Archive for the ‘Personal Reflections’ Category

This spring, three times a week I have walked through the lobby of Otto Miller Hall, going to and from my course in Communication Ethics — usually consumed in thought about class and oblivious to the presence of those students who serve as safety monitors.

Today, that space is a crime scene.

And today my emotions are this peculiar mix of sorrow and relief — sorrow for the loss of life, sorrow for those injured, sorrow for the way violence has displayed its relentless force here at SPU. But I also feel relief because of the quick action of a student monitor and others, who stopped a terrible situation from becoming much, much worse. And as I look back at these past two sentences, I am acutely aware of how inadequate any words are right now.

For that reason, the most powerful moment in Thursday night’s prayer service started with notes of music. During a period of silent prayer, musicians began playing Gungor’s song “Beautiful Things.” As the musicians began the chorus, without any cue or direction, students began to sing. Their voices were soft, starting like a murmur and gaining strength as more joined in. Once the prayer ended, the lyrics appeared on the screen and the mix of music and voice swelled into a crescendo that was at once mournful and gorgeous.

“Beautiful Things” was a good choice because it sways back and forth between lament and hope. Earlier in the service, my colleague Frank Spina touched on the importance of lament — that we cannot skip or bypass it; we must reckon with it, express it. To do otherwise, to rush forward to the usual words of hope, he said, is to reduce that hope to a cliché.

Before the hope of Psalm 23, he reminded us, is Psalm 22, an expression of desolate lament. After Spina finished his comments, we listened to both of those Psalms and heard them in a way that was not possible before.

In my ethics course, I devote the final weeks to examining the concept of reconciliation. I use the book “Reconciling All Things,” which also stresses the importance of lament: It is a crying out toward God, the authors say, a practice that is necessary in order to find genuine hope. And in recent weeks, the students have explored lament through various stories, ranging from those of 9/11 widows to Jesmyn Ward’s memoir “Men We Reaped” to the documentary “The Interrupters,” which examines efforts to combat gun violence in Chicago.

By using stories, it is my hope that students can see how abstract concepts are lived out in concrete, real-life situations. While these stories are intense, we still examine them at a safe distance, in a classroom.

On Thursday, that distance collapsed. Please pray that we have the courage to lament honestly, so that we may hope fully.

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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. 

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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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This blog has been quiet since summer, something I didn’t intend at the time, but the past few months became something of an enforced sabbatical from posting. By enforced, I mean the priorities of work this fall left little room for blogging.

Of course, when you are a professor many of those demands from work are self-imposed: In this case, in addition to my regular teaching load I also resumed the role of student and enrolled in a theology class in the graduate program at SPU’s School of Theology. The course explored theological ethics, the doctrine of the Trinity and environmental issues. And yes, those themes all fit together quite nicely. It also meant reading six books in 10 weeks, writing assignments, papers and a take-home final exam. As my wife said to me at the outset, “So, you’re not busy enough already?” As always, she was right.

So, if something had to go, it was blogging — for at least a time. Through the fall, I’ve been stockpiling ideas and thoughts for posts, and I hope to be rolling them out in the weeks to come. I will be cautious not to promise too much this time as I try to re-establish my routine. But I do want to say thanks so much to those of you who have visited the blog during this quiet time — I expected the traffic to drop to zero and that hasn’t been the case. I don’t ever want to take it for granted when people take a few minutes to look at a little blog such as this, so I’m grateful for the readership.

I’ll start with a few posts that I was asked to contribute, beginning today, to my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices. Today’s post reflects on a moment from my theology class — it felt like an appropriate place to start. After Christmas, I’ll start working on those items that have been piling up throughout the fall. 

Once again, thanks for visiting.

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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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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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I know my postings have been sporadic as of late, symptomatic of a hectic time of year in which we transition from one quarter to the next at breakneck speed — what was that notion of the tranquil, contemplative life of the academic? I seemed to have missed it.

Nonetheless, thanks to those who have stopped by and sampled the scribblings and musings at this little blog. I hope to resume a more regular schedule of postings soon. In the meantime, I am grateful for your visits.

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