30.7.09

Other Gods Before Me....




I am not always myself.

There are times when I am almost good. When I put others' needs first. When I seek God's will, and actually look for opportunities to share His love. I can be caring, giving, loving, and many other New Testament adjectives.

But I'm not always like this, because there are times when I am crazy. Times when I won't let people over in traffic because of their bumper stickers. Times when I make wild judgments about people based on their t-shirts. Times when I say and think things that would appall me were I myself. Times when the needs of others drift to the deepest recesses of my dark mind. This time is called college football season.

This fall I begin work on my second book. It is a look at faith and fanaticism in the Southeastern Conference. I will spend a football weekend with rabid, Christian fans from each of the twelve SEC schools, trying to learn how they balance passion for their team with devotion to their God.

So I'm looking for people. People like me who know the joy of serving others in Christ, but also know the joy of unleashing Old Testament wrath on their rivals. I hope to either learn from them, or learn that I am not alone.

Check out the blog if you will, and if you know of a fan who might be a good fit for my project, please email me at othergodsbeforeme@gmail.com

Thank you, Chad

Beers at the White House: What Their Choices Say About the Men Involved

In case you hadn't heard, these three guys are going to sip some brews at the White House today and talk about race relations. If racism hasn't been eradicated by the end of this little tete-a-tete (trete-a-trete?), it's hard to believe it ever will.

But what does each man's beverage of choice say about their taste? As the country's foremost Christian beer snob writer*, I thought I'd weigh in.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. - Red Stripe (Jamaican-style Lager), 4.7% ABV

If given the choice of all three, this is the route I'd take. Caribbean and Mexican beers possess a certain level of charm and warm-weather ethos. Lager is a common-sense choice for tropical climes. Does a thick stout sound good if you're laying out on a sandy beach overlooking the breezy azure-blue sea? Plus, Red Stripe comes in those adorable little stubby bottles. With the lowest alcohol content on the list, perhaps Professor Gates is hoping to keep his wits about him, while the President and Officer Crowley get thoroughly plastered.

It's also difficult to ignore the racial implications in this selection. Red Stripe is a beer brewed in a country with a 90.9% Afro-Caribbean population.

Grade: B-

(Update: For some reason, Professor Gates had a Sam Adams Light during the conference. I'm dropping him down to a C+.)

Officer James Crowley - Blue Moon (Belgian-style Wheat Beer), 5.4% ABV

Belgians are brewing masters, with a long heritage of crafting some of the finest and most unique beer in the world. Most Belgian beer relies on wild yeast strains to create complex layers of flavor. And there's nothing wrong with wheat beers, particularly those crafted in Germany (Paulaner, Schneider, etc.) and by Portland's Widmer Brothers. By choosing the only microbrew on the list, it seems as if Crowley is taking an impressive stance.

Unfortunately, Belgian wheat beers are uniformly disgusting, a horrifying mix of bizarre spice (coriander?) and banana bland. If you're putting an orange in your beer, you've gone wrong somewhere. Monkey vomit probably has more bite, because at least there's a tinge of stomach acid.

Worse, Blue Moon isn't even Belgian, and is owned by Coors Brewing. Drinking Blue Moon is roughly the equivalent of supping on an under-cooked TV dinner version of haggis. Is that what you'd choose to eat in the White House?

Why not represent your Mass-hole roots and at least crack a Sam Adams? Fortunately for Officer Crowley, it's not as if the President is in any position to judge.

Grade: D+ (you can't fault the guy for trying...at least Blue Moon is loosely considered a microbrew)

President Barack Obama - Bud Light (American-style Lager), 5% ABV

Look, the less said about this, the better. Even by American-style lager standards, Bud Light is awful. President Obama hails from Chicago, home to the 5th best beer region in the US (and some excellent breweries in Goose Island Brewing and Three Floyds).

It's difficult to see this as anything more than a political move, as swinging Missouri's 11 electoral votes to blue can only help in the 2012 election. Additionally, this pick clearly panders to the crucial frat-guy/d-bag demographic without having to actually resort to drinking Keystone Light.

To give you some perspective on how Bud Light tastes, consider this: my favorite beer of last year (Avery Brewing's Maharaja) has an IBU rating of 112. Bud Light's IBU? 6.4. I'm fairly certain the D.C. water supply has more flavor.

Grade: F+

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*Unconfirmed, but I'll go ahead and claim the mantle.

Inoculating Kids to the Great Commission



I help teach a Mix Martial Arts class at my church. It's a free activity that we sponsor on Monday evenings. We've been running the course for a little over a year and have found that we've collected a wide variety of men. Some are Christ-followers. More are not. We've got middle aged men, teens, and a bunch of medical students. I love the class because of its potential to collect an eclectic group of men and to have faith conversations with them.

I went home disturbed, though, after Monday night's class. One of the younger fighters, Dan, informed me that he intended on fighting at a cage match in a few months. Pennsylvania just legalized MMA fighting and several fight cards have been quickly developed and promoted.

Dan's declaration to fight bothered me. Dan just graduated from high school and doesn't have a real plan for "what next." Dan skipped his graduation ceremony to come to the church and train. He wants to become a chef but isn't taking steps to get into a culinary school. We have good school in town and a great one in Pittsburgh. I suspect that his dad isn't in the picture and that his mom is just too exhausted to help fill out his financial aid. So when Dan told me about his desire to fight, I tried acknowledge him, but then asked about school. I offered help him fill out those financial aid forms.

Dan thanked me, but then changed the topic back to the cage fight.

I have all kinds of mental reason as to why this is a bad idea. We offer a free class twice a week. We're not a training camp, or even a "real" school. Dan needs to be training four hours a day to have a chance in the cage.

MMA is, well, dangerous. Even at our low level of training, I've managed to fracture my jaw and a bone in my right hand this summer (both hairline fractures, gratefully). When I fought Tae Kwon Do I had my nose broken during training. Once I was T.K.O.'ed in a tournament by an amateur boxer. I have no intention of ever stepping foot in a cage to fight. There's a fatherly instinct in me that doesn't want to see Dan get seriously hurt as he figures out what he wants to do with his life.

This weekend I'm going to be writing an article for Children's Ministry Magazine on how we inoculate children from obeying the Great Commission. I think we do ministry to children a lot like I'm training Dan. I'm willing to teach him all the pieces of the game, the striking, the redneck ju jistsu, and the clinch-- but I don't really want him to use those tools in a real life situation. I suspect that we parents and pastors approach ministry to kids like that. We'll talk about loving people who think differently than we, about sharing our faith with those people in a conversational, manner. But deep down we are worried about them ever trying it.

Someone might get hurt.

29.7.09

Open Letter to an Agent, Part II


Dear Agent -

It's been over a month since I pitched you my last idea, and I haven't heard back from you. I'm sure you're very busy. This is conference season. And I know the economy's still not great, so I've been working on some easy-sale concepts for you.

Here's the idea - two zombies take a break from gnawing through upstate New York and decide to take a road trip across the US. They drive a Buick. One zombie is a man, the other is a woman, although it's a little tricky to tell them apart. I use their dialogue/grunt styles to keep them distinct.

They stop in a lifeless small town. After getting to know the residents at the local diner, they discover dancing is prohibited by a town ordinance.

The two Zombies find a barn and put on a show. The townsfolk reconsider their ordinance and rejoice. Everyone dances together.

Then the Zombies eat them.

My working title is Footloose Zombies.

I think this could work well for the Christian market, especially taking in the symbology of the zombies as the dead in Christ. Consider also how well Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultra-Violent Zombie Mayhem! is selling for the secular market.

If this became a movie, the final Zombie destruction scene would have Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman's Con Te Partiró playing in the background.

What do you think?

-hillary

P.S. If it would help with publishing committees, I'm willing to make the female zombie Amish.

28.7.09

Coming Out of the Judgmental Closet

They invited me to dinner. Dan and Laura were friends of the family and dinner was an excuse to talk. They needed to be heard. Other than my mother, I was the only other person they had told. With a quivering lip he said, “I can’t walk my daughter down the aisle.” The ice in our glasses began to melt and our soups began congealing. This was serious. Their 28-year-old daughter was a lesbian and she wanted to get married and have a baby.

Amongst friends, family and church members Dan and Laura felt alone. They are amongst the finest people in the world. Dan is an elder in the church and he serves and as a public defender in the world. Laura is an OBGYN nurse in the world and a servant in the church. My heart mourned for them. They couldn’t tell anyone. And most of all they feared the churches response. They thought that the church for whatever reason would remove Dan from his eldership and on top of that they felt that their family would reject, judge and shun them and their daughter. I tried to reassure them that this was not the case. But it was a hard sale. Let’s face it there is a lot of junk swirling around our churches regarding homosexuality.

With that said, I think churches have a very good understanding of morality. With hawk-eyed perception we distinguish right from wrong, which is, in its own right a very good thing. But here I want to incorporate compassion with our morality, which in the end might change everything but that’s what compassion does . . . it changes things. If you’ve been around the church at all then you know that non-judgmental compassion is delicate work. Few do it well. To see something wrong with someone and still have compassion for them is an art. Jesus and a few saints throughout history are about the only ones to do this with success. I am suggesting that in general that we have floundered in our response to sin. And in particular, especially in regards to homosexuality, we have struck the fuck out. It was now no more evident to me than in the lives of Dan and Laura. We broke bread that night but we didn’t eat much of it.

I took Dan and Laura’s situation and presented it to an adult Sunday school class at my mostly conservative church in Carthage, Missouri. I was a little nervous on exactly how it would be received. So I planed on using it as a one point illustration in the middle of a bigger lesson. And to my surprise it manifested into a four week discussion. The group would not be shut up. In Church, no one had ever talked about this before. Most of them were affected by homosexuality in one way or another and they needed to air it out. The cat was out of the bag and it was a fighting tom. Their ideas were being flung around the room much like a Jackson Pollock painting. I stepped back and listened.

It was suggested by various members of the group that the Bible ‘clearly’ states that homosexuality is wrong. Being a student of the Bible I wanted to know just how ‘clearly’ homosexuality was spoken of in the Bible. I came away with an almost skinless skeleton. The truth is; you can read for a long way in both directions and not run into it. And when you do, you run into a bunch of contextual issues that makes it difficult and painstaking to apply to today. I suspected that their “clearlies” were driven from our cultural nausea rather than Biblical thoroughness. Because it just wasn’t there. It’s only mentioned five times in all of Scripture. Although despite the lack of discussion of homosexuality in particular I still contend that the book affirms heterosexuality. And I am clearly not arguing any differently. I am pleading that we re-evaluate the way we think and talk about this topic. Let’s get rid of the overstatements because we all know that it is more complicated than that. Let’s face it this world is broken and complicated and we are the privileged ones who get to put up with it. Aren’t we lucky?

The way we talk about people affects us. Why do we have so much religious fervor against homosexuality and so little in regards to social injustice and poverty? Poverty alone is mentioned more than two-thousand times in the Bible. And yet for the most part we are un-jarring in our resistance to homosexuality. It should be just as nauseating to us when we see someone starving and shivering down on Burnside as it is when we see two men holding hands in the mall, or cuddling on a couch.

It is easier, safer and cleaner to stand aside and call a spade a spade, than it is to enter into that spade and transforms it into, let’s say, a heart? But naturally I think we are prone to standing comfortably on the sidelines in jest and call out names and chalk up offenses. That is our nature. Jesus says this much when he tells the crowds to pull the plank out of their own eye before pinpointing the sawdust in their brother’s. But this is hard to change because we are so used to doing this. I am. The Hebrew Prophets had job security because Israel was so fond of doing this. This is our polemic, the human polemic. It is pride that keeps us jesters jesting. But I think if we embrace proper humility and listen to the prophets and see the plank jutting out of our own eye than a whole host problems would be solved. This humility would give the Church and God a better name in the world . . . which is not such a bad thing after all.

I want to leave a residue of grace here. No doubt about it homosexuality is as old as we are. And in the book of Romans chapter one Paul explicitly mentions homosexuality amongst a grotesque list of sin – read the list – we are all guilty. But remember that Paul doesn’t only tell the Romans that they are screwed-up, no, he goes on further and offers an apostolic remedy to the human problem of sin. After accurate spade-calling Paul reminds them of what changes people’s hearts. Paul bolsters that the only thing worthy of repentance is the kindness of God (2:4). And as imitators of God, I think Paul wants Christians everywhere to respond to sin with tenderness, patience and compassion. And we must know by now that this compassion can only be precipitated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. I mean because sometimes we a weary and feeble people who couldn’t muster compassion if we wanted too.

It is a bit ironic but it is the kindness of God that pierces and cuts us and makes us bleed into mystical transformations. I pray for the day that the Church and all her saints bestow this kindness upon a broken and confused world. Especially in the midst of the turmoil brooding in hearts of people like Dan and Laura. They need to know that the Christian response is far different than the world’s response. It is real and it is redemptive.

It appears as a no-brainer to me that the homosexual community will always be convinced of where the church (in general) stands on this issue. And I think it would be absurd for Dan and Laura to think that their daughter would some day wake up and think, “Mom and dad and the Church now accept my lifestyle.” That’s absurd. The point has been made and the point is clear. The church has belabored her stance on this. We have taken our cues from the world. The world tolerates this problem better than we do but toleration is not our goal. And the world often ignores it, tries to legalize it or laugh at it from behind its back. This is not what I am advocating. I am advocating a response that radiates with dignity and respect. I don’t want to ignore it and push it under the rug. I don’t want to secretly make fun of it and be scared of it when encountered. I want to confront it with truthfulness and goodness as God himself has intended sin to be confronted throughout all of human history. I want to confront it as modeled by the words and mantra of the homeless Messiah from Galilee . . . the true God dressed in our skin.

Now I usher you to the virtuous high ground of 1-Cornithians chapter 13 and the accolades of love that are nestled into this formidable syntax. Relationships and weddings are built upon these words of love. All societies have applauded couples when they are faithful, loyal, kind, patient, sacrificing, and brave, playful and serious. That is a fact. So we can’t help but kneel before love and call it good. Seeing these things gives us proof that a “healthy” relationship still exists in a world devastated with break-ups and divorces, confusion and chaos.

From that let me spring board and say that I can’t help but think that a “healthy” homosexual relationship is closer to 1-Corinthians 13 than a promiscuous, manipulative or abusive heterosexual relationship. Are we not starring love in the face? When Dan and Laura’s daughter starts planning her wedding, I suspect that she is going to pay as much attention to the minute details of flowers and candles and vows as much as any girl that I know. I can’t help but see joy and excitement and hope in her eyes as she picks out her wedding dress. I hope she has something to celebrate. She has found love. And love is the most formidable concept that mankind has ever come in contact with. Can a union that displays these divine virtues be wrong? Why did some of us stop applauding?

In that same vein I hate it when people compare homosexuality to other sexual sins such as; adultery, rape, bestiality, masturbation etc… I argue that homosexuality is far different from all of these. It is unique. It stands out. I mean adultery tears and tugs at an existing relationship. Rape dominates over someone else. And masturbation is far too self indulgent to be called love. Bestiality is well, bestiality. But homosexuality is far different. There is no tearing away, no domination, no self worship. We are talking about love and commitment that is there through richer or poorer. I think making this distinction is crucial to how we start talking about this. It will prevent us from demonizing this and will give us a new look at two people who are embarking on this scary and wonderful journey called love.

To go with what I am saying let me quote C.S. Lewis when he says that Plato was right after all when he said that “Eros (love), turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity” (Surprised by Joy). I am convinced that this divine spark of love will go on blazing in the corners of our world even if we fail to understand it. It will flicker with as much intensity as it did when the world was spoken into existence. Aren’t the fairytales right in suggesting that love is stronger and brighter than all the sin and evil in the world? And Peter reminds us that love covers a multitude of sins. So, can we dialogue and interact on issues?

We are better than to be hesitant with people who have the same concerns and fears as us. In the end I don’t see myself calling homosexuality acceptable, but because of these thoughts and many others I will resist the temptation to judge and shun Dan and Laura’s daughter. I will openly have conversations with people on both sides of the issue and I will urge couples like this to seek reconciliation with their daughters, sons, family members and Churches. Always remembering that God’s kindness is the only thing that can changes people's hearts and brings them together. I don’t want to be naïve about the situation, I told them that their daughter was probably going to be a lesbian for the rest of her life (they didn’t want to hear that) but I also told them that they better love her and be there for her regardless.

I pray that we will be like Christ when he encounters the misfits of this world, realizing first that we are misfits ourselves. When a prostitute washes Jesus’ feet in Luke chapter seven he chastises the host of the party; the teacher of the law. He tenderly deals with the promiscuous Samaritan woman at the well in John four. He tells the story in Luke fifteen of the father, who with a quivering lip tackles his son on a Palestinian hill. Our response has to be in step with this kind of kindness. I encouraged them to attend and even attempt to help plan the wedding. I want to see her face when she turns around wearing her dress or tux and sees her slightly reluctant but loving father with an arm extended down the aisle. The Kingdom of God is swiftly advancing and it is because of acts like these that it will continue.

Closet Cases

The other day, Dear Prudence's advice column on Slate.com featured a letter from a woman who, after 30 years of marriage, discovered her husband was gay. Here's how she found out the first time:
"My husband received a text message from a man saying that he was going to use him as a cover so he could visit another man in a neighboring town. This made me suspicious, so I looked in his wallet and found a visitor's pass to a gay men's health club. Then I found a gay porn DVD and Viagra in his gym bag. On his computer were gay Web sites. My husband had an excuse for everything. He said a man he works out with had given him the DVDs and the pass, and he didn't even know what they were. The Viagra was so he could be 'ready' for me. He didn't know how the gay Web site cookies got on his computer."
She wanted to believe her marriage was not a shame, so she believed her husband. Then this happened:
"Last weekend, I came home unexpectedly and found him masturbating to gay porn. He said he wanted to see some porn, and this was the only thing he had because he didn't know where to get anything else."
Now, I don't blame the husband for being defensive, for coming up with the first excuse imaginable. But there really is no way out of that situation. If you're masturbating to gay porn, that's empirical evidence you want to have sex with men. Case closed, man.

While the excuses are undoubtedly hilarious, this woman's story is not. Can you imagine realizing the last 30 years of your life were a lie? As Prudence points out, the marriage was not necessarily a sham...the husband may have struggled with homosexual impulses in early years, and probably still loves his wife (though engaging in illicit sex, homosexual or otherwise, behind your wife's back certainly isn't loving behavior).

This made me wonder about the church. Growing up, it seemed the estimates for homosexuality ranged around 10% of the American population (or at least that's what conservatives would argue against). A Gallup poll in 2002 asked Americans their opinion about the percentage of homosexuals in the US, and the number was much higher.

Without getting into the idiocy of polling speculation on others, I'm guessing the second number is high.

Whatever the numbers, there are obviously plenty of churchgoers who cannot be honest about who they are attracted to, and it's difficult to blame them. They face losing their families and church support. Then there's the issue of sexuality as a whole: we all have to control our sexual impulses to some extent.

A solution is easier said than done, but it's clear Christians need to become more comfortable with the issue of homosexuality. This doesn't necessarily mean permitting it and dismissing Bible verses on the subject. But it does mean rethinking how homosexuality is discussed and establishing communication and support.

27.7.09

A Million Miles In A Thousand Years

A few weeks ago, Don Miller sent me one of his last drafts for A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. He asked if I would read it through and provide some quick chapter notes, so I did. By this point, Thomas Nelson has already sent out galleys for the book, but Don told me not to read that version.

Apparently, there are some major differences between the galley copy and the final copy, which went to print last week. The galley copy was reviewed by The Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, who praised the book, but also referred to it as an "amiable mess". Another early review is more brutal, but closes by admitting the power of Million Miles' premise.

I thought I'd provide my thoughts on the book since I read a later copy (but not even the last version, which Don claims is even tighter).

But also, I have a unique perspective on the book. I was Don's roommate for most of the book's gestation, and discussed the concept of the books thesis with Don many, many times. Many of the stories in the book I've heard, and many of the people I've met. I'm even a recurring character. If this sounds like bragging, I apologize...but I am very proud to have been a part of the process.

So take that all under consideration when reading what I have to say about Million Miles. There's no possible way I can be objective, because this book feels like my niece.

All that said:

A Million Miles In A Thousand Years is the best book Don Miller has ever written.

The book ties most closely to Blue Like Jazz, and works almost as a sequel, written years later by a writer who is wiser, more mature, and has honed his craft. Writing-wise, Million Miles is quick-paced, and every moment matters. With great books, you never even realize you're reading, you just float along on the words. That's why people say they read Blue Like Jazz in one sitting, and that's what Million Miles achieves again.

Like those two reviews above mention, however, it's the thesis that will make Million Miles huge.

One of the reasons I think Blue Like Jazz became a bestseller and shifted Christianity had to do with how it tapped into the inarticulated thoughts of so many discontent Christians. What I heard over and over about that book, what I felt myself, was that it voiced what was so obvious.

That's what I'm hearing about Million Miles, not just from those reviews, but from others I've talked to who've read it. It's essential premise...that we should view our lives as a story...is so mind-blowingly simple. But as far as I can tell, no one has ever said it so clearly.

At one point, toward the end of the book, I was weeping like a baby.

I think Million Miles will be really, really big. Bigger-than-Blue Like Jazz big.

Really, though, I have no idea. I know that if The Secret is big, then A Million Miles in A Thousand Years should be big.

I'm sure that sounds like strange company, but Million Miles is, to my mind, a true self-help book. It doesn't promise security or money or sex or success or even happiness. The Bible doesn't promise those things, either. It just promises that, in the grand scheme, your life will be better.

Even if it doesn't change your life, at least you'll read a great book. It's a book Don should be proud to have written.

Meditations: Learning to Improv



Last week I was on the phone with another pastor friend. My friend is in an interesting position. He's about to be handed the job of lead pastor at his congregation, but he's not sure he believes in church, at least not the way he's seen it done before. The Barna Institute has compile a depressing collection of stats that suggests there's not much difference between how Christians behave compared to their unchurched counterparts-- from divorce rates, to ethics, to theology. Churched peopled and unchurched people don't seem to live and think that much differently than each other.

These are frustrating stats for the pastors who attempt to design programs, curriculum, and spiritual pathways for their congregation. Congregants "do their time" in these courses and small groups and seemingly come out unchanged.

My friend posed the question-- so why offer all of this programming if they are proven to be ineffective to help people live the Christian live? And do people really need all this religious machinery to "get it?"
...

Later that night I sat down at the piano and played some Thelonious Monk. I bought a book transcribed scores that allow me to read the notes. Someone had taken the time to listen to his recordings and recreated them note-by-note. I can read those notes and recreate, more or less, his music.

What I can't do is improvise his songs. Jazz improvisation requires a set of skills that I don't possess. There are invisible rules in jazz that helps a musician pick which notes to play next. I'd need a knowledge of "modes", which are similar to the classical music scales I learned as a child, but are radically different. This lack of understanding of the jazz theory keeps me reading the music printed in front of me. I don't have the freedom to create.
...

I wonder if the average Christian feels dependent on church programs because they've never learned the "modes" and "theory" of the faith. Instead of feeling the liberty to create their own path for the Christian live, members are dependent on the "sheet music" that we provide.

N.T. Wright wrote a short, insightful book "The Last Word" in which he argues that scripture is authoritative because it describes The Story and demands that we find out place in it. According to Wright, we scripture has missing scenes between the book of Acts and Revelation. It's our job to improvise a bridge in between those two Acts.

We do this by becoming intimate with the narrative of scripture. We start to intuitively pick up "the modes" by becoming familiar with the plot, the characters, and the God who drives the story. Over time, we begin to feel the beat inside of us. We're able to guess what notes God might play next, and we're more able to harmonize. (And if we hit a wrong note, we can say "Hey, it's jazz...)

Perhaps we'd all find more freedom for ourselves and the people we lead, by immersing ourselves again in the sweeping story of Salvation until we hear God's voice inviting us take our turn playing a solo.

23.7.09

Friend or Frienemy?



If you didn’t know any better you’d think I have a ton of friends. Exactly 633 of them according to this morning’s Facebook tally, though I’m sure to have a few more by the time you read this.
That’s a heck of a lot more than the 38 friends my husband has accumulated and even several hundred more than the 171 our youngest daughter has amassed, although she is widely-regarded as the social butterfly of the family.
But compared to many others in the media business I barely have enough friends for a game of Red Rover. Author/speaker Beth Moore has 11,737 friends. Journalist/author Thomas Friedman has 3,654 fans on one of his pages. There are a total of six Facebook pages dedicated to Friedman, one of them is called “The Disciples of Thomas Friedman.”
Jesus’ closest friends were known as disciples, too, but I’m not sure that the Disciples of Thomas Friedman are the same kind of friends that Jesus had. But then not all of Jesus’ friends were really friends either. Judas turned out to be a more of a frienemy than a friend.
A pastor from South Carolina explained frienemy to me this way: “That’s the person who calls you up and asks how you are doing so they can go back and tell everyone how much your life sucks.” I’d wager that South Carolina Governor Sanford and his wife have spent a lot of time lately sorting out their frienemies from their friends.
My Facebook friends do not bring me pound cake when I have a hard day. They don’t call me up and offer to take me out for coffee to see if I want to talk about it. Only a handful of them even have my phone number. They do send me cyber hearts and rake my little green patch from time to time but that’s about the extent of their efforts, and to be honest, that’s a lot more than they get from me. I’ve never even offered to rake anybody else’s little green patch.
Facebook reached a milestone this week when it signed up its 250 millionth user, yet, according to a new book, The Accidental Billionaires, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg turned out to be a real frienemy. Author Ben Mezrich says that Zuckerberg shed himself of his best buddies all in an effort to become the youngest billionaire ever. Mezrich maintains that Facebook was originally intended as a frienemy site: “Mark Zuckerberg, after a particularly bad date, was home in his dorm room. He was a sophomore, he was drinking some beers, and he hacked into all of the computer systems at Harvard, and he pulled pictures of all the girls on campus and he created a hot-or-not Web site where you could vote on who the hottest girl at Harvard was.”
My girlfriend Connie didn’t have any Facebook friends, but when she passed away last month after a 10-year battle with breast cancer over 600 people showed up at her funeral. I’m still in awe of that.
By Zuckerberg’s standards, Connie wasn’t anyone special. Although well-educated she never pursued a career. Instead, she focused her energies on being the best mom she could be to her four children. She worked part-time at the private Christian school her children attended so that she could be more involved in their daily lives.
Connie didn’t join a slew of civic organizations. She didn’t campaign for or against anything or anyone. She didn’t write newsletters or carry petitions door-to-door. That’s not to say she didn’t have strong opinions about things – she did. But she didn’t go around sharing those opinions with just anybody. You had to be her friend first.
Lately, I’ve been reading The Friends We Keep by Sarah Zacharias Davis (no relation to me but the daughter of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias) and thinking a lot about the kind of friend I lost when Connie died.
Connie was the person who’d show up with a tray full of annuals and a shovel in an effort to cheer a grieving widow. She didn’t just imagine raking someone’s green patch, she got on her hands and knees and did it.
When Connie’s oncologist mentioned that her own mother wasn’t well, Connie bought the doctor roses and wrote her a sweet note of encouragement. From her own death bed, Connie passed out gifts that she had been collecting for her friends. She gave me carved redbirds and a note thanking me for a lifetime of girlhood adventures. Some of those adventures included long walks where we would count the redbirds and life’s many blessings.
I’ll never be a billionaire and I doubt I’ll ever have a Facebook page dedicated to the Disciples of Karen Spears Zacharias (it creeps me out to even think about that.) I don’t have a clue how many of my 633 friends would actually show up at my funeral, if any. But I have been blessed beyond measure to have known the love of one redheaded friend

22.7.09

Church Hopping: The Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis

Location: On Hennepin Avenue between 16th & 17th Streets in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota

Website: http://www.mary.org/

Blog: https://mybasilica.mary.org/NetCommunity/SSLPage.aspx?pid=401&dgs1225=0

Architect: Emmanuel Louis Masqueray was born in Dieppe, France, in 1861. After studying architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he moved to New York in 1887 to work for Carrere and Hastings. By 1893, he had started the US’ first completely independent artist’s workroom, the Atelier Masqueray. In 1905, he moved to Minnesota, after having been asked by Archbishop John Ireland to design the Cathedral of Saint Paul, and remained there, designing Catholic and Protestant churches, until his death in 1917. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery, the oldest of The Catholic Cemeteries, in St. Paul (753 Front Ave.).


[view of the Basilica as seen from the Walker Art Center]


History: Built between 1907 and 1915, it was the very first basilica established in the US. The first Mass was celebrated on May 31, 1914, when interior work was still being completed. In 1975 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

For a detailed history of “Father Hennepin's courageous voyage up the Mississippi River in 1680 to Father Michael O'Connell's bold struggle in the 1990s to save the deteriorating Basilica of Saint Mary,” visit the Basilica’s history page.

Exterior design: St. Mary’s is one of America’s greatest works in the Beaux-Arts tradition. Neoclassical in feel, it features strong lines and a sense of symmetry, as seen in the arched doors and windows. Atypical of the movement, however, is the domed roof, which had to be replaced in the 1990s, due to water damage.


[view of the copper dome lit up]


Because it gets so freakin' cold in Minnesota, the foundation may have come from the quarries in Minnesota but the superstructure is made out of granite from quarries in Vermont, which had historically proved successful.

Interior design: In the 1920s, stained glass windows were added by Thomas Gaytee of Gaytee Studios. Among the many windows are three rose windows, which are fifteen feet across. Each window is comprised of colors and symbols that promote the Bible. As the Basilica website notes:

In the stained glass windows and in carvings of stone and plaster there are many references to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Fleur-de-lis, Mystical Rose, Pierced Heart, Pomegranate, Dove, Sun, Lofty Cedar, and Tower of David are some of the many symbols of Mary found throughout the church.

The interior of the Basilica boasts both local and foreign contributions:

The marble altar and baldachin were designed by Boston architects Maginnis & Walsh, and handcrafted at the Benziger Brothers Studios in Pietrasanta, Italy. The elaborate wrought iron grille surrounding the sanctuary was fabricated by Flour City Ornamental Iron Company of Minneapolis.


[image of altar via this outside Flickr source]

The domed section of the ceiling, which is 48' inside, is azure and gold. It features a Venetian mosaic containing the image of a dove, the emblem of the Holy Spirit.

Interesting fact: 55% of the Basilica's members are under the age of 40, and the community members come from more than 300 different zip codes.

Artist community: The Basilica has an art gallery and an artist-in-residence program, as well as several music programs.

Pop culture: To fund its restoration, the Basilica began hosting an annual music festival in 1995. Craig Finn said that when he heard that there was going to be "a whole lot of beer, a whole lot of rock 'n' roll, a little bit of Catholicism," The Hold Steady agreed to play at the 15th annual Cities 97 Basilica Block Party on July 11 of this year. Now a Brooklynite, the lead singer has found that much of his hometown has changed: “In fact the only thing that really seems the same is Minneapolis’ two greatest houses of worship: the Basilica and First Avenue!”


[door outside of First Avenue]


In the below picture of Tad Kubler, lead guitarist of The Hold Steady, you can see the Father Hennepin Memorial, a copper statue that the Knights of Columbus dedicated for the 250th anniversary of Father Hennepin's discovery of the Falls of Saint Anthony in 1930.


The Hold Steady's poignant performance on the "church stage" included the band's slower, spiritual songs, like "Citrus" and "Lord, I'm Discouraged." At the end of "How a Resurrection Really Feels," Craig crossed himself. And when he walked off the stage after "Killer Parties," he ended saying, "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we are the Hold Steady." It is no wonder then that the Hold Steady message boards were lit up with comments from self-identifying lapsed Catholics, who said "the Hold Steady has helped me process through that anger [towards religion]" and called the show "redemptive."


[Craig Finn blesses the audience with his singing]

Meanwhile, over at the main stage, when you heard Adam Duritz launched into the opening lines of "Rain King," "When I think of heaven / Deliver me in a black-winged bird," you couldn't help but be reminded of the spiritual undertones of many of the The Counting Crows' songs and Adam's own spiritual musings.

What's really cool is that back in June, the Basilica Choir actually did their own reditions of Counting Crows' "Hangin' Around," The Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels," and The Hold Steady's "Lord, I'm Discouraged."


[Thousands of kids from the Upper Midwest, wandering around the Basilica]

Tour: For information on taking a tour of the Basilica, go here.

21.7.09

An Impossible Image

Watch The Photoshop Effect

Her voice is a bit annoying but what she is saying is pertinent to who we are. A host of vices are perpetuated by these impossible images; eating disorders, pornography and other taboos that we all know about but seldom talk about.

Why are we still pining for perfection?

Jimmy Carter Walks Away From the Southern Baptists




This week Former President Jimmy Carter broke ties with the Southern Baptist Church over its positions on the role of women in church leadership. President Carter noted that he could no longer in good conscience remain within the denomination. In an essay in The Age Journal , Carter wrote:

"...its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities."

And, later:

"The truth is that male religious leaders have had -- and still have -- an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world."


I applaud Carter for asking on the strength of his convictions and for the winsome way in which he acted.

19.7.09

The story of my Beautiful tattoo.

I grew up ugly.

For as long as I can remember I was teased for my looks. Throughout elementary school I was told by so many classmates that I was ugly, the ugly duckling, and anything else you can imagine. In fact, when I was in the 7th grade a boy told me, "You are so ugly that I want to blow your head off into a pile of shit with my 12 gauge shotgun." My Dad always told me I was beautiful but his words didn't seem as strong as all the other messages I received from kids both at school and at church. I felt that he was supposed to say that to me, after all, I am his daughter. When I was in High School my friends dad (who is a pastor) actually said to me, "Too bad you're not as pretty as your
sister."

I grew up believing this poison. I went through high school rooted in the knowledge that I am not good-looking. My biggest fear in high school was that a guy would ask me out only as a bet with his friends. I believed a guy could never like me because I am not attractive.

Instead of focusing on what I lacked, I began to develop my personality instead. I'm funny. For serious. And eventually I became really smart too. I have all my ducks in a row, my life is great and full of adventure. Yet, in my darkest moments when I wonder why I am single and fabulous at the age of 36, I believe deep down that it's because I am ugly.

Things have not changed much. In a lot of ways I think it's because when people see my old pictures they say, "You look the exact same!" so how could I have become more attractive if I look the same? When I am out with good-looking people I am invisible. I am the extra girl in the shadows.

Two years ago my friend Julie got a tattoo on her left wrist. It says, "good" in large letters. I love it and every time I am around her I want to see it and touch it. We've talked about what it means to be good, that God created all things to be good, and about how life IS good. Finally this past winter I emailed her and asked her if I could borrow her tattoo. I said I wanted it for myself. She said yes, she would share it with me. I told another friend about my desire to have the "good" tattoo and she said, "diane, find your own word."

On a cold February night I was sitting outside looking into the sky and thinking about God. I was mulling over words that define me or a word that I permanently needed to hear. I needed a word from God. I needed to be reminded of how He sees me. And this word kinda floated down to me and settled into the top of my head, "Beautiful, diane you are beautiful, that is how I see you."

I emailed Julie, who works at the tattoo shop, and told her that I will no longer steal her tattoo. I have my own word. Four days later I went into the shop and had the word "beautiful" permanently marked on my wrist.
I can't say that I feel beautiful all the time, or even some of the time. But when I see the tat on my wrist, I do smile and am reminded that it doesn't matter how men see me. I love my tattoo and am so glad I can carry this word around with me.

18.7.09

Growing Old with God

I call my mom tonight, both to say hello, and to talk to her about her upcoming party in September. You see, she's turning 90, which means that she grew up in the great depression, married in the midst of the war, and raised my sister and I in the midst of Kennedy's assassination, Vietnam, and Watergate. She lost her first child at birth, and in the process nearly lost her life, leaving her without the capacity to bear children. It was because of this that my sister and I were adopted into the Dahlstrom family and heritage. Her husband's multiple childhood bouts with pneumonia would lead him to an early death, and my adopted sister would die at the age of 43, leaving only my mom and I for the past 14 years.

All of this is the backdrop for what happened when we talked tonight. In preparation for her party, I said, "do you have any favorite Bible verses mom?" She left the phone for moment and returned with her Bible.

"Yes, let's see" she said in her broken and tired voice, as she opened her Bible and began recounting her favorite verses. "Of course, there's Matthew 6:21" she said, "and Hebrews 1:1-3. II Timothy 3:16 is about the Bible being sufficient and breathed by God. James 4:10-11 reminds me to be humble. II Peter 3:18 reminds me to keep growing in Christ. Of course, there's Colossians 2:6-9 as well." Then there was a pause before she said, "But my favorite is Isaiah 26:3: 'Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee'. Of course, that's my favorite verse, if I could only pick one."

By this time tears are streaming down my face; tears born of gratitude and compassion for this woman who raised me. Don't mistake this for hollow sentimentalism. I remember a lot more than family devotions growing up. I remember not only fun baseball games but blowouts, celebrations and family meltdowns, uproarious laughter and seething silence. There's no mirage of perfection in the rear view mirror. What there is, though, is a sense that I was chosen into a family where both parents allowed, at least in some measure, the reality of God to bleed into their daily living. They read their Bibles. They gave money away. They served their neighbors. They attended church and took my sister and I as well.

You don't know, as a kid, if the whole thing is a pretentious show, a cultural trapping, an environment for business connections, or the real deal. But mom's endured the death of her first child, the death of her husband, and the death of her oldest adoptive child. At 75 and still working for the city, she bought a four door car so that she could drive to the rest home in order to pick up the "old people" and take them to church. Now, nearing 90, she's pretty much confined to her room.

But when I ask her if she has a favorite Bible verse, and she can rattle off half a dozen of them as she thumbs through her well worn copy, I know that this wasn't a show for her. This was the real deal.

Sometimes I grow weary of emergent cynicism, and post-modern arrogant deconstructions. Though I understand that every piece of this fallen world (every person, every family, every nation, every church, every spouse, every parent, every neighbor) will reveal scar tissue if we look closely enough, I also know there's a lot of grace and unspectacular obedience to Jesus floating around our there that's somehow being missed. But the world views born of this one dimensional fixation on doubt and failure depress me.

This is why Mom's answer to the simple request for a favorite Bible verse was a breath of fresh air. "Thank God" I found myself thinking, "that there are still reminders in this world that people have whethered immense storms and come through, not perfectly, but with enough wholeness that, as their 90th birthday approaches, their love for Jesus Christ shines through with greater clarity than ever." May that be all of our story when, if God should allow it, we're that old.

16.7.09

Just a hint of Jesus...



Lately, there seem to be a lot of people wanting to make an impact on this world for Jesus. Leadership gurus are wanting to impact the church.  Student leaders, who evidently live 24/7, are mobilizing to impact the next generation.  I've even heard certain artists who are writing or singing or something to impact the culture.  

Now I'm a word guy; in other words, I believe words mean things.  So I looked up this six-letter arrangement to clarify the definition:to collide forcibly with; to strike.  I then checked some related words: concussion, hammering, onslaught, ramming, sideswipe, tremor, wallop, and who could resist whomp. Now, in the interest of fairness, there are related words that ring all nice and smart like etch or imprint, but great horny toads - they don't stand much of a chance next to mauling.

Go ahead.  Take some of those related words and put them in the place of "impact" - 
Leadership gurus really want to ram the church...Student leaders are mobilizing to maul the next generation...you see where this is going.

I don't believe Jesus wants us to do this.  I really don't.

Do you know the words trace or whiff or hint or brush?  For example - "Jimmy slumped in right field, one cleat on top of the other, close to the fence.  Not a single ball came his direction all evening. But the fence was lined with honeysuckle, the whiff of which reminded him of the girl who now sat in front of him in homeroom.  She had just moved to town from Magnolia and smiled at Jimmy in the hallway.  Jimmy liked playing right field."  

Now, I'm gonna bet my boots you've got a story or two or three where the slightest trace or hint of someone or something left you undone; could be it haunts your memory even today. Maybe it's coming across the hint of your father's aftershave in a department store.  He ran off five years ago but that hint causes you to break down in Macy's like a baby.  Or possibly it was when the dog brushed against your legs and your wife said "It's a boy." You'll forever associate that beagle's tail with the best day of your life.  Or how about a trace, just a trace of half-n-half that causes ordinary scrambled eggs to be the envy of Cracker Barrel.

I believe that's what Jesus wants us to do.  Leave hints or traces or whiffs of grace and mercy and forgiveness, words that mean something, in the lives of those both near and far.

But John, you say, what about the incident when Jesus wove a rope and got busy turning over the tables of the money changers?  That was quite impactful, wasn't it?  Yeah, I know; it's in there, so it counts.  But I wonder sometimes if after the onslaught, Jesus sighed and chuckled to himself, "I'm not so sure what good that did."  And maybe that chuckle came to mind when Peter drew his sword in the garden and whomped off that fella's ear and Jesus said, "Easy there, Pete" and then he put that ear right back where it came from, just like that...a little hint of miracle before the mob made their impact.

Spirit in the Material World: Character, Context, and Grace


In his book The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes an experiment where seminarians had thirty minutes to prepare a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. The experimenters told half the group that they were running late and had to rush to another building. They told the other half that they had plenty of time, but that they might as well make their way to the other building now. On their way, both groups passed a man lying on the ground. He was moaning in pain, in obvious distress . . . not unlike the man who’d been robbed and beaten in the parable of The Good Samaritan.

Less than ten percent of the group in a hurry stopped to help the man. Some of the aspiring preachers even stepped over him. Of the group that had extra time, over sixty percent stopped to help. All of the subjects were given tests of personality and morality beforehand. These traits made no difference in helping behavior. The only significant variable was how much time each subject had.

Social psychology experiments have replicated these results many times in many settings. Internal factors – such as values and character traits – matter a whole lot less than external variables when it comes to our behavior. For example, most people ignore someone in distress if everyone around them does the same. Most people will remain in a building that seems to be on fire if a person in authority tells them they’re safe. Most of us cheat on tests if we know we won’t get caught and we see other people doing it. Situation trumps morality most of the time.

Cool your jets – I said, most of the time. These experiments also demonstrate that a small percentage of people always go out of their way to do the right thing. You’re one of these exceptional people - I know, because I’ve seen you at the meetings. Nevertheless, Christians have a hard time with the fact that context is more powerful than character. We tend to go to extremes with this information. Those on the far left and right prefer pontification about the importance of values. If you don’t go green/abstain from sex or help the poor/abstain from sex or support free trade/abstain from sex regardless of the situation, you’re a moral weakling. Folks in the middle often over-emphasize context, making Christianity so user-friendly that religion starts to look like marketing. If someone can’t get their grande nonfat mocha enema in the church lobby, after all, they might not bother to come.

Another option is developing more empathy and grace. Instead of attributing mistakes and failures to someone’s “character,” we can try to understand their circumstances. Most of us are guilty of what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error.” We attribute someone’s behavior to a single character trait instead an interaction of cultural, social, relational, biological, and psychological factors. For example, it’s easier to see Ted Haggard as a hypocrite than a man trying, and sometimes failing, to manage conflicting demands and desires from without and within.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold people responsible for their actions; I’m suggesting that we do no more. Maybe we can learn to hold others accountable for specific behaviors, but skip the sweeping character judgments. Maybe we should give more people a second chance. And maybe we should honor everyday kindness and integrity as extraordinary and heroic.

11.7.09






“Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?" — Wendell Berry

--------------


I was in Fort Benning, Georgia this past week where I attended the basic training graduation ceremony for the 1/330th National Guard Unit out of La Grande. Oregon's guard unit has had one of the highest casuality rates in the nation, second to Louisiana, last time I checked. Recruitment was never an issue, even prior to 9-11. When an economy is depressed, more people volunteer. Oregon's unemployment rate was one of the nation's highest prior to the recession. In a report provided to the General Assembly the Guard folks said that their educational benefits made recruiting easy.

At this particular graduation there were men as old as 39 going through basic training. That may not seem old until you try humping a 60-plus pound ruck for hours on end in 90 degrees heat with 90 percent humidity.

The new $100 million National Infantry Museum opened two weeks ago. The graduation was held on the parade grounds. That church and those buildings in the background? That's from the World War II era and was moved to that site because these are the buildings where General MacArthur once resided.

Part of the ceremony included a very surreal reenactment by one of Benning's elite rifle teams. I was so busy taking the photos that I didn't notice until I downloaded the shot that the chapel was dead center in the production and that the rifle team had moved out in formation as if they were protecting the church.

Wondering what your thoughts, if any, are on this sort of pageantry? What does the symbolism say to you?

Focus on the Family: The Body and Blood



A few weeks ago, I traveled home to Michigan and decided I would attend my parents' church. Back when I was an adolescent in this same denomination, all of my friends decided to make a public "Profession of Faith," in which they all took a 6-week course on our church's tradition, then said (or mumbled), "I will, God helping me" in front of the congregation the following week. This allowed them the full privileges of membership in our church, the most important and obvious was getting to take communion out of the little plastic cups. I remember the sound those little cups made as they were stashed in the pre-made holes next to the hymnal holder, the sound of the clinking growing louder as more of my friends got the honor.

I didn't really see the point of all of this. It seemed sterile (both the classes and the throwaway plastic cups taken individually). Besides wanting to be like everyone else, slinging their grape juice back and stashing the cup and making that enviable sound, I didn't really want a part of it.

I am now an active member of a church with an open table. I have, at times, even served others communion and one Sunday, one of my students whom I had been taking to church served it to me. The Eucharist has become an organic, meaningful part of my Sabbath. Every week, no matter how I'm feeling (spiritually or otherwise), I know one of my sisters or brothers will break off a hunk of bread and hand me the chalice, offering the body and blood.

So when I went back to my folks' church and saw that communion was set out in the big silver platters at the front of the sanctuary and realized that it would not be blessed for me (I later confirmed this in a long and tense phone conversation with the pastor of this church), I lost it. I walked out and called my pastor, my words unintelligible through my sobs. She (my pastor) wrote about the events that followed on her blog, which was later picked up by Jim Wallis's blog, "God's Politics."

Read the rest of the story here.

10.7.09

Rocky Mountain High

Like Dean and Jack decades ago, Dan Gibson and I will be driving to Denver tomorrow. Will we be high on benzedrine? No. Will we be attending the International Christian Retail Show at the Denver Convention Center? Most assuredly. Will we be sampling some of the finest breweries Colorado has to offer? You bet your sweet sassafras.

We'll also be glad-handing, making connections, and generally absorbing the schlockfest that is the Christian retail industry. It should be fun. With massive publishers like Thomas Nelson conspicuously absent, there are rumors 2009's convention may be one of the last. We shall see. I'm also planning an essay recapping the events, so it'll be fun to act as a real life reporter.

If you happen to be attending this convention as well, or have suggestions for where Dan and I should eat or drink in the Mile High City, just state so in the comments or get a hold of me on Facebook. Maybe you can join us for some kolache!

ROAD TRIP!!!

8.7.09

Hem

This was a Pandora find from last fall. I think it was under a Patty Griffin genre. But have you heard them yet?! Their first album Rabbit Songs was released in 2002 and they are currently doing music for New York City’s “Shakespeare in the Park” event. They are creating the score to “Twelfth Night.”

They are not your ordinary country-folk band. This is no George Straight or Dixie Chicks. I don’t even like country music and I like Hem. It’s that good. As every reviewer seems to say, each song is a world in itself with its pensive lyrics and winsome melodies. Hem is a four-man band with five more musicians that regularly contribute on harmonizing vocals, mandolins, dobros, and glockenspiel. If you know what those last two are then you should already be listening to Hem. If you don’t, then it is high time you found out what delicious instruments they are!

They’ve performed with Wilco, Beth Orton, and Elvis Costello. One reviewer says of them,
[At times they] recall the emotionally stirring sweep of movie music from an age when the best pictures were shot in Cinemascope and orchestras crowded onto sound stages to perform the scores.
Their music is perfect for a prairie sunset, a stroll through the acres of Texas, or a rainy summer day on the porch. “Half Acre” feels like an epic movie in 3 and ½ minutes. There is an oboe that pipes up in the margins that will just melt your soul like butter! And when the glockenspiel comes in, you’ll be a goner for sure. The song that sealed the deal for me was “He Came to Meet Me”—a blushing country love song that makes Louisiana in July sound like a perfect place to find Prince Charming. The poetry will enchant you with lines like,
But there is no one who
Could wake my heart like this
Could break my world in two
I felt a suddenness
I’ve used the word “suddenness” regularly since last fall. The invention of a word that everyone can understand is what poetry is all about. Hem is the eyelet lacing to the perfect sundress. It is also a name of a band. Check them out and you might end up wanting to marry a cowboy or cowgirl. By the sounds of it, this is a very good thing.

Lessons from Robert McNamara




I once had a girlfriend whose husband was a lyin' cheat. He was a no-good-sum-of-bitch as my kin folk would say. Even my Christian kinfolk used that term when necessary. "If the shoe fits," they'd add, with a wry grin.

Now his friends didn't feel that way about him. They liked him. He was a good ole boy among his buddies. He liked to hunt and fish and drink beer. Lots of beer.

He also liked to get it on, if you know what I mean. My girlfriend had been married to this man for 20 some years when she walked in on him one afternoon, nekkid as the day he was born, and found him humping the church organist.

Just so happened that the church organist was one of her best girlfriends, or so she'd thought, until that moment.

To her credit, my friend didn't kill either one of them. She didn't even raise a ruckus. She just quietly turned and walked out of the house, with the nekkid church organist clinging to her feet begging for forgiveness.

My girlfriend felt real bad about that later. Felt like she had done something wrong when, in fact, if that had been me I might have headed for the kitchen in search of a butcher knife. I'd have to cut me somebody.

My husband knows what a hot-headed woman I am. I suspect that's why he doesn't sleep around. He knows I'd cut him bad if I ever caught him.

But my girlfriend, she's the meek and mild type. A real sweetheart of a girl. She was raised up Baptist and has spent her whole entire life trying to do that Jesus thing -- love people. So a couple of weeks after she found her husband and her best friend doing the horizontal tango, she baked a cake and carried it over to the home of the former church organist.

Now I have never understood this. Never. I still don't. But in my girlfriend's mind she felt like she needed to patch things up, to fix it. So she baked her husband's mistress a cake and took it to her and asked her forgiveness.

Years later, after about a decade of therapy, my girlfriend realized that there is just something wrong with a woman who feels that much guilt over being wronged by others.

Forgiveness can be a complicated matter. I'm no theologian nor am I any great scholar but sometimes a person just knows that wait up one second, something ain't right about this.

That's how I've been feeling about some of the remarks that have been made in response to a blog post by author Donald Miller .

Miller wrote a fine piece about the need for people, leaders in particular, to admit when they've been wrong. Where he went sideways with the piece, however, is when he chose Robert McNamara as an example of a man who did a noble thing by admitting that he was wrong.

I said as much in a post on Miller's site and in another blog post and I be dadgum if there weren't people writing in saying how it was that they were going to be praying for me. They assumed that I am harboring some great bitterness toward Robert McNamara. They probably would like for me to bake his family a cake and take it to them.

Now I'm not saying my heart is pure-tee white because it sure enough ain't. It's as black as any other two-legged creature walking the face of this good earth.

But Robert McNamara did some really horrible bad things in his lifetime. Things worse than humping your wife's best gal pal. Though if he did that, too, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn it. The kind of things McNamara did cost men and women their lives. Thousands of men and women. And if he didn't know that then, he certainly came to realize it in the dark of the night, or at least that's my hope.

He went on to make a butt-load of money and to live the high life, while those whose lives he helped decimate had a hard time paying the light bill and staying sober. If Robert McNamara wasn't haunted by his wrongdoings, a whole heck of a lot of other people sure were.

McNamara wrote a book later in life about how he messed things up in Vietnam. He said he was sorry about that. I heard him interviewed on NPR when his book came out. When one public official holding a high flutin' office in DC was asked about McNamara's book, she replied that we had not sent our brightest and best to fight the war in Vietnam.

I ain't going to lie to you. That smarted right bad. My daddy died in that war and while it has taken me years to sort all of this out, that woman in DC who made that remark was just plain sorry, but not in the apologetic way.

In 2003, I went to Vietnam, to my daddy's battlefield where I learned all kinds of lessons, one of which was about forgiveness. I came home a changed woman.

I learned things walking the red dirt fields that border the Ia Drang Valley that I could never learn from reading a red-letter Bible. I like to think Jesus sent me there to learn those things. I even wrote a book about all that.

I don't mean to repeat myself but it bears repeating: Forgiveness is a complicated matter.

Christians are all the time going about trying to "fix" other people. Trying to patch things up.

That can be a good thing.

But it can be a wrongheaded thing, too.

Robert McNamara went on to make a movie about his role in the Vietnam War. That movie is called The Fog of War. I have not seen it, nor will I.

But my historian husband has watched it and so has my good buddy Joe Galloway. Joe was a military correspondent in Vietnam. He watched his buddies die there. Joe still weeps over all the horrors he witnessed in that war. Joe's got a good heart. A loving heart. A Jesus heart in many ways.

This is the thing that happens when new generations come along and they don't learn their history. They see some flick and think, Wow, that was radical dude.
When it wasn't radical at all -- it was just more lies heaped on the ashes of soldiers dead and gone.

I can't say for sure how sorry Robert McNamara truly was or wasn't. What I can say for sure, however, is that throughout his life he kept his distance from truth.

I don't feel that way because of some unforgiveness in my heart. I don't lie awake at night thinking of ways to cut the man. He's dead now anyway but even when he was alive, I didn't do that.

But I don't for one nanosecond believe that Robert McNamara did a noble thing by apologizing in his book or in that flick of his. Joe says McNamara was just telling more lies.

Maybe he wasn't apologizing at all. Maybe he was just trying to rewrite history for a new generation that doesn't know any better. A generation that might one day come to think of Robert McNamara as a man who did a noble thing. A generation who is surely going to have to come to terms with their own legacy of half-truths and bad wars and broken lives.

I agree with Miller in one regard -- there is an important lesson to be learned from Robert McNamara. The one I learned from studying him is that forgiveness won't suffice where redemption is needed.