Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Religion Buyological?

Last night I made a trip to a new Barnes and Noble that just opened up. As we drove up I told my friend, "It's like walking into the Coliseum," it was so big. The cashier I talked to said it's the biggest in Illinois. I'll say.

I intended to be in-and-out, but who was I kidding? It's a bookstore. At a table labeled "Thought Provoking," I picked up a book called Buyology. Groan, sure, but I'd say it's a pretty good title. The premise was the author used brain scan analysis to bring some understanding to consumer behavior.

Just before I put Buyology back on the table, chapter 6's subtitle caught my attention: "Faith, Religion, and Brands." Now I don't care much about consumer behavior, but I do have my opinions on church, religion, and marketing. I know, I'm very discreet about it. You would never know.

So I sat down and skimmed chapter 6. The author's argument was that religions and brands have a lot in common. I think his point was to show how strong, smashable brands can establish consumer loyalty almost religious-like fervor. He recalled a Steve Jobs product unveiling he witnessed that had characteristics of a religious gathering. For a brand, this is sort of brand loyalty is a good thing. It makes money.

He built his argument around some pillars, which he argued were true of both religions and brands. I think these are pretty self-evident, so I'll just list them without expanding too much.

A sense of belonging
A clear vision
Intent to exert power over enemies
Sensory appeal
A sense of grandeur/wonder

Unlike most of my posts, I don't have my opinion settled about this. I'm wondering what you think. Do you think the connections are valid? Do these similarities diminish the validity of religion or faith? If there are so many similarities between religions and brands, what distinguishes religion from brands? What does religion offer that brands don't (or can't), if anything? If there are no distinguishing marks for religion, what value is it?

I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Blogroll call 3

After Blogroll Call, I thought I'd exhausted the number of blogs you needed to know about. Then came Blogroll Call 2 because I'd found more friends and blogs worthy of your limited attention. But that was the end of them.

Now. Okay, this is for sure the last one.

I've mentioned my 3 female friends in the downstairs apartment before (just think Friends). I told you about Love Wins. It seems that blogging is contagious, like any good bug among roommates. At Hope, Coffee, and Melody, my friend the aspiring writer wrote a good meditation on control. She has a good line that I will steal some time: "My only goal is to be sure that Jesus doesn’t leave the building." Amen and amen.

And at Maestro's Musings, my other friend who admitted that she skims my long blog posts learned that brevity is not so easy. I read her whole post on Finding Your Voice. I really appreciated her insights.

I meant to include The Cheeky Gwynnes in Blogroll Call 2 but forgot. She is a colleague of mine with whom I get along easily, and he's her Scottish beau. She honored me by asking me to ush at their wedding last summer.

Another colleague in another department (you'll never guess which one) has this blog which I've known about for some time. I've learned a lot about the theory of design, although I'm sure it only scratches the surface. He's dedicates a lot of posts to it and I enjoy scratching deeper. It reminds me that there are people out there passionate about things that I'm not, and I love that.

Here are three more blogs that I don't have a personal connection with but enjoy regularly.

"PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard." I must warn you that there is often explicit content on their weekly posts. Please let your conscience guide you. I think the primary value of this blog is telling others that they are not alone, and speaking truth to secrets and remove the power they have over individuals. In my eyes, brokenness (i.e., life) is full of explicit content, and we should not be ignorant of how sin twists good things. As my friend reminds us, "God goes deeper than the pain." In it, I see what redemption in Christ can mean, it's power and beauty.

A colleague recently pointed me to The Art of Manliness. It brings chivalry into the modern context.

Finally, some blog pointed me to the FailBlog. I've laughed out loud at this stuff. Its pictures capture the contradictions found in real life--sometimes beyond belief. Again, there is some implicit content that is questionable, so please use your discretion.

Enjoy the blogs!

Saturday, December 27, 2008


This is my humble attempt to share my vision God has given me for post-Seminary. My propensity is to over-plan and over-commit and over-think my future. I’m the guy who has plans already for 3 weekends in January and February. I make myself so busy I have to schedule time to eat and when my OCD really kicks up I manage the littlest details.

All to say; God does not fit into my plans; I fit into God’s plans. However, it is helpful to write how my calling is being shaped and what direction I feel called.

Every week I tell people what I am “doing” after graduation, or what my future looks like. Literally, I mean multiple times every freaking week I give this little spiel,

“I want to do bi-vocational ministry where I am working part-time in a church and part time somewhere else, for like, community development, social service, or in education. That way ministry encompasses all of my life. The idea is to do a “church plant,” and move into a neighborhood to help and live among the people there. So the church won’t be very traditional. If they can pay me that’s fine, if not that’s fine. I just want to be one of many leaders living in a community and helping people out.”

There is a lot to unpack there and a lot of lingo I find problematic, like…

Bi-vocational being part of a church isn’t a “job,” it’s an opportunity and calling and passion. I don’t have to have a 40 hour work week and split it between two jobs. If the church has the money and wants to pay me, cool. If not, that’s cool too.

Church plant I don’t know if I’ll be part of a venture that has any denomination backings. I’m not planning on being ordained unless the church community I get involved with requires it. I just want church goes beyond a buildings, job titles, and programs. (church means a body of people not a building)

I try to use vernacular most people understand. But explaining it to a 6th grader, my parents, disenfranchised Catholics, seminary professors, a guy at the bar, and my grandparents, requires some tact. It’s hard for people in the church to understand let alone curious acquaintances and friends who are nominal Christ followers who graze the doors of a church building on Christmas and Easter.

One thing I don't say is, "Does this make sense?" Well...does it?

Thursday, December 25, 2008


My Dad gave a meditation last night at a Christmas Eve service with the congregation he serves. He said

"The Christmas Story is a love story, about how much God loves us to send his one and only Son."

Amen and Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Child Is This?

What Child is this, who laid to rest,
in churches’ yards is freezing?
A manger low, out in the snow.
Illumined plastic, so pleasing.
This, this is Christ the King,
Who knows no bounds of humility.
Chased, chased, to lowest place
To raise us up to his glory.

We find him there but cannot bear
to put our faith in his teaching.
As cars go by, it’s no wonder why
the malls seem much more pleasing.
This, this is Christ the King,
Now at the curb for recycling:
Waste! Waste! The Son of God.
The world sees nothing worth keeping.

Words, flesh, for me, for you,
He died for us. We know its true.
But how we feel on Sunday morn,
Is rarely more than the music.
This, this is Christ the King,
These things we feel when we sing,
Safe, safe, inside the church.
But outside Jesus is freezing.

Why lies the world in sorry state,
with churches faring no better?
Good Christians, we still sinners be.
Let’s go to the curbside together.
This, this is Christ the King:
Despised, rejected, and suffering.
Taste, Taste, his love for us,
The God who's there at the curbside.

So raise, raise up Christ on high,
in hearts, with hands, for ears, for eyes.
For those who ask, "What Child is this?"
May we have something worth preaching.
This, this is Christ the King
Whom churches need for everything.
Haste, haste to bring Him back,
Let us descend for his glory.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Red with anger. Green with envy. A post for all emotions.

A few articles I wanted to share with you.

In keeping with Winter Advisory, the economic downturn continues to inspire new ways of keeping the roads clear. But we don't forego our ideals. Like the beet juice I mentioned previously, Iowa roads will be using garlic salt. Red, and now green! So Christmasy.

I recently posted on the humility of Christmas. I wanted to link there to this CT article that I read just before I finished writing that post, but it wasn't up on the Web yet. Now it is.

The Drudge Report pointed to an article today about President Bush and Veep Cheney and their clandestine activities with the War Vets from both Iraq and Afghanistan--it's something the media knew little about.

This made me laugh.

And I appreciated this reminder that Love Wins.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Awkward Silence

I hate lulls in conversation. In high school I would plan conversation topics before dates. Yeah... obviously that went smashingly well. At times, in an effort to avoid the conversation from stalling, I mentally prepare the next topic of conversation and how to move towards that end. But that is a pain and a tad controlling (a tad?).

Going out on a limb here...but I think many can relate to my behavior. We all have been in that situation where "awkward silence" has emerged. After a momentary pause somebody tries to sputter out anything to move from awkwardness to normallness.

I comment on this in light of conversations with God. I dont' mean to trivilaize God, like God is just one of the "guys," and we hang out, exchange stories, chill, because Jesus is my "homeboy." Rather, I mean conversation in terms of prayer.

And in my prayer life (conversation) I realize that many times I do the speaking. I try to fill in the awakwardness of silence.

Think about the start of your day. What is the first thing you do? Television? Check e-mail? Make a phone call? Turn on the radio?

About two months ago I realized I was in the habit of checking my e-mail in the morning. I rushed into distraction instead of waiting for a word from God. So by ways of this small testimony I challenge you to try to be silent before God.

Serioulsly, try this. Go into a room and sit. Don't do anything. I mean just sit. And see what happens. Let me talk you into some awkward silence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Top Seven Nonfiction Books

Here's a list of my 7 favorite nonfiction books. Yes, 7. It's a good number. If you're looking for a good read over the holiday, I highly recommend them all.

1. Desiring God John Piper
Piper lays out the guiding principle for how I think about every aspect of my faith.

2. Renovation of the Heart Dallas Willard
Like Piper, Willard is a man crush. Renovation gave me to tools and knowledge to cooperate with God in becoming more like Christ.

3. The Trivialization of God Donald McCullough
God is big.

4. Roaring Lambs Bob Briner
This book was my initiation into thinking seriously about Christian engagement with a complex American culture. There are probably better books out there (e.g., Christ & Culture), but this book was seminal for me.

5. The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture Shane Hipps
Terrible title. Amazing book. This is an easy read with big ideas. I see better how technology impacts not simply what we think about but how we think.

6. A New Kind of Christian Brian McLaren
Put feelings into words. That's the sign of a good book. This is the book that started the Emergent conversation.

7. The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer was a rebel who found a rebellion worthy of God. He's just a stud (i.e., man crush).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Musings about what to write on and this verse is all I have to share. I appreciate the NLT translation that keeps the season theme of Ecclesiastes 3 (shout out to Adam). This is one of those verses that perplexes and encourages me at the same time.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Monday, December 15, 2008

This year we’re scaling back on Christmas. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. My family is spending less on presents than has been our habit in recent years. But we may still spend as much this season as we have in the past.

The rebelcontrarian in me has had a vague notion to scale back for a few years now. But it took Advent Conspiracy to finally spark a conversation with my family. I wish it hadn’t taken some big media push by a special interest group. It goes against my nature. But I guess if it nudges someone like me in my position, then it’s accomplishing its purpose. And though I’d like to, I can’t take credit for it. Instead of proudly bearing my self-styled label—of being a hip minimalist and full of compassion—I have to lose that identity by buying into something bigger than me. Humility is easy except when it’s actually humbling.

So, at Thanksgiving we talked about how we could make this Christmas different. We threw around some ideas about what we could do as a family. We talked about working at a food pantry or finding some people in need. Did we know anyone? A recent speaker I’d heard said that our problem isn’t that we don’t love the poor but that we don’t know anyone who is poor. We were at a loss for names ourselves.

So far, our ideas had been okay, but they hadn’t really struck a chord with us. I knew that for this Christmas experiment to change our habits in a lasting way, it had to fit our family’s own personality. Sometimes it is good and necessary to introduce something foreign to our personality if it doesn’t allow for authentic good, but I still wondered if we couldn't find something intrinsic that would fit better.

“Well, when I was little we always went Christmas caroling to old people’s houses,” my sister recalled with a laugh. “Maybe we could go to an old people’s home and sing for them.” This idea met with more interest than what we’d already mentioned. Our family is a musical one, we all agreed. This was a good option.

“If we’re going with something natural for our family,” my dad said looking at me, “I immediately thought of Beth and Jake.” Beth is a single mother of Jake, who’s 9 now. We’ve known them both that whole time. “Of course, their basement was flooded this summer,” my dad went on, “so they have needs in that regard. And they’re someone who’s been a part of our lives for a lot of years already. It makes sense that we’d do something special for them.”

These ideas weren’t uncomfortable or beyond our means the way we often imagine things like this to be. But making a sacrifice doesn’t always need to be inconvenient, does it? Nor would these acts of compassion radically transform many lives, but they wouldn’t leave the people unchanged either. Small change is valid too. When the desire for big transformations prevents us from acting at all in small ways, we know that our desires have gotten out of order. Working for small change instead of big change is something that will require a humble spirit because there won’t be a visible reward. Humility is easy, except when it’s actually humbling.

But I think humility is part of what Christmas means, too. Consider this interpretation of Christmas:

“Though Jesus was God,
he did not think of equality
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
He took the humble position of a slave
And was born as a human being.”

We typically think this is out of character for God, but consider God's self-styled residence: "I live in the high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble." It makes sense then that God would choose a cave-barn. It seems fitting even. Maybe Jesus felt quite at home there. What kind of homes are we making for him?

We all know the story of Christmas. It's been so glamorized. But it wasn’t headline news when it happened. The work of God rarely is, by our standards. Headline news would have covered the astronomic anamoly in the night sky, not the birth it pointed to. "Huh," we would've shrugged before flipping channels. But the angels got their priorities straight and made it a big deal, just like they do when a sinner repents—another non-newsworthy event. God works like that: turning insignificance on its head, having parties for it. Humility is insignificant, except when God gets hold of it. So is small change.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Matter of Life and Death

I know everyone is overjoyed that my brief blog sabbatical is over. After the e-mail and Facebook threats I caved in.

This post dates back to Black Friday...

On the evening of Black Friday I was flipping through the television. For some reason there was a BBC news feed and the British reporter was covering United States news. Now I have always thought Black Friday to be a joke and a sad example of America's obsession with consumerism. But this neutral report made me embarrassed. Authentically embarassed.

The news anchor explained, "Today in the United States was the holiday Black Friday."

I thought, "A holiday? People are defining this as a holiday."

He went on, " a day that almost rivals their annual celebration of Thanksgiving."

I thought, "How ironic that a day after being thankful for all we have we than go out to buy things we don't have."

Than came to worse part of the report. A man at a Wal-Mart in New York was trampled to death while people rushed the store. I than remembered my copy of Christianity Today (Nov). The lead article described the thousands of people lining up and fighting for food after devastating floods. Around 4 people were killed in the madness.

How sad. All the deaths are tragic but what struck me the most was the sheer contrast.

The Haitians flock for food. They gather for something to keep them alive and sustain them. We flock for good deals. We gather for something to purchase and enjoy.

If we had a better perspective on Thanksgiving/Christmas than perhaps Black Friday would be a day of sharing with people the things we are so thankful for. Like food for the Haitians.

I'm not trying to be a downer but just hoping to be a gentle reminder about blessing people this season, and all seasons. :)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why do seasons and songs feel the same?

I picked up my carpooling comrade from Midas this morning, where he'd dropped off his car for some maintenance. "Amazing the way mentioning an arrested governor sparks conversation in a service waiting area," he noted to me.

"It's sort of like the weather," I said. "We all have it in common." I recalled my high school job at a grocery store, when we carted groceries out for our customers. It was the store's special little touch to create a small-town experience for rootless consumers. I always made small talk with them about the weather.

"Yeah, I guess, we all have that in common. We all can agree on that."

"Right. For strangers, conversations center first around commonalities, not differences."

Movie quotes (and The Office, for that matter) function as universal inside jokes (if there can be such a thing) for our generation, I've noticed. If I want to establish a rapport with someone, finding commonality is essential. Tommy Boy is a good starting point. I've seen this happen with complete strangers.

Quotes can also establish boundaries pretty quickly because they work as a good indicator for how culturally hip someone is. Movie quotes will sound very non sequiter for the those who are unfamiliar with the movie. If you recieve a strange look or no response (anything besides laughter really), then you know your dealing with a culturally aloof individual. You have a good indicator about whether the friendship has potential. Why is that? Why do we evaluate possiblities by pop culture?

Another way we do this is with music. While we quote movies more often, I think music is more influential than movies. This could be argued, I'm sure. Music is a big way that individuals find commonality. This may be the first point of connection. Once, I mentioned to a group of friends a musician I had gone to see. One girl was very surprised. She hadn't pegged me for that sort of person. A few months later, we were dating.

Interestingly, on our first date she gave me a mixed CD of some of her current music. When I told my sister this, she said something like, "Oh, she wants to be known." It was true. Music is a window into our personal lives. It is a sort of revealing, a get-to-know-you. I knew a few of the songs, but most of them were unknown to me. I liked some, didn't like some others. A few months later, we weren't dating anymore.

I've also found that friends grow to share similar musical taste, or that they find out only after a while that they share an affinity for a certain band. What is it about music that we find commonality in it. Is it something intrinsic to the music that it appeals to certain demographics? Or is it that we've been bred by mass culture to use music that way, as a means for identity? It's probably somewhere in between.

Well, I could conclude my thoughts there, but that would leave the title of this post completely disconnected. I set out to write another post completely. That almost always happens. Often I never get to the actual post I'd intended to write. That will not happen this time.

I think music evokes feelings similar to those we associate with the four seasons. Some bands feel like Winter, others like Summer, Spring, or Fall. They have nothing clearly in common with those seasons, except that in the individual similar feeling arise in both contexts.

It was interesting then that when I asked some colleagues at lunch that we agreed about which bands fell in which seasons. It's interesting that for unique personalities, similar emotions are evoked by both seasons and music to connect the two.

That's all philosophical, and maybe a bit dry from some of you. All in all, I just wanted to post a list of bands (or CDs) that fell into the various seasons. Thanks to my colleagues who helped. And I guess it's a bit of a survey too. Do you agree that these bands fit their season? And what other bands do you think fit a distinct season emotively?

The Fray
Sixpence, None the Richer
The Killers (late Sept)
Norah Jones' "Not Too Late"

The Myriad(?)
Counting Crows
Ingrid Michaelson
Pedro the Lion
Norah Jones's "Come Away with Me"
Coldplay (Winter/Spring)

Sufjan Stevens
Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home
U2 (May)

Jack Johnson (Spring/Summer)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Going Out on a Limb

I like visual flow charts like the tree below. They help me figure out where I am. My heritage is Mennonite, but I went to Baptist churches a lot growing up. Now? I'm not sure where my beliefs would put me. I wish they had a test you could take to tell you which denomination you fit with best.

What's your story?

Monday, December 08, 2008

TV is new antidote for infectious happiness

If you’ve been a regular reader of Watching Gravity for a while now, bless you. You probably already know then that I have a strange fixation with the subject of happiness. It seems that every few months a new spate of articles surface on the topic as some new research comes out. Then, I link to them here and bore you all to death. For all our interest in being happy, reading about happiness seems a bit removed and unexciting, I suppose. So, indulge me again as I offer up a few more bits gleaned from recent reading.

The most interesting feature of recent articles is the impact that relationships have on happiness. For example, recent research points out that those who read more and socialize more are generally happier (See! You’re halfway there already!). But it’s more likely that happy people tend to read and socialize more, and not that those things make people happy.

By contrast, increased TV viewing is correlated to decreased happiness. But the same thinking follows here: It is unhappy people who tend to watch more TV, and not TV-watching that makes people unhappy (so keep watching!). TV is actually a means of immediate gratification, even if short-lived and rather shallow in the final analysis. One researcher said that TV simply functions as an “opiate.” I guess opium makes people happy. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone on it.

Further research up on the Internet last week on the social impact of happiness claims that happiness is contagious, to a crazy degree. You don’t even have to know the person and they can have an impact on your happiness. "If your friend's friend's friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket." You’ll be happier if your friend-twice-removed is happy than if someone gave you 5 large. That’s hard to believe (but it’s science!).

But they point out the most important factor. While happiness might seem like the quintessence of self-centered individualism, it’s intrinsically linked to community, to being connected. "You have to see them [your friends] and be in physical and temporal proximity.” This seems in keeping with the previous TV findings in saying that happy people socialize more. Happiness correlates to being in community with others.

In their Nov/Dec issue, Books & Culture, a favorite periodical of mine, employed Scot McKnight to author an article on the topic. It is fitting for me, who takes everything seriously (it’s ridiculous), that I would be, ahem, happy to see a serious contemplation of happiness.

McKnight cites one author’s book and again connects happiness to community, but in a different way. “The best way to predict our feelings about tomorrow [= happiness] is to see how others are feeling today.” That is, find others who are already living the way we expect to be living in the future. We’ll see better where we’re headed. It’s less about community as a context for contagious happiness and more of one as an indicator for how sick we could get.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

UNO as Violence

This weekend my brother-in-law brought along some DVDs recorded at a recent conference that a colleague of his attended. The sessions included some popular figures within our happy subculture, including Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Both figures are somewhat radical in their respective ways, challenging some of our habits of living as Christians in the United States. For this reason alone, I am inclined to like them

Tony Campolo’s talk was very big picture in some ways. He began with some axioms for interpreting Revelation. This seemed strange for a youth conference, but whatever. He began by interpreting “Babylon” and the “New Jerusalem” as symbolic. Babylon, he said, represented the Roman Empire for the first readers of Revelation—that is, it was the pervading culture of the day. It was then, and is now, the pervading value system by which we live and choose and the pervading object in which we put our trust. New Jerusalem represented Christians in the world—the Church. He argued that the New Jerusalem counters Babylon’s pervasive systems and remains standing after Babylon falls (Rev 11:15). He repeatedly encouraged people to reread Revelation 18­-19, indeed the whole book, with this interpretive framework. I plan to do so.

From his premises, he made an immediate jump from Babylon as the Roman Empire to Babylon as the United States. Now Babylon is different, he said, for different people around the world: For the French, Babylon is France; for the Chinese, it’s China; for Brits, Britain. As Revelation asserts, Babylon falls—"all Babylons fall." In the U.S. context then, it is no exception. For we who can’t imagine it, Campolo made this seem like a real possibility. We have, at the moment, an economy that is crumbling before our (mediated) eyes. Whatever the reasons and causes, legitimate or perceived, the financial system that has structured our value systems and in which we have put our trust is crumbling. Campolo himself talked about his own 401k, on which he was relying in his retirement. He began to explain what he thinks it means for the New Jerusalem to stand when Babylon falls.

During a Q&A session after his talk, Campolo’s big-picture ideas were made more applicable through some specific questions. The conversation there seemed to revolve around retirement accounts and medical insurance. One question asked if 401ks weren’t simply good stewardship. This is a legitimate question, and if we were to take Campolo’s challenge seriously, it is one that is of great impact on our own decisions. Should I plan and save for retirement, or does that make me like the rich man who built bigger barns to store his stuff, and to whom God said, “You fool!”?

In regards to medical insurance, Campolo referred to preceding speaker Shane Claiborne and even the Amish. Claiborne is known for radical compassion and the new monasticism he is leading in Philadelphia. There he lives in the ghettos among the poor, the homeless, the weak, and the least. He has pulled together with about a hundred others, committing to help pay for any medical needs that arise among them. Upon reflection, this seemed to me like insurance on a micro scale. It is like an insurance company, except it functions within the context of relationships, not corporations. Everyone knows each other in this context, whereas a typical insurance company is disembodied and impersonal. I think this is a key distinction for Claiborne.

This led, like usual, to some lively discussion in my family (we’ll discuss anything). I attempted to argue for Campolo’s views within the American context, while my sister raised good points about how impractical it is here, “pie in the sky” was her term.

“You’d have to be very committed,” she said, “to making such a thing happen. To pull together a hundred other people committed to the same thing to make it work at all.”

She’s right. You only have so much energy to commit to various causes of life, and you must care about this one area specifically to really make a go of it at all.

“Besides, doing it might take quite a while, and I don’t know where we’ll be five years from now.”

To this I suggested that perhaps staying in one place could be more important than moving to the next location. This sort of stability and longevity is obviously something that has been in my thoughts recently, so it was interesting to arrive there in conversation.

“But we don’t feel God is calling us to do that,” my sister was saying.

It was a trump card I couldn’t beat.

Still I wonder if the whole system we’ve built up around ourselves is a system in conflict with these values, which Campolo was suggesting were biblical, and which Claiborne agrees with by the way he's living. In this U.S. context, the ideas of providing for each other’s medical needs or providing for the elderly indeed seem like “pie in the sky” as my sister said. In fact, I often feel this tension when reading my Bible. I find myself asking, “Is this a nonnegotiable? Should I be doing more of that and less of this? Is Jesus' call, God's will, really that extreme?”

Later in the evening, some friends were over. The young boy determined that we should play UNO. I was amenable to it, and we all ended up playing four rounds. I was sitting next to my dad. Now when we play our usual game, Scrabble, it often goes poorly for him. He becomes somewhat despondent in these games where luck outweighs strategy. He starts to draw bad letters, and things just decline after that. He increasingly rubs his face and gasps, “Gosh!” Sometimes he just becomes a bit belligerent toward fate. It seems that fate dealt him similar afflictions in UNO.

As the game progressed, I was regularly playing cards like “Draw Four,” “Draw Two,” “Skip,” and “Reverse.” The consequences often fell on him. With each blow he alternated between glaring at me and pleading with me. At one point, he’d missed four turns in a row. At another point, he was rifling through at least 20 cards to find a yellow—without luck. I couldn’t help it. What could I do? That’s how the game is played.

Then I was reminded of what Campolo was trying to show us. Just like Babylon, UNO functions on a certain system of principles, a set of values. It has certain cards that you must play to win the game. You can’t play UNO without doing violence to your opponents by adding cards to their hand or preventing them from playing in a given round. In fact, every participant is an “opponent.” There is no community in UNO, only division.

Campolo was saying something like that I think. And I think Jesus is often saying it too, that despite what we’ve been led to believe, we don’t have to play the cards we’re dealt. You have a “Skip” and a “Draw Four” in your hand, but no one's forcing you to play them. Draw again for a card that won’t hurt your opponent. In fact, quit thinking of him as an “opponent” at all.

Of course you will also lose the game. But it begins to sound a bit like words Jesus spoke. Words like, “Love your enemies” and “Whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant.” These are two axioms by which the New Jerusalem will be standing long after Babylon has fallen. All of Jesus words, really, are the foundation of that whole city.

We are not called to quit playing UNO. We are called to quit playing by the rules we’ve been taught. You have the cards to harm your neighbor, but you don’t play them. You don’t skip over them or reverse course to avoid them, even if it may be to your own advantage. Often it will be. You don’t need to pile them with burdens that you yourself could help them bear, even if they burden you unjustly in return. In fact, you don’t just refrain from harming them, you find ways to help them out.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Winter Advisory, or Beeting the Streets

Saturday afternoon, I was in Iowa when it started to snow. With weather patterns the way they are, I knew that I’d be travelling into more snow Sunday driving back to Chicago. Weather is an important variable for people who are travelling. A light snow fall in town can be a blinding, accumulating travel hazard on the highway. Knowing what the road conditions are and what inclement weather drivers will face is valuable information. Is it a blizzard or a light dusting? How many inches? In the summer, there are thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings. I still can’t remember which is which. If you’re with my sister when one of these comes up, the difference doesn’t matter, you’re going in the basement.

I went out to eat with my parent Saturday evening where the waitress—a blond who’d exhausted herself with a 14-hour day—informed us that there was a “winter advisory” out.

Now, as ill informed as I am about the difference between watches and warnings, I think “winter advisory” is just weathermen getting together and saying, “Let’s make our jobs legitimate when we have no weather to report. When it’s cold out we’ll call it a ‘Winter Advisory’!”

This is as absurd as having a Fall advisory or a Summer advisory. “Watch out for falling leaves. Ladies and gentlemen, just to be safe, we’re going to issue a Fall advisory, ” The National Weather Service is even in on the Winter Advisory kerfuffle. But who could say with a straight face, “The National Weather Service has issued a Summer Advisory. We encourage all people to take shelter or find some shade. It’s just too sunny outside today.” Oh wait, that’s what the UV Index is for.

I just don’t get how you can warn people about a season. Beware! It’s Spring outside today. You might want to wear layers, or at least grab a light jacket before heading out the door this morning.

While the weather forecasters are thinking up new ways to keep us advised, the economy has forced state and local road crews to find alternatives to salt for our streets, which is in short supply apparently. Just like snackers around the holidays, the roads are getting a mix of salty and sweet this year. The typical salt brine solution is now being supplemented with sugar beet juice. It looks like it started last year in Ohio and Indiana, then Chicago adopted it late in the season.

So, if you’re environmentally conscious but also concerned with appearing hip, you would do well next time you see snow removal trucks on the road to point them out to your friend and mention how great it is that they’re “beeting the streets.” If your friend looks at you funny, it’s clear that you should have compassion and enlighten her about why it’s no longer called “salting the streets.” You’ll be doing her a favor.