Archive - October, 2009

Pharmaceuticals for Spiritual Conditions

Pharmaceuticals for spiritual conditions. Are we medicating for spiritual conditions by diagnosing the painful introspection necessary for growth as depression? And is this as beneficial as we seem to think?

Sometimes, painful emotions are both appropriate and necessary for greater understanding, the recognition and correction of our inappropriate or harmful behavior and the precursor to change in the form of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. Ah, but that is the question.

This is, of course, spiritual language. Psychological language would describe these circumstances differently. Is painful introspection necessary, or is it the snapping of synapses; the chemical processes of serotonin uptake in the brain, a physical process that can be changed by pharmaceuticals resulting in altered mood?

And what are we to make of spiritual despair as the birthing ground for the soaring creativity of the human spirit? Would a properly medicated Beethoven have written symphony no. 9, the Choral? Where would the world be without "Ode to Joy?"

I’m not of the position that suffering is necessary for creativity, nor that depression is a requirement for great art. Rather, the question is, what’s the difference between depression and spiritual despair? The "answers" lead to different destinations.

That’s the discussion on the Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times blog. In an era when psychic life is described in terms of neurotransmitters, introspection–the self-examination necessary for spiritual growth–has become passe. Prof. Gordon Marino discusses the evolving attitude toward despair as a medical condition by citing the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century Danish philosopher.

Marino asks, "Have we lost the distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair?"

I wonder. What do you think?

Street Youth in the U.S.

The number of youth living on the streets has dramatically increased. As the recession destroys the lives of families, children are running away from dysfunctional parents or being forced by economic stress to leave, and more and more are attempting to survive on the streets.

Nothing says more about a society than how it takes care of its most vulnerable people, and this says a lot about the state of contemporary U.S. society. After decades of rhetoric and practice of rugged  individualism, corporate greed and insatiable material gain, it’s come to this, expendable children.

In contrast to this sorry state, Bob Herbert writes this morning of the need for personal responsibility. Reminding us of individuals who have courageously made a difference in the world, he decries the lack of personal responsibility that contributes to a sense of paralysis today, a feeling that we as individuals can do nothing to change the world.

This is the irony, standing between the two faces of individualism–rugged individualism and personal responsibility–is a sense of paralysis that we can’t do anything individually meaningful to make the world a better, safer place.

We’ve heard for decades that government–our collective expression of social accountability–should be reduced and we’ve celebrated “empowered individualism” as consumers. And it’s come to this, we’ve made the most vulnerable members of our society, poor youth, economic refugees in our own land. We’ve seen the youth of Brazil, Manilla and other developing countries left to fend for themselves, but Medford, Oregon?

There is no rugged individualism. We are accountable for and responsible to each other. We are interdependent and we are only as strong as the weakest links in the chain of our community connections.

If ever there were a time when we are called to be accountable and to act responsibly, to claim our empowered state and change our attitude of paralysis to action, to move from individual isolation to connected community, this is it. Kids living under bridges should compel us to change and act.

What do you think?

Q&A: ‘We have to change how we reach people’

United Methodist Communications is in the process of making some organizational changes that will better position us to seek, create and distribute content relevant to our varied audiences. I recently sat down with a member of our staff who posed some questions about this restructuring, as well as our plans for the future of the agency. The Q&A session gave me an opportunity to communicate informally why it’s so important to bring relevant messages to several generations – each with varying technological IQs and different faith maps.

Q: There have been some organizational and staffing changes announced recently at United Methodist Communications. What was the rationale behind those changes?

A: In order to position the agency as best we can for the future, we have to focus our work on the target audience the church must reach to change the current downward trajectory. If we do not re-engage with younger generations, our future is clear. We will continue to diminish and lose the capacity we now enjoy to offer a meaningful, vibrant community of faith to a world that is hungry for community, purpose and meaning.

It is also essential that we continuously evaluate, analyze and adapt to the cultural and technological contexts in which we operate. These are dynamic environments that are rapidly evolving. If we are to remain relevant and beneficial to the church and to the greater mission of taking the Gospel to the world, we must update, upgrade and change.

Q: How does the gap in demographics present a specific challenge for the church and for United Methodist Communications?

A: We are losing the “greatest generation” – folks that fought in World War II – at the rate of about a thousand a day. They are loyal to institutions and tended to join mass-membership organizations, as well as work in community groups in a formal structured setting. Today they are the core of The United Methodist Church and all mainline denominations. They helped pay for the hospitals and schools and other institutions that meant so much to our society. Boomers, on the other hand, are less institutional, but they continued mass social movements and participation in change.

Now we are experiencing a transition to a generation of youth and young adults who don’t have institutional commitments, and are, in fact, skeptical of institutions. They are looking for direct personal experiences and are likely to identify with movements and direct involvement in bringing about change.

Q: How do we bridge the gap?

A: We have to fundamentally change how we reach out to people. We have to change how we carry the message of faith to people. We have to change how people experience the church in relationship to their faith journey. And we have to figure out how to communicate with them about faith because they don’t talk about it in the ways we do.

Q: With so much information overload these days, how do we cut through the communications clutter and manage to strike a chord with people, especially younger people?

A: As an agency, we cannot expect that we have a ready constituency, waiting eagerly to hear stories that convey our messages. We are in competition with every other means of communication, especially for youth and young adults who are not going to listen just because we are The United Methodist Church. Instead, they are going to respond to messages that interest and appeal to them and have direct relationship to their lives. Some they will filter out because they are not interested, but some will break through because the communicator has figured out a way to get to their interests.

We’ve got to be in the marketplace delivering messages that penetrate and cut through the clutter.

Q: How do we do that?

A: Being where they are is part of the challenge, since they will not necessarily come to us. We will have to lean on our Wesleyan understanding. (John) Wesley got outside the pulpit of the Anglican churches and went to the street corner because that’s where people were.

In digital media, we have to be present online in those places, with those search terms, or with that subject matter that will bring people to us. We have to be aggressive. A 19-year-old, unless he or she is very interested in what The United Methodist Church is doing about hunger, is unlikely to find us unless we approach with a search term or a story or some advertisement that addresses their interest in hunger.

Q: United Methodist Communications is leading the “Rethink Church” movement. How is your agency rethinking how it communicates with the world?

A: When we talk about the mission of The United Methodist Church, we must rethink how we present our message. The media are different, the communication channels are different, the language is different, and individual understanding of faith, I think, is considerably different. The community in which we live today is far more individualized, fragmented and specialized than ever. The demographics are changing. The world’s social environment is certainly more diverse. Rethinking church means rethinking how we reach out, invite and engage people.

Q: How does United Methodist Communications’ work as a global communications agency connect with the local church?

A: All that we do as a communications agency is intended to encourage people to be a part of a face-to-face community where they can have meaningful relationships that cannot be turned off, cannot be made anonymous, and are somewhat more difficult to be inauthentic than the online world.

Social media can be one form of community, I believe, but it can be inadequate, and it has limits. It can engage people. It can provide helpful information and encourage entry into a more direct and personal relationship. However, people get support and affirmation and are held accountable and responsible in face-to-face relationships in a community that has redemptive quality. That is what we call a local church when it is at its best. Social media at its best should be used to encourage those face-to-face encounters.

Q: Is social media the next media frontier for United Methodist Communications?

A: In the short term, it’s social media, and the short term is really all I can project. A good example of how fast things are changing is Twitter. When we started dealing with Twitter about the time of General Conference 2008, it was pretty much unknown. Today it’s all we hear about. These kinds of media are going to continue to be more integrated and comprehensive as we go forward. We are going to have to figure out how to be relevant with content in ways that right now we cannot even anticipate.

Q: You talk a lot about United Methodist Communications serving a global community. Why is that so important?

A: This agency is an expression of a global community, of a global church. We are a node on a global network that is interactive, connected and sometimes disconnected. We participate in that global network, and it will move with or without us. We have to stay ahead of the curve and be as interactive as we can in order to be of value to the church and to ensure the church has a presence and a voice in that interactivity. So far, the mainline denominations have not been particularly adept at that.

We must continue to be where the people are. Otherwise, I think the voice of the church, at least through our agency, is lost.

Pirsig was Right. There is Zen in Motorcycle Maintenance

It’s not only about the ride. The ride is great. But after spending parts of several weeks bringing a thirty-year-old motorcycle back to life, I’ve discovered it’s also about the joy of working with your hands, the smells of the garage and the sound of a motor roaring to life after a long, long sleep. Tactile. Auditory. Visual. Visceral.

The 1977 BMW R100RS sat idle for at least ten years. I started it once or twice in that time, but rubber bushings had deteriorated, water had collected in the transmission, brake pads had become soiled, electrical connections corroded. It was a shell of the beauty it once was. Glamor on the outside and corrosion on the inside.

I methodically cleaned electrical contacts, changed fluids and replaced parts that were bad. It’s been a long, tedious process. Not boring, but life-giving. I call it methodical because method is necessary. Doing electrical or mechanical work piecemeal is likely to lead to ongoing frustration. I need the benefit of a methodology. It leads to a way to manage a problem whose result is apparent but whose cause is unknown.

Why won’t that switch work? Where exactly is the fault? How do I trace it down? Test the voltage from the battery to the first connection and measure it. Then test the next section until the voltage drop is isolated. Method.

When I’m working on the bike, my mind is freed from the concerns of the day and it probes deeply into the mechanics of the machine. It’s not only right there in front of me in metal, it’s in my thoughts and imagination. Sometimes it’s necessary to visualize how each part contributes to the whole. In fact, when troubleshooting it’s required. It’s about connection. Each part is connected to another and they interact. A weak part will shut you down on the side of the road. The machine is only as strong as its weakest part, to cut to a cliche.

Connection leads to coherence.  All the parts working together create movement. Coherence is the life of the machine. As the bike, I also need coherence. I live a life disrupted by events, sometimes it seems moment by moment, day by day. Coherence  escapes me in that setting. But in the garage with wrench in hand, coherence gives me focus and reassurance, and leads me forward.

It’s been liberating in another way. I’ve not worked with a wrench for many years; not gotten oil under my fingernails since I can’t remember when. I’m a general secretary, that’s a ceo, if you’re not familiar with church language. This role isn’t really compatible with mechanical work in the garage for many reasons.

I work with my mouth, not my hands. I put together organizational parts, not physical nuts and bolts. But working with nuts and bolts is a part of who I am and as I grew into new directions, I left that part out. I’m rediscovering just how important it is. It’s necessary for me in order to be a together coherent human being, well-rounded and functional. I need to get my hands dirty.

And finally, there is precision, even in the art of maintaining. It’s true that intuition helps you to imagine the cause of a problem, but solving it comes down to precision. I mean more than using the correct size wrench on a nut. That’s precise also. If you don’t use the correct wrench you’re likely to round off the head of the bolt, but there’s more here than that obvious point. It’s about testing, verifying, measuring and outcome.

Some bolts require specific torque. Points and plugs operate with a precise gap. Carburetors flood when the fuel level is too high. When these (and many other settings) are precise the machine runs optimally. It’s exciting when this happens. Uplifting. Soul satisfying.

In my line of work precision is sometimes hard to come by. Not always, but enough to make it difficult at the end of the day to know what has been accomplished. It’s not ineffectiveness nor muddleheadedness. It’s the difficulty of knowing if you’ve made progress in work that isn’t concrete and specific, that can’t be contained in a physical way and measured. Work whose product may not appear but with the passage of time. Sometimes you only know it’s working after it’s working, when an event has been successful, an individual life has been changed, a group has taken up a cause and acted.

As I wrench around the garage, I think about this. Robert Pirsig was right. There is zen in motorcycle maintenance

Writings on Genocide, Oppression and Hope

It’s unfortunate but instructive that the body of literature on genocide and oppression is growing. Writers from Afghanistan, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and other places are finding their voices, and their writing is powerful. Each in their own way gives us insight into the cost that exploitation, war and poverty exacts on the human spirit, individually and collectively.

Their first person accounts cut through the political rhetoric that obfuscates and minimizes the personal trauma. The novels reveal truth. Policy debates in capital buildings near and far seem irrelevant if you’re forced out of your home with nothing but the few possessions you can carry, hiding in forests, drinking parasite-laden water, eating whatever foraged edible plants you can scavenge.

Hate speech disguised as political rhetoric (and sometimes not) isn’t mere entertainment, as it is often rationalized in the U.S. These writers show us it has direct consequences in the form of rape and murder among other indignities. From “cockroach” Tutsis in Rwanda or Burundi to economic refugees left to die in the Arizona desert, hateful characterizations of human beings open the door to unspeakable suffering.

Once, long ago, I actually thought the world could learn from these horrific experiences and prevent them. They are bred in economic inequity, racism, class exploitation and injustice; in fact, injustice is a word that merely adds redundancy to this list. I was overly optimistic. The world is better at cleaning up after the mess has erupted, blood has flowed and lives lost. And sometimes we’re not especially good at that.

This is the stuff about which religious faith could be an ethical guide, and to which it should be especially attentive and relevant. Some writers of the more recent popular literature on genocide and war have been moved to find religious meaning in their experiences, but not all. Religion is too often employed as if it blesses oppression, if not genocide. Some religious leaders see the connection, but not all. Religion is about our individual relationship to the Creator but it is also about our responsibility as global citizens and as people who seek to bring the Kingdom of God into perspective in practical, down-to-earth ways.

There is hope in this dismal reality. It’s the strength of the voices being published. Their outlooks, as varied as their experiences, reveal a common theme, triumph over forces that could have robbed them of their humanity. Too often we fall into cliches about the triumph of the human spirit and real victories become trivialized behind this facade. It’s true the human spirit does triumph, but the phrase is a vessel far too superficial to hold the depth of experience and meaning that individuals pass through in these depraved conditions.

What strikes me is a couple of traits. The first is the magnanimity of some survivors to forgive and attempt to move on. And if they can’t forgive, they adapt. They adapt to the reality of living with such terrible history, and in some instances, with neighbors who have participated in violence and death against them and their families. It’s an amazing ability.

Writers are telling this deeper story and it’s gripping, depressing, inspiring and hopeful in its breadth. Here’s an eclectic list of readings that lead me to this reflection. Not all are about genocide. Some are about political and economic oppression, the greed of elites, racism and tribalism, and a couple are about the dislocation of emigres in a new land.

Strength in What Remains , Tracey Kidder. The story of Deo Gracias, a third-year medical student in Burundi displaced by Hutu-Tutsi conflict that led to genocide in Burundi and Rwanda. Captures the cultural, internal and interpersonal conflicts that result from oppression. The Burundi genocide is not as widely known as Rwanda, but it was as deadly and socially destructive. Gracias has returned to run a hospital in his homeland. An inspiration.

The Kite Runner , Khalid Hosseini. The first novel of Hosseini that reads like biography.  The experience of an Afghan immigrant in the U.S. who returns to his homeland to attend to the son of his childhood friend and discovers much more about himself, his family and the political consequences of Taliban rule.

A Thousand Splendid Suns , Khalid Hosseini. Hosseini’s splendid narrative of generations of Afghan families through the resistance to Soviet occupation, the rise of the Taliban and the U.S. war. Reveals the cultural and economic practices that oppress women. Remarkably well written.

Children of the Revolution , Dinaw Mengestu. A novel about the experiences of an Ethiopian immigrant adapting to life in Washington, D.C. It reads like a first person account about cultural adaptation and its limits.

A Long Way Gone , Ishmael Beah. The horrifying story of a 12-year-old in Sierra Leone displaced from his family, recruited into the army and drug-induced soldiering, and eventually brought to a UNICEF facility for traumatized children. Beah is a young writer with unusual skill.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda , Peter Gourevitch. First person accounts of the genocide in Rwanda. These are deeply affecting stories. Among the many  important lessons to be learned from these stories is to not take hate radio lightly. Rwanda’s radio stations were tools for mobilizing mass killing.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust , Immaculee Ilibagiza. Sometimes we find God in the places we’d least likely expect. Ilibagiza’s first person narrative is one of the most emotionally moving accounts of one person finding a deep connection to God, and forgiveness, after enduring loss that could otherwise rob her not only of her compassion, but her humanity.