Monday, February 27, 2017

WITH - 2

For the past six months I have been working on a personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  It has been on a personal sojourn to try an unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.  And so, I have been writing a book.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next 19 weeks, I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH is installment #2:


This book is about a powerful, singular and central concept.  It is about the transformative power of going with other people.  That’s it!  Going…with…people.  If you already have a facility for this life skill, or are good at it, then feel free to put this book down right now.  It will be a waste of your time to read it.  But if you are like me, and for whatever reason, are pretty capable at doing a whole lot of other things, but have never been really very good at going with other people, then this book is for you. 

And, I must admit, that it has been quite a surprising self-revelation to me that I am not good at going with people, because, as I said, I have shown an aptitude at several other things in life.  I am pretty-good at being a pastor.  I am a reasonably good father.  I am a fairly adept leader.  I like strategic planning and visioning.  I have been told I have some gifts in public speaking.   Cooking.  I like to sing!  I play the bagpipes and the piano and the guitar.  I can do all three (though, not usually at the same time).  But going with other people….that elusive and ineffable life skill which seems to require a gear that I have not been given…appears, somehow, and mysteriously to be lacking in me all these years.

Now, I want to be clear.  It is not that I don’t care about people.  I do.  A lot!  I know that I have a certain level of “empathy” in my character swath because a recently taken skills and personality test has shown me that.  But it is the intentional act of going with other people – the art of listening and not giving advice, the coming alongside and not acting superior towards others, the practice of taking information deeply into my soul and not just nodding and smiling that I lack.  It’s just - going with that is somehow hard for me. 

And who is it that I desire to have more intentionality and ability to go with?  I want to be better at going with neighbors that I live next door to, better at going with the spouse that I am married to, better at going my children that have miraculously come into my life, better at going with co-workers that I labor beside, better at going with friends through health-struggles, better at going with colleagues through terminations from jobs, better at going with people who hold different religious beliefs from me, better at going with people who have different sexual preferences, better at going with people who have physical and psychological challenges, better at going with the average person I meet on the street, better at going with the sales clerk at the store who opens a dressing room for me, better at going with the homeless person on the corner who holds out a sign for money.  This basic life skill set is what I have sought to learn and discover, to become better at and to become more disciplined about, through the writing of this book.  This has been my literary and spiritual journey.

The Problem - I’m Not The Only One

            What I have surprisingly discovered, through the writing of this book, is that I am not the only one who is lacking in this fundamental human skill set.  An increasingly large number of people in our world are, it would seem, also lacking and increasingly devoid of the ability to go with others. 

            Consider the following examples of how isolated, separated and alone our modern American landscape has become as it finds an almost total inability to go with one another.

·      *  In the year 2016, almost as many people got divorced from one another as got married to one another in the United States.  In other words, almost as many couples decided to go against one another as decided to continue to go with one another.

·      *  Most people don’t have friends or even contacts who are in different political parties from them, have different religious affiliations, or are a part of different cultural backgrounds.  Most people do not go with people who are not like them politically.

·      *  Most fathers spend less than an hour a day with their children - and a total of only seven hours a week with their kids.  Most dads, in other words, do not go with their own kids

·    *    Most couples spend less than 5 minutes a day with one another in meaningful, uninterrupted conversation.  Most couples do not spend meaningful time going with one another.

·     *   Half of the entire population of the of United States do not know the name of their own their next-door neighbors.  We do not go with those we are living in close-proximity with.

·      *  Most Christians don’t have friends who are in different religious traditions from their own.  Most Christians do not go with people in other religious traditions.

·       *  60% of Non-Christians in North America do not know anybody in their world, or their social set, who is a practicing Christian”.  Most non-Christians have chosen not to go with people of the Christian faith.

·      *  Less than half of all people who self-identify as heterosexual in North America have friendships with people who are gay.  Most straight people do not go with gay people, though the opposite trend (of gay people going with straight people), is not the case.

·      *  Most people who watch Fox News never watch MSNBC, and most people who watch MSNBC don’t watch any Fox programming.  Most politically conservative people do not go with those who are more politically progressive, and vice versa.

·      *  In a recent survey of the political leanings of people, the percentage of people in the United States who labeled themselves as “consistently conservative” or “consistently liberal” (as opposed to consistently moderately conservative or consistently moderately liberal) has increased to 21 percent of the population.  In other words, people are becoming more bifurcated and extreme politically, and therefore, more separated from one another.

·      *  While men tend to be worse in terms of having close friendships, most people today say they have less close friends than ever before.  We, as a society, are choosing to go it alone!

            In short, it would seem that more and more people in the United States are going against than they are going with.  More people are going in opposite directions, than they are coming together.  To paraphrase one of the great social commentary books about the American landscape in the previous century, The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom, “We are like lonely shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished.”

And, in the place of continual and ongoing relationship and even what might be considered as the most basic and “minimal association” with one another there is an increasing sense of separation.  There is separation from one another and there is separation from ourselves.  Within this separation there is, as the late twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, once said, a level of (to use a Christian word for it), sin: “sin is separation”.   We are separated from God, separated from one another, and separated from ourselves.  So, isolated have we become from one another, that in the place of common and civil dialogue there is often heated conflict and protest.  In the more modern words of the famous conflict negotiations expert Bill Ury, author of, Getting To Yes; “conflict in our country seems to be at an all-time high.  We are at the most intense time ever.  We are not at the most dangerous time in history, that was during the Cold War, but we are definitely at the most intense time in history.”  At the same time that our personal relationships in America seem to be getting more and more bifurcated, our national relationships and political conversations are becoming increasingly separated.


All For Now,


Monday, February 20, 2017

WITH - 1

For the past six months I have been working on a groundbreaking personal project of spiritual growth and theological understanding.  I have been writing a book.  Yes, I know that that six word phrase, "I have been writing a book", can sound pretentious and somewhat loaded (especially when uttered on the outskirts of LA where I now live, and where everyone seems to be writing something), but it is true.  Every day for six months now, I have been working on this project.

But more than a mere book (what the world really needs now is, right?), I have been on a personal sojourn to try an unlock some of the secrets of how we are made as human beings, the exact nature of God's relationship with us, some of the problems with what is going on in our American political context right now.  More broadly, what I am interested in, is what is critically wrong with Christianity as we know it in the North American context today.

The book is entitled, "With: The Transformative Power of Going With People Rather Than Against Them".  Over the next twenty weeks - starting today - I will be writing blog posts that will flesh-out aspects of this book.  The reason I am writing blog-posts about these ideas is because I want to invite you into the conversation.  I want to get your help in writing this book.  If anything I write over the next several weeks strikes a chord with you in any way, please let me know.  If what I share doesn't seem correct to you, I would also like to hear from you.  If you, like me, are as interested in unlocking the secrets of God's relationship with us, then perhaps we can embark on this journey together.  What I am after is nothing short of, as Hemingway once said; "writing something true".  And so now, if you are still WITH is installment #1:


Downtown Los Angeles - 1982

           The morning translucent glow of Los Angeles, which, in a previous era could often be mistaken for smog, was still enshrouding the city of Los Angeles at 9:30AM on a Sunday morning.  Though weekends were less jammed with traffic on the California freeways, there were still the myriad of ecclectic and sundry people who were out and about for their ritual morning gourmet coffee fix.  Roller skaters, cyclers, senior citizens, dogs with their doting owners, mothers jogging alongside their babies in strollers were all meandering the streets of downtown LA.  Head-banded work-out instructors with magenta colored tights and pastel shaded leggings were all rushing to their jazzer-size classes. 

            And a few people were on their way to church.  A very few!  Christ our Lord Presbyterian Church, once the center of upward mobility and the epitome of Southern Californian establishment culture, wasn’t what it used to be.  The building had become run down, the sandstone edifice had become charred with years of decay, and the membership had dwindled from multiple thousands to a bare handful of a hundred. But, on pellucid blue mornings like this, the old church still occasionally resembled it’s previously successful and grandiose self.  

The actual church service that morning hadn’t been particularly memorable or noteworthy.  The choir sang the usual old dirges from the deep purple church hymnal, and the octogenarian pastor trotted out the same cliché’s and platitudes in the sermon.  Arthur, a retired pastor himself, hadn’t really been listening to the sermon anyway.  He was really there just to teach his assigned Sunday School lesson to a handful of fellow octogenarians and to receive his weekly teaching stipend check from the church secretary which paid for the sundry expenses of retirement.  It was an otherwise uneventful morning, though, it did stand out for one reason.  For Arthur, there was something unsettling about his life lately.  A non-descript, and indescribable ache and annoyance had been troubling him.  The trouble emerged from deep within his soul, and had been agitating for some time.  He couldn’t say why, but he was just very angry for some reason - he was very, very upset.  Like an itch in the middle of a back that could not be reached or scratched, Arthur was unable to reach or scratch the thing that bothered him.  

            The general annoyance began with the toast at breakfast which was cooked beyond the point where Arthur preferred it.  And then there was the fact that his kids and grandkids hadn’t called him what seemed like months.  The morning newspaper featured another downtick in the stock market.  Most of all, what bothered Arthur was that he had been losing his memory - he had been getting more forgetful.  Whereas at earlier points in his life, he was very good at knowing all of the capitals of all the major countries of the world (London – England, Prague – Czechoslovakia, Sydney – Australia), he couldn’t remember any of them now.  Frankly, Arthur couldn’t even remember his own street name sometimes.  He would go on a walk and not remember his own address.  Arthur sometimes even forgot the names of his own kids and grandkids.  Details which used to come easy to Arthur could no longer access. 

Ellen, Arthur’s wife had noticed a change in Arthur of late as well.  He just wasn’t himself.  Aside from his memory loss, he was also flying-off the handle with rage at the smallest and most insignificant things.  Arthur would yell at the television with such vehemence that Ellen was often afraid that he might actually get up out of his chair attack the character inside the frame of the screen.  He would be sent on a small errand to go fetch the mail from the mailbox, and he would come back hours later, having wandered around the garden all morning, not knowing exactly why he was out of the house.  But worse, he would get very angry with himself for the mistake.  The doctor had said that it might be early signs of Alzheimer's Disease.

            And so, when Arthur and Ellen got into their two-door, brown Datsun hatchback after church, to return home from the morning’s church service, it was never a forgone conclusion where the car ride, from that point forward, would eventually take them.  Leaving the church parking lot in Los Angeles Sunday morning rush hour was never fun.  Sometimes it seemed like all of LA was one big left hand turn, with no chance of ever turning right – even though the freeway entrances were invariably on the right of wherever you wanted to go.  “You have to go left Arthur, if you want to go right, you will have to drive around the block in order to go where you want to go,” Ellen said encouragingly.  “I KNOW THAT, I KNOW THAT,” “YOU DON’T THINK I KNOW THAT?????” yelled Arthur, gesticulating with his hands in a chopping motion while un-nervingly taking his eyes off the road.  “Arthur, watch where you are going, honey, these LA drivers are crazy.”  “YOU DON’T THINK I KNOW HOW TO DRIVE?!???” “I AM A VERY GOOD DRIVER!!!” Arthur demanded.  “I have driven these roads hundreds of times before.  Just keep your mouth shut, and let me do the driving.”  Ellen was stunned.  She had never known Arthur, in all of their 50 years of marriage, to be so verbally abusive to her.  Arthur was just not....Arthur.

            Seeing that she could not have a coherent or calm conversation with Arthur, Ellen decided to try a new approach.  She had heard other friends talk about the technique, adapted from the world of anger management, but more recently applied to those who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease.  It was the technique of simply just - “going with” people who are struggling.  Rather than correct them, or get angry with them, or insult them or teach them or preach to them or demean them, the technique was simply to - "go with" them.  And because Arthur seemed hell-bent on going where he wanted to go anyway on this morning, it seemed the course of least possible resistance.  

           And so, as Arthur merged onto the freeway taking their small car, not to the north of Los Angeles, where they lived, but onto the south of Los Angeles where they did not want to go, Ellen decided to just…go with it.  As they passed the signs going south, through Englewood and Vermont Square and Florence and Watts, in dangerous enclaves, going in the wrong direction, she went with it.  As Arthur prattled on about some minor nuance of Biblical exegesis on a Biblical text that nobody ever read or cared about, Ellen went with it.  She said to herself, “I’m just going to go WITH IT…wherever IT may lead.”

            Eventually they passed the exit leading to Glendora, and headed out towards Barstow, and Palm Desert, at least an hour beyond their initial exit heading southward.  Riverside County with all of its build-up and suburban housing passed them on their right.  Ellen told herself that she would just imagine that she was on Sunday drive.  Eventually, Arthur would come to his senses, or they would run out of gas.  One way or another, this Sunday morning escapade could not go on forever.  Ellen with with it.

            It was right on the border of California and Arizona that Arthur, all on his own, seemed to come to his own intellectual border crossing.  As Arthur was driving past the huge field of windmills that mark the last part of California, he came to a kind of epiphany.  It was the sort of self-realization which doesn’t happen very easily, or very often, and is always self-induced.  Arthur realized that he was wrong!  Wrong.  In fact, that he had been on the wrong road for at least two hours.  So wrong was Arthur, that he and is wife were now four or five hours away from home, rather than the normal twenty minutes that they usually took to go home from church.  

           Arthur pulled the car over to a rest-stop on the side of the road, and pulled the car into a parking place near to the public restrooms.  There he sat, staring forward, with both hands on the steering wheel, and his head bowed downward.  He said, with sadness and a tear that trickled down his wrinkled cheek, “I’m sorry, Ellen, I guess I am lost.  I guess I need some help getting home.”   Ellen could not believe her ears.  In 50 years of marriage, Arthur had never apologized for anything.  She had prayed many days and nights for this moment of self-contrition, and here it was, falling upon her ears like a feather wafting off of an old pillow-case - an apology.  Ellen also knew that Arthur's moment of self-understanding had occurred, in large part, because of her newly learned technique of - "going with".  “It’s ok honey, I’ll help you get home.  We are in this together.  Let’s just turn the car around and start driving back home.  It’s a beautiful day, and we with each other, and that’s the important thing.”  It had truly been a morning and a lesson in – “going with”.

           Going with others, rather than going against them, or going above them, or going instead of them, is singly the most transformative tool we all have in the lives of the people around us.  In a world that loves to demonize, sermonize, and criticize those who disagree with us, the tool and the remedy is, ironically found in the opposite action - in "going with".  What applies not us for victims of Alzheimer's disease, but for all people - the act of moving in the same direction as, of going alongside though not always agreeing with, of persevering through the conflicts with actually plays a transformative roll in the lives of the people around us.  It is so simple to understand,  and yet it is so hard to do.  

           Next week, in installment #2, we will talk about how foreign the practice of going with other people has become in our modern day American society.  We have become, it would seem, a culture of going against, rather than a culture of GOING WITH!

All For Now,


Monday, February 13, 2017

Einstein and Moses

This past week I discovered a fascinating thing I did not know about the great physicist, Albert Einstein.  It is this.  Einstein worked, quite literally from the day he was born, until the day (literally the last hour before he died).  The photograph above is a shot of Einstein's desk, taken quite literally an hour or two after he died in 1955.  As you can see, his desk was totally cluttered, and math equations were still scribbled on the chalk board behind his desk.  Reports are that Einstein's pipe was still warm on his desk when his picture was taken.  Just before this picture was taken, he was rushed off to Princeton Hospital, where he died not long thereafter.

The clutter of Einstein's desk is also comforting to me, given the clutter of my own desk.  Once, when he was young, Einstein asked the bemused question; "If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the sign of an empty desk.....(the rhetorical answer - an empty mind)."

And what was Einstein working on right up until the end of his life?  For the final thirty years of his life, Einstein had been working on a Unified Field Theory - in short, a singular mathematical equation which summed up all of the universe.  Many years before he had discovered the theory of relativity.  Now, for the remainder of his life, he worked on the Unified Field Theory.  Other scientists laughed at Einstein, and some still do, about the potential and possibility of such a theory even existing.  But Einstein kept working on it.  For thirty years.  Obviously, Einstein would pass from this earth without the completion of his main life goal.

When I heard about Einstein's last hours of life, it reminded me of Moses' last hours of life.  For a nearly similar amount of time (40 years and not 30), Moses had been working on his own life's goal and ambition.  Moses had been working on the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their eventual deliverance into the promised land.  The liberation of the Israelites and their delivery into the promised land was quite literally Moses' - Unified Field Theory.  And yet, he, like Einstein, would never complete his life's work.

Hours before the possibility of entering the promised land, God told Moses, on the top of Mount Nebo;"I have let you see it with your eyes, but I will not let you cross over into it" (Deut. 34:4).  Moses would not complete his life's work.  Moses would die, as the preacher would say, on his walking stick, overlooking the Promised Land in his 120th year of life.

The parallel endings of Einstein's and Moses' lives raises the important question of what the definition of a good life really is.  Is the definition of a successful life that we will accomplish all of our personal goals?  Is the ultimate fruition of our ambitions and our dreams really a good metric for the overall grade of a good life?  I would suggest not.  Our goal as people, as Christians, is not to complete our goals, but, with God, to continue to go after them.  It is the leaning towards what we seek after that is more important than the ultimate completion of what we attempt.

And God thought Moses had accomplished a great deal even though his dream of entering the promised land would never come about.  Consider what the book of Deuteronomy says of Moses; "No prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt - to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel" (Deut. 34:10-12).

What main goal has God put you on on the earth in order to attempt to accomplish?  What is it that you are uniquely wired and designed to do for God and the world?  Keep going at that goal - your own version of the Unified Field Theory - the Promised Land.  The solving of the theory, the entrance into the Promised Land should not be the metric of the success of your life.  But the attempt at both should.

All For Now,


Monday, February 6, 2017

That Our Flag Was Still There...

This morning I had planned to write a blogpost called, "An Immigrant's Story", about a real life incident of extreme racism and abuse that a friend of mine suffered many years ago when, at the age of 16, he emigrated as a Middle Eastern student, from the country of Jordan, to the United States.  The incident, which took place at The Citadel (a military college), occurred in the early 1980's.  The gist of the blog would have been that we have a lot of work to do as a country and that things really are not going that well, in general.

But then I turned on the news, and I read the two newspapers that I inhale each morning - The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal - (I like to get both conservative and progressive perspectives in my journalism), and I realized that everyone else has beat me to the punch.  Almost every article in the New York Times today (and for the past month for that matter) is about how bad things in our country are going, and that we really are in a very, very bad spot.  Many people are actually prognosticating the end of America as we know it.

But, to be honest, I am not so sure.  It's not that we don't have a lot of work to do, or that we have a lot of bad things going on.  It's not that there aren't a plethora things that this current government is doing that I don't think are deleterious.  It's just that I think there is sometimes the tendency in human nature to histrionically over-interpret events and future trip to the worst possible conclusions possible.

So, this morning, with a blog entitled:

That Our Flag Was Still There...

I want to reflect, for a moment, on the human tendency to over-dramatize difficult situations for our country and our world.  I want to talk about how, during tough times, there is sometimes the trend towards over-billing how bad things actually are, while at the same time, overlooking the good things that are happening, and neglecting to put world events into their proper larger context and trajectory.

We are currently studying a book of the Bible at the church where I now serve called - Hebrews.  The book is rife with stark spiritual imagery, of light forces and dark forces. There are lots of examples of angels (good angels and bad).  These forces are "duking it out" (as it were) in a larger cosmic spiritual battle.  With our modern eyes and ears, it can seem strange to hear such stark spiritual imagery.  The fact of the matter was, though, that at the time the book was being written (and we don't know the exact date), very many people thought the end of the world was near.  They really did think that the end of everything was upon them - that life itself was all coming to a huge and final conclusion.

And the authors of the book of Hebrews were not alone.  Throughout the Old Testament and the New, there was the very real sense that the end was near.  The Old Testament voices believed it (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel).  Among many of the early first century Christians (the disciples, Paul, Luke, Mark, John the baptist, and many others), there was the perception that the end of time would come about in their own lifetimes.  Such a view of world history was so prevalent that theologians have given it a name - Apocalypticism (from the Greek APOCALYPSES - meaning "an uncovering").

Of course, throughout history, there have been countless other examples of people and communities that believed that their  own particular difficult epoch, that their own challenging moment, would be the last period in human history (The Plague, The Crusades, The French Revolution, The American Civil War, World War I and II).  And of course, each time, human history seemed to miraculously rebound, and begin again.

And this brings me to the title of my blog post for this week:

That Our Flag Was Still There...

This line is obviously taken from the United Sates national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner".  I was reminded of it again when I watched it being sung yesterday at the Super Bowl in Houston.  The line, penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814, is written directly about the "Defense of Fort McHenry" which Key himself witnessed.  That skirmish, in case you did not know, was about a cannon barrage by the British Royal Navy in Baltimore during the war of 1812.  In that battle, there was a large American flag, The Star Spangled Banner, waving triumphantly in the wind throughout the entire US victory.  And hence we have the lines:

"And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night..."

That Our Flag Was Still There..

The point is that many people thought that the end of the world was near during the War of 1812.  But it wasn't.  Many people thought that the end of America would occur during that time.  But it didn't.  Things moved forward.  Life moved on.  The situation got better.

And Our Flag Was Still There...

So, yes, there is a lot that is not going well with America.  There is a lot that needs repair.  Sometimes it seems like more things are being broken than are being fixed.  There are many things to be upset about.  But perhaps, it might be a good idea, once in a while, to take a step back, and view our little planet, our little country, our little flag in a larger context.  The end, we Christians believe, will definitely come some day.

But perhaps not as soon as we think!

All For Now,