Pro-Democracy

November 14, 2018

In case you missed the news, the candidate I canvassed for, Josh Harder, was declared the winner in his congressional district yesterday. He trailed by 1,200 votes on election day,  but as more ballots appeared he surged into the lead and won going away.

It’s great to see the candidate you worked for get elected, so naturally my son Silas and I are quite happy about the news. My reflections go more to the privileges and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Josh’s candidacy motivated a lot of people. On our canvassing day in Turlock, CA, there were well over 500 people knocking on doors. That’s a lot of people willing to sacrifice their Saturday!

The biggest credit, though, goes to Josh–and all the candidates, win or lose, who gave so much. I don’t know exactly how Josh decided to run, but I know he hadn’t been particularly political before this election.  As a Stanford/Harvard grad he had lots of options that might be personally more attractive than running for Congress. He spent at least a year of his life, with no guarantee at all that he would succeed. Those are the kind of risks that make a democracy succeed.

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Don’t Forget to Vote!

November 5, 2018

I spent the weekend in Turlock, California, along with my son Silas, canvassing for Josh Harder who is running for Congress. Silas was in a Bible study with Josh at Stanford, so he knows him and his wife Pam.canvassing in Turlock

I feel good about Josh, but my bigger motive for canvassing is that District #10 is a tossup in this election, and I was looking for a place where I could make a difference. I’m very concerned about the direction of our country, and hope for—at the least—a Congress that can put a check on the administration.

Silas and I were assigned a list of people in the small towns of Ceres and Patterson. I found it encouraging to meet people in their homes, and to see that despite all the political rancor of these times, most people are friendly and normal. I liked a slogan that I saw for the first time: “Make America Human Again.”

 

Big Day!!!

November 2, 2018

Today I’m celebrating the publication of Those Who Dream, the second of my rescue mission novels. It’s now available at Amazon.com, and will be on Kindle shortly.

The series was inspired by my home-town rescue mission’s drug-and-alcohol rehab program. As a volunteer, I get to know men in the program extremely well. They are all addicts. Many of them have been homeless. Many have criminal backgrounds. Many have become my good friends. It’s been a fascinating, eye-opening experience for me, exposing me to worlds I did not know. I’m writing these novels to offer you entrée, too.

You might expect a grim and dark world, but that’s not how I experience it. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of hopefulness, a lot of personality. The men in the program have come out of darkness into the light—and they are trying like mad to stay there. They fight against powerful addictions, and all the problems that addiction has created.

Those Who Dream focuses on the staff who make the mission possible. Many of them have come out of addiction themselves. The main character in Those Who Dream has suffered other losses, and struggles to find hope again.

Kent Spires heads the drug and alcohol rehab center, but he stands to be fired if he can’t turn around the finances. Once before he lost his family, his job, his sense of self—and now he fears losing them a second time. He is isolated and lonely. He barely knows his adult children. Then Kent meets Meg. She’s a strong woman who picked herself up from a divorce, started a business, and created a happy life. She’s not sure she’s interested in Kent, but she’s willing to give him a try. Then Kent’s ex, the mother of his children, is brutally assaulted. Kent and Meg and Kent’s children meet at the hospital, where Alice is in a coma and not certain to live. As Kent goes searching for the homeless man he suspects of assault, Meg studies each isolated member of Kent’s family, wondering whether she wants anything to do with them.

Those Who Dream is a love story set against the disappointments of modern life and the challenges of drug addiction. It’s a story of second chances, showing the strange juxtapositions of conservative faith meeting liberal culture in the Sonoma wine country.

I hope you’ll buy a copy! Here’s the link. If you do read it and like it, I’d be grateful if you would spread the word. The best way to do that is to write a review for Amazon.

If you’d like to start with the first novel, Those Who Hope, here’s a link for that. I’m already at work on the third novel in the series, Those Who Seek.

 

Eugene Peterson

November 1, 2018

Gene Peterson died yesterday. If I didn’t know him well, it was because I didn’t get enough time. Gene was extremely easy to know, even though he was hopeless at small talk. When the situation required it, he would just grin. He had a terrific smile and a lovely gangly way. He was generous at heart and could say difficult things in a way that wasn’t aimed angrily at anybody.

He was distressed by what he saw in the American evangelical church. This quote from his New York Times obituary expresses a lot of it:  “American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had, because it’s so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst instincts we have. The problem is, people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.”

He loved small churches, struggling churches. He loved the Pentecostal churches he grew up in because they were fervent in their faith and humble in their self-image. That was Gene, fervent and humble.

Also smart. He had studied the deep books. Yet he talked like an ordinary person.

I encountered him first as a reader, through his wonderful book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Later we were fellow members of the Chrysostom society, a group of writers that met annually. Popie and I hit it off with him and his wife Jan, and one summer we visited them overnight in Montana. They fed us bountifully, sent us off in kayaks on the beautiful lake where they lived, and treated us like they thought we were genuinely important guests who had favored them with a visit. This was so upside down it confused us!

I didn’t get enough time. I suspect a lot of people would say that.

 

What is Justice?

August 9, 2018

I preached at my church on Sunday, offering an introduction to the minor prophets, the topic of justice, and the book of Micah. Here’s the link:

 https://www.fpcsantarosa.org/2018/08/what-is-justice/

Evangelicals for Trump

July 20, 2018

I’ve repeatedly circled back to the puzzle of why white evangelical Christians are so enthusiastic about our president. Certainly his promise to appoint pro-life judges is a prominent motivator, but virtually any Republican president would have done the same. And no other Republican president could have matched his lack of moral character, a fact that has been reinforced again and again during his time in office. Despite his lies, his cruel treatment of the vulnerable, and his personal nastiness, his evangelical support has been not grudging or hedged but enthusiastic. Why?

Here’s a possible explanation drawn from the Middle East. The region has significant Christian minorities. Syria is about 6% Christian. Jordan is 2%. Egypt is almost 13%. Most of these Christians are from historic churches, Catholic or Coptic or Orthodox. Living as they do in a rough neighborhood, often targeted by Islamists, they almost invariably seek political protection from the local despot. Christians in pre-2003 Iraq strongly  supported Saddam Hussein. Christians in Syria are cheerleaders for the murderous Assad. Christians in Egypt love the dictator Sisi. They have made a deal with the devil: you protect us, and we will support your regime. It’s hard to fault them. When they look at the disastrous fate of Christians in Turkey or in Iraq, where they went unprotected, Christians are motivated to love the strong man.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic has led to evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Many feel threatened by liberal forces in our society. They fear being forced to say and do things that they believe are wrong: to swallow evolution in schools, to employ LGBT activists in their schools and churches, to participate in or support gay marriages, to prescribe abortions in their hospitals and pharmacies.

Some will scoff at these fears, questioning whether Christians in America really have much to dread. But they’ve been fed a steady diet of alarmist news for at least a decade—think about the “war on Christmas.” Maybe American Christians aren’t going to be truly persecuted in the foreseeable future, but many are sincere in feeling like an endangered minority. To have a president who’s rude and abusive to your tormentors, a man of great power who will take your side in any dispute, feels secure. Trump promises the robust protection that vulnerable people seek.

There’s a cautionary lesson from the Middle East, though. I was talking to the head of a mission agency that reaches into Muslim countries. I asked him whether the historical Christian churches in those countries practice any evangelism. He said no. Part of their deal with the despots is that they won’t. “They are like submarines,” he said, with protective walls to keep out danger, but also to keep their faith safely inside. In return for safety, they only look at the surrounding world through their periscopes.

Our situation is parallel. In exchange for a president who promises protection, white evangelicals are willing to give up their witness to millennials, to immigrants, to gays, to non-whites. We’re building our own kind of submarine.

 

 

What’s Fair

July 18, 2018

I liked very much Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. One of the characters is Sister Jeanne, a small, cheery nun in the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Spending every day nursing poor people in 1930s New York, she’s very familiar with suffering. Here’s what she believes about its unfairness:

Sister Jeanne believed with the conviction of an eye witness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident, and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believed this because, because (and she only possessed the wherewithal to explain this to children—trying to say it to angry or grieving or bitter adults only left her tongue-tied), because fairness demanded it.

It was, to her mind, a simple proposition. The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished—a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention. A much-longed-for baby slid into the world only to grow blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Another arrived lame, or ill-formed, or simply too hungry for a frail woman already overwhelmed. There was a child in the next parish with a skull so twisted his mouth couldn’t close, and every breath he took, every word he spoke, even his childish laughter, rattled through dry and swollen lips. Another with a birthmark like a purple caul. Blindness. Beatings. Broken or bring bones. Accident, decay. Cruelty of nature. Cruelty of bad men. Idiocy, madness.

There was no accounting for it.

No accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.

Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.

”You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.

“And how do you know?”

Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”

**

“Who’s the dumbest boy in your class?” she once asked us. This was in the Hempstead house where we were young. “And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”

 

 

Breathe Deep and Practice Kindness

July 17, 2018

We went to see the Mr. Rogers movie this week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and learned that Fred was an uncanny person—no different in real life than on TV—who remembered vividly the vulnerabilities children feel. He had been a bullied fat kid himself. Deeply dedicated to kindness, he set out to use a medium not known for kindness—television–as a national service to comfort children.

I found the movie very touching, particularly because I’ve half-forgotten that kindness is normal. If Mr. Rogers seems weird—and sometimes he does–it’s because our world has gotten so weird.

This was the message behind my niece Libby Echeverria’s “Perspective” on our local public radio station. It’s a lovely piece, worth hearing. She describes a series of encounters in her neighborhood coffee shop: an interracial gathering of young men comparing tattoos, and a homeless man who wanders in brandishing a feather. She half-expected trouble, but in fact, she was surprised to see people treating each other with dignity and thoughtfulness. The young men pulled out Bibles and launched into a study of Philippians. An older man got a chair for the homeless man. “I realized that through breathing the toxic air of our country these days, I have developed an unconscious bias that I can’t trust people to do the right thing. I am on edge….”

Mass media and politics and social media bring out the troll in us. We need to breathe deep and practice kindness. Or so Mr. Rogers would tell us.

 

Cheers and Amen

July 2, 2018

a year-long, 50 state adventure 

by Dean and Mindy Anderson

This may be the ultimate road trip. Dean and Mindy (friends of mine, and otherwise quite ordinary, sane, middle-aged and middle-class people) had dreamed of setting off across America in their aging van, to spend a whole year sleeping on couches, eating fast food, and visiting a church and a bar in every state in America. Cheers and Amen is the story of how they did it. It’s a cheerful, whimsical account, polite, lacking put-downs but laden with humor and healthy curiosity. In every state they asked people, “What makes a good church? What makes a good bar?” They were seeking clues to deeper questions, such as: why are so many young people disinterested in organized religion? How do we make “outsiders” feel welcome? And, what’s really going on in American churches?

Reading their book gives you ample opportunity to chew these questions over, but for me, the best part of Cheers and Amen is the chance to accompany Dean and Mindy on their journey. You get to know some unusual corners of America, such as the rescue missions in Las Vegas and New Orleans, a church that devotes its summers to feeding hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and a church that is also a gym and invites people to dance classes. Dean and Mindy didn’t go looking for the exotic in American churches (or bars) but they found some of it along the way. It’s fun to travel with them, and as you do,  you get to know two quirky, funny, unique personalities.

Religious Freedom

June 27, 2018

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.