Archive for March, 2007

Getting older

March 30, 2007

It was my birthday yesterday.  I’ve reached that landmark age of 38.  Having reached the top of life’s most important year, I have begun the long, arduous descent into the obscurity of age.

Or something like that.

Frankly, I don’t care.  I’m not a big birthday person.  Never really have been, though I’ve been known to feign excitement for the sake of others who *do* think that birthdays are a big deal.  It’s not that I’m in denial.  It’s just that it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me. 

It makes a lot of difference to some people though.

Our culture is age-obsessed, almost to the same level that it is obsessed with sex.  From early age we’re neatly categorized by age.  We are placed into a lockstep system of education and classification that ensures we interact almost exclusively with people our own age.  Those outside of our age group quickly become too young or too old.  Our age group is the norm, the ideal, the only place we learn how to interact with others.  As the family has disintegrated in the past 50 years under an onslaught of secular attacks, children now don’t even have to routinely interact with their parents.  Due to the mobility that our culture encourages, families seem less and less to have extended members nearby.  As divorce adds further insult to injury, children are estranged even from their own biological parents – assuming that they’re both around to begin with. 

So it’s a big deal to some people how old I am.  Churches are no exception.  I’ve been to and worked with several churches who were quite intentional in continuing this trend of chronological segregation.  Children are whisked out of the worship service so that parents can focus, and so that children can receive age appropriate instruction.  What the heck is age-appropriate instruction?  Isn’t learning how to sit still and actually listen to something someone is saying appropriate at any age?  As a parent, is there anything more important that I can do than to model the expectation that the family remains together for worship? 

I’m too young to be part of a senior’s church group.  I think I’m old enough to no longer be considered a ‘young adult (although a recent church I read about considered their youth & young adult programs to cover those from ages 12 to 35.  I’m sorry, but if you’re still a young adult at 35, and you become a senior at 50+, that doesn’t leave very many years as an adult, does it?!?!?!). 

Advertisers and marketers care how old I am.  They carefully predict my spending inclinations and patterns based on others my age.  In a culture obsessed with youth so much that they will extend it as long as possible, I’m sure that I’m viewed as entering a less desirable phase of life – from a marketing/advertising standpoint.  I’m hopefully less easily swayed by current trends or fads.  My impulse spending impulses have started to ebb (continued to, actually).  I’m targeted now for the big-ticket purchases that happen less often – cars, homes, life-insurance.  But at some point, I’ll quit being targeted for those, as I move out of my optimal earning years and into the senior years.

So you can wish me a happy birthday if you like – and thanks for the thought.  But leave it at that.  No need to fuss or muss.  And no need to figure out what I must be like now that I’m 38.  Ask me.  I’ll let you know.  We can talk about it over coffee.  Just don’t play any rap music too loudly on your iPod. 

Secular Sunday School

March 30, 2007

The current issue of Time magazine has an article discussing the pros and cons of teaching the Bible in public schools.  Of course, the Bible would be carefully taught from a purely secular view – as a massively influential tome that anyone in the West should be at least vaguely familiar with if they want to be considered culturally aware.

Teaching, as I do, for a secular university, I can vouch for the fact that Biblical illiteracy is rampant.  I teach a course on science fiction literature, and Biblical themes and emphases always sail clear over the vast majority of my students’ heads.  It seems only reasonable that the best selling book of all time should be considered worthy of study – however carefully. 

I for one have to support this idea of secular Biblical study.  The problem that I see centers on who you get to teach it.  In the hands of an ardent anti-Biblicist, the class could quickly devolve into a bashing seminar that would be counter-productive to stated goals.  In the hands of an overly-enthusiastic Christian, the course would simply by a lightning rod for controversy and law suits.  Do you get a history teacher?  A literature teacher?  A Social Studies teacher?  How could you adequately cover the book in the myriad ways in which it influences popular culture unless you had someone who was well versed in many of these areas teach it? 

The West was Christian.  Regardless of who wants to complain about it or undo it or champion the Wiccan underground, the fact is that the West was built on Christianity in one form or another.  To pretend otherwise is criminal revisionism.  Give the Bible its due and put it back in the classroom.  It has certainly earned a coveted place as the most influential book in Western history.

Consumer Christmas…not.

March 21, 2007

My wife and I try to be very intentional about not falling into the consumer traps that litter our culture.  Attempting to raise three children in an age of nearly unrestrained indulgence is not necessarily easy, but it seems an absolute necessity if we hope to begin making differences in the future.

One of the big decisions we’ve made in regards to this is Christmas.  We’ve vowed not to shower our children with dozens of gifts.  Not because we don’t love them.  We do love them ginormously.  Not because we can’t afford them.  Well, actually, we *can’t*, and perhaps never will be able to.  But, if it was important enough, we’d figure out a way to do it. 

To help ourselves, we’ve established a Christmas gift-buying tradition.  Each child will receive three gifts on Christmas.  One will be something that they need.  We’re going to strive to make this something a bit more interesting than underwear, but we’re not making any promises, either.  I know I grew up knowing that part of Christmas morning would be opening socks and underwear and other clothing that kept me somewhat socially presentable.  Of course I wasn’t thrilled about it, but at least I knew to expect it.  I’d hate to deprive our children of that kind of disappointment.

One gift will be something that they can use every day.  It needs to be a little more ‘fun’ or ‘useful’ oriented than clothing.  Maybe something that helps them develop or discover a hobby.  Maybe something that helps them develop athletically.  But something that won’t be played with for a week, broken, and then left in a toy box until we go through our annual pre-Christmas toy purging eleven months later.

The final gift is to be something they want.  Something they really want.  That’s more difficult now since they’re young and don’t watch television.  This makes life really nice for my wife and I, since we don’t have to deal with the incessant requests of gifts for Christmas and birthday.  We can actually surprise them with something, instead of have them be disappointed that they only got one instead of both of the Mutant Turtle action figures they wanted.  (is it true that the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles are making a comeback?  Can anyone explain to me why?)

We feel like this gives us a handle on being able to celebrate a holiday or event for the sake of the event or holiday, and not just for the sake of the loot they look forward to.  Hopefully it can help us emphasize the importance of occasions and being with people for the sake of being with them, instead of just for what they might bring us.  Of course these are somewhat complex and mature concepts.  Our toddler isn’t going to understand them consciously yet.  But every day patterns are laid and reinforced.  Hopefully if we start early enough, by the time they are old enough, they’ll understand.  Maybe someday, they’ll even appreciate it.  But that’s really a secondary issue, after all.

Squash in the ‘burbs

March 16, 2007

An article in the current issue of Time Magazine debated the relative pros and cons of organic produce vs. locally grown produce.  There appeared to be no easy resolution to the debate.  Do you prefer the possibility of pesticides in order to support local farmers and eat fresher food, or do you prefer the appeal of chemical-free produce that has travelled thousands of miles and been harvested *way* too early in order to make it to your market?

I used to live in the ‘burbs, and now I live in the city.  I’m no farmer by any stretch of the imagination.  But I like the idea of growing at least herbs and some veggies in a window box or a patch of dirt in the back yard.  But that’s small potatos (pardon the pun) when trying to address the issue of eating fresher and healthier, organically grown food.  I want to support local farmers.  I want to start removing some of the layers between myself and my food.  Layers that insulate me from the harsh facts of life.  Layers that make it much easier for me to not think about what my consumption costs the environment, whether in terms of production or disposal.  

I got to thinking that it would make a lot of sense to market a subdivision or neighborhood where everyone agreed to grow food together.  Some people do this in neighborhood gardens already.  But I was thinking more along the lines of individual homeowners committing to grow specific things on their property.  These could in turn be exchanged with neighbors who were growing different items.  Anyone who had produce to contribute could freely exchange.  If there was excess available, it could be sold.  

So I might decide to plant an orange tree and a lemon tree in my backyard (actually, when I lived in Phoenix I had an orange tree and a peach tree).  When these ripened, I could offer to swap my excess to neighbors who might be growing corn or strawberries or squash.  On a neighborhood scale, the variety of produce available could be impressive.  With a large enough scale so that more than one household was growing one type of produce, there would be plenty to share with neighbors.  Participants would covenant to grow organically (fertilizer, weed/pest control, the works).  

I’ll bet some clever marketer/real estate mogul out there could get a real competitive advantage by working this into their next planned community.  And I’m sure that a lot of neighborhoods in the ‘burbs or the city might like the benefits this could provide in terms of drawing people closer together and building more relationships within the community.  Maybe a church could even organize this sort of thing in the neighborhoods surrounding them.   

Giving back…

March 14, 2007

Giving back…

Over the past three years, my wife and I have learned a lot about how to receive.  This has been more difficult than it might sound.

Americans have a curious dichotomy.  On the one hand, we hope to receive all sorts of good things, and there are plenty of evangelists out there converting God into a massive sugar-daddy.  Many of us are raised with this curious sense of entitlement that we can’t really explain and certainly can’t defend with our rationalist, evolutionary-based explanations for how we got here. 

And yet there are still vestiges of an older American dream, that of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, making something out of yourself, going from rags to riches and actually earning the right to enjoy life.  This is still an undercurrent in our lives, a hearkening back to the dreams and hopes both inspired and misguided of the various refugees, zealots, and hooligans that began carving a country out of a continent.

So learning to receive has been wonderful and difficult.  We’ve been accustomed to giving.  We love the art of hospitality.  We love to share with others whatever we have, whether much or little.  But what we have has been whittled down quite steadily in purely monetary terms since just before we got married.

Thanks to the bust, I took nearly a 50% pay cut to begin teaching at a small, private technology college.  My wife clearly did *not* marry me for my riches (or good looks, but that’s another matter…).  Then, to come to seminary, I went from full-time to contract teaching, essentially taking another 50% salary cut while my wife quit her job to stay at home with our (now) three kids. 

All while shelling out money every year to complete grad school in preparation for a life of non-traditional ministry that very likely will *not* come with a benefits package or a guaranteed salary.  You’d think with this much education I’d be smart enough to have a better financial future ahead of me!

But, God is good.  Of course.  And He’s brought people into our lives that have showered us with love, prayers, and financial assistance.  Wanting to be good stewards, we decided we needed a way to tithe on that aid.  I tithe on my contract salary to our home church, but we decided to do something different for our gift tithes. 

We signed up to sponsor a family through World Vision.  For $40 a month, we sponsor a family – an older woman who is looking after a 14-year old girl – in Ghana.  We’re happy to be making a real difference with our meager tithe, instead of just contributing towards paying the electric bill somewhere.  We’ve already talked with the rest of my wife’s family about doing some larger form of sponsorship as well, in lieu of the American habit of overspending on unnecessary gifts for children’s birthdays and Christmas. 

I think more people would understand and agree with tithing if they could tangibly see how their money was being utilized.  Just another reason why I think our current model of ‘church’ is in need of some major overhaul…