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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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William Abraham on Evangelism

I want to write something soon about how we move past the pervasive individualist paradigm in America, and what should replace the failed model of personal evangelism among our churches.  But the best things I have to say on that topic have come largely from trying the think William Abraham’s thoughts after he has already thought them.  The Logic of Evangelism is a brilliantly insightful book which has influenced me enormously.  (And I suppose I should add a positive review on Amazon to balance the fairly critical ones that are there.)  A good overview of his argument appears in his article “The Theology of Evangelism: The Heart of the Matter,” which you can read here in PDF format.  His general conclusions from that article appear below:

We now need to think through the connection between
evangelism and the evangel. How are the two to be
linked? If the gospel centers on the arrival of the
kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, how are we to construe
the relation between evangelism and the kingdom
of God? This is a pivotal matter.

The favored position for some time has been to
insist that the natural connection is through some
kind of speech act. Thus evangelism has again and
again been construed as the proclamation of the gospel.
In some cases this has been extended to include
teaching the gospel or persuading someone to believe
the gospel. In other cases it has been expanded
to the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.
In this instance it becomes natural for the actions of
the church, say, in education, medical work, social
action, and the like, to be construed every bit as much
as evangelism as does the verbal proclamation of the
gospel. Moreover, it is surely this conception of evangelism
that lies behind the enormous efforts currently
being made to evangelize the world through radio
and television. The warrant for the widely held conviction
that the world can be evangelized through
television is the claim that communication is of the
essence of evangelism. Evangelism is just the verbal
proclamation of the gospel; hence in our situation
the obvious tool for this is television.

We have already seen that the attempt to base
this on purely etymological considerations is precarious
in the extreme. However, even if the argument
about the origins of the term ‘evangelism’ were to
hold, that is, even if ‘evangelize’ originally meant
simply to ‘proclaim’, this would not settle the matter.
We also have to ask if this is the best way to
construe evangelism in our situation today. We must
explore how far it is appropriate to consider evangelism
in these terms in our context. In my judgment
it is imperative that we enrich our conception of evangelism
to the point where we move beyond mere
proclamation to include within it the initial grounding
of all believers in the kingdom of God. If we
make this shift, then, in fact, we actually come much
closer to what evangelists, ancient and modern, have
actually done, but, even then, the argument is not
advanced on purely historical grounds. The primary
considerations circle around the needs of our current
situation in our modern western culture. Here I
shall be brief and make three points, one negative
and two more positive.

First, continuing to think of evangelism in terms
of mere proclamation fosters the practice of disconnecting
evangelism from the life of the local church.
It nurtures the illusion that evangelism can be done
by the religious entrepreneur who can simply take
to the road and engage in this crucial ministry without
accountability to the body of Christ. To be sure,
there are lots of local churches who welcome this kind
of evangelism. It allows them to ignore evangelism
entirely as a constitutive element in the mission of
the church, for it can hand this responsibility to the
itinerating evangelist, or it can keep evangelism to
those seasons of the year in which it focuses on the
proclamation of the gospel. However, this is not the
really deep problem here. The deep problem is that
this way of construing evangelism has generally been
used to cut evangelism loose from the life of the
Christian community precisely because the responsibility
of the evangelist has stopped once the proclamation
has ceased. On this analysis, the evangelist
need not belong to a church; indeed if he does
not like the church in which he was brought to faith,
he can invent his own on the spot. Nor need the
evangelist be accountable to the canonical traditions
of the church; indeed if she does not like the canonical
narrative of the gospel, then she can invent her
own narrative at will. Nor need the evangelist take
any responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the
seeker or convert; this can be conveniently left to others,
say, in the field of Christian education. In all,
restricting evangelism to proclamation helps keep
intact unhealthy evangelistic practices which should
long ago have been abandoned. In a culture
mesmerised by the power of the mass media, the
church must recognise both the radical limits and the
dangers of proclamation in our current situation.

Secondly, restricting evangelism in this manner
cannot do the job that needs to be done in an
increasingly pluralist and post-Christian culture.
Evangelism needs to be expanded to include the early
phases of Christian initiation. The gospel must be
handed over in such a way that those who receive it
may be able to own it for themselves in a deep way
and have some sense of what they are embracing.
Proclamation is but one part of the process which
will make this possible. It will also require teaching
and persuasion, spiritual direction, an introduction
to the spiritual disciplines and the sacraments of the
gospel, initiation into the basics of the Christian moral
and doctrinal tradition, some orientation on the kinds
of religious experiences which may accompany entry
into the kingdom of God, and the like. Without
these the new believer will not be able to survive
spiritually, morally, or intellectually in the modern
world. In short, an evangelistic church will take responsibility
for the initial formation of Christian disciples
as an integral component of its evangelism.

Thirdly, the wisdom of this strategy is borne
out by a very significant recent study of spiritual
development in England. In that study careful attention
was given to about five hundred people who
had come to faith in recent years. The most pertinent
piece of information to the issue in hand is that
the majority of people studied came to faith over a
relatively lengthy period of time.
The gradual process is the way in which the
majority of people discover God and the average
time taken is about four years: models
of evangelism which can help people along
the pathway are needed.

Most “up-front” methods of evangelizing
assume that the person will make a sudden
decision to follow Christ. They may be asked
to indicate this by raising a hand, making
their confession, taking a booklet or whatever
is the preferred method of the evangelist. The
fact is that most people come to God much
more gradually. Methods of evangelism
which fit this pattern are urgently needed.
The nurture group and the catechumenate are
the best known at present, but others may
need to be devised. The use of one-to-one
conversations akin to some form of spiritual
direction may be one possibility. Another
may be a series of church services where
people are introduced to the Christian faith
over a period of time and given opportunity
to respond at each stage. Even more urgently
needed are means of helping non-churchgoers
to discover God outside the church building
in ways which enable a gradual response.

A useful way to capture this vision of evangelism
is to construe evangelism as directed fundamentally
toward initiation into the kingdom of God.
Achieving this will require both the activity of proclamation
and the work of catechesis. More comprehensively
we might say that the ministry of evangelism
will include effective evangelistic preaching, the
active gossiping of the gospel in appropriate ways
by all Christians everywhere, and the intentional
grounding of new converts in the basics of the Christian
faith. This in fact comes close to what evangelism
looked like in the early church.

In order to forestall possible misunderstanding,
note that this proposal assumes that no evangelism
is possible without the concurrent activity of the
Holy Spirit. It also insists that evangelism must be
rooted and grounded in the life of the local Christian
congregation. Finally, it expects that evangelism will
naturally result in the growth of local churches, but
this is neither the goal nor focus of the ministry per
se. The focus is the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus
Christ and the goal is to see people grounded in that
kingdom here and now. In short, evangelism is simply
the initial formation of genuine disciples of the
Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Cult of the Individual

There is a certain kind of story that is I have heard again and again in America. I think it is particularly prevalent in our society, if not unique to it.  There are many variations, but in general it goes like this:

A young man is born to a family of adequate means, although they are far from wealthy.  He has a safe, warm home and good food to eat, thanks to his parents’ work and care for him.  As he grows, he attends tax-payer supported public schools that provide him a good foundation.  His parents often have to leave for work early, but he waits with other neighborhood children at the bus stop, and a reliable school bus, paid for with taxes, picks them up.  The bus-driver, whose salary is paid by everyone’s taxes, takes him to school on smooth roads built and paid for by the government.

The boy is a sharp student and a good learner.  Through a state-mandated gifted and talented program that, by law, must be offered to students with his abilities, he gets specialized instruction that challenges him and helps him reach his academic potential.  Even though his parents have no more than a high school education, the (state-mandated, tax-supported) school counselor begins encouraging him to think about college.

Because of his excellent grades, solid SAT scores and modest financial means, he qualifies for a variety of college scholarships, some which ultimately come from government funds, others of which were provided by wealthy benefactors.  Advanced education is made possible for him because of these funds.  He finds a part-time job that covers his living expenses.  It’s manual labor, nothing glamorous, but the federal minimum wage laws ensure that he gets fair compensation for his work, and laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration make it very unlikely that he’ll but put in a situation that could cause him physical harm.  What little financial expense isn’t covered through scholarships and work he pays for with student loans, which are automatically granted to any full-time student, and are backed by the guarantee of the federal government.  No payment is expected and no interest accrues on these loans until after he leaves college.

He lives in a modest studio apartment in a fairly run-down neighborhood, but the police drive through frequently, and the one time he was startled by a fight just a few doors down, he called 911 and a patrol car was there within a few minutes to stabilize the situation.

By his junior and senior years the career center at his college has helped connect him with internships in his chosen field, where kind-hearted mentors show him the ropes of day to day life on the job, volunteering their time to encourage his interests, and even taking him to conferences at company expense and helping him to network with potential employers.

He graduates with a good GPA, applies to work for several of the companies where he has made connections, and is hired by one of them at a good starting salary.  Because of the knowledge and skills he has gained, he works his way up the ladder, learning more about his business and how to manage it.  In his mid-30’s he decides to go to work for himself.  He gets a loan at a good interest rate from the Small Business Administration, hires some talented employees, and is soon CEO of his own successful business.

Now he’s 40 and rich.  Frequently in conversation he tells people that he is a “self-made man.”  He believes that all it takes is skill and hard work and you can get anywhere in life.  You just have to “believe in yourself.”  He gives large contributions to politicians who promise to lower his tax rate, even if it means cutting funds to the schools, structures and programs that he depended on to get where he is.  He loves to quote Ronald Reagan’s line that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  And he has no sympathy for the “lazy bums” he encounters sometimes who grew up in poor neighborhoods with dangerous schools and little access to the programs that he was able to utilize.

Asking an American about individualism is like asking a fish about water.  It’s the environment that we live in, and it’s so pervasive that it’s hard to get perspective on it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our society like the entrepreneur above. Their entire life was a gift from others who donated to the cause, but they sincerely think of themselves as strong individuals who made their way to success because of their own determination.  They are literally blind to the fact that their life is only possible because of functional community systems–family, school, government, business networks, protective agencies, and so on.  While no doubt part of the entreprenuer’s success is due to personal characteristics, another man with exactly the same set of gifts and personal traits who was born in Rwanda or Nepal or Peru would have had a very different kind of life.

The American church has been enormously affected by the surrounding culture of individualism.  The scriptures are almost invariably focused on communities–kingdoms, clans, tribes, families, households and churches.  When there is a prolonged focus on an individual, it is usually because that individual has a role to play in blessing the larger community.  Abraham is the archetype in this–chosen by God because through him “all peoples on Earth will be blessed.”  The most famous line in scripture is John 3:16, which tells us that “God so loved the world.”  Scriptural images for believers include the household of faith, the kingdom of priests, the chosen nation, the family of Jesus, the people of God. Ephesians depicts the cross as the instrument that has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between warring ethnic factions (Jew and Gentile in this case) and created one united humanity, which is a witness to the cosmos of the power of Christ.  To be saved, in scriptural perspective, is to become part of a larger community.

But the overwhelming scriptural emphasis on community and the communal work of God doesn’t play very well to individually-minded American audiences.  Rather than standing as a healthier alternative to the typical American viewpoint that has elevated the individual to center place, the church–especially the conservative evangelical church–translates the gospel into me-speak.  The primary evangelistic message is not “come join the community of the saved,” but rather, “Jesus died for you,” and “he has a wonderful plan for your life” and he wants you to accept him as “your personal savior” so you can have a “personal relationship with him.”  You might be able to make a case that “Jesus died for you” is a Biblical message, with the proviso that you are one of billions that he died for, but the other phrases are utterly absent from the New Testament.  There is no promise that he has a wonderful plan for your life, and even if that were true, it would only work for definitions of “wonderful” that include the isolation, poverty, torture and death that have been the fate of many believers across the centuries.  There is no scripture that asks you to form a personal relationship with Jesus, but many that ask you to bless Jesus by blessing others.  See, for example, Isaiah 58:

 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Much the same sentiment is more famously expressed in Matthew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Asking someone if they have a personal relationship with their personal savior

I own this book. Jesus died just for me. Sorry the rest of you missed out.

Jesus who has a wonderful, personalized plan for their life is a far cry from asking whether they are willing to take up their cross and join the community of self-sacrificing priests who are pouring out their lives for the sake of the world.  And even if the evangelizer truly means to point to the cruciform life of the disciple when asking those questions (which I doubt) the object of the evangelical efforts certainly won’t read all of that subtext into a pitch that seems to promise that Jesus is standing by to make your life an endless procession of puppies and rainbows if only you will let him.

This evangelical me-speak has carried on to such an extent that it often doesn’t just receive more emphasis than communitarian language, it replaces it entirely–sometimes in ways that can’t be reconciled at all with the scriptures.  I once preached at a church that gave every visitor a complimentary copy of Max Lucado’s little book entitled He Did This Just For You.  (There’s also an “He Did This Just For You” New Testament.)  There’s no way to interpret that title that makes sense–a plain text reading of it sounds like I, precious unique individual that I am, happen to be the only person that Jesus died for.  Even if you can squint really hard and turn the book sideways and somehow find a way to make the title a true statement, it is certainly less clearly true and in need of many more caveats than a scriptural title like “God so loved the world.”  By the time we are saying “He Did This Just for You,” we have moved beyond translating communal language into me-speak and crashed wholly into upending the gospel message to make Christianity one sub-sect in the larger religion of Me and My Best Life Now!

The aspect of American life that is often most in need of repentance is the relentless focus on me, and “what’s in it for me?” and “what have you done for me lately, anyway?”  But rather than call people to something better, richer and deeper, we far too often just cower in the shadow of the temple of self.  Christianity can overturn the worship of Jupiter and Roma, but it is helpless to tackle my steadfast devotion to me and my own well-being.

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