Archive for June, 2011

Over the past week I’ve been vacationing with family in the Midwest and Pennsylvania — a wedding, visits with relatives, seeing old haunts. Fortunately, the heat and humidity has been moderate (27 years in the low-humidity Northwest has softened me, I guess). Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are as flat as I remember. Turnpike rest stops are the same as always, no matter how “new” they seem to be. Western Pennsylvania is as  beautiful as ever; the rolling hills and lush forests always are a comforting sight — even for someone now accustomed to easy views of Puget Sound, mountain ranges and tall pines.

But now it’s time to start the journey back to Seattle, so time for blogging is sparse for the moment. I’ll be back on Saturday. Thanks for reading.

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Robin Kirk reviews, and laments, the Christian church’s complacent, and at times complicit, response to the use of torture in the war against terrorism. Most interesting to me were comments by evangelical scholar and ethicist David Gushee. Kirk writes:

Yet, Gushee acknowledged, convincing ministers to approach their flocks to oppose torture is challenging, even with young, committed seminary graduates. “Most graduates are trying to find jobs in churches, whose membership is declining,” he said. “No one wants to offend their congregants about irritating issues like torture.”

Some Christians would draw the line between torture, which they see as a political issue, and faith. Gushee said that when he gave a talk at a Baptist church, one attendee accused him of bringing “leftist politics” into the church. “Even the growing churches aren’t interested in these conversations,” Gushee reported. “They don’t want to mess up a good thing and don’t think it is a part of their agenda, which is one of personal growth and finding your best life now.”

Francis Schaeffer, so often cited as a significant influence on today’s evangelical movement, often warned of Americans’ pursuit of “personal peace and affluence.” But Christians, who he envisioned as countercultural force, all too often swoon to the siren’s call of affluence — so much that we fall deaf to evil of torture and its corrosive effect on our corporate soul.

Personal peace? Perhaps, but it’s a peace hollowed out from within by the embrace of torture. As a nation, this is a truth that we have not been willing to face. I pray that one day we can find the courage to do so.

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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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Earlier  this month I savored a second chance to take in U2’s 360 tour, this time at Seattle’s Qwest Field (the first time was in Vancouver, B.C., in October 2009). After one of the coldest, cloudiest and rainiest springs in memory, the skies above the Emerald City finally cleared and the temperatures soared to the mid-70’s. With grand views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, all accented by a brilliant sunset, we couldn’t have asked for a better night.

What I saw, for a second time, was a brilliant performance hampered by spotty, muddy sound. Others I know who attended noted the same, though Charles Cross called the show “a magnificent night of music” in his Seattle Times review. I wonder: Just where he was sitting? (The Times, by the way, offered a nice photo gallery.)

More significantly, with a third of the set list changed  from the first go-around, along with many alterations in video, the character of show changed significantly. Rolling Stone recently called this leg of the tour a victory lap, and that’s about right.

Until this tour one of U2′ defining traits was that, as the New Yorker noted in early 2009, it was “an old band whose new songs get the most applause.” Though they’ve been recording and touring for more than 30 years now, a new U2 album remained an event. How many other bands have been able to say that?

But 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon” never won the embrace of fans, and the changes in the set list most notably de-emphasized that album. Gone were “Breathe,” “Unknown Caller” and  “No Line on the Horizon.” I can understand the change: In the Vancouver show, these songs never generated a response that matched the cheers for the older songs.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Adam Clayton acknowledged as much:

We would like to be playing more of the material from the album. It got great reviews. There’s great material on the record, but there’s no point banging away songs to people who don’t get it. It didn’t catch fire. It’s old news now. The single didn’t work, and when the single doesn’t work people don’t have a way into the record.  

I assume that “the single” Clayton is referring to “Get On Your Boots,” which remains in the show but really isn’t a high point either. So, beyond the show’s incredible visuals, what made the revamped U2 360 memorable? Memories themselves.

Without “No Line on the Horizon” as an anchor, the band turned toward nostalgia. Rather than look forward, U2 paused to look back.  The set list contained at least one song from each U2 album, which led to nice glimpses at rarely performed tunes: “Scarlet,” “Zooropa” and “Miss Sarajevo” stood out.

Moreover, the video emphasized the show’s nostalgic turn: When songs from “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” made their appearance the band displayed footage from photo shoots for both albums. You had the lads tooling around the desert in the late 1980s or in Berlin in the early 1990s. It was cute in an old home-movie sort of way.

Still, it’s not the best of signs when a band looks back rather than forward. Artists only have so many ideas, and U2 already has defied the odds with their longevity. Clayton and his band mates talk of having substantial amounts of new material to work on for a new album, but it’s an open question if their new material will find fresh ways to inspire.

I’m rooting for them, for it is difficult to imagine U2 becoming a perpetual nostalgia act like Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones. But it feels like the band has reached a creative crossroads. How much inspiration do they have left? It’s an open question.

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Time to post remains tight as my family hits the road again for a wedding and visit with family back East.

Still, I cannot not resist highlighting the story of  Rai Bhuiyan, an Arab American who was shot in the face 10 years ago by Mark Stroman, who when on a murderous spree against Arabs in the wake of 9/11 — and is now scheduled for execution in Texas on July 20.

Bhuiyan is the only victim who has survived, and he spoke on his journey recently at Southern Methodist University, calling for Stroman’s sentence to be commuted to life:

My mother taught me that if people hurt you, don’t hurt them back. Today or tomorrow, they will ask for forgiveness. …

The story on his talk adds:

“I strongly believe he was ignorant,” Bhuiyan explained to the audience. “He couldn’t differentiate right from wrong…By executing him now, we are losing everything.” His Muslim faith, he said, teaches forgiveness, not vengeance.

Nadeem Akthar, the brother-in-law of another of Stroman’s victims, Hasan, spoke at the press conference as well. “The last 10 years have been a long 10 years,” he told the audience. “We’ve been going through a lot of turmoil…but we made it here.” He quoted Sura 5, verse 32 from the Quran, something he said his sister, Hasan’s wife, had wanted him to share. “If someone slays one person, he has slain mankind entirely,” reads the verse. “And if someone has saved one person, he has saved mankind entirely.”

“We forgive him,” Akthar concluded. “God forgive him.”

I wonder: How many Christians are willing to do the same?

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I didn’t mean to disappear for so long, but this spring has been a heavy one in terms of teaching and family commitments, especially this month as my kids finished their school year and the avalanche of year-end events descended on us. I simply had to decide that other matters took priority for a while, even as I kept notes on ideas for posts. Now that I’ve submitted my final grades (just a few hours ago), I might be able to do some writing.

My household is hardly alone in this frantic season; other parents we know have that dazed “where do we go next?” look on their faces. While this past month alone has brought much that is wonderful — my son’s birthday, U2’s show at Qwest Field, two weddings halfway across the country on separate weekends,  my daughter’s dance recital and my son’s successful test for a black belt in Tae Kwon Do — it does bring me back to those concerns about the overscheduled life and the search for a few moments of quiet (much less a real Sabbath).

So much the contemplative (?) life of an academic. Still, in light of so much disarray in this world, I will count my blessings — and then some.

In the meantime, many thanks to those of you who took some time out of your busy days to glance at this blog while I’ve been away on this unplanned break. There will be some new posts soon (honest) as I resume (or restore) my blogging routine.

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