Sunday, December 31, 2006

Please enter the last four digits of your....

At the risk of sounding like Grumpy Old Man, I reflect on the cultural progress of Christmas as I see it this year. I had a conversation with some friends recently, discussing childhood memories of Christmas. We got to the subject of favorite gifts, such as the Rockem’ Sockem’ Robots, or the G.I. Joe Survival Camp with 3’ tower and coiled up snake. Seems like every person had a similar memory of some kind. It made me wonder what this same conversation will be like 25 years from now, when the kids of this generation talk about their Christmas experiences. Will they reminisce on the $100 Best Buy Gift Card and how they were hoping for the $250 denomination? Will their minds return to the morning they opened the $50 from Old Navy, American Eagle, AND Abercrombie & Fitch? Will they recall the hours of delight they had with the $75 grandma sent? What will be their stories? I know times change and that it is not wise to wish for the “good old days,” but there is something about Christmas that leaves me feeling a little flat. I mourn the loss of the joy of giving. My wife and I have this little recurring discussion about gifts. She says giving is about the person receiving the gift, so if they want the gift card, get them the gift card. What’s the problem? I, on the other hand, find little joy in going down to Target and having this dialogue with the clerk: “Let’s see, can you give me that green one, no, wait, she would like the one with candy canes?” “That will be $25, sir. Credit or Debit?” Pretty soon Christmas will all just be direct deposit. Instead of getting a wish list, you’ll get an account number and a PIN. I’ll even be robbed of the joy of deciding what color or design I can get on the card itself.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Converting to Vegetarianism

I got a new job. I now work at a French bakery. I wish I could say I bake bread, but as it is I just deliver it to a few local stores. One of the stores I visit everyday is a granola joint called Open Harvest. I really like stopping there, as it exudes a unique sense of community. Everyone there is very nice, but are mostly not like me. The air has a distinct aroma, you know, like there’s been a stock pot of parsnips, leeks and rutabaga simmering since Monday. It’s not offensive; mind you, just very different than the Super Colossal Mega-don warehouse called a supermarket where I usually shop. I must confess I feel a bit uneasy at Open Harvest, mainly because I feel like an organic heathen. I don’t think they are trying to make me feel this way, but I certainly sense I am an outsider. There is a definite “look” to the employees, as well as a language and an unwritten set of rules I’m afraid I will break. Today I’m looking at a shelf of snack food, (Keep in mind, here snack food means something different than the chips and jerky at the local Loaf-N-Jug) and below one of the items is a yellow warning label in all caps: THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS TRANS-FAT! Never mind the question that if it does, why are they selling it? I don’t know what the label says to you, but it says to me that if I choose this item and carry it to the checkout dude in the Himalayan hand-knitted stocking cap, I will do so with a sense of shame and chastisement. I can just picture the scowl on checker dude’s face. You’re buying this, this trans-fat laden poison!?!? Help me out here. Stop setting the snack food trap for me, the newbie, OK? I wonder if this is what its like for a person unfamiliar with the Church As We Know It. I’m sure they experience the same look, language and unwritten rules that would exist in any kind of community. These things are inevitable. They are what define us as community, whether we are a church or the Lion’s Club. Maybe we could make things easier by not setting land mines that explode whenever someone outside the community steps on one. Let’s let the offense of the Gospel be a spiritual one, not because your friend is a liberal lesbian who smokes and is afraid to do so around you because she was afraid of what you would think.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Am I Obsolete?

Jack of all Trades and I went to The Church as We Know It together for the first time in I can’t remember. Jack owns a promising media company that specializes in video production, so he asked me to do a job with him. We filmed a church Christmas program. While I’ve not been to anything like that in a couple of years, its like I never missed a day. Same songs, same use of little children in angel wings, same wannabe soloist trying, but not succeeding, to hit the high notes, same street scene of folks walking through yesteryear, same wise men in bath robes, same manger scene, same little speech from the pastor at the end, explaining how this is the church’s gift to you, but that if you were blessed by it, you could give money to one of the wise men standing by the door on the way out. I might try that this year when my family opens presents. “Here are our gifts to all of you, and if you really like them, here’s how you can help me pay for what I gave you. My 12 yr old will come around now with a basket..." As per usual, I think too much about too many things, and this Christmas program was no different. But the main question it made me mull over was, “When and how do we realize we are obsolete?” Among the ministry circles I orbited, there seemed to be a tremendous effort to justify one’s existence and very little concern, if none at all, to ask whether or not one should just simply get out and do something else. In the latter years of my vocational ministry career, I read numerous books that tried to help liberate me from a feeling of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing about my place and the job that I am doing. I heard messages addressing pastors to stay faithful and hold the course. I was even pointed in the direction of reading about and understanding that what I was experiencing was just a midlife crisis, was that I should just endure until it goes away and then I could be normal again. But nowhere did I hear any pastor give a talk about knowing when its time to get out of the ministry. Why is this so? As I reflect on this underserved need, I’ve landed on a few conclusions: 1. We don’t want to ask ourselves the question, “Am I obsolete?” For me to seriously grapple with this, I have to face the possibility that what I an doing is no longer effective, and is in need of drastic change. 2. Even after asking the question, some professional ministers would have no idea that their work is obsolete, because we all hold to the cliché’ that since Jesus would have come to live on earth, and die for just only one person, all our efforts will be justified if one person is ministered to. (Problem is going about finding that one person) 3. Some of us have been doing the work so long, we fear being able to find another job. We find ourselves trapped. (I promise, I am not making this up. I talked with a dude applying for a mission organization because he couldn’t find a job elsewhere.) Its not a question I can answer for you, but I will direct it toward you. Are you obsolete?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Progress, finally.

I quit my job. While that probably doesn't sound like progress, trust me, it is. For the last 16 months I worked in a commercial kitchen at our university. It was both a burden and an education. It was a great place to enter from the exit of my ministerial bubble. I have to admit a bit of shame as I considered many of the efforts I helped initiate for the purpose of "reaching people." I can't picture any of my co-workers doing anything but rolling their eyes if I were to invite them to something I thought might enable them to "hear the Gospel." The time in this prison of a job has led me to re-think, re-imagine and re-direct much of what I believe about the Gospel. Its been highly liberating. I resist the urge to explain to you, the reader, that yes I still believe in it. I hope my words will be self-evident, which leads me to my point. One of the first days on the job, I was working alongside a woman who I later labeled as Angry White Woman. In our conversation that day, she asked why I was working in a kitchen and not as a minister. I told her I was in transition in life and that I was asking myself different questions than before. Her reply: "What the fuck does that mean?" Part of me felt the need to try and explain and defend myself, but again I resisted. I tried to reiterate that I am going through a time where I am examining my faith. "It's all a bunch of bullshit, you know that, don't you?" It's probably clear now why I called her the Angry White Woman. It didn't take long to find out that her anger stems from the Church. She has a sister with whom she used to be very close. The sister got "saved" and now they hardly speak. Her sister thinks she is going to hell. That's her primary view of what faith has to offer. It makes you judgemental. I tried in vain to build a bridge to her, but I was lumped into the same category as her sister and there was not much I could do about it. It made me sad. One way to look at this story is that Angry White Woman had her chance and rejected God. But I want to address why the sister changed. Jesus did say the Gospel will divide, but I have to think its for reasons other than that it makes you act like an asshole.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Waste of Time and Money

Sports are an interesting phenomenon. They invoke such responses as deep as fanaticism to mild indifference to outright protest and disgust. It is amazing to think of the role sports plays in our society. The amount of money alone could probably end world hunger and find a cure for AIDS. But it think there is a reason for its importance that some may not consider. I can't answer why for everyone, but I have come to a conclusion as to why Sooner football is important to me. The epiphany came about a month ago in Norman, OK. On Nov 11, I met up with some good friends from college for a weekend of fun and football. The six of us are in similar paths on our spiritual journeys, and took time during the two and a half days to tell how we are different now than during our time at the university. One guy told us how a certain retreat center on a lake outside of town held some of his dearest memories, how it was a place of refuge and relaxation, and that he was grateful for those times. His story came back to mind after the 34-24 victory over Texas Tech. Savoring the win, we slowly walked through the stadium, reminiscing of the good old days. There I found why Sooner football is important. This stadium was my retreat center. Football, for some reason, escaped judgement among my spiritual community. Golf was deemed a waste of four good hours that could be spent praying or reading your bible. Music concerts were a waste of time AND money and indicative of a lack of commitment since we could somehow afford tickets but not conference registration fees. Yet football was sanctioned. We even sold parking spaces at the student center parking lot. I could attend the games and not feel shamed. I love hearing James Garner's voice saying, "This is Oklahoma Football" on the highlight reel. But mentally I add my own images to those of Billy Sims and Steve Owens. I see standing in the rain with Jeff Campbell in November, getting beat by Nebraska. I see trips to Dallas in October with Bruce, Greg and others. Splice in sitting on the pavement in Arrowhead Stadium parking lot with Chris and Kerry around a charcoal fire on Dec 02nd, savoring the win over Nebraska. This is my Oklahoma Football.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Those Damn Charismatics

My Presbyterian buddy and I used to trade the joke about the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians is that Presbyterians will say hi to each other in the liquor store. I enjoy this kind of denominational humor, especially when its self-deprecating. But most of the jokes I like aren't printable. Differences can make us laugh if we let them, but one difference has not allowed my soul to deeply be humored. It has to do with those damn Charismatics. The Baptists I grew up around were always afraid of Charismatics. I could be (am) grossly over-generalizing, but I think its because they were a happy lot. We were afraid, it seems, of happy. It felt too shallow, too easy, not biblical. (I'm not kidding; massage the text long enough and you get the Gateway to Suffering). Happy people were viewed as not in touch with reality. The world is too cruel, too harsh to be so up beat. Jesus, after all, was a man of sorrows. Show me the antonymic verse to "Jesus wept." There is no "Jesus laughed," or "Jesus saith, Pull my finger." "You have no right to be happy." In my season of darkness, a voice would whisper subtle justifications like this one. I tried to believe that it was normal, that I could not be happy and really serious about my faith. I didn't want to be shallow like those Charismatics. Again, where do ideas like this form? It seems to me that happiness is to be baseline. It is the desired frame of reference. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, it is to be expected. It should be normal. Suffering and grief are inevitable, but we don't seek them or long for them like we do joy and happiness. I feel embarassed that I've missed something so obvious. O God, it feels good to be happy again.