Reclaiming Politics

recl-hopeIn his just-released book Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear writes about his time working in the Obama White House as Director of Faith Outreach (including for the 2012 reelection campaign), and the reasons people of faith should engage in politics. (We should get involved, says Wear, as a matter of fulfilling the command to love our neighbors and seek the well being of society.) In the excerpt below, Wear discusses how politics can affect (and has affected) the state of our souls to our detriment given the division and toxicity marking so much of our political discourse. This is the first in a series of posts featuring excerpts from the book I think are worth sharing.

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“One lesson from my time working with the president and religious leaders is that politics is a central influencer of the cultural health of our nation. This book focuses on politics because political institutions create and drive culture, and we can no longer ignore this aspect of how politics functions. As I have talked to pastors around the country, I’ve come to understand that many of those who refrain from political engagement do so not because they believe it is unimportant, but because they know, for too many of their congregants, politics is important in all of the wrong ways. If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met.

“One dictionary defines ‘reclaim’ this way: “to bring (uncultivated areas or wasteland) into a condition for cultivation or other use.” This book takes that process quite literally” (xxix).

Abraham Lincoln: Telling Jokes, Collapsing in Laughter

lincoln.jpgDon’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:

“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).

– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.

And the Award for Best Christian Goes To…

newton.jpgWho are the “celebrities” of Christendom?

We might think of important historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and Luther, and run up to the present day with people like C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Pope Francis (who of this group probably comes closest to true celebrity status).

But we know the dangers of too highly exalting someone and forgetting that all they were and did was given by God, the Giver whom we dare not take our eyes off even as we thank and praise him for his gifts. And besides, it is appropriate and biblical to remember that true greatness usually lies where we least think to look – in the lives of suffering and weak saints whose childlike trusting and leaning on Christ for succor and comfort amid life’s troubles may seem unremarkable to us but is in God’s eyes precious. So look not to the famed preacher who’s written dozens of bestsellers and whose ministry reaches every corner of the world, but to the woman at church sitting in the back who feels socially disconnected and is struggling with depression but who comes to church anyways because she knows that God intends to use the preaching of his word and the fellowship of his people for her good, even when she doesn’t see immediate results. This is what Tony Reinke calls “gospel simplicity” in his book John Newton on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015):

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“Newton supposes that if he could search out the world to award a man, woman, or child with a trophy for being the most godly Christian on the planet, the award would not go to an eminent Christian, or even to a public Christian—not to a pastor, seminary professor, or author. The greatest Christian in the world, Newton supposes, is most likely a man of faith who just barely survives in this world thanks to a homeless shelter and the meager employment he finds on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Or perhaps, Newton speculates, the greatest Christian is a bedridden old woman in a mud cottage who has learned through years of trials to adore Christ and trust him and his timing in everything. Low thoughts of self and high and admiring thoughts of Christ are the sure marks of the godliest Christian, even if such a Christian is likely unnoticed by the world and overlooked by most Christians. The best models of gospel simplicity are the poorest and the weakest Christians who have been emptied of all self-sufficiency, and who have learned to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ, his will, his wisdom, and his timing” (105).

Learning Style and Clarity from a (Hilarious) Ten-Year-Old

gowersThe Complete Plain Words (1954) is a classic book on writing by Sir Ernest Gowers, an accomplished civil servant, aimed at curing the British Civil Service of its habit of writing in officialese rather than in plain English. Though written for civil servants, it soon became a hit with the general public and has not been out of print since.

In it Gowers writes, “The secret to style is to have something to say and to say it as clearly as you can.” He then asks why it is that adults are so prone to write in a complicated rather than simple way, the way children do. To illustrate this, Gowers offers an example of clear writing from a ten-year-old that’s not only impressive for its clarity but also hilarious:

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“Why do so many writers prefer complexity to simplicity? Officials are far from being the only offenders. It seems to be a morbid condition contracted in early manhood. Children show no signs of it. Here, for example, is the response of a child of ten to an invitation to write an essay on a bird and a beast:

‘The bird that I am going to write about is the owl. The owl cannot see at all by day and at night is as blind as a bat.
‘I do not know much about the owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the cow. The cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns and so that the mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk, the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realised, but it makes more and more. The cow has a fine sense of smell; one can smell it far away. This is the reason for the fresh air in the country.
‘The man cow is call an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not each much, but what it eats it eats twice, so that it gets enough. When it is hungry it moos, and when it says nothing it is because its inside is all full up with grass'” (39).

The (Moral) Education of John Quincy Adams

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Young John Quincy

What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?

I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.

Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:

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“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.

“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).

Everyone is Religious

runningI’m not a big runner. I’m just now trying to get back into running by working on my mile time, a challenge I hope will make running more enjoyable or at least interesting for me. (Thankfully I’ve come a long way from the 14 minute-mile I ran in 8th grade P.E). I say this because I’ve just finished a book I probably never would’ve picked up but for my runner friend who lent it to me (and who’s also just given me a fantastic workout plan; you know who you are – thank you!). The book is Running & Being (1978) by the late George Sheehan, a well-known cardiologist, writer, lecturer, and, most important, I’m sure he would’ve agreed, a runner. I was so struck by Sheehan’s weaving of striking philosophical and even theological observations into a book about running, that less than 30 pages into it I realized I needed to get my own copy. If any of that sounds interesting to you, get the book and read it – I recommend it at least for its thought-provocativeness and Sheehan’s enjoyable writing style.

Here I just wanted to share a particularly striking and I think correct statement by Sheehan asserting that everyone is religious. This is a claim often made by Christian (and non-Christian) apologists and philosophers, who understand that everyone, whether or not they consider themselves religious, thinks and lives in ways that may be characterized as religious because everyone is putting their faith in or building their lives around something, whether or not they’re aware of it. This then shifts the question from “Are you religious?” or “Do you or do you not believe in God?” to “What, for you, is ultimate? What are you building your life on?”

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“Every man is religious. Every man is already acting out his compelling beliefs. Religion is not something you belong to, or accept, or think. It is something you do. And you do it every walking minute of every day. Religion is the way you manifest whatever is urgent and imperative in your relationship to yourself and your universe, to your fellow man and to your Creator. Every act is a religious act” (54).

Why Christians Just Can’t Help Themselves

whitefield-preaching

The Anglican cleric George Whitefield, a master evangelist and preacher of the Great Awakening, was known for his open air sermons.

In his classic book Holiness (you can read it here for free), J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop who once thought Christianity “one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven,” tells the real life story about a perplexed, irreligious English traveler and a Native American convert to illustrate how those who know Christ as the Redeemer who paid for the forgiveness of their sins are compelled to tell others about him and what he’s done for them.

In the story the Englishman asks the Native American Christian why he “talks so much about Christ,” and the Native American man’s answer is a vivid, apt representation of what Christians believe Christ did, for those who would believe in him, by his death and resurrection. I believe his answer may also be a helpful illustration for those who have asked such questions as, Why won’t Christians stop talking about Jesus? Why don’t they keep their faith to themselves and why do they insist on telling others about things like sin, damnation, forgiveness, and…Jesus? Why are they so worked up or even obsessed about this man who died two thousand years ago? Read the Native American man’s answer, and then ask yourself: If you believed that God through Christ has done the same for you, wouldn’t you be wanting to tell the whole world about it?

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     “Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveller to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”

The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him” (301).