Thursday, August 27, 2015

What Does Evangelism Look Like?

So, the biggest thing that happens in our little (but growing) town is the Olde Tyme Peach Festival every August. The population of the town doubles. The whole place shuts down. There's a parade. Vendors come in from everywhere and sell stuff and give stuff away. Pretty much anyone who does anything within 20 miles or so is there. It's a lot of fun, even when it's 90 degrees out - and if you know me, that's saying something.

As we were walking through the hundreds of booths, the first both we happen upon was a church booth. It didn't seem like a church booth at first since the signage had nothing to do with God or church or anything. We quickly were educated as to its purpose as the volunteers were selecting various tracks from a large display to hand out to people. It always boggles the mind that they forget to ask two important questions before throwing something in your hand - "Are you a Christian?" (and therefore not in need of something like this) and "Do you want this?" (and will therefore save us money and the Earth tears from all of these that end up in that large 50 gallon trash can conveniently placed ten feet passed this booth).

I still don't know what church this booth represented, even though my daughter made some poorly designed crafts there (which also were promptly thrown away since they leaked and stained our hands). While standing and waiting for her to finish, I had to endure a bombardment of sort of angry-toned questions - as if the guy was miffed I wasn't totally into the very one-sided conversation. To top it off, the booth was giving out free drinks (did I mention it was 90 degrees at 10am?) IF you completed their "good person test" to discover if you were indeed a good person.

Spoiler alert: no one was going to pass that test.

This congregation paid money to set up a booth in which they'd only give hot thirsty people a drink of water AFTER they told them all what failures they are as human beings.

Sounds like the Love of God to me!

Thankfully that was the beginning of the day. Over the next three hours we worked our way through all the booths, got some food, and wound up at a church parking lot towards the back of the festival. This place has inflatables set up all over the place and they were handing out FREE water - but not only that, fresh (really delicious) popcorn and snow cones - as many as you wanted, all day, to anyone. Inside they had more inflatables, air-conditioned seating for hot people, and some crafts for kids.

This is the biggest thing this congregation does all year. They spend a ton of money, bring out literally hundreds of volunteers, and do almost no advertising. If you weren't from town, you might even miss that this is a church - since it's housed in a converted bowling alley with a pretty modest sign. People are friendly and there are cards around with the name and service times, but no one asks you about God or pressures you to come - heck, the DJ was playing mostly Jackson 5 stuff. The senior pastor had a hand-written nametag (that didn't even say "pastor" on it anywhere) and spent most of the time getting water for the volunteers.

This is a place where hot, tired families could let their kids run wild, get some great snacks, cool off a bit, and just have fun. This was really a group of people loving the community and putting their lives behind their words. I love it!

Now that first place was doing all the things I've always been taught were "evangelism." I was never good at it, because starting socially expected conversations with people is hard enough for me, let alone completely offensive, unwanted conversations - but this is what a lot of people have always called evangelism. Essentially it's throwing Jesus as people and hoping they catch.

It's almost enough to make you think maybe Jesus isn't the answer. And maybe that's true, especially if Jesus is getting thrown at you the way some people do. Maybe love is the answer and Jesus is just the place where we find the answer? I'm not sure how theologically astute that is (although, I think I like it either way) - and it can (and will) certainly be construed as one more way I don't "get it." But I think, if we look at the examples so nicely outlined by the Peach Festival - the people who throw love have a much better chance of getting people to catch the gospel than those who throw something else.

And if the Peach Festival sounds like fun - August 20, 2016 - we'd love to have you come and go with us!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

iPods, Patriotism, Religion and Consumerism

I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance like most every other kid in school. It wasn't a big deal mostly because I also grew up within a culture that equated patriotism with moral and spiritual virtue - Christians were good citizens of the nation. As I began to study history, and later theology and the Bible, I came to realize that some of my childhood questions really were astute. I am asking again today, "How can we pledge allegiance to a nation when we're not supposed to have any allegiance but God?"

The answer I always got was, "we pledge allegiance to both and when they conflict, we choose God." Of course, that gives us incentive to try and keep them from conflicting, since our loyalty to each is tough to break or forsake. You can see in current society (and across religions - Jews in Israel, Muslims in many countries, even Buddhists in Myanmar) how easy it is to begin to equate religion and patriotism.

I say that not to start some grand political argument (there are plenty of other posts for that) I say it because it's the best illustration in my life of something really interesting I picked up from reading Buyology* by Martin Lindstrom last week. Lindstrom is a brand consultant, and a very good one at that - he's worked in marketing big companies and popular products all over the world.

In 2008 (so it's a bit dated, even as you read the book), he commissioned a study to see how our brains respond to advertising and help us make consumer decisions. He found that over 90% of our decision-making process is subconscious or beyond our ability to properly comprehend (at least at the time). This explains why surveys and focus groups are often terrible indicators of what people actually like and buy. We simply don't consciously know what we like.

There were a lot of brains scans and tests done to show which areas of the brain light up at different times and why. Neuroscience has gotten pretty good at knowing which parts of the brain correspond to which emotional responses and activities.

For the particular study that most interests me today, they took a baseline reading from a bunch of nuns in a Carmelite monastery, to get brain images of them talking about and reliving their most spectacular religious experiences. These brain scans matched up with others from many religions and around the world. When people have or remember religious experiences, it lights up a part of the brain entirely separate from please, ecstasy, and joy. There really is a specific brain response for God interactions (or perceived God interactions). Religious experience is different in our brains that mere attraction or pleasure.

This is important because the next scan they did was on a cross section of regular folks. They used a series of strong brands - brands people are attached to deeply, like Apple, Harley-Davidson, and Ferrari. They also used weak brands, brands people would recognize, but not feel great attachment to, like BP oil (this was before the Gulf spill).

What they found was that strong brands, the ones people might call "lifestyle brands," cause the same reaction in people's brains as religious experiences. The great loyalty engendered by these companies - the reason your friend buys Ferrari clothes or looks down on PC users - is akin to religious loyalty, which, in turn, makes it very, very difficult to break.

I say all this to say, it does really seem like our brains are not wired to reject religiously loyal brands as easily as those respondents from my childhood (and today) might believe.

Of course, not everyone is religiously loyal to Apple, but we all certainly know someone who is (or substitute Google or Starbucks or CrossFit there). Of course not everyone is religiously loyal to the United States, but I think we know a whole lot more people who at least exhibit these markers.

This is brain chemistry here. Likely those people you're thinking of would entirely deny that their connection is religious. I imagine their brain would differ, if put to the test.

These loyalties are reinforced in many different ways. Apple stores pump a specific smell into their locations, so people will equate the pleasantness of vanilla (an ingredient in breast milk and one of the most universally beloved scents by humans) with their products. The sound made when spinning the dial on an iPod was similarly designed to attach people to the brand. Rituals as well, which come into play specifically when we're talking nationalism - flag presentations, the national anthem before sporting events, putting your hand over your heart... and the pledge of allegiance, all reinforce a religious devotion to the brand.

I'm not saying people can't be Christians an Apple aficionados or Christians and really excited about their country. They can. But we do need to be careful about how we show our support and loyalty. The things we do, say, and experience connect us beyond our ability to consciously perceive. They just do. Yeah, it might be unfair, but it's biology and there's not much we can do about it (at least until some major advances in science).

I don't vote in elections because I want to remember that ALL my hope is in Christ - not the next slick young politician to come along. I don't sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance because it's far too easy (for me, at least) to get caught up in the notion that wielding power well can solve the world's problems.

I will admit, though, I'll have to take a harder look at how I work with brands. I'm pretty cheap, so usually finances make a lot of my decisions. I do have a few brands, though, that trouble me. We've been with T-Mobile for like 17 years or something. There have been times when sticking with them was a poor choice. I justified it because we have such long loyalty and the benefits that affords us are pretty nice. I also justify it by how uncomfortable I am with change (which is also true), but in reality, there's something inside me - something I can't fully explain or understand - that just makes me feel like T-Mobile sends an accurate message about who I am as a person. Don't think that's by accident. They've got a lot of highly paid marketing people working to make that true. The same goes for Apple and Starbucks and the US Gov't.

In the end, I do think the loyalty thing will keep me with T-Mobile rationally (especially now that we no longer live in a place where they don't provide service) - but I will be more conscious of how committed I become to things other than Christ moving forward.

*The book had lots of great insights about how we buy stuff and what we like (although I think this was the best one) - it's a great read, even if it's a little old. In the final chapter (updated in 2010) he even predicts the explosion of all things Kardashian, not by name, but as a personal brand in which the person and the brand become indistinguishable. The reason this is possible is entirely biological - it's happening inside us without our even being aware of it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Please, Just Stop. Please.

So I saw the news last week that Target is taking out the gender specific signage for its kids toys and bedding. I took it be a universally praised great first step. Yet somehow, some people found a way to make it controversial and, what do you know, according to my Facebook feed, it's broken down along political and religious lines.

For some reason, people (and yes, they are MY people, God love us) seem to think this is some push for transgender rights of all things?

I'll just say, from my perspective, Target's move doesn't go far enough. When we had a girl, my wife and I were pretty adamant about trying not to push "girliness" (or at least society's view of girliness) on her. We didn't necessarily want to draw those pink/blue lines, but were dismayed to find that, short of making our own clothes for her, there was no choice. If we wanted a blue shirt or a green one, we had to go to the "boys" section (and boys onesies even snap differently than girls so everyone can be sure to tell the difference!). The clothes were virtually identical - same bears or turtles or whatever - but on the "boy" colored ones the animals were wearing baseball uniforms and mechanic coveralls and stuff and the "girl" animals all had tutus and bows in their hair.

Now my daughter has grown (at three) to love princesses despite me being pretty careful to keep as much of that stuff out of her life as possible. However, she also likes soccer and building with blocks and racing matchbox cars along the floor. So far, at least, she seems to be choose what she likes - AND WE"RE REALLY HAPPY ABOUT IT!

This move from Target is something I and many other parents have been calling for for a long time. It's GREAT news. It's not something to get all in a huff about.

Speaking more in depth, though, many people seem to be upset because they believe that there are different roles for boys and girls to play - army trucks and tea parties if you will. That really pisses me off more than anything. (I wrote a lengthy post about this at one point.) People are people. They can like what they like. We do not have to be boxed in. The last thing I want for my kid is for her to be molded and shaped by someone else's idea of who she is or who she should be. Much of what's wrong with society is our human need to categorize people and our human need to try and meet those expectations. ANY move away from that system is overwhelmingly positive.

THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS GENDER ROLES. There aren't. Sorry if I'm stepping on toes here, but it's important.

In a society where so much of what we do and say to each other, the way we treat each other, the way we collectively pressure each other to act is dead wrong, harmful, and outrageous, please, please don't take one positive move in this system and run it into the ground. Especially don't do this if you're a Christian. At the very heart of the gospel is the message of love - that each and every one of us is loved just as we are; we don't need to change for anyone. We do change, of course, because that kind of unconditional love changes people. But we need to get the notion out there that people don't have to fit some mold to be loved.

Yes, it's just toys, but it ends up being so much more.

I can't count how many times MY people (us odd evangelicals) end up on the wrong side of things like this. Maybe we won't agree on politics or larger societal issues, but please don't be on the wrong side of this one. You're doing real harm to people and working against what's good and right.

How about we let our kids be kids and stop trying to tell them how to do it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Theology of Luck by Rob Fringer and Jeff Lane

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.

Theology of Luck sets out to refute the popular notion that "everything happens for a reason." Whether one has belief in God or some other organizational structure, most people simply believe there's a purpose behind everything that happens. Rob Fringer and Jeff Lane want to challenge that assumption, using theology, scripture, and practical logic to explore what it means for God to be in control, yet not controlling.

The book is well written and long overdue. There's a vast depth of conversation and discussion to be had in this realm which is largely left to academia. Theology of Luck provides a great introduction with solid analogies and real life examples, helping anyone to grasp the broader possibilities of purposeless chance in the world around us.

I've long been led in this direction personally, so there is no surprise I'm right on board with this book. If there's any critique of the subject matter, it's simply that they didn't go far enough. Perhaps inappropriate for what is really an elementary and introductory text, I'd like to see this discussion expanded beyond what God chooses to do to creation and including the type of creation God made in the first place - perhaps in a second volume.

I'm more impressed that this book comes from Nazarene Publishing House - it's a welcome resource from the denomination at a time when one of its leading scholars has been under the gun for espousing beliefs that arise directly from this topic. The future of theology comes in asking difficult questions about long-assumed explanations of belief. Theology of Luck is perfectly suited to begin that exploration - that NPH is perhaps part of the movement getting out ahead is truly good news for the Church of the Nazarene.

I'll admit I struggled understanding the manner in which the practical relevance of this book is explored in the latter chapters. They're great chapters, but I might have explained how we live in a world where God doesn't dictate every detail in a different way than the authors did here. However, I have no complaint with the material itself, which is good, strong, and useful for discussion in small groups or within families.

Ultimately this is an accessible work with the right distribution channels to really get people thinking. That, in itself, is exciting. A book like this is great news to those unsatisfied with typical answers, however, it also has the potential to scare people who aren't wrestling with faith in the same way. In either event, a quote from page 50 might serve to better explain what's addressed - after quoting Ecclesiastes 7:13-14, Fringer and Lane say:

[T]his should not be read as proof of hard determinism but, rather, as a frustrated recognition by the author that he does not have the answers and God does. Like many of the Psalms, this is a lament, a crying out to God for answers, while simultaneously placing trust in this same God. [T]his God invites wrestling. God recognizes our frustration and invites us to cry out in the midst of pain, persecution, injustice, and bad luck.

If that really gets you excited, then this is certainly the book for you.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Defunding Planned Parenthood Means MORE Abortion

Listen, I'm no fan of abortion. Well, I'm not sure anyone is really a "fan" of it necessarily. I certainly wish we didn't have abortions. I grieve every woman who feels unsupported, scared, or alone enough to make such a choice. It's a societal tragedy that we've not created a space to welcome every and any child into the world for a decent life. Sadly, though, we just haven't.

I'm no fan of abortion. I'm also no fan of making it illegal. Beyond the philosophical and theological issues with legislating morality, for me it's quite pragmatic: legal or not, there will still be abortions and I'd rather have women getting them in safe, healthy places than the dirty backrooms and coat hangers which I hope are things of the past (at least in this country).

As a Christian, I am adamantly opposed to killing of any kind. I don't believe killing is ever justified - although I do admit, sometimes, the pressures of the world (or a particular situation) and our oft-deficient imaginations, lead us to make the regrettable choice to take life. As much as it's wrong and unjust, occasionally, in this messed up world of ours, taking life seems the best of many bad choices available.

We can judge and argue over when those times arise - we can talk about things like war and execution and self-defense and suicide - and we'll likely disagree. We're always looking for other options, other ways to protect life (or at least we should be) - and that's great. But we're all going to find those tricky situations where taking life feels like the best option - as sad as that is.

I don't think the legality of abortion will change that dynamic for many women, if any. I also don't think it's consistent with a Christian response to such tragedy. I want to work for a world in which fewer and fewer women find this choice the best one for them when encountering a difficult or unexpected pregnancy. There are a lot of ways to do that.

One of the ways people have come up with lately is the notion of defunding Planned Parenthood - and organization that facilitated 327,615 abortions in 2013-2014 (the full annual report is available here). And there's a case to be made there. About 3% of services PP provides are abortion services - and figures hover around 10-12% for the percentage of PP clients who receive these services. Planned Parenthood gets 41% of its revenue from governmental sources (much of it Medicaid reimbursements for its poor clients, who are most of the population PP serves). Cutting those funds might make a real difference.

However, the Hyde Amendment, routinely attached to Federal Appropriations bills since 1976, prevents the use of federal funds for abortion services, unless there is rape, incest, or the mother's life is threatened. Yes, there are some ways to get around this, but any federal funds that do trickle through are minimal, at best. Planned Parenthood spends virtually no federal money on abortions. Defunding Planned Parenthood on the Federal level will not change the number of abortions PP facilitates at all.

If something like a defunding happened, PP could make up a good portion of the money lost through increased private fundraising - any remaining shortfall would likely mean less money for STD testing and treatment, PP's largest service area and also contraception. Contraception - providing free or reduced cost birth control - accounts for 34% of Planned Parrenthood's work, more than 10 times the number of abortions provided. Contraception is the single biggest way to avoid pregnancies most likely to end in abortion.

Yes, freeing up PP money for other organizations that don't facilitate abortion at all would be a great option. Unfortunately, most of the areas PP works, they are the only place for women to go for cancer screenings, contraception, and other health needs. PP is a real asset to many poor communities who have no other medical services. The other organizations who would get the federal money after a defunding are largely outside the poorest, most vulnerable communities - we'd be abandoning the very women who need the most help (not to mention putting lives at risk as those women determined to end their pregnancy will lack safe, healthy ways to do so).

This option does put us on the right track, though.

I don't like the way some proponents of abortion (including Planned Parenthood in many cases) are working for an attitude towards abortion that makes it no different than having a wart removed. I don't think there should be a stigma attached to anyone or anything, but I'm not opposed to making sure people understand what they're really doing when they end a pregnancy. It shouldn't be an unemotional, stress-free decision any more than serving on a jury in a death-penalty case or sitting on the front lines of a war might be. Life is a big deal (for a more in depth discussion of how and why I use the word "life.")

But, let's say society changes. Let's say people really understand the "pro-life" position and chose to continue their pregnancies, we have to recognize the great repercussions. Adoption would go up, sure, but not nearly enough. Anyone who's ever had a child understands the bond that exists. I don't think I'd ever be strong enough to give up my child, even if I knew I couldn't give her a proper upbringing. It takes an amazingly, crazy-strong individual to give a child up for adoption - these parents are the strongest of human beings. There is just no way every abortion can be traded for an adoption. It won't happen. I'd be surprised if 10% went that direction. Adoption is great and there are lots of kids in foster care right now who need a family, but it's not a viable solution.

What we'd have is an influx of kids living in very difficult situations, many in situations that, quite honestly, aren't preferable to abortion.

If we, as Christians, believe in the importance of life strongly enough, it's in those situations where we have to intervene. Frankly, we do a pretty poor job of it for the kids who are already here, let alone the ones yet to come. If we'd stop wasting our money on politicians and lobbyists, there might be enough to make a real difference. More importantly, though, we need to begin investing our lives. Christians and others opposed to abortion should be starting and supporting health centers in poor neighborhoods (maybe those that could eventually be worthy of funding, taking grants away from Planned Parenthood based on merit rather than legal action) - but not just health centers, daycares and afterschool programs - community centers that educate parents and help children succeed. These services are far more important to ensuring a real and true life for everyone around us.

Making abortion illegal once again might make us feel good in our worship services each week, but it does nothing to further the loving community Christ came to institute. Until we're willing to invest our lives in the lives of others we have no hope of creating the kind of loving community capable of truly valuing every human in the way it deserves.

If you want to end abortion - and believe me, I do - the enemy is not planned parenthood, it's selfishness and fear. If we want to combat those real enemies, we need to start with ourselves. We need to start with finding those around us who need our love and support and inviting them into our lives. The challenge of the gospel is to step out of our comfortable, self-sustaining existence and actually link our futures, our health, our well-being with the poor and the suffering. This means not running away when we get hurt or things get tough; it means surviving together or not surviving at all. This is what God did for us and it is what we're called to do.

So let's stop getting bogged down with bogeymen and get to loving people. Laws don't solve problems. Love does. We've got far more important things to do with our time.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An Unplanned Sabatical

So, you may have noticed there hasn't been any writing in this space for almost a month (well, outside of a review for a new Berenstain Bears book I got for my daughter and buried in a blank space in June). I didn't plan on not writing, but things sort of combined to make it so.

I went to the Mid-Atlantic Church of the Nazarene teen camp, which was awesome - then left a couple days later for vacation in Colorado. I thought I'd get some writing done in down time there, but our three year old ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection for half the week. She's pretty much doing fine now - although parenting a three year old is always an adventure.

It's been a good time off for me. I've found in trying to keep the discipline of two posts a week, there are really times when things get stretched. And by "things" I mean my brain and my creativity and, sometimes, my sanity. I was really running dry there for a while.

I get nervous when I get off schedule. To be honest, it's mostly for selfish reasons. I'd like to write more. I'd like to be writing in ways that might pay a little bit of money from time to time. I get those chances occasionally. The main reason I started writing and writing regularly was to keep in practice. Writing well takes repetition, like anything else. I like writing. I need to write. Sort of connected to that was the notion that I often had lots of things to say about topics that people around me didn't always care too much about. Writing it online was an easy way to get my ideas out there without upsetting my friends and neighbors - it also provides the bonus of being able to be discovered by people who are interested in some of the same things.

Lastly, though, I write because I am trying to create some kind of presence. I like to see the page hits go up and it's fun when people share these posts. It makes me feel an extra sense of fulfillment - beyond the surge that comes from just getting something down in words (and occasionally doing it well). In the past, when I've taken time off (usually because of business or creative burnout) the audience and hits have dropped off dramatically - taking months to swing back to a "normal" range. It's not that I really care if people are reading, but I do care if all the hard work I've put in to being faithful to write gets wiped out by a few missed postings. I'm not sure I can explain it properly (or if it's entirely healthy - more fodder for counseling!), but that's not quite relevant to what I wanted to say today anyway. This time, though, that hasn't happened. I'm not sure if there's enough in the kitty to keep people coming back or if the search bots have just multiplied.

I got some much needed time off and return to the regular schedule with a lot of ideas (just wait until Thursday!) - I also come with a real sense that I can disappear for a little while without being entirely forgotten. That's thanks to you.

So, thanks.

Thanks for reading and sharing and commenting and thinking. It's nice to know there's someone else out there.