Archive for February, 2006

What the Emerging Church is Not

In what ended up being not one of the finer hours for my message board, we were visited (read: plagued) with a troll who once offered this insightful critique of the emerging church movement. We could tell he was serious because he used TEH CAPS LOCK!1!


I don’t know how he researched our masturbation habits (though I must say, that certainly adds a new dimension should we ever consider developing a secret handshake), but I thought that I would try to actually engage him in conversation. Just as I’m sure this is exactly the kind of post that would make my emergent friends happy. Anyway, an actual emergent scholar, Scot McKnight gives a more cogent analysis of the Emergent Church movement in The Covenant Companion called “The Future or Fad: A Look at the Emerging Church Movement”. For those that have no idea what I am talking about when I refer to the “emerging church”, McKnight defines it this way:

So what exactly is the emerging movement—or the emerging church as it sometimes known—all about? It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focused less on theological niceties and more on “performing” the gospel in a local setting.

“Emerging movement” is an umbrella term that refers to a group of churches, pastors, writers, and bloggers who are exploring the missional significance of culture, philosophy, and theology in a postmodern context. Within the EM is the Emergent Village organization, largely an American group identified with Brian McLaren, Ivy Beckwith, Tim Keel, Chris Seay, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, and Karen Ward, along with Andrew Jones (a.k.a., the “Tall Skinny Kiwi”) who lives in the United Kingdom. Other emerging voices of sorts would be Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, and John Burke, author of No Perfect People Allowed.

Our church considers itself a

We join in the conversations, but have no interest in any of the faddish aspects that some folks tend to adopt in the name of being trendy. We describe our church as missional rather than emergent because here anymore, when you say emergent people either have preconceived notions of what you are about or have little idea what you’re about. [It didn’t take but a few encounters for me to come away thinking that “I have a pretty good idea of how it is perceived. A bunch of what amounts to Christian hippies; New Agers cloaked in Jesus. Self-stylized, post-modern, deconstructionists who hold to no absolute truths, no moral core, and don’t value Scripture.”]

The trap of such a perception–or worse, the reality–comes if a church, in the name of being different and relevant end up just changing the trappings of worship rather than the content. Worship isn’t about mood lighting or an acoustic guitar (or for that matter, a full worship band who has the volume set to 11). And I shouldn’t have to constantly sit through a series of Celtic influenced services where I come away thinking that Jesus was actually the Lord of the Riverdance.

Maybe it’s just me.

Or maybe not.

My friend Emergent Mosaic poses some interesting points illustrating his frustrations and concerns and thus why he’s leaning towards becoming post-emergent. I love the phrase “a generous ortho-praxis.”

I Am Somebody

Also, earlier this week I got one from somebody I like a lot and so rejected his story from Damned Nation with a somewhat heavy heart. I also sent him one of my rare personal emails explaining exactly what Dave and I thought the story’s strengths and weaknesses were, with advice on how it could be reworked for submission elsewhere. That was a while ago. He wrote this week to say that he’d taken the advice to heart and sent the resulting edit out and it looks like it’s gotten placed in a very cool market.

Yeah, I am that somebody.*

This is going to be one of those “appreciate good editors” blogs. I sent a story in for consideration for the Damned Nation anthology. As soon as I hit the send button, I was hit with this feeling of “crap, there is something wrong with the story.” (Why this feeling couldn’t hit me right before the feeling of “I crap gold, baby” euphoria that I usually get right before I hit the send button, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m reduced to yelling at my screen “information that would have been handy FIVE MINUTES AGO!”) Anyway, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong, but I had an idea of what the problem was. I had been working on a sermon (Putting Your Life Back Together After Its Been Blown to Crap and A Dark Night of the Soul) and had been wrestling with the themes of losing one’s faith and how one struggles through such crises of faith. Sure enough, I got a rejection letter. In it, Robert quite pointedly asked “were you working on a sermon when you wrote this?”

Hmm. Mayhaps my story might have been a little preachy (shut up Chesya!). A re-write was in order.

It’s rare that you get an editor willing to write a personal rejection/critique letter. I try not to begrudge editors for sending out form letters. When you get hit with hundreds or thousands of submissions, it’s hard to find the time to do personal rejections. They take up more time to do, and let’s face it, we writers are already complaining about the long response times as is. However, we also like feedback. Something to quell the voice inside us that says “if you don’t like my child, please tell me what is wrong. What’s wrong with my baby? Don’t let me send him out into the hostile world with some deformity that I can fix!!!” Or, maybe that’s just me. That’s a long way to go to say that some of my best/favorite rejection letters have been those when an editor took the time to tell me what was wrong with the story. You only improve if you know what to fix.

Rejection letters can be your best writing friends … once you get up from their initial punch.

The long and short of it is that I put together a much better story thanks to Robert and Dave. And, I just received the official acceptance letter today from the next market that I sent it to: Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams III (due out in 2007). I’ll give you the details about it closer to the publication date. It’s been a good month for me. This is the second story I’ve sold this month. More details on that other project later also.

*Of course, I’m not the first story rejected from the aforementioned anthology that ended up sold in another market. Nor apparently was I the only one with a personalized rejection letter. Luckily, we’re all friends. Kumbaya …

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.

Friday Night Date Place – Are You Ready to Date?

(Or “Should I move out of my mother’s basement?”)

Some of you may be wondering why I’m even bothering to write on this topic. It’s because a lot of my friends are single. More to the point, they are single and hating it. So, they turn to Christian dating books to find some sort of solace or purpose or method to success. What do they find? “Be patient, wait on God, and don’t have sex” or “courting is what the Bible intended for dating. And don’t have sex.” Too often, the underlying message seems to be “you won’t be complete until you get married” with the practical application of the message being … wait for it … “don’t have sex.” So I just thought that I’d try and write about some of the questions that I get all the time.

(The other reason I’m writing this: my niece just subscribed to me. I thought I’d give her something useful to read. Okay, that and it invariably stirs up crap on my message board. And I love a good dust up.)

At any rate, to be fair to the person you are going out with, figure out what you want to do before you start and let them know. You’d be surprised how much less complicated life gets with effective communication.

It has been my experience that older singles are that way for one of four reasons:
1. They are socially inept or (high maintenance/quirky) idiots. I know, it sounds harsh. Let me speak the truth in love: these are “extra grace” people, the ones who require extra grace on our part to put up with them. You know who I’m talking about. People like me.
2. They want to be. Look, not everyone feels this overwhelming desire to be married, be tied down, or breed. Impossible as it may seem, there are some people content to be single and living complete, fulfilled lives.
3. Their lifestyle or life place. Somehow or another, be it career or timing, it just hasn’t happened for them yet, despite their desire.
4. They have been thrust back into the game. Divorce and death are realities, either of which can find someone in the (unwanted) position of being back in the dating game. And the game has usually changed in their absence, making it all the more scary.

These are the ones who are especially tired, and really don’t have the patience or time, for the game of dating. These are the ones, with biological clocks ticking loudest in their ears, for whom sport or casual dating is a thing of the past. The ones who it is cruel to raise their expectations just because you are still flitting through life. It is for their sakes especially that I eventually came to the school of thought that each date should be taken with the “is this someone I could potentially marry” idea firmly in place. It helps keeps things in perspective.

Dating the right way means showing love at all times in all things. I guess that if there is one thing that should mark dating from a Christian worldview, it would be that. Dating should be free from using people, be it financially, socially, or sexually. Dating should never be an unloving (read: selfish) process.

Unselfish dating? Who ever heard of such a thing? Yeah, I know, life would be great if we all played by the same rules.

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.

Emancipation Proclamation for Writing

There comes a point when you have to see yourself as a real writer. Okay, I suppose “real” isn’t the right word, since any person committed to their craft is a “real” writer and I know that some will simply dismiss me as an elitist and thus not give me an ear. [They will be equally upset if I use the phrase “grown up writer”, but you know what I mean.] So, for the sake of convenience, I’ll say that there comes a point where you have to decide if you want to be a professional writer. There comes a point when you have to say to yourself “my work is worth more than ‘for the love’ markets.” It’s worth more than contributor copies and the promise (the lie) of exposure (unless by “exposure” you mean read by the other contributors and their friends and family).

You know what? Forget the tip-toeing around. You know who I’m talking about. If you have any doubts, if you find yourself suddenly defensive because you 1) publish your stories free online, 2) self-publish your work via vanity/subsidy houses (by whatever name they choose to call themselves), 3) toil in obscurity while calling it paying your dues while you get your name out there, then I’m talking about you. You can talk to me all you want about writing for the craft and for art’s sake, but if you were serious about that, you’d write your stories and put them in a drawer.

You submit to be read.

In our desire–sometimes blindingly overwhelming desire–to be read, we’ll submit and publish where ever we can. If only to “get our name out there.” It’s the writer’s hubris to believe that something they’ve written is worth being read by others. Believe me, I know. I just want to be real about it.

Can I talk to you for a minute? I mean, we’re family, right? Part of that sacred brotherhood known as writers? Here’s the thing: if a market is widely read, if it carries legitimate exposure, it can afford to pay you. (I’m talking genre markets here, not literary journals. Somehow literary journals have convinced us that the payment is the prestige in being published in them. We’ve bought that, so there’s no point discussing that.)

I’m fairly new to the writing industry, so I’ve tried to pay attention to people who have been in the game longer than I have. And, more importantly, learn from their mistakes. Let me tell you, talking to some of my friends about their ventures in self-publishing or laboring in “for the love” markets is like bringing up an actor’s porn past. If your goal is to be a professional writer, you should know better than this anyway. Submit to the top markets and work your way down. If your stories aren’t good enough to make it in paying markets, you probably don’t want them on your resume anyway. And that’s what your body of work is, your writing resume. I’ve experimented with royalty only anthologies, online publishers more for the experience than anything else. Literally. However, when I writer cover letters to prospective markets, agents, or editors, how many of them make my list of mentions? Zero.

So there it is. I’m done. It’s time to pursue things more seriously. I’m declaring myself free of submitting to for the love markets. That simple. I know that it’s scary for some of you because you’ve become convinced that that’s how you are supposed to come up. However, I’ve decided that my time and my talents are worth more than that. I have confidence in, or delusions about, my skill.
There may be the occasional exception, read: the rare favor for a friend, otherwise, I’ve set myself free. At some point you have to decide when you’re ready to set yourself free.

(Of course, it helps that my wife has declared that I can only go to as many conventions as my stories will pay for. And I’m not going to the next World Horror Convention on contributor copies or $10 per story. Let’s here it for practical spouses to help give us the occasional nudge.)

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.

The Journey Thus Far

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

If a person can have a theme prayer for their life, that’s mine. It echoes the prayer of a man whose son had been possessed by demons. Jesus had just told him, promised him, that “everything is possible for him who believes,” and the only thing the man had to offer up was his honest assessment: “Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.” That’s where I am. That’s where I’ve always been with my faith.

Some of you might have heard me tell my story as a part of the first sermon that I ever gave. For those that haven’t heard it, my part in my spiritual journey began when I was a child when my parents insisted that we (the kids) went to church … even if they didn’t. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and I started attending this fundamentalist church because that’s where our neighbors went and my folks sent us with them. My Sunday School teacher took an immediate liking to me. You have to understand, the class was full of a bunch of pastor’s kids (PKs), and they were bad. I, at least, paid attention (plus, I liked comic books and he was a big fan).

So one day while hanging out with him, he gives me the Christian sales pitch by leading me down the “Romans Road.” [For those who don’t know what this is, it is a series of verses in Romans that outlines the condition of man, the consequences of his conditions, and what he can do about getting reconciled back to God. The short version is Romans 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10]. I prayed the “sinners prayer”, I became “saved”, and lived happily ever after.

One, anyone who has been a Christian longer than five minutes knows the often bumpy journey that you set out on. Two, I will spare you a rant on how we go about evangelizing children. Though I will say, right now I could get my kids to parrot a prayer. They’re my kids, they want to please me. They aren’t stupid and can tell when I want them to do something, even if I’m not explicitly telling them to do so. They also could look around at church and see how much attention other kids get when they profess faith and get baptized. It’s not a big stretch to imagine them thinking “yeah, I want a slice of that.” Just like it shouldn’t take rocket science to tie together our early evangelism of children with why our teens fall from the faith right around high school/college, when they aren’t about pleasing their parents anymore.

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me state emphatically that I liked the church that I attended. I grew up there and respect the people a lot. I think it was the right place for me to be at that time in my faith. If there’s one thing a fundamentalist church can do, it’s instill discipline about your walk and the importance of Bible memorization. However, I was one of maybe three black people that attended the church. Unfortunately, that was compounded by the fact that when we first moved to our neighborhood, we were the only black family. On top of that, after my fourth grade year, I was yanked out of the mainstream program at school and placed in the “advanced” program.

The powers that be decided that there were only two black students that fit their criteria so for rest of my public school career, our group moved as a cohort through the system. I know I’m not telling anyone anything new, but it’s hard when you’re the only one (of anything), you’re a teenager, and you’re just trying to fit in with everyone else, to maintain a sense of cultural identity. The black kids shun you cause they think you’re trying to “act white.” The white kids, the ones your trying to fit in with since that’s your constant peer group, shun you because you’re not one of them or worse, adopt you as some sort of mascot. Which you happily accept because you convince yourself that at least it was a form of acceptance. It’s not a time I look back on too fondly.

(My wife didn’t fully appreciate this part of my story until I took her to our family reunion in Jamaica. When she was there, especially being new to the family and wanting to just fit in, she ate what we ate, did what we did, listened to what we listened to. When we went out, and you’re talking 200 of us strong, she was the only white person. When she turned on the television, she saw only black faces. When she went shopping or to the bank, it was only black faces there to help her. It was a wake up experience for her, and that was just one week.)

Well, then came 1989. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

By then, I was in college, still at my old church. This was a watershed year for me, probably the second most important year in my life after my salvation – all because of the movie Do the Right Thing. At its most basic level, the movie was about life in a black neighborhood, an injustice occurs, and the people have to make a choice about what the proper course of action should be. I don’t have the words to convey to you just how hard this movie hit me. By the end, I was left stunned, emotionally drained. It was like this voice was woken up in me that started whispering to me: “You’ve been brainwashed into thinking you’re one of them. You ain’t like them. They ain’t ever going to accept you as one of them. You’re always going to be an other. An outsider. You have to stick to your own.”

So I embarked on this new journey, where I’m trying to figure out who I am. And let me tell you, it was black. EVERY THING. And if you were white, it wasn’t easy to hang out with me. Even the music I listened to wasn’t just black, it was militant. My two favorite albums were It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. The classes I took? Black history. Black literature. Black music. The sociological process that I was undergoing was what some people call the Negro-to-Black Conversion experience.

All of this happened while I was having trouble in my walk with Christ. I was experiencing this kind of disconnect. I had all this head knowledge, but no heart action. The nagging question that haunted me was “what does saving faith look like?” I was worried about whether or not an intellectual assent to a set of facts was all there was to faith. And I was having issues with my church. Like I said, it was the right church for the right time in my walk, but you know when you are starting to outgrow a place. The church was no longer speaking to me with their seemingly narrow minds and meaningless rules. I thought that there had to be more to being spiritual than a lot of theological head knowledge mixed with a bunch of rules to live by. What was worse was that the church had become irrelevant in my life because I wasn’t seeing the love they talked about being lived out. They would always talk about being a neighborhood church, but would only reach out to the neighborhoods north, south and west of it. Two blocks east of it was a budding black neighborhood. So I was left wondering “Is this what God had in mind?” When a person is subjected to folks who confuse religion with God, it can cause that person to walk away from them both. So I left.

I did brief tours of other religions, staying long enough to ask “what would a saving faith look like?” not getting any sort of answer that made sense or felt right to me. Eventually, I fell in with the Nation of Islam. I wanted a religion that spoke to me, both culturally a
nd spiritually, but you have to know that the Nation of Islam is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. Of course, this also gives you an indication of where my head was at around this time. Even I didn’t know how much built up resentment I had in me. The Nation truly spoke to me.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You come from a proud race and you need to reclaim your pride.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to learn your culture, your history.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to pursue education and become self-sufficient.”

So how did I end up where I am now, on a path that led to me helping lead at The Dwelling Place? I’d like to say I had this great spiritual revelation, a rekindling of my love of the Gospel truth. And I did, it just took a different form than one you might expect. You see, the Nation of Islam kept talking.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to take care of your body, to become strong. And how do you start?

Don’t eat pork.”

Again, allow me to quote from one of my other favorite movies, Pulp Fiction. “Pork tastes good.” That was when I had one of the single greatest spiritual epiphanies of my life: “You know what, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep me from eating bacon.” That was the beginning of me re-thinking the spiritual path that I was on. I ended up at yet another crossroads in my journey.

I wanted to focus on my walk. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old church. Fair or not, I had equated their brand of Christianity with a pursuit of appearances. How much of what we do is about appearances, looking good–spiritually and otherwise–to those around us? It’s no wonder that the Bible ends up saying of religious Pharisees “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Faith doesn’t look like duty. No one wants duty. If I give a gift to my wife, I can’t tell her it’s “ because I’m supposed to. I’m your husband and it’s my duty.” My wife wants my heart, my love freely given; so my words and actions don’t mean a thing unless I’m doing it for the right reason. Faith has to mean something or else I’m just going through the spiritual motions.

Religious activity without heart is empty rituals.

What I needed, and continue to need, is a safe place to work out my answers. A place that would allow me and my faith to have these sort of questions and, more importantly, my doubts. You see the point of my faith isn’t Christianity; it’s knowing, following, and becoming more like Christ. Nor is the point to have unwavering faith. More often than not, our belief is mixed with our unbelief and not the perfect, unquestioning thing some people have made it out to be. That’s why that prayer sums up the story of my journey of faith in a nutshell.

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

Racism in Publishing?

A long time ago, I once posed the issue to the genre whether or not we, as black writers, would be better off trying to break into the largely ignored black (audience) market rather than concentrate on being well known in the horror community. Maybe the debate isn’t limited to whether or not black writers, as opposed to all of us horror writers, should pigeon-hole ourselves into the relatively small horror buying market that barely seems to keep the small presses afloat. After all, isn’t the point to reach as large an audience as possible? What is a black thing is the issue may be more important for us since we as black writers, we as a black audience, and our stories are largely ignored in the genre.

It seems that this discussion is being had all over the net and I’m still playing catch up on the recent furor. The recent iteration of this issue seems to be whether or not black writers should be automatically relegated to the black interest section of a bookstore, niche marketed to black people. As opposed to being marketed as a “mainstream” writer. [Actually, a variation of this argument rears its head within genre writing all the time – whether there should be a horror section or if horror works should simply be placed within general fiction.] Of course this is of special interest to me. Should one of my novels see print, should it be consigned solely to the horror section? The black interest section? Or marketed as a mainstream novel?

Here’s the question: If a publisher regards and treats an author differently simply because they’re black, not based on the content of the work they’ve created, is that publisher practicing racial discrimination or not?

The debate centers around the “African American Niche Market” or as it appears in praxis at my local Waldenbooks, the “black interest” section. That’s where you will typically find most of your black authors and books related to black culture or fiction revolving around black characters (“baby momma dramas”). The rub: when you are an author that could just as easily be marketed mainstream, do you want to be relegated to the niche? The thinking, by the marketing execs, is that there is a boom in the African-American market right now (similar to the seeming boom seen in the horror market right now).

Best-selling author, Tess Gerritsen has her take on it: As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, even though I’m Asian American, I write my books with a much wider audience in mind. Logically speaking, if your books are aimed at only 4% of the American population, your sales are screwed. To make the bestseller list requires that your sales penetration of that 4% slice of the market must be huge. You’d have to sell to every single Chinese auntie and cousin and every member of every Mah-jong club in America to even register a blip on the national lists. Sure, you might be a huge success in the Asian American market.

The bottom line: the niche market equals, pardon the pun, being ghetto-ized. I know that a lot of folks don’t mind this. Better to be a big fish in a small pond. I know that is the mentality of a lot of small press/self-publishing folks. I ain’t mad at you, that’s a choice that you’ve made. However, it is about having that choice. The boom might make it easier for first time black writers to get published, just like black only horror anthologies might make it easier for first time black horror writers to get published. Some folks might see that as some sort of affirmative action for writers (I always saw that as savvy marketing, growing the pie and bringing in new readers). Others, like Millenia Black, point out that publishing is a pro-white industry, with an inherent benefit given to white writers:

And to anyone who’s spitting at their screen in disagreement, let me direct you to the New York Times Best Seller’s List. Take a gander at that. Hell, go ahead and bookmark it. Every week, white authors command this list. It’s the Mecca of the publishing industry. 71 years and counting, and every single week, white authors dominate it.

I don’t think Caucasian authors fully appreciate the advantage they have simply because they’re white.

Despite the arguments made about how the Times list is compiled, the fact is, it reports on sales made in bookstores that have large “Fiction & Literature” & “New Release” sections—access to which black authors are denied because publishers have decided that what they write is automatically “African-American” fiction. Not commercial fiction. Not general fiction. Not marketable to 85% of the book-buying public. Not likely to make the New York Times Best Seller List.

[An interesting counterpoint to this argument can be read here]

Tess Gerritsen goes on to make the point that Another case in point is James Patterson, whose megaselling thrillers feature a black detective (even though the author himself is white.) The character’s race doesn’t hurt sales, which shows that, yes, white readers ARE happy to cross racial lines and read about black characters. Patterson’s photo is frequently missing from the books, so you’d have no idea what race he is. The important point: his books are marketed as MAINSTREAM fiction. You look at a Patterson book, and the main impression you get is that it’s going to be a scary ride. Not that this is a book about black characters.

I tried my best to sum up the salient points in this debate. However, I couldn’t leave out the fact that this isn’t just whining by black folks playing the race card.

What I don’t want to see is my stories relegated to a niche, no matter how much I love the niche and want to succeed in that niche (be it horror or “black interest”) simply based on my skin color. More on point, I don’t like the message, whether intentional or not, that my stories can only be related to by my people.

I’m going to write my stories, they will be specific to me, and I will trust that by making them personal from me, they will strike a universal chord in others. I’ll let folks know up front: I plan on having my picture on my book, not planning on hiding from readers, and my race won’t hurt my sales. I want to follow the Stephen Carter model: not marketed as a “black” book, but as a mainstream literary/thriller. Well, at the very least, it never hurts to be thinking ahead.

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.

Black Folks and the Winter Olympics

“Finally, tonight, the Winter Games. Count me among those who don’t like them and won’t watch them … Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the Winter Games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won … So if only to hasten the arrival of the day they’re done, when we can move on to March Madness — for God’s sake, let the games begin.”

You know, I hate to come down on a brother, but didn’t we lose Bryant Gumbel in the last Racial Draft? Didn’t we get Larry Bird and a third round draft choice to be named later? Okay, there are a lack of black people in the Winter Olympics. Is there a movement afoot of black folks lining up to play in the snow? There’s also a lack of black people in the polar bear clubs also. For a reason. I’m not exactly ready to march on Washington trying to re-live the glory days of the movement or anything. Heck, Chesya almost revoked my ghetto pass for mentioning curling in a conversation. To be fair, I am glued in front of my TV whenever the Jamaican hits the scene.

One day my co-workers dragged me to a bar, okay, “dragged” is a strong word. Anyway, this bar was on the south side of town, an area known to be more of a redneck haven at the time. A place where phrases like “yee-haw” and “you think you’re better than me” are regular battle cries. Now I was minding my own business, making the best of a surreal situation, when this complete stranger sidles up to me, the smell of cheap beer reeking from his pores, and says “do you know why black people don’t play hockey?” Let me tell you, visions of me fighting my way out of this club flashed through my head, but I ask “why?” The man smiles at me and says “there’s no way a brotha’s gonna get on a slick surface against 12 white guys with sticks.”

There you go: redneck wisdom.

Before you come to me seeking an opinion on this sort of stuff, know that I typically don’t have the energy or emotional resources to get all exorcized over every racial sleight or insensitive comment. Whenever we discuss race, we need to have thicker skins. Spare me your “it’s a double standard” and “if a white guy said that about black people” rants – yes it’s a double standard. “You” get the viable dream of good credit and socio-economic opportunities and “those people” get to get away with the occasional overstatement. Want to trade histories and social positions?

Free speech guarantees two things: 1) People are free to be as ignorant as they want to be and 2) that the age-old adage about people and their opinions is repeatedly proved. Free speech doesn’t guarantee your right to be heard or paid attention to.

Whenever folks yell racism at the drop of a hat–whether to prove your blackness or as a race-baiting politician/pontificator–it hurts the cause. There is racism and there is racism. If our battles are more wisely chosen, we end up exhausting ourselves over fairly meaningless battles.

That being said, I have a special message just for Bryant: brotha, your ghetto pass is intact. You bona fide. Now save that noise for the barber shop where it belongs. You know we feel you.

Since I don’t know where you are reading this, the best way to guarantee me seeing your comment is to post on my message board. Or simply drop by to say hi.

Friday Night Date Place – Why Date?

(Or “Why did God curse me with this need for intimacy?”)

I thought that this seemed like as good a place to start as any. For that matter, this seems like a perfectly valid question if we’re going to talk about dating. Why bother? Why get involved in the game, the silliness, the drama? Why put yourself through the emotional roller coaster over and over again? Why invest or risk so much of your self-esteem, self-image, and personal happiness on the possibility of going out with someone? Why do we end up defining ourselves, our well being, and our worth through the eyes of another? Why, as a friend put it, do we insist on continuing to date after so many heart wrenching, near life-destroying, pain-inducing, love experiences (and then remain hopeful that the next dating experience will be different)?

One word: intimacy.

We might as well ask why form friendships or any relationships at all. Everyone wants to be loved and be loved by someone. Everyone wants to know and be known by someone. When people speak of intimacy–trying to define what it is they are wanting–they talk about genuine trust, vulnerability, and transparency. They want to feel connected to someone. This sense of connectedness is a characteristic that we want in all of our close relationships. We want to share our lives, be accepted, and be intimate with others. Especially an other.

We are hard-wired for intimacy; we’re relational beings. Augustine spoke of a God-sized hole within each of us – essentially that is that built in need for intimacy. Just as there was an intra-Trinitarian intimacy before creation, so–as His image bearers–do we share this need for intimacy. The pursuit of intimacy is similar to our pursuit of God. We seek that communion, that connection with him as well as with others. God created us with a yearning for relationships from the beginning (Genesis 2:18) when He said “‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’”

Marriage, thus, should be the fullness of relationships, where our full humanity is realized.

Sure, a lot of what we are wanting can be satisfied with friendships, but let’s face it, we also want that special connectedness that comes with that one special someone. No matter how close you are to your friends, you aren’t going to want to bare your soul to each of them. No, baring of one’s self in any true way is reserved for a special few, and done completely for one.

In fact, ideally, relationships are about continuing to discover–and delighting in the discovery of–new things about that person. By both parties. Relationships require risk, because vulnerability calls for risk. It is rooted in trust and respect, because relationships are built on trust and respect. Intimacy, however, is a slow–and earned–process. There is no such thing as instant intimacy. Intimacy cannot be rushed nor based in sex (sex shouldn’t be confused with intimacy, nor does it guarantee intimacy. I say that because this is a common mistake made by men and women alike.)

There is no love without the possibility of rejection.

That’s the rub, the scary part of the prospect of dating: the inherent risk of the process. Love cannot be forced. Love isn’t safe, and is rife with the possibility, no, probability of pain, hurt, and even betrayal. As Christ showed on the cross, even the ultimate expression of love required suffering. And what would a Christian worldview examination of dating be without mentioning sin? Sin disrupts relationships and first broke intimacy. It is sin that causes fear of intimacy, as the fruit of sin is disappointment, fear, loneliness, a sense of alienation.

Back to us. We may believe that our self-worth or happiness shouldn’t be placed in the hands of another human being, but let’s be real: Our self-image and self-worth are often measured in how others see us (or, more often that not, how we think others see us) and this is especially true when it comes to dating. How often does the sting of rejection send us into a descending spiral of depression as we wonder “What’s wrong with me?” “Am I so horrible?” “Am I worth being loved?” “Will anyone ever love me?” We let people, rather than God, determine our value. This includes the church.

The church’s one foundation is … families. Too often, we have made the marriage and the family an idol. I have been to churches that prided themselves on their “Marriage and the Family Month”s, which wouldn’t fail to leave the singles in the congregation feel like unwanted citizens treading on family time (though, singles were appreciated: they were asked to volunteer for nursery duty so that real members could be a part of the services). On more than one occasion, the pastor was asked the straw man question “what should the focus of the church be?” To which he’d answer something along the lines of “developing people into models of Christ”, which would earn a stupified look from the asker who would gently correct the pastor “no, it’s to encourage and strengthen families.” Marriage and families are apparently what we should all aspire to, apparently regardless of what God has planned for our lives.

All that being said, you have to ask yourself: is it worth the risk?

You have to wrestle with the question for yourself. However, everything that makes life worth living, everything that we are called to be, everything that fulfills us as image bearers boils down to relationships. Relationship to God and to others.

Ultimately the answer to the question “why date?” is that we eventually want to have guilt free sex.

(*sigh* that last line was a joke, folks!)

On Black History Month and Valentine’s Day

Black History Month: Has it run its course?

It was created in 1926 by a Harvard professor intent on advancing knowledge of black Americans’ role in America. It was expanded 50 years later to encompass the wider role of black participation in the national life.

But in the 80th anniversary year of what has become Black History Month, a long-standing debate has reawakened, with some African Americans questioning its pertinence in the 21st century. Some see the February observance as a necessary check against the dominance of majority culture, and a vital reminder of everything African Americans have contributed to the nation.

For others, Black History Month is an anachronism that isolates the history of African Americans to a single month, reinforcing the very segregation the observance was intended to counteract. Comments made by Morgan Freeman in December have re-energized the debate, perhaps more impassioned than any since history professor Carter G. Woodson created the observance in 1926. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?” Freeman said in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “I don’t want a black history month. … Black history is American history.”

Black History Month isn’t the only such observance on the calendar. America’s tributes to African American achievement also include the seven-day observance of Kwanzaa in December, the national Martin Luther King holiday in January and Black Music Month in June.

80 years? I didn’t know how long Black History month has been celebrated. Now, I could go into how we have the shortest month of the year to contemplate black contributions to American history. Or, I could go on about how this is like historical segregation that only encourages people to relegate studying black history to one time of the year rather than making it a required part of our studies of American history. However, those are concerns for another day. Today I’m going to somehow tie this into Valentine’s Day because I’m too cheap to go out and buy my wife a card.

You know what? On the one hand, Black history month reminds me of C & E Christians – Christians who only show up at church on Christmas and Easter. It’s not like I have anything against any of the above occasions, and I appreciate as many people celebrating all of them as possible, it’s the mindset that bugs me. It’s almost as if they are saying that the rest of the year doesn’t matter. Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate Christmas and Easter. However, I try to have an integrative mindset, a simple philosophy of leading all of my life in light of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. Because, otherwise, everything else is empty rituals and we’re just going through the spiritual motions.

Which brings me to the other hand. I am all about remembrance. We have notoriously short memories and notoriously hard hearts and heads. We need rituals to draw our imaginations back to certain things, to stir our affections, to serve as reminders to what is important in life. Christmas and Easter shouldn’t be matters of fulfilling some sort of spiritual duty. No one wants duty; I believe that this includes God. He wants our hearts, our choice to love Him.

All of which brings me to Valentine’s Day. No one wants duty, least of all, my wife. I can’t just show up with roses and flower just because I think that I’m supposed to. “Hey honey, don’t worry about it. I’m your husband, it’s my duty.” You know what that gets me? The couch. And that’s the only thing I’ll be getting for a while. My wife wants my heart and my words and actions don’t mean a thing unless I’m doing it for the right reason. One of the fundamental rituals to the Christian faith is communion. This ritual of breaking of bread and sharing of wine is about remembering Christ – what his life and death meant. Without the why, without remembering what it is the wine and the bread are meant to symbolize, all I have is grape juice and nasty ass crackers.

Valentine’s Day is a ritual of memory for my wife. Those around us who have our affections. And taking the time to honor them.

Christmas and Easter are the Alpha and Omega of my faith. Black history is my story, the shared story of us, a story that doesn’t exist apart from any other story. My wife is my Valentine.

And I try to live my life in light of all of that.

Celebrate Black History Month.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

[Meanwhile, my wife thinks she’s funny.]

A Theology of Slavery Part II

If the story of the Bible is one of God slowly wooing humanity back to him, reaching us where we are dealing with us as we are, then that casts a new light on how we ought to view many of our Bible stories. When I turn to the Old Testament and try to make sense of the Canaanite slaughter, I imagine a people being met where they were, not quite ready for the leap to love your enemies and your neighbor like yourself. When I turn to the New Testament, I see Paul unable to imagine a world that could transcend their social order even as he sought to alleviate the worst of the abuses. However, I also recognize that this argument presents quite the slippery slope. It doesn’t take long to get to the issue of where does that end? The same with the issue of our interpretation of Scripture changing because society decides that something that was acceptable was now in fact wrong. Does that change what the Bible says or simply how we interpret what the Bible has to say?

Some commands in Scripture are time bound and culturally limited. It is dangerous to ignore the voice and lessons of tradition. At the same time, we need to recognize when it is time to jettison traditional beliefs. Culture shouldn’t determine theology, but the impact of culture on the biblical writers and all biblical interpreters (us) shouldn’t be ignored. Gospel has power to transform individual and society.

The Old and New Testaments regulates, but doesn’t approve of, slavery. The same could be said about divorce. Slavery was a social institution created by sinful men, a purely human invention that continues to this day with far too little comment from the church, which could be abolished. No social order should be taken as God given. Culture changes and good theology has to lead to right action. The Bible is a historical revelation in narrative form. It has a historical-cultural context that it works within. We were all are made in the image and likeness of God, created with inherent worth and dignity.

History shows us that religion follows the military: conquerors impose their religion on the conquered. Sometimes it takes God moving in history to bring social change. God is the Great Emancipator, the freedom giver. Christ came as a Liberator; in Him there is neither slave nor free. Anything that undermines that needs to be questioned. . God would have to stand opposed to system and culture of slave masters. Usurp power to define humanity on the assumptions of white superiority, notions of Empire, or Manifest Destiny.

It boils down to this recurring idea that has been nagging at me: you can’t separate ideas from social reality. The Quakers, Benjamin Lay (1736), called slavery “a hellish practice … the greatest sin in the world.” John Wesley soon followed their lead. Eventually the church became the driving force in the abolition movement. In the mean time, there were consequences to be had.

As mentioned before, black people had to have permission to marry and permission to have kids. The power of ownership extended not only to a lack of power over our own names, but also in our choice of religion. Christianity, the white man’s religion, was foisted upon black folks in the guise of evangelizing the heathens, but more to continue the mental and spiritual conditioning already at work inherent as a part of the institution of slavery. Many folks, understandably, couldn’t reconcile their religious faith with reality of their current bondage, seeing religion as an opiate meant to keep them passive–praying to a silent, indifferent God for refuge. This in turn led to answers being sought in places other than Christianity – political solutions, self-determination, alternative religions (Islam), economic solutions.

Within Christianity, the religion was co-opted as a means of mental and spiritual survival. We saw the creation of the black church, believing that God is relevant to black life in a white society. God’s ways, while mysterious, would vindicate the unjust suffering. The key was to start kingdom living now. Jesus inspired courage and strength to hold on, representing God’s active presence in our lives.

Christ is the freedom-bringer and we were created for freedom.

“You are always righteous, O LORD,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?” –Jeremiah 12:1

Slavery, as practiced in the Americas, must be seen as our holocaust. This brings me back to slavery and the problem of evil. Evil is under the aegis of God’s sovereignty. Reconciling God’s justice with humanity’s suffering used to be answered by saying that the suffering/judgment was in proportion to your sin (and sadly, still is in light of many reactions to modern day tragedies and disasters). “God reaching people where they were” – maybe that explains things like the Canaanite genocide, maybe not. Qoholet, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes (9:2, 11-12) reminds us that God is transcendent, his ways hidden from ours. Suffering is a test of faith through which you find out what you are made of. These latter answers also prove unsatisfying (however true, unlike the previous answers to the theodicy) that we are still left asking why and how this can be (Habakkuk 1:13).

As I read the story of Israel’s faith in the promise of God, the faith in the promise carried them through times of slavery, exodus, kingdom, exile, and return. God didn’t always intervene or liberate, and definitely not in ways they could always see or understand. He allowed the suffering of the innocent. He allowed the subjugation of His chosen people. And not always did they understand. Psalms 94:3 points to a practical implications about evil/suffering: not why does it exist, but questioning why it seems to hit the wrong people.

Therefore the problem of evil solved: not in why does it exist, but in what God has done about it. God identifies with the poor and those in pain, liberating them from injustice. The promise of resurrection gives them hope and grounds to struggle for freedom. Like the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah, Israel (and Black folks) identified with the idea of God’s visible presence alongside them during times of suffering. Through Christ becoming the Suffering Servant, suffering became redemptive. Christ’s mission was to free us from sin: individual sin and social sin. Suffering arising from the struggle for freedom is liberating, providing a vision of freedom. Not a “pie in the sky when you die” vision, but the kingdom age bursting into our present. It’s easy to let the problem of evil become a matter of intellectual theory, philosophical points to be debated, that paralyze us into inaction. Rather, the answers can be found through social praxis.

Our mission is to join with His, to relieve suffering and fight injustice because evil is real and ongoing. We need to never foget and join with our brothers and sisters to ensure the promise of “never again.”