A pause, and an aside

Life’s been busy, and I’ve been slacking, so I haven’t finished the series on health care reform yet.  I’ve written more than you’ve read, and I’m about to dive back in, but I needed a break.

I’m taking off an a bit of a tangent today.  I’m studying poverty right now; it’s an area of extreme interest, which lead me to a new job, which makes it all the more important for me to study poverty.  Anyway, I read a quote in a book I’m studying, that made me think…  And I think it’s really relevant for all of us.  It’s the intro quote to a chapter on mentoring people who are seeking to escape from generational poverty.

The wise … mentor knows that being aware of what is not known is important in order to begin to learn.*

One can read this sentence in two ways, and I haven’t read the chapter yet to know how the author intended to use it.  The first, and what I believe the more likely way for most people to interpret this sentence, is that the one being mentored must be aware of what he or she does not know.  While this is true, I believe it is just, if not more important, for the mentor to be aware of his or her own unknowns.  Like it or not, most of us operate with a huge blind spot, in that we don’t know, and in most cases don’t even consider the existence of, what we don’t know.  Poor Donald Rumsfeld was lampooned for discussing this concept, when he talked about “unknown unknowns” when in reality, he was thinking so far beyond his audience that they couldn’t comprehend a very intelligent point.  Most of us operate in the majority of our lives and decisionmaking processes from the incredibly blind point of view that we know all of the salient facts.  Fortunately, most of those decisions don’t have significant consequences.  That doesn’t make us smarter, so much as it makes us lucky.

Back to the point on poverty:  Most of us have never experienced true poverty first-hand, and quite a bit of our nation hasn’t experienced it second-hand.  Therefore, our opinions are formed predominantly from third-hand information.  When trying to address concerns of poverty, our first inclination is to tell folks to “get a job,” or “get a better job, that earns more money.”  If our experience in life doesn’t include any real contact with poverty, this makes perfect sense.  However, it ignores the fact that people who are in generational poverty are truly members of a different culture than the vast majority of the rest of us (I’m not ignoring that they’re immersed in a broader American culture that we all share, but using the term culture to refer to the fact that they are a people group who tends to be clustered together geographically, with a common set of experiences, values, language, and dress that makes them uniquely identifiable).  A reasonable person would not expect a member of another culture (for example, someone born and raised in a farming village in China) to respond to a situation the same way someone from the US would.  We recognize that they have a different frame of reference.  I believe we need to approach the generational impoverished in the same way-=-we need to start out with a desire to become aware of what we don’t know (those cultural norms of the generational impoverished that differ from our middle class norms) if we hope to help them change their condition.  Otherwise, even the best-intentioned efforts to help will be misunderstood, and at the least will only be marginally ineffective; in many cases they can exacerbate the problem.

“Seek first to understand…”


*Payne, Ruby K. PhD, Philip E. Devol, Terie Dreussi Smith. “Bridges out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities.” Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2009, p. 79.


With fear and trembling…

I’ve been preparing to write this post for months, and putting it off for the last several weeks.  Truthfully, I don’t want to write it, because I’m actually expecting a lot more backlash and disapproval than I expected (but surprisingly, didn’t get) from my most-read post:  “The Post That May Just Offend Everybody.”  But I’ve been alluding to writing about this for some time, and have done a lot of research in preparation, in hopes that I can present a clear, detailed perspective that just might clarify one of the biggest issues facing our nation right now.  That, and I think this is one of those ones that God told me to write (OK, truthfully I know God leads me to write all of these, but this one seems to be one he won’t let up on).  So, with that ominous introduction, I will attempt to share my understanding and position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). (1)

Bear with me on this one, I beg.  I know it’s all over the news, but I’m hoping I can provide some reasonable perspective.  I won’t claim to be totally objective, or unbiased, because I’m not.  I’m getting kind of passionate about the topic of health care reform.  What I hope to do, though, is to be clear what my biases are (as I understand them), as well as trying to address other perspectives as objectively as possible.  I’ll lay out my biases and motivations shortly, but my objective in tackling this controversial subject is to try to advance a reasonable dialog that might just provide an impetus to achieving real, productive improvement to our nation’s health care system.

I’m going to have to break this up over several posts, because it’s a complex subject, and trying to cover it in People magazine-style, let alone TV news sound bites, or Tweet-format, is not only impossible, but also a recipe for inaccuracy (see, for example, “you can keep your plan”).  Part of my reluctance to start has been simply that I wasn’t looking forward to all the disagreement, but I would hope that we can have a more reasoned discussion here, among friends, than is taking place in the media, or the halls of Congress.  The rest of delaying has been in trying to figure out how to organize this thing.  I’m probably going to tax WordPress.com’s publishing capabilities (I’m certainly going to exceed my abilities to use the site to organize a complex document), but I want to ensure that I provide good jumping off points for further research, or to at least demonstrate the due diligence I’ve performed in my research.  To that end, I’ll be posting a “bibliography” of sorts.  I’ll try to link to specific sources for statistics or quotes I reference.  I’m also going to provide my definition the problem as I understand it.  I will describe several possible approaches to solving the problem, and how those approaches are incorporated within the ACA.  Either embedded in that discussion, or separately (depending how all this comes together for organization purposes and readability) I’ll identify what I see as the strengths and the shortcomings of ACA.  Finally, I hope to talk about what I believe is the best path forward.  Somewhere in all that, I’m going to try to tackle a lot of the misperceptions that are out there today.

I mentioned earlier that I’m biased, and indeed passionate about the topic of  health care reform.  I guess the passion comes from the fact that I used to be pretty strongly biased against anything that smacked of government assistance.  I wrote papers in my undergrad days decrying the need to provide health care, unemployment, welfare, or any other type of handout.  I’m guessing my old Econ professor has probably departed this earth by now, but if he hasn’t, and were to read this today, he’d probably be dead from shock before he finished.  At one point, while acknowledging that the welfare system had become a multi-generational issue, I went so far as to advocate for systematically and forcefully removing all children from these dysfunctional welfare homes in order to break the generational cycle (one of the reasons I don’t get too excited about what any public figure over the age of 40 wrote, studied, or read while in college!).  As the saying goes, though, there’s nothing worse than a reformed smoker, or in this case, reformed ultra-conservative.  I believe that in the richest country in the world, that spends more per capita on health care than any other nation in the world, that people should not be impoverished because of catastrophic health issues, nor should they be forced to go forego necessary treatment because they can’t afford it.

So what happened to bring about this radical change in my thinking?  Several things.  First, somewhere along the way, I figured out that I had been the beneficiary of blind luck (ok, I don’t believe in luck, but providence gave me something that I never once sought or planned for).  I have had (virtually) free health care for all of my adult life, courtesy of the US government.  Even when I retired from the military, my annual expenditures for health care for my entire family, including annual premiums, co-pays, etc, was less than the monthly premium most people paid for private sector health insurance, not even considering deductibles, co-pays, and other out-of-pocket expenditures.  I wasn’t some genius who planned out how to achieve this level of health care security; I just joined the Army to jump out of airplanes.  Free health care came with the package–not that it meant anything to me when I signed the contract.

But my free government health care alone wasn’t enough to reform me; for many years my mantra was that I earned it through my service.  What really started me doubting my convictions that anybody could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, was when I started discovering friends who had worked way harder than I had, and were much stronger than me, whose bootstraps had broken.  I have a friend who owned a construction company, who literally built million dollar homes.  His work was amazing, and his business skills were quite good, but he lived in a rented duplex, and couldn’t afford health insurance for his family.  He wrenched his shoulder one day helping me get my snowmachine unstuck, and still has problems many years later, because he never went to the doctor to get the damage repaired.  He couldn’t afford it.  He eventually had to shutter his business, and go to work at a large company that offered benefits, just to take care of his family’s health needs.  I have another friend who is an amazing mechanic, and worked for many years on military vehicles as a civilian contractor.  Bouts with cancer and other medical issues, even with employer-provided medical insurance, bankrupted him, and continues to wreak havoc with his finances.  I just recently discovered that since he was medically retired, he no longer has the insurance he needs to pay for his liver transplant, and has been removed from the list.  Neither one of these guys were welfare bums; heck, they work harder than I do!  They are both smart, talented, and hardworking; they just ended up on a different life path than me; not through destructive choices, but because they decided to open their own business, in one case, or contracted some nasty disease in the other.

The final straw was when I started studying Christianity–that belief system that I have devoted my life to trying to live by.  The Bible says that man is created in the image of God; that all human life has intrinsic value.  Jesus didn’t give us the option to pick and choose who we would love or show Christian charity to; in fact in response to a religious legalist, who was looking for justification that he was loving his neighbor, and thereby obeying God and earning eternal life, Jesus told a health care parable.  Around the same time I was confronted with my own hypocrisy, the health care reform debate was going on in earnest, and I’d started blogging.  I wanted to engage in the discussion, but I wanted to do so from an informed position, so I started researching the issue, and writing about it.  (If you click on the “Health Care” category in the right column, you’ll get a list of posts I wrote starting back in 2009 on this topic, before ACA became law).  The more research I did, the more I discovered that our health care system in our country isn’t getting the job done, and lives are lost, and ruined, because of it.

Jesus said that I’m supposed to care for “the least of these,” and through his life and teaching demonstrated that I don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of my love and my care.  I don’t get to decide who doesn’t deserve adequate health care because they don’t meet my expectations of supporting themselves, or because they had too many babies, or whatever other reason I find for them to be unworthy.  The Bible is VERY clear that judging others is outside my scope.  I’m just supposed to love them.  That doesn’t mean think fuzzy puppy thoughts about them, that means meet their needs.  Jesus was in the healing business.  Unfortunately, too many folks in the US think us Pentecostals are crackpots, so although the same healing power that Jesus used is available to his followers today (see John 14:11-14, despite the desperately twisted hermeneutics John MacArthur and his friends try to employ to deny it), until such time as more Christians of this country are all filled with the Holy Spirit, we’re going to have to go to plan B or plan C.

More on those in the next installment.


1.  The Affordable Care Act is the name for the 2010 legislation commonly (and derisively) referred to as “ObamaCare”.  I’m going to refrain from using that term, and instead stick to “ACA,” to try to take some of the venom out of the discussion. 

Let’s do something constructive!

Beneath the tsunami of “Obamacare Failure” coverage, a significant event occurred November 1st, and most people aren’t even aware of it.  For reasons that are too complicated to detail here, the temporary increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”, aka “food stamps) implemented in 2009 as part of the federal government’s economic stimulus program, expired.  For those who, like me, haven’t followed the details of SNAP, here’s the basics:

  • As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, SNAP was temporarily increased, with the design that the increase would phase out as inflation pushed the cost of a FDA-determined minimum food basket to the increased level.
  • The SNAP increase served a two-fold purpose:  pump cash into our struggling economy, and help those who found themselves in a financial bind due to the economic downturn.
  • In 2009, experts expected food basket inflation to cause the benefit to expire in 2014.  Subsequent government decisions accelerated that expiration to Oct 31, 2013.
  • Inflation hasn’t met expectations, resulting in a real cut in benefits:  $36/month for a family of four.

That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that based on the FDA’s food basket calculations which value a meal for one person at $1.70-$2.00, that equates to approximately 5 meals that family of four won’t be getting through SNAP.  If you want to read all the details, there’s a pretty good rundown on this page.    Macro impact is that for FY 2014, about $5 billion dollars will be cut from SNAP, impacting 47.6 million people, or 15% of the US population.  (For those who are happy to see the $5 billion cut to SNAP, don’t get too excited, the money’s already been reallocated to aid states with teacher salaries and Medicaid federal matching dollars).

I’m not writing to advocate for an increase in SNAP.  The cut is a done deal (although there are new, much more dramatic cuts being discussed as part of current budget negotiations, which bear watching and future consideration.  If they are approved, the following proposal will be even more relevant, and on a much grander scale).  No, I’m calling on the readers of this blog to demonstrate their compassion and love for their fellow man, and to prove that we can offset cuts in government programs by stepping up to provide private support.  Google “SNAP cut food bank” and you’ll get hundreds of articles from across the US where local news sources have interviewed food bank managers who are trying to prepare for the increased demand resulting from the SNAP cuts.  The bottom line is that local food banks are already tapped out, so they don’t currently have the resources to make up the gap caused by the latest cuts.

So let’s help them out.  Find your local food bank.  Many churches sponsor one, and many areas now have consortiums that work together to provide more food, more efficiently.  You can donate money, time, or both.  Here’s the cool part:  That $1.70-$2.00 for one meal that the FDA calculates?  My local food bank can provide SEVEN meals for $1.00 through efficiencies generated by buying in bulk, wholesale pricing, etc.  You can make up that $36 cut for a family of four with just a three dollar per month donation!  [I did the math multiple times:  $36 equates to roughly 20 meals (18 meals at $2, 21 meals at $1.70).  $3 at the food bank buys 21 meals.]

Too often I hear people railing about government assistance programs needing to be cut.  Well, this one was, and people are going to miss meals because of it.  We can fix that.  Will you?  I’d invite everyone to give some, but I’d really encourage you to give sacrificially–$3/ month would be nice, but how about $20?  Or $50?  Or giving up one day off a month to go help in the facility?

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” –Jesus, quoted in Matthew 25:31-46

Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.

Radical Change

It’s been seven months since I last posted in this blog.  A lot has changed in my life in seven months:

  • I’ve moved from one end of the continent to the other (Alaska to Florida)
  • My daughter got married in June
  • My son has moved and bought his first home
  • I went from being extremely busy in a well-paying job to relatively unbusy in a non-job.

Technically I’m not “unemployed,” since the formal definition of that term requires one to be looking for a job.  I’m not.  After a lot of discussion, prayer, and doubts, my wife and I decided that I needed to “take some time off.”  If it were a more formal arrangement, one might call this a “sabbatical,” but I don’t have an end date, and I’m not going back to my old job (as far as I know, anyway).  We’ve relocated to an idyllic place where I can spend my time decompressing, studying, thinking, and learning how to relax (which is the toughest task I think I’ve ever had).

One of my goals for this time has been to spend a lot of time thinking and studying, and then writing on a fairly regular basis.  We’ve been in our new home now for a little more than a month, and we’re settled enough that I’ve embarked on the studying, and was starting to feel guilty for not having written yet.  My biggest challenge hasn’t been motivation or finding a topic, but rather to distill all the thoughts into something singular to post about.

“So what are you going to write about today, Brain?”
“The same thing I do every time, Pinky:  How to fix the world.”  (1990s cartoon reference in honor of my kids)

While topics such as the Affordable Care Act, the federal government shutdown, NSA spying on pretty much everybody, and others are interesting potential fodder for future posts, I want to start with what I see as a meta-theme and my approach to it.

I’ve struggled mightily to try to accurately define this meta-theme that I see prevalent throughout our society, and I’m still not sure I’ve done it accurately.  For lack of a more accurate term, I’m going to initially refer to it as a “spirit of offendedness.”  It seems to me that we have a strong tendency to be offended, and in fact, that we often seem to seek reasons to be offended.  Whether it’s in traffic, or an encounter with a neighbor and loose dogs, or collectively in our political tribes, or in just about any group encounter, we are offended by the actions of others.  It seems to be our default position.  Note, I’m using first person plural throughout this description, as I’m seeing it in myself, and not just trying to pin it on everyone else.

I think there’s a relationship here between the “spirit of offendedness” and the divisiveness plaguing our nation, but I’m not sure exactly what that relationship is.  But the combination of our proclivity to be offended, and the divisiveness in virtually all aspects of our country seem to be at the root of much of the troubles we’re facing today, at the macro and the micro level.

I’m not going to try to defend my argument today; that’s not the point of my post.  Instead, with this new start to my (hopefully) regular blogging, I’m committing publicly to try to defuse this meta-theme in my own actions, thoughts, and writing.  Further, by putting it here, I’m giving you permission to call me on it when I come up short.  Finally, I’m inviting you to join me.  See, the more I consider it, the more I realizing that I’m trying to draw on one of the most significant moments of my life, when wisdom it me so hard in the nose that it still stings 30 years later.

Early in my Army career, I had the extreme fortune to be assigned as the platoon leader’s RTO (although at the time I saw nothing fortunate about it at all).  We had jumped into an exercise at sundown, then moved all night before setting up in our patrol base.  Normally that would mean time to get some sleep, but my PL wanted me to help him build a sand table to prepare to brief the operations order.  I was tired, grumpy, and generally being a punk private, and went into a profanity laced tirade about how hosed up everything was.  As I was about to hit my rhythm, LT Miller bellowed, “Walker, Shut the f*(& up!  You’re real good at telling me everything that is wrong, but you never say a single word about how to fix it.  Until you have a viable solution, I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”  My immediate response was to close my mouth, although I’m sure my brain went into a nonverbal tirade about the obnoxious know-it-all-lieutenant.  But after the red drained out of my face, I realized he was right.  If all you’re doing is telling everyone you see what is wrong with what’s going on, but you’re not doing anything constructive to make it better, you’re just bitching.  That seems to be our new national pastime.  I’ve probably failed at following LT Miller’s advice more than I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried to make it a maxim to live by.

So here’s the deal:  I am going to try not to take up offense, or to be divisive.  Instead, I’m going to work here, and in all aspects of my life, to try to unite people, to find common ground.  I’m going to work, when I see something that bugs me, that I don’t like, or that might actually inconvenience me, to try to understand the reasoning behind the other position before I assume that the other is trying to ruin my life.  I’m not going to begin with the assumption (or the perceived “fact”) that the person or group that is offending me is a selfish, or worse yet devious idiot who is determined to ruin me, my country, or my drive to the store.  Maybe they know something I don’t?  Maybe they have different (which does not mean wrong) priorities?  Maybe they just made an honest mistake (rather than a devious lie designed to deceive)?

I’m not saying I’m not going to debate, or disagree–just that I’m not going to disagree from a point of offense or divisiveness, but from a point of trying to achieve understanding, and seeking common ground.

For me, that’s pretty radical.  Want to join me?

The Post That May Just Offend Everybody

or, My Thoughts on the Gay Marriage Issue

If you think you know me, and know where this is going, let me challenge you–you’re probably wrong.  Whether you think you’re going to agree with me, or think you can just stop reading, because you know you’re going to disagree with me, I ask that you read on, as I’m betting you’re going to be surprised.  I’m a little surprised myself.

To all that I offend:  my intent is not to hurt, or alienate, or disparage.  I’m not asking you to agree with me, or debate me, or dismiss me.  I just ask that you consider this; I wouldn’t have taken the time to write it, or 10 times that amount of time to consider it, if I didn’t think it were important–not because it’s my thoughts, but because it’s the results of what I believe God has been cultivating in my head over the past several years, and because he’s been pretty relentless in getting me to writing this down tonight, when I have a hundred excuses why I can’t.  Yes, this post is going to have a decidedly Christian slant (although some might strongly disagree).  Please don’t let that turn you off–just hear me out.

Now for the disclaimers:  I’m probably one of the most conservative, fundamental people I know.  Paul rattles off his qualification to be the ultimate Jew in Philippians 3:5-6.  Well, here’s my parallel list of qualification to be a poster-child for Fox-News watching, Tea-Party-supporting, NRA-member, super-conservative status:  Born in the Midwest, raised by two Christian parents who are still married to each other, for the first time; retired Army officer; big-oil employee; firearm owner (all of which are banned in CA); John Wayne posters and pictures THROUGHOUT my garage; and most recently, a certified Pentecostal pastor!  I can out-conservative the best our country has to offer, and have been able to clearly articulate the superiority of my conservative values my entire life.  But like Paul in the subsequent verses, I now consider all of that not just a loss, but sewage (that’s a nice way of translating what the NIV calls “garbage”).  Not because I’m better than that; because I’m most definitely not.  No, it’s because God’s been dragging me through a knothole in the process of trying to remake me in the image of his Son, and along the way, I’ve been confronted with the cognitive dissonance of my traditional beliefs vs. what the Bible says.

Based on my qualifications, one would expect me to be firmly on the far right, crying out against gay marriage.  I’m not.  In fact, I think the church in America really needs to re-examine itself here.  I’ve seen a lot of traffic on the internet for a long time now, and particularly in the past few days, with professing Christians crying out to God, their neighbors, and anyone who will listen on the internet to oppose this “attack on marriage.”  I’ve even read one church who posted a call for fervent prayer that God would not allow the Supreme Court to “destroy marriage.”  I’ve even seen some pretty hateful stuff said toward those who disagree with their position that marriage should be legally restricted to one man and one woman.  I think all of that is a mistake, and a failing of God’s people.

More on that in a minute.  Now that I’ve alienated all of my conservative Christian readers, let me make clear my position that I firmly believe that homosexual activity is a sin and an abomination to God.  I’m not going to make a vigorous defense of my position here; It is abundantly clear in the Bible.  In fact, those who try to refute the Biblical assertion that homosexual activity is a sin only do so through  interpretive gymnastics that would break Gumby’s back.  To be clear:  this post is in no way condoning a homosexual lifestyle.

Homosexual activity is a sin (now I’ve most assuredly alienated those who support gay marriage), but there are many other sins out there; unfortunately conservatives have chosen to make this one their litmus test and their Waterloo.  Adultery is a sin; so is prostitution, alcohol abuse, lying, cheating on your taxes, and judging others.  All of these are affronts to God, but somehow we’ve made homosexuality the Asherah pole of our society, and committed all of our Christian resources to defeating gay marriage, or dying on the hill in the fight.  So, what would Jesus do?  Well, the Gospels are silent as to Jesus’ position on homosexual activity, but that is because 1st Century Judaism had no questions–it was a sin and an affront to God.  It is almost a sure thing that the issue never came up.  But, we can look at how Jesus dealt with other examples of sin to extrapolate a good idea how he would have approached the issue of homosexuality:

  • Adultery:  Jesus interceded on behalf of the adulterous woman, telling the judgmental crowd to have the sinless among them cast the first stone.  He then tells her that he doesn’t condemn her either, but “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:1-11)
  • Prostitution:  Luke 7:36-50 tells of Jesus not only associating with a prostitute (not to be confused with having sexual relations with her), but he forgives her sins.
  • Alcohol abuse:  In John 2, Jesus’ first recorded miracle of turning water into wine.  This was a Jewish wedding feast–a multi-day party, where the host was praised for not bringing out the Mogen David once the guests were too drunk to know the difference.  The norm was that the host banked on the guests getting tanked up early, and took advantage of it by serving the cheap stuff once they were drunk, to save money.  Jesus didn’t condemn them, he gave them world-class wine!
  • Lying:  My personal favorite is how Jesus treated one of his closest friends, who not only lied three times, but in doing so, denied any connection with Jesus.  Jesus didn’t exclude him, he sought him out, forgave him, and restored the relationship. (John 18:25-27; 21:15-19)
  • Cheating on your taxes:  Tax collectors of his day were the ultimate tax cheats, but Jesus befriended one and brought him into his inner circle (Matthew), and famously ate dinner with another (Zaccheus).
  • Judging others:  Ok, this one goes a little differently.  Jesus was famously intolerant of those who judged others, particularly those who saw themselves as somehow superior, or favored by God, because of their observance of religious laws.  Instead, he spoke highly of those who sacrificially loved their fellow man, even when they had all rights to judge them negatively based on how their fellow man had treated them. (Luke 10:30-37)  An in-depth study of the Gospels will reveal that the only group that Jesus judges, speaks harshly to, or condemns, is the religious leaders who judge (and condemn) others.

These examples demonstrate Jesus’ approach to those who commit sins:  He loves them.  That doesn’t mean that he condones their sinful acts!  But he definitely does not chastise them, condemn them (with the noted exception of judgmental religious leaders), and tell them to get away from him, clean up their act, and then he will talk to them.  And we don’t do that in church with almost any other sin:  Can you imagine how much more abysmal church attendance would be if we said “don’t come through those doors until  you’ve given up your (personal sin issues)”?  Sinners were drawn to Jesus, despite their sin, because of his unconditional love–and in the process of encountering him, they rejected their sin and worshipped God!

The Church hasn’t taken this approach.  We’re trying to outlaw sin!  That’s not going to work, as it’s outside of temporal government’s jurisdiction.  Although we are desperately trying to give government jurisdiction in spiritual matters.  “Greg, you’re nuts!  We’re doing the exact opposite! We’re trying to get government OUT of spiritual matters” you say?  Well, to keep this post smaller than a book, let me give one example that’s directly on point:  Marriage.  Many conservative voices are stating that a Supreme Court ruling in support of gay marriage will “destroy traditional marriage.”  Really?  How can that be?  See, somewhere along the line we lost sight of the fact that GOD defines Christian marriage, not the government.  Marriage licenses in America are nothing more than an acknowledgement of a civil union of two people.  If GOD defines Christian marriage, then guess what?  SCOTUS, POTUS, and all the other USes can’t redefine it.  The problem is, the Church has lost sight of the fact that IT is the agency on earth that acknowledges the unity of one man and one woman in HOLY matrimony.  Those who claim a favorable ruling for gay marriage will destroy “traditional marriage” have just given that power to the State–the State doesn’t have it unless the Church abdicates it.

Here’s the real issue:  whether our litmus test is gay marriage, prayer in schools, or even abortion (a topic for another time–let’s just summarize with “I abhor it; I can’t even imagine how God feels about it”), we’ve failed miserably by trying to legislate Christian values–and it’s kicked our butt.  Instead of trying to make followers of God by creating laws that legislate morality and virtuous behavior (sound a little bit like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day?), let’s take the radical, revolutionary approach modeled by Jesus:  Unconditionally love ALL mankind!  Matthew 5:14-16 tells Christians that we are the “light of the world.”  Jesus uses the analogies of a city on a hill, or a lamp in a dark room.  These are warm, inviting lights.  Too many Christians have interpreted this to be searing lasers that we focus on the cockroaches hiding in the corners.  Jesus says “let your light shine before (not on) men, that they may see your good deeds (not religious works) and praise your father in heaven.”  When Americans look at the church today, they don’t see good deeds and praise God, they see judgmentalism and hatred, and reject what we have to offer.  The Barna Group conducted a landmark study of American perceptions toward Christianity.  A believable, but distressing finding:  “Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’ Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity.”

Now you know where I stand–so what?  First, let me say that this is a difficult place for me to be; I don’t stand here self-righteously judging all you who don’t measure up to my lofty piousness.  To be frank, it’s difficult for me to not have a visceral negative reaction when I see displays of same-sex attraction…  That means it gives me the willies.  That’s my 40+ years of conservative conditioning kicking in, and it’s hard for my spirit to overcome that.  But Jesus doesn’t want me to make everyone into conservatives, he wants me to show the world His love, so they seek His Father.  So I’ve got to deal with it.  Part of the way I deal with the heavy stuff, particularly the things I struggle with myself, is to write them here.  Writing helps me think it through, and more importantly, I now have to live it, or allow others to call me on my hypocrisy.  Further, I’m hoping that my Christian brothers and sisters can see that we’ve done more harm than good by making gay marriage our Waterloo.  It’s not.  We’re majoring in minors.  Satan doesn’t have to try to defeat the Church, he’s just sitting back and laughing while we alternate between killing off ourselves, and alienating the world from us to the point that we no longer have influence.  I know Satan loses in the end; but we’re certainly not contributing to Jesus’ cause right now; furthermore, we’re failing miserably in obeying his command to “go and make disciples”–we’re making enemies.

For my friends who don’t follow Jesus:  I’m sorry for the hateful, judgmental way I have treated you, and treated homosexuals in particular.  God doesn’t hate homosexuals any more than he hates bigoted judgmental asses like me.  He hates the sins we commit–all of them, not just those selected by the Moral Majority for special emphasis.  So when I judge someone else for their sin, he’s hating that action of mine.  It’s not my business to judge, or even point out your sin.  God judged the sins of the WORLD (including mine) 2000 years ago on a cross in Jerusalem.  They’re all forgiven–EVERY one of them–but you have to go to Him to receive that forgiveness.  Even when we don’t recognize something as sinful, God can help us see how he sees things, in his timing–the world today argues that homosexual acts are acceptable; it’s not my place to judge the actions of others; He’ll deal with that person one-on-one.  If I’ve judged you, or made you feel unaccepted by me, or by God, then I’ve sinned, and I ask your forgiveness.  And I’ll apologize for my Christian brothers and sisters too.  We’ve gotten a bad reputation (and for the most part we’ve earned it), as portraying ourselves as somehow better than those who don’t follow Jesus–it’s seen as self-righteousness.  Speaking for my brothers and sisters, we’re all screwed up, and left to our own devices, we’re no better than the rest of the world.  We’re trying to be better,  and God is helping us to grow every day, but some of us have a LOT of growing to do (me being a prime example).  But sometimes we still try to control things, and we end up making a mess and hurting others by trying to be God, or at least help him out.

In the next few days, the Supreme Court is going to rule on two landmark cases which may redefine what secular government defines as marriage.  No matter which way they rule, the Kingdom of God is still at hand, God is still on the throne, and NOTHING that he defines can be harmed in the least bit by any earthly government.  So what the heck are us Christians all tweaked about?  Let’s get about the business of shining our light, and pouring out God’s GRACE through us onto mankind, rather than dispensing our judgment.

A man, overwhelmed by the inexhaustible grace of God manifested in his own life, cannot help but to reject his sin, and sprint into the unconditional love God offers him (while we he was still a sinner).  I know.  It happened to me.

Another perspective on doubt

I’ve got a half-written draft sitting in the ether, as a follow-up on my last article on doubt.  I’ll get to it, hopefully soon.  In the meantime, check this out. 

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

I don’t necessarily ascribe to all of Rachel’s perspective, but if nothing else this article gives great insight into how doubt has been mis-handled, and how we ought to take the time to listen.  I read her precisely because I don’t always agree with her, but because we all need to have fresh perspectives of others.

The Falseness of Dichotomies

I took a break from this blog for a while.  Seemed like everyone needed a cooling off period after the election.  I had a lot to say, but am trying to practice a very unnatural behavior for me–listening more, and telling less.  So I’ve been working a lot in the past month or so on listening (or more accurately, observing–engaging all of my perceptions to try to better understand).  One of the most significant observations I’ve made involves dichotomies.  I’ve been considering writing about this topic for weeks, but hadn’t fully formed the idea, so I kept observing, with the intent of developing a complete understanding of the idea, and the key learnings from the idea, which I would then inscribe in the electrons so that all could share in this well-packaged lesson.  Unfortunately, the writing style and underlying thought patterns of my 9th grade English teacher (thesis statement, three main points, each with three to four neatly packaged sub-points, all proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thesis is true and fully described) just can’t seem to encapsulate the many branches, inconsistencies, dependencies, and variation of the idea rolling around in my head.  So, I’m giving up on neat packaging, and instead I’m going to embark on a thought-journey.  This will transpire across multiple posts–don’t know how many, how frequently, or, unfortunately the exact course it’s going to take.

Lest you think you’ve stumbled onto the digital footprints of a meandering fool, wandering aimlessly with no purpose or destination, I do have an objective for this journey.  I intend, when I’m done, to be better at  loving mankind (and thereby loving God).  I am going to continue to follow the compass that God gave me when I started this blog–the two quotes at the top of the page:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Before I digress even further off course, let’s get to the topic at hand:  Dichotomy.  Dictionary.com defines the word as:

  1. division into two parts, kinds, etc.; subdivision into halves or pairs, or
  2. division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups: a dichotomy between thought and action.

That same website goes further to cite the entry from Britannica.com (who knew Britannica still existed?):

(from Greek dicha, “apart,” and tomos, “cutting”), a form of logical division consisting of the separation of a class into two subclasses, one of which has and the other has not a certain quality or attribute…. On the principle of contradiction this division is both exhaustive and exclusive; there can be no overlapping, and no members of the original genus or the lower groups are omitted. This method of classification, though formally accurate, has slight value in the exact sciences, partly because at every step one of the two groups is merely negatively characterized and is usually an artificial, motley class.

So where am I going with all this?  There is a strong tendency in human thought, particularly Western human thought (as opposed to Eastern thought–a dichotomy in and of itself, pointed out here as an example) to classify and characterize everything in an attempt to better understand it. (If you want to dig deeper, do some research into the closely related concept of binary opposition.  If you want to go really deep, I highly recommend the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman).  If you don’t want to do a lot of research, I’ll summarize (and somewhat overgeneralize) to say that we tend to be very efficient in processing the infinite amount of information we are constantly exposed to.  Our nature is to quickly analyze a thought, event, or person, and quickly classify them into a category, or series of categories.  Generally, these categories are mutually exclusive, which further enables us to place value judgments on the thought, event, or person.  In many situations, this is a useful process–back to the very basic friend/foe survival instincts.

What’s the problem?  While useful at the basic level of information processing, it can become dangerous when it precludes higher levels of thinking.  All of us witnessed examples of this (most likely externally and internally) during the recent US election cycle.  Red/blue, liberal/conservative, right/wrong…  the extreme occurred when red/blue became viewed as black/white; as polar opposites, rather than variations in a spectrum.

To avoid turning this into a political thread, let’s look at another potentially divisive issue in current events.  The news has been filled in recent weeks with brutal, unexplainable death.  Whether it’s the Samantha Koenig abduction/killing here in Alaska, the Jessica Ridgeway abduction and murder in Colorado, the Jovan Belcher murder/suicide in Kansas City, or this week’s brutal killing of innocent children in Connecticut, our universal reaction is to classify the perpetrator as evil, and to look for an easy explanation which will allow us to place the event and the perpetrator in a neat category so we can process the situation and move on.  Guns? Violent video games?  Poor parenting?  See, if we can place the cause in a nice, neat category, we can then either eliminate it, avoid it, or at least judge it.

I’m probably the most judgmental person I know.  I classify people all day long, starting with the commute to work each morning.  When I am not vigilant about my overwhelming tendency to make binary decisions, I can quickly categorize everyone I encounter throughout the day as incompetent, self-serving idiots, who are terrible drivers.  But, when I get to know those people, I find out that they’re not so easily characterized.

I’m going to close today’s post with an example from the headlines.  Jovan Belcher was a football player for my favorite sports team in the entire world, the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of you had never heard of him until two weeks ago, when he made national news by shooting and killing his girlfriend and mother of his 3 month old daughter, then driving to the Chiefs practice facility, and in front of team leadership, pointing his gun at his own head and taking his life.  Many were quick to categorize Belcher:  murderer.  Evil.  Monster.  Some went so far as to pronounce that his suicide was a good thing.

I didn’t know Jovan, but I knew of him.  He had a great story.  Undrafted, worked his way up to starter.  Set the example on the field and at practice for his dedication and work ethic, his passion.  None of that excuses what he did.  But if you read much more than the headlines following that tragic event two weeks ago, you found that his teammates, many of whom were close not only to Jovan, but also to his girlfriend, were torn.  They couldn’t classify him as an evil monster.  They knew him.  They went so far as to say that they had no indication that he was capable of such brutality.  When it became personal, it wasn’t easy to categorize the man.

I’m going to stop here for today, with a request:  be aware this coming week to the dichotomies you use to make judgments and decisions.  How many of them are legitimate?  How many are oversimplifications?

Sharing a Post: Why I am a Christian Democrat

First, I am NOT a Christian Democrat (or a Christian Republican, for that matter), and thought quite a bit about changing the title, but thought it might get more people to look if I left it as is.  I read this blog, and found it an interesting, well thought counter-perspective to folks who believe that if you’re a “real” Christian, you must vote Republican.  Part of the theme of this blog is to seek first to understand, meaning we should make a real, concerted, objective effort to understand the positions of others, so I share this for your consideration.

Why I am a Christian Democrat.

Heavy heart

I started writing a post last night with the intent of resurrecting this blog with some deep thoughts about Christianity and our political climate.  The post is written, but it is going to have to wait, as I need to process something, and this is how I do it.

This morning a suspect was arrested in the Denver area for the abduction and brutal murder of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway.  A few weeks ago Jessica left her house to walk to school like she did every morning, but she never made it there.  A week-long search ensued, gripping the Denver area in fear and anxiety.  8 days after she disappeared, a body was found, mutilated and dismembered.  It took more than 24 hours to identify the body, and early reports were that the body was so horribly disfigured that the investigators could not estimate the age or determine the gender of the victim.  My rage was more than a little surprising, as I have no connection with the victim, and my only connection with Denver is that my son works there as a reporter.  Were it not for him and his coverage of the case, I would very likely not even be aware of Jessica or her death.  But I was angry, and even commented after she was found that there was a special place in Hell for people who perpetrated such evil.  How could anyone do such horrific things to a sweet, innocent little girl?

Police comments didn’t give much hope for a quick resolution to the case, citing a complete lack of leads that indicated a well-planned crime by someone who knew what he was doing.  I was therefore pretty excited to learn this morning that the police had made an arrest.  I was prepared to hate the suspect, convinced that we would soon see the mug shot of some sleazy, deviant older guy, the very sight of whom would make the skin crawl of even hardened observers.   I couldn’t watch the press conference at work, but was shocked to see my wife’s Facebook post.  The suspect, Austin Sigg, was just 17 years old.  How could a heart become so black in 17 short years so as to perpetrate such evil?

So far we know very little about Austin, but in the weeks to come many details will come forward.  In just the first few hours we’ve learned that he was made fun of because he had a high-pitched voice and was “different” according to one kind-hearted high-school classmate who found this reason enough to make fun of him.  He also supposedly enjoyed playing first-person shooter games, and took a forensics class at a local community college.  Our natural response is going to be to hate him, to demonize him to the point that we can somehow rationalize his actions, because he wasn’t human, like we are.

I am in no way making excuses for Austin’s heinous crimes, or advocating for leniency in the execution of justice, but I can’t hate him.  I grieve for him.  Naturally I grieve for Jessica and her family, but I also grieve for Austin and his.  While 17-year-old boys think they’re mature and the smartest individuals in the world, they’re still immature in their physiological and mental development.  I’m not saying Austin isn’t responsible for his actions, and shouldn’t be held accountable for his crime.  But I am saying that we share culpability.  I’m not blaming his parents, or his teachers, or the video game producers, or you for the fact that he conceived of and committed murder.  But our society has allowed evil to grow and fester, largely unchecked, to the point that the environment of Austin’s heart was ripe to conceive such an evil act, and then follow through on it.

I’m not calling for more laws, more anti-bullying classes, or more feel-good programs.  None of those things will stem the growing tide of evil in our world.  We failed, because we’ve largely stopped loving one another.  We are withdrawing into our enclaves of homogeneity, where we only associate with, approve of, and show compassion for those select few who can pass our entrance exams.  All others are locked outside, rejected as something lesser and unworthy of our consideration, let alone our love.  We espouse tolerance, while at the same time demonstrating a judgmental attitude towards all who don’t measure up to our exacting standards.

I don’t know anything about Austin’s life, but I can only imagine that there had to be some serious pain and lack of felt love to allow evil to grow in his heart to the point that he could commit such a revolting, horrific act against a little girl.  I’m not saying any one change in his life experiences could have prevented this crime.  But just seven years ago, Austin was a 10-year-old boy.  I have to wonder if he’d experienced more love and compassion from those around him, would his heart be different today?  Would evil not have had fertile soil to take root?  Would Jessica be at home right now, giving her mom hugs?

When will we have had enough, that we truly care enough about our neighbors that we will engage them with compassion, rather than ostracize them for their failure to measure up to our lofty expectations?

Evil is growing daily in our world.  But love conquers all.

I can’t hate Austin.  My heart aches for him.