Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Resolved: Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014

Posted: 12/31/2013 5:33 pm
It isn't quit smoking (never started). And it isn't lose weight (well, it probably should be). It isn't even one of those vague ones like be happier or be healthier or take more time for me (the latter, of course, being impossible when one works for a living and has two tiny humans to keep alive and happy). No, this Resolution is somewhat non-traditional. But it is, by my reasoning, vitally necessary:
I'm quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014.

No, I'm not quitting blogging or Twitter or de-friending a couple hundred people on Facebook (though I'll likely do a bit of trimming for the new year). Nor am I giving up on certain topics that might be deemed by some to be "progressive" and "Christian." Rather, I'm quitting a conversation that has come to define the "Progressive Christian" label online,  a conversation that I have been a part of here and there and on and off over the last year or so. I'm putting the kibosh on what seems to me to be a rapidly devolving, fragmenting, and, yes, schisming ideological experiment manifesting uniquely on blogs and social media. And I'm saying sayonara to the talking (tweeting) heads and childish cliques that often dominate this discussion, a discussion which has at times become a parody of itself playing out in plain view of the watching world.
This is not a call-out post, so I won't be naming names or linking links. That's not the point. The point is that the Progressive Christian conversation has lost its way, primarily because of the third word in the label: the Internet. The Internet has fostered a disconnect between the Progressive Christian Internetter and rooted, relational church realities, such that the ideology expressed online has become an end in itself rather than a means tethered to the end of ecclesia. The conversation is increasingly non-incarnational. Whereas evangelical church-planting culture is often plagued by shallow pragmatism, the Progressive Christian Internet goes to the other extreme, philosophizing its way out of any substantial, practical ecclesial application.

And in the attempt to be ideologically Progressive, it often fails to be substantially Christian.

Take, for instance, the popular Progressive blogger who recently called for wholesale schism between egalitarian Christians and complementarian Christians. Without any disclaimers for serious relational realities that should be taken into account, or any deep reflection given to the way that unity might hopefully manifest across ideological lines in the church, this fellow demanded that his egalitarian teammates join in a widespread campaign of disfellowshipping. Then, while delighting in the fact that the post had gone viral, the blogger later offered a half-hearted apology that perhaps schism was the wrong word. Healthy, and strong, critique is one thing. But this is the kind of ideological arrogance that basically leverages viral Internet influence to the injury of the church itself.

And it doesn't stop with brazen calls for schism. The Progressive Christian Internet is perpetually collapsing on itself in a series of its own mini-schisms, where the other is not subversive/anarchist/feminist/womanist/affirming/allied/inclusive/academic/philosophical/whatever enough. And these judgments of inadequacy are typically made solely on the basis of 140 character "conversations" which often begin with the other's accidental or mistaken use of certain words or phrases, and then spiral into raging fits and subtweet rants and block wars from there.

And it is all so pathologically self-justifying. In the name of "feeling all the feels" and "being angry at my oppressors", the Progressive Christian Internet justifies unhealthy affect, arrogance, and aggression as normative, totally fine, and DON'T SILENCE ME. Being an online asshole is now not an accidental slip - it's a virtue. And ever tighter ideological circles are drawn until rigid cliques are formed, and everyone outside (like, the rest of the Internet) are The Patriarchy or The Racists or The Oppressors. Often, strange Survivor-esque alliances are made to fight common online enemies, with bedfellows collaborating on badgering and intimidating their foes despite glaring contradictions in their own respective positions. Love for God and neighbor are nowhere to be found, overwhelmed by pharisaical posturing.

Now, let me be clear: I have seen and participated in legitimate examples of good people standing up for what's right online. I've seen feminists stand up to real misogyny. I've seen satire done well to expose arrogance, hypocrisy, and abuse of power. I've seen strong prophetic statements made against actual injustice, using the Internet as a means to a restorative end. But in these cases the common thread is a rootedness in real life and real church. A sense that wars of words are not the be all/end all, and a deeper conversation can always potentially lead to peaceful resolution, if not reconciliation.
But when normal people with very little power are vilified for offering an opinion that is out of step with a particular Progressive ideological stance, or someone apologizing  for speaking wrongfully is ostracized for committing the unpardonable sin, or those who have offered honest critique are intimidated and threatened through private messages or hostile phone calls, or Internet platforms and followings become political playgrounds for creating in and out groups according to ideological agendas - THEN, my friends, this thing has gone off the Christian rails and has become the very thing it claims to oppose.

I confess that I have gotten caught up in a couple of these ideological spats over the last year. And I, for one, am resolving to quit. Make no mistake, if the occasion calls for it, I will do my best to prophetically engage and stand up for what's right. But I refuse to participate in this non-incarnational Internet politicking.

In 2014, it's time for the Christian Internet to recover a love for the church - to produce rooted, relational content that actually fosters restoration in God's world. It's time to put the embarrassing parody to rest. It's time to live whole lives in the kingdom and see the Internet as a means to expressing and experiencing good news.

Even if that good news manifests in a subversive, satirical Facebook status.
How about you - will you join me in quitting the Progressive Christian Internet in 2014?

What Do You Get When You Cross Ecclesiastes and Lamentations?

I doubt there’s a literary category for such a monstrous hybrid. But there is surely and existential one. And that is where I find myself these days. I don’t think I’m depressedbeen there and know what that feels like. But I am sad, and somewhat adrift. And Id like your prayers, those of you who are praying types.

I’m a child of the 60's and 70's. A time when it truly seemed possible that significant structural and systemic change in America could happen. And that there was a generation committed enough to live sacrificially that such might happen. Forty-five to fifty years hence, I hold little to no hope for any such change, at least in the direction of equity and justice. This is not a democrat or republican thingthe rich have gotten richer under Obama (Eccl.5:10), the environment has degenerated (perhaps past remediation), oppression is rife (Eccl.4:1-3), the Occupy movement has generated some good ideas, but good ideas scare no one in power (Eccl.8:4). Apart from some such disaster that dwarfs 9/11 or 2008, the kind of change I hope for, the kind the gospel says is God’s intention for his creation, seems exceedingly unlikely to happen. There is, indeed, “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.1:9)

Being a child of the 60's and 70's, I lived on the passion of those times and on the hope that though that generation proved to lack the character and will to be agents of just change, such a generation might yet rise for some time. I no longer believe this. I believe the range of change possible through the political process is quite limited (though still worth working for in certain situations). Witness Obama, again. He’s better than Romney, in my view, but not by a whole lot. The power of consumerism/materialism in our culture is well neigh totalitarian. What I call the unholy trinity of “Mars, Mammon, and Me” reigns unchallenged, even by communities that are mandated to contrast and counter such devilish ways of thinking and acting. The “principalities and powers” which Paul says are our true enemy face little resistance from the church.

This erosion and corruption of the church is as evident as it is lamentable. I do not mean, of course, that there is no good or that God is not at work through the church as we have known it. Wonderful people staff and form the congregations of most of our churches. They make good and faithful efforts to live as they believe God would have us live. Yet for various reasons, some of them noted above, the church in our land has made itself captive to the ethos and ethics of our culture and chaplain to its values and visions. This diluted form of church has worked hard to achieve the mediocrity it has earned. Finally, God, it seems, has tired of such mediocrity, and, if theologian Stanley Hauerwas is right, “God is killing the mainline church in America, and we goddamn well deserve it.” And not just mainline churches either, I submit.

And we deserve nothing less from the Lord our God! Like the Lamenter in Lamentations, rage as we might at God for allowing or not stopping such a devolution into mediocrity, we cannot, at the same time, but admit the fault is wholly ours. “He definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer” (Lam.3:33), says the poet, and may yet turn again toward us in mercy (Lam.5:21-22). Yet the reality of our desolation is, or should be, overwhelming.

You may well suspect me of melancholia by this point. Yet, I believe my complaint is more theological than psychological. If this, my season of a misshapen hybrid of Ecclesiastes-Lamentations, can’t be (a least primarily) chalked up to psychological dysfunction, then perhaps it is a function of what you might consider a poor choice in theological reading. For even forty years hence I consider that Jacques Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment remains the most prophetic and perceptive treatment of the church in our time (as well as his). His claim that we live in a time in which God has turned his face away from his people in the western church because of its settling for the kind of mediocrity described above is all that helps me make sense of what I experience today.

I’m not sure how to move on in this season, or whether I even should. But I’ve lived through for so long now that I long for some light, some direction, some sense of what to do in or from this place. And that’s why I need and ask for your prayers.

What do you get when you cross Ecclesiastes with Lamentations? You get me! Please pray for me!


The Crisis of the Middle Class and American Power


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Editor's Note: The following Geopolitical Weekly originally ran in January 2013.
By George Friedman
When I wrote about the crisis of unemployment in Europe, I received a great deal of feedback. Europeans agreed that this is the core problem while Americans argued that the United States has the same problem, asserting that U.S. unemployment is twice as high as the government's official unemployment rate. My counterargument is that unemployment in the United States is not a problem in the same sense that it is in Europe because it does not pose a geopolitical threat. The United States does not face political disintegration from unemployment, whatever the number is. Europe might.
At the same time, I would agree that the United States faces a potentially significant but longer-term geopolitical problem deriving from economic trends. The threat to the United States is the persistent decline in the middle class' standard of living, a problem that is reshaping the social order that has been in place since World War II and that, if it continues, poses a threat to American power.

The Crisis of the American Middle Class

The median household income of Americans in 2011 was $49,103. Adjusted for inflation, the median income is just below what it was in 1989 and is $4,000 less than it was in 2000. Take-home income is a bit less than $40,000 when Social Security and state and federal taxes are included. That means a monthly income, per household, of about $3,300. It is urgent to bear in mind that half of all American households earn less than this. It is also vital to consider not the difference between 1990 and 2011, but the difference between the 1950s and 1960s and the 21st century. This is where the difference in the meaning of middle class becomes most apparent.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the median income allowed you to live with a single earner -- normally the husband, with the wife typically working as homemaker -- and roughly three children. It permitted the purchase of modest tract housing, one late model car and an older one. It allowed a driving vacation somewhere and, with care, some savings as well. I know this because my family was lower-middle class, and this is how we lived, and I know many others in my generation who had the same background. It was not an easy life and many luxuries were denied us, but it wasn't a bad life at all.

Someone earning the median income today might just pull this off, but it wouldn't be easy. Assuming that he did not have college loans to pay off but did have two car loans to pay totaling $700 a month, and that he could buy food, clothing and cover his utilities for $1,200 a month, he would have $1,400 a month for mortgage, real estate taxes and insurance, plus some funds for fixing the air conditioner and dishwasher. At a 5 percent mortgage rate, that would allow him to buy a house in the $200,000 range. He would get a refund back on his taxes from deductions but that would go to pay credit card bills he had from Christmas presents and emergencies. It could be done, but not easily and with great difficulty in major metropolitan areas. And if his employer didn't cover health insurance, that $4,000-5,000 for three or four people would severely limit his expenses. And of course, he would have to have $20,000-40,000 for a down payment and closing costs on his home. There would be little else left over for a week at the seashore with the kids.

And this is for the median. Those below him -- half of all households -- would be shut out of what is considered middle-class life, with the house, the car and the other associated amenities. Those amenities shift upward on the scale for people with at least $70,000 in income. The basics might be available at the median level, given favorable individual circumstance, but below that life becomes surprisingly meager, even in the range of the middle class and certainly what used to be called the lower-middle class.

The Expectation of Upward Mobility

I should pause and mention that this was one of the fundamental causes of the 2007-2008 subprime lending crisis. People below the median took out loans with deferred interest with the expectation that their incomes would continue the rise that was traditional since World War II. The caricature of the borrower as irresponsible misses the point. The expectation of rising real incomes was built into the American culture, and many assumed based on that that the rise would resume in five years. When it didn't they were trapped, but given history, they were not making an irresponsible assumption.
American history was always filled with the assumption that upward mobility was possible. The Midwest and West opened land that could be exploited, and the massive industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries opened opportunities. There was a systemic expectation of upward mobility built into American culture and reality.

The Great Depression was a shock to the system, and it wasn't solved by the New Deal, nor even by World War II alone. The next drive for upward mobility came from post-war programs for veterans, of whom there were more than 10 million. These programs were instrumental in creating post-industrial America, by creating a class of suburban professionals. There were three programs that were critical:
  1. The GI Bill, which allowed veterans to go to college after the war, becoming professionals frequently several notches above their parents.
  2. The part of the GI Bill that provided federally guaranteed mortgages to veterans, allowing low and no down payment mortgages and low interest rates to graduates of publicly funded universities.
  3. The federally funded Interstate Highway System, which made access to land close to but outside of cities easier, enabling both the dispersal of populations on inexpensive land (which made single-family houses possible) and, later, the dispersal of business to the suburbs.
There were undoubtedly many other things that contributed to this, but these three not only reshaped America but also created a new dimension to the upward mobility that was built into American life from the beginning. Moreover, these programs were all directed toward veterans, to whom it was acknowledged a debt was due, or were created for military reasons (the Interstate Highway System was funded to enable the rapid movement of troops from coast to coast, which during World War II was found to be impossible). As a result, there was consensus around the moral propriety of the programs.

The subprime fiasco was rooted in the failure to understand that the foundations of middle class life were not under temporary pressure but something more fundamental. Where a single earner could support a middle class family in the generation after World War II, it now took at least two earners. That meant that the rise of the double-income family corresponded with the decline of the middle class. The lower you go on the income scale, the more likely you are to be a single mother. That shift away from social pressure for two parent homes was certainly part of the problem.

Re-engineering the Corporation

But there was, I think, the crisis of the modern corporation. Corporations provided long-term employment to the middle class. It was not unusual to spend your entire life working for one. Working for a corporation, you received yearly pay increases, either as a union or non-union worker. The middle class had both job security and rising income, along with retirement and other benefits. Over the course of time, the culture of the corporation diverged from the realities, as corporate productivity lagged behind costs and the corporations became more and more dysfunctional and ultimately unsupportable. In addition, the corporations ceased focusing on doing one thing well and instead became conglomerates, with a management frequently unable to keep up with the complexity of multiple lines of business.

For these and many other reasons, the corporation became increasingly inefficient, and in the terms of the 1980s, they had to be re-engineered -- which meant taken apart, pared down, refined and refocused. And the re-engineering of the corporation, designed to make them agile, meant that there was a permanent revolution in business. Everything was being reinvented. Huge amounts of money, managed by people whose specialty was re-engineering companies, were deployed. The choice was between total failure and radical change. From the point of view of the individual worker, this frequently meant the same thing: unemployment. From the view of the economy, it meant the creation of value whether through breaking up companies, closing some of them or sending jobs overseas. It was designed to increase the total efficiency, and it worked for the most part.

This is where the disjuncture occurred. From the point of view of the investor, they had saved the corporation from total meltdown by redesigning it. From the point of view of the workers, some retained the jobs that they would have lost, while others lost the jobs they would have lost anyway. But the important thing is not the subjective bitterness of those who lost their jobs, but something more complex.

As the permanent corporate jobs declined, more people were starting over. Some of them were starting over every few years as the agile corporation grew more efficient and needed fewer employees. That meant that if they got new jobs it would not be at the munificent corporate pay rate but at near entry-level rates in the small companies that were now the growth engine. As these companies failed, were bought or shifted direction, they would lose their jobs and start over again. Wages didn't rise for them and for long periods they might be unemployed, never to get a job again in their now obsolete fields, and certainly not working at a company for the next 20 years.

The restructuring of inefficient companies did create substantial value, but that value did not flow to the now laid-off workers. Some might flow to the remaining workers, but much of it went to the engineers who restructured the companies and the investors they represented. Statistics reveal that, since 1947 (when the data was first compiled), corporate profits as a percentage of gross domestic product are now at their highest level, while wages as a percentage of GDP are now at their lowest level. It was not a question of making the economy more efficient -- it did do that -- it was a question of where the value accumulated. The upper segment of the wage curve and the investors continued to make money. The middle class divided into a segment that entered the upper-middle class, while another faction sank into the lower-middle class.

American society on the whole was never egalitarian. It always accepted that there would be substantial differences in wages and wealth. Indeed, progress was in some ways driven by a desire to emulate the wealthy. There was also the expectation that while others received far more, the entire wealth structure would rise in tandem. It was also understood that, because of skill or luck, others would lose.

What we are facing now is a structural shift, in which the middle class' center, not because of laziness or stupidity, is shifting downward in terms of standard of living. It is a structural shift that is rooted in social change (the breakdown of the conventional family) and economic change (the decline of traditional corporations and the creation of corporate agility that places individual workers at a massive disadvantage).

The inherent crisis rests in an increasingly efficient economy and a population that can't consume what is produced because it can't afford the products. This has happened numerous times in history, but the United States, excepting the Great Depression, was the counterexample.

Obviously, this is a massive political debate, save that political debates identify problems without clarifying them. In political debates, someone must be blamed. In reality, these processes are beyond even the government's ability to control. On one hand, the traditional corporation was beneficial to the workers until it collapsed under the burden of its costs. On the other hand, the efficiencies created threaten to undermine consumption by weakening the effective demand among half of society.

The Long-Term Threat

The greatest danger is one that will not be faced for decades but that is lurking out there. The United States was built on the assumption that a rising tide lifts all ships. That has not been the case for the past generation, and there is no indication that this socio-economic reality will change any time soon. That means that a core assumption is at risk. The problem is that social stability has been built around this assumption -- not on the assumption that everyone is owed a living, but the assumption that on the whole, all benefit from growing productivity and efficiency.

If we move to a system where half of the country is either stagnant or losing ground while the other half is surging, the social fabric of the United States is at risk, and with it the massive global power the United States has accumulated. Other superpowers such as Britain or Rome did not have the idea of a perpetually improving condition of the middle class as a core value. The United States does. If it loses that, it loses one of the pillars of its geopolitical power.

The left would argue that the solution is for laws to transfer wealth from the rich to the middle class. That would increase consumption but, depending on the scope, would threaten the amount of capital available to investment by the transfer itself and by eliminating incentives to invest. You can't invest what you don't have, and you won't accept the risk of investment if the payoff is transferred away from you.

The agility of the American corporation is critical. The right will argue that allowing the free market to function will fix the problem. The free market doesn't guarantee social outcomes, merely economic ones. In other words, it may give more efficiency on the whole and grow the economy as a whole, but by itself it doesn't guarantee how wealth is distributed. The left cannot be indifferent to the historical consequences of extreme redistribution of wealth. The right cannot be indifferent to the political consequences of a middle-class life undermined, nor can it be indifferent to half the population's inability to buy the products and services that businesses sell.

The most significant actions made by governments tend to be unintentional. The GI Bill was designed to limit unemployment among returning serviceman; it inadvertently created a professional class of college graduates. The VA loan was designed to stimulate the construction industry; it created the basis for suburban home ownership. The Interstate Highway System was meant to move troops rapidly in the event of war; it created a new pattern of land use that was suburbia.

It is unclear how the private sector can deal with the problem of pressure on the middle class. Government programs frequently fail to fulfill even minimal intentions while squandering scarce resources. The United States has been a fortunate country, with solutions frequently emerging in unexpected ways.

It would seem to me that unless the United States gets lucky again, its global dominance is in jeopardy. Considering its history, the United States can expect to get lucky again, but it usually gets lucky when it is frightened. And at this point it isn't frightened but angry, believing that if only its own solutions were employed, this problem and all others would go away. I am arguing that the conventional solutions offered by all sides do not yet grasp the magnitude of the problem -- that the foundation of American society is at risk -- and therefore all sides are content to repeat what has been said before.

People who are smarter and luckier than I am will have to craft the solution. I am simply pointing out the potential consequences of the problem and the inadequacy of all the ideas I have seen so far.

Read more: The Crisis of the Middle Class and American Power | Stratfor
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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Saving the Lost Art of Conversation


In a fast-paced digital age, an MIT psychologist tries to slow us down.

“I am going to be a little boring,” Sherry Turkle announces as we sit down to tea in the living room of her sprawling Boston townhouse. “And you’re going to be a little boring, too.”

Turkle, for the record, is not boring. She is a psychologist and a professor at MIT whose primary academic interest—the relationship between humans and machines—is especially relevant in today’s networked age. Her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, explores our reliance on devices that can isolate us under the auspices of connection. Published in 2011, it poured 384 pages’ worth of water onto technological optimism at a time when most of the culture preferred to focus on the promise and allure of digital devices. In this environment, Turkle has been one of only a handful of experts willing to come out as tech-skeptical, which has made her a regular on the op-ed/Colbert Report/TED Talk circuit.

This tech critic, however, is not tech-phobic. She works with robots. She has an iPhone; actually, she has several. She texts with her daughter. She e‑mails with me. The first decoration I saw in her entryway was a large bowl brimming with computer accessories.

As we chat, it becomes clear that Turkle is not just not boring—she’s an exceptionally skilled conversationalist. After tea, we take a walk around her Back Bay neighborhood. Throughout our conversation, she occasionally touches my forearm. She speaks deliberately, pausing often. She laughs easily and heartily, a sign more of her warmth than of my wit. She has at her disposal what the best conversationalists have: a wealth of experience to draw from.

Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”

“I can’t, in restaurants, not watch families not talking to each other,” Turkle tells me. “In parks, I can’t not watch mothers not talking to their children. In streets, I can’t not watch mothers texting while they’re pushing their children.”

Her methods are contagious; once you start noticing what Turkle notices, you can’t stop. It’s a beautiful day, and we walk past boutiques, restaurants, and packed sidewalk caf├ęs. The data are everywhere: The pair of high-school-age girls walking down Boylston Street, silent, typing. The table of brunchers ignoring their mimosas (and one another) in favor of their screens. The kid in the stroller playing with an iPad. The sea of humans who are, on this sparkling Saturday, living up to Turkle’s lament—they seem to be, indeed, alone together.

The conclusion she’s arrived at while researching her new book is not, technically, that we’re not talking to each other. We’re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it’s ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.

Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.

Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.

The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.

She wants us to reclaim the permission to be, when we want and need to be, dull.

She advocates limiting our device usage in “sacred spaces” like the dinner table, the places where phones and their enticements may impede intimacy and interaction. She wants us to look into each other’s eyes as we talk. She wants us to read each other’s movements. She wants us to have conversations that are supremely human.

On Boylston Street, we come across Boston’s Apple Store. Earlier in the day, there’d been a crowd outside. New iPhones had just arrived, and the customary scrum of people wanting to be the first to own them had assembled in a neat, eager line. Some people stood under large umbrellas, shielding themselves from the sun.

Turkle and I enter the store. She scans the room. “Look at this couple,” she whispers, nudging me. The middle-aged pair is chatting in a casual way that, from a distance, could indicate either long-standing familiarity or the lack of it. They’re both looking down at an iPad, the surface of which they’re taking turns swiping. The man points to something on the screen. The woman giggles. They’re flirting. Turkle leans toward them, assessing. “They might even be picking each other up,” she says. Then again, “they could be married for 40 years.”

It really is hard to tell. Thanks to the buzz that ricochets off the thick glass-and-concrete floors from kids playing games on iPhones, customers getting tips from T-shirted workers, and people chatting as they stare into screens either enormous or comically small, our research capabilities are limited. But that’s a good thing. Conversation—terribly boring, and wonderfully so—is everywhere.

“You wouldn’t want to be churlish and say that this is not a social environment, that this is not a warm environment, that this is not a place where people are,” Turkle says. “I’ve spent hours here, eavesdropping.”

I look around the store, packed with products that promise connection, and remark that it looks and feels like a temple. Turkle nods. She surveys the airy space, streaked with sunlight, bustling with people, and thunderous with the din of human voices. “Everybody’s talking,” she muses. “And nobody’s talking about anything except what’s on the machines.”

Karl Barth’s Prayer for the New Year

 Posted: 28 Dec 2013 10:05 PM PST
O Lord, our Father!
We have gathered here at the turn of the year
because we do not want to be alone but want to be with each other,
and together be united with you.
Our hearts are filled with somber thoughts
as we reflect on our misdeeds of the past year.
And our ears are deafened by the voices of the radio and in the newspapers,
with their numerous predictions for the coming year.
Instead we want to hear your word, your voice, your assurance, your guidance.
We know that you are in our midst,
and are eager to give us all that we need, whether we ask or not.
On this night we ask for one thing only:
that you collect our scattered thoughts,
getting rid of the confused and defiant thoughts that may distract us,
and thus enable us to concentrate on your limitless generosity to us.
You were abundantly generous to us last year,
and will be no less generous to us next year, and in every year to come.
Fill us with gratitude to you.
Karl Barth
(from Trevin Wax)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Embers and Ashes

Twenty-plus years a pastor in a local church (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.), college ministry, and national educational ministry have convinced me of a few things. But only one that seems to really matter.

And that one only matters because the church in our time and place is in such shitty shape. Yes, shitty — that’s what I said and what I mean. But not because the people in the church are often shitty — that’s a given! It’s because the institutional structures of the church inhibit just what seems to me necessary for it to enable shitty people to stand the stench of each other and still hang together and bear a credible witness to the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped that he could only stand the stench inside the church because the stench outside it was a little worse. And that’s how we’ve operated. Proud that we could consider ourselves better (even if only by a little) than the world outside our walls, a faux-righteousness overtook us and eroded our capacity for solidarity with the poor and inflated our illusions that we could do Kingdom work by pushing and pulling the levers of business and politics from the top down.

Relationships got shorted in the process. We didn’t really want relationships with poor people or non-white people, so we didn’t have any. The relationships we did build with the movers and shakers were ad hoc and functional. And in the process relating to God atrophied as well.

Some of us became pray-actors while others became play-actors, well-intentioned, good-hearted, do-the-best-they-can kind of folks. The former shorted our relation to and accountability for a rightly-ordered world for a “spirituality” centered on the church as the site for religious practices and vendor of religious goods and services. The latter shorted the church as primarily a place of moral and social exhortation and the world as the place of Christian action. Both were right in what they affirmed and wrong in what they denied or neglected. Gradually differing political ideologies became the de facto grounds defining and dividing us from each other and, dare I suggest, God. Instead of being embers awaiting only the breath of God to blaze to life in the world, we have become burned out ashes blown about by the winds swirling down the chimney of a dead fireplace.

This relational failure is endemic to the way we have come to do church. I can illustrate it like this. On any Sunday morning some people who live in the same area or structure get up and drive away from their home to another part of town to “go to church” with another group of people whom we don’t live with and who we hardly “know” in any organic sense. And the place we gather is not by and large a place we minister to often or well.

Imagine now an alternative scenario. All the Christians living near each other leave their cars in their driveways or parking spaces and gather together somewhere in their neighborhood. Together, in spite of all the differences they may have, they covenant before God to be God’s people in that place. They serve their neighbors, first be getting to know them as friends, and then by random acts of kindness and intentional acts of justice and peace, sharing the joys and sorrows, trials and terrors of life together. They tell the gospel story as they live it out in the midst of their life together inviting all to join them in worshiping Jesus and becoming who God always intended them to be and doing and living as the human beings he created “in his image.” All are God’s gifts and presence to each other. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what “knowing God” might mean apart from such community and interaction with the people and in the place where God has put us.

The difference in these two scenarios is, I believe, the reason we need a complete rethink and reinvention of the church. And it has everything to do with the relationships mentioned above. I have a formula to express this: passion + proximity + priority + perspective (Kingdom of God) = church.

The elements of this formula are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. They are gifts of God’s grace and, thus, not manipulable or under our control. We receive and experience them only in a living and growing relationship with God. As outlined above, this is precisely the point where the North American church has failed.

God created us to be embers needing only the breath (Spirit) of God to blow us into full flame. Apart from God, however, we become ash, remnants of a once-living relationship fired by God’s Spirit but now good for nothing to God’s kingdom work in and through his people, the church.

Only the life-giving Spirit can grace us with the passion born of living, knowing, and growing with God. Only the Spirit can convince in us and create among us a desire to live close to each other as a committed band of Jesus-followers in our local settings. Only the Spirit has sear the priority of being this people of God into our hearts and minds. And only the Spirit can lead us into the full truth of what we are a part of as Jesus-followers.

So relationship is the heart of this Christian-thing. Relationship to the triune God. Which is the way we remain burning embers open to the Spirit’s breath blowing us into full life. And because it is this God we are related to we are related to everything else as well. The Triune God is an eternal relationship of giving, receiving, and returning love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Thus we, who bear this God’s image, are created for similar community with God and one another. This God is also the Creator. Hence our love for God extends to all that he has lovingly called and fashioned into being. In fact, we can only know this God in community with each other and the creation which he has made for divine-human fellowship to be realized.

To be an ember of God, then, means being fired with a passion for God from whom we receive life, a desire to be near one another in community (proximity), a compulsion to “seek first God’s kingdom” (Matthew 6:33), and a perspective on life and the world that aligns itself with what God is doing there and where he is taking us.

In Christian faith, rooted in a living relationship to the living God and his crucified and risen Son Jesus Christ, passion for God is a sharing of God’s own passion for his world and a willingness to suffer with and for it on his behalf (compassion — “to suffer with”). Proximity morphs into a yearning for community. Our priority translates into commitment — intentional, undivided, single-minded. And our perspective is grounded in and directed by the coming kingdom of God, the world as God intended it to be which has become the reality from which we live in and through Jesus Christ.

It all finally begins and ends with relationship to God. Or at least openness to such relation. Only God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, can blow the embers we are into a bright and glowing fire of God’s love. Only this love shared with the world makes and keeps us Christian (and human, for that matter). When the uncontrollable, unpredictable Spirit ignites us we will find ourselves burning and glowing in every area of life and as far as God’s concern takes us and as deep as the deepest hell. And we will know joy!

We will be delivered from the joylessness of both secular and religious life into the worldliness pointed toward by Dietrich Bonhoeffer — a total immersion in the daily life of the world intent on being God’s mission there to reclaim and restore those from whom sin and evil have taken this joy. They are joyless ashes, blown here and there by every change and wind, dead relics of once living ember of God. And our joyous witness to them in the midst of life points them to the one alone who can (miraculously) restore them to being the embers he created them to be.

THE WINTER IS COLD, IS COLD by Madeleine L’Engle
… The winter is cold, is cold.                                                                                                                  All’s spent in keeping warm.                                                                                                               Has joy been frozen, too?                                                                                                                            I blow upon my hands                                                                                                                                 Stiff from the biting wind.                                                                                                                                My heart beats slow, beats slow.                                                                                                           What has become of joy?

If joy’s gone from my heart                                                                                                                        Then it is closed to You                                                                                                                                   Who made it, gave it life.                                                                                                                             If I protect myself I’m hiding, Lord, from you.                                                                                         How we defend ourselves                                                                                                                             In ancient suits of mail!

Protected from the sword,                                                                                                                Shrinking from the wound,                                                                                                                           We look for happiness,                                                                                                                           Small, safety-seeking, dulled,                                                                                                                    Selfish, exclusive, in-turned.                                                                                                                 Elusive, evasive, peace comes                                                                                                                  Only when it’s not sought.

Help me forget the cold                                                                                                                               That grips the grasping world.                                                                                                                         Let me stretch out my hands                                                                                                                    To purifying fire,                                                                                                                                 Clutching fingers uncurled.                                                                                                                         Look! Here is the melting joy.                                                                                                                      My heart beats once again


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hafiz on God's Love - Wonderful, Terrifying, and True!

"Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,...
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a "playful drunken mood"
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town."

~ Hafiz


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas"

'Twas Christmas Eve worship, when all thro' the church
drowsy worshipers awoke, and stood up with a lurch;
The paraments were hung by the staff with great care,
In hopes the baby Jesus soon would be there;

The children were told stories of God in their stead,
While visions of the great city danc’d in their heads,                                                                                                  
Mama had swept the pulpit, and I’d  run off  the vermin,
The congregation settled in for a long winter's sermon —

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.
Away to the belfry I flew like the wind,
Looked over the railings, boy, did I bend.

The light was uncanny and lent the world a bright splendor,
Gave the luster of fulfillment straight from its Sender;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a Lion-like Lamb with wounds so severe,
and seven eyes and seven horns, it couldn’t be a stranger,
I knew in a moment it was the child in the manger.

More rapid than eagles his angels they came,
Saying “Fear not, oh, fear not” as they called out  my name:
"Come to the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
"Come now!  Come now! Dash away with me all!"

“I came as a baby, I’ll return as the Lord,
bearing as my mission my Father’s gracious Word.
It heals as it wounds, binds up a broken heart,
it lifts up the poor, and puts down with a start
the rich who won’t share or act right and fair,                                                                                                                         It announces the dawn of God’s Day, glory fills the air.

“This started at my birth,                                                                                                                                                     And spread through the earth,
God’s movement among humans to set all things right:                                                                                                          to turn the world upside down, light to banish the night.

“My coming was humble, it lacked all the glory
of a Messiah and ruler, whose end was so gory.
I looked not at all like Messiah in any way:
indeed, on the cross most turned their face away.

“None quite understood, not even my closest friend
the strange plan of God in my inglorious end.                                                                                                                          I died as I lived, you see, and lived so to die
that’s the way of God’s life when sin’s reduced to a sty                                                                                                  God’s good creation and bent the humans he meant
to care for it and each other, give each other a tent.

“I lived as humans should and died so they wouldn’t
be barred forever from the life that they couldn’t
reach on their own or share with each other.
Instead I became for them both father and mother.

“My dying set them free                                                                                                                                                           to be all they could be.
My Spirit I gave them so they would be free.
to live and to love - and be mistaken for me!

“Not really a mistake, though, for in them I live.
with all the Father’s good gifts to spread and to give
to each one and every, the charge to be generous
and transform their lives into something momentous.

“So go now, my friends, dash away all!
From the best and the brightest, the weakest and small!
Be my people, my likeness so the whole world can see
what it means to worship a baby, when that baby is me!

“I’m coming once more, a grown up this time,                                                                                                                       to finally and fully make all fair and fine.                                                                                                                             So worship this night and on the morrow hit the streets                                                                                                       bearing and sharing a life that will know no defeat.                                                                                                               

“The hurts and losses you meet on this way                                                                                                                         may well depress you and lead to dismay,                                                                                                                             but in the alchemy of grace your weakness is strength,                                                                                                       even death itself loses its length.                                                                                                                                         

“I rose from the grave so full of new life                                                                                                                               that naught may deter you from becoming my wife.    
We’ll live together, humanity and me,                                                                                                                                      a reflection of my Father, object of his glee!

“This is what Christmas means, my friends and my people,                                                                                            That’s why you’re here – now flee from under this steeple!                                                                                              Give gifts, random kindness, and do justice for the small -                                                                                            Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to all!