The Trouble with “Normal”

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It has been sometime since I wrote something on autism/aspergers, partially because I didn’t have anything I wanted to write.  But I stumbled accross an article on Facebook that reminds me of the situation that I face on daily basis.

It’s been nearly 10 years since I was diagnosed with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism.  When I got the diagnosis, I was relieved.  It was something I could hang all of the difficulties I faced as an adult in relationships and employment. I was hoping that I could explain to my employers what was happening with me and that they would understand.

Boy was I wrong.

The problem with having High Functioning Autism is that you don’t look like you have autism.  I can “pass” well enough for people to think I don’t really have any issues.  But that’s not true.  A recent article on the challenges those of us with High Functioning Autism face explains:

If the media is to believed, the high end of the autism spectrum is peopled largely by eccentric geniuses—Bill Gates and Albert Einstein are often mentioned, along with Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah—who by and large do very well indeed, though they march to the beat of their own drummer. The reality, however, is that “high functioning autistic” and “genius,” “business tycoon,” and “Hollywood star” rarely go together…They may also have significant challenges which stand in the way of living a comfortable life, succeeding in work or romance, or achieving a sense of self-worth. Those issues are made more challenging, in part, because they surprise and upset others who don’t anticipate odd behaviors or reactions from people who “pass for normal” in many situations…

While people with more severe autism are not generally expected to just suck it up and get through difficult moments, people on the higher end of the spectrum are expected to do just that…

Lastly, people with high functioning autism are, in general, very aware of their own difficulties and extremely sensitive to others’ negative reactions.

I’ve experienced this situation over and over. I can work to try to fix my mistakes, I can go over and above to show that I can do my work well and at the end of the day, it is not enough. I am told things that sometimes cut to the heart, even though you know that you’ve tried to be the best worker in spite of my shortcomings. But you have to suck it up and try to function even though you’ve been shamed and told that you aren’t a good worker. The thing is, you can try as hard as you can and at the end of the day, it. is. not. enough.

You have to suck it up, because you don’t look autistic.  Which means that people don’t take your autism to account.  Instead you are looked at like a giant f**kup.

And when your high functioning autism isn’t taken seriously, it affects you in future situations.  Work becomes a place where you are waiting for someone to point out a mistake you made and then, you overreact, fearing that it’s all downhill from here.  You end up not trusting people, because you fear them- you fear they will judge you and that your job will be in jeporady.

So, work becomes a minefield, one that can become of your own making.

What I would like to see from people at work not just for me, but for anyone with high functioning autism is to stop assuming things. As Ashlea McKay notes:

Don’t think because I’m a successful adult female that communicates verbally that my existence is ‘mild’ or that I ‘don’t seem that autistic’ to you. That is insulting to both me and every other autistic person on the planet. I know you’re just trying to understand and have probably heard a number of things about autism over the years, but instead of assuming what it means to be autistic, just ask.

If someone tells you they are autistic, ask a damn question as to how you can help them be the best employee. Don’t assume. Don’t just automatically go to belittling them. Sometimes people are just not good employees, but sometimes we just need help and encouragement.

One thing that I am learning over time is that I need to be willing to advocate for myself.  Simply telling folk isn’t enough. At times I might need to politely push back.  Because I think sometimes people don’t understand things unless they are hit metaphorically by a 2×4.

So, when an employee tells you that they are autistic, talk to them. Learn all you can about autism and how to be a good manager to them.  Just because they appear “normal”doesn’t mean you can treat them as normal.

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The Fate of Facebook

 

sociala-medier-2017After a decade of being the latest thing, social media is now longer seen as the savior of society.  Since the Cambridge Analytica story broke last month, Facebook and its creator Mark Zuckerberg have went from hero to zero.

It’s taken us a while, but we are finally coming to terms with social media and Facebook in particular.  It is not what we were promised.

I myself have mixed views about social media. One the one hand, I think social media has become a play where people can enter a sphere where everyone agrees with you.  Especially when it comes to politics, there are groups on Facebook whose sole purpose is to take your political beliefs and make them become the most virtuous thing around while other views smell of the brimstone of hell.  This rancor makes it a lot easier to demonize others that have a different viewpoint on things.

Social media also seems to bring out the ugliest part of ourselves.  For some reason we seem willing to say things about others that we would never say in polite company.  Social media is a place without filters and in without manners.

Overall, I think Twitter and Facebook have made society coarser, meaner and less hospitable. It is threatening to democracy and not simply because of Russian bots, but because when we see those of another viewpoint as someone that needs to be destroyed instead of talked to, it makes for a politics of winner take all by any means necessary.

I can’t blame those who are tempted to leave Facebook if not all of social media. Life would be better without it.

Or, maybe not.

While the thought of leaving Facebook has crossed my mind, I can’t.  Not because I’m addicted, though it is a big time suck, but because it is a part of my job.  I work to make sure the nonprofit where I work part time has a strong presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I’ve done this for other non profits and churches, so social media is a way that I make money.

But the larger reason I can’t leave it is because of all the good people I’ve met over the years. I’ve been able to reconnect with dear friends that I’ve lost contact. I’ve made new friends with other people. I’ve learned about various issues by asking questions of other followers.  Through my work, I’ve helped people get to know about a group they never heard of and maybe find a way to get involved. It isn’t simply trivial.

Social media is not all that it is cracked up to be. But I don’t know if that’s a reason to shut down all of our accounts.  Privacy concerns aside, I think we have to learn how to put social media in it’s place.  Maybe not check Facebook every five minutes and take sometime to read. Maybe we can do more with those people we’ve reconnected with, like write a letter or give them a call. Maybe we can start to learn that the manners we learned in the real world, apply in the virtual one as well. And maybe, just maybe we can use social media to expand our understanding of the world instead of confirm our biases.

The Facebook scandal is an opportunity to re-examine our use of social media.  But going cold turkey is the easy way out.  Learning how to manage it?  That’s an art.  But I think at the end of the day, I’d rather learn how to use social media and not let it use me than to just give up.

So, I will take inventory of my social media usage. I might not be “on” as much, but I will be around.  After all, I have to pay my bills.

Red Idol, Blue Idol

libcons120416_opener_560I received a message from a friend in the ministry the other day indicating that he was stepping back from things, because he was noticing that politics was becoming an idol in his life. The claim at first struck me as odd, but as I thought about it, it started to make sense.  I started to think that we live in an age where we have made politics an idol.  Idols have a way of separating people from each other; turning mere disagreements into winner-take-all battle royale.

We live in an age where politics are no longer just a thing, we do, but a way of life, something we are willing to give our all to, something we are willing to die for. Few of us will admit it, but we have made politics a god.

Maybe what’s more disturbing is that this sort of politics has slowly crept in our churches and other ways of life. There are pastors that are not shy about expressing their views.  People of the cloth become shills for prevailing ideologies. In the wake of Trump, we all know how many evangelical leaders fell in line all to make sure their interests are noticed by the President.  What we don’t see as much is how progressive Christians have also succumbed to the gods of this age.

I don’t think anyone intends to make politics their idol.  Even the conservatives who have sacrificed their faith to Trump didn’t do it because they loved politics more than God.  But the idol of politics has a way of seeping into our lives and starts to be the thing that gives us moral meaning and purpose.  It’s not long before the idol takes the place of God with us not even aware this took place.

Writing in late 2017, columnist David Brooks writes about the dangers of idolotrous politics and how to put it back in its proper place:

As Andy Crouch points out in his book “Playing God,” idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.

As Crouch puts it: “All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands. … In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands. In the memorable phrase of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover, idols ask for more and more, while giving less and less, until eventually they demand everything and give nothing.”

Politics these days makes categorical demands on people. It demands that they remain in a state of febrile excitement caused by this or that scandal or hatred of the moment. But it doesn’t actually transform life or even fill the hole left by the lack of other attachments.

If politics is going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality. But we also need to put politics in its place. The excessive dependence on politics has to be displaced by the expulsive power of more important dependencies, whether family, friendship, neighborhood, community, faith or basic life creed.

I think one of the biggest problems in our society today is that politics is front and center in too many people in our lives. The wider culture has walls set up to block those who aren’t like us politically. But the divisions of culture should stop at the doors of the church.

But we don’t. Our churches are split the same way, there are red churches that voted for Trump and blue churches that voted for Hilary.

In some cases, churches are providing places of belonging, but it isn’t grounded in God as much as it is in politics.  Liberals find community in liberal churches, conservatives find community in conservative churches.

Upon hearing a National Public Radio report on evangelical pastors getting engaged in conservative politics, Canadian theologian John Stackhouse wrote why pastors should avoid politics. He’s not saying that pastors be apolitical, but he is talking about the place we clergy give politics. Here are a few of the reasons he gives ( Tommy Douglas was a Canadian politician and is consider the founder of the country’s single-payer health care system):

7. Because the Scriptures (your main area of intellectual expertise—right?) are, at best, only suggestive and regulative over the field of politics (a quite different area of intellectual expertise—right? See #10 again).

6. Because you’ll alienate a considerable part of your constituency who see political matters differently, and will hold that difference against you, thus losing the benefits of your pastoral care and authority.

5. Because you need to consider the troubling fact that you’re not alienating a considerable part of your constituency, so why is your church so uniform in its politics?

4. Because governments come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to prophesy to whoever is in power.

3. Because politicians come and go, and you need to reserve the sacred right to comfort whoever is not, or no longer, in power.

2. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and you’re supposed to bring out the best in people.

1. Because politics brings out the worst in people, and unless you’re an exception (like Tommy Douglas), politics will bring out the worst in you.

Here’s the thing. If you are a pastor you preach about a guy named Jesus who lived among us and died on a cross. It’s a cross that levels things, because it doesn’t matter who you voted for; the cross shows how far God would go to show love to all of us. We gather around the communion table, again a place where all Christians are welcome to attend.

Justice is important. I’ve marched against police brutality against black men, because my politics is informed by my faith. But my faith isn’t limited to those who agree with me. My politics will place me on the streets, the grace shown by God on the cross, makes me reach beyond boundaries to befriend that Trump voter, it should allow a conservative to reach to their Planned Parenthood loving neighbor down the street.

In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites complain to Samuel that they wanted to a king.  Up until then, Israel was ruled by judges, who would come during certain crises to lead the nation. The people looked at other nations and wanted to follow what they did.  God spoke to Samuel and told him that this wasn’t about him as much as it was about him.  God is the one being rejected, not Samuel.  God then tells them to be careful what they ask for: a king will take and take and when they have nothing to give, the king will still take:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Politics can take and take. Right now, there are pastors on both sides of the political divide that are making politics their god, and the thing is that god will require everything from you, even when you have nothing left to give.

At the end of the day, we have to learn how to engage in politics with a Christian mind-set. It is a politics that puts God first freeing us to love each other even when we are passionate on the issues. We need to learn to show Christ-like love on social media, where it is too easy to act like little devils.

I think the church has to learn how to be a community grounded in the cross in a world that is riven by ideology.  We have to find ways to talk about politics in churches that fosters people to think about the issues before them instead of having their ideological views affirmed in churches.  Pastors especially, have to find ways to model a ministry that isn’t based on ideology, but based in Christ.  We have to model ways where we can create communities of people who have different views and can learn that their views on immigration or the deficit aren’t ultimate, but it is learning to put God first.

We need to do this not just to show a different way of being in the world, but to guard ourselves from watering down Christian theology.  The polarized church is always tempted to reduce Jesus to a moral and ethical figure to fit our ideology. As Michael Sean Winters notes, maybe we need to focus on more on how we love Jesus instead falling for the sirens heresy:

the Church is not beholden to an ideology because it does not worship an idea, we worship a person. For those who dismiss dogmatic theology as “medieval hair-splitting,” the proverbial “counting angels on the head of a pin,” I would remind them that the great early Councils, not any medieval Councils, rejected the various heretical understandings of who Jesus is and that the consequences of those rejections remain important, even vital. There may not be any genuine Gnostics around any more, but there remains a gnostic sensibility in certain varieties of spirituality. There may not be any Arians around any more, but there remains the tendency to reduce Jesus to a great ethical teacher and not as the son of God. There may not be any Pelagians around any more, but there remains a pelagian tendency to think if we follow Jesus’ teachings we can earn our way to heaven. There may not be any Jansenists – oops, there are plenty of Jansenists around. My point is that these heretical tendencies are ideological invitations and they are perennial in the life of the Church. We all have our Pelagian or Gnostic moments. The antidote to those moments is the person of Jesus Christ. In Him, all was created, contra the Gnostics. In Him, we discern the Son of God, contra the Arians. In Him, we are saved, contra the Pelagians. Instead of hurling epithets at one another, perhaps we need to create the space for people to answer the question, “Tell me how much you love Jesus” and then see where those conversations lead.

I don’t know if we can learn to talk to each other calmly about issues. But it might be time for some of us pastors to step out and try to reach out to each other, with evangelicals reaching out to mainline Protestants and so on. Because in this divided time, there needs to be a witness to unity and love.

Just As He Was

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America’s pastor, Billy Graham, died this morning at the age of 99.

Graham was a hero to me.  Not because he was perfect or because he agreed with me on issues. He was hero to me because in his own quiet way, he was a rebel at a time when not just American evangelicals, but American Christians picked sides and demand a certain kind of theological and political conformity.

In many ways, he was like Johnny Cash, someone that was an iconoclast.  This is probably why the photo with the two is going around the internet. Neither man was interested in conforming. Graham was someone who sought to follow Jesus in the best way he could, which meant at times stepping on the toes of his friends.

Take race relations. Graham, a Southerner, slowly but surely moved against racial segregation and towards reconciliation. He invited Martin Luther King to one his crusades in 1957. I want to share this story of what happened in the mid-50s in Chattanooga, Tennessee:

By 1952, the 34-year-old evangelist was deeply distressed by the racial prejudice he saw among Christians and wondered whether his failure to speak up was part of the problem. Graham saw an opportunity to take a stand during his Jackson, Mississippi, crusade. When Governor Hugh L. White insisted that Graham hold separate services for whites and blacks, the evangelist refused.

“There is no scriptural basis for segregation,” he told the crusade audience. “It may be there are places where such is desirable to both races, but certainly not in the church.” Though defiant, Graham still acquiesced on the issue of segregated seating.

A year later, however, he stunned the sponsoring committee of his Chattanooga, Tennessee, crusade. Graham railed against the practice of segregated seats. Then the committee watched in astonishment as he personally tore down the ropes separating the black and white sections at the arena.

That is pretty bold.

Graham also boycotted South Africa because going there meant having to submit to the apartheid system and holding segregated crusades.

Graham was someone that was willing to follow God that would shake things up.  He wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes.  I do think he probably had more “traditional” views on LGBT issues (though I don’t think he was a rabid homophobe). But he had a passion for justice.  It was there not just on race, but on other issues like nuclear weapons to going to preaching in the then-Soviet Union.

I went to see Billy Graham in 1996. I went to the old Metrodome in Minneapolis.  This was kind of a homecoming for Graham, since the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was based in Minneapolis. He was 77 then, and could no longer stand at the podium like he used to. Instead, he had a chair that he sat on as he preached.  By that time, I had left evangelicalism and was now a mainline Protestant.  But I still loved Graham and I was excited to go to the Crusade.

Graham was a preacher that could cross theological and ideological boundaries, something that you don’t see these days among pastors of Graham’s stature, especially his son Franklin.

When I was at that Crusade 22 years ago, Graham had a his well known altar call where the choir began singing the same song that ends his crusades, “Just As I Am.” It summed up his life:

Just as I am – without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
-O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
-O Lamb of God, I come!

Just as I am – though toss’d about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
-O Lamb of God, I come!

Billy Graham was a gentle rebel for the Lord. I will miss him. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Sign You Up?

EASTERN_737-800_N276EA_MIA_1214BK_JP_I haven’t shared this on the blog save an article I wrote two months ago.  I am trying to collect signatures for something that is near and dear to my heart, an airline.

Yes, it’s weird, but hear me out.

You can read the longer story, but long story short is that I am trying to get a charter airline named Swift Air to keep the name of the company it acquired a few months back named Eastern Airlines.

If the name seems familiar, that’s because it was a major airline in the US until it folded in 1991.  Fast forward to 2015 and a new Eastern airline emerges.  Along the way there were some issues that came to fore where the founder left the company either by choice or by force.  In 2017 the new Eastern was looking for a buyer and found one with Swift Air. They bought the assets and there seem to be some talk that Swift would rebrand itself using the Eastern name.  To this date that hasn’t happened.

The petition is asking Swift to use the Eastern name in some form.  To that end, I have created a petition asking just that.

This is where you come in. If you follow this blog, I hope you will consider signing it. It will mean a lot.

You can sign at two places. You can choose this one or this other one.

 

The Avenging Savior

gerung-bowl7Is God a God of love or of justice?

That has been a question in my mind over the years.  Is God the God that loves everyone and saves everyone?  Or does he send people to hell?

As I left evangelicalism and wandered into mainline Protestantism, I started to think that God was all about love.  God saved everyone through Christ’s death on the cross and so no one gets punished?  God isn’t about wrath, just about love.

But I’ve wondered over the years if there is something wrong with assuming that God is only about love and not about justice.  Because if God is just about love, then whole chunks of the Old Testament are wrong. Which I tend to think is what a lot of people would like.  That God didn’t have any hesitation in raining down fire from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Or to flood the earth and kill everything save the people and animals on the ark.

Pastor Jason Micheli wrote on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed Blog about the concept of a God of Wrath.  He notes that most people want to focus on forgiveness, especially how we think of God in Jesus Christ:

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, The Question of Justice, we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

But Micheli concludes that God is not soley about forgiveness:

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross.

The cross is more properly about God working justice.

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Rutledge reminds her readers, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s magnificat and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God.

And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

The God portrayed in Mary’s Magnificat is not one that is all sweetness and light. In fact, it should put us on our knees, because this God is taking names.

I’ve been thinking about love, forgiveness and justice in light of the victim testimonies that have been taking place in a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan.  This is the where over 150 girls and women have come to confront convicting abuser Larry Nassar who molested them under the guise of giving them treatment. The statement that many focused on was the one given, by Rachael Denhollander. She was the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse. Her impact statement talked about how the abuse affected her, but she also took time to talk about her faith and what her Christian faith tells her about men like Nassar who refuse to see their evil. But she that wasn’t the whole story.  Here is the key part of her testimony:

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.


You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.


If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.


The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.


I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

Notice what she is saying here. She talks about a God of wrath that will punish men like Nassar. There is no Rob Bell “Love Wins” here, it is a fearsome justice that will happen to Nassar.

But neither is this just about punishment. She also tells Nassar that there is also grace from God, but that only comes through taking responsibilty and repenting of his sin.

Denhollander isn’t presenting a God of only wrath nor a God that is just love. Instead we see a God that is both. There is the God like the one in the Old Testament that will forgive if only the people of Israel repent from their old ways. It was only when they ignored those pleadings did God then move to punishment. There is something about her sense of judgement and forgiveness that you can tell isn’t cheap. Both are costly and both must be taken seriously.

The cross is both a sign of God’s anger at injustice and also a sign of God’s love of all creation. We need a God that can get angry when young girls are molested and a God that can offer grace to the abuser (if they acknowledge their sin).

The thing about Denhollander’s statement is the role choice has in all of this.  People can choose to not acknowledge their sin, the pain that they have caused and suffer the consequences. Or, they can also seek forgiveness and repent, turning away from damnation.

But the trend especially in progressive religious circles is to take away that choice.  It looks a little heartless to have a God that might allow people to be judged and sentenced to damnation.

In a 2011 column, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains that erasing the concept of hell can limit human freedom:

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

If what we do has no bearing on our eternal soul, then does justice matter? We are given the freedom to choose hell or not from our decisions. If our decisions don’t matter, then justice really doesn’t matter.

Denhollander’s talk of God’s judgement showed she believed Nassar’s actions had consequences not just in the hear and now, but in the hereafter. Only if he chooses to repent and seek God’s forgiveness can the script change.

I believe in hell because it is God’s way of avenging the innocent and punishing the proud. That doesn’t mean there isn’t salvation for sinners, but it does mean to be saved, you have to know you need saving.

I believe in a God of love. I truly believe in a God that loves all of creation. But I also believe in a God of justice, a God that doesn’t like when the vulnerable are oppressed. I believe we have choice in choosing salvation or damnation.

In the end, I believe God gives a damn.

Eastern Airlines and the Lost Cause

Eastern-Airlines-Boeing-737-at-Havana-2015-6-1024x768-1024x768

For the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in something that at least at surface level seems batty.

I’ve been running an online petition to gather at least 500 signatures to send to the leadership of a company.  It’s a long story, but I will try to make it short. I’ve been following the rebirth of Eastern Airlines.  Eastern was a major airline that folded suddenly in 1991.  It was reborn in 2015 to start as a charter airline with scheduled service coming later.  For reasons we don’t know, the founder of the airline left the company in 2016.  Many think he was pushed by the investors who wanted to make money fast.  The investors tried to run the company, and they did a bad job.  In 2017, Swift Air, another charter airline, bought the company. It sounded like the people who worked for Eastern would just be merged into Swift, but that wasn’t the case.  It seemed to be more of a sale of assets and nothing more.  Maybe a few went over to Swift, but a lot of employees including flight attendants were let go, from what I know in some cases without warning.

Swift has two airplanes from Eastern that for now still have the Eastern livery. My petition is a plea to Swift to keep the Eastern name in some way.  So far, over 225 people have agreed.  I want to get 500 people at the very least to sign it.

People have made fun of me saying the company will do what it wants or laugh at the possibility that my little petition could do anything.  There is also my own brain that wonders if I’ve gone mad. For many this seems like a lost cause.

When I look at our society today, what I see is an America that is risk-adverse. People don’t get involved or learn to dream big.  Where there are problems, people seem more content to just let them fester and not make a splash.  But I think the biggest problem is that we are an America ruled by common sense.

Mariana Alessandri wrote in the New York Times last year about Don Quixote and Lost Causes.  Spanish philosopher ressurected Spain’s most famous imaginary character after his nation’s loss in the Spanish American War.  He saw the delusional Quixote as a symbol to rally the people to take part in what might seem to be lost causes because to give into common sense is to not engage with the world. Unamuno sets up Quixote as the “sane” character while his sidekick, Sancho is really the delusional one:

Abandoning his senses — or rather, his common sense — freed up Quixote to engage in fruitless tasks like charging windmills. In the most famous scene of the book, his squire, Sancho Panza, warns Quixote that the giant he is tempted to charge is just a windmill, and, as such, should be left alone. Sancho’s common sense tells him that fights that are sure to be lost are not worth fighting. Yet it is that same common sense that continually keeps Sancho from engaging with the world; likewise, it keeps us from engaging in what are perhaps the worthiest of causes: the lost ones.

Unamuno believed that it was not Quixote but Sancho who was delusional, firm in his belief that windmills are not worth charging, and, more broadly, that unwinnable battles are not worth fighting. The result of this type of thinking will usually be paralysis, since most enemies are windmill-size instead of human-size. Sancho believed that tilting at windmills was dangerous. Today, we might just call it a waste of time, and since common sense also tells us that time is money, we had better steer clear of anything unprofitable.

The essay cites theorist Joshua Dienstag who says that Quixote charged windmills not because he thought he would win, but because it was the right thing to do. Quixote did what he did not thinking that it was sure thing, that success was certain. He was willing to be made a fool, because he believed battling windmills was a moral issue to be tackled, outcomes be damned.

Alessandri’s main point in the essay is that we can talk ourselves into thinking the monster in our lives is not that bad. While I don’t agree with Unamuno’s Marxist analysis or that Walmart is an always bad thing, her point still makes sense:

On Unamuno’s Marxist interpretation of the windmill scene, Quixote recognized that, though they might look harmless, the “long-armed giants” kept the townspeople sated and distracted enough to forget their oppression at the hands of the modern bread factories. Unamuno complained that instead of asking whether they would ultimately benefit the towns they invade, the townspeople ended up “venerate[ing] and pay[ing] homage to steam and electricity.” Contemporary windmills might look like a small town getting a Walmart, or like kindergartners getting free iPads. Common sense fails us in two ways: first and most often, it uncritically believes that technology equals progress, and second, even in cases in which people recognize the potential harm to the community, they generally don’t believe that they can resist it. Common sense calls it a waste of time and energy. Quixote rejected this calculus, instead favoring a moral metric to decide who and what to fight. Thus freed, Quixote was left open to fight for lost causes — and lose.

Warning: quixotic pessimism will not go over well in public. If you choose this life, Unamuno says you will face disbelief, judgment and ridicule. He writes that moral courage “confronts, not bodily injury, or loss of fortune, or the discredit of one’s honor but rather ridicule: one’s being taken for a madman or a fool.” In a real-life context, quixotic pessimism will look like constantly face-planting in public, and we will need moral courage to accept it. People will laugh at us as they do at Quixote. People will mock our decision to fight big machines, but we must do it neither to win nor to impress. We will eventually grow accustomed to ignoring the criticism of our saner colleagues and friends who seem to follow the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

This sense of trying to avoid lost causes or to become risk averse is something that I think plagues churches in America. In my years in mainline Protestantism, I’ve seen a church that isn’t really interested in experiment or risk. It is far more willing to play it safe more than anything else. It’s a reason that we don’t invest much time or effort into planting new churches; to do so is as I’ve heard people tell me, waste good money. Forget spreading the gospel, people just want to be taken care of.

Australian missiologist Alan Hirsch explains how risk-aversion is killing the church. He notes that a risk-adverse church tries to tame the gospel; to make more affirming of our middle class lifestyles. Episcopal priest Matt Marino shares this description and reminds us that this is a problem that reflects the entirety of the church in America (evangelical, mainline and so on). He notes:

Stasis and institutionalism are everywhere. I have experienced it in the mainline, the mega-church, the parachurch, education and mental health. Erwin McManus in his book, The Barbarian Way, tells of being at the trendiest Christian leadership conference in the country while the gurus of the big-box movement implored a generation of idealistic young youth pastors and church planters, “Don’t be an innovator, they get chewed up. Be an early adopter!” Not taking risks seems to be an inherent, and horribly sick, part of American church culture. How anyone can grow without risk is a mystery. Risk and faith and trust are the crucible where growth happens. Safety, security and a God who can be contained in our 5″x 7″ heads should sound like soul-death to those with a pulse. We may think we want safety and security, but don’t we really crave to stand on the edge of an abyss, fascinated by what might be on the other side and figuring out how to get the team across? Safety and security might be the “red sky at morning” of the dead religion Jesus came to free us from. Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” and “give his life as a ransom for many” (Luke 19:10, Mark 10:45), not create an institution to function as packing material to insulate ourselves from life.

Faith is about taking a risk. It is about moving from our comfort zones. Faith as a Christian means being willing to believe even if it doesn’t make sense,even if it seems a waste of time,even if people will make fun of you. Which is kind of what Jesus said would happen when people followed him.

Let’s go back to my working example of Eastern.  On the surface it looks like some crazy guy unwilling to let go of a failed business. But there is more going on here than just keeping nostalgia alive.  There’s the case of how workers (flight attendants, pilots, flight crew) were treated during the transition.  There were also promises made to companies on future orders of aircraft that are now in doubt.  As I said in a recent post on Medium:

 If Eastern wasn’t doing well, then it should have honestly shut down. I think people would have understood that. But it feels like the owners of Eastern didn’t really care if the airline lived or died. They gave up. There also seems to be some dishonesty in the sale. The leaked email said things like the “next exciting chapter in the Eastern story.” But that seemed to be crock of you-know-what. The next exciting chapter was basically to shut down.

The actions of the owners had repercussions. People lost jobs because of this.

The common sense take would be to see this as just another company that folded and lost workers. It would be another airline that should have never started in the first place.

My petition has a high chance of failure. The naysayers might be right that it won’t change people’s minds. Common sense rules again.

But sitting on the sidelines and calling potshots might be safe, but it can also keep unjust people or systems in power. Charging a windmill might seem foolish, but it could be that the windmill will fall.

When I am being teased for charging this windmill, I am reminded by this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and attack a windmill.