Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Memoirs R Us

American readers seem deeply interested in memoirs this year. I've been wondering why.

What books people write, publish, review, buy, share and talk about tend to go in waves. Some years, historical fiction rules; in others, fantasy and other worldliness (think Gone With the Wind and the Harry Potter series as examples). A few years ago biographies were flying off the shelves; last year, anything vampire sold. All it takes is one, big, humongous publishing success and it seems like we are all off to the races.

I read a lot of book reviews, in search of the next great American novel. And while the great novel is still being written, more memoirs are available than ever. Of particular note are two of the more famous memoirists: James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Mary Karr (The Liar's Club; Cherry; and now, Lit). You may remember that a minor brouhaha erupted after Frey admitted to fictionalizing some of his drug addiction and treatment story; Oprah, who had chosen the book for her Book Club brought him onto her show to confront him. While Karr, a brilliant writer and poet, seems to have been spared the public skewering that Frey endured, her 3 volume story of degradation and personal reform seems impossible to fit into one small lifetime. 

Americans are endlessly interested in how other people live their lives. But what seems to have shifted in our culture is that the lives we want to read about are less about strength, courage or righteousness and more about failure and secrecy. Instead of presidents and religious leaders, we buy books about drug addicted professors or single women on a quest for God. We want to peer behind the curtain to reveal the humanness of those around us, and not only confirm our own brokenness, but also heave sighs of relief when our own lives aren't so dramatically distorted and bent.

It fits with the trends of paparazzi following the famous, the famous repenting on television, and the not so famous watching this all on 24/7 news cycles. It also follows on the decline of the organized Church, where not too long ago the lives of saints, old and new, were held up as models of faithful living.

People are always going to look for help in living their lives, and trying to understand their own through the lens of another is one powerful way to do it. But I wonder: is it helping anyone to lead a better, more satisfying life when all the stories we buy and sell are those of deep failure, relationship pain, and the crawling back toward the shores of self respect? Or does it set us up for lives of lower standards, lives measured against the latest and biggest personal fall?

Among other things, we are what we spend time reading and thinking about. Garbage in, garbage out?  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Praise of the Institutional Church

In celebration of Ash Wednesday, and my struggle to maintain my confidence in the Church, I share this wonderful paragraph from the Christian Century (1/12/2010), Slow Motion Conversion, p. 30:

Carol Zaleski writes: 

"How would we know Christ without the institutional church? Who else would preserve the great secret of the gospel for us through the centuries, keeping it safe in the wilderness of opinions? We live in a world of institutions or in no world at all., and the institutional church is surely the greatest institution the world has ever known. It is the mediating institution between the family we are thrust into and the government that is either forced upon us or chosen by us from a distance. It equips us with every grace, every insight, every support for a decent life and then, like so many parents, is disappointed but not surprised when we turn around and say - we dont' need you, we can do this on our own, you are a fossil, an impediment."


Thanks be to God for the broken but holy Church, that despite itself - by God's grace alone - has preserved the sacred texts and still reads, proclaims, studies and attempts to live the gospel of Jesus. All so that each believer, in their own life of faith, might experience forgiveness, hope and belonging, and share that with those they love, and those they may not . Amen


Monday, February 15, 2010

I Don't Want to Be Governor

Tim Pawlenty has my sympathy.

It's budget time, and he's trying to lead our great state in spending only what it takes in. That's a very painful equation now with a depressed economic climate, declining federal support and increasing demands on education and health care.  He says he wants a budget that will cut everything but K-12 education, safety and veteran's benefits.

I get it, but it is going to be insane. And I mean that literally. The hospitals and programs that care for the most chronically mentally ill are being stripped of millions of dollars. That means that institutions like HCMC in downtown Minneapolis are not going to be able to run the adult emergency mental health unit as it has, and will have to turn people away everyday.

What does that mean? It means that those chronically mentally ill, many of whom are in and out of hospitals, chemical dependency units and homelessness are going to be showing up at your local emergency rooms. The sick in mind and body will have to share the same time with the ER docs, and that isn't a good use of anybody's time, energy or money.

I worry about this. Yet, what can be done but cut the budget? This seems like a weird turn of affairs in a state that just a handful of years ago (can you say Jessie?) had more money than it could spend and sent millions of dollars back in rebates. I wasn't in favor of that then, and I am angry about that now. We need savings, even in government, for the downturns and rainy days. If this isn't that time, I don't know what is. We don't get major earthquakes here in MN. But this budget crisis seems like an earthquake to me.

Good luck to our legislators, and the same to our governor. But Pawlenty should cut all his maybe-I'll-run and maybe-I-won't weekend runs to the presidential primary states. That is getting very old, Governor. It's crunch time in our great state. Iowans don't need more face time with you; Minnesotans do. Stay home, Tim, stay home!  

Monday, February 1, 2010

Helplessness & Haiti

It's been over two weeks since the earthquake devastated the people of Haiti.

Tens of thousands have died, including people you may know. And along with a desire to help, and a deepening sense of helplessness as we watch that impoverish nation respond, I am struck by a familiar conflict, or perhaps it is an observation about human life.

I continue to wonder how my life can go on in its normal way while massive, untold despair, suffering and death occurs around me. It's the same experience those who suffer grief describe: how does the world continue on its way while my life seems to have stopped?

I struggle with a low-grade angst; not a guilt exactly, but close to it. As if I have witnessed a massive car crash from the safety of my own vehicle and go careening by, with just a glance in my rear view mirror. I continue on, glad it wasn't me in that car, confident someone more capable is responding.

I believe this soft anguish reflects this existential truth: we are single human beings. We are separate from one another at birth, and will die that way. In between, we live daily life as multiple connections. When connections are broken, by suffering we cannot solve, or death we cannot stop, we are brought up short by the truth of our singleness of self.

What is grief but the crashing in of this solitude, and the choice to risk connecting again?

Kyrie eleison.    Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Church in Recession : What Now?

My occasional column for the Savage Pacer was just published yesterday. I wrote about the financial free fall the mainline denominations are in with the current recession. If you want to read the full column, go here.

Here's my concluding paragraph:
The storm that my denomination finds itself in will one day blow through, and a different way of being the church in the world will have to be found and lived. In every generation, it has never been the largest, the wealthiest or the most powerful church that makes a difference in the world. It has always been the individual person of faith, who joins with others with that same hope and vision, to feed the hungry, protect the innocent, lift up the fallen, and proclaim God’s vision of peace. It’s the lives of the faithful that proclaim the truth of the Gospel, not their buildings, or budgets, or institutions. And that reality is what holds me, and I hope, holds you, in the midst of our current religious storms. 

I believe what I wrote; that size and prestige don't make a church. But money does matter, in all things that a church wants to do. While I am curious about how this is all going to shake out, I have to tell you, I am very worried for every pastor and career church worker I know. The stress on them in these many months of recession is enormous, and everyone on their leadership board is looking to them for answers. There aren't any right now, except to hold on, keep doing what is done best, and press toward a different future.

I can't stress enough the need for every pastor and staff member to mind their own mental health right now. What once was standard procedure is up for grabs. What once was a 'steady as she goes' ship is one that is seriously imperiled by its own failures and the hurricane of economic shrinkage, and is taking on water. I pray that those leaders care for themselves, for they are those to whom we look for leadership and courage in difficult times.

I was finishing seminary and waiting for my first call during our last major recession. I am glad to not be doing the same again now. Pray for those leaders and students preparing to serve, their loved ones and families. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.