Category Archives: Issues

Things that bother me or make me think or make me want to fight.

Not sure America had a mind to lose…

In a long article in this week’s Atlantic, Kurt Andersen builds the argument that America’s teetering march toward extreme individualism and non-rational thinking were pushed over the edge by the relativism of the 60s, and here we are now as a result.
“How America Lost Its Mind” (The Atlantic)

“In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”

I always raise an eyebrow at arguments like this. For every Thomas Jefferson who was cutting the miracles out of his Bible because they didn’t make sense to his rational mind, weren’t there a ton of other 1700s-era Americans who got off the boat and headed straight into the wild Appalachians so they could get away from the long arm of the law and being told what to do in a structured, reasoned society?

Andersen seems to argue that the 60s injected a dose of relativism so extreme that the American experiment hasn’t been able to recover. Coupled with the rise of the Internet to amplify the craziness, we now find ourselves in a “post-truth” society.

While the breakdown of our political discourse seems to be new compared to the past 75 years, should we forget McCarthyism and the Red Scare that threw America into a frenzy in the 50s? I’m reading a biography of Oppenheimer which discusses how one of the greatest physicists who ever lived was destroyed and defamed based on zero evidence and a lot of terror about Communists taking over. The rhetoric of his trial could easily fill a Trump speech; just swap out some of the names.

I’m more and more convinced that the vitriol and racism and lack of compromise that we’re seeing isn’t new. It’s not like we’ve regressed to lower life forms in the past 24 months from a state of enlightenment. As a people, we never really changed. Certain legislation drags us forward into being less ugly about it (e.g.: Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education) but Americans have been like this in many ways since our founding. We’ve always been about “doing our own thing,” though perhaps more people agreed on what “that thing” should be on the national scale at certain times more than others.

Andersen seems to write from the center-left position but he does so smugly, in a way that grates on me a bit.  Most of the time, I feel like he’s grinding an axe and proud of himself for letting you tag along.

I did appreciate this part of his critique of the GOP:

Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction.

Perhaps our politicians were better men at one time, but I don’t think history is going to support that thesis either, really. Corruption comes and goes at all levels of government; I think at times it’s more obnoxious than others, but there’s no way to escape the truth that money is power, and power is the key currency within politics.

I’m not a pessimist; I do think our nation can choose to be better than this. But it’s not just a political discussion. Many of the fears driving people to support men like Trump (even when Trump’s policies work against the best interests of poor and middle-class whites) stem from a coming economic disaster that will hit the less-educated very hard, especially men who have formed the bulk of the blue-collar work force.  Very few people are writing enough about this.

It would help if our pulpits emphasized loving God and neighbor above pursuing culture wars in Jesus’ name.  But that’s a rant I’ll leave for another day.

Newspring without Perry

Last night, Newspring Church met offline with its congregants to discuss the future of the church without the rockstar fallen from grace Perry Noble. I haven’t kept up with the church’s pastoral drama in the past year, but I stumbled across a Twitter live-blog last night of the meeting, and it’s worth noting a few things.

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First, it’s notable to me that Perry crashed and burned as hard as he did.  I wouldn’t say that every megachurch pastor will meet this fate, but Francis Chan articulated recently the way that power and fame begin to chew away at the foundation of your soul. (I recommend reading his remarks.) When 100,000 people are watching your hologram preach on Sunday, you are being tempted by Power. And Tolkien taught us well that only the most humble can carry such Power without it corrupting them – and even then, the burden of it leaves wounds that may never heal.  I’m genuinely sad for Perry Noble’s fall from grace; I hope that he finds peace, healing, and restoration.

Second, I’m glad to see a humbler Newspring tone from the leadership, based on this reporter’s observations of the meeting. Pride doesn’t look good on anybody, especially a church, and Newspring always had a chip on its shoulder about being the biggest and the mold-breaker.  Humbling itself to follow the wisdom of more experienced church leaders wasn’t their strong suit.  They were happy to be the outlier.  Problem is, lone wolves get eaten — and that’s just as true for a church as it is for a person.  This was a very fundamentalist streak within the Newspring culture (I’m not saying they’re fundamentalist – they aren’t), for Southern Baptists in general tend to have that “you can’t tell us what to do” streak of American individualism in their DNA.

 

The pastors who spoke mentioned that they are moving to a group leadership model — or as we Presbyterians call it, “rule by a plurality of elders,” a much stronger and healthier church leadership approach. It sounds like the leadership are trying to move forward together, slow their roll a bit, and trade growth in numbers and dollars for actual development. This is good. They want to see shepherding group growth over butts in the seats — also a much-needed change in emphasis. Having Perry Noble as the hood ornament of a giant machine was never a good idea. I’m glad his departure didn’t wreck more than it did (though there’s been quite a bit of damage).

 

I’m not saying everything here is 100% comforting – there’s still some of the rally feel (like when they talk about how much money they gave to community projects last year), but that’s true of every church.  Also, I’m not certain they’re theologically grounded enough to provide more than the barest surface-level preaching.  Newspring’s model has been “get your friends here and we’ll introduce them to Jesus,” and they’ve been effective at that (though the sacerdotal smell of it makes me cringe). But the model worked well for what it was intended to do: get people to church. That was Newspring’s mission: get people saved, not necessarily do the hard work of discipling them (IMO). Hopefully that will change.

Probably the biggest red flag to me continues to be Newspring’s disparaging of theological education (another Southern, fundamentalist characteristic in their culture). Did you catch the comment that moving to a  group of preaching pastors reinforces the idea that preachers don’t have to go to seminary to be able to preach?  Interesting remark given that preaching pastor Clayton King is an adjunct faculty member at Anderson University’s nascent divinity school.  Ignorance and good motives can carry a man only so far in the pulpit. At some point, people need to be taught Bible content, theological frameworks, and pastoral care.

I wonder about the future of Newspring College.  Newspring has spent years now discouraging young people from getting a seminary education and jumping into ministry after a year of training on their campus. The NS College website notes that students will carry a heavy load  in the Newspring services, including the big Christmas Eve and Easter productions. This bothers me. It looks like a farm for unpaid labor that will produce a lot of really young, really underprepared 20-somethings to throw into ministries around the world.  But I’m willing to live in peace with Newspring on this point. Formal education has never been a critical element of the Gospel, and for some minority groups, it’s a discriminatory practice that bars them from leadership positions (see: PCA). There are far worse things a 19 year old can do with a year of his life.

I haven’t been to a Newspring service in a long time. I still appreciate the energy they put into their services, their heart-felt intensity. I understand why so many “churched” people fled their churches to join the Newspring movement in the mid 2000s. Most churches aren’t feeding their congregations much in the way of biblical content, and when “church” boils down to being a social club, it’s easy to get bored with the one you’re in and leave for the one that’s got better facilities, a great show, and fun leadership. But church was never supposed to be about those things…. I think the New Testament model is much more about “doing life together” around the Word and sacraments and prayer.  You can’t do that via a once a week meeting; doesn’t matter how big or small the operation is.

Newspring is an arm of The Church, and though I’ve often disagreed with their emphasis and practices, I have seen them preach the Gospel to people who need it and love many types of folks who would never be willing to step foot in traditional Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals can learn from that. For this reason, I defend Newspring’s right to exist, to muck around and make mistakes just like all churches and denominations do. Have they “done damage” to the “cause of Christ”? Well, in the minds of some, they certainly have. But show me a church or denomination who hasn’t.  Much of the Newspring hate around here seeps out of old wounds, back when a very arrogant fast-growing church sucked thousands of people out of other churches’ pews.  Doesn’t mean I’m not going to recognize Newspring for what they are: fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So I wish Newspring well and hope that this painful year bears good fruit in bringing their leadership to greater wisdom and maturity.

On Civic Trust: “Teach Us (How) to Trust” | Comment Magazine

Wise words from one of my favorite authors:

When suspicion is the water in which we swim, then power, might, and tyranny start to look like lifeboats.

Closer to home, though, the source of mistrust might be more quotidian and bottom-up. In some ways, our distrust is the outcome of our own perceived cleverness. We’re so smart and “in the know” that we end up not trusting anyone who isn’t us. We see through everything, cultivating a knowing distance above the fray, deflating any manifestations of passion and sincerity as scams and facades. So the enlightened posture of the hipster has more social consequences than we might realize. The cause in this case is subjective: a corrosive individualism swells our self-interest, with ripple effects of suspicion. Our loneliness—”bowling alone”—is not a result of mistrust, but a cause. Where cynicism and irony are the last virtues, the web of trust is torn. It’s lonely in the cage of wink-and-nod “authenticity.”

Source: Editorial: Teach Us (How) to Trust | Comment Magazine

How to contact your Congressman … and be heard

From this Tweet:

Came these images, which outline how to contact your representatives and be heard (whatever party you side with):

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[the list each day]

I hate making phone calls like this…. but I think I’m going to start.

Engaging with “Can’t Even”

I wrote a post last week in an attempt to lay out what I think is a biblical response to the ridiculousness of a Trump presidency. I’ve had so many “can’t even” moments in the past week, I’ve run out of curse words and I’ll need to call my congressmen every day for a month just to discus one issue per day from the train wreck of Trump’s first 98 hours as President.

I’m worried that I’ll be weary of well-doing before I even get started. I’m a pretty chill person most of the time with politics and policy because I can see a lot of points of view and find elements that merit respect in them … but that is not this administration thus far.  I’ve seen bald-faced lies, “alternative facts,” and a head-long rush toward dismantling anything that would reign in the American gods of capitalism, individualism, profit, or plutocracy.

OK. So this is it, huh? This is the battlefield: Rejecting apathy. Refusing to disengage and let everything go to hell as it will.

I’m not rich, I have little power. But I am white, and I am educated. So I’m going to use what little position, what little “privilege” I have to speak up and speak out.  I fear that ‘the least of these’ will bear the brunt of nearly every change Trump has made via executive order in the past 72 hours.  Note I said ‘nearly’ – not everything has been a disaster. But mostly.

I’ve got this angry ball of ….anger…. sitting in the pit of my stomach. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this. I don’t know if it’s ever been caused by political events. It’s going to be a weird 4 years.

My Action To-Do List:

  • Call both SC senators and my House rep in support of the ACA. It’s a flawed law, but handing control to the States simply means red states will continue to stomp on the poor. If Republicans wish to fix the law, great! Let them actually fix it without hurting more people in the process.
  • Call Senator Scott – SC to request that Betsy DeVos be rejected for DoE. No one who wants to destroy a system should be put in charge of it. Not when the data supporting charter schooling is inconclusive at best. Yes, we need to “fix” education. Start by scrapping the billions-a-year testing bullshit. Call your school board and work on that too.
  • Ditto for Tillerson as Secretary of State. Can’t Even. Absolutely Can’t Even with that one.
  • Contact SC reps in support of a gas tax to fix our damn roads. I mean, really. SC governs so poorly. Never any money for infrastructure.
  • Contact Congressmen to denounce Trump’s connections to Dakota Pipeline building companies, his refusal to release his tax returns because “no one cares” (Conway said), his gag order against scientists in multiple agencies
  • Contact Congressmen to express support for the Syrian refugee program Trump will likely end tomorrow, and to disagree with his impending ban on immigration from “Muslim” countries. If you, as a Christian, cannot stand up against this action against an entire religion while basking in American freedom of religion (which is how your church gets out of paying any taxes), you are a hypocrite.

That’s a start. I’m tired already. Mad as hell, still.

Approaching the “Can’t Even”

I’ve been largely silent for most of the past several months both here and in much of social media. One part of that reticence flows from my growing feeling that I don’t have anything to say that’s worth taking your time and attention to read. That’s a complex set of feelings and thoughts which I will not take time to unpack here.

But for the past 2 months or so, the pall of the 2016 election has hung over my mind and contributed to my unwillingness to write.

The last time I gave much of a damn about politics, it was 1988 and I was a middle schooler fascinated by the race between HW Bush and Dukakis. I wrote a fun ditty making fun of some of Dukakis’s positions and mailed it to Vice President Bush. Probably because I was a kid, his office nicely responded on official White House stationery to thank me for the letter, and I stored the signed letter in my photo album for safekeeping. I followed politics voraciously from 1987-1988, then dropped it. I’m not really sure if it was just adolescent ADD or a wise-beyond-my-years intuition that politics is primarily bullshit and power-mongering, two things I hate more than nearly anything else.

I grew up in a household of former Democrats who found themselves voting Republican due to social issues, where soft racism was de rigueur but not supported by an ideology of hate to give it root. The Gulf War was good, for it was a show of American might; Bill Clinton was a lying scoundrel. As I moved into college, where Republican policy was equivalent to God’s own morality, Bill Clinton advanced to the status of Anti-Christ and “God’s judgment on America.” I remember Dr Bob in chapel exhorting us on the eve of the 1996 election to beseech God to spare America from having to endure four more years of that heathen in charge. God apparently didn’t see fit to intervene, or maybe He too was bored to tears by Bob Dole and decided to just let things run their course. Either way, the economy prospered during Clinton’s second term, Clinton shocked everyone with brazen denial of oral sex in the Oval Office (I really hope they fumigate those rooms before the next President moves in, you know?), and America survived to endure the 2000 “hanging chad” election debacle. Regardless, I’d moved on.

I’ve spent my life in education, not politics, on purpose. I feel like i can get somewhere in education; maybe not in the realm of policy (who the hell thought this assessment-driven disaster was a good direction for public education?!) but at least in individual lives.

For years I’ve avoided the political news cycle other than to stay informed as a citizen. I’ve written the occasional email to my representatives, usually for local or state issues, and watched the national circus from the sidelines. If America were to follow Britain’s example and limit the campaign season to 3 months, I’d cry with joy. This circus is shameful, self-aggrandizing. It’s everything that’s the worst of America’s adolescent age.

But Trump? this is a new level of horror. To watch a boorish, rude, egocentric, power-hungry narcissist step into the office of President and thrash about with his base appeals to the lowest common denominator of American culture … I can’t even.

I literally. can’t. even.

How do we live in the era of “Can’t Even”? That’s been the thought simmering in the back of my mind these past several weeks. A friend on Facebook added me to his “Resist45” Facebook group for local community organization and resistance to destructive Trumpism. Other than standing on a corner with a sign, nobody there has brought forward a concrete plan for change, for taking those baby steps out of my comfortable house into my neighborhood to “work for change.”

But this posture of fear and disgust and indifference is ultimately a lack of faith on my part. I was thinking today, on this day when we celebrate the legacy of MLK Jr and his fearless pursuit of justice at a time when the prevailing culture had little stomach for it, that the people of God have usually lived in the Time Of Can’t Even. A remnant of godly Israelites wept by the shores of Babylon and sang David’s psalms with little hope of seeing their homeland again. The Romans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Philistines all stomped through the land where the believers in Yahweh lived, and God’s counsel to them was never to despair. How dare I simmer in my own discontent?

Jesus came preaching that His Kingdom is not of this world. But understand: The heavenly reality of God’s rule does not absolve us from earthly work. Instead, it grounds us in a deeper foundation of Justice whose name is also Yahweh-Yireh, the God Who Provides. We serve El – Roi, the God Who Sees both Hagar, tormented and neglected by the man and woman who should have cared for her, as well as those whom we allow by our apathy to be eaten up by the powerful of this world in their pursuit of riches and glory.

There are no neutral decisions. Whether I get paper or plastic at BiLo affects the mountain of non-degradable trash sickening our planet. The choice forces me to consider the consequences of living in America’s “disposable” culture. I’m wasteful; I’m complacent. I buy more than I need. I buy clothes that could not be so cheap unless they were sewn in a sweatshop in Indonesia by people who’s lives are marked by misery and hunger and oppression.

And why am I even buying clothes? My closet is full, while my grandparents (and parents, when they were children) owned a mere handful of garments – so little that everything could fit in a “wardrobe” (if they owned one) with space for maybe 10 hangers and a few drawers. This consumption and capitalism of ours is foolishness, a chasing after wind. Go read Ecclesiastes. Even the king dies. What happens to everything he owns? A fool inherits it. It does him no good in Sheol, where he’s going.

I don’t know how I’m going to live in “Trump’s America.” The thought still turns my stomach, honestly. But to disengage, to indulge myself in the “can’t evens,” is faithless and cowardly.

A dear friend once commented that the Holy Spirit was challenging her on her addiction to peace, peace for herself at any cost. She was facing a difficult period with her sons and every day was a horrible battle of wills full of anger and fear and pain. In that context, no one could blame her for just trying to “keep the peace.” But that is where the Spirit pressed her. Doing what is best for others and for the Kingdom often requires sacrificing our peace, the longing we have to remain where things are comfortable and safe.

I do not know what it will look like for me to live in Trump’s America, but I’m confident that “loving my neighbor” will be more important than ever. And since “Grace always costs the giver,” I pray that I will have the courage to love. I invite you to challenge me, friends, to embody that sentiment in action, not mere words.

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An #Election2016 Afterthought

I was stunned to see states fall to Trump one after another…. but not surprised. The working-class rage and the palpable fear of white (especially Christians) drove voters far more than any rational discussion could.

I did not want to get out of bed this morning in Trump’s America. But here we are. And I’ll have none of this #notmypresident bullshit. Trump is your President come January 20. That’s how democracy works. Take your lumps, recognize where things need to change, and work for the good of the whole country.

The difficult work of community development always happens on the local level. The working class / poor of America said last night, “That’s it, we’re done, break the system, make it work for us because right now it isn’t.” ….Except that the federal government isn’t a magic wand. Neither is the state government.

NO government is a magic spell. Good gvernments restrain wicked men and support social structures that (hopefully) promote and enable human flourishing. Government is a powerful tool of Grace. (Don’t believe that? Spend November reading the major/minor prophets.)  One of the most toxic narratives ever to emerge from the alt-right and ultra-conservative edges of the Republicans and Libertarians is this idea that government is evil. That’s a dangerous idea and it needs to be confronted and disarmed. We can argue over “how much” government is a good or bad thing, but we should not dismantle the structures that restrain humans from acting out every desire or that provide incentive to act against our selfish individual interests for the good of the whole.

Regardless of who could have won the election, the poor/working class who are marginalized by the power-holders will likely not benefit from that power. The poverty of rural America emerges from global forces none of us can stop – not even Trump via blustery rhetoric of how he’s going to challenge global free trade. (Good luck with that, when Americans realize how high the prices go when we don’t participate in the global economy.) Neither Trump nor Hillary can make life in a poor, rural area much less bad than it is right now.

Who can? You can. I can. Our churches can. Civic organizations. Non-profits. And local governments (and state) working close to the issues, in conjunction with concerned citizens.

Stop being a once-every-four-years American. It takes 2 seconds to find out your state and national representatives’ phone numbers and email addresses, and save them to your address book. Contact them. Tell them what’s important to you and how you think your community’s needs can be met.

And get off your butt and go help the organizations in your community who bear the brunt of the work to make life better for people. Loving your neighbor is hard work much of the time. Put up or shut up.

In the meantime, the past year was one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen. If you read that sentence and thought, “Yeah! Those jerks!” then you’ve missed my point. We all need a dose of civility and grace, and it can begin today with some honest soul-searching about how I am called to love my neighbor – especially the ones I disagree with – and how to season truth-speaking with grace so it can be heard (for the racism and misogyny and xenophobia I’ve seen this year breaks my heart).