Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What We Don't Talk About When We Don't Talk About Sex

I read Lena Dunham's book of personal essays a few weeks back. I'm not sure what prompted me to get it (good reviews, I suppose) - I tried watching Girls, but couldn't even make it through the pilot. I sort of recognize it as satire, but it's far too on-the-nose to be comfortable in our current cultural climate. Is it a satire if the people being satirized are flattered by portrayal?

Anyway, I got the book from the library and I was more than pleasantly surprised. It's the first time I've ever read a book where the forward/prologue/pre-chapter-one-author's-note (preface - that's the word I'm looking for) added any real value to the book. Dunham's totally defines her's. She wanted to write a book about life (in the vein of those plasticy-stepford-wives type women's guides of the '80's) the sort teaching women how to be perfect and have it all, Dunham just wanted hers to reflect real life. She truly does lay out her mistakes, failures, regrets, non-regrets, lessons, problems, and lack of solutions for all to see. It's exceptionally honest and mostly humble.

What was most intriguing (and refreshing) to me, was her early essays on sex. Granted, Dunham's perspective on sex and the rules by which she governs her sexual life are quite distinct from mine (as an evangelical minister), but I think they reflect some real truth, which is important for anyone to hear. Maybe I'm totally wrong here, but the message I got was that she'd had good experiences and bad experiences, but ultimately sex isn't something that should be used to define yourself or prove anything or learn anything - everything she needed to know she already knew.

That got me thinking about the Church and the ways in which we talk (or don't talk) about sex. Dunham's essay would never be acceptable discussion fodder in most churches because she only views some of the sex she's had as mistakes. The Church tends to take a pretty firm line on abstinence. We're pretty terrified of putting it into our children's heads that some sex isn't regrettable, even if it isn't wise. If they get the notion that sex might not be the entryway to hell, they might have sex.

This is not to downplay the importance of chastity and fidelity. Not at all. I believe that sex works best the more committed the relationship. I just think you're going to have less problems with the intricacies and nuances of sex if you're married to a mostly sane person who's committed to you beyond their own personal comfort. It's no guarantee things will work well, but, as I said, I think things generally work better the more committed the relationship.

I'm generally loathe to tell people what to do, but I certainly don't shy away from my conservative position on the matter. Conservative, in this instance, meaning that while there may be benefits to sex outside of marriage, generally the negative possibilities outweigh the positives. I don't believe things are necessarily cut and dry (even theologically), but I do tend to favor caution over risk where sex is concerned.

That's not a position most adolescents find very attractive (caution in general) and thus it terrifies the adults with impressionable youngsters around us whom we love. We all want our kids (or anyone we care about) to learn from our mistakes (or anyone's really), but in all honesty, most all of us need to make mistakes, even mistakes everyone was telling us about for years, in order to really decide for ourselves. Some warnings will go heeded. Others will go tested (sometimes repeatedly). That shouldn't stop us from sharing our perspective on things - giving the lessons anyway. They might not work the way we intend, but they'll work for someone, in some way - and those people will be grateful. Even then people who don't believe us and make the same mistakes themselves will thank us for caring enough to share with them (and might, possibly, if we're really lucky) listen to us more intently in the future.

What I think Lena Dunham was saying is that she didn't need to make sexual mistakes to know what she needed to know, but she did need to make them to know that she already knew it. She's got a liberal position on sex. Sex can be good, if it serves to celebrate the worth and value of both people involved, if it humanizes people rather than dehumanizing them. It's not a hedonistic, pleasure-hound kind of position (but I've never heard a defense of hedonism that wasn't entirely nihilistic at its core), but certainly one with more risk involved.

Choosing one position over another is not going to guarantee you anything. It's not as though the categories of "right" and "wrong" even make sense here. I've read too many of those articles with people bemoaning that what the Church taught them about sex really messed them up. People make different choices; people are both happy and unhappy with the choices they make, no matter what choice it is. Life works out well for some people and others get messed up. For church people, it might be a conservative messing up over a liberal one, but I hope we can all agree that it doesn't matter if the wind is blowing west or east when you spit into it.

It's the kind of dialogue that can deal honestly with real experience that will benefit people in the long run. I don't agree with everything Lena Dunham has to say about sex, but I applaud her honesty, her sincerity, and her willingness to speak against common perception and cultural norms.

The Church tends to teach kids sex is bad. We don't set out to do it, but it usually ends up that way. We say sex is good when you're married, but bad any other time, which becomes more confusing than explanatory. What we mean to say is that sex is important - when you have sex there are real emotional, social, spiritual, physical consequences. Some of those can be very good, others can be very bad. All in all it's pretty complicated and not necessarily something people can make sound judgments about during these later stages of human maturation.

Which means we want our kids to wait until they've got a better foundation in the world and are far enough beyond the hormonal catastrophe of their teenage years to form some general opinions about how they want their life to go. We want to spare our kids some mistakes. This is a worthy goal. What we often fail to do is speak honestly enough to give them tools for making decisions. The odds of making mistakes tend to multiply exponentially when we don't have accurate information.

It's good to assume it's possible to go through life without making sexual choices you'll later regret. It's that kind of hope which infuses our faith with something vital and formative. At the same time, we fail to acknowledge the reality that regrettable situations will arise. I think, ultimately, we're afraid that in telling kids there's a chance (even if it's a small one) they can have sex and not suffer any life-altering consequences, we're giving them carte blanche to explore their desires. We refrain from discussing sex rationally or theologically because we feel young people are utterly incapable of controlling themselves and thus scare tactics are more effective.

We tell our kids to avoid alcohol. We give them plenty of reasons why it's not a smart thing to do at this stage of life. We explain, both rationally and (hopefully) theologically, why the Church takes the position it does. Some kids heed the warning, others find out for themselves how they feel. In either event, we don't tell kids their lives will be irreparably damaged if they make the wrong choice because we recognize the importance of redemption and restoration.

So why doesn't it work the same way with sex?

It's probably generational. No one is ever completely comfortable talking about sex in ways it needs to be talked about. We're also not always sure exactly what we believe or why, so it's far easier to walk an either/or black/white divide and pray our kid isn't the one who gets pregnant. We've drawn a line of risk, ironically, at one of the things most likely to actually have a huge impact on people's lives.

Even stranger, the conversations about sex from liberal and conservative positions aren't all that different from one another. The range of opinion and conversation isn't so starkly divergent as to be unbridgeable. Whether one advocates abstinence or exploration, pretty much everyone cautions people to make healthy choices that reflect both your own worth and the value of the other, while keeping hormones and emotions in check well enough to make smart choices. In the end, it's not really about the sex - it's about what we believe about ourselves and what our actions say about our understanding of the world. Most people agree there.

As the Church, we can't just confine our understanding of sex to marriage. It's fine and honorable to believe and teach sex belongs only in marriage, but we can't (or shouldn't) arrive at that conclusion without a long sojourn through the fields of grey. You want to have an interesting discussion - talk sex and marriage and scripture and the terminally ill teenagers of The Fault in Our Stars. That's a veritable minefield of grey on the way to black and white.

I'm not sure why us "church people" keep saying getting a handle on sex is easy or straightforward when it just simply is not. Things are complicated and confusing, even if they're not ultimately fluid and undefinable. Perhaps the answer for the Church is not in saying what we already say better, but in saying some things we often just refuse to say. What's wrong with being honest and trusting the relationships we've built with young people who actually care what we have to say? Teenagers may be pretty stupid sometimes*, but they're a lot smarter than we give them credit for.

*Aren't we all?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Presence: A Pastor's Guide to Funerals

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

This new book by Jon Twitchell is a revelation. A small, humble work of theology and practicality, helps pastors approach funerals, death, and grief from the experience of one who's officiated many hundreds of funerals in a variety of settings. I know Jon. We're friends, but even I was blown away with how well done the book is. Divided into four sections, covering context, theology, practics, and preparation, Presence contains much more than its subtitle suggests.

It is indeed a pastors guide and the audience is clear, but there is enough coverage of grief, mourning, and ministry to those in pain that anyone having to deal with such things could benefit. It is distinctly Christian, but in a way that can be universally applicable to funerals for all kinds of people. The writing style is careful and professional, but clear and mostly concise.

What shocked and impressed me most was the sheer volume of relevant, important information packed into just a few short pages. There are some sections I would have liked to be shorter and others I would have preferred to be longer, but all were useful and thought-provoking. The formatting was easy to use - short chapters, with associated pull-quotes from a variety of sources sprinkled throughout.

Frankly, I expected to provide a calm, quiet review of a mostly useful book. In the end, I am giving a more-than-ringing endorsement for a truly valuable tool. No pastor should go without having and reading this volume - even more so because it will only take an hour or two to read. Presence is not a how-to with lists of liturgies, prayers, and hymns (although there are some helpful appendices along these lines), it is a book of presence, as the title implies, helping pastors to find a place alongside grief as a representative of God.

Get it. Read it. Time well spent.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Collaboration is the New Creation

Producers have always won awards. The Grammys and Oscars for Best Album and Best Picture go to the producers of those works, the people who put the team together and guided the process. For a long time (and maybe still), they are not necessarily seen as part of the creative team, if anything they are the glue that holds the creative types together. Producers form the structure.

Lately, though, producers are becoming the artists - or perhaps they always were. This is more common with movies - Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, and Reese Witherspoon all have successful production companies (it doesn't hurt that there's lots of money to be made there) - but it's happening more and more in music. Daft Punk won the Best Album Grammy last year for a record they essentially produced. Nearly every track has guest performers and much of the construction was collaborative, but they're given credit. EDM artists are doing the same thing - think Calvin Harris or Avicii - artists whose major work is compiling a track, often by sampling or combining the work of others. Sometimes the named artist on an album doesn't sing or play any instruments.

It's a different world, but there's also something viscerally familiar about it.

I had the opportunity to write for a book done collaboratively. A friend of mine started a publishing company, conceived of a book written by many authors, working in concert. This is not just a book pieced together from disparate chapters, but something with which each of us was involved from the very beginning. It was (and is) very much Keith's baby - he designed the parameter, the skeleton upon which we added our prose and editorial opinions - but it's certainly not his alone.

The publishing world hasn't quite figured out how to label something like this. They're still working in the real of authors and editors. The music business hasn't gotten it either, although there are enough rules about how to credit various contributors and the creative people themselves are fluid enough that recognition generally finds its way to the right people.

I am, from time to time, creative. I like to write. There is a real sense in which what I create is entirely mine (save perhaps the occasional divine inspiration). At the same time, my creativity belongs almost entirely to the people who, through relationships and shared experiences, have shaped who I am. I see the world in the way I do because of the people around me. I may individually express and nurture my ability to express myself creatively, but it would be foolish to claim any of that for my own.

This takes on a much deeper aspect when we consider our creation alongside the creation of the world. I'll never begin to grasp the intricacies of the universe or the ways in which it came to be what it is. I believe God created, although my understanding of scripture leads me to believe God involved the creation itself as collaborator almost from the very beginning. This tracks well with both our best understanding of creation from science and also from our own experience in life.

Creation is a collaborative endeavor. Even if we create just for ourselves, there is an added dimension which arises when others interact with what we've done. Creation is a form of communication. Help us to recognize the creative value of those around us. Help us also to recognize the importance those around us have in the ongoing creation of our lives.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Marks of the Missional Church

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I think I read this book wrong. Marks of the Missional Church was written by three friends of mine for a publishing company with whom I've previously worked. Therefore, it's pretty difficult to say less than exemplary things about it. I wasn't super excited with the book. I didn't think the writing was particularly crisp and the chapters seemed to blend into one another pretty heavily.

About four fifths of the way through (how long it took my dense mind to process all of this), I realized I was reading the book wrong. It's not particularly (or generally) geared towards me reading it by myself on the couch in two or three sittings. It's not that kind of book. Marks of the Missional Church is meant to be read slowly and in community. The entire purpose is for people to come together, read the relatively short chapters together and then live with the material for a while, before coming back to repeat the process.

Organized around the characteristic marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed (one, holy, catholic, apostolic), the book explores each in depth as it relates to the life of a faith community. This is a book for the Church, but perhaps not for the churches we most commonly see. There is an understanding of the need to recapture the kind of Church which Nicea defined (1700 years ago) as a means of reclaiming purpose, place, and value within our society at large.

Many of the chapters use stories - both imaginative narratives and real life examples of faith communities - to illustrate the direction to which the authors intend to push the audience. It is a great book to work through in a congregation struggling to understand exactly what "missional" means in real life. The book is rooted in worship, with prayers provided to bookend each chapter and guiding questions for reflection and study. It's not going to go over the head of most parishioners (although the reading level seems a bit higher than most similar books - and that's a good thing), but it should also be a difficult read, in that it challenges us to think beyond the typical church answers that so often allow us to forget the real necessity of uncomfortable growth.

I wish there were more stories. It was impossible for those chapters to run together, even when reading the book incorrectly. I wish some of the language was a little less formal and a little more conversational; sometimes it sounds academic, even if the content isn't so much. It's not as good as perhaps I'd hoped for, and I'm not sure I can give it as ringing an endorsement as I'd liek, but it's a great format for Storian Press to embark upon and I hope to see other, similar titles in the future. Marks of the Missional Church is a unique work that should at least be considered by pastors and those responsible for leadership and guidance in faith communities seeking to make and be a real difference in the world.

Just remember, make sure to read it right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Anachronistic Innkeeper

Just fair warning here: I don't have a PhD in ancient near-east anthropology. I've got enough degrees to make me dangerous, but not enough to make me bulletproof.

There's no innkeeper. He doesn't exist. I know we see him in all the children's plays around this time of year - and he's become the unofficial scapegoat of Christmas, turning away a pregnant woman in the middle of winter - but there's no innkeeper. There's probably no stable either, but there's definitely no innkeeper. The Bible doesn't mention an innkeeper; we infer that because Luke Chapter 2 says "there was no room in the inn," or at least it says that in English, anyway.

The innkeeper doesn't exist, though, because the inn doesn't exist. That's the real problem. We make a poor inference because the translation makes no sense to us. People simply did not stay in hotels in Jesus' time. There were places we might call inns, but they were for the rare merchant or perhaps a military detachment headed some place without barracks. In Jesus' time, if people were traveling, they made personal connections. You arranged to stay with family or family of friends. You knew someone, who knew someone, who had a place. Often people would just show up at a relative's house unannounced - this kind of hospitality was infused into Jewish culture from the very beginning. The Torah even calls people to welcome strangers. If your cousin doesn't have room in his house, try the neighbor's, they might have room.

So what of the inn? Well, that's the tricky part. There was no inn. We're not just crossing language barriers, but cultural barriers, plus barriers of time (and we're doing it twice - once between Jesus' birth and 1611, when the King James Version came out, and another between 1611 and today). The King James Version twice translates a Greek word as "inn." Both instances are in Luke (very convenient for comparative purposes), but they're two different Greek words. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan takes the injured man to an inn, promising the innkeeper he'd pay for the man's care. In that instance, there is a word used which means "public lodgings." That's an inn, any way you cut it. The word used in chapter two, though, really means "guest quarters." The very fact that the same book uses two different words in what are really two different circumstances is good evidence that they're not meant to imply the same thing.

Here's where a nerdy working knowledge of traditional lodgings comes in handy. Most families, at the time, lived in one room, essentially. They had a kitchen or sorts, perhaps, with a work space, and some area where they could lay a mat out at night (the family would likely all huddle together as they slept). As the family grew - subsequent generations, cousins, uncles, parents, whatever, they would add rooms onto the home. In the cities, they'd build up (they still do in Jerusalem today), or, if there way space, maybe out. Then each nuclear family would have a place of their own.

Since homes were designed to be added on to at a later date, most reserved the roof for guests. If the family had some money, they might have a designated guest room, but there's not a ton of rain in Israel, so the roof would do. If they had my mother's manners, they might kick someone out of the "good room," so guests could use it and extra people would cram into the first floor (or main room, depending on construction).

So this leads us back to the scripture text - likely Joseph and Mary showed up at a relative's house, perhaps someone distant cousin or what-have-you, and requested hospitality. In reply, they were told the roof was full and there was no space for guests. This is where, if there was genuinely no room, they likely would have hopped next door or moved down the list of distant relatives who lived nearby and tried another place. They didn't, though (another pet peeve is when it's portrayed that Joseph and Mary tried a lot of hoteliers with no success), because they were offered an alternative.

While it's entirely possible the relative they visited had a barn out back, it's extremely unlikely. Those families with livestock (and almost everyone had livestock of one kind of another - eggs and milk and such didn't grow at Safeway, after all) would use them during the day for work (pulling carts and whatnot) or leave them outside to graze. At night, the animals were brought into the house, where they'd bed down on the other side of the main room from the family. Other rooms were guest quarters or the living spaces of older relatives because it was polite to not make people you wished to honor sleep with the goats.

Joseph and Mary likely found a relative with a full house, but one generous enough to offer space with his own wife and kids for this distant cousin and his poor, pregnant betrothed. The Bible mentions Jesus being laid in a manger (a feeding trough for animals), but there's no mention of a stable or a barn - I think, because there wasn't one.

So, if this is true (and while I think it makes sense, I might be entirely wrong), how did this inaccurate portrayal of the event get passed down so thoroughly through the years? I have no proof of this at all, but I suspect it has something to do with how these words might translate to seventeenth century England.

The King James Version came about at a time when scripture in the common language was just emerging. It was written for the common people (if you had money, you were educated, and thus could read scripture in Latin, if you so desired), and I'm guessing "guest quarters" would have been entirely foreign to the common people. People of the time rarely traveled - most would never get more than six or seven miles from the house in which they were born FOR THEIR ENTIRE LIVES! Houses were hovels - and anyone you knew lived nearby and could stay at their own house. Inn - a public housing option for travelers without the means to call upon the local noble - was likely the best they could do to convey the message to the people at the time.

Subsequent English translations were loathe to change the words, which had become so familiar to people in such a familiar story (although the newest version of the NIV does say "guest room," as Luke intended). Today, we all just assume, I guess, that there was a Motel 6 on every corner in Jerusalem and Joseph didn't have the money to spring for an Embassy Suites.

I'm not sure what the point of this whole thing was, really, other than to explain my frustration with the way we tell this story.* Perhaps it's simple to illustrate the importance of further questions, of not taking everything at face value. Investigation is good for the soul - and, at the very least, it may keep some of us from perpetuating the tale of the anachronistic innkeeper to another generation. Merry Christmas!

Just be thankful we didn't delve into the historicity of the census that drives this journey in the first place - you do not want to go there!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Poehler Wisdom

I read the new Amy Poehler book this week. I didn't think it was great. It surely wasn't a bad book. It was entertaining and funny, a touch preachy at times. There are interesting insights into some of Poehler's comedy and career. Mostly, though, it was a solid reminder than famous people really aren't any different than the people we spend time with everyday (other than often fabulous wealth, incredible egos and a maniacal drive to succeed). Amy Poehler's book mad me a bit sad for her. Like, I'm happy her life is less awful than it used to be, but it's more of an "I've accepted how messed up I am," sort of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not fantastically satisfying to read at this point in my life.

She does make an overall point - and my praise of it will immediately look like hypocrisy, given the way I ended that last paragraph - that resonates with me deeply. My two favorite quotes come in the same section. The first, "Success is full of MSG." The second (maybe credited to David Simon) is "Ambivalence is the key to success." Her point being that striving for something will never be fulfilling and almost always disappointing. Live life for life. Do things you're passionate about, things you believe it. Make your own life, not yours or someone else's expectations of what life should be.

When we seek for something, we'll never be happy, even if we find it. It is in those moments where we don't need anything that whatever we're looking for seems to have arrived. Of course, once we start seeking an absence of seeking, we enter an existential death spiral that will eventually fry our brains.

But anyway... it was an interesting book that produced in me a profound ambivalence, which seems to be (unless there's some insidious sadism lurking inside that tiny comedian) exactly what she was going for.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Chris Rock, Killer Mike, and Racial Progress

Chris Rock is a comedian. He's also a really smart dude. He comes to things from an interesting perspective and he's always got something to say that's been well thought out. He doesn't shoot from the hip. I really enjoyed this recent interview with him. They cover a lot of things (including his new movie, that I think may be very good) like politics and race.

He's got a great line when asked about the difference between the black civil rights movement and the one currently happening with the LGBT community. "I always call Ellen DeGeneres the gay Rosa Parks. If Rosa Parks had one of the most popular daytime TV shows, I’m sure the civil-rights movement would’ve moved a little bit faster too."

There's a lot of good stuff there about Obama and politics in general. I've seen a few places pick up his take on racial progress.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Chris Rock doesn't do interviews unless he's promoting a movie (even though he barely talks about the movie), so enjoy it while it lasts. You can find lots more Rock at Grantland, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Hollywood Reporter. He can do whatever interviews he wants because he's so unavailable, but also because he's one of the few celebrities entirely free to speak his mind. He's made tons of money and his audience won't care what he says. He's also got five lifetimes worth of street cred, so he can speak honestly both from and to his place as a prominent African American.

Another person in a similar position is Killer Mike, a rapper (currently of Run the Jewels). There's a great podcast with him on Grantland. Here he engages on topics of importance to the black experience, but not in the sort of monolithic way so many of us (white people) are used to hearing it. There's only a few minutes at the beginning about music, the rest (and it's more than an hour) is unique, intelligent, and challenging for anybody.

When speaking of racial progress, I have to agree with Rock: it's about white people changing. One of the things I notice about racial discussions in this country is that they're less about race, especially among younger people. This is not the old trope about class being the new race (class will always be a divisive topic), but something different about the motivations behind our discussions of race. This is really in the generation behind me (and although I'm 33, there is at least one, if not two full generations of adults, distinctly different, younger than me), but race seems less about race. We can't deny the shocking numbers of racial disparity, but in the end, when (younger) white people are upset about Ferguson these days, it's not because a black man was denied justice, but because a human being was.

That's not to say race isn't a component and an important one (white human beings still have a better time of it in the justice department), but I think white people may actually starting to view people who look different as people first. I think (hope) this will allow for us to hear and express a true diversity of opinion. So that when Chris Rock or Killer Mike speak to the public, they can do so AS black men, but not ON BEHALF of black men.

When a black man in a suit is on CNN, 95% of the time, the audience assumes (or is supposed to assume) he's speaking on behalf of black people. It's the black opinion. That doesn't happen with white men - we all assume they speak for themselves or perhaps a specific group with whom they hold a position (like the NRA or Greenpeace). Obviously, the hope is for that to change. I'm sure even Al Sharpton would love (well, wouldn't totally mind, might be more like it) to fade into a chorus of diverse black voices with access to mainstream media.

I share all these links today in the hopes more people can gain access to the kind of perspective we don't always hear, especially in a world where everything is condensed into soundbites. There's no "us vs them" stuff here. It's two men, with their own unique identities, expressing their own individual opinions in public forum. I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything said and they certainly don't necessarily agree with each other. Race is a part of who they are, it informs their perspective and opinions, but they don't allow it to be the defining aspect of what they have to say.

Neither should we.

If we manage that, well, then it might just be some small step on whatever Chris Rock will call racial progress.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Birth of a Comedy Master

My daughter is two and a half and she thinks she's hilarious. Previously she'd do or say funny things from time to time and we'd laugh. She then assumed those words are universally funny and she'll say them whenever she wants you to laugh. Her "best" joke up until now has been "pee pee curtain." It came out of nowhere the first time, in a car full of people, and we all cracked up. She says it a lot now. We rarely laugh anymore, which is fine with her; she'll just come up to you, say it, then ask, "can you laugh now." I've been wondering if that could be an effective gimmick for an actual adult stand-up comedian. Maybe.

Anyway, over the last couple of weeks, Eva's comedy has changed slightly. Now, when she's asked or is asking a question, she'll often replace one word with something else. What's your favorite food, Eva? Headbands, she'll answer, then laugh at her own joke.

I realized today, though, that this is comedy. She's figured it out. At its core, all comedy - at least spoken comedy - is saying something people aren't expecting. Everything from the classic, "Take my wife, please, take her," to Seinfeld-ian observational humor (What's the deal with airplane bathrooms...), even to vulgar or gross-out comedians (Did she just say that?), is just timing. It's saying something people don't expect. The key to being great at it is figuring out exactly the right unexpectedly thing to say at exactly the right time.

Obviously my daughter is not going to be headlining in Vegas anytime soon, but she's got all the tools.

**Yes, this was short, but it was an interesting notion, just a bit too long for a Facebook post, plus everybody loves it when they see pictures of my daughter. Win-win-win all around.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Letter of the Law

I suppose no one wants to hear even more "further reflections on Ferguson," which is really the beauty of a blog like this. You're not paying for it. you don't have to read it. There's still something I want to write down and here it goes:

One of the things that's been most troubling for me about all of this (and not just "this," but all of the similar controversies over time) is what it says about our underlying assumptions of law and justice. I know I've written about it before, but it boggles the mind that people (and its almost all people) so completely equate the two, law and justice.

It seems that everyone (or almost everyone) works on the assumption that the laws themselves are bedrock. If things don't work out, it's not the fault of the law, but something gone wrong in carrying out the law. We seem to think the law is inherently justice and only its enforcement can be corrupt.

Sure, there are unjust laws, but those are big things, which are ferreted out by society. Things like that don't sneak up on people; they're not spurned by individual incidents or specific situations. When laws are the problem, we fight wars. When execution of the laws are wrong, that's when we riot. We read into the judgment or law with out own biases. A black man can't get a fair shake with all these corrupt cops out there. These cops risk their lives to do their job - it's not always pretty, but somebody's got to do it.

These attitudes don't help anyone, they run headlong into each other, often in violent ways, but they're ultimately rooted in the same problem. Laws are not the bedrock for society. They may be the bones upon which society rests, but there is something deeper, some ethereal morality that governs how we live and interact with each other. Laws try to approximate it in technical ways; religions approach it with mystic vagueries (and sometimes laws of their own), but we all sort of know there is a right and wrong out there, even if we can't always touch it.

So we do have to have laws. We have to have some concrete way of putting into practice that thing out there we can't fully explain. WE must have laws, but we must also recognize them for what they are: approximations of morality, not the definition of it.

I've talked about this analogy a lot, for a lot of things, but our justice machine seems to be putting out faulty products. Whatever society we've constructed from the laws we have is producing results that look like Ferguson. Now the results most people get most of the time are within the bounds of acceptability, so we avoid blaming the machine itself. We attempt to tweak the results, manipulate them a little, throw away the truly unsalvageable, make the product workable for more people. We're focused on changing the results.

You may be able to patch something workable together that way, but it can't last. You've still got a broken machine. Unless and until we're willing to admit, really admit, that it's the machine that's the problem, not the outcomes, we're going to keep having the same results. We're patching together a broken machine and with each passing year it takes more effort to make the results look like we want them to look. Eventually the whole thing's gonna fall apart.

I have no doubt the grand jury in Ferguson studied the evidence, deliberated in good faith, and honestly followed the instructions given them to the letter of the law. There's some debate over just how robust the prosecution was in presenting a case, but ultimately the system seems to have worked as it was intended to work.

Of course, if this is true, then the system's got to change - not just to amend the result into something we'd like better, that's a fools errand, but wholesale reform, redesign, re-engineering the way these laws and customs work so that everyone, police and protester alike, can be happy with the result.

I recognize we've been sold the notion this kind of result is an impossible pipe dream simply because it's never happened before. To that I'd say, things have, generally, always gotten better over time. While I have hope in the promise of unity, even those skeptics have to believe there's a possibility for improvement (at least as much as they believe it won't happen).

GM makes a lot of cars. For a while there, they knew the cars were coming off the line faulty, but they were content to fix them after the fact. Only now are they having to go back and fix the whole production process. It's not enough to just fix the results, we have to go back and fix the machine that produces the results we don't like.

Even if most of the people like their results, when some don't, we can always work to make things better. Constantly improving, not settling for pretty good - at least not when it comes to human lives. That's not to say everyone must end up equal, but there is some baseline for sufficiency in society - when people fall below it endemically, the machine has to be rethought.

If the result of these events in Ferguson is status quo, we're not going to make it. Even if this one event blows over, the compound effects will eventually catch up to us. The outrage testifies to the fact something is wrong. The Grand Jury has shown it's not the police officer himself, perhaps it's his training or the culture and influences that shape it. That's the next step. Riots, at this point, can be debilitating if they're too overtly focused on the results and not the machine. The message has been sent; now the hard work of moving forward must begin.

[Edited 12-3-2014 to add] This was posted yesterday. Today a grand jury in New York decided not to prosecute a police office for choking Eric Garner (who died of a related heart attack) over suspected illegal cigarette sales. The incident was captured on video. The office in question was already facing charges of abuse in previous incidents and any number of policy and procedure violations were admitted to by both police officials and medical responders. It's an almost entirely different situation from Michael Brown, but it turns out to be very much the same. The machine is broken.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Birthday Reflection

I was born just after midnight on December 1st, 1981. Today is my thirty-third birthday (a number now large enough to be incomprehensible to me as an age). Last night, shortly after midnight, upon the second round of coughing spells and half-asleep crying from my two year old daughter, I dragged my pillow and a blanket into her room, laid down on the floor and reached up to grab her hand. She immediately calmed and fell mostly asleep. I say mostly because anytime I tried to move my hand in the first 45 minutes or so, she'd just grab more tightly.

I realized in that moment, the full extent of my hopes for fatherhood. I can remember vividly, even as a teenager, seeing a young child walking with her dad, holding just one of his fingers in her hand and feeling some sense of longing or completeness. A baby grasps your finger that way from almost the first day they're alive. Grabbing is something we're pretty good at. It happens to often, I know I've come to take it for granted.

But in that moment last night, it all came back to me. There's something visceral in that little hand, the trust, the lack of pretext, which communicates something beyond words. There are a lot of fears in parenting. Mostly they stem from the inevitability of your child's life being out of your control. Things will happen to her - school will be bad one year (or ten), the neighbor kid will push her down, some jerk of a date will treat her undeservedly at prom - and there's nothing I can do about it. I wasn't prepared for those moments, when life is just impossible to figure out and you're paralyzed with what to do, but know you must do something. That's scary.

At the same time, there's the little hand, holding my finger. Even if I'd never had kids, the image, the idea of it would still echo through my mind, reaching for some part of me born to connect in that way. Reproduction is biologically ingrained within us, after all. When people ask what I think about kids, I typically tell them I'm still intellectually against the idea, even though I love the one I've got an awful lot. That answer is a vague attempt to relate with words the experience of early this morning.

Having children doesn't make much sense; there's far too much that can (and will) go wrong. But there's also something - something indescribably right - about the whole process. It's this "rightness" that drives animals to fits of rage if separated from their young and it's also what prevents neglectful, irresponsible parents from putting their kids in a situation that's better for them.*

I suppose this can all be explained scientifically, biologically - a child is vulnerable and an appeal to the self-satisfaction of a parent aids in survival. That may be true, but if we're going the way of explanation, I'll just stick with the memory of my thirty-third birthday, laying beside my daughter while she fell asleep holding my hand.

*And why I'll once again affirm that parents who do give up their kids for the kid's own good are the greatest heroes on the face of the planet.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bonhoeffer Abridged by Eric Metaxas

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

This is, as the title indicates, an abridged version of Metaxas' monumental biography of theologian, pastor, and WWII Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had heard quite a bit about the book when it's original form was released. Metaxas is certainly a huge name and a respected scholar, but much of the criticism came from my friends in the peace movement, among whom Bonhoeffer is a sainted figure. The contention was that Metaxas glossed over some of the more radical and difficult teachings of Bonhoeffer, especially as they related to non-violence.

This is a difficult position since Bonhoeffer was, most definitely, eventually involved in the plot to overthrow (and assassinate Hitler), working as a double agent within the intelligence service. While Metaxas does a masterful job of illustrating the very confusing nature of elite German life during the war, at least in the abridged version of the book, I have to agree that Bonhoeffer has been, in some ways, domesticated - as a martyr for status quo Christianity more than a radical challenge to it.

The book is very much a history of the Third Reich. Beyond the obligatory early biographical information, the narrative simply retells the Nazi story from the inside and the ways in which this intersected with the life of those Christian pastors who attempted to maintain prophetic distance, led by Bonhoeffer. This is complicated precisely because of Bonhoeffer's social position within one of the leading families of the aristocracy. So many officers, intellectuals, and other leaders were against the manic aims of Hitler, but continued to work subversively within the German war machine. Perhaps the best contribution of Bonhoeffer Abridged is shedding light on the truly muddled nature of life in Nazi German (as opposed to the typical black and white treatment we so often get in the US).

Additionally, great pains are taken to portray Bonhoeffer as those around him understood him - a true man of God. The holy account of his final hours and the calm and peace which he maintained throughout as a real testament to the profound power of God in his life, overshadowing what is a scant treatment of his true beliefs about Christian ethics in human society. The final chapter is inspiring and emotional, but a poignant, appropriate tribute to a true hero of the faith.

That being said, I'm not sure the purpose of an abridged version (other than additional revenue). The audience likely to pick up a 200 page biography and not a 500 page one has got to be pretty small. This version is interesting enough to make me want to read the larger work, but it's also thorough and deep enough that I wonder if such a reading wouldn't be too repetitive. The writing is well done and the abridgment is noticeable in only one or two places (where there is clearly insufficient transition between paragraphs).

Bonhoeffer's life - a pacifist involved in killing Hitler - is a depressing contradiction to some. Metaxas attempts to use his personal piety and obvious holiness of heart to overcome the credibility gap here. I've found great comfort in the way Bonhoeffer spoke of himself. I tried (in vain) to find the quote I read once upon a time, wherein he deals specifically with his involvement in the conspiracy to remove Hitler and his own non-violent beliefs. Bonhoeffer refused to justify or condone the evil he supported, but instead explained it was the best option available to his limited vision and conscience. This perspective on Bonhoeffer is absent in Metaxas' work, but it does not make this biography any less important.

Bonhoeffer Abridged is a good book. If you are among those who would choose a 200 page biography over a longer, fuller version, by all means get this book. If nothing else, the abridged version may whet appetites enough to explore the actual writings of the man who's life and work has inspired deeply my own faith and those of countless others who find the status quo insufficient.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Looting Isn't Stupid

Looting isn't stupid. It's hopeless, but it's not stupid.

I'm not saying that the young men and women breaking into liquor stores and fast food restaurants and stealing shoes from the corner store are actively exhibiting anything other than an opportunistic gut reaction. What I am saying is that whether they know it or not, looting is the collective response of the truly hopeless. It's not stupid.

I don't condone violence of any kind. I don't want people rioting or looting for any reason. Then again, I have hope. My faith is built around a belief that love will win in the end, that we're, despite all evidence to the contrary, destined for a future of peace and loving co-existence in which all are welcomed, valued, and find place.

I imagine most of those who casually dismiss looting as stupid are also not hopeless. Even if your hope is somewhat less idealistic than mine, you believe there is a good chance things can or will be at least functional for most people in the future. "If only people would just _________ or understand ____________ or even elect ____________, we'd figure this out. That's hope.

People with hope don't understand looting.

Looting isn't stupid; it's just hopeless.* In the wake of extreme tragedy, disaster - a zombie apocalypse for example - there will be looting. Those who've prepped for doomsday will find these looters reactionary and callous, with their underground bunkers and decades worth of canned hope shading their eyes. But when there's reasonable expectation the world will operate differently in the future, old rules can more easily be ignored. If the aliens have landed, and are actively disintegrating every human in sight, if the flood waters have covered the roofs and armed police are forcing you back into the danger zone, there is little in your adrenaline-drenched body to believe anything will be as it was. Survival is the new morality.

We can say, rightly (at least from the majority perspective, those with hope), a decision like that of the Grand Jury in Michael Brown's death, whether we agree with its faithfulness to the law or not, is no apocalyptic disaster. That's true. It's a tragedy from any perspective, but life will go on.

Looting, in this case, is not about a hopelessness for the existence of society, but a hopelessness that right or wrong mean anything within that society for people of a certain color or socioeconomic status. Again, I don't condone looting and violence. I just can't. I have faith. But it makes perfect sense to me how a lot of young black men and women wouldn't. It makes sense to me that they look at all the events of Ferguson and say, "It doesn't matter if I do the right thing or the wrong thing, I'm still gonna end up dead or imprisoned or beaten or gassed." They do have numbers on their side. In lots of poor black neighborhoods it's more likely for young men to serve time than to graduate from high school - and a high school diploma is no guarantee of success in its own right, especially from the kind of schools our society provides for those neighborhoods.

Looting isn't stupid, but our responses to it are. We crave news coverage that shows the violence and not coverage in the dozens of churches offering shelter, food, clothes, and hope to people who might otherwise be hopeless. We tell the angry, young hopeless people to stop being stupid, rather than providing some indication there is a future worth hoping for - a future in which all perspectives are considered and included, even if they make it difficult for the comfortable, established way of life a few of us enjoy.

The answer to violence is certainly not more violence. It's a message we hope to send to looters, but one that doesn't come across well behind riot gear and tear gas. That might be practically effective, but it's ultimately useless. We're not fighting stupidity, we're fighting hopelessness. We need new weapons. Not the weapons that come at a discount to our police from the Iraqi surplus store, but those which come from personal commitment to cross boundaries in our daily lives (and not for a day or a week or an hour at a time, either).

These tragic and regrettable barriers mean few persons of legal authority carry any weight for the hopeless, believing they do only reinforces and strengthens the lack of hope. We need to listen to those champions of hope who hope so strongly they've built lives and relationships of trust among the hopeless. We need to listen, rather than arrest them; it only breeds the very hopelessness we wish to end.

It starts with recognizing that my normal, my life, my hope, my assumptions - my truth - does not work for everyone in every place. My stuff matters, but not because it's right, because it's mine. The same courtesy is owed to others, even if they seem wrong or stupid, even dangerous. I can make this claim, because I am willing to sacrifice if need be, for a future in which we all not only have a place, but feel we belong on equal ground. I certainly have not sacrificed enough,** but I believe such sacrifice is possible, because I believe in hope.

*It doesn't quite make sense in the context of this post, but there is also a looting for seemingly no reason at all, or very little reason. White teenagers celebrating a football victory (or mourning a loss), for example. I'd argue that this is still rooted in hopelessness, but a hopelessness that has no outlet in a society in which these people are already atop the mountain of privilege.

**I have to acknowledge that my hope is easier to have, because the world around me works pretty well for me, especially as compared to the vast majority of people on the planet. I also have to recognize my willingness to sacrifice for hope might be compromised when the reality of a more difficult hope sets in. We can't underestimate the power of comfort and status quo. It's much easier to change someone else than to change myself.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jerry Seinfeld and Living Right

On Facebook, last week, I post this awesome link to an unlikely interview with Jerry Seinfeld and Wale. They've struck up an interesting friendship and collaboration. I am a huge Seinfeld fan, so I'm drawn to what he does, but this sort of thing is all he does these days. Jerry is 60 now and he made $800m from his television show. He's got three kids. he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do.

What he wants to do is talk to people he finds interesting. So he does this Wale thing. He does his web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is exactly what it seems. Jerry spends the afternoon talking to funny people and showing off some of his $15m car collection. He's not working a brand. He's not angling for something. He's enjoying life, doing what he thinks he should be doing.

In this day and age when everything is about image or strategy or competition, Jerry is Jerry. That's living right. You or I may disagree with him when it comes to what's important or the best ways to spend time and money, but that's not really the point. He's living life for life, not for some ulterior motive.

Yes, it's likely much easier to forget what other people think or ignore outside expectations when your net worth trumps the GDP of most Caribbean nations, but money is only a requirement if money is part of the goal. You can live the way you want - or think you should - so long as you're willing to sacrifice.

Jerry can be free and indulgent, but freedom doesn't come with a price tag. The trick is not being caught up in the game of more. There are plenty of people with far more money than Jerry Seinfeld who don't have enough. There are people with almost nothing who have more than they need. What I like about the carefree Jerry these days is simply that he's doing it different. I really believe the first step to "living right," is getting off the wheel of conformity and expectation. You'll never be able to stand on your convictions if you're not the one forming them in the first place.

It might take work to get from where you are to where you want to be, but the key is not letting other people define what living right means or how to go about getting it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Many Ways to God

There's a joke I've heard a lot, especially (for obvious reasons) in Christian circles. It goes something like this:

A man was standing on the railing of a bridge, ready to jump. A passer-by, concerned, asks the man why he wants to end his life. "Nobody loves me," comes the reply. "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" "Yes," says the desperate, would-be jumper. "Are you a Christian?" "Yes, I am." "Are you protestant or Catholic?" "Protestant." "Me, too," says the passer-by, "What sort of Protestant?" "Baptist." "Northern or Southern?" "Northern." "Me, too. Northern United Baptist or Northern Independent?" "Northern Independent." "Me, too. Reformed Northern Independent Baptist or Traditional?" "Reformed." "Me, too. Are you part of the 1873 Reformation or the 1922 Reformation?" "Oh, the 1922 Reformation." To which the man replies, "Die heretic scum," and pushes the jumper off the bridge.

It is, I suppose, a way for us to laugh at our differences and how seriously we take them, but few, if any Christian will tell you differences don't matter. They'll admit some of them matter very little, "so long as we all love Jesus," but even that is a difference among the many people out there who do, in fact, believe in God. There is some baseline most everyone draws for defining who's in and who's out.

Growing up, the notion that there are many paths to God was exactly that sort of litmus test in the faith environment in which I grew up. If a person claims there are many ways to God, they were definitely not believing correctly. This all stems from the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me." Which always sounded pretty self-explanatory.

Of course context is everything. If you're asking the question, "What's the way to God," then Jesus is a pretty easy answer (if you're a Jesus kind of person or give credence to what John has to say). Theologically, things get a little more tricky. The generic evangelical gospel was always, "believe certain things about Jesus and the salvation of Jesus will work for you." It's a very simple and individualistic way of determining who's in and who's out. The problem comes though, in that scripture doesn't spend much (any?) time concerned with who's in or out. It just doesn't.

Scripture is much more collectivist. God created the world. God is at work making the world what God intends it to be. Individuals have a part only in the choice to participate in God's intended way for the world, or not. This is ultimately what "salvation" means. Not eternal security, but the end to which one's life is aligned. Scripture isn't much concerned with where you're going when you die as it is with where you're going while you're alive.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is, "What is the right way to live?" I think it's the question every person asks almost every day of their lives. It's the only question God ever intended us to ask (or perhaps, it's the one question underlying all the other questions we ask in life). The talk of "ways to God" only makes sense for those who believe in God - but everyone is looking for the way to live. That's the real question. That's what people mean when they say they believe in "many ways to God." They just want to affirm that people are different and make different choices and none of us are, independently, capable of fully judging the choices of others.

You know what? They're right.


Look at it this way: Christians might argue that Jesus is an irreplaceable part of what it means to live rightly, but likely, once they've agreed on this simple fact, every two Christians out there would eventually find something about which to disagree (maybe not seriously enough to push someone off a bridge, but seriously nonetheless).

We're largely ok with those differences, because we really do believe there are many ways to God. People are different. They have different lives, outlooks, experiences, which all combine to lead them to answer that ultimate question - What's the best way to live - a little bit differently.

Notice I changed the question a little bit there. I changed the word "right" to "best." I moved it from an either/or to a spectrum. Life is not a right/wrong, true/false question. The theologian NT Wright is quoted as saying, "I'm confident 20% of what I believe is wrong, I just don't know what 20% it is." We need to be comfortable with the notion we're wrong. That doesn't mean we give up on belief, it just means we give up on certainty.

In this unreal scenario, you're told your child was in an accident and in critical condition in the hospital in Vartoken, Iowa. You have only a car, no phone, map, or GPS. You might not know exactly how to get there, but you're going to make the best decisions you can until you do. Chances are you won't choose the most direct route. You will likely make a few wrong turns along the way, but not knowing exactly how to get there isn't going to make you just give up and stop trying.

Yes, each religion has its bedrock absolutes. Christians or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists can be as generous as possible, but there are still some beliefs that will always be out of bounds for calling yourself a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. Let's call these the ordinals. Our religion is the direction in which we set out in this mad dash to Vartoken. They're big choices and they're often very different from one another. Some people might spurn all organized religion or ignore God altogether. They're setting out on less established paths, but setting out nonetheless.

We can disagree (strenuously) with the way some people take, but as we settle in on our chosen direction, we become more comfortable with the people around us. Sure, they may choose a different turn here or there, but we're all going the same direction. The closer and closer we get to the destination, the more comfortable we feel with the people around us - yet we're all still on different paths.

Now, as a Christian, I'm convinced that whoever makes it to Vartoken in the end - whether they set out as an Atheist, Hindu, or whatever else (whether they finished that way, too) - they got there because of the part Jesus Christ plays in the life of the world. When Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," I believe that's true in an of itself, not because someone agrees with or denies it. I don't at all believe religion gets us where we need to go, but I do believe Jesus makes it possible.

In the end, it doesn't really matter who has the most direct route to "the best way to live." I happen to call that "best way," Jesus, but the way itself doesn't change if you call it something else. What matters is that we're willing to be wrong and change our minds (if we're convinced they need to change). What matters is that we're not so arrogant to assume our path is the only path to God.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


I realize its been two weeks since I posted something. That's far too long a break for my liking. But, life has been busy and I haven't had a ton of time to think or much reason for my mind to wander. It's strange how mental burnout always seems to fall post-election. There's nothing so good for enriching a life of nihilistic depression as democracy in action.

Anyway, since I need to write something and I happened to really enjoy my three hours with Christopher Nolan last week, I thought I'd review Interstellar.

There's been a lot made of Christopher Nolan's weaknesses. The best description I've heard is that he overestimates what he has to say. His movies always have a message, but he sets up a relatively simple message in a complex, utterly innovative way. His movies are like giving someone a Hershey bar inside one of those cool stainless steel briefcases you always see handcuffed to someone's wrist in the movies. No one is going to complain about getting chocolate, but they might be slightly disappointed there wasn't more in the box.

I happen to be one of those people who's sufficiently impressed with the box to be happy. I loved Interstellar. The critics are right that Nolan relies on his actors to carry the weight of the film, which probably keeps him from winning directing awards, but he almost always finds the right actors and gets great performances from them - which make for great movies.

Interstellar tells the story of a not-too-distant future, where blight and environmental degradation have literally decimated the planet. Human exist, essentially, in a state of stubborn denial that they will eventually be extinguished from the Earth. Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA test pilot, refuses to lose hope. Through mysterious circumstances, he and his young daughter uncover a secret mission to find a new home for humans on another planet and he's recruited to fly the spaceship - along with Anne Hathaway (a scientist whose father runs the program), Wes Bentley (whose character is so unimportant it doesn't merit someone whose name we know), and another guy who looks just like US Mens National Soccer Team legend, DaMarcus Beasley.

The story centers around father-daughter relationships, particularly the one between Coop and his daughter, played as an adult by Jessica Chastain. She ages as he's in space due to relativity. There's been a lot made about what's "true" and what's not about the science of Interstellar. They had renowned astrophysicists consulting on the project (one so important he's a character in the Stephen Hawking biopic out now), and while some liberties were taken for the sake of story (and of course some speculation was made based on the unknown), it's much less Science Fiction than most outer space films.

The ultimate message Nolan wraps in this incredibly impressive box is that love means something. Love isn't frivolous and it isn't unimportant. It's a message I wholeheartedly support. I think it's pretty darn important even if it is simple. It's told through beautiful artistry and skillful storytelling. There are lots of surprises and real human emotion done extraordinarily well by extraordinary actors.

Yes, there are things to pick apart. The storyline with the "surprise hollywood star" is unnecessarily convoluted (likely to make sure they slipped a fight scene into the movie), but the power of the whole shines through well.

It's a story about fathers and daughters, $165m spent for one father (Nolan) to say something important to his own young daughter. If they can handle the intense space depictions and emotional turmoil, you can take your daughter to see it without having to cover her eyes or ears. I cried at least three times, although it could have been more. Nolan is telling his daughter the importance of dreams and ambition, but also balancing those notions with the importance of relationships and simplicity.

It's a beautiful movie, but you don't have to see it in theaters to appreciate it (although you won't be disappointed if you do fork over the dough for a big screen). In the end, the critics are right, the degree of difficulty, story-wise, wasn't real high, but it was still an excellent movie. I said upon leaving the theater, "Christopher Nolan might've just ruined movies forever." I believe this was beautiful, entertaining, timeless, passionate, and good. It's not an epic piece of craft, but it is an extraordinary movie.

Art doesn't have to be perfect to be moving. I liked this a whole lot more than other movies which were obviously better. That has to say something.

I think everyone should see it. Not because it's world shattering, but because it's good and fun and promotes the kind of love our society so often forgets or ignores. It might not be profound or narratively groundbreaking, but it's nothing simple. It's not easy. But it's not easy in the best possible way.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

My Favorite Election Lie

Last night was the mid-term US elections - a lot of Governors and Senators were elected, plus all of the House of Representatives. Most often as I watched victory speeches, one phrase stuck out above the rest - "You didn't vote for me, tonight, you voted for yourselves."

This is, by far, my favorite lie of election season. It's not even limited to election season, its the lie woven into the entire fabric of US democracy that keeps the whole structure afloat.

We don't vote for the candidate most capable of doing the job - every single voter could name a half dozen age-eligible acquaintances more appropriate for the position - we choose between two narratives, representative of larger institutionalized power positions, carefully crafted to appeal to our emotions and fears.

This system is perpetuated by rhetoric of representation, as if the mere ability to vote ensures free and fair elections or could ever hope to deliver on its promises. These applause lines, "You stood up for Arkansas today," serve only to perpetuate the myth that orderly authority is the only means by which we can effectively live together.

It trickles down. How often does a neighbor talk to a neighbor about a noisy dog or an overgrown yard before they call the police? Do you even know your neighbors' names? Are we informing ourselves about the social safety net by talking to people in our own town whose lives it affects (both positively or negative) or do we get our information from talking heads on TV?

Every winner, regardless of party of ideology, adopts the language of populism - a good fight against smarmy elitists (either of ideological or economic stripe), because all of them are hiding the real system of elites who make decisions. Power's only purpose is to maintain power.

The real "players" in this system are empowered interests. Yes, they spend and spend to influence elections, but not out of some ideological bent; they spend to make sure the people elected are the people who listen to them.

Our own collective association with the larger narrative plays right into this scheme. We believe by voting we can defeat the powers, when our participation only enables them.

That's not to say Democracy is bad. There are plenty of ways to collectively decide how we'll best live. Usually the best way to do this is face to face. We don't have to vote to meet the people and problems really affecting our daily lives head on. In many nations, even those with similar representative systems, there is a stark contrast between the business of government and the life of the nation.

We don't want government interfering in everything we do, but we continue to perpetuate a system that can function only by doing exactly that.

When you vote, if you vote, try to remember you're never, ever voting for yourself. You're voting for a ridiculously ambitious, well-crafted, well-funded illusion of freedom and participation. (It's interesting to note how often the loser speak extemporaneously and rambles, while the winner never does.)

The real revolution is the revelation that we need no politicians to control us or free us from control. Our communities, the people with whom we live and work each day, have all the power - on this fact nearly everyone agrees. What we so often fail to see is how the current voting system incentivizes our giving it away.

You can't change the system from within the system, only from without. All of these self-proclaimed outsiders become something different when they enter in. The only real change comes in starving the system of power, which sounds insidious, but starts by simply knowing and talking to the guy across the street. You are worth far more than your vote, and so is he.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Coffee and Other Drugs

So, my favorite story from my time working at the denominational headquarters for the Church of the Nazarene is actually a second-hand story. Like all legends, it may have grown and morphed over time, but the general tenner rings true enough, I'm ok retelling it.

Someone had been tasked with bringing one of our General Superintendents (Six GSs are elected to provide spiritual and ecclesial leadership for the denomination) to the airport. It was an early morning flight. One the way, this driver asked about the rationale for our stance on addictive substances. Ultimately, the reasoning seemed to boil down to avoiding things to which we might be addicted both because not having full control of your actions is potentially dangerous, but also because doing things that may harm your body is, well, harmful. This intrepid driver asked the GS, "So, if this is the reason we avoid potentially addictive substances, why do we drink caffeine?" To which this gracious and amicable leader raised his coffee cup and smiled, saying "Because those of us with power are already addicted."

This humorously and tellingly helps understand the choice we all make in what we consume. Last week, when I put the call out for blog post ideas, one came back asking what my thoughts were on addictive substances with low health risks (specifically coffee). The request came from someone who tired, unsuccessfully, to quit coffee - and, I assume, was hoping for either a guilt-trip motivational lecture or perhaps some guilt relief.

Practically, caffeine fanatics will get little help from me (and I make a point to say caffeine, not coffee, since Red Bull and Mountain Dew seem like far more dangerous caffeine mules than coffee). I ran cross-country in high school. I was mediocre - literally - finishing almost dead center of both the pack and my team in almost every race. I did go to high school in Colorado, where cross country is taken pretty seriously, so I always delude myself into thinking I was slightly above average nationally.

Our coaches really challenged us to give up soda, because it's pretty bad for performance. Me, being a cheapskate and not a huge soda drinker to begin with, decided I'd stop drinking anything but water. Sure, I do occasionally indulge in fruit juice - and I might have a Sprite on the rocks at New Year's Eve - but I've mostly maintained that position, even as nothing I do anymore could even remotely be called "running."

I also like coffee. I don't drink it every day or even every week (see above: cheapness), but say, while enjoying a crisp, sunny morning sitting at an outdoor cafe overlooking Kailua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island, a 16oz double mocha cappuccino made from the darkest, most smooth fresh local Kona coffee might just be the most glorious thing imaginable.

If I haven't enabled at least a dozen addicts by now, I'm not really doing my job.

In all seriousness, addictions are no joke. Some of them can be really debilitating and I do believe all addictions are dangerous. The very definition of addiction is a desire one can't fully control. People are addicted to what are generally assumed to be important and necessary activities: eating, shopping, sex, exercise - I can't imagine my life functioning properly without all of those things.

Yes, some addictions, like meth or heroine, have literally no positive qualities, but I don't think anyone is looking for some excuse to justify them. It's the other ones - a drink here or there isn't going to hurt anything, caffeine helps me get up in the morning, etc - that drive people nuts. Some people. A lot of people engage in these activities without any real moral difficulty whatsoever. Are some of them addicts in denial? Sure. But not all.

I think the bottom line is, if what you're doing hurts yourself or others, you should probably stop - get professional help, if necessary, non-professional help for sure. If someone you care about believes what you're doing hurts someone, stop, please. If you, and the people around you, don't honestly believe your habits really control you, why would you even ask a question like this?

I tend to be someone very fixated on things. I have a hard time putting down a good book or not binge-watching whatever show appeals to me next. I get caught in repetitive practices all the time just because I like the comfort of it. Some might be addictions, some might not - none of them are healthy.

I'm a person who struggles with discipline. When one part of my life becomes undisciplined (buying a candy bar every time I check out at Walmart), chances are the rest of my life will spiral into an undisciplined, depressing mess.

I have to constantly be checking myself, setting goals, exercising my miniscule willpower - not because any of those habits are terrible on their own, but because they collectively make my life miserable.

So, I don't think that sort of question is one anyone should have to ask, especially of me, unless we're really good friends. I don't know you. The people who do are much better sounding boards for that sort of thing.

If you want my opinion in general: drink more water, get plenty of sleep. Those are both very healthy things to do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Manna and Mammon

I know various economic systems are not proscriptions, per say, but more descriptions of the type of systems that evolve naturally between human beings. When we start talking about "isms" it's more an explanation of how some central authority acts to manipulate these systems. A government itself can certainly be more capitalist or socialist based on it's policies, but these labels are really more descriptive of which natural threads on the existing economy are being hampered or helped through intervention.

Most proponents of these economic systems believe there is some sort of natural state by which, if left alone (whatever that means) human society would naturally gravitate towards. In (very broad, overly generalist) terms, extreme capitalism is attempting to free people to interact in ways they would naturally, while extreme socialism is attempting to remove allegedly artificial barriers of historic development to return people to some natural state.

I suspect most anyone will tell you perhaps there is a necessary tension between these two ideas - which are really just competing notions of communal and individual responsibility. Again, crudely: "being selfish helps everyone" vs "being selfless helps everyone," when in reality human beings are neither selfish nor selfless. We tend to be both.

Underlying all of these economic theories, however, is one universal theme. They're consumed with more. the assumption of economics is the production of more wealth. It's the old, "bigger house, better car, more luxury" mantra of human society. Capitalism might use this drive to elicit competition, while socialism might use this drive to elicit compassion, but they're ultimately in search of the same thing.

I've been thinking about this in light of what I guess we call Biblical economics (although that's a pretty terrible term). I'd prefer to use "Kingdom economics," but that's entirely insider lingo and tough to access without help.

In any event, I'd describe such economics as Generous Simplicity.

God calls people to less. Use less, need less, be happy with less. God calls people to less so we can be givers and recipients of generosity. A people who need and want less, have plenty to give, but also receive simple gifts as great treasure.

We often simplify things to say, "God doesn't want anyone to go without," but fasting and sacrifice have always been a real part of God's formation of people. Those practices exist to show us just how little we really need. Of course, no one should be hungry or thirsty - but how few of us really know what those words mean? Especially those of us immersed in the economics of more?

God doesn't want anyone forced into poverty, but God does want us to desire simplicity.

Jesus, through words and example, calls people to be downwardly mobile. Our eyes and aspirations should not be on those above us in the prosperity ladder, but on those below. We should not be working to need more, but to need less. There are a lot of ways to interpret the literally meaning of those words; I believe all of them are correct.*

In truth, simplicity works against a capitalist system; it works against a socialist system, too. Perhaps when we talk about economics, the real inherent tension is not between which particular ism makes the most sense to us, but the tension between the drive for more and the drive for less.

This speaks powerfully to our understanding of "security." God speaks powerfully that our economic hope should not be in wise investments or proper planning, but in the provision of God - which is most real only when the cupboard is truly bare.

I can't tell you exactly what it means to live simply in the midst of our complex economic age. It seems straightforward that followers of the man with no place to lay his head, of the man who brought abundance from a severely lacking meal of loaves and fishes, of the man who relied entirely on the generosity of strangers - would embark on similar lives. It also seems straightforward that this lifestyle is irresponsible in our day and age (in fact we have a whole industry of non-profits built around helping people leave it).

So, I can't tell you exactly what it means to live simply in the midst of our complex economic age. And I'm not going to say that "less is more," because less is usually less and more is usually more - there's no deep paradox there.

I can say the real economics of life revolve around less, not more - and it's vitally important with wrestle with that notion as we seek to live well in the world.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Royals and America

Blog By Request Alert!

On several occasions I've used this space to respond to inquiries or ideas from other people. I am glad to do it, although such requests are few and far between. I try to write twice a week (Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon) although I do not stick slavishly to that schedule. This week I had nothing - and since it's already Friday, I threw out a request for topics to the twitterverse and got this timely one in reply from Chuck Sailors:

Write about Why the Royals are America's Team.

When the Major League Baseball playoffs began, I was rooting for a "Revolutionary War" World Series, one between the Royals and Nationals. Quite frankly, I thought the Nationals had a much better chance of making it. In the end, we get Royals and Giants.

I spent six years of my life living in Kansas City and watching sparsely attended baseball games where parking cost more than tickets. Everyone loved the Royals, but sort of the way you love your fifteen year old, arthritic dog - there's no way you're ever going to kill him, but you're secretly looking forward to the day he died on his own.

This team was historically bad. Often. So it's no surprise that America jumped on the bandwagon for a young team, from a smallish Midwestern city, supported by a traumatized fan base, and sporting a playing style completely anathema to modern baseball strategy (or even common sense).

America does like the underdog, after all. It's how view ourselves. It's part of the reason I didn't push the "Revolutionary War" angle early on - no one wants to be the British in that scenario and I wanted people to root for the Royals.

But in thinking about Chuck's suggestion, I realized this Series is a perfect metaphor for America. We're rooting for them because we think of ourselves as the plucky underdog - but subconsciously that Revolutionary War persona might be the one shining through.

We're the largest nation on the planet, the dominant force economically and militarily. We're the empire now. We've become Britain in that scenario (including the fighting of losing wars in what amount to economic colonies around the world). Even better, America is the giant bully in the room convinced it's David and there are still Giants out there to beat. Low and behold, who are the Royals playing in this World Series? The San Francisco Giants.

This thing comes together all over the place.

It goes deeper, though. The Royals are comprised of young players who use speed, defense, and making contact with the ball to score runs. They've also got an extremely talented pitching staff. These are all things that typically make up an underdog in baseball - but the Royals are not really what they appear to be.

Major League clubs play 162 baseball games over the course of the regular season. An old adage says "every team loses 54 games and every team wins 54 games - it's what you do with the other 54 that matter." This is true, but some teams are richer - they have more depth and by sheer force of numbers, have a better chance of winning more games. It's tough, especially for young outfield players, to keep focus day in and day out for six months. It's far easier for pitchers, who don't play every day, to do their job consistently. This is exactly what we see with the Royals. The pitching is great and the outfield players, while including many highly praised prospects, were relatively inconsistent.

What it takes to win during the regular season is not the same thing it takes in the playoffs. There's no difficulty focusing when nearly every game in a must-win. Playoff pressure creates an entirely different atmosphere. Now, those young, talented hitters are concentrating on every pitch - and they're coming through. Added to the underrated talent and constant presence of the pitching staff you have a virtual juggernaut running rampant over the best teams in baseball.

An outsider (non-baseball fan) watching these games will instantly conclude that the Royals are dominant and outstanding; it's the baseball people who have trouble seeing the might and power these Royals bring forth.

So yes, the Royals are America's team - an obvious superpower to everyone but themselves - facing Giants of incredible lore (two titles in the last five years), but perhaps currently of inferior substance.