Monday, March 27, 2017

Loaded Inheritance: Cooperation

Everyone inherits a life situation. No one creates the setting for her own life. We arrive on the scene, surrounded by people who seem to know what they are doing, and we try to make the best of it. We can exploit the situation (see previous post), we can cooperate with the situation, or we can resist the situation.

I think most people opt to cooperate with life's situation. We follow the rules (mostly) and try to maximize our own comfort. We play the hand we are dealt, and we play to win--whatever winning means to us. It could mean making money, having toys, owning land, experiencing pleasure, enjoying peace and quiet, raising children, wielding power, achieving fame. We decide what matters most to us, and we go for it.

We aspire, adapt, accomplish.

Think about the world Southerners inherited in the early 1800s. In the antebellum South, many accepted slavery because there seemed to be no way out of it. The South had followed their “peculiar institution” down into a dark, wicked cavern, where they could only light candles and share blankets to deal with the wretched conditions. Finding a way out was impossible. Freeing the slaves was inhumane—what would they do with no one to feed them and house them? Within this entrenched, imperfect system, people had to live life.

So with this loaded inheritance, many chose to cooperate with life's circumstances. They learned their place in the system and sought to make the most of it. Landowners leveraged slavery to work their land and make a profit. It was all perfectly legal. Matriarchs learned how to run their households, caring for their children and managing the slaves. Merchants engaged in every kind of legal trade. Soldiers followed orders.

Some slaves, meanwhile, became resigned to their lot in life, and cooperated with the system for the sake of personal health and safety.

Of course we can find plenty wrong with the social and economic systems of the American South in the early 1800s. But it seems that most people accepted the system as it was, and made the most of it. They cooperated to their own comfort.

And today, most people cooperate with the system. They don't openly exploit others, but work the system to their own advantage. For some people this works well. Others become frustrated; they continue to aspire and adapt, even if they never accomplish.

Unfortunately this spirit of cooperation can be rather selfish. We work the system for our own advantage, never asking if this system is good, right, or fair. It's just our inheritance. We accept it, so often, without question. If it works for us--or if it might someday work for us--we just accept it.

As this attitude prevails, our world barely and rarely changes. Rather than making the world a better place, we make ourselves better suited for this imperfect world.

Next time
Loaded Inheritance: Resistance

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Loaded Inheritance: Exploitation

All we have is this moment. It is our inheritance. And it is loaded. What I mean is that the people before us blew it. Well, not all of them, but most of them. They blew it. They behaved selfishly in ways we cannot imagine. In ways that, well, we would never behave. And so we inherit a world that’s far from right, because of all those selfish ancestors. Yes, there were a few shining examples of virtue, but even these heroes and heroines had their flaws.

So, here we are, in an unfair world. It is full of abuses, corruption, and violence, with systems that protect the powerful and oppress the poor. This is our world. This is our inheritance. How do we live in such a world?

We have three choices:

  • We can exploit it to our own advantage.
  • We can cooperate with it to our own comfort.
  • We can push against it to make it better.
History books overflow with stories of the exploiters of inheritance. Alexander the Great inherited the throne of Macedonia after his father Philip II was assassinated in 326 B.C. He took the reins of power and marshalled forces to keep territories from revolting. After securing his throne, he kept the military spirit and took over much of the known world. He exploited his inheritance and seems well regarded by history.

All the rulers of Rome exploited their situations, from Julius Caesar to Trajan to Constantine. They made moves to gain and retain power. One strains to think of a figure in Western history who did not exploit his situation to personal benefit.
Trajan's Column in Rome

Even among the American Founding Fathers we see a struggle for power. George Washington's cabinet wrestled through a power struggle so painful that in his Farewell Address, he cautioned against the tug-of-war caused by the rule of alternating factions of power.

Closer to home, the antebellum American South sought to leverage their "peculiar institution" of slavery into an economic profit machine. They inherited this institution and exploited it (by brutally exploiting people) to their own advantage.

Later in the 19th century, the Robber Barons exploited the opportunities provided by the industrial revolution, amassing unprecedented wealth, often through unethical means. They seized the day for their own advantage.

Of course we know of all the evil dictators who gained and exploited power: Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Mussolini, Hirohito, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot, to name a few.

And we all know stories of opportunistic bosses or relatives or neighbors who have selfishly manipulated people and circumstances to get what they want -- power, money, recognition, adoration, position, etc. They saw the system in place, played their cards right, and came out on top.

So, that's one way to deal with your loaded inheritance: just make the most of it, selfishly getting all you can manage of everything you want, disregarding others in the process. You will be in the company of many well-known people. Then again, do you want to pass along that legacy to future generations?

Next time:
Loaded Inheritance: Cooperation

Monday, February 27, 2017

Loaded Inheritance: The Human Condition

This may be our moment. It may be a moment in modern history when we can take a step back and really look at what we believe and where we are going. We need to be careful with this inheritance.

We all have inherited the societal situation we are in. We were plopped down here with no input on the matter. Our inheritance is loaded, too, like a powder keg. It can explode and create devastation, or it can burn with power, purpose, and direction. With our inheritance, we can do what is very good, what is very evil, or something in between.

Condemnation of history frustrates me. People criticize individuals, such as the racist N.C. governor Charles Aycock. They criticize the feudal world of the Middle Ages. They criticize the politics of the Vietnam War. They criticize the sexism of literature of every previous generation. They criticize the Europeans who stole a continent from militarily inferior Native Americans. And there is an abundance of criticism for the whole American institution of slavery.

Criticism of history is a lazy man’s self-righteousness. We can look so high and mighty when we point out the flaws of previous generations. But remember, we can’t change history. Of course it is flawed. Anyone can see that.

We can’t change history, but we can understand it. If we really want to understand it, we need to dig deeper to learn why people thought and behaved as they did. Why in the world would so many Southerners in 1860 support the institution of slavery? Were they that much more evil than we are? Were they just morally blind? How could they be that blind?

Once we understand the loaded inheritance of that generation, we can begin to make sense of their choices. Not that we would have behaved similarly, but that we can see how they got there. Critical looks at previous generations are most helpful to us if they do one thing: if they help us find our own blind spots.

I don’t want to defend any of those people, systems, or institutions. They were wrong. But those people inherited a world different from ours. In 100 years, many will look back at the early twenty-first century and wonder how we could have been so cruel and selfish. Every generation is blind to the wrongs of the world. If we don’t know any different, how can we think any differently?

Next time:
Loaded Inheritance: Exploitation

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Big Short F-Bombs

I watched The Big Short this week, a movie based on the events of the housing market crash of 2007-2008. It explained in a simple way the complicated events that caused the financial collapse leading to the “Great Recession.” I highly recommend it, for its entertaining, engaging way of telling the story of mass irresponsibility.


However, the script is needlessly obscene. It seemed like about 40% of the sentences in the film included some form of the F-word. I don’t hang around Wall Street investors, but I have never heard such foul language in any context—sporting events, airports, coffee shops, housing projects, racing events, even construction sites. But I have heard plenty of it on cable TV programs. And that’s it. The movies and cable TV are the only places I hear such relentless pursuit of verbal shock value. I never hear it in real life. In The Big Short such language did absolutely nothing to advance the plot, and it genuinely distracted me from it.

I wonder how the actors feel, shoveling such verbal manure. What would their children think? Or their mothers?

And I wonder why the producers wanted to include such language. Are they trying to normalize the use of the word? If so, society will have to coin some other word for obscene emphasis. If Hollywood sets the tone for society, then we are heading for a raunchy world of limited vocabulary and shallow thought.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like whining. It’s really more of a lament.

Friday, February 10, 2017

What Happened to Trust?

Warning: I'm going to talk about another crisis. Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I saw a recurring theme: a lack of trust. Think about it.

  • You can't trust those scientists because you-know-who pays their salary.
  • You can't trust the government, because it's full of corruption.
  • You can't trust that political party because they are funded by that billionaire, and they just want to control everybody or help their buddies on Wall Street.
  • You can't trust big corporations because they just want your money.
  • You can't trust those high tech companies because they are mining all your personal information.
  • You can't trust lawyers because, well, they are lawyers.
  • You can't trust your doctor because he's peddling products by the big pharmaceutical companies.
  • You can't trust the news media because they are pushing their own agenda, and you know what that means.
  • You can't trust people different from yourself because they are up to no good.
  • You can't trust religious leaders because they are after your money.
  • You can't trust every news outlet because of all that "fake news."
So who can we trust? Patrick Lencioni says lack of trust is one of the "Five Dysfunctions of a Team." With no trust, every communication is suspect and loaded with incendiary content. But when trust is high, communication is almost effortless.

So, if we are going to recover trust, we have to be trustworthy. You go first.

But seriously, we need to be willing to take a step back from the toxic climate of public discourse, and listen to "those people." Even if they are nut-jobs, they may still have a point. Running people down and dismissing them does nothing to help us have a better society.

Let's have a conversation, folks.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sports, Winning, and Love

Image result for clemson tigers

Congratulations to the Clemson Tigers for winning the National Championship last night. It was a game for the ages! And is was worth staying up for (since I was pulling for the Tigers). After the game, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said something powerful. He said that the key ingredient in his program was love. He made similar remarks after his team beat Ohio State on New Year's Eve.

I've been watching football all my life, and I've never heard a coach claim love as his winning formula before. It just sounds hokey... until you win a national title, especially against the Crimson Tide. Love and football seem so incompatible. But love and teamwork are very compatible.

Some teams may be motivated by fear--of failure, of letting down teammates, of disappointing coaches, of showing weakness. And fear is a powerful motivator. Fear has kept the masses in check in every oppressive regime. Fear often keeps dysfunctional systems functioning. Fear does work. That's why it is used so often. It seems like an obvious tool to use. The external motivation of negative consequences shapes our behavior all the time. Why else obey the speed limit? But fear is driven by self-interest.

Love, on the other hand, has an entirely different kind of motivation. It springs from the heart. It is driven by concern for others and it is fueled by others' concern for us. Love is reciprocal, and it spirals upward. When someone fails in a loving relationship, he or she is picked up and restored. When someone fails in a system based on fear, the offending party is castigated and punished. That person may even be rejected entirely. There are others to step in and take that role.

Now I'm probably reading way too much into the program of Coach Swinney. I know nothing about the team's graduation rate or even the success of his players at the professional level. And I know even less about the Alabama program. I'm not implying that their team is fear-driven.

But I do know that love is more powerful than fear. It is much more difficult to operate with love, because love demands selflessness and humility. It demands listening and understanding. It demands sacrifice. Love is more difficult than fear, but it builds people up internally for all the right reasons.

Would I have been writing this blog if Clemson had lost? Who knows? But I would rather be on a team like Swinney's and lose than be on any team with less heart.

After all, the ultimate winning really has nothing to do with football.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Why Worship Together?

In a first (as far as I know) in Stokesdale, we are having a multicultural, bilingual worship service on Friday, January 13, 2017. Oak Springs Baptist Church, a predominantly black church, will host this event in cooperation with Iglesia Luz de Jesuscristo, a Hispanic church, and Crossroads Community Church, which is mostly white. I've known the pastor of Oak Springs for years, and recently met the pastor of Iglesia. I count both of these men as friends.

Why is this worship time a big deal? Maybe it's just a big deal for me. God has shown me how limited my perspective is. I am beginning to see how much Christians need each other, especially those from different cultures.

For too long I have seen my ways and perspectives as normative. That is, I'm normal, and everything else is a deviation from "normal." I felt like God saw me as normal, and saw everyone else as, well, different, but OK. Yeah, that's kind of sad. It's like the universe would need to be measured according to me as the standard. How much more egocentric can you get?

Now I see that God loves all kinds of people, and I'm just one flavor. But here's the big insight. I need other people who are different from me. I need to see how they worship. And I need to have some of what they have.

I'm grew up with dignified worship, where people are fully in control of every facet of expression: standing, sitting, unison, solo, loud, quiet. All of this is carefully scripted in the order of service. We don't want people getting too excited about God, you know. Just keep it under control. And with us in control, we have predictable, manageable worship. We keep God on a leash and arrange everything for him.

But I believe God does want us to become carried away with him. He wants us lost in his mystery, begging for his intervention, caught up in his glory. This is where cultures besides mine have it right. We can call out to God from the depths of our souls. We can sing our hearts out. We can get excited about the One who loves us and walks with us and gave Himself up for us!

So I need to be around people who get this. I need to see how inhibited my own worship is. I need to approach God with abandon. Now, it is possible that others can gain something from observing my worship, too. I'm not sure what it is, though.

Worshipping with people different from myself is only a start. I want to develop deep friendships. Jesus gave his life to break down the barriers that separated people. Over the centuries, we have carefully built them back up. We do need each other. We can serve together, do life together, enjoy social occasions together, build the kingdom together.

We are all created in the image of God. To understand God better and love him more, we need to appreciate the diversity of the people he has made.

Come, be a part of something new. Let God stretch you as we approach his throne together. We all have something to learn. And we all need to give glory to God.

Stokesdale Multicultural Worship Service
7 p.m. Friday, January 13, 2017
Oak Springs Missionary Baptist Church
9070 US Highway 158
Stokesdale, NC  27357