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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Noisy Gorillas and Silent Evidence

A little girl pounds her chest in front of the gorilla habitat at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. The alpha male silver-back charges the window and hits it hard enough to crack the inside layer of the three-layered glass. It is an impressive display that makes the news and fills up a slow day on social media outlets.

I am fascinated by the pronouncements of all the "experts" in the wake of this (non) event. This is, one part-time pundit declares, the result of years of harassment by hundreds of mean-spirited little kids. The male finally had enough and reacted. I must wonder how many other small children (and the adults they were imitating) did precisely the same thing with no ill effects.

Another humble analyst proclaims that this is the result of taking these wonderful wild creatures out of their natural environment and subjecting them to the rigors of captivity. The alpha finally "snapped" and took out his frustration on the window and the little girl. I am assuming that this conclusion is drawn from post-event debriefing with the alpha male and other members of the oppressed local gorilla community.

Of course, it may well be that the gorillas suffer from their captivity. But again, where is the evidence that such stress has produced this particular incident? It is easy to see the things you already expect to see.

Yet others are sure that this result was completely unanticipated by the management and keepers at the zoo. Of course, this is harder to sustain in light of the fact that the glass was part of a triply redundant system that seems to have been designed for precisely such an eventuality. That small detail aside, we have calls for a thorough-going re-evaluation of the system for maintaining the gorilla enclosure.

Nassim Taleb reminds us that we are often victims of the "Silent Evidence" problem. This blind spot leads us to draw faulty conclusions from inadequate evidence. We see a problem in front of us. We are highly sensitive to that problem--a big bang and cracked glass will get a person's attention. We are not sensitive to all the times when this didn't happen. We have to think hard to put the event in a realistic context because that requires us to imagine non-events.

That's not our strong suit as humans. Thinking hard takes lots of work. Of course, without ignorance of the Silent Evidence problem, social media outlets would certainly be quieter and less dramatic places.

Instead, we over-read the specific event in front of us. That over-reading typically leads to over-reacting. And over-reacting usually has negative consequences that may relieve our stress but that rarely make the problem better. And we under-read the times that the event didn't happen. That under-reading means that we are insensitive to the things that actually work in our lives and in the world. And so we tend to under-support, under-fund, and under-appreciate these positive things.

For example, we will notice the one time our spouse might forget to take out the trash. We tend not to put that into the context of all the times that the chore actually got accomplished. So we over-react to the immediate stimulus, have a fight and spend some unhappy moments. We could choose to remember the positive side of the equation and have some happy moments instead. It is a measure of our predictable irrationality (thanks as always to Dan Ariely) that we so often choose the path to unhappiness.

Thank you, staff, keepers, architects, managers and supporters of Henry Doorly Zoo for building an enclosure that managed this unusual event. It would be best if the rest of us spend our energy gathering information and get less exercise jumping to after the fact conclusions.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Refund or Over-payment?

We are finalizing our 2014 federal and state tax returns today. And no, we won't get a "refund." If we did, we would have filed about February 15th! Pastors are regarded by the IRS as "self-employed." So we pay quarterly estimated taxes. We hope that our calculations will be a rough approximation of the actual tax liability. And this year, we (that is our very fine accountant, Nick Hill) did pretty well. In fact, we will apply a small bit to next year's tax bill and have a less painful check to write at the end of each quarter. 

We don't a get a refund, but we get to feel relieved.

Because of this, I can regard "refund mania" with a kind of bemused detachment. The airwaves are filled with commercials describing all the ways that businesses will help you spend your refund. You can buy furniture before you get your check from the government. You can borrow against that refund if things are tight. These commercials resemble the kinds of celebrations people might have if they win big in the lottery.

And that is precisely how most people experience these "refunds."

On my tax forms, I am told about my "over-payment." Then I am asked how I would like to manage that over-payment: apply it to next year or get it back. Perhaps that's why I don't get excited about the whole deal. I am struck by the emotional differences between getting a refund and making an over-payment. I wonder how excited people would be if we started calling refunds what they are: interest-free loans to the federal government.

People seem to treat refunds as "found money." Check out this advice to auto dealers during the "tax refund mania season." Instead of regarding those dollars as part of one's normal earnings, people treat them as lottery winnings or Christmas gifts from rich relatives. Thus these dollars are not encumbered by the need by buy groceries, pay the rent, or put tires on the family car. Since I haven't had such an opportunity in thirty-one years, I have trouble connecting to the emotions of this particular experience. 

Check out this good advice on dealing with refunds.

In fact, at least some of the dollars returned to people are worth about three percent less than when they were earned. Inflation may be low in the current economy, but it does exist. So these over-payments are to some degree negative interest loans. They are like the old Christmas club savings plans, except you pay the holder of your money a small premium for keeping your money.

I know what a genuine "refund" looks and feels like. A few years ago, a local government agency discovered that our water meter had been mildly malfunctioning for years. We have been overcharged at the rate of about five percent per year. More than a decade of that overcharging resulted in several hundred dollars in actual refund from the highly responsible folks at that particular office. If they hadn't done it, I wouldn't have known. I thought I was paying what I owed. I got some back as a surprise. That's a real refund.

So if you find yourself overcome with the irrational exuberance of refund mania, you might just remind yourself that it's really the return of an over-payment. And if you're still emotionally overwrought, you might consider giving some of your "found money" away to those in need. Here's a very fine place to share some of your returned over-payment.

Nudging Stewardship Ideas

A variety of wild and crazy (or not so wild and crazy) ideas that come out of reading Thaler and Sunstein's book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

--Always suggest a giving level and/or increase to provide an anchor for givers. That anchor is more easily understood in terms of dollars than as a percentage of income. Don't be bashful about how high the anchor is.

--Take advantage of our natural aversion to loss. Periodically point to specific possible losses if people don't give. We tend to think that this is demotivating for church givers, but I don't think so. It works for televangelists and public television campaigns. I think people will pay attention if we note that air conditioning might not be available this summer based on the current level of giving.

--Give people "mandatory choice" options on estimate of giving cards. Create cards that allow people to mark, "Yes, I will give," or "No, I won't give." Don't make comfortable apathy the default choice.

--Remember that defaults are implicit endorsements. If our (unintended) default is "not giving," then we are providing an implicit endorsement to that default. And that is precisely how it works in most congregational giving. People must choose to give. The default is to do nothing. Construct stewardship tools to change that default.

--Defeat "pluralistic ignorance." Be sure that people know how many people in the congregation are giving and provide some contextual information about how much people are giving.

--Take advantage of the "spotlight effect." Remember that people believe their actions are tightly and regularly scrutinized by other people, even when that is not the case.

--Take advantage of the "mere measurement effect." Remember that simply asking people if they will give is one way to encourage them to give.

--Create automatic estimate of giving cards based on the previous twelve months of giving. Tell givers that this will be their estimate of giving unless we hear about an increase.

--Create events where higher commitment people interact and nudge one another. Get the generous people together as often as possible. And always give them chances to talk with each other about their giving and their hopes for the congregation.

--Make feedback to givers more frequent. Monthly contribution statements are better than quarterly statements. Quarterly statements are better than annual statements.

--Increase salience. Be clear and immediate about giving impacts. Connect offering opportunities with images and reminders of potential recipients. In this age of projectors and screens in sanctuaries, project images of happy children during the offering time.

--Overcome the money illusion. Remind people that one dollar in 1975 is equal to $4.52 in 2015. Twenty dollars per week in 1975 is the same as $90 per week in 2015.

I hope to have the chance to test these ideas in a variety of congregational settings. If you try any of them, I'd like to hear about your experiences. And I'd love to hear more wild and crazy ideas about stewardship for actual human beings.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Is Charitable Giving a Fraught Choice?

Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” So we routinely make decisions based on inadequate or incomplete information. How does this affect our charitable giving practices?

In Nudge, the authors describe our problems as what they term to be "fraught choices." A fraught choice is one that carries some sort of "freight." This means that the decision will have consequences or rewards, costs or benefits, that cannot be accessed or assessed when the decision is made. Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge, page 79) describe some classes of these choices:
  • those that have delayed effects
  • those that are difficult, infrequent and offer poor feedback
  • those for which the relation between choice and experience is ambiguous.
For example, I can ignore my dental health for some years before the effects of that apathy take hold. But the height of a raging toothache is not the time to begin regular brushing and flossing. 

Some people may retire several times and thus get some "practice" in such decisions. Most of us get one chance and then we live with the consequences of our decisions. 

And most of us make decisions about colleges without much clear sense of how one option might be better or worse than another. It may never be clear that our choice of that expensive private school trumped the less expensive state university, since we'll never have the chance to go back and test the alternative scenario.

Is our giving to a local congregation anything like these examples?

Giving to a local congregation can certainly be subject to a poor feedback system. Whether we give or not, it appears that the staff continue to do their work. Whether we give or not, it seems that the furnace runs and the air conditioning functions. The lights are on and the hymnals are in the pews. At best (or worst), the consequences of giving or not giving are delayed (or invisible).

By contrast, if I don't pay my own utility bills, the lights go out and the garbage accumulates. It would seem that giving may be experienced as all upfront cost and little experienced benefit. So giving sounds like a fraught choice.

And I may not be all that clear about what I expect to get by making the giving choice. Do I expect a certain level of "service" for my money? Many of our regular givers would resist such a notion. But if the sermons are unsatisfactory or the pastor is a pain in the neck or the denomination makes unpopular decisions, giving is going to decrease. Congregational giving is a "trailing indicator" of member satisfaction.

So parishioners may have the same relationship to "bad service" that Justice Potter Stewart had to pornography. They may not be able to define it, but they know it when they see it. And when they experience dissatisfaction, they are likely to respond. Once again, giving sounds like a fraught choice.

Now, why does this matter? If Thaler and Sunstein are right (and experience shows that they are), fraught choices are those most in need of helpful nudges. Anchors and primes, context and commitment, reports and guidelines are all designed to be such helpful nudges as people make their (fraught) giving decisions.

More than Mere Measurement

When we think about congregational stewardship, we need to take into account what has been labeled the “mere-measurement effect.” When people are asked if they are going to vote in an upcoming election, for example, “they become more likely to act in accordance with their answers” (Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge, page 70).  So, if we simply ask people to indicate their giving intentions, we will increase the likelihood that our members will indeed give.

We need a bit finer description at this point. The subjects in the 1987 Greenwald, et al, study that the Nudge authors cite, were anonymous. So they were not likely concerned that someone else would notice if they didn’t follow through on their stated intentions. The mere measurement effect is about psychological priming more than it is about social pressure and expectation. 

The study authors refer to our need to erase potential errors in predicting our own behavior. When we say that we will do something and we do not do it, we experience some real tension. In effect, we made a prediction about our future behavior and we got the prediction wrong! So once we make such a prediction, we are far more likely to follow through in order to prove ourselves right about ourselves.

Aren’t we such interesting creatures!

Thaler and Sunstein note that the mere measurement effect works with stated intentions to diet and to exercise, to purchase a new car, and to floss one’s teeth. We can safely surmise that the mere measurement effect will have a positive impact on giving behavior as well. So we come to real importance of “pledge” or “estimate of giving” cards and forms. When people indicate their intention to give, the likelihood that they will give may well increase by twenty-five percent or more (extrapolated from studies of the behaviors mentioned above).

The first priority in encouraging people to indicate their giving intent is to leverage the mere measurement effect. This is not some sort of manipulation or coercion. When we encourage people to indicate their intent in advance, we are helping them to carry out their intentions. If we are concerned about exercising undue pressure on our folks, we may encourage them to complete estimate of giving cards and place them in sealed envelopes. If the research is accurate, the act of completing the intent forms will have a significant impact on giving follow-through, even if no else sees the completed form or card.

If people are encouraged to attach plans to their intentions, they will be even more likely to follow through on those intentions. “The nudge provided by asking people what they intend to do can be accentuated,” Thaler and Sunstein write, “by asking them when and how they plan to do it.”  Asking people for specific plans will ratchet up the internal pressure to make accurate self-predictions. And when we plan something, it has almost the same impact on us neurologically as when we actually do it.

In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the same areas of the brain “light up” when we make plans to do something and when we actually do it. This is why it is important that we encourage our givers to be specific in how they will give. Will it be weekly, bi-monthly or monthly? Will it be a fixed dollar amount, a percentage, or a progressive dollar amount? Will it be an electronic contribution or with paper checks or money? Encouraging pre-commitment plans is a way to help people carry out the commitments they want to make. Declared intentions and formulated plans will prime people to be more reliable and faithful givers.

We can extend this dimension of the mere measurement effect to other parts of congregational life. One of the surest ways to increase attendance at a congregational event is to contact people the week before to see if they will be coming. This is a critical element of those stewardship methods which rely on a commitment dinner or other celebration event. Asking for a commitment to attend will increase attendance measurably.

This is true for regular worship attendance as well. I had a colleague who spent the great majority of his working hours in the community connecting with members of the congregation. Many of these contacts were three to five minute conversations at the grocery store or the post office. But these contacts created subtle pre-commitments on the part of the parishioners. When I interviewed some of them, many confessed that the contact with the pastor in the previous week had been a significant factor in their decision to attend worship the following Sunday (I have to wonder if social media contacts can have a similar effect—I am not so sure).

This runs against my personal psychology. I feel like I’m “bothering” people when I seek such pre-commitments. So I have to remind myself repeatedly that I am helping people to keep the commitments they really want to make. Those who don’t want to keep such commitments will likely not be affected by regular connections, invitations, visits and other contacts. And those who are not in the habit of regular attendance and giving—such as people new to the congregation—will need even more attention and invitation since they are forming new habits that have not yet been solidified.

Giving: Everyone's Doing It

I'm back at my research for a book on the positive psychology of stewardship. Whenever possible, givers should be equipped with ways to accurately understand their personal context. When our folks tell themselves stories about why they give what they do, those stories work best when they are built on real information. 

For example, many researchers refer to a study done in 1996 by Stephen Coleman for the Minnesota Department of Revenue. The report of that study is available at this site. It might take a few seconds for the report to come up.

In that study, four methods were compared for their impact on improving tax payer compliance and tax revenues. Some subjects were reminded of heightened audit threats. Some subjects were promised and given greater levels of customer service by the department. Some were encouraged to use a new, simpler and clearer basic tax return form. None of these methods had any cost-effective impact on tax payer compliance and increased revenues for the state.

The fourth test method provided information to the subjects. One letter reminded tax payers of how much good their dollars were doing and how people would suffer if they fudged on their tax returns. That letter had no effect on tax payer behavior. The other letter reminded tax payers that ninety-three percent of their neighbors regularly completed accurate tax returns and paid the required amount of tax. This countered widely held perceptions that many people cheated on their taxes. The research described this method as the most cost effective and least objectionable intervention by far. Simply providing tax payers with accurate information about the behavior of their neighbors was enough to improve their own tax paying behavior.

Information about the giving (or paying) context is what Thaler and Sunstein describe as a “social nudge” (Nudge, page 66).  We are affected by our community context when we make our tax-paying (and giving) decisions. So context-based information is likely to have a positive impact on giving behavior. 

More than that, a positive message about the behavior of others will have a far greater impact than a negative message. Most churches send contribution reports to members. Often those reports are nothing more than a machine-generated summary of the member’s giving in the previous quarter. That is a missed opportunity. First, the report should be accompanied by a letter of thanks. Our members could certainly give to other causes that are important to them. No gift should ever be received without grateful acknowledgment. And such gratitude will make future gifts more likely.

Second, these contribution reports should include some mention of how many households in the congregation gave in that previous quarter. We should imitate the Minnesota tax folks and remind people how “normal” it is to give to our congregation’s ministry. Too often we provide information about budget shortfalls and tight financial situations. So we create the perception that people are not giving. We make that the most available piece of information for our folks. And that availability will lead people to give less. After all they don’t want to be the exceptional suckers who are footing the bill for everyone else.

Third, these contribution reports should include information about how much people have given in the last quarter. There is no reason that this information should be shared with members only once a year (if at all). That information might include a “giving level pyramid” that demonstrates how many households in a congregation give within certain ranges during that quarter. Of course, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. Therefore they can all give more. So if possible, try to put those giving ranges into a household income context as well. That information may be based on demographic reports for the area. Again, many of us will assume that everyone else is richer than we are. But these reports make that assumption harder to sustain.

Many people in our congregations give regularly. That's good news that should be shared!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Where All The Givers Are Above Average

It's known as the "Lake Woebegon Effect." It is our tendency to believe that in many areas of our lives we are "above average." The name comes, of course, from Garrison Keillor's description of all the children in the fictional Minnesota town as "above average." 

We believe that we are above average drivers. We believe that we are above average students. We believe that we are above average lovers. We believe that our sense of humor is above average as well (even if we do seem to be a bunch of old grumps).

We have highly optimistic estimates of our own performance and competence. Of course, it cannot be the case that everyone is above average. An average requires that some people are below and some are above. We simply believe that in every case we are part of the "above" crowd. And typically we believe that we are in the "well above" crowd. 

This isn't due merely to hubris. In fact, we live with an optimism bias and a self-justification bias. We are wired to see ourselves as above average. And we have to think hard in order to see ourselves with more realism.

So we believe that we are more likely to succeed where others have failed. We believe we are less likely to suffer from illness or injury than others. And this can even impact our physicians as they advise us. We believe that we can take greater risks than others because they are the ones who will make up the bottom fifty percent of the average.

This is all true unless we have been made aware recently of something bad that has happened. Then we are likely to overestimate our chances of something bad happening to us. The insurance industry lives off this negativity bias created by what is called the "availability" heuristic.

I wonder how this impacts people's giving behavior. I'd love to find a way to survey people in congregations about how they see their giving relative to the average in a congregation. I hypothesize that many people would see themselves as "above average" in their giving. That would be true until they were exposed to the actual average number. I am quite sure that most people underestimate that number and therefore overestimate their relationship to that number.

Certainly a few people would underestimate the average. These are the folks who give significantly more than the average and raise that number. Their estimates will be influenced by their available experience. The other exception would be those folks who actually deal with contribution information in a congregation. There may be no better stewardship education than to be church financial secretary (if one can resist the temptation toward bitter judgmentalism).

I am guessing that if we did actual surveys in congregations, we would irritate and offend many people. In some places, even the mention of "giving" verges on uttering an obscenity. So, short of that tactic, I would suggest that churches need to publish several times a year numbers that reflect simple giving benchmarks. Average household giving is one benchmark. Median household giving would be another. Giving ranges could provide some additional context.

We don't like to be below average for a number of reasons. I think congregations could use our natural tendencies to help us feel realistically above average and to stop living in Lake Woebegon.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

For Maundy Thursday

From Emanuel's Lenten Devotional project, Devoted:

Thursday, April 2
Lowell Hennigs
Maundy Thursday
Read 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

HANDING IT ON
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” (Verse 23a)

Today we are privileged to be the next links in a great chain of faith.  Young people and their parents have been studying what we believe about the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.  They have experienced many dimensions of that Sacrament in class and activities. If you want to view the messages that have helped them prepare for First Communion, you can go to our youtube channel.

Today they will join our Eucharistic fellowship as full participants.  We get to be the people who hand on to them what we have received from the Lord.  We get to be the people who invite them to receive the benefits of the Sacrament—forgiveness, life and salvation.

Those young people first will experience the Rite of Footwashing.  We are not their masters.  We are their servants.  It is our privilege to wait on them in this way.  It is our privilege because we get to imitate our Lord Jesus in this rite.

We wrap ourselves with towels and kneel at their feet.  We wash their feet in part to remind them of their baptismal covenants.  And we dry their feet to prepare them for the journey of faith to come.

Perhaps you can remember your own First Communion celebration.  Think back and give thanks for those people who handed on to you what they also received from the Lord.

And then think back to that first Lord’s Supper.  We remember that meal in our thoughts.  We re-enact that meal in our worship.  We embody that meal in our witnessing and serving.  We get to be those who hand on what our Lord has given us.

But this isn’t a one-night thing.  Week in and week out we get to pass on the faith to the next generation.  If you aren’t teaching a class or mentoring a young person or encouraging a child, you are missing out on great opportunities in being a follower of Jesus. 

We get to hand on to others what the Lord first handed to us.  And in the handing on, it becomes most fully ours.


Let’s pray.  Lord God, thank you for those who handed on the faith to me.  Use me to hand that faith on to the next generation of believers.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sustained by a Word

From our congregational Lenten project, Devoted.

Wednesday, April 1

Lowell Hennigs
Wednesday in Holy Week
Read Isaiah 50:4-9a

SUSTAINED BY A WORD
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Verse 4a)

Have you been sustained by the words you find here?  I hope so.  We are blessed with many fine teachers in these pages.  They have been willing to share their lives, their faith, their questions and their words to sustain you and me in this Lenten journey.

Sometimes we may forget that our Lord Jesus was sustained as well by the power of God’s Word.  He knew the Hebrew scriptures intimately and charted his earthly course based on God’s word—especially in the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah.

For example, when he suffered violence and torture, he knew that this was the fate of an honest prophet of the word.  He understood that his course would take him from the safety of the Galilean hills to the hands of the executioner in Jerusalem.  He knew that this was the path of the Suffering Servant, the real Messiah, who would bring peace and life to a warring and dying world.

He read those Scriptures.  He prayed over them and through them.  And then he embodied and enacted the mission contained there.  Those around him did not understand what was happening.  But he was fulfilling Israel’s vocation as the Suffering Servant for the sake of all.

We too can be sustained by the Word.  Regular and careful study will shape and nourish our faith.  Daily prayer and reflection will make that word a part of our breath and our thought.  Weekly worship will reconnect us with the Word and with the community formed by that Word.

I pray that these meditations have fed you well on your Lenten journey.  I pray even more that they leave you hungering—hungering for daily devotions when Lent is over.

If you need more devotional resources to carry on after Lent, please contact your church office.  They will be glad to help.

Let’s pray.  Thank you, God, for sustaining us with your Word in the midst of trials and troubles.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Christ In Our Home devotional resources, click here.

Subscribe to Moravian Daily Texts, click here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

For Tuesday of Holy Week

For Tuesday of Holy Week from our congregational devotion, Devoted.

Tuesday, March 31

Lowell Hennigs
Tuesday in Holy Week
Read Isaiah 49:1-7

HEADING FOR HIGHER GROUND
One of the rules of transformative mediation is this.  When we can’t find common ground, we move to higher ground.  This means that sometimes we can’t find a place where our competing interests might coincide.  When that happens, we need to move to the plane of shared values in order to resolve our differences and come to an agreement.

When I work with divorcing parents, we always try to focus on the best interests of the children.  The parents may not be able to compromise if their framework is self-interest.  But when we seek the higher ground of what’s best for the children, agreements come much more readily.

In this second Servant Song, God raises the sights of the Servant.  Mere survival after the Babylonian exile isn’t nearly enough.  A focus on mere survival for God’s people will be little more than a living death.  God has far bigger plans for them.

It is too light a thing,” God says.  It is too small, too insignificant, not nearly big enough a thing for God’s people to focus on personal survival.  Instead, they are to seek much higher ground.  This remnant from the exile will be a light to nations—the Gentiles.  God’s goal is that peace and justice, life and hope will reach every place on earth.

So there is a word here for the church.  It is too light a thing for us to focus on mere survival.  That will be living death for congregations and for the church.  We are the ones who follow the Light of the World.  We are the ones called to let our light shine before others.  We are called to live on the highest ground—the good news of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Where is the higher ground in your life?  Where is the higher ground for our congregation and our Church?

Let’s pray.  Lead us, Lord, to the higher ground where we can do the heavy lifting of your love.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


For Monday of Holy Week

From our congregational devotions, Devoted.

Monday, March 30

Lowell Hennigs
Monday in Holy Week
Read Isaiah 42:1-9

Being God’s Friends
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) once wrote, “If this is how God treats his friends, it’s no wonder he has so few of them!”  In the first half of Holy Week, we can read from the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 40-55.  The prophet describes one who will save by suffering, who will win by losing, who will live by dying.

It is not surprising that Jesus takes these songs to describe his vocation and his destiny.  The God whose heart is love, whose nature is compassion and whose way is peace—that God would come apart at the seams if God tried to save the world through violence and coercion.  So the path of suffering service is the only way.

This Suffering Servant is the one in whom God’s soul delights.  We can hear echoes of Jesus’ baptism at this point.  “You are my beloved Son,” God says to Jesus, “in whom I am well-pleased.”  Lovely words, but God has a funny way of showing it.  From that moment, Jesus is pitched into a battle with sin, death and evil.  That battle takes Jesus to a violent death.

If this is how God treats God’s friends…

And yet, this is the nature of love.  There can be no other way.  As C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves, to love is to be vulnerable, to be “wound-able.”  To love is to risk having your heart broken, over and over.  And the only way to avoid that risk is to shut your heart up in a loveless casket.

To live without loving is to be dead before you know it.

So this is precisely how God must treat God’s friends.  We are partners now in that task of saving the world through loving self-giving.  We dare not do violence in the name of Jesus, for it we do we contradict our call.  Instead, we suffer the price of loving.


Let’s pray.  Thank you, God, for your willingness to suffer our pain and heal our sin.  Use us to love the world you love.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

When Loss Gets Out of Control

Most plane crashes are the result of "cascading failures." A cascading failure is an accumulation of small errors and breakdowns that result in a catastrophic event. The instructions for an airport procedure are not written in the first language of the ground personnel. A door is improperly latched. Some cargo is not quite secured as it should be. A plane is required to take some evasive action because of a momentary lapse in attention. Shift! Bang! Boom! Crash!

So far, the investigations of the Germanwings crash have not revealed any possible mechanical or structural issues that led to the disaster. Nonetheless, this catastrophe may also have been caused by a cascading failure. The copilot at the controls of the Germanwings flight is reported, by anonymous sources, to have been suffering from depression and personal losses. We may learn the truth of this, or we may not. But we know that losses accumulate and can overwhelm the resources of even the most resilient person.

Losses accumulate. It is hard enough to lose a relationship through a breakup or a death. But life has a way of adding to such a loss. Perhaps a job change follows. Or I move into a different house. And my relationships with friends, family, neighbors and co-workers change. My standard of living may suffer. My hopes and dreams for the future no longer apply. Each of those losses--and the multiple little losses in any given day--pile one on top of another. 

Our losses don't merely add up. The more losses we experience, the greater is our sensitivity to the next actual or potential loss. So there's a real sense in which our losses are non-linear. There comes a point where the line of the graph becomes a curve. And then there is the point where that curve seems to go straight up to infinity. In my personal experience, that is the moment where taking one's life can seem like the most reasonable thing to do.

That non-linear character means that our sensitivity to loss increases with each loss we experience. And the sensitivity itself increases more each time. This is the "compound interest" effect of accumulating losses. After the loss of a loved one, we may worry about losing other relationships as well. The likelihood of that happening is as low as it was a year ago or a decade ago. But my sensitivity to the possibility--my anxiety that others will leave me somehow--becomes horrifically magnified. In the midst of consecutive losses, I will do almost anything to avoid the risk of another loss.

So what can we do in the face of emotional cascade failures? We need to spread out the load we bear. This is the wisdom, limited as it is, of making few changes in one's life after a major loss. At least that reduces the potential for additional losses and spreads out the impact of current losses over a greater time. So we may become more careful about how we invest ourselves in new relationships. 

The downside of that approach is that it has no sensitivity to potential gains. Loss experiences make us loss-focused. But a few gains can reduce that sensitivity if we can muster up the courage to take some low-level risks after loss. 

That being said, we can also spread out the load we bear by sharing that load with others. In times of loss, the presence of accepting friends and family can be critical to survival. This is another way to keep the loss sensitivity graph from going vertical.

We can be aware of our native abilities to absorb loss and move on afterwards. We come with varying degrees of natural resiliency, and it's good to be aware of just how much we can actually take. I found that I was more resilient than I thought. I learned to push through pain to a greater degree. I learned that our loss sensitivity can often decrease fairly quickly if we're just patient with ourselves. And for those who struggle with resiliency, it may be important to have a ready support system on stand-by for those times when the graph threatens to reach to infinity.

I have no idea if any of this was true for the Germanwings copilot. We are best served to wait for real information and to resist the pseudo-information of anonymous sources. But it is an opportunity to reflect on how we respond to major personal losses and how we might build greater capacity for healthy responses to our personal catastrophes.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Please Don't Protect My Christian Liberty

Today Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act." That law permits individuals or corporations to use religious beliefs as a defense in suits charging discrimination. In particular this defense can be used to underwrite discriminatory actions against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. A more complete report is available today on the Huffington Post site. 

First, I find this action morally reprehensible and legally indefensible. But there's more!

I find the whole idea of legally defending religious freedom to be puzzling from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, the New Testament witness is clear that we ought not to make life more difficult for our neighbors in order merely to defend our own interests. For example, Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

Paul is addressing a conflict within the Christian church at Philippi. There is, however, no reason to believe that Paul would wish this social and ethical strategy to be limited to Christian coreligionists. I understand that such a self-effacing strategy is offensive to many people. But, as they say, I don't write it. I just report it.

Paul offers similar instructions to the Christians at Rome. Even if we were to think that our position is superior to that of our neighbors, that does not give us license to impose our positions on others. "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor" (Romans 15:1-2). I find no permission here for any efforts to defend our religious liberty at the expense of others' interests.

In fact, we ought to expect that our "liberties" will often be tested. "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you," we can read in First Peter, "as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:12-13). I am grateful to live under a system that seeks to protect the rights of minorities. I follow a Master, however, who does not approve of privileging my rights as a Jesus-follower over those of others.

So I don't want this sort of help.

In fact, when the political system makes life difficult for Christians, Jesus advocates neither a political nor a judicial solution. Instead, he commands creative and compassionate resistance. He calls us to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love the enemy and pray for those who persecute us. I need no statutory protection for such activities.

And I am uncomfortable having secular authorities describe the nature of my freedom as a Christian. In his treatise, On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther famously writes, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”  I am most free when I serve others, not when I am protected from others. I am most in bondage when I serve my own interests. Luther continues as he writes, "trust not in any who exalt you, but in those who humiliate you..." I don't want the law used to put me in positions of power over others at the others' expense.

That is a genuine violation of my Christian liberty. So, thanks for the thought, Governor Pence, but that kind of help I don't need or want.

Lutheran Theory Blindness

Blinded by theory--it is a common condition among all serious thinkers. Thomas Kuhn described it a length in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He demonstrated our tendency to be paralyzed by our paradigms. On the one hand, we see what we expect to see. Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman demonstrated this with such elegance in their "Red Spades" experiments as reported in their 1949 paper entitled "On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm." If we expect to see something, we will have great difficulty seeing anything else.

This is not a matter of conscious stubbornness or the marvelous and nearly infinite human capacity to be obtuse. It is a matter of our perceptual wiring. Our biases are built in at the neurological level. We overcome our blind spots only with great effort. Our tendency toward blind spots is increased by our need to focus on a limited set of information. 

Most of us are familiar, for example, with the "Invisible Gorilla" experiment and accompanying book. It's great fun to return to that experiment periodically and see what new surprises the researchers have added. Once we see the incongruous feature in the video, we can't un-see it. However, that does not prepare us at all for the next unexpected addition. We see what we expect. We process a limited amount of information at a time.

Our theories equip us to see what the theory predicts. When we are challenged to see more, we struggle. And sometimes we simply don't see.

Another feature of theory blindness is the "ubiquitous hammer" problem. If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail. Conversely, if driving a nail is the identified problem, then every tool becomes a hammer. So the theories of life we find most familiar and comfortable will be applied to any and every situation, and the solutions will be deformed to fit the theory.

That's how I experience much of orthodox Lutheran theology. The problem is human guilt produced by sin. That problem results in pride as expressed in works righteousness. The solution is to confess our helpless unworthiness and to give thanks that all we have is through God's grace in Jesus, the Messiah. For many in the Lutheran tribe, this ubiquitous theological hammer drives every existential nail.

So our Lutheran toolbox seems remarkably out of touch with many of the existential issues people face. The problem for most is not guilt but rather shame. That's not a problem of what I do. It's a problem with who I am. It is no wonder that the work, for example, of Brene Brown resonates with people far more these days than the Small Catechism. 

Coupled with our shame struggles is the search for meaning and purpose. If our theological hammer focuses on works righteousness, then we can't figure this one out. Our desire to make a difference in the world will be framed as an exercise in prideful accomplishment. Lutheran orthodoxy struggles terribly to make out a positive case for works of love. But people today want their church to make a difference in the world, not just to salve their troubled consciences.

And theory blindness, as Daniel Kahneman points out, makes it "extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws" (Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 276). Much of our Lutheran orthodox theory is rooted in the Doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as proposed by St. Anselm. Luther himself much preferred a "victory" model of the atonement rather than a "victim" model. Aulen's Christus Victor remains the best description of the case.

But theory blindness ties many Lutherans to the "victim" model of Jesus' cross and resurrection. This model relies on guilt as motivation and scapegoating as the solution. I believe this perspective underlies the current flight of many Christians of good heart and conscience from churches that cannot see past their own theories.

It is time to add something besides a hammer to our Lutheran toolboxes. How about a servant's towel?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Radical and Relative Disappointment

Ömer Taşpınar has written a penetrating article for the Huffington Post entitled "You Can't Understand Why People Join ISIS Without Understanding Relative Deprivation." Taspinar is, according the Post, professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. You can find the article at: 

The article details the impact of "relative" deprivation on those whom join organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. He acknowledges the impact of ideological, political and theological rationales. But he points further to the reality of heightened hopes and dashed expectations on the part of those who join such organizations. 

Their involvement is not a product of "absolute" deprivation. That is, those who become radicalized are not from populations who are the poorest and least powerful. Instead, their deprivation is real in comparison with the access to resources and power experienced by other groups. Aspiring young people in the Middle East, for example, see that Europeans and Americans with similar education and other advantages attain far higher levels of affluence and influence.

It is by comparison that the potential radicals suffer. This is what Taspinar calls "relative deprivation."

We can see that value is best established by comparison. We humans are comparison engines. We have great difficulty establishing and experiencing "absolute" value. We are not typically moved by stories of absolute deprivation. We are more likely to be motivated by stories that compare how little one person has in comparison to how much another person has. You can see the comparison engine at work in any effort to raise money, for example, for homeless children. Look at how much you have, the appeal will say. Compare that to how little this child has. What are you going to do?

Most of us will reach for our checkbooks.

When we put relative deprivation alongside heightened expectations, we can have an explosive combination. Humans are rarely more irrational and aggressive than when they see themselves as the aggrieved and offended party. We can compare rewards and be disappointed that others have gotten a better deal than we have. But if we compare inputs--education, hard work, intelligence, risk-taking--and discover that we have still come off worse than others who generated the same inputs, then we will be fighting mad.

Taspinar notes that realities of global information have made the problem far worse. We have immediate access to huge batches of data for comparison and disappointment. Young people in the Middle East, for example, can compare themselves to European counterparts and develop a powerful grievance story. When the grievance story becomes strong enough, the bereaved will protest, sometimes violently.

So what is to be done? We could try to cut off the information base for comparison. But that is no longer possible. We could seek to assist the relatively deprived to learn how to be content with what they have. But that is foolish and unjust. If we wish to reduce the number and intensity of such future conflicts, we must be willing to address the inequalities of outcome that result in the sense of relative deprivation. 

Reduce the hope (but let's not) or reduce the disappointment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Lenten Hope

Psychologists have marveled at the existence of expert intuition. How does a firefighter "know" that a burning building is going to collapse when the amateur eye sees no evidence of the impending doom? How does a skilled physician make an accurate diagnosis seconds into a clinical examination? How does an experienced pilot almost "see" weather patterns, wind currents, and dangerous traffic before the ground controllers can alert the pilot to the problem? There are some things that we just "know" without really knowing.

It is intuition. Herbert Simon described it this way. "The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition" (see Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 237). Intuition is the recognition of patterns stored in memory.

There are some things that we can learn to recognize after just an exposure or two. For example, we have a narrow bridge that leads from our home to the main road in our part of town. It took only two near-misses on that bridge for me to learn some significant lessons. Now even when there is no visible traffic, I slow down and put my foot on the brakes in preparation for something potentially bad. I think about it after I have done it and realize that this has become an automatic behavior.

Our intuitions are most easily trained to recognize danger. This is obvious in the experience of the firefighter who flees a collapsing building and then later figures out why. We can learn, however, to recognize other patterns as well. We can learn, for example, to have hope in difficult situations. In every divorce mediation, for example, I hear people say, "This will never work." Sometimes that's true. But in most cases I can now see the patterns of thought and behavior that will make a resolution of some kind possible. I have been trained to see hope.

That's a good description of the Christian discipline we call Lent. It is training to see hope. In this journey through Lent, we practice the pattern of Cross and Resurrection. We train our intuitions more fully to see that death can lead to life, that despair can lead to hope, that loss can lead to gain. When we confront loss, despair and death, we are equipped to say, "I've see this before. I know how this turns out." That's why we practice this discipline year after year.

Studies show that experts in a discipline need ten thousand hours or more of practice (as well as some real skills) in order to become experts. The same is true of our intuitions. It takes practice and discipline to have a well-formed and reliable set of intuitions. Sometimes there is a flash--a moment when all becomes clear, when the cross points directly to the empty tomb. But mostly it takes practice and formation. We must be exposed repeatedly to the story that leads from Good Friday to Easter in order to see that story at work in our daily lives.

This is one of the goals of learning this Lenten hope. I pray that you will be able to say, in the face of despair and death, "I've seen this before. I know how this comes out."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Grace of a Noble Half Truth

The quote is attributed to Louis Pasteur: "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." This is, of course, the rankest form of nonsense. Chance--the occurrence of random events-- by definition "favors" no one. Jesus reminds us that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike. It was this realistic appraisal of God's even-handed graciousness that sets him apart as much as anything else.

Chance does not favor the prepared mind. More accurately, the prepared mind is far more able to respond quickly and positively to unforeseen events. This is why I am no fan of strategic "planning"--whether in the church or elsewhere in my life. John Lennon knows this world better than Pasteur at this point: "Life is what happens to us while we're making other plans." I think it is far better to think in terms of strategic preparedness and strategic positioning.

We must make plans or risk paralysis of thought and will. But we must not pretend that we know how things will work out. In addition to making plans, we must develop our capacities to respond constructively to things that disrupt our plans entirely. And we must not be disappointed when the experts turn out to be wrong.

Otherwise, we become like the Lutherans installing a light bulb. It takes four Lutherans for the job, of course, One of them changes the bulb. The other three wax nostalgic about how much they liked the old light bulb.

Bulbs burn out. People die. Life changes. Events transpire. And we are best served to prepare our capacities for nimble response rather than to spend all our energy on detailed plans that will inevitably and quickly become obsolete.

So why do we make such plans? We are regularly victimized by the "hindsight bias." I have discussed this in some earlier posts. This is our tendency to view past events in terms of how things actually turned out. We lose track of our earlier predictions and plans. We are certain that we predicted the outcome in advance, when in fact all we did was to describe the outcome after the fact.

Keep track of how many times people will say, "I knew that would happen." It is deeply satisfying to say that. It creates the illusion of knowledge and feeds our need for certainty. And it is a fabrication. Unless you are predicting that billiard balls will move when struck, it is unlikely that you really know how things will turn out.

There is grace in this reminder. Kahneman reminds us of the perverse power of the "outcome bias" (Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 203). We hold people responsible for knowing things they could not have known in advance. How many people have been penalized because they "should have known" something that is only clear in hindsight? Far too many.

How many times do I punish myself for a "bad" decision? Far too often. Instead, we are well served by one of the noble half truths of life. People make the best decisions they can at the time. Otherwise they would have made different ones. I remind myself of that often--especially at those times when I want to punish myself for not knowing what I couldn't have known.

That noble half truth helps me to focus my energy on being able to respond to what comes next in life. And it makes the whole adventure so remarkably interesting.

I Just Can't Remember

I ask myself, "Is this how I used to feel?" Was I always this anxious, this fretful about the future, this troubled by personal and world events? I'm not sure.

I am often puzzled by how difficult it is to remember the past. I don't mean the history in books. I am talking about my past. I can reconstruct the general sequence of events and timelines. But I struggle to remember how I felt at particular times in my life. And since I can't really remember my previous emotional states, I have some trouble gauging how I am doing now.

For example, I am pretty sure that my emotional "set points" were altered because of the death of my first wife, Anne. I don't think I was as prone to anxiety, to the blues, and to reflections on meaninglessness as I am now. But based on my own recollections, I can't say for sure. In my subjective experience, it just seems like it has always been this way.

I, however, don't think that's true.

"A general limitation of the human mind," writes Daniel Kahneman, " is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past sates of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed" (Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 202). 

I find that to be accurate in every way. And it's even more true when the world has changed for me in such a significant way. Now, when I read journal reflections from several years ago, it is like I am investigating the life of another person. This can be disconcerting. But it's also helpful. This is perhaps the best reason to keep some sort of journal. It is a record of how I once thought--in fact, the only reliable record of how I once thought. Even asking others who knew me isn't all that helpful. Their memories have been altered as well.

We need such tools to remind us that our ongoing memories are both malleable and fallible. I cannot view the past from the perspective of ten years ago. I can only view the past through the lens of my life now. Every time I take out a memory and re-live it, I am actually reprocessing it as a new memory.

Is it any wonder that public figures begin to report experiences that they never had? Our memories can do that to us. Suddenly we have done things, said things, felt things, believed things, that we did not actually do, say, feel or believe in the past. And worst of all, we are sure that we did.

Perhaps the most important person on the staff of a celebrity ought to be the memory fact-checker. This might be the person who keeps the celebrity's memories from getting too far off the reality-track. I suspect that this was one of the functions of the court fool (jester) in older times--to remind the ruler that self-justifying memories cannot be trusted.

So on the one hand, I have deep sympathy for the public figures who seem to have made up experiences out of thin air. On the other hand, they can employ folks to keep them honest if that's really what they want.

Or they could just keep a journal.

Please Don't Keep Your Political Promises

I don't expect political candidates to keep their promises. 

There's a news flash for you, right? I am not suggesting a cynical "everybody lies to get elected" evaluation. That is often true, but that's not my point. At least in theory, promises are predictions of future performance. And that's why I don't expect candidates to keep their promises.

They can't predict the future with any accuracy beyond that of a coin flip. I am not suggesting that candidates for office are less intelligent than other people. Instead, they possess the same mix of intelligence and ignorance as we find in ourselves and everyone else. No one is particularly good at predicting how things will turn out in the long run.

The long run is essentially unpredictable.

So I am not impressed by campaign promises. These promises are merely efforts to tell explanatory stories that will make us feel better about our settled prejudices and preconceptions. And the less the candidate knows, the easier it is for the candidate to create a confident, compelling and coherent narrative. "Paradoxically," writes Daniel Kahneman, "it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance." (Thinking, Fast and Slow, page 201).

I have little interest in prospective promises. No one can predict when a plane might fly into a tall tower--at least not years in advance. No one can predict when a category five hurricane will strike the southern coast or a magnitude eight earthquake will devastate the western states. No one can predict when a stroke or a tumor or a reckless driver will alter or end a political career. And certainly no one can predict how that collection of toddlers we call the United States Congress will respond to political stimuli on any given day.

Political promises are little more than rhetorical chocolate. We should be wise enough to base our expectations and decisions on more substantive information. If we do not, then we get the representation we deserve.

That more substantive information involves how the candidates respond to unexpected problems. It also involves their actual records of decision-making in their lives and work. We would get better representation if we generated simply formulas to measure those problem solving skills and then allowed a machine to make the final choice. We could vote on those criteria, and that would be enough democracy for my tastes.

Unfortunately, we are far too impressed with our own powers of discernment and insight to allow such simple solutions to be used.  So we listen to campaign promises that cannot be kept. Then we complain when they are not kept. Or we are impressed with the wooden rigidity of those who keep their promises no matter what--even when that foolish consistency results in paralyzed government.

Let us extract fewer promises as the price of our votes. Let us focus on the folks who know enough to stop making promises and do some actual governing.