Goodbye and Thanks for All the Fish?

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I just came back from one of those celebrations for people who have finished their time somewhere. They are all pretty much the same. People share stories about how meaningful that person or their friendship has been, People cry, people laugh. Then, of course, we eat.

I enjoy those formulaic little celebrations if we are saying goodbye to a good person. There are always some awkward folks who say weird things. But there are also stories of sacrifice, service, goodness. At their best, these little dinners remind me of how people should act. They remind me of what I want to be like and why. In honoring the person who is leaving, we take their best and set it up as something worthy of emulation.

That should always, always bring us back to the question: “Who is going to cry when I leave?” “What are they going to say about me?” Not because it’s important what people think about us or that tears are some sort of barometer of significance! But because it is important what kind of people we are and how we live and how we love people. I can’t even really imagine anyone choking up at my farewell, or saying anything besides generic pleasantries. But I want to live the kind of life that provokes the kind of responses that I saw today. Luckily, the option to love and serve people is always open!

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Landing a plane at an airport is difficult. Landing a plane (or helicopter) on a grass field on the side of a mountain … that is … more difficult.

Side note: I have attended lots of these things (farewells, retirements, funerals) in lots of different contexts. I have never seen anyone break down and cry because someone did something easy or fun. Nor have I seen tears because someone followed their dreams or lived their passion. Success does not cause tears. Significance seems to come from difficulty encountered faithfully while serving others. When people get choked up, it’s almost always because someone did something hard, or distasteful, or out of the ordinary for someone else.

If significance were easy, then it would be, well, kind of insignificant, wouldn’t it?

The farewell ceremony should not only encourage us, it should also remind us of another ceremony still to come, in which we will (hopefully) both receive honor and give honor to the Lord of Lords.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” – 1 Corinthians 9:24–27

For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? – 1 Thessalonians 2:19

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) – Revelation 19:6–8

Everybody put your votes up

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The U.S. Presidential election is drawing near. Everyone (or near enough everyone as makes no difference) has chosen their candidate and no one is changing anyone’s mind at this late date. That’s no problem because who you vote for doesn’t matter that much. It’s lose-lose.
 
But I’m still pretty optimistic. Lose-lose might help us to look at the underlying issue. We always focus on the end product, the President. But the President is not the problem, the President is a lagging indicator, if you will. It is the symptom and not the disease. It is the fruit and not the root. The problem is that democracy in the United States is broken.
 
Instant coffee cooked in a microwave doesn’t taste the same as freshly ground, single-source coffee brewed to perfection. The result in both is coffee, but it is an entirely different experience. In the same way, any kind of democratic process gets you a President, but we are about to drink some instant microwave coffee President. And it’s going to taste bad for the next 4 years.
 
How did we get here? The United States of America is a country which was established to be “a light on a hill”. Our earliest discussions on politics are characterized by the Federalist Papers, by Thomas Paine, by thoughtful passionate debate, by deep and troubling compromises.
 
I don’t know why. I’ve got some guesses. Cynicism and apathy probably play a role. The niche news market seems to be radicalizing America by providing isolated ecosystems which promote fear, hate, previously held beliefs in order to sell advertisements. The desire for power, and the willingness to sacrifice our values to obtain it has always been an issue.
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But, if it is true that you can know a tree by its fruit, then perhaps we should look at the fruit our of democratic process. Because the tree (democracy) is much more important than any particular fruit (President). Americans have selected two of the more despicable human beings on this earth to be our leaders. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are bad apples, and they represent America. We can’t distance ourselves from our choices. They are the result of our democratic process, which is by the people. We are responsible for democracy. We are responsible for our political parties, for our candidates, for our laws, as well as for our elected officials.
 
I know that “responsibility” is not a popular word. But we are responsible for choosing Hillary and Donald. What was the process (tree) that produced such candidates (fruit)?
 
During the fear-mongering primaries, Republicans chose Trump. Why chose a bully and a cheat? Because “he’s the only one who can beat Hillary.” Republican politicians have to acknowledge that they betrayed their convictions when they supported Trump’s nomination. The Republican process chose political power over values and fear and hatred over discourse. We know that any major Republican candidate besides Trump would have beaten Hillary Clinton. But that’s not the fruit which the tree produced.
 
Democrats have to take responsibility for the fact that they have chosen the personification of the dirty, lying, corrupt politician to represent them. They have to admit to themselves that any respectable Democratic candidate would have beaten Trump easily, hands down. Again, the process seems to have prioritized party allegiance over honesty and virtue.
 
For both parties, power was far more important than values. That is the opposite of greatness. The process was characterized by fear, ridicule, demonization of the opponent, and lack of trust for the other side. These are not great values. But, right now, they are our values, and we have to own that.
 
The apathetic or uninvolved, like myself, face a heavy responsibility as well. We stood by and mocked, made cynical comments, laughed at the ridiculousness, argued, but never did anything. We buried our talent in the sand, and waited for our master to come back. We didn’t work to change the system or to step outside of it. We listened to all the people who said that “third parties are throwaways” which is true for exactly as long as people believe it to be true.
 
Which brings us back to “responsibility”. It’s an old-fashioned word, and calls to mind other old, broken-down words like discipline, duty, and honor. These are values that we must rediscover. The election doesn’t even matter at this point. We can’t keep hoping that a bad tree will give us an edible fruit once in a while. We have to fix the tree.
 
We have to face the fact that the democratic process is broken in our country. It is ruled by sectarianism and an out-of-control media and fear and accusations. The real work starts right now. We must figure out how to live well in a modern democracy. We must cultivate the values that lead to great Presidents because Presidents are fruits, not roots.

Rural Poverty: Putting the Last First by Robert Chambers

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This classic work on international development from the early 1980s is just as relevant today, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because the continuing relevance of this work shows that development practice has yet to take seriously the challenges that Chambers has posed. This work is deeply insightful, and highly recommended for all those who are interested in poverty, especially economists and econometricians.

Chambers derives what one might call some fundamental theorems of poverty and development: poverty tourism, the difficulty of the rainy season, insider vs. outsider knowledge (and the limits of both), academic vs. practitioner, overcommitment, power differential, poverty ratchets, the poverty trap. Best book of the year so far, this book challenges me as a development practitioner. There can be no complacency in this field of endeavor. Many thanks to Dr. Chambers for pushing us to do better with and for the poorest of the poor.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

“Ignorant and stupid poor people are often the creation of ignorant and stupid outsiders … People so close to the edge cannot afford laziness or stupidity. They have to work, and work hard, whenever and however they can. Many of the lazy and stupid poor are dead.” (p.107)

“the best approach in each situation may be an unconstrained dialogue with the poor, and an effort to learn what their priorities are” (p.144)

“The priorities of the poor are not general – they are not agricultural production, equality or the environment. They are particular, immediate, personal.” (p.148)

“The gravest neglect in analysis for practical rural development has been political feasibility.” (p.160)

“The litanies of rural developers include ‘We must educate the farmers’ and ‘We must uplift the rural poor.’ These can be stood on their heads. Outsiders have first to learn from farmers and from the rural poor.” (p.201)

“So we come to the final, paradoxical reversal: to start by acting. It is often best to start, and do something, to learn by doing. For the test is what people do.” (p.213)
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How sharp is your life?

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Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

Sharpening is the act of taking something round (or full or dull) and removing material from it until it has an edge. I know of no technique to add material to something to make it sharp. Sharpening is always a removing. Sharpness focuses the force of the knife against the smallest possible edge to maximize pressure (or impact).

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John 15:pruned-grape-vine-203892791-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

To prune is to trim back a tree or bush by cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems, especially to increase fruitfulness and growth. A pruned grapevine and a pruned chocolate tree look almost dead. Yet this pruning causes the plant to focus all its energy in making the remaining branches fruitful. Pruning is the precondition of grafting. There is no specific addition without general subtraction.

Neither “sharp” nor “pruned” are conditions that last indefinitely. Even the best, strongest knives need sharpening, and even the best trees and vines need pruning.

Which brings us to the title of this blog: How sharp is your life?

Is it full like a balloon? Does it expand in every direction? is it “overgrown”? If it is, it may be time to get out the whetstone and pruning shears and start getting rid of some extra material.

post-script If Jesus’s life had to pruned in the era before the internet and 24 hour news, well, there is no shame in admitting that our lives need a bit of work too.

70 Percent off the end of the world, What a deal!

Presented (almost) without comment.

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I know there is some sort of life lesson here. If only I could find it …

In any case, thank you Peter Lorie! I’m glad you were there to catch what all those “Bible scholars”, if they even deserve the term, missed.

Also, two thumbs up for Kinokuniya. If you can still make your money back on a book that predicts the end of the world 5 years ago (at the time of this photo) …. hats off to you.

35 and the Art of Becoming

I just turned 35 years old. I also haven’t been in the same time zone two weeks in a row since the first week of June. As such it is natural that I reflect about change and its absence.

Perhaps this is just the jet lag talking, but I am convinced that change is never absent. Constancy is just an illusion. This is not a new idea. “A man can never step in the same river twice” and “Change is the only constant.”

But gradual change is difficult to see, easy to ignore, and so we do. What if we took change seriously? If we did, we would focus on change itself. How do we control it, guide it, benefit from it? We would have to learn what I call the art of becoming.

There has been a lot of emphasis on learning how to “be” especially in the Asian religious tradition. Be in the moment. Be present. That is an admirable skill to learn. But learning how to become is crucial because we, and everything else, is constantly changing. Even as we “are present”, we become someone else.

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We are either becoming something better, worse, or different all the time. We can either guide that process consciously or not. (Note: I use the word “guide” instead of control intentionally. Much of our formation is out of our control. I didn’t pick my parents, nor the accidents that I have experienced, nor my native talents to pick just a few examples.)

What might it mean to master the art of becoming? I don’t know. I’m only 35 and I’ve just now figured out that this is important.

It is important to realize that we are “becoming” all the time in every aspect of life: physical, mental, emotional, social, and in the beliefs that underlie it all. It is important to realize that the process of change includes things that seem not to change. When Pharaoh’s heart hardened, his actions and thoughts and feelings stayed the same, but thee became less likely to change in the future. When a living being stays the same over time, there is still a change, a hardening, a habit-forming that makes future change more difficult. That is a very real and important change.

It is crucial to realize that everything and everyone else is also in the process of becoming. That is true of nations, cars, schools, friends, spouses, and children. That is not to deny that there are areas that are mostly the same.

Have you ever thought about how much everything is changing? Politically, socially, spiritually. Everything is changing, in different ways. The physical aspect is obvious. We are growing older every day. Our choices as far as diet, exercise, work, transportation, relaxation are all contributing to who we are and what we are becoming. The mental and emotional aspects are equally obvious. Less common is realizing that our relationships are in a state of flux, we tend to ignore changes and assume that everything is still the same. But if they are changing and we are changing, there is no way that our relationship is staying exactly the same.

Neither is it obvious that our actions define our future. But our actions always reinforce themselves (the power of habit). Our actions, their consequences, and the stories we tell to explain them give importance to even seemingly inconsequential actions.

The art of becoming is the paint with which our lives are given form. Every stroke of the brush is permanently impermanent. The stroke itself can never be undone, but its impact on the picture can be changed. The darkest blot can become the shadow that highlights a beautiful rose. Unfortunately, even the brightest stroke of the brush can become the ray of light illuminating the snarling mouth of a demon. Neither jot nor tittle of even the most recent past can be undone, but it can be re-imagined.

The brushstrokes of our lives are varied. Some strokes are bold, some are tentative. Some are a speck of contrast in a sea of uniformity. What we do and think today, how we relate to God and others today determines who we are tomorrow.

Our lives are a painting, and within the frame of the canvas and colors given to us by God, we are the painters. The art of becoming is knowing what we want to paint!

I think there is a clue in the way that Jesus chose to live his life on earth. He acted in love in the present and kept his eyes on the future. He invited others to do the same using the metaphor of fruit and pruning. Perhaps that is the key. It seems relatively consistent throughout the New Testament. Do the right thing right now, keep your eyes on the future, and evaluating the fruit that our lives are producing.

In any case, the key questions are obvious. What are we trying to become? As individuals, as a group, as a nation? How are you doing so far? What are the next steps to getting there?

Easy enough, right. Looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

The Fall of “Fear Not”

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That’s a true saying, think. Fear is the path to the dark side. Followers of Jesus have long held a negative view of fear. The Bible acknowledges the reality of the emotion, but rejects its power. “God did not give us a spirit of fear”. The command “Do not be afraid” occurs more than 70 times in the Bible, even though the recipients of the message often had exceptionally good reasons to fear. “Perfect love drives out fear”. From the beginning, Jesus followers have confronted fear with love, faith, and encouragement.

And yet there is a troubling trend in modern Christianity, especially in America. We do not confront fear, we fertilize it. We are not just insecure, we are fearful. Full of fear. Fear, risk, safety have become staples of American Christian conversation. I’m not sure what caused this shift. I suspect that the rise of mass media based on fear, greed, and sex may have played a role.

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Frequency of words in print over time (by Google N-gram)

How many times have you heard someone talk about fear this week? A quick search using Google N-gram shows us that people are talking about fear more today than they were during World War II! “Danger” is the only fear-word that is showing decreased usage. This makes sense! Americans and their families have never been as safe as they are now. The rate of violent crime in America is lower today than it was when “Leave it to Beaver” was first aired in 1957. (Yes, these statistics include kidnapping, murder, rape, child molestation, and the like. It is a general trend that seems unrelated to our overreactions to over-publicized crimes.)

But that is not how Americans feel. We feel scared, insecure. Almost inevitably, fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. That is what I’m hearing today from Christians. Fear. Anger. Hate.

This is inconceivable for those who have dedicated their lives to the God who IS love. Christians fear Muslims and immigrants, and so deny them shelter. In doing so, they ignore the Bible’s teaching on caring for the exile and foreigner just as Israel did. Their lack of compassion was a primary cause of God’s destructive judgment of Israel. Don’t believe me? Read Isaiah and Jeremiah. Will the American lack of compassion lead to different results?

Christians are fearful of political parties. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, we are afraid of what will happen if they get elected. We say terrible (and often untrue) things about their leaders. We ignore clear commands to honor our leaders written by apostles whose leaders were far, far worse than ours.

Christians are afraid of military weakness. We seem to have forgotten how God prepares armies. Goliath and five small stones. The walls of Jericho and a bunch of trumpets. Sending the majority of Gideon’s army home.

N.B. To put our military spending in perspective: President Obama spent 1,000 BILLION more dollars on the military over his 8 year presidency than George W. Bush did . In 2015, the United States spent more on the military than the next 7 largest military spenders combined (Russia, China, Saudia Arabia, the UK, France, India, and Germany).

Let’s reject fear and the politics of fear and remember Jesus, who conquered his fear through prayer in the Garden. Who submitted to his execution out of love. Who was respectful and forgiving in the midst of unjust treatment by Herod, Pilate, and the Pharisees. Jesus is our example.

Let’s remember Peter and Paul, who rejoiced when they were unjustly beaten and imprisoned. They both wrote letters after their ill-treatment reminding us to honor the government (Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2).

Let’s remember the apostle John who was was made a political prisoner. He then wrote a letter encouraging the faithful to persevere in the face of persecution because of God’s ultimate victory. He denounced the cruelty and corruption of the Roman empire. (For more info, check out Riches, Poverty, and the Faithful: Perspectives on Wealth in the Second Temple Period and the Apocalypse of John by my friend Mark Mathews. )

Let’s remember Hebrews 11 and the early Christian martyrs. Lit as candles to light the Roman night, thrown in the pit with wild beasts, torn apart by horses. “The world was not worthy of them”.

Let’s remember the struggle against apartheid. “[The black South African church] know that the odds against them are (humanly speaking) enormous. But they have a deep and simple confidence in God. They are never going to make terms with apartheid. They will not rest until this evil thing is removed from South Africa. And if this means that they must suffer, they will suffer to the limit. And therefore they are hopeful and joyful.” (Lesslie Newbigin, South Africa: A Fabric of Fear and Hope, 1980:13)

Doesn’t that sound better? To be hopeful and joyful because of our deep and simple confidence in God? Is the American situation anywhere near the difficulty of the situation of the black South African church?

There is only one kind of fear that is appropriate for the Christian: fear of God. I’m still not exactly sure it means to be afraid of a loving, merciful, and just God. Trying to explain it will just expose my ignorance and make this post even longer. But we can affirm that “fear God” means “be afraid of opposing God” and “be afraid of God alone and nothing else”. God is going to win every confrontation, period. So don’t confront God, don’t defy God, and don’t be afraid of those who choose to. “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” (Romans 8:31).

“‘honoring the governing authorities’ … and submitting oneself to the authorities was not to acquiesce to the demands of the state. Following the example of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, Peter and John affirmed that obedience to the command of God superseded the orders of the state: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29; 4:19). With this seemingly simple declaration, the apostles exposed the true nature of the conflict and identified every other authority, secular or religious, as subordinate to God.” (Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, p.34)

Where is the room for these other fears, of politics, of war, of refugees, of people? There isn’t any! We cannot be faithful to God and committed to fear. Or, to put it another way, “One cannot serve both God and … ” anything else, including fear.

Let’s encourage one another to boldness. Let’s nurture the kind of deep, godly love that drives out fear. Let’s rejoice that we have the chance to witness to the superiority of Christ. Let’s reject the fearful and hateful narratives which dominate American news and politics. They are unworthy of us. We are children of the King.