Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why We Ask (Bill's Take on Share-a-thon)

If you knew how much each of us doesn’t like raising money, you’d know what a miracle it is that we love Share-a-thon.

Share-a-thon (or “Sharathon” – there is no official spelling) is the on-air fundraising event that supplies support for The JOY FM, the listener-supported radio station where I work. Of course, it’s nice to have a salary. But if turning our show into a giant cash register for a week were only to pay our salaries and keep the lights on, I couldn’t do it. None of us could. Honestly.

We’ve all seen grinning televangelists whose emotional and overblown appeals only heighten their incredulous promises of leveraged miracles to those who give “sacrificially” (wheeling and dealing God’s grace: the more money, the bigger the miracle). We vomit in their general direction.

And while we’ve tried to avoid the association, we do get lumped-in with the charlatans from time to time. Still, we have to raise the money to operate. And radio ain’t cheap. It takes around 3.5 million dollars a year to run this place. We cover three media markets, or (as the car drives) over 200 miles north-to-south in Florida. The JOY FM is actually five separate FM stations with numerous, low-power “translators” that fill in the gaps. And we aren’t licensed by the FCC to sell any commercials.

Dave and Carmen (who have both been in commercial radio) regularly celebrate their freedom from playing to an advertiser and from skirmishes between the sales and programming departments. Non-commercial, listener supported radio is accountable to our listeners, not advertisers. A sense of shared ownership accompanies each gift of support. Besides, each supporter’s gift is an investment of trust.

We will never get over the fact that people voluntarily support the station. What? People willingly part with some of their money… because we ask them for it? It makes no sense! It shouldn’t work. It wouldn’t work unless there were something more to it than you can get from purchasing music on iTunes. JOY FM supporters are not consumers. They are partners in the truest sense of that word with the mission of The JOY FM. When they give a financial gift, they are investing in a relationship that becomes more valuable over time, yielding its profits in intangible benefits to themselves, the community and God’s kingdom.

Benefits become tangible in efforts like 20 Wishes, T-shirts for Turkeys, feeding the homeless, shoes for orphans, Homes of Hope for India, The Summer Cruise, and live broadcasts from your favorite artists' kitchen tables. These special programs and humanitarian outreaches are realized through The JOY FM community, not just through the on-air personalities. Community support engenders trust and enthusiasm from others, resulting in partnerships with record labels, artists, businesses and individuals who buy-in to the vision of our using our strength for service.

The bigger picture of the matrix of relationships that form The JOY FM community reveals the unquantifiable effects of daily encouragement, life-support and spiritual transformation. (We could tell stories…)

So, it seems to me when we ask for money, we’re really not asking for ourselves. It’s not the consumer cost-value equation. It’s a partnership to enable imitation of the life of Christ and instantiation of the Gospel. That’s why we ask. In the middle of a large support-drive for a mission to Jerusalem churches, Paul anchored his appeal in the giving-grace of the Gospel:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
Giving is a grace – an enablement by God made possible by the poverty of His Son. When we learn how to give, we experience the riches of God’s grace in Christ. That’s why we stress the blessing of God during these Share-a-thon appeals. It’s real.

That’s why we ask.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How Christlike I am Not

On The Morning Cruise we've talked about Carmen's mom several times. The first weekend she was admitted to the hospital, my wife Kimberly and I were ready to drive to Tampa just to sit with Carmen, hold her hand. It's scary to watch your loved ones go through pain. We went through it in 2005 as my mother battled lung cancer. You don't need lots of well-wishers and miracle cures, you need a little understanding and a lot of support.

When Carmen's mom was diagnosed with MS, it soon became clear that their family would be looking at a drawn-out, daily wrestling rather than a definite cure and rehab. Since then, with failed treatments and a new strategy, starting today, using agressive and somewhat risky drugs, the battle has been worse than expected. And Carmen, strong as she is in her faith and character, is at times hanging by a thread emotionally.

You would think your closest friends, your teammates, would be able more than anyone to enter into your experience, feel your sufferings, empathize. But I find myself emotionally stunted, as I have so often in so many personal situations. In times when I should emulate Jesus, weeping at the tomb of Lazarus though he was about to raise him from the dead, I am like an emotional cripple. I've even faced this with my children, using the excuse at a tender moment when I feel their pain intellectually but not emotionally, "Daddy's cry-er is broken."

I'm sure this pychological phenomenon is ripe with possible pathologies. My disability probably has a name and is likely connected to my childhood in some way. But I'm not interested in that. It's also a pathology of sin, selfishness and a lack of Christ-imbued character. The bottom line is, I just want to be more like Christ, more naturally able to laugh or cry with Kimberly or Madison, able to feel the pain of a close friend like Carmen, rather than merely "understanding" it.

My friend Louis sent me a short, unrelated blog on the same subject. The Frost poem he referenced caught my attention (naturally!) and put these feelings into an exercise in self-examination. I boldfaced the two key lines:

I was leafing through my old book of Robert Frost's poetry last night, musing on the death of a friend from pancreatic cancer. I was drawn to "Out, Out", the title of which is taken from Macbeths' "Out, out brief candle" speech.

How cynical is Macbeth's speech! And in Frost's poem, the ending haunts... "And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs".

Our confidence is heaven, gained by Jesus sacrifice and the gift of faith is so out of congruence with the world. I think so much of the world lives as if our lives here are truly "a walking shadow... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Do we live before men so that they can see the hope that is in us? Is Jesus making a visible change in our lives so that we give hope to those in despair?

These are the questions that come in such a time.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Independence: A Thing of the Past?

"What (do you think) is necessary for a nation to maintain its liberty?” I threw that question on the family lunch table on Independence Day.

This is dad’s idea of fun.

The teenagers, as you might expect, seized the opportunity for sarcasm with retorts like, “a Taco Bell on every corner” and “less of these kinds of questions!” But then Kimberly chimed in with, “How about people willing to pay the price for freedom?” and the conversation took on a more serious cast. Freedom, as we should all know, isn’t free.

But beyond the consideration of the price of freedom, my question had to do with maintaining independence. This question is important because every generation faces the opportunity to improve what is inherited. I worry that the America my children inherit and leave to their children may be less free, less independent than the America I inherited from my fathers. And it’s partly my fault.

I was taught the values and virtues of freedom and independence, which were inextricably American. America was “the land of the free and the home of the brave” precisely because we all loved freedom as much as life and had something worth being brave for. We knew we weren’t beyond reproach (this was the era of Vietnam and Nixon), but we still saw ourselves as the best experiment in liberty in world history, as possessing something that needed to be defended and preserved for the good of the world, not just ourselves.

My children are not learning the same lessons or inheriting the same values. Neither are yours. Our universities and academies have turned the self-critique of our democratic society into the rhetoric of self-hatred. My generation is staying silent while the flag of anti-Americanism is daily raised, anthemed and pledged in the media and in the halls of higher learning. The newly-enlightened oligarchy seem to be shifting the foundation-stones of our whole country. Hollywood is helping, by supplying the erosion of constant amusement together with destructive narratives condemning American institutions of both God and country (supply your own list of examples by visiting Blockbuster).

After a bit of reflection on the whole matter of maintaining independence, it seemed to me that I could identify at least three large ideas on which America as a free and independent nation rests. First, the kinds of foundational freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights seemed fundamental to our forefathers and should be considered the same by us. Freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. cannot be sacrificed without our independence being lost. Yet today, with various laws and proposals as well as the new bigotry and prejudice of political correctness, we have caused some of these fundamental freedoms to collapse under their own weight, exchanging rights for guarantees.

Second, being a nation of laws, organized around a constitution rather than a personality or a dynasty makes America one of the greatest political experiments in history. The conditions for such a nation to work have included a sense of personal morality and responsibility, along with the presumption of an adequately educated and informed population. We need to meet these conditions in every generation if we are to remain free and independent. Leaders and followers today place way too much emphasis on popularity and individual charisma. What we get, then, is snake-oil salesmen rather than statesmen. No wonder we elect them, then we want to stone them, a bit like the crowd who wanted to crown Jesus, then a week later shouted, “Crucify him.”

Finally, we need to remember that our sovereignty is derived, not intrinsic. We have the right to be independent because we have been “endowed by our Creator” with inalienable rights. Though the Declaration of Independence stops short of articulating a fully Christian perspective at that point, its language can be (and clearly was) read and understood in a Christian framework. Admitting the Christian character of colonial America is not, however, where the argument ends. For the genius of America is in informing an Enlightenment vision of liberty and freedom with the industry, morality, and shared culture of a godly people. That is why I cringe when I hear Christians responding to questions of liberty and maintaining independence with answers like “elect only Christians” or “get prayer back in schools.” Those are theocratic answers, not democratic ones.

Of all people since the first generations of Americans, we need to refresh the values and vision of Americanism in our own minds and in teaching our children. Americanism is not a term of intolerance and backwards bigotry, but rather of true independence and personal ideals. We are a nation of humility before God, laws over kings, and fundamental freedoms. If we can understand these things, embrace them and pass them on, then maybe there is hope for the next generation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eighteen Years and Counting

There is no traditional gift for the eighteenth anniversary; you're supposed to make it to twenty for china. Twenty-five years starts the really good gifts: silver, pearl, ruby and so on. On June 7, Kimberly and I celebrated eighteen years. For us, it was signficant for reasons other than anniversary gifts. With divorce rates on the upward march, eighteen years of marriage seems to make us veterans who have survived a few battles. On the other hand, for our friends, many of whom have experienced broken relationships and divorce, it was an opportunity for muted celebration, tinged with self-reflection. One friend posted this comment on my Facebook page: Any secrets of longevity you want to pass on...?? This post is my reflection on her question.

Kimberly and I are really just beginning. I hope to be offering advice once we reach thirty-six years, forty years, not eighteen. Maybe that statement reveals an expectation and conviction my wife and I share: marriage is for life. We view being married as a covenant relationship, not a formalizing contract. For so many young couples, getting married merely validates their love and indicates the idealistic belief that they want to spend the rest of their lives together because they enjoy each other so much. The current norm, as I see living examples of it, is to share everything a married couple would, including a bed, before the contract is formalized. The norm Kimberly and I share is that marriage gives us the sacred right and the secure bond of entwining two lives together in a way that is unbreakable. That standard and expectation has guided us toward a "long haul" trajectory and protected us during hard times. The norm, however, has not been our consistent experience.

Complete vulnerability in this public forum is not possible: I won't detail our varied experience, but I will be open enough to confess that in these eighteen years we have been on the brink of a broken marriage more than once. Marriage, after all, may be a sacred covenant, but it binds together two sinners. My own sins have been the most prominent and damaging. Into a beautiful union I brought my separatist tendencies: selfishness, insensitivity, temper, insecurity, and more. Twice, our inability to get along has brought us to marriage counseling. (I would highly advice shelling out the money for qualified, sensible help as a safety net for a failing marriage.) A few times, Kimberly has had to decide, against all her feelings, to stay together. I have been hopeless a few times too. Neither one of us has wanted to settle for a lousy relationship just because we believe marriage is a sacred covenant. But both of us have benefited from going through the battles, letting them season us together rather than break us apart.

Like a crockpot stew, marriage seasons, mellows and paradoxically grows more intensely flavorful as two people endure the heat and pressure of common life. Children add to the mix. Our oldest two of five have reached the teenage years with typical challenges to family identity and unity. Still, we have unusually great kids (in my unbiased opinion) who are bringing us joy, despite the fact that the example we have set for them over the years is far from perfect. Kimberly and I are maturing as individuals too. Her words to me, that she is "the blessed one" for walking the aisle and taking the vows eighteen years ago, were better than any gift. They were the fruit of slow-cooked enrichment.

We have more miles to go, more battles to fight (hopefully more collectively than antagonistically) and more decisions to hold. Clearly, we have not been in this covenant alone. The Creator of covenant has unquestionably given us the strength of will, weakness of self and promised blessing to keep us together when everything else failed. The faith under which we sacralized our marriage has been our lifeline and tether. I don't pretend for a moment that Christianity automatically guarantees a divorce-proof marriage. But I do recognize and assert that not only the moral and social restraints but also the model and living example, along with the covenantal framework in which Christian marriage is embedded, have given us a frame to hold us together and a fortitude to make the long journey.

Here's to the hope, then, that Kimberly and I -- and all who enter the covenant of marriage -- will endure the distance and go for the gold, loving the race all the way to the finish.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry and Philosophy

There's nothing wrong with things. The world is largely made of things. We buy and sell and trade things. We watch things and type on things and eat things and move around in things. But life is more than things.

Ideas drive the world. They start as seeds in some brilliant mind, usually a mind that doesn't draw a hard line between ideas and things. Their ideas then spread to people whose chief concern is ideas, not things. Idea people usually live in universities and write books. Other people who love ideas but aren't professionals take those ideas and spin them out in some way: a book, a screenplay, a course, a poem, a policy or even a program. That's when the world of ideas meets the world of things.

It happens, then, in theaters, classrooms, boardroooms, talk shows, that ideas take concrete shape. If ideas stay in the ivory tower, they are useless; however, ideas are not useless simply because someone can't define their "cash value." Ideas ultimately create a matrix out of which cultures and societies are shaped and re-shaped.

That's why I love poetry and philosophy. Poetry interfaces the world of things and ideas with the eloquence of art. Philosophy proposes, analyzes, criticizes, and promotes ideas and their interface with culture and society.

Click the painting below to watch the first of a three-part video of a talk I gave at the Christian Philosophers Society at USF (University of South Florida), Tampa.

If you're really into these ideas, there are two more parts to the talk. I delivered it to a small group of very interested and intelligent undergraduates majoring in philosophy, religion, biology, psychology, etc.

You can find them on Facebook.

If I have a passion for my generation and this moment in American society, it is for us to be more thoughtful, more aware, more appreciative of ideas, whether in their "raw" form, or shaped by poets, producers or preachers in ways that interface with the world of things.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where Are the Reformers?

During a Presidents’ Day weekend search for a TV special on Abraham Lincoln, I stumbled across National Geographic Channel’s “Prison Nation.” I was riveted to this documentary that told the story of America's troubled prison system where more than 2.2 million convicts live in a world of increasing violence, extreme crowding, rampant drug use and gang warfare. I couldn’t watch it passively; instead, I set my mind to a question: if Christ-followers are called to be salt and light in the world, where are the reformers of this generation?

Germany had her Luther, England her Wilberforce. Our most prominent social reform, the move from slavery to civil rights, was fueled by the Christian imagination of such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These pioneers did not have an easy time with their causes and didn't live to see the fruit of their labors. Neither were their vocations the same. But I can't help but believe God might be calling and equipping someone in our generation to meet the challenges presented by the overcrowding, corruption and largely disappointing results of our current system.

By this observation, I don't mean to imply that Christians aren't active within the system. Ministries like Prison Fellowship and, locally, House of Hope, are doing great good. But it seems to me that the American penal system is overburdened by trying to solve social problems it wasn't designed to fix. From what I saw in "Prison Nation," many young men find themselves behind bars for misdemeanor crimes (drug possession, for example) where their need to survive hardens them. After three years, an average sentence for many first-timers, they are released into society as seasoned criminals. Add to that dynamic the national immigration crisis, and you wind up with a massive overcrowding problem in prisons and unsafe streets. I read that in California (where "Prison Nation" was filmed), the prison population was twice the operating capacity of most prisons. Standard prison ministries can't fix the problem. But they may provide a clue to where the answer lies.

Perhaps God will call someone already involved in prison ministry to think about the entire penal system on a different level. Maybe a guard, a lawyer, a judge, or an inmate will find herself or himself energized and equipped to read, study, get educated and get involved in real reform. It will take abilities and experience beyond what most of us have to effect a change in the system. But our Christian vision of spreading Christ's kingdom and promoting the message of redemption is the right place to start.

In fact, moving away from a redemptive vision of prison may have been where our trouble started. In a fascinating essay, James Beha develops a thesis, very relevant to the current question, that nineteenth century prison reform moved away from a redemptive model to one essentially therapeutic:

...major shifts within the criminal justice system and society at large led to the transformation of the concept of rehabilitation from a religious and spiritual process (“redemptive rehabilitation”) to a highly medicalized and rationalized process (“reformative rehabilitation”). This transformation was driven by a small band of social-scientific pioneers acting during a period of major social upheaval following the Civil War. (Beha, James J.,Redemption to Reform: The Intellectual Origins of the Prison Reform Movement(August 5, 2008), p. 774. Available at SSRN:

Beha details this shift to demonstrate how it fit within the larger cultural shifts of the nineteenth century.

The prison reforms of the late nineteenth century were part of a much larger transformation in American society, which can be termed, following Professor Nelson, “the quest for a scientific morality.” This quest was related to two developments in the late nineteenth century: the move toward a more secular culture and a related move to greater bureaucracy and professionalization (Ibid, 783).

As a Christian, I react to Beha's description of nineteenth century reforms in two ways: 1) with a growing appreciation for the way any societal institution must adapt to changing needs and demands, and 2) with a sense of determination to do my part as a teacher and radio personality to call out whomever might answer the call to bring a Christian mind, Christian imagination and Christian ethics and values to this pressing problem. Maybe someone reading this blog will hear a much greater voice through my feeble reflection.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Talent, Character...Whatever Happened to Virtue?

A phone call that never made it on the air got me thinking about virtue. The caller, a practicing Catholic, was reacting to a conversation that Carmen, Dave and I had about talent and character. Blogger Pete Wilson (a Nashville pastor) got us going on this subject with his post on the recent troubles of olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Pete's point, the germ of our conversation, was that character is ultimately more important than giftedness because (as I read him) in times of stress, temptation, or relaxation our character rises to the top. For Phelps, character rising meant public exposure of "behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment." For several readers of Wilson's blog, however, the flaw was not Michael's bad judgment but Pete's attempt at good judgment in pointing to Michael as an illustration of his point.

After our on-air rant, the caller voiced his disappointment that people, including those reactors we pointed out from Pete's blog (a cross-section of Christians, we assume) seem to be all-too willing to be selective with Christian virtue. Faith, Hope and Love, the three "theological virtues" in classical theological texts, are acknowledged, while other virtues are barely even recognized in Christian teaching. Prudence (proper judgment), temperance (restraint), fortitude (courage) and justice are terms so foreign they must be parenthetically defined when mentioned. Yet these four qualities of Christian character are so familiar to our Western forebears (Aquinas, Augustine, Plato) that we, devoid of teaching or talking of these "cardinal virtues," look foreign to them. Thus, Pete Wilson spoke a strange language for some readers when he exercised prudence in commenting on Michael Phelps.

Rejecting prudence in the name of love is commonplace: "After all, the Bible says 'Judge not'!" Nevermind that the difference between condemnation and discernment -- both synonyms for "judgment" -- is formal and material. The unpardonable sin (sorry, "mistake") in today's public discourse is judgment of any kind. If Michael Phelps or anyone else we idolize for talent's sake displays a public character-slip, we may lament it, gossip about it, ignore it, identify with it or forgive it, but we may not under any condition treat it as moral failure. We don't even have a category for moral failure anymore. There is no such thing as culpable sin, only commonplace mistakes. How could the eyes of love even recognize sin, we reason? Love so sloppily applied that it removes prudence is cannabalistic -- virtue devouring virtue.

Comments on public forums give concrete expression to the problem. And the irony is that, in the name of love the "haters" are demonized in the most vulgar, hateful terms, as this comment in a Dallas Morning News blog illustrates:

The haters - and if you're here bashing Michael you are hypocritical, sanctimonious, moralizing, jealous, vindictive haters, don't fool yourself by thinking otherwise - ignore the simple fact that people break "laws" all the time.

The contributor recognizes the hypocrisy of Phariseeism while ignoring his own hypocritical condemnation of those who mix moral discernment with love. Label it Puritanism and you might as well call discernment the unpardonable sin (ahem, "mistake"). By the consensus of comments on the news blog, moral discernment is the only sin there is. Lawbreaking is human. Pointing out that there are laws is Puritanical.

To be plain at the risk of Puritanism, I say there was nothing unloving about Pete Wilson's using Michael Phelps' poor public behavior as an example of our tendency to exalt giftedness over character. He stopped short of condemning Michael (temperance), yet he did not shrink from confronting his audience's idols (fortitude). He treated Michael's lawbreaking as a public character slip -- and it became public the minute his picture hit the press -- yet his point was not Michael's failure but our own in turning a fallible man into an idol. Michael can outperform anyone in the pool, but that does not make him a god. It does make him a public figure who would do well to consider the lesson Pete Wilson offered in his blog: talent sells, but character sustains.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Six Year Old and a Smart Bomb

As we sit at the two-top table in Chick-fil-a, we are not alone. Munching on his mayonnaise-laden chicken strip is my Payton, celebrating his sixth birthday with dad. Beside him, all around, in my pocket and in my head are the voices of those who want and need my attention. They are calling right now. I can't answer. I need this bit of my day to remind you and me of what we already know, what the farmer knows; the wisdom of the athlete, the artist. All tell us to make small deposits, seemingly insignificant, in something beyond ourselves that has not yet taken shape. Yesterday, that's the voice that won the contest – the voice I finally listened to at Chick-fil-a that told me to waste time with my child. It wasn't the first time that voice had spoken, though.

About a decade earlier I was doing something "important" at grad school,commuting to Orlando twice a week. As I drove toward another degree, Kimberly and I were raising two children, a boy and a girl and welcoming the third into our home. I had been fairly hands-on with Will, now 15 (then 6) and was enjoying his new stage of post-toddler independence as a pretext for making more time to study. Kimberly's home-work was just as strenuous and even more important, focused on the heart and heritage of our home. Wisely, one day she confronted me over the seemingly benign distance I had allowed between my firstborn and me: "You know, Bill," she began calmly, "Your son Will is a really cool kid. You should get to know him."

Have you ever heard of a smart bomb? A smart bomb is a precision-guided munition. With surgical accuracy, a smart bomb hits and destroys precisely what is targeted, no more. Kimberly's rebuke was like a smart bomb in my heart, aimed at my selfish inwardness. Conquered, my broken heart found new resolve to not let Will's childhood escape my notice. Last night I enjoyed the spoils of victory, sitting at the dining room table for an hour with Will and Madison (13) for a laugh-at-stupid-videos session initiated by them. A great waste of time. Smart bombs break our souls free from the dungeons of self-importance and feigned efficiency; a wife's wise reproof can turn us from the bondage of self-imposed routine into the "wasted" activity of liberated play with a six year old.

Now at the table with the other six year old, I am flooded with the memory of my previous indifference and the effect of the smart bomb. I am enjoying this interaction: Payton putting mayo on his chicken strips; Payton offering to share his waffle fries; trying to negotiate six inches of softswirl ice cream; lecturing dad on ethics ("cops can't get busted" / "ice cream has no laws"). What if I had missed this opportunity? Thank God for the wisdom of a wife who knows how to arm and aim a smart bomb. Thank God for this moment in which the important is not evident and the "waste" of time becomes the seed of a fruitful, future relationship.