Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

I know blogging has been light these past few months...we'll see what the new year holds, until then, Merry Christmas from the Eagle and Child. And may you have a blessed new year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Courage of the Ordinary

A few years ago, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a report on grade inflation in American Universities. One of the startling examples from that report: 80% of all Harvard students graduate with honors; nor was Harvard alone in grade inflation. When this is the case, “with honors” becomes meaningless. (Princeton has instituted policies to reverse the trend – and I commend them for their courage in their stand).

Beyond the college silliness...a real feeling of entitlement. Some lay the blame at helicopter parenting (hovering over and intervening way too much in children's lives -- see this story on the mom who called her daughter's boss). Some commentators believe the whole generation born after 1980 is one that is self-absorbed and lazy. These critiques are over the top and unfair, but they do reflect a truth (for it does take a lot of truth to keep error afloat) that building self-esteem has been a running theme through the lives of these children, and many times that self-esteem came at the cost of recognizing true excellence.

Conservative pundits decry these trends with such frequency that it has become cliche (read the comments that follow upon this news story on Millenials). However, a semi-libertarian hearkening back to some imagined social darwinism isn't exactly an attractive alternative. If a deflation of excellence to trivia has lead us to a decadent arrogance, then a tough nosed determination to value nothing but excellence will lead us to a dystopian nightmare in which the clever, the strong, and the ruthless would have their way with us lesser mortals. Honoring excellence without honoring human dignity leads to tyranny; honoring human dignity without honoring excellence leads to decadence. Somehow, we need both.

For this reason, I believe in celebrating the courage of the ordinary. The courage of the ordinary is what George Bailey exhibits in It's a Wonderful Life - he passed up many opportunities for adventure and greatness because he was committed the people in his life. He lived what on the surface appeared to be a quite ordinary life ... he courageously stayed committed to family, friends, and his small place in the world. And then, in the moment of crisis, he was blessed to see what a great impact he indeed had. The film Peter Pan makes much the same point. As the children are talking with their mother about their father's outburst of temper, Mrs. Darling tries to explain their father's courage of the ordinary:

Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There's the bravery of thinking of others before one's self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor... nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.

Michael: Where did he put them?

Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer... and he does. And that is why he is brave.

The courage lies in sacrificing the luxury of charting our own course so that we might take care of others. This is different from a mindless conformity; the courage lies in the choice. The courage lies in being faced with the dizzying opportunity to run away with the circus, to abandon committments, to chuck it all and follow the Grateful Dead, to run off in search of ourselves ... whatever the siren call to extraordinary life might be...and voluntarily and willfully declining.

Those who have chosen adventure and those who have chosen the ordinary usually have a mutual disdain for each other. Emblematic of this disdain might be the turf wars between coyboys and farmers in the mythic old west. The third Pirates of the Caribbean carried something of this theme as well - the freewheeling and self defining pirates against the ordered and boring merchant class. I suggest that such mutual antipathy is unhelpful. We have a need both for adventurers and for the ordinary. For the adventurers open up new realms of human possibility - they test the limits of human capacity - whether physical or intellectual. But the ordinary provide the stability and the groundedness that make the adventurers' exploits possible. Astronauts don't blast off into space without a lot of ordinary workers who manufacture rockes. Pirates and exporers don't sail the seas without a lot of ordinary workers who build ships, twine rope, forge steel, and create nautical instruments.

I believe that God created each human life as having value. That does not mean that the value is expressed in the same way. Part of the glory that God has placed upon mankind lies in the very expanse of capacities that are given us. The way to honor the varying expressions of God's glory in mankind is not through a one-size-fits-all policy where all children get A's. It is not through diminishing the accomplishments of the great so that the rest of us don't feel bad. The right way is through honoring glory each in it's kind. The glory of Olympic athletes is different from that of Little League - the former we expect astounding feats of physical prowess and we glory in the exceptional feats on the field. In the latter, we expect lessons about teamwork, fair play, hard work, good sportsmanship and respectful competition - and we glory as the children learn these lessons. Therein is the difference in the courage of the Extraordinary versus the courage of the ordinary.

What think you? Is there something to this, or are they but windy words from a decidedly too ordinary commentator?

Soli Deo Gloria


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Help Stop Child Slavery -- a simple way to help

Phil Russell, one of my colleagues from Rotary, filled me in on a great project that he's working on. It's a website called

If you saw the film Amazing Grace, then you learned something of the story of William Wilberforce, the British politician who crusaded to end the slave trade (see my film review for more info). A part of the promotion of the film has been the call to end modern day slavery. Yes, slavery continues in shadowy corners of our society, and in the unseen fringes of the developing world. is a great resource site, with information about the problem of child slavery, trafficking, lists of antislavery organizations and newsletters, and resources to educate yourself about this scourge.

However, it also is a fundraising site. Here's how it works. They ask you to donate your browser's home page. This is the page that comes up every time you open your web browser. Normally, this home page goes straight to Yahoo or Google. If you donate it to, then it goes to their Google based search page. On that page will be an advertisement and a Google search bar. The advertisement sales generate revenue. This revenue will then be donated directly to organizations allready combatting childhood slavery (see the list of organizations here). Many of these organizations are Christian ministries, like World Vision, Salvation Army, etc. My friend Phil serves on the board of directors, and I know him to be a man of integrity...the proceeds are going where he says they're going.

The great thing is, this doesn't cost you a thing. You still get great searches. You get exposed to a few banner ads on the search page (but you're exposed to ads any which way), but as with all advertising, you pay attention only to that which interests you. A simple way to funnel some funds toward a great end.

Perhaps you're wanting to do more...check out the Salvation Army's suggestion page of things you can do to combat slavery and sexual trafficking.

Related Posts:
Fighting the Evil of Modern Day Slavery
From the Presbyterian Global Fellowship - Conviction about Justice

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A friend in need

My friend Lew Ross made the paper today.

Lew and I are quite different. Lew's a skate punk, shaved-head, hardcore Anabaptist. I'm a theater-geek, LL Bean, good 0l boy Calvinist. Lew runs a house church. I'm in an institutional Presbyterian church. But here's the rub. Lew knows the same Jesus that I know...a real person Jesus who died and rose and ascended. A real person Jesus who pours out the Holy Spirit and does unexpected things and takes us unexpected places and puts unexpected people in our paths. Lew's relationship with the living Jesus is on a white hot edge of faith - and he trusts Jesus to provide.

So Lew made the papers because he's got a bunch of hurting people that he loves on in the name of Jesus - he brings these folks into his home and they worship and it's sweet. The problem is, his home has no heat. And things are starting to get chilly around here. When Lew's church gathers in his living room, everyone keeps on their coats, gloves and hats because it's pretty darn cold. Enter the Cincinnati Enquirer. They're collecting cash for families all across the region to meet specific "christmas wishes" - and the Rosses are one of those families.

You can check out Lew's weblog. Any encouragement you can offer would be a blessing.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Why is the Golden Compass a big deal?

Have you heard the flap about the new film The Golden Compass? Catholics and Evangelicals are upset because the book is a not-very-subtle slap at Christianity. But now atheists are apparently upset that the film waters down the book's atheist critiques.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of it all. All the protests simply generate free publicity for the "shocking" and "irreverent" flavor of the year. Honestly, the controversey is really old news...the books have been out for years now, and their contents are not really all that secret. It's a well worn story that author Phillip Pullman's intent was to offer an anti-Narnia...a well crafted tale that undermines theistic belief.

Should parents be aware of these things before they take their children to see the film....of course. As a parent, I put every film through a vetting process (reading lots of reviews about content). It's like the wild west out there in media, and my job is to protect my children...from all angles. I wouldn't let my 7 year old see the Lord of the Rings either, though for vastly different reasons.

I have a humble suggestion for Christians who want to protest The Golden Compass. Rather than putting so much energy into protesting, just tell better stories. The compelling seduction in Pullman's books is that he's an engaging storyteller. However, he chose to tell a compelling story because CS Lewis had told some ripping good ones too. Where are the Tolkeins, Chestertons, Sayers and Miltons of our age? They're out there.

So tell better stories; make better art; play more compelling music...for we understand that beauty has a source; we know that all good stories have their groundings in the Great Story. Be not afraid...Philip Pullman hasn't written the final chapter, just an interlude.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What is the United States of America for? -- betterment

Yesterday's post bears some clarification - when I speak of "what we stand for" - the 'we' in the statement was about the United States, not about the Christian Church, nor about self-identified conservatives, nor about emergent neo-puritans.

Here's the rub. This nation is at war. This war not only pits our nation against agressors overseas, but it also pits our citizens against each other as we try to figure out how to move ahead. Much of the public discourse I hear is acrimonious, accusatory, inflammatory, and just plain angry. Every tint and shade on the political spectrum is beating its own ideological drum.

I hear few voices calling us back to our nation's ideals.

And so I propose to spend some time reflecting upon ''What is the United States of America for?" -- What is compellingly attractive about this nation? Of course when we speak of ideals, we must remember that every person and people lapses from their ideals and falls short of the mark. Even so, it is still worthwhile to reflect on our ideals, if nothing else but to provide us a way forward. Interestingly, the Teaching Company offers a course on this very topic, called American Identity. When it goes on sale, I'll likely get it. The synopsis talks about "habits of mind" that are general traits of Americans, and I like that. Rather than a litmus test, there is more of a general shape of being -- and it is in that spirit that I'd like to reflect on a few traits that I've observed.

The first of these is the idea of Betterment. I prefer the term "Betterment" to it's younger cousin "Self-Improvement". "Self-Improvement" is the bailiwick of pearly-toothed pitchmen peddling their books, seminars, and ten week courses. It has spawned a whole genre of books from which my only gleaning has been "Never buy a book that features the author's photo as the most prominent feature of the cover" (and that especially goes for Christian titles).

"Betterment" meanwhile feels older, more patient, more in tune with my sensibility that any kind of change takes a bloody long time and more effort than I really like putting forth. We see this strain of American Character in the aphorisms of Ben Franklin and the Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards. The persistence of the Chatauqua Institution is but a holdover of a 19th century trend of holding such institutes all across the United States.

Many of our heroes are self-educated people who have worked up from humble origins to achieve greatness: Abraham Lincoln learning to read the classics by firelight in his log cabin, Eisenhower the farm boy from Abeline who held his own amongst the brightest figures of his generation, Thomas Edison who was called "addle-headed" by his schoolmaster, Booker T Washington who rose up from slavery to become a foremost advocate for education and founder of institutions, and the list goes on.

The unique hue to betterment that we see in American society is that betterment is best enjoyed as a self-initiated thing. Of course, we have any number of coaches, cheerleaders, exhorters, and nannys who will pull people along. Yet underneath, we seem to understand that Betterment must begin must be an intrinsic thing. The desire to improve one's standing cannot be foisted upon another person. The best we can do for others is offer opportunity...we cannot then take their hand and make them seize said opportunity.

What then of good old Calvinistic doctrine that says humanity is "completely unable?" That docrine means to say we're unable to do things that please God without the prior work of the Holy Spirit healing our hearts and pointing them toward the Westminster Confession says, "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet, so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil." (ch 7.3-7.4).

Said doctrine points us as Christians toward the kind of Betterment we ought to seek. The United States of America, in guaranteeing "pursuit of happiness" does not guarantee that we will all follow the right path toward happiness. We're only guaranteed the liberty to pursue it. In the same vein, the United States has a strain of betterment, but difference in the house on what actually leads to betterment. Education and improvement of the mind is of great value, but is it the greatest? Physical fitness and stewardship and care of the body is a fine thing, but is it the best thing?

It would be somewhat dualistic to pit spiritual betterment against such things. I would suggest that Christians should be able to pursue betterment of body, mind, relationships, and other parts of life as expressions of their spiritual growth. Our faith in the Lordship of Christ should lead us toward betterment in all areas of our lives. One quick look at Baxter's A Christian Directory will show you that the Puritans viewed all of life as the fields in which our spiritual committments bear fruit.

Soli Deo Gloria