Archive for December 2016

On Being Human in a Robot Age

On Being Human in a Robot Age
Being human is hard, and getting harder. The decision to remain human consists of hundreds of tiny choices every day. Do I put relationships first, or is it more important to complete tasks? Am I more interested in flesh-and-blood human beings, or do I prefer to deal with abstractions?

These may all sound like nebulous questions designed for an intro philosophy course in college. But for me, I’m finding that this distinction – between being people-centered or idea-centered, relationship-focused or task-focused – lies at the core of what it means to be and remain human in my daily life.

Human nature has been under siege for centuries. In industrial societies, most new wealth was created by mechanizing the power of human labor. Humans were organized into cogs in the vast industrial gearwork. We trained our reflexes to mimic those of industrial machinery. Human bodies are tamed and domesticated to serve the needs of the machine.

In 21st-century America, the mechanization of labor-intensive work – such as in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing – is practically complete. We have learned to behave like machines, achieving high efficiency at performing repetitive tasks, and even social interactions. This benefits the bottom line, producing more goods, services, and products.

But capitalism is never satisfied. By its nature, the machine must always continue to grow. In an age where the human body has been almost completely dominated by the need for domesticated efficiency, capitalism naturally seeks new outlets for its expansion.

No longer content to control our bodies, post-industrial capitalism is now busily domesticating our minds.

Let me give you a very small, perhaps silly example. This morning as I sat down to compose this blog post, I had to make a decision about a title. I knew that certain titles would be more psychologically effective than others. There are formulae for writing titles that help ensure that articles get read. If I follow them, I can expect a greater audience for my writing.

But it doesn’t stop there. The title of an article is linked to its content. If I had chosen to title this piece, “4 Reasons You’re Already Post-Human,” I would have been required to write my whole piece as a bulleted listicle. As a matter of fact, there are formulae for how blog posts should be written, too. Even now, I have a WordPress plugin warning me that my readability “needs improvement.” Any writing that can’t be easily scanned and digested without thought, any phrasing or nuance that might slow the reader down, is likely to reduce engagement, clicks, sharing.

Thus I am cajoled and pressured to mechanize my writing, my thinking – and yours.

This is how we end up with a vapid internet, saturated with fake news, celebrity gossip, and top-ten lists. It’s this mechanization of thought that threatens to transform us into unreflective cogs in an vast intellectual machine that exists to deepen profits rather than stimulate human flourishing.

Our post-industrial society is training us to be cogs rather than creators, objects rather than subjects. I notice this tendency throughout my everyday life. I’ve chosen it, as I’ve bought into the cult of personal efficiency. I keep all my tasks in an electronic to-do list. My life is managed by Google Calendar. I regularly clear my email inbox. I get things done.

Yet, there is a growing emptiness in the midst of all this efficiency. I have become so good at controlling the details and tasks of my life – so why do I feel lost and breathless? Somehow, I’ve been convinced to program myself like a machine. I myself set the timers, checklists, and goals. But the effect is the same. Each day I find myself leaping through hoops with little thought as to why. My life becomes so full, it’s mostly just stimulus and response.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ultimate goal of totalitarianism is to see every human being completely stripped of personal will and creativity. The ideal totalitarian society would consist of men and women who marched along through their daily routines, without spontaneity or joy – simply responding to commands from beyond themselves, drooling like Pavlov’s dog.

This description of total domination does not yet describe the world we live in. But it’s too close for my own comfort. I am astounded at how, even in the midst of a relatively free society, I have allowed myself to be conditioned to treat life as a series of tasks to perform. I’ve come to regard myself as an instrument for accomplishing things beyond me, rather than simply embracing myself as a unique creation of God, valuable and worthwhile in my own right.

The present social and political crisis in my country provides yet another temptation. It would be easy to tell myself that now, because we are in a time of emergency, I must place all my focus on accomplishing effective resistance to an evil regime. Yet it is precisely the growing danger of totalitarian government that has convinced me that I must root out the seeds of totalitarian thinking and behavior in my own life. How can I resist tyranny if I insist on being a tyrant to myself?

As odd as it may sound, even to me, now is a time for beauty. Now is a moment to acknowledge my own life’s joy and intrinsic value, fully apart from any work I might perform. With idolatrous and tyrannical movements on the rise, it has never been more important to bear witness to the fact that this whole life is a gift. We don’t make it, we don’t earn it, we can’t justify it with our labor. This unexpected divine grace is the foundation of all faith, and a stern rebuke to the ideologies and regimes that would domesticate our lives and mechanize our spirits.

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Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.
I like to think of myself as a man of action. Pressure brings out the best in me, and I’m good at responding to crisis. In times of confusion, I get organized.

So of course that’s how I responded when Donald Trump claimed victory in the election last month. I held meetings. I spoke out – on my blog and from the pulpit. I encrypted my whole digital life, and encouraged others to do the same. I changed my media consumption habits. I prayed.

I’ve done everything I know to do. My rapid response is complete. Now all I’m left with is the slow work of movement-building. Fostering community. Helping to lay an intellectual and spiritual groundwork for resistance to tyranny.

I’m finding that this work is a lot harder. I am quickly reaching the limits of my own knowledge. I don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s not clear what the game plan is. How do I continue to make a difference in a sustainable way?

As a husband, father, and worker, my responsibility isn’t simple. I don’t feel like it would be faithful for me to abandon my daily work, despite the urgency of the situation. And even if I did, it’s not clear to me where I would be most useful. That’s probably because, in many ways, I’m already doing what I need to be doing. I’m working for justice and peace in the context of my family, work, and the organic communities I’ve helped to grow over the past several years.

I’m reminded that Jesus lived – and died – in the midst of crisis. His homeland was ruled by a dictator on the payroll of a foreign power. There were constant rebellions and intrigue. Protest movements were put down with violence. It’s not surprising that many, including some of Jesus’ closest friends, expected him to confront the Roman Empire on its own terms – with military force.

What’s amazing about Jesus is that he was never reactive. His ministry was not determined by the plots and provocations of the Pharisees, the violence of Herod, or the cruelty of the Roman occupiers. God gave Jesus a unique ministry to carry out, independent of the schemes and expectations of the powers that be. In spite of great temptation to fight the powers on their own terms, Jesus was faithful in gathering a community whose frame of reference was God, not Caesar.

I believe that Jesus is calling me to this same type of ministry. Do you hear him calling you?

The kingdom of God is not merely another historical event. It does not arrive as a response to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or any other Caesar stand-in. Rather, the reign of God is a decisive intervention in history to heal the world. Everything else has just been a distraction.

More than any nation or ruler, Jesus is sovereign because he depends on nothing – and all things depend on him. Jesus isn’t in a hurry, and he’s not dismayed by the thrashing evil of the rulers. As his friends, we don’t need to be, either.

Stay awake. This is one of the most important commands that Jesus gives us. We need to hear and obey this command. Because the reign of God is coming like a thief in the night. It will surprise us all. There is only one way to prepare for it: Stay awake.

The good news is this: Staying awake abolishes the fear and confusion that so many of us are feeling right now. To stay awake is to maintain a clear mind and a hopeful heart. Staying awake doesn’t mean we have the solution to this mess. It just means that we are willing to wait on God to show us how to act faithfully.

Jesus asks us to stay awake – to remain attentive, available, and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit that is coming. We don’t have to force it. We can trust that God is at work, and will show us how to move and act for justice. Our task is to respond in courage when the way becomes clear.

It helps to be in community. Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering as friends of Jesus to support one another in staying awake. We share food and prayer. We support one another in seeking the way of Jesus in the midst of these confusing times. If you’re in our region, I invite you to reach out and join us.

Wherever you are, what are the ways that you can gather in supportive community with other friends of Jesus? What does it mean for you to stay awake, and to invite others to keep watch with you?

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In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light
It’s a dark time right now. Literally. We’re approaching the shortest day of the year. The sunshine is dimmer. These late fall days can make it really hard to keep moving.

It’s a spiritually dark time, too. I don’t have to repeat all the reasons. You know. With so much evil at work in the world, it’s hard to stay healthy and focused.

In the weeks following the election, my own health has suffered. I spent way too much time interacting on social media and reading articles about things I already knew – things I couldn’t change. Just like so many of us were glued to cable news in the days following the 9/11 attacks, I was transfixed by social media and a wide variety of news outlets.

Eventually I was able to take a step back. I recognized the death-spiral I was caught in. Social media chatter. Nonstop news consumption. An irrational compulsion to somehow “fix” this situation. It was torturing my heart and distorting my spirit.

In a moment of clarity, I disengaged from social media entirely. I knew I didn’t want to stay away forever. But my relationship to social media had to change. At this point, I’m limiting myself to about 10 minutes a day. The ideological environment out there is simply too toxic for me to spend much more time.

I also made the decision to cut off corporate media indefinitely. We have a subscription to the Washington Post, but I’ve been recycling it without reading it. This has been a big change for me. For years, the Post has been a companion with me at breakfast and lunchtime. But I’ve realized that my relationship with the corporate press is no longer healthy. Probably never was. It was long past time to break up.

I’ve learned that bad habits can’t simply be discontinued; they must be replaced with a different habit. Now, every time that I would normally read the corporate media, I instead choose to pick up a book. At first, I was reading Chinese science fiction. Then Bernie Sanders’ new book. Now I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism. I hadn’t fully realized how much of my time I had been giving to consuming corporate propaganda. Now, all that time is available to read works of substance. It’s truly refreshing.

I believe that we are entering into a time of crisis, beyond the memory of almost anyone alive today. I intend to be fully engaged. This is not a moment for retreat into fantasy or isolation. Yet I am also aware that we are already in midst of a spiritual, psychological, and ideological warfare. It makes sense for us to engage this fight on our own terms. Rather than be bombarded by falsehood, distortion, and scare tactics, we can choose another story.

Jesus commands his friends – you and me – to stay awake. Part of staying awake is filling our minds, bodies, and spirits with wholesome things. Now is a time to be discerning about what news sources, ideologies, slogans, and entertainment we take into our lives.

In these days of stress and urgency, I feel called to focus on real relationships with the people around me – all those people of good will who can sense that something is not right. Now is the moment to come together, to support one another in creating alternative communities of meaning. Our homes, offices, and church buildings can become places where the love and light of Jesus Christ is truly alive – not just in words, but through daily actions of mercy and resistance in the face of evil.

I know that many of my brothers and sisters are way ahead of me on the realizations I’ve just expressed. Maybe you’re one of them. Yet even if you are, I feel compelled to share, if only to encourage you. No matter how wise someone is, we all need encouragement. We all need to know that we are a part of a broader community that is living in faith.

Together, we are refusing to imbibe the gathering darkness. We are creating light-filled spaces where the hurt, hungry, and broken can gather. We are a city on a hill, which can’t be hidden – knowing full well the danger and joy this vulnerability brings.

I want to join you in these spaces. Create these spaces. Gather others into communities of trust, love, and firm prophetic witness. God is giving us a message to share. Jesus is here to teach us himself. In the midst of so much falsehood, the truth is speaking within us. Listen together with me. Pray with me. Act with me. In the name of Jesus.

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