Russell and Duenes

Archive for August 2014

My Sons in Iraq, Skills Trump Passion, and Dallas Willard

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Apparently polling data shows that a majority of Americans are against any ground-based military action in Iraq. Doubtless the reasons for this are varied, but I’ll speak as the father of three sons. If my sons were of age and had served in Iraq in the last 10 years, or worse, if one of them had been killed in the fighting, only to be treated to our current President’s squandering of everything they fought for, along with his utter lack of vision or coherent policy for Iraq and the wider Middle East, then I too would be adamantly opposed to my sons going back there. Why throw their lives away in the service of a Commander-in-Chief who is so obviously out of his depth, and who would rather speak foolish bromides than carry out wise and realistic policies? Without a plan for gaining and holding a true victory over ISIS, any further American lives will be throw away also. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to have their sons put in harm’s way with Barack Obama in charge.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. That’s the title of a book by Cal Newport (see his “Study Hacks” blog here), and all by itself it gets me juiced to do excellent work in my vocation. And it really matters little what vocation it is. Go stock the shelves for Target and become so good at it that the higher-ups can’t ignore you. Load FedEx planes during the graveyard shift so well they can’t overlook you. Plan, scheme, ponder, experiment and work diligently and hard regarding the execution of your job, whether you’re a doctor, plumber, IT engineer, maintenance worker or ditch-digger. I’m a newbie to Cal Newport’s stuff (my wife has read much more of him), but from what I’ve read so far, there’s a lot here. I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life considering my “passions,” and it has really been of limited value. Frankly, if I were young and unemployed, I’d rather spend 40 hours a week working so well at McDonalds that they could not ignore me, rather than spending gobs of time in the quest for “my passion.”

In the first chapter of his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard says: “The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.” Of course, this does not explain all our failings as human beings. We don’t always want to do what’s right. Indeed, often we are quite set on doing wrong, and then rationalizing it as something “good.” Yet Willard’s sentiment describes my life very well. I seem to want what is right and important when it comes to being a husband and father, and yet so often that actions are not there. I respond with anger, impatience, indifference, sluggishness or distraction. My heart gets fidgety and anxious. I don’t turn to God for wisdom. I am not “producing the action I know to be right and the condition I want to enjoy.” Rather, I somehow want to just magically perform when the time comes. It rarely happens. What’s needed in my case, says Willard, is “to learn from Christ how to live [my] total life, how to invest all [my] time and [my] energies of mind and body as he did. [I] must learn how to follow his preparations, the disciplines for life in God’s rule that enabled him to receive his Father’s constant and effective support while doing his will.”




Written by Michael Duenes

August 23, 2014 at 11:21 am

Ferguson: Empathy, Good Judgment, Morality and Mercy

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I agree wholeheartedly with my good friend that “it is a lack of empathy, good judgment, morality, and mercy as to why we continue to have these problems” in places like Ferguson, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago and Newark, to name a few. Yet what I’d want to do is give some definition to these words.

What does empathy mean in the context of urban life in places like Ferguson? Empathy has to do with identifying on an emotional, intellectual and spiritual level with the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of others. Empathy means considering the lives, perhaps the plight, of those who are agitated and angry in Ferguson. When I consider them, I think about the things of human goodness, and as a Christian, I ought to desire those things for them, as I desire them for myself. I’m not so arrogant as to think I always know what “the things of human goodness” are in each context, but we ought to consider them as a starting point.

This means many things, of course, and it would certainly mean police who are honest, law-abiding and faithful in genuinely enforcing the law in a fair and just way. It further means schools where truth is taught, and where the whole person is cared for in accordance with truth and righteousness. It means conditions where families with fathers and mothers are encouraged, supported, celebrated, upheld, and protected. It means sexual restraint and the goodness of chastity and purity. It means laws that protect the vulnerable: the unborn, the weak, the sick and the aged. It means churches where the truth gospel is preached and the love of Christ is shared in tangible ways. It means institutions and governance which consistently promote things like diligence, responsibility, thrift, honesty, accountability, hard work, cooperation, individual initiative, fidelity to neighbor and country, and administrative minimalism. It means having economic and vocational opportunity. It means being evaluated and rewarded for what one actually accomplishes, rather than by what “category” one might happen to belong to.

Good judgment requires wisdom. What would wisdom look like in our urban centers? Some think it wise to have affirmative action programs. Yet, as Kevin Williamson again points out in another piece: “Much of the evidence suggests that affirmative action does relatively little to help economically disadvantaged people, that its main beneficiaries are middle- to upper-income members of minority groups and white women.” At the least it would certainly behoove Christians who call for “racial reconciliation” to also call for finding out the truth about whether affirmative action really helps. It’s not enough to intend that it help. I think good judgment by Christians would lead to a call for a change of heart about education and a wholesale abandonment of public schools, particularly in our urban centers. Good judgment requires thinking about how our governance and policies in these cities incentivizes sexual immorality and destruction of the biblical family. Good judgment means thinking about what will truly promote economic and financial prosperity. Whether one is a Democrat or Republican truly does not matter, in one sense. But it certainly does matter what one seeks to implement in terms of the size and intrusiveness of government, the schools, welfare, administrative policy, the place of Christianity in society, and so forth. These are not “political” issues. They are moral/ spiritual issues.

Morality and mercy? These must, again, be in accordance with truth. What does mercy look like when it comes to local government policy? And why don’t we hear about merciful local governance from those wanting racial reconciliation, something which I want too? What does mercy look like when it comes to urban education? When it comes to economic and fiscal policies? When it comes to running a police department? When it comes to local justice departments, court and jail systems, aesthetics, providing a context for vocational flourishing, and on and on? Much of this has to do with specific policies, and my sense is that many of the progressive/ liberal policies currently in practice in our cities (whether they come from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or Greens) are policies which are soul-destroying, family destroying, vocation-stunting, education-wrecking, and gospel-opposing policies. Is it merciful to pretend that leftist social and economic policies, foisted upon cities for decades, don’t have hurtful real-world consequences?

What if Williamson is right when he says: “It is notable that one of the most dramatic periods of progress toward closing the black-white income gap happened during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose administration did not do a great deal to address black families’ incomes as such — President Reagan’s program was one of general prosperity, which, if we take the economic data of the period as any guide, worked better than much of anything that’s been tried before or since. ” What if this is true? Were those policies which led to closing this gap merciful? Were they good judgment? Were they wise? Were they empathetic, that is, desirous of the good things which we all would like to enjoy? Forget about who implemented them. That’s irrelevant to our question. What’s relevant is what made a real difference.

I don’t know the full answer. But I’d like to think that Christians at least want to ask the question when they think about and call for racial reconciliation. I guess my bottom line is this: I’d like to see racial reconciliation, and I think my friend would like to see it even more than I. So I’d like to see some wider thinking about what might best bring it about, in every realm (i.e., political, educational, religious).



Written by Michael Duenes

August 19, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Ferguson and Racial Reconciliation

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I offer some brief and general observations on the situation in Ferguson, for what they’re worth. I have not religiously followed the goings on in Ferguson moment-by-moment, but clearly we’ve been here before. My present comments stem from having read three articles by evangelical Christians (here, here and here), and one piece by Kevin Williamson of National Review.

The evangelical articles, in one form or another, inform the reader that the racial divide between blacks and whites is still very much alive here in the United States, and therefore, Ferguson reminds us that the church must continue to preach, and more importantly, live out the racial reconciliation which Christ died to bring about. Well and good.

Williamson, a Catholic (so far as I can tell), provides a different take. Of course, he’s addressing the issue from more of a political standpoint, so on the surface it figures that he discusses different issues, but the racial implications cannot really be so neatly compartmentalized into “political” and “spiritual” categories. At least if one believes the Bible.

Williamson’s thesis? The types of confrontations between the police and black males that are occurring in Ferguson are the types of confrontations that go on in places like Philadelphia, Newark, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit.  And those cities are run by progressive liberals and have had the progressive worldview imposed on them for decades now. Thus, Ferguson and the above-mentioned cities provide for us examples of the practical outworkings of progressive/ liberal governance. The types of urban conflicts and oppression, particularly for young, black males, that are endemic to those cities – whether the result of racism by the cops and others, or an overweening welfare state – have come about under the administrations of overwhelmingly liberal politicians and institutions of influence. Hence, people like Jessie Jackson, who decry what’s going on in Ferguson, ought to consider that Ferguson has had the worldview of Jessie Jackson implemented in it for years now, and therefore, the socio-cultural situation in Ferguson (and elsewhere) is the inevitable result.

I’ll play my cards. I think Williamson’s take has a great deal to recommend it. Now, I don’t disagree with anything the evangelicals put forth, yet I think they don’t say enough, and perhaps they even omit the most important part. A lot is said after these incidents about “racial reconciliation” and how our churches need to look like heaven will look, with all the racial and ethnic groups worshipping God together in harmony. Again, I affirm this, and with a hearty “Amen.” But Christians are also commanded to love their neighbors, and loving one’s neighbor must be done in accordance with the truth. What would it mean for Christians to love their neighbors in places like Ferguson, or Newark, Philly, San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland, Chicago, Baltimore, etc?

Does it mean, or primarily mean, that suburban Christians, more specifically, more white, middle class, suburban Christians, ought to live and minister in these and other inner cities? Doubtless some of us should. But I have to think that even if many more of us did, it would be to little beneficial effect if the progressive/ liberal political and social rulers and structures governing these cities are left in place. In other words, why are the Christian articles I have read content to relate the gospel only to “racial reconciliation,” and not to the larger power personages, structures and institutions that need to be altered and redeemed by the same gospel? Is it because we have so separated out in our minds the “political” versus the “spiritual?” Is it because we have so individualized the gospel that we can only think on the individual or local church level? Is it because we don’t think Jesus and the gospel change whole cultures, governing structures and institutional influences? Is Jesus a Democrat? Is He unconcerned with municipal governance? Would Christians just be “playing politics” if they actually preached and acted on such things? Could racial reconciliation begin with something as pointed as Christians abandoning public schools? Yet we never seem to suggest such things.

I realize that I’m over-simplying these matters to a significant degree, but it seems to me that the evangelical articles I read are far too reductionistic, treading over well-worn ground on “justice” and “racial reconciliation,” and apparently destined to keep on doing so without a larger vision of the problem and a larger vision of the gospel’s transforming reach. In my view, it is not spiritually negligible who runs our cities and what vision of reality they implement as they run them. It is not of little consequence what kinds of schools, teachers and school administrators educate inner-city children. According to Williamson, the liberal vision is deeply hurtful to human flourishing, and the proof’s in the pudding.

Liberal ideas and policies have been brought to bear on these cities and their citizens for a long while. They’ve taken their best shot. They’ve “had the votes.” And this is the result. It seems to me that Christians should take notice, and we should have something more to say in our churches than that racism still exists, we need racial reconciliation, and our churches should be multi-ethnic. No, the power structures, “and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God,” needs to be moved against with “the weapons of righteousness.” The “higher taxes, defective schools, crime and declining economic opportunity” that Williamson says characterize these cities need to be considered more carefully by evangelical Christians, so that we can lay bare their roots, and see them for what they are. Whatever they are, they do not lead to human well-being. That much appears clear.

I cannot bring myself to affirm that leaving in place “feckless schools, self-serving bureaucracies, rapacious public-sector unions pillaging the municipal fisc, and malevolent political leadership that is by no means above exploiting racial sentiment in order to hold on to power” is the definition of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 17, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I Don’t Turn On NFL Films to Watch the Place-Kickers

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The Gospel Coalition did an interview with Sports Illustrated writer, Thomas Lake (find it here), and having read his piece on ex-Carolina Panthers’ player, Rae Carruth (“The Boy They Couldn’t Kill”), Lake definitely lives up to his billing as one of our finest long-piece authors. In the interview he said something interesting, something that has no doubt been voiced by others, but has continued to pop up in my mind from time-to-time since I read the interview, particularly now that the NFL season is set to begin. Lake said:

“Football is—we all know by now—terribly violent and in many cases damaging to people’s brains, can leave them with their lives ruined, even in some cases dead much too soon. Basically everyone in America knows this by now, but we keep watching. Why? Is the game too entertaining, we can’t tear ourselves away? I don’t know. It seems like a great national case of cognitive dissonance. I don’t really know what to do about it—do you?”

Lake concludes that, at least for him, the game is indeed too entertaining or compelling. He adds: “Football is one of the last things in America that everyone still talks about. The mass culture has fragmented; everyone has their own niche. It’s hard to talk about things anymore. Everyone has their own TV show, music—but there’s still football. Turning away is unplugging from society.”

Perhaps so, though I wonder if there’s a test case out there, that is, someone who gave up football altogether who could judge whether he became “unplugged from society” because of it. I’m skeptical. But Lake’s words have gotten me pondering the nature of the game of football. These mostly muscle men slam their bodies into each other with frightening force, at breakneck speeds, with intent to inflict physical and mental punishment on the opponent. And that’s just it. When I watch old NFL films highlights, I ain’t tuning in for the show on place-kickers or punters. What I want is something like: “The NFL’s Greatest Hits,” where linebackers and strong safeties are laying the wood to some poor wide receiver or tight end coming over the middle. It’s what we all want to see.

Lake has no answer for why, and neither, really, do I. What I do have, of course, is more than a suspicion that the hunger for bone-jarring hits isn’t burbling up from some well of virtue deep within me. To say I “go back and forth” over whether to keep watching would be false. I keep watching, and have not much intent on stopping, at least at this point. I guess what I’m saying is that the issue has been more in my consciousness of late. Don’t know where it will lead, but thought I’d put it out there.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 16, 2014 at 12:45 pm

“The Best Years of My Career were the Ones Spent with Pete”

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So said Mike Schmidt, perhaps the greatest third baseman to ever play the game (Sorry, Brooks Robinson, you didn’t have enough offense). Oh, and Schmidt also said about Rose coming to the Phillies: “Right away our games were elevated by watching him everyday. First to park…last to leave. . . He constantly spoke to the media about my ability and how I was the best he ever played with. He told me daily I was the best, in fact he got everyone to believe they were.”

“He got everyone to believe they were.” That’s what I’m taking from the life of Pete Rose. I grew up toward the end of the Rose era. I was only 6 years old when the Big Red Machine won it all in 1975, but I remember well Rose playing for the Phillies when they won the World Series in 1980 (though I was rooting for the Royals). No one who has ever watched Rose play can deny that there’s never been another ballplayer like him, before or since. 

Rose was not nearly the most athletic or talented man on those great Reds teams. Bench, Perez, Morgan, Foster, and Griffey all had more by way of natural gifts than Pete Rose. But his manager, Sparky Anderson, knew best when he made Rose the captain of those teams, and though no one can know for sure, my guess is that the Reds don’t win even one championship in the 70s without Rose. He made all that difference. 

Rose worked tirelessly with what he had, and though it’s clear that Rose thought highly of himself, what I found in reading Kennedy’s book is that Rose consistently, easily and winsomely spoke well of others and wanted those around him to succeed just as he had. To my mind, Rose is a kind of “everyman.” No better, no worse. We only know about his money and gambling problems because he had the temerity to be one of the greatest baseball players ever. He was unfaithful to his wives, and there’s no excusing it, but in this he’s no different than countless other men. Do I look up to him and desire that my sons should be like him as a man? No. But I mean that in a qualified sense. What I do want my sons to emulate about Rose, and I have to think they’re going to learn about him, is his tenacity, his continual optimism about victory, no matter what the scoreboard said, his enthusiasm and energy with which he did everything, his ability to get a lot more out of a lot less than others had, and most of all, the “effusive” praise and uplift he had for those around him. He seems unpretentious, not put out at all to chat up the local nobody who comes to him for an autograph. 

“The best years of my career were the ones spent with Pete.” High praise indeed. I count it a privilege to have watched Rose play. I’d count it a greater privilege to have the effect on others that Rose has had on so many, both inside and outside the lines. 


Written by Michael Duenes

August 12, 2014 at 5:44 pm