Monday, May 21, 2018

Pentecost: A group of spiritual refugees spreads the gospel

Author's Note: the major idea of this post came from a sermon preached by Matt Weiler at Sunnyside United Methodist Church.

This Sunday was Pentecost Sunday.

Traditionally, it's a time when the Christian church celebrates its roots, specifically, when the Holy Spirit came to a small group of Jesus' followers who were gathered together in one place.

As the second chapter of the book of Acts records it, ""When the Day of Pentecost had finally come, they [followers of Jesus] were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing, mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:1-4 NKJ)

The study notes in my Bible explain that Pentecost was a major Jewish festival, coming fifty days after the Passover Sabbath. The celebration involved people honoring God by offering the first fruits of their harvest so that they rest of the harvest would be blessed.

Almost instantly the small band of followers becomes emboldened and they began to speak in different languages "as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability."

Acts records, "At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise [of the wind] everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers."

'How can this be?' they exclaimed. 'These people [speaking to us] are from Galilee, and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! Here we are - Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt and the areas around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!'" (Acts 2:5-11 NKJ).

The interesting thing is that the Holy Spirit could just as easily have had all of the assembled people understand Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus' followers.

But the way it turned out, each person heard the "good news" in their own language, making it personal to them. It was direct. And it was a way for God to honor every individual within hearing distance of the apostles that day.

Sometimes present-day Christians forget that the followers of Jesus, on Pentecost, were the outsiders. They had been in hiding for fifty days since Easter. They were the minority culture that day in Jerusalem. They were spiritual refugees.

But on Pentecost these refugees had a message to share.

In the very first preaching of the "good news," God used this band of refugees to affirm all of the Jews who had gathered from many nations. They each heard the message that Peter preached in their own language. Peter's culture, his race, was not dominant that day.

God used Pentecost to affirm every person in the crowd.

Perhaps because of this beginning, three thousand individuals received Peter's message on Pentecost and decided to follow the teachings of Jesus.

And their lives were radically changed.

In fact, the second chapter of Acts goes on to say that "All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord's Supper), and to prayer. And a deep sense of awe came over them all, and they apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity - all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people..."
(Acts 2:42-47 NKJ).

On one level, the spreading of the "good news" depended upon a small group of spiritual refugees. 

But because God honored the culture of those assembled to hear their first sermon, the "good news" quickly spread.

Given the current climate of nativism/nationalism in the world today, I wonder what lessons we could learn from Pentecost?

Perhaps a healthy respect for others who don't look like us, or think like us, or speak like us? A desire to affirm others and understand those differences?  A willingness to listen to what others have to say and learn from them? Seeing the world from a "we're all in this together," instead of an "us" against "them," point of view?

How about the effects of Pentecost upon those who chose to follow? Is our first instinct to share the material possessions we have with those who don't have? To come to the table together? Is part of "having all things in common," a genuine desire to look out for each other?

If these things are so, no wonder that the first day the "good news" was given, three thousand people received it.

Photo credits: United Methodist Church national website; Assemblies of God national website; Express Tribune.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Dr. Jee Hyun Kim - Emotional Learning & Memory in Childhood


Jee Hyun Kim, is an Australian behavioral neuroscientist whose work focuses on emotional learning and memory during childhood and adolescence. She is an Associate Professor at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia. 
Kim is an active science communicator, and has given public lectures at TEDx Melbourne, Australian Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Victorian Science Week, City of Melbourne (Melbourne Conversations, and the Wheeler Center. She has also interviewed for ABC Radio, Radio New Zealand, SBS TV, Channel 10 (The Project).

You’re a neuroscientist specializing in the effects of childhood trauma. Why does this subject interest you?
I always found people’s different personalities and experiences fascinating. Life is a library and each person is a book I can learn from, even if the knowledge may not have any practical implications. I am quite curious about everything, I find understanding for the sake of understanding very satisfying, and the most fascinating subject for me is the human. So getting to know people by talking and listening to them has naturally made me realise that much of who we are come from our memories from childhood and adolescence. Also, I realised that many of us had some traumatic experience while growing up but for some it is merely an acknowledged event while for others it is very much present and haunting them day to day. This fascinates me, and I thought that if we can understand why early life experiences are so important and why some are more vulnerable or resilient, we can help many unhappy people. Then it saddened me to find out that almost no resources and efforts were placed into answering those questions that are so relevant to so many people I meet. This motivates me to devote my life to study early life memories. It should be noted that I directly study mostly rodents, and sometimes humans.

Have you found that there are significant differences between childhood and adult trauma? For instance, do children handle/cope with trauma differently than adults?
There isn’t a whole lot of research done on that topic in general. Some have definitely shown a stronger link between childhood interpersonal trauma (e.g., emotional neglect and abuse, physical neglect and abuse, sexual abuse) and later mental disorders compared to adult trauma. However, they did not compare the childhood interpersonal trauma with adult interpersonal trauma, so it is yet unclear whether it’s the trauma age that is important or the nature of the trauma that is important. 
In terms of coping, studies suggest that the lack of experience in children may lead to stronger emotional memories to be formed. Experiences tend to be more novel for children compared to adults. When a novel event is accompanied with strong emotions, there is no previous similar non-emotional event to cushion the strong emotions in children, which may lead to stronger emotional reaction and subsequent emotional memory of the event. For example, an experienced driver can recover from a traumatic accident readily because she/he has driven safely so many times and therefore the driving memory is non-emotional. This is termed ‘latent inhibition’ – when previous non-emotional experience can reduce the emotional impact of later experience.  However, children are naturally more inexperienced, so they are like a novice driver who may have a traumatic accident, and because their only experience of driving is traumatic, she/he can’t ever drive again.
But it is not all bad news for children. My and others’ work actually suggest that children may be more resilient if debriefed after a traumatic experience. In fact, childhood memories are more malleable and how they interpret an event depend much on their caregivers. The biggest difference between children and adults may be that children look to caregivers to feel safe and interpret ambiguous situations. Following trauma, if not given the right treatment or even neglected by the caregivers, the trauma may shape their future forever. But if given the right treatment, they are actually more robust than adults and can recover from the trauma. This is why I advocate early treatment and counselling for children and adolescents.

In one of your video interviews, you spoke about the importance of having diversity among the ranks of STEM researchers? Could you elaborate?
Diseases affect everyone, regardless of race, gender, and age. Therefore it is ridiculous to think that important decisions such as where the research funding is spent, what sort of experiments we should do, how to interpret the data etc can be made well by a group that is not diverse in its representation. For example, there aren’t many developmental scientists like me around the world, and we speculate that it is the disproportionately small amount of funding we have access to that discourages many people not to enter or stay in developmental research. Perhaps the disproportionately small amount of funding is due to the fact that the decision makers tend to be ageing people with family and friends suffering from dementia, stroke, cardiovascular disease etc. Therefore, they bring those personal experiences to the table and as a consequence our youths become neglected. I do not blame that people make decisions based on emotion – I do, too. We are not logical when it comes to decision-making, and passionate, emotional arguments can win the day. But if we can have diverse people making decisions and problem solving together, then we can represent, understand, and address the needs of the people better.

I have an anecdote – I was on of the board for a new psychology college to train clinical psychologists. I was the only woman, only non-white ethnicity, and only one under 50 years of age out of 6 people on the board. We were reviewing one of the construction plans for our main building and I noticed that the women’s toilet was slightly smaller than men’s and argued the reverse needs to happen because in Australia most of clinical psychology students are female (during my own Honours degree, there were 3 males out of 65 total students). None of the others had my own experience as a Psychology student to even notice, and did not actually know first-hand what would address the needs of students the best. My anecdote reflects a relatively benign situation, but imagine the devastating impact on people if important decisions on health and science policies are made by a homogeneous group. It will take far longer to solve problems because the represented problems likely not to reflect reality.

Given your background, I’m curious if you see any connection between childhood trauma and the series of mass school shootings in the US?
Not really. Australia and the US have extremely similar prevalence of anxiety, substance use, and mood disorders in children and adults. However, we haven’t had any mass shootings since 1996. Not just for schools, but nowhere. I won’t say that childhood trauma plays ‘zero’ role. Relative to gun control, however, it plays a negligible role.   

What do you see as possible solutions to avoid such shootings from happening in the future?
Ban automatic and semi automatic guns completely. Studies have shown over and over again the availability of automated guns is the greatest factor to mass shootings.  

As an Australian resident and as a neuroscientist do you wonder if there could be a cultural explanation for the number of school shootings in the US?
Having lived in both countries, I find that Australia and US are surprisingly similar in culture. Both countries value individualism, independence, honesty and hard work. But our government policies are very different on many things, and I really do think it is the gun laws that separate us in terms of the number of school shootings.

Following a mass shooting episode in 1996 in Tasmania, the Australian government quickly came together to formulate an effective response. The government banned automatic and semiautomatic firearms, adopted new licensing requirements, established a national firearms registry, and instituted a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases. It also bought and destroyed more than 600,000 civilian-owned firearms. As a resident of Australia, what can you tell us about the effectiveness of this approach?
Super effective. Despite the similarities in our culture, every year the US has 10 times more gun-related deaths per capita than Australia. For every 100,000 people, Australia only has 1, and the US has more than 10.
I personally have friends who enjoy hunting and own rifles (non-automatic guns). They all need to be locked up but they can choose where they are locked up. So people do have freedom to own guns, just not the automatics that easily lead to killing.  

In your opinion/experience, why is it harder for women to succeed in STEM careers?
Time and again studies have shown that there are subconscious biases against women. These subconscious biases downgrade women’s abilities and discredit their success. Subconscious biases are difficult to combat because they are subconscious. However, we can consciously put in rules to be more aware of the biases by openly discussing the biases and then presenting facts showing how there is not a single academic measure in children and adolescents that show sex differences.
There is also a cultural definition of what is feminine or masculine that is neither logical nor representative of reality. I have been told (by both males and females) that I am too assertive or too confident or too loud and I wonder whether if I was a male or not Asian, whether my assertion, confidence or volume would be so offensive. So in a way I am ‘punished’ for being who I am, which discourages me from being assertive, confident, or loud (of course I consciously fight against this and try my best to be myself). Conversely, then I wonder when a female is passive or modest they are more rewarded for that behaviour, which encourages the female to continue being passive or modest. Further, so many of us scientist women have experienced unsolicited advice on our specialisation from other males who have no expertise on the subject. This happens to me all the time. Even for public speaking, I have so many random men without any experience in public speaking telling me how to do better next time. And I’ve won so many prizes on public speaking! Of course this does not mean I can’t learn from others, so I always listen. But it is intriguing that women don’t give me unsolicited advice but men do. So I wonder whether men have been rewarded with saying random advice in the past, so they are encouraged to repeat this behaviour. And whether they have been punished for being quiet or humble, so they are discouraged to be quiet or humble.
Lastly, there is lack of mentoring for women. Again, this is because leadership groups typically involve males rather than females, so looking after and mentoring women can go neglected. I actually believe in the ‘quota’ system – demand a certain level of representation in leadership. Then people will be more exposed to the benefits of diversity, which will lead to mentoring of more junior culturally diverse people, which will lead to even more representation of diversity in leadership in future.

In another video interview, you talked about the importance of your faith. Could you talk about your own faith journey?
I am nothing without Jesus. Seriously. My mum was physically and emotionally abused by my dad’s family as soon as she was married. So my mum was already depressed and anxious when I was born. Also my dad worked long hours, so she was often alone. I was the only living thing around that did not abuse her, so I think for her the only outlet was to abuse me. I was hit weekly if not daily. I remember mum complaining when I was six about how all the long household objects (vacuum cleaner shaft, broomstick, shoe horn etc.) were broken because I made her hit me. So I was a super quiet scared child. I found it difficult to make friends. I was shy and anxious. I worried all the time, I don't really remember about what. I cut myself, and thought about killing myself a lot because I could not see how life was worth living because if my own mum doesn’t love me, who could possibly love me (I no longer think my mum hates me and know that she loves me very much, but I used to think differently).
Then we moved to Sydney for my dad’s work. Because we were away from his family, mum was less stressed and treated me much better, although she relapsed every now and then when she was stressed or when she and dad fought. But the real turning point was meeting Jesus for me when I was 16. It is the first time to experience unconditional acceptance and love. To have someone so perfect love me exposes my own sin and selfishness, but that makes his love and grace so much greater, because he still loves me despite my selfishness and mistakes. This gave me strength to worry less about punishment and what others think of me, which gave me the courage to be more myself. To be more comfortable with my own desires, emotions, and failures. I always knew I was a born extrovert – I love sharing my thoughts and feelings, making decisions together, and listening to other people. Before Jesus I felt too scared to share, but to know and be loved by God gave me the strength to be myself. To my surprise, it turned out that the less I care about what people think of me, the more I was genuine and authentic, and the more people loved me anyways, although that was not my motivation. The bible told me that being genuine makes God happy and in return for His love, I wanted to be more genuine. More myself. Solomon also said in the bible that nothing is new and history repeats itself and everything is meaningless but because how we live in this life determines our eternity, we need to follow our heart. So having Jesus as my Lord and Saviour reminds me to follow my heart. Not what others say, not what my sinful nature tells me to do to impress others or to save myself and be cowardly and selfish, but what my heart really says. What my spirit that God designed tells me to feel, think, and do. So I am a slave to Christ but I truly feel free to be myself in his love. 
My work actually suggests that the wrong beliefs I held in childhood cannot be erased because the counter-belief came too late as a teenager. It’s true. Relapse is a part of adult life. When I am tired or hurting, I do relapse into thinking that no one loves me and that my life is not worth living. But from my work, I also know that I am not the only one who feels this way. If feeling this way is the norm, then surely it is not a failure to relapse but rather every day when I don’t relapse shows success. So I choose not to give up. I choose to sleep and wake up and re assess how I feel. I always feel better the next day.

Has your faith had any influence in your research career?
Daily. Daniel had a spirit of excellence because he served God. So I try to do my job excellently. Do not get me wrong, there are plenty of non-Christians who are very excellent in their job and are more selfless than I am, so that is not what I think makes me a Christian at work. However, I do think that there are things that may distinguish me as a Christian time to time, and I think that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We all start from different places in these qualities, some are born better some are born worse. But when family and friends observe that I am getting better, progressing, I think it is evidence that Jesus lives within me. Of course I fail, but thankfully in Christianity we are not expected to be perfect. But we are expected to try again and not give up and run this race until we see Jesus face to face. I can’t wait. Hopefully he will tell me ‘well done good and faithful servant’. This motivates me to keep going even when I’m hurting and tired, even when I’ve been used and disappointed.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
None of my work achievements are actually mine. I always say ‘the universe’ or ‘luck’ but I do mean God. I don’t say ‘blessed’ though, sometimes ‘blessed’ sounds like God chose you because you were good or something. God chooses what He chooses, I am sure it’s not our works, and we cannot comprehend in our limited brain His wisdom and also His justice. This also means that none of my work failures are mine. Jesus carries me in the vision he has placed in my heart. So I am not afraid of the future. I am not afraid because I cannot own the failures, just as I cannot own the successes. But I live as a child of God responding to His love by trying to be more like Jesus. This gives me freedom. I hope as many people as possible to experience this freedom.  

To watch Dr. Jee Huyn Kim's TED Talk, click here.

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Photo Credits: TEDEx, Florey Institute, Research Gate.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Kalamazoo Marathon Afterglo

May 6th was the day of the eighth annual Kalamazoo Marathon.

The day started, for me, at 5:30 a.m., as a non-participating volunteer, helping to park cars in a church parking lot.

The church sits along Gull Road, about a half-mile away from the Nazareth Campus, which serves as the start and finish spot for the race.

Arriving at 6:30, I soon met Jack, my parking partner, who had already mapped out the grassy areas that feed into the main parking lot (which had about sixty spots). Jack's logistical genius had resulted in an additional 60+ spots. They included a cul-de-sac, as well as a few side areas near the church.

Without exception everyone who pulled in looking for parking was friendly. Some were set to run, some were set to cheer runners on.

After helping to usher in folks for about an hour-and-a-half, off in the distance, I heard someone singing The Star Spangled Banner at 8 a.m., to officially begin the race. Closely followed by the theme from ROCKY.

At this point Gull Road, which is a major street (two lanes in each direction plus a turn lane) was closed off to traffic. And the runners poured out from Nazareth Road, heading towards downtown Kalamazoo. Quite an impressive site!

A few hours later (around 12:30) I decided to go for my usual daily walk.

Only this time, normal routine was thrown out the window.

More than four hours into the Kalamazoo Marathon, volunteers were still on the job at the top of Park Street (AKA our local version of  "Heartbreak Hill.") As runners came up the hill they were greeted with shouts, cow-bells, cups of water, claps and smiles to muster their strength for the remainder of the race.

It felt absolutely marvelous to be part, in a very small way, of this terrific community event.

And it definitely had the feel of a COMMUNITY - with the Marathon winding through many neighborhoods, with hand-made signs of encouragement (tons of variations on the theme of "GO FOR IT! or WE'RE PROUD OF YOU!!)

To get a sense of what actual participants felt about the Kalamazoo Marathon, I looked the event up on line and found comments from last year's version, which were along the lines of: "Loved this Marathon!  Small town feel, big race vibe!"

An added plus was a chance to get to know Jack, after we were done helping to park cars. Turns out he's been a member of the church since he was a kid! Over 50 some years! Jack told me about the history of the East Side of town. Turns out, he grew up across the street from where we were standing. He pointed to a large white house that was sitting inconspicuously along the street and said, "That was the original farm house for this part of the road. Before any side streets were planned."

I drive along Gull Road frequently, and have passed that particular house hundreds of times - but until Jack pointed it out, I was oblivious to its history.

When I was a kid, the local television station (WKZO-TV) had a slogan "Kalamazoo, Direct to You!" I guess that now includes the Kalamazoo Marathon, which directly impacts hundreds upon hundreds of runners!

Photo Credits: Top photo, Bronson Kalamazoo Marathon Facebook Page. All others, Rebekah Welch/Mlive Kalamazoo Gazette.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Judith Rhan: An Extraordinary Remarkable Woman

It's hard to believe that Judith Yvonne Rhan passed away five years ago - April 26, 2013.

She was a very unassuming person. To meet her you would never know that she held positions of leadership within the national organization of the Church of God in Christ. She wouldn't tell you that before she started a soup kitchen at her home church Upton Ave. Original Church of God in Battle Creek, she worked for 32 years for the State of Michigan's Department of Mental Health as a Human Resource Developer.

Or that she graduated from Byrd Pillerman High School (in Virginia) with high honors. That her education included two years at Bluefield State College (in West Virginia), the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University.

She and Arthur Rhan, Sr. were married on March 21, 1958. He eventually became the pastor of the Upton Ave. Original Church of God in Christ and Judith served in a variety of leadership positions, including church clerk.

Besides these activities, Judith was instrumental in raising two children.

But it was in her capacity with the church's soup kitchen that I got to know Judith.

She was in her glory in the kitchen, along with the other volunteers.

Each Tuesday Judith and her team  put together a home-cooked meal, from scratch, in the fellowship room of the church's basement. And for all practical purposes, for a two-hour piece of time the fellowship hall was transformed into a magnificent, all-you-can-eat restaurant. Complete with the aroma of food that seemingly wafted down from heaven.

During the course of a dozen years, three times I was privileged to be part of a small team that interviewed willing participants while they were eating their lunch at the Upon Avenue Church of God soup kitchen. One of the important questions we asked was: "How are you usually treated when you come to this place?"

Without exception they all had positive things to say. Not one could offer up anything negative about the soup kitchen, the food, or the volunteers. (I remember this well because every four years we took teams to many other emergency food sites - sometimes over a hundred.) People being people, there were always a few disgruntled folks. 

But not at Mrs. Rhan's soup kitchen.

She and her crew greeted each person coming into the fellowship room. Oftentimes by name. And it was Mrs. Rhan who set the tone for the meal.

The church also ran a Fresh Food Initiative (FFI) every Friday morning during the spring through the early fall. It was here that I got to know yet another side of Mrs. Rhan.

She was easily identifiable because of her height (she stood, physically, at less than five feet tall) and her hat. The fresh produce was delivered early in the morning before the heat of the day. And at least an hour before the truck pulled into the church's parking lot, there were neighborhood folks lined up.

The FFI volunteers worked together as a team. Each knew their assigned duty, but primarily, each also knew how to welcome those coming to the food line. Many times I arrived before the delivery truck to find Mrs. Rhan walking the line, talking with the families and individuals as if they were family members. In the course of working for the Food Bank of South Central Michigan,  visited all twenty or so of the FFI sites we served. Her FFI site set the gold standard for treating people with dignity.

It was while visiting the FFI at Upton Ave. Original Church of God that I got to know Mrs. Rhan's affection for Tony the Tiger (of Frosted Flakes fame). The Kellogg Company, each spring or summer, would send out the company's mascot (Tony) dressed in full tiger-gear to some of the FFI sites. It got to the point that, after several years of this happening, that come spring Mrs. Rhan would routinely, eagerly ask: "Is Tony coming today?"

When Mrs. Rhan passed away, there was a memorial service held at the church. When I turned the corner onto Upton Avenue, I had to park half-way down the block. The church itself was overflowing. In fact, if a good friend hadn't spotted me and beaconed me in to sit next to her, I would have been in the standing-room-only section that was backed up to the entrance of the church.

The MC for the memorial service began by saying: "Brothers and sisters. This isn't a day for mourning. This is a day of celebrating Sister Rhan's joyous completion of this life's journey and entrance into heaven. She would be the first to point out that this is a homecoming!"

And then the singing commenced as well as several testimonies of what Judith Rhan had meant to her husband, her family, her church and her city. I stayed for two hours and when I left the church, the service was still going strong! In the church that day were members of the Church of God in Christ from Michigan and all over the Midwest. A testimony for how much love and respect they had for Mrs. Rhan.

This was yet another side of her that I hadn't seen. Mainly because Mrs. Rhan was not one to boast or bring attention to herself. She was, quite simply, extraordinary in the way she lived a life of service. 

Happy Homecoming Anniversary Mrs. Rhan!

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Arthur Rhan, Sr., Judith's husband, passed away on January 31, 2015. Arthur and Judith were married for 56 years and together led the Upton Avenue Original Church of God in Christ. Rev. Rhan was a very thoughtful, purposeful person. He wasn't one for "small talk." A conversation with Rev. Rhan was filled with wisdom and insight that flowed from him in a very unassuming way. Just like Judith.





Monday, April 23, 2018

The Beatitudes & Living Simply...

Elaine St. James
Back in 1994 Elaine St. James' book Simplify Your Life made her a leader in the simplifying movement.

Her book was filled with practical tips on how to slow down and untangle the mess we call the pace of modern living.

Almost a decade before the 21st Century hit us, St. James had set the tone for taking a deeper look at the way we in the Western world live.

In a nutshell, her tips amounted to slowing down (work wasn't meant to be obsessive), removing clutter (who needs 10 pairs of shoes?), be mindful of your purchases (the 'latest version' isn't always what you need). Begin to appreciate the moment, the journey we are on in life.

But twenty centuries before St. James, Jesus of Nazareth came up with his own version. Even if you aren't a follower of his, what he had to say is worth a listen. 

According to Matthew, Jesus was speaking to a crowd made up of individuals from the Ten Towns region of Galilee, Judea and even as far away as Jerusalem (Matt. 4:25). Jesus had just finished giving the crowd the Beatitudes. Remember those tips for living?

Like: God blesses the poor, those who mourn, the humble; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for doing the right thing (Matt. 5:3-11).

But Jesus was just getting started. After handing out these gems to the crowd, he kept on.

He continued: "Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and destroy them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven." Jesus makes the point that non-material things (like peace, love, relationships) are more lasting and important that any "stuff" we could buy. He sums this portion of his conversation, with these words: "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be." (Matt. 6:21)

Wow! Way to get to the heart of things Jesus!

He's basically saying, invest in non-material (spiritual, eternal) things because they're more important. And if you want an insider's look into a person's character, pay attention to what they value (i.e. where are they investing their time, money and other resources?)

Jimmy Carter
Jesus kept on talking about character. "No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matt. 6:24. The New King James version of the Bible uses the word "mammon," for money - which roughly translated means wealth, money or property.)

At this point, Jesus is definitely on a roll. He tells the crowd: "That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life..." And he gets specific about it, he tells them not to worry about food, what to drink, or clothing.

And this portion of Jesus' conversation ends with this summation. "These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need." (Matt. 6:31).

As a sidenote, it needs to be said that by "kingdom," Jesus was not referring to a political solution to anxiety. Jesus wasn't talking about a "back to the land" movement (although that isn't necessarily a bad thing). And he wasn't talking about a new economic theory. He was talking about a different way of life. A way of life that has a different social and economic order than what we are currently experiencing in Western culture.

I don't know about you feel about him, but, even if you don't "believe" in Jesus as a religious figure, he sure has some outstanding things to say about how we should be treating each other. 

Just think, by Jesus' standards, if we treated each other fairly, with morality guiding us, there wouldn't be sixty-five million refugees in the world today. The US wouldn't be responsible for almost fifty-nine percent of all global weapons sales, adding up to hundreds of billions of dollars. (In fact military spending takes up about sixteen percent of the entire US budget, coming in third place, right after spending on Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security, at $605 billion.)

Simply put, Jesus encouraged us not to worry. Worry leads to second-guessing, decision-making fraught with fear, and alienation from others and ourselves. He knew that fear is a very, very expensive emotion.

Bible quotes are from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.

Photo of Elaine St. James, Getty images.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Perks of Being a Congressperson vs. We The People...

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the average yearly compensation for US Representatives and Senators is $174,000. The Speaker of the House receives $223,500. The Majority and Minority leaders of the House and Senate receive $193,400.

Members of Congress elected in 1989 or thereafter are eligible for enrollment in the Federal Employees Retirement Program. As of October, 2016, there were 611 retired Congresspeople. Those retiring under the FERS system are receiving an annual pension of $41,076. Those retiring under the CSRS system (alternative system set up prior to 1989) are receiving an annual pension of $74,028. This is in additional to receiving Social Security income.

Besides basic salary and pension, the average US Representative's yearly "Representational Allowance" is $944,671. This includes personnel, office expenses and official mail. Senators receive a $3.4 million yearly Senators Official Personnel & Office expense account. Presumably, the hike in the Senators' expense accounts is due to the fact that they have a much larger geographical area to cover back in their home states.

According to CNBC, Senators and Representatives have gold-level health coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Seventy-two percent of the premium is covered for them. Additionally, they have free or low-cost health care available through the Office of the Attending Physician.

While this may sound, to many of us, like an incredibly good deal, we need to remember that previous to the ACA, these same Senators and Representatives had an even better health care deal. They were covered under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP) which gave them access to a five-star plan.
Paul Ryan (center) after voting against the ACA

(Perhaps this is why there has been such an angst-driven move to gut the ACA among the more Republican-leaning folk on Capitol Hill.)

As you might expect, it costs a lot to get elected. According to Maplight, in 2012 the average House campaign for those elected cost $1.68 million. The average Senate campaign for those elected came in at $10.4 million.

According to OpenSecrets, for the most recent election, Democratic Representatives received $1.9 million from lobbyists, while Republican Representatives received a total of $5.1 million. All told, lobbyists contributed $7.1 million to the campaigns of current Representatives.

The same source reports that Democratic Senators received a total of $3.4 million from lobbyists, while their Republican counterparts received $1.9 million. All told lobbyists contributed $5.3 million to current Senators.

That's a grand total of $12.4 million spent by lobbyists to influence elections. To state the obvious: Congressional elections are very, very expensive. To make another obvious statement: One wonders as to who actually has the ear of our Congresspeople.

Take, for instance the NRA lobbying efforts. The New York Times recently published a listing of the top ten Senators and Representatives receiving NRA funding in their careers. The list was published in response to the Las Vegas mass killings, which was followed by the Valentine's Day mass killings of children at a high school in Parkland, Florida. 

The NRA money totals out to over $44 million. That's just what the NRA spent on twenty congresspeople. And they're one of thousands of lobbying organizations. And the NRA isn't even the top money-giver in town. The Hill reports that last year the top fifty companies and industry groups paid more than $716 million in lobbying Congress and the federal government.

So, what's the point of all these statistics?

Is "big" government bad?

Do we need to "drain the swamp?"

Are term limits for Congressional representatives a good thing?

None of those things will necessarily create a more effective government.

It seems we need a more efficient government, not a smaller one. With stricter rules limiting lobbying. We need to encourage voter participation, including among people of color. We need to end gerrymandering.

Efforts could include getting out the vote campaigns. (Routinely US national elections draw between 50-60% of the eligible voters in a presidential election year; around 50% in midterms. According to Pew Research, the US ranks fourteenth out of eighteen developed countries in getting out the vote.)

But there is hope on the horizon. The Women's Marches on Washington have sparked off a level of political activism not seen in decades. Across the country many women, especially minority women, are committing to run for elected offices - at the local level, state, and on up to Washington. The Black Lives Matter movement is a significant part of this activity.

In early April, The Atlantic reported that eleven Democratic and twenty-seven Republican Congressional representatives had either resigned or announced their retirement. That's thirty-eight open slots already - and more are sure to follow.

This presents a possibility for significant change - if we stay alert and keep informed, focusing on the midterm elections in November.

Already in my home state I've seen non-profit organizations soliciting signatures for petitions that would make it easier for individuals to register to vote.

New ideas. New energy. Staying informed. Making it easier to vote and have a say in our federal government - all of these things are hopeful signs that things are changing.

I've often wondered at all the political polarization and negativity found in abundance since the last election. It strikes me as odd that tone (both from the right and left) is as if somehow the "government"(be it local, state or federal) has gotten out of control and it isn't "ours" anymore.

The fact is, we still live in a democratic republic. Our Constitution is still in effect. That means our government reflects who we are. If we feel that it doesn't, we need to become involved in active, positive change.

Photo Credits: Photo of Paul Ryan by Kevin Lamarquel/Reuters

Monday, April 9, 2018

What does Jesus have to say to the disinherited?

Howard Thurman
A few weeks ago I was at a small group meeting of a church I'm attending. We were discussing Howard Thurman's book Jesus and the Disinherited.

It was first published in 1949. Almost two decades before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. And almost seventy years before religion in the US became increasingly polarized and politicized. 

In the preface to his book, Thurman wrote: "The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial... My interest in the problem has been and continues to be both personal and professional. This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face. Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice?..."

Thurman goes on to discuss four key concepts. Three of them (fear, deception and hate) are components in building the wall of social injustice. One of them (love) is key to offering hope in breaking that wall down.

But before Thurman gets into the heart of the matter, he writes about Jesus.

He begins by taking a look at Christian missionary activity. While Thurman appreciates the basic human instinct to share with others what you have found meaningful, he quickly offers a caution. "It is the sin of pride and arrogance that has tended to vitiate the missionary impulse and to make of it an instrument of self-righteousness on the one hand and racial superiority on the other... [F]or decades we have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers [or sisters] or as human beings."

He asks us to consider the masses of people who live "with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?"

Writing from almost seventy years ago, Thurman says "The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."

Given the current state of affairs in the US and across the world, the question remains extremely relevant. 

What does Christianity have to say to "Dreamers" now that DACA has been disabled? What does Christianity have to say to about the plummeting refugee/immigrant resettlement quota in the US? What does Christianity have to say about social injustice, in general, in the 21st Century?

Thurman begins his discussion by turning to Jesus. What do we know about the historical Jesus?

Jesus was a Jew. It could be argued, writes Thurman "that God could have expressed himself as easily and effectively in a Roman. But he did not." Jews living in Galilee under Roman authority were living as a minority culture. Jesus was one of them. 

Jesus was poor. He wasn't even middle class. During his three years of ministry as a teacher, he had no permanent home. As such, Jesus had infinitely more in common with poor folk than he did with the religious leaders of his day. (In fact, his economic and social status were two things, among many others, that irked the Pharisees and Sadducees).

To sum up his assessment of Jesus, Thurman notes "Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group. In 63 BC, Palestine fell into the hands of the Romans. After this date the gruesome details of loss of status were etched, line by line, in the sensitive soul of Israel, dramatized ever by an increasing desecration of the Holy Land." 

Jesus came onto the scene in the middle of a sociological mess that bore tons of consequences. "In the midst of this psychological climate," Thurman points out, "Jesus began his teaching and his ministry. His words were directed to the House of Israel, a minority within the Greco-Roman world, smarting under the loss of status, freedom and autonomy, haunted by the dream of the restoration of lost glory and a former greatness. His message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people."

Jesus knew, full well, the pressures that his culture group were facing. "With increasing insight and startling accuracy he [Jesus] placed his finger on the 'inward center' as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people."

Jesus experienced the oppression of the people he walked with. He knew the effects of oppression - both on those being oppressed and on those doing the oppressing. And what Jesus said and how he lived was a direct response, a clear answer to the disinherited.


From this starting point, Thurman goes on to examine the main instruments of oppression - fear, deception and hate. And he then takes a look at the power of love.

Thurman asks us to consider the example of the Roman Centurion [captain] who came to Capernaum for help with healing one of his servants (Matthew 8:15).  Jesus responds by asking the soldier if he wanted him to come to his home. The captain says, "I am not worthy that you should come to my home; but speak the word and my servant will be healed."

Jesus recognizes the stripping away of pretense and social status contained in that statement. So Jesus says to the crowd surrounding him and the captain, "I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith." 

Thurman writes, "The Roman was confronted with an insistence that made it impossible for him to remain a Roman, or even a captain. He had to take his place alongside all the rest of humanity and mingle his desires with the longing of all the desperate people of all the ages. When this happened, it was possible at once for him to scale with Jesus any height of understanding, fellowship and love. The final barrier between the strong and the weak, between ruler and ruled, disappeared."

"The crucial question," asks Thurman, "is, can this attitude, developed in the white heat of personal encounter, become characteristic of one's behavior even when the drama of immediacy is lacking?"

Thurman felt that it could. And the love that he was writing about was grounded in forgiveness. A forgiveness that does not ignore the root causes of injustice. He says that such forgiveness is mandatory, for three reasons:
1. God has forgiven each of us "again and again for what we do intentionally and unintentionally."
2. An evil deed does not represent "the full intent of the doer." 
3. Evil-doers do not go unpunished. "Life is its own restraint. In the wide sweep of the ebb and flow of moral law our deeds track us down, and doer and deed meet... At the slow burning fires of resentment this may be poor comfort. This is the ultimate ground in which finally a profound, unrelieved injury is absorbed."

In order for love to do its work fear, deception and hatred must be recognized and dealt with. This is the fertile ground upon which hope blossoms. 

This is Thurman's answer to the question: What does the religion of Jesus have to offer to those who stand with their backs against the wall?"
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Click here to get a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited via an independent bookseller.

Pentecost: A group of spiritual refugees spreads the gospel

Author's Note: the major idea of this post came from a sermon preached by Matt Weiler at Sunnyside United Methodist Church. This Sun...