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 study...you 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, well...it'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.  Maybe...um...because 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 ill...is 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 craven...in 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 is...well...it'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 "..killing..an 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.