Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I'm Done with the American Dream

I don't remember the first time I heard the term "American Dream," but this pithy little cultural descriptor has been batted around by social commentators for as long as I can remember. It's what drives us. It's why we climb out of bed at ungodly hours, drug ourselves with $3.50 coffee from Starbuck's, take our lives in our hands on the freeway and spend eight hours (and often more) fulfilling someone else's American Dream, in hopes that, somewhere along the line, we'll somehow find and realize ours.

We've heard it so often, we don't even think about it much. It's just there. Yeah. The American Dream. But ... what exactly is the American Dream, anyway?

If no definition quickly jumps to the forefront of your mind, don't feel like the Lone Ranger. I don't think it's supposed to. The fact that the "American Dream" is for most of us a rather vague thing is, I believe, the genius of its design. I can't prove this, of course, but I'm pretty sure this shadowy, nebulous catch-all for American aspirations is, like almost everything else "American," the creation of some advertising wizard.

Whatever it may have been, once upon a time, the American Dream today is mostly about money. And not about getting money or having it, but mostly about being able to spend it. Advertising agencies spend millions trying to convince us that something most of the rest of the world would consider an incredible luxury (or downright profligate) is something we can't live without.

Drive around the average middle-class neighborhood on a warm Saturday afternoon and count the number of two-car garages which do not have room for two cars because at least one stall is full of stuff. Note the number of RVs, and tarp-covered watercraft and snowmobiles that sit unused week after week in the driveways. The great American pastime is not Baseball, it's buying. And we're so jaded -- we already have so much stuff, that it's not the purchased thing itself, but the act of acquisition that we crave. Not convinced? Ever watched what people buy at garage sales? I rest my case.

Acquisition is at the core of the American Dream. It's all about getting something you don't yet have. In fact, it's an addiction. How else could so large a portion of the American populace have become so enamored of Donald and Ivana Trump? The Donald, who subsequently traded his trophy wife in for a newer model, Marla Maples, wrote "The Art of the Deal." I'm still amazed that a man could be so lionized for writing a book in which taking advantage of people financially is described as an art form. It was Trump's contention that the real fun wasn't the thing itself, but the getting of the thing. It was the Deal itself that he dreamed about.

One of his most talked about deals was one in which he got a large yacht for about 10 percent of its estimated value. He didn't even want the yacht. It wasn't even part of the deal he was there to negotiate. But at some point in the talks, it came up, and Trump saw a chance to take it for a fraction of its actual worth. He couldn't resist.

And poor Ivana? It says a lot about our country that "trophy wife" is a job description to which a significant number of women actually aspire. She spent a few years jet-setting around on Trump's credit card while he did his deals, then came away with a fortune in the settlement. Not to mention her Book Deal. In fact, you don't even need to be married to a Trump anymore, to cash in big. Palimony suits can net you everything you'd get from a divorce settlement, as long as you don't get foxed into a pre-nup. Such a deal.

Since Trump made his big splash, greed has become not only permissible but fashionable. Mergers and Acquisitions became the ultimate power occupation. People wore power ties, had power lunches. "Hostile takeover" now rivals golf as the most popular sport among the super-rich. Speaking of sports, somewhere along the line, those "old school" heroes that once played for love of the game stopped competing for the Stanley Cup, a Super Bowl ring or Olympic Gold and sought to become the Highest Paid Player or negotiate the Biggest Endorsement Contract.

When America got a little queasy with all this exercise of raw greed and threatened to go spiritual, scientologists such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise did their bit to give acquisition a religious underpinning. A "clear" Travolta, for example, went out and bought his own personal airliner. His lifestyle has been the subject of a number of respectful articles in popular magazines. And the arbiters of American culture (otherwise known as TV programming executives) gave us the soft, feminine side of avarice with Martha Stewart (whose employees might dispute that dear Martha has a "soft" side) and the pseudo-spiritual pop-psychology talk show Oprah! Oprah is Acquisitions Nice. She blows kisses while her agent plays hardball renegotiating her TV contract. She has her own magazine, which is primarily a forum for showcasing all the stuff she has acquired.

Not to be left out, the American Church has done it's best to keep pace. Robert Fuller's Crystal Cathedral in California became one of the most notable (but certainly not the only) monuments to a sort of Celestial Capitalism. Amway and other pyramid-style get-rich-quick sales schemes were started by ... yes, Christians. Around the same time, a number of charismata-oriented churches managed to find in the Bible the long hidden Prosperity Gospel. Hosanna! God Wants You Wealthy! Believe and Receive!!

Thanks to Oprah, shopping -- always a guilty pleasure for many American women, is now just good therapy. One popular Health and Wealth Gospel advocate, a few years back, made no bones about it: Having problems? Feeling blue? No need to kneel at the foot of the cross -- go get your nails done! Buy that new dress! Redecorate!!!

Well, I'm done. You can pay $3.50 for a cup of coffee -- and $350 for a new XBOX, $3,500 for the big screen TV, $35,000 for an SUV and $350,000 for that step-up townhome if you want. It is, after all, the patriotic thing to do. Can't let the Engine of American Commerce stall. But I'm joining the ranks of the unpatriotic. I'm done propping up the always just-out-of-reach American Dream.

Actually, I've been a secret member of Acquisitions Anonymous for sometime: I cancelled my cable contract and stopped watching broadcast TV six years ago. (I do have a smallish TV, however. It's a gift form my older son, given to me when he bought his 25-incher. On it, I watch movies, which I take seriously and consider a spiritual discipline. Really.) But now I'm coming out. I drive a 14-year-old car only because I still can't figure out how to entirely do without one, but I prefer to ride the bicycle I picked up at a garage sale 12 years ago for $25 dollars and would be thrilled to take the light rail to work if it went anywhere near my job. Most of my furniture is other people's cast offs. My nicest sweaters cost me under a dollar apiece. My favorite jacket -- real leather -- cost me $6 because the zipper didn't work. But the piece de la resistance was the house, a good-sized three-bedroom bi-level with two-car garage on a quiet street in a good neighborhood: Gave it to my ex-wife in the divorce settlement. Didn't see a dime. The most freeing thing I've ever done in my life. I honestly haven't missed it -- or the lawn mowing, cleaning, upkeep, house payment, insurance and utility bills -- not even for a single day. And I'm going through what little unused stuff I still have left and I'm divesting, down-sizing, streamlining, simplifying.

If that's not treasonous enough: I don't dream about winning the lottery. In fact, I've never even bought a lottery ticket. Never will. Not because I think the lottery is wrong, which I do, but because I really, honestly have absolutely no desire to be rich like The Donald and have my very own trophy wife and a yacht. Or a personal airliner. Or a Martha Stewart home that Oprah would want to picture on a spread in her magazine.

There, I've said it. Hang me for a traitor, but here I stand.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Atheist Hies Priest into Court Under Italian Deception-for-Gain Law

At first I thought it was a joke, but apparently, it's for real. See this Associated Press news item. An atheist is asking an Italian court to rule on whether a Roman Catholic priest practiced a form of fraud under that country's law by asserting in a church publication that Jesus Christ was actually a real person.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Spider Eyes

I can't find the spider now. When I got out of the bathroom, it was gone. But for about an hour this morning, I lay in my bed and watched it on my bedroom ceiling.

I can't sleep past 7:00, but I've committed, for a time, to remaining in bed until 8:00 on Saturday mornings. There's a million things I could do. Many of them really need to be done -- the washing, a Christmas present that didn't wrapped and delivered, rousting my 14-year-old son for another crack at his undone homework, and on and on. But for a little while, between 7:00 and 8:00, I try not to do, as a sort of Sabbath discipline.

So, today, I just watched the spider. For a long time, it sat still, near the wall on my left. Then it started wandering along the wall moving in one general direction, but taking little diagonal left- and right-hand bunny trails, as if it was looking for something. What, I couldn't imagine. After a long while, the spider suddenly made a hard right turn and headed across the center of the ceiling -- crawling a ways, then stopping, doing a little slide to the left, to the right, then on again -- allllll thhhhheeeee waaaaaayyy to the other wall on my right.

I tried to imagine the spider's world. As I did so, my world inverted, and suddenly, I was on a vast, flat white expanse. In front of me nothing but what to me would look like two- or three-foot high bumps, likemoguls on a ski slope. As far as my spidery eyes could see, in every direction, nothing but bumpy road.

Back in my bed, I wondered if the spider is looking for something to eat. Somewhere, behind one of those bumps, some little bit of a fly or other miniscule bug-like breakfast tidbit might be cowering. Or maybe it's bored, and just looking for a change of scenery. But when the spider got all the way to the other wall, it stopped for a while, then made another right and started creeping along that wall. It continued its trek to the corner, then made another right and goes allllllll thhhhhheeeee waaaayyyyyy across to the other side. Then the spider abruptly struck out diagonally, and followed a rather erratic course across the middle again to the fourth wall across the way.

Well, you've seen it all, pal. Now what? I wondering if the spider's ... well, frustrated? Maybe looking for a way out?

I wondered if the spider could see me, with its little spider eyes, in my bed, watching and wondering. If only that spider knew what I know, I thought. In my head, I shout, Hey!! Look Up! All the cool stuff is up here!

Suddenly, the earth beneath my feet collapsed to nothing, and in a moment, I found myself in the deepest depths of the ocean of space. The universe lay before me, a stunningly, inconceivably vast expanse -- a glowing tapestry of stars and gaseous clouds and millions upon millions of galaxies. And the unseen Voice shouted, "Hey!! Look up ....'

And I began to pray, with fear and trembling -- hungry, desperately wanting a change of scenery, but most of all, holding on to my hope that there's really a Way Out, "Lord, I want to know what you know."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Good Shepherd

I received news this week that Joe Vitunic, pastor of Church of the Savior in Ambridge, Pa., was leaving the church he started more than 20 years ago. He was leaving, he wrote, because he did not think he was the right person to lead the church forward. It was sad news for me.

When I first walked in the door of Church of the Savior, in Ambridge, Pa., seven years ago, I was, frankly, sick of the institutional church, the Episcopalian variety in particular.

I had walked out of my Episcopal parish back in Denver about a year earlier and found respite for a time (too short a time) in a small Vineyard fellowship tucked away in a rented room at a local community center and run by a small group of lay people. But my then wife was accepted to Trinity Seminary in Ambridge that same year, so I had recently arrived with my family in the Pittsburgh area. My wife was expected to find a place to minister with an Episcopal Church during her two-year educational stint, but I had I doubted I could join her. After visiting a handful of them, I was moving beyond doubt to certainty. I was weary, angry, lonely, confused, defensive, depressed ... and desperate for a touch of the Holy Spirit.

We had dinner one night with another seminary family, and as we discussed the possibilities for church involvement and I whined about my misgivings, they suggested I try Joe Vitunic's curch. With great misgivings, I did, and oh, the difference, the difference to me.

In another life, Joe had been an engineer and had built a fairly comfortable life, but instead of reveling in his career prospects, he found himself restless, dissatisfied. He couldn't shake the idea that he was called to something more. At a time when most young families are remodeling that house they intend to raise the kids in and socking away that nest egg to retire comfortably on, Joe and Cindy began to pray about it, and not long afterward put every last penny they had into Joe's seminary education.

Joe had a soft spot for kids. While at seminary, he and a friend started a children's after-school ministry in what little time they had to spare from their studies. It was no big deal. By his own admission, Joe was no great shakes at organization and administration. He had no long range plan, no mission statement, no three-step program for growth of a future citywide youth program. Joe had some hand puppets and used them to tell the kids stories. That was pretty much it. But the little ministry grew. The word got around. Weary moms who dropped their kids off mostly to get a break began to realize there was more to Joe than a child care provider. After the first week of being dragged in the door, the kids were suddenly excited about going. (Hurry up Mom, we'll be late!")

Some of these awestruck moms started sticking around after, to find out who this guy was. He got to know them and soon spent time visiting their homes. People began asking him when he was going to start his church. This took Joe completely by surprise. It had never occurred to him. Besides, a seminarian walking out of school and just starting a church was ... well, the nicest way to put it was that it might be considered a bit presumptuous. There was a process. Things had to be done the way they had always been done. Graduating seminarians didn't start at the top. They became deacons, for at least a year, and then could be ordained and become lowly curates, and then, someday, if they behaved themselves and stayed on the good side of the local bishop, they might be called to a church as a rector. But Joe and Cindy prayed about it. And by the time Joe graduated, he and Cindy were hosting a fledgling, albeit unofficial, fellowship in their living room.

But it was time for the new graduate to take his place in the hierarchical pecking order. If he was to support his family (having exhausted all his resources to get through seminary) he'd have to get a job. But what was he to do with his little flock? He and Cindy began to pray and decidd to talk to the Bishop. Wonder of wonders, by very special arrangement, the Bishop took the unprecedented step of granting provisional recognition to his little group in Ambridge as an official Episcopal church.

At that time, churches on the cutting edge of church growth were checking in with George Barna, reading their Ralph Winter and were just about to start climbing on the "purpose driven" bandwagon with Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek "seeker-sensitive" movement. But Joe wasn't much of a theorist. He had no gift for marketing. Joe's concept of ministry was pretty simple. He thought he was the seeker. So he simply spent his days walking the streets of Ambridge, seeking the lost sheep. He'd hit all the cafes, coffee shops, donut emporiums, gas stations, pizza dives and other places people congregated, befriending anyone who'd return his "Hi, my name's Joe." In time, he led many of those he befriended to the Lord for the first time ... or back for a second or third try. Then he led in them worship and the Eucharist each Sunday. And his little flock quickly outgrew his living room and began to meet in the local armory.

Joe and Cindy had a novel approach to social action, too. Around the corner from the old home they lived in was a notorious Ambridge bar. Back when the steel mills had blackened the cityscape along the Ohio river, Ambridge had been the "company town" for the American Bridge Co., which had built many of the bridges in the Pittsburgh area. When the steel industry abandoned Steel Town USA, and bridge builders turned to concrete, Ambridge had plummeted into an economic depression from which it is still trying to recover. (The remains of American Bridge now sit rusting and silent in the middle of the town, right next to the seminary.) Steel workers, a hard drinking lot even when they were working, added brawling to the mix as the mills began to close down. And Ambridge became a sometimes dangerous place to be, especially at night.

One night, a brawl that started in the street almost engulfed several visiting family members as they tried to get past the bar, which stood in the path between the only available parking places and the Vitunic home. Joe and Cindy decided the bar had to go. Did they picket? Petition City Hall? Stand on the street corner and shout "Repent"? No, Joe wasn't much of a politician and hadn't the heart for confrontation. So he and Cindy decided to ... yep, pray. Everyday, they simply asked that God would shut the bar and open people's hearts to Himself. Long after anyone with sense would have given up, God answered their prayers: The bar closed, the brawling stopped and the neighborhood began to slowly brighten up.

Well, Joe walked around, met people, befriended them and the church kept getting bigger. When it outgrew the armory, the seminary graciously offered Joe the use of its chapel. Before long, they outgrew the chapel and, primarily because Joe was one of their own, the seminary permitted Church of the Savior to meet in the school's much larger Great Hall. Joe wasn't much of a CEO/manager or delegater. Until his first heart attack, he was there early each Sunday with the set up crew, coat off, tie loose, helping to take down tables and get 300 or so chairs set up on time for the service. Most everyone who placed a bottom in one of those chairs was either someone Joe had met walking around or someone who knew someone Joe had met.

Joe wasn't much of a recruiter, either. He wouldn't have dreamed of strong arming anyone into serving the church. But he really wanted to add some music to their times of worship. So Joe just began praying for some musicians. For a long year, their singing at the armory was accompanied by an accordionist whose skills were legendary (but not in a good way). But Joe continued to pray. When I got there, they had two almost complete eight or nine piece worship bands -- keyboards, drums, singers, guitars, the works, capable of an extraordinary range of musical styles. All they were missing was a second bass player, so Stan, the lone bassist, could have a bye week once in a while. When I walked in the door, the band had been ... yes, praying about that. I introduced myself to the drummer one morning, and mentioned that I played bass ... a little. I was greeted, for the first time in my life, as an Answer to Prayer. Turns out, Stan had been "prayed in" as well. First rehearsal was very unusual. They worked hard on the music, but, about halfway through the allotted rehearsal time, they stopped and gathered for prayer. The prayer time went on longer than the rehearsal. We prayed for the worship of the church. We prayed for healing for team members. We invited God's Holy Spirit to come, then reveled in His Presence. But I digress.

No, Joe wasn't a therapist. When you went in to his office with a problem, you talked, and he mostly listened. He often apologized for not knowing what to do about the problem (he wasn't too big on authority) and suggested that he simply pray for healing. But you left lighter, freer, affirmed, understood and encouraged. Never judged, demeaned, categorized, pigeon-holed, discounted or labeled.

That's because Joe wasn't into control. There was no long list of rules about what was proper in the services. If someone stood to give a prophecy or speak in tongues, Joe would stop and wait for them to finish, then he'd ask if there were others. He'd wait quietly and patiently -- no expectantly -- for an interpretation. He'd repeat a prophecy respectfully (even the kinda questionable stuff), just in case someone hadn't been able to hear and sometimes expand on it, or stop for a time to pray it in. Sometimes he'd jettison his notes for his message and go with the prophetic message instead. One time, he stopped in the middle of a sermon to talk about his need to repent of something. By the time he was done, half the church had crowded to the front for prayer for their own repentance, in a service that went on until three in the afternoon. He would sometimes ask the band to continue the worship, because we weren't done yet, or call them up later for more. Or to repeat a song. And those people worshipped! In part, they did so because Joe, right there on the front row, so obviously gave himself to Jesus in worship. The Holy Spirit was in charge, and Joe was very hesitant to quench anything that might prove to be His divine activity.

Joe was not big on ceremony. There were no "bells and smells." No crucifer, no acolyte procession. Just Joe, standing at a plain wooden table, breaking bread, lifting the cup, speaking the words of the liturgy he'd read a thousand times as if he'd never heard them before and could scarcely take in their staggering significance. He made God's Word out of man's poetry, like a man drinking deeply from wells of Living Water. I had been in the Episcopal church for a number of years, but the liturgy had never had that kind of life-changing power until I heard it from Joe. When I received the bread and wine from Joe and his ministry team, I received the very Body and Blood.

And, as you might imagine, Joe was not big on titles. He wouldn't answer to "Father" and was mighty uncomfortable with the title "priest." While he was OK with Pastor Joe, just plain "Joe" was what most people called him.

Joe was the rarest of rare things, a good shepherd.

But sometimes, apparently, that's not enough. Just before I returned to Denver, the seminary had come under new leadership and decided to reclaim its Great Hall, and Church of the Savior was given a deadline to find another meeting place. After several false starts, the church managed to acquire an older property in Ambridge and slowly began to transform it into its permanent home. Joe had suffered from time to time in his life from depression and made no secret of it (one more reason I loved him) so the planning, organizing, fundraising, squabbling and just plain hassle involved in the transition took its toll. Finally, Joe had a second heart attack, and had to take a sabbatical. But not too long ago, Church of the Savior cut the ribbon on its new sanctuary, and Joe was there to preside. It's incomprehensible that he's leaving the church he helped birth and nurtured through its youth and teenage years.

Frankly, I suspect that Joe's just too nice to say that he's been chased out.

Maybe a changing of the guard is in order. Maybe Church of the Savior needs a Strong Hand, a Planner, a Strategist, a CEO at the helm to give it a Vision and Purpose and Organize and Martial its Resources for the Future. That's the driving force these days. But it will be losing a true Prophet, Priest, Apostle, Teacher, Evangelist and Father.

That's not my idea of a good trade.