Monthly Archives: July 2011

Delta Blues

This is a more or less slightly exagerrated recall of five or six phone calls to Delta I have made this week trying to change our return flight. I dial 1-800-221-1212. RIIINNNNNNG

Computer: Hi. Welcome to Delta, KLM and Air France. Are you a Sky Miles Member?

Yes.

Computer: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you. Let’s try again. Are you a Sky Miles Member?

Yes

Computer: Mmmm. I didn’t understand. Say Yes or No.                     

YESSSSSSSS! (Deep voice)

Computer: Let’s try again. I’m having trouble hearing you.

Okay, I think, do a falsetto. “YES.” Sounds like Franki Valli

Computer: All right. From here you can say, “Check my skymiles points, search for flights, hear uninteresting information about our hidden cost offers, or be directed back to the original menu, or speak with a representative?

Well, I never like to talk to danged computers. “Speak with a representative.”

Computer: I’m sorry. Did you say ‘speak with a representative?’

Yes

Computer: What? I can’t hear you.

Yes, Yes, YES YESSSSSS! (Granddaughter begins crying in the back seat.)

Computer: No need to raise your voice. Oh, behave

What did you say?

Computer: I said behave. You have no idea how many useless wrong turns there are on this tree. I can transfer you to purgatory anytime.

I can’t believe this. Put me through to a live human.

Computer: All right. But first I need a bit more information, Okay? Is this in regards to an existing reservation, a new reservation, a restaurant reservation, an Indian reservation, or moral reservations?

What?

Computer: Just pullin’ your chain. Calm down. Existing reservation?

Yes.

Computer: I’m sorry, I couldn’t make that out.

EXISTING! EXISTING! EXISTING!

Computer: All right, I think you said, ‘Existing.’ Do you know your Skymiles number? Say it now or say, “I don’t have it with me.”

I’m driving down the road, so I’m sitting on my wallet where it is.

Computer: I’m sorry, what was that?

No, NO, I don’t have it, I don’t have it. I HATE you! Do you hear me? I HATE YOU, computer!

Computer: Okay. I’ll put you through to a representative. Hold on.

BEEP. connection lost.

This is only part of the story. I could tell you how the lady at the kiosk helped me try to find an earlier flight and end up with my wife going to Minneapolis and me to Salt Lake, but that’s another story. I am writing a letter about that womancomputer. She is evil.

Worth thinking about:  “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.”  Jacques Ellul.

Maybe some parts of life still deserve human beings speaking to one another…After a host of screwups, one helpful Delta ticket agent behind the counter in Portland straightened out our messed up itinerary.

War of the Worldviews?

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, wrote an opinion piece for CNN in the aftermath of the horrendous mass murder in Norway by suspect Anders Breivik.  Breivik set off a bomb and then, disguised as a policeman, infiltrated a youth camp where leadership and politics are taught and opened fire, at this point claiming at least 76 deaths.

Breivik is white, Christian, and released a bizarre 1500 page manifesto in which he advocated a revolution in which the cultural dominance of Christianity might prevail over what he saw as an “Islamic-Marxist” alliance.  He wanted to speak on television in his hearing to plead his case, still apparently seeing that his murders were somehow defensible as a desperate call to arms in a culture war.

No one would defend what Breivik did.  Glenn Beck, whose irrational rantings have gotten even stranger since being booted from Fox, did  offer the most incredibly insensitive (or worse if he believes his own drivel) statement of all when he mulled that the camp itself seemed somehow sinister, like a Nazi Youth camp.  Glenn, did you never go to civics?  Events and summer leadership training happens in the USA all the time, and many of them quite patriotic.   .

The right wing was not alone in its absurd reactions.  Lamentations about “fundamentalist Christians” quickly followed.  If you ever read the comments under the stories online, of course, you can read more visceral reactions to these things.  Religious folk often responded by saying, “No, this is not true Christianity, it is the work of a sick individual.”

Prothro calls all of us who practice religion to task for being inconsistent.  He writes: For the last two decades, Christian students have told me that Christianity had nothing to do with the Holocaust. After 9/11, many Muslims said that the men who flew those planes into those buildings had nothing to do with Islam. When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, we were told that the crime had nothing to do with our current climate of political hatred…Yes, he twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash.  So Christians have a responsibility to speak out forcefully against him, and to look hard at the resources in the Christian tradition that can be used to such murderous ends.”

All of our texts have violent stories in them–Jews and Christians the book of Joshua, Islam has its parallels.  Christians have often been fond of talking about “spiritual warfare” and the world hearing us doesn’t understand that we don’t mean “killing people.”  The “weapons” of Christianity are faith, hope and love.  The way of Jesus is one of non-violence, not killing.  Have we not made this clear?  Apparently not.

So what does this have to do with “worldviews”?  I’ve kept thinking about him writing that 1500 page abomination before doing this.  His “worldview”.  Having a Christian “Worldview” has become a bit fashionable in recent years among evangelical Christians.  We talk of the importance of “examining one’s presuppositions” as though our own are clear and rational and pure and the rest of the world (the “lost”) are corrupt, compromised and sinful.

For more than thirty years I have engaged in many discussions with fellow Christians about “worldviews” and hear many preachers and media personalities talk about the so-called “culture wars” with this language.

“Constructing a Christian worldview” is a large enterprise.  I believe in Jesus as the son of God.  I am a Christ-follower.  I encourage others to follow His way.  Why would I react so negatively to all this “worldview” talk?  Why WOULDN’T I join in the obsession of so many to construct a “Christian worldview”?

Other than my almost automatic dislike of Christian trendiness itself, I would have to say that it’s the “rationality” of it that worries me.  The boundless optimism of naive Christian warriors is astounding.  They read a few books about the “Christian worldview,” and pretty quickly move to authoritativeness about “standing up” against this that or the other. It’s not that I don’t take the Christian view of things seriously–it’s that I do.

First, my “view” begins with the Jesus of the New Testament.  He engaged not in antiseptic schoolboy debates and parlor arguments based on straw men, but pushed deeper, down into human hearts.

Second, rather than seeking some comprehensive, one size fits all “system” that appeals to some personalities (who almost always benefit from it–strange about that), like the Pharisees and Sadduccees of his day, Jesus invited his followers to a Way of surrender to new perspectives, ruthless self-questioning, and humble obedience to his teachings and love for one another.

Third, the Christian “way” is not merely about rationality.  It speaks to the irrational and subrational, too–to things we can’t know and don’t know.  The Holy Spirit has to reveal truth to us, little by little, and so we are invited into this incredible humilty of following and living not from some “top down” system but from “bottom up” surrender.

It’s not very surprising that the bin Ladens, Nazis, Holy Warriors, Klansmen, Inquisitionists, and Breiviks of the world manage to create a god in thier own political, cultural and racial image and then demand that everyone else bow to it.  But it is not the God of Jesus. We cannot assume that the world knows these distinctions.  We ourselves have profaned, ignored and compromised this vision of our Lord too much.  We have explained away his call to peacefulness and created our own many systems.

Prothero is right in that sense. So count me as one who says clearly, “This is not Christian, even if it claims to be.”  The renunciation of violence as a way to resolve disputations, in a time when killing has become so efficient, seems more important than ever.  Be clear–we follow a Savior who laid down His life for the world and refused to take up the sword to save it.  Whatever we think of government, armies, war, executions and every other way of violence, let us at least acknowledge that the taking of life is profoundly serious and something that we accept, tolerate and ignore too often.

We have been too comfortable rationalizing our own way of life and downplaying the difficult and serious things our own Founder said to us.  I speak out to say, “Mr. Breivik in no way speaks for me as a Christian.”  But further, I stand against every effort at a “Christian view of things” that can be snapped together like intellectual Lego bricks, a neat little house of explanation of my own making.

Only a “view of things” that is prayed, agonized and wrestled into being with honest hearing and listening and with surrendered anger and sin, can be taken seriously.  A New York Times piece quoted Breivik as having written an entry in June that said, “I prayed for the first time in a very long time today. I explained to God that unless he wanted the Marxist-Islamic alliance and the certain Islamic takeover of Europe to completely annihilate European Christendom within the next hundred years he must ensure that the warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom prevail.”

Those of us who have anguished sincerely for decades to learn how to pray shake our heads.  One does not “tell” God what needs to be done.  This young man knows nothing of the ways of God.  But we offer him too many voices that seem to say these very things–voices of anger, frustration, rage and cultural certainty.  But no one seems to have taught him how to actually pray.

So Christians, speak.  And let’s beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, as the Hebrew scriptures put it.  And maybe while we’re at it let’s refashion those worldviews into calloused knees.   Maybe if we spent the time we were using to argue our “worldviews” praying for our neighbors and for God to have mercy on us sinners we could find a better way.

Trading Places?

As a lifelong, maniacal baseball fan, i cut my teeth reading John R. Tunis books as a boy, listening to Cincinnati Reds baseball covertly after being sent to bed and imagining myself as a pro player one day.   I went to my first games at old Crosley Field and saw legends like Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Casey Stengel, Frank Robinson and Warren Spahn live.  We sat on the third base side in box seats once close enough to hear Deron Johnson spit–which was frequently.

In my boyhood, there was only one thing that mattered–winning the World Series.  It never occurred to us that it was only Americans in the finals and that the rest of the world didn’t know.  It seemed like the biggest event in the universe.

A lot has changed.  Free agency came along and owners stopped “owning” players.  But eventually it made things more interesting–agents, players putting clauses in their contracts to only get red M&Ms, trade clauses of teams where they will NOT agree to be traded (I will not go to Bismark or Kansas City), and the internet Hot Stove.

“The Hot Stove League” was originally a phrase from the old days when men sat around the hot stove in winter, the off season, and discussed trades between teams.  Now it’s all by fax, mobile phone and internet.  Therefore, the most interesting times of the year are the day after the World Series ends until Spring Training and the last two weeks of July.  The former is the time when teams sign Free Agents and make trades.  It is a time when hope springs eternal for teams that finished third last year.  “If we can land a right-handed bat with power and a good starting pitcher, we might win it all next year!”

The period in July is even more interesting.  It is when teams become “buyers” or “sellers.”  Bad teams unload their stars to get rid of salaries when it’s obvious that they won’t win the pennant.  Therefore, baseball teams have had to get rid of the mentality of never giving up until the last out and they are eliminated from contention and replace it with, “How do we manage our player portfolio to minimize losses against probably ticket sales and revenues for overpriced hot dogs and parking to guarantee a small profit for the team this year.  Then we can publicly bemoan that we’re actually losing a ton of money so the players union won’t ask for more.”

The upshot is an interesting time when true fans keep up with rumors.  There is even a website called “MLB Trade Rumors” where Tweets, posts, stories and rumors are reported.  A the top of their home page it says, “IF IT’S WHISPERED, WE HEAR IT.”  On their “About” page, it says, “MLB Trade Rumors is a clearinghouse for relevant, legitimate baseball rumors.”

In other words, if your cousin Leonard says, “I think the Yankees should trade their starting rotation for Jeff Francoeur and a bag of bats,” it may not make it.  Only LEGITIMATE rumors.  I could write a whole blog about how this is determined and who is in charge of “rumor legitimacy,” but for fans, it’s the crystal meth of hope.  So you have things like these actual entries:
“TUESDAY, 10:16am: Giambi injured his left quad last night, and Renck says it’s a potential disabled list situation.  That could end the chances of a July trade.”

“The chances of an Ubaldo Jimenez trade are around 50/50, one source close to the talks tells Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports.  To date, I don’t think any reporter has ventured to go above 20%.”  [20% IS PRETTY PRECISE FOR A RUMOR ISN’T IT?]

Actually, no one cares about the World Series winner anymore except for the ten minutes after they win the thing.  Then it’s ON TO THE RUMORS!  Add to this millions of Fantasy Baseball teams and their fake rosters and you have a whole world built on the importance of gossip.  As a minister, I’m supposed to be against gossip, but from the days of the old prayer request time in my early churches, I knew there was more than one way to spread rumors.  “We need to pray for Jimmy McGillicutty and his wife.  She’s been having an affair with that sorry man from Strawberry Plains and it’s tearing their family apart.”  Nodding heads of disapproval masking delight.

It has also led to precision evaluations of players.  There are statistics for everything:  OBP (On Base Percentage–how often the player manages to get on base in any way),  HBP (how many times they were hit by a pitch), SLG (Slugging Percentage–1 point for a single, 2 points for a double, 3 points for a Triple and 4 for a Home Run divided by the number of At Bats).  OPS is On Base percentage plus Slugging.  On and on.  You see how addictive this can be.

Which is why fewer and fewer people actually go to the games or watch them on TV.  Wins and World Series’ victories matter to the players and the two cities who win, but the rest of the fans are too busy thinking about trades and evaluating our own talent to trade and listening to rumors and blogs to actually go to a game.

I did think, though, that baseball has a lot to teach us about evaluating talent.  What if we did this in politics instead of costly wars?  “MSNBC Tweets that Britain may move prime minister to Australia for two Members of Parliament and a judge to be named later pending ethical evaluation.”  “King of Twambia may retire.  Search for new tyrant on the Free Agent Market.”

Or Business?  “Today, we will likely find out if Globehemoth Corporation will be able to unload their three main O’s, their CEO, COO and CFO in a move that most observers see as a salary dump.  The three came in with great reputations but so far have had disappointing performances.  Globehemoth’s Board Chair is said to be looking at minor league up and comers to replace them.”

Even Criminal Justice would benefit from this new way of doing things.  On a recent train ride from Portland to Seattle, the Conductor pointed out McNeil Island Prison in the Puget Sound, and shared with us that it had held, among others, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, and Charlie Manson, who did two years there for federal check forgery.  I once heard about a prison warden who said, “The problem with our prisons today is that we need a better grade of prisoner.”  Criminals might feel better about going to a more glam facility, especially with some celebrity fellow inmates.

Perhaps if jailers and wardens were given some leeway to swap prisoners based on celebrity appeal rather than mere crimes and security, we might have a more appealing situation.  “There are whispers that Warden Jones is actually considering a blockbuster trade that would rock the correctional world.  Rumor has it that jailer Bob at LA County Jail is considering a Lindsay Lohan-Paris Hilton swap for loiterers and a couple of prisoners to be named later.  It is clear that the relationship of Jailer Bob and the celebs has soured to the point that he is willing to move them for very little, crimewise.”

I have even thought about churches.  From my first year as a pastor, I considered the joy of being able to willing swap members away.  In the Body of Christ, there are always productive bench players, pinch-hitters, and stars, but like any other organization, there are also clubhouse lawyers, bad attitudes, disappointing Free Agents who came in the door to boost the budget and lead committees to productivity only to end up as Inactive Members and so on.  Team chemistry matters.

But it’s not all negative.  Sometimes in baseball you trade a great left-handed relief specialist to get a good man with a glove who can play five positions.  I’ve always wanted to trade when I was deep in seminary graduates or university people or chaplains or engineers and get a left-handed artist or a tenor for the choir in return.  And you can never have enough stay at home moms with entrepeneurial talents or retirees with time on their hands and good attitudes.

Only thing is, good for the goose, good for the gander.  It might go the other way.  How about CHURCH TRADE RUMORS: If it’s whispered at the annual meeting, we hear it first!

“First Church is considering unloading its long-term contract with Pastor Smith as it rebuilds for the future.  Its economic situation probably calls for fielding a much younger staff team which would cost less but might take a while to turn things around.  Smith got off to a great start his first four years, with 5% growth per year, but personal family troubles and a bout of depression sidelined him for the next three.  His effectiveness has not been the same since.”

“Second Baptist and Third Baptist are mulling over a straight up swap of pastors.  Brother Bildge and Preacher Finch have both been in their pulpits for seven years and both churches are languishing in third place in their respective divisions.  A change of scenery might revitalize their disappointing careers.  Observers note that with Third’s deacon body, no one is likely to find much success at the church.   Their error rate is the highest in all ecclessiological circles.  Bilge, on the other hand, was doing well until he criticized FOX news from the pulpit and has been a lame duck from super wealthy followers of Christ who withheld their tithes in retribution, according to their convictions about discipleship.”

“Mt. Harmony #2 gave their pastor her outright release and she is now a free agent and may negotiate with any team.  It is rumored that the Rev. Alibright Harrison, who was drafted directly from the seminary as a number one pick, never really synched with the General Manager, Elder Neggo, whose tight-fisted philosophy and general conservative approach to church doomed the experiment from the start.”

I want to run the website.  The rumors will dwarf baseball and my job security will never end.

A Political Glossary for Newcomers

I offer this to students from other countries here on visas for college and to politically uninformed citizens to help them understand the current debates going on in our country.  GF

Entitlements—a word that once referred to “something earned or deserved, or given out of mutual agreement and covenant and generally accepted and validated by law.”  Lately it has devolved to a more primitive association to refer to another as “a deadbeat.” Today in politics it has a very strict meaning, as in, “money given to someone I don’t know and don’t really care about or from whom I can derive no direct benefit.  Therefore, it is waste and should be gotten rid of.”  In recent years it has become clear that the Entitlement People, whoever they are, do not spend money, buy groceries, pay bills, or eat at restaurants and therefore do not participate in the economic life of the nation.  They tend to sit at home, collect their benefits and checks, cash them and either buy cigarettes or send the money directly to China. The Entitled (I will henceforth refer to them as TE) use up valuable resources that could pay off the national debt and other important problems which they themselves created had they simply refused to accept the money the Congress voted to give them.  The simplest distinction will help the reader.  “Entitlements are what someone else receives as a benefit that they don’t deserve because they are not in my family.”

Term Limits—an imaginary concept that revolutionaries espouse until elected.

Immigration Crisis—see also, “Terrorists, Arabs, Foreigner, Muslim, Job-Gobblers.”  Bad people who come to the good country where we live, which the Native Americans gladly handed to us when our ancestors arrived, and negotiated same in solemn treaties which said, in effect, “Maybe you European people can stop the porous border issues we have around here.  We gladly give you control of all our land and resources if you will relocate us to barren and worthless areas and fence us in, where we can later develop casinos.”  In Alabama, this also refers to the flow of undocumented persons from Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee flowing into the state.

The Government—a word very close in pronunciation to “government,” which simply means the “the complex of political institutions, laws, and customs through which the function of governing is carried out.”  For newcomers to America, it is important to NEVER use the definite article.  When an American says “The Government,” they are, actually using profanity.  It refers specifically to their current group of elected persons and is not to be used except in violent discussions in which more than one person yells simultaneously and no one listens.  In this latter sense, it can never refer to anyone with good motives or intentions, only an amorphous and callously selfish group of piggish persons who pilfer through the public treasury to enrich themselves.  There is great debate among scholars about whether the nearly universally truth of a stereotype, in fact, makes something no longer a stereotype.

Political facts—an oxymoron referring to the emotions I have about people who feel differently than me, expressed as objective information but usually having more to do with where I live, what I do for a living, how close to retirement I am or other contingencies that shade my perspective.  Antonym—“serious dialogue with someone who disagrees with me.”

Common good—a euphemism for “we win, you lose” or, something that makes 50.01% of Americans feel that we are on the right course in an opinion poll.

Blogosphere—the collective wisdom of self-expression on the internet on things political, generally something the founding fathers would approve but also which carries the same dangers of a space suit without an oxygen tank or gluteal ventilation.  The current writer is certainly part of the blogosphere but recommends that readers be sure to read a real book at least once a week to counter nosebleeds and intellectual hemorrhoids  that can develop in the blogosphere.

PAC or Political Action Committeesee “Let Your Money Work for You:  Political Opportunities for the Discerning Investor” and “How to Win Friends and Influence Elections While Slandering People”

Fault—noun:  the giant crack in the good earth of America we are about to fall into while our leaders blame each other.  Verb—What a President or a Congress does to explain the current mess, similar to tennis, “They faulted their predecessors for their vote on the pay raise for themselves.”

Pork—Benefits to someone else’s congressional district that are the reason we have a massive debt to China.  [antonym: “Ice Tea money” An article posted in 1994 (real!) said, “Lawmakers Hope ‘Ice Tea’ Will Quench Their Thirst For Special Projects.  January 08, 1994 By Sean Holton Sentinel Washington Bureau.  Leave it to Congress to fight highway congestion with a multibillion dollar program that sounds like ”ice tea” but tastes like a pork milkshake.  On Friday, scores of lawmakers from Florida and other states lined up for federal ”special projects” money to be doled out this year under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (abbreviated ISTEA, and called ”ice tea”).  Ice Tea is what our senator brought in.]  Pork is what they do in New Jersey.

Debt Ceiling—An infinitely adjustable mortgage that can only be purchased by the Congress which, unlike homeowners, is actually more payable the higher it goes.  Until homeowners can print their own money, this is likely to be a very restrictive real estate instrument.    Wall Street financiers are looking into a way to bundle America’s global debt as they did home mortgages and sell them to Pakistan and Venus.  This is promising because it is tied to an actual asset, the septic tank at the Capitol Building which, apparently, has an endless methane supply that could run the global needs of earth for two millennia.

Hope Solo’s Moment of Truth

Hope Solo may be one of the ten or so best names ever given to an athlete, and maybe the most accurate one for a soccer goalie.  Yesterday, though I am only an occasional futbol watcher, I tuned in the women’s World Cup just in time for the overtime period.  I had been watching the Atlanta Braves pull out a two-out-bottom-of-the-ninth-game-winning-come-from-behind victory.  Freddie Freeman, our 21 year old rookie first baseman, is one of my favorite Braves this year.  Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Jair Jurrjens, Freddie, Martin Prado and the two rookie flamethrowers, Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrell, are my, “These Guys Are What Baseball Is About” team.

They came back and won in true heroic fashion in a script from a John R. Tunis book from my childhood.  The old veteran star, Chipper Jones, out with a knee injury, and the “kids” step up and do it.  Down 6-2, their star pitcher blown out in an atypical bad game, the young Braves battle back, finally tie it at 8-8 in the 8th.  Then the Nats walk the feared veteran McCann (27 yearas old!) to get to the Rookie.  He makes ‘em pay.  It is truly an American story—never give up, never give in (That was also the theme of movie space heroes in “Galaxy Quest”).

All the while, I was flipping back and forth to the Women’s World Cup.  Up 1-0, the announcers talked like, “This is it.  The Americans are in the driver’s seat!”  What a run!  What a story!  Then, flipping back, Japan tied it.  Must have let down.  Then 2-1—the USA does it again!

Japan was not to be undone.  Another goal.  2-2 and they were in overtime.  I watched, waiting for the American story to emerge again.  This is a great bunch of young women, hard-fighting, and the pace was exciting.  Finally, though, it came down to the penalty kicks, a gut-wrenching “Sudden Death” that feels like a gunfight in the Wild West.  It is that moment in soccer when the goalie’s job is most lonely and exposed position in sports.  All up to you, nowhere to hide.

But we had Hope Solo, a poised, beautiful young woman, terrific athlete, up to the task.  The Americans already had won a match this way.  But then, when they huddled, the coach of the Japanese team ended with a smile at the women he coached.  They looked confident, and I had this bad feeling that maybe it could go the other way.  I felt the surge of emotions that always come in a highly competitive moment—anxiety, anger at the other team (surely the most irrational emotion on the planet, but I also watch SEC football, so I take “temporary insanity” as a given), and dread, along with confidence, even arrogance, despite the fact that from my recliner I actually have nothing to do with the outcome.

You know the rest.  Japan kicked ‘em past our star goalie and we didn’t get it done.  And then, confetti time.  The other guys won.  Japan, is still an enemy in the minds of our oldest generation, and an economic competitor to recent ones, and only lately our friend against the new bully on the planet-block, China.   Disappointment.  Compassion for the USA women in those moments when their pain was on display.

Hope Solo, ever the class act, shifted my disappointment into sportsmanship.  We lost to a great team, we really did,” she said.  “As much as I’ve always wanted this, if there’s any team I could give it to them, it would be Japan. They do really deserve this.”  Well, as Clint Eastwood growled in “Unforgiven,” “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”    But maybe “earned” does.  And maybe respect does, too.

Maybe Hope was referring to the March tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed.  Perhaps she was respecting an opponent that the Americans had soundly beaten before, more than once.  She could have chosen excuses, deprecation of the opponents’ accomplishment, or luck to explain what happened.  Instead, she chose to speak truth—the other team was playing for something, too.  It isn’t a game without real competition.  And the competition brings out the best (and worst), which is why we have thrived on it in our history.  Never give up, never give in, and usually you have a good day.  But you’ll always sleep well when you leave it all on the field.

Maybe it could have gone another way, but I’m not sure.  Sometimes it’s just the other guy’s moment.  You can wallow in resentment, or come up with class.  Hope Solo took the better way.  There’s something to learn from this young woman:  Words, while inadequate, are sometimes all we have left.  When you lose, your words will either deepen the wound or move you on to better things.

My friend Ron Delbene used to say that when you change the way you say things, you start to change your life.  Talking differently about yourself and your life changes you even before your circumstances change.  But at the least, they show what is inside, which is why Jesus encouraged us to spend plenty of time and care with our words.  Keep it simple, and take care with them.  Once they’re out there, they can wreak plenty of havoc.

We have a little song we sing to my granddaughter sometimes, called “Only Good Words.”   I made this song up, so I can quote it:  “Only good words, only good words, only good words spoken here.”  Respect.  Good sport.  Class act.  Gracious in defeat.  Mature.

Not bad words at all, Hope Solo.  Not bad.

Stewards on a Sinking Ship?

I have committed, as a writer, to undertake the serious discipline of writing during the month of July each year.  This is a little confusing, because I write all the time in my work, as a songwriter, just about everyday as a facebook citizen (won’t find me with those loathsome mundanities like how much mustard was on my sandwich or my farmville situation.  I try to write something short and worthwhile, except when i don’t, of course.  Which is why I like “like.”  Cuts to the chase, and you can “unlike.”).  I mean, though, that I have committed to myself to use my gift, whether anyone reads it or not.  Writing, the very act of committing words to sequence, has a power.

Anyway, I have dozens of book ideas, but most of them are still in my computer.  I’m one of those people Dorothy Sayers talked about in The Mind of the Maker when she said that  all artistic failures correspond to defects in trinitarian theology.  All artistic work begins as idea, “becomes flesh” in the act of writing (or painting, or making music) and then achieves fulness in becoming an experienced reality by those who read it, watch it or listen to it.  A work of art is not complete without this fullness of being–it’s fine that you have an idea, and many people, she said, say “My book is finished.  I have only to write it down.”  But until you write it, it is not complete. So, if you are a writer, you don’t wait for a contract or just think about ideas.  You write.

I have pondered about three projects I have in various stages of completion (whatever I do with them), but the one I have strong feelings about is “stewardship.”  It’s an odd phrase, usually associated in churches with fundraising and subscribing the budget, but it has an interesting history as a word.  According to the website “word origins” (http://www.word-origins.com/definition/steward.html), in Old English, where this word originated in about the 15th century, a steward was literally “in charge of a sty.”  This was either connected with the word “stigweard,” a compound from “stig” (hall or house) and “weard,” meaning a guardian  or keeper, thus, “keeper of the hall.”  It may have been from the word “sty,”, the place where the pigs were kept.  I will admit that in the current political moment someone who takes care of something dirty and unglamorous without credit is indeed, “Weard.”

Was a steward originally the guy who took care of the hogs?  Interesting thought.  Stewardship has a lowly dimension to it.  “Taking care” of things is not glamorous, appreciated, or always understood by much of our throwaway culture.  Our children may be changed by the recession we seem to be still in the midst of, but we are yet to see if it makes our children more fearful about wasting things or more attentive to taking care of what they have.

Where stewardship matters is its sense of one being responsible for many things and, presumably many other people.  If the steward doesn’t do his or her job, the hogs get out, money is lost, the house runs down, and chaos results.

Stewardship has relevance to all aspects of life.  It is the most powerful image I can think of for where we are in our current global situation.  We sit on a fragile planet with abundant resources, but finite ones.  How we treat that planet will not affect its survival in the universe, but it may have a lot to say about whether we’ll be on it for a long time.  Politics, relationships, economic life, culture, food and water, all are affected by our sense of (or lack thereof) of a sense of “stewardship.”

We watch the global economy halted by our politicians’ endless manipulations, who can never seem to answer each direct question with a simple “Yes” or “No”, posturing, accusing, projecting, blaming, offering excuses, and generally carrying on what sometimes feels like the old “bull sessions” in the dorm late at night in college.  Except their bull sessions affect people’s lives.  And in it all, the sense of stewardship can be lost amid the tantalizing seductions of power, fame and money, the Unholy Trinity of our particular moment win out.

It is a very dangerous time, a time that more than ever asks for servants but always gives in to seducers, wasters, magicians and promisers of fantasy.  Yet if they did tell the truth, give us the bad news, admit the pain that it would take to fix it, would we accept it?  It costs to be a steward.  No fame, no vast fortune, just this unrelenting sense of taking care of something that someone entrusted to us, because that responsibility is more important than all the pleasures to be immediately had by turning from it.

My prayer is for the rebirth of stewardship in the world–parents, families, stockbrokers, bankers, neighbors, policemen, company presidents and CEOs, workers, teachers, artists, politicians.  Without that sense that something is always asked of me for the sake of the other, that something that says, “It can never be only about you,” this ship will sink.  Every good ship has an officer called a “steward.”  The steward is not the captain.  No ship can sail with all captains.  The ship steward looks after the passengers’ comfort and wellbeing, and sees after the supplies and food.

Long live the stewards.  May their tribe increase.  But if we merely delegate this to certain poor souls who are left to tend the hogs while we all watch cable, we will sink.  As a steward of writing gifts, however small they might be, I must reject my own excuses and write as though the world depended on me.  Mothering, fathering, taking care of someone else’s money, churches, schools, neighborhoods, aging parents, the poor among us–we are all called to some great and unavoidable stewardships.  And if we evade them, not only might the ship run out of food or sink, we will never once before we die manage to be who we came here to become.  And that is a loss of incalculable measure.

Labels

Q. How many bluegrass musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?..:

A. Three. One to screw it in, and two to complain that Bill Monroe never did it that way.

I take Bluegrass Unlimited, and by far the most interesting part is the “letters to the editor.” Bluegrass fans are unusually obsessive about their music. I have pondered this, and perhaps it is in part because it is the living memory of a time and a way of life that is passing away, and in part because when we find something and love it we want to hold onto it forever

I am a Baptist minister, and reading those letters made me happier about the craziness of institutional religion. I told my staff, “Hey, there are fundamentalists and liberals everywhere. Month after month, the argument rages: “What is REAL bluegrass music and what isn’t?” Well, I think, “Who cares?” Obviously the purists.

I write songs, and sometimes when people say, “What kind of songs do you write?” I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno.  Mine, I guess.”  Some are country, some are folk, some are whatever.  But once you record them and start fooling with them, and listen, you even wind up turning them into something else.  You just want to see where they will go.

I ran across this not long ago when I stumbled across (Okay, I was straying from what I was supposed to be doing) a Wikipedia article about pop classical entertainer Andre Rieu, who plays those  happy concerts on PBS that apparently purists in classical music call “Schlagermusic.”   One critic said this, according to Wikipedia:  “Boyd assesses the low points of the concert as the “Three Tenors-style” rendition of “Nessun dorma” which he finds was an “abomination”, while saying the concert’s highlights included “a sugar-shock sweet rendition” of “O mio babbino caro” as well as Strauss’s Emperor Waltz and Blue Danube, Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and the Boléro.”

My response to this is to recall one of my favorite conversations in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” when Napolean goes to work at a chicken farm for a local farmer to earn some money.  He is hired to go into the chicken houses and is worried about getting hurt and asks,

Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?

Farmer: Do they have what?

Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.

Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.


I have the same reaction.  I enjoy the classics, but don’t know enough to get indignant.  Sometimes we all need to stand down about our tastes.   There are legitimate arguments about good, better, and best, but it isn’t all that hard for one’s own ego to slip in unannounced.  That said, snobbery is not limited to elitists.  Plenty of snobs in low places who sneer at anything they don’t understand.

Music, like authentic religion, is LIVING and dynamic. So let there be experiments and fusions. Labels are something for catalogs and libraries, but not for creative work. Music is nothing more or less than trying to get to that place where we say, “Wow, I love the way that sounds!” And something in the heart is stirred. There’s a place for honoring tradition and a place for breaking it all to pieces. And the world is big enough for all of it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it and don’t worry about it…

Helping “The Help”

In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August.  Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents.  Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak.  We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).

In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth.  You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are.  What’s the deal?  Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch.  It’s as though the South is invisible.

According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.”   There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help.   Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much.  A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.

I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times.  As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly.  Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing.  You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence.  It can be anywhere:  in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes.  The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.

When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies.  Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table.  And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women.  It helps explain reality television, I think.  Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling?  How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?”  I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.

My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.”  Another way to put it is that these people become invisible.  We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.

I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature:  “WHAT were they thinking?”  At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on.  My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?”  Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out?  But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up.  And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job.  This is not a state issue.  But let’s not go there.

Mainly I have been thinking about the help.  The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses.  They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining.  And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it.  Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them.  “Let’s stand up and do something.”

I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable.  But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst.  There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.”  Find it if you can.  No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt.  Don’t forget it.  Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.”  In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”

I am embarrassed by this law.  We can do better.  Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers.  We didn’t even offer them a ride home.  Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off.  It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out.  But that didn’t seem to get in this law.

A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves.  They work hard and pull themselves up.  I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain.  It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.

Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children.  Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not.  It’s a mess, I admit.  But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.

We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians.  We were rude to strangers  and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there.  And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.

I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped.  I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs.  But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.

We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law.  We can do better.  We should do better.  I pray we will.

Humblebraggin’ Predestinarians

Humblebraggin’ Predestinarians

Gary Furr

Having a hip daughter who lives in New York is the greatest.  I am all up on the latest things without having to actually keep up with them.  Whenever Kate comes home, a few weeks introduces me to what’s going on out there when in fact I lost touch years ago and became a late-middle ager well out of touch.  I wrote a song on my first CD called, “Cold, Old Middle” with a pretty descriptive 50-something line in it:

He’s not as sure he once was

Rides around and pitches fits.

One day it occurs to him—he’s officially out of it.”

 

Today Kate was telling me about “humblebrags,” an invention of a comedian named Harris Wittels, somewhere out there.  He tracks narcisstic “Twits” out there on Twitter.  Twitter, for those of you my age, is sort of a Haiku Digest of social media.  People don’t write—they “Tweet.”  A Tweet is, according to the Twitter official website, “made up of 140-character messages called Tweets. It’s a new and easy way to discover the latest news (“what’s happening”) related to subjects you care about.”

Problem is, a lot of Twerps, Twits and Twaddlers mistake their lives for Tweetable substance.  Lots of people find it very useful, entertaining and helpful to actually follow useful matters for themselves, but one thing about human nature is always true—we can always manage to make it about us.

So, “humblebrags” are statements that manage to feign humility while asserting self-importance.  It’s an art, I must admit.  I once told President Carter when I was sitting with him that being humble was one of the great challenges of life, but I think I’m up for it.  I am content to know that humility is one of the things that make me the great guy I am.  (See?  That’s a humblebrag).  Here are a few from a website called, “The Top 50 Humblebrags.”  I blocked the Twits names to protect them from further damage than they’ve already done to themselves, except for Khloe Kardashian.  I mean, all the damage that could be done has already been inflicted on that family BY that family.  They need a monastery.  Click and take a look.

So you see what I mean.  Even Rick Warren had one.  “I’m truly humbled you follow my Tweets.  I pray they strengthen your life and bless your ministry.  God bless all 200,000 of you.”  Sigh.  I’m not sure I have even typed 200,000 WORDS in my lifetime, much less had them read.    I mean, my two books and several dozen scholarly articles…Rats!  Sorry.

So I got to thinking about this article I read on Associated Baptist Press about a preacher named Scott Lawson who spoke at a conference in California, and said this:

The word predestined means the destination is determined before the journey begins,” Lawson said.   Predestination means that God has marked out on the horizon of time the destination by which he is bringing all of human history to an appointed end, and God has predetermined and pre-scripted everything that would come to pass.”

Lawson said there is “nothing harsh or offensive” about the doctrine of predestination, but it is rather “God exalting,” “joy producing” and “humbling.”

“If salvation begins with me, if it is initiated by me, if it is within myself to be able to believe unaided by God, then I should pat myself on the back and share some of the praise with God and take some for myself,” he said. “But if I understand that it is all of God — that before time began God chose me and set his heart upon me and put into motion by his Son and by his Spirit all that would be necessary to bring me to himself and bring me to glory — then all praise and all glory goes to God.”

Oops!  There we go again.  Scott, I agree with you that what God has done is ineffable, glorious, wondrous and undeserved.  But I keep running aground when the humility starts oozing.  “It’s all about God, nothing of me.  It’s just humbling that of all the people in the world, God chose me.  I didn’t deserve it, but , well, here I am.”  By the way, Scott added, the rest of the sorry lot out here (the rest of us) was marked damaged and consigned to the bargain bin from all eternity.  Nothing personal.  After all, we know this, because those of us who understand the way the Universe works know things that others can’t know.

Reminds me of that story of the rabbi who saw one of the most notorious sinners in the community wailing down front by himself in the synagogue one day.  “Oh, Lord, I have done so badly with my life.  How can you ever forgive me?  I am the worst sinner ever!”  The Rabbi says, “Huh!  Look who thinks HE’s the worst sinner ever…”

Rats!  Scott, I’m sorry to tell you.  You just humblebragged.  It’s okay.  It happens to the worst of us.  Take it from me, I am FAR, FAR less deserving than you.  I’m pondscum, and yet, LOOK AT ME!!!!

Gary Reviews “The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik

Gary Furr Reviews

“The Tree of Life,” a film by Terrence Malik      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478304/

 I, as did Rabbi David Wolpe[i], was immediately zoned in to the opening scenes of Terrence Malik’s movie, “The Tree of Life” when the haunting quotation appeared from In Job 38: 4 and 7, where God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?”   I leaned over to my daughter Katie, who came to see the film and said, “Uh, oh.”

Every good seminary graduate watching this movie, and especially those of us who saw, “The Thin Red Line,” know what’s probably coming—mystery and unexplained mystical reflection.  This movie is an exercise in disappointing usual movie expectations.  An impelling story of a very average family in Waco, Texas (where, I believe, Malik grew up and I myself lived for seven years in grad school) is haunted by a tragedy that is never fully resolved, and never completely explained.   It dissolves into mystical reflection.

The tone of “Tree of Life” often reminded me of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which from the time I originally saw it until now I have no clue about what it means.  Therein the similarities end, however.  “Tree of Life,” is superior to “2001.”  And the Job reference set me up to receive it.

Perhaps, I reflected later, the lack of biblical competency in our current time accounts for the difficulties expressed by the viewers sitting around us in the theater as they were leaving:  “Huh?”  “You mean we paid $7.50 for that?”  “I didn’t think that nature scene would EVER end.”  “I hate movies like that.”  And some just looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.

The book of Job ends similarly.  Job finally gets his day in God’s court and God never breathes a word of his wager with Satan, his faith in Job or the purpose of life.  He backs Job into submission with a long rehearsal of creation, full of wonders in the sky, mysteries in the earth and giant monsters that send shivers down the human spine.  “If you were there for all of these things,” God says to Job, “I will tell you how it all fits together.  Otherwise, trust me.”  And Job does.  What else can he do?

This is a movie that left me unsatisfied at first.  I wanted all the storylines of part B, the microcosm story of the family in Waco, resolved and explained, and it is not.  I realized as I continued to reflect on it that this was a good thing.  The movie was like actual life—with prayers and sinful thoughts interwoven, bad people (Brad Pitt’s father character) also capable of beauty and tenderness.  The movie is a stream of collective consciousness ride that carries the viewer in and out of cosmic, primeval and intimate thoughts of the most ordinary and extraordinary sorts.  It soars at times, especially visually.  The long interlude about the universe, creation and evolution of the world is one of the most brilliant film sequences I have ever seen–I don’t know how else to describe it.  And you won’t enjoy it unless you quit worrying about the smaller storyline of the people in Waco.

I think a lot of people will not like this movie.  Not because they are not smart people or anything that condescending, but because they don’t go to movies for these kinds of experiences.  For some people movies are simply for fun, and that’s completely okay.  I go to predictable romantic comedies for the same reason.  This is more like every time I have stood by the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked without speaking, or walked into the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.  Anything you say at those moments feels inadequate.

Malik’s visionary exploration (and I have avoided saying much more about the story in Waco so that I will not spoil it) is stunning.  It’s a movie that perplexed me, but then I have kept thinking about it, always a sign of a great film for me.  If you know the book of Job well, particularly those final chapters, I think it will make more sense to you—that things don’t, can’t, won’t make “sense” as we insist they do, but some instinct in us says, “They will and they do.”

The small story of the little family is well-acted– a frustrated musician-inventor husband played by Pitt, who turns another in a catelog of great performances; Sean Penn as grownup son Jack, whose inner struggles as a child are a significant part of the story; Jessica Chastain as Pitt’s graceful, loving wife, who is the embodiment of grace and faith counterpoised against Pitt’s character with his more brutal “nature” view of life.

You may not like it.  You may choose to wait and watch it on cable or UVerse, which would be a mistake unless you have a home theater screen, because the nature images in this film are IMAX material.  The cinematography is that good.  If you just want to be entertained, save your bucks and see something else.  No one should think badly of you.  But if you want to walk into a cathedral and sit down for a while and listen to the universe, you may find this film worth your while.  And when you walk out, it will walk with you.


[i] Rabbi David Wolpe, “The Religious Meaning of Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-david-wolpe/tree-of-life_b_868717.html   I waited to read Wolpe’s review until I had already read my own, so I would not be influenced by his interpretation.