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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Board Games and Conversations

One of my earliest memories with my dad alone is him teaching me to play chess. I'm pretty sure it was somewhere before kindergarten since it was in Ohio shortly after we moved. I probably wasn't very good at that time, and I'm still not great at the game, but I will almost always say yes to a game or two.

Board games* hold a special place in my life for several reasons. My family played them as I grew up, I have many holiday memories with my cousins playing games, and during college I started playing games with friends again. Funnily enough, it was those years in which I didn't have time for games that I struggled the most in my relationships with God and other people.

When playing a game, we are forced to spend time with another person. We are also forced to consider actions with consequences. Usually, both of these prompts force us, at least momentarily, out of our normal routine. The balance between routine and change produces some of the best fruit in my own life. When we never alter our routine, we take for granted those experiences which should surprise, thrill, and challenge our perceptions and skills. On the other hand, constant challenge leaves us harrowed and gaunt spiritually. Rest must be found in the tension and space between the two.

In the past few years, I have enjoyed the trend in our culture to return to board games. For several years, the men of my generation were drawn much more towards video games. The movement toward board games has given me the opportunity to renew and initiate relationships with many more people. The level of engagement in community during video games is usually very low. An individual can spend hundreds of hours in virtual worlds crafting a pleasure prison for their souls while ignoring the needs and joys of the people they may be playing alongside. Not so in board games.

The reality of the person making a choice while we wait on them to choose their next action forces us  to come in contact with them. This person is not myself and has different concerns than myself. Sometimes, it is as simple as waiting for the other person to return from the restroom during a longer game. The patience required to interact and play with this other individual allows me to realize what it means to live the other person as myself. If I do not extend the same courteous patience to those I play games with, other people will not want to extend those courtesies to me. Implied in this realization is the notion that the other person is equal to and same as me in importance. In other words, patience cannot be merely transactional to be effective. If my patience only lasted for the length of the game, I may be able to fool the other participants, but I could never fool myself. There is no lasting reason to play board games with other people versus video games if I cannot enter into non-transactional relationships.**

The same fact is true for many human activities such as cooking, teaching, sports, music, and even daily work.  These acts cannot be true in the fullest sense until they are each done in the spiritual manner which allows us to see other people as equals. This posture enables us to serve one another rather than demand service. Counter examples seem to beg the question, but suffice it to say that no human activity can remain fulfilling when done only for the preservation of self. Even the most egotistical person must momentarily shut their mouth to listen and respond to the needs of those around them if they are to succeed in any measure in these endeavors. A failure to do so leads to the implosions of celebrities so often celebrated in tabloids and other bastions of misery.

Returning to the point at hand, board games and other human activities realize their purpose only insofar as they further the purpose of bringing people together as equals. Board games must spark conversations. They must destroy boundaries. They must help us to serve one another or they aren't very good games at all. Winning isn't everything, it's not even the main thing.


*I use board games to refer collectively to games people play at a table, surface, or shared space together even if those games are technically party, card, tabletop, role-playing fantasy games, etc.
**In the back of my mind while writing this post were Mark 12:31 & Luke 6:38

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Transitions

I recently resigned my role as youth minister at a local church. It will be a month short of five years when I finish.  Despite enjoying being with students and their parents, I have come to the conclusion that my participation in a traditional student ministry and traditional church setting have reached an expiration date.

I love God's church. I am not of the mindset that anyone needs to abandon it wholesale.  However, I have been convicted, in the last eighteen months, of my complicity in the institutionalization of contemporary traditional churches in the U.S.  Three major things and innumerable minor things brought me to my current conclusion. In no particular order, I would like to share the three big things.

1. The church must be primarily a movement, not an institution. Early Christians were convinced of the urgency of their message and were willing to die for it.  This urgency must be born out of an organic, super-natural, and life-giving movement.  Movements change. They are messy. They hold true to their foundational impulses without vying for control.  Institutions insist on control. Movements break barriers of control.  

Institutional systems may be helpful without being primary, and yet the current state of most traditional churches in the U.S. is one of institutional primacy.  In these cases, the movement character and nature of the church dies. Instead of inviting people to Jesus, we (myself included) invite people to our church.  Here, our church patterns, programs, and ultimately institutional nature become a barrier to discipleship and when a number of people eventually and unavoidably reject the institution, they are told they are rejecting Christ.  This must end.  

As the bride of Christ, the church must reclaim her movement impetus.  We must unleash and empower people to ministry.  In particular, the Sunday morning as the primary, sometimes only, means of connecting with the rest of the church must be jettisoned.  We must embrace Gospel community and realize the necessity of regular fellowship, service, and mission which stay on task with our movement goals of sharing the Good News.  

Additionally, we must no longer be afraid of the Holy Spirit. He is able to equip Christians for every good work from the moment of conversion and yet we often cripple people with the burdens of institutional requirements rather than helping them to become disciple-making disciples. The vessel of the Holy Spirit is His people, not a building and we must come to recognize this reality regularly. 

If local churches decide to use buildings and the Sunday morning service, it must always be in service to the greater callings of the movement. Sacred spaces and sacred times are the way of the institution, and in language that recalls Paul, these were part of the old way of doing things. 

2. If it's not clear yet- traditional churches cater to a passive model of club member participation and programming. 

Think about it- if Sunday mornings and the building and programs built around Sunday mornings are where we put the majority of our time, money, and interest... then people must come to us and enter into these systems in order to experience the church.  This parallels the club member experience where people are served (i.e. passively receive) the benefits of an established organization. Events become scheduled by staff or high level volunteers in order to preserve the controlled order of the institution. Scheduled programming serves to fill time rather than spontaneous acts of love and worship. 

Even at the best service oriented churches I have seen, we have about thirty percent of people mobilized on any Sunday morning to serve. And yet, how did Jesus say Christians were supposed to be known? We are supposed to sacrificially love one another and actively live out the Gospel (cf. John 14:11-17).  

Specifically, what do I mean by club member participation? Clubs have rules and established parameters for behavior, spending money, and future activities.  Clubs also expect you to participate in their meetings or you are not a member in good standing.  Think about how often you have used a phrase like, "I'm going to church," or "our  church is a good place to experience worship (or preaching/small groups/children's ministry/etc.)." What types of imagery does this bring to mind? Does it bring to mind a body of believers working in one accord to live out kingdom principles? Does it make you think of people making disciples who in turn make disciples? Or how about this question- do people rely on staff for programming and scheduling of when the church body gets together? If so, does that sound more like a passive club or an active movement?

Clubs are known for their meetings and meeting places.

For example, most teaching in the church is done by one person talking and the rest sitting compliantly and listening. For me, this is one of the most frustrating things about traditional youth ministry. I try to make my times interactive and have students participate in questions and life application. They usually don't participate though. What is one of the primary reasons for this? The Sunday morning service. This is where we pour countless hours, money, and focus.  By default, it leads to students' perception that this is the expected way to learn and interact with the church.  So, if Sunday mornings include no questions, little interaction, and a sit-down-and-shut-up approach... why should we expect a sudden change of behavior at other times?

Most people in our local churches are in perpetual bondage to debt. This debt includes car loans, mortgages, credit card debt, school loans, and more. Many of these people will never be free from the servitude brought on by this debt. And yet, instead of teaching people to utilize their homes as places of worship, we spend more money on buildings that are infrequently used.  Should the solution be that we use the buildings more with more programming? Probably not, considering most of our programming has the passivity problem built into it.

3.This leads me to say- The kingdom directives I am asked to fulfill, primarily under the umbrella of disciple-making, will not be fulfilled in a traditional church setting. 

Do I think local churches who use Sunday morning services, traditional U.S. buildings and campuses, and a cadre of paid staff will be never fulfilled in a traditional church setting? Nope. That's not what I am saying.

I am saying that it is really hard for local churches to be healthy because those things lend more towards institutionalization than a movement focus. Those things also easily become about passivity and a club member approach to Christianity.

For American Christians, following Jesus is often seen as a lifestyle choice. It may be seen as the best lifestyle choice, but it is still just a choice. The previously mentioned reasons lead to this implicit assumption.

Christianity is more than that though. It is true. It must be true or it's not worth it all.  I think it is worth everything. If it is worth everything then I can't simply be passive about being the church.  For me, it's not worth continually fighting the uphill battle against our natural inclination of institutionalism to stay rooted in the traditional church. I applaud those who are able to use those obstacles as advantages and help people become better disciples of Christ.

What's next for me? I'm going to be starting and a part of organic churches.* I'm not completely sure what that looks like. This is a transition for me and my family. I do know it won't be limited to Sunday mornings or a particular building. It will involve radical hospitality and service in my community. It will involve letting go of control of other people and instead trusting the Holy Spirit to empower believers. It will also involve some disappointment, but I am sure there will be plenty to be joyful about as things change. I expect to be part of disciple making movement and not just a leader of programming.

Transitions are hard. This has definitely not been an easy one for me, but I am excited to see what God brings next.




*Among others, Neil Cole has recently done a good job of explaining and disseminating the cause of organic churches, rather than just house churches. The key difference is not just a minor quibble of terms,organic churches expect to reproduce in multiple settings, not just houses, and also grow organically and naturally rather than huddling and cuddling as some house churches are known to do. Check out - https://www.cmaresources.org/about/mission_values 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Innocent Enough

For a long time, I have struggled internally with what people think about me.  It's been a nagging question, and I finally realized how arrogant it was about a year and a half ago.  Someone said something along the lines of, "You don't really think they are that concerned with you with all the stuff they've got going on do you?" The question stung a little, but later I realized how out of line I was with my thinking.

Since then, I've been working on this concept called Innocuous Intent.

Innocuous Intent means that I don't ascribe meaning to someone's action, thoughts, or words that aren't there.  Instead of assuming the worst, or even the best, I try to assume nothing.  In other words, when I encounter people, I take them at the truth value they present to me.

This has relieved a ton of stress for me.  No longer am I guessing about what is or isn't behind someone's actions.  No longer do I have to worry, "Are they just pretending to like me?" If someone doesn't say they don't like me, then I don't assume their actions have anything to do with me. For example, if I interact with someone at the grocery store who has a terrible attitude and yells at me (it has happened more than once) I can stop and realize that I don't need to ascribe intent to that person.

So, what kind of diagnostics do I use to help me through this process?

1. First, in emotional situations (such as the yelling), I just stop and focus on my own breathing.
2. Next, I say a short prayer that God would use this situation for His glory.
3. Whenever someone speaks, I try to hear the words they are saying.
4. Then, I try to respond clearly to what the person said, either through a word of affirmation or by responding to a question they may have posed.
5. After the person has shared anything they want to share, I try to make sure I have heard them.
6. Internally, I remind myself that it isn't my job to control, manipulate, or overwhelm other people.
7. Finally, I respond with anything I would like to say about my expectations or feelings.  Hopefully, by this point I have calmed down (if it was a tense situation) and can say what I need to say in a way that doesn't assume anything or try to control the other person.

Basically, my exercise in innocuous intent tries to leave emotional and relational baggage that I may have out of the current conversation I am having with someone else.  I need to assume nothing about the other person as I listen to them. Often, tones of voice, body language, and other sub-conscious parts of conversation filter in to our current conversations.  It is my goal to better respond with respect to people without letting those other leftover cues dominate my interactions.

In short, I'm going to assume someone's words are innocent enough, until they prove me otherwise.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A God that Could be Real - Book Review

Nancy Ellen Abrams' latest book provides insight on how a naturalist and life-long skeptic could make spiritual sense out of world which she believes is necessarily closed to any supernatural entity.


From the start, assumptions are made about the character of the universe.  In the introduction, she makes two points which dominated the book: 1. "All the old views of God are demonstrably inadequate to our times (xxx)." 2. God can only be real if it is found within the natural explanations available in the universe (xxviii).

I found the book to be filled with similar assumptions that took for granted a naturalist view of the universe. For example, the Abram's assumes God could never communicate faster than the speed of light and could therefore never know everything. Why? Because she knows of no physical and scientific explanation of how this could be possible.  So, from the beginning everything is assumed, which for me makes a rather droll reading.

Where does her God come from if everything has a naturalistic explanations? Philosophy and life both provide an answer in this case.

Abram's has a background in philosophy (B.A. in the History and Philosophy of Science from University of Chicago) and employs it well to develop a naturalistic theory of God (her capitalization). Emergent properties are those properties of a new entity which are not solely explainable in terms of previously existing properties of constituent agents.  Two of her main examples are ant colonies and economic markets.

An ant colony may described as having emergent properties because the colony does things like move immense amounts of dirt and prioritizes food sources.  No individual ant is doing these tasks, the colony instead is responsible for the.  Second, an economic market has power to act and complexity which no individual participant can understand or control.

I happen to believe emergent properties are real.  Abrams' insufficiently explains emergent properties though.  She also uses some bad examples, our inability to individually understand or control either how all the constituent parts of something like a market work does not mean that it is impossible to do so. An argument from incomprehensibility is not a  very good argument in my view, at least if you are trying to maintain a purely naturalistic explanation of the world.  It reminds me in some ways of Colin McGinn's Mysterianism. In such a view, humans are never going to understand certain things completely, but we must accept them as natural.  As to ant colonies: complexity, synergy, and laws of averages may be sufficient to naturally explain the so-called emergent properties of ant colony. I do not happen to believe an ant colony actually has emergent properties.

In any case, the philosophical idea of a naturalistic God is one that emerges from the collective consciousness of humans.  This God is not omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, or most of the other omnis God is famous for in theology.  I say most because it seems at least possible that this God could be omni-benevolent from Abram's point of view.  This God is consciousness on a large scale and it has all the benefits and rose-tinted outlook you might expect from such a God.

Particularly, this God effectively works to help answer personal prayers of fulfillment and self-worth of the individual as well as spurring as on to good deeds.  This is Abrams' God which brought her through some hard times in life. In this sense, it is a helpful and useful idea. It may even be a true idea purely in terms of its explanatory power of how people who have wrong ideas of God may still benefit from them in this life.

It seems Nancy Ellen Abrams and I agree that certain things in life are valuable like health, common decency, rational thought, and a pursuit of truth.  That at least is a good thing. We even happen to agree that, "There is one magnificent cosmic origin story, and it is equally true for everyone on Earth. To know who we are, we must tell it in every language, every medium, and every generation." We don't happen to agree on what that origin story is though. Fundamentally, her book is the work of a naturalist who wants to act as an evangelist for her God.  Although it includes some rational defense of her belief, it is ultimately and simply the exposition of rational preacher trying to fill hearts and minds with something more.

This is where I believe the book fails. I cannot simply and blindly follow this evangelist's points of conjecture and just believe in faith that this natural world is all there is in existence.  It is a leap of faith I can't take.

I would recommend this book to those who are interested in the intersection of faith, public policy, scientific naturalism, and current social trends in the U.S.  In that sense, I think this book portrays an accurate picture of the world. It is not technical, instead being designed for the lay-person with a college education.

I received my review copy through Library Thing's monthly book giveaways and the generosity of Beacon Press with the assistance of Daniel Barks, Sales Assistant. Thanks to both for my review copy.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Direction

Life is always full of unexpected challenges and opportunities.  During the past couple of years, I have been surprised over and over again as I take time to review, contemplate, and assess my experiences.  The surprises usually come when I take a look at the times which I thought of as unproductive or even counterproductive.

One of the things that I have consistently noted is how I have become a much more detailed oriented person than I used to be as an early twenty something.  It is not that I am some master of organization now- that will probably never happen.  Instead, I am very aware of my own faults and I'm o.k. with them.  Being o.k. with my faults doesn't mean that I encourage bad behaviors; it just means that I am aware of them and I know how to deal with them much better.

For example, I recently realized I was not taking an accurate view of myself and the way I spent my time.  There were times when I was far too optimistic and rosy, and there were times when I was way too hard on myself.  So, when I realized this I decided to start doing some specific disciplines again.

First, I started a journal.  Each day I take some time to fill a notebook with what I have done with my time.   Accomplishments, prayer, conversations, and daily events now litter my notebook. It is even starting to be a habit I look forward to each day. At first it was annoying, but now I can see areas of growth and areas which I need improvement.

Second, I started taking a picture of something ever day.  My focus with every picture is to find something which explains a little part of my life.  Visually recording these things helps me bring some cohesiveness to the fractures I sometimes feel with my time.

Finally, my prayer life has become more regular.  There are several parts to it but two of my focuses right now are praying for opportunities for me and my Christian friends to share Jesus, and a regular confession and lament over sin.  There have been times when I didn't take either of these parts of my prayer life as seriously, and I know that my relationship with God and other people have floundered.  Praying in this way helps me stay on course.

I'm not sure where God is going to take us next, but we will be ready for it. These disciplines are helping me to submit to God regularly and joyfully. It's not necessarily comfortable, but it is freeing and peaceful.


It could be compared to taking a long road trip. Rarely are such trips completely cushy and comfortable.  Still, memorable roads trips always deliver amazing experiences, even when they are subtle and long in the uptake.  

In my twenties, I wanted shorter trips so I could get somewhere quick. Usually this was somewhere I wanted to go, somewhere I had fantasized about. Right now, I'm ready for the long haul...ready to find out where the road takes me.  Surprises aren't a bad thing. 

It's o.k. if we don't get there right away. We'll get there though. We just need to keep going in the right direction. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Great Conversation Starter - Considering Hate

I love it when a good conversation starts. You can tell when it happens, each party engages the other with animation and without animosity.  Passion meets intellect while a back and forth ensues. This book is a great way to start one of those conversations.* 


While reading, I found myself having one of those conversations internally with the authors of the book. The authors come from a very different perspective than my own, and this would not typically be a book I would just pick up and read.  However, by forcing myself to consider their perspective through the discursive nature of their book, I have been able to expand my own response to the issues therein. 

Considering Hate presents a counter-cultural narrative on how to combat violence and hate within America.  Although most people view violent acts as atypical aberrant acts, the authors make the case that violent acts are more typically the expected outworking of a hate filled society.  Hate as such is not the visceral, internalized feelings of those on the fringe of society. Instead, it is the product of a society which allows itself to be divided into groups of those who belong and those who are outsiders.  In this breakdown, outsiders are seen as less than human and for this reason acts of violence are perpetrated against them in order to further humanize the group in control.  

The main trope of the book, seen as an example on the cover, is that of love and hate as opposing sides of the same culture.  The image comes from the films The Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing. In each of these films, love can only conquer hate by using equal measures of control, domination, and power to overcome hate.  The problem with this metaphor may be found in its continuity with the culture of hate.  How can a culture of hate be overcome with a love founded on the same assertions of dominance? In particular, preference for being part of one group and not another becomes the only reason for calling one type of action love and another one hate.

Within this context, the authors develop their case for the current inculcation of a culture of hate within American.  Deeply embedded within our media lies an undercurrent of violence.  The authors point out many examples from popular culture to illustrate this point. Throughout the book, fear is shown to be at the root of this culture of harm and hate. The recent growth and development of the prison state emphatically points to this facet of American culture. 

If overcoming love with hate through an overwhelming show of opposite force is not the answer, then what is the solution?

Responsible action motivated toward healing, reparation, reconciliation, and transformation of the underlying conditions must change our society.  In order for this to happen, those who create harm and violence must begin to work not only to end these actions but also to heal those wounds.  Primarily, this must be done by ordinary people because this is a societal problem not a leadership one.  In particular, if violence is the norm because we are a violent society, then we must work to change what society is if we want to be less violent. Leaders of our society are only as powerful as they are endowed to be as a reflection of our state of being. 

The authors make a strong case for acts of intentional care and compassion. Only by reaching beyond our fear in love can we transcend hate.   When we conquer our fear by seeing and treating other people groups as people, we may be able to transform our society into one of justice.  

A quote from the end of the book is illustrative at this point:
"It is impossible to explore questions of goodness without a willingness to witness, examine, and resist brutality and inhumanity." (pg. 142)

The authors, Whitlock and Bronski, do a fine job of putting their case forward in an approachable and understandable way.  At the end, I found myself wanting to engage in dialogue with those I may disagree with on social, economic, or political issues.  A good book will do this, despite any reservations one may have with particular issues in the book.  In fact, working through these disagreements in dialogue is the hallmark of a democratic society. 

As a Christian, I love having books challenge my perspective and bring me back to Christ.  Do I endorse everything in this book? No, but that is typical of many books.  Did this book make me think and re-evaluate my approach to violence, hate, justice, compassion, and goodness? Absolutely. I think that makes it a profitable read for discerning Christians.  After all, Christ calls us to serve and love, not control and hold power over others. 

For any adult, I would encourage them to read this book so that conversations may happen.  I believe people want to think they are good people. If we are to be a society that concerns itself with the issue of goodness we must be willing to carefully consider the case for a new type of love, one based upon what may be unfamiliar in giving up our power and position. 

And finally, quoting from Barry Lopez's "Eden is a Conversation" piece:
"Conversations are efforts toward good relations." (pg. 138)

May we be people who have good relations with others.  


*My thanks to Daniel Barks at Beacon Press who sent me a free review copy of the book, Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski. Also, thanks to LibraryThing for facilitating the giveaway of review books like this one. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I Hate Resolutions

Resolutions rarely do anyone any good.  The new year is a great time to celebrate something new, something exciting, and a different way of approaching things. Resolutions are a dumb idea though.  Why would I say something like that? Because most people never follow through on resolutions.

If I say I resolve to do something, but never take an action I can still say I made a resolution.  It's the equivalent of having good intentions. Good intentions, by themselves, are worthless.  It's a similar thing to when someone says, "Oh, he's a really smart guy, he just never gets anything done."  Who cares how "smart" you are if you can't follow through with it.

Some Christians might ask about when Jesus talks about the interior life, i.e. in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  For example, if Jesus says that looking at a woman with lust is the same thing as committing adultery with her, then isn't Jesus saying our intentions are important? Yes and no. Define your terms! The intentions we ascribe as being "good intentions" are usually just fleeting thoughts.  These thoughts are only good intentions when we act on them.  We will return to those in just a minute, but suffice it to say that good intentions can only be good when follow through with action.

So what would be the big deal with thinking a certain way about a person of the opposite sex then? When we engage in malicious or sinful thoughts we are actually performing an action.  As Christians, the first specific action includes a willful disobedience to the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to follow Christ as his disciples, we are gifted with the presence of the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to live in right relationship with God and other people.  At this point, we all know that God calls us to fidelity and faithfulness.   When we choose to indulge lust and other sinful thoughts we are changing the character and shape of our souls.  The Holy Spirit wants to form in us a Christ shaped soul, and we are literally changing it into a sin shaped soul!  Paul refers to this in Galatians as following the flesh or sarx, but I would simply say that it is becoming sin-like in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Ouch.

The reason good intentions are meaningless is that we are already filled with the capacity to do good things once the Holy Spirit indwells us.  There is no added value to our thoughts which are already good by the very nature of the Holy Spirit.  The meaning comes when we submit those thoughts to the person of the Holy Spirit and act on them in some way.

So, what about those cases where I have what would normally be called a good intention but something prevents me from following through on it? For example, let's say I want to clean part of the house before my wife comes home so that she has less stress tonight.  However, my children ending up getting sick and I am prevented from doing the cleaning.  In order for this good intention to carry any meaning I must attach an action to it- for example telling my wife or a good friend what I was planning.  Why does this telling change anything? It helps hold me accountable so that I will actually do what I said I will do. Then, when I am afforded the opportunity I will follow through with the rest of the action. If I fail to follow through when I have an opportunity, then we see what kind of intention I really had.

Resolutions and intentions only matter in terms of our actions.  By the way, this is how we form habits, but that's a post for another day.