Tuesday, March 27, 2018

I don't know what to think.

This morning I was listening to an NPR news story this morning about social media and how it can be used to influence its users on the way to work.  The most interesting part of the interview, to me, was when Tim Wu began exploring the problem with Facebook's business model.  It claims to be a social platform, guaranteeing safeguards on everyone's personal information, but at the same time it is a for-profit enterprise that makes its money by allowing advertisers to use the very specific information it can collect on its users to target its advertising.
Image result for target
I just searched google images for "target,"
and this is what I got.  It's remarkably on point.
Advertising is basically someone telling you what to think.  It was about fifth grade when we first started learning about the various techniques people can use to do that.  Let's see if I can remember...seems like one of them was repetition.

Image result for head on apply directly to the forehead
Repetition.  Check.
Another one is claims.  This is the one where they tell you all about the amazingness that can happen if you begin using the product.  "If you use our widget spinners, it'll knock 5 strokes off your golf game and make you a whiz at the Pachisi table."  They also use this one a little more subtly by having pretty folks in all the ads.  So what they are saying is that in addition to the 5 strokes off your golf game and being a Pachisi whiz, it will also make you thinner and more attractive.

Image result for parchisi
Meh.  I'm in it for the Pachisi.
Then there's association.  Michael Jordan eats this, so you should too.  (1000 points for the first person to correctly identify the product in the comments, either on FB or on the blog).  Don't you want to be like Mike?  We all want to be like Mike...  Except for that time he played baseball.  Not so much just then.

Oh.  Don't forget the bandwagon.  That's the one where they tell you everyone else is doing it, so you should too.  Kindof a low-down trick if you ask me, playing on our fear of being ostrasized and alone.  But it's advertising, so that's really what it's all about.

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Mama warned me about this...
There's one more.  What was it?  Oh right.  Sales.  They tell you it's on sale.  This letter opener usually costs $155.99, but just for you, if you act in the next 10 minutes, we will sell it to you for 95% off and double your order.  That's right.  Not one, but two letter openers for just $7.80 plus shipping and handling.  Sure, but if I don't buy it at all, then I get to hang on to my $7.80, right?
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Well yes, but it comes in a variety of colors...
[Editor's Note: John is clearly trying to make up for not having any pictures in his last post.  If you are annoyed by the quantity of pictures in this post, please leave a note in the comments detailing your thoughts on the matter.]

All this thinking about thinking got me thinking.  We are inundated with people telling us what to think.  Nearly every moment of every day.  Signs.  Popups.  Radio ads.  The clothes people are wearing.  And it's not just what to think.  We are even being told what to feel.  You should feel sad because of homelessness.  You should feel anxious because your nose is too big.  You should feel guilty because the last meal you fed your child was potential a GMO product.  You should feel angry because of guns.  You should feel angry because of an attack on the second amendment. 

Image result for GMO corn
On the up side, they could become Spiderman...
We've been pretty good at this as a church too--telling people what to think and how to feel.  I'm just a diretor of music, so I could easily be wrong about this, but I feel like maybe we shouldn't be in the business of telling people what they should think or how they should feel.  Maybe we should tell them to think and to feel.  Jesus said we should attend to the plank in our own eye before we deal with the speck in someone else's, after all.

You don't have to feel sad about homelessness, but you should feel something about it.  You don't have to be angry about guns or the second amendment, and you certainly don't have to agree with me about it, but you should feel something.  You should feel something.  And how you feel should be based on how you feel...not how your Facebook feed or your mom or your friends think you should feel.

You don't have to think about your faith the same way I do.  You don't have to believe the same things I believe.  You don't have to value the same things I value.  But you should think about your faith and the things you believe and the things you value.  (And if you don't, you should definitely feel bad about that. Wait...)  Awareness of our thoughts and feelings is one way we can escape the mob mentality...or worse.  Stolen data from Facebook doesn't do any good if it we can become a people who think critically about what is in front of us and consider issues from perspectives that differ from our own.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Peculiar Honor. A Post with No Pictures.

Many moons ago, when I was active in Boy Scouts, my troop went camping just about every month.  One month each fall, we went to a camporee, which was a larger gathering of many troops from around the council.  We usually had some friendly competition amont the troops to see who was better at scouting (the skills associated with scouting, I guess) during the day on Saturday.  Then, Saturday night, we would all go to a campfire together.

It was my favorite campfire of the year.  Most of the time at campfires we'd have skits or songs or announcements or even a motivational speech of some kind.  Not this one.  We walked in silence.  As we neared the circle, our way was lit by primitive luminaria.  We were ushered into what felt like some kind of inner circle.  Seated.  Silent.

A Native American chief stepped in front of the waiting logs and began the story of the four winds.  "Many moons ago..."  North, South, East, and West, they danced together before thrusting their torches into the ground and igniting an impressive blaze.  And then, more stories.  The club and shield.  The buffalo hunt.  And then, the moment I had been waiting for: the tap-out.

This was more than a show of stories put on for us.  It was also--potentially--our induction into the stories.  The boys in front of us were members of the Order of the Arrow, a service organization with its roots in scouting.  The chief would call names, and those tapped would begin a journey of serving others.  It was an honor.

It was a peculiar honor.  I say that because so often when we achieve something we are brought up by those who have gone before us.  The members of the elite recognize in us something of themselves and draw us into their circle.  But members of the Order of the Arrow are not decided by existing members.  They are selected instead by non-members--the peers of the scouts themselves.  They choose who is worthy of inclusion in the Order.  They weigh each other and choose who to elevate.  They decide who among them best represents the ideals of scouting.

It's an interesting question.  Who has the authority to grant membership to a particular organization?  Years ago I was the Assistant Director of the Atlanta Sacred Chorale (now Atlanta Master Chorale).  I sat on auditions along with the director and a few others.  It was up to us to determine who would be invited to sing with the chorale.  Years before that I auditioned for my college choir.  In that case, the director and only the director determined who should sing.

Church choir is different somehow.  We don't do auditions at Decatur First.  The reason for that comes from my understanding of who has the authority to grant membership.  It's not me.  The gospels tell us that all are welcome without exception.  And so, since the choirs are a microcosm of the church, all must be welcome.  Without exception.

I've intereviewed for a few jobs across the years, and they always ask that question.  What do you do with someone who wants to sing and just can't sing?  My answer has never changed.  God loves everyone, and every voice lifted to God is worthy.  Who am I to deny that?  Who am I to say this offering isn't worthy?  (If that answer is unacceptable, I didn't want the job anyway).

...which is why I'm amused when I invite people to sing in choir, and their response is that they can't sing.  First, they probably can and just haven't been trained.  Second and more importantly, who cares?  Sing.  All are welcome.  No exceptions!

This is not intended to be a long and not-too-clever ploy to recruit for choir (but if it's working for you, then feel free to read it that way).  I've been wrestling with membership in the Christian church.  Not membership of a congregation (that's another conversation for another time). 

Who has the authority to grant membership to the Christian faith?  I suppose that would have to be God...and again my understanding is that all of us are welcome in God's eyes.

What does it mean to be a member?  Well, I think it's some of what Dalton talked about last Sunday in his sermon.  It sounds a little ridiculous to say, but being a member of the body of Christ means, well, being Christ's body in the world.  It's noticing need and taking action to address it.  It's living our faith.

And what if we don't?  Are we then excluded?  And what about people who claim membership but very clearly aren't?  You know, the ones who disagree with me about the stuff of faith.  Can we claim they aren't members or never really were?  I guess that's not for us to say...because God alone posesses the authority to grant membership or revoke it (though God has been fairly clear about our inability to escape membership).

BUT GOD!!!  THAT'S NOT FAIR!!!  And it doesn't make sense.  I've seen people claim a Christian faith who, in my eyes, actively work against it.  How can those people claim the same status I have?  It's a mystery.  It doesn't have to make sense.  After all, it's a pretty small God who can only exist within the bounds of our ability to make sense of it all.

So membership isn't about inclusion or exclusion.  We're all included.  Accepting that membership is about embracing what membership means in daily life--embracing who we are supposed to be if we are really children of God.

It's like if, on some Saturday evening in fall, we all entered the circle, and they called all of our names.  And together we began a journey of serving others.  All deemed worthy.  All capable of representing the best of our faith.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cigars and Trashcans and Holding Hands

You probably didn't know Father Tribou.  You wouldn't have any reason to.  He was the principal of my high school: Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys.  To many of us, though, he is a legend.  I had always assumed he was immortal.  He eventually proved me wrong on that front, but not before he impacted thousands of lives. 

Image result for father tribou
In the end, there can be only one.
As you can imagine, the stories about Fr. Tribou are unending.  Everyone who knew him has at least one.  Most of us have several.  Many of them involve discipline.  He was, shall we say, creative.  One time a student walked by the study hall slamming the doors.  I remember the announcement.  "Boys, today one of you decided it would be funny to slam the doors on the study hall.  I don't know your name, but I know your face.  It would be better for you if you didn't make me go through the yearbook this afternoon."  The student (wisely) fessed up.  His punishment was to carry a massive door around for an entire day.

See me under the magnolia tree for more stories about cigars and trashcans and holding hands.

Image result for magnolia tree
And get comfortable.  I have a lot of them.
I had only one class with Father Tribou.  It was a freshman religion class.  He asked and answered some pretty profound, and often odd, questions in that room.  "Why would it be wrong for Rockers to stick his finger in that pencil sharpener over there?"  I remember one day he turned to us and said, "Boys, what is the most important thing to learn?"  Someone said English.  "Oh.  Because I teach English.  Do you think you're going to get bonus points with that answer?  It's wrong."

"Thyself, boys.  Know thyself."  It's one of a number of lessons that stuck with me across the years.

I have a good understanding of what motivates me, what my priorities are, and how I exist in the world.  It's a fairly clear and detailed mental picture.

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It may surprise you that my mental picture is occassionally sometimes frequently almost always skewed a bit.  I've written about this once before, when I wrote a post on priorities and the importance of knowing and understanding them.  I suggested in that post that if you want to know where your priorities really lie, it might require asking someone else.

As I'm pushing 40 ("pushing?"), I'm starting to wonder if I know myself at all.  I don't mean this in a "mid-life crisis I need to take up base jumping right now or else" kind of way.  Rather, I mean I sometimes feel like there may be some people who know me a lot better than I do.  I know Lisa does.  And I'm starting to wonder if my kids do too.  That has to be why Wesley suggested fireworks for the week-long celebration of my life that is to take place after I am run over by a beer truck on Ponce.

Image result for base jumping
That is a hard no.
Well, Father Tribou, I guess it's time to start learning.  But how?

Listening is probably a good place to start.  Paying attention to the people who know me the best.  Thinking through actions and consequences and patterns of behavior.  Most importantly, maintaining a willingness to admit flaws and errors.  Not to accept them as permanent reality, but to begin the long process of changing them.

As we draw near to Holy Week, we will no doubt be reminded of the story of Peter, who claimed he would follow Jesus even to death, only to deny him just as Jesus predicted.  I so often think of myself like Peter did.  Energetic and righteous and fervent.  But my actions sometimes paint a very different picture, just as Peter's did.

There's good news, of course.  Easter is coming, and with it grace and forgiveness.  But neither grace nor forgiveness change who we are.  Better, and worse.  Maybe knowing ourselves really just means thinking neither too much of ourselves...or too little.