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Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century

I have been concerned about the growing absence of voice of  the church in culture today when communications has never been more integral to our lifestyle.  My thoughts around this subject have spawned a soon-to-be -published book called We Must Speak:  Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century.

I see this book as a call to the leadership of the mainline communions and to my colleague communicators to rethink communications within the mainline denominations.  Is there a loss of voice?  Should we elevate communications to a strategic level?

I invite you to download a preview of the book here.  I welcome your thoughts on communications as an integral strategy for the church.

You can also view a short excerpt from a webinar here in which  I recently participated with fellow communicators.


A Saturday Evening Before Palm Sunday Meditation

The blind lady played the tambourine. A man shuffled forward using a walker. A shy little girl stepped to the front. And the lady who seemed a little out of touch came alive and beamed as brightly as an evening star. The impromptu choir at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church had formed and they were ready to lead a rousing rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot on the Saturday-evening-before-Palm-Sunday worship service. And sing they did!

Bodies came alive. Energy filled the room. Folks swayed and some, ever-so-slightly, allowed themselves to dance. This congregation of  people knows hard times. Some live on the street. Most struggle to get through each day. For them, life is not kind.

But when the Rev. Paul Slentz asked for a song request and “Swing Low” was given, the place came alive. He invited anyone who wanted to be in the choir to come forward. Normally there is no choir. And ten or so people made their way, some haltingly because of physical limitations, to the front of the room. The pianist hit the keys and the music gushed forth.

They sang with as much energy as I imagine those who shouted encouragement to Jesus in Jerusalem did two thousand years ago. One lady in particular beamed with joy. It was a transformation from her earlier downcast manner. Then it had seemed as if she were detached from the world but now her face was one big smile.

This morning as I re-read Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, I happened upon this description of her experience in worship when Renola, an African American lady embraced Kenny, an emaciated young man dying of AIDS, from whom Renola had kept her distance.

Lamott writes that during the singing of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” Ranola watched as everyone stood but Kenny. He was too weak to stand. She melted. She went to his side and “lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.”

And Lamott puts into words what we felt last evening at 61st Ave. UMC. “I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”

We’re broken and battered, some more than others. Sometimes our wounds show, sometimes not.

Swing low sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home. Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. But still my soul feels heavenly bound.

Our hearts beat for that heavenly place we call home. Safety from the storm. Respite from the struggle. Sweet sounds without the noise. Last evening at 61st Avenue United Methodist Church, the noise quieted, hard times were forgotten and tender hearts came home.


Trayvon Martin and the Muted Voice of the Mainline Church

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing.

When the story of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin broke, I had a conversation with a friend who told me he had repeated “the talk” with his college-age son. My friend said he had been stopped driving while black, he’s had experiences walking while black, even eating while black. He reminded his son about how to act in case he were stopped by the police while engaging in normal activities.

My friend was troubled by the apparent silence of the churches. In fact, this was a misperception born of the lack of visibility of the leaders in the mainline tradition who had spoken out. For example, the Florida Council of Churches had expressed condolences to the Martin family, called the death of Trayvon unwarranted and said deadly force should not be tolerated in Florida. The council called for justice.

On Tuesday, the president and staff of the National Council of Churches also expressed condolences and issued a statement saying “this tragedy has been compounded by unexamined stereotypes on both sides, and especially by the systemic racism that is pervasive throughout the very fabric of our society, infecting our institutions and individuals alike.”

Also on Tuesday, Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith in Public Life, appeared on the Roland Martin show on CNN and expressed concern about the so-called “stand your ground” laws and the need for us to consider the results of these laws. These laws are, in fact, a moral issue. They sanction deadly force by expanding traditional legal constraints on self-defense. Coupled with so-called “right to carry” laws, they represent a clear danger to public safety, in the opinion of many.

During the show, Roland Martin called out white evangelicals for not speaking about the sacredness of life in this case. In contrast, African-American clergy appeared on cable television shows, some defending the shooter and others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC program, calling for the resignation of the Sanford, Fla., police chief and for justice for Trayvon Martin’s family.

On Wednesday, the staffs of the General Board of Church and Society and the General Commission on Religion and Race of The United Methodist Church donned hoodies and carried Skittles to protest the killing. This was backed by a statement that said, in part, “Youths of color are routinely assumed to be violent criminals, and thus face the constant threat of random acts of violence.”

The importance of media savvy

There are two issues of importance in the muted voice of the mainline groups. The first and most difficult is that because they don’t work in the media landscape in a strategic way, the mainlines are infrequently considered by major media as a source when events of this importance occur.  In contrast, media-savvy speakers were appearing in major media.

The second concern is related to the first and follows from it. Absent media coverage, the mainline groups are left to issue statements and distribute them within their own networks. With the exception of Ms. Butler of Faith in Public Life, the mainline response was very traditional. I applaud the public witness of the mainline groups, but there’s a difference between offering a pronouncement and participating in the ongoing conversation.

The latter requires media savvy and a desire to inject values into the culture. It involves offering interpretation about the underlying values and forces at work in the culture today, forces that are sometimes so subtle or complex that they go unnoticed, such as racism and its multiple coded behaviors.

A tragic absence

I’ve been writing about the absence of the mainline from the media and the tragedy it represents. The mainline denominations are concerned about the moral values that undergird society. They are concerned about race, human dignity and the value of human life. The tragedy is that their concerns are not receiving the attention they deserve, primarily due to this lack of visibility in the communication landscape today.

While Roland Martin was on point, he missed the mark by referring only to white evangelicals. This absence of mainline leaders in the national media is haunting. The nation is having an important conversation, not only on cable television but through newspaper commentary, blogs, radio talk shows and in myriad other ways about fundamental issues of great moral concern (race and justice). An important voice, one that should be helping us come to terms with our understanding of the issues, is missing, and the absence of the mainline churches in the national dialogue is a great loss.

This lack of presence is something that’s been evolving over the past several years, and it renders the conversation less rich, inclusive and substantial. I pray that mainline groups find their place in the media landscape, participate in the conversation, and offer clarifying values and perspective. I believe being present in this landscape today is a necessary part of being faithful.

I also believe it is the media environment in which we do theology. It is the media environment in which we discuss the meaning of faith and its applicability to the hard issues of life that help us discover who we are, whose we are and how we are to live together and flourish as God intends for us all.

And if we are not present, it’s as if we have nothing to say, or worse, don’t care. And that’s not true.


Have Mainline Denominations Lost Their Voice?

I was reading Frank Schaeffer’s most recent article on Huffington Post and was stopped in my tracks by these statements:

“Why aren’t the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant and noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale?”

“If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I wanted to shout at my iPad, “Yes, and that is what we are seeing happen in The United Methodist Church when we intentionally reach out to people in our communities.”

If fact, I feel so strongly that mainline denominations have lost their voice in the ongoing media revolution that I recently penned a book called “We Must Speak: Rethinking How We Communicate Faith in the 21st Century”.

Mainline denominations, each for its own reasons, decided to withdraw from the media in the 1980s, at the same time these media were becoming the most influential shapers of attitudes and values in human history.  Amid a revolution in thought and conversation, many of the mainline churches left their place in the discussion to others.

This retreat has caused faith communities to lose their voice in the ongoing conversations that are shaping moral and ethical values.  The result is disastrous.  It is not merely accidental that an image of God is being projected by some religionists that is judgmental, vindictive and the cause of human suffering.

When the church loses its capacity to engage in conversations about faith, it diminishes its capacity to be relevant in an increasingly secular culture. And we’re seeing how harmful this can be.

The irony is that many young adults are seeking a Christianity that is more progressive, less defined by blue state/red state politics and more concerned with the needs of their community, and re-defining who is our neighbor.  They want to hear about healing, hope and redemption. And they want to act on these values, not just talk about them.

The mainline denominations offer that message and the opportunity to act on it, but without a voice in the media landscape, we are destined to obscurity.

In The United Methodist Church, we are reaching out to young adults through a call to Rethink Church, our invitational media campaign.   We are asking young adults to rethink church, not in terms of what it is, but what it could be.  Not just a place to go, or a particular politics, but rather something we do.  By using a variety of media in partnership with local congregations and general church agencies, we are calling young adults to join us in acts of mission.  In 2011, some 4500 churches mobilized more than 500,000 volunteers, serving 4,000,000 people in 16 countries.  Up to 40% of these volunteers were not members of a United Methodist Church, and through this association were more inclined to visit these churches.

Communicating strategically in the global media environment in which we live today is an act of theology. I think we’re answering Schaeffer’s question and a movement is building, but that he is asking the question means we must do more.

For more information on “We Must Speak” and our voice in the culture, click here.


Time to Rally Around The Global Fund

Several months of turmoil have set back the efforts of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Self-initiated investigations have uncovered financial abuses by local representatives of the organization in a small handful of the many countries the fund serves.  Yet, Bill Gates has called this worthy international organization one of the most effective entities to which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributes.

Today, 25% of all international funding for HIV/AIDS-related programs, over half for tuberculosis, and almost three-quarters for malaria worldwide comes from The Global Fund. An estimated $15 billion is needed annually.

Gate’s support was further affirmed by an unbelievable $750 million promissory note, announced last week in a story in the New York Times. Before his announcement, Gates wrote a cogent op-ed piece calling for continued support for foreign aid.

Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20% giving children a future.

Reduction in malaria deaths

The Global Fund is a funding mechanism, a bank, if you will, that makes grants to governments and non-governmental organizations that submit program plans in advance at a scale sufficiently broad to have national and regional impact. It fell a billion dollars short of its needs last year, causing it to suspend its grant-making.

This is particularly harmful because the grants are built on a two-year planning cycle, so the suspension of funds means a potentially deadly delay in treatment and prevention for the people who depend most on the fund’s work. Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20 percent, according to the Times report. The time lag could set back these gains, resulting in increased human suffering and even deaths.

Amid the global economic crisis, the news of fund abuse was doubly harmful. For economic reasons, and in reaction to the misuse of funds, some donor governments withheld new pledges or did not fulfill past pledges. This meant programs and people unrelated to the misappropriated funds would not get much-needed prevention and treatment programs for these three diseases of poverty. It is important to note that the diseases targeted by the Global Fund take an unconscionable toll on the world’s most vulnerable and resource-deprived people.

Fragile progress 

The measurable progress that has been made in treating and preventing deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis is well documented. But it is fragile, and interrupting it is even dangerous because these diseases can easily blossom and return with a vengeance. The parasites and viruses through which they’re transmitted are adaptable and resilient. This is not a time to slow down or turn away.

The funding abuses also gave opponents of humanitarian assistance a talking point to call for reducing aid from government sources. Governments are the largest donors for humanitarian assistance. Nongovernmental organizations can never hope to fill the gap.

A call to the faith community

As supporters and partners of the Global Fund, I believe it’s critical that members of the United Methodist and Lutheran faith communities not only continue their support but also advocate on behalf of the fund.

The diseases of poverty will not be addressed at scale without governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and corporations working together and providing funds. If ever there were a strong witness for continuing to support this worthy organization and its vitally important mission to fight the diseases of poverty, the Gates endorsement was it.

The Global Fund was as transparent in investigating and reporting internal abuses as any organization I’ve seen in years of writing about international development. This forthcoming approach speaks well for the organization and its credibility. The fund has also prosecuted and achieved convictions against some of the culprits, who sit in prison as I write this. This comes at some risk to the fund in the host countries where offenders have been prosecuted.

Last week, the fund’s board reviewed the duties of the executive director and changed the responsibilities of the position. The board appointed a manager to run the daily affairs of the organization. Executive Director Michael Kazatchkine resigned.

My hope is that, in the future, the fund will regain the ground lost these past few months, recover from the economic downturn that has reduced its funding, and receive support from donors large and small to continue the march to end the suffering caused by these diseases.

At the end of the day, we are talking about people, vulnerable people, many of whom are without voice, suffering exclusion and discrimination as well as the effects of terrible diseases. Without the programs made possible by the Global Fund, their suffering will only increase. Many will die. And that is an abuse that all of us must not allow to happen.


A 2012 Reading List

After I commented on a reading list distributed by “Q”, some readers of this blog asked for my list. I’ve been slow to respond. But here is a list of the dozen books I intend to read in the course of this year.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelaum. I’ve almost completed this book. Friedman and Mandelbaum write about four challenges that confront the United States–globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits and excessive energy consumption—through a lens of U.S. power, influence and ideals.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter. I’m close to finishing this book also. Davison calls on Christian faith communities to de-couple public witness from political engagement and to practice “faithful presence” for the common good. The latter includes non-partisan, non-ideological expressions and actions for the common good. He bases his case on a theology of the Creation that calls Christians to be responsible to follow the teachings of Jesus to acknowledge the reign of God, be a servant people, act with compassion for all and invite all into the kingdom of God.

Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey D. Sachs. The book was released four years ago, but I’m just getting to it. Dr. Sachs, the leading voice behind he Millennium Development Goals, proposes a new economic paradigm that is globally inclusive, cooperative, environmentally aware and science based because we are running up against the realities of a crowded planet.

The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark. There’s a new (to me) strain of thought that says early Christianity spread with the cooperation of elites in the institutions of the day, and without this cooperation, the Christian movement might never have achieved the success it has attained. This case says Christian ideas and acceptance needed more than grassroots movements and populist coalitions. The followers of Jesus also needed influence in the institutions that shape culture in order to survive and grow.

Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer. This, too, is an older book that’s been on my shelf for quite a long time. Dr. Farmer is an advocate for a definition of comprehensive human rights that includes, among others, food, shelter and health. Dr. Farmer is a tireless advocate for those who live without these basic necessities and who lack the voice to advocate strongly for them.

The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Another of Dr. Sachs’ important works. As the world moves ever so slowly toward raising standards of living in developing nations, it appears that ending the most debilitating effects of poverty is no longer considered a pipe dream. Dr. Sachs, more than any other economist I’ve read, makes this case most clearly and reasonably.

Life, Keith Richards. A gift from my daughter, I’ll do my best to work through this biography of the guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression plunged both maternal and paternal sides of my extended family into poverty and pushed them off the land. One grandfather kept life and limb together as a sharecropper, and another lost his farm, and his heart, when he had to move to town and work laying sidewalks through the Civilian Conservation Corps. I have a lifelong fascination with how the people of that era kept their families together (or lost cohesiveness) and made it though this most difficult economic period. It also reminds me that history does, indeed, repeat itself–perhaps not in every detail, but in wider sweeps of human behavior.

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx. Another oldie, but one I’m interested in because the reviews praise Proulx’s ability to write lean, clean prose, a talent I can only wish for.

A Guitar and a Pen, edited by Robert Hicks. This collection of stories by Nashville songwriters is a departure from their storytelling form of music to narrative. The songwriters of Nashville are the poets of popular culture, and I admire their ability to tell a story about life in all its sadness, strength, joy and humor in three minutes. This is fun, light, pleasurable reading.

There you have it. I’ll no doubt be reading beyond these books, but these will take priority.



Top Ten 2011 Faith Media + Culture Posts Tell A Story

It is always surprising to find out what people are reading, and our blog is no different.  So in keeping with the season, here is our list of Top Ten Posts from our Faith Media + Culture blog.  As we look at them, they seem to reflect a time of change, uncertainty and global concerns that have been top of mind for many.

10.  Malaria is No More. Say What? This post was my response to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More said the organization was about to close up shop because malaria was coming to an end.  Hard to imagine such a proclamation when malaria takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds.  Subsequently, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.

9.  10 Tips for Christians in Social Media. A few do’s and don’ts for Christian conduct online.  My favorite is to remember the Golden Rule and avoid snarkiness!  Lewis Carroll’s Snark caused people to disappear, much like mean spirited jabs can diminish a person.

8. Phantom Dreaming: The Schwinn Phantom. A short reminiscence of a love affair, with the bike of my life, and how we were reunited. Guess that was the start of my love for all things with wheels.

7.  Poll on Global Citizenship Released. What an incredible year this has been and it is no surprise that one in five US adults has followed international news closely.  Our poll uncovered some surprising facts. When asked where Americans turn when disasters happen, 52 percent tend to turn to U.S. and International Red Cross organizations first.  Church and religious organizations were second (29 percent), indicating the important role faith-based institutions play in serving both local and global needs.

6.  Why Somalia Matters. Drought, famine, dying children and conflict make for a volatile situation.  For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.  I believe that benevolence can lead to peace and stability.  And faith can lead to hope and worth.

5.  Open leaders have open meetings. Well, this was a doozy of a post, raising comments from all corners of the United Methodist world.  I appreciate all of you who have written, called and commented – even those of you who took issue with my opinion.  To those who disagreed with my comments, I am sorry for any offense.  However, it’s the beauty of transparency and freedom of speech that allows for this vast array of agreement and dissension.  May God continue to bless this cherished First Amendment value.

4.   Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch. Country music has always told a kind of raw truth about our country, and Brad Paisley’s song “A Man Don’t Have to Die” is no exception.  The song tells of the type of hell many are going through as the numbers of those living below the poverty line has reached all time highs.

3.  Photos from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Talk about the Great Recession and it conjures up images of the Great Depression.  I have always been interested in the collection of images from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information documentary photo project in the 1930s and into the early 40′s, and have gathered some of my favorites here.

2.  Celebrating the Death of Osama bin Laden? Is it a Christian act to celebrate a death, even one so notorious?  Here I discuss the ambivalence that many of us felt at bin Laden’s death.  Since then we have had more to ponder with the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

1.  Rob Bell and Hell. What’s all the fuss about?  Yes, Rob Bell asked us to consider that there might be other pathways to comprehend God and that hell might be a state of being.  But many of us have secretly asked the same questions and have endured our own personal hells.  Theologians have been arguing these questions since the late 19th century, making Rob Bell just one more brave soul willing to ask questions.  Since the publishing of his book, Rob Bell has left the famous Mars Hill Church he founded to pursue other interests, one of which is a television drama.  Seems Bell never scored high grades in seminary preaching classes because he was always pursuing new ways of presenting ideas.

Well there you have it: a year of economic woes, international upheavals, provocative propositions about hell, social media manners, and a little love letter to Schwinn.

Join us in the coming months as we offer up our view of the world in 2012.  But take heed, as Edward R. Murrow so eloquently commented,

Perhaps we should warn you that there is one thing you won’t read, and that is a pat answer for the problems of life. We don’t pretend to make this a spiritual or psychological patent-medicine chest where one can come and get a pill of wisdom, to be swallowed like an aspirin, to banish the headaches of our times.”

But just maybe, we are comforted in our ability to ask questions together.

Civic and Religious Activism Go Hand-in-Hand

Pew survey released just two days before Christmas reveals that people active in churches, mosques and synagogues are more involved in different organizations and devote more time to them compared to those who are not actively religious.

This doesn’t surprise me. For the past 10 years, research by United Methodist Communications has consistently identified a desire among a significant number of people in the United States, especially young people, to connect with others who want to make a difference in the world. They also want to be part of something larger than themselves, something global. And this is a spiritual quest.

There is ample evidence that when given the opportunity to fulfill this desire through outward bound service, they will take it and run with it.

A missed opportunity

Most religions teach concern for others and provide the means for followers to act on the teaching. Service to others is a core precept of the Abrahamic faiths, for example, so it’s likely those who follow these religions would engage in outward expressions of their faith.

However, many, including mainline Protestants, have not done well articulating this appealing attribute in ways that make them inviting to those seeking a more vibrant expression of faith. Some denominations lost their capacity to communicate their relevance when they disengaged from the media environment that has become the world in which we live and move today. That’s a pity because they have what many are seeking, and it can make a difference in people’s lives.

Having an impact

Reporting on the Pew research, the Christian Science Monitor says the actively religious are also likely to feel better about their place in society and to be more trusting and optimistic about their impact on society.

My hunch is that connection to a religious community serves as a way to step outside the hyper-individualism prevalent in modern societies and that religious activity functions as a form of empowerment. It’s been my experience that when people organize around shared moral convictions and act compassionately, such as building Habitat houses, advocating for just and humane social policies, or volunteering as tutors in urban schools (among many other social activities), we experience both a stronger connection to others and a sense of purpose that results in awareness that we can make a difference in the world.

In religious language, we discover we belong to God and to one another. The entryway to deeper spiritual understanding is through giving yourself to a larger purpose than what is offered in a secularized, consumerized material culture.

I heard a moving witness to this at an event called Advocacy Days for Imagine No Malaria, in Washington, D.C. After meeting with legislators to advocate for preserving discretionary items in the federal budget, including funding for malaria prevention, a woman told other participants in the program that she felt renewed faith in the democratic system, a greater sense of personal empowerment and a deeper commitment to her faith. I hope she felt accomplishment when many of the programs for which she advocated were retained in the budget legislation that was passed a few days ago. With others in the group, combined with advocates from religious communities across the country, she did, in fact, make a difference.

Our call to action

I believe faithfulness is best expressed by our compassion. Jesus instructed his followers to act compassionately toward those who were among the least in society. That call to action has been a basic precept of Christian faith throughout the ages.

It’s been said that religious belief is personal but not private. The Pew research seems to confirm it, and perhaps it reveals more: Religious faith is not only about what we believe; it’s also about how we live.

The Wave and Community

Even as the Christmas season is upon us, we recently enjoyed an unusually fine December day, and I could tell the old blue Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter wanted out of the garage and on the road. (You can tell these things, trust me.)  So I headed out on a familiar route that includes a bit of highway and a bit of backroad. It winds through picturesque horse country near our house.

Other motorcyclists were taking advantage of this great weather, too. It’s customary to wave at approaching riders, but I passed a few who didn’t wave and it got me to wondering. Was it that riders of other marques didn’t want to recognize a different machine? Was it that they’re tired of this small act of hospitality? I wonder if they would stop and offer assistance if I were broken down on the road?

It was disconcerting. This inauspicious act has been one of the many pleasures of a ride. I hasten to say that some riders waved enthusiastically, so it isn’t as if the gesture is dead altogether.

That evening, browsing Motorcycle Cruiser magazine, I happened upon a column that mirrored my experience almost to a tee. Not only that, columnist John A. Kovach had experienced a breakdown and watched other riders pass without offering assistance. Even in motorcycling, community is breaking down.

He muses that we’re caught up in a culture of individualism. His brother-in-law heads a volunteer fire company and reports he can’t replace his 60-year-old volunteers with younger people. Kovach recalls the days when civic clubs provided community connection and a way to serve the common good, but these are now in decline as well.

Individualism has been a trend for many years. It was noted by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone. A recent Pew research study on global attitudes found that U.S. citizens are more likely to believe their fate is within their own control and express greater belief in individual initiative than Europeans.

The process of atomization in U.S. society is ingrained. The forces that drive individualism are many–race and class, the unending barrage of advertising that cultivates our feelings of inadequacy and promotes individual desire, urban planning and development that defined the American Dream as suburban utopias. Many of us live in so-called bedroom communities that don’t offer much neighborly interaction. Work is separated from other parts of our lives. Advertising manipulates our words so that our language is less precise, and it tries to hook into our interiors, our thoughts and feelings. We’ve become skeptical and protective.

As we’ve urbanized, we’ve moved away from small towns, mainstreet businesses and town squares, and the web of relationships they embodied and sustained. Through marketing and advertising, our humanity has been redefined and we are cast as mere consumers. However, as the big box stores give us the lowest price and automated checking, they reduce our interaction to anonymous transactions.  Shoshana Zuboff says consumption requires no skill, just an appetite. Volunteer organizations that once offered community, order and stability are no longer able to do so, and we seem to be losing our sense of the common good.

At the same time, we yearn for connection; we long for something more meaningful than the latest gadget or short-term fad. We want more than an artifice of community, we want meaningful, fulfilling connection. A recent study by the Barna Group reveals that young persons in the United States desire to be a part of something larger than themselves and they are not finding that in churches.

United Methodist Communications just released a study showing that what we enjoy most about the holidays is connecting with others. We enjoy sharing a meal with others (25%), traveling to visit friends and family (14%), worship (5%) and volunteering time (5%). When asked what was most meaningful among these our answers are: the shared meal (54%), worship (14%), and visiting friends and family (10%) .

In this axial age, we seem caught in a conundrum — the rider as rugged individual and the rider in community, and perhaps the analogy extends more broadly. In the paradox, I believe we yearn to belong and to be known. But it’s not an easy path.

In religious language, even if we don’t (or can’t) express it in words, we yearn to know that we belong to God and to each other. But many are also skeptical of religion, so we search. And wonder.

Sometimes a wave is more than a wave. And a meal is more than food.

Peering Into The Heart of the Universe

Last night, along with several others, I peered into a microscope at the Hillyer Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical School and looked at a mosquito’s heart. It was a transcendent experience.

We also watched two videos. In one, blood courses through a mosquito’s heart. In the other, we watched cells that will gestate and migrate to the salivary glands and become a malaria parasite.

The suffering this process will bring to humans is tragic. I never underestimate this. At the same time, I am awed by our ability to look at a mosquito’s heart! We can video it as it pumps! But there is more to transcendence than mere technology, and that is what grabs my imagination and won’t let go.

Later, I watched The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies, a Nova program on PBS about the migratory flight of Monarch butterflies. These delicate, beautiful creatures weighing less than a half ounce somehow manage to reproduce in a generational cycle that results in a migration of thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. How they do it eludes us.

As a layperson utterly lacking scientific knowledge, this inspires me with wonderment at the processes of nature that happen in complex ways, sometimes beyond our sight and often beyond understanding. To me, they are mysteries and more. They inspire awe.

To experience awe and mystery is to stand at the threshold of transcendence. It’s to be transported beyond my puny conceptions about the mechanics of life and into wonderment about how it happens and what it means. It’s to peer at the mystery we call God.

The Creation with which we are entrusted is endlessly fascinating, even as we deal with such harmful processes as malaria and as we are called to steward Creation and protect all its creatures. As the universe unfolds its mysteries I am humbled by what I don’t know. I can only dimly glimpse its complexity and discover my place in it.

When such mysteries are unlocked they don’t necessarily put an end to the awe and wonder. As often as not, they lead to a gateway behind which lies more mystery, more inviting fascination. It’s as if the Creation is an unfolding drama and we’re but one of the actors searching for its plot line. We seek to know what lies beyond the beating heart of a mosquito and a malevolent parasite. We search to understand the flight of a lovely, fragile creature that leads us to flights of imagination, thoughts of beauty, and to wonder how it all fits together.

That’s what I experienced as I looked at the heart of the mosquito and watched the migration of the Monarchs. In the macro, viewing the mosquito’s heart was as if I were looking into the universe, beyond the remarkable precision of the structure, beyond the functional beauty of its mechanical pump, pump, pumping, and into a seamless reality that can only be apprehended because it is unfolding, beckoning inviting exploration.

Or consider the butterfly, its wings in macro are but scales refracting light at different frequencies, but seen in their wholeness they inspire in us a wondrous sense of beauty. So simple, yet so complex. They power a soaring flight so fanciful and perilous that were a human to embark upon it in such a spare way it would be considered insane.

In this wonder, we can celebrate with those of old, “Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” (Psalm 65:8)

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