Rage

I spent last week in Kansas and Missouri visiting family and enjoying a little vacation. I’m in Kansas 1-2 times a year. I went to college there; I’m familiar. I lived in Missouri (Kansas City) off-and-on for five years, though I’ve only ventured south, near Arkansas, one other time.

Southern Kansas and southern Missouri are not Kansas City, and they are definitely not Chicago. Obviously. The differences between those contexts–southern Kansas is also not southern Missouri, and Kansas City is not Chicago–are products of stark contrasts in history and culture, which I appreciate and which I have navigated since at least 1994. Yet something felt different on this trip. There are expressions of overt aggression on display in the parts of Kansas and Missouri I was in last week that surprised and disturbed me.

A “F*** Biden” flag flew from someone’s front porch and it emblazoned the front of a hat for sale right next to a “Follow Jesus” hat.

A T-shirt for sale read “LGBT” with symbols beneath each of the letters: Lady Liberty, a gun, a Bible, and Trump.

Another T-shirt showed a picture of a gun and a Bible with the message “Two things every American should know how to use.”

When people in Missouri learned we were from Chicago, they voiced disgust at the “ghetto” and “gangs.” One man called the city a “cesspool” he would never visit (and never has) because people there defecate on the sidewalks; he just sees no value in those peoples’ lives. This was small talk. With strangers.

After the 2016 election, urbanites distressed at the outcome were chastised in essays and blog posts for a shortage of familiarity with and empathy for rural America. This was always disingenuous; many residents of large cities moved there from small towns and know them at least as well as J.D. Vance. But even if it were a meaningful criticism, it has most definitely not been leveled in the other direction. Following Biden’s victory, rural America is not publicly searching its soul over its distance from the urban voters who elected a Democrat. Instead, the places I visited last week are seething in open rage against him, Democrats, and “Democrat cities” like Chicago. Specifically Chicago.

This rage is a media product, and it feels really consequential.

Yes or No

“I can” or “I can’t,” not “I can but I’d rather not.”

“I will” or “I won’t,” not “I will if nobody else will.”

“I am available” or “I am unavailable,” not “I can be available if no one else is.’

If there is an obligation that needs fulfilling and we are a) able, b) willing, and c) free, let’s just say “yes.” If we are not any of those three, let’s just say “no.”

Simple as that.

Sight and Sound

The family spent the back end of a family visit trip in Branson, Missouri, over the weekend, and while we were there we saw a show at the Sight and Sound Theater. It was called, simply, “Jesus.” It was an impressive spectacle of costumes, sets that wrapped 180 degrees around the amphitheater, and live (and animatronic) (and digital) animals. The actors were highly skilled. The script was a harmony of the gospels that told the story of Jesus from his calling his first disciples through to Pentecost.

Such a project forces choices, and those choices are necessarily interpretive, and I’m sure the writers could defend those choices capably. Would I have presented Mary Magdalene as a prostitute? Probably not. Though it’s customary in church tradition, she’s never called that in the gospels. Would I have grafted her onto the story of the woman caught in adultery from John chapter 8? Certainly not. Neither would I have portrayed the Pharisees as menacing, black-robed figures who chanted the shema like it was a ritualistic incantation. I will moderate my textual criticism until I write my own, except only to note that such choices have weight and consequences.

I feel more comfortable commenting on the whole context of “Jesus”–the script, the production elements, and, critically, the audience. This was my first time in Branson. I had heard the shows there were heavy on traditional and patriotic elements. Yet I still found it jarring to be surrounded by hundreds of people, many wearing red, white, and blue apparel, watching this particular representation of the gospel on stage. Especially near the end.

The resurrection scene lit the tomb from the inside so that the audience watched the actor playing Jesus sit bolt upright as a thunderous crash shook the auditorium. The moment produced an eruption of cheers from the seats. Looking over my right shoulder, I saw several sets of arms reaching for the ceiling; this was as much a church service as a performance. As the disciples rushed down the aisle and bounded onto the stage to convene at the empty tomb, they bear-hugged each other and slapped each other on the backs in celebration. It was a triumphant climax, and we, the audience, were meant to be part of it.

I can’t shake my discomfort with this ending. The resurrection accounts of the gospels contain as much wonder and fear as they do joy and celebration. Reports of the emptied out tomb lead the disciples to hide in the city, not high-five in the streets. No crowd is there cheering victory. In fact, the gospel stories say one thing very clearly that we, piously applauding in the audience, seemed completely to miss: the cheering religious crowd is the problem in the passion story, not its resolution.

Here’s something impressive about the production to end with. The program contained no cast list, no technical credits, no photos or bios of the actors, and the production ended without a curtain call. There was no mistaking what the producers, actors, and stage crew believe is most important in what they’re doing, and it isn’t recognition for themselves.

Portfolio

A really good motivation to make something today is the promise that it will serve you in the future. Once it’s made, you have it in your portfolio. You can reuse it, repurpose it, refine it. You can share it.

My first move before starting on a piece of writing or a presentation is to search my files for work I’ve already done on the same topic. If I find something, I often don’t even remember having done it before. I may deploy it for this new project or I may not, but even if I don’t, it’s good to be reminded that I’ve done this before. It can be done.

Reward yourself tomorrow with whatever you create today.

It Was There Before

I remember hearing a minister opine about the ubiquity of American flags in church sanctuaries following 9/11, that the inability of church leaders to resist that particular wave of patriotic sentiment was a consequence of the theology in place in their churches long before 9/11. I took her point to be not that flags in sanctuaries are good or bad, but that the decisions churches make in a crisis are determined, to a very large degree, by factors that predate the crisis.

It feels like the challenges facing churches in the wake of Covid were there before. They may not have been urgent (they may well have been), but they were there, hiding in plain sight. Ambivalence about worship attendance, confusion about staffing, and inconsistency in ministry design did not begin with stay-at-home orders. The conditions of Covid have amplified and accelerated challenges that needed our attention before.

Which makes me wonder: what concerns are waiting to reveal themselves in the next crisis?

Collaboration

The point of collaboration is not to work together, but to get something done that we care about. As an extrovert, I need to remember this, because I can mistake cooperation with other people for meaningful work. It can be meaningful, but probably not because of the cooperation but because of the thing we’re trying to accomplish.

Useful collaboration probably starts with the question: what do I want to do?

Persuasion

We don’t have as much control over who comes to church as we think we do. There are so many things people can choose to do with their Sunday mornings, and many of them feel really compelling. I remember an exchange I had with the mother of some church youth who explained their regular Sunday morning absence by insisting that, “Once a week we’re going to have breakfast together as a family, and sometimes that once is Sunday.” Who would argue with that?

In this light, the best strategies for church marketing and communication seem mostly to remove barriers to participation for those who have already decided in favor, rather than persuading those who are on the fence. Our website and our Facebook page and our email newsletter need to make information clear and easy to act upon: worship is at 10. Here is the address. Here is where to park. Here’s a video of what a service is like.

We can do that well. It’s not that hard. Then we can put the rest of our energy and intention on the experience people have once they’re there. The best outreach is wasted if people don’t find meaningful connection and purpose once they arrive.

How Mature!

When we find ourselves surprised by the maturity of teenagers, we should remember that we have been choosing to expect immaturity of them. Teenagers didn’t even exist as a distinct cultural entity until about the mid-20th century. Before then, adult roles and responsibilities were given to young people around the same time we let them sign up for Instagram today. But for 70 years or so now, American society has cordoned adolescents off from adult society in schools and activities restricted mostly to their peers, where it looks like they have a great deal of autonomy, but where their main responsibility is to get into college.

They are more mature than we give them credit for, but that credit-giving is a choice we keep making.

Learning About Friendship from Teenagers

I spoke with a teenager this week who learned during the pandemic that he is “situationally funny,” by which he means that he’s more at ease in the side conversation and one-off remark than he is as the center of a group’s attention. Covid showed him that, because, in Zoom school, his conversational lane was closed.

So he opened that lane for himself with one-on-one phone and video calls with his friends. When the weather got nice enough, he and two peers made a habit of meeting up in a neighborhood park to talk about “whatever they want.” He formed a daily routine of playing with his neighbor’s new puppy after school.

Teenagers like this one have some things to teach adults about how to leverage technology to strengthen relationships, as well as how to sustain friendships the old fashioned way. I’m listening.

Workaround

A teenager told me yesterday that she prefers in-person interactions with friends to Facetime or Snapchat or whatever, especially after a year of Zoom school. Her comment reminded me of the two teenagers a decade ago who explained their intensive online connection with one another to me as a workaround. They wanted to hang out together, but the absence of public spaces hospitable to teenagers without money made it very challenging; technology was the next best thing.

We were preventing teenagers from getting together in public long before Covid.