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Archive for January, 2009

Work

I have been thinking a bit about work lately, mostly because I haven’t had much. I am not exactly unemployed, but pretty close, and I am looking for a new job. I am amazed at how important working is for our psychological (and probably physical) health.  It feels so good to actually do something.  Human beings are definitely created to work.  At the same time though, I am really appalled at the jobs out there- it is depressing. Not only are most of the jobs soul-numbing in their banality, but they also pay terribly. (And the jobs around here pay well comparatively, I know.) It makes me feel bad for people; no one wants to be a drone. I still have the hope that I will get out of the system somehow, the one that, as a wise man once said, “has us working jobs that we hate, to buy shit we don’t need.” Another wise sage- this one real- said “More and more we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement.” My whole life, in the very deepest part of me, I have rejected the notion that work is something you must endure to pay the bills. Now that I am a father, I can see how so many people are willing to do just that. It’s worth it, as crappy as it is, it is still worth it- but it doesn’t make it good. For a few years my journey to find a career path has been guided, in part, by the quotation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet.” But I think that I have focused too much on the world’s deep need. The way to go, it seems to me, is to let the world’s need guide you, as the bank does a river, while you seek to find the work that you do with deep gladness: the rushing water. Another wise man once said “we are far too easily pleased” and that is something that I hope I won’t look back and say about myself as I face the very real pressures of paying the bills in these uncertain times. I guess, as it turns out, I was writing this to myself!

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Is it a bad sign…

…if every time you blog you forget what your password is- and also forget that you’ve already gotten a new password?  Hmmm…

I haven’t done this for so long that I have no train of thought to continue- it’s hard to start again without some context.  I feel like this quotation is even more true about blogging: “Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make, an’ it wears a person out.”


Some tidbits:


Over the holidays I was in the U.S. and attended the Baptist church my wife grew up in. During the sermon, the pastor railed against the use of “Xmas” as an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. This is a pet-peeve of mine. I can remember back in grade school when my mom told me I shouldn’t use the abbreviation for the same reason. I am not really sure why this argument pushes my buttons, but it does. I think it has something to do with the vehemence with which something essentially semantic and mostly meaningless is decried. That, and the ignorance of the argument. To set the record straight: the “X” in the abbreviation is not really an English letter at all; an “X” is the closest letter we have to the Greek letter Chi (pronounced Kai), which is the first letter in Kristos, which in turn- you guessed it- is Christ. In the end then, the argument is not only silly; it is wrong.

I’ve felt this way for a while and I am beginning to wonder if other people feel this way.  This is completely random, by the way.  Almost every time I get on the internet- my home page is set to Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper- I have this vague sense of foreboding that the headline will be some major catastrophic tragedy.  This is directly traceable to 9-11 and that is the sort of event I am thinking about.  I am not so much worried about it as I am expecting it and I think every time I get online I have this kind of mental flinch.  Is this just me?

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Driving 2200 miles over the Christmas holiday I had the chance to get my annual fill of Christian radio. I listened to everything: sermons given by famous pastors and apologists, programs for children, music, and the friendly banter of DJ’s between the aforementioned music and sermons. More than in the past it struck me that the 20th century could be described as the Great Reversal in American Christianity. Now for a bit of background as to how I can make such a claim.

I wrote a thesis for my Master’s degree about first wave American Protestant fundamentalism. I dug through archives attempting to understand how the movement came to be and the kind of rhetorical framework it used to make a case against the evils of its present day. I looked at correspondences of famous pastors, magazines, pamphlets, and any other materials available. I came across a series of letters by a very famous Boston pastor, the John MacArthur of his day, A.C. Dixon. It was in the first decade of the 20th century when he told another pastor that his church would be ending its social programs to immigrants. The reason: because immigrants weren’t converting to Christianity in satisfactory numbers (they liked their Catholicism and pagan ways, evidently). Prior to this the church had served the poor and immigrants by offering housing, classes (especially to learn English), and food. Well, the immigrants weren’t converting and these social programs stopped. Soon the pastor to whom he wrote this letter followed suit at his New York City church and this phenomenon spread throughout the country. It’s now 1920 and, with the exception of Catholics, very few social programs exist in churches.

While driving it struck me how a Great Reversal had taken place during the 20th century. Few churches offer serious social programs to people other than the occasional youth group outing to a food bank or soup kitchen; of course, there is also a donation that food bank or soup kitchen. While these programs began reemerging in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Protestants and evangelicals began taking their charge seriously, although we are still, quite frankly, doing a pitiful job. I kept hearing these radio voices telling me either to give them money or live as a Christian in this debased world. When I began listening for what they think living like a Christian means all I heard was what I shouldn’t do and how I need to be a “witness” by not doing those things. It was at this point that I recalled my days in the dusty archives.

The kind of negative definition of what it means to live as a Christian bothers me more with each passing year. If, as a Christian, I am identified by the things I don’t do, then it seems to me that others should be attracted to my faith because I fail to take part in things like drinking, smoking, parties, bars, and all the other things you’re thinking of too. To define my faith negatively seems to create an attitude of denial. I am denying myself all of these “worldly” things, creating an attitude of constant vigilance so consumed with not doing, that I fail to, well, do. This is the trap of legalism, at least as I see it now. Legalism traps us in a constant cycle of an all-consuming focus on self, which is followed by self-regret, which is then followed by self-hate. The result is either paralysis or extreme self-righteousness, both of which I’ve experienced at one time or another. In short, defining our faith negatively turns our focus inward.

The Great Reversal is the kind of inward focus that will come to define 20th century American Christianity. It is a reversal from the life giving message of Christ to an internal focus on pseudo-purity. This is why shalom has become such a powerful concept for me. Shalom turns my inward gaze to an outward one because shalom emphasizes the reconciliation and redemption of all things to God. My role in the world is to participate in the life-giving message of redemption and reconciliation of His creation between and among humans, not to mention between humans and His environment. Defining my faith in an attitude of shalom is a positive way to approach living. I now look for the ways that I can actively participate in shalom all around me, rather than focusing on not doing certain things told me by a person who probably isn’t friends with a single non-Christian. My guide is now whether or not this action/job/life/etc. participates in shalom.

On many occasions I’ve been told that I must just be a wishy-washy Christian who really doesn’t believe in anything other than making other people (and myself) feel better. I usually respond with a laugh and two words, in this order: Sure; Awesome. I believe the Apostle’s Creed forms the basis of my Christian faith. While I do believe other things much more specifically, I realize that there are different interpretations of Scripture. Of course I think I’m right about everything but I’m not going to call another person a heretic because of it. I read theology for fun, actually, but it’s not something I go around touting as key to my spirituality. This paragraph relates, really it does. The kind of theological purity often emphasized comes from the same attitude of inward self-obsession I mentioned earlier. When we, as a body of believers, don’t focus on the external world our internal focus looks for other ways to measure what it means to be a Christian. And for many of the radio voices, faith is an internal one only concerned with having a certain theology and not doing certain things.

A couple of days ago I visited Scott (the other writer on this blog who’s hiatus is getting ridiculous! 🙂 ) and Tami. They are thinking about what comes next for them now that seminary is over. Then Scott said, “But we’re looking to do something that contributes to shalom.” I thought about this driving the three hours home from the farm Tami grew up on. Shalom, the kind practiced by American churches prior to the 20th century, is powerful because it orients us toward action in the world, the kind of action that forces us to ask the difficult questions about how I can participate in the life-giving message of reconciliation and redemption. This is a faith I want to be a part of. Oh wait, I already am. Awesome.

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