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Making Sense of Haiti (A Shout Out)

January 25, 2010

The recent and ongoing disaster in Haiti is on all of our minds, and as we watch and read the media coverage of this still-unfolding tragedy, there’s one question we’re all asking:

Why did this happen?

But despite the availability of easy answers to this most basic theological question, we would all do well to pause and take a giant step back before attempting to ascribe meaning to that which remains meaningless.

Rob McWright , a former roommate of mine from my days at Vandy, recently preached an important sermon entitled “Reflections on Haiti.” Rob’s sermon outlines three helpful guidelines for theological reflection on the events in Haiti (while also offering flawless exegesis on Jesus’ first miracle).

Listen and reflect, keeping in mind that any meaning, theological or otherwise, which comes too easily following tragic events such as those we’re presently witnessing in Haiti, is almost certainly wrong.

3. Relocate

January 21, 2010

If you’re someone who knows me, there’s a good chance you’re aware of my current frustration with the location in which I live—South Charlotte. I get asked quite frequently, “How do you like Charlotte?” to which I have no problem responding, “I really don’t like it at all.” (Admittedly, I can’t help but to associate all of Charlotte with South Charlotte.) Having relocated here from Kannapolis just six months ago, I’ve recently come to a very important conclusion: Isolation from what New Monasticism calls the “abandoned places of empire” is, well, dangerous.

Though I took it for granted at the time, living in Kannapolis exposed me to excluded and marginalized individuals in American society. Many of my neighbors were unemployed. Others were struggling to pay for basic medical procedures. And a considerable number of people on my street couldn’t even afford an automobile, which meant they were totally dependent on public transit to get to and from work, job interviews and even the grocery store.

My point here, of course, is not to glorify poverty or even living in the midst of poverty. Rather, as I write this post from my new apartment in South Charlotte, surrounded by big box stores and multi-million dollar homes, what I really wish to say is that where we choose to live unavoidably shapes us as people in profound ways (not least of which, our moral character). That which we value and place meaning in is inextricably linked to the locations in which we live. Sure, we can quell the effects of materialism and the pursuit of money (both defining characteristics of affluent communities like South Charlotte) by living intentionally and in other ways, but ultimately there’s no substitute for living in the places abandoned by this cruel empire.

The voice of justice is needed in all places and in all times, but it’s most needed in the neighborhoods and communities all around us where injustice takes the dire forms of hunger and homelessness. Counterintuitive though it might sound, a life positioned to address the needs of others is arguably one of the most important considerations for a life of simplicity.

Excursus: My Top 10 “Intentionality Songs”

January 6, 2010

My last post got me thinking about the important role of music in extending the “common thread” of intentionality into the otherwise unintentional areas of our lives. For me, there’s nothing quite like music when it comes to centering my thoughts in an intentional manner. So I thought I’d digress a bit from the topic of simplicity to compile and share the following list of my top 10 “intentionality songs”—songs that keep my thoughts on things that matter to me.

10. “Jesus Christ,” Woodie Guthrie

9. “Society,” Eddie Vedder

8. “Imagine,” John Lennon

7. “Mr. Wendal,” Arrested Development

6. “We Can’t Make it Here,” James McMurtry

5. “Masters of War,” Bob Dylan

4. “Ain’t No Reason,” Brett Dennon

3. “Do the Evolution,” Pearl Jam (This is also an incredible video!)

2. “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil Young

1½. “With God on Our Side,” Bob Dylan

1¼. “Changes,” 2Pac

1. “No Shelter,” Rage Against the Machine

2. Live Intentionally

January 4, 2010

Another important step in simplifying our lives can be described in terms of intentionality. American culture is marked by its ability to advert our attention. Commercials (“advert-isements”), television shows, movies, magazines, music, the internet, and radio, together with many other forms of media, all posses the ability for perpetual distraction.

That’s not to say all media is bad in and of itself. Rather, what I’m pointing to is the need to curtail our consumption of media precisely by being more intentional about the role we allow it to play in our lives. When we aren’t intentional about the amount, content and forms of media we consume on a daily basis, it’s almost inevitable that we will get sucked into and consumed by the nihil that is American Pop Culture. Without intentionality in our lives, we become addicted to random stimulation and numb to the real issues in need of our attention.

So how does intentionality work?

Well, for starters, living intentionally presupposes that you can identify something that you are passionate about—ideally, something that matters (i.e., something outside the realm of Pop Culture and the world of sports).

Assuming you know your passion(s), commit to seeking out literature and media that bears some relationship to your passion(s). Books are usually the easiest to identify in this regard. Amazon.com is a good resource for finding books that address something you’re passionate about. Documentaries are another good place to start. In fact, if you don’t know what you’re passionate about, Hulu documentaries may be one the best places to start. Some of my favorites include Manufacturing Consent, The Corporation and Before the Music Dies. (If these don’t sell you on intentionality, well, I don’t know what to tell you.) And here’s the best part: they’re all completely free to stream.

The most important part of intentionality for me is selecting media or literature, be it a book, a movie, a public radio station (NPR), a song, an album—heck, even a blog works—for use as a conversation partner, not just based on entertainment value alone. That is, shy away from media that doesn’t elicit or create opportunities for some form of response. For example, if one book references a movie as meaningful, rent it and watch it. (I saw Hotel Rwanda just last month for this very reason.) If a documentary mentions a musician of relevance to your passion(s), find his or her music and listen to it—read lyrics, decipher song meanings, make connections. (Dylan and Neil Young are perhaps the two best examples of musicians that elicit responses from their listeners.) If NPR references an important article…well, you get the idea. If you’re living intentionally, you should be able to point to a common thread of meaning in your life. I’m using media and literature as an example here, but the thread, of course, should carry into all spheres of your life.

What I’m calling “intentionality” or “living intentionally” may not be the easiest thing at first. With time, however, it begins to free us (or me at least) from the world of meaninglessness, drawing us (me) deeper and deeper into issues that matter and further and further from those that don’t, which, interestingly enough, just may be the point of simplicity in the first place.

1. De-clutter

January 3, 2010

It’s not always easy to part ways with our stuff, but its importance can’t be overstated. De-cluttering promotes a life detached from our things, frees up time and energy and fosters charitableness.

To start, identify an article of clothing, a piece of furniture or some random bauble that you no longer use. (Some of the things I’ve identified in the last several days include an umbrella, a sleeping bag, books, a fleece jacket, a suit and a few other articles of clothing.)

Next, rather than just making a mental note of the item(s), go ahead and actually move the items to a specific location in your home. Once you’ve collected 20 items or so, work on identifying recipients. Perhaps you have a friend who would like a book or movie you’re getting rid of, or maybe you know a family in need of one or more of your clothing items. Because it creates community, personal giving is preferable to anonymous donations (in my humble opinion). But either one is better than hording your stuff!

Whatever you do, don’t just throw your unwanted stuff out. If you must, recycle what you can, but there are numerous organizations such as Crisis Assistance Ministry and Common Heart, both of which are located here in Charlotte, that are more than happy to take your items and put them in the hands of individuals that may actually need them. If possible, seek out organizations like Crisis Assistance and Common Heart that will distribute your items free of cost.

Finally—and this is undoubtedly the hardest but also the most important part of de-cluttering—avoid replacing the items you’ve parted with. After all, the primary aim of de-cluttering is to engender simplicity, not to replace our “old” things with newer, more advanced stuff; that’s the complete opposite of simplicity. If simplifying your life is your goal, you should seek to posses less stuff at the end of each day.

With time, once you’ve jettisoned all of your unwanted stuff (the things that would have just ended up in the annual yard sale anyway), de-cluttering gets pretty difficult. Try to remember that the difficulty associated with de-cluttering stems from an unhealthy attachment to our stuff in the first place. The harder it is to get rid of something, the more important it is to do just that, and the more freeing it will be in the end.

The Pursuit of Simplicity

January 2, 2010

I’m not very big on New Year’s resolutions. I can’t remember ever resolving to change an aspect of my life at 12:00am on January 1. The whole concept just seems incredibly artificial to me. I mean, if you’re someone who looks ahead each year to New Year’s Day as a springboard for commencing a new and improved life, are you really concerned with change? Or, could it be that this annual ritual amounts to nothing more than a veiled attempt to validate your failure, a way to tell yourself “I attempted that,” “I gave it the old college try” and it’s just not realistic or possible.

By forcing us to take on a semi-spartan existence for a few days or weeks (or, if you’re really committed/desperate, months), resolutions of this sort actually serve, it seems to me, as a subconscious method to reaffirm our present lifestyles.

I’m well aware of how cynical this theory may sound, but understand that I’m writing this post with the crazy assumption that the need for analyzing and adjusting our lifestyles is a daily, even an hourly one—if you’re truly committed to change, that is.

“Simplicity” is probably the best word to describe the change I’ve been trying embody for the past year (especially the past several months), and over the next week or so I’ll be posting some of the practical steps I’m currently taking to simplify my life. My hope is that the suggestions will help you to pursue simplicity in your own life. (I’m not trying to sound superior, I promise.)

The suggestions are not dependent upon complete adherence. To the contrary, each suggestion stems from my own experience and, accordingly, leaves room for frequent missteps. The pursuit of real change must accept the inevitability of failure, for change is always gradual, an ongoing process. (I’m reminded of Gandhi’s language of “experimentation” here.) Those committed to change, I’m convinced, must begin the pursuit anew with each new day, each new hour, each new minute…

NB: I’m not perfect (far from it, in fact), but, like Wesley, I’m trying to be.

To be continued…

Parts 5 and 6 of 6: A Long Overdue Conclusion

December 20, 2009

Part 5:

In one of the original Brüno clips, Sacha Baron Cohen attends an Arkansas gun show and interviews a hunter named Daniel, a slow talking, thickset, provincial male. After asking Daniel a few questions, Brüno thickens his stereotypical gay accent and asks “What do you think it is that makes shooting the number one leisure activity for gay guys at the moment?” The hunter replies, “Now that I don’t know. I don’t know any gay people. And I’m not gay!” With Daniel’s homophobia all but obvious, Brüno poses one final question—“Why are you denying it? I’m gay too.”to which Daniel responds, “If you call me gay one more time, I’m fixin’ to knock every tooth out of your head!” The interview ends with Brüno stumbling over his words, too afraid to ask another question.

Having watched this and most other Sacha Baron Cohen clips numerous times, I’ve often wondered if any other insinuation than that of homosexuality could have possibly elicited the same response from Daniel. Would he have threatened to knock every tooth out of Brüno’s head if the implication had been that he was a poor hunter or a Democrat or a drug dealer or even a Klan member? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Part 6:

Distinguishing between things masculine and feminine is largely a matter of interpretation nowadays. In fact, within the burgeoning academic field of Masculinity Studies—yes, there is such a thing—theorists seldom speak of “masculinity,” opting instead to speak of “masculinities,” highlighting the political nature of the former term—after all, who gets to say what’s “masculine” and what’s not?

But the definition of masculinity hasn’t always been as elusive as it is today. Throughout just about all of known history, the meaning of manhood—political in all times—was as rigidly defined as the M.A.’s Code of Chivalry. I think a case can be made that the intellectual shift from an unbending (though ever-changing) conception of masculinity to the masculinities of today coincided with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Early on in the Industrial age, working-male fathers maintained a claim to masculinity by assuming the role of “provider” or “breadwinner.” As industrialism’s dependency on manual labor eventually waned, however, so too did the biological basis to sexual differentiation. Think about it: Isn’t brute strength essentially superfluous in an age when a large portion of the American labor force sits in front of a computer terminal from 9:00 to 5:00?

Is it really that hard to understand why so many of today’s males find themselves struggling to maintain their rightful, God-given claim to maleness?

Fortunately, for those insecure in their manhood, the current vagueness of masculinity actually makes it more attainable than ever. As counterintuitive as this might sound, it’s true; among all of the warring societal interpretations of masculinity today, there’s really only one feature of what it means to be a dude that remains common to nearly all (heterosexual) conceptions thereof: Real men aren’t gay.

Males know this to be true; the further we distance ourselves from gay men, the louder we express our antipathy for homosexuals, the more frequently we use terms such as “gay,” “fag,” or “homo” in reference to other males, the manlier we feel and the manlier we are held to be among our male friends and even some females.

This works because heterosexual masculinities are currently constructed in relation to homosexuals and, for fear of confusion, women. A male’s claim to masculinity, in other words, is, in a strange sense, actually predicated on homophobia and sexism. But are males, even those pushed to the margins of masculinity, willing to admit this?

When pressed, most heterosexual males can produce the most elaborate justifications for their sentiment of hatred toward homosexual males. (I’ve even heard a self-proclaimed nihilist appeal to moral axioms to support his contempt for homosexuals!) But, as a society, and especially as males in American society, do we really believe our hatred for homosexuals stems from our moral integrity? Could it be that our alleged morality on the topic of homosexuality is really nothing more than a smokescreen for our innermost insecurities and fears associated with being anything less than manly?

So what’s the solution? Is there one?

As always, antiquated masculinities and femininities will eventually give way to new gender roles in response to the emerging exigencies of men and women in specific times and places, and we need not interfere with this natural evolutionary process. Our need today is not for manipulated or contrived gender roles but for tolerance and acceptance rooted in understanding—self-understanding.

Again, let me stress that I’m not promoting Brüno! Still, if you were to see the movie, I think you’d be amazed to find just how much a scantily clad gay Austrian fashion reporter can tell us about ourselves and the actual source of our hatred.