Living Faithfully in the Times You Have

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“while the [Old Testament] prophets train their attention on the eternal, kairos drama of God’s words and actions, they remain intimately involved in the events of their historical time. Being caught between these two times can be quite painful and disorienting, particularly when it is difficult to see the hand of Providence in the daily news. Near the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien articulates this predicament well. When Gandalf, acting in many ways as an heir to the biblical prophets, tells Frodo that Sauron has risen and is searching for the ring that Bilbo gave him, Frodo’s reaction to this news is quite natural: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Frodo would prefer to step out of his time, to escape the confusing and frightful events of chronos. In this regard, he is much like King Hezekiah, who is pleased when Isaiah tells him that his sons will be carried into captivity and made eunuchs- at least, Hezekiah thinks, “there will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:8). Gandalf’s reply to Frodo balances empathy with a bracing call to courageously and faithfully inhabit the tension between the messy demands of chronos and the divine call of kairos: “‘So do I;’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” The biblical prophets likewise repeatedly urge their hearers to decide how to respond to the events of their time by the standard of God’s eternal word.”

From “Reading the Times”, by Jeffrey Bilbro, P. 95-96

Redeeming the Wire

Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted…”

[Note to readers: This is a re-post from a now-defunct blog where I posted a handful of things in 2011.  I made only minor formatting and reference changes.  I think it serves as a good transition between the last new post and the next, and is as timely as ever, with some of the issues mentioned not even making headlines anymore despite possibly getting worse.]

Solomon, the son of King David, was famous far and wide for his wisdom.  Kings, Queens and wealthy men traveled far to see his riches and learn from him.  The book of Ecclesiastes, by one theory, is Solomon’s testimony to these visitors that all their earthly pursuits are “vanity”, or fruitless efforts that produce no lasting results.  Pleasures create desires for stronger pleasures, instead of fulfillment.  Kingdoms and buildings could be lost by foolish descendants or conquered by enemies.  Legacies can be forgotten.  Nothing is forever, and thinking it was is like trying to catch hold of the wind.

To illustrate his point, Solomon points first to nature, then to mankind.  In chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes, he writes about the wind going one way, then the other.  Rivers flow to the sea, but the sea never gets full.  Everything runs in a cycle that doesn’t have an obvious long-term purpose or effect.  In the famous passage in chapter 3, he argues that mankind follows similar cycles.  We are born; we die.  We cry; we laugh.  We gain; we lose.  We love; we hate.  There is no apparent master plan, no sense that humans really progress in any way that matters.  True, we gain technologically, but we never fundamentally change how we relate to each other, or our vain ambitions.

Solomon concludes: This realization can be very depressing!  “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”  (Eccl. 1:18)

I have often felt depressed watching the world as well, but never more so than after watching what has become my favorite TV show – HBO’s The Wire.  Yes, my favorite show of all time is also the most depressing, by far.  Since it is based in nearby Baltimore, many friends insisted I see it to “learn about the city.”  Because of the persistent language, violence, and sex, the show is certainly not for everyone.  To give you an idea in case you have not seen it, here are some of the major themes and events of the show, which could apply to many inner-city neighborhoods (minor spoilers of course, but the show is so well-written it would still be worth watching – if you don’t want spoilers, skip the bullet points):

  • Drug dealers work openly on the streets, and the cops are powerless to mount any significant resistance.  The drug dealers are better funded by far than the police, and the Federal government hardly has enough resources to deal with terrorism, so can’t be bothered with “low-level” drug dealers (who happen to be destroying entire sections of the city).  The picture is so bleak that one of the show’s story lines contemplates that it would be better if they just stopped fighting illegal drugs – would it result in less murders, better treatment programs, etc?
  • Many cops are violent, corrupt, or more concerned with their own promotions and pleasing their political masters than enforcing the law.  The cops that aren’t corrupt are hamstrung by those that are, and by legal and procedural hurdles.  It’s not enough to have an eyewitness to a drug deal or murder if they aren’t willing to testify, and the police can’t protect them.  One of the main characters – and perhaps the best at actual police work – takes out his frustrations with “the system” on himself through alcohol abuse, and on his family through adultery.
  • The leaders of a dying longshoreman’s union look the other way as shady characters pay them massive amounts of money to smuggle whatever they want into the U.S.  They turn around and use this money to pay for political influence in an effort to create new jobs and revive their industry.  A current Maryland Congressperson is even mentioned by name.
  • Politicians use the city as a stepping stone to larger ambitions, and find out that most of the city’s worst problems are beyond anything they can do anyway.
  • Generations of economic despair have turned the school system into a waste of time for most children, who stand a far better chance at a “job” in the drug trade than in any legitimate business.  Kids who manage to show up are often passed from one grade to the next, to meet political goals required to get Federal funds.

Not bleak enough for you yet?  If you research the show, you find that nearly all of the people, circumstances and events are based on real life — the show was created and written mostly by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore city homicide detective.

The Wire’s creators admit their show is about human institutions; institutions that have failed to produce any real progress in inner cities.  There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” – just a failed police department, school system, newspaper, and government.  The impact is felt by the citizens – whenever you start rooting for someone who looks like they will improve their lives, or try to go against the decadent grain, it usually ends badly.  Nobody “wins” in the end.  The show provides no solutions and just leaves people depressed and hopeless – like Solomon might have predicted.  The closing montage of the series shows that one generation of players is simply replaced by another.

“One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.”

Evidence of the cyclical nature of human behavior is not limited to TV shows about inner cities.  Since I work in the investment industry, cyclicality is very familiar to me.  I’m currently reading a book about investing by Howard Marks, where he writes: “In investing, as in life, there are very few sure things.”  But, the one thing he is most sure of is: “Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical.”[1]  Why?  “The basic reason for the cyclicality in our world is the involvement of humans…people are emotional and inconsistent, not steady and clinical.”[2]

Marks argues that, in investing, the best course of action is not to fight against human nature and assume it has changed, or will change.  He argues the best course of action is to take it as a given, and work around it.  He also argues that investors (and people) who think this way are “often lonely.”

Why is this?  Because people – all kinds of people, religious ones, non-religious ones – want to assume that mankind is getting better.  It’s not popular to suggest that it’s not.  The reason watching the cyclical futility of the world, especially when it’s viewed in extreme close-up like in The Wire, is because it contradicts our wishful assumptions that mankind has, or will eventually find, solutions to our problems.

Acting on these assumptions, political scientists of all stripes tell us that we’ll eventually find a system that works, and turns the cycle into a relentless upward trend toward utopia.  However, until this system actually exists in the real world, it’s not “science” but “faith”.  As Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  But, in practice there is.”  Economic and political theories rise to prominence when they have promise on paper, but they eventually confront the basic reality of human nature, in practice.

Belief that this world can be perfected – that human nature can be overcome systematically – goes against the wisdom of the Bible and the lessons of history.  Wishing it to be true won’t make it true, and acting as if it is true is almost certain to be dangerous.  The church is no exception – history is full of examples of disastrous results when the church tried to pursue utopia on earth.  As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

One theory passes away, and another theory comes; But the earth abides forever.

Unlike Howard Marks and the writers of The Wire, Solomon proposes a fundamental answer: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.”  (Eccl. 12:23) The commandments that summarize all of God’s law are: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Solomon knows the key to joy in this world – in contrast to despair – is to stop trying to create a master plan. Instead, trust that God has a master plan and has given you what you need to know. I’m not aware of any Scripture that tells anyone to seek the “hidden meaning” behind it all, and then take action only after you’ve figured all that out. Scripture does not say there is an ideal political system, other than a future monarchy in heaven, under God. Scripture does give specific commands. That’s because He thinks that’s better. In spite of how bad the world looks, and how meaningless it seems, history is moving toward a grand conclusion and you have a part in it. Inability to accept it is a lack of faith. Instead, remember your Creator while you have time on earth.

Draw near to God and allow Him to change you, then act on God’s love for you by loving people.  God wants His followers to focus on specific people – “neighbors” – not abstract people or future world orders.  After all, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”  (2 Peter 3:10)  If we know God can return at any time, why focus on a distant future instead of what can be done today?

Christianity is not intended to “fix” this world.  It will not create jobs for everyone, or make the economy perfect; it will not make all substance abuse go away; it will not make all politicians altruistic; it will not make all the schools produce model citizens; it will not make all journalists noble.  But neither does any earthly solution.  Thinking this is God’s will is like grasping after the wind, and is a distraction from His true purpose – to redeem individual people into citizenship in a new world, making them like strangers and aliens in this one, which is temporary.  We will find perfection in the next world, not this one.

I am not saying that Christians have no stake at all in making this world a better place.  What we do know about God’s plan for this world is that He wants to transform people in a way that will provide a glimpse of the next world.  He doesn’t need perfect people here, but changed people.  People who will share God’s personal love and produce specific results, here and in eternity.   The Wire, ironically, provides a great example.  Donnie Andrews[3], the real-life inspiration for one of The Wire’s most notorious characters, met Christ while in prison.  He is now working to give kids another path in Baltimore, “through mentoring programs, a summer camp and jobs training”.  For most people, heaven is just another Utopian dream on paper, but changed lives are far better evidence of its existence than mere words.  Even Ed Burns, one of the show’s creators, says “I’m quite jaded, but I believe in Donnie.”

To Andrews, it’s not about fixing the system.  “We have to get together as a community. We have to stop blaming the mayor. We have to stop blaming Obama. It’s our community. It’s our responsibility. It’s our city,” Andrews said. “We know who’s selling dope in our neighborhood, we know who’s shooting who. Don’t point your finger at the police, ‘You’re not doing your job.'”[4]

As for the old Donnie Andrews who inspired a merciless killer in a TV show?  “That person was buried 15 years ago,” he says.[5]  The Bible says Christians can show the world a path to a perfect world, but also that they have to be willing to give up this one.

To me, watching The Wire was a message to put less faith in this world.  To realize worldly progressivism doesn’t mix with Christianity.  There is no solution for “the world”, but there is a way out.

[1] Marks, Howard.  The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (2011).  P. 67
[2] Ibid.  P. 68
[3] Donnie Andrews died in December 2012.  Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar Little, the Wire character based on Andrews, died in September 2021.  Michael’s death gained far more media attention than Donnie’s.

The Narrative Doesn’t Know It All

This morning many were learning of the passing of Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, at 84.  No human other than Jesus is perfect, but Powell was in more than one way an important figure in U.S. military and government matters for years.  Many, including myself, mourn his passing.  In my case, an experience in undergraduate journalism school involving Powell was a huge lesson to me on the use and power of narrative, of storytelling, often as a way of simplifying the world to make it digestible, but also as a way of influencing.

This news also provides an opportunity for a timely detour before continuing the “He Who Laughs” post.  Soon, God willing.

Loose Ends
This blog began with a post, “42 is Not the Answer”, about mankind’s search for answers to “life, the universe, and everything” in a fictional supercomputer called Deep Thought.  They were left with “42”, or not much of a narrative.

As I wrote in “Godly Offspring”: about the story of Genesis 38, “Judah had created his own narrative to explain his misfortune as Tamar’s fault, when it was really God’s judgment for the sins of Judah and his sons.”  However, Tamar’s children became ancestors of Jesus!

In “Man in Need of an Ally”, Zacchaeus was condemned based on being reduced to a representative of a narrative used to simplify a complex social and political situation.  Jesus loved Zacchaeus, forgave him, and now he has eternal life!

Narratives are everywhere and are enticing and powerful.

Some of my favorite quotes deal with the danger of narrative and the need to be aware of it:
“It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” ― Mark Twain
“Beware of single cause interpretations – and beware the people who purvey them” – Jordan Peterson
“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – Howard Marks

The examples below are not intended to show that one political party is good or the other is bad.  That would be an unhelpful, divisive narrative.  Politics is a sometimes-dirty game, and the media are sometimes enablers – on both sides.  The point is that people often believe in, and act on information they believe is reliable but that is always incomplete and sometimes inaccurate.  Also, sometimes the information is intentionally incomplete and inaccurate.  The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color.  I confess this applies to everything I write, but perhaps particularly to some of this post.

Narratives push us to forget that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between political parties either, but right through all human hearts.”

Influencing the Blame Game
In 1995 and 1996 the U.S. government, just as they are now, were fighting over more spending and how to pay for it, resulting in two “shutdowns”, one for 5 days and the other for 21.  Around this time, a member of the White House staff came to our journalism class to talk about the experiences of an “insider”.  One thing he shared with us was that Bill Clinton was on the verge of backing down from the shutdown confrontation but decided to continue digging in when Colin Powell announced he would not run for president in 1996.  Powell had bi-partisan support as a man of character and military expert and was expected by many pollsters to win.  However, he had no desire to be president, citing a lack of passion for it, and an unwillingness to put his family and friends through the potentially painful process.  Clinton, knowing the other Republican challengers weren’t as strong, knew the political damage of continuing the government shutdown would be minimized.  Clinton also knew he had help in managing that.

The other thing shared by this guest speaker was that the reporting of polls about attitudes regarding the shutdown was being misrepresented.  Many media outlets were reporting that most voters “blamed” the Republicans for the shutdowns of the government.  What we were told though was that the question – as presented to those answering the poll – was about who is “responsible” for the shutdowns.  So, if you answered “Republicans” to the poll because you were convinced that they were doing the right thing by protesting either the amounts or specifics of the spending proposals, the poll reported it as “blame”, not as a conscientious objection.  By changing one word, “responsible” which is less of a value judgment, with “blame” which assigns a clear, negative, value judgment, public opinion was swayed.

As noted in an earlier post, More Than Truth, I saw very few examples of outright lying while in school, but there were some.  In this case, the public had no idea of these two things, which were told openly to a classful of future journalists.  The narrative was created, put on the hook, and swallowed by many voting fish.

All of the Above
Another example is narratives around the “Global Financial Crisis” of 2007-2008.  This was an extraordinarily complex series of events, set up by years of blunders by possibly millions of people, yet still some pin the blame on just a handful of “bad guys” who represent the Bogeymen of “the rich”, “deregulation”, “regulation”, “big banks”, “house flippers”, etc.   But what if the answer could be “all of the above”?  The best evaluation I’ve read is a memo called “Whodunit” by Howard Marks, a widely followed investor who is known as a balanced thinker.  It’s 13 pages and you can read it here (memo link), but who reads 13 pages of anything anymore?  Especially something designed to extinguish partisan fury-inducing narratives, rather than inflame them?  I’ve summarized Marks’ memo in the past as saying “regulation tied the gas pedal to the floor, while deregulation disabled the brakes,” but really any explanation vastly oversimplifies one of the most complex sagas in financial market history. Something like a Global Financial Crisis was not caused by the butler.

This does not just happen with once-in-a-lifetime events.  In the financial press, billions of dollars of daily transactions in the stock and bond markets are reported as “Markets were Mixed Today on Wall Street”.  Never mind that much of modern trading doesn’t even take place on Wall Street, or that all days could be called “mixed”.

A common topic today is “what’s wrong with the labor market?”  Like the Global Financial Crisis, there are competing narratives and the truth is probably a combination of “all of the above”, rather than any one cause.  One reason less people are working is because we’ve had a pandemic, and many, many workers have passed on, or remain sick.  That’s difficult to talk about in a “professional” meeting.  Government policy plays a part, but which government caused, or sustained, a global shortage of workers?  Does U.S. policy explain other countries’ shortages?  Many workers simply retired earlier than planned, helped by higher housing prices and stock market values.  For some, day care is not available. For some, they have prioritized other things.  The list goes on and on.  “All of the above.”

These are just samples from my experience, but referring back to the Howard Marks quote above -“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – I expect you have many more examples based on your knowledge of other subjects.  And here we must be careful about Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Love Requires Humility
Like many topics on most days, much of today’s media coverage of Colin Powell’s death will be a battle of narratives.  Exactly how much integrity did he have?  What do they mean he “died of Covid complications”?  Who is to blame?  What kind of president would he have been?   This discussion is good when it is done in the right Spirit, but unfortunately it often isn’t.

I’ll chime in on the debate with “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and note that only God has a full picture of Powell’s life.  I pray he found his hope in Jesus and for comfort for his family and friends.  No person deserves to be treated as an incomplete narrative.

I’ll also follow that up with a twist – all narratives are flawed and fall short of the glory of God.  Only God has a full picture of every life, and I pray we find our hope in Jesus.  No person deserves to be judged based on an incomplete narrative that they get shoe-horned into.  As they say, Be Kind, you never know what someone is going through.

Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic.  In my examples, I’ve shown some of my own biases. Forgive me.  Here Ephesians 4:1b-2 has guidance for us, where Paul, writing from prison, urges “you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

In humility we seek to view other’s biases and narratives as different than ours, not worse.  In addition, sometimes we might view something as a flaw just because it is a difference.  Just as we are not perfected instantaneously in this world, neither are others and we must be patient.  In love, we walk as God has called us, putting other’s needs above our own, because this is how we grow in unity and fruit of the Spirit.

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Cor 4:6

Jesus is the Answer and He does not fall short of the glory of God.  Inject Him into your narrative as you would a grain of salt.