A Spiritual and Moral Case for Illinois’ Fair Tax Proposal

A Spiritual and Moral Case for Illinois’ Fair Tax Proposal

When Illinois voters head to the polls in November, they’ll vote on a proposal to amend the state’s constitution and create a graduated income tax system. Dubbed the Illinois Fair Tax, the amendment would sunset the state’s current flat tax structure in favor of a system that is more just and equitable for Illinois’ working class.

The usual suspects — secular and religious — have expressed opposition to the proposal. Fearmongers and conspiracy theorists warn the Fair Tax will create a retiree tax, a double tax and other fiscal boogeymen. More rational opponents of the amendment base their arguments on the belief that a flat tax structure is, by nature, the fairest form of taxation.

But is that really true?

Does a flat tax structure provide an income tax system that is truly fair to all state residents?

Or, in addition to the financial benefits for the state, are there spiritual and ethical reasons why a graduated or fair tax system offers a more just and morally responsible tax structure for Illinois and other states?

What is the Illinois Fair Tax Proposal?

Illinois is one of eight U.S. states with a flat-rate income tax system, and one of four states that requires a flat income tax in its constitution. The federal government and 33 states — including almost all of Illinois’ neighbor states — have graduated income tax systems.

Illinois’ current tax rate is 4.95% across the board. Under the Fair Tax proposal, the tax rate would remain unchanged for incomes between $100,000 and $250,000. Incomes less than $100,000 would be taxed at a slightly lower rate, while incomes higher than $250,000 would be taxed at a progressively higher rate, capped at 7.99% for annual incomes over $1 million.

Only incomes above $250,000 would see an increase in their state tax rate under the Fair Tax proposal. More than 90% of the state’s residents would receive a tax cut.

Proponents of the Fair Tax argue that a flat tax creates an unjust hardship for middle- and working-class families because it forces them to pay a larger share of their total income in taxes.

For example, someone earning $25,000 and paying a flat tax of 10% is forced to live on $22,500 a year, while someone earning $1 million under the same flat tax structure enjoys $900,000 in disposable income. 

It defies logic to argue that applying the same tax rate to both taxpayers (the one earning $10,000 and the one earning $1 million) even remotely resembles fair taxation.

The argument over the Illinois’ Fair Tax extends well beyond the Illinois state line. It directly speaks to the issue of income inequality and challenges us, as a nation, to confront the profound injustices associated with unfair distribution of wealth.

The Fair Tax debate and the moral value of money

We’ve been here before. In 1894, Congress launched a national debate over a proposal to enact the United States’ first peacetime income tax. Voices from every corner of society expressed opinions for and against a graduated tax structure, with many serving up the same arguments that have surfaced in the Illinois’ Fair Tax discussion.

Ironically, some of the most persuasive arguments for the graduated income tax in 1894 came from the religious sphere.

Religious proponents of the 1894 graduated tax based their support on the clear biblical mandate for the wealthy to care for the poor. They also cited the centuries-old Judeo-Christian tenet that those with higher incomes should pay more. 

But the most compelling religious case for a graduated income tax system — like the Illinois Fair Tax — involved something Joshua Cutler refers to as the decreasing moral value of money. Building on biblical sources (Matt. 18.12, Luke 15.4, Mark 12.41ff., Luke 16.19-31 and others) proponents argued that lower levels of earned income are inherently more valuable than higher levels of wealth, “which they viewed as unearned and morally suspect.”

The decreasing moral value of money concept gained support both inside and outside of the religious community. Notable proponents of the concept included Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

But more importantly, the moral value of money concept offers useful insights into the current debate over Illinois’ Fair Tax and the larger issue of income inequality. The lesson?

The true value of money isn’t defined by numbers on a spreadsheet. At its essence, all money has moral value — and that value is defined by what it is used for.

For example, an individual earning $25,000 a year uses their entire income to pay for basic necessities like food and housing. On the other hand, an individual earning $250,000 or more a year enjoys a significant amount of disposable income that they use to either buy non-essential items or accumulate wealth.

In a flat tax system, low-wage earners are taxed on the funds they require for survival, while high-wage earners pay the same tax rate while living in extreme abundance. 

Modern-day opponents of the Fair Tax argue that this scenario is just capitalism at work — that in America, those who “work hard” enjoy the fruits of their endeavors.

It’s an ignorant argument, at best. Low wage-earners work just as long and hard as high wage-earner. In many cases, they work harder.

But more to the point, I would argue that there’s nothing “American” about a flat-tax structure at all. For more than a century, the United States has codified the decreasing moral value of money in its tax policy. In our graduated federal income tax system, those who earn more are expected to pay a higher tax rate.

From a spiritual and ethical perspective, the argument is even clearer. A flat tax system is more than just a bad idea. It’s anathema — an abomination to the historical Judeo-Christian values that inform our responsibility to the common good.

A final word for Protestants

Justice-minded Christians aren’t alone in supporting a graduated tax system. Both Judaism and Islam support the idea that wealthy taxpayers should pay a higher rate than the working class. In fact, the Islamic tenet of zakat supports taxing individuals on wealth — not income. The decreasing moral value of money strikes again. 

But as a Protestant clergyperson, I’m acutely aware of the arguments my conservative peers offer in support of a flat tax. And the practice of tithing sits at the top of that list.

A tithe is the donation of 10% of your income to your church. Protestant ministers — especially evangelicals — regularly hammer home the importance of tithing, mostly because they depend on it to fund their operations. Whether you make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year, one out of every 10 dollars you earn goes to the church.

The tithe is essentially a religious flat tax. So, if it’s good enough for the church, religious conservatives argue, it’s good enough for government.

Religious opponents of the graduated tax system raised the same argument in 1894 and immediately met with resistance. It turns out the American people aren’t interested in operating the government like a local church.

But I know firsthand that Protestant churches — even so-called “tithing churches” — don’t practice what they preach. Although they preach the tithe, when the coffers run low, pastors appeal to wealthy congregants for additional donations. “If you’ve got more, give more” is a common mantra in these churches.

When push comes to shove, tithing churches practice a graduated “tax” system. So, when these individuals advocate for a flat tax system in the public sphere, it’s hypocrisy. Plain and simple.

A graduated donation system is the right move for churches because it’s fair and just. And it’s no less fair and just for the citizens of Illinois.

When Illinoisans head to the polls in November, they’re voting for more than a tax rate. In many ways, their votes will determine what we aspire to as a nation …

Will we be a nation that enables the accumulation of exorbitant wealth at the expense of the poor and working class?

Or will we remember the spiritual values at the heart of our faith traditions, and adopt a tax system rooted in fairness and economic justice?

I hope we do the right thing. And so should you.

From the Abundance of the Heart, Trump Tweets

From the Abundance of the Heart, Trump Tweets

Words matter. It’s a lesson I learned early in life and one that I’ve heard preached in Christian circles for decades. Maybe that’s why I’m getting tired of hearing my conservative Christian friends fawn over Donald Trump and then casually add, “I just wish he didn’t tweet.”

But he does tweet. Like a thirteen-year-old girl with unlimited data and a brand new social media account.

In the last 24 hours, Trump has fired off 14 tweets. In those tweets, he pushed for the wall, misquoted the NFL commissioner, railed against “FAKE NEWS,” promoted tax legislation and suggested that the government strip NBC of its broadcasting license (even though NBC doesn’t actually have or need a broadcasting license).

Coming from any other president, Trump’s tweets would have been seen as dangerous, if not delusional, attacks on many of the things our democracy holds dear. In the Trump era, it’s just another day.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to write off Trump’s tweets as bluster. Remember when the press asked the White House how to characterize the president’s tweets in June? Sean Spicer told us, “The President is the President of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the President of the United States.”

So there you have it. Trump’s tweets aren’t just tweets. They’re official statements. From your president. From the leader of the free world. From the seat of power in a country that’s supposed to be a paragon of freedom, decency and common sense.

More than official statements,Trump’s tweets are words. And words matter. Because whether you like it or not, they provide a window into the tone, tenor and content of the president’s heart.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “Forget about official statements. You can’t judge Trump based on what he says. Actions speak louder than words.” Well, I’m not sure Trump fares much better on the actions front, but is that tired platitude even true? Do actions really speak louder than words?

Not according to the gospel.

Words reveal the heart.

In Luke 6, Jesus tells us that the words we speak — and the words other people speak — matter because they say something about the character of the speaker:

“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

In God’s world, words are like a leaky faucet — if you want to test the water in your well, just pay attention to what comes out of the spigot. The president’s well is leaking at a brisk clip and whatever’s going on down in the well isn’t good.

Tweets are words. And words matter.

I make my living as a writer, so I feel like I have some authority when it comes to recognizing words. Twitter isn’t a video game. It’s a communication platform. And tweets are words.

By all accounts, Republican lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about the president’s mental state and maybe even his fitness for office. Although their concern is based on more than Trump’s compulsive Twitter behavior, Congress is slowly waking up to the fact that the president’s tweets provide a glimpse into the dangerously vapid hole at the center of his being.

Now it’s time for my conservative Christian friends to follow suit. Blind allegiance is the currency of tyrants and dictators. If you want to know what’s in Trump’s heart, just listen to his words. Chances are he’s tweeting more of them right now.

Becoming Less Tolerant

I’m going to challenge you to do something a little scary and maybe even a little controversial. I’m going to challenge you to become less tolerant.

Less tolerant?” you say. “But don’t we live in a pluralistic society in which we need to be tolerant of other people’s values, religions and even political views?” Yes, we do. And yet I’m still going to ask you to stop being tolerant.

Because maybe we need to replace tolerance with something else.

Tolerance and Low Expectations

If I simply tolerate you, it implies that I can barely stand to be around you. Tolerance is really just a short step away from loathing and hatred. We encourage tolerance because our expectations are too low. Social scientist Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, suggests that we “talk about ‘tolerance’ because we have low standards.”

In a recent discussion on the TED Radio Hour, Brooks explains that we don’t need more tolerance in our society. Instead, we need to recognize that we actually need people who are different from ourselves – ideologically, religiously and politically. We need to move beyond tolerance to respect, and the only way to do that is to be in relationship with people who are not like us. Believe it our not, being with people who are different actually helps us move towards the peace and unity that we crave.

Tolerance and Politics

Brooks’ concern with tolerance and respect is motivated by the current political environment. He refers to “political motive asymmetry” in politics. Essentially, that means that both political sides believe their ideologies are based in love, while the opposing parties’ ideologies are based in hate.

This type of misperception creates some serious problems when it comes to tolerance, let alone respect.  How can we respect an ideology or a person who we (wrongly) believe is motivated by hate?  Unfortunately, we see how this type of thinking has impacted the 2016 presidential race. People are villainized and denigrated just for affiliating with the opposing party’s ideology.

Brooks says that the solution to political motive asymmetry is to realize that Democrats need to respect what Republicans bring to the discussion when they champion free markets, and Republicans need to respect the Democratic voices that remind us to care for the poor. Respecting – not tolerating or accepting – each other’s views can lead to cooperative efforts instead of conflicting ones. Common ground can be found, but not when we believe that the other person is motivated by hate.

Tolerance and the Church

I suppose we expect politicians to act intolerant because they have clear agenda. But what if this same type of “asymmetry” is at work in the Church?

I live in a very curious place theologically. My personal faith journey and my profession have caused me to create relationships and friendships with people along the entire theological spectrum. I can honestly say that I have friends and colleagues who represent the best that conservative Evangelicalism, liberal mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholic, and unaffiliated Christians have to offer. But walking in these many circles I can also tell you that there’s plenty of “religious motive asymmetry” to go around.

Christians of various doctrines and labels tend to view other Christian groups with suspicion and even judgement. Believing that the other camp’s ideology, theology or doctrine is wrong, the tendency is to create distance. Each group stays within the religious enclaves where people share their beliefs, values and worldviews.

This distance only makes it harder to experience the love and respect that comes from developing real relationships with people who are different from us. And without relationship, love and respect can never grow. We simply tolerate.

The problem is that we can’t hope to have Christian unity when we are unwilling to acknowledge that we need Christian brothers and sisters who are different from us. If Democrats and Republicans can work together on some level, it would seem like people from the same basic faith should be able to see that they also need one another.

Scripture describes our need for other people this way:

Iron sharpens iron,
    and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Proverbs 27:17 (NRSV)

If you’ve ever sharpened a knife, you know that it only gets sharp from roughness and friction. Working and being in relationship with people who are different isn’t always smooth sailing. Sometimes there are conflicts and friction. But if we avoid those types of conflicts, we shut the door on what could be a transformational experience for everyone involved. It could have the power to transform the future of the Church.

You’ve heard it said that no person is an island. Humans don’t do well in isolation. And if Proverbs and Arthur Brooks are right, we especially need people who are different from us.

Where Have All the Servant Leaders Gone?

Where Have All the Servant Leaders Gone?

Those Were the Days

With the bloody grind of the Revolutionary War behind him and the soft currents of the Potomac below him, George Washington returned to Mt. Vernon in 1787 to resume the quiet life of a country landowner. He had served his country and now, he just wanted to be left alone.

But America had other plans.

After months of begging, the other founders finally convinced Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, even though he knew it would likely result in his election as the nation’s first president — a position he had neither pursued nor desired.

We all know how the story ends. Washington accepted the presidency. Not because he craved power, but because his country needed him and he understood that leading is ultimately about serving.

Oh, how the American political process has changed.

George Washington crosses the Delaware as a servant leader

Jesus On Servant Leaders

George Washington didn’t invent servant leadership. It’s an idea that goes back thousands of years, a concept that’s described throughout the gospels.

For example, in Mark 10:42-45, Jesus says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In just three, short verses, Jesus connected political leadership to service. For Jesus, great leaders serve other people, not themselves. Any other kind of leader is a pretender, a tyrant who doesn’t deserve the mantle of leadership.

And Jesus isn’t just talking about politicians. He’s saying that effective leadership — whether it’s leading a country, a church or the local PTA — isn’t about power.

It’s about service. It’s about sacrifice.

Servant leaders live for the people they serve, regardless of the cost. These days, that’s a foreign concept. Sometimes it’s even a foreign concept in the church, when pastors and priests become more interested in building empires than serving their flocks.

Jesus washing Peter's feet because that's what servant leaders do

It’s Time to Unmake the Political Monsters We’ve Created

George Washington wasn’t perfect. And it’s naive to think that all of the founding fathers had pure motives, while all of today’s politicians are rotten to the core. It’s more complicated than that.

However, I think we can agree that something has gone off the rails in American politics. Candidates still spout rhetoric about answering a call to serve their country. But we’re not naive. Beneath the thin veil of sound bites and stump speeches, we see (on both sides of the aisle):

  • Candidates saying and doing whatever it takes to win elections
  • Political leaders who serve special interests rather than the interests of the people they govern
  • Career politicians who fight change because they are personally invested in the status quo

That’s not leadership. It’s insanity. Worse yet, it’s our own fault because we’ve created these political monsters — not through our votes, but through our values:

When we value wealth, we elect leaders who are motivated by greed.

When we value power, we elect leaders who govern by brute force.

When we value partisanship, we elect leaders who refuse to compromise.

The way home doesn’t start in Washington. It starts with us. It’s time for each of us to take a hard look in the mirror and admit our part in this new American sin.

If we say we vote our values, it’s time to reexamine what’s important to us and vote for servant leaders with humility, compassion and integrity.

And it’s time for us to become servant leaders in our own little worlds — in our workplaces, in our communities, in our schools and churches. When we recognize that servanthood is what qualifies us to lead, we bring change to the American political process by raising the standard for leadership.


Why Christians Should Be Mad as Hell About Flint

Why Christians Should Be Mad as Hell About Flint

The Flint Water Crisis: A Recap

Clean drinking water. Historically, Christians have done a bang up job drilling wells and rolling out programs to help the global poor get it. But when it comes to the Flint water crisis it’s radio silence.

So why aren’t more Christians mad as hell about Flint?

You can’t understand the Flint water crisis by listening to random sound bites on the nightly news. If you’re confused about Flint, here’s a quick recap and timeline of events:

  • Pre-2014: Flint, Michigan was a hotspot for auto manufacturing. But when the auto industry fell on hard times, so did Flint. For years, it’s been one of the poorest and most economically desperate cities in the nation.
  • April 2014: To cut costs, officials switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The Flint River had a reputation for being foul and residents immediately complained about the smell and taste of the water. When researchers analyzed the water, they discovered that it was corrosive and caused lead from the service lines to contaminate the water supply.
  • October 2014: The local General Motors plant demanded that government officials provide its facility with a different water supply because Flint River water corroded parts on assembly lines. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder allocated more than $400k to hook GM back up to Lake Huron water. Flint residents were forced to continue drinking water from the Flint River.
  • Jan 2015: The state begins buying bottled water for employees and guests at the state office building in Flint, based on concerns about the quality and safety of the tap water.
  • February 2015: An EPA official told Michigan officials that Flint’s water supply contained dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants.
  • October 2015: Governor Snyder switched Flint back to Lake Huron water — a year after he learned Flint River water corroded car parts and 8 months after the state learned that Flint’s water contained high levels of lead.
  • Now: Every Flint resident (100,000 people, including all 9,000 kids under the age of six) has been exposed to a toxic brew of lead and other contaminants, setting them up for a lifetime of impaired brain function, learning disabilities and other diseases.

In a nutshell, those in power took advantage of an impoverished community. The switch to Flint River water was part of a series of cost-cutting measures to pay for a multi-billion dollar tax break for corporations and wealthy taxpayers. And when Governor Snyder and other state officials discovered they made a mistake … they did nothing for at least eight months.

The real irony?

The Flint water crisis could have been avoided for $100 a day — the cost of federally mandated additives that seal lead pipes from leaching lead into drinking water.

Our (Unnecessarily) Complicated Relationship with Flint

Clean drinking water is a basic human right. According to Water.org, 663 million people (1 in 10) around the world lack access to safe water.

Over the years, countless churches, ministries and mission organizations have worked to provide clean drinking water to the less privileged, assuming that we could trust our government agencies and elected officials to ensure that we have clean drinking here at home.

If the Flint water crisis had happened somewhere else, U.S. Christians would have raced to the scene and expressed their moral outrage.

Instead, it’s barely a blip on our radar.

I suppose there could be a lot of reasons why more Christians aren’t outraged by the Flint water crisis:

  • It’s political. (Governor Rick Snyder is Republican.)
  • It smacks of environmentalism. (And that’s a dirty word for some Christians).
  • It doesn’t affect them. (They’re still serving Starbucks during coffee hour, right?)

But when it comes down to it, I think one of the reasons why Flint falls on deaf ears is because it’s happening here. At home. In the U.S.

We’re Better Than This

One of the things I love about American Christianity is that we have a seemingly endless capacity for serving the global poor. We donate money, travel halfway around the world and sometimes even devote our lives to the full-time service of people who live on less than $2 a day.

But we’re not nearly as passionate about advocating for the poor in our midst. We’re numb to the plight of impoverished communities in the U.S. — communities filled with people who can’t afford to relocate even when their children are being poisoned by their drinking water — because in the land of opportunity, the poor are considered slackers. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.

Or in the case of Flint residents, if you don’t work, you don’t get clean drinking water.

It’s not malicious. It’s not even intentional. But I think it’s easy to ignore the honest-to-God humanitarian crisis that’s happening in Flint because community residents aren’t living in a rain forest or a refugee camp.

They’re living here. Voiceless and powerless, but they’re living here. And so we go on, eating and drinking and trusting that the people who represent us will do the right things, even though time and time again they’ve proven that they won’t.

I could quote scriptures about Jesus’ love for the poor. Or I could talk about the connection between clean water and baptism. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say,

We’re better than this.

Regardless of where you fall on the Christian spectrum, it’s time to set aside politics and  pettiness and say enough is enough. It’s time to turn our prayer, passion and advocacy toward the needs of Flint and other impoverished communities who are being exploited by special interests.

The gospel demands it. The people of Flint deserve it. And you and I are the ones who are called to do it.


Image Credit: Michigan Municipal League at Flickr.com

Being Vulnerable: Lessons from MLK

Being Vulnerable: Lessons from MLK

Vulnerability Hurts. But It Plants the Seeds of Change

No one likes being vulnerable. But as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., we’re reminded once again that nonviolence and vulnerability are necessary to effect real change in the world and in our everyday lives.

In The Quest for Peace and Justice (a lecture he gave when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964), King said,

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man (sic) who wields it.”

Lofty words, for sure. Yet our lived experience tells us that nonviolence feels anything but “ennobling.” In fact, nonviolent and non-aggressive responses to confrontation can feel demeaning, degrading and dehumanizing.

Whether you’re protesting an injustice or diffusing an argument with your spouse, refusing to respond to anger and violence with anger and violence pushes your humility to the breaking point. It makes you feel weak and exposed.

In a word, it makes you feel vulnerable.

From the time you were old enough to walk, you’ve been taught to practice self-protection and self-preservation. But King understood that there is power in being vulnerable because it allows us to become living, breathing witnesses to truth.

As witnesses to truth, we carry the seeds of change and the possibility of a “community at peace with itself.” They might disagree with you. They might even despise you. But they can’t argue with your willingness to be vulnerable for what you believe in — and it’s your vulnerability that gives authority to the truth you speak.

Jesus and the Art of Being Vulnerable

It’s no coincidence that vulnerability played a central role in MLK’s ideology of change. Remember, King was a seminary-trained Baptist minister. (MLK received his seminary training at Crozer Theological, one of the three schools that became the seminary Melissa and I attended, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.)

In a 1967 sermon, MLK said,

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”

Vulnerability was a fundamental element of Jesus’ life and ministry. MLK often cited the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ counsel to “turn the other cheek” as a basis for nonviolent resistance. Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean submitting to injustice or abuse — it simply means creating space for God to transform vulnerability into strength and change.

Being Vulnerable in Your Everyday Life

In the spirit of MLK and Jesus’ call to a radical lifestyle of love, here are some examples of how being vulnerable can create positive change in your everyday life:

1. Being Vulnerable at Home

Conflicts and petty disagreements are inevitable in shared living spaces. But instead of adding fuel to the fire, diffuse arguments and conflicts by remaining calm, cool and collected. Don’t be a doormat, but look for win-win solutions to resolve conflicts with your spouse, kids or roommates.

2. Being Vulnerable in the Workplace

Most of us are conditioned to view the workplace as a competitive environment. But a new generation of researchers is dispelling this myth and proving that generous people — not toxic, selfish takers — achieve the most success in the workplace. Being vulnerable in the workplace means finding ways to be truly helpful to your coworkers by being generous with your time and talents.

3. Being Vulnerable in the World

When we practice self-protection, we keep other people at arms length, making it impossible to create relationships built on trust and respect. Being vulnerable in the world means letting down your guard to allow other people — especially people who are different than you — become a part of your world.

Vulnerability isn’t easy. You could spend the rest of your life trying to master it. But if there’s anything we can learn from MLK and Jesus’ alternative worldview it’s that being vulnerable is worth the effort because it’s the first step toward peace and a more meaningful way of life.


Discovering the Real St. Nick

Discovering the Real St. Nick

We know him by many names. Kris Kringle. Pere Noel. Father Christmas. Sinter Klaas. Santa Claus. The names change, but the man in red’s legend is rooted in a single, historical figure. And the real St. Nick is a role model for a life of faith, hope, mercy and love.

Who Was the Real St. Nick?

The story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a fourth-century saint and bishop of Myra, an ancient city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Born to a wealthy family, Nicholas was orphaned at a young age. Rather than spending his inheritance on a life of luxury, Nicholas sold his possessions and used his inheritance to help the poor and the sick.

As a bishop, Nicholas developed a reputation for ministering to the needy, to children and to people on the margins of society. Following his death in 343 AD, Nicholas was made a saint.

Today, St. Nicholas is revered as the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students.

How Did St. Nicholas Become Santa Claus?

Over the years, St. Nicholas evolved into the character we know as Santa Claus thanks to stories describing his work as a defender and advocate for those in need. One of the most representative of these tales is the story of the three daughters.

St. Nicholas and the Three Daughters

According to tradition, there was a poor family in Myra with three daughters. Although the daughters had attracted the attention of suitors, they had no dowries. In those days, no dowries meant that the girls couldn’t marry and would most likely be forced into prostitution. The good bishop took it upon himself to supply their dowries by anonymously slipping bags of gold into stockings that were hanging to dry. By securing their dowries, Nicholas rescued the daughters from poverty and sexual exploitation — and in the process, secured his reputation as a gift-giving saint.

If you’re interested in learning more, the St. Nicholas Center offers a selection of other stories about the real St. Nick and the work he performed on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

What Can We Learn from the Real St. Nick?

It seems to me that one of the most important lessons we can learn from Nicholas of Myra — the real St. Nick — is that opportunities for acts of kindness and mercy are all around us.

Maybe I’m naive, but I believe that most of us are desperate to become better people. We want to be more generous. We want to be more merciful. But when we see the headlines on CNN, the injustices and problems of the world feel overwhelming. We don’t know where to begin.

It’s not accidental that most of the people the Nicholas helped were from his hometown of Myra. And it’s not accidental that he often expressed his generosity anonymously, without expectation of receiving something in return.

The real St. Nick teaches us that love is local. When we demonstrate generosity, kindness and mercy to the people God puts in our paths, we become reflections of Christ’s love for the world.

Many of the traits we associate with our modern-day Santa Claus were created by Clement Moore in his 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But before there was a right jolly old elf driving eight tiny reindeer on a miniature sleigh, there was the real St. Nick — a flesh-and-blood representation of the Christmas spirit and the embodiment of what can happen when we are willing to share Immanuel (“God with us”) with the people who are all around us.


Making Peace: 3 Choices We All Face

Making Peace: 3 Choices We All Face

During Advent, we reflect on the themes of hope, love, joy and peace. But this year, peace seems especially elusive. Daily headlines remind us that our world is filled with all kinds of conflict — political, ideological, military, and so on. We are a world in dire need of people committed to making peace.

It would be easy to throw our hands up in the air and say that there is nothing that we can do to encourage peace. But as people of faith, we don’t have that luxury. We are called to be peacemakers.  Making peace is a creative work that allows God’s Spirit to work in and through us in whatever context we find ourselves. Wherever we are, we can and should be the conduit of God’s Spirit to bring peace.

Here are three choices that peacemakers need to consider.

1. Suspicion vs. Trust

Conflict begins within each of us when we approach others with suspicion instead of trust. Suspicion causes us to put up our guard and make judgments about another person’s actions and motives.

Suspicion is the enemy of authentic, loving relationships because you can’t reveal your true self to someone that you are guarded against.

Trust is the opposite of suspicion. Trust allows us to think the best of other people and avoid judgment. Is there risk involved in trust? Absolutely. However, peacemakers find deeper more authentic relationships because they approach people with trust instead of suspicion.

2. Fear vs. Courage

People will let you down. You will get hurt. These experiences can cause you to put up defenses and avoid people or situations that might hurt you again. But when we react that way, we allow fear to control us and prevent us from pursuing the hard work of peace-filled relationships.

Peacemakers experience pain, too. But they don’t allow fear of pain prevent them from doing what is right. They forgive freely and have the courage to mend relationships. They recognize that the past does not have to be the future and that people can change.

People committed to making peace have the courage to rise above their fears and past experiences for the sake of peace in their homes, their families and their communities. They are willing to risk being hurt for the sake of peace.

3. Self-interest vs. Compassion

Self-interest breeds conflict. It is at the heart of the suspicion and fear that causes us to judge other people’s actions and motives.

Peacemakers understand that life isn’t all about them. They aren’t self-interested, but other-interested. They take seriously the call to lay down their lives for others and live out the words of Philippians 2:3:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Peacemakers are compassion-filled people. When another person is unkind they recognize that people are living with all sorts of pain and stress. Knowing that there is always more happening inside others that we cannot see, they extend grace and compassion to others. They recognize that judgment is up to God, not them.

As individual peacemakers we can’t change the world. But as the collective Body of Christ working towards peace we can. The words of the old hymn “Let There Be Peace on Earth” ring in my mind today. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.


The End of Violence Begins With Solitude

The End of Violence Begins With Solitude

Ending violence? We’re looking in the wrong places.

“Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and themselves.”

Thomas Merton drafted those words more than 50 years ago. But I think his description of hell sums up the situation we find ourselves in today. Most of us (hopefully) want to see the end of violence on our streets and around the world. We just can’t agree about how to do it.

And too often, our disagreements devolve into opinions filled with vitriol, hostility and hatred.

Call me naive, but I want to believe that on a good day, the majority of us are decent people with good intentions. But they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so I also know that on our bad days we’re capable of some truly sinister things, especially when we buy into the group-think of our various tribes and allegiances.

Instead of coming together around solutions for the common good, we’re held captive by political rhetoric and our own stubbornness.

From immigration to gun control to the efficacy of prayer, we kid ourselves into thinking that we can find answers in media sound bites and social media memes rather than looking for answers in the only place they can ever truly be found.

The kingdom of God is within you.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered:

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!’” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.

The kingdom of God brings peace on earth. It’s the kingdom-come in the here-and-now. It’s the end of violence and suffering, hatred and division. As God made flesh, Jesus says that you can’t find the kingdom of God out there, in the chaos of competing ideologies and personal opinions.

The only place where you’ll find the kingdom of God is in you.

We find the end of violence in solitude.

Solitude creates space for nurturing your spiritual side. Just 15 minutes of silence each day provides the breathing room you need to become more spiritually grounded. More importantly, the disciplines of creative prayer and solitude allow you to find the kingdom of God — the kingdom of peace — within you. Here’s how …

1. Solitude amplifies God’s voice.

The average person spends 1.72 hours per day on social media. Solitude gives God a chance to be heard. By spending just a few minutes a day in spiritual reflection, you gain the ability to see current events and the problem of violence through a Jesus-centered lens.

2. Solitude shines a light on your soul.

In some way or another, we all play a role in perpetuating cycles of violence, even if it’s only through seemingly small acts like yelling at our kids or treating other people with disrespect. Gandhi wisely told us to be the change we want to see in the world, and solitude shines a spotlight on the areas of our life that are ripe for transformation.

3. Solitude creates spiritual strength.

Solitude produces spiritual stamina. It empowers us with the strength and boldness we need to live as ambassadors of Christ in the world. If you want to be the kind of person that responds to violence with spiritual authenticity rather than half-baked ideas and tired cliches, you’ll need solitude to do it.

I’m tired of violence. But I’m equally tired of ignorant, knee-jerk reactions to violence. Maybe you are too. Is it time to end the violence? Absolutely. But the starting line for the end of violence is solitude.


3 Simple Ways to Overcome Evil With Good

3 Simple Ways to Overcome Evil With Good

Tired of politicians? So am I. It’s up to ordinary people like you and me to overcome evil with good. Here’s how we do it …

Evil is real. Over the past week, conversations about how decent, rational people should respond to evil have been sucking the oxygen out of the Western world.

But beneath the political rhetoric about military action, immigration policies and international alliances, there’s a larger truth that needs to be heard:

At the end of the day, ordinary people like you and me — not politicians — are the ones who have the power to overcome evil.

Evil isn’t about ethnicity or geography. It’s about the way we live our lives. And the way we beat it is by learning to overcome evil with good.

It’s up to us to overcome evil with good.

In Romans 12:21, Paul offers a piece of advice that is more relevant now than it’s ever been:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Overcoming evil with good isn’t as easy as it sounds. Well wishes and good intentions aren’t enough. The best way — in fact, maybe the only way — to truly defeat evil is through our actions. By becoming better people, we live our lives in a way that raises a middle finger to evil and in the process, changes the world.

(1) Help people.

The world doesn’t run on “Dunkin’,” it runs on self-interest. From economic systems to our daily routines, we’re conditioned to put ourselves and our own interests above everything else.

Violent extremism is just an extension of the self-interest theme. If it’s my way or the highway, the end justifies the means and the lives of hundreds or even thousands of innocents are simply collateral damage.

To overcome evil with good, we have to become more intentional about helping people who can’t offer us anything in return. Offer an encouraging word, lend a hand, be kind — there are dozens of ways to drive a stake in evil by laying down your self-interest on a daily basis.

(2) Love your neighbor.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s part two of Jesus’ great commandment. But evil treats its neighbors as objects, not people. It strips the humanity out of life and turns children of God into nameless faces who should be feared rather than respected or loved.

Your neighbors aren’t just the people who live next door. They’re the people you meet every single day — at work, at school, on the street. When it comes to identifying your neighbors, there are no litmus tests. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says that whether you like it or not, everyone is your neighbor.

You don’t have to agree with your “neighbors,” but you have to love them. And that means treating them with the same respect and decency that you want others to give to you.

(3) Enjoy life.

There are no guarantees in this world. If we’ve learned anything over the past week, it’s that life is short and it can change in a heartbeat. We’ve been reminded that we can’t afford to use words like “tomorrow” or “someday” because life is lived in present moments. In the right here, right now.

Evil wants to force your present moments into a box filled with fear, anger and bitterness. It wants to steal the simple joys of life, and rob you of the experiences that cultivate your relationship with God and other people.

Step out of the box. Enjoy life. Overcome evil with good by savoring every single moment, by experiencing new things and by having the courage to welcome new people into your life.

 Photo CreditEd Yourdon on Flickr

In a Time of Violence

In a Time of Violence

The news from Paris is all too familiar. More bombings. More shootings. More blood in the streets. It goes without saying that we stand with France, and its citizens are in our prayers. At the end of the day, we’re all facing the same, sad reality:

Another senseless massacre in a time of violence that none of us really understand.

In the coming days and weeks, there will be no shortage of opinions about the killings in Paris. From political sound bites to Facebook posts, we’ll be inundated with messages about ISIS, Islam and the future of the Western world.

Likewise, I think it’s nearly certain that France, the U.S. and our allies will double down on security and ramp up the fight against Islamic extremists in Syria and other parts of the world. And rightly so.

Even people who are committed to peacemaking have a breaking point, a moment in which the need to protect the innocent outweighs the argument against the use of violence.

If we hadn’t reached that point yet, I think most of us can agree that it feels like we’ve reached that point now.

The Call of the Gospel in a Time of Violence

The Islamic State is evil. It’s oppressive. It’s inhuman.

But as Christians, we have to recognize that our response to ISIS presents another danger. Left unchecked, fear can cause us to paint the world with broad brush strokes. To lump everyone of a certain skin color or nationality or religion in with the monsters who live to do us harm.

If we allow the evil of terrorism to make us hard, if it causes us to abandon Jesus’ call to stand with the oppressed and welcome the stranger, then the terrorists really have won.

When I heard early reports indicating that at least one of the terrorists was a Syrian refugee, my heart sank because it provides fuel for the ideological radicals who have already been painting the entire refugee population as terrorists.

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of people creates chaos, and chaos provides a perfect cover for a small number of evildoers to slip through the cracks. But here’s the simple truth:

The vast majority of refugees aren’t terrorists. They’re fathers and mothers — just like you and me — who are trying to protect their families from ISIS.

Should Europe and the U.S. establish policies about the manner in which refugees enter our countries? Absolutely. Should we be diligent about rooting out Islamic militants from the scores of honest people seeking asylum from the violence in Syria? Obviously.

But what we can’t do, what we can never do, is to allow our fear to change our faith and the gospel values that separate Christianity from every other religion and ideology in the world.

In Matthew 25, Jesus says,

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

The world has changed. We live in a time of violence. But the gospel has stayed the same. Let’s hope our commitment to the call of the gospel stays the same, too.

A Prayer for the World In a Time of Violence

In a time of violence,
We turn to you.
Lord of Sorrows,
Who is burdened
With the cries still echoing in Hiroshima,
With the broken bodies of women and girls in the Congo,
With the blood flowing in Syria. In Paris. In our own backyards.

In a time of violence
We gather to mourn and pray
For our communities,
Past and present,
Local and global.

In a time of violence
We commit ourselves
To the difficult work
Of peacemaking
So we may honor
The suffering and pain
Of our sisters and brothers.

O Lord of Sorrows,
Give us the courage
To speak the words
Of peace again and again
So they might flourish
In an arid land.


Jesus, Ex-Cons and ‘Ban the Box’

Jesus, Ex-Cons and ‘Ban the Box’

On Monday, President Obama announced several measures to help ex-convicts secure jobs, including “ban the box” — a request for the federal Office of Personnel Management to withhold questions about criminal history until the later stages of the federal government’s hiring process.

Opponents of the measure quickly pounced on the news, arguing that “ban the box” will force companies to hire ex-cons (it doesn’t). But politics aside, knee-jerk reactions to “ban the box” and other programs for ex-cons aren’t helpful, especially for those of us who take the gospels seriously. Here’s why …

The Prison System Is Seriously Broken

Although most us know that the American prison system is in big trouble, it’s the details that are truly terrifying. Here’s what you don’t know about the American prison system:

  • U.S. prisons are bursting at the seams. Like it or not, the U.S. is the world’s largest jailer. Twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated population resides in American prisons.
  • The prison population is growing at an unsustainable rate. Over the past 40 years, the American prison population has grown by 700 percent. One out of every 100 U.S. adults is currently behind bars.
  • Most inmates are in prison for relatively minor crimes. Parole violations and drug-related charges are the most common causes for incarceration — and 80 percent of drug-related offenses are for possession rather than sales.

The bottom line? There are a lot of people in prison in the U.S. and the incarcerated population is growing in leaps and bounds. But there’s something else you need to know before you decide that it’s a bad idea to make it easier for ex-cons to get jobs:

The recidivism rate — the percentage of released or paroled criminals that end up back in prison — is also skyrocketing.

According to statistics provided by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ):

  • Within three years of release, more than two-thirds of ex-cons (67.8%) are rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, more than three-quarters (76.6%) of former prisoners are rearrested.
  • Most prisoners (56.7%) who go back to prison are rearrested within the first 12 months after release.

It’s common sense that to reduce the recidivism rate and the size of the U.S. prison population, we need to find ways to help ex-cons land jobs as quickly as possible post-release.

The irony is that we rehabilitate prisoners with job training programs, but instantly reject them when they apply for jobs post-release.

No one is arguing that ex-cons should have priority over other job applicants. The “ban the box” initiative doesn’t even prohibit federal agencies from considering applicants’ criminal history during hiring. It only asks federal agencies to delay asking about the applicant’s criminal history until later stages of the process (which many agencies already do).

Essentially, “ban the box” gives ex-cons a fighting chance by making it more difficult for federal employers to automatically dismiss former prisoners during the initial stages of hiring. The result could be a benefit for federal employers — many private sector employers report that ex-cons are star employees.

‘Ban the Box’ and the Politics of the Gospel

The idea of second chances is ingrained in our national narrative. But it’s ingrained even more deeply in the gospel. Even more, the gospel makes it clear that Jesus followers have a responsibility to advocate for and serve prisoners and ex-cons.

In Matthew 25, we see the depth of Jesus’ commitment to prisoners:

 I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Did you catch that? Jesus claims prisoners as members of his family — without qualification. Not innocent prisoners. Not white-collar prisoners. Just prisoners.

I landed my first job out of college with the help of a family connection. At some point or another, maybe family connections helped you land a job. From a gospel perspective, ex-cons and other marginalized people are valued members of Jesus’ extended family. And that means they’re part of our extended family, too.

Here’s my point: “Ban the box” and other programs to help ex-cons find jobs make sense. But more importantly, by supporting these kinds of programs we’re doing what we can to help our brothers and sisters earn a living at a time when they are extremely vulnerable to lapsing into old patterns of behavior.

It’s not about the politics that is broadcast ad nauseum on MSNBC and Fox News. It’s about the politics of giving people who are down and out a fair shake.

It’s about the politics of the gospel.


How to Kill Them With Kindness

How to Kill Them With Kindness

Your life is filled with jerks. They’re unavoidable. In fact, you’ll probably encounter difficult people several times today:

  • The driver who cuts you off on the expressway
  • A coworker who takes credit for your success
  • A friends who exploits your relationship
  • Telemarketers
  • The neighbor who lets his dog drop a #2 on your front lawn
  • An able-bodied person who parks in a handicapped space
  • Telemarketers (they’re persistent)

The list of possibilities goes on and on. The question isn’t whether or not you’ll encounter abrasive people (because you will). It’s how you’ll react to the jerks that cross your path.

You could fight fire with fire or look for ways to get even. But the best revenge (and the spiritually mature approach) is to kill them with kindness.

5 Ways to Kill Them with Kindness

The concept of responding to jerks with kindness isn’t new. It’s been around for thousands of years. In Proverbs 25, it says:

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
    and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
    and the Lord will reward you.

Coals of fire on their heads? The language sounds medieval, but the principle is solid. By making the choice to kill them with kindness, you force the jerks of the world to confront their own behavior as you model a saner and more spiritually grounded way of being.

In the gospels, Jesus’ advice to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” essentially says the same thing. Don’t meet anger with anger — look for ways to bless them instead.

#1: Speak Generously

Words are powerful things. Earlier in Proverbs, we’re told that the tongue holds the power of life and death. Mean or angry words tear people down; kind and generous words lift people up. When you speak generously to jerks, you speak life to them, to the world and even to yourself.

#2: Act Graciously

Grace is the giving of an undeserved gift — and there’s no better time to practice it than when someone is wronging you. Whether it’s giving a jerk your parking space or cleaning up the neighbor dog’s poop, kind acts release grace into the world. And God knows the world needs more of those.

#3: Meet a Need

In some cases, people do mean things because they have an urgent need in their lives. For example, maybe the coworker who tries to take credit for your success needs a workplace victory because their job is in jeopardy. A tentative job situation doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it explains it. By looking for ways to meet the other person’s need, you live like Jesus and create an opportunity to make a new friend.

#4: Be a Good Listener

Sometimes people act badly because they desperately want someone to listen to them. I get it — it’s frustrating when you feel like your voice isn’t be heard. Rather than arguing with difficult people, make an effort to be a good listener. It’s not easy, but you might be surprised by the things you learn about the person as well as yourself.

#5: Smile

A simple smile can be disarming. When you’re confronted by a jerk, flash a big smile before you speak or act. Often, a smile can change the tone of the conversation and lay the groundwork for a more productive and civil interaction with people who are caught up in their own little world.

When you kill them with kindness, you have the element of surprise on your side. Mean, irritating people expect you to respond to their actions with anger and bitterness because that’s how they would respond to you.

When you treat jerks with kindness and generosity, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to continue their mean streak. It’s a little victory, but that’s how Jesus taught us to change the world. One little victory at a time.


Why We Might Be Winning the War Against Poverty

Why We Might Be Winning the War Against Poverty

If you’re a Christian and the war against poverty isn’t on your radar, maybe it’s time to dust off your Bible. (Here’s a hint: Start with the words in red.)

But even Jesus understood that the war against poverty is an uphill battle. “The poor you will always have with you,” he said in the gospel of Matthew. However, there’s new evidence that we’re actually winning the war against extreme global poverty.

Here’s what we know — and what needs to happen next.

How We’re Winning the War Against Poverty (Sort Of)

According to projections recently released by the World Bank, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty around the world is forecasted to dip below 10 percent in 2015. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as people who are forced to live below the international poverty line, which is currently set at $1.90 per day.

One in 10 people on this planet lives in extreme poverty.

That sounds like a lot (because it is). But consider this: In 1999, the extreme poor represented 29 percent of the global population; in 1990, 37.1 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty.

Over the past 25 years, extreme global poverty has been reduced by a full 25 percentage points.

That’s a big deal and it’s definitely something worth celebrating. In the U.S., it’s easy to rationalize extreme global poverty based on the misguided idea that it’s cheaper to live in the developing world.

But I’ve seen what living on less than $2 a day looks like and take my word for it: Extreme poverty is just as dire and dehumanizing as it sounds — no matter where you live.

There are a lot of factors driving the reduction in extreme poverty. The rise of the Asian middle class, a growing awareness of the global poor, even social media — these and other factors (including the work of socially ethical Christians and other people of faith) have all contributed to the decline in extreme poverty.

And we’re not done yet. In the words of World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, “This is the best story in the world today — these projections show us that we are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty.’’

Eliminating Extreme Poverty in Our Lifetime

The possibility of eradicating extreme poverty over the next two decades is good news for all of us. But it won’t happen on its own. In fact, experts are quick to point out that economic slowdowns, high youth unemployment rates, market volatility and other variables still make eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 a lofty goal.

But ending extreme poverty is possible. 

The Church represents one of the most prolific and pervasive organisms on the planet. By standing in solidarity with the poor and making the obliteration of the most extreme forms of poverty a priority, we can follow Jesus’ example and make a significant difference in the war against poverty.

Pray for the Poor

Change begins with prayer. When we intercede for those trapped in extreme poverty, we bring spiritual resources to bear on the problems they face. But just as importantly, we align ourselves with Jesus’ heart for the poor and practice spiritual solidarity with the less fortunate around the world.

Advocate on the Behalf of the Global Poor

In addition to prayer, it’s important to advocate for the poor and for the elimination of extreme global poverty. From speaking up for the poor around the office water cooler to contacting legislators about anti-poverty initiatives, those of us to whom much has been given will ultimately be judged by our willingness to advocate for the global poor.

Examine Your Personal Lifestyle

In many cases, overconsumption and materialism in the West contribute to extreme poverty in developing nations. In God’s world, there’s enough for everyone — but only when the haves live up to their responsibility to live in moderation rather than exploiting the have-nots so they can revel in excess.

The takeaway from the World Bank’s forecast is that the war against poverty is winnable, but it won’t be easy. The poor matter to Jesus. And that should be reason enough for Christians to make the elimination of extreme global poverty a priority.

Celebrity Worship Is Crushing Our Collective Soul

Celebrity Worship Is Crushing Our Collective Soul

 Celebrity Worship Is Alive and Well

Both of my daughters are decent writers. In fact, my oldest daughter is pursuing a degree in digital media, and currently writes for several campus and regional publications.

The other day, I read an article she wrote about celebrity politicians. Like any good reporter, she expanded the focus of the article to include college students’ thoughts about other promising celebrity politicians.

And some of their ideas about potential celebrity presidents terrified me.

  • One student expressed strong support for Wacka Flocka, a rapper who announced his candidacy earlier this year despite being seven years younger than the minimum age requirement.
  • Another student said that she hopes Nicki Minaj will run for president at some point because she seems to be a strong woman.
  • The younger generation seems to be oddly supportive of Kanye West, who announced at this year’s VMAs that he’s running for president in 2020.

Never mind the fact that Wacka Flocka and Nicki Minaj and Kanye West are no more qualified to be president than you or me or the guy who pours your coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. To win the confidence of otherwise rational and well-intentioned people, all it takes is the right name, the right look and a healthy dose of ego.

It’s celebrity worship. It’s alive and well in America. And it’s crushing our soul.

How the Cult of Celebrity Is Spiritually Harmful

I get it. It’s fun to watch celebrities. Their quirky personalities, their lavish lifestyles, their personal dramas — it’s fascinating stuff when your own life isn’t very exciting.

But there’s a fine line between following a few celebrity stories and full-blown celebrity worship. And anyone who thinks that Kanye should be the leader of the free world has taken a few too many sips of the celebrity Kool Aid.

The rising trend of celebrity politicians is a symptom of a larger problem, i.e., a culture that values celebrity over experience, integrity and other time-tested virtues.

Celebrity worship fuels ego, and ego is a soul-killer.

Not all celebrities are narcissistic maniacs. But the concept of celebrity is inherently self-promotional. By contributing to the cult of celebrity, we feed their egos. Worse yet, we feed our own egos because it becomes easier to rationalize self-centeredness (rather than other-centeredness) as a gateway to success.

Celebrity worship distorts our perspective.

You can’t see the world clearly through a fishbowl and that’s kind of what celebrity is — a small, enclosed world that exists apart from real life. Celebrity worship distorts our perspective about the things that are truly important because it causes us to see the world through a lens of unreality. When we take a step back and regain our spiritual footing, we realize the insignificance of the latest celebrity gossip compared to the needs of real people in the real world.

Celebrity worship robs us of our self-worth.

Ultimately, celebrity worship reduces the value of our lives. It’s likely that the students my daughter interviewed for her article will one day be more qualified to lead the country than their celebrity idols. But the cult of celebrity has conditioned them to believe that famous singers and actors and athletes are more capable and valuable than they are. That’s a disgrace because it limits the potential of their God-given gifts and replaces their self esteem with a lie.

Jesus rejected the idea of celebrity. Even more, he avoided becoming the focus of celebrity worship by asking his followers to keep quiet about his miracles and his identity as the son of God.

In today’s hyper-connected media culture, exposure to celebrities is unavoidable. But when we refuse to participate in celebrity worship, we reaffirm the value of all people — not just the lucky few.


A Christian Response to Immigration

A Christian Response to Immigration

The US only took in 1,500 Syrian refugees last year, but President Obama has asked his administration to increase that number to at least 10,000 in the coming year. Sadly, the administration’s response to immigration is getting heat from a variety of groups in the U.S., including church groups and Christian organizations.

Personally, I’m grateful that the U.S. is stepping up to the plate and helping Syrian migrants trying to escape war. It seems that the U.S. would be a logical home for desperate people trying to escape war. After all, the well-known poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty reminds our collective American conscience that we’re a country of immigrants:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

However, for a country that has historically claimed to be a “melting pot” of immigrant groups, Americans don’t have a great track record of accepting immigrants. With each new wave of immigration, the newest ethnic groups tend to be demonized or stereotyped by “native-born” Americans who fear people that are culturally or religiously different.

Historical Response to Immigration

Our response to immigration should set the standard for the rest of the world. But here are just a few examples that punctuate how Americans have historically discriminated against immigrants based on ethnicity and/or religion.

  • In the 1850’s the “American Party” – a.k.a. the “Know Nothings” – discriminated against Irish immigrants with an explicitly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant platform.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892 restricted immigration from China to preserve jobs and higher wages because Chinese immigrants were willing to work for less money.
  • Italian immigrants endured discrimination and were even considered “sub-human” because of their darker complexions and stereotyped as “Sicilian gangsters.”
  • During World War II German, Italian and Japanese immigrants were detained – even “native born” Americans of Japanese descent were subject to detention camps..

Negative attitudes and actions against immigrants have always been rooted in fear. Fear of losing jobs. Fear of the financial cost to our society, including social services, education, law enforcement, etc. Fear about changes to American culture and the “American way of life.” Ultimately, all of these fears are rooted in a mindset of scarcity and competition for resources.

A Christian Response to Immigration

As Christians we can’t allow fear to influence our response to immigration – even when those fears are rooted in scarcity. Our faith demands us to trust God for all that we have. We serve a God of abundance, and it is this great God of abundance that has always showed compassion to the immigrant – the stranger in a strange land.

Scripture is full of references to immigrants and aliens, such as Deuteronomy 10:17-19, reminding the Israelites that they were immigrants in the land of Egypt:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Again and again scripture reminds us to care for people who don’t have power — economic or political. These people who are on the margins of society include orphans, widows, the poor, and the alien. As Christians our response to immigration should be to walk alongside those who need our help, not build walls to keep them out of our sight.

As Christians, our first citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. This is a Kingdom that has no physical borders separating us from our brothers and sisters throughout the world. If our first allegiance is to this Kingdom and to the God who rules it, then it becomes much harder to turn our backs on immigrants.

A Christian response to immigration is to provide food, clothing and shelter. But even more importantly, it’s our Christian responsibility to give immigrants our love and acceptance.

The EU Migrant Crisis and Welcoming the Stranger

The EU Migrant Crisis: Welcoming the Stranger

The EU migrant crisis has been described as the greatest migration of refugees since World War II — a migration of “biblical proportions.” It’s a humanitarian emergency that will require the world to respond collectively and humanely.

Why Are People Fleeing?

Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq, Syria, and northern Africa to escape war, poverty, and religious persecution. Most just want to keep their children safe and alive. It’s expected that 800,000 will seek asylum in Germany this year alone, and it doesn’t appear that this influx of people will slow down anytime soon.

Their journey isn’t easy or safe. Just this year 2,500 people have died trying to flee their home countries. There are horrible accounts of people drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating in refrigerated trucks as they seek asylum. Caring and providing for those who arrive is one issue, but helping save the lives of people in transit is even more daunting.

How Are European Nations Responding?

Unfortunately, once migrants arrive in Europe they still face xenophobia, discrimination and fences designed to keep them out of certain countries. For example, there was a neo-Nazi demonstration in Dresden that protested the settlement of migrants in that city, and Slovakia is discriminating against Muslims — only accepting Christian migrants for asylum.

German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called for EU countries to stop erecting fences, allow free movement of migrants and to collaboratively address this humanitarian crisis. In her words, “Europe as a whole must move and its states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum.”

She’s right. A collaborative effort to address the EU migrant crisis is needed to humanely care for these refugees and help them establish new lives in new lands.

The EU Migrant Crisis Is a Humanitarian Crisis

On tonight’s news, a migrant father was filmed pleading with those who would listen, “I am a person, you are a person. I have children, you have children.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that. We should care for those who are hurting and stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed.

The good news in the EU migrant crisis is that average, everyday people of faith and good will are stepping up and doing the right thing. When governments have moved too slowly or have responded inadequately, people have stood in solidarity with the migrants and welcomed the stranger. Here are a couple of examples:

  • After the neo-Nazi protest in Dresden, a larger, more vocal counter-protest let the migrants know that they were welcome. These counter protesters carried banners with sayings like “Refugees Welcome” and “Laughter Is the Same in Every Language.”
  • In Iceland, where the government offered to accept only 50 refugees, the people of Iceland offered their homes for up to 10,000 people. The people are open to sharing what they have with those who need it, including beds, clothes, toys and other simple items that make a home. Items that mean the world to people who have left their homes behind.
  • Speaking about the EU migrant crisis, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva said, “rescuing threatened human life is more important than economic questions or immediate state interests”.

As Christians, we need to allow our faith to guide us on the issue of immigration both in Europe and in the U.S. Governments and politicians act in their self-interest. As people of faith, it’s up to us to sometimes make the needs of strangers a priority.

Respect and dignity for human life demands that Christians care for “the stranger” (Deut. 10:19). While some of us live a world away from the EU migrant crisis, we can still be the voice for the voiceless and be more gracious when we encounter the stranger in our midst.


3 Ways Your Fear Hurts Other People

A few months ago, I came face to face with the uncomfortable reality that my fear hurts other people when my doctor told me that I needed a medical test. I won’t go into the gory details, but it was the kind of medical test that makes men cringe. It sounded more medieval than medical.

I’m not ashamed to say that I was mildly terrified.

I knew the purpose of the test was to rule out serious illnesses and potentially save my life. But it didn’t matter. I argued with my doctor, and more than once I thought about canceling the appointment just to avoid the unpleasantness of it all, even though my health was on the line.

In the end, I went through with it. Although the test was terrible, it wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined it would be and the results were normal. But that’s not the point. The point is that I almost let my fear stand in the way of what was best for me and for the people who depend on me.

How Your Fear Hurts Other People

Call me naive, but I believe that most of the people inhabiting this planet are good and decent souls who are trying to do right by God and their fellow human beings.

But fear takes our best intentions off track and makes us do things we don’t really want to do. Like it or not, fear doesn’t just hurt you — your fear hurts other people. Here’s how …

1. Fear makes you selfish. 

Uncertainty is scary. None us can see into the future, so the things we don’t know can be much more frightening than the things we do know. Faced with the fear of the unknown, our natural tendency is toward self-protection — we do whatever it takes to insulate ourselves from thousands of potentially negative scenarios.

But self-protection comes at a price. When we’re focused on protecting ourselves, we neglect the needs of others — and they suffer the consequences. Want an example? Try this one on for size: While the accumulation of wealth provides financial security for the few, it means that the many struggle to earn a living wage.

2. Fear fuels stereotypes.

In addition to fearing the unknown, we also fear things that we don’t completely understand. Too often, our divisions and differences become sources of fear because we fill in the blanks with stereotypes and negative images of entire groups of people.

Whether we admit it or not, we’re all susceptible to stereotypes based on religion, race, ideology, geography and dozens of other variables. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll discover that most of those stereotypes aren’t rooted in reality. They’re rooted in our fears.

3. Fear limits your perspective.

You were created to be a constant learner. At the moment God breathed life into you, he didn’t make a human being — he made a human becoming. With each passing day, our lives and perspectives are expanded by our interactions with each other and through our experiences in the world.

Fear limits your perspective because it restricts your interactions with other people and minimizes new experiences. When you live in a bubble, spiritual and personal development slow to a crawl. The end product is narrow living, narrow thinking and narrow faith — things that inevitably impact other people. And none of these things honor God or Jesus’ alternative vision for your life.

The Cure for Fear Is Trust

The opposite of fear isn’t courage. It’s trust.

I heard somewhere that the phrase “fear not” appears more than 300 times in the Bible. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But here’s what I do know: The Bible talks a lot about fear and trust.

For example, consider this passage from the gospel of John:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

— John 14:27

Trust in God frees us from the limitations that fear places on our lives. But because fear hurts other people, trust also allows us to live a more vibrant and spiritually mature life:

  • Instead of hoarding wealth, we’re free to consider the needs of others because we trust God to provide for our needs.
  • Instead of fearing the stereotypes we create, we’re free to relate to other people as individuals and see  God’s fingerprint in everyone we meet.
  • Instead of narrow living and narrow thinking, we’re free to grow spiritually, trusting God to open our hearts and minds to new people and new experiences.

Fear hurts other people. It makes us human and strips us of our humanity at the same time. But although it’s impossible to ignore the ugly realities of evil and injustice, we don’t have to be afraid.

We can choose to trust God and see the world differently. And with a little less fear in our lives, maybe we can begin to see the beauty that is all around us.


Trump’s Got a Jesus Problem

Trump’s Got a Jesus Problem

Against all odds and to the surprise of just about everyone, Donald Trump has emerged as the leading Republican contender for president. But beneath the grandstanding and sound bites, Trump’s got a Jesus problem — and it’s only a matter of time before sincere people of faith notice the massive gap that exists between the Donald and the man the faithful know as “God with us.”

Ego Is a Big Part of the Reason Why Trump’s Got a Jesus Problem

In a nutshell, Trump’s Jesus problem boils down to a fundamental difference in worldviews.

In the world according to Trump, life is a competition with clear winners and losers. His arrogant attitude and brash behavior aren’t part of his act — they’re tools he uses to crush his competitors. And so far, those tools have served him well in business and resonated with voters in his political campaign.

Why are voters responding to Trump? When people feel alienated from government leaders, an outsider who talks tough and swings a big stick is an attractive alternative to career politicians who are stuck in neutral and incapable of passing even the simplest pieces of legislation.

But here’s the catch:

The dark side of Trump’s worldview is that it’s the total opposite of Jesus’ worldview.

Not convinced that Trump’s got a Jesus problem? Consider some of the statements Trump has made over the past three years:

  • “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser — having a healthy ego, or high opinion of yourself, is a real positive in life!” (Facebook, 2013)
  • “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest–and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” (Inc., 2015)
  • “Politicians aren’t going to find them (the 11+ million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S.) because they have no clue. We will find them, we will get them out.” (CNN, 2015)
  • “When somebody challenges you, fight back. Be brutal, be tough.” (via Forbes, 2014)
  • “I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye toward the bottom line. Perhaps it’s time America was run like a business.” (Inc., 2015)

Now try to imagine those words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. The simple truth is that Jesus would never say any of those things or the hundreds of other Trump quotes you can find in a five-minute Google search.

Jesus’ Worldview Is Grounded in the Kingdom of God

If Trump’s worldview epitomizes the kings and kingdoms of the world, then it’s fair to say that Jesus’ philosophy epitomizes the kingdom of God in the world.

Instead of being grounded in ego, Jesus’ ideology finds its footing in compassion, humility and grace. While Trump’s world rewards winners and penalizes losers, Jesus’ world upsets the rules of the game — pushing the “winners” to the back of the line and bumping up the “losers” to the best seats in the house.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at some of Jesus’ quotes and compare them to the kinds of things Trump says:

  • “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16)
  • “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12)
  • “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)
  • “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth … Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matt. 5)
  • “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)

I’m not questioning Donald Trump’s faith. In a recent interview, he said that he’s a Presbyterian who sometimes attends church. And I’m not trying to tell you who to vote for. Frankly, I couldn’t care less which box you check in next year’s election.

But here’s my point: I think our nation’s founders envisioned a country that was guided by a philosophy that is closer to Jesus’ worldview than it is to Trump’s worldview.

In our democracy, the role of government isn’t to conquer the world or make us all rich — it’s to create a system of laws and policies that ensure freedom for all, while protecting the poor and disenfranchised from being trampled by the rich and powerful.

According to Pew research, more than half of all Republican voters identify themselves as being religious or very religious.

I don’t have much faith in politics. But I have enough faith in my fellow Americans to hope that sooner or later, many of the Jesus followers in the Republican party will see how different the values of their party’s current frontrunner are from the values of the man described in the gospels.

Let’s hope they see that Trump’s got a Jesus problem before it’s too late.


How Much Is Too Much?

Have you ever asked yourself how much is too much? Bigger paychecks. Bigger houses. Bigger portion sizes. From the time we’re old enough to count, we’re taught in countless subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that more is always better.

As we mature, reality sets in and we downsize our expectations. But somewhere, lurking just beneath the surface of the things we’re brave enough to say out loud, lies a kernel of excess – a desire to earn just a little more money, upgrade to just a little bigger house, take just one small step up the ladder of life.

The question we never seem to get around to asking is how much is too much?

Excess Run Amok: How Much Is Too Much?

Recently, Melissa and I toured the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Built by George Vanderbilt (grandson of railroad mogul, Cornelius Vanderbilt) in the 1890s, Biltmore continues to be the largest privately owned home in the U.S.

At nearly 179,000 square feet, Biltmore House has more than four acres of floor space containing 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. “Big” doesn’t even begin to describe Biltmore, especially when you see it firsthand. It intimidates you.

And that’s exactly what it was built to do.

Officially, George Vanderbilt designed the Biltmore House to be a residence and a place to entertain guests. But when you tour the house and grounds, the message it communicates is one of wealth, power and influence.

The driveway is two miles long, for God’s sake.

I’m sure on a personal level, George Vanderbilt was a decent guy — he and his wife, Edith, engaged in all kinds of philanthropic activities. (In fact, the Biltmore covertly housed the National Gallery’s most valuable pieces of art during WWII, keeping them safe in the event that Washington, DC, was bombed by the Nazis.)

I love visiting historical places and it doesn’t get much more historical than the Biltmore. But I’ll be honest … the excesses on display at the Biltmore and other mansions always leave me feeling spiritually “icky.” And they ultimately cause me to wonder how much is too much in my own life.

The Spiritual Discipline of Enough

In Christianity, enough is the only available response to the question of how much is too much. The spiritual discipline of enough transforms the way we view ourselves and our place in the world.

“Enough” changes the conversation:

  • From how much more can I accumulate to how much do I really need
  • From bigger and better to smaller and simpler
  • From an ego-centered life to an other-centered life

In 1 John 2. 15-17, we read:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

When we answer the how-much-is-too-much question honestly, we realize that we really aren’t pursuing more money or more possessions at all. We’re pursuing respect, influence, power and countless other things that feed our egos’ ravenous appetites.

By consciously surrendering our egos, we eliminate the need to feed them with material excesses. More importantly, we make space in our lives for the Spirit and create the potential to “live and move and have our being” along a more fulfilling trajectory.

The Vanderbilt family still owns the Biltmore. But the builder, George Vanderbilt, lived in the house for fewer than 20 years before dying of appendicitis at the age of 51.

The lesson? Life is short. You have a limited number of years/days/hours left. You can spend them building bigger bank accounts and bigger houses, or you can ditch your ego and live a more fulfilling life of enough.

It’s your choice. Choose well.