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Ash Wednesday

I think this time of year is fascinating. At least it is here in the Midwest. There is a constant struggle between Winter and Spring for dominance in our lives. The struggle reminds us of a not so pleasant past. It also serves as a reminder of beautiful things to come.

“Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” – Ezekiel 18:31,32

I truly want to commit to a closer relationship with God. However, I also want to pursue selfish interests. I want to pursue an unachievable level of success that is in my head. I would like to be more respected, and I would like to hold more power in my life. How do I choose thoughts, words, and actions that are not my own, but that belong to God?

In Isaiah chapter 6:5, Isaiah is plagued with guilt after experiencing a true encounter with a merciful God. Isaiah has a realization that he has built a wall between him and the love of God. From my experience, I believe that some of this could be so that he doesn’t have to feel emotions he is uncomfortable with. His outburst in verse 5 shows his true guilt, as well as his true emotions. It’s not an easy path to embrace what a loving God causes us to feel. This has often caused my failure. In the past, I have also been guilty of struggling with what the act of moving on after failure looks like. The guilt has driven me away. The guilt has become my motivator. The guilt became my idol. I am doubtful that, like Isaiah, a seraphim will fly to me, touch my mouth with coal to take away my guilt and atone for my sin.

Today is the first day of a Lenten season in which I hope to break down this idol bit by bit. If I can’t begin to look past myself in an authentic way, I will be of no use to anyone.

 

Pence

There’s a difference between being a representative and being a governor.

As a representative, you push for your special interests.

As a governor, you do what’s best for your state.

Pence got the endorsement from the much-liked former Republican governor Mitch Daniels (now president of Purdue) basically with the promise that he wouldn’t pursue a social agenda. Mitch Daniels was liked because he focused almost exclusively on the economy and government efficiency. He seemed to care little about social issues, and it was implied that Pence, as the successor of Daniels, would set aside the social dogmas that he was known for and govern a state that was on a very good path, economically, after Mitch Daniels’ two terms.

He didn’t do that.

From day one, Pence didn’t govern, he played national GOP politics. Whatever the big fiery debate of the day was among the national GOP, he grabbed ahold of it and pretended to be its conservative crusader, even if it had absolutely zero relevance to the state of Indiana. He spent time, money, and resources on championing issues that the majority of Hoosiers didn’t care about or didn’t support, because he wanted to pander to the National GOP’s ultra conservative base for his future career. Essentially, he was using Indiana as a stepping-stone. He never cared about being governor. He always had higher aspirations, and the governorship was a stepping-stone to a higher federal office. Most Hoosiers, left or right on the political spectrum, espouse this opinion about him.

As I said before, Mitch Daniels cared nothing about social issues. Indiana is generally a conservative state, but it’s never been a state particularly hung up on social issues, and it’s never been a state that follows the national GOP’s social platform. Indiana, as it turns out for as long as I’ve been alive, has been a business Republican state that supported politicians like the Bushes, Mitt Romney, etc. We voted Obama into office, and prior to Mitch Daniels in 2005, we had 16 straight years of Democratic governorship. Indianapolis, the capital and largest city in the state, routinely switched between Republican and Democrat mayors, and it has managed to have long-term plans and continue its momentum regardless of which party is in office.

So Pence, with his national conservative GOP politics, has been an aberration that has directly harmed Indiana’s image and its pocket book.

In the three years since Pence took office, he:

  • Pushed through legislation making harsher penalties for drug crimes against the protests of numerous major legal organizations including the Indiana Bar Association, as well as most Hoosiers
  • Inherited a phenomenal state balance sheet from Mitch Daniels and used it as an excuse to push tax cuts so extreme (would have caused a tremendous deficit) that the Republican-controlled Congress shut him down
  • Tried and failed to amend the Indiana constitution to ban gay marriage, despite widespread polling that showed that Hoosiers didn’t support it, and despite the vociferous condemnation of virtually every major business in the state
  • Since his gay marriage amendment failed, as payback (not exaggerating, the signing ceremony was invite only, no media was allowed or invited, but someone leaked a picture that showed Pence surrounded by well-known anti-LGBT extremists), came back with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was a genuine political circus. It humiliated Indiana on the national stage, directly harmed the Indianapolis area, and was met with, perhaps, the fiercest backlash by the people of any state in the Union. The extraordinary protests of Hoosiers and businesses allowed the state GOP leaders to basically coerce, to his visible chagrin, Pence to amend the law and “fix it.”
  • The RFRA was such a debacle that Pence ended up hiring an expensive out-of-state public relations firm to heal Indiana’s national image. He couldn’t answer why he chose an out-of-state firm. He couldn’t answer why he chose such an expensive firm, when there are many firms in Indiana that could have done the job. It was eventually canceled, and was yet another waste of taxpayer money. To date, the RFRA has cost Indianapolis (a city that fought against it, changed the official tourism website to rainbow colors, and hung a huge rainbow banner at the airport) $60 million, and the total cost–to the economy and reputation–to the rest of the state is unknown.
  • During the gay marriage supreme court fight, he sent the Indiana attorney general to other states to advise them on how to craft their laws and fight gay marriage nationally. He did this on the taxpayer dollar. He continued to spend taxpayer money fighting gay marriage in the courts and with lawsuits despite, at the time, everyone knowing what the Supreme Court decision was going to be. It was basically a political stand by Pence; an expensive political stand that Hoosiers didn’t support.
  • He fought to pass a law preventing cities from passing their own minimum wage statutes. Is this “small government”?
  • He has acted like a strongman (think Turkey’s Erdoğan), doing everything in his power to make Glenda Ritz, the state superintendent and an elected official, quit her job, and barring that, stripping her of the power given to her by the Indiana constitute and the Hoosiers that elected her through backroom deals, conspiracy, and highly technical legal challenges. Just Google “Mike Pence Glenda Ritz.” You could write a thesis on it.
  • He also froze teachers salaries. This means that starting teachers cannot get raises and that all people graduating with an education degree are better off leaving Indiana. Unless they want to work in a private school or have a trust in their name.
  • Everyone was on board for receiving a huge federal grant for preschool funding. The Indiana Department of Education was in the final stages of the application process–and the federal government was happy with Indiana and going to give us an especially large chunk of money, when Pence came in and shut it down for no reason because accepting money from the feds became politically untenable among the national GOP tea partier crowd. Pence’s eyes were always on the future, and support from the GOP’s far right base. After shutting down the process, he has recently been opining that it would be a good idea to get federal money to fund preschools… A year after he shut down the Dept of Education’s proposal to do just that.
  • The HIV epidemic in southern Indiana is out of control and among the worst in the country. Of course, we could provide free needles for heroin addicts like has been done in many states to curb HIV problems, but that is politically repugnant to Mike Pence. He also managed to get the Planned Parenthoods in that part of the state shut down, eliminating the opportunity for poor people to get tested. The HIV epidemic, which never had to be an epidemic, continues, and Pence gets to push the problem on our future governor as he goes to join Trump on the national stage.
  • Speaking of Planned Parenthood, Pence is highly proud of his accomplishment at passing the single most restrictive abortion law since Roe vs Wade. The law, HEA 1337 is far stricter than anything even in the Deep South and is almost certainly unconstitutional. He knows that it’s probably unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Indiana taxpayers will spend millions of dollars for our attorney general to fight the law all the way to the Supreme Court, just so Pence could make his political statement.
  • He tried to make a state-run news agency that he would then give exclusive interviews and access to. I don’t even know if that’s legal, but he tried to do it and was promptly crucified by the media and even his own party.
  • He asserted authority to ban Syrian refugees from being settled in Indiana. He has no authority. No governor does. He knew that, but he was planning to be a GOP presidential candidate, and he needed to show that he was strong and anti-Muslim refugee to appease the national GOP base. He took leadership role in this discriminatory crusade, appearing on national TV to preach this ignorance. This particular event managed to throw multiple refugee settlement organizations into disarray–which, by the way, actually include the Catholic Church of Indiana (the arch bishop of Indianapolis publicly criticized the governor)–and several Syrian refugees which were well into the process of moving to Indiana had to be relocated to another state. Pence didn’t back down until the courts affirmed that his order was unconstitutional.
  • He shut down a highly successful energy efficiency program, one of the first in the nation, making Indiana a trailblazer initiated by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission with the support of previous governor Mitch Daniels. He did this for no good reason, other than to signal to his far-right constituents that he was fighting against Obama’s evil despotic EPA.

This is all just in his three years in office. He is reviled across the state, and especially so in the Indianapolis area. There is (actually, was now that he’s the VP nominee, he can no longer be governor) a bipartisan Pence Must Go campaign to get rid of him, and there are literally billboards all over the state for this campaign, and yard signs plastered all over the state. Pence is, by virtually all objective measures, one of the worst governors in recent Indiana history, at least in terms of working for the benefit of the state. He has basically focused on far-right Christian social conservative interests to the clear detriment of all else, most importantly the current and future well-being of the state’s reputation and economy.

Pence-must-go-via-Flickr-Steve-Baker-Creative-Commons

 

So Sore

Through out my 7 years in Anderson, I have been a student, an advocate, a consultant, a professor, a non-profit director, and have led some amazing trips to far away places. Each role I’ve carried has beat me down, but pushed me to grow. It also makes me tired and sore.

Since I didn’t spend a single day in my 20’s exercising, I have struggled through my 30’s trying to make exercise a part of my life. As I rolled out of bed today with my calves burning and my shoulders aching, it occurred to me that I will probably be sore in some way, shape, or form, for the rest of my life. A slower metabolism is slowly killing me. Arthritis is slowly taking over my joints. Endurance is tougher and tougher to maintain in any physical activity. I often have trouble staying motivated.

I am saddened by the lack of participation in our community. I am saddened by the lack of appreciation for the assets that this community has. Saddened by loneliness, as often this work leaves me feeling there are far too few of us that care. Nobody seems to have the time. Nobody seems to have a few bucks to contribute.

I remember being a part of the student leadership within the local campus community. I would often spend weeks planning an event. A guest speaker/author, a relevant cultural documentary, etc. This is when I was hurt to learn that not all those that say they care about the same things, or say they are my friend, or have a desire to engage and be educated, actually care. It seems so small and stupid now of course. However, this type of thing has grown in magnitude since then, as I have been more exposed to the practicality of living out my faith, as well as more exposed to those who live out the facade of pretending to care, and pretending to be in this with me.

My neighbors are growing old. Many are tired, desperate, lonely, addicted, and sometimes hungry. They are struggling to raise their grandchildren of a fatherless generation. There are kids on our streets shooting each other. There are churches in my neighborhood growing emptier by the week, they will soon leave decrepit old buildings behind.  Denominations are dying here. The culture of previous decades is dying here. There is nowhere to play basketball, nowhere to do homework, nowhere to grab a healthy snack. Diabetes is slowly wiping out an entire generation.

How does this not ache in our spirits? How do we repeatedly stuff ourselves full, while watching shows and playing video games, while there is no justice for our neighbors. How can we spend time arguing or voting in online forums, via the local paper, when that participation will never matter. Are we mistaking this for participation in our community? Are we mistaking this for advocacy? 300 ft. from my house we have the oldest Brownfield site in the state of Indiana. Contamination from a Speedway station of two decades ago has seeped into the ground 100ft around the spot the gas station once stood. In a matter of time this could be in our water. This could be in our basements, yet we spend our time online voting and arguing about what store we would like to see go into the old Target, when it has already been decided.

There was a teenager I had to remove from our boxing class last year, because of constant threats against others he was making. I remember at the time thinking. I wish we had something else for him. I can’t work full time, volunteer 20 hours a week, be a husband, father, and mentor this young man. I’m working on several community projects and working with several teenagers already. Where is everyone who knows I’ve been doing this for 6 years? Where are these college students that want “real” experience or “real” ministry opportunities? I was saddened to learn that this young man was about to get arrested. He drove away from the police, parked himself in front of my neighbors house, on the street, and shot himself in the head.

This tragedy could have been prevented. When will we invest in each other? It is possible to get a state agency to enforce environmental law. It is possible to get guns off the streets. It is possible to provide positive venues for young people to have the love we all desperately crave. When will people help just because it is the right thing to do? When will they put their time and money where their mouth is? When will my spirit stop being tired and sore?

NYC

 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. – John 15:2

All touristy stuff and camaraderie aside, this week would be different somehow. Not just because my daughters were with me, but because we were being humbled, which almost felt like being demoted at times, into a background role. This was the 6th time I drove a van full of eager students into “the city.” I expected a typical experience, as this was my fourth time working with this organization. CSM sets up a great week of service, cultural neighborhoods, and sociological learning. I was definitely pleased to be back with them after a few bad experiences with other “missions ministries.”

We are always told to come in with no definite plans or expectations, as schedules tend to change. I actually like to think that they are leaving room for God to engage you and surprise you in a meaningful way, but perhaps that sounds a little corny or unrealistic to some. In previous experiences with CSM, I have worked and assisted others at working at soup kitchens, after school programs, and shelters. We have engaged the homeless population at several parks. We have also served meals to terminal patients. This experience would be quite the opposite.

Looking back, as I told my daughters, I believe that God had us doing just the right thing, and was teaching us just the right lessons. He has a way of knowing what we need. Even if it is a bit underwhelming at times.

We served and worked at an enormous food pantry in Harlem, well before the masses came in to subsidize their increasing grocery expenses. We scrubbed, mopped, and cleaned a building owned by one of the most successful outreach churches on the lower east side of Manhattan. This church has different programming, including youth activities, education classes, and community meals. We of course cleaned for the 6 hours or so they were not using the building on this particular day. We then traveled by subway to another church so that 12 of us could sweep and mop a few large rooms.

The following day we volunteered for a Meals on Wheels program that encourages healthy eating. This served an elderly and sometimes disabled population. As it turns out, this population lives on and around Park Ave. This means they also happen to be pretty well off financially. As it turns out, some are not very nice. We honestly did not see this coming because when people think of serving, they tend to generally think of a more marginalized and vulnerable population. Later this day we went on a prayer tour and learned a bit about social problems, stratification, and gentrification.

On our final day of volunteerism, we were at a building that houses 2 congregations, an American Protestant congregation as well as a Korean one. There was a very damaged relationship between these churches which made the experience slightly awkward. We heard of their amazing youth ministries and after school program, but we would never be near it. We spent 6 hours or so cleaning, sorting what seemed like everything, organizing what seemed like everything else, stuffing Easter eggs, and painting backdrops for an upcoming Easter event. This was actually very time consuming for the 13 of us that participated.

Every church and organization we helped out with this week was very thankful and appreciative of our time. I believe there was a mutual understanding that we saved several people several hours of mundane work. Despite my shortcomings, I kind of did the math for one of our service days. 13 of us doing 6 hours of work saved someone a few weeks work. Looking back, I believe what we did might have even been more than that. We did not interact and engage with the general public, people in need, cute kids, or anything like that. What we did was free up a lot of hours for local ministry leaders and local organization employees to be able to do that. I think this was more important. It is nice to travel into an area and be acknowledged by the public with smiles, conversation, and friendship, but this leaves me wondering if we often take those moments away from locals 1915660_10153649445809401_2811181087707875670_nwho are working behind the scenes so that we can come in and save the day, while those who are there for the long haul, and live among those that are in need of friendship or a meal, step aside .

I am thankful for the wonderful team we had working and traveling together.Most of all I am thankful that Jesus is continuing to make known the knowledge of the Father. (John 15:15) I will look back on this as a time to reevaluate what service to others looks like, as a time of team building and friendship building among my group, and a time of helping those that are doing the real work of helping others and being a part of their lives.

The Choice of a New Generation

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. – Corinthians 13:11

BPWhen my daughter was still a toddler, she had a favorite stuffed doll. She called it Baby Pepsi. In some disgusting way, I guess she saw my love and appreciation for carbonated fructose and decided that would be an endearing name for the baby doll she loved so much. As usual, when arriving at my house from her mother’s house, she carried her doll tightly under her arm, while in her hands she carried her weekend bag of clothes.

Shortly after her mother left, she ran to me and burst into tears. It had been a rough few days behaviorally for her and she had been disciplined a few times. She handed me Baby Pepsi and exclaimed to me that this favorite doll of hers has to live here now at my house. Also, I was not to give it to her Mom. As punishment this doll had been taken away a few times and she couldn’t bear to keep losing it. I was immediately amazed at the level of emotion being displayed here. She was communicating to me that she would rather not see her baby doll as often and know that it was safe and sound at my house, then risk losing it because of her behavior. After visiting with Baby Pepsi a few more months, she was forgotten. She has remained stored away for years.

I’m reminded of the words of John Wesley about the above scripture. “In our present state we are mere infants in point of knowledge, compared to what we shall be hereafter. I put away childish things – Of my own accord, willingly, without trouble.”

It seems that part of this circumstance was about control. By bringing her doll to my house to stay, it could no longer be a bargaining chip. She could no longer be hurt by that loss. It didn’t take her long to grow out of her attachment to that doll once she went without regularly. Perhaps I am guilty of wanting control over things I should easily be outgrowing. As I sat frustrated over communication channels at work the other day, I had the realization that I am frustrated over things I will never be able to control. I allow things to hurt and don’t recognize that I am being self absorbed and not seeing the lesson in what is going on. I am frustrated over things that are perhaps teaching me discipline and patience. It seems like yesterday my life was turned upside down by circumstances I could not control. I lost a lot in order to have the ability to move on with my life in a productive way. Once I learned to forgive and learn from, as well as admit my mistakes, I could move forward. Once I realized I couldn’t keep my emotions or vices on a shelf for later, I was truly able to move on and grow. Most importantly, once I learned that I am not in control of anything, I was able to learn humility and patience.

I lose sight of these things from time to time, probably more often then I care to admit, but sometimes I think back on Baby Pepsi, and I remember, I might be hindering my personal growth by holding on to something I need to outgrow.

Kindom Come

41gf7itj8wLIf you are interested in truly thinking critically about the church, then this book is for you. Kingdom Come by Reggie McNeal may challenge some of your common assumptions and push you to see outside the norm of the inward focused Western church. I believe it is a much-needed commentary on the state of the church institution, as well as the trends that are causing this institution to self-destruct. McNeal offers positive insight on “Kingdom”, and what it looks like for Christians to push Kingdom outside the walls of the church. Exchanging a church centered approach for a social community approach seems to be the solution. Although, these changes are much easier said than done, and some may challenge them theologically, I do believe that he provides a lot of evidence as well as scripture that at the very least this conversation should be happening.

I particularly enjoyed McNeal’s personal experiences from which he draws on through most of the book. Even his own shortcomings prepared him well for writing this book. He is not someone who enters this conversation lightly and has years of experience. Sadly, it seems rare to read such a critique from someone who has been there and has spent so many years around ministry developing there ideas.

I would recommend this book to any church leader who is either looking to improve their approach to ministry or that at least wants to be relevant to the important conversations happening around this topic. I believe the ideas presented here make this an important read for anyone who is involved in ministry.

I received a free copy of this book from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.

A Year of Living Prayerfully

978-1-4143-9213-4In his book, A Year of Living Prayerfully, Jared Brock explores “man’s desire to know the mind of god.” He is humble in believing that his prayer life falls short and that there is much more knowledge to be acquired on this subject. As he embarks on a journey to far away places to learn from some of “the best” in the world, he finds that the more he learns, the more questions he has. Jared manages to keep an open mind in most situations by injecting a bit of his humor into every situation, which made learning about different prayer practices very enjoyable.

In my opinion, a book like this can be very unifying and reconciling. With a broader understanding of religious practice and a broader worldview, we can begin to humanize those who are different from ourselves, and those who seem to have what we believe to be peculiar methods of practicing Christianity. Jared paints a great picture of not only the knowledge he acquires along the way, but also how it affects his personal relationship with God, and how it can be applied to his life. He states, “Prayer is about steeping in the Spirit of God so loving that He totally changes you.”

Some of the highlights for me were funny moments, like the ones spent with Hasidic Jews in New York City. There were some scary moments, like praying in North Korea. There were some great learning moments, such as the Ignatian prayer practices he learned about in Spain. There were some beautiful lessons learned in France on sharing a common life. There were some important criticisms and realizations on American theology, as well as some questionable moneymaking practices in other countries. The last highlight I’ll mention is his personal growth and reflection.

I would recommend this book to those with an adventurous spirit, to those who wish to become a little bit more culturally competent in a light hearted way, and to those who are honest enough with themselves to acknowledge that they may not have all of the answers when it comes to religious denominations and prayer. You will learn more about Christianity and its roots. Incidentally, you will also take away some knowledge about community and have some good laughs doing so.

 I received a free copy of this book from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.