Discerning Your Nature

I’m not going to comment at all about work here, because none of that belongs on this website.

And I’ll rarely comment about things I report on at work, since none of that belongs here either.

But on occasion, I will write about something that strikes me as important.

Saturday morning, I spent a little time at a career event held for high school girls for a short feature story I was writing, interviewing some of the kids, taking a few photos (they weren’t as good as I liked, given that one of the event organizers said I didn’t really have permission to get anyone’s face, which kind of limits what you can do), and listening to a few speakers.

I don’t know how typical this event was of career discernment for teenagers — because it was basically vocational discernment. The kids didn’t take the kinds of aptitude tests I took when I was in high school 35 years ago, an assessment of skills. Rather, they were asked about values – what was important to them as individuals, to their families, and where they differed from the communities they lived in. How do you define success?

And how are important are things like helping society and/or others, organizing things, prestige, intellectual stimulation, being creative, independence, teamwork, being in charge, stability … the list is much longer, but rather than measuring what you could do, it measures what’s already important to you.

Career types were climbed into the following categories based on the collection of values most important to you — artistic (writer), realistic (police officer, engineer), enterprising (finance, sales), social (counselor, medical), conventional (accountancy, computers), and investigative (programmer, professor, psychologist). Again, this isn’t exhaustive.

But it denotes an approach to discernment that aims for self-understanding first. What am I to do? should simply and naturally flow from an understanding of Who am I?

“If you are wired for something, try to do that,” one of the speakers said.

I’ve railed a lot about the understanding of human beings as resources, as things to be managed. I’ve found that to be a fairly inhuman approach to dealing with human beings, and it has been my experience that any system of management tends to be arranged for the convenience of the managers, and not to the benefit of those being managed.

But as I have gotten older, I have come to accept a few things. First, as a good pastor friend at seminary told me, these systems will work for most people, and in mass society, very few any have any real alternatives to being put through them. It behooves us, then, to make these institutional structures, these systems of formation and discernment, as compassionate ands as broadly accepting as possible. They were never that for me, but I’m an outlier and an oddball. (That fact makes Psalm 10 Ministries both possible and successful.) Anyone who wants to know my sad and terrible experience of school and church can read my book, so I won’t rehash any of it here.

If human beings have to be managed, and if this process works for most people, then yes, help people discern who they are and once they have some grasp of that, then let them tackle What am I to do?

I would have liked something like this, something that would have let me figure out who I am – get sense of my nature as person — and then how I could be useful, how I could love, as I was called to love. I’m not sure Southern California in the early 1980s was up to this — Upland was not a place that valued kindness, mercy, love, and compassion — but I can see a value in this.

Just so long as the oddballs and the outliers also have room to figure out who they are. That their struggle isn’t too painful.

And this leads me to my second point. In talking to the young women I interviewed for the piece, I realized — and am learning to realize as I do ministry even with the abused foster kids who find me — that most people dream small dreams. “I want to be a teacher and a mom,” “I want to be a paramedic because that’s a tradition in my family, and family tradition is important to me.” Dreams like this. Simple dreams. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. There are days I wish I could go back and be 19 and have such simple dreams.

I know a lot of my kids ache to have simple lives, and realize simple dreams. Which makes something like love, and family, and belonging, not so simple. Easy to dream, but not so easy to realize. Easy to reach for, but hard to grasp.

Granted, small dreams usually require a functional community in order for them to be realized, a sense that things work for you, or at least don’t actively work against you, and this community seems to more or less work for most people in it.

I’m actually glad to see this. And I hope it really does work. I love being there for the broken, the unloved and unwanted, but honestly, I’d rather the world was arranged in such a way that my presence in it — my willingness to love — was simply not needed. It would be nice if no one was bent and broken as community and society tried to form and shape them.

Yeah, I just wrote that.

But I know the world, and I know people. Someone will always be broken. Someone will always need to know they are loved.

The Future of War … And Politics

Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.

The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.

That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.

I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”

Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.

It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.

While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.

To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)

But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.

And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.

It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.

As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.

In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.

We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.

This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.

The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.

On Knowing, And Being Known

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I took a trip out to the family homestead, to see what has become of the little house where my grandparents lived, where my mother grew up, and where I spent many happy days as a child and a teenager.

It’s been almost ten years since anyone lived in that house. And it is slowly decaying, slowly being reclaimed by the earth it sits upon, by the moss covering much of its roof, by the grass sprouting high in the yard, by the critters moving in where the holes have appeared. It was even quite a trek to get there, the mile-long dirt road is no longer properly maintained, and the weeds in the middle have sprouted high.

We’d have done well to go in an old Ford pickup truck.

A back door was unlocked, and Jennifer and I went in. It still smelled, a bit, of the old house I remembered, a smell I cannot describe, but one that says “home” so very powerfully to me. There is no furniture, nothing of value in the house itself anymore, nothing to hide its utter smallness — American homes were much smaller a century ago, and someone used to today’s houses might be shocked to realize four people — my mother, her brother, and their parents — lived in this house. And that was before Grampie built the new kitchen and dining room (complete with a basement below).

There is the smell of death and decay in this little house. And no wonder. The carcasses of a few dead starlings littered the insides. Strange piles showing something at some point made its residence in this place dot each room

Nothing is left but an old television set, a giant cabinet model from the late 1960s, back when — on a very good day — you might get three channels this far away from town.

The windows are all shuttered and intact. The house has not been vandalized, or used as a drug den, or by teenagers for illicit hookups (ask me later about the young couple in the park bathroom in Colville), but I chalk that up to the fact it is so far away from the county gravel road that if you didn’t know it’s there, you couldn’t possibly know it’s there.

But it is dying. It is slowly mouldering away.

Don’t get any ideas about Jennifer and me living there. Because yes, I know, we need a place to live. But that little house would take too much work and too much money to repair — it’s almost in Green Acres condition — but even worse, the septic drank no longer drains and the well has gone bad.

It still smells a little like “home” to me, both inside and out. But these smells, and this idea of home, they belong to the past, to my memories. There’s no future in this place. Not for me and Jen. Not for anyone.

As we wandered the yard, looking around, seeing the evidence of cattle there recently, likely that very morning, Jennifer asked me:

“Does this make you sad?”

No, I told her. I mourned for the loss of this place — of the life I spent in this place — 20 years ago, the last time we visited my grandfather. I have learned now that the past remains just that — a memory, a feeling, an idea, something that can comfort if you let it. I learned this as I sat alone one afternoon in my Grandmother Featherstone’s house in Roswell, New Mexico, the day after her funeral, trying to remember the times I spent there, smell the smells of that place, hold those memories tight just one more time.

But because she’d been ill for six weeks, the house no longer smelled like my grandparents’ house. It smelled of piss and disinfectant, like the nursing home it became as she quickly succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

And there was little remember in that smell.

Columnist Maggie Gallagher recently read my book, The Love That Matters, and noted something very interesting in an e-mail exchange with me that set me to thinking. Gallagher noted that none of my experiences of acceptance and belonging — and I had many, and related many of them in the book — seemed to affect my self-understanding as someone who didn’t belong and wasn’t accepted. Gallagher’s observation hurt a bit, until I realized just how right she is.

Because I think I was — am — looking for something more than mere acceptance and belonging. I want to be known. And I want to know.

Alan Jacobs, who blogs at The American Conservative, wrote an essay for The New Atlantis about identity and what it means to know people, and how modernity — particularly the invention of the passport and the need for the modern, mass, bureaucratic and administrative state to make people legible — has affected how we know ourselves and know others. Riffing off one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, Jacobs writes:

And Miss Marple’s conclusion: “[…] Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come — and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.” All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.

Much of the essay is devoted to the “mechanics” of identity, how we can go from people who, as recently as the late middle ages, could have more than one name over the course of our lives to people in modernity with fixed and proper surnames attached to numbers attached to all sorts of documents that purport to describe and explain who we are.

Yet that way of knowing, and defining us, false short because it lacks the knowledge of character and personality. It is knowledge unembedded from the deeply intertwined relationships of family, community, and church that formed us and defined us, that came to know who we are.

Jacobs point out Miss Marple’s knowledge is the kind of knowledge that cannot be held in a file. It is a knowledge of habits and personality gained over years of living with people, of forming them and being formed by them. Marple puts her knowledge, and her ability to know, in service of this increasingly abstract mass order, but it is a knowledge that science and rationality increasingly don’t know what to do with.

I’ve complained a lot on this page about what has happened to me, not just with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but to a lesser extent, being an outsider seemingly everywhere I go. But I think what I am truly lamenting is less being an outsider, but rather not being known and not being able to know others the way I ache to.

By knowing, I mean the way Jesus seems to know the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t mince words with her — “You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know” — but he also knows who she is, what she wants, and what she is called to be. Jesus seems to accept her despite it all. He told her the truth about herself, about her life. “He told me all that I ever did,” she told those in her village, bearing witness and compelling many to believe in Jesus.

I want to be more than who and what I say I am. To have something bigger than a self to point to. To know that, in love, others have considered me, and seen something in me, that I could not see without them. And help me become something I could not be — without them.

That I am part of a people who are part of me. Who shape me and are shaped by me. This is what I mean by knowing.

The first thing I need to acknowledge here is this is something for which there is not, and cannot be, any resolution. God made some souls a little more bent than others, and I believe I am one of those souls. Some of us, perhaps many of us, will ache for things we cannot ever have. Not because the world is cruel, but because God creates in us a desire to strive.

Also, I suspect most people don’t ache or desire to be known the way I do. For whatever reason, it does seem that I feel more intensely than a lot of people, though I accept I could very well be wrong about that. I remember how difficult saying goodbye was in the Midwest. At first, I found saying goodbye difficult because I want, up until the last possible moment, as intense a connection as possible with someone, to savor and remember that intensity later. But most folks didn’t seem to want that. I came to accept this reality, but I’ve never really liked it. I need the intensity, and I suspect a lot of people — most, probably — don’t.

Being mobile, as Jennifer and I have been, flitting from place to place and prospect to prospect, has also mitigated against knowing — and being known. We’ve not been anyplace long enough to truly be known. I am, supposedly, the ultimate modern, someone defined by accomplishments. But boiled down to a piece of paper, it turns out … they aren’t all that.

And yet, I am known. By my wife, Jennifer. By a whole host of people at seminary and beyond (you all know who you are, Andrew and Francisco and Karen and Bridget and Bridget and Joy and Aaron and Vince and Jessica and Kurt and Linda and Cheryl and Emilie and Christine and… the names, I never imagined so many names), which became the first place where people really knew me. Knew me the way Jesus knows us, knows this woman.

So, as I sit in a strange place, rationing out my coffee, applying for every job it makes sense to apply for, and wondering what will happen next because nothing is clear (and golly, hasn’t it been that way to one extent or another since 2012?), I do so confident that I am known. And with that comes all the belonging and all the acceptance I could have ever imagined wanting or having.

How Daesh (داعش) Does Really Effective Ministry

Rod Dreher does the world a tremendous favor today by posting a number of links to anthropologist and terror scholar Scott Atran , including this recent piece in The Guardian on the nature of داعش (Daesh, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria), this long interview with Russia Today, this essay in The New York Review of Books, and this piece for Foreign Policy.

Read them. Atran understands the appeal of Revolutionary Islam — he understands the appeal of revolution itself, especially for the young, who seek both adventure and moral clarity as they seek a place and a purpose in the world — and he appreciates the difficulties the bourgeois West faces in dealing what is essentially a revolutionary crusade to make a perfect world. I think Atran underestimates the sheer overwhelming and crushing power of bourgeois banality — it has steamrolled everything in its path, and I doubt Revolutionary Islam, for all its rage and well-planned violence, will prevail over the essential bureaucratic and mechanical meaninglessness of modernity.

I won’t belabor many of the points Atran makes — you should just read them. Mostly, he focuses on the tremendous appeal of meaning and purpose that داعش presents to the young, disaffected and otherwise, of the West, young people who are looking for something bigger to belong to.

Meaning, belonging, and purpose — I write a lot about these things in my book. That was the appeal of Islam for me, and it was the appeal of Revolutionary Islam for the few years I flirted with it. Secular modernity has done very poorly for some — misfits and castoffs and otherwise marginalized people for whom there is no room in a society that won’t tolerate alternative forms of meaning to modernity’s search for comfort, security, and pleasure. Or for whom there is no space in or with the moralizing cohorts of the progressive left, which demands inclusion in a world I’m honestly not sure is worth being included in and which simply doesn’t include us in their idea of inclusion anyway. (Yes, I am still something of a frustrated revolutionary. I really do wish I had a revolution I could fight and die for, worth fighting and dying for…)

And I’ll have to be honest, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tossed me out of their candidacy process in 2014, saying I was too much of a sinner — too much of a potential liability — to be a pastor, that set off a tremendous crisis of meaning and purpose in my life. One that I haven’t really been able to resolve. Because I still ache to belong to something. And I don’t now. Because I’m not allowed to belong.

So, I get the appeal of داعش, and were I younger, I think it’s something I could join. I would have found beheadings distasteful, but honestly, it’s about building a better world. So I could have lived with them and justified them. After all, no sacrifice is too small for a better tomorrow — George W. Bush set fire to all of Iraq with the promise of a better tomorrow — so Americans aren’t all that different. Save that our means are mechanical, bureaucratic, and impersonal. We don’t get our hands so terribly bloody when we kill.

But none of this is what I want to focus on. In the NYRB piece, Atran notes something stunning as he critiques Western efforts to counter داعش “propaganda”:

In its feckless “Think Again Turn Away” social media program, the US State Department has tried to dissuade youth with mostly negative anonymous messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future, well is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things? As one teenage girl from a Chicago suburb retorted to FBI agents who stopped her from flying to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

By contrast, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist single individuals and groups of friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, to learn how to turn their personal frustrations and grievances into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims, and thus translate anger and frustrated aspiration into moral outrage. From Syria, a young woman messages another:

I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.

And any serious engagement must be attuned to individuals and their networks, not to mass marketing of repetitive messages. Young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture at one another. There are nearly fifty thousand Twitter accounts supporting ISIS, with an average of some one thousand followers each.

There’s a word for what داعش is doing here — ministry. While Western governments futz and fiddle (and generally fail) with programs and policies, داعش is building individual relationships of empathy and support, reaching across as individual human beings to other individual human beings, listening to life stories and then slowly, carefully, and deliberately providing a meaning and structure, and then a series of answers about life and the world that lead to purposeful action.

According to Atran, the FBI has only one person — an agent in Los Angeles — doing any kind of counter-engagement.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

I know many pastors who are deeply frustrated with a bureaucratic church life that seems deliberately and purposefully intent on suffocating or even preventing ministry. The good they do, the relationships they build, the presence of God they share and are part of, seem almost accidents in daily lives given over to bureaucratic and administrative nonsense. Its seems much of the world works that way, on accident rather than on purpose. It is deeply frustrating to live in a world like that.

And deeply human to want to change that.

Atran is right. Since the summer, I’ve done an online ministry with young people that has worked largely in this dynamic. It’s not hard to find kids who ache to be listened to empathetically — they are all over Whisper — and to say a kind word or two to them. To gain their trust simply by listening. I try to give hope, a Jesus-shaped hope (without overtly mentioning Jesus, though as I have read Atran’s work, I think that has been a mistake) to those who express hopelessness and despair. It’s tough work, this empathetic relationship building, even online, and I was successful at it when I was unemployed and could devote myself to it full time. But once I was employed, and had other work that swallowed up my days, well, there have been a couple of significant failures because I could not devote all the time needed to all the people I had committed to.

And as I think about this ministry, I suspect no church in its right mind would approve such a thing — much less approve me to do it. Too risky. Too unquantifiable. Too … strange. Where’s the program? The job description? The accountability? The measures of success?

If the West wanted to properly counter داعش, western governments would create — or better, probably foster and encourage — a cadre of empathetic relationship builders (or pastors, if you will) who will meet the same kinds of people in the same kinds of ways that داعش recruiters do and engage them. By listening, by empathizing, and then by slowly inviting those people into an understanding of their life, their meaning, and their purpose that doesn’t involve the waging of global revolution. I personally think love is a good organizing principle, but then I would. Perhaps we could aim to create an “Army of Love,” jaish al-hub جيش الحب, though what the point of that army would be, aside from doing what Jesus tells us to do — preach, teach, and baptize — I’m not sure.

Mostly because I don’t think there is anything more. But that’s just me.

What I do know is that no Western government could organize this without thinking in terms of call centers or customer support. Without imposing the means and methods of modern management in order to try to continually prove its effectiveness. Without job descriptions and regular metrics. You couldn’t sell mere relationship building, love as both means and end, to a modern organization. Contractors are allowed to rob governments blind but something as “unorganized” as this would simply give managers the hives. I’m not even sure a church could do it effectively. Because churches are wrapped up in the same way of doing business as governments and corporations. It’s all the same rotten culture.

So, داعش will continue to find — and be found — by those seeking meaning. Because young people want to know their lives have value and purpose. Because so many are hungering for meaningful encounters with empathetic adults who will value them and help guide them toward that purpose. I know because I’ve met them. And I still meet them. There are young people out there who hunger for meaning, purpose, and belonging, who yearn for something more than the grand buffet of unlimited consumption and meaningless comfort, of using and being used. And right now, for some, داعش provides that.

A smart society would find room for such people without demanding the kind of complete conformity that liberal modernity demands. But we do not live in a smart society. Most people seem happy with the promises of the modern world (and bully for them) and cannot fathom why some of us are misfits, malcontents, and marginalized — why we want something more. Or something different. So, because of that, it probably won’t matter what even a fairly large portion of the disaffected and the misfit want or even choose. We’ll all be steamrolled by the impersonal machine that is bureaucratic modernity anyway. The West can afford to do nothing. It can afford not to care.

Culture and the Church

I’m not very good at self-promotion. In fact, I’m quite bad at it. Last week, on September 11, I had a piece on Internetmonk which you can read here. I suppose I should have posted it that day. I need a manager and a keeper, but I suppose to have those things, I’d need something a little more interesting to a few more people than come here.

At any rate, I think and write a lot about belonging. I suppose a person’s focus is frequently the problem they have to deal with, or feel they have to deal with. I have a very pronounced desire to belong and that has always met what I have discerned as the world’s deep and hostile unwlecome. I’ve never known entirely what to do with it, especially since I found welcome among Muslims but eventually was yanked out of Islam by a very powerful encounter with Jesus. And I wrote the following about the church and the culture:

It all really comes back to how culturally determined Christianity is in America. Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. (This is not the same as telling people do’s and don’ts.) Nowhere in the church have I come across anything as welcoming and understanding of that as what Muslims showed me. Half of what sunk me with the Lutherans, I think, was the fact that I simply did not understand Lutheran culture in America, not enough to function pastorally for the comfort of most typical Lutherans. The seminary understood this, and thought I opened the ELCA to ministry prospects it might not otherwise have (I led an ad hoc worship service one afternoon with a Chicago street gang mourning the loss of a member in a drive-by shooting, because they were neighbors and I felt the call of the Spirit to be in their midst). But the ELCA opted for caution and safety, and I’m honestly not sure I can blame them.

But the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too. I’ve done a miserable job at looking for church work, but then most of the churches I’ve applied to have been Baptist or heavily influenced by whatever corporate ideals demand “leadership” that there’s no way in hell I’m getting past anyone’s board of elders. (A couple have been kind in responding, but it’s all been a resounding if very polite and even apologetic no.) The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.

So, I was rather pleasantly surprised when Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote at First Things about the American church’s inability to fely on culture in the future:

For nearly the past two centuries, Evangelicals, especially in the South and Midwest, could count on the culture to do a kind of pre-evangelism. The culture encouraged people to aspire to a kind of God-and-country citizenship, to marriage, and to stable family life. Even when people didn’t live up to those ideals, they knew what they were walking away from. Evangelicals, then, could use “traditional ­family values” to build a bridge to people for the Gospel. Churches could plan on crowds to hear counsel for a better marriage, or how to put the sizzle back in a sex life, or how to discipline toddlers or maintain a good relationship with one’s teenagers. One could trust that the culture shared the “values.” People just needed practical tips on how to achieve those values, starting with “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

We can no longer assume, even in the Bible Belt, that people aspire to, or even understand, our “values” on marriage and family. These parts of our witness that were the least controversial—and could be played up while playing down hellfire and brimstone, for those churches wanting a softer edge—are now controversial. Churches that reject the sexual revolution are judged as bigoted. Churches that don’t won’t fare much better, for in a secularizing culture, churches that embrace the revolution are unnecessary—just as the churches that rejected the miraculous in favor of scientific naturalism were in the twentieth century.

(While I agree wholeheartedly with Moore about his understanding of the sexual revolution, I am much more ambivalent about homosexuals in the church. Scripture is clear about what constitutes sin, but scripture is also clear about all sorts of sinful practices that not only go unpunished but actually contribute the foundation of the people of God. And more than anything, scripture is also clear about welcoming, and the New Testament in particular is clear about welcoming those the Torah excluded them from the assembly.)

The American church has forgotten how to welcome people because it has forgotten how to be anything other than an appendage of American culture, which already assumes both welcoming and assimilation. Some on the Christian right, including Moore, have been lecturing conservative Christians on their support for donald Trump, but I suspect leaders like Moore are only beginning to grasp that Christianity — and confessional identity — is far more a cultural force than a religious one in America. It is really a tribal identity, not a serious encounter with the call of God.

This is inescapable. A religious faith is always going to meet us enfleshed and embodied, and that’s what cultures do. And so how a people incarnate their encounter with God is an important way they live out their encounter with the holy and the sacred. Jesus himself lived in a time and a place, spoke to people in a language they understood, and told stories that would make some kind of sense to them. But this very cultural incarnation also poses great risks, since it can become the focus itself, rather than the lens that helps people focus on God. And the American church doesn’t know, right now, how to get past its reliance on the culture to produce the kinds of people who, with a little extra tweaking, can also be good Christians.

Like Moore, I hope the church’s new status allows us as Christians to figure out how to follow Jesus absent the sense that this is just how normal, well-adjusted people — good citizens — ought to live. I don’t think a lot of American Christianity will survive this, if for no other reason than this Christianity is so comfortable and so easy. I’ve always found the “God-and-country citizenship” Moore refers to puts country first, with God a kind-of distant second, a great national cheer leader. I’m not confident about that — a lot of conservative politics, including the appeal of Donald Trump, is about fighting hard to reclaim that “God-and-Country” tribal identity.

And when they fail at reclaiming that easy faith, I think a lot of American Christians will give up being even nominally Christian. Like the northern kingdom of Israel, which gave itself wholly and completely over to idolatry almost from its founding, they will become lost amidst the conquering Assyrians.

The good news in this is that those lost tribes became the Samaritans, a people Jesus had much good to say. And came to save.

Things I Learned Writing A Book — God Is Not Fair

An occasional series where I reflect on the things I learned from writing my memoir, The Love That Matters

The things we learn by doing. And can only learn by doing. If I had it to do all over — writing my first book — knowing what I know now, I’d finish the final draft, hand it over to my editor, and say, “let’s let it sit for three months so I can cogitate and contemplate for a while, and then I’ll go through it again.”

Because I learned a lot, about myself and my life, saw things I’d never seen before, writing this book. And since we didn’t do that — it felt like a rush, and then nothing for months while the finished book sat in Wipf & Stock’s editorial queue — I’m going to use my blog to contemplate some of what I learned here.

Audrey West really puts her finger on things when she describes my life as “a quest for ‘home,’ and experience of safety and rest.” I’d probably go a little farther and say my struggle was to find a place and people to belong to. But she nails it, solid. I’m glad she saw this. Because i’m not certain I could have. Not in so many words.

If there was a thing that simply did not work in my young life, it was belonging. It was fitting it. It was conforming. It was being accepted. It was finding a place among the people I was with in which I was valued, in which I contributed something useful, was wanted, was accepted on some level for who I am.

My mother told me a story a couple of years ago, and I struggled with including it in the book. Because I couldn’t testify to the truth of the story — it wasn’t something I witnessed — I decided not to.

I do remember some pressure my freshman year, it was fairly subdued, on the part of some folks at Upland High School, to have me play football. (In this, I have to thank Coach Beresford, who was really quite kind and supportive during the two years I had to take physical education, which I dreaded, and which he made whole lot easier.) I don’t remember much, and my answer was always no, sports simply did not interest me. (At SF State, when the athletic department took out an advert in the student paper looking for football players, I gave the matter some thought — at that point, it seemed like something worth trying at least once, at a place where winning couldn’t possibly matter.)

But my mother tells a different story. At parent meetings, they got a lot of pressure from other parents (and maybe from teachers?) that I should play.

“But he doesn’t want to,” was my mother’s answer.

“What does it matter what he wants? You should make him play,” was the response, according to my mother.

I believe her. In part, because I saw that happen to a couple of high school students at the church where I served my first internship. I wish my parents hadn’t shielded me from this, if for no other reason then I needed to know that they were actively taking my side on something.

But in part I experienced this part of “life together” in other ways.

Our children are strangers when they arrive in our midst. And our calling is to turn them into friends and loved ones. We form them, help them figure out who and what they are and how they belong. But in the process, their presence in our midst should change us as well. We should be formed by them at least as much as they form us. It is, or it should be, a real relationship, in which a functional human being is formed and fashioned and in that process, we continue to become more human ourselves.

ADDITION: We don’t do ourselves any favors when we treat people as mere means to an end. That the only value they may have, and their only use, is the one we ascribe to them. If we’re just giving them something, or worse, compelling them to do or be something against their will and without any sense of who they might be (or might be called to be), then we do nothing but cause trouble. Because some people need more work, and more help, than others do.

I feel like I’m not putting this well.

One of the things I came away with from growing up in Upland, California, is that there was nothing I brought to the community that the people around me valued. I did not find people willing to meet me in any meaningful way. Unwilling to be formed by my presence in their midst. How could I really meet them if they wouldn’t meet me? Whether I triggered something that simply brought the abusive out in them — Ms. Johnson, my fifth grade teacher, is the prime example of this, though there have been others — or they simply found me too puzzling or perplexing, and because of that they simply did not know what to do with me or what to make of me, it hardly matters. There was no reciprocal relationship here, no attempt to form me and no willingness to be formed by the encounter with me.

Upland was a very conservative Southern California suburb, and the community was deeply attached to social roles (to the extent they existed in an atomized bedroom community). And this appears to work, more or less, for lots and lots and lots of people. It didn’t work for me. The place had little imagination or patience to deal with those who needed a little — or a lot — more work to figure out who they were and how they belonged. You can’t hand me an identity, a place in the community, or a social role out of box that I would or could easily or willingly accept. This was something I needed to craft with my own bare hands, and I desperately needed the help of others, and there was likely no way this was going to be easy no matter where I was or who I was with.

It wasn’t easy at seminary. But I found people at LSTC willing to do the hard work of helping me become the person I was supposed to become, and in that process, they were changed by me.

One of the things I have learned is that I am a deeply relational person. As gruff and fiercely independent as I can be (and I am; my mother will attest to how difficult it was to raise me at times), I really truly do best when I am deeply embedded in a community of people where I am valued and I belong. I truly needed others to help me figure out who I was, and I was lost otherwise. “What will I be?” was never merely a question of best career choices for me. It was existential. It is existential. And I still struggle with it. I am called to preach and teach, and was formed in that calling by a church which decided in the end that I am unfit for that calling. At least in their midst.

That ought to hurt more than it does. But it doesn’t because of one of the other things I have come to accept: God is not fair. In fact, God is deeply unfair and unequal in the treatment and attention doled out. The fairness of God is a conceit of our democratic modernity, which tries to create a banal universalism and meaningless equality when, in fact, God shows love and attention and affection to some far more than others.

This is not a good thing, however. Because I understand completely St. Teresa of Avila when she said, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Because this deeply unfair love of God is troublesome. Some people are marked, given wounds and burdens, are made strange and different in ways that strike us as deeply unjust. I ache to belong to people, to a community, in a way that I will likely never be able to belong. (In fact, the very belonging I seek is some unobtainable combination of Grampie and Grammie’s ranch and White Sands. I still ache for the Army!) Our modernity tells us this is a problem to be solved, with therapy and medication and modification and punishment. Because there is no unfairness, and no inequality, not in nature, not in the creation. There is no one that doesn’t fit, or can’t be made to. (God loves each and every one of us THIS MUCH! And no more!) Anything that appears to be bent or broken can simply be straightened or remade. There isn’t anything we can’t or shouldn’t try to fix. Or apply technology to.

But the wound is a witness. The ache is a witness. The longing is a witness. The seeming incompleteness is a witness. It says something to the world that the world needs to know. I’m not sure what that is, aside from the profound love of God for the world, and even that must simply be apprehended, and not reasoned. Perhaps it says something about the God in whose image we are made. God as God really is, and humanity as that very real image, rather than some idealized and perfect (and well-adjusted) mankind.

Maybe it’s a mirror to hold up to a world that prizes ordinariness and normality and conformity that God is present in the strange and the odd, in the misfit and the malcontent, and perhaps more powerfully there than in the order of the ordinary. It’s a testimony in face of the belief that all things should be the same, that all substances should be as they appear, all appearances should match every substance, that no, in fact, God does plant strange seeds in our midst to grow up crooked and curious. That some appearances belie the substance they cover. That taking the time to appreciate this has value.

Finally, I have learned that my life does not belong to me. (And if you’d told me that at 16, I’d of kicked and screamed and run away, because it meant my life belonged to you. I needed to fight for my life, and find value it it, in order to have something I could surrender utterly to the divine. Otherwise, you’d of been taking something from me that I wasn’t sure you valued — wasn’t sure entirely that I valued.) My life makes sense to me, but now, it makes sense in the surrender to that call. Not in trying to assert some idea of who or what I am. And that’s how I can live with being a witness to something greater than me. That I am complete, aches and wounds and all.

And I belong. Aches and wounds and all.

* * *

This was something of a ramble, and I’m not sure I say any of this well. *Sigh* I will have a whole lifetime to figure out how to do this.