Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Ecclesiastical Side of the Moon

A friend of mine just listened to Dark Side of the Moon for the second, and probably last, time.

I know, right?  How can anyone listen to it just twice?  But that's what he did and he declared it "not for me".  He said that he can see some good things, but he just can't put the "out of this world" music with the lyrics that are trapped on this earth.  He specifically pointed out the lyric, "Home/home again/ I like to be here when I can/ when I come home cold and tired/ it's good to warm my bones beside the fire."  He can't see how that lyric fits with the mystical music. 

This is my response to him:

I am a Pink Floyd fan but I cannot tell you to like what you obviously don't.  Tastes differ.  ;(

But I will say that the tension between the spacey music and the solid, sometimes harsh lyrics really works for me.  In fact, I didn't care for the album either, first time I heard it, until I got into the themes and realized that they all worked together.

The theme of the album is, in proper Floyd fashion, "That which makes one go mad."  So the lyrics speak directly about social pressures and nihilism and lost expectations and war... while the music speaks of the inner state of the mind.  The album goes back and forth between being TOO involved in reality (On the Run, Great Gig in the Sky, Money, Time) and music that speaks of a growing disconnect from reality (Breathe-- a search for peace not found in this world; Us and Them, Brain Damage). 

The keystone of the album, to me, is Great Gig in the Sky, which is on the surface about religion with the gospel voices moaning in ecstasy which moves slowly to screaming agony and then back down again to acceptance.  This is almost orgiastic, speaking possibly of the sexual connection of religious fervor.  But it also speaks to the movement of the mind that is the heart of the album.  The mind realizes the tension it is under until it finally screams under the suffering and agony of reality.  Finally, it just breaks, suddenly, and achieves the peace it had been longing for from the beginning.  But it could only achieve this peace by no longer being associated with reality at all.

So you might see why this album is so powerful to me.  

Another aspect of the album is it's strange connection to the Old Testament book, Ecclesiastes. The "preacher" of Ecclesiastes speculated on some of the same considerations that Roger Waters focused on in his concept album.  The futility of pursuing daily life, and the theme of madness, which the preacher calls "vanity" or meaninglessness.  "A striving after wind."  

Below are some quotes from each work of art side by side for comparison and meditation:

I said of laughter, "It is madness," and of pleasure, "What does it accomplish?" (Ecc 2:2)

"I've always been mad, I know I've been mad, like the 
most of us...very hard to explain why you're mad, even if you're not mad..." 

Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (Ecc 2:11)

Run, rabbit run. 
Dig that hole, forget the sun, 
And when at last the work is done 
Don't sit down it's time to dig another one. 

 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
 (Ecc 1:8-9)

The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older, 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 

The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.  Then I said to myself, "As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?" So I said to myself, "This too is vanity."
 (Ecc 2:14-15)

Long you live and high you fly 
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry 
And all you touch and all you see 
Is all your life will ever be. 

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?
 (Ecc 3:19-21)

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again. 

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. When good things increase, those who consume them increase.
 (Ecc 5:10-11)

Money, it's a crime.
Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie.
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today.
But if you ask for a raise it's no surprise that they're 
giving none away.

A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.
 (Ecc 3:6-8)

All that you slight 
And everyone you fight. 
All that is now 
All that is gone 
All that's to come 

and everything under the sun is in tune 
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon. 

I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. (Ecc 1:14)

Sunday, May 25, 2014


When I was younger than I am today, I used to dream of owning a great house with many rooms. Each room would be decorated in a unique style and have their own purpose. 

There would be a music room, with cushions and bean bags and an expensive sound system with huge speakers and a collection of recorded music from over a hundred years. There would be a grand piano room, with chairs for recitals and light peach walls and a sky dome and when the piano was not in use, Chopin would be playing, for inspiration. There would be a room with no windows and no lights and it would just be painted black with a black chair in the center of it. There would be a prayer room with individual rugs and prayers painted upon the white walls and a window facing toward Jerusalem. There would be an interior garden with stained wooden shelves and two of the walls made of glass. But the most precious room would be the room of ideas.

In my house, there would be many rooms filled with books. A room of novels, another room of classics, a room for children’s literature and a room of historical works. The place of ideas, at the center of this large house, would be a library of books, art and music that are especially inspirational. These would be full of innovative concepts, ways of seeing the world in a sideways fashion, always challenging me, always re-fashioning my mind with spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, and poetic innovation. And in the corner of this room would be a small writing desk, filled with scraps of paper and pens. That would be where I spent most of my time.

If you've read this far, tell me, if I gave you a room in my house to decorate or create in whatever way you wanted, what would that room look like and what would it be used for?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Membership Is Not Cheap: Classism in the Church

The Third World is alive and well within North America.  The poor are in the apartments with black mold; they are in the food stamp offices and being run out from under bridges.   Difficulty and disease and shame mark their lives; they’re stigmatized like lepers.  Jesus is among these people; living with them, encouraging them and doing miracles among them.

But you’d never know this by looking at the churches of North America.

A few churches cater to the upper class, but the massive majority of churches throughout North America see themselves as ministering to “communities”, by which they mean communities of the middle class.  The poor are left out of the equation of the normal, everyday life of the church.  And because of this, the church itself is poorer.  Below are four areas in which the poor are marginalized in most modern churches:

1.     Cultural uniqueness
The third world of North America is unique, and has unique features.  For one thing, its inhabitants tend to use foul language, even the most religious of them.  More poor people smoke than middle class people, and they are also more likely to have obvious addiction issues.  Poor people tend to be less educated and focus more on survival.  But, paradoxically, the poor are more likely to give their last dollar to someone else in need.  Poor folks are more likely to rely on God instead of a system or even their own work.   These are unique cultural characteristics, not right or wrong, just different.  There are weaknesses and strengths in this culture, just as there are in the cultures of the middle or upper classes (or, indeed, in any culture).

The cultural uniqueness of being poor isn’t celebrated, but preached against in the everyday church.  Not that every facet of poor culture should be celebrated; but the same is true of the middle and upper class cultures.  When we praise the middle and upper class trait of making and following a reasonable budget, for example, why can we not also praise the lower class trait of sacrificial generosity?   The church cannot be a culture-free environment, but in our middle-class model of church, where can the poor worship in a manner cohesive to their culture?

2.       Stamped with otherness
This does not mean that the poor do not go to church.  They don’t go as frequently, but since many know that participation with God is participation in the church (which is, all too frequently, not really Jesus’ body, but only a form of Christendom), they will go.  But when they do, they are considered outliers.  A church made up of the poor is traditionally called a “mission” because the poor aren’t naturally considered a part of a church.  Instead, they are often considered “converts” when they regularly attend a church, because after all, if they were actually spiritual they’d be financially self-sufficient, right?  The poor aren’t fully “sanctified” until they give up the ways of the poverty class—smoking, drinking, “low” language—even though these requirements aren’t made by Jesus.  Even those things (like the aforementioned generosity) which should be considered “good” are simply considered foolish or wasteful if one is not on solid financial ground.  Until the poor can afford to dress and use educated language like the rest of the church, they aren’t considered part of the norm.  Because of these church norms being shaped by middle class norms, the poor have developed a notion of individual spirituality, without a corporate component.  Because they don’t “fit” in the average church.

Even a church that is very oriented toward the poor participates in this hierarchy.   They are told they need to “go out and serve the poor”, because the poor aren’t a part of them, but a group that is outside of them.  And rather than welcoming them and their insights, often reserved for the middle class potential member, they are told to “serve” them out of pity or even guilt.  But this service is that of the haves to the have-nots, the higher to the lower.  The poor are not asked to participate in spiritual service, let alone lead it, in an average church context.

3.      Limited participation
The social activity of even the most open churches are based around many activities that the poor cannot attend; due to their poverty.  Of course, public worship, small groups, bible studies and potlucks are free to all who wish to come.  But those contexts are only the formal meetings of a community (although some small groups are an exception).  The real social connection with other members of a community, the support network, happens at informal gatherings.  These informal gatherings often happen in restaurants after worship, and at retreats and camps.  The youth have this same structure where some activities are free, but the activities where deeper connections happen cost money.   When the middle class take retreats and after-worship paid meals for granted, the poor feel separated and shamed because of their lack of participation.

4.      The Leadership Gap
Leadership in a church is reserved for the middle or even upper middle class.  Part of this has to do with practical considerations: the upper middle class has more leisure time and so they are able to participate in meetings, while the poor must spend time working to survive.  National or regional conferences are often expensive and require travel.   This creates a class-based leadership perspective, which cannot imagine the spiritual or physical needs of the poor, because few of them have ever been in that circumstance.

We Need the Poor
 In bringing up this issue to the moderator of MCUSA, I was told by him, “For those I’ve talked to, the poor don’t even want leadership, so why is this an issue?”  Of course the poor don’t want leadership.  The culture of church leadership is so foreign to them, that the idea of speaking out in a meeting with their very different perspective and language and communication styles scares them.  But that misses the point.  The point is, our churches need the poor, we need them to be equal partners and we need them in leadership.

We need them because the poor are an essential part of our church life—not as service projects, but as fully human people we need to interact with, to love and to learn from and to minister to and to receive ministry from.  

We need poor people in leadership because we want to meet the actual needs of the poor—not the needs we have imagined for them when we try to put ourselves in their place. We need the poor to be equal because Jesus is among the poor, living with the poor and, frankly, alive among the poor, more than in many of our churches. 

 If we are going to have Jesus in our church, we must have the poor, even though that disturbs our middle class “order”.   Accepting the poor as equals feels, to the middle class, chaotic.  And it often is chaotic, like any exchange of ideas.  But marginalizing the poor, as Christendom has done for centuries, is marginalizing Jesus.

“Did not God make the poor rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love Him?  But you have dishonored the poor…”  James 2:5-6

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Public Poverty

Public poverty is being ignored by all except those who notice the troubled—cops and bleeding hearts.  All else turn away or turn aside or patch their pity with a coin.  Public poverty is crying out for help and being told to shut up. It is a desperate plea to be normal, and the eventual surrender of this hope when normalcy is a dream of the past.  Public poverty is too much honesty, revealing one’s difficulty and  shame and others assume that you are lying; it is the heaping of scorn when you are desperate for a little kindness.
If only poverty were this cute...

Really, poverty is like sex, only not as fun.  Some revel in it and don’t care where it is displayed, but a majority of people are fine with it in private, but disgusted with it in public.  Like sex, poverty should never be mentioned in polite company, and the more details someone describes poverty in, the more offensive they become.  "Poverty should only be discussed in counselling sessions, with social workers or pastors, but please don’t publicly discuss how you can’t pay your bills, and please don’t display your poverty in a way that all of us can see it."

The homeless are the professionally poor, those who have no choice but to represent the public poor. The homeless are scorned and even hated because they represent all that is wrong with our communities.  They are the indications that our nation is not an economic success, no matter how much of a powerhouse we are on the international economic stage.  The homeless are the crazy uncle you want to keep in the closet, especially when there are guests, but that is especially when he appears, naked and saying something insane.   Just by their existence, the homeless make us uncomfortable.

Would you please cover your poverty?
The real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t know where to keep its place.  It appears right where you don’t want it to appear—around city hall, on freeway onramps, in public parks.  The public poor appear in the places where a city wants to showcase their friendliness or family nature.  Instead, they are revealed to be a hotbed of poverty and drunkenness.

But the public poor are simply doing what everyone else is doing, except on the street:  They are drinking a beer, they are laughing too loud with friends, they are asking for help.  They are desperately trying to forget about their miserable, mundane existence for only a moment.  They are trying to forget that the silence they experience daily, the turn of the head is scorn being poured upon them.  They are trying to erase the judgments that sentenced them to this miserable life, even the judgments that they put upon themselves.

Policy makers, in seeing the public poor as a serious social problem, do one of two equal errors.  First, they might force the public poor to be silent, to be out of sight.  For this, they create laws which make it illegal to be the public poor, or for them to be seen by the populace.  They might create a skid row, or at least move them out of the downtown area, out of sight, out of mind.  They might shuffle them into jails, as a housekeeper might sweep dust under a carpet.

But this is not a solution. For the more scorn and punishment policy makers apply to the poor, the more public poor there are.  This is because public scorn, public punishment is acceptable punishment, that which can be replicated and increased by the public citizenry.  That which is done in the public parks will eventually be repeated in homes and churches and elsewhere.  And the poor of a home is no longer cared for at home, but is moved to be homeless.  The poor of a church is no longer cared for at a church, but is seen as unacceptable anywhere.  If there is no place for the poor, the only place for them is the public areas.  And if the public areas are not acceptable, then the only place for the poor is no place.  Non-existence.

#22351, come in for your Compassion Treatment
The other solution for policy makers is to end poverty or end homelessness.  This means taking millions of public dollars and putting them into institutions for the poor.  In the past, it used to be missions to religionize the poor, as if their problem were a lack of religion.  Then they shelter the poor, stacking them like firewood, and herding them into cafeterias.  Now they want to eliminate the public poor by giving apartments or single-resident occupancies, so they can be poor in private.

The problem is that these solutions are too expensive for all the public poor, and the system of scorn will not allow them to be “rewarded” with a room without a kitchen with public money.  A different government, a different mayor and compassion dries up like a puddle in a drought.

The only real solution is equality.  Give the public poor a chance to determine what the solutions should be for themselves.  Yes, they will make mistakes, but we should give them that.  The only solution is to give the public poor the respect of a human being.  To look at them, to love them enough to smile and say “no”.  The only solution is to give them what they lack: a social network so they can solve their own problems.  Help them to see what opportunities exist and let them make their own choices.

Surprisingly, some may choose a life outside, without walls, without bills, without demands (or perhaps not so surprisingly).  They should be given a place to live in poverty, or to work their way out of poverty.  Some may choose education, some may choose a steady job (if one is offered) and some may choose reuniting with their family.  But if they are given respect and an opportunity to choose, choose they will.

What the public poor lack is opportunity of choice, and the respect to be offered a choice.  They are treated as dogs, as piles of garbage that should be cleaned up, as proto-criminals that will soon need to be arrested.  Instead, they should be treated as they are—citizens.  Treated as human beings who deserve to be heard just as much as we do.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Following Jesus: A Set of Lists

Jesus is my hero, my one and only, the guy in my life.
There are many others I love and exemplify:
Francis of Assisi
Dorothy Day
Jean Vanier
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Peter Waldo
Desmond Tutu
Keith Green
but I only love these because they love Jesus.
These are the experts in following Jesus, without Jesus they are nothing.
I follow their example of following

* * *

I am busy.
I know this because people tell me that I am, so I must be. I do use up whatever energy I have doing a lot of stuff, that’s for sure (but I still have time for a number of movies).
I spend my days with the homeless, mostly.
I get food with the homeless and for the homeless and local poor families.  A ton of food a week for four hundred people.
I work to make work for those who don’t have work. Sometimes I am able to pay them.
I make peace amidst violence.
I encourage Jesus’ followers to serve those who need service.
I make disciples and preach sermons and lead worship.
I only do this because I firmly believe that it is what Jesus did
and if he were here he’d be doing something like what I do
(if not exactly these actions).
Jesus, if here in our “first world” would be hanging around the third world that exists within it.
If Jesus were here, he’d be healing those who can’t get healed.
He’d provide justice for those who have no recourse for justice.
He’d feed the hungry, comfort the outcast, make disciples.
He did all that, so I’d expect him to do the same.

* * *

This doesn't mean I’m always like Jesus, God knows.
I have days when instead of making peace I make enemies.
Instead of making disciples I make haters of God.
Instead of helping the needy I push them away.
I hate days like that.  Moments like that.
But I remember that my goal isn't balance.
It isn't happiness or personal fulfillment.
My only goal is following Jesus.

* * *

There’s a number of people who tell me that following Jesus isn’t a good idea,
or at least the way I’m doing it.
My doctors tell me I’m too stressed.
Some friends tell me that they don’t want to watch my life, because it’s too painful for them.
My atheist friends tell me that I’m too smart to be caught up by one guy.
My Christian friends tell me that I go too far.
My progressive friends say I’m not political enough
My conservative friends say my economics are too radical.
My fundamentalist friends say I’m too flexible with the Bible and
My liberal friends imply I should be more intellectual
(not that they would judge).

I’d love to be living a different life myself.
One that doesn't pressure me all the time.
One that doesn't push my cultural buttons everyday.
One that doesn't cause me to be anxious about people on the edge of dying.
One that doesn't require so many memorial services.
Maybe a life that paid a regular salary would be nice.
A life that gave me more opportunities to meditate and write.
Where I could watch my health a bit better and could give my wife the life she deserves.
But if I gave up on this life,
If I chose some other religious vocation--
The life of a middle class pastor or a professor in a Bible school or to be an advocate for the homeless—
I’d be living a lie.
I’d no longer be following Jesus.
I am not pointing fingers at other professions, I can’t do that.
I’m only talking about me.
This is what I have to do to follow Jesus.
To take an easier, more mainstream path is no longer following Jesus.
I must follow this path until I am no longer able to follow this path
Because of physical incapacity
Or because I am too much of a jerk.
(Being a jerk for Jesus isn't following Jesus at all.)

* * *

I’m not interested in being a Christian
whether a zealot, or a mystic, or denominational promoter or spirit-filled.
I’m not interested in being the family guy
whether the proverbs 31 gal, the good spouse or parent.
I’m not interested in being the social justice guy
whether of the racism, sexism or classism variety, or even a homeless advocate.
I’m not interested in being the smartest guy in the room
a rationalist, a poet, a history expert, a Bible scholar or move nerd or Menonerd.
I’m not interested in being a leader
whether preacher or administrator or prophet.
I’m not interested in being a repentant sinner
whether an ex-addict or former fundie or on a diet.
I’m not interested in offering services
whether being a tax consultant, an EMT or handing out blankets.
Honestly, I’d like to be all of these things
And sometimes I am all or some of these things.
But all these things are crap compared to following Jesus.
In the end, it’s always following Jesus I come back to
and surrender everything I can do or be to him.

* * *

I've always got blinders on.
In following Jesus love is central so I can’t hate or be apathetic.
(by which I mean I can but I can’t if I’m following Jesus).
In following Jesus I always begin with the low and I can’t get wealthy support first.
Leadership is servanthood, so patriarchy is out.
Forgiveness and restoration is always the goal, so I can’t cut anyone off.
Mercy is the law, so meeting needs is a constant activity.
I live at creating peace, so violence and harshness is out.
Poverty is a blessing so personal wealth isn't an option.
Wisdom is found in the uneducated, so no diplomas for me.
Vulnerability is basic, so I can’t protect myself as much as I’d like.
There’s a lot I can’t do.
But this is the path the world is changed.
One act of kindness at a time.
Following Jesus is a limitation.

This post is a part of a series of blogs.  They asked me to post this in the article: "As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith.  This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism."Mennonerd Blog Series on Anabaptist Convictions

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Small Graces

Woke up this morning feeling sad and lonely.

We all get that way sometimes, and there's no real reason for it.  We can gaze at our lives in many different ways.  We could look at our successes, we could look at our failures, we could see how rewarding our relationships are or we could recognize that our relationships are really meaningless.  We could see how our work has done something important, or note that no one really appreciates the work we've done.

The funny thing is how our mood so often colors our lives.

I wonder how God feels about His life, His work.

Does He wake up some mornings and say, "No one really cares about me.  For all the praise I get, almost none of them really care about me outside of being in a group of worshipers.  Few are grateful, and for those who are, they often thank me for things I didn't do, and ignore the hard work I did put into their lives.  Believers fight tooth and nail over doctrine I never taught and ignore the basic principles I want them to live by."

I'll bet most of the time, he avoids such depressing thoughts because they really aren't helpful. Such thoughts make us depressed or angry, but I'll bet God recognizes that it's best to focus on the small good instead of the large, ignorant populations that disrespect Him though apathy or carelessness.

Perhaps that's why Jesus likes to look at the small things that change reality.  The things that seems so insignificant to sweeps of history, but are so full of God's grace.

The sisters whose brother had died.
The boy who returns to his father.
The servant who obeys his master.
The woman with non-stop bleeding.
The embezzler who impresses his boss.
The woman who lost a coin.
The man who finds treasure in a field.
The woman whose son died.

Small people.  In the scheme of world events, pretty unimportant.  But these are the small things God wants us to notice.  Not the everyday negativity, not the horrors of the world.  But the small graces that make all the differences.