Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hate, Conscience, History, and Ugly Truth

I'm floored by how effective these racist displays of violence and hate seem to be at accomplishing the exact opposite of their intentions. Granted, lots of hate-filled racists are being emboldened by these moves and the words of the President, but it's also become an impetus for the removal of statues all over the South, in the same way the Charleston shootings precipitated the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. While the Republican Party does still have a troubling racist element in its ranks, for the first time in my memory it's leaders are largely stepping up to the plate to denounce hatred, bigotry, and violence.

This all has to be said in the context of exasperation that we're in 2017 and this is what we're happy about. It shouldn't take 150 years to get to this point, but we are where we are. The words that people like Lindsay Graham, who's accent sounds like a caricature ripped from Django Unchained, use to condemn the President of the United States from his own party are pretty amazing. The critique that these words mean less than the votes these GOP leaders tend to cast in the opposite direction is entirely true, but the words aren't meaningless; it's progress, albeit small.

We like to think that the world which changes so quickly in some areas, should easily be transformed by truth and justice. It should. It really should, but it isn't. Love is patience; it takes time - painful, frustrating, unjust time. And despite the ease with which we see war and violence and hatred and racism rear its head around the world, there are plenty of signs that love does change people. It's not much, but it's something. Even if this show of conscience is, in its skeptical extreme, entirely politically motivated, the very fact that politics is playing in this direction is, sadly, progress for the United States.

For many white people, it seems like things are getting worse, but the reality is we've just largely isolated ourselves from the national racial tension, ignored it, and avoided the discussion that is now being thrust before us. The reality is, most of us haven't faced up to the prejudice that lives inside each of us because we just haven't had to do it.

That prejudice is real. The implicit bias test, conducted by Harvard researchers, shows that just about every person - black and white - has at least a subconscious bias against dark skin. We react differently to black people than to white people. The cliche shortening of breath, clutching of purse, walking to the other side of the road is not perception, but reality. Regardless of how we act, think, or speak, we should be able to say, "Sometimes, my first reaction is not one I'm proud of."

The difference between that - between you and me - and those lunatics rioting in Charlottesville is that they lean into it, they embrace it.
While I do believe the world is changing - and for the better - there is a reality with which we must deal before we can move on. There will always be prejudice; there will always be outsiders and "other," at least for the forseeable future - but the battle of prejudice doesn't have to be about race. That can change, but it's got to be dealt with.

Rarely, if ever, in the history of civilization, did the losing side get to keep its culture and identity relatively unchecked. There have been thousands of volumes written that analyze the aftermath of the Civil War, but the truth is, enforcing a culture change, resultant from war,
would've been a more difficult task than a still fledgling nation was willing to bear. The South got left with a don't ask/don't tell racial policy for generations as the can was kicked down the road.

Southern culture has made 150 years of gradual improvement - much as was expected (and hoped) when the nation left it to its own devices - but that underlying culture of racial superiority still exists in some measure and it's not just going to walk out the door on its own. I'm a student of history (literally - I've got a degree to prove it), more than anything I rue our current inability to understand historical context.
Well, I guess I thought I rued that more than anything - now it appears, even worse is the understanding of historical context poorly.

There might - and I say 'might' with the generosity possible understanding that this is merely hypothetical and not at all reflective of reality - be some case for statues or monuments erected in the 1860's, commemorating fallen loved ones with historically and culturally appropriate descriptors. That's an at least defensible use of historical context. When it comes to statues and memorials erected during the most intense periods of racial strife, celebrating "heroes" with incendiary and inaccurate descriptors, it's hard to make any sort of respectable defense. Real historical context, at least in the case of the vast majority of southern monuments, includes a lot of facts that don't appear on the plaques. That's reality, too.

Robert E Lee may have been a paragon of manners and civilized society, acting in accordance with a disciplined code of perceived honor, especially in contrast to many of the other less educated, less refined personalities we associate with the confederacy. That doesn't make him a saint. Maybe Lee really did fight for the South entirely because of his belief in States' Rights, and his association with those virulent racists was simply because of a common foe - that's best case scenario, right? Still, he didn't free his slaves to prove his position - and there's certainly evidence to the counter the long-held perception of the man that's worth looking at.

In the end, though, even Lee felt holding on to the culture and memory of the Confederacy was detrimental to the healing of a nation. He specifically spoke out against the kind of monuments so many towns would one day dedicate to and of him. The families of these "heroes" don't want the statues to remain, neither do the majority of the populations in most of the municipalities where they reside.

Some cities have changed the plaques to better represent the reality of the Civil War; sometimes they've added statues of civil rights heroes alongside to tell a more fleshed out story of our nation's history. There are ways to do this that really do keep history front and center, but which also avoid the whitewashing (now there's a word that's right on the nose, am I right?) or avoidance of the realities of race in the US.

I can't finish this overlong post, though, without at least mentioning the difficulties these kinds of considerations create for our future. People have gotten mad at Trump for asking if George Washington is next. I'm not sure why - it's a fair question. The man had no more forward-thinking or enlightened opinions about slavery than General Lee - he was a generally selfish and belligerent guy who was unfairly lionized due to some accidents of timing and his refusal to become king.

That doesn't make George Washington a "bad" guy - although I wouldn't want him as a role model to my kids. He's like just about everyone else in history: unfailingly human. We've got few true saints out there - and they'll be the first to argue there's none. We've got no real saints when it comes to people of power and influence - those things just don't go hand in hand.

I'll admit its difficult. Princeton has been dealing with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson for years now. The guy was smart - PhD, Ivy League President, Governor, President - he served through WWI and is generally listed among the 5 or 10 best Presidents we've ever had. He was also pretty darn racist, in overt and activist ways - an above-average racist at a time when average (or even below average) was still pretty darn racist. How do we deal with people who aren't just imperfect, but seriously flawed?

I suspect old George Washington gets a pass because we all agree on the value of the country he helped to found, we've all bought into the mythos well enough to leave things be. Would the mythos around Washington or Jefferson (or, God-forbid, Andrew Jackson) be any different than that surrounding Lee if Native Americans had survived in the same numbers and with the same voice as African Americans? Or if they'd simply lived a hundred years later?

I'm in total support of our difficult embrace of the racial problems in this country. Let's take down the statues and take a second look at the history books and the mythology and the stories we take for granted about who we are. We just can't stop when our liberal comfort is comfort is challenged or our white guilt starts to fade.

The world is a mess. Life is a mess. We are a mess. The solutions will not be easy or pretty or fun. We're gonna have to be okay with that and we're going to have to sacrifice as much, if not more, than what we're asking "those others" to sacrifice right now.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and Christian Counter-Culture

I'm against nationalism, not just white nationalism. Trump's statement that Americans of every color salute the same flag is just as dangerous as the hate-filled bigotry shouted by the Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville last week, even if its morally less-repugnant. I know it's important to state opposition to racism and violence, to call out specifically organized hate-groups by name and denounce their position, but I'm not sure we're doing it with much real thought to what we're saying and its effects.

I recently read this fantastic book called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. It's essentially an otherwise stuffy religious history focusing on the first 200-300 years of Christianity, but the thesis is unique and powerful. Alan Kreider argues that the sole, key distinctive of early Christianity was patience. The first Christians were actively discouraged from what we might call evangelism today - they were convinced that faithful Christian witness was all that was needed. If they lived in the mode of Christ, people would be drawn to that lifestyle without the urgency or outcome oriented focus that's marked Christianity in the 1500 years since.

The moral quandry most prominent for Christians in this time was the exposure of infants. Unwanted children born in the Roman Empire of the time were simply left at the dump - exposed on the trash heaps. Christians took a stand against this moral outrage. They refused to expose their infants and they often wandered the trash heaps, rescuing and adopting those babies left to die. They did not make this a cause, protest, or fight. They simply lived differently.

I recognize that things are different 2,000 years later. We live in a world with free speech and the ability to share it widely and easily.
We live in a world with long traditions of activism. We live in a world where the established morality, at least in large part, aligns more closely with Christian morality than it did in Rome. Violent racists are now the minority and rejected by polite society. Things are different.

At the same time, listening to the rhetoric of opposition in Charlottesville, it was very difficult to differentiate the sides of the debate.
"These ideas aren't representative of the America I know and these people don't belong here." In our attempts to denounce racism, violence,
and hatred, we're exhibiting the same exclusionary ideas we're protesting (or at least, it's easy to do).

From a Christian perspective, protest and counter-culture means more than just choosing a different side; it means choosing a different means of fighting altogether. In general, it means being more creative with our words and actions. This has been a struggle for US Christians in most of the last century and probably the Church as whole over its entire existence. We protest consumerism, but end up with huge chains of "Christian"
stores, full of useless trinkets covered in crosses and music that's more worried about making money than facilitating real worship. The same goes for our approaches to violence, voting, and evangelism.

In Charlottesville, we're rightly outraged that so many people feel free to openly and publicly proclaim ideas and actions so entirely contrary to that of Christ - sometimes in the name of Jesus - but the response cannot be to isolate, condemn, and dismiss the people themselves. Showing up to protests with counter protest might be the right move, but it's got to be done differently. Opposing a mob with a mob - even one committed to non-violence, is still playing games of power - our numbers trump your numbers. It's an invitation to violence. Our voices don't need to be louder or angrier if we're embodying a counter-cultural presence. There is no point to spewing hate at the haters.

Saying, "I stand against racism" is better than saying nothing, I suppose, but it might not be if those of us with privilege aren't willing to sacrifice a bit of it to make our actions match our words. That's where much of the problem comes from. When the only times in which we white people interact with more than token members of the African-American community is when we drive 20 miles to volunteer somewhere for a few hours, we're not making much of a statement.

Early Christians change their entire lives, rejected respectability, often embraced poverty, simply to live out the counter-cultural gospel of Jesus Christ. Earlier this year I read the graphic-novel trilogy, March, that tells the story of John Lewis, one of American's Civil Rights heroes, as he engaged the movement and eventually participated in the famous march across Selma's Edmund Pettis Bridge. One of the things that struck me, was how much emphasis those books put on training for non-violence. It was not a movement where anyone could show up - they endured long periods of practice in non-violence and not everyone had the discipline to make the cut. It was a lifestyle change, a personality change - it was more than just falling in line.

Part of the reason the Early Church put so little emphasis on making converts was because the process was so long and arduous - catechumens endured years of training and observation before the Church deemed them worthy of baptism and the name of Christian. This wasn't so the movement could be exclusive, but because counter-culture is hard.

It's not enough for us to simply say, "Racism is bad. Violence is bad. Hatred is bad." We've got to understand what it means to live that out - not just in our safe little, privileged enclaves, but in the wider context of a very troubled world. We've got to work diligently to shape and form ourselves and our creativity to react differently than even those with whom we agree on some particular issue.

I've resisted giving specifics about ways in which Christians can faithfully engage in issues of immediate and ultimate importance in the world -
issues of race, violence, justice, life, and death - because I do think those ways exhaust and expand beyond my realm of vision. I do think,
though, that Christians must work to fully embody not just the emotion of the moment, but a truthful and fair representation of Christ. In this instance that includes the insanely difficult task of embodying true equality - not just in words or moments, but for the long haul.

Kreider recounts that Christianity lost its emphasis on patience when it adopted the mindset of ends justify the means. Instead of waiting for the truth to win out over time, heretics were persecuted, prosecuted, and executed. Politicans were brought in to use their power to favor one faction over another, to make decisions of right and wrong when it came to Christian thought and practice - this has been our habit ever since. We adopted the mode and means of the culture around us, but because we did so with a religious veneer, we've failed to see the compromising error of our ways.

I am continually troubled by the challenge to use my body, my lifestyle, to make statements of truth and justice, while also remembering the words of Paul, that I too, was once an enemy of God, and recognizing that my transformation was not wrought by violence, anger, or shame, but by the love of Jesus Christ. This is not a pushover faith, but it's also not a popular one; results are slow and it requires suffering - may I have the wisdom and creativity to make it my suffering before the suffering of others.

In the end, I don't have answers, but I pray that I'll have a gospel-infused patience that manifests itself in sacred, selfless action. Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

It's been a crazy summer for me. I made the last second decision to head out to Indianapolis for the Church of the Nazarene General Assembly, an every-four-years meeting of my brothers and sisters from (literally) around the world. A lot of important stuff happened, but perhaps the most lasting impact were the workshops I attended, each informative and important for my future life and ministry. I learned a lot.

I found help for the adult Sunday School class I often teach at the local United Methodist Church; I got some seemingly obvious tips about children's spirituality that I never would've figured out on my own - things that I think will definitely help me be a better parent. I was challenged to think and grow beyond some of the hyper-focused and segmented places in which my mind tends to live. I'm not sure exactly what it will mean going forward, but I'm really glad I went - even if it was just for two days.

Getting back, there were just a few weeks until our marathon vacation. I accidentally scheduled myself to be away from home for 23 out of 25 consecutive days. We did a week with my in-laws that was relaxing and enjoyable - the kind of thing that probably should've come at the end of the trip. Not that the ten days spent with my own family wasn't good, but with three small children involved, I'm not entirely sure "relaxing" is the right word. My wife and I did get to take a quick anniversary trip to New Mexico where, in about 36 hours, we visited the Georgia O'Keefe Museum and climbed a very steep 13,000 foot mountain with an awesome night at Taos Ski Valley sandwiched in between.

Between those two trips, I spent a week at Mid-Atlantic District Teen Camp with the Church of the Nazarene. This is my third year here and it's always an awesome experience. The camp's run so well and the staff and kids are great to be around. I truly enjoyed it. There weren't any radically life-changing moments for me, but I did have some dedicated time away from my normal life and schedule to think and pray about the future. I've really felt a draw to be speaking or teaching or preaching more than I do right now.

Early in our time in Middletown, I was filling in preaching A LOT. The Nazarene congregations in the area all seemed to be transitioning between pastors about the same time and I probably preached 20 times a year. The last couple years, though, those congregations have been more settled and it's been more like four or five times. I really feel like preaching is what I "do." It's a strange thing, even for me, but the process of researching and compiling and preaching a sermon is my true art. I do a lot of writing - and those skills are heavily involved in sermon preparation - but it's really the preaching that feels most "true" to me. I wrote about it in my 6th ever blog post (one that's been read all of seven times, which is probably a good thing; I can't even bring myself to go back and read it).

We're also at a point this fall, where my daughter is starting Kindergarten and she'll be on the same campus where my wife teaches. What that means is that this stay-at-home Dad will not have pick-up or drop-off responsibilities for the first time in five years. My schedule's going to change. We're not entirely sure what that means, but I'm thinking perhaps travel is more of an option.

So, what I'm saying is that I guess the big revelation of the summer is that I feel like I should put myself out there a bit for speaking and teaching opportunities. I've done it a few times, been invited to various places, and it's always been a great experience. I'm not sure if there's a lot more opportunity out there or if anyone cares much to hear what I might have to say, but if you need someone to bring his typically unique perspective on God and life and such to your group or congregation, maybe I'm the guy?

Typically summer is a time for me to check out, relax, and avoid deep thoughts - this year, in the midst of fun and busyness, there's been a lot of time for reflection and growth. And that's what I learned on my summer vacation.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bernie and Condemnation

In my long tradition of dealing with contemporary issues long after they've fallen by the wayside, I'd like to weigh in on the confrontation between Bernie Sanders and Trump nominee Russ Vought from early June. It made a lot of headlines at the time, with people drawing lines and choosing sides and lobbing bombs back and forth at each other.

A transcript of the exchange can be viewed on any number of sites I'd rather not link to, but here's one anyway, since you need context.

The crux of the matter is Vought's comment, in support of his alma mater, Wheaton College, that people of non-Christian faiths (specifically Muslims in this particular case, but it's expanded to all) "do not know God" and "stand condemned." Sanders uses this statement as a means of rejecting (or voting for the rejection) of Vought in a government position because this view might be offensive or fear-inducing in people whom he's referenced.

In my view, both of these guys made real fools of themselves.

Sanders is easy - he falsely equated personal opinion with action. You need to show actual discrimination to justify denying someone a position of power, at least in the US government. Vought's belief that some people are condemned is just a belief, unless there's proof he acted on it. Shoot, this is a position in the Office of Management and Budget, for crying out loud, are there even religious issues that this guy would have power to rule on in the first place? Even if Sanders thought he might act prejudicially, he would be hard-pressed to come up with a scenario where such prejudice could even be possible.

People have rightly pointed out that this is, essentially, making a religious test for office - something the constitution forbids. Of course, what we conveniently never talk about in those scenarios are the ways in which our laws already impinge on the freedom of religion for things like child brides or abusive corporal punishment, to name a few. It's not outside the realm of possibility that "condemnation" on the basis of religion, might be one step on that same train Sanders would like us to pursue.

All of those are interesting, but what I didn't hear too much of is criticism for this notion of condemnation coming from Vought. It's terrible theology, to begin with, and just over-archingly anti-Christian to make such a statement. I could see justification, perhaps, for the condemnation of specific actions, but to condemn not just individuals, but whole groups of people, simply for a theological difference, feels like precisely the kind of thing Jesus denounced the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day for doing all the time.

In fact, I feel like Jesus said, at one point, "God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Time and again Jesus failed to condemn anyone, except those claiming religious authority. We miss that boat a lot, as Christians, and maybe it takes a wildly over-zealous, secular Jew to get someone to notice.

I don't think Sanders was remotely right - at least constitutionally - in his statements and his badgering. In fact, it sounded an awful lot like condemnation in its own right. At the same time, Vought shouldn't be defending those words; he should be profusely apologizing for them.
To use the name of Jesus, the Church - his followers - as the means for doing it just makes me sad. The people most committed to the name of Jesus Christ don't appear to know Jesus at all. Rather they've bought into a dogmatic theology that serves its own internal logic more than the God it purports to represent.

It's intellectual assent taken to its logical conclusion - a person's acceptance or rejection of the idea of Jesus overrules individual action.
No one is saved or condemned based on their religious affiliation - we're saved or condemned by our commitment to love and selfless service -
you know, living in the way of Jesus Christ, whether you're in a position to admit that's what you're doing or not.

Neither of these guys did much to advance their cause in this matter. Neither one showed any real understanding of honor or respect. I'd say those actions - the words and actions of both men - are embarrassingly counter to the message of Jesus. Fortunately, that doesn't devalue them or their identities in any way. There's still plenty of love and hope and grace to go around.

At our very best, we're still more prone to condemnation than grace. I'd say the best we can hope for is to recognize it in ourselves, admit our failings, and work to be different moving forward. The intractable positions we see here are far more alike than they are different and we deserve better than either one from people we've placed in positions of power.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Putin the Feminist

This is a really old quote that's been sitting in my "to write about pile for a few months, but I think it's just interesting enough to bring back. You may not have even noticed when it happened, since we've been privy to a whole mess of ridiculous things said by major world leaders, but let me draw your attention to one Vladimir Putin, who answered a reporter's question about what he does on bad days thusly:

I don't have bad days because I am not a woman.

This is one of those things that relies entirely on context. If you read that line without any indication of who said it, you can take it one of two ways: 1) This guys is a total misogynistic jerk, or 2) This dude is incredibly woke. I don't think there are too sentences that can be interpreted in such different ways. It's a real anomaly.

Now, I imagine that Putin is probably more in the #1 camp, given the kinds of things he's said about less powerful sorts of people in the past and his penchant for macho power games. This is probably not a social commentary on the plight of women in modern society.

However, let's say the quote isn't from Vladimir Putin, but maybe it's the opening line of Louis CK's new stand-up act. It comes across in a very different way. I think it's a laugh line for sure - he tends to put things bluntly and speak in unique ways. The very fact that this line can be interpreted differently makes it something worth laughing about.

You can just see how CK would be able to spin fifteen or twenty minutes out of how terrible women have it in society. He could contrast his shitty life with just how much shittier every part of it would be if he were experiencing it as a woman. It's entirely within character, and he'd probably be lauded for insightful social commentary.

I guess there's no real point to this post - other than to point out just how fraught the use of words really is. All those French post-modern philosophers who spent so much time basically rendering language meaningless and then meaningful and then meaningless again probably have more of a point than we're willing to give them credit for.

Maybe this is just the ultimate example of the medium being the message - in this case the medium being from which pair of chapped, wrinkly lips the line happens to spew.

You know, now that I think about, there is a point: in this world men, like me, get to waste time and energy writing esoteric posts about how some enfeebled misogynist might not be entirely wrong about women if you absent context, while around the world, women are actually dealing with a whole bunch of unnecessary crap just because they're women.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins

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 a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Jeff Goins provides a really compelling, motivational guide to practicing art in the age of capitalism. His main focus is to counter the "starving artist" narrative with stories of people who make art on different terms. Real Artists Don't Starve captures the "new renaissance" by emphasizing key principles that artists can use to maximize their place in society.

I don't necessarily have a problem with this approach and certainly found some good ideas for my own art and life, however, Goins does present his perspective on art - namely that capitalism is a given and artists should be a part of it in very specific ways - as the only option (much as the title indicates). On page 145 he does raise the question of artists who genuinely don't care about money and practice their craft purely for their own enjoyment - however he fails to answer the question in any meaningful way, instead telling the story of a web designer who shifted his clientele from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, because he enjoyed the work more.

There's also some lip service paid, in the final chapter, to alternative forms of community. He calls it "art as gift," in which people are rewarded for art in the same ways people value and reward the work of doctors, but there isn't a ton of depth here and he really does explain what he's talking about very well.

As I said, it's a great primer for artists attempting to live within capitalism and for that, I highly recommend, however, for anyone, like me,
who may not be looking at their art or their life in the same way, there's a lot left to be desired. I'm trained in theology, so I tend to think about these things theologically, but even in a practical sense, at least mentioning the notion of a national minimum wage - an economic theory that's becoming more popular - might be helpful, since one of it's main selling points is the freedom it provides for people to follow their passions and create.

I'll overlook one of my major pet peeves (using "creatives" as a noun to describe creative people) and commend Goins for the effort. He manages to provide a very standard, practical perspective on art that actually feels like art. It's a conventional book about art that won't turn artists off - which is certainly an accomplishment of sorts.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® 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, July 18, 2017

The Shape of the Church

At our recent General Assembly, a workshop with Scott Daniels re-introduced me to Nietzsche's analogy about slaying the dragon. It was his way of explaining the post-enlightenment attack on authority in the name of individual freedom. Each of the dragon's scales represent a command from authority and as they're attacked, the dragon is slain.

We live in a world where the dragon is long dead. We've prioritized individual determinism over authoritarian rule. It's all but inevitable (and probably good, in most respects). People are individuals, after all, and our recognition and respect for that reality is important to the flourishing of humanity.

I think Nietzsche's point was that society will keep hacking away at the dragon until it's dead. We'll go after institutions and authority until none remain. Nietzsche saw the problem from a long way off - if we kill authority, from whence does authority come?

That is ultimately our contemporary question.

From a Christian perspective, our tendency has been to reinforce the dragon, saying that killing it is wrong and those who try are evil. This isn't entirely consistent, though, since much of the Christian story is that of championing the underdog and standing with the oppressed - so being anti-anti-authority is not something we can sell out for with integrity.

At the same time, though, we're believers in community - believers that the individual is not the end all and be all of existence. We believe we're all connected in our shared existence and what each of us does affects every other.

There has to be some means of recognizing the individual, but not as ultimate authority. In other words, we've got to stand with the dragonslayer, but also stick around after the beast is dead to work together to pick up the scales that make sense for community. We are not our own; we're part of something bigger. We shouldn't be denied our independence, but we must also not be content with our independence and in doing so, deny our interdependence.

We must fight tooth and nail for individual rights and freedom, but we must then call these free individuals to sacrifice some measure of that hard-won individualism for the sake of community. We can say, "authority resides in free individuals," but existence is bigger than that. The dragon is doomed, if its not already dead, stop guarding the body and help us pick up the pieces. Authority comes in relationship - the very relationships we all need to be truly human. We have to be together, to work together - not to tell each other what to do, but to help each other do what we exist to do.

The dragon might be a terrible idea, but not every scale is worthless. Authority must take on a different shape, especially as it pertains to the Church. The age of institutionalism is over; authority works in new and different ways. Although, just maybe, we've had those ideas all along. Whatever the new shape of the Church, it must not be a dragon.

Perhaps we should try a slaughtered lamb?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How to Train Your Dogma

Dogma isn't bad - we all need a set of principles by which to live - but uncritical acceptance of Dogma is really unhelpful. We have to be able to interact with people without bringing our dogma to the party as our definition of morality. That is not to say that morality is relative, but morality is relative. It just is. Whether we're talking about contextual differences or cultural ones - or just the way experience shapes the choices people make, things get messy.

That doesn't mean dogma is bad - we really do need to know what we believe and how that affects our actions. The dictionary defines dogma as "a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true," which makes holding them loosely difficult. Still, I don't think we have to filch on our own commitment in order to provide grace and real respect for people who may think differently or think the same for different reasons, or simply haven't thought through exactly what they believe on a certain issue.

It's important to bring our dogma to the party, just not as the center of attention. What we believe informs who we are, how we act, what we think - it is as much a part of us as our skin. We should be ashamed of or feel the need to cover over those underlying beliefs that make us who we are.
But, like our skin, dogma changes over time (we have an entirely new set of skin every seven years or so, based on the lifespan of cells). Holding our dogma as something we believe in, but also something we're not imposing on others, allows us to think critically about belief in general and evaluate our own ideas. I suspect, any idea worth keeping will stand up to such evaluation, but the real joy comes in finding those things we've always taken for truth might be slightly lacking.

That's real growth and it's real respect for other people, who, themselves, have a series of experience-shaped beliefs that underlay who they are as people. Life isn't going to work out for anyone if we treat it like a dogma fight, battling back and forth until someone emerges the victor.
No one wins those fights.

The negative portrayal of dogma is precisely its perceived permanence. Dogma, in a bad light, takes on a life of its own, disconnected from the religious principles it's supposed to support. Macklemore, in his tremendously unsuccessful follow up album uses the line, as advice to his daughter, "Find God, but leave the dogma," because there's some general understanding that God is more intangible, mysterious, complex, and transformative than staid dogma could ever be.

This perception doesn't come because dogma is, in fact, unhelpful or problematic; it comes because of the way we hold our beliefs: namely with a tight fist and a stubborn will. The false idol of certainty is a comfortable mistress and we're loathe to leave her side. We don't need to give up our beliefs to truly embody them faithfully, but we most certainly do have to give up our control of those beliefs to see all they have in store for us.

Truth is truth until its not. That might not be satisfying, but it's all we've got in this world. That shouldn't mean we abandon the search for truth or minimize its importance, we just have to remember its not something over which anyone has a monopoly. People are people and whatever we believe, we believe for a reason. Beliefs and reasons are different, but it's only in address each other as people that we'll be able to find any dogma that has any hope of fulfilling its purpose.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Principles and Guidelines

A few weeks back, I wrote a little about the moralism with which my generation of Nazarenes grew up. It was a very specific way of life that focused largely on rules. We had a right and wrong for just about everything - and while there may have been grey areas, we tended to just avoid them as bad so as not to fool around with where the line might be.

It's been reflected in the way we view our constitutional document: the Manual. In fact, for a long time, the various sections of the Manual were labeled "rules." What we now know as the Covenant of Christian Conduct was the "Special Rules," specifically because it was a list of dos and don'ts. We got to be very good about our Manual legalism. As Wesleyans, we might've been a little less legalistic about the Bible, but the Manual was another story. I hear tales, these days, about families where the rules weren't followed to the letter - but you never heard about those families at the time (if they really existed), because rules were awfully important.

This past month, at General Assembly, was really the first time I saw any public acknowledgement that life is a little messy. Our delegates were willing to admit, from the floor, pastors even, that accepting into membership, even leadership, people who occasionally drink alcohol, is a pretty common practice. That's light years ahead of anything I would've expected, but it was truly refreshing.

I'm not saying that the most recent US Presidential election had anything to do with this (because I'm loathe to equate anything positive with that shit show), but I wonder if, give the realities of that last post I mentioned, we might now be a little more comfortable looking around the curtain of moralism at the pompous wizard running the show?

This new generation (mine, but really the one immediately behind me) seems unwilling entirely to play the old games. We're much more comfortable with both ambiguity and grace. We see the Manual as more of a guidebook than a rule book and it's throwing a bit of a wrench into things. This General Assembly had us asking, "Why not set strong standards and then hold to them with grace, rather than legalism?" Which might've been a slap in the face to old Phineas Bresee.

We'll get into an argument about that, too, because it seems to me each generation sees themselves in the old man - he possessed enough legalism, grace, social justice fire, and prohibitionist dominionism for everyone to have a piece. That's become our go-to perspective on the Church of the Nazarene as well; each generation makes the denomination into the entity most appropriate for itself. One generation, those spry, pesky Baby Boomers, held onto the reins of power for an awful long time, but that time does appear to be ending and what comes next is totally up in the air.

There's a generation in between that's going to have an unfairly small window out of which to operate - and they might want to have their say, but times are most definitely changing. Things will certainly get more complicated, but probably a little bit healthier, too. Of course, health in one area often leads to the exposure of dysfunction in another - some area our kids will grind against and reject when their time comes.

Regardless, the moment of change may have arrived. It came quickly and almost without warning, but the movement from rules and structure to guidelines and grace is inevitable, especially given the way my generation looks at and interacts with the world. Because of my experience, I have a real hard time calling the next phase "good" or "better," but it's certainly refreshing. The age of moralism might finally be dead in the Church of the Nazarene.

And that is undoubtedly a good thing, no matter how it came about, or what might be yet to come.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Nazarenes, Moralism, and _ru_p

I got to spend a few days at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene - this is the every-four-years gathering of my denomination, with delegates from around the world, but still largely dominated by very traditional, white middle-class Americans (despite the awesome fact that such people now makeup less than a quarter of our global membership). For ten days, there was a pretty big, insular bubble over downtown Indianapolis - one summed up by a tweet from a local waitress saying we weren't buying much alcohol,but the place is fresh out of dessert.

I had more than a few conversations about the crazy year in US politics. Most every friend I had from outside the US and/or under 40 had a similarly head-shaking confusion about the whole thing - a now familiar response. Those in another category were shaking their heads for other reasons. More than once I got some version of the same question - "Why have you [liberal/young/progressive/contrarian] gotten so much more upset that we [older/traditional/evangelical/Nazarene] voted Republican this time around; we've been doing it your whole lives?"

I recognize I had some angry responses to the election, inauguration, words, actions, tweets, thoughts, etc of Donald Trump, but I do think I've found some distance as a result of incredulous, but begrudging acceptance of reality. For the first time, I didn't really think about that question in terms of politics or even theology. Maybe it was the comfort and familiarity of the Nazarene bubble, but it feels like people in my generation - both radically liberal and heart-warmingly conservative - ended up with the same answer.

In short, our parents' generation* spent vast amounts of time and effort to make sure that good little Nazarene kids were uncommonly moralistic.
We were taught a vast array of dos and dont's with seemingly incomprehensible levels of logic that we just ate up and internalized. We didn't watch the Smurfs, because magic, or the Simpsons, because Bart was so disrespectful - I even remember having a conversation with my Dad about why I could watch GoBots, but not Transformers where the reason amounted to "the good guys don't always win on Transformers."

We skipped proms and dances, avoided movies, and thought the neighbor having a beer was as hell-bound as any terrorist. I spent most of my childhood genuinely believing you couldn't be a Democrat and a Christian (but that being American and Christian were almost synonymous) - and that abortion was the only issue worth voting about. We were inundated with the evangelical subculture, which I only realized in about fifth grade when a friend of mine thought I was talking about Opera when I told him my favorite musician.** (Notice I didn't even mention sex, because that's not something we do... mention sex, that is - definitely out.)

So, even if we learned to question and react against what amounted to benevolent indoctrination later in life, that foundation remains; it's buried deep inside each of us at subatomic levels. We've been shaped and formed with a guilt complex second to none,*** where even thoughts of the taboo were met with fear and hidden away. Above all else we were taught that Nazarenes - that good Christians - did things in a very specific, particular way (the right way).

We're the third generation, really, our parents were the kids of true believers, so they didn't understand exactly why we do things the way we do, but they respected them enough to drill them into our heads by rote. We learned all the whos, whats, whens, and wheres, even if the whys were sorely lacking.

So perhaps you might begin to grasp just how earth-shatteringly disarming it was to see those same people who spent so much time making sure we had a sound moralistic way of life so easily embrace a man whose very existence epitomizes the opposite of all we were taught was good and holy. That last word's not even a pun; one guy, last week, actually said to me, "I'm willing to be corrected if I'm wrong, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a single thing in Trump's life that would be acceptable to Nazarene thought and practice."

Yup. Not an exageration. He said it and it echoes everything I've been thinking and resonated pretty strongly with my Nazarene peer group - regardless of whether they were living out that moralism wholesale or striking against it in vividly intentional ways. Politics don't even enter into the equation - we're all just scratching our heads how the denomination we're trying to inherit could so totally accept a dude they (without name recognition or money) would never let walk in the doors of the church when we were kids.

It's a simple as that. You trained us to be this way. How else do you expect us to react?

*I do mean this collectively - as one generation to another - not so much my (or anyone else's) specific parents.

**Super props to fifth grade Troy for being so knowledgeable about opera, by the way.

***This sounds super harsh, because I'm focusing just on the moralism, but, really, there's a lot of benefits to this kind of upbringing - we had a strong sense of identity and a fantastic grasp of scripture and it's importance. Not incidentally, both of these things are really coming back to bite that previous generation, since we are challenging the status quo at present with a lot of well-earned Nazzy street cred.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Jackets and Collared Shirts

I got in a bit of a tussle again last week. Some people find clothes to be very utilitarian - they put on what they've got and they don't think twice about it. I'm sort of the same way - I often forget what t-shirt I'm wearing until someone makes a pseudo-clever comment about it. There are a couple exceptions, though, which, I suppose, may make you a little suspicious about my place on the autism spectrum. I don't like shirts with collars and I can't stand wearing buttons that people can see.

Yes, I get the ridiculousness of these particularities, but they are what they are. If I'm in something like that, I'm constantly aware, self-conscious, and uncomfortable - it's the exact opposite of my otherwise utilitarian clothing nature.* I suspect its for this purpose that dress codes have always given me a real sense of dread - no, it's probably hatred - I can't honestly think of too many things that get me so angry so immediately.

Over the years, I've developed some theological and ethical principles that work against dress codes, as well. If you want to say I've developed these ideas specifically because of my personal predilections, well, there's no real evidence I can give to refute you, but I will argue this defense mechanism is incredibly well thought out.

I got in to trouble last week because the Church of the Nazarene, my "beloved" denomination, is having it's Quadrennial (a word only we know and you'll have to look up) General Assembly this week, where a whole bunch of us get together in one place so we don't feel entirely strange being the only Nazarene anyone knows. Part of this is a particularly large celebration of the Lord's Supper during Sunday morning worship. I won't be staying for the service this year, so this isn't even an issue with which I'm even remotely involved - sort of my righteous-anger bread-and-butter - but they've requested that ordained ministers helping to serve communion wear "business attire," already nebulous, but also suggested men wear a "dark jacket."

It got my hackles up because 1) well, I'm an ordained minister and I don't own a dark jacket outside of the suit I've worn maybe five times in fourteen years, 2) pastors rarely wear jackets anymore, even the ones who want to do so, because it's out of place and often makes people feel uncomfortable, 3) why the heck can't our denomination trust its pastors, people they've empowered to officiate weddings and elucidate theology in public settings, to dress themselves?

There's also the whole issue about dress codes violating a person's humanity and directly working against the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Church of the Nazarene purports to (and mostly does) represent in the world. That's why I don't like dress codes.

I could go on and on about all this, but ultimately it comes down to the very true notion that people judge each other based on appearance. It's an evolutionary human reaction - we size each other up and try to match any new person with some category of people we've previously experienced before. It used to just be "friend" or "foe," but out complex brains have created all sorts of fun news ones now, like "ungrateful hippy" or "disrespectful loser," which come up when people don't look exactly how we'd prefer.

I'm not arguing against the reality of this judgement. Our brains work how they work and while we can reorient them a little bit through intense discipline and repetition, it only goes so far. Rather, what I'm arguing is that our brains also possess the ability to separately analyze the judgement we make and consciously choose to act contrary to those instincts. It's sort of the whole basis of morality in general - and religion in particular.

We believe there's something more than instinct, even if neurology would tell us its not entirely "free" choice. There's a second layer of analytics involved that can help us react in the ways we want to react most of the time. So while you only have one chance to make a first impression, you have numerous chances to capture that instinctive impression and respond intellectually - or at least intentionally.

In short, I'm challenging the way people assume things have to work - it's very counter-cultural of me, you might even say Christ-like (note: I didn't say it; I just proposed you might want to say it). We tell kids in school not to judge on appearance, then, at least in the rest of their life, if not in the very same school, tell them they have to dress a certain way to avoid being judged on their appearance. That does not compute in my logical brain.

As a Christian, I'm called to side with the left out, marginalized, and forgotten. These are the people often on the wrong side of those snap judgments, and so I try to be numbered among them. Yes, it's convenient that I feel most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, but I also choose to wear those things, in a worship service - often even if I'm preaching - and otherwise, with the full knowledge that it might lead to judgment.

If someone isn't going to take the time to hear my words or evaluate my actions before deciding the kind of person I might happen to be, then I'm willing to sacrifice whatever relationship I might be missing out on with them. It sounds a bit harsh, even to me, but I don't know another way to live out this very real principle that we shouldn't act upon those snap judgments. If we're going to claim that human beings have worth and value simply because they're human beings, we should probably act as if that's true. This is one way we fail to do so - and quite often.

I get that there might be some functional component to a dress code. Lifeguards need swim suits that won't fall off during intense exertion; no one will let you climb Mount Everest without a sick goose-down snowsuit. You're not going to convince me, though, that a dark jacket is somehow functionally crucial to passing some trays of sad little plastic juicy wafer packs down an aisle of near-motionless people.

I'd argue almost none of our "dress codes" are really functional. Actions are a far better judge of how to respond to people than appearance ever will be. Again, exceptions make the world go round and some guy, encountered in a dark alley, wearing a t-shirt that says, "I plan to rob you," might just be one of them. However, we have to be real careful not to make the same assumption if the guy's clothing or skin color doesn't actually have words written on it. The same goes for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The only thing a person's clothing should tell me about them is that "this is the kind of person who will wear those clothes in this situation," even making judgments about whether that decision was brave or fool-hearty or disrespectful is a bridge too far. You might not like the guy in a tank top and flip flops** at your daughter's wedding, but that doesn't make him a terrible person. If anything it should make us wonder why we've come up with these traditional, arbitrary, culturally-specific dress codes in the first place, when all they do (again, outside of function) is make us judgmental and ill-disposed towards one another.

Decorum is a state of mind, not of reality.

The final point, and one I want to make especially to people of the religious persuasion, is this notion I heard a lot growing up in conservative evangelicalism: "You need to look your best for God." I imagine lots of fathers and mothers have said these words, or something like them, to kids in an attempt to guilt them into putting on a tie or a dress to head to church (perhaps because a worship service can, oddly, be one of the most judgmental places on Earth a lot of the time). It's really irresponsible and dangerous, though.

God doesn't care how you look. Not at all. Even if you walk naked into an audience with the Queen of England. God does not care. This might seem an innocuous way to get kids to do things, but God isn't Santa; God it not a tool used to enforce behavior.^ The perception we have of God shapes our entire life and its largely formed early on. Don't do this to your kids. Don't set conditions by which they have to meet expectations to find approval. It's not healthy when you're the one withholding and it's not fair when you do it on God's behalf.

Yes, the whole world works this way - we typically have to earn the respect, love, and admiration of those around us - but it shouldn't be because of what we look like, but how we act and who we are. That's important and it's why dress codes make no sense.

*And the exposed button thing is real - I'm far more comfortable in a tie and I've never, ever worn a dress shirt without one - not once in my life. I've twice had to buy polo shirts specifically for work, because I gave them all away after leaving the first job that required them.

**For the record, even when attending a wedding, I don't intentionally dress to be noticed - I don't particularly like to be noticed - but I also don't see why we have to judge anyone who might do so, intentionally or otherwise.

^I'm opposed to Santa - and that God-forsaken Elf on a Shelf - for this and many other reasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Benedict Option

I have long been a proponent of the importance of intentional counter-cultural faith practice. I believe deeply the purpose of the Church is not to change the world, but to be changed, living as an example of Christ in the world. So when this new book, The Benedict Option, hit shelves this spring with a lot of evangelical buzz, I was excited. The summary basically said, "Christians need to give up trying to change culture, and live faithfully," and the title implied connection to Benedictine monks, who take this task very seriously, and have for 1500 years.

But Rod Dreher writes a book that so frustratingly inconsistent, I had to take long breaks between chapters. He deftly and succinctly lays out the problems inherent in the world today - big ideas like hedonism and consumerism - even the nationalism and comfort to which so many evangelicals have become blind. He really impressively recounts the developments of western society and points out the ways in which it has diverted from the gospel over time. The Benedict Option lays out the problem so well, it's shocking how poorly it elucidates a response.

His plan is to entirely withdraw from society, not because the conservative Christian movement has finally discovered how misguided was its love affair with GOP politics (or politics of any kind), but simply because that relationship is no longer working. On numerous occasions he says this retrenchment is strategic, to build up the resistance and bide time until Christianity can once again exercise power in the world.

The book sets up as the pinnacle of civilization the late Roman Empire, the age of Augustine, but defends this belief not with scripture, but an enduring love of Greco-Roman philosophy that was Christianity's greatest enemy in the period. Likewise he sets up the family as the core theological center of modern Christianity without recognizing how hopelessly enmeshed that idea is with modern conservative political thought (and how thoroughly it stands contrary to scripture). In fact, there's almost no scripture in the book at all - with his arguments based entirely on philosophical, political, and practical comfort.

Dreher correctly identifies the lost importance of liturgy and community in modern western Christianity, but then defines "orthodox Christianity" so narrowly it's amazing that he, a practitioner of Eastern Orthodoxy, can even fit within it. At one point he says outright that those who believe in Christian Perfection in this life - pretty much the core theological distinctive of my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene - are heretics (his word).

I was unsure, at first, if my aversion to The Benedict Option was strictly because of the Wesleyan-Reformed divide and our different ways of approaching scripture and theology, but I had to conclude that's really a difference in worldview, some core belief about reality and the future. Perhaps Dreher is rooted in an eschatology of destruction, that the world will continue to devolve until God steps in to destroy it, rather than a scriptural understanding of God's continuing work of renewal and love for the world God made, but this book is so pessimistic it makes me doubt his faith in the power of God at all.

The entire argument is based in fear, that everything around you is out to corrupt your children and ruin their lives; he says at one point that if people do not follow his advice in this book, Christianity will, under no uncertain terms, be wiped out of existence. It feels like a furtherance of the culture wars, but with a new tactic that purports to leave electoral politics, but simply re-engages from a different angle. He sets up "religious liberty" as the last bastion of salvation for "real" Christians, which isn't a particularly theological or Christian idea at all. There is no room for theological disagreement - even when he talks of ecumenical cooperation, it's still within this nebulous realm of "orthodox Christianity."

Dreher advocates - no demands - that Christians remove their children from public education, and any Christian education that doesn't follow the "classical" model. He sees the world as Jesus' society saw the unclean - something to be avoided for fear of contamination; we must do the opposite, of course, engaging the world, touching it intimately, the way Christ touched the unclean, secure in the notion that the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is capable of redeeming that which seems lost and foreign.

The Benedict Option sees threat and challenge, almost to an existential level, around every corner. It's a book written out of intense fear - one that is entirely unwarranted in light of the power of Jesus Christ. Why not embrace a world that is simply ignorant of the great freedom available through Jesus' Kingdom of love and grace and double down on our commitment to live this alternative Kingdom in the midst of the world?

This is what Dreher argues for, I guess, but while we can agree generally about the need to combat contemporary notions of work, privilege, sexuality, technology, and sacrifice, the details on which we settle could not be more different. This diversity should be something acceptable, especially since we are each committed to living seriously in the way of Christ, but over and over the book rejects those who differ on key areas of concern - things that are typically on the periphery of orthodox theology conversations, but always on the forefront of the culture wars.

In the end, The Benedict Option just makes me sad. My heart breaks for Dreher and those who will sign on to this movement. My heart breaks in the same way it does for friends and neighbors who've found themselves in the midst of the social and cultural ills Dreher so deftly lays out. I can't think of a more misguided, anti-gospel response to the real problems in the world. I can't help but notice how stark a contrast this book has to the one I read and reviewed last week - Rob Bell's What is the Bible? - a presentation of alternative culture to the hedonism, consumerism, nationalism, and general rootlessness so prevalent in the world today, but one built on a deep foundation of scripture and unfailingly optimistic about the power and love of God's Holy Spirit to transform and redeem everything.

I'm sure there are more than two ways to live faithfully in the midst of the world, but The Benedict Option is not one worth considering - at least not in the detail and with the specificity described therein. We've got access to the same idea described with far better scriptural exegesis and with much more grace in many places.

I got this book from the library and I've toyed with renewing it indefinitely to keep anyone else from having to read it, but then I realized that would just be playing into the fear espoused within. I am confident in the power of God to address the deficiencies of the world through the faithful response of God's people - not in terror and exclusivity, but with radical grace and the brazen, sacrificial, near-impossible love of Jesus Christ. You really don't need to read this book, but please don't be afraid of it.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Talking to Kids About Difficult Things

I have a five year old daughter. As a result, I've spent far more time than I ever expected talking to parents of young children. One of the issues I've run into lately has been the debate over when kids are "ready" to talk about various topics. There's often a sense that the outside world is just waiting to stream into our children's lives and overly complicate things.

That's probably true, although that same danger exists for us, as adults, and every other human being on the planet. The world is a confusing, difficult place for anyone to live in - but maybe that's the whole point? I wonder if perhaps we seek to keep our children "innocent," as we like to say, because we, ourselves, aren't quite comfortable understanding, let alone explaining, complex ideas to them (especially when they have varying levels of ability to understand in the first place).

One of the kids in my daughter's preschool class has two moms. My daughter's never mentioned it; I'm not sure she's even really noticed. I have heard parents, though, lamenting their frustration about having "that" be forced into their child's life when the parents would rather save "that" for a later conversation.

I'm not sure "that" would be my approach to parenting, but I certainly understand where they were coming from. Then I got to thinking. My daughter wasn't even two yet when she could articulate what a princess was and understood that a princess goes with a prince. She still doesn't have even the remotest understanding of what "romance" is, but she knows that moonlight boat rides, evening strolls, and late night magic carpet adventures are the kinds of things that bring two people together.

She doesn't have much capacity to understand attraction, orientation, dating, or marriage, but she has some semblance of knowledge about what a relationship is. She's already been shaped and formed in the language of relationships and we've never had a conversation about it. In light of that, it doesn't really make sense not to bring up complex topics, because life has already done it.

Sure, she's not going to understand, at five, what it means to seek out a spouse, but she's forming the foundation from which she'll make those decisions in the future.

Like my time talking to parents, I've spent far more of my life than I ever expected working with teenagers, both in and out of the Church. The most important lesson I've learned from those experiences is that kids always have more knowledge and exposure to things than their parents ever suspect.

This is why I've always tried to answer every question my daughter has as completely as I possibly can. We've had conversations about death and dying, about homelessness, poverty, and violence. I don't think she understands much, if anything, about those topics other than they exist and they're problematic. Then again, on the way to school this morning she told me, "Dad, if Mimi (her best friend) and I had lived a long time ago, we never would've been friends." When I asked what she meant she said, "A long time ago they didn't let black people and white people live near each other and if we didn't live near each other we wouldn't go to the same school."

Did I mention she's five? Yeah.

We try to avoid talking with our kids about difficult things until we absolutely have to, because we love them and we want them to be blissfully unaware for as long as possible. But they're going to be aware long before we ever know they're aware. I know we think our kids will be different, but my experience tells me that's just not true.

I've long proposed that the most important tool for Christians to practice and possess is creativity. Creativity allows us to think outside the systems and structures we're given and respond differently to the world around us. It's a gospel creativity that lets us cut through the divisive and partisan nature of our world to present the beautiful alternative that is the Kingdom of God.

It's that creativity we must foster in talking to our kids about difficult subjects while also presenting the hope that we have in Christ. It is the middle way, between sheltering our children and leaving them exposed to the world. As parents, we know them best, and it should be our job to introduce them to the already-not yet world in which they live, one full of great sorrow and tremendous grace. I don't believe there's anything we can't say to our kids, so long as we foster this creativity to speak to them in ways that make sense for who and where they are in life.

Avoidance sends a message of fear. Addressing topics, even difficult ones, puts legs to our faith claims that God is in control, that the victory has already been one, that love and peace and hope will win out in the end. Yeah, it's not always simple, but our kids need to know we wrestle beside them and aren't afraid to wade through the mess together.

One of the more difficult things I've done as a parent was also the most rewarding. I sat down with my daughter and read through her (age appropriate) "how does my body work/where do babies come from" book. The most difficult part was reading all of the proper biological terms without pausing or stumbling or otherwise letting on that this was something to be embarrassed about. In the end, she asked a few questions, but we've had to go back every few months and read it again because she could care less about these topics. At least I know, though, when she has questions, there's a foundation to discuss them together.

A few weeks ago my daughter came in crying about something - probably neighborhood kids being mean - whether it was embarrassment, fear, or confusion, she just wouldn't talk about it. I found myself telling her something spontaneously, and, as I was saying it, realizing, deep down, that it was one of the truest things I've ever said. I told her, essentially, there are lots of things you'll do in life, some things I'll like and some things I won't, but the single most important thing to me, as your dad, is that you'll always be able to talk to me.

I mean that. At least I'm working towards that in my own life. If she makes decisions about boys (or girls), drugs or beliefs or money or any number of other things I may not want for her, I'd much rather she do them and talk to me, than avoid them and not. I don't think this is the typical attitude our churches take towards parenting, but I can't imagine any other way to do it.

Listen, I'm under no delusion that we'll always be able to talk to each other about difficult things - she's only five and it already doesn't go as well as I'd like - but I know these early moments, when the stakes are much lower, are great practice for shaping both of us into the kind of people who can have the best possible relationship later.

I'm convinced it starts with telling the truth - all the time. I answer every question as honestly as possible. So far she understands very little of it, but she knows I'm not hiding anything. I want her to ask questions, to know nothing is off limits, that every question is a good one.

As parents, we've got access to a God-given imagination and an incredible creativity to meet our kids where they are. If we do mess something up, we have great faith in a God who reconciles all things and draws all people - young and old - to God's self. Our children don't need to be sheltered; they need to be prepared, not irresponsibly, not beyond what they can understand, but we're the ones who know what's out there and we have to be the ones preparing them to face the world. If they can't count on us before we think they're ready, they won't count on us when we don't know they're ready.

Parenting is the single most difficult thing we'll ever do, but I'm coming to realize, it's not something you do for your kids, it's something you do with them. Good luck and God speed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rob Bell Comes Home

Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, in which he dared to make a theological and scriptural case for considering a kind of Christian universalism that has always been a part of the Christian tradition. He was generally cut-off and condemned by the American evangelical community that values predictability and stasis above just about everything else. It changed his life. He moved to California and stopped working at churches (although he's continued to be a pastor to a pretty diverse group of people, include Superbowl MVP,
Aaron Rodgers and comedian Pete Holmes). He's dabbled in TV, started a podcast, holds a regular slot at Largo in LA - and, most importantly,
continued writing.

Things got a little wonky there for a while. He showed up on Oprah and some of his writing started sounding more generally spiritual and less specifically Christian. People assumed he'd just gone off the deep end, so to speak - in evangelical cultural terms, just another lost soul seduced to collusion with the ways of the world.

That makes it sound a bit worse than it is - you can read the Christianity into Bell's most recent book, How to Be Here, even if he doesn't use the language. That being said, his newest book, What is the Bible?, was not the avenue I expected him to turn down next. In typical Rob Bell style, it's a short, quick, direct, and accessible look at a particularly complex topic. He addresses the Bible, it's creation, development, and purpose - as well as approaching technical issues of genre, culture, interpretation, and language with specific examples rather than jargon and prose.

I know many Christians are skeptical of this treatment, fearing that Bell has moved beyond where most people are comfortable. If you're a straightforward, typical American evangelical, particularly one who's not too uncomfortable with the fundamentalist label, that might be true. I doubt all of what Bell has to say would please those in the tradition from whence he comes. However, he clearly explains how that tradition provided the pathway to ask questions and discover answers leading to where he is. There's nothing in this book that would contradict anything I heard or learned in seminary or would be outside the bounds of my tradition in the Church of the Nazarene.

Does he ruffle some feathers around the edges? Yeah, especially in the final section of the book that serves as a sort of Q&A, particularly geared around difficult and controversial questions. I'm not sure I appreciate the casualness with which he deflects questions of biblical authority and inerrancy - I certainly agree with what he has to say, but perhaps not in the way it's done. Yet this book is clearly for his "new" audience.

It is not at all written for people within the camp who embraced his early work. What is the Bible? presents a healthy, responsible, in-depth, engaging understanding of the Bible to people who are searching for meaning and may have otherwise written it off.

If I were teaching an Intro to the Bible course at some Christian college, I'd put this on the textbook list. I think it would work equally well in a congregational setting where people are prepared to be stretched and challenged and willing to talk about complex issues. I've read just about everything Bell's published and this is among his best work. There's more scripture, exegesis, research, and gospel than you'd find in 99% of sermons out there (mine included).

It's a presentation of living, active, meaningful scripture that speaks to the world with honesty and grace. Bell's freedom from the moralistic tyranny of a Christian publisher allows him to be both reverent and irreverent, but most of all real. It's a great read and I couldn't be more pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beauty and Participation

While reading, last week, I came across an off-hand reference to Giant's Causeway - the unique and incredibly beautiful geologic formation on the north coast of Ireland. Just the name brought back a flood of memories, but more than that, an intense desire to experience the location once again - not for any specific purpose, but just to be in the presence of such peace and beauty one more time.

I've been a lot of places in the US, but I'm not otherwise well-traveled. I've left the continent only twice, but in both instances discovered one of these places of refuge. The Causeway in Northern Ireland and an ordinary, non-descript public beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I'm not one for sun or sand, necessarily, but this beach was tree-covered and sheltered - as much as I have a long list of international locales I'd love to see, I might want to return and just sit on this beach more than any of them.

Previously, those feeling have not been associated with the places in which I experience them; they've felt more like participation is some larger truth. I've got profound memories of rightness sitting on a rock, near the top of Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, watching the morning fog stream up from the valley into the sky at almost impossible speeds; the same feeling in a similar spot on Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, viewing the vastness of untouched wilderness comprised of nothing but trees and lakes, the bright sun magnifying the colors and reflections. But those are simply places connected to connection; it doesn't feel like the places themselves are part of it.

I love those moments because they remind me of my insignificance and that is unbelievably comforting. All of my anxieties and stress melts away in the wild as I'm reminded that this vast, complex, unfathomable universe does not in any way require my participation. It puts things in perspective. I also enjoy the realization that such profound beauty - an experience, a reality beyond just the physical attributes of location and composition - is literally impossible without my participation. No one will see or experience exactly what I see or experience. That's also comforting.

So many things I do I do just to check them off the list. I've been to the highest point in 31 states now, but they're not all magical - most are pretty formal. That doesn't make those experiences less valuable, just different. Unless there's some real (likely unrelated reason), I probably won't go to most of them every again. I don't tend to read books a second time, even if they are profound or enjoyable or profoundly enjoyable, because there are always other interesting books to read.

Maybe it's because those two locations are so disconnected from my normal life - they are exotic in that they're far away from any place I ever reasonably expect to be. Perhaps they're special because they aren't places I ever planned to be. I was in Ireland for a work conference on ministry in places of conflict - our retreat center was rural and remote, but most of our time had been in the city. We took an afternoon whirlwind tour of the coast and snuck into the Causeway just before it closed. The beach was my wife's idea - the beach is always my wife's idea - I've never seen a beach I've particularly liked or disliked in any way save that one.

I don't know what it is that drives my desire to return to those places. I don't doubt that water has something to do with it. I've always found comfort in the crashing of the surf, in the cool cut of an ocean breeze, in the peace of otherwise silent nature. The steady rhythm of the waves, perhaps reminiscent of the heartbeat felt in that womb I don't remember, brings a calm and a peace no amount of psychoanalysis could ever touch. I wonder more, though, if my having experienced them before somehow adds to the beauty. There are plenty of beautiful places around the world I would love to experience, but perhaps its beauty already infused with experience that speaks more deeply to the heart and soul.

I do a lot of art - I can't draw or paint or sculpt, but words are my medium (or maybe my canvas) - rarely, though, do I create something that feels truly beautiful. When I do, there's a sense that it's not mine, that it's never been mine - and yet my DNA, my fingerprints are all over it. Beauty is a portal to something cosmic, something true on a level beyond our understanding, yet there is an element of beauty which cannot exist without our participation.

A great painting is not beautiful on its own; it is beautiful when someone recognizes within it both themselves and something so outside themselves as to be nearly unapproachable. Beauty is a connection between the impossibly immanent and the indecipherably transcendent.

I doubt my experience of beauty perfectly matches with the experience of any other - perhaps my experience is totally foreign to every other -
but I suspect that my experience of beauty is precisely what people experience when they experience beauty in whatever ways they experience it.
Whatever that looks like, it looks as it does because of our presence.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to seeing beauty in everything is just to be constantly present - not here, but present - and isn't that beautiful?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

This is What I Mean

You all know that I've got more than a few disagreements with Donald Trump. I really need to stop commenting on political things, because, while it's fun, I don't really care. My personality is super rational, which makes me a pretty poor match for electoral anything, where rationality is the least of anyone's concern. I like following elections and government the same way I like following basketball or the Tour de France - it's entertainment. I don't think any of this is nearly as important as the participants do and certainly much less than the people I tend to piss off or excite with whatever back room comments I might make.

I've also probably got to stop because I really do believe theologically that participation by Christians in the business of elections and governing is harmful and counter-productive. I don't mind commenting and such, but I suspect I may be encouraging the very engagement I hope to discourage and for that, I apologize.

I believe the Church is called to represent an alternative politic. I really do. We're not called to influence anything or anyone, least of all nations and governments, but to live out the calling to which we've committed our lives in a way that might present people a more attractive means of living together. Yes, there's influence inherent in that ideal, I suppose, but influence is not a motivating factor. That's when we get into trouble (as just about any person less than excited about Christianity will tell you) - we're at our worst when we're trying to tell people what to do.

Don't get me wrong, I think making theological counter arguments to the theology of power and fear inherent in any national government is vitally important. I don't think we should keep our heads in the sand - but me putting forth my critiques of the policies and decisions of people in government probably isn't helping that cause. I respect Brian Zahnd greatly as a pastoral example of prophetic witness. He's got his own opinions about what government should do, policy-wise, and those occasionally sneak out, but for the most part he simply proclaims the gospel, the Christ-like way of living in the world, and points out the ways in which statements or decisions made by elected leaders contradict those things.

You may call it a fine line, but I see it, and far too often cross over. I let my love of logic and reason hold the same place in my heart as my love of God and the Church and the purposes to which we've been called.

I've been critical of some of the decisions Trump's made and I think a lot of the policies being pushed are short-sighted and outrageously ill-conceived. I'd like to think I'd've been similarly critical of Clinton, had she been elected, it just would likely have been on very different issues. This is the type of discussion that's probably best left to in-person debate or, at least, less public venues (don't worry, I somehow consider this blog to be 'less public' for some entirely illogical and irrational reason).

At the same time, my biggest issue with Donald Trump, from the moment his campaign became serious, was his lack of concern for morality. I don't call the man immoral, but amoral - he doesn't seem to understand right and wrong as concepts. Trump tends to base those judgement either on later outcomes or on the feedback he gets from the people around him. Because of this, he doesn't seem to be the kind of person who thinks twice about hurting people if it serves an agenda.

I'm particularly troubled by the illustrative tweets he sent out in response to the London terror attacks in recent days. While I could see many of our recent Presidents saying things like this in private, to friends or co-workers; I can't imagine a scenario in which even Richard Nixon (our resident modern Presidential boogeyman) would think it proper to make such comments in a public forum - not that might be politically incorrect (which they are), but because they're not sensitive to the events of the day, nor are they particularly representative of the nation a President purports to lead.

Here Trump decides to interject a divisive US issue into a comment on terrorism in the UK - which has largely settled for themselves how they feel about guns. It's unfeeling and callous and completely tone deaf, not only to substance, but perception. Worse: the fact that this tweet still exists. It wasn't deleted after the fact, showing a real misunderstanding of both people and the world.

It's this inability to apologize, to admit fallibility - even for a typo - that makes Trump so impossible to support, not as a politician, but as a person of any influence at all. I get that he's a human being and a beloved child of God - I don't wish ill will towards him or his family - but I do believe he's dangerous, not just because his actions violate just about every value I hold true in the world, but because they violate generally held societal beliefs - I do still think a majority of people in the country he purports to lead embrace compassion and kindness - and also the good of the country.

I believe George W Bush made some of the most horrendous political decisions of my lifetime. I think, outside his massively important, flourishing program to fight AIDS in Africa, there's nothing of value he provided, policy-wise, to the US in eight years. I'd argue he's genuinely among the three worst Presidents we've ever had. I wrote in John McCain in 2000 AND 2004. Still, I believe he was and is a kind person who understood the weight of his responsibility in profound ways. He's the one President in the last 60 years or so who I couldn't imagine even thinking the things Trump says in these tweets (c'mon, you don't think the Obama snark doesn't rear its ugly head in private?). In other words, I don't have any moral qualms with the man, just the decisions he made.

The same isn't true for Trump. To me, this isn't about politics or policies - it's about decency and responsibility. The President just isn't supposed to use the part of his office that speaks for the country to advance personal or political agendas. Media outlets make a lot of money using manipulative reporting tactics to push political buttons, but we expect more from a President - shoot, I expect more from a human being.

This is either an ill-informed regurgitation of some conservative media talking point or a genuinely nefarious means of undermining a religion. Even I hope Trump was just ignorant of the actual text of the muslim mayor of London's statement and not that he was trying to smear a foreign leader the day after a terrorist attack to score political points. I can give the benefit of the doubt here - even if that benefit still makes him look terrible.

For reference:

My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today. You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers. There is no reason to be alarmed by this. We are the safest global city in the world. You saw last night as a consequence of our planning, our preparation, the rehearsals that take place, the swift response from the emergency services tackling the terrorists and also helping the injured.  --Sadiq Kahn

He wasn't saying people shouldn't be alarmed by a terrorist attack, but that they shouldn't be alarmed by the increased police presence following an attack. That our President waded into this with anything other than compassion illustrates how unfit he is for the position. This, more than any alleged Russian collusion, failure to divest from his businesses, even downright unwillingness to put effort into educating himself on the issues with which he deals, is reason to be rid of him. Everything else is a choice he made; this is a reflection of who he is.

I believe all people can change, but I'm not sure it makes sense to let an amoral, irresponsible person with no stated aim towards self-improvement, try to do so in a position of power.

When I say he's not fit to serve - despite whatever disagreement I might have with him on policies or decisions - this is really what I mean. To me, it's far more important than any of the other stuff - and so I'll try to adjust my words to reflect as much. Let's all pray Donald Trump does too.