Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Diamonds are Bunk

The event of my engagement to be married did not fall along conventional lines. I was a student, saving as much money as I could to make it stretch far enough to complete my tuition payments for my bachelor’s degree. I was paying for it myself with some inheritance, and money I earned. By the time my future bride and I decided that we should indeed marry, my bank account was running mighty thin. I moved into a cheaper apartment (a dungeon actually), deferred maintenance on my car, scammed free meals where I could, and watched my account dwindle in spite of working hard and living cheap.

That was no great problem for me really. I am somewhat abstemious by nature, and I was young and had no great expectation of wealth. I love fine things, but many of the things I consider fine are either not the same as what other people hold dear, or simply cost comparatively little. The problem was the diamond.

I will not explain here how much trouble it caused that I could not afford to by a “proper” diamond engagement ring. Certainly the so-called standard of a ring costing several months salary was out of reach. Even then I suspected that the whole diamond engagement ring thing was a scam. Yet it was hard for my fiancĂ©e to deal with people’s reactions when she told them she was engaged, and yet had no hardware to show for it. I eventually did purchase a ring (a sapphire flanked by two small diamonds), at some hardship. Suffice it to say that it was approaching the level of being a dealbreaker. I remember feeling put upon and trapped by some kind of worldwide conspiracy that had hoodwinked the world into thinking that a clear stone (undistinguishable from a piece of broken glass by most people) had been declared, arbitrarily, the sole indicator of honorable intent. The work, and sweat and struggle, I was putting in to earn the money so that we could actually be married counted for little or nothing. The abandonment of long held goals and the joyful and purposeful reordering of my life to align with the goal of marriage was not counted particularly important. The stone was the thing. It seemed that rather than marriage itself being the sacrament, the bauble had become the sacrament. It just seemed wrong.

Now 22 years later, I read an article in Atlantic that vindicates me. Read it here.   The article was originally published in 1982. I dearly wish I had read it then. I might not have gotten into less trouble, but I would have had more to stand on than a sneaking suspicion that I was being flim-flammed.

Turns out it’s a scam. It’s all a big swindle. Diamonds are just rocks after all. My marriage has lasted longer than our diamond, and is worth infinitely more than any rock I could buy. I knew it would turn out that way in the end, but it sure caused me a lot of trouble at the time. I have no love for DeBeers. The bastards.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fecal Badinage

U. Utah Phillips may be my favorite old communist. He is a maker of song, raconteur, unabashed socialistic union partisan and general rabble rouser. For all that he is a true and authentic delight to listen to. He maybe even more favorite to me than Pete Seeger. You just got to appreciate a man that can carve a tale with such callous-handed mastery, wielding words like the sharpest wood chisels and an old honest-to-god 50 grit voice. Rural ribaldries. Raucus rusticana. Fecal badinage. Oh the language!

Phillips passed on this last year. His presence will be missed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Practical Ecclesiology 10 - Loaves and Fishes

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a strong proponent of "large churches." As he puts it, "There are so many benefits to size, so many things you can do that you can't do in a small church." In his view, it's not just about programs or ministries or resources to support missionaries and projects (although that is certainly part of it). He sees that in larger churches people are more likely to find other people that they can connect with, people they "click" with. In a small church, you are pretty much stuck with what you have. 

I guess that can cut both ways. Kind of like family. 

In a family, you are pretty much stuck with what you have. A large extended family can certainly be a blessing, if you allow it to be. And it may require more effort to cultivate your love for certain people in a small family, because you have's either love them or be an orphan. It seems it would be easier to strike out and start interviewing distant cousins to find somebody that you just LIKE better - to find a relationship that is more fun and not as much work. 

But then again, it is easy to get lost in a large family. To just drift. If you never attend the reunions, if you don't write letters and answer emails, if you never invite anyone over or even just drop aren't really treating them like family. It's more like padding for your resume. Even if you go to the reunion, but stay just long enough to grab a few chicken wings, a bit of potato salad, get your picture taken and then leave, you've got a free meal, but not much of a family relationship. It's not the size of the group, it's what you bring to the group that seems to matter more.

I am coming to think that both options are fine. I used to be extremely suspicious of very large churches. I am tempering that somewhat. There are certainly drawbacks, but I am seeing that there are drawbacks no matter what the size. The drawbacks are different between big churches and little churches, but the world being what it is, there is no perfect situation. 

In the particular case of my church, the challenge seems to be size, but actually I suspect it is more a lack of understanding of how to leverage that size. Plus, in being small we are standing against the current of thought that likes to overlook the disadvantages of large churches, and inflate the challenges facing small churches. It seems the focus of many Churchy Anyalysts is "get big or get out" instead of how to best glorify God with your smallness. 

In considering this, I have often found the story of the loaves and fishes coming to mind. Here is a good retelling of it from Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission. He spoke at the Midwinter Conference for our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. This is a conference specially for pastors to foster renewal, collaboration, and connection in their work. His account of the story goes to the heart of the matter for churches, especially small ones. 

Feeding the 5,000 - Speaker Gary Haugen from Covenant Communications on Vimeo.

I suspect that we have to do some real thinking about how to offer our loaves and fishes to Jesus. It seems it's mostly a matter of just passing the basket. If Jesus wants to do the miracle, he will do the miracle. If not...I guess that's up to him and folks will have to find their own lunch. But the precedent seems to indicate that He is predisposed to do the miracle. He tells us to just start passing the basket. He will decide how many He ends up feeding.

So the question is what are our personal loaves and fishes, and what does passing the basket look like for us? No matter what that looks like, in the final analysis, it's all about Jesus.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chicago Stains

There is something perversely fun about writing something that requires a disclaimer right from the very beginning. So, in the spirit of good clean fun, let me just begin by stating clearly and unequivocally that I do not believe President Barack Obama is now, or ever has been Jesus Christ, or even a good stand-in for him. Keep that in mind as you read the next paragraphs or you will entirely miss the point of what I am writing.

I have detected a theme in comments, conversations and remarks among a number of my acquaintances and friends when speaking of Mr. Obama. Below are some made up examples of the kind of statements I have heard.

He’s from Chicago you know. They play hardball there and that’s where he learned his politics.

What do you expect? He’s from Chicago.

Those Chicago boys sure know how to play the game. You can’t trust ‘em. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the votes and Obama held his own there.

Whenever I hear that sort of thing, I just can’t help thinking of a similar platitude uttered years and years ago in another corner of the world. People would listen to Jesus preach and be fascinated, but when they heard where he was from, they would utter “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

I have heard many a preacher and Bible teacher remark on the prejudice and foolishness of that remark. And I think we would all agree that the sentiment is short sighted to say the least. But let’s reframe it, shall we?

“Can anything good come out of Chicago?”

You may say yes. You may say no. We shall see, shan't we?