Moving forward as believers in the public square

David Brooks throwing in the towel on predicting the national election may be the best thing to happen in his illustrious career. I am a huge David Brooks fan and have only grown in my admiration for him because as a New York elite he admits he is a New York elite. He didn’t get out much.

Donald Trump’s rise has pushed him into action, so he has determined to get out more and find out what is really happening around the country.

This column brings out what I think is really the way forward for us as believers. We have needed to give up on national politics as our “hope” for some time, but we have not done a good job doing it. For decades the “evangelical” vote was solidly Republican and wrapped up in “pro-life” and “pro-family” ideals. That didn’t work. A new generation is now going solidly Democrat, even socialist. And it is as bad an idea as going Republican.

What we NEED as believers is a deep faith and then an actual engagement in our culture at the local level. No matter who is in office, find a way to bless what they are doing. Rally around common causes and find positive solutions.

Unfortunately, there has been a loss of local community pride in many ways.

Maybe with the rise of TV and the Internet people are happier staying in the private world of home. Maybe it’s the loss of community leaders. Every town used to have its small-business owners and bankers. But now those businesses and banks are owned by investment funds far away.

Either way, social isolation produces rising suicide rates, rising drug addiction, widening inequality, political polarization, depression and alienation.

Brooks brings up the example of Lost Hills, CA and how a couple are engaging the community with a broad approach to solutions. They are a wealthy business couple doing something to get back into the community. They don’t give up.

We can’t give up. As a matter of fact, we need to engage more. 

This week in my community I got attend one of my favorite nights of the year: Scholarship night at the high school. The service club I belong to gives away scholarships to two seniors, so I get to present the awards. Even if I didn’t present the awards, and even though my sons are long graduated from the school, I would still go to this night. It is incredible.

  1. The community gives back to this school. Many of the scholarship are funded by local residents and businesses who have roots in the high school. They got something out of the school, they have done well, so they are giving back.
  2. The scholarships given total over $200,000. It has been over $200,000 for the past six years. $1.2 million in scholarships have been given in the last six years!
  3. It is an incredibly diverse student population and it is near the bottom in the metro area for income level. Yet this community gives far more in scholarships to its students than ANY district in the metro area.

It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States, or what political agenda is being pushed in Washington. I love my city and I can easily get behind a city that does so much for kids.

We need a fresh approach as believers. We need Daniels and Josephs and Esthers rising up in this new day we face culturally. We need believers so anchored in faith that the culture isn’t a “threat” any more. This is a time to engage and bless those around us. It is not a time for withdrawal. It is a time for engagement.

Find a need locally and bless it. See what God can do in opening doors in your community.

Do not withdraw from the public square. Get right in the middle of it and bring blessing.


Two worthwhile reads for your weekend

Stop and reflect a bit this week.

A column by David Brooks calls on us to reflect on BEAUTY. It is a marvelous piece.

This is the view that beauty is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself. This humanistic worldview holds that beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal.

Then a post by Ben Witherington on a good “election guide” as we enter into Mudslinging 2016. He bases it on the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12-13. Neither party is impressive held to that standard, but there are some things to AVOID.

I am beyond “over” when it comes to politics. It’s been almost 2 decades since I’ve quit voting categorically one party. Voting will still happen for me, but after that is what counts as well. I will pray for those in authority and I will press Kingdom issues and continue to bring Kingdom blessing to whoever is in office. I have worked hard to adopt what I call a “pro-life” ethic in my life.

  1. I use a word that is “loaded,” but I don’t care. I won’t allow bad politics to co-opt an ethic that is worth having.
  2. That ethic is womb to tomb. The only person more pro-life in this life ethic than me is the Pope.
  3. There isn’t any political party, or candidate, who matches that ethic, so I choose to live my ethic and bless those in leadership as I try to live out Kingdom goodness in this world.

Quite honestly, soak in Brooks’ column and reflect on the beauty around us. It is a wonderful tip for the weekend ahead!

The next culture war

You know why it’s easy to get hits on a blog post? Headlines and hashtags.

Content rarely matters.

But I strive for both because I like “hits,” and the illusion of people actually reading this stuff. So, this post really IS about the “next culture war.” David Brooks has written a very challenging column for today’s New York Times. Basically, it’s a call for social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, to give up the fight on “social issues” that pertain to the sexual revolution. (Honestly, you need to read the column. I’m not doing it justice with a quick summation.)

But if evangelicals give up that fight, what in the world will we do? The interesting thing about his advice is these are things we already do, at least in our church. The problem with all that is this: we’re not good at making headlines. We just go do this stuff and then let the culture beat up on us anyway by making headlines about what we aren’t. 

Should that keep us from doing what we’re already doing? Of course not. Should we take a photographer with us and post more pictures of how compassionate we are on Facebook? Probably. (Okay, I’m kidding.)

This is what Brooks would like to offer for social conservatives:

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

Now, on a pure “social conservative” level, this just won’t happen. Politically, it’s a minefield. If social conservatives actually went into poor areas and tried to establish programs to, you know, actually help people, it takes away from their brand that says, “If you’re poor, you get yourself out of it. Go get a job!”

And, quite honestly, because there is a still a vast remnant of evangelicals still tied to the Republican Party, it may still take some time for this to take hold. Small steps are being taken. Evangelicals (especially megachurches) are good at “events.” So, there is a shift away from a “evangelistic crusade event” to now days where they bring in huge loads of gifts like clothing, food, health check ups, etc. to do a one day event, get word out, advertise it, make sure the media shows up for some pictures, then pack up and go home. It’s a step.

But beyond that are local churches that do exactly what Brooks is describing. We’re just small, don’t take a lot of pictures, and don’t know anyone in the media. It shouldn’t keep us from getting up in the morning and doing what we do.

If bigger evangelical churches joined in and would leave the media trail at home, there would be a better impact. But if not… we have to keep working in these areas to bring what is GOOD to a community.

The wonderful things I find working with schools is there are so many Christians in those schools. Teachers and administrators who are working in the HARD school districts to do something well for broken families. And when churches show up to actually HELP with their goals, a good synergy can happen. Don’t show up with your agenda. Show up and ask how you can help their agenda. You’ll find surprising answers along the way.

This culture war is more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority. It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private.

Let us live out light in the midst of darkness. Let’s mentor some students. Let’s volunteer on a regular basis at a food shelf. Quit doing as many events and push that money toward supporting a local project already doing some good work!

And along the road, amazing conversations will help. Along my own road, it’s not only been conversations I’ve been able to have to see a life changed, but it’s that my own life has been changed.

Let’s go live light. Let’s go be salt. And see what happens in the next 20 years or so.

The place of vocation

Vocation, according to David Brooks in The Road to Character, is core to a “good life.” We need a calling. We won’t find satisfaction in using work to serve ourselves alone. We will keep chasing unattainable ambitions and goals.

If we give our lives to simply “serving the community” we end up wondering if people appreciate us enough.

The key to vocation is not found with some inner search. It’s not about “finding your passion.”

You don’t find your calling. Your calling finds you. (This I have personally found to be true.)

Vocation is found by looking OUT and asking what life is asking of us. On this point Brooks has some powerful stories, one especially about Francis Perkins, that are incredibly moving.

We kind find things we intrinsicially enjoy AND at the same time find it may help address a problem. That intersection of life is truly joyous.

Where Character is Built

Character is not built in the smooth sailing. It is not built in anything that is something from the outside. Character is built in the course of inner confrontation. When we struggle against pride and sin we find the ability and resolve to overcome. That is the place of character.

David Brooks in his book The Road to Character says this:

Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.

Character is developed through a thousand small acts of self-control. If we do not handle the inner frustrations, anger, anxieties well, the core begins to crumble. Our inner life decays.

Character is long term. Lust, pride, other sin will corrupt long term and lead to short term AND long term failure.

To paraphrase Eugene Peterson a bit, the building of character is a long obedience in the same direction.

Build from within. Start small. Conquer the inner person. Character comes.

Talking about sin and righteousness

David Brooks has an interview in “Christianity Today”online about his new book, The Road to Character. It is wonderful to read of his personal journey.

It is also little wonder why many who prefer to live in a “secular” society (meaning no place for religion in the public square) rejoice over the latest Pew numbers are how many profess Christianity in America today. The numbers are declining. (They are, in my opinion, still inflated numbers.) There is a desire to NOT have a moral conversation in the public square, and it is at this time that David Brooks steps in and says we DO need that conversation, and we need terms back like “sin”and “righteousness.”

He says this:

When you lose awareness of sin and start thinking that, deep down, human beings are pretty wonderful, you lose the struggle of character building. Building character is not like being better than someone else at a career. It’s conquering your own weakness. But you won’t make that effort if you lose a sense of what your weakness is and where it comes from.

This stuff doesn’t go over well, but we sure need the conversation! We live in interesting times. When culture doesn’t care for our “moral” conversation, it is the precise time we need one.

Vices and virtues on the road to characters

Reflecting again on David Brooks’ work, The Road to Character, (the beginning of the chain begins HERE), the greatest virtue is HUMILITY. It is vital we have an accurate assessment of our own nature and our place in the cosmos. We have weaknesses, and we are the underdog in that struggle. Individual talent alone will not overcome those weaknesses. Humility is the reminder that we are not the center of the universe. There is a larger order to serve.

Pride is the central vice. It blinds us to our weaknesses. It misleads us into thinking we are better than we really are. Pride tricks us into more self-certainty and closed-mindedness.

We need hard assessments of our own lives… and understand there is a way forward.

The long road to character: Admit the flaw

David Brooks’ “Humility Code” from his book The Road to Character has a summary of what he has been talking about all through his book. START HERE to begin my review.

The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of ourselves. This one will hurt: we are flawed. It gets worse: we tend toward selfishness and seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. (Obviously, this drew a lot of nasty comments in the comments section of Brooks’ column in the NY Times.) We hate to admit where we are starting. We think so much better of ourselves, but in doing so lose out on an honest evaluation of what is ahead.

Admit we’re flawed… but also understand we have tremendous gifts and opportunities. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Brooks actually uses the word sin (another huge comment section followed on THIS big social no-no): “We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin.”

We have to see the struggle and the road to character begins when we engage the struggle. The powerful examples he gave all through his book were stories of overcoming. He would tell stories of people who knew their fundamental flaws and overcame them to contribute something significant to their world.

The biggest victory is NOT “changing the world.” The biggest victory is overcoming the flaws and see character form within. 

Road to Character: Quit living for happiness

Some thoughts along the way from David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, and especially his wrap thoughts he calls “The Humility Code.”

Thought One: We don’t live for happiness. We live for holiness. We are endowed with moral imagination and we settle too easily with surface pleasures.

The life well lived is one that orients around “increasing excellence of soul” (p. 262).

Let us be nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.

The crooked-timber school of character

The Road to Character is a book that needs to be nearby in the coming months. It should be an ongoing conversation. Brooks has a website where the conversation can hopefully keep going on this subject.

What I am impressed about with Brooks is that over the past few months I have noticed a decided change in his columns at The New York Times. He has decided to engage in a moral conversation again. I admire it because I love reading his columns, then reading the visceral responses in the comments section. People really hate his ideas. It must be striking a nerve. And its shows when we’ve painted someone with broad-brushed strokes already (Brooks is typically labeled the “Republican” voice at the Times), then we automatically make a judgment as to their thoughts before even reading or hearing them.

But The Road to Character is bold. Brooks is bold enough to state that where we are currently is… not good. We need a better road. We have drifted too far into narcissism and he would love a conversation to try and bring back moral goodness as a societal value. Something we can talk about in the public square.

We must work to build up the soul again. The forces that have built up what he calls the “Big Me” (and you have to read the book on this because I won’t take enough time to explain it here) have gone too far. We are out of balance.

Instead of worship the golden idol of our own lives we’ve built up inside ourselves (the “Big Me”), we need to realize a different conversation is useful. We need our inner natures developed better. We need Adam II back in the conversation.

This is the school of “crooked timber” for Brooks. It is learning to grow with adversity. We grow strong through adversity, not worshiping some false image of ourselves. We should pay more attention to outside influences in this process.

The book is about those outside forces. He then wraps up the book by reiterating some of those principles.

He calls it “The Humility Code.” It is worth pondering.

We need higher ideals in our lives. There should be nothing wrong with that. But to get on that road, we need to get around the golden idol of self that is standing right in the way.