Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Can People Pray For?

I don't know if you are like me at all but praying for myself often seems wrong.  Can I really pray to God asking for a pretty girl to say 'yes' when I ask her on a date?  Or healing from a rare disease?  Aren't those prayers selfish?  Does God care?  Sometimes we add, "if it be thy will, Lord, do this," and I wonder if that negates the whole purpose of prayer.  I mean, if it is God's will that we are healed from cancer, would we need to pray for it to happen?  We also sometimes pray for other people.  Doing so is unselfish, yes, but isn't it also intrusive and coercive?  Am I allowed to ask God to show someone the light, because then aren't I limiting that other person's free will?  These questions haunt me and my prayer life.  What does God care enough about that we should pray for?  Does God mind if we are selfish?  Can we pray for something that we think is good but actually would hinder other people's free will?  Can we change God's mind and will?  If we can't, is there any purpose praying?

If you are anything like me and have asked these questions and wonder what it is you should be praying for and how it is you should be praying, don't worry.  I have the solution.  It might be strange to you, however, so I'll start by pointing out that often there are three different general modes of theology from which we approach theological questions: a theology of creation; a theology of the cross; or a theology of resurrection.  Typically, those who approach theology from resurrection focus on grace and redemption and love.  For example, rather than sending someone to prison for committing a crime, we should offer therapy and support.  Those who approach theology from the cross focus on our sin and absolute need for Jesus Christ.  These folks often then emphasize belief in Christ for the sake of salvation and that nothing else matters, because we and the world are broken and in need of ultimate, divine redemption.  I am, usually, a creation theology guy.  I and others who fit into this category of doing theology typically focus on relationship and God's intended purpose for us as human beings.  My theology of creation is vastly different from the norm but it is useful here.

It seems to me that the only rational reason for God's creating humans in His likeness is for us to share in the divine life with Him.  God did not create us so that we might be saved or so that we might serve God.  Originally God created us so that we might enjoy the life that He has given us and serve with Him caring for and living in Creation.  Any other reason for God's creating us makes God a tyrant Creator.  A tyrant Creator is not the God we believe in (maybe God is a tyrant, but we don't believe He is, anyway). 

All of this matters because prayer is, as we know, communication with God.  Any time we communicate with someone, whether it's God or not, we reflect the relationship with the person in our communication.  For instance, when I talk with my son, I often speak with a softer, more excited voice than normal.  I also often am talking about numbers and letters and the random things that we see.  I don't communicate that way with other people because I am not their father and I am not trying to teach them the alphabet, how to count, or why worms wiggle into the ground as I do with my son.  How I communicate with my son is a reflection of the fact that I am, indeed, his dad.  Likewise with God, so we need to be clear what type of relationship we have with God.  Are we merely servants or sinners in need of salvation, or are we supposed to be more than that?  Of course the categories of cross and resurrection are important and, in fact, central to our faith, but I do not see how they can define the intended relationship God had planned for and with us.  The only God could have intended for our relationship to be defined by the cross and/or resurrection is if God also intentionally created us as sinful so that we would need Jesus to die on the cross and be raised.  And that, to be plain, is not the Creation story.  God made us good and we, through our given free-will, chose a posture of rebellion.  Rather, according to our Creation story, it seems that God intended us to be sharers, to an extent, in divinity and the divine life and joyously live in and with Creation while caretaking Creation.  Based on that, it seems logical that we must also believe prayer, our communication with God, should be a reflection of God's intended relationship with us and aim to restore that relationship.

Put another way, we certainly may be, and often are, in need of forgiveness and salvation.  Because of God's intended and hoped-for relationship with us, however, our prayer in those many instances should not be, "Father, forgive me," and instead should be, "Father, I hope that I can see and know in my heart that you have already forgiven me."  The cause for the difference is that, when we see our proper relationship to God and the relationship God wants and has always wanted, we also see that God has already done all that He can to restore the relationship.  The rest is up to us.  We then need to do our part in restoring the relationship.  Our role in life becomes key when we prioritize God's intended relationship for and with us and think of the work of Christ as, while central, making possible that original intended relationship.

Our prayer life changes drastically when put in these terms.  Look, if God isn't a tyrant God who created us only to test who would believe and have salvation, then it is not necessary to pray for forgiveness, that other people would come to believe, that the church do exactly what I-me-I want, or anything of that ilk.  God has already done the work of restoring the relationship He intends and now it's up to us, as individuals, to live into that relationship.

Most of our typical prayers, then, are irrelevant or inappropriate.  The selfish, 'I hope she says yes' type of prayer that I started with are definitely inappropriate.  Whether or not we receive favors from God do not, or at least should not, affect our relationship to God.  Our own heart, mind, and body are the only things that affect our relationship to God.  Likewise, the prayers of healing and protection that are overwhelmingly common if your church worship includes prayer time are now irrelevant.  God intends to have deep, divine relationship with all of His children, and has already done and is doing all He plans to do in that regard.  Protecting our uncle Jimmy while he travels to Hawaii or healing our aunt Jane from cancer won't, or shouldn't, affect their relationship with God.  Change what I said earlier, then, to read that only our hearts and minds should affect our relationship with God.  Beyond that, too, it doesn't make much sense to pray for a single person when God wants to care for all of us at the same time. 

Since I've essentially taken away our most common prayers, the prayers of intercession on our behalf or on others' behalf, you may ask, "So what in the heck can we pray for?"  Obviously we are now getting to the point of the matter.  What we can and should be praying for are the attributes God hoped we'd have when He created us in the divine image.  Theologians and scholars throughout Christian/Jewish history have pointed out the fact that we probably don't look like God in appearance.  The image-likeness between divine and human has more to do with morality and spirit.  Yet, since we are often sinning up a storm or concerned about external happenings--whether we get that job promotion, whether so and so claims to have faith, whether our aunt Joan lives or uncle Jimmy returns home safely--we ignore or forget the intended inner being and relationship of God's creative work.  Essentially, we should pray for the restoration of Adam and Eve's spirit and mind, without that fruit-eating bit, and for the mind of Christ.

In practical terms, such prayer means that rather than praying for safe travels for our uncle Jimmy, we pray that God help Jimmy make smart decisions--not text while drive and pull over if he's tired.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for aunt Joan's healing, we pray that she know the strength and peace of God no matter what miracles may or may not happen.  Such prayer means that rather than praying that so-and-so shape up, we pray that we can be a source of God's light and patience to them.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for specific actions to be taken by the church or country, we pray for God's wisdom to be made known in our individual and collective minds.  Such prayer means that rather than praying for the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup, or for a job interview to go well, that we have the courage and confidence of Christ to live as a disciple in all places and times. 

Yes, our prayer then becomes more vague and less convincing.  Many pastors and prayer-experts out there would say that we should have the confidence that God can do all things, even the specific thing of healing David of acne if we prayed about it.  Jesus did say, after all, that faith can move mountains.  I agree that we should have such faith and confidence.  But I disagree that we should aim that faith and confidence at external happenings for three reasons: 1) If what we pray for doesn't happen, because it's not in alignment with God's will, then we may lose hope and faith, and that's no good; 2) The external happenings are not the express intention of God's creating us; 3) Similar to #1, we then attempt to imprint our thoughts and desires on the world.  God gave us free-will but not free-will to dominate the will of others or of Creation.  Others are also free, for good or for ill, to make whatever choices they want.  Including specific, external requests in our prayers dampens the free-will of all people around us.  Take, for example, the prayer for safe travel.  What if someone chooses to drive at 120 mph going the wrong way at the very time uncle Jimmy is on the road?  Praying for safe travel then limits the free-will of the maniac and, also, of uncle Jimmy, who might choose to do something stupid and text while driving and not see the maniac coming.  Praying for specific, external happenings is a reflection of our sinful nature, trying to shape the world into our likeness, rather than a reflection of God's hoped-for relationship with us.

At the end of the day, what God wants and what is best for us is to share with God in deep, gratifying relationship with Him through the good, bad, and ugly.  Like with a good friend, the relationship shouldn't change because of what happens in life.  Indeed, we know we have a real friendship when the friend sticks by our side no matter what and can still be honest with us.  So, too, with God.  We know we have a real, deep relationship with our God when we can abide in His presence even when His constructive criticisms are convicting and challenging, even when aunt Joan dies, even when we are fired for no good reason from employment and our first job interviews go horribly, even when we honestly tell God we aren't sure what He's doing and if we can possibly agree. 

Perhaps we can and do still pray for all the stuff I'm saying we shouldn't, but I do think we shouldn't pray for any of it until, at least, our perspective on our relationship with God changes and our prayer life changes to, indeed, reflect that relationship.  Perhaps what we should do is simply pray, "God, I'm here."  Pray that one over and over again, 24/7, until we realize that it is our being in God's presence and sharing in life with our God--how amazing it is that we have life!--is what most matters.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Is Fame?

Six weeks ago my wife gave birth to our second son, Soren.  While on paternity leave until this past week, the recurring thought in my head was, "Well, now I won't be able to write, with two kids running around."  For me, this was a major problem.

Earlier versions of this blog said, "On the road to being famous," or something like that.  I had hoped to chronicle the early stages of a famous writer's career.  The idea seemed cool.  Well, that idea still seems cool, but the chances of my becoming a famous writer are dwindling by the day and, now that I'm a pastor, actively desiring to be famous may not be the best goal for me.  Regardless, the dream still resides deep down in my mind and heart.  It's not so much that I want to be famous but that I want people to read my work, for their sake, for the sake of asking challenging and needful questions about how we can and should live well and with God.  Now it seems it may be time to put my dream away entirely.  Throw it away.

On the other hand, my recent experience has also brought to my memory a book that a good friend of mine (who I haven't talked to in a long time, because I'm a terrible friend.  Sorry, Alexandra!  I hope you and the family are doing well!) lent to me: The World According to Garp.  Apparently Robin Williams starred as Garp in a film of the same name about thirty years ago.  In the book, and probably the movie, too, Garp gains some notoriety writing fiction, but then he gets married and has children and essentially becomes busy with being a stay-at-home dad.  He earns satisfaction from being a good dad but, eventually, he has problems with his marriage, himself, and society because he isn't writing any more.  He isn't being who he knows he is.  So he starts writing again... until he's assassinated.  If it weren't for that, Garp would have written again.  Likewise, I recently heard an interview with Michael Chabon about his new book of essays on fatherhood, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces.  The introduction to the book tells the story of how a famous writer told Chabon, right before the publication of his first book and shortly before his wedding, that Chabon should never have kids.  Kids, this writer said, would interfere with his writing and he simply would not have the output he could have with kids.  Chabon clearly decided kids were worth writing less, though, because he's had four.  Maybe, then, it's possible to have kids and be a writer and I just need to calm down, wait for a year or two before they're older and less needy and tiresome.

As I have pondered the one hand and the other hand--thinking I need to totally dedicate myself to fatherhood, or incorporating writing into fatherhood--I've come to ask the questions, "What's the point, anyway?  Why do I want to be a writer?  Why do I want to be famous?  What is fame?" 

There is no question that, from a Christian perspective, fame is one step away from sinful egoism; and wanting to be famous is itself sinful egoism.  Is it possible, though, to want to be famous in a good way?  My college entrance essay was about how I'd like to be Tom Brady for a day to use my fame for good purposes.  The Catholic school I attended loved it.  It's a great idea.  Fame also provides a platform, and probably lots of money, to serve the world.  I like to think that my desire to be famous, as I've said, fits into the latter category of fame, of serving the world.  My writing is almost entirely aimed at encouraging provocative reflection and therefore a deepening of faith and faithful practice.  That's good.

The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've realized that whether or not fame is okay, and therefore whether or not it's okay to want to be a writer, misses the point anyway.  By the way, you can fill in whatever your dream is to replace my dream of writing.  We all have dreams of doing something and being so good at it that people see us and shout, "Hey that's so and so, the great ______ (fill in the blank)."  But why is that?  Why do I say that I want to write and be famous?  Why do we tag fame onto our dream?  Indeed, why is fame the dream itself?  Even if we pretend or genuinely believe that our fame could serve the world, why is fame a part of the equation at all? I don't know the answer to these questions.  Whatever the answer to 'why' I do know that Jesus's words, "Whoever wants to be great must be a servant," are critical.  If we want to be great, if we want to be famous, we can't think about it, or else we won't be great. 

And here's what I've discovered, here's the only mental space I've found that can provide me peace and contentment as well as a motivation and drive to be a writer, to do the thing I dream about and think about constantly: if we are gifted in a certain way, whether it be writing, plumbing, selling jewelry, whatever, then we do that thing simply because we are gifted in that way.  Doing and practicing our gift is the fame, is the reward, regardless of how other people perceive us.  Doing and practicing our gift is a virtue. 

Indeed, the meaning of 'virtue,' rightly understood, is something practiced.  People are not born virtuous.  Virtue must be practiced, and the reward of the virtues is in the practicing.  Being virtuous does not give us good things and happiness in life; being virtuous and practicing the virtues are themselves good and happiness. 

What this means is that whatever our dream is, we should do it and follow our dream for no other reason than that it is what we do, it is who we are.  For me, I should write not because it might lead to fame, not because others might think well of me, not because I can serve the world, but only because writing is what I do and who I am.  Essentially, I think, this is what Garp came to discover.  And Michael Chabon, as he realized that it didn't matter if having kids would interfere with writing as much as he could.  What Chabon knew and knows is that he is a writer.  That's what he does, that's who he is, and he can do no other.  He is particularly gifted, as are many other writers, to be able to make a living out of his dream, out of his identity and virtue, but we shouldn't necessarily aim to make a living or become famous from our dreams, from our identities.  We just do them because that's what we do, that's who we are.  So that's what I'll do.  I want my kids to see that their dad carves out time to do what he is gifted to do, to do what he feels an inner calling to do, even if it means spending less time with them.  As long as I don't become like the father in the "Cats in the Cradle" song, I think that's a good lesson.

Of course, I can add that, for we Christians, we do what we do because God has called us to.  If God calls us to do something, it's best to obey and not question why God has gifted us in certain ways for certain tasks.  Now, I'm not one that likes that word, 'obey,' even with God.  I like my independence.  Part of the argument in my book, Created Human Divinity, is an attempt to maintain parts of our independence from God.  Yet still, if a divine and all-powerful God has given us certain gifts for certain tasks, will it do us any good to ask why?  Or hope to become famous?  Probably not.  So best just to do what God has given us the power and dream to do.

Maybe I won't sell more than 100 copies of anything I publish.  Oh well.  I now realize that's fine, as long as I'm using the gifts God has given me.  That's what matters.  You should agree, too, because I'm telling you, no other attitude will provide the same peace, contentment, and motivation to use our God-given gifts and live our best life, especially with kids running around 'interfering' with our dreams. 

And besides, as someone recently reminded me, Soren Kierkegaard only sold a few hundred copies of his works in his lifetime and now... well, now his work has become critically important to thousands, myself included.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Prayer is Work

The phrase, 'thoughts and prayers,' has come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years, and rightly so.  When 'thoughts and prayers' are a substitute for real action, rather than the foundation of action, then those thoughts and prayers are rather hollow.  From a Christian perspective, prayer is good regardless, but for 'thoughts and prayers' to be truly effective, we need to have a better understanding of how prayer is work.

Prayer is work for three reasons.  The first is the most obvious: it takes time to pray.  If those of us who are religious are honest, we'd have to admit that we don't pray nearly as much as we should.  Distractions in life are too numerous to avoid, it would seem, so we fill our day with everything but prayer, except for maybe the few minutes after we wake and before we sleep.  Finding and making the time to pray as much as we should is, then, work.

We may not want to consider prayer work.  Yes, prayer is supposed to be a natural outpouring of our faith and love of God.  Yet we must understand that we find our greatest joy, peace, consolation, etc. not from our faith generally but from spending time with our God.  If we are not spending time with our God, then we need to make sure that we do, and that requires work.  We have to work at making time to pray.  And there should be no question that, if Christians (and Jews and Muslims) are responsible for anything it is to pray.  Jesus said things like, "When you fast... when you pray," assuming that we would.  Fasting, of course, is another form of prayer that is definitely work. 

Fortunately, prayer is the easiest kind of work we can possibly do.  If we ask, "when do I ever have the time to pray?", the answer is simple: you can pray with your family, you can pray while you eat, you can pray while you garden, you can pray while you do the dishes, while you cook, while you have sex, etc.  If our greatest joy, peace, consolation, etc. come from spending time with our God, why not pray all the time?  You don't always need to set aside time to go to a quiet place to pray.  That is important, certainly, but your prayer can be the acknowledgement that you live before our God, that you are working before God, you are eating before God, and so on.

Having said that prayer is the easiest kind of work we can do, I must also say that it is among the hardest things we can do.  That is because we are often confused as to what we should pray for or how we should pray.  Again, simply recognizing that we are in the midst of God can be your prayer, but there are certainly times when we must put words and thought to our prayer.  What should we ask for?  What can we ask for?  Should we even be asking for things?  I'll answer some of these questions in my next post (I hope), but for now I'll say that prayer seems hard because, a) we think we need to be some type of expert, and b) we aren't sure where God is calling us to go.  For the answer to a), I point you to my Holy Pastor Doing Stuff You Tube video on how to pray.  Prayer doesn't need to be complicated.  Just say what's on your mind.  The answer to b), however, is that we need to learn how to listen.  Prayer is work because listening is not our forte. 

So the second reason prayer is work is that, in prayer, we can come to understand one another.  We must listen in order to understand others, of course, and in that silent listening, we may learn how to see life from another person's shoes.  In prayer we can ask, "what is so and so thinking?  Why do they act that way?"  If we are silent and listen, and truly open, God may show us. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, prayer is work because we can come to an understanding of God.  Again, if we listen in silence during our prayer, God's will for us will become known.  Rather than fretting about the right thing to say and whether what we are praying for is in alignment with God's desires for us, why don't we just ask God, and then listen for the response, what God is doing with us and where God is calling us? 

The latter two reasons, especially, are where we can put some meat on 'thoughts and prayers.'  I would wager that most people who say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and nothing else, don't even make the time to truly pray.  But if we do make the time to pray, then our thoughts and prayers cannot merely be, "God, comfort these people, show them your love, be good to them, etc. etc."  That's a good prayer, and much needed after a tragedy when 'thoughts and prayers' is most heard, but it's also a relatively weak prayer.  If our prayer is instead a prayer of understanding, of sitting in silence to listen to the rhythm of other people's hearts and the will of God, then we will be changed and then forced into action.  If we come to understand the plight of our neighbors, we cannot sit back and do nothing; if we come to understand God's desires for us, then we cannot then sit back and do nothing.  If prayer is taken seriously, then, it will lead to work, to action, in the name of God and our brothers and sisters.  It cannot be otherwise.  Those who express thoughts and prayers and then do nothing are clearly either not praying or not working at prayer.  Like God, we cannot hear the cry of the needy in our prayers and then not seek to liberate them.

What can't happen is the creation of a division between 'thoughts and prayers' and action.  Surely, as I've said, there are many who use 'thoughts and prayers' as an excuse for action.  But good prayer, prayer that we work at, leads to holy action.  Action without prayer or pre-prayer will be action that is either misguided or unsustainable.  Think about it: if one day you woke up and said, "I want to run a bike shop," and then you started looking into what it would take to run a bike shop, would you have as much patience and determination to follow through as if you thought and prayed for weeks about what you want to do, what you are gifted by God to do, and then concluded that you want to run a bike shop?  Obviously the sustainable action--the sustainable bike shop scenario--is the one that has worked at prayer before action is taken.  Not only might you quickly lose interest in running a bike shop in the former, prayer-less scenario, but you might also make mistakes along the way.  We must keep thinking and praying, then, but really work at it.  Work at prayer so that we can, as a society, not remain stagnant and not remain far from God's intentions for us and instead take right, holy action.

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Once we can understand prayer as work that we Christians should and must do, easy and hard work, then we can also put the role of our pastors into better perspective.  This may seem like a radical shift in subject and I suppose it is to an extent.  But if Christians are called to the work of prayer, then pastors are especially.

Unfortunately, the role of pastor has been tweaked in harmful ways in the past hundred-fifty-plus years.  This is particularly true in Methodist churches.  Back in the day, pastors were theological and spiritual and moral guides.  Evangelicalism, despite its modern bent, combined the twin aims of revival and reform because, to John Wesley and Charles Finney and others, the role of pastors and of the church is to listen for God's nudging and then follow ardently.  Strong abolitionist and feminist and nearly communist movements sprung out of the original evangelicalism.  Pastors were the lead, the impetus for revival with the vision for reform, and the daily/weekly tasks of the church were delegated to the church proper.  What happened was that churches became established, secure, stable, and wanted the pastor not to push them too far ("hey, we've done so much already") and instead to take care of them ("hey, wouldn't it be nice to get a visit from the pastor?").  Slowly but definitely surely, the theological and moral, prophetic and visionary leadership of pastors dwindled away.  The spiritual comfort aspect of pastoral ministry took center stage.  Nowadays, then, pastors spend most of their days and weeks writing and preaching sermons that don't tackle moral or so-called political issues at all, teaching bible studies, and visiting people to ask basic questions like, "How are you doing?  Okay, let's pray."  Meanwhile, people in the churches do very little of the work they used to, whether it be visiting, holding one another spiritually and morally accountable, preaching and exhorting, or leading community activism.

All of this is connected to churches having a hard time understanding that when a pastor is praying, she or he is working.  It should be clear that churches' insistence that pastors settle down to care for the individual spiritual needs of the congregation has also led to a desire for tangible pastoral work on behalf of church members.  You see, if a pastor is no longer a holy reformer of church and society, then a pastor no longer has need to pray, because prayer is the work a pastor does listening to the needs of the downtrodden and oppressed and to God's loving Spirit.  The only prayer a pastor can do is with the church members for good health, promotions at work, or more members.  But none of that is not the ultimate work of the church or of Christians generally.  Churches and church members tend to want to know that their pastor is tangibly working for the time they expect.  If a pastor is paid for forty hours, then the pastor must be able to account for how all forty hours were spent between worship and sermon preparation, Bible study, visitation, meetings, or the like.

Instead of our current model, however, we should return to the model of a pastor at prayer.  It may seem like cheating, for instance, that I count about half the time I spend on my bike, Cato, as work for the church.  But that is work for the church, because my role as pastor should be in hearing God's call, listening to how we are out of step with God's intentions for us and how we might get back into step with God's desired path for us.  The church in this scenario is not a collection of people being cared for, but rather a family working towards God's kingdom.  What does that kingdom look like compared to the world we live in?  The answer must come in prayer.  The pastor must be the leading figure in such prayer.  We need to be grounded in the working of God.

Yes, we can say that a pastor should pray on his or her own time, but a pastor's 'own' time is when they need to pray for their personal life.  A pastor must be personally renewed as well. 

My hope is that in understanding the role of prayer in our Christian and church lives we will have a healthier relationship with God and also a more Christ-like impact on our world, as our churches once again claim the part of activism for the sake of transformation.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Communism and Dignity (Part II)


In the previous installment of this essay, we covered why Christians could not, or should not, link themselves to capitalism.  Now, I'll talk about why Christians should think in more communistic terms.

It bears repeating already that communism is both an economic theory and a philosophical/spiritual theory.  The latter sense is more interesting and, strangely, more practical.  Let's see.

Karl Marx, the first major voice of communism, consistently stated that the purpose of communism as an economic theory is to serve the philosophical side of the theory: namely, that a human being has intrinsic worth deserving respect and consideration.  Obviously, people of faith will, or should, immediately agree.  Most religions, Christianity included, begin with a theology and story of creation.  The Jewish and Christian story of creation even states that we are created in the image of God.  If that doesn't tell you that each person has intrinsic, equal worth, I don't know what will.  Yet capitalism has grown strong in our culture to the point that more people than I'd like to think believe, truly, that a person's only worth is equal to their financial net worth.  It would seem wise for people of faith to distance ourselves from such a philosophy and reclaim divine, and therefore equal, creation.

Marx continued by saying that, because each person has equal worth to every other person, each person has a right to the means not only of survival but also of life enjoyment.  We're not talking here about the right to pursue life enjoyment, but an inherent right to life enjoyment.  Since poverty is obviously an inhibitor to enjoying life, each person has the right to live out of poverty, to not spend each day scraping out enough to survive.  I would point you to the many sayings of Jesus and Paul on money that agree with this, as well as the example of the early church in the Book of Acts, for proof that Christianity is partial to such a theory of life.  The prophets, too, are quite clear that one cannot be righteous while also wealthy in a community including any who are poor.

The problem with communism, of course, arises from putting the theory/theology into practice.  Throughout history Christians have lived communally.  Small villages of folk who share all things in common and don't even keep a currency have always been part of Christianity from the beginning.  Even John Wesley, the first mover of my own Methodist movement tradition, talks of "communities of goods."  Yet Wesley and all others in history have found that legislating communal living beyond the community and into county or national levels creates all sorts of problems.  Marx was not clear, either, perhaps understanding the inherent danger in translating his philosophical economic theory into practice.  Forcing anyone to live by Christian principles without the faith is unjust, impossible, and unchristian.  It doesn't work.

That communism doesn't work on a national scale in practice should not mean, however, that we disregard it entirely, especially since the first disciples of Christ and many others trying hard to heed the call of discipleship, like Dorothy Day, have lived communally.  Generally these Christians have gone only by the label "disciple of Christ," and have not known or have not used the label "communist," or "Marxist," but nowadays the ill will toward communism is such that Christians can no longer live truly as Christian without being considered strange, on one end, or a threat to democracy on the other end (hence the need for this essay).  We must admit that the theory of communism helps us respect and love our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to seek their good as well as ours, a Christian ideal, rather than capitalistically only seek our own good, a Christian heresy.

I'd like to affirm this point with an illustration from a kids’ movie, of all things.  In the movie, A Bug’s Life, the main character, Flick, tries helping his colony by inventing what he calls a ‘harvester.’  This harvester enables a single ant to cut down a stalk of grain from below and then extract and store and carry the food.  Without the harvester, a single ant would climb the stalk of grain and throw down bits of food one by one to a line of ants waiting on the ground to carry the individual bits of food—a more time-consuming and far less effective model.   As these things go, no other ant thought Flick’s invention helpful because it’s not the way they have always picked food.  By the end of the movie, however, Flick has saved the colony and now his ideas are more palatable, and so all the ants are using a harvester.  It is clear that, because harvesters are now in use, each ant has more free time to enjoy life without having to work for survival constantly.  Leisure is a reality.  That is a Christian and communistic dream.

Obviously, the harvester is or can be an analogy for machines or robots.  Machines can cut down the labor force and labor time while also producing more, just like Flick’s harvester.  Machines have been doing that for centuries now.  Imagine the problem, though, if Flick decided to only produce harvesters if 80% of the food abundance went to him.  Suddenly the reduced labor force and labor time would be detrimental to most ants’ survival, let alone leisure and enjoyment of life.  Other ants would have to work harder to find left over food not collected by Flick’s harvesters, and then they’d probably have to pay Flick in some way in order to eat from his store of food.  Such is the issue with machines today: we are still living in a capitalistic society.  One person invents a machine but does not equally share the benefits with all.  There is no question that the overall living standards of most would improve as machines, like a harvester, are invented and modified, but without proper sharing of the benefits, would the spiritual and emotional living standard improve?

I agree with Marx that there is value to work.  I also agree with Marx, though, that there is more value to the work that we choose to do.  With more leisure time, we can do the work that we enjoy rather than the work we must do to survive.  Working in that way respects the worth of individuals far more because it respects that we all have our own spiritual, and practical, gifts to share and fulfill.  I also believe this is biblical.  In the beginning, God created man and woman to care for and till the ground, to work.  Yet this was a task given to them by God, a holy task, a vocation; and because a vocation, enjoyable work.  When Adam and Eve disobey, in Genesis 3 we learn that work will now be toilsome for humanity.  The difference between Genesis 1-2 and 3 is that at first God intended for work to be enjoyable, to be a vocation, and when we turn work into a necessity for survival, work is then toilsome rather than wholesome.  Our spiritual selves are weakened.  It is for that reason that I say to be only capitalist is to miss the point of Christianity and humanism.  An element of communism is necessary to being Christian and to caring for the worth and dignity of our fellow brothers and sisters.

 Again, as in the first part, a strong economy is not necessarily good for persons.  Those who advocate for policies that clearly benefit the general economy rather than the persons that make up our communities are missing the point of the economy.  The economy’s purpose, from a Christian perspective, is not to be a strong economy; but rather to support and fulfill the intrinsic worth of each and every person.  People matter.  A good economy whose leaders and participants degrade the moral worth and dignity of persons is not good at all. 

 What all this means in a practical sense is quite simple.  John Wesley put it this way: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can (I point you to sermons, “The Use of Money,” “On the Danger of Riches,” and “The Cause of the Inefficacy of Christianity” for more).  Wesley took the third command seriously and literally.  Indeed, as the title of the third sermon I list suggests, Wesley considered Christians’ ignoring the third command to be why Christianity is ineffective in truly transforming society or an individual’s life in or by God’s grace.  So Wesley’s solution, to put into economic terms, was to work and save capitalistically but to think, believe, and act communistically.  Wesley did consider it biblically reasonable to put aside enough for yourself and your kids, but only enough to provide the basics.  Everything else should be given to those in poverty to respect that which is Christ in those people, so that they can enjoy the life God has given them.

Wesley’s practical and religious solution is another way of saying viewing the economy and finances unselfishly.  Capitalism has convinced us that a good economy is good for ‘me,’ which is true to some extent, but as we’ve discussed it’s not an entirely true statement and, further, not the point from a Christian’s perspective.  A Christian should look at finances as a means of grace to other people.  So we should concern ourselves with making the economy as fair as possible.  To the extent that it will never be entirely fair, we take advantage of the economy to our benefit.  But we do that in order to then turn around and advantage those who are disadvantaged.  That is because from a Christian perspective the economy, and the use of our own finances, should be aimed at respecting the dignity of God-created and God-loved persons.  We hope that eventually such complete and unselfish charity will lead to greater leisure time for all people, so that all of us can enjoy the life God has given us.

 

Let’s recap, then.  As a philosophy, communism is helpful in reclaiming faithful understandings of the use of money because it puts the emphasis on what is good for each and every person, not in an abstract but a concrete way.  We should have this emphasis because God created us, and God created us in order to enjoy life rather than simply to toil.  In practice, if we cannot influence the general economy to be more fair, then we ourselves must put our personal finances to use to respect the dignity of our neighbors.  That is what our finances are for, from a religious perspective.  Yes, communism in practice is unrealistic and often tyrannical, but it does put the emphasis in the right place, in the place where Christ himself did: on the person, rather than the economy.

The general economy, then, should never be a Christian’s concern.  If the economy suffers in the name of ensuring that each and every person has a safe, joyful life that is not consumed by work in order to survive, then that is the price we must pay.  A good general economy may aid in that regard but it can never be our hope because a good general economy has no place in our theology or our moral theology.  Our morality, as expressed in our theology, is based way back in Leviticus, that book of laws we rarely read: don’t harvest your entire field, but leave plenty for the poor to glean; don’t take advantage of your neighbors, but instead every seven years release slaves and servants, and every fifty years all property will return to equal footing.  These laws put a significant limit on personal gain in favor of consideration for one’s neighbors and economic equality.

Ultimately, we cannot ignore that God asks a lot of us.  Our faith at its foundation asks us to deny ourselves and instead accept Christ.  Jesus Christ, who insisted that we sell all that we have and follow him.  For a Christian, then, it’s not the economy.  Our political concern can never be the economy.  Our political concern should always be what is moral, what is good for all people who share brother and sisterhood with Jesus.  We must reframe our thinking and our living to follow the radical life and teachings of the person and God we disciple.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Communism and Dignity (Part I)

We can talk about the economy in traditional political terms if we want.  To do so, we could talk about what I've mentioned in Facebook posts immediately after the election of Trump in 2016: leadership lag time.  In many cases, when a new leader takes charge of an organization, be it a business, church, or government, the policies and general leadership of the new executive take awhile to have an effect, positively or negatively (likewise, new positive or negative effects of the previous leader may be seen for awhile after his/her departure).  Often I talk about that in church terms: if a pastor works for ten years to create communal events that everyone attends, and in the ninth and tenth year those events finally become successful, and then after the tenth year the pastor leaves but attendance at the communal events and membership in the church continue growing for a couple of years after the new pastor arrives, we can't attribute much of the success of the events or membership growth to the new pastor.  Likewise, since the economy and unemployment numbers were improving steadily under Obama, a continuation of the upward trend cannot be solely attributed to Trump.  We also should mention that the president has little effect on the economy in the first place, other than working with Congress.  Certainly there are hopeful signs in the economy that can be attributed to Trump: the stock market, for instance, while gaining steadily under Obama, did spike noticeably because of optimism surrounding the tax cuts.  There are also concerning signs, however.  The deficit will balloon and my generation will pay for it.  Little to no talk about the debt and deficit and curbing the burden they will place on future generations has occurred.  Traditionally, 'small government' and 'conservative' legislators and officials, whom I firmly affirm, have cut government spending in order to cut taxes in order to energize the economy.  Instead, under Trump, we have raised spending and cut taxes.  That makes little sense.  Regardless of our position here, these are the traditional elements of an 'economy discussion.'

If we want to talk about the economy, we can talk about all of those elements.  With that, we traditionally ask the question, "Who can we credit with the good?  Who can we blame with the bad?  How can we jumpstart the economy, generally?  How can we cut taxes?  Whose taxes should we cut, and whose should we increase?"  Those are the questions we ask.  Above I answer some of those questions in brief fashion.  I don't intend to discredit Trump or the Republican Party with my answers but, instead, do want to imply that our thinking on the subject of the economy cannot be as cut and dried as we desire.  Yet we have so politicized discussion on the economy (and, by the way, I love politics--politics is simply the civil engagement of what is best for the polis, the city, or state, and its citizens, so politics is good.  By 'politicized,' I do not mean that politics is bad.  Instead I mean by 'politicized' that we have 'partyified,' a term I am now coining, hoping to claim for one political party or the other the good or bad that occurs without any admission of the good that members of the opposite party have done), and the parties and members and associates of the parties are so divided, that we cannot fathom wading into some of the murkiness and admit that, maybe, our side is not always right.

The back and forth party fighting obsessed with the general state of the economy has blinded us to what truly matters about the economy.  Using the catch-phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," has made us think that if the economy is good, then all is well; if the economy is bad, then all is clearly not well.  We have thus become a country who wants to know the answer to two questions: 1) Which party will benefit the economy more? 2) Which party will benefit the military more?¹  Here I focus on the first question.  While I have a number of responses to which party will benefit the economy more, I want to point out the main response now: All of our traditional discussion topics on the economy are misguided because "It's the economy, stupid," is a terrible, terrible catch-phrase. 

Want to know why?  We have been brainwashed by capitalism and have misunderstood the criticisms of Marxian communism.  Hear me out.  Please, hear me out.  I know that 'communism' is a nasty word.  I will address why in part two of this essay.  For now, note that I am using the philosophical and spiritual understandings of communism more than the economic/political understandings.  Also note that I, myself, am staunchly in favor of liberty, and therefore am a capitalist in practice because, as a form of economic development, capitalism does, in my mind, practically favor individual liberty.

With that said, let's dig into why our current understandings of the economy, in partyified form, are misguided and how we might better process our thoughts on the economy.

First, as soon as you reflect on the economy in any form, one has to acknowledge that it is separate from the government.  The Federal Reserve is the government's economy watch-dog with a variety of tools at its disposal to slow down or speed up economic development and inflation.  Even the Fed, as it is called, is mostly independent, though, from the elected officers that we put into the government.  We can barely equate the Fed with what we traditionally think of as the government.  Still, who is appointed to the Federal Reserve matters, so the government has an impact there, as well as through taxes, the accumulation of debt, and regulations.  All these have an affect.  Each party and their positions on the limited roles a government can have on the economy do matter somewhat.  Perhaps not the impact we typically think, but enough of an impact to acknowledge the government's role.

The problem, however, with partyifying economic choices is that our thinking of which party is better for economic development and stability is emotional and misguided.  One piece of evidence is playing out right now, as I've mentioned above.  The Republican Party is, traditionally, the party of small government and low deficits.  Suddenly, with control of the executive branch and both houses of government, the Republican Party has become the party of spending and high deficits.  Why?  For emotional reasons.  Everyone likes a tax cut and everyone likes the results of government spending--may not like the concept of government spending, but the results of it, such as roads, Medicare, Meals on Wheels, housing programs, etc. are popular.  What is happening now is proof that whichever party is in power seeks most to make as many people happy as possible right now in order to stay in power rather than follow through on principles.  Our political parties understand that wen the economy is doing well, or when we perceive that it is doing well because we are receiving tax cuts and bonuses, we will think that the party in power is doing a good job.  Various forms of amnesia and memory suppression take control and what is happening right now, and our perceptions of it, matters most.  Principles be damned.

A second reason why our understanding of the economy is askew, and now we are getting to the heart of the matter, is that we have forgotten what capitalism is.  Capitalism is a form of economy engineered to put as much capital in people's hands and let them do what they will with it.  Freedom and liberty in capital terms is the rule of the day.  In terms of justice and morality we defend such an economic plan because, essentially, of Adam Smith's century-and-a-half old ideas.  Adam Smith claimed that when each person is given the freedom to do whatever they choose with the capital in their possession there will be an invisible hand, of sorts, indirectly navigating the general economy for the betterment of all people in general.  Famously, people like John Nash, of A Beautiful Mind fame, have made improvements to that general concept, but anyone who has interacted with other human beings knows that such optimism concerning what people may do with capital is misplaced.  Yes, a business, for instance, must address public sentiment or else be boycotted, so in a way in order to make more money a business must do what is good for its customers, not just for the owner of the business.  That is true.  But on the whole, human nature is such that if there were a way to accumulate capital without worrying about what is best for others, we would do so.  Even the most generous among us would excuse ourselves to say, "I need to protect my interests, and those of my family, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to help others." 

In other words, when a person has capital, there is nothing saying that they wouldn't seek to keep it for themselves.  A business owner could use his or her capital to lobby the government to, say, reduce regulations on workers' safety, making it easier to accrue more capital while harming employees and caring little for customers.  If that business owner has a monopoly or nearly so in a certain market, enforcement of such deregulation would have no impact on business because people would be forced to buy from that business.  This is human nature.  Earn capital, work to keep capital.  I know I do it.  When I earn more money than I absolutely need, I invest it in companies that will provide the highest return, with no consideration for the morality of such investments.  I want to give my family a comfortable path through life, if not luxurious.

Adding to that, thirdly, the idea that businesses and business owners that have more capital will create more jobs is patently false.  Again, we have a concept that if the economy, generally, is good, then businesses will hire more, and therefore a strong economy is good for all.  This is true to an extent.  Some businesses, for example, may have a market to expand but are afraid to take the risk of hiring more in order to expand business.  For these companies, usually small businesses, more capital will probably lead to more hiring.  But stop to think for a second about how business works: the fundamental of all business is supply and demand.  We all know this.  If there is greater demand, a business will need to create more supply, hence hire more workers.  If there is not greater demand, however, then hiring won't happen, even if more capital is available.   Again, taking me as an example, if I have more capital because of a tax cut, I am not necessarily going to consume more.  I may save it.  If I do save rather than consume, I have not increased demand for anything and therefore I have not increased supply or led to hiring.

We should keep in mind here that bigger businesses, who already possess more capital, are more able to increase supply in the hopes of meeting an unrealized growing demand.  In other words, an economic boost through a tax cut or subsidy would benefit a small business more in terms of hiring.  Since that is true, though, we are talking about many fewer jobs created thanks to economic development initiatives than we think, as small businesses obviously hire fewer workers.  Bigger businesses are able to respond to demand without necessarily needing any boost, hiring more regardless of whether they receive a boost or not.  For a bigger business, an economic boost is most likely to take the form of a one-time bonus for workers rather than a permanent job.

We cannot deny that many businesses are offering pay raises along with bonuses.  But that is as related to low unemployment as to economic development initiatives.  When unemployment is low, businesses need to work hard to retain workers.  This would be true whether the economy, generally, were growing or growing super fast. Supply and demand and the pressures of the workforce apply all the time regardless of the strength or perceived strength of the general economy.

What we should be noticing here from these points is that a strong general economy does not necessarily mean stronger personal economies, for you and for me--personal economy defined by our financial stability, flexibility, and purchasing power.  We could have a strong personal economy in a weak general economy or a weak personal economy in a strong general economy.  The two are not necessarily in a direct relationship.  More than that, a strengthened general economy does not proportionally strengthen personal economies.  If in a certain time frame the general economy grows by 3%, the average median personal economy will almost certainly not grow by 3%.  Again, the two are not necessarily in a direct relationship, and certainly not proportionally.  And that's the point I've been leading up to: we have to make a choice between whether we desire the general economy of the country to be strong or if we desire personal economies to be strong.  Do we want to emphasize strong personal economies for as many people as possible, or emphasize a strong general economy?  Of course, the two are indirectly related, so strong personal economies will strengthen the general economy, though not by much; and a strong general economy will strengthen personal economies, though not by much.  Which do we want to emphasize?

Recent events and comments by Vermont's governor, Phil Scott, have highlighted the importance of this question.  As you probably know, the stock market hit a patch of volatility and downward movement after the Labor Department released strong job numbers.  Unemployment hit a new low (though unemployment for African-Americans actually rose) and wages grew.  That scared investors and many decided to sell off some of their investments.  Higher wages are not good for profit, you see.  It would be better for most businesses to operate within a weaker general economy to keep wages low, without fear of losing employees because they know new employees are waiting in the wings, and thus reap greater profits rather than share those profits with employees.  Phil Scott's comments affirm this trend.  In response to California's wildfires, Scott said that the future of global climate change would be good for Vermont because, if we protect our resources, we can then take advantage of our water resources by selling water to those displaced by or confronted by climate-induced disasters.  While Scott may have a point, the obvious issue here is that he is looking forward to capitalizing on a majority of other people's pains and suffering in order to develop one small state. By nature, if we think about this logically, capitalism encourages the exploitation of persons if necessary.  To accumulate more capital here, someone there needs to be exploited.

Clearly I have simplified the matter.  I don't think that there's such a black and white choice before us.  I have laid matters out this way because, at least for Christians, we should acknowledge that it's not the economy that should win our attention.  Rather, it is the average median personal economy, the financial well-being of our brothers ans sisters, that most matters.  We shouldn't concern ourselves mostly with the state of the economy; we should concern ourselves mostly with the living conditions of our neighbors.  Again, there is an indirect relationship here, but the emphasis should be on the least of these, not on the economy generally.  As a Christian, we should prefer a weaker general economy that provides for all people rather than a stronger general economy that leaves many people behind.  Taking our faith seriously in the marketplace requires a certain perspective.

To recap before we await the next installment: there are logical, objective facts and data we can debate about 'the economy' and how persons are affected by the general economy.  Capitalism is, let's agree, a great form of economic development.  But all of those arguments we traditionally have are missing the point from a Christian theological and faithful standpoint.  Capitalism and how it works does not necessarily entail universal and wide-ranging benefits of capital for personal economies because, partly, humans are not naturally good without God's grace.  Personally I have a higher understanding of human goodness than most Christians do, believing God did create us good/divine and we have simply been taught otherwise, but even so, trusting in human goodness to benefit the entire community is not a realistic dream.

For Christians, anyway, the emphasis needs to be on our neighbors, on the least of these.  Traditional capitalism and arguments about capitalism versus socialism miss that entirely.  That's right, even socialists miss the point.  Socialists are, generally, utilitarians, wanting the most good for the most people from a rational basis.  But we shouldn't want the most good for the most people simply because that sounds reasonable.  We should instead hear the word of God: essentially, "I don't care how good your economy is if you're not caring for the oppressed, the marginalized, the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and even those of you who appear to be 'lazy.'  I care that all my people are lifted up."  There is no substitute, for Christians, when addressing the economy--it should be a matter of personal economies for the sake of each person's dignity.  God created and loves each person, so each person deserves dignity and dignified concern.




1. This essay does not address this second question.  However, it should be noted that military spending has increased under the watch of both parties because support of defense spending has been equated to supporting the military and its personnel as well as patriotism.  It is a false equation.  We can of course support those in the military without needing to spend three times as much on defense spending as any other country; we can support the military without sending our men and women into harm's way all over the world with a vague notion of security.  Yes, as a pacifist, I think we should more clearly process our reasons for building up our military, generally, but as a realist I understand that we are not going to abolish the military because I ask us to.  With a full sense of realism I, as a political being, ask us to disengage from the false thinking that increasing military spending means we are more patriotic and support our military personnel more than those who want to curb defense spending.  If we continue along that path, our government can never be small and can never be fiscally responsible, since defense spending already accounts for around 60% of our federal government's spending.  If we force political parties to vie for the award of most supportive to our military via support for higher spending, then we are lost.









Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent


(This post is directed at Christians, or people of faith, generally, but if you are not either, feel free to contact me at jlucy.wilde@gmail.com or through the church Facebook page on which this blog link was posted to discuss how a secular person may still find Lent worthwhile)

Most Ash Wednesday services include a segment titled something like, "Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent."  As Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of the season of Lent, this is, obviously, most appropriate.  Since nowadays many of us miss Ash Wednesday services, either because of timing or misunderstandings of what the ashes are all about, I figure it is appropriate to outline what the invitation typically means as we approach the start of Lent on February 14th (and, by the way, how appropriate it is to celebrate Ash Wednesday on Valentine's Day, to renew our commitment to the relationship that matters most in our lives).

First, Lent is the most holy of seasons.  We typically want Advent to take center stage but traditionally, with good reason, Lent has been the focus.  Indeed, Lent was the first liturgical season to mark Christian calendars.  It is a season originally focused on preparing new converts for baptism and initiation into the life of the church on Easter. 

For those already baptized, Lent is still a season of preparation.  We journey with Christ throughout forty days (notice that there are more than forty days in Lent.  Sundays never count because Sundays, every Sunday of the year, are and should be mini-Easters and feasts/festivals), mirroring his forty days in the wilderness and the days Moses spent preparing the law and the forty days Noah spent on the ark, et cetera, in order to repent and be cleansed for the joy of Easter and the life of the kingdom ahead--again, the repent to be cleansed to live a holy life of joy mirrors the path of Christ and others.  Lent, then, is a season of repentance, meaning 'to turn.'  To whom do we turn?  Back to God.  During Lent we are called to spend time in reflection and prayer in order to return to God and the holy life that He has provided for us and calls us to, gospel living that brings us peace and enables us to bring peace to others through the grace and love of Christ. 

Often, because Lent is a season of repentance, we think of the season as a time of self-denial.  Without question self-denial is a part of repentance, but to think of Christianity generally and Lent specifically as calls to self-denial is to misinterpret the meaning of repentance.  Again, repentance means to turn or return to God.  Insofar as we humans often stray away from God by living in ways that are not holy, such as indulging in harmful lusts or injustices, or living to excess that inhibits your ability to serve God and neighbor with gifts or time, or ignoring that your body is a temple of the Lord who created you, et cetera, then yes, self-denial can be and is useful as a means of returning you to God.  But repentance, returning to God, can also in a sense mean self-promotion.  What is good for me?  Perhaps, rather than denying yourself of something, you can add an activity to your schedule that is good for you: a time of silence and prayer to slow yourself down; carve out exercise time to make yourself feel good and remember that God created you to be healthy; spending more time with family and enjoying the life God has given you; serving others at a food shelf or homeless shelter or prison or through your church and see that which is God in our brothers and sisters; and on and on.  Returning to God and the life He intends for you is good and will promote health, physical and emotional and spiritual, so we should also think of repentance as a form of self-promotion and other-promotion.  Indeed, repentance is only ever self-promotion and other-promotion, because even self-denial, to the extent that it is necessary, is good for you, to cut out those behaviors and habits that are unhealthy.

To observe a holy Lent, then, requires that we ask ourselves the question, "How can I best journey with Christ, my Savior, and return to God during these forty days?"  I would add that your answer to the question should also look forward to the year/s ahead.  As an example: last year I took up the spiritual discipline during Lent of writing letters of affirmation to family and friends.  I took up the discipline because I knew that I wanted to write more letters to my family and friends than I had up to that point.  Since Easter last year, I cannot say that I have been writing a letter a week as I did during Lent 2017, but I have been writing significantly more to family.  That is my way, or one way, of spreading God's love to my family and friends. 

So as we pray about what our Lenten practice could be this year, I encourage you to reflect on what unhealthy habits and behaviors God may be nudging you to let go for your entire life, not just for forty days; or on what healthy habits and behaviors and disciplines God may be inviting you to pick up, not just for forty days but for your whole life.  That is what Lent is ultimately about: preparing ourselves to accompany Christ on the life journey of Christian disciples who have been resurrected to new life on Easter after dying to self on Good Friday.  It is not to deny ourselves for forty days to say that we did it or feel good about ourselves for an accomplishment, or so that we can complain for forty days, but return us to the full life that God has in store for us: "Abide in me, and I will abide in you."

As such, here are some specific tips and questions to help you work through, pray about, and decide what habits to let go of or what spiritual disciplines to pick up during Lent.

-Obviously, giving up chocolate, sweets, ice cream, TV, social media, and the like are common Lenten practices, and you may be considering giving up one or more.  That’s not a bad thing.  But ask why you are considering it and what good giving up that thing will do for you.  Further, do you think it would be good to continue giving up that thing, or using/eating it in moderation, after Lent is over?  If the answer is ‘no,’ or if you don’t have a good reason for giving it up in the first place, then perhaps it’s not a good Lenten practice.

-If you do let go of or give something up, remember that Sundays are mini-Easters, even during Lent, and should always be feast days of rest.  As such, you should not sacrifice on Sundays.

-Since Lent is about returning to God and preparing for a life of journeying with Christ, who practiced and calls us to both acts of piety and acts of charity, consider praying about picking up one of each.  Examples of acts of piety: prayer, fasting, reading the Bible, private and corporate worship, meditation, etc.  Examples of acts of charity: those letters of affirmation, serving with a church program, serving a meal at a homeless shelter, visiting a nursing home or local shut-ins, increase giving to approach or hit the target of tithing, etc. 

-Or, perhaps, consider praying about giving up one thing and picking up one spiritual discipline, whether it be an act of piety or charity.  For instance, maybe you do give up watching Netflix and then pick up praying for thirty minutes every day; or maybe you give up checking social media every day (limit yourself to once a week, maybe, on Sundays) and pick up visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home once a week. 

-Of course, you should also ask: Will this practice bring me closer to God?  You may reach the end of Lent and answer that, no, it didn’t bring you closer to God and you don’t think it ever will.  Okay, fine, but the answer at the beginning of Lent, at least, should be yes.

-Lastly, you should ask: Do I have intentions to continue this practice in some form after Lent?  Even if, in the back of your head, you know you won’t continue the practice on throughout the year or throughout your life, or won’t do the practice as often, the intention or the hope should ideally be there.  We shouldn’t limit what God can do for us and with us to forty days of the year.

With all this in mind, I hope and pray that you have a joyful and holy Lent that brings you closer to God of all grace and mercy. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sports on Christmas


As the Christmas holidays are approaching (‘holidays’ because they are ‘holy days.’  You should never be upset if someone says “Happy Holidays,” because at least they are recognizing the holiness of these days, and holy not only to Christians but also to Jews and maybe other religions, too, I don’t know), I am forced to reflect on how Christmas Eve is on a Sunday.  For pastors, that fact makes Christmas Eve a hard day for their families, because a Christmas Eve Sunday means worship services all day long and a ton of preparation.  I, for one, won’t be able to spend any time with my family from 8 in the morning until about 8 at night on Christmas Eve.  Yes, that is a plea for your pity.  The more I have reflected on the pressure of having Christmas Eve on a Sunday, I realized that the real problem is not with multiple worship services or that I have to work, but the approach that our society takes to holidays on Sunday.  Essentially our approach is, “Who cares if a holiday is on a Sunday?”

With many declining churches across the country, but especially here where I serve in Vermont, pastors often hear a common refrain, that schools need to stop allowing sports games or practices on Sundays.  Back in the day, people say, we didn’t have a problem with church attendance or youth attendance at church because there weren’t competing forces.  Then the schools started having sports functions on Sunday and all hell broke loose.  That’s what people in church say.

Recently, however, I discovered that the common refrain we sing to ourselves is short-sighted and, probably, entirely wrong.  Both of my churches held Church History Nights in the past couple of months and, at one of them, old pastor’s reports were out and available to read.  In the pastor’s report for 1930, the pastor at the time described church school (Sunday School) attendance to be unacceptable—the number had dropped below thirty on occasional Sundays.  Thirty kids!  Many churches in Vermont would bend over backwards to have thirty kids in Sunday School.  But to this pastor, thirty on any given Sunday was unacceptable.  Clearly, the trend of losing kids had started long before twenty or so years ago, days that we look back on with such gilded reminiscence because we had ten to fifteen kids.  The trend is bigger and more far-reaching than sports on Sunday in the last twenty years or so.

Indeed, extending our perceptions to see the trend of declining adult and youth attendance beyond the past twenty years will show us that school sports on Sunday is not the problem but a symptom.  Schools started to have sports on Sundays because they could, because parents and families had already lost interest in keeping Sunday as a holy day dedicated to God.  For some families, this is because one or more of the parents work on Saturdays and Sunday becomes the only time in which a family can ‘have to themselves,’ and parents no longer see church as life-giving to the family.  And there we have the crux of the problem that I want to flesh out here: what is life-giving?

Church and worship are no longer seen as life-giving, and are instead viewed as obligations, as time that a family is not actually spending together, as time forced upon us that could be spent relaxing.  Rest days are no longer seen as Sabbath, and Sabbath is no longer seen as rest and renewing, not only for individuals but for the whole family.  Church and worship, as Sabbath, are no longer family activities, despite being the ultimate family activity.  Why is this the case?  Because our answer to, “What is life-giving?” has morphed from being Other-centered, specifically as being God-centered or holy-centered, to Me-centered.  Look no further than sports on holidays—not school sports on holidays, but professional and college sports on holidays.

Last year, I was kind of shocked to see that the NFL held their Sunday games on Christmas, which was a Sunday last year, as normal.  Nothing was different.  The NBA in the last few years has increased their Christmas day slate of games, one of many reasons why I do not like the NBA.  Even the NCAA has asked college students, students who are not being reimbursed in any way for their sacrifice, to play on Christmas Eve and Day.  Our response to this trend may be, “Okay, other than the college kids, so what?  Professional athletes are paid a ton of money so it’s not really much of a sacrifice.”  Maybe, but what about the people working at the ticket booths?  At the concession stands?  In the parking lot?  At the TV studios?  The security guards?  We don’t even give them a thought.  We don’t give those minimum wage workers a thought because, hey, it’s a holiday, it’s our holiday, it’s our day to spend with the family in a special way, these games should be there for us.  The workers who make our means of relaxation and celebration possible become invisible, it matters little that they are not able to spend the holidays with their families in the way they’d like, because, hey, isn’t it awesome that we get to watch sports on a holiday?

I completely understand if sports are some families’ means of bonding and relaxing, of resting and celebrating, but a problem arises when we feel entitled to a day centered around us, when we feel entitled to a vacation and holiday good for us and so what if it’s not good for others.  Perhaps sports, school or professional, on Sundays aren’t a problem, but on holidays they absolutely are a problem.  And, again, sports on holidays aren’t a problem simply because of scheduling; they are a problem on holidays because it means thousands and thousands of people are forced, by those of us who are Me-centered, to tear themselves away from their families and work.  When we take a Me-centered approach to holidays, or any designated Sabbath (Sunday, as a Sabbath, is meant to be a mini-Easter, so it is a holiday), we indirectly or directly ruin that day for countless others.

This is why a God-centered answer to “what is life-giving” matters.  A God-centered approach takes the lives, the hopes and dreams, of other people and other families into consideration.  If we are renewed, as individuals and as families, by centering on God and what is holy, then we can still have our rest, our bonding time, and whatever else, while also not doing harm to the lives of others.  My wife and I try very hard not to do any shopping or eating-out on Sundays for this reason.  When it comes to the holidays, though, John Wesley’s first general rule of, “Do no harm,” comes into clear focus: we should not only care about what we want, what is good for us, what will be relaxing for us.  Me-me-me hurts a lot of others.

Yet unfortunately, the Me-centered approach to rest, Sabbath, and holidays has entrenched itself in our culture, beginning at least in 1930.  It’s not your fault, it’s not the fault of the schools, of the NCAA, or even of the owners of professional sports teams.  While we may say that professional sport team owners are greedy, we are the ones who let them be greedy.  We turn on the TV, we go to the games, we buy the jerseys.  We buy in.  If anyone is at fault, it is the royal we.  We have given permission to anyone and everyone to concoct a fantasy rest day, a fantasy holiday, and then convince us that it is what we want, and there we will be.  We have done this because we think that holidays should be about us. 

Ultimately, though, nothing is about us, individually.  A healthy perspective on life realizes that.  If you are a religious person, life should be about God, about the holy.  If you are not a religious person, life should be about the communal good and welfare.  Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the forefathers of existentialism, a philosophy that is all about the I, was rather emphatic in arguing that rather than existentialism being a Me-centered life approach, existentialism is actually a humanism: the only appropriate way to focus on our own I, according to Sartre, is to simultaneously acknowledge the countless other Is around us, and we can therefore not seek the good of our I by harming other Is.  Religious or not, it does you good to move away from a Me-centered approach to an Other-centered life approach, or a holy-centered life approach. 

As we approach the holidays, then, I encourage you to reflect and pray about what the holidays (holy days) mean to you, the special holidays and the mini-holidays.  How are you celebrating?  Are you concerned that the celebration be joyous to you?  Or meaningful in a holy, communally uplifting way?  Do you want to rest and celebrate in the way that seems right and good to you?  Or are you willing to focus on the holy and find the infinite rest that is God?  Do you, intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, want others to sacrifice so that you can have a good holiday?  Or are you willing to find rest in God and let others also have a day of rest?

Whatever your answers may be, I pray that Christmas Day and the Christmas season (yes, there are twelve days of Christmas) not only be peaceful and joyous, but are a time of God’s inbreaking into your heart, whether you called Him or not, so that you can see who Christ truly is, what he truly means, and how you might find your calm in him.