Monday, September 22, 2014

Rich Memories

This past week was the anniversary of Rich Mullins' death, but I was too busy to write anything. I'll save the exact reasons I still love Rich's music for another post; here I just wanted to record two memories I have from his concerts.

The first was from a show in the mid-90s. Rich talked more in his concerts than any musician I've ever seen. And he was fascinating. He was great at calibrating invitation and challenge: his songs and mini-sermons would comfort and convict in equal measure. He also had a lot of crowd interaction; he hated studio music and loved going back and forth with the audience. On this particular occasion, somebody yelled a political question and Rich hit a well-worn soapbox. Bill Clinton was in office and it was a few months away from the election.

"Why are you so hungry for a king?" Rich said to his (mostly) conservative evangelical Christian audience. "You're so focused on winning elections that you lose sight of what the Kingdom of God is all about. God doesn't need to get the right guy in office for his will to be done." That's a rough paraphrase (it was half my life ago) but Rich kept building up along the same vein. And the audience loved it and was building with him. Downgrading the political arena is always popular when "our guy" isn't in office.

"Our ultimate hope is in Jesus, not the government. Do you believe that?" Rich asked, and got loud "yeahs" in response. "Do you really believe it?" he asked again, and got even more response. "Well," Rich said, "I hope you remember that you once believed it when the Republicans take over in November." And the place went ballistic. People were yelling, cheering, and clapping. Rich had predicted a Republican takeover!

Rich just stood on the stage and watched the crowd. I watched him deflate as he realized that almost nobody had even understood what he said. Then he walked back to the piano and started his next song; he didn't say anything else the rest of the night.


I got to see Rich in concert three times the year before he died. There had been talk that he was done recording and done touring. He only traveled to raise support for Compassion International, and he'd been living on a Navajo reservation where he taught music classes in the local school. All of his record earnings had been placed in a trust, from which he drew a yearly stipend equal to the average working wage for an American blue-collar worker. So when he announced one more tour, I hit every location I could.

The last concert I saw, he played his normal songs but also a new one that would be on his upcoming Jesus album: You Did Not Have a Home. To introduce the album, he told a weird story. He talked about listening to an interview with Billy Graham, who had recently dropped out of all endeavors except preaching. He'd stopped counseling presidents, teaching students, writing books, and everything else. The interviewer asked him why, and Rich repeated Graham's words verbatim as he tuned his guitar.

"The things I was doing were good things. But I believe that my time here on earth is short, and with the little time I have left I intend to spend every moment possible preaching Christ crucified, so that when I stand before God I won't have left anything un-done." He said he was making his last album: The Jesus Record. Then he played the song and it sounded exactly like it did on that link. He never got a chance to make the Jesus Record; he was killed six weeks later when a semi hit his Jeep.

No conclusion from me; you can draw your own. But I imagine him singing this song on the way out. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Thoughts on Ideological Empathy

I've been meaning to break out of my blog radio silence for a while now, but life has (surprisingly) remained somewhat complicated. I read a great piece tonight by my very close personal friend Derek Rishmawy1, though, that deserves comment. He begins:
We seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others.
It's worth reading Derek's post because this is a really, really important point. I, unfortunately, have absolutely nothing of my own to add to the discussion. However, I've read and thought about this topic quite a bit, so if nothing else I can at least tie in some helpful resources.

There's an actual technical term for this particular type of intellectual imagination: it's called "A Theory of Mind."2 According to El Wik:
Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can be the cause of—and thus be used to explain and predict—others' behavior.
This ability to understand the intentions of others can be especially difficult in online interactions, in part because nonverbal signals don't translate over the internet. Lacking these social cues, we sometimes attribute intent to others that they do not in fact hold. But Derek's not the only one who's been noticing this recently. On Snarkmarket, one of my favorite blogs, Robin Sloan talked about this very thing almost two years ago. He describes something called the Long Now debate format, which is at attempt at create "empathy and good faith."
Take two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice goes first, presenting her argument. Then Bob stands up, and before he can present his counter-argument, he has to summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction. So it’s basically an exercise in empathy and good faith. If Alice agrees that he’s got it right, then Bob proceeds with his argument—and when he’s done, Alice has to recapitulate it to his satisfaction.
This is actually referred to, in many circles, as an "ideological turing test." I first heard the phrase here:
If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct.  And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct.  It's not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views.  But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests - to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents - is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.
I'd like to someday demonstrate symptoms of objectivity and wisdom, so the idea of being able to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents is one that appeals to me. I'm not claiming I do it consistently, I'm just saying it's an appealing idea.


1 Not really. We've never met. We occasionally interact on social media, though.

2 I was originally made aware of ToM through the writings of Charlie Stross. Click here, then search the page for "theory of mind." Ironically, Charlie does not display a strong Theory of Mind when he writes about those with whom he disagrees, but as with the Krugman example, that's not so rare. Ironically, I once listened to a one-hour panel discussion between Stross and Krugman that was incredibly enlightening, but that's a story for another time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Belated Thanksgiving Thoughts on Unemployment

We've just completed paying off our third month of bills since I was laid off in September. I chose not to file for unemployment, and now three months in we still haven't touched our emergency fund. We pay our bills a month ahead of time, so as of this moment we've got money for all of our bills until the end of January. I am deeply, deeply, thankful.
  1. I'm thankful for the generosity of family and friends. The emotional value of the gifts has far surpassed the financial value, but the financial value is significant.
  2. I'm thankful for local companies that have let me do freelance work for them.
  3. I'm thankful for Craigslist, Ebay, and Amazon, through whom I've sold a lot of our "junk" at prices that actually make a difference for our financial situation. Trade works!
  4. I'm thankful for financial teachers whose mistakes I've benefited from. Great teachers make hard times easier.
    1. Dave Ramsey, who convinced me to build an emergency fund and taught me how not to need it. When you don't have a steady income, it's really nice having no payments and no credit card debt.
    2. Mr. Money Mustache, who's supplied the proper amount of kick-in-the-butt that I seem to require.
    3. Ramit Sethi, whose principles of automation has kept my mind off the bills.
    4. The 3DM/5 Capitals team, who give me a grid for understanding how money fits into the rest of my life.
  5. I'm thankful for the opportunity to focus on finishing my MDiv degree. I started in 2005, stopped in 2008, and as of September I was still six classes away from finishing. By January, I should be done.
  6. I'm thankful that I've been able to support my wife as she's finished her PhD. She's an absolute rockstar, and has excelled while spending far less time on the degree than many of her classmates. I've been thankful that I've been able to dig in and help some in this final push.
  7. I'm thankful for the opportunity to drop my kids off and pick them up at school. I love working, but I hate being away from my kids.
  8. I'm thankful for conversations I've had with several churches and with Vanderbloemen Search Group. I'm still not sure what the future holds, but having consistent conversations has kept me hopeful for the next season in our journey.
  9. I'm thankful that God never leaves us or forsakes us. This is the solution to the problem of pain: God does not always prevent hardship, but he never asks us to go through it alone.
2013 has been the hardest and best year of my life. I can't wait for the fresh start of the New Year.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Strategy of Satan

This entire post is a reaction to a brilliant post by one of my favorite authors. It's worth reading. Let me know if you want to push back or hear more about this: I could go on all week.

I'm thinking, this evening, of my very last meeting at a former job. This was years ago, but I remember it almost perfectly. The job was a church job, and the meeting was a church planning meeting. We were trying to figure out how to encourage people to get to know their neighbors and to throw Jesus-like parties, and connect with people that they'd passed over. And while we were having this discussion, the question came up: were we personally going to do this? Who would we invite?

One of the people in the meeting was a good guy, about my age. Crazy talented, loved Jesus, super smart, the works. He had friends who were far from God, and this distressed him. He was convinced that they're never really understood what it was that they rejected; that they were inoculated against lame, boring, suburban Christianity but were dying to meet Jesus. I thought he was right. But then he said something I've never forgotten.

"Most of the 'neighbors' I'd invite don't actually live around me," he said. "In fact, if I do this I'll probably try to avoid my actual neighbors. They're all Christians, and they're the kind of people my friends are trying to stay away from. Inviting them would be bad for my personal brand."

I was so gobsmacked that I didn't say the first thing that came to my mind. And then the meeting was over, and it was two days before my last day, and I was already working my way through some depression, and I just didn't have the energy or desire or courage to say what I thought:
That's Satanic.
Pause there. New thought.

What is the purpose of God in the world? 

Heavy thoughts for the one AM on a Friday, but I've been laying in bed thinking and I figure this is better out than in. What is the purpose of God in the world? Surely the best way to tell is to look at Jesus. What was Jesus' primary purpose? What overriding logic applied to all of his actions and words on earth?

I would argue that Jesus' primary concern was the radical disruption of division. The division between God and His people, the division between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, clean and unclean: Jesus' primary strategy was the destruction of barriers wherever he found them. It's intrinsic to the Kingdom of God. What did Jesus pray for with his last hours before the crucifixion? Unity.

I don't expect you to agree with that conclusion. It took me a lot more than that brief summary to reach it, and I wouldn't expect you to agree without seeing me show my work. But take it, for a moment, to be true. Imagine with me that you agree. If Jesus' primary strategy was overcoming the separation that people experience with God and with each other, then what would we expect Satan's strategy to be?

Yeah. I'd expect it to include a way to manufacture differences in order to increase division. To erect barriers wherever possible, no matter how arbitrary. There's a word for that activity: it's called branding. I accept  (i.e., don't rail much against) corporate branding as a necessary evil, but there is nothing I distrust so much as a personal brand.

It's a crippling thought, because our entire civilization runs on brands. People who set out to cultivate a personal brand don't do so because they're evil, they do it because it works. You can't hardly give away a product without a brand. You certainly can't stay in business without it. But branding is, at root, nothing but differentiation. "This is better than that." "This is cooler than that." "Good/smart/funny/rich/moral people use this, not that." What can you do without a good brand? It's the system of our world.

But if Satan's primary tool is to create division, and if the primary purpose of branding is to create division, then shouldn't we be at least a little bit cautious?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Persecution and Tolerance

Over at his unassuming Wordpress blog, Tim Stafford talks about the disconnect between the constant persecution of the book of Revelation (and indeed, the entire New Testament) and the "skeptical tolerance" of our modern era.
This is the dilemma that Lesslie Newbigin wrote about so searchingly almost thirty years ago. The west, inoculated with its Christian heritage, has become the toughest missionary challenge we face. It resists God not by violence or threats, but by scorn and the substitution of other gods, such as pleasure. Revelation’s sounding trumpets and rivers of blood and monsters rising up out of the deep seem oddly out of touch and unhelpful, as far as I can see.

The only passage in the New Testament that seems to speak to western, tolerant skepticism is Acts 17, which records Paul’s brief sojourn in Athens. There he was treated cordially, listened to with curiosity, and (in the end) scoffed at. But not stoned.

The New Testament doesn’t seem to directly advise those whose neighbors, like the Athenians, treat us politely but with heavy skepticism. Perhaps historically speaking this era of tolerant western skepticism is only a momentary break in the unrelieved hostility that Revelation foresees. To me it seems like something else: a challenge for which we have few directions.
A fantastic read by a fantastic writer. By a curious coincidence, I preached on Acts 17 this past weekend. If you're interested, you can get a copy here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

An Odor Update

The blog has been radio-silent for the past two months.  I sent this note to some friends and thought it might be worth putting out in public.


Hey friends.  I've appreciated your prayers and encouragement over the past month.  Despite our difficulties, I've never been so aware of God's care and protection.

As you know, my last day as Associate Pastor at the Lexington Vineyard was Sunday, May 20th.  I finished my responsibilities, preached my final sermon, and walked away clean.  After being let go, I decided to put a 30-day hold on looking for new permanent work.  I don't always make good decisions when I'm emotional, and between the job and some other family difficulties, a "pause" seemed like a good idea.  I had a contracting arrangement with a local engineering firm, and so I picked up more hours to cover our expenses and focused on getting our home ready to sell if we moved out of state.

Now that the self-imposed 30 days is up, I've realized that it would be difficult for us to "land" anywhere before the school year starts in the fall, and my preference is not to move Jenna or Liam in the middle of the school year.  In addition, Judi still has a large amount of PhD work to finish at Asbury before December, so staying here in Lexington for another year seems like a good path forward.  With this in mind, I applied for and received a permanent role at the engineering firm, which will keep us here in town until next Spring at the earliest.

In addition to the work, I've still got a foot solidly in the pastoral world.  I'm on track to finish my MDiv by next May, I'll be preaching once a month at a smaller church, and I'm part of a coaching huddle with a national discipleship organization.  This should be a good year of preparation for whatever comes next.

Again, I can't say enough how much I appreciate the prayers and words of encouragement, challenge, and wisdom that I've received from friends over the past month. Thanks for being one of them.