Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day thoughts... a devotional for today

Some people say that Labor Day is a Marxist holiday.
Indeed, it was first celebrated in the U.S. by the Central Labor Union (the predecessor of the AFL-CIO) in New York in 1882, and a version of it became quite the national holiday in the former Communist Bloc nations, celebrated with Red Army military parades, etc.

To that I say, Marxism emerged and became successful bec there was a need--workers were overlooked and undermined by society and people were fed up. Was it a good system? No, but it existed for a reason: deplorable social structures. (Considering that Communism took hold in many otherwise Christian nations, perhaps the Church is partly to blame for not providing a better solution. Oh, the quandaries of the age-old "How much should the Church become involved in politics/secular society?" question.... but I don't want us to get sidetracked by that during this devotional thought.)

I don't think our primary problem in the U.S. today (thanks be to God) is the reprehensible condition of our working class; even w/this bad economy, working conditions, etc. are still significantly better than they were for most in the urban industrial sector during the late 1800s. But, in relation to Labor Day, two thoughts do stick out to me; the first, a reflection on what I believe is a major social problem that relates to this holiday; the second, a simple responsive action to that issue:

1.) We, as a nation (in the sense here of a people group), are a people who, by and large, have forgotten to stop and remember. Many Christians get upset with the over-commercialization and secularization of holidays like Christmas and Easter. I am one of them. As we know, the light and fun and innocuous elements of these holidays have increasingly begun to overshadow their deep spiritual significance more and more as our overly-P.C. society adds "religiophobic" to its social ethos. Even now, having largely been stripped down to their lowest common symbolic denominators (Santa Claus, Christmas trees, the Easter bunny, etc.), a further societal backlash ensued as people felt increasingly uneasy about these holiday's religious aspects, with public schools being barred from such ostentatious displays of religious proselytization as the brainwashing ritual of singing the ancient, culturally popular classic "Silent Night." Such carols have broadly been declared verboten from school choir performances, lest the minds of our fragile, impressionable, and pluralistic youth are corrupted by things like virgins and farm animals and babies in mangers and twinkling stars and such. Even in the private, commercial sector, business workers are increasingly instructed to offer the generic and utterly impotent festal greeting "Happy Holidays" during the month of December.

Perhaps the good side of that is one can simply choose which holiday they want to be happy about when someone says that. "Happy Holidays," declares the half-engaged department store worker as they already glance ahead to the next customer who is trying to balance her pile of clothing and ceramic mixing bowls and decorative "infused" olive oil bottles that will soon be collecting dust on her uncle's stovetop. But in your mind you can think, "Happy Holidays? I know it's Christmas, but man, that's a bit played out by now. I've been looking at Christmas trees and twinkle lights since October. Hmmmm... sparklers, yes! Happy 4th of July--that's it! I had to work that weekend, so I never got to light those sparklers I smuggled in from Tijuana last June. 'A happy Independence Day to you, too, ma'am!' you declare to the puzzled minimum wage employ, 'Damn those British!!' "

What I realized today is our... and I would be Conservatively P.C. here and say "Judeo-Christian holidays," but let's be honest, Jewish people don't celebrate Christian holidays, at least not in their religious aspects, and vice a versa; also, most Jewish holidays, since Jews are a minority in the U.S., have been able to retain their religious nature, even as they find occasional expressions in the public sphere. So, what I realized today is that it isn't just our religiously-rooted Christian holidays here in America that have lost much of their salt, so to speak--though there does seem to be an intentional attack upon them for their aforementioned religious nature, but perhaps the organized atheists and virulent secularists are really wasting their hot air and pay checks on more legal bills... Their strategies to further separate Church and State (with "State" in their practical definition effectually meaning "American culture," not just its governmental institutions) are pretty much unnecessary--not because the average American has become godless (which survey and poll and study and research paper after survey and poll and study and research paper have repeatedly shown just isn't the case), but rather because most Americans simply just don't stop and remember. Anything.

Who has time to contemplate the challenging profundity of the Creator of the Universe lying vulnerable as a human baby in a smelly animal shelter when there are more sales to attack and "this year's hot toys" to fight strangers over at the mall? Who has time to cook a holiday feast for family and friends when traffic is so bad? Why would I go to the Veteran's cemetery to stop and remember and be utterly grateful for the young men and women who died so I can safely watch football on tv when there are so many football games on tv that I can watch? Don't worry, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and Madalyn Murray O'Hair, traditional Christian holidays have become poor vehicles for converting people. We are much too busy buying crap to think about the subliminal messages seasonally being pumped into our brains by the Musak at the Westfield Shopping Plaza, infused with that oppressive medieval delusion called "religion."

Sorry, however, it's not due to our collective enlightenment of the naturalistic doctrines you so desperately cling to, it's simply because we just have too much stuff to do, too many "important" things to think about, and too many hamburgers to grill. Uncle Sam and Patrick the Leprechaun are feeling the crunch, too.

2.) OK, so now what? Yeah, we are busy and ungrateful people who have lost any real sense of annual rhythm, especially a rhythm of memory. What to do about it? I can't change corporate America or effectively tell the raging secularists to pull their victimization sticks out of their bums and stuff their mouths with them instead so the rest of us can just enjoy life and celebrate our stupid little holidays without too much f I put lights on my house will I offend my Buddhist neighbor?" self-analysis. (The answer, btw, is "no." Lights are pretty and Buddhists generally don't get uptight about such things.)

Well... today is Labor Day. Perhaps in your own little, possibly self-gratifying, white guilt-reducing manner you can put your subversive skills to work in a small way. (As Americans, we like big trucks but small actions, let's be honest...) But this is the kind of small change, that added to a bunch of other, similar, small changes, will begin to change the way you think, bec it will begin to change the way you see your world. And once you begin to see your world differently, you will understand it differently. And when you understand it differently, you will respond to it differently, and will end up making some different choices, and relating to other people differently. Enough people begin to do this, and you have your own grassroots social revolutionary movement! Now, aren't WE cool! We might even get American Apparel t-shirts made for our cause, and then the hipsters will love us. Sorry, I was dreaming out loud.

OK, ready? Here's the 1st revolutionary step you can take, one that will even make the card-carrying grad school Marxists proud--stop and remember. Yep. That's it: stop and remember. "Remember what?" you ask. Well, it's Labor Day. Stop and remember--think about and be thankful for all of the people, around the world, who made today possible. All of the people who labor, who serve you, directly and indirectly. People like:

your postal worker

your cell phone carrier workers

the farmers and day laborers who grew and raised and picked and slaughtered the food you are eating

the truckers and mariners who transported your food to Ralphs and your light bulbs to Wal Mart

your auto repairman

your teachers, past and present

your pastors and church staff

your garbage man (I mean... sanitary engineer)

the people who designed, marketed, assembled, shipped, inspected, repaired and sold the computer that you are using right now

the people who made the table and the chair you are at

the police and firemen who keep you safe

government workers and politicians

waitstaff and buss people where you eat

salespeople in the stores where you shop, business owners

the actors and producers and directors and gaffers and editors and costume workers of the tv shows and movies you watch and enjoy

the athletes and coaches and peanut salesmen for your favorite sports teams

doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmacists, chiropractors, etc who keep you healthy

etc., etc., etc.

The list can go on and on. But realize how dependent you are on the labor of others. Be thankful for them. Say a prayer for them, regardless of how removed and anonymous they may feel; God knows who they are, and he cherishes a heart full of gratitude.

Be thankful for your own job, if you have have. Be thankful for the jobs you have had in the past if you don't, and pray for a new one, so you, too, may serve others in that way.

Use this Labor Day as one step in walking towards a lifestyle where you, counter-culturally, take sabbath and stop and remember, realize your interconnectedness, and are grateful. Do this enough, and your world will be different, because you will see it differently, and will respond to it differently, and in so doing, you will bring the good news of shabbat to it, a ceasing of our labors so that we can enjoy the fruits of them, and give thanks for the fruits that other laborers and our good Creator have graciously given to us.

The peace and rest of Christ to you this Labor Day. Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Time to Walk the Talk, Christian Folks

The American Spectator, an excellent paleo-conservative publication, posted this revealing article on their website today: Plus Eight is Enough. The brief article (which I recommend reading) highlights recent tabloid stories of Christian politicians and reality-show celebs, and broader statistics which show that Evangelical and other conservative Christians in the U.S. aren't doing too good of a job "walking the talk" when it comes to our divorce, unwed pregnancy, and abortion rates (especially in the so-called "red states" where Christians often predominate). These rates are usually equal to, and in some cases are higher than, those of non-Christians in the region. This is both ironic and tragic, since these are of course very hot-button issues which we so often seem to talk the loudest about in the public sphere and in frequently lobbied-for governmental legislation.

As a response to Mr. Allott's article, I wrote the following thoughts:

Thank you, Mr. Allott, for this thoughtful and balanced corrective for the church of Jesus Christ in America. It is a sad, but accurate, summary of how too many of us who call ourselves Christian have separated our ideals from our actual, lived-out values. Social scientists have documented how groups often become more vocal and "enthusiastic" about their unique positions and practices when they are experiencing a downfall, to reactively strengthen what makes them unique. Unfortunately, too many American Christians have done so with the issues of abortion, sexual behavior, and the defense of traditional marriage. I understand and identify with the frustrations felt with the eroding of these values on a larger social scale (and in so many Christians’ practice as these sobering statistics reveal), but in the midst of shifting social currents, we must be careful to not lose our heads and switch to some type of ideological reactionary state where we battle loudly over "protecting" the family through legislation while we ignore our own; complain about schools giving out condoms while our sons and daughters, whom we've lost meaningful relationships with and respect from due to our overly “busy” lives, are having unprotected sex; tell people to keep their babies when we do little to help out the ones that do once the children are born--we place almost all of the responsibility on the mother, with little required of deadbeat dads, there are sagging job opportunities, and social mindsets in many areas have the #1 goal for young people as: get a no-brain job, get pregnant, and have kids--no vision, no joy, no creativity, no entrepreneurship, no bettering your community or even taking care of your physical health (look at the absurd obesity rates in the U.S.), and we frequently over-spiritualize relational and even mental issues that concurrently need to be dealt with on a "natural" level (via counseling, support, recovery groups, etc.), often to the detriment of our families, marriages, and other relationships.

Aaron wrote a telling comment (on the article, on the website): “The fact is that for Conservative Christians, living the good life is all that matters. We are not on a crusade, we are not trying to take over the world, don't try and fix us too.” From my understanding of Scripture, that is part of the problem. Our focus as Christians isn’t to be on “living the good life,” in some type of “us four and no more” way. God’s heart is poured outward unto us; as disciples, ours is to mimic His--poured out unto Him, but also to our “neighbor.” When Christians prioritize their own benefit and become insular, they abandon the Great Commission, which is to spread the “good news” of Christ and His Kingdom to all the nations, teaching them to follow Him as well. No, we are not trying to take over the world (although there are Christians who incorrectly adopt that mindset, too), but we are to tangibly influence it for the Kingdom, here and abroad, with authentic, generous, life-giving lives. According to Jesus’ great paradox of “he who loses his life for My sake will find it,” that is where “the good life” is found, and my personal experience verifies that. Small-minded, fearful, appearance-oriented, and insular “Christianity” has got to go; people need a vision that extends beyond themselves, one that they actually begin to live out in the power of the transforming Holy Spirit.

Too many factions of the church in America have become too afraid to get "messy" so that the real issues (and yes, accountability) become taboo and aren't dealt with—well, until someone crosses the line and gets sent to the religious firing squad. Churches with truly healthy congregations are usually places where people feel loved enough AND where the people are "real" enough to be honest about their own "stuff" that actual healing/discipleship can take place. Otherwise, we too quickly become self-righteous ideologues who raise the standard higher than we ourselves ever intend to reach, and feel some sort of almost ethnic privilege because of our "correct" doctrine, and not our correct, stumbling-towards-Christ actions. The lived-out Gospel is what transforms people, communities, and nations for God's kingdom. But until the Church (Protestant, Catholic, etc.) gets real and gains discernment into the social situations and cultures that they live in, we will often stop short our analysis of these important issues at the "church level," ignorant of our own blind spots and familial/cultural issues that contribute to these problems. God doesn't live in a box, let's stop trying to put Him in one, and de-segregate Him from the rest of our lives, working together with our brothers and sisters in Christ across denominational, ethnic, and class lines toward real solutions.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pistis, Ethnos, & Mestizaje: A Case Study

In my Congregation as Learning Community class the other week, we had an exercise in which we were asked to self-identify our ethnic culture and then consider the practices and values our cultures generally hold and how some of those either affirm or go against the Gospel. As a “culturally self-aware” American studies grad, that task wasn’t too difficult for me, but only because I spent almost 3 years asking such questions. I then wondered how some of the high schoolers I work with at church would respond to similar questions.

So, tonight before our youth group started, I was able to talk with 6 young men and 3 young ladies, asking them how they would define their ethnicity/culture/race, and how some aspects of their culture (secular & Christian) either support or go against living the Christian lifestyle. (My second question was very difficult to convey in non-jargony terms! I had to rephrase it several times, and even then, I don’t think everyone got it.)

Only one student was white alone; she called herself “Irish” and shared how she goes “all out” on St. Patrick’s Day, but is more generically “white” the rest of the year—her “Irishness” didn’t define her that much. Another student was “German/Italian/Irish/Salvadorian” and says he has a particular fondness for Korean girls. He goes to Burroughs High School in Burbank, where he said he was in the minority as a “white person” (differentiating himself from Armenians), and contrasted that to Burbank High, where his step-brother goes, which he said was predominately white. He said it felt weird to him when he visited it once for that very reason. Don was “white” and a “little Mexican”; Justin was “Mexican and white” and as a skater kid, said he “feels like crap” when other Mexicans (mainly cholos) call him “white,” but says he himself often “forgets” that he’s Mexican because he sees his crowd and friends as white. Author Robert W. Pazmiño, in his book Latin American Journey, describes this tension: “…new-breed or new-generation Hispanics are looked down on both by Latin Americans for their cultural impurity and by whites for their ethnic ties.” (107)

That tension of living in two cultural worlds was echoed by two biracial (Black and white) females, one who felt segregated against by Black students, and the other (who looks stereotypically white) who said she sometimes feels like she “has to chose sides.” Trey is very light skinned, but said he was “99.9999% Black.” When the students were asked how important their ethnicity was in forming their self-identity, almost all of them said it wasn’t, that they primarily saw themselves as just “people, like everyone else,” though these questions reveal that ethnic-based tensions do arise from time-to-time. Ethnic identification was least important to the predominately white students, who usually had the most difficulty answering my questions, but that wasn’t surprising, since “majority culture” people in almost any society often lack the same type of ethnic self-awareness that minorities do. (Please see my "comment" below)

When I asked the students to try to compare their culture with the Gospel, 80% of the students had a real hard time figuring that out. Kyle, who sees himself as “Mexican and European” pointed out that most Latinos are Catholic, and therefore “religious,” and kind of “reserved,” and that family was very important to them. Sam, who said he is “Black, obviously” (he has very dark skin) gave the strongest voice in support of having a more conscious cultural identity, saying that as a Black man he felt it was important to “step up” by example, instead of “being lazy,” to help “eliminate stereotypes.” He said he sometimes receives criticism from other Blacks who say he is “whitewashed.” In relation to the church, he felt the “Black church” is strong in its Pentecostal-type worship, and that they have that as a gift to offer to the “white church.” He said a cultural problem is that many Blacks “will go and praise the Lord at church and then go and smoke pot with their hommies that same afternoon”; that people often compartmentalize their faith.

A great thing about our youth group is its ethnic diversity and how the students, by-and-large, build friendships across racial and ethnic lines, finding more commonality in their humanity and faith than their culture of origin. Nevertheless, these conversations show there is still work to be done among them in building understanding about these issues, which seem to lie beneath the surface, to help better understand the cultural strengths, weaknesses, and biases we bring to our faith journeys. From a cultural analysis perspective, these students in many ways reflect new types of mestizaje, “mixed” people--the product of multiple cultures, creators of new ethnic identities--and even more so when you add a religion that is life-transforming to the mix.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Californians! Say NO to 220 Proposed State Park Closures!

[The following is a minimally revised reprint of a Facebook "note" I wrote the other day]

A pic I took in March of the pier at Hearst San Simeon SP by Cambria, CA, one of the sites the Governator proposes to close.

Due to the indiscretions of state and nation and business and individual, we are in a huge economic slump. News flash, right? :-0 The state of California, estimated by many to be the world's 10th largest economy, has been hit hard and out of necessity, is looking for ways to cut corners in its state budget. This is right and understandable. One of Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposals for this trimming is to indefinitely close 220 out of 279 state-run parks across CA. (Which equals roughly 80% of them) As I consider this proposal, I am increasingly becoming irate and am befuddled as to why this would be a wise thing to do, after considering the likely cost-benefit analysis of such a move.

Let's switch the order of those two terms of that foundational economic principle for a minute:


If this proposal goes through and 220 state-run parks are closed (= no legal access, no rangers, no security, no trash collection, no first aid, no educational programs, no maintenance, no income generated...), the state of CA will have skimmed off a whopping 0.01% of its budget deficit. Yes, that's right, a whole 1%.


Political cost: First of all, there is the unjust political concept that the public will be denied access to public lands, which just goes against logic, considering we live in a democracy.

Cost for the sites themselves: the potential increased vandalism, fires, injuries, poaching, etc. that could happen in these places w/out supervision. During my internship up at the Great Smoky Mountains NP a few summers ago, I was constantly amazed at how foolish people can act out "in the wild," from leaving trash around to getting too close to bears. Most "city folk" don't know naturally how to respect the wilderness, and the same could be said for respecting our cultural sites from painted Indian caves to historic buildings. The solution is to show people how to safely enjoy the wilderness, but you can't do that without rangers.

Cost for the residents and tourists who enjoy these sites: remove educational programs which connect people to the land and their history; take away camping opportunities which make for great, healthy, fun, family- and friend-building, and cheap(!) vacations in our tough economy and it's like, "Schwartz--what are you thinking?!" Many popular surfing beaches will be closed, meaning no place to park, no camping, no restroom facilities or trash collection, and NO LIFEGUARDS.

Cost for the local economies: consider the damage to the local, oftentimes rural economies around state parks which rely on tourist dollars and then add the fact that closing all of these state parks will include "laying off" approx. 1,500 employees, increasing our state's unemployment level, further reducing business income in small communities.

Cost for the State's economy: A UC Berkley study concluded that for every $1 CA spends on its state parks, the state receives $2.35 in taxes and local business revenue. Again, using a basic cost/benefit analysis, it makes economic sense to keep these parks open.

And then there is the "priceless" factor that no one can easily quantify. You can't place a $ value amount on the experience of standing below a towering Redwood tree up in the Henry Cowell Redwoods in Santa Cruz. You can't reproduce the silence and the night sky you find in the Anza-Borrego Desert, east of San Diego, back in the city. Who would think of closing Ellis Island, and yet we are proposing to close Angel Island up in the San Francisco Bay, which was the Ellis Island of the West. No more access to fields of endless golden poppies (our state flower) out in Lancaster; no visits to Bodie, one of the best-preserved ghost towns anywhere; no more camping trips to Carpenteria; no hikes up at Malibu Creek or even the Verdugo Mtns, just a shot above Burbank and Glendale; and no safe surfing seshes down at C-Bad or Refugio.

To summarize: I'm afraid for the integrity of these sites w/out any security, and I'm pissed I may not have legal access to them! :-0 Remove all of these awesome opportunities and you begin to ask yourself, "Wait, why do I live in California again?"

Data Sources:

CA State Parks Foundation:
(You can take action here by signing a letter which will be sent to the Governor and your appropriate state representatives. And believe it or not, this matters! A similar, but much smaller proposal [for closing 48 parks] was brought up last year by the Governor, but was quickly shut down after an overwhelming public response through petitions, letters and the like. Let's remind Sacramento again where our priorities lie!)

Silicon Valley Mercury News:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It’s Greek to Me

This Monday I visited the annual Valley Greek Festival, held at St. Nicholas’ Greek Orthodox Church in Northridge. Even though I’ve lived in the area for most of my life, I’ve never been to this fair, and since I didn’t have plans until the evening, I dropped by to grab some lunch and to hear their church choir. The festival lasted for all 3 days of Memorial Day weekend, but there were still hundreds of people on Monday afternoon. I started with the church tour, and listened to the young priest describe not only the church’s art and architecture, but also Orthodox worship.

Outside, tents were all around selling Greek food, pastries, alcohol, and crafts. The food and live music were great, but the thing that stood out to me, haunted me in fact, was the dance. Being a dancer myself, I was delighted that the dance floor was the geographic center of the outside activities. I’ve seen all kinds of dances, but the Greeks are unique in that they seem to always dance in lines, everyone holding hands, weaving in and out of serpentine swirls with certain set patterns of footwork. There was a group of adolescents in the center, dancing around a flagpole, who were particularly fun to watch. It was refreshing to watch young men who were unafraid to dance, adding their own athletic touches and improvisations, dancing in these lines with their friends, guys and girls alike. Around them were chains of people of different ages, Greeks and others who have either studied the dances or just decided to jump in and pick them up as they went along. Among them all, the haunting, kinetic refrain of the dances themselves were saying, “Life is not to be lived alone, but together.”

This church’s openness to others, their comfort with their cultural self-identity, their celebration of faith, food, and drink, family, music, and dance in an intergenerational expression follows Craig Van Gelder’s model of the missional church (and Norma Cook Everist’s work, The Church As Learning Community), and this impresses me. But as I reflected on the event, and certain expressions I saw of how things “are supposed to be,” I also found myself asking painful, personal, “Why, God?” questions when I compared what I experienced there with my own cultural environment, one that I never seemed to fully fit in growing up. I asked God why He chose to make me a dancer and yet place me in a culture where guys supposedly don’t do that. I ask Him why I wasn’t raised in a family that went to church, where a whole support network of people could have embraced me—the family of God. I told Him I sometimes wonder if it’s too late for me to find some of the connections and experiences I truly long for, and that I’m angry that He sometimes seems to be so slow and forgetful towards me. I wasn’t expecting any of this to come from attending this event, but visible expressions of the Kingdom can do that to you.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann described the Church as being in exile. If the Church’s desire is to be one-and-the-same with the mainstream culture, I guess you could describe our current status like that. But after reflecting on this congregation’s festival and my interactions with it, I believe that in our American context, it is primarily individuals who are exiled from one another.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wandering With Saint Julian

This last weekend, as part of an annual urban ministry event with the young adults of my church, I co-led a team that served at a mission on LA's "Skid Row," a district where thousands of homeless people congregate at different times of the day. It's home to several missions, flop houses, drug dealers, cops, and do-gooders. We were in the last category. Though part of our day was spent at a well-run rehab and service center, helping serve lunch and dinner, during the first part of our morning we split up into groups of three. Ours walked the blocks from around 5th St. and San Julian to Los Angeles Ave. and back, seeking people to engage with conversation and offers of prayer.

At first, we were all a bit reluctant to engage these strangers, much like we would avoid any other fellow Angelino, but as we returned towards the mission we felt the burden strongly enough to finally take some initiative and crack the ice. We approached one female sitting on a blanket, basically saying hello and asking her if she wanted prayer for anything, to which she simply nodded her head "no." A cop car pulled up and told her she had to get up and move on, to which she quite lucidly said, "OK; I'll move." We realized that the cops there don't like people loitering around the areas with businesses, but would also later discover that they didn't do much to crack down on the frequent drug sales along San Julian. We spoke with William, who was selling scented oils, who told us he was a Christian who served at a nearby church and is now 3 years sober and recently married. We prayed with him that God would continue to do what He's been doing in his life, and asked William to pray for us. After his prayer, we seemed to have no problem engaging with the folks along San Julian.

William was sitting in front of a mini park, surrounded by high bars so people couldn't sleep there at night, where CoCo was waiting for the workers to finish hosing off the benches beneath the two gazebos trimmed with icicle lights that are ironically and teasingly barred off during the hours when they are turned on. A rather morbidly-painted angel was posing in the back corner, one of those strewn about Los Angeles, painted by different artists for the "A Community of Angels Sculptural Project." This ugly one seemed to be the leftover they couldn't find a better place for. The rather nice micro-park seemed to me to be almost a piece of art itself, a theater for city council members to display to visiting dignitaries to prove they are "revitalizing" Skid Row rather than something that actually revitalizes the residents of Skid Row, though it does offer a bit of respite during daylight hours.

As we continued to walk along the narrow street we met Cecil, a sweet man from Georgia with a bump above his left eye from when he fell two nights before while drunk driving his wheelchair; Jay, a buff dude who is currently taking classes in Santa Monica to be a personal trainer; Chocolate, who told us the factor keeping her on the streets is her drug addiction, as she sat 15 feet away from a crack sale and across the street from a recovery center; William, who, after asking us to look away while he shot himself up, quoted to us more Bible verses about the promise of salvation than most seminarians are able to, and with whom we had a lively conversation about poetry.

At another street corner there is a Set Free church, with a wall mural of a gate with part of Matthew 16:18 written on it: "And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." These brothers and sisters are indeed sitting at the city gates, a traditional gathering place. They are at the surreal fulcrum point where the gates of hell abut the gates of heaven. Most of these residents are cohabiting in-between both, gambling to see which angel will take them in further: an angel of light, or one posing as such. Addiction and Freedom. Light and Darkness. Love and Murder. Community and Fear. Poison and Pleasure. Life and Death. Simulacrum and Safety.

According to artist J. Michael Walker (who has explored the juxtaposition of saints and their namesake streets in his "All the Saints of the City of Angels" show), San Julian is the patron saint of wanderers. Skid Row sees multitudes of wanderers, most of whom don't last long; some are afflicted, some return to help those still stuck in its grasp. It is a distressing journey to fellowship with Saint Julian, knowing that "the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it." (Matt. 7:13) At the same time, I know that our Lord Himself was a wanderer, without a home to call His own. (Matt. 8:20)

I was left to wonder: ultimately, which gate will our Saturday friends enter? Which gate will we enter? The residents of Skid Row live our lives, just writ much larger, where the pixels of our struggles--visceral and metaphysical--are enlarged beyond any crafty concealment, confronting us face-to-face. Perhaps this painful revelation itself is the blessing of St. Julian.

Monday, April 27, 2009

What Lies Beneath

Yesterday morning, while yet half-awake, my mind started wandering to a hypothetical conversation with a friend about the trustworthiness of Scripture, whether we can really trust it as a reliable (let alone infallible) revelation of God and His will for us. He was emphasizing the humanity of its authors, their personal biases and cultural issues, and man’s imperfection. Recently, I have been reading a book for a seminary class called The Ministry of the Missional Church, by Craig Van Gelder. In it, he posits that the Holy Spirit is continually at work building the Kingdom of God and that it is the Church’s task to join in on that work (although the Church itself is the primary vehicle a sovereign God has chosen to use to accomplish that lofty goal).

It seems to me that one’s theological presumptions in this matter weigh heavily in how one deals with, say, certain elements of Biblical criticism; for example, if single books are really the products of several editors, using multiple sources, etc. If these understandings are true and if the story ended there, then I would share my friend’s concern about the reliability of Scripture and its possible pollution by human authors. But what I realized during my quasi-dream state is that such a view extends beyond the issues of Scriptural trustworthiness, and presumes certain things about the very nature of God.

If the books and letters of the Bible are essentially just human documents with ideas about God, no more holy or Spirit-breathed than any other essay or treatise on the subject, then underneath that assumption lies a rather Deistic view of God, where He is rather distant and unloving, not concerned to be known on any authentically personal level, leaving us to struggle even harder than we already do understand or obey Him. If, however, Van Gelder is right, and God has been and is actively involved in His Church, building up His kingdom, then it follows that God would leave an accurate record, love letter, and instruction manual to His children, mysteriously but successfully working with (and often in spite of) human personalities and flaws to attain this goal. It makes sense to me then that such a God would also have guided the church councils who defined the canon just as much as He did the authors themselves, especially considering the importance of the work. It also follows that the same Holy Spirit has continued to work in and through the Church to this very day, guarding this sacred revelation, and enabling His body to live out this humanly-impossible missio dei on earth.

Reflecting on the continued work of the Holy Spirit in the world has not only reaffirmed my hope in the work of the Church, but in the very trustworthiness of the God-breathed Scriptures themselves.