Archive for October, 2008

Trickle-Down Justice

A friend of mine and I ate breakfast together today at our favorite cafe, as we do every week.  Our part of the neighborhood is seeing an influx of young, urban professionals — “climbing the professional ladder,” as my friend put it.  Broadly speaking, these folks are well-educated and left-leaning, with entrepreneurial personalities.  They know how to have a good time, and local shindigs — beer dinners, meet-and-greets, and other social events — are frequent.

There seems to be a disconnect, though, in the lip service paid to acts of justice / social action and the direct work they do with their hands. (the mentoring, the tutoring, the serving)  I could be missing it altogether, but I haven’t seen it.  Lack of time seems to be a major factor here.

But almost unanimously, these folks will vote on Tuesday for Obama, whom they believe has the best policies to help the poor.  But with the apparent lack of direct service with the disenfranchised, you might call their social philosophy “trickle-down justice.”  This is ironic, given the ideological differences between these neighbors and the Reagonomics (trickle-down economics) now espoused by conservatives in America.  “If I vote for Obama, he’ll set the policies into motion that will help my neighbors.”  I’m certain that in most cases, this isn’t intentional or malicious (and many of them would resent my accusations), but it is something I’ve noticed.

Trickle-down anything is not enough.  We, ourselves, must touch … serve … interact with the “least of these.”

If you build it …

Thanks to Agent B for ruining our Saturday by passing along this tidbit of news out of Abilene.

Chrissy and I both know this church well from our time in the Friendly Frontier, our best friends attended there for 6 years, and we even attended there for a short time.  This is a loving community that has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.  But the news that this church is taking out a loan for $9+ million to more than double the size of their already 75,000 square foot building … well, to steal a phrase from my good buddy Miller, “fires up my Tourette’s.”  I’m angry at this.

And I just couldn’t keep it to myself … not on this.  Here’s what I wrote in the comments section of the Reporter-News article:

Until every person in Abilene has a place to sleep tonight…

…and a warm meal

…and a set of warm clothes

…and a few friends to love them

…and an opportunity to work with their hands

I don’t want to hear one more story of another congregation “building bigger barns” — saying nothing of $9 million ones. In fact, my stomach turns at the Beltway news when I think about the number of hurting people right under their noses and around the world, especially in today’s economic climate.

As I recall, Jesus will not judge his people based on the number of bodies “ministered to” or the square footage of our church campuses or how many “Lord, Lords” we utter, but on how we treat the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked. In James, the writer describes “true religion” as how God’s people care for widows and orphans. Amos told Israel that God’s judgment was coming against it because they built stone buildings and vineyards and gave abundant grain and burnt offerings … but disregarded the poor and oppressed.

I think about the number of non-profits and faith-based groups in Abilene who are working out on the margins of society, in the gutters, and in unglamorous ways — and who scrape by for funds. I know of directors of ministries who take no salary so that those funds might be redirected to the people and projects who need it the most.

How far could $9.5 million go toward ending homelessness in Abilene?

The Beltway news is certainly not surprising, but it is shocking all the same. I love and have loved many people at Beltway, but this expansion is unacceptable. There, I said it. When 80% of a church’s funds are put toward facilities and salaries, Jesus cries. He must be sobbing at this news.

If my comment sounds angry and judgmental, that’s because it is. =)  Few things fire me up like stories of churches and church leaders a) abusing their influence over the flock by using “God’s will” as a rationale to do just about anything; and b) totally missing the point (in this case, assuming that God cannot work through the congregation unless they build this building).  The thing that gets me is that in a member vote (after an impassioned plea from the pastor basically saying that the leadership believe this expansion is the way God is leading the church), a whopping 99% of the voters approved the project.  How, out of 3,000+ members/lurkers, could virtually no one oppose this?  Are Beltway members so blindly trusting of their leadership that they’ll go along with anything?  Could it really be God’s will that $9.5 million be spent to expand a church’s worship space and parking lot?  Digital children’s Sunday School check-in kiosks?  Really?

Several Beltway members had commented to the many responses to the story, so I followed the above comment by asking one of them to tell me some specific ways this new facility will be used to serve the poor and marginalized and disenfranchised, and not just church “insiders.”  No responses yet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Does it strike you the same way it struck me, in light of the suffering around the world (and in our own backyards)?  Or are you completely fine with it?  I want to know, so comment.  Let’s generate some discussion around this.

(Beltway people, I want to hear from you, too!)

Tupperware, pt 2

I’m a little bit disappointed that more people didn’t weigh in on my last post. Guess I’m not inflammatory enough… =)

(it’s not too late, btw … even if you disagree vehemently with me, say something!)

I’ve been processing a few things in my mind lately regarding this idea of evangelism, specifically the concept of salvation. On much of this, I have to credit Dr. Mark Love at ACU and his “Narrative Evangelism” material for kick-starting my thinking in this direction. Dr. Love (great name, eh? Dr. Love blogs over here) From his most recent blog post:

But, let’s let that alone, at least for now, and begin to explore what alternatives might look like. I’ve been exploring for a long time different ways to say this. Here’s one way. Salvation is less a transaction, and more participation in an event. It is less a set of ideas to be believed and more a story in which to participate. It is more than just a change of status, but the offer of participation in a God-empowered way of life.

I’d go even further … salvation has also been mischaracterized as a first and foremost the act of believing in several particular propositions. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the sinless life of Jesus, Jonah being eaten by a whale, for example.

But if salvation is first and foremost participatory — and I’ll proceed under the assumption that it is, though I am open to other interpretations and defenses thereof — then how much does one need to know to be considered “in”?  Traditionally, Christians have required that people believe in certain propositions before they are considered to be “in” or “on the journey” or “Christians” or whatever … but is it too much to expect that the 21st century mind (especially the postmodern one) will automatically ascribe to these propositions? 

I’d argue that a gospel that is primarily embodied, or participated in, requires only that people believe that the Way of God through Jesus is the very best, most loving, most just way to live — and begin living that way.  As people see that the lived-out gospel is true, and as they find a place in God’s great mission to heal a broken world, they begin to also recognize the truth behind the central propositions of the faith as well.  But instead of this intellectual ascension being the first hurdle to clear, it becomes a gradual last hurdle.

These are thoughts in process … what do you think?

Church and Tupperware Parties

First off, I review Bill Maher’s comedy, Religulous, over at the Jesus Manifesto zine.  Check them (the review and the movie) out if you get a chance.  On a related note, it’s interesting that apparently, folks associated with the film’s production created a fake Christian rock band to call for a fake Christian boycott of the movie in order to create more of a buzz around the film.  Check out the funny call to arms here.

————————

We’ve all known him or her at one point in our life, perhaps at this moment.  S/he is a regional salesperson of [insert product name here] for [Tupperware / Pampered Chef / Mary Kay / etc].  Remember the first few weeks s/he was selling the stuff?  How s/he kept inviting you to that sales event s/he was having at his/her house?  How everyone would receive the complimentary gift, and there would be no pressure to commit to buying anything?  How you either went to the party, bought something, and that was the end of that … or you didn’t go, haven’t bought anything, and subsequently dread every conversation with said friend since then?

Sound familiar?

I wonder if this is how many outside of Christian circles feel about their Christian friends, especially those who are super evangelistic.  You know, always feeling like they are trying to get them to buy something.  Trying to get them to come to some introductory meeting at their church building or house, where they may even receive a complimentary gift just for showing up. (a Bible, a CD of worship music, the Jesus Video…)  Like many “regional salespeople” of those catchy kitchen products, one begins to wonder if s/he is my friend because s/he cares about me, or if s/he is just trying to sell me something.  In way too many relationships, the agenda is painfully obvious, and the “potential buyer” is usually the one who gets flogged by it.

I’m finding it more and more difficult to “close the deal” in this way as it relates to my faith, instead just desiring to love people and be their friend for no other reason than to love them and be their friend.  (because Jesus said this was the sum of the law and the prophets)  On the other side of the coin, I want all my friends to experience the joy of life under the reign of loving Jesus and be assimilated into his mission.

This is perhaps my/our biggest tension right now.  Suggestions?

*my apologies to any of my readers who are “regional salespeople.”  My intention is not to knock your profession, but to underscore the difficulty of forming authentic friendships while trying to sell a product.  In the same way that not all Christians are “salespeople for Jesus,” clearly not all “regional salespeople” fit my description above.

Texas Reflections Pt. 1: culture shock

We landed in Austin, a city we’ve visited too many times to count.  We love Austin.  In fact, it’s about the only city in Texas we both agree we could live.

Inside the city limits, Austin is a blue dot in a big, red state.  There are funky, local shops and restaurants, hipster lofts and economical single-family homes, and access by bike or public transportation to places to work (Austin is considered the Silicon Valley of the Southwest), play (running, biking, climbing, boating, etc., are all favorite pastimes), shop, and eat.  Oh, and live music venues and dogs outnumber babies, I’m convinced.  It’s one of the funkiest, youngest, most socially conscious cities I’ve ever visited.

Driving north on I-35, however, things are quite different.

Now, this is where I want to be very careful, because the North Austin suburbs are where my in-laws have made their home, where they work, live and go to school.  It’s home to them.  I do not intend to step on anyone’s toes, unless said toes need to be stepped on. (this is for individuals and communities to decide for themselves)

The corridor extending north along I-35 from downtown Austin toward Dallas/Fort Worth is one of the fastest-expanding areas in the United States.  Formerly sleepy towns — with names like Pflugerville, Round Rock, Leander, and Hutto, to name a few — are now booming in population, thanks to a burgeoning technology sector around Austin and, specifically, Dell Computers.  The city limits sign for Round Rock (where Dell is located), for example, still displays “Population: 80,000” when that number has already been dwarfed and is expected to exceed 250,000 people in the next 10 years.

Developers are having a hay-day in North Austin, dotting the Hill Country with housing communities and apartment complexes.  With the influx of people comes the apparent need for grocery stores, big-box electronics outlets, a diversity of chain restaurants, and a Starbucks on every corner, but I’ll tell ya — North Austin seems like overkill in this regard.  Pretty much every bit of undeveloped land is now a subdivision or a store or a parking lot.

Or a church.

And this is the truly shocking part of the North Austin experience.  Forget the over-the-top consumerism and abundance.  There exists a religious infrastructure in many wealthy suburbs that not only refuses to address the realities therein in light of Jesus’ life and words, but supports it.  “We’re so blessed,” they say.

Coming from the racial and socio-economic complexity of Boston into the lily-white and affluent homogeneity of North Austin was culture shock not because the consumerism and wealth exists, but because the consumerism and wealth is supported by a foundation of religion.  Yesterday, David Fitch wrote a great piece touting a missional response to the current economic problems our country faces.  The thrust of it was that communities of Jesus that are living simply (below their means), in close proximity of each other, sharing their possessions, and giving to those who have need (Acts 2 style) are in a unique position to be a breath of fresh air to a world facing economic uncertainty.  But it was this paragraph that took me for a ride:

I have argued that vast swaths of the American church has accommodated itself in some of the worst of ways to the values inherent in these idols. I believe the missional church movement has emphasized a different response to this culture: that we should live more simply, live beneath our means, reject these idols of career, house and money. We must come together to cultivate communal life, communal sharing, transformational practices that resist consumerism and above all the everyday participation in the Mission of God. Our jobs, our homes and our money each in turn become captive to God’s Mission.

We, the people of God, have been assuaged by and accommodated a dying way of life for far too long.  North Austin’s churches, malls, and subdivisions are not the culpible ones here, we are.  We all store up treasures when Jesus told us not to.  We all worry about our provision (“what we will wear”) when Jesus told us not to.  We all obsess over homes and neighborhoods as we claim to follow a savior who had “no place to lay his head.”  I’m not ranting against someone else … I’m ranting against me.

Lord, forgive us.  Change us.

Related: this and this

———

On a different note, check out my dad’s new blog.  He’s off to a great start, taking on some controversial issues right out of the gate.  Guaranteed to be a challenging read from a thoughtful man.

Back from Tejas!

…but a 10-day trip to the Lone Star State isn’t the only reason why I haven’t been blogging.  Who knows why we go through these blog-lulls.  Boredom?  Lack of motivation?  Thinking no one reads this thing?  My reasons are probably a mixture of these and others, but alas, I am going to make a more concerted effort to publish my thoughts here more often.

So, the purpose of our journey west was basically to see Chrissy’s family in Austin, and specifically to see her two brothers play football and her sister cheerlead. (they are 16-year-old triplets)  It just so happened that our university was having its annual ministry conference called Summit while we were there, so we drove the familiar road north for about 3 hours to Abilene to attend the conference and see many old friends.  I’ll post more of my reflections from Summit in posts to come, but the short of it is that we had a surprisingly great time.  The formal sessions were good, but the real meat of our stay in Abilene was, as expected, in the margins — i.e. those un-planned, spontaneous conversations that don’t show up on any program of events.

Abilene is also where I realized I should probably write a bit more frequently here, as person after person told me they read the blog and that it is an encouragement to them.  So this is a post to prime the pump, so to speak, for (hopefully) many more posts to come.

We were in Abilene from Sunday through Wednesday, and we spent the rest of the week in Austin.  I should mention that while in Texas, we ate.  A lot.  We had a laundry list of places we wanted to go while we were there, mostly of the you-can’t-find-this-in-Boston kind.  Here are a few highlights:

In Austin: Z’Tejas (Southwestern) on 6th Street, Rudy’s Barbeque, Saltgrass Steakhouse

In Abilene: Carino’s Italian Grill, Anne’s Thai Restaurant (the best!), Los Arcos Mexican Restaurant (one of our faves), La Popular Café (hands-down the best breakfast burritos in the world), and last but not least, Monk’s Coffee (my bro works there, and Jerry is running a mighty fine establishment)

Each of America’s unique regions has its specialties, many of which I love, but I will always have a special place in my heart for Southwestern cuisine: the Tex-Mex, the steaks, the bbq, etc.  (An aside: I blame my 6 years in Texas for turning me against ever becoming a vegetarian)

On Sunday, Chrissy flew back to Boston without me.  That’s because I was meeting our friend who’s going to be our neighbor so we could drive their stuff from Texas to Boston.  Yep — I just got back last night from our 3-day, 14-state road trip in a big, yellow Penske truck.  Lemme tell you, this is not a trip I would ever take alone, but one that I’d do many times over with a great friend.  I’ll download some of that experience in coming posts as well.

This is me, blogging again.