Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Lord's Supper: toasting each other's forgiveness

And he took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matt 26:27-28)
Whenever we receive the Lord's supper, we receive Christ's pledge that our sins are forgiven. Many times we comfort ourselves with this -- that our sins are forgiven, that here in communion we have Christ's pledge sealed with his own body and blood.

So how is it possible for our feuds to continue? Haven't we all come together to take the same bread and wine? Haven't we all shared the same cup, and raised the toast of "forgiveness"? When we celebrate our own forgiveness, we celebrate our brothers' and sisters' forgiveness as well. Everyone who has taken that bread and wine has shared in the forgiveness of sins. Do we still keep a record of their wrongs, when God has forgiven them? I think we must be offending against Christ, to come for our own forgiveness based on his sacrifice, and refuse to forgive our brothers who have come for that same forgiveness.

The Lord's Supper is not just a fresh start for each of us personally. It is also a fresh start for all those in Christ. There is a power in that, that all the evil that has worked throughout a congregation might be undone by a single worship service. By coming together just once fully embracing what God has done not just for one of us, but for all of us together, layers on layers of resentment can be washed away in a single morning. It must be a grave insult to evil that all its work can be undone so easily, by bread and wine and Christ's forgiveness. Evil's power must be nothing next to God's, that years of bitterness and strife can be undone in a single hour.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What is the Christian response to backhanded compliments?

Sometimes in our world we receive backhanded compliments. Some of them are basically "sugar-coated insults" to borrow a phrase that I found this morning. I wonder whether the deliverer would be laughing to themselves if I actually said "Thank you"; that depends on how much the insult was intended, I suppose. Receiving a backhanded compliment puts you in a situation where you have to decide, and usually right on the spot, whether to accept the "compliment" and therefore accept the insult and thank them for it. Ever find yourself in that situation? So this morning I found myself googling, "gracious response to backhanded compliment." It's something I've needed to work on for awhile.

The basic responses I found on-line were:
  1. Return with another backhanded compliment (this one didn't really fill the bill, as it's not particularly gracious)
  2. A polite call-out of the backhanded nature of the "compliment", for example "That's not really a good thing."
  3. An acceptance with a polite call-out, for example "I'll accept your left-handed compliment with my right hand, thank you."
  4. An acceptance with positive attention to the target of the implied insult, for example "Thank you! I think (x) was pretty good too / wasn't bad either!"
To me, #2 and #4 are the best approaches so far. I'd be interested in hearing how you all deal with backhanded compliments. I think there ought to be a way to apply what Jesus said about returning good for evil, so I think somewhere is a better solution than these. In the meantime, these are keepers even if just until a better way becomes clear; they're better than what I had done before.

Update with related post, roughly 2 years later: Christian response to backhanded compliments: Reprise.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The worries of this world: a call to prayer

It is impossible to be worried and thankful at the same time. One will overshadow the other, pushing it to the side. "I'm thankful, but ..." something steals the joy from us, and our thankfulness is shallow. Or, "I'm worried, but ... " I have things to be thankful for. Still we speak with thoughts that are clouded with worry.

Jesus warned us of this. "The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is he who hears the word -- and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, and it becomes unfruitful." (Matt 13:22, see also Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14)

As followers of Jesus, we take this seriously. I have heard many Christians speak about Jesus' call to watch out for wealth, for the love of money, for its deceitfulness, for the divided loyalty it brings, for the threat and temptation that it poses. We may not see as clearly that Jesus says that worries -- the cares of the age and of the world -- stand beside the deceitfulness of wealth as an enemy, no less an enemy than the love of money. They are just the same in effect: a thorn or a thistle, a thing using up our energy and choking off the new life that Christ has planted in us. The cares of this life are a snare to the faithful just like drunkenness (Luke 21:34). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to set aside worry.

Matthew records Jesus saying twice that the Father knows what we need: once in telling us not to worry (Matthew 6:32), and once in urging us to pray (Matthew 6:7-9). Jesus' repetition of this key fact -- that the Father knows what we need -- forges a link between our worries and our prayers.

"Cast all your cares on God, for he cares for you." (I Peter 5:7)

Jesus urges us to pray to God without useless repetitions. We should not be tempted to think that our prayers earn some reward by a show of devoutness, or imagine that God did not know what we needed before we prayed. Instead, we are urged to pray based on the confidence that God already knows what we need -- and loves us.

In times like these it may be especially necessary, before we can give thanks, that first we give God our worries and unload all of our cares.

"Cast all your cares on God, for he cares for you." (I Peter 5:7)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - and a problem with the modern world

The modern world has its own wonders. But they are very different from the wonders of the ancient world. The modern world has created wonders of invention, of efficiency, of communication, and of discovery. But, unlike the ancients, we have no wonders of beauty. Even an ancient wonder like the pyramid -- some in our cynical age might call it a monument to the ego of a tyrant -- even it has a beauty and symmetry that stands the test of time. I once read a description of the ancient pyramids in the days before centuries of looters; they were covered with white stone and capped with gold. They were beautiful. The hanging gardens of Babylon, again one of the wonders of the ancient world, was not only a marvel of engineering in its day, it was also an earthly paradise.

The ancient wonders highlight some things that our world has lost, things that our age does not value. There is little intent to create beauty, little respect even for the thought of it. And one distinguishing mark of the wonders of the ancient world was exactly a sense of wonder -- that is, these things were created to be marveled at, to bring delight or awe or even a sense of the holy and transcendent into this world. Our "wonders" are entirely secular wonders, or to be more exact, wonders produced by a world that only recognizes the secular as valid. When was the last time our world's cultures produced a work of true beauty, a wonder in the ancient sense?

As the vision of paradise fades from the minds of men, the intentional beauty fades from the things we create. One of the most obvious marks of secularism is a kind of desert in the culture.

Some people speak of a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age. Just as it is possible for a person to have a personality that is not well-rounded, I think the zeitgeist of secularism -- the spirit of our age -- has a very one-sided personality, one that is efficient but has forgotten warmth, beauty, and kindness. For anyone interested in psychology, I wonder: is the zeitgeist, that spirit of our times, effectively the same thing as our superego, the voice of our conscience? If so, then a distorted spirit of the age leads directly to the same thing being echoed on down through each personality in the age, and being transmitted as the new normal to the next generation.

It remains for us, then, who find our times to be shallow and cynical to do something about that. It remains for us, who are uncomfortably squeezed by the narrow and bitter spirit of our times, to stake a claim in our age for kindness and decency, for beauty, for holiness, for paradise, and for wonder. These are the echoes of Eden, these are the things that have been systematically chased out of our age, and these are the things of the kingdom of heaven on earth. People find it very easy to scoff at religion in an age where all the people -- even Christians -- go along with the cesspool of cynicism that is modern news and politics, the routine fraud and injustice in government and economics, the institutionalized mediocrity that is education. The job falls to us to create lasting families and deep friendships that are the stuff our world is starved for, to re-create the concept of fellowship in our age, and to re-introduce the holy and the beautiful into this world.

"Prepare the way for the Lord" -- it is our job to make every valley exalted, and every mountain bowed down, to make straight in this desert a highway for our God. John the Baptist did not build literal roads; he built a spirit of readiness for God.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reflection on a funeral - and a perspective-check for militant atheists

This week I went to my aunt's funeral. My uncle lives out of state, so I was glad to see he had a huge group of people who were there for him.

My aunt's health had failed in a long and drawn-out process that so often happens with cancer. At the memorial service I was glad to hear that some of the people there -- people from my aunt and uncle's Bible study group -- had been able to come over and sit with my aunt while my uncle ran errands when she had become too weak to take care of herself. After her death, they had helped to pick the outfit my aunt would wear for the viewing; I was glad my uncle didn't have to do that alone. When all the relatives from out-of-town came for the viewing -- and all the people who loved my aunt came for the viewing -- there was a remarkably large group of people there. At the funeral home on the night of the viewing, their church Bible study group coordinated and brought enough food for everyone to have a meal, which was no small thing given the number of people. The next day after the funeral service, again the church Bible study group coordinated and brought enough food for everyone to have a meal.

The whole time I was impressed by their kindness, their gentleness, their thoughtfulness. They went out of their way to include me and make me feel welcome. They shared one good story after another about my aunt. I never lacked for someone there for me, and neither did my daughter, even though the majority of them had never met us before. And coming back home, I didn't doubt for a minute that they would be there for my uncle -- because they were already there for him, unasked, and had been there for him all along.

And I get back home and the message boards and propaganda publications with the militant atheists are all the same: Christians are dangerous and imbalanced and vicious; raising your children that way is abusive; religious people are a threat to civilization and decency everywhere. And all I could think is, "What the blazes is wrong with you people?" How can you heap that much nastiness and abuse on some of the kindest people on the planet? Or have you seriously never met religious people in real life, and are forming your opinions mainly based on prejudice and propaganda? Make no mistake, the people who behave the way these people did are the real and devoted followers of Jesus Christ. And if someone can look at those good, kind, down-to-earth people who have devoted their lives to going out of their way to help others, and think they're warped and malicious and dangerous, then what the blazes is wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The reason for Eve

Adam already had paradise. God had already created a good world. What was the point of Eve?

In Genesis, the point of Eve is that even paradise is better when there's someone to love -- and even a perfect world would be lacking something without them.

In memory of my aunt, d. 11/07/2010. I'll be in Kentucky for the next couple of days for the memorial and funeral, & won't be checking comments again until Friday.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Haiti's homes, Mexico's colonias, America's unemployment, and learned helplessness

I'm not sure I can imagine an earthquake. I can't even begin to fathom what it would be like to have a major city devastated as happened in Haiti at the beginning of this year. Immediately afterward, the news covered large populations living in tents.

Recently with a storm named Tomas going towards Haiti, there was news that people in the tent cities were refusing to evacuate. Tent cities? Still? It has been a little over nine months since the earthquake.

Once, before the "modern world" came upon us, many families built their own homes. They may have enlisted their neighbors' help, but the job got done. The homes may not have been fancy homes, but they were better than tents. I'm sure many people around the world still live in homes they or their families built with their own hands. On my father's side, I think my great-grandparents probably built their own home. These days it would probably be illegal for them to even try.

These days we expect better. We expect concrete slabs, electricity, plumbing, windows, insulation -- everything meeting the proper building code. I wonder, how much of that applies in Haiti? Is the insistence that people have better homes -- with all the right permits, and all the right contractors, and properly inspected -- is that part of what's keeping them in tents? How many attempts to solve problems have to be blocked before people give up on solving their own problems?

I look at the people who live in the colonias around the Texas/Mexico border. Their ancestors built pyramids that the archaeologists travel to study, quietly paying their respects to the greatness of the culture that was before. Our own culture has no monuments to match that. Now their descendants live in cardboard boxes made into rough shelters. What happened? Conquerors, bad governments at times in history, modern drug lords and drug wars and governments still widely rumored to be either thoroughly incompetent or thoroughly corrupt ... or relatively powerless against the better-armed and more powerful drug lords. Mexico has had it rough. How long before people stop trying?

I think part of it is something called "learned helplessness" by the psychologists. If someone is prevented from solving a problem for long enough, they can easily give up on trying. If someone does not see how they control things in their own lives, they stop making any attempt to affect the outcome. Even if circumstances change so that it becomes possible to make a difference, that may go unnoticed. Too many things have failed before.

When psychologists first started studying learned helplessness, the original animal experiments were an exercise in cruelty to animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, the animals were systematically abused. Those experiments could be sub-titled "Why PETA was ultimately necessary." And now, whenever I see people showing learned helplessness on a massive scale, I tend to look for some kind of problem with the system -- where someone is deliberately doing something that makes the problem worse or prevents escape. It's even possible for someone to have good motives, and still be part of the problem.

In the United States, unemployment has become something of a "learned helplessness" problem, in that some of the unemployed have given up on trying to find work. Much like the animals in the old psychology experiments, it's hardly their fault. Jobs that were once our jobs have been systematically shipped overseas for many years now, or a blind eye has been turned while those jobs went to our friends from the south, regardless of whether they were here legally. I mean, we could spare the jobs, right? Or we could at the time. And every session of congress, or of the state legislature, or of the city council, adds layers of regulations intended to make things always safer, always more orderly, always more beneficial. And always more difficult to satisfy all the legal requirements. For a "free country", we sure have a huge number of restrictions.

The immigrants without legal paperwork, and the employers who are hiring without legal paperwork, have shown one thing: it is certainly possible to get work still. But there may not be a way to get work legally. And if the way to get work is illegal, that does seem to mean that the laws are part of the problem. Or as others have noticed before, the laws create the black market. The size of the black market is a comment on how much real supply and demand is being prevented by the laws.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Finding employment doing something valuable

Employment may not be what you think it is. Employment is when you have a job, right? Obviously. These days many people find themselves asking: What do you do when you don't have a job? Do you go door-to-door in the local business neighborhood asking for applications? Do you call all of your contacts and see who is hiring? Do you send out your resume and post it to all the on-line job markets? Well, it's worth a shot -- but there aren't that many people hiring right now.

But we've lost sight of some basic things. There are other legitimate ways to make ends meet than finding an employer. All it takes is to see something that needs doing, a project that is worth something, and do it. Anyone with a hammer and a bag of nails can do something valuable by repairing things. Anyone with a rake or snow-shovel can do something valuable. Anyone with a paint brush or roller can do something valuable. Anyone with a sewing machine or knitting needles can do something valuable. All it requires to do something worthwhile is to leave it better than you found it. And for those who want to get money from the process, it requires finding a price that people are willing to pay for the value of what you did.

Some would call it "starting a business" -- but a lot of people don't like the sound of that. They think being "self-employed" is risky. Risky compared to what, though? People say the income may not be steady at first -- but that's better than having no income at all. And the employer you imagine finding is nothing more than someone who once took that same risk and succeeded.

So the trick is not necessarily to find someone who will sign you up for 40 or more hours a week. The trick is to take your 40 or more hours a week -- which will come all the same -- and do something valuable with them.

That's one of the secrets of real value: prosperity is created by people who do something valuable. If you look at the great treasures of history, the reason they are worth so much is simply because people took their own hands and made something worthwhile. You can literally create value with the work of your hands. And at the end of the day, that's where all human-made value comes from.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Unemployment: it's structural (built into the system) at this point

I know this isn't my typical topic -- and I don't plan on becoming an economics-and-politics blog. But there comes a time when everyone in a democracy has a responsibility to speak out, and to speak plainly. Christians in particular should step forward to make sure peoples' needs are met. And one of the most pressing needs in our day is employment -- or resolving the unemployment crisis.

One reason I don't get very excited about elections is that the two major parties are, at the moment, both unwilling to do what it would take to fix the most serious problems facing our country.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there weren't that many modernized and industrialized nations with stable societies, lots of natural resources, a reasonably well-educated workforce, and plenty of hard-working people. The U.S.A. was positioned better than many other nations. We became a modern major industrial superpower. And for a long time, we were the best game in town for prosperity and productivity. Our current laws and society grew up during that time. But since those laws and practices were put in place, the game has changed. And in our laws and society -- now set as part of what we see as normal -- we have built in some things that are making our current problems worse, and are likely to keep our current problems going strong.

This is not either a pro-union or anti-union rant, but I do need to mention unions because they have an important part to play in the history of our labor market.

Unions have kept an eye on company profits and have tried to make sure that labor got its perceived fair share. For those who preferred not to unionize, the government basically did it for them: it enacted mandatory minimum wage laws, and (in social security and medicare) minimum benefits laws. This has the basic effect of making every U.S. worker a member of a labor union, where the U.S. federal government negotiates the rates and benefits with U.S. employers.

Most people know how unions work, but I'm going somewhere with this so it bears a quick mention. Unions work by organizing all the workers in a certain labor market. When a union negotiates a contract, it has some muscle behind it: if the negotiations cannot be concluded successfully, the workers can strike. In order for a strike to work, it must mean that none of the workers will work. There can't be people sneaking around to offer their labor at a lower rate, or the whole negotiation will fail. So unions are most effective in this kind of tactic when the whole market is unionized -- when nobody will break a strike. Union workers consider it lower than low to break a strike. Union members have gained a reputation for meeting strike-breakers with fierce harassment or even violence because strikes only work -- unions only work -- when they have a monopoly on the labor market. If there's another equally capable set of employees available who are not unionized, the union becomes powerless. If there is no monopoly on labor, the only thing the union will accomplish is to put its own members out of work by pricing them out of the labor market.

The thing is, the game has changed since the U.S.A. set its habits and laws. In earlier decades, some jobs moved from unionized parts of the country to non-unionized parts of the country to seek out lower labor costs. These days, millions of jobs have left the U.S.A. entirely. These are millions of jobs that we are sorely missing in our struggling labor market. Remember that this is not just about traditional unions with formal leaders and collective bargaining; the federal minimum wage law makes every last citizen here a de facto member of a union -- asking higher wages than the worldwide market will support. The U.S.A. does not have a monopoly on a stable economy and an educated, motivated workforce. The U.S. workers do not have the kind of monopoly on the world labor market that is required in order for such a union scheme to successfully negotiate those wages. And so, in the worldwide market, the demand for relatively high wages will simply be ignored. Employers will do what makes economic sense: they will go where they can find the best price for labor, just like you and I would go where we find the best price for groceries, if the quality is comparable. The employers have been doing this, are now doing this, and will continue to do this: they are taking their jobs elsewhere. They will continue to do this as long as it makes economic sense for them to take their jobs elsewhere.

As citizens of the U.S.A., we are -- willingly or not -- members of a union where we are required to work for a certain minimum wage, where it is illegal for us to work for a lower wage, the while the worldwide labor market routinely works for less. We are, increasingly, left out in the cold. That will continue to cause many jobs to leave the U.S.A. until our labor prices again become competitive.

Here's another thing that it's unpopular to mention because it's so politically sensitive: the minimum wage laws are part of the illegal immigration problem. There are a whole slew of factors that go into illegal immigration; the biggest factors are that Mexico is a mess and America has more opportunity than that. So the problem of illegal immigration does not at all simplify to minimum wage. But here is one way that those two things interact: the reason people hire illegal workers is so that they can pay them illegal wages. It is sheer fantasy to imagine that, if the illegal workers suddenly became legal, that they would as a whole suddenly be making better money than they are now making. Oh, it's possible sometimes that might happen, somewhere, to some few workers. But in general, if someone was hiring an illegal worker under the false belief that they were legal, then they were already paying them legal wages because they believed them to be in the country legally. On the other hand, if someone was hiring an illegal worker knowingly, they probably did it precisely so that they could pay them illegal wages. If the person became a legal worker requiring legal wages, there is a real chance they would become unemployed, and the employer would go to find a new illegal worker in order to keep its costs down. If the employer's original intent was to hire an illegal worker precisely because of the price difference, then it's a real possibility that the employer would just move on to a new set of illegal workers and create a new wave of illegal immigrants. If the employer were willing to pay full legal wages, they could have already hired one of the millions who are currently unemployed. (Though we also have our unemployment system structured badly so that it contributes to the problem; that's a matter for another day ... )

Am I proposing something here? "Proposing" isn't quite what I have in mind; I see it more as "observing." I'm observing that the unemployment problem is built into our system. Because of that, it is unlikely to get better unless we are willing to re-align our pay scales with our competition. This would, no doubt, cause or require price adjustments across the board to bring us more into line with the rest of the world.

But haven't we had previous recessions that were resolved without dropping our labor prices? Not on this scale, not since other nations have gotten so competitive in the world labor market. Not since the labor market truly became a global labor market. The game has changed. The unemployed in this country aren't going to be employed again until new jobs are created. When employers try to decide where to hire people, is there solid reason for them to pick the U.S.A. over the competition?

I will probably continue this as a short series. Why? Because I think, when we expect politicians to solve our problems, it isn't entirely realistic. And part of free speech is that we're supposed to be putting in our two cents' worth.