Advent Reflection: Presence in an Age of Absence – Luke 1:68-79


 “. . . to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” -  Luke 1:79

            You have seen it: a group of friends together at a table, but all looking down at their phones; a couple taking a walk and each talking on a phone; or a family eating together but repeatedly one or another turning aside to respond to a text. Is this the picture of peace? “Shalom,” is one of my favorite words. The Hebrew word is so much richer than our English word “peace.” It means not just absence of conflict, but the presence of harmony and well-being. Mobile devices connect us to someone or something far away but disconnect us from the person next to us. This is not shalom.

            Advent is preparation for presence. John the Baptist, in the flesh, prepares the way for God incarnate—Jesus. God did not send a text; God came to be present and live amongst us. Ours is an age of absence. We sit in the artificial light of screens of all sizes, yet in terms of relationship we too often sit in darkness—absent even from those close at hand.

            How might you prepare the way for presence this Advent? How might you be more present to yourself, to God, to others? Might you experience more shalom through taking a Sabbath from your phone? Through setting times away from all screens? Through covenanting to be present with others and putting your mobile devices aside?

            Jesus may we experience the richness of your presence and may we be present to others so lacking in shalom in this age of absence.

Posted on December 7, 2018 .

Inequality, Shame, and Violence


On Friday afternoon I led a Bible study with a circle of men in the Fresno County Jail. It included entering the biblical story ourselves and experiencing Jesus countering voices of shame we hear. I passionately invited them to imagine Jesus’ loving gaze when they hear shaming voices. One way or another, I address shame about once a month in the jail Bible study. Why so often?

Inequality feeds violence. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who served as director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system, explains that dividing people into categories of superior and inferior feeds violence. He states that as societal inequality increases so does violence. In a previous blog and in a section of this website, I have summarized research that shows that many problems, not just violence, increase with inequality—and everyone is affected, not just the poor. Why? Why does greater inequality feed these problems? Gilligan’s writing on violence powerfully displays the answer. At the root of violence, he found shame; and increased inequality is a catalyst for shame. My friend, and sociologist, Bob Brenneman found the same thing in his research on why people join gangs in Central America. There are a number of contributing factors, but the one that stood out was shame. Therefore, as we work for shalom, two key things to pursue are lessening inequality and healing shame.

The men in the Bible study come from a high security pod. Most are gang members. Violence is a part of their past, if not their present. What would Gilligan’s and Brenneman’s books tell me? If I dig beneath the tattoos and the criminal records what will I find? Shame. Therefore, I frequently proclaim liberation from shame through Jesus. That Friday, after doing the shame-healing exercise we had a time of prayer. I invited them to speak the names of people they love who have needs that the inmates themselves cannot address or solve. By naming them we would be asking God to bless them and do what we are unable to do.

We spoke names, one at time. The names kept coming, often tumbling one over the other—rarely a gap of more than a few seconds. I felt loving concern echo off the cement block walls. After five minutes I spoke a brief closing prayer—not because of awkward silence, but because our time was up. We shook hands, embraced. They thanked me for coming. Robert said, “thank you I needed this today. I look forward to Friday’s. This is reorienting.”

After the correctional officer took the men back to their pod he came to unlock the closet where I turn in my report on how many attended. He asked me, “How were they?” From time to time a C.O. asks me a “how did it go?” question that feels supportive, interested. This felt different. I replied, “Fine, it was a good study. They engaged well. They treat me well. Thanked me for coming.” All he said in reply was, “they are the worst of the worst.” I assume he was making a general comment about them coming from one of two high-security pods in the building. I guess on paper, if you look at the number of past infractions, and assume that tells you who they are—then yes, “worst of the worst.” But the words shocked me. I did an internal double-take. “What did he just say?” Is he talking about the same men who just lovingly prayed for others? Who thanked me for coming? Yes, they acknowledge they have done bad things in the past, but they long for a chance to live differently and not be defined by their past. As I rode home on my bike I pondered those words, “worst of the worst.” How does that categorization seep out through the words, the looks, the actions of that C. O. and shower the men with shame? What does it do to the men to wear that label? If Gilligan is correct, that correctional officer and the shaming system he is a part of will increase, not decrease the level of violence in society. I do Bible studies to counter shaming voices frequently . . . perhaps not frequently enough.

Thankfully, however, not everyone in the system thinks and acts as that officer does. Earlier this year I was walking with a different correctional officer to same closet. I said, “How have you been? I have not seen you for a while.” He replied, “I was on yard duty.” I asked, “Is that good or is it better to be on one of the floors?” He said, “You could say it was punishment.” I did not press for more information, but he went on. “I refused to do something I was told to do, because it was not right. These men are people too.” He named the number of a legal code, and said, “I refuse to go against that code.” I then asked him if he had heard of Bryan Stevenson and told him about the line from his book Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.”  He said, “yes, I have done bad things. These men have done bad things too, and yes, the quote is right.” Then he said, “I call them men, I do not call them inmates.”

He has worked in the jail and before that prisons, for years. This week I heard him say to another. C.O. that he had not had a break all day. I asked him why. He said, “A couple of the other guys working are new. I can’t leave them alone. The men would eat them alive.” (I assume he meant take advantage of them.) He is not naïve, but unlike the other C. O. he works with intentionality to lessen shame. He refuses to divide them into an inferior category.

Which of these two men represents more accurately the system as a whole, society as a whole?  Sarah Koenig, of the Serial podcast, has spent months interacting with people in Cleveland’s criminal justice system. How would she answer the question? I listened to the first episode of season three while working in our garden. Her words near the end of the episode led me to put down my spade and, through the lens Gilligan’s work, sadly ponder the implications of what she said.

A felony judge I was talking to for a different story in this series told me he was thinking of giving a defendant serious time. “What's serious time?” I asked. He explained, well, to someone with common sense, even one day in jail is devastating, life changing. To someone who's got no common sense, maybe they do three years, five years. Means nothing. They go right back out and commit more crimes.

I knew what he meant. Punishment is relative. What it takes to teach you a lesson depends on what you're used to. But there was a more disturbing implication as well. One that prowls this courthouse and throughout our criminal justice system. That we are not like them. The ones we arrest and punish, the ones with the stink, they're slightly different species, with senses dulled and toughened. They don't feel pain or sorrow or joy or freedom or the loss of freedom the same way you or I would.

“We are not like them.” What a potent shaming mechanism prowling through our justice system and society.

To be an agent of peace is not just to defuse and de-escalate a situation of active violence. It is also to work at the root causes of violence. James Gilligan would tell us that includes lessening the inequality gap, alleviating shame and building dignity. Clearly Jesus knew this before Gilligan. Whereas the first Correctional Officer’s words sound like things we hear from the Pharisees, Jesus’ words and actions match and go beyond those of the second officer.

What are ways we as individuals contribute to making distinctions between superior and inferior? What are ways our church communities do that? How do we participate in and go along with ways society builds the inequality gap?

What actions can we take toward dismantling or transforming systems that contribute to the inequality gap? How can we follow Jesus in alleviating shame and restoring dignity? What are ways we can lead the shamed to experience Jesus’s loving embrace?


Posted on October 17, 2018 .

Unkindly Eyes or Compassionate Eyes?


Who is someone you have thought critically of today? A person or two you have looked at with disdain or disapproval this week? I invite you, pray a blessing on those people. What happens (to you)? Years ago, I thought critically of the pastor of the church I attended. He was a good orator, but often appeared to make up the sermon as he delivered it. He led us in making plans, but not in carrying them out. I could go on, but the point is I had a list of critical thoughts about him. I brought them to church with me each week. Seeing him through the filter of that list made it hard for me to see anything else about him. I had a hyper-sensitive radar to his negative attributes. It was a critical feedback loop. My growing disdain and frustration became a barrier to experiencing positive things that he and the church had to offer and also a barrier to my involvement in the church. My friend and mentor, Doug Frank, suggested that each week at church I imagine the vulnerable hurting little boy within the pastor. (Just as Doug had previously led me to think of the little Mark Baker within me.) What happened? I still had critiques of things the pastor did or did not do, but the starting point was compassion. The filter changed. I saw him differently.

How might it change our days if we wrapped every thought about another person in a blanket of blessing and compassion? How might it change our interactions if blessing and compassion were our starting points? How might that help us live out a centered approach to church? I will say more on that in a moment, but first a few thoughts about God. How might it change our concept of God, our experience of the God we live with, if we knew, in the depth of our being, that God looks at us through eyes of blessing and compassion?

For many, to hear the words, “God sees into the innermost parts of your being” provokes fear. If the peering eyes are unkindly ones, the fear is appropriate. Roberta Bondi, in her memoir, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (great book!) describes a turning point in her relationship with God and Christianity. Through reading one of the early desert monastics she realized, “that only God can judge us because it is only God who can look with compassion on the depth and variety of our individual experience and our suffering, and know us as we really are” (78). God looks at you with eyes of compassion. Rest in that thought for a moment. Imagine Jesus looking at you—looking not just at your actions, but probing with understanding at the roots of those actions.

Having the God revealed by Jesus, the God described by Bondi, at the center is a key element in the difference between the character of a centered church and a bounded church. It is not, however, just because of how it changes an individual’s experience of God. Emphasizing relationship with the center includes the biblical imperative of seeking to live in conformity with the center, to imitate Christ. Deepening relationship with Jesus calls and enables us to view others with compassion. That too will change the character of a church.

Would you like to be part of a church community filled with people like I was with their radar set to highest sensitivity for others’ shortcomings, or with people like Doug Frank who look at others with eyes of compassion? A critical posture feeds a bounded approach. Looking critically at others enables me to feel a sense of superiority. Even if not done consciously, it is an over-and-above move. What happened when I looked at the pastor through different lenses? Thinking compassionately about his hurts and wounds was a leveling move. It was not pity; I too carry wounds. It put his actions that I was critical of in a new light and led to different thoughts about what might bring change in his life.

How about fuzzy? Note that Bondi does not say that the turning point was realizing God does not judge. Doug did not suggest I ignore the pastor’s shortcomings. Experiencing tolerance feels better than a critical unkindly eye, but tolerance is also less than blessing. A fuzzy approach could compassionately understand why a person acts as they do, but would stop there. It would be hesitant to take the next step. It would not seek to use that understanding to work with the person for change. Is that full compassion? Is that naming?

Let us look at others with eyes of compassion and prayers of blessing.

Posted on September 21, 2018 .

Who Your Friends are Matters


Ursula lives in New York City. The apartment they own is worth $4 million. They have a weekend house in the Hamptons valued at over $1.5 million. Their children go to an exclusive private school. She is not currently earning a salary, but her husband is paid more than $2 million a year as a high-level executive at a tech firm. She states that she grew up middle class and still considers herself middle class. When asked if she ever felt guilt for having so much more than others, she said, “No.”

Karen and Keith also live in New York City. They own a house worth over $1.2 million. Their household income is over $300,000. They do not own a second house, and their children go to public school. Although significantly less affluent than Ursula, they viewed themselves as privileged. Karen said, “We’re both horrified by how much money we make.” Keith, talking about their house said, “My feeling is it’s a bottomless pit, renovation and home improvement. And I think that six Chinese people are camping out in some one-bedroom hovel in Beijing right now. So, like, the notion that you ‘need’ something is all BS” (29).

How is it that the family with significantly more wealth does not see themselves as “privileged” and view their lifestyle as extreme as Karen and Keith do? Rachel Sherman, a sociologist, interviewed 50 people from 42 New York City households—all earning more than $250,000 a year. She repeatedly heard perspectives similar to both views above. In the first chapter of her book, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Sherman argues that what leads people to express one perspective or the other is not the amount of money they have, but whether they look upward or downward. Ursula, and others who said similar things, look up and compared themselves to those who earned much more, who had even more lavish lifestyles. Maya, an attorney turned stay-at-home mother, whose lawyer husband had an income of over $2 million, described her family as just fine, but not “really wealthy.” She said, “there are all the bankers that are heads and heels, you know, way above us” (33). Helen, with a similar household income said, “I feel like we’re somewhere in the middle, in the sense that there are so many people with so much money. They have private planes. They have drivers. . .” (33). So, even though the median income in New York City is $52,000, these people in the top one or two percent look up and feel in the middle.

Penny, a legal consultant, and her husband, make a more than the households listed above, yet they talk much differently about their wealth. Like Karen and Keith, Penny looks down. “You know, there’s always someone in New York, especially New York City, Manhattan—who has more than you do. And there’s always a lot of people who have less. … I would say we’re on the higher end of having more.” If one only compares oneself with those above it understandably leads to a different self-perception than those who look down as well. The deeper question, the aspect of the chapter that caught my attention, is this: what leads some to look up and others to look down? The answer is simple and has profound implications for followers of Jesus.

In essence, those who compare themselves upwards do so because they only socialize with people of similar or more economic means. They did not have relationships with people below them. “Those who faced downward tended to talk about friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in a wide range of economic circumstances” (49). Whether through family, workplace, organizations, or public schools, these people had cross-class relationships.

It is not just the contrast between calling themselves middle class or affluent. The actions, attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives of the two groups differ in various ways. As Sherman quotes and describes the people it becomes clear that who you relate with will influence you. Who you hang out with, who you eat with, who you play with, who you serve with, who you interact with matters. This is true for all of us, not just the wealthy in Sherman’s book. And, it is true of both groups in her book--not just those who befriend people different than themselves. Our actions and attitudes will be influenced by who we relate to.

The chapter led me to think about Galatians and table fellowship. In contrast to the society around them, Christians came together at one table–Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. I have thought of this as something that, through the transformative work of Jesus, we are able to do. With the people in Sherman’s chapter in mind, I had the thought: perhaps there is more imperative in that table fellowship than I had thought. Not just that through Christ Christians can sit down and eat with people who do not commonly eat together in our society, but that we are called to do so. Not just because it presents a beautiful picture of the fruit of the radical work of Jesus, but because it matters who we eat with, who we relate with. It will change us. Like the people in Sherman’s book, it will impact our empathy, actions, and attitudes.

I discussed Sherman’s chapter with my friend and New Testament scholar, Ryan Schellenberg. I asked, “What do you think of that interpretation of Galatians?” He affirmed it, and suggested I think about Luke 14. Jesus says when you host a meal don’t invite those from your own status circles, “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Then he tells the parable of a host who ends up doing just that. Certainly this is a pro-poor, pro-marginalized command—give them a seat at the table! But through the lens of Sherman’s interviews we can see that Jesus gave the command thinking of the rich as well. Who we eat with, who we relate with matters. It will change us.

I recently had lunch with Anthony—just a few weeks after his release from prison. Four years ago, on his 36th birthday, he sadly shared during a jail Bible study that he has been in and out of jail and prison so much that he only had two birthdays for which he was not incarcerated since he was 17. Shortly before that birthday, however, Anthony had repented, had profound experiences of God’s loving forgiveness, and the transformative work of the Spirit was evident in his life. Of all the men who have been in my jail Bible study over the last ten years, Anthony is one of a handful I have corresponded with when they went to prison. Why? A special connection? A sense of great potential he has? A depth of sincerity? I am not totally sure, but I knew I took initiative to eat with him that day because I wanted to do whatever I could in the limited time I have to support him in his efforts to leave old ways behind. A good thing to do. I assumed I would continue to get together with him from time to time in the future. Reading Sherman’s chapter, however, left me with a desire to deepen my relationship with Anthony, not just for his benefit, but mine. I will be changed by friendship with Anthony.

I could easily respond to Sherman’s chapter by patting myself on the back and listing all the relationships I already have with people unlike myself. I could also paint a very different picture by listing how much of my time I spend with people very similar to myself. In any case I do not think Jesus or Paul had a quota in mind—neither in the number of relationships nor in the amount of life transformation that flows from those relationships. Let us extend the table. It matters who we eat with, who we relate with. It will change our perspectives, attitudes, and actions in ways that will benefit us and others.

I invite you to join me in making a commitment to seek out a new relationship or deepen a current relationship with someone significantly different than yourself—from a different social or economic class, different ethnically, different politically, different theologically, different life experience, etc. Who might it be? It matters. It will change you.

Posted on August 28, 2018 .

Downsides of Efficiency: A Lesson from Vietnam

                               Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

                             Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

The war in Vietnam spanned my childhood. It ended April 30, 1975, less than two months before I graduated from high school. Thus, watching Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War, differed from seeing documentaries on other wars. I have lived experience, memories, of what it covered. I remember not just events, but also my understandings, perceptions, and feelings. In some ways the series peeled back layers and revealed to me how reality was so different than what I perceived. Yet it also helped me understand why I had the thoughts and feelings I did at the time.

Numerous times I have told people the following: “On the evening news they had charts listing the killed and wounded on each side. Since there were not fronts in Vietnam, like the wars I read about in books, the body count was what I used to discern who was winning. We almost always won the numbers war on the evening news.” Looking back, I have thought of this as a child’s simplistic view of things. It was not. Body counts were the means of measuring progress in the war, not just for the little boy Mark Baker, but also for the Secretary of Defense.

Before becoming Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara had led Ford Motor Company. He brought a technician’s mindset to his role. At Ford he used numbers as the basis of evaluation. He sought to improve efficiency so that the numbers would improve. So too in Vietnam, in his mind an efficient war would be a successful one. He needed numbers. If he could not measure well, he would be unable to improve performance. Therefore, to do better in the war, the U.S. needed to do a better job of measuring. McNamara ordered subordinates to look for ways to quantify more and more things. An aide told him, “but you can’t count what really matters, how the Vietnamese people feel.” What were their concerns, loyalties, hopes, etc.? The focus on numbers actually contributed to the U. S. paying less attention to these important elements. One of the lines that most stood out to me in the documentary was a comment someone made on body counts. “When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

This focus on numbers and the negative implications flowing from that continued long after McNamara left the Department of Defense. For the U. S., it was a war of numbers. Patrols were sent out not to take territory from the enemy, but to attract fire and engage in a firefight to kill the enemy. U. S. soldiers would fight to drive the enemy off a hill, leave, the enemy would come back, and they would do it again. It was not the hill that mattered, it was the body count. The focus on numbers trickled down to the soldiers; they felt it. So, from privates on up, the way to impress those above you was getting numbers. That encouraged erring on side of killing innocent people rather than the opposite. It fostered lying and fabricating numbers. One pilot told about how the person looking at the pictures of what they had bombed always came up with ways to find things to count and to make them sound impressive—any building or vehicle damaged was turned into a success against something of military significance.

Because the numbers were always dramatically better for the U. S., as a child I had thought, “the other side is going to run out of people. We will win.” And actually, my simple means of evaluating was not that different from strategists in the defense department. They calculated a kill ratio that if achieved and continued, would mean that N. Vietnam would not be able to keep up and replace those killed. (The Pentagon’s assumption was wrong. As they were wrong about so much.)

“When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

I wonder where else we are pulled away from what is truly important because it can’t be quantified and measured? How does it happen in education, ministry, business, social work, etc.?

This is not to say that measuring is totally wrong. For instance, if the number of people viewing my blogs drop dramatically, reflecting on why might be beneficial. But if I became too focused on numbers I would be pulled away from what is important. For some on the internet, all that matters are numbers. They focus their energy on discerning the best click bait. All they care about is quantity.

It reminds me of what I say in class. “Machines are pure technique, but much of life is becoming machine-like. Values which humans are told to honor and to live by are the values of the machine: organization, standardization, precision, rationalization, systematization, efficiency, and artificiality.

And other values are to be despised, as destructive of efficiency: individuality, spontaneity, variety, diversity, the natural, freedom, and subjectivity.

So what is wrong with the rule of technique? It is not that organization, precision, and efficiency are always bad, and spontaneity and diversity are always good, but if through our unquestioning devotion to technique the first list crowds out the second list then something valuable is lost. It is hard for us to be fully named, to be in interdependent relationships.”

Similarly, it is not that quantifying and measuring are bad, but they become problematic when they distort our perception of what is most important. “When you can’t measure what is important you make important what you can count.”

As in so much else, here too let us center on Jesus. First, Jesus offers a model of focusing on the truly important. Second, the loving embrace of Jesus provides a place of security from the shaming voices that scold us for not quantifying more, for not prioritizing efficiency and the “success” it produces.

Posted on July 3, 2018 .

Needed in the Court of Reputation—Alternative Voices


What compels us to do the right thing? In the more individualistic West, the answer would be: one’s conscience. In most of the rest of the world, it is the collective, the group. The evaluative gaze of others compels right behavior. In the first I do the right thing to avoid internal feelings of guilt; in the latter I do the right thing to gain honor and to avoid the shaming of my group, my family, and myself. In our recent book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, Jayson Georges and I provide insights and tools for evangelism and discipleship in contexts that have a collectivist orientation. We give numerous examples of mistakes, including our own, that flow from a focus on the individual conscience in an honor-shame context. Yet, even in the West, to only focus on the individual conscience is problematic; it is an error to ignore the honor-shame dynamic even in individualistic contexts. Here too, communities and peer groups become courts of reputation. Although forming an individual to think correctly about Christian ethics is of fundamental importance in the individualistic West, that alone will not lead people to do the right thing.

I recently heard a person talk of turning his conscience off so it would not bark at him saying, “You’re doing a bad and evil thing.” Why was the ethical direction from his conscience not enough? What pushed him to turn it off? What implications does this have for the church? As you read this story of a Vietnam war draftee, note the presence of both the individual conscience and the honor-shame dynamic. 

Tim O’Brien, is one of the people interviewed in Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War (episode 7). O’Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota, a farming community of about 8,000. He described it as a town where people knew each other, knew what was going on in others’ lives, who was doing well, and whose kids had taken a wrong turn. He was drafted in June 1968. His parents had both been in the Navy in WWII. He explains, “They had believed in service to one’s country, and all those values. On one hand I did think the war was less than righteous. On the other hand, I love my country. And I valued my life in a small town and my friends and family.  And so the summer of ’68 I wrestled with what to do. That was for me, at least, more tortuous, devastating and emotionally painful than anything that happened in Vietnam. . . Do you go off and kill people if you are not pretty sure it is right? And if your nation isn’t pretty sure it is right? If there is not consensus? Do you do that?”

“I was at Fort Lewis Washington, and Canada was what, a 90-minute bus ride away. I wrote my Mom and Dad and asked for some money and my passport. They sent them to me—with no questions. ‘What do you want this for?’ I kept this stuff, along with some civilian clothes, stashed in my footlocker thinking, ‘maybe I will do it.’ It was this ‘maybe’ thing going on all throughout training. As Vietnam got closer and closer and closer. . . In the end I just capitulated. . . It wasn’t a decision. It was forfeiture of a decision. Letting my body go. Turning a switch in my conscience, just turning it off so it wouldn’t be barking at me: ‘You’re doing a bad and evil and stupid and unpatriotic thing.’”

“What prevented me doing it [fleeing to Canada]? I think it was pretty simple and stupid. It was a fear of embarrassment, of ridicule and humiliation. What my girlfriend would have thought of me, and the people in the Gobbler Café in downtown Worthington. The Kiwanis boys and the country club boys in that small town I grew up in, the things they would say about me, ‘what a coward,’ and ‘what a sissy for going to Canada.’  I would imagine my Mom and Dad overhearing something like that. I could not summon the courage to say ‘no’ to those nameless, faceless people who, in essence, this was the United States of America. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to them. I have had to live with it now for 40 years. That is a long time to live with a failure of conscience and a failure of nerve. The nightmare of Vietnam for me is not the bombs and the bullets.” He pauses and with a quivering voice says, “It is that failure of nerve I so regret.”

O’Brien thought then, and thinks now, that the better option, the “right” thing to do was go to Canada rather stay in the army and go to Vietnam. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he considered right, let’s reflect on the dynamics of the decision itself. The honor-shame dynamic of a small tight knit town overpowered his individual thinking on the matter. He opted to do what the town would consider the honorable thing to do in order to avoid the shame of people talking about him in a disparaging way.

What did he need? What might have led to a different outcome? He needed a counter community with a different honor code. He needed voices that would honor his decision to desert and neutralize the shaming voices of others in the court of reputation.

Let’s think of this in an analogous way. Imagine in a ministry setting you work hard to shape someone’s beliefs about a particular ethical stance that differs from mainstream society. They are convinced. Then, however, like O’Brien they are alone with only their individual conviction, they are surrounded by people and media pressing them to do the opposite. Individual conviction may be enough, but it very well may not be.

As we call people to radically re-orient their lives to the way of Jesus, we must work with intentionality at honoring them when they take steps that will bring scorn from the mainstream. This can be dramatic, as in this incident, reported by Bob Brenneman, that Jayson and I included in our book. Brenneman tells of a Central American gang member, Roberto, who converted and left the gang. For Roberto the church community became an important “alternate court of reputation,” as he sought to follow the way of Jesus rather than the way of the gang, and the broader society. There were many challenges, perhaps the most difficult was when his younger brother was murdered. Brenneman states,

Such events place a recovering gang member in a difficult position. According to the moral logic of the street, a “good brother” defends the honor of his fallen kin by avenging his death with “payback.” And indeed the offers for assistance in “making things right” came swiftly from Roberto’s former associates. But just as quickly came the support and reminders of his new “brothers in Christ.” “Violence only begets more violence,” his pastor told him. “That’s no way to respond.” Roberto decided not to seek out vengeance and to relinquish his “right” to kill his brother’s killers (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 225).

Although not as dramatic, my friend with a position in a large big-city law-firm probably felt as much pressure to do the obvious thing and continue putting in the hours so he could become a partner and earn an immense amount of money. Yet, with encouraging voices from fellow Christians he did what his peers and others in society considered ludicrous. He quit his position and went to work for a small firm in a small city in order to have more time for his family, for ministry, and for other activities.

The value and importance of a church community honoring an individual’s Jesus-like actions is not just in relation to big and dramatic decisions, but in daily actions and decisions. I think of my friend Mario in Honduras. I once asked him how it was that he lived in ways so differently than other men and resisted the dynamics of machoness.

He first affirmed how strong the honor code of machismo is. For instance, one aspect of machismo is drinking. A commonly heard saying is “One who does not drink is not a complete man.” In his teen years his friends started pressuring him to “be a man” and drink. He already felt shame for being poor, so to avoid more shame he began to drink. Some years later [after another night of drunken brawling]. . . he started attending church and five meetings later accepted Jesus as his Savior. . . As Mario reflected on how he was able to step away from the ways of machismo. He mentioned three things. A man from the church, Hector, spent a lot of time with him offering support and affirmation. Secondly, the Christian men at work and the people at the church provided a counter chorus. Just as friends had shamed him into drinking, old friends around him began ridiculing him and shaming him for becoming a Christian; they pressured him to continue in his macho ways. Christians countered these shaming comments of Mario’s friends by praising him for his efforts to stop drinking. Lastly, as his new identity as a loved child of God grew he felt increasing security to step away from other aspects of the machismo honor code and walk in the ways of the honor code of the New Testament. His church continued to affirm and honor him as he took these steps. The shaming comments of other men did not stop, but they do not have the power over him that they used to (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 223-24).

Although those of us in individualistic settings have tended to focus on the Bible providing ethical instruction, if one puts on honor-shame glasses, the dynamic described in these examples comes to light. For instance, looking at I Peter through these lenses we see that the Christians Peter wrote to were being shamed and scorned by their neighbors—pressured to abandon the way of Jesus and return to the mainstream. Repeatedly in the letter Peter affirms the alternative honor code of Jesus, and affirms them for following it. And he seeks to undercut the shaming voices of their neighbors. (See chapter 11 of our book to see the list of ways Jayson and I see Peter doing this.)

How might your community more actively support and honor those who seek to go against the current and live according to the ways of the Kingdom of God? I encourage you to pray and ask God’s Spirit to give you a heightened awareness for opportunities to honor others, an imagination for how to, and the initiative to do so. Let us become active members of an alternative court of reputation.

Posted on May 12, 2018 .

Marvelous Pigness of Pigs


When showing the documentary Fresh in class one of the lines that always catches students’ attention is Joel Salatin talking about the chickenness of the chickens. He describes how his way of farming, in contrast to industrial chicken farms, honors the chickenness of chickens. In class discussion I assert that it is a theological statement, and that Salatin means it to be—even if he does not state that in the documentary. He affirms my assumption in his recent book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for all of God’s Creation.


I immediately heard the phrase as theological because in my ethics class I so frequently talk about living more authentically as the people God created us to be. Christian ethics, in part, is about helping the Markness of Mark flourish. In this book Salatin states that to farm in a way that respects the pigness of pigs or the chickenness of chickens is to honor their creator. It also, he maintains, is the best way to farm. It is a stance of worship and respect, but also practical wisdom. He encourages us to pay attention to the patterns of creation and work with them for the good of pigs, chickens, fields and forests, and our good as well.


Salatin describes himself as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” (xiii). One thing that means is that very few people will agree with everything in this book. More significantly it means that Salatin crosses more divides and has more diversity of friendships than many in today’s increasingly siloed society. He has many conservative Christians friends who worship the Creator and many liberal friends who worship creation. “This book has grown out of the tension between those two camps” (xiii). It is an attempt to persuade evangelicals to embrace, for biblical and theological reasons, the type of farming and earth-care practiced by Salatin and his friends in the other camp.


There are many ways to read the book. Read it to learn about Salatin’s approach to sustainable farming, and ways non-farmers can participate in that approach. Read it for help in thinking of ways to talk about these issues to people you know in his target audience. Or, better yet, read it together with some in that camp. Read it for new biblical and theological insights produced by his thinking theologically about his farming practices. I encourage you to read it and let it challenge you broadly and deeply—not just in relation to specific actions and thoughts. As he works to show the contrast between the order and patterns of God’s creation, and the ways of industrial agricultural I found myself reflecting broadly and deeply on agriculture and beyond. I will share a few examples.


In the mid-1800’s Louis Pasteur saw bacteria through a microscope and developed germ theory to explain illnesses. “He proposed ways to kill these critters. He saw nature as fundamentally flawed and in need of human intervention and fixing” (60). A contemporary of his, Antoine Beauchamp, saw the same things through a microscope, but came to a different conclusion. He developed terrain theory, arguing that there are good bacteria and bad, and it is the condition of the terrain that determines which wins out. Pasteur and his followers looked for ways to kill the germs. Beauchamp explored broadly. He studied the impact of things like sleep deprivation, hygiene, and food quality on the terrain. He looked for ways to have a wellness-inducing terrain where the good bugs would win out over the bad. After introducing these contrasting approaches Salatin spends the rest of the chapter describing how the two approaches play out.


Do we take a more passive, victim mentality about sin—a sin gene or the devil made me do it; or, do we work at the terrain of our lives? Urbanization, without refrigeration or indoor plumbing set up a very negative terrain. “From smoke-clogged homes to manure-clogged streets to brewery-waste-fed-cows, the recipe for disease could not have been better” (62). Milk started making people sick. The solution? Germ theory says, kill the germs in the milk—pasteurization (which also kills the good bacteria). But Salatin points out, “raw milk from grazing cows doesn’t need to be fixed with pasteurization. It’s not broken” (63). Solution, clean up the mess and respect the cowness of cows—let them eat what cows naturally eat. “At sustainable agricultural conferences, most of the workshops are positive how-tos. I almost never hear much discussion of sickness and disease. . . At industrial agricultural conferences . . . nearly all the discussions center around diseases and sicknesses. The overriding desire is how to beat nature, how to win, as if nature is the enemy that must be subjugated like a military conquest” (89). I can applaud Salatin’s points, yet as I take a step back I have to acknowledge that I have been immersed in a germ-theory-world for most of my life. How does this influence me? How does a find-the-cause-of-the-problem-and-kill-it approach play out in other areas of my life?


(Coincidentally, the day after I wrote the previous paragraph I read an article in The New Yorker about a team working to lessen sexual assault at Colombia University. The two professors who lead the effort stated that rather than take the common approach that sees it as an issue of individual behavior and punishment as the solution, they think about it “socio-ecologically: as a matter of how people act within a particular environment. . . Their approach . . . does not ignore personal responsibility; rather, it aims to nudge students toward responsible behavior on a collective scale” [34].) 


Germ-theory-mentality combined with industrial agriculture has produced a food system saturated with fear. Consumers fear contaminated foods and farmers fear disease or pests wiping them out. In response we seek to wrap ourselves in a sanitized bubble—sanitize food, keep out visitors who might carry a germ into a chicken farm, and use chemicals to kill malicious bugs that are present. “A farm of faith says this: if I follow the Creator’s patterns, immunity and wellness will follow.” Salatin is not naïve. He acknowledges that industrial mono-crop farmers have reason to be fearful, and consumers understandably want their milk pasteurized and their chickens dipped in bleach. They have reason to be fearful of the products of a mono-cultural industrial system. Jacques Ellul tolds us that technique always leads us to look for new techniques to solve the problems created by technique. Salatin does what Ellul advocates instead, dig deeper, look for root problems, and trust God and God’s ways not technique. What are other areas in our lives where fear pervades and we have not looked deep enough in search of freedom from our fears?

Posted on May 4, 2018 .

Conflict-Aversion and Worship




I was reading the book Worship in the Way of the Cross. I turned a page, saw the section title “Interpersonal Cruciformity,” and wondered “Why does a book on worship have a section on interpersonal relations?” I thought, “I guess this is a topic the author is passionate about, so he stuck it in. I wonder how he will make it look like it fits?”

John Frederick’s book is a practical book rooted and framed theologically. He is scholar-practitioner, a Ph. D. in New Testament with extensive experience as a worship pastor. He leans heavily on Michael Gorman’s excellent work on Paul’s theology of the cross. I don’t want this to turn into a book review. I will just mention one thing that may entice you to check the book out yourself. He writes about the role of worship in challenging the myth of redemptive violence and reorienting us to an alternative. Okay, back to the interpersonal section.

I began the section thinking it was a tangent—assuming it would be well done because John is a good writer, but still a tangent. I ended the section saying, “John is right. It is not a tangent. Actually we need chapters like this in most ministry books.” What caused my perspective to change? To answer that I need to, briefly, share a recent experience. 

Grace Spencer, a current student, is also a scholar-practitioner. She is involved in a church plant, high school ministry, and practices restorative justice as a mediator for VORP. She is an MA Theology student passionately exploring connections between atonement theology and attitudes and practices of justice. One question she has brought up is: Why are so many Christians conflict-averse? Why do they view conflict as inherently sinful?

As I work on a book on bounded, fuzzy and centered approaches to church, I have interviewed many practitioners, including a weekend of focus groups at The Meeting House in Toronto. A group of pastors and home church leaders there were recounting experiences of loving confrontation done in a centered way. One of them said, “People are afraid of conflict. One of the things that pulls our groups in a fuzzy direction is aversion to conflict.” I immediately thought of Grace’s question, and made a note: “Have a chapter on conflict aversion in the book.”

A few pages into John’s section on interpersonal relationships, I thought back to that moment in Ontario and Grace’s question. My perspective changed. He has recognized that conflict-aversion, passive-aggressiveness, and heavy-handed coercive leadership hinder churches’ worship experience. He writes about relations between the worship leader and others on the worship team, others in the congregation, and others on the pastoral team. He shares positive and negative examples. He states:

“Holy Scripture beckons us not to the cultivation of politically correct discourse and dishonest communication but instead to its crucifixion so that we can live according to a new narrative of truth-telling. We are called . . .into the new creation culture of compassionate, charitable honesty. . . Yet we continue to promote as a virtue dishonestly withholding truth as a mechanism of avoiding interpersonal conflict in the church” (108-109).

I write this blog for a number of reasons. First, as an exhortation, let’s do what John has done and reflect on conflict-aversion in relation to an area of ministry we are involved in. Second, I hope it might stimulate further thought for you as it has for me. Third, I want to share two of those thoughts, and then lastly ask for your help and input.

John Frederick writes, “Far too often, in the name of what I thought was Christlike deference and being laid back, I allowed volunteer musicians in the congregation to engage in problematic and immature behavior without any critique or consequence” (115). For instance, a drummer, on the schedule for a particular Sunday, had come to rehearsal, but did not show up that Sunday—and gave no indication to anyone that he would not be there. John makes clear he is not advocating for a heavy-handed approach to dealing with situations like that. He asks what is the way of the cross? He shares some examples of well thought-out, carefully-worded, centered responses to situations like this. As I read I thought, most readers will probably agree, conflict aversion and fuzziness are problematic in a situation like that. I also think, however, that many will put a drummer not showing up in a different category than most things going on in the everyday lives of people involved in church. Yet, I wonder how many actions and attitudes that go unaddressed are in their own way more problematic to the life and mission of the church than the drummer not showing up. As Michael King points out, shadow impulses easily run amok, and fuzzy groups too readily allow destructive expression of those impulses (Trackless Wastes & Stars to Steer By, 128).

In the discussion at The Meeting House we equated conflict aversion and fuzziness. Rightfully so. As I think about it, however, a bounded approach and conflict aversion also go together. A bounded church must pay attention to things in the line, but it does not have to address other issues. It allows, even encourages, not confronting things not forming the line. Also, although at times some confrontation is demanded in a bounded church, it does not have to be the loving confrontation that John described. He was concerned not just about the line, the infraction, but about the person, the person’s relationship with the center and with the community.

I am conflict-averse myself. This blog is a challenge to me. I will write a chapter on it in my book not from the standpoint of expertise, but with the conviction that it is important. Like other chapters in the book, it will be short. I will raise the issue and point to resources. I know of books on methods of conflict resolution, but I also want to point readers to resources on dealing with the fear of conflict. Back to Grace’s question. Why do so many Christians view conflict as a bad thing, and what can we do to change that? Please let me know if you are aware of resources I can recommend to readers.


Posted on April 11, 2018 .

What is Your Relationship with Money?


A family friend, Rianna Isaak, told us that in her small group she likes to ask these questions: “What is your relationship with ____________?” Then: “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with ________?” Recently she has asked the questions in relation to “entertainment” and “food.” What might be a helpful way for you, your family or church group to use those questions? What might you put in the blank? Last week I found myself asking them in relation to money. 

Many of you have heard or read my journey with money. In one period of my life I desired to acquire significant wealth. Then I headed in the opposite direction and sought to live as simply as possible so I could give more and more money to help the poor around me. I expended great energy in discerning what was the appropriate spending level for a Christian. I judged those who did not live that lifestyle—most other Christians. But, I also bore the weight of trying to live up to my own standard. In contrast, today I am neither consumed by acquiring riches nor by determining and achieving the appropriate simple lifestyle. Yet, we still seek to keep the poor in mind when we make purchases. We tithe; many months we give beyond a tithe. Therefore, it is easy for me to think I am doing ok in my relationship with money—especially if I compare myself to many around me or to the Mark Baker of the past.

Perhaps, however, it has been too long since I have asked these questions: “What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?” I asked them recently in two situations—one related to family finances and the other related to spending funds of the small mission agency we are involved with. In both cases the questions penetrated and illuminated. They brought to light things that have been there, below the surface—accepted as normal, even good.

In both cases I observed a concern for the future. It was not a question about having the money needed in the moment. Rather, my concern was how giving or spending money now might lead to shortage in the future. Secondly, I observed a concern for being “good” and doing “right.” In one case it was living according to the conventional wisdom of my culture about family and finances; in the other it was acting according to conventional wisdom of mission activity in poorer regions. Neither of these had anything to do with me grasping for status through acquiring things to “keep up with the Jones’s.” Yet the toxicity of threatened shame was still present. Even if subtly and subconsciously, the question, “what will others think?” was woven into my thinking.

Rianna’s questions, especially the second, might be heard by some as oppressive and accusing (see below) but I experienced the opposite. The intentional turn toward Jesus, repentance, brought life. I was unaware of how my strivings and fears weighed me down—remember I was cruising along thinking I was fine in relation to money. Yet in both cases I felt immediate lightness when I turned to Jesus and away from calculating-fear and away from status-grabbing-shame-avoidance. The burden fell off my shoulders. I felt the “reviving of the soul” mentioned in relation to God’s law in Psalm 19. I experienced what I proclaim every year in class when I share my journey with money. Something I state, but have not often enough allowed to penetrate and illuminate my being: “Through Jesus’s life, proclamation and death on the cross, however, God provides a different way to understand reality, exposes and disarms powers like mammon, and invites us to place our trust elsewhere. Rooted in that reality we can see the lies of mammon and we are freed to live differently.”

I write to share and encourage use of the questions. I do not think my answers will be your answers. I encourage you to ask the questions and begin conversations with others. I pray the turn toward Jesus will be as liberating for you as it was for me.

“What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?”

Additional comment on a centered approach:

My initial reaction to Rianna’s questions was, “what great centered approach questions!” They do not draw a specific line separating true Christians from others, nor do they communicate that by crossing a line you have arrived. They focus on the center and imply ongoing movement toward the center. They invite conversation, rather than external imposition of “right behavior.”  I asked Rianna about her group’s discussion of entertainment. She said the first part went fine, but when she asked the Jesus question the feeling in the room changed. One person responded with a sense of resignation, sounding a bit bitter he said, “Oh I guess I should…..” Whereas I had thought, “what great centered questions,” this person heard it as a question of bounded group religiosity.

This reinforced an important point I will included in the book I am writing on bounded, fuzzy and centered. Having excellent phrasing does not guarantee those listening will hear it in a centered way. The spirit of religiosity rooted in our beings, and our default responses shaped by years of bounded-church experience can twist centered discourse in a bounded direction. Craft our words well, yes! But we must also work to foster the ability for people to hear centered words in a centered way. Therefore, we must follow Jesus and Paul in proclaiming freedom from the enslaving spirit of religiosity, expose the bounded approach, and present the centered alternative.

Posted on March 8, 2018 .

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place


Some books on technology/technique, like Jacques Ellul’s or Sherry Turkle’s, analyze and expose truths of great importance. Other authors, like John Dyer or Arthur Boers, utilize insights from others and add their own, but put much more emphasis on the “what to do?” question. Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family is in the latter category, but has an even stronger practical orientation than Dyer or Boers. Andy Crouch is a gifted thinker and communicator and a man of sincere commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus. This book has the strength of many how-to books—relatively short, engaging, and many practical suggestions. And it avoids the weaknesses of many how-to books: he writes with humility and nuance; he roots the how-to principles in thoughtful analysis; he does not pretend it will be easy, nor does he present his suggestions as the one right way.

Crouch is a technophile, that may help some readers to be more accepting of his radical suggestions. He does not say, “get rid of your devices as I did.” He loves them; is fascinated by them; he uses them. He writes, “Technology’s fruits are to be celebrated and delighted in” (65). A phrase from the subtitle is key: putting technology in its proper place. He begins the book with seven observations about its proper place, such as: “Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another” (20). The final observation is that technology does not stay in its proper place on its own. Reflecting on his family’s practices he observes, “We haven’t eliminated devices from our lives by any means, but we go to great lengths to prevent them from taking over our lives” (30).
Yet, the book remains a radical one. Because, as he states, to keep technology in its proper place will require choices “that most of our neighbors aren’t making” (29). It is radical not just in the action steps advocated, but also in its observations—two examples: “We often give our children screens not to make their lives easier but to make our lives easier” (130). He acknowledges that technology has made our lives easier, but he asks: are our lives better overall than our grandparents? (64).
This points to his definition of technology. I, following Ellul, define technology in terms of efficiency. Crouch defines technology as that which makes our lives easier and is everywhere. Humans have always used tools; they have aided us in work, but until recently have not done work for us. The technology Crouch writes about are tools that are easy—they work on their own, or are very easy to use. They ask too little of us, make the world too simple, and they are everywhere (think of landline phone vs. mobile phones). Just as I say that “efficient” is not synonymous with “better,” Crouch writes that “easier” is not synonymous with “better.”
The heart of the book is the ten commitments his family made to seek to keep technology in its place.
1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home [ten years old].
6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
7. Car time is conversation time.                                        
8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
10. We show up in person for big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.
One could say, “now that you have given me the list I do not need to read the book.” Please, read the book! A chapter is dedicated to each one of the ten commitments. They include thoughtful analysis of why the commitment is necessary and concrete examples and suggestions on how to put them into practice. Each chapter ends with a Crouch family reality check. He describes how they have actually done on the commitment over the last two decades. He includes his children’s perspectives. He writes with humility and honesty. They have done better at some than others.
Those reality checks go a long way in keep this from being a judgmental book with an accusing tone. In addition, although there are many observations about the negative impact of technologies on our lives, Crouch writes more of the richness that flows from keeping technology in its proper place. The book does not scold, it invites us to something better. It is a book full of promise and possibility.

Posted on March 3, 2018 .