Archive for category Culture

Promote the common good

I saw this good wisdom from Jim Wallis in his book On God’s Side.  It’s such accessible Christian living, putting the gospel into play in our everyday living.Cover Art

Ten personal decisions you can make to help foster the common good.

  1. If you are a father or a mother, make your children the most important priority in your life and build your other commitments around them. If you are not a parent, look for children who could benefit from your investment in their lives.
  2. If you are married, be faithful to your spouse. Demonstrate your commitment with both your fidelity and your love. If you are single, measure your relationships by their integrity, not their usefulness.
  3. If you are a person of faith, focus not just on what you believe but on how you act on those beliefs. If you love God, ask God how to love your neighbor.
  4. Take the place you live seriously. Make the context of your life and work the parish that you take responsibility for.
  5. Seek to develop a vocation and not just a career. Discern your gifts as a child of God, not just your talents, and listen for your calling rather than just looking for opportunities. Remember that your personal good always relates to the common good.
  6. Make choices by distinguishing between wants and needs. Choose what is enough, rather than what is possible to get. Replace appetites with values, teach your children the same, and model those values for all who are in your life.
  7. Look at the business, company, or organization where you work from an ethical perspective. Ask what its vocation is, too. Challenge whatever is dishonest or exploitative and help your place of work do well by doing good.
  8. Ask yourself what in the world today most breaks your heart and offends your sense of justice. Decide to help change that and join with others who are committed to transforming that injustice.
  9. Get to know who your political representatives are at both the local and national level. Study their policy decisions and examine their moral compass and public leadership. Make your public convictions and commitments known to them and choose to hold them accountable.
  10. Since the difference between events and movements is sacrifice, which is also the true meaning of religion and what makes for social change, ask yourself what is important enough to give your life to and for.

Finding the integral relationship between your own personal good and the common good is your best contribution to our future. And it is the best hope we have for a better life together.



Can I have my quinoa and the Andean farmer eat it too?

“If you are dependent on people who don’t know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe.”  Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community.”

The irony of it is staggering and sobering – and, please, may it lead us to serious reconsideration of our economic habits and practices.

Quinoa – a beautifully simple grain, low in fat, rich in protein, nutritionally loaded, with a fashionable, exotic touch to it – a miracle gift to those concerned with marrying a diet for personal health along with a concern for low environmental impact living.  It is coveted by the well-intended as a new super-food and it’s celebrity status was marked by the UN declaring 2013 the Year of Quinoa.  Yet in another instance of the butterfly effect of the global farmer-quinoaeconomy, an article in the Guardian reports that this grain, a staple for Andean communities in Peru and Bolivia, is now so overpriced that local populations can’t afford to eat it, turning instead to low-cost alternatives (aka. junk food).

It’s enough to make you crazy – and it should because it seems another example of the economic confusion we call normal.  You know the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again but expecting different results.  We replicate this quinoa scenario over and over, raiding local communities through the global reach of a market economy and trusting the whole venture will turn out for the mutual benefit of all but with the same dispiriting results – local economies irrevocably altered, local ways of life disturbed and often damaged, local communities and cultures ignored.

The Guardian article observes that “the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there.”  But it’s more than that – it seems another troubling example of a damaging economic order.

Or maybe it’s just all earnest hand-wringing in the face of inevitable economic change.  That’s what food-economics author and University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers claims – this is the typical speed-bump along the road of economic development that will bring some improvement in standards of living to subsistence economies.

But I hear a note of economic determinism in the professor’s words, a sense that there really is no standing in the way of such global economic development so might as well lean into the inevitable change.  I mostly lack the smarts to understand the economic complexities or the prophetic edge to speak like this often, but there’s an unmistakeable totalitarian vibe to this global economy.  It’s like the colonialist impulse all over, so that we, in the well-resourced west, can tap the resources of a far-flung geographic community with little, if any, consideration or forethought for the impact on that community, without naming human values and community needs that trump economic imperatives.

Wendell Berry, a true prophetic voice, writes that “the global economy does not exist to help communities and localities of the globe.  It exists to siphon the wealth of those communities and places into a few bank accounts.”  Read Mr. Berry – deeply and often.

All this leaves me convinced again something has to shift.  Economists out there, can we not imagine new economic practices and systems that serve the well-being of all, especially the poor?  It strikes me as morally and economically off to produce a local product in such a way that prices it out of reach for the very ones who cultivate it and depend upon it for basic living.  Something stinks in the system and I’m left overwhelmed by the scope.  I mean, seriously, how do you do no harm and transform a global economic order?  And that drives me to my knees, doing the one thing I can do confidently: praying for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  But I want that prayer to get me off my knees too, doing something to see that Kingdom come in our economic order.  Any suggestions?

Ah quinoa, I was just beginning to love you – but unless we can find a better way, I’m called to love my Andean neighbours more.


Bullied by “pretty”

I read this punch-in-the-gut story in today’s Globe and Mail of a young girl terribly bullied and driven to plastic surgery that made me want to scream!

I’m not blaming the girl.  She’s beaten down by a society sick with perfection.  I’m furious with this circus of painted-faces and altered bodies, ill with this illusion of what’s beautiful.

It all made me think of a great slam poetry piece (see below for video) from a post I wrote a while ago that seems appropriate again.  So here it is one more time, the blog post and Katie Makkai’s slam poetry wonder.

The mall is not my friend as a dad to two children, not hospitable to raising healthy human beings.  Sure, it provides clean and supervised play areas as well as interesting food courts with carousels but the rest of the place is a damn hazard.  And not because it is the temple of all things consumer – in fact, you don’t have to buy a thing there to pick up something far worse.  A simple stroll through the mall sends enough devastating messages to distort our character and wreck our moral imagination.  I can sift, sort and discern my way through this as an adult, but my kids simply absorb it all.

Maybe I’ve been been able to filter this out before, could be I’m becoming an old fart, or likely it’s because I’m dad to a daughter, but a recent walk through a local mall left me unsettled by the siren images in so many of the store-fronts.  Call me a prudish, Victorian, censorious, stuffy prig but I was shocked by the brazen sexuality on display in that mall (and I feel like I’m not easily shocked).  So many of the female models wear little clothing and the most prominent thing they do sport is a receptive open mouth, a come-hither gaze, or a coquettish pose.  If there is a male-female couple in the image, the female is usually draped over the male, pretzeled into a seductive embrace.  And this is not only the strategy of secretive Victoria but includes shoe vendors – even a children’s clothing store wickedly (I use that word with precision) hawks their goods with images of kids vogueing with faux seductive looks and poses.

I’m a fool to take my kids to the mall for an afternoon.  Strolling through this marketing gauntlet, my daughter is trained in what it means to be a woman in our culture: “Let your appearance be flawless; live up to an impossible standard of physical beauty; don’t bother with your character, intellect, or heart – your greatest asset is your body and it is a sexual tool – flaunt it.  Discretion limits you – the way to find worth is through a flaunting seduction.  Buy that perfect blouse, the right dress and you will be acceptable.”  And my son, already able to pick up most every nuance of any message, is discipled into what our society considers manhood by these images alone: “Women are for your pleasure – viewing pleasure, sexual pleasure.  Don’t engage them as real persons; they are beautiful bodies.  Keep them abstracted in your imagination as creatures of desire.  Dominate them, wear them like clothes that can be discarded when they are tired or out of style.”

Don’t misunderstand my ranting.  The human body is a glorious thing of beauty; sex is a spectacularly great gift of God; we are sexual beings.  But the whole of human is so much more!

I track this out ten years from now: what do I tell my daughter after all these messages have sunk deep into her anxiety-riddled psyche and she tells me how much she hates how she looks?  How do I help my son, bombarded with titillation and innuendo, to see women as far more than “how hot she is”?

Maybe you think it’s just me, a guy struggling with his own repressed sexuality, importing all my “stuff” into innocuous images in a store window; if so, give Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia a read.  Or check out this brilliant, moving video of slam poet Katie Makkai called “Pretty” (and if you find the f-bomb offensive, this video has one use of it – just so you know).


The Perfect Space

Entering into a new place and finding my way into a new community is providing an instant refresher course on the in’s-and-out’s of forming and living in community.  You’d think I’d have learned this by now and so it feels a little like remedial breathing lessons.  Call it “Belonging 101.”  Probably better titled “How I can’t do it alone but why is it so hard to do it together.”

Although we are so deeply discipled in the way of individualism (the demon is in so deep we have no idea how misshapen we’ve become because of it), there’s still a longing for something more than “not doing things alone.”  We struggle to live it, sometimes don’t want it, chafe against what it demands of us, but mostly yearn to be part of a living, breathing, interdependent, covenant community that shares life together and is devoted to one another’s shalom.

As I try to find myself in that sort of community, here are a few things I’m being freshly reminded of lately:

While I wish I had a “belonging” button I could easily press, community doesn’t spontaneously happen.  It is desired, sought out, intentionally formed, vulnerably entered, and patiently worked out.

While I’d prefer friendships to be at no cost to me, in fact, the gift of community requires costly investments of myself, giving some of my most precious resources, like time.  You can’t microwave community; it’s a “slow-movement” type of thing where bonds of trust and companionship are formed through shared life over time.  Which means community and friendships make demands on my time and availability.  Am I willing to allow others to place such obligations on me?

One of the crazy ironies of a community that is “natural and safe” is that it requires risk and vulnerability. In the communities I’ve entered, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve invited people over, taking the risk of seeking relationship and not had it reciprocated.  It’s a hard, vulnerable thing, isn’t it, that unrequited desire for friendship.  But it will happen along the way; get used to it.

Which means that the gift of community and friendship will likely be extended by some wonderfully unpredicted people.  So get ready to be surprised who actually ends up being part of your long-term community – it probably won’t be the usual suspects.

But to be open to that, I need to let go of my idol of the perfect community.  Filed somewhere in the back of my heart is this notion of the ideal community – all the cool kids who hit the right cafes, are well connected, know how to pronounce Goethe, dress well, engage in meaningful conversations (but never press their opinions too hard), are relationally low maintenance and yet gladly put up with – even enjoy – my flaws, love me unconditionally but don’t expect too much from me, and practice good hygiene.  Isn’t that the temptation, to yearn for some ideal community that no reality will ever measure up to?

Which is why church can be so hard for many because we come expecting an experience of distilled divinity but instead find raw and uncooked humanity.  I get to hear a variety of people lament their disillusionment with church, talking about people who have hurt and disappointed them.  But what other sort of people are there?  Isn’t part of the difficult gift of community directly related to the challenge of differences?

Another one of the quirky paradoxes of community is that the very dynamics that provide a deep sense of belonging are the same that can exclude others.  The power of the inner circle almost seems to be equal and opposite to the energy to include; its like trying to simultaneously balance both centripetal and centrifugal forces.  So if you’re newly entering a community, be gentle with people there and realize that many are likely blind to the fact that they may be excluding you; and yet if you do enjoy a rich experience of community, understand that unless you intentionally take steps to decisively include others, know that you’ll be giving off an elitist, exclusionary vibe.

All this reminds me of the gorgeously beautiful song by the Avett brothers, The Perfect Space (you can listen to it below).  They sing my heart: “I want to have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was … I want to fit in to the perfect space, feel natural and safe in a volatile place.

We get tastes of that perfect space here and now but all the friendship and community we enjoy will always be a partial wholeness, a trailer for life in the new heavens and new earth.  But that hope of a perfect space gives me the grace to receive the lovely imperfect gifts of community today.


The Hunger Games in Holy Week

While I walked through Holy Week, considering the cross and Christ’s sacrifice, I was also reading The Hunger Games.  With the recent cinematic splash of the movie version, I figured I better get up to speed and dove into the first book (I’m hooked so I’m reading through the whole trilogy).

As I finished it in the early days of Holy Week, I was struck by how current all the basic theological concepts of the cross of Christ remain.  It’s not unusual to hear critiques of the theology surrounding the cross, how concepts like sacrifice, propitiation, atonement are relics in our guilt-free culture.  And while there’s not a prayer to be heard or a single reference to any deity, The Hunger Games provides a disturbingly relevant exploration of this rich Christian theology.

The Hunger Games pictures a dystopian North American future where a privileged class (the Capitol) oppresses and subjugates “the districts” after a rebellion.  As President Snow reminds, “It was decreed that each year, the 12 districts of Panem should offer up a tribute of one young man and woman between the ages of 12 and 18 to be trained in the art of survival and to be prepared to fight to the death.”  Children are offered up to the empire and this whole spectacle of violence is broadcast for the entertainment of the Capitol citizens while all the districts are forced to watch in horror.

Author Suzanne Collins picks up antecedent threads of human history (the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome), literary works (the Greek myth Theseus, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery) and current culture (The Truman Show and most reality TV), weaving it all into a narrative rich with theological themes. All the tributes in The Hunger Games are scapegoats, atoning for the sins of a past rebellion.  Within the brutality of the games, we see the obvious juxtaposition of those living for self-preservation or self-amusement and those sacrificing themselves for others.  Katniss Everdeen volunteers for her sister who’s name is first chosen in the reaping.  She substitutes herself, laying down her life in her sister’s place.  Another character, Peeta, suffers sacrificially, absorbing an attack to protect Katniss.

It’s a compelling read showing our easy default towards scapegoating violence no matter how sophisticated we become; its a prophetic critique of our society, amusing ourselves with violence at the cost of others, our propensity to live sated lives at the expense of impoverished people around the world; and it’s a disturbingly relevant echo of the need for divine atonement, our desperate need for a sacrificial love to undo evil, end violence and change the world.

It was surprisingly helpful Holy Week preparation to freshly appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God’s common grace given to better savour his saving grace.