Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering Product Placement

This long weekend, the family and I spent some quality time at the local mall multiplex.  The missus and I went to see Bridesmaids, which was...well...actually quite entertaining.  I was a bit worried that the ambient estrogen in the room might be too intense, but other than having the strangest feeling that my menstrual cycle was trying to synchronize, I really enjoyed the film.  We cut the boys loose, giving them tickets to Pirates of the 'arribbean: It's the Same Movie Again, Suckers and cash to hit the food court and wander the mall afterwards so Mom and Dad could hang out together.  It was a very, very American evening.

During the ads before the movie (not the trailers, the ads), we were pitched the next movie in the Transformers franchise.  Well, no, actually.  We were pitched a Chevy Camaro, as Bumblebee leapt and blasted and jumped.  Paramount and Hasbro aren't the only companies that have skin in the franchise.  General Motors also makes a point of connecting product to entertainment, insuring that as we watch we are filled with desire for Chevrolets.

We all know this.  Anyone with half a clue knows that product placement goes deep into the culture of moviemaking.   But as I watched the Transformers trailer-slash-ad, I realized that other products were prominently featured.  Very prominently featured.

In the ad, we see a swarm of CGI Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors move towards a Decepticon besieged city.   That's identifiable product.  Not one we buy ourselves, of course.   But product nonetheless, product that needs to be marketed.  The V-22 has a long and troubled development history.  It's an interesting bit of tech, but any weapon system that was in development when I was in high school and still hasn't really been fully requires a bit of marketing assistance.

So I find myself what extent does our arms industry intentionally connect to our entertainment industry?   When I see a Ford or a Chevy, or a can of Coke, or a prominently placed glowing Mac logo, I know that someone's people talked to someone else's people.

But when we see a General Dynamics M1A2 Main Battle Tank blasting away at alien robots, or a Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II raining down depleted uranium rounds on a Decepticon from it's General Electric GAU/A 30mm rotary cannon, I find myself wondering if maybe this isn't random.  These are products, produced by corporations, who have a strong interest in our feeling a stir of boo-yah when we see them dishing out destruction.

Lord knows the big players in the weapons industry pay attention to marketing.  Like in today's Washington Post, where a full page Memorial Day color ad from Boeing reminds Congressmen and Senators that "the people of Boeing honor those who gave their lives for our country's freedom."  And where another full page color ad from the men and women of Lockheed Martin announces, under a flag, that we have "A Nation of Freedom From the Courage of Heroes."   And where, on another undulating flag background, Northrop Grumman tells us that "Bravery Lives Forever."

Seeing those ads, I do remember, but I remember two things.  First, I remember the deaths of men and women who committed themselves to serve our country.  That's a significant thing, and an important thing to honor and remember.

And second, well, second I remember that the wars that claimed their lives are the hundred-billion dollar lifeblood of some very large corporate entities.  That is also something it is important we not forget.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

First Presbyterian Church of Anywhere

As things rumble and trundle their way towards October 30th, I find myself looking again at the likely possibility of having nothing to do after that date.  Well, there's always something to do.  You can fill a surprising number of hours with laundry and yardwork and errands and straightening up and writing and the like.   It is, rather, that the odds of finding a community of faith within my own denominational neck of the woods are slender.   And moving, well, it isn't an option I can take.

Within the Presbyterian church, a pastor who can't move because of family or relationships is a "tethered pastor."  Life ain't easy for the tethered pastor.  If the congregational ecology of an area is supersaturated with Presbyterian pastors and those seeking to enter the area, as it is here in DC, the odds of moving into the traditional pastoral role are slender.   Chaplaincy or interim work or supply preaching often appear to be the only options.  They're blessed ones, if that is your calling.  But if it ain't, well, tough.

And tethered folks, well, we're not the only ones who struggle to find a place within the denominational system.  If you're a woman, even though the denomination is welcoming, well, things can be tough.  If you're older, congregations have less interest.  If you're African American or Latino or Asian-American, there are unspoken cultural boundaries.  And if you're a noob, you're likely facing an uphill climb.   In a recent survey of PCUSA congregations, there were just a titch under 130 congregations willing to consider a freshly-minted seminary-trained ordination exam-passing Candidate Certified Ready to Receive a Call.   There were more than twice as many folks looking.

The church knows this.  There are some excellent efforts by the good folks in the church to try to connect fledgling pastors with congregations in rural areas and small towns.   There are efforts to be inclusive.  But there are limits to how far those connections can be made.

So I find myself wondering...what about other options?   More pointedly, I find myself wondering why it is that bright-eyed bushy-tailed fired-up folks for whom the call of God is still freshly ringing in their ears aren't encouraged to think about founding a community, first and foremost.   I find myself wondering why wonderful intelligent graceful and Spirit-filled folk are just cooling their heels in the hallowed halls of process, when the world aches for a more gracious and inclusive understanding of the Gospel.

Church planting can be, of course, a brutally unforgiving vocation.  If your goal is to do the little-bible-study followed by the storefront followed by the gigantonormous multi-campus MegaPlex in which you are the beaming pearly smiled purveyor of all things Jesus, you're going to find it hard going.   Big Box Jesus Stores are really, really established brands now, kids.

And there are plenty of denominational churches already out there, with buildings and staff and programs for folks who want that sort of thing.  Nuthin' wrong with that, but just try to suggest to a local church that's struggling to fill its pews that you're going to build another church nearby.  Oh, Lordy.  Planting in the shade of mature trees requires a different plant, one that doesn't compete directly but finds a fertile place in the spaces in between.

Instead, what I find myself contemplating more and more is the intentionally buildingless church.   That means you grow a church that never, ever, ever plans to have a building.  The little house church or cell seems better positioned to speak into this generation's yearning for interactivity and relationships, and it's a place where the oldline rarely treads.   There are structural reasons for this.  Church as place and program is woven deep into our denominational DNA.

House churches have their issues too.  They need connectional counterbalances in place to prevent them from becoming insular and cliquish.  They need informed leadership that is committed to equipping and growing and teaching, so that they aren't just a place to hide your Gospel incompetence away from the world.    They need to have a public face, and to be willing to engage in mitosis now and again to make space for the new.

But even with all of those limitations, it still seems that a cell-based model has potential.  It'd be a more primal church, one that eschews facilities and programs for relationships and community.  That means fewer hours anguishing with committees over boiler rooms and parking lots and carpet color, and more real Kingdom work.   It could be a more flexible church, in that a pastor serving a network of cells could measure out just how many cells they could manage.  Ordained with a working spouse and three young kids?   Bi-vocational?   Three, four, or a half-dozen stewardship-committed cell groups could let a called soul teach and proclaim and pastor, yet still have time and flexibility and balance.

A primary household income it could not be.  And it wouldn't be easy.  But it would be pastoring, really and truly.  And isn't that the point of the calling?

I've thought about this before, and the name "The First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere" came to mind. But that's a bit too emo.   Probably why I like it so much.   But then I thought, what about "Anywhere?"

Anywhere is a good place to be a church, isn't it?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Evolution of Presbyterian Conflict: An Abstract

In order to understand the conflict dynamics of the Presbyterian system of church polity and governance, it is first necessary to examine the way in which the constituent members of this socio-ecclesial unit developed.   Specifically, we must explore the adaptive and evolutionary pressures that shaped the genetic precursor of all modern Presbyterians:  The Scotsman.

Presbyterianism has shown considerable cross-cultural memetic robustness in the globalized faith milieu, establishing itself successfully in both sub-Saharan Africa and throughout East Asia.  However, in order to develop a robust and testable paradigm for understanding Presbyterian polity cross-culturally, an ecclesio-genetic assessment of the Scotsman's dialectic of difference becomes necessary.

In a recent journal article (Williams et al., "Dontcha Be Lookin' Under Thair, Laddie: The Archetypal Kilt in Contemporary Presbyterian Socio-Sexual Conflict Dynamics," Journal of Evolutionary Ecclesiology 59, 2010), I argued that the dialectics of difference that manifest themselves in Presbyterian parliamentary decisionmaking are radically formed by the neurocranial evolution of the Scotsman.

The primal Scot approached issues of disagreement and social krisis in a unique ethno-martial way.  Confronted with economic ("Ye pae me wha ya owe meh, ya hamshanker!") or interpersonal ("Tha's ma waif yar humphin', yah feckin' baz!") disagreement, the primal Scot did not rely on traditional manual or pedal technique for resolving conflict.

Instead, the reflexive instinctually-mediated reaction of the Scot facing a territorial challenge is to rapidly accelerate their neurocranial os frontale (forehead) into the considerably less-structurally sound nasal, sinus, or maxilla region of their conflict partner.

This "headbutt" or "MacDougall Reflex" (MacDougall et al, "Ooo I'ma Breaik Yer Faice: The Neurocranium and the Church of Scotland, 1873-1952,"  Congregational PseudoScience Quarterly, 7, 1996) meant that individuals with larger and more prominent os frontale features were more likely to be favored in socioeconomic, interpersonal, or territorial conflict.  This conveyed a statistically significant reproductive advantage.

exhibit a
Over tens of thousands of years of Scots evolution, the net effect was to produce individuals with significant and prominent os frontale (see exhibit a).  To support this large bone mass, the frontal lobe of the Scot expanded accordingly, producing an incidental and entirely accidental increase in cognitive ability.

The combination of the "MacDougall Reflex" with the collateral expansion of cognitive function provides us with a clear causal ecclesio-evolutionary link to current Presbyterian polity.   Robert's Rules of Order, for instance, at its essence provides a socio-linguistic proxy for reproducing the classic Scots dialectic of difference within a parliamentary system.  Within the framework of parliamentary procedure, the essential principle remains the same.

It's still just banging our heads together.

This understanding of the socio-genetic precursors of the Presbyterian system of governance represents a significant advance in our understanding of the underlying character of our polity, and presents many opportunities for further research.

Living with Koreans (Part 147)

This Sunday, as I sat waiting for folks to show up for Bible Study, I looked out of the parlor door and watched as an older Korean gentleman bustled down the stairs to the primary church entrance.  Under his arm was a small stack of signs, signs which up until a few moments before had been strategically placed on the sight-lines of the main hallway of the church.  They said, among other things, "God is Love," and "Love Your Enemy."

These were signs I'd originally had made when Westboro Baptist came to do their subversive Christian performance art hate thing outside the local high school.   I figured, why not use this as an opportunity to reach out to young people with the real Gospel?  I did, and for a glorious moment a crowd of kids I didn't even know were holding up the essence of the Gospel as they chanted in response to the Phelps clan.

After the event, I brought the signage back to church and mounted 'em up on the walls, as a reminder to folks here that Jesus would have us be excellent to one another. 

The gentleman bustled out the doors with the signs, and then stuffed them in between two trash cans for disposal.  I felt uncertain why these little bits of Jesus teaching might need to be removed from the walls and discarded.  Perhaps the assumption was made that the pastor who he'd recently sued and driven from his church had put them up, or that no-one cared.  Hard to tell if you don't ask.

I moved swiftly and deliberately to the door, arriving as he was reaching it to come back in.

"Those are my signs," I said, firmly but without affect, smiling with my mouth only and bowing very slightly at the waist.  "I made them," I said, my gaze unblinking, eyes not moving from his, a half-smile still on my lips.  "I would prefer it if they were not thrown away."  I showed no overt aggression.  Just politeness and firmness of intent.

His response was to look like he'd been stabbed and/or seen a ghost.   An apology was stammered out, as he realized that his assumptions weren't correct.

"That's alright," I said, not entirely convincingly on purpose, as I retrieved them.  I softened my tone.  "I can just put them back up again."  He bustled off, still apologizing.

Sigh.  If only he'd asked around first.  Attending to communication just makes life so much easier.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Reverse Compatible Church

As the PlayStation Network comes back on-line after being hacked, I'm going to do everything in my power to keep myself from being sucked back in too deeply.   Couldn't Sony have waited until after my D.Min. papers were complete?  Sigh.  Yet another reminder that the world doesn't revolve around me, I suppose.

My boys, of course, are overjoyed.  They get their love of gaming from their dad, which is for us as much a source of father/son bonding as baseball might have been for a prior generation.  Interestingly, both of my lads have a growing sense of gaming history.   Old eight-bit games and games on older systems hold a fascination for them, particularly as they relate to the newer stuff they play.   We talk gaming history like football-inclined Washingtonians might talk about Doug Williams, Joe Theismann, and John Riggins.  It connects us.

When our PS3's optical drive punked out a few months ago, the males of the Williams household gathered in conclave to discuss whether we should 1) get a current Play Station 3 Slim, which runs cooler, and is more reliable and compact, or 2) get a refurbished Play Station 3 "Phat", which can run hot, is a bit clunkier looking and not "new," but has the ability to play all of the old Play Station 2 games.

There was no question.  Both boys were adamant.  We want the old games.  The old games are awesome.  Not all of them, mind you.  Just the good ones.  We don't want to let go of the good ones.

So back to the Phat we went, and an old machine became our new machine.

This last week during my D.Min. coursework, I was part of a pastorly small group conversation in which "connecting with teens" was discussed with the same level of trepidation as if our task had been "developing faster-than-light travel" or "getting Congress to deal honestly with the deficit."   This generation, I was told, is completely alien.  Their minds are different.  They just don't think like us, said one pastor.  We just can't relate, said another.

I just don't buy it.

There are things that our net-connected younglings crave that are, frankly, no different from the things we craved at their age.  Purpose.  Relationship.  Authenticity.  Hope.  Honesty.  Their minds may hum and crackle with the overflowing cornucopia of the web, but they have not ceased to be human.

They do bring some new things to the table.  We have to listen, and after listening, give them their own space to build.  But they also yearn for some of the old things.  Not all of them.  Not the whole package.

Just the best of it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thank You Harold

As six o'clock in the evening begins to circle the world, the earthquake and teleporting fundy event does not appear to be coming to pass.  But as absurd and delusional as the Harold Camping prophecy has now proven to be, I have to say that I've felt blessed by Harold Camping's ministry these last several weeks.

My calling to preach and teach can often get crunched by the blahness of day-to-day life.   Instead of talking about theology, and sharing what the essence of the Gospel is, I find myself sucked into being a shuttle-driver-dad, or an administrator of a semi-functional local fraternal order.   The relationships of grace that are the essence of the Gospel and the heart of faith sometimes feel far distant.

But the lingering presence of Camping's little bit of memetic crazy has meant that for the last week, I've been having lots of theological conversations.  People want to talk about it.   It's totally insane, but that makes it also kind of interesting, and interesting gets people having conversations.

Like, say, my recently-mitzvahed 13 year old Jewish son.  The net-connected kids at his middle school were all a-Twitter about it, about how the world would be coming to an end.

So here's what happened.  He actually started a conversation with me about what I believed about the rapture.   I told him, of course.  I told him that there were too many non-Christian folk who I loved, himself included, for me to ever buy in to that theology.  I told him that if it were true, I would cling to the treetops and clamber back down if that was what it took to be with them.  Then we talked about what I really believe, and how while I'll admit I might be wrong, even if I am wrong, the world is still a better place because of it.

But let's go back and really hear the important thing in what I just said.

Harold Camping's ministry got a 13 year old boy to get into a conversation with his father about God  and the essence of faith.  Yeah, it ain't walking on water, but if you've got a teenager, you know that there's something miraculous in that.

So for those conversations, for those chances to share the grace and goodness of God, for those opportunities to be in faith conversation relationship, I have to admit that I'm feeling positively towards Mr. Camping right now.

Harold, in a thousand-thousand ways you need to wake up and smell the Gospel Coffee.  But honestly, for getting us all talking, you've been a blessing.

So, thank you, Harold!  I'm sorry today was such a bummer.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Rapture

As I puttered through traffic on my way in to classes this morning, I found myself meditating a bit on the theology of the rapture.  With the deep and woeful disappointment of Harold Camping's followers now just a few days away, there are a whole bunch of folks who believe this is a central part of Christian theology.  That belief goes well beyond the devotees of that sepulchral radio evangelist.

It also goes deep into others who claim to be Jesus followers, like, say, in the toight-as-a-toiger teachings of our slickity local Jesus MegaCenter.  It's all over the place.

Rapture is just a central part of evangelical doctrine.  Folks eat it up with a spoon.  Tim LaHayes narrative extrapolations around the Rapture have sold an abundant pantload of Left Behind novels, and produced some of the most ragingly unwatchable films in the history of moviemaking.

Honestly, I just have never gotten it.  Not even a little bit.

I know it draws inspiration from an interpretation of one section of Luke's Gospel, in which Jesus says some are taken, and others are left.  And...well...that's pretty much it.  There are some extrapolations, followed by some interpretive gyrations, followed by some Olympic-level proof-texting, but it's essentially just that one little chunk of text, interpreted through the warping lens of the Archangel Scottie and his Bible-Believing transporter room.

Here's the essence of my problem.  This morning, as my sitting-in-traffic-mind immersed itself in the section of Faure's Requiem that was pouring through my six-speaker sound system, I found myself in a rapture-reverie.  I found myself viscerally envisioning that moment, were it to happen to me.

Now, I know this is a stretch.  As a progressive Christian, married to a Jew, a same-sex-relationship-affirming liberal Presbyterian, I know I'm not really on the Tim LaHaye shortlist.  Still, one never knows.

So here I am, envisioning what that moment would be like.  The world is coming apart.  Earthquakes.  Fires.  Buildings crumbling.  People crying out in terror.  And as one chosen, I'm unaffected.  I'm rising up, not really bodily, but into that deeper reality of God's presence.  I'm suffused with light, radiant with the power of my ascension to a place of peace and glory, my physical form yielding to my spiritual body as I began to move beyond the spreading cries and conflagration.

And it would just suck.  I'd feel horrible.  It would be the worst moment of my soon-to-be-over corporeal existence.


Because Jesus matters to me.  What he taught matters to me.  How he lived matters to me.  And from the Spirit of his radical and transforming compassion, I'd look down at the fading, burning world and weep.  I'd want none of that suffering for any of those souls remaining, even those who have hurt me deeply.  I'd feel not satisfied, or relieved, or joyous, but consumed with horror and loss and disappointment.

Like, say, Christ would have felt, if from the cross he had seen the story play out differently, watched the world consumed by annihilating fire, the fury of a father destroying everything that had hurt His child.  I can understand that anger, but it bears no resemblance to Christ.  It's a human rage.  If the fire had consumed centurion and swept aside zealot and pharisee, Christ would have seen it as betrayal.  He would truly have been forsaken.  His purpose, all his love, all his hope, all his teachings, all his transforming logos-radiant meat and bone and blood...wasted.

The reason the rapture works for folks, theologically, is that it is all about them.  It says, in defiance of the cross, that real Christians don't have to suffer when the world falls apart.  It reinforces ego and sense of otherness, at the expense for the hard Kingdom compassion that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

It just isn't Christian.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Laptops and Luddites

For the last week and a half, I've felt very much the Luddite.  As my doctoral program trundles into the midpoint of it's second week of intensive classes, I am technologically in a very different place than my classmates.

Meaning, I'm one of a very significant minority amongst my classmates not to have a laptop screen or iPad glowing directly in front of me.  I do have my iPhone, of course, which means that I am technologically in a place far, far beyond where even the most bleeding edge of my seminary cohort would have been back in 1996, when I began my M.Div. studies.  I can look up anything I want by pouring it down from a cellular data network...and have, as it pertains to classwork.    I can check email, should I need to.  I can text or call.  I can check the weather, if it seems pertinent to how moist or hail-pelted I might be riding home on the bike.  I'm connected in that way, as is every single one of my classmates.

But I just don't feel like I want that screen in front of me.  I don't want it competing for my attention, luring me away with the siren song of Facebook and email and sermons that need to be prepped.  Yeah, yeah, I know, the folks who are constant-on will claim to be "multi-tasking."  It's their choice.  Maybe they're better at it than I.  But with that choice right there in your face, it's far easier to yield to the net-hunger fluttering, the ADD flickering in-and-outness, to drift back into the byte-gobbling Turkish Delight indulgence of everything-you-want, and to miss out on the place that you are.

Yeah, going laptop-commando does have drawbacks.  I can't immediately access assigned papers that were distributed electronically.  I will likely miss it when the time comes to convert notes into the papers that must be completed, when I look at some half completed scroodle of a note and wonder what that word was meant to be.  Is that an eight?  Or was I trying to draw a duck?

But given that my professors and my classmates have things to share and stories to tell that are of real value, the absence of screen between thee and me feels worth it.  It lets me be where I am incarnate, meat and flesh and scent and taste, inhaling the same air as a roomful of other enfleshed souls.   I can lean back, and look out, and be more present and aware.

And if the mind wanders, well, there's always good-old-fashioned pen-and-paper doodling.  Oh, how I loves me some doodling.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Camping Out for the Apocalypse

As May ticks by, it must be an exciting time to be Harold Camping.  As a moderately progressive Presbyterian, my exposure to Camping had up until that last month or two been essentially zero.   He's a fundamentalist, King James reading, highly conservative self-trained pastor over a radio ministry, but one who seemed to have had some purchase in the conservative community. 

The past tense there is intentional.  He recently alienated many of his conservative pastorly allies by declaring that no-one should go to church, because time for the church has passed.  Stay home!  Listen to your radio!

Most significantly, Camping's ministry has been focused on the return of Jesus and the beginning of the end times experience, which...from his exhaustive shamanic poring over the monkey entrails of real soon.  Meaning he's called a date, now less than one week away, on May 21, 2011.  At 6:00 PM, exactly.  This is when the Raptcha will occur, and subsequent hilarity will ensue.  Oh, the horrors of that day!

In this, Camping joins a long line of end times prognosticators, for whom the disappointment of seeing the day go by inevitably unapocalypsed seems only to breed more zeal for finding out the "real" date.  The last few months...with immense natural disasters and historic foment in the cradle of monotheistic religion...must have been really exciting for folks who listen to Camping.

Several things strike me about this most recent in the long and storied line of Yeah-Sure-I-Know-The-Day-And-The-Hour End-Times obsessives.

First, and this is likely because Camping has significant media penetration and resources, this whole May 21 thing seems to have become something of a social event, much more so than any "prophecy" I can ever remember.  It hums everywhere in the collective subconscious, and this goes well beyond the realm of churchy life and conversation.  End-Times Parties are planned.  Snarky Facebook pages are joined.   The web-connected world sees the fleets of snappily decorated Doom RVs, giggles, and tweets about it to their friends.

Second, I am as a Jesus person going to be doing some praying at six o'clock this Saturday.   This will be for one of two reasons.  Reason number one, which has a 0.00000000000000000000000314% chance of being true, involves a major Destruction-of-Krypton type earthquake event, during which the Bahais, the Quakers, a handful of Unitarians, and both remaining Jains turn into energy beings.

I'm pretty much up poop creek if that be the case.

Reason number two, which is far more likely, is that Harold Camping and his followers will be facing a major existential crisis.  Camping is utterly wrong, about the Bible and many many other things, but he's not a charlatan or a monster.  I don't find it hard at all to feel compassion for him.  For those who follow him, this could be the thing that shakes them loose from faith not just in Camping's wackadoodle approach to the Bible, but also in the goodness of the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

And that, well, that would be worse than the end of the world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Those Who Walk Away

As anticipated, the Presbyterian Church USA yesterday set aside its absolutist ban on the ordination of gays, lesbians, and sexually active singles.  With now a majority of our Presbyteries supporting the inclusion of GLBT folk,  I'm relieved.  It's a good thing.

Gays and lesbians should, if they order their lives in ways that honor the Heart of the Gospel, be completely included in Christian fellowship.  They should be welcomed into churches.  If they feel God's calling, and the church tests and affirms that calling, they should be eligible for ordination to all church offices, including that of pastor.  Period.

I am greatly pleased by this, and think it's the right thing for the PCUSA.  And all Jesus folk, to be frank.

But I also know that there's going to be pushback.  As part of that pushback, folks on the conservative side of the spectrum are going to leave.   In the same spirit that a cohort of outspoken conservatives at the recent Presbytery meeting up and wandered off rather than share in the Lord's Table with those they viewed as sinful, there will be a split.

From the model of the early church, I also know this is not the only response when one party is convinced that  Torah law must be maintained.  Jewish and Gentile Christians stood, early on, on either side of just as yawning a chasm of the Law.  The Acts of the Apostles tells that story, of how some Christians felt that the whole of the law must be maintained, and how others...led by the Apostle Paul...taught the primacy of grace.

This was not a minor squabble.  Kosher laws and the mandate to circumcise are non-trivial parts of the Deuteronomic Code.  Or, as it might legitimately otherwise be called, the "unchanging and infallible Word of God, King James Edition."

Yet the ultimate spread of the Gospel was contingent on setting aside those laws in favor of the radically inclusive and transforming love we know in Christ.  If the Jerusalem Christians had succeeded, and Paul had failed to convince folks that inclusiveness and "local option" was key to the spread of the Good News, the Jesus Movement would have died.   What's happening now is a good thing.

As the split happens, though, there will be hurt feelings.  People will leave.  For those who remain, there will be the temptation to demonize and name call, to mutter, snark, or shout "Good Riddance!"  For some of the fiercer partisans in this argument, this is probably already happening.

But demonizing and cursing those who mistakenly stand on flawed principle does not reflect the complexity of those souls.  Neither, honestly, does it reflect the central mandate and teaching of Christ to remain gracious, even to those who have stood against you.

My hope, for those of us who have "won," is that we remember that.  The integrity of this new and hopeful day in our fellowship is contingent on the presence of that grace.

Monday, May 9, 2011


As I sat on hold waiting to talk with the second of what would be three separate Verizon representatives yesterday, I tabbed away from the Verizon site and began noodling distractedly though the entrails of omnipresent online pop culture.  I do this now and again, typically for the purposes of finding stuff that will make me seem hipper and more relevant when I preach.  My hop-paunch and wrinkles don't help that cause much, but so long as I wear a dark shirt, keep the sanctuary lights dim, and stand a good distance from the congregation, it almost works.


Anyhoo, as I puttered around in the godforsaken wasteland of some ADD entertainment industry web-hole, I encountered the latest video from Lady Gaga.  Or rather, I assume it was the latest video.   I'm too ignorant of pop culture to know better.

The song title was "Judas."

Oooh!  Relevant, thought I, as my sermon-anecdote sensors indicated a high level of pop-culture reference potential.

And then I listened to it.  And watched it.  Ack.  Ack.  There's a reason I stay away from contemporary music.

Lady Gaga truly baffles me.  On the one hand, she's supposed to be "edgy."  "Crazy."  "Interesting."  And on some levels, most of them having to do with costumery and carnality, she is.

On the other, her music is really surprisingly processed.  It's corporate-synth-pop, pre-masticated and lovingly disgorged into the gaping mouths of the more undiscerning LGBT-friendly lumpenbourgeoisie.

Even though it was provocatively released around Easter, "Judas," which I suppose was supposed to stir some sort of outrage, seems to have utterly failed to tap the usually Marathon-Man-Dental-Hygiene nerve of reactive conservative Christianity.

There was no buzz around this...thing.  None.

And oh, Lord have mercy, did they try.  Watch it, if you have not.  The images in the vid are a peculiar mashup of Gospel references, urban-biker-chic and Gay Men's Chorus Dance Party.    Ms. Gaga herself appears to be playing a Mary Magdalene-esque role.  Jesus is played by a fey Dennis Rodman clone.  Judas, well, he's the only one who actually kinda looks like a real biker, a good ol' boy honkey meat-sack.

The narrative line of the video is purty straightforward.  The Gay Men's Chorus Disciples ride motorcycles.  They dance.  Gay-Rodman-Jesus looks wistful.  She changes outfits.  Biker Judas gets into a fight.  They dance some more, with backup dancers doing their follow-the-semicompetent-leader thing.  She changes outfits again.  Things get moody.  She changes outfits.  She sits in a hot tub with Gay-Rodman-Jesus and Biker-Judas.  And gets things moodier, and then she changes outfits, and then dies-or-something in a very emo way.

It's all crosses and Jesus and bustiers, enough to give me flashbacks to Madonna back when she and I were young.

Listening to the lyrics, I discovered why this wasn't actually offensive.  A bit dull?  Sure.  But offensive?  No, not really.

The song, what little there is of it, regretfully describes how much Ms. Gaga loves her Judas...meaning the part of her that defies her better self.  She struggles with it.  She dances around.  Then she struggles with it some more.  It's...not offensive, any more than simul justus et peccator is offensive.   It's theologically innocuous.

I found myself wondering if perhaps Miz Thang might want to try something really outrageous next time out.  Like sitting on a stool, in a baggy t-shirt and sweatpants, no makeup, and singing an old gospel tune with only an acoustic guitar backing her.

Now THAT might confuse people.  Get people talking.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Common Jesus


The deeper I get into reading for my course on leading diverse communities, the more I'm filled with a sense of despair.  Much of the thinking behind the books I've been reading is fine, albeit a tich on the leftist side.  Well, more than a tich.  It's full throttle liberal academe in it's most stereotypically inaccessible glory.   For the past few days,  I've heaved my protesting mind through page after page  filled with phrases like:
"...the binary finds its place, is protected from its dichotomizing and territorializing ways, and so flowers within that teeming, polymorphic milieu where Word and Spirit are enlivened in ever-new combinations."
"Latino(a) theology should also be willing to traverse the boundaries of group knowledge and interest in order to envision and articulate a social ontology that can more tangibly enable relationships across personal and group difference."
Being of a lib'ral smartypants persuasion myself, I know what these things mean.  I understand why they are written.  I even agree with them, more or less.   But I find them nearly as mindbendingly frustrating as the writings of Joel Osteen, for completely opposite reasons.

It doesn't matter that the various theologies of liberation and the particularist theologies of academic feminism think that they're oriented to and addressing the needs of the oppressed and downtrodden.  If you want to empower someone with knowledge, they first have to have some clue what you're talking about. 

As Paul showed all us Jesus people when he taught on the Areopagus, common language is the foundation of relevance.  And to be blunt as a bludgeon, the oppressed and the downtrodden are more likely to find relevant insights in the gibbering ecstasy of glossolalia than they are in the self-indulgent semiotics of academic theology.  That seminarians and Ph.D. candidates can make ten thousand compound sentences dance multivalent on the head of a freakin' pin means jack-squat to the souls who cry out from the depths of the world's oppression.

I don't mind reading this [stuff], honestly.  But what I don't want to do is write it.   Because if I get in the pattern of writing that way, then I'll get in the pattern of thinking that way.  And if I start thinking that way, I'll render myself useless.

Alrighty.  Calm down.  Deep breath.  I've got more reading to do.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Challenge of Diversity

This last Saturday at the meeting of National Capital Presbytery, I sat and watched as an impassioned but civil debate unfolded between conservatives and progressives.  The issue:  something we Presbyterians call 10-A.  Long and short of it, 10-A replaces language that was placed in the Presbyterian constitution back in the 1990s, language that explicitly forbids the ordination of gays, lesbians, and any sexually active unmarried person.  It replaces it with language that asks leadership to use confessional and scriptural standards to assess the calling of a leader...and that, as they say, leaves things open to interpretation.

It passed, of course, because NCP is a very progressive place.  What was interesting to me, particularly given my current coursework, was the "diversity dynamic" at play.  I sat near the back of the room, with a young Asian American Elder from my church.  Well after the start of the meeting, a little cluster of Ghanaian Presbyterians entered the room.  They were from a Ghanaian immigrant fellowship, one of the congregational startups in the DC area.  Their pastor, I knew, was one of those folks who is...with his culture...radically opposed to gay and lesbian ordination.  He'd brought the maximum number of elders to the meeting.  When he rose to speak, his rich warm fluid West African voice spoke of bafflement at how such a thing could be.  He also spoke, circuitously but clearly, of the division that this decision would bring, about how African Christians could not stand with a church that did not call same sex orientation sin.  Honestly, he's right.  It wasn't an idle threat, but a statement of unfortunate fact.

And when 10-A passed, and the time came to share in the Lord's Supper, he rose...along with many of the conservatives who'd spoken against it...and gathered his followers, and left.  I'm sure 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 was humming fiercely in their ears.

Well, he tried to take his group.  One Ghanaian stayed, sitting quietly, still in prayer.  The pastor came back, and spoke a few quiet but frustrated-sounding words to the young man.  But he said something softly back, and the pastor went off again, seeming a bit miffed.  The young man didn't take communion.  But neither did he leave, not until the worship was over.

I've been reading lately a great deal about diversity and multiculturalism in the church, and how to be a leader in a diverse community of faith.  The two books I've cranked through in the last two days have been smart, thoughtful, and potentially useful after a bit of translation.  They're a"academic," meaning I can't imagine the flow of academese doing anything other than putting a truly diverse audience to sleep.  Liberal academe thinks it's talking the talk, but it has no clue how to really speak across the boundaries.  Not the boundaries of race, but of class and culture.  The common tongue is not our strength.

But what I haven't encountered...not an acknowledgment that sometimes you'll encounter cross-cultural dynamics that ain't all sweetness and light, or joyously constructive dialectic, or in which the expectations of the "dominant culture" within a community clashes with values that a leader is not willing to set aside.

Some of those expectations are stylistic.  Within my own church context, which is still strongly formed by the Korean evangelical tradition, I've been told for years that I need to be more authoritarian, more emotionally effusive, less deliberate and inclusive, and less intellectual.  I'm still told that.  Well, I will be for the next six months, at least.  I've modified my style somewhat, but there's only so far you can go before you start violating your own sense of personal spiritual integrity.  Ah well.  Perhaps the next pastor will be more prone to screaming tirades when crossed and shouty-weepy sturm-und-drang preaching.  Might help.  Who knows?

But there are differences that go beyond style.  There are church cultures that insist women should radically submit to men's authority, forever perpetuating the curse of the Fall in a community that claims to have been redeemed.  There are cultures that don't see the new thing that God is working in the church for those who were created with same-sex orientation.

A leader in such a context needs to ask themselves:  If those things are alien to my faith, how do I maintain a sense of integrity and still lead people who live out their faith and proclaim the gospel in ways that radically and fundamentally differ from the grace I have experienced in Christ's teachings?

That can be done, of course.  The font of God's love is limitless, if only we seek to drink from it.   But if a community is to function, there are boundaries to how much tolerance can be expressed.  A thing cannot easily take its antithesis into itself.  

For all of my disagreement with their position, I understand why those who rose to leave the meeting, be they African or just deeply conservative, left.  The bonds of community no longer felt like they were sustainable.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Celebrating the Death of an Enemy

Last night, after working out and taking the boys to swimming, I got home and settled in to read.  It had been a long day.  Internet was off.  TV was off.    The wife and I both sat on the sofa, me reading my book for the D.Min program and she working late as she so often does.  We did this until about 11, and then we went to bed.  The TV was on for a minute or two as she went through her necessary ablutions and shutdown rituals, but it was Netflix streaming through our Roku topbox.  We were still blissfully oblivious of the world.

Which is why, when I finished walking the dog and went to pick up the newspaper from our driveway, that as my hand went down to grab it,  I noticed that the headline was huge.  What?  What was this?  A big headline, taking me by surprise?  I'm usually so connected that I know things the moment they happen.  Here I am learning about something like it's 1892, through the paper, made of paper, arriving at my house.  It was an odd feeling.

Then I processed the headline, and saw the picture of Bin Laden, and thought, wow. 

Oh.  My. 

Being a born and bred DC townie, that thought was followed immediately by the thought, well, I guess that wraps up the 2012 presidental election. 

It'll also mean that the "Birthers" will be joined by "Deathers," those folks who'll swear up and down that Osama Bin Laden was never killed and/or had actually been killed years before, and that the whole thing is just a conspiracy to score political points.  They'll have plenty of opportunities to pitch out their crazy while Obama celebrates his second term, and still more when he becomes Secretary General of the newly muscular United Nations in 2021.  You know, so he can join with the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, and the Free Masons as they welcome in the thousand year rule of our Extra-Dimensional Overlords in 2023. 

All part of the plan, baby, all part of the plan.

The killing of Bin Laden doesn't, of course, solve anything strategically.  The Middle East is still a mess.  It will certainly be a major psychological blow to Al Qaida and those who support it.   The young crowds that gathered shouting and gleefully cheering outside the White House and at the 9/11 memorial site last night reflect that psychological reality.   We hated Bin Laden. We had reason to hate him.  Now, we have destroyed him.  It smells like victory. 

Personally, I harbored no human love for Bin Laden.   It is not possible for me, as a husband and a father, to love a man who would personally have killed my Jewish wife and both of my Jewish children if given half a chance.

But neither, as a Christian, can I bring myself to celebrate it.  With the death of Bin Laden comes the end of any chance at his redemption.  Yes, I know, it wasn't going to happen.  But still.  With the death of Bin Laden comes the reminder of how deeply and completely a human life was wasted and squandered in the service of hatred and death.  With the death of Bin Laden comes a reminder of the thousands that died because of his hateful actions, and the many thousands more who have died in the wars that followed.   His death will bring none of them back to the arms of their loved ones.  With his death comes the knowledge...from my faith...that he is now in the presence of God, and that the consuming fire of God's love that is my joy and hope is for him an impossibly unbearable and eternal anguish.

None of those things are cause for celebration.  Just somber reflection, and then moving on. 

There's a lot more work to be done in this mess of a world.