Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tom Wright on human flourishing

The Following Christ grad/faculty/professionals conference wraps up today. It's been an invigorating and exhausting week, with lots of great sessions and meetings with folks. Tom Wright has been our main plenary speaker (as he was in 1998 - free audio here), and he's been speaking on the theme of human flourishing through the lens of Colossians. He cited Irenaeus that the glory of God is a living human being, and that humans act as something of "angled mirrors" at a 45-degree angle that both reflect God's image/glory to the world as well as reflect worship back to God.

Random snippets from my notes: In keeping with his themes in Surprised by Hope, Wright continued to emphasize that salvation is not just about an escape ticket to heaven and merely saving souls, and that we are not rescued out of the world, but are called to flourish within the world. The world needs wise and wisely flourishing humans. The more full of God we are, the more human we are. What it takes to be truly human is wisdom. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is personified as delighting in human beings and invites us to come and learn how to be genuinely human.

Colossians 1 shows that Jesus is the personification of wisdom, that everything in Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 is embodied in Christ. Col. 2:3 says that all wisdom and truth are in Christ, which points to the significance of all disciplines of study, whether physics or music or literature or sociology. There's truly a delight and joy in academic study and discovery, and these are expressions of human flourishing.

Also, human flourishing is not merely blissful enjoyment of human experience. It also includes bearing suffering. We bear the cross and take on our share of human suffering. Wright described the British Museum's "Tree of Life" exhibit, which is a sculpture of flourishing life created out of decommissioned weapons. Even in the midst of pain and death, God is at work to restore the glory of humankind. And the hope of glory is not escape from this world, but Christ in us, the global church, who inhabit and permeate the whole world and herald his good and glorious kingdom.

So what does it mean for me to be a flourishing human? At work, in my studies, in my family, at church? And how best to contribute to the flourishing of others? It's not merely that I delight in stuff that I think is fun and shun things that I find difficult or boring. As an Enneagram Seven, I tend to evaluate things in terms of whether I find joy and delight in them (rather than a sense of what is important, or right or good or strategic). I'm trying to figure out what might be a more holistic, wise way of living. And to not merely flourish in a secular sense of human accomplishment, but in a biblical sense of being filled with a sense of God-given vocation, calling and even cross-bearing. So maybe I should not do stuff just because I think it's fun (as much as I enjoy the new official Force FX blue lightsaber I got for Christmas) but rather think in terms of where I can best contribute to the flourishing of not just myself, but of others around me. Much to contemplate as we enter a new year. Happy 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Michael Lindsay and Andy Crouch on power and privilege

I'm now at the Following Christ 08 conference for grad students, faculty and professionals, cosponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity Press. It's kind of an off-year Urbana-like event for folks in the academy and professions. I was at the previous FC conferences in 1998 and 2002, and both were quite significant. 

This year's theme is "Human Flourishing," and prior to the conference proper were a number of day-ahead events. The one I attended was on "Exploring Privilege and Redeeming Power," hosted by the Professional Schools Ministries department of IVCF. This pre-conference brought together people from various disciplines to discuss different dimensions of the use of power. Michael Lindsay, author of Faith in the Halls of Power, gave a summary of his book. A few nuggets:

- Of the 360 Christian leaders he interviewed for his research, only one had ever been visited in the workplace by a local church pastor. Lindsay encouraged pastors to make pastoral visits to their church members' workplaces.

- The greatest indicator of a leader's character is how they treat an assistant.

- Disciplines that can help Christian professionals guard against the trappings of power: sabbath keeping (which is a recognition of human finitude and limits), deep friendship/accountability, humility/integrity, and using power/privilege in service to others.

Then yesterday morning, Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, gave a presentation in which he made a distinction between privilege and power. The track had been using the terms somewhat synonymously, but Andy differentiated them this way: Cultural/creative power is the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. But privilege is the accumulated benefits of past successful exercises of power. In some ways, privilege is coasting on previous actions, whether yours or someone else's.

Others in the track had argued that Jesus divested himself of power, but Andy pushed back against that and made a more careful distinction. Jesus retains power but does not exploit privilege. Jesus would certainly exercise power in feeding five thousand or stilling the storm, but when people wanted to hail him and accord him further status, he divested himself of that privilege.

So too we are called to exercise cultural and creative power in responsible, generative, Christian ways, and to divest ourselves of privilege. Power involves the risk of creating new cultural goods. But privilege can tend to lead to a sense of safety, complacency and entitlement. If we find ourselves in positions of privilege, we should try to find ways to use it on behalf of others. Rather than coasting on past accomplishments, the challenge is to continually use our power to generate new opportunities and cultural goods for others.

This was particularly challenging, to think about how I might be "coasting" on my accumulated benefit/work of the past, and how I might take risks to exercise cultural power for the benefit of others. I'm always a bit ambivalent about discussions about privilege, because it makes me aware of how I might be outside certain spheres of privilege and status. I'm not from a pedigreed background, I didn't go to Ivy League schools, I don't move in upper crust circles. And yet I realize that I do have certain levels of power and privilege that are not available to others, whether in terms of access to education, networks, social capital, etc. It's weird to remember that I do have cultural power, and it's challenging to ponder how I might be a good steward of that power. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jesus was not born in a barn!

I just watched The Nativity Story movie, and it's not bad. But the movie perpetuates something of a myth - Mary and Joseph, alone in a cave stable, giving birth to baby Jesus. It's commonly assumed that Jesus was born in a stable or barn because the biblical text mentions that he was placed in a manger. But Ken Bailey writes in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:
For the Western mind the word manger invokes the words stable or barn. But in traditional Middle Eastern villages this is not the case. In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:13-21) there is mention of “storehouses” but not barns. People of great wealth would naturally have had separate quarters for animals. But simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a “prophet’s chamber” on the roof, as in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17:19). The main room was a “family room” where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century. I have seen them both in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem.
Bailey contends that it is likely that Mary and Joseph were given hospitality by a local family, and that Mary gave birth not by herself, but with the assistance of women from the village. Middle Eastern customs of hospitality and honor would have required it, especially since Joseph's family hailed from the region and likely still had extended relatives in the area. Bailey notes,
“No room in the inn” has taken on the meaning of “the inn had a number of rooms and all were occupied.” The “no vacancy sign” was already “switched on” when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. But the Greek word does not refer to “a room in an inn” but rather to “space” (topos) as in “There is no space on my desk for my new computer.” It is important to keep this correction in mind as we turn to the word we have been told was an “inn.”

The TNIV has a better translation of Luke 2:7: "there was no guest room available for them." The word that Luke uses is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn. In fact, it is used later on in Luke 22 to describe the upper room. Bailey concludes:

To summarize, a part of what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home. The child was born, wrapped and (literally) “put to bed” (anaklino) in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space. Why weren’t they invited into the family guest room, the reader might naturally ask? The answer is that the guest room was already occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house.

The family room would, naturally, be cleared of men for the birth of the child, and the village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth. After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a blanket.

. . . that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years. Yes, we must rewrite our Christmas plays, but in rewriting them, the story is enriched, not cheapened.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Who gives?

'Tis the season both for giving and for financial belt-tightening. The juxtaposition of economic recession and holiday gift-giving is interesting, because a number of recent reports are that a lot of us don't give very much in terms of charitable giving of any kind. Christianity Today's December cover story, "Scrooge Lives!" (by one of my authors, Rob Moll), highlights these facts:

More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money at all—"not even a token $5 per year," say sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell in a new study on Christian giving, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).

Of all Christian groups, evangelical Protestants score best: only 10 percent give nothing away. Evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but they do not outperform their peers enough to wear a badge of honor. Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.

"Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations," Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, "whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent." While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).

In fact, in absolute terms, the poorest Christians give away more dollars than all but the wealthiest Christians. We see the pattern in recent history as well: When Americans earned less money following the Great Depression, they gave more. When income went up, they began to give less of it away.

And it's not just Christians who are stingy. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes liberals to task for not being as generous as conservatives. Some excerpts:
Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.

It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.

According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.

In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)

Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.

Since I often scold Republicans for being callous in their policies toward the needy, it seems only fair to reproach Democrats for being cheap in their private donations. What I want for Christmas is a healthy competition between left and right to see who actually does more for the neediest.
I was challenged some years ago to give away as much as I spend on myself. I don't do this nearly enough, though I'm trying. This particular Christmas season, I've had this odd feeling that Advent is too long. I got most of my Christmas shopping done early, with weeks to spare. And then, with more time on my hands, I ended up buying additional gifts that I probably didn't need to buy. If Christmas had just been a week or two earlier, I would have saved myself a few bucks. (An additional factor is that my wife's birthday is Jan. 4. So I usually end up getting a bunch of stuff for her, and then decide later which will be for Christmas, her birthday, or Valentine's Day.)

At any rate, I'm sick of Excessmas already - bah, humbug. But I'm glad that Christmas is almost here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: Family Ties

My December column for Christianity Today has been posted online. Here are the first few paragraphs.

Family Ties
Sometimes relatives differ, and that's okay.

When my wife, Ellen, and I were dating, I found her sarcasm jarring. I would respond to her sarcastic remarks by saying, "Did you know that sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazo? It's a verb form of the noun sarx, meaning flesh. Sarkazo was used to describe wild dogs ripping out flesh. That's what it's like when you are sarcastic—you're tearing out my flesh." She didn't quite see it that way.

It wasn't until I got to know her family better that I came to understand that sarcasm was one of her family's love languages. They joked around with those they cared for; it was their way of saying, "You're part of the family." I gradually realized that Ellen's sarcastic remarks were her way of telling me that she liked me.

Holidays are usually times of gathering with extended family and relatives that we don't see very often. This can be a cross-cultural experience. The kids play outside while the aunts and uncles hash out family issues in the kitchen. We wonder, How can these people possibly be related?

We all have quirky family traditions and wacky uncles. But we are still family. Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford notes in Never Mind the Joneses that every family has its own way of doing things. Most marriages face conflict when one family culture bumps up against another. Successful marriages incorporate elements from the cultures of both families of origin and forge a distinctive third culture.

Socially, many of us rarely mingle with people beyond our own "family." Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort, observes that Americans tend to organize themselves into like-minded communities, both politically and religiously. We live in fragmented tribes in which we only interact with people we already agree with on most issues. Bishop notes that when communities are homogenous, opinion becomes far more absolute and dogmatic. Conservatives become extremely conservative, and liberals become radically liberal.

Some geographic areas are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat that it becomes inconceivable to residents that people could hold differing opinions. As playwright Arthur Miller asked during the 2004 election cycle, "How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?" We live in echo chambers where our perspectives are not tempered by alternate views.

The church is also at risk of living in theologically homogenous echo chambers. . . .

[Go here for the rest of the article.]

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On digital book readers and the future of the book

For decades folks have been lamenting the impending death of the book, and plateauing book sales in recent years have reinforced these fears. New technology like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader are attempting to be for books what the iPod has become for music. But it's doubtful that these devices will replace print books anytime soon. I just came across Christine Rosen's article "People of the Screen," and she makes these observations about the new Amazon Kindle:
Despite Kindle’s emphasis on accessibility—get any book, anywhere, instantly—this is true only if you can afford to own the device that allows you to read it. You can’t share the books you’ve read on your Kindle unless you hand the device over to a friend to borrow. There are other drawbacks to the Kindle, more emotional than practical. Unlike a regular book, where the weight of the book transfers from your right hand to your left as you progress, with the Kindle you have no sense of where you are in the book by its feel. It doesn’t smell like a book. Nor does the clean, digital Kindle bear the impressions of previous readers, the smudges and folds and scribbles and forgotten treasures tucked amid the pages—markings of the man-made artifact.

. . . when you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”

Anyone who has read a book to a toddler knows that one experience with an e-reader would yield more interest in the buttons and the scroll wheel than the story itself.
I'm inclined to agree with James Gleick's NY Times recent article, where he says, "It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover." Most of us in the book publishing industry love not just the content and the ideas of the books we publish, but also the physicality of the actual books. The physical book provides tactile reference points - we remember where something is in a book by how far into the book it is, or whether it's on the upper left-hand page or near the end of a chapter. There are visual cues in a physical book that are lost in an electronic reading device.

Gleick observes that for mere information retrieval, electronic access has already surpassed print books - hence the rise of Wikipedia and the eclipse of physical print editions of Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. And so CD-ROMs and digital versions of biblical references, dictionaries and commentaries make a lot of sense, when the main need is searchability and retrieval. But for the meditative experience of thoughtful reading, physical books are still the standard.

I still worry if my beloved book publishing industry will evaporate the way newspapers are dying off or how CD sales have fallen off a cliff. Thomas Friedman says that bailing out the Detroit auto industry right now is "the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. . . . It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet." So that's a good word of caution regarding the future of book publishing (or any industry).

Yet I'm encouraged by the dozens of comments on Eugene Cho's blog when he asked people to mention the books that have influenced them the most. People are reading, and not just stuff on screen. I'm hopeful that people will continue to be book readers, and that Christians continue to live out their heritage as people of the book.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Is this life worth living?

Yesterday I spoke in chapel at Wheaton College on the topic of grieving a suicide, because of the suicides of three recent alumni over the past year and a half. The talk hasn't been posted online yet [Update: now available here], but here's an excerpt on whether life is worth living that relates a little to the Advent season:

A larger question that suicide raises is whether life is worth living. Some of you may be wrestling with this right now. And let me say this: This human life is worth living – so much so that God himself came to earth to live it. God didn’t necessarily need to become incarnate in Jesus. In his infinite wisdom, he could have had other ways to accomplish our salvation. But God created this world and our human life and declared it good. And this Advent season, we affirm that God himself came to earth in the person of Jesus. In doing so, he validated the human experience. Jesus tells us that this life is worth living.

When Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t simply tell Mary and Martha, “Oh, he’s in a better place now.” No, he wept because death should not separate us. Death is not the way it is supposed to be. So Jesus brought Lazarus back to life – even though he would die again someday. But the raising of Lazarus is another declaration that this human life is worth living. And it points to the ultimate truth that life will triumph over death.

The Bible has an example of suicide prevention. Acts 16 tells about when Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. When an earthquake opened the doors of the prison, the Philippian jailer thought that the prisoners had all escaped. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself rather than face execution. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” He intervened in the jailer’s life and stopped him from killing himself. He gave him a reason to live and led the jailer and his whole family to Christ.

We can do the same. If you see people who are in despair, tell them, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here! We are here for you.” The warning signs of suicide are prolonged depression and hopelessness, isolation or withdrawal, loss of interest in usual activities, giving away possessions, suicidal thoughts or fantasies, and suicide attempts. If you see these warning signs in a loved one, get help! Talk to them about it. Ask if they’re doing okay. Don't worry that you might be giving them ideas. You're probably not. Better to talk about it than to remain silent until it's too late.

My father’s suicide made me look into my own family history, and I learned that there’s some history of depression. And I remembered that back in high school one summer, I was pretty depressed about a girl who didn’t want to go out with me. I was at a summer camp, and I was acting all depressed. I learned later that my roommate and the camp counselors were concerned enough about me that they put me on suicide watch. They worried about me and talked with me to see how I was doing. I’m grateful that they kept an eye on me. They kept me from slipping further into depression. That’s what community does. We are here to help each other through the tough parts of life.

So if you or someone you know is struggling with depression, get help. There is no shame in going to the counseling center. If needed, ask a professor or pastor for help. In an emergency, call a suicide hotline or even the police. This life is worth living. Help one another live.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

I've been a bit busy with random stuff - work, school, prepping for a talk at Wheaton College next week, just life in general - so I haven't had much extra energy or ideas for blogging. So here are some perceptive quotes from Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan:
Should you put your house on the market today and downsize? Maybe. Should you quit your job? Maybe. Or perhaps God wants you to work harder at your job and be His witness there. Does He want you to move to another city or another country? Maybe. Perhaps He wants you to stay put and open your eyes to the needs of your neighbors.

My suggestion as you think, make decisions, and discern how God would have you live is to ask yourself, "Is this the most loving way to do life? Am I loving my neighbor and my God by living where I live, by driving what I drive, by talking how I talk?" I urge you to consider and actually live as though each person you come into contact with is Christ.

Imagine if you opened up a drawer in your kitchen and found twenty cheese graters but no other utensils. Not very helpful when you're looking for something to eat your soup with. Just as there are different utensils int he kitchen that serve diverse functions, God has created unique people to accomplish a variety of purposes throughout the world.

That is why I cannot say in this book, "Everyone is supposed to be a missionary" or "You need to sell your car and start taking public transportation." What I can say is that you must learn to listen to and obey God, especially in a society where it's easy and expected to do what is most comfortable.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What would you want for your Secret Service code name?

I just read about the Secret Service code names for the new first and second families:
Barack Obama - Renegade
Michelle Obama - Renaissance
Malia Obama - Radiance
Sasha Obama - Rosebud
Joe Biden - Celtic
Jill Biden - Capri

Cool. Previous code names include Rawhide (Ronald Reagan), Deacon (Jimmy Carter), Eagle (Bill Clinton) and Trailblazer (George W. Bush). John Kerry was Minuteman, John McCain was Phoenix, Pope John Paul II was Halo. Best one: Karenna Gore named herself as Smurfette, to her later regret and embarrassment. (I used to read Tom Clancy's novels, and in those books President Jack Ryan was Swordsman, his wife was Surgeon, and his kids were Shadow, Shortstop, Sandbox and Sprite. Love those.)

This is reason enough for me to run for president: I want a Secret Service code name. Maybe something like Bookshelf or Thriftshop. My older son would probably want to be Lightsaber, and my younger son would be a plausible Applesauce. There are Jedi name generators, superhero name generators and a Sarah Palin baby name generator - somebody should make a Secret Service code name generator.

What would you have as your Secret Service code name?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lessons from the Westmont College fire

I was sad to hear last week of the fire at Westmont College that destroyed several buildings there. It was a real-life exercise of the hypothetical question, "If your house was on fire, what would you rescue?" One report mentioned that student Beth Lazor only had time to grab her cell phone, laptop, teddy bear and debit card.

What's been interesting is that the whole experience has made the Westmont community reevaluate their relationship to their stuff. Admissions counselor Todd Pulliam was cited as saying, "I definitely lost a lot of stuff, but in the grand scheme of things it's nothing. I told God I wanted to simplify my life—and he's done it."

Stacey Torigoe, a staff writer for the student newspaper, offered these reflections:

When I heard the order to evacuate to the gym, I was going to sax quartet rehearsal. The only things that I’d been able to save were whatever I was carrying at the time: my precious alto sax and music, my cell phone and the clothes on my back. Hence the “homeless musician,” a label courtesy of my dear sister.

But I’m not planning on panhandling on State Street; I work strictly with ensembles. Maybe someday Jeff and I will get together and play duets, but for now, I’ll worry about whether my favorite jeans have gone up in flames or been soaked into oblivion (or both), along with, of course, my hiking boots and my pictures of home. As a Hawaiian, I long for a rain-soaked embrace after this scorching inferno.

It’s a strange feeling, to be homeless. Yes, I’m sad about losing things - my computer, for example, with irreplaceable pictures of memories that I’ve made at Westmont, my Spam musubi mold and my new hiking boots. Now I’m here in a hotel room downtown with my mom.

It’s a lesson in materialism, long overdue. While going through mental lists of what I lost and trying to figure out what can be replaced, I am constantly reminded of the fact that no matter how precious, none of the stuff in M102 was ever really mine - it was God’s. Even the clothes on my back that I escaped with were never really mine - and they still aren’t. They’re a gift, and they were given - and, by grace, taken away - for a reason.

There's a wisdom and maturity in these reflections. Westmont College is one of the most expensive Christian colleges in the country, and the surrounding area is extremely affluent, where celebrities live in multi-million-dollar homes. (Because of the high cost of housing, Westmont had built on-campus faculty residences so professors could afford to live there, and a number of those residences were destroyed in the fire, meaning that some professors lost both their homes and offices.) This is a community that has had to live in uneasy tension with materialism and wealth. Some students are children of privilege; others are not as well-to-do. But now all of them are rediscovering that material things are not what's most important in life. That's something all of us should remember.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A shout-out to Compassion International

Yesterday I called Compassion International to update our credit card; we support two girls and a program for child survival. I provided my account number and name and address, and the fellow answering the phone asked, "Did you write that book?"

"Um, which one?"

"The suburbs book. I read your blog."

"Oh, that's great. Thanks!"

That was kind of wild. I was surprised and thrown off balance enough by the exchange that I didn't catch the person's name. So, if you're reading this, thanks again, and thanks to Compassion for all the good work you do around the world!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

L’Arche and new monastic communities

After sitting in the Raleigh-Durham airport for four hours due to a flight delay, I'm back home from a quick trip to Duke Divinity School for the launch of the Center for Reconciliation’s new Resources for Reconciliation book series. They brought in Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, along with theologian Stanley Hauerwas for the release of their new book Living Gently in a Violent World. (I love this book. It just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and they also ran a profile of Hauerwas.) Vanier is in his 80s and is not likely to travel to the United States anymore, so it was a privilege to meet him and hear from him. People from L’Arche communities from all over North America came this weekend to see him.

L’Arche is a network of communities that brings together people with and without disabilities to live together in mutuality and friendship. It’s a place of profound countercultural witness. Society often does not know what to do with people with disabilities. But L’Arche is a place that declares to the disabled, “I’m glad that you exist.” During a talk Sunday night, Vanier said something along the lines of, “If we want to have a society that is more human, we must create spaces for those who are different. And we will discover that we are all people beloved by God.”

While in Durham, I stayed with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (coauthor with Shane Claiborne of Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers) at their neo-monastic intentional community of Rutba House. It was good to spend some time with them and get a glimpse of how they do life together, making meals, sharing things in common, confessing to one another and forgiving one another, connecting with the community. They are thoroughly embedded in their local neighborhood and practice a degree of hospitality that is rare in our contemporary culture.

I love how L’Arche and the new monasticism both point to the kingdom of God in their own distinctive ways. Hauerwas says that L’Arche is a sign of hope and exemplifies a kind of gentleness and patience that reminds the church of what it is supposed to be in the world. John Swinton’s introduction to the book says, “L’Arche shows, as the church is called to show, that Christianity is true by demonstrating what community would look like if the gospel were true.” The church in America has much to learn from how L’Arche and the new monasticism practice community, peacemaking, friendship and gentleness.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Wow. History. And the soundtracks for election night nailed it.

I was thoroughly impressed with both McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory speech last night. Both hit just the right notes, and I am encouraged that we really can be a United States of America and move forward as one nation. Yes, we can.

I loved the fact that my local CBS affiliate had no voice-over commentary after Obama's speech and just let the cameras roll as Obama, Biden and their families celebrated with the Grant Park crowds. I thought the music sounded like a movie soundtrack, and I learned this morning that it indeed was. And both candidates used music that interpreted the meaning of this election. This is from the MTV Movies blog:
Movie lovers might have noticed that each man chose music from a [Denzel] Washington movie to play while walking offstage after their respective speeches. And, not for nothing, but we think they both made the perfect choice.

Consider: McCain left the Arizona stage to part of Hans Zimmer’s score from “Crimson Tide.” (This part, actually.) The 1995 Tony Scott film focused on a career Navy man (Gene Hackman), labeled a maverick by some, who is stripped of his authority and ultimately beaten by a young black guy, somewhat new to the scene (Washington).

Then there was Obama, who left the stage to the strings of Trevor Rabin’s score from “Remember the Titans.” The 2000 Disney/Bruckheimer joint? It followed an African-American coach who brought together whites and blacks to win a championship.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day 2008, finally!

Well, this is it. After this wild and wacky, interminable election season of Tina Fey and Joe the Plumber, it all comes down to today. It's been a fascinating, discouraging, maddening and exhilarating ride. If my friends' Facebook statuses are any indication, my friends' presidential preferences seem to reflect national polling percentages. I have friends that are far more conservative than me and far more liberal than me, so it's been interesting to watch the dueling Facebook statuses and the links they've posted to a whole range of articles and YouTube videos. (My favorite this year: this one. Very clever, and quite amusing even if you disagree with the position.)

As recently as mid-September, I was genuinely undecided and ambivalent about whether even to vote. What surprised me was that as I engaged in discussion and conversation with various friends, I found myself being pushed out of my indecision and toward a commitment. I could not sit on the fence indefinitely. That's the democratic process at work, apparently. 

(BTW, this year I've been particularly annoyed at the negative campaigning. And I have to say that some of my more partisan friends, in sending me various negative links, actually pushed me toward the other candidate because it seemed that they had nothing positive to say about their own candidate.)

One key concern I have this election day is whether the President-Elect will be able to bring the country together and work with people who voted the other way. I'm encouraged that Obama has the support of folks like Colin Powell, and that McCain has the support of folks like Joe Lieberman. Whoever wins, the reality is that the new president will have to govern from the center. So I am hopeful that the new administration will include independents and people from both parties in key positions.

During the primaries, at one point I thought it would have been great to have an Obama/Huckabee or Huckabee/Obama ticket and have the best of both of them. What if we had just quit the campaign after the primaries and declared a copresidency between both parties' nominees? Think of the hundreds of millions of campaign dollars that would have been saved and could have been used more constructively elsewhere. I think it would be interesting to have a coalition government where conservatives and liberals share power and need to work together to govern. Families and churches need to learn to live with people who disagree with each other; why not the presidency itself? 

But alas, that's not how our system is set up. So last week, on the last day of early voting for Illinois, I stood in line and voted early. I'm one of the formerly disillusioned that sat out of the 2004 election because I could not bring myself to vote for either candidate that year. So it says something about this national moment that I was drawn back in to not merely vote out of duty or obligation, but genuine interest and civic concern.

So go ahead and vote. (Unless you determine that you cannot in good conscience vote this year. I think it's okay to not vote as an act of protest.) Whatever happens, pray for whoever wins, and for the common good of the country.

And if your candidate doesn't win tonight, don't get all bent out of shape. After all, in a few months the 2012 campaign will start up and we'll go through this all over again.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Matthew 11 on learning from Jesus and finding rest

In the midst of a crazy time juggling work, school and life in general, this past weekend I experienced a bit of an oasis in the midst of the storm. I was at the Invite 08 Soul Care for Leaders retreat/conference, hosted at Willow Creek and cosponsored by the Spiritual Formation Alliance and Soul Care. I was there leading a workshop on spiritual formation in the suburbs, and I was grateful for the gift of a time of retreat, worship and restoration.

In the morning, Doug and Marilyn Stewart (veteran spiritual directors with InterVarsity who go to my church) provided a guided retreat reflecting on Matthew 11:28-30, the classic passage where Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." I realized that I often come to Jesus distracted and fragmented, but that's okay. He still invites me to come, even in the midst of those distractions, and to bring those things with me. And what jumped out at me was that Jesus does not say "I will take away your burdens." The stuff of life is still there. But he gives us rest, and that changes how we interact with our burdens.

I was also struck by the next line: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me." I'm in the midst of an educational studies program, and something that has become clear to me is that there's a vast difference between teaching and learning. Christians have tended to focus a lot of energy on teaching and communicating the gospel and doctrinal content, but we have not thought as much about how people actually learn. We tend to assume that if we preach about it or teach about it, people will learn it. But that's often not the case. So this verse jumped out at me as one of the relatively few verses that speaks specifically of "learning" rather than "teaching." And it's significant that there's an experiential dimension to the learning. It's not just content download. It's lifestyle, practice, and exercise of trust.

Something else that was jolting to me was an application of the next phrase, "for I am gentle and humble in heart." I've always glossed over that, thinking, duh, of course Jesus is gentle and humble in heart. But I hadn't seen the connection between Jesus' character/identity and his call for us to learn from him. Could it be that Jesus wants US to learn to be gentle and humble in heart? Yikes - that changes things entirely! That means that this passage is not just about us getting a restful spiritual benefit. It means that Jesus is concerned about our apprenticeship to him and our character transformation. The more we are yoked to him, the more we should become like him.

Perhaps then we will be more likely to find rest for our souls. The more we are humble in heart, the less bent out of shape we will be by our burdens and the stuff of life. This passage is not just about God changing our external circumstances. It's about our internal transformation as well, which equips us to face our circumstances.

I have to admit that I am not very good with extended solitude and silence. I am a fairly antsy, restless person, and rather than sitting still during the retreat, I found myself roaming the halls and wandering aimlessly around the church. I am ambulatory that way. But even so, I think God connected with me in the midst of my frisky-puppy ENFP prone-to-wander personality type. And I am grateful.

During my workshop, something that came up in discussion was how frantic and crazy busy our suburban culture and lifestyle is. And we observed that that's perhaps why evangelical interest in spiritual formation has grown so much in recent years. It's countercultural to practice silence, solitude, retreat, sabbath, quiet, contemplation. It's interesting because I've now presented on suburban issues both at activist social-justice-type conferences as well as contemplative spiritual formation events. And the two kinds of communities can temper one another. We may naturally gravitate toward one group or the other, but the contemplative tradition can temper the activists, just as the activists can exhort the contemplatives. The church needs both.

Anyway, thanks to Mindy Caliguire and the Invite 08/Soul Care team for putting together the event, and for the invitation to come to Jesus and learn from him.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jack Mezirow on transformative learning

I’m in a class on critical thinking, and one of our readings is from educational theorist Jack Mezirow’s book Learning as Transformation. Here are a few snippets that jumped out at me as having particular relevance to us this election season:

“Our culture conspires against collaborative thinking and the development of social competence by conditioning us to think adversarially in terms of winning or losing, of proving ourselves smart, worthy, or wise. Deborah Tannen (1998) writes of ours as an ‘argument culture,’ a cultural paradigm that conditions us to approach anything we need to accomplish together as a fight between opposing sides, like a debate or like settling differences by litigation. Political discourse becomes reduced to negative advertising. . . . We tend to believe that there are two sides to every issue and only two. We set out to win an argument rather than to understand different ways of thinking and different frames of reference, and to search for common ground, to resolve difference, and to get things done.” (pp. 11-12)

“Discourse is not based on winning arguments; it centrally involves finding agreement, welcoming difference, ‘trying on’ other points of view, identifying the common in the contradictory, tolerating the anxiety implicit in paradox, searching for synthesis, and reframing.” (12-13)

“Our values and sense of self are anchored in our frames of reference. They provide us with a sense of stability, coherence, community, and identity. Consequently they are often emotionally charged and strongly defended. Other points of view are judged against the standards set by our points of view. Viewpoints that call our frames of reference into question may be dismissed as distorting, deceptive, ill intentioned, or crazy.

“Who we are and what we value are closely associated. So questions raised regarding one’s values are apt to be viewed as a personal attack.” (18)

“A more dependable frame of reference is one that is more inclusive, differentiating, permeable (open to other viewpoints), critically reflective of assumptions, emotionally capable of change, and integrative of experience.” (19)

Monday, October 20, 2008

"I Shall Not Want" sermon, and what happened when Elijah broke the DVD player

A week ago I preached at our church, and the MP3 audio for the sermon is now available online at our church's website. The sermon (dated 10/11/08) was titled "I Shall Not Want," based on the lectionary text of Psalm 23 (and a little riffing off the other texts of Ex. 32 and Phil. 4). I was asked to fill in on somewhat short notice, so I repurposed a fair amount of my suburban workshop material on consumer culture. If you have a half hour to spare, you can listen to the sermon and get a summary of my book's chapters on consumerism and branding.

The week prior to the sermon, Elijah broke the DVD tray on our TV. We have one of those combined three-in-one TV/VCR/DVD players. A few weeks prior, Elijah had broken the VCR part, and it doesn't eject videos right anymore. It still plays them once you get one in, but you have to really fight to pry it out. And now the DVD tray is off of the track or something, and it no longer closes.

I had a section in my sermon about how in consumer culture, if we need something, we go out and get it ourselves. Our default setting is to consume. If something breaks, we buy a new one. Instead of automatically purchasing new things, we should take the practical step of first saying "I shall not want," and pray to see if we can do without it, or borrow it, or if God might provide it through some other means. And I mentioned Elijah breaking our DVD tray. (Now I had to see if I would really practice what I preach. Funny how our own sermons preach to ourselves that way.) I observed, in the big picture of things, we don't really need a DVD player. People have survived for thousands of years without one. So we would live without one in the meantime.

I have to admit, when Elijah broke our DVD tray, part of me wanted to throw out the whole thing and say no more TV/videos/DVDs, ever again. On the other hand, another part of me wanted to go out and buy a new TV. Maybe a nice big plasma flat-screen thing we can hang on the wall, out of kids' reach. (Or not.)

Ellen and I could still watch DVDs on my laptop, but I didn't want the kids touching it (especially since Josiah wrecked an earlier laptop by pouring milk on the keyboard). So Ellen and I were wondering if instead of replacing the whole TV, maybe we just get a cheapie thirty-dollar DVD player and use that with our current TV. Still, it felt like an unnecessary consumer purchase for something we don't really need.

Then yesterday, Josiah and I were playing Lego Star Wars on the Playstation, and it suddently hit me - hey, maybe we can play DVDs on the Playstation! We'd never tried it before, but sure enough, the Playstation also works as a DVD player. The game controller works as the remote control. So now the kids can still watch DVDs on the TV, through the Playstation, and we didn't have to buy anything new. Problem solved. The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Debate camp flashbacks and lessons

In anticipation of tonight's third and final presidential debate, the New York Times has an article titled "Debate Camp," which triggered memories of the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school when I went to debate camp. I was in high school debate, and I debated for two years (and lettered in debate - how geeky is that?) before dropping out senior year to make more room for other activities (like newspaper and theatre - how geeky is that?).

I actually was thinking about debate just last week because I caught up with fellow high school debater and friend Jenell Williams Paris, who was speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Conference. Her talk on the church visible as good, bad and ridiculous is available online here. Excellent material - she argues that the church as the continuation of God's narrative necessarily includes the good, the bad and the ridiculous, and that all of these are integral elements of the plot and drama of the Christian story and our own stories, with all their character development, conflicts, plot twists and surprise endings. It echoed Kevin Vanhoozer's talk from last year's conference about the gospel as drama. (Speaking of Vanhoozer, I finally got a copy of his Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, which is an absolutely stunning compendium of multidisciplinary scholarship. I looked up the article on poststructuralism, and it had me at hello. Seriously.)

Jenell and I went to different high schools in the same debate league, and we debated against each other numerous times (she was very good). We got to know each other because we were in the same lab group at debate camp. I figured out that she was a Christian because she had Amy Grant tapes, and back then only fellow evangelical church kids had Amy Grant tapes. We reconnected years later because both of us wrote for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly and we bumped into each other at a Vine conference in 2000 and have kept in touch via the blogosphere and Facebook ever since.

Anyway, all this made me reflect on how much being in high school debate league has shaped my worldview and perspectives. First and foremost, I learned how to structure an argument. "Resolved, that the United States government should adopt a policy to increase political stability in Latin America . . . Contention 1. Harms. Contention 2. Inherency . . ." I find that how I organize and structure books now draws much from the flow of debate cases - you establish the significance of the topic and the harms/problems at hand, and explore the reasons that the problems are not being solved. Then you introduce your plan for addressing the problems and demonstrate how your plan achieves solvency, yada yada yada.

I also learned how to research, and I recall many long hours in the library making photocopies of the Congressional Record and clipping quotes as evidence to be cited from notecards. I learned how to think on the fly and write a rebuttal speech while listening to an opponent's speech. I learned how to tie a necktie. I learned how to talk fast. Well, I already talked fast, and debate made me talk even faster.

A side effect of being in debate was a tendency to frame everything in terms of argumentation, and I came to disavow this default setting later on. In fact, one of the reasons I quit debate was that I got tired of it being so adversarial all the time. It's exhausting, and some of the rhetoric of this current election season reminds me of those debate modes. Nowadays I'd much rather work more collaboratively in discussion rather than argumentatively in debate.

But I also learned from high school debate that basically every argument has some degree of merit, and every position has its strengths and weaknesses. No policy or case is ever fully right, or fully wrong. During the course of a debate tournament, we would regularly debate the affirmative side in a case one round and then debate the negative side the next round. We would routinely need to marshal our own best arguments against ourselves. We would have to learn how to argue for and against various positions, regardless of our personal beliefs on the issue. This didn't make us all relativists; rather, it taught us critical thinking skills and helped us learn to weigh the merits of every position and line of argument.

I think being trained in high school policy debate has made me more skeptical about absolutist claims from either political party or platform. Theorist Richard Paul talks about two kinds of critical thinking: "weak" critical thinking is only able to employ critical thinking against opposing viewpoints. But "strong" critical thinking is able to be self-critical and to examine one's own positions. As such, strong critical thinking usually leads to greater epistemic humility and is less dogmatic. As Esther Lightcap Meek puts it in her book Longing to Know, there's a difference between certainty and confidence. Absolute certainty is unlikely, and an impossible standard. But confidence is a more biblical way of thinking about things.

At any rate, I've been thinking about some of these things during the last presidential debates, and I'm sure they'll be on my mind tonight. I'll be looking for the candidates to move beyond the talking points of their stump speeches and to employ critical thinking and analysis, not merely attacking or deconstructing their opponent's positions, but also demonstrating epistemic humility and awareness of the complexity of the issues.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Obama on Niebuhr

Stumbled across this David Brooks comment this morning: "I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I'm getting nowhere with the interview, it's late in the night, he's on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he's cranky. Out of the blue I say, 'Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?' And he says, 'Yeah.' So i say, 'What did Niebuhr mean to you?' For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say."

(Note: Reinhold Niebuhr should not be confused with his brother Richard, who is most known for his classic Christ and Culture.) I was interested that the Wikipedia article on Niebuhr linked to this David Brooks New York Times column from last year:

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”

My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.

Back in college (or was it grad school?) one of my profs pointed us to Niebuhr's Moral Man in Immoral Society. I just came across this comment on Niebuhr's thought:
While individuals in their personal dealings often transcend self–interest (hence "moral man"), nations dealing with other nations, or social classes with other social classes, have little or no capacity for self–transcendence ("immoral society"). Nations and classes have limited understanding of the people they harm by their unjust self–assertion; they lack appreciation for the often complicated laws and institutions through which such injustice is perpetuated; and they are more inclined to embrace rationalizations of self–interest than prophetic denunciations. These facts, for Niebuhr, explain why dominant groups rarely yield their privileges except when put under pressure by some countervailing social force.

Niebuhr’s "Christian realism" was not, however, a Darwinian or Machiavellian ethic of pure struggle and the will to power. Niebuhr stressed the relevance of agape, or Christian love, not as a directly practicable political principle, but as the ideal toward which justice strives and the standard of judgment on all political achievements in history. Moral, rational, and religious appeals might be subordinate factors in the struggle for justice, but Niebuhr still counted them as real: if rational and ethical considerations alone don’t make oppressors yield just concessions to the oppressed, they often do enable them to internalize rather than contest reforms once they are established.

Does this give us a hint about how a President Obama might govern? Perhaps. It may also be significant that Niebuhr is credited with writing the serenity prayer: "God, grant us grace to accept with serenity that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference." That's not just good Christian realism; that may well be a good philosophy for governance.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Young adults want Obama for a professor but want to read McCain's diary

A new Gallup poll reports that young voters ages 18-29 are more likely to vote Obama than McCain. No surprise there. But something that jumped out at me from the report was this paragraph:

"Obama also beats McCain on several lighter dimensions tested in the poll. A majority of 18- to 29-year-olds would choose Obama over McCain as a teacher, boss, drinking buddy, or advisor. McCain's only appeal on this level with young adults appears to be his personal life story as young adults are more likely to be interested in reading McCain's private diary than Obama's. While such items may seem trivial, basic likeability can be a key indicator of a presidential candidate's ability to win votes."

Here are the details:

Friday, October 03, 2008

Google, then and now

For Google's tenth birthday, they created a way to search their oldest available index, from January 2001. I did a few vanity searches to see the difference over the past seven years. The results:

Search for "al hsu":
in 2001: 70 results
in 2008: 13,800 results

Search for "albert y. hsu":
in 2001: 1 result
in 2008: 9,120 results

Search for "suburban christian":
in 2001: 368 results
in 2008: 22,700 results

So the Web has grown quite a bit in the last few years. No wonder I can't keep up with everything anymore. I also can't imagine life without Google. I use it basically every day, looking things up, fact checking, etc. I remember when I was an editorial intern in 1994 or '95, I actually called a museum to fact check something. And for a grad school media class, I had to go to the physical offices of a cable TV company to look up original air dates of a TV show season and episodes. Can't imagine doing that today.

The Atlantic recently wondered if Google is making us stupid. I wonder how Google is changing how people interact with information in general and books in particular. Not only are we less likely to look things up in a print book when we can just search Google or Wikipedia, it's also probably true that we're less likely to have the capacity for sustained analysis and argument because we've gotten used to short blog posts and snippets of information. I think it's significant that many blog entries I see are short quotes of a few sentences or paragraphs lifted from books - they might have nuggets of insight or wisdom, but they're isolated from the larger context or point that the book was making.

As I've gotten into my precourse readings for my grad school classes (after twelve years away from formal coursework), I've been finding it challenging to carve out the time for book-length reading and study. And even in my daily work, where I'm working on book manuscripts all the time, I find myself constantly distracted by this or that little thing that somebody posts or links to on Facebook.

And Google has completely changed the whole notion of research. In the mid-'90s, For my master's thesis/first book, I was almost completely dependent on the physical library, books and journals for research. A decade later, for my suburban book, I had no end of leads, ideas and material from around the world, instantaneously available via Google. But the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming, and it was hard to know what to sift through and go after. Call it the law of unintended consequences. Google has been great for access to info, but we are all completely swamped, distracted and ADD as a result.

(I'd say more, but this post might already be longer than anybody cares to read.)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: Surprised by Disability

[My October column for Christianity Today has now been posted online. Here are the first few paragraphs.]

KINGDOM SIGHTINGS
Surprised by Disability
Why the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible.
When my wife, Ellen, and I received prenatal confirmation that our second son would have Down syndrome, we were concerned but also relieved. Why? Because a previous diagnosis was more severe: that our son's condition might have been, as the doctor put it, "incompatible with life." He told us that we could terminate the pregnancy, but we chose to "do no harm" and prepare for our child's birth, come what may. Several months later, we joyously and nervously welcomed Elijah Timothy Hsu into the world.

Life with Elijah has been challenging but not unmanageable. He has had his share of doctors and therapists. But for the most part, he is a happy and healthy three-year-old who loves Blue's Clues and Signing Time DVDS, roughhousing with his older brother, saying "No!" and giving hugs.

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and the public needs to know that Down syndrome is not nearly as scary as many imagine. Recent articles in both the American Journal of Medical Genetics and Prenatal Diagnosis report that more than 90 percent of pregnancies prenatally diagnosed as Down syndrome are terminated. As prenatal testing becomes normative, expectant couples may be more likely to abort babies who are not exactly what they had hoped for.

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, which bring abled and disabled people together under one roof, warns in Living Gently in a Violent World that in a few years there may be no more children with Down syndrome in France because they will have all been aborted. In China, babies with disabilities are often abandoned. Extremist groups in the Middle East have even used people with mental disabilities as unwitting suicide bombers. The church must advocate on behalf of those most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Care for the disabled is a global justice issue.

The 2000 U.S. Census found that 19.4 percent of the population is affected by physical or intellectual disability. One in 140 children now has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the 2007 Annual Review of Public Health. Cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, spina bifida, Alzheimer's, and a host of other conditions affect millions. If you don't currently know someone with a disability, chances are that you will.

[Go here for the rest of the article.]

Sunday, September 28, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Overseas missions vs. urban ministry

Another question from Elizabeth: "On pg. 179, you say, "many suburban churches give more to overseas missions than they do to support local ministries in nearby urban centers." Why do you think this is? Is it because churches have individual callings and some are not called to urban centers? Or is it lack of knowing about the needs? Or some other form of neglect? Thanks for doing this - I've enjoyed interacting on the blog."

Thanks, Elizabeth - it's been fun for me too!

I think that historically, evangelicals have championed overseas missions in a way that has not been true with domestic urban ministry. We've romanticized the heroic overseas missionary, going to the far corners of the world. At the same time we've had something of an anti-city bias. Evangelicals have tended to view cities and urban centers as dens of iniquity and evil. And part of this has been affected by America's racial history and dynamics; even though both suburbs and cities are far more diverse today, there's still a cultural narrative that says that white folks live in the suburbs and other folks live in the cities, and thus suburban white churches have been nervous about urban connections/ministries because of their "otherness."

So when young people say they want to become overseas missionaries, their suburban home churches are likely to laud the decision and support them as their sending churches. It bolsters our sense of identity to reach out in such noble ways, to those "poor natives." But if our young people say that they want to move into a local urban neighborhood or get involved with a ministry in the city, that's not as glamorous or sexy. That makes people nervous. That might be perceived as outside our turf or sphere of responsibility - those city churches can minister to their own.

(The cynical side of me would say that for some predominantly white suburban churches, it's fine to minister to different-looking people on the other side of the world, but not people with different skin color in the same metropolitan area. Somehow the local cross-cultural dynamic is scarier than the exotic overseas journey. I saw something recently about a study showing that multiracial churches tend to work only until kids get to high school age. Then white parents bail out because they don't want their daughters dating black guys.)

Also, there's a dynamic where it's easier to support overseas missions because of the remove and distance. You don't see the daily realities because they're not immediately before you, so it's a safe way of ministering by sending a check or going on an occasional short-term mission trip or hearing updates from the missionaries that you support as your proxies. But local metropolitan urban ministry is nearby enough to be inconveniently disturbing. You're just a few miles away from people who live in contexts far different than your own, and it's troublesome to ask why they live in such unjust conditions when you have your comfortable houses just a half-hour drive away. Better to not get involved at all so you don't have to think about those troubling realities.

I realize I'm caricaturing and overgeneralizing, but I think these are some of the subtle psychological dynamics at work behind why we selectively choose to support some missions/ministries and not others. It's hard for us to be self-critical and ask probing questions about how we prioritize different ministries, since there's almost always good reasons for this or that. So to answer your latter questions, yes, it's all of that - some churches might legitimately feel callings not to focus on local urban work (though this can be a cop-out), and others just aren't aware of the needs or issues involved and need to be better informed. It ultimately might boil down to an idea that "we are not the city, so it's not our problem."

As I've said in various ways, as the suburbs continue to urbanize and diversify, suburban ministry is becoming urban ministry. Suburban churches no longer have the luxury of assuming they can merely stay in their suburban bubbles. It's increasingly important for all churches, urban and suburban alike, to seek the welfare of the whole metropolis. It's got to be a both/and. Limited resources mean that every church needs to be discerning and selective about what they do and don't do, but we can't overlook our own metropolitan area and only deploy resources in our immediate suburban communities or overseas. It ought to be a triple both/and, that we have concentric spheres of ministry that are suburban, urban and global.

Friday, September 26, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Urban engagement/relocation and church hopping/anonymity

Two questions from Christy:

1) "I appreciate your thoughts on urban vs suburban living. What observations would you have for Christians who desire urban engagement but are hesitant because they feel they would be sacrificing things such as their children's education etc.?"

Relocation has of course been one of the hallmarks of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and they have long advocated that true transformation and urban renewal happens most when Christians incarnationally live in a local community rather than trying to minister by commuting in from a remote location. If someone is sensing the call to relocate but has doubts, I'd recommend reading books like Bob Lupton's Renewing the City and Randy White's Journey to the Center of the City and Encounter God in the City to get a good picture of both the challenges and the opportunities of relocating to an urban context. Both authors talk about how they've grappled with issues like parenting and education, and the short answer is that their kids have come out fine, with appreciation for the experience. And when Christians really inhabit a community and get involved in the local school districts, the education experience improves not only for their own children but for others as well.

As I say in the section on "Displacement" (pp. 184-86), relocation (in any direction!) needs to be discerned carefully. Sometimes taking baby steps of displacement (short-term trips, urban plunges, etc.) can be a catalyst for a larger lifestyle change and an opportunity to hear God's call to a new environment. And of course it's essential to have like-minded community and fellow travelers to help you in the discernment, displacement and relocation.

2) "In your book you address the mega church response to suburban life. Can you share some of your observations regarding the issue of 'church hopping' in these types of communities? Can you expound on the idea that anonymity is one reason these larger church communities are attractive to those with the suburban mentality?"

I'm not sure I have any significant observations about church hopping except that it happens. It's kind of a default way people find and change churches these days; we've long passed the era of denominational loyalty. I read a statistic some years ago that when couples get married, if they come from different denominational backgrounds, 9 times out of 10 they leave both traditions and start going to a third. In our consumer culture, people change churches and church hop just like they change brands of jeans or cars. If they have a strong sense of community and affinity with a church, they'll be more likely to stay - if not, they'll hop.

Regarding anonymity, I'd first note that anonymity tends to be a suburban cultural norm. We tend to be anonymous when going to the grocery store or the movie theatre. Even if we're regulars at a particular store or restaurant, often we won't ever see the same cashier or waiter. It's easy to slip in and out of places without connecting with anyone or having name recognition. So that's a cultural norm and unconscious expectation that many suburban church visitors bring with them when they visit churches.

Various church experts have noted that in many cases, certain kinds of visitors actually don't want to be greeted at church the first time. Many want to just slip into the back of an auditorium and watch the proceedings while they decide whether or not this particular church is their cup of tea. At smaller churches, it's more likely that an usher or greeter will make personal contact with a handshake or a conversation, and so megachurches with large worship spaces provide a more anonymous entry point for those who are initially wary of being approached. This is not how things should be, but this is generally how things are, at least for some.

So smaller and midsize churches can provide an alternative by genuinely welcoming visitors - some have said that for people to stick with a church, they need to be able to identify and recognize at least six or seven other people by their fourth visit. Sometimes this will be a self-selecting kind of thing, and people who want anonymity will naturally gravitate to the bigger churches, while those who want to connect and know and be known will go to smaller churches. But there's always a complex mix of dynamics going on in every situation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

George Fox Q&A: More on megachurches

This question is from Dan J.: "I have been greatly influenced, as have many, by the ministry of Willow Creek. Your book makes some good observations about Willow and other megachurches as far as influencing the lives of suburban Christians. However, I'm wondering how much of a detriment that an all inclusive Christian community such as Willow Creek might be to the overall idea of creating or influencing redemptively the "physical" communities that suburban inhabitants actually live in? In other words, can we really afford to spend more time hiding from the communities that we've been called to?"

Your question gets to the heart of some of the megachurch backlash that we've been seeing in recent years, as megachurch attendees start to wonder if the megachurch is really good for them and their community or not. Call it the law of unintended consequences at work. Megachurches do some (many) things very well, and that's why they're megachurches. They would not be what they are if they were not authentically ministering to lots of people on a large scale. But the fact that they create this "all inclusive Christian community" has its own unintended consequences in relocating the focus of Christian life and activity to the church facilities rather than incarnationally dispersed throughout local neighborhoods. Hence the multisite corrective I mentioned earlier.

I think the bottom line is that megachurches can do some things that smaller churches can't do, and smaller churches do some things that megachurches can't do, and we need both. Some people will be reached by megachurches that would never be reached by smaller churches, and vice versa. So there's a place for both in the suburban landscape. Churches of all sizes need to be aware of their own pitfalls and tendencies, and to guard against negative unintended consequences, like hiding from our communities, as you mention. If church time displaces us from really being rooted and involved in local neighborhoods, then we probably need to cut back on how much time we spend and invest at the church and rediscover ways to locate ministry and community life away from church.

George Fox Q&A: Finding your church's calling

Another George Fox question from Vaughn: "In Chapter 8, you repeatedly mention the vocation/calling of suburban churches. Could you say more about how you believe local churches go about determining their calling, and is there anything specific that suburban churches should keep in mind when seeking their calling?"

One way that churches can determine their uniqueness and sense of calling is to explore their own history, identity, context, experience, and gift mix of current members. Every church has a particular story and a distinct way of being and doing church that is different from other churches in the area. One diagnostic that always gets a lot of good discussion is for church leaders and members to ask each other, "Why did you come to this church? Out of all the other churches in the area, why did you visit this one? Why did you stay? What did you find compelling about this particular church?" (I blogged earlier about some other questions that churches can ask themselves.)

How a church discerns its sense of call and vocation is a mysterious process much like it is for us as individuals. Over the years, we as individuals get a sense that God has created us in certain ways, with particular gifts and interests and aptitudes for certain kinds of work or ministry, and we prayerfully ask for God's guidance as he leads us into things that seem to be what he has called us to do. When we find those things, it's like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire - "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure." Likewise, God made our churches in particular ways, and each church is uniquely positioned to do some things well, and when we do those things, we feel God's pleasure.

Books like David Benner's The Gift of Being Yourself can be read and discussed congregationally and applied to a church context. Also, resources like Good to Great (and the companion Good to Great and the Social Sectors) are helpful in determining what it is that your church can be best at.

As far what suburban churches in particular should keep in mind, let me tag back to the previous post and say that suburban churches should understand their calling in relation to their particular suburban context. Your church exists for such a time and place as this. What is it about your particular church that is called to minister to this particular suburban context? Know thyself, and know thy context, and somewhere in the intersection of the two may be clues to your church's missional calling.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Systemic mission and field reconnaissance

A question from Vaughn: "I really appreciate your encouragement to see the suburbs as a place for mission both in the sense of personal transformation and systemic transformation (p .187). I would love to see my small suburban church plant develop a parish mindset in which we found common purpose around a mission to bring transformation to our local neighborhood (as some have defined "Missional Church"). However, in my middle class neighborhood there aren't many visible systemic issues other than those that you noted in your early chapters (consumerism, individualism, etc...and I certainly share your concern with these issues as well). Do you have any suggestions for how middle class suburban churches might approach "systemic" mission in their own neighborhoods?"

Great question. I think that every church can identify the systemic needs and issues in their particular community and neighborhood by doing some "field reconnaissance." One pastor I know (whose church is located in a Southern Californian suburban area with lots of changing demographics) talks about how every suburb has systemic issues, but they're often hidden below the surface, and it takes some work to sniff them out. Some ways you can do this:

- Visit and talk to social service agencies (whether governmental or nonprofit) serving your area. What needs do they see? What resources do they lack?

- Talk to public school teachers. If you have any teachers in your congregation, they may be some of your best "field agents" because they are on the ground, in the community, and they see what their students are facing. Teachers are often the first to see problems when students are struggling, and can often get a sense of trends in economic hardships, parental alcoholism or abuse, lack of health care, mortgage foreclosure, etc.

- Go to a city council meeting. I know, these can be mind-numbingly boring. But some people really get a kick out of them, and they can shed light on what systemic issues a community might be facing. If you have a policy-wonkish member of your congregation that loves debating politics, send them to a local city council meeting and have them invest their energies on a local level instead of just being concerned with national politics all the time. All politics is local, and often local concerns are far more bipartisan and less polarizing than national issues that can be all abstract and removed.

- Visit neighbors. Bill Hybels did this when starting Willow Creek, and he got a sense of what kind of people lived in his community and what concerned them. We can do the same today. It's unfashionable to go door-to-door these days, but maybe there are ways we can talk to people at parks or Starbucks, not with an evangelistic tract or a hokey "religious survey," but with genuine efforts to hear what people are grappling with locally and personally.

These are just initial steps, obviously, as I don't know that I can make specific recommendations for next steps without having a sense of the particularities of your actual context. And I'm going to wrap up this post because another question just got sent to me!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

George Fox Q&A: "Consuming Christianly" or "being consumed by Christ"?

Here's another George Fox student question. This is from Josh: "On page 76, you ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" While I agree that Christians, by and large, fail to live by Christian standards in the marketplace and global economy is this really the question that we need to be asking? I agreed with many of your conclusions regarding suburbia and how it shapes and defines how we understand and define spiritual vitality; yet, is it not the suburban mindset that would lead us to ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" It seems that a more pertinent question that we should be asking is: How can we be consumed by Christ? In your opinion, what can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God, and thereby be consumed by Him?"

Good question and good point, Josh. You're of course quite right, that we should be asking, "How can we be consumed by Christ?" I think you can ask both questions side-by-side. One is more practical, one is more spiritual. My question "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" was in the context of the discussion of consumption. Because consumption is unavoidable, we can't simply say, "Don't consume." We have to consume. So we have to ask how we can do it most Christianly.

And, as Andy Crouch points out in Culture Making, some cultural goods are meant to be consumed and received with gratitude. He writes, "There are many cultural goods for which by far the most appropriate response is to consume. When I make a pot of tea or bake a loaf of bread, I do not condemn it as a worldly distraction from spiritual things, nor do I examine it for its worldview and assumptions about reality. I drink the tea and eat the bread, enjoying them in their ephemeral goodness, knowing that tomorrow the tea will be bitter and the bread will be stale" (p. 92). But he goes on to say that Christians consume far more than we ought, and that consumption should not be our default posture. Consumption is an occasional gesture to be used appropriately, but it is not our fundamental stance toward all of life.

So consumption should not be the center of the Christian's identity, and I think you're getting at the question of whether even using the framework of consumption is in some way capitulation to consumer culture's values and worldview. That's a very good point - Christians should subvert and transform consumer language and find more thoroughly Christian language and vocabulary.

As far as the specifics of your question, "What can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God?" I think a starting point is a fundamental reorientation of rooting our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God as opposed to as consumers in this consumer culture. Our primary identity should be as followers of Jesus and heralds of his good news. Once that reorientation takes place, we can begin to resist the idolatry and competing allegiances of our consumer culture. We can employ any number of spiritual disciplines and practices to cultivate a deeper commitment to God, which of course can vary depending on your theological tradition and ecclesial background. (I point to disciplines of creativity, generosity and simplicity, but of course there's much more that could be said than just these.) We can affirm the theological truths that God truly is shepherd and that he is our fundamental source of provision. Trusting God as shepherd is a theological orientation that runs counter to our cultural consumer narratives that we need to provide for ourselves via our own consumption.

One quibble, though, with the language of "being consumed by Christ." Sometimes this comes across as an overspiritualization, that we are so caught up in adoration of Christ that it's all we think about, that he consumes our every waking thought and whatnot. The language of "being consumed" can imply that we're consumed in the sense of something being consumed in a fire - used up, extinguished. I'm not sure that's the most helpful metaphor or image for Christian devotion or ministry. Better, I think, to talk in terms of being equipped, mobilized and deployed for God's good works, not just to be consumed up in some private act of devotion.

When we eat food, we consume it, but not just for the sake of consumption - the food fuels our bodies for activity and good work. When we fill up a car with gas, we consume the gas, but for a purpose, of transportation and getting us somewhere. Likewise, if we are consumed by Christ, it shouldn't be just exercising energy for our own personal spiritual benefit. It ought to be deployed outward, with some sort of missional purpose, that God is using us and our resources for some good ends. Ideally, we should all be fully devoted to Jesus, to "be consumed by him," but in the sense of living actively for the sake of the kingdom, in whatever ways he has called us and gifted us to live.

Well, that's what comes to mind this morning. What do you think? Are there other ways to counter consumer culture and to be consumed by God in positive, constructive ways?