Rich Toward God

August 12, 2019

Last week I preached in Healdsburg on the parable of the rich fool. Here’s the link.

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Corruption

June 6, 2019

I first encountered corruption when I lived in Kenya. Bribes were common in ordinary life—like if you were stopped by traffic police, or you wanted to get a passport. At that time, there was a way to get out of bribes—by offering your Christian testimony. Born-again Christians, it was well known, would not bribe. I once used this when a police officer harassed me for (he said) mis-parking at the airport. He clearly angled for a bribe, but I stymied him by telling him I loved the Lord Jesus Christ, who was my personal Savior. The cop, somewhat startled, let me go.

Sadly, I’m told, that ploy no longer works in Kenya. If you don’t want to offer a little “tea” you can be put into very uncomfortable quarters. My friend Wachira has written about his refusal to cooperate with the police in bribing, which has cost him dearly.

Of course, small stuff with police and customs officials was matched by big stuff: government contracts, such as the one rewarding a corporation for gold mining with payments of millions of dollars, the only problem being that no gold was being mined. The economy was regularly robbed by the people running the government—and their friends.

During my time in Kenya (1978-1982) I had the very strong impression that most westerners involved with aid and government relations thought corruption was an unimportant factor in the country’s problems. It never made the list of priorities. It was treated with an indulgent smile, as though to say, “Well, this is Africa. What do you expect?”

I never bought that. The more I saw, the more convinced I became that unless Kenya put a stop to corruption, it would suffer economically and in every other way.

Nowadays that laissez-faire stance has changed in development circles. Experts talk about “governance,” more or less a code word for “corruption.” Good governance is often perceived to be the foundation for all that goes well or badly in developing countries. I think that’s approximately right. Corruption corrupts everything: health care, education, finance, road repair, business, the law. Nothing is true and straight in a country where corruption is rampant. Nothing can go well for long.

What experts haven’t figured out in the slightest is how to do away with corruption. Believe me, people have tried with all kind of bureaucratic solutions. They’ve staffed the offending country’s treasury department with accountants from Belgium. No dice. The crooks are cleverer than the accountants.

During my time in Kenya I presumed that corruption was not a problem in the US. Of course I knew that there were crooks everywhere, but I didn’t perceive a culture of corruption, where crooks never got caught, and their schemes were consequence-free. Probably I was naïve. All the same, I never dreamed that we would contemplate an administration in Washington so thoroughly averse to the law and to morality as our present one. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s presidential speechwriter, wrote an excellent column about it in the Washington Post. It’s worth reading. He quotes William Bennett, writing in the Clinton years: “No great civilization — none — has ever been judged great because of wealth alone,” argued Bennett. “. . . If we have full employment and greater economic growth — if we have cities of gold and alabaster — but our children have not learned to walk in goodness, justice and mercy, then the American experiment, no matter how gilded, will have failed. A strong economy is a good thing. But it is far from everything….A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president.”

A large number of Americans, many of them Christians, respond to indictments  of the Trump administration with a shrug. “It’s Washington! What do you expect?” They remind me of what I heard in Kenya, forty years ago.

The problem goes far deeper than the Trump administration, though. Money has always played an important role in politics, but these days it dominates every politician’s time and attention. Senators of the United States spend hours each day dialing for dollars, like salespeople hawking cheap life insurance over the phone. Their schedules are packed with rich people and industry representatives who donate significant money to their campaigns. If you want to meet your representative for a substantive discussion of policy, you have to start by giving money—lots of it. It’s not exactly bribery, but it’s something close to it.

“It’s Washington! What do you expect?” I think we should expect more.

Thoughts on Joe Biden

May 21, 2019

I had a conversation with my son Chase that stimulated lots of thoughts about Joe Biden. Like a lot of people, I can’t help liking Biden. He’s a comfortable presence: decent, kind-hearted, slow to impute bad motives to his opponents. All that sounds extremely attractive in our current political environment, dominated by a president who is none of those things.

Chase, however, told me that he and his peers at his office—a highly multi-cultural, progressive place—are very down on Biden. He used the word “disgust,” which is pretty strong language for someone as careful as Chase. When I asked him to explain, he cited Biden’s history of being on the wrong side of issues—school integration, the Iraq war, treatment of women. If I got him correctly, though, much of the feeling was based on a pent-up sense that he doesn’t want to go back to the way things were before Trump. He wants to see change—economically, racially, ecologically, educationally—that requires a major overhaul of society. Yes, he and his peers want to defeat Trump, and they could happily vote for most of the Democratic candidates against Trump. But Biden, he thought, might be an exception. At least they would be quite unenthusiastic if he were the Democratic candidate. To them he represents the past.

Reading opinion blogs in the last few weeks has suggested that Chase’s point of view is shared by many. One column in the New York Times was premised on the idea that nobody was really for Biden, but he was leading in the polls only because people consider him “electable.”

Here are my thoughts:

First, I think these opinions underestimate the appeal of decency. We know Biden in a way we don’t (yet) know any of the other candidates. What people my age know is that Biden is a decent man, who would seek to bring Americans together. He’s the opposite of strident. That’s a powerful appeal. We’ve been shredded in the last few years, and the longing for a leader we like and trust is powerful. Character is definitely going to be on the ballot, and it’s not just a matter of denouncing our current president. You have to have something demonstrably better to offer.

Second, as an old guy myself I can say that nobody can be in public life as long as Biden without making choices that now, in the light of history, seem terrible. I would not like to defend everything I have thought, said and done in my life! Of course, each candidate’s history must be scrutinized. However, I am more interested in the question of where the candidate will take us than the question of where they have been. The latter is only important as it speaks to the former. I don’t want to press the ideological outrage button too many times about things that were done decades ago. I know too well that times change.

Third, it’s important to realize that changing America for the better will require political leadership that embraces all of America and can bring at least 51% along. Biden’s potential is that he can bring other people along, especially those who aren’t quite sure they like the idea of change.

So I recommend: listen very closely to what Biden says in the months ahead about where he believes we ought to go. Avoid playing “gotcha” about his past, and instead ask yourself whether he really is content with the ante-Trump status quo or has energy and commitment to give to change. I’m not sure what the answer is. But if I become convinced that he is not just checking that “change” box for the sake of appeasing progressives, if I come to believe that he truly is committed to dramatic transformations, then I’m going to be much more positive toward him.

 

The Trend in News Media

March 26, 2019

There’s lots of commentary about the role of news media these days, but I was startled by this quote from a very old source: Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on the paranoid style in American politics. He was writing in the era of McCarthyism regarding the role of radio and daily newspapers, but he sounds pretty current:

The “growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved. Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have made it possible to keep the mass man in an almost constant state of political mobilization.”

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

December 22, 2018

Ross Douthat has a great Christmas column in today’s New York Times. He’s writing to Catholics losing heart from church corruption, but what he says applies just as well to Protestants losing heart in the era of Trump.  Douthat’s starting place is the genealogy of Jesus offered up in Matthew’s gospel. Douthat makes the point that this list is not composed of saints and heroes. Rather, “in claiming the divine is entering the world through this line of ‘murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars,’ Matthew isn’t offering some particularly Christian innovation within the larger biblical story. He’s simply picking up what his own people, the Jewish people, already said about themselves: We’re the chosen people of the one true God, and to prove it to you here’s a long story about how awful and promiscuous and murderous and fallible we are, how terrible our leaders often turned out to be, and how we deserved every exile and punishment we received.”

It’s been a tough week in America. As I wrote a British friend today: “We have been having a continual debate in this country as to who is more stupid, Brits or Mericans. Most of the time I think we are winning, but in recent weeks I believed you had pulled ahead on the stretch. However, this week it appears that you are not quite up to the stupidity of Mericans, we have a leader who can blow you to smithereens in the stupid department. So there.”

You may not share my politics, but I think we all share an understanding that these are difficult times and that our leaders are not inspiring confidence. Let us take Christmas hope from the story told in Matthew’s gospel.

Love?

December 17, 2018

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Cory Booker, and I still am, but this interview in The Atlantic made me think again. Whatever his failings, he’s got a message that’s unusual and powerful. He’s talking about the power of love, and he sounds genuine.

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.

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.