Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unemployment, Young Folks, and the Church

As we trundle complacently towards the pending econopocalypse, some of the initial damage seems to be most strongly felt by the young. It ain't only swine flu that hits younglings hardest. It's unemployment.

Among the general population, joblessness is at 10.2% and rising. Unemployment rates among older teens and young adults are roughly 90% higher, at 19.1% and rising.

That means that among folks in that age group, we're not just in a harsh recession. We're in a depression. At the height of the Great Depression, unemployment was at 23%...which isn't far from the experience of our newly minted grownups. For college grads and folks looking for work right out of high school, things are financially fugly. And I know from personal experience just how soul-crushing that can be.

I ran smack into a recession in my first year out of U.Va., and it made for a dismal time. My folks had presented me with a chunk of change as a graduation present...but instead of paying for graduate ed school, it ended up feeding me and clothing me as I desperately searched for work.

Here I had a solid work history and a college degree from a reputable university, and I just couldn't get hired. I weren't slackin', neither. I looked for work every day for seven months. It was almost amusing how many jobs I didn't get. I didn't get the retail jobs and office jobs, sure. But I also couldn't get a call back for the night clerk job at a 7-11. Three different gas stations never responded to my application. I couldn't get jobs in the dishrooms of restaurants. My failure to get employment reached it's epic peak when I didn't get called back for a job shoveling coal into the furnace of a state-run mental institution.

Finally, I found work with the Salvation Army, driving vans full of bell ringers and running errands for minimum wage. Yeah, it wasn't much. Less than five bucks an hour, and no benefits. But it payed my share of the rent and fed me. I was truly, truly grateful for that job. It felt so good to work again, to not feel utterly useless.

This week, as I was poring over James 2, I found myself reflecting back on my experience, and wondering what congregations can do to help. So many churches lament about how it's so hard to engage "the young people," while so many of "the young people" are struggling through a difficult financial, emotional, and spiritual time.

Maybe we should think about ways we can be of service instead. Anyone doing anything interesting out there?

Monday, November 23, 2009


I am naturally a pessimist. Always have been. When I was a kid, my mom's nickname for me was Puddleglum, after the relentlessly dour but redoubtable Marshwiggle from The Silver Chair. As I saw it then, being a pessimist had no down side. If things went badly, well, you right. If things went well, then things were cool and it didn't matter.

Problem is, that doesn't reflect our agency in a situation. Being convinced that things will go badly tends to demotivate most human beings. Focusing relentlessly on the negative has this unfortunate tendency to produce negative results. Yes, we're just "being honest." We're "telling it like it is." But we're also helping to define the direction in which actions will be taken. If all is inevitably despair and woe, then we may as well just sit around muttering moodily to ourselves and chainsmoking unfiltered Camels until the poo hits the fan.

It's true in church, where obsessing over the insurmountability of an issue can paralyze a community. You gotta have hope, seeing the best case scenario towards which we can direct ourselves as a reality that exists fully as a potential future. As my own wee kirk earnestly works to survive, I've starting fighting more against my innate grimness. I will be positive. We do have hope. Because we do. Because I do. Period.

Where I have more trouble is looking at the trajectory of our nation and seeing anything positive. As we fritter away the days, happening to convince me that the United States will be a healthy, vibrant nation in the moderate-term future. We the people are divided and distracted, and that's a problem, because we the people are headed towards bankruptcy. America will default on it's debt, absent some sort of divine intervention. For all of the jabbering on the right about government being the problem, and how we'd be better off without it, the economic impacts of that on all of us will be catastrophic.

None of our leaders are willing to stand up and tell us the economic truth, not one. That truth is a pretty basic one: if you want something, you have to pay for it. But that's not really their fault. It's ours. We don't want to hear it. Politicians can't make the draconian cuts and tax increases that are needed. If they do, or even hint that they might, we run 'em out on a rail. It's the challenge of a representative democracy. This pattern has sustained for decades, and is without precedent in U.S. history. It spells trouble.

I was playing around this morning with a Budget Challenge game over at the website of the Concord Coalition. The Concord Coalition is a group with whom I feel considerable sympathy. They're fiscal conservatives who've been futilely ringing alarm bells about the debt for years. They crafted this little sim to educate folks about the difficulty of reducing the debt. It's no Modern Warfare 2, I'll admit. But it's still important. It's a little budget creation simulation that allows you to measure the impact of every major budget proposal on the debt, and to create your own budget.

Here's the rub. Play the game. If you reject every major budget proposal that increases the debt, and accept every viable option (my Canadian Army option is understandably not included) that reduces the debt, the debt still increases.

There is no escape. You can't win. The simulation is an economic Kobayashi Maru.

I do not find this reassuring. But perhaps I'm being too Puddleglummy. Tell me how you think our nation will get itself out of this mess. Show me the hope.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The News Within the News

Newspapers are a dying thing. It's a source of sadness for me, because my morning paper is a deeply ingrained ritual, one I've sorta passed on to my kids.

It began for me when I was a youngling, and would eagerly anticipate the comics page each day. As a tweener living in London, I started actually reading the news. It'd be the Guardian in the morning, and the International Herald Tribune in the evening. The Tribune had the comics, eh? I've always subscribed. Always.

Now, things look grim. DC still has a few papers, but they're all on life support. The venerable Post which graces my breakfast table each morning survives because of it's profitable Kaplan educational subsidiary. The others are dependent on the patronage of folks who want a particular spin on the news. The Washington Times only cranks out it's right wing froth because of the generous and ongoing support of it's owner, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Examiner is similarly bankrolled by a wealthy ultraconservative.

Though I think my WaPo will be around in some form for a while, I'd miss it if it were gone. There are elements of print the ability to see more broadly and encounter things that don't reflect your particular interests...that seem necessary for liberalism in the classical sense to exist. It opens our eyes in ways that online media simply doesn't.

Today, as I was reading the recently redesigned Post over my morning coffee, the news that most struck me wasn't the news that was in the national/world/business section, or the news that was in the metro section. It weren't the Sports Page, neither.

It was the classified section. Classified ads have faded with the advent of online sales, but I've been watching with interest over the last couple of months as my struggling paper has seen a massive increase in one area of advertising. That area is the legally required publication of trustee sales and notices of foreclosure. It's been growing and growing, slowly but surely, over the last few months.

Today, it was the single largest section of the Washington Post. 28 large pages of tiny fine legal print dryly detailing the financial collapse of hundreds of lives in the Washington area. It felt like a particularly ill omen, a dying media published on dead wood chronicling the demise of the ill founded hopes of so many families.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vampire Fascination

I am always thankful for my children, but I'm particularly thankful in this moment in history that I've got boys.

Having boys means that my household is sealed away from the Twilight phenomenon, that squealy tweeny undead juggernaut. In a store the other day with my tweener son, we marveled at a cornucopia of dreamy Edward posters and smoldering Edward throwpillows and yearning Edward blankets and pasty-yet-appealing Edward snuggies. The art-style was one part young black velvet vampire Elvis and three parts Velveeta, and the big guy could do nothing but roll his eyes. "Girls," he muttered.

This isn't really a new thing, not at all. I can recall watching The Lost Boys as a young teen, and the Hunger as an older teen. I still want to see Let the Right One In. I even read one of Ann Rice's books once. You know, when she was writing about vampires, rather than penning soft-core porn novels or strange books about Jesus. I remember feeling that "oh gosh wouldn't it be nifty to be immortal" feeling. Of course, you always wanted to be the "good vampire," the one who only dines on lower forms of life like woodland creatures and talk radio personalities.

But the fascination is there for most of us, with blood and life and death and eternity. Those stories play off against some deep and ancient memes in the human story. Blood and life are woven up together strongly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Torah, blood...menstrual blood...both gives life and is to be feared. It had power.

Among Jesus people, there's a reason the pagan Romans used to whisper about our strange vampiric feasts. "They gather in secret to drink the blood of their god," they'd say. Frankly, whenever I hear my church praise team singing "Nothing but the bluuuud of Jeeeee-zzuss," I start wondering a bit myself.

I know, of course, that blood is just plasma and corpuscles. We want it to be magic, to contain a secret that could somehow give endless existence, but it does not. It does have the power to give life, but that's only because the iron in our hemoglobin carries the oxygen to fuel the processes of our mammalian metabolism.

Eternal life...immortality...requires a little bit more than that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Confirmation and Membership

One of the great laments I hear from my fellow Presbyterians is our seeming inability to get young folks to hang around. We baptize 'em, raise 'em, confirm 'em, and once we send 'em off to college, we never see them again. Well, maybe on Easter and Christmas, when they show up with their folks with a slightly awkward look on their faces. They do that until they can move out and/or find a job which allows them to pay off the $75,000 in debt they racked up getting their bachelors degree in Postmodern Semiotics from a prominent private liberal arts college.

I hear Target might be hiring. Man, it's tough to be young these days.

Part of bleeding out, I think, comes from the whole approach we take to the "confirmation process." In it, we bundle a group of teens together. Up until this point, they've been a little sub-group of the church, carefully segregated from the adults. They're kids, after all. They do kid stuff, crafts and CE and lock-ins and little mission projects. They hang out with other kids, under the charge of someone who focuses on kids.

We make them take a class on the essentials of Christian faith. We declare proudly that they are affirming their commitment to become a full member of the church. They stand before the whole congregation and affirm their baptism, confirming to one and all that they are, finally, a fully fledged member of the church that has been their home all their lives. There is much celebration, and possibly a bowl of tasty punch.

Then...they go right back to being treated like kids again. It's right back to the same old thing you were doing before. It is empty ritual. There is no meaningful life transition after confirmation. Nothing changes in the way you are expected to live within the church, in a way that totally [poops] all over the purpose and point of confirmation. It's like having to show up to do senior year again after graduating from high school. It's like sleeping alone again on the night after your wedding.

The whole thing is a sham.

I'm trying to shift that a little at my church. The first step is not teaching a confirmation class.

We have a new members class. Period. If you're a teen who's ready to become a member, then you get to have the same experience as older folks who are also joining the church. You get to hear about the faith journeys of your elders. You get to ask your own questions, to surface the struggles you have. You get to be treated as if you are a young person making an important transition into an adult faith. You get to be taken seriously.

That seems important, somehow.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Islam: The Enemy Within?

The tragic Fort Hood shootings has generated some interesting recent correspondence. Being a pastor and all, I've somehow gotten onto the email lists of a series of organizations that assume I think the same way they do.

The most recent message was from a place proclaming itself the Freedom Center, which appears to be mostly a guy by the name of David Horowitz. He informs me that "radical Muslims have infiltrated America's Military." He likes to use boldface when something is really important. I suspect he uses the same approach while talking. There is , according to Horowitz, a "vast internal threat in this country, and we need to fight it."

That threat is Islam. Well, he calls it "radical Islam," but given that objective research shows that American Muslims are moderate and well-adapted to our pluralist society, I think he's casting his net a little more broadly. In fact, once you read his website, it's clear: all Islam is the threat. It is, for Horowitz, an inherently bad religion. Every Muslim is a potential threat. Having attempted to ratchet up my panic level, Horowitz then hits me up for money to support his organization, which is, as he describes it, a voice in the wilderness that needs my $25. Or perhaps that's a voice in the wilderness. Lord help us if he ever discovers the caps lock key.

Were it just him shouting, I might not worry. But all of the American Right is beginning to take up that hue and cry. Krauthammer was on about it yesterday in the Post...the idea that namby pamby liberals aren't aware of the terrible threat posed by Islamic jihad. About how the Fort Hood shootings were enabled by the politically correct folks who just lack the testicular fortitude to come right out and say that the problem is Islam. Not in Afghanistan. Right here.

Unlike many of my liberal brethren, I struggle occasionally with Islam. Not with Muslims. Not with what most Muslims are today, living lives of charity, humility, and submission to God. I also don't let the fanatics define Islam for me. Every faith has it's nutjob fringe, and the ignorant hatred of the mullah-fired mobs who protest and stomp around has more to do with political oppression and poverty. My greatest struggle has been with the Qu'ran itself, which I have pored through intentionally seeking commonality with the ethical heart of the Christian faith, and have been disappointed. But that's another post for another time.

What I see happening on the American Right now is a hunger for an enemy. Major Hasan was not a fifth columnist. He was a nutjob who glommed on a hateful ideology that has no real purchase in this nation. He's not part of a "vast internal threat," any more than the Holocaust Museum shooter was representative of a significant neo-Nazi resurgence in America. As Americans continue to struggle economically, and paranoiac populism takes hold in the core of one of our two political parties, there's real danger that neo-cons and political infotainers will seize on the fears of many.

If America's economy starts to badly tank, and we start looking for scapegoats, that poison will spread. It already seems familiar, cut from the same cloth as another American movement that bellowed and fretted over an unseen enemy within. Lord help us if it takes hold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yet Another Reason for Us To Hate Canada

The American far right just hates Canada.

Canada is, if current rhetoric on the right here is to be believed, as much a threat to freedom as Nazis or Maoists or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We know this because their nationalized health care system...or anything like a sure sign of a nation that has utterly given up all personal liberties. You can see it in their relative lack of stress, and their easier pace of life, and the slow thoughtfulness of their media. It's an alien world.

I hear some of them may even speak French.

While Canada trundles along genially, we are, as a nation, headed for insolvency. Neither of the American political parties are willing to take anything other than the most feeble ritual pats at our endlessly growing national debt. At some point, our vast credit as a nation will run out. It may not happen soon, but it will happen, as surely as a month-long drunken bender eventually ends with you waking up in a pool of unidentifiable fluid next to a snoring Samoan woman in a New Orleans flophouse. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience. No sir.

No country has ever done what we're doing, spending vastly more than we commit to the national treasury for decades, and not suffered catastrophic economic collapse. Not once in the history of humankind.

It's going to be bad.

Yet on Veteran's Day, as I was contemplating America's coming financial apocalypse, I realized there's another reason for the American Right to fear Canadian influence. What would happen to America financially, wondered I, if we didn't just think about having a similar health care system?

What if the military of the United States of America was the same size as the Canadian military?

We share similar land masses. Neither nation has hostile neighbors. Though we fret endlessly about energy security, our Canadian brethren don't seem to have any trouble gassing up their Ford F-150s. They innovate. They have a solid business community. They brew good beer. They seem to be doing fine.

We'd still have a decent little army, one more than capable of defending the homeland. To that small professional army, we'd add in the 80,000,000 American gun owners. You NRA members would be willing to use your guns to defend American soil against tyranny, right? That's what you keep telling us the Second Amendment is for, after all. You keep waving Old Glory around and telling us that gun ownership is a sign of your patriotism. It's why you have the Director's Cut of Red Dawn in your media cabinet. So...I'm calling you on it. You are now eight thousand divisions of Light Infantry Reserves. Hoooah! Wooolver-EEEEns!

We're also a democracy, the beacon of freedom and tolerance in the world. If that's true, we should have friends. Allies. Don't we? Those folks North of the border would help us out if things got rough. As would the Brits.

And if that wasn't enough and things got real ugly, we've got enough leftover Cold War ICBMs to slag pretty much anybody. Ain't nobody gonna mess with us. So...why not? Let's downsize.

What would the effect of a Canada-sized military be on our national treasury? The net effect of that decision would be to save the United States taxpayer over $550,000,000,000 a year.

That's a chunk of change, almost real money, but it's only a small downpayment on the debt, which stands at $11,000,000,000,000 and rising. We'd have to make it a pretty much permanent change to have any effect. But if we did, in my lifetime, we'd be back in the black.

It'd work. And the world would be no more dangerous. America would be equally safe. I mean, why not?

It's not like America is addicted to that military deficit spending, eh?

Pesky, pesky Canadians!


About five years ago, the group of ultraconservatives who've committed themselves to torment and disrupt my denomination took it on themselves to help destroy a long standing partnership between my Presbytery and Presbyterians in East Africa. For the better part of a decade, we'd partnered to help build clinics and hospitals and safe-houses for young Christian working women. My own congregation was only part of the partnership for two years, but in that time we put a roof on one new church, dug a well for a clinic, and laid the foundation for another church.

But my Presbytery includes progressives, meaning, there are folks here open to gays and lesbians. So our ultraconservatives sought out the then-moderator of the PCEA, a witch-hunting, demon-seeing, self-aggrandizing Big Man of the most pernicious kind. Their priorities were the same. First and foremost: No Gays. Those hospitals were being built with gay-friendly money! That new tin roof is clearly a bit swishy! Don't drink the water from that new's homosexual water! I had one tiny sip the other day, and I'm already worrying more about whether these pants really match my shirt!

And so the partnership was declared a "partnership with evil." Further interactions were forbidden...and that meant clinics had less medicine for the sick, there was less clean water for the thirsty, and fewer churches were being built for the faithful. At the time, the ultraconservatives in the US declared they would fill the gap. But they didn't. They have their priorities, and having done the damage, they wandered off to find more things to break.

Today, we hear that the Catholic Church is threatening to pull Catholic Charities out of DC, eliminating services for adoptees, the poor, and the homeless. Why? Because of a new law permitting same-sex marriage in DC.

The church has asserted that it's freedom of religious expression would be impinged by this law. If it views gay and lesbian relationships as sinful, it should be under no obligation to provide benefits to same sex couples, or to be open to adoptions by same-sex couples. While I disagree with their perspective, I also think that churches and religious nonprofits should never, ever, be forced to adhere to particular ethical standards in our society...unless they are causing actual harm in a community. So the church does have a point. No church should ever be forced to marry or solemnify the relationships of individuals who do not meet the standards of their particular fellowship. That's what Unitarians are for.

But if you actually bother reading the legislation, that's not what it does. Want to do that? Follow this link, and enter "B18-482." Read it for yourself. If you look through the law, it bends over backwards to explicitly and repeatedly state that religious entities that oppose same sex marriage on the grounds of their faith are under no compunction to have anything to do with them. In fact, the text of the bill spends a great deal of time affirming the First Amendment rights of those who disagree.

What is at play here, when you dig down into the actuality of what is proposed, would impinge not a whit on the religious practices of any community. It seems a bit of a stretch to assert that those rights are being infringed. It's a greater spiritual stretch to refuse to provide charitable care for a community...even a community you view as sinful...because it fails to meet a particular expectation of your faith. That, for all the protestations otherwise, seems to be the threat that's being leveled here.

The measure of Christian faith is not how well we care for our "own." It's how well we care for others, particularly in times of disagreement. Denying charity to those in need for the sake of theological purity indicate a prioritization that just doesn't mesh with our central values. Heck, it doesn't mesh with the values held by most Catholics. Or, for that matter, with the values held by the folks I've known who worked for Catholic Charities.

Some things are clearly and self evidently more important to the faith than others. I think that's being lost here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Grey Ghetto

I spent some more time today visiting with an older member of our church who's living by himself at a nearby assisted living facility. Dick has no family and can't hear, and doesn't wear hearing aids, so you've got to write things out to communicate with him. It was lower tech this time, as I had the foresight to step away from using my iPhone and just dragged along a legal pad and a big ol' Sharpie. Yeah, I was kickin' it old school, but what matters to me is what works.

When I got there, he was out of his room, so I searched around the facility and finally met up with him eating lunch. He was at a table with four other folks, but they were all...well...lost in their own worlds. They were silent, folded in on themselves.

Dick didn't even look up at first when I tapped him on the shoulder and sat down next to him. He gradually brightened as I wrote him note after note in big bold letters, writing him questions and responding to his statements. But it took a little while. He's just so used to being alone and unable to communicate that it takes a few moments for his mind to warm up to the presence of another.

It was good to fellowship with him, and I'm committed to spending more time with him in the coming months. The visit resonated interestingly off of a blog post I read yesterday about intergenerational congregations. Too many of our churches are either young or old. We've got the hipstermergents and the old grey mainliners neatly separated into different congregations. Even in the heady corporate world of the JesusMegaCenters, their immense flocks are carefully divvied up into target marketing demographics. Kids with kids. Teens with teens. Young Adults with Young Adults. The church is a very neatly and intentionally divided house.

What that means is that the church is mirroring our culture. The boundary-shattering presence of the Holy Spirit is ignored. We fail to be the place for the young to learn just how poorly our culture treats it's eldest. Our old old are warehoused, conveniently sealed away from a society that is obsessed with youth and the young. When I go by to visit, I almost never see anyone younger than me there. And I ain't young.

This is a failure on two fronts. It's the loss of the young that they haven't been taught to see value in aging, in a life fully lived and in some of the deep wisdom that that creates. We obsess over ourselves and our own lives, and in doing so, we miss out on a significant opportunity for personal growth. A society that discourages mingling of the generations is a society that condemns itself to making the same mistakes over and over again.

More significantly, the ghetto walls around the old hide away something that we all need to see. We need to see how the elderly are treated. We need to see the impacts of isolation from the broader society, and the impacts of predatory profiteering on a population that can't often assess the quality of the care they receive.

The young need to see it, because unless things change, that life we so carefully avoid because it bores us/freaks us out will be our life one day. Is this how we want to live? Is this how we treat people who we care about? If our relationships with our elders were stronger, we'd feel this. If our commitments to our they family or friends...were stronger, we'd look at how our culture treats the aging with mortal horror.

It makes both Soylent Green and Logan's Run look almost utopian.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Pointless Death

It seems...well...a very long time ago. It was the end of 2001, and the denizens of Metro DC were having the worst season I can ever remember. The 9/11 attack on the Pentagon began it. It was followed by the anthrax attacks and the ensuing paranoia. And then, for what seemed like forever, there was one killing a day, every day, as the Washington area snipers carried out their brutal efforts at extortion.

I remember the fear, that tension that shimmered in the air, as hundreds of thousands of people looked over their shoulders into the darkness, or moved swiftly to their cars. It was a gnawing anxiety that none of us could shake. Our blinds stayed closed. My wife anguished when I'd go out at night for medicine for our kids. I remember the sorrow, as families mourned those murdered. And I remember the relief and exultation, finally, as John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo were finally captured through the valiant efforts of law enforcement.

Tomorrow, nearly ten years later and barring the unforeseen, John Muhammad will die. For all of the anguish he caused, and for each of the lives he ended, his life will be ended by my home state of Virginia. He will feel fear, and the sting of a needle, then nothing, then...

His death will serve no purpose.

For the city he terrorized, he is no longer a threat. The fear is gone. For the families who lost loved ones, the pain of their loss will not be diminished. And justice? Justice will not be served. He has only one life. How can his one death somehow balance out the lost promise of so many lives, and the anguish of all of those who mourned and wept? It can't. Will his death sentence dissuade others set on murder and mayhem? If we limit ourselves to Virginians, it doesn't appear to have had any effect at all at Virginia Tech. Or at Fort Hood.

It isn't that I don't believe that justice will be served for John Allen Muhammad. True justice awaits him tomorrow evening. But the actions of the Commonwealth of Virginia tomorrow are not what will bring that about.

If we were a truly Christian nation, we would understand that.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ultimatum

Yesterday was a pretty solid Sunday. Worship was solid. There were more little squeakers in the nursery than I've seen in years. Our praise team did a solid job. After worship, we had a decent new members class. None of them fell asleep, at least, not for more than a few moments, and they were all trying really hard to stay focused. That was followed by a good, productive, and long session meeting.

And during worship, I told Trinity Presbyterian Church of Bethesda that I will resign in a year unless things improve.

It was a conditional resignation, of course. I really like my congregation. They're good folks, and there's a lot of promise and possibility for our future. Things there are totally, utterly different than when I began six years ago. The congregation has twice as many members. It has more than doubled the attendance in worship. Annual giving has tripled. It is now majority young adult, and this year, it's leadership is on track become majority young adult.

But for the last three years, things have stagnated. Stalled out. Gone nowhere. Our membership numbers are the same. Our worship attendance? Slightly down. Our giving? Also slightly down. If we were a strapping healthy congregation, that could be chalked up to randomness. It could be weathered. But we're not. Not yet. We're a redeveloping church that needs to revitalize if it is to survive. And if we're not growing towards a hopeful future, we will not survive.

And instead of focusing on what matters, we've been putzing around or wallowing in negativity. There's been plenty of 한국드라마, and very little telling the old old story. I could complain about how it's this person's fault or that person's fault. I could claim that the malaise is due to the brutal church fight that just blew a gaping hole in the Korean church that we've been partnering with. Or mutter about endowments and their tendency to instill complacence.

But these are excuses. They mean nothing. Ultimately, the responsibility for failure...and for a church, stagnation is failure...lies with me. It's the pesky thing about being in leadership. If this church isn't growing, the responsibility lies with me.

So the first butt that needs to be kicked into gear is my own. Setting a hard and fast deadline for my own ministry is necessary, because without the realization that the shizzle is on the line, it'd be too easy for me to let things stand.

Of course, it's always been on the line. We're accountable for every last moment of our lives. Sometimes, though, we need a bit of reminding.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Healing Ministry

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times flagged an interesting little provision in the Health Care reform bill that is currently trucking it's way through the meatgrinder of American politics. The bipartisan provision, which was inserted into the bill by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Senator John Kerry, would prohibit insurers from discriminating against "religious or spiritual health care."

It's intended as a sop to the Church of Christ-Scientist, whose providers bill faithful...for healing prayer. But the bill is written in more general terms, and that means only one thing for my fellow pastors:

Mo money mo money mo money! If insurers are federally required to pay spiritual leaders for healing prayers and services, then there's nothing in the world to stop me...or any other pastor...from declaring that we have a reimburseable healing ministry.

Pastor needs a brand new Lexus! Or a Buick. The new Lacrosse CXS is really a rather lovely vehicle. It's got the blingtastic wheels and the warm buttery interior that every pastor needs to stay centered and shiny. Yeah, it's cache isn't quite there in the North America market, but we gotta start thinking about impressing the Chinese, for whom Buick is the bee's knees.

I'm wondering, though, what the appropriate insurance billing codes are. If you come by my office for a general prayer for health, I'm thinking Annual Checkup. That's gotta be, what, $125? Then there's managing the co-pay, which is kinda a pain in the butt. I'll need to get one of those card swipe thingummies and some new small business management software for my office computer.

Sigh. I really hope no-one tells Creflo A. Dollar about this one.

It's yet another one of those times when I almost wish government was run by VALIS.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Going Slower

Yesterday, the usual Maryland traffic that impedes my progress as I go pick up my sons from the synagogue had snarled into an impressively static nightmare. Long lines of cars piled up along small suburban back roads, inching forward in small, sad increments. Had there been an accident? None could be seen. Was there construction? Nope.

Things just...weren't working.

As it turned out, that was the problem. An aging computer traffic management system in Montgomery County had gone down. It had been chugging along since it was installed in the Carter administration, and while it's slated for replacement, we're not there yet. The system is what makes the lights go in a logical sequence to maintain traffic flow. While all of the lights still worked, they didn't work together. It was every light for itself, cycling from green to yellow to red with no relation to what the other lights were doing. Without intentional management, the whole network of roads could no longer handle the volume of traffic, and Chinua Achebe once put it..fell apart. What folks in Montgomery experienced was remarkably like the entropic snarl of Nigerian traffic, the legendary go-slows that sometimes gridlock the blighted city of Lagos for days.

Yesterday, we had a little taste of what I think will inevitably come to America. We have become, as a nation, utterly self-oriented. We don't see beyond our own individual interests, so we're not willing to work together or make any concessions for the common good. We are utterly oblivious to the complex infrastructure that is necessary to maintain a modern society, and snarl and grumble at the idea that we might have to pay one thin dime of our hard-earned money to maintain our roads and bridges. As those systems crumble and fade, our grumbling will grow louder...but as long as we maintain the conceit that you can have something without paying for it, we will continue to fade.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Satan is Alive and Well in Virginia Politics

As a man of wealth and taste, Old Scratch has always got lots of different business ventures in the hopper. He recently bankrolled the movie "Orphan," was instrumental in the marketing of sub-prime mortgages, and is in the process of creating the Nickelodeon/Cartoon Network marketing campaign for pediatric Cialis.

But lately, what he's mostly up to is working with both the Democrats and the GOP here in Virginia. How do we know this? Well, first off, we follow the money. Money is a proxy for worldly power, and where there are unusual concentrations of worldly power, we also typically find unusual concentrations of worldly darkness. As Ol' Virginny trundles towards an election that is being pitched as a referendum on the current administration, the wealth of the national parties has definitely poured into the coffers of their state affiliates. We, the citizens of the great state of Virginia, know this because up until today, we've been bombarded by endless TV ads, one after another after another, all professionally produced and focus-grouped. These ads haven't just been for the Gubernatorial race. I've seen slickity TV spots for state delegate. There be money here. And we know what that means.

Secondly, there's the character of what we've seen in Virginia, which is pretty much the same thing we've been seeing in recent national campaigns.

Satan, as we all know, is not a name. It's a title. Ha-Satan means the Satan. In English, it means "The Accuser" or "The Prosecutor." In the ancient Hebrew view o' things, Satan was the member of the angelic court whose job it was to show how inadequate and unworthy our lives had been when we came before God. He was, in terms of heavenly politics, the Patron Demon of Oppo Research.

And Lordy, has his work has been in clear evidence here over the last few weeks. The other day, on one of the infrequent occasions when I watch TV, I watched three consecutive attack ads. Each was functionally substanceless, and instead dripped with poison and ad hominem innuendo. They all followed a familiar pattern. Out of context quotes? Got 'em. Menacing music and blurry, unflattering pictures? Yup. Snarky voiceover? You betcha! Truth and insight and patience and the virtues of civic mindedness were nowhere to be found. The commercial break was impressively toxic, so much so that I felt obligated to just shut 'er off.

With the campaign now at a close, I guess the Accuser's political shop will have to go back to supporting the shouting classes on talk radio and in the blogosphere. Until 2010, that is.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Atheist or Anti-Theist

I know plenty of atheists. Rolling in the circles I roll in, that's not much of a surprise. The Kierkegaardian Leap of Faith just proves too much for many folks. Unlike many other Jesus-folk, I am sympathetic to that mindset. Atheists are people too, and they can be both entertaining company and good friends.

'Course, they're all going to hell, but there's nothing wrong with enjoying their company before they are eternally immolated in the undying fires of God's unescapable wrath.

Kidding. I? Hmmm.

What strikes me, having gotten to know atheists, is that there are as many different atheisms as there are atheists. Recognizing that continuum, I've noted two polarities of type.

Many atheists are mellow. They don't believe, because they've 1) been burned by faith or 2) they have such a radically empirical view of the world that there's just no room in it for the supernatural. Whatever the cause, they don't have a chip on their shoulder about it. These are the folks who are willing to say, you know, there are many things about the teachings of Jesus that are pretty cool. But the whole package? Nope. Sorry. They just can't get there from here. Theism means...well...nothing to them. Faith is just irrelevant and/or immaterial. Slappin' that "a" prefix onto the front of "theist" means theism shouldn't factor into the equation at all. This is, to my eyes, the most authentically a-theist position, because it is non-theist.

Then there's the atheism that is more "antitheist" than "atheist". For these folks, non-belief expresses itself as a vigorous and normative opposition to all forms and manifestations of faith. It's all up in your business, relentlessly truculent and dismissive. Faith is not irrelevant for these folks. It's the gravitic center of their worldview, the enemy against which they orient their existence, the opposite polarity which they relentlessly reject yet which paradoxically defines them.

I prefer the former, although the latter can be entertaining to have around when you're up for some sparring.