Admitting the Truth

Let’s talk about giving up dreams.

I was somewhere around five years old when I first said I wanted to be a preacher. I think I liked the idea of delivering sermons, of being an expert in holy stories and wise advice. But fundamentally, my experience of ministers is that they were kind men. I wanted more than anything to be kind someday—I knew very well the damage that unkind men could cause. Having set my sights on a pastoral vocation, I committed to that path with single-minded determination.

On a Wednesday night in 1983 I preached my first sermon. There were no boys older than I was, and I had no model for what was expected of me other than the adult men. They took turns preaching during the midweek service, so I figured I should, too. Our little church, the East Side Church of Christ, was about forty people at the time, of which my family—little brother, parents, grandparents, great-aunt and great-uncle, constituted about a fifth. Most of those forty, like us, were thrice-weekly attenders, showing up Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night for services that were effectively identical in form, varying only in the degree of formality. I figured even a sixth-grader could preach on a Wednesday, the service traditionally reserved for encouraging the faltering efforts of those new to the pulpit. I asked; the elders agreed. I chose “confessing sins” as my theme. That’s hilarious in retrospect, as I was eleven years old, and I don’t think I’d committed any actual sins yet. Armed with the NIV Bible I had received from my grandparents on my tenth birthday, plus an article entitled “I Have Sinned,” from the latest issue of Teenage Christian magazine, I delivered my homily. “Wonderful, wonderful!” said Sister Lois, my great champion, afterward. The men shook my hand. “Well done!” The older folks were in general agreement that I’d “make a fine preacher someday.”

We met in a small, plain building off a side road, effectively hidden from society. I remember when we added carpet down the central aisle, installed ceiling fans, built a lobby. In the lobby were bathrooms, a glorious improvement both because of their relative luxuriousness and, more important, their location at the entrance of the building. Previously, in my elementary years, if one felt the urge to pee during worship, a trip to the front of the building was required—the original toilets were located on either side of the pulpit. In spite of a general unspoken agreement to let such trips take place without comment, one couldn’t help but feel the eyes of the congregation with each step forward—or worse, the eyes of the song leader or preacher. Perhaps the founding members found poetry in placing base humanity in proximity to the divine, but the next generation held a successful funding drive to restore some privacy to the privies.

When I was sixteen our little church remained between preachers for a long stretch, a year or more. We couldn’t pay much, so even though the preaching job came with the free use of the three-bedroom parsonage beside the church building, our ministers usually didn’t stay for more than a couple of years. As the search for our next official preacher dragged on, I was promoted to the Sunday morning rotation, and preached monthly. I’d collected a few public speaking awards by then and felt reasonably confident behind the pulpit. From my vantage point now, thirty years hence, I can’t picture what those sermons must have been like, and I can’t remember any of my texts or topics. I do remember, though, the continued encouragement of the congregation. For the first time, it looked like our little church was going to produce a preacher, and the gray heads were delighted. I took their pleasure as confirmation that I was on the right track.

So: Off to college for a degree in biblical studies. That was followed by a lingering bout of atheism, during which I went to grad school for communication studies. Then my faith rebounded (long story there) and back to seminary for a Master of Divinity degree, and eventually a doctorate in ministry. I did my best to shore up my weak spots, build on my strengths, learn how to serve the church well.

In my early 30s I landed at a reasonably healthy church that was having trouble navigating some key transitions. They had dropped from just over 500 members to barely over 400 and wanted someone to help them get back on track. Figuring out what was broken in the system and designing new structures, it turns out, is something I’m pretty good at. Three years later we were over 500 again. I started getting calls, a few a month, from other churches who were dealing with declines and wanted to see if I’d come help them grow again, too. “Thank you, but no, I’m happy here,” I said again and again.

I did leave, eventually, to go to a church that–rare, for Churches of Christ–opened up public leadership positions to women. My theology was increasingly feminist and I had a daughter by then, so an egalitarian congregation was able to get my attention. We made a cross-country move for that church. It had an outstanding reputation, came highly recommended, and had the most dysfunctional leadership I’ve ever encountered. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve seen my fair share of dysfunctional leaders, and this eldership was out to set some new records. I had never before watched church leaders stand up and blatantly lie to a congregation. Not subtle “maybe they misunderstood” kind of lies, but “we literally just agreed to something and now they are standing up and saying the opposite.” Sometimes the lies involved me. My favorite was “due to the recession, our church budget is getting tighter, and Kirk has graciously agreed to a salary freeze.” We hadn’t even discussed that possibility. But there was no point discussing it after that announcement. It was clear that my salary was frozen. I could be gracious about it, as advertised, or call the elders out as liars in front of the church and enjoy being fired. Not a great choice. The list of impossible demands and conflicting expectations got longer and longer. My job performance suffered as I got more and more stressed just trying to survive as an honest person in a system that rewarded deception. Again and again I was offered the choice to live quietly with lies or speak up and take my bruises. I lasted there 25 months, a tenure that was both (1) frankly amazing, given how miserable I was and (2) incredibly stupid, given how miserable I was. I should have been sending my résumé out by month three.

As a sign of how dysfunctional things were, I don’t really know if I quit or was fired. I was on my way out, anyway, and everyone probably knew it, but then the elders announced that the next week was going to be my last week, and so it was. I had planned to stay until I had a job lined up. They wouldn’t allow me that.

By the time we crawled away from the flames of that disaster, I didn’t have the emotional reserves to try to serve another church right away. So, hey–remember all that grad work I did in communication when I was an atheist? That was our lifeline to something else. I started teaching community college speech classes, first as an adjunct, but then full-time, after just a year. Pretty amazing, really, because you might not think it, but even community college jobs are pretty hard to get these days, and my résumé didn’t exactly scream “I long to work in academia.” It screamed, quite loudly “I trained hard for the ministry and then something went wrong.” I suspect a lot of people reading my application assumed I had had an affair.

So, I started teaching. Community college teaching is bizarrely low-stress. It’s amazing. I don’t have to submit lesson plans. I don’t have to deal with parents. If I’m not being overtly terrible, my chair leaves me alone and lets me run my class as I see fit. I’m pretty good at it, and I like my students, although I can’t really shake a sort of pastoral sensibility that communicates “I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.” To be honest, I communicate that more clearly to my students than I ever managed to do with churches. Students drop by my office and we talk about their life crises and college stresses, and sometimes I’m able to give some useful answers and sometimes all I can do is listen supportively, which I hope helps, too. Occasionally I get emails a year or two after a student has left my classes. One young woman, a military veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan, credited my public speaking class with helping her manage her PTSD and transition back into civilian life. One young man credited my interpersonal class with giving him the tools to save his marriage. As job satisfaction goes, one could do worse. And then there’s always “I thought I’d hate this class, but you made it interesting–thanks!” I get a few of those at the end of every semester. Those are nice, too. Not as nice as being a rich neurosurgeon who saves lives all the time–a career path I wish, in retrospect, I had taken up–but the notes are good.

After about four years of teaching, I felt sufficiently recovered from America’s Most Dysfunctional Church to start applying for ministry positions again. I had a doctorate, a record of helping churches grow, and five years earlier I was routinely fielding calls from interested congregations. How hard could it be to land a new ministry job?

Very hard, it turns out. It didn’t take long for everyone to forget about me. It also didn’t help that I was now way over on the far-left edge, theologically, for Churches of Christ. I did find some churches that really liked me—one in New England, and another in Salt Lake City. I could have uprooted my family and crossed the country for a church that looked like a good fit. But we’d done that once and it nearly killed us. I wasn’t keen on leaving Texas again. Maybe you could get me to a state that borders Texas. But Boston? Nope. I just don’t have it in me to do that again.

About three years ago I got as as close as you can get to a ministry job without actually landing it. I was on the job-offer runway with my landing gear down on a nice calm day, and then two engines blew up and a wing fell off. Nice-sized church, near a university. Had an absolute blast my interview weekend. The search committee recommended that the elders hire me. The church, overall, was clearly supportive. I was ready to move. But in the final interview the elders asked me a question on a particularly contentious point of theology. I knew they wouldn’t like my answer. It was one of those rare moments in life when you know that the next sixty seconds will determine the next six years. I could lie, and the job was mine. I could tell the truth, and it would go to the next candidate on their shortlist.

I don’t lie. I’m not sure that’s a moral strength; it’s more like a weird compulsion. I’m the exact psychological opposite of a pathological liar. I’m a pathological truth teller, even when it hurts me–even when it accomplishes nothing useful. I’m not proud of this fact. They asked me a direct question. I breathed out and glanced at Sandy. She knows how I am; she knew how this was about to play out.

I answered their question.

It took two weeks for them to call and say they’d gone with someone else. I’m not surprised—a lot of people were advocating for me, and it’s hard to go against the emphatic recommendation of the search committee. But they thought I was too liberal. By their standards, I guess they were right. Sandy burst into tears as I hung up the phone. It’s one thing to know what’s coming, it’s another to get the call.

They offered the job to the committee’s distant second-place choice. He had a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and hadn’t thought much deeper about theology than they had. I was perversely delighted when he turned them down, and they went another year without a preacher. They deserved to flounder for a while—not for realizing I wasn’t what they wanted, but for waiting until the final moments of a six-month process to spring a make-or-break question on me. They should have sent a checklist of their required opinions at the start.

There have been a few other near misses. I had an open door in another denomination, but as much as I loved them, ultimately, I wasn’t up to learning a new ecclesial language and acclimating to a new culture. I could have gone to a dying church with no children left, but I wouldn’t do that to my kids. And while I think I’m well-equipped to turn faltering churches around, I can’t raise the dead.

Four years out of ministry became five, then six, then more. It’s now been nine years, six months, and three days. The fact that I know that without having to think about it says something. I really only ever had one dream. But I’ve realized that the odds are getting smaller. My network was never big, and now I’ve been out of the loop a long time. I can’t get away to ministry conferences and networking events. I’m a has-been. I had a few good years. It looked like I had potential. I could have made a fine preacher. And then it was over. The math looks like this: as my years out of ministry grow longer and longer, the list of churches I would be willing to leave my low-stress college life for grows shorter and shorter, and so does the list of churches willing to offer me a job. The odds of a match shrink inexorably. It’s not impossible that it could happen, but it doesn’t seem likely.

And here are some more truths. I’m the only one in this little five-person family who has any interest in going anywhere else. My kids are quite happy with their friends, their schools, their church. They aren’t interested in giving any of that up. Sandy’s happy to stay, too. The only one with bouts of restlessness is me—restless to give up these nice notes, this low stress, to do the thing that I felt (feel?) designed to do; the thing that nearly killed us.

In some lights, what I’ve been doing the last five years—sending out résumés, calling churches—seems equal parts stupid and selfish, with no room left for “wise” or “loving.” A small town on the outskirts of Houston is, for me, about the ideal place to live. This community has everything I want. The little Bible Institute where I first trained for ministry at age 19—fifteen heartbreaks and two major faith crises in the past—has invited me to teach their communication-focused classes, one a semester. I cover preaching, Bible teaching, leading small groups. I get to pass on a little of what I learned to a diverse group of men and women who will, I hope, put those skills to use in churches longer than I did. I get to preach often enough, at our home congregation or elsewhere, that I haven’t completely forgotten how. I taught this year at the Christian summer camp I grew up in. Those ministry degrees aren’t completely wasted. And I know I wouldn’t be the father, the teacher, thepersonI am without all those years studying theology with wise mentors. Young Kirk had a lot to sort out, and it might have taken three degrees and a few thousand books to do it, but I think it got done. I think, most days, I am a kind man.

My department chair and I recently talked the powers that be into approving me to teach Intro to Philosophy. Adding philosophy to the mix has raised my job satisfaction enormously. I love my students, but public speaking is the worst thing to teach. It’s terrible. No intellectually stimulating content, and you have to listen to hundreds of poorly-prepared speeches from anxious pupils every semester. I’m good at teaching speech, but it bores me. Philosophy, though, is fun. I’m reading ancient texts with students and talking about how we should live. We’re tackling the big questions of life. What does it mean to be good? Is there a god? What are our ethical obligations? Three days into my summer course a student told me that he had illegally downloaded a PDF of the textbook, but after our first discussion of ethics he ordered the book and paid for it. That feels like something is happening. On paper, I’m not the most qualified person to teach this class, but I defy you to find someone who loves teaching it as much as I do.

If this is how things are going to be—philosophy with students during the week, practical ministry classes a few Saturdays a year, being a happy church volunteer on Sundays—I think I can maybe stop updating my ministry résumé.

Would I rather be on staff at a church? Yes, almost certainly. But that’s, like, 8% more satisfying. It would be an improvement, but I’m not going to ask my family to give up their connections here for an 8% bump. And the kind of church that would give me that bump isn’t interested in talking to me, anyway.

This is the dilemma of mid-life isn’t it? When do you admit something just isn’t going to happen again? What’s the dividing line between giving up and wising up? When should you learn to say “I had something once, and it was lovely, and I wish I been able to hold onto it longer, but life didn’t work out that way. And this–this life, this place, this moment—it’s good, too. This is the kind of life someone else desperately wishes they could have, the sort of life a man ought to appreciate, instead of clinging to a gossamer vision from his kindergarten year.”

There’s a line from Jessamyn West: You make what seems a simple choice: choose a man or a job or a neighborhood- and what you have chosen is not a man or a job or a neighborhood, but a life. I believed that I was on a ministry hiatus, a sort of extended sabbatical. I believed that I was actually a pastor, biding my time until the right church came along. My kids don’t know that, though.Theythink I am really a college teacher. They believe this is actually our life.

It has taken me almost a decade, but I understand now. They are right.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Ministry, Personal

The Last Jedi—A Case Study in Strengths that Become Weaknesses

Everything after this is a spoiler. You have been warned.

2015’s return to the Skywalker Saga, The Force Awakens, was released to generally glowing reviews. Although it was a fairly simple retread of the same beats we had seen before in the original 1977 Star Wars*, after the disappointing mess of Lucas gave us in the prequel films, it’s not surprising that there was a collective sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams could take the reins of the Star Wars franchise and give the world a new film in the old Lucas style. Whatever Abrams’ weaknesses as a director, he is a master at imitation, giving us the best non-Spielberg Spielberg film (Super 8) and the now the best non-Lucas Lucas film (The Force Awakens).

Having re-established the franchise on a firm footing and proven that Disney could give fans new releases with the same touches we loved in ’77, ’81, and ’83, the open question was where would Disney Wars go next? More of the same or a change of direction? “Burn it all down,” said Rian Johnson.

Abrams proved that Disney could give us the old magic we love; Johnson set out to prove that Disney could give us something new—something that we weren’t necessarily asking for. Say what you want about Episodes I-VII, they were not exercises in deep introspective cinema. There’s no gray in the Lucas palette. You have good guys and bad guys, light and dark, and you are either on one side or the other. It’s a simple fantasy story in space, with the rogues, clerics, princesses, and knights on one side and the highly mechanized forces of fascist empire on the other. Not much nuance there.

Johnson gives us a lot more gray—almost nothing but gray—as he sets out to step by step subvert every trope of the Star Wars universe. To whit:

1) The same daring, selfless missions that brought victory in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and even Rogue One are now at best Pyrrhic victories—the Deadnought bombing in the opening sequence—or foolish wastes of time—Finn and Rose’s attempt to shut off the tracker on a New Order ship. To really hammer the point home, we see Finn preparing to run his skimmer at full speed right down the maw of the First Order’s nifty laser battering ram, only to be forcibly knocked to safety by Rose. “We won’t win by destroying what we hate,” she says, “but by saving what we love.” The rebels have a new ethos. No more suicide missions—we’re going to try to save what we have left.

2) On a similar point, the tendency to disregard the orders or advice of your superiors that we saw previously when Jyn Erso ignored the Rebel council to retrieve the Death Star plans from Scarif, or when Luke left Dagobah to save his friends, is now taken to a foolish and devastating extreme in Poe Dameron’s mutiny against Admiral Holdo. This time, the old guard really does know best, and Poe’s insistence on going his own way endangered the rebels in general and Finn and Rose in particular.

3) There’s no one left who believes in the nobility and wisdom of the Jedi order. We thought that Luke retreated to the original Jedi temple to go deeper into the mystical ways of the Force and rebuild the order, but he doesn’t care about that at all. He’s never even bothered—in months and months alone!—to read the ancient Jedi texts. He’s cut himself off from the Force. And whereas Obi-Wan spoke reverently of the lightsaber—“An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age”—Luke tosses his away and dismissively calls it “a laser sword.” Even Yoda is ready to literally burn it all down, calling Luke’s bluff and destroying the sacred texts himself, saying there’s nothing in them that Rey doesn’t already have within her. Rey, we have already seen, doesn’t really understand what the Force is at all, and is begging for a teacher. This is a far different stance than Yoda took when Luke was in his early 20s and Yoda believed he was already too old to start gaining the wisdom and discipline it would take to become a true Jedi. Apparently Rey doesn’t need discipline and training. She’s ready just as she is. (And she’d better be, with the texts destroyed and the only person who can teach her dissolved away into serene nothingness.)

4) We’ve grown accustomed to people being marked out for a special destiny because of the circumstances of their birth, either to royalty (Amidala) or because of a miticlorian miracle conception (Anakin) or within a family which seems to have a genetic propensity to force sensitivity (Luke/Leia/Ben). The Force Awakens created a mystery about Rey’s parentage, around which fans have created myriad theories—She’s a Kenobi! A Palpatine! Yet another freaking Skywalker!—all of which were gloriously shot down with the revelation that her parents were poor junk traders who had no special gifts. They sold her off for some scraps and are now buried somewhere in the desert. She’s nobody in particular, from a nowhere planet–and we haven’t ever seen someone like her have such powerful control of the Force.

5) Finally, the extreme bifurcation between Light and Dark, Good Guys and Bad Guys we saw in previous movies is ended here as both Luke and Kylo Ren, in their own ways, want to break down the Jedi/Sith system. One of the chief strengths of The Last Jedi is how it used Kylo Ren, a petulant man-child in The Force Awakens, to begin to explore what it might look like to be strong in the Force but reject choosing a side. He has been conflicted, but now that he has struck down both Han and Snoke he seems ready to find his own path. Where that path will lead is unclear.

There are some fans who are deeply disappointed in Johnson’s insistent deconstruction of the usual Star Wars tropes, wanting more Abrams-style neo-Lucasism. They can hardly be faulted for wanting another trip to that particular well, and I can imagine being understandably upset at Johnson, the interloper who turned Star Wars into something darker and much more nuanced. If you came to The Last Jedi hoping for a few more chances to burst out into applause at the unlikely victory of our daring heroes—well, you probably hated this movie a lot.

That’s not my problem with The Last Jedi. The Star Wars universe was long overdue for this kind of deconstruction, and Johnson’s direction rescued the problematic Kylo Ren character and turned him into perhaps the most interesting person in the entire franchise. Breaking down the facile dichotomies are welcome turns as well. On paper, this seems like the necessary maturation of Star Wars, and I’m sure if I had been on the production staff I would have cheered Johnson every step of the way as he tore down the expectations that have been built over these last four decades. It’s a turn in the story that is both daring and essential. However, all this rampant subversionism came with a cost, which is that apparently Johnson doesn’t know how to do that and also make a movie that is interesting to watch and has consistently realistic characters.

There are three storylines overlapping in The Last Jedi: the Rey/Luke/Kylo Ren exploration of what the Force is and the nature of the Jedi/Sith orders, the Poe exploration of the limits of loveable rogue-ism, and the Finn/Rose exploration of yet-another-plan-to-infiltrate-an-enemy-ship-and-flip-a-switch-to-“off.” Of those, only the first really works. All things considered, if I can only have one of those three storylines work, that’s the one to pick—it’s at the center of the mythos and produces the most interesting questions and character arcs. On the strength of the Force arc, I’m giving a The Last Jedi a tentative thumbs up. But it’s really tentative because:

  • I can’t buy into mutinous Poe. Foolhardy, maybe. Addicted to high-stakes, high-adrenaline missions, sure. But mutinous—no. And if you are going to have a character commit mutiny, there need to be some consequences for that. He’s already been stripped of rank once. It’s time to throw Poe in the brig or kick him out of the rebel alliance altogether. There need to be more consequences for his actions than Holdo giving Leia a wry smile and saying “I love that rogue.” It’s good to subvert the repeated “million-to-one odds” missions. At some point, basic statistics are going to catch up to you, and C3PO’s going to be proven right. But this was a frustrating and unbelievable way to do it. It would be far better writing to have the bombing mission against the dreadnought go disastrously wrong. All the bombers get destroyed, the dreadnought is barely dented, and Poe loses one of his best friends. Leia dresses him down hard and busts him down another rank for insubordination before throwing him in the brig. There he gets plenty of time to himself to wrestle with the consequences of his hotheaded actions. Later in the movie, when the rebels are again in dire straits, Leia visits Poe in the brig and tells him it’s time to go on another risky mission to save the rebels. This time it’s Poe who refuses and insists on finding a smarter, lower-risk way. Introspection! Consequences! Stakes! Real character growth! Either way you go after that, something interesting is going to happen. Maybe Leia was right and we really need to roll the dice sometimes, but we have to be careful about when. Maybe Poe was right and it’s time to change tactics altogether. But Johnson gave us unrealistic character beats with no personal stakes or consequences—a dissatisfying move.
  • Everything about the Finn/Rose mission to Planet O’ Rich Gamblers bored me, and in a film generally dedicated to nuance, that was as un-nuanced as possible. Evil rich capitalist exploiters and child labor! Boo, hiss! That whole subpoint was an exercise in one futile action after another, all adding up to nothing. I could feel my heartrate slowing down everytime we cut back to Finn. There was nothing to make me care, and my extreme lack of caring wound up being retroactively justified when nothing they did made any difference anyway. Now, as a sort of avant garde approach to filmmaking—Wouldn’t it be interesting to have an entire third of the movie make no difference to anyone whatsoever?—I guess I can see the temptation, but Star Wars isn’t really the venue to explore the virtues of tedium. Nothing about the Finn line worked for me.

So, I’m giving the Force storyline a strong A, the Poe storyline a D, and I am expelling the Finn storyline from my class and putting it on academic probation.

Other assorted thoughts:

  • It is genuinely great to see more diversity in the Star Wars universe, and to have male and female heroes of various ethnicities to cheer for. Rose and her sister are welcome additions to the pantheon. And Laura Dern rocked it as Holdo—wonderful to see another middle-aged woman in a central role.
  • How much equipment does the First Order lug around with them? They just happen to have a laser door ram in case the rebels flee to someplace with a big reinforced door? Why not just blast it? They don’t care about casualties. What else are they carrying with them? Laser drill for underground lairs?
  • I’m not sure Rose’s philosophy is consistent. She thinks it’s wrong for Finn to sacrifice himself to try to save everyone, but then she hurts herself badly to try to save just Finn. She needs some Star Trek in her life. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
  • I really don’t get why Holdo doesn’t just explain to Poe what the plan is. She knows it looks futile from his perspective, and she knows what kind of nonsense he gets into when a situation seems hopeless. One quick “we’re not trying to escape this area; we’re trying to sneak to an abandoned base nearby” would have saved a lot of trouble and gotten Poe working with her instead of against her. Yes, that would have required a massive rewrite, but that rewrite needed to happen anyway.

* Look, it was Star Wars when I saw it, and I’m going to call it Star Wars here. You might know it as A New Hope. To each his own.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: Almost Christian

Book Review: Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Dean, a professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, wastes no time getting to the point of this bracing book. She opens chapter one by writing:

Let me save you some trouble. Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith— but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.

One more thing: we’re responsible.

Dean is not speaking idly. Drawing on serious and careful research, she shows that American Christianity is currently in crisis, although it may not be the crisis we think we have. Faced with ever bolder and more vocal atheism, many churches assume that our problem is that teens are rejecting faith due to pernicious outside influence. The reality is this: teens are not rejecting faith; they never truly had it to begin with. And the cause is not a determined hostile world; it is a weak and listless church. The sad irony of this moment is that, on the surface, American churches are devoting more resources to young people than ever before: dedicated youth ministers, consistent Bible class programs, vibrant summer camps, and global mission trips. It certainly seems as though we are doing all we can—no previous generation of young Christians has been given this level of supposedly spiritually formative resources. Yet we are reaping a harvest of mediocre faith that often doesn’t last more than a few months after high school graduation. What is going wrong?

The primary problem is that even young people who regularly attend worship tend to think of church as a valuable extracurricular activity, like their school’s band or sport teams—and churches haven’t given them much reason to think differently. While teens are inwardly longing for a purpose to which they can devote their lives, many churches fail them by offering “a kind of ‘diner theology’: a bargain religion, cheap but satisfying, whose gods require little in the way of fidelity or sacrifice.” The ski trips and youth hangouts offer fun for while, but they aren’t acquainting teenagers with a holy God who calls them to lives of radical service. Worse, the things that churches do to try to build faith often harm the spiritual formation process by replacing traditional structures that were more effective at creating disciples. Faith is formed best in multigenerational communities where young and old serve, pray, and study together, yet most American teens have almost no opportunity to bond with faithful adults: their Bible classes, camps, and mission trips are often filled with nothing but young people and one youth minister, with perhaps a few adults sponsors present. They have almost no opportunity to see how mature Christians integrate their faith and their life, and so they struggle to see how Christianity speaks to their world. Lacking both clear theology and faithful examples, the religious framework of many young people consists of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton call “Therapeutic Moral Deism,” which says, in essence, that God wants people to be nice; the goal of life is to be happy and feel good; nice people go to heaven when they die; and God isn’t involved in my life except to help when I have a problem

If you have spoken about faith with many teenagers in the last decade or two, these beliefs probably sound familiar. They have taken root among American youth and shoved aside the core principles of authentic Christianity: that God was incarnate in Jesus Christ, that his life modeled how we should live, that he died to cleanse our sins, that the work of the Spirit empowers us to continue in the divine work to which Jesus calls us. Rather than seeking daily to imitate the servant spirit of Christ through the Spirit’s power, teens are content to be “nice” and only call in God in a moment of crisis.

How does the church respond to this crisis? Dean calls for vigorous formative rituals: daily encounters with the divine through prayer and study, intergenerational work and reflection, a renewed sense of mission in the world, which makes demands of all church members, from oldest to youngest. Give teens a purpose and a calling and they will rise to the occasion. Show them through tangible behaviors what Christ has meant to us, and Christ will come to mean more to them.

Yet the most significant factor, by far, is not the sort of faith formation practices found in a teenager’s church, but those found in a teenager’s home. While there are always some young people who build a mature faith in spite of their parents’ indifference, and some who lose it in spite of their parents’ devotion, the number one predictor of enduring faith in a teenager is enduring faith in his or her parents. In her terms: “You get what you are.” The chief difference between an uncommitted teen and her parents is often that the lukewarm teen no longer feels the need to engage in the pretense of church attendance. “In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

Almost Christian is one of the most important books I have encountered. At turns disheartening, pragmatic, and hopeful, it lays out clearly the spiritual crisis before us and, in its own prophetic way, call for revival—not among the teenagers whose fate so deeply concerns us, but within the parents and church leaders whose own shortcomings are being reflected in our youth. This book is a clarion call. May it not fall on deaf ears.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Church Culture, Good Theology, Ministry, Uncategorized

“It Doesn’t Matter Who is President, Jesus is Lord”

The wording varies from writer to writer, but the sentiment is the same: “No matter who is in the Oval Office, God is still on the throne of heaven.” “Regardless of who is president, what matters is that Jesus is Lord.” Amen; true enough.

And yet…

We need to be clear what we mean when we say this. I am afraid that for many people, the claim that “Jesus is Lord” leads them to the conclusion that “nothing bad can happen.” But Jesus was Lord when Hitler led the Holocaust. Christ was reigning when Stalin initiated the Great Purge. The Son held all authority in heaven and on earth when America stole the labor of black families and the lands and lives of native families. “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t mean “everything is okay.” It doesn’t mean “God approves of what is happening here.”

For others, “God is still on his throne” seems to mean “Things may be bad, but we don’t need to respond. God will take care of it in his way.” But God’s way has always been to enter into the hearts and hands of his people. When God chose to liberate the Israelite slaves, he called on Moses to find his courage and his voice. When God chose to rebuke the foul deeds of evil kings, he raised up the prophets. When God chose to stand against the abuses of institutional religion and the idolatries of empire, he raised up apostles, elders, deacons….and martyrs.

God will change the world. God will stand against evil. He will do it through your courage, your deeds, your voice, your service, and–if needed–your death.

Jesus is Lord…therefore we must not passively assume that everything that happens is good. We must learn to see right and wrong through his eyes. Jesus is Lord….therefore we must not quietly wait for God to set the world right. He has called us to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus is Lord…therefore we take our orders from him, not Jerusalem, Rome, or Washington. Because he is Lord we are compelled to act, to speak, to move, to love. To answer the call of Christ is to kindle within yourself a love so pure that you will willingly give your life in service to your neighbors. It is to find within yourself a courage so deep that you will defy the king. Our tribe will not bend our knees to the golden statue, no matter how loud the music plays, how hot the furnace is stoked.

Because Jesus is Lord.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Lament

One of the students at our college recently suffered a truly heart-breaking loss, and I’ve been thinking about her all week, grieving with her as I grade papers and prepare lectures.  My life goes on; hers will never be the same.  I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to receive horrible news on a Saturday night, and go to some upbeat, seeker-sensitive attractional church Sunday morning.  I started to write an essay, but that wasn’t quite right, so I tried again as a homily, which was closer, but still not there.  It eventually wound up as a poem.  I don’t write poetry–not for years now, anyway–and I have a deep conviction that almost all amateur poets are awful.  This is probably awful, too.  But it’s the closest I can come right now to painting the picture I see in my mind.

A Lament

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.

The polished plaque is crisp brass,
with letters tall and even:
Sanctuary This Way
Around these words I see my reflected face:
unshaven, dark
I scrape down the hall, clad in
yesterday’s shirt, Friday’s pants.

Sunbeams stretch through stained glass,
making bold the jigsaw shapes of
wine and bread, sheep and shepherd
casting kaleidoscopes on a cool teal carpet.
I sit in the shadows, among the shades.

The drummer keeps a steady rhythm
Guitarists smile and strum.
And Jim, who I once knew in school,
Nearly laughs as he lifts his hands
“Let’s give the Lord a praise offering!”

I am stone.

Around me are the winners of the world,
The beautiful, the well-dressed
And they sing

God is so good
God is so good
God is so good
He’s so good to me.

They sing

You’re altogether worthy
Altogether lovely
Altogether wonderful to me

They clap and shout.
I clench my teeth.

The pastor is telling a football story.
A marriage story.
An old, old joke.
He recounts a scene from a sitcom,
The one about the pretty girl
“But not as pretty as my wife!”
And the lucky guys
“But not as lucky as we are!”

Laughter spills down the aisles.

I shut my eyes.

I wander inside myself
Meditating on horrible, hallowed images.
Twisted metal
Jagged wounds
The ventilator keeps a steady rhythm.

Amen, someone says.

The lucky ones clasp hands, slap backs.
In the lobby, there are coffee and donuts

I shouldn’t be here.  There is no place for me here.
Not today.

I don’t have a praise offering.
I don’t have a testimony.

What I have is mismatched socks
A little whiskey on my breath
And a broken son on a hospital bed
A headstrong, rebel boy who vexes me
And who is more dear to me than my soul
A bruised and battered boy

A boy who can not wake.

But where can I go where someone else knows
What it is like to lose a son?


3 Comments

Filed under Church Culture, Reflections

To Aidan, Who Is Three Years Old

Hey, kid–

I started this right after your birthday, but it took me more than a month to get it finished.  Sorry for the delay.  Life is busy with the three of you right now.  Plus, I never felt that this quite captured everything I want to say to you.  But it’s close, and sometimes close is the best we can do.  Whatever I say in here about what you mean to me, quadruple that and you’ll be starting to get the idea.

Dad

——-

Dear Aidan,

We are back home in Laredo after a busy Spring Break trip to celebrate your third birthday.  We went up to Cleburne for a few days, where Uncle Kasey hosted your party, which was cowboy-themed.  You decided some weeks ago that you wanted a cowboy hat cake, a choice influenced partially by Woody from Toy Story, but largely by the cowboy-themed episodes of Dora the Explorer, which is still your favorite TV show.  So we made you a cowboy hat cake, and bought you a black hat of your own, and Uncle Kasey provided a big cowboy boot piñata filled with candy.  You might also see some pictures of a badly formed cowboy boot cake, which was a spontaneous creation built from the leftover pieces when we cut the hat shape out of the main cake.  It looks less like a boot than an out-of-fashion stocking, or some kind of orthopedic device, and we never brought it out of the kitchen.  It was worth a shot, but things don’t always work out.

The things you liked most about the party were your new hat, which you absolutely refused to take off, and the rock climbing wall on the playset in Kasey’s backyard.  You had never tried scaling it before, and after making it up a few times with some help, you mastered your technique and climbed it over and over, probably a dozen times all together.  It was the big accomplishment of your day, and really an impressive demonstration of skill and balance from a kid who just turned three. As far as presents go, you were appreciative of everything, but seemed most delighted with the Toy Story car Uncle Kasey and Tia Maria gave you, the toy drill from me and your mom, and the new Chuggington story for your V Reader from Grammy and Granddaddy.  (I hope you remember the V Reader when you are grown–it’s been your bedtime companion every night for a long, long time now.  Like Aletheia, you call it your Kindle, because you read stories on it, like I do with my Kindle.)

Rock Climbing on his Third Birthday
It is difficult on your birthday to avoid thinking about your rough start, your two weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the weekly physical therapy sessions after your release to overcome your hypotonia.  No one who sees you today–the feisty, fearless, and remarkably nimble Climber of Barriers and Jumper from Furniture Although It Has Been Forbidden–no one would ever guess how fragile you were at the start.  I wish I had known back then, looking at you through the transparent shield of the oxygen tent, your pale skin illuminated by the red blinking lights of the sensors and alarms all around you, that just three years later my biggest worry for you would be that we will have to rush you to the emergency room to heal a broken bone if your play becomes a little too vigorous.

I know that someday you won’t be able to remember these years–strange thought that our three years together will be, at most, a vague impression in your adult mind!–so I want to record a few things about the three-year-old Aidan that the grown up version might like to know.   First, the simple things: in addition to being a very athletic child, you are a very quick learner.  Already you know all your colors, shapes, letters and letter sounds.  You can count to ten well and to twenty with a mistake or two along the way.  I’m pretty sure you have some sight words as well.  For the past several months, you have occasionally insisted on reading your own bedtime stories.  You are and always have been a healthy eater, and even though you have a horrible sweet tooth, you usually ask for nutritious snacks–especially apples.  You have eaten hundreds and hundreds of apples. Your favorite food is probably macaroni and hot dogs, although you also have shown great fondness for pizza, hamburgers, and spaghetti.  At the moment, your favorite movie is Puss N Boots, which you have easily watched twenty times in the last two weeks.  Your favorite books are the collections of Dora stories you inherited from your big sister. It’s hard to say what your favorite toy is, outside of the V Reader.  You love to play “restaurant” with Aletheia, using her kitchen and food toys as you take our food orders, ask for money, and then bring us what we asked for.  You like the little blue scooter you have, also a hand-me-down, and you like to color.  You are also very fond of the toy dinosaurs you have.  In fact, you just knocked on your bedroom door (it’s nighttime as I write this) to ask me to bring you your “T. Rex and ‘Ceratops.” I couldn’t find them, but you took the bad news pretty well.

Now, for the harder things to describe.

You are a natural optimist and encourager.  When someone else starts to get frustrated with a task, you chime in quickly and say “You can do it!” You especially do that for Aletheia–we must have heard “You can do it, sister!” dozens and dozens of times by now.  And you are very quick to smile and laugh.  Last night your mommy was reading you a story with a sad scene in it, and she asked you to make a sad face.  “I can’t do it, Mommy!” you said.  “I’m Aidan! I’m always happy!”  I find it fascinating that perpetual happiness is already a part of your self-image, and you’re pretty much right.  Aidan is always happy.

Maybe because of Aletheia’s interest in space, you are interested, too.  You often point to the wallpaper on my computer, the galaxy background that is the default setting for the current Macintoshes, and say “That’s the Milky Way!”  And there’s a bit of imaginative play that you and I and Aletheia do where we pretend to be going into space.  As it has developed, we start by choosing the colors of our space suits, and you will often come to me and say “Daddy! I’m going into space.  I have a yellow space suit.”  And then you’ll choose the colors for everyone else in the family, even Tessa.

Speaking of Tessa, you are very sweet to her, but I do wish you’d be a little more careful!  That baby has shed a lot of tears because you didn’t notice that she was in the way–but you are usually quick to try to make it up to her.  And I am glad that you never seemed to resent having a younger kid in the house, the way some children do, but have always been very welcoming to her.  You are unusually confident of your own place in the universe, though.  I don’t think something like an extra baby or two would ever throw you off kilter.  And maybe one advantage of being the only boy is a sense that your place in the family is unrivalled. 

I always wanted a sister and never got one, so I’m interested in seeing how you respond to being surrounded by girls in your family.  I always tell people that I think you’re lucky: you have a big sister to give you advice about girls, and a younger sister whose friends you can date.  At the very least, girls won’t be the weird, mysterious creatures that they always seemed like to me.  At worse, they’ll be weird and familiar, which should be of some benefit to you.

But beyond all that, I think what I wanted to say most–the thing I wanted to get down in words before these early childhood years become relegated to faulty, flickering memory–is how much I treasure the boisterous, intensely bonded relationship we have right now.  I wasn’t expecting that.  We especially enjoy rough play–tickle fights and pretend boxing and me swinging you upside down or throwing you through the air onto your bed.  It’s a different kind of play than I did with Aletheia at the same age, and is rewarding in a different kind of way.  You’ve brought a lot of energy into the family, which more than makes up for things like coating your bedroom door in black crayon last week.  Cleaning up some crayon graffiti is a small price to pay for the chance to share a home with a high-energy, endlessly optimistic, bold and daring encouragement machine. 

Your third year of life was a blast, kiddo.  Here’s looking forward to the rest of year four.

I love you.

Dad

1 Comment

Filed under Personal

“Need is Not Belief”

A friend sent me this poem by Anne Sexton.  I’m adding it to my contemporary psalter for the doubting hearts. “Need is not belief.” Amen.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Noted In Passing, Reflections, This Is Good

Anger in the Church

Good stuff here by Debra Dean Murphy, especially this quote from Garrett Keizer: I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.

I know well the pressure the be perennially nice in church–and the fear that if I wasn’t always nice, I would jeopardize my ministry career.  Looking back, I have too lengthy a list of times that I wanted to stand up and fight for some righteous cause, or do some much-needed rebuking, but smiled and nodded and said, “well, there’s another way to see that.” On rare occasions, “there’s another way to see that” does the job, but sometimes I failed to do what I was called to do by not knocking over any tables.

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Culture, Ministry

The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

7 Comments

Filed under Bible, Church Culture, Rants

The FishBike Scale of Big Mistakes

The best thing I’ve read on the internet today, from Metafilter user FishBike.  Below is the G-rated version, the original has an instance of more intense profanity.

This is probably as good a time as any to publish the FishBike scale of Big Mistakes. Basically, you rate the size of a mistake by which field of study is affected by it.

Category 1: Journalism. Your mistake is big enough to be reported in the news somewhere.

Category 2: History. School children decades from now will be reading about your mistake in their textbooks.

Category 3: Geography. Your mistake is bad enough that maps are different afterwards. Entire towns or cities may have disappeared, or people change place names so they can forget about your mistake.

Category 4: Geology. Millenia from now, scientists will be wondering what made that giant hole in the ground or why that mountain isn’t there any more.

Category 5: Astronomy. Scientists on other planets, peering at our solar system through their telescopes, will see a bright flash and ask themselves “What the heck was that?”

I am happy to report that I have made no big mistakes this week, and I bet you haven’t either.  Be gracious and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Leave a comment

Filed under Noted In Passing

The Nones

From the New York Times, an article by Eric Weiner: “Americans: Undecided About God?”

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones….

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

This is certainly my experience.  Young people I know are looking for a life path that will help them be better people.  They are often very interested in mystical, reflective paths, which they have often seen very little of in Christianity.  Buddhism holds some attraction because it looks like it will help them to be calm and focused, and to roll with the punches.  They are not interested in preventing homosexual marriage, are increasingly moderate in their abortion views, and would like to see real help for the poor and the sick.  You could possibly sell them on some specific Christian doctrines, but not until they have seen that there is a form of lived Christianity that appeals to them.  If you lead with praxis, you can eventually move into theology.  I, for one, don’t see this as a step backward.  Aren’t we supposed to be inculcating virtues anyway?  And aren’t things like peace and patience supposed to be the fruit of the Spirit?  The American church needs to make some major adjustments here, but nothing that isn’t the right thing to do for other reasons.

Leave a comment

Filed under Evangelism, Politics and Culture, Reflections

Learning to Read the Gospel Again

Solid article from Antony Baker.  The most devastating line:

In the memorable words of Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, young people “look to the church to show them something, someone, capable of turning their lives inside out and the world upside down. Most of the time we have offered them pizza.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Culture, Evangelism, Ministry, This Is Good

Of Myths and Monsters

I’ve been reflecting for a while on three different literary passages.  The first is from the Grapes of Wrath, a dialogue between poor tenant farmers and the wealthy land-owners and bankers.  The farmers have been trying to scrape a living farming a land that has been hit hard by drought.  The powerful wealthy folks are now about to remove them as tenants, and hire them as workers on larger, consolidated farmers.  Their small grip on autonomy is over–now they will work for wages determined by profit-driven land owners.  This is what Steinbeck wrote:

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came…Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained.

“You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes,they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.

The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”

The squatters nodded-they knew, God knew…

Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”

“Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”

“But-you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.” …The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop-we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”…

The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?”…

“We know that-all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”…

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours-being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The second is a speech from President Eisenhower, delivered in 1961–the speech where he coined the term “military-industrial complex.”

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

I have been reading those passages in connection with a third passage, from chapter two of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The monstrous bank. The misplaced powers of the military-industrial complex.  The elemental forces and authorities of this world.  In different ways, all three passages are warning of the same thing.  When humans combine in organizations, something sometimes emerges that is no longer human, and no longer cares about humans.  It’s made up of men and women, but it isn’t interested in them.  The men and women who keep it running, cogs in the machine, may even hate what they are doing, but still it gets done.  No person wants war, but munitions manufacturers need clients.  No one wants to remove people from their livelihoods, but the bank must turn a profit.  We gather together–bankers and analysts and manufacturers and generals–and together something is formed greater and more terrible than the sum of its parts.  The elemental forces.

You can name the forces easily enough: Money.  Power.  Adulation.  Strike down any one of these demons in one place and it will shift form and come back somewhere else.  You can’t destroy it, because it’s made of people–people who are each doing the thing that seems sensible at the moment, and who together are pillaging the world.

Such monsters, our modern idols, demand sacrifice, just as much as Molech or Baal ever did.  We must give the bankers their bonuses, and we must keep them afloat–they are too big to fail.  If we have to cut unemployment benefits or Medicare to do it–well, that is the sacrifice we make to feed the monster.  In return, the monster promises that this will somehow create jobs.  War is expensive, in many, many ways, but the monster need new planes and new missiles, and new brave young soldiers, and so we feed it.  In return, it promises to safeguard our freedom.

It is the nature of nations (and none more than America) to present themselves as gods.  We won’t let a president claim divine status (though sometimes we edge near that line), but letting America herself be our God seems like the right thing to do.  America, and Capitalism, and Our Brave Men and Women in Uniform Around the World–our holy trinity.

Gods appear where questions cease and myths arise.  America has many potent myths.  They have titles like “The Military that Only Fights to Protect Your Freedoms,” “The Greatest Healthcare System in the World,” and “The Land of Opportunity.”  To question is heresy; just bow and nod.  Write your check; send your sons and daughters.

Humans are highly susceptible to these myths and monsters.  If the powers tell enough people in the loud enough voice that Exxon shouldn’t have to pay any tax, because they stimulate our economy; or that mega-rich Walmart should get a subsidy from our city so that they can sell us cheap things, then we tend to believe and fall in line.  My gods provide the fuel that makes my car run.  My gods give me cheap toys from China and cheap shirts from Mexico.  Who am I to question their benevolence?  Cut their taxes again.  My gods kill people in Afghanistan so that I can have freedom of speech here.  How that works is a divine mystery, but it is the story we live.  Goodbye, my son; we thank you for your service.

Steinbeck and Eisenhower warned us, but it made no difference.  Everything they feared has come to pass, and more.  No one wanted it to.  The monsters are made of men, but they aren’t like a man.

What Christianity should do is provide us a myth to believe that breaks the power of the other myths.  When your story is “The God Who Rejected Power Even Though It Meant His Death,” or “The God Who Shows His Love Through Service To The Weak and Poor,” then the world-shaping abilities of the elemental forces have met their match.  What Christianity ought to do is give us an alternate story to live–the story of the cross.  And from the vantage point of Calvary we can see how sick and shameful the monster-idols of the world actually are.  We can expose the true names of Money, Power and Adulation: Greed, Oppression and Deception.  It may–may–be possible to do that without an alternative story, but I’m not convinced that there is any such thing as a person who isn’t living out a story, consciously or not.  And if we are going to choose a story, better to choose the one that stands against and breaks the power of the stories that keep breaking us.

And here the church has failed miserably, shamefully, horrifically.  Rather than rejecting and denouncing the monsters of national pride, military conquest and corporate greed, the church has partnered with them, supported them, and fought for them, spending so much time dining with idols that she has cheapened herself and drained her own power.  We set the flag on a pedestal beside the altar, pray for our troops and curse our enemies, support the machinery of torture and death, and do our best to be sure that we have our share of Money, Power, and Adulation.  Tacking Jesus’ name on to that prayer only adds blasphemy to the heresy we’ve already adopted.  By leaving the path of the cross, the members of the church become cells in the ever-expanding bodies of the monsters.  We may hate what they do, but they are us.

4 Comments

Filed under Church Culture, Politics and Culture, Reflections, Theology

To Aletheia, Who is Five Years Old Today

This was the year that you fell headlong into princess culture, which is not something that I had encouraged.  I wanted to be sure that you had room to discover your own interests, and not just have the default expectations handed to you by your parents.  I’ve never called you “my little princess,” just Aletheia, Allie, or A.J.—sometimes Monkey Lips or (and I swear this is meant with all the affection in the world) Nerdface McGillicuddy.  At three you were a pick-up truck and dinosaur girl—in some ways you still are.  But the other little girls in your preschool class, Anna and Kennedi, are precious pink princesses, so now you are too.  It’s been interesting watching you start to feel your way into the world of school, and negotiate the pressure to fit in while still trying to hold on to a sense of your own individuality.  That conflict starts early, and it’s only going to get trickier from here, at least for the next thirteen years or so.  I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to you starting Kindergarten this fall.  I don’t think I’m ready to hand you over to someone else’s care five days a week.  But you are growing up and learning to face new situations bravely, and so must I.  All I can say is that I’ll be around every night to hear how things went, and if a tricky situation comes up, we’ll craft a strategy together.  I remember those years better than you might think.

Actually, now that I think about it, just running headlong with the princess stuff for a while might be a good strategy in itself.  A lot of people around here aren’t sure what to do with dinosaur girls, but princess girls are a known quantity.  It doesn’t hurt to fit in on the surface, to know what the other kids are talking about.  Your princess T-shirts and Rapunzel lunchbox might be an excellent kind of social armor.  Maybe you won’t need it very often, but it’s good to be prepared.

I wish I knew what school you were going to be at so we could both start to get acclimated to the idea.  But Mommy and I are hoping that we will move soon—just as soon as a better job comes through for one of us.  I’m tired of being a minister, and I’m looking for something new to do.  I’ve been teaching college part-time, and I might be able to do that full-time somewhere.  Or maybe get one of those jobs where you sit at a desk and write reports for a big company.  I discovered that it was difficult for me to be a minister and really be myself, and it gets very tiring always trying to be what other people think you ought to be.  Even if who you are is 85% of what they want you to be, trying to adjust that other 15% all the time is a steady drain on a person’s energy.  Much better to find a place where you can be you.  This, I think, is happiness: someone asks you a question and you say what you honestly think, and they tell you what they honestly think in return, and both of you are still friends when the conversation is over.  If you can find that, you’re doing well.

You don’t know yet that there are some ways in which you are going to be different from most of the kids in your class.  Not everyone starts Kindergarten able to read as well as you can.  Not everyone can do simple addition.  Very few of your friends will start off knowing that the Statue of Liberty is in New York City and the Eiffel Tower in France.  Some will recognize a picture of the planet Earth, but I’d be surprised if any others can recognize Saturn or Jupiter from a picture, as you can.  It’s been clear for a long time that you are the sort of person who learns certain kinds of things very easily, and who is interested in many different things.  I’m that kind of person, too, and I know that it can be a tricky thing to deal with.  Some days it feels good to be able to learn easily, and some days it feels lonely to have interests that so few others share.  You might be tempted to feel pride about something that you didn’t actually earn—it was just the particular gift that was given to you.  Or you might wish you could trade in your ability to learn things quickly for the ability to know exactly the right thing to say when someone is upset, or the ability to always know what kind of clothes are going to be popular this month.   And those are things we can work on together, if you think there’s something you’re not quite getting.  For every person on Earth some things are easy and some things are hard.  I can deliver a speech to 1000 people and feel completely at ease, but I hate to read my email.  That doesn’t make sense to me, either, but you learn to play to your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

I already know one thing that you and I are going to work on this year: you, kiddo, are a champion worrier.  I hope by the time you read this you will have developed into such a confident young woman that it’s hard to imagine that you were ever like this, but if they gave medals for unnecessary anxiety, we wouldn’t have room to display all of yours.  Your big fear is that we will leave you alone.  Every single time I buckle you into the car seat, you say “are you going to get in your seat now, Daddy?”  Every.  Single. Time. And if I have to run back into the house to get something, even though I tell you I’ll be right back in a minute, you’ll have started to cry by the time I return.  This is my goal for your interpersonal development in this next year: you can wait by yourself for three minutes, certain that I will return and everything will be okay.  I just started reading Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting by John Gottman, which seems like it will be very helpful for both of us.  That’s my birthday gift to you: learning how to coach you better in those situations.  Well, that and a scooter and a Tangled playset and your princess knee pads.

I must admit, I inadvertently made things worse.  Early this spring, I took you to the movies to watch Tangled again. It was near the end of its run, so you and I were the only people in the theater that day. You said that you were thirsty, and I told you that I would go get us a bottle of water.  I thought you understood that I had to leave for a few minutes.  But when I got back from the concession stand—which was right outside our theater, I was watching the door the whole time, I promise–you were running up and down the aisles, weeping, and you cried out “Daddy!” and ran into my arms.  It must have taken you ten minutes to stop shaking, and most of the time you kept saying “You left me all alone!”  It felt like I was being simultaneously stabbed in the guts with a rusty spoon and pummeled about the head by someone calling me an idiot.  Not my best parenting moment.   Until then, I could say, “Aletheia, no one has ever, ever, left you all alone!”  Now when I say that, you reply “You left me all alone when we saw Tangled!”  In fact, I think you’ve told everyone you know that Daddy left you all alone at the theater.  The story is out: I’m nice enough, but not to be completely trusted.  Still, I wish you would believe that when I buckle you in, it’s because I am about to go someplace with you, not because it’s easier for the monsters to feed on you when you are in the driveway and restrained.

But here’s something that I’m going to work on in the next year: I need to remember that you are still a little, little kid.  I know we tell you what a big girl you are, and it’s true that you are way ahead of two-year-old Aidan and seven-week-old Tessa.  But a five-year-old, especially one who is precisely five years and forty minutes old, which is what you are as I type this sentence, is still a little kid by any reasonable measure, and I forget that sometimes.  Too often.  I expect too much of you.  I think it’s because you’re tall for your age and you’ve basically talked like an adult since you were three—and I don’t just mean your grammar and pronunciation, although that’s part of it.  I also mean your ability to deal with abstract concepts, your sense of humor, your verbal wordplay.  Sometimes talking to you is like talking with another adult, and I forget how young you really are, how fresh and sometimes scary things are for you, and how hard it is to keep it together when life is challenging and you haven’t had a nap.  Better awareness, more patience: my goals as a parent next year.

In spite of how little things can trip your worry-sensors sometimes, I am very proud of the way you have rolled with big life changes.  Last year’s big move, your surprise little sister (she was a surprise to me and your mommy, anyway!) and having to share your room and a lot of your things with your little brother.  Most days, most of the time, you have been incredibly gracious about it all, and you just adapt and keep moving in a way that I appreciate more than I can tell you, and more than you could understand if I tried.  You are always so eager to help with Aidan and Tessa, and so happy to be a big sister!  It’s a role that suits you well, and I’m glad you got the little sister that you wanted.  (“I want a sister now, I already have a brother,” you said when we told you the news.)  Aidan and Tessa are very blessed to have you looking out for them.  I sometimes joke that we are raising you and and letting you raise the next two, but that’s pretty close to the truth some days.  Watching you love your siblings is the most gratifying thing in my life, because I like to believe that you learned how by seeing the way that we love you, and it makes me feel like, overall, things are going okay in the parenting department.

Aidan could be a real blessing to you, too, down the road.  He is fearless where you are anxious—always ready to jump in to a new experience, completely unaware that he is smaller than anyone else, at ease either by himself or in a crowd, and always ready to smile and say something funny.  I hope the two of you find ways to work together in the future, because an Aletheia-Aidan partnership could be virtually unstoppable.  If you can teach him how to be aware of potential pitfalls and he can encourage you to step out of your shell a little, you’ll both be better off for it.  He’ll have fewer hospital visits and you’ll go to more dances.  Your love for each other and enjoyment of each other is immense, and I hope it stays that way.  I never had a sister, and sometimes I’m a little envious that you guys get to grow up with an opposite-sex sibling to help demystify the other half of humanity.  That is another big advantage you’ll have.

What else might Future You want to know about the five-year-old version?

You draw princesses incessantly: sidewalk chalk princesses, notebook paper princesses, church bulletin princesses…it’s a never ending parade of young royalty.

The music you listen to most often comes from the princess movies you love: the soundtracks to Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, and The Princess and the Frog.  But you also like some of my music, especially “Kick Drum Heart” by the Avett Brothers and “Atheists Don’t Got No Songs” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.  You call it “the song with the yelling,” and you like to repeat the part where they “watch football in their underpants.”  You think that’s funny. I do, too.

You still like Dora, although not as much as you did when you were younger.  I think you’ve learned about everything you can from that show.  Current favorite shows are Fresh Beat Band, Wild Kratts and Bubble Guppies.

You and Aidan play a lot with the kitchen set in your room.  Recently you’ve started pretending that you are running a restaurant together.  When I walk in, you’ll pretend I’m a customer and ask Aidan to take a plate of food to me.

You also got into Lego this year, and you are really good at following the directions to build specific items.  You’ve had an airport set for a while and you just got a set for your birthday that makes a castle and a dragon.

Your preschool this year was at the big  Baptist church downtown.  Your teacher was named Mrs. Erin.  Her husband is the youth minister there.  The boys in your class were Toby, Sammy and Reed.  You might have some memories of Reed—he was kind of a bully, and he somehow picked you to focus most of his attention on.  I know it bothered you to be around him too much.  Part of it was because you aren’t used to kind of violent imaginative play some kids enjoy.  It upset you one day when he and some other kids were pretending to kill people on the playground.  But other times he was actually picking on you, and in some very unacceptable ways.  After one bad incident, Erin had a big talk with Reed’s daddy, and we didn’t see Reed at school again for the next two weeks.  I was glad to see that the other adults were taking his behavior seriously.

You’ve always been fond of your cousin Coben–after Aidan was born, you used to say “Now I have two baby boys, Coben and Aidan!”  This year you’ve gotten even more attached to him, and he feels the same about you.  Living in the same town with other family has been good for you.  You and Aidan and Coben were all in Kindermusik together last fall, and that was a lot of fun for everyone.

You’re sitting right beside me now, so I’m going to ask some questions and see what you say.

What’s your favorite song?  My favorite song is the one at the beginning of Tangled.

What’s your favorite movie?  Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella–the one that I don’t have yet.  Cinderella and Jasmine are the two princess movies we don’t have yet.  I want to have Cinderella, Daddy!  We already have Cinderalla cups, but we need a Cinderella movie.  Can we go to the store and buy a movie called Cinderella? (You don’t normally sound as greedy as it looks like here, and you weren’t upset when I said we weren’t going to buy Cinderella today.)

What is your favorite book?  I like the Rapunzel one.

What will Aidan be when he grows up?  Maybe he’s going to be a doctor.

What will Tessa be?  A police officer.  I wonder what she’s going to look like when she’s big?

What are you going to be?  I want to be a princess—an actor in a princess story.  I want to be Cinderella.

What’s your favorite game?   My favorite game is soccer.

What’s your favorite toy?  My favorite toy is a Tangled playset.

What’s you favorite food?  My favorite food is spaghetti.

What do you like to play with Aidan?  I like to play with blocks with him.

What do you like to do with Memaw?  I like to hug her.

What do you like to do with Grammy?  I like to help her cook.

What do you like to do with Granddaddy? I like to…I don’t know what I do with Granddaddy!  I think I like going on a trip with him to the store.

What do you like to do with Mommy?  I like to wash Tessa with her.

What do you like to do with me?  I like to…I like to…I like to play games with you. Like Doors and Max the Cat and the Rhyme Time game and I like playing the Dora game with you.  [“Doors” is “The Secret Door.”]

What do you like to do with Coben?  I like to play with my Tangled playset with him.  But I actually like playing on his playground.

What do you like to do with Uncle Kasey?  I like to hug him.

Do you like to hug me?  YES!

Can I have a hug right now?

[Hug.]

Time to end the interview.  Tessa just started crying, so you found her bottle and started feeding her.  No one asked you to do that—you help her because you want to, because you love her, and maybe because it makes you feel grown up.

You are very aware of your own growth.  We were talking about birthdays this morning, you and I.  Next year, I’ll be six, you said.  And then seven, and then eight and nine.  Someday I’ll be fourteen.

And then you paused.  How many birthdays will I have?

“Oh, a lot,” I said.  “About a hundred.”

Right, a hundred.  And then after that, I won’t have any more birthdays.

“Probably not.  But a hundred is a lot of birthdays.  A hundred would be good.”

I hope you do get a hundred birthdays, and I hope they’re all happy days.  I am very happy to have shared this one with you.

I love you.

Daddy

2 Comments

Filed under Personal