Cynicism, Irony, and the Application of Charity

The aging couple was introduced to the church body. Long-term missionaries, they had served (or was it survived?) West Africa for over twenty years. I considered the statement, but instead of allowing space for a holy wow, my thoughts turned to more negative notions.

How does a woman wear tired like an accessory, a man’s carry sorrow like a knapsack?

How many churches wanted a piece of their story in the early days, before the results weren’t quite so world-changing as expected?

Certainly, there were colonial implications to their work; weren’t they the embodiment of the “great white hope?”

Was this a complicit, parasitic relationship?

What does a couple do when their entire economy–their occupation, health, and home–is threatened by a ravaging disease, and why does God not eradicate the scourge?

How does the church economy value their effort, really? Can a relief worker return to the church economy after the work is completed? Will there be money for transition, for reintegration?

I tuned the questions out, took a minute to survey the room. I noted a gussied up hypocrite or two. I am a lawyer during the week, which allows me a window into the secrets of others. Some have tax issues; others nurse failing businesses. Some are contract-breacher; others are trespassers. I noted all of this less from a position of judgment, and more from a position of juxtaposition. Oh, the irony of we who lift our hands on Sunday, and scoop them into the mud on Monday.

This is my church. And though the noting of their hypocrisies were convenient in the moment, in all honesty I must confess–I am them.

How often have I contributed to the burnout of the missionary, given the promise that I would visit, or call, or support, only to renege? How often have I spoken holy words on Sunday, only to utter curses on Monday? Have I been the contract-breacher, at least in the metaphorical sense? There is no doubt.

They say that the younger generation is leaving the church in droves. Recent reports show that attendance for the Southern Baptist Church (the church of my youth) has been on the decline for seven years. Article after article discusses the mass-exodus of millennials from the church.  I don’t need statistics or articles to tell me what I already know, though—church attendance is down because my generation has become consumed with cynicism and a taste for pointing out hypocritical ironies.

Yesterday, I considered my own cynicism, my own penchant for noticing the hypocrisy of my fellow church attendees. I asked myself, “how does it feel to carry this load of negativity?” and the answer was “not so good.” So, I did that thing that the good book teaches us to do when the darkness of our own hearts creeps up on us. I simply uttered, “I’m done with all of that; teach me to love.”

Then, in a sort of Brave New World altar-building experience, I tweeted:

I tweeted this during church, mind you, so I didn’t expect much of a response. Apparently, though, I am not the only person tweeting during church. (Counterpoint: perhaps everyone really has left church and they are all sitting at home tweeting Brave New Church thoughts?) The tweet was retweeted, began to build momentum, and as it began to make the rounds a few thoughts occurred to me.

Maybe the millennial church, if only a small minority, is tired of the cynicism and the noting of hypocritical ironies.

Maybe we’re all ready to walk in a better, more hopeful way.

Even if it’s just a minority of folks, maybe we can lock arms, sing a few hymns, and decide that we’ve had enough of all of the negativity.

Perhaps we can live toward the coming kingdom.

These might be pipe dreams, and I’m not suggesting that we should not ask hard questions and push against hypocrisy. Isn’t there a way, though, to move from the default position of cynic to the default position of wow. Maybe it begins with extending charity to those around us, with the recognition of the beautiful people of both the local congregation and the church at large. That’s my best guess, anyway. To that end, and in an attempt to make a personal shift, I pray in the words of St. Francis, “mighty God, great and glorious, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Grant me, Lord… a perfect charity.”

And if I’m employing proper scriptural imagination, my best guess is that perfect charity will drive out cynicism. Let it be.

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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Friday Journal: The World Keeps A’Working

It’s been a peaceful time here at the Tiny Farm. Last weekend, Titus and I walked the property with my camera, and we tried to capture the close of summer and the coming autumn. We are in a season of change, there is no doubt.

The pears have been picked–at least for the most part. The few stragglers cling to the trees for dear life, turn brown as the worms suck their life from the inside out, as the moths feast on the leathery, sun-tanned skin from the outside in. Every living thing eats; every living thing dies. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “and so it goes.”

Though a harvest-wasting pestilence, the pear-munching moths are a beautiful subject matter. Their wings resemble the inner-workings of a lava lamp. Waxy, round bubbles rise from the base of their wings. These moths find the deadest pears, the ones whose carcasses are easiest pickings for their winged-coyote jowls. A friend told me once that moths and coyotes should be dispatched before they reproduce. Call me a romantic, but I’d rather document than dispatch.

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One of the pear trees has been stricken by a blight. We intend to call the tree doctor and an arborist, but the truth is, this one has one root in the grave. Of dating relationships, my uncle used to say, “when the horse is dead, dismount.” I think the same analogy applies to sickly pear trees. I don’t expect to see this one next year unless it’s in the wood-burning stove.

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The hazelnuts have clustered up together like green, leafy grapes. Truth is, I’ve never had a hazelnut tree, and I’m not quite sure when to pick the fruit of its effort. I looked them over for pestilence, but they appear disease and bug free. This might be a minor miracle, but then again, it might just be the nature of this exotic shrub-like tree.

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The thistles have dried up and turned to prickly skulls atop wispy bones. Titus broke the skulls off, cracked them open to reveal what looked like hair growing from the inside down to the tufted seedbed. He scattered the tufted seeds to the wind and laughed without consideration of the fact that he is planting thistles in my yard. I let him have a go at it despite the fact that this will likely create weed control problems in the next spring season. The way I see it, though, the wonder of 3 is a once in a lifetime thing, and it only lasts for a year. I’d rather not crush that wonder.

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Past the thistles, the last of the flowers are hanging on. I don’t expect they’ll make it more than a few weeks. I tried my best to take them in, but in the process,  Amber called through the open window. “Seth, could you help me with…” she said, and Titus and I turned toward the door, turned to the practical nuts-and-bolts of maintaining a house. The insects and seeds to continued their small work on the Tiny Farm.

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This piece of Ozark land has been working itself for many years now; I expect it will keep working itself for many more. I’m grateful for it.

BOOKS:

I noticed a roughed up copy of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, The Last Self-Help Book, on the bookshelf last night, pulled it down for sharts and giggles. If you haven’t read much Percy, I recommend it. According to the book cover, in 1983 the New York Times said that the book was “charming, whimsical, slyly profound.” Boy, were they right.

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As an aside, I’d love to package a novel in this old, pocket paperback style one day. There’s something about holding this book that conjures a sense of nostalgia, and the near-hieroglyphic artwork on the cover ushers you back to a time before the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers. As an aside to the aside, let me encourage you to do a book a favor–visit your local used bookstore and pick up an old pocket paperback (perhaps of the Sci-Fi genre); you’ll be glad you did.

LINKS:

Next month, my good friend and fellow writer Preston Yancey is letting releasing his first book, Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again. I’ve read Tables and let me tell you something–that Preston Yancey can turn a phrase. Is this a book for those who struggle of fitting into their current church setting? Yes. Is it a book for the angsty, college student who’s processing his or her place within the church family at large? Yes. Is it a book for Anglicans? Most definitely. The truth is, though, it’s a journey book, a coming of age book, a book for everyone.

If you like a good story, fine word pictures, and some musings on the efficacy of holy icons, PREORDER TablesYou’ll be glad. I promise.

MUSIC:

There are few groups I enjoy this much.

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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5 Presence Practices

This summer, Amber and I traveled to Tuscany with a group of fellow writers. It was an eclectic group; there was a semi-conservative Baptist minister, a progressive author from Salt Lake City, an author and travel writer from Portland, a missionary, a millennial, and us. Though a few of us were friends, the group was, for the most part, composed of strangers.

When traveling with strangers–whether on an international tour, or on a local church mission trip or humanitarian relief excursion–connection can be awkward. You may find the newness of your experience coupled with the awkwardness of greasing the conversational skids creates a sort of discombobulating perfect storm. And in this perfect storm, there is a great temptation to check out, to distract yourself, to turn to the things that are familiar–things like social media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, or the book you packed in your carry-on luggage.

This, of course, is not a temptation limited to international travel with strangers. This is the great temptation of the day.

We live in a state of modern disconnection, our lives fragmented from the present reality by the virtual or fantastical. A colleague comes into your office, and you fail to look up from your iPhone. In conversation with your spouse, a text message pops up on your screen, and you reach for your phone with near animal instinct. The waitress brings your your food, and you do not look up from the CNN app on your tablet to thank her, nor do you notice the arrangement of food on the plate before digging in. As Henri Nouwen wrote,

“In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other.”

We are all fellow travelers here, whether we’re traveling through Tuscany, or the mundane 8-5 shift of the day. The goal of that traveling, I think, is to recognize the presence of God around us, and to be present with each other. And allow me to make this disclaimer: I’ve developed my own practices of fragmentation and un-presence. That being said, here are a few practices that may help increase our practice of presence.

5 Presence Practices

1. Delete Apps. (GASP!)

If there is one thing that distracts me from recognizing the presence of God and from being present with those around me, it’s the constant buzzing of my iPhone. Last week, I tried to shut off all notification hoping that this would somehow keep me from constantly looking at the ever-present stream of communication crossing my device. Alas, I am a weak man, and checked my apps during every spare moment, including conversational lulls. I am addicted to my apps.

Just a few years ago, we humans traversed this one life just fine without constant communication. Now, it’s become part of the milieu of our fragmented society. Delete the apps for a day and be fully engaged with the world around you. See how you feel without the constant buzzing distractions.

2. Look up  from your phone.

I know that the news is important, that the Facebook message you just received from your friend in Kalamazoo deserves a good laugh. I’m sure that the tweet mentioning you just launched you into the vaunted viral stratosphere. I know that work is buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, and that you have to answer just one last email. You keep saying, “this is it, I promise,” as if the emphatic tone somehow denotes that it really is the last notification, tweet, or email you’ll answer while we’re at the lunch table.

Stop. Put the phone face down. Ignore the news alerts and look at your traveling companions.

3. Listen to others.

Listening is a learned skill, one which, if I’m honest, I’ve not honed as well as I would like. Allow me to suggest a few listening observations: (1) if you are listening while typing a text message, you are not listening; (2) if you are listening while scrolling through your Facebook feed, you are probably not listening; (3) if you are listening while thinking of what to say next, or how to turn the conversation to your own topic du jour, you are definitely not listening.

Listen to those around you. Give them your undivided attention. See how this practice affects your presence.

4. Describe your experience with words

Presence requires communication, and though some communication is non-verbal, language is our primary medium of conveying messages. Language matters. Stretch yourself to describe your experiences in the most descriptive terms possible. Is the cheese good, or is it musky, smokey, perhaps a touch sweet? Is the mountain big or does it stretch above the tree line, just over the tops of the low clouds. More descriptive language draws us deeper into the present experience. Descriptive language requires us to be observant and creative; in a word, it requires us to be present.

5. Compromise

Presence with your fellow travelers requires compromise. Your sojourner is tired and needs a minute to rest? Find a coffee bar, order a couple of macchiatos and converse. Your co-worker needs a little help with a pressing deadline and they are loosing their stuff trying to get it done? Ask whether you can help, listen as they describe the goals of the project.

The ability to compromise shows our willingness to serve our fellow travelers. Compromise with joy, peace, and patience. Serve because you want to be present.

These are not the easiest presence practices, I know. In fact, I’m struggling my way through practices 1 and 2. But the little things make a big difference, and allow us to experience the presence of God in each other. Consider employing these presence practices, and feel free to share some of your own with me.

Now, go forth and be present.

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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Viral Blog Posts or Local Liturgy?

There was a time when I hoped to write the great American novel, the one studied by students in universities forty years from now. There was a time when I hoped to write the definitive poem on the present American context. And if these were too much to ask, I harbored a secret hope to write at least one viral blog post, a post that took on a life of its own, one that was picked up by CNN, or The Huffington Post, or Christianity Today. It’s the goal of every writer, after all, to have his words recognized.

Make no mistake, I would love to participate in the success of larger-than-life novels, definitive poems, and viral blog posts. These days, though, my writing goals have begun a sort of slow shift.

A few months ago, I was reading the Wendell Berry essay, “Wallace Stegner and the Great Community.” The essay, as the title denotes, is a celebration of Wallace Stegner, a Stanford professor and author best described by Berry as a regional writer. Of Stegner, Berry writes that he was a “naturally… reticent man, not given to self-revelation or self-advertisement….” From that humble position, Stegner was content to focus his literary efforts on the exploration of his local context, and wrote primarily of the American west. Of regional writing, and the lessons learned from Stegner, Berry writes, “if one both lives and writes in one’s region, one becomes aware of good reasons to be more watchful and more careful.”

This leads me to the crux of it. Once I hoped that I could pen a few viral words, and on some days, I still nurse those hopes. Lately, though, I’ve been considering the concept of regional writing. I’ve been considering working within the local church to create and curate readable, relatable, yet stretching liturgical pieces. These aren’t the words that will make a man famous, there is no doubt. But this quieter work feels small and right. It is the kind of work that gives a congregational artist “good reason[] to be more watchful and more careful.”

In the last month, I’ve written pieces for my local church body and for an ecumenical gathering. The pieces grew from a particular American context–the Ozark region to be exact–and were offered to the people of that region. I’ve had the joy to both read, and watch the pieces be read over those congregations. I’ve felt the deep sense of connection between the words and the people. I’ve had conversations after both services about the words, how the participants enjoyed them, or disagreed with them, or felt the tension in them. These interactions were not comments in a viral blog post; instead, they were honest-to-God, in-the-flesh human interactions. There was give-and-take, push and pull.

I was privileged to share two poems at my home congregation yesterday. We were in the gospel of Luke, and discussing the concept of the Kingdom of God. Had you been there, this is one of the pieces you would have heard:

“Cash is King,” they say,
and if this is so,
the kingdom is the market
where we, princes and paupers
are made subjects.
It is an envious,
green king,
which bends us
only to our own desire.

“Democracy is King,”
the patriot says;
this is coarse metaphor.
By it, he means only
that most effective
rule is best centered
in the will of the
majority,
in the ability to
judge ourselves
as just.

“Elvis is King,”
the folks from Memphis say.
He was a man
fueled by fried
peanut butter
banana, and bacon,
by Rock and Roll,
by pills.
He was benevolent?
Maybe.
A slob?
Perhaps.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not a green kingdom
that leads only to temptation.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not the kingdom of liberty
that knows only men’s will.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come;
not the kingdom of suede,
of cardiac sandwiches.

Come Kingdom, Kingdom Come!
With reshaping power,
with glory to silence
all rock cries, come!

Come a conduit
from heaven’s coffers;
Come with a level
for the rich and poor
alike!

Come like the seed
of forgiveness,
the speck that’s
planted small and
sprouts into
the eternal tree of life
come!

Come with a new,
lasting language,
that bends every knee,
cypress and human alike.

It seems to me that the best use of our gifts is first within the local context. Perhaps those gifts will one day reach the masses, will spread far and wide and make our names and faces well known, but that isn’t the primary goal. The goal is something smaller, something eternally more humble, something that starts small like a seed planted in local soil (be it Ozarkan, Californian, or Appalachian) and grows into a well-rooted tree.

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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Friday Journal: Tiny Farm, Tiny World.

It’s been a good week here at the little farm. A neighbor from a few doors down, Buddy, stopped by with his tractor, asked us whether we’d like to have our corn rows cut. The stalks had browned up, and where lush, productive arms had once reached toward the God of the Ozarks, there were only gnarled bones. Amber told Buddy to have at it, and he was down lickety-split with his tractor. He made short work of those dried-up stalks.

Buddy left behind an empty garden plot. The summer’s vegetation gone, only a few rooting vegetables now lag behind. The boys make good use of the shovels and spades, digging out what’s left of the sweet potatoes. Isaac works the big shovel, smiles ear to ear when he hits a run of potatoes and says, “look daddy! I found a big one!” The sweet potatoes are, for the most part, small, and so one the size of a nine-year-old fist is a gem of a find.

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Isaac asks nearly every day whether we can have sweet potatoes for supper. I laugh, tell him he’s likely the only child in the history of the world who’s begged this much for sweet potatoes. He tells me he’s just so proud of his work and wants to taste the product of his labor. His words are a tangible reminder of why we moved to this tiny farm in the first place.

“Let’s teach our children to work some land, to see their effort produce something tangible” Amber said when she first saw the listing for the tiny farm. “Yes,” I replied, “let’s.” That was nearly two months ago, and today, we’re here. And though we thought we’d have to wait until next summer’s harvest for this place to pay off, the previous owner left us the gift of sweet potatoes (and a few watermelons) so that we could taste our dream early.

But it’s not all work and no play around here. Our next-door neighbor is a kind and quiet church. They have a basketball court behind the sanctuary, and have given us a standing offer to use it whenever we like. Their property joins ours directly, and in the evenings we walk across the gravel drive and shoot hoops together. Isaac is getting his layups down, while Jude does his best to get the ball up and over the rim. Ian–God bless him–dribbles like he has two left feet for hands, laughs at his own lack of coordination. Titus joins the lot of us, runs onto the court, strips off his shirt and shoes, and yells “pass, pass!” He falls down in laughter at some personal joke that shoots right over our collective heads.

BOOKS:

I was happy to receive Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, by Richard Rohr, this week. I’ve been reading a great many books about St. Francis since I gave up the bottle. Last night I began to wonder whether I’ve replaced my alcohol dependency with a books-about-St. Francis dependency.  Better the latter than the former, I suppose. Anyhow, if you pick up a copy, let me know. I’d love to discuss it with you as I make my way through it.

LINKS:

A friend of mine–a peace-loving Muslim friend–has been posting a great number of articles on ISIS (a/k/a ISIL, a/k/a IS), gaza, and the war in Afghanistan. I check his Facebook feed every morning because he is curating the best articles on the subject. Yesterday he posted this piece about Phil Robertson’s comments regarding radical Islam, how he said we should “you have to convert them (which I think would be next to impossible)… or kill them.” And though my friend is not a “radical Islamist,” (to use Fox News’ words) I wonder how he felt about this clip.

Tsh Oxenreider is one great lady. Have you been keeping up with her family as they prepare a year-long globetrotting tip? In preparation, Tsh wrote this piece, “5 Lessons in 37 Years.” Take a gander, and remember, “it’s not too late to completely change your mind.”

MUSIC:

This is where nostalgia and current geopolitics meet:

Thanks for stopping in this week. Have a great weekend!

*****

If you haven’t heard the BIG NEWS yet, sign up for the Seth Haines’ Tiny Letter: A Compendium of Projects, People, Places, and Things. The Tiny Letter is a personal newsletter sent to subscribers once (sometimes twice) a month, and it highlights my personal projects, a few good folks, the places I go, and the things I like. The inaugural edition–the newsletter containing the BIG NEWS–has already been sent, but if you sign up for the newsletter, I’ll forward you a copy!

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