Category Archives: Observations

10.22.2021 – When Happy Ever After Doesn’t Happen

Becky and I recently watched “Maid,” a ten-part series on Netflix. The program has been well reviewed, and Netflix says it is currently its third most watched series. In an odd way “Maid” is a happy-ever-after American success story told in the dark and dreary tones of our times. And lest this be taken as a recommendation or endorsement, it should be noted that foul language and decadent behavior is pervasive in the film.

“Maid” tells the story of Alex, a twenty-something woman raised by abusive and dysfunctional parents who ends up in an abusive and dysfunctional relationship with her boyfriend Sean who is the father of her two-year daughter. When Alex finally escapes the suffocating life of the single-wide mobile home she shares with Sean, she finds herself homeless and unemployed with only her mentally ill mother and once-abusive and now born-again father to turn to. So she turns to herself.  She goes to work for Value Maids, a local house-cleaning service whose owner cheats her at every turn out of the money she is owed. We follow Alex through the crazy-making world of social services, the reality of life in a domestic violence shelter, and the seemingly impossible task of finding decent childcare for her daughter. For every good decision Alex makes, we see a heart breaking bad decision with its devastating consequences for Alex and her daughter.

Spoiler Alert: As the story ends, Alex, with the help of a high-end lawyer whose house she cleans, begins to move out of the old patterns of her dark and dreary past into a future that holds bright promise.

Some critics have seen “Maid” as an apology for the need of a stronger social safety net. Others describe Alex as some sort of Twenty-first Century Horatio Alger character.

As Becky and I watched the series, I thought more and more of the Alex-like women I have known and with whom I have worked in the course of church ministry. I am thinking specifically of women; the sad stories of men are often sad in a different way. While particular names and situations come to mind, these are women, not many of them, from different times and different places. One of the things they have in common is that none of their stories has yet ended happily ever after. None is a Horatio Alger story even if painted in the dark and dreary tones of the Twenty-first Century.

None of the stories of the women I know is a Christian success story, a story of wholeness and healing if not economic and social success. Or at least not yet.

In “Maid” Alex makes a lot of bad decisions, but her important good decisions finally outweigh her bad decisions and their disastrous consequences. When she meets the high-end attorney whose house she cleans, she listens to her counsel and takes her advice. Alex finds more than a tangle of brokenness when she looks within herself. She finds strength and ability.

I wish I had stories to tell that were like the story of Alex. Instead, I have seen the church and her people pour themselves and their resources into the lives of those four or five women whose lives I came to know well with little to show for it. I have seen wise and generous people give kind counsel that was routinely rejected. It seems as if the tangle of brokenness these women found within themselves was always so thick as to strangle the possibility of hope.

I do not believe that the power of brokenness is stronger than the hope of the gospel. In many other situations I have seen how the gospel transforms lives. I know of prodigals welcomed home and lost sheep found. Other pastors and ministry workers may have different stories to tell. My sample is small, but it is those stories – my stories – of women raised in abuse and accustomed to failure that I find so discouraging. Perhaps we could have done differently and maybe better.

Escape from abuse and dysfunction has not come to the women I have known whose lives were like the fictional character in “Maid.” Was it in vain that we reached out to them? Should we have invested elsewhere? First, I am not sure we are ever called to invest, though the American church loves the concept. We are called to give. More importantly, to borrow Mother Teresa’s phrase, we are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful. We pour ourselves and our resources into the lives of others because we trust Jesus who tells us to do so.

Ministry, caring, is not a matter of playing the odds. It is a matter of obedience to a call. I have experienced success where others have experienced failure, and I have failed where they have succeeded. If you prefer frustration or disappointment to failure, that’s fine. Ministry is not a matter of predictable outcomes.

“Maid,” the Netflix series, has caused me to wonder, but not to doubt.

10.15.2021 – At the Edge of a Twitter Mob

I have a friend who, like me, posts some of what he has been thinking about to his website and email program every Friday. Unlike me, a lot of people read what he says. My friend’s thoughts are must-read for me every Friday.
 
This past Friday my friend used an article he had recently read to launch into his own reflections on the same subject from his own experience and to which his own experience was particularly relevant. I guess you could say that his topic was pandering, though my friend did not use the word and it can sound harsh. Let me explain. Acknowledging the widely accepted fact that many evangelical Christians leaders have worked to curry favor with and gain influence among — pandered to — those on the political right and its ascendant nationalism, the original article looked also at a smaller number of evangelicals who seem to pander to the cultural left with its dominance of the media and the arts.
 
My friend, who knows about such things, wrote of the thrill of being mentioned, quoted, or, best yet, published by the New York Times or the Atlantic magazine. There is a certain delight in the approval of the right people even if we disagree with the right people on many important issues.
 
My initial reaction to my friend’s post was, “Yes, me too.”  I like to be liked and no more so than by people who appear to be smart, informed, and sophisticated. The white wine and season tickets to the symphony crowd. The elites. It’s gotten me into trouble. The first of the two winters of despair in my pastoral ministry had to do with the elites turning on me when my appreciation of good literature and fine arts (and white wine) did not extend to an appreciation of their vaguely universalist and barely Christian theology. No, I did not recant, but their rejection stung.
 
What my friend wrote made perfect sense to me. But apparently not to some others who read his post.
 
True confession. I have had a Twitter account since 2012. I have 13 followers and follow 39 Tweeters – 21 Christian writers and commenters, 5 columnists and other writers I appreciate, and ten personal friends. I have Tweeted twelve times in nine years. I don’t think I count as an influencer, but I do look at Twitter. As long as I stay away from “threads” (Tweets about Tweets), I do well and have found some great resources and thoughtful comments linked from the Tweets of those I follow.  
 
So this past Saturday I was scrolling through some recent Tweets when I noticed a comment on my friend’s column from the previous day.  It was a pretty positive comment all in all.  But then the mob turned up. You may have heard of a Twitter mob. Like a murder of crows drawn to a roadkill, a Twitter mob descends on the-no-more-than-280-characters of a Tweet and devours it, leaving nothing behind but mangy fur on the blood-stained pavement. The smallest slip of a word or the slightest variance from an accepted orthodoxy can cause a frenzy of indignation and anger among those in the mob. 
 
In fact, the mob that went after my friend was probably just a friendly crowd by Twitter standards. No foul language, though the same cannot be said of some of the tone.  Some took offense at the thought that my friend might have had one of their favorite celebrity Christians in mind. Others went straight to “what about so and so with his private jet and access to right wing political leaders?” And then there were those who attacked my friend’s motives and speculated about whatever psychological or theological deficiencies prompted his words.
 
Pandering is an unpleasant charge, but I know all about seeking the affirmation of the white wine and season tickets to the symphony crowd. I really do desire their approval – and such a desire once drove me into a winter of despair.
 
I think I understand what my friend was saying. It made sense to me. The members of the Twitter mob (crowd) seem to have taken offense first and tried to listen later, if ever. 
 
My friend does not need my defense, and this particular crowd was civil by Twitter standards.  But it is as close to a digital mob as I have been. I don’t like it. It is ugly and unkind. It is toxic and is metastatic in our politics, academia, arts, and culture. It has spread to the church and that is sad.
 
I am a bit cynical and critical by nature. It would be all too easy for me to join the mob, add to the thread, but I must not. Peter counsels us to speak with gentleness and respect even as we stand firm in our faith (1 Peter 3:13-17). The mob is malicious (and the Christian crowd is not much better save for a slightly restrained vocabulary). But when I become a part of the mob, I have rejected Christ.
 
I’m looking forward to my friend’s post later today. Continue reading

10.08.2021 – Walking in the Light

Sunrise along the walking path at Bear Creek, Auburn, Indiana

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

Becky and I get up most mornings to a wonderful walk through our neighborhood, down the sidewalks and along the walking paths through the woods and around the ponds. After a couple of miles, Becky heads home and I stay out in order to add a few more running miles.  Our morning walks are among the best habits of our life in Indiana.

During the summer months, the sun rises a little after six and first light comes about a half an hour earlier (we are on the far western side of Eastern time, so our sunrises are always “late,” about 45 minutes later than when we were in the Philadelphia area). Our summer treks began early, and the earlier the better when the day promised Midwest heat and humidity.

Last fall, our first fall here and the first fall of retirement freedom, we, being the creatures of habit we are, found ourselves out for our morning walks long before first light, carefully trying to avoid any trips or stumbles due to an uneven sidewalk seam here or a break in the walking path pavement there. The morning walk was to begin by 6:30 regardless of when the sun decided to rise.  And full confession, Becky suggested more than once that we might think about not walking in the darkness.

This fall we have tried something new. We are walking in the light. Continue reading

10.01.2021 – Of Good Civics and a Good Frienship

A week after last November’s election, a friend in the Philadelphia area and I decided we would do something about it.  We set out on what became a nearly eleven-month journey through the Federalist, or as they are more commonly known, The Federalist Papers.  In case you have forgotten, the Federalist Papers are a series of 85 essays supporting the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.  Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the Federalist Papers appeared as columns in various New York City newspapers in 1787 and 1788.  They were meant to be read by ordinary citizens who might help persuade the state legislators to ratify the new constitution as it had been drafted in Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1787.

With breaks for vacations and family responsibilities, my friend and I met via Zoom once a week for an hour or so.  And, yes, our conversations included topics others than those related to the Constitution.

As it turned out, our reading project was well timed, reminding us in real time of the Constitution’s provisions for contested elections, the work of the Electoral College, the rules for the impeachment of a President, the Congress’ responsibility to create and pass a federal budget, the limits of executive power, civilian control of the military, and other topics touched on in the past ten months. Continue reading

09.24.2021 – Tell Me the Story…

Grandkids love to hear their grandparents tell stories, especially stories from when their moms and dads were young.  Among the currently most popular stories for our grandkids is the long-ago story of finding a scorpion in their mommy’s sleeping bag. I come across more heroic than I may deserve, but I did, in fact, wallop the poor arachnid with my shoe and flush the carcass down the toilet. Papa saved the day!

Good stories well told nurture the imagination, widen horizons, and, especially family stories, tell us who we are.  Stories are important and telling them is one of a grandparent’s most important jobs.

Stories tell us who we are.  A nation’s story tells its people what it means to be a citizen of that nation.  One of the marks of the present age is the scarcity of common stories and disagreement as to what the few remaining stories are meant to teach us.  Are our nation’s founder heroes or are they scoundrels? Are the better angels of our nature really villains in disguise? Continue reading