On Decisions

On Decisions (/) is third in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications (!), and the second was On Questions (?).

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“I’ve been really struggling with a decision lately.”

“With what?”

“Well, you know how my phone’s screen cracked last month? Lately, the entire thing hasn’t been powering on.  And so I have been trying to decide between simply replacing it with the same model, or going ahead and getting an upgrade.”

“Okay.”

“…and, you know, I’ve been really praying about this one. You know, whatever God wants for me, that’s what I want.”

“…what?”

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The person in the above anecdote may or not have been the same person who told me “Jesus really doesn’t want me to have this Samsung Galaxy Tab III right now.”

It may or may not have been the same couple who, as they held their hands, proclaimed, “If it’s the Lord’s will that we be together…”

It may or not have been the same Chicagoan who, upon learning I’m from Oregon, tells me, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to move to Portland.”

(To which I cynically respond, if they had read Blue Like Jazz lately, and they then take my seemingly psychic observation of their recent reading to be confirmation that it is time for them to make the move.)

Folks, welcome to the sort of American Christianity that looks less like gospel and more like a tenet of moralistic therapeutic deism. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

Say what you want, but the issue with this ethos is that God begins to seep into the everyday problems. It soon follows that many of the most passionate Christians out there are suddenly crippled when it comes to decisions that mere mortals have been successfully making for millennia. Decisions such as buying gadgets, falling in love, or moving somewhere new.

 To which I want to wave my hands and yell, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God!”

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Unfortunately, I’m going up against one of the most oft-quoted Scripture passages on biblical decision making.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.

At first blush, these verses appear to counsel the reader to throw the weight of his decision-making upon the divine.

But I digress — for this comes from the Proverbs. A collection of sayings where piety meets tradition meets common sense. It is a book of wisdom and, as a few verses down the road from the above passage indicate, wisdom is something human beings can grasp for themselves.

Proverbs 3:13-18
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.

We may have to make tough decisions (for, as verse 12 says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves”), but God’s will is not cryptic or overly particular. It is simple: it is for the good.

My hands are still waving. I am still yelling my jeremiad, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God. Instead, avoid using warped scales of the world to make your decisions: pride, sin, greed and instant gratification. Instead, use the measurements God has given you: love, holiness, wonder and awe. Leave foolishness behind, and grasp tightly onto wisdom.”

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Lukewarm biblical exegesis is not the only culprit. There is another reason, and it extends beyond American Christian subculture to every corner of the globe within driving distance from an airport.

Economics is the theology of the modern age and, for better or worse, the ideology of capitalism currently reigns supreme. What capitalism has believed from the onset, and the world capitalism has created in its image, is that the “invisible hand” will do its work as long as we religiously pursue our self-interest. The gears of the world, we are implicitly taught, are dependent on us choosing to “maximize our preferences.”

Today, we sin when we don’t buy the best things at the best price; do the right work for the right reward; or match our lives to the right people, places and purposes. The corresponding spirituality to this capitalist theology is to simply live a life of no regrets.

We are to make the best decisions, always.

Which, of course, is impossible.

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Instead of critiquing this aspect of capitalism (and there is much in capitalism to critique and to praise), we decide to bring God into our mundane decisions. We use God as a sort of anesthesia to cope with the stress of decision-making, without addressing the root cause of this stress.

When we are done praying and feel the anesthesia wear off, we find we have to make a decision after all, but now our stress has been exponentially multiplied.

Why? In addition to fearing sinning against a world tells us to make the best decisions only and always, we now fear sinning against God, for if we have not discerned the right decision, then it seems we have not truly trusted in God with all our heart.

Or worse, we reject all responsibility for our decisions, and when things turn out for ill, we blame it on the Lord.

Outsourcing our decisions to the divine explodes the possible choices into cosmic proportions.

Which is sad, because when we bring our decisions to the divine, it should put our decisions into perspective.

It is so entirely possible that in a world where God is real, the decision of whether or not we replace our smartphone with the same model or upgrade to a better one (or perhaps even downgrade to a basic phone), is not that big of a decision at all.

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How, then, are we going to remediate decisions?

I don’t have a revolution in mind, but just some simple observations that serve as tips and tricks. Apologies for those of you who wanted something more. Feel free to add to this list:

1. The decision does not always have to be between A or B, but sometimes can be C (or D or E or F or G). 

We often get so trapped between the first two choices that come to mind that we are blinded to the whole range of options out there. This is an obvious point, I suppose, but it is a helpful reminder from time to time. Although knowing there are more decisions out there than we could possibly keep together in our head could be a source of stress, I think more often than not it will help us out of a decision-making rut.

2. When the only options are A or B, it isn’t necessarily good or bad, but sometimes simply good or slightly better. 

We are probably more familiar with the darker version of this reality, the “lesser of two evils” argument. Nonetheless, when only two respectable (or disrespectable) options are presented to us, it is not that big of a deal if we make the less than optimal decision. (It’s not, for example, worth shutting down the whole federal government to have one’s way between a private health care system that probably works and a public health care system that probably works.)

3. Every decision simultaneously comes with regret and excitement. So there will be regrets. 

After making a decision, we will feel excitement when reflecting on the benefits. Likewise we will also feel regret reflecting on the costs. While there is something common-sensical about maximizing excitement and minimizing regrets, we should not aspire for “no regrets.” The temptation then becomes not only to make foolish decisions through distorted cost-benefit analyses, but to flat-out deny that the decisions we make have real costs. Doing so might just make us sick.

4. Sometimes the “big decision” is simply one decision in a series of a thousand or more. 

There are a number of “big decisions” in our life — where we go to school, who we marry, what we believe, etc. These can be particularly stressful, simply because they are bound to shape the trajectory of our lives. But, in the long run, these “big decisions” are only one decision out of many. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” school, the more important decisions will be what classes you take, what extracurricular activities you involve yourself in, how many times you decide to get out of bed in the morning. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” spouse, the more important decisions will be every time you to choose to love, listen, and work together. Regardless of what you believe, perhaps what ends up mattering in the end is how you decide to act on those beliefs.

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Clarification: we, of course, may decide not to got to school, decide not to marry, or choose not to believe in anything. But we rarely make these decisions once and for all, for they are always subject to revision as our life unfolds.

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Confession: The person at the beginning of this mediation, the one trying to discern God’s will over a smartphone upgrade, could very well have been me.

Well, it was me, although not involving a smartphone but some other gizmo. Something basic, something I knew would be helpful but I wasn’t sure I needed.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, I have found myself praying over many a simple consumer purchase.

The answer I get, if one gets such answers in prayer, has yet to be “buy” or “don’t buy.”

Simply, “go ahead, make the decision.”

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Addendum: As a twenty-something relatively fresh out of college, I’m sometimes exhausted by the amount of consequential decision-making I find myself making.

The sort of work I do requires strategic planning, unprecedented guesswork, and taking most of the blame when something goes wrong. Sometimes I want to go to work and just pull a lever. Over and over and over again. And, even if it is not stimulating or exciting, at least I know I am creating something good.

But I don’t have that luxury. It isn’t the life I have decided for myself, at least for this year.

Every day, I need to remind myself of the joy there is in simply being free to decide.

If you liked this blog post:

I’m going to ask you to change gears real quick and consider doing me a favor. As many of you know, whether it is self-publishing essays like The Virtue of Open-Mindedness or even this blog project itself, I’m fascinated with the challenge of finding new ways of getting written ideas out there in the 21st century world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Barna Group is trying out a new project in “short yet meaningful reads on top issues facing us in today’s complex culture” called “Frames.” Part of that project is something called “the 10th Frame”, where select authors are asked to develop 140-character Tweets into 1,000 word essays (the average length of my blog posts, although these mediations have been indulgently long).

Part of the formula for deciding which authors get to develop their posts into essays is the amount of retweets their concept gets (See where this is going?). There is another stage of the competition after that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Long story short: I’d love to try my hand at this challenge. And you can support me in that by retweeting the following:

In case the suspense is killing you, this involves reflecting on my life as an activist in a world of climate change, and my life as a youth minister in a world of gentrification. If you want to know more, cross your fingers this tweet gets the judges’ attention.

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On Decisions

Will you be my enemy?

Thought experiment: at what points in the Gospels does Jesus kneel on the ground? Fall on the ground? In the presence of friends, or in the presence of the enemies? In the turning the other cheek and walking an additional mile stuff, is Jesus still standing?

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

There’s the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount that I get. The greed and money stuff, the lust and women stuff. Even the trumpets and almsgiving stuff, which is remarkable because after all these years I am not really sure what almsgiving actually is or why anyone would blow a trumpet in the process. But I still get it, in the sense I find it all rather convicting.

And then there is this bit. The “love your enemies” paradox that we are somehow supposed to live out. It doesn’t do anything for me.

The problem is not one of difficulty. Rather, the problem is that I don’t seem to have any enemies.

I seem to be able to manage my scuffles pretty well. There were a few candidates along the way that could almost qualify as an “enemy”: when I was in the 1st grade, one of my soccer teammates would persistently throw me into the bushes during practice. In the 7th grade, some 9th grader stole the heart of the girl I was crushing on…

That’s pretty much where the list ends. Really.

I mean, there were people in high school and college who made decisions that upset me (to say nothing of my short stint so far in the real world). But those people were not attacking me personally, and sometimes even were actively although misguidedly looking out for my best interests.

It has always felt like having enemies is a dirty thing.

Does that make sense? Does anyone else feel that way? Like, instead of fretting over how you acted towards someone who is genuinely an enemy (which is what Jesus is talking about), you are stuck on the fact that you have an enemy in the first place (which Jesus implies is a normal part of the human experience)?

(It certainly was a part of his human experience.)

I was a conflict transformation major in college, and part of the Intro to Conflict Transformation course was taking the “Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory” – a short personality test of sorts that would give a sense of just how exactly I tend to respond to conflict in my life.

In most situations, I came out a “Harmonizer.” Looking at that answer key, where my conflict style type was represented by panda bear clip art, was like looking at a mirror. Low focus on own agenda and high focus on relationship. “You win and I lose.” Benefits: Creates pleasant atmosphere. Costs: Stunted growth of personal gifts. Also, denies others the benefit of healthy confrontation. Possible acceptance of patterns or behaviors that ought to be changed.

Hmm.

To be clear, I have no sense of guilt about being a Harmonizer. I am who I am.

But over the past couple years since taking this test, I have begun to understand the “love your enemies” paradox with a more self-aware perspective. And, like the parts about greed and lust and trumpets, that part of the Sermon on the Mount has begun to convict me like it should.

For years, this was my amateur exegesis: if hypothetical disciple had an enemy, then the solution to the enemy problem was to love the enemy until hypothetical disciple eventually began to like them, and the enemy liked hypothetical disciple back, and then everyone would be reconciled and happy.

Which I suppose could happen — hypothetically. (“Fake it till you make it.”) But there was a problem with this interpretation. Here, love was the means, not the end. The problem was not that there was not enough love, but that there was one too many enemies.

According to this interpretation: since loving one’s enemies was supposed to turn enemies into friends, and I did not have any enemies, I had mastered the “love your enemies” command before I even heard it. An A+ on my Sermon on the Mount progress report.

As I have come to realize, for a Harmonizer like myself, there is a quiet-yet-radical call in the “love your enemy” paradox. Where many people might struggle with the love part, I am one of those struggling with the enemy part.

I am struggling to admit that there are people out there who might want to attack me personally. That there are people out there who are competing against me for the same scarce resources. That there are people whose vision of human (or non-human) well-being and flourishing is fundamentally incompatible with my own. That there are people who cheat, steal from, abuse, discriminate or otherwise hate upon those people that I care about.

That there are people who I consider an enemy.

It has been easier to hurt than to work, to pretend that the conflict does not really exist. Therefore my tendency has been, for the sake of giving my enemies a place to stand, to let myself be trampled on instead of finding the common ground.

Maybe I need to read the texts more closely, but, as far as I know, not once did Jesus lay down on the ground for his enemies. He would turn his cheek for enemies, but he would not let his knees touch the ground unless it was to wash the feet of the disciples.

This is not a call to go around with an “ENEMY” rubber stamp and labeling it on the foreheads of everyone who has done me wrong. Rather, it is finding that middle way between retaliation and retreat, the path to reconciliation. And knowing that even if I find the middle way, I might journey in vain.

To a Harmonizer like myself, the crucified Jesus says, “Hey, listen. It’s quite alright to have enemies. Look at me. Even I did, and I was the Son of God. And if you are going to stick up for what you believe is right, if you are truly going to put yourself out there, then there are going to be people you will piss off. You cannot control that. You do not get to decide your enemies…”

“…but you do get to decide whether or not you love them.”

This blog post is the second installment of a three part series where I’m reflecting on Matthew 5:43-48 from different parts of my life. The first post, “Thou shalt love thy frenemy“, written from the perspective of youth ministry, was published on NorthSideYouthCollision.com. This one comes from a more personal angle; next week will be from the perspective of being a climate change activist.

Will you be my enemy?

Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

Finances are spiritual issues. Budgets are moral documents. Are economic beliefs, then, theological statements?

In the introduction to their book How Much Is Enough?, a critique of systems of political economy geared towards blind growth, father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky admit that their entire vision of a better society ultimately rests on “a declaration of faith” (p.10, emphasis added).  They claim that “[t]o go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another” (p. 123, emphasis added). They praise Catholic social teaching  for moderating “against [both] state socialism and unrestrained capitalism” (p. 186), in addition to further comments on Christian Scripture, the Dharamsūtras of Brahman India, the Confucius and Tao philosophies of ancient China, and the contemporary pseudo-religion of Gaia.

They mention the theological bearings of great economists. They note that while John Maynard Keynes’ work focused on the gears and whistles of capitalism, Keynes always had “religion under the surface,” holding onto the hope that reckless capitalism would eventually pass away and usher in “the heaven of art, love, and the quest for knowledge” (p. 17). They reference Adam Smith’s rather detached view of God, (aka: “The Great Director of the Universe”), who “has merely set the machinery [of economics] in motion, leaving it to self-love to work its benefits” (p. 50).

With those quotes from How Much Is Enough? in mind, I want to make what may seem like a surprising turn to An Altar in the World, written by Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Like the Skidelskys, Taylor is interested in questions of what the good life looks like, but she comes to these questions through the lens of personal spirituality rather than political economy.

Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.
Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.

Humor me this and read this quote of Taylor’s on the “spiritual practice” of paying attention to the “sacrament” of a mail-order catalog:

“First, there are the people who produced the catalog—the designers, the photographers, the models, and the copyeditors—along with the people who produced the goods inside. Some of those people live in Mexico and others in the Phillipines. In China, where cashmere goats are bred to produce sweaters for American consumers, traditional grasslands are so overgrazed that thousands of square miles turn to desert each year. If you could lay a laminated map of the world on the floor and put a pin in every place where something in that mail-order catalog came from, you might be amazed at how prickly the map became.” (p.31)

Got that? Good, because now compare that to this excerpt from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, where, instead of pins on a map, he is dropping exclamation points over his description of the assembly of a piece of clothing:

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! (I.1.11)

Save for Taylor’s reference to nature resource overuse, both Taylor and Smith are saying the same thing, that there is an incomprehensible economic wonder caused by the division of labor.

In fact, Taylor probably did not do this intentionally, but throughout her chapters discussing various spiritual practices, she has a coherent (although not systematic) economic doctrine of her own regarding the concept of work, the factor of production sometimes called labor.

“Work,” Taylor says, “connects us to other people,” using the examples of the customer service agent and the oft-overlooked school custodian (p.114-115). The idea here is that the fruits of our labors are not often for us to enjoy; and, if I may run away with the text, the implication is that the whole purpose of economic theorizing is less about making a profit and more about understanding the fabric of human relations to each other.

But while Taylor affirms the value of work, she also moderates this claim. She laments the loss of Sabbath culture in the American South, starting in the 1960s when “gross domestic product had become the foremost indicator of the nation’s health and well-being” (p.128). With her elegant prose, she explains her logic: “[b]y interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying in picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.” (p.131).

Taylor goes even further, describing when a blizzard ripped through town and stranded her and her husband on their Georgia farm. With no road and no electricity, the author had to put down her pen and become a physical laborer for the sake of her survival and the survival of those around her (p. 143). The lessons learned from those days become a two-pronged reflection on the value of physical labor and on exceeding one’s self-interest, admitting that “the people who do these things for a living are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If American culture admitted to caste, then these laborers would be the shudras” (p.146).

There is much more to say on Taylor’s concept of labor, but I have to stop there for the sake of bringing my thoughts full circle. Suffice it to say that Taylor could not talk spirituality without stumbling upon economics. And while this seems to happen mostly in the background, Taylor does at least once bring it straight to the forefront, claiming that “[i]f Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (p.131).

I don’t know what to make of the sex piece, but if Taylor is claiming that God is interested in economics, there are economists who are quite interested in (some sort of) God. The Skidelskys, in the second-to-last paragraph (so, rhetorically speaking, they really do mean it) of their entire book on money and the good life, write the following personal ad, albeit in reserved academic prose:

The basic goods…are not logically dependent on any single religious doctrine, but their realization is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide. Most of the liberal reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Christians; others were among those who, as Keynes said of himself, “destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.” Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it. (p.218)

It may seem like a match made in heaven, but I think Christians need to pause for a moment and realize the implications of such an opportunity. How can we frame this not so that the church is a pawn of human progress, but rather that a healthier economics is the consequence of the church living into its mission of being a foretaste of things to come, being the salt of the earth?

Continue reading “Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief”

Aside

What if the church were to save the planet?

A few weeks ago, someone asked me “regarding climate change, how would you like to see the church act differently?” Not a question I’m used to, unfortunately. Whatever words came out of my mouth were hardly an answer I felt satisfied with.

(A number of the things I post here are originally based off questions that I initially struggle to answer, but after mulling about it for a day or week or month or so I finally have a response I can excited about. But since by that time the conversation has been over for a day or week or month or so it’s usually too late to bring the point back up and so I figure I’ll just tell the whole world wide web. So, yeah, this is one of those posts.)

From Genesis 1 & 2, it is pretty clear that there is a biblical mandate to care for the planet. God created a whole lot of stuff, and saw that it was good. He then created humankind “in his image,” which means a lot of things but certainly implies that from the perspective of another mammal, bird, fish or perhaps even a plant, that those tall, mostly hairless, two-legged things walking around should resemble in action the Creator that gave them existence, cared for them, and saw that they were good.

Instead, humanity has destroyed the living things of the planet and overwhelmingly neglected their needs. Instead of seeing the created world as “good because God said so” it has been treated as a bank of natural resources that are “valuable to fulfill my own wants.” And the church has been largely complicit in this affair, preaching a theology of domination rather than a theology of stewardship, although that has thankfully been changing back for the better in recent years.

But why climate change? Is it not enough that this or that local church recycles and has a community garden in the backyard?

One reason could be because the church sees care for the poor as part of its mission. The ability to adapt to climate change (or any sort of change for that matter) is a privilege of those endowed with some savings or at least a decent credit rating. Many humanitarian aid organizations, secular and faith-based, are already realizing that they need to respond to climate issues. My hunch is that groups like World Vision and Bread for the World are no more than three years away from highly visible climate campaigns.

But instead of focusing on duty, I want to talk about potential. Because I think the church can afford to be ambitious. The church might actually be humanity’s best chance at overcoming the climate change crisis, simultaneously saving the planet while living more into a vision of redeemed humanity.

Let me explain.

The church is a global force.

Unlike most environmental issues (i.e., air pollution, deforestation, and invasive species), global warming is, well, a global force. It is not limited to specific localities of cause and effect, but instead has the ubiquitous power to change the entire world order. It takes a global force to counteract a global force.

While we talk a lot about living in a “globalized” world, the list of truly global forces is actually quite small. The Internet. Capitalism. The United Nations. None of these have made satisfactory progress towards halting climate change, and at least one of them has been a contributing culprit.

With 2.2 billion adherents, however, the church is a global force in its own right. No other religious group comes close in terms of size and geographic spread, and that number is essentially tied with the number of worldwide internet users. Setting aside theological considerations and speaking in strict sociological terms: if there is any group worldwide with the muscle to mobilize effectively around issues of climate, my money is on the church.

Bonus points to the first person to call which Chicago-based church this is, presently concealed by the all-too-rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The church has the power to change hearts and renew minds. 

Sometimes climate activists look against the hard, economic data and, despaired by the calculations, throw their hands up in the air in defeat.

Economic projections are usually based on expectations of human wants versus resource scarcity. While there is not much the church can feasibly do about scarcity, it certainly has and continues to be influential in shaping our desires. Whether hosting drug addiction treatment programs or inspiring charity in the human heart, we know of the church as a space for cultivating sensitivity to a higher yearning.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

As an oft-tossed around proverb amongst my close friends goes, “you just gotta want it.” For where there is a want, there is a will; where there is a will, there is a way.

The church has the voice to pastor in an era defined by climate change. 

Environmentalism has a tendency to take on spiritual overtones (sentiments like “feeling one with nature,” for example). As global warming increasingly moves from hypothetical model to experienced reality, I would not be surprised if the response by the general public was of a zealous, religious, almost-panicked scale.

Think about it. An abstract, formless phenomenon has the power to change things around the entire world, rewarding humanity for obeying some sort of code, and punishing humanity when it does not, adding the promise-threat of impending apocalypse. This same category applies to “global warming” equally as it does to our Judeo-Christian concept of “God.”

The obvious problem is that “global warming” is limited in its ability to meet the human being in a holistic manner. Climate change’s ensuing call for action may wake us up in the morning, but it will not give us peace when we go to bed at night.

In this context, the church has an opportunity to proclaim a greater story; a story of love, yearning, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness. The gospel story, if you will.

This is an opportunity for the church to be an effective witness. But it needs to position itself now in order to capitalize on this chance, by swiftly responding to the reality of global warming by demonstrating a sense of duty (yes, this is our responsibility), a confession of guilt (yes, we have screwed up), and an act of faith (yes, we can change this). If the church ignores the crisis of climate now, the church will deserve to be ignored in the midst of a crisis of meaning.

What does this look like? Maybe it starts with finding groups that can carpool to church. Pastors are always trying to create small groups within their congregations anyways. But ultimately what it will require is a confidence to engage in systemic change that comes from prophetic vision, holding accountable not just congregations but the leaders of politics and industry. And efforts are already underway, and it is super easy to get involved.

So, in response to the question I was asked a couple weeks ago – I would love it if the church, instead of being reluctantly dragged into faith-based coalitions against global warming, took more leadership on the issue and showed that it had some confidence in itself. If, in 2050, the church can say, instead of “we did our part” say “we did it!”, that would be just incredible. We just gotta want it.

What if the church were to save the planet?

Portlandia in Christian Conversion

Before I get to Portland, I need to start in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is a theologian there by the name of Kä Mana, who tells the story of a traditional African priest meeting with the head of the Catholic mission. The traditional priest had seen not only the truth in this “gospel of Jesus Christ” but witnessed how it had grabbed a hold of  and brought a new energy onto his entire village. One day, after communion had been served at the mission, the traditional priest looked his Catholic counterpart in the eye and said, “I know that one day or the other, your ‘sacrifice’ will replace mine, the word of Jesus Christ will replace my ancestral and ancient word without destroying it. I am going to die a happy man because I know there will always be a sacrifice made in our village. That is very important. I hand over to you. Continue with what our ancestors started, and of which I was the high priest.”

This “gifting of culture” is what could be called a conversion story. I was at a seminar on contextual theologies last year, where Andrew Walls (a wise old guy with a British accent) gave the opening lecture. According to Walls, conversion is less about content (some would call dogma) and more about direction. Conversion is turning what is already there, in terms of culture and tradition, towards Christ, instead of starting from scratch.

“Thanks to Christ,” Kä Mana says, “we can look at ourselves as we are in the founding myths of our destiny, to discover that we are neither angels nor demons, but human beings in search of the meaning of our existence, building our society by promoting the positive values of life, and by fighting against the negative values of death that are permanently interwoven with them.”

This all has to do with Portland, at least in my perspective. I am wrapping up a summer of living in a hub of the Rose City’s network of intentional Christian communities, doing some Sunday morning church hopping, and coming back from runs with a free (and sweaty) copy of the Portland Tribune in hand only because the front page read “Black ministers lead push against city’s gang violence” or (more relevant to this piece) “Will churches survive in land of vegans, nature lovers?”. My hunch is that these same ideas about “conversion of culture” work just as well in the post-Christian Portland, Oregon context as they do in the pre-Christian African village.

Yes, a statue like this can be found in “post-Christian” Portland.

I do want to be careful however, as Portland is a quite heterogeneous city. Even if my Chicago friends assail Portland for its supposed lack of diversity, there are still many local subplots that represent real, alive and breathing, human beings. For the sake of simplicity (this is a blog post, nothing more), I am going to focus on one dominant strand of local narrative; the quirky, youthful, thoughtful vision of a deliberately different lifestyle that has been captured and defined by the TV series Portlandia.

From the state that brought the nation bottle recycling, I think it makes sense to talk about “redemption value” when speaking of what the American church has to gain by being present in Portlandia. This essentially post-Christian culture is a space to explore, not a vacuum to (re)fill. Kä Mana thinks the church in Africa can become the “theatre for the globalisation of love and humanness”, similarly, I think the Portlandian church has something positive to spread throughout the larger American church. The surface was scratched when Donald Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz, reflecting on his experiences at Reed College, but there is much more to go.

To be clear to my non-Christian friends happening to read this, I am not talking about proselytization or weird strategies on how to effectively save souls. This is a conversation addressed towards the church about how engagement with the Portlandia ethos can help the American church be a better church. I don’t know why you would be interested, but feel free to eavesdrop.

Let me get started with some eavesdropping of my own. Someone who (by outlook if not presently by geography) qualifies as Portlandian, stated “Life is absurd. God is love. We are free.” This simple statement struck me as a near-perfect statement of Portlandian spirituality. It is this mantra that I want to explore further (and if you happen to be the one who wrote this mantra, you are totally welcome to claim it. I would apologize for not asking, but I think you’re cool with it.)

Life is absurd.

For some, this is the existential statement par excellence, the motto of the stereotypical Portland State philosophy student with Camus in one hand and a cigarette (or not, but whatever it is it rhymes with not) in the the other.

The Christian apologist would contend that the observation of absurdity implies some sort of yardstick on which to measure such a statement. Can’t see shadows without sunshine, can’t see absurdity without order. Rightfully so, but the clever Portlandian (and she is clever) does not automatically assume God’s name is on this yardstick. Instead, she will point to the mountains as her measure, those glacial rocky spires mocking our downtown skyscrapers of Babel. Skyscrapers which, by the way, may be revealed as mere sandcastles when the big one hits.

Continue reading “Portlandia in Christian Conversion”

Portlandia in Christian Conversion