The Spiritual Side of the Greek Economic Crisis

Yesterday’s “no” vote means that Greece’s debt crisis will continue. Here’s what the Greek economic crisis is all about and why it’s spiritually important.

The Greek Economic Crisis Explained

Confused by the Greek economic crisis? You’re not alone. Greece’s financial situation is complex and it involves problems that have been piling up for several years.

How did the Greek economic crisis begin?

Greece has struggled economically for more than five years. In 2009, Greece’s heavy debt load and large budget deficits led to a series of austerity packages that cut government pensions, reduced salaries for public sector workers and created other hardships for Greek citizens.

One of the ways the International Monetary Fund (IMF) promotes global economic stability is by lending money to countries that are experiencing specific types of financial challenges. Greece falls into that category and received its first bailout from the IMF in 2010.

Last week, Greece defaulted on a $1.7 billion payment to the IMF, triggering the country’s latest financial crisis.

Who is “the Troika?”

Since Greece is considered to be a bad credit risk, only the IMF and a few partner organizations will lend money to them. The IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank (a group they call “the Troika”) recently offered the country another bailout. But the offer came with conditions.

To accept the bailout, Greece would be required to impose additional austerity measures in the form of more tax increases and even deeper spending cuts — a situation that many Greeks believe to be unrealistic and untenable.

What were the Greeks voting on?

The Greek referendum was a vote about whether or not to accept the Troika’s bailout offer.

A “yes” vote meant that Greece would accept the bailout and implement another round of austerity measures; a “no” vote meant that the country would probably go off the euro currency and work on finding its own solution to the Greek economic crisis.

The vote was no.

How are the everyday lives of people in Greece being affected?

Greece no longer has access to emergency funding from the IMF. So, to conserve capital and prevent depositors from taking money out of the country, Greece closed down its banking system for six days last week.

Imagine only being allowed to withdraw $66 from your account each day, with no real certainty about when you would be able to access the rest of your money.

That’s what the Greek people are dealing with right now. It’s basically a cash economy in which people have little or no access to cash.

The tourism industry (a major source of income in Greece) has dried up and in some cases, supplies are running low because suppliers don’t know when or if they will be paid.

The Consequences of the Greek Economic Crisis

If the Greek economic crisis isn’t resolved soon, the situation could easily evolve into a full-blown emergency. And that’s not the worst of it.

Now that Greece has rejected the bailout, it’s uncertain how the country will overcome its financial deficit. None of the options are ideal and the country may still have to impose spending cuts and other measures.

Here are a few things you need to know about Greece:

  • The austerity measures that were implemented since 2010 have resulted in a high unemployment rate of 25%. (For comparison, the unemployment rate in the U.K. just dropped to 5.4% —  its lowest point since 2008.)
  • The current youth unemployment rate is 50%. Young people can’t find jobs and have no way to earn a living during what should be the most productive years of their lives.
  • Unemployment, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and national debt are connected. Greece’s high unemployment rate reduces its GDP, and reduced GDP increases the national debt, creating a vicious cycle that is difficult to escape.

It’s also important to know that EU politics are involved in the Greek economic crisis. Instead of doing the right thing for the country and its people, various individuals and entities appear to be using the crisis to achieve their own political goals.

The Spiritual Side of the Greek Economic Crisis

This isn’t the first time that a nation has endured a sudden and overwhelming debt crisis. For example, in 2001 Argentina found itself in a similar situation, resulting in significant economic and social challenges.

Based on the experiences of Argentina and other countries, these types of crises have the most devastating impact on those least likely to afford it — the poor and the vulnerable.

Having lived through the Argentinian crisis, Pope Francis knows what’s at stake for Greece and its citizens. In an effort to draw attention to the spiritual side of the Greek economic crisis, the Vatican released a statement over the weekend:

The news from Greece regarding the economic and social situation of the country is worrying. The Holy Father wishes to convey his closeness to all the Greek people, with a special thought for the many families gravely beset by such a complex and keenly felt human and social crisis.

The dignity of the human person must remain at the centre of any political and technical debate, as well as in the taking of responsible decisions.

Pope Francis invites all the faithful to unite in prayer for the good of the beloved Greek people.

The value of the individual is usually lost in the circus of international politics. Too often, those in power pursue remedies that are either self-seeking or politically convenient.

Yet, in God’s economy, the needs of the individual — especially the needs of the poor and the marginalized — receive priority over the desires of institutions. The concerns of the poor are certainly more important than politics.

We have a spiritual responsibility to pray for Greece and stand in solidarity with the Greek people during this crisis.

But the Greek economic crisis is also a reminder that regardless of the color of our passport, it’s critical for us to speak out whenever institutions or politicians place their interests above the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our midst.

 

Another Church Burned Down in America

It’s too soon to know if Mount Zion AME was targeted by arsonists. But the burning of a black church — and especially the burning of this black church — conjures up bad memories from twenty years ago.  Unbelievably, the same church burned down courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan in 1995.

More Than One Church Burned Down in the Past Two Weeks

Although some of the investigations are ongoing, at least three of the seven churches burned down since June 17th were intentionally set on fire.

  • God’s Power Church of Christ (Macon, Georgia) burned on June 23. Investigators are treating it as arson.
  • College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church (Knoxville, Tennessee) caught fire on June 22. The fire department said the fire was set deliberately.
  • Briar Creek Road Baptist Church (Charlotte, North Carolina) was completely destroyed on June 24. Investigators believe it was arson.
  • Glover Grove Baptist Church (Warrenville, South Carolina) burned on June 26. The cause is still considered “undetermined.”
  • The Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church (Tallahassee, Florida) also burned down last week. But fire officials said the cause was likely an electrical fault.
  • Fruitland Presbyterian Church (Gibson County, Tennessee) burned on June 24. The fire may have been caused by lightening but the investigation is ongoing.

Why Burn Churches?

Even though not all of the recent fires were intentionally set, it’s fair to assume that some of these fires may be racially motivated hate crimes. And unfortunately, the image of a church burned down isn’t new for African-American congregations. Hundreds of black churches have been burned since the 1800’s.

The Church has lost much of its influence in white communities, but it continues to be a core institution in African-American communities. In primarily African-American communities, churches aren’t just places of worship, but also places of political and community leadership. Churches were integral to the Civil Rights Movement and many continue to serve as centers for community activism.

In a lot ways, African-American churches represent a power that challenges the status quo. Racist hate groups and individuals who feel threatened by this power often respond to it with violence.

A Church Burned Down Is Domestic Terrorism

In a recent press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke about hate crimes and reminded her listeners that the original domestic terrorist organization was the Ku Klux Klan. When houses of worship are intentionally burned (based on racism or other ideological diseases), we need to call it what it is. It’s not just a another church burned down. It’s terrorism.

In the U.S., we’ve been so focused on international terrorist groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Hezbollah that we sometimes forget that our own citizens are equally capable of inspiring and carrying out acts of terror.

All terrorist organizations use violence to intimidate and coerce us. As people of faith, we know that terrorism in any form is malicious, evil and unacceptable. But how are we supposed to respond to this kind of violence? Even more, how can we begin to deconstruct the mindsets that fuel terrorism here in the U.S.?

Nonviolent Peacemaking

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught Six Principles of Nonviolence. These principles inherently challenge people of faith to courageously resist evil  and seek friendship with others in the creation of the Beloved Community.

Faith is at the heart of King’s principles — faith that God is on the side of justice and that love will overcome hate. I know that sounds pollyannaish. It’s easy to prescribe faith when we aren’t the ones directly affected by suffering.

But on a practical level, faith allows us to wake up every day determined to make a difference. With faith, all things are possible. It empowers us with the hope and optimism we need to believe the Beloved Community is possible and that we have a role to play in making it happen.

These are difficult times for our nation. The last thing the African-American community needs is another church burned down. But even shared suffering can be redemptive. God is with us — and maybe that’s what we all need to hear to come together and start overcoming evil with good.

 

Why “Throwaway Society” Sucks

When nearly everything we buy is disposable, people become disposable, too. Here’s why throwaway society isn’t working — and how you can help fix it.

Throwaway Society? What’s That?

Lucky for me, I don’t print many documents these days because replacement cartridges for my inkjet are kind of pricey. In fact, a brand new printer doesn’t cost much more than a new ink cartridge.

For kicks and giggles, I did a quick price comparison. A new ink cartridge for my printer currently runs about $33. The cost to replace the exact same model of printer comes in at a cool $58.

Sound ridiculous? It is. But that’s what a throwaway society looks like. And here’s why it sucks.

The Problem with a Throwaway Society

Unfortunately, printers aren’t the only things that have become disposable. When we replaced our microwave last month the sales guy said that appliances aren’t investments anymore. Microwaves, dishwashers and ovens are commodities that are intentionally designed to be replaced every few years.

At some point, we decided to stop fixing things. When something malfunctions or doesn’t work the way we think it should, we just throw it away and buy a new one. The throwaway society mentality is dangerous and it’s quickly bled over into categories of life that are a lot more important than consumer goods:

Relationships

Has your marriage hit a rough patch? Did you have a disagreement with someone at your church or social group? In the throwaway society, relationships are disposable. No muss, no fuss. You can just move on and replace otherwise fixable relationships with completely new ones.

Employment

Employers’ loyalty to workers is at an all-time low. Low-wage workers are often treated as disposable assets that can be easily replaced. Rather than investing in workers by paying a living wage, some companies adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude and pay workers the legal minimum.

Respect for Life

Life itself loses value in a throwaway society. When we’re used to walking away from broken things and less-than-perfect situations, the sick, the poor, the weak and the vulnerable pay the price.

Fixing Throwaway Society

Earlier this week, I ran across a Fast Company story about manufacturers that are bucking the throwaway society trend and making products that are easily repaired, rather than replaced.

For example, one company is making a durable backpack with a timeless, intelligent design that makes it easy to repair zippers and other components. The owners hope customers will still be using their backpacks after years and years of use. And the company offers a 25-year warranty to back up its design philosophy.

I’m a fan of anything that can be repaired instead of replaced. But here’s the question that’s been bouncing around my head for the past few days …

What if we started treating everything like a 25-year backpack?

  • What if we stopped viewing relationships as disposable and started working out our disagreements in the context of committed community?
  • What if we re-envisioned employment as a long-term relationship in which employers treat workers with loyalty, dignity and respect — and workers treat their employers the same way?
  • What if we decided to reinvest our time and energy in advocating for and caring for elderly, sick, weak and vulnerable people?

The bottom line is that people aren’t disposable in the kingdom of God. Despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, we all have worth.

By rejecting the throwaway society and all it stands for, we make a powerful and prophetic statement about the permanent value of life in a world where value is too often measured with dollar signs.

 

Grieving With Charleston

The concept of personal identity has been a hot topic these days. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have made us all question what does it mean to identify with a particular gender or race. This isn’t about them. It’s about grieving with Charleston.

Identifying as a Christian means I grieve with family.

You see among all the different ways that we label and identify people, the label that I cherish most and hold above all other categories is that of “Christian.” I am a part of the Body of Christ, and when one part of the body hurts and suffers I suffer with them. So, today I am grieving with Charleston.

Here are the names of my murdered brothers and sisters:

  • The Honorable Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 42
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26
  • Cynthia Hurd, 54
  • The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
  • Susie Jackson, 87
  • Ethel Lance, 70
  • The Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49
  • The Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
  • Myra Thompson, 59

These members of my Christian family were in the sanctuary of their church. They were studying scripture and worshiping God. They were following Christ, the very Prince of Peace — even welcoming the stranger in their midst. One who sat and worshiped with them for a full hour before killing them.

It is horrific and unbelievable that this kind of hatred, evil and violence continues to exist in our world. And so I grieve with Charleston.

Can any good come from grieving with Charleston?

If any good is to come of this tragedy, my hope is that it will unite the Body of Christ. Our identity should always be first and foremost “Christian.” Let us — as the Family of God — stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Let us grieve with Charleston. Let us pray with Charleston. And let us work against the racism, hate and evil that is attacking our family.

I am grieving with Charleston.

 

Changing the World Is Harder Than It Looks

Changing the world? We all have ideas about how to do it. But when you start talking details, you realize it’s a lot harder than it looks. Here’s how Jesus tackled it.

The Challenge of Changing the World

A few days ago, I had a conversation with my 16-year-old nephew, Mike. This summer, Mike and a few of his friends have set out on a unique mission:

They’re re-creating the world from scratch.

These young guys have looked at the world around them and decided they don’t like what they see. But instead of complaining about it, they’re spitballing what the world might look like if they ran the show. It’s actually a great exercise and an admirable way to spend part of their summer break. (Kudos, Mike!)

But as Mike explained the ideas that he and his buddies are working on, I could tell that they’re running into the same problems that have plagued other well-intentioned people over the millennia.

Because as it turns out, changing the world is a lot harder than it looks.

Changing the World Jesus Style

Changing the world requires trade-offs. For example, let’s say you support universal post-secondary education. College tuition is expensive, so you’ll have to raise taxes. But if you raise taxes, you could end up hurting the middle class and make it harder for average, everyday folks to pay their bills, save for retirement or cover the cost of healthcare. See what I mean?

Even small changes have unintended consequences.

Jesus took a different approach. Instead of changing the world with broad brush strokes, he changed the world by applying a handful of guiding principles to the people and situations he encountered in everyday life.

1. Love is expensive.

From church sermons to pop songs, we’re reminded that love is one of life’s most important lessons. But what we don’t hear very often is that love is expensive.

Jesus understood that love has a cost and the price is usually our own convenience, comfort and security.

If love isn’t your primary motivation for trying to change the world, stop now. We already have way too many people pushing their own agendas and changing the world for the wrong reasons.

But if love is your motivation for changing the world, be warned: the choices you make to improve life for other people will usually make your life less comfortable and secure.

2. Outsiders are insiders.

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” It’s a phrase that’s found throughout the gospel of Matthew. You’ve probably heard it before. But do you really understand what it means?

In Jesus’ worldview, people on the margins move to the center.

Sinners. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Time after time, Jesus makes outsiders insiders and gives them his undivided attention and unconditional acceptance.

And for us, that means changing the world isn’t about reshuffling the pecking order at the top of the line. It’s about devoting ourselves to the marginalized — the modern day lepers, Samaritans and outcasts that have been left behind by the world as it currently exists.

3. Money lies.

Money distorts our perspective. It holds us back from making choices that we know are spiritually and morally right. Worse yet, money can incentivize us to actively pursue things that will harm others.

Jesus appreciated the fact that money has a practical purpose. But he also understood how dangerous it can be, describing it as an idol that competes for our devotion to God.

For Jesus, changing the world means turning the tables on conventional money wisdom. In his economy, money doesn’t trump justice. If anything, it serves justice and functions as a tool for the advancing the kingdom of God on earth.

Changing the world isn’t easy, but it’s something we’re called to do. If we call ourselves Jesus followers, it’s something we have to do — and we do it one person, one situation, one opinion at a time.

 

5 Things You Don’t Know About the American Prison System

The new season of Orange Is the New Black lands this week. But the reality of the American prison system is a far cry from the stylized version you’ll see on Netflix. Here’s what you don’t know about U.S. prisons and why it matters to people of faith.

The Real Story of the American Prison System

The American prison system exists somewhere in the background of our lives. We know it’s there, but we try not to think about it.

Although movies and TV shows like OITNB present versions of prison life, it’s what you don’t know about the American prison system that tells the real story about prisons in the U.S.

1. The U.S. is the world’s largest jailer.

The U.S. accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, yet our prisons hold 25% of the world’s prisoners. The American prison system is literally bursting at the seams. Currently, we hold the unenviable title of being the world’s biggest jailer.

2. The prison population is exploding.

Approximately 1 out of every 100 U.S. adults is currently in prison or jail — and the percentage of people behind bars is expanding rapidly. Since 1970, the population of the U.S. prison system has grown 700%.

3. Many prisoners lack adequate legal counsel.

A staggering 80% of defendants in the U.S. legal system are unable to afford an attorney and public defenders are stretched thin. Since most public defenders maintain caseloads of 100+ clients, thousands of people are sentenced each year with little or no legal representation.

4. The majority of inmates have been incarcerated for relatively minor offenses.

Think most prisoners are hardcore criminals? Think again. Parole violations are responsible for around 35% of all prison admissions, and two-thirds of those violations are due to technical violations like missing a meeting with a parole officer. Although drug-related charges are a common cause for incarceration, approximately 4 out of 5 drug offenses are for possession — not sales.

5. Incarceration is hurting our society.

More than 1 in 6 black men have been incarcerated. Based on current trends, as many as 1 in 3 black men born today will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Also, 1 out of every 28 kids currently has a parent in prison, and 1 out of every 31 adults is behind bars, on probation or on parole.

Why You Should Care About What’s Happening in the American Prison System

Here’s another statistic that ought to blow your mind: By conservative estimates, between 2% and 5% of the inmates who pled guilty are innocent of their crimes. That means there are literally tens of thousands of innocent people incarcerated in prisons across the nation.

But even if every inmate in the U.S. prison system were guilty, it wouldn’t change our responsibility. In the book of Hebrews, it says:

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. (Heb. 13.3)

When I was a kid, I didn’t care about taxes. But after I became a taxpayer, discussions about tax rates suddenly landed on my radar. That’s basically how the writer of Hebrews is telling us to relate to prisoners. We can’t forget about prisoners just because we’re not behind bars. Instead, we’re called to advocate for prisoners and speak up about the prison system as if we were right there alongside them.

When we view the plight of prisoners through that lens, we’re confronted by the fact that the American prison system is ripe for reform on several fronts:

Prisons should be about redemption, not retribution.

For years, policymakers have debated about whether the American prison system should be about retribution (punishment for crimes) or rehabilitation (changing the attitudes and behaviors of inmates). Maybe it’s time to abandon those concepts and embrace the concept of redemption — making prisons places where individuals have the opportunity to make retribution for their mistakes by pursuing personal, social and spiritual redemption.

To catch a glimpse of a more sane approach to imprisonment, check out this story about how Norway is building prisons that focus on second chances.

Prisoners are worthy of compassion. They deserve to be valued and treated with dignity. 

Prisons shouldn’t function as corporate warehouses and inmates shouldn’t be treated as if they were less than human. Regardless of their crimes, prisoners have dignity and value in the eyes of God. In Matthew 25, Jesus aligns himself with prisoners and compares the way we treat prisoners with the way we treat him.

We need to reform unfair sentencing and sentencing disparity.

Too many inmates are serving lengthy prison terms for non-serious offenses. In addition to straining the entire prison system, unfair sentencing — and sentencing disparity based on race or other factors — has a devastating effect on the families of inmates who should have been released from prison long ago. It’s time to take a fresh look at sentencing practices — and the entire American prison system.

Blind Faith No More: Deconverting ISIS Recruits in the U.S.

A Virginia Imam has found a way to talk young Americans out of joining ISIS. Here’s how he’s deconstructing their blind faith and what we can all learn from his approach.

How ISIS Recruits American Young People

In October 2014, three Denver girls skipped school, flew to Germany and boarded another flight bound for Turkey. They were going there to join ISIS.

Luckily, the FBI intercepted the teens before it was too late. But unlike al Qaeda, ISIS is successfully attracting recruits from the U.S. and Europe. Since January, more than 25 Americans (men and women) have been detained for attempting to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

According to the FBI, ISIS provides disenfranchised young people with a sense of purpose and belonging. For kids who lack strong family ties, ISIS offers an identity and purpose in exchange for blind faith in its cause.

Deconstructing Blind Faith 

Strip away its archaic and misguided belief system and you’ll find that ISIS is a well-oiled publicity machine. Its propaganda apparatus targets lonely youth via their preferred communication channel: social media.

ISIS’s communication tactics are sophisticated. They’re tech-savvy. And unfortunately, they’re really effective.

But Mohamed Magid, chief imam at the third-largest mosque in America, has developed a strategy to talk vulnerable American youth out of joining ISIS. Located in Sterling, VA, Magid’s approach is simple:

He tells them to use their minds.

ISIS’s messaging pressures the teens to exercise blind faith. On multiple fronts, Magid challenges that messaging and confronts the distorted version of faith it requires:

1. The Quran

ISIS twists the words of the Quran to influence potential recruits. Magid shows the youth that rather than supporting the terrorist group’s actions, the Quran condemns the activities and beliefs that ISIS routinely engages in.

2. Charity

When young people tell Magid they are joining ISIS to improve the lives of Muslims, he points out that ISIS has killed more Muslims than any other group in the world. He then invites the young people to get involved in U.S. Muslim relief efforts that provide assistance to Syrian refugees.

3. Obedience to God

Finally, Magid tells young people that all Muslims are clearly required to respect their parents and perform other actions, but joining ISIS is not a clear-cut act of obedience to God. It doesn’t please God because it’s not a genuine act of devotion.

Real Faith Seeks Understanding

Almost a thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury said,

I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.

Anselm understood that the relationship between faith and reason is complicated. Ultimately, some things (like the existence of God) can’t be proved. That’s why we need faith.

But faith without reason is equally misguided. It’s blind faith and it’s downright dangerous.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all vulnerable to allowing our passions and emotions override our common sense:

  • When we refuse to listen to other people’s point of view.
  • When we engage in carte blanche political partisanship.
  • When we accept whatever we see, hear or read without question.

Passion and belief are good things. But the lesson we can all learn from Anselm and Magid is that blind faith or faith that refuses to seek understanding is really no faith at all. It’s lunacy. It’s ISIS. And it’s definitely not what we need right now.

 

How to Reduce Hunger One Row at a Time

Concerned with how to reduce hunger? Food insecurity is a worldwide problem, but a solution may be as close as your backyard.  Join the ranks of people who plant an extra row in their backyard gardens to donate to the poor.

How bad is the world’s hunger problem?

One in nine people worldwide do not have enough food to live healthy lives. And hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. That’s about 11% of the world’s population.

Astonishingly, hunger and food insecurity are still big problems in the U.S. as well.  Would you believe that 14.3% of households in the U.S. are food insecure? Food insecurity means that these households report disrupted eating patterns, reduced food intake, and reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet.

While government programs help, access to the fresh fruits and vegetables that promote healthy living can still be difficult. But the good news is that there’s a way for each of us to get our hands dirty and help solve the problem of hunger here in the U.S.

Here’s how to reduce hunger in your own backyard.

If you are looking for a grassroots tactic that answers the question of how to reduce hunger, look no further than your own backyard.

As I look out on our standard .3 acre lot in a suburban subdivision, it seems crazy that this small plot could help tackle such a huge problem. But I ran across a really interesting movement called “Plant A Row” that helps us all learn how to reduce hunger and offers us a chance to be part of the solution.

The premise is simple. When you plant your garden each year, plant an extra row and donate the surplus produce to local food banks, soup kitchens and service organizations.

The Plant A Row website states that American gardeners — people just like you and me — have donated over 20 million pounds of produce this way, providing over 80 million meals in the last 20 years. They go on to say, “All of this has been achieved without government subsidy or bureaucratic red tape – just people helping people.”

What does the Bible say about how to reduce hunger?

What struck me about this movement is how biblical it is. We care for God’s creation by caring for both the earth and people.

In several passages, the Hebrew Bible says that landowners and farmers should not reap the entire harvest. They should leave “the edges” and the “gleanings” for the poor.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19: 9-10, NRSV)

Like so much of the Bible, we’re told not to hoard our abundance and use every bit to care for our own households. Instead, we’re advised to share our abundance with those who have less.

No backyard? No problem!

Maybe you don’t have a backyard. Or maybe — like me — you aren’t the best gardener. There are an abundance of cooperative community gardens that are also tackling the problem of how to reduce hunger.

Our own suburban church uses its bare lot to raise vegetables for the poor. Just last year they harvested almost 2,000 pounds of fresh vegetables that were delivered to local food cupboards and soup kitchens!

How can you get involved in reducing hunger?

I think the challenge for all of us is to see that even small donations can make a difference. But we can’t sit back and assume that people with bigger hearts and more time will do all the work. We are all called to help the poor in whatever small way we can and learn how to reduce hunger starting in our own backyards.

 

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Actions speak louder than words. How many times have we heard this phrase? Right actions make our relationships better — our relationship with God and our relationships with other people.

Words can divide.

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday. One of the few days on the church calendar that celebrates a doctrine rather than a person or event.

Many pastors and priests dread Trinity Sunday. Preaching on the doctrine of the Trinity can be tricky. Put simply, the nature of the Trinity is not logical. It’s a glorious mystery. And like other mysteries, the Trinity can’t be easily explained with words.

(Think the Trinity is easy to explain? Check out this video that illustrates how easy it is to fall into an ancient church heresies using analogies to describe the Trinity.)

Words can condemn.

Every student of church history knows about the long list of people who were either excommunicated or condemned for trying to explain theological mysteries with words that inadequately expresses the nature of God.

They were labeled heretics and vilified for their theological beliefs. But have you ever wondered what kind of people they actually were? Were they justly condemned for their words, but unjustly condemned for their actions?

Moving from words to actions.

I like to think that my own beliefs are orthodox. So, I’m not trying to defend or promote any particular doctrine. I’m just trying to cast a light on the way Christians sometimes treat other Christians.

As I interact with people from many different churches and denominations I sometimes find that an emphasis on “correct belief” (orthodoxy) prevents Christians from “correct practice” (orthopraxy).

Let’s face it, not all Christians have the benefit of a theological education focused on doctrinal nuances. Most Christians in most times and places have had to rely on educated (or uneducated) clergy to guide them in orthodoxy. To give them the words that describe their faith.

But what really matters to most of us isn’t the words, but the actions.  How we practice our faith.

Do our actions speak louder than words?

Are we good examples of Christ’s disciples? If no one knew what we believed would they still be attracted to the Gospel based on the way we treat them?

I’m not talking about a list of do’s and don’ts that make people feel righteous. I’m talking about how we treat other people. Do we act like we love them?

For me the Gospel is all about love. A loving God sent Christ to die for us because He loved us. We demonstrate that we are Christ’s disciples by loving God and loving other people. That’s how our actions speak louder than words.

God’s words about actions.

One of my favorite scripture passages is the “love” passage read at weddings.  1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is a great illustration of the fact that actions speak louder than words because it reminds us that our actions are worthless if we don’t love other people.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NRSV)

Love. If we allow love to guide our actions, we will have orthopraxy. That’s what it means to say that our actions speak louder than words. And they’ll know that we are Christians by our love (John 13:35).

Becoming a Peacemaker

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus. Becoming a peacemaker starts with finding God’s likeness in yourself and everyone else — and that’s not easy.

I’m a terrible person. 

There’s too much violence and suffering in the world. It would be great if I could somehow find a way to bring peace to the Middle East or end domestic violence. But those are big problems and and I’m just one person.

Realistically, I need to set my sights a little lower.

And so I recognize that becoming a peacemaker isn’t about grand gestures. It’s about the way I live my life day in, day out. It’s about bringing Jesus’ alternative vision of life into my perspectives and the way I interact with the world around me.

So far, so good. Now here’s the problem: When I’m presented with opportunities for peacemaking, my instincts usually run far afield of Jesus’ alternative vision. Too often, my knee-jerk reactions are to:

  • Question motives
  • Assign blame
  • Justify my positions

My shortcomings make me feel like a terrible person. But part of me also knows that my shortcomings just make me a person — an inadequate, incompetent, imperfect, “human becoming” that constantly strives for (but never quite achieves) Jesus’ alternative way of living in the world.

Maybe you can relate.

Becoming a peacemaker starts with finding God’s reflection in yourself and everyone else.

Of course, the good news is that we don’t have to achieve anything to be accepted by God. But that doesn’t mean we should stop making progress toward becoming a peacemaker.

The first step in finding nonviolent resolutions to our conflicts involves mutual respect and the search for common ground.

For Christians, the likeness of God in ourselves and others is the common ground we need to begin peacemaking.

By nurturing a greater awareness of the image and likeness of God in us, we prepare ourselves for the hard work of peacemaking. As we become more conscious of the imago Dei in us, our egos fade into the background, and it becomes easier to set aside our assumptions, judgments and personal biases.

Becoming a peacemaker also means finding the likeness of God in others. Every human being is created in God’s image.

Rich, poor, liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, straight, gay — somehow, every single of one us reflects God.

And it’s in the reflection of God — God’s likeness — that we find the basis for human dignity and respect. Whatever our disagreements, the imago Dei calls us to pursue nonviolent solutions to our conflicts and to respect those who disagree with us.

Is it easy? No. But for most of us, it’s the first step toward becoming a peacemaker.

Immigrants and the American Church

Jesus was an immigrant. Maybe even an “illegal” immigrant when Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. He understood what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land and he told us to care for immigrants who are also struggling to survive as strangers in our land.

Living with Immigrants

I have extraordinary parents who really did invite strangers into our home. In the aftermath of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and war in Laos, they opened our home to a series of refugee families who — like Jesus — fled their countries just to survive.

Was it easy? No. Our family of six invited refugee families into our 1,300 square foot home. Eleven people shared three bedrooms and one bathroom. We didn’t have much, but it is was more than they had.

It was enough to share and help them establish new lives in a new land.

As kids, my siblings and I had a multicultural experience unlike most of our peers. We learned to eat sticky rice with our hands and wear sinh skirts.

We also saw what it meant to have nothing and be dependent on others for assistance.  My mother (a nurse) treated the kids for scabies and spent hours at the Department of Social Services serving as their advocate and voice.

When I talk about this piece of my childhood, people usually say things like, “Your parents must be really progressive.”

Well, no. I don’t think they would view themselves that way. They were just being obedient to Christ and inviting needy strangers into our home and into our lives.

Immigrants Trying to  Survive

Survival often necessitates immigration. War and poverty can be strong motivators to immigrate when caring for your own children.

Most Americans don’t have to go back very far in their family histories to find a story of someone who immigrated for safety or sustenance. It’s a part of our cultural narrative.

Christians are obligated to care for immigrants — to help them survive and thrive.  American Christians have an even bigger obligation because we live in a prosperous country.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops puts it this way,

“The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”

We need to allow our faith — not our politics — guide us on this one. Respect and dignity for human life demands that Christians care for immigrants who are trying to make a better life in the U.S.

Immigrants and Hope for the American Church

The recent Pew Research on the decline of the U.S. Church has a lot of us talking about the future of the Church. But much of the conversation focuses on the decline in the U.S., with little or no reference to the global Church.

The Church is growing in the global South and immigration patterns impact the American church.

The U.S. Catholic church has been sustained by the influx of Hispanic immigrants, accounting for 70 percent of Catholic growth since 1960. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches stand to benefit from Latin American immigrants, while Korean immigrants are bringing growth to both mainline and evangelical Protestantism.

Many immigrants come to the U.S. to survive. As Christians, we’re called to help them. And by caring for the immigrants in our midst, we may discover that they are actually what the Church in America needs to survive.

Us vs. Them: The Stupidity of Christian Tribalism

We’re more divided than ever. Maybe it’s time to move beyond the myth of “us vs. them” and admit that Christian tribalism embarrasses Christ and harms the Church.

What’s Your Tribe?

Something strange happens when you put clergy from mixed denominations in a room. They start their conversations with the same two questions:

  1. What’s your denomination?
  2. How big is your church?

Sound superficial? It is. But the answers to these questions set the tone for their relationships.

Denominational affiliation identifies the pastor’s theological, political and ideological beliefs. Church size indicates where the pastor falls in the ecclesiastical pecking order. (Because size apparently matters when it comes to pastoral ability.)

Just two questions create a religious shorthand that repeats itself wherever clergy congregate. It’s quick. It’s simple. It’s efficient.

And it completely misses the point of the Gospel.

Tribalism Forces Us Into an “Us vs. Them” Mentality

Unfortunately, the phenomenon isn’t limited to clergy or even to Christians.  We all size each other up based on tribal identities related to religion, politics, class, race, ideology, etc.

On a primal level, our tribal identities satisfy our need to belong. There’s comfort in knowing that we’re part of a group of people who are just like us — and the more like us they are, the better.

But by defining an “us,” we also define a “them.” Whether we intend for it happen or not, tribal labels force us into an us vs. them mentality. We make snap judgments about other people based on the tribal buckets we put them in.

Us vs. Them and the Decline of Christianity in the U.S.

Christians should be leading the charge to break down tribal barriers. Instead, we’re obsessed with defining our own tribal boundaries and evangelizing the us vs. them mentality.

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released its U.S. Religious Landscape Study. Reactions from the Christian community were predictably tribal.

According to the study, every major Christian group in the U.S. — from mainline Protestants to Catholics to evangelicals — experienced decline over the past eight years. The only categories that experienced growth were “unaffiliated” and “non-Christian faiths.”

Although Christianity saw an overall decline of 8 percent in 8 years, representatives from all branches of the faith rushed to defend their tribes.

  • Some bragged that their tribes declined less than other tribes.
  • Some doubled down on the tribal behaviors that caused declines in church attendance.
  • Some said the way forward is to become more tribal by cementing the marriage between politics and religion.

And in some forgotten corner of the universe, Jesus wept over the pettiness and the stupidity of it all.

Moving Beyond Us vs. Them

Christian tribalism isn’t new. It’s been around since the earliest days of Christianity.

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says:

 .. it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?

The need to belong is a powerful force. But when applied to religion, us vs. them thinking is dangerous and divisive.

Christian tribalism eliminates the need for us to deal with each other as actual human beings. 

Instead of allowing us to listen to each other, Christian tribalism requires us to fall back on the tired, entrenched positions that define our respective groups.

Paul reminds us that the Church is supposed to be different from the rest of society. While economics and politics revel in entrenched positions, competing interests, and us vs. them mindsets, the Church is supposed to revel in its unity.

Through baptism and Christ crucified, we are one.

And in our oneness, we model an alternative vision for the world. Christian tribalism limits our ability to model that vision.

We all belong to tribes. But our tribal allegiances need to be secondary to our willingness to relate to people as people.

More importantly, our tribal allegiances need to be secondary to our allegiance to Christ.

Jesus and the Gender Pay Gap

What if you did the same job as the person next to you, but received a lot less money in your paycheck. The gender pay gap is real. But should you care?

The gender pay gap is real.

It’s the end of another 40+ hour workweek and you’re exhausted. As you stumble to your car, you strike up a conversation with a coworker and discover that you earn a lot less for your efforts.

On paper, your qualifications and workload are identical. You both have the same job title, the same responsibilities and you’ve worked for the company for the same amount of time.

The only difference is that one of you has a Y chromosome.

Wait a minute … gender discrimination in the workplace? That doesn’t exist anymore, does it? Unfortunately, it does. Study after study shows that the gender pay gap is real and it continues to be a problem in the American workplace.

U.S. government statistics show that the median pay for women is 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Critics argue that the government’s statistics overstate the gender pay gap and they may be right. But according to a recent report by Mike Meyers in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, even after you factor in variables like education, work experience, family leave and “risk,” women still earn 5 to 7 percent less than men. 

Does 5 to 7 percent sound negligible? It’s not. Try this on for perspective:

Imagine that your employer decided to keep $1,000 for every $14,285 dollars you earn each year. 

Does the gender pay gap sound negligible now? Probably not.

Would Jesus care about the gender pay gap?

As 21st century Christians, we mentally distance Jesus from these kinds of issues. We tell ourselves that if Jesus walked the earth today, he wouldn’t care about the size of our paychecks.

In fact, wouldn’t Jesus tell us to stop comparing our salaries and be thankful for what we have?

Maybe. But I don’t think he would have ignored the gender pay gap . While it’s true that gratitude is a prerequisite for a spiritually sustainable life, Jesus was very conscious about the disparities that existed between men and women in the first century.

In the gospels, we see a Jesus that went out of his way to defend the rights of women.

  • The woman at the well (John 4).
  • The woman accused of adultery (John 8)
  • The woman who begged for crumbs from the table (Matthew 15).

When you look beyond a superficial reading of these passages, you find that:

Jesus went against the social mores of his day to take a stand for the rights of women in a society that considered females to have less value than men.

In the parable of the workers (Matthew 20), Jesus tells the story of an employer who gave the workers who showed up at 9 am the same pay as the workers who showed up right before quitting time.

Predictably, the people who worked the entire day protested about wage inequity. But the employer essentially told them to mind their own business. In his workplace, he would decide what to pay his workers.

I’m sure some critics of of gender pay equality use this parable to justify the existence of workplace disparities. But here’s what they’re missing:

  • At the end of the day, everyone in the workplace was paid the same.
  • The parable isn’t really about paychecks. If anything, it reaffirms Jesus’ commitment to women and people who are devalued in our society.

In God’s economy, “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

The “Scandal” of the Gender Pay Gap

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis called the gender pay gap “pure scandal.” He called for Christians everywhere to close the gap and take a stand for men and women to receive equal pay for equal work.

Granted, the words sound a bit hollow coming from the leader of an institution that is stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to gender equality. But Francis wasn’t wrong. Catholic social teaching affirms the dignity of work:

“Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.”

Work is a basic human right and a source of human dignity. But when a gender pay gap exists, women don’t feel dignified. They feel devalued.

Paul reminds us that we’re one body with many parts. When one part wins, we all win. When one part loses, we all lose.

And when one part is devalued, we’re all devalued.

The gender pay gap doesn’t just devalue women — it devalues all of us. By standing up for equal pay in the workplace, we affirm that we all have value and that our participation in God’s creation matters.

If you’re an employer, take a closer look at your pay scale. If you’re an employee, speak up when opportunities arise. Whenever you can, in whatever way you can, affirm the importance of equal pay for equal work.

Because at the end of the day, gender pay equity isn’t just the right thing to do … it’s the Jesus thing to do.

 

3 Tips for Making Peace At Work

Conflict at work is inevitable. But are you part of the problem or the solution? We all have some level of influence in making peace at work.

No peace at work?

If you were a fan of “The Office” you’ll remember that many episodes included some form of workplace conflict.

Angela was upset that Pam didn’t invite her to her wedding. Meredith was the subject of office gossip. Pam and Jim ganged up on Dwight, and Dwight was a tattletale. The HR guy Toby had his hands full and his unhappy face showed it.

While we laugh at many of these scenarios, the sad thing is that art really does imitate reality. If you find that your workplace is less than peaceful, remember that the only person you can control is you.  

Scripture talks about personal responsibility for peaceful living in Roman 12:18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

So, stop waiting for someone else to create peace at work. Start with you.

Tips for Making Peace at Work

Here are a few practical ways to exercise your faith and start making peace at work.

1. Don’t gossip.  

Office gossip can range from talking about embarrassing antics at an office party to whispers about who made mistakes that cost the company money.

Gossip is a trap.

One story leads to another and suddenly you find yourself listening to or spreading rumors about people and situations that don’t concern you. Worse yet, you probably don’t have all the facts, so spreading gossip may also mean spreading misinformation and negativity.

When others share gossip with you, don’t delight in the details. Let the story end with you and avoid offering additional “facts.” If people pry for information, shut them down by asking, “Why do you ask?”

Make peace at work by discouraging gossip and encouraging respect for all people.

2. Don’t take sides

Taking sides in an office conflict goes hand in hand with gossip. We tend to believe that the stories we’ve heard or that our own observations tell the whole truth about a person or situation.

But more often than not, our perceptions are just that — our perceptions. They usually don’t include all the facts or capture the reality of a situation.

When a co-worker has a grievance, it doesn’t need to become your grievance, too.

You can bet that there are two sides to the story and the truth lies somewhere in between. If you’re a professional, then you’re way too old to act like you are in junior high. Be an adult and just walk away.

Make peace at work by caring for all of your co-workers and recognizing that your perceptions don’t represent the entire truth.

3. Be faithful.

You represent more than just yourself when you are in the workplace. You represent Christ, too.

When you’re at the office, you have to allow God to work in you and through you to bring peace where there is conflict.

Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution.

Make peace at work by being an ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Making peace at work may not be easy, but it’s a spiritual discipline. As you make changes in the way you respond to gossip and conflict, you will find that others will begin to notice.

Go ahead, get noticed at work! But let them notice you for being a positive influence and a peacemaker.

Walking with Vulnerable People

It is difficult to watch the news sometimes. Human suffering and poverty are bad enough. But when natural disasters are added to the mix, poverty makes vulnerable people susceptible to a host of other evils.

Vulnerable Girls and Women in Nepal

The latest news coming out of Nepal is that human traffickers are taking advantage of the recent earthquakes. Nepalese girls are easy targets for traffickers who pose as disaster-relief workers offering food and shelter.

In a time when these impoverished girls and young women need to be able to trust strangers for help, their gender and their economic status put them at risk for being enslaved as sex workers.

They are vulnerable because they are poor, and they are even more vulnerable because they are female.

God’s Concern for the Vulnerable

Throughout Scripture we are reminded that God has a preference for the poor and the powerless, i.e., the vulnerable. And believe it or not, God expects us to be concerned about them, too.

In Proverbs 31:8-9 we are urged to be concerned AND to advocate for vulnerable people:

Open your mouth in behalf of the mute,
and for the rights of the destitute;
Open your mouth, judge justly,
defend the needy and the poor!

Living a world away from Nepal, I feel powerless to help the vulnerable young women that are being exploited by sex traffickers. But that doesn’t let me off the hook because you don’t have to look very far to find someone who is vulnerable.

Vulnerable People Are Closer Than You Think

While natural disaster has made life much worse for the poor of Nepal, there are other kinds of disasters closer to home that make people just as vulnerable.

I have a friend, Sara (not her real name), who works with vulnerable youth right here in Rochester, in a neighborhood just 15 minutes away from my home.

Recently, a young teen she was helping was forced to spend nights on whatever neighborhood couch she could find because her family had been evicted from their apartment.

The girl’s mother was drug addicted and had left the girl to fend for herself. With no other family to turn to, the girl had become a regular at the youth center.

And that’s where Sara entered the picture.  

At her church’s youth center, Sara struck up a conversation with the girl. Part of Sara’s job was to find a program that would house the girl and get her the help that she needed.

The girl didn’t want to be with strangers. She wanted to be with family. But my friend knew that the girl couldn’t depend on her mother right now.

Why? Because she was vulnerable:

  • Vulnerable to abuse.
  • Vulnerable to dropping out of school.
  • Vulnerable to all kinds of problems that could destroy her life.

Staying with strangers may not have been what the young girl wanted, but that’s what was needed to keep her safe.

Open Your Eyes to Vulnerable People 

You probably can’t do much to help vulnerable people half a world away. You may not have the skills to work with vulnerable youth in your city. But there are vulnerable people all around you who need your help in a variety of ways.

They may be vulnerable because of poverty. Or, they may be vulnerable because of age, infirmity, or disability.

The point is that we are called by God to defend the needy and the poor.

And if we open our eyes to see people’s vulnerability, they might be closer than we think.

How to Deal with Annoying People

Annoying people are a fact of life. But learning how to deal with annoying people is more than a survival skill — it’s a spiritual discipline.

Annoying people are everywhere.

People can be annoying. From the guy who stinks up your subway car with smelly kimchi to the office coworker who drones on and on about her cats, irritating people are all around you. It’s impossible to escape them.

Since you can’t avoid them, learning how to deal with annoying people is part of what it means to be a functioning and rational human being. 

Is it easy? Of course not. Does getting along with the workplace pariah make you feel warm fuzzies inside? Not at all.

But if you can’t figure out how to deal with annoying people, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy trying to change things that are beyond your control.

Learning how to deal with annoying people is a spiritual exercise.

I’m not a naturally patient person. When someone irritates me, I react in a visceral way. I’m not nasty to them. I don’t make a scene. But if I can’t walk away, I mentally recite a list of reasons why they are  wrong and why I’m justified for feeling put off.

And my list of reasons usually includes the argument that I just don’t have time to deal with annoying people. Of course, that’s not true …

We make time for things that matter to us. 

The gospels are a litany of Jesus’ interactions with annoying people. People grabbing his robes. People clammering for his attention. People breaking up his dinner parties. At times, the disciples were some of the most irritating people in Jesus’ world.

But Jesus made time for annoying people. Not because they were annoying, but because they were people. And people matter to Jesus.

So, if we’re serious about learning how to deal with annoying people, then that means people need to matter more to us than the inconvenience we feel when we’re annoyed.

There’s a simple three-step process for dealing with people who irritate you.

When we begin to view annoying people as people instead of problems or obstacles, we take an important step toward a more spiritual way of being. But it’s only the beginning of the process. To make real progress, you’ll need to add a few more moves to your repertoire:

1. Lose Your Ego

Ever wonder why some people annoy you so much? Don’t blame them, blame your ego. Your ego is your self-image. We all have one. But when your ego causes you to become critical or judgmental or self-absorbed, it needs to be reined in. Often, a slight pause to examine your motives and a few deep breaths is all it takes to right-size your ego when you feel annoyed.

2. Be Understanding

Maybe the people who annoy you just need to be understood. What if the guy on the subway works three jobs and the subway ride is his only opportunity to eat dinner? Or what if your coworkers talks about her cats because she’s lonely and her cats are the only family she has?  When you practice understanding, it’s almost impossible to feel annoyed.

3. Remember Grace

Sometimes annoying people have no excuse. They’re just annoying. Grace is kindness undeserved and it’s the most spiritual response you can have when people annoy you. Why? Because it’s God’s response to all of the petty (and not so petty) things you do to annoy him.

The principles are the same for peacemaking.

Think knowing how to deal with annoying people is all about you? It’s not.  The same three principles work for individuals, groups of people and even nations. The only difference is that we call it peacemaking.

For millennia, wars have been fought and blood has been shed because one group of people annoyed another group of people. In some cases, the annoyances have been serious issues; in others, not so much.

But by checking our egos (i.e., self-image), practicing understanding and leaving room for grace, we create the space it takes to work out our differences in peaceful and redemptive ways — the kind of outcomes that learning how to deal with annoying people is really about.

 

When Did Solidarity Become a Curse Word?

Solidarity is a scary word.

Solidarity is one of those words that most Christians don’t talk about. If it comes up at all, it’s whispered behind closed doors like a four-letter word — shorthand for the work of radicals and revolutionaries hell-bent on destroying society.

And apparently, solidarity is a curse word in multiple languages. On several occasions, Pope Francis has chastised the Global North for its aversion to the word solidarity and the spiritual commitment it represents.

Speaking at an Italian center for refugees in 2013, Francis said:

“Solidarity, this word that strikes fear in the more developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it is our word!”

Of course, by “our word,” Francis meant the church’s word, a word that was hard-wired into the Christian worldview the moment Cain asked God if he was his brothers’ keeper.

What is Christian solidarity?

In its simplest form, solidarity is unity — the recognition that we are all part of a single human family. It’s been described as the glue that holds us all together. The tie that binds us in our pursuit of the common good.

As beings that reflect the imago Dei, solidarity is what makes us human.

Scripturally, solidarity can be seen in Jesus’ preference for the poor. Throughout the gospels (and many of the other 65 books of the Bible), passage after passage describes how important it is to identify with and welcome strangers, aliens and outcasts into our lives.

Not because we are superior to the marginalized. But because we count ourselves among them.

Now here’s the real irony: many of the same people who want to eliminate solidarity from the Christian lexicon already practice it as a sacrament. Strip away the ritual and baptism is an initiation into solidarity with brothers and sisters around the world and across the ages.

How can I practice solidarity in my everyday life?

In April, Pope Francis described solidarity as a “prophetic force.” Inspiring stuff. But as a spiritual virtue, solidarity is only useful if it is practiced as a sacrament in our everyday lives.

Although it isn’t as convenient as other spiritual practices, here’s what you can do to incorporate solidarity into your daily routines:

1. Pay attention

Be more aware of people on the margins, around the world and in your own backyard. The poor and the homeless, immigrants and outcasts–these are the people that Jesus challenges you to see and love.

2. Lend a hand

It’s easy to write a check. But solidarity asks you to get your hands dirty. Whether it’s in a formal volunteer role or in the course of your daily life, look for ways to actively serve those who need your help.

3. Speak up

Self-sufficient people like to blame the poor and marginalized for causing their own poverty and marginalization. The poor and marginalized don’t need accusers–they need advocates who are willing to speak up for them at dinner tables and water coolers.

But the most important way to incorporate solidarity into your everyday life might be to reframe the way you view yourself and your place in the world.

Because at the end of the day, there’s no us and them. There’s only us.

 

A Suburban Response to Racial Violence

From Ferguson to Charleston to Baltimore, racial violence is alive and well in America. But as urban peacemakers seek solutions, it’s a mistake for white suburbanites to paint racial violence as a city problem. Or worst yet, a black one.

Racial violence doesn’t exist in the suburbs. Or does it?

As a white suburbanite, it’s difficult to know how to respond to the racial violence unfolding across America. Here in the suburbs, most of us don’t consider ourselves to be violent people. So, when we read headlines about police brutality and riots in the streets, we mentally line up on the side of peace and go about our business.

I’m not saying it’s right. It’s just the way it is.

Suburban living makes it easy to sidestep conversations about racial violence. As homogeneous, residential enclaves, the suburbs do a good job insulating us from the problems that plague urban centers.

While more and more people of color are moving out of the cities, suburban communities are highly segregated. Consider the disparities in the following statistics:

  • People of color represent 35% of the suburban population, roughly the same percentage as the overall U.S. population.
  • More than half of all racial groups in large metro areas (including blacks) now live in the suburbs.
  • Yet, in the suburbs, blacks and Hispanics with annual incomes over $75,000 live in areas with higher poverty rates than whites who make less than $40,000.

Physical incidents of racial violence are rare or nonexistent in white suburbs because racial diversity is a concept — not a lived reality.

But physical violence isn’t the only form of violence in America.

  1. Cultural violence tells us that it’s okay to use violence to solve conflicts. It’s the acceptance and glorification of violence in a way that dehumanizes other people and lets us slip into an “us vs. them” mindset, no questions asked.
  2. Structural violence is hard-wired into the systems and structures of our society. It feeds on the inequities that divide groups of people based on race, zip code, paycheck and other factors.

Look behind the white picket fence and you’ll find a breeding ground for structural and cultural violence. White suburbanites can’t escape the problem of racial violence because we play a role in causing it.

We’re not on the same page about the causes of racial violence.

A recent Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll showed that 96% of U.S. adults believe that we’re in for a summer of racial unrest and violent protests. But when asked to identify the root cause for  violence in the streets, blacks and whites have very different perspectives.

  • Among black respondents, 60% believe that rioting in Baltimore was the result of longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment in the black community, while 27% believed it was caused by individuals who used the Freddie Gray incident as an excuse to commit crime.
  • For white respondents, perceptions were reversed — 58% believed that looters were looking for an excuse to commit crimes, while 32% believed that longstanding frustrations were the cause of violent protests.

In general, white people and black people have had different experiences in America. And we’re not even close to being on the same page when it comes to our perceptions about the root causes of racial violence and violent responses to injustice.

3 Ways to Respond to Racial Violence

Ignoring violence isn’t an option for Christians. In the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a walking billboard for nonviolent peacemaking. But the rest of scripture is rife with references about the urgency of responding to violence, too.

Maybe Psalm 34:14 sums up the Christian response best:

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Since neither violence nor passivity is spiritually acceptable, here are three ways that suburbanites can pursue peace and respond to racial violence:

1. Look Inward

Our first response to racial violence should be to examine the ways in which we participate in violence every day, including cultural and structural violence.

For example, while protesters were filling the streets of Baltimore last weekend, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were boxing for a record $300 million purse–largely bankrolled by white suburbanites who dropped $100 to watch the event on pay-per-view.

2. Listen Outward

Shallow people view the world exclusively through their own experience. Suburban white communities and urban black communities have experienced violence differently. As much as possible, filter out the media noise and — with an open heart — look for opportunities to truly listen to what people of color are saying.

3. Move Forward

Nonviolence is a direction, not a destination. Because of the structural and cultural dimensions, no one is completely violent or non-violent. We’re all on a path. But rather than sitting still, start taking small steps — in your words, your decisions, in your personal interactions — toward making nonviolence a more important part of your life.

 

Fishing With the Have-Nots

A Pennsylvania trout lake is the perfect crucible for learning about haves and have-nots. In rural Pennsylvania, springtime means two things: baseball and the opening day of trout season. On the Saturday closest to April 15th, people of all ages flock to the lakes and streams to wet their lines and, if the stars align, limit out by noon.

There are two classes of people on a trout lake: haves and have-nots.

As a kid, I looked forward to opening day. The tradition was that I would spend the night before opening day at my grandparents’ house. The next morning, after a celebratory breakfast of pancakes and sausage, my grandfather and I would fish the first day together.

Although my family wasn’t poor, there wasn’t much left after we paid for basic necessities. So, when my grandfather and I arrived at one of the local trout lakes, we would take our place with the have-nots — the riffraff wetting their lines along the shore.

The other group of the people at the lake were the boat fisherman or the haves. Outfitted with electric motors, fish-finders and God knows what else, they trolled the lake in style, slipping effortlessly from one spot to the next until they landed on honey holes chock-full of breeding rainbows and fat palominos.

Maybe I could become a boat fisherman.

It seemed like the boat fishermen had an unfair advantage over us and all the other have-nots fighting for space along the shore. And unfair or not, they probably did.

It didn’t help that when the fish weren’t biting out in the deep water, the boat fisherman would troll the edges of the lake and tangle up our lines. You’d be surprised how often verbal confrontations and threats of violence pass between boat fishermen and shore fishermen.

As opening day wore on, I would look at my empty creel and feel jealous of the people cruising silently along in their boats. Sometimes, I would craft elaborate fantasies about working two or three summer jobs to save up enough money to buy a boat of my own.

But I knew that buying a boat wasn’t a real possibility.

Boats cost too much and summer jobs were too few. Even if I could somehow find a job, I would have had to work all summer long to earn enough cash to afford a boat.

What was the point of buying a fishing boat if I never had time to fish?

And so I resigned myself to the fact that I was one of the have-nots. I was a shore fisherman and probably would be for a long time. In my adolescent view of the world, the acceptance of this unfortunate truth stirred up a variety of emotions.

  • I felt ashamed that my family couldn’t afford a fishing boat.
  • I felt angry about being forced to fish from the shore.
  • I felt less than the people in the boats.

But most of all, I felt powerless. As petty as it sounds, I felt powerless to change my situation and powerless to even try.

Blessed are the shore fishermen …

Jesus knows about haves and have-nots, too.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) are nothing less than a manifesto against consumerism, a poetic vision of an alternative way of living. Here, we’re challenged to become meek and poor in spirit, to live in a way that runs counter to the ethos of the world we know so well.

Jesus invites us to become free from the allure of material things and the cycle of consumption, and to position ourselves in solidarity with those who have less.

If Jesus is a trout fisherman — and I like to think that he is — he might say:

Blessed are the shore fisherman, for there is more to fishing than catching the most fish.

I want to live that way. I want to ignore the people in the boats and pay more attention to what’s happening on the shore. But it’s hard. The boats are so darn shiny.

Identifying with the Have-Nots

Looking back, there are few things I wouldn’t give to fish one more opening day with my grandfather and, if we’re lucky, going home with a few scrawny trout in our creels.

Long after my grandfather passed away, I had the chance to fish on those same lakes as a boat fisherman. Not that it matters, but I actually did catch a lot more fish from the boat. The problem was that the fishing lacked soul. It was boring and unimaginative. Nothing like fishing from the shore with the other have-nots.

Of course, shore fisherman aren’t the real have nots.

The real have nots are the people who can’t go fishing with their kids and grandkids because they’re struggling to put food on their tables.

  • They’re the 7% of the U.S. workforce that falls into the category of the working poor.
  • They’re the 45+ million people who live below the poverty line.
  • They’re the parents and grandparents who are working two or three low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

In some small and insignificant way, my time on the shores of Pennsylvania trout lakes gave me an appreciation for what the poor feel every day. And it forces me to remember that finding God means more than writing a check or feeling sorry for the less fortunate.

It means living in solidarity with the have-nots, learning from them and counting myself as one of them. Not where I want them to be, but in the places where they really are.

Along the shore.

 

Are Middle-Aged Women Invisible?

The Psalmist promises that I have been wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). But whether I like it or not, I was made a long time ago. Entropy, childbearing, and an uneven commitment to exercise have left me looking and feeling something less than wonderful. If you’re a forty-something (or older), you can probably relate.

If middle-aged women can’t stop aging, maybe we can manage it.

For middle-aged women, it’s all about controlling your appearance. You only take selfies from above to avoid the dreaded double chin. And the pictures you post are carefully chosen to always show your “good side.”

But kids have a way of calling us on our delusions. Especially teenagers. My teenage daughters habitually snapchat unattractive pictures of me from every possible angle, often while I’m chewing food, yelling, or asleep with my mouth gaped open.

The pictures they post of me aren’t flattering. But they’re reminders that the years really are taking their toll on my body and I don’t look 18 anymore.

They say middle-aged women are becoming “invisible.”

The other day I read an article that said women become invisible after age 49. Data confirms that our culture simply doesn’t value middle-aged women–even though the world is aging rapidly and women significantly outnumber men past the age of 60.

So, does that mean I only have four more years to be “visible”? Not acceptable.

In a culture that values youth over wisdom and thinness over character, loving your embodied self can be difficult for middle-aged women. But the Psalmist’s words are a reminder that God is still making me and shaping me. I am still a work in progress.

Life, experience, pain, and happiness continue to carve new laugh-lines and wrinkles in my face. I am growing as a person and sharing my life-learnings with the people in my life. God is still using me. I am not invisible to God.

I still have half a life to go.

My body is changing. So are my spirit, mind and soul. I won’t stop growing as a person just because I’m middle aged.

After all, I still have half a life to go. I refuse to look back on the last forty-five years and say that the best years of my life are behind me. Despite my waistline and jiggly biceps, I have to believe that the best really is yet to come.

God is still creating me, and I am still putty in God’s hands. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – and regardless of the number of our years, we’re all still works in the making.