Month: July 2016

Why Being Tired Is Not Enough

It’s still four months until the presidential election, and I’m ready to start a political party called “Sanity” and hold rallies for it. By myself. With no slogans or controversies in sight.

Every day seems to bring a new headline of something horrific happening in the world, followed by discussions of why this is worse than that, how X led to Y which will eventually lead to really awful Z, and who, today, we should be yelling at.

I am tired of the petty meanness of the world.

I’ve heard the term “empathy fatigue,” and I wonder—is that what happens when you fall into a routine of graceless social media, endless politics, relentless suffering? When you look at a calendar booked solid with red Xs marking out bad news and realize you won’t have a vacation from it until Jesus comes back? When there are bruised and beaten people on the side of every road, and you are one Samaritan with a cart and a donkey…and you’d rather pass along on the other side and forget by immersing yourself in a smaller world—your family, career, social media, Pokémon Go—anything you feel you can control?

There is so much noise, and all I want is quiet, just for a little while.

But when I pull away from the chatter and clamor to listen, I realize: I am tired of the petty meanness of myself. That’s why I hate it so much outside of me, because I see it and it is familiar. And that startles me. I don’t like admitting it.

Sometimes I walk around like a mass of prickling jealousies and resentments, easily offended and often offensive because I care about myself more than you. Even when I keep it hidden, I can feel it under the surface. I am prideful and judgmental and vain. I want what I can’t have and take for granted what I do have. I don’t care where I should and care too much where I need to just let it go.

That’s important to admit, I think, instead of pointing to all of that awfulness out there—those other people who make bad decisions and come to stupid conclusions and lack compassion—and pretending you’re not part of it.

But even that is not enough, being tired with the world and yourself. (more…)

Should Christians Play Pokémon Go?

Confession: I feel extravagant when I buy a box of brand-name Cheez-Its.

Blame it on genetics. I come from a long line of thrifty (not cheap) ancestors. This means that when I’m thinking about making a purchase, I have a hard time spending money unless I absolutely need it. (“New shoes? These are fine. I can color over the scuff marks with a Sharpie and make them last another year.”)

Which is why I had a hard time deciding to buy this awesome-but-overpriced-and-completely-impractical pin that references my favorite Pixar character.

GrapeSoda

I eventually did because my twin sister Erika, also a recipient of these thrifty genes, said something interesting: “I figure, if something brings me tiny bits of joy and happiness whenever I see it, it was worth the cost even if it serves no practical purpose whatsoever.”

For context: we are not talking about anything extravagant here, people, nor anything super-spiritual. When she made this statement, my sister was referring to her Batman-themed dress and Darth Vader antennae topper. (I am not joking.)

So what does that have to do with Pokémon Go? (more…)

Of Course All Lives Matter. But…

This is a story about racial discrimination and a white policeman. Also a gold pocket watch.

(If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings, sorry. We’re getting to that later.)

Alton

Back up a century and a half. Welcome to Boston, 1854. The Fugitive Slave Law has been passed, making every black person in America a potential target. So long as a white man attests that you’re his slave in front of a judge, he can haul you to the South as his property.

Boston’s abolitionist community immediately forms a group called the Boston Vigilance Committee, with black and white members. They create diagrams of maneuvers to fight off slave catches, hold secret meetings, put up melodramatic posters warning Boston’s black citizens of the danger, and so on.

One of the white men, Joseph Hayes, a prosperous Boston citizen, gets this idea: wouldn’t it be handy if the Vigilance Committee had a spy inside Boston’s police force? Everyone thinks this is very clever, so Hayes switches careers and becomes an officer.

Only a few months later, a young Boston runaway named Anthony Burns is arrested, given a hearing, and ordered to be taken back to slavery in Virginia. Because the 2,000 federal troops the president ordered to Boston to escort one black guy to the docks wasn’t nearly enough, Boston’s police officers are mobilized to keep order in the streets, including Joseph Hayes.

Obviously, he refuses, and rather than obey the order, he resigns his position. He gets his old job back, and life moves on…but Anthony Burns is hauled away in chains while basically the whole city of Boston watches in varying degrees of outrage, curiosity, or apathy.

Probably looking for a headline to make this whole drama less depressing, a newspaper picks up on the Joseph Hayes story. “Policeman of Integrity Resigns Rather Than Commit Atrocity,” and so on. Then another writes a story. Then another. Soon, Joseph becomes a bit of a five-minutes-of-fame hero. Fan mail pours in, everything from a gushing letter signed by seventy-one ladies from Maine to a commendation from Charles Sumner himself, the most famous anti-slavery senator at the time. Gifts arrive, including money, an engraved silver tray, and a gold pocket watch, to reward a brave man for his “magnanimous example.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Burns’s pastor spends the next eight months trying to track Anthony down (he was sold away in secret) and scrape together the money to buy him back and bring him home. Everyone else has forgotten him. They love to throw his name around in rhetoric, but they have no idea what actually happened to him, nor do they care.

This made me mad.

For context, this little incident is set during a time when beating, raping, and killing black people was common (and in slave states, totally legal).

And here I am, talking about a pocket watch.

The (mostly undeserved) celebration of Joseph Hayes while Anthony Burns was ignored is a tiny little injustice that hardly deserves a footnote compared to the evil of slavery and racism at the time.

But it made me think: what if we can tell the depth of a cultural problem by how the “good guys” react to it?

Joseph Hayes made the right choice. The groups who celebrated that choice were mostly white Christians who appreciated his story. Everything they said was true, and nothing they did was wrong.

But did it really help the problem?

Which brings us to today.

I am grateful for the police officers who protect our country, who have to make hard choices, who risk their lives to keep us safe. I know that not all policemen are corrupt or racist. In fact, the number of those who are is likely very small. I’m aware that not all of the details about these particular incidents have come out yet and they are still under investigation.

However, after the recent shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I’ve seen lots of white, Christian people like me saying things that I don’t think are especially helpful. And I’m wondering…

Is now really good time for white Christians to talk about the heroism and incorruptibility of most white cops, even if that’s true?

What does a counter of “All lives matter” actually contribute to the discussion when it seems like black lives are the ones at risk?

It's kind of like this.

It’s kind of like this.

Are we going to consider the possibility that there might be injustice happening, or will we shut down that conversation before it has a chance to start?

Today, I am Joseph Hayes, a white outsider with deep convictions about injustice. Maybe you are Joseph Hayes too. Or maybe we’re both just one of the seventy-one ladies in Maine reading about this in the newspaper and reacting to it. Regardless, this is the history we’re living. These are the issues we’re facing right now. Not all evil and discrimination is in the past.

Yes, we need to be careful not to generalize and make assumptions about anyone, white or black. We need to hear the stories, look at the statistics, and examine them carefully to come to conclusions.

But I also think we need to be careful about how we talk about tragedies like this. If we praise genuinely good policemen while black people are suffering and afraid, we risk minimizing injustice. In some ways…we contribute to it.

So what do we do?

Practically…I have no idea, although I’m starting to think about this and do research. (Feel free to recommend articles or resources in the comments if you have them.)

But one thing I do know is that ideas have consequences, and the way we talk about things matter. So if you’re looking for a place to start, care about violence and discrimination against people of color. And be careful how you talk about it in the public square, on Facebook, in your churches, in comments on blog posts and news articles.

It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with.

We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.

Listen. Learn. And then speak, but speak with grace. That’s what we’re called to do as Christians.

Should We Ask God to Bless America?

Nothing is more American than fireworks, I thought as I should have been oohing and ahhing over the latest ka-boom. Loud, obnoxious explosions of shiny glitter that fade into nothing.

Gold

As weeping willows of crackling gold shimmered down from the sky, I flashed back to sophomore English class, remembering Jay Gatsby’s parties and the references to yellow and gold that subtly gild the pages. No wonder The Great Gatsby is the novel that best captures the American Dream. It shows it for what it is: empty, exhausting, and full of regrets.

Then the finale song, “God Bless America” came on. And I knew most of the people around me, perfumed with sunscreen and bugspray, didn’t believe in God. They believed in our right to congregate in a park, eat too much junk food, and watch things explode for free.

Needless to say, I do not always do patriotism well. This morning, I asked myself why, which led me to wonder: What should Christians think about patriotism and our faith?

It’s a little complicated, and I haven’t figured it out, but I have a few thoughts.

In a breakdown of passages often marched out on patriotic holidays, I do not believe these can be fairly applied to America:

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”—Psalm 33:12

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”—2 Chronicles 7:14

But I do think this one does:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”—Jeremiah 29:4-7

What’s the difference? In the first two, God is speaking to Israel, a people who affirmed that they would obey each and every law Moses put in front of them (or risk a long list of curses for disobedience). Until they got a severe case of conformity, God was their only king. Most of all, God’s plan for announcing salvation to the world was through this particular set-apart people.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the closest parallel to this is…the church. Not America.

Guys, America is not a Christian nation. We’ve had a number of Christian leaders, and Christian values contributed greatly to the underlying fabric of our laws and cultural assumptions, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of that.

But we have to be careful not to pin our hopes on God preserving our vision of a great nation. We have to be careful not to equate the Christian faith with democracy or capitalism. We have to be careful not to believe our leaders, Founding Fathers or current office runners, can take the fallenness out of a fallen world and restore everything to its original perfection.

God doesn’t need America to tell the world about Jesus. He needs the church. And even then, the world won’t be fully made right until Jesus comes again.

That said, the reason I bring up that last set of verses in Jeremiah is because it is actually a really great parallel with America. Obviously, the original city in mind wasn’t New York or Washington D.C., but the capital of Babylon.

So, God was telling his faithful people to pray for the peace and prosperity of a corrupt, pagan city. To pray for leaders who were okay with folding God into their prayers along with a roll call of idols. To pray as exiles in a place that felt more and more like it was not their home.

Does that sound familiar?

Thinking about that passage was actually pretty convicting for me. I realized I need to be careful too, though not in the same way as some of my ultra-patriotic fellow Christians.

I need to be careful not to assume our leaders are beyond the ability to be changed by God. I need to be careful to avoid cynicism toward America just because cynicism happens to be cool in my generation. I need to be careful to pray boldly for this nation of mine, broken and beautiful just like the rest of creation.

To answer the question in the title, then, yes, we should pray for God to bless America. Turns out God commands it. We also need to have a solid understanding of what it looks like to do so as exiles, not as contented burger-flipping citizens of some red-white-and-blue utopia that doesn’t exist and never did.

Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven, and that’s where our allegiance lies. That’s where we put our hope. And yet…we’re not home, but we’re here, and that matters. Let’s not forget to pray for our land in exile.