Adventures in Transition, Part 1

A mentor and very wise woman I know has this phrase as her email signature line:

“From a distance it looks like an adventure … up close it is filled with challenges”

I think she may have even been the one who originally said it. Did I mention that she is very wise (and also doing some awesome things in the country of Uganda)? Anyway, I’ve thought of this saying often in the last three months as our faith family experiences some very big transitions. Typically I think that transition is fun and exciting, especially  when I am anticipating it. However when it’s out of the blue, forced upon me, it’s another story. This transition in our faith family was big and nothing short of a shock that left many people feeling hurt, abandoned and confused. To be honest I am very excited about where this will lead our community. I am excited about  the many opportunities to grow and experience a level of freedom we’ve not know for a very long time. From a distance it looks like a fun adventure….

…but up close, in the day to day interactions, it is filled with challenges. Relationships are messy and church is weird. It doesn’t function quite like a business or workplace nor does is it fully function as a family. Navigating the ins and outs of daily church decisions and relationships can be tricky. I’m sure this is true any time but it is magnified when there is a transition.

I am learning and seeing that people respond to change in different ways. Some people embrace the change and use it as a impetus to change lots of areas. They tend to think, since A is changing we might as well make changes to B and C as well. They may even change things not because they need to be changed but simply because they can be changed.  In this way they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time. Other people respond in pretty much the completely opposite way. Feeling shaken up by the changes they have experienced can lead them to cling tightly to all that is familiar.  Any new changes, even small ones, feel huge and uncomfortable. They resist change because the last change was hard and uncomfortable. They tend to think, why would we want to change anything else right now? By holding tight to everything that remains familiar they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time.

Now take all these people, who really both have the same end goal of feeling secure, and encourage them to be an active participant in this faith family. Ask them to contribute and use their gifts and insights, tell them to “get off the bench and into the game” and imagine what happens. Challenges. Lots of them.

Challenges are not bad. They are great opportunities to grow and learn. What is bad is when people in the first group see the people in the second group as sticks in the mud that they can’t work with. Or when people in the second group see the actions of those in the first group as reckless and disrespectful. What we need to see, what I’m trying desperate to remember during this time, is that we need each other. We balance each other out and together make a fuller, more accurate representation of Christ than we could ever do alone. Isn’t that our goal in the end, to look more like Christ?

So perhaps up close all we can see is a bunch of messy brush strokes that seem too dull and too conservative or too bright and just too much but hopefully from a distance we really are a beautiful and slightly unfocused image of Christ.

Influencing Government: A Resource

In my last post, I looked at how 1 Samuel 8 provides a clear warning against appointing and choosing leaders who pursue greater power through military strength, and through extraction of resources for the benefit of themselves, the elite. Now, I want to consider how the New Testament guides our understanding of how we are to use our resources, which includes influencing the government. First, though, there are certainly no direct explicit statements in the New Testament about how to vote or otherwise appoint leaders. Passages like Romans 13 that most literally talk about the government, are focused on exhorting us to subject ourselves to the government, and spoken to people who basically had little to no influence on the government. However, living in democracy, we do have influence, and by properly understanding influence as a resource, there are indeed passages that can give us important guidance.

Taking a step back, I believe it is worthwhile to consider what political influence really means. In reality, influence is simply another resource that we may have, that can be used to accomplish something. Resources that God may give us include finances, talents, skills, and even influence. These things are not ends themselves, but are all resources we can use to achieve and gain other benefits. Influence should not be treated as fundamentally different than these other resources, as like other resources, it can be used to achieve a variety of goals.

From a historic perspective, living under a democracy is a unique opportunity. This opportunity affords an amazing level of influence, and this has significant value, it is a resource, a privilege that God has blessed us with. And like any valuable resource (or “talent”, as Jesus calls our resources in Matt 25), the paramount question for the Christian is how can we be good stewards of the resources we have been blessed with.

Indeed, the opportunity to live as a citizen of a democracy isn’t just an abstract nicety, it has a real, quantifiable value. The US government administrates about 3 and a half trillion dollars a year (about $3,770,000,000,000 in 2014) in the federal budget alone, which comes out to over $25,000 per registered voter per year. That means that as an American citizen, in a democracy, where power comes from the people, the value or quantity of your influence in the governing process is over 25 grand, and even more if you are more proactive in interacting with law-makers. And that is just for the federal government and their budgetary decisions, our potential influence extends to other government desisions as well as to the state and local governments.

Influence in democracy is a resource, and as you can see, is actually a very large and substantial resource. As an American citizen, this influence is a definite and even large form of wealth. Again, as a follower of Christ, the question is how to be a good steward of our resources or wealth, including this one. And just like the question of how we will spend our money, how will we spend our political influence?

When it comes to money, most people will spend their money on themselves, on what will benefit themselves. The same is true with politics, the majority of people’s political leanings are generally very easy to predict based simply on what candidate or party will benefit them the most. But Christ calls us to something different, and He didn’t shy away from the subject of how to use our resources, our wealth. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how to use what God has given us.

One possible choice for our political wealth is simply to do nothing, to be apolitical. Unlike material wealth, to forgo political wealth and influence, implicitly means that influence is handed over to others, to make decisions and assert their influence (influence is a zero-sum game). While this is deeply anathema to the American ideals of asserting your opinions and desires, to give away our wealth, to submit to the preferences is actually a very Biblical approach. Christ consistently taught us to live self-sacrificially, to be generous with what we have, and to defer to other’s desires instead of our own.

However, if we are to follow the words of Christ closely, I think we can do even better. And this is where we can turn to one of the most pointed and direct statements to one who has great wealth. In Luke 18:18-23, Jesus encounters the “rich young ruler”. This story is powerful and challenging, giving direction towards the wealthy to be incredibly and radically generous. However, we should also not miss the fact that Luke specifically indicates that this man was not only wealthy, but was said to be politically powerful.

What Jesus doesn’t say is just as compelling as what he does say. Certainly, meeting with a high ranking official would be an exciting opportunity for any of us. Jesus has encountered a powerful leader, and not only that, but this leader has basically asked Him what to do. Imagine if a leader wanted such open advice from you. Jesus could have easily responded and asked the leader to provide greater religious liberty for his followers, legislate scriptural commandments and morality, and maybe even offer tax deductions for the religious groups. Jesus certainly knew that great persecution was on the way, a real painful persecution that makes our petty complaints about religious infringements trivial in comparison. But Jesus, even knowing this (and he even foretold this of persecution), sought none of these things. His final command:

You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.

While this statement is unique in how challenging it is, it is quite normal in terms of the common theme of Jesus’ teaching and ways to characterize a Kingdom-oriented lifestyle as living on behalf of those in need (which has many dimensions, spiritual, emotional, relational, economic, and liberty). Here he teaches us to be generous, not living for ourselves, and specifically directs the one with wealth towards using their resources for the benefit of those without.

So how does this principle apply to different types of resources? We are called to use our resources to help those without the same kind of resource. Those with food help the hungry, those with clothing help clothe those without. Financially, the one with accumulations of money, is to help the poor. And applying this teaching to influence, a wealth of influence means power, and the call is to help and defend the powerless, the weak, the oppressed.

It is far too common to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler, claiming that Jesus asks different things of different people. And He does indeed ask for different things. However, there are perhaps few people in scripture that are more similar to most of our socio-economic positions than this rich young ruler. By any global standard, most of us have wealth that puts us in the top few percent of wealthy individuals. And that is just for this time period, if we are to compare ourselves to the rest of history (even adjusted for inflation), the typical wealth of an American is even more uniquely and exceedingly huge. The same is true of our political wealth. As calculated above, our political wealth, as citizens of America is very large (and potentially even larger if we are actively engaged). While we don’t know the exact position of the rich young ruler, if he was merely a municipal official, it is quite possible that simply being an American citizen entitles you to greater political power and wealth than this man. The story of the Jesus and the rich young ruler, is about as close as we can come to a imagining a story of Jesus and the typical American. If this story doesn’t speak directly to us, challenging us, nothing in scripture is relevant to us.

Unfortunately it easy to convince ourselves that we are acting “Christian” in our politics because we support candidates and policies that benefit us and our Christian friends, when in fact, this self-benefiting focus is precisely the opposite of the self-sacrificial ethos, living for those at need, at the core of Jesus teaching.

Therefore let’s recognize that we, in fact, do have great political wealth, like the rich young ruler, and then heed the words of Jesus, follow Jesus. Let us not spend that wealth on ourselves. If we are to spend it at all, let us use our resources rightly, our finances on behalf of the poor and our influence on behalf of the weak, powerless, and marginalized.

When I Want…May I

Friends, as we start a fresh week here is what’s on my mind, in my heart and in my prayers: 

When I  feel like yelling, may I whisper.

When I want to push THAT person away because they are driving me crazy, may I draw them closer (maybe physically, maybe relationally).

When I want to judge, may I try to look at it from their perspective.

When I want to vent (aka gossip), may I keep my mouth closed.

When I want to assume, may I look for the best.

When I want to criticize, may I compliment.

When I want to give advise, may I slow down to listen and empathize.

When I want to compare, may I choose to be thankful.

When I want to respond emotionally, may I consider their emotions first.

When I want to complain, may I consider what I am willing to do to fix the problem.

When I want to indulge, may I consider those who don’t have enough.

When I want to worry, may I instead pray.

I pray that this week is a week of peace, healing, and steadiness for you as well as for myself. 

 

Electing Government: A Caution

With another election approaching, I wanted to write again about Biblical perspectives on elections. In the past, I have written about key Biblical principles that can be applied to discerning how to approach and prioritize different issues. Applying these broad Biblical themes is critical to seeing policy issues properly, rather than just pursuing what we want and calling it “Christian”. This year I would like to take a couple of posts to deal with a some Bible passages that perhaps most directly deal with the question of specifically how Christ followers should approach the action of electing and influencing government leaders. One passage is from the Old Testament, and the second from the New. The first passage is a warning, and the second is an exhortation to positive action.

Probably the most direct and applicable statement in the Old Testament to the question of electing officials is found in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. Here, the Israelites have asked for a king (vs 5). God then responds to their request, through Samuel. God’s response begins with a rebuke of the Israelites for rejecting the current theocratical structure (vs 7-8). But God tells Samuel to proceed with their request (vs 9, which may partly be due to the corruption that was occurring in Samuel’s sons, vs 3). However God makes plain the most dangerous pursuits of government leaders, and clearly warns them of what to be wary of in leaders.

The first caution, in verses 11 and 12 warns against leaders who would use their position of authority to invest in military might. It is one of the most common base tendencies of man to hunger for power. After successfully winning a leadership position, the next step in this pursuit is always to extend that power over other countries or regions. This hunger for more power, as sought through military strength, is precisely what God is warning against. And this is warning is against appointing or electing those that would either seek the enlargement of military might in terms of soldier count (“he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots”, vs 11), or those that would seek to expand the economic investment in military might (“to make his implements of war” vs 12).

The clear warning of 1 Samuel 8:11-12 is against establishing leaders who want to expand and grow the military. And there is probably no place on earth (and maybe even in history) where this warning is more pertinent. The US spends around $600 billion dollars a year on the military, more than the next top ten militaries in the world combined. Our obsession and spending on military might is unparalleled. Some have estimated that we spend 50 times as much on war as peace-keeping efforts. God’s warning against this focus on power and war is not just an arbitrary decree of God, this spending has been a huge part (in the trillions) of our federal debt and the tax burden on citizens.

What is the alternative? Support leaders that don’t want to invest so much in the military. As David later writes, in Psalms 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” This may sound naive to many, but this type of radical trust in God is precisely how Christians demonstrate their faith.

The next verses in this passages, from 13 to 18 warn against choosing leaders who would take resources from the people for their own gain, and even enslave people for their own benefit. This type of self-seeking leadership is not only unethical, but has increasingly been identified as one of the greatest hindrances to the growth of a country. One of the most influential books on developing economies in recent years was Why Nations Fail which defined a contrast between extractive and inclusive economies. They showed how throughout history, extractive economies where institutions and laws were established to primarily benefit the elite consistently lead to failed states with corruption, poverty, and violence. On the other hand, inclusive economies, that are structured such that the majority benefit from the resources and efforts of the economy, consistently flourish and enjoy growth and peace. And interestingly, the concept and definition of extractive leadership is very closely described in these verses. The extractive leadership that God warns against in this passage is exactly what leads to failed societies.

So what types of government activity are extractive? Some may simply think that taxation in general is extractive, but this isn’t actually consistent with this passage or others. In fact, Jesus (Mark 12:17) and the epistles (Romans 13:7) both explicitly state that taxation is a legitimate function of the government. Taxes can be quite beneficially used for the common good of society. The warning in verses 13-18 are not against taxation in general, but specifically against taxation (or enslavement) that is for the purpose of benefiting just the leaders or an elite group.

Historically, America has actually done quite well at fostering an inclusive economy. We have boasted of being the land of opportunity, and indeed millions have reaped the benefits of their investments in the American economy. As a democracy, leaders are held accountable, forcing them to take more inclusive approaches to their leadership. However, we must not be complacent. The most objective measure of an extractive economy, where an elite few are receiving the fruits of the economy, is economic inequality. And, unfortunately, America has steadily been growing in economic inequality.

Some of the most significant recent economic research has shown how economic inequality can naturally grow when nothing is done to abate it. It is important to remember extractive economies can be the result of both proactive extraction from people, as well as passive acceptance of economic structures that may increasingly result in an elite few receiving the majority of resources while most people receive less.

The basic warning of verses 13 through 18, is to avoid leaders who want to lead for their own benefit, or the benefit of the elite. The opposite of these leaders are those that seek an inclusive society, who are concerned about inequality. Taken as a whole, 1 Samuel 8 is God’s warning against choosing leaders that want to invest the country’s resources and efforts into power and selfishness, who hunger for more military strength, and hoarding of resources.

This post has primarily been a caution against negative leadership and focus. In the next post, we will look at an affirmation of positive focus in government power.

The Commune Table-October Week 1

Here’s what we enjoyed eating last week. May your table be full of yummy foods and good conversations. 

Sunday-Balsamic Roast Beef French Dip Sandwiches, Corn and Basil Salad

Monday-Our school was doing a fundraiser at Sonic Drive-In

Tuesday-Coconut Curry Soup, Brown Rice
I love this recipe because it is flexible. This time we added fresh chopped zucchini from our garden. 

Wednesday-Kale & Butternut Squash Pasta, Fresh Fruit

Butternut Squash, bacon, and pasta, a match made in heaven!

Butternut Squash, bacon, and pasta, a match made in heaven!

2013-05-22 17.46.33-2

Thursday-Sesame Chicken Edamame Bowls, Fruit Salad

Friday-Easy Butter Chicken, Rice, Roasted Garlic Cauliflower, Naan

Saturday-Leftovers

Training Your Eyes

I wrote this a couple years ago and for some reason it never made it on the blog. I was reminded of this struggle and lesson as the Halloween decorations started appearing this weekend. 

I don’t know why but for some reason people in Utah LOVE Halloween.  So many people here full out decorate their houses, plan elaborate costumes for their kids AND themselves, and even get off work early to get ready! The haunted houses and haunted-themed events abound for the whole month of October.

Because we are attempting to raise our kids to be able to relevantly relate to their culture and not just build a christian bubble around them we’ve chosen to celebrate this holiday in certain, thoughtful ways rather than just excluding it from our lives and vocabulary. We try to find ways to redeem and reclaim that which sin has darkened and perverted. So on this particular night in the past we’ve let our kids dress up and we go to the local senior center. We walk through the halls and greet the residents and talk to them. We talk to our kids about trying to bless others with their presence and I’m not gonna lie, they get a ton of candy too. I’m not saying that everybody should do what we do, it’s a personal decision that has to be made with lots of evaluation and prayer.

Recently we moved to a new neighborhood. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of our neighbors and are really enjoying getting settled into our new surroundings. As this holiday approaches we’ve watched as a few houses here and there have put out hay bales, pumpkins, and the occasional spider or scarecrow. Pretty much just cute autumn stuff. Then this week it happened. Down around the corner from us the little house and well manicured yard overnight turned  into an evil graveyard. Now, one of my biggest pet peeves in the blogesphere is exaggeration for poetic flair and I try really hard to write honestly and realistically. So I hesitate to say that our neighbor’s decorations are “evil” but honestly I can think of no other accurate way to describe them. These decorations are beyond the typical Halloween scary stuff you see, they are just horrible, dark and, well….evil.

The first time I drove past this transformed house I shuddered, shook my head in disgust and then got irritated. I thought, I have to drive my kids past that house every day. Thanks a lot jerks!  All that morning that stupid house was on my mind because I knew later that day I would have to drive past it with my kids in tow. What was I going to say when they saw it? Then an idea popped into my head, we don’t have to drive past it! There are other routes to our house. I can just use those routes until those decorations are gone. Yes, no other route is nearly as direct. Yes, I will have to drive out of the way, multiple times a day, for the next 30ish days…ugh. This is not looking like such a good solution. Back to the drawing board.

So I continued to pray about this irritating house. I contemplated paying these neighbors, who I’ve not met yet, a visit and just letting them know how offensive their decorations are to me, my children, and probably any other family with young kids in the area. I can just visualize how well that would turn out: Hi, I’m the new neighbor down around the corner. Well I just wanted to let you know how I feel about your horrible Halloween decorations…

So my next solution, I pray that God would blind my children’s eyes to this house for the next month. God, you can do that right? I’ve heard stories of bible smugglers in other countries who have watched in amazement as police have searched their bags and literally not seen hundreds of bibles and study materials. So God, please blind my children’s eyes to these decorations so I don’t have to deal with them seeing them and don’t have to drive out of my way.

Fast forward to that afternoon when I pick my daughter and her friend up from kindergarten. My son is also in the car with us. We drive by the house, I silently pray and hold my breath. Then I hear:

“MOM!!! DID YOU SEE THAT HOUSE!?!!?

I look in the rear view mirror and see all three kids with their faces practically plastered to the window visually sucking in all the horrible things on display. So no blindness, huh God?

Then, amazingly instead of freaking, out of my mouth come words that I believe had to have been from God, because I certainly wasn’t thinking what I was saying. I listened to myself as I told the kids that sometimes there are yucky, scary, or icky things in this world. It is sad that some people chose to like those things and sad that they chose put them out so that everybody has to look at them. So what we have to do, I told them, is to teach our eyes to not look at those yucky, scary things. We have to tell our eyes, “I know you want to look at all that stuff, but it isn’t good for you, so you need to look away.”

The kids responded so well. They said, “Okay, we have to not look at that stuff cause it isn’t good for us?”

“Yes, that’s exactly right.”

And that’s what they’ve been doing ever since. We don’t drive out of our way to get home, we don’t talk poorly about those neighbors for liking that stuff, we simply look away. The more I think about it, the more I see the need for this at other times in our lives. Down the road I know there will be times when my children will need to choose to look away from something. A website, a photo in a text, a billboard, etc. There are lots of things they will be exposed do that I can’t control or protect them from. I hope this simple exercise of training their eyes will give them strength to make the right choice when the consequences are greater.

Even now every time we drive by this particular house we talk about training our eyes. The other gem that has come up from this house is that we cannot control those people and what they put in their yard. But we can control our own bodies and what we allow our eyes to look at and our minds to think about. So I guess in the end I should be thanking these neighbors for the good life lessons. :-)  

The Commune Table

It’s officially fall which means time for soups and breads and recipes based around squash, yum! Apparently nobody notified the weather and so we’ve been eating soup on 90 degree days. Oh well, we’ll get there eventually. Here’s what we enjoyed this last week:

Monday-Honey Garlic Crockpot Chicken, Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Green Salad
I followed her suggestion and topped the chicken with bacon and cheese and broiled it. It’s worth the little bit of extra effort.

Tuesday-Personal Pizzas, Green Salad
This is a commune favorite, we have a fantastic dough and sauce recipe. The kids love to make their own pizzas and this meal works great on busy nights when not everyone is home for dinner at the same time. 

Wednesday- Garlic Lovers Veggie Stir-Fry, Brown Rice
Simple, quick, and so good. I confess that I forgot to remove the huge chunks of ginger from the oil before I added the vegetables. This meant a few very surprising bites…not recommended. 

Thursday-Homemade Chicken and Noodles, Roasted Green Beans
This is my family’s recipe and was what we always requested for our birthday dinners. My favorite part is making the noodles together. The kids love unrolling the long strands of dough and tossing them with flour before they go in the broth. We always leave one noodle rolled up and see who gets it in their bowl. 

P.S. It’s a short menu this week because the kids and I took a spur of the moment trip up to visit my family.