That was the question that my sister-in-law posed to myself and my wife as we were standing in the hot sun at Disneyland.  We were already a few hours into our Disneyland adventure and this foray was already proving itself to be more exhaustive than imagined.  Standing in line for 30 minutes with a restless 2, 3, 4 and 7 year old for a ride that would last no more than 3 minutes at best proved to be progressively life sucking.  Strangely, though, we continued onwards despite our discomfort and despite our ever growing aches and pains acquired through endless walking, pushing, and carrying.  It is amazing to consider how normalized buying a bottle of water for $3.50 becomes after a few hours in the happiest place on earth.  But this is what such an adventure does to you.  It makes the irrational rational.

Back in our courting days whenever I would fly out to see Becca in California we would make sure to get a Disneyland visit in.  Becca was an annual passholder and I even managed to become one as well so it was no big deal for us to take a ride up the 5 and saunter around the park for a few hours.  We’d make sure to go on Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and other great and iconic rides.  It was always a fun time and I must confess I don’t think we ever asked ourselves why we were doing this.  Heck, once we even sat on a bench for a prolonged period of time, drank coffee, and talked.  Man, those days were crazy.

As I indicated earlier, these days going to Disneyland is quite different.  Becca and I haven’t been on any of the aforementioned rides since we’ve had children.  Now when we go a good portion of our time is spent meeting characters, going to the shows they offer, and going on the more kid friendly rides.  Whereas previously we could watch fireworks while holding and leaning upon one another now it consists of holding 30 pounds plus of human being for 20 minutes straight while standing in the same spot.  In such instances I find myself drawing upon my centering prayer practice as a sort of survival method so that our girls have a good and enjoyable view.   No pain, no gain, right?

But seriously, to echo my sister-in-law’s words, “What are we doing here?” Or “what were we doing there?”  It’s entirely irrational to put ourselves through such an experience.  As far as I can tell the only ones who really enjoy the experience are the children.  They’re pushed around in a stroller, held, and can even fall asleep if they’d like (which ours did btw).  Strangely, we’re the ones who make this possible to our own detriment.  But we do it and Becca and I will probably do it again.

There’s plenty out there that can serve to give us a really low view of humanity and can even lead us into a spiral of cynicism.  But I think that if we are willing to see there’s much good to be realized all around us.  This turn around occurred for me at the end of the night as we traveled back on the tram to the parking garage.  Sitting there tired and forlorn I realized I was one parent among many on that tram who had endeavored, much to our potential harm, to make our children happy and provide them with a special day.  Looking around I saw parents tired from a day of giving of themselves to their children because their children matter that much to them.  That’s a good thing, that’s righteous.  While Disney is brilliant at exploiting it for their own ends it doesn’t change the reality that more often than not it’s a self-effacing love that results in its parks being filled with children.  And it’s the joy on our children’s faces that brings us back.

“What are we doing here?”  Foolishly loving our children.

 

In the early years of my stalwart baseball career I can remember learning the fundamentals of baseball.  This learning was so great that it has emboldened me ever since to be the game’s best critic.  After all, what I learned as a six year old on a field not too far away in the Bronx was all that I needed to understand the game.  Though, to be fair, it does amaze me how much a team that does the fundamentals on a consistent basis is able to find ways to win.  There’s something to doing the fundamentals well.  It can serve a team well in the long run sort of like the tortoise that beats the hare through a simple, slow and consistent pace.

With that said I find myself brought back to those early days of learning how to play baseball.  The beautiful simplicity of what we were taught; two hands on the glove when catching a fly ball, choking up on the bat for better control, hitting the cutoffs, running the ball out, and the list goes on.  But one thing stands out to me at present and has provided me with a mystical moment of sorts.  It was how to stand and field a ground ball.  Were told to stay low, to bend our knees and widen our stance.  That’s how one most effectively fields a ground ball.  Even if one doesn’t catch the ball chances are that he or she most likely stopped it in some capacity because of the positioning of one’s body.  Such a basic fundamental can save a run, stop a runner from advancing or getting a double, and it can still result in the hitter getting thrown out.

Stay Low.  It’s so basic and sort of boring yet go to any major league baseball game and pay attention to the infielders and that’s what they do every time the pitcher begins his windup.  It works more than you may realize.  Stay Low.

Discipleship sort of works this way.  It’s keeping with the fundamentals. It’s really not all that glorious.  It’s trying to embody the simple teachings of Jesus that will enable us to continue on faithfully like the slow going tortoise.  Stay Low, do the basics, don’t seek after greatness, just get the job done.  If you seek out the flare and ignore the basics of Jesus you may do well for yourself but you’ll probably miss out on the kingdom that stands right before you and within you.

Stay Low.

Author’s Note: When I use myth I simply mean a symbolic narrative or a story that gives meaning.

When I was in Kindergarten recess time amongst the boys was spent riding blue tricycles all across the playground.  All of the tricycles were the same except one.  All of the tricycles had a rainbow logo on the front except for one that had a lion’s logo on the front.  It was understood amongst us that this lone tricycle with the lion on it was the best and the fastest tricycle there was.  This meant that if you were the chosen line leader for the week that you got first ‘dibs’ on the greatest and fastest tricycle there was in all the playground.  This lionized tricycle also granted its rider a certain leader of the pack authority that was gained only to be lost at the close of each school week.  Kindergarteners would come and go but the tricycle’s lure and authority remained for it was the lion that gave it its power.  Eventually we would move beyond Kindergarten to 1st grade and with due time this myth or story of the fastest lion marked tricycle would lose its power over us.  In case you didn’t know, it turns out that the almighty lion tricycle was not faster than the other tricycles.  Though, the lion on its front was way cooler than a rainbow.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the collective belief of the 1987-88 Kindergarten class of St. Mark’s Lutheran School in the faster lion tricycle because we were five years old but I don’t think that would be fair.  As we get older we may leave behind certain stories or myths but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t replaced by others more fitted to our psychological development.  I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe in the greatness of the United States of America because of the stories and myths that indicate this to be so.  Similarly, I may no longer believe in the greatness of the lion tricycle but I may believe that everything happens for a reason with my own hindsight validating this storyline or myth.

We could go on with more examples but my main point is that we all live according to a story or multiple stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in and serve to give us meaning.   The conundrum of life in the 20th and 21st centuries is that so many of our stories have been deconstructed with the advancement of science and we’ve been left picking up the pieces in ways that previous generations never had to before.  We’re sort of left trying to make sense of it all without the certainty that such stories were able to provide previous generations.  While I’m sure there are those who would disagree it was probably much easier to believe in the Genesis creation story before the scientific revolution.   Similarly, no one apart from remote tribes in South America or elsewhere believes that the sun, moon or stars are gods or netherworlds consisting of aliens.

In reaction to this there seems to be two responses: a desire to go back to the ways things were, a sort of toxic nostalgia or throw everything out and move on into a materialist’s paradise.  One extreme resists the urge to change and is in denial while the other extreme wants to unburden itself completely to the whims of change and a hollowness that only modernity could leave us with.  But such results, on either end, seem so dire, boring, and hopeless.  Maybe the problem isn’t so much that we live by stories or myths that can be deconstructed but in the fact that we don’t really have much to offer in response to this deconstruction.  Instead, we carry on with the same stories with the hopes that some will just come to believe what we believe despite evidence to the contrary.  I don’t know, maybe I’m off but denial is a powerful thing.  Still, I am burdened by the fact that toxic nostalgia is almost always inaccurate, anachronistic and leads to a dead orthodoxy.  At the same time I am burdened by how secular materialism simply doesn’t account for the empathic and emotional qualities bound up with being human and those things which really do set us apart from the rest of creation.

We need stories to live by.  It seems to me, though, that now more than ever we need stories to live by that seek to answer and help us with some of life’s deepest questions at this moment in time.  Is it fair to expect a 21st century person to view the world with the ancient eyes of a 9th century B.C. Jewish peasant? Better still, how would they have responded to living in our world today?  What would something like Genesis look like if it were written today? How can ancient wisdom inform our modern approach to life?  Or are these questions not allowed to be asked?  Are they too much to bare?

 

 

I don’t mean to be picky or to be “that guy” but I really don’t like the idea that Jesus is the greatest hero or superhero of all time. I’m also not into the idea that superheroes of various kinds are reflective of a deep human desire for a savior of some sort. I used to be into these ideas. I used be into finding the Christology in superhero movies which always follow the same script of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil wherein the protagonist against all odds saves the day. It is so easy to see the Jesus story in all of this, at least on the surface. Maybe this angle of seeing superheroes reveals our aversion to who Jesus actually is and what he actually did. In large part, there’s not much ambiguity in these stories; there are good guys and bad guys. There may be some moral ambiguity at times, but nothing that would cause an existential crisis of sorts, at least not on the part of the viewers. And I think that’s why I’ve moved beyond the superhero framework. It is not that I think it is all bad rather I think it’s too easy and if there’s one thing that the gospel stories aren’t it’s easy.

I think when we view Jesus as a superhero it gets us off the hook from dealing with the deep issues of our false selves. Instead of grappling with these things we project them outwards onto Jesus, our savior and superhero.  I can transfer my being a poor miserable sinner onto Jesus and not have to deal with my deeper “wounded child” issues. I can simply sacrifice the call to follow Jesus to the continual reassurance that he’s done it all for me already.

I find myself wondering if the image of an anti-hero makes more sense when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth.  Or maybe that needs to be taken in tandem with the superhero image.  He’s such a terrible let down in so many ways. I can’t help but think of his response to the rich man who tries to ingratiate himself to him by calling him good.  He’s simply dismissive of such flattery.  When the moment comes to spark the revolution he couldn’t be bothered, swords were to be put down and he was to be bound. No angels were called down and neither does Jesus valiantly fight for his rights. He dies, his disciples having left him because he was such a let down to them and his moment had passed. Cursed is he who hangs on a tree, right?

It strikes me that Jesus on the cross has much more in common with the Jew who was put to death in concentration camp than with the American soldier who died in combat in World War 2.  Instead of giving meaning to the world and its institutions Jesus simply strips it all away.  As Brian Zahnd notes he reveals the world’s best religious system of Judaism to be, well, quite lacking.  He also reveals the world’s best legal system, that of the Roman Empire to be, well, quite unjust.  The end point of Jesus’ life reveals to us the apparent helplessness and meaninglessness of the ways in which we have ordered our lives as human beings.  It doesn’t get us off the hook for examining such things, at least it is not supposed to, instead it serves as an invitation to do things differently.

 

Social Media is such a strange place.  Anyone can be whoever they want to be and project that image out into the world through such mediums as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  It is the perfect set up for the narcissist, the abuser, the oppressor, and the deeply insecure because it enables them to be in complete control and frame their persona and narrative.

How often have we heard of the politician who led a double life? The public persona of telling the people what they want to hear and the private persona of corruption and ruthlessness.  How often have we heard of the clergy person who led a double life? The man of the cloth loved by the people he serves and admired for his orating abilities and a private persona of alcoholism and emotional abuse towards those closest to him.

Such real life examples abound and believe it or not they may be right in front of you as you scroll down your News Feed on Facebook.   Strangely, what we may fail to realize is that by simply liking their posts or their photos we are further emboldening them in their abuse and possibly further alienating the abused.  Furthermore, we may be even liking the post of someone who isn’t even real, they are simply a created persona.

It’s striking to me how much we tend to get things backwards.  We are living in a rather tumultuous time and it would seem that calls for justice are everywhere and for good reason.  But are such public calls and cries also easier now because of social media?  They don’t require the same vulnerability and risk that face to face calls would seem to require.  And similarly, don’t such calls also distract us from what is right before us and the seemingly insignificant like the person right in front of us?  Seeking change is good but what good is it if you’re not seeking to change yourself?  Often the change that we seek outside of ourselves is simply the change that we want to see within ourselves.

It was a seemingly inconsequential car ride.  A few days ago I hopped into our car to drive to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the road from our house to get a cup of Joe. This is a normal occurrence for me providing a break from sermonizing or whatever church responsibilities are driving my day such as emails, meetings, visits or teaching.  During this rather brief car ride I usually listen to NPR or I listen to music.  On this car ride I opted to listen to the music of a thrash/hardcore band that I recently gotten into by the name of Power Trip.  Listening to the brutal sounds and screams of their album Nightmare Logic it dawned on me in a way that it never had before why I have continued to listen to such heavy brutal music since I was 15 years old.  It validates and gives voice to feelings and thoughts that are seemingly denied or overlooked by pop culture as well as the more traditional institutions of church, government and school.  Here, one can speak of things and express those things in ways that may be deemed inappropriate and impolite by the powers that be.

I can recall being told that I would eventually grow out of such music as I got older but that hasn’t really happened.  While I may have moved on from certain bands and albums I am still a lover of heavy music with a message.   I recognize that I can go to music and seemingly be validated in the noise and the words.  Validated in ways that I may not feel otherwise in my day to day interactions and responsibilities.  This realization is particularly poignant to me because I am a pastor in a conservative church body and over the last 15 years my desire for music with a message has only deepened.  I am recognizing in ways that I hadn’t before why I listen to the bands that I listen to.

I go to the sounds and yells of Sick Of It All because they articulate and express so well the frustrations of life in post-industrial America while the church and media seem oblivious to such things. Instead they stand on the side of the suburbs and hyper-gentrification theologically validating the way things are and extolling the virtues of neo-liberal capitalism.

I go to Rise Against for an anti-war message because I rarely, if ever, hear such a thing in the news or in the church of which I am part of.   Instead I receive emails encouraging me to become a military chaplain and am expected to automatically believe in the virtues of American militarism.

I go to Madball to process anger that I can’t express publically because that would be not be in accordance with the niceties that so many have come to identify the faith with.  Instead we all go along to get along, feigning smiles and patting backs, soaked in the stain of triangulation and passive aggression.

I go to the Cro-Mags because they express so beautifully the existential angst that I have so often felt since the hormones of early adolescence began to rage through my body.  Instead, I’m told we’ve got all the answers, at least the ones we need.  Modernity’s fundamentalisms are quick to remind us of this much.

While the church I know seems so concerned with life after death I find myself more and more concerned with life right now. A life of repentance and struggle, of hearing and doing, of struggling through the narrow door not to be explained away by easy explanations of what Jesus has done for me.

Save that for someone else.

 

i’m here to tell you about the gospel of nice

it’ll make you feel good even though you’ll lose your life

 

consign you to death with a smile on my face

“go along to get along”; that is our pace

 

embedded within is a deep seated rage

to give expression to would surely be rude

 

can’t have any of that, the show must go on

curtains have been drawn and I must perform

 

i’ve saved my life and destroyed some too

but no matter now they haven’t a clue

 

no need to change, just follow me

and entrust your self to the gospel of nice…