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Today, my political theory class discussed Socrates and Crito. The Crito is a discussion between Socrates and one of his followers, Crito, where Crito tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Socrates to escape Athens after he has been convicted and sentenced to death.  The question our teacher ended up posing to us was “Is it possible to be loyal to the state while you disobey its laws?”  I answered in the affirmative.  I believe in the ideals of our country: free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to live our lives the way we want (assuming we don’t harm anyone else), social mobility, meritocracy, everyone is equal under the law.  But I also know that our country doesn’t, has never fully, lived out those ideals.  We are a country that shuts out its religious minorities, oppresses its racial minorities, degrades its women, and gives advantages based on birth from the second you begin to get medical care or education.

 

Many conservatives complain that liberals don’t love this country, that they only want to focus on America’s flaws and changing its awesomeness. Liberals, particularly many of my young friends, all but shout back, “But it is flawed!  This is wrong!  How can you praise your country when one out of six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and a black woman is much more likely to end up in jail or killed rather than college?”  They’re angry—and rightly so.  Anger in the face of injustice is understandable and perhaps, when channeled productively, is even the most rational, ethical response at times.

 

I understand. I share the frustration.  However, I also believe that a country is more than its individual politicians, its court decisions, its flawed laws.  I can still love this country because I love it at its best, at what I want it to become.  Whistleblowers, practitioners of civil disobedience, are all willing to take risks, take the consequences of their actions out of a desire to make our country better than it is.  Our class discussed the difference between laws and Laws.  Laws being the highest ideals, the underlying principles upon which we try to found everything else.  Patriotism doesn’t require obedience or lip service, in fact, an institution like a state should be strong enough to withstand criticism and discourse.  The fact that we have these ideals, often, I think, is what makes all of this so hard.  Something in our national consciousness cries out that this is not right, because this is not how it should be. This isn’t who we should be.

 

As I was thinking of all of this, I couldn’t help but suspect that part of this trend of disillusionment is why many millennials are opting for spiritual rather than religious, for personal development rather than a church. They look at hypocrisy among church leaders, abuse scandals, dogma that denies facts…a system that doesn’t live out its ideals, because it is made of flawed men and women who have not been able to live up to the promise of God’s true church.

 

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, marking the start of Lent. For me, Lent is a time where we try, in our own lives, to get closer to that idealized version of ourselves.  It’s a time where we have to face our own brokenness and how far we have to go, but commit to trying nevertheless.  I think our country could use some Lent.

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As promised, the second installment!

Some basic rules around choosing and giving up something for Lent:
1) Do not compare yourselves to others. You need to do what’s best for you. Something that others might find silly could be a real problem for you. It’s not a competition and you’re not trying to win. This also means that there are things that you might not be able to give up and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. If you have a medical condition, fasting is probably a really bad idea. You can find plenty of alternatives to celebrate Lent, you don’t need to rely on other people’s ideas.

2) Particularly if this is one of your first times celebrating Lent, start with concrete things. It’s a lot easier to modify behaviors than feelings. I know people who have given up things like condescension or procrastination for Lent…admirable, but many of us likely find that unrealistic for ourselves. Try to translate that goal into something tangible. Instead of thinking, “I’m not going to get angry with my kids during Lent” think, “I’m not going to yell at my kids during Lent”. Focus on what you can control.

3) Make clearly defined goals. Don’t leave it fuzzy in your brain. Write down what you what, draw lines and definitions.

4) Adding things in and giving things up are not either or, try to do both. Better yet, find things that complement each other (I’m giving up soda and I’m going to the gym three times a week…I’m giving up TV and I’m adding in board games with the family, etc.)

5) Don’t give up something you know is really easy. I could very easily say, “I’m giving up eating salmon.” Statistically, in the Lenten period I probably would have eaten salmon a maximum of three times. This isn’t something that’s going to be very fulfilling.

6) Be willing to be brave. Challenge your assumptions about what you can live without. Do you really need your cell phone on you all the time? Or do you think you could find a way to rely on e-mail and your home phone? You’ll find your brain will make all sorts of absurd excuses for why you need to keep playing tetris…it helps me relax, I talk to my husband while playing it, I get my best ideas while playing tetris…uh-huh…usually when your brain is making absurd excuses that means a) you are able to give it up and b) you should.

7) If you are giving up something really hard for you, like coffee or cigarettes, particularly if it’s part of socializing for you…try to get your friends and family on board and supportive.

8) You can’t make someone else give something up just because you are. While it is admirable to give up all desserts, you can’t either stop anyone around you from eating desserts or be resentful that they are eating them. This is between you and God, you shouldn’t expect anyone else to join you unless they want to. They have every right to eat that delicious chocolate cake.

9) Don’t half-way give up things if you can avoid it. Sometimes, this is worse than not giving up anything at all. Say, you want to give up facebook but that’s the way that your college sports team communicates. It is a bad idea to give something up except for weekends or “I’ll only do it once a day”. It means that not only are you not giving something up entirely, but you are then focused on it and trying to figure out when you can get it next. It ends up making you miserable because you are without…but it’s still dangling over your head with temptation. Try to find a way to give it up entirely, if you can’t, think seriously about whether this is something you can do. My worst Lents have always been when I tried to give myself these sorts of outs. It was incredibly frustrating.

10) Children can give up things for Lent. Some general guidelines around this. If your child is out of elementary school, they should be choosing what to give up. You can suggest, cajole, but Lent is only beneficial if it’s a willing choice. Also, if you have younger children in the house, it might be good to do something family-wide. It’s a lot easier for a child to grasp that this isn’t something bad if everyone isn’t watching TV instead of just them. Usually children are used to thinking that if something is taken away from them, they’re being punished, you want to make sure that they know that they’re not being punished but that everyone is doing it. It also can be a really good way of fostering a more communal sense in the family.

11) Experiment and do the things that you always feel you can’t commit too. Are thinking that you should read to your child before bed every night? Try it for Lent. If it works for the both of you, keep doing it, if it doesn’t, it’s only 40+ days.

12) Cut yourself some slack. While it’s good to be disciplined, you are not a failure if you forget or if you slip up. That also doesn’t mean Lent is ruined, you get up and you go back to your habits the next day. The most important part is to just keep going.

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It’s Lent!

I get very excited for Lent, it’s my favorite time of the year. I’m certain that a post shall ensue explaining in great detail why I think Lent, which most people associate with dark misery, is one of the best times in the Christian calendar. (I’m pretty sure whenever I giddily say, “I love Lent” my atheist friends think to themselves about how this is just proof of religion’s deep brainwashing because what rational person could like willingly going without?)

However, in the meantime, I’m just going to discuss a few reasons why you should consider observing Lent and some fun tips for doing it.

Why you should give up something for Lent:

1) Lent is not only for Catholics. Catholics have more specific traditions around it, but as Protestant, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that it was simply a Christian tradition. I’m sure that the atheist or a member of another religion could also benefit from certain aspects of Lent without feeling all of the theology around it.

2) Giving something up doesn’t just have to be something you desperately like (because you think you don’t deserve to be happy) or something you don’t care about (because you think you should do this but you really don’t want to put in effort). The point is not to just take something random out of your life, but take out an aspect of your life that you feel that you place too much value on or is unhealthy for you. Example: a cliché is giving up chocolate for Lent. I’ve done that once, but I didn’t do it because I liked it, but it was easy to cut out, I did it because I had this habit when I was little, of every time I was in the kitchen, of sneaking my hand into a chocolate chip jar. Obviously, this was a habit that it was good to break.

3) Lent is a wonderful time to give yourself extra motivation to achieve goals. Do you want to diet? Take out carbs. Do you want to cook more for yourself? Take out frozen dinners.

4) You don’t just need to take things out, you can add things in! Exercise, reading the Bible, cleaning your room on a regular basis, praying for a set amount of time every night. Get creative!

5) Most people agree that creating goals and breaking bad habits help if you are accountable to someone. Hence the benefit of Lent, you find yourself being accountable to God.

6) While I do go back to many of my less-than-ideal habits after Lent, I’ve found that they never have quite the same hold on me afterwards, and this is one of the most important things that you can get out of Lent.

7) Lent is a time when you can try to decrease the noise that fills your life, take out distractions or habits that you’re embarrassed about (Compulsive angry birds player, binge Netflix watcher, I’m talking to you…), and you find that you have more room in your life for God and for yourself! It also is a time when you can learn that the things you think you “need” are sometimes dispensable, and you are not bound to these habits that you don’t like.

Stay tuned! Tomorrow will be a post on choosing what to give up/add in and for actually living out the goals.

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I’m from Massachusetts. I’m from the state which is right after New York on the “most-likely-to-be-used-in-a-stump-speech-as-an-example-of-liberalness” list. My high school chorus had to change the words to a song to remove any mention of God. We were the first state to legalize gay marriage. I’ve attended a church where parishioners have complained about using phrases like “holy” and “Christ”. I don’t live in the most Christian-friendly state.

Now, I’m not going to be one of those people who is going to explain why Christians are a victimized minority that’s having their faith outlawed. I could write, and probably will at some point, about how being religious in general is becoming more and more uncomfortable for people, but that is not the subject of this post.

This post is about a word. It is a word that is used in many different ways by different groups of people.

Evangelical.

I started this blog because I was tired of being considered an oxymoron. Yes, I’m liberal, no I don’t want to get together and complain about how horrible religious people are limiting abortion and are all crazy. Yes, I’m evangelical, no I’m not going to sit you down and explain that if you don’t convert you’re going to hell. It’s really quite amazing how narrow people think these boxes are. I met a boy once who was unaware that it was possible to be a nerd and Christian (this apparently is not an unusual idea, for some reason, as this has come up multiple times as I’ve tried to explain things like “No, playing dungeon and dragons isn’t sinful”).

Yet, despite the fact that this blog is written around my identity as both a liberal and an evangelical, I haven’t explained much about how I define that, what I mean by that. It’s a word that can be used in multiple ways and which I think is very misunderstood.

Let’s start with the basics. No matter what random “experts” on CNN seem to imply, Evangelism and the Religious Right are two utterly different things. Evangelism is a theological concept. The Religious Right is a political movement. Using them synonymously is just annoying.

Secondly, I’m not going to pretend that being an “evangelical” is purely spiritual, and doesn’t have accompanying social mores and culture. Being evangelical in the United States these days, particularly in subgroups such as non-denominational Protestantism, is cultural. We have music artists that we listen to, we have specific vocabulary, we have social practices. However, this is not what evangelism is. Like any culture, there are as many different values, interpretations, and beliefs (political, religious, or otherwise) as there are people. We are not all the same. Forget that, we’re not all even alike. It is possible, in fact, to be part of that culture and not be evangelical.

That’s because evangelical isn’t a culture or a political sub-group, it’s a spiritual choice. It’s also one that manifests itself in different ways. Evangelism doesn’t require you to hand out pamphlets on the subway or to try to convince your non-Christian friends that their religions have no meaning. It doesn’t even require you, in my mind, to be convinced that the only way to heaven is through conscious belief in Jesus as the Messiah (I’m sure many would disagree with that).

To be evangelical, generally, is to want to and to try to share the ‘message’ of Christianity. Note, I said “share”, I did not say “force down someone’s throat”. Let us not confuse those two terms.

Evangelicals, in whatever intensity, do believe that Christianity is “the best”. It is something that they believe is true and is a good thing. It is a very delicate line, and some of us are more concerned about where we cross it, between believing we are right and insulting other faiths. To evangelize is to share your faith, your beliefs, your values. It means to explain why you believe in them, to explain what they give you. Some people choose (and while I’m not among them, I respect their right to do so) to evangelize by buying billboards or passing out literature. Some people will stop you in the grocery market and ask if they can talk to you about Jesus. Some people will simply say, “You know, my church meets at ten every Sunday, you’re perfectly welcome if you ever want to stop by”. There are lots of different ways to share one’s faith or to invite another person into it.

Here up in the liberal Northeast, evangelicals are not very popular. The polite people just think they’re kind of crazy and ignore them. The rude people go on lots of rants. Even many Christians are very quick to say, “Oh, I’m not one of those Christians”. Evangelism is seen as offensive. Frankly, though, I don’t understand why.

It’s not that I dismiss the fact that no one likes to be told they’re wrong or that everyone deserves to have their own views taken into consideration. However, when you think about it, evangelism, religious or not, is all around them.

“You need to try acupuncture. It changed my life. I’m serious, you have to go.”

“The thing that I hate about teachers’ unions is…”

And so on.

Friends, families, even mild acquaintances, don’t feel at all hesitant about giving their opinions on your lifestyle or of trying to convince you of the veracity of their opinion. Until it gets a bit overzealous, no one finds it offensive if someone is trying to convince you that you shouldn’t vote for _______ or that your view on _________ is illogical. It’s perfectly acceptable these days. I frankly don’t see any difference between political canvassing and Jehovah’s witnesses, or between making a passionate defense of your faith versus a passionate defense of abortion. To make a separate case is to hold to some sort of double standard that we have freedom of expression and freedom to share our beliefs publicly on everything, except for religion.

It’s about dialogue. It’s about sharing and learning from one another. It’s explaining why you think something, what are the benefits of it from your perspective. There is nothing inherently disrespectful about the principle. I further don’t believe it is offensive to evangelize because 99% of the time it is non-coercive, and as long as people have free choice, I simply don’t see the problem.

One of my first posts was about this, I believe. I wrote about how at my Christian school, when I was young, they had us debate whether or not we should read a book that had anti-Christian themes. There were a few classmates of mine who said that we shouldn’t, that it might cause us to question our faith. However, I believe that if a faith or an opinion cannot hold up if it’s exposed to a conflicting idea, it’s not worth having. I don’t believe that it is an affront to human dignity to have someone share with you an idea that you disagree with. That’s why God…or evolutionary processes…or both…gave you a brain, so that you could listen to ideas, critique them, evaluate them, and think for yourself.

While I, like many others, have grown to have respect and appreciation for the new Pope, there is a part of me that has been saddened by the reaction of the world. So many secularists or members of other faiths who talk about how unusual his openness and compassion is. For me, those things are what my religion is about, and the fact that people see Pope Francis as an anomaly, rather than as the norm, is a sign that we Christians are failing in the way that we share our faith with the world. Serving the disenfranchised with compassion, saying “I do this because of what I believe about God” that is the Christian evangelism that I believe in.

I am a Christian and I strive to live my life according to principles. I share my faith with those who ask, by be open and willing to explain and to engage in a dialogue. I share my faith by living it out and letting it be known that I make my choices because of my faith. Evangelism, to me, is simply openness.

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Don’t be afraid of sin.

What is sin?

 

Ah yes, that eternal question.  It’s started wars, it’s led to ostracism, and it’s led to countless fights between parents and children. 

 

In many more conservative traditions, sin is a set of rules.  It is a sin to do X, so you must avoid X.  However, as a liberal evangelical, I take a different view of sin.  Sin is not a list of things to avoid, sin is whatever causes harm.  Everything must be measured against this.  Does having sex before marriage cause harm?  Depends on the situation and the couple.  Does punching someone in the face cause harm?  Yes.  Does punching someone in the face to stop them from attacking someone else cause harm…or does it prevent a greater harm?  Unclear. 

 

I believe that the approach Jesus took in the gospels supports this interpretation.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to take a different approach on sin, moving from the rule-driven approach of the Torah, to a more philosophical approach.  Not killing moves to not hurting another person.  Not committing adultery moves to not having unfaithful thoughts. 

 

Now, admittedly…rules are a lot easier.  It’s a lot easier to avoid things than to not cause harm.  What very few people talk about, but which I believe, is that sin also is about obligations.  It’s not just about what you shouldn’t do…it’s about what you don’t do.  Do you not care about other people or show them love?  Do you not tithe?  Do you not avoid products that you know were made by people who were exploited?  Do you not recycle?  All of these things cause harm…but very few people would likely think of them as sins.

 

Liberals don’t like the word sin.  It scares us; it seems so judgmental and fire-and-brimstone.  Sinners are murderers, right?  Our world is increasingly trying to turn things into shades of gray.  Things are shades of gray, I don’t deny that, but hurting your friends feelings isn’t something that’s regrettably inevitable, and you’ll try better next time, it’s a sin.  It’s not something to torture yourself about, but it’s something to admit to yourself.  Sin is a beautiful concept.  I don’t find it weighs me down, makes me depressed and guilty, rather, it relieves me from those feelings.  See, the kind of “oh, I shouldn’t really have done that” leaves me in a state of uncomfortableness, some guilt mixed with cognitive dissonance and uncertainty, but a sin…that’s something you can face, and facing it can be a lot more liberating than ignoring it. 

 

I remember a time when I felt like the decisions I was making were in this constant state of gray.  I did not know what was right.  I felt so bad about myself, but I wasn’t sure that what I was doing was actually wrong.  I had an epiphany one day.  Whether or not it was wrong wasn’t the point, but I was doing something that I wasn’t morally comfortable with, I was causing harm to myself.  As soon as I admitted that, I was able to ask God for forgiveness and then ask it of myself.

 

Sin is often a road to peace, because it is a means of being accountable to one’s self, to the people around you, to the people you haven’t even met, and to God. See, the beautiful thing about sins is that once asked, forgiveness is always given.

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In the aftermath of the tragedy in Oklahoma, there has been an outpouring of support from twitter-users using the hashtag “#PrayForOklahoma”. CNN wrote an interesting article (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/21/who-hears-prayersforoklahoma/?sr=fb052213prayersoklahoma230p) on this, as well as the backlash this movement generated from the atheist community. There were a number of different issues that this story highlighted on prayer, and I wanted to discuss them.

First of all, I’d like to first address an argument that apparently has been surfacing in response to the outpouring of prayers. There are many people who are saying that praying to God is a ridiculous exercise in this situation because God caused the tornado and that if He really had any power, the tragedy wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Everyone has different beliefs over God’s potency in this situation, from His lack of existence to the tornado being a manifestation of His will to the fact that God created natural patterns of weather that He obeys. The fact is, everyone, particularly those affected, have to make sense of tragedies like this in their own way. What’s important is to focus on helping those who have been affected heal now that it has happened.

I want to preface this with the statement that I believe that prayer is a good thing. I don’t think that good works on their own can make it moot. However, on this one, I have to say that the atheists have got it right that well-wishing prayers should not be the end of your involvement. It is written in the Bible: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (James 2: 14-18). This verse is relevant to this situation. Our brothers and sisters in Oklahoma don’t have housing, clothes or food, I don’t think we should simply tell them to “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed”, it’s our duty to help care for them. And this does not simply apply to this particular situation, but is true for our brothers and sisters across the world who struggle to take care of themselves and their families every day.

I suppose the other piece of this trend that I find concerning, is that I have to admit I’m skeptical that all of those people who used the hashtag then closed their eyes and spent a few moments in quiet contemplation, praying to God and meditating on those who had a real need. Faith, in any religion, requires a commitment. It requires the person to give something of themselves. The first time you find out someone’s religious belief shouldn’t be on their facebook profile. Tweeting a hashtag isn’t the same as prayer.

And even if God is not going to solve all problems simply because we ask for it, that doesn’t mean that prayer is a useless or outdated exercise. Prayer is not simply for the benefit of the person the supplicant is praying for, but prayer is beneficial for those who pray. Prayer is a way of spiritual growth, it can be a place of peace and refuge in our hectic lives. A person praying might be thinking about all the sufferings of another person, and the act of praying, which lets them focus on what they would otherwise ignore, is the motivating factor which moves them to act.

I wouldn’t phrase it that faith without deeds are meaningless. I would say that faith requires deeds. Our faith makes us want to act. This not something isolated. This is a systemic issue, this type of indifference is something that we need to grapple with everyday. There are always prayers to say and there are always actions to do. They are always needed. We must make sure that we always remember this.

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Many of you might have gathered from reading this blog that I believe that we, as Christians, have a lot that we can learn from other religions. I think it is healthy when we find that a religion perhaps has a spiritual practice that brings us closer to God or their scripture or doctrine describes something that we feel and believe, as Christians, but in different words. I oftentimes think that it is simply interesting to compare and contrast different faiths or to see how another faith’s beliefs and practices might complement our own or provide us with a new perspective. Anyway, now that we’ve got that header out of the way.

 
I just finished reading a book called “Jewish Prayer and Practices”, it could also be known just as well as “Judaism 101” or “Judaism for Dummies”. Basically, all the basic things around holidays, prayers, food, Sabbath, services…it’s all there. Nothing is in great detail that would satisfy a real scholar on the topic, but for an average person like me (and likely you) it’s a good starter.

 

Towards the end, I came across one of the chapters on charity. So, in Judaism/Hebrew the word that some might call charity is known as “tzedakah”. It comes from the same root as just or righteous or pious. It’s not simply about giving to charity, but also “conveys a sense of justice or fairness in making the world right” (Lieber, 277). Do people actually ever cite things in blogs? Anyway. Tzedakah is obligatory and it’s a mitzvah. You can look that one up for yourselves.

 

Centuries ago, Rabbi Moses Maimonides designed eight different levels of tzedakah. Here they are, in reverse…goodness? (and for citation purposes, I’m quoting this list directly from the book).

1) A person gives unwillingly
2) A person gives cheerfully, but not enough
3) A person gives enough, but not until asked
4) A person gives before being asked, but directly to the poor person
5) The poor person knows from whom he or she takes, but the giver does not know who is receiving
6) The giver knows to whom he or she gives, but the receiver does not know the giver.
7) Fully anonymous giving, the giver does not know to whom he or she gives, nor does the poor person know from whom he or she receives.
8) The very highest form of tzedakah is to strengthen the hand of the poor by giving a loan, or joining in partnership to help a person become independent

 

Okay. Also, just throwing this out there, but the priorities here are in line with Jesus’s teachings that we should not give for the sake of appearances, but should do so in secret.

 

What struck me the most was the eighth. In this framework, the highest form of giving to others is to give a loan or to help another person become independent. In summary, the greatest good of charity is measured by whether it helps. Not in the temporary (but still useful) sense of giving someone a new coat, but by being part of a long-term solution. Giving should attempt to address the underlying problems, rather than the symptoms. Giving should be a solution, rather than a bandaid.

 

It often feels like this is what people are missing in priorities, including the federal government. Or, what about our foreign aid? Investing in communities is going to produce more results and help more lives than shipping containers of grain or sending a check. It’s one of the reasons that microfinance is starting to transform the charity world.  While people who are impoverished have traditionally never been candidates for loans, people are realizing that investing in the businesses and educations of people in need is both a sound business decision and truly impacts lives.

 

Our goal also should not be in giving someone charity. That’s not what that highest form is about. It’s not about you giving something to someone, it’s about working with another person. Charity is not between benefactor and penitent, but a partnership where both members have the same goal. We could benefit from incorporating these ideas into our mindset. As we choose to give, let’s look for opportunities that are working with the people it serves to create a long-lasting solution to a problem. Change doesn’t come by acting upon someone, you have to act with them.

 

And for those of you who would now like something to do… You can always check out Kiva. It is a nonprofit that allows you to donate your money to a borrower, or a group of borrowers (and you can pick where they’re from, what they’re doing, how much you give, etc.). Your donation is not charity, it is a loan, and you are extremely likely to be paid back, giving you the chance to loan to another person.

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