Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ethics of Apple

I spend a fair chunk of time in Bethesda, even now that I don't work there.  Many Saturdays, I snag some New-York-worthy bagels at Bethesda Bagel.  This last weekend, I chilled with the missus in Barnes and Noble, she reviewing materials for an upcoming conference, me finalizing my sermon.

Bethesda's business district is a pretty upscale place, filled with high-end boutiques and nice restaurants.  And, of course, an Apple Store.   Their Apple store has been through two iterations, as the first one proved just too small to manage the mobs of iProduct-obsessed Bethesdans.  The new one is plenty big and spacious, with the usual array of t-shirt clad geniuses and shiny shiny toys set out to play.  I've bought stuff there.  It's a nicely run business.

Sitting right next to the Apple store is a little boutique that sells yoga-related products.  It's called Lululemon.  On the March weekend earlier this year the iPad 2 was released, things were undoubtedly crazy hopping busy at the Bethesda Apple store.

Next door, at Lululemon, things were more crazy, in the worst possible meaning of the word.  On that Friday night, one of the employees of Lululemon murdered her co-worker, after the co-worker apparently discovered some thefts from the store.  The killing took a while, as the victim was beaten to death.

After a failed effort to make it look like a botched robbery and sexual assault, the murderer's clumsy and inconsistent story fell apart, and she's now going to trial.  I've been following that trial.  

As it happens, there were witnesses to the killing, who are currently testifying.   Employees of the Apple store heard the whole thing while they were closing up.  All of it.  The screaming.  The cries to "please stop."  The sounds of violence, followed by moans for help, followed by more sounds of violence.  It wasn't short.  The victim, according to forensic analysis, suffered over 300 wounds.   And it wasn't just one employee who heard it.  

Did the human beings working in the Apple Store take a break from what they were doing to investigate what was happening right next door?   No.  Did they take a moment to call the police?  No.   The body of the victim was not found until the next morning.  Although they clearly and evidently knew something was terribly wrong, in the worst possible way that things can go wrong, they did nothing about it.  

It was a product launch weekend.  They were closing.  They listened until the noises stopped.  

Then they apparently went about their business, which, as reflected in Apple's laser-like corporate focus, is not looking out for neighbors or community.  It's producing and selling highly desirable Apple products.

As I recall, that launch weekend was very successful.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Denoms, NonDenoms, and Accountability

A couple of weeks back, I spent nearly the entirety of a Friday sitting in a long training.   This was the mandated training for Presbyterian pastors on sexual misconduct and malfeasance avoidance, one which we've got to attend every couple of years or so to maintain our good standing within the denomination.

I'd done it before, of course.  Multiple times, both in seminary and through the local Presbytery.  But there I was yet again, watching videos, talking with small groups, and sharing as a whole.   It was a familiar dance, so familiar, in fact, that it would have been easy to dismiss it as just another pointless hoop inflicted on us by the Woman.  'Cause you know, you just can't call it Da Man if you're PC(USA), 'cause it ain't.

Thing is, it wasn't pointless.  It wasn't a hoop.

I wish I'd never had to use my prior misconduct training, but the painful reality is that the awareness it provided me has come in handy over the years.   Encountering the reminders about warning signs to look for in a faith community, I see them now for what they are...the swords of cherubim, protecting the integrity of the church from those who would use it as a place of sexual predation.  Take that metaphorically if you must, but whichever way, that knowledge is important.

It's not about legal liability, either.  It's about insuring that church is a safe, gracious, and truly welcoming place, truly reflective of our Master and Friend.

The training also provided a reminder to the not-predatory-but-flawed human beings who pastor churches that human beings...if they are stressed, isolated, and spiritually out of balance...can make decisions that shatter their integrity, and leave former Christ followers cynical and broken and bitter.  We all need that reminder, all of us, and the tools that the wisdom of others can provide.

Here, though, I wonder about how that plays into the dynamics of the nondenominational world.  Having cast themselves free of the yoke of denominational affiliation, every nondenominational church is free to be itself.  The nondenominational pastor is accountable to no-one but himself, Christ, and the circle that has gathered around him.  And that is a problem.


Because in the absence of the discipline of denominational accountability, pastors can more easily wander afield.  You are the brand-made-flesh of your entire community.  The church exists because of you.  Your flock, who adore you, are unlikely to be willing to see you weakening, unlikely to admit to themselves that your behavior is critically compromising you.   In the absence of the insights of those who have resisted or endured that form of human brokenness, those pesky demons are likely to have far more play.  In the absence of the oversight and the training, and freely submitting yourself to a discipline that can guide and inform your struggle, your ability to maintain yourself in Christ is weakened.

And when we are weak, ugly things can happen.

That's not to say that denominations don't have a problem with malfeasance.  Of course we do.  But we know we have a problem, and together, we work to deal with it.

In those admittedly clumsy structures of our connection, we are doing something about it, and can hold each other to standards that honor the intent of our Teacher.   Across the many churches of a denominational community, the institutional memory of the damage done remains strong, and those stories act as a reminder and a caution to those fool enough to imagine that It Could Never Happen Here.

But if you are free, free of that discipline, then those stories are not in your ears.  If you are disconnected, and free of the collective reinforcement that comes from denominational affiliation, you are also free to wander deep into dark places.  You are free, should you so choose, to use your power and your charisma and the adoration of those who follow you to follow your every hunger.

Advantage?  Denominations.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Denoms, NonDenoms, and Disagreement

One of the favorite themes among nondenominational folks of all stripes is the essential failure of the denominational systems of church governance.  The Oldline churches are trapped in endless political squabbling, bickering about sexuality and ordination and the authority of the Bible.  Independent churches are free of all such nonsense, and can thus better grow into the vast sprawling parking lot Jesus MegaCenters that are the clear sign of God's favor on earth.  For as the Apostle Paul once wrote:  "How can they know if they have not heard?  And how can they hear if they cannot park?" (Romans 1:14-15, The Church Shopper's Bible)

Much of the success of the nondenoms, I think, comes from their ability to be in sync with the corporate/consumer ethos of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.   If the ethos is growth, then you're more likely to grow if you have a clear and definable brand.  Denominations, which are structured like governments, well, they're more prone to manifesting politics and bureaucracy.  If you're trying to be a self-governing community of communities, there are always going to be tensions and disagreements.

But if you're structured like a business, with an iconic founder/CEO/Senior Pastor, then there is less potential for disagreement.  The board?  They'll support the person who's the reason they're there.  The flock?  They'll follow the shepherd, whose face beams down upon them from the Jumbotron every Sunday like the great and powerful Oz.  And so the brand is clear and unsullied by difference, the message is clear, and the laserlike clarity of brand identity stands as a beacon in a world that yearns for neatly packaged certainty.

Until the pastor dies or retires or is caught in a motel room with three strippers and an array of assorted livestock.  Then?  Well, then things get a bit trickier.

The process by which big independent nondenominational churches do leadership transition often has all the grace of the choosing of a new patriarch for the Borgia family.  Or, to be more biblical about it, the process by which Judah often selected her kings.  Things can get ugly and political, because all of that politics we denoms do on the front end just sits, repressed and unexpressed, under the iron thumb of the Brand, until BLLLANG!   It's a bit like Yugoslavia after Tito.   You remember, right?  Tito?  That whole mess with Bosnia and Serbia in the 1990s?  Sigh.

Take the recent ugliness at Jericho City of Praise, a big sprawling nondenom in my area.  Once the iconic founding pastor and his pastor wife passed, suddenly the board and the son were fighting it out in court over control of this huge 19,000 member Jeeza-hemoth.   Court, mind you, because if you're an island in and of yourself, when disagreement strikes, there's nothing left to do but take things to the law.  Settling things in-house becomes impossible, and as there's no authoritative external connection outside of the brand, the only recourse is the government and the services of highly paid counsel.

Strange irony, that.

Advantage:  Denominations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Paul, Powers, and Principalities

Poring over the slate of GOP candidates, I find myself compelled to admit:  I like Ron Paul.  I really do.  Perhaps that's a factor of the odd way in which right-leaning libertarians and left leaning anarchists come right back around to being essentially the same critter.   Paul is admirably consistent, and seems to be that rare politician with considerable integrity.

But though I'm theologically quasi-anarchic, and very much in favor of limiting the scope of governmental intervention in individual life, I just can't quite bring myself to consider voting for him.  Why?

Because I think weakening the state in our democratic republic would have a negative impact on individual liberty.

What is the role of the state?  A good and well-run state balances the interests of constituent members of a culture, insuring that the liberty of one does not impinge on the liberty of others.   That is the essence of justice within the realm of human societies.

The reality, though, is that as cultures become more complex than the local or the tribal, the requirement for the state to maintain balance becomes more challenging.  You are no longer balancing individual rights with other individual rights.  You're dealing with collective and transpersonal entities, whose power is considerably greater than that of individuals.

Our society, for good or for ill, has decided to treat most corporations as if they were individuals.  Those "persons" bring considerably more weight to the table than a single individual.  Their interests, driven by the amassed wealth and resources that these "immortal beings" bring to the table, are difficult to counterbalance if you are just a single human being.  My ability to influence the direction of culture is considerably smaller than that of NewsCorp, for example.  The same is true for ExxonMobil, or NorthropGrumman, or ConAgra.   If they want something, they're likely to get it.  They control both the means of production and, increasingly, the media through which we communicate.

If it is truly representing the people, government provides a counterbalance to the power that corporate entities wield in a culture.  It can break up organizations that are too potent.  It can regulate those corporation's activities...and what are regulations but laws governing the behavior of these odd semi-human leviathans?  And the behavior of corporations needs to be governed, because they could otherwise easily become the lords, barons, and dukes of a new feudalism.

Assuming they are not already.

In the absence of that counterbalance, those entities will pursue power and profit above all other things.  That's their purpose, and that's the biggest challenge facing both anarchists and libertarians.  Maintaining individual freedom and liberty in the face of those very real and active powers seems to demand both an engaged citizenry and a government that is empowered to act on the behalf of the individual.

Given the Corporate Colossi that now tromp and rumble through our world, we each need all the help we can get.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Teleprompters and Illiteratocracy

The latest line of attack against the current President among the mosh-pit gaggle of Grand Old Party candidates appears to be a resurfacing of an old thread.  The issue:  Obama uses a teleprompter.

What that means, according to those seeking to defeat Obama in 2012, is two things.  First, that he lacks a solid grasp of the issues.   Why should he need a teleprompter if he knew what he was talking about?  Second, it means that he is inauthentic.  Why not just speak from the heart?  Is he afraid he might reveal that he's really a socialist nazi communist in league with big banks and business?

Hearing this unusual line of invective from Bachmann, Perry, and Cain, it rings somewhat familiar in my ears.  I think, in fact, I might know where they got it.

They got it from their pastors.  Or, if you're Herman Cain, you got it from yourself, him being an Associate Pastor and all.   Ain't just the Godfather of Godfather's, kids.

In much of the evangelical world, you see, presenting a sermon from a written text is often interpreted as a sign of inauthenticity.  The best sermon, according to the charismatic/evangelical understanding of preaching, is one that pours out from that moment.   Or from the outline you prepared that morning, or, if you're leading a big-parking-lot church, from the Powerpoint your AV team prepared.

If you write it out, then you're clearly not authentically moved by the Holy Spirit.  Working from a written text is just a sign of artifice, a crutch for the spiritually inert.

As someone who's preached from texts, from presentation software, from outlines, and off-the-cuff, I can say this: this line of reasoning is plain ol' wrong.  Why?  Well, there are several reasons.

First, writing things out makes sense if what you say matters.  If you're dealing with the complexities of geopolitics, and you're tired and you have a bad cold, you don't want to say something that will cause a shooting war in the Taiwan Strait.  That important if you're the POTUS.   It is also, I would contend, important if you're a pastor.  If you're trying to authentically interpret a sacred text, and to teach that interpretation, then writing it out gives you an opportunity to prayerfully consider whether you are preaching the Gospel, or just pitching out veiled digs at that Deacon who's been a thorn in your side.  It's the difference between being deliberate, and being impulsive.  Measuring your words is a mark of wisdom, after all.  There must not be much preaching from the book of Proverbs in Red State congregations these days.

Second, writing something out before speaking means you have a record of what has been spoken.  It's right there.  You can repeat it as needed, or tweak it, or edit it for other uses.   That is, in fact, the point of writing.  

Third, I'm a bit berfuddlepated that the folks pitching this line of attack are almost uniformly evangelicals.  So you are telling me, Representative Bachmann, that writing something down makes it less trustworthy?  That the process of creating a text is not as valid as just speaking?   Should we not believe anything in your books?  More pointedly, how does this relate to a Bible-based faith?  That book of books wasn't just spoken directly onto the audiobook version you listen to on your campaign bus, dear sister.  It was written down.  And then edited.  And translated.  And re-edited.  Is the Bible inauthentic?   You really want to go there?  No, of course not.

Lord have mercy.

In a culture that is increasingly post-literate, I suppose we deserve this.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Stories We Never Write

This morning's Washington Post contained a book review that was somewhat painful.  It was for a book entitled Zone One, by MacArthur Foundation "genius" Colson Whitehead.  It's a book's about zombies.  More interestingly, it's about someone charged with eliminating the nonviolent zombies, the ones that just go about their mindless, day-to-day lives, oblivious to the fact that they are no longer alive.  It's an existential commentary on the sad pointlessness of most human existence, writ in the reanimated flesh of zombie-chic.

It looks to be a good book.  It'll sell well, and is winning accolades for it's already well-regarded author.

And I had pretty much the same core idea...with some minor variances...a couple of years ago.  But there was no time to write it.  I'm not a certified genius, of course, and I'm also occupied with other things.  But it's always funny seeing an idea you've never seen before and seems to have sprung freely from your mind surfacing in the mind of another. 

One could get resentful, of course.  You could be filled with accusations, as Newton was with Leibnitz over who came up with the ideas behind calculus.  Or you could be filled with regret.

There's no point in that.  Things are as they are, and I wasn't planning on writing that book anyway.  It's kind of fun seeing the concept surface elsewhere.

And fortunately, I had a much better idea for a chilling, groundbreaking, redolent-with-human-meaning zombie script yesterday afternoon.   And no, Colson, I'm not sharing this one yet.

Gotta love that zombie muse.  She just keeps moaning incoherently in my ear.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Living To Ride

Today was a bustling errand day, and it felt it.

Beyond the various and sundry folks we had come into our home to repair and maintain, there were checks to deposit at the bank.  There were socks to be purchased for a youngling who burns through them like Bogey going through a pack of unfiltered Camels.   There was swim gear to be purchased, and books to be returned to the library, all scattered across the sprawling suburban wasteland that is Northern Virginia.

It was also a lovely Fall day, and so rather than trundle about in our utilitarian but inefficient minivan, I ran the Dad-errands on the 'Strom.  It's got a nice big lockable top-box, perfect for fat bags of factory-extruded socks from K-Mart, and for stowing library books.

The swim flippers and for my increasingly immense 13 year-old were another thing altogether, too odd shaped for the onboard storage.  But being a nicely designed piece of kit, the top box pops off neatly, leaving a nice big flat space for bungeeing things. 

The day's errands concluded with the pick up of the big guy from his rehearsal.   He loped from the entrance of the middle school, past the lines of idling soccer mom minivans and SUVs to the bright yellow motorcycle, tossed his backpack into the top-box, and got on the helmet without assistance.

As he hopped up into the pillion, I flashed back to those first few rides I gave him on the old bike, oh so many summers ago, back when his little feet first hit the pegs.   He was so small, barely a presence on the bike at all, nestled in tight and clinging to Daddy's back.

A man after my own heart.
Now?   It feels more like those times I would ride two-up to Skyline Drive with a fraternity brother riding pillion.   There's a man sitting back there.  As he leans back easy against that ever useful topbox, he fills the back of the bike.  His mass and size are palpable, shifting the dynamics and the balance.  But he sits calm and relaxed, an old hand at this, and we shout out our father son chatter as we burble down Columbia Pike. 

And so, for most of my dayful of suburban parental-unit schlepping, I make do with two wheels, racking up three times as many miles per gallon of go-juice, and taking pleasure in the tasks and the day.

It's good to be the Dad.  But it's better to be the Dad on the bike.

Monday, October 17, 2011


As the Occupy movement continues to camp out in the downtowns of major metropolitan areas, I find myself wondering about the position of those of us who occupy the upper percentages of the income scale.

I'm one of the rich, you see.

That might be hard to discern from observation of my day to day life.  My home is nothing much to look at, a squat, rumpled, ivy-covered suburban hobbit hole, nestled in trees.  It's about half the size of the average new home in America, but it's perfectly comfy for the four of us and the dog.  We drive efficient and unsplashy vehicles.  Our kids go to public schools.  I wear clothes that look like they're older than my middle-school age children, which is because many of them are.  We've spent most of our lives saving and scrimping.

My own modest annual income places me pretty much dead center for individual incomes in the United States.  I'm fifty-third percentile, just like that grim and defiant young reactionary whose image has been making the rounds lately.   But my wife, driven and smart and competent woman that she is, well, she's done well lately.   Her recent job transitions and career progression have tossed us up into an entirely different income category.

And for the first time in our respective lives, we can't accurately describe ourselves as middle class.  We're not.  We're somewhere between 95th and 96th percentile, and that, I fear, puts us squarely into the upper quartile of the upper class in the United States.

Does that make us better of more "blessed" than those in the lowest quartile of the bottom thirty percent?  No, not in any meaningful way, no matter what Joel Osteen says.  It does mean our lives are easier, both in the ways that make sense and in the ways the system in which we operate favors the wealthy.   We have no trouble getting credit, which we use sparingly.  Having walked alongside folks who desperately needed credit, but couldn't get it, this is a nontrivial thing.   We have enough of a buffer of amassed savings that we don't face uncertainty week to week or month to month, and there are many in our culture who do not have that luxury.  At the moment, my family does not worry about money.  This is utterly untrue for a substantial portion of Americans.

That doesn't even begin to factor in the many billions of human beings on this planet who live at levels so far below the US poverty line that we Americans don't really grasp just how immensely challenging the simple task of their existence is. 

Should I anguish over where I find myself?  Should I wallow in guilt?  No, I don't think so, and I don't. 

What I must not do, though, is allow my families' relative comfort right now to seduce me into believing that everything is just fine with the world.  It's not.  Not at all, and letting material comfort blind me to the struggles and suffering of others gets me into significant trouble with my Boss. Not to mention that wealth and material power aren't anywhere near to being one of the metrics He uses to assess the value of my existence.

It's a tricky wicket.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Occupied K Street

Yesterday, after doing some church stuff in the morning and some housekeeping in the later morning, I seized my one open window during the day, hopped on the bike and motored downtown.

The day was drab and overcast, although not too chilly, and the hum into town on Fifty was smooth and devoid of traffic.

From my inside-the-Beltway suburb, it's an easy run to the center of DC on a motorcycle.  I loafed over the Roosevelt bridge, did a few zigs and zags, and found myself cruising my target street.

K Street.

It's a bustling central artery in the Northwest quadrant of our nation's capital, and the symbolic heart of lobbying in America.  It's lined with shining office buildings that all abruptly end at the same height.  Regulations, dontcha know, but the net effect isn't unpleasant, as you don't get that dizzying concrete canyon feeling.   At about one thirty in the post meridian, K Street was a purposeful whirl of humanity, and most of that humanity was on foot.   Trim young business-casual and suited professionals moved in clusters, coming back from lunch or finally getting outside.   Tall lawyerly types walked and talked intently into their smartphones.

The sidewalks were crowded with folks on foot, as they are on most days in DC.  DC is a place where you walk, unless you enjoy sitting, burning carbon, and amassing adipose cells in your posterior.  It's why DC workers are...well...not quite most Americans.  That was true at the intersection of K and Connecticut, where Farragut Park was filled with fit lunching wonks and office workers.   It was true at the intersection of K and 16th, where the stream of humanity crossing in front of my bike was young and on the go.  The sense was of energy, of dynamism, of purpose.  It's that way every day.

I reached the bike lot at K and Franklin Park, and lo and behold, DC had left a parking meter unrepaired.  Schweet.  Gotta love that free city parking.  I stowed my helmet and my gear, and doubled back to McPherson Square, where I wanted to get a feel for the Occupy K Street protests.

At McPherson Square, things were a mid-day than they were on the rest of K Street.  The encampment took up the Northwestern section of the Square.  It was a modest smattering of tents and a sprawl of sleeping gear, occupying a space roughly equivalent to the back yard of my unassuming suburban home.  In that space, small clusters of protestors sat or moved about quietly.  

J. Birdseye McPherson
Around the statue of Major General James Birdseye McPherson, a circlet of handmade cardboard signs sat out on display.   Circling the circlet were a few passersby, their smartphones out, taking pictures, taking video.  I joined the dance for a few minutes, carefully perusing the signs, and taking my own pictures.

No one spoke to me.  No one was minding the display.

Moving a few paces to the southwest, a little klatch of protestors were having a meeting of some sort.  All were sitting, talking quietly and earnestly, and as I watched, they communed inaudibly within their closed circle.  Apparently, one of their collectively determined meeting protocols was "jazz hands," which must have meant something for group process.   "We have a quorum?"  "I second the motion?"  "May I go to the bathroom?"  I couldn't tell.

I meandered back into the encampment, and had to work hard to resist the temptation to tidy up a bit.  It's hard to turn off that parent switch, but I managed.  I looked around for a center, or a place to get information.  There wasn't anything or anyone I could see.  Just cardboard signs.

Having determined that the one person I might have known there was not present, I drifted about for a bit.  Someone shouted that food was available at the mess tent.  Animated chatter came from table filled with laptops.  A middle-aged woman talked flutteringly with a passing lawyer-type, asserting her strong desire to try both Bush senior and Dubya for war crimes.  He seemed gently bemused.   A barefoot young woman sat in a softly speaking group, and absent-mindedly picked her toes.  A boy, perhaps six or seven, padded past in footie pajamas, holding a sign.  A TV crew that apparently came from some land where the women are all blonde drifted about, talking with people.

Across the street, catty-corner to the Northwest, a cluster of a half-dozen young, entirely African American DC cops milled about.   They talked animatedly, and were clearly there to manage the demonstration...but nothing was happening, and they seemed bored and listless.

After half an hour, I'd seen all I could see.  I moved back up K Street, through a trickle of pedestrians.  I tossed a leg over my bike, and rolled on out of there, through the busy streets of Northwest, out to 395, and home.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Yesterday, as my family chilled our way through a Monday off, I found that it was time for a bit of routine motorcycle maintenance.   The shiny yellow 'Strom was slightly less shiny following a few sustained jaunts through driving forty-degree rain, and while spatter and road grit add character to a bike, they really don't do much for your drive chain.

So out onto the driveway I went, and for about 45 minutes, I performed the necessary ablutions and applications of solvents and lubricant.  For the first time in almost twenty years, I found myself hiking a bike up onto a centerstand.  Not since my first ride, a '72 Honda CB750 purchased way back in my late teen years, have I had a centerstand.

I've missed it.  My last two rides were a bitty little cruiserlet and a sportbike, and both cruisers and sportbikes don't have centerstands.   The reason varies, depending on the type of bike.  A centerstand is a great big dangly thing, a mass of steel that snugs up under the chassis.  It ain't purty.

And cruisers are purty bikes.  Purty is their raison d'etre.   They're all rumble and chrome and glossy shine, with elemental lines that catch the eye as you style on by in your do-rag and chaps.  Centerstands work for that aesthetic about as well as a life vest on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.  

Sportbikes are bellisima bikes too, but they're also shrouded in many thousands of dollars worth of plastic for the purposes of aerodynamics and attitude, and that leaves no room for a stand.  A centerstand cuts deep into lean angles on a low bike, so that's strike two.  Sportbike designers are also as obsessed with weight as a high-school wrestler, which is strike three, and means that big hunk of steel has to go.

But on the 'Strom, tall and lean and rangey as a Masai warrior, it works perfectly.  It means that I don't have to stash a paddock stand somewhere in my cluttered home.  It means I can maintain my chain and work on the bike anywhere I can find a bit of flat ground.   It's just so deliciously practical.

Almost no bikes in the United States have them any more, of course.  Bikes aren't meant to be practical things here.  America has become a binary land of sportbikes and cruisers, and gas is still cheap, and our bikes aren't transportation.  They're lifestyle statements that spend most of their lives pampered and polished and gleaming.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.  But for four season, rain or shine, day in day out riding, you just can't beat a bike with a centerstand.

I'm glad to have it back.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Flip Flops

As the campaign season gets closer and closer and...wait, did it ever stop?   I'm not sure it did.

Anyway, I've started to see a recurrence of one of the things I find most profoundly irritating in current political discourse.

That thing is the term "flip-flopper," which surfaced first in the 2004 election, and just kept on trucking through the 2008 season.

The concept behind this attack is simple, as simple as the binary operation of a microprocessor.  Either yer fer sumthin', or yer agin it.  And if you were fer sumthin', then changed yer mind?  That makes you a flip-flopper.

A flip-flopper must be someone who lacks integrity.  A flip-flopper must be governed by political expediency.  A flip-flopper can't be trusted.  They are not a true believer.

Let's take a look out there.  There's a site devoted to Mitt Romney's flip flops.  Rick Perry is a flip flopper.  Herman Cain is a flip flopper.  Michele Bachmann?  A flip flopper.   Ron Paul?  Amazingly enough, even the eternally consistent, never-varies or wavers, teeth sunk into libertarianism like a bulldog with a grudge Ron Paul, even he is accused of flip flopping.

And I'm not even going to get started googling Obama.

But here's the rub.  Flip flopping means two things.  First, it can mean the willingness to compromise, to move towards consensus and a middle path with someone who disagrees with you about how to attain a goal.  In that sense, what the blogosphere and talk-radio shoutocracy proclaims as flippity-flopping is absolutely necessary to the functioning of a democratic republic.

Second, and more significantly, it's the willingness to change your mind based on new evidence, or the persuasiveness of another's position.  If you can't ever change your mind, and cannot be persuaded to modify or evolve or adjust your thinking, then you aren't being consistent.   You're being inert, unaware, and intellectually lazy.   You barely qualify as a sentient being, let alone the enlightened, thoughtful citizen you need to be to participate in a pluralist democracy.

That bothers me as a citizen who cares about the future of our republic.

But it bothers me more as a Christian.

One of the central concepts underlying the Christian faith is the idea of repentance.  You do something.  You realize that something is not the thing you should be doing.  You change your mind, and you change your life.   Repentance is, for many Jesus people, a way of life.  You don't just fix yourself once and be done with it.  You are continually correcting, as you miss the mark and turn your being back on the course towards grace.

You can't once be lost, and now be found, be blind and now you see, without flip-flopping.

Sigh.  I'll just have to grit my teeth and bear it, I suppose.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy What?

So as the Occupy Wall Street protests spread into the fertile soil of unemployed and underemployed America, I find myself looking at the gatherings that are stirring here in DC and thinking about what they're called.

Occupy DC may have been the first choice, but I wonder about that.  I know, I know, Washington is everything that is wrong with America, but honestly, this ain't the Tea Party.  This is not a wild yawp from the conservative lumpenproletariat, who are and have always been easily distracted from systemic issues by waving flags and reflexive nationalism.  It's smarter, more organic, and less easily hijacked by self-promoting blowhards working for conservative media conglomerates.

Occupy DC?  What does that mean?  DC isn't monolithic, any more than New York is monolithic.  Protesters in New York knew that you needed the right focus.  Would you occupy Queens?  Would you Occupy Times Square or Occupy Soho or Occupy Chinatown?  Of course not.  That's not the part of town that counts, unless you're mad about this season on Broadway or harbor a compulsive dislike for Peking Duck.

It had to be Occupy Wall Street.  Just had to be.

DC is similarly diverse.  Are you going to Occupy SouthEast?  Honey, they may be hurting because of the mess we're in, but they're not the problem.   Are you going to Occupy Adams Morgan?  Maybe at night, because it's cool, but again, that's not the issue.

If the movement is to resonate in solidarity with the New York demonstrations, the focus needs to be K Street.  K Street, O my brothers and sisters, is the symbolic heart of American corporate lobbying and its influence over our political system.  That's where the connection is, where the golden cord of power and influence and wealth binds the two streets together.

It's already rolling that way, but it needs to be clearly laid out.  If there are to be cries of protest at what is happening in our nation, if we want power to know that we're finally paying attention and see the connections, they should be at the intersection of Wall and K streets.

Product and Service

I'm typing this on an iMac, which is unsurprising, because my house is littered with Apple products.

The wife and I both have iPhone 4s.  That's 4s, plural, not Four - Esses, which we probably won't get.  My Four is the fourth iPhone I've owned, as the first two met untimely demises at my clumsy hands, and the last one got handed down to my son.

The boys both have old nanos, which see intermittent use.  One has a Touch, which is his camera and primary portable gaming platform.  The other has that repurposed, de-simmed iPhone 3GS, which is serving the same function.  To replace our recently flamed-out first-gen Intel Macbook Pro, we acquired an Air, which is a lovely piece of kit.  Oh, and my wife has a 3G iPad, first gen.

If you've invested in Apple over the years, our family has done our part to insure that your investment yielded handsome returns.

The legacy of Steve Jobs is, without question, those exceptionally well-designed products.  His legendary precision and unrelenting focus on product excellence was what made him such a competent CEO.  The bottom line, if you are making something to sell in the marketplace, is to make that product as well-designed and constructed as possible.   That was always Job's focus, which meant that he had absolutely no tolerance for mediocrity.  He was an absolutely legendary perfectionist, and had an unerring sense of what makes for a solid product.

That, frankly, is what guarantees the profitability of a corporation.  If you focus on making an excellent product, and price it fairly, you will succeed.  If you focus on profit above all else, you will become distracted from that primary goal.  You will start making Chevy Vegas, and you will fail.

In that, Jobs knew and lived out what it takes to be successful in business.

But in the thickets of hagiography for this profoundly accomplished entrepreneur and businessman, I hazard to ask:  is that what matters?

Jobs created great, innovative, well-designed products.  But do they make the world a better place?  I remember what it was to be alive in the pre-iMac era, and a time when Apple was not my preferred provider of quality electronic devices.

Honestly?  It makes no difference.  What has been created is ethically neutral.

Sure, I can use that iPhone to open up new lines of communication with a deaf shut-in, or help a lost stranger find his way.  But that same tech allows that guy down the street to video-sext with his lover while "working late" in his upstairs office while his wife sits alone in their bedroom, or your 15 year old daughter to send NSFW pictures to her manipulative 18 year old boyfriend.   Sure, I can use my Air or my iMac to blog about justice and grace, or to drop a supportive comment on the Facebook page of someone in need of prayer or kindness.  But I could also use them to spew anonymous hatred as the stalker-troll on some other human being's online presence.

The world is shinier and faster and more elegant.  But better?  To speak true, it does not feel so.

As I consider Jobs' life, I wonder at the meaningfulness of a life driven by perfectionism.   Having worked in the field of philanthropy for a while myself, I know that unlike many leaders in industry, Jobs had no interest in charity.  It simply didn't process.  He had no time for it.  He was far too busy and far too focused on product.  Unlike Bill Gates, who has poured his wealth into fighting diseases, or Warren Buffett, who has used the fruits of his business acumen to support Gates in that effort, or countless other leaders in the business sector, Jobs did not use his wealth...or the wealth of Apple...towards any end other than the improvement of Apple products.

Though the products are desirable, and exceptionally well crafted, they are just that.  Products.

And I perfectionism what makes for a worthy existence?

And I creating profitable and elegantly-designed products what merits a "that'll do, pig, that'll do" at the completion of this life?

I respect Jobs ferocity of purpose, and his creativity, and his intelligence, and his showmanship.  There was much to admire in his life.  I'm just not sure I'd want to live it.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What They're Looking For

"It is not a person's fault because they succeeded. It is a person's fault if they failed. And so this is why I don't understand these demonstrations and what is it that they're looking for."   

GOP Presidential Candidate Herman Cain, Wall Street Journal,  10/05/11 

He is right.

It is our fault.

We have failed.

We have failed to grasp that human beings do not exist in isolation.  While we are created with the blessing of liberty, we are not created alone.  With the freedom given to us by our Creator, we can choose to move graciously in relation to one another, moving mindfully and righteously and kindly.   That is the purpose for which we exist.

But we are free.  Freedom is a part of our nature.  From that freedom, we can also choose to tear at each other, seeking power and material wealth at the expense of the other.  In this generation, we have chosen the latter.

Our choice to walk the path of self-seeking power and the concentration of wealth is not a new choice.  It is an ancient one, a mistake we have repeated over and over and over again throughout our blighted history as a species.   Within the sacred narratives of the tradition from which I spring, that casting-out-of-balance has happened again and again.  

We who keep and teach that story remember it.

Two and a half milennia ago, it happened just as it happens now.  Seeking power over other nations, the people cried out for a king.  The prophet warned them:  the king will amass wealth, taking more and more for himself, until everything you have belongs to him.  All will fall out of balance.  And yet the people ignored the voice of the one who spoke for our Maker.   

And things fell apart.  Wealth yearns for wealth, as power yearns for power.  The son of the first King began it, gathering in the gold and the fruit of the land, and placing the great golden bulls on the altar of the shining temple he built.  The son of the son of the first King, the taste of gold in his mouth, doubled and redoubled his demands upon the people, wealth seeking wealth, power seeking power.  And the kingdom fell apart.  

When finally a wiser king sat on the throne, the Sacred Law was rediscovered.  Written into the Sacred Law given to the people was the demand:  keep things in balance.  Never let the wealth of the people become fixed forever in the hands of the powerful.  The purpose of this law was simple.  When things fall out of balance, if you do not make an effort to set things back in balance, covenant fails.  Community collapses.  The people will no longer be at one, standing equal before their God as is their Creator's desire, but will be slave and master.

Following the death of the wise king, things collapsed again and again, as the centers of power drew in and sought more power and wealth.   Prophets spoke against it, reminding those in power of the purpose of the Creator.  Sometimes they were heard.  More often, the siren song of wealth rang too strong in the ears of the wealthy.

And so the story has gone, telling itself over and over again.

What are the people looking for?  Many things.  So many things.  But many things are broken.

Mostly, they are crying out that things are out of balance.  There are words for what they want, words I know well.  Justice is one such word.  Though most of the protesters would not name it as such, from the old, old story comes the word Jubilee, the year of setting things right.

When things fall out of balance, that becomes the yearning of the people.

It's a yearning and a message I know well.  I teach it every Sunday.

Pity so few of our leaders seem to have been exposed to it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Consumer Gospel

This morning as I bustled around preparing for my day, I found myself thinking about the prosperity gospel, likely an echo of some social network chatter and mass media articles over the last few days.

That gospel..the name-it-and-claim-it, Word Faith, to-meet-your-need-gotta-plant-a-seed perhaps best known for it's tendency to emphasize material rewards as the fruits of faith.  If you have faith, you will prosper.  Your car will be large.  Your shoes will be fancy.  You will have all the best toys.

That emphasis is, of course, utterly alien to the teachings of Jesus.  But that doesn't stop folks from pitching it out there, because it resonates with a pretty basic primate desire.   We want the tastiest fruit for our young.  We want that female to be so awed by our abundantly padded nest that she can't help but approach us with the cooing sounds that mean we're going to get some serious...nitpicking...on.  Ooooh. Yeah.  Right there...

That desire is strong enough that it has spawned functionally identical versions of the prosperity gospel across world religious traditions.  It exists in basically the same form and with entirely the same purpose in Buddhism, Hinduism, and all manner of pagan and neopagan traditions.

Over the past few years, as the health-and-wealth stream has grown and swollen, I've heard some folks defend it as  the 21st Century variant of the Protestant work ethic.   It encourages work, they say.  It's good for pulling people out of poverty, and getting them focused on remaking themselves.

This morning, it occurred to me that this is entirely and completely hooey.

The Protestant work ethic focused on worldly labor as an expression of God's purpose in your life.  It was oriented towards vocation, the utilization of our gifts and talents in labor as a sign of blessing and grace in life.   To fulfill your created purpose involved actions and a life lived towards that purpose.  That wasn't a guarantee of prosperity, or of material blessing, or of escape from hardship.  But it was the mark of a faithful, meaningful life.  As John Calvin put it:
It will also be no small alleviation of his cares, labours, troubles, and other burdens, when a man knows that in all these things he has God for his guide. The magistrate will execute his office with greater pleasure, the father of a family will confine himself to his duty with more satisfaction, and all, in their respective spheres of life, will bear and surmount the inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties which befall them, when they shall be persuaded that every individual has his burden laid upon him by God. Hence also will arise peculiar consolation, since there will be no employment so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) as not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed h'ghly important in the sight of God"
This is not the Prosperity Gospel.  The prosperity gospel is not about vocation, or "inconveniences, cares, disappointments, and anxieties."  It's not about production.

It's about consumption.   It's about instant gratification. It's not about giving, unless that giving happens to be either 1) to your megachurch so's Pastor can be blessed with another Lexus or 2) to your credit card company, at 21.5% interest, compounded 'till Jesus returns.  It's about taking, about devouring, about seeking the needs of the self-flesh above all else.

It's the consumer gospel.  It's the gospel of debt.  It's the gospel of endless hungers.

If this is our faith, then no wonder things are such a mess.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

Yesterday was my first Sunday as the pastor at Poolesville Presbyterian Church, and it was a remarkably pleasant day.  Not perfect, of course, but no Sunday ever is.

But though I forgot to hike up the robe I haven't worn in years before ascending the pulpit, I managed to only stumble slightly after stepping on the hem, rather than doing the full failblog-worthy pastor-tumble into the side of the organ.    Though I mistakenly assumed there was only one tray of bread for communion at the second service, I managed not to dump the lower one all over myself, catching it at the last moment.  "This is my Body, Fumbled Unceremoniously on the Floor for Thee" is just not how that goes.  Though I forgot that eating a big slice of the lovely welcoming cake and then eating a big hunk of delicious watermelon might not be the best thing to put on a first-day-nervous stomach, I managed not to do the Linda Blair exorcist projectile vomiting thing during the scripture reading.  Which was for the best, given the target-rich environment in the cozy little sanctuary.   All in all, things worked as well as I could have hoped.  I could not have been made to feel more welcome.

And I preached on Philippians, because it was the lectionary text that seemed to best speak to a First Sunday in a pulpit.  I didn't manage to do the World Communion thing.  But though I was free to preach as I chose, I didn't participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Pulpit Freedom Sunday was, in the event you hadn't heard of this effort, a movement on the part of some right-wing pastors to challenge the Internal Revenue Service restrictions on endorsing candidates from the pulpit.   According to current regulations, pastors are legally bound not to use their pulpits to actively support political candidates.  This is partially a separation of church and state thing, but mostly it has to do with the nonprofit status of churches.  As tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations, congregations receive certain deductability of giving, exemption from property and sales taxes, and the like.  This is as opposed to political parties, which are 527 organizations.  They are exempt from corporate taxation, but must pay property and sales tax, and you can't deduct what you give to them, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

Because churches are (c)3 and not 527 organizations, pastors are told they can't use their pulpits to advance the cause of particular political candidates.  Can we preach on issues?  Sure.  That's never, ever, ever been an issue.  Does our engagement with and proclamation of the Gospel have ramifications for our lives as citizens?  Absosmurfly.  When I preach about loving the stranger and the alien, being good stewards of creation, and being wary of the siren songs of hatred and extremism, that has direct political implications.  It just does.

But once you start using a church/nonprofit organization to actively and explicitly support a political party...what's the difference between you and that party?  Things get mighty murky, mighty quick.  Which master do you serve?

For the big-parking-lot pastors who seem to be driving this initiative, this restriction is seen as a violation of their religious freedom.  Why can't I endorse from the pulpit!?  Don't you tell me what to do!  How dare the state restrict my beliefs!  I am the master of my megachurch domain!  I rule here!

Here, though, what I can't quite grasp is why those pastors don't see the slippery slope they're sliding down.  Pastor James Garlow, one of the more vocal proponents of this movement, seems utterly incensed at what he describes as "...government intrusion in the pulpit."   So in defiance of the intrusion of government into matters of faith, standing on his religious freedom and his rights under the separation of church and state in our republic, he wants to...put...politics...into...the pulpit.


Am I the only one who sees the incongruity here?  Or that in seeking "freedom," what is really being sought is the right to be loosed from the yoke of preaching and teaching the Gospel, and to dabble in the power that comes from being able to deliver voters?