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Christianity Today recently posted a list compiled by Twitter of the 100 items that people are most likely to give up during Lent this year. What topped the list?

Twitter.

Chocolate, swearing, alcohol, soda, Facebook, fast food, sex, sweats and meat rounded out the top 10. And No. 11? Lent itself.

I’ll leave it to you to sort out the significance of that list and what it might say about all of us. But in looking over the list it struck me that too often I have thought only about what I give up and not enough about who I turn toward during Lent, which started on Ash Wednesday and is a 40-day time of spiritual preparation for Easter. On this point, we Protestants may stand to learn a great deal from our brothers and sisters in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

For example, Frederica Matthewes-Green once wrote:

Orthodox Lent begins with the Rite of Forgiveness, in which all church members form a circle and, one at a time, stand face-to-face with each other and ask forgiveness. This experience is profoundly healing and also preventive; I’m more likely to restrain a harsh word in July if I recall that I will have to ask this person’s forgiveness again in March.

Ultimately, our sacrifices during Lent ought to turn our attention toward God, like a pang of hunger during a fast can remind us of our dependence upon God for all that is good. If we are more attentive toward God, perhaps as an extension of God’s love we can be more attentive toward one another.

This post also appears at Calvin Voices.

As a journalist-turned-professor, I have followed a path built around words and their use. How can students learn to write with precision and clarity? How can they decipher truth from falsehood in what they read and see? How can they preserve their own humanity — and that of others — in their communication practices?

In other words: How can they be real, authentic and sincere in life amid a media-generated blizzard of clever words? The same question, of course, applies to each of us every time we log on to Facebook, place a phone call, send a text, or a speak in person with someone.

“The Enemy of Clear Language”

George Orwell understood this challenge all too well, as noted in his 1946 essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language”:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

More than 65 years have passed since Orwell penned those words. Not much has changed, except for the new ways in which we can channel our insincerity. But here is the more important question: If we wish to live differently as Christians, what kind of practices might we adopt so that our words don’t just ring true — but are true?

Words and Their Care

This brings me back to a book I quoted in an earlier post, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” Much like Orwell, she is troubled by how people use words to obscure rather than illuminate. One response, she argues, resides in the practice of precision:

Truth-telling is difficult because the varieties of untruth are so many and so well disguised. Lies are hard to identify when they come in the form of apparently innocuous imprecision, socially acceptable slippage, hyperbole masquerading as enthusiasm, or well-placed propaganda. … So let us reflect here on the practice of precision as a spiritual discipline that lies at the heart of truth-telling.

For McEntyre, a practice of precision embodies several traits.

First, “precision begins with defining terms.” This isn’t a matter of using the dictionary. It means we think carefully about the words we choose and how others use them as well. More important, if we wish to speak or write with precision we must have the humility to listen to others first. In other words, we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Second, “precision requires attention to process.” That is, precise communication helps ourselves and others understand how the world works. It does not obscure the uncomfortable truths, either in pubic debate, personal relationships or church life. McEntyre calls this kind of precision “strenuous and highly morally relevant.” Our credibility, as individuals and as a church, depends on it.

Third, “precision lies in understatement.” We live in an age of continual hype, and we can resort to it to promote ourselves and our faith. But when we refrain from hype we become more honest about our lives and more open to God’s true love for us. Hype is a desperate effort to impress and control, to prove that we deserve attention. Understatement, in contrast, shows respect for others and humility before God.

Responsibility and Compassion

McEntyre concludes:

Precision is … not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.

This is a key point: Precision unleavened by compassion turns even the best-intentioned words into heavy clubs. If we are to be real and authentic with one another, then we speak and write with others in mind, not just ourselves. To practice precision is to be both clear and open. Let us pray that God may help us to be both.

Note: Another version of this post also appears on my church’s blog.

Years ago, during a sermon about money, a preacher offered this observation (which I paraphrase):

People say that money is neutral; what matters is what you do with it. But money isn’t neutral — it’s powerful. If you have it, you have choices that other people don’t have, and those choices will tug and pull at you. We should not kid ourselves about that.

That message has stayed with me through the years, and it returns every time I think of the financial collapse of 2008. In his book “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis argues that the prospects of huge, immediate profits overwhelmed all caution in the financial sector. In essence, Lewis says, people acted in a manner contrary not only to their own long-term interests, but to the interests of their clients and society. It became a sort of collective delusion, fueled by the prospects of extraordinary profits.

However, Lewis’ argument is generous when compared to that of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (see trailer), which won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary. Ferguson sees in the finance industry willful greed and malevolence, not just delusion. He explores the ways in which that pursuit of money, accompanied by a sense of entitlement,  continues to taint not just Wall Street but government and (yes) university academics.

Whether you find Lewis or Ferguson more persuasive (and both are worth your time), their stories illustrate an observation from my pastor this Sunday: Money operates as an ideology from which we must be converted. When money, rather than God, becomes omnipotent in our lives, its power can distort and harm. The collapse of 2008 is but another cautionary tale of that power — a tale we still struggle to comprehend.

The consequences of 2008 persist today; they are not the abstractions of world set far from the Northwest. They continue to echo in our lives through lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and derailed hopes and dreams — even among those still fortunate enough to have homes and savings. It makes me wonder: Will my children have the same opportunities that my wife and I have enjoyed? I’m no longer sure about that.

But there’s a bigger question: Beyond those earthly worries, how can my wife and I steel our children against the pull of money and its pernicious ideology? How can we model for them a lives that are truly free? In a society rocked by financial uncertainty, perhaps one place we can begin is to put aside fear and trust in a God who will never abandon us. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

During his sermon on Sunday, my pastor asked: Are we consumed with consuming? If our major corporations have their way, the answer would always be yes.

In a new book, recently excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Charles Duhigg catalogs the extraordinary lengths that retailers like Target (see video) work not only to build, but to control, our habits of consumption — and to make our consumption habitual. As one researcher from Target told Duhigg:  

Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.

The scope of modern marketing, fueled by research in neurology and psychology, is far different from the advertising of the past. It allows us to hold on to the illusion that we can resist even as we are directed, and even manipulated, to buy and buy again.

So it is no small thing when my pastor asked us to consider changing our shopping and consumption habits. We are working not just against our own tendencies; we are working against a relentless culture of marketing that aims with precision at our tendencies and vulnerabilities. That’s why it can feel so difficult to change.

Yet, by God’s grace, we are not helpless. This is why we can think of frugality as more than just a virtuous trait. It is a spiritual discipline, an act — no, a habit – of resistance against one of the powers and principalities of our day.

Note: A version of this post also appeared at my church’s blog.

Many years ago, I accompanied my wife to a spiritual retreat at the Dominican Reflection Center in Woodway. It was a day to take a break from the busyness of life, to be still, to listen for God.

My wife loved it. I could not wait for it to end.

Thinking back, I realize it wasn’t the solitude that got to me. Nor was it the physical stillness. It was the silence. It was deafening, overwhelming, even intimidating. And, to be honest, I don’t think I am that different today. Why?

Part of the answer resides in my tendencies as a media junkie — then as a newspaper editor, now as someone who teaches college students about media. But that answer alone does not seem sufficient.

When I reflect on the pace of life, it is not just that things are too frantic (though that is problem enough). Our hectic lives are also loud. There is already clatter aplenty as we navigate our daily chores. Then we add to it our own soundtrack — via Ipods, radios, smart phones, computers and TV.

To a degree, that soundtrack helps us navigate the day. It can provide small moments of delight and comfort. It also can insulate and isolate. When I put on my Ipod ear buds, I am shutting out other sounds that compete for my attention.

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum; silence can feel like an emotional vacuum, something to be avoided. I get so used to having a soundtrack that when it disappears it feels like a void. All those years ago, at that spiritual retreat, it was that void that left me so eager to end the day.

In silence, we can to allow God a space to enter our thoughts, our hearts. That ought to be comforting, but it also can be frightening. Perhaps we are afraid that in silence, with distraction stripped away, we will hear only the sounds of brokenness in our lives.

But perhaps, if we listen just a bit harder, we might just hear the still-small voice of God’s grace telling us to put our fears aside.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s blog, Calvin Voices.

It is no secret that Stephen Colbert is a devout Catholic, but in a just-posted profile at The New York Times writer Charles McGrath offers this glimpse:

In 1974, when Colbert was 10, his father, a doctor, and his brothers Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, died in a plane crash while flying to a prep school in New England.

“There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case,” he told me. “I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so.”

He added, in a tone so humble and sincere that his character would never have used it: “She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

That’s as far as the discussion of faith goes in the article, leaving me curious to hear more.  For on-air expressions of Colbert’s faith, see here, here, and here.

Joe Nocera of The New York Times says yes:

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in the power of redemption. People can make mistakes — even big mistakes — and, in time, recover from them. Stephen Glass is someone who made a big mistake. The infamy of his misdeeds will follow him forever. But if anyone can be said to have redeemed himself by his subsequent actions, it is Glass.

However, to characterize Glass’s actions as a “big mistake” seems a bit too generous for acts of deliberate and repeated deception in which Glass fabricated, in whole or in part, dozens of articles during the mid-1990′s — mostly for the New Republic. Glass’s fraud was first exposed in 1998 by Forbes journalist Adam Penenberg; explored in more detail by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair; chronicled in “Shattered Glass,” a nice little film (see trailer at top of this post); and re-examined this week by The San Francisco Chronicle in a front-page story.

Glass, who received a law degree from Georgetown University in 2000, is now the object for renewed media attention because he is in a court battle over admission to the California bar. Though he passed the state bar exam years ago, he has been denied entry because of his past. Glass has challenged this ruling, and both the State Bar Court of California and the California Court of Appeals have ruled in his favor. Now, the state bar has appealed to the California Supreme Court, which recently accepted the case.

Media critic Jack Shafer has examined the recently unsealed court files from the Glass case, and he is far more skeptical about Glass’s rehabilitation than Nocera. On one side you have the testimony of more than 20 people regarding Glass’s exemplary post-scandal behavior. On the other side the California State Committee of Bar Examiners asserts that Glass has dissembled about the scope of his fabrication even as he sought to join the legal guild, first unsuccessfully in New York and now in California. Shafer writes:

Insisting that Glass has never rehabilitated himself in a manner that would make him fit to practice law, the Committee of Bar Examiners dissects his behavior since 1998 in the pleadings. It accuses Glass of misleading the New York Bar in 2003 during the admittance process.

Glass stated to the New York Bar that he “worked with all three magazines and other publications … to identify which facts were true and which were false in all of [his] stories, so they could publish clarifications.” This statement was false, the committee wrote, because Glass didn’t work with all the magazines. Glass later testified that he should have said that he “offered” to work with the publications, and “by ‘offered’ to work, he meant through counsel.” The committee found this Glass explanation “disingenuous.”

The California bar also notes that Glass low-balled the number of fabricated articles in his New York bar application and then offered a larger estimate in his California application. It also noted that Glass profited from the scandal through the publication of the novel “The Fabulist,” for which he received a $190,000 advance. (As Shafer notes, the novel bombed; fewer than 5,000 out of 75,000 copies were sold.) Shafer quotes the bar committee:

The concept of Applicant profiting from his wrongdoing appears inconsistent with the notion of moral rehabilitation. Applicant could have, and the Committee believes should have, used the money to correct his wrongs, to pay back the victims of his lies, or to fund charitable programs benefiting the journalism profession, which he damaged so greatly.

But what really rankles Shafer is the effort by Glass to blame overly demanding parents for the pattern of deception in his early life, something first noted in Bissinger’s Vanity Fair profile and a more recent story posted at CNN. Shafer concludes:

Even if you’re supportive of Glass’s legal quest—as you might have guessed, I’m not—the unsealed documents sketch a cringeworthy picture of him. How many people would make the sort of confessions and excuses that Glass does in this case, just to gain admittance to the bar?

The key word in Shafer’s critique is “excuse”; he does not see in Glass a clear acceptance of responsibility. Yet Nocera says of Shafer’s conclusion: “To my mind, that’s a serious misreading of the testimony, in which Glass seems to go out of his way to not make excuses for what he did.” However, if you read the 160-plus comments to Nocera’s column, his readers overwhelmingly side with Shafer’s skepticism.

In Nocera’s column and the CNN profile, there’s no doubt about the sincerity of supporters for Glass; many have extended grace to him in remarkable and commendable ways. But the California bar’s concerns over how Glass has hedged about his past raise reasonable doubts because they echo his past tendency to cover one half-truth with another, and to do so in such a convincing manner that he could persuade even his greatest doubters.

The testimonials on behalf of Glass also echo another key observation by Bissinger, that Glass’s “nonstop yearning to please” others appeared to be “indisputably genuine.” It is difficult not to see suggestions of this trait in examples offered by those who support Glass. As Nocera notes:

People who know him tell me that he is “relentlessly honest.” Having once been a pathological liar, he now won’t tell even the tiniest of white lies.

This kind of comment sets off an alarm because, as Bissinger observed, Glass’s “eager-to-please” sincerity was central to his ability to cover his real conduct and true identity. The depth of his calculation was staggering, and this is why Nocera errs in characterizing Glass’s conduct as a mistake. We all makes mistakes, often in the form of innocent errors; this cannot be said of Glass. 

So we are left with this question: Is it ever possible for anyone to know who Stephen Glass really is? That’s exactly the question raised by the California bar.

Glass’s case raises perpetual questions about the nature of forgiveness. It is one thing to forgive Stephen Glass; it is another to give him the trust that comes with a license to practice law. One does not automatically lead to the other, as much as we love stories of redemption. In this case, I find myself torn. I do not wish ill upon Stephen Glass — and I want to avoid the cheap contempt of scorn offered from afar. But I cannot yet join Nocera in shaking off the doubts about Stephen Glass — though I’d love to be proved wrong.

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