Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Bless our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,

and has not let our feet slip.

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;

we went through fire and through water;

yet you have brought us out to a
spacious place.

Psalm 66:9-12

Susanna has a gift of deep compassion, so strong and immediate that I often find myself confused, removed and dumb. An NPR report about the slain in Darfur, a Compassion International mailing with pictures of unsupported children, the documentary God Grew Tired of Us: the Story of Lost Boys of Sudan...these things leave her doubled over and in tears. In comparison, I seem callous. Am I so self-consumed? Or is this simply a gender difference?

Perhaps it does have something to do with gender, but to leave it at that would be denying the uniqueness of her special gift. Liberation Theologians call this "solidarity," a capacity to draw near to and share the suffering of others. Susanna wants to identify herself with the marginalized and the oppressed. I want to do this too. I'm just not that good at it.

Last summer Hope College asked her to prepare study questions on Tracy Kidder's book about Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. All incoming freshmen were required to read it. All the First Year Seminar profs then used her notes and questions. She and I read Mountains Beyond Mountains to each other in our first year of marriage as part of a book club in Oklahoma. I was challengd and inspired. Susanna, however, found a mentor of sorts in Dr. Farmer. She has re-read the book three more times with students in her course, "Ideas and Practice of Social Change." Even though Susanna is now teaching at Valparaiso, colleagues in Hope's English department knew she'd have the best handle on the book.

One question she considers is: What do you make of Farmer’s interpretation of the Haitian proverb, “Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,” translated “God gives but doesn’t share”? (79)

Sus and I have been talking about this proverb this week. It can be read two ways: a theodicy, a defense of God's goodness in the face of evil, or it can be read as an indictment against civilization, particularly an idictment of the affluent. Neither reading is exclusive, yet, my sense is that Dr. Farmer is more interested in the latter, that we have failed to take care of each other.

Paul Farmer and Liberation Theology are helpful if only to draw us into the heart of the problem. Most of the affluent are like me, blind, deaf and dumb to the crisis of world health and poverty. We need whistle blowers and bell ringers to break through to us. We need stories like Dr. Farmer's, a life so shocking in its zealous service that it conjures resonances with the likes of Dorthy Day and even Mother Teresa. However, to fully serve and sustain advocacy on behalf of the oppressed, we need a more thorough theodicy, a more developed sense of who God is than what the Hatian proverb offers us. Once again, here I am ringing my bell, that our actions arise out of our beliefs. As a person thinketh, so he or she is.

The Hatian proverb suggests that God is not actively involved in suffering. This caters to the modern mind. It rationalizes God. Our definition of God as a benevolent being makes it impossible for us to understand how he could allow evil to exist in the world. So, we blame humanity and not God. The Hatian theodicy is a soft way of separating God's goodness from the failures of humanity; yet, God is not separate from suffering. He is intimately acquainted with and involved with humanity, yes, even our suffering.

The cross of Christ stands in opposition to the rationality that God is separate from suffering. The cross is considered scandalous because it offends our modern sensibilities. It suggests that not only did God allow Jesus to suffer and die, God planned it! Yikes! Tough stuff! This is where we learn to let God be God, to be the infinite Other that we can't squeeze into our minds. I'm not saying we can't wrestle with suffering and the problem of evil. I'm not suggesting we put our questions in a drawer and hide them away. I am saying that there are fundamental ideas about the universe, about God in particular, that are too lofty for us to grasp. Here in this particular situation, faith leads us to believe that God is good in the context of suffering. God is good even though he is actively engaged in that suffering. He has purpose for suffering that we rarely can understand. A life of faith is not a silent resignation to God's higher purposes; it is a resolve to wrestle and pray through our suffering in a way that ultimately leads toward deeper and deeper trust in God. We don't need to be the dutiful student at the front of the class, blindly following the teacher, nor do we need to be the flailing, obstinate child at the back of the class.

As an aside, this relates to the spirit in which I've been attempting to write these blogs. When trying to talk about anything difficult (theodicy, prayer, politics, art, etc.), our dialogue requires a gentle firmness. Jesus calls it meekness; it is a tender strength, a loving confession, a "generous orthodoxy." There is a connection between the way we posture ourselves towards our neighbors and the way we posture ourselves towards our deepest convictions. If we have a white-knuckled stranglehold on our beliefs, most likely we will also have a white-knuckled grip on the people around us. Faith and love allow us room to maneuver without going astray. We can have a gentle grip because we participate in a faith so abundant, so powerful, that it holds onto us much more actively than we can hold on to it. This is our highest sense of the peace of Christ; he holds us, defends us, advocates for us; he keeps us safe.

Some may object here and argue the slippery slope. Room to maneuver? You may wonder. That will lead to abuse and heresy!

Perhaps. Perhaps it can or will lead to abuse, yet here is the freedom God has already given us, the very freedom that allows the affluent to ignore local and global suffering. However, the slippery slope is a logical fallacy for a reason. If A leads to B, B leads to C, and C leads to D, it doesn't rationally mean A automatically leads to D or even Z. Slippery slope is inspired by fear. Fear overtakes rationality; it clouds reason. Yet faith is not essentially rational either (even though faith can engage and participate with rationality--a whole other conversation) and I'm not arguing for rationality here either. Faith springs out of love. Love can be rational, but love supersedes rationality. You may have many good reasons for loving, but "love has its reasons which Reason knows not," proclaims Blaise Pascal.

One friend wrote Susanna and me an email in the wake of the 2008 election that asked whether we have room in our hearts for a friend who didn't vote for Barrack Obama? I must have failed to write in a way that meekly asserts my convictions. I'm trying to be strong in way that opens conversation, that gives room to readers, and I guess I didn't accomplish this as thoroughly as I have least for that friend.

Getting back on the topic of suffering, I offer that it is possible to hold civilization accountable for its failure to take care of the weak, further I'll add that it is possible that God is more than permissive of suffering, that he uses it for his purposes, and finally, that God's purposes for suffering push us to concieve a kind of love that far transcends what makes sense to our minds. If we are left with our own resources of love to respond to the enormity of global health crises, we will drown. In retrospect, God's active participation in our suffering gives meaning to it. By faith, what seemed senseless emerges with sense, a trust in the eternal goodness of our divine Father. On this side of heaven, we may not be able to understand his good purpose; it is here that we begin the agonizing soul-work of faith.

What Susanna offers me, in the context of my triumphal hope of God's eternal and global plan of salvation, is the opportunity to learn how to put on sack cloth and ashes, to go between the porch and the alter, to weep and to wail, to groan with all of Creation for the revelation of the children of God, for the final things. This itself is a witness of the church that God is not standing idly by. We, his children, are his vice-regents testifying to the truth that as Julian of Norwich has said in one of Susanna's (and T.S Eliot's) favorite sentiments:

"All shall be well,

and all shall be well,

and all manner of things

shall be well."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sick and Tired? How to Get Out of Bed

Zicam. Dayquil. Nyquil. Sinus Rinse. Airborne. Mucinex. Theraflu Day and Night. Sudafed...etc etc. I've been taking it all for seven days now and I still feel like hammer dog doodoo. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. At least Susanna is home and the semester is finished!

After watching several TVs shows and movies this week, I find my restlessness only getting more intense. Here are some things that inspire me to want to get the heck out of bed:

I found this website and blog attached to David Taylor's site when looking for updated news. I've got dibs on contacting this artist for the Ordinary Neighbors CD artwork. It is refreshing to dive into someone's creative world, to see her drawings and clothing designs. This makes me want to get a website up for Susanna and me soon.

This is an article about the "urban homestead." Much of me is cynical about the green revolution, the marketing and trendiness of it all, but deep down there is something right about the impulse to want to live closer to the earth and to do it creatively. These folks have a cool blog that they've been keeping for awhile about their lifestyle. Our friends, the Shattucks, just got a goat. I'll post a pic when I get the chance. And we saw a moveable chicken coop for sale at the farmer's market with my cousins in their hometown of Vashon Island, WA. I don't know if I could personally handle any more on my "to do" list, but it is fun and inspiring to see what other people are doing to live deliberately. We've subscribed to ReadyMade magazine off and on. My favorite section in each issue is the expose of different kinds of artists all over the country. I'm haunted by the story in one issue about a few friends who bought an old high school in one of the Dakotas for something ridiculous like $50,000 and how they rent out space for artists to have live in studios.

This little video helps me put the whole blog explosion in perspective. There is a really funny clip here of John Stuart giving Arianna Huffington a hard time about what is so important about blogs. Yes, there is a proliferation of BS all over the internet, but there is also some very exciting interaction going on between people that bypasses conventional, advertising money driven media. Look at how it is helping affect younger adults in Iran. Blogs are as democratic as the revolution of home recording. We have so much more junk to sift through, so much bad indie music, so much posturing, so much chicanery, but there is also so much more access to originality and expression, the things that make life full.

Other good news that makes me want to get out of bed: I've been very encoruaged by feedback from a handful of people on my essay/chapter for this book David is editing--the one I mentioned in the last blog. Thanks to Dustin, Wendy, Lance, Joel and Dad!

Now, if only I can feel good enough to sit upright and get out some glue. I want to try my hand at making some lanterns like the ones I put up in the Backroom so long ago.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Seattle and Other Recent Pics

I went to Seattle over a month ago with Susanna. She had to attend a Lilly conference. I walked around by myself and discovered some good spots.

This was the best Americano I've ever had in my life. Top Pot cafe. They make their own donuts too. I returned there two days in a row, walked 25 minutes to get there, to work on an essay I'm submitting to David Taylor to be included in a book on Pastoring artists. Being in that coffee shop made the labor somewhat romantic. I mean, what could seem more exhilarating than writing about the arts in a Seattle coffee shop? It'll be more exhilarating if the thing actually gets published. Either way. It was a great memory. I'm going back.

A really bad pic of Top Pot from outside.

This is a view on one of my walks in the morning. I wish I had a good camera. Ours broke.

Sus forcing a smile at Pike Street Market. I made her do a lot of walking. I prefer to walk and discover a city rather than following a guide book. Besides, I know Seattle pretty well. I'm not a fan of exercise, but walking through a city is nice.

The legendary, Bop Street Records several people on the street told us about. It really is records, vinyl that is. We had to take a bus way out to get there, then when I realized that it was all vinyl, I felt bad. I've not gotten into the turn table nostalgia yet. Some 300,000 LPs, so says the owner who I talked with a bit. It was cool to be in a store that Thom Yorke frequents when in town. I bought my boss, Trygve, a nice copy of Stan Getz/ Joao Gilberto's bosanova for his birthday.

This is some settings on the new Audient console that we installed in the chapel studio. I'm getting used to mixing through the console instead of just with the computer. It sounds great so far. I've got a lot more to for Christmas break.

These pics are of the setup for Rob Kenagy's band, Ganges, that we recorded over a weekend. Well, actually, I helped setup and tear down. Andy, my audio intern, ran the sessions and Roman Bolks did most of the creative direction. It was our maiden voyage with the new console and the wiring that connects to this classroom next to the studio. Roman really captured the sound of those rooms and hallways. It's going to be a great little CD. I can get some of Rob's tunes out of my head.

I don't know if I get more excited about anything more than recording, but alas I get such little time to actually do it! Hopefully when I finish my Masters degree (only two more classes!) I'll have the whole my summers. I feel sick every time I think about the Ordinary Neighbors record that still isn't finished.

Here are some students who dressed up to be Trygve, me (note the guitar, he was singing "Beautiful Infinite God") and Paul for Halloween. They rang our doorbell. We didn't have any candy, but they led a little service right there on the front steps. This picture was taken through the front door screen.

Litourgeia: The Work of the People

Here is a little piece I wrote for our publication, Perichoresis that is distributed to students at our Sunday evening service. Originally written 10/30/08


One of the most challenging aspects of my work as Minister of Music and Art here at Hope College is finding ways to plan services that can serve a wide variety of people. Hope College is affiliated with the Reformed Church of America, yet we have faculty, staff and students who come from many different kinds of church backgrounds. That means that we all know different sets of songs and prayers and different ways of singing those songs and organizing those prayers into a worship service.

This organization of prayers, readings, songs and preaching is called the worship liturgy. In common usage, some refer to Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox worship services as well as Lutheran, Presbyterian and the other Reformed worship services as liturgical. In these “higher” worship traditions ministers usually dress in vestments; their worship space is often adorned with religious symbols, and the worship texts follow the church calendar. If you were to attend one of these churches, you would be handed a small booklet with the order of service so that you can follow along with the readings and responses and know when to stand, kneel, sit, pray, sing or meditate silently.

Baptist, Mennonite or Anabaptist churches, Assemblies of God, Vineyard along with the many other non-denominational churches, in contrast, are often referred to as “low church” and are on the surface comparatively less liturgical. These churches still have structure to their services; it is just simpler. Community announcements, singing, a sermon and prayers comprise the core portions of these worship services. Pentecostal and charismatic churches are even more simple in the way they value the freedom to spontaneously respond to the movements of the Spirit.

So, you can see that trying to plan a worship service at Hope, where so many of us come from different worship experiences, can be tricky. My hope is to make our worship ecumenical, meaning that I intend for our worship to include as many worshippers as possible. Planning this kind of universal worship is easier said than done. How is it possible, as in the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “to be all things to all people” in the context of worship? When reciting the Nicene Creed we confess together that “We believe in one holy catholic [universal] and apostolic Church.” Yet, how does that actually happen here, now, on this side of heaven? We are finite, particular beings with subjective tastes in music and preaching and liturgical styles, yet we are worshipping an infinite being, the creator of the heavens and the earth who sent his son specifically with the mission of drawing all people, all nations, tribes and tongues to himself. Whew!

Fortunately, I don’t have to figure this all out on my own. We have an historical “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” a host of worshippers who have gone before us who have much to teach us, much that we hope and rest in. By looking at a historical meaning of the liturgy we are able to get a better perspective on worship.

Liturgy, in its most basic and original definition, means “the work of the people.” The whole of a church is a “litourgeia.” In fact, it is impossible for any church, even the most spontaneous, not to have a liturgy. Theologian Alexander Schmemann, explains that liturgy is the notion that we become something as a corporate body of believers that we cannot be alone as individuals. Liturgy begins in the morning when we wake, clothe and feed ourselves, put our coats on and head out the door, walk or drive, and go about our daily movements—movements that eventually lead us to gather at our Lord’s Table to remember his death and resurrection. In this broader sense, all of life is liturgical, all of our activities are preparation for worship if they culminate in our gathering around the body and blood of Christ.

This original meaning of liturgy is not so concerned with what I do in my planning as worship leader. It is not so much an issue of guitars or organs to play, hymns or praise choruses. Liturgy is the work each of us does to prepare ourselves for corporate celebration. It is our modern, consumer culture that teaches us to think otherwise, that we come to church to be served by the preacher and the musicians, as if those of us in front were more important to God.

Think on this: what is it that you can do in your daily rhythms to prepare your heart and mind for chapel and the Gathering?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Prayer of St. Francis

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

That is my favorite section of the prayer. I return to it often. There is so much of the giving giving giving giving power of Christ in it.

Forgiveness is the most extravagant idea in the whole of the cosmos. Only God could think of it. The rest of us are too selfish, busy keeping score of who has wronged us, working hard to prove our point.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mr. Josh Bottomly

I finally had a triumvirate of men to hang out with for a relaxed evening. Tuesday night Jason and Lennis joined me later in the evening after their respective children had been put to bed--Jason (2 kids), Lennis (4). I'm frustrated that it took me over two years to attempt a gathering like this. I suppose I've needed this time to grieve the loss of my deep connections in Oklahoma City. That Jewish dictum that I've thought of so often has been agonizingly fulfilled, never leave any place easily.

I've not just had one or two good, close brothers over the years; I've had several. And this richness has been a surprise to me. It wasn't until a few years after college that I think I even began to conceive what it means to have or be a good friend. Everyone else seemed to have a tight group. I was the late bloomer both academically and socially. I didn't date. Girls freaked me out and I was intimidated easily by the camaraderie other guys could share that I didn't have.

Josh Bottomly was an exception. We had a deep and young connection. We were thirteen at summer camp. Put together by the camp director, Kay Zahasky. She had just met me the year previously, but she had known Josh and his family for several years. It was her hunch to put us in the same room. I had the trundle bed that pulled out from underneath hiss bed. We talked way into the night. It is interesting--even a little strange--that we were talking about God so eagerly, sincerely, and so intensely. We prayed together as we fell asleep. I remember Josh whispering Isaiah 30:15 to me in the dark, "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength...." Philippians 1:6, "He who has begun a good work in you will complete it." I returned to camp from Illinois and Josh from Colorado for several summers. He became my best friend during that time. And that had its own awkwardness. How can the friend who you feel closest to be so far away? So, now with Josh in Oklahoma and me here in Michigan, it is not so new--to be away. There are other things that I'd like to tell about my friendship with him when we were in high school, but I feel hesitant to make much of it in writing for fear that I'd make it seem less than it was, that I'd make it mundane or silly or worse, that I'd sentimentalize it.

I offer these thoughts about Josh for two reasons: to celebrate him and to offer this friendship as a question.

Later when I moved to Oklahoma, Josh was the one who convinced me to go into teaching. I took a job, yes a full time position, for a measly $18,500 a year mostly because it meant I got to work at the same school with him. Later, I introduced him to the school where he now works. I was teaching grade six Language Arts and he grade seven. Casady has a chapel service daily and that meant that more often than not he and I would walk around the small lake in the center of the school grounds from the Middle Division building to the chapel.

Josh was up here in Holland for two nights a few weeks ago to visit some college campuses since he is a college placement counselor now. I rode with him one of these days and in the car we had plenty of good time to reconnect and reinvigorate the several conversations we have been carrying on over the years. Having him around made me realize what an empty space there is in my life, how good it is to have substantial, meaningful and regular conversations with other men. This is what finally motivated me to get Jason and Lennis together this past Tuesday night.

The question then is: why is it so hard for us to find space in our lives to share with each other? I just got back from having dinner with my two interns, Sam and Andy, and this same question came out of my mouth: when we are created to love and receive love, why is it so hard for us to actually be together? Tuesday night, Jason and Lennis were asking this question too. We all agreed that women are better at this than men. Women have "get togethers," a tea or a lunch or a prayer meeting. Men golf together. They watch "the game" together. There is the iconic poker night, a room filled with cigar smoke, men in their undershirts leaning over a table scattered with poker chips, cards and high balls of bourbon and ice. And there is, of course, the belly up to the bar at the neighborhood "liars club," as my grandfather used to call them. Here the boys are hitting the booze hard, spilling their guts to the bartender. Is there is a more iconic image of masculine loneliness, than the local bar as the social club, even a substitute for the church? But I'm not a sports fan. It is too expensive to gamble and drink liquor out on the town, and my father discouraged me from playing golf precisely because in his profession (Law) he'd seen how the game had become an escape for colleagues who had forfeited their obligations to their families.

Why does it have to be an either/or? Workaholism, the bar, the greens, 18 holes and poker nights versus the domesticated family man? I find myself romanticizing European cultures, especially those closer to the Mediteranean. France has a 30 hour work week and paid vacation as a standard. One teacher I used to work with had taught in Paris. She told me that at lunch all the children went home and the teachers were served a meal on real dishes with nice flatware. Best of all, they were served wine--by the school. In Spain they don't start dinner until late late. 10 PM is common; and then they sit at the table for a couple hours, no rush, no haste. When I studied in England for a summer, I was enamored with the English pub and the social convention of tea time. The pub was remarkable not because of the quality of beer but because it was neither a seedy, roadhouse like establishment where you can imagine a fight breaking out at any minute, nor was the pub a hopping club, a place to see and be seen. The pubs were family friendly establishments, a kind of corner community center.

Tea time was at 10:30AM, if memory serves me, no matter what you are doing. Everyone stops and takes a break. It doesn't have to be tea. Some take coffee or a soda, but there is always a little snack and a chat. In America smoking is the only equivalent we have to this kind of regular pause in the middle of the day. There is an unspoken connection between smokers, a kind of misery loves company bond even between strangers when they bum a cigarette of of each other or ask for a light or stand out in the cold just to get a puff.

There is a good movie called Smoke with Harvey Keitel and William Hurt that is about this very interesting section of our culture. Josh and I ironically discover this movie together. Harvey Keitel's character runs a corner smoke shop and William Hurt is an author who lives upstairs and is a regular customer of the store. Keitel invites William Hurt upstairs to see his life's work, several photo albums filled with pictures of the same street scene. Every morning Keitel sets up a tripod and camera and takes a picture across the intersection at exactly 8AM. William Hurt is flipping through the pages of pictures quickly and Keitel slows him down. Wait, wait, you are going to miss it.

We rush through each day, and we are not able to get perspective and see what is right in front of us. Smoking is a metaphor for this same idea; smokers stop and perhaps this pause allows them to see the day better, perhaps it is not so much about the tobacco as it is the opportunity to gain perspective.

My daily walks with around the lake at Casady served this purpose. It was good to pause. It was better to share that with someone.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Thinking Clearly With Our Hearts and Minds

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone you love and respect dearly? Both of you are so sure the other person is wrong and you are baffled that there is such distance between your perspectives. This is typical for married couples to experience. If you haven't found yourself in this situation, I'd like to suggest that you should someday soon. It is a kind of agony, but it is an inevitable progression to deep loving and sharing.

We can call this experience a "de-centering." The world as you know it, what seemed familiar and safe has been turned inside out and is now frightening.

This is what some of the religious right are experiencing right now. What has happened to their version of America? Some even suspect this could be the beginning of the end and begin using words like "apocalypse" and even "anti-Christ."

My best friend, Josh Bottomly had his recent post election blog picked up by Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren. At last count his blog had attracted 74 comments. A small handful of them bluster in accusing Josh of attacking religious conservativism. If anything, I'm the one who might seem to be aggressive. Josh, in contrast is full of conviction, yes. Offense? No. It is clear that these comments are not responding to Josh's words, but to a preconcieved notion of what he represents. The dissenters are reading between the lines presumptively. If someone experiences drastic proportions of de-centering, he or she can rear back and bite vicsiously like a cornered animal.

And this is no surprise. None of us can use our minds in abstraction from our hearts. We are mislead to believe that we can attain a kind of god-like, bird's eye, objectivity, that we can stand above and outside a discussion and freely maneuver between the ideas without bias or prejudice. We can't. We use our hearts when we think with our mind and vice-a-versa, we use our minds when we feel with our hearts.

Scholars refer to this as "epistemic blindness." We are limited like a horse with its blinders to see only part of what is infront of us. Our affections and fears drive what we pay attention to and what we avoid considering. The path toward clear thinking is begun by coming to terms with these limitations, that our thinking can only be just so clear, that none of us will be able to have absolute certainty of any idea.

Some may fear the slippery slope of confessing to this kind of limitation: if there is no such thing as certainty, then is everything therefore relative? No, not at all. We are walking through the darkness, but we can still see the light. The Apostle Paul describes it as "seeing through a mirror dimly."

I once had a sparing session with a self-proclaimed agnostic who was convinced that I would be happier if I gave up my faith. My response was, but if you are agnositc, how can you be so sure that my faith is wrong? We went around and around on this for a few hours. I kept trying to burst his bubble, you can't be an agnostic and be certain at the same time! But he stuck to his guns because in his experience he claimed to have found more happiness when he had resigned the Baptist faith of his parents. His emotions were dictating his reason. And after learning more about his upbringing, it is totally understandable that his heart was coloring his mind.

This is my way of coming to terms with what sounds like irrationality to me when I continue to hear and read conservative Christians be-moan the inauguration of our next president. These brothers and sisters are functioning out of fear. It is the end of the world as they know it. And they do not feel fine. They are scared.

If some are so quick to read into the words of Josh Bottomly and paint him as an attacker, I have to wonder how I am percieved myself. The spirit and purpose of my writing here is precicely to build bridges--not to burn them. I want so much to offer others a chance to look over my shoulder and see the world, the church, music, worship, this election, from my vantage. I don't believe that I'm the final word on any of these things, but how can I learn and grow if I don't offer up some thoughts for discussion? If anything, I'm learning the limitations of this blogging venue to engage others. The essay form is very difficult to master. Oh how to be a charitable, loving critic!

Monday, November 3, 2008

“On the Eve of Election Day”

If you were to tell me when I was in college that I would someday be so interested in politics, I would not have believed you. Everything for me then was the Church, with a capital “C.” In fact my Writing Composition professor asked me if I could consider writing one of my expository papers on something other than ministry related issues. I replied to her, “would you have said that to Billy Graham when he was a student at Wheaton?” To which she replied, “you’re not Billy Graham.” My whole mind was consumed with the prospects of full time, professional ministry until around the age of 27 when I was finally on staff at a church and everything came crashing down.

To call it a season of disillusionment would be overly simplistic. I don’t want to assume that I fully understand what has happened in the last six years. I did not resign from that first ministry position because I had was convinced I was done with a kind of holy ambition to be a pastor. My Grammy told me that I had announced my desire to be a minister at the age of seven, and it is difficult, almost embarrassing to try to explain how this desire began. How can you describe a calling to someone who has not experienced it? In some ways it is the most private kind of knowing yet it is also an explicitly public kind of knowing as well. If I didn’t have people in my past and here in my present who encourage me to pursue ministry, I would not posses the nerve to continue down this path. I resigned from my first ministry position not because I had given up on my inner compass towards a life of giving. I resigned and went on to graduate studies because I’d had enough ministry experience to realize that I needed more preparation; I needed to grow up some more.

Part of the story is that I’d started having panic attacks while trying to hold down a part time position at the church and a part time position at a school teaching tenth grade World History. That year I recorded my first CD and was also leading a house church of young adults. The candle was burning on both ends; I didn’t have anything left to give in pursuit of my calling to be a giver.

After college I attempted a semester of seminary while participating in an internship. It was a hard year, so hard to transition from the security of a four year degree into the unknowing of what to do with that degree. I read a lot that year—not books for my theology classes. I was reading novels to escape the fear of the future. I’d read until four in the morning, sleep till 10:20AM or so and the book it to prep for my lunch shift at the Irish pub where I worked. That was the way that I read Brothers K the first time in something like three days. I woke one of these mornings feeling like I was drowning in my own self-consumption and somewhere I found the thought, “I want to be a giver…not a taker.” It was a curious thought at first, a bright, shiny thought that I didn’t feel capable of forming on my own. It was a prayer given to me that perhaps echoed back to my seven year old commitment to the work of a pastor. Or perhaps it wasn’t echoing back to my seven year old self, but rather to the ten year old, the thirteen, fourteen, eighteen, or the twenty-one versions of myself that had all sensed a bigger purpose.
How is it possible to talk about this “bigger purpose” without being presumptuous, without alienating yourself from others who don’t feel the same impulse? This is question that preoccupied me during most of my twenties. Why is being a pastor any more important than anything else?

Some of the most formative work I’ve done in my graduate work in on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer was a heady young man. He completed two doctoral dissertations and was hired on as a university lecturer in his middle twenties. He had a bright future ahead of him in academics. He could have easily stayed in the United States during the Nazi occupation. Many other German scholars did. But Bonhoeffer left Union Theological Seminary in New York and decided to participate in the underground resistance of Hitler’s abominable dictatorship. Dietrich’s conviction was that he could not suppose his faith, writings and teaching would mean anything to anyone if he stayed idly in America. Scholars have tried to piece together what he meant in his Letters and Papers from Prison when he talked about a “religionless Christiantiy.” “God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross,” he said. It was the end of religion in the sense that it is the end of the power of theocratic governance, in other words, the end of Christendom.

Stanely Hauerwas among others has charted this notion that we exist in a post-Christendom age. The church has no worldly powers. Ours is not an earthly kingdom. Ours is a God who allowed himself to be destroyed by earthly powers for the sake of an eternal authority.
Here on the eve of the most important election of my few 33 years as a US citizen, I’m thinking about my brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who are having a difficult time coming to terms with the end of Christian power. I was raised primarily within an expression of Christianity that enjoyed the privilege of seeming power. The Moral Majority has been strong throughout most of my life. We have preached salivation of souls along with the Gospel of the Republican Party. Tomorrow Obama will be elected our next president and this will take a tremendous blow to our Christian sense of power. I’m sure the next few years will be a bumpy ride. Mercy for us all!

It is ironic that I find myself inspired by Bonhoeffer to come to terms with the secularization of our society, to see it for what it is, to therefore participate more deliberately in my civic duties all for the sake of hoping the church can then be released to fulfill her calling. Bonhoeffer experienced a much more severe disillusionment than I did. His frustration was with the German Lutheran Church because none of its church leaders stood up to Hitler and the Nazi’s. Bonhoeffer was forced to look the failures of Christians, their complicity. Instead of staying in the safe halls of academia, Dieterich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and participated in a few failed assassination attempts on Hilter and then was found out, arrested and executed by hanging just three weeks before the liberation of Berlin in 1943.

Bonhoeffer’s world was not so much like our own covered in layer after layer of moral quandaries and complexities. How many of us would have made a decision to actively pursue the death of a dictator? The ethics are difficult. I am convinced the ethics of our present situation, the ethics of our vote tomorrow are just as confusing if not more so.
There are many many layers of questions to consider in our vote. Again, my concern is that Evangelicals are so consumed by their concerns about abortion that they remain blind to the rest of the injustices that the church in America should stand against.

Here is what I hope: that the church might accept its stance of powerlessness, that we could embrace it as even Jesus himself accepted a lowly position while on this earth. I hope that in this lowliness we then pursue the flourishing of the kingdom of God upon the earth. I hope that if we begin to act like loving servants to our neighbors we can begin to partner with them in fixing our economy, our schools, health care system and steer a path of peace throughout the world that advances diplomacy instead of militarism. This kind of a witness postures the church as servants rather than adversaries, shepherds rather than patriarchs, lovers instead of moral police.

Romans 2:1-3

“1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?”

Friday, October 17, 2008

Election Thoughts for Friends: Listen to Colin Powell

I've had a few friends ask me to keep writing on the presidential race. I confess, since the last debate I've felt ready to move on to other things. Everything about that debate and so much of what has transpired since continues to confirm to me that Barack Obama will not just be our next president. He will in the words of Colin Powell be a "transformational figure" in the history of America. I think some of you want to vote for Obama, but you are afraid to make the step. I know that some of you are afraid of dissension within your family or with friends. These thoughts here are for you: listen to Colin Powell.

I'll be bluntly honest. And I don't mean to be patronizing here to those who disagree, but my sentiment remains the same: I don't understand anyone who still will not recognize the importance of Obama becoming our next president. Many of my Christian friends are hanging on to fears about Obama's pro-choice position. And yes, this is something we must wrestle with.

However, it is time for us to engage the complexities of our civic duties and to understand that one issue, no matter how precious, cannot trump all of our other civic concerns.
Abortion has been the trump card for the "Moral Majority" of the past twenty plus years. It is imprinted upon the psyche of every young person within the Evangelical community alongside deep concerns about substance abuse and premarital sex. The Evangelical prescription for faithful Christian living is neat and tidy: do your daily devotions, don't swear, be careful about secular influences (music, TV, movies), don't drink or do drugs, wait to have sex until you are married, and make sure that you share your faith with your peers. Most youth group kids also go on an annual mission trip to a third world country to understand just how fortunate we are as American and to learn to be accordingly grateful. This rearing then matures into the notion that as adults our primary civic duty is to fight against abortion rights to fight for the sanctity of a Biblical, heterosexual definition of marriage. This is the gist of what Evangelical Christians aspire in living lives that are pleasing to God.

This vision has many admirable points, yet it is narrow in relation to the full scope of the Gospel. It defines Christian living in terms of what we are not to do, what is taboo and wrong, rather than defining the life of a disciple in terms of the abundant life, the richness of our inheritance and the goodness of what Christ is Lord over.

Last night at the Gathering, our Sunday evening worship service, Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary expanded our understanding of John 3:16, the verse that is so central to the Evangelical Gospel. The Biblical author's original intent was cosmic in it's implications: "For God so loved the kosmos, that he gave his only begotten Son...." Evangelicals tend to teach that God sent his son to pay the price to ransom only our souls, yet the text here calls us to see that Salvation is for all of created things. All creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God. If we are then to apply the breadth of this cosmic scope of the Gospel to our civic duties, we begin to understand that Christians are called to be God's vice regents, his stewards, of much more than what we are already engaged in as a church. While abortion is an abomination, who is to say that the rights of the unborn are more important to God than the rights of the poor throughout the world? Why does the sanctity of marriage matter more than the suffering of innocent people in Iraq?

[Listen to Dr. Richard Mouw's talk at Hope College here]

Bible translator and author, J.B. Phillips wrote a popular book,
Your God is Too Small. In like kind the Evangelical movement is in the process of awakening to the sense that our Gospel is too small as well. A full Gospel sense of a Pro-Life position would look to the Scriptures to nourish the full extent of its definition of "Life." We have a large wealth of Biblical teaching throughout both Old and New Testaments on God's compassion for the oppressed, the poor, the orphan and the widow. If anything, the rights of the unborn should be advocated in the context of the broader Biblical advocacy for all of those who are oppressed. For example, what if Christians who were fighting against abortion were just as vocal about the demise of inner city schools?

Instead of casting our votes for a single issue, we have to be responsible enough to understand the complexities of cause and effect--how many of these social concerns affect one another. Perhaps if we had better funding for inner city schools, better teachers and better facilities, perhaps many of the social conditions that foster premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies might not be so prevalent. There is much more that could be said about this cause and effect for this particular issue. My point here is precisely that--that there is much more to consider and discuss and discern and that it is time for Evangelicals to engage these complexities.

This leads me to Barack Obama and why he is a "transformational figure." Consider simply his demeanor in his debates with John McCain. Compare and contrast their poise, their ability to listen to the other and to engage these same complexities. As I've been saying in this blog, this is a generational choice and it is not a matter of not appreciating our elders. I'm not interested in voting for something new for the sake of its newness.

In fact I believe that Obama better represents the kind of clarity and rigorous intellect that has made our country so great. Obama's manner of discourse resembles the leadership of someone like Thomas Jefferson in a way that the our political body in the past few decades has not. Most Evangelicals possess a rather naieve understanding of the ideology that has formed America. Our greatest ideas in America do not necessarily arise out of Judeo-Christian values. We are the descendants of the great European humanists. Our definition of liberty and justice is inherited from the decades of blood spilled throughout England and France prior to our own Revolution. Jefferson, Franklin and later Ralph Waldo Emerson were the kind of thinkers who interpreted Voltaire and Rousseau for the American consciousness.

The past twenty years of politics have created a vacuum of political failures. Social security, health care, the failures in education and now our economy are part and parcel to a lack of stewardship. For example, federal spending on military is $6.5 billion dollars compared to $60 billion on education. We spend almost as much on military in the US as the rest of the world's countries combined. Our largest expense is Social Security which typically only pays for one third of a retiree's expenses. So much is broken. So much has been broken for some time now, but we turn a blind eye when our own bank accounts go untouched and gas prices are reasonable. Now with the present economic failures, our lack of stewardship is being glaringly revealed.

I'll say this again: the boomer generation has gotten us into this situation, and I don't believe they will be around long enough to get us out of it. We need a transformational figure to begin the process of a new ki
nd of political landscape. This is what Colin Powell meant when he goes on to say in his endorsement, "he [Obma] is a new generation coming into, onto the world stage and the American stage."

For a while I was willing to say that these kinds of thoughts were perhaps my own naive optimism. But at this point, with so many endorsements across the country, I don't feel so vulnerable. Consider the endorsement of former McCain advisers like Harvard professor Charles Fried. Consider the criticism of McCain's campaign from people like his own 2000 campaign manager, Mike Murphy, and GOP luminary, Chuck Hagel. Our country is coming to a very exciting consensus about who we are as a people. November 4--next Tuesday--is going to be an exciting day.

Yet, here is the greatest, most important factor to consider in this new election: we are not on the precipice of just having the first African American president; we are on the verge of a whole new optimism about what it means to be an American citizen. I'm not so excited about Obama as I am excited about what he represents.
Why is he able to represent this so well? Why is he able to rally so many? These testimonies here describe Obama as a melting pot. He is our "everyman," black and white, able to engage the pluralistic converation with care and integrity, full of convition but not a heavy handed ideologue, lived in and outside of the United States, well educated but raised in a lower income, single parent home. Read through these accounts from friends and family. Whether you vote for Obama or not, I think you'll be inspired.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

DM Stith! A Welcome Break From Political Mumbo Jumbo

As I write this, I am listening to David's soon to be released Heavy Ghost. I can confidently say that this is easily one of the most interesting and yet listenable recordings I've ever heard. And for those of you who know me well, I don't blow smoke. It is in league with Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective in terms of experimentation but the conventional notion of a song is not lost in all the sonic playfulness. David is, after all, a fan of Randy Newman. That is the good news.

The bad news is that the disc won't be available for a few months, early 2009 says

Yet the other good news is the label is releasing a teaser EP of five other songs, Curtain Speech. AK's announcement of the EP release is here. You'll notice that some of it was recorded in Holland, Michigan. David confirmed that he started working on "Just Once" in our guest bedroom when it was still painted with pink and purple squares. The room was hideously decorated by previous owners to accomodate their little girl. Whether or not the color combination inspired the song, only David knows.

You can download "Just Once" and read a brief review at the infamous and notoriously cynical pitchforkmedia site. Browse the rest of that site at your own risk. It'll either introduce you to a whole new world of trendy records and be a fun adventure or it will make you feel like an idiot.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

At Least by 10% Is My Prediction

I thought this would be true a week ago, but now after tonight's debate I feel even more confident. Obama will win the election by at least ten percent. McCain pulled out of Michigan. He is losing considerable ground in Virginia, a state that hasn't gone to the democrats since the 60's. And McCain is also doing poorly in Ohio, a state he badly needs. I doubt Obama could take Florida, but he doesn't need to if you do the math on electoral votes. None of the states that Kerry took last time are sliding over to McCain. Obama instead is taking over Bush's territory.

Here is the situation plain and simply: Bush barely won the last election. He beat John Kerry a man who nothing for us to vote for. Most of us who voted for Kerry were in fact voting against Bush. Now the democrats have someone we can actually vote for. So, not only do we have the failures of the Bush administration these past eight years, we have a very winsome, articulate, intelligent and careful democratic candidate.

Obama didn't "kick butt" tonight, but he demonstrated some clear tact, vision and problem solving skills. He was gracious and a gentleman. McCain in contrast was vague and annoyed the whole evening.

It is in the bag.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Palin/Biden Tonight!

A thought from the shower this morning: If McCain picked Palin because she is young and fresh and because she brings sex appeal to his ticket, if Cindy McCain is dressing up in $3000 outfits to look fifteen years younger, is McCain trying to countering Obama's youthful appeal? It seems obvious to me that the answer is yes. If that interpretation is right, what does the Palin pick have to say about McCain's true estimation of Obama? Does he really think that lowly of Obama that he feels it is possible to challenge him with the likes of Sarah Palin?

I can't wait for the debates tonight.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Debate #1 Gut Reaction

There wasn't a winner or loser. What we generally had was a very clear representation of the differences between these two candidates. So, let's say that for the good of democracy the debate was informative and helpful. Yes, McCain was on the offensive more toward the second half of the debate but that is not surprising. First, we need to question if being on the offensive is always going to prove to be a better communication method. Underneath the more aggressive approach, what has McCain told us about himself? That he has more experience than Obama and that Obama "just doesn't seem to understand...." How many times did McCain use this very forceful caracturization of Obama's position.

Contrast the number of times McCain used that condescending comment to the number of times Obama said, "I beleive John is right, but...." Obama demonstrated an ability to dive into the complexities of each question. Acknowledging what McCain was right on allowed him to the pivot and move deeper into the nuances that such complex issues descerved.

McCain on the other hand represented a black and white interpretation. How many times did Obama need to correct McCain's summary statements on Obama's own positions?

What we might want to wonder is: does McCain distort Obama's positions intentionally? Or is it simply that his world is so black and white that he can't help but misunderstand Obama? If McCain is elected, which would be worse? To have president who manipulated his way into the White House through Rovian style politics by twisting his opponents words, or a president whose worldview is so rigid that he cannot understand complexity. Their differences on talks with hostile foreign leaders is a case in point here. McCain is old school and assumes that sitting down to a table with a dictator means that we are validating that dictator's rhetoric. Obama, on the other hand, wants to cut through the rhetoric and look the dictator in the eye.

I was very impressed with McCain's quick and easy handle of the international scene. He did get hot under the collar, but he didn't self-sabotage like I had assumed based on his track record in the public eye since a week ago Monday when the Wall St. crisis hit the fan. However, the question that Obama left in our minds is, what does all of McCain's experience amount to? Is he really as maverick as he poses? Will all this experience in an old school politician be the right kind of leadership that we need for the next four years?

We haven't learned anything new this evening. We have been privledged to a more three dimensional representation of the two candidates than what our news media thus far has been able to offer us. I'd say tonight was a win for voters in helping them understand just what they are voting for.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ahemmm...Palin's International Diplomatic What?

This little clip below not only reflects on Sarah Palin. It reflects on John McCain who invited her to be his running mate the day after he interviewed her. I'll say it again: reckless. I can't wait for the debates Friday night. I personally don't want Obama to come out swinging. I know he will disappoint a lot of his democratic base by seeming weak. Some people want a KO in the first round, but that won't serve the kind of long term, dignified discourse that our politicians need to nurture under the next administration. McCain would benefit more by a rough and tumble. Obama needs to be poised, patient, articulate and generous with his interactions. The same goes for Joe Biden when he gets his turn with Sarah Palin. Even in this most intense season of economical, climate and foreign crisis, we need to be able to trust our politicians to be able to work together My prediction is that Palin and McCain will self-sabotage all on their own just like they have already been doing since a week ago Monday. Here is an example of what I'm talking about:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

One Funny & One Serious

With the debates beginning this Friday and with our incredible economic fiasco, I'm glued to the web and NPR trying to pick up bits and pieces here and there trying to make sense of all that is going on. Let's just say that we have just entered into a whole new conversation about government oversight/regulation of our "free" markets. For the rest of our lives we will be looking back at September 2008 to learn from this economic collapse. For some people it will be remembered with more fear and pain than the 9/11 attacks. So, with all that is up in the air right now I offer you some comedy relief and also the clear thoughtfulness of George Will to help you make sense of these things in your minds and hearts.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Cizik, A Pro Obama Evangelical Republican?

Wow. This is interesting although speaking at Colorado College is preaching to the choir. I don't know much about this man. I'm not endorsing him. This just seems interesting--to find someone who has stood up to Dobson and others and has survived. It is a sign of the shift within Evangelicals. Dobson isn't revered in the same way he was even during the last election. My hope is that more Evangelicals like him speak out and continue to demonstrate that you can be very conservative theologically and apply those ideas progressively. This may seem crass, but I mean it sincerely: it is impossible for us to consider that Jesus could ever be a one issue voter. He participated in the creation of the whole of the cosmos. He'd be concerned about so many issues that face us today. Click Here

Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, was named one of TIME's 100 most influential people.
Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, was named one of TIME's 100 most influential people.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm Not Surprised

This past week has been a maelstrom. Christian friends have been exchanging emails of encouragement as we face the realities of our economic failings. The meltdown has dominated the top of the news lines and has become the chosen ball for our presidential candidates to bat back and forth at each other. Much of the world is freaking out. I’m not surprised by any of this.

In the process of buying and selling homes (two times buying, one time selling my house in Oklahoma and also watching Susanna sell her condo in Tallahassee) I experienced first handedly the suffocating power of bureaucracy. Bankers, insurance agents, inspectors, title companies, hidden fees, visible fees that I couldn’t understand, real estate agents on both side of each transaction, their fees, the forms, the, mountain of paperwork, the amount of signatures, witnesses and the parlay of offers, counter offers, the etiquette, lawyers and closing day. At every turn you as a buyer and also as a seller feel like you are being had by a countless number of people who have developed this elaborate charade in order to find sneaky ways to get at your money. They snip a seeming little tiny fee here and there and make six figures each at the end of the year.

When I was debating the counter offer from the seller of my first home, I worried that my mortgage company had short changed me by raising my interest rate half a point from the time of their original quote. On the phone, commiserating with my Dad, his point was: look at it this way…if they don’t get your money here today, they will figure out another way to get it tomorrow.

If this is the status quo for the real estate industry (think now of Frannie Mae and Feddie Mac) then how can it not be the same for every other industry?

I used to explain that industry is made up of the time card puncher and the entrepreneur—the faithful blue collar who works tirelessly to feed and keep his or her family warm and the people at the top who find new and different kinds of widgets to make. I thought of myself as the cantankerous, gad-fly educator, who sits annoying outside of industry wondering, why they hell are they making those widgets in the first place?

This is how I spread it out:
entrepreneurs (1%)
educator/philosopher/skeptics (9%)
workers (90%)

Now I’m realizing that I’ve not been accounting for all those upper-mid level entrepreneur/bureaucrats…those people who don’t think up new widget, not the people who make them either, but those people who sit behind desks figuring out ways to insert hidden fees, to add important extra paperwork (more fees), those people who complicate the systems so much that we can’t fully understand exactly what we are paying for.

Help me think through this. What is the spread then?
Entrepreneurs (1%)
Educators (9%)
Bureaucrats (35%)
Workers (65%)

Maybe we can equate lobbyists to the bureaucrats when we compare industry to government? Hidden fees equal earmarks?

Our legislation contains pork and now our society is facing the reality and the consequences that our economy and industry have pork too. We are reaping the confusion that we have sown.

My hope is that this will only thrust Obama further into the lead as voters choose to hope in a change in leadership. I am not naive to believe that our present economic troubles are the result of the last eight years failures by Bush alone. I implicate him in our crisis mostly because of all the money that has been wasted on military. The total spent on Iraq now is over $1 Trillion. However, these were systems that were in place before Bush. The “old boy” network didn’t start with George Bush Jr. or Sr. for that matter. Every system needs to be critiqued. We need objective criticism to suss out weaknesses and restructure. The failings of health care, social security, the over expenditure on Defense, and the deficit are all governmental counterparts to the present failings of private industry. We take our cars in for tune-ups and we take our bodies in for check ups, why isn’t America capable of putting its governmental and economic systems through the cleaners too? Is it our limitations as a two party system? Why have we allowed things to get so bad?

All solutions lead to dissolution. All theses have anti-theses. Hopefully this next decade will lead us back to some sort of synthesis.

Consider how many people live beyond their means by maxing out credit cards. What is happening with our national economy is that same kind of recklessness only millions of times worse.

Again, I do not believe that Obama will solve the crisis either. I just believe he will be better at shaking things up precisely because he is new, young and a Washington outsider. I really liked his joke this week. Something to the effect...all McCain needs to do is call a staff meeting! [said in response to the idea that McCain will challenge the "old boys club" cronyism of Washington].

Now then, why is it that the educators/philosophers/skeptics are so clearly counter cultural in our society? Why are prophets never appreciated in their own hometowns? Why did Socrates drink the hemlock? It’s because educators rock the boat. They hold up a mirror in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Let’s look at ourselves and let’s look closely at ourselves. Instead of pretending that everything is all right. Let’s look underneath the surface. Let’s do some spring cleaning. Let’s identify our mistakes, own them and learn from them. Let’s rebuild and restructure. Let’s relearn old lessons. Let’s not be surprised that we have work to do. Oh, and let's better fund education too.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Generational Gap & McCain's Reckless VP Choice

A good friend recently emailed me and asked when my next installment would be posted in light of the intensity of the November election that is racing towards us. My confession is that I don’t know who is really reading these posts. I thrive off of interaction—even responses that are contrary or challenging. I love dialogue. I love the classroom. So, thanks to Josh Bottomly’s encouragemnt, here are some more thoughts/concerns about the presidential race.

I’m scared. I’m scared not just about this present race, but I’m finding myself feeling light headed and nauseous about our election process as a whole. Our democracy is being sullied and is degenerating into 15-second video/sound bytes. We are not a thinking people. We are a grossly consumerist society that doesn’t know how to think or talk about what is good for us and so we buy into whatever is most artfully handed to us.

Let’s stop and think about this. Some court cases can last years with the work of many crackpot, expert attorneys and investigators building a case on either side of an issue. We presume that there is thorough inquiry and research and the selection of an unbiased jury—all those things that we call “due process.” It is a less than perfect system of justice, but it is nevertheless intense and its aim is at being thorough and impartial. All of this judicial work is poured into one single court case.

In contrast, with the presidential election we, as a country, are working toward a decision that affects literally the whole of the world and the courtroom is infinitely bigger. The courtroom in this situation here decides the highest-ranking public official in our country and the most powerful political leader in the world—and this decision teeters back and forth on the edge of a knife held in balance by the whims of popular opinion. And what is most frightening is that our public opinion is informed by the media. Who is more powerful today than the president of the United States? Fox News, CNN, MSNNBC, the Washington Post, New York Times, and et al.

What causes the stock market to rise and fall? Speculation. Public opinion. Gut feelings about the hopefulness of a commodity. What causes a presidential candidate to rise or fall in the polls? Speculation. Public opinion. Gut feelings based on the amount of positive press, the good face time a candidate has on internet blogs and the Associated Press.

I had been formerly optimistic that Obama’s sexiness would get him elected. Put him up on the screen next to McCain. It is like putting Roger Federer up next to John McEnroe or Kobe Bryant next to Larry Bird (wow, I just used a sports analogy…the earth must’ve sifted on its axis). I’ve been optimistic because sex sells and for once in my life I was glad that our consumer addiction to newer, faster, sleeker, and sexier might lead us into a new kind of presidential leadership that could be a watershed for White House administrations for years to come. It is not so much that I have high hopes that Obama is going to radically change America and fix all our problems. It is that he will introduce America and it’s representatives to a much more sophisticated and elegant kind of public discourse, one that is able to govern in light of the complexities of our present day and age. His sex appeal is more than his visual image. It is his poise, his eloquence, his tact. Perhaps this is what his opponents misread as “uppity”? Well if a sophisticated use of language, a generous deference to the complexities of any single issue, and a calm and collected posture define “uppity,” then I want to be uppity too.

As Obama has said, we are functioning in a 21st century with a 20th century bureaucracy. What even more fundamentally is Obama’s sexy appeal? It is that he represents a new generation. In my mind and heart it is time for the baby boomers to move on. Health care, social security, their obsession with militarization, the failings of our educational system, the abuse of the environment…all these things are not going to be restructured and renovated by our parents. They don’t have enough time left. These issues are the younger generation’s unfortunate inheritance and we’ve got some work to do. And I want Obama, not to solve everything, but to set the younger generation on a course pointed in a good direction. In this situation it is not a matter so much that newer and sleeker is necessarily always better. I was never a fan of new Coke and I’m just happy in worn jeans and an older hand me down car from my dad to drive to work. I’m a fan of tradition. I am not interested in defying the boomer generation just for the sake of defiance. In fact it is Obama who seems to be aligning himself with the democratic tradition that made America great and the neo-conservativism that got us into this tangle in Iraq that is the aberration Historians for years to come and will see George Bush Jr. as the rogue fanatic, but alas that is a huge topic that would take many more blogs to explore. I’d only like to point you to my favorite essay by T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here Eliot so keenly says, “to conform merely is to not conform at all.” The best way to work within the tradition of American democracy is to test it, push and pull on it and to interpret it to our present circumstances. Obama is just the right kind of leader who can help us apply our treasured constitutional democracy to the 21st century.

If I haven’t lost the very readers I’m trying to persuade, let me continue back on track here.

So it was with great shock that a dear friend of mine, someone from the boomer generation (who will remain nameless), announced that he was impressed with McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin. How has McCain been represented by the media prior to the Palin pick? He was seen as a cranky, ill tempered, often spacey, gaffe-prone, clone of George Bush. Now that he’s got Sarah Palin he comes across like a sweet, generous grandpa who is asking his younger daughter to help him run the company.

Sex sells almost everything, but I’m scared because when push comes to shove for this next election—when the next president is what we are buying—voters are quicker to run back home to the comfort of mom and dad and grandma and grandpa to take care of us. Sarah Palin doesn’t appeal to voters primarily as a maverick “barracuda” who is out to attack Obama. She appeals as the cool mom who lives in the house down the street. Mom with chutzpa, with attitude. Hillary in contrast is that crazy aunt who might be really smart but is never taken very seriously when she rants at the dinner table on Thanksgiving.

When Americans want to look good on Friday night and when they want to impress out on the street, they get flashy clothes, buy fancy cell phones and drive nice cars. When they want someone to balance their budgets, do the laundry, work on the plumbing and watch the kids, they call mom and dad.

Obama, the smart, good looking, eloquent, straight talking neighbor? Or McCain, the persnickety, gruff, confused, but loveable grandpa? This race has always been a generational divide. McCain picked Sarah Palin, not because of her experience but because she helps him tell American voters the story he wants to tell, the one where he plays the character of that quirky grandfather that you love to love. Conservatives want to believe this story in all its wholesomeness. In this story (with the help of the religious right) its the democrats who are the bully bad guys, the secularists, intellectuals, bleeding hearts, who are shifty and not to be trusted. Each of us come to our decisions with our whole beings engaged in the process. We decide not just with our minds but with our past, our past formation, training, education, and upbringing. This creates in us a bias for better or worse. My fear is that the predominant bias of the voting population makes voters into suckers for so called stability, security, and reliability that McCain wants to sell.

Discerning minds will see right through McCain’s VP choice as an example of McCain’s unreliability instead. The big card that McCain supporters continue to play in defending the Palin choice is the notion that she has more “executive” experience than Obama. It is insane to try to compare eight years of executive leadership of a town of 9,000 to Obama’s years of teaching law, his work in Chicago and time in the Senate. Yes, he is younger and has no “executive” experience, but he has been studying Washington and international politics and has been engaged with it in a very informed way that allows him to be a fresh force of change in Washington. Just a few days ago Sarah Palin made her first gaffe by confusing the role of Fannie Mae as a government agency. What in the world? Is this woman ready to oversee our economy?

Palin has come from nowhere (almost literally). We know nothing about her. She was picked by McCain not because she would be an effective leader but because she makes his ticket (himself) look good. She helps him tell that nice warm, fuzzy grandpa story. If McCain were a reliable candidate, he would not pick a running mate solely based upon that person’s political appeal; he would make a decision that is equally important for the good of the country. McCain, the oldest presidential nominee in the history of presidential elections, should first and foremost assure his supporters that his second in command is thoroughly capable of running our country. How is it that in a society glutted on failsafe insurance policies that we would consider trusting our back up leadership, the one who leads our military, legistlature, economy, and public services to a no name woman? There isn't one insurance company that would underwrite such a plan for a 72 year old president. Yes, there is politicking to be done on the road to the White House. Yes, these candidates have to maneuver and stretch themselves into different arenas of discussion, different nuances to their positions and rhetoric all for the sake of getting elected. But stretching himself to Sarah Palin for the sake of winning an election is going too far.

For those who are defending Sarah Palin with the reasoning that she has more executive experience than Obama: basically you are saying that you would choose Palin to run the country over Obama. Is she is really better qualified? Of course, this is a presidential race between Obama and McCain, but with McCain at such an older age, Palin needs to be a more thoroughly proven leader. McCain has made a high stakes gamble by picking Palin. He has pushed his chips in all or nothing. The stability of our administration isn’t something we can afford to gamble with and this demonstrates not McCain’s brilliance as a politician. It demonstrates recklessness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Obama Our Harvey Dent?

A few interesting links here.


This is funny--not funny in the sense that the RNC hopes it will be--funny because it reveals how desperate the McCain campaign has become. McCain has fallen from my graces. I'd really believed for a while that he wouldn't be that bad of an alternative as a president. I optimistically believed that he'd be an improvement upon Bush, but we can at least credit Bush with running a campaign that didn't resort to mockery in order to win. It is one thing to try to inform the public of the short comings of your opponent. However, it is bad taste and sad to gawk and ridicule your opponent. Also, consider the latest McCain ad that compares Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in terms of his celebrity status. The suggestion is that Obama is only hype. The add finishes with "higher taxes...more foreign oil....that's the real Obama." Higher taxes? Yes, because we are currently spending over $10 billion per month on the war in Iraq and the budget deficit is almost $80 billion over what the Bush administration had projected it to be last November. Other than higher taxes, how else are we going to take care of that debt? Foreign oil? Every time Obama has criticized the most recent surge of troops he has referenced ideas that that money could have gone into research and development of alternative fuel sources so that we can become less dependent on foreign oil.

I would prefer the Americans could vote for their preferred nominee instead of against their opponent. That is idealistic of me, I know. I admit I haven't lived up to such idealism. I voted against Bush in the last election in protest against the war. I wasn't very impressed with Kerry. He seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Now I fear that the tables are turned and that most of the McCain supporters are only Obama despisers. I haven't discovered many people who are really that excited about McCain even if they do plan to vote for him.

This is the way that most Americans endure politics. We are suspicious of politicians and resign ourselves to the fact that we will have to always choose the lesser of evils at the polls. For once I'm actually excited about a candidate. What I believe will be the deciding factors in this year's win for Obama is both the swing voters who are riding the fence now and also the surprising appearance of new voters who are coming out just because of Obama. If in some bizarre turn of events Obama doesn't get elected, I fear that this whole new group of political enthusiasts will sour to the American democratic process once and for all.

So yes, here comes my cheesy Obama/ Harvey Dent comparison. If you haven't seen The Dark Knight yet, this won't give away much of the plot. Purists might want to stop reading here and go see the move first (but hey, if you are a purist, you should have seen the movie by now). Harvey Dent is for the people of Gotham what Batman can't be. He is the white knight to Batman's dark knight. He becomes a symbol of hope for a better and safer Gotham. Batman and Commissioner Gordon's whole purpose was to give Harvey Dent a larger public platform so that the city might believe in change.

Obama, the man, cannot live up to what he has become in the minds and hearts of the so-called "Obamacons" or the "Obamaites" whichever you prefer. The McCain campaign is making fun of the hype and this is bad taste not just because it is crude. It is bad taste because he is in effect making fun of us for believing that we could be a better country. McCain is a wet blanket. He counters our enthusiasm with negativity: you are too young, inexperienced and idealistic. And his latest mock add stoops too low by comparing Obama to pop icons. Obama has what Brittany and Paris do not have: our real hopes for a better political landscape. Pop culture does have a bad track record of producing hot air and vanity. However, McCain is mistaken if he believes everything that is embraced by popular culture is worthless. Obama's hype has substance to it. Let me explain...

2nd Teaching Law, Testing Ideas

This article is interesting because it manages to retain its journalistic objectiveness. This is rare these days. Obama is described as an enigma socially and ideologically by both students and faculty. His classes earned cult like status on campus. Some of his students later became his campaign organizers. But Obama's teaching method was aloof, antagonizing and Socratic. "But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next."

It is impressive that this law professor of twelve years is able to move from academics to politics with so much savvy. Generally speaking scholars have very little public appeal. They are in the confines of the university for a reason. However, Obama still is faced with the challenge of engaging the populous with his bent for complexity. Many accuse him of ambiguity and therefore a lack of substance when in fact it is not that he has no substance, it is that his is a different kind of substance that does not translate seamlessly into our highly reductive political consciousness and soundbytes media. It is a wonder that Obama is able to function at all in this simplistic realm of bullet pointed policy.

Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind details the anti-intellectualism that has pervaded the church especially throughout the 20th century. We have a distaste for complexity and nuance. He quotes N.K. Clifford to support his point: “The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society.”

The evangelical church has become populous. The Gospel is over-simplified in order to maintain its appeal. As it is with religion in America, so it is with politics. Both the evangelical church and American culture at large suffer from an anti-intellectualism that hinders our democracy. I know that "intellectual" is synonymous with "liberal" to many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've been warned about the dangers of over thinking. What many don't understand is that it is in fact my love for Christ that has led me to graduate school so that I may love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Here is my quick stab at some very delicate issues for American Christians: our founding fathers were themselves radicals motivated by intellectuals. In fact what we consider to be the American notion of liberty and freedom, was originally a philosophy espoused by French intellectuals. Further, democracy was originally a Greek philosophy. Neither liberty or democracy are ideals that originated in the Scriptures. British historian Paul Johnson argues that America is Europe's greatest intellectual experiment. I love America and am fond of the idea of democracy not because it has anything to do with Jesus, but because of the tradition of great ideas upon which America is founded.

So here we are looking to elect our 44th president in a few months and we are considering two candidates. One of them claims to support family values. He is pro-life and against gay marriage, yet he left his first wife (a mother of three who labored to see her husband returned safely from wartime imprisonment) to marry a woman many years younger than him. And we have another candidate who has sometimes confusing and complex positions on topics like religion and abortion (see his "Call to Renewal" keynote address) but who by all accounts is a good, no frills family man. The former is resorting to mocking his opponent and the later is working hard to avoid drama by running possibly the most efficient, cohesive and to the media's consternation, tight-lipped presidential campaign ever. The former is an elderly statesman, a former POW, who continues to make gaffes in the public eye. The later is a younger senator whose debut speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention overshadowed the words delivered by the Democratic nominee. These are very different candidates who represent two very different visions of what America can become.

Obama may seem wishy washy and un-tested since he is so young, however it is exactly this kind of fresh optimism that we need. And further it is not naive optimism either. In fact it is very encouraging that Obama is still optimistic in the face of all he is able to understand and articulate in terms of the complexities of America. Most of the academics I know are very reluctant to act upon their knowledge. It is easier to let their theories exist in the abstract. We have in Barack Obama, a man of a kind of substance many of us won't understand.