Archive - June, 2011

Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch

Hell is losing your job six months short of 30 years, with no parachute, no shiny new gold watch and not so much as a “thank you” as you walk out the door. It’s payments you can’t make on a house you can’t sell, as your kids watch their parents split apart.

 

You don’t have to die to go to hell.

That’s one tale Brad Paisley tells in his newest album, “This is Country Music.” It’s his best work yet. When I first heard the song “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” it felt like a punch in the gut. Sometimes the best country music lyrics can do that.

It reminds me that my silence about the economic realities confronting working people is cowardly and my perspective on faith needs serious readjustment.

The song is written in reaction to the arrival of a new preacher who is warning people about hell. But Paisley counters, “We already know that hell exists.”

It reminds me of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who preached in the streets as England industrialized in the 1700s. He went to working people – miners in the coalfields of Newcastle and the desperately poor who were left out of the Industrial Revolution. They all lived below government-defined poverty levels.

He spoke to them of personal and social holiness. He told them personal faith and social responsibility cannot be separated. And he asked them to care for each other.

He did not point them to a better life afterward, but he pointed them toward making life better now. To Wesley, the gospel was not palliative; it was prophetic and down-to-earth practical.

As a result, the people called Methodist responded, perhaps because few others cared about them. Though they were cash poor, Wesley admonished every one of them to contribute at least a penny for the aid of others. And they did!

Over time, however, the hard edge of social responsibility got rounded off and smoothed down with preaching about individual piety and comfort. Methodists grew in wealth and status. Today, few – including me — in this faith community speak the language of working people and the poor or stand with them. We speak about the poor, but we are not of the poor as the early Methodists.

As for speaking the language of working people, seminary education took it away from me, and organizational minutiae turned my focus inward toward institutional concerns.

What is needed …

Working people and the poor are among the hidden casualties of the global economic crisis. In the U.S., 28 million people are unemployed or forced into part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain them.

Paisley speaks to them, but not as Wesley did. This powerful song goes where country music has always gone when it comes to religion—angels and the hereafter. And that’s not what is needed.

What’s needed is concern for the here and now. Wesley said everyone in every society is a child of God and deserves to be treated as such, according to United Methodist scholar Richard P. Heitzenrater.

Faith isn’t about reaping rewards in the hereafter; it’s about entering into the reign of God now.

God’s love is for all

We are loved of God, and called by God to love and care for each other. This connects faith to justice and places on us responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated with the dignity Gods intends for us all.

Paisley drove me to Wesley. And Wesley helped me see the need to step out of my parochial, institutional concerns and broaden the definition of community to include everyone from the top to the bottom of the economic scale.

No one – not the immigrant, chronically ill, unemployed, divorced, gay, straight, man, woman or child – stands outside this all-encompassing love and claim of dignity.

If a man doesn’t need to die to go to hell, it’s also true that no one is left out of God’s kingdom. It’s already established. We simply must live so that our lives reveal it.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be offering examples of how people are living it today. In the meantime, if you have an example – or if you have experienced hell in some way – please share your story with me.

 

Anthony Weiner’s Do-it-Yourself Media Strategy

Anthony Weiner is out of public life but he’s still the subject of late night comedy one-liners. It’s a shame. He was building a public persona with a strong, distinctive voice and it’s a loss to the public conversation.

I’ve left it to others to fathom the psychology of his self-inflicted downfall. But in a more practical vein, his do-it-yourself media management will become a case study in how not to do it. His press conferences went so badly that even as I found his behavior totally unacceptable, I had to feel sorry for his public humiliation. Had he been guided through a media strategy that was more carefully developed, he could have saved himself and his family some of the embarrassment, and perhaps saved his career.

Weiner’s media management was terrible. He was never really in control of his own story, and he lied from the outset, inviting further scrutiny. Any media-savvy person would have told him this is the worst possible course. He invited the media and his detractors to dig deeper with his vague answers and waffling from the get-go.

He might have avoided his forced resignation by admitting his indiscretions at the outset, apologizing and entering himself into therapy. More than a few celebrities have followed this course and emerged to reclaim their reputation and rebuild their public image. Some of his political colleagues have survived even worse offenses by following this path.

Weiner chose to play out his apologies and resignation in full public view, apparently with no backup. He didn’t even control his own news conferences, giving his worst detractors a platform to heap insult on injury. Not once, but twice.

Media management is not rocket science but it does require strategy and training. In the media environment today doing less than thinking and acting strategically when dealing with media is equivalent to stepping in front of a moving bus and hoping the driver will see you and stop before flattening you. Weiner got flattened.

He had an even steeper hill to climb because his indiscretion involved images that were all over the Internet. His first lie–that his Twitter account was hacked–was improbable and left us scratching our heads. His refusal to deny that the photos were actually of him raised the level of skepticism. He lost control of his own story almost immediately and when he finally owned up to his behavior he was already out of options. He had to tell the truth.

The first thing any media consultant would have advised is to be truthful from the beginning. Admit to having a problem, apologize for the harm caused and tell how you are seeking to rectify the situation. He would still have been embarrassed, but he had a much better chance to frame the story and limit the damage. Instead, he invited wild speculation and humiliating questions.

If this episode has any redeeming value, it may be to remind us that crisis communications management is not a do-it-yourself project. It requires both skills and a set of actions that are based on the firm foundation of truthfulness and responsibility. You can’t wing it. And you shouldn’t lie.

You have to anticipate how to manage crises before they happen and keep a plan at the ready to implement when they do.

In this case, however, it’s pretty simple; don’t post lewd photos of yourself on the Internet and not expect to get caught.

(A similar perspective from a public relations writer at PR On The Run.)

Weiner: You can’t put the tweet back in the bird

Rep. Anthony Weiner learned the hard way that you can’t put the tweet back in the bird. Media guru Shel Holtz used this phrase when he spoke to the staff of United Methodist Communications a couple of years ago, and it’s been proven time and again.

Setting aside the obvious celebrity syndrome, narcissism and “what was he thinking?”  questions, there are important media lessons to be learned from Rep. Weiner’s downfall.

First, know the technology. Social media provides us the feel of the personal and local. But it’s neither. Every post is not only public. Once online, it’s available to a world of viewers and it’s archived for all time. Scrubbing past indiscretions is extremely difficult and all but impossible for most of us. Rep. Weiner’s attempt to delete a Twitter message was as naive as it was futile.

Second, social media require a strategy. Because they’re a powerful communications tool, using these media casually without thinking through why you’re using them is like jumping into a race car and speeding off without knowing how to drive it. A crash is very likely. Weiner  obviously did not consider how his Twitter use could affect his career. He had no strategy.

Some use social media to stay in touch with a small group of friends. Some use it to share information of interest to a target audience. Others create conversation by being provocative, and some advocate for their causes and build networks of like-minded believers. It’s important to know why you’re using social media and to stick to the strategy, or at least to think through a new strategy if you decide to change.

Third, there is no local anymore. Social media contain an oxymoron. If you communicate well locally, you will likely be successful, but no communication on the web is local. It’s global. A private message to a friend can be sent around the world with a keystroke.

Fourth, social media are personally empowering but not private. Some users are comfortable revealing personal details (albeit not as personal as Rep. Weiner, I hope). But these details are not private once they’re on a Facebook page or a service such as Twitter. We should not be misled by the feel of the personal when we use these media. We’re potentially communicating to a vast audience, some of whom are not necessarily friends.

This is another oxymoron. While they empower us to reach out beyond our immediate geographic community, they can also bring us down because they’re transparent. They can expose our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. This built-in quality of transparency  demands consistency, if not authenticity. If we make false claims or behave in ways inconsistent with values we have espoused, somewhere, somehow, someone will expose the falsehood or inconsistency.

Rep. Weiner seems to have stumbled not only ethically but also in his use of media. And now we refer to him as former Rep. Weiner.

10 Tips for Christians in Social Media

There are thousands of Christians participating in Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and more.  Whether we are posting to our own blog, tweeting or commenting on what someone else has written, it is important to remember a few guidelines about Christian conduct online.

1)      Remember the Golden Rule. Stick to the high road. Snarkiness abounds on the Internet, especially in chat forums and comment sections.

Lewis Carroll's Snark caused people to disappear, much like mean spirited jabs can diminish a person. Set yourself apart by keeping a positive tone, focusing your arguments on ideas rather than personal attacks.

2)      Let your faith emerge naturally in your posts, and avoid proselytizing.

3)      Don’t be holier than thou! Be thoughtful and opinionated, but avoid taking on a judgmental tone in your posts.

4)      Cut others some slack. Give people with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

5)      Know your stuff. That is, know the ground on which you stand. Understand the values and theology that inform your views and consider how to express them.

6)      Be real. Being authentic is more important than appearing to be a flawless, model Christian. Most people cannot relate to perfection, and it’s easier to empathize with someone who is genuine about who they are.

7)      Engage a broad audience. Don’t limit yourself to interacting only with other Christians. Choose topics that spark the interest of “regular” people.

8)       Get out of the pulpit. Avoid churchy jargon and explain the concepts that you use. Don’t take for granted that people know anything about Christianity or are familiar with Jesus.  And be sure to keep it short.  Long, verbose diatribes do not entice reading.

9)      Don’t bring me down! Taking a cue from Paul’s first letter to Corinthians, post content that contributes to building up (faith) rather than tearing down.

10)   Use multimedia – video, audio, photo slideshows – to engage your audience more powerfully in the message or story you are trying to tell. Blogging about a soup kitchen or health care ministry? Include a 1- to 2-minute video clip with testimony from people benefiting from the program or people working with

 

Renewing the Church: The Leading Causes of Life or the Tsunami of Death?

My favorite phrase is “the leading causes of life.” It was conceived by Gary Gunderson and Larry Pray, and I’ve written about it several times. Gary is Senior V.P. for Health and Welfare and Director of the Center for Excellence in Faith and Health of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.  Larry is a pastor in the United Church of Christ and Senior Pastoral Scholar for Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. They co-authored the book, Leading Causes of Life.

Their phrase endures, for me.

But another phrase is making the rounds in conversations in the denomination in which I labor: the “Death Tsunami.” It’s intended to describe the impending demographic change that will happen over the next several years as older members pass away.

It’s meant to be prophetic. Behind it is the thought that if these older members are not replaced with a younger group the days of the denomination itself are numbered.

 

I’ve been bouncing these two phrases around in my head, asking which excites me, gets my creative juices flowing, makes me want to get involved in making things better?

Guess which one does it for me?

I know the death phrase is meant to attract attention to a real problem. But it frames the future in such an inexorable way I just can’t get a handle on how to respond to it. As Gunderson and Pray write, “If death defines our efforts, then it will win every time.”

Hearing this, I want to start singing Joe Diffie’s country music song, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I die).” That’s about all the energy I can get for this framing of our collective future.

On the other hand, I can get energized about looking for the leading causes of life. It makes me want to search out those places and people who are creating, causing change, moving forward. It’s energizing to seek out what gives us life, makes it purposeful, gives it meaning. We are on a journey toward life.

For too long the mainline denominations have wallowed in their narrative of death. They’ve come to believe it, and they’ve allowed others to confirm it. Well, I don’t.

I believe we belong to each other and to God. This is the essence of our connection. In my denomination this means that the local church, annual conference and general church have the capacity to do more together than any of us can do alone. This gives us the capacity to transform the world for the better if we claim it and live it.

And that leads us to what Gunderson and Pray call coherence. Coherence is that web of blessing that defines our roles as human beings. It calls us beyond ourselves to become involved with others. It gives us life, they write. We are not alone and all about ourselves. We’re in this together.

In a world of rampant narcissism, the Christian faith calls us to become servants to those most vulnerable, in need and without voice. How counter-cultural is that?

And that call leads us out of helplessness and despair to agency. We can change and create change. We are not the inevitable victims of the tsunami of death. We are the agents who can bring, with God’s help, new life, new meaning, new purpose and hope to the dry, arid places that seem without the refreshing waters of renewal and healing.

And when we act in this way–moving toward life and toward others–we are blessed and we become a blessing. We sense that we are accountable to those who have come before, those who will follow and those with whom we share the invigorating journey called life.

So, like Joe Diffie, “I wanna go to heaven but I don’t wanna go tonight.” And “I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead” that perplexes me. So I’m not giving in to the tsunami of death talk.

Instead, I’m looking for life through connection, coherence, agency and blessing, and I see these at work in the stories of this denomination everyday.

Let’s seek the leading causes of life.