Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alinsky and Communism

That Alinsky chose to start his "Rules for Radicals" hailing Lucifer like he was the opening act for Black Sabbath hasn't endeared him to reactionary Christians everywhere.

Evidence of how freaked certain quarters of the Jesus world are by Mr. Alinsky can be found by engaging in a quick visit the website of the Rev. Jack Van Impe. Yes, that Jack Van Impe. In the event you've not experienced the Jackster, he's the late-night teevee pastor whose been pitching out imminent apocalypse predictions since I was in high school. On his show, he and his awesomely be-haired wife Rexella go over the new items of the day, all of which are a Certain Sign that Things Are Coming To An End.

JVI Ministries is pitching out a little bit of end-times hysteria that prominently features the influence of Alinsky. They are also the media shop responsible for all of the Left Behind movies, which rank as some of the most impossibly mediocre cinema ever to blight the reputation of Christianity.

Interestingly, though, the issue with Alinsky isn't that he lionizes the Prince of the Air. Like most other conservatives, The Rev. Dr. Van Impe is still a tiny bit fixated on the creeping Red Menace. This fear seems unaffected by the complete collapse of communism as a global movement, but hey, fear is irrational. His website is pitching out the idea that Alinsky was a commie, and that by extension, so is the current administration. Which means the end times are at hand. Or something like that.

That's pretty much the same line you'll hear about Alinsky from Glenn Beck. And from Rush Limbaugh. Alinsky is an "America-hating radical." He's a Red! He's a Socialist! That means Obama must be as well! Take to the hills! Wooolveriiiines!

Problem is, the Alinsky you encounter in "Rules for Radicals" is really nothing of the sort. He says as much. Communism isn't revolutionary enough for him. If anything, he finds more inspiration in the revolutionary fervor of the American founding fathers. Being an astute observer of the real, he more often than not describes communism as stultifying and oppressive in both rhetoric and practice. He chides those who support or apologize for global communism, noting that the ability to speak freely about change in the system can be done freely in America, while in the communist countries of his time, such talk means there's a knock on the door at 3 AM, and you suddenly and permanently disappear.

He ain't a commie. A progressive? Sure. A leftist? Sort of, but more Trotsky than Stalin.

Saul Alinsky Walks into A Synagogue Eating a BLT

As the father of modern community organizing, Saul Alinsky is notable for a variety of things, but first and foremost among them is a mind as sharp as a tack. His writing shows evidence of wit and edge, and a deep storyteller's knowledge of some of the more pungent moments in history.

He's also deeply aware of the need to connect with communities. If you're intending to radicalize and rile up a complacent population, you need to first be very careful not to offend them. It might on the surface seem a strange thing for a self-professed radical to say. Radicals, as we popularly understand them, are supposed to come in spewing froth and venom. They are supposed to be wild-eyed. They are supposed to not care if they make any enemies.

Alinsky, though, is a relentless pragmatist. In order to bring about change, you have to convince a community that 1) change is necessary and 2) change is not a threat. To do this, you need to be very careful not to have the community view you as dangerous. You need to be innocuous. You need to be quickly identified as "one of us." You need not to say anything that might put people on guard against you. As he puts it:
If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community, I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out.
Those are wise words from a very worldly wise soul. You can see how they've formed our current president.

But here's a funny thing. The organizing movement Alinsky founded now has perhaps its deepest roots in churches. Organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation and (in my neck of the woods) the Washington Interfaith Network quickly realized that congregations were fertile ground for organizing in communities that lacked any other significant social glue. It's a logical step. A wise tactic.

In that context, though, the opening of "Rules for Radicals" seems a bit clueless. Alinsky sets the stage for his book with three quotes. First, one from Rabbi Hillel encouraging boldness. Second, from Thomas Paine encouraging commitment to rebellion. Fine so far.

But then Alinsky quotes himself acknowledging the very first radical:
...the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom--Lucifer.
Yeah, he's just trying to be cute. But suddenly, it smells a whole lot like bacon.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Community Organizing, Jesus, and Saul Alinsky

Way back yonder in the election of Aught Eight, there was a wee bit of a kerfuffle about community organizing. You know, back when Miz Sarah got all high and mighty about small town mayorin' bein' real work, and community organizin' being somthin' only them lib'rals do when they cain't find work for the summer and Mumsy isn't opening up the house in the Berkshires until August.

Folks got all riled 'bout that, and so many Priuses and Volvos started sportin' bumper stickers that said: "Jesus Was A Community Organizer."

I saw one of those bumper stickers the other day on the back of a shiny Audi SUV in the well-off, liberal area in which my church is sited. It reminded me that over and over again, I've told myself that I needed to read Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals." Alinsky, in case you don't know him, is the Grandaddy of community organizing. His work to empower and radicalize communities in Chicago has a surprisingly deep impact on the American political system. Hillary Clinton wrote her doctoral thesis on him. Barack Obama cut his political teeth in the crucible of Alinskian organizing. That's made Alinsky a particularly potent boogeyman of the reactionary right.

He's a...commie! A...socialist! Aieeeee!

I figured it was about time to get down to some summer reading, and Alinsky was next in the rotation. So tonight, I'm curling up on the couch with Saul.

I'm wondering, in particular, just how well the thesis underlying that bumper sticker will hold up.

Being A Witness

Yesterday, in the mid afternoon of my day off, I was sitting relaxing at my kitchen table. I was feeling a bit tired, and while a book was in front of me, life seemed to be moving in a siesta direction.

I had just about come to the determination that it was time to go curl up for a refreshing Jeffersonian nap when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Moving down the sidewalk in groups of two were staidly dressed women bearing clipboards laden with tracts.

Jehovah's Witnesses. Gah.

Normally, I'm more than up for an exchange with the Witnesses. My last visit from them was really very satisfying. Being able to elicit the words "Um...ah...I really need to be going" from a Jehovah's Witness makes having a graduate degree in theology quite worth while.

But yesterday, I wasn't up for theologizing. I was tired, and as the women came to the door, I contemplated pretending I wasn't there. The dog started barking. I contemplated further.

Finally, I heaved myself up, and went to the door. I offered up a warm, smiling greeting, and assured the two ladies that the madly wagging Ellie only wanted to be friends and play. We exchanged some small talk about dogs, as my dog tried to scrabble through the screen. They asked if I'd be willing to take a flyer...and I said..."Sure." I opened up the door, took a leaflet, and then bid the two women a very good day.

It was a gentle, pleasant, hospitable exchange.

Of course, if they come back, I'm rested and ready for a pleasant exchange of views. But in that moment, despite my mid-afternoon haze, it felt strangely right to be nothing more and nothing less than gracious to these human beings.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I Am To Blame For The Gulf Oil Spill

As hurricane season begins to effect the Gulf of Mexico, efforts to contain the seemingly endless spill of oil seems likely to once again face setbacks. Though 30,000 souls and 6,000 ships are working to control the mess as the Macondo Oil Prospect voids its bowels into the waters of the Gulf, those efforts will have to be temporarily abandoned if storms threaten. Which they almost certainly will.

The disaster is now 16 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, making it far and away the worst ecological mess ever to impact the United States. And as everyone involved seems to sense at a gut level, it isn't just not over. It's going to get worse.

It's blame time, of course. Someone has to be to blame in this godawful fustercluck.

Conservatives blame Obama because he, well, he's Obama. Liberals blame BP and the whole corporate profit thing, 'cause that's what they do. Some folks call for boycotts of BP, although how that's going to help them maintain solvency so they can deal with the mess they made is beyond me. BP blames the government, or subcontractors, or just bad mojo.

What no one seems to be doing is taking responsibility for the mess. So I'll say it.

I am responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf.

Yeah, I have nothing directly to do with the oil industry. I also don't use a ton of fuel. Our Scion was an efficient little econocube. Our new Prius gets over 50 mpg. My motorcycle gets close to 60 mpg. But we have an old minivan that scrambles to get 19 mpg in the combined cycle. I drive every single day. I totally rely on the combustion of petroleum to get around and to maintain the patterns of my life.

As such, I am a part of America's insatiable demand for fuel. I make it economically feasible for companies to keep pushing the outer envelope of engineering, drilling deeper and deeper in more and more inhospitable environments. The Macondo oil prospect, which the Deepwater Horizon was trying to tap, contains a total of 50 million barrels of oil. That seems like a lot, particularly as we consider what two point one billion gallons of crude will look like when it washes up on the shores of Louisiana and Texas and Florida.

Until you consider that we Americans burn that much fuel in less than three days. Every seventy-two hours, we put that amount of gas in our cars and burn it and pour what remains into the atmosphere. I am a part of that.

When I stand before my Maker on the Day of Judgement, and I'm asked what kind of job I did caring for creation, I'm not fool enough to think I'm going to be able to weasel my way out of my own share of this mess.

So now you know who to blame.

Feel better?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Workin' Hard, Or Hardly Workin'

Today, I spent most of my day not working. The majority of the hours I put in had nothing to do with work at all. Yeah, it started recognizably enough. I wrote up the weekly email newsletter for the church, edited it, and sent it out to our little circulation list. I then edited the circulation list. Then, I pulled together our bulletin. And updated the church sign. And did some prep work for VBS. And ordered some emergency lights that a recent visit from the fire marshal made necessary. I met with our building manager and my clerk of session. That was all very workey. But it only carried me through noon.

At noon, I got on my motorcycle and rode north. It was hot, but so long as I was moving, things were fine. Pleasant, even. At 1:45 pm, I arrived at the state psychiatric hospital where the young man who was arrested outside our church two weeks ago is being treated. He was pleased to see me, which one can't always say about folks who you've gotten arrested and detained in an institution. But then, he gets few visitors, so I did break the monotony. I spent the next hour with him, listening as he described worldview. He's a bright guy, and our conversation veered wildly from some fairly mundane stuff to long talks that reflected his fractured mental state.

At 2:45 pm, I begged his leave, got back on my bike, and motored homeward through the afternoon haze. The Beltway, she was not kind to me this evening.

Pretty much all of my afternoon was spent doing something that, from an organizational standpoint, was no more constructive than playing Bloons. Go, Dart Monkey, Go!

I wasn't attending to membership, or to the needs of the facility. I wasn't doing development...sorry...stewardship work. I wasn't developing a prospective new member. I wasn't getting new pledge units...sorry...members. By the baseline standards of measuring the organizational health of a church as a human institution, what I was doing served no conceivable purpose.

And yet it was what needed to be done, in an Imitatio Christi, dubyadubyajaydee sorta way. From conversations I've had about it with members and leaders of the church, it was what everyone eagerly wanted me to do. Even though it served no organizational purpose, it was the thing the pastor of my church...meaning me... needed to be doing. Which is how it should be. How it must be, for church to be church and not just another institution.

It reminded me again of how when I sometimes say to my kids "I'm going to work," that isn't really what I'm doing at all.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pastor, Chill Thyself

My summer begins today.

Every year since I entered the ministry, I've wangled an arrangement with my church. We Presbyterians are supposed to take two weeks a year of study leave, time to go off to conferences and seminars and retreat centers, where we can hobnob and connect and diligently keep ourselves up to date on the latest and most trendy new trends in our 2,000 year old tradition.

I don't do that. Not because it's a bad thing, even though I can usually get that data through the blogs I feed and the books I read. Instead, I apply that time to my summer, one day per week, and take care of my kids. On that day, I sit by poolside and read and write, while the boys swim back and forth and back and forth. That's study, of a sort, I suppose. I shuttle them to go have fun with the few kids who are fortunate enough not to have every last moment of their summers prescheduled by their hovering, overachieving parents.

I take them on bicycle outings. I putter around the house, while they read and play and enjoy being a kid. I do still take calls, and keep an eye on things. But I make a point of slowing down.

It's not a very Washington, DC way to think. For all the invective leveled against it by folks for whom "inside-the-Beltway" means just another level of hell, DC is a crazy-hard-working place. Washingtonians endure long hours, big stress, and soul-sucking commutes, and all this while suffering through the sultry heat that should have us spending June through August on a big wraparound porch sitting under a fan slowly sipping mint juleps.

That lifestyle of gogogogogo is, to my observation, also the way the pastors who flit and fret across my field of vision tend to live. The institutional church can be a high maintenance bride. She demands constant attention, and is more than willing to pitch a Bridezilla hissy if you don't meet her expectations. Endless meetings can stack up upon even more meetings, which pile up on stomping out interpersonal fires, which are followed by an aging air conditioning system that punks out on Sunday morning. And while dealing with that Cavalcade of Very Important Crap, we're supposed to teach and preach and be deeply rooted in Christ's grace. More often than not, it seems that pastors let themselves be consumed. They let themselves be stretched and stretched, until that stress frays them. Under that self-inflicted stress, we respond less graciously to others. It becomes easier to be broken, to be hostile to those around us, to gossip, to promote faction, or to withdraw.

When I permit myself to overextend, I feel it in myself. I snap to judgment. I snark. I fume. I fail to be centered in Christ's peace.

This is not a sign of a healthy faith life. Faithful folk, as a recent study at the University of Toronto showed, have a tendency to be less stressed out about stressful situations than those who have no orientation outside of their own selves. Being oriented towards God provides a foundation for dealing with the stressors and difficulties of life, one that makes it a whole bunch easier to cope with messiness.

That's certainly true when we're afflicted by crises. But we shouldn't be letting our lives put the Lord to the test. Our faith needs to form the way that we structure our lives outside of those crisis moments. If those who are the spiritual leaders of a faith community are running on an endlessly spinning gerbil wheel of stress, trapped in a cycle of internal and external expectations, then there is something wrong. There is something wrong in us, as we allow our own need to be in control to consume us. There is something wrong in our communities, as they expect their pastors to conform to the frenzied pace of the secular workplace.

So stop fretting. Seek the kingdom. And consider, for a moment, that perhaps the best place to find that may be poolside.

And yes, the pool has WiFi. And a good cell signal. You are so incorrigible.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Faith and Desire

Last year, I wrote a blog post on the Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry, a training ground for a charismatic/ecstatic version of Christian faith. Honestly, it seems harmless enough, although I was a teensy bit skeptical about know...actually supernatural it is. Since then, that post is the post that keeps on giving. It doesn't see a great deal of traffic, but it gets visited all the time, as folks seeking that school get pitched my blog post. Yay Google.

A few defenders of the school have laid into me about my admittedly playful assessment of Bethel, and the last one said something that got me to thinking. I was talking about things I had no clue about, said he. How could I? I haven't experienced them. He noted I had never been on a "treasure hunt." By that, I think he refers to the practice, taught at Bethel, of praying for flashes of precognition, and then going out and finding something that relates to that insight. Well, no. No I haven't. My practices are more ongoing and esoteric. He also noted that I'd never been ministered Sozo or Shabar. That is also true. And no, that doesn't involve being prayed over by Sozo the Clown and Shabar the Elephant. It's a set of spiritual intervention tools used by Bethel to get people into what they view as a healthy place spiritually. Hopefully, those tools don't mention Thetans. Pesky, pesky Thetans.

I don't buy the assertion that you can't make value statements about something that you haven't actively participated in. Not for a moment. That's the point and purpose of both our God-given intelligence, our imagination, and the gift of discernment.

Within that statement, though, there was a stirring of a kernel of truth about faith. Faith...the orientation of the self to that which transcends us...isn't something that can be taught the same way you teach algebra or a foreign language. It can't be hammered into someone by rote, or coerced with the threat of bad grades and no television for a week. It is not a question of internalizing and memorizing a set of data. It has little to do with intelligence.

It is a question of experiencing desire.

Without the desire for God, God cannot be perceived. That's a challenge that faces us oldliners, as we teach our faith in ways that are indistinguishable from secular scholarship, and end up with a generation turning up their noses at our plate of stale bread. That's also the challenge that faces evangelicals and fundamentalists, who mistakenly assume that quoting Scripture at people who lack any desire for God will do anything other than piss them off.

If you don't feel the yearning, you won't seek. And if you don't seek, you sure ain't gonna find. That's just not how it works.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Drop In the Bucket

Yesterday, me and the missus went to our local Toyota dealership and bought ourselves a nice shiny Prius.

It is, without question, an awesome little car. Well, not really little. It's quite spacious, rides reeeeal smoov, and is filled with all the latest gadgets and gimcrackery. It hums and whirs softly to itself as you drive, the perfect robot butler efficiently accommodating your needs and desires. It both speaks and will obey spoken instructions. It feels like the Car of the Future. Is it fast? No. But it gets you there, and when you come to a stop, those regenerative brakes sound for all the world like a K'tall Citizen-Grade Transmatter Drive on final approach.

I love that sound.

The Prius is also a much less expensive car than it should be. Though it's the iconic hybrid, it's always been a bit of a loss for Toyota. The tech it showcases wasn't cheap to develop, and it isn't cheap to produce. Even at retail price, Toyota was barely recovering it's investment. Now, though, they ain't movin' off the lots. The reasons for this are threefold.

First, there was the "braking" issue with Priuses. It was never a significant issue, but between media hype and an easily panicked public, the Prius name is a bit tarnished. Second, there was the Toyota QC thing. Having overexpanded, Toyota badly mucked up quality control in pursuit of market share, and suddenly folks are more reluctant to buy them. Increased warranty coverage and two years of free maintenance just aren't enough.

Third, Americans are just the teeniest bit short-sighted. I see many, many, many new Jeeps and SUVs on the Beltway this summer, purchased by people who got stuck in the blizzards this winter and who've utterly forgotten that gas prices are still historically low. Fuel at the pump is mysteriously sticking under the trigger point of three bucks a gallon...and so no-one is buying those silly little overengineered hybrids with their high-price tags. They don't make economic sense, and they're piling up on the lots with all sorts of incentives to buy. Where once there were waiting lists and dealer premiums, now you can haggle to your hearts content. As I most certainly did. Man, I love haggling for cars.

For us, the combination of comfort, Meet the Jetsons styling, and efficiency makes it perfect. Do I for a moment imagine it makes a difference in combating America's addiction to oil? Well, not meaningfully. Our family gas costs will decline, sure. We'll consume hundreds of gallons less gas a year. We couldn't buy more efficient personal four wheeled transport. Will that ultimately save us money? Nah. We're unlikely to recoup that hybrid premium unless gas gets waaay more expensive. And that'll never, ever happen, right, kids?

But globally? There simply aren't enough Americans who care. Most folks would prefer to just pay the cash and buy more gas. It's easier. It makes more financial sense. Ecology and the well-being of creation take a back seat to the immediate gratification of horsepower and the illusion of rugged individualism. Folks with my mindset are a drop in the bucket. Or, as occurred to me today, a drop in the Gulf.

Today, I held up a little ruler to my computer screen, and measured from the farthest points of the Gulf oil spill. I got a distance that is comparable to the drive from Germantown, Maryland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That's around 259 miles. It'd take us four hours and nine minutes to drive it.

Should I take comfort in knowing that in our shiny shiny Prius, that'd only use about half a tank of gas?

Woo hoo.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fishing Off the Company Pier

As part of our continuing Presbyterian effort to stomp all over any potential sexual malfeasance in our congregations, my local governing body recently revised its guidelines to help congregations deal with inappropriate sexual behavior in the church. Though human beings are sexual creatures, churches are not places where that aspect of our nature should be overtly expressed.

Not that we can't talk about it, or be honest about it. That's fine. It's more that church is not the place to be sidlin' up to that deacon during the Passing of the Peace to let them that we so hawny and we love them longtime. Using church to skeeve on people is verboten. Period. One of the things I like about my denomination is how aggressively it has dealt with this issue, and how willing it is to respond with vigor to censure or remove pastors and leaders who use their congregations as a place to hit on/harass others. The new policy in my Presbytery spells out, as clear as a bell, the sorts of behaviors that we won't tolerate. It's a good thing.

Only...there's a section of it that I read, understand, but still struggle with. That section has to do with pastors having relationships with parishioners. According to the policy we have in place, unmarried pastors are not to have any romantic relationships with members of the congregation they serve. Not "married pastor hitting on the attractive choir member." But "single pastor dating other single person."

The argument behind this, which I've heard both in seminary and in seminars on this sorta thing, is pretty straightforward. If you're a pastor, you viewed as being in a position of authority. That authority creates a power imbalance between a power imbalance between a pastor and an individual in your congregation, and therefore makes such relationships an abuse of authority. I can see the truth in that, and know how certain predators have used their spiritual authority to fulfill their carnal hungers.

However, that is far from being the case in all instances. I think the freshly minted young pastor who finds herself out in the sticks serving a congregation where all real church authority rests with a steely-eyed blue haired matriarch has rather less "power" than one might assume.

I can also see the potential for disruption in the life of a church if the pastor "dates around" in his or her church, or the potential harm to a congregant and/or a pastor if a relationship goes sour. But pastors are human beings, human beings who often spend every waking moment around their congregation and doing the business of the church. Unless they are married before they enter the process, or marry another pastor, it's real easy for them to fall into a life of unintentional celibacy. Their network of relationships doesn't give them an opening to develop that type of connection.

Ultimately, my presbytery seems to have wisely left open the possibility of grace in this area. As long as the congregant is able to find pastoral support and care and guidance outside of that relationship, things are copacetic. That defuses the power dynamic. It also insures that the lay person in the relationship still has a pastor to whom they can turn.

Heck, if pastors couldn't ever date church members, my grandfather and grandmother would never have met.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Glo and the Word

That I have the title "Pastor" means that I am a fat tasty demographic target for products and services targeted to Jesus people. Whenever a new Vacation Bible School or seminar or Big Venue Revival comes churning out of the factories of AmeriChrist, Inc., I'm on their list to get a heads up. Promotional materials and glossy brochures show up on my desk regularly.

Most I just ignore and drop into my recycling bin, from whence they are removed, transported to an industrial facility, pulped, reconstituted into paper, sold, printed upon, and transported back to my mail box, from where they are put right back into the recycling. It's sorta like the Circle of Life, only with less blood and considerably less purpose.

Sometimes, though, a new Jesus product strikes my eye. That thing is the new Glo Bible. What is striking about this AmeriChrist offering is just how intensely awesome the buzz around it is. It isn't just appearing in my in-box. I've read articles about it in the Washington Post. Fast Company, the ne plus ultra outlet of corporate hipness, featured it. It's a big deal, by any product standard.

The purpose of the Glo Bible is, according to its creators, to make the Bible accessible to a generation that doesn't like paper. Or, for that matter, anything that is just text. It's computer-based and "multimedia," meaning the text is supplemented by a vast array of images and videos, all in HD. Having reviewed their extensive promotional material, I have both positive and negative reactions.

First, the positive. Glo has a crazy awesome interface. It's as slickity slick as they come. It seems intuitive, elegantly designed, and bustin' chock full of shiny shiny goodness. Seamless transitions between menus and texts are brilliantly presented and animated. Videos and images and walkthroughs are seriously purty. The whole package glistens and sparkles. I've used online Bibles and computer based Bible software packages since the dawn of the computer era, and this is far and away the most impressive eye candy e-Bible I've yet seen. Of course, you need a high-end computer to run it, but we Jesus people are always willing to plunk down another 1,500 bucks to really explore God's Word.

But it ain't just a pretty face. It's an NIV, meaning the translation has integrity. It's got what appear to be lay-accessible but well-crafted study guides. It's got a vast array of "helps," including the capacity to pitch out scriptures that match your mood for the day. It tracks everything you read, every response you have, charting your spiritual progress. It feels very practical. Very efficient.

Now, to the flip side. Honestly, something about it feels spiritually off. In one of the elegantly produced promo videos, a soothing, non-threatening woman's voice describes the intuitive navigation through Glo. It is, she hums, so very easy to explore content in the product. The words "exploring content in the product" just...well...they stick in my craw.

I know, I know. They're just trying to sound corporate-cutting-edge. Very professional. Very businesslike. Very competent. But that sort of terminology has pretty much nothing to do with the way that the Bible needs to be experienced if we're using it the way it is intended. The Bible is a collection of ancient stories that illuminate our experience of God. They are a sacred narrative, a story in which we participate and through which we are transformed. When we begin to think of our interactions with those texts as interactions with "content" and "product," something is badly wrong.

I also struggle with the way in which Glo is structured. It is what it promises to be. It's a Bible that is radically in step with our culture. Finding the heart of Christ in the Bible is like being changed by the hearing of a story told by a master storyteller. You have to learn to sit still. To listen. To reflect. To think.

But Glo encourages flitting across the surface of the text, reading a verse here that responds to a key-word, and then looking at a picture, and then watching a bit of video, and then flitting back again to another verse. While it could be a useful tool in the hands of the spiritually mature, it panders to low-attention span Christianity. Rather than encouraging patience, and developing a mindset that is open to taking time with a text, it could easily serve up more of the churning, endlessly distracted, click-and-scroll busyness that is the enemy of contemplation and reflection and spiritual growth.

Glo is, without question, what we want. But I am not at all sure it is what we need.

Should you get Glo? Maybe. It's certainly an amazing product, made by some really creative people. It is certainly cool. It might be fun to play with. Assuming, of course, you don't use a Mac, 'cause it ain't Mac compatible.

Ah well. Guess I'm out of luck.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Call, Family, and Livelihood

In a pronouncement last week responding to calls for Catholicism to reconsider the whole No-Pastoral-Nuptials thing, Pope Benedict once again affirmed the concept of priestly celibacy. With some other critics of mandated celibacy, I tend to think that there are few human beings who are able to healthily still the sexual side of their identity. There are some, of course, folks for whom a sense of God is so strong that it dims the need for physical intimacy with another human being. But the significant majority of humankind just can't do that. We ain't wired for it.

With that as a standard, it becomes very difficult to fill organizational slots with souls who are really and truly disengaged from the flesh, rather than those who: 1) suppress it and then succumb, as did the aptly named Father Cutie or; 2) are sexually dysfunctional, as evidenced by the agonizing mess of clergy pedophilia that has wracked the Catholic church for the last decade.

Yet oddly enough, I find it difficult to reject the ideal of celibacy completely, mostly because I can see the challenges that have come on the Protestant flip side. When pastors have spouses and families and mortgages and car payments and orthodontia to consider, ministry becomes livelihood. It's the thing you do that pays the bills, which means it has a transactional element. That means economics become a factor in call. With higher ed debt and the demands of providing for family, suddenly it's not just about the dynamics of Christ and community. You're looking to insure that you're sufficiently pee-ay-eye-dee, and fretting about salary equity, and always looking over your shoulder for that next "call" that just so happens to come with a bigger congregation and a fatter paycheck and a car allowance sufficient to get a very slightly nicer car.

That leavens call with material considerations, and can lead folks to stick around in ministries that pay the bills when they really and truly should be elsewhere. It can turn pay into a sign of spiritual attainment, as every paycheck inflates the ego of the Big Parking Lot pastor. It can also turn pay into an issue of contention, a bone to fight over as a pastor and/or their spouse stresses about the well-being of the family.

Paul wasn't just being a repressive and/or repressed freak when he commended celibacy. He knew human nature, and just how easy it is for us to put personal material concerns above those of the church.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The morning started hectic. With the missus leaving for a week on a business trip, and the dog still recovering from a post-operative infection, and the kids needing to be shuttled off to be with their grandparents, and worship, and a session meeting, it was lining up to be a busy one.

I got to church with 50 minutes to get things prepped and copied and unlocked. Or, rather, I arrived at the entrance of the church in plenty of time. As I pulled up to the one entrance to our facility, there sat a battered SUV, parked perpendicular to the church entrance. Some bottles were set out on the ground in the drive, making for a makeshift barricade. I rolled to a stop, and walked over to the SUV, in which sat a young Korean man who'd visited our church on a variety of occasions before. He's a creative guy, but is living with mental illness that is likely exacerbated by substance abuse. Oh no, thought I. This is not good. We'd had a few long conversations before. I asked him what was going on.

He informed me that there would be no worship today, and that he was going to prevent anyone from entering "the building that is the gateway of Hell." I asked him to move. He refused, instead getting out and putting his body in the only place where a vehicle might possibly squeeze by. I asked again, calmly, letting him know that if he didn't, I would need to call the cops. Not budging.

So I put in the call, and spent the next five minutes or so trying to persuade him to move along peaceably. He wouldn't, instead going on long rants about being Legion and about how God had instructed him to insure that worship never happened again. Worship is evil, he insisted. It's monstrous, a sign of the end of things, and it was forbidden. He'd clearly had some sort of major event in the last week, and was more agitated than I'd ever seen him. Still, I hoped I could get him to move on before law enforcement arrived. No dice. He'd alternate between almost acquiescing, and then suddenly becoming angry, raising his voice, eager to bring about confrontation as evidence of his role in the great conflagration he was convinced was about to begin at my tiny little church.

When the cops showed, things gradually deteriorated. Law enforcement in Montgomery County is as professional as they come, and they calmly tried to talk him into leaving.

He was first incoherent, and then disrespectful. Neither are good things to be around cops, and when they began to press, he became agitated, challenging the officers to arrest him...or to shoot him. Fortunately, they only did the former.

I stuck around for a while, then scrambled into the church to get things going. I felt like crap. The arresting officer came in with my copy of a form, and we talked for a bit. "I know you try to have patience with people like that in your line of work," he said. "But we can't afford to have patience." "You're running a business here," he said. "You can't have someone disrupting your business, and making sure that doesn't happen is our job." I felt even more like crap.

It's hard for a pastor to charge someone with trespassing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Collateral Justice

One of the things I struggle most with as a nominally progressive pastor is the whole social justice thing. I'm for it, of course. Pretty much across the board, I'm in favor of stuff that makes it clear to all and sundry that I must be a hard core left winger. Material relief for the poor? Check. A visceral distrust of the processes of capitalism? Check. A deep commitment to conservation and the environmental movement? Uh huh. A radically inclusive and welcoming attitude towards gays and lesbians? Check. A passion for liberty and equal rights for artificial and synthetic sentient entities? Absolutely.

Oh. Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Whichever way, when asked to check a box on the leftist/rightist debates, I come down pretty much consistently progressive and social justicey. Much of the reason for that has to do with my faith, with the radical love towards the Other that is at the heart of the Christian message. Yet as I review those teachings of Jesus, what I encounter has very little to do with using collective power dynamics to resist systemic injustice and empowering the disenfranchised. Yeah, Jesus resisted The Man, and got himself killed as a subversive and and agitator and a general maker of trouble. This sends tingly feelings down the spines of self-described radicals everywhere.

But when you look at what he taught, and the ethic for which he lived and died and overcame death itself, it has very little to do with the socioeconomics and the power dynamics of human communities. Those structures of power aren't even part of the equation. They are immaterial, to be addressed only so far as they must be rejected in order to embrace the Gospel.

When we forget that, it's easy for churches to simply become mirrors of the communities in which they find themselves. It's easy for them to become indistinguishable from the political and social entities that fill the secular spaces around them. When that happens, they lose their grounding, and gradually become little more than an association or a nonprofit entity, organized around a common secular interest or purpose.

There's nothing wrong with such groups. I think they're great ways to get things done in our culture that need to get done. But they aren't church. They do not convey the same message.

That, I think, is one of the primary ways in which both progressive and conservative Christians are prone to stumble. Rather than focusing on instilling in folks a sense of the radical grace taught by the Nazarene, it's easy to get into talk of social issues as the raison d'etre of the church. But what Jesus taught was not sociological, but spiritual. It was not economic, but existential. It is for that reason that it can be such a shattering, dangerous, and transformative thing...not just for individuals, but for cultures as well.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Our Permanent Record

Earlier this week, I worked with the big guy as he dug into a class project. It was a family history project, in which he had to gather original documentation of a particular ancestor and then assemble a narrative of their life.

The ancestor we went with was his great-great grandmother, Ella Sandidge Furman. Ella was born in 1881, and was something of a rarity for women of her time. She was not just literate, but a college graduate, and was president of the Hollins University class of 1900. As my eldest son explored her life, he had access not just to records of her birth and her marriage, up to and including a tintype of her on her marriage day. He also had her diaries from between the ages of 14 and 16, and a small leatherbound book of daily remembrances she wrote to mark the birth of her daughter.

As my tweener boy pored over the daily writing of a young woman who would eventually give birth to his great-grandfather, he wondered what she would think if she knew that 125 years later, he would be sitting and reading them.

Which got me to much of what we write and produce now will convey across that span of time? Of the billions of text messages and tweets and Facebook status updates that shimmer and sparkle before our eyes now, how much of it will stick around? I think the answer may be that most of it will be lost, vanished in the vast chaos of the churning interwebs.

Or, worse yet, it won't be lost. It'll stick around. All of it. Every last tweet. Every last status update. Our great, great grandchildren will look back at us, and be bored witless. Sorting through the terabytes of data, our endless party pictures and gibbering over our latest consumer acquisition and lolspeak, they'll marvel at our inability to really say anything at all.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The War on Daydreams

I've always been a daydreamer. As a little kid, I could happily lose myself for hours in long narrative reveries, stories of adventure and excitement in which I played a pivotal role. That's not to say I didn't do standard kid schtuff. My room was littered with little plastic soldiers, and I watched my share of Ultraman. I enjoyed toys, sure. But my imagination was a joyous playground of endless riches. Long car trips were an impossible delight, as I'd tune out completely, disappearing into a world of my own creating.

I'm mostly past that. Mostly. Although Lord knows that skillset is sometimes the only thing that makes Beltway commuting tolerable.

I'm not sure if kids are allowed to do that any more. I watch how the lives of children are now, and see how completely filled their every moment can be with prefabricated and predigested industrial entertainment. Cartoon Network and Wii and DS can follow them everywhere, can be present in every instant. Screens inhabit bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms and rec rooms. They glow from on the backs of airline seat headrests. They pop down from the ceilings of minivans and SUVs. The iPod touch sits in their pockets, quietly lurking, it's drive filled with hyperkinetic eye candy. Our constant-on entertainment culture fills every nook and cranny of their lives.

And if every moment is filled with the possibility of watching product or playing product, at some point I think they might forget even how to daydream at all. Those wonderful Walter Mitty moments will be washed away, as their cortexes rewire themselves to hunger for incessant external input. Their minds will cease to produce, and be reset to consume, flitting from one shiny infobauble to the next.

It will prepare them to be constant-motion, plugged-in-but-disengaged, intellectually indolent adults. They'll be nice, compliant consumers in the new world run by corporations.

It's all part of the plan, baby. All part of the plan.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Enemy of Capitalism

With the arrival of the new iPhone, I find myself musing about whether or not I should get one. Yeah, it's got a better screen. And two cameras. And video chat, albeit only iPhone to iPhone and only on WiFi. It's pretty cool.

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with my current iPhone. Which is also my third iPhone, after my first had a cybernetic aneurysm and my second picked a fight with the tile floor in my kitchen. I really and truly don't need anything other than the phone I have. I find myself thinking that way about a whole bunch of the objects I use.

My eight-year old Honda minivan, for example. It's got around 90,000 miles on the clock. It's got a few dings in it. But it still fits our family plus three. It still carries around a crazy amount of stuff. It's not as efficient as I'd like, but it's just as practical today as it was back in 2002 when it rolled off a factory line in Ohio. It was wonderfully designed and engineered, and I will, after cleaning and vacuuming it out, sometimes just marvel at what an amazing job folks did creating something so useful. It's also comfortable, riding smoother and quieter than the shiniest new Coupe DeVille that ever sat on a dealer's lot when I was a kid. I have no need for anything better.

Then there's my motorcycle. It's ten years old. It's got about 38,000 miles on it, which is a whole bunch for a sportbike. It is, shall we say, "cosmetically imperfect," at least as much so as the guy who rides it. It's reaching the point where it can be accurately described as a ratbike. In a brief fit of madness earlier this year, I thought I might be rid of it. But then I rode it again, on a beautiful Spring day. As air snarled through the intake, and the bike sprang forward, I realized that in every way, it meets my motorized two-wheeled transportation needs. I do not need to replace it. More importantly, I have no desire to replace it.

Our house? Much the same. I am content with it. While there are always things that need to be replaced, and things that can be improved upon, I find that with most of the things in my life, I am content with what I have so long as it works.

I fear that might make me dangerous. Lingering contentment, a pervasive sense of being at peace, and quiet, lasting happiness are the enemies of global capitalism.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Drunken Preaching and the Skeletal Remains of Sermons

Two things happened over the last week that caused me to make a change in worship yesterday.

Thing Number One: The Sunday before last, I awoke with a fever. I was a mess. Chills and aching and a deep cloudiness let me know that I'd let an internal infection go too long. Through the miracles of ibuprofen, I was able to get the fever under control before going to lead worship, but my brain wasn't firing on all cylinders. This is not conducive to good preaching under any circumstances. Mostly 'cause folks asked me to, I've moved away from using a written text for my sermons, meaning I've got presentation software to give it form, but have to come up with the words as I go along. Normally, I can do this just fine. But illness worketh not well upon my cortex. I was able to mask it through most of my sermon, clinging to my Keynote like a crutch. It was a bit rambly, but that's just me, so people are used to it.

Then it came time to end the sermon. I like sticking the landing when I preach. That means bringin' it home. It means summing it up. It means using chiastic structure to conclude where you began. That's a good sermon, baby!

But...I couldn't. I couldn't seem to finish. I'd start what I was sure was the sentence that would lead to the paragraph that would end strong. But it would veer off. I'd start in again, swooping downwards towards that perfect summation, only to drift away clumsily. I felt, quite honestly, like I was engaged in the homiletical equivalent of trying to land a Huey after having downed four single malt whiskeys in rapid succession. I finally bounced in to a hard landing. It was ugly. Or so it seemed to me. I'm not sure anyone else noticed.

Thing Number Two: Last week, I sorted through the files of the church computer, after things had gotten too cluttered. As I neatly sorted all of the records into nice hierarchical files, I noticed that my collection of sermons over the last year I had all of the presentations I'd prepared. They were all there.

But as I looked at them, I realized they were lacking something. The framework of the sermon was there, sure. Images and bullet points, all right there. But what was missing was the meat of it. There was none of the language I'd used. There was very little indication of the bible study and work that had formed my labor for a year's worth of Sundays. It was like coming across the skeletal remains of six dozen sermons. Yeah, with some forensic exegesis, you could reconstruct what they once were. But as a theological resource or a record of my work? They were dead things. Useless.

Those, I think, are two of the problems of moving to an outline and presentation-driven style of preaching. It's easier to stumble if you're not "on." More significantly, it means there's a loss of memory...a forgetting of the things you've thought and said and prepared.

So for a little while, at least, I'm going to go back to written texts. Maybe just for the summer. We'll see.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Religious Freedom, Afghanistan, and The Point of It All

This last week, a little news item flitted across the religion news pages, to be quickly forgotten. It had to do with two Christian relief agencies, both of which provide material support to the Afghan people. The Afghan government shut down the operations of both, alleging that they were involved in proselytizing, which is explicitly forbidden under Afghan law.

Neither Church World Service or Norwegian Church Aid could be described as evangelical. They're not out there trying to convert. They're trying to fulfill the Christian mandate to provide care for those in need. Both are progressive, ecumenical, and sensitive to the needs, culture, and religious sensibilities of local communities. Take a look at the Church World Service web site. Winning souls for Jesus ain't their schtick.

But after a local television station began making allegations based apparently on nothing more than innuendo and the word "Church" in their name, angry mobs took to the streets. Now both groups have been forced by the Afghan government to suspend operations, as it investigates whether these groups have violated provisions in the Constitution of Afghanistan that forbid conversion from Islam. I have two reactions to this.

First, the allegations are clearly false, but that doesn't seem to matter much in Afghanistan. Truth is hard to find, but it ain't like most folks bother tryin'. Rumors that feed existing hatreds are just so much easier. The cultural sensitivities within that community are as twitchy as a recently-set antipersonnel mine. Outrage comes as easily as flipping a rather well-worn switch. Reminds me of the Tea Party, for some reason.

Second, we recently entered into new territory in Afghanistan. It is now the single longest military commitment in American history. We've been there longer than we were in 'Nam. Thousands upon thousands of American servicemen and women have put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. Without the support of the United States, the government in Afghanistan would not exist.

Yet the government that America has put into place there imposes restrictions on human freedom that are totally antithetical to our values as a nation. Yeah, I know, nobody likes proselytizing. But a nation-state that bans it is not worth the blood and sweat of our troops, nor is it worth all the money we've borrowed from China. I'm not saying that as some way of channeling Ann Coulter, asserting that if we just forced 'em all to follow Jesus, things would be copacetic. Not at all. I just can't see the point of creating a nation...and it is our which a citizen cannot choose not to follow the religion of the majority.

An Afghan should be free to be Muslim. But also Christian. Or Buddhist. Or Hindu. Or Jewish. They should be free to be an Atheist, if they so choose. Not only that, Afghan Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and Atheists should be free to talk about what they believe, and free to attempt to persuade others of the merits of their belief. Those are the blessings of liberty which were ordained and established in the American Constitution. Those are the values that make America a good thing, even with all her blemishes.

Yeah, I know, imposing this set of values on the Afghan people would have been an affront to their culture. What we don't seem to have realized as we've poured blood and treasure into that region is that the problem in Afghanistan wasn't governmental. What made Afghanistan the seedbed for attacks against our soil wasn't a regime. It was a set of values broadly held by the society.

We've mistakenly assumed that the processes of democracy are the same as the values of our republic. And though we've done some good there, I do find myself wondering, more deeply than I have before, about the point of it all.

Friday, June 4, 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Every morning, I take our growing puppy for a nice long walk through the suburban wilds of Annandale. It's been getting mighty hot and humid lately, but I'm still out there.

Yesterday, I wandered with her out to the main road, a heavily used four lane artery that's been around for a bit. Columbia Pike used to be one of the major thoroughfares for folks looking to get to DC from points West. It predates the Civil War, and was here when Washington was being built.

On the corner of Columbia and Gallows Road (I think I see my friends a-comin', ridin' many a mile), there's a healthy United Methodist Church, which traces its roots back centuries. It's got a nice new and sizable facility, and is a staple of the community. And every morning when I walk, I hear the bells in the steeple--or the electronic simulcrum of bells--tolling out the tunes to old classic hymns.

As I walked, the howl of tires on the four-lane made it sometimes difficult to discern the song. It was "Let Us Break Bread Together," a simple, gentle song, and I sang along softly with it under my breath. I love that hymn.

Yet even as I sang, I wondered: Who else hears this? Certainly not those passing by. Where once the bells would have rolled across the forests and fields of a rich green land, now it's playing out across strip mall suburbia. The denizens of Annandale are no longer in the fields. They're sealed away in their SUVs, listening to loud people talk loudly as they rush off to their cubicles. They're in the nearby stores, as the thrum and whir of air conditioning drowns out the music. They're in their homes, as the teevee jabbers endlessly in the background.

I wondered again: who else knows what this means? It's an old African American spiritual. Does the Latino day laborer trudging along the other side of the road know it? Or the little Asian gentleman at the bus stop, standing sweating in his shorts, sandals, and black socks? Or the young woman in the Acura, window down, whose church music experience is of Christian Contemporary Music served up in a 5,000 seat auditorium? None of them hear the notes and know what words accompany them. None of them imagine falling to their knees with their face to the rising sun. It's just...another sound in the cacophany.

I appreciate the bells. I do. Yet I found myself wondering if they reflect the reality of many oldline churches. We are old, venerable, and wise. There is so much beauty in us, so much value. Yet even though our bells still ring, I'm not sure this cluttered chaos of a culture slows down enough to even hear them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Living Lean

Over the past few years, as my household has reached the point where we're living comfortably below our means, we've begun doing two things with our extra financial resources.

First, we've saved. It's something we've always done, but we're still going about it diligently. For all of the hundreds of financial snake oil salesmen who are out there pitching get-rich-quick schemes on late night cable, there is only one sure-fire way to become economically secure. That way is to spend less than you make, and use the excess to build for your future. Savings and prudent investment are the path to financial well being. Period. Yeah, I know, it's hard to do that when you don't make anything, or you make nowhere near enough to meet costs for food/shelter/health. First things first. But once you make it past that point, you're in the seven fat years. It's time to stock up.

Second, when our rainy day fund fills up and spills over, we make improvements and upgrades. But those upgrades aren't about getting bigger. Even though our humble little 1960s rambler is less than half the size of the average new home in the area, we don't need more space. The upgrades are about making what we have 1) nicer and 2) more efficient.

Two years ago, we replaced our aging, ailing HVAC system. Our house is now more comfortable, and uses around 25% less energy to heat and cool. Last Spring, we upgraded our attic insulation, again reducing heating and cooling costs. Last Fall, we redid two of our bathrooms...mostly because they were falling apart. Showering on one floor shouldn't involve a shower occurring on the floor below. Net effect of our new high-efficiency showerheads and new, low flow toilets? The house looks nicer, but we're also using around 8,000 gallons less water every year.

This year, we may replace our trusty but battered little car. When we do, its replacement will have more power, more gimcrackery, and as many electronic doohickeys as our budget permits. But as a baseline, it will also be more fuel efficient.

That approach does two things. We have that American sense of living better, of enjoying the rewards of our labors. But because that enjoyment is leavened with prudence and directed towards being more efficient, we're also spending less to support our lives. Which means we're saving more. Which means we have more to enjoy. And so on, and so on. It's a self-perpetuating upward spiral of well-being.

One of the things that frustrates me most about our national jabbering about energy use is the lack of emphasis on this rather simple virtue. Listening to folks on the right snipe at efforts to economize and encourage efficiency as somehow bad for America is endlessly frustrating. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the greatness of our nation. At our best, we Americans are practical people. We also like to see progress. It makes us feel that tingle of Manifest Destiny in our toes. As we try to figure out a way out of our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels, encouraging this approach to life would seem the rather obvious way out.

It isn't about living large. It's about living lean. And being lean feels good.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Provider

Male egos are difficult things to quell.

For the first decade and a bit of my marriage, the missus and I both worked more or less equivalent jobs. During that time, I tended to bring home a bit more vegetarian bacon-like protein strip product, particularly when she was part-timing so she could stay home with the kids when they were bitty.

It was satisfying. I felt useful, even though the work wasn't really my calling. Knowing that my hours in the office were both necessary and vital to the financial well-being of my family was a significant and positive thing. I was doing what a man does, what my dad had done and what his father before him had done.

I was The Provider.

Entering the ministry changed that, and I knew it would. I marvel that it's even possible to get paid for something that's so much what I want to be doing. There are few other jobs that allow you to explore the philosophical and spiritual, to write, to teach, and to share meaningful conversation with those equally interested in exploring the purpose of being. And hey, when you're called, you're called.

But as I started work in my little church, and my wife began working full-time as the kids got older, she and I started down very different income paths. This year, as she took a well-deserved step up into a great new executive position that totally matches her skills and gifts, we crossed a rubicon of sorts. My income is now no longer really necessary for the maintenance of the household. Oh, it's nice to have it, sure. It allows us to accumulate savings, and replace things around the house without worrying about it at all. We are financially comfortable.

But I am no longer in that role of being the primary wage-earner. She makes a multiple of what I make, and given how smart, capable, and hard-working she is, I'd expect that multiple to increase over the next few years.

I could just stay home and bake cookies, and we'd get by just fine.

I have no desire to do that, of course. I serve my church for reasons that have jack-diddly to do with compensation. My role as a father to my children and a husband to my wife is also unrelated to income. But there is, if I am honest with myself, a peculiar churning now and again in my subconscious. There is an occasional sense of lostness, as if I am not the person I'd anticipated being. It is, without question, all Ego. It doesn't reflect the reality of my calling. I don't for a moment equate it with some legitimate alarm over my Not Fulfilling My Responsibility as the Papa to Have the Final Word At Home. That's not the dynamic I want for my family. I'm genuinely proud of what my wife has accomplished. It's a sign of her character.
I want nothing less than success for her.

Still, ego can be a difficult thing to overcome. Good thing that's the whole point of my vocation.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I Steal From the Poor, and You Can Too!

My wife and I have one credit card between the two of us. We have one other fallback card in the event something goes wrong with the first one, but 95% of our day to day expenses get slapped onto plastic. I use it for gas. For getting a soda at Sebbin Lebbin. For groceries. For pretty much everything.

Then, at the end of the month, we pay it off. Every last dime. In the nearly 20 years we've been a joint socioeconomic unit, we've paid credit card interest precisely twice, and that was just because we'd flaked out on paying the bill on time. We don't use our "credit." We just use it to make life a little easier. That's largely because incurring debt at obscene, usurious interest rates for day-to-day expenses is worth steering away from. And yeah, it is usurious. When bank CDs are paying out 2%, mortgage rates stand at around 5%, and interest rates for credit card debt are between 10 and 20%, that's taking advantage.

Here's the thing that gnawed at me this week. Our primary credit card is a "benefits" card, meaning we get a small percentage of our costs returned to us in the form of gift cards at a range of different retailers. Because all of our household expenses are channelled through this one card, that starts to add up, to the tune of several hundred dollars a year of free stuff.

Only, like most things in life, it isn't really free. Those benefits are, for most human beings, the thing that makes them look at a credit card bill that significantly exceeds their monthly income and say, "Awesome! Now I can get a $50 gift certificate to buy even more crap I don't need!" Those people ultimately get punished economically. They tend to be less educated, or young, or struggling.

So as I looked at the nice little benefits balance that's build up for us over the last few months, my reveries about new speakers or a nav system for our van were interrupted by the pesky voice of the Spirit. Where does the money that makes those benefits possible come from?

It comes from the single mom who maxed out her cards a year ago when her son broke his arm. It comes from the twenty something who dug himself into hock trying to live the lifestyle the world told him was his birthright, and now lives in mom and dad's basement while climbing a Sisyphian mountain of credit card debt, school loans, and a loan for that Camaro he thought might get girls to notice him. It comes from that family that two years ago went from two incomes to one, saddled with a mortgage they could no longer afford, with their savings burned through and plastic the last, razor wire rope slipping through their hands to as their hopes for the "good life" sail away into the darkness.

Those benefits aren't just given because I'm such a great customer. They're a tiny shaving off the top of a giant mountain of profit, repackaged as a little taster offered up by your local pusher. Enjoying them without falling into debt may well be my cut for being wise as a serpent. But for some reason, I no longer feel as innocent as a dove.