Archive for August, 2011

Upping the Ante

August 31, 2011

I gotta admit this is clever, though I agree with the author’s musings about how effective this is as a whole.  There’s an app that you can set up to donate automatically to a charity (or an anti-charity – a group that supports or funds something you detest) every time you hit the snooze function on your iPhone.  

As a non-morning person who has struggled to varying degrees with snooze buttons all my life, this certainly seems like a way for charities to benefit from my early morning indolence.  However ultimately this seems more a personal motivator than a motivator to helping others, and that’s disappointing.  There are lots of options for helping someone wake up who doesn’t want to.  There are probably fewer ways of stirring someone to donate to a worthy cause.  
Would this work for you?  Would you set it up to donate to a charity (thereby increasing the odds of hitting snooze again, knowing that now, it’s for a worthy cause!), or for an anti-charity (someone you despise, thus the idea of giving money to would be atrocious, thereby getting your butt out of bed faster)?  
All of which misses the first issue – you have to spend money on an iPhone for this to even be an option.
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Culture Shock

August 30, 2011

Saturday evening was warm and clear when I arrived on the college campus.  Arriving right on time for set up, there were only two tables left open – both facing directly into the blinding evening sunlight.  How long would it be before the sun dropped below the tops of the tall trees that ringed the small, grassy commons?  However long, it was going to be blinding and toasty until then.

I spent close to 20 years in a campus ministry setting.  Yes, it took me nearly that long to graduate, wise-acre.  Some of us are late bloomers.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.  
That campus ministry sat on the edge of a major university with 40,000 students on site (those were the figures when I started college there.  Now the student population is over 50,000).  I soon moved into a part-time campus liaison position for the congregation.  Each fall there was a major information fair for incoming students.  All of the official campus organizations as well as many other local businesses sat in a maze of tables as students filed through and picked up information as they saw fit.
We never got much interest from participating in that event, and I quickly dismissed it as rather pointless and quit doing it.  But this past Saturday, I revisited that environment at a much smaller liberal arts college nestled in the foothills above town.  I had debated even going, but I had received an e-mail from an incoming freshman’s parents several weeks ago, and we had arranged that we would make contact at this event and arrange for transportation for her to worship with us.  
I arrived with a handful of flyers that I had put together earlier in the afternoon, a small pile of business cards, and a sign-up sheet in case students wanted to be contacted with more information.  I was about the lowest-tech church represented at this gathering.  Perhaps 20 or so local congregations were out to meet, greet, and schmooze the incoming students.  Some tables had cooler full of iced-sodas.  Home made cupcakes.  Freshly popped popcorn.  One church was handing out sunglasses with their logo on them.  Another had frisbees with their church name on them.  Another table had a raffle going.  Most of the tables had young people there.  Engaging, attractive, quirky.  
Almost all of them had at least a table-banner for their church.  Many had whiteboards, standards, and display boards touting all of their activities and benefits.  It was definitely a surreal environment.  I was reminded of how strange it is for a stranger to walk up to you and ask you to describe your church.  In our denominational circles, most folks either know about us somehow already, or are lost.  We aren’t generally in the habit of trying to convince someone that they should come to one of our churches instead of another one because we have better tasting coffee or a better band.  
It was extremely surreal.  I made contact with the student and arranged to give her a ride the next morning.  I left shortly after, just over halfway through the 2-hour event.  I walked away wondering what had just happened there, and what I thought of it all.
It struck me that this is an interesting commentary on youth ministry, perhaps.  Is it a matter of bells and whistles, who has the best retreats, who has the flashiest materials, who has the food?  Is this what high school youth are being raised with in their churches?  Is this what a church is all about to these kids?  I’m sure not uniformly.  But if these young people were selecting churches based on who had the coolest bling to hand out, or where their friends seemed to really want them to attend, I suppose part of me isn’t too shocked at the appalling statistics about how many young Christians leave the faith during their college years.   
Only a few students stopped by my table.  Several were being polite – they had stopped at the table next to me and you could tell that they wanted to be nice and would pause and chit chat for a few seconds before moving on.  It was fascinating, struggling with what to say to someone who not only had no idea what a Lutheran church might be about (not necessarily surprising!), but who also seemed to be relatively open to the idea of any Christian congregation, as though teachings about the doctrines of the Christian faith didn’t exist, or didn’t matter.  
Nobody asked me if we were Trinitarian.  Nobody asked me what our stance on Baptism or Holy Communion was, or whether we subscribed to the ecumenical creeds.  It seemed to be based a lot on personality.  A lot on where the crowds were gathered and where the cool stuff was to be had.  
I don’t suspect that all of the swag handed out translated into new members or attenders for those congregations.  I suspect that as the new students get to know one another, they’ll gravitate in clumps to congregations where a majority of their peers are going, or to one of the numerous non-denominational congregations.  And I pray that wherever they end up going, they’ll be taught that it isn’t the fluff that matters.  It isn’t the flash and the glitz and the bling.  I hope they demand something deeper, and I pray they receive it.  They’re going to need it.

Starbucks Follow Up

August 30, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about an initiative from the CEO of Starbucks, calling on other CEOs to cease all political donations until a bi-partisan solution for the economy is worked out.  As an update, at this point there are over 100 other CEOs who have pledged to do this.  Not a lot, but some of them are CEOs of major companies.  

There is a website associated with this pledge – http://www.upwardspiral2011.org/.  Still makes sense to me.

The Next Big Thing?

August 27, 2011

I don’t care for hype and hyperbole by and large.  In a culture where media constantly shouts at us in capital letters and exclamation points all day long, people are desensitized to a certain extent to anyone who makes too big a deal about something, and skeptical as well.  Another pitch.  Another angle.  Someone else trying to make a buck or get me to do what they want me to do.

The question should be asked how do you get people’s attention in an environment where they are so used to being constantly shouted out that they tune out most everything and everyone?  It’s a fascinating – and frightening question.
I came across the site www.parentalrightsus.org  a week or two ago.  On August 16 a brief article/blog entry was published there.  I tried linking directly to it but my hosting site doesn’t recognize the direct link as a valid address.  You should be able to search for the August 16 article though under the title “Whatever Schools Teach, Parents Have No Rights”.   The article deals with the issue that public schools are being given rights through the courts to teach whatever they deem appropriate, and parents are increasingly being denied the right to opt out.  Even traditional parental notifications of topics that have traditionally been deemed sensitive – particular issues of sexuality – is being eliminated.  
They’re putting together a DVD on this issue.  It looks like it’s going to be quite the drama-infused production.  As it should be – this is a massively important topic.  But I fear that the DVD and the concerns it represents will be dismissed by many as exaggeration before they take the time to listen to what it is talking about.
If you are more interested in less drama, you can read some court briefs that are quite sobering and eye-opening.  The concluding paragraph of this case, Fields v. Palmdale is instructive, as are bits throughout the whole brief.  If you’re really having trouble sleeping, Parker v. Hurley is more intricate and dryer reading.  
Some will argue that this is no big deal – the public schools were created to educate our youth and they should be permitted to do so.  The issue becomes whether or not the public schools are viewed as an extension of the parental right and duty of educating their children – an auxiliary of the child’s parents ultimately responsible for being responsive and respective of the rights of the parents, or whether a public school operates as it’s own entity outside of and beyond parental influence.  Does the public school system in broad strokes represent the will of the parents of the children that attend, or does the public school system represent another, less well-defined entity that seeks to teach and condition children outside of regard for parental rights?  And is the concept of parental rights illusory, as some would seem to be arguing?  An what does that mean, if they are illusory – unprotected explicitly by the Constitution?  
All of this is of course rather moot in a best case scenario, where schools and parents are working in harmony.  But it would seem far from moot if there is a disagreement between schools and parents about what their children should be taught, or how, or when.  
Yet another strong case for home schooling in my opinion.  But perhaps that’s just exaggeration on my part….

Ugh

August 25, 2011

I’ve been sick this week.  Not lazy.  At least at this point in time laziness has not been classified as an illness or treatable by medication, so that means that I’m still relatively healthy.  If sometimes lazy.  But not this week.  Truly.

And in further testimony to my non-laziness, yesterday with the assistance of my erstwhile partner-in-crime, the first four sessions (episodes?  fits?  spells?) of our upcoming radio show were recorded.  On, incidentally, the same day that power-washing was started on our building in anticipation of an exterior paint-job.  This necessitated copious amounts of furniture moving and electronics-equipment-assembling-and-dismantling-and-reassembling.
Further testimony to the fact that I am not lazy – this week.  But I am sick.
Recording eventually was conducted in our congregation’s cry room adjacent to our sanctuary.  A nice, small space for recording.  We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and assuming that we did things correctly, I take this to mean that we’ll be motivated to keep doing it for quite some time into the future.  We’ll continue to try and update the show’s blog for additional fun and frivolity.  Hopefully our show will debut in the next few weeks!
At which point I hope to be feeling much better.  Even if more prone to laziness.

Wi-Fier Education

August 20, 2011

A brief article on the changing nature of higher education as touted by a theoretical expert on the subject.  

Having worked in and around higher education for over 20 years, there’s much to be said for Clayton Christensen’s recommendation that universities need to look hard at their business model.  Of course, this should hardly be a shocked recommendation.  Having been in on the ground floor of online education for nearly 15 years, it was clear from the very beginning that the Internet (and the corollary necessity of increasing bandwidth capacity) was going to change higher education significantly.  The fact that a Harvard professor is just now arguing for this is rather humorous.
What this article doesn’t address, and hopefully Christensen’s book does – is that what he’s eyeing is more than just a renovation in how universities offer their coursework.  What this would seem to lead towards is a split in paths for different universities, depending on what their resources and emphases are.  
For schools that are heavily invested in sports programs, it makes sense that they continue to build on that draw.  Schools that are heavily invested in research and development will continue to draw students interested in those particular things.  And smaller schools that don’t have heavy investments in either of these directions might think long and hard about offering their courses more exclusively online.
The difficulty is that if a majority of schools offer their programs online, distinguishing between the various schools will get more difficult.  If prices become somewhat level, key distinctions will focus on the faculty, driving schools to invest more heavily in star faculty, while at the same time pushing those star faculty for greater interaction with the undergraduate student body.  That’s a significant shift away from the typical large university environment where tenured professors spend their time primarily on authoring, teaching a limited number of courses and many of those at the graduate level leaving undergraduate coursework to be handled to a large extent by graduate student teaching assistants.  Other problems evolve around large sports or research-based universities supporting their costly programs if enrollment begins to decline because of less expensive, better focused educational opportunities online.  
Another interesting aspect is the program touted towards the end of page one, from Western Governors University, that has “no full-time instructors,…no curriculum, no grades, no campus.”  The shift away from full-time faculty, curriculum, and grades is hardly a necessity of online education, and seem to denote more fundamental shifts in pedagogy than just online versus a traditional classroom.  I can argue from experience that eliminating grading and curriculum is *not* a valid or helpful solution in terms of better equipping students.  Greater levels of personal accountability and responsibility are what are more important – but those need to start in the home and in earlier school settings, not just when students reach university.
Education (higher or otherwise) is at an interesting series of junctures these days.  Studies are coming out saying that few high school graduates are able to handle collegiate-level coursework (something I can more than vouch for in my decade+ teaching in a university setting).  Colleges are raising tuition by stunning amounts, while at the same time cutting back on classes and services to try and deal with declining public funding.  Graduates are finding a job market so bleak that record numbers are moving back in with their parents.  
Online education may be a way of reducing costs to students, if it doesn’t further sacrifice the educational quality that has already been declining in many university settings dealing with poorly-prepared high school graduates.  But there are likely bigger questions to be thought through.  What is the advantage of a college degree in today’s employment market?  Are there ways other than a classical college education to prepare our young people not just for employment, but for life?  And what ought the role of families and churches and other institutions be in contributing towards the preparedness and well-roundedness of future graduates?  
Lots of questions these days.  

Hocus, Focus

August 19, 2011

A friend shared this article through Facebook that I thought was kind of interesting.  The author is the well-known magician Penn Jillette, of Penn & Teller fame.  I’ve been a half-hearted fan of these guys for at least 20 years or more since they were showing up on David Letterman’s show.  Quirky in a lot of ways, and some of those quirks can be confusing or misleading to others, which is why I wanted to examine this article.  

Penn’s basic argument in this article is that when confronted with something we can’t know, our only intellectually honest response must be to state as much, and any attempt at another answer is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.  I’m willing to grant him that conclusion, but I disagree with the premises that he sets out to defend his answer of I don’t know.  
The article is complicated somewhat by Penn’s desire to tie together his political ideology (libertarianism) with his theological position (atheism).  These are not necessarily complementary or necessary partners, but he wants to make them such in this article.  Perhaps that is based on the interview that he references in the article.  
It’s really half-way through the essay that he gets to the heart of the matter – the first half of the essay is set up to make us more accepting of the conclusion he wants to lead us towards.  But he doesn’t pull any punches when he gets to the crux of the matter.  Piers Morgan asks Penn how he got here, and Penn responds “I don’t know”, which Morgan takes issue with, as Penn recounts:
He said, “God”, an answer that meant Piers didn’t know either, but he had a word for it that was supposed to make me feel left out of his enlightened club.
Penn is putting in to play a whole raft of assertions in this first key statement.  He’s already prepared us for the idea that admitting that one doesn’t know the answer to a question is not a cop out, but can be an accurate assessment of one’s level of knowledge or understanding pertaining to the question’s answer.  Fair enough.  But what he begins doing here is implying that not only is his particular answer correct for him (which is debatable, but let’s grant it for now) when explaining his own existence, it is the only correct answer for anyone.  Anyone who purports to know the answer to the question is disqualified.  Penn is backing up his answer by implying that his answer must remain the only correct answer because no better answer can be given.
Three paragraphs later he states this assertion outright.  He can’t know, and neither can anyone else.  Except then he disqualifies this assertion by saying that we can know some things.  We have some “pieces of the puzzle”, and he asserts that we’ll get more.  In other words, we know some things that point us in the direction of an answer.  Until that answer is fully fleshed out and proven, though, until all the pieces are in place, he’s going to remain intellectually honest by claiming he doesn’t know.  But if he really thought that he didn’t know, and that knowing wasn’t possible, then he couldn’t rule out the theological response that Morgan gives.  He would have to accept it as every bit as possible as any other answer.
Penn doesn’t want to do this.  Pieces of a puzzle make a picture.  Just because you don’t have all the pieces doesn’t mean you have no idea what the picture is going to look like.  If you have red pieces, you know that the puzzle is going to have some red in it.  You can’t say that the finished puzzle will have absolutely no red in it.  Some knowledge is possible, and Penn is asserting that his understanding of the puzzle pieces eliminates Morgan’s assertions about what the finished puzzle could look like.  Penn does know – at least just enough to rule out Morgan’s knowledge.  
Penn goes on to talk about “evidence” but he doesn’t define what he means.  Given his tone, I’m going to infer that what he means is scientific, empirical evidence.  What the microscope can tell us counts as proof, but what we experience every day doesn’t count as proof, unless the microscope explains what we experience.  As I’ve argued before, this is an extremely narrow understanding of evidence and proof, but it’s a common one voiced by atheists.  
He continues to discredit his own inability to know.  He offers concrete examples of things he does to help the less fortunate, but then argues that not he nor anyone else really knows what should be done.  Then why is he doing something rather than nothing?  I imagine he’s doing something because he believes that to some degree, what he is doing is actually helping the poor.  It may not be eliminating poverty as a global challenge, but it makes a difference in some specific way to at least some specific person’s life for some specific period of time.  He knows what to do and does it – which is very commendable!  He professes to not understand how economics must work, yet he talks about knowing poverty and knowing that at the end of the day, you can’t spend more than you make.  He knows what needs to be done – but he doesn’t know how to do it (which is a very fair and common response).  What that often translates to is I know what we have to do but I don’t like what that requires of me or my government and therefore I will choose to continue to feign ignorance.  Penn certainly isn’t alone in preferring to appear ignorant rather than face difficult choices and decisions.  At varying levels, this is how all of us approach certain aspects of our lives.
By the end of the article Penn is willing to further contradict his earlier assertions.  It turns out that he is willing to believe something that he can’t prove.  He’s willing to believe that the majority doesn’t always know what’s best for everyone.  He does have faith and the ability to believe in something that isn’t necessarily empirically provable, to fill in the gaps, as it were.  And that’s encouraging, because if he already exhibits that sort of faith, then the type of faith that accepts that God created everything – including Penn – isn’t an impossibility for Penn.  
And for that I’m glad and I’ll pray that he continues to seek and to search, and that he’ll find in the process the God who created us all, and who has been doggedly searching out Penn.  I pray for a man who’s stock in trade is smoke and mirrors an encounter with a God who is no mere sleight of hand.  

Any Gluttons for Punishment?

August 18, 2011

I’ve started a new blog, http://thelistshowblog.blogspot.com/ which I hope will be co-authored by a colleague and friend in my neck of the woods, Rev. Bob Hiller from Faith Lutheran Church in Moorpark, California.  

The blog is intended to be corollary to a radio show that the two of us hope to be launching in September.  This will be a weekly, 30-minute radio show broadcast on thecrossroadsradio.com.  This is an Internet-based radio station that reaches hundreds of listeners around the world already.  One of our major goals in starting our show up is to not reduce that number by more than 15%.
  
Our particular contribution will be a show called “The List”.  Each week we’ll pontificate and gesticulate on the Top Three ___________________.  Topics will vary each show.  They’ll be theologically centered, and focused on educating and equipping Christians to live in a world that is less and less Christian.  
We pray that you’ll join us for this venture.  We hope to start recording our first batch of episodes before the end of August.  Some of you have already expressed an interest in a ‘live recording’ of some sort, and that may be an option down the road when we’re more comfortable with how we do this.  If you have ideas and suggestions for the show, I hope that you’ll share them with us.  And, on the off chance that this show is helpful and interesting to you, I hope that you’ll share the word with others you think might be interested. 
If the show isn’t helpful or interesting, hopefully you’ll just forget we ever had this little conversation!

Pieces of Me…

August 17, 2011

If there’s one thing that we need to remember about the Internet, it’s that we are constantly being invited to share of ourselves with friends and loved ones in a variety of ways.  Yes, we’re also being culled for marketing data, but that’s the trade-off we’ve accepted for instantaneous access to all of the piddly information we used to look up in other ways.

But very few people out on the Internet owe us much in the way of, well, anything.
So it was that this evening I logged into Facebook to update the list of books I’m currently reading, only to be met by a cutesy screen indicating that the application I’ve been using for five years or so to track my reading, write reviews, and generally waste time, has been discontinued.  They indicated that they understood how important my data was to me, and they had given me 30 days to save it.  But that 30 days was up last Friday.  
Never mind that I never received any sort of message or e-mail or FaceBook alert or anything else to tell me that this application was preparing to get yanked offline – along with all my data & reviews.  There’s nothing to be done now.  Nobody to appeal to.  It’s just – gone.
Frustrating, but a good reminder that this is the nature of the reality we construct on the Internet, or the reality that is constructed for us.  None of it is very real, or very permanent.  Surf accordingly.

Book Review: The Sunday Lectionary

August 16, 2011

Book Review:  The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape by Normand Bonneau

I grew up in LCMS congregations, and most every Sunday I
would listen and read along as the pastor or a lector read one or more selected
verses from the Bible.  In time, I
learned that oftentimes these readings were pre-selected, and not by the pastor
or lector.  Rather, they were part of a
larger cycle of Scripture readings selected especially for use in Sunday
morning worship.  This collection of
pre-selected readings is known as the lectionary. 

I felt like I was pretty smart, knowing that much about the
readings that were being shared on Sunday morning.  And I felt pretty cocky knowing that the
readings were related to the liturgical season, so that the particular readings
on any given Sunday morning related to the larger progression of the church year,
the particular liturgical season we happened to be in (Advent, Lent, etc.), and
to greater or lesser degrees, to the other readings that particular morning.  I always thought it was pretty cool, knowing
that as I heard or read these verses, there were hundreds of other
congregations and thousands of other Christians who were hearing the exact same
verses being read.  It was meaningful to
me and a tangible expression of my place, and my congregation’s place, in the
larger body of Christ.

That’s a lot of thought that has gone into the selection of
Scripture verses, and if you’re interested in some additional background on
that process, then Normand Bonneau’s book is a great place to start.  This is a brief (under 200 pages) and
accessible history of the practice of integrating Scripture into public
worship.  He begins (briefly) with the
use of Scripture in Judaism before Christianity, spends a little more time on
the use of Scripture from the early church to the Council of Trent in 1570, and
then spends a majority of time fleshing out the contributions of Vatican II and
the creation of a redesigned three-year lectionary cycle that has formed the
basis for the three-year lectionary used in many congregations in the
LCMS. 

Bonneau is a Catholic academic and this book is limited to
the Catholic contributions to the lectionary. 
However, this is foundational information that is useful and valuable in
better understanding the various permutations that have evolved, all based primarily
on the Catholic Ordo Lectionum Missae,
including the Revised Common Lectionary that is the basis of Scripture
selection for the LCMS. 

If you’re ever called upon to preach or direct studies based
on the Sunday reading selections and your congregation utilizes the three-year
lectionary cycle, this is a fantastic resource. 
If you’ve ever wanted to better understand some of the guiding
principles for how those particular verses are selected, this is a great
resource.  If you’re part of a worship
team charged with integrating the musical and visual and Scriptural elements of
the service into a cohesive whole, this is a great resource.  And this could be a great resource for a
youth or young adult study aimed at helping them understand that worship is not
accidental or incidental, but a carefully thought out experience whereby we
receive the blessings of our loving Father. 
Some of the basic information in this book could be abbreviated and
conveyed during Confirmation and examinations of the elements of the Divine
Service.

Worship is a contentious arena in Lutheran circles as we
argue about what we can and can’t, should or shouldn’t do.  Yet one of the constants of worship is the
Word of God.  Understanding better how
that Word is selected and utilized hopefully gives us a greater appreciation
for worship in all of its many styles and permutations.  Hopefully this book helps demonstrate how the
universal church seeks to bear witness –albeit imperfectly – to this
universality in the selection of Scriptural passages in the worship
context.