The unliberated Christmas tree

I attended Brandeis University in the early 70s. For my freshman year, there was some controversy about the mass acceptance of “townies” – those from the same town of Waltham, MA – into the school. I knew of no one who applied who did NOT get accepted. It was hypothesized that the school wanted to make some amends for recent political stirrings on campus. Anti-war sentiments were very high at the school, and among the offshoots of those leanings came a group of students who robbed a Boston bank and killed a police officer. They intended to use the stolen $26,000 they gained to overthrow the US government.

I am very grateful for the blessing of attending the school; it was a great experience. It was agreed that I should live on campus, at least originally, and so I moved into a dorm room in September 1971. My roommate was Oliver, a gay Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn. Getting to know him and both communities he represented was a very rich part of my time at Brandeis.

Among the Latinos I befriended were many who had not just liberal, but radical politics. Hailing from some of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere, many of them had family or friends wiped out by those regimes. They were also largely anti-American, at least anti-American government (in that they were in the right school). They were uniformly poor people by US standards. Yet intelligent and good students. Many had lived in NYC, though some came from Latino communities in the south. They were almost all on hefty scholarships, which I thought and still think was great.

I remember one instance when the older brother of one of my friends came to visit the school. A strong anti-government, anti-establishment discussion was brewing and I recall his objection, saying “No! I love my boss. I have a good job and it pays for my family to eat and someday my children will go to a school like this and I will pay for it!” He was regaled by most as a traitor to his people and culture, though his point was made nonetheless.

Most of all, I remember the love.  They would address each other and speak of another in the third person as ‘dito Lydia, ‘dito Edwin.  It was short for “bendito” – blessed.  The closest thing to it in English would be “dear” or “dearest” which was and is so foreign to common speech as to invite skepticism or even ridicule.  But it was completely authentic – they meant it.  From the heart.  And then they started to call me ‘dito John.  It was so beautiful it made me cry.   I had taken Spanish in high school, so I knew a little of it.  But I never heard “simpatico” used in a sentence.  Though it sounds like “sympathetic” it is much more than that.  It’s love that condescends without shaming or belittling.  Today I would say it’s Jesus coming to earth and dying for us.

Part of their culture, part of their group mindset, held that stealing was okay. They reasoned that since everything good in life was out of reach financially, they were themselves the victims of theft, so “liberating” (code for stealing) goods was perfectly ethical. And they would have actual examples of being targeted by agents of “the system” that were perfect descriptions of corrupt government and policing. So, they would sometimes show me clothing they had left on while in the changing rooms at clothing stores, sneaking it out under their outer clothing. And they had other methods.

Since I was a townie with occasional means of transportation, I would act as chauffeur to my friends, though they would humor my gringo presence well enough. We loved each other; let’s be plain about that. I don’t remember whose idea it was – certainly not mine – that my family car would serve as a getaway vehicle for the liberating of a Christmas tree, but it somehow blossomed into a plan without my having much say in it.  The dorm had a need, and no one had the money so ..

I believe it was a Sunday night that we were to do the deed, and we pulled up to the unguarded lot where the trees were. Suddenly I was unanimously nominated to do the actual stealing. It was a moment of truth for me – a true double bind. I wanted these people to be my friends but come on, I’m no thief. Part of the latter conviction came from the grace of getting caught 100% of the times I had tried to steal as I grew up. And I didn’t share the same mentality about theft.

Image result for christmas tree lot

The Christmas tree remained unliberated.  And I guess I let them down.

My parents later revoked my rights to using the family station wagon to drive anyone around, another grace.

Given today’s biggest qualification – back then it didn’t matter to anyone – I have no idea as to their legal immigrant status at the time. Many were Puerto Rican and were certainly allowed to live in the US.

But I will say this. I loved and still love these people. Stealing is wrong, not because you might get caught. And if your politics justifies it, you need to adjust your politics.

Proverbs 6:30-31 Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.   Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.

That is, though there exist reasons that people might resort to theft, it is wrong.  Period.

As a result of knowing my friends in school, I do understand that mentality. They weren’t making up their stories of poverty. Nor were they trying to establish their culture or Spanish language over English. They were just struggling for an identity as a people – without shame and without stigma.

Much later I would learn about a theological branch called Liberation Theology.  Even in that, I would learn, there is imbalance and a hardened, corporate victim mentality.  The balance is that God does move on the hearts of people to help the poor.

Though I have lost touch with them all (that actually happened by senior year), in my little way, I was glad to give my friends my love. And I was glad I chickened out with that Christmas tree, because that was a small gift to them as well.

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Healing points

Acts 3:6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

Image result for peter john healing cripple

The story of the crippled beggar in Acts 3 is as historical as any we have from the era. There are those who deny the miraculous – usually until they need a miracle. And there are those assign such accounts to some hopefuls stuck in the first stage of grief – denial.  In other words, to them, the need for belief in miracle is a sign that one hasn’t accepted the reality of one’s suffering.

But that’s hardly the context of the story. There was no doubt that the man involved was crippled. He wasn’t expecting a miracle or asking for one, but only for money.  In a day when there was no social welfare, his disability relegated him to being a professional beggar for his subsistence. It was a low calling, and beggars were among the lowest caste in society. The same is largely true today.

So, when Peter and John told the man to walk and as he stood to his feet he was healed, it was more than a physical transformation to healthy legs. (As H. David Edwards once mused “he was asking for alms but received legs”). It was a raising of social standing, a redemption of soul and restoration of dignity to a human being long denigrated to shame.

When we encounter the crippled – and I widen the scope to include emotionally and mentally crippled – knowledge of the nature of transformation to health is vital if we are to use what we have been given to help. I hold as a given that miraculous healing powers are given in a similarly wide array of talents and gifts. That is to say, you who read this likely have gifts that perhaps you have never used. But that’s getting off subject.

I am by no means an expert healer. I don’t even know what that means. But I have learned that to really help people in all the ways this man was helped, there are some guidelines. Forewarning – some of this may sound unloving and uncaring. That’s because the ultimate health of someone is a strategic goal and tactics may in fact be confrontational and challenging:

  • Don’t decide to cripple yourself. Identifying with someone who is suffering establishes a connection to a degree. But adopting the attitudes and pathos of unhealth drags you down and leaves the person you want to help in the same straits where you found him/her. This is not a statement of considering yourself superior. Indeed, you will likely need help yourself if you haven’t already. But you must be true the goal of healing, not merely empathy.
  • Listen before you speak. It is an impersonal insult to classify someone by his/her maladies, even if they are easily categorized and treatment standardized to an extent. You are working with a human being who needs to be heard and understood. It’s required to establish trust.
  • RSVP “no thank you” to pity parties. A crippled person can become so attached to his/her role as victim that it is demanded that you buy into the lies they have told themselves about how they got to their current state. This tempers the “listen before you speak” directive just above. When someone tells their story, it is vital at some point to confront and correct their negativity. This may even cause them to shut down but that is better than letting the recitation of the reasons they got into and must remain in the broken state to define their very identity. Truly, self-pity is uniformly a trap to keep people down.
  • Silver and gold won’t often do anything but enable. To only throw material wealth into a life that is so broken only enables brokenness. Am I saying to not provide for someone’s needs? No. Only that someone who has never learned to balance a checkbook or understand priorities of where money should go is not going to learn by simply having money.
  • The healed should become healers. If there is restoration in a life, it is best to use that to invest in the lives of others. There is no better testimony to the cripple than “I have been there, done that, and here’s how I found my health”.

So yeah, all that. Peter and John saw instantaneous result from their action. That’s great when it happens. But you shouldn’t give up even though it takes time, prayer and sacrifice. You will see healing if you persist, even in your own life

Sovereign .. the riddle of evil allowed

God’s sovereignty is what we struggle to understand sometimes.

If we believe He’s almighty and powerful, then he had a chance to have little boy Adolph Hitler get run over by a train with a Jewish conductor – why instead did Hitler live to instill the horror he did? It’s an age-old philosophical riddle. So if they even believe there is a God, then people charge God – presuming He is complicit with those acts because

  1. He did not act, or alternately … that
  2. He is powerless to act in any case.

Those are the two conclusions that unbelievers really like because they’re safe and conform to human reason.  But spiritually, if God did what we thought He should, He’d be a genie.  And He’s not.

The God of the Bible is above human reason, His ways are higher than human ways and thoughts than human thoughts. It’s a slam-dunk to say the Holocaust was awful and should not have happened.  I mean really, it’s no mystery that it was unspeakably evil.

What good was accomplished by allowing the Holocaust?  Any list would sound silly in the wake of the destruction, but there could be such a list that God has kept.  And we haven’t seen its impact even today nor its intricacy nor its true context since we tend to only observe events as they affect people on the outside.

Surrender to a God who allows catastrophe in His eternal plan means to surrender OUR eternity to Him. That’s a huge decision and one that puts faith above logic, which can be very difficult for people who love logic (says me, the engineer).  But when the decision is made, the angels rejoice.

Evil is present and evil is the sovereign choice of humankind. It is not God’s choice, and it is a deluded fool who says s/he understands God’s purpose in allowing it.

But it’s also a fool who proclaims him/herself god and judge over all. We’re just not that good or that smart.

Body Politics

For a long time now I have been struggling to articulate my beliefs about the link between faith and politics.  Amid so many loud voice preaching political parties and all the trappings of that kind of affinity, saying anything against them (or it, really) is to be taken as siding with their enemy, the other guys.  On top of that, anything that derides the whole process and the institutions that it supports is taken advocacy of apathy, regressing into anarchy, its often violent party expression.

Historically, it is a slam-dunk that putting ecclesiastical persons into positions of great power is 100% disastrous.

This week I saw a Facebook sharing by a relative that was so inaccurate,even in its association of issues with parties, that I had somewhat of an epiphany – a Eureka! moment.  It has become clear to me that people like to fight in their ideologies.  That is, the combat of words and ideas, none of them original or even well thought-out, provides some level of personal significance when those ideas are advanced through successful voting.  And what is achieved is, in a word: control.

When the Moral Majority came into prominence I was a very young Christian.  As someone who was new to the faith, I listened intently to the scriptural arguments for their stances and actions and was without defense or alternative.  It all sounded right, and “right” is the way it leaned politically.  So that was what it meant to follow Jesus – think and vote like that.

I will not in this entry, even talk about agreeing with this or that stance on this or that issue; it’s completely irrelevant to the underlying error of the Church of Jesus Christ, because the goal in political striving is not the same as the goal of Jesus Christ.

I’m putting the finishing touches on a musical setting of The Beatitudes.  God willing, I will be recording a string quartet and a singer (or multiple singers) soon and posting the production on Youtube.  The lyrics all come from Matthew 5:3-12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they will be filled.  

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  

Blessed are the peacemakers,  for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven

It’s an amazing passage, full of endorsement of a life that is completely contrary to the systems of this world.  It defines the life of the life of the believer.  But one of the blesseds is this: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they will be filled.

Now, those who pursue political power will say they are pursuing righteousness, both right and left.  But both choose those issues that matter and choose their stance on those issues based upon their tribal beliefs and ideology.

I would say unequivocally that they are not pursuing righteousness first and foremost but control.  The reasoning they use is this “If we can elect officials who will make laws to govern the land then we will control the bad behavior of our political enemies, throwing them in jail if need be, to advance our cause.”

This is not hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  The difference between the two is that real Christian righteousness has people surrendering control to God.  That is fundamental.  And it starts with me, not you.  It does extend to you, even as (or before) I am anything resembling righteous, because it’s God’s work, not mine.  But it is independent of human power; we must get that right.

As Jesus told Pilate:

John 18:36  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 

What I am advocating is not an abandonment of political advocacy or activism, but a cleansing of the motives believers who are so drawn.  For example, we can’t just be against abortion, we need to help unwed mothers have and raise babies (and we are, praise God).   We can’t just be anti-anything without addressing the problems that led to it or result from it.  It’s messy but it’s what disciples are called to.

As for tribal conflicts we must redefine the battlefield or simply lose.  It’s not for the masses, it’s for the individual.  For the battle to belong to the Lord, we must hunger for people to come to Him, not just be conquered by our larger vote count.

The Drill Down Award – towards Root Cause

First of all, I need to thank God for the rich blessings in my life.  I am SO grateful to work for a company that can send me to Florida in the dead of winter AND grateful that Leah can meet me here as she has now (twice!).  Really, I never want to take that for granted; it’s just great and it’s from God, like all good things.

I try to pass blessings along; truly I almost think that’s my duty, but it’s one that I do with joy.

One way I do that is to give an award I call “The Drill Down Award”.  It’s a hand drill (which are getting hard to find) that I bestow upon engineers who have doggedly persisted in finding the hardest problems in our software.  These issues drag on for months (one of the pre-requisites for a “Drill Down” problem) with little or no additional evidence.  Slowly, the engineers make progress until that amazing breakthrough happens.  We have found that if you don’t give up, that it will happen.

We call the final victory in this resolution “finding the root cause”.

And the award is given for NOT GIVING UP.  I buy the drills at personal expense; the award is my idea but it has found its way into people’s annual reviews and .. maybe their resumes.

Now the spiritual part.

I don’t know that anyone ever told me the amount of persistent work it would be to get through my gunk in walking with God.  I guess I was taught a bunch of quick fix theology at the outset. Now, I may have more stuff to work through than most, but somehow I don’t think any of us in Christ, if we’re honest, escapes the conviction of passages like David’s here:

Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I usually find a BUNCH of anxious thoughts and offensive ways when I pray like this.  But I have learned to not let that discourage or condemn me.  No, I go for the Drill Down Award.  I realize this this can be hard work:

 Philippians 2:13-14 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

.. I mean, long, drawn-out work.  But it’s worth it; I daresay I’M worth it.  And so are you.

Towards that end, I am prayerfully starting a Pure Desire group at our church.  My own past, coupled with the shared lives of some men I know, have displayed again the rich rewards of persistent.  Yes, it deals with a specific problem and one that is either ignored as not  a problem or shamed as one not fit for discussion.

The various things people do to medicate themselves from their pain are legend. And those two responses are common across all addictive coping behavior.  Some eat.  Some do drugs. Some get angry a lot.

I encourage people to call their addictions what they are.  And I encourage people to work towards root cause.  I don’t know about you, but I want to go for the Drill Down Award.

The ogre God and the genie God – the problem of evil allowed

There are some common, not-so-new thoughts about God that have had a renaissance in recent days.  Perhaps they are more codified than ever given the nature of the atrocity at Sandy Hook.  The arguments that the victims had it coming are just not viable there.  I never thought they were viable concerning 9/11, but there were some loud voices who thought otherwise.

As I’ve read commentary and a bit of the blogosphere, the conclusions of the atheist/agnostic reasoners fall into two camps – a) those who say that God exists and that God is indescribably evil and b) those who say God does not exist.  And the argument is summed up in this “If God exists, how could s/he allow this kind of evil?” (allow the gender bender please, I’m trying to describe the arguments of unbelief in all their confusion).  For someone without a faith system, without any developed theology, this question begs, no, it screams to be answered.  It is of note that these people only want to hear from God when s/he could intervene in such tragedies, but such are their lives.

But, believer, how would you answer the question?

Here’s how I would answer it:

Human beings are given free will.  There are arguments for predestination; I’ll push them aside for a different day.

Given choice, what do people choose?  The answer is: all manner of thought, speech and activity – they choose to do stuff.  And that stuff runs the gamut from lofty altruism through rank selfishness through unmistakable evil.  If God were to intervene somewhere along that gamut, where would it be?  I’m sure most reasoners would say somewhere that includes stopping Adam Lanza from shooting his mom, then spraying first graders with bullets.  But if you say that God must stop evil, then you must define the evil that will be stopped.  And you can’t without becoming God.

See, to unmask the argument is to realize that people who won’t believe in a God who allows evil (their definition) want be God or at least to control God.  They want to prescript God’s actions.  They don’t want a God, they want a genie, an omnipotent vassal who answers (only) to them.  They can only accept an ogre or a genie.  A God who watches and weeps is either impotent or uncaring.

Or Almighty.

Evil festering and growing and destroying does not disprove the existence of God, it proves the existence of another being.  Yeah .. the devil.  That guy.  The twisted progression of emotional turmoil, sick thought and the action produced is constantly happening all around us, and if we’re honest, within us.  While we would cringe at doing anything like Mr. Lanza did, we’d slowly allow the destruction of our families through infidelity and divorce.  This is not to condemn anyone, just to show that the problem is not out there – it’s in us.

One of the attributes of the God of the Bible is that He is long-suffering.  He puts up with all kinds of evil for the eventuality of people coming to their senses and seeking good instead.  And He is good’s source; it’s His invention.

This does nothing to diminish the horror of what happened on 14 December 2012, but it is an offer of a view of the divine that is mature and complete, not what many reasoning-only people want.

And the related question of  “Where was God?” is answered simply: God was right there.  It is another aspect of the reasoning tribe’s world-view that death is the end of all things.  Of God is eternal and our lives are also eternal and they carry on after these bodies die, then the children of Sandy Hook went right into the arms of heaven.  It was worse for the bereaved, but comfort and peace will be theirs over time, just the way grief works.

We will all die.  Some will be murdered.  Some will die in combat.  Some, only after losing their minds to dementia or their bodies to wasting diseases.  Our aversion to death is the proclamation of eternity, we should learn to listen to it; it might help us clean up our act.

Bottom line: God allows evil so that evil might be redeemed and turned to good.  I’m enjoying that process and invite others along.