Monthly Archives: September 2011

How to Make America Great Again..and the Answer is Not Another Politician

We are a deeply divided country. Just bring up politics at work or in a social gathering and you will see how heated the conversation becomes. Americans have significantly different views about how our nation should be returned to its prior prominence. People are angry which makes logical conversations about our differences in opinion even harder. Something needs to change.

We are quick to jump on political bandwagons of change every election year. We quickly point the finger of blame at politicians and the “idiots” in Washington or our state capital. But what if we are to blame? What if we are actually at fault for the current state of our nation? What if we played a role in the current polarized, powder keg of American politics?

Mark Dunkelman explains in this article how the sad state of our nation is tied directly to our lack of community in towns and cities across America. Dunkelman tells how we each have three tiers of relationships. Our first tier is our close family and friend relationships. Next comes our middle tier relationships of those who we regularly come in contact with but aren’t intimate. These relationships come from a broad spectrum of our community. Finally we have the third tier that involves transactional relationships that are based on a shared interest.

When American society was healthy and balanced, communities fostered middle tier relationships. Immigrants lived in neighborhoods where lawyers, doctors and skilled workers lived together. Urban neighborhoods were connection points for people from different walks of life. People knew what the other side of a political debate felt because they had relationships with them. Politicians from either side of the aisle debated during the week but sat down for drinks on the weekend. Then something changed.

Middle class families left the urban centers for the suburbs. The internet allowed people to connect with those who shared their specific views. Instead of spending time on our front porches, we spend time in front of our TVs. Over the past fifty years Americans are connecting in deeper ways with their close intimate friends and family and connecting with third tier “friends” who share their specific beliefs. We have lost our middle tier relationships with those who are different from us.

So how do we make America great again? Personally, we need to look for middle tier relationships with those who are different from us. Get to know a parent who is from a different social class than our own. Frequent a “third place” (bar, coffee shop, bookstore) outside of our neighborhood and get to know the regulars. Attend community forums and listen instead of speaking your mind.

On a community level, we need to encourage new ways of planning neighborhoods. Instead of building another monolithic suburban neighborhood, let’s encourage creativity in our urban centers. Build affordable housing that encourages economic diversity in one neighborhood. Create community gathering spots where diverse people can connect with each other. Invest in urban neighborhoods without allowing gentrification to happen.

Ultimately our children are the hope of our country. As parents we need to encourage our children to develop relationships with those who are different ethnically and economically. We need to open up their eyes to how others think and feel. They will be the ones to form the neighborhoods and communities of the future.

The answer to making America great again is not Perry, Palin or even Obama. We are the answer. Stop pointing a finger at Washington and realize that each of us has caused this mess. We have the power to change our current political climate by changing how we view our relationships.


Adolescent Marks of Discipleship: Language

I don’t listen to music when I run because I like to hear what is going on around me. I also love the “quiet” because it allows me to think. As I ran by the middle school I was struck by the language that the 11 and 12 year olds were using. Then a little further along a teenage girl pulled into her driveway pumping the rap beats on her car stereo. As I finished my run I thought about what I hope my daughters are like in middle and high school. What are the character traits that I hope they exhibit? Deeper than that, what are the marks of discipleship for adolescents? If the Holy Spirit is moving in the heart and mind of a teenager, how will they talk, act and think?

This is my attempt at laying out the marks of discipleship for a middle or high school student who endeavors to follow Christ. Discipleship is a hard journey and takes time. It doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. My selfish, sinful nature is always trying to drag me back down as the Holy Spirit is purifying and strengthening my soul. I have definitely not mastered these marks.

I’ll start with addressing the issue of language.


James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (3:9-12).

Teenagers who are following Christ should talk differently then their peers who do not. If we allow the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and minds, then our language will change. We will edify others instead of tearing them down. Our words will be a breath of fresh air to those around us.

Unfortunately sexual humor is pervasive in our culture and especially with teenagers. This destroys the purity of sex that God created. Women are objectified. Teens who are questioning their sexuality are laughed at and bullied.

“Oh my God” is not meant to be used in frustration and flippantly like many do. We have already had to call Anna on this one at home. I bet she picked it up at school and didn’t know any better. But even at her age she needs to understand the reverence and honor that God deserves.

Purifying our language starts with looking critically at the music and movies that we watch. It is naive to think that those things do not affect us. On our recent mission trip, I didn’t allow students to listen to rap music for this reason. Teens also need to think critically about those who they choose to spend time with. Peer groups influence behavior in a major way.

Our children are just beginning their elementary years but Hillary and I shouldn’t wait until they are teens to talk about these marks of discipleship. We have to take an active role in instructing Anna and Norah about the language that they use. Are they encouraging each other? What words are appropriate and inappropriate? What TV shows encourage pure language? What friends are good for Anna and Norah? Hillary helps out in Anna’s class so she can see who Anna’s friends are at school.

Some of you might cringe at this active parenting style. It is the path we have chosen. After 12 years of youth ministry I have begun to make some connections between parenting styles and students’ behavior. Sitting back and not steering a child’s behavior is like planting a garden and just letting it go. Weeds grow up and animals come in and destroy it. The best gardens require time and energy.


Urban Beauty and Groundhogs

View from our front porch

It is easy for me to notice beauty when I am in the mountains of Colorado or in another place of obvious beauty. It’s harder for me to notice beauty in my normal routine. Most of the time I am moving too fast to slow down and notice.

This summer, on our youth mission trip to Mobile, Alabama, I was sitting by Mobile Bay taking in the sunset over the water. In that moment of beauty I felt close to God. My time with the Lord there felt more real and substantial.

Fast forward a few months to our new home in downtown Champaign. We downsized from three bedrooms to two bedrooms which meant I lost the office which is where I usually had my time with the Lord. As the weather has cooled, my new spot is now on our front porch. It is hardly a place of stillness and quiet with the city buses and commuters whizzing by. But for me it is a spiritual refuge to start my day.

As I have slowed down, watched and listened to the urban life around me there is beauty here. Whether it is watching the playfulness of squirrels or the spider waiting for its next meal, I can see beauty. God the Creator is in the extravagant beauty of mountains and ocean coastlines, but he is also in the “routine beauty” of our urban neighborhood. I just have to slow down to notice it.

One last story to close. A few weeks ago I came home and Hillary and the girls were on the porch. They has spotted a groundhog near our front porch and scared it off. I had time to snap this picture of the surprise visitor. He is just above the deck in the middle.

Yesterday morning as I was reading on the porch, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. As I looked toward the movement I fully expected to see a squirrel or bird. As I looked, it was much bigger than a bird or a squirrel. It was the big, fat groundhog staring back at me! We stared each other down and I wondered what to do next. I thought of chucking something at it but decided for the more peaceful route and just stared it down. The groundhog slowed ambled across our front yard toward our neighbor’s fence. Then it was gone. Urban beauty once again. At least until we realize that our urban visitor is destructive.

Where do you see beauty in your normal routine?


Creativity Roadblocks

Why do we block new and creative ideas? Why do we create roadblocks to new ways of thinking that we desperately need? What are we afraid of?

I have realized that part of my current calling is to bring creativity and new ideas into the Church. Our churches desperately need to change if we hope to re-embrace the ancient path of following Christ. I am currently serving in the PCUSA denomination which has shown a membership decline each year since 1965. Continuing to function as we always have won’t help. Something needs to change. How do we remain true to our biblical foundation yet use creativity to meet a changing culture?

This morning I read this post from creativity guru Seth Godin which was a real encouragement to me. Lately I have asked myself if it is just easier to do my job without making changes. Is it really worth it? Is it worth the criticism? Godin encourages the critics of creativity and innovation to stop with the “sharp wit and enmity” and support the creators. But it is hard for people to leave the status quo when the future isn’t secure.

University of Pennsylvania just concluded two studies which point to our fear of creativity. They made the following conclusions:

  • Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
  • People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical — tried and true.
  • Objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it.
  • Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.

We who are called to creatively envision new solutions have our work cut out for us. It is a constant struggle to help people see a future that is better than the present. We don’t innovate for our parents and grandparents. We innovate for our children and grandchildren.

And we need your support.

Stories of Shalom

Downtown Champaign from atop our church

What are the needs within your city? Within your neighborhood? There are needs all around us whether we live in urban, suburban or rural areas. God calls us to seek shalom where he has placed us (Jeremiah 29:7).

Christianity Today just launched new multimedia project titled “This is Our City” to spotlight the ways that Christians are working toward holistic peace in their cities.

Here is a video which shows the heart behind this project.

Where is God already moving in your city and how can you join him there?