Reading Widely and Deeply

Writing in the New York Times, Emma Roller points out:

The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.

It  has been well-documented people receive their news and commentary from sources that are more likely to affirm rather than challenge their views. The internet and cable television have allowed people to seek out boutique mediums. We are placing ourselves in ideological silos, making it more difficult to relate to, or even understand, our neighbors who think differently than we do on those topics we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: politics, religion, social mores. The lack of interaction with different views makes it easier to dehumanize people who hold values foreign to our own. The common ground we share hides behind a thick wall of fog.

An oft-suggested possible solution is for people to intentionally seek out a plurality of views. Digest news from a basket of sources, including those that do not share one’s outlook. Read opinions from people who are on the other side of the aisle. Try to engage the strongest possible version of the argument and don’t spend time knocking down straw men. These are laudable practices and good for us who live in a pluralistic society. Perhaps if we engaged in these acts more we would be able to say of our neighbors, “I think you are a good person who wants what is best for our community, but I disagree that what you want is the best or even good for us.” That would be a significant improvement on the tendency to impugn the character of our neighbors for having religious or political beliefs that are not our own.

I also wonder about how what we read, see, and hear shapes our character. A broad selection of sources can form us in very good ways so that we are more charitable toward our neighbors, have a fuller picture of reality, and are aware of our blind spots. Still, there is room for mining deep those resources who make us into the people we want to become.

I have, at times, intentionally limited my exposure to some commentators, not because they challenged me or caused me cognitive dissonance, but because I saw their works having a deleterious effect on me. I became more snarky, argumentative, angry. I wanted instead to read authors who inspired me toward charity. Our time is unfortunately finite and so we have to make choices. We cannot read everything all the time.

It is good to spend more time with people and writings that help us become who we want to be. I choose to give more attention to authors who encourage me to pursue God’s kingdom, to be more generous and loving, and who invite me to deeper thinking and a more thorough examination of my life. Selfishness and self-aggrandizement come easy to me. Pursuing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God are challenges. I now find myself asking, for example, am I more inclined to horde or give after reading this column? Does spending time with certain people make me more or less likely to help someone stranded on the side of the road?

Reading broadly helps us understand and see the humanity in our neighbors. Let us also read deeply those authors who urge us to become better persons and a better community.

What authors do you appreciate outside your political, religious, and social camp? What authors do you read who push you to become a better person?

The Countercultural Act of Praying for the Government

Recently Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spoke to a group of Christian conservatives (or was it conservative Christians? that’s for another time). In a video posted to Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Trump says, “Some of the people are saying, ‘Let’s pray for our leaders.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone.’ But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. And we can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. And it’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening.”

There is a rich biblical tradition of praying for governmental leaders. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments. In my book The Politics of Praise, readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king at what seems to be his coronation. It gives us a picture of what kind of leadership God blesses.

Along with devotional readings on the two psalms, I also wrote a few essays designed to help people enter the world of these amazing prayer poems. I offer you the essay on Psalm 72. I invite you to read the essay, and more importantly, prayerfully read Psalm 72. I hope you will see why and how we are called to pray for all our governmental leaders, which is not something we do, as Trump claims, for the sake of political correctness. Praying for our leaders is in fact a radical act to bring our leaders in line with God’s political agenda of justice and mercy.


The Countercultural  Act of Praying for the Government

In the debate a week before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan posed the now-famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”[i] Ever since that debate nearly every challenger to an incumbent leader or an incumbent party has asked this question in one form or another. Republican and Democratic candidates alike ask it every election cycle. Many people use this question as their main lens through which they assess how well an elected official does her job. This question perfectly fits our self-centered culture. In the United States we are consumed with self-realization, self-help, self-actualization, rational self-interest, self-assertion, and being self-made.[ii] We think all institutions—like our government, economy, schools, and even churches—exist to help us discover and make the best versions of ourselves.

Reagan’s question is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. It cuts to the core of many of our values and concerns. It is not, however, a Christian question. If we follow the prayer of Psalm 72, we see that we are to assess the quality of a leader’s job by how she uses her power to help marginalized people. Therefore the question we are to ask is not, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” but, “Is my neighbor, especially my poor and needy neighbor, better off than he was four years ago?” Jesus Christ calls us as his followers to focus not our own interests, but on the interests of others, particularly the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.[iii] This is a countercultural move and the ability to focus on the needs of others before our own does not magically appear in us. We have to pray God would shape us into generous and compassionate people. Psalm 72 is a prayer that does exactly that.

The author of Psalm 72 calls us to engage in another countercultural act: praying for our leaders. We have a national pastime of complaining about our government and its officials. We argue about them around dinner tables, at work, and in all forms of media. Political punditry is a giant industry in the United States and those who sling the most mud receive the majority of our attention. These voices demand we support or oppose our leaders, depending on whether those leaders align with the pundit’s positions. We rarely hear calls for us to pray to God for our leaders. Perhaps at the inauguration of a president or at the beginning of a legislative term we might stop and offer a pro forma prayer, but sustained, considered prayer for our government officials is not a discipline that many of us readily practice.

The psalmist calls the people of God to pray for Yahweh’s blessing on our governmental leaders. This prayer will probably cause discomfort. Depending on the leader in power, we may not want to pray, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72.8). We can quickly think of political leaders throughout history we are glad God did not bless with long reigns. Thankfully, the psalmist does not say the blessings for the leaders are merited simply because they are in charge. In fact, he implies Yahweh blesses those leaders who pursue God’s agenda of peace and justice.[iv]

To the extent a leader pursues God’s political agenda of helping the marginalized, we pray for Yahweh to bless her. We know a governmental leader who stands for what God values, who uses her authority to end oppression and violence, is refreshing to all people, “like rain that falls on the mown grass” (72.6). If an official does not prioritize the poor and needy, we use Psalm 72 as an indictment against her leadership. We hold up this psalm as an example of what godly political leadership should look like. When a leader prioritizes her own career advancement above the good of the community, vilifies the poor and needy, unfairly privileges the rich and powerful (or even the middle class), feeds our self-centered natures, or worse, engages in oppression and violence, we use Psalm 72 as a guide to pray for her repentance.

We should pause for a moment before wading into these psalms. Readers will note the psalmists do not address many of the specific political debates we face today. We receive no instruction on whether we should adopt the liberal vision of a larger government or the conservative vision of a smaller government. The psalmists do not say how much a government should manipulate financial markets. They do not mention whether more power should rest at the local or the federal levels. The silence on these matters means they are open for Christians to debate in good faith and in doing so we have an opportunity to set an example for our society on how to discuss and disagree civilly. But as we debate the shape and size of government, as we consider what laws we should have, as candidates propose their agendas, Psalm 72 gives us a lens through which we evaluate all these matters.

The values the psalmist describes should frame the discussion. God calls all of us to make the case that our political positions will best give deliverance to the needy. If a member of Congress believes businesses should run without much government interference, we who pray Psalm 72 will demand he show how free enterprise can better help the marginalized. If a city council member believes corporations need to be more closely regulated, we readers of the Psalms will demand he show how such regulation can better help the dispossessed. If we are shaped by this psalm, we will ask, “Who primarily benefits from this proposed law? Will this law help people suffering under oppression? What size and shape of government best helps poor people?” As we listen to politicians, we will require they show how their agendas will help our most vulnerable neighbors.

The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146 is available in paperback and the Kindle format at Amazon.com.


[i] Reagan’s expanded on the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” “October 28, 1980 Debate Transcript,” accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript.

[ii] See Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, for a wonderful treatment showing how praying the psalms takes our focus away from the self and places it back on God.

[iii] See: Philippians 2.4.

[iv] As we pray these psalms we also become aware of the differences between our context and the political contexts when these prayers were written. Psalm 72 in particular raises questions of how we pray for political leaders when the Church is not tied to any particular nation.

For the Love, Be an Amateur

Pismo PierRecently my friend and co-author, Eddy Ekmekji, and I texted about our shared hobby of photography and hesitancy to pursue our pastimes.

Eddy: You know what my problem tends to be? I don’t like being an amateur. I think pro or nada. So with cameras, I want to go all out and figure out how to be head and shoulders above. When I run, I feel like I’m really trying out for the Olympics.

Tyler: Right. I run into that with other hobbies. Like if I’m not going to play Staples Center, what’s the point of writing songs or playing guitar?

Eddy: Exactly!

Doing an activity simply for the love of that activity has become a challenge for me. I realize I’ve internalized our society’s values that say an interest is only worthwhile if it comes with some kind of monetary compensation or that I achieve a certain level of proficiency, preferably that receives renown. I still have hobbies, but in the back of my mind I worry they are wastes of time since they do not result in a recognizable, tangible reward. Or I compare myself to masters and think unless I can match their skill, pursuing these interests is useless.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. As a child I would happily draw pictures and never show the sketches to anyone. I played guitar in my room in high school for several hours every week without performing in front of others. I filled notebooks with poems no one will ever see. (You should be thankful to not see my old poetry.) I spent Saturdays playing Ultimate Frisbee until I could barely walk—no one will ever remember the scores of those games. I did these things because they brought me joy and I loved them. I was a happy amateur.

In modern usage amateur means someone who does an activity for no compensation. It is the antonym of professional. An older definition of amateur from the French means someone who loves a pursuit or activity, literally a “lover of.” Amateurs pursue an interest because of the inherent value they find in it. They don’t look for external rewards like payment or fame.

In college my health psychology professor showed us research that found the quickest way to suck the joy out of a beloved activity is to pay someone for it. The payment shifts the reward from the internal connection—the inherent happiness that comes from growing in skill and accomplishing an endeavor—to an external and fleeting benefit. Money is cheap, in other words. That’s not to say professionals cannot love their work, but that the joy they find in that work most often comes from something other than their paycheck.

We can see being an amateur as a healthy, Christian character trait, that is, a virtue. We might consider becoming an amateur a spiritual discipline. To do something simply because we love it and it brings us joy is very good. The creation account of Genesis 1 shows God making the universe as an act of pleasure. We become more open to goodness and love by engaging in activities we love. We recognize the inherent value in the work of others and can share in their joy too.

You may never get a sponsorship from Nike or The North Face, play basketball and hike the mountain anyway. No one may ever hire you to remodel their home, build the cabinet anyway. You may not sing at Carnegie Hall, take those voice lessons and practice anyway. You may not win a Pulitzer Prize, write anyway. You may never earn a Michelin star, cook anyway. You may not create the next Google, code anyway. Nothing done out of love is worthless.

Forgiveness Should Shock the World, Not the Church

CBS News

CBS News reporter, Steve Hartman, profiled the surprising friendship between Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins. McGee was exonerated after spending four years in prison following a wrongful drug-dealing conviction. Collins was the arresting police officer who falsified the report against McGee. Collins would later be caught and would serve a year and a half in prison for this and other crooked actions. (I’ll leave the discussion of the discrepancies of their sentences for another time.) After their releases from prison, both men returned home to Benton Harbor, Michigan and ended up working at Mosaic, a faith-based employment agency.

At Mosaic, Collins confessed and apologized to McGee. McGee graciously forgave him. When Hartman asked McGee if he forgave Collins for Collins’s sake or for his own sake, McGee said, “For our sake,” meaning for the sake of the whole world that desperately needs grace. McGee cited his Christian faith as reason for his gracious actions. The men are now friends and speak publicly about the power of forgiveness.

This forgiveness surprises us because in the moral calculus of the world, McGee had no real reason or demand to extend forgiveness to Collins, who unjustly ruined his life. Most people would see nothing wrong if McGee maintained a grudge against Collins. This story has popped up in several places in my Facebook news feed and some readers have criticized McGee, saying he showed weakness or perpetuated injustice by forgiving Collins. McGee’s grace is alien in a society that keeps long accounts.

Since McGee roots his forgiveness of Collins in his Christian faith, those of us in the Church should find this act especially beautiful, but not unforeseen. McGee aligned himself with God’s kingdom and that is wonderful. We ought to celebrate this forgiveness as an example of God breaking into our unforgiving world. This is a sign of our new Easter reality. I’ve read and watched the story several times with gladness and gratitude.

At the same time, McGee’s act ought not shock us in the Church the way it has shocked the rest of the world. Forgiving our enemy is one of the essential practices of Jesus’s followers. We need to hear and celebrate stories of when such forgiveness happens, but the good news is that McGee is no alien. He has been transformed by the power of Jesus’s grace and love. The Holy Spirit can change each one of us to be as forgiving and loving as McGee has been toward Collins. Stories of this nature ought to be common in our faith communities. If they are not common, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and wonder why the story of a Christian man forgiving his enemy would be so shocking to us.

The response from the Church should not be one of, “I cannot believe such a thing has happened.” Rather our response should be, “Yes, we recognize this act as coming from the God we worship. We joyfully celebrate such a beautiful and wonderful extension of grace. It is what we expect from our sisters and brothers in Christ.” The way our brother Jameel McGee acted is the way Jesus calls all of us to act. That is a beautiful invitation.

Expanding Our Definition of Charity

I came across another great quotation for Lent from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables:

[Monsieur Madeleine] had entire confidence in this overseer, a very respectable person, firm, just, upright, full of that charity which consists in giving, but not having to the same extent that charity which consists in understanding and pardoning.

Let that one sink in. How often are we willing to give to a cause to help people we see as less fortunate as us, but we are at the same time unwilling to understand the lives of those very people and forgive those behaviors we find distasteful?

Do we give money and gifts in kind to a homeless shelter and yet shake our heads with disgust at the homeless man or woman asking for money at the intersection? Will we write checks to organizations fighting human trafficking and still angrily judge the prostitute?

We are invited to expand our definition of charity beyond merely giving money or material goods (necessary actions, to be sure). Charity can also consist of understanding and pardoning others. True charity requires all these aspects. A charity without understanding and pardon is a patriarchal, drive-by kind of caring. A charity with understanding and pardon is the beginning of solidarity. Expressing this type of charity is when we become more like Christ, who does not keep us at arm’s length, but who knows us and our situations intimately. His real charity in understanding our lives allows him to pardon us and give us what truly helps.

During Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to broaden our definition of charity. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to express the charity of understanding and pardon.