Friday, December 11, 2009

Living with Questions - best price for Christmas (book and audio version!)

I thought you'd like to know this!

Yesterday I discovered that Amazon has my book on sale at a bargain price of $1.86 (and it qualifies for free shipping if you have Prime or a $25 order).  Get a copy for the students in your life or for people wanting to grow deeper in their faith but don't know how.  These make great stocking stuffers, an extra present under the tree, an easy thing to mail as a gift (media rate mailing is cheap!), or to buy a stack of them to give away or start a small group discussion.

I don't know why the bargain price, but take advantage while you can!!

If you haven't discovered or read Living with Questions, it's one of the best intro to apologetics books you'll find, easy, accessible, conversational (not the typical abstract stuff that apologetics has become associated with).

And it's a one-of-a-kind book for students (high school and college) on having the tools to answer today's hard questions, the kind that keep you awake at night.  Gathered from thousands of questions from students across the nation, I put together the seven hottest questions, framed them with stories and a personal conversational style, to equip readers to carry their faith with confidence in the 21st century.

See the comments section for Living with Questions on Amazon too.

Also, if you like audio books, Living with Questions was released as an audio book last month.  I narrate the book and bring my own reading style (not your average dead-pan book reading--which usually puts me to sleep).  Oh, yes, over 6 hours of fun!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Story of Surgery - Skin Cancer

In September I went to the dermatologist for a bump under my eyebrow.  The visit was as ordinary as the one I made the year before over a similar bump in the same place.  That year they blasted it with liquid nitrogen and I was done.  A tiny bit grew back.  So that was the purpose of this visit--to take off the tiny bump that had grown a little.

Only this time the doctor took a biopsy.  Small shot and a cut.  As is my usual custom, I had a vasovagal episode: cold sweats, low blood pressure, pale face.  The biopsy lasted two minutes.  My response lasted another 20.

I was confident the biopsy was just procedural and of no concern.  I was convinced of that before I went to the doctor that morning.  I was told the results would be available in a week.

Ten days later I got a voicemail that the results were in.  I called the doctor but had to leave a message.  Two days pass, so I tried calling again.  I found out this is the "nurses" line and they are not always available.  So I called several times until someone picked up the one.

In a very candid voice, "Oh, yes, your biopsy returned.  You have cancer."

That word "cancer" is like saying AIDS.  Everything stood still for me at that word.  Yet the word, I've learned, is more nuanced than AIDS, applies to different kinds.  I asked a couple of questions.  I was told I'd undergo a MOHS procedure in early November and that literature was being dropped in the mail for me.

I called back two more times with questions that day.  Processing.  The kind of skin cancer I had can spread to other organs, I was told, could cause the removal of my eye, could spread to the lungs. 

My mother died of breast cancer that went to her lungs.  But breast cancer is a different kind of cancer than skin cancer.  Yet, still, I started to think about what I was leaving behind should this cancer spread: wife, baby boy, Soulation, too many unwritten words.

One thing that kept coming to mind was my story with fundamentalism... how it had to be written.  I didn't want to die without writing that.  People need to know, I thought.  People need to know how its poison effects most evangelical churches in various forms.  People need to know.  Just like people needed to know about the Gulag.  If I had a year to live, would I write that?

Funny the things that come to mind if you think you've not much time left to live.  Reassurance flooded me that human life was good, appropriate human life intended by our Maker, though it's funny how hard you have to wrestle with humans sometimes to remember and believe it.

I debated finding a doctor that would put me under general anesthetic.  I didn't want a HUGE vasovagal episode during a longer surgery.  As I explored, I decided to just do the MOHS and the local anesthetic and listen to the knife and scissors and feel the needles and the cuts.  This would be the most dramatic physical manipulation I've consciously had. [I was knocked out for my wisdom teeth procedure when I was 21.]

I shared all these fears (confessing of sins?) with my house church.  They encouraged and prayed for me.  Our Soulation prayer team did the same.  Many of my readers knew I was going in for surgery of some kind, though without specifics.

The day came.  The waiting room was filled with others getting the same procedure that day.  All of them older than I.  The doctor said I'm young to have this procedure, but all this Welsch skin in Florida and California sun does not a friendship make.  I'll have regular examinations the rest of my life, the surgeon said, and 50% chance another procedure in the future.  We caught it early and the chance of spreading is slim.

That day in the doctor's chair was miraculous.  I don't use that special word very often.  But with prayers and Jonalyn's sticking with me through the whole procedure, I had no vasovagal response.  I was even talking to the doctors as they sewed me up (15 stitches, maybe more).  Jonalyn even had to sit down for the sight of my eyebrow flayed open.  I kept squeezing her hand through my fears and uneasiness and inviting Jesus to be my peace.  The God of Israel held me.

A week later the stitches were removed.  Those were a monument of a time God met me and I went through the waters unharmed.  I wore them proudly.  The scar continues to fade (the doctor said there likely won't be one when it fully heals).  But the memory lives on.  Now I have to wear hats in the sunshine... another monument, though less rugged as a scar above the eye.  You'll see more hats in future pictures on our facebook fan page, I'm sure...

That's the story.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pondering Streets of Gold (and an opportunity)

This is today's fledge (going out later this morning)... I wanted to give you a sneak peak at pondering beauty in sacred space as well as sharing with you an opporutunity.

Pondering Streets of Gold

[All photos, but the golden driveway, copyright Jeff LeFever]

We rounded the corner of our driveway and caught a rare a glimpse of heaven: a street of gold. Aspen covered the drive, leaving a sheet of yellow. Sunset seemed to emit light from the road as well as from the sky.

We drove slowly over the carpet of leaves, windows down, catching our breath, watching the extravagant show of God littering a world preparing for winter.

These little moments are sacred. They feel set apart, remembered. While some moments call us in whispers to pay attention these extraordinary sights may be missed only by the blind. Yet even the blind may smell it in the air.

The God of Israel described his city as having streets of gold. The shimmer, the opulence, the purity all come to mind. God may be giving us a picture of what sacred space looks like, moments where we have to pause to catch our breath, to relish the visual pleasure, to let the smile freely curl upon our faces.

Beauty does this to us. And while beauty cannot be described as easily as many of our theological doctrines and apologetic arguments, it is as important to our souls as daily bread. It draws us in, slows us down, reminds us that more is going on than meets the eye, and points us in transcendent directions.

Sometimes we merely look at beauty, sometimes we are in it. Sometimes we look at the aspen, like a postcard. Sometimes we are in a forest of them on a hike. Most man-made sacred spaces are created for such an experience. Cathedral domes. Steeples. Gold leaf. Paintings by the masters. Hard stone floors cut from mountains. Light perfectly positioned through impenetrable architecture, depending on the time of day. A place to pray. To kneel. To remember. Outside, the “world.” Inside, something special, deliberate, set apart, beautiful like a street of gold.

Our friend and Soulation teammate, Jeff Lefever, has embodied this to us more than anyone in our lives. He's concerned we remember sacred space, not only in our churches but in our surrounding culture. He hears the whispers in the beauty of brokenness as he captures people sitting on a curb, a child playing with ice cream, a woman in full Muslim dress walking the beach. He notes graffiti and the ways we express ourselves through retail shop windows. He captures the bones of an abandoned bridge. He reveals the pictures rainbowed in stained-glass. And he brings these things home.

Jeff is currently working on capturing the sacred spaces in many well-known cities. Last winter, he spent several weeks in Prague, which was the third city for his body of work (United States and France were previous). He posted an ongoing blog of his photos and reflections, the disappointment with closed churches, the architecture of people at prayer, the snow falling on once-noticed statues around the city.

We now have four prints from his last trip. One sits above our mantle, reminiscent of the dutch landscape painters, large sky, village below, cathedral dominating the horizon, a farmer harvesting food in the foreground like a biblical parable. Another captures the entry way to the side door of a Jewish synagogue, the edge of the building meeting a leafless tree stretching to the sky as a metaphor of life. While our cathedrals and sacred spaces are decaying and in disrepair, Jeff has brought them home, bottled them in print for us, our generation, for the world. And we're reminded daily of the God of Israel who comes near to us in beauty, architecture, and the in weighty privilege of prayer.

As our personal photographer, Jeff believes in the work of Soulation like few others. And it is my honor to present his work to you and an opportunity to join in a community of voices that says "Beauty matters! I will relish and defend it for the world!"

You get participate in sending Jeff to Israel this December. As you know, Israel is the hotbed of sacred space, the epicenter of religion and cultural upheaval. Jeff is, in many ways, going behind enemy lines find the sacred among all the violence and show the peace that the God of Israel promised to his people.

We'll be giving to this project too. This project benefits us by sharing the awareness and experience of sacred space. The more we share them, the more we learn to "see" beauty, the more it helps us and our community to be appropriately human.

The added benefit is choosing a professional print from Jeff that I can put on my walls, to share that story, to draw others into this food for hungry souls. In many ways, Jeff's photography is an apologetic: showing the world what God is like with pictures, light, and space. Your gift would be a simple way to see a profound thing happen.

People often ask where are the artists today speaking into our culture? They ask, where are the fresh voices our world needs to hear? Jeff Lefever is among those unsung fresh voices. In a world of high-tech fundraising, mega-marketing, and media-hype, where the most “popular” voice gets to be heard over many of the other worthwhile voices, I'm glad to call Jeff a friend. He's uninterested in collecting money to serve him. He wants a community to help serve the work. He's interested in taking you along, to find meaning in the mundane and beauty in the brokenness. See his work at

Jeff has many other benefits for those who give. Check out his Kickstarter page at and help him reach beyond his goal. And if you want a tax-deductible receipt, you can send your check to Jeff and ask him for one as his work is under a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. Write him for more info if you'd like to give that way (

As we all learn to "see" beauty better in this world, our Streets of Gold moments will grow more numerous and the meaning God has poured into this world more blessed. Our souls will grow sturdier and our commission to shine light into the world more creative.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What do typical Halloweeners celebrate this time of year?

This was my question on my facebook wall a couple of days ago.  Many responded and one added I should blog on it (Jodi, you know who you are!).

I'm rather perplexed by this "holiday" and have some ideas of my own.   But, first, questions for you:
  • Is Halloween a "satanic" holiday?  It its purpose to celebrate death, evil and suffering?  
  • Does the origin of a holiday mean we celebrate it the same way today?  Does it matter?
  • Is Halloween just an excuse to costume ourselves?  Is there something wrong with this?  Why this holiday?
  • What's with all the candy?
  • What has our culture turned Halloween into that it's become the second most lucrative holiday of the year?  Is this holiday really just a marketing ploy by large corporations?
  • Do Americans "celebrate" Halloween?  Or are we "celebrating" something else that we just happen to call "Halloween"?

Take any or all questions or add your own question...  give me your thoughtful ideas as to what's going on here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"Church"? ...A Way Forward!

Part 1 of this discussion.
Part 2 of this discussion.

As we continue to discuss “church," many believe the organized structure we call “church” is lacking.  Often, it causes people to feel disenfranchised, floating, and maybe even an outcast.   Even people who love Jesus may struggle with the tension between being faithful to Jesus and being faithful to an organized “church” that constantly identifies itself as THE way the people of God commune.

Add to this the further complications of denominations and distinctions of various organizations.  Also, the drive to be relevant to a demographic, to market and brand, to be friendly to outsiders, to tailor to families, to hit the general audience of infotainment who are not habituated toward stimulating cultural conversation and intellectual stretching.  The mix becomes more complicated and the way forward less clear.

We cannot just wipe the slate clean and start over.  The 19th century proved that becomes a hotbed of cults and strange new “organizations,” usually creating more faction than unity.

However, we can step back and get a bigger picture, allow for the various expressions of the “church” and then give ourselves the freedom to be responsible for ourselves without decrying that some people don’t like “church.”  We have to be okay with their leaving the “church” is not a bad thing.  If denominations dwindle their influence and power, if fewer “churches” are being planted, we have to be okay with that not being a bad thing.  If our friends, family, or children do not want to be affiliated with “church,” we have to be okay with that not being a bad thing.

Where do we step back?  Some have spoken for the need to be Scriptural and not just cater to our frustrations.  Duly noted.  The way forward must coincide with God’s larger story as revealed through Scripture.  Some have spoken that we need to be relevant to today’s needs.  Also duly noted.  The Scripture gives plenty of space for cultural context, not requiring we all wear togas, eat kosher, and quote Plato before we can engage healthy spirituality.

So what is “church”?  I raise the question this way because unless we know what we are, we cannot proceed forward.  And I think this is part of the identity that has been lost, like the guy who wanted to start a company to make chocolate and got so involved in accounting and marketing he forgot his love for chocolate.

It is important when we look up the meaning of “church” in the Scripture, we don’t just see how Strong’s defines “ekklesia” in Greek.  We have to note how this word is used in different contexts.  For example, “church” cannot mean the building on the corner when mentioned in Matthew 18 as a place for discipline.  There was no “church” of that kind.  So we have to wonder at what Jesus is referring to and if the same meaning can be brought forward.  Or take Acts 7 when Stephen talks about the people of Israel at Sinai.  The KJV actually translates them as the “church” of Israel.  Other translations call it the “assembly” of Israel.  This also is not the building on the corner as we know it.

“Assembly” is the plain definition of “church.”  And, throughout the Scripture, it seems to refer to either a local gathering or the identity of a larger group of people.  You might say you have an assembly in Ephesus or an assembly on the earth.  The assembly of Ephesus is part of the assembly on earth.  When we say “church” it has these different meanings depending on where you stand, though they are tightly connected as a concept for people under the same banner.

Another thing to note about “ekklesia” in the New Testament is how it is used in the Greek Old Testament.  In the Old Testament it refers to the “Assembly of Israel.”  In fact, the Hebrew word behind “ekklesia” is the word “kahal” which is the “House or Commonwealth of Israel.” 

The important link for us to consider (and this is the part that many people refuse to entertain) is that the New Testament was written by Jews who wrote with Hebrew concepts behind their word choices.  So when they say “ekklesia,” they are thinking of the same way they use “ekklesia” as Jews.  They aren’t creating a new concept.  To the New Testament writers, “Ekklesia” is the “House of Israel.”  As one Jewish scholar notes, “There is no ‘church’ in the Scripture!”  He, of course, means no “church” as we  usually define it.  The identity of believers of the God of Israel are part of the House of Israel.  Read Romans 9-11 and see how Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish story.  If we really want to be organic and “big picture” we have to cast our identity in with Israel for there is no other identity for the people of God but through them and their Messiah, Jesus.

Okay, that’s big picture.  The “church” wasn’t invented 2000 years ago.  It was created and chosen by God.  Beginning with Abraham, the nations are being reconciled to God through Abraham’s people and all who will be part of that story.

That big picture, if we really sit in it, will affect everything else we think about theology, our identity, and our purpose.  The Catholic Church believed (and still does) that the Jews are replaced by Christians, hence all the Jewish temple imagery imported into cathedrals.  The Temple has been rebuilt, complete with sacrifice on the alter at every Mass.  The Reformers also carried this idea forward, believing they replaced the Jews.  Notice how many reformed theologians and preachers (some of whom are a household name for church-folk) will quote the Old Testament and replace “Israel” with their own view of “church” as inheritors of promise.  A variety of Protestant churches still call the front of their church the “alter” and have “alter calls” as the “mercy seat.”  This is all Temple talk as if something in our church and our gathering has replaced God’s real Temple and the Jewish people.

I do not believe the Gentile church has replaced the Jews.  I think we're part of them as younger siblings.  This is how we are very different from the Abrahamic faith of Islam which continues the replacement tradition, replacing the Jews, then the Christians.  Rather, the Christian story is the Jewish story.  It's one story.

If I had one guess why today’s “churches” are covered in criticism, it is because God is moving among us.  He’s gently pointing out that our idea of church has missed the larger picture of his work in the world.  Until we see Israel as the center people of the story, we will miss what is going on.  While this may raise just as many questions as it answers, we have to press forward.  The fragmentation of “church” as we know it, may not be a bad thing.

So what about that building on the corner?  This has been the larger puzzle for me.  I can’t say that I’m totally confident in my view on this yet.  I haven’t heard others talk about it, so that always leaves me cautious.  However, this won’t be the first time I’ve stumbled on some ideas and found out later that it was a clearer path.

The building on the corner we affectionately call “church” is actually a community center.  Just as my little town of Steamboat has a community center, so the “church” in Steamboat has a variety of community centers.  These centers have names like “Baptist,” “Methodist,” “Christian” in the titles.  But they are not the church.  The church is believers in the Messiah of Israel who are part of the House of Israel.

These believers create all sorts of community benefits: community centers (formerly called “churches”), hospitals, universities, shelters, pregnancy care clinics, non-profits, etc.  When believers want to create a building in which to meet, that is their choice.  The sad part is when people feel guilted into going to the community center every week to be part of “church.”

This is where I differ from many church critics.  I do not want us to abolish community centers (formerly called “churches”).  If people want to run them as a place to meet others, for non-believers to investigate biblical questions, for weddings and funerals, for therapy, then that is their prerogative.  I don’t see any Biblical reason why this should not be so.

Many may agree with this and find this a normal way to think about the building organization.  But I invite you to watch your language and see how you speak about the community center.  Do you call it the “Lord’s house?”  Do you call it the place of worship?  Do you speak of going to the center as “going to church”?  Are you frustrated when the numbers and down which triggers a feeling that fewer people love God today?  These are all evidence that we really have identified the church as the organization on the corner.

I find it interesting when Paul speaks of the church in Ephesus.  Think of the House of Israel in Ephesus, the gentiles included.  Think of the people assembling together, in homes, or however they gathered to worship and share.  While people together will organize, this does not mean people together automatically become an “organization” as we see it today.  This wasn’t an organization with large offerings for the local community centers.  This wasn’t an organization complete with pastors, elders, deacons in every gathering running the show.  Each assembly may well not have had their own elders, as each assembly may not be that large or may have people coming and going to different gatherings around the town.

This may be why many people feeling more connected through their coworkers are their work, through coffee shop conversations, through informal get-togethers with friends.  It may be that we are being a community by living in community.  The community center called “church” moves away from the center of our attention to the periphery.  Just like there is more to Steamboat than our community center, so most of our identity as God’s community needs to take place outside of any community center, indeed, even without one.

So where to the people God gifts with being pastor/teachers, elders, deacons, etc, fit in?  I’m still unsure if these are “offices” as we use the term today.  They may just be recognized gifted people just as the Jews saw their elders, teachers, and servants (the same titles of appointment are used for those who assisted Moses).  They assist the larger church, sitting at the gates with the other Jewish elders, likely going to differing gatherings and participating in a larger community.  I believe elders were over the whole city of people, not just over one street corner as we have it today.  Notice when Paul commissions the elders of Ephesus in Acts; he doesn’t commission them to their local gatherings but over the “church of God,” the House of Israel in the area. Imagine that being the case today, where elders weren’t limited to a board of directors in a community center, were not “professional” ministers, but were considered watchdogs against abuse and harmful ideas in the larger body. 

I can really see how positions of leadership in this kind of setting safeguards against the narcissism we see in many leaders today.  They would be recognized by the people rather than appointed by a few.  And if people didn’t see them as elders without the qualifications Paul lists in Timothy, then their authority would be unrecognized.  It would be the people of the House of Israel who would recognize them, not the institution that put them on payroll.

What about membership?  Membership means you’re part of the House of Israel.  You can make a membership at the community center, just like you can if you started a Christian Golf Club.  But the Scripture doesn’t speak of membership in those terms.  It is always being a “member” of the organic body of Israel with the Jewish Messiah as the Head.  Many members, one Body, with Jesus as the Head.

What about the disenfranchised people who struggle over leaving their community center and painfully believe they are leaving the “church”?  We pray for them.  We get involved in their lives.  We do not pretend the community center is what unites us.  We might even join them as they seek to implement the faith in fresh ways.  And we start taking responsibility for ourselves with a bigger picture of who we are as the people of God. 

Perhaps this could well answer Christian Smith’s call to adjust “church” for emerging adults, as he talked about in a recent interview.

"Lost in Translation" interview with Christian Smith,

Many churches are set up to cater to married couples with children. This is a well-known fact. And they may try to do something for teens and emerging adults. But trying to be more conscious and intentional about the language they use, the programs they offer, so those who are not married and don't have children are not sidelined—that's a start. But it probably will require more creative thinking about context—I don't even want to say programs—but ways to form communities and places where people can connect and work out common interests beyond the standard worship service and Sunday school.

I like his reference to "context."  Yes, on my view, we need to place our whole paradigm within a different context.

I could be way off.  I need to be convinced that I'm not.  If this larger vision is what God is up to, reminding his people that they are not disconnected from the House of Israel, preparing the world for Messiah’s return, are we willing to step away from our religious loyalty to the community center and consider the wilder following of the Spirit in the broader House of God?  Are we willing to gathering however the Spirit leads us in unity, engaging in spiritual growth, intelligent conversation, prayer, sharing, song, and teaching one another?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Church"? ... unraveling the crisis

Continuing the theme of the previous post, I’ve appreciated several observations that I want to summarize.

1)  Many Christians are discouraged with “church,” not just any "church," but “church” in general, not only as irrelevant but unbiblical.

2) Pastors and elders tend to blame the lazy and complaining people in the congregation for many of these problems.  These problems would be sorted out if people were hard-working, more submissive to leadership, and knew the Bible.
3)  Some of these complaints are surface issues, symptoms of a deeper problem. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, 

  • a general unfriendliness of fellow Christians in large group settings,
  • passivity, the masses listening to the few,
  • content control,
  • church is an entertainment production to attract a larger attendance,  
  • the church mimics popular culture with appeal to instant gratification, 
  • and an authoritarian approach where those at the top tell those under them what to think and believe without equipping them with good reasons or practice.

3) Some of the complaints are systematic, including, but not limited to, 

  • a strict hierarchy (senior pastor at top, etc) of the church creates a more passive approach from the people,
  • the institution tends to focus on abstract beliefs and programs rather than relationships, 
  • denomination create an environment unwilling to identity with other “churches,” 
  • church services, pastoral “vision” and programs tend to leave out how the Spirit moves among a people with the Messiah as the real head, 
  • leadership caters more to the masses than to individuals, 
  • our evangelical churches overemphasis on Paul’s letters to the exclusion of the gospels and Old Testament.

What I want us to consider in this post as we search for the root of this issue (and I do believe some of the root is clearly knowable and that changes can be made) is to consider that many people EXPECT more out of the “church” (as we know it) than it seems able to give.  Likewise, the “church” (as we know it), may be promising more than it can deliver.  I feel these assumptions are themselves indicators of something deeper that needs definition.

We may find some helpful perspective in identifying what the “church” IS in general.  The previous comments have made a distinction made between the people and the institution.  This is an important distinction if we're to unravel the larger crisis we see today.

  • Is the church both of them?   
  • Is the organizing of a people an automatic institution as we know it?   
  • Have we historically been thinking of the “offices” “format,” “government,” “membership” qualities of the institution in the right way (do we automatically use the verses to justify the positions and formats we have at our “church”?),  
  • Do we identify ourselves more closely with the people or the institution?   
  • Do we identify ourselves along denominational lines and part of a pastor’s flock OR do we more automatically identify ourselves with all Jesus followers in our town?   
  • Does the "way we've always done it" cloud our reading of Scripture for what it really says?
  • Is there a new way to think about this distinction  between people and institution we haven’t thought of before? 
  • And, most importantly, are we in a posture of humility, willing to change should we need to? 
Continued on next post.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Exactly is "Church"?

We've all witnessed the onslaught of recent publishing.  We've read the articles that speak to so many people leaving church.  We've seen the books by people disillusioned with church.  We're heard the statistics decrying that most students won't even attend church by the time they are out of college.  Many leaders are fretting over the dropped attendance as an indication of the spiritual maturity of the Christian population.

What exactly is going on here? Why are people discouraged with church? What is church that it isn't meeting people's needs? What is it about church that seems to be missing the point?

Many surface features come to mind: music, preaching, shifting more liberal or more conservative, trendy, laziness, etc. But there must be something more. Is there something intrinsic to today's church that repels so many people who follow Jesus (and those who don't!)?

I really want to know some what you're observing where you are? What are you feeling about church that troubles you? What are people talking about? Have you heard some important insights? What is "church" and what should we do about it? Throw them into the comment section and let's discuss!

Continued on next post.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Beyond the Border: The Mystery of Mystery

When I began to take my faith serious in my late teens, few things made me feel more alone among God’s so-called people than when my Christian community discouraged me from testing and pressing into my faith. They would say, “Don’t think too much!” or in more disguised positive ways like, “You just have to take it by faith,” or in ways that made me feel like I had a disease like, “Man, you’re deep!” Pressing into the so-called “deeper” things with thoughtful reflection was my life’s blood. If life itself was a meaningful as I sensed that it was, I couldn’t settle for pat answers, party-lines, and the insistent simpleness of the mob who fail to risk their reputation for freedom.

That was how I felt then, needing to push aside systems and people, including the church, in order to find light and truth. My quest continues. But the irresistible gnawing at my soul in those early years was unbearable, a real darkness, a kind of hell. A recent Christianity Today article moved this theme in me, “Reveling in the Mystery.” D.H. Williams, professor at Baylor College, explores the mystery of God. He writes, “As a result, Christianity has struggled since the 3rd century to avoid what theologian Jaroslav Pelikan called a "tyranny of epistemology" in its understanding of God and God's revelation to us. Simply put, this tyranny occurs when Christians think of God as a great field of investigation, a problem to be solved.” I can affirm that some have treated God as a problem to be solved. Wrap God up in a pretty box with a bow on top and call it “Christianity.” In reality, these are seeking merely propositions about God, in part, because the more you know the more you can control. It is a tyranny both of the knower and for those around him. I find that people in this position are often insecure and afraid and need our patience.

Many in the Emergent movement have decried the tyranny of epistemology, sometimes overstating exactly what the tyranny is out of their own insecurity, but still bearing at the heart of it an insistence that when we act as though we have the special corner on truth, all parsed and dissected, we are actually farther than God in our arrogance than we ever were without our knowledge. In dissecting our theology too much, we something gets lost. The patient dies. I know some groups that denounced the Emergent church as heretical, yet I suspect that denouncement can only come from those who have both misunderstood as well as become tyrants themselves with a wooden view of God and the universe. Yet, the other spectrum is equally dangerous, that we can know very little and must revel in nebulous mystery if we’re going anywhere. Reveling in mystery can become wallowing in mystery. Some of the people of my growing up years were like this, taking “faith” to mean contentment in not knowing even basic ideas revealed to us by God—things that God seems very keen on us knowing.

Williams then takes the reader through several stages in the mystical journey of the Christian journey, drawn from Gregory of Nyssa who draws these ideas from Moses. The reading is very interesting, so I recommend going through the article (one of the better ones by CT). While I’m unsure of Gregory’s hermeneutic that Moses life is an outline for our own, I do think many of the mystical experiences in this article are common to those who press into God, bringing all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

In reading the article, I wondered how we can explain mystery more clearly, at least to me. What exactly is mystery? Where does mystery begin?

Paul often talks about the "mystery of time," by which he means things we did not know and now do know. Jesus the Messiah being one such example of a revealed mystery. We did not know God would send THIS kind of Messiah! This is one of the pleasures of surprise in education: every day new knowledge comes to us. More mysteries revealed. With this kind of mystery, we go into the darkness of knowing that we don’t know. And, once illuminated, we now know.

Many of our questions in life are like this. We come to learn many things, just as the questioners Nicodemus and Thomas came to learn by simply asking their questions. And we continue to know as we grow. Like a child must have pureed vegetables, an adult gets to indulge in all the crispy pleasure of a ripened broccoli. We get to grow up in our knowledge too, taking in all that we are capable of. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

But there is another kind of mystery, one that is more interesting to me and more at the heart of this post. It is the "mystery of relationship." Mike Mason wrote the only marriage book I recommend for anyone serious about getting married called, “The Mystery of Marriage.” Marriage is a mystery, because marriage is relational. Unlike the mystery of education, where we grow to know more as we study, the mystery of relationships involves mysteries we may never know as we have no capacity to get into the mind of the other. As much as we can show courtesy to see things from another’s perspective, we can never get inside their skin.

This is true with God as well. He reveals things to us, but we only know him as we get to know him. Because he is Creator and we are creaturely, many things about him I may never know, but can only experience. I’ve heard the verse abused, “His ways are higher than our ways,” to mean that that God is indescribable, past understanding. But that’s not the context of Isaiah (55:8). God is referring to his love, that quality so broad and deep, that we hardly approach understanding how much he cares about his creation and to what ends he goes to be with humans and redeem them. Who knows what he will do next? Who knows what his full feelings are for me? Who knows how far he is inviting me up his mountain? That is mysterious indeed.

Paul was getting at this kind of mystery in Ephesians, when he wrote, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). Love is a mystery. It is only known, not through propositions, but through experience. Like a rainbow, you can see love, but you cannot bottle it.

This morning I listened to the bull elks bugling in the forest around our cabin. The bulls are collecting harems, their mistresses of the rut. Their trumpeting bugle echoes off the canyon walls, inciting fights from other bulls and inviting cow elks to their bedroom chambers.

I hike into the 100 acres of aspen, pine, and gamble oak that we affectionately call the “White Woods”. I see the sign, the scraped trees, the scat on the ground. I smell the musk in the air. I even walked up on a bull last week. Within my boundaries, I can explore what the elk are doing, see the spike following the bull, see the cow a hundred yards to the south making her approach.

I think of the boundaries as the knowledge we grow into. And while there is still much to know, knowledge is available to me. Yet what goes on outside my boundaries? I can still hear bugling. But I cannot explore it. I cannot see the clashing of antlers between two mature bulls. I cannot count the number of heads in the herds. My boundaries are not limitless. Beyond my borders, mystery comes to me in sounds and hints, enough for my imagination to marvel at what lies beyond.

Most of each person lies beyond our borders: My wife, my friends, God, and even myself. I am closer to myself than anyone else in existence, yet I have depths I do not understand. My self-knowledge is limited. I gain some tools through therapy, unpacking my past, letting the Spirit search me, knowing myself and my desires, but I see a deep, dark well within me, one that I will never fully know. I explore what I can until I hit the border when I can go no further. I can grow in virtue, but it will require more than willpower to change myself. If I’m mysterious to me, if I have parts inaccessible by my own faculties, then all I can do is hear the faintest hints of who I am and what lies beneath and let my imagination marvel. “I am fearfully made.”

The mystery of mystery is that God’s generosity puts us in a world too big for us, inviting us to know all we can and marvel in what is beyond. We do this generosity a disservice when we use “mystery” to be lazy, as an excuse from pushing into love because our souls are weak and undisciplined. Only a mind awake takes the greatest pleasures in what is unknowable because it it knows its own limits, seeing mystery not as a hindrance nor as fearful, but a place filled with God’s love unfolding colors I can only dare to dream about.

One day we will see God’s face and I pray that we recognize it. Perhaps the only way forward is to take what God has revealed, press into its meaning as much as we can, and then allow the mysteries that lie beyond the border continue to sound off.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When America was Humble

My cousin sent me this article today: High-Five Nation. The writer, David Brooks, reflects back on an earlier page in American culture--the day WW2 ended. Americans were sober, grateful, humble. I was encouraged to see a better time in American sentiment, when we didn't think we were the best, when we just did what we could to get the right things done within our legitimate power.

This article invigorated me again that when we are humble, we are great. In light of the last post on our fear-mongering politics, this is a more positive attitude forward than insisting our status quo is the "right" and only way, using humility rather than majority power and slippery rhetoric to move forward.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts on 9/11 - Are we free?

I was sitting in the kitchen of my soon-to-be fiance's house in California... strangely enough I was living there, but that's another story. (Eleven days later I would propose.) It was around 7am.

At the kitchen table on September 11, 2001, I was eating cereal (maybe with some toast), when Jonalyn's grandmother stepped in from next door. "You won't have heard about this yet, but the World Trade Center has been attacked." She elaborated on what happened.

Any dramatic moment in our lives makes time slow, puts our sense on alert, our imagination spinning, "What does this mean?" We didn't know. Two wars later, we may still not know.

We went to class. Jonalyn and I had the same class that morning on epistemology. How do you know what you know? Do you know what you know? What if we're deceived and think we know but we only grasp to something false and hence do not know what we thought we knew? That's the weird mind-bending stuff of epistemology. That was our first class that day. Fitting.

Our professor paused and asked the class what they thought of the events of the morning in NY. Many wanted to attack the perpetrators immediately (most of the students in the class were male, interestingly). Though the criminals were all dead and bound to no sovereign nation of origin, my fellow students were ready to shoot into the dark. I wasn't ready to attack. I didn't know what to do.

I had lunch with that same professor that day. Chinese food, I think. He took an interest in me. Normal guy behind all that brain. That's when I caught the first images of what happened in NY. The television at the entrance of the restaurant replayed footage of the towers disintegrating like sand.

Just 21 months after the new millennium was SUPPOSED to be defined by Y2K, the world was redefined by primitive sabotage.

The world fixed its attention in this new era on hostiles. We allowed ourselves to be defined, not by what we love, but by what we fear.

And perhaps that is what has changed the American landscape most dramatically. It wasn't being struck on native turf, but by how we responded and continue to respond as people who insist we have our fate in our hands and must manipulate to a predefined "American way" at all costs. All costs.

Most of history learns to live with such tragedy and are deepened by it. Nobody likes it, but then the better way to live is to not fear being afraid of it.

I'm reminded of this "American way" every time I air travel. Every time I go through security, wearing shoes to wear that slip on and off easily, pants that don't require a belt, the pack that slides a laptop in and out in a flash, the empty water bottle to fill up in the terminal, the to be without toiletries should a plane be delayed, the misfortune of packing a week of clothing into a carry-on.

Every security point, every TSA worker that looks like they've been on shift with grumpy people one hour too long, every report in the terminals that the security alert that day is "orange" (it is always ORANGE!... it is so typically orange that the meaning of orange has worn on... why not just tell people to be alert instead of watering down the coloring system, giving us evidence that even when we're under the scary color orange, life is normal?). All of this because we fear our enemies, all enforced by politicians who do not bear such inconveniences, making laws for the unsafe little people in our land, because we know our lawmakers are always safe, right?

And so the fear continues. Terrorists yesterday. Environment and health care today. We continue to be motivated, not by what we love, but by what we fear. We are afraid life will be dramatically altered if we don't cash in our clunkers (a 'rescue' with a very misleading name), not wanting to preserve the earth because we love it, but because we fear our lifestyle will be changed.

Nobody is talking about reducing urban centers that choke out nature and community. I continue to see fancy commercials about reducing waste and saving the earth, only to see images and messages for these campaigns coming from urban centers where the earth has been demolished and people lack knowledge of farming, forest, fresh air, where "conveniences" rule the day, and anonymity is an option. We crave the sophistication of the city, women in their vulnerable high heals, men in their ties, none of which is very suitable to actually living in nature, all the dress code of a location where we pretend we are safe, where our ties won't get caught on trees, where our heals will not require we know how to run. We've created a false world and now we want to preserve it.

The same can be said for the economy... for all we see in the media, we're willing to sell our souls to let the government bail us out so our economy can grow. We're willing to pick on minorities (our politicians appeal to the majority by using derogatory words for the minority, like "the rich" or "wealthy") to ease our lives--much like we did with the minority in the years of slavery. Is that all we are, economic animals, scroungers? We need the economy to grow because we fear our enemies will outpace us, grow stronger than us, demolish us. A legitimate fear? Perhaps. But does it steal our freedom to fight it?

And then health care, with a myriad of voices all wanting reform (yes, let's reform it! Let's stop suing doctors for not being shamans and not raising the dead so that their insurance premiums can go down so we can pay decent prices!)... but nobody can agree with what reform we want or need. One hundred years ago, nobody had health care. We had less a problem with death because we knew life was more than the body. Today's technology promises we can alleviate our fears of sickness so that we can.... wait, what exactly do we plan to do with all our health and life? Oh, yes, continue to live in fear over the environment, economy, and some rogues.

Or we can be free. As William Stuntz has pointed out, "Some might wish for an American future free of culture wars. I don't. I think these battles are worth fighting, but I do wish for good wars, the kind [Martin Luther] King fought, the kind in which we love our enemies and fight for the chance to embrace them." May the things we live for today be things worthy of our humanity, free of fear, reaching forward into what is hearty and good.

Edit 9/15: this article I think speaks into our present situation... allowing fear to rob of us freedom, wanting immediate "change" to overhaul our evils, surrendering our thoughtfulness to "experts," and our resources to a few at the top.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is Apologetics Relevant? (+ free book!)

Some of you know Jonalyn and I contributed essays to Apologetics for a New Generation, edited by Sean McDowell. Sean wanted to give a justification for apologetics in a postmodern world as well as stave off detractors who think of apologetics as merely a one-dimensional answering machine.

Today (Aug 25), Sean will be on with Brett Kunkle (another essay contributor in the book) discussing the role of apologetics today. This live conversation will also include live questions, which you can submit while you listen.

Airtime will be from 10-11am Pacific time. So you can listen while you study, listen at your computer while you work, or later download it for podcast. Those who listen will get the opportunity to download the full book, Apologetics for a New Generation, for free. Our essays alone are worth the download! :)

Here's the link: (The "A" Word)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How Honest Are You? A reflection-review on Scott Peck's _People of the Lie_

Going to a therapist takes great courage, says M. Scott Peck. He adds that exploring our souls through therapy is deeply human, a unique quality among creatures. But therapy fails to work for everyone; it only works for those who want to get better.

Honesty is necessary for anyone serious with soul formation, Jesus changing us with his love and truth. Therapy assists us in that. If you believe you have the honesty but not yet the courage to visit a therapist or do not believe plopping down a decent sum for an hour of their time each week, then I have a book for you.

People of the Lie, by psychotherapist M. Scott Peck, has joined my top ten list. Every page pushed me, carried me forward, probed me with self-examining questions (do I really want truth?), helped me understand others and notice excuses and scapegoating ("the genesis of human evil" - 74). I better understand what sin looks like and why the modern church struggles to see transformation beyond moral behavior happening in the pews.

Be warned. If you’re not willing to explore your soul, this book can make you a worse person, a better hider. I agree with C. S. Lewis when he says (I paraphrase), truth will either make you better or worse; of all bad men religious bad men are the worst; of all creatures, the most demonic is the one who stood in the immediate presence of God (from Reflections on the Psalms). I know people who need this book for their own recovery; but I wouldn’t recommend it to them if I do not perceive a willingness to let light shine in. For "the pretense of the evil [person] is designed at least as much to deceive themselves as others." (106) This book will be a real hope, when they are ready. But not before.

For those who are ready, expect morsels on every page. Peck formats his book in conversations, followed by analysis. Both captivate the reader as Peck writes satisfyingly well. His conversations peek into the psychotherapist’s room, talking with patients, asking questions, giving evaluations. Through the candid dialog, you see the patient’s hang-ups, hear how Peck sees or feels befuddled by an issue, how the patients deliberately make excuses, hide, ignore, protest, put up defenses in their words or their posture. Through the book, the author grows as he weighs problems and soberly estimates his own abilities.

Though complex stories of hiding human evil form the backbone of the book, Peck starts with a couple of simpler one to give the reader eyes to see evil. For example: parents give their son a gun for Christmas and don’t understand why he’s depressed. On evaluation, Peck discovers the older brother committed suicide with this same gun. When Peck questions the parents, they thought it odd the gift would cause a problem and protested that with their lack of money, the gun was a perfect, coveted gift for a boy his age. But it is very likely, Peck replies, they are sending their son a message that they’d like him to use the gun on himself, just as his brother did. They continue the scapegoating that they are uneducated, blue-collar, cannot be expected to know these kinds of nuances...

That story is a clear sign of something evil in the parents, a deliberate ignorance, though they seem typical friendly people when you meet them.

Peck believes more evil people live outside of prison than in prison. In fact, most in jail are not truly evil people. They acted out of neurosis or tough times. But evil people are deliberate hiders, long-term, masquerading in law firms, churches, politics, and local supermarkets.

Evil often stems from parenting. Children become victims that have an opportunity to break out or remain in the web of deceit. One story unfolded of a woman and her very co-dependent, passive-aggressive mother. The mother craftily shaped her own identity with her daughter's. The mother resented the father and had frequent sexual liaisons. The daughter learned to do the same and even compared notes with her mother. They both stood against her father. As the years passed, the daughter discovered her father wasn’t such a bad guy as she was brought up to believe. And whenever she tried to separate from her mother, her mother would mischievously find a way to suck her back in (you have to read the dialogue to see how these things play out in real life).

A fascinating part of the story is this woman’s phobia spiders. She transferred her fear of her mother to spiders, never wanting to be honest about her mother, refusing to blame her for being evil, insisting other reasons explain why she sits in the therapists chair. The spiders represented the feeling of being trapped, stuck, a victim sucked of blood. As she grew toward heath, she admitted that her fear of spiders was her emotional response to her feelings toward her mother.

That related to my own life as I've worked to unpack the story. I have a phobia, not of spiders, but of needles. I’m the worst case I know of. I don’t pass out: I go into panic attacks, low blood pressure, heavy sweats. This happens at movies, doctor's waiting rooms, dentists chairs. I’ve even had a dentist poised to call the ambulance (I know, crazy, huh?). I pondered the cause of my transference to this irrational phobia. I think I found it. I’m still experimenting. I’ve shared my theory with my own therapist and she affirmed it. But time will tell as I heal from evil done to my soul, evil that I blamed myself for as a child instead of blaming the perpetrator. Children are prone to self-blame, I’m learning, and that goes very deep.

"Whenever there is evil, there's a lie around." (135) Lies that cover up, paint a rosier picture, create pretense, refuse to disclose certain truths. While all lies are evil, not all liars are evil people. They slowly grow evil as they continue to lie. It is possible to have a vice and then become your vice. The question for us is not whether or not Satan, the Father of Lies, has a finger in our lives. The question is how much and what we are doing about it? The older we get the more calcified we can become, the further we grow away from truth, light, and love when we are unwilling to face our problems, the lies we insulate around us to protect us from having to face our spouses, our children, our parents, our belief systems, ourselves.

Peck gradually leads the reader to the most severe kinds of evil: the demonic. As the book begins, he disbelieves in the devil. But through analysis, he bumped into two particular cases of demon possession, where Satan took residence in a person.

The demonic is not another form of schizophrenia, for schizophrenia is a disorder where the multiple personalities do not know one another. For the demonically possessed, the patient does know this other personality that traps the patient, suffocating them within.

Peck describes pieces of two different exorcisms in which he participated. He notes consistencies these demonic personalities had and the lies they spewed (interestingly , some of the lies are ones that we often hear praised in spiritual conversations). I read part of this section before sleep one evening and I dreamed bizarre pictures filled with fear. I don’t recommend reading that section at night. But for all that, I came out the other side of that chapter very encouraged, not only with the limitations of Satan’s power in the physical world, but also with the power of humans individuals who love. We are made in the image of God, after all.

Peck includes a perspective-shifting chapter on “group evil” where he describes how institutions can make us all culpable of certain crimes. This chapter validated thoughts I've about huge institutions, the craftiness of power-brokering in the name of virtue, the rhetoric to disguise real intentions. The larger the institution, the easier evil can hide and wreak havoc, including governments and churches.

For example, we follow orders and few know who is ultimately responsible. Even our tax money goes toward evil things, making everyone guilty of some kinds of evil at some level. The ones at the top, generals, presidents, and CEOs, are not the ones who pull the trigger on the ground. Foot soldiers and employees do that. Citizens foot the bill. Everyone does as they are told, blind to the consequences up and down the chain.

The last chapter of the book, on love, is worth the price of the book. The impact of the final section means more when you read the book all the way through.

I disagree with some aspects of Peck’s theological views, like his view that Satan will have a chance at the end of history to make a choice of redemption. But despite theological disagreements, his view of love and evil are not easily dismissed and are well worth your attention.

The way out of evil? Love, which begins with noting the evil within yourself and facing it, which sometimes means therapy. Love is a light that will change the direction of evil. Only the love of individuals can sacrificially absorb evil and set others free. This is the love modeled by Jesus, the love he gives us, the love his Spirit empowers in us. "People can deliberately allow themselves to be pierced by evil of even be killed in some sense and yet still survive and not succumb. Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world." (269). Facing evil, though painful, is liberating, cleansing, a relief for everyone who wants to be whole.

Peck is a huge proponent of appropriate humanness. I wish he were alive so I could thank him for shining the light of love and truth and letting me know just how far the love of God goes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Very Serious Look at Reductive Science

Science is usually defined as the study of material things.

Reductive science is the study of material things that add on the assumption that material things can explain everything else in the universe. Simple examples: our search for God is merely a problem with our parents; love is just a chemical in the brain; beauty is merely a pleasurable experience; free will is only an illusion--in reality it is the result of randomly bouncing atoms making decisions for you; the meaning of relationships is only the drive to procreate; and so on...

What happens when someone challenges that reductive conclusions are also reductive? Here John Cleese gives us a look.

Have a look and let me know your insights!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jesus as a Jew?

When you hear the name, "Jesus" what image comes into your mind? I'm not talking about the image you conjure up after you think what the right answer would be. I'm talking about the immediate image that floats on the screen of your mind. Let me know and let's talk about it.

Theological historian, Oskar Skarsaune puts it like this,
We may like to think that nowadays Christians in general and Bible scholars in particular have repudiated and surrendered [an] anti-Jewish and unhistorical "unJewing" of Jesus. But it gives us food for thought to hear a rabbi say, "I have seen pictures and sculptures of Jesus in all kinds of dress and color of skin: as a blond Scandinavian, as a Latin American, as a black African, even as a Chinese. I believe there is only one version of Jesus I have never seen: I have never seen him dressed as a Jew, prayer-shawl, phylacteries and all." When you come to think of it...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Government Soul: Taxing Generosity - 3

The last two days, I've been discussing some of the tax hikes the Obama administration is planning, particularly those aimed at donations to non-profits (and I run a non-profit). What has concerned me most, however is the rhetoric that is geared to gain support from people unfamiliar with the real issues. This not only hurts the soul of our culture but the souls of those playing word games.

Apparently Washington has been reading my blog.... :) ... because this article was found on page 3 of the Wall Street Journal, "White House Rethinks Tax Hikes."

Even congressional members of the Democratic Party are giving resistence, including the top tax writer who is chairman of the Finance Committee. You can read the article for the questions being raised.

Two comments stood out to me. One was by Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner when he said the tax proposals "affects only about 1.2% of taxpayers." Yet, that's not the point at all. This is still stuck in political spin. It's not about how many taxpayers are affected, it's about how many non-profits are affected. That 1.2% represent a large part of giving, which Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, said would have been hit over the last two years with nearly $4B in losses to non-profits. You have to compare apples to apples to see real impacts.

Geithner also said that the tax proposal would only have a "modest negative impact." How does he know? Nobody knows until the taxes are enacted, when government grows and charities shrink.

The other thing that stood out to me represented the real kind of change America has been wanting. It came from Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell. "Why not look at a broader approach to tax policy, [rather] than coming in with this proposed change to marginal rates?"

Tell it like it is, sister!

THAT is the CHANGE America needs right now. Creativity and real reform, cleaning up the 66,000 pages of tax law we currently have! We do not need some easy slap on tax rate hike that doesn't clean up Washington nor help anyone else. That'll help a lot of souls, including Washington's.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Government Soul: Taxing Generosity - 2

Yesterday, I mentioned the new tax proposals of the Obama administration, targeting particularly those who make over $200k. I want to reflect today on a comment made by Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget that appears to be as intentionally deceptive in this article. Excerpt:
Thursday, the White House defended Mr. Obama's proposal, saying that the wealthy people it would affect would still have significant deductions from charitable contributions.

On a $10,000 donation, a family in the 15% tax bracket would save $1,500 in taxes, but wealthier taxpayers would save more. If philanthropist Bill Gates makes that same contribution -- without the proposed limits -- he would save $3,500 in his taxes, said Peter Orszag, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

"All we're saying is we think Bill Gates should get a $2,800 tax break -- still a lot larger than a middle-income family -- rather than the $3,500 one," Mr. Orszag said.

This is intetionally deceptive for two main reasons. 1) The average reader will see these numbers and get the impression that the "wealthy" already get an unfair larger tax break over the "middle-income family." 2) What Orszag calls a "tax break," isn't a "tax break."

The idea behind tax-deductions through generosity is so that if you decide to forgoe income in order to help an IRS approved non-profit organization, then you are not taxed for that income. It makes sense: why be taxed for monies you don't keep or use for yourself? Why tax money you voluntarily do not claim as your own?

Because you are not taxed on money you give away, this is not a "tax break" at all. You don't get any special tax advantage for giving away money. It's as if you didn't have the money to begin with, it doesn't go into your savings. You get no personal benefit from it whatsoever. When you donate money, the money is gone, period. You simply are not taxed for money you hand out to IRS approved organizations.

Let's suppose two people made $100k each. Using the illustration of Orszag, one is in the 15% tax bracket and another in the 35% tax bracket. If neither of them gave money away, the first would be left with $85k after taxes. The second with $65k after taxes. You can clearly see who is left with the most money. The middle-income earner, dollar for dollar, takes more money home.

Orszag said that the 35% tax bracket gets a bigger "tax break" than the 15% tax bracket. But that's he's basing his "tax break" language on a higher tax bracket which pays more taxes already. Then he shows two people donating the same amount of money (which is unfair comparson, because people who make more, donate a higher percentage of their income). Then, he converts the percentages into real numbers (which is a misleading apples/orange comparison). These numbers are all corelated to the tax bracket, not to real number tax breaks. Any one would rather be in the 15% tax bracket than the 35% tax bracket and take the lesser "tax break." Calling it a "tax break" is intentionally deceiving to get people to ignorantly favor his point of view.

If the "wealthy" automatically got a $3500 tax break and the middle-income family a $1,500 tax break, that would be an unjust oucry. Everyone should get the same real number tax breaks. But the system isn't based on real numbers, but on percentages. The percentages are always higher on the "wealthy." When converted to real numbers, the "wealthy" always have higher numbers when it comes to paying taxes as well as their "tax breaks" because that's what percentages do!

I hope you're still tracking with me. Many people don't see the deception in the rhetoric because many people get confused with number-talk. But I believe you can get this... just review it (or ask a question) if it seems unclear or difficult.

But let's move to the next level. Obama's admin wants to reduce the amount of tax deduction a "wealthy" person can make from 35% to 28%. Currently, if someone is generous, he doesn't have to pay taxes for being generous. But on Obama's new plan, he does have to pay taxes for being generous.

Let's look at our scenario again. Two people have $100k each. One in the 15% tax bracket, the other in the 35% tax bracket. For the sake of discussion, let's say they both contributed all their money to a charity in 2009. On this scenario, both would walk away not paying any taxes. Why should they? They voluntarily gave up their income and have nothing for themelves.

But let's fastforward to Obama's plan. Both give all their income away. The person in the 15% tax bracket would walk away paying no taxes because he made no income. The person in the 35% tax bracket DOES pay taxes, even though he made no income! Why? Because Obama's new plan is even taxing the income that is given away to an IRS approved non-profit. This person in the 35% tax bracket, on Obama's plan, has to pay $7,000 in taxes on this $100k, even though he shows making no income (because he gave it all away). So now this person can only donate, roughly, $93,500 because he has to save the balance to pay the tax.

On this scenario, non-profits are shortchanged 7% and the generous person in the 35% tax bracket is required to pay taxes on money he doesn't show as income and does not keep for himself. Local non-profits who do not receive federal aid are hit hardest... theoretically, the federal government is removing resources from these non-profits (which is why many non-profits say this is the wrong tax-deduction to remove, especially in a hard economy... there are plenty of other loopholes that the mega-rich have setup to avoid high taxes that the $200k income earner cannot get.... but I digress).

But wait! When Obama raises the 35% tax bracket to 39.6% (as I understand the propsal), then non-profits are not shortchanged 7%, but nearly 12%! That they are comparing the 'tax break' to today's tax brackets and not to the tax brackets that are tied up with this 'tax break,' is also misleading.

Now go back and read Orszag's comments in light of this and how he confuses the reader with his numbers about a so-called "tax break." Does this sound odd to you? Why not just say it like it is? It's not reducing a tax break, as you don't get any benefit from the money you generously give. It's rather a program that says generous money must come from taxed money. Plain as that. It is a taxing on generosity.

The government is free to do this. And I must admit that over this past year, we probably donated more taxed money than non-taxed money (because many local needs are not related to an IRS-approved tax-deductible organization... like the hungry neighbor down the street or the teenager that needs counseling.)... we do our best to donate to needs, not based on whether we can write it off.

But while the government is free to do this, at least call it what it is. It is not reducing a huge "tax-break" for the wealthy. It isn't a tax-break at all. It is taxing donated money. Calling it a "tax-break" is, from my perspective, about as laughable as reducing the sentence on an innocent man and calling it "compassion."

For the sake of clarity, it isn't the taxing of generosity that bugs me most (though I run a non-profit and am not thrilled by the news). What bugs me is the deception and injustice and preying on people who don't understand the system, creating a happy populist or happy majority who march to the beat of the drum without understanding what is going on. If this is the best way forward, then be clear and plain. When deceptive words come into play (think Wormtongue), we should be suspicious that something more is going on.

As I do work for Soulation, I am aware that damaging the soul and being inappropriately human can happen at any level of life: rich or poor, healthy or sick, ivy-league or high-school dropout. We have a choices to be transparent and truthful; and choices to cloak our langauge to persuade people less informed (called, "lying").

When any public official misleads the public, this damages his own soul. And we should be concerned, at the end of the day, not only with the economy and poverty, with national security and public museums, with creation-care and energy independence, but also that those who lead and those who follow are not become people of the lie. Our politicians (and those who work for them) have souls too. And when they twist their souls to aid their money-goals, it is not creating the "change" for a better life for any of us.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Government Soul: Taxing Generosity

I'm concerned for non-profits as we go into the Obama era. I understand the economic fix the USA is in right now: we all feel it. And I understand the need to remedy it. HOW we remedy it is up to the particular hired "experts" who have the power to push buttons.

While government is concerned about the needs of the poor (education, health), I've seen an unprecedented rise in justice work from religious groups, especially evangelicals. The poor are receiving aid and attention from every direction, including from the generous "wealthy" person. I'm very encouraged to see so much work by private citizens on the local level. This, to me, is the heartbeat of repairing many social evils in our world.

What does not receive attention so much from the government is soul-care and an answer to appropriate humanness from a religious (Christian) perspective. One one level we might say that a secular government may not find enough "experts" on their side to justify that a soul even why care for it? On another level if they did do this kind of work, they'd likely do it poorly. One reason I'm not in favor of public prayer in public schools is that it is likely children will learn horrible ideas about legitimate prayer. Better off letting students "feel" the secular vacuum than allow them to be misled that civil prayer fills it.

Obama's adminstration has some new tax strategies to help repair the deficit and "economy," all directed at people who make a little over $200k a year. It doesn't matter if $200k earners have a large or small family, living in high or low cost-of-living areas, or are already generous with their income to help people on the local level. It doesn't matter if they were responsible during this economic crisis and had practiced saving money rather than consumerism. Either way, the new tax strategy is to move money into the federal level to help with federal needs with the tools the feds have to decipher who needs help and who doesn't (after FEMA and Iraq, you can just for yourself how good these services will be), shouldered by hard working Americans who found success with their hands.

Regardless of how the government wants to tax, that isn't as much of the moral issue that concerns this post. What concerns this post is the rhetoric I'm reading, including disingenuous (intentionally misleading) comments. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal, page 4, has this article, "Charities Say Tax Changes Add to Pain."

Tomorrow, I will explain... but for now, share your own opinion...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Is authenticity enough? : on celebrity and failure

Deep down, don't we all believe that a bit of wild behavior--drinking, smoking, padding the expense account, skimming your taxes--has a salutary effect on human personality development? Isn't sowing one's wild oats a revered rite of passage for American youth?

Um.... Who says these attitudes should be normalized? In this instance it is Joe Queenan writing the cover article for the Weekend Journal in the Wall Street Journal, "In Praise of Transgressions."

I understand that Queenan is a satirist. In this article, it's thin. I actually think he believes what he's saying.

So do many today who believe experimentation that is harmful to one's self and to others should be a valid opportunity to explore. We "expect" teens to be reckless. We expect them to be uncultivated in virtue and class. And we expect our public servants to skim taxes. Apparently, one is never required to grow up.

In speaking to a high school classroom last Spring, the students raised the issue of swearing. Why were certain words considered off limits? Many of the kids in the class loved to razz authority, snigger, glance at each other with knowing looks that they were somehow superior to all this nonsense. What was the morality behind swear words?

I touched on what mattered to them: their social status. Many of these students came from wealthy families. I told them that swearing, regardless of it's morality, is a sign of a lack of control, a lack of manners, and a lack of class. Suddenly, the classroom silenced. They all regarded themselves as upper class economically. I called them out that they were not demonstrating an upper class virtue and upper class concern for others. Swearing is often an assault of language (as it is uncreative) and an assault on manners (it tells others in earshot that crudeness owns the audible space). In short, swearing is often self-conscious and proud. It's unworthy of people who claim to be educated and leaders.

So it goes. To be a virtuous leader is not the same as making money, having power, having celebrity. It is a good time to understand this on a large scale.

People proficient at sports may be committed to swimming or baseball. That means if there's one quality they surely have it is tenacity. But that doesn't mean they are virtuous or well-rounded enough to be leaders. Yet we treat them as "heroes" because they did something physically incredible. A hero used to be someone who sacrificed themselves to help others. Today it means someone we marvel at, like a giant crane perched on a skyscrapper. Celebrities are skycrapers, but hardly "heroes." The fact that we keep staring at them and throw money at them says a lot about us.

We've developed a habit of thinking that doing something physically incredible is a passport to being someone worth listening to. Why we take the political opinion of so many Hollywood celebrities is irrational to me. They didn't become popular because of political opinion, and therefore, should be less considered than, say, some obscure professors who spend an lifetime studying the principles of good government and the corruption in Washington. Yet when we consider celebrity endorsements of candidates as weighty, they says a lot about us.

We just elected a President that appears to get votes because of celebrity 'coolness.' From my perceptions, he falls into a similar category, and may be the kind of president we've become socially conditioned to accept without question. Many pundits wondered what qualified Obama to be a messiah for the US government. Many are still asking this question as politicians vote to spend almost $800B on a stimulous package that the majority of those they represent do not want or are unsure if it will help.

When I read the headline that Phelps was caught doing illegal substances, I wasn't surprised. When he publically apologized, I wasn't suprised. That's what your PR agent will tell you to do, otherwise you will lose money and so will your PR agent. What surprised me was that Kelloggs, a large sponsor of Phelps, dropped him!

In today's world, I thought Kelloggs courageous (a virtue) to let Phelps go when the American public has much the same attitude as the quote at the top of this post. I think Phelps deserved it. Not because it's a bad influence in our children. Not becaue he was stupid. Not because he was callous. He deserved it because he was flagrantly wrong. This wasn't a mistake or an oversight. It was deliberate. What kind of behavior is over the line in sowing one's wild oats? What is enough to keep a celebrity from public endorsement and millions of easy money. Is our national pride and identity really wrapped up in the Olympics and gold medals? Who are we anyway?

Phelps won some gold medals for swimming. Great! But is that leverage enough to say we should celebrate him no matter what other feats he makes, including bong-smoking with frat boys? If he had been heroic, he would have taken a stand against the drugs. That's what heroes do, even if nobody celebrates the act.

A friend of mine spoke to his co-worker recently about this. The co-worker thought it unjust of Kelloggs to drop Phelps because at least Phelps confessed and was honest.

Here's another major assumption of today's postmodern culture: transparency equals virtue. For all the talk that postomderns give about authenticity, that's only a half-virtue. The other half is working toward change.

A.A. will tell you that confession and authenticity are only the first of twelve steps: confess your life has become unmanagble. That's transparency. But that doesn't mean you are well, should be in the spotlight, or are worthy of being celebrated. It just means you're starting to work the program. Time to move to step 2. When you reach step 12, then you may have something to say to the world that we all need to hear. Until then, work in your private world on being an appropriately human person.

There is no "revered rite of passage" called "sowing wild oats." We've smuggled that in as a smutty excuse to be less than human. We are to learn from history so we don't repeat it. That's one of many reasons so many acts are illegal (like drug use or skimming taxes... should we "rever" this? Is this a wild oat?). If we cannot respect this when it comes to the laws of our land, how will we fend against corruption when the laws crumble? Is virtue no higher than the laws? Seems not in the way we elect officials and pander to celebrities.

We will likely wake up one morning wondering what happened. We will no longer be laughing at what we got away with but sad that we got away with it. Should we expect more out of ourselves and from each other?

We need to understand the frailty and glory of human nature so we can harness it for good and be open to our own foibles. If we faile, sometimes "I'm sorry" isn't good enough. Sometimes we have to end the endorsements, step down from our offices, leave the spotlight. It's okay. We'll live. We recorver. We work the program. Our humanity is not wrapped up in who recognizes us or how well we succeed or fail. But by all means, let people who need to leave the spotlight be out of it. Authenticity isn't enough for a soul's recovery.

And all the while, we can work at not revering famous people for being famous, but look for local heroes. It's the unsung heroes that have a smaller chance of falling, in part, because they are heroes through their virtue rather than heroes of fame.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Apologetics for a New Generation

As you know, I'm a member of the "new apologetics" fan club. Nobody has coined that term yet, from what I can tell, but I'm a card-carrying member anyway. And while my view may go in directions not yet popularized by evangelical apologetic celebrities, I am excited about a new volume released this winter, edited by my friend Sean McDowell:

Apologetics for a New Generation.

This is a compilation of different voices all getting at the same thing: apologetics is bigger and broader than we've practiced it for a loooong time. While my view is that there are many apologists in this world who don't know it and many apologetic mediums that are never called such, finally a few evangelicals are paying attention.

It's a sign that the popular conversation can be advanced: you don't have to be "emergent" to be missional, relevant, and touch the postmodern soul in healthy ways.

Then again, maybe we're all emergent anyway and can't help it.

Jonalyn and I each have chapter contributions in this book (though Amazon's site doesn't say so). Hers is on an apologetic of gender, something many conservative evangelicals haven't yet noticed the need for without a fear of losing funding. My chapter is on apologetics as soul formation: a human apologetic.

This book can be read alongside Living with Questions as an example of apologetics being done in a fresh way, for students and adults alike.

You can pre-order the book now. You'll want to have it when it comes out to keep abreast with the creative ways you can shine your light to the world.