Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Change, please.

I had the privilege of talking with the author Donald Miller earlier this summer after he spoke at a conference I attended in Atlanta, Georgia.
Author of several books including "Blue Like Jazz" which sold over a million copies in the U.S. and appeared on the NY Times bestseller list over 45 times. This particular event was hosted by a group called "Orange" and was dedicated to youth, their education, and the furthering education of their leaders and organizations.
One of the things Don Miller said in his introduction about his life was that growing up fatherless, often angry and without direction, he was first told he should write "almost in passing, by someone that I had silently truly admired." This seemingly random statement wasn't in fact, random. It was carefully thought-out and intentionally expressed to him as a young man because this older man who would later prove to be very, very influential in his life wanted to call out and encourage a very specific gift in Don's life. God used that comment to awaken in Don a passion he never knew existed, and he began writing, writing, writing.
As I listened to Don speak, my mind whirred, soared through valleys and over mountains of ideas, young men I could encourage, people who had done this for me, and my thoughts were the equivalent of absolute haywire.
However, none of the above is the direction that I'm going in now. As the months passed, so did the vibrant colors and bright hues of the statement Mr. Miller had shared with me--but the statement itself has remained rooted firmly in my heart.

On our way back from spending an afternoon lunch of chili, cornbread and Christmas cookies with my lovely girlfriend's grandparents, she and one of two friends crashed out in the passenger and back seat of the huge, comfortable Oldsmobile during the 45 minute drive back to campus. It was just before finals week, and the effects of day upon day of cramming had taken it's toll, they were out. The second of my beautiful girls' other friends and I quietly talked most of the way home. Both of us quite verbal, it was no problem at all filling the miles and the minutes with topic after topic. God, school, our relationships, the future, where we were from, and cultural differences and other current events in our lives. Lightly we flew over every topic, conversationally sharing but not diving too deep into any one subject. When I asked her about what her fiancĂ© was interested in doing after he graduated from school with his Undergrad degree in Cinematography, she said
"you know what I'd really like? It would be amazing to do documentaries that expose social injustices. I would love to do that for the rest of my life. I would write them, he could film them, and we would make a difference."
Her heart was to serve, love, and make a change. But taking this one part of what ended up to be a much more involved conversation aside, something...falls short.


What intrinsic value is there in telling a true story about something horrible happening to evoke a response or reaction if there is no change to come from it?
An injustice being exposed holds no value. "Raising awareness" of something very wrong does nothing--to have knowledge of a subject only brings worth to the person receiving the information. It furthers nothing with the topic or situation.
A hundred thousand people can know about child prostitution and the person who exposed it has still not accomplished anything or done a good of any kind.


Hawaii no longer sells bananas agriculturally anywhere in the United States other than in it's own State. The fruit now is imported from "mainly developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Asia and Africa. (http://www.unctad.org/infocomm/anglais/banana/market.htm)"
Let's project a social injustice on this fact for the sole purpose of giving an example.
You are writing an agricultural column on bananas, and while visiting a plantation in Thailand, you uncover the truth that it is a standard practice in Thailand to hire children to pick the bananas for fourteen hours a day and pay them only seven cents an hour, which is 3% of what could be considered a cultural minimum wage for that country.
To return home and write a story on the child labor that features pictures of their scarred, bloody hands, malnutrition and horrible living conditions would bring to those children no value. It is instead allowing their misfortune and their stories to become an article on a website, a brief insignificant blip in history.
In a few months or a year, maybe even that same reporter who wrote the original piece on them will eat a banana that came from that same plantation.
So what changed?

American companies contract with individual wholesalers overseas to purchase and re-sell their merchandise-- whatever it may be -- here in the States. The purchaser is not forced to buy the bananas picked from the children in Thailand's bloodied hands (which is again, a projected injustice. I have never heard of this happening, and if it does is merely coincidental) we choose to. Our corporations that do the buying and selling of imported goods from places where there are not minimum wage laws, child labor laws, worker safety laws, working condition laws, or places where they exist but are not enforced, can impose them and demand that on the contingency of being purchased, those standards be upheld.
Is it financially wise to make a demand of that severity on the provider of your products? Probably not. Is it ethical? There ARE such things as business ethics, occasionally grey or paradoxical though they may be, they do exist (contrary to popular belief and publication).
What about the consumer, blindly swiping left and right, choosing daily and sometimes hourly between credit and debit, avoiding labels and never glancing twice. With the sheer staggering numbers of imported goods we unknowingly purchase thousands of a year, to research and know the origin of each would be futile.
So what then? What is a realistic solution to an epidemic of blindness that affects nearly every person with an income and purchasing power of any kind, personal or business-related.
There, lying static, inert and lifeless beside the problem, is the solution.
Business ethics.
Creating a documentary to show an injustice does nothing for the now publicized but still just as wrong, wrong. The wrong is no less wrong now that more people are "aware" of it.
In fact, juxtaposing that truth, the wrong if anything else just becomes MORE wrong as the public realizes the origin of their product but does nothing and continues to purchase it which in turn, supports and enables that same injustice. Ethics.
A grey, subjective term, it's application to business is lost in the exchange of dollars and cents, stock options, quotas and somewhere in there the separation of church and state plays a big role: faith is left waiting at home while you go to work.
The ethics of making a decision to enable a wrong to continue are never removed when ignored. Companies have the option to illuminate and bring to the table non-business-related issues and make them a part of their business. Suddenly importing shoes from a manufacturer that uses child labor overseas becomes an issue. The pay scale of workers starts to matter. Change can happen.
Jesus never left the workplace, he hasn't abandoned business ethics, and is still holds the only true defining, deciding truth behind what a "moral" is.
We are not called to bring to light every international evil carried out, but if we do feel led to serve someone by telling their story, highlighting a social injustice, or hold someone/something accountable for a wrong being committed, ask yourself this: what change will come of my sharing of this?
What am I willing to do differently because of this? Is Jesus asking me to become involved and a part of making a difference for these people that I see being hurt or taken advantage of? If none of the above apply, then ask yourself...why tell the story?
How is it different from entertainment?
The heart.
This doesn't mean taking it to the extreme "don't tell any stories unless you can or are willing to do something about it." It does mean to evaluate what you say and why you say it. Too often we lose the value in a story because it becomes the ambient filler of space and time, and our senses of wrong are dulled as we are barraged with emotions and no home for them.

Donald Miller's life was changed because someone followed the lead of the Holy Spirit and became involved in his life.
Don's life was changed.
Change did not happen to Don when someone told their family at home about a kid at school with no Dad who wrote so well but didn't know it, or when they blogged about how they admired Don's writing even though he had a rough family life.

Tell stories, tell stories, tell stories. But don't cry wolf and allow them to cushion your conscience as "I can't do anything about that" becomes a standard lifestyle response.

What CAN you do something about?
What has God called you to become a part of changing?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Unconsciously Filing Away

On a campus of about twelve-hundred undergrad students, he was very likely one of the most aggressive personalities to attend classes. He was just under six feet tall, weighed easily two hundred and sixty pounds, and constantly flipped his hair sideways across his head while he talked--which was often. "Hi there! I don't think I know you. Are you Ricky's brother?"
I smiled. Yes, this time I was. It's nice being recognized that way.
"I could definitely tell. First time I saw you I was like 'ooh' because there was no way you WEREN'T his brother. You two look so very much alike, you could be twins." The words were a highway of speeding tickets and twelve-car pile-ups. Speaking as rapidly as he could, often his words stuttered, bumped into each other, and swelled, tossed by the furious tempest and whirlwind of a mind that tossed his sentences too and fro. Ryan often made eye contact while he spoke, eager, earnest and sincerely seeking affirmation.

"Yep! We've been brothers for twenty years now, it's time we finally got along I think."

"Oh yes, yes, yes. I'm not surprised, you see, Ricky is one of my very good friends here on campus. 'Ryan' he says, 'you are a very easy person to get along with'. And he means it. He definitely means it. I love Ricky. How is that guy? I haven't seen him in so long, we're both so busy...you know. I have two majors and a minor. I used to have three then I dropped one because of health reasons. How is he? How's Ricky?"

Standing there listening to Ryan, I amusedly noticed that he was as close to a grown-up, real-life Piglet as I've ever seen. Belly all tucked in a too-small shirt, words tumbling every which way, and just as sweet as can be, Ryan reminded me so much of the Pooh cartoon character.

"Ricky's good, he's been really busy getting ready for finals."

"Oh, that's good. That's real real good. You know, I am too. My parents sat me down when I graduated high school and said 'Ryan, we want you to get the very best education possible, so we're sending you to JBU. You know, I never would have thought I'd get to come here, but look at me. Here I am, studying for finals. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. My Mom works in a factory down South of here two, almost three hours, my Dad worked at the same place and that's where they met, of course now that he's retired on disability he's been at home ever since, and here I am about to get my degree in May. It's good James, isn't it? It's real, real good.

Ryan was hungry. From the moment we first met until now, I hadn't realized it but he was hungry--hungry for the same exact things I was, the same thing everyone was, but he was actively, honestly and blatantly looking for it.
Humanity is hungry.
We are hungry for affection, hungry for others to know our stories, hungry to share ourselves, be approved, liked, and loved. Ryan simply asked me for it. I'm sure he could be categorized under a psychological evaluation as having Asperger's, or an autism spectrum disorder of some kind, and it would probably be true. But while we were talking I realized that many, many of the things that Ryan said to me or asked of me in that interaction were things I ask silently of my friends, my family, and most people. Ryan and I were in so many ways identical, and yet because he didn't hide it or even seemingly try to hide many of his needs in his social life, it was astonishing how quickly I attempted to put him in box.

1 Timothy 4:16 "Keep a close watch on how you le and your teaching. Stay true to what is right for your own salvation and the salvation of those who hear you."

In a moment of admonishment and startling realization, when I thought I was "reaching out to" Ryan by spending time with him I was in fact making myself into someone I wasn't. His awkward, fast way of talking was who God had made him to be, but it wasn't so different when he asked for my approval. It was a verbalization of what I have done so. many. times.
I look forward to the next time we get to hang out, and maybe I'll get to learn some more from him.

"Did you know that most police officers who have had to deal with a crisis of some kind with there job have experienced varying levels of PTSD? The a-type personalities that are recruited often to fill the roles of those positions tend to stuff their feelings down inside and just try to 'tough it out' when in fact it's been shown that even just three one-hour counseling sessions would dynamically reduce the divorce and domestic violence rate in the country's police force by over thirty percent in the first year?"
Didn't know that.