03.25.16

sunday church

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:45 pm by Administrator

heading into Easter weekend, i find myself reflecting on church—not simply the meaning of it or the value of it but also the nature of it as an experience. and it is such an unusual experience.

over the years, i’ve come to believe very deeply in the importance of the church experience, for many reasons. first, i believe that it’s difficult if not impossible to practice faith outside of continual interaction with a faith community of some kind. second, i believe that it’s impossible to love God without cherishing the thing He most values—His people, His tribe, His church. these aren’t lofty or theoretical ideals to me; they’re very practical truths that God has compelled me to test and to embrace, and i have received them as nothing less than His direct instructions to me.

moreover, i’ve come to recognize that i enjoy a unique privilege in my society and in these times: the privilege of being able to gather with other believers and share a common experience of faith without being persecuted. i have protected time on weekends that is honored by my employers and by my government, during which i can meet with other believers. i have the legal right to meet with them and to openly participate in the sacraments without fear of reprisal or persecution. i happen to live in a society in which there are many believers, which means that the blessing of a faith community is always readily at hand. for all these reasons and more, i can engage with a faith community without any meaningful hurdles to prevent me from doing so. in some ways, this is an unprecedented privilege that we enjoy in america of the 21st century; after all, in how many preceding eras were people of all Christian denominations and sects guaranteed these freedoms?

it would thus seem illogical if not frankly self-defeating to not take full advantage of the opportunity we are afforded in this time and place to worship with others who follow Christ. in fact, for american believers of any faith tradition, it might seem foolish for them not to engage deeply with their respective faith communities given the rarity of the opportunity uniquely available to them in our society of these times. regardless of whatever idiosyncrasies may separate these faith communities or the members within them, one would have to consider that the privilege to gather is significant enough to trump all other smaller considerations.

perhaps it is because the experience of a faith community can be so convenient that we take that privilege for granted. perhaps it’s for this reason that i am continually tempted to take it for granted. i lay out all of this as necessary context for the thoughts that follow.

i struggle with the experience of church, and that struggle is only intensifying with time. for me, it comes down to three major issues: didactics, dignity, and the demonstration of societal benefit.

sunday church is a didactic experience. there’s nothing in the Bible that prescribes it as such, but this is what the sunday church experience has become in america. it’s become an experience in which the central attraction is the homily or sermon. in my youth, that was not a problem for me, back when factual knowledge seemed to me to be the surest foundation for a meaningful walk with God. but that no longer holds true for me. the classroom environment which veritably defined my youth is no longer an attractive space for me, nor does it actuate the experience of others that i tend to associate with vibrant community. put another way, sitting down in silence every week to listen to one individual expound upon his or her thoughts about a biblical subject is not my idea of healthy communal interaction; and when, moreover, this didactic experience is not directly informed by the expressed needs of the audience, it becomes nothing more than a lecture, however entertaining it might happen to be.

this emphasis on the didactic experience of church impacts the second issue i wrestle with, which is that of human dignity. because the conversation of the sunday church is so unilateral and absent of meaningful interaction, the dignity that each individual participant can experience in that setting hinges so considerably upon the culture established by a church’s liturgy, teachings, and theology. it’s a power that church creators and leaders take for granted, and it’s a power that i’m only growing more and more sensitive to with time. as i’ve already written about many times, the church’s tendency to preach moral absolutes without relational context often serves to marginalize individuals who are already well-experienced in social marginalization. with regard to LGBTQ issues for example, churches which choose not to speak explicitly to their needs are actually denying dignity to LGBTQ persons in their midst. this happens in many church settings with regard to a multitude of marginalized populations, including underrepresented ethnic/racial minorities, elderly persons, and people with learning disabilities. and because there is a total absence of any two-way dialogue in the course of a typical Sunday church experience, there is often no way to identify and to address the systematic oppression that occurs, however unintended and unconscious it may be. persons who are denied their dignity simply never return.

and this leads to the final trouble i experience with church. the bible suggests that the church exists for the clear demonstration of God’s goodness to the world. it would seem logical that the church then would make it its business to know and to understand the troubles and needs of its surrounding communities. yet, i have consistently found that the church is where i encounter the most intentional, deep-rooted, and self-satisfied ignorance regarding the sufferings and injustices that surround it. inner city churches i’ve attended have not addressed unconscious bias and the social sins that result from it. suburban churches i’ve attended have pointedly avoided exploring the plight of refugees, “illegal” immigrants, and the sufferings of the mentally ill, even though these persons traverse their communities and even work for them. there is this tacit idea that God can be celebrated and even worshiped without attending to the social quagmire within which God’s sorrows and hopes must be properly understood. there is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude that pervades the church when it comes to human suffering on a social scale, and for this reason churchgoers often remain blithely unaware of where their efforts could most powerfully impact the world around them. perhaps there is value to preaching to the unreached? but what’s the point when the church is otherwise unable to distinguish itself as a place where outstanding goodness is demonstrated for the benefit of society? once they see what we think about and do on a weekly basis, most anyone interested in doing good would quickly lose interest in us.

i will miss the Sunday church experience if i walk away from it. i know that i will. i’ll miss the feeling of belonging and participation. at the same time, i have to ask myself if this fear of isolation is what is preventing me from discovering a faith community experience within which i can worship, fellowship, and experience others with true and life-giving authenticity. i struggle to understand what it is precisely that i’m yearning for. i only know that there is a terrible irony to the isolation that i feel every Sunday morning even as i sit next to scores of others—all silent, obscured by darkness, unseen

03.21.16

his life, and hell

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:20 pm by Administrator

it’s taken me a while to get to this one, not because it’s intense or difficult but because the reflection requires objectivity. it could be handled in any number of ways, but as always, it’s going to happen the way it does, and i will take it as it comes.

one of my patients was murdered a few months ago. this was a patient i knew very well. i’d seen this patient every month for more than five years. and when i heard the news, i felt a mix of things, the predictable things, but i felt none of those things very strongly. it was in fact the relative lack of an emotional response that made me reflect more. and the more i thought about it, the more i realized that this is what it’s all about; and the better i understand it, the better i will understand it all.

when i heard the news, i was shocked. yes, i’ll say that. i was also relieved. i was relieved that this patient would never come to see me again. at first, i was ashamed of that feeling. i didn’t want to explore the feeling because i didn’t want to feel bad about myself. but because it was there begging to be understood, i did come back to it, eyes wide open and willing to see what was there. and what i saw was the patient, sitting in my exam room the way he always did, with his head in his hands, with the hungry, lost look in his eyes and the slow deliberate tone of his voice. he’d tell his sad tale every month, like i’d never heard it before.

i saw myself too. i saw myself, a little reflected image on the pupil of his eye, trapped there and consigned to hear his tale of woe. every month, he brought a certain kind of darkness into that room, and he made me sit in that darkness with him. some times i would leave the room so exhausted that i couldn’t see straight. many times i’d see his name on the list of people waiting to see me and i’d get angry—so angry that i could put my fist through the wall. he was a hopeless, hopeless man, and i hated him for it.

he was not mean. he was not bad. he respected me, and he never once raised his voice to me. everyone knew him as gentle and kind. i don’t think anyone else saw him the way i did—a black hole, a man whose soul sucked the life out of everything around him. i should not have been his therapist, but that’s how he saw me, and with time he shaped and crafted our appointments into the thing he wanted. i should not have thought of myself as his victim, but for years, that is how i felt in his grasp.

so when he died, i felt liberated. and at the same time, to think of what his last moments were like, in the context of all the pain he’d previously lived through, made me feel a kind of tragedy. it was tragedy restrained from sorrow. tragedy without sorrow is like a hollowing of the insides that leaves everything visible perfectly intact. this man’s life and death were too terrible for straightforward feelings. even now i cannot feel for him.

earlier in our professional relationship, he talked about how being gay had made it difficult for him to see a loving god in the story of the Bible. at one point, i had tried to present Christian faith differently—as a space for redemption rather than as an exercise in judgment. regardless, the sense of persecution continued to haunt him, and the marginalization and shame continued to bore their way into the core of his being, corrupting even the basic things men believe about themselves in order to live with themselves. it is no exaggeration to say that this man lived in mortal agony on a daily basis. after nearly eighty meetings over which i observed his life and his ways, i can confidently say that i saw him happy just once. there are people who believe that there is such a thing as hell—an eternal place of torture reserved for those who do not believe. i think that’s a laughable idea. this man lived hell. what comes after life could not be any worse for him.

when i experience things like this, i am reminded that while compassion and empathy are beautiful ideals, it is survival that is ultimately moral. it is good to survive. and in the face of all the death, disease, and ugliness in this universe of the living, whatever gives us the strength to keep living is good, if not heavenly. if there is punishment for evil, it is in the lives we live and in the burdens we must carry; as for judgment beyond these things, my heart has no zeal or interest at all. God, if He has the capacity to leave us to even greater suffering after all the suffering already past, is inscrutable to me. but i’ve already written upon such things at great length.

for years, hell passed through my doors, and i sat across from a man who wrestled every day with the devil himself. i am only glad that when he left, he did not take me with him; and i will endeavor, for the rest of my life, to forget about him, and to forget about the tragedy of our lives that is always threatening to be seen

03.20.16

i look back

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:37 pm by Administrator

it’s something i wish i could tell them,
that i only see them
when i look back,

when i see what they were
earlier that day, or the week
before.

sometimes it only comes to me
years later, like an echo
in my mind

that these children were with me
and that these eyes of mine—
always looking

for danger, for things amiss
and in need of correction—
these eyes

actually saw them;
and what i failed
to understand

was that the making of memory
can be fast, so fast
in fact

that the thing perceived
might possibly be seen
for what it is

like words to the sound of a song
faintly discerned, neither at its beginning
or at its end

03.11.16

Having perspective on the Eagles

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:29 pm by Administrator

amidst the flurry of moves that are redefining the Eagles franchise, there is one fact about this team that hasn’t really been emphasized in all the sports reports i’ve read. the Eagles, despite all the hype around their moves, are officially a rebuilding team now. and that means that the losing they did last year is likely to continue into next season.

for as long as i’ve been an Eagles fan (seventeen years now), i’ve never thought of them as a rebuilding team. perhaps that’s the mark of a great franchise; it’s able to establish a winning approach and then sustain it year to year by supporting or incrementally tweaking the roster. for fifteen years, the Eagles were always able to deliver a product to the fans that looked like an imminent champion. now, perhaps for the first time in a couple decades, we have no choice but to accept the fact that the team is in decline. the changes we’re making right now aren’t designed to effect a rapid turnaround. rather, they represent the acceptance that a particular era of the franchise is over; for better or worse, we must begin a new chapter in the team’s history.

looking back over the past couple of years, it certainly didn’t have to come to this. if there was one critical factor that forced us to this point of no return, it was our inability to sustain the competitive advantage we had in our once-dominant offensive line. since drafting lane johnson three years ago, we’ve counted on peters, kelce, herremans, mathis, and johnson to literally hold the line while focusing on other positions through free agency and the draft. now herremans and mathis are gone, with dubious replacements filling in for them (no disrespect to brandon brooks), and both kelce and peters appear to be past their prime. like jason kelce said a couple of months ago, you can’t just wake up one day and buy yourself a great offensive line. the strength we established on the line took years of investment, and a few years of inattention was all it took to see it crumble to the point of disrepair.

when i look at the 2016 draft, i understand that we have obvious holes to fill. the question we have to ask ourselves when we look at pick 8 is what sort of a team we are dealing with here. is this a team that needs just one or two critical pieces to get over the hump and win? we’d like to believe this; and we’ve fallen into the habit of believing this, given our years of mixed but mostly positive results. but it’s time to be frank about what we lost as a result of chip kelly’s failed philosophy of coaching and team management. we lost our competitive edge. there isn’t one critical hole to fill at pick #8; there are a dozen! and what we have to do now with this critical 1st rounder is to find the franchise player who can help us reestablish our identity for the next decade.

a defensive player can sometimes do this. ray lewis and troy polamalu were 1st round defensive selections that singlehandedly transformed their teams’ identities, and jj watt is potentially doing this for a Texans franchise that has yet to create a winning tradition. but this Eagles franchise has traditionally built its reputation through its offensive line. are we capable of reinventing ourselves as a defense-first team? if that’s where we’re moving, then perhaps we picked the wrong head coach and perhaps we have the wrong GM. doug pederson is a quarterbacks guy, and aside from brandon graham, i can’t think of a great defensive pick that howie roseman has made in the last five years. i don’t think it’s a sexy, spectacular, or win-now move to take Ronnie Stanley at #8 in the first round; but it’s the right move, if we’re going to start a new Eagles decade on the right footing.

i’ll admit that i look at the Eagles and the optimist in me still wants to believe we’re one critical piece away from an NFC champion. and if that were the case, then cornerback is where we’re most desperate. we have one legitimate cornerback on this team, and even then i would describe eric rowe as a prospect more than a potential standout. taking vernon hargreaves and hoping in his lock-down potential would address this team’s most salient weakness; and if hargreaves played well out of the gates, it could translate to 2 more wins then we might have had otherwise. but we’re not one critical piece away. i’m willing to field a team with huge gaps in the secondary if it means accelerating our rebuild on the o-line.

so there it is. my perspective on the Eagles has shifted. the Giants and the Skins are better teams this year, and we’re not playoff-bound. i have to live with that. let’s rebuild the right way

03.08.16

The “4″ dad to the “1″ son

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:17 pm by Administrator

i’m getting nervous nowadays because my son is approaching a time in his life that was surely a turning point for me: the 5th grade. i daresay that the 5th grade was the single most formative year in my education—and perhaps because of this, some of my most vivid school memories were from that year.

it was a brand-new school for me that year, and i had to break into a whole new crowd. i still remember my “best friends”, our petty jealousies and arguments, and my failed bid to become a class officer. i played the violin at a bunch of school functions. i gained a reputation for being a nerd. that was the year that I gave a book report to my class on the medical condition “kwashiorkor”; it’s when I learned sentence diagramming; it’s when i came to really enjoy math and jumped two grade levels in that subject; and it’s when i met the woman who would become one of my top three favorite teachers of all time—my English teacher Mrs. Dennis. i didn’t win the “student of the year” award because i apparently wasn’t “well-rounded”. after that, i made it a point to be round. i read hard books. i wrote essays that proved my open-mindedness. i tried to write poetry. i kept on pushing the language skills until language became my obsession—and now i can’t remember what it felt like to love math.

even then, i was a “4″. a “4″ always fights to fit in, and 5th grade at Potomac Elementary was my formative experience because i won that fight, in my own way. discipline, hard work, academic exploration, and self-exploration were all important to me because i needed to achieve things in order to establish my niche and to maintain my “edge”. proving my smarts wasn’t my goal; surviving in a competitive, selective, and exclusive society was my goal, and i did what i did in order to make it in that society. a “4″ is always acutely sensitive to the values and demands of his environment, and i responded to that by seeking to be “the best”.

thereafter, i would always be self-motivated, questioning, and ambitious in a particular way. my parents never had to structure my time or push me to perform. the lessons i learned when i was eleven years old followed me for the rest of my life, for better and for worse. and to this day i still grapple with the ramifications of being the one who always has to win.

i look at my son, who is a “1″, and i recognize that he never will respond to the world the way that i have. while i was afraid of being excluded, he is afraid of being wrong. while i needed to assert myself in order to find security, he needs to test what’s true so that he can be right. my son is not going to be the deeply insecure, passionate, and highly competitive person that i am. and so i recognize that the 5th grade, while it may be no less formative, must be something entirely different for him.

there was an idea i once had about his education that seems more and more compelling with time. i think that he wants to know how the world really works. there’s a way to teach history and science together in a way that captures the spirit of our age, the underlying philosophy that drives our society, and i believe that this could be the language of learning that captures his imagination. i can sense it in broad strokes, but i’m not exactly sure how to make it happen. perhaps we take apart a car and build it together. or maybe we do that with a computer. or perhaps we drive out to those old defunct oil rigs in central los angeles, and we talk about where machines came from and why. there’s something about industrialization that fascinates him, and i think there’s a way to teach it to him that can help the “1″ inside of him recognize that the facts are never the fundamental reality. the facts are a derived reality. always, at the root of all things, there is a wish, a question, a dream. someone has to have that wish. someone has to have that dream. it could be anyone; it could be no one; or it could be him