Thursday, May 21, 2009

America Loves a Formula

So, I generally don't watch American Idol beyond the early episodes with the people who can't sing, but think they can. The same held true this year. After those early episodes, when the show is on every night for a fortnight, I lose track of when it is on and lose interest. But by last night's finale, Fox had revved up the hype machine enough that with nothing else to watch, I did tune in (or at least sit down next to Jen who was tuned in) to see who would win.

The big question that made the finale so "interesting," I use the word loosely, was that Kris Allen was the formulaic, easy to listen to, cuddly cute, eligible to lead a boy band candidate while Adam Lambert seemed most at home singing with Kiss given his unconventional look and drastically more interesting voice. The question was, would America go for the formula or the more talented performer who fits no formula?

In the words of the ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest, America Voted and...
It turns out the nation was just as mindless with this choice as they are with so many other things. I don't know if it's because we're all too busy, or all too bored, or simply too lazy to think, but I feel that most Americans, perhaps most people now, in our global culture choose the false, fake, easy formula over deep, complex authenticity whenever the choice is put to them.

We love restaurants with menus so simple and repetitive that we can order by number without looking. The economy is booming and everything's great or it's tanking and it's the great depression part II. The president is a genius or an idiot. Neighborhoods are good or bad. For that matter, the good or bad characterization gets thrown around when we discuss lots of facets of society--schools, companies, churches, entire industries, people-famous and not, ethnicities, countries, cars and houses.

What perplexes me is that I don't feel this is true among individual people that I know. I feel like person by person, most of us get that life is complicated. No situation or relationship or possession is perfect. We get the complexity of life as individuals, so why, as a crowd, do we want to boil life down to this most expected, boring, simplistic, formulaic version of itself? Why, as a society do we vote for Kris and not Adam? What compels some people to define Islam as evil, while others on the other side describe Christianity in the same way? Why is hip hop "just noise" to some and classical music a total bore to others? Why don't the classical people listen for what is compelling in a style not their own? How do we get T Pain fans to hear the genius of Mozart?

Please understand that I'm not separating myself out here. There is something I really like about ordering a coffee at Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks and knowing they'll create it with the tried and tested formula. But on the occasion that I hit the locally owned and operated Berkeley Perk Cafe for their mexican spice, it's different and wonderful. Another example is that when the Double Stuff Oreos are in the cabinet in our house, they don't last long, packaged formulaic food that they are. But it's practically a holiday when Bonnie Hepburn shows up at our house with her homemade chocolate chip cookies (thanks for doing it so much, lately!). Not even on a level with anything on a shelf in the grocery store. They're that good and handcrafted and delicious.

Why are we so likely to give in to group think rather than taking the time to think for ourselves? to examine? to probe? to step back and see something for what it is, rather than how it's packaged? I fear we're becoming a nation that can not evaluate anything and doesn't care to try to do so. I'd love to hear from you if you're in a context other than the US and whether you find this to be true where you are too.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Faith Upgrade

After returning for the Summit at Ladore, I've had a theme hit me from a couple of different angles. It's a question I've wrestled with for a while. Will I ever "arrive" as a Christian or will I always have this need to take my faith up a notch? We're all very familiar with the concept of upgrades these days--to the point that if your phone is more than two years old, it is considered an antique and perhaps more appropriate to hang on the wall at Friday's with the Star Wars memorabilia than to hang on your belt any longer. We have no problem upgrading our phone or our laptop--it's just part of the march of technology. The newest, nowest and wowest is bound to feel less than when compared to the latest rage from Apple.

But I often feel less than as a Christian that I have this need to have my faith upgraded from time to time. Not that I want to plateau as a Christian, but there are times quite often when I ask myself, "How long have I been on this journey with my Savior? You would think I'd have figured more things out by now." But then having what adventure educators term a peak experience causes me to re-examine my faith, sometimes my theology, always my daily walk and see what needs to be purified further in my life. There's a part of me that wishes I didn't have to go through the pain of realizing my own spiritual shortcomings, but I find an immense amount of growth and value come out of these upgrade seasons.

A couple of recent Len Sweet Napkin Scribbles have hit this point pretty directly. If Sweet's podcast isn't on your playlist, you need to get it now--mostly 5-6 minutes in length, they are always interesting and accessible and sometimes deeply challenging. He had a quote from St. Benedict the other day--"The Spiritual Life consists of replacing one desire with another." This could sound like a one time deal, but I think this concept is one of replacing each desire in our life with another better, more perfect desire. Not once, but continually.

Sweet's most recent podcast "The Amazing Disgrace of Amazing Grace" tells the real story of John Newton and his most famous hymn. It details how Newton came to grace while working on slave ships running between Liverpool and the African continent and the South (US) in the 18th century. Sweet illustrates how most people think of this hymn and the conversion of Newton as being the story of a slaveship captain and slave trader who encountered Christ and had a radical conversion. The real story apparently is that although Newton was converted while working on a slave ship, he actually chose to captain a slave ship after he was converted. He believed he was behaving in a perfectly acceptable way, piously praying, running Anglican services on board the ship that carried slaves, all of whom were abused en route and many of whom did not see the journey through to completion. His was a respectable profession endorsed by the church. Sweet, using Newton's own words, detailed how Newton had to come to a place of understanding just how wrong this profession was after he had been saved. He needed an upgrade to his faith walk.

Cotton Presley shared a story of being saved and yet, still smoking cigarettes. He said very candidly, "Look I was saved and I had overcome alcohol and cocaine addiction with God's help. I was a Christian, I just had to wait until later to overcome that last addiction to cigarettes." He shared, comically, how he would slip verses of scripture into the cellophane wrapper of the cigarette packs and mentioned how much of the Bible one can memorize while smoking a pack a day.

So, how will it be 10 or 20 years from now? Will I still feel the need to upgrade my faith--to examine my commitment to the Lord and find out if there is anything false or less than par in my walk. I hope so. General Gowans once said something about the frustration some Christians feel that "It will take a lifetime to get to get to know God. Maybe, that's what a lifetime is for," the General said, "Maybe that's what a lifetime is for."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Submission is not a weenie word

I just returned from the Ladore Lodge and Conference Center after a fantastic, challenging, exciting weekend for Salvation Army Soldiers (members) who are leaders in their local congregations. The teaching at the Summit was done by Cotton Presley, a soldier from Fayatteville, AR whose life was radically changed by Jesus Christ when he was a 35-year old alcohol and cocaine addict. Cotton's preaching drips with memorized scripture and a heavy dose of Fayateville's finest folksy phrases. He speaks clearly, directly and only what the Spirit leads him to.

I hope to share several of the lessons I learned this weekend, but sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men to blog do often go awry. So I'm starting with the part that hit me between the eyes. Submission is not a weenie word--that's a military term. Cotton was preaching on the Centurion who came to ask Jesus to heal his servant who was at home, paralyzed and suffering. The story is found in Matthew 8 if you'd like to read it for yourself. The Centurion, a Roman soldier in charge of a group of 100 soldiers, a man who had authority, was also under the authority of Ceasar. Cotton explained that submission to authority is a military term--that you must have exocia, to be authorized by someone greater than you--the right to the might. The Centurion recognized that Jesus was the greater authority and so the Roman soldier bowed his knee to the Jewish carpenter/teacher.

This was relatively easy teaching to comprehend and agree with, but then it really got to my heart when Cotton talked about those in authority over us. That we must bow the knee to whomever has been placed in authority over us--whether that person is right or wrong, good at the job they've been given to do or not. That we must submit to plenty of authorities every day if we are to honor God with our lives including the local authority who sets the speed limit (ouch). So it means that we must submit to the authority of our boss, our pastor (corps officer), he even suggested we have to submit to the authority of the young lady behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts in the morning--"May I please have a medium regular?" It requires much more strength and confidence and will to submit than it takes to do whatever we choose to do.

The miracle of healing was performed when Jesus offered to go to where the servant was and heal him, but the Centurion told Jesus he was not worthy to have such a man in his home. "Just say the word, and my servant will be healed." The Centurion understood Jesus' authority and that it was so great that his word would carry to heal the servant. His physical presence was not necessary.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be submitted to Christ's authority today.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Rest of the 40 books

So I've been hoping and planning wishing to post my thoughts on the rest of the books I read last year. I've finally faced up to the fact that I'm just not going to get to it any time soon. I will eventually fill up my Visual Bookshelf, but I've got some other stuff I want to post on and I have a block about writing those until I complete this series of posts/notes somehow.

So I'm sharing the book titles as list only and then I can write on some other topics including a recent experience visiting a museum in a Rascal electric scooter.

15. Knowing the Face of God by Tim Stafford
16. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (audio)
17. Little Children by Tom Perrotta
18. Heart Talks on Holiness by Samuel Logan Brengle
19. The Appeal by John Grisham (audio)
20. UnChristian by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons
21. A Resilient Life by Gordon MacDonald
22, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (audio)
23. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (audio)
24. Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy
25. Clapton the Autobiography by Eric Clapton (audio)
26. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt (audio)
27. Everyman by Philip Roth (audio)
28. The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra (audio)
29. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (audio)
30. Transculturalism by TRACE Magazine contributors
31. New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
32. The Teammates by David Halberstam (audio)
33. 11 on Culture: Intersecting Faith & Culture by Geoff Ryan
34. Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Groeschel
35. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (audio)
36, 7 on Sin: Rethinking the Seven Deadly Sins by Geoff Ryan
37. 5 Things Anyone Can Do to Lead Effectively by Phil Stevenson
38. No More Prisons by William Upski Wimsatt
39. The Uprising: a Holy Revolution by Olivia Munn & Stephen Court
40. The Suburban Christian by Albert Y. Hsu