Friday, December 24, 2010

Traditions, Loss, and Light

Each of us have our holiday traditions.  In my household, one of the primary Christmas celebrations comes with the Assembling of the Tree.  The Tree, in this instance, is carted down from the attic in my parents house, where it has dwelled in all it's marginally realistic plastic glory since 1978.   This year, the task fell almost completely to my boys, for whom the Assembling of the Tree is a touchstone of the season.   Then we have a carol sing, which culminates in a completely chaotic rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas, replete with dance moves appropriate to each of the days.   The celebration has evolved over the years.  We no longer read The Night Before Christmas, for example.  But as one tradition goes, another comes, and the event remains a blissful Yuletide hootenanny.

Those patterns of life, those affirmations of our identity, well, they're important.

As I put the finishing touches on the second of the two sermons for the week, and reflect back on the Christmas Eve service that just passed, I can't help but feel a teensy bit o' wistfulness about this season.  Back on Christmas Eve of 2003, I was part of my first Christmas service here at Trinity.  It was big, exuberant, and completely chaotic.  The week before was a whirl of planning and calling and patching things together.  It shimmered with tension and anticipation.  The night itself was joyous release, chock full of hope and music and lights and holy messiness. 

And tonight was good too.  But it is, without question, the last year I'll celebrate Christmas here.  Next year, I'll be somewhere different.  I don't have a clue where, but I know that most of the faces and the sacred spaces that have defined much of the last decade of my Christmases will not be the same.  As necessary as that change is, it remains nonetheless somewhat difficult to process.

And that awareness reminds me that for many, this season and its traditions can be intensely painful.  The rituals and patterns that can for most us evoke warm fuzzies around Christmas have a very different feeling for others.  For those who've lost jobs and struggled to find their footing, the consumptiveness of the season can leave them feeling stressed and helpless.  For those who've lost loved ones, this time of togetherness can be a powerful reminder of absence, as that expected presence...well...just isn't there.   For those who've had relationships collapse, this can be a reminder of times of intense pain.  For those who are just plain old alone, or struggling with depression, it can be a brutal time, when feelings of isolation are heightened.

Remembering those souls and their struggles is an important part of this season.  Not the buying.  Not the stress.  Not even the reconnecting with friends and family.  It's those souls toward whom the heart of this season is directed.  It's to those who are living in darkness that the light most intensely shines.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good Without Aslan?

One of the latest salvos in the seasonal squabbles between atheists and Christians came as more "good without god" ads have gotten pasted onto the sides of buses in Texas. This is a reprise of ads run last year in London, but given that Texans gets a bit more riled when they think you're messin' with their Jesus, it's been testier.

The default response from certain wings of Christianity when asked if you can be good without God is, of course, no.  Typically, our response has to do with folks not being saved, that nothing good can exist in folks who haven't proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Unless you fall at the foot of The Bleedy Bloody Cross All Spattered With Gore (Hymn number 42 in the Really Old Hymnal), you're just S.O.L.  That's Salvation Out of Luck, kids.

More smugly erudite Jesus folks get into the philosophy of it, going back to teleology, ontology, and the purpose of Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma to make the case that without an noncontingent ground, there can be no meaningful definition of the good.  Lord have mercy on me, a smug and erudite sinner.

Whether you get all orthodox with the former, me...tend to obscurely think the latter, things can still get testy and self-righteous.  Which defeats the purpose of the whole Jesus thing.

What strikes me, in this season when yet another Narnia movie has been released, is how far the faith has wandered from the openness to the Good you can find on the green fields of Narnia.  I don't intend to see the latest movie, not in the theatres.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was passable, even if it leaned too heavily on the CG.  Prince Caspian just plain old bit as a movie.  Portraying Caspian as a smoldering Latin studmuffin was waaaay too much.  And it was appallingly dull, both loud and plodding.

Now the whole franchise has been sold off by Disney, with the rights transferred over to Fox.  The reviews don't make it seem worth my while, particularly given that for the first time, some significant liberties have been taken with C.S. Lewises narrative.  As a Narnian fanboy, I find this annoying.  The point of those liberties is to make it more overtly "faith-oriented," and to fold in even more martial imagery.  Given that Rupert Murdoch now owns the rights to the story, that's no surprise.  So...I'll wait until it's on BluRay.  Or not.  More likely I'll catch it in snippets as I pan through the channels on cable in six months.

In the Narnia books, though, it's clear that C.S. Lewis understood that goodness and overt statements of faith weren't always the same thing.  Narnia is a place far more willing to see the good in folks who might not have an orthodox grasp on Aslan.  Three characters from Narnia typify this attitude.

There is, for instance, the noble-if-a-tick-snooty war charger Bree, the eponymous horse from The Horse and His Boy.  Bree is quite convinced that Aslan the Lion is some sort of metaphor, certainly not a lion, representing some greater truth or reality or person, about which not much can be definitively known.  He'd be quite comfortable in an Episcopalian stable.   He is proven wrong, of course, and ends up feeling like an idiot.  But even in his liberal erudite smugness, he remains firmly and incontrovertably in the camp of the good.

Perhaps there's hope for me yet.

There is the red dwarf Trumpkin, who makes an appearance in Prince Caspian, is referenced in Dawn Treader, and is still kickin' around in The Silver Chair.  In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin is an atheist.  Or an "A-Aslanist."  Or perhaps..because "humanist" doesn't work for dwarves...just plain old "Narnian."  He believes that Aslan is a myth, an old wife's tale, and a superstition.  From his dwarvish practicality, he can see no reason that such a being actually ever existed, and he repeatedly and explicitly says as much.  He is, nonetheless, a strong, hearty, tireless, and cheerful supporter of Narnia.  When Aslan does arrive, Trumpkin gets tossed in the air a bit, but with love.  Even before Trumpkin's tossing, he's one of the good guys.  He's on the right side.

Finally, there is Emeth, the honorable young Calormene Lord from The Last Battle.   Emeth is an infidel, who worships the great and terrible Tash.  Here, Lewis makes his most pointed defense of the existence of the good outside of the bounds of the orthodox "us."  Even though Emeth has his whole life only ever worshipped Tash, his encounter with Aslan does not end up with him being kibble.  Instead, C.S. Lewis tells us that Emeth's noble life, while done in the service of Tash, nonetheless count as a life lived to the honor of Aslan.

As Aslan puts it, "...I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him."   That which is self-evidently good, noble, right and true belongs to God.  Period. Given that that name "Emeth" means "Truth" in Hebrew, Clive Staples is clearly making a point here. 

Despite many conservative Christian's embrace of Lewis for the wonderful, joyous and articulate way he proclaims Christian faith, his is not the stuff of rigid orthodoxy.  Lewis speaks a more gracious truth, one a far sight better than the shrill and closed-hearted literalism that seems to govern this benighted age. 

Ah well.  Even if he's wrong, I can imagine fewer folks I'd rather share a circle in the fundamentalist hell with than C.S. Lewis.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Stories That Define Us

As the last blog post about myth and story was pinging about in my head, I encountered those troubling images from yesterday's shooting in Florida.  You've seen the images, and watched the video of Clay Duke, as he threatens school board members, shoots wildly, and then is gunned down by a security guard

What struck me most wasn't that this angry man seemed unable to kill those around him.  If you've got a 9mm pistol with a full magazine, and you're two yards away from your target, even I'd have trouble missing.  When a woman attempted to disarm him...utterly ineffectually...with her purse, he also didn't shoot.  It wasn't the violence that was most striking.

It was, rather, that he spraypainted the "V" from "V for Vendetta" on the wall.  That movie, with it's themes of revenge and uprising against a totalitarian society, never struck me as particularly amazing.  It was a diversion, and occasionally amusing, but too often overwrought and adolescent, particularly in the goofy "we're all wearing masks now" hoo hah doltishness of the ending.  Oops.  Spoiler.  Although really, it ain't spoiling anything special.

Honestly, I'm more of a Fight Club guy. 

Not that I'll talk about it


I didn't say anything.

V for Vendetta and films like it seem to be a big deal for many frustrated souls.  I've seen, for instance, lots of Guy Fawkes masks as Facebook profiles over the years.  This is a movie that expresses the inchoate, formless rage of those trapped in our frustrating, dehumanizing culture.  For folks with little other hope and purpose in life, these movies become the myths that define their existence.   This story of violent revenge, of rising up against the powers, was clearly a story that spoke into the life of this man.  It spoke his anger, spoke his frustration, and ultimately, it was part of how he ended his life.

As I re-immersed myself in Joseph Campbell yesterday, one of the things he notes is that in our era, the idea of defining story has become shallower and more immediate.  We're defined by global mass media.  Movies and television have become our storytellers.  The stories that pour into us from that big pipe articulate who we are...but they are increasingly not something we share across generations, or even necessarily with those around us.  The buffet-table myths of the modern era are as scattered and shattered as our increasingly diffuse sense of identity in a global consumer culture. 

Yet another reason that I find the great and ancient story of the Gospel so compelling.  If you want to find your ground and your purpose, the whirling chaos of this mass media era is not the place to look.


Among the many faith feeds that pour into into my reader, there's lately been a little meme that's struggling to get off the ground.  It's surfaced here and there, mostly in significantly minor print news outlets.  It's fluttered around like a little fledgling knocked early from it's nest, almost catching viral air...and then falling back...and then almost catching viral air...and then falling back.

The faith "issue" in question was an ad buy by American Atheists, in which they pitched up a billboard showing wise men on camels, following yonder star, with Mary and the babe in a manger under a crystal blue sky.  It's really a very pretty scene.  Runneth the text: "You know it's a Myth...This Season, Celebrate Reason!"

It's provocative, or is intended to be, although the scene itself is so lovely that you end up getting lost in Christmas warm fuzzies evoked by those cool radiant azures.  


 But after that first day or so, it seems really cares.  Perhaps that's a factor of it being slapped up near New York City, where it's really a whole bunch harder to be provocative.  "Honey?  That's 'provocative?' Did you see that avant-garde performance artist, oh, what's his name, last week?  I still can't figure out how he got the entire narthex in there."  Even Fox News, after first taking the bait, seems to have gotten distracted and wandered away, which is saying something.  Shoulda done it in the bible belt, kids.

Oddly enough, I wish this effort had gotten more legs. 

Because the billboard is right.  The story of Christmas is a myth. 

Not, of course, in the shallow Mythbusters sort of way.  Myths are not urban legends.  They aren't trivial fabrications.  They aren't falsehoods told and retold and retold until finally some smart levelheaded soul shouts out that the Emperor is totally nekked.

Myths are the stories that define culture.  They are the stories that frame the identity and the purpose of a people.  They provide the overarching narrative of a society, and are told and retold as a way of reaffirming who we are.  Any competent historian or anthropologist can tell you this.  That's not how the reality television level of thinking understands it, of course.  But if you've been college educated at any halfway decent school, and have gotten a liberal education in the classical sense of the word, then this understanding of the role of mythopoetics isn't news.

We understand the world through narrative.  It's our nature.  The bright, sentient course of action is to celebrate in and rejoice in those stories that define us.  Sing the carols.  Feel the gracefulness of the season, its hope, its essential themes of promise and new birth and restoration.  It's the reasonable thing to do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This last Sunday, I sat down with my session and finalized my commitment to depart my current congregation at the end of October of 2011.  As my request to provide interim ministry so that the church could openly seek a new pastor while I was still here was nixed by presbytery, there just isn't any other viable option.

Just dithering about and waiting for something to happen does no one any good.  Without hard and fast deadlines towards which a church can plan, things have a tendency to just float and stagnate.  It was a necessary decision, and hopefully one that gives folks here a fighting chance at making things work.

Still and all, setting that date has proven a bit troubling personally.  Finding options for ministry that don't involve me leaving the area is difficult.  There's an overabundance of ordained pastors seeking churches in the DC area.  And leaving the area isn't possible without leaving my family behind, which isn't really the most desirable scenario.  There is, after October 30, 2011, the very real possibility that I will no longer be functionally a pastor.  Yeah, I can do supply preaching.  Or something.  But it's still a large black hole of uncertainty, bearing with it the painful possibility of vocational unfulfillment.  Most significantly, I also don't yet feel...called...anywhere.  Meaning, I'm not yet getting the spiritual cues that show what door, if any, my Maker is opening.  Ultimately, where I go is not really up to me.

In the face of that unsettling possibility, I'd like to say that I was as serene as a cloud, detached and unaffected, confident that the Good Lord has a plan for me.  But lately, I've been feeling less and less like the nonanxious presence that I need to be, and more and more like a panicked cadet during a hull breach.

In the face of that rising anxiety, I reviewed my options.  On the one hand, I could just start pounding back forties of Colt 45 every evening until the world blurs to nothing.  For some reason, this seems like a mistake.  I could just let my anxiety feed on itself until I'm a useless twitching frozen mass of stress.  This also seems like a poor choice.

What I've recently done is expand my prayer life.  Yeah, I know, crazy thing.  To my usual morning and evening prayers (a simple mix of the Lord's Prayer and prayers of supplication and intercession), I've added time for chanting meditation. 

And I have all the time I need.  The way I figure it, I spend a couple of hours a day in a rolling monastic cell as it is.  My commute, reinforced over the span of six and a half years in this ministry, may be across one of the gnarliest stretches of eight lane in the country, but it's so familiar as to require just a small fragment of my mental processing power.  So I've shut off the jabberbox, and stopped making phone calls, and started using the time to pray.  In this era of handsfree bluetooth, I don't even need to worry about looking insane. 

What's amazed me, as I've spent a week chanting Taize music and other meditative songs for the entire duration of my commute, is not just that I feel more centered.  Not totally centered, but better.  It's not just that it echoes through my day, and seems to change the pattern and flow of things, as prayer does.  It's how easy it is to both drive and chant and still turn my thoughts to other things.

After fifteen minutes of singing the same refrain, it requires no effort at all.  My body just takes up the chant, and drives, and both just carry on by themselves.   I find, now, that as I both drive and sing, that there is space for intentionally praying over people, and for visualizing those in need.  It's a bit like layering prayer over prayer, the embodied chant harmonizing with the mentally vocalized prayers of confession and intercession, while some semi-autonomous subroutine in my cortex carefully checks the lane next to me, signals, and pulls over. 

Amazing things, our minds are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Manner To Which We Are Accustomed

Yesterday, as my ten-year-old came home from school, I watched him scamper past the front door and around to the carport.  He knew our van was in the shop, and that meant there would be a different car in the driveway.  And he, unlike my big guy, shares his dad's mostly unrequited love of cars.  A new car, a different car, well, that's something.

I watched him circle it.  I watched him smile and mutter something to himself and shake his head.  Then he burst through the side door, and with a tone of mocking exasperation, he proclaimed: 


Which I did.   A two-thousand-and-whatever Chevy Cobalt LT, as bland and nondescript a vehicle as can be imagined, the archetypal rental car.  It was red, which is just about the only thing even vaguely interesting about it.  It was permeated with that rental car smell, which I think comes from having someone apply a milliliter of cigarette-and-stress-sweat infusion to the carpets every other week.  The fabric of the seats was rough and ugly, the plastic hard and cheap and ill-fitting.   My boys, used now to the technological doodaddery of our Prius and the La-Z-Boy comforts of our aging but functional minivan, both observed this lowliest of cars with complete disdain.

It's a sad little car.  But I have a long memory, my memory of cars goes easily back to when I was ten.

Back in the halycon days of 1979, if you were the mack daddy, the J.R. Ewing oozing petrodollars across eight lanes of Texas oilscape blacktop, you'd be rolling up to the pah-tay in a shiny new red Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz.  It'd have set you back $16 grand, and those were 1979 dollars.

So...let's look at these two cars side by side.  Both are red.  Both likely smell like tobacco smoke.  The Caddy puts 170 horse to the ground, as opposed to the 125-ish of the Cobalt, but performance is essentially the same given the Caddy's considerable mass.  The El Dorado is quieter, but the Cobalt handles better, and has more interior room.  Both have the full suite of 1979 luxury must haves.  Dimming internal lights.  Power windows/locks/mirrors.  The Caddy has better seats, great pillowy things.  The Cobalt comes right back with four convenient cupholders, of which the Caddy has exactly none.  The El Dorado is arguably better looking, although much less sleek.  But then the Cobalt has a sound system that blows the Caddy's eight-track out of the water.

By pretty much every 1979 standard, the Cobalt is a luxury car.  Yeah, a bit noisy and not terribly well put together...but back in the late 70's, the only thing Americans could successfully put together was our feathered back hair.  Ten year old me would have been impressed.

We are strangely oblivious to how much we have.  Our culture serves up a cornucopia of riches, surrounding us with luxuries that would be mindblowing a generation ago, and the realm of science fiction the generation before that.   Even our humblest things would have been the reserve of the wealthy and the spoiled and the elite.

And yet we are never satisfied, never happy.  Am I alone in feeling this isn't a good thing?

Tweeting Tribalism

In an interesting crosspost over at Presbymergent and at his blog A Wee Blether, Adam Copeland pitches out a defense of social media as a means by which church can better be church.  By blogging and tweeting"facebooking," Copeland argues that we establish a profound and authentically spiritual connection to others and increase our awareness of others who share our faith.

There's real truth in that.  New media connects us to people we'd never have otherwise experienced.  There are folks I've known only online, and known for years, from whom I've been connected to writers and thinkers and music that have profoundly enriched my faith.  The ability to share and converse can be a serious blessing, and can enrich our ability to love God and neighbor.   It can be a powerful tool for grace.

As can a gesture.  As can the spoken word.  As can ink and paper.  The reach and immediacy of social media are different, though.  It has the immediacy of conversation, and the potential reach of mass media.

The spiritual challenge in social media is that it makes it easy for us to become tribal.  And we all want to be tribal.  It is our nature.   We like to be an "us."  We like to surround ourselves with sameness and the comfortable and the known.  In our global culture, there there are so many different voices.  Media can serve up the baffling and frightening reality that we don't necessarily hold Truth with a capital "T" quite as firmly as we might like.  We are not the center of things.  That shakes us.

So what social media offers us is a choice.  If we so choose, we can surround ourselves with sameness.  We can follow only those who interest us and agree with us.  We can fill our ears and lay our eyeballs only across those voices and words that reaffirm what we already know.   We can amass a vast array of witnesses who affirm our common knowledge, as our facebook friends, those we feed and those we follow all shout the same songs, and say the same things.  We can live our lives in the echo chamber din of the Daily Kos, or in Townhall.

In the relentlessly refreshing wave of tweets and status updates, we can become so lost in the ceaseless chorus of our own cyberclan that we lose the ability to see those different from us as anything other than our trollish enemy.  Yes, we yearn for the intimacy and comfort of the tribe.  But tribes, while great at being community, have a tendency to do a really for-crap job of being beloved community. 

There lies our other social media choice.  If we so choose, we can use social media to open ourselves up to the other.  Yes, we listen particularly to those who are called to openness, both to those called to be constantly reforming and to those called to hold on to what is good.   But we also listen to those with whom we disagree.  We follow those who are different.  We rss feed those who are supposed to be our enemies.   That doesn't mean we acquiesce.  We're allowed to still disagree.  But in listening, in understanding, we mindfully use social media to stir in ourselves both grace and compassion towards even our most implacable trolls.

When that becomes our habit of being in the strange virtual half-light, then and only then do we start moving towards a twitter theology, towards living through social media in a way that can be called authentically Christian.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Leaks, Secrecy, and the Kingdom

It seems like the last month has been dominated by the flood of classified and leaked documents pouring out of Wikileaks.  This odd little internet entity has sprung into the limelight based on what appears to be the sole premise of its founder, Julian Assange: We should know what our governments and the leadership of corporations are saying and doing.  Thanks to the ability of most human institutions to cause deep disgruntlement among people who have access to privileged information, Assange appears to have struck the motherlode.

Depending on what media outlet you rely upon for your information, this is either a fascinating source of inside information or a treasonous betrayal of our security.  Given Assange's recent releases, he now finds himself in a British prison, charged with being...well...a "person of interest" in a sexual assault trial in Sweden.  I don't know definitively about Assange, but for some reason, my gut responds to him in the same way that it responded to Mikhael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  He's in trouble because he's messed with powers and principalities.  He's likely not a saint.  But dang, is his story both real and compelling.

Assange isn't just in trouble because he's cheesed off some Russian mobsters, though he has.  In this country, fulminators on the right have gone as far as calling for his assassination.  Palin has, of course, but she's hardly the most pungent.  That award goes to columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer, who in an article about Assange recalled fondly how the Soviets murdered Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in the late 1970s with a poison ball shot from the tip of an umbrella.

He's not saying.  He's just saying.  Nudge nudge.

Amazing how consistently evil far right wingers can be, be they Soviet or neocon.

The Wikileaks phenomenon leaves me wondering a bit.  I understand the place of secrets in geopolitics, and in the dynamics of corporate life.  Nation states and profit-driven entities depend on secrecy to maintain advantage.  Lies and obscurity and deception are necessary aspects of every system of power, be it sociopolitical power or socioeconomic power.  That's reality.  It's really easy to understand.

But as I look at WikiLeaks through the lens of Christianity, I find it rather harder to condemn it or the actions of Assange.  Secrets and darkness and shadows are not the stuff of the Kingdom.  The Reign of God that we Jesus people proclaim has no place for the whispering machinations of geopolitics.  It has no place for the deceptive platitudes that mask predatory profiteering.

Children of light have nothing to fear from the truth.  We recognize that whispering obfuscation is a methodology of the Enemy.

However you spin it, that WikiLeaks should be so problematic to so many people is a sign of just how far we are from being close to the Kingdom.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I'm a fiscally conservative person.  I don't believe that debt is good.  Period.  While I'm happy to spend freely if the resources are there, I vigorously resist the idea of buying things I can't afford.  If I can't buy it now, I won't.  I would rather live simply than be in debt.

This is a foundational value.   I drive cars I can pay cash for.  I have a modest home.  My wife and I have have one credit card, which we pay off every month.  We live very slightly under our means, whatever those means may be.  Over the last twenty years, this has helped build a comfortable nest egg.  If you pay now, and build up savings with whatever remains, then life will be more manageable.   It is for this reason that I get, without fail, at least a dozen solicitations for new credit cards every week.  Every one of those solicitations is torn up unopened and recycled.

Looking at the economic state of our nation, I find myself completely at odds with both political parties.  The idea that government can spend without taxing convinced me long ago that the American right is completely insane.  It's been thirty years, folks, since the trickle-down and supply-side lurping of Reaganomics spread like sweet delusion across the gullible of this nation.  That hole is just getting deeper.  It isn't just a conservative problem, though.  The left is equally delusional.  Honestly, the point at which I first realized all would not be well with Obama was with the passage of the stimulus.  TARP, which was designed to be repaid, seemed necessary.  It unlocked a seized-up system.  But the stimulus just dug us deeper and deeper into hock, at a time when going into hock had nearly cost us our economy.  It was nuts.  It was as ill-advised as doing a couple of shots to ward off a hangover.    Heck, it was worse than that. 

It was the economic equivalent of meth.  Debt may be the engine that drives our economy, but it is a false energy.  Debt-driven spending is not real growth.   Yeah, it stimulates.  Stimulants like meth are great at that.  You feel real good for a bit.  Then, less good.   Then, crappy, but you'll do anything to feel slightly less crappy.  Eventually, you find yourself spent and broken and toothless, living on a stained mattress in some guy's shack in back country Gansu Province.

As Republicans continue to shout for lower taxes, and both Democrats and Republicans keep guzzling down debt to expand our security apparatus and our social entitlement programs, I find myself despairing for our nation.  The will to do what is needed to change direction...meaning, we pay taxes sufficient to provide for the common defense and support the general welfare, and reduce our spending to levels that make the income/outflow match...that will just isn't there. 

The last week has been particularly painful.  Watching the deficit reduction commission's recommendations get shot down, and then seeing the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush administration continued by our current administration is as agonizing as watching a dear friend on a self-destructive bender.  You know the type.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.  All they care about is their next fix.  Reality is nowhere to be found.  And we need to grasp reality right now as a nation.

To keep government at non-austerity levels, we'll need to pay for it.  That means ponying up, "patriot."  If you want to keep taxes where they are, then we need less government.  Not empty rhetoric about less government.  Real cuts.  That means across the board.  It means standing down our imperial military, and replacing it with something more fitting a constitutional republic.  It means reduced benefits for the elderly and those in need.  It means fewer subsidies for farmers.   Whichever way, there needs to be some level of diminishment, as we scale back to sustainable levels. It means effort, and struggle, and a bit of shared fiscal pain...not just by the rich, but by everyone.  Real recovery involves real effort.

But suggesting we all work together to shoulder a mighty burden doesn't get you elected.  It doesn't poll well.  

We'd rather elect reality television politicians, who'll happily pitch out sweet crystal fantasies until that morning America wakes up on that nasty mattress with a mouth full of rot and realizes we lurped America's greatness from our children.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Following on my post from the other day reflecting on something Carol said over at tribalchurch, why diversity?

I mean, yeah, leftys and lib'rals tend to go on about how important it is to be inclusive.  We could klatch endlessly about the liberation of transgendered Guatemalans living with dwarfism.  Sorry, "little people."  Or, oops, that's gente pequeña.  Or transexuales poco de GuatemalaSo hard to keep track of the lingo sometimes.

The reasons to care about difference, though, need to go well beyond simply wanting to include everyone because it's inclusive, even though that word makes us feel as warm and tingly as a hot brimming cup of fair trade Ethiopian Yergacheffe.

Here, I think Christian progressives tend to fall back on the language of secular liberal academe, and we do so to our failing.  To my eyes, the deepest justification for diversity comes from within Scripture.  The great narrative arc of the Tanakh, the Gospels, and the Epistles rings out with stories of how vitally important it is that we be open to the other.

Yeah, I know, you can spin it the other way.  You can get all Ezra and kick out all them apostate furrin' wimmen and their mudblood children.  If you're a social conservative in a strict constructionist sense, there are plenty of opportunities within the tradition to stand firm against the creep of "syncretism" and/or those voices that seem to chip away at the authority you know is your birthright.  You can use the Bible to keep those loud whiny women in their place.  You can scripturally shout down those uppity colored folk.  But just 'cause it's the truth that affirms you in all you've been taught doesn't mean it won't wither to writhing embers in the hellfire of God's inexorable love.

From within the core metrics of our faith, there are some key operating assumptions about hearing the voices of folks different than us.

First, there's the Exodus presumption in favor of the stranger.  At a bare minimum, those who are different and those who are outside of the boundaries of our culture and our should be met with welcome, grace, and kindness.  Why?  Because our mythopoetic memory is of having been strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. When we cried out for deliverance, it was the cry of the oppressed other that was heard by the Lord.   This is our story.  If we approach the other...any other...without a heart of compassion, then we have failed to understand the essence of the Biblical narrative and our place within it. 

Second, there's God's tendency to consistently use those who ain't part of "us" to school us, save us, or whup our behinds when they needs a whuppin'.  The prophets through whom God spoke stood outside of the structures of human culture and power.  They lived in the wilderness because those in power tended to drive them there, preferring instead the saccharine comforts of those who told them what they wanted to hear.   God goes so far as to use even those who aren't part of the faith at all.  When Israel forgot about covenant and justice and mercy, and got to be all about power and privilege, Babylon was an instrument in God's hands.  When Israel wept, helpless and lost and broken by the rivers in Babylon, Cyrus of Persia was an instrument in God's hands to save them.  God is not part of our culture.  God is not part of any society.  God is not "us."  With us, yes.  Working in us and through us, maybe.  But if the Biblical narrative is to be ours, then we must live into the truth that God is present and active even in those who are radically other.  If we want to hear our Creator, then we have to listen and be present with the other. 

Finally, there's Christ's redemptive work.   Yeah, that.  Jesus reaffirms and radicalizes the Exodus favoring of the stranger.  The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are oriented towards deep and God-centered engagement with the other, and in particular the other who is ostracized, hated, or powerless.  It is that baffling love for not just friends, not just family, but for the stranger and the enemy that makes Christianity a tradition that is 1) ever and always fundamentally countercultural and 2) worth following.

That isn't to say that Wuvvy Sparkleberry Jesus sprinkles lollipops and daisies on everyone.  Those who have worldly power, be it coercive or economic, well...Jesus has words for them.  Those words aren't easy ones.  Why?  Because defining ourselves in terms of society or the gun or the dollar turns us into adversaries of one another and of God.  Those forms of power make us approach others not in love, but with the intent of alienating them, or subjugating them, or profiting from them.

The more deeply we engage with those that worldly power declares other, the tax-collectors and the centurions and the lepers and the unclean, the more we manifest the Kingdom.

That, it would seem, is reason enough to make diversity a priority for Christians.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Diversity and Incarnational Leadership

In a recent post on her blog Tribal Church, Carol Howard Merritt raised concerns about the relative lack of diversity among church leadership.  As a child of the evangelical movement who has found a home in the oldline, she's particularly troubled by the lack of women's voices in the church.  She's also troubled by the cultural homogeneity in the church.  I feel that, and it's a good issue to raise.

We Jesus People, being people, are really rather craptacular at selecting leadership that doesn't look like us or sound like us.  If a pastor doesn't affirm what a church already knows, they won't want that person as a leader.  I understand how repressive this can be to those who aren't viewed as leadership material by a dominant culture.   But I also struggle with how effective leadership can be possible if a leader doesn't represent a community.

Take the church I'm serving.  I like folks here.  I really do.  They're good people.  But I am..well..different, different enough that it impedes my ability to be effective.  There's the surface level stuff, of course.  This Sunday, I took a gander around the room as the worship gathered steam.  About 10 minutes in, I was the only non-Asian in attendance.  That, frankly, didn't bug me.  Never has. Most of the time, I don't even notice it. 

More significant, though, are the expectations of a community formed by the experience of being second generation Asian Americans.   The family-tight bonds forged in a Korean church youth group are a powerful thing, one I can appreciate conceptually, but just isn't the way I do church.  The theology of folks coming out of a conservative and evangelical tradition just isn't mine, either.  There are powerful commonalities around Christ, sure.  The bonds of faith and the Spirit are shared.  I can worship and laugh and enjoy the company of brothers and sisters in Christ.  But the way I express my faith just doesn't articulate community enough for me to work as a leader.   As I've conveyed to the cadre of young folks at my church with some real sadness, I'm just not a good match.

To be effective, I'm convinced that leadership needs to manifest the essence of a community.  It's a bit like worship that way.  Good, moving worship is contextual and incarnational, expressing the musical and liturgical sensibilities of a particular gathered body.  It's part of a shared identity.  Similarly, a congregation will seek a leader who visibly manifests and personifies their identity as a fellowship.

The issue here, though, is that such leadership does not really challenge a community to make changes.  If there are systemic injustices, the incarnational leader will not address them.  If there are systemic failings, the incarnational leader will often embody them.

Incarnational leaders aren't prophets.  They can be agents of growth, but they aren't agents of transformation.  There's a huge difference...and that's a problem for churches as human institutions.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Underground Heaven

Yesterday, as I sat and chatted informally with the two souls who showed up for a Biblically-based Advent mission study following worship, conversation drifted a bit.   The intent had been to do a formal mission know...with whiteboards and a structured conversation about how we can translate vision into action, just like I'd discussed face to face with the session of the church last week.  And with the lay pastor during our weekly meeting.  And in the email newsletter.  And in the bulletin.  But I neglected to account for the one o'clock start of the Redskins game.  When I returned to the parlor following a conversation, everyone had left.  So it goes.  One of the pitfalls of really not caring about sports, I suppose.

Given that you can't have a mission study if most of the church ain't there, our chatting wandered elsewhere.  A central element of the conversation I had with those who joined me was the future of my own ministry.  I'm in a bit of a fuddler.  On the one hand, I'm pretty much done where I am.  If there's a future for this church, I both can't discern it and am not part of it.  On the other, prospects for finding a call anywhere in the immediate vicinity are marginal at best.  And if I want to live with my family, which I do, well, I need to stay here.

So what we talked about was a resurfacing of a thread that has moved frequently across my thinking over the years.  I look at the structures of the church...and particularly the physical structures...and I see stuff that is for the most part unnecessary.  Big buildings and big staffs and large parking lots might be the goal of most pastors, but for me, they feel like a distraction.  I've watched over the last several years as good souls in my congregation have poured energy and thought and resources into our great honking edifice, and wished those energies could have been directed elsewhere.  To service.  To evangelism.

To my eyes, most of the real meat of faith comes in small groups, gathered with the purpose of worshipping simply, sharing a meal, supporting one another, and talking openly about the Gospel. Such things do not require a building.  Just homes and living rooms and tables at the local pub.

But...what about those moments in life when we need a temple?   What about the hatching/matching/dispatching?  Need to get married?  A beach or a mountainside or your back yard will do.   Need to be baptized?  The Potomac isn't that far away.   Remembering a lost loved one?  The funeral home or graveside works fine.

What about service?  Last time I checked, the world does not lack for places where a group of Christians can make themselves useful.

Over the week, I've nosed around online writings about house churches.  One thing that struck me was how ferociously house and cell churches have flourished in places where Christianity is restricted.  Like, say, China.  There, the word for such intimate micro-churches is 地下天國.  Which, if your Chinese is as nonexistent as mine, means "Underground Heaven."  

I like that.  So gently subversive. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010


One of the more familiar concepts that has surfaced in the reading for my interim training work is the idea of the "overfunctioning" pastor.  Pastors have a tendency to work...constantly.  The demands of a congregation, particularly a mid-sized community in which the pastor is the lynchpin and go-to-person for most everything, well, those demands can be immense.  Pastors never let themselves take a break, and as I've listened to those around me, it's evident that the pressures and expectations that make the pastorate one of the more burnout-prone professions weigh on many folks here.

That's not overfunctioning. 

It's overwork, but not overfunctioning.  Overfunctioning is when a pastor begins to take on things that are not part of a pastors call to teach and proclaim the Gospel and to provide care for a community.  Often, it's done from a well meaning desire to do things right.  But as a pastor takes over jobs that really and truly should be done by lay people, it can stretch them thin.  It can also crowd out the ability of folks to grow within the community.

I am, without question, an overfunctioner.  I'm not overworked, mind you.  Farthest thing from it.

I just overfunction.  Take, for instance, my role in worship.  We moved this year to an entirely contemporary service, which requires someone to run the presentation software that projects both the music and the liturgy.  During our gradual evolution, we handed this responsibility off to several different folks, and they...well...they really flailed at it.  Worship was clumsy.  No one could sing the songs, because the wrong lyrics or wrong slide was almost always up there.  We're a tiny church, so such things are understandable.   But if you fail at worship, there's no chance anyone will stick around and join your community.

So after trying and failing to find someone able to commit to it, I took over.  I'm not perfect at it, but I made sure systems were in place (like a pre-worship presentation review meeting with a praise team leader) that were more likely to git 'er done.  So now I run the presentation, then pop up to read scripture/preach/administer the sacraments, then run the presentation. Up until the moment I stand up to preach, I'm just the guy who does the presentation. 

On some levels, that works theologically.  But I'm overfunctioning.  In the same way that I'm overfunctioning when I manage the website...which no-one wants to do, but which is as necessary as a church sign.  Oh, I maintain the church sign, too.  And the email newsletter.  And the email system.  I slop out gutters.  I rush to the church in the middle of the night with a wetvac.  I'm constantly doing things that are barely tangentially related to being a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

There are others, working really really hard to maintain the structures of the church.  But in a tiny and likely dying congregation with a big building, there aren't enough hands to go around.  It's really difficult to sit by and watch as things fall apart, and not pitch in where you know you can.  Just saying,'s not my department...seems a bit too much like the Levite who walks on by that Israelite in the ditch.  You know, before the Samaritan comes along. 

Talk about an overfunctioner.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Today, during a generally productive day discussing congregational dynamics and the processes of change, we got into some family systems conversations.  I'd expected this, given how much the readings I needed to do played off of family systems therapy ideas.

Honestly, I like the idea of looking at a congregation through a systems lens.  That means considering it as not just a mishmosh of individuals, but as a dynamic and living system, in which the reactions of individuals don't just reflect them as existentially isolated beings, but reflect the array of relational inputs that form them.

That floats my boat, and it mirrors my theology of church.  You know, church being the Body of Christ and whatnot.

But today, we were talking about "triangles," one of the central concepts of family systems.  Meaning, A talks to B about C.  C talks with A about B.  Power shifts depending on the nature of alliances between the three.  The idea presented, and it was all over the books I read, is that human relationship dynamics are fundamentally triangular.  Or triads.  Or something like that.  And I just can't bring myself to glom on to it.

I've seen that sort of simplistic relationship dynamic, of course.  The little girls in my older son's four-year old preschool class related to each other in triangles.  Two girls would klatch, and exclude a third.  Five minutes later, four year old attention spans being what they are, the triangle would have shifted, and another girl would be sulking off in a corner.  It was a bit like the crap high school girls put each other through, only at the fluttery 20X fast forward speed at which preschoolers interact with the world.

Of course triangles can be found.  You can see triangles anywhere you go looking for them.  But ultimately, I find the idea that all human relationships can be understood through this lens to be too neat and tidy.  I tend to view human social systems as complex latticeworks of interrelationship.  Social networks are more like a neural network, in which the interconnections go deep and are many and varied.

This is, of course, far more complicated, and nearly impossible to present in chart or graph form.  Within that system, there are triangular formations, sure.  But if I and another person exist in relationship to a third, each of us bring into that relationship an entire array of other relations.  Those can be with mutual acquaintances, or with family, or with outside systems.  All of those impact how we will respond.  Getting all Pythagorean about human relationships just seems inadequate.

But as the class struggled to make this framework fit, I just kind of sat there and looked pensive.  I wasn't leading.  Let it go.  Sometimes, it's better to keep your own counsel. 

And blog about it later, of course.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Today, I arrived at Union PSCE in Richmond, VA for a week-long interim ministry training event.   The folks here are quite congenial, although I realized during one of the get-ta-know-ya exercises that I am a serious noob.  There are folks taking this course who were ordained as pastors when I was five years old.  When we lined up by "years ordained," I was waaaay over on the neophyte side of things.  At over 40 years old, it is only in the Presbyterian church that I can still feel like a kid.  Sigh.  Then again, someone here actually expressed surprise that I wasn't in my twenties.  That sort of comment is increasingly gratifying, although it's probably more an indication of someone needing to visit the opthamologist than anything else.

I am so blessedly consistent at conferences.  Ever since I've been a professional, I've felt compelled to wander off when I show up for a training or a conference or a seminar.  Rather than hanging around and schmoozing, which would probably be the career-ladder prudent thing to do, I tend to go off on walkabout.

Not during the event itself, mind you.  My Scots blood is too cheap to waste money that's been paid out for an event.  But whenever I encounter a new place, I feel this odd yearning to explore.

I've enjoyed folks company so far, but when it came time to eat, I just sort of...well...drifted off.  It's not very social of me.  Some of it is my introversion.  I'm just a shy laddie.

But another part of me hungers to just wander around.  To taste the strangeness of a place I've never seen.  After snarfing down some veggie-friendly and cheap Subway grub, I did a bit of sermon prep work, spent some time in prayer, and then left my room to meander about the grounds of the seminary for a while.  I explored a dorm.  I hunted, unsuccessfully, for the weight room that I've been told hides somewhere here on campus.  I contemplated the large Hogwarts-esque library, which I'll likely check out tomorrow.

Mostly, though, I just sopped in homes and streets that are filled with strange sweetness of the South, that peculiar feeling of still gentility and decay.  Around the seminary as dusk fell, it just felt very quiet.  At night, as I walked through the lantern-lit center of the small campus, leaves fell like rustling gold around me.

Things like that you just don't want to miss.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

For Every Thing, There is A Season

Yesterday evening, I did something I haven't done in years.  I went camping. 

As Saturdays and particularly Sundays aren't really...ah...good days for me, I've managed to miss every single cub scouting camping trip my boys have taken.  The wife has taken 'em instead.  She always comes back with her hair slightly mussed and smelling of woodsmoke and marshmallows.  It's a very appealing scent.  If you really wanted to make a perfume that drew the interest of men, that might be a good place to start.

Last month, though, with the last camping trip of the little guy's season coming up, he began asking if I could go. 

I hemmed and hawed.  Things are challenging at the church right now.  My session usually meets on the second Sunday of the month, and we've got some pretty serious ecclesiastical heavy lifting to do.  And...


And my youngest son, on one of the last camping trips he's may take as a scout, was asking me to go along.  "I just want a chance to hang out with you, Dad," said he, meltingly.  

For a moment, that little demonic meme that misapplies Scripture in ways that make male pastors crappy, distant fathers tried hitting me with something about hating family and even life itself.  But I batted it down.  Most of that is just ego and self-importance, masquerading as spirituality.  Nothing was happening today at church that couldn't be rescheduled, or handled perfectly capably by someone else.  The life of your children, on the other hand, has an unfortunate tendency to pass by.  Just once.  Miss it, and it won't be back.

So I handed some things off to folks, rescheduled others, and left for the mountains with my boy.  We came back just a few hours ago, sleepy and s'more-sated and smelling of woodsmoke.  I love that smell.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reflecting With Scripture on Community Organizing

One of the luckiest...errr...most providentially blessed... pastors I know recently sent me something that he recently had published, and asked me to give it both a read and a shout out.  Jeff Krehbiel is blessed with a wonderful urban progressive church.  But the most unusually beneficent stroke of providence comes from his congregation's location, which is at point-blank range from one of the East Coast's most impressive and comprehensive purveyors of fine beers.   Being a good neighbor, of course, The Rev. Dr. Krehbiel has been called upon to assist them in judging fine beer during competitions

It's a cross he has to bear.

So when he pitched me his compilation of reflections on community organizing and some choice scriptures, I was happy to give it a read.  It's a practical little book, designed to be used both in personal reflection but also in small group study.  It's accessible, well written, and targeted at a lay audience.

For progressive churches that are interested in exploring how to engage with and connect with the needs of their communities, and are interested in being a catalyst for social change, I can see this short series of studies being quite helpful.

Honestly, though, I came away just a teensy bit frustrated.  Not because the bible studies weren't well-conceived, because they were.  Not because it doesn't provide some useful insights into organizing and faith, because it does. 

Rather, it's that in his introduction, Jeff establishes a profound and significant tension between the core ethos of Christian faith and the core ethos of community organizing.    As he puts it:
"Jesus is understood by many church people to be a model of self-effacing humility and powerlessness, while community organizers exult in the virtue of self-interest and the necessity of power.  For many Christians, the vocabulary of faith and the vocabulary of organizing seem to be at odds, if not in outright contradiction."  (Reflecting, p.8)
I've ruminated on this dynamic myself, particularly during my reading of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals.  Jesus isn't, of course, the model of squishy passivity that he can often be made out to be.  He's not the divine doormat on which we smear our sin before we enter the Kingdom.  In Christ, there is real transforming power.  But the central ethic Christ taught and embodied is in profound tension with some of the core tenets of community organizing.  Social power and the politics of self-interest do not harmonize well with the heart of the Gospel.

Having named that highly non-trivial tension, the studies that followed just...didn't...quite...resolve it.   It seemed to get close, here and there, particularly in the fourth and final reflection on Isaiah.   But if you're going to lay out what appears to be an irresolvable tension between the thesis of the Gospel and its antithesis, political power and self-interest, then, dagflabbit, there needs to be more Hegelian dialectic intentionality in establishing a synthesis.

Ah well.   So it goes.

Perhaps that's something best further explored over a few craft-brewed beers.  I find they make dialectic so very much more entertaining. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

God at the Edge

As I crank through my book-stack, I'm back into reading things I don't technically need to read.  Next in the rotation was a book given to my by one of the saints of my church.  The book, by Rabbi Niles Goldstein, is entitled God At the Edge.  Goldstein is a faith extremophile, meaning he's the sort of person who seeks out intense wilderness experience and wild-and-wooly EXTREEEEEME faith experience.  You know.  Wandering the wilderness of Alaska.  Trekking through Uzbekistan without the proper papers.  That sort of thing.

God at the Edge was quite readable, and the scholarship...particularly as Goldstein cranked his way through a variety of the mystics in both Judaism and Christianity who inspired him...was excellent.

What caused me to be a-strugglin' a bit with this book was the seeming inability of Goldstein to find contentment as a rabbi in a standard-issue synagogue.  The births and marriages and mitzvahs and funerals...well...they just weren't exciting.  He chafed and struggled with the tedium of it all.  He needed to be chased by bears, or shot at, or something...more...adventuresome.

I can understand that.  There's much within the lives of synagogues and congregations that is...well...boring.  Just routine.  It can be smotheringly irrelevant.

But there's this thing about even the most seemingly staid communities of faith: they are filled with human beings.    And those human creatures experience some pretty intense stuff.  A new life comes into the world...that's a big deal.  A marriage falls apart...that's a huge and complex thing, as fearsomely searing as the desert at the height of the day.  A life comes to a close, either softly or through a crucible of suffering...and that last breath rattling out after a years-long struggle against cancer is just as final as the sharp crack that ends a life on the battlefield.

I feel the extremophile yearning myself.  The voice of our Maker is more easily heard in places that kick us out of our complacency.  But the intensity of existence isn't something we have to wander far to find.  If we live and breathe, no matter where we are, it tends to find us.

Those who feel the need to seek it out just aren't paying attention.  They remind me of...well...this song:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Hidden Lives of Congregations

With my interim training program just a week away, I've finished up the last of my assigned "churchybook" readings.  The book I just completed, The Hidden Lives of Congregations, by Israel Galindo, was far and away the most comprehensive.  A few reflections:

Minus Side:  It's really quite dense.  This is not light reading.  Not at all.  It is leavened by the occasional anecdotal story about congregational life, but it's mostly meat, written in language that tends towards the academic.  It goes hard and heavy into some of the most significant findings of congregational researchers, occasionally to the point of being a bit inaccessible.  For a well educated layperson, this might work...but it feels very much like a text that speaks at the graduate level.  It isn't a book you can rush through in one sitting.  Or two.  Or five.  I liked it, but for some, that might make this inaccessible.

Minus Side:  It can feel a bit cluttered.  As it reviews and presents most of the literature on congregational life and dynamics, it sometimes gets a bit overwhelming.  With multiple typologies of church types and dynamics, it presents faith communities in such a multivalent way that establishing a clear set of metrics for measuring congregational health can get a bit challenging.  It comes at congregational life from so many different directions that it can be a bit dizzying.  There's intentionality in the structure of the book, but sometimes it feels a bit like drinking from a churchybook firehose. 

Plus Side:  It is thorough.  On the flip side to the above, it really does provide a complete review of congregational research.  Typologies that lay out the impacts of organizational size, internal structure, congregational self-image, and spiritual style are all presented.  Of all of the books that I've gone through for my interim training prep, this one has felt the most useful.  It really does open up the breadth and depth of congregational life.

Plus Side:  It resonates with reality.   Many academic works feel like just that...academic works, full of theories and concepts that exist in the Platonic realm of church forms, but have no connection to how things are.  With this book, I lost track of the number of times I scribbled things like "Yes!" and "Exactly!" and "That's so true!" in the margins.  The ways that Galindo opens up church decision-making, organizational stumbling blocks, and other elements of how congregations function (or don't) is profoundly grounded in the actuality of church life.  Having grown up in a large church, and having served both mid-sized and small congregations, I see a tremendous amount of truth in Galindo's research-based insights.

Plus Side:  It's not just for interims.  Though referencing much of the same literature as the other interim books I read, The Hidden Lives of Congregations approaches congregational life in a way that does not assume you're only there to facilitate a transition.  It's more of a generalists book, something that is designed to be broadly useable by anyone in a position of congregational leadership.

Huge, Huge Plus:  It gets the theology right.  Many churchy books smother the spiritual element of congregational life under therapeutic or academic language, or have Christianity as a light gloss over top of a basically secular approach to organizational life.   While Galindo does a good, full job of exploring family systems theory and the broader organizational research on congregations, when it comes time to get to the heart of church, he sets aside that sort of language, and to my eyes nails it.  As he puts it, no matter what the size and context and systems dynamics of a church as a human entity:
All congregations have the same mission: to be the body of Christ in the world, participating with God in the redemptive work of restoring the people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  (p.42)
This is repeated, reiterated, and restated as the primary and governing purpose of congregations.  Which is good, because it is. 

Not sure why it is that Galindo seems better at this than others I've read. he's Baptist?  Hmmm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tie Ins

The Jesus Youth greet you, Unbeliever.
Today, in the church mail, I got the flyer for Group Publishing's Sunday School offerings for 2011.  Group is a tightly run and moderately evangelical shop.  They have their finger on the pulse of our culture, and their stuff is nearly always tied in to major media events.

If there's a pending cinematic extravaganza, an ultra-hyped Hollywood summer blockbuster, you're guaranteed that they'll capitalize on it by producing coursework that harmonizes with whatever the mass market zeitgeist happens to be.  Got a Pirates of the Caribbean flick coming out?  It'll be seafaring VBS.  Finding Nemo coming out?  Expect lots of fish themed Jesus stuff.  I'm actually a bit surprised they haven't done something with zombies.  It's mostly innocuous, positive, well-produced material.  Although it tends to be a bit treacly for my tastes, my own church has used it plenty in past.

This upcoming summer, the next Transformers movie is going to hit Cineplexes near you.  It'll be in 3D, loud and blangy and more-in-your-face than ever.  So of course, the flyer I got in the mail gives good-customer-me a preview of the "Transformer"-themed Jesus curriculum that Group will be pitching out.  A bunch of backlit sword-wielding Jesus children grin out at you, their armor emblazoned with glowing crosses.  The little one in the middle looks remarkably like a young Glenn Beck.

It struck an odd chord. Not because tying the Gospel to big stupid-loud ultraviolent blockbusters seems to dilute the Jesus message, though it does.  Not because the iconography has almost crossed over into Leni Riefenstahl territory, though it has. 

Rather, it's because I'm in the habit of dream-sharing with my children.  If we have a particularly interesting one, we discuss it, exploring its meaning.  My ten year old son, whose dreams are often...well...strangely prescient...had a long vivid dream that he recounted to me in extended detail yesterday.  It was about a dark and violent force that was sweeping across the country.  It was an army, one that brought with it destruction.  He and his friends fought against it, but it proved too strong.

Last night, he showed me a picture of one of the warriors in the army, a little pencil drawing he'd done.  It was an armored robotic figure brandishing a long sword.  Emblazoned on its chest was a cross.  "That's the power source, Dad," said he.  "It uses it to power its weapon.  To defeat it, you have to take out its power source."

It was exactly what I saw in my mailbox this morning.

Tie-ins can be rather odd.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Suburban Paranoia

My life is, for better or for worse, pretty stock standard suburban.  I live in a modest rambler.  I have two kids and a dog and a minivan.  My weekday life involves a daily pattern of activities that tend to include errands and laundry...and the requisite "activities."  Monday is School of Rock.  Tuesday is Swimming.  Wednesday is Hebrew School.  Thursday is Swimming Again.  Friday we catch our breath on Shabbas. 

Though I'm a suburban denizen, there's one aspect of suburbia I try not to internalize.  It's the...well...paranoia.  Suburbia is an easily frightened place.

When I'm doing the activity-shuttle thing, I sit and listen to the parents around me, who've been thrown together at semi-random based on the schedules they've inflicted on their children and themselves.  As I listen, I hear that there are schedules out there that make mine look like a cakewalk.  Families have color coded charts that lay out the variety of different activities.  Kids leave school, and cram in their homework on the way to karate, which is followed by guitar lessons, after which they snarf down fast food on the way to tutoring.

That endless churning takes a toll on our ability to develop connections where we live...because even though we have a home, we don't really live there.  We live scurrying around in our crossovers.  For some reason, that reminds me of a scripture.  Then again, most things do. 

Earlier this week, I listened to a Mom and a Dad talking about Halloween.  They were lamenting how sad and necessary it was that their kids needed to be driven to go trick or treating at the mall this year.  "It's just so dangerous out there now," said the Mom.  "So many crazy people."  The Dad nodded.  "It's just not safe out there any more.  Not like when we were kids." So more and more kids don't go door to door with their parents.  You don't get to know your neighbors. Communities don't bond and connect, because the world is scaaaary.

This is, of course, materially false.  Statistically, crime rates are lower than they were when I was a kid back in the 1980s and 1970s.  But stressed out, over-scheduled, struggling American parents don't have the focus to realize this.  As they fret about every little minute detail of their kid's lives, they hear from their attitude of fear.  They don't know their neighbors, because they are too busy working and juggling schedules and shimmering with stress.  What little information filters in from our profit-driven media is "Fear! Terror all around! More after these messages!" 

The Big-Parking-Lot churches they attend affirm this fear, filling the world outside of their sprawling campuses with a motley cast of unbelievers and the dangerously unsaved.  Get out into the community?  Work with others?  No chance.  "Keep your kids safe in the hermetically sealed programming of our sprawling Jesus Campus!  Fear!  Terror all around!  Make sure to tithe!"

It's a strange, dark, and fearful place we find ourselves.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election Hangover 2010: Connolly vs. Fimian

Connolly                  Fimian
I am, in a perverse way, actually rather pleased with the election results from yesterday.   The Red Tide of Tea Party activism did pretty much what was expected, as the simmering, aimless discontent of the American lumpenproletariat once again ran the bums out. 

Honestly, they deserved to be run out.  When you're running on a basically populist record, and you can't seem to articulate it in ways that connect, you fail.  Democratic leadership was notably pathetic, and seemingly incapable of doing anything other than ceding the talking points of the right.  If you can't stand on your accomplishments, and make a compelling case against your opponents, then you need to be shown the door. 

In my own congressional district, the VA-11th, the election is not yet over.  Two years ago, this was a strongly blue district.  It went solidly for Obama.  Yeah, we've got our share of angry white men, but the district is nonetheless urban and moderate.   Yet somehow we've ended up with a too-close-to call race between a Democrat and a hard-line tea partier.  As of this morning, the differential between Gerry Connolly (D) and Keith Fimian (R) is only 500 votes, out of over 200,000 cast.  There were voting machine failures in two precincts, so we're heading for recount country.  This is, especially in the context of the 11th district, really amazing.

Why?  Here you have a Republican who wants to massively slash federal spending.  The primary source of income in this area...for good or for the federal government.  If Fimian won, and the policies he and his movement support were enacted, there'd be a massive loss of jobs in his district.  That would include not just federal employees, but private companies and small businesses that contract with the government.  It would include all the folks who do construction and homebuilding and repair, and all the folks who provide services, because if the economy in this area was forced to rachet back, that's just how it's gonna roll.  I've seen plenty of Tea Party/Fimian stickers on the back of working pickups, and I've thought to myself, fool, you're voting yourself out of a job.  This isn't rocket science.  Heck, it isn't even leafblowing.   That's straight up just the way it is.
Totoro would know how to win in the 11th District.

Why so close?  I think, ultimately, that falls to the guy representing the Democratic party.  This was the Democrats election to lose, and Connolly...well...he's got problems.  Sure, he looks a bit like a Celtic Totoro, and we all love Totoro, but that can only get you so far.

He is, for lack of a better term, a career politician.  Two weeks ago, I sat around the dinner table with my extended family, and we talked politics.  Everyone in the room is a lifelong Democrat, the sort of person who never, ever, doesn't vote.  We're talking unionized teachers and social workers and contractors.  As Blue State as you get.  Not one soul there was enthusiastic about Connolly, and reported that in other conversations they were having, their friends weren't enthusiastic, either. Why?

He already has something of a reputation as being a tick overly career focused.   But Connolly also blew a huge, huge hole in his enthusiasm base when he came out vigorously in favor of keeping the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.  Yeah, he might believe that.  But whatever the motivation, it came across as both that it seemed to show quivering hindquarters to the right....and pandering, the sort of thing you do if your concern isn't the national interest, but making sure you have wealthy donors backing your campaign.  If the only national level news you're making dispirits the people who are voting for you no matter what, it'll drive off those whose commitment level is lower.

No matter what the result of the inevitable recount, there are lessons here for Democrats.  And...opportunities for those who'd like to change the direction of national political discourse.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Engaging Conflict: The Man in the White Hat

This Sunday was a bit rough.  My sermon, which was technically a fundraising sermon, was brutal in it's frankness.  Leavened with humor, sure.  But the message was clear:  all is not well.

The Bible study that followed was equally rough.  There's much to commend the little community I serve, but it faces some immense challenges, challenges I feel unable to meet.  As we enumerated the issues facing the church, like a huge building that slurps up precious time and resources and a fellowship life that is deep and strong...but more like a family than a church startup...I made a point of noting another challenge the church has faced over the past several years. 

That challenge was my own dislike of conflict.  And I do dislike it.  Having watched as conflicts blew apart the church with which my community is yoked, and having worked to resolve the tensions within my own fellowship that have sapped and impurified our precious spiritual fluids, I know how destructive conflict can be.  I naturally prefer to be collaborative, to find consensus, to seek common ground.  But sometimes, that just doesn't work.  Barack, I'm talkin' to you, my friend.

Conflict can be necessary.  Communities that are undergoing change must experience conflict if they are to grow.  Systems that haven't worked, don't work, and will not work need to be dismantled if a community is to thrive, and honey, that means somebody's gonna get riled.  The question is, how do you go about that?

One of the gathered group joked that my fear of conflict might mean I "fought like a girl," and made flappity motions in front of himself to demonstrate.  I joked back that, no, I fought mostly from an armadillo-like fetal position.

This, however, isn't really true.  This church has required me to intentionally engage in conflict.  I perhaps haven't done it as much as I should have, but Lord knows I have had to do it.  When I have, it's usually in the form of simply being firm and clear about where I stand, and why.   It's about being strong but not hostile.   It's about presenting people with truth, but not beating them up about it.  Do I get angry?  Sure.  Anger can be useful, but only as an emotional indicator that something is wrong.  Acting while in the heat of anger only deepens wounds.   Instead, you have to be willing to use that energy to actively resist broken things without contributing to the brokenness.

As I was writing this post, I encountered a striking video (thanks, Jonathan!) that shows some pretty amazingly constructive use of conflict.  It's a scene of mob violence in San Fran last night, shot from a police helicopter, in which a drunken crowd "celebrating" the World Series attacks some people in a car that tried to drive through them.  It's ugly stuff...but watch it, and look for the Man in the White Hat. 

He enters from the bottom of the screen at around 10 seconds, as the mob pounds on the car.  For the next two minutes he aggressively asserts himself.  He talks people down.  He pulls people away.  Finally, he interposes himself physically between the remnants of the mob and the people in the car.  He stays there until the cops arrive...and doesn't leave until the event is over. 

Is he engaging in conflict?  Yes.  He's right there in people's faces.  He is physically moving them.  He is physically preventing them from doing harm, and in doing so is taking a significant risk.  He is hardly passive, and hardly nonconfrontational.

But his attitude is clearly not one of anger, and it makes a difference. 

That is conflict done right.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gaming, Violence, and the Supreme Court

I am, without question, a gamer.  Just about every evening, I kick back with my PS3 and play.  This has completely taken the place of watching television.  I'm not particularly into sports, and while I can enjoy a good football game or a rousing match of futbol, it's not something I make time for.  I have no patience for reality TV, and most scripted drama is too formulaic to hold my attention.  There are some great shows out there, stuff that's well written and worth watching, but I tend to approach those things as I would a movie...meaning I stream them, and watch them with my wife and/or kids.  If I'm left to my own devices, I just don't watch.

I prefer to game. Gaming is more interactive, more engaging, and if you get the right game, it's just as well acted and scripted.  For gamers, things get interesting tomorrow, because the Supreme Court is taking up a California law that bans the sale of violent video games to minors.  Specifically, they ban sales to minors of any game that involves, and here I quote:  "...killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being."

As a parent and a pastor, I understand the impetus behind this law.  Gaming's not what it was when I started gaming as a kid.  I'm a regular player of Battlefield Bad Company Two, for instance.  I checked my stats recently, and found that I'd sent about 1,600 other players to meet their virtual maker.  It's a pretty intense game.

But I don't let my kids play it.  Not because it's violent, mind you.  They are, after all, boys.  But they understand the difference between simulated combat and real combat.  It's not that great a moral leap.  As my big guy puts it, "I'd never want to go to war.  There's no respawn, and you have to watch your friends really get hurt and die."  Instead, I limit their access because the vocabulary of the game is...well...appropriate to a war zone.  And I don't really want that sort of language in my house.

There are other games, like Grand Theft Auto or the brutally ultraviolent and hypersexualized Bayonetta, that I simply will not let in my house.  They may be well put together, but they go beyond just paintball-esque war games into a darker place.  Some inputs are to be avoided.  I won't play those games.  They're not good for ya.  Kids should not play those games...but they're already rated M, and not sold to minors.  I'm pretty intentional about placing boundaries around what my boys are allowed to play.  And watch.  It's called being a parent. 

In terms of blocking access to games that involve " image of a human being.."  I think California has overreached.  The metric they're laying out doesn't just apply to some of the more extreme games out there.  It goes far beyond that.  Simulated combat is a central component of gaming.  Pretty much every Teen-rated Star Wars game, which are remarkably popular with boys, would need to be restricted.  As would many button-mashing fight games.  As would Outlaw for the Atari 2600, which is presented in all its brutal gun-blazing glory above.  It is killing, after all. 

This functionally removes California from the gaming marketplace.

I can't see how that definition provides a meaningful metric for what is and is not an acceptable game for kids.  If you're playing a game like Lego Batman, or Lego Indiana Jones, do you "kill" an image of a human being?  It's a Lego Minifigure, sure, but it looks like a human being.  What about games like, say, Dummy Never Fails, a physics game in which you hurl mannequins into objects?  That's definitely human-looking.

I'm not sure how California is going to regulate sales.  The gaming industry is rapidly moving from distributing games through physical media to distributing games via download.  Is California going to block access to gaming downloads over XBox Live or the PlayStation Network?  Or to downloads of games over iTunes?  My boys often get gift cards that allow them to access those games...if they did so directly in California, would that constitute a violation of this law?

Another often ignored but growing area of the gaming industry is free online flash gaming.  Through sites like miniclip or Candystand, you can play an amazing array of games that are paid for by ad placement.  Many of those games are superior to the console games of 10 years ago, and many contain simulated combat.  Unless California is prepared to become China, and to block access to large swaths of the internet, I just can't see how this law will be meaningful.

This seems, quite frankly, like one of those "what about the children" laws.  They're impossible to meaningfully enforce, and only serve to make Californian legislators feel better about themselves.  It's not just that it seems to fail the First Amendment test.  It's that the law seems painfully overwrought and fundamentally unrealistic. 

California needs to just pass Prop 19 and, like, chill, dude.