Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Fear of Self and Others

September 18, 2020

Here’s an article that starts off interesting and wanders basically into a defense of wearing face masks during COVID-19. The initial part of the article is interesting, documenting scientific evidence of what common sense and cultural shifts should make clear to most anybody – human beings are communal creatures and as our contact with others (known or unknown) decreases, our well-being decreases.

Obviously COVID-19 has been a huge source of social isolation. Physical distancing might be helpful in reducing the transmission of the Coronavirus, but it’s definitely harmful in fostering a climate of fear, where anyone who gets to close or – God forbid! – sneezes or brushes against us leaves us feeling violated and endangered. The self-righteous pride some people take in shaming others they think are too close is chilling.

Masks also lead to isolation. Difficulty in reading facial expressions complicates even mundane and traditional interactions. Add to that the added difficulty of being heard and hearing others clearly through masks and another barrier to interaction arises. And for many places who rely not only on masks for both sides of the transaction but also those thin sheets of plastic between everyone? It’s barely possible to communicate a food order or a service request, let alone engage in a conversation.

Those most at risk of complications from COVID-19 are further isolated as assisted living facilities and senior care facilities exclude any access between residents and family members.

And even family members treat one another with distrust and fear these days, demanding COVID testing and other measures just to allow for a family visit. Certainly this is a time of extreme and unhealthy isolation. I won’t bother here whether or not such measures are necessary or useful for reducing transmission of the Coronavirus to some people – let’s assume they are. But let’s also admit and acknowledge they are most definitely detrimental to the psychological and emotional well-being of literally everyone.

But this is only the latest stage in an increasing isolation mentality in American culture. Studies long before COVID-19 indicated Americans were lonelier and reported feeling more isolated, despite a plethora a technological apps and programs that should enable us to be better and more frequently connected with all manner of family and friends. As our ability to connect with others has risen, there has been a corresponding decrease in the desire to do so.

The idea of stranger danger that arose in the 80’s has dominated our social awareness and perception of one another. As reporting news from distant locations became easier and cheaper, we perceived a rise in the number of child abductions. The fact that we were hearing about more of them in more locations contributed to this perception, even though statistical data eventually demonstrated there was no increase in the number of abductions (or rather child abductions were decreasing as a whole). Further data also demonstrated that contrary to the stranger danger mantra, which taught (and teaches still) children to be fearful and wary of anyone they don’t know, the vast majority of child abductions were not perpetrated by perverted ice cream truck drivers or other malevolent strangers but rather by trusted family members and friends of family – people the abducted child already knew.

But despite the data, the perception of strangers as a danger persists. We distrust others. We worry excessively about our children in a dangerous world where biking the street or walking to the store are now seen as worrisome activities. My generation wasn’t parented that way, and yet I suffer with a certain degree of anxiety about my children’s safety, despite knowing they need age-appropriate independence to stretch their wings and prepare them for lives as healthy adults.

This also causes ourselves to see ourselves through fearful eyes. We hesitate to reach out to strangers, fearful we will be perceived as a potential threat or danger, because that’s how we would view others – at least momentarily. The fear of being perceived or even called out as inappropriate or pervy or disconcerting pushes us back into our shells, keeps us a safe distance (whatever that means) from others and from life-changing interactions with people – just because we haven’t met them yet.

This is not accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, watching of The Twilight Zone series (or probably any mid-century television series) provides amazing glimpse of an American culture where the stranger was welcomed and indulged to an extent I find incredulous – even when that stranger exhibited odd behavior. No, our fear of others and our fear of ourselves in turn has been cultivated. And while the original intentions might have been good, there is considerably greater harm being done now than mere isolationism.

That fear of the other and the unknown is now be exploited for political ends. We are pitted us against them. We’re no longer Americans but rather ideological marionettes expected to leap and dance in anger and indignation at whatever strings are next tugged. We are expected to view anyone who doesn’t hold with our party not as another thoughtful citizen who might have some good reasons for their perspective, but as a threat and a danger to our way of life or to the well-being of a vague set of marginalized persons. And while good argument can be made we have always tended to do this in American politics (hence our two-party system, despite explicit warnings against such an arrangement by some of our Founding Fathers), the situation has reached a new level of vitriol because of our social isolation from one another and our inability and unwillingness to engage with someone we don’t know and who might disagree with us. Social media has only reinforced this echo chamber effect, further discouraging us from interacting not only with strangers, but with people we know, simply because they don’t agree with us.

We’re designed as social creatures, not simply evolved that way out of some sort of obscure, genetically-driven guide towards greater personal success. To deny both our need for connection to one another as well as our need for connection to the divine is to damage ourselves and by extension those around us. Extreme measures may be necessary for a time to protect against health emergencies and other threats, but the there’s a deeper level of isolation and estrangement that has been at work a lot longer than 2020. Rethinking our relation to the stranger is a good place to start in backtracking to a point that we can talk to not just strangers but people we know full well don’t agree with our parenting styles or our political choices or our belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power.

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

Thanks to Chuck for sharing an article with me about a missionary pastor in the United Kingdom facing calls for his deportation and the burning down of his church because he expressed views on Facebook offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of which is pretty predictable these days, but once again raises the purpose of social media for Christians. Social media has become ubiquitous and touted as a place of self-expression. However self-expression is routinely being attacked when it doesn’t conform to minority opinions about sexuality and gender issues, not to mention politics in general.

I deleted my Facebook account about a year ago and I haven’t missed it for a single moment. Not one. The concept that was so attractive 13 years ago – being able to stay in touch with people in your life you might otherwise lose touch with – is not the reality. It’s now a place to scream your views and heap abuse on those who disagree with you – even if those people by some miracle are still friends with you on Facebook, surviving the common calls several years ago to purge ourselves of anyone who disagrees with us. I observed a few strange things, to say the least.

Colleagues who are pastors and literally make their Facebook identity their professional one puzzle me. Don’t you have any people in your life you relate to as other than a pastor? Does every single one of your family & friends have your vocation as pastor as the primary means of interacting with you? It seemed odd to me, at the very least. I know a lot of people through a lot of different venues, and my vocation as pastor only comes into play in a certain number of them. As such I tried to keep that in mind on the rare occasions I would post anything. I wanted to be aware of and considerate of not just what I said but how I said it.

I found (and continue to find it odd when I hear about it through my wife or other people) that someone who emphasizes their vocation as a pastor on social media feels as though advocating for a particular political party or platform is appropriate on social media. Again, are the only people they’re friends with on Facebook people who share their opinions on everything? If so, why the need to say something in the first place? And if not, why say something that could be deeply hurtful to people who love you but disagree with you?

Particularly for clergy I find this an egregious misuse of social media. It is a blurring of the line between being who we are and being honest and authentic, and the divine directive to operate with love in all things and to be very cautious of what we say or do – even if we’re right – that might hurt or cause another person to wander away from or further away from God. And when those social media comments call into question the very faith of someone who disagrees with a social or economic or political policy? Good grief people – what are you thinking!?

Some might argue that we have to raise our voices in social media as well as everywhere else, that otherwise Biblical Christian faith gets overwhelmed and drowned out by the discordant clamorings of any number of other ideas and ideologies. It would be good to remember that as near as we can tell the Christian faith did not grow and spread by screaming and shouting at random passersby, but in small acts of love and interpersonal giving and even sacrifice. Tragically the Church is more accustomed these days to thinking in terms of market share rather than trusting the power of God the Holy Spirit to work through the least of his sheep towards not just the transformation of culture but the salvation of souls.

Jesus directs his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. I tend to suspect that if we are to place the emphasis in the proper place, it should be on the latter rather than the former. There is no shortage of serpents in this world – wise or otherwise. But there can never be enough doves.

I’d urge Christians to reconsider social media in general. What does it accomplish? How do you feel when you’re scrolling through your feed? What sort of emotions and responses does it stir inside of you? Is your social media experience true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Or are you more often stirred to irritation or anger or offense or lust or sorrow or shame? I won’t advocate for dumping social media, but I do advocate for proper, appropriate, and critical/thoughtful use of it. Simply the fact that you’ve been using it for a long time or everyone else is using it hardly justifies something that may be personally harmful to you.

Yes, anti-Christian rhetoric is on the rise in social media and elsewhere. Yes, it is horrible that people threatening bodily harm, economic injury, and destruction of property are sanctioned and not seen as a threat whereas someone simply stating a contradictory belief is viewed as a dangerous threat to be eradicated. Yes it is unfair. Yes it is wrong. But simply mirroring those tactics and that rhetoric is not only not going to be ineffective, it’s outright disobedient to how we are called by God to deal with a very dangerously sinful world. Not just a sinful world around us but a sinful world within us. Giving reign to that internal sinfulness is just as dangerous or perhaps more so than the dangerous sin around us. We are called first and foremost to be obedient to what God has called us to, regardless of whether this accomplishes the other social or political or cultural ends we would like it to.

Speak the truth but speak it in love. I’m increasingly skeptical of whether that’s possible through a megaphone or social media.

Good, Old Fashioned Fun

August 31, 2020

Our age of cynicism and snark has rendered the concept of innocent fun almost painfully out of date. When we’re constantly suspicious of everything and everyone, when we’ve learned that technology is better at deceiving us than enlightening us, and when the media seems to compete at informing us of the failings of anyone of any note, how do you relax and just be silly and have fun? How do you appreciate cleanness in a culture that assumes any real enjoyment has to be at least moderately dirty?

I remember my shock and disappointment the first time I ever went to a comedy club. Before the Internet age where everyone can know what’s happening anywhere, comedy clubs held a kind of special mystery for me. What a fantastic concept – a place dedicated to making people laugh? That was before I learned firsthand about overpriced drink minimums and the apparent understanding that profanity equaled creativity or comedy. I’ve never been back since.

But the reality is that our culture and the ever-connectedness of the Internet affects most people to some degree. We can’t avoid it. It’s literally the definition of culture, something we’re immersed in and have a hard time separating ourselves from it because we’re conditioned by it. A good measure of this is to watch things from a long time ago – and your age will determine what that length of time means specifically to you, but I’d suggest at least 35 years ago, as a good starter. If you have kids, then sharing with them things you enjoyed as a younger person is a particularly effective – and often painful! – exploration of changes in culture.

So it is I’ve introduced my kids (and wife, really) to an some old friends from my younger years – Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan. Together they have a most Excellent Adventure, only to subsequently endure a most Bogus Journey. But, now it’s finally time for them to Face the Music.

These are unlikely characters for me to have a fondness for. They’re nothing like me now nor were they anything like me back in the day. Although I fancied myself for a brief period of time a laid-back sorta California guy, it was less than a half-hearted persona. And I could never very convincingly pull off the energetic, good-hearted idiocy these guys are endowed with.

But I realize in retrospect how amazingly clean these movies are compared to much of comedy today that relies on technology or sarcasm or profanity and explicitness to grab the audience. My family has watched the first two films with me. I only really remembered the first one as I found the sequel to pale in comparison. And it does still. But it maintains much of the fresh-scrubbed earnestness of the original. It also utilizes some slightly rougher language than the first one, but nothing compared to what you find today in even PG-13 films.

Equally impressive is the commitment the actors have to their characters and the concepts as a whole some 30+ years later. As the third installment of the series opens in theaters, I’ve appreciated the way the actors protect and cherish the two good-hearted but dim-witted characters they played as much younger guys.

For instance Keanu Reeves – who I would never have guessed would be the one to go on to superstardom – has recently clarified the two characters are not stoners. They aren’t slow-witted because of drugs. They aren’t the sharpest knives in the block but they know who they are, they are committed to their friendship, and they are committed to their dream of achieving fame through their rock group, Wyld Stallyns.

Two good friends who want to make music together. Their naivete is painful at times. They’re misunderstood by those around them who are more worldly-wise (Ted’s dad, most notably) and who assume their simple natures will end in failure. But if you’re happy with who you are and you have a good friend and you enjoy being together, can your life really be called a failure, even if you aren’t rich?

I haven’t seen the latest installment but I look forward to it, in no small part because it’s rather a miracle this film has been made and neither of the lead actors really needed to do it, so hopefully early reviews are accurate and they’ve held out for a story that stays true to the characters and the style already established. But at the very least, it’s been nice to reminisce a little bit about a time when you didn’t need to be rude or drunk or stoned or naked in order to have fun. I trust that’s still true today for many, many people. I just wish we had more movies about them.

Copaganda and History

August 28, 2020

In light of yesterday’s post and the issues swirling in our country at the moment around police, this article detailing copaganda in the United States was very interesting. For those unaware (like myself, about an hour ago), copaganda is a term used to describe a perceived whitewashing of police and their work in our communities. It is a derogatory term, presuming that bucolic and benign depictions of police through programs such as Officer Friendly are patently false, deliberate efforts to brainwash the population (children in particular) into trusting police officers who, in reality, are an implied danger and threat to the population.

Copaganda of course belies a particular point of view. Whether it’s a full on distrust or disavowal of any form of authority or something more particular to the police force is a matter of degree. The underlying assumption is that the police are not there to benefit the population but rather to control and, by extension, fleece it in some way, although the article above doesn’t make clear at all what such whitewashing efforts actually accomplish and how they are dishonest. The fact that sometimes police officers do their jobs poorly – either because they are sinful humans who are prone to error or because they are sinful humans who sometimes deliberately do bad things – is taken as evidence that any positive understanding of police officers in general is false.

While I can’t remember any specific Officer Friendly presentations in school I no doubt had them. The name Officer Friendly is familiar even if the specifics of who might have talked to us and when are lost in the haze of aging memory.

What this and other articles fail to take into account is the rising level of violence in our society over the last century and particularly over the last 60-some years. I can understand why police officers and other law enforcement officials are a bit more reserved and cautious these days, especially in certain areas of town. They face threats that were likely impossible to even conceive of 60 years ago. While perhaps law enforcement has always been described as a field of service where you put your life on the line, it would appear in our country that has only grown more and more true over the passing decades.

But I’ll point out that depictions of police officers as friendly and well-intentioned is not simply a public relations move from the 60’s to 80’s, but rather how our culture as a whole viewed the police and, I would argue, everyone.

I’m philosophically opposed to the practice of binge-watching that seems all the rage these days. But the one series I am working my way through systematically (though slowly) is the original The Twilight Zone series. As a kid I loved when I could find this on Saturday afternoon reruns, and my fondness for the slightly tilted surreal reality hasn’t faded with time or with subsequent, disappointing efforts to revive the series. Combined with this is my sheer amazement at the output of Rod Serling and others associated with the show. Truly impressive from a creative standpoint!

The show is also a fascinating time capsule. It captures the sort of Everyman nuances from mid-century America, nuances that ideas like copaganda directly contradict and claim were false. What I see in those shows is a culture vastly different from today. It doesn’t shirk from portraying bad people, but it’s well-understood that they are bad and wrong and also atypical. The underlying assumption is that most people are honest and well-intentioned, trying to get through life. The trouble-makers and problems invariably end up being those who see themselves as somehow above such mundane matters, as exceptions to the rule, as smarter or better than everyone else. Their assumptions are invariably proven to be wrong, and not just wrong but dangerously wrong. Usually for themselves but also sometimes for many other people or all other people. If there’s a myth that needs dispelling, it might well be the myths of copaganda and exceptionalism that is so prevalent today rather than the boring assumptions of averageness 60 years ago.

In shows like The Twilight Zone, or Andy Griffith or any number of other successful mid-century shows, police are invariably depicted as basically good. Not perfect. Sometimes bumbling. Sometimes bad but in that case it’s clear the badness is their personal issue rather than a systemic problem with police as a concept. These might be futuristic, interstellar police such as in the first season episode The Lonely. They might be more ‘typical’ figures such as in the episode The Night of the Meek, where the policeman functions both as an Everyman kind of figure, a person just like you and I rather than a dark and sinister agent of nefarious groups and ideologies, but also as a protector, as the one charged with being objective when having to determine the truth in a given situation. We’re reminded that left to our own devices we are very capable of misreading others and accusing them of false things based on our preconceptions, and the local police officer who knows his beat and the people on it can serve as a protection for the marginalized. This is a theme also prevalent in Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?

It’s not that the series ignores the dangers of abused authority, as in The Obsolete Man. But perhaps closer to the horrors of Hitler and Mussolini, there’s an awareness of a profound difference between human frailty and flawed judgment in a moment of crisis, and a deliberate misuse of power to systematically oppress people. The series as a whole is far more prone to prowl and probe the dark corners of our souls and hearts as common citizens rather than to seek to pin blame on an external person or authority. After all, the abuses (perceived or otherwise) of a group in power are only possible because of the sinfulness and brokenness (as well as the ignorance) in our individual hearts and minds.

Just as telling in these shows is the relatively rare presence of police and other officials. People more often than not have to figure things out for themselves rather than rely on the opinions of anonymous experts or authority figures, whether that involves an interdimensional rescue or a group of neighbors coming to grips with imminent atomic holocaust. If the implication of copaganda is that we are victims of a police state, there’s very little presence of police in these shows. That overall absence also belies the fundamental assumptions that people are essentially trying to be decent and can often, if imperfectly, deal with situations on their own.

It will no doubt be claimed that shows such as The Twilight Zone represent only one slice of human experience, and that however accurate they might be in that one slice they don’t cover every possible experience. That’s true. As it’s true of everything, including copaganda. The fact that some people have negative experiences with the police does not in and of itself prove that all police or the concept of a police force is evil and wrong. Recent events in Seattle where the police were forced out in favor of a presumably better and more benevolent self-rule are good reminders this is true, and that without the restraint provided by an authority presence, we quickly revert, Lord of the Flies style, to a basic system of rule by force and the abuse of the weak and marginalized (even if that category now becomes made up of those who were formerly not marginalized).

It might also be argued that shows like these are less depictions of what is and more wishful thinking about what could or should be, or even of what once was. But I’d argue the depiction of law enforcement in such shows is not attempting to be exceptional or in any way mythic or imaginative. What makes the shows work is that police officers – whether supporting characters or the main character – are believable. The law enforcement characters are not the fantastical ones, and that even if Andy Griffith is a bit stylized, it’s not a character beyond the realm of reality for the viewers. He doesn’t completely contradict reality and experience, even if his even-keeled temperament never gets ruffled in the course of a typical 20-minute episode.

We’re sinful and broken. For some that sinfulness and brokenness is going to be more severe and pose a greater risk to others. In an industrialized and urban society (another factor copaganda doesn’t deal with) where most often neighbors don’t know each other very well and extended family bonds are often non-existent we apparently require a group of people to help maintain order and provide assistance in emergencies. Recent events have shown that though police officers are not perfect (as nobody is!) their presence is far better, ultimately, than an absence of their presence.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. This doesn’t mean there isn’t reason to question certain aspects of law enforcement. And it certainly doesn’t mean than when bad apples are discovered we don’t deal with them. It just means that the presence of bad apples doesn’t necessarily prove a theory of an entire system and everyone in it being corrupt and a threat to the people they claim to serve. And if some police officers have to deal with inner city violence and drug and human trafficking, it doesn’t mean that some others have far more docile beats where they are indeed able to assist in visiting schools and being a proactive positive influence in young people’s lives.

Kindness Replaces Tolerance

August 18, 2020

I warned about the dangers of the tolerance movement over a decade ago. This was a cultural buzzword aimed at disarming anyone critical over the massive changes being pushed onto our society and culture by a very small minority of people with powerful, well-placed allies in media, education and government. Don’t like the idea of marriage being redefined arbitrarily by the State – or by the individual? You’re not being tolerant.

The danger of the movement was that tolerance flowed only in one direction. Everyone was to be tolerant of the minority opinions of marginalized groups, no matter how small or how outrageous their demands. But nobody needed to be tolerant of long-standing institutions, practices, or beliefs. These were inherently excluded from the mandate to tolerance because they were deemed to be intolerant themselves. A convenient argument that served it’s purposes. Massive changes to our culture were forced through as critics from any quarter were silenced by the demand to be tolerant.

Tolerance hasn’t been heard much in recent years. But a new, related buzzword is rising to prominence – kindness. I was sitting at LAX a few weeks ago and saw a woman and her young children sitting nearby – two of the three of them had shirts touting or demanding or encouraging kindness. Later on landing from various flights, the flight attendants invariably reminded everyone to be kind as they went on their way. An Internet meme showed a letter ending with the exhortation that, if you had to choose between being right and being kind, you should choose being kind.

Kindness is a tricky thing. It sounds good. Who doesn’t want to be kind, after all? Kind, nice, these are words in our cultural that hold appeal. They’re often wrapped up in the explanations we give about how we want people to be. Don’t we want our kids to be nice?

I guess it depends on how you’re defining the term, and that’s the slippery part. Ultimately, as a follower of Jesus Christ and an adherent of the Bible as the sole infallible repository of instructions and examples of what that means, I want my children to be loving. Kind as a variation of loving might work, but kind in substitution for loving will never work. Not for very long. This was my critique of the tolerance mantra as well – it’s a lousy substitute for love. So is kindness.

Biblically, kindness isn’t a major theme. More often than not in the Old Testament when a translation (such as the English Standard Version) employs the word kindness in translation, it’s referring to God’s disposition to us, the Hebrew term chesed. Otherwise, kindness is sometimes the Hebrew word shalom, which more commonly is associated with peace. But peace isn’t necessarily a word we use as much today and so kindness is used instead (Genesis 37:4, for example). Kindness is not a common Old Testament term (if you do a word search for kind, be aware that more often than not the results refer to the translators use of the word kind as a synonym for type).

In the New Testament when translators employ the word kind, they are translating a variety of Greek words with a fair variance of meaning, such as epiekeia (also meaning gentleness), philanthropos (courteously or, more literally, humanely), chrestos (good) (Luke 6:35 – the only place in the Gospels where the ESV makes use of the word kind in translation). This Greek term word chrestos in various forms is the primary word translated as kind by the ESV.

The Bible is far more apt to talk about love, and specifically exhorting followers of Jesus Christ to love rather than to be kind.

Kindness as a metaphor or synonym for love would then be an appropriate goal for my children or for myself. But kindness as a replacement for love doesn’t work. Not for long. Kindness has too many problematic connotations. It’s possible to be kind without love. Kindness is more perfunctory, more a matter of how things are done rather than why things are done. I could imagine someone to be kind who was merely very good at superficial displays. Someone who aspires to be kind has no problem with saying whatever wants to be heard, pretending to agree with whatever is requested. In fact any number of things we consider to be quite bad in general could be justified under the banner of kindness. The goal is to spare hard feelings or difficult conversations or unpleasant disagreements. The goal is not necessarily what is best, or true, or right.

Love recognizes that there must be a best and a true and a right and sometimes, unfortunately, in the name of love we must confront people with this reality who would rather believe otherwise. I could be kind to someone and not point out the dangers of a course of action or an ideology. But I wouldn’t be loving them. I’d be more accurately loving myself but excusing myself from a difficult conversation or their disapproval or rejection of me for not simply supporting them in their erroneous ideas. Love must be tough sometimes, because love presumes some hard truths and realities, and recognizes that our feelings are very fickle and fragile. If my goal is only to spare someone’s feelings I will inevitably fail at this, and in the meantime I will likely have also failed at being honest or any number of other things as I go to greater and greater lengths to try and spare their feelings.

And of course, like tolerance, this kindness movement is only in one direction. We must be kind to very small minorities of people who insist on changing everything in our culture to suit their personal preferences for how things ought to be. Anyone who would disagree with them is being unkind and is therefore to be denounced and if necessary destroyed.

Examples? How about the evolutionary biologist having his career shredded because he insists on the science that shows that male and female are not simply cultural and social constructs that can be arbitrarily redefined or done away with completely. Science in no way supports the demands of radical LGBT supporters who insist that gender is a spectrum to be defined by the individual rather than a binary reality to be dealt with. Apparent exceptions may arise to this, but it doesn’t change the fact that in the overwhelming majority of situations, men are men and women are women and this is biologically not sociologically dictated and should be supported as such.

Or how about the sanctions enacted by more liberal democracies on more conservative democracies who refuse to embrace LGBT demands for redefinition and reconstruction of society around their ideas?

How about people losing their jobs for having the audacity to state the obvious – that not all protests and protestors are equal, and that there are some very awful things being done right now and hidden behind the masquerade of protesting racial injustice?

How about people being vilified and criticized for not simply doing what everyone else is doing, or what some people demand that they do? Being criticized for their rightful recognition that body language matters and therefore we should be very careful in what we demand from others?

The overly simplistic attack that someone who refuses to do what others arbitrarily demand them to do is evidence of racism or some other inappropriate motivation is unkind, but it is sanctioned under the kindness banner because not providing the demanded response is itself deemed unkind and therefore not entitled to the protections the kindness banner would otherwise extend.

If my goal is not kindness but love, then I am forced out of my own head and my own ideas and my own hopes to engage with another person as another person, not just an extension of myself. I am driven to listen to them, to seek to understand them. I may in the end still not agree with them, but love also prohibits me from discarding them or attempting to destroy them simply because they disagree with me. It also prohibits me from accusing them of being unkind or unloving simply because they don’t look at things the same way I do.

Kindness dispenses with all of that effort.

So beware of this latest Trojan Horse called kindness. It isn’t necessarily what you think it is, isn’t necessarily what Sesame Street claims it is, and you aren’t required to live and act and believe by it’s precepts and demands. Especially if you claim to have a Lord and a Savior who has given you far greater and deeper and richer commands to love, even if it isn’t always perceived as kind.

A Bit of Joy

July 13, 2020

In the midst of a constant barrage of bad news, if you’re looking for an online escape, you might want to check out https://window-swap.com/

You can get a glimpse of what people in other parts of the world see out their window at the moment. Sometimes it’s a pretty urban landscape, and sometimes it’s a stunning landscape. Not a bad way to while away a few of those lockdown moments!

Filtering

June 22, 2020

Thanks to Ken for sharing an article with me from the Wall Street Journal about Amazon’s discriminatory advertising practices. The article highlights something everyone should know but is easily forgotten – Internet companies like Amazon and Facebook and Google are just that, companies. They are not required to provide equal access to everyone. They are not required to sell every possible product that is available. And each one answers to shareholders and is very responsive to market forces.

Which means if you publish something that might be considered politically incorrect, you may not find your product listed or highlighted or advertised on these sites. Which means of course you’ll have a harder time making people aware of your work.

This brief reminder also highlights another level of censorship from some of these same companies – which materials are made available in electronic format for e-readers, and whether titles available today will be available in the future.

Both of which are reasons I love me a good used bookstore, and I’m fortunate to have several not too far away that can help me get my hands on all sorts of things that may increasingly become difficult to find through Amazon. And it’s why I prefer actual books to e-readers (I’ve never owned an e-reader, even though I love the convenience factor they provide). You never know when your copy of something may end up being one of the last copies in existence because of censorship.

Well That’s a Relief

June 11, 2020

It’s a relief to know that while there are still dire news stories about churches as essentially COVID-19 factories, nobody wants to impinge on the rights of people to have sex with pretty much anyone. It’s not unreasonable to deny Constitutional rights for months on end and only allow public worship to begin again with veiled threats that the rights could be withdrawn again without warning should some undefined person or group determine the public health risk is too great, but it’s downright silly to suggest people shouldn’t be hooking up for casual sex. Just be careful!

That’s the gist of this helpful guide from New York City. Be forewarned, it’s a pretty straightforward document that deals with a variety of sexual situations and possibilities and how to engage in them as safely as possible. Sure, people are encouraged to consider abstaining to one degree or another from sex with people they aren’t close to, but it’s certainly nowhere near the moratorium on public worship we just recently and very tentatively emerged from. Don’t be fooled, more and more sex is god in our culture.

Even during a pandemic.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Brave

May 12, 2020

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. “

 ~ C. S. Lewis ~

Trying to navigate the tricky line of when and how to reopen our country for life is complicated.  As articles  such as this point out, there are widely divergent views.  As articles rarely point out, it isn’t necessarily an either or situation.  Maybe we aren’t faced only with massive loss of life due to the pandemic or total economic and political meltdown due to the pandemic.  Maybe we’re faced with both.  Maybe we’re faced with neither, but rather a  milder mixture of the two.  Only time will tell, and we have to make the best choices we can.

But in the aforementioned article I find it fascinating that fear is now cited as a reason for not opening things back up again.  People are afraid, the logic would seem to go, and pushing them to return to work is going to cause them actual pain and damage.  We’ve all been traumatized, in other words.  Shell-shocked.   PTSD.  Whatever you want to call it.  As a nation we’ve been bludgeoned into a fragile psychological condition that now needs to be tended to softly and gently through continued government payouts rather than the cold, harsh reality of economic (particularly capitalistic) mechanisms.

That’s part of my fascination with what our media has done over the past two months.  You can argue about whether it was at the bequest of (some) of the political powers that be or whether it drove (some) of the political powers that be to their current stance on how to move forward.

First, yes.  People are afraid.  Some of them are terrified.  Nearly all of them are nervous.  If not for themselves than on behalf of others.  But that fear has been driven by our media and our politicians.  I’ll be lenient in granting that initially that fear might have been justified when we didn’t really know what was happening other than that a lot of people were dying in China and Italy.  But the fear went beyond that, and continues to go beyond that.  Fear is what should keep us locked in our houses.  Fear is what should keep us behind face masks.  Fear is what should keep us six feet apart from one another.  Fear is what should prompt  us to isolate not just for ourselves but out of fear we might somehow expose someone else to the virus who would be more vulnerable.

But this fear has been stoked steadily for two solid months.  Only recently have headlines in newspapers begun to mention other topics.  Still COVID-related stories are the majority of what we see and hear in the news.  Fear is natural, but people have been made afraid as well.  When fear is  all you push, don’t be surprised that people become fearful.  But also don’t then use  that fear to justify furthering policies that will only reinforce and strengthen the fear.

Now fear is not a glamorous thing.  It never has been in human history, but here’s part of the weirdness.  We’ve been made to feel as though our cowering in our houses is somehow brave.  We’re doing brave work as we lose our jobs and our businesses and fall back on unemployment and welfare.  That’s brave.

But it’s not.  It’s sad.  It might be necessary to some extent.  But  it’s not brave.  In part because very few people chose  to lose their job or their life’s work.  We were forced to stay home.  Ordered to.  Threatened with fines or imprisonment if we disobeyed.  We were shouted at through bullhorns and from helicopters over the beaches.  We were stigmatized by our fellow citizens.  This is not bravery.  At best it can be called obedience, but simply following orders is not necessarily brave in and of itself.

How can this be?

Because while we are told we are somehow brave and strong for ordering our food to go, we have also been inundated with real images and definitions of bravery.  Doctors and first responders get most of that glory.  They’re on the front lines, we’re told, fighting against the Coronavirus to keep us all safe.  That’s the definition of bravery.  It’s not an incorrect definition, either.  And that definition gets extended to a far lesser extent to those who work in essential industries.  Grocery store clerks and Amazon warehouse employees and all the other people who keep working so that those who have the ability to work at home or are already retired can order their food and groceries delivered and feel brave.  We’re told what bravery looks like, and it shows us that we ourselves have not been brave.

But we could have been.  And we could still be.

But it’s going to take the same mechanisms to change us that were used to create the fearful, nervous population we’ve become.

If the media and the politicians quit trying to paralyze us with fear and instead do what America has traditionally done – turn people loose to be heroic.  To go back to their jobs and bring their employees back.  Wear masks.  Avoid hugs and social distance.   So be it.  But be brave about it, not fearful.  America exists uniquely in history because it empowers people rather than disarms them.  You want to launch a business?  Go for it.  There’s no issues of pedigree or governmental control that should be able to stop you.  If you succeed, you might become wealthy and others might benefit from your drive and the product or service you offer.  If nobody wants what you’re offering, you’re free to change directions and try something else.

There’s the risk of failure to be sure, but the potential rewards of even moderate success are almost unheard of in massive portions of the rest of the world.  And people from all over the world still yearn and dream to  come to America to have this  freedom.  The freedom to be brave.  The freedom to succeed.  Even the freedom to fail.

Quit scaring people  into staying home while lauding the virtues of those who don’t.  Yes, they’re essential all right.  But in employing those terms you’ve just decimated the vast majority of your population with the reality they aren’t essential.  What they have to offer isn’t as good as or necessary as what doctors and nurses and policemen offer.

But this isn’t true.

Those people  are able to offer what they offer because other people offer things those people need.  Bookstores to order books to either grow in their knowledge and skill or relax and unwind and escape from the stressfulness of their career.  People who can cook great meals because doctors don’t have time to.   People who create spaces for people to relax and be together in like restaurants and coffee shops.   In myriad ways people contribute to the greater good, and to draw a  line with a magic marker that says these people are essential (whether they want to be or not) and the rest of you aren’t is just another way of instilling fear.  Destroying self-worth.  Turning people fearful.

Life is full of risks.  Full of dangers.  We have nowhere near the level of control we’d like to have, or even think we have and this is true of individuals as well as governments.  A great deal of the fear at play in our culture right now is driven by coming face-to-face with mortality, with the idea that we can die at any time and not necessarily be able to stop it.  We are mortal and frail.

That recognition leads to one of two courses.  One is fear.  Hiding and cowering and trying to protect ourselves from anything and anyone that could be dangerous.  Only to discover  that everything and everyone – even ourselves – can be dangerous, can’t be had or enjoyed without risk of harm physically or emotionally or psychologically.  Safety is an illusion because keeping yourself safe from one set of things opens you up to risk from another set of things.

The other course is to develop bravery.  Courage.  A willingness to go out and do what needs to be done, or to do what you’re able to do.  Knowing you might fail, but knowing you might also succeed.  Being rewarded for your willingness to take risks or innovate rather than simply do what other people tell you to do.

Fear is natural.  But fear can either be cultivated and nurtured or it can be weakened and sapped.  More than any previous challenges in or to our nation, this is the crossroads we stand at.  Do we remain fearful, waiting for others who are brave and strong to rescue us?  Or do we pick up our shovels or rakes or cable crimpers or bar  code scanners or measuring cups and set about rescuing ourselves and, in the process, rescuing one another as well?  Do we not only tell stories about knights facing great dangers, but encourage one another to put on their armor and mount their steeds and head out onto the field of battle for themselves?

Life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe.  What equality, what comfort, and what protection we’ve been able to create is only because of generations of men and women just like us doing what needed to be done and doing it well.  Demonstrating not just bravery and courage but also how essential they are.  Why should we wait for someone else to tell us we’re needed or not needed?  Isn’t that how great swaths of governments around the world and throughout history have operated?  Telling people what they had to do or how they had to do it instead of letting the people figure it out for themselves?  Isn’t that why people want to come here, become Americans?  So they can make those decisions for themselves?  Be free to work hard and reap the benefits of that hard work?  Fail but learn from that failure and grow stronger and wiser for their next effort?

This is the home of the brave, according to our national anthem.  It’s time we remember that.  Claim it.  And start acting like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metrics I

May 6, 2020

On the mornings I stop for coffee and a bagel at my favorite coffee shop, I pass by a nearly invisible church.  You’d never know it was there, really.  The signage for the personal training business is better situated.  But in the past few weeks a new sign for the church has gone up.  A large photo  of the husband and wife pastor team.  Sharply dressed in a homey atmosphere, brilliant white smiles.  Photogenic.  And if that wasn’t enough, the biggest lettering on the sign focuses on how many YouTube subscribers they have and how many millions of times their online  content has been viewed.

What’s your metric?

Everybody has metrics for what they consider success to look like.  Dollars, zip codes, assets.  A corner office, an invitation to join the Board of Directors.  Perhaps finally publishing that book or being invited to the first of several speaking gigs.

Pastors are no exception.  Maybe it’s moving up the hierarchy to  serve in capacities beyond a simple local parish.  Maybe it’s impressive growth figures for your congregation.  An impressive building project.  A large staff to oversee, a diverse budget supporting all sorts of projects and ministries.  The unspoken but obvious awe and respect of your peers who struggle in their small parishes and envy the comfort and success you’ve achieved.

Of course, none of that holds a candle to the apostles, if anyone really even thinks in terms of envying them anymore.  Their career path was hardly enviable and their retirement packages were, well, substandard by our enlightened standards.  No apparent families, no kids to pass the family legacy down to and through.  If anyone could have benefited from a career coach it would have been these guys.  Then again, I guess they did have a career coach.  But his advice to take up their crosses and follow him is disturbing at best.

But we’re safely distanced from the apostles so it’s not as though we really need to compare ourselves to them.  We read their words 2000 years later and are largely insulated from many of the implications they carry with them.  Easy to listen and nod along in agreement and never realize we’re acting in the complete opposite direction.  Heck, pastors can even preach on those very words one moment and seem to have completely forgotten them by the time the weekly meetings roll around.  We love our apostles safely in heaven and distanced from us for the time being.

Imagine those in the early Church though.  Those privileged to know and listen to and speak with the apostles!  We often talk in awe-filled tones about how amazing that would have been, and certainly it would have.  But it would have really screwed up the metrics of those converts to the faith, those who first heard and received the Good News of Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead.  How do you advance career-wise when you’re competing directly with the apostles?

Among many other sins, the Church is guilty of the personal pride and ambition of her members all too often, both lay and ordained.  And in recent decades that ambition and pride has overturned centuries and centuries of Biblical exegesis and practice.  Oh, the terms for it are noble enough – equality sounds pretty darn Biblical, doesn’t it?  Until you actually read the Bible  and realize our privileged  egalitarian ideas of equality are rarely found in those pages.  God is rather doggedly determined to do things his way, oftentimes through an individual or a small group of people rather than a representative democracy or a congregational meeting or even a church Board of Directors.

But for all those who struggle with metrics in the Church, Stephen is a fascinating story in Acts 6 and 7.  We read this week about Stephen’s execution at the hands of a frenzied mob of self-righteous people with decidedly different metrics than Stephen.  We applaud his boldness.  We applaud his willingness to speak truth to power, demonstrating all those coveted leadership principles the Church (and our larger culture) fawns over these days.

But Stephen’s story starts earlier.  And it starts with Stephen being selected to be a waiter.

Yeah, that’s right.  Go back and read the opening section of Acts 6.  Same guy.  Stephen is selected with six other nameless people (sure, their names are written down right there, but how many of those names do you know?).  The apostles had work they were uniquely qualified for.  They knew Jesus.  Better than anyone than perhaps his own family.  They were needed to teach and preach the growing Church what Jesus said and did.  To bear witness.  It was important work.

But so was feeding the widows.  So important that all the disciples convened all the rest of the core of the Church to address the issue.  To select Stephen and the others to handle this important task so the apostles could dedicate themselves to their important tasks.  Different tasks.  Both important.  Both needing to get done.  Requiring different people to do them.

We aren’t told Stephen’s response to this arrangement, but it appears he did his job well and faithfully.  I don’t know what his metrics were.  Maybe he was just one of those two-dimensional Bible figures without any real issues or personality or dreams or hopes.  Maybe he’d always wanted to be a waiter.  Maybe he had hoped for more.  He certainly seemed capable of more, filled with wisdom and faith and the Holy Spirit as he was (vs. 3-6).  Installed in his capacity as waiter by none other than the disciples of Jesus and the leaders of the Church.  And certainly as he waited tables and ensured the widows were cared for (because nobody else wanted to do it), the Holy Spirit was working through him mightily.  Very similarly, in fact, to how the Holy Spirit  was working through the apostles themselves (compare Acts 6:8 with Acts 2:43).

Yet Stephen never seemed to push for a promotion.  Maybe he never got the chance.  Maybe Stephen’s story would have read a bit differently if it had played out over a longer period of time.  Maybe his martyrdom was a gift, keeping him from succumbing  to societal pressures and definitions of success and ultimately risking his faith and the unity of the Church in a quest for advancement.  With demands to be recognized as greater than just a waiter.  Maybe this is a Biblical example of a great quote from arguably the best of the Batman movies – The Dark KnightEither you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  

A dark thought, but a cautionary one.  We all have metrics.  Whether those metrics align with the Word and promises of the God who created us  and redeemed us and sanctifies us is another matter.  Satan offered Adam and Eve a different metric.  Rather than simply being obedient to God as his creations, they could be like God.  They could maximize their potential.  They could activate their leadership qualities for the good of creation.  They could be all that they could be.  The could just do it.

Metrics are not neutral and we need to question their sources.  Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing.  But we need to ensure we don’t sacrifice the Word of God on the altar of ambition or metrics or even equality.  Even those things that seem inherently good and better – a big church rather than a small one, a large financial endowment rather than scrambling to pay the bills each month, a powerful presence in the community rather than the obscurity of sharing space with a personal trainer – even these things can ultimately prove not just complicated but divisive and even destructive.

And for a culture insistent that equality is defined on our terms, Stephen is a challenging anecdotal call for a pause and a more cautious scrutiny of both our terms and our motives.  Stephen the waiter.  Stephen called by God the Holy Spirit into this role.  Stephen used powerfully even as just a waiter.  Stephen who is one of the best known New Testament figures despite never being promoted  to the upper echelons of church ministry.  Stephen who lived and died serving God as God led him to, and you and I still reading about him 2000 years later.  Even as Iacocca and Welch, as well as Graham, Swindoll, Driscoll, fade or begin to fade into obscurity.

It isn’t the YouTube hits or the subscribers.  It isn’t the District or Synodical positions whether paid or unpaid.  It isn’t ordination or not ordination.  It’s something being and doing what God the Holy Spirit leads you to be and do.  To identify your personal metrics and compare them to Biblical ones.  To pray to be all God has equipped and called you to be without reaching beyond what’s either safe for you or best for the people of God.

Good advice as I take my bagel and coffee back to my office and struggle to post second-rate videos to YouTube to try and help my people through a confusing and isolating  time.  Good advice to all God’s people in all their varied capacities.