Monday, April 21, 2014

Sympathy for Jimmy

Monday, April 21, 2014

In the movie "That Thing You Do," an unknown young rock band records a song that becomes a top ten hit. Caught in a whirlwind rise to fame, they soon find themselves flown out to Los Angeles by the record company. They stay in a fancy hotel, hang out with celebrities, play on live national TV, and even get to guest star in a movie. The band is thrilled and dazzled by the glitz and glamour of the whole experience - except for Jimmy.

Jimmy is the lead singer and songwriter for the group, and he is the only one who truly understands the situation. Having been warned by another singer who was on the downside of fame to "never trust a label," Jimmy begins to see that all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood is going to distract the band from what they are meant to do - to write more songs and record more records. He knows from an awkward encounter with the record company president that they are not interested in Jimmy's musical ideals and ambitions - only in squeezing out as much profit as possible until they can find the next one-hit wonder.

The tension comes to a head one evening while they are eating dinner at the hotel. Jimmy reiterates his concerns that the record company is taking advantage of them. The lead guitarist responds sarcastically by looking around and saying, "Yeah. Those lying snakes. Look how horribly they have treated us" - at which point Jimmy walks off.

A few days later, when they finally get into the studio to record some more songs, Jimmy is informed by their manager that they won't be making the record he envisioned - but rather a collection of cheesy covers and a Spanish-language version of their original hit. This time, Jimmy grabs his guitar and storms out of the studio - leaving behind both the record company and the band.

The movie portrays Jimmy as a self-centered jerk, because he seems to spoil everybody else's good time with his insistence on artistic integrity. But I have sympathy for Jimmy. It was his song, after all, that made the whole rise to fame possible. And all he wanted to do was make sure they could keep the ride going, and become a truly famous band - not just a one-hit wonder. But no one could hear his concerns, because they were too distracted by all the glitz and glamour.

After World War II, the United States went through an unprecedented period of economic growth that is analogous to the whirlwind rise of this band. By the time my generation was growing up in the 70's and 80's, our culture was fully immersed in the consumerism produced by this stunning growth. It was an over-abundance of luxury that was as intoxicating as the glitz and glamour of Hollywood was to a band of young musicians from Erie, PA.

Just like the fancy hotel and the movie sets, our time of material abundance cannot and will not last. History clearly shows that such growth is impossible to maintain. And as we try in vain to maintain the glitz and glamour, our true ideals and ambitions as a people are being neglected.

The elements that are in control of our fate are no different than a record company milking a hit song - they simply don't care about our long-term ideals and ambitions as a people. But they will gladly satiate us with endless consumer goods and mind-numbing entertainment options so that we won't be concerned about how those ideals are fading.

In our society, there are folks like Jimmy. Folks who see the situation for what it is. Folks who understand how the wealthy have slowly but surely taken control of what was once a democratic nation. Folks who understand what will happen in a few decades as wealth continues to stratify, as good jobs get more scarce, and as public education continues to erode. Folks who get scoffed at when they raise these concerns.

A have had a number of conversations on topics like this where someone has said, much like the guitarist who scoffs at Jimmy,  "How can you complain? Look at all you have. Even the poor among us have microwaves and cell phones." And I have felt as helpless as Jimmy when he comes to realize that his band mates don't see or won't allow themselves to see what is really happening.

At the end of the movie, the audience is told what became of each of the band members after Jimmy stormed out and effectively broke up the group. One of them joined the military. One moved to Las Vegas - and is still chasing the glitz and glamour. And one went back to school.

Only Jimmy stayed in the music business, and he ended up having a long and successful career as a bandleader and then as a producer. Because of his rebellion against the glitz and glamour, and against being distracted from what he knew was most important - he was able to go ahead and fulfill those dreams that they all shared back in that garage in Erie, PA.

Here's hoping we can find a few more Jimmy's to help lead our people out of consumerism, out of subservience to the interests of the wealthy, and into a more authentic and just pursuit of who we are and who we are created to be.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Fastest Way To Drive Young People From The Church

Let's see. What might be the fastest way to drive even more young people out of the church... Hmm...  I know! 

We could have a major controversy over an issue that is a big deal with older adults but not so much with young folks...

We could have dramatic pronouncements on social media about a big shift in policy... Which would really upset half of the older folks, setting off a flurry of angry tweets and blogposts...

Then... We could have that decision reversed a few days later... Causing the other half of the older folks to send off a flurry of angry tweets and blogposts... 

And we could throw in some indignant board member resignations as well...

Remembering, all the while, that those younger folks we so desperately want in our churches think this is pretty much a non-issue... 

OK. I admit that the sarcasm there was a little thick. But why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Young people can see quite clearly what draws the most passion out of church leadership - and they are not attracted at all to this internal warfare over an issue that they see the way we see racial segregation. 

I once stood up in front of presbytery, at the end of one of those long, emotional debates where nobody's mind gets changed - but we all make ourselves feel righteous. I simply asked that we show as much passion over the topics of poverty and evangelism as we do over homosexuality. Even half the passion would be a big improvement. 

This issue is dragging us down. And fast.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Supporting Public Schools Is A Conservative Value

Dear Editor,

"Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps."

"Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for a lifetime."

These two phrases are often used when people talk about ways to deal with the problem of poverty. And they make a lot of sense. Giving people handouts might help with immediate needs, but it does not produce the self-sufficiency that allows people to escape poverty and support themselves.

Which is why supporting a strong public education system also makes a lot of sense. Public schools are the best way to help children find their bootstraps and learn how to fish. But for some reason, we can forget this when it comes time to fund public education.  We send our children to outdated and deteriorating facilities; we underpay our teachers; and we cut many of the programs that help students acquire the tools they need to succeed in life.

This spring, the Mecklenburg County School Board is proposing a $3 million increase in the annual budget. Part of the increase covers requirements passed down by the state. Other parts are intended to restore funding that was cut in previous years. All of it makes sense to those of us who would like future generations to be less dependent on government welfare. To cut education funding at the same time we cut welfare is shortsighted and cruel - and it defies the core of conservative values.

I encourage the Board of Supervisors to approve the proposed budget. This is not about whether we like Dr. Thornton, whether we approve of Project Based Learning, or whether we are in favor of consolidating the high schools. This is about giving all of the children in our county a fighting chance to feed themselves when they are grown.

The Rev. James E. Moss

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Line of Obligation

There is a division in our churches. It has nothing to do with race, gender, sexuality, or politics. It is loosely based on age, but specifically has to do with attitudes toward worship. I call it the Line of Obligation.

Above this line, people feel a sense of duty or obligation to go to church on Sunday morning. They might find worship fulfilling, but what gets them out of bed consistently is this feeling of "I ought to be there."

Below this line, the sense of obligation is gone. Church, if it is even considered, is just one of many possibilities for a Sunday morning. Those below the line who do attend regularly do so because of particularly strong faith or to enjoy the feeling of community. "I ought to be there" carries little or no influence.

As time goes by, the Line of Obligation creeps higher, and less people in our communities wake up on Sunday morning feeling the "ought to" feeling. Nonetheless, many churches continue to rely on the sense of obligation to get people there. 

As a result, churches are not only struggling to attract unchurched young people, but are also seeing many of those who do come slipping in their regularity. The answer is not to try to attract them back with consumeristic methods, but instead is to be realistic about what the end of the "ought to" age means. 

It means that we must do a lot more than try to convince young folks that they "ought to" come to church - and perhaps that we should stop considering attendance at worship the scorecard of faith. 

We have to find ways to nurture deep and abiding faith, and tight community to go with it - in ways that might go well beyond what church going meant in the "ought to" era. And when we do this, we will find a whole new way of living the faith opening up below this Line of Obligation.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Grassroots Socialism

The big scare about socialism is that it involves some sort of government takeover, a strong arm tactic implemented from the top down. But what if an economy based of sharing (instead of competition) grew organically from the bottom up? Starting at the local level between friends and neighbors?

Churches are already good at socialism. Have you ever seen anyone turned away from a covered dish supper because they weren't able to bring anything?

Small towns can be great at socialism. When a family's house burns down and they are left with nothing, people don't say, "They should have bought better insurance." They chip in and do whatever it takes to get them what they need.

So let us soundly reject the doctrine that every person is responsible for themselves. We know better - in our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, and communities. We are already socialists, and we already depend on sharing with one another - despite whatever rhetoric politicians might spew. We might disagree on the role of government in the matter, but let us not let them convince us that we are not to care for one another.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Parable for Today's Church

A man lives in a nice house in the country, just outside the city. Everyday, he wakes up at 6:30 and takes a shower and gets dressed. At 7:00 he sits down for breakfast and reads the newspaper. At 7:30, he gets in his car and drives to work, arriving on time at 8:00. This is his routine for 20 years.

Eventually, however, the city begins to grow. The country road the man lives on becomes populated with neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and shopping centers. Traffic becomes congested, and numerous stoplights are installed. The man's drive to work now takes an hour.
The man is not happy, and he complains about the new situation:

"They should not have done so much building on one road."
"They should not have installed so many stop lights."
"They should widen the road, or build a freeway."

And as he complains, the man continues with his routine. He wakes up at 6:30. He eats breakfast at 7:00. He gets in his car at 7:30. And he arrives at work at 8:30. After a while, the man's boss becomes impatient with his constant tardiness, and the man is fired.

10 Cultural Realities That Affect Sunday Morning Church Attendance

  A. Technology

1. Rapidly changing, constant learning curve - from perhaps one major
innovation per generation to major innovations every few years.
Perpetual state of adaptation to something new. Expectation of novelty.
2. Communications diversified - from two predominant modes (mail, telephone)
to multiple modes (mail, home phone, cell phone, email, texting, social media). Splintering of focus       and message.
3. Growing Virtual Reality - more time spent in cyberspace, less in physical space. Splintering of commitments in physical space.

B. Mobility/ Dislocation

1. Loss of hometown - permanent transience, unwillingness to make commitments
2. Distance from family - loss of unconditional support
3. Spiritual homelessness - "Who are my people?", "Where do I belong?"

C. Economic uncertainty

1. Loss of company loyalty/ long-term security - see "B"
2. Difficulties for recent grads, younger generations in general - see "G"
3. General economic anxiety in politics, media, culture
4. Tendency to not go to church if can't contribute financially

D. Busyness/Loss of Sabbath - "Sunday is the new Saturday"

1. More who work on Sundays
2. Competition with sports and recreation
3. Only day for sleep/relaxation/chores

E. Consumerism and debt

1. Elevated expectations for standard of living
2. False security in possessions, purchasing
3. All driven by the idolatry of commercial consumerism - Hours of advertising vs
hours in church. What do we really live for?

F.  Pluralism, lack of moral center

1. Church is no longer the "go to" moral authority - one voice among many
2. Rejection of institutions - replaced by commercial consumerism, "cult of the self."
3. Consumerism offers no moral authority. Vacuum that is filled by "whatever is
right in our own eyes" - a splintering effect. No longer sees value in
spiritual community.

G. Failure/distrust of institutions

1. Church, other institutions viewed with suspicion or outright contempt
2. What we experience as stability and welcoming sanctuary is often seen as repressive, exclusive fortress
3. Vacuum of larger narratives to unite - splintering, isolating

H. Changing family structures/ gender roles

1. Two parents working outside the home
2. Cumulative effects of higher divorce, single parenting
3. Loosening of gender roles - including spiritual leadership of family

I.  Earlier exposure for children to adult life

1. Physical changes earlier
2. Exposure to violence, sex in the media - especially Internet issues
3. Harsher social realities at younger ages
4. Faith brought into question by more, at earlier ages

J. National climate of anxiety and partisan conflict - carries over into church