Archive for March, 2011

Christians in other parts of the world, especially those experiencing direct persecution or hardship, generally have a heightened sense of their need and dependence on God. Following Christ is tremendously costly. It can mean expulsion from one’s home and community or imprisonment, torture, rape or death.

Not so in suburbia, where our spiritual awareness is often blunted by our general sense of safety and comfort. In a religiously pluralistic context where freedom of religion is the law of the land, Christians tend not to experience overt persecution and opposition. The threats to suburban Christians are far more subtle: materialism, secularism and the temptation to live as if God does not exist. …

We suburban Christians must resist the lie that comfort and painless existence are the ultimate ideals. Our goal is not a life without pain, though we may do what we can to alleviate others’ suffering. Our call is to live a life of faithful witness even in the midst of difficulty, pain and suffering.

— Albert Hsu, The Suburban Christian

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How many hours does one have to spend at YouTube to find all the clips in this video — and then be able to hear how they all might mesh together into something original?

More time than I have, that’s for sure. But as a short break from grading final exams, reading papers, and preparing for Spring Quarter, this clip does just fine.

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Considering I am critical of most Christian music, it’s only fair to note that Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields” is a welcome exception, a gentle and moving departure from the power ballads that dominate Christian radio.

Peterson’s song is a quiet meditation on the challenges of marriage, recognizing the mysterious, enduring power of love:

Well I was 19, you were 21
The year we got engaged
Everyone said we were much too young
But we did it anyway
We got the rings for 40 each from a pawnshop down the road
We said our vows and took the leap now 15 years ago

We went dancing in the minefields
We went sailing in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for

The song’s emotional heft arises from the restraint of Peterson’s vocals, the simplicity of its arrangement, and its grasp of love as more than sentimental fluff (though the video is more sentimental than the song itself). Love is hard. Love is humbling — oh so humbling. It is difficult, and the work never ends:

Well “I do” are the two most famous last words
The beginning of the end
But to lose your life for another I’ve heard is a good place to begin
‘Cause the only way to find your life is to lay your own life down
And I believe it’s an easy price for the life that we have found

There’s honesty here, a recognition of our ongoing challenges amid our perpetual hopes for the future — our sense of living in the already and not yet. The space where grace resides. Though Peterson does not use the word covenant, it is that understanding of love as a promise — a covenant — that permeates the song. Such a promise is an anchor when all else is coming apart, and it is a beacon that shows the way through the minefields of love. Yes, there are wounds along the way, but the journey is worth the risk: 

So when I lose my way, find me
When I lose love’s chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith to the end of all my days
when I forget my name, remind me

‘Cause we bear the light of the Son of man
So there’s nothing left to fear
So I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
‘Cause He promised not to leave us
And his promises are true
So in the face of this chaos baby,
I can dance with you

So let’s go dancing in the minefields
Lets go sailing in the storms
Oh, let’s go dancing in the minefields
And kicking down the doors
Oh, let’s go dancing in the minefields
And sailing in the storms
Oh, this is harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for
That’s what the promise is for

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Many words, such as care and compassion, understanding and forgiveness, fellowship and community, have been used for the healing task of the Christian minister. I like to use the word hospitality, not only because it has such deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also, and primarily, because it gives us more insight into the nature of response to the human condition of loneliness.

Hospitality is the virtue which allows us to break through the narrowness of our own fears and to open our houses to the stranger, with the intuition that salvation comes to us in the form of a tired traveler. Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes closed-minded sectarians into interested recipients of new ideas and insights. …

When loneliness is among the chief wounds of the minister, hospitality can convert that wound into a source of healing. Concentration prevents the minister from burdening others with his pain and allows him to accept his wounds as helpful teachers of his own and his neighbor’s condition. Community arises where the sharing of pain takes  place, not as a stifling form of self-complaint, but as a recognition of God’s saving promises.

— Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

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Source: Center for American Progress

In recent weeks, as I watched the tango between the Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget, I realized that the words “compassionate conservatism” had long disappeared from the conservative discourse over fiscal priorities. When I first saw the chart at the top of this post that realization only deepened.

In that context, turn back to just after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, when Bush speechwriter-turned-pundit Michael Gerson penned a defense for compassionate conservatism — replying to criticism from other conservatives, who argued that the term was both redundant and condescending to other brands of conservatism. Gerson replied:

… not “every” conservatism has shown an equal concern for the “condition of the people.” Not the slaveholding conservatism of John C. Calhoun, which somehow found torture, rape and stolen labor to be a defensible part of the natural order. Not the isolationist conservatism before World War II that would have left Britain to face evil alone. Not the segregationist conservatism that defended the tradition of humiliating your neighbor. Such “conservatisms” merit hostility.

More recently (and in an entirely different league of moral offensiveness), there is also the Republican libertarianism of former representative Dick Armey, who once declared Medicare “a program I would have no part of in a free world.” And of fiscal conservatives who proposed to delay the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or eliminate the president’s global AIDS initiative, as an offset for spending on Hurricane Katrina relief.

Sometimes there is nothing more useful than a strong adjective in the drawing of essential distinctions — and “compassionate” will do for now.

Gerson later concludes:

Instead of being a “romantic cult,” compassionate conservatism is often motivated by an ancient orthodoxy: that God is somehow found especially incarnate in the poor, suffering and weak. Instead of being a “sentiment,” it is a conviction: that government can be a noble enterprise when it applies creative conservative and free-market ideas to the task of helping those in need.

This, of course, implies a critique of traditional or libertarian conservatism. Tradition often contains stores of hidden wisdom — but in the absence of moral vision, it can become warped and oppressive. The free market is the best way to distribute goods and services — but its triumph is not always identical to justice. Conservatism is essential — and incomplete.

The moral commitments that underlie compassionate conservatism will not fade with the passing of a political figure, party or ideology, because these beliefs stand in eternal judgment of all ideologies, including conservatism. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot bury what cannot die.

I have no doubt that there remain Christians who stand with Gerson and believe in that moral vision for compassionate conservatism — and try to practice it as well. But when it comes to our national debate, its voice is buried to the point of being dead.

Rather, the harsh libertarianism that Gerson decried — mixed with power of lobbies for Wall Street and other sectors of wealth — leave both the voiceless and the shrinking middle class on the outside as the opportunities to climb for the American Dream shrink.

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Today the threat to safety posed by Japan’s nuclear power plant rose to 5 on a scale to 7 — equal to that of the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Much like the Japanese government at this time, U.S. and Pennsylvania state officials tried to keep the public calm by minimizing the risk posed by the reactor problems. At that time, I lived in State College (i.e., Penn State-ville), less than 100 miles to the northwest of Three Mile Island.

I remember that we all followed Three Mile Island story with more than passing interest, but otherwise life continued as usual. Then “The China Syndrome” arrived in local theaters, and we all crowded into the theaters to see it.

There was a moment in the movie when one character in the film explained to Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas what would happen if the nuclear reactor in the film suffered a meltdown — that it would take out an area the “size of Pennsylvania.”

At that moment the theater erupted in laughter, an unintentionally funny moment that the film’s creators never anticipated. But behind the laughter was a nervous gasp. We all were well within the danger zone.

When you see the scale of damage at the Japanese plant (watch this stunning helicopter footage), you realize the challenges faced by those trying to tame the reactors far surpasses anything at Three Mile Island. Considering the size of the nearby population and the risk for long-term damage to the environment, we can only pray that the workers succeed.

An earthquake is bad enough; a tsunami even worse. But those uncontrollable acts of nature may pale in comparison to havoc wrought by forces that humanity has unleashed upon itself.

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Love does not operate according to the rules of power, and it can never be forced. In that fact we can glimpse the thread of reason behind God’s use (or non-use) of power.

He is interested in only one thing from us: our love. That is why he created us. And no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve that, only his ultimate emptying to join us and then die for us. Herein is love.

— Philip Yancey, I Was Just Wondering

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