Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Weirdo!

This week I picked up some dress shirts from the dry cleaners and was reminded why I go so infrequently even though I wear them every single day to work. Picking them up leads to my absolute least favorite chore I ever do: preparing the shirts to be hung back up in my closet. I have to remove the tags from each shirt. Then I have to button the cuff and placket (yes, I had to google this word) on each sleeve, then button all the front buttons and replace the stupid wire hanger with a real hanger. This is not really that big of a deal, but for some reason I HATE DOING IT! This is the reason why I wear my shirts twenty times before I take them to the dry cleaners (unless they get visibly dirty).


This chore also prompted my idea for this blog.


It doesn't take much reflection to realize that we are all a little weird. We have odd habits, mannerisms, and dispositions at times. I am no exception. In fact I am an exemplar of weirdness. So, I want to take a few minutes to itemize some of my idiosyncrasies and odd behaviors. I would also like to encourage any reader to do the same!


So, here we go. Another of my top fives.


1. I don't unbutton all the front buttons on my dress shirts when I take them off or put them on. I just unbutton the top two and then slip the shirt over my head like a t-shirt. The dry cleaning process has created this strong of a disdain for using the buttons on my dress shirts!


2. I often stand up instead of sit down when watching TV. This drives my wife crazy, but sometimes I just like to stand up! I sit at work all day. So, if you happen to look through our living room window some night and see her sitting on the couch and me standing up as we watch TV, don't be alarmed by my weird behavior.


3. I always organize the bills in my wallet. I put them all right-side-up and in descending order from front to back. I hate when they are out of order or are facing different directions. This is one of the biggest ways that I exhibit signs of OCD.

4. I drive with my seat moved up pretty far in my car. I don't hug the steering like an old lady. I don't quite touch the underside of the steering panel with my knees, but I like them to be close. Whenever anyone else drives my car, like my wife or Danny DeVito, they move the seat back.

5. This one should not be weird because it simply makes more sense than the alternative. When I make a PB&J, I put the jelly on the first. Apparently no one else does. But, it's so much easier. After I spread the jelly, I can wipe off what excess remains on either piece of bread. Then I can use the peanut butter with a clean knife. You can't do that the other way around; the peanut butter is too sticky. If you spread the peanut butter first, you have to use a different knife for the jelly or clean the knife first. Otherwise, you'll contaminate the jelly. Some people spread the peanut butter first, then spread the jelly on top of it, but that's just dumb. Put jelly on one slice, wipe the knife on the bread, then put peanut butter on the other.

Honorable mention: When I'm in my car alone, I pick my nose. Don't judge.

Those are some of my weird habits. I know you have them. If you don't think you do, ask your family or friends. Let's all embrace how odd each of us are sometimes!

Share some of your own!






Friday, August 25, 2017

I Could Be Wrong About This...

The other day I was reading in Acts 10 and 11 and I started to have a realization about myself and our culture in general. I think it is worth sharing. My point here won't simply be spiritual, so don't let a disinterest in spirituality/religion keep you from reading on.


But before I get to my point, here's what happened in this passage: God ordained a meeting between the Apostle Peter (a Christ-following Jew) and Cornelius, a Gentile who had a high level of reverence for the God of Israel. In their meeting, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the believing Gentiles, just as it had been in Judea among proselytized Jews. Upon returning to Jerusalem, the Apostles question Peter in an accusatory manner about his closeness and unity with unclean Gentiles on this journey (physical and moral purity was a key distinguishing cultural characteristic of Jews, as non-Jews were not God's chosen people and were considered unclean). He recounted the story to them, ending with the pronouncement about the Holy Spirit and stating that if God was working in such a fashion, then he (Peter) would not stand in God's way.


How did the Apostles respond? They ceased objecting and praised God that He even granted life to the Gentiles.

In other words, they adjusted their beliefs and notions based on what was revealed to them. They were wrong in what they thought, and so changed when faced with new information. They had a complete change of heart. This is a lesson that we all need to learn because it is not something that we do.

What do we actually do?

We are surrounded by so much dialogue. And so much of this dialogue is focused on legitimate issues that we should focus on. Everyone talks. Everyone has a voice. This reality has potential to be a very good thing. The problem, however, is that we've lost the ability to have constructive dialogue. This is largely because we simply do not listen to voices that differ from our own. Our preconceived notions and unyielding views deafen us. All we know how to do is talk past others, try to prove them wrong and/or make them look bad, dispute, and fail to ever reconsider our own positions. We don't objectively evaluate our own views.

Ironically, we live in a society where open-mindedness is embraced by all and practiced by none. When we talk about issues, we don't try to reach common ground or actually attempt to discern the most appropriate stances or solutions. All we want to do is to prove that we are right and that others are wrong, and usually drag others through the dirt in the process. We embrace arguments that help us and dismiss arguments that don't. We refuse to consider the possibility that we may be wrong about something or that someone else may have a better stance. In a day in which everyone can finally have a voice, we have misplaced the ability to talk and listen. Those who differ in views are dangerous enemies, and to give their thoughts credence is blasphemy or treason. Opposing views can't be listened to; they must be ignored or rebutted, and ridiculed. This is why decisiveness now seems to define every conversation. Pathetically, this is true not only in religion and politics, but even in meaningless fields like sports and entertainment. 


Who is guilty?


The answer is that all of us are. Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and liberals; old folks and young folks; poor and rich; Christians and Muslims. None of us really listen to differing views and we usually respond by condescendingly painting those with opposing views from our own with a broad brush. It is so hard for us to change our opinions about anything, regardless of what evidence or data we are faced with. Instead of changing our minds, we either twist and pervert data to reinforce our worldviews or we accuse the presenters of that info of doing so.


We live in a world increasingly defined by self-autonomy. This means that everyone defines what is right or wrong for themselves and that meaning is found in whatever way each individual determines. Accordingly, each individual is in charge, and to have views imposed by others is an assault on self. This is why I believe that we refuse to hold any of our notions with anything short of an iron grip. To have your own views and assumptions challenged is a personal attack. To preserve our self-autonomy we close our ears and shut others out. We may talk, but it's to convince them of how good and right we are and how bad and wrong they are. True constructive dialogue has been lost in the name of pride and self-preservation. We embrace those who reinforce our thoughts and wish to silence those who challenge them.


Such as...


We see this played out most strongly in political and religious environments. Look at any issue that touches on public policy. Too many conservatives dismiss anything that suggests that global warming is a reality, or at least one that man influences; too many liberals fail to consider that pro-lifers oppose abortion out of an affirmation of the sanctity of human life instead of out of a desire to impose a cold, archaic religious view on others; too many Republicans think Democrats want a socialist economic system, and too many Democrats think that Republicans only care about the rich; too many conservatives fail to consider that there actually may be racism built into our justice and law enforcement systems; too many liberals refuse to consider that conservatives are not simply small-minded or stubborn in their reluctance to embrace progressivism. This list could go on and on.


Dialogue within the religious community is no less stagnant. There are differing views within Christianity over issues such as marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity, doctrinal understanding, roles of men and women, the role of faith in public life, etc.  Within Protestantism, the lines are usually roughly drawn between evangelical and liberal Christianity. There is a staunch refusal to listen with an open mind to the views of others here just as much as within the political sphere. Each side believes that they have the moral high ground and that the other is deceived or has a misinformed understanding of scripture. To reconsider one's views is out of the question, as it would indicate weakness and a lack of conviction. As a result, dialogue lacks compassion and empathy, and is instead marked by derision and violence at worst, or silent judgment at best.


There is so much debate and conversation, but so little listening or self-examination. The more we talk, the more close-minded and ignorant we all seem to get.


LISTEN


So, what do we need to go to get past this? I don't have that answer, but I think I have a few ideas that could help. First, we've got to get over ourselves. We may be wrong, and we have to live with that. If we need to change a view then change it. It's better to have an honest change than to stay stuck in your wrongness out of principle. This is a sign of humility and an open mind. If we've never changed out minds or views on anything, then that reality is a good sign that this step applies to you.


Second, we've got to stop seeing dissenters as enemies. People can civilly disagree and have different views without one being morally or intellectually superior to another. A key practice we need to end is that of assigning ulterior motives or hidden agendas to proponents of views that differ from our own. We can honestly come to different conclusions with benign intentions, AND still be friends. We need to be able to talk to people instead of at people. We should see people as people, not obstacles or tools.


Third, learn to articulate and defend views that contrast with your own. This will do one of two things if we do it with honesty: allow us to better accept and articulate our own views, or see the merit in the other side and possibly adjust our stance.


Lastly, we need to just listen without always offering responses or rebuttals. This is something that I need to work on in general, especially with my wife! We need to see each other as humans who are worth knowing, listening to, and caring for. Swallow your pride. Listen to others. I'm not suggesting that you should violate your conscience or give up everything you stand for. However, most things aren't gospel doctrine, and if we aren't willing to consider their validity or lack of then maybe we're guilty of elevating them to that status.




We are growing further and further apart as people in spite of an ever-increasing access to idea, information, and platforms for expression. We have to be able to listen, or we risk being overcome with pride, selfishness, and complacency. The more we allow ourselves to grow deaf, the more we'll desensitize ourselves to others in general. This will certainly not make the world a better place. We have two ears and a one mouth for a reason. My challenge to you and myself is to learn to really listen to others. Other people are not generally less sincere than we are.


*   *   *   *   *


The Apostles of Jesus changed their views on a hugely important doctrine because they listened and accepted evidence that contradicted their notions. Are we superior to them in that we have no need to ever evaluate our thoughts and practices critically? None of us are above reproach, and none of us are infallible in the views we adopt. Being willing to reposition a stance is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of maturity and honesty. If we are never open to the possibility that we need to modify our thought processes or opinions, then we will never have real dialogue, personal growth will be severely impeded, and peace with others will be nearly impossible.
















Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville and Statues

Charlottesville

In light of recent events in Charlottesville and the spillover effects, I thought I'd offer a few general thoughts. As a brief summary, a collection of various far-Right, white supremacist groups held a permitted rally. They certainly have freedom of speech to have and express hateful and unpopular views. They were also perfectly within their rights to hold the rally. They also held a torch-lit march the night before the rally, shouting white-supremacist and anti-Semitic rally cries. They were met with far-Left, anti-Nazi/fascist counter-protesters, and much violence ensued. It's speculative, but is appears that a desire to provoke controversy  and create a clash was a factor in the march and scheduled rally. It's also speculative, but it also appears that the violence was largely initiated by the far-Leftist groups. Saddest of all, three deaths resulted: one from a white-supremacist ramming his motor vehicle into a crowd of protesters, and two as a result of a crashed helicopter, from which State Troopers were monitoring the situation.


After this rally/protest clash, a number of other demonstrations emerged in the southern US protesting the presence of statues and monuments in public places. A particular group of protesters here in Durham became vandals and took it upon themselves to tear down a statue of a Confederate soldier. Regardless of motivation, this is a crime, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted. 

Trump

President Trump has rightfully received criticism from across the board for his inadequate, schizophrenic series of responses. He initially had a short and vague response in which he condemned both sides. This resulted in wide criticism for not specifically condemning the white-supremacists, which was especially disconcerting because President Trump has displayed a habit of immediately publicly calling out people and groups he's at odds with. After this criticism he responded two days later by in fact condemning them. However, the next day he returned to his original response placing the blame on both sides without naming specific culprits. 

What do I think?


Now we get to what everyone really wants to know: what I think! Well, my responses are mostly mixed, especially when it comes to the President. I think his criticism was deserved, but I also don't think his initial response was way off base in and of itself. I felt it was simply inadequate. I think he was right in condemning both sides. The value and message of the far-Right ralliers should absolutely be condemned unequivocally. But, since it seems that the counter-protesters were the ones who actually started the violence, their actions should be condemned. I think a better response would have been a combination of the one he initially gave and the one that was called for after his fist response: condemn both sides for what happened, but also specially call out hateful, racists idealogies. I have very little pity for President Trump because he has an utter lack of tact and charisma, has displayed a stupefying level of pride, and everything he does seems contrived. But, I also know that he is maligned for every thought he has and breath he takes, so sometimes it seems impossible for him to be presented in a positive light. My view, though,  is that he does very little to help himself in this regard.
 
I hate how things turned out over the weekend. Violent clashes that make national media are always unsettling, especially when there are deaths involved. So, as the President should have, I condemn all forms of political violence. While I will fully defend the right of white-supremacists to hold and express their views, I will still condemn their message as one of hate that is antithetical to all values held in our age. Deaths have made last weekend a tragedy, but fortunately, I believe both groups only represent a very small number of people, so nearly all of us can stand against the words and actions that we saw during this rally and protest. Neither of these groups represent America, so we should not let either of them think that they do and we the people should not let their agendas advance.

And Statues?





I spent a lot more time thinking about this issue with statues and monuments than I did about President Trump. I had a conversation with a coworker several months ago about this. He argued that the statues and monuments that honor the Confederacy should not be part of public land and government buildings. I argued to the contrary, emphasizing their place in the history of the respective states and localities. I've reflected on the issue since then and have come around 100% on the question of the place of Confederate monuments on public grounds. 

The most frequent argument that I hear in defending the public display of such monuments relates to their actual place as a crucial part of our history. I don't dispute this reality, but I do counter that there is a more appropriate place for them: in museums. A museum depicts history-the good and the bad, without necessarily making such judgments. I do not think it is inappropriate to remove such statues and monuments from public places, especially government buildings. This would not amount to an attempt to revise history, as some suggest. On the contrary, I believe it would be step in showing that we've actually learned from our history.

The final argument I hear against my view goes along the following lines: 'if we're just going to remove every monument that offends anyone, then we might as well take them all down.' I don't actually see this is a real argument, but rather as an attempt to evade discussion. I don't suggest that certain monuments be removed because they are offensive; rather, I suggest they be removed because they represent ideals or practices that are no longer legal nor in line with widely held national values. When displays stand in public places, the message is this: we, as a body, stand by the ideals that this person espoused or fought for. And, simply put, confederate monuments hearken back to days of slavery, oppression, and grave injustice. Whatever your feelings about the Civil War, this reality is inescapable. The war was not simply about states' rights: it was about a very specific right: the right to decide whether chattel slavery could be practiced or not (On a side note that I know is going to cause others to butt heads with me, this reminds me of how the abortion debate is commonly framed by pro-choicers. It is not simply about women's right to choose; it is about the right to have a very specific choice-the choice to end an unborn life that is inside of her). 

Historical presence is not enough to merit public monuments. What they represent should be in line with where they are erected. This is the same  reason that monuments aren't standing in German government grounds that remember Hitler or Nazis.  It could be argued that there is no more prominent figure in all of Germany's history (yes, I know of Martin Luther), but very few in today's world admire him or his values. So his place is in museums and history books, not on public property where the holders of power meet. 

And, to return to the question of offense. Is anyone actually offended by statues of Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln? If so, I would love to hear why. The role these men are remembered for is for fighting for justice and equality, ideals I don't think you'll find many people absent from Charlottesville last weekend who oppose. And, even so, we should listen when our fellow citizens are in fact hurt or offended. Does that mean every claim has merit? No. But, as responsible citizens we should have the ability to listen and empathize without turning the argument on it's head with asinine rebuttals.

For what it's worth, I don't believe, however, that private citizens have the right to remove any public monuments. That is a job of state legislatures, and people who take that task into their own hands are behaving in a criminal manner.  


In conclusion, both sides have some blame to bear in Charlottesville. One side espoused a hateful, racist, bigoted worldview that is impossible to avoid striking ire and fear in others. The other side was violent, obstructive, and out of line in ways too. One side legally expressed views that are almost universally rejected and merit condemnation, but the other side exhibited behavior that deserved the same. President Trump's response was inadequate and unbecoming for the leader of the free world. Finally, I have had a full change of heart over the issue of the acceptability of the display of Confederate monuments on public grounds. I hope you enjoy reading this, and I welcome all thoughts!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Poor, White, and Brown: The Divorce


The title is a misnomer that I shamelessly used to draw folks in. My parents are not divorced. They are, however, separated by North Carolina standards. All that is required is for marital partners to simply move into different households with the intention of not moving back in together. As far as a child is concerned, there's no difference.

My parents were married for about 13 years, and it's a miracle that it lasted that long. Between parental conflict and the drama that comes with a small house with four (five in the summers while my half-brother stayed with us) young children, peace was not the norm. I don't really know what the breaking point was, but when I was twelve my parents decided to split. My sisters were thirteen and nine, and my brother was ten. My parents did not slowly fall down a slippery slope, and there was no final straw that I have a recollection of (I was a child, so there was much I didn't know). This was something that could have happened at any time based on their relationship, and the summer of 2000 just happened to be that time.

I don't remember a serious sit down family conversation in which we were told mom and dad were splitting up. I just remember that mom was moving to North Carolina (we were in South Carolina at the time) and for some reason it just felt natural that we would all go with her. None of us were coerced. So, that summer mom and the four of us packed up and left. We moved to North Carolina, where my grandparents had a place for us. Dad stayed behind in South Carolina for a little while, before eventually returning to his roots in western Virginia.

The breaking up of my parents' marriage affected all of us a little differently. But, as odd or cold as it seems, I don't remember having any type of major emotional reaction to this rift. It happened so suddenly and I was powerless to influence the decision, and so I don't remember devastation or relief at all. In fact, what I would describe in myself is a lack of an emotional response. I know that I was sad, but it didn't crush me or shatter my worldview. I don't know why, but I felt more like an impartial observer than anything else. Maybe I just knew that it was inevitable. I can't explain it, so I won't even try. It just happened and I went with it. I know that this event influenced me on a subconscious level, but on the surface it just felt like another day. This was probably a good thing because typically the reactions and impacts are overwhelmingly negative and damaging. For the most part, by the grace of God, I believe I was spared from this.

I have such mixed feelings when it comes to my parents, especially my dad. I've probably seen him about ten times since my parents split up. I've spoken to him very little as well. He has been absent from my life longer than he's been present. It really makes me sad to think of how little of a presence he has had in the life of his children. I don't feel bitterness towards him, but I think that's largely because I'm not a bitter person. The word that best describes my feelings towards my dad is simply confusion. I know he felt rejected and unwanted when we all packed up and left. That situation really sucks, and who wouldn't feel that way? His wife left, and all his children willingly went with her instead of staying with him.  It's a heartbreak that I don't know and hopefully never will. I have a lot of pity for my father because of this. I don't think any of us thought that communication would essentially come to an end as it did, though. And I don't feel like my dad ever put up a fight or made an effort to stay in our lives. Not that it would have been easy since we moved to a new state, but he could have tried. It saddens and angers me when I realize how easily he let us walk out of his life. As much as it sucked for him, he was the adult. He was the one with the power and responsibility to make things turn out different, not us. And, because of that, my siblings and I have had an absent father for most of our lives. This is why it is so confusing for me to look back at everything. I feel mild anger and guilt, but more disappointment and bewilderment. I love my dad so much because he is my father, but I just don't understand the way things played out.


My mother has not remained innocent in all this. Alcoholism and conflict continued to have a major presence in our family life. I do have some negative feelings towards my mother (as does anyone), but it's not as appropriate for me to indulge those here because she never abandoned us. Her parenting was far from perfect, but, unlike my dad, she was there. I question so many habits she's displayed and decisions she's made over the years, but we had at least one parent around. And, so, on the topic of my parents' divorce and its immediate effects on our lives, unfortunately, my dad has to bear the brunt of the burden.

What might be the saddest part is that I don't believe my parents were victims of a failed marriage. Their habits and decisions directly led to its demise. Year after year of unhealthy activity and behavior towards one another happened. They knew it the whole time. I don't recall concerted efforts to change their destructive habits or work to improve the marriage. They were utterly passive in this regard. I am haunted by this same passivity and poor communication skills in myself at times, but I am fortunate to not have adopted many of their harmful external behaviors. I know that both of my parents are not proud of how things happened and that neither of them wished this on themselves or us, but the reality is that it did happen.


* * * * * *
Having a wife and children of my own now only exacerbates my feelings of confusion and gives rise to a greater degree of anger. My questions and negative feelings grow so much stronger now when I think about the whole situation.


I think the following questions:  How could you guys (my parents) drink and argue and fight the way you did in front of your children? Did you never think of how damaging your behavior could be to them? Were their futures ever something you thought about? Would you be ok with their lives exhibiting the same kind of behavior?

And as a man with my own family, questions specifically to my dad arise. How could you just let your kids leave? Why did you never fight to see us? What kind of feelings do you expect for us to have towards you now? Do you realize that fatherlessness is one of the most damaging and damning aspects of our society? I just don't get it. I have a two-year old son and another that will be born in two months. I could never imagining living around my children the way my parents did when we were small. There is literally nothing in this world that would let me allow my family to leave my life, and nothing that would stop me from putting up a fight if they tried. I could never bear the thought of my wife being alone or with someone else, or my sons living a fatherless life or wondering where their dad is. I'm not even saying this to be self-righteous; I'm saying it because I truly cannot fathom letting my family be torn apart.


I'm reluctant to say this because it sounds very prideful, but I am very grateful that I was given fortitude and foresight to be able to see a better life for myself. I learned what not to do from watching how my parents lived together and seeing the destructiveness of their behavior when they were married. It was a true gift from God for me to be able to do so. I'm not especially unique in this regard, but, statistically speaking, the vast majority of children from broken marriages don't move on easily to lives of stability, relationship success, or economic achievement. Perhaps the biggest role in saving me from a repeat lifestyle was the presence of my grandparents in my life after the split. Through them I also became involved in church, where plenty of people took me under their wings. In very clear ways, God has always looked out for me and has used everything to teach me about Himself, myself, and the world. My parents did not preserve their marriage. I, however, will not repeat that unfortunate outcome.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Two Lost Sons


I just finished a book by Tim Keller about the parable from Luke 15 traditionally found under the subhead The Prodigal Son. The book has provided so much more insight into the parable than I've ever known and has challenged me more than anything I've read in a long time. Since so much of what I'm going to say is from the book, I'll go ahead and post a link to it: The Prodigal God. 
*All page number references are to this edition.

The Parable of the Two Lost Sons

Keller first makes the point that a more accurate title of this parable would be the Parable of the Two Lost Sons as the traditional focus on the younger brother may do injustice to the text (keep in mind that the chapter and verse divisions, as well as the subheads in the Bible are not part of the original writings, so this suggestion does no harm to Keller's high view of the Bible's textual integrity and reliability). He bases this idea primarily on the makeup of Jesus's direct audience when the story is told. Though the majority of the text focuses on the younger brother's story, the heart of the text may be the elder brother. When Jesus told this story, there were two groups listening: the tax collectors and sinners (analogous with the younger brother), and the Pharisees and teachers of the law (analogous with the elder brother). Jesus tells this parable in response to the self-righteous mutterings of the Pharisees and teachers of the law about how Jesus associates with the tax collectors and sinners. 

Jesus's description of the brothers presents two primary ways in which people are alienated from God and seek acceptance into God's Kingdom (and shows how both actually represent spiritual lostness). Theare shown in how happiness and fulfillment are sought: either through self-discovery or moral conformity. The way of self-discovery "holds that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention. In this view, the world would be a far better place if tradition, prejudice, hierarchical authority, and others barriers to personal freedom were weakened or removed" (35-36). This is the way of the younger brother, who squandered his inheritance on wild and sensual living until he had nothing left. The way of moral conformity, by contrast, "[puts] the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfillment" (35) so that happiness is obtained and the world is made right by achieving moral rectitude. This is the way of the elder brother, who faithfully served his father and honored customs.

Which approach is right?

Neither! It's not just the son that went away and returned that was alienated from his father; so was the elder brother who never left! Both wanted the same thing: the father's goods, rather than the father himself. Both used their father for the same self-serving ends, albeit in very different ways. Rebellion against God can be found in "breaking [God's] rules or keeping all of them diligently" (42). Both sons tried to displace the father's authority, which can show the ultimate definition of sin: "putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge" (50). The younger son demanded his freedom and sought to define what was right and wrong for his own life. The elder son used obedience as a way of getting what he ultimately wanted. Both have a radically self-centered heart and avoid Jesus as Savior, which is the essence of sin and lostness.

In confronting the Pharisees and teachers of the law with the parable, Keller suggests that Jesus implies that the condition of the elder brother may be more dangerous. The young brother repents of his sins and returns to the father, where he is freely welcomed and celebrated. We don't see a similar outcome for the elder brother. He stays in his self-righteous, moral lostness-unaware of his need to repent of his good deeds from a self-centered heart. Elder brothers expect their good lives to pay off and may be in a more dangerous position because of their blindness to their own lostness. The elder brother was kept out of the feast of salvation based on pride over his good deeds, not remorse over any bad deeds (86). "The main barrier between the Pharisees (elder brothers) and God is not their sins, but their damnable good works" (87). True repentance must be done not only for the things we have done wrong, but also for the reason behind why we ever do anything right (when it's to be our own lord and savior by seeking to control God) (87).

Which Brother Am I?

What I did not realize about myself before reading this book is just how much I am the elder brother in this parable. I am in just as much need for repentance and salvation from my self-righteous and pride-driven good works as the younger brothers who live outwardly licentious lives. The proneness to use Jesus as a means to the best-available outcome when it's all said and done, rather than an ends in himself, is ever present in me. It's not always there, but it's easy to fall into the trap. What's not easy is realizing this about oneself. The following are given as clues that this 'elder brother' heart is present in your good deeds/moral living/religious practice:
  • When things go wrong you either: get angry with God if you know you've been living as you should; OR you are filled with self-loathing if you know you've been falling short of your standards. This means that your moral observances are results-oriented (57-58). True faithfulness is to be born out of love for and delight in God. Check.
  • You have a strong sense of your own superiority. You are defined by competitive comparison, have difficulty truly forgiving others (but not necessarily confessing forgiveness), and feel you have been given a right to feel highly offended by others (60-65). We should be slow to anger, quick to forgive, and always aware that the self-centered hearts we see in others is also in us. Check.
  • You have "joyless, fear-based compliance" (65). There is not joy or love in just seeing the Father pleased. We want to see ourselves as virtuous and earn blessings from the Father. This creates the pressure to appear, even often to ourselves, as happy and content even if we aren't experiencing such. This is a sign that our righteousness is drudgery, not joy-driven. Check.
  • You have a lack of assurance of the Father's love. We think when something goes wrong, it's because we're not living as we should. Criticism devastates us. And we feel irresolvable guilt when we do wrong, even after repenting (71-72). Check.
  •  You have a dry prayer life. There may be frequent prayer, but it lacks intimacy, delight, or awe. Prayer is probably more frequent when things are going wrong, until they get back on track. This indicates that the main goal of prayer for you is "to control [your] environment rather than to delve into an intimate relationship with a god who loves [you]" (74). 
So, What is the Answer?

The first thing is to realize the the gospel calls us away from both ways of living. We need to repent of not only all of our sinful deeds and behaviors, but also of our selfish reasons for our good deeds before God. We are to put our ultimate hope in God himself, not in what He will give us as a result of our goodness. For this we need to accept God's initiating love, understanding that "it's not the repentance that causes the Father's love, but rather the reverse" (83).

The second is to realize that our rebellion against God-whether as younger brothers or elder brother-results in alienation that demands a price. For us to be restored this price can only be paid by someone who has not been alienated from God. That person is the true elder brother, Jesus. He was stripped of his dignity on the cross so that we could be clothed with a standing we don't deserve. He was treated as an outcast so we could be brought in. He drank the cup of the Father's justice so we could drink the cup of the Father's joy (95-96). There is no other way we can be brought in. When we see this, the way that our hearts function is transformed. We are attracted to his beauty, love, and greatness. The fear and neediness that creates young and elder brothers is eliminated (99).

When we see this, our desires and duties are fused. We don't have to turn from God to pursue the desires of our hearts like the younger brother, and we don't have to repress our desires and perform our moral duty like the elder brother (99).  They become one and the same. John Newton states it in this way.
Our pleasure and our duty
though opposite before, 
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.

In Christ, we are brought back home to the true home that we were created for and for which all of our desires ultimately point: the presence of God himself, where there is joy to the full and pleasures forevermore. We are invited to this great, eternal feast. Whether we are elder brothers or younger brothers, Christ's work is sufficient and his grace is enough. We are never too lost in our sin or too deluded in our righteousness to be beyond the grasp of Jesus's atoning work on the cross. Once our hearts see this, we are captivated.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Finances 101: How to Save

I grew up in a household where financial stability was never strongly present and the normal way of living was paycheck-to-paycheck with little to no money left over. I was fortunate to learn from this by seeing it as a negative example (how not to do things) instead of making the all-too-common opposite mistake of believing that it is a vicious inescapable cycle. Just because it was the norm does not mean it always has to be the norm.

I now work as a financial services officer and frequently see this same cycle happening to families and individuals. Speaking from experience and observation, I can say that this is a sad and difficult situation to be a part of. I know that for a lot of people, this is a crushing burden that leads to hopelessness, despair, negativity, and anxiety. I am fully aware that there actually are some people who really don't make enough money to save after obligations are met, but I also know that this is a sad exception and not the actual case for the overwhelming majority of people.


Many who find themselves unable to save might think there's nothing they can do to change that reality. I firmly believe that this is nearly always untrue. So, in light of this, based on my own personal experience as someone who came from such a household and on my career as a financial services officer, I wish to offer my basic advice on how you really can create an ability to save that can hopefully turn into a habit.

1) Patience is key! No mindsets or habits are stopped or created overnight. You have to make the conscious decision to change your financial habits. You can't just feel sorry for yourself, hope for a change, or quit after a brief effort. You have to create self-discipline, practice discretion in spending, and learn the benefits of self-denial and delayed gratification. You have to change your habits before you can begin establishing any real savings. Think long-term: months and years, not days and weeks. If you don't start saving now, rest assured that there will come a day when you will not have money.


2) Think about every expense. Social media makes this seem impossible, but you have to know who you really are instead of who you want to project yourselves to others as. A key is to think not what seems fair compared to what everyone else is doing, but what is prudent and makes more sense for where you are and what resources you have. Not everyone is going to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The first tangible step to begin saving when you're used to living paycheck to paycheck is to really monitor where you are spending money. I guarantee you that you will find areas where you can spend less, but you first have to stop denying that you spend money unnecessarily.

One of the biggest areas where people are unwise with money, especially when they're on a tighter budget, is food. Don't eat out every day! Those small expenses add up. Cook meals with the intention of having leftovers for subsequent meals. Get water instead of blowing $2-3 on a drink when you eat out. Buy foods that are not name brands. Sometimes this sucks (Oreos!), but often there's not a huge difference. Drink less alcohol; alcohol is expensive! Smoke less cigarettes! Look at a few consecutive bank statements and you will be surprised at how many opportunities you are wasting on small items that have a great cumulative effect. Some of these cuts really feel painful, but will be a necessary sacrifice if you struggle to save but want to begin doing so. A tough reality in life is that not everyone is dealt the same cards, so some people will have to make sacrifices that others don't.

3) Start small! My target here is people who are not rich, but want to save. This means that you will have to start small. You probably won't be able to save $50-100 every week or month, but I am confident that you can save something if you try. I would advise to not necessarily set a goal amount to reach in a savings account at first. Instead you have to create a habit of saving on a regular basis. For some people this means putting $10-20 in your savings every time you get paid. Though that's a small amount, its aggregate effect can surprise you-especially if you truly make it a habit to put money back for saving.

The easiest way to do this is to treat saving as if it's another bill. When you pay your bills each month, make putting a small amount into your savings account part of that process. Put it into an account that can't be accessed with a debit card. What's left after that can be your discretionary money to spend on entertainment, shopping, eating out, etc. The most important thing here is to do it, and do it regularly regardless of the amount.

4) Really know the difference between a want and need. We can all use a reality check here. It is not a necessity to wear name-brand clothes, carry an iPhone, or get a new car every 5 years. Once again, we have to look at our own situation, and not try to compete with others. How is it that you can't save, but you can have ten nice pairs of shoes, the latest smart phone with unlimited data, eat out every week, and get a new car loan as soon as you paid off your last one? It doesn't really make sense to complain that you can't save in these cases. You can save! You are just choosing to put your money somewhere besides a savings account. You're willing to sacrifice saving so you can have these things, but you aren't willing to forgo some of these things so you can save some money. You've got to change your mindset and habits!

5) Don't depend on credit cards! Too often, people spend unnecessarily on credit card debt. Stop using those cards and focus on paying them off. You may have to make this a goal before you can make beginning to save a goal. That may mean that your goal of beginning to save could be years away. Unfortunately, sometimes that is going to be a reality. It's ok to use credit cards, but DO NOT DEPEND ON THEM TO MEET YOUR OBLIGATIONS. That will trap you in a cycle where you accrue interest, can only meet minimum payment, and your balances may go up faster than down without evening making new purchases! If you can't save money, you should not be using credit cards.

6) Learn to say NO! Sometimes you have to deny yourself things you want. Sometimes you have to deny friends and family members' requests for money. This is also a tough reality. Sometimes you are in a position to help others, but sometimes you just aren't. You can't have everything you want (even if you can afford it!), and you can't give to others everything they want or think they need. Caring for others is very important, but if you aren't in a position to save to care for yourself, you're also likely not in a position to do that for others.

7) Control your budget; don't let it control you! Don't overwhelm yourself with sticking to a rigid, controlling budget. Having a budget is a great thing, but it needs to be a tool to help you, not a tool that creates more stress. Deviation is ok. Sometimes things come up. You have to make yourself be the boss, not the budget. This means that sometimes you chose to honor the budget, but on some occasions you treat yourself. Make a budget that is realistic and leaves margin. This is the best way to not simply feel constrained and pressured by your budget. A budget that is overwhelming is a budget that will not be followed very long. This will lead to a failed attempt to save and will further a defeatist attitude.


So these are my quick tips for how to begin transitioning from living paycheck to paycheck to actually saving money. You have to change both your mindset and your habits. You have to learn to deny yourself. And you have to learn to make tough choices. I promise you that it can be done. You just have to make the effort. Desire is not enough.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

My Five

I made a statement to a friend today that my son seems to be developing a weakness that I have. Maybe he inherited it from me. What is this simple thing that fills me with excitement when I know it's within reach?

Chocolate milk.

I few minutes later I was having a 'desert island top five' moment in my mind? You know the classic question: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have five things with you, what would you chose? I simplified it a little bit, and thought to myself, what are five things that I really love? I wasn't trying to think of the top five things that I can't live without. Rather, I just took a few minutes to think of five things that I really enjoy. Not as dire or pressured as the desert island scenario. Not necessarily my top  five. Just my five. It was kind of fun.

So here is the list that I came up with in a few minutes. All but one came in about thirty seconds, honestly. These are in no particular order.

Chocolate milk. I seriously love chocolate milk. I would drink it for every meal and between every meal if I had a sufficient supply of it. I'm literally never not in the mood for chocolate milk. If there is some in my fridge, I can't be unhappy about anything.

Baseball. I also love baseball. I love watching it. I love playing it. I love looking at box scores. I love keeping up with stats and standings. There is a camaraderie in baseball that is different than any other kind. It makes me so happy that this is truly America's past time.

Geography. Nerd alert. I consider myself a geography buff. I love geography. I love maps. I love learning about countries, regions, and cultures. I didn't really develop this passion until after college, but it's there now. I'm obsessed with Geography quizzes on Sporcle (please check out Sporcle if you don't know what it is!). I'm more excited about teaching my sons US states and capitals, then countries and capitals, than almost anything else. I think having a strong grasp on geography gives you an advantage in nearly any context.

Books. I like real books much more than ebooks,  but I'm not opposed to reading on screen. I try to read at least a little bit every day. I read history, theology, philosophy, religion, classic literature, and occasionally fantasy and other fiction. Reading keeps your mind sharp, and I think it's very important to always be learning.

Craft beer. I am not a beer snob, but I really don't like flavorless, watered-down light beer very much. I can drink it, but I never chose to if I have a choice. Beer is so much better with flavor and aroma and body and soul. Plus, North Carolina has so many great breweries to support!

++Honorable mention: Harry Potter, animals

So, there you have it. My five! This can be fun because it can tell you so much about people. So, I think it would be awesome if people responded with their own five! There are two ground rules:

     1) You can't spend more than three or four minutes thinking about answers.
     2) You can't list people or places as answers.

So go for it! Tell me your top five. No pressure. animals, gummy candy. If no one answers, oh well. You know mine!


Weirdo!

This week I picked up some dress shirts from the dry cleaners and was reminded why I go so infrequently even though I wear them every single...