Friday, October 31, 2008

Stock Market Spirituality

I'm an introvert by nature. Recently though, I've been wondering if I'm becoming more of an extrovert. When I compare myself to who I was 4 years ago, there seems to be some evidence that this could be.

One quality of extroverts is the tendency to talk before thinking. They sort of learn what they think along with everyone else, as they hear themselves saying it. This happened to me Thursday.

Before I go into that though: I've claimed in the past that I'm terrible at coming up with metaphors. I would love to be good at drawing analogies to explain my ideas or argue my viewpoint, but I'm just not good at coming up with analogies in the moment. This is frustrating because if I pause to brainstorm one, it's too late. Someone else jumps in and the conversation runs in another direction. Anticipating this, I'll panic and blurt out, "Well, it's sort of like...," hoping something will come in the meantime. Invariably, I end up sounding foolish ("'Seems,' madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems'"), filling in the blank with the first thing that comes to mind, which turns out to be something like "a kitten" or "cerebral palsy." Exactly.

So, carpooling home yesterday, I found myself talking like an extrovert and sounding like an analogy microwave.

"I think that a lot of people my age approach spirituality the way investors approach the stock market. Everyone's wondering what the next big bubble will be that will help them stay on top. But that's the exact reason we're faced with this financial crisis. We're so concerned with the next big thing that we don't have a long-term strategy for investing toward growth. We have this idea that spirituality is about getting to the next big high before too long. Too long and we'll find ourselves in a desert. We can't endure any sort of sustained downturn or valley. We need to be worried about planting and growing, not uncovering the next spiritual moment."

I was already mixing my metaphors.

My carpooling compadre said, "I think our faith might be better off if more of us had gardens. We need to think about spirituality less in terms of commerce and more in terms of cultivation."

I agreed. I think that's a transition that we struggle to make in our 20s. We've experienced a lot of bubbles in our spirituality so far, bolstered mostly by hormones and broadening experience. Now, we're into a sustained pattern of adulthood, and figuring out what a faithful spirituality looks like by contrast is something we're forced to explore or abandon. Exploring what faith will look like over the next 50-60 years is daunting. But it's especially daunting if we believe we have to keep boiling up a zeal and fervor of spiritual bubbles.

When we shop around for the best bubble, it becomes a spree that's dictated, seemingly, by luck. We have no active role in making the big find for our spirituality except to search, sometimes desperately. But when we think of it like a garden, we can be much more proactive. A lifetime's worth of activity in fact. And yet there's also much that is out of our control as well. The apostle of analogies captured it this way. "One person plants the seed. Another waters it. But God makes it grow." I think that says it all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Defining the Decade

Certain images and events capture the spirit of a decade. "The Roaring Twenties" had it flappers. The 60s had Woodstock. The 70s had "Saturday Night Fever". The 80s had RunDMC, ratted hair, and rolled jeans. The 90s had Nirvana and The Matrix.

So last night I was thinking about what would capture this our first decade in the 21st century. These were a few things that came to mind.

My sister and brother-in-law love this show. And we agreed that "American Idol" will definitely have a part in defining the decade.

No doubt. The iPod changed, well, everything.

9/11. Those numbers will never mean the same thing again.

Facebook is the quintessence of Web 2.0. I don't know yet if Facebook has been around long enough to be a defining element of the decade. But its pervasiveness, the way it's changed how we think and talk ("Adam can't quit thinking in Facebook status updates."), makes a strong case for it.
"Google might take over our lives. And I think I'm okay with that," I heard someone say. Some think they're changing how we think. They're organizing the world's information. It would be hard to exclude them from this list.

We're in a huge political season, so I'm not going to explore that realm except to say that President Bush certainly was hugely influential on this decade, but I think Barack Obama will be more of an icon for the decade in our memories.

What about music or television or movies? Have they been overshadowed by these other giants?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Things Worth Remembering

A few weekends ago I had the chance to visit my maternal grandmother. The last time I saw her, she was in an apartment at a Presbyterian Manor living semi-independently. She had been living there since before my grandfather’s passing four years earlier. The apartment was an end unit with a private entrance, a patio and a few plants and, inside, wall hangings from the home they’d first retired to before I was born. The familiar smells of that house were gone. They were replaced with the smells of medication and industrial-strength cleaning solvents. The framed cross-stitch, family photographs, and ceramic lamps fit like laughter at a gravesite.

This time, we parked along the half-circle drive, and entered through the main doors. To the left, the receptionist desk was empty. I followed my parents to the elevator. We filled it as best we could, equidistant from each other, leaning against the walls the way you do in an elevator. “I always have to prepare myself for this,” my mother said looking at my father as we rode to the second floor. I realized I should perhaps prepare myself as well.

The door opened. My mother turned down a long hallway. In a dim commons area with couches and a large television, cluttered with wheelchairs and walkers, a Nicholas Sparks movie was playing, and those not watching it outnumbered those who were. We passed to the left a small nurses’ station. A door on the right was open and a Notre Dame football game was just under way, the announcer’s voice blaring on the television.

Dad and I stood in the hall while Mom knocked on the door. “Let me make sure that Grandma’s dressed,” she said to us. It was four in the afternoon.

Each morning in my real life, I charge out the door, dressed for the day with work or women on my mind. I navigate erratic traffic patterns and at work make dozens of decisions based on a variety of considerations. I coordinate my social calendar via emails and Facebook, update my status with something witty and vague, and cross off line items from my to-do lists. After work I grab some food, find some friends or a good book, surf the Internet or the TV channels, or fulfill some obligation I’ve committed to.

Here, in this assisted living facility, real life isn’t defined by what they do. Real life here requires assistance. Not unlike the rest of the world, only more obviously.

The hallway is wide and clear of any obstacles. There’s a handrail along both walls, for stability. I stood thinking how depressed this place was. Clean, orderly, and blandly decorated. It lacked anything like what we call life. Yet the people there represented long lives of experiences, and perhaps even a hard-earned wisdom that comes with those lives. I wonder if wisdom is perhaps blandly decorated.

But wisdom it seems has left my grandmother. “They’re moving her to the Alzheimer’s unit,” my mother had written me the week before. “It's sad, because it's the very place she never wanted to go.” That’s where my grandfather was at the end. “Just pray that the Lord will take her home,” mom instructed me.

Now, we were visiting her the weekend before they moved her. She was in good spirits and in a bit of clarity. When we walked in, she was sitting in a folding chair talking on her rotary-dial telephone. I looked around her small room. The narrow single bed sat in the middle with a soft-colored quilt tucked in neatly around the edges. On it, I noticed faded stains that reminded me of a coastline on a map. A small dresser and vanity mirror stood in the corner next to a recliner and a lamp, and the telephone. There were pictures of all her children and their families. Even outdated photos, but memories nonetheless.

To the person on the other end, she was saying, “Well, it’s Sharon and Brad, and…” she looked at me with a look that could’ve been mistaken for fear but I think was simply complete unknowing.

I smiled, “Adam. Sharon’s son.”

“What? Oh,” and then to the telephone, “Adam. Yes.”

She talked for a few minutes then handed the phone to my mother. It was Mom’s younger brother. “Yes, it’s us,” she said to him, affirming that we indeed were here in the room. It wasn’t my grandmother’s brain playing tricks on her.

“You have a nice room here,” I said.

“Oh, yes. It’s okay. I wish Daddy could stay in here too, but he stays in another room.” Pause. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in his room though.” She’d raised nine children. She’d referred to her husband more often as “Daddy” than anything else in all those years.

Mom hung up the phone and turned to her mother. “How are you mom? You look good.”

“Well, I’m good, probably better than I look,” the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes were like parentheses, letting us in on the subtext. We laughed. Her good sense of humor had not changed.

She touched her hair with a fragile, discolored hand. She always did that when attention was directed toward her. Her other hand lay in her lap clutching a folded tissue. She was sure to use and reuse the same tissue, a habit started out of harder times. She folded her hands around it again and placed them in her lap.

“Are you in school then?” she asked, looking at me.

“Nope. I’m working full time. I live in Chicago.” I explained what I did, and she listened politely.

My parents explained that my other grandmother’s birthday had brought us to Kansas this weekend and that we were only visiting for an hour or so. Grandma asked if we were staying to have supper with her, but we already had plans, my mother explained.

For a bit, our conversation turned to her shoes. Typically, she wore small, neutral-colored flats. But she was wearing forest green Crocs.

“I don’t suppose they’re the kind I like,” she said as though she were drawing that conclusion about someone else based on what she had learned about them. She looked at them more closely and seeing the holes in them. “I couldn’t even wear these outside if it were raining. My feet would get all wet!”

She was certainly correct, ever the pragmatist. How could one explain to someone so disengaged that these shoes were “cool,” and that for that reason they were worth having? We resorted instead to more pragmatism: “They are quite light weight, aren’t they?” But the absurdity of the shoes remained. It amazed me how quickly we can see things from a new perspective and recognize how misguided our own perspective seems in that light.

She turned to me again and asked about school. I explained that I had a full time job and lived in Chicago. She was attentive. When I explained exactly what I did, she pondered it to herself for a few moments.

“He loves to read just like Daddy did,” Mom said to Grandma.

“Oh. Yes,” Grandma recalled. Her words were always simple and stark. “We should go visit Daddy while you are here too. But,”—a moment’s pause—“I guess Daddy’s not living anymore, is he?”

I wondered how many times a day Grandma realized that. The blunt sadness for her seemed only diminished by a sort of vague familiarity. It was like the coat rack in the room. When she was not looking at it she did not think about it, but whenever her attention fell upon it, she recognized it for what it was.

“Well, mom, we need to be going,” my mother began wrapping up our visit. “I’m planning to come back tomorrow to see you again, okay?”

We all stood, and my mother hugged her. Then my father. With a fragile hand she hugged his neck and pecked his cheek, her glasses askew in doing so. It was very labored and mindful.

When she hugged me I was surprised by her strength. It was not frail or weak or half-hearted. With a hand near my face, she pecked me on the cheek with her parched lips.

“It was good to see you again,” I told her.

She gathered her cane and shawl, then her purse.

“Are you going to go out with us?” Mom inquired.

“Yes. I’m hungry. I think supper should be shortly. Will you be staying for supper?”

“No, mom, we have to leave, but you’re welcome to walk out to the elevator with us.”

In the hallway, she took hold of the rail and put her hand in my arm. We made our way slowly, past the nursing station. The TV volume of the football game had been turned down considerably, if not off. In the commons, slumped on the couch was a women my grandmother wanted us to meet, “Tantelisean.” We said it was very nice to meet her. The conversation lulled.

“Here. You stay here, Mom,” my mother directed her to seat on the couch. “We need to leave now.”

Grandma accepted this. She gave each of us a hug again, in the same order, with pecks on the cheeks for Dad and me. It was with the same meaning and care that she hugged and kissed us, glasses askew. I laughed to myself at the adsurdity, but it spoke of something else: wisdom. It was wisdom not built on a sound mind. The Alzheimer’s had claimed that. It was wisdom woven into a habit of character. It was in the shabby repetition of goodbyes that I witnessed a wisdom built upon years of choosing. Now with all those memories cut out from underneath, what remained was this expression of love.

We eased ourselves toward the elevator, waving again.

“Tantelisean,” my mother informed me on the elevator, “was her aunt who she was close to when she was a little girl. She thinks that woman is her Tantelisean.” Then to my father, “She was in many places today, wasn’t she? In different moments she was in her childhood, then at home with Daddy, then in school, then here. She lives always in the present moment though.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Running with a Name

I have to share the bad with the good. Today I ran a 5k. I was so excited about my last race I decided to do one more. If that race was titled "Joyful Surprises," this race is titled "A Disappointing Effort."

I still managed 4th place but added a whopping 2:25 onto my time! It was cold and there were about 20 more turns on the course and I have never felt my body lock up like it did during the race and all the guys I talked to said their times were a bit slower too.

But, excuses aside, 2:25 more! Come on.

My previous race time would have placed me 1:30 before the guy who won today. Even when I ran a 5k last week to train I beat today's time (18:30).

What was the difference? Honestly, I ran the race with the goal to win. That was my motivation and I knew I could do it. But about halfway through the race the guys who finished 1 and 2 pulled away from me and I ran ran the last 1.5 miles all by myself.

The previous race I ran with/beside somebody at all times. I moved from pack to pack, individual to individual. They gave me a goal to shoot for, a purpose, a challenge. But today there was nobody there to spur me on. Today with about 400 yards to go another guy overtook me and I just let him go. The drive wasn't there. My body didn't have it. I finished and wanted to re-run the race.

But, really, what was the difference? Purpose. My goal was to win the race, which I probably should have done. The previous race all I wanted was to beat 18:00, and did! That morning I just wanted to run, I just wanted to finish strong, to do my best, to have pleasure.

Last night I watched Chariots of Fire, and this quote kept bouncing around in my head today, "I run in God's name, let the world stand back and wonder."

Warning and Notice: Public Blog Confession: Winning became about my name, not God's.

This isn't about me being "real," or "authentic" or gaining sympathy, or getting more attention through a blog. (It does feels good to share my frustrations and failures, Catholics are on to something with confession).

This is a prayerful reminder for myself and for you to live in God's name.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vote, Unless You Are A Moron.

You'll know my view on this image when you are done reading.

O.k. here it goes. I'm laying it out there. This post is months overdue and been going for months in my head. Being that it is really late and I feel an obligation to post I apologize about the lack of scholarship involved.

This year the issue for me isn't who to vote for. The issue is am I even going to vote in the first place. Why? Well Dave Fitch and Mark Van Steenwyk tell it better. I can give gobs of reasons why I am dismayed with the American political system. I truly think to even get into a position where someone could be elected the President of the United States requires an ethics and perspective that is counter to Christ. Plainly put, I think the system is corrupt. (But even though it is corrupt it is better than most and I am grateful for that) Just because voting is my right as a citizen does not make it my responsibility. (I have the right to carry arms but it isn't my responsibility). Having the right to vote gives me the luxury (an amazing luxury only available because of what others have done) to choose whether or not I want to participate. I have not forgotten that my forefathers were spurred on by a vision for democracy. Their actions are so close to my heart but those actions do not obligate me to vote. Rather, they give me the opportunity to do so, and for that I say "thank-you."

This is my concern. Voting has become too big. There are countless ways to be political. There are countless ways that you are political everyday without realizing it. Where do you shop? Where do you buy gas? Did you support a cause? Did you share your views on the elections today? What kind of music did you listen to today? Did you recycle? Did you give to the poor? Did you carpool today? Check out this creative list.

My concern is that voting has become the way to be political. instead of being a spoke on the wheel it is the wheel. As a result we have decreased and neglected the other ways to be involved in the political process. I can write a blog, ride my bike, shop locally, preach at church, read about current issues, pray, BUT if I don't vote than I'm neglecting my duty. I think going into the polls on November 4th, voting, and getting a sticker doesn't make you political. What makes you political is how you live your life, even if that means being a moron.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How Not to Vote

It’s a tough decision this election. A lot of the friends I’ve asked still haven’t decided. I’ve shared their frustration. I find my inclinations to be “gut feelings” instead of informed opinions. I wonder if gut feelings are typically the voter’s guide.

There is plenty of discussion about not voting too. Al Hsu reviews a book about it at The Suburban Christian. Dave Fitch is arguing for it at Reclaiming the Mission, but he’s been challenged on it. Stanley Hauerwas entertained the idea in a recent interview with The Other Journal. But others believe voting to be a God-given civic (even sacred) duty.

The Economist published a series of articles on the major election issues, and it seems even-handed and without an obvious bias (i.e., “fair and balanced”). The Economist is a British magazine, so it’s less entrenched in U.S. political biasism. Its conclusion is a good, brief summary. If you don’t read anything else, read that, but each of the articles in the series is also very readable and worthwhile. If you’re like me in the gut feelings predicament, I encourage you to feed your brain from The Economist’s menu.

The Economist neatly layed out for me the major issues of this election: economic plans for the economy, health care, energy and the environment, values, foreign policy (including Iraq and Afghanistan), regulation and trade, education, crime, immigration, and the candidates themselves.

These categories they had given me were, according to them, the most important election issues I should consider. But I realized that I should be receiving my priorities from elsewhere: What priorities does Jesus expect me to vote for, and would his priorities be achieved through these platforms?

Essentially, what I’m saying is, before I can form an opinion about any election issue or political platform, I need to understand what Jesus promotes.

As one example, someone asks Jesus what the most important command is from the Law of Moses. Jesus responds, “Love God. Love people.” Okay, so how does that priority inform my stances on, say, foreign policy or on immigration? Does it at all? Maybe Jesus’ priorities can’t be achieved by a governmental body at all. Can a governing body relate to God or to people and love them? If not, then what does it matter who I vote for or what the government does?

Well, I think most would agree that government action does affect the individual and how the individual relates to others and even to God (consider China). But the translation from “Love God. Love people.” to my stance on tax cuts for the rich versus the poor may not be so clear cut.

Loving God and people is something I can get my arms around and act on. Meanwhile, figuring out how to accomplish it with my vote seems much more complex, and less certain to succeed. Yet, having been bombarded by an election that has lasted nearly 2 years on the 24-hour news stations, it’s easy to misalign my priorities with the pundits and believe that when I exit that polling booth on November 4 I can go home and wait for the results.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Manning Up

Props to Chaka for taking up my challenge and coming clean about his man crush.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

“He lives in fame that died in virtue's cause.”

from Men's Journal's "It Ain't Easy Being This Mellow"

"The standard musician motivation," says Johnson's agent Tom Chauncey, "is 'I want to be big, I want to be famous,' and that is so not Jack. He stays who he is, how he lives. He doesn't lose his priorities. He will not tour from November to January, when the waves are good."

"I'm a pretty unlikely celebrity," Johnson says. "I'm a pretty normal guy. I never really had dreams of being famous."

It's a suspect claim for a guy who has been organizing his own bands since high school, but it's consistent with the Hawaiian surf-culture ethic of humility: Never show even the slightest ambition, lest you be ridiculed. But the remark also reveals some genuine discomfort he feels toward the loss of privacy and control that has come with his increasing fame. "At some point," he says, steering the conversation toward a subject he's more eager to discuss — his environmentalism — "I realized you can either talk about all these personal things and let people into your life, or you can try to direct all that attention onto things that you're interested in. Not just pushing the attention away from me, although that's positive, too."

from Conde Nast Traveler's "Matt Damon's Good Work Hunting"

[Matt] Damon also feels that celebrity brings with it an opportunity to do good. "You start to feel a level of responsibility to direct attention to things that actually matter more than to silly things like who you're dating." ...

Damon talks about Africa with a passion that comes from spending time there. Never once during our conversation does he plug or even talk about a movie project. The actor says that his trips have made the solutions real to him, brought them to life. In Tanzania, for instance, he visited a clinic and spoke with a 21-year-old mother with a baby in her arms. The child was slack-jawed, his head lolling back and forth. "I thought he was going to die right in front of me," Damon says. When he asked if there was something he could do, the child's doctor said the baby was going to be fine: He had already received life-saving anti-malarial medicine. Damon spoke with the mother, who lived on less than a dollar a day in a village that was a two-hour walk away from the clinic, and learned that her other child had died from malaria. "Then I realized that because of President Bush's malaria initiative, this baby had survived," says Damon, referring to Bush's 2005 pledge to increase malaria funding by $1.5 billion over five years. "American taxpayer money saved this baby's life."


Damon says he hopes the next president will urge a new era of service in America. He is encouraged that both John McCain and Barack Obama have promised to travel to Africa and step up aid to the continent. "We are about to turn a wonderful corner and close this chapter of aggression, where the only American face that people see on foreign soil is the face of a soldier," Damon says. "As well-meaning as that soldier is, that sends a certain message. But when you go to a country and see your fellow Americans feeding people or getting clean water or saving their lives, you are really seeing the best of us. We are exporting the best of who we are—and who we should be."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In the News

Never before have I posted on current issues in society. I tend to avoid these conversations because my lack of knowledge. But a larger reason is that it tends to aggressively divide people. You agree with me and we are on a "team." You disagree and we are on competing or opposite "teams." I don't write this stuff to argue or divide but to share. Feel free to share back at me or feel free to wait until I post again.

These thoughts aren't exhaustive...

Gas prices- I paid $3.25 a gallon today and felt proud. The receipt is taped to my windshield and I took a photo of the price with my phone (not true). Of course I am glad to see gas prices go down but what I appreciated about the increase was that it caused people to re-evaluate their lives. More carpooling, more efficient cars, less pollution, etc. When you drive around look at how many people are driving by themselves. Over 90% of the time it is just me in my car with my bike in the backseat. I know $4.00 is a lot for a gallon of gas but what about the value of people and the environment? If you want to know where I stand on the whole global warming issue it is...I don't know. I saw Gore's documentary and have read the counter arguments. Was it good propoganda? Was it a hot button issue to swing votes? Maybe. But what it comes down to is that a lot (not all) of the suggestions for stopping global warming are just good. Whether or not global warminig is actually happening the choices to burn less fuel and cut back on consumption are part of being good stewards of God's earth.

The United States Economy- So 2 months ago I opened up an IRA. (Yeah, I don't have a career and am thinking about retirement :) ) One of my friends casually called this "conservative." I called it being a good steward of what is given to me. If that makes me conservative than o.k. I'm not hoarding money to have a nice nest egg so I can retire early and live in Florida. This isn't a control move based on worry and anxiety. Rather, I want to make practical steps to better my future. Just like I made practical steps by going to college, traveling to Scotland, going to Seminary, taking a shower this morning, brushing my teeth, and by not eating hotdogs. Back to the IRA...I haven't looked but know my money is disappearing. The economy is in shambles but what I love is that the economy of God isn't.

Voting- I have wanted to write a post on voting for a long time. Hopefully it will happen before the election. All I'm going to ask is, "what are you hoping for?" "What are your expectations?" I strongly believe that we need to consider how much we have invested into the United States political process.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Going to Church in Congo

Another post about my trip is up at Hope for Congo. Here's an excerpt:

Inside, there were wood benches mostly, but we were sat in the second and third rows, in mismatched plastic, patio chairs. The pastor and other church leaders greeted us with handshakes. As they shook our hands they touched their forearms with their opposite hands, a gesture of respect. I took my seat in a baby blue armchair. The floor was dirt. I studied the ants climbing up and down the wall near a beam supporting the tin roof overhead. The sunlight slipped between the top of the wall and the roof.

I thought about the sanctuary of my church back home. It is a new building, and I had heard it once described as a “fully controlled sound and light environment.” Here, muffler-less cars grumbled past in the street behind us. Drums and cymbals carried across the street from what I presumed to be another church. The bed sheets looked like sails as the air pressure vacillated in and out of this space.

Read more at Hope for Congo blog.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Get Some Fresh Air

I am spoiled because my job requires me to work outside. I just want to challenge you to go outside today because it is beautiful. Don't go into your house right away when you get back from work. Take a walk around the block. Or spend a few moments extra in creation before you hunker down this evening.

If you don't live in the Chicago area you won't get to enjoy our great weather. But nevertheless, go outside today, and enjoy.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

My Love Life

Let's get personal, shall we? I went to a wedding this weekend and the conversation at the reception turned to relationships and dating. After some jokes and general ribbing I was asked about my "love life." So here is an update on love in my life.

I love family, friends, good health, school, soccer, laughter, sleeping, quietness, the country, the city, books, used books, church, music, bananas, cereal, reunions, comebacks, free music, shared meals, Denison Witmer, Mr. Potato Head, worship, dreams, suspenders, concerts, conversation, bicycles, monkeys, pens that write smooth, brown sweaters, the smell of rain, running, sports, God, photography, my blanket on my bed, big trees with lots of leaves, jokes, stories, light blue tuxedos, hiking, talcum powder, Mom's Sunday roast, comics, caramel candy, Necco wafers, traveling, phone calls from friends and family, Sleeping at Last, warm showers, drinking water, good music, long yawns, candles, Sunday afternoon naps, orchestras, plays, gardens, the Pittsburgh Pirates, change, stability, good ol Baptist hymns, Scotland, fireflies, miracles, testimonies, the Bible, red circles, kids, old people, good beverages, Cool Hand Luke, memories, Jesus, Pittsburgh Steelers,

and people who read this entire list.