Archive for the ‘Life’ 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.

Pastors in Pandemics

September 9, 2020

The message came early in the evening during preparations for dinner. A member who had fallen and been hospitalized had slipped into unconsciousness. They were non-responsive and not expected to recover. They were coming home for hospice care, and would I come to pray with the family?

It was my first home visitation in six months.

I can’t describe how good it felt to spend time with a parishioner in their home. Preaching and teaching has been enough of a struggle these past six COVID months. But actually spending time with people where they live is another aspect of pastoral ministry I really miss. Not chit-chatty social calls but spending time in prayer during important moments, whether it’s after the birth of a child or near the end of someone’s life. To be where people live, to – COVID be damned – breathe their air, that’s when and where you learn the most about people. People may appreciate a sermon or enjoy a Bible study but when you’re with them one-on-one in their home, real connection can be made. Relationship is strengthened and deepened.

Pastor’s are uniquely privileged in this respect as we get to be with people in their homes without at least some of the angst caused by hosting a social visit. Few other professions meet with people in their homes (at least under good circumstances!). As a seminary professor once drilled it into our heads, it is part of a noble task. I try not to take my privilege lightly.

The home is the primary locale for life. I suspect American Christianity has missed a great opportunity in trying to position the church buildings or grounds as the most important space in people’s lives when it’s obviously their home. Sometimes ministry needs a different and larger space but ministry began in the home, whether it was Adam and Eve in the beginning or Jesus and his disciples having dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And unless the home is recognized as just as much the abode of God the Holy Spirit as the sanctuary, the sanctuary will eventually dwindle in significance.

I wish it was a happier occasion for this first visitation in six months. Then again, praying over (and with) someone who has lived a long and vibrant life and has a deep and abiding trust in Jesus as their Savior is a really good thing. To know that he’s now at peace, awaiting the final Day, the great reunion that won’t ever end, that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot. It’s an honor and a privilege to remind people of that even in their grief. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.

Movie Review: Bill & Ted Face the Music

September 2, 2020

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I’ll assume you’ve seen the first two movies, or don’t care to and are going to skip this post all together. I’m not going to bother plot summarizing the other two, and there may be a spoiler or two in here. It’s OK if you aren’t interested. I’ll write something else before long.

But if you have an interest….

I think the major problem with the series of films is the characters and the premise can’t support the scale thrust upon them in the latter installments. Excellent Adventure works because the scope is plausible. Pass a history class with an epic presentation. It’s something these two goofballs can handle – just barely. But with Bogus Journey and now in Face the Music, both characters are unduly weighted beyond their capabilities. Defeating an evil genius and saving all of time and space is just too much for the basic concept to carry, and it shows. There are great moments, to be sure, but the movie could be equally compelling with a plot line of much more believable scale. This latter installment could just has easily have focused on saving their marriages to the Princesses without all the other heavier stuff. Most of the movie could be unchanged.

This movie does a good job of making the characters age-appropriate. Bill & Ted are a lot older now, and it shows. Not just in the lines in their faces, but in the grunts and groans that accompany every landing of their time-traveling phone booth. You can feel their angst and the disappointment of apparently not having achieved their purpose in life now that they’re in their 50’s. Life is good – very good. But there’s still the need for something further to be accomplished, the race against the clock is literal in this movie.

The daughters are a touching addition to the movie. Not a necessary or even compelling one, but a great update to the franchise as well as a continuation of the storyline left off in Bogus Journey. And most incredible of all in this strange little alternate universe of sorts, the film completely avoids any sexual issues or situations that otherwise are standard fare in nearly every modern movie. Bill & Ted are happily married to the Princesses, who are more or less happily married to them. Nor are the daughters used for sexual tension of any sort in the film. As the dudes comment in Bogus Journey, there is a chasteness that pervades this franchise, aside from a few innuendos mostly in the first film.

Of course, people have to look for this kind of stuff, as the author of this article in the New York Post. He insinuates homo-eroticism in the guitar riffing the dudes do when they’re exceptionally happy. He also takes time to criticize the homosexual slur in Excellent Adventure. He ponders how really innocent or happy these two can be if they are apparently exclusionary of homosexuals. I imagine the same critique could be leveled at those who use the slur Trumpers, or liberals. The fact our denigrations are ideological these days hardly implies an advanced moral state from 30 years ago.

This reviewer takes a swipe at Bill & Ted’s “unusually close” relationship to their daughters, an interesting commentary on what is expected from fathers (or not expected). It’s obvious the fathers and daughters share a love of music as well as a mutual love and respect that is so unadorned and honest it’s nearly breathtaking. Their mutual encouragement to one another is beautiful, and it’s a shame if that’s now acknowledged as “unusual”.

Could the movie be better? Of course. As I mentioned earlier, scaling back the drama significantly would be a huge help. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic, but what ending wouldn’t be after a 30-year wait? So ditch the saving space & time plot – it’s overwhelming. Ditch the sub-plot about time-traveling wives as well – it’s unnecessary and never has time to play itself out in a way that is either amusing or helpful. Frankly you could ditch the daughters sub-plot as the use of the musicians seems somewhat superfluous. As this reviewer notes, the long-sought after song isn’t all that great. I think it would have been just as effective to end the movie just as they’re about to start playing, knowing the world is saved, and so the song itself – as it was in the previous two movies – is really a secondary issue. This could also remove the inexplicable presence and focus on Kid Cudi, that completely eludes me other than that he was apparently willing and available to join in this segment. While the assassin robot was somewhat humorous at times, he seemed a rather frail sub-plot that could have been done without. Or maybe eliminate Kid Cudi to give the robot a bit more screen time.

The scenes with the marriage counselor are great and could easily have been expanded as a larger running gag through the film. I’d have been much happier with more run-ins with alternate Bills and Teds, and the hell sequences could have been shrunk down to focus in just on the reunion with The Grim Reaper – which was definitely one of the highlights of the movie.

As a commentary on growing older, I’ve definitely seen worse. There’s acknowledgment of the challenges of life, of finding fulfillment – challenges that exist despite wonderful spouses and children. If Reeves better conveys a weariness with the passing of time and the efforts to accomplish something meaningful, Alex Winters does a good job of channeling the inner youthfulness he naturally exuded in the first two films. It’s a reminder there should be some sort of balance between who we were when younger and who we are as we mature and grow older. But this film isn’t really about a wistfulness for youth. It isn’t a pining to relive the glory days, but an angst about being or becoming who Bill & Ted are supposed to be, and more specifically, accomplishing one single thing that makes all the difference.

Overall this film exudes an optimism just like the earlier two. A reminder that it isn’t how smart you are that makes a difference, but what kind of a person you are. There’s great hope that Bill & Ted will remain the good-hearted goofballs and bestest of friends status they’ve always been, and that their wives will continue to love them and their daughters will find their ways in life beyond the shadows of their father’s obsessiveness with a song.

I could foresee one more installment in this series – one that coincides with Bill & Ted’s retirement from whatever they occupy themselves with for the next 20 years or so. I’m happy to discuss script possibilities if anyone’s interested!

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.

The Talk

August 27, 2020

This article questioning the value of The Talk caught my eye. The column is primarily politically motivated and I’m not going to deal with the political rhetoric that predominates the second half of the article.

I’d like to say to Ms. Brazile that I am not black or a person of color or a minority in the traditional usages of those words in our culture. But I had The Talk as well. I don’t remember the specifics but it was a very clearly communicated lesson. Police are here to protect us and as such we assist towards that end by being polite and deferential. I must be polite and deferential to use Ms. Brazile’s words. But perhaps my must is different than hers and the version of The Talk she seems to imply.

Because while I have no doubt police and other first responders were highlighted as people deserving of our respect and gratefulness, politeness and deference were something I was taught everyone deserved. My parents, my teachers, my neighbors, strangers – everyone. I learned these basic concepts in the classroom. But I also learned them at home. And at home they could explain the deeper reason and reality behind these talks. The reason why others deserved this and it was incumbent upon me (must) to give it is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. And the command He gives me isn’t simply to grudgingly pretend to give politeness and deference but rather to actually love my neighbor, whomever that neighbor happens to be at the moment. And further still, I am commanded to love even my enemies, to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5, Luke 6). So it isn’t just a matter of whether I agree with the person in front of me or think they’re doing their job properly or even whether I know for a fact they are doing their job improperly, I am not released from the command to love them. And love encompasses both politeness and deference.

That was my talk, given not just once, and my talks started long before I was a teenager.

The Talk you refer to sounds different. I don’t know or presume to judge what your religious leanings are. And Lord knows in our cultural rejection of the concept of God and the authority of the Bible, lots of alternative concepts are forced into service to convince people how they should live their lives with others. Concepts like tolerance and kindness, things I’ve written about critically here over the years because they can’t possibly replace love your neighbor as yourself.

The Talk you describe sounds a lot like a talk about self-preservation and self-defense. It sounds like a talk aimed at saving someone’s life when something has gone terribly wrong, not as how you ought to be with everyone, all the time. It sounds like a talk that presumes the worst about the police and frankly, everyone else. It sounds like a talk that is ultimately not very convincing because it comes far too late, and is far too limited in scope, and it is likely being given by someone who doesn’t really believe The Talk themselves, though they undoubtedly had a similar talk at some point in their lives.

However I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption and an assertion. And that is that The Talk you refer to is not the first talk or the only talk on this topic. I’m willing to wager that nearly every child in every school room in this country received a talk multiple times at a very early age. A talk aimed at teaching them how to behave with others, to show courtesy and respect to authorities and those older than themselves. A talk, even, that described police and firefighters as heroes who are here to help us.

But what also seems evident is that though nearly every single person in our country probably had those talks, there are some people who either weren’t listening or, more likely, heard other talks as well. Talks that asserted courtesy and politeness and deference weren’t default ways of interacting with other people. That the police were enemies, not friends. That you have to fake politeness and deference because they certainly aren’t warranted. Regardless of the situation.

Ms. Brazile questions the efficacy and appropriateness of The Talk if it isn’t working. But I’ve watched an alleged video of this latest shooting in Kenosha. And as near as I can tell there isn’t an ounce of politeness or deference being demonstrated anywhere in this video. I hear people screaming – which surely can’t help the situation. I hear moments of silence that I assume are blocking out profanity. I see what appears to be a young man struggling against police rather than cooperating with them and apparently ignoring their commands for some reason. It’s not a good quality video, and it might not even be authentic in this age of digital forgeries and deep fakes. But I’m assuming it’s authentic until I learn otherwise, and I’m making that assumption in good faith rather than in an intentional desire to skew things.

The Talk isn’t being followed in this video by any of the bystanders or apparently the young man at the center of it. I don’t know what happened right before this video or right after it. I’m not defending the use of lethal force in this or any other particular situation, though I readily admit lethal force is sometimes necessary and appropriate.

I’m simply observing that for a community of people you assert to have given and received The Talk, none of them are following it, as near as I can tell. Which leads me to question your conclusion – that The Talk is nothing more than wasted words. You assert this young man was innocent and was merely trying to help out a situation, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in this admittedly grainy and shaky video. Regardless of what this young man thought he was doing or intended to do, it ended up with him disregarding The Talk as you described it. Which means perhaps it isn’t The Talk that’s deficient.

Perhaps it means instead we need to really look closely at the other talks this young man probably heard. Because it’s those talks he appears to be listening to, for whatever reason. And listening to those talks never is helpful to a person. In this case, he appears to have been seriously wounded. But he might have just as easily been injured to a lesser degree while struggling with the police. Or he might just as easily have ended up arrested and charged with resisting arrest or interfering in an officer’s duty or any number of other charges. All of those outcomes are bad. All are tragic. There is no outcome, no situation where ignoring The Talk you describe makes any sense.

So perhaps instead of blaming The Talk, or the police, or systemic racism, we need to examine the other talks young people are hearing. Because those talks don’t seem to be helping anything or anyone.

Book Review: The KGB’s Most Wanted

August 10, 2020

The KGB’s Most Wanted: The Story of Joseph Bondarenko, Russian Evangelist by Joseph Bondarenko

This was gifted to me by a parishioner who heard the author speak recently. The book is a powerful auto-biography of Bondarenko’s treatment in the former Soviet Union because of his faith. He describes things in a simple, relatable way that is easy to understand. His main purpose seems to be detailing events as he remembers them, rather than trying to impose any larger meaning on the events beyond the meaning given to us in Scripture of God’s mysterious ways of working. Bondarenko chooses to focus not on the barbarism of his jailers or the atheistic Communist systems, but rather on how God the Holy Spirit was always present and at work in even the worst of circumstances and situations, not just preserving Bondarenko’s life but leading others to or back to faith.

Bondarenko’s humility as well as his great faith in God is far more inspiring than the mistreatment he suffered by a system determined to break him and make an example of him. It isn’t that Bondarenko claims any great power for himself – he regularly gives all of the credit to God for protecting and sustaining him. Much as God defeated the efforts of Pharaoh in the Exodus story, God thwarts the intentions of various levels of Communist officials, regularly demonstrating his power through and despite Bondarenko’s weakness. Rather than breaking Bondarenko’s faith, others around him are brought to faith.

Listening for the Spirit

July 24, 2020

I take the Holy Spirit seriously. At least to the best of my ability. I know He’s at work, and that his methods and timings are not always ones I might expect. I don’t expect miracles in the Biblical sense, necessarily, but I do hold out the reality they could happen.

The first impression is important. As much as our culture attempts to convince us that first impressions are judgmental and flawed they remain necessary. In a sinful and broken world where trust is elusive and things and people are not always what we might want them to be, we look for clues to help guide us in how to respond.

His clothes appear clean, though he’s traveling with nothing more than a mostly-consumed bottle of Diet Coke and a jacket. He’s in his mid-to-late 30’s, I estimate. There’s a faint odor of unwashed clothes but it’s the stale odor, not the foul one. Not yet. I’ve learned in ministry that smells can tell you a lot the eyes might miss.

Yes, I have 15 minutes and I invite him in. He clearly has things on his mind though it’s impossible to tell yet what they might be. We sit in the front office and he begins to talk. Not disjointed, but the connections are sometimes complicated and slippery. He has ideas, ideas he’s trying to understand and more importantly trying to apply. He quotes passages from Scripture, demonstrates a familiarity with the Word of God and Christian concepts. But it’s also clear he’s spent time exploring many different sources and ideas, something he confirms later.

The intellect at work is not small. A good vocabulary, a line of reasoning that, while slightly flawed in terms of philosophical categories is still grappling with aspects of reality most people don’t spend much time contemplating – the interconnectedness of everything. How to make sense of the reality we are bound together in more fundamental ways than Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter might have us think. That these ties that bind us grounded in our shared creatureliness entail obligations to one another we are too quick to gloss over in our bid for Facebook and Instagram popularity or notoriety.

He asks for a pad of paper and a pen, quickly sketching and writing out things as he talks, helping him track his line of thought. It’s difficult to tell if he’s under the influence. If it is, it’s chemical as I don’t smell alcohol on his breath, no slurring of speech. Is there mental illness as well? Odds are good of that as well. He wants validation but grows fidgety when I’m talking instead of him. He’s trying to listen but clearly also figuring out what he wants to say next more than listening to what I have to say. Certainly no shortage of that these days in people who consider themselves sane and rational!

He continues trying to drive towards his point, what he really wants to apply in his life but it’s difficult for him. Minutes click by. Not unpleasantly. As I listen I also watch. Body language says a lot, like odors and clothing. Is he violent? His obvious agitation when I speak, when I try to validate aspects of his line of thought while offering tweaks and adjustments, identifying limitations to how far some of his ideas can be blended together, they convey that he’s really here to talk, not to listen, and perhaps it would be better to do that. Perhaps dialogue is too much to hope for in this setting.

Of course I wonder as well if he’s violent. Alone in the office, I try to size him up. Not a large man but size isn’t everything, depending on what substances he might be under the influence of. I know that letting him in and sitting with him like this entails a risk I’d prefer not to think about but have to. I try to stay loose physically and concentrated on him, watching for tell-tale signs that might give me a second’s warning if he becomes agitated. I don’t think he will. But my gut instincts, while right far more often than wrong are not perfect.

This is a child of God. I ache for him as he runs circles in his mind, looking for how to connect the loose ends, perhaps looking for the break in the circle that will allow him peace from these dog-eared ideas. I ache for whatever has diverted him from the channel of what we call normal and into whatever dry riverbed he’s ambling down.

I have another appointment that I’m now missing. Quick text messages to apologize. Yet this seems where I’m supposed to be at the moment, even though I look forward to my standing Friday engagement. Still, I’m apparently needed here and now with this man and his grasping for understanding and application. After an hour I beg off. I stand, move us towards the door. We’ll meet again next Tuesday, a day and time he writes in ink on the back of his hand. Hopefully it will be washed off before then. Less because I don’t want to see him again and more because I hope he’s washing himself well enough. What will kill a person quicker, unresolved mental ramblings or poor hygiene? Perhaps it’s a toss-up. A matter of how you define death.

I don’t think I’ll see him Tuesday. But it’s on my calendar just in case. Because we are bound together, he and I, this unlikely wanderer and this unlikely pastor. Bound together by a God who created both of us, redeemed us both, and offers to abide with both of us. Offers more to create a new and eternal relationship to one another. So I’ll put it on my calendar and be here just in case. Listening for the voice of God the Holy Spirit, knowing I may not realize I’ve heard it until long after it’s wandered down the railroad tracks and disappeared into the underpasses.

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!

Reading Ramblings – July 12, 2020

July 5, 2020

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020 – COVID-19; Euthanasia

Texts: Genesis 9:5-6; Psalm 139:1-16; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 5:21-26

Context: I offered my congregation the opportunity to request sermons on particular topics, Biblical passages, doctrinal stances, etc. I do this every few years. Generally I’m fascinated by the lack of response. Either the request is too unusual or people just aren’t used to thinking about what they’d like to hear a bit more about from the Bible or how to apply the Scripture to current issues and events. However, I did get one request this time around on the topic of euthanasia. So I am not using the Revised Common Lectionary Cycle A texts for this Sunday but rather a series of verses that address the foundational Biblical understanding about the sanctity of human life.

Genesis 9:5-6 – Most people think of the Fifth Commandment in regards to the sanctity of human life. And certainly that’s not a bad choice as an injunction against murder. But I prefer God’s words to Noah after the flood to provide a deeper context. In case we’re tempted to think of the Flood as a failed effort by God to restart things on a better footing, God clarifies just how holy human life is. There are many ways we can kill without violating the Fifth commandment – self-defense and capital punishment are just two Scriptural examples. But regardless of why we take a human life we need to know we will answer to God for it, and the implication here is that even in permitted circumstances we must never take human life for granted. We bear the imago dei, the image of God, and this makes human life valuable in a way incomparable in the rest of Scripture. To make ending a person’s life a matter of public policy or convenience or out of fear of suffering or the costs associated with care will one day be judged by no lower standard than God the Father himself.

Psalm 139:1-16 – Modern understandings of the human being as more or less a machine are dangerously superficial. Whether it is assumptions that medicines affect and work in all people equally or the lie that life begins at some arbitrary point after conception or that life ceases to have value and dignity once it is old or beleaguered with disease is to miss the relational aspect of human beings to our Creator. We are known, through and through. Not simply the byproduct of psychological pressures or genetic tweaking we are custom creations to such a degree that it is not without exaggeration but with too little serious pondering that we are unique in all of creation history. Never another person like us. Created and placed into history. That we might dismiss such a creation as no longer worth preserving based on arbitrarily and shifting criteria is terrifying. Likewise to the one who faces severe challenges in disease or health, the knowledge that they are created and never abandoned should be a light of hope in the darkest of conditions or diagnoses.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 – What is the thorn of which Paul speaks? Nobody is certain as Paul never defines it himself. Theories emerge and recede based on issues prevalent at the time. Whether a physical injury or disorder or an emotional or psychological trauma, the important thing is that Paul is well aware of the thorn’s presence and desires it gone and prays for it to be removed. Yet he also accepts God’s good and gracious will, unpleasant as it is. Some argue there is no sense or purpose in suffering, and that if suffering is all someone has to look forward to, they should have the option available to them (or to their physicians or family) to end their life prematurely. While we are not required to take every conceivable step to save or preserve life, never should we aim at death as our goal. The God who created us is always present and able to work in and through even our suffering to his glory and our sanctification.

Matthew 5:21-26 – Murder is not so simple as the taking of another life, or our own. Rather, murder is committed when we dismiss any other person, when we reduce them to an inconvenience or an irritation and see them as anything less than a creature of God the Father’s who God the Son died to save so that God the Holy Spirit might establish them in faith and trust of this reality for God’s eternal praise and their eternal blessing. I have seen no accounts where authorizing or legalizing euthanasia leads to a higher view of human life. Rather, once the door opens more and more people in more and more circumstances are deemed eligible for termination, even if they do not want it for themselves. The best of alleged intentions – reduction of human suffering – opens the door to all manner of other sinful motivations. The notion that existence should be without suffering of any kind is a curious one, given the prevalence of suffering in one form or another through almost the entire span of a human lifetime. Sources of suffering might change, but so also do coping mechanisms and the experience of our God’s presence with us in powerful ways. To determine that no such coping and no such divine revelation can (or even should) occur is to destroy hope at a practical level and deny the hope clearly promised in the empty grave of Jesus the Christ.