Day 14: They’re Changing the Conversation

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Matthew 23:27

“Mad Men” is one of the most acclaimed programs in television history, and it also boasted one of the greatest-ever pilot episodes. In that initial episode, titled “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” we meet the show’s main character, Don Draper, along with the other characters that populate the ad agency of Sterling Cooper. Throughout the episode, the agency is wrestling with a significant business problem – the public is becoming increasingly aware of the hazards of smoking. And Sterling Cooper’s largest client is Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Searching for a strategy that will help them continue to market cigarettes effectively, a research firm suggests that the agency appeal to people’s desire to take risks. Thus, cigarettes are seen as a product for people who wish to show that they have a perverse “death wish.” Draper, the agency’s Creative Director, dislikes this strategy, and he pitches the research file in the trash.

As ad execs and clients alike smoke continually in boardrooms and offices, the idea that tobacco causes lung cancer is waived away as nonsense. A Reader’s Digest story on the harm of cigarettes is scoffed at, and the publication is derided as a “women’s magazine.” Most of the ad men are sure the controversy will blow over; after all, in 1960 America, cigarettes are everywhere, and represent one of the country’s most vibrant industries. Surely nothing as modest as a single scientific study can change people’s habits and thinking, can it? Eventually, the clever Draper comes up with an alternate strategy. He suggests Lucky Strike go with a new tagline – “Lucky Strikes. It’s Toasted!” – which changes the conversation away from the danger of smoking, and instead shifts the focus to a minor product feature that subtly makes the cigarettes seem harmless.

The 21st century “Mad Men” viewers, of course, know better. We know that the 1960s was the beginning of an awareness of the harm caused by cigarette smoking, even if the characters can’t imagine it. And we also see in the admen’s self-interested disbelief some echoes of current issues, such as gun control or climate change, where people also refuse to believe that anything can be done, or that the scientific data belongs anywhere but in the trashcan. And we wonder if the next 50 years will also unfold in surprising ways on these issues just as they did for cigarette smoking.

And we also see the effectiveness with which powerful and clever people are able to change the conversation by re-directing our attention. We see that tendency today. Want to avoid discussion of climate change? Claim that former Vice President Al Gore and other environmental advocates are “hypocrites.” Uncomfortable with discussions of income inequality? Insist that the critics are practicing the politics of resentment, or that the poor have only themselves to blame. Or just avoid the issue altogether and run another gushing article on a celebrity’s glorious wealth.

Pray: For collective wisdom in the population, that we will understand when the conversation is being subtly but deliberately changed on issues of import.

Read: Matthew 23


Day 13: Love in Truth, Love in Action

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  I John 3:17

I John 3:17 asks a pointed question: How can you claim you have love if you have the world’s goods and see a brother or sister in need and you refuse to help?

It would take an entire book, perhaps an entire library, to pull that verse apart and examine all its angles. And in light of 21st century culture, where global economic inequality has reached unprecedented levels, the verse hits even more squarely between the eyes.

I John 3:18 then digs a little deeper into this thought. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.”

“Loving in action” is something we understand; for example, actually taking the initiative to feed the hungry (in your own home or at a soup kitchen) is “love in action,” whereas saying “I love the poor” is inactive (and ineffective) love. But do we also understand “love in truth”? I think the Church is often guilty of loving in untruthful ways. For example, if we learned that our church’s popular short-term mission trips were not welcomed by the people we intended to help, would we be willing to humble ourselves and cancel a program that was liked by so many of our congregants? This is an issue that many churches are wrestling with as they seek to be global-minded yet also culturally sensitive.

“Loving in truth” asks us to be honest, and that’s not easy. If the statistics tell us that government food aid programs are the most efficient and fair mechanism for feeding hungry children, are we willing to admit it, or do we stubbornly cling to clichés like “the church is better able to assist the poor” even if we have no way to support that statement? And if we truly believe that statement, shouldn’t we be proposing a genuinely wide-scale, church-based feeding program that could relieve local authorities of the responsibility to feed the poor?

Although I have heard many people insist the church can feed people better, I’ve never seen a church do that on a large scale, and I suspect it’s because the price tag is just too high; hunger remains a massive problem, far too big for even the swankiest church to tackle. Perhaps we should stop trying to tear down government aid programs when we honestly do not have a viable alternative in place.

Pray: That our love would be pure — that it would be truthful, and active, rather than just mere words, and thus reflect the love that Christ gives all of us.

Read: I John 3:12-18

Day 12: The ‘Worthy Poor’ and Other Stuff Jesus Never Said

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.    Luke 17:14-15

I hear this all the time: “I don’t mind helping others, but not when people abuse the system.”

There’s no way to continue a conversation after that. It’s similar to one of those “I’m not racist, but” declarations that, despite the author’s protestations, end up being really, really racist. If you want to make sure that every dollar of your charitable giving will never support an “unworthy recipient,” you should probably start donating to an animal shelter or an environmental cause; by all means, avoid charities that actually help human beings, who are imperfect and unpredictable.

So, do I endorse charity without accountability? Certainly not. I have spent much of my professional life working for, with, and on behalf of charitable organizations. All of them have had systems of checks and balances. These organizations have engaged board members and auditors and external consultants to evaluate their efficiency and effectiveness and help them uncover potential problems.

My advice is to give to good causes and exemplary organizations. But don’t expect perfection.

Taking this thought a step further, I think the criticism of “people abusing the system” reveals something else. It’s not so much that they are concerned about the fiscal responsibility of a charity, but rather that they frankly don’t trust the poor. They’re sure that people who have needed a lot of help for a very long time, and who don’t seem to appreciate the help they are getting, represent a serious problem. The problem is so serious, in fact, that for some it becomes an excuse to not help at all.

Is that an acceptable stance?

Our ultimate example in matters of compassion and human relations, Jesus Himself, seemed to avoid making such exceptions. There’s no record of any of the following statements:

  • “I’ll feed five thousand but can we make sure no one takes home leftovers?”
  • “I’ve been here all day, so I’ll heal these next two lepers but after that, I’m done.”
  • “I’ll turn the water into wine today, but don’t go thinking this will be a regular thing.”

We can be thankful that Jesus was so much less petty than we are! And we are even told in Scripture that the reality of human self-centeredness and ingratitude was something that Jesus faced. In Luke 17, Jesus was met by ten men with leprosy. His response? He healed all ten.

One of the ten fell to his feet and thanked Jesus for the gift of restored health — while the nine others moved along. Jesus remarked on the lack of gratitude, but it didn’t stop Him from doing good deeds. In the very next chapter of Luke, we see Jesus welcoming children and restoring sight to a blind man.

To truly follow Jesus, even when people are not grateful, we must continue to err on the side of generosity.

Pray: That our compassion will be perpetual, even when we do not receive the thanks we thought we deserved. Also pray that we will resist those who want to restrict aid based on arbitrary criteria.

Read: Luke 17:11-19

Day 11: Trickle-Up Economy

They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.   Amos 2:7

If it looks like the folks in the executive suite are having fewer money problems than the rest of us, that’s probably because they aren’t.

According to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, “the share of corporate income devoted to compensating the five highest-paid executives of large corporations ballooned from an average of 5% in 1993 to more than 15% by 2005 (the latest data available).”

At the same time, wages for the poor, the working class, and the middle class are declining. Even as national productivity increases, wages stay flat; in other words, the benefits of increased productivity are primarily given to those at the top.

To add insult to injury, it is common for many of these CEO’s with stratospheric compensation — pay that sometimes exceeds $100 million per year — to be the same leaders who oppose any increase in the federal minimum wage, which is currently at about $8 an hour.

Is there any hope for a culture that so deliberately concentrates wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people?

If you are as outraged as I am, speak up about it. But be prepared to be dismissed, criticized, and demonized all the way. They will tell you are engaged in “the politics of resentment.” That you “want to take from the makers and give to the takers.” That you are a radical, unpatriotic, or plain jealous.

But let them talk. The folks who defend such a system have left a complete and utter mess. If they are proud of a system that has left nearly half the U.S. population near the poverty line, there’s no helping them. They are ignoring the cries of the poor, and the prophets and the Son have harsh words for them. For an example of a prophet who preached against injustice in blunt and harsh terms, read the prophecy of Amos, where he crusaded against the idle rich who oppressed the suffering poor.

New systems, new safeguards and new values (actually, ancient Christian values) are needed. Christians need to stop defending this status quo and create something new, fairer, more equitable going forward. That’s what it means to be salt and light.

Pray: For God to raise up people who will challenge the status quo and bring about an economy that reflects the person and example of Christ. 

Read: Amos 4


Day 10: Modern Prophets

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  1 Corinthians 1:27

The problem with self-described prophets is that too many of them aren’t worthy of the title. Why would God equip someone with the awesome power of prophecy only to have the “prophecy” consist of fundraising appeals, self-serving pronouncements, and a never-ending flood of products that you need to buy, right now?

By contrast, society’s actual prophets are somewhat reluctant to accept the verdict that they are engaged in prophecy. They see their job as fairly simple – to be truthful, even if that makes powerful people uncomfortable or threatening to the status quo.

True prophets also come from unexpected places. Cultural critics have noted that a trio of comedians – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver – have managed to expose hypocrisy and corruption in ways that journalists can’t seem to do anymore. Other leading voices in the fight against economic inequality – such as Pope Francis, academic-turned politician Elizabeth Warren, and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – have been slandered and attacked.

Is there any better sign that someone is speaking truth than when powerful interests seek to shut someone up?

The Old Testament prophets were often unwelcome presences. This was particularly true if one of these prophets singled you out as an exploiter or a purveyor of injustice. That’s why the prophets were sometimes jailed or hounded out of town, why they lived in poverty, and why their truths were only recognized much later.

Which voices do you see as prophetic? Who is dropping “truth bombs” right now that you see as vitally important? What issues do they view as crucial — and what does that mean for you? This is the most important function of a prophet: to give us new points of view that we desperately need. Allow the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, to change your heart and mind.

Pray: Pray that God will help you be discerning in choosing from the many voices that are out there, and expose you to vital truths.

Read: Amos 1

Day 9: We Don’t Show Up Until Chapter 2

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”   Genesis 2:7

The familiar Creation story in Genesis provides a glimpse of God’s grand plan for the planet and for humankind. It’s breathtaking in its scope, as we see the Earth taking shape and teaming with life. And it isn’t until the second chapter of Genesis that the first man, Adam, enters the picture, followed quickly by the first woman, Eve.

The order of the Genesis account is significant. Humanity appeared after the world was created, not before (indeed, it would have been impossible to have it the other way around). The reality that we human beings don’t even show up until the second chapter of the Bible should instill in us a healthy humility; the world was there before we got here, and it belonged to God first, not us.

Unfortunately we treat the Earth as though it were a tool, a plaything, or even a trash can. As I write this, fires are engulfing the western United States, the world’s ice caps are rapidly melting, and environmentalists in my own state are warning that aging pipelines in the Great Lakes may soon rupture, which would devastate one of the nation’s great water sources.

Greed and need have caused us to trample on this great gift we’ve been given, and today our planet is paying the price; we are dealing with an altered climate, higher temperatures, and more frequent disasters.

Can we undo the damage? I like to think so. I grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, at a time when Lake Erie was declared unsafe for humans. But intentional measures were taken to rectify that situation, and a decade later the situation improved dramatically. I think the same intentional efforts can be applied to our world’s major environmental problems. And I believe Christians should be at the forefront of those efforts, as part of our calling to shine the light of Christ into the affairs of this world.

Pray: For effective environmental action to take place before the damage is too great, and for bi-partisanship to replace division.

Read: Genesis 1:31 – 2:8

Day 8: ‘They Began to Call on the Name of the Lord’

“Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.’ Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.”   Genesis 4:25-26

We are told God’s people “began to call on the name of the Lord” in Genesis 4. That begs the question: were they not calling on God before that?

Let’s look at the fourth chapter of Genesis. It is a startling tale of violence and tragedy. Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam, grow up and almost immediately there is conflict. Cain is jealous of the devout Abel and murders him; creation, still limited to one family, is already enmeshed in violence and cold-blooded murder. We see the grief of both Abel’s heavenly father and earthly father . . . and we see the family picking up the pieces and trying to move on, despite the heartache that will never be fully healed. The families of murder victims throughout history know this familiar pain.

At the end of the chapter, we see Adam and Eve conceiving another son (Seth), and the author of Genesis tells us that this was the point when people began to call on God. What does the author mean?

Some writers speculate that in the world of Adam and Eve, God was such an ever-present reality that there was no division between sacred and secular, believer and unbeliever. But as humanity proliferated and dispersed, and humans realized what they were capable of (such as murder), the demarcation between the things of God and the things of the flesh grow more clear. And against this backdrop, some people intentionally seek God, and cry out to Him.

There is hope in this verse. Against any backdrop, people can make a profound shift, away from evil and towards God. They can disrupt what came before, and engage in something revolutionary, transformative, novel. In human history, we see change agents like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks or Pope Francis who have turned cultural expectations on their head, and called out to God in new and world-changing ways.

Today, many have grown tired of a Church mired in culture wars, majoring on the minors, and driving people away from God through the emphasis on rules and division and harsh words. They are crying out to God for forgiveness, and thus forming a new way forward.

Pray: Pray that this will be the time when the people of God “began to show Christ’s love, and stopped sowing prejudice and division, in the world around them.” Pray that it begins here and now, and begins with us.

Read: Genesis 4

Day 7: When a Pill Costs $750

How much is too much? And who gets to decide that?

Those are vital questions today. And as we ask and answer those questions, we’re confronted by many uncomfortable realities. One of the biggest (and most uncomfortable) is the issue of wealth inequality.

In his 2014 book “Capital in the 21st Century,” economist Thomas Piketty points to a possible future in which nations sell off public assets like schools, highways and prisons to the wealthy, and then rent them back. Such disturbing ideas, Piketty warns, are supported by “some very smart people.” It makes me wonder: why do “very smart people” often end up taking very immoral stances?

As I write this, one “very smart person” in America has recently used his wealth and business savvy to purchase the rights to a critically important drug, which he promptly increased in price from $13.50 per pill to $750. The CEO has been roundly and rightly criticized in media reports, but lawmakers admitted there were few regulations in place to prevent such practices.

In many corners of society – in business schools, boardrooms and in legislative chambers – values such as the maximization of profit and the consolidation of power are held in high regard. If pursued to their logical end, such values will lead a bright young CEO to increase the price of a cancer drug by 5,000% overnight. It is impossible to reconcile such acts with the compassionate Christ of the New Testament or the community-minded laws and regulations of Israel of the Old Testament.

However, fighting such practices is a difficult process. Many entities will fight off any threat to profit maximization. Eventually, those fighting for fairness are portrayed as thieves and enemies of freedom.

Jesus was also a champion of the sick, poor and disenfranchised – and he endured an all-out PR blitz that attempted to portray him as a reckless, ungodly heretic, while the Pharisees sought to position themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy, purity and proper order. The fight today is no different. Fighting for fairness means you will be turning over someone’s money-changing table in the Temple of Commerce, and they’ll say the worst things about you.

But don’t lose heart. Standing up for the right things can often seem revolutionary, and threatening, in the moment, but in time you earn respect for being the first one there. For example, we forget how hated Abraham Lincoln was while he served as President. It was only later that we saw the rightness of his positions, and his legend grew.

Prayer: Pray that we will bold in standing against injustice, even when we are a lone voice.

Read:  Jeremiah 22:3-5

Day 6: ‘Nothing Can Be Done’

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”   Matthew 6:5-6

A parable:

A handsome church sat a little ways out of town, at one of those spots where fields replace buildings, and cars start going a little faster. In front of the church was an intersection that had seen more than it’s share of traffic accidents.

The church was thriving, but the intersection was not. In the past year, there had been a series of horrific accidents. One of them involved a school bus and a tractor-trailer; another involved two minivans, both filled with families and kids; yet another involved a drunk driver who slammed into a sedan driven by an elderly man, who — along with his elderly wife — was dead on the spot.

The community was fed up. The intersection, they said, needed some interventions, such as a fully-functional traffic light to replace the modest blinking light. Others suggested speed bumps, additional signs to alert people to the danger, or even a re-engineering of the road to create an overpass or perhaps gentle curves that would force drivers to slow down. The local newspaper supported these public safety changes and insisted that city and county leaders needed to act immediately.

The pastor of the handsome church, however, didn’t agree. “This isn’t a traffic issue,” he would say, with a mix of exasperation and solemnity. “It’s an issue of the human heart. Why do people drive so fast? Perhaps it’s an alcohol problem, or an issue of impatience. It’s sin. And you can’t pass laws to prevent people from sinning. Also, if you slow down the bad guys, that means the good guys also have to slow down, and that’s hardly fair.”

The pastor’s opinion carried a lot of weight. After all, the man was beloved by the thousands of people who attended the church every Sunday. The pastor had a good heart, they said. His point-of-view was certainly against popular opinion, and many just assumed he had superior insight, that he saw the potential problems better than others. So they, too, joined him in opposing any changes.

“Better to be cautious,” they’d say, “than to do something radical that might limit freedoms of drivers. Because once you do that, it just gets worse.”

Soon, church members began to find some comfort in the belief that doing nothing was better than acting rash. They viewed themselves as cautious and level-headed, unlike their neighbors and the local media who were embracing radical changes and limited freedoms. Some of the church members were city council members, and ultimately they voted against any changes to the road or the erection of additional traffic signs. “You can’t pass laws to prevent sin,” they announced when questioned about their votes.

The intersection remained as before. And every so often, a terrible accident happens out there. The pastor can actually see the flashing lights of ambulances and police cars from his church office window. After the latest accident, the pastor was quick to post on social media.  “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families,” he said.

And he didn’t do anything else, because really, nothing can be done, when you get right down to it.

Pray: That the U.S. will enact long-overdue gun control legislation. And after praying, contact your legislators and demand action.

Read: Matthew 23

Day 5: A Helping Hand

During the Great Depression, my grandfather was one of 3 million young men who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an innovative program that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested as part of his New Deal. The CCC planted trees, worked on soil erosion and flood control, and provided a stable income and meaningful work for men struggling to survive at a time when unemployment soared to 25%.

My grandpa, born and raised in rural eastern Tennessee, always spoke fondly of the CCC. He described being homesick for his beloved widowed mother, and spoke with pride that most of his CCC earnings ($25 out of the $30 he earned each month) were sent home to help provide sorely-needed income for her and her large family. He talked of friendships with other southern boys and working on conservation projects and the three square meals.

General Mark Clark praised the program: “In my way of thinking, the CCC was a monumental success in saving the youth of the 1930s . . . . endowing the individual CCC enrollee with a feeling of dignity, for he was giving his country an honorable and worthwhile return for what it was doing for him and for his family economically.”

By any measure, the CCC was a success. It’s an example of a government meeting multiple needs and utilizing it’s human resources in productive ways. It recalls another time that an innovative leader mobilized resources to meet the needs of a nation in crisis — Joseph’s preparation for Egypt’s famine in Genesis 41.

Joseph was not afraid to pull the levers of power and design an official solution to the needs of the people. He instructed that grain should be stored in massive quantities. And his foresight saved lives not only in Egypt, but in surrounding nations as well.

In later chapters we learn that this famine and Joseph’s wisdom also brought about the reunion of Joseph and his brothers and father.

Joseph’s storage of the grain was a government-sponsored effort. It wasn’t exactly a secular solution, since Egypt was not secular; I suppose the effort was, like everything else, a public work that bore the stamp of Pharaoh’s approval.

Perhaps one of today’s politicians would have shied away from a massive feeding program that brought glory to Pharaoh and whatever idols he worshiped. But thank goodness it was Joseph, and not these modern practitioners in false sanctimony, that was in charge of such an effort.

God’s help can come from many directions — from the church, or from the government, or from a pagan king like Pharaoh. It was true in ancient Egypt and it was true during the Great Depression. My grandfather is a testament to that.

Prayer: That God would help us be innovative and resourceful in using any means necessary to help the poor and needy.

Read: Genesis 41