Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Corn Field

On a boy’s journey to manhood there are defining moments. One of mine came on a farm as a twelve year old boy.

Mr. Z—as we affectionately called him—was the farmer. He hired my friends and I for fifteen dollars a day to hoe his beans, pick his tomatoes, feed his turkeys, and in the fall, harvest his apples.

One field, however, remained a mystery to me for the first three years. Only older boys were allowed to work in the corn field. As my junior high years passed I grew tired of picking the same vegetables. When I left the tomato fields my arms were itchy and my hands were black. When I left the pickle fields my arms were scratched from the thorny plants. The potato field was swampy, and picking beans was painfully slow. I wanted something new; I wanted to pick corn.

I got my first chance on a humid July day when help was scarce. Mr. Z instructed my friend and me to load up the wagon with empty waxed banana boxes and a few bushel baskets. We hopped on and he pulled us up the hill with the tractor.

On arrival, I discovered that corn stalks produce heat—especially in July. As we dismounted, Mr. Z explained that my friend and I would take turns following him through the high rows with one of the bushel baskets. He would pick the corn and we would pack it in the banana boxes. “Now, Jason,” he said. “Mind the edges of the leaves—they’re sharp. I once sliced the palm of my hand clear across, not being careful.” He didn’t have to warn me about the bees. I noticed the hives as we turned into the field.

After a quick drink, I grabbed a basket and plunged in after him. The leaves scratched my arms and face, and the handles on the basket dug into my hands. I can’t believe I wanted to do this, I thought.

When the boxes were finally filled I was scratched, bleeding and exhausted, but I was proud that I had not quit. My strength was not found lacking.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Marriage In a Bottle

In a USA Today article published today I read that scientists are trying to prevent military suicide. In a 50 million dollar study they have discovered that suicide rates increase in combat situations among unmarried soldiers, but not among married ones. I applaud them for their good intentions, but disagree with their thinking. Here is a quote from psychiatrist Ronald Kessler--a contributor to the article:
One of the things we're interested in now is digging into this marriage thing and saying, 'What is it you get, by being married? And how could we put it in a bottle so we can give it to everybody, whether or not they're married?'
I'm sorry, Mr. Kessler, there's nothing you can give me: pill, drink, injection or otherwise that can substitute for my wife, Amy. My guess is that G.I.'s will take the gun away from their heads only if they can be convince that they matter to someone else--someone with real flesh and blood. Do we really need to flush 50 million dollars to figure these things out? I think I'm going to get my kids busy writing letters to soldiers. These heroes need to know they matter to God and us as well.

Link to the USA Today article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2011-03-18-1Asuicides18_ST_N.htm

Monday, November 29, 2010

Skewed Statistics

Tired of articles and headlines bashing Christians? Tired of books forecasting the end of Christianity? I'm reading a fascinating book right now that brightened my day. Bradley R.E. Wright, a sociologist at UConn writes, "Negative statistics about Christianity are more likely to become conventional wisdom. There are various possible explanations for this...But in general, Christians acting like Christians just isn't as interesting as 'Christians gone wild.' As a result, bad news about Christians spreads faster and farther than good news."

The book is entitled, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told, and it's filled with fascinating statistics that give counterbalance to some of the fear mongering of Barna and the gleeful finger-pointing of Newsweek, etc. It turns out that Evangelical divorce rates are a lot lower than Non-Evangelicals. We're not losing our youth at the panic rate, and, I know this will blow you away, but not every minister is practicing infidelity. Honest!

Furthermore, Christian teens are as committed or more committed than their counterparts from the past handful of generations. Church attendance plays a huge role as well. If you look at the stats of those who go to Church vs. those who don't you find great contrasts in areas of belief and behavior all across the board.

Stick to the stuff, and don't believe everything you hear from the number crunchers!

PS> Thanks to Bill Welti for the book.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Saving Thanksgiving

I just watched a report online about a recent consumer trend in America--retailers opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day for early Christmas shopping. It seems four in the morning on "Black Friday" isn't early enough anymore. Commentators will surely talk about the financial benefit this will bring to companies trying to boost profits this year, but I wonder about what this trend says about Thanksgiving Day itself.

If more and more people are driving out to stores after pulling away from the table on Thanksgiving Day it seems to me that family togetherness and traditions including reflection on the provision of God are becoming less and less important. My concern for America as a whole is high, but my concern for Christian families is even higher. Of all people we should place a high value on thankful reflections. But I fear we are too easily yielding to materialism. Instead of discussing matters of eternal importance with our loved ones we are lured by the circulars to the mall.

If I sensed in those I talk to a more general attitude of thankfulness throughout the year I would not make so much of this diminishing holiday. But we need a thankful spot on the calendar as a reliable reminder, calling us back to that which we should never forget--namely, the goodness of God. But now one day is becoming half a day. And a half a day may turn into a token prayer before dividing the turkey. I ask, how much more of this holiday can we give away before there is nothing left?

If we want to stem the tide of encroaching materialism let us devise traditions--or revive old ones--that have these or similar characteristics:
1. Bring the family together
2. Bring out the Bible
3. Feature the wisdom of parents and grandparents
4. Tell tales or family history
5. Testify to the Lord's faithfulness

By way of example, we place unpopped popcorn kernels in a dish or basket each year after the main meal. While we're waiting for enough room to squeeze in some dessert we sit in a circle and take kernels out in turn. After all have taken some we send the dish around a second time and fill it up with our thankfulness as we return the kernels to their source. Exercises such as this can have an incalculable impact on children as well as those who care for them.

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare 
your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.
                                                                  -Psalm 71:18

Black Friday pic from: http://avaaston.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/black-friday-lines1.jpg

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

American Heritage

There is much debate today about the Christian or not so Christian heritage of America. Everyone with eyes can see that regardless of the origins of our country we are moving in the direction of secularization. There are those who are alarmed by this; there are those who embrace it; and there are those who couldn't be bothered. I am one who is alarmed and I say so because I love this country.

There is no doubt that the US has become one of the most powerful and richest countries the world has ever known. I believe much of the controversy stems from different theories of what has brought us to this point. Our perceptions of history are colored by our agendas making the "true history" hard to find. A common example of this is how historians view Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was a complex man who struggled to find a firm place to stand between two waring philosophies of politics, theology, and science. When he was on this side of the Atlantic he was in the company of those who-for reasons of faith, or reasons of pragmatism-held that law was divinely given and any state that failed to acknowledge God was destined for failure.

On the other hand, he had a fascination with the French. When he was in France under the influence of the philosophies of Rousseau and Voltaire, etc. he was a witness to the French Revolution. The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, was a revolution for "liberty". The profound difference between them, however, was that while the American Revolution was a revolution for liberty "under God", the French sought a liberty "under man." Any honest comparison of the two revolutions shows the former to generally be a revolution of order versus the latter being a revolution of chaos. In the former, the enemy was clear, in the latter one could not tell his ally from his enemy and so blood and treachery ran from the guillotine. One day's leader became the next day's victim and so the country was torn apart.

Jefferson saw all this and liked the philosophies of the French while preferring the results of the beliefs of the Americans. This statement may in fact give too much credit to the French. Though there were aspects of their thinking that he admired such as their quest for reason and enlightenment,  he did not abandon the Judeo-Christian worldview as many would have us believe. I would point any interested person to an article by Beliles and Barton on the University of Virginia which was founded by Jefferson.


But this is only an example of how history can be taken different ways. What concerns me is the open repudiation and downplaying of Christian influence in anything good that happened in the founding of America while trumpeting its involvement in such things as slavery. Wherever possible the Founding Fathers are portrayed as deists unless they were fathering a child with a slave girl at which point it is said, "That's not very Christian".

When we let the founders speak for themselves it is clear that Christianity and the principles of the Bible specifically played a profound part in the making of the most successful country in history.

But what now?

Will we retain what nurtured our success? Will we recognize the role of God in our history? Will we give thanks to him like the Pilgrims did after a successful harvest?

I close with a quote:

"In the United States of America, our traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian culture is collapsing. It is not collapsing because it failed. On the contrary it has given us the freest and most prosperous society in human history. Rather, it is collapsing because we are abandoning it."

--W.S. Lind

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Men and Friendship

I know you, you know me, but what does that make us? Facebook has changed the meaning of the word friend and I am one of its victims. Some people have more than five hundred “friends” in their social network and it makes me wonder what happened to the word acquaintance? Facebook developers  must have seen this as a problem, because they created the “top friends” application so we could all distinguish those we really know from those we rarely talk to. Thankfully, that fad has faded.

I have always envied my wife's relationships with her friends. They have a sense of longing for each other that spans the many miles that separate them. Each year they plan two or three "Girl's Weekends" and try their best to stay connected. They remind me of something C.S. Lewis wrote: "Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, 'sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.'”

I, like many men, have difficulties in the area of friendship. Oh, I have friends, but I don't spend time with them. We don't call each other on the phone very often and I sometimes am far too satisfied with reports from conversations our wives will have with each other. I might try giving the excuse that having young children makes getting together difficult, but Amy's example nullifies that rationale. Perhaps it's my extreme tendency toward linear thinking that gets in the way. Linear thinkers aren’t good plate spinners, and my “friend” plate is often the one that gets neglected.

Men are not all to blame for their friendship issues. Some men have insecure wives who feel threatened by their husband’s male friendships. They feel unattractive or undesirable if their husbands want to spend time elsewhere. Other men have wives who are very demanding. For them every spare moment must be cast into home maintenance or some other project. These men would not dream of sitting down and having a conversation with a friend at home for fear of glares and stares.

But, far more commonly, men just plain keep to themselves. They have some shallow work relationships but by and large the "island" mentality is alive and well. If you asked their wives they would tell you they even try to encourage their husbands to develop deeper friendships.

Most men don’t relate to each other the way women do. Hour long phone conversations between men who live in the same town are rare (thank goodness). We talk best when doing something kinesthetic. For example, some of my best memories with my friend Blain are talking while grilling hotdogs on our rickety old porch in Nanticoke; talking while testing a camp stove late at night on his patio; and laughing while chopping firewood here at my home in New Jersey.

I think many men are content substituting companionship for friendship. They view golfing in silence or watching a football game together as quality friend time. If asked what they talked about while they spent two or four hours together they reply, “Not much.” I do not begrudge such men their happiness. I just know it's not what I'm looking for. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Greening up the Faith

I am an environmentalist and a Christian. If that sounds odd to you, it shouldn't.

For years now Conservative Christianity has been connected politically with the "Religious Right" and the "Moral Majority" which in turn have fed the Republican party with millions of votes. Ascribing to Republicanism has arguably become an eleventh commandment in the minds of many believers. One of the many down sides to this reality is the unfortunate marriage of environmentalism (a good cause) with the Democratic party (a disease to conservatives). It has therefore become mildly treasonous to speak well of environmentalists in Christian Republican circles.

I will be the first to admit that there are elements within the green movement that are downright embarrassing. For example, environmentalist activists don't do themselves any favors when they paint their opponents as not merely wrong, but evil. But there is much to be embarrassed about on the conservative side as well.  The creation of terms like "tree hugger" and "environmentalist wacko" have been unjustifiably used to describe many who display any common sense degree of environmental concern.

To me, environmentalism is not about forcing people into starvation because they might try to grow crops on land where a rare owl may be nesting. As propaganda it is very convenient, but it is also very misleading. Painting people this way is a classic case of false alternatives where we are given the choices of either caring for the environment, or caring for people. We are not allowed to choose both. So, Christian conservatives feel they must choose people over planet because it sound more godly.

I think there must be a third option. I choose people and planet. I want to be able to clean up my street and turn the lights off without being labeled a tree-spiking-SUV-tire-slasher. Does that not sound reasonable?

Many people who care deeply about leaving the planet better than they found it point the finger at Christianity itself for leading to the environmental apathy among the faithful. It seems that many of us who take seriously the doctrine of imminence think we're too close to the return of Christ to worry about the state of the planet. So, instead of planting trees we pack suitcases and wait to be whisked away to heaven.

Though I agree wholeheartedly that we must be ready for Jesus' return, I disagree that we should ravage the planet and then sit around expecting God to send Jesus back to clean up our mess. As a thought experiment try telling this to your grandkids, "Sorry, Jesus didn't keep his end of the bargain and come back when we thought he would. If we had known he would delay we would have tidied up a bit." Comforting? Doubtful.

Another biblical misunderstanding is that the only things God created that he really cares about are people. It seems he could care less about what happens to everything else. We believe that humans alone possess eternal souls but does that mean we are all that matters to God? If we fall for this thinking then the physical world becomes just a means to our personal happiness--and convenience seems to be a matter of happiness. Indeed, if dumping paint or motor oil in the woods behind my house keeps me from driving out of my way to the recycling center then dump away I shall! Or so the thinking goes.

I believe the anti-environmental mindset is an affront to the whole idea of Biblical stewardship. In Genesis 2:15 we read, "The LORD God took the man (Adam) and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (emphasis mine). Why would he tell Adam this if it's preservation didn't matter?

I submit that of all people Christians should be more environmentally sensitive than the average citizen. If God cares for "the lilies of the field," and "the birds of the air" then maybe we should too.

For more information on conservative environmentalism see: