Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It Takes Money...

So, as part of our plan to invade Middletown, DE with an embodied, hopeful, subversive, gospel presence, we need a place to live. To that effect, we've signed a contract to purchase a townhouse. We will soon be homeowners.

Those that know me well, know that I've never wanted to own a home. Even when prices were rising astronomically, it never seemed like something that made a lot of sense. The recent economic issues have made it less of a sure thing, money-wise. Although we do have plans to be in Middletown for the long haul, so we're not exactly looking to sell in five years anyway.

Part of my reluctance had been selfish - I didn't like having to worry about yard work and home repairs. Part of it was the thought that we'd be in a city somewhere and really unable to afford such a luxury as a home.

However, given the current climate and situation in Middletown - lots of people who want to live there, but fewer who can qualify for a home loan - renting an identical home to the one we're buying would cost almost twice as much. Buying was a no-brainer - because even if the value of the home never increases, we're still making out well. In fact, buying a home rather than renting is the only way we can afford to make this move right now.

Still, I have a difficult time thinking of this as an investment. We're not buying this house to make money, we're buying it to have a place to live that we can afford. Is there a chance we'll make money on the home? Sure. Is there anything wrong with making money on the home? Not at all. Still, the mindset troubles me some.

Obviously, part of the current housing crisis was due to people buying homes they couldn't afford with the presumption that they could sell them for a profit in a few years without ever having to pay the bulk of the mortgage. In other words, people who made risky investments on homes.

I studied history as an undergrad - one of the basic conceptual frameworks we're taught early in our history studies, is that most people choose a specific lens through which to interpret history - religious, economic, social, or political. Each of these has some impact on how events unfold, but usually, historians choose one (consciously or otherwise) as the dominant factor.

I feel as though our society has chosen for us, these days. Everything is economic. We attempt to market everything and monetize everything. It leads to a fascination with value, efficiency, and return on investment. Not that these issues are inherently evil, but simply that we take them too far. I haven't read it yet, but I'm intrigued by what Michael J Sandel will say about this in his new book, "What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets."

All of this to say - I'd like to slow down the conversation a bit. We are agreeing to spend a lot of money on a place to live. We'll be paying for it for at least two decades (probably three). We have made a lot of economic considerations in the decision to buy it - mainly figuring out how we could afford to pay for the mortgage and upkeep on what we make. At the same time, our priorities are how well it fits our growing family and the ways in which our new home can be used to serve those around us.

I have never once thought of this home as an economic investment, but I hope our home can be an investment in the lives of those around us.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hair Dye and Superficiality

I've been noticing hair dye commercials lately. Just for Men had a commercial about the world eradicating grey hair in men with a new product. Tonight I saw another commercial featuring Tina Fey, a comedian and writer whose comedy generally revolves around empowering women and combating superficiality.

For most of history and in many cultures still today age is respected, and the signs of age are coveted. Here in the US we tend to worship youth and avoid anything that reminds us we're growing older. I saw a Dick Clark retrospective and the man looked older in 1980 than he did before his stroke in 2004. America's Oldest Teenager aged for a while, then seemed to reverse the process.

Like just about everything else, this is a complex issue - I think there's probably something to be said about how our cultural fear of death fits in - but today I want to focus on this obsession with youth and appearance.

We've built up a culture where youth, beauty, and sexuality are valued above all else (except maybe money). We associate the value of a person with how young they look. I imagine there's some biological component to this - the idea that the people most likely to propagate the species are more attractive to us - but human beings do also possess the ability to understand, evaluate, and ignore those natural impulses.

Why do we not just encourage, but assume that anyone under the age of 60 who has a few gray hairs will, obviously, dye them? Because it's easy? Why do we only make, sell, and buy little girl clothes that make them all look like grown up women? Because we don't want to be left out? Perhaps we just want everyone to have as much time as possible at their peak?

Why is it a peak? Life is diverse and ever-changing. Each and every stage of life is important and valuable. We're not who we were and we're not who we will be. I don't think there's anything wrong with being nostalgic for previous times - or anything wrong with looking forward to what lies ahead. However, we can't get so caught up in the past, or the future, that we neglect today.

Of course, we also have to work hard to encourage and affirm others to embrace who they are and not buy into the cultural conditioning that drives us to live in the past, the future, or to be someone else. We have to combat the notion that our ability to make ourselves someone else is freeing and empowering. You are valuable because you're valuable - not because of what you look like or the color of your hair.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Really Unreal Reality

Getting the sanctuary ready for a funeral this week, I noticed the Easter banners up. For a second I wondered if the family would care about celebratory banners being part of the funeral. It was just a second. Then I realized that banners proclaiming resurrection and victory were the most appropriate decorations for a Christian funeral.

That got me to thinking about how well we, as God's people, have embraced and internalized the real victory of the cross. Do we believe death had been defeated? What about hunger, pain, or greed? Do we believe that those battles have already been won? Our actions often betray our lack of faith.

We too often mistake the very real remnants of sin for some force with actual power - and not as the last vestiges of a dying structure.

I used to pride myself on being a realist - to dispassionately analyze a situation and come up with the most likely path for success. I've given up on realism thanks to resurrection. I'm unabashedly optimistic now. Perhaps you can say I'm still a realist, but with a different perspective on reality?

I might have to recognize the fallen, broken, messed up reality of our current age, but that doesn't keep me from holding myself, and the rest of God's good creation, to a higher standard.

I know human beings make terrible choices; I don't expect any of us to act rightly or properly or even morally most of the time. I broadly admit that the failures and faults of the world will likely remain, if not worsen, over time. I'm not denying the real suckiness of our present.

However, I also believe in a good creation, one endowed by its creator with an ever-present grace - calling and pushing and, at times, dragging us towards our intended selves. Resurrection means that death doesn't - that selfishness and convenience and efficiency, while immediately effective, are ultimately fruitless.

Resurrection means that while individual freedom likely means an open door to depravity and destruction, it's not the only answer. The powerful good we were created to be is possible - and not in some far off magical world with clouds and harps and fairies - but in the world God created for good.

What seems is not what is... and that is the power of the resurrection.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Know Thyself

Despite what people want to say, we're all spiritual AND we're all religious. It's just the way human beings work. We should probably add that we're all physical, too. You really can't have a person without all three.

Call it emotions, psychology, or personality, but we all have a spiritual element. more and more it's become clear that our spiritual selves and our physical selves are seriously intertwined. You might even say they're inseparable - the ancient Hebrews certainly did. Long before those crazy Greeks told us our spirits were good and our bodied were bad, the Hebrews taught and believed that you could not be you without both. Anyone who spends time studying the human brain will tell you that while we're learning more and more about the biology of our spirits, there's still more and more mystery unfolding.

Religion enters the picture as the set of practices we live out reflecting our beliefs. These are our true beliefs, not just those things to which we intellectually assent. Our religion encompasses the answers to questions about the value of human beings, the way we see ourselves and the world around us, also what we believe about God or morality.

There's a lot of truth in the idea that church people are hypocrites (I say church people, but it could be synagogue people, or mosque people, or country club people, or strip club people, really - they're all indicative of a religion, of sorts, and this generalization could be equally right or wrong about any of them). So often we conform to a specific religion in public and then privately conform to a different one. Some of us have multiple religions - we conform to the practices of Christianity when we're in a sanctuary for service; then we conform to the practices of the workplace while there; the sports team on weekends; perhaps also the family around holidays.

Sometimes out religion is simply doing whatever it takes to avoid be discovered as a fraud. In other words, we can't bear to admit who we really are, what we really think, and what we'd like to do, so we imagine ourselves differently - and attempt to act that out as consistently as possible before other people.

There are plenty of others out there who serve one religion whole-heartedly. Some practice the religion of self (as in, I'm the most important thing in this world and no one will take care of me if I don't look out for myself), others extend that to immediate family (and are generally applauded by society), others practice the religion of market principles or scientific inquiry; still others practice individualism (leave me alone and I'll return the favor).

Each and every one of these is a consistent religious ethic, with prophets, icons, traditions, and sacraments. We've often incorporated one or more of the world's faith traditions into our own version of religion, using the terms and concepts to enforce our own set of beliefs, thus making them more socially acceptable.

There's a lot of people out there who claim to hate religion. They generally fall into two camps - those people who don't like being told what to do, and those people who don't see any sort of consistent cohesion in the practices and beliefs espoused by a "religious" organization. While each group comes from its own distinct religious presupposition, they're both reacting against a lack of integrity and commitment.

I don't want this post to come off simply as a "be true to who you are" post. It's more than that. We can easily find the faults and failures of someone else's position (certainly we can do so more easily than we can evaluate our own), but it's important to recognize that we are all religious - we are all acting and standing for something - even if we're not consciously aware of what it is.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

After the recent hubbub about the bounty program being run by the NFL's New Orleans Saints, there's been even more intense discussion about the violence of football and it's place in society. This is made more complicated because of football's place in society - nothing is more thoroughly entrenched in the US than college football loyalty or Sundays watching the NFL.

It's difficult to critically examine something we like so much.

Even before this incident, it had become more and more troubling for me to continue to watch the NFL. It goes beyond the money and excess of the league, although that should probably be enough. For me, it just seems more and more like watching Gladiators in the arena.

When it comes to that comparison, there's two big differences: the gladiators are willing participants and they're handsomely rewarded. The argument being that if a man wants to take 20 years off his life (and spend his latter years in terrible pain and/or disorientation) that it's his prerogative to do so. Perhaps the shortened life and painful existence is worth knowing his loved ones will be well taken care of after his death.

That negates some facts about how well NFL players are actually paid or how well they spend such money - but the theory is sound given certain assumptions - namely that the person who knows what's best for me is me.

I'm not sure I agree. The longer I live the longer it seems like I'm the last person who knows what's best for me. Sure, ultimately I am responsible for the decisions I make and I do choose whether to follow my own opinion or submit to the authority of others. That doesn't mean I ever fully understand the consequences of my actions or that I do indeed know what's best for myself.

Does handsomely paying our gladiators and creating a society that glorifies the pain and suffering they endure absolve us of the guilt for their abuse and injury? I don't think it's a cut and dry answer either way. Obviously, society has never been all that successful in choosing what's best for people either. I think the best solution is to attempt some balance in between - the best governments find a way to do that.

There is something to be said, however, for those who defend a system that produces such tragic figures (even if those figures are not the majority). Is this macho, self-sacrificial violence really a valuable way to define ourselves? I recall, more than 100 years ago, when President Teddy Roosevelt intervened to make football safer after a rash of deaths on college campuses. He persuaded the powers than be to institute a forward pass.

I can't think of anything that changed the game more. Sure, we might not like the new version of football as much - mostly because it's new. I'm just wondering what price we're willing to pay to make sure the people playing are not paying with their lives.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Saturday Living

Strange as it may sound (or as normal as it may sound for those who know me), Holy Saturday is my favorite part of Holy Week. It's the forgotten day, the one between the sorrow of Good Friday and the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. Traditionally, not much has happened on Holy Saturday. Some places hold a vigil in the evening, but that's really just a countdown to Sunday.

A few years back I was helping to lead a weekly Saturday service at Victory Hills Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City. Obviously, with a Saturday service, we had a service scheduled for Holy Saturday. Since all of the other Holy Week traditions were also in place, I had to some up with something different for a sermon. That's when I had the chance to delve into Holy Saturday.

I called it "The Time Between the Times." You see, while Holy Week is a re-enactment of the past, a remembering of Jesus' death and resurrection, it is also representative of the future. We look forward (in the directional sense, not necessarily the emotional one) to our own death and mortality - and ultimately the bodily resurrection of all people.

Holy Saturday reminds us that we live in a limbo, of sorts. We remember Christ, who inaugurated the Reign of God that will last for eternity, but hasn't returned to finish the job just yet. So we live in the midst of a world that is dying and also in the midst of a world that is coming alive. There's a lot of tension there.

Tension between a world of universal love and acceptance and a world that routinely leaves people out and unloved. A world in which all life in precious and a world in which we justify killing in so many ways. A world with more than enough food to go around and a world in which hundreds of thousands starve every day. A world in which the Body of Christ provides an example of how God intended us to live together and a world in which the Body of Christ presents itself hateful, abusive, ignorant and selfish far too often.

On Holy Saturday we remember the disciples, lost and scattered. They never quite understood what Jesus was trying to teach them and now he was dead, like so many Messiahs who came before. Sure, he was different in speech and habit, but little good that did him on the cross.

The fear and terror of the upper room, as they wandered back from wherever it was they were cowering, is reminiscent of our own - a fear we try to ignore, defeat, and oppress most of the year. Holy Saturday is the day to let it out, to relax and stop repressing. It is a day to admit we're not good enough, we're not who we claim to be, we're weak and feeble and entirely incapable of being anything else. It's a day to be comfortable with the idea that all hope is lost.

In the back of our minds we know Sunday is coming, that resurrection has happened and our hope is in the resurrection to come. But there's nothing wrong with a day to linger in the time between the times, to recount the hope we had in Christ when he was preaching and healing and bringing good news, to recount the pain and fear and doubt that creeps in when we look at the challenges and failings of the world around us.

I am relieved to read Peter's words towards the end of John chapter 6. Jesus has some difficult teachings and many of his hangers-on have walked away. He turns to the Apostles and asks if they, too, want to leave. Peter replies, "Where else can we go You have the words of eternal life." I just love that Peter essentially says, "Yes, we'd like to go - we just haven't found a place better than here."

The question we face every day is, "Is our God really big enough?"

Today, of all days, we can and should be comfortable saying, "I don't know."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

An Alternative Lifestyle

Newsweek ran a cover story this week - mostly retread fluff as an excuse to put Jesus on the cover during Holy Week. However, in it Jesus is described as "adamantly apolitical." So, here I am to rant a bit - not about a misrepresentation of Jesus, but certainly about our extreme lack of creativity when it comes to politics.

There seems to be a problem in this country. Well, likely more than one... but specifically we've come to believe that government and politics are synonymous and it's slowly killing us.

Politics means our public lives, the ways in which we get along with each other. Government is simply one way to do politics. Government, no matter what type, relies on power. Tribal governments have a chief or elders, for most of human existence we had kings. Lately we've been experimenting with oligarchies, aristocracies, and various types of democracy. No matter how we slice it, government means power.

Those with power generally do all they can to stay in power - in our unique US context that has come to mean convincing the populace that government is politics; that there are no other options.

This is essentially the situation an intensely political Jesus showed up in. Rome's most successful venture was not its extensive system of roads or its virtually unstoppable army. Rome's most successful venture was its ability to convince everyone living within its borders of its own inevitability. Rome was life and life was Rome.

Into this rather depressed, vagabond population stepped an unlikely messiah who refused to play the game. His politics were exactly the opposite - no power, no persuasion, simply love. Rome did what it do to those who challenged hegemony. If life is Rome and you aren't down with Rome, they take your life.

The thing is, the cat was already out of the bag. Over the next two thousand years the power changed literally hundreds of times. What didn't change was that those who despised power, those who rejected it - they found a different way to live.

The way of Jesus is an alternative politic. The Church was created to be an example to the world of another way to live - one embodying the Kingdom of God that, like Jesus, begins and ends with love. We are all responsible to each other; we were designed that way. But our politics don't have to be those of power and survival of the fittest. There is another way.

Newsweek wanted to distance Jesus from the petty bickering for power that so consumes our nation. There's nothing wrong with that sentiment; the Church has always been at her worst when she was (and is) obsessed with power and government. It's just vitally important that we refuse the line of thinking that leads us to abandon the politics of Jesus for that is the end of hope.