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Archive for the ‘Grace’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tossed About

U2 is celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Achtung Baby. When I first heard the album in 1991 it hit like a freight train, a jumble of new sounds and emotions that broke with all that U2 had created previously. It took a while for me to warm up to it, but now I see it as their greatest work (feel free to argue, Joshua Tree fans).

What sustains my interest is that, once you strip away the silly title and all the artifice, this is U2’s most human album, born of deep conflict that nearly ended the band. More than that, it is an album that mines the theme of contradictions, the gaps between our aspirations and our actions, the kinds that the members of U2 felt at that time – and the kinds that we tend to carry as we reach for God’s glory and stumble short of the mark.

In one song, “Acrobat,” U2’s Bono sings:

And I’d join the movement

If there was one I could believe in

Yeah I’d break bread and wine

If there was a church I could receive in

’Cos I need it now

To take the Cup

To fill it up

To drink it slow

I can’t let you go

I must be an acrobat

To talk like this

And act like that 

I appreciate this song because of its honesty and longing, expressed in real and concrete terms rather than abstract spiritual platitudes. Right here, Bono joins us in that space between the already and the not yet, the place where grace resides, the place where we live in anticipation of the completion of God’s work in us.

This is an honest place – where we can glimpse God’s light amid our own contradictions, where we can find comfort and transformation in the hands of a God whose grasp is always steady. We may act like acrobats, but God is the net beneath us – always ready to catch us.

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

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Recently, I heard a theology student from Zimbabwe share a story from her childhood school days.

One day her teacher was thrilled to inform the class of a new history book – a book on African history, their history. It would be expensive, and everyone would need to contribute in order to obtain it. But despite the cost the students gladly scraped together the funds. They had never had a chance to read such a book, and they hungered to hear their own story.

However, a few days later the teacher returned to class filled with sorrow. They would not be able to purchase the book. The school authorities determined that the book would be of no use for the students as they prepared for their eventual general exams. The reason: The exams only dealt with European history. Academically, therefore, African history had no value. So the class returned to its standard textbook on European history. Their own stories would have to wait for another time.

This account would be no surprise to theologian Emmanuel Katongole, who has asserted that European colonizers treated Africa as if it had no history. His recent book, “The Sacrifice of Africa,” is a devastating reflection on the lingering effects of colonization — and the loss of story – on the African continent.

In the case of this theology student, her account bears witness to what it means to grow up without a story to call her own. Stories tell us of our origins; they explain our life as it is now; and they fire our imagination about the future. To be left without a story is to be cut off from our roots, to feel displaced in the present, and to be left in doubt about our days to come.

We are blessed to know a God who has given us a story, who has acted in history before, during and after the arrival of the baby Jesus, our Lord incarnate. Moreover, we know a God who recognizes the stories in all of our lives – the joys, the heartbreaks, the hopes, the fears. We are all valued.

To know that we are all part of God’s story is a great comfort; it also suggests a responsibility. To what degree do we follow God’s example? To what degree do we open our lives to the stories of others in our midst? How many among us have a story to tell – but with no one to listen? How many opportunities to listen have I dared to miss? More than I can count, I’m afraid to say.

Advent is a season of waiting, of anticipation for light in the darkness. As we wait, may we rest in the comfort of God’s story – and may we open our eyes, ears and hearts to the stories of others, so that the grace given to us may be shared freely among all.

Note: A version of this post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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I first encountered John Stott some 40 years ago, when a Young Life leader gave me a copy of “Basic Christianity.” After reading of Stott’s death last night, I searched in vain for my copy of that book and the memories that it carried.

Like so many other Christians, I encountered Stott through that book and many others through the years. I learned a great deal about the foundations of the faith through him; I can recall devouring his discussion of the Sermon of the Mount in “Christian Counter-Culture,” even as the book’s title and text strained for post-1960′s relevance.

But it’s not Stott’s specific theological teachings that stayed with me the most through the years. What I remember above all else was the spirit of grace that animated his writing. Stott was a man of deep conviction and even deeper faith, but generosity and humility permeated his words. In this way, he led by example. David Brooks recognized this in a 2004 column about Stott:

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott’s mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

I am less confident than Brooks that evangelicals and their leaders have truly emulated Stott, especially as I see all the self-inflicted wounds of the culture wars. It certainly grieved Stott to see how Christians could turn on one another, which spurred him to write an essay titled “Balanced Christianity”:

One of the greatest weaknesses which we Christians (especially evangelical Christians) display is our tendency to extremism or imbalance. … My conviction is that we should love balance as much as the devil hates it and seek to promote it as vigorously as he seeks to destroy it.

Stott penned those words in 1975, but his warning feels no less relevant for Christians who now occupy the public sphere in these oh-so-unbalanced times.

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In each of our lives, grace tries to intrude continually, attempting to shape our story into an infinitesimal but uniquely valuable part of God’s story. God can certainly do very well without any one of us. That’s a message the Reformed heritage has proclaimed with vigor. But God also delights in each one of us.

When we ask what to do about Jesus, we are invited into an inner, transformative journey that allows the unique combination of DNA that shapes our being to be joined with the foundational movement of God’s love. This seeks to shape the world into the home of God’s glory. And for any one of us, that is a story worth telling.

– Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Rediscovering Jesus,” from Unexpected Destinations

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Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He has worked for The Washington Post. Nearly a year ago he published a much-discussed profile of Mark Zuckerberg in The New Yorker. And in a story posted earlier this week and published in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, he shares perhaps his most significant story – his own.

Since age 12 Vargas has lived in the United States illegally.

His story is both a confessional and a challenge. It is confessional in that he unburdens himself of guilt from the lies he found necessary to maintain his life in the United States. At the same time Vargas poses a challenge, one he states most directly in his video: What would you do if you knew someone like Vargas? And chances are, many of us do — even if we don’t realize it. Vargas writes:

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read. I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

Vargas tells of how many people, when learning of his undocumented status, extended grace to him. A California DMV worker, whispering to him that his Green Card was fake and telling him not to return; a high school music teacher who changed an overseas trip to visit to Hawaii in order to avoid passport problems. This list goes on — people who made a choice to see Vargas as more than one of “them.”

I realize, however, that some would not see such acts as grace, but as assisting a law-breaker.

I don’t pretend to know the ideal legal solution on the question of immigration, though a chance for some sort of amnesty does not seem that outlandish — and a far cry better than the draconian and fear-driven attempts to crack down on “illegals.” At the same time, I do know of Scripture’s teachings to care for the stranger, and those teachings lead us in a direction very different from today’s polarized immigration debate.

With this story, and with the lauch of his website Define American, Vargas risks his own expulsion in order to make a case not just for himself, but for many others whose stories mirror his. He argues:

Our immigration system is broken — and fixing it requires a conversation that’s bigger and more effective than the one that we’ve become accustomed to.

Define American brings new voices into the immigration conversation, shining a light on a growing 21st century Underground Railroad: American citizens who are forced to fill in where our broken immigration system fails. From principals to pastors, these everyday immigrant allies are simply trying to do the right thing. Some are driven by a biblical call to social justice, while others believe this is a moral imperative. They, like Harriet Tubman and countless brave Americans before them, are willing to take personal risks in order to do what is right.  These heroes need to be the center of this national conversation.

I know people who would bristle in respons to such a statement. Heroes? Are you kidding? But Vargas’ story, and the challenge that accompanies it, is worth reading. The real question is: Do we have the courage hear it and ask: What does justice look like?

How we answer says a great deal about what it really means to be an American.

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