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The way of significance: Our Lent pilgrimage through the media debris

Is it just me, or does your mind sometimes seem like a collection of sound bites and tune fragments stored up over decades of media saturation? My brother told me that even though his voice changed, with age, from a remarkable tenor to a mundane baritone, he was still a valuable member of the cover band because he could remember complete lyrics to all the old songs. (He also plays several instruments, I must add!). The rest of us are stuck in an ever-growing collection of undifferentiated mental debris — reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean plastic “gyre” I am fond of talking about, bits of stuff floating around in our heads.

The pandemic is waning (Lord, hear our prayer), but our media consumption is probably not. Entire new islands of media pollution may be forming right now! I know I have been filling my limited brain capacity with even MORE stuff. I think two favorites, Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland were a lot like Lent — somewhat depressing subjects, calls to change and grow, and road trips. In the case of Lent, our “road trip” is like drawing back the curtain on a movie about our spiritual pilgrimages and seeing whether we are actually moving or, alternatively, trapped on screen, appearing to move by watching images move.

Can I keep moving through this mess?

I am trying to stay on pilgrimage, even though it is perilously easy to permanently stay at my latest point on the map. The courage it takes to keep growing is daunting. Wandering around with godless Frances McDormand in Nomadland felt vicariously heroic, free and honest. I did not like her or her life, but it sure looked more authentic than staying trapped in some subdivision like her prospective mate ended up. I have felt trapped a lot during the pandemic and it is easy to just stay trapped until someone sounds the all clear. Don’t you periodically wake up and see yourself sitting in your cage munching fake food, listening to fake news and fake exposés of fake news and inexplicably funding Netflix? We need to force ourselves onto our personal pilgrimages for Lent.

My Lent book, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home by Alan Jones, is helping me stay on the road. And, in my case, it is helping me write an elegy for my own past, as I move on into what is next. In the chapter I just read, “The Road that Leads Nowhere,” Jones is highlighting how our many choices as Americans has basically ended up with us not making any choices. He says, “We get lost spiritually precisely in proportion to the casualness of our choices.”

Does being in the band have meaning or am I just filling up my time? Should I explore my past and figure out how I got on the road I am on or just watch others doing that on the screen? Is the terrible thing I am experiencing pushing me out on the “road” or shall I push that energy back inside somewhere? Shall I keep writing this blog or decide I need more readership to be relevant? Shall I let the Lent story draw me into the eternal story about going home or shall I just stay trapped at home? You can tell I think everything I have talked about so far is filled with significance.

It always takes risking significance

Jones says, “Our smallest actions and decisions can be fraught with significance and have serious consequences, [because] the same energy that made the sun and the stars came into play, and the result was you. You matter and your choices matter. If you lose sight of that, you get frozen and lost. You are not an accident. To discover that is already to have recovered enough passion to turn you away from a dead end and toward life.”

I rarely think relating to Frances McDormand or Glenn Close on the screen is a dead end. Although their stories were filled with roads to nowhere, they are helping me with Lent, as we speak. Getting something out of the screen rather than it just sucking the the life out of us is hardly automatic. Christians often hide the fact that we are in the screen’s “tractor beam” just like everyone else, being dragged places we might not choose if we were more conscious. My cell group always has great suggestions for what to watch next; it is one thing we all know. None of us need to risk significance, we can just sit there and make choices with our remotes.

The series I have been recommending is another import on Hulu from the Brits, Larkrise to Candleford. The show is about a village girl and her townie relative experiencing the 1890s as everyone begins to move into the modern age. All the innovations of the next era crowd into village life and cause people to choose about things they don’t want to think about. As a result, people hang on to the past or jump into the future, with poignant personal and relational consequences. What I like about the series most, however, is how we can watch people from the past take their lives seriously. We let people from the past do these things we long to do. I like shows like Larkrise (calling Call the Midwife) because I long for the characters’ experiences. The past is clearer in memory than it was when it happened, so nostalgia is comforting. But I honestly think more people in the past felt their lives had meaning and their choices made a difference. Such significance seems harder than ever. Wasn’t it just last week that Trump claimed he won the election at CPAC? Didn’t Republican Senators just extract compromises in the Covid Relief Bill and then all vote against it? It is hard to take life seriously in a reality like ours.

Choosing against our illusions is hard

We make fun of people in the simpler past. But we also suffer from a twinge of envy when we weigh our lightness against their heaviness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says people in the past engaged in “something and not nothing; hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequences, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically name ‘True.’”

I can still remember the jingles of True cigarette commercials from my first stage of media saturation as a child. Of course, they are on YouTube:

My book for Lent and my latest show choice challenge me to be true and make true choices. Shall I do something hard (like have a serious marriage) or stay soft? Shall I do something that is meaningfully part of God’s creation or keep acting like what I do has no consequences as long as I do not harm someone else according to the law? Shall I just accept the absolute b.s. of almost every TV commercial or get furious that “True” cigarettes were and are an abomination that subvert the very word “true” and disgrace the Way the Truth and the Life?

My father died of emphysema and my mother chronically suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. Fortunately, smoking and the addiction and health disasters that go with it are on the decline — but not fast enough for me. American cigarette producers got thwarted at home so they marketed worldwide. Worldwide tobacco use and addiction is just now reaching a peak and heading for decline. True cigarettes were introduced in 1966 when I was twelve. My Dad was at the height of his cigarette smoking. I was just beginning to refuse to collude with his habit. There are a lot of choices I had to make or avoid. I wanted Dad to love me. But I did not want to accept cigarettes to procure that love. I made many compromises I am still pondering and repenting.

Lent is a great season for repenting, which is basically a choice to go another way, to go home. Lent is a season that lures us out on the road, away from our addictions and resistance, and makes us susceptible to cooperation with God’s grace. As a result of making any of these true choices, we’ll probably uncover many of the false ones that tie us up, especially in our relationships. So we will repent and even feel better.

We try to get by with unhealthy habits, especially in unhealthy relationships, by not making a choice or by choosing everything. We don’t really want to do anything that has “long and dire consequences” like refusing to be codependent with someone who is killing themselves spiritually and otherwise or like making the commitment to hold a church together. To do so, we would need to risk going against the flow. What has society created? — a no-fault, guiltless world. How do policemen keep killing people with impunity and governmental grifters get away with breathtaking corruption? How is it that it is so easy to blame and hard to forgive?

Even in the church, reconciliation often means not having to say you’re sorry because no one will admit you (or they) are that wrong or even that significant. We avoid conflict by not recognizing anything for which repentance is required. That makes for a very soft response to an increasingly hard world. Are we getting used to being little Trumps demanding our right to choose whatever we want – even if it does not exist? I know it is terrible to imagine, but are we little Trumps starring in our own show, making up our own reality, and daring everyone to tell us we lost the election? Did we watch TV long enough for that to be a possibility?

I hope not. That’s why I wrote to you, since you are the kind of person who steps into Lent every year and lets it take you somewhere true.

What to expect if your loved one is in the media

The first thing we’ll probably do if our loved one is in the media is have a big emotion, right? — like when the cameraperson in the stadium puts you on the jumbotron.

Most of us will be excited. I was VERY excited when NPR discovered our Debt Annihilation Team and talked about them on two different podcasts, recently.  I hope you saw the notice on the Covenant List:

My loved ones sounded like their brilliant selves and our vision for following Jesus looked pretty great, too.

But sometimes you might feel puzzled, at best, and horrified, at worst, at how your loved ones gets twisted by inaccurate or unscrupulous reporting that will probably be on the internet forever.  The first time I ever got my picture in the newspaper they said my name was “Tod.” They got both the dogs’ names correct, however.

Our most recent relationship with the powerful media was pretty great.  NPR treated us generously. But I also feel disappointed with how the producer of “This is Uncomfortable” summed up  our radicality in a way none of his subjects implied.

Here are two things to expect if your loved one is in the media.

It is going to be depersonalized while looking personal

The segment of Marketplace I heard was the 23rd in a series about “Life and how money messes with it.” “Life” is a thing” and “money” is a force.  You’ve entered the media machine and it has a worldview. The show has a topic and you are being fit into it.

I kind of like the show’s point of view. We need to know that the average amount for people with credit card debt is over $6000. They said our team was “turning to a very ancient text, the Bible, to solve a very modern problem.” That’s all great.

Caroline Butcher sounded like a very charming, sincere person. The story of her troubles, joys, problems, and hopes was inspiring. They said saving, and living within one’s means is a social act.  They showed how sincere the group was about not compromising their Integrity. Caroline said the money helped her finances, but maybe even more profound, the group helped her change her view from “me” to “us.” When the reporter outed her in the Sunday meeting she owned her place on the usually-anonymous DAT — that made her shame lose some power, which might be the most profound experience of all. So that was all good.

I was impressed how love and hope kept leaking through the carefully-flat presentation of the format.

The producer will have a way of inserting their agenda which does not match what you said

There was really only one line in the segment that made me sigh with disappointment and a little bit of irritation. It was this:

“What’s so radical about that church’s system to pay off debt is that God doesn’t actually have to be a part of it. It’s really just a community helping each other out.”

Nobody said anything like that. God was a main player in all of it. It is hard to come to his conclusion from what he presented himself!

Image result for Peter Balonon-Rosen marketplace
The producer

On the one hand, it’s true. We would like to help people who don’t trust Jesus and his people. Being mutual with them would be great. Community is powerful. But I don’t think the producer meant to say just that. He was interested in the radicality of having community, not knowing God. He pointedly took God out of the question, for some reason.

So on the other hand what he said wasn’t true and was just plain poor reporting. He tweaked the whole thing on the sign off, after Caroline was up front about her faith journey, after people had allowed him to record them praying, and after Joshua gave a dandy explanation of the Debt Annihilation Team’s biblical foundation in a few sentences. All the people in the piece were open and vulnerable with their faith and the author summed it up with “Faith doesn’t matter anyway; this is all about people getting together, not God.”

Most of us wake up every day with some indecision about what matters or whether we even matter. So I can give the producer, Peter Balonon-Rosen, a pass on his conclusion. Most listeners probably listened to his summary and wondered what people he had listened to, anyway, like I did. But he would probably be a fine dinner guest.

When you get involved with the media, don’t be surprised if the producers produce what they want with the raw material of your story. They’re running a big machine looking for stuff to process and the machine has  some big assumptions to organize our thinking — on purpose or unwittingly.

We are God’s antidote to loneliness

Humans have always been lonely. But people are beginning to think the human condition these days is facing forces that make loneliness life-threatening!

Jesus has a promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” As the Lord’s hands and feet in the present, we are part of the fulfillment of that promise. We are the antidote to loneliness. We are the hug of Jesus. A lot of people are acting self-reliant when they don’t want to be. Way too many people have just given up on real connection. But we are created to alleviate that.

Why are we experiencing loneliness more than ever before? There are several interconnected reasons, according to Ronald Rolheiser and others.

Increased Leisure

Up until the very latest generations of humanity, most people didn’t have the time or energy to spare for their psychological and spiritual needs. They were surviving and usually just plain tired. Today, mainly because our recent ancestors rose from rags to riches, many of us were born into affluence and privilege in the United States. Compared to much of the world, we are all rather privileged in the Empire. The modern condition has set us loose to pursue the depths of ourselves or to pursue any distraction that will divert us from facing the depth of ourselves or provide a false replacement. The recent four-year election campaign and subsequent obsession with the results may be indicative. We have a lot of time to waste on our hands.

The “psychic temperature” has been turned up and is pushing on us. Most of us don’t experience that as an opportunity to grow. We just experience a force pushing us into things, like getting excited over the Superbowl, or freaking out about GMOs, or meticulously grooming our dog, or carefully calculating our food practices. We don’t always know why we are doing things, we are just restless and do more things. It’s like we are searching for a place, but we never reach home. It feels lonely.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are making a home together in Christ. Our faith is not just another leisure activity, just another distraction (although Lord knows it is used that way). It is the goal our restless hearts are seeking. Like Augustine said way back when, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Resting in God is a lot more than a good experience in church. But we are part of finding home. We are people someone can touch and know who are working beyond our mere restlessness together. Some of us never settle down very well, but all of us are held in the process by a love beyond any of us.

Habitat fragmentation

Fragmentation in society

People formerly lived in extended families. There was little that was impersonal in their lives, little privacy. Not so long ago (and still, in some places) people did not have much physical or social mobility. The United States has rushed into something totally different and preaches the change like it is “freedom” and “progress.” Now we live in a society characterized by the nuclear family (at best), impersonality, and much mobility (which shows like International House Hunters normalize). We have greater freedom to choose how we relate, but we are lonelier — catastrophically lonely and often depressed and anxious as a result. We take meds to stay self-sufficient when we might better heal if we could connect to God and others.

The changes in society undercut the interdependence on which relationships are built. We became  habituated to seek privacy and autonomy, to make all our primary relationships chosen ones. When we marry (if we marry or make any love covenants), we break away and make our own nuclear family: a private life with a private house, car and office; plus we want a private room in the house, private cell phone, flatscreen, and so on. We want our kids in private schools, or at least ones we choose. Once we have cut off all our interdependence, we wonder why we are lonely. Even when we live in huge cities, there is no reason to meaningfully connect and we walk the streets wondering how to meet someone, feeling it invades someone’s privacy to talk to them and even taboo to make eye contact.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are audaciously an extended family, a village. Some of us moved in a long time ago and stick with it because we know mobility has some peril for our souls. For many of us, this intimacy and continuity require some re-culturing. We are patient as we all grow, since we know we are all in recovery from the enforced loneliness to which society condemns us.

Future shock

As the future breaks into the present, we experience people, places, objects and organizations and knowledge passing through our lives more and more rapidly. Formerly we might relate to the same people in the same place, in the same institutions (like school or church), according to the same body of knowledge our whole lives. Now, as technology and knowledge explode around us we don’t relate to things or people for very long.

People, places, things are here today and gone tomorrow. Our government leaders disorient us by talking about “alternative facts” — even truth is being manufactured and changes with whoever is in power, no relating necessary, no testing required! Every few years it is like our location has changed and we have moved into a new culture and started over. We may not have changed our address but the culture changed so much that our surroundings are just as disorienting as if we had moved. Our congregations on South Broad and Frankford Ave. are experiencing such gentrification and development that they don’t feel at home in their own neighborhoods!  Science is advancing so rapidly and corporations are acquiring so voraciously that we are not sure where to connect. And we feel very lonely.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We at least provide the opportunity for people to make face to face relationships in the middle of the swirling catastrophe of the future. I hate to call it catastrophe, but it is hard not to see climate change and info synchronicity as forces so large we really need someone to hold onto. The scientists are now tracking loneliness as a disease more deadly than obesity, more fundamental than many other maladies. We are a place where hearts are healed and people learn to find confidence in their future.

 

Media influence

Advertising presents many of our ideals of love, intimacy, freedom, community, laughter, presence as elements of the good life which people have already been attained. Those other people on the screen have what I need! Everyone else apparently has what we can’t seem to attain! We know Jennifer Aniston’s real life has not turned out as close-knit as her character’s on Friends. Nevertheless, we spend hours alone watching people who have attained redemption. We are trained to hope that the screenwriters will tidy up all the loose ends on Downton Abbey — and they do.

Watch just one thing in commercials and TV shows: how often people are touched freely and self-confidently. This daily feature, alone, could make us feel more alone. The lack of being touched is so common among us that it is causing a generation of psychological damage, especially among men. As a society, we are very alone.

As the church, we are the antidote to this. We are a place where real people do real things. We are stubbornly just us, not an idealization or a competition. We don’t choose one another as much as we are chosen to be together by being chosen by Jesus. It is a lot of actual freedom for some of us to bear, but it is a sweet suffering.

Humans have always been lonely. We learn both connection and aloneness as babies. But due to the factors listed, and more, our loneliness seems to be intensifying, even slowly building up pressure as if it might explode into some kind of crisis. What do you think, are the first spasms upon us? What are we becoming? I think Jesus has made his church the antidote to the present malady and to what might be coming. It is not like someone will walk into a meeting and automatically feel connected (although that regularly happens). But we have the solutions to the problem, when it comes to loneliness. We have a lot of damage to repair, but Jesus is still the Healer.

We are the media

The other day at our pastor’s meeting we were talking about communication and all the different ways we try to hold together and influence the world as a network of cells and congregations in Christ. We are pretty good at holding together and influencing the world, but it is difficult.

In the middle of an elaborate dialogue about how we can best communicate, we had a little “Pentecost.” It centered on Facebook. We started talking about what Facebook makes us do to talk to people: how it restricts us, how it commodifies us, and how it tries to use us to make money. We asked, “Why are we doing this? What monster are we paying to communicate? What rules are we learning for relating?”

Someone said, “Why don’t we just desert it and stop using the medium and focus on being the medium? We already have a great communication system. It is called living in community. Let’s focus on being the media, not on conforming to some other rubric. Let’s be face to face, not Facebook.” It was like a little fire burned through us. I heard Peter preaching “Be saved from this wicked and perverse generation!” in Acts 2. I have been building the Facebook pyramid for a long time. Increasingly, it tells me to produce bricks without straw. Why would I willingly do this with all the people I love best?

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