Archive for February, 2008

My son’s mouth

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

It seems that many adventures hang upon the wild waggings of Mattias’  – my four-year-old son’s – tongue. Three examples from the last week come to mind.

I’ve warned him more than once that his confrontational nature and fearless tendency to get up in people’s faces could easily lead to him getting popped in the face. I suppose he’s more of a learn-by-doing kind of kid. Last weekend, he was in the back of the car with his friend, Vaughan, and they started to fight over a toy. Though it was Vaughan’s toy, Mattias decided to explain to him, in no uncertain terms, why it was now going to be his toy.

The next thing we knew, both boys were wailing, and Mattias was covered in red from a profusely bleeding nose, brought on by the fist of said friend coming into close and rapid contact with said nose. He had been on his way to a birthday party, but looked like a horror movie victim and had to change. By the time he calmed down, however, he decided it looked cool and wanted to keep his bloody clothes on to show all of his friends. We decided not to go that way.

The next moment came when I picked him up from school recently. I’m not sure what went down at school, but he felt compelled to explain to me all of the “potty words” he should never say.

“They’re bad words, those potty words, dad. You know?” he said. “I should never say words like weiner, poop, butt and fart, dad. Never.”

Thanks son for your imminent prudence and restraint.

Finally, I took him to lunch since he was being (relatively) good, and as he tends to do, he wandered up to new folks and introduced himself. I figure that, as long as he understands boundaries and stays close, it’s good social conditioning.

I should mention at this point that one of his favorite hobbies lately is mimicking famous lines fro old movies, accents and all. We get a good laugh out of it and he gets to be center-stage. At one point at lunch, he walked up to a big, tattooed, pierced guy and raises his hand in the air and says, with a completely straight face:

“Hey, you crazy mook, you talkin’ to me?”

The guy looked like Mattias had just kicked him in the knee. He stood there,  stunned and mute, and Mattias ran off to play.

That’s my boy.

The tyranny of the unpossessed in America

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

The tyranny of the unpossessed in America

It’s come up before in this column that I’m a big basketball fan. I’ve traveled as many as 700 miles to attend an NBA playoff game, and I’m proud to say I once caught Kenyon Martin in my arms when he leapt over his team’s bench for a wayward ball.

There are few in my life who share my passion for pro ball. So when I get together with those select friends who have a similar interest, we “nerd out” about the latest trade rumors, playoff predictions and how many pure centers there really are in the NBA.

With the trade deadline near, talk about which players would stay and which would go has been a hot topic among nerdy fans. One thing led to another, and my friend and I – on the way to a Dallas Mavericks game, I might add – revived a years-long debate about the controversial trade of Steve Nash to the Phoenix Suns a few years ago.

I won’t bore you with all of the details, but to put the debate in context, my friend named his son Nash after the all-star point guard. Talk about someone who was heartbroken when Nash was traded away!

Anyway, we chatted once again about why it was that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was willing to part with Nash, who went on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award two years in a row, and why Nash agreed to leave an up-and-coming team, as well as Dirk Nowitzki, who is one of his best friends in the world, for a bigger contract.

Though the six-year, $65-million offer from Phoenix was a year longer and almost $20 million richer than Dallas’ offer, my point was that, at that level, a guy can play wherever he wants. Twenty million dollars, though a huge chunk of change, wasn’t going to change his long-term retirement plans. Why not stay, I asked, and at least push them to counter the offer? Instead, Nash took the offer from Phoenix and never looked back.

“It became personal,” said my friend who, ironically, is named Steve. “When Nowitzki’s contract came up for negotiation, the Mavericks offered him the league maximum contract, no question. When (Michael) Finley (the Mavs’ former star forward) came up for renewal, they signed him to the maximum too. But when Nash’s contract was up, they didn’t offer him the same deal. He was insulted.”

Insulted? How can anyone ever justify being insulted by an offer of $45 million to play basketball for five years? Though I admire Steve Nash, such an argument smacked of brazen greed.

“I try to put myself in his position,” said Steve. “If I got a raise at work, I might be happy with it. But if I found out two of my friends who did the same job and had the same experience were making more, I’d be upset.”

Come to think of it, so would I. Why is that?

We tend to draw so much of our self-worth from how we measure up to others. In a relatively affluent society like ours, such benchmarks have less to do with survival, as they may have in scarcer times, and more about where we are in the pecking order.

The problem with this mindset is that it sets all of us up – save for the one left on top – for dissatisfaction. And as for the top dog, they are too busy looking over their shoulder to enjoy their privilege.

Brian Feille, a professor of theology at Brite Divinity School, once called our insatiable covetous nature the “tyranny of the unpossessed.” As long as we have our basic needs met, we’re satisfied, but only until we become aware either that there’s more to be had, or that someone else has more than we do. At that point, we become enslaved by our desires, shackled by greed, regardless of what we have.

There’s an old saying that claims there are only two paths to wealth. One leads us to gain more, and the other, to desire less. In reality, however, only the latter path leads anywhere but in an endless circle.

So, how much do you deserve?

Superdelegates: A distortion of democracy

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Superdelegates: A distortion of democracy

It seems the Democratic Party has a dangerously short memory.

Though their candidate for president lost his bid for the White House, while managing to win the popular vote, less than eight years ago, they seem intent on risking the same sort of outcome with the distribution of so-called superdelegates in determining their presidential nominee.

The delegate process is complex, and some might argue antiquated and irrelevant. Each state is appointed a certain number of delegates based upon population. Although the Republicans award all delegates from each state to the winner of the primary or caucus in that state, Democrats allocate proportionately based upon the popular vote. So if one candidate gets 60 percent of the vote, they get 60 percent of the delegates, and so on. The idea here is that, although it may mean it takes longer to determine a clear front-runner, Democrats believe that this system is more representative of the will of the people.

Superdelegates are party heavyweights, including members of congress, governors and the like, and their votes in the party nomination process count as much as a state delegate. So in short, one party official’s vote can be as powerful as that of an entire voting precinct. And whereas the state delegates are determined based upon the results of the primaries and caucuses, superdelegates can vote any way they want. They can come out publicly in favor of one candidate or another to help sway public opinion, and they can change allegiance as many times as they like up to the final vote on the party floor.

Historically, the role of the superdelegates has been minor, as most contenders are weeded out before they have a chance to vote at the party convention. However, in those rare cases such as the current Democratic nomination, they could play a significant role: even to the point of deciding who the nominee is, independent of popular voting.

There are two arguments used in support of maintaining the superdelegate system. First, there are those who suggest that the superdelegates are in place to help ensure that the “best interests” of the public are served. Though not explicitly stated, this suggests that the voting public may not be able to discern and lend support to those leaders who will serve their best interest. Aside from the highly subjective nature of the phrase “public’s best interests,” there is the matter of the perceived greater good versus the value placed on representative democracy.

Granted, there is the possibility that voters will select a candidate that leads us in a direction contrary to the greater benefit of the majority of American citizens. Some might even argue such choices have been made in the not-so-distant past. However, there is a name for the form of government wherein a privileged few govern in the best interests of the whole; it is an oligarchy. Though maintaining a superdelegate system is far from pure oligarchic rule, it certainly leans in this direction, and hardly embraces the spirit of representative democracy which we celebrate, at least rhetorically.

The second argument for superdelegates is to keep “un-electable” candidates from being nominated. Common reasoning can reveal the possibility that the darling of either political party may be too ideologically radical to secure the coveted independent and moderate votes necessary to win the White House. In fact, the superdelegate system was introduced prior to the democratic candidate nomination in 1984. At that time, Walter Mondale was competing against Gary Hart, who was considered by some as certain to lose the general election if nominated. Therefore the party gentry intervened, helping ensure that their tired and true candidate would prevail.

The result: Mondale won the party’s nomination, sure enough, and proceeded to lose 49 out of 50 states to Ronald Regan.

Though justifications are as plentiful as those who desire to lay claim to positions of power, the superdelegate system appears to be nothing but a thinly veiled effort to circumvent the system intended to empower the electorate to get involved. Though there is much lip-service paid to getting out the vote, a trumping of the public’s choice for democratic nominee would inflict significant long-term damage to the electoral process, disenfranchising yet another generation of would-be activists. Trust in the system would erode once again.

Ironically, those in charge of managing the party system that leads us to the final nominee are not elected. As appointed officials, we can only hope that they can see beyond their own short-term interests and desires to control the outcomes, as the “greater good” of the Democratic Party may depend on it. The only other option available to the rest of us may be to defect from the party all together, until the numbers are so lessened and their power so weakened that they have no option but to cede control, placing authority back into the hands of the public.

Does praying help you find God, or vice-versa?

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

Does praying help you find God, or vice-versa?

I’ve been reading a book lately by A.J. Jacobs called “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”

Jacobs grew up as an essentially non-practicing Jew in New York, though many in his family embraced any number of diverse faith traditions.

Having already penned a successful autobiographical book called “The Know-it-All,” wherein he chronicled the experience of reading the entire encyclopedia, Jacobs was looking for a similar, somewhat richer context for his next project. Claiming agnosticism, he always had been fascinated by those deeply immersed in faith, not in a condescending way, but not entirely covetous of their situation either.

Further, Jacobs recognized, as it’s easy enough to do, that most people who claim a certain faith seem to pick and choose those parts of their religious tradition and doctrine to follow, and which parts to disregard as either outdated or not to be taken literally.

What would a practice of faith look like, then, if he were to adhere as closely to biblical law for an entire year?

The results range from profound to hilarious, as when he tries to adhere to the Old Testament law of stoning blasphemers. Though he concedes that dropping giant rocks on top of passersby is probably not appropriate, he finds a loophole in the ancient law, noting that it doesn’t say anywhere in Scripture how big the stones have to be.

His solution: He carries a pocket full of pebbles around Central Park, pelting people in the temple for breaking the Sabbath and other transgressions. He makes few friends this way, and actually gets threatened with violence a time or two.

A physically safer, but equally challenging, discipline for him was prayer. Aside from the occasional near-accident in the car, Jacobs never really prayed, and he didn’t even know where to start. For him, finding an intellectual point of entry into such a foreign spiritual practice was the soft landing he sought.

He cited the psychological theory known as cognitive dissonance, an example of which involves smiling. By smiling, the theory goes, you actually make yourself happier. So he resolved that, although he had no idea how to pray or to whom he was praying, the best way to begin was by doing it.

Arms spread wide, down on his knees, head pointed heavenward, he recited any prayer he could from memory, as a whole or in part. He felt awkward, even foolish, at first, but in time, he began to sense that there was more to his routine than empty motions.

Could it be God? Was it like a phone conversation, only able to take place if both parties pick up the receiver? Or was it simply a matter of conditioning? Perhaps the repeated behavior actually reoriented the wiring in his brain, causing a phenomenon to take place, simply through repeated patterns of behavior.

Does God wait for our call? Or do we actually invent God by practicing such rituals as prayer, worship, singing and reading Scripture? Do we believe more because, well, we already believe, and hence reinforce preconceptions we already have embraced?

If this is the case, it would seem that no one born into church would ever lose their faith any more than an atheist would find God. The only way this would happen, according to cognitive dissonance, would be if something dramatic took place in our lives to shake us out of our existing paradigm. This resonates for those claiming profound, “born again” epiphanies, and for those so hurt by religion that they shut the “God center” off for good.

Unfortunately this way of thinking gets us no closer to clarity about the nature and existence of God, or about our inclinations as spiritual beings. What it does is reveal something about our nature as humans, and our tendency to hang on to the beliefs we already have, to behave in ways that align with those beliefs and even further reinforce those views.

If anything, cognitive dissonance seems to cause us to drift further apart.

However, in those rare moments when we consciously take a step beyond our traditional boundaries of comfort, we open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing reality in refreshing new ways. Though it may not feel right at first, it’s not supposed to, but faith’s call is not one to comfort, but to tireless longing for more.

Being a little uncomfortable really is the least we can do.

Church and politics not so different, really

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Church and politics not so different, really

I took part in my precinct’s caucus on Tuesday, which was a first for me. It was crowded, brimming with energy, and sometimes bordering on chaotic.

Some might say it was a “raucous caucus.” But enough bad wordplay from me.

As many have read by now, there was an eclectic blend of seasoned veterans and newbies, all trying to learn how to work a pretty confusing political system together. In a lot of ways, it was a metaphor for what the church is going through as well.

The experienced members of the caucus were thrilled to see such an unprecedented number of people turn out, and to see so many younger folks excited to take part. You could feel the energy in the air, and it was all smiles, at least for a little while.

As generally is the case, the glow waned as we got down to business. Like many church denominations, the caucus process has layers upon layers of processes and policies, some of which might seem arcane or even pointless to the untrained eye. However, the veterans in the group began to navigate the procedural waters with ease, only to be hung up, time and again, by the naive, inquisitive, and probably annoying, newcomers.

We were much like preschool children, with our hands in everything, asking “What’s this?” and “Why do you do it that way?” Though the inclination is to answer the 20th question with a resolute “Because I said so,” the leaders summoned the patience and tried over and over to bring us up to speed.

What began as a jubilant celebration of political activism turned into an hours-long marathon of deciphering rules, deliberating about the appointment of delegates, a few phone calls and appeals to the local party representative.

By the time we finished, no one was entirely satisfied with what we had accomplished, and everyone looked tired and beleaguered.

Church is much the same in its current desire to welcome hordes of now-distant young folks into their communities of faith. It misses the energy of young children, the creativity of youth and the hope found in the presence of young families.

The problems begin, however, when they actually come. You walk in one morning, ready to enjoy your Sunday morning cup of coffee, and the pot is dry. You’d munch on a doughnut as a meager substitute, but some scrawny little punk just ran off with the last Danish. You head to the sanctuary to find your favorite seat, only to find it filled, and what in the world is the racket coming from the front of the room?

Since when do we have guitars in worship? Who approved that anyway?

You head indignantly to the next leadership meeting to air your concerns, but you have been bumped down the docket so the new associate minister can talk to the group about a youth mission project. The seemingly benign conversation degrades into a more passionate argument about the overall mission of the church, and before you can get in your two cents’ worth, the youth choir starts warming up nearby.

Dejected, you take a handful of aspirin and ask yourself where the good old days went, and why it was that you wanted all this new blood in your church in the first place.

Change is hard for everyone, especially those who were there first. Sometimes the idea of new faces is more appealing than the reality, but politics, like church, is a messy, complicated business.

What’s most important is not that we all agree on the issues, or even that we get along. What really matters is that, once we come around the table together, we stick together, and that we keep welcoming new voices and attitudes, in spite of the discomfort that comes along with it.

The church of ‘Come and See’ or ‘Go and Do?’

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

The church of ‘Come and see’ or ‘Go and do?’

I just got back from a three-day summit in Kansas City, Mo., focused on the place of young adults within the church. I talked myself blue about a number of topics, including the growing ineffectiveness of the old “attractional church” model.

Several decades ago, the church benefited from several social dynamics. People moved less often, divorced less, kept the same job forever and generally stayed close to home. The concept of community was very centralized and relatively constant.

On top of this, there was a swell of confidence in institutions after World War II. From Roosevelt’s New Deal to the triumph of the good guys against Nazi Germany, we embraced idealism as a community value, as well as those institutions that represented those ideals.

In such a dynamic, the local church stood as a social, ideological and cultural hub for the local community. If you grew up in the Methodist church, you were a Methodist, period. Of course, there was some church-hopping, but the very notion of surveying the multitude of faith options out there in the world was a relatively foreign concept.

In such an environment, the institutional image was a relatively positive one. It represented permanence, safety and security – all values highly sought at the time. Rather than having to aggressively seek out fringe-dwellers, churches focused more on meeting the needs of those already in their midst. A focus on programs became paramount, along with a trust that, as these programs became known in the community, people who needed them would come.

This, in essence, is what is now known as the “attractional model” for church. Though it had its day, many things have since rendered this way of doing church nearly irrelevant. People increasingly suspect all institutions, particularly religious ones and they have fewer denominational ties without church as part of their upbringing. We are a highly mobile, decentralized, ever-discriminating – some might say skeptical or even cynical – culture.

What’s more, the last thing we need is for church to reflect the culture we see every day outside the doors. For a while, churches decided that, to reach the MTV generation, they had to look more like MTV. Though this works with some on a superficial level, the feeling-driven spirituality of high-production services takes us only so far, leaving many hungry for something spiritually richer, deeper and more relevant to their notions of justice, transformation and healing needed in the world.

Enter the “missional church” model. Instead of focusing on building up the programs that will draw those we think we need to survive, we reach out – less as firebrand evangelists and more as compassionate missionaries – ready to listen, to build community beyond the walls, and to serve.

Though worship used to be the point of entry for most people seeking a faith community, it actually is toward the end of the missional model cycle. We first build relationships in neutral territory, developing dialogue around “common ground” issues: climate change, poverty and even our own personal stories bring us closer together, rather than draw lines of belief in the sand.

From here, an organic sort of community emerges, engendering a sense of mutual trust and intimate care for one another that transcends ideological differences. Though the relationship may stay there for years, it also opens the door for invitation to deeper discipleship if the desire is clearly expressed. This is the point at which we find opportunities – either inside or outside church – to worship, study, serve and share together, growing in parallel in our spiritual lives. As for worship styles, those emerge from the passions and experiences of those who come, rather than being preordained by those who think they know what the public wants.

The hardest thing about the missional model of church is that it doesn’t offer immediate results for churches obsessed with survival. Instead it focuses on discipleship in the active, culturally engaged sense. The beauty of this new vision for faith is that it can flourish whether or not our religious institutions fail. It demands more of us individually, but it offers the potential for much more in return.

So what would Jesus do? Would he spend time worrying about how to meet his church’s budget, or would he get on with the business of cultivating disciples, one relationship at a time?

To me, the answer is clear.