Church

Trolls

Meredith and I taught young Laura to say “Obama” on the drive to visit her Fox News-watching grandparents when she was younger than two years old. It must have been 2009. The thought of how they would react to hear their granddaughter, who could barely say her own name, speak the name of the President they’d voted against made us giddy.

We were trolls.

The troll cares less about the figure they support than they do about your antagonism toward that figure. Your antipathy is their game. John Stewart’s Daily Show was fueled for eight years by a reliable stream of conservative media outrage over Obama. Without all those clips of Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo Rivera breathlessly fulminating over the President, Stewart would have had a lot less to work with. And, of course, those zealots at Trump rallies live for every expression of indignation at the President’s latest tweet. You’re upset at their guy, and that’s why they love him. It’s about you more than it’s about him.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but it’s often used to mean don’t engage at all. That cedes all the discourse to the trolls. Engage, but deny them what they most seek, which is you, exorcised.

Laura’s grandparents knew how to handle trolls. Because, though I remember training a troll on them, I don’t remember them reacting to it.

Standard
Church

You Can’t Not Know By Now

Cell phone videos and the internet make it impossible to hide from the truth about America, that it openly harbors a murderous impulse toward African-Americans. The post-racial myth I learned in school during the 80’s and 90’s is long vanquished by the grisly racist reality recorded by hand and shared with a few taps to millions of screens countless times in just the past five years. The reality on the screen was never not the reality for black people in America, but it was never so difficult as now for white people to avoid experiencing it with our own eyes.

In my comprehension of the history of racist violence against African-Americans, the killing of Michael Brown in August, 2014, is not a watershed moment. It was not a thing that had not happened before, and the protests it ignited were not unprecedented. But in my mind “Michael Brown” is the first name in a list that rapidly grew to include Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and many, many more, a list of black Americans whose deaths and their tragic consequences have been viewable on social media. These are names you can’t not know and videos of murders you can’t un-see. If you don’t know their names and you haven’t seen what was done to them, you’ve made a choice not to.

Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are the latest additions to that damnable list. Their killings were recorded. You can watch them too. I can’t say if you should watch them or not, but you must come to know them, and it’s not hard. There is no un-knowing the violence America is still unleashing on its black citizens, and the inevitability of that knowledge should lead us to grieve, to rend our garments and sit among the ashes, to mourn what we are and what we have wrought.

Outrage is critical. Analysis is indispensable–we need to understand privilege and systemic racism and implicit bias and institutionalized white supremacy. And still, performance of outrage and analysis can short circuit lament, and I can’t see any way through this hell that doesn’t get neck-deep in sorrow, not as an alternative to action but as its proper motivation.

Standard
Church

What To Do

Don’t know what to do about a problem? Call someone who’s facing the same problem and ask them what they’re doing about it. They probably don’t know what to do either, and you don’t want to copy their solution anyway, but you’ll have a conversation, and that’s better than solitary stewing.

If they’ll let you, record the conversation to share with the rest of us. We don’t know what to do either.

Standard
Church

Read And Write

There are stretches of days when reading feels more urgent than writing. Things are happening quickly, important things, and even though your writing is not specifically concerned with the machinations of politics and culture, you feel that to take time writing without first understanding what’s going on is arrogance.

But . . .

The writer of whatever you’re choosing to read is also functioning with an understanding deficit; if complete understanding were a prerequisite for writing, we’d have a lot of unused paper on hand and news organizations would go bankrupt tomorrow.

It’s a false choice: read or write. We do both simultaneously. Each activity better tunes us for the other.

Standard
Church

Access

Last night I slept on a couch because a kid two days from 12 slid into my bed before I got there, having abandoned the makeshift bed she’d made for herself in her closet after about 10 minutes. She’d spent much of the afternoon in that closet, with the door shut and her headphones on, a perfect private retreat. She found the access panel to the bathroom plumbing in there, and it felt like the uncovering of some stirring mystery, such that she proposed placing a time capsule inside of it, just behind the panel. Her mother and I played along, though we discouraged the inclusion of snack foods.

Standard
Church

No Points

I keep having to remind myself that no points are awarded to the person with the best complaint. In a situation with frequent changes in norms and the high levels of unpredictability and resultant stress, a way to adapt is to articulate all the ways that’s hard. Describe the strain it puts on you, and draw others in, so that they corroborate your grievance. It almost feels productive.

But it’s not. It’s helpful, in a way and for a time. But it isn’t making anything better. No points are awarded for best complaint. In fact, no points are awarded at all. You have to score them yourself.

Standard
Church

Stop.

The neighbor girl is learning to ride a bike, and this weekend she seems to have mastered it. Her trouble was stopping.

When learning a new skill, stopping is a critical capability. Before she would ever let me put the car in drive, my mom made me spend 30 minutes in neutral, lifting my foot off the brake for a second, then two, then three, before braking, learning the feel of the pedal, learning to stop.

If you’re not learning how to stop, you’re not really learning the skill.

Standard
Church

The Video Pivot

I suspect the quick pivot to online video many churches have made the past two months will affect their posture for a long time to come. Best case, if in-person church gatherings resume per usual in the next couple of months, those leaders who have spent these weeks learning and improving an unfamiliar medium for gathering and sharing will have a tool in their pocket they didn’t have before (as well as some stories to tell). Worst case, we keep learning and getting better at it–because what other choice is there?

It feels like one element that we’ll have to really focus on in that worst case is the character of video sermons and youth groups. I say “character” and not “quality,” because it’s probably not a matter of technical upgrades, cameras and microphones. Rather, it’s a matter of adapting expressions of church life to the biases of the required medium. Youth group lessons designed to be shared in-person that are recorded and shared online are a different product altogether from youth group lessons that are designed to be consumed as video.

Video is intimate. You face is close to the camera and you look right through the screen. Facial expressions mean a lot. Reading something off camera from three or four feet away, looking down at a book or a script, works to convey that this is a recorded version of something we would normally be doing in-person, but the question is how long we can keep doing that. When will another pivot be required, the one to designing classes, worship services, and small groups first and foremost as videos?

Standard
Church

Back to Twitter

I started using Twitter again last week because I was afraid to miss developments and insights. I re-created my account and followed some of the journalists I like to read and listen to: John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon, Michael Barbaro, Caitlin Dickerson. This, I told myself, is the right way to use Twitter: to eavesdrop on the conversations being had among reporters about important matters of the day.

Nope.

I forgot that Twitter is not a platform for conversation. 90% of the tweets in my feed are links to articles in publications I already read, often with a sentence of commentary attached. The other 10% is a mishmash of observations about anything and everything. It’s not bad. It’s just not informative. It’s entertainment .

Standard