What NOT To Do For Your Country

Tomorrow, a new president will take the oath of office.  Whether you voted for President Trump or not, there are lots of people who are telling you what you should be doing for your country, either in support of his policies or in opposition to them: folks are telling you to register voters or call congress or attend a protest or donate to a cause or pray for a candidate.  All of those actions might be important, but they are not most important.  In fact, I believe the most important thing you can do for your country is not to do anything.  Let me explain.

 

Character is Destiny

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that character is destiny.  What he meant is that who you are will inevitably determine what you do.  A brave man will act bravely, a dishonest man will act dishonestly, etc.

Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18).

The English word character has roots in the Greek word for engraving.  You might say that character is etched into a person; it is something foundational to who the person is.

Formation vs. Education

In our culture, we tend to overlook the slow importance of character formation and instead prefer the quicker and easier work of intellectual education.  Our leaders talk about improving education and argue about how best to do that, but I cannot recall a public figure who has recently been talking about the best way to form character in our children.  Education is important, but education without character will be useless at best and dangerous at worst.  Character matters.

One of the major themes of the New Testament is about how a follower of Jesus can become Christlike in character.  The reason the New Testament is so concerned with character change is because the early Christians knew that you can’t actually live like Jesus unless you are being changed like Jesus from the inside out.  Only then—with a “mind transformed and renewed” (Romans 12:1-2)—is Christlike living possible.  It is not possible to love your enemies, e.g., without first becoming the kind of person who loves her enemies.

The moralistic instruction that we are constantly given—be more civicly engaged, reach out to your neighbor, call your congressman, pray for your senator, start a movement—is all good advice, but it is given out of order.  Before you start a movement, you first need to be the kind of person who starts a movement; before you pray for your senator, you first need to become the kind of person who prays for her senator.  Character matters.  “Good trees produce good fruit.”

This is why I believe the most important thing you can do for America as our new president assumes office is not to do anything.  Rather, you should focus on becoming.

So, how is character formed?  How can we become the kind of people who do good things, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, the kind of trees that produce good fruit?

Silence and Scripture

I believe the most effective way to become more like Jesus is to spend the first 15 minutes every morning in silence and scripture.  Before you reach for your phone or check your Instagram feed or see who won the late game, you need to just sit and be still and read a bit of Scripture.  Taken by itself, the principle of the #First15 seems useless: how does sitting in silence result in any new voters registered or any new movements funded or any congresswomen prayed for?  But becoming the right type of person will result in your doing the right type of actions, and on a daily basis nothing will be more formative to your character than the #First15.

Character is destiny: good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit.  Who you are determines what you do.  There is a lot that needs doing in America, but doing comes after being.  If you become more like Jesus, you’ll inevitably act like him.  (In fact, the more you become like Jesus, the more Christlike actions will be second nature to you.)  This is what the early Christians meant by discipleship.

It was fifty-six years ago that President Kennedy delivered that thrilling conclusion to his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  As a new President assumes office, I believe that what’s most important for you to do for your country is to be a certain sort of person: someone who thinks and acts like Jesus.

 

 

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My One Word for 2017

As I’ve done for the past three New Year’s Days, today I’m choosing a one word theme to live into for the coming year.  I’ve made goals for 2017, too, but there’s something I like about the simplicity of choosing just one word to knit all my goals together.

 

My One Word for 2017

For 2017 I’m again choosing the same word I’ve chosen for the past three years.

My one word for 2017 is early.

I will:

  • wake early
  • pray early
  • workout early
  • arrive early
  • get things done early
  • finish my sermon early
  • get to bed early

What about you?  What’s your one word for 2017?  Why?

 

P.S.  Fox and Hedgehog

The Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, drawing on a line from the Ancient Greek poet Achilocus, wrote a famous essay in 1953 entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”  The basic idea is that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.  Foxes have a variety of interests; hedgehogs have one stubborn idea.

In this space, I follow my interest wherever it takes me (like a fox) while always writing in the service of The One Big Thing (like a hedgehog).

What’s that One Big Thing?  You’ll have to read to find out.

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Early Thoughts on the Election

I went to bed early last night and woke up really early this morning, and even though I like to remind myself that no one knows the future, I was still surprised by the election result.  Here are some early thoughts, in no particular order.

 

Donald Trump’s victory reminds us once again: no one knows the future.  I wrote last year about how the experts always want us to believe that they can predict the future, but that they are always wrong.  None of the experts predicted Mr. Trump’s victory in the primaries, and none of the experts predicted his victory last night.  I’ll say it again: No one knows the future.  Though the inherent obscurity of the future could seem terrifying, I tend to find this truth strangely comforting: it means that there is potential in every situation for the grace of God to be at work.

The reason our politics is so bitter is because we don’t believe in the transcendent and the eternal.  If naked political power is all there is, then you have to fight tooth and claw to achieve it.  Since we’ve killed off God in the West, we have nothing else to live for.

We should pray for Barron Trump.  A ten year-old little boy, thrust into the spotlight.

I cannot imagine what Hillary Clinton must be feeling this morning.  As with any celebrity, it’s easy to forget that Mrs. Clinton is a real person.  She’s been reaching for the presidency for much of her life; the bitterness of her loss this morning must be overwhelming.

This election proves how distant the elites that run our country are from millions of ordinary people.  The establishment–including the conservative establishment–was opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy.  And yet he won anyway.  It cannot be good for America in the long term for the people with power–in the media, in academia, in business, and in government–to be so different from the people without it.

We have no shared purpose as a people.  I think Rod Dreher’s metaphor is helpful:

Here’s the problem, as I see it. Is the American nation (or any nation) more like:

  1. The diverse crowd that gathers at the shopping mall on Saturday afternoon, or
  2. The diverse crowd that gathers at the football stadium on Saturday night?

The difference is that the only thing the first crowd shares is little more than a geographical space, but the second crowd shares not only a geographical space, but a purpose.

Our problem is that we want the solidarity and sense of purpose that the football stadium crowd possesses, but without its shared sense of a mission greater than the individuals engaged in it. I don’t think this is a problem that politics can solve, but it is certainly a problem that politics can exacerbate. As the next four years will demonstrate.

Instead of the Stadium as a symbol, I might have used the Cathedral, but of course America, as a foundationally secular nation, is better represented by a stadium. Plus, these days, Cathedrals function more like Malls, in the sense I mean in this post. There’s not much shared sense of purpose there, only a diverse group of people gathered in a particular geographical space to pursue private ends. The Mall really is the symbol of our place in this time.

 

I suspect the Bradley Effect was in effect yesterday.  I wrote about the Bradley effect in yesterday’s post.

Politics exposes our idols.  Millions of people would be in despair this morning had Mrs. Clinton won.  Millions of people are despairing because Mr. Trump has won.  Ravi Zacharias has it right: “The loneliest moment is life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate and it has just let you down.”

I’m glad the Church is “of no party or clique.”  My job is to be a pastor, a shepherd of people.  That responsibility does not depend on the fortunes of any party or clique, and my calling is to people, regardless of how they vote.  I’m glad of that, this morning.

As my friend Matt Judkins, a pastor in Oklahoma, puts it:

 

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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Brief Thoughts on Voting

I was at my polling place (a beautiful old church in East Dallas) 10 minutes before the polls opened this morning, and there were already 10 people in front of me.  Voting always makes me reflective, and here are some of my thoughts and reminiscences, in no particular order.

 

The sacred solemnity of peaceful voting always strikes me.  There is just something about being surrounded by my fellow citizens, who may or may not share my beliefs, as we all line up peacefully and patiently to cast our votes.  There is just something sacred about walking into the voting booth as a free man.  I think voting represents America much better than fighter jet flyovers at NFL games–that’s just a show of power: our real power lies in the peaceful ritual of Election Day.

Nothing is more important than the peaceful transfer of power.  There are lots of issues I feel very strongly about, issues I believe matter to God.  But I don’t think anything matters more than the peaceful transfer of power.  This 229 year-old experiment we have with our Constitution is exceeding rare in human history, and unless we are governed by laws with a peaceful transfer of power, nothing else is possible.  I lived in West Africa as a small boy, and I distinctly remember watching from the verandah of our house, which was perched on the side of a small mountain, and looking down at the capital city below as the sirens sounded and soldiers shouted: there had been a coup attempt.  Nothing is more destructive than chaos.  May our system continue long into the future.

God bless the election volunteers.  I remember the first time I voted (must have been November, 1998).  I was home from college and I went with my dad up to our polling place, which was a school I’d attended.  In the 1950s era gymnasium/auditorium/cafeteria, we checked in with the volunteers and I was surprised to see I knew all of them–they were ladies from our church.  I was impressed then with their civic commitment, and I have been impressed with election volunteers ever since.  These people make our freedom possible.

The longest line I ever waited in to vote was in 2004.  I was living in Richmond, Virginia, off of Monument Avenue.  I went to vote around midday, and the line wrapped around the city block.  No one complained.

It is shameful that I don’t know more about the down ballot races and propositions.  I am an educated guy.  I read the newspaper every day.  I care about local issues.  And yet there were a few races on my ballot this morning that I knew nothing about.  There was also a long and complicated proposition having to do with the pension fund for civilian city employees.  I was mortified to read it and realize I didn’t know what I should do.  I left it blank.  That is unacceptable.  I never want to be in that position again.  It is my responsibility to be more informed.

But it is also shameful how our media don’t prepare us for these important races and issues.  I have a good memory and a varied media diet, and yet I walked into the voting booth knowing very little about issues beyond the headlines involving our leading presidential candidates.  I know that there may not be a market for journalism devoted to issues,  particularly down ballot issues, but I still think it’s shameful how little space our media devotes to anything other than the presidential horse race.

I wonder if a variation of the “Bradley Effect” will play a role in this election.  The Bradley effect derives its name from the 1982 candidacy of Tom Bradley for governor of California.  Mr. Bradley, a black politician, was ahead in the polling before the election, but lost the actual election.  Why?  Political scientists concluded that potential voters were not honest with pollsters, telling the pollsters that they were going to vote for a black man (the socially acceptable answer), while not actually doing so in the privacy of the voting booth.  I wonder if the same thing might happen today with regard to Mr. Trump–are there people who will privately vote for him, even though they’d be embarrassed to say so publicly?

I don’t know why cell phones are banned at polling places, but I’m glad they are.  In Texas, cell phones and other “electronic communications devices” are banned within 100 feet of voting stations.  I don’t really see the problem with a ballot selfie, but I’m not complaining.

Finally, the Presidency isn’t going to save us, and our future will not depend on tonight’s results.  I believe it matters whom we elect–I want good people serving in office, from dog catcher on up to President of the United States.  But, our ultimate hopes do not lie with our politicians, and the church does not depend on politics to carry out its mission; our hopes lie with God, and the church depends on him.

In other words, Jesus is Lord, today, tomorrow, and forever.

 

 

The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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Brangelina

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced.  Though I don’t know them, I’m grieved at the news: divorce is always painful, and the thought of their 6 children having to grow up without a mom and a dad in the same house makes me sad.  This news of yet another failed celebrity marriage has got me thinking.

 

Our Deepest Problems Are Spiritual Problems

Our deepest problems are spiritual problems.  If this were not the case, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would not be getting divorced.  If our deepest problems were merely material problems, then money would solve our problems.  If money could solve our problems, then rich people would never get divorced.

Our culture is obsessed with material reality.  We’ve bought into the self-evident lie that the only reality that matters is that which we can see, taste, touch, and measure.  But, this belief is self-evidently false, because material solutions don’t actually fix our deepest problems.  Spiritual reality matters.  Our deepest problems are spiritual problems, and so they can’t be solved with material solutions.  Spiritual reality is just as real as material reality, but because we can’t see, taste, touch, and measure spiritual reality, our culture pretends it’s not real.

Unfortunately, the effects of spiritual brokenness are quite real, and these effects are all around us:

  • War is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Divorce is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Racism is a result of spiritual brokenness, etc.

Yes, these problems have material results, but the roots of these problems are spiritual.

Again, if our deepest problems were merely material in nature, then we could buy solutions to our problems.  This is the false god of wealth.  If our deepest problems were merely material, we could solve our deepest problems through technological invention.  This is the false god of progress.

If our deepest problems were merely material, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t be getting divorced.

 

What about you?  What is the spiritual brokenness in your heart producing in your life?

Anxiety?

Adultery?

Anger?

These come from our hearts, and their effects can be seen in the material world.  But, they can’t be fixed with material solutions.

This is the human predicament: our problems all have spiritual roots, and we can’t fix ourselves.

But…

This is the gospel: the God who is Spirit entered into material reality and fixed our Problem himself.

 

Do you understand?

 

 

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Dallas Cops: Freedom’s Martyrs

We live in a culture of overstatement in which the words “freedom,” “hero,” and “tragedy”–among other words–are overused to the point that they are almost meaningless, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the five Dallas police officers murdered last Thursday are freedom’s martyrs.  Here’s why.

 

Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.”  The early Christians used the word martyr to refer to those believers who refused to compromise their faith in the face of the hostile Roman Empire.  In their refusal to apostatize, they were witnesses to their belief that Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, and they were witnesses to the power of sacrifice.  Rather then killing the church when they killed the Christians, the Romans found that the church actually grew when it was persecuted.  In fact, Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, famously said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Dallas police officers are martyrs–witnesses–because of the circumstance of their deaths, which, though I’ve had several days to think about it, still strikes me as extremely powerful.  The police officers who were killed were killed because they were protecting the protesters who were there to criticize the police.  When shots were fired, the officers ran toward danger, not away from it.  I think it’s fair to assume that most of the police officers in downtown Dallas last Thursday disagreed with the claims and conclusions of the Black Lives Matter activists, and yet they were there to ensure those activists’ right to peaceful protest.  The murdered police officers are freedom’s martyrs, because in their deaths they bear witness to the freedom so many of us take for granted, namely the freedoms specified in the First Amendment.

Tertullian thought that the deaths of the early Christian martyrs caused the church to grow stronger.  It remains to be seen if the deaths of the Dallas police officers will cause our society to do the same.  We could choose to use their deaths to further our own partisan purposes, in which case the murdered men will have become propaganda.  Or, their deaths could wake us up and cause us to dedicate ourselves to working towards a society worthy of their sacrifice and of the freedoms they died protecting.

Which will it be?

 

 

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A Brief Thought on Suffering

I woke up early Friday morning to the news that five Dallas police officers had been murdered, and I immediately started frantically texting the cops who are part of my church to see if they were safe.  When the first response came back–“I am here on the scene, but I am okay”–I was overwhelmed with gratitude. And then I felt guilty that I felt grateful, because the fact that my friends were safe necessarily meant that someone else’s weren’t.  But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?  We are all so nearsighted when it comes to suffering.

[Dallas Police Chief David Brown (source: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)]

The Somme Began 100 Years Ago Today

The Battle of the Somme began exactly 100 years ago today, July 1, 1916.  By day’s end, the British Army alone would suffer over 57,000 casualties, and 20,000 of His Majesty’s young soldiers lay dead in the filthy mud.  That obscenity is worth reflecting on today.

[A British Tommy rescuing his mate during the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. ]

 

Progress is a Lie

We modern people are so arrogant.  We believe that because we can split the atom and transplant the kidney that we are more advanced than the people who came before us.  We believe in Progress.  In fact, we worship it.

But Progress is a lie.  The Somme is the result of Progress.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, all the right sort of people–cultured and cosmopolitan–knew that man was progressing toward a glorious future, and that scientific knowledge would enable us to obtain greater and greater mastery over the physical world.  However, in their Promethean arrogance the smart set overlooked the stubborn fact that scientific knowledge might give us mastery over the physical world, but it does nothing to give us mastery over ourselves; splitting the atom and transplanting the kidney doesn’t make us wise.

Modernity Began at The Somme

The late literary critic (and decorated WWII combat veteran) Paul Fussell believed that modernity began on July 1, 1916.  That first day of slaughter at the Somme was the beginning of a century of slaughter.  Mass graves, pointless killing: that’s Progress, and that’s who we are.

The Somme, 100 Years Later

100 years later, we have the iPhone and the Global Positioning System and the defibrillator.  Today, all the right sort of people know that humankind is progressing toward a glorious future, and that death and disease will find their end in Silicon Valley.  The inconvenient history of the Somme, if we choose to acknowledge it at all, is just one more example of the pitiful ignorance of past generations.  Unlike them, however, we have Progress, and Progress will make us perfect.  Progress is our God.

So much for progress.

 

 

 

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Grammar Lesson: i.e. & e.g

“Be thankful you don’t have to read resumés everyday: it’s depressing.”  So said an HR professional to me today.  What she meant was that very few of the resumés she reads come without grammatical and spelling errors.  Our lack of grammatical precision bothers me because I don’t believe grammar is just a series of arbitrary rules; I believe grammar affects thought.  So here, in the first of what may very well be a long-running (and doubtless highly popular) segment in Fox and Hedgehog land, is a brief lesson on grammar and the proper use of i.e. & e.g.

 

Why Grammar Matters

One of my literary heroes is the stubborn English socialist writer George Orwell.  I admire Orwell because of his insistence that language matters, because, as he argues in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” language either obscures or provides clarity.  Insisting on precision in language and grammar is not just pedantry, and Orwell writes that he objects to the idea that “any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.”  Rather, language shapes our thoughts so that

an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.  A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.  The point is that the process is reversible.  Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.  If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…. [my emphasis]

from “Politics and the English Language,” by George Orwell

Grammar matters because grammar is about clarity.  It is important to say exactly what you want to say, and not to say what you don’t want to say.  Grammar helps us say what we want to say.

I.e., it matters that we get right the difference between i.e. and e.g.

The Slave Who Invented Abbreviation

Several of the grammatical abbreviations we use today were invented over 2,000 years ago by a brilliant Roman slave named Marcus Tullius Tiro. Tiro was born a slave in the household of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullis Cicero, and was Cicero’s close confidante and personal secretary until Cicero’s assassination in 43 B.C.  Cicero was a great orator, and Tiro would take notes of Cicero’s speeches in the Roman Forum so they could be published around the Roman Republic.  (In recognition of Tiro’s devotion and service, Cicero gave him his freedom in 53 B.C.)  To make note-taking easier, Tiro invented a shorthand method that was still used by European monks until the 18th century, and part of that method included the abbreviations that we still use today, e.g., i.e. and e.g., as well as an early version of the ampersand, &.

i.e.

i.e. is Latin for id est, “that is.”  When you see i.e. in a sentence, say “that is.”

e.g.

e.g. is Latin for exempli gratia, “for the sake of an example.”  When you see e.g. in a sentence, say “for example.”

i.e. vs. e.g

These 2 Latin abbreviations do not mean the same thing.  E.g.:

There are lots of ridiculous shows on television, e.g., The Bachelor.

means something different than

Last night I saw a commercial for the most ridiculous show on television, i.e., The Bachelor.

In the first example, The Bachelor is just one of the many ridiculous shows on television, whereas in the second example, I want to say that The Bachelor is the most ridiculous show on television.

See the difference?

 

 

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