Monthly Archives: September 2015

No Strings Attached


I’m considering entering a no-strings-attached relationship with strangers. I’m not talking about sexual promiscuity. I’m talking about charity. For all of my adult life I’ve had a rule against giving money directly to the poor, because I feared they would use it buy drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy things. I’d rather give to my church or an established charity such as the local food pantry, which hands out groceries, not cash. However, over the years I’ve become frustrated by the amount of money most charities spend on infrastructure, staff salaries, and even investments and cash reserves. Because of overhead costs only a portion of what one gives goes directly to the poor. I’m also realizing that it’s arrogant, judgmental, and paternalistic of me to assume that the poor would squander the money, and therefore, I must create safeguards to prevent my donations from being misused.  

Recently I read about an innovative charity called GiveDirectly. It’s the first charity dedicated exclusively to cash transfers. They identify people in extreme poverty in the African countries of Kenya and Uganda, then transfer money to them via mobile phone. Crazy, huh? Maybe not.

This radical method of charitable giving not only preserves the dignity of the recipient, but there’s also good evidence that it’s working. According to a January 2014 article published by The Independent, “An evaluation by Innovations for Poverty Action found that a group of the charity’s recipients in Kenya – who received about $500 over up to 12 months – increased their asset holdings by almost 60 per cent, compared with those without. Recipients saw a 42 per cent reduction in the number of days their children went without food and lower stress levels, among other things.” In this case a handout is actually a hand up.

Some may object to cash transfers on the grounds that they discourage individual initiative and encourage laziness. However, given in the right amounts and over a limited period of time they do neither. The money simply raises recipients above starvation levels of poverty, so they can begin to focus on more than getting enough calories to eat.  

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t a panacea for the poor. People also need health, safety, education, justice, and economic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty. But it’s one tool that seems to be helping raise the standard of living for some very disadvantaged people in Africa.

The idea also makes me think that with a little creativity and courage we could accomplish the goals of our local charities in the US more efficiently and effectively. Traditional brick-and-mortar approaches are expensive and labor intensive. We need creative solutions using available, lower-cost means. For example, instead of staffing and operating food pantries, we could give grocery store gift cards to those who need food. Rather than maintaining soup kitchens we might provide restaurant gift certificates to the hungry. We could pay rent to provide housing for the homeless rather than spending wads of money building and staffing shelters. Following the GiveDirectly model, we could even use cash transfers to get money to the needy quickly and inexpensively. What would lose? In a word, control.

One reason we hang onto labor-intensive and expensive-to-run models is that we want to control the means of our charity and feel good about ourselves in the process. Handing a bag of groceries to a poor person brings a sense of satisfaction while giving us power over the recipient of our generosity. I remember volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where patrons were subjected to a DMV-like waiting room experience, then when their number was finally called, they were required to listen to an evangelistic appeal before they could receive their food. Families in homeless shelters often live under rules we wouldn’t put up with. Unconditional giving might make us uncomfortable, but it restores the dignity and freedom of those we’re seeking to help.

The idea of giving with no strings attached sounds radical, I know. But it’s not nearly as radical as what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”


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True Happiness

Beautiful smiling cute baby

It’s become a joke in my family. I’ll see something I want and say, “If I had that, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” It started almost a decade ago. Our family would shop at Nichols Hardware Store in Purcellville, Virginia which sells a little of everything, including furniture. There was this beautiful and expensive wooden rocking chair. Every time we went into the hardware store, I’d go sit in the rocking chair and say, “If I had this rocking chair, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” My wife bought me the rocking chair for my 40th birthday (appropriate, huh?), but it didn’t really make me the happiest person in the world. My happiness meter went up a tick on my birthday and then went back down to its usual position, between “somewhat satisfied” and “somewhat dissatisfied,” if you were to put it on a Likert scale.

The same thing happened with my job teaching history at the Naval Academy. I said, “If I get this job, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” I got the job. I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me the happiest person in the world.

Maybe you’re like me. You thought if you get that new thing or that new job or that new relationship you’d be happy. But after getting it and once the newness wore off, you were generally no happier than you were before. That dissatisfaction –that restlessness – we feel inside isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing because it can lead us to what truly satisfies, just like thirst can make us drink and hunger can make us eat.

God has put in each of us a longing to be happy. But getting what we want doesn’t satisfy this longing. Jesus begins his first great sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, with a litany about happiness called the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). The Beatitudes are eight blessings, which appear in a shorter and slightly different form in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6:17-49). Each Beatitude begins with the formula “blessed are . . .” and then describes the ones who are truly blessed. The word “blessed” can be translated “happy” and often is. The passage teaches the paradoxical and surprising truth that God’s favor is granted to those whom society regards as objects of pity: the hungry, the grieving, the persecuted, and so on.

The words of the Gospel are so familiar to us today, that we often forget how shocking they were when Jesus first spoke them. The hearty working-class folks, the farmers and fishermen, who made up the bulk of Jesus’s audience didn’t lay down their tools and trudge up a mountainside to hear someone tell them to be nice and keep their noses clean. They came to hear a controversial preacher say revolutionary things that turned society’s values on their head.

Jesus had a habit of saying crazy-sounding things such as:

“The first shall be last and the last first.”

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

“Love those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus points out that the truly happy people aren’t the up-and-comers but the down-and-outers. Not those who have their religious act together, but those who are spiritually needy. Not those who are always upbeat, the Polyannas of the world, but those who are overcome with sorrow and grief. Not those who have the world by the tail, but those who are usually overlooked and underappreciated. Not those who are self-righteous, but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not those who exact revenge on their enemies, but those who turn the other cheek. Not those who have an unblemished record of purity, but those who are pure in heart. Not those who have already found peace, but those who strive to make peace.

Luke’s version is even more radical. Jesus says it’s not the rich who are happy, but the poor. Not those who have enough to eat, but those who are hungry. Not those who are laughing, but those who are weeping. Not those who are loved, but those who are despised.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ends the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12).

Most of us aren’t very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want when we want it. We aren’t very good at patiently enduring hardship for the sake of greater rewards down the road. But that’s exactly what the Christian life is all about.

The ones who are truly happy are the ones who “store up treasures in heaven” rather than on earth (Matt. 6:20). To have that kind of long-term goal, we have to believe that God is good and that he rewards those who humbly accept whatever suffering and adversity life brings them.

When Jesus sat on that grassy hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and was about to preach his sermon, What do you think he saw as he looked around? He was surrounded by his fellow Galileans – working-class farmers, fishermen, and maybe even a few carpenters like himself. I imagine he saw men with calloused hands and sunburnt faces. Women with calloused hands, their brows furrowed with anxiety. Children pulling on their parents’ sleeves saying they’re hungry. What expression do you think he saw in their faces? I think he saw worry and pain and sorrow. I think he saw sadness in their faces. And that’s why at the beginning of his greatest sermon he chose to talk about true happiness.

He wanted to dispel the myth that they would be happier if they had more money, more food, better clothes, more status, and fewer problems. Jesus knew that happiness doesn’t come from getting things we don’t have but from recognizing and appreciating what we do have, even if what we have is a difficult life.

I wonder how those working-class farmers and fishermen reacted to Jesus’s words about being happy even when your circumstances are unhappy. Did they scoff and dismiss it as pie-in-the-sky rhetoric? Or did they find comfort in his teaching that true happiness doesn’t come from riches and success, which none of them had or could hope for? I think at least some of them found great hope in Jesus’s promise that those who experience pain and suffering can be happy because their reward is coming.

It takes great courage to be happy, especially when faced with difficult circumstances. It’s easy to give into discouragement and despair. My hope and prayer is that we will all set our eyes on God and his kingdom as our ultimate reward. If we do that, we’ll truly be the happiest people in the world.


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Advice from Me to Myself


Your mind is spinning around
About carrying out a lot of useless projects:
It’s a waste! Give it up!
Thinking about the hundred plans you want to accomplish,
With never enough time to finish them,
Just weighs down your mind.
You’re completely distracted
By all these projects, which never come to an end,
But keep spreading out more, like ripples in water.
Don’t be a fool: for once, just sit tight.

Excerpt from “Advice from Me to Myself” by Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887)

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I’m a Coward

cowardly lion

The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I have a secret desire to be a great writer one day, or at least a very good one. I doubt I will be either. Not because I lack the intellect or talent, which may be true, but because I lack courage. At its best, writing – even fiction writing – is a form of truth telling. Camus famously remarked, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” That’s why novels and fictionalized autobiographies can be more true to life than their non-fiction counterparts. (The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel’s Night come to mind.) Telling the truth requires courage. I’m a coward by nature, at least when it comes to going on the record.

My two favorite clergy autobiographies are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly. I count their authors among my heroes, not only because of what they did for God and humanity but also for their courage to expose their ugly, sinful sides. They were brave men who didn’t hide behind their words. Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” If Tillich was right, then self-knowledge and self-acceptance are keys to developing the courage I need to be a better writer.

Even when the topic isn’t autobiographical, good writing requires brutal honesty about the world around us. Honesty forces authors to take up themes and discuss topics that aren’t always welcome in polite society, even less in church circles. The gritty details of life make stories more believable, more real. We don’t live in a G-rated world. When authors write as if we did, the result is an artificial, watered-down version of the real thing, like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and the stuff from a can.

Having something to say is more important than saying it well. That’s why there’s always work for ghost writers. For me the problem isn’t lacking something to say but lacking the courage to say it. The kind of transparency and openness that’s prerequisite for good writing makes my palms sweat and my stomach churn.

I’m not ready to bare my soul on paper, but I am willing to take the first step and begin as anyone in recovery begins, by admitting I have a problem:

Hi, my name is Travis, and I’m a coward.

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Why We Still Need the Liberal Arts


Philosophia et septem artes (12th century)

Yesterday a colleague of mine made the statement that he thought the government shouldn’t fund the liberal arts. That is, public fund shouldn’t be used to subsidize the humanities at colleges and universities, only practical “STEM” majors in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. His argument was twofold: (1) the humanities don’t pay for themselves, and (2) they don’t add enough value to society. I mean, what good is a literature degree compared to engineering? At least an engineer can build stuff. What’s a literature major gonna do, write a haiku? Someone with a history degree might get a job teaching history but how long would it take to pay back $80K in student loans? A lifetime? I fumbled my response. This blog post is an attempt to redeem myself, and, if nothing else, provide a morale boost to my fellow liberal arts degree holders.

Off the bat I must concede that the cost of college education is out of control in the United States no matter what one chooses to study. The ridiculous cost of a university education in America is a problem that won’t be solved by excluding the liberal arts from public funding.

An easy way to answer the cost-benefit objection liberal arts degrees is to say that money isn’t the measure of all things. Earnings potential shouldn’t be the only or even the primary yardstick by which to measure an education. Teaching, public service, and a host of altruistic endeavors would be automatically eliminated as viable career choices, if money were seen as the greatest good. Even those with marketable degrees such as computer science or math would have to steer clear of lower-paying but highly rewarding jobs to justify the cost of their degrees. Yet intuitively we know that there is great value added in having teachers, public servants, and others who earn far less than they could in profit-oriented careers.

The original purpose of higher education wasn’t to train worker bees but to produce better citizens and even better human beings. The term “liberal arts” has nothing to do with political liberalism. The term derives from the Latin artes liberales, meaning “skills fit for a free man.” The focus of an education for the children of the wealthy in the Greco-Roman world was to train them for careers in public service, not for building a better chariot wheel. Slaves received such practical training, not those who were being groomed to serve in the Roman Senate or a king’s court. Liberal arts education is still needed today. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” A liberal arts education teaches wisdom; technical training does not.

No one would question the contributions to civilization made by scientists and inventors. Neither should anyone question the contributions of poets, philosophers, musicians, and painters. Even though college graduates with STEM majors typically earn more than humanities majors, this fact shouldn’t be seen as a measure of their intrinsic worth or value to society. An engineer may be trained how to build a nuclear bomb, but unless he has had some education in the humanities he won’t be equipped to decide whether it should be dropped on a city.

The reason I value my history degree isn’t because of how much money I am able to earn as a historian, which isn’t much. I value my history degree because it taught me critical reading, thinking, and communication skills. Those skills are useful in a variety of pursuits outside the field. I also value my history degree because it helped me see the world through another’s eyes. In other words history developed in me the virtue of empathy and made me a better person as a result. It’s difficult to put a price tag on that.

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