Purpose-Driven Centrist: Questions of the Meaning of Church

In the middle of the day, I realized that I had not fulfilled my commitment to publish this column. I've been traveling a lot over the last 28 days, in fact as many days this month as I have in a typical year for my job. It was a reasonable excuse, but not one that sat well with me. Tonight my family met our relatively-new small group for dinner at Wegmans before attending a free concert at our church by a local band that is seems pretty close to "making it", whatever that means. And the night turned out to be more thought-provoking than I expected.

My 2 1/2-year-old daughter was excited for the concert and sat in my lap and smiled largely as she pointed at the "pretty lights" while the band sang their first few songs. After a few songs, she wanted to sit with her friend in the row in front, so I lifted her to that row. She sat there for two minutes and then turned around with her arms extended wanting to come back. My wife was giving our own 3-month-old son a bottle down the hall and chatting with a friend. All of the sudden my daughter, who clings to us in public in case these giant people would squish her with their feet, jumped out of her seat and wave buh-bye to me as she left the row and headed toward the door of the gym. I followed her quickly, and asked where she was going, to which she responded "To play with my friends." This is the same girl who, for the past three months, had severe separation anxiety every time we drop her off for Sunday school during worship time. Her instantaneous boldness was impressive, but her sudden awareness of her "friends" touched my heart.

It touched me because I've been wondering a lot about the meaning of church, and by church I mean the formal organization part, the Sunday morning part, and the part we think we know what we are describing when we say "church". For me church has had very distinct meanings over my lifetime. In childhood it was the place that I memorized more verses than anyone and where my father was the music director, so I had to be participate in every children's choir and such. In high school it was the place where I learned how to argue with my non-christian friends to try to save them from hell. In college, it was being introduced to a come-as-you-are Saturday night service with contemporary music we went to as a community from our college InterVarsity group; it was the first time I felt I was actually hearing God. Since college, church has been an organization of habit and a place that I hope to find that community I had on campus in college. Ironically, the actual church I attend is the same as I did in college, but the community element is much different.

It became clear to me a number of years ago that was community that really defined my positive church experience, and since I've been looking for that same type of community. Defining that community is very difficult, especially when some of the people in that college community also still go to that same church. What has changed is our stage in life, and adjusting community through that stage has turned out to be the hardest thing I've ever experienced. I've read lots of books that I hoped would help me define this community I'm after, such as A New Kind of Christian or Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation. One that I truly identified with is So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore by Jake Colsen (a pseudonym of two co-authors). So while still attempting to find this community, I keep wondering what exactly the is the purpose of my going to church. Yes, the purpose-driven centrist is searching for a purpose in this particular situation.

As a father, I am now invested in both my own faith and that of my children. I want to introduce them to the communal aspects of faith, not just individual, even though it is sometimes the individual faith that helps me gets through some days. I want to be sure that what they hear in Sunday school aren't just nice stories, or they aren't put on a performance/reward track of Bible memorization and perfect attendance. I want our faith to be life breathing and love giving, not head knowledge that can knock the wind out of an antagonizer at school. Most of all, I want them to recognize that they can be themselves and not need to have it all together. But that requires true community.

On my personal blog, I posted a quote about community from a short-lived television series of which I am very fond. The reverend character made this statement:
The gift of community is that each one of us is absolved of the burden of completeness. In and of ourselves at every moment we can lean on one another for the elements we lack.
It is one of the fittest definitions of community I've ever heard, and I think it can define a community of two (especially in friendship or marriage) or 2,000. What strikes me is that I never hear this type of community discussed in a sermon or in planning the next small group study. What I hear more is what we should study next or what we can/should do to become complete, though maybe not in those exact words. We hear about what we believe, which is important, or should believe, which might be important, but rarely, if ever, hear that it is truly ok to be incomplete, and in fact our community embraces your incompleteness. My wondering now is if that is because the churches I've attended since college really aren't communities in its truest sense.

But my daughter is finding some toddler-sense of community now in the very same place that I'm doubting I'll ever find true community. And it's making me wonder more if I'm missing something or not. Is real community in churches getting lost by us adults through budgets and church programs and various worship services? Or is it getting sucked right out of the room the moment the inductive Bible study or Christian book study starts in our small groups? Or is it never making it through the door because we don't really believe we are allowed to be our incomplete selves together in the same place trying to find the same God while trying to make it through the same world? I don't know, and I've been looking for a long time now. I'm tired and incomplete; I hope that's really ok to admit here.


Dobson Steps Down From Focus

This, according to Christianity Today Magazine. I don't have the proper time to comment on his legacy other than this. Jim, I thank you for the wise and practical parenting advice you offered over the years. As far as politics go, I wish you would have found more charitable ways to express your views over the years.

The Anti-Ombudsman: The Little B and Big B Awards

Hello darlings!

What a delight to see you return to a form befitting a grand bastion of hipster religion. Many of your recent pieces filled me with such tingling glee that I thought I’d died and gone to Hell. (Then I realized that I’m already here! Isn’t it marvelous being me?) Though I’m disappointed that you continue to litter the blog with such blather as Kim Gottschild’s droning piece about food pantries (I’ll re-read it the next time my Ambien isn’t working), there has been much to celebrate of late. You’ve adorned the blog with excellent pieces about political scandal, pop culture, self-promotion, and more of those adorable LOLpastors cartoons. Oh, and persist in protesting the taxation of boutique beers, s'il vous plait. I’m overjoyed that everyone is on the same page as moi regarding the taxation of luxury items.

Now, on with the show.

The Little B award goes to Jordan Green for his excellent piece on Super Bowl commercials. I have fantasies of a world where the line between advertising and creative content becomes indistinguishable. We are nearly there, my precious pumpkins, and I’m delighted to see Mr. Green doing his part. Ignore the cumbersome comments of that bumptious cretin Donald Miller. He traffics in the schadenfreude of the fabulous and thrives on the adulation of obsequious moppets in thrift store couture. Who cares what he thinks?

I had not a moment’s hesitation regarding the recipient of the Big B award. Larry Shallenberger, my dear, mocking Satan alone would endear you to me for millennia. However, you were also astute enough to encourage your readers to ignore Him. I am overcome with gratitude. Our work is far more effective when humans believe us to be irrelevant. I much prefer the role of behind-the-scenes power broker. More of a Weinstein than a Pitt or a Hanks, if you will. And the fact that you said all this whilst invoking a fashion metaphor causes me to absolutely swoon. Keep an eye on your book’s Amazon rank, dear. I know how to return a favor.

Until next time, my darling beauties, I remain . . .

Your friend until The End,
Prince B


"Spiritual Pollution"

There's something about owning a satellite tower that makes a clergyman fixated about the weather.

Pat's been predicting hurricanes ravaging the American coastlines for the past few years. God told him judgment was coming. Dover was going to get a particularly nasty meteorological spanking for it's school board weighing in on the wrong side of the Creation/Evolution Debate.

Focus on the Family's, Stuart Sheppard produced a video clip that wondered aloud if it would be appropriate for Christians to pray that rain would ruin the Democratic National Convention.

Most recently, the Vatican promoted a man to bishop who once stated that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment on New Orleans:

"The amoral conditions in this town are indescribable," Bishop-designate Gerhard Wagner said in a parish newsletter in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans.

"This is not just any city which has been drowned, but the people's dream town with the 'best brothels and the most beautiful whores,'" he said, according to excerpts from the newsletter which appeared on the Austrian Catholic Web site Kath.net.

The Vatican announced Jan. 31 that Pope Benedict had named the 54-year-old parish priest of Windischgarsten, Austria, to be auxiliary bishop of Linz, Austria.

"Hurricane Katrina didn't just destroy all the nightclubs and brothels in New Orleans ... it also destroyed all five abortion clinics" in a city of less than half a million residents, the bishop-designate said.

"Is the piling up of natural catastrophes merely a consequence of the environmental pollution carried out by people or is it rather the consequence of a spiritual environmental pollution?" he asked, adding that the question should be further discussed in the future.

There's precedent for God using weather to judge. There was that whole "Flood" thing. That was biggish. Sodom and Gomorrah were taken out by fire and brimstone. So, these clergy get some credit for Bible literacy. Talking about "spiritual pollution" is not nonsense. Heck, the Apostle Paul wrote about all creation groaning under the weight of the curse.

But you still have to wonder, where are the predictions (or post mortems) that the weather event would come because of a lack of social justice or care for the poor?

The problem with these wannabe Elijah's is that they are so selective in their application. They've weaponized the Biblical concept of corruption and they use it to berate their opponents. Those sinners over there, they deserve a divine disciplinary tsunami. If they were more like us, well then, that would be different.

Actual spiritual pollution is everywhere. Its the lines and bags under my eyes, my graying hair, and that roll of fat that I can't seem to outrun. The living fill funeral homes to mourn those cut down by corruption. Spiritual pollution takes the form of weeds, rust, and moth-eaten shirts. It rolls off my tongue in the form or bitterness, cynicism, and biting sarcasm. The proliferation of boy bands in the '90s and three High School musicals now might be signs of spiritual pollution.

Spiritual pollution isn't a missile that God menacingly points at the wicked. Its a curse that humanity unwittingly unleashed on itself, all of us.

When Jesus was on earth, a building collapsed and killed the eighteen people were inside. The professionally religious responded to the disaster by assessing blame. "What kind of sin and what kind of sinner could cause this type of calamity?" Its likely that the Pharisees had used the disaster to reinforce the moral pecking order that they established. "Those fools died because they didn't listen to our teaching."

Jesus disrupted this ghoulish line of thinking with these words: "If you don't repent, you will all likewise perish." Jesus wasn't being morbid, or grouchy. He wasn't cracking open a can of brimstone. Instead, Jesus reminded us that spiritual pollution isn't something that happens to "them" but is something that hurts all of "us."

Jesus knew that he could only rescue people who realized that they weren't living in Eden but in a field with moths and weeds.


"Angry Conversations" Now Shipping

Susan Isaac's "Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Personal Memoir" is now shipping from Amazon.com. Giddy up. I've had this pre-ordered for months now. Susan provides Burnside with funny and wisdom.

The stable of writers, authors, journalists, baristas, and other horse thieves at Burnside tip our hats to you, Susan. Can't wait to read it!

Church Hopping: St. Louis Cathedral

Get your beads ready! In celebration of Mardi Gras, Burnside Writers Collective is taking you on a virtual trip to New Orleans. Despite its spicy reputation for Girls Gone Wild exploits, N’awlins has a rich cultural and religious heritage. Let’s head on over to the French Quarter, where we can see Louisiana’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral

Location: 615 Pere Antoine Alley., New Orleans, LA
Website: http://stlouiscathedral.org
Architect: J. N. B. de Pouilly, among others
Built: Construction began in 1725 and was completed in 1727

History: The church was established some time between 1718 and 1721, depending on which source document you read. According to the church’s official website, French engineer Adrien De Pauger designated the church site in 1721 in coordination with LeBlond de la Tour, Engineer-in-Chief of Louisiana. De Pauger died the year before the building was completed, but built between 1725 and 1727, it was New Orlean’s first "brick between posts" (bnquete entre poteaux) church.

Unfortunately, the church was destroyed during the Great New Orleans Fire—on Good Friday of all days in 1788. A year later, groundwork for the new church began, thanks to funds from the real estate developer Andres Almonester y Rojas. In 1793, the year before construction was completed, the church received cathedral rank.

The church’s official website does not cover its history after that point, but according to Wikipedia, as the church’s congregation grew the need for a larger structure became evident. In 1834 J. N. B. de Pouilly was brought in to design the new building; and in 1849, John Patrick Kirwan was contracted to do the work. However, in 1850, things weren’t going as smoothly as had been hoped: the central tower had collapsed and de Pouilly and Kirwan were fired and others brought in to complete the work.

Faring better than it did in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788, the church has also weathered:
  • A dynamite bomb in 1909 that damaged galleries and blew out its windows
  • The New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 that caused the foundation to collapse and forced church to be closed from Easter 1916 to 1917
  • Hurricane Katrina, which tore a hole in the roof and dislocated the ornamental gate. The hurricane also broke off the thumb and forefinger of “Touchdown Jesus,” the marble statue of Jesus, leaving locals to say “that the statue of Jesus sacrificed his two fingers while flicking the storm away from the city and saving it from total destruction,” according to Wikipedia.
Exterior Design: St. Louis Cathedral is an iconic landmark. When St. Louis Cathedral was built, the French Quarter wasn’t the artistic community that it is today and yet its beautiful architecture stands the test of time. Like much of the area, however, it is a jambalaya. Because of the various natural disasters and the need for a larger space, it combines Spanish colonialism, French Rococo, and Renaissance stylings. As it currently stands, the cathedral is mainly the work done from 1850 forward.

The cathedral’s triple steeples command attention, as they preside over Jackson Square. Striking to behold, they make the cathedral look like a castle. The steeple in the middle is adorned with a cross, seemingly reminiscent of Jesus speaking to the thieves on His right and left as He hung on the cross and now looking over the city of New Orleans.

The central tower, added in 1819, holds a clock and bell.

Uniform columns give the cathedral a stately look.

Interior Design: Similar to the interior architecture of most churches of this style, the nave and side aisles are divided by two rows of columns. The altar is designed in an intricate Rococo style.

In addition to the architecture and internal structuring of the church speaking to its craftsmanship, the artwork within the church is both beautiful and symbolic. Stained glass windows and murals enhance the worship experience.

Even the ceiling of the cathedral renders beautiful portrayals of Christianity. The chancel ceiling shows the "Sacrifice of the Divine Lamb." In the nave, the part of the ceiling closest to the sanctuary shows the Nativity of Christ and the part of the ceiling closest to the center shows Jesus telling His Apostles (in French), “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

What distinguishes St. Louis from other cathedrals is that there is a mural by the altar that tells the story of Louis IX, sainted King of France.

Interesting Fact: This is the oldest Catholic cathedral that has been continually used in the States.

Pop Culture: There was a memorial service for playwright Tennessee Williams here. Harry Connick, Jr., married Jill Goodacre here.


Some More Good News

I still remember the first article Chad Gibbs ever sent. It was about golf, and its writing was vaguely Blue Like Jazz-ish, which did not bode well because we get a lot of entries like that. To understate it a bit, most people cannot write like Don Miller.

I'm not sure what made me keep reading. Maybe it was that Chad, while cribbing from Don, was at least doing it well. Probably, though, it was this line:
"CBS, who broadcasts the tournament, refers to the Masters as 'A tradition like no other'. I think that is a bit of a stretch. The geriatric sex-cult scene at the end of The Da Vinci Code is what I would consider 'A tradition like no other'. The Masters is just another golf tournament."
So I wrote Chad back and told him we'd like to run his piece. And then Chad sent another piece, about Alabama and American Idol, and that was good. And then he was writing for us, one of our first frequent contributors.

Even though, publicly, I love all our contributors equally, Chad is secretly one of my favorites. Maybe it's the fact he's funny, or loves football, or, like me, married a hot red-headed medical student. Mainly, though, I think it's that Chad is a lovable and nice guy.

After that second article, I showed Chad's writing to Don. "That guy needs to write a book," he said. So Chad started writing a book.

A year and a half ago, we sent out a proposal and samples to a variety of publishers. There wasn't much interest, which I couldn't figure out. But then one acquisitions editor, Andy Meisenheimer at Zondervan, hooked on. He loved the book, and pitched it to anyone he could.

But someone up the ladder just wasn't into it. The book was repeatedly turned down. This summer, after Andy mustered one last push, Chad's book was finally put down, like a rabid Ol' Yeller. Perhaps it was this line:
"...because laughing is not a sin, unless you are laughing during pre-marital sex."
We're fairly sure it was that line.

The thing was, Andy couldn't pitch Chad, just his book. We got the sense the publishers saw Chad as some sort of provocateur seeking to undermine the righteous Christian bookstores of the land. That imagery could describe a number of Burnside contributors. But it doesn't describe Chad Gibbs, and one earful of Chad's slow, dumb, Alabaman drawl would've had them hooked.

Apparently, that's what happened, because one of those publishers finally called to talk to Chad, and today, 6 months after being rejected for the third time by the same publisher, Chad signed a book deal with Zondervan.

Congratulations, Chad. You deserve it.


meditations: the hassle of fruit

Tonight I'll sit down with a glass of red wine from Europe and when I do, I'll think of an experience I had this past December in Bavaria. I had an afternoon off from teaching and so made my way to a glorious castle (the oldest in Germany), the route taking me through some wonderful vineyards. It wasn't harvest time, but clearly there was work to be done, as a man was walking through the rows examining and clipping the vines. Elsewhere on my trip, I'd visit friends who raise cows for milk. Their barn, frankly, has an aroma to it, sometimes overpowering because life is happening there. The mom of the family is up before the sun, milking cows in the subfreezing Alpine mornings, all winter long. Let's not forget about birthing calves, shearing sheep, and of course clean the urine and feces that inevitably accumulate wherever life happens.

It's that "life happens" phrase that is worth considering. Jesus said that if we make ourselves at home with His life, enjoying the fellowship and reality of His indwelling within us, the result of that will be fruit, both in and through us, because life begats life, and that's just the way it is - almost all the time. We don't know the 'when' of divine life being birthed through or among us; we don't know the particulars of what that will look like. But we do know this: where there is life, the crib isn't clean.

Don't think too narrowly here, about biological life, though that's certainly in play. This text, though, is speaking of supernatural life, spiritual life. The Greek word for this is ZOE and it's the word Jesus used when He said that He came in order that we might have LIFE!! He came that we might, by the very presence of Christ in us, pour life and blessing into the world. That means relationships, hospitality, travel, service, crossing social and economic boundaries, confronting, celebrating, forgiving and confessing, celebrating. That means, also, that if the soul of our hearts is fortunate enough to used by God as a means of influencing, blessing others, our lives might actually grow in complexity as a result of God's blessing and calling.

As one whose ambitions often aspire no higher than spending time in the mountains with a few friends, or a few books, or a writing project, or a backpack, the notion that the manger of my heart might actually get messier BECAUSE OF God's calling and blessing is counter intuitive. I like to think that God's blessing will result in a cleaner desk, a clearer schedule, more 'me' time, and the luxury of abundant replenishing solitude.

Oops. Our new church building means 42% more people this year than last call Bethany home each Sunday. That means more staff, more ministries, longer meetings, and the need to now invest time praying and considering lots of 'what next' questions regarding our little vineyard. You might have similar issues, with growing job responsibilities, or a growing family, or you've taken on a commitment to use your spiritual gifts, and it's eating into an evening each week. Maybe (wouldn't this be nice?) your business is thriving, and you're working longer hours.

Wouldn't it be easier to just keep things simple? Of course it would be easier, just like it would be easier for my Austrian friends to sleep in each morning because they let the cows wander away to die. Ah, finally, a clean barn! Such simplicity is unsustainable, because it is the simplicity of barrenness.

I'll get back to my responsibilities now, but after pondering the realities of fruitfulness, I'll get back to them viewing them differently, with a sense of gratitude for the privilege of what I've been given.

Thank you God, for the blessing of visible fruit. Forgive me for resentment when it arises in my heart, a bitter weed in your vineyard. Teach us gratitude, and grant us wisdom, so that the complexity that comes from fruitfulness won't discourage or overwhelm us. Instead, may we use the seasons of complexity to lean into you, drawing up the resources of your life for wisdom and strength.


Focus on the Family: Ted Haggard

I didn’t set out to pray for Ted Haggard. In fact, he wouldn’t have made my top 1,000 concerns.

But a couple Sundays ago at church, we had a prayer station where we could pick newspaper clippings out of a bowl, promising that we would pray for whatever situation or person we picked. A friend ahead of me got an article about the new Miss America, and I waited with baited breath for my turn. I fished around for a minute, almost sneaking a peak so I could get something cool.


Foiled! I look around and think about a re-draw.

As a Denver resident, I already spend way too much thinking about the faith flubs of our fearless Christian leaders just an hour south in Colorado Springs. However, I hadn’t heard about the latest Haggard scandal, so I decided to research. Just my luck – Haggard was making an appearance on Oprah that week. I set my TiVo, as I wanted to get some good quotes.

The only Haggard video I had seen previously were on the documentaries “Jesus Camp,” and “Affluenza,” and both times he appeared less than genuine and a touch creepy.

I braced myself and poised my pen, but the Ted Haggard that I saw on Oprah was not the Ted Haggard of old.

He was apologetic. He admitted his past faults and current struggles - who of us could do that on national television? His wife sat next to him and told her side of the painful ordeal, which to me was more amazing - who of us would have stuck with him? In a world of Blagojevichian scandals followed by denials and elaborate cover-ups, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Contrary to others’ take on this interview (most of whom think he and his wife are both in denial of his gayness), I thought his brokenness was true and beautiful. And as Ted made an unprecedented jump to the top of my prayer list that week, I was able to pray for him like a friend going through a rough time, one who chose a public life but faced a public humiliation with more grace than I ever could.


Everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy

This is Comedian Louis CK on Late Night with Conan O'Brienwith a hilarious, yet profound commentary on society. Are we (generally speaking) this spoiled?

Sorry, I was interrupted finishing this because my iPod Touch isn't connecting to wifi...


One Thing to Like

There are days when the morning news just brings you down: another bank is failing, more layoffs, or the fact that the economic crisis in Russia is spawning support for hardliners with anti-American rhetoric. Every report seems to come off like another trainwreck.

Which is why we cling to heroes like Chesley Sullenberger, a man who somehow prevented a massive disaster with a deft hand and steely nerves. At this point, we're looking for anything to cheer for.

And that's why this report on Eric Holder on NPR's Morning Edition yesterday got me excited. One of the reasons I liked Barack Obama's campaign was due to his call for a return to community. My primary suspicion with the Democratic Party lies in their philosophy of large, powerful government solving the nation's ills. Even if he's building government, Obama is at least sticking by his word of mobilizing individuals at the lowest level.

Which is why I was so ecstatic about Holder's prosecution philosophy, the idea that grassroots, human-to-human contact is the best way to get things done. After Alberto Gonzales, who felt almost like an unrealistic cartoon character at time, it's nice to have an Attorney General with beliefs I can believe in.



Ben Cannon, that young, earnest-looking fellow intent on taxing the hell out one of Oregon's finest products represents District 46. District 46 includes the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, where I grew up (and where my parents grew up and still live). In fact as his bio reflects, he was raised in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood. So why don't I know this guy?
Ben and his family moved to Oregon when he was five, settling at the foot of Mt. Tabor in SE Portland. After attending West Linn High School...
Oh, that's why! His family settled on Mt. Tabor, but deigned the school system not quite so fancy as that of West Linn, so they decided to ship young Ben far across town. Eh, maybe that's why he's a state representative, and I'm blogging.

Now, I'm not saying a price should be placed on Ben Cannon's head. It takes cojones to try and raise taxes on a state's most valued product. It'd be like taxing oil in Texas, or meth in North Dakota. But do we really need the price of a pint to rise by $2.00? $2.00!!! Keep in mind, this is, in all honesty, one of Oregon's most lucrative exports.

Fortunately, you can politely give Representative Cannon a piece of your mind. He'll be having a little "coffee shop conversation" at Bipartisan Cafe on Thursday evening, from 7-8 pm.

Just, you know, mention there might be a middle ground...like taxing beer, I don't know, $.25 per pint more? Maybe don't destroy the unique brewery culture Oregon has built up over the years, being as it's a bad economy and all. Just a suggestion.

Addendum: As my always tax-averse dad pointed out, the fact I even mentioned a $.25 increase means Ben Cannon has already won, in that he just randomly came up with a ridiculous figure, so citizens wouldn't be upset when the number was lowered dramatically, but taxes still increased. It's an old trick.

Also, as dad pointed out, Portland's breweries won't absorb the tax...they'll just up their prices to compensate for the loss. That means, of course, that consumers will be paying more in a time when there's less money to spend, or they just won't buy beer at all, which will cause Oregon's smaller brewers to falter and send larger brewers (like Widmer and the notoriously conservative Rogue Brewing) to states with lower beer taxes (possibly right across the Columbia).

Also, despite living in the Mt. Tabor area for over 5o years, and knowing everyone, my dad is unfamiliar with Ben Cannon. He knows everyone, especially someone who claims to have lived in the area so long. Where did you really grow up, Ben Cannon?


Part of the Solution: Local Food Pantries

By Sara Sterley

Food pantries need us now more than ever. I live in Hamilton County, Indiana, one of the twenty-five wealthiest counties in the country, and our food pantries are desperate for food due to the huge increases in the number of middle-class families in need. Our largest local food pantry is providing non-perishable items to over 50 families a day, and families can only receive these food boxes once a month. According to a recent New York Times article, “food bank operators say the numbers of people seeking their services have been sharply up in the last two years, especially among the elderly.” Yesterday’s Kennebec Morning Sentinel reported that one in ten Americans received food stamps in September, more than ever before.

It is vitally important, especially during the current economic times, that we support the food pantries in our community. Often in rural or suburban areas, especially, the food pantries are the only social services available in the immediate community. I live in a suburban area and the working poor support the wealthy lifestyles of us suburbanites. The food pantries in suburban and rural areas are often overlooked. For example, I live in the north-side suburbs of Indianapolis, but most people, when they are contemplating giving food or donations to the hungry in “our” community only think about the large pantries and shelters in downtown Indianapolis. Many local families are struggling, and they depend on local shelters for help, which is why we need to take responsibility for the “least of these” in our own backyards.

Want to be a part of the solution in your community? Try some of these ideas:

  • Check with your food pantry to see what they are most in need of and make a list accordingly. Keep the list with you, and check out the sales on your grocery runs. Keep in mind the benefits of real food.

  • Contact your Representative and Senators. The stimulus bill that was recently passed in the House contains a $20 billion increase to food stamp benefits and a $300 million increase for state food stamp administrative costs. Whether or not you agree with the stimulus bill in theory, the fact is that a stimulus bill of some sort will be passed in the next several weeks. Food stamps are spent quickly and on food items, which will spur the economy and feed families that otherwise may go hungry. Let your Congressmen and women know that substantial spending on these types of programs is a necessary part of whatever stimulus bill that is passed.

  • Start your own neighborhood or office food drive. We have a friend who emailed his subdivision and told everyone that he would be around the second Saturday of every month to pick up any food that they left on their front porch. He gives his neighbors a virtually painless way to take care of those in need in their community. I placed a box in our office break room with some information about our local food pantry and its needs, and my co-workers appreciate having a convenient way to give. A second-grader at our church convinced his teacher to have a food drive among his class members. The school principal was so inspired by the second-grader’s passion for those in need that he made it an all-school event. Get creative and find your own way to drum up awareness and support for your local food pantry!

  • Start a community garden to benefit your local food pantry. If you are a gardener yourself, offer your knowledge and expertise to train families in need to start their own gardens. Teach a man to fish, as they say.
This column is intended be a place where we can come together and share our knowledge - our facts and our experiences - to empower and encourage one another into action. Let’s learn together how we can be a part of the solution in dismantling our world’s unjust systems of oppression. So, if you’ve got something we ought to know, send your facts and story, in 800 words or less, to reviews@burnsidewriterscollective.com.

Meditation: "The Problem with Self-Leadership" or "There's More than One Way to Get Drunk."

In the movie Little Miss Sunshine, Greg Kinnear played the role of Richard Hoover, a wannabe self-help guru of the Tony Robbins stripe. Richard has a book manuscript and a lecture script completed, each filled with motivating slogans designed to inspire and coach his audience members to unlock their buried potential.

Richard has two problems. He doesn’t have an audience. No one is waiting for his book and lecture series. This is probably the result of his second problem. Richard has yet to help himself. The Hoover household is dangling on a frayed financial thread. The eldest son, Dwayne, is immersed in Neitchze and refuses to talk to the family. Richard’s father lives in the home and snorts heroin in the bathroom. The audience senses the lack of continuity between Richard's slogans and his life and instinctively views him as as tragic and comedic figure.

I hate to admit this, but I identified with Richard more than any other character in the movie. I love the idea of self-leadership more than I like the idea of leading myself. I relate to Richard’s ambitions. He wants more out of life. He understands that attitude matters and that there’s a disciplined way to approach the world that gets more out of life. Richard seemed to view that wisdom more like a commodity to be sold to his customers, and less like the way the Book of Proverbs views Wisdom—a woman worth getting to know.

I have to admit that I fall into Richard’s trap often. I pastor and I write. I wrote a leadership book was recently translated into Korean. I get invitations to speak at large churches in rooms filled with leaders. Like Richard, I can treat wisdom like a product instead of a person.

I can’t tell you why Richard fell into his trap. But I know why I fall into mine. Ruthless self-evaluation is hard for me to sustain for any length of time. I have a friend who is an alcoholic. He explained to me that one of the early steps of recovery is “ruthless moral self-evaluation.” The drunk has to break the power of denial by telling himself the truth about who he or she is. The drunk needs to admit past offenses and moral shortcomings. Only then does the alcoholic get to the point that he is willing to receive grace from God and the community of fellow alcoholics.

The Apostle Paul once wrote “don’t become drunk with wine for that is dissipation.” I used to think that Paul was being redundant when he said “drunk with wine.” He could have simply said “don’t get drunk” and we would have all completely understood what he meant. I've come to understand that Paul knew that alcohol is simply just one way to lose your sobriety. I can let my insecurities, my people pleasing, and my ambitions, my desire for comfort, and my reluctance to look at my faults to alter my state of consciousness.

I “dissipate” myself to the point where I stop seeing myself as an image bear of God, broken by sin, in need of Jesus to direct my next steps. I stop seeing myself as someone who needs God’s mercy in very real ways. I can get drunk on my own press until I stop seeing the flagrant ways that I disappoint my wife and children.

My friend informs me that he will always be a drunk, but he can be a sober drunk, able to receive the grace of others and God. Pastors, or at least this pastor, are a lot like drunks.

King David had a moment in his career when he was forced into moral sobriety by the prophet Nathan. Nathan cut through David’s layers of denial and forced him to confront his sin and his incongruous life. I’ll leave you and with David’s response to God’s forgiveness and grace. It’s my hope that you and I experience the relief of having a God who sees our failures and who doesn’t reject us. It’s only after we experience this grace that we can truly lead ourselves and anyone around us.


Happy Birthday, Oregon!

The State of Oregon officially joined the union 150 years ago today.

Also, it's Valentine's Day.

I'm sorry to spend this birthday away, kiddo...but I promise to make your next baseball game. I promise.

Here are some facts about Oregon, none of which truly illuminates why the Beaver State is the greatest in the Union.

Recently, I decided if I ever got another tattoo, I would get the outline of Oregon. I'm not sure where.

(It's been quiet around here lately, huh?)


The Whole Gospel Please...Everything

Traveling and teaching is nearly always a joy for me, primarily because of the incredible privilege I have of meeting Christians from other parts of the world and hearing their story. In the fall, I met two young women from far eastern Russia, living just miles from the Chinese border. They'd traveled two week by train and bus in order to be in southern Germany to study the Bible. Moldova, Romania, and other parts far and wide expose me to the larger body of Christ, and it's through these travels that I learn first hand just how flexible the wine skins of the gospel are.

I didn't expect my trip to Boston this past weekend to hold such international counters, but I spent lunch on Saturday with an absolutely delightful couple from Rwanda. Both of them have seen immense suffering. Both of them have known want and deprivation. Both of them glowed (it's the only word I can use to describe it) with joy and overflowing love for Christ.

After asking them to explain the Rwanda situation to me, I sat and listened for nearly an hour as they explained the occupation of Rwanda by Belgium, and how this contributed to the Tutsi, Hutu tribal conflict, inflaming it so that when the occupation ended, the people turned on each other. There are many more details, but a good article that grants an accurate overview can be found here.

The reason this story shakes me to the core is because Rwanda had, until the genocide, been held up as a successful missions endeavor. Considered one of the most Christianized countries in Africa, this article offers both statistics and an assessment of how, in such a Christianized country, this tragedy could have happened: 800,000 killed (that's pretty much all of Seattle) in about 100 days. After listening to my new Rwandan friends, I was shaken to the core, and came away with my own assessment, which has application for this time and place in history:

1. We must preach the whole gospel. It is never enough to reconcile people to Jesus Christ. If that sounds like heresy, it shows how far we've veered from the heart of the gospel. The good news of Christ is invitation to be reconciled with God, yes; but it includes, just as necessarily, the glad news that Jesus is reconciling people with one another. This is why Jesus talks about the two great commandments: love God, love your neighbor, and then tells us a story to explain that our neighbor might just be someone radically different than us (African American, Hispanic, Muslim, Gay, homeless, uneducated...). This is why Paul goes to great lengths to explain that the dividing wall, present in the temple of the Old Covenant has been broken down, shattered, annihilated. We MUST.... MUST... MUST learn how to love one another. This, Jesus says, is the proving ground of our faith.

I left this lunch intent on never shrinking back from declaring the social dimension. Dear God, would you help us not only declare reconciliation, but to live it.

2. The good news must be imparted to each generation. Easily and quickly, the good news that is life in Christ can become nothing more than an empty set of activities - go to church, listen to some talking - sing a bit - go home. When this happens, everything can look placid on the surface, as it did in Rwanda as, Sunday after Sunday the roads would be lined with people dressed up and walking to church together. In only a few short weeks, those same people would be killing each other, and when some would run into church buildings for refuge, they'd find none, and lose their lives.

This is why I get so insenced when American churches argue about forms of worship: what kind of music should we sing? should the pastor wear a tie? should we sit in a circle and should the pews and chairs point forward? Of course, we need to make these kinds of decisions and they should be thoughtful and principle based, but please: don't confuse finding the right form with imparting the reality of Christ. You can be pierced, tatooed, relevant, experiential, funny, gather a crowd, have killer music, and still miss the point entirely. Most significant is the question of whether we're intent on embodying the reign of Christ by serving one another in love and living out the hard work of displaying God's relational reconciling power! This we MUST... MUST... MUST make a priority.

The story in Rwanda isn't over. Though there have been good steps of reconciliation and forgiveness taken, some fear that as refugees return, the killing will begin again. Let's not even get started with a discussion about the role of the US and UN in this, though if you're interested, here's a place to go.

But more significant, I wanted to share with you that, even as Paul wrote of Israel's failures in I Cor. 10, "these things were written as an example..." I pray that we'll learn because we're dangerously naive if we believe that our material well being can somehow by a pass that exempts us from both the hard work, and the joy and glory of moving towards reconciliation with all people.

Cheers... I welcome your thoughts.


The Future of Publishing or Kindle-ing?

Amazon has announced the forthcoming release of the Kindle 2, which may do for books what iPods did for music, which is to say, totally turn publishing on its head.

And I have absolutely no idea how this will turn out.

On one hand, I absolutely cannot envision a world where books are replaced by files. I recall feeling this way about music, which is why I'm hesitant to reject this change. The arguments have been made: books are more tactile and experiential than CDs, books are more varied in their collectibility, etc. Plus, the Kindle 2 costs $359!

On the other, there are advantages.
1) Immediate access to books and magazines. This, to me, was the great advantage of iTunes. Why suffer the snooty glares of music store employees when you could download a full album in seconds?

2) Reference. I'm assuming the Kindle has a search option, which would save time in looking up and quoting passages. If there was some way to move my entire book collection to my computer, that would be terrific.

3) Cost. Considering hardcovers go for upwards of $20, $9.99 is a hefty savings, and a number customers are used to paying for digital content.

4) Text books. Publishing as a whole doesn't quite touch the same level of screw-the-public mentality the major record labels had reached. Text book publishers are a different story. Elimination of the ridiculous company-store fees students were forced to fork over for "updated" editions would be a welcome perk. Text book publishers, I hope you're hearing your death knell.

5) Democratization. How will publishers look for talent in an age where printing costs are heavily diminished? Will the market be flooded with mediocrity? Will lessons be learned from the democratization of the music industry?
Looking over that list, it's difficult not to sense big changes ahead.

I predict a more measured transition. I don't think people will throw out their books like CDs, but it's impossible to disregard the advantages digital reading will bring. Here's hoping publishing companies are better prepared than major record labels, and here's hoping they embrace the revolution, just not too much.


Meditations: Proximity is Personal

When the bottom was dropping out for David, there's this little phrase that shows up where we discover that he 'strengthened himself in the Lord'. What does that mean? How does that happen? I suppose there are many ways, but what's most important is that we find a way to do it because God knows that the bottom drops out for all of us from time to time.

Last night seemed to be a marker, the end of some sort of very intense period for my wife and I, where the convergence zone of my mom's declining health, material things falling apart, the writing cabin freezing, and much more, all came together so that the margins of life haven't been spent skiing, or writing, or lingering over good books and food, or doing much of anything other than plowing through the mound of responsibilities that come with living. If you've read o2, you'll know what I mean when I say it's as if we've been exhaling steadily for several months, which isn't perfectly true, but true enough.

After finishing one of 'margin obligations' last night, it was clear enough that things are settled, at least for a season. Battling a tiny virus and needing some rest, I traveled north to the writing cabin for a time preparation because I'm teaching at a conference back east soon. In case the studies go well, and the virus is defeated, I threw my skis in the car - just in case.

I wake this morning and I sit by the window staring out into a world paralyzed with ice, stunning in it's silence and solitude. A single tiny bird is crawling up the trunk of a fir tree catches my eye and I watch, the only sign of life in view. What does it eat? Where does it sleep? What's it looking for? Where is it's family? Is it young and dependent, or a provider? My gaze is fixed upon this small yet vibrant life when suddenly it takes off, flying directly at my with the speed Nadal serve (for those who aren't tennis fans, that's a simile for 'fast').

BOOM! The bird hits the window and crashes into the window box, which is filled with fir branches and pine cones in the winter. He lands in such a way that he's staring up at me (and suddenly, though I still don't know the gender, the proximity has no longer allowed me to think of him as an it - proximity is personal). We look at each other through the glass. He's breathing rapidly which, in my ignorance, I presume to be a sign of injury. After all, the velocity with which he struck the glass? Well, the sheer physics of it means he should be dead doesn't it? Yet he lives, and stares, and blinks, and I look at his plumage, humble yet stunning. His gaze is fixed on me now. I look away but when I turn back, he's still staring at me, almost pleading, I think. We're connected, bird and I. No longer an object, I want him to live.

What I can I do? Maybe he needs strength. Thank the Lord, someone left a loaf of bread on my porch yesterday. I don't do many bread things these days, so wouldn't have had any with me, save for the kindness of someone at my church. But I do have bread, and so I crush some to crumbs and set it carefully near the bird. I go back inside and he takes a few crumbs in before closing his eyes. If he's breathing, it's imperceptible; the feathers are still.

Have I killed him? He's motionless. I wait a minute, two, maybe three. Nothing changes for bird, so I go outside to pick up the body. When I touch the feathers though, they flutter, and when I touch them again, he's in the air; haltingly at first, but ultimately in flight, landing high in a nearby tree. I feel the relief in my body. My friend will live another day.

Yes, but it there a point to this silly story? Oh yes there's a point. I'm reminded this morning, as I sat by the window to 'refresh myself in the Lord' that proximity is personal. Get close to someone, anyone, and you'll be changed - for better or worse, you'll be changed. What does that mean for me?

1. I'm amazed at God's capacity for proximity with all of humanity - even this bird is in proximity.
2. I need to pursue proximity to God. Sure, I understand that God is always there, like air is always there, but I'm talking about the pursuit of conscious awareness of God's presence and character, for the Bible tells us that we're made whole by gazing at the glory of God, whether in the word, or a spouse, or a neighbor, or a sunrise, or a storm, or a bird.
3. I need to pursue proximity to people, but not in some posturing way, always trying to come out on top of things. Paul spoke of seeing people how God see's them, and when I approach this posture, I find a sense of delight, beauty, compassion in my relationships, rather than vain posturing. But this requires intentionally, seeking to really see people, and I don't do this often enough.

"Showing up" is how I've said it in the past, and that makes sense to me. But this morning I've been reminded, not just of the value of showing up, but that proximity is personal. I'll leave this writing cabin tonight praying that I'll be intentional about getting close and really looking - because this looking is where the best lessons are learned.

Find a moment today and really look... refresh yourself in the Lord.


And the pastors go LOL-ing along...

If you haven't already, I urge you to bookmark lolPastors. It's run by Burnside's comedy department (Gibbsy, Aaron, Nate Sadler and Susan), and it's been on figurative fire lately. Please, make it a daily stop and please tell your friends. Here are some of the best examples lately.

I even tried my hand at one. Along with my dad, Rick McKinley is my hero and he was my youth pastor when I was in 5th grade, so I hope he doesn't mind...

Friday's Inspirational Moment

In the vein of Jason McElwain, there's the story of Patrick Thibodeau, a high school basketball player with Down Syndrome, who made his minutes count at Greely High in Maine.


Video: Stoned Little Kid After Dentist

Stoned Little Kid After Dentist Visit - Watch more Funny Videos

I'm posting this for no other reason except that when I watched it I laughed until I cried.

"So Why Is He Here? "

My good friend, Will, invited me to take a road trip with him to Oil City, PA yesterday. Will is a newly minted pastor with the Salvation Army. He invited me to come see where he worked and to help him teach a mixed martial arts class to the youth group. This was the first time Will taught the class and he thought that it would be good to have a trained assistant.

Oil City got it's name for being at the epicenter of U.S. Oil Boom. The first oil well was dug in nearby Titusville. Oil City quickly established itself around the hastily tapped wells just miles away.

Prosperity ended when the steel industry left Pittsburgh and Big Oil turned its attention overseas. Oil City is a shell of itself. Will drove me through blocks of blighted neighbors and abandoned businesses. Everyone who could leave Oil City has already left. Will and his team works with those left behind in this used husk of a town.

Evening came and it was time to run the martial arts class. I noticed one disinterested teen sitting on the wall, hacking away a text message. This youth stood out to me all night. He was heavy set, very intelligent, and very sarcastic. He seemed to come to the Salvation Army for the sole purpose of holding court and condemning everything and everyone in eye sight.

I invited him to join us. He assured me that he already knew how to fight and that Will had nothing to offer him.

I asked him if he knew that Will was a former cage fighter with a 10-0 record. Did he know that when the UFC began their expansion, Will's school was one of only six schools certified to teach UFC-style mixed martial arts?

The youth turned and sized Will up one more time. He turned to me and asked "So why he is here?"

This kid wasn't stupid. He knew that the biggest and the brightest had already fled Oil City. There was no good reason that someone with Will's pedigree would come to this poverty-stricken city and invest in teens. No reason. The only intelligent conclusion was that I was a liar.

I think Zechariah had a similar thought process going on when the archangel visited him (Luke 1). Zechariah was a priest who served among the rural poor. He was chosen by lot to go to Jerusalem to go into the temple and to pray for Israel's Salvation. He prays and Gabriel appears. The angel told him that his prayers have been answered.

The priest looked at his people and their political oppression. He remembered the poverty of his dirt-village. He remembered that God didn't give he and his wife a baby. They would die childless.

Zechariah looked at his circumstances, and then sized up the angel. And he thought, "So why is he here?"

I look back at my own life and all my cynical responses toward God. I'm like that angry kid in the gym, with arms crossed, challenging Jesus for daring to disrupt my view of the world.

Marketing to Your Ego

In the post below, I wrote about Seth Stevenson's Ad Report Card column and stated his Super Bowl recap piece "explains why I prefer Coke to Pepsi, and it's not because of taste."

Commenter DonMiller (who I'm assuming is this fine gentlemen), made the following comment about my statement:
"...why in the world would you chose one drink over another for any other reason than taste. this is fascinating to me, [not] because you do it but because we are all pawns to the association/disassociation phenomenon that advertisers play upon."
And I think it's fascinating, too, primarily because I like to pretend I'm unique and advertising doesn't affect me. But, of course, it does.

First of all, I overstated a bit. I do like Coca-Cola more based on taste. It's a little less syrupy in my mind. But I've also noticed the vessel matters...I can't stand pop in plastic bottles, Coke tastes best in cans, RC is really good out of a fountain, etc.

But to explore choosing products based on marketing, let's compare two fast food companies: Sonic and McDonald's.

In McDonald's ads, cool faux-urbanites breakdance around, nibbling on cheeseburgers and generally enjoying each other's company. They wear fedoras, a hat usually reserved for the manic, skinny guy in high school movies set in the 90's. They get married with cakes fashioned from McNuggets. They bother me. A lot.

Sonic ads, on the other hand, feature a series of improv comics acting as regular people, having a discussion at the Sonic drive-in. They're witty, sure, but they also convey the unique Sonic experience: a drive-in burger stand with a diverse menu where you can eat with your friends.

Since many of the finest creative minds in America are toiling away at ad agencies, ads can be viewed as an art medium. The canvas is a 30-second video, wherein the artist must convey a certain message, appeal to a potential customer and entertain the viewer.

When I watch the Nuggnuts spots, I want to punish McDonald's for making bad art, for appealing to a dumbed-down, fake version of young adulthood. No one is actually making wedding cakes out of McNuggets, and if they are, they should be institutionalized. So not only is McDonald's lying to me, they're also assuming I'm stupid enough to believe these sorts of people exist, and are downing Big Macs by the truckload.

When I watch a Sonic commercial, I laugh. I want to reward Sonic for appealing to community and good comedy, for stripping down their production and letting real people make the pitch.

Of course, both McDonald's and Sonic are publicly-traded corporations, only concerned with the bottom line. Both sell products exceedingly bad for you. In fact, since Sonic heavily promotes it's desserts and syupy drink combinations, it's probably less healthy overall.

Sonic's ads are intended to appeal to a specific marketing demographic, likely the same demographic lampooned by Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like.

It's frightening to discover you've become the target audience, that companies are going after your money and not 10 year-old girl or 20 year-old body builder. But at the same time, doesn't better, smarter advertising reflect a more thoughtful populace? Watching The Wire and raving about international cuisine may be painfully cliche, but aren't these pursuits more laudable than watching Rock of Love and guzzling Monster energy drinks?

Let's go back to those two ads during the Super Bowl, one for Pepsi and one for Coke:

One espouses innovation, a natural world where various species work together in harmony to obtain an end goal (in this case, delicious cola). The other draws a parallel between the greatest songwriter of the last 50 years and a guy who "wrote 'My Humps' in 5 minutes when he saw a pretty lady when he was having something to eat." If you're voting with your dollars, which ideology would you support?

Of course, I'm 100% positive we should fall outside this simple choice of paradigms, each a lie since both are sugary, carbonated drinks. But we're in this world already. Why not pick a side? Right?


According to Pepsi, will.i.am = Bob Dylan

When asked for their influences, most writers will point to great novelists like Updike or Vonnegut. Maybe they'll mention Norman Mailer and C.S. Lewis and Salman Rushdie. Maybe their tastes are more recent...Dave Eggers or Zadie Smith.

Me? I'd have to go with this guy.

Seth Stevenson's Ad Report Card column first hooked me to Slate.com about 5 years ago. I believe I've read every one. Advertising is fascinating enough, and Stevenson tackles his subjects with wit and straightforward language. He never dawdles or uses more words than necessary. His columns are easy to read and convey his point. Most of all, they are entertaining.

Stevenson was back this week for his annual rundown of Super Bowl ads, and it's an excellent read. The piece explains why I prefer Coke to Pepsi, and it's not because of taste.

Notes from the BWC Token Republican

I'm the token Republican at BWC. I suspect my presence here is welcome due to some obscure Federal blogging regulation that ensures equal time. I was a mere teen when Ronald Reagan still possesses those rock star qualities. That was before he "couldn't precisely recollect."

I cheered for McCain with enthusiasm this past election until the final few months. I thought I was backing McCain, circa 2001-- the man who was willing to stand up to the Pat Roberston's and the Dobson's of the world. Imagine my horror as I watched this desperate man's erratic behavior. He called the debate off, then on, in a wild PR stunt. He added the culture warrior, Palin, to the ticket and tried to pass her off as as reformer.

But that's all off topic.

I want to thank President Obama for the accountable manner in which he addressed the Dashle debacle. Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations possessed a weasel nature when it came to accepting fault. "Mistakes were made" was the closest thing to an admission of guilt for as long as I remember.

President Obama, on the other hand, owned the error. "I screwed up. I'm frustrated at myself and I'm frustrated at my team."

I could have reached into my newspaper and hugged the man. I do not see eye to eye with all of his policies. However, I see a man with deep integrity. I see a leader. We're only a few weeks into his administration and it would be foolish to project anything about his tenure. But darn-it, yesterday I was proud to have Obama at the helm.

The Idiot Box: Friday Night Lights

As an ardent defender of television as a valid art medium, I came across two quotes on The Onion AV Club this week eloquently backing my position.
"It does thoroughly enrage me, though, when anyone brags about the fact that they don't watch television. Congratulations. I understand not having much of an interest in television, and even not owning a television, because you can watch a lot of TV online, but being proudly dismissive of an entire medium—probably as part of a futile effort to make yourself sound smart—is just dumb." - Amelie Gillette

"I'm somebody who didn't own a television for 15 years. I didn't watch TV from the time I was 18 'til my mid-30s. And then I got a TV to watch The Sopranos. I realized, 'Oh, TV is really interesting.' TV has never been better. Someday, we're gonna look back on this period as this golden age of experimentation, where the networks started dying, and the cable channels started proliferating, and there are so many channels that to get our attention, programmers had to try everything, including quality." - Ira Glass
There are a number of reasons television is so easily dismissed, but one of the biggest shifts in how television operates has been accessibility. If a friend recommends a movie, you don't have to change your schedule around...if you don't catch it during multiple daily screenings at a theater, you can rent it when it comes out later. Either way, it's a two-hour commitment.

But with Hulu and Netflix, television is suddenly much more accessible. And here's what happened with accessibility: these days, television is to film as novels are to short stories.

Take Friday Night Lights. H.G. Bissinger's book about high school football in Odessa, Texas was first turned into a film, and three years ago was worked into a television series for NBC. Despite relatively low viewer turnout, FNL has eked out an existence over three seasons and 50 1-hour episodes.

Consider, for a moment, the depth of character development and heightened drama that could be built over those three seasons, and compare it to the film's run time of 118 minutes. In fact, consider that the television show will spend more time developing its characters than most novels.

Despite all the great things I've heard about Friday Night Lights in the last three years, the constant pleas from critics and fans to for the sake of all things holy watch this show, I only relented a few days ago. I'm someone who'll promote a show into the ground to everyone I meet, but I still find myself hesitant to follow the recommendations of others. I think a lot of us are this way.

And it'd be good if we could get over that. I've been missing out, and I'm fortunate those die-hard fans held on to this show, and that FNL has become a guinea pig for new media experimentation. This fascinating piece on NPR explored the show's innovative marketing a few weeks ago.

The show's great strength is in extraordinary writing. Each character is painted in loving layers. FNL's high school-aged characters behave like actual high schoolers. They don't speak in rapid-fire comebacks and eloquent soliloquoys delivered in self-confidence. They speak in awkward, stilted lines. Take this scene, where two characters attempt to pick up two separate girls.

Mix CDs and stuttering...yep, that's pretty much how I remember it.

But realistic dialogue isn't usually a good thing in television, which is why people like Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's television producers and presidential staffers speak in machine gun witticisms, giving the impression of forward momentum even when the characters are saying nothing at all. FNL maintains a similar dramatic pace through glances and pauses, and pulls its viewers in.

Television is usually decried as a passive, thoughtless experience, but shows like Friday Night Lights and The Wire seem to spur conversation, especially when watched in groups. And when you consider FNL is a relatively clean network show, how is watching an hour per week with family so less noble than everyone reading a book separately?


I wanted to mention how excited I am about NBC's upcoming Kings. Ian McShane + Futuristic Monarchy + based on the story of King David. I'd say that sounds sweet.


Technic-al Difficulties

Jacques Ellul's seminal Presence of the Kingdom has two primary points. The first focuses on politics, and argues Christians should not participate in government whenever possible (I've oversimplified here).

The second topic is the concept of "technics", the idea technology has reached a point where it moves forward regardless of negative implications. It was this part of the book I was most confused by, and I've only lately begun to wrap my mind around what Ellul means. I'll chalk it up to my dependence on technology.

I couldn't stop thinking of Ellul while listening to this interview on NPR's Fresh Air. Terry Gross talks with technological warfare expert P.W. Singer about the implications of robots in warfare, and the conversation is fascinating.

When we moved to Phoenix, Mindy and I drove up to a northern suburb to buy bookshelves from a private seller. We quickly found out the seller was a pilot in the Air Force who flew drones. He would go to work, drop precision-guided bombs remotely on Iraqi targets from a cubicle in Arizona, then make the commute home for dinner with his family.

You'd think that would make warfare easier on American soldiers. A Predator drone offers the opportunity for Americans to fight wars without American lives being at stake, and that's definitely a good thing, right? Singer's book, Wired for War, explains why that's not necessarily the case. And what about enemy combatants? Or America's reputation?

One of the underlying tenets of Amish denial of technology is not "technology is evil", but "how will this technology affect our communal life"? It's a thought process most of us don't go through. We look for the bright side. But what if we truly weighed the consequences of the internet or robotic warfare? Would the positives always outweigh the negatives?

I'm not suggesting some sort of Terminator-esque, human-versus-the-robots doomsday scenario is inevitable, or that Google is the Anti-Christ, but I do believe careful consideration of what technology Christians align themselves with may be more important than which political parties we back (or not).

And while everyone's thinking about that, I'll be disseminating my thoughts about television on websites, typing words into my Apple desktop and microwaving Hot Pockets.

Death and Taxes

Do any Democrats pay taxes anymore? Sweet Moses, what a joke.

I hate to mimic conservative talk radio here, but it doesn't seem like anyone is answering: why should we appoint a man who failed to pay his taxes to the head of the IRS?

I mean, I guess President Obama is standing by his guys, and maybe they'll do a great job. But for pete's sake.


An Open Letter to the Rich Woman at Biltmore Fashion Park Who Sneered at Me While I Was Walking My Pit Bull, Athena

First, let me apologize. Initially, as I passed you and your fancy friends, I tried to smile disarmingly. That didn't seem to work, as you just kept scowling at me. Looking back, pointing at Athena and snottily saying "Do you have a problem with this?" was wrong. I should have stopped to talk and explain my situation. I should have been friendly. Instead, I probably confirmed your disdain. I hope to do better in the future. Or at least be more witty.

I'm not sure what exactly caused your disdain, but I assume it had something to do with me walking a pit bull which was carrying water bottles in a doggie backpack. I was wearing a plain green t-shirt and reasonably nice jeans, so I can't imagine my clothing offended you. My hair was uncombed, but this is the fashion nowadays.

So, I've narrowed it down to my dog, and I assume you were offended by one of these things:
1. Athena is a pit bull.
a. You don't like pit bulls.
b. You don't think Athena is pretty.
2. Athena was wearing a backpack.
a. You don't think dogs should wear backpacks.
b. You believe I'm training Athena for a dog fight.
I assure you, immediately, 2b is not true. Dog fighting is deporable. Also, as the photos above and below attest, Athena is exceedingly pretty. She gets comments all the time (from nice people).

But allow me to address your other concerns.

As a pit bull owner, I am painfully aware of the negative connotations inherent. I, myself, had those concerns before Athena became my wife's (then girlfriend) pet five years ago.

Unlike pit bull supporters blind to the negative aspects of the breed, I understand the news reports of pit bull attacks are not solely the fault of media fear-mongering (though there were only 23 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States last year). The fact remains, pit bulls have attacked, maimed and killed people.

It's not all bad: pit bulls are recognized as loyal, intelligent, and excellent with children. Pit bull attacks are, in nearly every circumstance, the fault of the owner. Pit bulls are strong and powerful. They are also working dogs, bred for tireless activity. Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, estimates working-class breeds should be walked four hours per day to properly drain their energy. As such, owning a pit bull is a massive responsibility.

I am not the best dog owner, that's for sure. According to Cesar, exercising your dog is 50% of dog ownership (25% discipline and 25% affection). There are days I'm unforgivably lazy, and don't walk Athena at all. There's absolutely no way I'm going to walk her for four hours. If I'd been aware of how high-energy pits are, I would've picked a less active dog. Instead, it's up to me to step up.

Which is why I bought Athena a doggie backpack. Cesar recommends this for folks without four hours to kill walking. A backpack weighing 25% of your dog's body weight can cut a four hour walk down to one. Besides that, dogs are made to serve a purpose. Like humans, they derive satisfaction from accomplishing tasks. That's why herding dogs herd, and retrievers fetch. For a working dog like Athena, tasks are essential. This is why you might see pit bulls dragging weighted tires around. It might look scary, but those dogs are more fulfilled, more calm, and far less likely to behave erratically. By carrying the backpack, Athena feels she is working, and she walks beside me calmly.

So, what I'm saying, Rich Woman at Biltmore Fashion Park, is walking Athena with a backpack was the best thing I could possibly be doing as a dog owner at that time. I should not be subjected to haughty stares or ignorant whispering among you and your swanky fellow divorcees. There are plenty of debatable aspects to dog ownership...walking my dog with a backpack is not one of them.

Jordan Green and Athena