Listening, Loving, and…Criticizing?

I want to remember my citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Lent Week 2, Day 12

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I love my alma mater. It is a great university. I made lifelong friends there. I learned how to stretch my thinking theologically. The faculty and staff truly love people and work to nurture them.

But there are some faults with university, as well. They have made some business decisions that seem to conflict with their spiritual mission. They have fired people who were doing tremendous work to help the bottom line. They have embarked on building projects funded, in part, from shady business practices.

Yet at the heart of the university is truly a desire to develop students who will go out and change the world. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my church. It is a place where leadership and membership are working together to bring about restoration. So many amazing things have happened in the years we have attended. Ministries have been started to help students attain their GED and help homeless people find a home. Houses have been repainted and minor repairs have been performed. Worship has become a freer exercise of pouring out our hearts to God. More and more people are being included in important decisions.

But there are some faults with my church, as well. It is a large church and while that brings about greater resources and opportunities, it also brings about slowness in movement. There is often a tendency to plateau—once some change has been made, people will feel that it is “good enough,” and it will take time to move further forward (often way too much time).

Yet at the heart of my church is truly a desire to restore all things. We want people restored to God. We want people restored to one another. Everything that is done or not done is out of a desire to do God’s will. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my country. It is a place where people are free to make decisions about their lives. It is a place where dreams can come true. It is one of the most generous countries in the world giving so much money and time to volunteer efforts to try and improve communities. It is a place where people truly can move from the bottom to the top.

But there are some faults with my country, as well. Its founding documents were not written with “all people” in mind; they were written with landowners in mind. Black people were only considered 3/5 human when our Constitution was written. It has only been a generation that all people are allowed to vote. Well, unless you are a felon. Economic structures that have been passed down from the days of slavery have created slums and perpetuated the struggles for many people. Our country does not like to admit its wrongs. Slavery and racism have plagued this country since its inception but if anyone brings that up they are called a race baiter. Many people feel that we should say things are better now so we should just all be happy. When relationships between communities and police officers are brought up people struggle with listening to both sides to truly hear what can be done to improve those relationships. Decisions about immigrants, transgender people, and people of different religions are based on fear and not facts. Political leaders lie, are caught on video lying, and lie about telling the lies. We are all now looking at our microwaves wondering if they are secretly recording our conversations.

Yet at the heart of my country is a desire to be the land of the free. Improvements have been made. We still have a long way to go, but I do think the majority of people want to go there. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I could go on and talk about my job, my family, my friends. These are all groups that I love and respect deeply. But they all get things wrong.

Let’s face it: I could talk about myself the same way. There are things I do that are good, yet I also know there are many areas that need improvement.

Why do we struggle to talk about the areas of growth in the people that we love?

I want to focus my citizenship first in the Kingdom of God. If I am going to do that, I need to apply Kingdom principles to my country; not apply my country’s dream to the Kingdom. How many of us get this backwards?

God’s Kingdom began and thrived long before there was any democratic nation. Our way of governing is not ultimately special. It is just one of a number of ways people have governed. Yet since we are people of the Kingdom, let us ask how those principles can impact our democracy.

Let us criticize what needs to be fixed. There is too much fear, too much anger, too much yelling, too much hatred, too much division in our nation. And we are not making it worse when we acknowledge it. In fact, we will never move to improving it if we continue avoiding. Our nation has a problem with racism. Our nation has a problem with economic structures continually stretching the divide between rich and poor. Our nation has a problem with reality TV stars having more influence on our policies than people who actually know what they are talking about.

And I have a problem with loving people who disagree with me. And I think I am justified. But how am I applying Kingdom principles to myself?

I think people are suffering. I need to reach out to them and help them. And I need to advocate for them and work for long-lasting change that will improve their lives.

And those people I disagree with? Those people who are making me angry? I pray. I pray for me to listen and seek relationship. I pray for them. I seek conversation (real conversation; not social media conversation). And I apply Kingdom principles to that relationship. If we truly love one another, we will listen and we will learn and we will grow.

After all, neither of us will get it right 100% of the time. But we can love and criticize one another. In fact, it will be because of that love that we do criticize.

Post-Election Chaos; Now What?

Two statements that only serve to ratchet up arguing with no intent to create dialogue: “All protestors are lazy, whiny, crybabies who need to get over it.” “All Trump voters are racist, misogynist, and hateful.” Neither statement seeks to increase understanding or promote conversation. Both stand simply as “I am right and you are wrong.”

Two statements that are uncomfortable truths but can serve to create dialogue: “Trump’s campaign was filled with hateful rhetoric. People who were the targets of those messages are legitimately afraid. Even though you may not agree with the rhetoric, it has already stung. Listen. Hear the pain. Hear the fear.” “In the aftermath of the election, you may feel angry and wish to cry out. Do so. But then get up and start doing the things that will bring about unity in your community. Start being the person this world needs you to be.”

In my own little sphere of experience, I have already heard four stories of those rhetorical targets being dismissed, insulted, and told to leave (and one of those four is my oldest son). If you supported or are even just okay with President-Elect Trump, please know that there are people suffering because his rhetoric has emboldened people to act this way. You may not. You may hate it just as much as I do. So please speak up with me. Please encourage your elected officials to publicly denounce the hatred and abuse that is way too prevalent in our country right now.

Also in my little sphere of experience, I am witnessing people creating groups for dialogue and action. Friends are looking for ways to perform acts of kindness in their neighborhoods. People are volunteering at places like the IRC. They are donating to places like Pregnancy Resources. They are seeking people who are afraid and offering solace and refuge. MLK told us all that riots are the language of the unheard. The unheard are making their voices known this week. In the weeks to come, those voices can still be heard in the millions of subversive acts we perform: service, kindness, organizing, running for office.

If people on both sides truly want to come together and work through whatever the next four years will bring, we need a lot less of the first two statements and a lot more of the second two. We also will need a lot less talking and lot more listening. We will need to acknowledge more and more the reality and the fear that many people face. We will need to recognize the humanity in the people we see around us.  We will need to stand up for those who being attacked.

There is a lot to do. I hope we will do it together.

(And for those who profess to be Jesus followers, we need a lot less patriotism and a lot more cross-shaped people—but that may be another blog post in the future.)

America Is Drunk. Or: How To Maintain Sobriety In An Election Year

Let’s face it: America is drunk. How else can we explain all that has gone on, especially in the political realm, in the past year?

But once we acknowledge that reality, those who are addicts have to ask the question: how can I maintain my sobriety when so much is taking place that makes me so badly want a quick escape? This may not seem like it is something that should be a cause for any extra concern, but it really can be. There are a lot of emotionally charged issues being expressed with increasingly volatile rhetoric. This season can be a trigger for many who are fighting to maintain their sobriety.

First, there is a lot of fear right now. Is our country really not great? Has it ever been? Are we about to lose millions of job? Will our economy fall apart? How many terrorists are coming into our country? How many unhealthy people have access to guns? Can I trust any police officers? Why do people want to keep talking about race and ethnicity? Will we ever be safe?

Fear is a legitimate response to these and other questions. And when you combine the hyped up rhetoric with media coverage vying for ratings and social media noise vying for being the most obnoxious you get a concoction that is stronger than any brew anyone ever drank.

People in recovery need to acknowledge the fear that exists. Because it is not going away anytime soon; at least, the noise that is working to generate the fear isn’t. Fear is a big factor in turning to the drug or behavior of choice. Most of my drinking was driven by fear; especially fear of confrontation.

When fear goes unchecked, unacknowledged, un-dealt with, it can create a sense of imbalance, uncertainty, and agitation. As we continue to hear messages of fear from the mouths of the candidates, the news media talking heads, and our friends on social media, we must be open and find safe places and people to speak to. We must find our meetings, our sponsors, our trusted friends and family members, our spiritual advisors who can listen to us and remind us that when we live in today, nothing is as bad as many make it out to be.

Second, there is a lot of anger. Have you noticed that there is little dialogue? It’s mostly shouting. And it is a lot of all or nothing shouting, at that. “Choose your side.” “Agree with me completely or you’re wrong.” “How could anyone be so stupid?” “If you vote (fill-in-party-name-here) you are not American.”

Anger is a driving force behind addiction. Those in recovery know this. If you are in recovery, you know the acronym HALT. If you are not in recovery, you can ask someone what it means.

 

(Or I could tell you: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These are four indicators that a relapse could happen soon. If an addict is experiencing one, he or she usually sees that as a warning sign. If two or more are present, steps need to be taken quickly—attend a meeting, call a sponsor, etc.)

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Between now and November 8, there will be a lot more anger. For a number of reasons, angry rhetoric rules the day in our political discourse. For some, it is an easy decision to just disconnect and not pay attention. But there are those who are truly thirsty for knowledge and information who will be constantly bombarded with messages designed to make you hate “the other.” In order to maintain one’s sobriety, anger needs to be released; because anger is the dubious luxury of the normal person, but for the addict, it is poison.*

So how does one maintain their sobriety in an election year?

The short answer is: “Just like every other day in every other year.” We take our sobriety one day at a time for a reason. When we are focused on staying clean, praying, reaching out to others, and performing acts of service, we will be able to maintain our sobriety even during the most chaotic times.

But some days, we will forget that. Some days we will be scrolling through our social media feeds and find a meme that sparks something down deep inside. Some days a conversation with a friend or family member will really get us going. And on those days, we need to stop and remember:

Anything that threatens our sobriety is not worth spending time on. Do we need to be informed? Do we need to research what each candidate thinks about the issues? Should we vote as responsible citizens? Yes. Yes. And maybe. But we do not need to participate in conversations and social media mudslinging that serve only to make people more emotional and less rational.

 

 

*Paraphrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, page 66.

Picking Up The Pieces, A Post-Election Reflection

Cynicism warning: This post may reveal my more cynical side, but stick with me. I need your feedback.

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Every morning at FaithWorks of Abilene we read a Psalm. The day after the mid-term elections this week, we read Psalm 52. It was spookily appropriate:

Why do you boast of all the trouble you stir up, O mighty one,
when the constant, unfailing love of God is what truly lasts?
Have you listened to yourself?
Your tongue is like a sharp razor, full of lies that slash and tear right to the soul.
You’ve fallen in love with evil and have no interest in what He calls good.
You prefer your own lies to speaking what is true.
[pause]
You love words that destroy people, don’t you, lying tongue?
You won’t be smiling when the true God brings His justice and destroys you forever.
He will come into your home, snatch you away, and pull you from the land of the living.
[pause]
Those who are just will see what happens to you and be afraid.
And some of them will laugh and say,
“Hey, look! Over there is the one who didn’t take shelter in the True God;
Instead, he trusted in his great wealth and got what he wanted by destroying others!”
But my life is abundant—like a lush olive tree care for at the house of the one True God.
I put my trust in His kind love forever and ever; it will never fail.
Because of all you have done, I will humble myself and thank You forever.
With your faithful people at my side, I will put my hope in Your good reputation.

Boast.

Lies.

Evil.

Destroy.

We live with a broken political system. It is made worse by a culture that communicates in 140 characters or less and absorbs news media that is motivated by ratings and not truth.

We argue based on party platforms. We think universal health care is an enemy to our freedom and economy instead of seeing it as a way to provide for the poor and needy. We think restricting abortion is a war on women instead of seeing it as an attack on the most vulnerable. We think our party has the inside track on what Jesus really wanted instead of acknowledging that there is little difference among the parties.

Those on both sides of the aisle are seemingly more interested with power and prestige than the will of the votes. Winning is more important than loving.

But the people of God should be different.

There are those who believe Christians should have no participation in civic government. There are also those who believe we should take over civic government. And people who fall on the spectrum everywhere between those two extremes.

So these days after the election, after the arrogant gloating of the people who win and the melodramatic whining of the people who lost, I find myself reading the above Psalm thinking we are the people the Psalmist was writing about 5 millennia ago.

So how do we make the move? How do we shift from people so consumed with a deceitful, boastful power that hurts others to being a people who trust in God and put our hope in Him?

Let me make these suggestions:

  1. We need to remove our nation’s flag from our churches. We are not American Christians. We are Christians who reside in America. Even when we are engaged and involved in local, regional, and national politics our primary allegiance should be to the Gospel of Jesus. One exception: if we are going to put up any flag we should put up every flag. Just as our primary allegiance is to Jesus and not a country, we should visibly acknowledge that all people from all nations are children of God and welcome to gather anywhere and everywhere believers gather.
  2. Vote, but not simply along party lines.* Republicans get some things right. Democrats get some things right. Even Libertarians get some things right! But they all get a lot of things wrong, too. Jesus has no political party affiliation. What’s more: no political party is closer to the heart of Jesus than any other. What is close to the heart of Jesus is to take care of the widow, orphan, foreigner, and people in poverty. So vote according to what will be better for the people Jesus cared for primarily.
  3. Speak up and speak out. The injustices that are taking place in Ferguson, MO, are awful. Michael Brown was murdered and the person who did it will likely not be charged. Poverty is being criminalized in cities all across America. People whose gender identity and sexual orientation are not what “civilized society” want them to be are bullied and abused.

Those who claim the name of Jesus should be on the front lines of these issues, and many more. Your community may not suffer from these things. But you can advocate for justice in your area as well others. Speak up. Don’t be silent when you witness injustice in person or on your twitter feed. Don’t be silent when your churches seem to ignore those in your neighborhood who are hurting. Be the voice of Jesus in your world. Speak His words when no one else will.

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What else would you add? What can we do to be the people of Jesus and not the people of the political parties who want us only so they can increase their coffers and claim to have more power and prestige?

 

*Full disclosure: I have not voted in any election since 2008. I have not yet registered to vote even though we have lived in Texas for five years. This current election and my reflection since then has led me to believe I should correct that before 2016.