Day 28: Easter, When Death Became Life

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:6

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the Risen Christ. For Christians, the victory of life over death is not only symbolic, it is transformational. The audacious concept of a Savior rising from the dead turns the world upside-down, transforming misery into joy, despair into gladness, fear into courage, anxiety into peace, and hopelessness into the greatest hope of all.

I as much as anyone find myself weighed down by concerns and anxieties. I get discouraged by my own shortcomings; I feel helpless when someone I love is going through a hard time and I’m unable to do anything substantial to help them. And I feel overwhelmed by a world that is violent, illogical, cruel and unjust. As I write this, there are reports of yet another mass shooting in a normal U.S. city, and reports of a terrorist attack in another world capital. When does the madness end? Is it all too much?

On Easter Sunday, we can state confidently that no, nothing is too much. There is hope, and deliverance. There is new life. He who conquered sin and death can yet turn the situation on its head, and breathe life into our circumstances. There is no subtlety in that. That hope transforms our personal circumstances and our outlook on the world. It allows us to be the ones who can bring peace and hope and joy to a world that needs as much as it can get.

Easter is a specific day on the calendar, and for the Christian, it is the day that transforms all others. 

 

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Day 27: Confronting Our Worst Days

In high school, one of my junior year classmates was an exchange student from what was then West Germany. This young woman, Elisabeth, was a kind and quiet student who was well-liked by teachers and students.

One day, I offended her deeply.

Of course, I didn’t mean to. For some reason, a few of us were in a classroom, unsupervised, and we did what bored young students typically do: we talked and walked around, and a few of us stood at the chalkboard. In my teenage foolishness, I picked up a piece of chalk and started writing ignorant Cold War-era sentiments. The exact statement, I believe, was “Kill All Commies.” Such a charming young boy I was.

“Please erase that,” Elisabeth said, in a quavering but decisive voice. I looked at her, confused.

“I have family that are communist,” she said. By now her eyes were watering. “I do not hate them.”

I grabbed the eraser and furiously wiped the board and wished I could disappear. I apologized but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The damage, as they say, was done.

Did I mention I attended a Christian high school?

Yes, I should have known better, but in many ways – and more than I card to admit – I was a product of my culture. The rah-rah patriotism and attitude of superiority and distrust of The Other and the nonchalance of violent sentiments was just part and parcel of being a young and arrogant Reagan-era boy. It took someone from another culture to show me how remarkably insensitive and monstrous some of my attitudes were.

It took many more years for me to outgrow those kind of attitudes, but I often think that evolution started that day. I was a chest-beating boor, and it hurt someone, probably deeply.

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Day 26: The Man Who Gives Away Houses

Warrick Dunn was a college football star at Florida State University who also excelled at the professional level as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. While the speedy Dunn will be long remembered for his breathtaking ability on the field, he is quickly building another legacy that may overshadow his athletic achievements.

In 1993, as Dunn was looking forward to entering Florida State as a prized football recruit, his mother (a police officer in Louisiana) was gunned down in the line of duty. Dunn immediately became the head of the household. By 1997, Dunn was playing professionally in Tampa Bay. During his rookie year, he began to reach out to families in the local community.

Raised with xx siblings by a single mother in xxxxx, Dunn never forgot the struggles his mother faced. As a professional athlete earning a handsome salary, Dunn began reaching out to single mothers in some of xxxxx’s poorest neighborhoods, building new homes for the women and their children. The impressive program was transformative, and Dunn continued this charitable outreach after his retirement from the NFL in xxxx.

As of this writing, Dunn has now given away xxx homes in xx cities. Appreciative families have spoken up about the tremendous benefit that a new, stable house can bring to a family facing economic hardship. Xxxx xxxxxx grew up in a home provided by Dunn and eventually entered Clemson University as a scholarship quarterback, guiding the football team to the 2016 National Championship game against the University of Alabama. Xxxxxx says, “ xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.”

Many generous people, like Warwick Dunn, have used their own experiences as a springboard to help others. Former prisoners volunteer to help troubled young people learn how to avoid a life on the wrong side of the law. Recovering addicts help current addicts. The formerly homeless help street people find shelter and companionship.

What special need is God laying on your heart? What deep hurts from your past or formative experiences can you use as a springboard to help others going through similar situations?

Day 25: 11/22/63

I was born on Thanksgiving Day, 1963, less than a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The ruthless killing of the president is one of the darkest days in our country’s history, and it ushered in a decade of social turmoil, escalating war overseas, and the beginnings of a divisive politics that continues to plague us.

In his 2012 novel “11/22/63”, author Stephen King asks a provocative question: “If you could go back in time and prevent the JFK murder, would you do it?” He tells the story of a modern-day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, who finds a time portal that allows him to travel to Dallas in the years leading up to the assassination, and the detailed plan Jake works out to kill Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald can take aim at Kennedy on that fateful day.

The novel is compelling, and although it provides one possible answer to the “would you do it” question, it raises many more. If we were able to travel to the past, would our tampering with events create a whole new set of problems that we hadn’t anticipated? And how are we so sure that eliminating one tragedy doesn’t cause many other tragedies that are even worse? The character of Jake, traveling from the 21st century, has an awesome power – the godlike power to know how the future unfolds – and we see the wide range of problems that it causes a normal man to be entrusted with such knowledge.

“11/22/63” is one of my favorite King novels, spinning a story out of an age-old parlor game question. And in reading the book, I’ve been challenged to look at things that I can change for the better in the here and now. While we don’t have foreknowledge of disasters and murders, all of us are able to see that bad things in the present can cause greater problems down the road. The child that is encouraged now will likely have confidence later. The spouse that is loved today will be less likely to be depressed and isolated in future years. The relationship you cultivate today is the tight bond that lasts years and decades. And so on.

Can we be change agents in our own limited sphere today? Can we literally change the course of history, for good, for everyone we come in contact with? That’s an incredible power. Let’s use it wisely.

Day 24: Black Lives Matter (and Stop Saying They Don’t)

A recent protest movement by African-Americans has chosen the simple, but profound, slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The movement was born in the wake of a rash of deaths of black citizens, most often by the hands of law enforcement members, which left many in the black community outraged. Black Lives Matter is an attempt to remind the larger population that the death of a black young person matters as much as the death of any other young person – but too often, it is not treated that way.

Almost on cue, many people have responded to Black Lives Matter by coining a new phrase: All Lives Matter. Their point, I suppose, is to insist that all deaths are tragic and why would we dare suggest that only the deaths of black citizens deserve attention? I’m not sure if they’re missing the point, or deliberately trying to minimize a problem that should never be minimized. It seems that the All Lives movement is saying, Black Lives Matter Doesn’t Matter.

And I very much disagree.

[insert stats on police brutality and violence]

Invoking All Lives Matter isn’t the only way the subject gets changed. What about black-on-black crime, we are asked, whenever a white-on-black or cop-on-civilian crime is committed. The subtext is this: these people have no right to be outraged when they do a heck of a lot of killing themselves. And let’s call it for what it is – a rationalization, a pathetic attempt to explain away an uncomfortable problem, an effort to show that you just don’t care.

Stop changing the subject. The black community feels targeted. And they feel that because, frankly, they are being targeted. Injustice is no longer just an accusation; we are seeing it happen, through footage from dashcams and cellphones. God through his grace and sovereignty has seen fit to provide this window into dark places thanks to technology. Will we face up to what we actually see, or change the subject yet again?

Day 23: Facts? Who Needs Facts?

The truth is in short supply.

We live in a post-fact society. Author xxxxxxxx Manjoo makes this point in his 2004 book xxxxxxxxxx. In many ways, our tendency is to select facts that fit our point of view, rather than allowing our POV to be shaped by facts.

To illustrate this point, Manjoo described a fascinating study of bias conducted by researchers in the 1950s in the aftermath of a hotly contested college football game between Princeton and Dartmouth. In 1956, both universities boasted highly-ranked teams. When the schools met on the field, the game turned into an unusually brutal contest, with numerous severe hits and injuries and penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. Reactions to the Dartmouth victory were loud, with many Princeton supporters insisting their team had been treated unfairly.

A savvy researcher at one of the schools noticed these divergent responses and thought the game and its aftermath would provide an interesting study of bias. He showed a specific play (a Princeton player being tackled roughly) to fans of both teams. The Princeton fans most often described the play as “dirty” or “excessive”, while Dartmouth fans’ perception of the same play were that it was “hard but fair.”

When the researcher showed another play, this time with Princeton players throwing a Dartmouth player to the ground, the reactions were reversed. The Dartmouth fans commented that Princeton players were known for playing outside the rules throughout the game, while Princeton fans felt their team’s actions on the play were completely fine.

The takeaway? We tend to go into situations with pre-conceived ideas and then we view evidence through that lens.

[need a wrap-up]

Day 22: Instability and the Coming Collapse

We live in historic times.

Economist Thomas Pikkety, in his best-selling 2014 book “Capital”, says that by 2030 the top 10% of the population will control 60% of the nation’s wealth. This is a level of inequality unmatched in human history.

One of the questions posed by social scientists is “how long will the disenfranchised put up with their limited circumstances before they demand change?” I wonder that myself. It is interesting to see generations of college students (from the 1990s until now) wrestling with such grotesque tuition rates and, so far, largely unwilling to protest the state of affairs beyond a few grumbles on social media or in casual conversation. This may speak to the complex ways in which modern American society, in subtle and unsubtle ways, discourages protest, particularly when they involve declarations of unfairness.

An even more difficult question is, how did such a state come about? Did the powerful and influential see society’s winners and losers and decide that the losers’ compromised state was of no concern? Did lawmakers think they had no responsibility to lessen the misery of the poor? Did business owners believe perpetual low wages would not present increasing problems for their workers as the years went on and the cost of living rose?

The Bible, particularly through the voices of the prophets, contains harsh words for those who allow injustice to continue. Our society is careening toward serious problems because we’ve allowed injustice and inequality to get worse and worse. To add insult to injury, the election of openly religious officeholders has only increased the misery of the poor; it is a point of shame that as we become more outwardly religious, our poverty has exploded.

Day 21: The Triumph of the Golden Arches

In his seminal book, Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser reports on an annual convention held by the fast food industry. One year, the event’s speaker was impressive – no less a figure than Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. As Schlosser observed, Gorbachev’s speech, on the topic of changing world economics, was an insightful presentation on a very relevant topic. However, the author reports that his audience – executives in the fast food industry – was largely disinterested, distracted and thoroughly disengaged.

[insert passage from FFN]

The passage is striking in its description of the CEOs’ raw wealth and power, and in the dismissive way in which a legendary statesman like Gorbachev was treated. So you instituted détente? Well I launched curly fries and got a $40 million bonus. The image shows us that corporations are increasingly above politics in today’s global economy. CEOs can afford to be dismissive of national leaders, local customs, the nutrition of their customers, the poverty of their workers or the health of the rivers and streams that surround their plants.

[find Bible verse about the dismissive nature of wealth and prophetic opposition to that]

I have to admit, in looking at this situation it is hard to find hope. However, there is some to be found. There is increasing evidence that people are beginning to question the status quo in many areas – avoiding fast food, calling companies to accountability for their actions, and looking beyond public relations “spin” to seek the truth about the actions of the powerful.

If the wealthy have “triumphed” it will not be a long victory, because it is unsustainable. The crushed poor and the dissolving middle class will cause the whole entity to collapse. And as it collapses, let’s work for a more compassionate, Christ-centered alternative to take its place.

Day 20: Sub-Standard of Living

For the middle class, the U.S. standard of living has decreased significantly since it’s early-70s peak. [give stats]

And the American middle class is, literally, dying. Not only is it shrinking in percentage terms [stats], it is also undergoing a disturbing phenomenon where illness and death are increasing in middle America. [cite article]

People are losing hope, in other words. And predictable emotions accompany hopelessness, primarily anger and fear. Which quickly morphs into suspicion, resentment, hostility and even violence. We see it in racist posts on Facebook, in support for politicians who want to build walls and who are quick to identify scapegoats (immigrants and Muslims, maybe?). Fearful citizens cling to angry leaders who encourage them to embrace solutions like austerity and small government that benefit no one but the leaders. It’s a never-ending death spiral.

The alternative is never easy, which is why you see it so rarely. It is never easy to impart hope to the discouraged or peace to the agitated; far easier to rile people up than to calm them down. But our faith asks us to be peacemakers. The message of the Cross, unlike the shouts and echoes from talk radio, is one of peace and hope and deliverance from fear. And that message can also extend to our approach to culture and politics, when we refuse to demonize other races or nationalities, and when we are not afraid to build society in positive ways rather than exploit fears for monetary gain or political power.

We are the country that once extended the GI Bill to our veterans, and created Social Security for the elderly. Can we do no less for this generation of hurting neighbors?

Day 19: Behind Bars and Out of Sight

On the weekends, I’ve often been curious why cable networks broadcast so many hours of programming focusing on U.S. prisons. The shows typically feature interviews with men and women serving long sentences in some of the country’s most notorious prisons. The backgrounds are familiar – poverty, broken homes, bad decisions, violence, substance abuse – which lead to a downward spiral and an inevitable landing in prison.

These shows present life at the bottom. I used to ask, “Who needs so many prison shows?” Now I know the answer: we all do.

There are two reasons for my change of heart on prison shows. First, Scripture commands us to remember the people that society forgets, and lest we miss the point, the Bible gets quite specific; it includes prisoners alongside widows, orphans, the hungry, the sick and the impoverished. Many Christian organizations have taken Jesus’ words to heart and have launched vibrant prison ministries that meet the spiritual needs of inmates.

I’ve also come to see a second reason for why it is helpful to see inside our nation’s prison through these television programs: the sheer numbers of prisoners in modern America. Today, the U.S. has a massive population of people serving time, and that number has exploded in recent years. Particularly in the African-American community, the incarceration percentage among adult males has reached scandalous proportions. We can’t simply pretend they aren’t there, and these programs help us confront one difficult reality of our current culture. Our nation needs to wrestle with some hard questions, like whether we have sentenced too many people for too long in prisons that are too overcrowded. Are there better ways to rehabilitate offenders?

Further, as with any significant problem, we need to “follow the money” to determine if it is in someone’s financial interest to lock up so many. Evidence tells us that some entities in the corrections industry have a vested interest in maintaining a pipeline of prisoners, and that leads to some troubling conclusions. For-profit prisons and the creation of a low-wage prison workforce that benefits many corporations suggest that the massive U.S. prison population is not accidental. Thankfully, some reformers are calling for significant changes to our corrections policies.