Saturday, July 4, 2020

Racism in America 4: The Moral Right

In this post, I will discuss the upheaval in America in response to the continuing occurrences of police brutality against black people. What I am going to say may not necessarily sit well with either side of the argument. But it needs to be said. I pray you will listen with an open mind, and that instead of becoming naturally defensive, you will allow this to be an opportunity for introspection and learning.

Within one day of the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, most all of America was ready to tear down the walls of racism which have refused to be broken for centuries.

Within one week of Floyd's death, people actually started tearing down literal walls, as well as doors and windows. They looted. They burned businesses. They began attacking police officers. One person said, "You had the whole of America on your side, but when the riots started, you lost us."

This is a problem. It is a problem on both sides of the issue. On one side, the fact the looting started. On the other side, the fact that they lost us.

Because, you see, we cannot correct a wrong by committing another wrong. It just creates a further place of wrong which doesn't solve anything.

And because, you see, we cannot let positive change die because of the acts of some people. We also need to look at the reason those people are responding that way.

I will begin with the second issue. As I live on the conservative side of the fence, I hear more about how bad the looters are and how stupid these riots have become than anyone really talking about the original problem. This is a natural outcome of bad behavior, that people focus more on the bad behavior than the cause. Unlike some people, I still listen to some of the media from the liberal side of the fence as well, and try to keep an open mind, so that maybe I can behold the true scope of the problem.

One of the really smart people on Facebook (who like usual I cannot remember and I apologize) pointed out what you do when a child acts out. Many people, when a child is throwing a tantrum, seek to stop the child from screaming and/or punish them for their inappropriate behavior. I agree that we should not reward bad behavior from children, and that we should teach them that there are consequences for such actions.

On the other hand, I have spent several years as a counselor at a camp for abused and neglected children in the foster care system, as well as eleven years as a leader in children's and youth ministries at my church. One of the things we are taught early on is that these "tantrums" are rarely the problem but are a response to another situation. When a baby is tired, he may cry. If the baby is hungry, he may cry. If a baby wants to be held by Mommy, he may also cry. You can throw the baby a rattle to appease him for the moment, but that doesn't satisfy his needs of sleep, food or comfort. It is only when his needs are met that he will be truly satisfied.

Children who have been abused or neglected can act in a similar fashion. We spent a week with these kids, and we would see the full range of actions, the good and the bad. The bad behavior looked very different at different times and between different kids. Sometimes the child would run away, sometimes they would fight, sometimes they would refuse to listen to their counselor. There were even more extreme cases of "bad behavior," and in all of these cases, we wanted to help the kids learn that this was inappropriate and would not be tolerated.

But we also wanted to help see the true cause of this behavior. We understood that these kids came to camp from all different places and all different experiences, including many negative influences and abusive situations. The behaviors we would see were almost always negative reactions to these other problems. They were never "bad kids;" they were kids behaving badly because of something bad happening to them, or because they were in a situation they didn't understand. In many cases, the children behaved this way because it was the only way they knew how to react.

As counselors and teachers, it was our opportunity to help the kids understand that they were safe, loved and cared for first. We needed to build that trust with them. We needed them to see that even in these moments of inappropriate reactions to these problems, we weren't going to send them away or write them off as "bad kids" or "worthless." Then, we could help them open up about what was causing these behaviors, and teach them how to deal with that problem themselves or learn how to find the help they needed. To change the behavior, we needed to fix the problems causing the behavior. And that all started by building trust.

In the case of the rioters, many have demonstrated "bad behavior." Some of those people are rioting and looting because of personal issues way outside of the scope of this fight against racism and police brutality.

But many of these rioters are reacting to the true problem, in some ways the only way they can. Think about this for a second: If you have been treated poorly by the police system for hundreds of years, can you take your anger out directly on the police system? No! You would get shot or pepper sprayed very quickly. Instead, these people are taking their anger out on the next thing they can find, for example, the nearby Target. It might just happen to be there, or it might symbolize the system which has been hurting them for so long.

Do you agree with this? You don't have to. It is not about agreeing with them; it is about trying to understand the true cause of why they are doing what they are doing. We can keep punishing bad behavior and think we have done enough, but it will keep coming. Instead, we can seek to intentionally work to fix the problem which is actually the root behind this behavior. Not only will we lessen the chances that the behavior will continue, but we will also build that much-needed trust that has been lacking in our society for as long as the problems have lasted.

Now, to the other side of the problem. We need to help understand these root causes of this behavior. But we can never view the behavior as anything but bad.

Although the evils of racism and police brutality exist in our society, and must be defeated at all costs, the moral code we use as a lens to view these societal problems can't change when we view the rioters' bad behavior. Right is right and wrong is wrong.

Most people have a moral code. They use it to determine what is good and bad. To each person, it is designed based on experience and the teaching of those who have been primary sources of influence. In the case of the kids at camp, we help the kids learn what is "good" and "bad" behavior to help them develop that moral code or modify it if it has been compromised.

The thing about moral codes is that to each person, it is the truth. We may be able to budge on some things, but in general, we hold our moral code to be the final say on all things.

For us Christians, our moral code is mainly determined by what the Bible says. Most Christians, like myself, view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, without error and not to be argued with. We may be able to change our stances on things that are not directly mentioned in the Bible or are things we can't confidently say what God's view of it is based on what is written. (We still seek to know God's will in all things.) But what is written in the Bible is the set standard and cannot be changed.

People of other religions usually hold the same confidence in their moral code. Other people who don't have a set doctrine still tend to have a clear understanding of their own view of right and wrong. We may differ on certain things, and we should be able to appreciate that everyone's view is slightly different. Still, in these situations, to each of us, our standard is right and the other standards are wrong. And we should be okay with that.

I believe God has put a basic morality in all people, however. We all seem to understand that murder is wrong. It is bad for the victim, it is bad for the murderer, and it is bad for society in general. But it goes beyond a societal benefit analysis. Murder, to put it simply, is wrong. Anyone who tolerates it is wrong.

Most people view stealing and damaging personal property as wrong, too. It directly causes harm to someone else, usually someone who is an innocent party in the problem. So when we see rioters burning down businesses which people have worked their lives to build, that's hard to swallow. It's not something most of us can consider an "appropriate reaction" to a societal wrong.

Many of the people who are decrying the riots hold to the Christian worldview, and therefore take the Bible as being the ultimate determiner of right and wrong. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, "In your anger, do not sin." A lot of people don't understand that anger is in itself not a sin; it is actually a feeling. Whether the cause of the feeling is justified is beside the point; when a person is angry, they are experiencing a legitimate feeling which is in itself neither right nor wrong.

But as with any feeling, it is what action that follows which determines whether it becomes a sin. If my friend ate my candy bar, I may feel anger against him. If I bite my tongue, give myself time to cool off, forgive him, and let it go, I have not sinned. If I sock him in the face, I have obviously sinned.

We can take the time with open minds to understand the causes of this anger that the rioters may be feeling. If you are scared every time you see a cop that you might be shot for no reason, and no one is doing anything about it, wouldn't you feel angry? I would say for the most part, the anger these people are facing is more than justified.

But it is your actions that speak the loudest. There were many protests during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Which protest was probably most influential? The March on Washington, D.C. Why? It is because they walked in solidarity, loudly proclaiming their message, which was a message of unity and the desire for change. Dr. King stood up at the end and gave his "I Have A Dream" speech, which is considered one of the most important speeches in American history. It was rooted in the true moral right, and the actions of the 250,000 protesters backed up that message. Racism and segregation should be destroyed because it is the right thing to do. And how can anyone accept the message if the actions that come with it aren't right themselves?

And we should never condone evil behavior, no matter how justified the cause. Those of us who hold to the truths of right and wrong should decry racism and denounce the riots in the same breath, because both are wrong. There are many, many protesters peacefully gathering whose message is being sadly diluted by the indecent and stupid actions of a small minority. And this is very, very unfortunate.

Yet, if we are going to stand up against the wrongs contained in this rioting, we must make sure we are also standing against all other things God calls wrong. It cannot be based on our convenience or whether our political party speaks for or against it or not at all. If we believe our moral code to be right, we need to hold to it firmly and be the best example of what "good" looks like so that the world can see the light of that goodness. It will both make the world a better place and point the world to the truth of a God who sets both the standards of justice and love, the only One who has the power to meet all our needs and protect those who have been wronged. He is that true Light of goodness, and if we want to see the change we seek, we better reflect His light in everything we do.

So we decry and denounce the riots.

We decry and denounce the racism.

We decry and denounce the police brutality.

And we pray that the Light of Truth will shine brightly from our lives. That is only way we can truly see lasting peace in this land.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Racism in America 3: What Are We Fighting For?

This may have been the longest month in American history.

It has been exactly one month since George Floyd was tragically murdered in Minneapolis. It seems like the upheaval it has caused has lasted much longer than that.

The upheaval has been necessary. We have lived in a nation still riddled with small veins of racism and prejudice. Little actions can do nothing to create the change necessary to correct these problems.

We must ask, however, what are we fighting for? What is the goal of all of this?

When COVID-19 hit in March, we were told that we would not be able to congregate, we may not be able to go to work, our sporting events have been cancelled, and our kids will need to be educated at the kitchen table. We knew it would be difficult and anything but desirable, but the vast majority of us understood why it had to be done: for the safety of our families and communities.

The Why was clear: prevent COVID-19 deaths. The logic said, and still says, that by decreasing the contact between people, we are decreasing the spread of the virus. And since many people are particularly vulnerable due to preexisting medical conditions, we had extra motivation to work for the benefit of those we love.

As time has gone by, we have had to question this logic within ourselves. New research and understanding of the virus has erased certain misconceptions, and has added new considerations. Almost all people who have been under varying levels of quarantine are at their wits' end (me included) and are ready to go the park, the beach, the theater, and just about anywhere but the trash dump and the waste processing plant. We are ready to be free!

But my grandma lives in a retirement home. She is in her mid-nineties, and while relatively healthy, she is very vulnerable to the virus. If I ever need motivation to wear a mask or stay at home, I need only think of her. My conveniences can be put aside if the safety of those I love is at stake.

Through all of this, the goal has remained the same: get to the point where the virus can be eliminated somehow, either by an act of God or by a vaccine. That is the only safe and lasting way to defeat COVID-19 and return to the normal life we now miss.

How does this relate to racism? Some people see the upheaval in America, whether the riots, the bickering, or the incessant talk on the news, as the virus. To them, someday, all of these hindrances will go away and life can return to normal.

But therein lies the problem. We don't want things to return to "normal." And it is not because we like the upheaval. You see, the true virus is the racism, and America has been infected with it for many, many years.

If that is the case, it changes the goal. Instead of everything returning to the way it has always been, we need to move America to a place it has never been. Remember, according to the United States Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal." At the current time, we certainly believe that all people, both men and women, are created equal, and throughout our history, that has always been held as the spirit of the statement. We also recognize that for all of history until recently, men were viewed as superior, and even though our country has had a revolution away from this thinking, these male-centered concepts still exist in our society. We hope that as racism is eliminated, sexism can be as well.

But race is not mentioned in the Declaration's statement. The word "all" means, well, all. The logic was that no one is born superior than another, particularly of royal blood. Everyone is and should be a free individual with the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." So why did so many white American men view black American men as not equal?

The only way to accept a person as not being equal is to not view them as a person. How could a person "own" another person? If they viewed that person as an inferior being, and not a true human. White men viewed black men as inferior, and in many cases, they felt they were "doing them a favor" by keeping them as slaves.

The same logic applied to how white people could take the land of the Native Americans. If you viewed yourself as not just superior but of a different and better species, then anything can arguably be rightfully yours.

Remember, Hitler also advocated the superiority of the German race. This is how he got a whole nation of generally well-meaning people to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed against the Jews and the other non-superior people.

When slavery was ended in America after the Civil War, America had to come to terms with the fact that the black people were now considered as actually equal. Many didn't like this, but we can't just slap the racism label on this dislike and call it a day. We need to understand what fueled this dislike.

As the American South was primarily agricultural, the slaves provided the manpower needed to produce the crops which made up the plantations' livelihoods. When slavery ended, that basically free manpower went away. Also, the workforce grew dramatically, taking away jobs which would have gone to the white man before. If any southern former slave-owners saw the black people as inferior before, this next stage just compounded their hatred from an economic standpoint.

(A very good perspective on this is the novel Alex Cross's Trial written by James Patterson & Richard DiLallo, which paints an interesting picture of the deep south after the Civil War from a northerner's point of view. A word of warning, if it were a movie, it would be considered R-rated.)

This is where the error began. So we righted the wrongs of slavery by freeing the slaves, right? Well, it should have gone that way. But no one stopped to look at the effects of racism in a post-slavery America. Instead, they let this hatred and distrust of blacks continue, which resulted in what would become segregation. Because although the slaves were free, in the minds of most whites, the black people were still not their equal.

There have been many black people who have had hatred against white people. We believe that hatred against another person is wrong no matter what the cause. But we must better understand why these black people have felt this hatred and distrust; they had been, and in some cases still are, treated as unequal. If slavery was a horrible evil, segregation was just downright ridiculous. It showed that the evils of slavery never went away, they just took on a new look. We can see what caused the blacks' hatred against the whites: they were treated unfairly to the utmost. We cannot accept, however, what caused the whites' hatred against the blacks: they weren't there to tend their fields and provide free labor so the whites could live the lavish lifestyle they once had. Logic dictates that this racism should have died out by the third generation. But with no introspection and no acknowledgement of past sins, the hatred is allowed to continue unhampered, in many cases for no real reason whatsoever.

So we ask the original question again: What are we fighting for? We are fighting to kill this evil of slavery once and for all. We are tired of this illogical hatred continuing to be perpetuated through our cultures and through our systems. That change must be intentional, and it must be done by the people who have been silent up until now. The only reason this virus of racism is still alive in America is because we refuse to kill it.

A few months ago, President Trump was talking about how if you don't test for the coronavirus, you won't have any cases. The media, as usual, took the statement way out of context, as though he meant that we can benefit if we pretend the virus doesn't exist. What he really was saying was that America has "more cases" because we have tested more people. If we didn't test, we wouldn't know how much the virus has spread. But instead of playing dumb and living in blissful ignorance, we test and test so we know what we are really fighting against.

And that is what we need to do with racism. Instead of sweeping it under the rug and pretending that racism doesn't exist in America (which people actually believe), we need to acknowledge our past sins and rectify them once and for all. We need to show with our words and actions that black lives do matter, that black lives are just as valuable as white lives (and native lives, and Asian lives, and Latinx lives, and every other person who calls themselves American, and every other person after that). We are fighting for the justice that God desires us to seek, to stop hiding behind our pride and admit that we, the greatest nation on Earth, have sinned. When we understand the true Why behind the upheaval, we can see why it isn't an inconvenience, but is in fact long overdue.

(Next up, we'll talk about riots. Stay tuned, and keep your minds open. Trust me, you will all need them.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Racism in America 2: Privilege

Lately, I've been studying the geographic design of my local community. I dig into the public archives about the plats, surveys, and historical maps pertaining to my town. It feels like a type of forensic archaeology. It's exciting! Once I've learned about an area, I take a walk through the area to see it for myself.

Ahmaud Arbery was a man who liked to stay fit by going jogging. As most of you know, he was murdered by two white men who thought he "looked suspicious."

I was strolling through a neighborhood, legally on the public sidewalks and roadways of course, wondering if anybody might think I looked suspicious. I know I just look like any person taking a walk (which I actually am). That's when the realization hit me; it left me enlightened and disgusted.

I don't look suspicious, because I am white. If I were black, somebody might call the cops.

For the first time in my life, I actually understood the reality of what is called "privilege": I am exempt from something, or am not likely to be thought of as something, because of a characteristic of myself. In this case, because I am white.

Obviously, it is not my fault that I am white, nor am I ashamed of being white. It is simply the results of genetics which dictate how much melanin my skin contains. Likewise, it is also no one's fault that they are black, nor is it anything to be ashamed of. But for some reason, they are not afforded the same benefits as I am in some situations.

If you are white and wear a hoodie, people may think you don't want your hair wet. If you are black and wear a hoodie, people may think you might steal something.

If you are white and are homeless, people may think you are down on your luck. If you are black and are homeless, people may think you didn't try hard enough, or weren't smart enough.

If you are white, people might expect you to speak proper English. If you are black, people might be surprised if you speak proper English.

If you are white and own a gun, people may think you are trying to protect your family or your property. If you are black and own a gun, people may think you could be a liability to the safety of the community.

All of these are absurd logic. Yet, our society has perpetuated these ideas, sometimes passed down inadvertently from generation to generation. Most of us would never say we thought these things. But the reason I used these examples is because I hear people infer them all the time, not blatantly hating the black person, but showing echoes of the prejudices of the past which fail to die.

Maybe we white people have thought one of these once in awhile. Hopefully, we have caught ourselves and tried to re-think the situation. But a thought here and a thought there, mixed with the other feelings of the other people around us, snowballs along until the black community is trapped by the grapevines of our unintentional, unconscious, and unnoticed prejudiced thoughts which never seem to go away.

Now, some have said that a human's natural tendency is to distrust something that looks different than they do. Maybe there's some validity to that from a scientific perspective, but I doubt that it is true in reality. Think about this: Have you ever seen a racist baby? You put a white baby with a black baby, what will happen? The children will barely notice that they are different. Obviously they see that their skin is a different color, but they don't see themselves as "different." To them, they are both babies.

The point is that racist tendencies are taught more than they are natural. I believe that the amount of racism has declined every generation. Yet, 155 years after slavery ended and 55 years after formalized segregation ended, we still have these racist tendencies permeating our society.

Why is this? Why didn't the problem get fixed so many years ago? Because though the law changed, the hearts didn't change with it. Pride causes people to be unwilling to look inside themselves and see whether their hearts are living with the virtues they profess. And real change can't happen until the problems are acknowledged.

I wanted to write this post right up front because I recognized that this lack of introspection is a root cause of this racism pandemic that has lasted for as long as this earth has existed. So many of us have always thought that we truly love all people, which we probably do, but there may be those programmed thoughts and tendencies still in our minds, which we may not realize are there until we look. I know I didn't use to consciously analyze these things in myself. Over the last several years, I have been more intentional about looking for these tendencies in myself and knocking them down, and since Ahmaud was killed on his jog, it's been on the forefront of my mind.

So my encouragement is this: If you have thought these things, you don't need to wallow in shame about it. Instead, acknowledge it to yourself, and then be intentional about not letting yourself fall into that trap again. Remember, the brain is a computer. It can be programmed, and it can also be reprogrammed.

If you haven't thought about this before, then now is the time to start. And this spreads way beyond just racist thoughts. Maybe you are dealing with pride, selfishness, lust, or any of those common human issues. It's okay to acknowledge it, as we all struggle with such things. That is part of our human condition.

But there is a God who created all people (of all races) with the original intention of us being perfect. We chose to fall from that perfection, but He wants to bring us back to that. We just have to acknowledge our failings to Him, and ask Him to change our hearts. He will be faithful to help reprogram our minds as only He can do. The key is we need to both admit our need for it, and let Him do the work.

So when you see someone of a different skin color tomorrow, look into their eyes and try to imagine how they see the world. Try to imagine the things they might have to fight against in order to have what you haven't had to fight for. In your mind, extend them the same privileges you've been given, since they are a person made in the image of God, as you are.

And just remember: by sharing that privilege with others, no one is taking it away from you. It's just being given to all people equally, as it should have always been.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Racism in America 1: Admit It

Racism exists in America. It's a fact.

We have all seen the tragedy of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, and have heard of the several other prominent deaths of black people by citizens or police officers in the last few months. One person (I cannot remember who and I apologize) said so clearly: "Racism has always existed; now people are filming it."

I have been one of those conservative people who has never denied the existence of racism in America. But even I didn't really stop to consider how widespread the problem has been.

What we are seeing is two different types of racism. The first is what we consider blatant racism. This is the individuals who are not afraid to tell a person of color that they do not like them simply because they are of a different color. They have submitted to the idea that Caucasian people are "superior" to people of color, for one reason or another. I cannot for the life of me figure out how anyone can think this way.

But obviously, they had to think this way to send ships over to Africa to take people from their land and enslave them. I have never been more disgusted writing a sentence in my life than the last one. We know that they wanted to use the blacks to improve the productivity of their plantations, but that doesn't make a person mentally go to the extent of thinking of a person as less-than-human.

This attitude probably stems from the nationalistic ideas of old. Many of us think of America as the superior country in the world, but not because its people are better, but because of what our country stands for and how successful we've been at fighting for freedom and in some cases saving the world from evils. (Our nation's propensity for war is the subject of another blog post someday.) On the other hand, the old way of thinking has always been that the person's country was superior because they were superior. This is why there have been so many wars for so many thousands of years: it wasn't until America when a country was built around people of all types being considered as equal, regardless of race.

Well, at least that's what the formal documents said. Slavery of blacks was rampant in the south, Catholics were considered the scum of the earth, and the nation was formed directly over the top of indigenous peoples' lands, using the logic that it only made sense, since the people groups were all pagans, primitive, and not organized as one nation. And although the grammar of the day used "men" to mean people in general, the heart behind that grammar choice had always been rooted in the chauvinistic ideas that men were superior to women and therefore were not, in fact, equal.

So from the start you have a nation with the right ideas, but no actual application of those ideas. Nobody sat themselves down and asked, "Are we living like these words we are declaring?"

And that leads us to the second type of racism I mentioned earlier. There is a sort of subtle racism that people have carried throughout these ages, most of which goes unnoticed. People who are not overtly "racist" can have thoughts, actions, or tendencies which contain varying levels of racism in them. Some of this is what is being called systematic racism, the idea that the system is inherently racist and we are all just perpetuating it.

Is it really that extreme? I can't give you a true answer. And the reason is because, for so many years, many of us would not stop to talk about racism, or stop to look inside ourselves to see if there is anything in ourselves which could be perpetuating this.

This series of blog posts will deal with this issue of racism, with the intention of each of us looking inside ourselves to see if we are unintentionally furthering this racism. Many of you will discover that you are living a life free of being overtly racist. But you may notice nuances or details which are slanted toward you as being a certain race. This is what people refer to as "privilege," and I believe the first step to deconstructing these edifices in our world is admitting that privilege exists. This is what the second post will cover.

The first thing that needs to happen, however, is for each of us to admit that maybe racism is a bigger deal in America than we think it is. Since many of us believe that we are not racist, and believe that America stands for equality for everyone (with its clearly stated rights and all), we've never taken the time to really stop and analyze ourselves and our life structure. What looks really good in our own eyes may look very different in the eyes of someone who is in a different position. The ability to look at things from a different perspective than our own is something that does not come naturally. It is a choice. And once we change that perspective and see that things may not be as hunky-dunky as we think they are, only then will real change finally happen.

So please, read these posts with an open mind and an open heart.

To black people, I will repeat the often said statement that I truly mean: I cannot understand what you are going through, but I will listen and I will try to understand as best as I can.

To white people, I ask that you lower your pride. Admitting we might have a problem is not destructive but is in fact constructive. We better ourselves, our society, and most importantly, we lift others up to that same place which we have never truly deserved, and should have always shared with those of a different color.

And to all other people who do not fit in one of these two categories, you may share in some of both of these positions. None of us are perfect, and none of us are without hardship. But with this intentional effort to try to kill racism in America once and for all, we may pull ourselves closer to the letter of our Pledge of Allegiance: a nation "with liberty and justice for all."

Sunday, July 22, 2018

77-8B Does God Need Me?

Inspired by the song "Control (Somehow You Want Me)" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

We all want to be needed. We feel valuable if someone needs our presence for some reason. Sometimes it's because we have a specific skill that will help them accomplish something. Or sometimes it's just because they need a friend with them at that moment.

Jesus gave a parable called the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. It tells about three slaves who were loaned "talents" by their master. When the master returned from a long journey, he was pleased with the first two slaves who invested the talents and reaped a harvest. But he was disappointed with the slave who feared the master enough to just bury it in the ground and give it back to him with nothing additional earned.

Often, this passage is taught as an example of how God has given us various talents or skills, and we are called to use them for the glory of God and to not waste the opportunity. This is a great application of this scripture, and pretty much sums up the point Jesus was trying to make.

But the word "talent" doesn't actually mean "talent" in the standard English definition. A talent was actually a sum of money, equivalent to about fifteen years wages for the common laborer. It is only so convenient that the English translation comes out to be the same word used for some skill we have.

Regardless of how the word is to be specifically interpreted, it still makes the same point, that God has given us certain qualities that He wants us to use and to grow to reap a harvest. If we don't take the risk and step out to use the gifts God has given us, whether money or skills, we have failed in the whole point of having those gifts. As Jesus says in Luke 12:48, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded."

But teachers tend to emphasize this story to specifically apply to the word "talent" in the English meaning solely, because it appeals to peoples' desire to be needed. People don't want to be just a face in the crowd; they want to stand out and be noticed for something, which usually ends up being a talent or skill.

If you can ride a unicycle, that is what you can be known for. Or if you play the banjo really well, there's a spot for you in some praise band somewhere. In my case, I like to memorize ridiculous things like the names of every stop in the TriMet bus system or the ages of every plane in the Alaska Airlines fleet. Because, you see, few people have done these before and it makes me unique to do these things.

And while uniqueness in an non-prideful sense is valuable, too often it becomes part of our spiritual identity. As enjoyable as it is to be known by people, it's only so valuable until you're not needed anymore or that skill goes out of style. Like, imagine if I moved away from Portland: would knowing all the TriMet bus stops matter anymore? Of course not. So I need to remember that my spiritual identity can use these skills for good works, but it is not defined by these skills. My spiritual identity can only be defined by God Himself, the One who created me and has a plan for my life.

But does God really need me?

Simple answer, no.

Wait, what? Doesn't that devalue myself by saying that? No, not at all. Because, you see, God doesn't value me because of what I can do or how well I can do it.

My mom has always said that God doesn't need my talents or skills. He doesn't need my money, He doesn't need my time. He's God! He has everything. If I don't do it, He can find someone who will.

That's not to say we should pass up the callings on our lives or forego the opportunities that have been placed before us. But we have to remember that we need God, not the other way around. He desires to use our talents for His glory, but He doesn't really need them.

And, as the song states, this is incredibly freeing. Why? Because that means there is no pressure to measure up. Christianity is not a religion in which we succeed or fail depending on how well we hit the requirements of being a Christian, how many people we lead to Christ, or whether we make it to church at least three-quarters of the Sundays each year.

God doesn't need us. We should never think so highly of ourselves that we think God couldn't accomplish something without our help. This life isn't about us, and God doesn't owe us anything because of our works.

Yet in spite of our relative unimportance, God wants us.

In fact, He wants us so much that he overcame the greatest obstacle possible to have us. He paid the penalty we deserved with His own life.

And therefore, our value is now worth the life of God's Son. What a pendulum shift. We went from worthless to infinitely valuable.

But it's not a value that is at all defined by our abilities. It is defined by the great love of our Father. He wants us because He loves us, not because of our talents.

What this means is that we are valuable whether we succeed or fail. If we do well, we are loved. If we absolutely blow it, we are still loved. And if we absolutely keep blowing it, we are STILL loved. God's love is such that He isn't critiquing us on success or failure; He overcame our failures so that we could have the rewards of success forever.

So should we view the Parable of the Talents any differently? No, because He has given us talents and skills and even money that He wants us to use for His glory. It is by our service, generosity and love that we demonstrate our relationship with God, and if we aren't doing these things, as the book of James teaches, we need to question whether we are really living in that relationship.

But know that the source of your salvation is entirely Jesus. He wanted you before you were born, and nothing you can ever do will change that. Win or lose, your value to Him is beyond anything you can imagine. Rest in the peace that comes from knowing that you don't have to live up to some standard to be wanted; you already are!

Lord, thank you for wanting me. Even though I have failed the course so often, You still desire me and want to be in relationship with me. Thank you for overcoming the barriers that kept me from You so that I can spend eternity with You. Use me for Your glory and help me to reap a great harvest for Your kingdom, but let me find rest in the fact that You don't need me, but somehow You want me.

Friday, July 20, 2018

77-8A Who's In Charge?

Inspired by the song "Control (Somehow You Want Me)" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

Are you a control freak like me?

When I was younger, my mother always told me that I was born to be a leader! I really didn't feel like a leader at the time, but when I started college, I found myself leading my project groups more often than not.

My strategy always went something like this: class started, we formed our groups, and I would take the initiative to take down everybody's cell numbers and email addresses. Then, I would email the group the contact information. I didn't say anything about wanting to be in charge at the time, but I would work with the group to organize our first meeting within the first week. At our meeting, we would then discuss who would be the "point person," as we would call it. Whether they were the real authority or not, it was always good to have a person who would help coordinate all the schedules, deadlines, and receipt of everybody's parts of the project.

The idea of the initial contact sheet was twofold: (1) to make sure everybody got the necessary information, and (2) to put my best foot forward. Sometimes, someone else who was louder and more authoritative in general would step up to be the leader, which I fully supported. If I didn't need to be the leader, that was fine by me. I really didn't need the added stress. But if nobody stepped up, or that specific person who would step up would likely not fulfill the necessary obligations, I would assert myself as the leader.

At that point, nobody would complain. They would do their parts, I would do my part, I would combine the papers, I would assemble the PowerPoint, and we would get an A. It was like clockwork.

Why did I want to be the leader? Because I learned in one of my earliest classes that if I let just anybody lead the group, there would be chaos.

My father has very high standards. Too high, to be honest. But his attitude has influenced me to believe that there is usually one best way to do something, and it falls on us to try to find that best way. When I had that early class, there were three leaders, no accountability, and way too much bickering. People weren't showing up to meetings. They weren't keeping up with the expectations of the group. And when we tried to email them, all we received back was electronic crickets.

What drove me crazy about this was that I was helpless to do anything about it other than my own work. However, I did try to remedy the problem by reaching out personally to the missing people, taking them aside, and helping them understand what we were expecting of them, what they needed to do to catch up, and how they could show everybody else that they really meant it when they said they cared about the success of the project. In the end, we had a successful project, if not significantly hodgepodge.

And I decided that day that I would never ever let a group flounder that far. If I needed to be the leader, I would be the leader.

Why did this matter to me? Because the success of the group directly affected my success at college. If we didn't do well, I wouldn't do well. Not everyone was under the pressure to get all A's, but when your parents are footing the entire bill and you make the mistake of getting all A's the first time around, you gotta keep it up as long as you can. So I wanted to be in a position where I had control over our destiny. If we did well, I did my job. If we didn't do well, then it was no one's fault but my own.

I feel no shame in having had this attitude. I knew that I didn't come across as demanding or egotistical. I cared as much about everybody else getting the A as I did about me getting it. Often, this was the best grade some of the students would get that term, and if I could help them be better off, then that made me feel like the effort was that much more worth it.

But I realize that I try to manage life the same way. I want to be in charge.

Do you feel this way, too? Do you worry when you don't know what the future holds? Instead of praying, do you try to get your hands on anything that might help the situation? We end up being busybodies trying to manage our own lives, when God has told us to do something better: give up our control.

I remember every sleepless night I had in college: the two overnight take-home finals for macroeconomics, and every single night before final grades were posted. As Portland State required all grades in at a certain time, they were guaranteed to be there on the website at 8am that day. And I would lay there, worrying, stressing, having nightmares about what would happen. What was so dumb was that I was worrying not about failing the class; I was worrying about, heaven forbid, getting a B+. Because that would be so terrible!

I forgot to put my trust in the Lord. Trusting the Lord is not just something we say or choose to do when we are at the altar. It is what we do when we know the grades are going to be posted and we don't know what we will find out. It is what we do when we learn that the same car rental was booked 6 different times due to a web glitch and we are going to have to call the billing department in the morning about getting 5 of them cancelled with no penalty (which is exactly what I have to do tomorrow). It is about going to the doctor because we have a pain in a place and have no idea what it could be.

Jesus calls us to follow Him. That means letting go of our need for being in control of everything. He is more than capable of taking care of our every need. He is wiser than we could ever be, and He can see further down the road than we could even guess.

He has given us the ability to do our part. I did my part in my schoolwork; the rest was up to Him. And I did see literal miracles that helped me get those ridiculous A's and A-'s every single term of my college career. So, after all that, why do I doubt Him at all?

My hope is that we can lay down our plans and our dreams and follow what God has, to trust Him along the way and to not worry about what is outside our control. It is so freeing knowing that I don't have get everything right, that I have a leader who I can rely on to guide me to the greatest of all success.

Lord, thank you for being capable of anything and willing to use your power to help us in our time of need. Give us energy to do our part, and to be satisfied with the effort we put in. And help us to leave the rest to Your capable hands. Help us to feel the freedom that comes from taking our hands off of our problems and giving You control.

Monday, July 16, 2018

77-7 Happiness or Joy?

Inspired by the song "No One Can Steal Our Joy" by Tenth Avenue North from their album Followers. Available at YouTube, iTunes & Amazon.

"God wants me to be happy."

A lot of Christians say this or believe this, and it sounds really good. But is it a true statement?

I would argue, yes, it is true, but a little misleading. And there is something certainly more valuable.

Happiness is, simply put, the state of being happy. We all know how it feels to be happy, but we also know how quickly we change from being happy to being any other emotion other than happy. If there's anything we as humans can possibly agree on, it's that everybody would rather be happy than any other emotion. Where we differ is in the things that make us happy. That's where people get in trouble.

You see, there are a lot of things that make me happy. Planes, buses, bunnies, corgis and coffee all make me happy. I like reading books. I like writing a story and seeing it come out exactly as I hoped it would. Pad See Ewe (a Thai dish), Olive Garden's Braised Beef & Tortelloni, and, lately, the basic crispy chicken sandwich at Wendy's all make me really happy.

What makes me more happy is playing on the worship team at church and watching people dive into experiencing God's presence. Or hearing one of my kids that I have mentored for years tell of the great things God is doing in his or her life. These things make me the happiest of all.

But the sad fact is that there are negative things that make me happy. If they didn't, I wouldn't be tempted to engage in them. Usually, this happiness is very short-lived, as I feel regret and sorrow and a loss of self-worth after making these mistakes. Yet, somehow, they entice me because they tell me that I will be happy if I do them. And every time they let me down.

I come to the realization that happiness is more of a primal emotion than a part of being godly. Everybody wants to be happy, but we obviously are not all the time. When we aren't happy, we get very selfish and wish to be happy. We complain because we are not happy. And we strive to do whatever it takes to get back to that state of happiness, even if it's not God's way of getting there.

So given all of this information, does God want me to be happy?

We were made by God to live in His glory and perfection. We failed, and therefore sin and pain are in the world. So, in my opinion, given the facts of how we were created, we were intended to experience nothing but happiness. But happiness is circumstantial; once sin entered the world, the ebbs and flows of life take away the certainty of my happiness.

Happiness does not equal holiness, and unhappiness does not equal sin. Jesus demonstrated this when He wept over Lazarus's death. Isaiah 53:3 (NASB) calls Jesus "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Obviously, when Jesus died on the cross, He wasn't happy. When Peter denied Him, He wasn't happy. When he turned the tables in the temple, He wasn't happy. But that doesn't mean happiness is undesirable; it just means that happiness is not all we should be willing to feel.

If you look as happiness as an absence of any negative emotion, then you could say that heaven will be a place where we experience eternal happiness. And I know God's heart breaks for those whose hearts are breaking. Therefore, I can state that I believe, yes, God wants me to be happy. This is the same kind of thing as that verse that says that God wants all people to be saved. He desires this for us, but as we live on this earth, there is no guarantee of happiness. God might want us to feel another emotion if it brings Him glory and benefits us or others. He also lets a lot of things be, since He is sovereign and wiser than anyone else, and he has given us all free will to make our own choices.

So if happiness is not what we are supposed to focus on, what is the thing we should seek?

That is something called joy. No, joy and happiness are not the same thing, not even close. Joy isn't being bubbly, giggly, or giddy. It is a state of being satisfied with who God is and what He has promised. It is something that is extremely difficult to define because it often goes against logic.

I know what joy is because I have watched people who are in the darkest place have it and demonstrate it. I have watched people lose loved ones and still be filled with joy. I have watched people without direction and unsure where God is leading them still be filled with joy, I have watched people who have lost everything still be filled with joy. Millions of Christians around the world are literally on the verge of death and their joy is the only thing that gets them by. Joy is powerful and hard to believe sometimes, but when you see people experience it who you think logically shouldn't, you know that true joy is real.

The world thinks it knows what joy is. They are thrilled when they win the lottery, marry an attractive spouse, buy a beautiful house or close a super business deal. What they are feeling is not joy; it is extreme happiness. Taxes come, spouses get sick, houses burn and businesses collapse, and their happiness goes with it.

But those who put their confidence in the Lord will find something that this world can never have. When we rely on God for all our needs, we find that He is powerful enough to protect and provide, to show us love we couldn't imagine, and to do the impossible. He also gives us the hope of eternal life, that there is something greater after this life that will make the struggles of this life quickly forgotten.

Then, when the Holy Spirit fills the Christian, they will feel that buzz of joy that radiates through all situations. It doesn't matter if you are sick or healthy, rich or poor, scared or strong, sad or happy, you can take the joy of the Lord as your strength. It comes from God and can't be stolen by anything.

Maybe you feel like you have lost your joy. Maybe sorrow, loss, depression, addiction, or any other negative aspect of life has put a damper on your joy. I'm not saying those things are going to go away, but when you cry out to God and remember all He has done for you and all He has given, you will be reminded of who He is and how much reason you have to rejoice. Sometimes it might take a conscious decision to resurrect the joy you seem to have lost, but as long as your reliance on God is present the joy of the Lord should be too. Rejoice in the Lord! He is enough to give joy enough to live forever.

So should you seek happiness? Sure, if it is in God's will. Wanting to be happy is not wrong, and those good happy moments of life are worth remembering forever. But you should instead consciously seek joy, which is so much greater and doesn't care about your circumstances. Joy will stay with you forever and will give you peace even in the midst of the unhappiest of experiences.

Lord, thank You for loving us. Thank You for giving us so many reasons to experience happiness in Your will. But thank You that You have given such a greater gift. Help us to always feel the joy You give even in the most painful of times. Help others to be able to see the truth of who You are through the joy we have. And let us always put our trust in You in everything, so that we can rest in the confidence that no one can steal our joy.