Q: What does God want from me?
A: No one thing, and probably not the same thing every day. Some days God wants you to work hard at your job, making a difference with your skills and bending the arc of commerce toward fairness and equality. Some days God wants you to put your family first and be to them a steady source of caring and kindness, an exemplar of what is good about humanity. Some days God wants you to give your time and resources away for the good of others.
At some point in every day, I think God wants to hear your voice in prayer. Whether you are confessing of complaining, aching or exulting, God wants to hear from you.
In large-scale terms, God wants you to be worker for justice and mercy, a maker of peace, a builder of bridges, a repairer of broken streets, a healer of broken lives. Your life matters to God. God can take what you do and what others do, and bring about the restoration of God's people.
Q: How do I share my faith?
A: First, do the next right thing. Do what Jesus said to do: love God, love your neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the outcast, love your enemy.
Second, do more right things. Do them without expecting anything in return. Give your wealth away.
Third, if someone asks how and why, tell them, "My Lord has need of it."
Fourth, if someone asks who is your Lord, tell them what you believe to be true.
In other words, to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, preach the Gospel by living the Gospel. If necessary, use words.
Q: Which translation of the Bible is the best?
A: The one that you actually read.
Q: Is Islam a religion or a political ideology?
A: Like Christianity, it seems to be both. The issue, as in all religions, is how people use it: to gain power or to help the powerless, to attain right-opinion or to do the next right thing, to be superior or to be humble.
Q: Is there a perfect denomination?
A: No. Any that claims to be perfect should be avoided. All denominations, indeed religion itself, is human-made. Our God is awesome, but we are flawed, all of us.
Q: Are there any stupid questions?
A: Yes, many. But the most stupid question is the one you are afraid to ask. God can heal our stupidity. But our fear and silence block God.
Q: What does the baby need?
A: Hard to say. Could be hungry. Could be tired. Could be poopy. Could need to burp. Baby doesn't know, except at some visceral level, and baby can't communicate. Yet the need is real.
It's like the needs of people around us. Sometimes they say exactly what their need is. More often, they hint, they come at it obliquely, they act out, or they voice a need they think is acceptable when, in fact, their actual need is deeper and, they fear, not as likely to win favor.
So we -- caregivers of babies and caregivers of persons -- do the best we can. We try this, we try that, and we leave room for discovery. Or that's what we should do. The point is persistence, patience and flexibility.
Q: Are two computer screens better than one?
A: Depends on what you value. Do you value focus or accessibility?
Same question arises with regard to email: should you read all email as it comes in or filter and archive so as not to be bothered? Same question arises re children: Do you want to hear their questions or stay focused on your cell phone conversation or your work?
If your highest value is focus, then by all means prevent distractions, whether by email alerts or children. Make email wait until you're ready for it. Make the child wait for you to finish your call -- and to wonder why your call matters more than his need.
But if you value accessibility -- making yourself available to others, making room for their needs, maybe even putting their needs first -- then a second screen can be helpful. So can an open line for text messages, email and phone calls. So can talking with your child while walking and checking in on her day.
When a New York Times technology writer tackled this question, he voted for focus and judged the second screen by whether it helped or hindered focus. Seems to me it matters more that we be available to the world around us, especially to the people we hold dear.
That's what Jesus did, after all. The disciples told Bartimaeus to be still. Jesus made room fort his intrusion.
Q: What is the tithe? Why should I tithe?
A: Tithe is the first tenth-portion of the harvest. If your harvest yields 100 bushels of grain, you keep 90 bushels and give 10 bushels to God. What do you do with the 90 bushels? Anything you want. Provide for living expenses, pay your taxes, give to charities, save for future needs. Up to you.
What does God do with the 10 bushels? The same things God does with our lives: promote justice, work for reconciliation, heal the sick and the blind, liberate the oppressed, draw all humanity closer to its God-given purposes.
How do you give the 10 bushels to God? Up to you. Many give to their faith community to support the Godly work that it does. The faith community, in turn, decides how to deploy those tithes. A healthy faith community gives itself away to the world. It can also provide a gathering place for the community. If all it does is fund that gathering place, the community has lost its way.
Now, why should I tithe? Two reasons:
First, gratitude. Gratitude for the 100 bushels you harvest, for that 100 bushels came from God. Many say, "I earned it." That is delusional. We harvest on land God created, using resources God created, deploying skills God gave us, in partnership with people whom God nurtures. The great lie told by Mammon is that we earn our wealth and therefore we get to keep it all.
Second, win the battle with Mammon. Unmask the lie, break free from the great deception, understand the true nature of creation.
Q: Why do we give things up for Lent?
A: It's easier to give up things for forty days than it is to amend our lives.
A short-term break from chocolate is well within our comfort zone. Tithing would take us beyond comfort.
A short-term regimen of prayer is manageable. A lifetime commitment to loving our enemies is crazy.
The Lenten journey from ash cross to palm cross seems orderly. An unending promise to care for a child leaves no room for "done."
Wearing purple while eagerly awaiting white offers a nice rhythm. But where is the pleasing rhythm in giving everything you are to another person, or turning away from Mammon, or seeking an uncertain today of sobriety, or changing one's occupation to being a "watered garden," a "repairer of breaches," a "restorer of streets"?
Lent is the easy road that suggests the hard road.
Q: How can we address Bible texts like the Transfiguration with more honesty?
A: The usual answer is to understand the difference between meaning and history. Despite the claims of Biblical literalists, Scripture was written to convey meaning, not to relate history. Thus, whether or not an event where Jesus glowed and talked with long-dead heroes actually happened as described in Matthew, the meaning of the event shines through. Several layers of meaning, in fact, that take the believer far deeper than a simple miracle story. In effect, the books of the Bible are like the parables that Jesus told: powerful ways to talk about things that are difficult to talk about, to plumb the meaning of creation, bondage, liberation, sin and redemption, prophetic witness, Israel's narrative, and all that happened to, around and with Jesus.
A second answer is necessary, too. Digging into a Bible story and wrestling with its details, its language, its characters, its trajectory from and toward other stories, and its place in the life of Israel or Jesus is a powerful, inspiring way to draw closer to God. Whether or not the strange dialog between Peter and Jesus has historical merit, the dialog itself holds up a challenging mirror to our own engagement with Jesus and the way we try to keep that engagement controlled and safe.
Q: What do you suppose the metric is for a city to take on the appellation of "A City of Faith"?
A: Tough question, ironic and yet challenging. Cities that have the most overt discussions of religion often seem to be the most hostile to human freedom and opportunity. I think of the aggressive religiosity of the Bible Belt and how Scripture has been used to buttress slavery, segregation and homophobia.
But then religion and faith aren't synonymous. Faith seems best expressed in values and actions, like sheltering the homeless.
I would look, then, for how a city handles unemployment, hunger, children in abusive homes, educational opportunity for all, inequalities, charitable giving, open doors to all, and how the community responds to crises.
I wouldn't count the number of churches, synagogues and mosques, or measure percentage of population in weekly worship. Those measures can be deceptive. Faith is known by actions on behalf of other people, rather than regularity in occupying a pew.
Q: Would you like to advertise with us?
A: This question came to me from a firm that specializes in social media advertising. I am interested in getting the word out about Fresh Day. But their price seemed high and their service not compelling.
More than that -- and the reason for taking your time on the matter -- is that I am questioning the whole advertising paradigm. I know that Google can make billions posting paid ads on its search results, and Facebook can profit from ads placed on my news feed. But do the sponsors get anything in return? Do people actually buy products because they see an ad on Google?
Now I see that Firefox, my favorite browser, will start displaying advertisements. I think I will switch browsers. I have made a similar move on watching television programs -- always record, never watch live, fast-forward through ads.
I am convinced that word-of-mouth is the best way to promote anything, from a product to a service to a church to an idea.
I would like to know what you think. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Why don't you automate your entire subscription process?
A: Two reasons, and the second goes beyond magazine subscriptions and speaks to larger issues facing us all.
First reason: subscriptions are automated to a certain extent, maybe 80% of the way. Going the remaining 20% would require more development expense than I consider necessary.
Second reason: like a farmer walking his field and feeling the soil, I learn from handling the final 20% of subscriptions. I celebrate each new subscriber. I sense people taking the risk of trying this new magazine. I appreciate each new life I am about to touch.
I think this is true of life beyond subscriptions. Teachers could automate grading papers, for example, by using the tools large employers use to sift through resumes. But they would miss handling the soil of their students' minds.
Institutions like banks have learned that, as deft as their automated banking services can get, there is still need for "personal banking." They need to hear customers' voices as they explain needs.
I turn away from products and services that don't offer personal customer service. I'm all for Frequently Asked Questions, user forums and online documentation. But at some point, I might need a live person to resolve my quandary.
Children need their parents. Friends need to see faces, not just read postings. We can do a lot remotely, using automated systems, but the final 5% or 20% needs a personal touch.
Q: How long is 60 years?
A: A century ago, 60 years was the entire lifespan for most Americans. It's still the life expectancy in 32 underdeveloped nations.
Sixty years is two generations. In fast-paced modern times, that means sea-changes. Today's 60-year-old and today's newborn came into vastly different worlds.
Inventions six decades ago included using nuclear power to create electricity, commercial computer, solid-body electric guitar, telephone answering machine, videotape recorder, power steering, transistor radio, color television, polio vaccine, oral contraceptive, solar cell, kidney transplant. Not to mention Sports Illustrated, the Corvette and Elvis Presley.
Sixty years is twice as long as Jesus lived. It's the time between his death and the writing of John's Gospel.
Sixty years is 21,915 sunrises, each one a gift from God.
Q: Don't you like the elderly?
A: I love the elderly. I'll be one myself soon enough. I love all people, in fact, though I am tempted to draw the line at homophobic thugs and child abusers.
In my church development work, I urge older generations to get out of the way. We have had our turn running churches. We have worked hard to get our needs met. Now it's time for younger generations to have their turn in leadership, and we certainly want their needs to matter.
Yes, meeting the needs of others inevitably brings change. We have been allowed to think change is wrong and will hurt us. But a faith community isn't an economy of scarcity, in which your gain mean means my loss. There is plenty of grace to go around, and the more we need it, the more God will provide.
Our faith communities are economies of abundance (economy means household). Blessings, graces and benefits exist in abundance. As our needs change, we can trust God to respond.
Power might be limited, and leadership must make decisions about how to handle schedules, budgets and staffing. We need to allow those decisions to tilt toward younger generations. Not because we have suddenly become "unnecessary" or "irrelevant," but because that tilt is how our congregations will have durable and vibrant futures. Just as older generations once made room for us, now we must do the same.
It comes down to trust, not control. We can trust God to care for all of us. Allowing our congregations to change won't undo us; it might even enlarge our understanding. Making room for a baby in Sunday worship doesn't mean we will be abandoned in our time of, say, medical emergency. If anything, it means there will be a younger cadre ready to help us.
Q: Is there any way to "go fresh" with political and ethical issues?
A: Good question, Big question, Tough question. Politics is about power, and Jesus said our fundamental obligation as persons of faith is to speak truth to power, not to seek power. That runs counter to human nature, of course, and is the reason why faith inevitably requires transformation of life.
Ethics is about the good, or in the Christian context, "doing good," as opposed to "defining the good." Greek philosophy defined the good. Christians are called to do it. That, too, requires transformation of life.
The fresh approach is transformation, deep conversion, a reorientation of the soul, as well as of the will. Can we do it? Yes, indeed. God made us to know the good and to do it. God made us for faith. We just need to get out of God's way.
Q: What was your New Year's resolution this year?
A: Not to be self-serving, but my wish was for this Fresh Day magazine. I am excited about what we are doing. I want it to reach many people with its message of fresh faith, fresh action, and fresh discoveries.
I am convinced this is a fertile time for Christian faith. Not old-time religion necessarily, but fresh takes on what it means to be a person of faith, a giver in a world of takers, a lover of souls in a world afraid to love.
Fresh Day is just one small thing that can help this moment materialize. But I am thrilled to be part of it.