Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Cortex

When Keith Taylor was in graduate school, he held down teaching jobs at two different colleges and worked at a movie theater. When the timing belt broke on his Ford Escort, he was forced to skip his rent for a month. His boss heard he was on the verge of eviction and handed him a $525 check made out to the landlord. “Over a car repair I was almost homeless,” Taylor recalls. “The point is that a small amount of money can make a big difference in people’s lives.” (“Saving Lives, One Rent Check at a Time,” Forbes, August 11, 2008).

Taylor remembered that lesson. He launched a small website offering to help people out with a portion of his $33,000 salary. He waded through his e-mail inbox and sent checks to people with one-time needs. He helped a man who needed $65 to cover his monthly auto insurance, and a woman who needed help paying for her son’s glasses.

Taylor eventually opened up his website to anyone wanting to help strangers with short-term money problems, and the web not-for-profit was born. Here is how it works: People needing assistance send applications to the website (Taylor has a small staff, funded by a philanthropic organization). About 20% win final approval and are posted. Visitors to the site scroll through the requests and either fund one completely, contribute to it, or apply their donation toward the general grant fund. Modest Needs funded 1,582 people in 2007 and gave away $884,990 in grants. The average grant was only $560 – to help someone with a month’s rent or a doctor’s bill or a car repair or job-hunting expenses. Only a small percentage of Modest Needs donors pick specific recipients; most opt to let the organization pick for them. But almost all donors select preferred categories of recipients such as single parents, military families and victims of domestic violence. For instance, you can help a specific single mother buy new tires for her used car or you can donate to the general fund for all requests by single mothers.

When I read articles like this I want to stand up and cheer. I love the spirit of charitable entrepreneurialism. As the Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman once noted, in responding to the criticism that capitalism influences people to act in their own best interests (which indeed it does – it is based on that!); “Yes, and Americans found it to be in their own best interests to donate over $10 billion in private relief funds to Hurricane Katrina victims.” Most people want to act nobly and give and serve. It is how God wired us. One professor who studies philanthropy refers to “the happy part” of the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is activated when we give to people in need and to good causes, whether financially or with our time and labor. Isn’t it significant that seven out of every ten recipients of Modest Needs grants log back into the site as donors.

Modest Needs is one of a new crop of web not-for-profits that puts a face on charity and gives donors the satisfaction of knowing they are fixing problems and helping people directly. It is a powerful social phenomenon. This is the way the church needs to think – creatively and dynamically and entrepreneurially. We are a sleeping giant in many respects. Christians have enormous good will, ample resources, and our Lord’s commission. Each of us has it within himself to impact specific peoples’ lives and thereby (often) animate them to do the same. This is Kingdom living!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shocked to Realize

Donna Freitas is a religion professor at Boston University whose latest book, “Sex and the Soul,” reveals what she found when she studied sexuality among college students. The book idea emerged from a class she taught on “Dating and Friendships” at St. Michael’s College. She was surprised how many students wanted to get into the class. Freitas recalls,

“They were dying to have a conversation about spirituality and religion in relation to their dating lives. I saw in them a yearning to critique hookup culture (casual sexual encounters unencumbered by the burden of love and commitment) with spirituality and religion, even if they were unsure of what that meant. There was also a turning point during my class when my students came back from spring break. One student admitted out loud that she was participating in it but that it didn’t make her happy. Suddenly the whole class shifted: they were all shocked to realize that they were all unhappy; they were acting a certain way because they felt like that’s what they were supposed to do. I was interested in that dissonance between what they thought everyone wanted to do versus what they really wanted for themselves” (“Zipping It”; Christianity Today; August 2008).

There are so many things to write about regarding this fascinating interview that I will simply encourage you to read it at (even better, subscribe). Freitas, a self-described “feminist and liberal,” is no mouthpiece for conservative Christians, which makes her findings more credible in my opinion.

Here is what I want to touch on this week, embodied in her comment that students “were acting a certain way because they felt like that’s what they were supposed to do.” Friends, there is a reason the Bible describes people as sheep; we tend to be followers and follow convention. I was struck by this realization as a young Christian at age twenty-two at a fraternity brother’s bachelor party. The groom and four other groomsmen retired to one of our hotel rooms to watch X-rated movies. I declined and went to my room to watch NCAA football. They all trudged off to have their manly time looking decidedly unenthusiastic. Two of them told me the next day they really would have preferred to watch football but were nervous about saying so!

When I was a college student before my baptism at age twenty in 1983, the campus hook-up culture hadn’t really begun but the campus drinking culture was in full swing. I was no tee-totaler, but I soon found the partying rather uninspiring. However, I didn’t know of other choices (and admittedly didn’t search very hard for them). I thought this was what I was “supposed” to do, ironically enough.

How many non-religious people do you think there are who appear to be fixed in their secular outlook and lifestyle but really are unhappy and bored within? Do they know that Jesus invites them into a life of purpose and service, of nobility and character, into a life beyond sitting glazed in front of the tube and drinking with friends and accumulating more stuff and wearing the right clothing labels and recreating themselves into exhaustion? Heck, do most church folks know that Jesus invites us beyond this?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Prize

In 2007 Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize. The runner-up was a lady named Irena Sendler, who died on May 10, 2008. I want to tell you her story.

Sendler was a social worker in Warsaw, Poland when the Germans occupied it in 1939 and herded Jewish citizens into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto (they were later transported to concentration camps). She went in and out of the Ghetto several times a day under the guise of providing humanitarian aid, persuading Jewish parents to entrust their children to her. After smuggling the children out, she found Polish families to “adopt” them until the end of the war, or entrusted them to the protection of Catholic convents. She and her underground movement provided new names and identities to the Jewish children and only she knew their whereabouts. She was ingenious in finding ways to smuggle the children out of the Ghetto, using city sewers, underground tunnels and other routes, hiding them in boxes and suitcases. She even trained a dog to bark in the back of the car so it would stifle the cries of a scared child when they passed through a German checkpoint. Ever wary of German spies and surveillance, she wrote the names of the children, their aliases, and their adopting family on cigarette papers, and buried the papers in jars in her garden.

Eventually the German Gestapo caught her, severely tortured her, and sentenced her to death. Her humanitarian organization saved her by bribing the guards transporting her to her execution. The guards left her in the woods, unconscious and with broken arms and legs, telling superiors they had shot her. She was listed on public bulletin boards as among those who had been executed, so for the remainder of the war she lived in hiding, daring not even to attend her mother’s funeral. She continued her work for the Jewish children, able to walk only with crutches. After the war, she dug up the jars and attempted to find the children and return them to their parents; most of the parents had died at the Treblinka extermination camp. She was, however, able to return almost all of the children to extended family members.

Sendler’s story circulated after the war. In 1965 she was recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations (Oskar Schindler was also recognized thus). In 2003 she received the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian decoration. In 1999 a high school teacher in Kansas encouraged four of his students to investigate her life; they created a play, Life in a Jar, that has had over 240 performances in the United States, Canada and Europe. There are plans for a movie.

In my admittedly less-than-thorough investigation, I have found no indication that Irena Sendler was a religious person. Neither was Oskar Schindler. I am reminded of what the apostle Paul writes in Romans 2:14-15, that when non-believers act righteously they are in a sense confirming the image of God in which they have been created and God’s creational predisposition towards justice.

I’m wondering how much people will remember global warming fifty years from now (do we remember the “ice age” scares of the 1970’s?). But lives of courage, nobility, love, charity, and sacrifice leave timeless imprints in the world.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Your Faith is Important

Several months ago I read a column by a Houston Chronicle writer who referred to his “partner.” I happened to know that his “partner” was his wife. I wondered if this reference reflected a new Chronicle policy to cease using the term “spouse” so as to leave it ambiguous for the reader whether the relationship was same-sex or heterosexual. This would be in keeping with the politically correct trend to prevent “discrimination” by making language neutral and “non-judgmental.” I have not seen this happen again in the Chronicle apart from this columnist, but let’s hold the thought and move on to new and interesting developments.

A recent high profile fashion show in Paris featured a designer’s new line of unisex clothing. This in and of itself is not revolutionary. Unisex clothing is proliferating. One New York magazine noted a popular trend in which men buy women’s jeans in order to wear them as tight and skinny as possible. But what intrigued me about this fashion show was the designer’s rationale for his new unisex line. He proclaimed that originally human beings had been unisex, but later “devolved” (my word) to different sexes. Thus, his line of clothing was celebrating the original uniformity of human beings.

Let’s consider one more recent incident, a forum in Colorado in which a woman continually referred to her “significant other” only to reveal after several minutes that she was referring to her dog.

What is the common thread in these three? It is the moral confusion that pervades our age, particularly what happens when the Judeo-Christian worldview which formed western civilization loses influence. As the British Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton famously said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.” I wonder upon what basis the fashion designer makes his claim that human beings were originally unisex. I certainly understand, though, that apart from believing the Bible’s claim that human beings alone are created in God’s image, animals would seem to be equally precious to people. I think of the numerous times Dear Abby has mentioned the singular and unique pain of experiencing the death of a child, only to have a reader respond that she has no children but that her dog(s) were like her children and her pain at their loss is of the same degree. The Bible calls this kind of thinking “foolishness,” and it has nothing to do with intelligence. Many very intelligent people are fools. Wisdom, the Bible’s opposite of foolishness, emanates from a moral foundation based on something more than whims and feelings.

I am not a sky-is-falling kind of person; I’m not asking you to adopt an anxious and combative demeanor. But here is my point: What you are doing in church on Sunday is more than being encouraged and built up for personal faithful living; you are being equipped and fortified to live in the world as salt and light, witnessing to the revelation of God and upholding truth claims which often are disparaged but which mitigate against society sliding deeper into perversity and foolishness. Your faith is important. Not just for getting to heaven. Not just for being happy and fulfilled. But for taking a stand.