Monday, February 28, 2011

Gratitude is . . .

. . . a life lived aware of the gifts.

. . . receiving the gifts with "thank you."

. . . taking time to ponder the gifts and the grace it implies.

. . . taking time to use the gifts with an eye toward good stewardship.

. . . not wasting the time the gifts afford.

. . . hard to express.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Bullying

[note: this is something I wrote a few months ago, when all this was in the news. It was intended for a specific audience and, for whatever reason, was never used. I ran across it and I decided that it was still worth sharing somewhere.]

I imagine many of you have seen recent news stories on teenagers committing suicide after having been bullied by schoolmates, one in nearby Spring. This has been weighing on my mind quite a lot. The current focus of the stories have been teens who are gay or are perceived to be gay (which makes it especially personal for me), but everyone knows there are a number of reasons bullies choose their targets. Weight, academic achievement, religion, economic status, fashion choices . . . these are just the ones that come to mind at the moment.

As a nerdy, fat, goody-two-shoes, sissy boy growing up rural Texas, you might assume I was a target of some bullying. The potential was certainly there, but when I read of what some kids are enduring (or not) these days, I cannot say I was seriously bullied. What I endured might be better categorized as being "picked on" now and then, but I was never the victim of physical violence and the verbal abuse was comparatively mild. No one ever told me I should go hang myself.

When I think back on why getting picked on never escalated to anything more serious, I can come up with only one answer: the adults in my life. The teachers at school, the adults at church, my parents and extended family—they didn't put up with the meanness that lies behind bullying. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I do not recall anyone really being bullied in my schools as I grew up. There were popular kids and unpopular kids, but not blatant abuse. It was a wonderfully safe place to grow up.

What breaks my heart most of all about the recent suicides is that these teenagers felt as if there were absolutely no adults they could turn to for protection. This is inconceivable to me. Had things gotten out of hand for me, there were any number of adults around I could have turned to for help. How do these teens not feel the same?

I have no children and only limited interaction with children. Since these recent news stories, however, I find myself paying more attention to the few kids around me, whether at church or in the store where I work or on the bus. I find myself listening to their language, how they treat one another as well as how they're treated. Kids should feel like there are adults around them who care and will protect them. If I ever hear something that is outright threatening, I pray that I have the courage to say something and the wisdom to say the right thing.

I ask that you, too, pay attention to the children and teens around you and step in if things are getting out of hand.

There is a YouTube video series from adults who were bullied as kids, telling kids that "It Gets Better." These are messages of hope and I applaud them. I also believe that kids shouldn't have to wait for it to get better. My encouragement for all adults is that we make it better. If a nerdy, fat, goody-two-shoes, sissy boy growing up in rural Texas can have a safe childhood thanks to the adults around him, surely every child can have one, too. The key to that sentence, however, is "the adults around." Let's be the adults around.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


This world.

Culture. Language. Stories.

We create it, and it in turn creates us.

Someone took the time to record the story of the man under the Bodhi tree.

Another man retreated to a cave near Mecca to await revelation, and the story ended up in a book.

Despite countless men dying cruelly on the Roman cross, the story of one such death is recorded in four well-distributed accounts.

And these stories have shaped cultures, changed lives, influenced decisions, created peoples.

A few weeks ago, I asked if it weren't time to start telling new stories. I believe it is, even as we continue to reckon with these old stories.

Because the stories we receive and the stories we tell shape the world around us, shape us. I grew up hearing stories of Jesus and it has shaped me, for good and ill, out of obedience and rebellion, and I do not know who I would be if I had grown up hearing stories of Muhammad or Siddhartha. The way the stories of Jesus were told to me, the language in which they were told, the context within which I heard them---all of these have unique impact on me. Hearing Lutheran Sunday school lessons in central Texas via the English language is undoubtedly different from hear the stories in Coptic, in an Egyptian desert. In either place, the community around me would have also been shaped by the stories as well, shaped by the storytelling style (colorful leaflets or oral tradtion?), language, human history.

These things are on my mind, cross my mind regularly. American Christianity lives in a tension of trying to engage the larger, commercial, capitalist culture and trying to set itself apart from it. Immersion or separation. Sometimes it's both. We immerse ourselves in the capitalist culture by setting up Christian shops and we separate ourselves from the mass media culture by setting up Christian shops. It's all a bit of a mess, and it's hard to tell where we really are in this world.

St. Paul would have us know that we are in the world but not of it. We are bound by, bound in the culture within which we find ourselves. It's as simple as trying to have a conversation with a teenager without knowing who Justin Bieber is or missing a reference because you don't recognize the name of a Super Bowl quarterback. To engage the world(s) that knows these things, we have to know something of them, too. We are in the world, a world we create with these cultural touchstones, and to engage that culture we need a passing knowledge of them.

But we need more imagination. I recently read this blog post and generally agree with what its author is saying, but I think there is one more step to it. The way the author writes about our failure of imagination is still a reaction to the culture. It's not leading the culture.

How do we lead the culture with our stories? How do we engage the world we're in without becoming of it?

I write stories and those stories are very much shaped by having grown up hearing stories about Jesus. Still, I acknowledge I'm writing in a tradition that is very much a part of the cultural tradition I've received---the literary short story. Is working within that tradition capitulating to the culture being of that world instead of merely in it? If I write a play (and that's distinct possibility), how do I exercise an imagination that it not of this world, but can still engage it?

Are these even important questions?

Stories explain the world and shape it at the same time. I think what I'm circling in on here is that I believe art-making can be a means for engaging the world, the larger culture, but if we are too quick to co-opt the world (as in, say, sales goals), will we be recognizable as being anything else but part of that culture?

I'm not sure I'm quite getting at what I'm trying to say.

So I'll close, echoing how I started.

We create culture, art, stories. The culture, art, and stories in turn create us.

Is it possible to get ahead of that cycle so that what we create creates a new creation?