Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An application of the golden rule

Some of you know that my favorite part of the bible is the Sermon on the Mount. This hardly makes me unique; in fact it's probably one of the most often cited "favorite" sections of the bible.

I just love it - -the buildup as Jesus' ministry gets going, the slap-your-face boldness of his message of charity and forgiveness, I even love the differences in sequence and phrasing between Matthew's account and Luke's account.

But one of the key messages of the sermon is surely the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would want them to do to you.

This isn't a passive instruction to wish well for people, or have positive feelings for your neighbor. It's a call to action, and it's very clear that this applies across the board to how we treat everyone: friends, enemies, family, strangers... we're not excused in our treatment of any person on earth. They all deserve to be given empathy.

So last week I started thinking (usually dangerous)... who are some of the most hated/feared/unknown people in my circles of influence? The answer came to me quickly: Muslims.

"Who" of Golden Rule

I'm feeling called to live out the golden rule in a powerful way that's new to me. And when defining whom the "others" are that I'm supposed to treat well, I knew it was going to be Muslims.

I don't know why. I'm not sure I even know a Muslim personally. But maybe that's because I am not ready. It's time to work on that.

"What" of Golden Rule

So how would I want to be treated by a Muslim friend?

I'd want them to see me as a whole person, not a label. I'd want them to give me space for my personality quirks, my blind spots and my screwups. I'd want them to help encourage me to be a better version of who I am today.

And I'd hope that at some point they would want to listen to my faith story. That I could tell them about the inspiration and example I see in Jesus, and how the bible continues to shape my life's journey. Yes, I'd want them to give the bible a chance, with an open mind, and to give me a chance in telling how it's shaped me.

So how I apply the golden rule to a Muslim seems pretty obvious -- I need to read the Koran, with an open mind. I cannot possibly expect someone to listen to my faith journey if I am not ready to listen to theirs, and I cannot expect them to explore my texts until I have read theirs.

"When" of Golden Rule

I'm already reading the Koran. In totally 21st Century fashion of course, with an electronic version on the Kindle device, downloaded for a dollar. It's a highly-regarded English translation, which is all I can handle although I know I'm missing a lot of the beautiful poetry that lies in the original Arabic.

It's a short text, compared to the bible. And while I'm in no rush and want to read at a pace that allows me to appreciate the message, it probably won't take more than a month to read the entire Koran.

What I've Learned in The First Chapters

-- The Koran assumes the reader already has a pretty good knowledge of the bible, both Old and New Testaments. I didn't expect all the references to the "people of the Book" , meaning Christians and Jews. Most comments about we people of the book are positive.

-- No nonsense about heaven being a place where men pleasure themselves with 72 virgins. Heaven is described as lush gardens with flowing water.

-- There are quite a few threats of hell and eternal fire, mostly for disobedience of Allah's laws.

-- There are regular instructions to be peaceful and charitable.

I'm sure as this experience continues, I'll have lots more to share. See you soon!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Working juuuuuust a bit outside the system

Jamie gave me some good feedback at home after my last post, and noted that only in the area of corporate systems did I mention that my best memories are when working slightly outside the system. She then noted that perhaps this was true in other areas as well, and I think she's right.

Corporate systems

When our company's strategy started to look really broken a few months ago, I worked to see what I could do to help. I couldn't fix the problems, so just before the holidays I transferred all my current responsibilities (10 employees across three teams, and all the responsibility for sales/revenue) to other Directors. That leaves me without a job, and pretty soon that will become formal.

Once I knew I couldn't lead my team to success, I gave it to someone who thought they could. But judging from the company's response, apparently this isn't the way things usually work in corporate systems. Usually a manager or leader will walk straight into failure for their team, if it means continued employment and a paycheck. I can't do that, so I guess you'd consider me outside the system.

Financial systems

I'll try to limit my rant here, but the system I reject is the industry of managed mutual funds. For over 40 years every analysis has shown that mutual fund managers pick stocks that do worse than the market as a whole, while racking up management fees, transaction fees and additional taxes for their clients.

It's one of the biggest scams ever, and the true role of an investment guru should probably be as educator and psychologist for the client, helping them to understand how stocks/bonds work, and then helping them cope with the volatility of those markets. Sometimes you've got to stop a person from selling low and buying high, and a financial manager can help with that.

I was fortunate with my education to learn about the markets, and I'm not interested in having someone to call for soothing advice when stocks go up and down. So we manage our investments on our own, and it's all in basic index funds. We pay almost nothing in fees and taxes, we spend less than an hour a month on managing the accounts, and our returns have beat almost every mutual fund manager in the country over the past 10 years.

So yeah, I have no interest in getting inside the system of fund management.

Social systems

White people who make the kind of money we do don't move to our neighborhood; they're supposed to live in the suburbs. We went way outside the social norm and chose to live as the alien (by race and by language), and we have no regrets!

Governmental systems

The city of Houston recently made a ruling that people cannot feed the homeless unless their food has been inspected by an official during its preparation. This impacts our family, as we've made a few trips downtown recently to meet, visit and feed some homeless people downtown on Sundays after church.

I'm not looking to get arrested of course, but this type of legal ruling isn't exactly the kind of thing I'm going to worry too much about following. The ruling was so bizarre and so opposite to the needs of the community that I have no doubt Jesus would laugh at it and keep on providing food.

Our first act of rebellion will probably be hosting a Super Bowl party for our friends, which would qualify as us feeding a group of people, with no inspection! Ha!

Religious systems

This is the one that launched so many great comments in my last post.

An elder and I discussed last year how in this day and age, it's almost impossible for a church like ours to meet all or even most the spiritual needs of its members. We live far away from the building and from each other, and may only be together once a week. In between, we are fed spiritually by online friends, neighborhood connections and office mates. And with the web, there are resources everywhere available 24/7. Most of these don't fit within my own denominational doctrine, but they have been priceless to me nonetheless. So in some ways I already am somewhat outside the system.

But what sparked the discussion here on the blog was the issue of congregational financial management, and Jamie and I will be speaking with our church's leadership soon about the topic. First I will be looking for understanding, to get an idea of their framework for thinking about, and making decisions with, the heavy responsibility of the church budget. For example, what are the priorities? What are the "have to haves" and what is up for grabs when it comes to expenses? Are those areas based on effectiveness, or is there another method for determining how ministries change? When we need another 8% to fund important work, does all of that have to come from additional giving or can we meet halfway with savings somewhere else?

Overall, I'd like to understand if our church manages its money like a family, like a business, or like something entirely different. Right now I really have no idea.

But even the fact that we'll be discussing it with the leadership, seeking to understand these things, probably puts us a little outside the way things normally work there.

Just where I like to be!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My current issues with systems

While I stand by my last post regarding my concerns about the church helping people tackle real challenges in their life, I also recognize that underneath that concern is a broader frustration with systems.

Corporate systems. Financial systems. Social systems. Governmental systems. Church/religious systems.

Corporate systems

I'm 10 years into my career and have worked for public and private companies,, big and small, and have had roles ranging from the line level to managerial level to executive level.

One consistent theme is that most people come to work sincerely wanting to do a good job. And most companies have policies and procedures that complicate or even hinder the people's ability to do those jobs.

Most of my best work in companies has been when I operate slightly outside the system, and treat people as priceless souls of God. I expect that to continue, and that when/if I retire I will look back on those moments as some of my favorites.

Financial systems

I look at our country and see the prosperity gap growing ever bigger. Even though I have the potential to be on the higher end of that scale, it sickens me. The number of poor continues to grow, the middle class is dissolving, and the rich have never been richer in the history of our world.

Within that, I specifically see the banking industry being a cause of some of this, and an apathetic bystander to some of it as well. My education and experience has given me quite a bit of insight into what is happening, and prevents me from pursuing some possible careers in that field. I could not sleep well at night getting wealthy while not creating true value, and watch as other hard workers go jobless as a cost savings that funds my luxury.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill -- capitalism is a terrible economic system, the worst of all actually, except for all those other ones that have been tried so far.

Social systems

Our family spent MLK day at the local Children's Museum, where we took part in a re-enactment of the 1963 march on Washington, complete with an excellent actor's peformance of the speech and uplifting spiritual songs peformed by a young black chorale.

My very-white kids loved every moment and have really shown interest in learning about our country's legacy of racism, from outright slavery to withheld rights to subtle prejudice. To put it bluntly, for a long time our social systems in America sucked.

But in 2011, living in a huge city with amazing diversity, many of my kids' friends are black, most of their teachers have been black, and they will surely do a far better job than I have at seeing the eternal soul in people, not the color of the packaging.

I hope our social systems, both formal and subconscious, will be a positive contribution to the ongoing progress.

Governmental systems

Enough's been written about this one elsewhere, no doubt. In a nutshell, I don't care too much about Republican/Democrat nonsense. I just want problem-solvers in Washington who are willing to take on tough issues and work on extremely complicated problems, often with imperfect data and no precedent to lean on.

And I don't see that, neither in the incumbents nor any of the hopeful people campaigning for the next round of elections. Such a small number of people in Washington influence an amazing amount of our lives.

For a start, I'd just like that small group of representatives to agree on this: we can't keep up these deficits, so we're spending less on programs/benefits and increasing taxes and everybody needs to get ready for it.

Religious systems

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised how much this area feeds off the other systems above. Many churches are organized like companies these days, with expansive financial systems and a seeming inability to face the facts about obvious trends (for example, my denomination has been consistently shrinking for 40 years but we don't talk about that).

I'm especially frustrated lately by the finances of our church. This isn't a gossipy thing or a personal issue I need to take up with the elders yet -- it's a big-picture issue I'm trying to think through.

We have an annual budget in excess of a million dollars. Starting in 2008 our church leaders made a huge effort to raise special contributions to pay off the mortgage on our building, even though the payment was only 8% of our monthly budget. I'd like to see how many members at church have a mortgage payment that's 8% of their budget.

But we responded and paid off the church building's note in 2009, several years early. I don't know what the money has gone to. Last week was our "one sermon a year" on church finances.

We were told that almost 85% of that annual budget goes to minister salaries, which leaves us nothing to fund many of the programs that are really taking off (hispanic church plant that baptized 20 people last year, a new ministry to reach out to people in crisis, an orphanage, the food bank, etc...). That's right, these programs right now will get nothing even though all signs point to them being outstanding and needed in our community.

But we were also told that it could all be funded... if we could increase giving another 8%. Yet the $850,000 in minister salaries is untouchable, and I guess we'll keep the utilities on even if the homeless don't get fed.


I will try hard to remember that none of these systems are perfect, and the people within these systems are worthy of my respect and love.

Yet as a Christian I am not called to always be compliant.

A corporate system gives me no right to treat people as less just because I am their manager on an organizational charts.

A financial system gives me no right to make millions at others' expense -- it is not a zero-sum game.

A social system gives me no right to separate my world into "us" and "them" because of skin color or gender.

A governmental system gives me no right to ask for benefits that I can't fund.

A religious system gives me no right to write checks to church and let the professional minsters take full responsibility for being the hands of Christ.

I give up these rights because I saw Jesus do the same, and his example inspires me to a higher path than letting all these systems tell me what to do.

I screw this up a lot. I need a lot of help. But I try!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The list

I'm having a heck of a time finding a place where I feel a fit at church these days. There are many people there who love me very much, and I love them in return. Yet I'm not sure they totally 100% love the real me, or just the orthodox part of me that I'm willing and brave enough to show on Sundays and Wednesdays.

While I'd like to think I have enough grace to love all parts of their souls and lives, even their flaws, they surely wear the same facade of righteousness just to play it safe. And so we go on, week after week, loving each other which is the easiest thing in the world, because really, the only parts of ourselves that we show are very lovable!

This topic came up recently in our Wednesday night discussion group, and it turned into one of those open windows where I took a bit of a chance to see what would happen.

Classmate: I think our church is an open place, and the members are open with one another. We share our lives.
Me: I don't think that's true.
Classmate: What do you mean?
Me: I think most of our lives, especially the struggles, are almost completely hidden from our church friends. Take divorce, for example. At least five couples in our group have been separated and divorced over the past few years, and none of us saw it coming. Because they never opened up to any of us about the problems in their marriage. For all I know many of you are having those types of struggles right now. Or maybe Jamie and I am. But the history shows that you'd never know and we don't talk about it here.
Classmate: What can we do about that, though? If they don't choose to be honest and share their lives, how can we know if they need help?
Me: That's just the thing -- I think we've created an environment that makes it almost impossible to be honest about these things. It's like there's a list of sins or problems that we're not allowed to talk about at church.
Classmate: (Challenging) Give me an example.
Me: Let's start with sex, since it's probably the easiest and most obvious. Do you think there are men in this church who struggle with lust, pornography and adultery?
Classmate: Probably.
Me: No probably, I guarantee it. With more than 1,000 members in this church, I guarantee you that there are triple-digit numbers of guys wrestling with pornography. I'm one of them, but it never gets talked about here.
Female classmate: (confused) Triple digits?
Me: At least 100 guys. Sexual temptation and struggle is almost written into our DNA, but after more than 30 years attending church I can't think of a single time I personally witnessed a man testify to his struggle with sexuality. We don't talk about it, and that silence makes it seem that nobody is having this problem. So 100 guys are left to feel alone with no support system until the problem grows large enough for painful consequences to set in.
Classmate: Okay, I see what you're saying. Are there more things on this list?
Me: Substance abuse, greed/stealing, addictions of various types. How many times have any of you seen a public or even classroom/group setting where a person confessed to one of these things? The only struggles that seem to be okay to discuss at church are depression, joblessness, and "not living better for Jesus". Meanwhile we wrestle with all of these other very real issues on our own.
Classmate: But what would change that?
Me: Somebody would have to be very brave and step out in trust that they could talk about this type of thing in vulnerable confession, and that the group would respond in love. If it worked, it might make it easier for the second person to come forward. If not, then we'd prove we aren't a safe place to come with problems, and we can forget about getting deeper than the happy-looking surface level in this building. I think it's tragic, and that Jesus would say this is a place for the sick and the hurting. How sad that this is the last place people want to bring their real problems.

When this was over, four different guys came up to me after class to talk privately and say this felt more "real" than anything they'd experienced at church in a long time. Another guy called me on his cell phone as he was driving home.

I'm 34 years old and have still never had a close enough friend whom I felt I could trust with tough problems. Perhaps more importantly, I haven't been the kind of friend to anyone in a way that would let them trust me with their own struggles.

No, I'm not in some kind of personal crisis mode right now. My crisis was systemic, looking at the church and not seeing it as a place where my generation can come together with their whole selves.

And I fear that if that doesn't change, there won't be much of a church left for my grandkids. If that's the case, I hope that there's some other support system of friends and loved ones who can help them when the time comes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Difference between girls and boys, in pictures

Samantha at eight years old is the eldest of our clan, and with that comes certain responsibilities and expectations (I should know, since I'm also a firstborn).

She lives up to them beautifully, and for most of her eight years has displayed a fondness for pleasing her parents and heeding instructions. At school, her teachers say she is 100% "on" every minute of every day, making sure to follow all the rules.

Our two boys? Not as much.

I present the evidence.

Two years ago, Samantha is looking at our photographer friend Paula while the rest of us are goofing around:

This Christmas, Samantha again looking at the photographer while the boys scramble to chase whatever shiny object has their eye:

And it's not just a group setting phenomenon -- Samantha will pose beautifully all by herself if you want to snap a photo.

The boys, on the other hand...

Here's one of Jack's recents poses:

Baby Luke punching me in the face instead of posing for picture:

I rest my case.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Battle of good and evil

We are to love each other, right? It's one of Jesus' greatest commands ("love your neighbor as yourself"). But is there ever a time, place or target where our most noble emotion could be hate, and our most noble action would be to attack?

If that's ever true, then I would guess a Christian to answer it is when we are directly fighting evil itself. In the 21st Century we don't always know how to label something as 100% evil, but we look back on the past and claim that some people (Hitler, Manson) or actions (genocide, murder) may qualify.

If we go back farther, though, to New Testament writings, we see that Jesus and his disciples encountered demons during their ministries. Demons! Surely if anything was to qualify as 100% evil, then it has to be these direct servants of Satan.

One of these encounters was recorded in the book of Mark (Chapter 5) with a demon called "Legion". But instead of Jesus battling this evil spirit with aggresiveness and attack, he does three amazingly graceful things:

1) Asks for the demon's name. This isn't to gain power over Legion -- it was already established that Jesus had that power without needing to know the demon's name.

2) Grants Legion's request that he not be cast out into "the pit". We're not sure what that means, but it didn't sound good, and Jesus spared Legion that fate.

3) Grants Legion a second request, that he be cast into a herd of pigs.

Why would Jesus show kindness and grace to a demon? Is there any possible advantage to be gained by this, or any possible different fate for Legion? Does a demon retain the hope of changing sides?

And applying to today, if Jesus showed kindness to a demon, exactly when do we have license to be angry and vengeful in the name of fighting evil?