I ran across this article while digging deeper into a topic in a book I’m reading. Krista Tippett, the author of the book, who had been living in Berlin for quite some time and whose job it was to keep her finger on the pulse of relationships on both sides of the wall, observed: “…it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life, it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.” While the politicians and bureaucrats had some influence, it was ultimately the people who assumed and acted upon their freedom that brought down the Iron Curtain. Giving politicians power is akin to turning a 3 year old loose with power tools. It is ultimately people assuming and claiming the lives of “intimacy, dignity and beauty” for which they had been created that brought down the wall. I fear we give the political process entirely too much credit. To believe the rhetoric and live our lives by it is foolish at best. It is toxic for us to allow the narrative by which we live our lives to be defined by 3 year olds fighting over the power tools. It paints everything in a dualistic way that creates division and discord. We were created for so much more than that.
Us, Them & the Boogeyman
“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target. It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly. What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”
In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united. For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump. However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.” Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.
What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. How can this be?
This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful. In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home. He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:
“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile. The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned. What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”
Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building. Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them. And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.
As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse. Or Hillary Clinton. And it isn’t congress. Or Barack Obama. Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”. Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods. These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active. And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations. What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears. We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available. Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names. I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Of labels, he says:
“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.” —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves. The tools at our disposal include all of us. All of our values. All of our beliefs. All of our perspectives. All of our creativity. I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others? Absolutely. Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed? Adamantly! I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.” But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings. And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.
As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:
- To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer. I have a bias.
- To give myself and others a break. For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands. We’re all doing the best we can.
- To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.
Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you? I don’t mean to preach. I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”. While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices. We can decide how we respond to our neighbors. We can decide the words we use. We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me. And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before. I’m confident we will again. Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman. Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.
Suggestions for Riding a Bus
The picture below is of an amazing document. It is “Integrated Bus Suggestions” provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association which was an organization established to help guide the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of 1956 in the wake of the arrest of Rosa Parks. It is an amazing document to read.
A friend posted the picture on his Facebook page this morning with the comment, “We have no idea.” And we truly do not. But on this Martin Luther King day, I would like for you to place yourself on that bus. Pick a role. You can be the African American entering the bus. Be the bus driver, just wanting punch the clock and make it through the day to return home to your family. Be one of the other passengers, recognizing or maybe not recognizing, the sea change that is occurring right before your eyes. If you are in a city with public transportation, take a bus ride and bring a copy of these suggestions and be transported back to a time not to distant when a document such as this was necessary.
As you read this document, imagine stepping onto a bus with these “suggestions” seared into your memory. The jolt of adrenaline and fear and nervousness that wells up as the door opens and you mount the first step. As you reach the top step, what does it feel like to see the seat you are to occupy and feel the all the eyes on the bus wielding looks that communicate the full gamut of possible emotions. There is hate in some of those eyes…but there is also hope in others. There is anger but there are others illuminated with the dawning recognition of what is right. There is fear but also determination.
I discovered a quote by Dr. King yesterday:
Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
I would encourage and challenge you to think about what metaphorical bus you need to step into. What difference could you make if you allowed courage to spawn creativity and change? Allow your conscience to ask the question, “What is right?” and then step on that bus armed with these suggestions. They are still just as valid as they were in 1955.
Integrated Bus Suggestions Provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association for the bus boycotts.
Peace On Earth
It’s been a difficult Advent to try and speak about peace. Every where one looks the evidence of its absence is overwhelming. I would write a few sentences here summing up the news headlines of late but I’d rather not. We all know them far too well.
If I turn from the headlines toward my expanded neighborhood of friends and acquaintances on social media, it seems there is an election looming. In fact, there seems to be one looming 365 days a year. And a cursory look at the posts on my feed seem to imply that one particular brand of politics or the other has the solution[s] and/or “leader[s]” to remedy this chronic lack of peace we’ve all been experiencing for quite some time. Call me cynical but, I’m not really buying what they’re selling. Seems as though this has been the claim by all sides of every issue for as long as I’ve been alert enough to pay attention.
So, what to do? Do I give in to the cynicism of the age?
I don’t have an answer. But I do have my faith. The faith I have is rooted in a God who loves. Call me naive. Call me idealistic. But, the older I get, my cynicism toward the powers of this world only grows and my faith in this loving God is continually confirmed. Even when someone throws the turmoil of this world at my “loving God” saying the chaos is proof that my faith is in vain, I realize that I would rather live my faith in this loving God than in the false hopes and unfulfilled promises of the powers that be in our world. It’s simply a better way to live my life. I would rather live in that love of God than in the fear and frustration offered by the alternative.
One of my favorite quotes about peace is by Nicholas Wolsterstorff:
“The state of shalom is the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence: in one’s relation to God, in one’s relation to one’s fellow human beings, in one’s relation to nature, and none’s relation to oneself…An ever-beckoning temptation for the [American] evangelical is to assume that all God really cares about for human beings here on earth is that they be born again and thus destined for salvation… [However], what God desires for human beings is that comprehensive mode of flourishing which the Bible calls shalom…God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.”
If the system you subscribe to isn’t offering this type of peace…this shalom…then, well, it might not be worthy of your faith. And it just might be contributing to the absence of peace we’re all enduring in our world.
I think my favorite Christmas song is Christmas Bells and my favorite rendition is by John Gorka. Check it out here. (Here is a live version of the song.)
It Might Have Been Otherwise
I got out of bed
on two strong legs
It might have been
—Jane Kenion, Otherwise
It’s a rainy Tuesday and I’ve been awake listening to the soggy morning that awaits, dreading getting out in it. But, I picked up Garrison Keillor’s compilation, Good Poems, turned to page 25 and read Jane Kenion’s Otherwise. It’s a poem that is at once true, familiar and inspiring. It lives up to Keillor’s criterion of “good poem”. I get a warm feeling and decide I’ll write a little blog post about it and then leap into the morning.
And then…all of a sudden…it bludgeons me with it’s truth. It’s sort of like turning on the TV expecting to see “Love It Or List It” or ” Fixer Upper” and instead there are malnourished children or refugees huddled around a burning barrel. I walk away from Otherwise feeling guilty to actually be walking on those two strong legs, to be drinking hot coffee, to
be sitting in a dry and warm single family dwelling. It might have been otherwise you know! (I’ve recently been told this is the guilt of a Democrat.)
So, the matter at hand is that I have a new
day in front of me. Another day to live life. It’ll be made up of decisions large and/or small, thoughtful and/or thoughtlessly reflexive. The sum of these decisions will bring me to the end of this day some 16 or 17 hours from now. I’ll be proud of some. possible regret some others. And still more of these decisions will be totally forgotten in
the blur of the routine busyness this day will bring.
My spiritual practice today will be to be more deliberate with my time. To be more grateful, more conscious of my decisions and the sum of their results. It could be otherwise.
We praise you with joy, loving god, for your grace is better than life itself. You have sustained us through the darkness, and you have blessed us with life in this new day.
—The Psalm Prayer at Morning Prayers, The Upper Room Worship Book
“Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant, and gullible—these are the qualities of the ideal consumer.
—Wendell Berry, from Our Only World
My wife and I spent much of a recent weekend going through boxes with the goal of reducing the pile down to a point we can actually use our garage for our cars rather than storing stuff. We had really good intentions to have this done before we moved. But you know about that particular road to hell and the intentions with which it’s paved. So the boxes were stacked high. They are filled with things we at some time or another felt we would need or use again. To be fair, much of the contents are sentimental…things to remind us of days gone by when children were babies and family members were still living.
However, if I dig a bit deeper into the archeology of our little garage excavation project, I come to the striking realization that there was a point in time that someone was faced with a decision: Do I buy this particular item or not? Every single item now cluttering my brand new garage and now taking up my precious day off…EVERY ITEM…was the result of someone answering that question with a “YES”.
Wendell Berry’s sobering description of the “ideal consumer” is a mirror that provides clear and precise reflection of our affliction. We, western consumers, are easily manipulated. That, and we’re addicted to the purchase.
I’d like to challenge you to a little experiment. Take the Wendell Berry quote with you and go pick up something you’ve purchased recently. Touch it. Handle it. What was the motivation for buying that? Does it spark joy? How long before this item finds itself in a box in your garage? Go to your garage and look at the things you have stored there. Do you remember why you bought them?
I realize I’m getting a bit preachy. So I’ll stop. However, today is “Black Friday Eve.” Black Friday to me is the most vulgar of our American Holidays. It’s unbridled and unapologetic consumption. The picture above was taken at our local Kmart. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, taking up huge amounts of valuable shelf space in the “holiday section” are rows and stacks of storage bins. The irony is obvious. Lets buy some bins to store the crap we bought before so we can make room for some new crap that we’ll need to store next year to make room for still more crap. I’ve heard so many people complaining about the stores decorating for Christmas before Halloween, completely skipping Thanksgiving. I don’t think retailers do this is because they are evil people with a corrupted agenda. It seems that we all are skipping Thanksgiving. The stores are only giving us what we think we want.
Today is actually Thanksgiving. A day we’ve set aside for giving thanks. Gratitude. I’m particularly thankful for family today. My gang all slept under my roof last night. Other extended family are here for the holiday weekend to share food and memories and create new ones. Others extended family members will be gathering around other tables doing the same. There is much to be thankful for. I wish all of you a joyous and very Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you will be able to spend it with people you love.
And about this Black Friday thing looming tomorrow. Skip it. Extend your Thanksgiving. And when you do go out shopping this Christmas, enjoy it! (But stick a copy of that Wendell Berry quote in your pocket before you go…and maybe a picture of your garage.)
Ok…here I go again…
I’ve rebooted this blog so many times. (One attempt was this post.) I started Jon Acuff’s latest book, “Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck ” the other day. I went all in…pre-ordered…received the free e-books, the Do Over sticker, and the signed book plate. It was going to happen. And then…
I had to actually write something. Something people would actually see. Yeah…I know. It seemed a little pretentious to me too. That’s why 10 days into my “10 Day Do Over Challenge”, I’m ironically stuck on day 3: Reach Out. The task was to send a quick email to someone asking them to check in with me in 10 days to see how my “do over” was coming. I sent that little note to my nephew and proceeded to NOT proceed. I got my nephew’s check-in email yesterday. He did his part! But Uncle Mike is still floundering.
I last posted in this blog over a year ago. The post was about my second Facebook Fast for Lent 2014. That fast actually only lasted a matter of days. However, my undeclared “fast” from writing in my blog was fabulously successful. What developed during ensuing months was a fear of writing my thoughts down anywhere someone could actually read them. I’ve filled a notebook or so with words. But I wasn’t going to be posting anything.
But, Jared has held me accountable. I’m going to start posting again. I’m not sure yet what I’ll be writing about. The writing muscle has atrophied a bit…sort of noodle like. And, confidence, that most effective of motivators, its pretty much gone as well. Limp writing muscles and empty confidence tank…not the best way to start a “do over.” But…I posted the damn picture Acuff instructed me to post in his damn “Do Over Book”. I’m about to click the pretentious little “publish” button at the bottom of this page. (My blog muscle is sore but there are some fumes in the confidence tank. We’ll see how this goes.)
Facebook Fast (2)
I’ve tried this once before. A Facebook Fast for lent. It wasn’t easy and I wrote a couple of blog posts about why. (You can read those here.) I know some folk have begun to get down on Facebook (too many “cat videos”; “who wants to hear/see pictures of someone’s dinner”; “it’s all Humblebragging; etc.
I for one am not ashamed to admit that I LOVE Facebook. Still. Whether it’s cool or not, it’s fun, mostly informative, and has reconnected me with people I knew in high school, college, past churches, past jobs/careers, long distance family. It’s been an extension of community in a very profound way for me since I first started my Facebook page back in 2007.
This practice of giving something up for lint has been mostly a fail for me for years. (If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll say a little prayer for me for strength and discipline to not merely sign off but to pick up a new awareness of God’s presence in my life. You’ll probably still see an occasional post show up on my time line (I have some things set to automatically post…like my occasional tweets and blog posts like this one.) I’ll have to log in occasionally to post something to my youth group FB pages. However, I’m going to ignore the addictive little red number that shows up in the top of the window and on my Facebook app…(note to self: you probably should delete that app for the time being.) This was very hard to do last time (I wrote about that here.)
Peace and blessings to you during this time of lent! See you Easter Sunday!
Christianity After Religion
In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.” Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.
Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life. It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church. It was giving thanks at every meal. It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom. Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life. Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.
There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me. My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233). It was for damn sure draining my very soul. A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool. If you’re not, cool.” I had had enough.
During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak. No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true. There was something different for me about that place. These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities. But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.
When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before. In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord. Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community. It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry. And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.
By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past. These were not utopian by any stretch. But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order). Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.
Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me. I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins. I recommend it very highly. And I recommend you take your time. It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.
I LOVED this book. And that’s odd because I probably can’t recommend it to all my friends. Many would be strongly offended by it. They would quickly react to Nadia Bolz-Weber‘s application of sailor language to godly topics. Many would take offense at her welcoming and affirming stance on LGBTQ issues. And I’ve come to a place that it’s ok if they are offended. I can’t control that. Don’t read the book if you fear you’ll fall in that category. I honestly don’t want to be the one that riles you up and disturbs your peace. (I would like to point out that LGBTQ is about people long before it ever became an “issue”. Like every “issue” out there, when it’s your starting point, you often end up somewhere Jesus isn’t and you walk on a lot of people whom Jesus loves on your way to the smug destination you’ll find at the end of such a path.)
Because of my reading of Pastrix, I recognize the smugness of that last sentence. It comes across as if I’m the one enlightened and all who disagree with me are intolerant and bigots. Now, don’t get me wrong…I absolutely stand by the sentence I wrote above. However, there is a heavily underlined paragraph on page 57 of my copy of Pastrix that says:
Matthew once said to me, after one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, “Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.” — Nadia Bolz-Weber
To further quote Nadia, “Damn!” Pastix shined a light on all the lines I’ve drawn between me and people with whom I disagree. And in so doing, it shined a light on Jesus that I’ve needed turned on for a while now. What I continually discovered in Pastrix was resurrection. It was a continual stream of stories of death and resurrection. Persons and lives dying deaths large and small only to encounter the risen Christ and be raised to new life again in profound and graceful and loving ways. It’s a resurrection that one can and should experience daily. (That’s what Jesus meant!)
Reading Pastrix was something of a cathartic experience for me. It was hard to put my finger on what continually resonated with me as I turned page after page. But as I reluctantly put the book down this morning I recognized a long lost itch (p. 204) that I had continually and unconsciously been scratching all these years but had slipped from my awareness. I realized that I had rediscovered a distant call to ministry that animates my life. It’s a call we all share and it manifests itself in all sorts of different jobs and vocations and roles. But it’s absolutely a call. It’s a call to discover who we were created to be. And its a call to death and resurrection. Thanks Nadia.