Archive for October 2015

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity

When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Today, Jesus’ challenge is no less serious. He is inviting us into a life so radically different from our everyday assumptions that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. The path of discipleship to Jesus will not allow us to merely incorporate his teachings into our pre-existing social order. The good news of the reign of God – our mission, should we choose to accept it – yanks us out of our comfort zone no less than it did for the first followers of Jesus all those years ago by the Sea of Galilee.

Of course, most of us don’t fish for a living. And if we do, it’s probably not for the family business, passed down as a trade from generation to generation. We don’t live in the pre-modern economies of peasant farmers and blacksmiths, priests and imperial governors. Thank God.

But we do live within a vast, largely unquestioned economic order that defines our lives no less than the family trades and economic ties that were so critical for the early Christians. We live within a new world order, one so pervasive and powerful that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It’s just reality.

Today, we lead our lives embedded in the economic and social order of global capitalism. Just as the power of Rome and its imperial economy was a virtually unquestionable reality in the ancient world, the modern dominance of the neo-liberal global economy is reality for virtually every living person on earth today. Love it or hate it, it’s just how life is.

Or is it? What if there is a power greater than Wall Street, consumer capitalism, and the violent apparatus required to sustain it?

Christians can argue until the cows come home about how to define capitalism, and whether it is a boon or a menace. That’s a conversation worth having, but it doesn’t strike to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t focused on forming a debating society. He built a movement, a family.

He’s still inviting us into this new social order today. The family of God is in our midst, and it challenges all of our assumptions about what is valuable, who should be honored, and how we must live. Jesus continues to stand on the seashore, calling us to drop our nets and follow him.

What does this calling look like for us, in concrete terms? Are we being called out of jobs? Social ties? Our entire conception of who and what has value? What does it look like to repent (that is, to change our entire way of living in the world) in the context of a global capitalism that threatens to make our precious planet rapidly uninhabitable? What tangled nets are we being called to drop, and what is the way, the community, the family that will replace them?

The time has passed for a merely religious approach to these questions. It’s not enough to change in our hearts, when our lives remain so thoroughly entrenched in the assumptions and economy of global empire. What is needed now is a hard-minded call to re-examine everything, to change our whole lives in pursuit of the truly abundant existence that Jesus promises.

But first things first: Let’s leave our nets and follow him.

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Why “Everybody” is Wrong

In the months leading up to George Bush’s 2003 invasion, “everybody” thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In the months before the housing bubble burst, “everybody” insisted that the market was healthy – nothing to worry about. At one time, everybody knew that asbestos was a great material for use in home building, and that BPA was a harmless additive in plastics that hold our food and water.

What does everybody say is true, today? Could everybody be disastrously wrong, again?

It’s not everybody, of course. Everybody doesn’t believe the same thing, ever. There are always creative, alternative perspectives if we’re willing to hear them. Usually, though, we tend to assume that the most prominent voices speak for everyone.

But what if we don’t know that much, after all? What if we’re just playing a massive game of follow-the-leader? What if those leaders are taking us right off a cliff? Again.

Maybe it’s time we stopped hearing so much from everybody. Maybe it’s time we heard from you.

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Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

A funny thing happened when I moved to DC six years ago. I went from being surrounded by a laid-back crew of seminarians, pastors, poets, and radicals, to living in one of the most powerful, motivated, and highly-paid neighborhoods on earth.

It was a big shift in perspective. I had gotten used to living among simple people. Some of them had money and impressive jobs, but they weren’t the norm. I mostly compared myself to the people who were just getting by. And I was always aware of my friends who were struggling to survive. In the Mid-Western rust-belt economy, the Great Recession has been going on for decades.

When I moved to Capitol Hill, I was introduced to a whole new social landscape. These were focused, driven, specialized and highly-paid people. My neighbors came from around the world, seeking to work at the seat of US power. They served congressmen, lobbied for interest groups of all kinds, and led nonprofits stationed in Washington to advance a variety of social agendas. I had arrived in a land of formal attire, nannies, and dual-income power couples.

The air is different here in Washington; the longer I breathe it, the more it has affected me. Over the years, I’ve lost my frame of reference in the gentle culture of honest but economically struggling people. Another worldview has become the norm for me: one of worry, status-obsession, and lives that revolves around work.

These years in DC have helped me understand that my perceptions about life have little to do with what is actually happening, and everything to do with the comparisons I make with those around me.

Who am I comparing myself to? Is it the family to the west who work for a think tank and can afford a home on Capitol Hill? Is it the diplomats, politicians, and corporate leaders chauffeured from one climate controlled environment to another? Or will I look to the thousands of DC residents who are struggling to survive in the midst of rapid economic upheaval and injustice?

There’s another world that exists in my city, a thousand light years from the brunches and cocktail parties of the elites. It’s a world of rising rents, dwindling job opportunities, homelessness, and talented lives wasting away on public assistance. I experience an almost irresistible temptation to turn away from this alternate reality, the apartheid state hidden in plain sight.

Why? Why do I prefer to compare myself to the wealthy rather than consider myself in solidarity with the poor? How did I allow the 1% to become my norm?

This elite focus is especially mis-guided for someone who wants to follow Jesus. Christ’s entire ministry was about making himself the least, descending to the very bottom of the social pyramid in order to upend the whole oppressive structure once and for all. Through his liberating teaching and revolutionary sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquers the myth of the 1%. He calls us into a reality where those who have the least are our frame of reference.

Shifting the focus from the richest to the brokest isn’t just some pious exercise; it’s the surest way to experience joy and freedom. As long as I’m fixated on the wealth, fame, success, status, and power that others have, I trap myself in a race to acquire those same advantages. But when my frame of reference centers on those who have the least, I’m liberated into a life of thanksgiving and generosity. This is the opposite of the high-stress culture that is so prevalent here.

How about you? Who are you comparing yourself to? What kind of life do you want to be living? Do you want to spend your time climbing ever higher towards those who have more than you, or would you prefer to focus your attention on those who have been left out of the games of the 1%?

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This Road Has No End

Most games, you can win. They have an agreed upon end point. There’s a moment when everyone counts up their winnings, and we know with certainty how it all turned out. If we’re still in the mood to play, we can start a new game altogether.

Some have said that life itself is a game. But if that’s true, it’s a very strange one. It is an experience full of births, deaths, transitions, struggles, and adventures. But none of us can remember a beginning, and there’s no end in sight.

Even death isn’t the end of the story.

Maybe you understand this in a metaphysical sense. Or perhaps you’ve just made the commonsense observation that life carries on – year after year, century after century. Each one of us makes an impact, for better or worse, that is felt long after we have left the scene. We are destined to experience a certain kind of immortality.

Whether or not you subscribe to religion, it is an indisputable fact: Heaven and hell are real. You’ve experienced them.

Because everything you do matters.

We each have a choice to make each day, as we look down the never-ending road that stretches before us. What kind of impact do you want to make? Will you boldly blaze new trails? Faithfully cultivate the old paths? Will you walk fast, or slow? How will you treat your fellow travelers, and in what condition will you leave the road itself?

Everything you do matters.

What path are you on right now? Is this where you want to be?

Who will you walk with on this road without end?

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say”

-J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

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Can Tidying Be A Spiritual Practice?

Can Tidying Be A Spiritual Practice?

Growing up, I lived in a house that regularly filled up with all manner of clothing, containers, and electronics – every sort of bargain and gadget you can imagine.

Ever since that time, I have prioritized keeping my personal space clear and distraction-free. At times, I’ve had a near obsession with material simplicity. Too much stuff makes me feel claustrophobic.

It was not until recently, however, that I considered that the simple act of de-cluttering might be a spiritual practice. I encountered an article about Marie Kondo, a fascinating woman from Japan whose ideas about tidying up transcend the normal boundaries of good housekeeping and approach the transcendent.

For Kondo, the single-minded pursuit of less has become an art form, and a method of meditation. Relentless in her pursuit of a simplified, joyful life, Kondo teaches her followers to develop clarity and spaciousness in their lives.

The core of her philosophy can be summed up in one simple rule: Keep only those objects that spark joy.

This idea is so simple, and yet deeply challenging. It has encouraged me to ask myself: How much of what I keep around me inspires joy and gratitude, and how much is merely a reflection of my own refusal to let go?

Kondo rightly perceives that our material surroundings are a reflection of our spiritual condition. By becoming more aware of beauty in our lives, we can begin to sweep out confusion and compulsion.

What do you cling to that isn’t making you happy? Can you identify those objects, relationships, and environments that trap you in a self-defeating mindset?

What truly does spark joy within you? Where do you encounter beauty in your life? Where do you find the simple clarity that enables you to become radiant and free?

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I’m Great. How About You?

I’m a problem solver. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong and needs to be fixed.

Somebody has to expose the darkness, after all. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a sympathy for this prophetic tendency. You’re a problem solver, too.

But life is about so much more than fixing what’s broken. Darkness needs to be confronted, yes, but light is the goal.

With the unrelenting drive to become harder, better, faster, stronger, it’s easy to forget to breathe. You become so focused on what’s next that what’s happening now gets lost.

I don’t want to make that mistake. I don’t want to lose the beauty of this moment. For all its flaws and limitations, the world is already a luminous place. It’s a pure gift to be alive.

For folks like you and me – those of us who are driven by the prophetic imagination – this is a challenge worth accepting. What if we embraced today the joy and wholeness that we seek for tomorrow?

What will it mean for us to rest in the abundance, peace, and power of the present moment? Without denying the need for change, how do we celebrate that which already exists? What does it mean for us – the insatiable ones – to give thanks for the gift that comes without any effort of our own?

In the midst of all of the challenges we face, I’m great. How about you?

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“God” is no Substitute for Strategy

"God" is no Substitute for Strategy

The title of this post alone may have already made me a Quaker heretic, but I hope you’ll hang with me on this.

One of the unspoken rules of the Quaker tradition is that you’re not allowed to admit that you have a clear plan. According to this school of thought, any strongly-held, long-term planning is dangerous because it draws us away from our sense of immediate dependence on God. If we think we’ve got things figured out, we’re almost certainly wrong. What’s worse, we’ve set up a false idol; our ideas of what should happen become more important than how the Spirit is leading us at any given moment.

This tendency against advance planning and rational thought has been so intense in the Quaker community that many old-time Quakers referred to the Devil as the Reasoner. George Fox, in one of his most beautiful and profound epistles, urges his readers: Do not think, but submit [to God].

George had a point. There is a kind of thinking that traps us, makes us fearful, causes us to trust our own strength rather than resting in the presence of God. George and his fellow Quaker evangelists had seen quite clearly how well this fallen human logic stands against the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Like every powerful social movement, though, Quakerism has lent itself to excesses. For centuries, there has been (and continues to be) a strong strain in the Quaker tradition that is suspicious of reason in general. According to this extreme interventionist view of God, human reason can only get in the way of divine inspiration. With the Spirit available to guide us, why should we think at all? 

Quite frankly, this is crazy talk.

While I don’t deny the dangers of ego-driven thinking and decision-making, we Quakers have often held a profoundly mistaken understanding of human nature. We have been tempted to see the Holy Spirit as replacing human faculties, when God’s intention has always been to restore the whole creation – body, mind, and spirit – to its intended maturity and vitality in Christ.

There’s nothing in the Bible that leads me to believe God wants us to be Holy Spirit robots. I’m inclined to think that God had a purpose in giving us the ability to think, deliberate, and envision the future. We do our Creator a disservice when we fail to exercise our reason amidst a life of prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit.

What’s the practical import of all this? Quite simply: By embracing human reason as a good creation of God, we can openly make plans for the future, without pretending we don’t really know where we want to go. We don’t have to pretend we’re hearing whispers of the Spirit before we choose what color carpet to install. Just admit that you like green, and get on with it!

I’ve gained so much of value from the Quaker community, but one aspect of Friends culture that I have found crippling is our general inability to do long-range planning. I would encourage Friends – and anyone who comes from a faith background that is skeptical of our ability to plan for the future – to consider the possibility that God wants us to co-create the future with him.

Like Abraham, who (successfully) argued with God about the destruction of Sodom, we today are invited into a relationship with the Spirit that actively shapes the future. God wants our full participation.

This doesn’t mean we stop listening. It doesn’t mean God gets cut out of the decision-making process. But it does mean that we’re honest about what we really want. It means we’re clear and focused on what we need to do to move one step closer to attaining our objectives.

Will our plans always work out? Of course not. But we’ll be better off for making the attempt. Heck, we might even learn something! I can say from experience, God is really good at correcting me when I’m off on the wrong track.

What would it be like to be willing to trust your own judgment and leave the rest to God? What might change if we were willing to think and act boldly?

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