Friday, December 30, 2005
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Capitalism and Christianity
You walk up the streets in the hilly side of the Danube, the part of the city called Buda. It has it's own history, remarkably different from the plains on the east side of the river and the city that grew up there known as Pest.
It's a cold morning and when you turn a corner as you ascend the hill, your eye catches the glorious roof of Mattias church. The building is glorious architecture, all that I'd hoped in the visiting of this city where east meets west. Truly, the influences of Byzantium and Western Europe co-exist in this one building.
Just beyond the intact church structure, you see the foundation of part of the church, remaining from a previous era, but with a completely incongruous building set on it. As you draw close you realize that your looking at the Hilton Hotel. Tourists from all continents are dining there, sipping coffee or tea, and eating sushi or goulash, or a hamburger if that's what they want.
The Hilton Hotel sitting on the foundation of the church? Perhaps we should stop and ponder this for a moment. This hotel is definitely a testimony to the freedom and capitalistic spirit that have swept in since 1989. What do you think though, of the symbolism of a monument to capitalism being built on the foundation of a church? Appropriate or Inappropriate?
Appropriate: The free market economies of the world work best and bring the most good to the most people in places where there has been a strong Christian underpinning in that civilization. Thus we see in our own country, for all its faults, access to education, clean drinking water for everyone, hospitals that open their doors to those who aren't able to pay, and public subsidies to help those with the most needs. Does the system work all the time? Of course not. But let's not deny that we enoy the greatest freedom, and the longest lifespans of nearly any nation on earth. Where there is a Christian Concensus and a free-market economy, many good things happen. I know the problems too - I'm not romanticizing. But if one travels the world, one finds that schools and hospitals, orphanages and economic development agencies - all of those things that bring material blessings to people - largely have their roots in mission work, or at the very least, the Christian west.
Inappropriate: The Hotel stands as a public testimony of what has happened to Western Civilization. Where once their stood a vast cathedral, out from which came true truth, worshippers, and changed lives which would themselves go on to change western civilization, there now stands a new god. Gone, or at the very least, emasculated, is the church that produced great art, music, architecture, and law. Gone is the church that put an end to slavery and feudalism, fear and oppression. In it's place, all that remains is buying and selling, so that even those who now enjoy the freedoms previously unknown mourn that with freedom one must also welcome more crime, sexual degradation, the loss of cultural distinctives, and the trivialization of culture. In Budapest there's a Burger King, it seems, in every neighborhood, where you can drink a milk shake, listen to Norah Jones, and pretend you're anywhere. It's come to this - on the crumbling foundations of the church, all that remains are the high places of capitalism. Maybe we've gained the world. But we've lost our soul in the process.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Dachau in December- dangers of tolerance and intolerance
Dachau in December. I enjoy teaching in Europe in December because of the Advent Markets that are in every town square, where people gather for warm wine, to meet friends and peruse the hand made craft items. Most of the squares even have a booth where children are supposed to write a letter to the Christ child (there go those secular Europeans again – exorcising all vestiges of Christ from culture).
This trip however, taking a few extra days of travel with my son, we manage a morning at Dachau. To be at the site of the first concentration camp in Germany, in December, with biting wind so cold that your down jacket offers little protection, and to gaze out on the frozen ground of the camp – this is an experience I’ll not soon forget. Realizing that daily roll call meant standing motionless in the snow in cotton rags for a minimum of two hours every morning, I speculate that I wouldn’t last a week.
The displays are a catalog of humanity’s capacities, both for degradation and triumph. There are stories of merciless beatings and hangings, grotesque photographs of emaciated bodies, and tales that would, later that night, help my dreams become nightmares. But for all that, the most powerful part of the story was the educational section explaining how Germany ceded power to the Reich and Adolf.
We do well to shudder at the intolerance of the Reich – how the thought police demanded absolute loyalty, with the result that free thinking artists, authors, pastors, political opposition members, immigrants, homosexuals, of course Jews, and those who tolerated the same, all found themselves in the same place – stripped of freedom and dignity.
But intolerance isn’t the only voice crying out from the blood of those grounds. Equally dangerous is tolerance. What happens when a culture, or a church, or a family allows, in the name of tolerance, such degradation. What happens when, in the name of tolerance, truth no longer has its rightful place at the table? The intolerance of those in power demanded tolerance of the grossest crimes against humanity. Where were the people who were willing, at the cost of their lives, to stand up and say "enough!" There were precious few, as we know. But there were a few.
The dangers of tolerance and intolerance share the same root cause: fear. The fear of the intolerant is easy to spot – all opposition must be crushed, for fear that any independent voice might expose the whole sham. Conversely the tolerant, who wink at injustice often do so because of a fear of losing their life. Hitler was granted power, at the cost of liberty, because people were afraid of the future. The vision he cast was one of triumphalism, the only problem being that it would come at the cost of each person’s freedom and dignity. Beware of allowing fear of economic loss, or terrorism, or reputation, to silence you voice – for only truth will ultimately liberate, both our own souls and those around us.
I stood in the biting cold on the roll call field that morning and wondered what the dangers of tolerance and intolerance meant for me as a pastor, a husband, a citizen of my country? The words of this German pastor help:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Pastor Martin Niemöller.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
It Only Happens Once a Year: Good News or Bad?
(Note: Due to Richard's lack of computer access during his vacation, the keeping of his blog has been turned over to a second-generation Dahlstrom. Never fear--the original will return soon!)
Up at five-thirty in the darkness and pouring rain of these darkest mornings, I go into the Starbucks where I work as a barista. This time of year, the struggle of being social so early in the morning blends into the conundrum of making believe that Christmas is, in itself, naturally magical and peaceful. “It only happens once a year,” proclaims every red cup, stack upon stack, reminding me that the season of Christmas is limited, and will soon be over. “The season” is so long at Starbucks that a customer can order a piece of gingerbread or an eggnog latte on roughly one of every six days, making the phrase ring slightly hollow to those of us who steam all of that eggnog for two months, but still I see it everywhere, the frenzied warning that this time will not last forever.
My job as a barista, metaphorically as well as literally, gives me plenty of reason to expect that people often lean on our catchy phrase as a comforting “Don’t worry; it’ll all be over soon” more than an exhortation to seize the… season. I spend mornings spinning around dangerously, my head full of brief and frantic shards of thoughts, scanning lines of people for the next moment to breathe or think or finally mop up the milk that I spilled five minutes ago. I write in acronyms because words take too much time and space, and speak in a language of quasi-Italian modifiers like “venti” and “breve,” all but unintelligible to outsiders.
How much like my job the holidays can become! We start take that relentless activity into all aspects of life, running around to complete shopping, traditions, and visits from family and friends, all by the inexorable December 25th deadline.
It only happens once a year, the Christmas season. Then I remember that the birth of Christ—this event at the very heart of this season of Advent—happened not once a year, like eggnog lattes and frantic gift-buying, but once. One birth. One child born to us, our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And this birth, even to teenaged peasants in a common stable, was an arresting event. The kings of the East might have had planners full with advising or predicting appointments, but they instead chose to chase a star, knowing that at the end lay wonder beyond anything they could imagine. The shepherds, even more amazing, left their sheep, their entire livelihood, to fend for themselves in the middle of the night, convinced that worshipping the infant Messiah was more important.
Do I have enough faith to stop what I am doing to worship Christ? Would I be willing to turn around and follow Him? Or am I becoming a perpetual barista, always moving, but never paying attention to where I am? I’d like to say that this distraction only happens once a year, or even that it only happens to me. But I suspect that my frenzied holidays are not uncommon.
“And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” Luke 2:13-14.
The shepherds turned and chased the glory and the peace of Christ. In this busiest of seasons, I am challenged to do the same, arrested by the glorious presence of our Savior. Let us chase the rest He offers and worship Him, whether in stillness or activity, with every remaining moment.
Friday, December 16, 2005
Her Magic is weakening
If you have read the Narnia books, you know about the witch, and the land where it’s always winter but never Christmas. If you haven’t read the book, stop reading this blog and go read the book instead, or watch the movie (I hope the movie’s good – but haven’t seen it – reviews welcome in the comments section).
This morning I was thinking about how perpetual winter would eventually snuff out all life, as I rode the ski lift here in Austria on the first day of holiday, my teaching responsibilities finished. It was a bitter cold morning this morning, with wind howling and kicking up snow so that there was scarcely any visibility at all. Ski for a morning? I love that kind of weather for a morning. But were the days to turn into months and years, all life would be sucked from us, even as we’d lose our source of water and food, and the earth itself would die.
Appropriate then, that I’d just been re-reading the Lion, Witch, Wardrobe book last night before going to bed, and was reminded that before the thaw, there is Father Christmas. As Lewis writes of the father, “Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and real, that they all became quite still. The felt very glad, but also solemn.
Before Aslan breaks the curse fully, Father Christmas must come. Ah yes… there is, after all no resurrection without death. But there is, it is also true, no death without there first being birth. And so the gladness of the season is that He came – and lived among us – and now remains, forever, the giver of gifts, beginning with forgiveness and extending into the depth of our souls and outward into every structure and fiber of the universe.
The word for us, then in this season when the effects of winter are so visible – both literally and metaphorically, is that with the birth of Jesus, the “Witch’s magic is weakening…” What a good word. Everything – every death from AIDS and unclean water; every person weeping into the night; every person’s life that has withered from greed; all of it is because of the curse. And with the first breath of the baby Jesus, the greatest gift was offered, and the curse began to be broken. It remains still to broken fully – but ours is the privilege of bearing the glad news by our words and lives, and to share in the liberation that comes wherever God reigns.
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Moral High Ground - Drink no wine before its time
The second reason for concern regarding the rise in casual sexuality (the first reason is in the previous entry) has to do with the effect this is having on true intimacy. It’s clear by now, sociologically as well as spiritually, that the ease of access to sexual expression (as the result of internet pornography, ‘hooking up’, and internet matches offering painless romps in the hay) have resulted in a proportional loss of capacity for real intimacy.
If sex were just another recreational sport like tennis, this wouldn’t be the case. But somehow playing tennis with someone doesn’t create these powerful bonds. Sexual experience, though, produces such bonds invariably, unless of course our heart becomes deadened. And endless string of partners, then, will have the effect of trouncing on that part of our heart made for genuine intimacy. The result – lots of skin touching skin; an appalling lack of heart touching heart.
It reminds me of the first book in the Narnia series, where the witch partakes of the fruit from Aslan’s special tree. But her very indulgence leads her to despise the fragrance of the tree forevermore. Sex is the fruit. Intimacy is the fragrance. You get the picture.
Aslan says, ‘(the fact that she ate from the tree)…is why all the rest (the fragrance) are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after.’
Fortunately, there’s a way out. In Christ, we’re invited to genuine intimacy. As we become rooted in the reality that we are deeply loved and fully accepted by our creator, the intimacy that grows there becomes the basis of moving back towards the fragrance and fruit of human intimacy, now redeemed as it is by the Creator. I know it sounds idealistic, and as I’m writing it, I’m sure that many readers will think it silly. But I am increasingly convinced that true sexual freedom, true intimacy, and a life that is ever moving towards wholeness is available – but only as I commit to pursuing intimacy with God and others, and doing so by the terms God lays out. What do you think? Old fashioned advice, or true truth?
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Has anyone seen my moral high ground?
I’m interested in a recent article in the Seattle Times about casual sexual encounters for two reasons. The first reason has to do with how we’re perceived globally. Since a marriage is more likely to fail in America than anywhere else in the world, and since we also are near the front of the pack in statistics such as abortion, venereal disease, and those ailments that arise from a sense of isolation, it’s understandable that not everyone would want to be ‘just like us’. In fact, it’s understandable that Islamic cultures, with their strong ties of family and their limitations of sexual expression to marriage, would find our culture reprehensible. It’s equally odd that we would then frame our struggle to export democracy as a struggle between good and evil.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand some of the evils and shortcomings of Islamic culture, and I’m not advocating bashing our culture or exalting another. But I am suggesting that we’re perceived by much of the world as doing just the opposite – in public platforms on the world stage, our rhetoric tends to exalt American culture and bash those cultures who aren’t part of the ‘coalition of the willing’. What’s needed, it seems to me, is the humility to realize that, for all our strengths, our American culture is riddled with some deep pathologies. And when we turn our eyes to other parts of the world we should acknowledge that there are cultures that do things better than we, and be willing to learn from them. This would go far in creating a different, and I would assume, better image for the USA over on this side of the Atlantic.
The other observation from the article needs to be saved for another time… I need to go teach.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
So I'm sitting here in Austria looking out the window on a bright snowy morning. I'll be teaching 15 sessions here this week, covering 1st Corinthians as students prepare to go home for the holidays. But I'm in the same clothes I was wearning Thursday at 2PM, because my luggage is missing. I landed at Heathrow in London in the midst of somewhat foggy weather, but definitely weather that was clearing. There was no information on connecting flights until one passed completely through the international arrivals terminal and then had taken a tram to a different terminal. Once there, I looked for my gate assignment and saw that my flight to Munich was cancelled. This led to a series of enquires, all of which landed me in the longest line I've ever seen, where I stood for 3 hours waiting to be reassigned to a new flight - a flight which occured on Saturday instead of Friday, and on a different airline. And when I arrived in Munich - no bag. I filled out the paperwork, and am waiting to hear more.
On the positive side, the adventure offered me time for conversation with two middle age couples from England in the line. 3 hours is a long time, and we covered a wide range of topics about the differences in our countries, politics, family and more. Fellow displaced Munichians dined with me at the assigned motel, two girls returning from India (one having lived in an Ashram) and a businessman whose day trip to London became something more.
On the negative side, here I sit, when the plan was to go skiing. But I can't even buy clothes today because shops aren't open on Sunday. Oh well - perhaps reading one's Bible, worshipping in a German church during advent, and walking through the town square won't be so bad. In fact, I've been amazed at how little I need in order to really get on well here. I've had to buy a toothbrush, some shampoo, etc, and a new eletrical outlet translator. Now, as the church bells ring at 8:30, I realize that, lacking all the things I'd packed to carry out my own plans, I still have food, shelter, and enough clothing to stay warm (as long as I don't ski). Maybe I should shoot for carry-on luggage all the time.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Bang the Drum for the Baby?
I’m thinking a little bit these days about that song, “The Little Drummer Boy” Can you imagine an exhausted mother, having just delivered her child in a cold unsanitary stable, granting permission to a little kid to come in and beat on his drum in the baby’s presence? I can’t. But that’s exactly what happened. He played his drum, played his best, which wouldn’t be much in terms of soothing sounds even if he were a prodigy, because drummers are notoriously unmelodic. I know. I am one.
So here’s this little kid wailing away on the drum and the punch line of the story is that the baby looks up and smiles at him. It’s all a little bit nonsensical, until you remember that later the little baby would grow up to be a teacher and point out a woman putting two cents in the offering plate, saying that she’d given more than everyone else combined. Either it was a really bad day for the offering, or else Jesus was saying something more profound: God wants us, yes desperately desires for us to give what he have to Him as an offering. Yes, this includes the sacrifice of my material stuff – but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now.
Right now, I’m remembering that Jesus smiles when I offer hospitality in His name even though I’m tired, or a listening ear to a person who irritates me, or a cooked meal for a couple who are going through a tough time, or my two cents, or my drum.
The whole silly story is very real to me, because I played drums all through my formative years – I liked sports, but in my large high school, my 130 pounds wouldn’t have worked on the football team, or my 5’ 6” frame in the gym. So I played drums… all the time… with a bagpipe band, and a jazz band, and an opera orchestra. It’s all I had.
God doesn’t seem to care what we have in our hand. Rather, he cares that we offer it to Him by showing up with our gifts and serving our family, our neighbors, our church community, our city, in His name. And the glory of it is that Jesus smiles on these imperfect offerings because He’s never needed our perfection, only our availability.
Rum-pa-pum-pum. Go ahead – give him what you have this season. He’ll smile.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Warm Climate / Cold Climate
I've been in San Antonio for the past two day in order to teach a day long seminar today on the effects of post-modernism, especially as it relates to Christian camping ministries. Aside from the stimulating conversation all day, I've been intrigued once again by the cultural differences that weather creates. Last night I ate dinner outside at BBQ place on the RiverWalk. Somehow, the nature of dining outside encourages both lingering and communication. I met my neighbors at the table to my left, (two Washingtonians playing basketball for a college in Hawaii and in San Antonio for games), and the people to my right, (a couple from Minnesota attending an investment conference). Soon we were all talking together and as I looked around I realized the same thing was going on all along the river.
In northern climates, the cold drives us indoors, and often in being so driven, we turn to tasks. Somehow the outdoor culture seems to more readily turn to relationships. Here a link to consider the subject. I think of Joni Mitchell's song: "Come in from the Cold" and how the words 'frigid' and 'cold' describe relational dysfunctions.
All for now... I'll be coming in from the warmth as I return to snowy Seattle in the morning.