Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s latest box office hit based on a comic series from 2006 and 2007, offers an important allegory for our post-911 times.*  It’s not a perfect movie – I’m still not sure why the Avengers were to blame for the explosion, and the villain's plot was preposterous – but the deeper issues are worth exploring.

The Avengers, a team of the most powerful people in the world, travel the globe to fight crime. They basically answer to no one. Unfortunately, in spite of all the good they do, there have been a number of missions that have failed very publicly (reminiscent of the starting premise in Batman v Superman). They are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put the group under United Nations supervision. When asked to describe them, Thaddeus Ross says,
“How about ‘dangerous’? What would you call a group of US based, enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned with what they leave behind? New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia, Lagos...”
Peter Parker, when asked why he acts as Spider Man, notes, ”When you can do the things that I can, but you don't, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” That’s not entirely true, but we get the point. With great power comes great responsibility.  But what if you do the things you can do and because of that bad things happen? King T’Chaka claims that “victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.”  If he is correct, that's a problem, because that’s how victory has been won time and again. That may be inevitable in a messy world, but must it be so often, and involve so many?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Post-Orlando Questions (#1:Was Omar Mateen Created By The Conservative Religious Right?)

What happened in Orlando was a horrific and contemptible act of violence against people who bear God’s image. As a Christian, I believe that all people are infused with intrinsic value and worth; we should mourn the loss of precious human life, pray for healing for the survivors as well as the family and friends of the victims, and dedicate ourselves to finding a solution in which the leading of an individual’s moral compasses and the constraints of effective public policies will put an end to this kind of tragedy. 

I want to make sure I clearly say that before I explore some topics that have surfaced since this incident. I’ve been observing the online conversation about the “climate” or “mood” that exists in America, and I would like to respond to three particular questions in this series of posts.

  •  Is it fair to attribute the actions of Omar Mateen to a climate of hate created by the Conservative Religious Right?
  • Is there a way to make a proper distinction between what is inherent in or necessarily follows from the beliefs and actions of a group vs. what particular individuals or sects do?
  • When it comes to the creation of a ‘moral climate,’ is there a proper distinction to be made between disagreeing, criticizing, discriminating, oppressing, dehumanizing, and violently attacking, or do these all simply occupy different places on the same continuum of hate?

I will be answering these questions in a series of three separate posts. I will provide links as they are posted. I offer these observations as a starting point in a conversation (if you so desire). I welcome any thoughts you have that help to constructively pursue truth.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Graduation Slogans To Ignore - Or At Least Reconsider

Graduates, this is the time of your life when a lot of motivational slogans are thrown your way. 

“Reach for the Stars! You Can Be Anything You Want To Be! Believe You Can Fly!”

Today I want to challenge five of the many slogans you have heard or will hear, not because they are always entirely wrong, but because they are almost never entirely right.

#1 Keep On Being You! You’re Perfect Just The Way You Are!

No, you’re not. I’m not either. You have issues. If you don’t know that yet, you will learn soon enough. Your teacher in college will give you a C, and you will have earned it. Your boss will write you up, your girlfriend or boyfriend will be rightly upset with you, and your parents will not like every decision you make. No one is perfect but God, and He, too, is well aware of your deficits. As C.S. Lewis noted, God wants to take the shack of your life and turn it into a mansion. That will take some remodeling.

Learn to see your frailties and failures with honesty but without shame. Grow. Build your strengths and at least address your weaknesses, but don’t hide the fact that you are imperfect. We all know it already. It’s okay. We aren’t either. And it is in the midst of our weakness that the strength of God is seen most clearly.

#2 You can be anything you want to be!

No, you can’t. You are not limitless in your potential. You can't fly even if you believe you can. There are boundaries around your personality, opportunities, and skill set. Einstein once noted that the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius knows its limits. Be a genius. Seek to know and be what God has equipped you to be, because it’s within those boundaries that fullness of life is found.

Now, don’t settle for the safe middle of life. Push to the edges. Find out what you are capable of doing. Be fearless as you explore the risky and uncomfortable perimeters of the life you have been given, and don’t be afraid to fail.  But don’t get so caught up in what you wish you could do that you overlook the goodness of what you can do.

#3 Be A Leader!

We hear that so much that I want to push back just to be contrarian. I get it – don’t be easily manipulated; don’t blindly follow someone else; don’t settle in with a mediocre crowd. Those are all good reasons to be a leader. I am challenging you today to forget about leading until you learn what it means to follow. Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to become great, they had to first become a servant of all.

I don’t think Jesus meant, “Just punch the clock as a servant and impatiently put in your time until you finally get the recognition you deserve.”  Don’t be a servant just so you can become a leader; be a servant because in so doing you display the heart of Christ for the world. The best leaders I know are the ones who learned how to be content in a life of service, overlooked and unnoticed, knowing that their labor served a greater purpose.  It’s in those places that God raises up those who are ready to lead. Learn how to follow and serve.

#4 Don’t Let Good Be The Enemy of Great!

This is often used to remind us that we can settle for mediocrity when we should be shooting for excellence. That’s true, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Don’t let ‘great’ be the enemy of ‘good’ either. Don’t get so caught up in waiting for the perfect job that you turn your nose up at a very ordinary but very good job that can prepare you for the future. Don’t get caught up in waiting for the perfect spouse, or the perfect college, or the perfect church. There are none.

We can get so caught up in holding out for something that meets our every possible expectation that we do nothing. Meanwhile, a lot of good falls into our laps and we fail to see it. Oswald Chambers once wrote, “It is ingrained in us that we have to do exceptional things for God – but we do not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things of life, and holy on the ordinary streets, among ordinary people.” Ordinary can be great too. Learn how to settle into the good without settling for just the good.

#5 Follow Your Dreams!

 Not every dream deserves to be followed. The book of Proverbs warns us that even though a way can seem right, it can be terribly wrong.If they take you down a lousy path, scrap the dream. The only way you should follow your dreams is if they build your maturity, integrity, and character while helping the world around you flourish. Don’t just rely on yourself to find out if that’s what’s happening in your life. Ask your family, your mentors and your trusted friends. Study history. Read God’s word. Do the hard work of seeing if your dreams match your gifts and talents, and if they will build the world rather than break it. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Blogs And Heart Attacks

Here's what I know about blogs and heart attacks: I have first-hand knowledge of both, and they don't mix well.

Nine weeks ago, I had what my doctor called a "massive" heart attack: it was the classic Widowmaker, with 100% blockage (see before and after photo on the right. If you would like to read more about the event and some other thoughts surrounding it, check out "A Pastor's Reflections On An Unexpected Heart Attack." However, that's not the main point of this post.

Perhaps it is simply the physical and emotional aftermath of the heart attack; perhaps it is the (too high?) dose of meds I am currently taking; perhaps it's both. Whatever the reason, I am finding it difficult right now to find the energy and focus to do quite a few things I normally enjoy doing, and that includes blogging.

I suspect I will post sporadically for a time. I have some days when things click, but I usually have to spend that time catching up on other necessary projects - like, say, my job. So until this season passes, I expect to be posting less than usual.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Ache, But Not The Emptiness

I am re-reading Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series. I had forgotten how talented Koontz is at addressing momentous topics with creativity and seriousness. Close to the end of Odd Hours, Koontz writes the following:
"Grief can destroy you - or focus you.  You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone.  Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn't allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it's over and you're alone, you begin to see it wasn't just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill.  
 It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.  The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can't get off your knees for a long time, you're driven to you knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.  And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Importance of Fear

Bruce Feiler, who is neither Christian nor a practicing Jew, decided to read the first five books of the Old Testament as he traveled to the stories' historical locations in the Middle East. Among other things, he kept revisiting the impact of the geography in his understanding of events in the Bible. He offers the following perspective on the Desert in Walking The Bible: 
"The first lesson of the desert: By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin - slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life - to consider turning somewhere else.... You eventually grow wary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant. You begin to crave the depth, the height, the extremes. You begin to crave the fear."
I have experienced the "deserts" of my life - hard times in marriage, fears that came with a childhood diagnosis in my youngest son, my father's death, my DVT's, my recent heart attack. I like Mr. Feiler's description of his experience of the desert. It resonates. Those are the places where I was small, alone, and forced to turn to God in the midst of situation where I faltered. I find his assessment to be true: "When your god is self-reliance, and you let yourself down, there is nowhere else to turn."

As odd as it sounds, there is something to be said for the fear that is found in these places. Perhaps 'crave' is too strong of a word, but it's when the stakes are high that life matters in ways it does not when the way is flat and easy. There's a refinement of character that cannot happen in the safety of the common place. Often we don't realize how much ground we have covered until we look back. 

And then we begin to miss the fear again - not because we want to be afraid, but because those situations reminded us of that life is meaningful and important. I don't fear falling off my couch or stubbing my toe. I do fear falling off the roof, cutting more toes off in a lawn mower or having another heart attack. Why? Because the former are trivial, but the latter can potentially be profound. Fear reminds us of the parts of life that matter, and that is important in a culture where we are so distracted by triviality that the profound depth of life is too easily ignored. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Michigan's Proposal For Students With Gender Dysphoria: Is It The Best Solution?

Michigan is currently proposing a new set of guidelines to accommodate LGBTQ students ("The State Board of Education Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students").

Much of the proposal talks about training, sensitivity, and attempts to create a climate free of bullying or discrimination. I think those are goals we can all agree are worthwhile. Toward the end, the proposal gets more specific as it relates to students with gender dysphoria. This is where the policy presents a number of difficulties.

Let me be clear: what I’m about to say is not a commentary on the need to treat those who identify as transgendered with dignity. This is about public policy guidelines that seek to weigh everyone’s rights and promote the common good of all parties involved. I don’t believe this proposed policy does either. I will be highlighting several quotes that stood out to me and offering my concerns about the rationality and impact of this policy.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Calamity (The Reckoners)

“Perseus had his magic horse, Aladdin had his lamp, and Old Testament David had his blessing from Jehovah. You want to fight a god? You’d better have one on your side too.” 

Calamity, the third installment in Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy, continues a compelling
story of power, human nature, love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and an impressive array of super (and not so super) heroes.

In Calamity, we see David and the others face their greatest challenge yet: to restore rather than destroy someone who is evil. They have figured out how to take down Epics: find their fear – they all have one that will neutralize their power - and go for the kill. But when Prof gives in to the evil side of his Epic nature, they have to change their game plan. They need Prof - the 'god' referenced in the opening quote - to take down Calamity, the monstrous Epic who started this chaos. In order to have any confidence in this plan, they need to believe Prof can be freed of the calamitous evil that has consumed him.

This restoration will be monumentally hard. Calamity claims  “people are evil to the core.” If this is true, than those in whom Calamity’s power has manifested are doomed –as is the rest of the world. The Epics aren’t just supersized people; they are all immensely powerful villains. The more they use their power, the more they succumb to evil, and it always happens. Always.

Yet David sees hope. He does not believe people are doomed to failure, determined by their evil nature to succumb to Calamity’s poisoned power. He believes people are good. He's seen worlds in which good has prevailed even in the most fallen of the Epics. Granted, he is overly optimistic. He believes people are inherently good when the story makes clear that they aren’t (Calamity’s power doesn’t introduce evil to its victims; it merely makes the worst part of their nature overwhelming). Still, David’s hope is not unfounded. People change; why not Prof? It’s an obvious truth to him.

“I would watch the sun rise, and wish I could capture the moment. I never could. Pictures didn’t work—the sunrises never looked as spectacular on film. And eventually I realized, a sunrise isn’t a moment. It’s an event. You can’t capture a sunrise because it changes constantly—between eyeblinks the sun moves, the clouds swirl. It’s continually something new. “We’re not moments, Megan, you and me. We’re events. You say you might not be the same person you were a year ago? Well, who is? I’m sure not. We change, like swirling clouds and a rising sun. The cells in me have died, and new ones were born. My mind has changed… I’m not the same David. Yet I am.”
The ending will not surprise you, but the manner in which the journey unfolds is clever, compelling and insightful, as is always the case with Brandon Sanderson.  This is a series I have pushed my sons to read. The protagonist, David, is brave, loyal, and kind. His character is solid, and he longs for peace even as he enters a war that cannot be avoided. In the face of calamity, he clings to the hope of restoration and new life.

If he is going to lead the ones who bring about a reckoning, I’m in.