Friday, October 7, 2016

Liberal? Conservative? Christian?

I posted a question with a link to this blog post from the Village church: Jesus was a Refuge. I liked the conversation that followed, so I'm posting it sans identifying names. I've tried to preserve the discussion streams as well.

ORIGINAL POST: Why do people think refugee care is a "liberal" matter?

Person A: A better question might be, what does Jesus and Conservatism have to do with each other? The American Jesus has almost nothing to do with Biblical Jesus. Serving refugees is not liberal, it is Godly and righteous. Not serving refugees is against God's Biblic [sic] commands and is a reflection of a rotten plant, one destined for fire.

Person B: The two parties have split and become divided to the point that when one promotes something, the other feels the need to reject it. That and the playing on fears and internal nativism that has become a big part of the GOP. Before 2000, the environment wasn't a "liberal" matter, but since Gore was a huge promoter of environmental regulation it became one. Up until this election, refugees weren't as much of a liberal issue, but over the last four years (with fears started with Honduran refugees) they have become one. It seems to just be whatever your "team" wants and if you disagree, you are just expected to take one for the team.

ME: That's somewhat what I've been thinking [referring to Person A's comment]. On some issues I fall "left". Why? Because Jesus seemed to, so I feel like I have to. One some issues I fall "right". Why? Because Jesus seemed to, so I feel I have to. Am I not supposed to follow Jesus above all else?

ME: I don't mean to throw out my own mind, but priorities are needed. And I need to call good what Jesus called good.
Person A: I agree. 
Paul says that if you want to live a Godly life, you will be persecuted.
Jesus was persecuted by the religious authority in his day. The same basic authorites that also killed all the prophets.
The religious authority today is American Christianity. 
Anyone who wants to really follow Jesus today should expect "Christians" to be the primary source for persecution. These "Christians" are not our brothers and sisters in Christ, they are sons and daughters of satan, just as the Jews who persecuted Jesus in his day were.
This is hard to swallow, I get it. I am torn even writing it now but what other realistic conclusion is there?
This does not mean that every church or every christian is bad. There were Pharisees who followed Jesus while other Pharisees persecuted him. But it is interesting to note that Jesus was a little short with Nicodemus too. 
I wonder if what blinds us to the truth is A) our basic belief that america is a christian nation and B) our trained loyalty to the church? 
We struggle not with what we think we should do but with doing it because of those two. Maybe we have submitted ourselves to the wrong authorities (nationalism and Pharaseeism). 
I have been reading Isaiah to the kids recently and have been impressed by how angry God gets over fairly simple things. God's anger in the first few chapters is over Isreal's [sic] empty sacrifices because of their continual sin. Their sin? They did not "defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" (1:17). This idea is repeated in 1:23. 
The sheltering and welcoming of refugees should be embraced by every single Christian in this nation. The fact that it seems most Christians do not is a sign of their destruction not their wisdom.
ME: "The sheltering and welcoming of refugees should be embraced by every single Christian in this nation. The fact that it seems most Christians do not is a sign of their destruction not their wisdom." YES! A thousand times, YES!

Person B: Yes, Scot McKnight goes into this a bit here: Are you Pro-Life or Just Anti-Abortion? He's looking at how Catholics and evangelicals though they have similar issues with beliefs end up in different places.
ME: Kind of like government officials saying "The primary responsibility of government is to keep people safe". Do they only mean "terrorism", or do they mean making sure people have access to life-saving medical care? Or safe water? Or safe air? "Safety" is more inclusive than "terrorism".
Person B: Yes, and people seem to take those other things for granted now (or as in healthcare think they are something that needs to be a part of the market) But I think we can't separate it out like that without seriously neglecting other things.
Person B: I think this is the problem: whenever you elevate one issue above all others, you end up trapped by that issue in the end. Because all Trump has to do is losing claim to be anti-abortion (I doubt he could care less honestly) then he has evangelical support, because that has become the only thing that really matters anymore. Catholics on the other hand have a "pro-life ethic" which means that they look at it all, social justice, the environment, refugees, racial discrimination, education - and by and large end up in a different place. They are bound by a majority of issues together, evangelicals by one issue that is more important than all.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Evangelical Lethargy

Why is it so hard to get evangelicals to simply love people without pretense?

Notice I said "evangelicals" rather than Christians. As evangelicalism became a movement, it became a label that means so many things beyond (or in conflict with) the term "Christian". The fact that "evangelicals" have become a voting block seems to officially deem the term as dead with regards to its original meaning.

In any case, I've found it interesting that, as I've become involved with refugee resettlement initiatives in Northwest Arkansas, evangelical churches have been some of the most difficult to work with. That is, so far, they're among the least likely to get involved and have the most questions not related to logistics or practical matters. They have the most "spiritual" objections.

The most oft-stated area of concern is the non-proselytizing clause, though I'm loath to say it is really the primary issue. In any case, that non-proselytizing clause (which originates form the U.S. State Department) has been the number one stated reason for saying, "We don't think this best fits our mission at this time," or similar phrases. Here's what I find uncomfortable about this:
  • Despite the frequent blurring and blending of the two, evangelism and proselytism are not the same. Rather than explain the differences myself, you can read a brief synopsis or a more complete description for yourself.
  • Most people I know who are part of churches, evangelical or otherwise, don't really share their faith anyway. Few people talk about it with their non-believing neighbors, colleagues, etc. I make no judgement on these people; I'm just stating a reality. To somehow reject caring for refugees for this reason seems to hint at pretext rather than authenticity.
  • I don't see that the Bible ever makes sharing the gospel a prerequisite for loving someone tangibly. The parable of the Good Samaritan certainly doesn't. Many miraculous healings don't mention it, and after some healings (e.g. this healing of ten lepers), only one person actually heard more of the message (that we know of, at least). I'm not saying that the gospel and service should be separate, but the Bible seems to say that the only prerequisite for helping someone is that they are human.
  • Many people from these churches are interested and even excited, but it the pastor or mission board or some other governing body ends up shooting down the idea. It seems these people should be the most aware of the distinctions between evangelism and proselytism.

As I said, it sometimes seems like the non-proselytizing clause is a pretext for the real reason, but I'm not sure what that real reason would be. It sometimes feels as if the real reason might be related to the other churches that are participating, namely, mainline denominations, often of a more liberal orientation. I understand not wanting to affirm a theology that conflicts with your own, but when (a) the operating organization is a non-religious, interdenominational non-profit, (b) the goal is to help those in need, and (c) participating groups don't have to work with other groups, I simply don't understand how that could be a barrier.

So, I'm left with the question I began with: Why is it so hard to get evangelicals to simply love people without pretense?

As a side note, could it be one of these reasons?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Food and Covering

I've long wondered about the passage in 1st Timothy that reads, "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content."

I was thinking about this a few months ago, mostly because I was wondering why paying my mortgage was always my biggest concern next to food. How can I simply be content with food and clothing? Don't I need a roof over my head, especially in the winter? (That said, the recent heat makes be incredibly thankful for a home with air conditioning as well.)

Then it came to me: I will always have shelter.

Let me give that thought a bit more teeth. Whether a Christian is single or married, with or without a family, if that person is in community, if they are in the fellowship of believers, they should never be worried about shelter. Every Christian should be willing to open their homes to others in need. Perhaps not permanently, but at least for a time. Every Christian should be able to rest in faith that their brothers and sisters would take them in if need be.

If the same situation does not exist for you, something's wrong, either with you or your community.

I'm not saying Christians can be lazy and not work. I'm not saying Christians can just bum off other Christians. But if brothers or sisters fall on hard times, they should never fear being without shelter. Even if they lose their homes due to their own mistakes. (Help them learn from their mistakes.) Even if they lose homes because of sin. (Help them repent and move toward righteousness). A Christian in community should not be left alone in the dark.

Is this really what 1st Timothy 6:8 means? I'm not absolutely sure of that, but it doesn't seem far off. And it has lightened my load considerably for the past few months.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Houston: Take-Aways

This isn't Amos, but it is in Houston.

So, last weekend and early last week was the final time (to our knowledge) that Amos will need to go to Houston for medical-related reasons. There were a few take-aways, mostly positive.
  • The neuropsych evaluation revealed no abnormal or delayed development. That isn't to say that he won't in the future, but up to now, we have a lot to be thankful for.
  • There have been no observed seizures since he went on medication the on the day following his first seizure, so there have been only two recorded seizures. His VEEG on Tuesday, however, revealed sub-clinical seizure activity in his brain. In the near future this means that he'll either need an increased dosage of his present medication or a second anti-seizure medication. I'm glad it was caught early.
  • In the intermediate-to-distant future there will be no return to China. We had been considering weaning Amos off his medication, as he hasn't had a seizure for more than two and a half years, but after the aforementioned VEEG, that plan is kaput. Unless Chinese treatment for this disorder improves dramatically, we face the reality that we must stay in the U.S. in an ongoing struggle to control what can't be cured.
  • As per FDA requirements with regards to Amos's medication, Amos has had to see a optometrist every three months. That requirement has been lifted, which makes for two or three fewer optometrist appointments per year. More to be thankful for!
  • I'm simply glad that I don't have to drive in Houston traffic again until I choose to do so. We spent something like 80 minutes on the 17 mile-drive on I-610. I won't miss that.
So that's about it. Goodbye, Houston. We appreciate the wrok of many doctors and techs, and we are forever grateful to friends who've helped us with home-stays and such, but I won't miss the long drives and long days.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Plea for Healthy Self-Skepticism

I've been thinking a lot about public discourse (or lack thereof) in the U.S. I've been thinking about how communication occurs in public, specifically on social media and news talk shows, by common folk, pundits, commentators, politicians, etc. I feel like all I see, hear, and read are people talking past one another. Words are coming out of people's mouths and keyboards, but little communication is happening.

I posted this on Facebook more than 16 months ago, right before going into a yearlong self-imposed Facebook exile:

I simply have difficulty being quiet when anyone (from either end of the social or political spectrum) makes complicated issues seem overly simple. It is difficult for me to hold my tongue when people make it seem as if they have a perfect understanding or perfect interpretation of things that really can’t really be understood or interpreted in neat little boxes. When we try to make complicated ideas seem simple and clear, we posit people of opposing (but potentially valid) ideas as fools, forces of evil, or run-of-the-mill assholes. Most aren't. Most are people who simply understand and interpret life differently. 
Most of my diatribes on Facebook or elsewhere come down to this: Things are complicated and people need to get it into their heads that these issues are not easy, nor are they clear. People of opposing views may be in error or they may not be, but they have ideas that are worth considering and are usually also well reasoned. To put it another way, people of opposing views may be wrong, but we don't have to dismiss them as idiots or jerks. I simply hope that people can start to have dialogue without being so damn sure of themselves all the time. 
To this end I pose questions. To this end I add contrary bits of information and opposing ideas. Do I have firm stances on some of these political and social issues? Sometimes. But, I'm not about to think I'm an expert or have expert knowledge enough to understand all these things clearly. For that matter, even honest-to-goodness experts don’t have completely clear pictures. This is what I hope other people learn as well, on this issue and almost any other divisive issue out there. Have some damn humility and understand that you don’t understand everything (and probably less than you think you do). I know I don't.
This thought catches my eye: "I simply hope that people can start to have dialogue without being so damn sure of themselves all the time." One of the major problems, as I see it, is that people lack a healthy self-skepticism. That is, whatever the reason (e.g. denial, pride, shame, fear, lack of awareness, embarrassment, machismo, ignorance, etc.), people are unwilling and/or unable to understand and/or admit that they don't know everything.

This poisons everything.

Go ahead. Doubt yourself a little. It's good for you.

I just like this picture. Isn't it cute!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Speaking One's Mind? Really?

I agree with speaking one's mind. I believe in being able to express one's opinion. I believe in freedom of religion, speech, the press, and so forth. I have known the 1st Amendment by heart ever since I had to memorize it as an 18-year-old journalism student. To limit people's freedom of speech is not only unconstitutional, but also dangerous.

I also believe that people must take responsibility for what they say, and that we can and should hold others accountable for their words. Not that there's no forgiveness, but that there's accountability.

Therefore, it has long bothered me that “speaking one's mind” is used like a get-out-of-jail-free card that people can play whenever they want to express intentionally offensive or hurtful remarks or when others seek to justify that person's remarks. As if a person doesn't have to be responsible or respectful as long as they are “speaking their minds”. As if accountability is irrelevant as long as a people are "speaking their minds". That's not only illogical, it's also antisocial.

Speaking one's mind, as far as I can tell, should mean that one is able and willing to express unpopular ideas. There are situations when speaking one's mind is just that. For example, if colleagues have one opinion of a supervisor, but you have another. Or when people are ignorant of or blatantly ignoring an elephant in a room. If everyone in your company insists that there is no ongoing sexual discrimination, but you know or believe that there is, it behooves you to speak your mind rather than let injustice persist.

Then there are ways to speak one's mind that are quite socially inappropriate. It is inappropriate, not to mention illegal, to slander someone. It is inappropriate to someone bully someone. Yes, insulting people could be a way to speak one's mind, but it doesn't mean we should simply accept it. That doesn't mean we should excuse it. It certainly doesn't mean that we should praise that person for their willingness to speak their minds, ignoring the actual messages they express.

And here's the ugly reality: We only think it's speaking one's mind when we are not the ones personally insulted. We can say someone is simply speaking their mind when they are calling people of other countries "rapists" or when they are insulting people of a different religion than our own. However, it doesn't seem so acceptable when it is directed towards our own demographic groups.

What if Obama said, “Christians are a bunch of ignorant, uneducated fools.” Is that just him speaking his mind?

What if Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama quipped, "White American men are redneck, sexist pigs." Is that just her speaking her mind?

What if Paul Ryan remarked, “Divorced women are hard-to-please gold diggers who don't know how to properly take care of their husbands.” Is that just him speaking his mind?

What if Richard Dawkins stated, "Jesus was a clearly a pedophile. He always wanted the children to come to him so that he could 'bless' them. We know what he really wanted." Is that just him speaking his mind?

Or, are these four examples simply remarks that would be promoting ignorant stereotypes? Trying to intentionally stoke anger? Outright race/gender/religion baiting?

I think my worst fear is that I might actually have to answer that rhetorical question.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Crowd Theory and Social Media

The past few weeks have seen the passing of the both Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Many excellent speeches were made at both, regardless of whether I agreed with all, some, or none of the content.

But it got me thinking about what really goes into an excellent speech. (I'll give you a hint: It's not logic.) See this humorous compilation of examples from the RNC or this example from the DNC. (It's too soon for a compilation from the DNC. Maybe later.) UPDATE (Aug 2): Here is a compilation from the DNC (but it also contains an impassioned appeal against Trump).

Have any of you ever read about crowd theory? Probably not many of you have read Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd. It's an old book but still quite interesting. In it, Le Bon writes:
The characteristics of the reasoning crowds are the association of dissimilar things possessing a merely apparent connection between each other, and the immediate generalization of particular cases. It is arguments of this kind that are always presented to crowds by those who know how to manage them. They are the only arguments by which crowds are to be influenced. A chain of logical argumentation is totally incomprehensible to crowds, and for this reason it is permissible to say that they do not reason or that they reason falsely and are not to be influenced by reasoning. Astonishment is felt at times on reading certain speeches at their weakness, and yet they had an enormous influence of the crowds which listened to them, but it is forgotten that they were intended to persuade collectivities and not to be read by philosophers. An orator in intimate communication with a crowd can evoke images by which it will be seduced. If he is successful his object has been obtained, and twenty volumes of harangues -- always the outcome of reflection -- are not worth the few phrases which appealed to the brain it was required to convince.
Obviously this is just a snippet. Hopefully the ideas, divorced from the context as they are, still make sense. (As I know the book and the context, sometimes it is hard to know if the ideas presented are clear to the uninitiated.)

Then I got to thinking beyond the speeches. What about social media, a.k.a. internet 2.0?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the whole lot of them are essentially large crowds. Memes (images divorced from reasoning) rule the day. We're constantly trolling for likes from those in agreement with us and ganging up on those that don't. We so quickly descend into personal insults and labels and cliches rather than truly engaging in reasoning.

Could it be that social media, rather than bring about a more educated populace, has simply helped us create mobs and coalitions, resistant to reflection, rejecting true thought?

It's an idea.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stop Complaining and Engage!

Two things of which there is no shortage in this election season: complaining and blaming.

Two things that never really solve a problem: complaining and blaming.

This morning I mentioned to a Chinese friend that I've been watching (and now just listening to) Rage Against The Machine's "Sleep Now in the Fire" on repeat for two days now. (You can see the video below.) He replied that it seemed a bit out of character for someone who loves the blues so much. I explained as follows:

I've been known to call myself a "Punk Rock Christian". Meaning, if faith is not going to shake up your way of looking at the world and what it means to be part of the solution, it's kind of useless and just a feel-good belief. I have a lot of the same anger that a lot of people like Rage Against The Machine do, but I try to channel that into more productive ends.
I don't understand how anyone of faith can look at this world and just decide to sit on the sidelines watching TV and enjoying life. Jesus meant Christians to be forces of good, not members of the status quo. Jesus meant for his followers to engage their cultures. With so much injustice, so much pain, so much evil, how can Christians sit idly by? There is a thing called righteous anger, after all.

But complaining and blaming (online or otherwise) is not what Jesus had in mind.

All Christians are supposed to share the gospel, so I'm going to take that as a given (though I shouldn't). But what else are you doing? Do you not see pain around you? Do you not see a cause to take up? I don't care what it is. Help starving children. Help refugees. Demand equal pay for equal work. Defend black lives and livelihoods. Labor for respect for the homeless. Bring neighborhoods together. Sacrifice yourself for something and someone that doesn't directly benefit yourself, your family, or your friends.


Shake up this world order. Shake up the status quo.

Jesus was holy, but when he engaged society, he was considered a renegade, a "punk", by the powers that be. What makes you think it would be any different now?

Basically Why I Am Against Open Carry

I have a problem with open carry.

Before you get all bent out of shape, hear me out. I'm not trying to discriminate against you, nor am I trying to remove all guns from the public sphere. In fact, I have no problem with concealed carry. I'm simply not on board with open carry.

Here's the situation as I and many others see it. You may be a completely honest law abiding man or woman. You may be the kind of person that would never hurt anyone. You may carry a gun because you sincerely want to serve and protect the public. But there's still a problem: I don't know that.

I don't know you. I don't know if you intend ill or harm. I don't know if you are or are not mentally balanced. I don't know if you're a disgruntled ex-employee or a jilted lover set on revenge. I don't know if you're a well-trained gun handler or an idiot with a gun. I don't know if you know your child or dog happened to inadvertently turn of the safety on your weapon. I don't know anything about you.

And you expect me to be comfortable with that?

It is rational for people to feel uncomfortable in the presence of a weapon. Should they or shouldn't they? Irrelevant. That fact is that many (perhaps most) do for very understandable reasons. Is your desire to carry a weapon openly so important that putting people on edge is acceptable to you? Is concealing a weapon such an ugly prospect. Go ahead. Have your gun. Just let the rest of us ignore that. You know you're protected and that you can protect others. Isn't that enough? Have you any empathy at all?

A few questions:

  • Do have any conflicting feelings when looking at these two pictures?

  • Would you feel completely at ease if you saw people you thought were Muslims with this cache in your favorite restaurant?

  • Would you feel absolutely comfortable if someone who looked like this walked into your business? Or these gentlemen?

  • Or is open carry only for white folk?
Think carefully before you answer. Are you absolutely sure that open carry FOR EVERYONE is something you support? Do you really think that no one should feel uncomfortable?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Dewey Plan, Part 1

Let’s say we have a fictional company called Gibralter Cups, Inc. This fictional small company, which produces custom printed cups, is fairly small, but they have had a profitable year. The company has 25 employees, and all have been at the company for at least one year, and have done well on their annual performance reviews. The monthly payroll at present is $100,000/month and works out as you see below.

Now, let’s say that, as the company has been profitable, the leadership decides to reward its staff by increasing the payroll by 3%. That is, the payroll in going to increase from $100,000.00 to $103,000.00. This is a raise not given on individual merit, but rather based on company-wide performance. Traditionally, such raises would be applied as you see below.

That’s the traditional breakdown, but is it the only way to divide the 3% payroll increase equitably and fairly?

The Dewey Plan

I want to describe an alternate concept; I call it “The Dewey Plan”, named after the guy from whom I heard the idea. I have no idea if he heard it from someone else or thought of it himself. For all I know, there is a formal name for the distribution I’m about to describe, but I don’t know it. I take no credit for this idea at all; I'm just putting the ideas out there.

First, a metaphor:
When an NFL team wins the Superbowl (e.g. the 2015 Denver Broncos), an MVP is chosen (e.g. Von Miller). The MVP gets an individual trophy and usually a car. (Von Miller didn’t get one.) This is an individual accolade for an individual who performed outstandingly.

The team members, however, each get a Superbowl ring. It doesn’t matter who the individual is; each player gets the same ring. Von Miller doesn’t get more or bigger diamonds because he was the MVP. The player who played one minute of the Superbowl gets the same ring as a player that played every minute of offense (or defense). The player on injured reserve who did not play in a single playoff game will get the same ring as the player that played every game. It's recognition that every player had a role to play in successfully getting the team through the season, the playoffs, and the Superbowl.

Back to our company:
If a company is going to reward the entire staff by increasing payroll by 3%, why does each person need to make 3% more? Couldn’t each member of the staff be rewarded with a raise of equal amount rather than an equal percentage? Why couldn’t the post-raise increase use this formula: $3000 / 25 = $120? Why couldn’t the new salary schedule look like this instead?

Is there anything objectionable about this? Are there any benefits to such a plan? I'll cover a few of those in the next post. For now, muse on the information as it is.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tornado Time: North vs. South

I grew up in the relative north (compared to Arkansas): Nebraska. I remember scores of tornado warnings and citywide sirens blaring during tornado season. I had classmates whose homes were destroyed. My high school's roof was damaged by a very weak tornado just before my freshmen year, leading to very interesting classroom assignments in that fall term.

Yet, I also remember being way more comfortable during tornado season than I do here in the South.

In Nebraska, we always had basements, and I usually slept in the basement (three of four houses I lived in). Growing up, a tornado warning basically meant watching TV in the basement. That's it. Only once or twice did we actually get under the stairs or other cover.

Not so, here.

Here in NW Arkansas, there are few basements. Where my father lives in North Texas, there are also few basements. I hear that in Oklahoma, the state with the highest ratio of tornadoes to land area, there are also few basements, though many do have storm cellars.

So, twice this spring we've ended up in the bathtub. Just sitting there. Singing or generally trying to lighten the mood. Uncomfortable. Cramped. Four of us. And for some reason, in our neighborhood I have yet to hear tornado sirens. Our phones have been our only lifelines.

Give me a Nebraska tornado warning any day.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Worship Experience or Concert?

Hurry to reserve you seat for a unique worship experience!

A few days ago I received an email in my promotions inbox. It was a mailing from a band whose mailing list I subscribe to. The band plays mostly worship songs. The email read something like this: “Come to (such-and-such a place) on (such-and-such a date) for a unique worship experience.” Change the location, change the date change, the adjective from “unique” to “powerful” or “intimate” or “impactful” or your adjective of choice, and you'll get an advertisement similar to hundreds of others that are put out every year.

Although I still in many ways blame Third Day and their worship album as the album that stunted the growth of what is often called “Christian music”, I would never fault bands for playing the kind of music they want to play or for playing the kind of music that helps them earn a living. I am sure that many, perhaps even most of these musicians really do want to play music that is worshipful. I think that many even worship every time they perform. These bands definitely produce a lot of really good music. I wish, however, that we could simply be honest when it comes to events like these.

Jesus described true worship as something that is done in spirit and truth. Great instrumentation, a great stage show, lights, fog machines and the like—none of these are central to worship, nor, I suggest, do they actually increase listeners’ worshipfulness. Music has always moved people. Music has always been a most emotional art. What's really going on here? It's a concert. It's simply that.

Whether it's the David Crowder Band or Third Day or Hillsong or some other worship-song-producing band, I wish we could just be honest and say we like listening to their music. We like singing their songs. We're most likely not going to the show because it's an especially good time of worship, although some people may actually worshipping.

In reality we often just like the music and want to see a good live show, just like anyone who goes to see any other musician. Let me suggest, also, that if people find they can “worship” better or more powerfully at these events, they may be confusing emotional arousal with sincere worship. They are not only not the same, they are light years apart.

Can we be honest? Just admit you like the music (assuming you are of the Christian worship persuasion), and if you're just excited about seeing a band, say that.

By the way, to my knowledge picture at the top is just a guy playing violin and singing.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Sad State of Great Healthcare

"We all know the U.S. has the best medical treatments, but only if you have a lot of money"

That is my best attempt at remembering a quote from a German colleague years ago in Changsha. I'm sure I didn't get the quote word-for-word, but you get the gist. Does the U.S. have state-of-the-art medical facilities and doctors and treatments? Absolutely. But, it comes at a price. A steep price.

A week or two ago I was discussing healthcare with a Turkish colleague and her husband, who is himself an occasional colleague. The original topic was the cost of childbirth in the U.S. For the most part, they spoke well of their experience, but they also spoke of the surprises, the charges for tests that were extra, charges that would never have been considered extra back in Turkey. This led us into a conversation (rant) about the state of the U.S. healthcare system in general.

What the hell is wrong with the U.S.? That was the basic sentiment of our conversation. From their experiences abroad, from my experiences abroad, from our experiences with people whose countries have socialized (or relatively socialized) medicine, we just cannot fathom why so much of the U.S. population rejects the idea out of hand. Are those other systems perfect? By no means. But, neither are they evil.

I know many of the objections. The U.S. is bigger than those other countries, so it is much more difficult to do. People will need to wait for care. There will be rationing of treatments. Patients will not be able to choose their own doctors. Medical research will stagnate. Taxes will go up. Do you know who cares about questions like these? The wealthy and those with good insurance. (I separate the two because the truly wealthy have no need of health insurance, but rather can pay out of pocket.)

Here's the thing. I have health insurance for my wife and myself through my employer. There are three insurance options and only one that I can afford, so when someone tells me, "You could have chosen the better plan," I say, "The hell I could!" Already I pay 11.4% of my gross income to the insurance company. The deductible is so high that it could use up to and additional 10.8%. That makes for a possible expenditure of 22.2% for healthcare for a person WITH insurance. And that doesn't include dental (for example, the wisdom tooth extraction my wife recently required, costing more than $600 when all was said and done). How many lower middle class families (not to mention the poor) can realistically afford to spend more than a fifth of their income on healthcare?

There's the rub. All of my colleagues and I have health insurance, but that doesn't mean much. I have had a pain somewhere within my lower torso for more than two weeks. One Sunday it was so bad that I could barely walk. Have I gone to the doctor? Nope. I can't afford it. My colleague spoke of how in Turkey she would take her child to a doctor a second time to make sure he was well before sending him back to school (and possibly making other kids sick). Here, she can't afford to do that, so off he goes back to school. Good luck, kids! I know many in the same situations. Do we care about doctor choice? Do we care about high tech treatment? Do we care about taxes? Many of us would simply like to be able to see a doctor. Any doctor!

People worry about taxes, but that's not the majority. How do I know this? Because according to government statistics, my family's income is WAY less than average, but it's also WAY more than the median. For those of you not statistically knowledgeable, median refers to the middle point, which means that half are above the median and half are below. Therefore, WAY more than half of the families in this country make less money than we do. Do I worry about the taxes that come with universal healthcare? Absolutely not. There's no way it would surpass the burden I have now with insurance premiums and deductibles. I'd come out ahead, as would most of the U.S.

I like U.S. healthcare. I like the fact that my son can get treatments here that were not available to him in China. I appreciate that the government foots his medical bills because the Lord knows how many doctors he sees and how much his meds cost each month. I fully recognize that were he stuck with the Chinese medical system, he would be severely handicapped or dead right now. So, don't hear me saying that I hate everything about the U.S. medical system. I do not.

The U.S. has a great medical system, but only for those who can pay for it (which is a minority of the population but probably a majority of the politically active) or for those with diagnoses like my son's, whose insurance the government pays for. I refuse to believe that the U.S. lacks the intelligence to figure out a system than can help the well-off and downtrodden alike, not to mention the very squeezed middle class. On the contrary, we lack the will. Those in power and with influence lack compassion. The insurance industry has to much money in politics. Corruption. Of both the heart and pocketbooks.

Is universal healthcare the best answer? Maybe or maybe not. Nevertheless, something has to be done, and I see no one with any plans (other than Bernie) to actually address the needs of most in this country, not just their electorate and political donors.

Right now, even with "Obamacare", we're already paying a steep price: The lives of hundreds of millions (not an exaggeration) who lack adequate access to healthcare. As long as the status quo remains., America will not be great.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Today I voted for Rubio. Here's why.

I'm a registered voter, but I'm not affiliated with any political party. I assumed I would not be able to vote in either party's primary today, butI was pleasantly surprised to find out that in Arkansas I could choose to vote in either primary, Republican or Democrat. I chose Republican, and I voted for Rubio. This is why:

First, I live in Arkansas. The Democratic race for the nomination is a lost cause. Hillary will obviously take this state, so there was no reason for me to vote in that primary, regardless who I would support.

Second, Rubio is not my choice of Republican nominee. Of the candidates left, if I were to actually vote for a Republican that I would potentially support, it would have been Kasich. He, however, seems to have no chance.

I voted for Rubio for one reason and one reason only: to stop Trump and Cruz.

Trump... Cruz... Repulsive candidates. Trumps a good businessman. Cruz might be a good dictator. Neither would be good for this country. I voted to stop them, not to support Rubio.

It's sad, really.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What we assume that just ain't so (not always, anyway)

What cultural assumption inform your reaction to this photo?

I find it interesting that my workplace is among the most diverse in Arkansas. I don't have statistics to prove this, but the fact that I have colleagues from four different countries (EXcluding the US) and that most of the teaching staff has lived for varying amounts of time out of the US, I think I can safely make that assumption. In addition, everyday we work with only international students, so we have a pretty international worldview as far as US workplaces are concerned.

Yet, I'm often amused (and occasionally disappointed) by how Western and distinctly American is our advice to students. Many a time I've sat in my office listening to an instructor give life advice to a student that has caused me to think, "But that's so outside what they would see as cultural accurate or appropriate!" In any culture, we are often blind to the assumptions that we have about life, about what is most valuable and desirable. Evidently, even those with cross-cultural experience often fail to note it.

 Yesterday I was reading the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services Refugee Co-sponsorship Guide. In it was this list of characteristic descriptors of US culture. I thought it was a good, accurate list.

  • A belief in rugged individualism where people see themselves as independent and autonomous, rather than integrally related to a family unit or ethnic group
  • A system whereby positions and material resources are given as rewards for personal achievement, not based on need
  • A concern for efficiency and for solving problems in a pragmatic way, regardless of personal feelings
  • A limited need for privacy, other than physical privacy
  • A preference for separation of the elderly from the rest of society
  • An acceptance of displays of affection in public
  • An expectation that families will often be separated by long distances
  • A lack of acceptance of the world as it is and strong efforts to change it
  • A view that mental, managerial, and scientific labor is inherently superior to manual and service-oriented labor
  • A rational worldview where events can be explained and reasons for particular occurrences can be determined, rather than a belief in fate
  • A confidence that people with opposing viewpoints can be faced directly and intentionally confronted
  • A social order where the primary motivation is competition rather than cooperation

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Once They are Here

Obviously, there's been a lot of talk about refugees in recent days. Specifically it's the Syrian refugee crisis that has been dominating headlines. I understand people's fears. I understand people's concerns. Safety. Way of life. Expense. I've heard these concerns and more. I understand why people are encouraging their senators and representatives, trying to halt the flow. Whether I agree or not, I understand.

But, here's my question: What should our response be once they are here?

I don't mean Syrians specifically. I mean refugees. ...including Syrians and others from "suspicious areas". Once they're here, how should we respond?

I'm not sure what the general population thinks, but I think I know how Jesus thinks:
  • The "good Samaritan" dared to help someone, putting himself at personal risk. (It could've been a trap. The robbers may have been lurking nearby.) This is "being a neighbor". I should likewise help others, even if it may endanger myself.
  • I've heard people complain that "those people" want to hurt us. That they are our enemies. But Jesus said, "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)." Guess what! You can't love people without getting involved! That's right! Engage the enemy... with LOVE!
  • Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who were literally killing him. And I mean literally in the literal sense, not the ironic sense. If he can do that, and if I'm supposed to follow his lead... Oh, my goodness...
  • Jesus said that perfect love casts out fear. If I have no fear before God, I ought have no fear before man. "So we can confidently say, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?' (Hebrews 13:6 ESV) What, indeed?
  • And if I do fear?
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:6-11 ESV) 

  • And this...
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’(Matthew 25:34-40 ESV)” 
I think Jesus would say, "Welcome them. Welcome them into your communities. Welcome them into your homes. Love them. Help them. Be light to them." I see in Jesus no other response but this.

We may disagree with our federal government. We may assert that our leaders are foolish and irresponsible for letting certain people into this country. Maybe it truly is in the best interest of the country to exclude certain kinds of refugees. In that, perhaps it is okay to put our country first.

Be that as it may, can we at least agree that once refugees arrive, one they are here, once they are in our neighborhoods and communities, our hearts and lives must be guided by a higher authority and higher values than patriotism and safety?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

About a Beer (and the Absurd)

Last Friday night, as my family and our exchange student were returning home, we stopped at the local Walmart Neighborhood Market. I wanted to buy some bitters and cherries, Liao Sha wanted to buy toothpaste, and our exchange student needed some contact solution. While there, I decided to grab some cheap beer.

We arrived at the checkout line together. I was asked for ID, which I'm used to. The cashier than asked for Liao Sha's ID, which she provided. Our exchange student is underage (as you would expect of a high school student), so the cashier refused to sell me the beer. She even put it under the register, where I couldn't access it.

Eventually, the manager sold it to me without a problem. Yet, I left with an odd dissonance: In China, parents can send their kids to the neighborhood market to buy beer (or stronger). In the US, I couldn't buy it because not everyone I was with, someone who really could theoretically be my daughter, was 21. Isn't there a happy medium somewhere?

Two observations:
  1. Sin affects everyone. Breaking laws just because you want to is, in fact, sinful. If young people would simply be willing to follow the law, there would be no qualms about selling alcohol to a 37 year old man. If people did not buy alcohol for underaged young people, there also would have been nary a second thought about whether to sell the beer to me. As it is, because people are rebellious, others have to suffer.
  2. Broken community leads to distrust. In China, most people know their community shop people well. You know the corner grocery people, and they know you. You know their kids, and they know yours. People know one another. There's little danger of selling a 7-year-old a bottle of beer for his dad when the seller knows the child and the father. One way or another, the truth will come out quickly if it's not legit.
I expect Chinese society will become more restrictive in the future. In the US, I assume we'll continue to reside in absurdity.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do you see segregation in this photo? I do.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons license.

"The most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday morning."

Have you heard this? I have. I suppose the meaning is that people tend to go to church with people of their same backgrounds, be it a national background, a racial background, or what have you. Given that I go to a Chinese church with few non-Chinese, it's obviously not any empty sentiment.

Nevertheless, I don't think it's true. That is, it may be true in the racial or ethnic sense, but that's not the only kind of segregation. In fact, segregation happens anytime we force others to be separated from people who are different from themselves. When we think of the biases that exist, we think of sexism, racism, classism, and a few others. Too often, however, we ignore age.

In my opinion the most segregated time of the week is Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 3:00 (or thereabouts). We call it elementary school, middle school, and high school. We call it 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. Here we force children, for many hours every day, to be with other children of approximately the same age, give or take a few months. We enforce this segregation as if kids have nothing to learn from those older than themselves or younger than themselves, as if they have no skills to develop by interacting with students who are older or younger than themselves. And this despite the fact that children have primarily interacted in mixed-age groups throughout history, pretty much up until this Prussian experiment we call the public school system.

We force upon our children an unnatural division as if all students of a given age are supposed to hit the same milestones at exactly the same time, as if they can't be inspired by those older than themselves, as if the can't learn empathy and compassion and capacity to nurture others by being with those younger than themselves. What's the most segregated place in America? The public schools. It always has been. Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka legally destroyed institutionally approved segregation of schools by race. I fear it's merely wishful thinking to image a similar ruling based on age.

There are many kinds of bias and discrimination. There are many ways that we, as humans, segregate ourselves. In almost every case, these discriminations and segregations bring about primarily negative results. It's time we rethink what we think we know about public education. It's time to reevaluate how we segregate children from one another. In a world where young people are increasingly only amongst peers, 24 hours a day (thank you, social media),  it's time to rethink and recognize the value of students mixing with those of a variety of ages.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Immigration and Icky Thump

A photo posted by derek webb (@derekwebb) on

I know a little about my family history. I know a little about American history. I know that, although we call them immigrants, many of my relatives, perhaps most, were refugees. There were religious refugees that fled persecution from the Church of England. Others fled economic hardship in Germany only to face unwelcoming 19th century Americans who were suspicious of their strange religions (Lutheranism and Catholicism), worried that they would take American jobs, and concerned that they didn't want to assimilate into greater US culture, as evidenced by their German-language schools, newspapers, etc.

That was just my family. Similar stories can be read about the Irish, the Chinese and many other groups. Suspicion and animosity toward immigrants is by no means a new phenomenon.

I suppose this is what I don't understand: Is timing really that important? What makes a refugee from 400 years ago or 200 years ago more palatable than a refugee today? What makes today's immigrants less tolerable than the immigrants of the past, whom we proudly call "family"? Are we just doomed to repeat the same sins of our forefathers and foremothers?

In the words of Jack White:
Well, Americans,
What, nothin' better to do?
Why don't you kick yourself out?
You're an immigrant, too.
Have a listen. It's a good song:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

If we're going to discuss guns, can we at least discuss relevant questions?

My family is hosting an exchange student. She goes to the local Christian School. Two days ago she remarked that they discuss guns in the United States in her social studies/history class. I applaud the teacher for raising that topic with the students. It's a very timely topic, and students need to develop the ability to discuss contemporary issues within a historical context, and vice versa.

According to our exchange student, however, when it came time for the students to discuss the issue, the question was simply framed as whether we should or shouldn’t have guns. Admittedly, her English is still sub-par, so this may not be completely accurate. Nevertheless, if it is accurate, it disappointed me tremendously, as it’s completely the wrong question.

Problem 1: The question in extremely simplistic.
This is not an either-or issue. There are a vast range of opinions and possible positions. To put the question in such simplistic terms is divisive, and it is demeaning to people’s intelligence.

Problem 2: Having or not having guns is completely irrelevant.
The Second Amendment in the US Bill of Rights guarantees that the people of the United States, in general, have the right to own firearms. That is something that is not and cannot be debated, so it isn't really a valid question. People who frame the question in such a way do a disservice to the whole discussion.

That said, the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own firearms. But, it says nothing about how that right is supposed to be managed. Management questions are the questions that require discussion at this time in history.

  • Who should (or shouldn’t) have the right to bear arms?
  • What qualifications do people need to own firearms?
  • Should training be mandatory?
  • When should that right be revoked for an individual or group?
  • When and how should guns be taken away from specific individuals or groups?
  • Who should be able to sell firearms?
  • What kind of licenses should they be required to obtain?

These and other questions like these are the questions that could be discussed, that would be relevant to the issue. Unfortunately, it seems that none of these were discussed in the class, unless other students mentioned them.

Problem 3: Where was Christ in this conversation?
This may not be relevant to many in the US population. It would probably not be relevant in a public high school class. In a Christian school, however, should not the question of faith come into the conversation? Should it not be an essential part of the conversation? How about asking a question like one of these:

  • Given what you know about the teachings of the Bible, what do you think would be a Christian response to gun ownership?
  • If Jesus were physically with us in class today, what do you think he would say about gun ownership?
  • Forgetting your US Constitutional rights for the moment, what do you think might be a biblical view of gun ownership?

If a parent is sending a child or children to a Christian school, it would seem that they want their children to have a Christian worldview. If the teachers are not even going to ask these kinds of questions on this issue (and many others), students won’t end up with a Christian approach to life and thought. Rather, they end up with what Darrow Miller has called Evangelical Gnosticism, which is more of a sickness than a worldview.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Communion Questions

There are some things I've never really understood about what we call “communion” in protestant churches. Or any churches really.

Before I write this, let me say I'm not necessarily criticizing any church or their practices. I'm not saying that they are doing communion wrong. The Bible says very little about how the Lord’s Table is supposed to be done, but there are a few things that I notice, which causes me to ask questions.

Question 1: Why do we have little crackers and little cups (or even broken bread and a common cup) in the middle of a service?

The Last Supper, as it’s known, when Jesus did the first “communion”, was a meal. To be specific, the ritual was performed at the end of a meal, a Passover meal.

Later, in 1st Corinthians, Paul describes the Lord's Table, what we today refer to as “communion” in church. What he describes is again something in the context of a meal. Essentially it's a huge pot luck.

I'm not going to discuss communion theology or the economic status issue of Corinth. But, I do observe that the examples of the Lord’s Table are parts of meals. I get that if a church has 300, 400, or 500 people, the logistics of having a meal-based Lord’s Supper for everyone would be daunting to say the least. I don't know how that would ever be done with regularity. However, in a small church with 40, 50 or 60 people, possibly even more, especially if that church already has a regular meal, I'm not sure why the Lord’s Table wouldn't be done at the time. If the bible describes a meal, why not have a meal? Again this just a question.

Question 2: Why do churches put such a premium on only allowing Christians (or baptized Christians) to participate?

Something I notice in the first Lord's Supper, is that Judas participated. Jesus freely included him. I don't think we today would consider him to be a Christian in good standing.

Later, in first Corinthians, Paul describes those who eat and drink in an unworthy manner to be eating and drinking judgment to themselves. Now to be sure, I think it's good to not take the Lord's Table if you are eating and drinking to your own judgment. However, I'm not sure churches should be presenting the activity as something that only Christians can participate in. Scripture doesn't seem to bear that out. Of course, it would be good to let everyone know that the elements are not magical. They won’t bring good luck or good fortune. Nevertheless, it seems unbelievers are not prohibited from the Lord’s Table.

To conclude, again, I am NOT criticizing churches for doing what they do. I'm not telling them what they should do. The fact is that the scriptures really say very little about how the Lord's Table should look. That said, these are just questions I've always had and probably always will. I'm sure I'm not the first.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sharing More Than Life

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate the US style of dining? I hate ordering my own food, for just me, not really to be shared, not without explicit permission anyhow. It's just so... limiting. Usually I just randomly pick something when a server asks.

One of the greatest joys of eating out, as I learned in China, is being able to sample a variety of flavors I might not otherwise experience. In China, by and large, dishes are ordered to be shared, not hoarded. Two people eating out? Order and share three or four dishes. Ten people? Twelve to fifteen dishes. In a large group, each person may only get one or two bites of some dishes, but that's really all a person needs; flavors diminish after each bite anyway.

In the US, on the other hand... Order your "main dish", get your one or two "sides", and "enjoy". That's what makes eating out with friends in the US so uninteresting. Sure, I ordered catfish, but I'd love to try some of my companions' quiche, or turkey, or falafel. And surely they have interest in others' food, too.

On New Years Eve, for our 6th anniversary* celebration, Liao Sha and I went out to see the new Star Wars movie and then went to a local Mexican restaurant. I'm not really a fan of Mexican, but it was good, as far as that goes. What made the meal wonderful was that we ordered for one another. That is, we ordered food knowing, even assuming, that all would be shared. It was wonderful being able to taste many different flavors and textures. It was fun being able to order for variety. It was wonderful knowing we were sharing the experience with our tastebuds, too.

Now there are many reasons to order for oneself and oneself only. There are hygiene reasons. There are economic reasons. There are medical reasons. Nevertheless, I love that with Liao Sha, I'm not only sharing my life. We're sharing our plates, too.

* Our anniversary is not December 31st, but we were traveling on our actual anniversary, so we used an alternate opportunity.

Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year: Nothing New Under My Sun

January 1st is just so arbitrary. It's not a solstice. It's not an equinox. Without going too much into the background of the current Gregorian calendar (or the Julian calendar that preceeded it) or the history behind the exact dates of New Years Day (as it has not always been January 1st), let's just say it's an accident of history, politics, and personality.

So, what's with new year's resolutions?

I suppose January 1st is a symbolic date. It symbolizes a new start, a blank canvas, and new possibilities. I suppose it's that very symbolic nature that gives people the impression that they too can create new lives, remake old lives, or change habits heretofore unchanged. Thus, new year's resolutions.

I don't make them. I don't see the point of them. There are already so many ongoing personal projects in my life, projects that I already have too little time to complete and often too little energy to even address, projects like growing in patience and gentleness, being a better father, writing more "letters" to my children, growing a better garden, and managing time more effectively. None of these were ever "resolutions". Each was borne of a recognition of weaknesses and the need to address them.

There's nothing wrong with deciding to make changes in life. It's commendable, in fact,  and a new year is as good a time as any to do so. Somehow, however, I think people look at a new year as if it were magical.

It's not.

Making changes in life patterns is incredibly difficult. Generally speaking, one must resolutely and unreservedly sell out to those decisions. Generally, you can't just want to lose weight; you have to decide to completely change your eating habits and activity levels, permanently. Generally, you can't just want to save more money; you have to decide to completely reevaluate how and why you spend money and make non-negotiable changes in those habits. Resolutions are generally nothing more than a fleeting fancy unless they are considered non-negotiable and permanent.

How do you know if a resolution will stick? Good question. Given that only about 8% of people ever keep them, the chances aren't good.