Monthly Archives: April 2009

A Bridge to Somewhere

bridge-la

I’ve visited dozens of churches this year as part of the research for my book. I’ve enjoyed the experience, but I always enjoy coming back to my local church. I think it’s so important to be involved in a local church.

I wanted to take a minute to write about the church I attend, because I think it’s a fascinating example of what a church can look like in a 21st century landscape of Christianity that is going through something of an identity crisis.

The church I attend is called “The Bridge,” and it just started as a partnership between Bel Air Presbyterian (the church I’ve attended for the past four years) and Union Church of Los Angeles, a struggling Japanese congregation in the Little Toyko section of downtown Los Angeles. Essentially, Bel Air Pres—a thriving congregation up in the Hollywood Hills above the posh mansions of Bel Air—struck a deal with the Union Church leadership that would allow a new church to be born and housed on Sunday nights in the Little Tokyo location, where Union and Bel Air folks could worship together and hopefully nurture a self-sufficient congregation that would eventually attract a local crowd from those who live downtown—whether loft yuppies or box-dwelling homeless in nearby Skid Row.

This is the first thing I really like about The Bridge. It’s a partnership. If Christianity is going to thrive in coming decades, we have to be partnership-minded. We have to be willing to get out of our comfort zones and learn from different Christian traditions. It’s so refreshing to be singing and praying and fellowshipping together with people from such different backgrounds who are nevertheless bound by a common cause. But I also like The Bridge because it’s adaptive, flexible, and experimental. It’s people from two churches trying to figure out how to do church together, in a new way (that is really an ancient way that we’ve just forgotten). Who knows if it will work? We’re open-minded, which is exciting, and I’m looking forward to being involved in it as we go forward.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an interesting story about the history of Union Church and its new partnership with Bel Air Pres:

For 91 years, Union Church has served as a religious and cultural home to its Japanese American patrons — in good times and bad. In 1942, for example, community members had to gather at its original site a couple of blocks away to embark on their journeys to World War II internment camps.

At its height, in the late 1970s and ’80s, Union was packed each Sunday with about 350 people, including many children and young adults.

But the forces of assimilation and gentrification have taken their toll, with only about 120 total attending separate English and Japanese services on a recent Sunday…

It was this steady decline that drove Union’s interim pastor, the Rev. Masaya Hibino, to seek the Bel Air partnership.

Hibino was attending a meeting of leaders at the Bel Air church in 2007 when he heard its senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Brewer, describe his vision of turning Los Angeles into “the greatest city for Christ” by, among other steps, connecting churches with one another.

Soon after, Hibino approached one of Bel Air’s other pastors, the Rev. Enock De Assis, and broached the idea of an association.

“I could not see a bright future . . . if I didn’t do something,” said Hibino, 78. “I said, ‘We need to change our church to reach out to the people who move into this area. We need to do something to come [up] with [a] new kind of worship.'”

Last October, the two congregations inaugurated joint monthly Sunday night services at Union that are known as “The Bridge.”…

Bel Air is picking up most of the $150,000 cost to upgrade the Union Church sanctuary with new lighting plus audio and video equipment; Union Church has agreed to kick in $15,000.

Hoping to quell fears of a takeover, Brewer and his fellow pastors emphasize that they envision Union Church as its own unique entity and not as a downtown satellite for their church.

“We respect who they are,” Brewer said. “We’re not trying to change them. We’re trying to add. We’re very careful to make sure it’s a partnership.”

I really hope that this is the case. I hope that The Bridge becomes more than just a “plant” or “satellite campus” but its own congregation. I think it could be a great example of how this sort of church planting can be done by other churches—where it’s not about imperialistic conquering of more territory for A church but rather a strategic, partnership-driven effort to bring the Gospel and THE church to as many places as possible.

FOR THOSE IN L.A. OR VICINITY: I invite you to visit The Bridge. I think you’ll find it interesting, welcoming, and worshipful. We meet Sunday nights at 6pm at 401 E 3rd Street, on the campus of Union Church in the heart of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Before or after the service, you should eat at one of the many great Japanese restaurants around the block. And if you need a new pair of skinny jeans or a fresh v-neck t-shirt, there’s an American Apparel just down the street.

The Rise of the Ironic Class

irony

I have an article in the May/June issue of Relevant magazine entitled “The Rise of the Ironic Class,” which takes a look at why my generation is such an ironic one, what it means for our relationships, for communication, etc…

You can read the whole article here (the picture above is from the article’s title page), but here is a little excerpt:

It’s no secret: our generation—let’s very roughly say those of us currently between the ages of 15 and 40—is very, very ironic. That is, we look at the world, especially pop culture, through a highly sarcastic, “you’ve got to be joking, right?” lens. More self-aware and media savvy than ever, we are a growing class of ironists who speak in terms of pastiche, in Internet bits and pop culture bites, film quotes and song lyrics and “oh no she didn’t!” tabloid tomfoolery. We look the stupidity of culture in the face and kiss it—embracing The O.C. and drinking swill like Pabst because, well, because no one expected it and it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

There are reasons for our embrace of irony. We grew up in a world where earnestness failed us. Cold Wars were waged very sincerely, ideologies were bandied about with the best of intentions. Our parents married and divorced in all earnestness, and wide swaths of American homes were devastated by the sort of domestic disharmony that shattered any pretension of white-picket fence perfection. Meanwhile, we grew up in a constant orgasm of advertising and brand messaging. The conglomerates cornered the markets, the ad agencies figured us out, and MTV sucked our souls dry. But we also became savvy, and with the Internet and all the wiki-democratization it offered, it became easier to see through the charades of various culture industries and power-wielding hegemonies. Flaws were exposed, seedy schemes revealed amid the formerly shrouded machinations of “the man.” Nothing was sacred anymore, and all was ridiculous. (Read the rest…)

Don’t Answer If You Don’t Agree With Me

In the latest pop culture dust-up over California’s Proposition 8, a pair of queens at a beauty pageant this weekend touched off a media firestorm when one of them asked the other for their opinion on gay marriage and that person dared to speak her mind. The queens in question were celebrity blogger Perez Hilton (the self-proclaimed “queen of all media”) and Miss California, Carrie Prejean, and the pageant in question was Miss USA. If you haven’t seen the video clip, you can watch it here. But essentially it goes like this:

[during the judges’ questions stage of the competition]

Perez Hilton: “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?”

Carrie Prejean: “You know what, in my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised. And that’s how I think that it should be: between a man and a woman. Thank you.”

[massively shocked, disappointed look on Perez Hilton’s face]

Prejean’s response was honest. She answered the question. But for Perez Hilton, it was the wrong wrong wrong answer. He gave her a score of zero for the answer.

Hilton, who is openly gay, could hardly contain his venomous anger. On his blog on Monday he fired back by calling Miss California a “dumb bitch” and saying “She gave THE WORST ANSWER IN PAGEANT HISTORY.” Really? What about that “The Iraq” girl? On Tuesday, Hilton told The Today Show that he had expected Prejean to be “better prepared” to answer a question on gay marriage. Because apparently being against gay marriage means you don’t know what you’re talking about? He also said that he wished she had “left her politics and religion out” (even though he asked her a thoroughly political question) and that in his view, Miss USA should be “politically savvy, saying things that will make everyone feel comfortable. I don’t want her to be talking about Jesus Jesus Jesus…”

When asked by another interviewer how he thought Prejean should have responded, Hilton said, “A very simple way she could have answered it is, ‘as a future Miss USA it is my job not to be a politician, but to be someone who represents and inspires the women and the troops, and I think it’s great that the states get to decide for themselves.’ Something like that… she would not have had to insert her own personal politics into it.” But wait, wasn’t Hilton inserting his own “personal politics” into it—forcibly putting Miss California into a situation that pretty much demanded a political response? And wasn’t the answer that he was no doubt hoping for—“Yes, I think gay marriage should be allowed in every state, for all people”—just the sort of political answer he supposedly thinks should be left out of pageants? Perez, my friend, logic and consistency are not your strong suit. Stick to drawing outrageous scribbles on pictures of Britney Spears.

I guess the most alarming thing about this is that Prejean was demonized and scorned for DARING TO TAKE A POSITION. Hilton asked a specific question. Prejean gave a specific answer. It’s absurd to immediately dismiss someone’s point of view just because it isn’t your own point of view. If discourse has truly been reduced to this sort of “you better agree with or you’re a dumb bitch” kindergarten close-mindedness, then the world is in worse shape than even I thought.

Goodbye Solo

The phrase “goodbye Solo” is never uttered out loud in Goodbye Solo, but in the film’s key scene it is the central sentiment. And it is conveyed in an old man’s eyes. It’s not really there, but it’s implied. And the same could be said for Goodbye Solo at large: it’s a film of remarkable restraint and subtle suggestion, where so many “points” aren’t hammered home as much as they are delicately positioned for us to coax them into place. It’s a rare film in the way that it knocks you down without ever having to so much as blow in your direction.

Goodbye Solo is the new film from director Ramin Bahrani, who Roger Ebert calls “the new great American director.” Bahrani previously directed Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007), which was one of the best films I saw last year. Goodbye Solo is equally impressive, though in a more understated way. The film is so ridiculously earnest and straightforward—with no shred of indie exhibitionism—that you might not expect the depth and power that it ultimately communicates. But take Ebert’s word for it when he says, at the end of his review: “Wherever you live, when this film opens, it will be the best film in town.”

Like Chop Shop, a neo-realist gem in which we are allowed to peak in on the lives of impoverished youngsters in some Godforsaken corner of the Bronx, Goodbye Solo plops us down in medias res into the lives of two people who couldn’t be more different and yet find themselves tied together for a short time on life’s long road (in this case, in modern-day Winston-Salem, NC). They are William (Red West), an aging white curmudgeon, and Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), an uber-friendly cab driver who hails from Senegal and becomes William’s preferred driver.

The film gives us little background on these guys. What we know about them is pretty much what they know about each other. Which is not a lot. There are things we want to know—the secrets and history and heartbreaks of these characters—but they are elusive to us because they are elusive to each other. The film is about the relationship between these two men in particular, but it’s also about relationships at large: how even when we need each other, care for each other, and want to be close to each other, we often make friendship more difficult than it need be. It’s hard to really let ourselves be known, even when that’s what we know we need.

Solo reaches out to William and really wants to be his friend. William, cantankerous and unfriendly, puts up walls and refuses to let Solo get too close. And yet the two of them forge a bond, due in large part to Solo’s persistence: he is worried that William is suicidal and wants to help him work through whatever issues he is struggling with. Solo does his best, but in the end William is too committed to a private ownership of his suffering. Like so many of us who prefer to keep our friends and loved ones at arm’s length, William is stubbornly solitary and aggressively distant. He is the one who should be named “solo.”

In the film, it is clear that Solo and William need each other. For whatever reason, fate brought them together at a crucial juncture in their lives. We assume it is because Solo is meant to save William. But alas, you can’t save people who are not willing to save themselves. It’s a relief, really, that Goodbye Solo doesn’t turn into yet another “immigrant teaches old white American how to really live” film. Rather it is a more realistic examination of how two souls converge, connect in fits and starts, and then go their separate ways.

No relationship lasts forever, and sometimes it’s more painful than productive to get wrapped up in another person’s life. But I think the message of Goodbye Solo is that we must seek each other out and love people persistently, even if we’re ill-matched, even if it’s doubtful whether we’ll be lifelong friends (how many “lifelong friends” are any of us granted in life, anyway?).

It might only be for a short time, and in the end we probably won’t transform someone’s life. But there’s something to be said for just being there with someone, for a time. You can only do so much, but sometimes a little can go a long way.

Our Seabiscuit

Susan Boyle. Oh, Susan BOYLE. By now the whole world has seen her oft-twittered, ravenously circulated rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent. If not, well, Google it.

Susan Boyle is the biggest viral success story since Facebook’s “25 Random Things.” She’s certainly the biggest viral success story ever to come out of Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland.

Oh, Susan Boyle. Why are we going absolutely crazy for you? Why did you make Simon Cowell look more smitten than Ryan Seacrest introducing Adam Lambert? Why is Ashton Kutcher posting amorous tweets about you? Why does Oprah want you to come on her show? Why am I writing a blog post about you?

Here are a few guesses:

  • We love something that breaks through our cynicism and truly surprises us. Susan “I live alone with my cat Pebbles” Boyle got on that stage, looking remarkably like Brenda “bird lady vagrant from Home Alone 2” Fricker, and sang her heart out. And she sang well.
  • Susan Boyle is the Seabiscuit of our time. Like that horse in the Tobey Maguire movie who was some sort of metaphorical glimmer of hope in a depressed economy, Susan Boyle is a 47-year-old bastion of light that we can all (via our laptop water coolers) rally around.
  • The song. Don’t underestimate song choice, as Simon would say. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables is the perfect song for this woman. She’s never been kissed, for goodness sake! Of course we are going to be moved when she sings, “And still I dream he’ll come to me / And we will live our lives together / But there are dreams that cannot be / And there are storms / We cannot weather…” It is ironic, though, that such a sad song could become such an iconic, joyful anthem in this context.
  • The Britishness. Maybe it was just me, but the whole thing evoked that thoroughly hard-nosed English spirit—that wonderfully stiff-upper lip, “Victory at all costs,” WWII-era, Churchill-esque affable determination. I mean, here’s a woman who epitomizes the cat lady. She should be at home, sad, resigned to a life of soap operas and knitting wool blankets. But instead she bravely ventured out and launched herself into the pantheon of worldwide Internet celebrity. And she didn’t sacrifice any of her scruples in the process.
  • It’s why we love reality TV. Susan Boyle is one of us. She’s our first grade teacher. She’s the organist at church (in fact, she does volunteer at her Scottish church). She was plucked from obscurity and is now thrilling audiences the world over. It’s a rags to riches fairy tale.
  • Susan Boyle represents a triumph of talent over looks. The judges’ and audience members’ judgmental faces before she started singing are symptomatic of our tendency to over-value appearance, even in a talent competition. But once she started singing, it was a slap in the face reminder that, oh yeah, there can be legitimate beauty and artistry without physical attractiveness.
  • Susan Boyle appears to be totally sincere, unpretentious, and joyful. Her countenance—even while singing a very sad song—was constantly ebullient. She was also modest. Most contestants on these shows have a skewed sense of self-importance. Susan Boyle had the opposite—humility where she deserved pride. And it’s reassuring to know that people like that still exist.

Is “Missional” the new “Emerging”?

The late ’90s had “postmodern.” The first part of the 21st century introduced us to “emerging.” But over the last few years, there has been no bigger buzzword in Christianity than “missional.” It’s a word that has exploded into the popular vernacular of preachers, theologians and seminary professors. It has graced the covers of almost every major Christian publication. It has spawned books, seminars, conferences and endless blog debates. A growing number of congregations now describe themselves as “missional churches.” And proponents of the idea believe you and your church would do well to do the same. But what does it mean?

To read the rest of this article, which I wrote for Biola Magazine’s new issue, click here

And for my exclusive interview with missional expert Ed Stetzer, click here

The Newness of Life

I went home for Easter weekend. Home to Kansas City, where my family lives. I’m writing this in my old bedroom, where most of the stuff I’ve collected over the years but since forgotten about still resides. It’s always a little weird coming home–such a flood of memories. Looking through old yearbooks, scrapbooks, and faded photo albums of almost forgotten family trips, birthdays and azalea festivals. So much has changed since Easter ’89. Relatives have passed away, I have two college degrees, 9/11 happened, etc.

I guess I’ve just been thinking alot about time. How fast it goes. How I’m starting to see wrinkles on my forehead (just barely). How I only have two living grandparents left, one of whom we recently put in a nursing home. How we used to watch The Ten Commandments on TV on Easter night. How at the little Baptist church on Florence Street we sang “Up from the grave He arose!”

Oh, Easter! Oh to live in the light of resurrection, of “life after life after death” (as N.T. Wright would say). Oh to see the sun rise on a Sunday morning. Oh to trade my sorrows for gladness and see the tulips and lilies and daffodils emerge from the long hard winter.

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, who defeated death, time, decay, aging… and everything else that withers and fades.