This is an attack on the black church (and if the black church, then the church at large)…

Jeremiah Wright and Cornel West have awakened me from my middle-class white slumber in the last three months.  Lost amidst all the hullabaloo from 10-second sound-bites yanked from the greater context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons which news organizations then talked hours on is the greater message Jeremiah is seeking to convey to the American nation. Jeremiah Wright is not Obama’s lapdog, and Obama is not his. Barack Obama is a politician, and Jeremiah Wright is an eloquent, shockingly-honest, sometimes-divisive pastor of God’s church.  The two are very different things. In order for us to understand the experience of the black church and the foundation from which Wright speaks, we need to move beyond the sound-bites and into a good, full listen to him in the videos below; even if, or especially if, we disagree with him.

If you are a person who is sick and tired of news organizations telling us what we should believe and showing us what we should see, please give this man a full listen in the videos below.

And if you want to know, REALLY know, this man that Barack Obama is separating himself from because of mushy political centrism in seeking to get elected, please give this man a full listen in the videos below. Barack Obama is being more and more exposed as a man who used Trinity UCC as a leg up, as a prestige card to play with the black community, rather than a fully participating member invested in attacking the problem of racism head-on. Calling for racial unity is nice and all, but when significant embedded racism still exists in our society, it’s time for troublemakers, rabble-rousers to stand up and speak truth to power, their political careers be damned.

And let this be stated clearly, if you can watch Survivor or American Idol or Dancing with the Stars (“reality” shows) or Lost or 24 or The Office (hour-long escapes from reality into suspended disbelief) or Hannity and Colmes (a show of barking partisan hacks) for hours on end every week, I’m fairly certain you can watch an embattled man (and a fine one at that) talk about something of vital importance for our world today in the videos below.

I’m sitting on some thoughts, but I will write them in the next couple days after wrapping up some loose ends for school. So keep attuned here if you’re interested in catching some of my thoughts on this; I want to contribute to this conversation that is simply not taking place in our society right now. It is DESPERATELY needed, and I want to be a part of it. Even in a little tiny way.

Video #2 of the same speech

Video #3 of the same speech

Video #4 of the same speech

Video #5 of the same speech

Video #6 of the same speech


Subverting Capitalism: Pentecost Project

picture 1

I’ve been thinking a whole lot more in the past year about how to move from discontent with how things are around Christmas and Easter (the mountaintop peaks of the Christian calendar), how commodified the events are, and how we feed them by participating in them even as talk about the “real meaning.” In many ways, the “church” is more complicit in commodifying the holidays than different and non-conformist in our message. Even if we do get a little angry that the greeters at Target don’t say “Merry Christmas” and therefore don’t shop there for Christmas, how many Christians have the guts to do that year-round?

I tend toward cynicism, but as I contemplated how to be the change that I want to see in the world, I happened upon the fine folks at the Advent Conspiracy before Christmastime who have done some great thinking about how we can put into practice ways to act faithfully and give faithfully in preparation for our remembrance of the birth of Christ.

Today I found some folks doing some more of that great subversive thought and action.  They go by the name Pentecost Project, and I’ll let them speak for themselves.

The Pentecost Project is an experiment towards a more true and loving economy. Recently, the U.S. Congress passed an economic stimulus package that the President then signed. Beginning in May, most Americans will receive a rebate check that they are being encouraged to go out and spend in order to stimulate America’s sagging economy.

What if, instead of becoming greater consumers, we encouraged people to move towards an even better economy, an economy of abundance? What if, instead of accumulating more stuff, we encouraged people to give things away? What if, instead of the possibility of making a down payment and opening new credit, we encouraged people to pay down their debt?…In this Spirit, we undertake the Pentecost Project: invest in others, share possessions, reduce debt.

Last I checked, that sounds like a good three-week foundation for a series of talks in a church, small group, or some other gathering to guide our thinking beyond the tax break FOR ME (private), to thinking about the tax break FOR US (personal, but within a series of relationships).

In addition, whether your church gives a rip or not, let this drive you to consider, along with me (I’ve already been surprised and convicted by this kind of hopeful thinking), how we can use this unexpected gift to celebrate our abundance by giving it to those truly in need…that and hop on to the chance to thumb our nose at the god of consumerism who expects us to lay down a gift at His altar. It may hurt a little not to be selfish, but it’ll sure feel better over the long term! Seems that Jesus guy had something to say about the life he expects from his disciples that may not feel too good in the short-term, but sure pan out over the long run.

Dennis Kucinich responds to the State of the Union (vid link)

Dennis Kucinich is a voice of reason in politics today.  He says what he believes, refuses to spin his positions to ensnare potential voters, and speaks wisely about how a just economic system and country would seek to act.

Here’s his video response to Bush’s State of the Union address

In other news, here’s a link to a story of a 23 year-old Afghani journalist who’s getting the death sentence for “insulting Islam.” You might be surprised what they defined as an insult. I don’t rant and rave about Muslims, but this is a clear case where, if this decision is true to the heart of Islam, there’s a vision for the world there that I don’t want any part of. There’s a place for conversation and listening well, but we’re extremely naive if we think all religions carry a similar vision for the world…or of a Divine Being, for that matter. Killing a journalist for questioning authority. I draw the line there. Not that the church hasn’t done this in the past, but I think I could make a serious case that that sort of action is not true to the vision Jesus called his followers to.

Poverty is more complex than you think…

I’ve been reading Jonathan Kozol’s book Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation here recently, and I have been blindsided by the daily reality of poverty as well as the complexity of the problem. As a middle-class white male, I often find myself seeking to give easy answers for poverty like “if they worked harder, they wouldn’t be poor,” and “the system of welfare only perpetuates the cycle of poverty” or some other disconnected theoretical BS. Kozol refuses to allow me to stay in that coolly disconnected state. Here’s an excerpt…a real story of poverty that just may wake you up like it has me.

“‘If poor people behaved rationally,’ says Lawrence Mead, a professor of political science at NYU, ‘ they would seldom be poor for long in the first place.’ Many social scientists today appear to hold this point of view and argue that the largest portion of the suffering poor people undergo has to be blamed upon their own ‘behaviors,’ a word they tend to pluralize.

Alice Washington was born in 1944 in New York City. She grew up in Harlem and the Bronx and went to segregated public schools, not something of her choosing, nor that of her mother and her father. She finished high school, studied bookkeeping at a secretarial college, and went to work, beginning at 19. When she married, at the age of 25, she had to choose her husband from that segregated ‘marriage pool’ to which our social scientists sometimes quite icily refer of frequently unemployable black men, some of whom have been involved in drugs or spent some time in prison. From her husband, after many years of what she thought to be monogamous matrimony, she contracted the AIDS virus.

She left her husband shortly after he began to beat her. Cancer of her fallopian tubes was detected at this time, then cancer of her uterus. She had three operations. Too frail to keep on with the second of two jobs that she had held, in all, for nearly 20 years, she was forced to turn for mercy to the City of New York.

In 1983, at the age of 39, she landed with her children in a homeless shelter two blocks from Times Square, an old hotel in which the plumbing did not work and from which she and David and his sister had to carry buckets to a bar across the street in order to get water. After spending close to four years in three shelters in Manhattan, she was moved by the city to the neighborhood where she now lives in the South Bronx. It was at this time that she learned she carried the AIDS virus. Since the time that I met Mrs. Washington, I have spent hundreds of hours talking with her in her kitchen. I have yet to figure out what she has done that was irrational.”
(from pages 21-22 of Kozol’s book)

Now don’t be deceived. In posting this excerpt of reality, I’m not seeking to occupy the opposite extreme of my cool detached classism and racism where every person in poverty is a helpless victim of the system, because that is just as false as saying the poor “just need to work harder.” The reality in this mess is a need for both individual and systemic accountability for action. But I did post it for this reason.

The situation is complex, and if we are to speak of the poor and pursue concrete solutions to poverty, we must embrace the complexity, we must hear the stories from across the spectrum, and we must prepare ourselves to seek the truth in the tension erected between the poles of individual and system responsibility.

At this point in history, we have to deal with the reality, in my view, that the system should carry a heavy disproportionate weight of responsibility to provide help for the poverty-stricken, especially because urban poverty is often minority-heavy, and for over 80% of the existence of the United States of America, the purported “land of the free,” African-Americans were considered (socially and by law) to be second-class citizens…sub-human. We’re fooling ourselves to suggest that the last forty years has erased this disgusting reality.


I was messing around on some blogs today (trying to avoid my paper) and happened upon Aaron Monts’ blog and a shocking, raw picture. Almost immediately I heard Derek Webb start up in my brain…”poverty is so hard to see when it’s only on your tv and twenty miles across town. where we’re all living so good, that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood…where’s he hungry and not feeling so good from going through our trash.” (from “Rich Young Ruler“)

“young homeless man beavis shooting up in the tenderloin.
he picks his scabs to find a good spot;
and tries a few locations before he gets a vein.
he has the “love” and “hate” tattos from “night of the hunter” on his fingers.
he’s showing “love” with his right hand as he sticks the needle in.” Rest of his story here.

This stuff is real, and most of us (including myself) live in our insulated reality where we don’t expose ourselves to this…or, if we see it on the news, we either look away quickly or flip the channel. Too uncomfortable. Might make our whining about money or cynicism pale in comparison to this man’s situation.So click away quickly. Wouldn’t want to upset your world (or mine).

Or stare and absorb. Reality isn’t easy, and demands a response.

So what’ll it be? Naive insulated existence (aka ignorance of reality)?
Or do we let the gospel drive us to weep on our knees for this man…and compel us to action in our world in the name of Jesus?

Thanks for the dose of reality, Aaron.

The impact of Half Nelson on my life…

I saw the movie “Half Nelson” on Friday evening, Oct 27th, at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg (which by the way is a sweet place), and I walked out of the theater with strong emotions. I’ve been trying to get a handle on those emotions since then, and in the process found two things:

1)It’s not often (in this age of relatively shallow Hollywood movies that have resulted from our relatively shallow culture and our willingness to chuck out large amounts of cash over a long period of time to find something (anything!) to take our minds off reality) that I walk out of a movie feeling intense emotions, and
2)I often don’t pay attention to tracing the emotions to their root, or at the very least spend some time thinking about why I was so affected, and thus walk right back into my life as if the movie and the time spent in it never existed. Given time and other priorities, the movie is often reduced to “good” or “bad” or “mediocre.” And so I place it in the unofficial movie pecking order of my life and move on.

As a result of this awareness, I am going to try to slog through what I thought I saw in this movie, how it moved me, what it exposed in me (honestly!), and how I’ll respond with my life. If there’s one thing I’m tired of in my life, it’s mediocrity and simply occupying a place in the long line of humans who have lived and died on this earth…sucking in my oxygen, exhaling my contribution to global warming, and living a life centered on Nate.

So what did Half Nelson have to say to me?

It’s the story of a middle school history teacher who carries an ideal that he wants to affect at least one person in his life for the better. That’s his goal, and in that mix he carries an unorthodox teaching style where he seeks to have his kids look deeper than just memorizing and regurgitating fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice answers that don’t help his students comprehend and make sense out of reality.

The trouble is, Teacher Dan (Gosling) doesn’t know how to make sense of reality himself. His life is full of mountains and valleys, and he copes with this unpredictable reality with cocaine, crack, and some quick booty without relational attachments. His drug problem exacerbates rather than evens out his bumpy life, and he makes the mistake of smoking crack in a spot where one of his seventh grade basketball players finds him. Instead of ratting him out, though, this girl becomes a positive influence in his life. Maybe she can be the one he impacts for the better? She seems engaged in his class, eager to learn…but in taking her home several times, he sees the lure of the drug trade and urban decay threatening to suck her in.

He tries to be the hero, and fails…continuing to exhibit a hopelessly broken life. But this girl, instead of packing it in and giving up, continues to care about and for him (maybe that’s because she’s got a teacher crush on him…very possible given the nature of emotional attraction for ignoring reality…or maybe she just genuinely cares and wants to be an influence for good in his life). In the mix of things, Dan spends some time at home, where his parents, once Vietnam agitators who had a compelling vision for their lives, have fallen into middle-class numb existence, thinking they’re living out their ideals (while their ideals carry no practical reality) and ignoring reality by medicating themselves with perpetual drunkenness.

This has to be a commentary on the sad state of the American left; pretending to care about problems like poverty and social inequity in general while doing little to nothing about it other than punching a ballot, intellectually claiming to believe that liberalism is the answer for the world’s problems, with no life-altering commitment to either. (this is where I insert my belief that the opposite extreme of conservatism is just as insidious and incompetent and elitist and sad as its polar opposite).

The movie didn’t resolve. No, “I’ve been waiting for you,” or “I’m drug-free and happy for life,” or some heart-warming basketball championship for the girl and the teacher that enables both of them to exorcize their personal demons. And I’m glad.

Running with my idea of the status quo in our society mentioned above, I wasn’t surprised in walking out of the movie theater to see all the endorsing blurbs on the movie poster having nothing to do with the substance of the movie…I don’t know if they’ll be big enough for you to read in the above picture, but the blurbs say, “Ryan Gosling gives an astonishing performance!” and “Powerful. Gosling is among the most exciting actors of his generation!” and “A near-perfect film. The acting is flat-out amazing. Epps is a major find.” Are you kidding me? A movie like this, and all you can talk about is the careers (realized or potential) of the individuals? For my money, I don’t go see a movie because you tell me the actor or actress has an “astonishing performance.” Maybe I’m supposed to; that way I can maintain some degree of separation from the raw reality that this individual movie portrayed, and deny the fact that I see strong parallels in the weaknesses of humanity I share with the teacher. If I maintain that separation, I can walk out of the theater, plunge right back into my life, and forget that I ever felt uncomfortable at certain points as the story got close to MY struggles.

My thought upon seeing the movie poster was, “Finally, a solid movie that doesn’t buy into the movie peer pressure to resolve a big problem with a neat little bow in an hour-and-a-half or less, and I gotta come out of the theater to this?”

And maybe my next thought illustrates how much my ADD mind flits around from idea to idea and situation to situation, but I immediately thought about how this applies to the church. How often, on average, would you say a pastor hears one of two things from the congregation?

1) That sermon was good. Well-delivered.
2) Thank you for what you said. Hearing it that way made me think about (this or that aspect of my life…or this or that weakness…or this or that calling)

I’d guess the average pastor hears the first 97% of the time. Because you and I are enculturated to be surface people…because we’re enculturated to be consumers…and because we’re enculturated not to pay attention to the cries of our hearts; just hop around from entertaining thing to entertaining thing; rate each thing on the 1 to 10 scale of the excitement it offered for you, and refuse to go deeper.

If there’s anything I bring away from Half Nelson, it’s two awarenesses:
1) The system is broken. We are broken. Irretrievably.
2) We need to admit we are powerless to effect any long-term change in the system by ourselves. (because the change will be short-term, and our problems cyclical)

In response to what I consider to be two truth statements, I need to be willing to ask myself and others some questions…deep, searching questions…about how that raw awareness impacts my life. Do I need to alter my life in response to this movie? What did it uncover in my heart? Will I seek to separate myself from the teacher but pointing a finger at his drug habit without pointing a finger at my weaknesses that are crippling me? Does it jog me out of the semi-numb state I exist in much of the time to be deeply invested in something?

The prevailing message screams at me daily, “Stay busy. Forget about the layers. Don’t think about or listen to your heart. Just perpetuate the status quo.” And more often than not, because I’m weak, I give in. I let myself be mediocre. But because God entered the picture, turned my life upside-down, and called me to follow Him, I don’t want to be mediocre any more; I’m tired of being an object for others to manipulate and extract resources from; I want my life to matter.

The question that remains now is if my want will turn into a physical reality. My life will give the answer.

Boyz N the Hood and the problem of poverty

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen two movies that pushed me into a painful spot, and I’ve been struggling with my thoughts (and even convictions!) since, and they still might not be terribly coherent, but isn’t that what a blog is for? So here goes.

Both of these films revealed a world I do not know, yet painfully experienced over the course of their running. I struggle to put words to my emotions from these movies.

The first, Boyz N the Hood gave a realistic portrayal of the daily reality of living in South Central LA; drugs rampant, single mothers, a consistent sense of dis-ease (even in one’s home), and the daily reality of death. It seems easy to me after seeing this movie how those who exist in this environment simply shut down emotionally and settle for surviving from day to day. Honestly, it gave me more ammunition to get angry (usually expressed in my inner self) when I hear the tired old lines like “the poor are poor because they’re (lazy, won’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, immoral, insert a sweeping judgment).” It’s just obvious to me that we are free to say these things when we don’t immerse ourselves in the daily experience of those facing the daunting challenge of poverty and the devaluing of life…Josh Brown (and I’m sure others) call it the “Challenge of the Suburbs”; that we should be aware that many churches that claim to be working “for the good of the city” are really largely white, middle-class, and drive Acura SUVs and that their worship and dress screams that when others who do not fit the type enter the doors (are you listening, McLean Bible Church?). I pastor a country church, and it’s just obvious to me what stands in the way of those struggling to make ends meet being a part of our community…the ethos bleeds middle-class. I mean, even when we talk about ministering to the poor or those who don’t know Christ, it’s as if we expect something immediately from them: “I gave you cash, why don’t you get off your lazy *^& and get a job and succeed, for heaven’s sake!” or “I’m investing my life in you, and you’ve got two more months of love from me before you have to make a decision to follow Christ…otherwise, I’m gone.”

It seems to me the only way out of this is for us to be willing to enter into the discomfort and gray areas of humbling ourselves before and serving the poor and needy (all kinds of needs) all around us. Because we love them. Period. A willingness to consistently be there will stretch us beyond what we consider to be mission (chucking out a little cash, along with the annual soup kitchen visit) to recognize these are lives to give our lives for. Whether they accept what we have to offer or not. Because really, did Jesus meet instant success and sweeping acclamation by all he came into contact with? No…the guy was a status-quo-wrecker in a variety of ways. Sure, the countryside got turned upside-down by the fellow, but he was splitting families, hammering the rich, and showing a near “unholy” commitment to loving the poor and sick no matter what! Derek Webb addressed the middle-class comfort of the church within the boundaries of America I think in an incredible way:

“poverty is so hard to see
when it’s only on your tv and twenty miles across town
where we’re all living so good
that we moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood
where he’s hungry and not feeling so good
from going through our trash
he says, more than just your cash and coin
i want your time, i want your voice
i want the things you just can’t give me

so what must we do
here in the west we want to follow you
we speak the language and we keep all the rules
even a few we made up
come on and follow me
but sell your house, sell your suv
sell your stocks, sell your security
and give it to the poor
what is this, hey what’s the deal
i don’t sleep around and i don’t steal
i want the things you just can’t give me

I continue to believe that Derek Webb makes good music with INCREDIBLE lyrics that need to be heard.

I think I’ll say one thing and let this rest for a bit: The problem of poverty is not simple, and cannot be solved by uncritically toeing the lines of either the liberal or conservative position. In fact, the problem is cyclical and can only be dealt with by a group of people seizing their calling from God to live with radical love and radical generosity and radical patience and energy to simply love others the way God loves them. A willingness to carry this out will stretch us to really grow in the multi-faceted response poverty demands. A good example of such a community (not a sweeping paradigm suggestion, an example) is this one in Philly:

The Simple Way

Their website has plenty of links to other communities undertaking the same endeavour.