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Grace and truth

February 17, 2016 1 comment

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I recognize that there is some inherent danger in writing about stuff like this on the internet. I have no formal theological training; I only know what I think I know. I’m just a lawyer with a curious mind who happens to have a checkered history with Christianity.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I think better with my fingers on keys. (Mostly because I can’t read my own handwriting.) To that end this entire site is a peek into my cobwebbed confusion as I try and make sense of what I read in the Bible, what I believe God is revealing to me in my mind, and what I perceive as I look at my religion’s history. I realize that I’m deeply conflicted with my faith, and that my relationship with God is frankly, complicated.

I will also confess that some of my hope is to reveal a side of Christianity that the world doesn’t always see. I hope that some of these thoughts will sow seeds that may someday germinate in a mind that has otherwise not found much use with Jesus.

Balancing “grace” with “truth”

I am fortunate enough to be connected with a great church and some amazing guys I get to explore life with. We meet each week off the highway in Conifer, Colorado and we explore what God seeks to tell his followers though the book we call the Bible. Hopefully we are iron sharpening iron, and not just a bunch of rocks bashing against each other.

On the menu this week is the tension between “demonstrating grace” and “revealing truth.” One of the guys posed the question of balance – How do we balance the demonstration of grace, mercy, and love against the instruction to correct others?

As a starting point, I believe that neither grace nor truth is ours to give. We can only demonstrate and extend the grace and truth that God has first extended to us. As a reinforcing point, all the scripture references I’ve come across deal with Christians correcting each other, not correcting or admonishing others. (See Titus 3:10, Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 1 Timothy 1:20, Romans 16:17, several others.)

Like everything in the Bible, these verses must always be read in the broader context in which they’re presented. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest. But read in their proper context these passages and many others speak to the Christian’s duty to correct and admonish other Christians – and only in love and mercy. They do not give Christians license to “lead with truth” and attempt to correct other people who do not first know Christ.

The model of Jesus: different standards for different audiences

If we look to Jesus as our model – and if we dare to call ourselves Christians, we have no other model – Jesus applied different standards to different audiences, depending on what they needed most.

To the Pharisees, the religious insiders, and the politically connected – those who thought they had religion all figured out and had solved God like a theological equation – Jesus led with truth. In fact, Jesus was “all truth, all the time.” We see this in the accounts of Jesus’s interactions with the Sanhedrin and with other Jewish leaders of the day. (See Matthew 12:24-37, calling them a “brood of vipers.” See also, Matthew 23, calling them – among other things – white-washed tombs, blind guides, blind fools, etc.) Jesus always saved his harshest words for the self-righteous who thought they already had it dialed.

But to those who knew they were broken, to those who knew they didn’t have it all figured out, Jesus led with grace. Consider the account of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Jesus did not condemn her, but interceded with grace for her and “truth” for those who would cast the first stone. Only after saving her life did he say “…go and sin no more.” This is a consistent pattern through Jesus’s ministry. Look up most accounts of miraculous healing or his intervention. You will find that in almost every circumstance he first gives the tangible thing the person needs before he says anything to admonish them toward truth. (And sometimes he just lets grace do the work anyway.)

This can be reinforced by a macro view of Jesus’s most popular public address, the “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5) Jesus leads off with

  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…
  • God blesses…

A total of nine times! He talks about letting our good deeds shine. He says that his followers are to be salt to give flavor and preservation to a bland world, and to be light shining in the darkness for all to see. Only after talking a lot of “grace” did he ever start talking much “truth.”

When Jesus spoke with people who would listen, grace was always the hook.

Truth cuts both ways

We must likewise lead with love and grace in all our interactions. We must let others know that we love them and that God has mercy and grace for them before we ever presume to give any dose of “truth.” If we ever allow our relationships to get so far as to genuinely and consistently demonstrate love, only then can we presume to have permission to correct or admonish. And if we dare go that far, any admonition must be bathed in mercy and love, not in fire and brimstone.

Underpinning all this is the sense that any opportunity to admonish must first be rooted in a genuine loving relationship. It can’t be lip service, and it can’t be contrived. And it is only genuine if it is consistently demonstrated time, time, and time again.

We also have to be willing to receive admonition in return. As the Sermon on the Mount continues in Matthew 7, we must first carefully examine our own lives and correct ourselves before we ever presume to point out a flaw in someone else. If we dare to correct another person, not only must we do it in love (see Matthew 15:11 (we are defiled by the words that come out of our mouths); Romans 14), we must also expect that we will be judged by the same standard we use to judge others. (Matthew 7:2)

The trouble is, “truth” is alluring; grace feels too easy. Dosing out truth gives us the ability to take our critical attention away from ourselves and focus it on someone else. By saying, “Well, at least I don’t do THAT!” we turn away from the work God would have us do in our own lives. Not only do we alienate ourselves from the other person, we turn our backs on the improvement God wants to do to us and we drive the wedge even deeper between the other and God.

At this point in my life I have so many flaws to work on that I can’t afford to give anything but grace. That’s what I want for myself, so that’s what I try and give. Perhaps someone who has it more put together can get away with dishing out “truth” and admonition, but I am not there yet.

 

 

Ripple effect: reflecting complete love

January 21, 2016 1 comment

Water drop(photo credit: Ashten McClintock)

The more I dig in on Romans the more it digs in on me. For anyone who can stumble through my first few lines as I try and get this post on track, I think it will tie together at the end. But I couldn’t think of any way to get this idea up to cruising altitude but to go full throttle and pull the stick back.

When we only love people who are nice to us and who love us back, we’re only demonstrating half of the love of God. Only when we demonstrate genuine love for those who don’t love us are we able to reflect the kind of love God demonstrated to humanity. THAT kind of love is what is supposed to make Jesus followers different.

The love of God that Paul discusses in Romans 5 is the love that restored humanity to peace with God through one single act – the sacrifice of Jesus. By contrasting the essential sinful nature of us all through the story of Adam (see Genesis 3), Paul shows us the power of a single act, whether that act is bad or good. Not to diminish the salvation story Paul is specifically emphasizing, the contrast also shows the profound, unforeseeable ripple effects our actions can have.

As Paul transitions through the story of God’s love for Israel, the demolition (or more correctly stated, the fulfillment) of the law and newfound salvation through grace, and the extension of his grace to nonJews (see Romans 6-11), Paul now encourages those who want to follow Jesus to reflect God’s love in our relationships with others.

From the New Living Translation:

[9-10] Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

…[13] When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

With a quick read, this seems easy enough. After all, it’s fairly easy to show love to those who are like us. If people are nice to us, generally share our same beliefs, etc. then being hospitable isn’t too tall an order.

But before we read further, we have to consider whether hospitality equals “love.” We can be hospitable to people without really loving them; we can be polite, kind, friendly… But love clearly requires something more. We’re told that the love we should demonstrate is rooted in “genuine affection”, which requires truly caring deeply for the other person. There is also a measure of self-sacrifice required as we honor each other and put the needs of others above our own needs.

A quick side note:

I think that in too many circumstances, we get self-righteous and perhaps misread this section. Note that Paul says to hate WHAT is wrong. He does not say “Hate people who do wrong things.” Perhaps this is the origin of the classic evangelical meme: “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” But that becomes a copout we often use to dehumanize people and see them not for their humanity as a reflection of God’s image. We use that as an excuse to make people’s actions define them, when that is clearly not what Jesus taught nor what Paul writes about.

Paul’s instruction comes on the heels of his teaching that God offered salvation to the Gentiles in order to make the Jews jealous. (Don’t believe me? Go read Romans 11. See previous discussion, linked here.) It’s no accident that Paul first laid the groundwork to demonstrate God’s love before teaching us how we should love. Our love should be a reflection of the kind of love God showed to humanity. God demonstrated love to those who loved him – the Jews – by sending Jesus through the line of Hebrew King David to be raised and trained as a Jew, to become a Jewish rabbi, to challenge the Jewish leadership, and to be crucified as a sacrifice in complete fulfillment of God’s original covenant with Abraham. (It doesn’t get more Jewish than that!)

But God also demonstrated his love to those who did not love him – the Gentiles, who were completely shut off from relationship with God. The Gentiles (used in the Bible to mean everyone who is not a Jew) had never before been entitled to God’s mercy and love. But in demonstrating the fullness of love and mercy, God provided a path of reconciliation for those who previously had been hopeless.

And so as Paul continues in verses 14-21: (Note, I’m cherry-picking a little, but the skipped verses are also relevant.)

[14] Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them…

[16a] Live in harmony with each other…

[17-18] Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

On the heels of Paul’s good news that reconciliation with God is a gift for everyone, he teaches us that to demonstrate God’s love fully is to love people who don’t love us at least as much as those who do love us. When we only love people who are nice to us and who love us back, we’re only demonstrating half of the love of God. As Jesus (remember the rabbi?) taught on the Sermon on the Mount,

You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good…

If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?…

If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?… (From Matthew 5:44)

So only when we demonstrate genuine love for those who don’t love us are we able to reflect the kind of love God demonstrated to humanity. THAT kind of love is what is supposed to make Jesus followers different.

I’ll be the first to confess that I am TERRIBLE at this. Far too often I find myself pretending to sit in judgment over others whom I perceive are different from me and who don’t live up to MY standards. (Oh, the sweet, acrid smell of hypocrisy!) I justify being a jerk to them because I perceived they were a jerk to me. Or I justify hating people from other religions as a means of self-defense. That is not the way of Paul’s teaching. That is not the way of Jesus.

That does not mean that all perspectives are created equally, or that all belief systems are equally valid. What that does mean is that every human that has ever walked the planet is an image-bearer of God, and that as a person who claims to follow Jesus, I should love them all and show mercy to all.

 

Christianity and Jewishness

January 6, 2016 1 comment

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I have struggled with whether or not it would be appropriate – or more accurately stated, appropriately received – for me to write about an issue that has been on my mind a lot in recent years. It’s a potentially inflaming issue, though I don’t believe it should be. Rather, I think it’s a unifying idea that might begin to bridge an unfortunate multi-generational gap between Jews and Christians.

So here goes…

I meet almost weekly with a group of guys I go to church with. While part of it is unapologetically frivolous, most of our time is spent in deep conversation trying to reach a better understanding of God, his mission to humanity, and the Bible, which we believe is the divinely-inspired story of God and humanity’s reconciliation to him.

As an aside: I ask that any who stumble across this page who may not share that conviction please put aside any postmodern skepticism you may have as to that particular point. There are other issues at work here that will be overlooked if you hang up on that. I do not claim to be an expert apologist to extol the historicity of the Bible, though I believe it is far more historically supported than any other sacred text. At some point faith in anything – even in atheism – requires that one transcend that which can be irrefutably proven according to modern scientific or rhetorical methods. 

That is not to say that Christians (or Bahai, or Muslims, Jews, or other religious adherents) should suspend rational thought and blindly accept what their clergy say. Furthermore, intellectual integrity requires that we test what we believe against common sense – however flawed that sense may be – the weight of history and science, and yes, sacred texts that have been handed down through millennia. But with all religions, philosophies, and scientific theories, a measure of “faith” is required when we cannot perfectly prove that which we believe to be true.

But I have digressed…

During the past many months our discussion group has focused on Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (canonized in the New Testament as the book of Romans). I’ll spend time in future writings focusing on other issues in Romans because it’s a very meaty letter. In fact, much of the Christian perspective of salvation through grace is articulated there, and frankly, I think that most of us Christians get it wrong most of the time.

The issue I want to explore here deals with God’s offer to extend grace and reconciliation to us “Gentiles” as Paul discusses in Romans 11. I believe that for many generations less enlightened Christians have believed that God turned his back on his chosen nation of Israel when the Jewish leaders in the ancient Roman empire rejected Jesus as the messiah of Israel and persuaded Rome to have Jesus executed. Many Christians have taken that whole transaction to mean that God no longer “chooses” Israel and that the Jews are no longer his chosen people.

A plain reading of Romans 11 should put this argument to rest. The most prolific author of the New Testament goes to great lengths to establish that instead of turning away from the Jews, God used Israel’s rejection of Jesus as an opportunity to expand his grace and reconciliation beyond the Hebrews to the non-Semitic world. As Paul writes in verses 11 and 15,

[11] “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves.”

[continuing to v. 15] “…since their rejection (of Jesus as messiah) meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance (someday, for those who choose to believe) will be even more wonderful.” (New Living Translation)

(Note: I believe my parenthetical additions in v. 15 are consistent with the context of Romans.)

Paul goes on to discuss the roots of God’s original covenant with Abraham, referring to the Jews as the original branches of Abraham’s “tree.” He extends the metaphor to explain that, although they were original children of God’s covenant with Abraham, God broke off branches from that tree and grafted in a different type of tree to be part of Abraham’s blessing. (See vv. 17-18) It is this act of grafting in those of us who are not Jews that provides God’s favor through our faith in Jesus. Paul reminds us not to become haughty or take this for granted, because we remain foreign additions to the chosen people of God. (vv. 19-21) It is only by his sovereign mercy that any of us ever came to faith in Jesus, covered by his grace and free from the law. (Go read Romans 6-8)

And so here is how I have come to reconcile the story of the Jews, Jesus, and the Gentiles:

Just as God was willing to sacrifice his own son Jesus to deliver the Jews from the overwhelming and impossible burden of keeping the law, so too did God willingly sacrifice his chosen people of Israel to make a way for salvation to the rest of humanity. And just as God restored Jesus to glory as the risen Christ, so too will God restore his favor to people of his original covenant as they are humbled to accept the free gift of grace that was originally intended for them.

Paul – who after all, was a Jewish rabbi and a member of the council who actively executed first century Christians – wants the Jews to see that faith in Christ is deliverance from the law, not a call to reject their Jewishness. In fact, Paul explains that faith in Jesus is the ultimate completion of Jewishness. At its core, it seems that being Jewish is about being set apart and in covenant with God. Because this was impossible through keeping “the law”, God made it possible through grace.

Following Jesus does not require a Jew to become un-Jewish. To the contrary, it is the very fulfillment of Jewishness. It simply requires that the Jew – and by God’s grace, us “Gentiles” – acknowledge through faith that Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf.

I’m sure this is imperfect and full of logical, rhetorical, and theological holes that I’m not seeing. After all, I’m not clergy and am not trained in this stuff. I’m curious, I read a lot, and I like to ponder stuff like this over a few fingers of good bourbon.

If faith were easy, there would be no reason for thousands of years of argument, wars, scholarship, rhetoric, and countless faiths and sects all trying to figure this stuff out.

Happy New Year…and finally another post.

January 4, 2016 Leave a comment

IMG_7277Well over a year has gone by since my last post. Since my mom’s death almost two years ago I generally lost my passion for writing on nonacademic matters. I do a lot of writing on legal topics to complement the legal education I provide as my day job, but my recreational writing has all but withered since my #1 fan died in spring 2014.

It isn’t my intent to write about anything, and it really isn’t my intent to write about nothing. Above all, writing is a form of thinking for me. My wife and kids believe my handwriting represents a novel form of hieroglyphics, so I have chosen to type my thinking. Every once in a while I think I have an idea good enough to share, and so I chose to open my writings to the universe for all to see, critique, or ignore.

I also have amazing friends and family scattered many miles from me, and so my writing is a means by which I can share current events, stuff I or we are doing that they may find interesting, and to try and bridge the miles and years that go by without face to face time.

I also think that writing helps to sort a scattered mind. I suppose that in the many months that have passed since my last post, my mind has become scattered indeed. Perhaps thinking on (virtual) paper will do me a bit of therapy as well as entertain a handful of folks.

I could also blame my writing intermission on the fact that I studied and sat for the bar exam not once, but twice in the past few years. It had been 15 years since my first bar exam (Oklahoma, which I passed on my first attempt). But nearly 15 years specializing in a highly technical legal field and wholly ignoring ALL of the topics that get tested on the bar exam, I got quite rusty.

Good stewardship – in my way of thinking – required that I be licensed to practice where I live. In my particular line of work I educate attorneys every day, helping them stay current on trends in the law. While my job doesn’t specifically require that I be licensed at all, I considered it a matter of integrity to be a licensed member of the profession I serve.

To my surprise, I also realized that I missed the practice of law. And like medicine, it’s both unethical and illegal to practice law without a license. So I rolled up my sleeves and dedicated many hours to renewed knowledge on contracts, property, torts, constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, and the other matters that get tested.

When a JD is freshly minted, knowledge of those topics is sharp. After all, the bar tests examinees on core subjects to which semesters are dedicated in law school. But the tested material is entirely academic and as I said previously, my entire professional life since 2000 has focused on a narrow niche within the law.

As the JD gets tarnished with the patina of practice – particularly in a subspecialty like mine – it takes much scrubbing of the books and refreshing of the knowledge to succeed once again on the bar exam.

In February 2014 I took the Colorado bar and did… um… not so well. And so I redoubled my efforts and sat again in February 2015. This time I passed with an excellent score, solid enough to be admitted into any of 15 states that accept the form of the bar exam used in Colorado.

I had underestimated the sense of accomplishment I would feel. I’m proud indeed to again be a member of the bar and have begun picking up occasional clients on my own terms. I still do not practice full time, but being licensed in my home state has opened new opportunities for entrepreneurial growth for me.

For those who have followed this blog in years past, I hope that I’m entering a new phase of vigor in thought and in writing. I hope to post back again here soon.

 

The look

April 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m sitting in row five, 40,000 feet somewhere above the Oklahoma panhandle on my way back home to Colorado. I’ve just left Oklahoma City to spend Easter weekend with my dad, a new widower. My mom’s birthday was yesterday, Easter Sunday. She would have been 68 this year.

I’m staring at a picture my dad took of her on one of their first dates. Dad was in the Air Force in Shreveport, LA and Mom was a drama major at Centenary College in the same town. My daughter, Lauren, came across this picture as she put together a slide presentation for my mom’s funeral service and I’ve been captivated since I saw it. My dad tells me it’s from an air show at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, circa 1967.

At once it’s a picture of a woman I never knew and a picture of a woman I know intimately. She’s wearing a pristine white sleeveless dress suitable for Audrey Hepburn. Her arms are folded across her body as she looks over her right shoulder back at the camera. Her dark brown bobbed hair is windblown as she stands on cracked tarmac under a bright blue sky.

I’m struck by her gaze. She has porcelain skin, with bright pink lips slightly pursed under a perfect nose. Broad, high cheekbones frame the eyes… it’s those eyes I can’t escape. They belie curiosity, intelligence, spunk, desire, and a little irritation.

In telling the story behind the picture, my dad said that he took her to the airshow for a date because he was just broke: an enlisted airman doing his time for the military. She doesn’t look impressed by the venue or by the particular idea of an airshow, but she looks a little intrigued, like she’s kind of up for anything.

That look pierces me every time I see it. There is a depth to her eyes that I can’t escape. It’s the look I saw in much later years as we’d share ideas and test each other’s tolerance for our debates during my adulthood. They’re eyes of my kindred soul.

She was restlessly inquisitive. No question was too big, and no answer worth having came easy. Of all she taught me, the lesson I value more than any other is that faith that is not worth questioning is faith that is not worth having.

I see that in that look on the tarmac at Barksdale AFB. It’s a look of skepticism but of a willingness to be persuaded. A little dubious, but curious. A look that says, “I’m not convinced… yet.”

The elegant, beautiful woman on the tarmac is only a couple of years older than my oldest daughter, Lauren. She will be leaving home in a few months to head to college. As I stare into the photo of my beautiful coed mom I can’t help but think of Lauren – a new chapter of her life opening, as a chapter in our lives closes.

I see glimpses of the look in both my girls. The look of expectation, curiosity, electricity.

I love that look.

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Mandela and Kennedy – marriages

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

I was asked an interesting question about my analysis of Nelson Mandela’s marriage to his second wife, Winnie, and what I thought that failed marriage meant to his legacy. Specifically, Winnie was widely publicized as advocating for Mandela’s freedom and worked hard in the struggle against apartheid during Mandela’s imprisonment. (She appears to have been quite radical in her practices for liberation. See Telegraph article here, and Reuters here.)

It’s been awhile since I read his autobiography so a fresher reader may have a different take than I, but if I recall correctly, Mandela expressed a great deal of regret about the failure of that marriage. His marriage to Winnie was borne in the resistance movement; the struggle was in the marriage’s DNA. The fight for liberty was always Mandela’s mistress and his personal relationships took the brunt of it. This is, in part, what I meant in the previous post: Mandela would sacrifice anything – himself, his freedom, – and anyone for the cause of freedom. Those sacrifices included his marriages and the relationships with his children. Only when he was well advanced in years did some of those relationships find reconciliation.

During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s advocacy and actions apparently reached some extremes that contradicted Mr. Mandela’s quest for a peaceful liberty for all. Yes, Mr. Mandela had advocated armed resistance against apartheid, and he headed up the ANC’s militarized efforts in the years leading up to his imprisonment. To call him purely a peaceful activist would be inaccurate. But it seems as though he favored peaceful means to achieve freedom and eschewed the inter-African conflicts among other black Africans that Winnie became involved in through the 1980s and 1990s. Details here, here, here, here, and here.

Mandela spoke very highly of Winnie in his autobiography. But as I read the account, she was always more of his “comrade in arms” than his wife. This may not be fair, and it may not be how she viewed the marriage, but that’s the sense I got from his story. Her actions during his imprisonment show, at a minimum, she was no shrinking daisy; she was an aggressive advocate for liberation, with no apparent fear from violent means. The distance of his imprisonment and the eventual release drove a separation that appears to have been insurmountable. I suspect that her means of pursuing liberty also ran against Mr. Mandela’s tastes, but that their marriage was politically useful for both of them until it was finally dissolved after his election.

Rabbit trail ahead: There is another important distinction worth bearing out. We in a non-tribal Western culture view marriage differently I think than do many indigenous cultures. To understand Mandela’s story requires a reach into a culture that many Anglos don’t relate to. The tribal indigenous cultures of Africa in the mid 20th century are not the same as the urban cultures in Africa today, nor are they the experience of the diverse peoples who comprise western Europe or the United States. The native tribes are indeed very diverse among the various tribes, but the experiences, mores, perspectives on relationships, elevation of children, and many other perspectives are simply different due to time and place.

I don’t know what this means in the context of Mandela’s marriages. He was a highly educated and brilliant man. He was a professional, an amazing debater, and one of the most thoughtful icons of our time. Mandela was, I think, a once-in-a-generation leader. To assume he would view marriages and other interpersonal relationships the same way as we would risks superimposing a personal moral judgement on someone whose culture many of us can’t fully appreciate. It would be much like explaining to an indigenous Chinese person that they have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without first-hand experience inside another culture, it’s really hard to make value statements that don’t belie our personal biases.

In the previous Mandela-Kennedy post I referenced that both had great flaws. Looking back I realize that this indeed belies my personal Western bias. But I think there is a big difference in the “failed” marriages of Mandela and the historical view that Kennedy was a poor husband. Although I believe that both men were charismatic leaders who were, by many accounts, catalysts for great change, I haven’t heard stories of Mandela being a philanderer like the stories I’ve heard of Kennedy. Again, I think Mandela’s “mistress” was the struggle to end apartheid, not a physical “other woman.” I’d argue that by any account, Mandela’s mistress was far nobler than any Kennedy ever had.
(By the way, comments are always welcome. I crave thoughtful conversation – virtual or real – when proffered with an open mind.)

Thoughts on Mandela, Kennedy

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

I was at the Orlando airport drinking pints with a friend when I learned Nelson Mandela died. I had the good fortune to go to South Africa a little over a year ago on business and enjoyed an off afternoon taking in Robben Island. Moved by that experience I picked up a copy of Mandela’s autobiography at the Robben Island bookstore and worked my way through it over the following month.

Mandela’s life was one that humbles the proud, privileged, and self-important. He was a man of humble beginnings who made his way to the city and became a practicing lawyer in Johannesburg as the greatest era of apartheid persecution swelled to consume a nation. He made tremendous sacrifices – many that most of us would deign to make – out of his devotion to liberty for black Africa and to reject injustice. His sacrifices included two marriages and his relationship with nearly all who loved him, but his legacy of those individual sacrifices and the individual sacrifices of others who joined him in the cause of freedom brought a new liberty and a measure of democracy to an oppressed indigenous people.

South Africa has yet to get its feet firmly beneath its nascent democracy. Nearly 20 years in, the nation has foundered in gaining traction and casting off a resentment-based new nepotism that often accompanies a sudden change of fortune and the overturning of a power pyramid. Those previously on the bottom – black Africa – suddenly found themselves on top of the pile, but only as represented by a handful of insiders. In recent years those insiders proved that they are capable of substantial corruption and pocket-lining, suppressing free speech and silencing their critics. The acute pain of the past and solidarity of the movement that brought liberty has obviously faded in the past two decades. The generation has aged and polarized, and the youth who didn’t live the revolution lack personal context and a passion to see the revolution through to completion.

“Madiba”, as his friends called him, was the strongest unifying persona of the era that saw a nation cast off oppression and victimization of native peoples. As a lover of South Africa and a respecter of Nelson Mandela, I fear that the nation will continue to suffer in mediocrity, unmet needs, and broken promises now that Mandela is gone. Like the revolution, his memory and legacy will fade unless a younger generation rises up to finish lifting South Africa to full freedom for all.

I’m sure I’m a bit Pollyannaish on Mandela. He had his detractors, and I’m not South African. I’m perhaps a little more educated than most on the country’s history, but I may be overstepping the bounds of my knowledge or any right to proffer an opinion on South African politics, Nelson Mandela’s legacy, or the progeny of the final end of apartheid. But I see Mandela’s story in a slightly different – and more American – context, too.

On November 22 of this year we observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Born of great wealth, privilege, and personal connections, Kennedy reshaped the political culture within the United States. At a minimum, he represented a generational and technological shift in our Presidency. The first President to be elected who was born in the 20th century, he was also the first of a new “television generation.” Although he was born into great wealth, he served the U.S. in war and bore injuries that would follow him for the rest of his life. He was also an Irish Catholic in a generation when neither was cool.

Although his detractors are many, history generally remembers Kennedy very fondly, as the beginning of a new era. He didn’t deliver America from a regime of great oppression and didn’t make anywhere near the personal sacrifices Mandela made. But maybe like Mandela, his legacy marked a turning point in history. There were many intervening influences but there may be some merit to an argument that Kennedy’s Presidency laid the groundwork for an era of progressive civil rights that benefited black Americans, and has ultimately increased the rights of women, Native Americans, and the LGBT community today.

I write this as one who is a generation removed from Kennedy’s legacy. My parents were 20 and 17 when Kennedy was killed; I wasn’t born for nearly another decade after Dealey Plaza. My only reference is what I’ve learned from them and from the Kennedy legacy built up in our popular culture and literature. Like the youth who have grown up in a post-apartheid South Africa I can only piece together my model of Kennedy from the experiences, memories, and biases of forebears.

Maybe like Kennedy, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela will similarly serve as a turning point in South African history. Will his legacy spark a generation that pursues liberty and progressive thought? In 50 years will we see a South Africa that has cast off nepotism and the pursuit of self interest?

Don’t hear (or read) what I’m not saying. American culture and politics are deeply flawed – some say broken. Many believe that progressive thought has exceeded moral bounds and I’m not in a position to argue those points right now. The point I’m making is that Kennedy marked a big shift in how a generation addressed civil rights of those traditionally outside the power structure. I will be interested to see if Mandela does the same for South Africa.

All great leaders have great flaws; Kennedy and Mandela were no exceptions. They were human, and in many ways exhibited the same selfishness and failures of integrity that we all face in our varying degrees at different times in our lives. And these two are likely far more different than they are similar; I get that. But I think that in a way, each of them has the potential to mark a turning point for a nation.

Another seed of a thought: Are leaders the catalysts of change, or are they markers of a greater change waiting to be made? Are they the genesis of a wave, or are they merely the break as the wave builds and rolls? Are they the drivers, or are they just the willing ones who sense the building force, give it voice, and sacrifice themselves (and others) to bring the wave to shore?

Autumn, and Sabbath

November 15, 2013 1 comment

I have found no place on earth more lovely than the Colorado Rocky Mountains in autumn. The aspen leaves have faded and fallen, and we’ve enjoyed our first snows as the Earth moves toward a winter’s rest. The days are shorter, the elk and deer are preparing for their winter gestational cycles, to mature into the young calves of spring. The green grasses of summer crisps brown underfoot, and an occasional fog darkens the days, freezes to the trees, and shimmer like a billion crystals in the pine groves.

As the calendar ebbs and the daylight gets shorter, I find myself in a more contemplative mood, reflecting on another year nearly gone. This year, like many before, has been full of great joys and more than a few frustrations, but in the main it has been a good year. In the “personal improvement” category, I have been able to chalk up a few wins.

First, and perhaps least on my list, I’m ending this year with the best level of physical fitness I’ve ever had. This has been no easy task, as I will likely have ridden 4,000 miles on my bicycle and spent 3-4 days each week in the gym. Coupled with a healthy diet – some say borderline ascetic – I’ve kept a very lean, strong frame.

Second came in the form of a mixed blessing. In April I was replaced as CEO of the company I had run since 2008. I was asked (and accepted) to remain with the company that I have loved for nearly a decade (hired on in 2006) and was able to craft a role more aligned with my talents and passions. I hadn’t realized how much stress I had been under! While I work at least as many hours as before, I came to realize that I want neither the responsibility nor the stress that the guy at the top has to shoulder. I was replaced with a friend, and it’s an honor and joy to serve with him.

Third, and most important, I’ve been able to return to deeper reading and deeper thinking. Carrying less stress and adjusting my calendar a bit, I’ve created space in my life for scripture and other deep readings, prayer, meditation, and much thought. By creating a little margin in my head I’ve been able to get back in touch with some of the disciplines that have brought me much joy in years past.

I recently read a series of short books by Laura Vanderkam that have helped me begin to build the same level of discipline around my schedule that I have had in physical fitness and diet for years. My days start much earlier (and end earlier), but have more structure. The alarm sounds at 5:05 AM and I’m up within a few minutes. Three days a week I’m in the gym for an hour; two days I’m reading by the fire. I get a good two hours of important life done before the sun comes up and the schedule of the day imposes.

I also realized that I have blocks of productive time from 8:00 until around 10:30, which I block for work-related reading, writing, and production. I try and avoid meetings or calls during this period, and I don’t check email. (This has been a huge adjustment in a virtual company where we all work from home!) Around 10:30 or 11:00 I’ll check and process email for a while, and then shut it off when the burning embers of my inbox go back to a smolder. I return any calls, make lunch, and get back to production work or any conference calls I’m essential for.

The afternoon is more of the same, with a block of time followed by the niggling issues of email or phone calls. I hit a bit of a wall around 3:00, but that gives me a chance to pick up a kid from school and handle a few personal errands if necessary. I get another flurry of productivity between 4:00 and 7:00, and by then it’s time to shut down the day and do family time.

The overarching theme here is “rhythm.” Like the turning of seasons or the steady inhale-exhale, I believe we are creatures of rhythm. I also believe that this is part of the spiritual truth embedded in the practice of Sabbath. Wayne Muller notes that the world’s great religions all esteem the notion of Sabbath – or deep rest and rhythm – as a time of contemplation, centering, and removing our minds from the incessant crush of busyness. Whether we practice Sabbath because of a deep religious heritage or for a time of personal re-centering, I’ve become a firm believer in built in intentional seasons of rest.

An easy way I’ve started this is with a no-email-on-Sabbath rule. It may seem frivolous but for a guy whose business life revolves so much around email (plus all the social emails that come into personal accounts) I found it too tempting to check my email when I had no legitimate reason to do so. Sitting in traffic, during a commercial break on family TV night, bored in church, sitting on a chair lift on a snowy afternoon – I’ve bowed to my email inbox in all these places, some of which are too sacred to be interrupted by the shrill call of email. So now, from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday email is strictly forbidden for me.

The first few weeks I tried this I was surprised and disappointed at how addicted I am to my email. Not wanting to have someone else’s expectations sitting unmet in my inbox, I fretted over what is getting stale or how far behind I might be getting as folks continued to lob stuff to me when I wasn’t looking. But after a few weeks it has become not only my new normal; it’s something I eagerly look forward to.

I understand that for many this is milquetoast. “It’s not a REAL Sabbath” folks can legitimately say. I am not keeping a Jewish Sabbath, and I’m not avoiding many other forms of technology in which I can operate and still enjoy rest. But getting the constant stressor and distraction of email out of my life for at least a solid 24 hours each week has made a profound difference in my stress levels and in my mindfulness.

Sabbath is quickly coming on this autumn Friday here in the Rockies; the sun is all but gone by 5:00 PM. As my Cabernet muse beckons, I’ll begin Sabbath with a little reflection on this week nearly gone, and some loose thinking of the new week about to be born. And I’ll do it with a greater level of peace and satisfaction than I’ve had in a long time.

Join me in Sabbath.

The doubt essential to faith

Lesley Hazelton exploring conviction, doubt, and the indelible connection between doubt and faith. Another great story by TED.

Categories: Thoughts Tags: , ,

On wisdom and good judgement

The church we attend in Golden is spending the month of June going through the ancient Hebrew proverbs in the Christian Old Testament. These proverbs (collected in the book that bears that name) are attributed to King Solomon of Israel, son of David. Solomon is regarded in many Christian and Jewish circles as the wisest man who ever lived.

In order to keep myself on track I’m reading the Proverb that corresponds with the day’s date. So yesterday (4 June) I read Proverbs 4. Today I read Proverbs 5, etc.

So in my reading yesterday I came across an interesting distinction that the author of Proverbs draws between “getting wisdom” and “developing good judgement.” (v. 4). I hadn’t given this much thought before but the author implies that wisdom is something we “get” – we either have it or we don’t. It also implies that it’s something that is received, or given to us by someone else or by circumstances, and not something we can necessarily attain simply by pursuit. By contrast, the author refers to good judgement as something that we are able to develop.

My takeaway from this distinction is that wisdom is what we pursue (as though we are searching for lost gold or silver – see Proverbs 2) and that as we gain wisdom, we develop good judgement. In other words, perhaps good judgement is what we DO with gained wisdom.

The corollary to this in my mind is that the quality of my judgement is dependent on – and an indication of – the quality of my wisdom.