Monthly Archives: April 2013

The subtle cues

Oedipus Rex, Little Red Ridding Hood and a smart phone – what do these have in common?  All of these were potential introductions for the sermon I preached this Sunday.  The first two stories twist at a key point when information known to the reader is revealed to the characters.   There is an incredible shift in angle and a complete reorientation of the story.  The smart phone belongs here in that when it is turned from vertical to horizontal there is a point at which the screen compensates and flips.
If they equally convey the point, why choose one versus an other?  Do I pick the most engaging, the easiest to explain, the shortest or the one most recognized by the audience?  All of these are valid criteria and hint at the subtle dynamics of engaging and ultimately selecting an audience.

Engaging is always connected to selecting.  For example if I preach for fifty minutes on average there will only be certain types of people who are able to engage with such preaching over the course of time.  These people will stick around and invite likeminded friends, while most others will fade out.  Similarly, if the majority of my sermon illustrations draw from classical literature or professional sports, I will connect to a particular sort of listener and send subtle clues that this church exists for a certain sort of person.  When evaluating the effect of talking about smart phones I was thinking about the people whom I might include and exclude.  The technologically savvy, the younger generations, the business person, and those with some disposable income would feel at home.  On the other hand, older generations, many of the poor, working class adults, and many immigrants would perceive me, and potentially the church, as cut off from their world.  Maybe this is over thinking it, but every time I tell a story or make a passing cultural reference I’m describing a world in which people belong or feel like outsiders.  While no church (or sermon) can reach all types of people, I’d rather cast a broader net.   I think this reflects biblical norms in that the church is meant to be a mixed community filled with all sorts of people.  I think my approach also reflects our desire to serve those that God will bring us.  I have an idea of the people to whom God might lead us to serve, but I don’t want to miss leading because my net is too narrow.

A complicated morality

“Watch the news from other parts of the world,” was the advice and homework from one of my professors in seminary.  It provides a different perspective on national events as they are explored through a different set of questions and interpreted from a different framework.  This week I came across an article reflecting on the Boston bombings from a Pakistani columnist.  She writes for the nation’s largest English speaking newspaper and is familiar with covering such incidents as Pakistan suffered over 650 such attacks last year.  Here are a few excerpts from Rafia Zakaria’s article “The Tragedies of Other Places:”

Attacks in America are far more indelible in the world’s memory than attacks in any other country. There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response.

It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war.

America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.

When terror hits the site of such faith in human fortitude, the impact is large. The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war. The runner runs, sweats, suffers, and deserves the prize; the messiness of the world has no place in that vacuum of earned achievement where victory is straightforward in a way that it can never be in actual life. The rest of the world is a more complicated place; its people are forced to digest more complicated truths whose vast gray areas rob every tragedy of the pathos available to Americans living and mourning in a universe of black and white.

This is an incredibly rich article with much to consider, so I’m going to isolate a few thoughts:

Broken faith in human fortitude:  Qualifying to run in the Boston marathon is an accomplishment; finishing even more so.  When I see the 26.2 sticker on the back of a car I think of the  months of training, the time constraints and physical strain – all of which take place before the race.  So when these athletes and those who come to celebrate them are together injured and killed, it shows our incredible frailty.  We can push the body, exert the will and concentrate our focus on a singular end, yet it unravels so quickly.  The body we push is broken, our energies are turned aside, and our expectations of what would be fail.  In the display of strength that is the Boston marathon we now more clearly see our weakness.  Is this weakness something from which we want to hide?  Yes, but it is inseparable from being human.

The thin fence between violence: Many of us live as if danger is far away.  We die from heart attacks, cancer, or car accidents unless you live in a “rough neighborhood.”  In other parts of the world you die if you’re grocery shopping on the wrong day.  You die if you’re early or running late to a party.  You die ridding the bus, going through check point, standing next to a police officer or on your way to school.  The arbitrary nature of violence and death is felt much more acutely in societies without the security and freedom which has been passed down to us.  As our world continues to change the security and self-sefficiency that seems inseparable from the American life, may further erode.

Choosing to run:  We were recently watching the DVD of the John Adams mini-series and when he was representing the colonies in France he was caught up in a conversation about music.  Acknowledging that he hadn’t studied music he said that his son would not either.  Adams continued that he studied law and participated in the revolution so that maybe his great-grandsons would have the opportunity to study music.  Adams understood that studying music was a privilege that his world did not allow and to set aside other matters for this pursuit would be wrong.  We live in a country where we freely choose all sorts of recreations and easily forget all  the pieces in place to give us such freedom.  Recreation, regardless of the type, is a privilege and as such should be viewed accordingly.  For example, I assume that the winner of this year’s Boston marathon is not gloating or celebrating.  He is likely mourning and to some degree thankful to be alive.  Yet, when the bombings fade from our the tip of our conscience we will gloat and mourn our team’s victory as if there is nothing larger in the world.  If it is inappropriate to celebrate in the midst of death and violence what of the death and violence in America’s rougher neighborhoods?  What of the death and violence in Pakistan and so many other places?  Yes, we need to go on with normal life in the midst of a world which is full or sorrow and pain, but we also need to rethink normal.

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  These are Jesus’ words to a crowd of men, women, and children familiar with violence, oppression, terrorism, and the frailty of human life.  I’m going to be preaching from this on Sunday and I believe there are ways in which we don’t want to hear these words.  Speaking of mercy and grace to Americans is usually much easier than speaking of justice and the righteousness of God.  I wonder to what degree our sentiments will continue to evolve as we experience violence and wrongdoing.

A guy walks into a bar with an ice axe…

This may sound like the beginning of a joke but last night it almost happened.  A friend is going hiking out West and will be carrying an ice axe on part of his trip so I offered to show him the basics of ice axe use.  We were meeting at a pub and I was trying to figure out whether to bring my ice axe inside, wait outside with it in hand, or find some other means to make the exchange.

I had a great time hanging out and over the course of the night the subtext to couple different conversations  was the question, “What do you want?”  I remember asking myself this question mid-way thorough college and struggling with answers.  This question that touches both desire and purpose still plagues me and many to whom I am connected.  I think the difficulty with this question is that many “conventional” answers have been deconstructed and there aren’t clear alternatives to take the place.  Here are some of the examples that come to mind:
1.  I want to get married and raise a family: Divorce, living together, and the normalcy of sex without commitment push marriage further off the radar.  While life long commitment still has a powerful allure there is some skepticism as to whether the “right spouse” will be found at the right time of life.  When it comes to kids there are concerns about over population, consumption, and the ability to be a good parent.
2.  Success and the American Dream:  While there are still many who are driven to achieve and make money, there is a growing critique and almost sense of guilt associated with wealth and ceaseless consumption.  While few want to embrace poverty there is a stigma with being part of the 99%.  Add in a slow economy with less clarity about a career path and the questioning of direction grows.
3. I want to be a person of character:  What does it mean to be a good person?  Do you eat organic food, drive a hybrid car, mentor troubled youth, build homes in Haiti, vote along certain political lines, maintain your own ethical norms, or just try to care for those closest to you?  The traditional morality that we might associate with the 50’s holds little power to capture the imagination and answer deep longings for purpose.  “Doing good” is attractive end but it is hard to define good in a world of competing ideologies.  With the normalcy of moral failure, corrupt business practices, and outbreaks of violence we wonder if we can be good.
4.  Pleasure:  While in my observation pleasure is an important part of the answer to, it is also recognized as too shallow.  I’ll hear, “yeah, I did that in college but at some point you have to move on.”

The challenge for me is to embrace Jesus, as the object of my desire, the resolution of my questions.  When asked what I want, I need to be able to  answer with the Apostle Paul when he says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”   Gaining Christ, being found in him; this is the central truth, the one answer that can hold together and reconstruct all the pieces that have fallen apart.  I need to continue putting together the different pieces of my life in a way that reflects the centrality of Jesus and myriad of hopes that pull at me.  What do you want?

Being an “absolute idiot”

This Friday night I visited a meeting of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), a campus ministry to students of Brown and The Rhode Island School of Design, both in Providence.  I always enjoy being on college campuses and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find parking – somewhat rare for college campuses.  It was great to worship with the students, hear the teaching, and interact with a couple of them afterwards.  In the midst of one of these conversations another student asked if we’d be willing to answer a few questions.  To make a long story short this student, along with two friends, introduced themselves as atheists doing research for a potential sociology project.  I’m glad I was able to interact with them and hope to cross paths again and out of all that we covered I think there are three things that stood out:
1.  People who object to the reliability of the bible don’t know it that well.  This isn’t a fault of atheists.  If I were an atheist I wouldn’t spend a lot of time reading the bible and studying theology so that I could tease out the complexities.  I, as an atheist, would see the glaringly strange items right on the surface that seem absurd and therefore dismiss the bible without further thought.  The specific example we spoke about was the Old Testament prohibition of blending different fabrics which is punishable by death.  Yes, this is a little odd but fits within a larger picture of the religious and cultural life of ancient Israel.  Furthermore, they did not know that this aspect of Old Testament law had been fulfilled in Christ and was not something that Christians understood as binding.  If you’ve spent much time in the church you pick up on such distinctions but it would make sense that an atheist would not be aware of this line of thinking.  So it is important to have these conversations, acquainting people with the biblical world and pointing out the solutions and difficulties that come as we struggle with the sacred text.
2.  Remaining calm, not getting defensive, and acknowledging some of the difficulties of belief open up the door for pushing at the weak points of atheism without inciting a heated confrontation.  From a Christian point of view, it makes complete sense that people will not believe in God and seek alternative ways of viewing life.  We should expect people to find Christianity foolish and see those who profess Christian faith as foolish.  The least a Christian can do is to refrain from appearing as an angry fool.  In Christianity there is incredible power to love those different than us and regardless of how well I can respond to the various lines of questioning I can do so in a loving manner.
3.  Near the end of our conversation, one of the students cited Richard Dawkins, who purportedly says that, “anyone who believes in religion is an absolute idiot.”  The students asked for my response to this question and if I ever get asked this again I want to ask if this critique is for the modern man only or extends backwards.  What of Bach, of Rembrandt, of the countless religious who have contributed to culture and history in profound ways.  I may be an idiot but I do not think such men were.  Dawkins, like many thinkers of the the various ages, will probably fade to the darkness of merely academic interest while the music of Bach, the paintings of Rembrandt will move and stir us through the generations.

Exploring “blue collar”

One of the descriptors that has continued to come up as we grapple with church planting in Worcester is “blue collar.”  I’ve been told by different people in a variety of settings that Worcester is a blue collar town and when I try to pin down what is meant, that is when the issue gets murky.  When I hear blue collar I assume that means men doing manual labor.  Here were the sticking points that I came upon….

-A pastor in the area describes his close friend as blue collar though he is an architect with his own firm.

-An article in an alternative paper in Worcester talked about participation in hurling, a traditional Irish sport.  One of the team members said their team reflected the spirit of Worcester and then went on to described them as blue collar guys from all the schools [colleges/universities] in the area.

-The major employers in Worcester – Medical Centers, colleges, hospitals,  insurance, and Polar Beverages – are disproportionally white collar.

My guess, based upon various conversations, is that Worcester is blue collar in its self perception and ethos.  There is a rich legacy of manufacturing and industry in Worcester and people here hold onto the past.  There is also a grittiness to Worcester and “blue collar” might be the best way to convey it.  As I figure out more, I’ll be sure to pass a clearer picture along.

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