Friday, December 10, 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

I’m not generally a big fan of most Christmas movies. I could never get into the old claymation Rudolph; I don’t think I’ve even seen Frosty the Snowman or A Christmas Story; I’ve always despised White Christmas; and most of the less classic tales (Home Alone, Jingle All the Way, the Tim Allen Santa Claus movies, etc.) hold little appeal for me. It’s a Wonderful Life, is of course, an exception to the rule.

That’s why I’m a little surprised at my deep love for the 1994 version of Miracle on 34th Street. Going in it already has two strikes against it: one, it’s a remake of an older movie I didn’t really like very much (though to be fair, I haven't seen the old one for a very long time), and two, it’s a newer Christmas movie, which almost unfailingly means that it’s going to be either cynical or shallow, its message focused on being nice and feeling connected to family and friends.

But it’s not either cynical or shallow. The characters are surprisingly deep, fleshed out, complex. Dory, Brian, Susan, and Kris Kringle are characters in their own rights, with their own actions and motivations for those actions. Dory Walker cynical, aloof, scarred from a failed marriage, now passing on that cynicism to her daughter in hopes of defending her from life’s disappointments. Brian Bedford is the faithful, caring neighbor who has taken an interest in Dory, and cares about her deeply despite her hesitation to commit to a relationship. He loves Susan and Dory faithfully, and is endlessly patient and optimistic about winning Dory over. Susan is the bright, intelligent young girl who, despite her mother’s attempts to make her an “atheist,” senses that there may be more to the world than what her mother has said.

And then there’s Kris. He’s essentially a theophany – an incarnation of Christ Himself into the story. He makes no pretense of hiding his identity as Santa; from the outset, when he’s seen by the judge and his grandson as he crosses the street before the parade, he tells the boy he is who the boy suspects – Santa Claus. And that claim doesn’t change as the story goes on. While Dory hires him to play “Santa” for the parade and for Cole’s Department Store, Kris agrees, because he’s basically being himself, to a greater degree than they realize. He follows the higher goal of Santa to serve people and share the joy of Christmas by sending customers elsewhere for cheaper gifts, even though his employment by Cole’s would dictate this as bad policy. He plays by a higher law, and influences the company to follow that higher law as well. And in as much as Cole’s puts their faith in Kris as Santa, they are blessed.

But then he is betrayed – by a counterfeit Santa. He willingly goes to trial, purposefully failing a mental competency exam, and is taken to trial for the claims he’s made to be someone that he can’t be – Santa Claus. And then, in a moment of triumph, he’s released through the affirmation of the law that claims he is who he is – the one and only Santa Claus, the genuine article.

The movie isn’t without flaws; there are two that come to mind immediately. One is the competitor storyline, Victor Landbergh and his attempts to ruin Cole’s Christmas. It’s overly hokey, and compared with the genuine feel of the rest of the movie, seems to cheapen the story. It could have been far better executed with a little more effort. The other is the one that nearly ruins the movie for me.

During the trial, Brian Bedford says in his closing argument to the judge something to the effect of, “You have to ask yourself which is better: a truth that draws a tear, or a lie that brings a smile?” This seems to erase the entire impact of the movie. Rather than make it a movie about having faith in the unseen, it seems to suggest that we all know it’s not true, but it makes us feel good, so why not believe it? It contradicts the message the rest of the movie seems to convey, and makes me cringe every time I come to that scene. I have to assess, then, what the rest of the movie means in light of this statement. It’s inconsistent, and saddens me that the writer felt like that was the message they were conveying.

But I can ignore the comment. It’s the one slip-up which seems to reveal more about the person who penned the screenplay than it does about the message of the movie. And there’s nothing like Judge Henry Harper’s impassioned speech at the end of the trial confirming that Kris is indeed Santa to bring a tear to one’s eye. And the rest of the movie is just pure bliss, as Santa, now come into his kingdom, grants the deepest longings of those who have put their trust in him.

The parallels should be glaringly obvious to anyone who watches this movie. It’s the story of Jesus – the one who came down and lived among us, making ridiculous claims of being God Himself until He eventually died for those claims, giving Himself up willingly. Yet He rose again, declaring once and for all that His claims were true. Then He proceeded to restore all that was broken in the fall. And it’s the beauty in which the story parallels this that moves me every time I watch it. I see the people around Kris slowly wake up to who he is, and I think about Jesus touching our lives and causing us to realize who He is. I see Kris fulfilling Susan’s deepest wishes – a home, a father, a brother – and think about how Jesus fulfills those for us, becoming our brother as God the Father adopts us into His family. I see Dory losing her cynicism in light of the genuine love that Kris shows to her and Susan, and think about how that unconditional love is what we all long for, what breaks down all our wall and draws us closer to Him.

So take the time to watch Miracle on 34th Street this Advent season, and reflect on the ways that, like Kris Kringle in this movie, Jesus came and walked among us undisguised as well. If Santa can bring a family together, how much more can the Creator of the universe do?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Conversations EP

Conversations EP is a recording just completed by Andrew Dempsen, my brother. (Although with 9 tracks averaging a length of 4 and a half minutes it seems like it might fit the LP definition.) The recording's not professional or polished, and the last song, while full of personal meaning, is the roughest recording of the bunch. But the songs themselves are brutal in their honesty, raw in their depiction of struggling with making sense of a friend's suicide and the day-to-day experiences of transitioning into adulthood and figuring out life. Andrew's vocals are slightly remiscent of Ben Kweller and Coner Oberst, though definitely not mimicking them in any way, and his musical style is understated, mostly unaccompanied acoustic guitar or a piano and guitar blend.

The piano-driven "Freeways" expresses a longing for satisfaction that can't be realized here on earth, that elusive search for something you won't probably get and certainly won't find a freeway to. "Is this the way to the freeway home?" the chorus asks, begging the question if there is a freeway home, or if home by its nature can only be reached through struggle.

"Missing Exits" is a simple unaccompanied acoustic-guitar melody dealing with the unavoidable repetitive nature of being human and making the same mistakes. "My reaction time's slow/ I keep missing my exits..." he says, echoing the thoughts of anyone who feels like they'll never get over the besetting sin they wish would just leave.

"Latte Rush" is my personal favorite on the album, more upbeat than any others on the CD and perhaps more hopeful than any others as well. It's a dose of nostalgia mixed with an effort to keep a pace of life that allows for enjoying it. The chorus begins with this:

"I got addicted to the wrong things
trying to be someone I thought I should be
but I lost sight of who was really me
I'll let you know when I find him again"

It strikes true each time I hear it. It's easy to forget who we're meant to be and let the details of life and outside pressures overwhelm us. Pursuing a call can be choked out easily by the cares of the world.

"Grasping" follows much the same theme as "Missing Exits," speaking of the difficulties of getting past issues that seem to plague us as humans. The guitar melody is haunting and doleful, picked slowly at the beginning then building to strumming at the chorus accompanied by piano. "What's it been, five years now?/ Am I still grasping at these straws?/ ... At the end of the day/ You're all that I have." Paul's thorn in the flesh comes to mind. It also features the word creation "conversative." If it wasn't a word before, it should be now.

On its surface "Hey Rockaway" is a tribute to the town of Rockaway Beach, Oregon, but beneath the surface is about the longing for a place to belong.

"You stood on the shore as the sun went down
nothing's felt more like home
your feet are like lead as you head for the door
'cause you're fifteen hours from being alone
... you weep for the day that has already come
and is forcing you now to leave..."

For Andrew, Rockaway Beach is in a real sense a place that feels like home. For me, I've had that sense every time I'm on the Rez. It's where I feel I belong; something about the place and the people there resonate with my soul in a way that makes me never want to leave. There's again, though, a cast of hopelessness to the song, of a dream that won't be realized, which leaves the song a bitter aftertaste.

"Say You Know" features perhaps my favorite lines on the CD, and I think is overall one of the two lyrically strongest songs on the CD as well. "I've got more friends than I know what to do with sometimes / and I've got more skeletons than I've got closet space to hide." The title refers to, I believe, being known and accepted by God, despite His knowledge of who we truly are in the secret places. The song features a folksy melody and the beautiful harmony of some uncredited female singer whom I suspect is Amanda from The Perennials, but I might be wrong. (The Perennials, incidentally, are pretty darn good. Pete's vocals are reminiscent of Johnny Cash and Amanda's of Feist - very interesting blend.)

"Storm Clouds and Sirens" is about the struggle to repent. "I've sold out completely and I know that I don't deserve you / and now I come crawling back, now that I know that I hurt you / but Ii'm not so good at this, at times I'm worse than the faithless / I've severed my nerve endings and all that is good is now tasteless / ... if ever I needed you Jesus it's now I don't want you..." Nothing more, really, to add to that. If you're a believer, you've been there yourself more than once, I'm sure.

"All the King's Horses" is a gut-punch of a song. Completely raw, honest dealings with something that we all knee-jerkedly want to wrap up neatly so we don't have to deal with it. A friend of Andrew's committed suicide two or three months ago, and he wrote this song in the weeks after. The melody and lyrics are paired perfectly, and the tone set by the melody both highlights the theme and slightly softens the blow, and emotions below the surface of the vocals can clearly be perceived. It's a one-sided conversation with his friend of all the things he wished he could say and didn't get a chance to. The chorus line, "If I had the faith of Abraham I don't think I could understand it better /And if I had God's healing hand I don't think I could piece this back together," hits the nail on the head of my own reactions when I hear about suicide, and takes my breath away every time I hear it.

The last song, "Dying For," was written for the friend's memorial service. While it's good, it feels forced in some ways, and while pain-filled and reflective, the honesty of "All the King's Horses" makes it pale by comparison. The recording also feels rushed, the piano melody often out of sync with the guitar, and with a little more polish it could be a stronger way to finish out the CD.

Overall, the CD's a strong effort with a lot of promise of good things to come. I am blessed to be able to claim this artist as my brother. Now, he needs to find a way for all you good folks to get your hands on his music!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Reflections

I'm still as much of an unrealistic and hotheaded idealist as ever, but I've come to see that as less of a positive thing than I've previously been convinced it was.

Grace is both a life-giving force and source of utter devastation all at once.

Waiting is about the hardest work a person can do. It requires you to know that you're not in charge.

Being aware of God's covenant faithfulness to His children takes the fear out of parenting.

Listening to Andrew Peterson's Counting Stars with my wife on a Sunday morning and skipping church is sometimes far more refreshing than attending church. (But only sometimes.)

It's easy to lose grace when we start pointing out all the people we don't think God's forgiven.

Why do we in the church like to make laws out of peripheral issues? It takes all the fun out being part of the "holy catholic church" when we're constantly tearing down our brothers and sisters.

The longer I'm alive, the more I realize life wouldn't be worth living if I wasn't convinced of the gospel. The meaning it gives to everything I do and everything that happens to me would, if lost, reduce this life to nothing.

I need Jesus more than ever.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Repentance Avoidance

Sometimes it's like
An open wound - you can hear
It spraying blood, feel the pain - but
If you can find the right size
Bullet to bite
Maybe you can
Wait it out; it will heal
Before you bleed to death.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What the heck: "Living a Better Story"

This is just a whim.

I preface it this way because I fear that my story is "worth" nothing to most people. I mask this fear in derision at contests, and an attitude that says I don't really care about winning, nor do I think winning will mean anything to me anyway. Really, can a conference with Don Miller add anything to my life that I don't already have? These are the things my cynical, scoffing heart says.

But here I am, despite it all, entering his stupid contest.

Hear that, Don? I think your contest is stupid.


It began nearly three years ago, in church.

Of course, beginnings are relative, especially to Calvinists. I could just as easily say like Jeremiah that it began at my conception, or that it began before the dawn of creation. But it's just as easy to say it began three years ago. That's when I became aware of the call.

My story up until that point was mostly defined by a sense of aimlessness. I had just finished college (a process that should have taken four to five years, but due to that aimlessness from beginning to end was about seven, a la Tommy Boy), just finished student teaching, and was substitute teaching as I sought a full-time position as an English teacher. I was newly married, just a little over a year, and felt lost.

My chosen profession was not appealing to me. I'd had a murderous experience in student teaching, and came out of feeling completely disillusioned and drained of any desire to enter the field. It wasn't the kids that I'd had a problem with - it was the system. Trying to manage classes of 35 eighth-graders discovering their individuality and get them to to retain information at any sort of decent level's a challenge for even the most skilled of teachers, let alone a rookie. And all due respect to my master teacher, I would spend long hours at school lesson-planning and grading, often until seven in the evening, then felt like my best-laid plans were poked full of holes when I brought them to her, which shattered my confidence day after day. I eventually felt like I couldn't hack it, like I lacked what it took, and by the end just felt like I was a prisoner looking forward to my release date.

Now there were other contributing factors involved in the experience, but the point's not to analyze that right now. This is all just set-up for the main storyline.

When it began, I was in a long-term substitute position at an alternative high school. I was teaching a couple English classes and monitoring an in-school suspension program for a school in its first year of existence. But I had applied and interviewed for a full-time position there, and they gave it to a teacher already working at another high school in the district. Another blow to my confidence. Even so, I continued in the long-term position there, hoping it might at least lead to some good references.

Then it happened. A fateful November night in 2007. We attended a missions conference at our church, and heard Chris Granberry speak about his ministry, Sacred Road, working with the Yakama Indians in Central Washington. He talked about the need, statistics I can now easily quote from memory: a 65% dropout rate from sixth to twelfth grade, a 70% homelessness rate among teenagers, 100% of families affected by substance abuse, a life expectancy of 39 years, and only 2% of Native Americans nationwide espousing faith in Jesus.

And it wasn't just the statistics. It was the pictures. Kids at the kids' clubs with dirty faces and big grins as the "church people" blow bubbles and jump rope with them, adults moved to tears as their houses are roofed and repaired, and the Christians working among the people overwhelmed with the need to share the love of Christ with a group largely forgotten.

One image sticks with me even now. I don't even know if I remember it correctly, but I know the association I have with it. It was a tree-lined hillside, the sun shining behind the branches, silhouetting them against the sky. You wouldn't think that, among all the images of children and adults responding to the love of Christ, it would be the shot of a tree-lined hill that would be the one that sticks with me. But the reason this one was so powerful to me was because I immediately connected it with an image I'd woken up with every morning of my childhood: a tree-covered hill, right out my bedroom window on Mt. Spokane, Washington.

I was moved to tears. How could such need exist, right outside my bedroom window? Why had I not known before? Why wasn't the church doing more?

Chris talked about the vision Sacred Road had for a school, beginning as an after-school program, and eventually, as time and resources allowed, to build that into a residential school that would give kids not only exposure and immersion in the gospel, but a loving, stable place to live and grow up - a rarity on the Rez. I caught that vision immediately, and my wife next to me, too. "Maybe you should teach there," she said. I don't know if she knew then how powerfully I wanted to.

So we talked to Chris after the conference. "We want to find out more about your ministry," we said. "We think God might want us to join you."

"Come on out for a weekend," he said. "We'll show you around and you can consider it more fully then."

So we did, after the holidays the following January. We'd never felt more comfortable about anything than we did about the way they approached ministry and the gospel. The Granberrys felt like kindred spirits; they clearly loved the people and the community, and understood the need to walk gently as Christians, given the history between Native America and the church. We left only further convinced that we were being called to join them.

So we went through the process laid out to apply, going through a cross-cultural missions training and evaluation, and in February 2009 were accepted to start raising support to join Sacred Road. And now, after serious support-raising for over a year, we're at 50% of our monthly goal.

That's the story so far. Where we hope to be in the next few years is "on the field," as they say - living on the Yakama Reservation, having a home there that we can use to host guests who want to, like us, come and see the work God's doing to bring hope and light to the Rez. I want to see a place where kids can come have a quiet, safe place to study, with adults who love them, accept them, and help them learn how to grow up. I want to work teaching youth skills like woodworking and gardening, things I enjoy and give me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I hope would give them the same. I want my story to be defined by God's will and work through me, and by the way that He uses me to give others stories to live.

I said at the beginning that my cynical self thinks a conference won't help me in this. In truth, though, I could see it helping immensely. The story's already begun, but in order for it to reach beyond the exposition at the beginning, we need to raise the rest of our support. And support comes from relationships with people who are committed to giving and praying for you. A conference, even if it's populated with poor idealists who don't have money and have their own dreams they need to fund (my cynical side speaking again), could be vastly useful in helping to build a stronger network of people who care about and share a passion for the Yakama people being given the hope of the gospel.


So there you go, Don. There's the story I hope to live.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Happy Sovereign

I like to think of thunder
as the laughter
of God Almighty -- a hearty,
exultant peal from His belly
escaping His throat with a shout
and rolling through the valley --
as if He can't hold in
over His creation

When we look at creation, too often we see the brokenness, especially as Christians who are so acquainted with the way things are supposed to be. And it's true - things are very broken, evil, and sorrowful. But that is not all there is! We are surrounded by beauty and grace and wonder. While we cannot ignore the darkness, we can allow it to enhance our enjoyment of the light, for how much sweeter does light appear when you're in the pitch black?

God does not let the darkness dampen His joy. God - while deeply sorrowed over sin - is a happy God. Throughout Scripture we find this to be true. Passages like Zephaniah 3:17, describing God as singing over His people with great rejoicing. Reading through the Psalms we see the fullness of God's emotions, both the depths of His rage against evil and the exultant joy over righteousness and goodness, and His delight in doing good to those He loves. Our God is a happy God. May this truth comfort us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Christian Freedom

While I've been a fan of science fiction and fantasy - speculative fiction, as they say - I've neglected many of the classic authors in the genre, Heinlein being among them. But I picked up this volume with the intriguing title a couple months back in Half-Price Books, and decided it was time to tackle it.

Now understand, the only thing I really knew about Robert Heinlein is his name, and that he wrote some book called Starship Troopers, which from what I heard was made into a pretty mediocre movie. And that he's well respected in the genre. That's the extent of my knowledge, and now the only thing I can add to it is that I read this book of his. So I can't really comment on whether this book is representative of his body of work, or where it might rank in terms of its worth in said body. This is really just my reflection on a book I enjoyed from an author with a solid reputation.

TMIAHM (as I'll now refer to it) is an homage to the American Revolution in many ways: it's the tale of the Lunar colony's fight for independence from the Lunar Authority. The parallels are many and overt: Lunar Authority holds the exclusive rights to demand what the colony produces and the price at which it will be bought, and when unrest begins, they send troops to keep the peace. The citizens treat the troops belligerently, with tensions rising until they boil over into the death of a woman. Woman, being rare in Lunar colony, which began as a penal colony, are held in extremely high regard in Lunar society, and when this woman is killed by the Lunar Authority troops, all-out conflict breaks out. A Boston Massacre, of sorts.

The parallels don't stop there. Professor de la Paz is a sort of Thomas Jefferson/Ben Franklin combination, going to Earth as an ambassador suing for independence, writing a declaration of independence and becoming a sort of unwilling leader whose main goal is to create a government defined more by what it is prevented from doing rather than what it is allowed to do. Manuel O'Kelly Davis is a sort of George Washington figure in that he becomes an unwitting commander of the ragtag defense forces of the lunar colony. And there's Mike, the self-aware computer whom Manny befriends and recruits into helping them win their freedom from the Lunar Authority.

There were about two paragraphs within the book which kicked my thoughts into action, mulling over the idea of government and authority, the legitimacy of the "right to rule" and and what makes certain powers legitimate and others illegitimate. In terms of the Christian's call to submit to their governing authorities, if a revolution occurs, to which authority is a Christian to submit? How do we determine this?

The gist of what was said to trigger this thought was this: "In terms of morality there is no state, only individuals." Ultimately when it comes down to the choices we make, there is no "just following orders" excuse. As the Prof says:
I will accept the rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no
matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I
find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am
morally responsible for everything I do.
"Live as people who are free," the apostle Peter admonishes us as he tells us to "be subject to the ruling authorities." How do we reconcile this? By realizing that government is a means of common grace, a restraint for evil that God instituted so that humanity, in bondage to sin, wouldn't be as bad as it could be without it. But we who have the Spirit of God and the law written upon our hearts should not need the restraints of government in order to do what is right and good. So the command remains, even though to us who are free in Christ the subjection is a mere outward function. The government's authority, while from God, is a flawed and conditional authority - conditional upon its adherence to the law of God. And when our conscience is informed by the Word and the Spirit, we have not only the right but the duty to defy the authority of government.

I think far too often we assume submission equals obedience. I don't think this is the case, not wholly. I think submission means obedience plus a willingness to accept the consequences handed down for disobedience. So when I adhere to the speed limits they set or pay the taxes that they order me to pay, then I am submitting, yes. But if I decline to pay my taxes because I don't want to contribute to immorality that I believe the government is funding, then I also ought to be willing to accept the consequences that they give me for that action. I should not flee or try to hide my disobedience. If I enlisted in the military, then was convicted against the cause I swore to fight for, I ought to refuse to fight, but I also ought to be willing to accept whatever consequences for that decision.

My freedom isn't something I gain, or something that can be taken away. My freedom is unconditional, no matter where I live, no matter if I am in prison or if I am in the wilderness. And freedom carries within it responsibility - for if I am free, I then have no excuses for myself for not doing what I ought to do, or for doing what I ought not to do. And while this is the state of every human being (for there is no excuse for sin), this is especially the condition of Christians, because our will has been set free from bondage to sin.

So why then are we commanded to be subject to authority? It's as simple as setting an example for others. We cannot overlook that government is God's system for restraining evil, that He put it in place and gave it the job of keeping things from getting out of hand. Of course it's flawed, and often it doesn't do its job, and instead does the exact opposite, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a God-instituted authority over us, and while we may disobey when the occasion calls for it, we are still responsible to accept the punishment given to us for our disobedience.

We see this in the example given to us by the early church. In the face of open persecution, they willingly went to their deaths, suffering beatings, mistreatments, and the removal of their property. The apostles went often to prison, defying the commands to stop preaching, yet willing to accept the penalties for their actions. This is what it means to be subject to our authorities: recognizing their legitimacy, yet questioning their execution; obeying and disobeying when appropriate, yet always affirming their right to rule.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Musical goodness

Here's a sampling of some music I've discovered over the last year or so:

His voice might take some getting used to, but Lovedrug is really good music.

Passion Pit's another relatively recent discovery I've fallen in love with. This is probably my favorite of their songs off of Manners.

Timber Timbre's pretty amazing stuff, too. Very reminiscent of Dylan.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps"

I'd be hard-pressed to find a phrase I hate more than this one. Its meaning is simple: you have the power to improve your situation if you just man up and do it. On the surface, this appears to be good advice. But:
  • It implies that the person to whom the phrase is directed is at fault for being downtrodden.
  • It implies that we are completely in charge of our destiny. As James tells us, though, "You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? It is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (4:13). And Proverbs, in many places, warns us about the plans of men versus the plans of God.
  • It fails to understand the complexities of the causes of poverty and the power of growing up in a poverty culture. Just as those who use the phrase usually have grown up in WASP culture with its emphasis on work ethic and merit, those to whom they usually direct this phrase have grown up with a completely different set of values that needs to be overcome or changed before they can even begin to find their bootstraps.
  • It fails to understand grace or give credit to God for their own situation. God "owns the cattle on a thousand hills," meaning He owns our bank accounts, jobs, and all our possessions. And just as quickly (or slowly) as they are granted to us, He can take them away. So while in one sense, by working hard one gets certain benefits, in reality, it's God's grace that enables us to work, and God's grace that gives us possessions as a result of that hard work. No amount of bootstrap pulling will advance us in material goods and stature without the will of God to grant that we advance.
  • It fails to see that our world is sinful, and the world's systems and societies are sinful, and often the wrong or undeserving people are rewarded. Sometimes it doesn't matter how hard one yanks on the bootstraps, because somebody keeps pushing you down as soon as you start to get up.
  • It fails to see that advancement in this world is not necessarily a good goal to have.
We don't live in a meritocracy, as much as we like to think we do. People are rewarded or punished based on who they know, how much money they have, what neighborhood they live in or school they go to. Yes, we like to think of our country as the "land of opportunity," and maybe it is more than others. But that doesn't change the fact that some people have longer bootstraps and others have shorter ones. And it certainly doesn't change the fact that it's God who directs the paths of every life, and it's by His grace that we possess anything. So let's please kill this phrase, because to a Christian it really has no meaning.

On reflection

There's something worth writing about every day.

I fancy myself a writer, even though I don't have anything finished, let alone published. I suppose you could say that I have several stories finished, though until I see them published, I still consider them to be in revision. And it's probably because I consider them to still be in revision that I have made no attempts to get them published.

But that's beside the point. What I'm trying to say is that I'm convinced the discipline of writing is important, not simply because I like to writer and aspire to be a writer, but because it's through writing that my thoughts solidify and change me.

Writing is my means of reflection. When I hear a good sermon, read a good book, watch a good movie, read the Word, I am far more likely to retain the truths within each of those if I write about them. The same goes for experiences: the choices I make and the events I witness, the places I go and the people I meet and interact with, I ought to be just as reflective about.

For what is sanctification about, if not reflecting on one's relationship and need for God and then making the changes necessary to become more like Him? If I live without stopping to think, without considering carefully all the things God has put in my path to make me more like Him, then what good am I, and what good are they doing me?

So I fully support the discipline of reflection: whether that be through writing, or through thinking aloud, or through prayer, or any combination of those things. I believe it's an essential part of our growing in maturity in our faith - can we really become more like Jesus if we don't spend time thinking about the life He's given us to do just that? Each day the goal is to become more like Him. If we go through each day without some thought as to how we can better represent Him, how we can give more of ourselves over to Him, then what good are we? We are not living as we ought.

My encouragement then to you, and perhaps more importantly to myself, is to make reflection a key component to your walk of faith. Let yourself be changed and shaped through deep consideration of what God is doing in your life. Don't allow yourself to get busy with the cares of the world so much that you miss the whole point of why we're here in the first place.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New layout

It's come time to change.

Why? I don't really know. I'm not one for changing my blog layout like an outfit - as anyone knows, I've kept the last design for at least 4 years, and before that, my old blog which I accidentally deleted had the same general template for years as well.

But with the prevalence now of blog templates being offered online for free - and their increasing attractiveness over the old Blogger stand-bys, I really couldn't see a reason to hold on to the old one for sentimental reasons.

And I like this one a lot. I think it fits in well with the "Wayfarer" theme.

So welcome to my new home.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's a talented writer, that much is clear. And while my thoughts on the book are somewhat conflicted, the fact that I liked it is not.

Here's the premise: a Baptist missionary "heeds the call" of God and takes his wife and four daughters into the Congo jungle in the early 1960s. The novel recounts, in first person from the point of view of the daughters and wife, the details of their time there, and the changes that Africa undergoes in that time period and up to the turn of the century.

This is a hard book for a white Christian to read, for several reasons. The first is the depiction of Nathan Price, the missionary. He's the model of what a cross-cultural missionary should not be, and probably an accurate portrayal of a too-oft-repeated scenario in past attempts at ministering across cultural boudaries. Nathan carries with him the assumption that the culture he is entering is primitive, backwards, and inherently sinful. He confuses the gospel with his culture, blending the two as he attempts to minister to the people, trampling their values and knowledge in his arrogance. They are to him Heathen, and therefore cannot possess any knowledge that could be valuable. He, as minister of the gospel, is the one who must dispense the knowledge, ridding them of what they thought they knew and replacing it with what he teaches. Rather than attempting to bridge the gap between their knowledge and the truth (because every culture contains within it elements of the truth), he alternately dismisses or abuses their culture by playing off their superstitions one moment ("if you repent, Jesus will send rain") and accusing them of superstition the next ("Jesus didn't promise your child wouldn't die if you went to church").

The second reason I found this book hard is that it is yet another example of Western culture's abuses of an entire continent through colonialism/imperialism. The book is set at the beginning of African independence, when the Congo gained its freedom from Belgium. Apparently overnight, Congo became a free nation after generations of control by a foreign power. Suddenly they were expected to run an infrastructure and maintain government control without any prior experience. To make matters worse, the CIA worked to assassinate the freely-elected leader of the now-independent state, supporting a dictator in his place who oversaw the transformation of Congo into Zaire - violent, poor, and bloody. The meddling of Western power in sovereign governments, not to mention the motivation for doing so (being able to take the resources from these nations without profiting the citizens of the nation), should be heartbreaking to those of us who profit from it, either directly or indirectly.

But I think the thing that made this book the most difficult for me is the absence of Jesus. The name of Jesus is present frequently, at the lips of the good Reverend Price constantly, but Jesus - the King of Kings- doesn't show up once. "Tata Jesus is bangala!" Price tells his African congregants time and again, a phrase which his daughter Adah points out could have two meanings: either "Jesus is precious," or "Jesus is poisonwood (poisonwood being a particularly nasty poisonous tree)." We do not get the precious gospel - we get the poisonwood gospel.

Kingsolver is not a believer, and the redemption she attempts to weave into the ending of her book leaves me wanting more. She seems to end it with the idea that one should simply try to do a little good - the problems of the world are much too vast to be able to solve, so do what good you can: love your children, love your fellow man, and live honorably and generously. And maybe farm.

All good things, which I fully support (especially the farming bit - power to agrarians!). But this isn't enough for the Christian. Africa (and the world) needs the knowledge that all things are being redeemed to the way they were supposed to be, that Jesus is working all things into submission to Himself, that creation was made good, and is now in the process of being made into what it should be. Africa needs Jesus, more desperately than they need anything else. Kingsolver writes from the presumption that Nathan offered the only Jesus available and He wasn't enough - Jesus might work for Nathan but in Africa He doesn't make sense. What Kingsolver misses is that Nathan's Jesus and the real Jesus have very little in common. The real Jesus has exactly the remedy for Africa: salvation, shalom, the righting of wrongs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Believe Big

I don't think any year would be complete without some post regarding my near-obsession (okay, it's not a near-obsession, it's an obsession) with the Seattle Mariners. And with the season underway and the M's with a winning record, I feel the need to share with all of you the deep, deep love I have for this team and this sport.

It began in '95 and steadily caught fire, rising to a crescendo in the magical 2001 season where the M's just couldn't be beat. I remember being amazed by the underestimated team full of respected names, but not necessarily any established superstars, taking on the entirety of baseball and winning 116 games - something only done by one other team in all of baseball's long history. We'd lost Griffey, the guy who put Seattle on the map, and A-Rod, and Randy Johnson was gone, too. Nobody thought we could do it. It was Ichiro's first year in the MLB, and no one knew what to make of the guy who won not only rookie of the year that year, but also was the American League MVP. We had Bret Boone, who up until that year wasn't really regarded as a top offensive player, but had a sudden breakout year (probably thanks to 'roids, but we didn't know that then). We played solid defense and won by executing on the small things. It was a wonderful year that ended too soon when we lost out in the playoffs.

The fervor died a little in the Bavasi years, where season after season we had high hopes which would be dashed time and again when the team collapsed and fell out of contention. The laundry list of bad contracts, or guys who didn't deliver on the expectations, or mismanagement of prospects was almost too long to keep track of: Carlos Silva, Jeff Weaver, Horacio Ramirez, Miguel Batista, Richie Sexson, Carl Everett, Brad Wilkerson, the Bedard-Jones trade, the handling of Brandon Morrow, to name a few. They were dark days for M's fans, ending in 2008's disastrous, 101-loss season that no one really saw coming.

And now the light shines again. 2009 saw a complete turnaround in both management and on-the-flied performance for the M's. We went from a 61-win season to an 85-win season, a massive improvement and a nearly-complete roster changeover built around defense and drive. Smart people were in charge of the Mariners again, and it showed. The club went from being at each other's throats to a cohesive unit that actually liked playing together. They went from a team that was horrible at offense and defense, to a team that was horrible at offense but incredible at defense, with the best center-fielder in the game putting up unreal numbers with his range and ability to read fly balls, and the always-incredible, ageless Ichiro, and the new addition of Jack Wilson at shortstop replacing the unfortunately lazy, unteachable, underperforming Yuniesky Betancourt. Add to that the fabulous defensive workhorse Adrian Beltre, and you've got some skilled guys out there who know how to get guys out and help out the pitchers. And then the Cy Young runner-up performance by Felix Hernandez, and Ichiro ninth-straight 200+ hit-season ... one of those legendary seasons.

But 2010! It looks this truly might be THE year, if not the year before THE year. With an almost entirely new club (the only holdovers from the doomed '08 and the Bavasi years being Jose Lopez, Ichiro, Bedard, and Felix), the Mariners go into this season as the talk of the MLB. With an unmatch off-season that saw the acquisition of Cy Young-winner Cliff Lee for a handful of middling prospects, the signing of Chone Figgins, baserunner extraordinaire, and the signing of Felix to a 5-year extension, along with ridding the books of the overweight, overvocal, overpaid, albatross Carlos Silva, the M's gave everyone something to talk about. Was this really the same club that just a few short years ago traded away an All-Star, gold-glove center fielder for a pitcher who can't stay healthy, or traded a grade-A closer for a starter who got shelled every outing? The absolute transformation from laughingstock to shrewd, savvy wheelers-and-dealers has not just Seattle buzzing, but all of baseball. It's a good time to be an M's fan again.

So here's to you, Seattle Mariners: may this season hold many beer showers and a pennant at the end! Felix, may you win your first of many Cy Youngs, and Ichiro, may you take one more step in taking away Pete Rose's record. Guti, may you win your first of many Gold Gloves.

I am, as ever, a devoted fan.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wendell Berry on Modern Education

I. Educated people are more valuable than other people because education is a value-adding industry.

II. Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.

III. The purpose of education is to make people able to earn more and more money.

IV. The place where education is to be used is called "your career."

V. Anything that cannot be weighed, measured, or counted does not exist.

VI. The so-called humanities probably do not exist. But if they do, they are useless. But whether they exist or not or are useful or not, they can sometimes be made to support a career.

VII Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.

VIII The sign of exceptionally smart people is that they speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their "field" or only to themselves. This is very impressive and is known as "professionalism."

IX. The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.

X. The mark of a good teacher is that he or she spends most of his or her time doing research and writes many books and articles.

XI The mark of a good researcher is the same as that of a good teacher.

XII. A great university has many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than teachers.

XIII. Computers make people even better and smarter than they were made by previous thingamabobs Or if some people prove incorrigibly wicked or stupid or both, computers will at least speed them up.

XIV. The main thing is, don't let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don't stay home with them and get in their way. Don't give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don't teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.

XV. A good school is a big school.

XVI. Disarm the children before you let them in.

--From "The Joy of Sales Resistance"

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Hunger Games

There is something about young adult fiction and the way in which it is generally written that often grips me far more than anything the "adult" world offers. I don't know exactly what it is - could be that my imagination is arrested as a fifteen-year-old kid who still wishes that magic and spaceships and dystopian societies begging to be overthrown by unlikely heroes were real. I could theorize that young adult fiction simplifies things into clear choices between good and evil, but I think in the book I'll be talking about here, there's anything but that going on. So that's not it. It could also be that they're often about a character who becomes more than they were - they learn what it means to be a man or a woman and learn to make hard choices in the face of impossible odds. I think that's a large part of why I like young adult fiction. Whether it's Harry Potter or Ender's Game (not technically "young adult" in the sense that that's not its target audience, but nonetheless fits all other distinctions of the genre) or The Hunger Games, the characters are facing life-altering, impossible situations and coming through them stronger, less naive, and more aware of themselves and the complexities of their world.

So enough of that. The Hunger Games. By Suzanne Collins. Good. Book.

I read this in a manner of hours. Couldn't put it down, really. The premise is that a young girl, fifteen or sixteen if my memory serves me correctly, by the name of Katniss Everdeen, lives in the post-apocalyptic Panem, the remnants of North America, nowed ruled by the ruthless Capitol who keeps the rest of the country, divided into 12 (previously 13) districts, completely subservient. The Capitol, as penance for old "treason" committed by the districts (instigated by the now-destroyed 13th district, which was wiped out for their role in the rebellion), requires each district to send two "tributes," a boy and a girl, to the Capitol every year for the Hunger Games - which is basically a free-for-all slaughterfest broadcast on TV in which the last man standing wins. As you might guess, Katniss becomes one of these tributes, and the book focuses on her struggle to survive the Hunger Games and deal with the idea that in order to win, she has to kill or be killed.

But all the coming-of-age storyline I'd like to put aside for now, and talk about the brilliant way in which Collins draws the world she creates in the story. It's really an allegory - though the allegory is secondary to the plot and characters. Capitol represents, I think, a version of today's developed nations. It's a resource-sucking monster at the center of Panem, it citizens growing fat on the resources thay glean from the subservient districts in their sway. In Capitol, every citizen can have their every whim granted. Surgical procedures keep people looking young and healthy, food comes at the touch of a button, even hygiene is automated so that one can select fragrances and lotions added to one's shower to keep one smelling fresh and looking young.

And - they think nothing of spending the lives of those who make their way of life possible for some cheap entertainment.

I can't help but consider the correlations between Capitol and our own nation. The relatively recent ascendancy of reality television is in some ways a smaller-scale version of the Hunger Games, using the lives of ordinary people, affecting change for better or worse through the way the producers choose to depict them. Shows like the Bachelor, American Idol (which I incidentally love despite perhaps my better judgment), Survivor, etc., all take "ordinary" people and exploit them in some way. They take hours and hours of footage, then edit to shape each person into a stereotype - hero, villain, clown, seductress, country bumpkin, or whatever fits the profile in order to entertain. The people are fictionalized so that the audience assumes this is how they truly are, and this, I'm sure, affects all of them to some extent in their real lives. I suppose one could argue that these people knowingly enter into agreements with the television shows they appear upon, and do reap benefits from these appearances, but at what cost?

Secondly, the correlation between Capitol as fattening itself on the fruits of the labor of others and the destruction of the resources of the other districts also seems to point its finger at the way in which developed nations like the US, and now, developing nations like India and China, build themselves up on the backs of the labor and resources of those less economically equipped and powerful. There's something powerful about the way literature is able to draw those comparisons in a way that makes the concepts clear to us. As Collins causes us to follow Katniss from her hardscrabble life in District 12, where she must hunt daily for food or the family goes hungry, to her adventure to the Capitol, where she need only hit a button and get as much as she wants, we are able to see how our lives as rich Americans must seem to those in third world countries and conditions.

But like I mentioned, these are mere undercurrents to the can't-take-a-breath pace of the story, which followed Katniss through wrestling with having to kill, even a boy from her own hometown who one time saved her life through an unsought kindness, in order to preserve her own life. The emotional intensity of the story and the growth of the characters truly makes this a great read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and seeing what conclusion these characters reach. The book in some way reminds me of another of my favorite books, Ender's Game, in that both feature high-stakes games with life-altering consequences. This book is an example of what I hope to be able to write someday.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

You may not have time to watch this whole video, but at least watch the first couple minutes. It's within those that Beck states his thesis, and then the rest is simply his defense of his thesis.

Several things (and I'm trying very hard to be fair here):

The first thing that comes to mind when I heard about this is, "Who cares what Glenn Beck thinks about social justice?" And immediately following that thought was, "A great number of people, many of them Christians, care what Glenn Beck thinks about social justice." This man has quite the following among conservative evangelicals, for reasons mysterious to me. What he says has more sway than he has a right to, so when he tells people to not just consider leaving their churches, but to actually leave their churches if the leadership espouses any bent towards promoting social justice, that's a serious thing for him to say.

Beck's basic argument is that "social justice" is a code word for an agenda aimed at government control and forced socialism/communism. And while some who wield the phrase might use it in that way, it's by no means a universally defined term. To encourage people to abandon it, to run from it, as if it were a swastika or some form of heresy, is both ludicrous and dangerously uninformed. And given his pull within the Christian community, the idea that he would use this to get people to leave the bodies to which they belong strikes me as a complete abuse of power.

For one, Beck is no theologian -he's a political commentator whose only credentials are that he has a good radio voice and can formulate his opinions in an entertaining way. For him to speak so very authoritatively on a matter of faith ought to set off so many red flags in a Christian's head that they can't see anything but red. And not only is he speaking authoritatively on an issue that he shouldn't be, but he's just plain wrong.

This video is even more disturbing to me - his use of his cutesy signs is chilling:

Social justice is nowhere NEAR to being a code word for Nazism or Communism. The fact that such groups might use the phrase is as incidental as the Chinese communsit regime coopting the use of the word "republic" in the name "The People's Republic of China." Just because those groups use the words doesn't mean they mean the same thing, or have any understanding of the true meaning behind it. The Nazis' take on "social justice" is quite different from what the Presbyterian Church X means by social justice: one is informed by a Biblical understanding of what justice is, and the other is informed by a nationalistic desire for the advancement of their race. (I'll let you guess which one is which.) To reduce it to a simplistic argument - "These groups use this phrase, therefore everyone who uses this phrase must share an agenda with these groups" - allows Beck to dismiss the idea of social justice without really dealing with the issue itself.

Beck says that he wants people to talk to the church leadership about the use of the phrase before leaving, in order to explore whether the term is used out of "ignorance," or out of an agenda that truly pursues "social justice." This is good: I'm glad he isn't telling people to run in blind panic, and pursue some answers and ask questions. All that is good. But he does this not in order to explore whether the church's vision for social justice is valid, but rather so that the church member can discover whether the leadership is willing to move away from the idea of social justice. And, Beck says, if the leadership refuses to budge on the issue, he tells them to run. So the assumption is, from beginning to end, that social justice is bad, and any church that uses the phrase is also bad.

I have to confess, it's very difficult for me to think about right-wing ideas and ideals without becoming angry. In all honesty, it wasn't that long ago that I counted myself among their faithful - really about five or six years ago I was still calling myself a "moderate Republican." Before that, I used to faithfully listen to Rush and Sean Hannity and even occasionally Glenn Beck himself. But gradually over the years I was unable to even identify with conservatives at all. I didn't get their adherence to immigration issues, their stance on the death penalty, their hyper-militaristic ideals, their constant demonization of their opponents and their reduction to simplicity of issues that seemed far more complex and nuanced than they cared to make them. I found myself only siding with them on abortion and on their belief in small government, and that didn't seem like enough common ground to really call myself one of their number anymore. So when I address Beck's opinions, I do it as someone who used to share his values and now finds them repugnant. And as any convert to a new worldview, I have a hard time thinking objectively about views I used to hold, and may tend to be harsher on them than I would be on other viewpoints to which I've never subscribed.

So when it comes to the importance of social justice and Beck's demonization of those who use the term, I'm tempted to just "go off." But here, in my most restrained language, is what I think:

Beck probably genuinely believes what he's saying. That's the worst part of all this. He probably truly thinks that churches who say they support and promote issues of social justice are in danger of falling prey to a communist/fascist agenda. But at the root of that fear of the term is a fear of the changing of the order of things. It's a fear of admitting that maybe things aren't as great as they should be, and that conservatives share a responsibility for that just as much as liberals do. So it's far easier for Beck to say that social justice is just a code word for a liberal agenda than to look at the issues raised by those who promote it. What would happen if he looked at immigration policy through the lens of social justice, and saw not just criminals crossing a border illegally, but individuals - real people - who see vast opportunities on one side of a fence, and starvation on the other, and choose to thrive illegally than struggle to survive legally? What would happen if he examined the reasons why these people can't make it in their home country and discovered it wasn't a lack of industriousness on their part (since to cross the border and find a job as an illegal immigrant takes vast amounts of ambition and drive), but because the policies that his country and corporations have adopted (namely, free trade) have made liveable wages hardly possible for other countries and have taken resources from those countries at hugely disproportionate rates? Well, Beck doesn't have to look at those issues, because those issues are raised by people who believe in social justice, and social justice is code for communist. And Beck doesn't want you to look at social justice, either, because if we began to admit that something is wrong with the issues that conservatives and Republicans hold near and dear, then we would of course flee to the other side and become liberal and Democrat.

I understand the temptation to draw the lines the way he does. It's far easier to believe in the rightness of something than to exaimine it carefully and work to change it, especially when that something is your benefactor. I understand wanting to keep things simple and be able to say, "right is right and wrong is wrong." Right IS right, and wrong IS wrong, but the two still interact quite a bit, since we humans are both made in God's image yet corrupt at our core as descendants of Adam. It's only logical that the interplay between good and evil would be constantly present in the actions of humans, and that it would be difficult sometimes to find where one ends and the other begins. Especially when one considers the possibility to do right things for the wrong reasons, or wrong things for the right reasons, the concept of complex moral issues becomes far easier to buy.

Social justice, therefore, is not only a term that ought be explored, but really ought to be embraced by Christians. The pursuit of a just society ought to be our goal. And I beg of you, if you're a fan of Glenn Beck's, please tell him you're not cool with him demonizing your church's pursuit of justice for all.

(Oh, and Jim Wallis? I'm sick of you being the go-to guy for every counterpoint to the evangelical right. Isn't there anyone else who can be a little more reliable spokesman for non-conservative evangelicals? You're a sellout to the Dems.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My favorite books growing up ...

I just unearthed this list I put together for a juvenile literature class I took in college, and enjoyed the memories it recalled of the books it lists. I loved these books fiercely, and believe they have shaped me significantly into the writer and person I am today.

  1. Lloyd Alexandar’s The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha: This has always been my favorite Alexandar book, although I enjoyed the Westmark Trilogy immensely as well. This book tells a tale of a lazy, good-for-nothing teenage boy who magically becomes a king in a far-off land. He is forced to accept the responsibilities this role forces him into, and it changes him forever.
  2. Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain: This book is like a watered-down Hatchet. I’ve always loved this book; the boy who chooses to leave civilization and make his own way in the world for a time has always appealed to me.
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: These books have been my hands-down favorite for years. I used to read them over and over again. Their epic tales and unwitting heroes held me spellbound.
  4. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: This book deepened, perhaps birthed, my appreciation for dark literature. I could so vividly picture the events happening in real life, which thrilled and terrified me.
  5. Gean Stratton-Porter’s Freckles: I identified very closely with Freckles in this book of an orphaned, crippled boy who falls in love with a well-to-do, beautiful young maiden. Very much a “Hunchback of Notre-Dame”-esque tale, but with a happy ending.
  6. Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior: This was the first of the “Redwall” books that I read, and it remained my favorite. In hindsight, I think that this is because once you read one of the Redwall books, you’ve read all of them. But this book introduced me to the series, and I enjoyed these books for several more years before tiring of their formula of feasts, badgers, quests, unlikely heroes, and evil ferrets.
  7. Wilson Rawls’ Summer of the Monkeys: Let Where the Red Fern Grows be damned. This is/was my favorite Rawls book. Nobody dies, and a little girls gets surgery to restore her ability to walk.
  8. Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game: This book is just plain fun. It was in constant rotation on my rereading list. There was so much depth to it. Even now I can’t sort it all out.
  9. Harold Keith’s Rifles for Watie: Another one is constant rotation. I absolutely loved this book. It has wars and battles and honor and love and espionage and moral dilemmas. Lucy Washbourne was my dream girl.

And in some ways, perhaps, Lucy Washbourne is still my dreamgirl. :) Feel free to share your own lists of memorable books from your childhood and teenage years.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On Work and Leisure, part II

What kinds of work do we find ourselves doing?

There are all sorts of work we do. We do the work, as I discussed in my previous entry, of creation - works of art. We do "good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." We do housework: dishes, laundry, cleaning, etc. We go to work - we perform assigned tasks for monetary reward.

But by and large, what is the sum of the work we do? Will the majority of what we do add value to our lives and the lives of others? And if we say no to this question, why do we persist in it?

When we consider work, the first thing that comes to mind for most of us is our jobs: the 9 to 5 employment for which we receive a paycheck that pays our bills and expenses. This is life for almost everyone we know. We go to high school, maybe college, then graduate and get a decent-paying job in some industry or profession or another and do assigned tasks in order to buy a house, a car or two, and raise a family. Nothing wrong with that. That's normal life. Right?


I would say that it depends on the work you do. It depends on the tasks assigned to you, and the way your employer does business. The impact that they have on the community around you, and the world at large. Do you work for a defense corporation, programming computers used to target missiles? Do you consider the implications of how those could be used, or do justify it by saying that if you weren't doing it, somebody else would be?

Or maybe you work for a bank. Do you consider the millions who lost their jobs and homes because of decisions made by financial corporations to build illusory wealth? Do you continue to work for them because you as an individual weren't a part of "all that," or do you think about what it means to work for them and how that might make you in some way culpable for the fallout of their actions?

Or perhaps you work for a school. Do you observe what institutionalized "learning" does to students who participate in it? Do you see what effect it has on their innate curiosity about life?Or do you accept it as "the way we do it" and slog along in blissful apathy?

Just to clarify at this point: I am not advocating a mass exodus from traditional jobs - I am asking that we count the cost of doing what we do and working where we work. I am asking that we ask ourselves if we're comfortable being associate with our workplace and what it stands for. Can we perform our jobs with a clean conscience, or do we go home laden with unease that we try to stifle? Do we keep from thinking too hard about the ramifications of the actions of our employers, and subsequently ourselves, in order to keep at bay the nagging doubts about what we do?

The reason I put all these questions to us is this: we as a culture are marked by exploitation of people and resources at alarming levels. Corporations by and large only operate in terms of exploitation, both of their employees and their customers, as well as nature itself. Institutions - government, education, industry - almost without exception survive through exploiting, and any benefits received by the exploited are incidental, as much as the institutions claim to have the intention of serving.

Now before you dismiss this as conjecture, consider this: we all have heard of or know someone who has spent "their best years" with a single company, but one day he's laid off because another company took over and is restructuring. Those who work for these institutions are subject to the whim or mercy of commerce and profit. If the corporation can see an opportunity for profit that would require them to jettison a long-term employee, they wouldn't hesitate in most circumstances. "It's just business," we hear repeated. Since when does something done in the name of "business" make it justifiable and moral?

Or consider a school: How does a school exploit its students? Because the main reason that the public school system is in place is to create employees for the workforce, where they will be exploited and used for the rest of their lives. As many lofted stated goals as educators claim to have, the system is set up to create people who can "go out and get good jobs." It's what teachers and parents are always telling children as the justification for doing what they're told in school. "Work hard in school so you can get a good job." "Nobody will want to hire you if you don't have good grades." Never mind that they'll be used and exploited by their companies until their employers decide they're through with them. We lie to them and encourage them to fit into a system that is strangling our culture, and punish them if they don't fit in.

And I'm sure I don't need to discuss government's exploitation of its citizens. Rather than being the servant it is Biblically intended to be, government draws from the livelihoods of its citizenry to expand itself and its powers in the name of even more "services," and uses the sons and daughters as weapons to exploit other nations for their resources in the name of "spreading democracy" or "defending our borders."

Wendell Berry describes our current system like this:

"Commodities will be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost
and consumed wherever they will bring the highest price.To make too cheap and
sell too high has always been the program of industrial capitalism. The global
'free market' is merely capitalism's so far successful attempt to enlarge the
geographic scope of its greed, and moreover to give its greed the status of a
'right' within its presumptive territory. The global 'free market' is free to
the corporations precisely because it dissolves the boundaries of the old
national colonialisms, and replaces them with a new colonialism without
restraints or boundaries. It is pretty much as if all the rabbits have now been
forbidden to have holes, thereby 'freeing' the hounds." ("The Total Economy,"

We have accepted as an unavoidable reality an economy of mutual exploitation, even in some instances seeing it as good. Meaning, even as we are exploited, we tend to exploit in return, in both intentional and unintentional ways. We buy products that come at the hands of those who are forced to live in conditions worse than we would ever dream or imagine, but often we do this in ignorance or because we believe we have no choice. We strive to "climb the corporate ladder" by competing with our fellow workers and politicking to get raises and promotions. We vote for leaders who support policies that allow corporations to continue in their evil ways because to do anything about it would be "bad for the economy." The question is, do we participate in these things because we believe we have no choice, or because we have calculated the cost of not participating and decided we don't want to pay that price?

But is this our inevitable end, to be cogs in the machine of an exploitive economy that assigns us tasks that churn out profits for some at the expense of poverty for many, not to mention the irresponsible uses of our God-given natural resources? Or are we meant for something better? Even as I speak to all people, I speak even more to Christians, who ought to even more closely examine our interactions with our world. We who are salt and light to the world ought not participate in the world as our fellows do. Often we boil down this principle to mere piety - we don't swear or sleep with our neighbor's wife. But we stop too short, and forget that it should be our entire life that reflects Christ and His principles, not simply our adherence to some of the more obvious angles of morality. We are a people who should be infected by the Holy Spirit's influence in every angle of our lives, including how we use our time, our labor, and our money.

So we return to the original question: What is the sum of our work? We ought to give this careful thought. Our culture tends to define people by their career paths and occupations, perhaps more so than other cultures. Therefore it seems even more relevant for us to consider what our work is and decide if this is something that, in fact, we could say is a "kingdom" work.

And one final note: I do not wish to say I think it is wrong for a believer to work in a bank or school. But I do think that it is wrong for a believer to work in a bank or a school without examining the systems in existence in those places and making sure that his conscience allows him to still do the job, and work to subvert the ungodly systems set up there in any way he can. My final word on the subject: Don't hesitate to listen to your conscience. Often I believe we silence its voice because it tells us the hard things that we don't want to face. But a conscience ignored is a conscience dulled. So may we all sharpen our consciences as we consider our employment.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"Guilty of consumerism in the pews"

Part II of "Work and Leisure" is still coming, but in the meantime...

The title of this post is a quote from someone on a message board (in which I used to be a regular participator) that jumped out at me when I read it.

As someone who has done a lot of thinking lately about our consumer culture, and has felt disillusioned about how our country seems welcome to turn back to consumption as a way out of our economic mess (and subsequently setting itself up for yet another collapse), the way this attitude has crept into our thinking about church came off the screen at me in a way I hadn't thought of it before.

It's not as if I have been unaware of the tendency of American Christians to "church-shop." Even within the name itself is an implied consumerist attitude, and with it all the same attitudes that come with, say, shopping for a car. If it doesn't meet your exact specs, you'll keep looking until you find something that does.

Once again, there's something to be said for finding a church that you feel like is a good fit for you - it lines up with your beliefs about the Bible, it is a place that welcomes children, it's outward-focused and driven by missions, it has a healthy worship service with a style you enjoy, etc. That's completely acceptable. However, finding a church ought to be more like your search for a spouse than your search for a car. And once you make a commitment to a church, leaving it ought to be as serious to you as considering leaving your spouse.

But I'm less concerned in this post, really, with the trend of church-shopping, but rather the source of where this attitude comes from and what it tells us about ourselves. If we can boil down our selection of our spiritual community to a shopping decision, like whether we buy an F-150 or a Tundra, or go to Church A with the rockin' worship band or Church B with the phenomenal preacher, what does that tell us about our perception of what church is?

At least one thing it tells us is that we view church as a product like any other, that we believe it will make our lives better or happier when we buy it. And while this may be very true, to base the entire concept of church attendance on whether it meets your standards and makes you happy is flimsy and unbiblical, going against the very reason church exists. Church was meant to be a body - not a filling station or a fast-food joint. Church wasn't meant to be something you "attend," but something you belong to and live in and are a part of. The church is the body of Christ, His hands and feet on earth, and the idea that church is something we "go to" on Sundays is wrong-headed.

So we begin from the wrong starting point: rather than looking at the Church as the whole and us simply a part of it trying to find where we fit, we look at ourselves as the whole, and the Church as the sustenance for our singular body. This in turn leads us to see ourselves as far more important than we are. Church becomes a thing upon which we make demands it can't meet. Since we think, or at least act like, it exists solely to give us food and nourishment (which it does exist to do, don't mistake what I say here), we then approach it like we approach anything else in our lives that feed us. Church becomes an extension of our consumption: another product we buy to keep us fat and happy, just like Safeway or Red Robin or Blockbuster. And if it stops serving our favorite burger or we find a better deal on potatoes somewhere else, what's to stop us from leaving? Brand loyalty?

And while it's hard to tell which came first - "attendees" viewing the church as a product or churches viewing themselves as competitors with the world for members - the current response by churches has been to accept themselves as products and then act accordingly. They market themselves with advertisement and programs, trying to create essentially a brand image that will appeal to target demographics - just like any "good" corporation. They feed into the willingness of Christians to treat them like a product to be consumed by reducing themselves to just that.

Until we see Christians willing to believe that the Church is not something one optionally participates in, but is a part of by nature of their salvation and participation in the universal Body of Christ, we will continue in this unhealthy trend of "church-shoppers."

The church cannot function in this way. If indeed Paul knew what he was saying when he talked about Christians as "members of one body," the Body of Christ, who worked together and suffered together and lived life together, can a person truly experience being a part of the Body if he jumps from church to church, or just "attends" on Sundays? Paul made no mention of the "pew-filling" part of the body, only active, participating, valuable members who each have a unique function. There is no separation between the leadership, members, and attendees, but rather equally important roles with differing responsibilities. Christians must realize that in fully participating in the body, there is inifinitely more satisfaction found in church. Christians who are invested in their local body are Christians who love their local body and the people who belong to it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Work and Leisure, part I

I've been (too) slowly coming to the realization that work is unavoidable, and even good.

One of the problems with the way Christianity relates to work, I think, is that it looks at it as a consequence of the Fall. Christians assume that labor is a result of sin, based on God telling Adam that he would have to struggle to raise food from the ground. While the Fall did affect the harmony between man and nature, bringing in blight, disease, and pests, it did not introduce work. Work predates the Fall; Adam was given tasks by God - to tend the Garden, to name the animals, etc. God Himself works, doing the work of creation, the work of salvation, the work of maintaining our existence. He commissions us to "do good..." what? Good works. We are, Paul says, "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

There is nothing wrong with the act of work, just as there is nothing wrong with the act of leisure. The problem arises with the type of work or leisure one does, or the priority one places on either one over the other.

In the process of writing about this I've realized that it would be best to split this piece into two parts. I'd like to examine in this piece what kinds of work and leisure we involve ourselves in, and in the second look a little further into why it is that we've adopted as a culture a negative attitude to (certain types of) work.

I'll say right now, I'm a product of the first generation to really grow up with personal computers in nearly every home and a video game console in every entertainment center, and as a result, I enjoy time playing computer/video games about as much as anyone else. I've never been a "hardcore" gamer, and I've never been one to rush out and buy a game the first day it hits the shelves, either. In fact, this past month is the first time I've ever owned a brand new gaming console, the Wii. But given all that, I still manage to find games I like - and subsequently become addicted to. Civilization (II and III), Baseball Mogul, the Sims, Alpha Centauri, Need for Speed (Underground and Most Wanted), to name a few. I can play these for hour after lost hour, always seeking to get to that next level - acheive cultural dominance, win that fifth World Series in a row, get that promotion, defeat the Hive, trick out the WRX, etc. This is my preferred method of spending my leisure time.

But at the end of the day, there's nothing tangible to show for all that time spent. I can't take my World Series rings to the pawn shop and get cash for them, I can't really command anyone to nuke London into submission, I can't drive my pimped out Mustang to the grocery store to pick up milk. I have spent hours refining skills and setting goals and breaking records for a fantasy world that has no lasting impact on this world. I have, in essence, done nothing but wasted time and electricity.

I'm not trying to argue that all video and computer games are bad - I'm not convinced they are all horrible. But I do think it is bad to spend unlimited, or even significant (more than a couple consecutive hours), time on them, especially when there are other, more "productive" things to do. There ought to be something to show for our time. And I'm not just talking about games. As Christians, our lives aren't our own, and to be using the time here on earth that we've been given to master video games or sate ourselves on TV shows – or, for that matter, go out fishing for hours every weekend or spend hour after hour researching baseball stats and trades (guilty of that one, too) -- doesn't make sense from that perspective. We ought to be using our time to create things that will have an impact on the kingdom - that will produce a lasting, positive result.

I have two passions in life that I hope to replace my more base leisure activities with: my writing and woodworking. Both will, I hope, produce things of lasting value that others can enjoy - far more than attaining any skill level at a game. But they require work.

It is excruciating work to write - it sometimes comes naturally and easily, but most times, in order to keep forward progress, it requires a diligent slogging forward through sometimes ill-constructed sentences and poorly-worded thoughts written down only to maintain momentum. And while this can be painful, there's joy in it, and the end result is something that will last and (perhaps) enrich the lives of others.

And I suppose that's reallly the lesson I've been learning: that true joy comes only with pain, and that to work at something that will last costs something, but ultimately leaves you with much more than the cheap and easy way. The difference I feel between hours spent writing versus hours spent vegging out in some form or another is incomparable. To play games leaves me afterwards feeling stressed about time lost, guilty that I was not doing other, more important, things. To write, or to work on a wood project, leaves me with a sense of satisfaction at the end, that I have done good work and it has made me a better man in the process of doing it.

That's really the sum of it: do we continue in a trend towards pointless leisure that leaves us stressed rather relaxed afterwards, or do we involve ourselves in activities that may be work, but will ultimately leave ourselves and others far more satisfied?

I think back to other eras - our practice of using technology as leisure is one that is relatively new - and consider the ways that they relaxed. Of course, every era is susceptible to its own irresponsibilities, but a) the increase in leisure time and b) the sheer volume of options we have for entertainment make our current environment unique. How did people entertain themselves before the advent of TVs and computers? And are we better people and a better society because of their existence, or has it made us worse: lazy, uneducated, apathetic, because we can sate ourselves on something generally mindless and indulgent?

I resolve, therefore, to fight the harder against the temptation to pacify myself with computer/video games, and other forms of technology, and to sharpen my mind with reading and writing, and to hone my skills at woodworking, so that I can be a man at peace with himself and his God. I urge others to examine their own convictions on the matter and do likewise.