Archive for November, 2005

Giving Money as Spiritual Formation?

You know, one of the first things that I look at in a church is how they handle collecting their money. Not just what they do with their money, but how they handle encouraging people to give. There’s something in how they do it that speaks to me about the character of their church. I understand that church buildings, any organization really, exists in the real world with real world expenditures, and so has to have some way to cover their bills. However, I’ve seen some truly galling money grabs in my day, and I’m sure many of us can’t help but think of slimy televangelists or other scam artists in sheep’s clothing using the Bible to convince people to empty their wallets.

When I have the chance, I like to church hop and get a feel for how other churches do things, if only so I don’t get locked into one idea of how church should be done. Unfortunately, even some churches that I know and respect have employed questionable tactics. One made a practice of posting it’s top ten tithers/contributors of the week, stirring up a strange sort of competition among its members. Members actually vied to be seen on the list. Another church would always end the service by having people march up to the front of the church, dismissed by pews, in order to give. I didn’t have as much a problem with that as I did the pastor calling out anyone who left before the giving portion of the service. [Okay, so my wife and I had the system down, waiting until the pastor ended his sermon in prayer, before making our break for it. However, the time to give shouldn’t be a time to fear or seek escape.]

Because of all of that baggage, sometimes I wonder if we’ve gone too far toward the opposite extreme to the point where we barely mention money or the time for offering. Though, I admit, I’m fairly comfortable with. I figure the shiny plate sitting in the back is enough of a reminder.

When we encourage people to give, the other thing that I don’t want to see happen is people being shackled with some new chain of false guilt. I grew up in a church where you were made to feel like a bad Christian if you didn’t start each day with Bible study and prayer time. Don’t get me wrong, both are good ideas. However, just as I know that the guilting mentality springs from the need for us to be disciplined about such things, it’s the whole reducing what should be the natural development of a relationship between you and God into some legalistic rule–some act of duty–that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

It overshadows how learning and praying should be a heart thing.

Giving is another such heart thing. We need to come to understand tithing as a process of spiritual formation. Something we do not only to support the work of the church, but also as a way of organizing even the financial parts of our lives around life with God. I see giving as a form of worship. Acknowledging that all that we have comes from God, so we set aside a portion. Sure, there are bills that have to get paid, but more importantly, we are called not only to receive, but also to give. One of the things we talk about is not having the values of this world; one such value being this consumer-mentality that our culture is driven by. Tithing reminds us to re-prioritize our spending habits. When we think about God and giving first, it helps breaks those chains, forming in us less the need to consume, and more the need to participate and bless others.

By giving, we tie ourselves as members of a community place by financially participating in that community. More importantly, we learn how to worship God in the ordinary acts of our lives.

Still, if you see me on television telling you how it’s God’s will that you give me money, someone put me out of my misery.

(I can’t wait for the discussion on this one)


Happy Not Quite a Mid-Life Crisis Day

[This has nothing to do with the fact that today is Jon’s birthday and posting one of my favorite blog entry’s of his is my way of saying “I love you” without having to actually buy anything]

Guest Blog by Jon Harp

Random thoughts…

I was thinking the other day of how much my life has seemed like a movie lately, when a disturbing thought occurred to me. In the movie of my life I wouldn’t be played by George Clooney or some other star, it would definitely be Ralph Macchio of “Karate Kid” fame. Sad, but true.

I have never understood why it is a pair of underwear, you wear just one at a time. Unless I’ve been doing it wrong all along.

There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but is it really worth the effort?

If you are a male age 25 or older, and you aren’t able to quote large portions of “The Godfather” I think you have some issues and are probably untrustworthy.

You know those Germans, they’re not all sunshine and lollipops.

In Christian Scientology all reality is made by agreement. I think we can all agree that L. Ron Hubbard is Tony Robbins masquerading as Benny Hinn.

Monkeys sell. I will probably buy any product endorsed by a chimp.

I don’t know who invented Cool Whip, but I would kiss that person full on the lips, irregardless of gender.

Irregardless is not a real word. It annoys me to no end when someone says irregardless.

Penguins make me laugh, giraffes make me smile, roaches make me shudder, koalas make me sad, and I am really suspicious of armadillos.

I love the word exquisite. I just don’t get to use it very often. “That Cool-whip ad with the monkey was just exquisite.”

Sooner or later, there won’t be a sooner or later.

“The little bastard shot me in the ass!” best movie line ever.

Suffering is inevitable, misery is a choice.

I really don’t like needles, I would be such an underachiever as a heroin addict. I would always be procrastinating getting high.

If there is a house band in hell, it will be Chicago. Nothing is more evil than Peter Cetera’s voice. Hounds of hell rejoice in the hearing.

I am so glad that I live in the time after someone came up with the idea of toilet paper.

Has anyone ever thought that clowns were cute and funny? Deeply disturbing is my definitition.

Sean Penn is a great actor, and Bono is a terrific frontman, but has anyone ever taken themselves more seriously?

You spin me right round baby, right round, like a record baby. round, round, round, round.

That’s it you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

[Jon Harp has known your usual host since the 5th grade. One would be tempted to say that he might be one of your host’s closest friends.]

Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Jerry Williamson Update

My grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She had spent her retirement years bouncing between England, Jamaica, and the United States visiting all of her children, but now that is impossible and she spends her days in Jamaica with several of my aunts. Reliving her childhood memories and prone to random rants, my grandmother is taken care of and made comfortable. Honored as the matriarch of our family, despite her inability to recognize even her own children most days. In a way, it’s good that there are so many miles separating us. If not good then convenient, because it allows me to dwell on the woman she was, the woman I remember, who was such a powerful figure in my life.

In a lot of ways, Jerry Williamson is just an old man in a nursing home. Sure, he’s a horror writing legend, however, I’ve only met him the one time, though I have read some of his work. It’s funny how easy it is to forget about people, to get caught up in the busyness of our own lives. The Indiana Horror Writers wanted to make a point of visiting Jerry during the holidays, but it’s difficult to coordinate schedules during this hectic time. I heard through a mutual friend of ours, Gary Braunbeck:

“I thought you should know that I spoke with Jerry’s sister over the weekend and it’s not looking good; his dementia is worsening, as is his physical condition, and the doctors don’t think it will be long now. They’re keeping him comfortable, and though he does still have periods of lucidity, they are now few and far between.”

I hate it when it takes the tragic realities of life to snap us out of our self-focused revelry. I ended up paying him a visit, though my visit was simply me sitting with him, listening to his labored breathing and intermittent muttering about his pain. I don’t know. It would be easy to rationalize about how I didn’t want to wake or disturb him. The truth is that I’m not good in these sort of situations. It’s not like I’m good with kids/teens or the elderly in the first place, but nursing homes terrify me. On top of that, it breaks my heart to see people in such a state, especially knowing there’s so little we can do for them. Lastly, there comes a point where words fail us, where communication can’t be had. I don’t even know how aware he was of me.

Being with Jerry reminded me of my grandmother and what I would want for her. I’m thankful that someone is there for her, to be with her, to let her know that she was still human. That when her dignity seems lost and her frailty laid bare, she still mattered. So that was my model. I prayed over him (the only other thing I know to do when words fail me) and sat with him. Because in the end, that’s all we can do: pray for one another and be there. I know that our group is planning another, fuller visit in a few weeks.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll have him with us, but writing as J.N. Williamson, we’ll always have his stories. And that’s how we’ll remember him. I know that’s the way I will.

What I’m Thankful For

Working with singles groups as long as I have, I have been privy to some of the advice well-intentioned married folk dole out from time to time. One such bit of advice went along the lines of whatever you find charming while you are dating are the things that will irritate the crap out of you when you’re married.

[If you’ll allow the digression, another bit of advice came while watching the first season of The West Wing on DVD, when the First Lady informed a staffer to “Never fall for the geniuses. They never sleep.” Not that in this sole instance of humility I’d call myself a genius, but the hour at which I am flogging my notepad would be clear evidence of at least my insomnia.]

Back to my point, I’d like to reverse engineer that bit of advice and list the things that I’m thankful for by measure of how much they are irritating the crap out of me right now:

1) My Muse. If been criticized for thinking too much (sentiments you may/probably will soon share when I start posting my thoughts on ontological blackness as well as postcolonial theology). I can’t help it. Still, here I am up late again (allow me to assure you that whatever time this is posted, I am still up, not waking up), tortured by story ideas, blog posts, and issues maybe 6 other people on the planet may care about. Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2) My Kids. They have taken to the habit of getting up in the middle of the night and sleeping at the foot of our bed like the dogs we never wanted. This wouldn’t be so bad, however, people with the last name Broaddus tend to love an entrance. A certain demand for notice that says “I am here, pay attention to me, and love me for the privilege.” Their entrance seems almost premeditated to coincide with the exact moment that I have gotten my brain to turn off for the evening. Thus bringing me back to full wakefulness. Kids, mind you, who stay up far too late and have way too much energy, and who long gave up on the idea of a nap, choosing instead to wring out every ounce of interest from life as possible. Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3) My Friends. Yeah, I said it. Friends, heck, family in general. You can’t choose your family, so people say, but I have as much choice with friends as I do family. So I could lump you all together as friends or as family either way, they are people God brought into my life. A collection of oddballs, misfits, and broken people, trying their best to muddle their way through life and, for some reason, choosing to drag me through it with them. Saddling me with the details of their lives, expecting me to help carry their burdens–even their self-created drama–as much as they do mine. All because we seek to love one another better.


Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

My First Ban

I just realized that I haven’t really talked a lot about my message board, and unfortunately, it is the act of my first banning from my board that marks the occasion. My message board began as an exercise in vanity-cum-marketing. Anticipating a fan base as my career grew, a writer has dreams to prepare for, I thought it an expedient idea. Of course, I started it when I had all of one story published. And I had no idea what to do with it.

The board quickly evolved as I saw it as a great way to carry on conversations. Not a bunch of people trying to convert each other to whatever “side” they believed be it political or religious, but a group of friends (one member dubbed them “frans” – friends/fans) coming together. Sure, I have things that I never tire of talking about (race related issues, spirituality, horror and writing), but I’ve tried to model it on boards that I’ve loved (especially the MBOTD, but also the Other Dark Place, the Red Light District, and Shocklines).

Other than be at least somewhat respectful, I had no real rules. I figured the group would have to be fairly tolerant because, well, it was my board and I can be an ass. Which also factored into why I appointed two moderators (also, in another vain writer’s dream, in anticipation of this board getting too large for me to constantly police). I followed comic book writer, Warren Ellis’ philosophy:

“And the reason I only use female moderators on boards is that I find women are better socialised and much smarter (and usually more level-headed) about interaction and discourse. Also, their presence tends to make a statement about the openness and non-locker-room-stench of a place.”

Now, I try to conduct myself in light of the belief that anyone can be reached. An often optimistic attitude, but, hey, a little bit of optimism never hurt anybody. It was why I let a well-reputed troll slide when he visited my board for a time [he shall go nameless because I think he gets too much brain/thread/post time as it is]. He posted a few times and then left, probably taking note that I count Janrae Frank and Brian Keene among my friends. But, yeah, part of me wanted to reach him, too.

I hate feeling like I’ve given up on someone, that someone can’t be reached. I know that my role in their lives isn’t the final arbiter of anything, but still, it bugs me. The frustrating part is when people refuse to listen and instead choose to rant on and on, aimlessly spewing bile all over the place, then spiraling into torrents of insults and nonsensical rambling. That is my definition of a troll. Trolls will not be tolerated. That’s my only rule and the reason why I had to ban a member from my board (she, too, shall remain nameless).

Still, I enjoy the conversations. Everyone else, trolls excepted, is welcome.

Comment on this bit of rantus interruptus anyway you want (I don’t know where you’re reading it from) but if you want to guarantee me seeing it, do so at my message board.

Faith Story

So one night at the World Fantasy Convention 2005, I was pulled aside by someone familiar with my work. He knew that I was both a Republican (despite my protestations of being the worst one ever) and a Christian and wanted to talk to me. He wasn’t interested in arguing or trying to convert me (or, more importantly, me converting him), but in a fascinating turn of events, he was only in trying to see why I believed what I believed and why. Not in a “justify what you believe” sort of way, but more in a “help me to understand your way of seeing things” sort of way.

We ended up talking about Jesus, religion, politics and philosophy without so much as a raised voice (or me pitching my novel to him, dang it!). The conversation also challenged me in a lot of areas. How do you explain faith to someone and the process of making it your own? And what do you say to someone who says “I want it, I just don’t buy it.” Someone who asks “how can you make faith your own”? Someone who says that they don’t believe in God, but every time he looks into the face of the woman he loves, he gets a glimpse of the fact that God must be out there.

Turns out that the gentleman in question was a voodoo practitioner because that is what he connected to. On the flip side, I recently received an e-mail from a friend of mine struggling with her spiritual journey from the Christian side of the faith coin. You see, she grew up in a Christian home, a home of faith, has always been the good girl, done all the good girl things, and now struggles with whether her faith is her own or if she has simply given into what she was brought up (or conditioned) to believe:

“I guess it’s becoming obvious that there really is no way to know that what you’re believing in is true. So really, you just have to make *a* decision and hope that you’re right. There’s really nothing more than that that any of us can do as far as determining what we believe about anything spiritual. So I guess I’m trying to figure out what decision to make about what to believe in. I’ve been brought up in an environment of faith, where it’s the norm to believe in what Christians believe in. But more and more questions have come to my mind lately. What about someone who grew up in a home where it wasn’t normal at all to believe what Christians believe? And what if they grew up wanting to determine the truth, but came to different conclusions than Christians have about God?

I know lots of people like this, and it’s hard to believe that a God that is really love would not allow them to receive the same privileges (heaven?) as Christians. Especially Christians who basically have blind faith – you know what I mean, those that grow up in the church and just believe because that’s where they’re placed and never even really go out in search of the truth on their own. It doesn’t quite jive with me that God would be like that.”

Look, we each are on our own spiritual journey. Guaranteed that the path and ways that I walk are going to look different than yours. And I’m certainly not afraid of questioning or afraid of anyone going through a period of questioning. Faith includes doubt. God is big enough for us to question, doubt, and wrestle with. In fact, He expects us to. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty. Once we have all the answers, for one thing, we tend to develop a terrible hubris. Secondly, we certainly don’t need God anymore (sort of makes you look at the story of Adam and Eve in a new light as to what their sin was).

For the record, I didn’t grow up in a faith-filled home. My father and his father before him were about as God neutral, even anti-God as you can get. [My father, in one particularly chilling conversation, once told me that he understood fully the choice he made living his life the way he wanted. He recognized the consequences and if that meant an eternity of hell, then so be it, but he at least got to live his life his way.] My mother talked about God on occasion, but I had no sense of her having a spiritual life until the last ten years or so. I did grow up in church nonetheless, but if you talk to any of the folks that I went to church with, they can attest that I kind of did things the hard way. However, I appreciate being allowed to question and figure things out for myself (though I admit, part of it meant testing other paths before coming back to this one). The bottom line is that you have to make your faith your own. Your family can’t believe for you, your friends can’t believe for you. Faith isn’t an inheritance, it is a treasure sought after.

The only thing that I can think of comparing faith to, and the best way to relate to faith, is love: Finding faith is like falling in love. There is an element of mystery to both, and let’s face it, in any proposition, we’re uncomfortable with mysteries, the “I don’t know”s. There are times while we are falling in love where we feel like we have been chosen and times where we choose to do it. Let me tell you, when I’ve fallen in love (each and every painful time), it has caught me off guard and swept me up. On the other hand, I’m not always in love with my wife. Somedays I am choosing to still love her.

Why you people keep asking me questions, I don’t know. Now I’ve got to think through what I believe and why. Though that will give me something to blog about over the next couple of days.

Dear Lone Negro Friend of Mine

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a racist. You know this, you’re one of my best friends and you know that I’ve never treated you any different. I’ve even had you over to my house. You know me: I don’t see color; people are people. I just didn’t know if anyone had ever done this, but I thought you were long overdue for this compliment: you’re different from other black people. You’re so well spoken. You’re not angry. I know that I’d have no problem if you dated a white woman (not related to me). So I wanted you to know that when I talk about “those” people, I don’t mean you. (Or [insert “other” name], the black guy that I work with. Maybe you know him?)

I know you hate it when people come to you expecting you to comment on stuff just because black people are involved somehow. That’s not me, however. The main reason that I wanted to get in touch with you is that I wanted to run an idea–not necessarily my opinion–by you about [Insert relevant issue of the day or runaway thread on a message board.] I don’t think some people get how oppressed we as white males are in this society. We are constantly blamed for everything and put upon for things that we haven’t done. Welfare is a handout. I don’t see why I should be forced to reward lazy people by giving them some of my hard earned money. I’ve never owned slaves, in fact, my ancestors weren’t even here during all of that. So it’s not like I, as a white male, have benefitted in society because of slavery. It was so long ago, and it’s not like you were a slave, so it’s not like you need reparations or whatever it is you people (well, not you, but you know what I mean–don’t be so sensitive) go on about.

If they’re so unhappy here, I don’t see why you don’t just go back to Africa. Why can’t they just be “Americans”? I’m tired of all this PC crap and people having such thin skins and no sense of humor.

Since we’re friends, and you know that I don’t hate you, I think that you should know that I think affirmative action is unfair. It’s reverse racism, because we, as white males, need our own classification of racism. The father of a friend of my second cousin on my mother’s side who I usually avoid at family reunions once got passed over for a promotion once. The job was given to this black woman who wasn’t as qualified.

I’ve heard you mention how you hate to answer questions that begin “why do black people?” Sheesh, some white people can be so lame. Luckily, I’m down (it is “down”, right? You people are so creative. I love that hippety hop stuff) with you. I’m still don’t think it’s fair that you get to use the N-word and I can’t (or why you can’t just celebrate Christmas like other Americans), but I can relate on so much other stuff. Tiger Woods. Will Smith. The Williams Sisters. Whitney Houston (until she got with Bobby Brown).

Please agree with me so that I can announce my opinions as vetted by an actual Negro that I know. Fo’ shizzle my nizzle (I love what you people do with language. I don’t mean you, you’re so well-spoken).

Now, can I touch your hair?


Friend of Black Person

I wish there were more people like you out there. We need more of that kind of diversity.

Did I mention that it’s not like I can tell the difference anyway. I don’t see color.

Diary of a Church Plant

A little over a year ago, I was approached to be a part of starting a new church, a plant from a church that I had attended for a few years and which I still worked with in their singles ministry. The hook being that the-man-who-would-be-head-pastor wanted this to be a multi-cultural church and if the church truly wanted to be multi-cultural, it had to begin with its leadership structure. So after talking with my wife and a few friends who were in full time ministry, I signed on. Maybe it would be better said that I held on, since it has been quite the roller coaster ride.

The plant started in earnest almost six months ago, when it was just the head pastor and myself. Over the next few months, we pulled together a launch team. It began with casting a vision for a church. After an exhaustive process, we finally chose a name (The Dwelling Place) and assembled the core values of what we wanted to be about as a church. Part of making sure the launch team was on the same page meant exploring things together, concepts that we may have taken for granted: what it means to become a disciple, how we view the Bible, what it means to be a part of community, eating meals together as a part of building community, thinking through the children’s ministry, and finally, what it means to be a missional church.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, yet lately I’ve been feeling rather discouraged. Though the subject of much discussion, we decided not to simply strike out on our own, partly for practical reasons (like support and even identification) and partly out of loyalty to our mother church. Our head pastor had been there for over ten years and wanted The Dwelling Place to be “birthed’ by the mother church that had nurtured so many of our launch team. We saw this as a way to continue on the mother church’s work in a way that it couldn’t because they were a large modern church. There is a whole culture and mindset that they can’t reach simply because the church doesn’t get them and doesn’t speak their language.

We came to realize that we risked falling into the same trap.

It’s easy to lose focus on what we should be about and instead get caught up in battles of “us vs. them,” even when the “them” is another church. To get caught up in the hubris of thinking that other churches don’t “get it” and that after a couple thousand years of church history, suddenly we have the right answers. It seemed like we became “about a building,” raising money, and playing at church … all the while forgetting to be a church. Our time was disproportionally spent on things other than reaching out and building relationships.

All the while forgetting about the lost.

You’ve got to wonder if the Holy Spirit has been directing people away from some of our churches. You know which ones. Those vortexes of religiosity more concerned with maintaining or growing their personal empires rather than having a vision for church planting and growing the kingdom.

Sure, things are a little tough, but I look at this as an experiment in doing church. Things don’t change unless people take risks. Being a multi-cultural church plant sounds nice, but the reality is that we’re building a church on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised, without denominational support. Too often, we don’t like lost, messy people. We want nice, “fixed” people a lot like us. We may struggle with sins, but they’re sins that sound nice to be struggling with, like “pride” (which would be great if we really struggled with them as opposed to paying them lip service). Basically, we want a comfortable church. One where others provide the service, we get spiritually entertained, and then go home. I can’t blame folks for wanting to be, and stay, comfortable. However, the lost aren’t being entertained by such services.

The other thing that we had to re-remember was that instead of waiting to “buy a church”, we already were a church. We were a group of people who come together for corporate worship, learning, and spiritual formation. We came together learn how to love God and love each other a little more. There are many ways to “do” church from the high church (the traditional, liturgical expression of church), to the house church (the small groups model) or even “fringe” church (like people who regularly hang out in coffee shops). Having deep ecclesiology means embracing all of these forms of church. We were simply looking for a place to serve since we have outgrown the house that we meet in.

The biggest take home lesson? Watching how a church operates, especially one of the larger ones, is much watching sausage being made: you don’t want to know how it’s done. The key is to realize that the church as an institution is like the people who make it up. Flawed. Broken vessels building and running broken institutions. And I try to extend the same grace I hope is extended to me when people notice just how screwed up I am. I echo C.S. Lewis’ sentiment in that rather than ask how Christians could behave that way, I wonder how much of a mess they would be if they weren’t Christian. Because I’d surely be a mess.

Well, messier.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’

“You can pray for a miracle and God may be hearing you.”

—from “I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy,” 50 Cent

One of the most over-used lines about hip-hop came from the lips of Public Enemy’s frontman, Chuck D, when he described rap music as the CNN of the streets. The thrust of his point was that if one truly wanted to know what was going on in the hearts of the inner city, all one had to do was listen to the music the inner city produced. Unfortunately, there was profit to be made in what would become known as “gangsta rap,” and soon the music spawned endless imitators, many of questionable talent, bordering on becoming a caricature of itself.

Enter 50 Cent.

09.jpg (56 K)Directed by Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot), Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is about coming to a crossroads, seeing two divergent paths in front of you, and choosing the best path for your life. The movie can’t escape the inevitable comparison to Hustle & Flow; too bad for Get Rich or Die Tryin’ that it isn’t as well done. The still-compelling story details the less-than-secret origin of 50 Cent (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), portraying Marcus aka “Young Caesar”: a young man with a drug-dealing mother, who never knew his father, who chooses to sell drugs on the streets, then survives a nine-gunshot-wound attempt on his life to become a multi-million album-selling rap artist. One of the problems with this movie is its own identity crisis, as it couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be Scarface/King of New York or 8 Mile.

The heart of the story revolves around Marcus trying to figure out how to be a man without a role model. He grew up without a father figure though he couldn’t escape his need for one; growing up as his girlfriend Charlene (Joy Bryant) fears for their child as “another little black boy with nobody to look up to.” Pretty much de rigeur for a world where the revered options of how to make it seem to be reduced to being a rapper, an athlete, or a drug dealer. Marcus can’t escape the lure of the streets, despite the negative effects of drug use as well as the love of family (from the grandparents who had taken him in). The questionable-at-best message at the heart of the movie depends on how you feel about the glorification of the rules of the street, especially done in so lackluster a fashion.

“Respect is the most important thing in life.” Majestic (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)

05.jpg (61 K)Besides the quest for a father, the other major theme within the movie is the endless search for respect. “You don’t need family. All you need is respect,” Majestic preaches, because when all you have is your name and your rep, your pride becomes of critical (if not overwhelming) importance. Following in the footsteps of his mother, Marcus chooses to enter the family business, surrounding himself with a crew dedicated to “getting paid and getting laid.” The street hustlethe rules of the game having changed with the influx of crack and real moneyinto the community provides whatever tenuous bonds of family he feels to offset the rage of the streets. So when his Grandpa (Sullivan Walker) asks “Who are you?”, the answer Marcus proudly proclaims is a “gangsta,” the ideal/hero of the streets. Or, to quote Bill Duke’s Levar, “God, Buddha, Allah all rolled up into one big nigga.” The gangsta has become the main image and role model that children know.

“Rule number five: Don’t show no love. Love will get you killed.” Majestic

06.jpg (71 K)There are rules to the game, the street hustle, rules reflecting the self-hatred that comes from living a nihilistic existence. Ghetto life is a reality, a cauldron of pain, anger, poverty, and injustice, where people live in conditions with limited opportunity, limited education and extreme poverty. And too often, a survival by any means necessary (take what you want, prey on whoever you need as long as you get yours) mentality pervades. There is a wholesale buy-in to a different set of modern, American values. Individualism, this “me first” narcissism which fragments community, is only one such value. “You a man, you don’t need nothing to see you through,” Majestic advises. Rampant materialism that shrivels peoples souls and empties their lives. Wanting the cars, the house, the clothes, the jewels, the gear, people have bought into a life not realizing that they chase illusion.

All the while forgetting that gold chains are still chains.

13.jpg (68 K)I’m reminded of this quote from C.S. Lewis (from Weight of Glory): Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

“You saved my life. Why?” (Marcus)
“I don’t know. It looked like it needed saving.” (Bama, Terrence Howard)

Marcus had it all, by street measurements, but he recognized that there was still something missing. Sadly, his epiphany arrived as he faced the moment of his death. When he knew he was about to die, he realized that he still expected his father to save him. The problem was that he was looking for the wrong father. The conclusion he comes to was that his life was every bit the tombmuch like the one his mother had created for herselfand he had to find his way out. His escape came in his ability to express himself, to make his mark: a kind of salvation through music. His “I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward” ethos aside, Marcus best summed that self-salvation scheme this way: “I’ve been looking for my father my whole life. And I realized that I was looking for me.”

22.jpg (68 K)The rules governing the streets makes sense if you don’t have God, the Father. Qoholet, the Teacher (the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, not to be confused with KRS-ONE) would call this lifestyle “vanity of vanities.” Put another way, if we pursue the things in this life “for merely human reasons, what have [we] gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (I Corinthians 15:32) We all need to see the need to walk away from our old lives and embrace a new one. We have to opt out of a worldview of selfishness, one that promotes the death cycle. We esteem prison life and values. We devalue women, sex, and relationships with hip hop values marketed as videos. A fascination with a death culture where one can sell poison, settle disputes with gunfire, in order to subsidize empty life on the way to an inevitably bloody demise. Instead, we ought to buy into a worldview that promotes dignity, work, marriage, family, and healthy community.

50 Cent is not an actor, but he is a charismatic figure. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is too long, with an often meandering script showing surprisingly little heart, as if it can’t quite reach its emotional core. Too often the movie felt like it was going through the cinematic motions (I won’t even comment on the ridiculous Rocky-like montage). However, there’s a good story somewhere in this mess of a film and themes very much worth wrestling with.

God Conversations Part II: Afraid to Become Christian

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations…. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” –C. S. Lewis

So while I was at the World Fantasy Convention 2005, a group of us were walking back from dinner only to be accosted by a contingent of Campus Crusaders shilling tracts and asking if we knew Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Well, let me clarify: everyone else got a tract. Either I had an aura of Saved! about me (despite my “you laugh now … but will you be laughing when I crawl out from under your bed” T-shirt) or they didn’t want my kind (I’ll be generous and say that my kind is a “horror guy” rather than repeat the “they don’t want black people in their heaven” joke that I made at the time).

Apparently I can’t be pleased. “Witness” to me and I’ll lecture you about the limited effectiveness of this approach, especially in a postmodern age. Don’t witness to me, and I’ll complain about you not wanting me (much like I did when my gay friend told me that even if I were gay, I wasn’t his type). Anyway, this got me to thinking about God conversations again, and how we go about having them.

The lesson that I keep relearning is that many times, people don’t so much have a problem with Jesus Christ, but more with some of the knuckleheads that run around in his name. Something I try to remember, though I don’t always comport myself as the best ambassador for Jesus. Behind the hostility I often see vented in some of the “non-Christian” circles that I run in is frustrated hope. Many people are open to spirituality, open to God, open to Jesus as a matter of fact, it’s the fanatical followers of religion that they have a problem with.

I think there is a bit of fear at the idea of becoming a Christian in the first place. Part of it is that people feel personally threatened when it comes to challenging their worldview/spirituality. You are essentially talking about the source of their identity and validity. Then there is the pain that many have experienced at the hands of the church. Beyond political systems using Christianity to further their own ends, there is a very real fear that becoming a Christian means becoming bigoted and brainwashed at worst; or people they are no longer able to unrelate to at best . I’ve spoken to people who say how they don’t want to become “Christian” or “Born Again” for fear of “living by faith” in place of common sense. Or, that they’d only learn how to hate others. Let’s face it, sometimes it seems that many Christians are mean-spirited, racist, afraid, bigoted, withdrawn into their ghettos. In fact, it seems that the longer they clock church time, the more of those things they become. How sad is that, that hate becomes our calling card?
Judgmental, insulting, stuck up, these have too often become the identifying markers of the “truly” Christian. What happened to “they will know we are Christians by our love”?

Or as my friend Kuroshii points out, “there’s a deeper problem with people like this … if you (not you Maurice, but a rhetorical you) find some flaw in my character or my life’s choices, and immediately set out to “correct” me (save me, change me) for the better…you are demonstrating your own inability to relate to anyone different than yourself. and this behavior rarely limits itself to just one (for example, spiritual path) aspect. so you’ll likely next try to “convert” me into someone that will sit down and be a good childbearing wife, and stop playing that wicked D&D;, and stop being friends with gays … Here’s a radical thought: Christ did lots of good things for many people who weren’t followers…and the MAJORITY chose to follow him by his actions, not by him saying ‘follow me or you’re going to hell.’ I seem to recall him going for the reward angle not the punishment angle anyway.”

Let’s listen to the “outsider” with the same respect and dignity that we give the “insider”. Matter of fact, we could stand to be silent for a while. Silence does three things: allows us to more clearly hear God, listen to others, and allow our good and loving deeds to speak for us. Donald Miller, in his wonderful book Blue Like Jazz, tells the story of the time he and his small band of Christian friends built a confession booth on the campus of Reed College, “the college where students are most likely to ignore God.” The story picks up like this:

“We are not actually going to accept confessions.” We all looked at him in confusion. He continued, “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.” … I wanted so desperately to apologize for the many ways I had misrepresented the Lord. I could feel that I had betrayed the Lord by judging, by not being willing to love the people he had loved and only giving lip service to issues of human rights … “There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix his spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, you know.”