Archive for December, 2007

Quincy Street

We’re having a blast in Memphis with the Holt Srs, which means we weren’t in town on Sunday to receive the Sunday Boston Globe. This Sunday’s Globe was especially significant because it began a seven-part multimedia series about the Quincy Street Missional Church of Dorchester.  Our great friends, Aaron & Amy Graham, were instrumental in following God’s lead in joining his work in the Upham’s Corner neighborhood of Dorchester, a table which was set with a simple Bible study led by a 70-something matriarch called Ma Siss in a chop-shop-turned-commodities-closet.

This story, written by Pulitzer winner Michael Paulson, along with the accompanying video and photo galleries, have been three years in the making.  I’m so proud of the Grahams, Ma Siss, and the Quincy Street community for this nod in a world-class publication, and proud of the Globe for this positive view of Christian faith in action in Boston.  My prayer is that this piece will serve as a positive glimpse into the Way of Christ to a broad audience of readers and viewers.  Please, spend some time to check out these articles and accompanying media.

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holiday gift-giving

I got an e-mail today from a friend who sympathizes with the sentiments on this blog about consumerism at Christmastime, but wants some practical ideas for giving to her loved ones this holiday season (and asked what we, specifically, were giving our family and friends this Christmas).  Here’s my response, verbatim:

It’s been a struggle, to say the least, to break ourselves of the connection between Christmas and material things and to communicate this to our families.  It is so ingrained.  As for Christmas gifts we’re giving, we lucked out by getting most of our gifts when we were in Africa.  Carvings, pottery, etc., that we purchased directly from the artist who made them.  So there’s some sentimental value in these gifts, and we didn’t break the bank acquiring them.

But not everyone gets to go to Africa every year before Christmas.  I totally understand your question regarding practical ideas for gifts … it’s still a struggle for us.  Well, there are many schools of thought on this.  I’m personally not a huge advocate for the cold turkey approach — saying “sorry, family — nothing for you this Christmas.”  You’re more likely to be seen as a scrooge than loving.  There’s power and significance in giving thoughtful and relational gifts, I think.  Have you heard of the Advent Conspiracy?  It’s basically an evangelical movement trying to reclaim some of what has been lost to consumerism.  Well, they offer some great tips on “relational gift giving” over on their site: http://www.adventconspiracy.org/give-more/.  (poke around the rest of the site as well … there is some good stuff there)

Here are some other ideas:
Monetary gifts to ministries and charities in the name of someone you love.
“social justice” gifts.  Last year, we bought a tree in Uganda for Chrissy’s parents (who have everything).  The tree helps employ several people, contributes significantly to the local economy, and for every 45 trees purchased, the organization donates $1,000 to the community for childhood education (which is not free).  The organization is based in Searcy, actually, and is called The Kibo Group. (http://www.kibogroup.org/) Oxfam has some great “gift ideas” as well at http://www.oxfamamericaunwrapped.com/.  I’ve also heard of people making micro-loans to a family in a developing nation in the name of someone else.  Check out http://www.kiva.org for more information on this.
Homemade gifts.  Again, the Advent Conspiracy site has some good suggestions here. Also, a Google search for “homemade Christmas gifts” turns up a variety of creative ideas.  I like the site instructables.com, which allows regular folks to post instructions for making things at home and then post it to the Web.  Could be some good ideas for gifts there.

The website for Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping (an anti-consumerism activist group … not a real church) has some suggestions for “sinless giving,” which I haven’t had a chance to look through completely.  Looks like it lists a bunch of sweatshop-free online merchants.  Might be worth a look.  http://www.revbilly.com/links/?cat=1006 [side note: if the What Would Jesus Buy? movie is in your city, go see it.  We saw it on Saturday, and it was hilarious … and convincing!)

The bottom line is that I’m not at all against exchanging presents at Christmas, but I am against completely thoughtless, creativity-lacking, decadent gift-giving.  Basically, anything you put some time and thought into — no matter how “small” or inexpensive — will be appreciated by the other person.  Relationships are key at Christmas anyway, so just being with family and friends is “gift” enough for many people (if they’re honest with themselves).

Hope some of this helps!

Anyone else have any suggestions?

“our way of life”

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
— Victor Lebow, Retail Analyst, a few years after WWII

Extraction. Production. Distribution. Consumption. Disposal.

That’s how industry experts describe how we get our “stuff” in America. Problem is, this model is linear, and our Earth is finite, rendering this model unsustainable.

I just watched a fascinating 20-minute movie called “The Story of Stuff.” You need to take a break and go watch it … it’s Web-based and very engaging, not to mention informative. As consumers, we’re only given one tiny (but unbelievably powerful) bit of information with regard to how we get our stuff: The stuff you have is useless, so get more. We are rarely, if ever, told how the stuff is made, distributed, and then disposed of when we’re done with it. (shocking stat: in America, 1% of the stuff we purchase is in use after 6 months.)

Truth is, the process damages individual lives and souls, communities, the air we breath, and our future resources. Remember, linear model on a finite Earth. Not sustainable.

There is another way, of course. There always is. What if we drastically reduced the “consumption” part of the equation? In a supply-demand economy, when demand is diminished, supply is also decreased, or so one would think. What if millions of Americans began to opt out from participation in this system as much as possible? For instance, for the last year, we’ve committed with some friends of ours not to purchase anything “new.” This commitment has been tough, but it has gotten easier. When we think we want or need something, it causes us to do a couple things: First, we are forced to reflect deeply on whether our need is in fact a need; Second, we are forced to find creative ways to meet that need outside of just running up the street (or subway line, in our case) to Target; Third, we end up wanting less “stuff” over time. That’s right, we begin to find our fulfillment and joy not in the stuff we buy or in wandering around a store, but in the things in life that really matter. We thought we’d only do this for a year, but our “not buying it” pledge has been so rewarding that we can’t imagine going back to the impulse buys, the big-box stores, the instant gratification of purchasing new stuff. Why would we?

Which brings me to my final point. The movement of people re-thinking their participation in the linear “stuff” model is largely led by those who are not actively following Jesus. Why is this? Where are followers of Jesus? At Family Christian Stores or Lifeway buying more stuff? Jesus was clear that when we try to gain too much, we’ll lose our souls. That when we seek our treasure on Earth, he’ll deny us our treasure in Heaven. That we shouldn’t worry about what we will eat, wear, do in the future — that is in His hands.

Why haven’t we believed this?

I’m confident that this is one of many areas of life where those calling themselves Christians have joined the ebb and flow of society without question. We defend our spending and consumption with tired political rhetoric, but the reality is that most Christians just don’t think that this conversation has any bearing on their lives in Christ. Maybe because for many, “life in Christ” begins when they die? Folks, Jesus is calling us into “life to the full” NOW. Today. This minute. May we throw off all that hinders — beginning with our stuff — and follow.

[if you have questions about the specifics of our “not buying it Compact” or anything else, you can leave them in the comments or e-mail me directly at steve (at) thebostonwriter (dot) com]

Calvin

I’m sure John Calvin was a nice guy. I really am. I’m sure he loved Jesus, people, the Apostle Paul (that’s a no-brainer), the occasional rousing game of Gin Rummy, and life in general. I really am. But I’m pretty teed off these days, and he is as good a target as anyone to vomit my frustrations onto (mainly because he can’t come and get me … or can he?).

I’m teed off at Calvin for the countless followers of his theology who have wielded it with reckless abandon, causing untold numbers of spiritual casualties.

I’m teed off at Calvin for serving as the patron saint of a Christian sect that sees itself as the sole “defenders of the faith.”

I’m teed off at Calvin for misusing Scripture by mastering it and flogging people with it (instead of engaging it as the story of God and His people).

I’m teed off at Calvin for failing to see the beauty and goodness that is present throughout this broken world and in a broken humanity.

I’m teed off at Calvin for a prevailing view that Jesus’ primary importance to us was six hours of agony on a cross so that we can go to Heaven. (rather than Jesus as the Logos, the fulfillment of all reality, the perfect way of living embodied, God made flesh — see the Hirsch quote below for more on this)

I’m teed off at Calvin for creating an angry, wrathful, bloodthirsty God who hates those He created, and for the untold millions of humans who have been turned away from spirituality completely as a result of this caricature.

I’m teed off at Calvin for parading around some of the greatest heresies Christianity has ever known as God-breathed truth, and being heralded as a saint for it.

Most days, I’ve got enough issues in my own life to worry about being teed off at dead preachers, but today, I’m teed off at John Calvin.

Alan Hirsch had these related comments in a recent post called “Paul Would be Appalled”:

I have been talking with some of my more Reformed friends recently and have increasingly come to the rather unnerving conclusion that Calvinism is particularly susceptible to religiosity. Partly because of its idea of the continuity between law and gospel, partly because of its church over society stance, and partly because of sense of being being the chief historical defender of the Faith. But mostly I believe this susceptibility comes from its general circumventing of the life and teachings of Jesus. If this is so, why? Well, it is inordinately hard to make Jesus sound like a superlapsarian, five-point, Calvinist. I trained in a strongly Reformed seminary (which shall remain unnamed) and so I can speak from experience here. I can say that by and large it felt that we considered the Gospels were mere exercises in Greek exegesis to prepare us up for the real deal–Paul. Yes, we we reserved our real energies and excitement for Paul and Pauline theology, and I think this is true for Calvinist faith in general. I have come to the rather disconcerting conclusion that Reformed theology can easily become a religion of Paul rather than an expression of the life of Jesus is it is not careful. this subversion of Jesus from his own movement is rightly called Paulinism because it so readily discounts the central and defining role of Jesus in the life of the Christian faith. Christianity is a ‘religion’ based on Jesus or it is nothing! And it is not just about the birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and return that are vital to Christian faith, but his life, lifestyle, teachings, and ethos as well.

And Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed has these comments about “intellectual spirituality”:

… Spirituality as knowledge is rooted for most today in the Enlightenment. Evangelicals at times reveal a variant on Descartes: “I think about the knowledge of God, therefore I know God.” Study of the Bible leading to mastery of the Bible became spirituality.

The challenge of liberalism encountered this intellectual spirituality. Its intellectual pursuits led to an incredulity in the texts and to a gospel reduced to love; evangelicalism’s led to a “I can prove it all” spirituality. Webber talks about how derisive he was toward liberals and Catholics and the Orthodox.

The point: knowledge is not spirituality. Knowledge is important.

Intellectual spirituality is rooted in my story not God’s story. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. The former is not the latter; the latter always involves the former. Knowing God involves contemplating the mysteries of God’s grace.

The point here really isn’t to smear Calvin (OK, maybe a little…). Here’s my point, folks: How we envision God (our theology) is vitally important. It impacts how we exist in this world … what we value … our witness and message. Our theology is foundational, not peripheral. Don’t believe me? Watch this. Think about the number of Christians (many of them followers of Calvin!) who view God in this way. As a friend wrote to me after watching the video above,

One more victim of the relentless smear against God’s:

1) Goodness

2) Love

3) Power

Centered

First off, random question for a story I’m working on: Have you ever attempted — successfully or unsuccessfully — to rent a car without a major credit card?  If so, I’d love to hear your story.  E-mail me at steve [at] thebostonwriter [dot] com.  Thanks so much for your help!  OK, back to your regularly scheduled blogramming …

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Well, it’s about time. It’s finally published. An e-mail from my friend and mentor, Kent:

Friends,
I want to invite you to join me in testing an exciting new tool I have developed with the help of some friends. It’s a short gift book called Centered, and it is designed to help people take a deeper look at what it really means to follow Jesus.

Last Sunday 250 Million people in the U.S.A. did not attend church. That’s five people out of every six—and their number is growing by about 10,000 per day.

Many of these people are very interested in spiritual reality, just not church. Chances are you know some of these people. If you’d like to take your conversation with them to a deeper level and help us learn from your experience, here’s what you can do:

  • Buy a copy of Centered at the website listed below, read through it and jot down your impressions, good and bad.
  • On reflection and prayer, give or lend the book to one of your friends who seems open to spiritual things with the offer to discuss what they think of it over a cup of coffee (or whatever!).
  • After that conversation, write out your impressions of what impact the experience has had on you and your friend and e-mail them to me. [I can put you in contact with Kent if you get to step 3]

That’s it. Early indications are that this tool will make a big difference for many people—and I will be delighted and grateful if you choose to be part of the team that helps us refine it even more. (But still love you if this isn’t a good time for such a venture!)

Here’s the website.

Blessings in this season. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Kent

I have read Centered, and I give it my glowing endorsement (for the little it’s worth…). Let me say one thing, however: This isn’t an oversized gospel tract. It isn’t intended to replace a conversation or a relationship. It is intended to be used as a tool alongside a conversation and a relationship. And its freshness, lack of “Christianese” language, truth, simplicity, and beauty will make it a delightful conversation partner indeed.

Fractals & Christmas

My friend Miller wrote a piece that I think is worth reading, especially for you left-brain science types. Seriously, it’s pretty applicable to every missional Christian, so give it a once-over. Here‘s the link.

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Chances are, if you read more blogs than just this one, you’ve read a post somewhere decrying consumerism at Christmas and how the true meaning of Christmas has been hidden behind all the malls, big-box stores, Sunday circulars, and incessant need for more, more, more. Many are calling for Americans — not least Christians — to simplify the season. This is often easier said than done, however. So ingrained in our psyche is the association between Christmas and shopping, and it’s rather difficult to turn around the Titanic. I’m not here to add anything new to the conversation, per se, but to point you to some resources I’ve found helpful in this ongoing conversation that for us, has been taking more and more shape every Christmas.

First, a thoughtful piece by Richard over at Experimental Theology called “In Praise of the Consumerism of Christmas.” He really does defend the status quo of consumption, and does a pretty darned convincing job of it.

Mark wrote a post called “Shop Till You Drop (Your Soul)” that stresses buying locally (if you buy at all) and points to some good books and multimedia resources on the subject. Worth a read.

I just found out about Advent Conspiracy today. It’s “an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by worshipping Jesus through compassion, not consumption.” I can dig that. It looks like in addition to an abundance of good blogs and articles, AC offers churches resources on how to emphasize the right stuff this season. On a practical level, this list of “relational gift ideas” was especially intriguing to me as we think of alternative gifts to share with our friends and family this holiday season.

Finally, if you haven’t checked out Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, do so. He’s the Benny Hinn of the Christmas counter-culture. The preacher stuff is all an attention-grabbing front, of course, but his message is serious: to make Americans think about what they consume, where their stuff is made, and how consumerism is overwhelming their lives. The Rev has a new movie out, just in time for the Christmas season called “What Would Jesus Buy?” Check out the hilarious trailer here.

It looks like the only significant money we’ll spend this holiday season is on plane tickets (which is a significant amount). We basically told our families that seeing them for a couple weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a gift in itself. And thanks to souvenirs we purchased directly from artisans in Tanzania, things we’ve made or will make, or simply not giving a physical gift to every last person we’ve ever met (and being OK with this), we’ve to this point avoided the long lines in big-box stores, the impulse buys, and participation in the market that feeds the shopping monster. Not to say we have it down perfectly (it’s been a progression over the last few Christmases), but it is possible to gradually opt out of the status quo this season and still be a good person. Like the Fernando Ortega lyric says, “You can have all this world, but give me Jesus.”

UPDATE: I forgot to add that everyone’s favorite $5 coffee shop finally listened to the incessant wishes of its Christ-following constituency and released the official Starbucks Advent Calendar. Here’s the description on the site:

Count down to Christmas with chocolate and discover the festive scene that builds daily with each drawer. Tree shaped “countdown” to Christmas includes a chocolate treat to indulge each day.

Finally! Thank you, thank you, thank you oh Great Purveyors of Overpriced and All-Too-Often Unfairly Acquired Coffee for helping us center on Christ in the days leading up to Christmas. Coming this Spring: Low-Fat Lenten Latte, made with less whip than the rest of the year and sans the chocolate shavings on top. Comes with a biscotti-tasting communion wafer for dipping.

(Beth has a good and funny Advent-themed post today as well)