“Deserve” Has Nothing to Do with It

​https://youtu.be/dpDkYZWeeVg

It’s easy to talk about our accomplishments

It’s easy to talk about what we’ve done

What we’ve built

And look down from our safe, high places

And say to those below, 

“If I did it,  you can do it!  

Don’t be so lazy!  

Pull yourselves up! 

Don’t ask for a handout!  

Nobody helped me up! ”

When we know that last one is manifestly untrue. 

Did I build the roads that carried my mother to the hospital where I wss born? 

Did I build the hospital?

Did I make the water clean, the mosquitos relatively disease free, the food plentiful and the land peaceful? 

Did even my parents build all that? 

Did I chose my nation,  my parents wisely, as I was waiting to be born? 

No. I did not. And neither did you.

Long Journey, Part 2: A Long Road That Has No Turn

​https://youtu.be/sGs9V7iDuZU

Yesterday, I talked about how the changes I want to make in my life all promise a lot of effort, even pain, with no guarantee of arrival. 

I’ve been thinking about that since I wrote it,  and it occurs to me just how  fortunate I am.  

The goals I have to struggle toward are self-actualization goals. The first four levels of Maslow’s needs hierarchy are pretty much taken care of. 

I have a good job (one I enjoy most of the time)  with benefits and truly good co-workers. 

There is plenty of food in our panty,  fridge,  and deep freeze,  and money to eat out of we don’t feel like cooking

Our house is safe, dry,  un-infested, and everything works. 

I live in  a safe neighborhood.

I only drive about 2 miles to work.

As a white (cis, het) man, the world is an infinitely safer place for me than it is for most other Americans. 

I have a loving wife and daughter. 

I have an extended family, and we love each other (even my in-laws, which I understand makes me really lucky).

Truthfully, my stakes are low. If I fail at these personal goals, I will be upset with myself, and my life will not improve. 

But my kid won’t starve, I won’t lose my house, I won’t be raped and then watch my rapist get 6 months in prison, and I won’t be gunned down while buying a bb gun at Wal-Mart.  

We all want to improve ourselves and our lives, but it’s easy to lose track and think that if we can, anyone can. For people like me, that kind of thinking is part of the problem. 

Five Great Things About Microfinance

1) It builds wealth in the poorest countries. Some problems are problems of wealth distribution. But in many developing nations, the problem is a lack of wealth, period.Looking around Kiva’s website, I see many nations where the average yearly salary is less than my monthly take-home pay … and I work in education, not medicine or law.

Microfinance can help both situations, because it helps people create and expand small businesses and farms. This means more genuine goods and services delivered where they are needed most.

And nations with strong middle classes are much more resistant to manipulation and exploitation by large corporations and corrupt government officials. These loans don’t help Exxon or Goldman-Sachs. They help families.

2) It helps women especially. In many male-dominated societies, microfinance is one of, if not the, only way for women to get the capital to start businesses. And having their own businesses, and their own money, helps put women on an even footing with men. This can have a powerful equalizing effect on society.

3) It helps children, too. Families with small businesses can often afford to send their kids to school, rather than keeping them out to work. Many of the loan requests I’ve read on Kiva mention that very thing. The more kids stay in school, the fewer end up as child brides, child soldiers, child prostitutes, or, more commonly, unskilled laborers living lives of poverty.

4) It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Because you’re making a tiny loan, and not giving a donation, the entrepreneur will repay it in time. Then you’ll be able to take that same money and lend it out to someone else. You can keep the same money in circulation or you can add more each month, creating a snowball effect.

5) It’s cheap. The cost of entry is only $25 on Kiva, the world’s leading microfinance operation. And once it’s repaid, you have the option of taking your money back. So you’ve got very little to lose. Why not head over to Kiva (or to WorldVision’s microfinance department) and check it out?

Second Sin: Worshiping My Own Efforts (Repenting in Sackcloth and Ashes, Part 2)

Lazarus and the Rich Man by Bonifacio de Pitati, c. 1504s

Lazarus and the Rich Man by Bonifacio de Pitati, c. 1504s

Lord, I come before you now to repent of the sins I have participated in, specifically the corporate sins of American Evangelicalism. Forgive us, for we have desecrated your name in the eyes of the world. Forgive us, for we have made a mockery of your salvation.

Those outside our faith say we are immoral, and, Lord forgive us, they are often right.

I come before you again to repent of my sins. Today, I repent of worshiping the works of my own hands. Not idols of gold and silver, but my own efforts, my own achievements.

I repent of every stereotypical word I’ve said about the poor, of complaining about people who aren’t disabled, but who don’t work, live on welfare, etc., etc.

Like almost everyone else who says those things, I was raised in a very solid family, went to decent schools, and was instilled with a work ethic and a sense of hope from a young age.

I was not raised in a tenement, with extended family shoved into a small house or apartment, with “father figures” coming and going.

I was not raised by people with no job skills, no understanding of how credit or money worked, and no understanding of the basic etiquette and work ethic required to succeed in any job.

I was not raised in a crime zone, where murders, drug raids, and beatings were a regular part of life.

I was not schooled in a failing, de facto segregated school with a culture that lionized teen pregnancy and demonized academic achievement.

The American dream worked for me, and I thought, cruelly and stupidly, that it worked for everyone else who wasn’t lazy or crooked.

I repent that I ever said or even thought to complain about my taxes going to these “leeches.”

I repent of every time I offered up private charity as an option, and then failed to give sacrificially to actually help the poor.  As a symbol of my penitence, I’m giving $500 of my personal spending money to World Vision (and trying to raise some additional money by matching donations).

I repent of tithing to churches that put 95% of their offerings toward administrative expenses, new high-tech buildings, or worse,  investments, so they can trust their savings accounts instead of trusting God to provide.

I doubly repent of tithing to those churches and then thinking I’d done enough.

I repent of ever thinking I was worth more than any life on this planet.

I repent of ever thinking I own any of my accomplishments. Had I been born in Biafra or Cambodia in 1975, would I be here now? Had I been born in Ethiopia or Somalia in 1975, would I be here now? Had I been born to a fourteen year old single mother, whose own mother had not yet turned thirty, just down the road from where I was born in Mississippi, would I be here now?

God forbid I ever boast. God forbid any of us ever boast.

Why Donate There, and not Here?

In response to my last post, I had a very legitimate question asked: Why donate to World Vision, presumably overseas, when there are so many people in America that are in need?

(My response ended up being longer than most of my posts, so I decided to make it its own post. I thought it would be easier to read that way. I’ll say right up front that Laura Tremaine has already said all this better than I can).

First, you can have it both ways. There are several World Vision operations within the United States. For example, this entire section deals with US-based needs: school supplies, food, general toiletries and necessities. And there’s no conflict between supporting local charities and international ones.

But I don’t want to dodge the question. The bottom line is, $500 is not a life-changing amount of money in the U.S. Not for anyone. But it is life-changing for people in Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, or Uzbekistan, where it represents four months’ wages for the average worker … and the aid often goes to those who are not average, but in the greatest need.

Through an operation like World Vision, $500 can be the difference between clean water and contaminated water (Americans don’t have to worry about their children dying because they drank unsanitary water and contracted cholera), education and child labor (Americans don’t work full-time at age 8) or even child marriage or slavery. Here, $500 is nice. It’s a decent laptop, an iPad, or a couple of semester’s worth of college textbooks. There, it’s enough to change lives.

The magnitude of impact of a limited sum of money is so much greater where the need is greater, that it just makes sense. I don’t think, from a Christian perspective, that Americans have more intrinsic value than people in other nations.

And the need is so much greater there. We live in a fairly well-developed welfare state, one where emergency rooms have to treat anyone who comes in, regardless of ability to pay. One where WIC gives food to pregnant mothers and mothers with children. One where food stamps and unemployment insurance and social security and medicare and medicaid all provide a certain level of mandated support.

Yes, life is hard at that level, but there is clean water, free and mandatory public schooling for children, prohibitions on child labor, no significant threat of malaria or cholera, and food available. “Hunger,” as defined in the United States, is nothing like the life-and-death starvation that faces many of the poorest of the poor in developing nations. It’s a cliche, but it’s worth noticing: in America, the poor are disproportionately obese, not rail-thin.

The impact is greatest where the need is greatest. And that’s there, not here.

Matching Gifts (Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is)

Wordle: Double
Okay, here’s the deal. I recently came into a little money, and I feel called to give $500 of it to World Vision (in the form of one-time gifts like medicine, livestock, school supplies, etc.).

I’m not 100% sure what I should spend the money on, though. The last time I had some money to spend, I bought a donkey. I’m not as clear right now.

Then it came to me. I should let you decide. So I’m going to put my money where my (virtual) mouth is. I’m going to match the first $500 in gifts to World Vision that y’all give. Just comment or message me and tell me what you gave, and I’ll match it.

For example, if you go to “Gifts the Multiply” where big sponsors have already multiple-matched gifts (up to 12X), and  give $420 worth of medicine for $35, I will duplicate that, giving $35 to buy another $420 worth of medicine.

And yes, if you buy a donkey, I’ll buy a second donkey.

I’ve got $500 to do this with, so if you ‘go over the top’ (say, I’ve given $450 and have only $50 left, and someone buys a $225 donkey), I won’t be able to match your whole gift, but you’ll get to tell me what to do with the remaining money.

Motes, Beams, and First-Century Divorce

Wedding Rings, Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

There’s a  certain type of “following the rules” morality that we often cling to, a kind that makes us feel good and holy. It’s the kind that looks at other people’s problems. It’s the kind that looks at their motes, and misses our beams.

It orders/asks of those who are being crushed by the rules to be willing to suffer for what is right. But it does not, on a daily basis, require the majority to set up an environment where the rules can be followed without crushing anyone. It asks the world of “them,” but nothing of “us.”

Let me give you an example. Some churches have a strong anti-divorce rule (this was more common in the past than today – J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had their famous falling out because Lewis married a divorced woman). However, this usually ends up being (in practice)

  • “If you got married, and things are horrible, you have to just bear it, because divorce is BAD,” or
  • “If you do have to get divorced, you can never remarry, because that would make you an adulterer,” or
  • “If you divorce and remarry (or in some cases even just divorce), you’re no longer welcome in our church, because that’s a special type of sin that’s worse than the ones we good upstanding Christians do.”

Rarely does it mean: “We, as a community of believers, will take responsibility for teaching and modeling good marriage communication, helping couples work out problems, teaching and modeling financial planning and responsibility (since money troubles are the #1 cause of divorce) and even supporting couples emotionally and financially when they fall on hard times.  We believe marriage is sacred, and want to protect it.”

Look, we all know divorce IS bad.  Ask anyone who’s gone through one, or whose parents have gone through one.  It isn’t fun to sever your life from someone, to go to court and fight over who gets what, to have your years together reduced to bickering lawyers.

C.S. Lewis compared divorce to amputation: sometimes necessary, but never good news.

Nobody gets pulled into divorce by how awesome the process is; they get pushed into divorce by how awful their marriage has become.  And sometimes it’s not because the people, or even one of the people, in the marriage, is awful. Sometimes the people are basically trying to do good, but the relationship itself has been poisoned past the point of rescue.

The worst part comes when church leaders, writers, and culture warriors take a statement that protected women and use it to trap women in abusive relationships. They’ve taken Jesus’ intent and inverted it.

I know several divorced and remarried people. Their relationships are not the same as people caught up in adultery. Am I saying that Jesus was wrong? Hardly. When he spoke, in the first century, he was 100% right. But marriage has radically changed since then, and so has divorce.

In first-century Israel, men could divorce women pretty easily, but the reverse was not true. It was difficult, but not impossible, for women to obtain divorces. This was, in part, because of a debate between two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai over whether a man could divorce only for immorality or for “any cause.”

Further, there was no such thing as a career woman back then. A women from a well-to-do family who brought a significant dowry into the marriage would be able to take some or all of that dowry out, live on it, and likely even remarry.

But a woman of lesser means? A small dowry means less to live on and less chance of being chosen for marriage as compared to a virgin. She could easily end up begging, starving, or being sold into slavery. To divorce a woman without an extreme reason (such as adultery) was capricious and cruel.

Further, it was emblematic of the way the “righteous, respectable” religious men of Jesus’ day obeyed the letter of the law while still exploiting and oppressing the poor and vulnerable (I’ll leave any comparisons to today’s “righteous, respectable” folk to the reader’s imagination). Jesus wouldn’t let them call such a thing righteous.

At no point was it about trapping abused women in a domestic cage with the men who are beating and torturing them.

Just telling people who are in terrible marriages that they’re out of luck is passing the buck.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  We don’t get to put the hard decisions off on someone else, then sit around acting righteous. Especially when we do so little to help prevent these problems.

It’s a false morality, and it’s not fooling anybody. The eyes of the world see right through it. It brings shame on the church, and damages the reputation of God.

Sold! (Wrestling the Angel of Consumerism)

X-Box 260

This is my X-Box. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important.  He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches.  In my experience, he’s right.  Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members.  But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.

It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces.  It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.”  They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.

[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way.  Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake.  It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy:  that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]

The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives.  Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants.  Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.

Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased.  With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television.  And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.

The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around.  And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it.  We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.

Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God.  I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.

But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness.  My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out.  And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal.  I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.

It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation.  Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable.  I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants.  They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.

I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step.  Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new.  I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision.  It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.

Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it.  We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom.  But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.

Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.