thoughts of suicide. Shame wrapped her like a blanket – or a shroud. She hated what had happened to her, but hated even more the person she envisioned herself to be.

Shame is a terrible burden to bear. Introducing shame into a person’s life is like putting herbicide on a garden: it prevents that person from blossoming. “Shame,” wrote Brené Brown in “I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Whereas guilt concerns one’s actions, shame is about one’s self. Guilt is a powerful motivator. Shame is a powerful demotivator. Shame makes no one better or stronger or move loving. The only thing worse than feeling shame is the inability to feel shame.

According to Brené Brown, we live in a culture of shame. Perhaps she is right, although our culture is very unlike traditional shame cultures, and might even be regarded by them as shameless—something some social commentators consider a positive thing. But people who “have no shame” are like people who, due to injury or disease, have no nerve endings. Yet in the current cultural climate, shamelessness is considered a good, and possibly even courageous, thing.

Of course, the problem for most people is not being shameless, but being ashamed of the wrong things. For example, people today are often ashamed of things that former generations took pride in: patriotism, masculinity, femininity, respect, broadmindedness, etc. But they are shameless about things that previous generations wouldn’t mention in public, most of which have to do with human sexuality.

(I am not here endorsing all the things past generations took pride in: some were morally debased and indefensible.)

When people refuse to find meaning and satisfaction in love for and relationships with their creator and their fellow creatures, they will look for it in themselves. This usually means they will look for it in sensations and feelings. And of course sexuality is a rich source of sensations and feelings.

An addiction to sensations and feelings overshadows our culture right now. Some of the most critically acclaimed books and movies in the last four decades are variations on a single theme: that to be authentic, people must give expression to their feelings—whatever they’re feeling—even when society considers such expression immoral; even when they consider it immoral; even when giving expression to that feeling harms other people.

This is diabolically deceptive. People are ruining their relationships and their lives because, as they say, “It’s just how I feel. I have to be myself.” But the self is much more than feelings and sensations. Without realizing it, people who live for their feelings are betraying the very self to which they say they are committed.

They endless pursuit of sensual and emotional gratification turns people into ghosts, into mere shadows of their true selves. They dwell on the surface of their lives, becoming increasingly less human and increasingly more like soulless sense perceptors. No one finds meaning and satisfaction like that.

Shame is a devastating disease of the soul that must be treated, but becoming shameless is not the treatment. Shamelessness may relieve the pain, but the cure for shame is found in loving acceptance in the context of honest, mutually affirming relationships.

However, there is, to my knowledge, no known cure for shamelessness.

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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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