Monday, June 30, 2008

Jack Johnson

Thanks to my brother-in-law for keeping me a-tuned to the latest music:


America: Where Shall We Go?

This from the New York Times as we approach Independence Day and - traditionally - a high point in American confidence:

My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working. (to read the entire article, click here).


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Knowing the Source

The Drying Oil Well

There is a wonderful article in the LA Times today about the possibility and effects of $200/barrel oil in America, which you can read here.  One of the obvious effects would be to keep persons closer to their homes, which in LA is a fundamental shift in the nature of the city.  As Michael Woo, a current member of the LA Planning Commission, acknowledges, LA has grown on the assumption of cheap energy resources (i.e. - the ability to drive far away from home and across town to work).  Consequently, "Sky-high gas prices 'would basically reorient society to where proximity would be more valuable,' said Tom Gilligan, finance professor at USC.

The reality of oil consumption limiting how we operate as a country and as individuals seems hard to ignore, but it seems even harder to imagine.  We have been so blessed with so much that our living is characterized by "blind" consumption.  We - I included - don't know a great deal about the nature of our energy resources:  where they come from, how they are produced, what affects their price (this also goes for all the other products, services, and food that also come to us magically and easily from great distances as a result of cheap oil).

Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS last night closed with a great commentary by Moyer regarding the current Iraq war and the role oil played in it (watch it here).   The short of it includes that the four big oil companies have recently been rewarded no bid contracts to re-enter Iraq, after thirty plus years of being evacuated by rising nationalism and Saddam's raise to power.

But, I really don't think we can point the finger at Washington or the White House or big corporations, not at least until we point the finger right back at ourselves.  The fact is it is hard to shift behavior, to change, and we would prefer to remain in the ignorance and beauty of being able to pump cheap gas into our cars without having to think about how it got there.  Until we change our consumption habits, how can we blame other people for giving us what we demand? 

The reality of how we are living cannot be hidden forever.  It - unlike oil - will continue to emerge.  And the fact of the matter is that we have untied ourselves from local communities and local markets.  We have outsourced our living and life.  We've lived high on the hog a good while now.  But, change is here.  Maybe not $200/barrel gasoline, but reality is setting in and people are getting to know the source of oil fairly well these days.  Or, better yet, we're getting to know the lack of sources of oil these days.


Friday, June 27, 2008


I'd like to begin writing more this summer about the significance of place and identity, a matter heavy on my heart currently. I'll begin, though, by talking about yokes, specifically Jesus' invitation to discipleship in Matthew 11:28-30 - the well known passage with the words, "come to me all you who are weary ..."

The connection between this passage and "place" is not direct, so forgive me. But, I've constructed some thoughts about what led Jesus to make this invitation (namely: the pharisaical nature of the religious system that opposed his teachings). My analysis and conclusion is that selfish desires ruin "place," which is certainly not novel. But, I do think it important to point out the similarity between two prevailing pharisaisms in our own day and age.

Anyhow, enjoy:

Jesus invitation to discipleship in Matthew 11:28-30 is given as a counter-invitation, arising from his ongoing struggle he had with the religious institutions of his own day, namely the strict, consuming, legalistic moral code of the Pharisees which presented no less than 613 commandments to guide a person. Such propositions were promoted by officials as a way to secure peace of mind, and it also played upon the subconscious desire to maintain social acceptance.

Knowing that the Pharisee’s teachings, which in Hebrew tradition were known as “yokes” or “laws”, bound people to an addictive, consumptive fear built off the need to continuously be monitoring and improving oneself, Jesus sought to relieve them of their burdens. He said – in short – come to me; rest in me; follow my example; nothing else is needed. The image is one of having a number of chains and burdens lifted off of person, only to be replaced by a gentle hand supporting and a calm voice instructing someone on how to live. Jesus’ aim is to lead us into deep waters of peace, where we can be at rest within our own skin and with the world that surrounds us. It seems incredible that anyone could refuse this invitation. Yet, human experience, relational experience, tells us that this is one of the chief struggles we all face … letting go of our known burdens to step into the unknown, unknowable region of trusting and letting ourselves be defined by daily, practiced “existence” rather than our past achievements or future ambitions.

Today, I can perceive two sources of yokes in our culture that stand in opposition to Christ’s teaching. The first is the continual presence of pharisaism in religion, the ongoing suggestion that peace is obtained through morality and social custom. Such is the system that still supports much of American piety in the Bible belt and in other pockets of our culture. According to this system, peace comes through checking indulgences and chasing away excess. Wills are to be molded; minds and hearts are to be cleansed; sin is to be swept away.

However, for Presbyterians (or other mainline denominations) in larger, cultural centers, the temptation to fall into this type of pharisaical mindset is fairly rare. More often, people run to Presbyterianism or Lutheranism as a way to escape these rigid systems of their childhood. But, that does not mean that peace is easy to come by simply changing denominations. For, the threat facing many mainliners comes not from the religious sphere, but from the social, political, economic, and cultural sphere (to use pharisaical language, the “secular” sphere).

The yoke placed upon persons from the socio-economic-political realm is the suggestion and promotion that peace of mind comes through the acquisition of knowledge, experience, investments, possessions, the list goes on. At its base, this system is built upon the idea that our peace comes by self-fulfillment and building security through riches. (Jesus also had much to say about this matter). And rather than maintaining social custom, this system puts individuals in constant competition to climb social ladders. Furthermore, whereas religious pharisaism strengthens the walls of community into restrictive, toxic closeness, the secular pharisaism destroys any sense of community and creates boundless opportunities for pleasure, power and a great deal of ill.

What links the two systems is the constant focus it places upon “I” and “me.” Everything according to the pharisaical mind is dependent upon how “I” am doing, what “I” am doing, where “I” am. They are both selfish and thus – as a way of life – empty and shallow. Life’s mystery includes the wonder of “you” and “us”. Consequently, existential peace (shalom) can only come through right relationship, not through right identity alone.

It may help you to ponder: which system did I come from? And … which system am I more likely to succumb to now? And, finally, how is your ability to relate to your place (your community) restricted by your temptation to be pharisaical about your own identity?


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Philip Glass

Anna and I watched The Illusionist for the second time last night, and five minutes into it Anna said, "this is definitely by Philip Glass."  I was amazed that she knew so surely (only later did I realize that she saw his name in the opening credits - you sly girl).  

Like most things, we are just now getting clued into something a million other people already know:  Philip Glass is a beautiful genius, and his work is breath-taking.  In some ways he is becoming to modern, artistic cinema what John Williams has meant to big screen blockbusters.  His scores are signature pieces, and you most likely recognize his music even if you still don't know his name (think The Hours, or Secret Window).  

His style is minimalist, which I wish meant more to me, but my musical appreciation and knowledge is fairly thin.  Side note:  I remember one of my professors of economics at DePauw University said he was into minimalist "stuff" back in 2000, but I had no idea what he was talking about.  I prefer to believe that he knew then about Philip Glass, which is probably correct.  

Anyhow, there is a documentary forthcoming about Glass titled GLASS:  A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Pieces.   You'll note in the trailer that the San Francisco Chronicle called Glass our "greatest living composer."  I noticed and took delight in the fact that his genius exists and somehow continues even amidst the chaos of home.  For all parents who live in the heap of constant confusion and endless madness, Philip Glass seems a Phoenix of hope.

I look forward to seeing this film ... six to twelve months after it is released in artsy corners of our nation.  Do me a favor and see it if you can.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Starting Over

Well, our computer now has a new hard-drive, which is both good and bad.  Good in that we have a computer.  Bad in that we don't have our old computer's vital information.  Our plight is no where near as severe or traumatic as those who are trying to pick up the pieces of their life after flooding or other natural disasters.  But, in small ways, it is like that.  We're trying to get up to speed again, to function like we once did.

Meanwhile, Anna, Wyatt and Elise are up with Grandma and Grandpa in Indiana.  In a different, yet similar way, they too are trying to start over ... to get some good energy and organization again.

Right now, we're in a season of starting over, of finding a way to live life now that things have been lost, have changed.  Just gotta pick up the pieces and keep on keepin' on.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Saturday, June 14, 2008


After three and a half years, our iMac's hard drive gave up the ghost recently. That, in part, explains some of our absence and regularity in this space. Then there's also the reality of my return to work and Anna's subsequent juggling of children.

I'll try to write more about the experience of driving to Louisville to fix our computer, including some dramatic moments of saving Elise's birth pictures off our old hard drive just in time!

For now ... it's a PC world for us. And the learning of lessons about storing important information on an external hard drive :)


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Closing Time

This won't mean much to many, but the Executive Inn Rivermont in Owensboro shut its doors this past Monday. The "Big E" offered lodging, convention space, dining and entertainment down by the river. As you can tell from the picture above, it's heyday clearly was in a bygone era. Opened in 1977, it was big news for Owensboro - making the town into a city and allowing the wider world into a "know-your-neighbor" town. Johnny Cash played here back when Hee-Haw was still prime viewing for America.

The "Big E" was an investment into what Owensboro might be. "Should be" some said. And, yet, there was never the complete conviction from the whole community. Indeed, for the vast majority of its life, the hotel existed because of the vision of outsiders - entrepreneurs come to town to transform a place. Which is probably why it finds itself out of business. It is also precisely why its closing is now all the talk of the town. A community's identity is on the line again. Questions about purpose and future are subconsciously at play. People at Barney's eating a plate lunch are talking. Coworkers are stopping in hallways to reminisce and bemoan.

A few days ago, the headline in the Messenger-Inquirer (local newspaper) read "Hotel Still Waiting for White-Knight." The hope was for Savior, Messiah. The assumption was that having a hotel, convention center and entertainment location was a good thing - yes - but that in order for the good to survive something outside of the people would have to make it so. But, even if a white knight rode into town, cleared the debts off the books and reopened the hotel, would that really be beneficial to this community? Probably not.

The larger issue at play here, and the very reason that people across Daviess County are talking about the hotel’s closing as if it were a death in the family, is identity. The Executive Inn's closing has the smell of finality, even death to a degree. It’s not that the Executive Inn has been everything for the city recently. There are more promising places and ventures in town, but for pure symbolism the "Big E" held the collective breath of the community. When it was built, the community's chest swelled with pride. Now, deflation is working its way through the people.

This is also precisely why this single event has gripped me. I am captured by the symbolism of the Executive Inn and by the meaning of its demise. I - being called to enter into this community to embrace these people, to find where God is active in this place and to invite people to lift up their eyes to see God at work and to join that work - have to ask the question: what does this say about this community?

I think - for one - it says that a community can only nourish and sustain something it believes. Not what John Bays - recent entrepreneur and owner of the "Big E" - believes. Not in what corporate demographic studies believe. In Owensboro – for better and for worse – success depends not on the value of the initiative but on the support of the community.

The Executive Inn’s closing also says – to me – that this community doesn’t quite know where it is headed, which isn’t either good or bad. It simply is. A crossroad is present. Built upon eras and generations of remaining true to its provincial heritage, Owensboro is once again wondering if it will have a place in the future. Will it be forgotten? Will it be relevant? And is relevancy the single most important quality for a community?

Approximately six years ago, First Presbyterian Church of Owensboro lost its head pastor after a tenuous season, conflicted season. It was a shock to the system – reverberating uncomfortably close to the sound of a death knell. After roughly 150 years of existence as a community, the church was faced with the dramatic reality that life is not a guarantee. The future seemed more like something that would have to be secured through prayer, hard work and commitment.

Since the departure of the pastor in 2002, the church has done much. But I am left to wonder if all that the church has done is change management. The church has called a new head pastor, myself as an associate, a new youth director and a new musician. But, for the most part, these additions have been additions from outside the traditional community (i.e. – not locally grown developments). A few new initiatives have grown from within the community, including a thriving fellowship group for the 50 plus crowd.

But, overall, the church seems at risk of hoping and letting other people create a new life for them. That may get them down the road a bit further, but it won’t save them. Efforts have been made to get conversations going amongst the people about its future, about its hopes. But, largely those deeper questions have been parlayed into talk of building or remodeling the church facility, which may or may not be necessary. Still, the main question is this: where do these people want to go? How are they discerning where God is and where God is leading them? What do they hope?

Just over two years ago, the first building in Owensboro I set foot in was the Executive Inn Rivermont. I was met inside its cavernous, antiquated confines by a sweet woman who would shortly lead me over to First Presbyterian Church – a few miles away from the "Big E." Time will tell how close the two buildings are. Time will tell what the community decides to do with these two establishments. For me, it is my hope that the community will rise up even as the buildings they once honored face uncertain times.

There is a season for everything. I season to pluck up and a season to plant. God knows which is which.