Monday, December 3, 2012

Steal, Repackage, Give

I read a quote the other day in a psychology book attributed to Buddhist monks. I plan rip it out of context, reposition it into a Christian context, and then explain how it makes sense of my life up to this point.

"Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference."

They certainly nailed it. On the one hand, if we don't think what we do matters, it is easy to either fall into a dark depression or live a life of aimless hedonism. (In which case you need to read Kierkegaard to help make sense of your life.) On the other hand, if we assume that EVERYTHING we do matters to the utmost we will quickly become self-righteous, self-absorbed or both. Or we will be frozen like Buridan's Ass (aka donkey) who doesn't do anything because there is no rational reason to choose between two equal goods.

A few years ago, for example, I came across The Better World Handbook and adopted many of its concepts as a new way to live as a responsible Christian disciple. (Weird, I know.) It had practical tips on how not to support companies that are systematically destroying the environment while also destroying the dignity of their own workers. I learned how to find companies that exist not solely for profit but for greater causes. (Which is why to this day I support Patagonia.) I learned how and why to support the local economy, to severely curtail intentional exposure to negative advertising and received encouragement for riding my bike to work. I felt like in doing these things, I was living a more faithful life, and it was fun to orient everything around the goal of becoming a more responsible consumer. I woke up every day refreshed and ready to meet the world head on.

But two problems quickly emerged. First, the novelty wore off. After a while it was easier to fudge a little hear and there--so what if I forgot to recycle this or that? Was this company really that much better than that one?

And more importantly, I began to think that what I did wouldn't make any difference. I went to a Greenpeace meeting (also weird, but they had free food and it was a nice day...didn't ram any whalers though, it was in Sioux Falls) and the only thing I learned was that corporations are doing so much bad stuff to the environment that what I do doesn't matter. And the story about saving the starfish ("because it matters to this one") has lost all its romantic appeal.

As this relates to family life--I am a better dad (and husband) when I am including my family in a mission. Of course we have as a mission to follow God to the best of our ability. But unless we put flesh on that mission, it's just words. I once asked a group of seminary students to name one thing they did in the last week because they are Christians (not including attending class) and they struggled to do it. No, they utterly failed. When I am actively serving others and doing all those things I mentioned above, I'm a much better leader for my family.

So here's where the Buddhist monks come in. I think they got it exactly right. It doesn't matter how much "difference" you are making. But to live a faithful life means living a faithful life. It means choosing something and doing it/seeking it the best you can. For me, I choose to support local farmers, eat organic food, purchase fair trade items, make entertainment for myself and friends, try to avoid companies that I know are doing terrible things and so on. And just because I often fail/fall short of my own standards AND what I do doesn't seem to make a difference, I can still feel like I am caught up in something bigger than myself. I am faithfully seeking God. And I can laugh at my own futile efforts. Because I can either cry or laugh. And I'd rather laugh.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Padadise Paradox

I usually like paradoxes. This sentence is false. All 'Daves' are liars. Or as Operation Ivy quoted Socrates: "All I know is that I don't know nothin'". But there's one I don't really like. In worship we sang a song celebrating our Lord: the Prince of Peace. Then we immediately thanked our servicemen and women who are serving in the armed forces. Now, I don't mean to knock those folks--I have known quite a few and I know they have good intentions. But how do I explain to my kids: "well, yes, we worship the Prince of Peace. No, Jesus doesn't want us to kill each other. Yes, our country spends more money on our military than all the other ones...Yes, we do fight wars in other countries...Yes, Jesus wants everyone to be happy and have peace, and no, war doesn't make peace anymore than laziness makes fitness. Yes, we sell lots of weapons to other countries...Yes, well, we ARE the only country who has used an atomic bomb, we just don't think, well, Argh!"

Disclosure: I don't like war. It is a terrible thing--it is fatal for the losers and mentally and emotionally debilitating for the winners. So how do I celebrate Veteran's Day with my kids?

I'll tell you my attempt to resolve this paradox and then explain it: without condemning veterans or their families for past actions we must work for peace in the future. In other words, even if war was a viable (nope, necessary) option in the past, it is no longer so and we need to dedicate our resources not to military power but to peacemaking efforts. As I heard somewhere: if we don't kill war, it will kill us.

I. The Enlightenment promised us that objective reasoning would lead the world into a better, happier future. If that is the case, then even Enlightenment trained thinkers (which nowadays is pretty much everyone) ought to see that peace is better than war, and even that war is not a viable solution to any world problems. (Martin Luther King Jr. battled this in his life--how did he teach the way of non-violence to his followers at a time when the country was embroiled in an unjust war?) Of course we could point to the destruction of the 20th century as a failure of Enlightenment (and less-popular social Darwinism) thinking as well. It seems that objective thinking unhinged from any tradition can only convince me that everyone ELSE should be peaceful.

II. People who adhere to the Just War Tradition must realize that given the power of modern weaponry, we can never fulfill the Just War command that the force used must be proportionate to the goal and that civilian casualties must be minimized. We have seen in Iraq and elsewhere that this is no longer viable.

III. There are plenty of people who claim to be Pro-life. However, this position is exposed when we see how Pro-life coalitions only focus on saving life before birth. Why do pro-life workers not work to abolish the death penalty and war? As one commenter said: "We believe life does not begin at conception and end at birth." If we are going to be a truly 'pro-life' society, we had best remember life continues after birth.

IV. Christianity has been criticized on the one hand for perpetuating violence and on the other hand for claiming an 'unrealistic' non-violent attitude. I started thinking about these two criticisms and I realized that people who criticize (rightly) Christianity for violent actions in the past are not criticizing violence itself-they merely think (rightly again) the Church is not a legitimate war-making authority. However, I would make the case that: the State is not a legitimate war-making authority either, and moreover that Christianity alone has the resources necessary for reconciliation that can make an end to all wars.This is because the good God promises is free to everyone and does not have to be secured through violence. Unlike land and money and power and status, my having the good in no way reduces the ability of you to also have the good.

V. This is possible because we believe Jesus Christ died to reconcile ALL of humanity to God, regardless of the lines we humans have drawn in the sand. Reconciliation begins when we teach and model to our children the sacrificial love of Jesus that does not make distinctions between objects of love. The recent open letter from John Franklin Stephens to Ann Coulter is a prime example of: how to love a (seemingly unlovable) human being and is also a reminder of why all people have equal value. I only hope that I can respond to those with whom I disagree in such a humble, loving way as this young man.

VI. A boy once was being bullied. He asked his spiritual mentor what he should. do. The mentor said: "The bully just doesn't know how to love. You have to show him what it means to love." The boy thought for a moment and said: "Aww man, love is so hard!" This is true. Love is hard. Reconciliation is harder. But large scale, as a national policy, we have never tried love.

And so we return to parenting. If we are to have a nation that loves, we have to have communities that love and individuals who are loving. We must teach our kids to treat all human beings as humans, created in the image of God and therefore having value regardless of social status, nationality or anything else.

One way we will continue this conversation is to take our kids to All-Nations City Church this year at the beginning of December for the worldwide Christmas celebration. Reducing ignorance of other cultures is a starting point for peace. Anyone else have ideas?

Happy Veteran's Day. 

PS. These are obviously short paragraphs making complex points. For further reading, I suggest: War and the American Difference by Stanley Hauerwas, Migrations of the Holy by William Cavanaugh, Who is My Enemy by Lee Camp and Reborn on the Fourth of July by Army Veteran Logan Mehl-Laituri. (In order from most difficult to easiest reads.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Jesus loves you but I'm undecided

Can I say goodbye to my old friend: apathy?

I often seem to think that somehow, some'why', Jesus will simply take my kids and make them superstars without any help from me. It is a comforting thought that they might turn out 'ok' in spite of my parenting failures.

I recently finished Jayber Crow by incredible (and incredibly underrated) author Wendell Berry. (Seriously, if you haven't read Berry, you need to. Start with his essays, then his fiction makes more sense.) In one scene, Jayber, the town barber, is discussing war with a client named Troy, who is not only ruining his father's farm but is married and unfaithful to Jayber's only love. Jayber's only response to Troy's invective is to quote Scripture: "Love your enemies..." Troy gives up his argument, and Jayber (who is also the narrator) concludes with: "It would have been a great moment for Christianity except that I did not love Troy."

This discussion highlighted, for me, the ways in which what we know actually enables us to behave as if we did not know it. I mean, my daughter knows me better than just about anyone. I can't even get a joke past her because she says: "Dad, that's your joking voice," or "your eyes are smiling". If she doesn't miss that, she certainly can tell when I am less than present.

With kids it is really not a matter of whether or not we love our kids: it is a matter of how consistently we love them as much as or more than ourselves.

Working as the director of a Presbyterian camp this summer I realized how often I let my kids down. Don't get me wrong: working at camp was amazing for us as individuals, for our family, and for me professionally. But how many times did I put my kids in second or third place? How many times could I have included one or both of them in some activity but thought it would be easier to leave them at the lodge with a movie?

I guess the whole point is that we often like to remind ourselves that love is a verb, but then we live as if it is some static reality that exists whether or not we act it into being. What, however, does that look like?

To be continued...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Creating Worlds

Horror movies at age 6?

I was talking to some students the other day who have found themselves in trouble in one way or another. We were casually talking about movies and they all commented how much they like horror movies. I asked when they started watching them and all 4 of these kids said around kindergarten age. They said: "What's wrong with them? Why shouldn't we watch them as kids?"

Aside from my snide thought: "Well, look at you now!" I didn't really have an answer. Why shouldn't young children watch scary movies? Or should they?

As I reflected on this later I started thinking about worldviews. Does a child see the world as generally safe, a place where people love each other and take care of each other? Or does a child see the world as a place that is filled with terrifying events just waiting to happen, with people who gain joy out of torturing and murdering fellow humans? Must every stranger be approached as a potential madman? Is human life to be valued or destroyed?

The real world, of course, is both: a terrifying place filled with people and events that might kill us (natural disasters, viruses, reality tv) and it is a beautiful place (although not North Dakota, whose prettiest state park, Little Missouri State Park, is apparently about to become an oil field) filled with people who love us.

But is a 6 year old really ready to feel the weight of the world? Isn't there a time that all of us ought to be allowed to bask in a world that loves us? That isn't fraught with danger and anxiety, which as Kierkegaard reminds us is simply the dizziness of freedom? Perhaps limiting the freedom (gasp!) of our young ones will allow them to have a few years free of anxiety.

The issue really is what sort of world we are constructing for our kids. Of course we don't want to teach them that everyone is wonderful and everything will turn out ok--I already put down that fallacy in another post. (I think sheltering our kids is also unwise...Once again finding the middle, guess I'm an Aristotelian) But they will discover that on their own, eventually. What sort of world do we want our kids to live in? I hope that I can provide a stable foundation for my kids so that when they inevitably discover the destructive power of sin, they are not simply swept away into a world of despair.

Now, for fans of scary movies, I'm not really trying to pick on them in particular. There are lots of ways we create worlds for our kids; the stories we tell them are a powerful way we form our kids. I have to wonder how differently a kid sees the world when growing up seeing images of pain and darkness versus a kid who grows up seeing images of wonder and joy. 

Advertising companies certainly think they can get inside our kids' heads at a young age. Do we agree? Someone once said something like: work on your interpretation of the world because your interpretation is your world. (Sounds really postmodern, but, it can't be too far off.) I hope my kids' interpretation of the world allows for love, hope and joy to be normative. God, may it be so.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Unanswerable Questions

Hindsight is not 20/20. Claiming this is akin to claiming you can see the future. Do I know unequivocally that this or that decision would have led to a better future? I will grant that sometimes hindsight can be clear in negative cases, as in: I should not have stayed up all night watching Seinfeld reruns...Or, driving drunk on those mountain roads maybe wasn't such a good plan...(I have not done either of the above, although I did stay up all night once at All-State Jazz band to watch Office Space. Totally worth it.) Even so, let's dispense with the notion that hindsight is 20/20.

And if that is so, then how much MORE so is foresight less than perfect. This is parenting. We do not, cannot, know what effect our decisions will have on our kids in the future. This is what makes parenting so individual, aggravating, and hopeful. We all have to hope that what we are doing is best...but there is absolutely no way to know.

I have considered this from the perspective of someone who works with kids who are not my own. As a percussion instructor and soccer coach I am put in the uncomfortable position of trying to recruit kids into my programs. This is problematic for many reasons. First, it comes awfully close to viewing kids as means rather than ends. Of course I want my teams to be successful and win games/competitions. But I can never sacrifice a person's (I could use student/player/etc. here but I prefer person, as person-hood is antecedent to any other label we may or may not have) intrinsic value for the success of a program.

Second, even if we claim to want 'what's best for the kids', how do we know? Certainly we can look at statistics that show kids who are involved in stuff generally do fewer drugs and that music is good for the brain (and the soul? unmeasurable for sure but undeniable as well!) and athletics are good at keeping people healthy. But is participation or non-participation in any one activity ultimately beneficial in the life of a person?

That is an unanswerable question.

Coming at this from the perspective of a parent, one could argue: "The best we can do for our kids is give them the most and best options available," which is a very American way of viewing society as a group of individuals each seeking his/her own good, which may or not be related to the good(s) of others. I think this is woefully inadequate when we consider that we are talking about our children, however.

These thoughts make me really appreciate the new 51 movement. This movement is in response to research that shows that youth in America are essentially being systematically abandoned by the adults and support systems that are supposed to help them into adulthood. So the 51 movement is challenging adults to create systems of support for kids where every kid has 5 non-parent adults who love them with no-strings-attached. Of course in today's world it seems unwise, even reckless maybe to encourage (or even allow) your child to have a relationship with just about any adult. 

So my hope, as a parent and a responsible adult, is that I can push back against the tide of systematic abandonment and viewing kids a means rather than ends. And I am calling all parents to view their kids' friends (our daughter just had a sleepover at a friend's house whom we don't know very well. I can't believe how anxious I will I ever let her go away to college??) the same way: not as unmanageable threats but as kids who need to have adults care for them, no-strings-attached.

Because who knows, you just might have that opportunity to help a kid keep her head above water a little longer. There's no way to know, but we have to try.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Safer Not To Crow

"It's safer, it's safer, not to crow. Never prophesy unless you know....We'll never deny you, even if we have to die". Crows from the Psalters album Carry the Bones

Five months since my last post. A lot has happened in that time. Mostly, some things happened professionally that I would have rather not had experienced. This led me to begin working at VOA part time with kids whose lives are, well, not quite the American dream.

Anyway, feeling like a failure as a man didn't really inspire me to write on a parenting blog. But I've been doing some reading and some thinking and there are some things that need to be said. The above quote from the Psalters made me realize how often I have followed that 'advice' and kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up. It got me thinking also about the lies we tell our children...

1. 'You can be whatever you want when you grow up'. Ok, that's just not true. It's something a good capitalist should believe, you know, pull yourself up with your own bootstraps. I am 5'9 and 150 pounds. I was never going to be a professional basketball player no matter how hard I tried. Some people simply aren't smart enough to become, for example, doctors. Most of us are never going to be president because we don't have enough finances to back a successful smear campaign against our rivals! Instead we should be saying: You can be WHOEVER you want to be when you grow up. You might not be the best and brightest, but the gifts God gives (aka the fruits of the Spirit, aka love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) are available to everyone. Who you are is more important than what you are anyway.

2. 'Being a Christian will make your life better'. In the Bible horrible things happen to Christians---especially the most faithful ones. Can we dispense of the idea that God is somehow working on our behalf to help us get jobs or make money or find the right spouse? He is not helping Tim Tebow (or anyone else) win football games. If God is intervening on the earth, it is most likely in the ways Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, declaring freedom to captives. And if God is not intervening in these ways it's because we're too busy asking Him to bless our every endeavor.
This is particularly challenging with kids because who doesn't want the best for their kids? I'm willing (I think) to accept the dangers associated with following Christ, but are my kids? I suppose the only answer is to realize that the dangers of following the American dream are even greater...

3. 'Discipleship doesn't require a significant life change.' This is sort of a corollary to the first one. I think we teach this to our kids in many little ways throughout the day. Any time we give in to the American way of hoarding wealth, any time we compromise what we know to be true, whenever we put our own wants in front of others' needs, we are teaching this lesson. (I hate to say it, because I like pro soccer, but our obsession with professional sports falls in this category as well. Economically, pro sports are an abomination that we are all a part of. I mean, how can we justify paying these athletes these obscene amounts of money to do what they do? I brought this up to a student awhile back and he said: "Well, good for them {the athletes} for working hard to make that money." Have we lost all ability to think critically about economics? Go read The Fear of Beggars by Kelly Johnson)
I remember one time in particular, I just had a discussion with a student about the type of media we listen to and why I didn't like a particular artist's work. When her dad came to pick her up, guess what was on the radio...
Another time, a student told me a story about seeing a family at her church, it was a mom and several kids. The kids didn't have coats, and one of them didn't have shoes. So she took off her shoes and tried to give them to the family---but my student's mom stopped her. How often do we do this to our own kids?

4. 'Everything happens for a reason.' Sometimes that reason is that we live in a fallen world where there is pain, injustice and fear. If you want to ruin a child's theology at a young age, just tell them everything happens for a reason when her mom gets cancer or his dad goes to jail.

5. 'Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are real'. Ok, that's just for comedic relief. Although for some people it seems to be a big issue. (Come on though, bunnies don't even lay eggs.)

As I review this post it seems, well, negative and maybe schizophrenic--I don't want it to be that way. (Some people in the past have misinterpreted passion as anger...easy to do...I think Jesus was passionate, so was MLK Jr.)

But it has become clear to me that the best gift I can give my kids is to live the truth in front of them. I can display unconditional love in my life and an honest seeking of the good life that comes not at the expense of others but with others as my companions. Our world has become so dizzyingly complex that it is almost impossible to live a life of integrity. I can only hope to show my kids what I hope to be a faithful lifestyle.

"If I am crazy, it's because I refuse to be crazy in the same way that the world has gone crazy." Peter Maurin

Go. Be. Crazy. Your kids need you to be. Just not in the same way the world is crazy.