Humphrey and The Trade

Humphrey digital header

When I was a kid I remember watching a short Disney cartoon that made an indelible impression on me. It showed a bear named Humphrey, who desperately wanted some fish. He swiped at the lake over and over, and all that he ended up with was a tiny minnow. As he held it above the water, sad that it was so tiny, a bigger fish jumped up and swallowed it whole.

At that point he had an epiphany.   He could hold the fish over the water and one by one collect the larger fish that jumped up to eat the minnow. Soon his arms were full of large fish. Just as he was about to walk away a fish bigger than all the others floated by. He dropped all of the other fish and pounced. Continue reading “Humphrey and The Trade”

Leading the Story in the 21st Century

Narrative HeaderStar Wars and Narrative

I recently bought the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.  Together, the people in my household have been watching them one by one.  Unbelievably, everyone under my roof have not seen these movies up until now, except for me.  I have had to explain how one could not truly understand American culture until a person has seen—no experienced–those movies.

Most Americans have not only seen the Star Wars movies, they have memorized them.  But I’ll even take it a step further.  Most people have in some way become a part of the Star Wars narrative.  They have bought the merchandise, dressed up as a character a time or two, had some sort of light saber battle, and/or had some sort of theater experience.

My Mom was pregnant with me when she saw the first movie.  I saw the re-releases at a giant theater in southern California at midnight, where most people were dressed up and reciting the lines with the characters onscreen.  Star Wars is a part of my story.  It’s in my blood.

The reason why this is compelling is not because 1970’s special effects are still cutting-edge, or because no movies since have come close to that level of dialogue and character development.  It is because Star Wars is great narrative, or maybe even the best narrative.  That is what compels people to see it.  But I’m not just talking about the story on screen.  The greatness of the narrative has surprisingly little to do with the plot of the movies themselves.

Yes, the actual story in the movies is great, which is part of what fueled the original success, but there is far more than that.  There are the special features-type stories of where the characters came from, how the ships were built, and even how Lucas came up with novel ideas for filming.  People knew these stories long before home movies were even around.  But beyond that there are stories of “where I first saw…” and memories of all the times that each person somehow interacted with the idea behind Star Wars.  Star Wars is not a movies series, or even a brand.  Star Wars is a story…and it is all part of our stories.  And that is what sets Star Wars apart.

Star Wars is not peculiar in this regard, it is just a great example.  There are other movies, TV shows, books, and even events.  Nor is this a new phenomenon.  What is new is how communications technologies have transformed the popular consciousness and ways of processing information to make this concept of narrative far more important than ever before.

The Revolution in Culture

But the same point about movies is true about companies, products, and political candidates.  Truly, the world is nearing the end of a revolution in communication, a revolution that has changed very fundamental parts of the way people think and act, and ultimately is very good.  But, like any revolution, those who can’t evolve and those who refuse to understand will be left far behind.

You can see the revolution all around you.  You see it when you realize that movie blockbusters get people to wait in line for hours to sit through a brief film that won’t affect their lives all that much, while no one waits in line to hear a sermon on Sunday morning.  People flock to Lady Gaga concerts, when no one would suggest that she is the best musician on the scene.  But beyond these examples, the viral videos and memes of the Internet all become part of the lingua franca of our culture.  The evening news reports of riots in Egypt have been largely replaced by youtube videos and tweets of the average people there.  Story has become not only the message, but the way that messages are communicated, and the way they are absorbed.

Why is this the case?  It is because people crave the narrative.  People think in story.  A good story will draw people much better than a sermon about “3 ways to be a better dad.”  People love the narrative of Lady Gaga much more than her music.  Story motivates, enthralls, and ultimately inspires action.  And it is this concept that will either be a key to success for future leaders and motivators, or guarantee failure in the new social setting of the 21st century.

The 2008 Election

This is why people like Barak Obama and even Sarah Palin have seen success in the last few years.  The election of 2008 was a lock for Obama long before any votes were actually cast.  It had nothing to do with race, or even hatred of Bush.  It was really all due to one simple fact: Barak had a compelling narrative that people felt a part of, and McCain had none.

Remember the election?  Barak Obama stood for hope and change.  He stood for people chanting “Yes we can!”  He was the mixed-race son of an immigrant.  He talked a lot about what he believed and what we could achieve, and seldom talked about how we could do it.  What was his economic plan?  What was his health care plan?  How was he going to extricate us from Iraq and win in Afghanistan?

This isn’t to put him down.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have a plan, or even that his plan wasn’t any good.  Those issues don’t matter to his success, and didn’t matter to those voting for him in the election.  He wasn’t elected on his ideas.  He was elected on his narrative.  That is also the reason why people react to criticism of Obama with such rabid ferocity.  To attack his idea is to attack the narrative, and the narrative is not just his story, it is theirs.  That is why they wear his face on T-shirts, buy magazines and books with him on the cover, and give him Nobel Peace prizes before he’d accomplished anything.

What was McCain’s narrative?  He actually has a great one.  He’s a warrior from Vietnam who spent years being abused in a POW camp.  He is also a long time warrior with results in the Senate.  But during the election, he suppressed all of that in order to focus on the whats and hows of the issues.  When the recession hit hard, he suspended his campaign to come up with ideas to fix it.  That was very admirable, but it further removed him from the story.  Further, although the memory of Vietnam is still rather fresh for many Baby Boomers, it is not the narrative of the last 20+ years, and it certainly could not have been the central narrative of the 2008 election.

When election day came, people did one of three things.  Some voted for Sarah Palin’s narrative.  They marked McCain’s name, but it was the narrative of Sarah Palin that motivated them (look at the polling for McCain before and after her entry to the scene).  Some voted against Barak Obama, for one reason of another.  But many more than either of those two groups joined in the Obama narrative.  Barak won decisively.

Narrative in 2010

In the 2010 election, the story was reversed.  The narrative now was all about a “Tea Party.”  New leaders had arisen, talking about fiscal responsibility, and tying their stories to the story of the founding of the country.  They adopted the American story as their own, and called people back to the ideas that America was originally built on.

Speakers for the Conservative movement started talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution.  The message was pretty simple, American exceptionalism as a kind of gospel, the Founding Fathers as apostles and martyrs, and the Tea Party leaders as evangelists of this new gospel.

Average Americans were showing up at rallies and speeches, joining the new narrative with their own.  No longer was the message about what one was being told by Rush Limbaugh.  Now people were calling Rush Limbaugh to tell what happened in their city, and they were posting photos on Facebook and hash-tagging it on Twitter.  The Mainstream media and liberal commentators were trying to stop it by using terms like “Tea-baggers,” but they were playing into the very hands of the movement.  They were simply adopting the narrative.

The Democrats had no counter.  They had no narrative.  Health care reform had passed.  They were in charge.  There was no compelling story to sell, and no story was told.  The base was barely engaged in the election.  Even Liberal veterans in states like California were afraid, and digging their claws in to hold on.

The election was a landslide.  The story was believed and it motivated people to go to the polls and vote for their favorite story that now included them.  The incredible momentum of 2 years ago now seemed like a political eternity.

He Who Tells the Story…

Narrative is now the main force in American politics.  In a way it always has been, but now the image-makers and strategists cannot ignore it.  The winners of elections and the leaders with true influence will be the ones who control the narrative, and even more importantly include the average voter in that storyline.  The money and power of elections will be not the ones who spend the most on TV ads and bumper stickers, but the ones who leverage social media, viral video, and who tell the most compelling story.

This is because these media are where the narrative is being communicated, and further where the whole tale goes viral, where it joins with the people’s own story.  Facebook for instance, will not be nearly as important as just another type of billboard or position statement, but as a way to interact, and hand the baton of the story off to the community.  Successful leaders must think conversation more than TV ad.  For when Sarah Palin puts up a message on Facebook, people hear it.  But when someone comments on the message she just put up, in a real way now they feel as though they have entered into the conversation with Sarah Palin, and their friends are all now included.

This is not to say that money on print and TV ads will not be important.  On the contrary, those who don’t get their story told to the biggest possible audiences will have no ability to control the narrative or include others in it.  Nor does the focus on social media mean that money can simply be thrown into these technologies in the same way that they are thrown into TV and print.

The real center of power, and money-making potential will be in crafting the narrative and handling the exchange between one way communication and conversation.  The challenge will be in making the message  become a story, and making the candidate’s story become the people’s story.  And the ability to control and manage that narrative will be the difference between the future John McCains and the Barak Obamas. -Ryan

For further research on this, watch this incredible lecture by Simon Senek on Ted.com

In Defense of “God Damn!”

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Now that I’ve gotten your attention, yes I am talking about the epithet, but no, I am not really defending the curse.  Actually, I would just like to discuss language in general and why it seems to me like we are damning the wrong curse while completely ignoring its far more dangerous cousin.

This weekend I worked an event at the Texas State Fair.  It was for a campaign to screen people for COPD (just google it).  I will be doing a lot of work with the company running this campaign over the next month.  I know that this information seems to move away from any discussion of coarse language, but a few events this weekend made me spend a lot of time thinking about the words that come out of our mouths.

During my work, I had a great time meeting a lot of the people from the advertising company running the campaign.  They were nice, bright, and around my age.  We talked about all kinds of things and as always, they eventually asked about what I do for a living.  I told them.

The life I have chosen is not one which goes by unnoticed when I mention it.  I often try not to broach this subject until I know people a little bit, not because I am embarrassed, but because they always instantly put me in a little mental plastic box.  I become the somewhat strange person that they can observe, but must be kind of careful around.  It is like I’m suddenly Hannibal Lector.  It isn’t very fair to me, I must say.  I haven’t had someone’s liver in years.

One of the most common reactions is “Oh, I’m sorry about my language.  I’ll try to be more careful.”  When they say this, I wonder if they secretly think that they are teaching me to use new forbidden words that I have never before heard.  Like some two year old child, I would be at the platform the next Sunday saying “Screw You” (OK—worse) and then claiming, “I dunno, I heard it at the fair.”

In all truth, I do appreciate their reaction.  It means that they recognize that some of their language is not healthy and that they should do something about it.  I know that it isn’t them fearing me feeling judgmental, because I always tell them it is OK, that they can be normal, and people always then tell me that they need to stop cussing so much anyway.

But in all of these situations, what never seems to change is their use of “god” as a random interjection in sentences.  Sure, if they get angry and say “God Damn it!” they look at me with a guilty look.  This has happened on numerous occasions.  But when they say “Oh god, I’m so tired,” or something like it, they think absolutely nothing about feeling guilty.

This isn’t unique to the secular world, though.  In church, almost on a weekly basis I hear the “God, I _____,” quote emanate from some teenager’s mouth.  In my little kingdom at church, I can say something about this.  I stop and kindly remind them that it is rude to God when we do that, and that He thought it important to even include this as part of the Big Ten.

When someone say s, “God Damn it!” what they are saying is that they are really angry about something.  This phrase literally means, “send this thing to hell.”  I don’t think that this excuses the comment  at all, really.  If someone had done something blatantly blasphemous, or persecuted God’s people, I suppose one could make a case for the appropriate use of that phrase.  I am not sure what I think on that.  It is not our place to play judge and jury, or to call for vengeance.  On the other hand, David and the prophets were often asking for God to do such things.

But when we slip “God” casually into every sentence, the word has no meaning whatsoever.   When I was a teen, I used to say “like” almost every other word for a while.  I wasn’t really comparing things.  In fact, like I didn’t know I was even like saying it at all usually.  Sometimes it still slips into my sentences.

I really think that was the point of God’s prohibition in the Ten Commandments.  In the Exodus 20:7 mention, the one that everyone knows, the word translated from the Masoretic text as “vain” is the Hebrew word “shav.”  In the rest of the Old Testament, this word either refers to meaninglessness, worthlessness, or falsehood.

Psalm 108 uses this word when it says “vain is the help of men.”  Psalm 144 uses shav saying “…whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”  Both of these uses are commonly repeated in the Old Testament.  So which one is the case for the Exodus passage?

Partly , I think it doesn’t really matter.  There is no real doubt that God would want His name to be used falsely.  In fact, that would break another commandment anyway.  The real danger is in using His name without any meaning.  For when God’s name is used in falsehood, the person is trying to use God’s authority for trickery, not something we are commonly tempted to do.  That takes a real desire to rebel against Him.

But when we use God’s name without any meaning at all, it is lowering God’s position in our life to no different than an “and” or a “but”.  Yes, I know that this isn’t consciously done.  But doesn’t that make it even worse?  The fact that God’s people would be throwing His very name around with meaninglessness is deeply offensive to Him.  I think that this is just another reminder of the casualness that we have applied to God.

So let me say something a bit controversial in response to all of this:  There is no biblical precedent for approaching God casually.  It seems to me to be an American concept of God, that he is your best buddy who you can just hang out with.  When I was a kid, I used to tell God jokes at night that I heard during the day.  I still tell Him those jokes.  I think we all should, and I think that He loves that.  I bet He laughs—hard, even though He has already heard them all, and many of them were His inventions in the first place.

But under no circumstances is God our buddy.  He’s the Father, the Maker, The Omnipotent Mover.  Any response to truly being in His presence is nothing even approaching cavalier, but an immense feeling of being altogether different, and a healthy fear, reverence.  When we lose that, we lose our understanding of our place in the universe.  We begin to believe that it is all about us.

We talk about the cross as if God got in a really bad situation ‘cause He just couldn’t live without us, so He had to send His Son for a sacrifice, a last-ditch effort that luckily worked out.  This is very far from the truth, and dilutes power of the cross.  God didn’t need us, he loved us.  We don’t deserve this miracle of atonement.  We deserve judgment.  God never owed us.  He paid a debt we owed Him.

In response, we have changed His name to an “um” in the middle of our sentences.

I am not suggesting that we start screaming and acting like Pharisees to anyone who accidentally copies the same speech patterns of everyone around them.  Instead I am suggesting that His Church start acting Christianly.  I am suggesting that we stop making it cool to be a Christian because we can look like everyone else.  I am suggesting that we stop approaching church as a hang out time with God, because He misses us so much, and we really should stop by and see Him once in a while.

I don’t see God writing a letter to the Church today asking if we could tone down the fancy clothes and the formality.  He might see that as extraneous, but not offensive.  But I am sure that He is hurt by His people making the Cross nothing more than jewelry, His House a hang out place, and His name an interjection in our sentences.

Reference: James Chapter 3, Ephesians 4:29

Learning Faith -Part 3

This is part three in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.  Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Raising Parents

Parents mentoring their kids in matters of faith and life isn’t what seems to be happening as much these days.  Gone are the days of boys learning to mow the lawn alongside their fathers.  Now, they pay to have someone else do it.  Most girls aren’t learning how to cook with their mothers.  Dinner is now too often provided by KFC.  With all of our modern conveniences, we have forgotten to teach our children how to live and how to be adults.

The same things can be said for matters of faith.  As consumers, we have fallen prey to the idea that spiritual education is what happens at church.  Spiritual education does happen at church, of course.  But if that is the primary place that we plan for spiritual education, we are destined to fail at this task.  This kind of outsourcing will not work.  When spiritual matters are reserved for church, the lesson is that one may do whatever one wants and live however he chooses, as long as he puts on a smile on Sunday.

Parents are the primary teachers about faith, not necessarily how to exegete a Pauline epistle, but about how our faith affects our daily lives.

I don’t want to sound like I’m griping, and I don’t level any accusations on everyone.  But I think one of the largest complaints I have about the state of the family is that it seems to me that many parents have forgotten that one of the primary roles of parenting is to end up with your offspring as functioning adults.  The goal should be to produce adults that are even better than you were.  This is true in regard to career and intelligence, and it is also true about faith.

Case in point: In the last 10 years of ministry, I know of no teen (male or female) who has access to the Internet in their own room and does not have an addiction to pornography, or inappropriate sexual relationships online.  I know this, because the students come to me and tell me.  I have gone to their homes and moved their computers for them (upon their request).  I have prayed with them for freedom from these addictions.

Despite this, when parents tell me that their child wants a computer in their room (this happens often), I tell them my experience, yet 100% of the time the student ends up with a computer in their room within a month.  When I occasionally ask the parent why this happened, they shrug their shoulders as if to say, “Oh well.”

No, not “Oh well.”  Children don’t need a buddy.  Teens don’t need a hip mom or dad.  They need a parent.  The teens that tell me how cool their lenient parents are, are the same teens that come to me crying to say that they feel constant chaos.  Kids need parents.  The message that parents send to teens when they don’t take leadership on these issues is that there is no moral standard.

I have no doubt in my mind that parents who are not teaching their kids important skills for their future adulthood are not teaching these kids the stories, principles, and reasons for their faith.  I cannot believe that the Church will fail and disappear.  But I do believe unless this is changed quickly, the state of the Church in the West will read like a passage in Second Kings.  This is an emergency.

Learning Faith -Part 2

This is part two in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.  Read part one here, and stay tuned for part three.

Shoveling Dirt, and other spiritual lessons

So, we have seen how the Bible is pretty clear about the importance of passing on faith memes, in order to cement and pass on our rich Christian faith and heritage.  We have seen how in the past Israel’s neglect of this duty led to apostasy, syncretism, and moral decline.  The next obvious question is, “So how are we doing now? Are we passing on these memes?”

I contend that we aren’t.

OK, that seems a bit harsh.  Yes, there are Christian children and teens who are growing up with a deep faith.  There are young people learning how to lead worship services, run ministries, and do evangelism.  But there are also ridiculously high numbers of men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 who are leaving the church, never to return.  The percentage of Americans who are claiming an allegiance to Christian faith is declining, and the socio-political influence of Christianity on Western culture is undoubtedly in retreat.

A large reason for this according to the book Essential Church, is that many Americans (This book deals with American church statistics, although I would contend that this holds true in other Western countries) see the Church as an institution that is not essential to their lives.  They see the ceremony and programs, and can’t find a vibrant and valuable relationship with God happening.

More anecdotally, in 14 years of youth ministry I have noticed a growing loss of biblical literacy within the next generations of the Church.  There is also a lack of practiced disciplines of faith in these generations.  Many teens know each and every part of the church service, but don’t have any understanding of fundamental elements of Christianity.  This is not something I have noticed as tied to a particular church or denomination.  It is much more of a cross-section than that.

To take a small detour:

After I take a shower at night, I use a squeegee to wipe down the walls.  This helps keep my shower from getting mold and mildew.  But that isn’t really the reason I do it.  I use the squeegee because my grandfather did the same thing.  He had a squeegee in his shower and I heard him use it after he finished with his showers.

Every time I sweep the grass clippings off of my sidewalk I hear his instructions in my head.  When I sort laundry I hear my Mom’s voice, and when I spell Renaissance, I hear my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Maddox.  I am who I am because of those people’s example in my life, and not just in instructional ways.

I read my Bible because I know that God grows me through that communication channel, and He makes me more like Him.  But every time I open my Bible I remember my Grandad with his Bible open on his desk, and all of the highlights and notes he had put in it.  In case I ever forget, I have his Bible on my shelf.  It is one of the few things of his that I have.  In it is a picture of generations of my family together at a family reunion.  My Mom was pregnant with me, her only child.

My grandfather obviously had a mental connection to reading his Bible with the faith strain running through the generations of our family, and that connection has passed on to me.  It is a meme.  It is good.  It is the plan of God.

These things came to my mind recently as I was moving a large amount of dirt in a pile with one of the students in my High School group.  He is a good kid—a little squirrely—but a good kid.  He has a good dad.  But as we shoveled dirt, he needed me to explain how a shovel is used.  I didn’t mind explaining.  He responded by saying that he didn’t know, because he never did these things with his father.  I told him that his dad was a busy man with too much on his shoulders, and that is true.

The point of this is that things even as rudimentary as shoveling dirt have to taught, and that requires things like mentoring.  Boys and girls learn how to be men and women by watching their parents, teachers, and mentors, and by doing things alongside them.  How much more is it important to instill things of faith to your children?

Learning Faith -Part 1

This is part one in a 3 part series on how we educate the next generation in matters of faith.

Faith as Meme

I am currently reading a book about memes.  Everyone I mention this to asks me the same immediate question.  “What in the heck is a meme?”   Then I begin the inordinately long process of explaining what this is.

Basically, a meme is a unit of cultural understanding that is passed on through a culture by repetition.  The easiest way to understand a meme is to think of it as the same as DNA, except for culture.  It is passed on from one person to another.  Old-Wives-Tales are memes, and so are the words to traditional songs.  Auld Land Syne is a perfect example of this.  It goes deeper than that, though.  You wear dark colors at funerals and you wear lighter colors at weddings.  A woman going to a wedding wearing all black would be offensive.  Famous ad slogans are also memes.  If I said, “The best part of waking up…” You would most likely immediately think, “…is Folgers in your cup.”  That is a meme!

The reason that I bring this up is not because I have a particular interest in information science, although I do.  Reading and thinking about this has brought up other ideas in my head, ideas about culture, ideas about faith—both my individual faith and the faith of the Church.  It might seem at first heretical to say that the message of Jesus, the stories in the Bible, and both the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christianity are all memes, but I believe that they are.  I believe that God intended them to be.

When that thought first occurred in my head, my immediate reaction was, “Whoa, Ryan—hold the phone.  Lightening may soon strike.”  But no lightening struck, and as I thought about it, all of it seemed to fit.  It is scary at first to think of Christianity as anything other than an immediately apparent truth that is written somewhere in the sky, accessible to anyone who bothers to simply look up.  And I am not saying that the truth of Christ is something that is just a cultural way of thinking and doing.  It is the Truth.  It can be found by anyone.  So I am not demeaning the things of God in any way.  All this just means that Natural Theology can only get us to understand that there must be a creator-God, but it can’t tell us anything more, really.  To really get to know God, we need to acquire these bits of faith memes.

But this is not something that someone simply looks into the air to find.  God didn’t intend it to be this way at all.  Yes, it is true that Romans chapter 1:18-20 says,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

This passage makes Christians in the West quite happy.  Although we don’t think this consciously, we understand it to mean that the job of communicating the basics of God, sin, and redemption have already been done automatically and genetically by God.  And certainly that is true, to a point.  It does mean that everyone has no excuse for rejecting God.  But it does not in any way get Christians off the hook for communicating this news, for no one can look up at the stars and deduce that a loving God must have become man and died on a cross during Roman times for our forgiveness.  This must be taught to them.

The Bible makes this perfectly clear.  In God’s economy, we are one hundred percent accountable for transmitting the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of our faith memetically (this is not mimetically, although that word would be appropriate as well).  This is to happen in two distinct ways.

The first of these is the more obvious.  We are to affect the world around us by spreading the good news of Jesus through the world.  There are myriad verses that address this point, and it forms the basis of much of New Testament Christianity.

The second way that Christians are to spread the ortho-’s of our faith is through our own people, particularly the next generation as we raise our children.  This point is spread throughout the whole Bible, but the Old Testament covers this repeatedly.  It is clear in the Old Testament that it was very important to Yahweh that the next generation hear all about what He has done and how He related throughout history with His people.  Look at what God had them do when they finally entered into the land that He had promised to give them in Joshua, chapter 4.

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

We see this also in Exodus, chapter 12, God tells His people to commemorate their freedom from slavery in Egypt through God’s miraculous hand with a special celebration and ceremony.  This was to be done for generations to come as a reminder, so that the people would never forget.

In fact, most of Israel’s holy days were commemorations of what God had done.  This was not for means of celebrating the past.  It was for the express purpose of reminding those in the present of God’s faithfulness, and their shared history with God.  They were also use this to speak into the future generations to ensure that the faith of Israel would not be lost.

One of the most striking glimpses of this in action can be seen in the 22nd and 23rd chapters of 2 Kings.  After numerous kings that did not honor God, Israel had become quite a mess.  Instead of following Yahweh, the people had mixed a bunch of religions all together.  It was anything-goes spirituality.  After generations of doing this, people had no spiritual compass whatsoever.  Their worship of these gods included burning their children to death in fires, having sex with prostitutes in temples, taking hallucinatory drugs for spiritual purposes, and a whole host of other nasty and amoral practices.

But more than that, they had completely forgotten much of their history (especially the aspects dealing with God) in many cases, and corrupted it with complete myth in many others.

God was angry.

But Josiah, who really wanted to do what was right, discovered the Law and was powerfully rocked to learn that God’s word had been completely forsaken.  It wasn’t like Josiah had known what God wanted all along, and was just the first in a while to actually follow it.  Josiah finding God’s word reads like a scene straight out of Indiana Jones.  Suddenly this revelation of God is found that people didn’t even have any clue about.  Josiah reads this and tears his robes, weeping at finding out all this new stuff about who God really is, their history with Him, and what He expects from them.

Following that is a full list of draconian measures that Josiah went to in order to fix things.  One set of verses gives a window on how this fall from morality and spiritual faithfulness could have happened.

Then the king commanded all the people saying, “Celebrate the Passover to the LORD your God as it is written in this book of the covenant.”  Surely such a Passover had not been celebrated from the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and of the kings of Judah.  But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was observed to the LORD in Jerusalem.

God’s command to remember and teach about what He had miraculously done for His people, as mentioned in Exodus 12, had been completely neglected for hundreds of years!  The people now had no concept of it at all.  Their history with God had been completely forsaken, and now forgotten.

The importance of passing on history, faith, and cultural values is not something that is contained only in the Old Testament.  Jesus tells His followers in the New Testament to commemorate His death through Communion.  As the early Church interpreted this, it was not to be done as a ceremony once in a while at a service, but the kind of thing that was followed as people ate together.  Communion was to be celebrated at the dinner table with the family.

The Epistles in the latter New Testament talk about this idea as well.  Both Titus and First Peter talk about younger men and women learning from older men and women.  The early church clearly invested in the ideas of mentoring younger Christians in the faith, and educating those who were spiritually younger using creedal statements and liturgical prayers, as well as hymns.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 6

grandma's housePeichi’s Amma must have decided to put all of the events I mentioned in my last blog entry behind her, though, as she was very welcoming to me as we showed up for Chinese New Year.  She didn’t even keep much of a watchful eye over me, as I might have expected.  I cannot be sure that she hadn’t carefully noted the home’s entire inventory and each item’s place prior to my arrival.

Amma and I hit it off quite smoothly this time, with few rough patches.  The most difficult breach of protocol for me to handle is regarding the “house shoes” that each family uses in Taiwan.  Most people know that Asian households require one to take off his shoes on entry.  In Asia there is an added step.  Each family keeps an armada of house slippers on hand just inside the doorway that each guest is expected to use while inside.  You may not opt out of this deal.  Yes, the shoes might not even come close to fitting your American-sized feet.  Yes, one probably will accidentally slip off halfway up the stairs and leave you to hop back down to find it again.  But make no mistake, they must be used.

This part was not the problem for me.  The problem is that each household has a place where you are supposed to take off your outside shoes Me in Tainanand put your house shoes on.  In Japan this is clearly marked by the presence of bamboo mats. In Taiwan, this place is marked by some sort of sixth-sensed hoo-bah, that I apparently do not posses.

I would enter the house from the screened in porch via the stairs, leaving my street shoes outside.  At some point after the doorway I would cross the invisible battle line of germ warfare where my “safe” shoes were supposed to come on.  I would usually miss this line somehow.  When the process was reversed and the house shoes made it past the line, sirens would go off in Amma’s head, and she would come after me, gently rebuking me in short vocal bugle blasts.  She was very gracious.  I don’t mean to imply anything less.

My most exciting story with the house shoes was when visiting a household outside of the family.  As I came in, I started to take off my outside shoes and was informed that this would not be necessary at this place.  I looked around for some sign of where the hoo-bah was.  It was invisible as usual.  I asked to use the bathroom and was told it was down the hall.  I gingerly advanced, pausing with each step in case this time would be different and I might actually sense the hoo-bah.  They laughed and told me that I would not need to remove my shoes there either.  I felt safe.

NY Eve DinnerA few minutes later, I went to view the kitchen and again was told that it was safe.  I was very confused.  I had never made it this far without using house shoes before. I did not know how to act.  I shrugged and enjoyed my good fortune.

After viewing the kitchen, I was ushered to the seating area where there was a plate of fruit.  Every Asian household I am invited to has prepared fruit.  It is expected.  It is wonderful.  Americans need to start doing that.  I eagerly went to take a seat and eat some fruit.  Everyone lunged at me noisily. I had crossed the hoo-bah.  I didn’t know.  There was not even a pile of shoes.   Nothing.  I retreated and apologized profusely.  They still let me eat the fruit.

Thoughts from Taiwan -part 4

Chinese New YearWhen we arrived in Tainan somehow the news of my knee had spread south at a pace that left our stuck-in-traffic 50 km/hr clip.  I have always found that dealing with ailments abroad (or the prevention thereof) is a fascinating experience all on its own.  In Iceland, the family answer to bee stings was for me to eat ice cream.  In El Salvador, they suggested that after being in the rain I absolutely must wipe my whole body down with alcohol.  Every country has some sort of strange sounding advice.  The old wives are alive and well, and telling their tales.

You go through stages in dealing with their medical advice.  In stage one you wonder if they really believe the advice they are giving you, knowing no one in the modern world could possibly believe such hoodoo.  In stage two you try your best to ignore their helpful advances, slightly annoyed that they keep trying to help you despite you clearly not wanting to cover your head in chicken blood to end your malady.  Next stage has you accepting their help and doing what they want, mostly so that you’ll have peace and quiet.  Finally, wondering why their advice worked, you begin to realize that at home we have some hoodoo-like ideas of our own.

In most of Taiwan, their thoughts regarding medicine are quite modern and sensible, unless one is having a baby, and then I doubt there are enough stages for me to stop calling it hoodoo.  This time, I wasn’t assaulted with weird ideas, but I was covered constantly in patches and sprays, and pills shoved down my throat.  Saying “no” was not an option to any of this.  Not only would it not have been heard, but it would have been rude.  So, I became their test dummy.  I felt like a rabbit in a medical lab of some pharmaceutical company, a white one.Peichi and family

Their concoctions did help, and my knee started feeling a bit better after a few days.  I wasn’t sure whether it was the medicine, or time.  Either way, I really appreciated their care.  Taiwanese people don’t have the warmth of Italians or Greeks, who smoother you with affection rather quickly, but they do have a quiet consideration.  When they take you into their circle, they do little things, things that become huge in your mind.  My brother-in-law filling his car stereo with American music so I wouldn’t feel homesick or bored on the long trip, my mother-in-law always filling my cup or offering me something to nibble on, or the entire extended family trying to figure out anything they can do to ease my knee pain.  It makes me thankful for a wonderful family.  It makes me have such a deeper understanding of how little my corner of the world really is, and that my mind and heart are often much smaller than that corner.

Some Videos from Asia

Here are just some of the videos that Peichi and I made in Asia.  We made them mostly for our youth group in Texas.  I hope you enjoy watching even close to as much as we did making them.  Several places, crowds gathered as we made the videos and asked me afterward if I was someone famous.  Of course, I am.