Friday, July 27, 2012

Chikin and Choices

When I wrote the post on branding and identity last week, I didn't expect the ultimate example to manifest itself in US culture days later.

Dan Cathy, owner of Chik-fil-a, made some comments about his support (and the financial support of his company's charitable foundation) for "the biblical definition of the family unit." A lot of this money goes to supporting strong nuclear families; some of it goes to prevent or defeat gay marriage initiatives around the country and a small amount of it goes to mis-information campaigns that attempt to make people scared of homosexuals.

Within hours the twitterverse was up in arms. I even saw the Chik-fil-a cows holding "God hates fags" signs instead of their typical slogan. On the other hand, there were lots of supporters reminding everyone that Chik-fil-a doesn't discriminate, but serves everyone - that Cathy was sharing personal views, not those of the company.

In either case, what we had, incredibly quickly, was people lining up behind a brand. Either you were a chik-fil-a hater, or a chik-fil-a lover. Your opinion on a fast-food chicken chain became determinant of your support or opposition to gay marriage.

If that's not out-of-whack identity, I don't know what is.

On the one hand, Chik-fil-a has always been an unabashedly conservative evangelical organization. They play Jesus music in the stores and close on Sundays. If anyone was surprised by this announcement, shame on them for being so utterly clueless to reality. There's also the little matter of connecting Dan Cathy's comments to Fred Phelps; there's a bit of a logical jump required.

On the other hand, well, why wouldn't people be upset that a company they love doesn't agree with them on a major cultural and political issue? After all, as Michael Jordan famously said while refusing to endorse a political candidate, "Republicans buy shoes, too." Apparently, Democrats buy chicken sandwiches - although very few. Latest projections show Chik-fil-a may lose about 2% of its business when all is said and done. (And we all know Americans are notoriously lazy - how many principled boycotters will cave when they're hungry and it's convenient?)

No one would be on Chik-fil-a's side if the comments were negative towards interracial marriage and positive towards the KKK. Whether you agree with the analogy or not, it's exactly the way a lot of people view the issue. You're surprised they're upset?

In the end, though, it's a chicken sandwich. It has nothing to do with Christian values or gay rights. We just live in a culture so obsessed by defining ourselves through what we consume that we're illogically and outrageously livid when one of "our" brands doesn't represent us the way we thought they did.

I wonder if this isn't part of the problem Christians face in theological and political discourse. If I define myself as a Christian (or an American - too often analogous in evangelical circles), but other people who claim the same brand disagree with me - then how to people know who I am? I don't want to be associated with those fundamentalists/heretics/communists/fascists over there. I must defeat them, convert them, or eliminate them and reclaim my brand!

Ed Helms was gobsmacked to discover that his favorite chicken joint didn't agree with his politics.

Only in America is this an existential crisis.

Mike Huckabee wants those who agree with Dan Cathy's political philosophy to eat at Chik-fil-a on August 1st. There's some implication that this action proves your loyalty to the conservative company line on gay marriage.

Guess what? It doesn't.

Eating at Chik-fil-a says nothing about you or your beliefs - not any more than shopping at the mall is an act of patriotism.

It means you like your chicken sandwich to come with a pickle.

If you want to make a statement about marriage: spend your life faithfully and selflessly devoted to one person.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Dark (K)night

There's been a lot of coverage about the shooting rampage at the Batman opening in Denver. This is a terrible tragedy on so many levels. It's life-changing for those who have been injured, scared, or love people who were victimized that night. It's a tragedy for our society that we continue to allow people like the shooter to suffer and deteriorate in lonesome silence. It's a tragedy that our first instinct is to sensationalize or politicize such tragedy in feeble attempts to gain power. Justin McRoberts wrote eloquently about the need for mourning.

I still can't get my head around people excited to see a stadium getting shot up having to endure the real terror of being shot at mercilessly in a dark theater. I understand we have a cognitive disconnect between pretend and real - and I affirm the need for art to depict violence as a way for us to process and deal with violence in healthy ways.

I'm struggling with the ways in which we process such art. Shane Claiborne wrote a great response on the Huffington Post about society's treatment of violence. One of his major themes (and one I've been on board with for a while) is that even those who believe violence is necessary in the world, still need to call it evil.

Violence is devastating, for the perpetrator and the victim. This is true whether its socially acceptable violence - like that on a battlefield, a home invasion, an execution chamber, or a schoolyard fight - or whether it's senseless, universally condemned violence - like rape, torture, or the shootings in Aurora. Violence hurts and mars people.

How does this apply to art, specifically to movies? First of all we have to be careful how violence is portrayed. Are we going to movies to be excited by violence or to be horrified by it? Directors have to take this into account as well. I suspect Christopher Nolan wanted people to resonate with scenes of violent terror at the football stadium in the Dark Knight Rises. He would like for people to think about what it means to be in that situation and to suffer in that way. Does his depiction on the screen make it easier for that to happen, or does it play into our morbid fascination with blowing things up?

Wouldn't action movies immediately become horror movies once we can empathize with the nameless, faceless characters in the crowd. Isn't that what makes a horror movie - we can see ourselves in the place of the characters on the screen? SAW is scary not only because of it's disturbing violence, but because it's personal - the torture victims are regular people.

Likely few of the victims in Aurora, or their families, will ever be able to watch Nolan's film without terrible memories. And while I would never want any movie connected with this kind of real violence, I think it would be more appropriate for us to connect with characters who are suffering rather than highlight the explosions and make the victims faceless, nameless.

To properly convey the message, a sex scene should not be arousing, it should be uncomfortable; the viewer is intruding on a private moment between two people. We shouldn't want to watch (there's a perfect example of this in Enemy at the Gates). In the same way, a violent sequence shouldn't excite us, it should scare us, or at least make us uncomfortable - we're witnesses the death and injury of real people in senseless ways, we should be able to identify more with the characters and less with ourselves.

This isn't a condemnation of explosions - they've been used effectively in movies almost to cliche - warehouses and tanker trucks, etc (the recent - and crude - 21 Jump Street made fun of these cliches in very humorous ways). There's something to be said for the bad guys getting blown up in the end (someone once said, "those who live by the sword, die by the sword").

I'm speaking specifically about how senseless violence is portrayed on the screen. Every piece of art is an attempt to manipulate the viewer's emotions for the sake of communicating a message. We have to be careful about what art we view and be conscious of how it affects us. Artists also have a responsibility to maintain focus on the message. In this day and age, it's easy to slip in gratuitousness because it breeds publicity and popularity.

I hope some of the good that God brings from tragedy, in this case, is a real re-examination of film as art and its connection to violence.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Does Jesus Want to Be Worshiped?

I've been close to death a bit recently. Between the death of a beloved aunt in my wife's family and some other close friends experiencing similar losses, I've been contemplating our perception of Christ in light of afterlife.

There have been a lot of comments about the newly dead "being with Jesus" or "meeting relatives in heaven," and the like. Sentiments, which can be very comforting, but which I don't believe are quite supported by scripture - at least not as definitively as everyone seems to believe.

One of those phrases has gotten be thinking - someone said, "I envy her being able to see Jesus face to face." It struck me strange. Obviously I admire Jesus quite a bit and I am certainly grateful for everything that he has done for us - at the same time I wonder if I would be starstruck meeting Jesus. What's more, I wonder if Jesus would ever have wanted me to be?

There's a lot made of Christ downplaying himself while on earth. He was always deferring to the Father and pointing people to God. There's little overt reference from Jesus concerning himself - so little, in fact, that there were hundreds of years of doctrinal controversies about whether Jesus Christ was God at all.

Perhaps because of those problems, we seem, today, to have relegated Jesus' humanity to the back-burner. Yes, Jesus is human, but he is God! The life, ministry, teaching, and gospels of Jesus Christ seem to do the opposite. There's a casual reference to his divinity, but mostly they are about the ways in which human beings can live in the way God created us to live.

We are not fascinated by Jesus because of his power, but because of his humility, because of his embrace of human frailty.

Jesus never asked to be worshiped. He never expected it. Most times when people tried, he rebuked them or asked them to wait for his death and resurrection. I'm not arguing that we should not worship Christ, but simply that it doesn't seem like something he wants us to do with him present in the room.

When I look forward to the consummation of all things, I look forward to a world of justice - where the wolf and the lamb lay together, where enemies embrace, and love reigns in the absence of fear and loneliness. I don't really look forward to spending time with Jesus, I look forward to living in the world he has created and redeemed.

I'm sure Jesus will spend plenty of time in eternity with each of his creatures. We are all beloved and important - from the most dedicated saint, to the lowliest plants and animals. I don't want to condemn our looking forward to any of that. I'm just not sure we're going to want to spend more time with Jesus than with anyone else.

If we really believe the words we speak and the power of the Holy Spirit - eternity begins now. While we await the fulfillment of the promise, the new Kingdom has already begun. We are already living into the future we'll live for eternity. Perhaps our worship of Jesus Christ is less about awe for the savior and more about loving those he loves.

In a world remade in love, in a word absent selfishness and sin, sure, Jesus is the reason we are here, but he's not any more important than anyone else - and I think that's precisely the way he wants it to be.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Making Need Disappear

You sit down to dinner one night and look out your picture window over your breathtaking view of the city - only to see a disheveled man standing there in your yard, clearly hungry. Faced with this situation we have only two options: feed the man or make him disappear.

This is what human need boils down to - all human need. We can either meet it, or make it go away. There's lots of ways to make it go away - call the police, build a fence, move to the suburbs - even paying someone else to meet the need is sketchy if the need is right in front of you.

I've been trying to wrestle with what Peter Rollins has been talking about for a while. He often uses the expression, "the face of the other," as the location for finding meaning in life. He posits that we only truly find meaning when we give up the search for meaning altogether and see the faces of the people around us.

Maybe I'm getting him wrong or putting words in his mouth, but it seems like Rollins advocates living - that we just need to stop looking inside ourselves or ahead to the future and just be present, looking around.

We've been formed by a consumer society to look for other organizations or institutions to do a job when one needs to be done. We rarely look to ourselves. Few people grow their own food, make their own clothes, or change their own oil. We rely on others because we've been shaped to search our efficiency. When it comes to meeting human need, we look for someone with a track record and experience.

Our approaches to government belie two sides of the same coin - if we free people from encumbrances, they'll be able to meet their own needs (and the need will disappear) vs if we simply make sure everyone has basic needs met before anyone has excess, we won't have to worry about needs (they'll disappear). In both scenarios we're just using the system to prevent ourselves from having to be directly involved. We're searching for ways to shirk our responsibilities to each other.

What if we just fed hungry people? What if we spent time with the lonely or nursed the sick? What if we jut met the needs in front of us?

Thinking about it from a community perspective - what if your community just vowed to meet needs as they arise? What if we gathered together, shared our need, and worked out how it would be met.

Of course those from other places, maybe places they've fled to avoid need, would see our good and wish to contribute. What if we refused? What if we simply invited them to be a part - to engage?

Would we be transformed? Would we get to a place where our priorities were truly shifted from ourselves to the world around us?

My faith tradition would say that such transformation is not possible without the work of the Holy Spirit to change people's lives? While I don't disagree, I wonder if Rollins is just coming at this from a different perspective. Instead of looking at is as a cause-effect relationship (I'll wait to be changed and then evidence the change in my actions), we look at is a continuum (I will act differently and through this process of re-orientation, I will be truly reoriented).

It's much less mechanistic and much more fluid. In fact, it doesn't need overt God-language to describe it or participate in it - which can be scary to church people.

The idea that the story of God is not an introduction to religion but a description of life can be daunting. We like our parameters, our rules, our rituals; they bring comfort and security.

What if comfort and security aren't the most important things in life?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brand Loyalty

I've been reading this book, The Divine Commodity by Skye Jethani, off an on recently. It's an interesting book, looking at how we've institutionalized and commodified the gospel - he also brings into the discussion, the life, art, and theology of Vincent Van Gogh to illustrate his points, both literally and figuratively, in fascinating ways.

The chapter I read this morning talked about brand loyalty. Beginning with a look at the history of corporations in the US and the way they gained personhood shortly after the Civil War, he traces the movement of our lives from relationships with people to experiences managed by corporations. We don't have tailors, doctors, grocers, etc anymore - we've got Old Navy, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Costco, etc. We no longer interact with people in relationships, but with corporations who have personified themselves in logos and brands. Image has become essential to our understanding of interaction in all aspects of life.

I tend to be very brand loyal. I blame it on my OCD tendencies. We remained with T-mobile for the two years we lived in NJ even though we couldn't get a cell signal inside our house. I feel guilty when I tell people I abandoned Apple just when it was getting popular. We own two Hyundai Elantras.

I remember (maybe its still current) the big wars between Chevy and Ford truck owners in the 90's - arguing over what amounted to near identical vehicles. GAP, Inc has an ingenious plan - they open a new "discount" chain every few years, where people can get trendy clothes on the cheap. First it was GAP, then Banana Republic, then Old Navy. People get tied to the brand and remain loyal even as the prices go up and its no longer trendy or discount.

As Jethani says, "Starbucks doesn't want you to buy coffee, they want you to buy their coffee."

I got to thinking about this idea of depersonalization and corporate branding in light of some of the discussions happening in my own denomination. The Church of the Nazarene has seen rapid growth in the past thirty years mostly by bending over backwards to welcome people in. We've done a great job of branding ourselves as a warm, welcoming place to seek after God. Not a bad idea. The problem is, we've now got several dozen different regional, social, political, and theological understandings of exactly what that brand means.

We get into heated debates and petty arguments over doctrine, scriptural interpretation, social norms, charitable work, political engagement, and the like, each claiming a deep connection to being "real Nazarenes." Like that old parable - everyone is looking at a different part of the elephant - and we'd rather rip it limb from limb than give ground to somebody else.

I wonder if Jethani hit on a simple solution. If the branding problem really arose because we've replaced personal connection with impersonal logos, brands, and institutions - then isn't the solution to bring people together? If we're really dealing with people, with each other, rather than nameless, faceless ideas - brands, whose feelings can't be hurt and who are incapable of nuance, then perhaps we can begin to reclaim some of our essence.

I frequent the local hardware store, driving by both Lowe's and Home Depot to get there. We buy produce from a farm down the street. Why? Not because its cheaper or more convenient. It's because there's real people there - and so often we yearn for a deeper connection. In the simplicity and efficiency of modern life, we lack something intrinsic to ourselves as human beings. I want to know the name of my bank teller and my mail carrier. I want to get beyond labels and stereotypes. I don't want every shopping experience to be the same - any more than I want to be treated exactly the same as every other customer.

If our world becomes a series of brands to which we're loyal, upon which we base, at least in part, our own identity, then we can never really know each other as people - only as competition. We cannot be friends, but rivals - or at best, potential converts.

I'll be honest, it's difficult for me to define myself in some way that doesn't involve branding. It's easier to say, "I'm the kind of guy who watches skiing all winter and cycling all summer; I care more about the EPL than the NFL; I've been known to wear a fauxhawk, actually distress my clothes through wear, enjoy humor without laughing, and correct other people's grammar." All of those things represent some brand in society - and it might be easier for you to understand me through those images than through a real relationship.

It could be a challenge, for my generation of brand-slaves, to envision a different way of relating to each other and the world. Then again, it could be a challenge.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jayber Crow (Part II)

I already posted some of my favorite quotes from the book, but there's a few more, specifically about faith and spirituality, among other things, that I want to save for potential future use. This seems like a great way to do that - and also share them with anyone who might be interested. As before, Port Williams is the small town in the center of the book.

From Chapter 13

What I couldn't bring together or reconcile in my mind was the thought of Port William and the thought of the war. Port William, I thought, had not caused the war. Port William makes quarrels, and now and again a fight; it does not make war. It takes power, leadership, great talent, perhaps genius, and much money to make a war. In war, as maybe even in politics, Port William has to suffer what it didn't make. I have pondered for years and I still can't connect Port William and war except by death and suffering. No more can I think of Port William and the United States in the same thought. A nation is an idea, and Port William is not. Maybe there is no live connection between a little place and a big idea. I think there is not.

Did I think that the great organizations of the world could love their enemies? I did not. I didn't think great organizations could love anything. Did I think anybody would live longer by loving his enemies? Did I think those who were going to die could stay alive by loving their enemies I did not.

Was this a good war? I knew that it could not be good. Was it avoidable? I don't know.

I might have become a conscientious objector if I had had more confidence in myself. I certainly did think that 'love your enemies' was an improvement over all the other possibilities, but getting to be a conscientious objector required 'sincerity of belief in religious teaching.' Was 'love your enemies' a religious teaching just because Jesus said it? Or did it have to be taught by a church? I was not a Quaker. So far as I knew, I had never even seen a Quaker. And suppose you got to be a conscientious objector: What do you do next? Next, I supposed, you left Port William, whose young men who were not conscientious objectors would be getting hurt and killed. I had a conscientious objection to making an exemption of myself. As had happened before, my mind was failing me; I couldn't think my way all the way through. As I saw it, I had two choices: to fight in a war and maybe kill people I wasn't even mad at and who were no more to blame than I was, or take an exemption that I really didn't believe was right either and couldn't believe I was worthy of. I couldn't imagine what lay beyond either choice.

What decided me, I think, was that I could no longer imagine a life for myself beyond Port William. I thought, 'I will have to share the fate of this place. Whatever happens to Port William must happen to me.'

From Chapter 23:

Prayer is like laying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door.

But sometimes a prayer comes that you have not thought to pray, yet suddenly there it is and you pray it. Sometimes you just trustfully and easily pass into the other world of sleep. Sometimes the bird finds that what looks like an opening is an opening, and it flies away. Sometimes the shut door opens and you go through it into the same world you were in before, in which you belong as you did not before.

From Chapter 26:

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn't it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn't He do it? Why hasn't He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?

I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn't, He hasn't, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

And so, I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.

From Chapter 29:

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.

From Chapter 32:

Faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that we've all got to go through enough to kill us. As a man of faith, I've thought a considerable amount about a friend of mine (imagined, but also real) I call the Man in the Well.

The now wooded, or rewooded, slopes and hollows hereabouts are strewn with abandoned homesteads, the remains of another kind of world. Most of them by now have no buildings left. Everything about them that would rot has rotted. What you find now in those places when you come upon them are the things that were built of stone: foundations, cellars, chimneys, wells. Sometimes the wells are deep, dug to the bedrock and beyond, and walled with rock laid up without mortar. Virtually every rock in a structure like that, if it is built right, is a keystone; it can't move in or out. Those walls, laid underground where there is no freezing and thawing, will last, I guess, almost forever.

Sometimes the well is the only structure remaining, and there will be no visible sign of it. It will be covered with old boards in some stage of decay, green with moss or covered with leaves. It is a perfect trap, and now and then you find rabbits and groundhogs have blundered in and drowned. A man too could blunder into one.

Imagine a hunter, somebody from a city some distance away, who has a job he doesn't like, and who has come alone out into the country to hunt on a Saturday. It is a beautiful, perfect fall day, and the Man feels free. He has left all his constraints and worries and fears behind. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain or accuse or collect a debt could not find him. The morning that started frosty has grown warm. The sky seems to give its luster to everything in the world. The Man feels strong and fine. His gun lies ready in the crook of his arm, though he really doesn't care whether he finds game or not. He has a sandwich and a candy bar in his coat pocket. And then, not looking where he is going, which is easy enough on such a day, he steps onto the rotten boards that cover one of those old wells, and down he goes.

He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. He falls so quickly that he doesn't have time even to ask what is happening. He hits water, goes under, comes up, swims, or clings to the wall, inserting his fingers between the rocks. And now, I think, you cannot help imagining the way it would be with him. He looks up and sees how far down he has come. The sky that was so large and reassuring only seconds ago is now just a small blue picture of itself, far away. His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb. He calls out (for might not somebody chance to be nearby, just as he chanced to fall into the well?) and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.

How does the story end? Does he save himself? Is he athletic enough, maybe, to get his boots off and climb out, clawing with his fingers and toes into the grudging holds between the rocks of the wall? Does he climb up and fall back? Does somebody, in fact, for a wonder, chance to pass nearby and hear him? Does he despair, give up, and drown? Does he, despairing, pray finally the first true prayer of his life?

Listen. There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.'

Jayber Crow

I have long appreciated the non-fiction writing of Wendell Berry - who speaks of the messiness of life with such beauty and reverence, evoking the poetic from the mundane. I had not, until this week, read any of his poetry or fiction. Upon the recommendation of many friends, I grabbed Jayber Crow from the local library.

The author gives fair warning that the story, on a barber in small-town Kentucky, has no subtext, and that any effort to find one or otherwise analyze or explain the novel will result in banishment. In deference to the author, I will simply relay a few choice quotes that spoke deeply to me. Port William is the small town previously mentioned, and as much the main character as he in the title.

From Chapter 12:

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line - starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King's Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led - make of that what you will.

From Chapter 19:

It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another's love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.

From Chapter 23:

I had not, you see, arrived at any place of rest. Maybe I had not solved a single problem or come any nearer to the peace which passeth all understanding. But I was changed. I had entered, as I now clearly saw, upon the way of love, and it changed everything. It was not a way that I found for myself, but a way I found myself following. Maybe I had always followed it, blunderingly and uncertainly. But now, though it was still a dark way, I was certainly following it.

From Chapter 27:

Some of the changes in my life were imposed, and some were chosen - if by 'chosen' I may mean that I chose what I seemed already to have been chosen by, desire having obscured the alternatives. And each change has been a birth, each having taken me to a new life from which I could not go back.

From Chapter 29:

I feel that I have lived on the edge of even my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life, I don't feel that I ever have been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn't stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Suicides and Priorities

TIME Magazine did a recent cover story on military suicides, choosing to focus on active duty suicides (when most of the press usually goes to veteran suicides). Active duty suicides are almost one a day and many of them are soldiers who've never seen combat. It's troubling.

I have no experience in combat or as a soldier so anything I say here is more speculation, hypothesizing and questioning. I hope those experienced soldiers who read this will be able to bring their informed opinions to my thoughts.

Obviously the question is why?

I don't know. I have a couple of questions. Could it have something to do with the changing cultural understanding of war? It seems like war, combat, killing was once something people did out of perceived necessity - it remained "bad," regrettable, and terrible. People knew the "evils" of war, so to speak, and what men did in battle stayed there.

Over time we, out of patriotic fervor (especially those who never go, serve, or sacrifice) made such combat service into something admirable. It wasn't the nastiness of war anymore, at least in the public realm, it was good and noble. Something that had to be difficult when the realities of combat are relatively unchanged. We had a whole generation of veterans whose experiences in war didn't line up with the descriptions of such by people who hadn't been there.

Is it more difficult to deal with the realities of combat when people treat soldiers like heroes for killing people? I don't know. Just a thought.

Of course that doesn't address, at all, those soldiers who kill themselves while never having seen a war zone. TIME profiled a doctor, stationed in Hawaii, who cited the difficulties meeting responsibilities to his family and to his comrades. Is there an issue with priorities? The military does a great job breeding brotherhood - bringing people together in such tight-knit ways that they become family. Does this familial bond end up trumping a soldiers spouse and kids? Is too much emphasis placed on the connection to fellow soldiers? I don't know.

I did think about potential comparisons to ministry - something with which I am familiar. Often, pastors were trained to give everything to their ministry assignment - the people in their pastoral care became such a priority that their spouse and kids suffered because of it. I use the past tense because things are improving; it's not a conquered problem, though.

Because of these pressures, you see a lot of depression, burnout, and relational problems in pastors. Thousands of pastors quit each month because of these or similar pressures. As a whole, ministry preparation did not include the proper understanding of priorities for family and ministry.

I don't know if this is analogous to the military or not. It sure seems like it from the outside. Are there better ways to train soldiers to maintain proper perspective - or are the requirements of the job too demanding to make this work?

Certainly there is more each of us can do to support combat troops as they return home, but the Pentagon isn't sitting on its hands either - 4% of the budget goes to mental health and most of the active duty suicides had counseling and other preventative services.

If trends continue, in a few years suicide will be a greater cause of military deaths than combat. We owe it to our our soldiers and ourselves to keep this from moving to the back burner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


This past weekend, most of my mother's family gathered in Montana to celebrate the wedding of my cousin Rachel. With the new baby and my brother's wedding earlier this year, we weren't able to make the trip. Montana remains one of the four states to which I've never been (both Dakotas and Hawaii, in case you care).

Since I've never been there, I can only assume crazy things about Montana. For example, it must be a land of giants - Rachel is quite tall and yet she looks of average height next to her new husband. Also, apparently it is truly the last vestige of the Wild West, as National Geographic says - the internet connection and cell service was spotty at best. Through a garbled Skype call and an intermittent phone conversation, my grandmother, grandfather, and uncle were able to see our daughter for the first time - she cried through most of the call, which DID NOT help anyone's ability to hear.

At some point my uncle Joseph asked me his one question - is fatherhood anything like what I expected. I gave a thoroughly disappointing answer. Here is my version of an apology:

The first answer, of course, is unspoken. The very thought that someone with a seven week old infant could think clearly enough on the spot to answer such a question tells you my uncle does not have kids. In that sense, already we're well beyond my expectations of fatherhood - I never even considered a baby's impact on my mental faculties (the impact of a teenage daughter had crossed my mind, but we're more than a decade away from that).

Perhaps that's a good beginning. Of the things I had considered when considering fatherhood, things have been mostly straightforward. I did indeed bond with her pretty quickly once her eyes were open and made contact with mine. However, I do have to agree with Tina Fey in her comedo-memoir, when she says parenthood is not instant attachment; you have to get to know these little people just like anyone else. The more time you spend with them, the more attached you get. I hadn't expected that exactly, since everyone said I'd instantly be enthralled with this little bald dictator. I wasn't - but I am more now than yesterday and will likely be moreso tomorrow. That's good enough.

I was completely unprepared for the physical and psychological trauma the aforementioned dictator would inflict on my loving wife. There's a helpless feeling when she's sitting in the corner crying whilst her hungry offspring quite literally sucks the hope and life from her body. This child might be helpless and entirely dependent on us for continued existence, but I've known and loved my wife longer; the wife is winning that fight - at least for the time being.

We laughed about all the intense and frequent "don't shake your baby" warning in the hospital; we no longer doubt the seriousness and necessity of such things. I can, without humor and in all honesty, say that likely those warnings have actually kept me from shaking my baby on at least three occasions. Not that I'd do it on purpose, but there comes a time when internally, it just seems like the best option. I had not expected that.

Another unexpected surprise was that I no longer care at all about my appearance. Those who know me, or really have ever seen me, would be surprised to know I ever cared at all. Granted, I've never been the most fashion conscious person in the world - and my tastes in personal appearance have been quizzical at best. Yet I have always worked hard to make myself appear in ways that satisfy my own, again admittedly, warped and twisted idea of what looks good.

Upon arriving in Middletown, I embarked on one of life's most difficult endeavors - finding a place to get a decent haircut. My cheapness won out and I ended up getting a cut from a barber with 56 years of experience - right on Main Street, downtown. I'm sure my relationship with this man, as short as it may be, will be one of mutual interest and unfounded learning opportunities - but I'm pretty sure I'll never get the haircut I want.

I've been rocking a fauxhawk for a few years now. My hair is thick and luxurious, but it absolutely refused to do anything, but grow completely straight. I've got cowlicks everywhere and very few style options. This one seems to be working, and makes me look young and hip to oldsters and ironically cool to hipsters. It also explains itself to barbers; "just give me what I already have, but shorter." Which one would think is a simple request. It is not. Few stylists, even those at the illustrious salon of Fantastic Sam, can quite figure out how to do it well. I tried a brief explanation for my Octogenarian barber and let him go at it. I got a good haircut; all the hair on the top of my head is the same length and thus a different style than I requested, but it looks good.

All of that to say, I woke up this morning and couldn't be bothered with the extra four seconds it takes to put gel on my hands and push the sides of my hair towards each other. I didn't even pat it down or try to make it look other than a garbled mess. I don't care. That part of my life is over now. We've made peace.

There are all sorts of things I didn't expect - poop comprised entirely of liquid and what appears to be sesame seeds, for example - also that evolution would not have created a cutoff point for crying when the duration and volume has forced my responses past compassion and empathy and straight to blind rage. The only reason babies continue to survive is the evolutionary victory that oddly connects mothers to their children in unspeakably effective ways.

I've actually said, "Let her scream until she passes out; she'll be fine."

In closing, the one thing I did expect was to rely on the wife for most every important baby related decision until the child learns to talk. That seems to be going according to plan. The child is alive, she mostly sleeps through the night, and she continues to grow and develop. I'm not sure if everything is as I expected, but thus far, I'm entirely satisfied.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Christian Morality?

We attended the Sunday morning service of a congregation in our new town Sunday. We're trying to get to know the congregations in the area and figure out what communities and settings each is ministering in. Before I go any further, I do want to say that this particular congregation is doing some amazing things. They've really got a focus on being a positive presence in the community and helping the poor.

That being said, the whole experience was a vivid example of one of evangelical Christianity's major problems: a lack of definition. Let me be more specific - a Church that teaches and models generic morality, rather than anything specifically Christian.

The entire service was well planned and executed; it was clear the leadership had taken great time and care to present something that people would feel comfortable participating in. At the same time, they didn't seem to ask much about what their presentation said about God. There was no evidence of theological reflection. There were some catchy spiritual songs and a pretty lengthy scripture passage, but I can't recall Jesus actually being mentioned more than once or twice and only in passing.

The sermon was from James chapter two and focused on putting faith into action. There wasn't much theological depth here - other than to say talk is cheap. The majority of the sermon was an explanation of the ways in which this congregation helps people and an encouragement to be involved.

What seemed off to me was that the entire message was advocacy for generic morality. I don't know a soul on the planet, Christian, Muslim, atheist or anything else, who would have objected to this sermon. Your faith should have actions - please help people. That was the takeaway: be a helpful person.

Is there anything specifically Christian about that? Not that I can see. Certainly the Christian message is to be self-giving, but a Christian morality involves a radical giving of self - more than "being helpful," it's being entirely others focused. It's not a choice we make to help others, but a slavish commitment to love without end.

I thought it an interesting coincidence that one of the lines of one of the songs during the service said something to the effect of "if I have to lose this life, I will." My understanding of scripture is that Christ said losing our lives is a prerequisite. I wonder how many Christians associate losing their life only with martyrdom? Jesus was pretty clear that losing your life really just means giving up the capacity to make your own choices - it's total obedience. Losing your life means not caring if you have enough to eat or live another day - so long as you can love others.

Yes, it's a radical claim and a radical call - one far beyond my humble abilities. Yet what point does it serve to weaken the challenge of Christian morality to something we see as doable? Certainly I can fit some extra helpfulness into my busy schedule without sacrificing my quality of life. That's a message of generic morality and not anything specifically Christian.

There's a lot of nuance and complexity in our understanding of Christian morality - as its lived out in our world, especially in light of the grace and provision of a loving God. It's not so simple as working yourself to the bone and dying off in the name of love. There's more to it than that - more than I can cover here, now. But if we don't present the challenge to begin with, we never get to those questions of ethics and reality.

As part of the sermon, the pastor used the illustration of Abraham as an example of someone who put faith into practice - being willing to sacrifice his own son for the sake of obedience. Three times the pastor calmed the crowd by saying, "I'd never do that and you wouldn't either, but..." Doesn't that sort of miss the whole point? Yes, God called us to care for the people around us, especially our children - but providing our kids with a healthy, happy life is a generic morality; it's not explicitly Christian. The challenge would be - what if God calls you to sacrifice your kids happiness for the sake of the Kingdom?

We never got that message - and despite the great intentions and devout hearts, at least on this Sunday, I'm not sure we saw Jesus.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

So This Is Growing Up...

In the span of two months the wife and I have bought our first home, welcomed our first child into the world, and left my pastoral position and our congregation in New Jersey to embark on some new adventures in mighty Delaware.

In sum, we've made three major changes, each of which stretches our budget a little bit more. Our daughter had been pretty good. She cries more than we'd like, but she generally sleeps well at night (she goes to bad about 10 and almost never wakes up until 4, sometimes as late as 7 or 8). The house is great, but we've had some electrical problems that have requires some time and money.

At the same time I'm trying to navigate some relatively nebulous call to be a Christian presence of love, peace, and reconciliation in this community - at the same being the primary care-giver for our daughter once the school year begins in late August.

Needless to say there've been a lot of changes, stresses, and unusual happenings. My life is nothing like what I envision and like nothing I could have envisioned even as recently as May. I was especially troubled the other day when someone commented on my forlorn lack of schedule, "At some point you realize that you're never going to know what's expected of you in the next moment for at least the next two decades."

That's terrifying for someone who really likes to know well ahead of time what's going on. I also can't help but wonder hope that at some point I'll adjust to this lack of grounding.

People talk about being tired when kids come along. I didn't quite get what that meant until yesterday afternoon. I've been getting enough sleep. We don't really have any plans or responsibilities this summer, so we can sleep when we need to sleep. As I noted, though, there's a been a bit of stress trying to get the house in order - and then making sure we can actually pay for it (not to mention somehow saving for those inevitable big expenditures on the horizon). There just seems to be something else to do that requires a lot of focus and attention.

I had a near nervous breakdown last week trying to figure out how to get the best prices on groceries when we've got no less than five options (up from basically one before).

All that to say, at 2:47pm yesterday afternoon, in good weather and bright sunlight, with my eyes completely open, no noticeable fatigue and the radio off, staring forward on an empty street with corn on both sides - I drove almost directly into a curb and didn't notice until my car has already bounced back into the road.

No bystanders. No damage. Just an immediate and painful understanding of reality.