Archive for the ‘fortress’ Category

Hiking Toward Our Fears

Posted: June 28, 2012 by Jim Killam in fear, fortress, nature

Montana’s Glacier National Park is my favorite place to hike — largely because of the stunning natural beauty everywhere you look. But it’s also because you never know what you’re going to see – maybe mountain goats, or a bull moose, or a herd of bighorn sheep, or a black bear or even a grizzly.

There’s a certain risk to hiking in Glacier: You could die. People do die, in fact. You could fall off a cliff, or drown in a raging stream. You could get hopelessly lost and freeze to death on the side of a mountain. Or, most prominently, you could get mauled and eaten by the aforementioned grizzly.

My wife, Lauren, and I were talking the other day about some of our hiking experiences in Glacier. We’ve had to get past some fears just to set out on those trails. But oh, the rewards. We’ve stood atop the Continental Divide, looking down at a chain of lakes stretching all the way to the plains. We’ve hiked alongside glaciers, their summer melt cascading ribbon-like waterfalls thousands of feet below. We’ve witnessed the most stunning sunsets we’ll ever see this side of heaven.

Sometimes we were genuinely scared. Once we spotted a huge grizzly about 300 yards below us and near the trail, which followed a dry creek bed. We’d have to cross that spot, and no one else was around. So we waited a few minutes, hoping the bear would pass. Then we said a quick prayer for safety, made lots of noise and readied our can of bear spray — super-powerful pepper spray that has been proven effective at preventing attacks when used properly.

Thankfully we didn’t see the bear again as we hiked along the creek bed. It might have been a hundred yards away by then … or just on the other side of the next willow bush. We’ll never know.

Just a year ago, we were hiking the Grinnell Lake trail, passing through a narrow, wooded area with a lake on one side and a mountainside on the other. Suddenly we heard people yelling about 50 yards ahead. That likely meant one thing.

As we approached, a group of seniors stood on the trail facing a mother grizzly and her two yearling cubs, which were almost as large as she was. The bears were about 20 yards from the people, making their way down the trail toward them.

We and the others moved as far as we could off the trail and against the mountainside to clear a way for the bears to pass. We made as much noise as we could – shouting, banging stuff, blowing whistles – because that’s what the rangers tell you to do to deter bears.

I’d like to say I stood courageously in front of Lauren, bear spray ready, protecting her and the rest of the group. That would have been very noble. Actually I was shooting pictures while Lauren blew her whistle and aimed the bear spray. The bears lumbered past, coming within about 20 feet of us and not appearing to care that a group of hikers stood nearby making a racket not unlike my high school marching band.

We would never knowingly approach bears. There’s calculated risk of hiking in a place like Glacier, and then there’s full-on idiocy (for a good example, watch the film, “Grizzly Man”). But encountering those three wondrous creatures up close, by chance, was the experience of a lifetime.

The hike itself was stunningly beautiful – at the end, you reach Grinnell Lake, where dozens of waterfalls cascade into it from the glacier above. Had I given in to my fears, I would have missed all of that while kneeling at the altar of safety and security.

It’s not that we would go into a potentially dangerous situation blindly – like the hikers I saw wearing flipflops and listening to their iPods. You assess the risks, equip yourself with protective items you might need, and you set out. Sometimes you go with a group. Sometimes you go with an experienced guide.

This summer, Lauren and I are in the midst of taking the biggest risk of our lives. I’ve left a safe and secure job in order to follow a calling to full-time missions work as a journalist. Trusting God has taken on a whole new meaning. We’ve sold our house and are living temporarily in a 250-square-foot, converted shed. Even when our financial support is finally raised, life is going to be hard. And now, out of the blue, we’ve been presented with the opportunity to move to Costa Rica and base our new ministry from there.

No guarantees. Just one step of faith after another, each one larger than the last. Safety? It’s overrated and over-prayed for. Predictability? Gone. This is simply about following our trusted Guide’s directions. It’s about stepping onto a trail, knowing danger could lurk just around the next bend, and being OK with that.

Trails like that often lead you to a place more beautiful than you could ever imagine.

Ran across some great words today from Max Lucado’s book, “Fearless”:

“When fear shapes our lives, safety becomes our god. When safety becomes our god, we worship the risk-free life. Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds? For God? For others? No. The fear filled cannot love deeply. Love is risky. They cannot give to the poor.  Benevolence has no guarantee of return. The fear-filled cannot dream wildly. What if their dreams sputter and fall from the sky? The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear.”

You can read the entire chapter here.

Legalism. We hate the word and all it conjures. Jesus hated it, saving some of his harshest criticism for the Pharisees and their fanatical attention to the law while ignoring the heart.

I grew up knowing Christians who would burn records, condemn certain books and never be seen at R-rated movies, yet who were horribly racist, or gluttonous, or indifferent to the poor. The church is experiencing a backlash against this sort of selective legalism, and that’s been a good and God-honoring thing.

I wonder sometimes, though, if disillusioned Christians (me included) have become so resistant to legalism that we also shun the ideas of personal holiness and intentional living.

If, for instance, I park myself in front of the TV some evening, scroll through a hundred channels and eventually land on some mindless reality show and veg for an hour, I’m probably not honoring God with my use of that time.

On the other hand, if I intentionally engage the same show, with an eye toward the spiritual state of our culture, and pop culture, then I probably am honoring God with that time. I’m engaging my brain and I’m letting the Holy Spirit, in effect, sit there next to me and have a conversation that I later can share with someone else.

In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

T.J. Addington, in his book and blog, “Leading From the Sandbox,” writes about intentional living — which he boils down to mean, “Does my schedule reflect my personal priorities?”

Take that thought further: Do my entertainment choices – even when no one else is looking — reflect my personal priorities? Or, more precisely, do they reflect what I would like for my priorities to be?

Maybe the more-common question is: Is it worthwhile for Christians just to spend time being entertained, with no higher purpose? Just a little time to rest and recharge?

I think it depends on whether that entertainment moves me closer to God, or further away from God. As Paul would ask: Where am I fixing my thoughts?

If I watch a movie or TV show with a lot of extra-marital sex, or drunken debauchery, I notice something about my spiritual condition. It has sunk. Not because I want to emulate the people on the screen, but because I’m letting myself be entertained by watching depictions of sin. And then if I’m going to keep watching, I have to shut the door on God’s voice – like the end of the “Godfather” movies where Michael Corleone shuts the door in his wife’s face so the men can discuss the evil business they do.

And even in that little example I open the door to a “What’s appropriate for Christians?” conversation that makes people uncomfortable. I can watch the Godfather movies as a profound commentary on America, family and hypocrisy … or I can watch them as brutally violent gangster movies. I can watch “American Beauty” and be struck by its message about the spiritual emptiness of affluent suburbia, or I can watch it because it has a lot of sex and nudity. Where am I fixing my thoughts?

Can entertainment be spiritually neutral? Sure. If I watch a few innings of a Cubs game, my relationship with God doesn’t change much. Then again, I may get either angry or depressed about the sorry state of my team. Being a Cub fan does make one very cynical.

If I watch “30 Rock,” or reruns of “Seinfeld,” can I appreciate those shows’ great writing and wit, and get past their very unbiblical worldview and content? Again, I think it depends on my spiritual state of engagement and where my thoughts are fixed.

And can I watch “Caddyshack” and appreciate the … oh never mind.

The bottom line is, this conversation leaves more than one spiritually solid place to land. That makes legalists uncomfortable.  At the other end of the spectrum, it touches nerves. But our entertainment choices do affect our spiritual condition. Let’s not avoid the conversation because we’re afraid of lapsing into legalism.

How could Osama bin Laden have hidden in plain sight in that Pakistani city for five or six years? Didn’t anyone see him? Talk to him? Invite him over for a game of lawn darts and a cold one?

I don’t know much about Pakistan’s culture, but in American suburbia, going unnoticed doesn’t even take much effort.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but Osama bin Laden could have been living in most of the houses on my street and the neighborhood never would have known. He could have driven to work every morning … taken out the trash … walked his dog (I’ll bet bin Laden had one of those annoying little yappy dogs).

We have friendly, back-fence relationships with three families on our street, and we’ve had a few conversations with two others. I’m not sure I would recognize the rest of my neighbors on sight at the mall.  And they would only know me as that really tall guy who needs to address his dandelion problem.

If you live in a well-networked neighborhood, you are an exception. And that’s anywhere: big cities, suburbs, small towns and rural roads. On college campuses, like the one where I work, more students than ever before request single rooms. People disappear for days at a time, playing video games … alone.  I’ve even been to large churches where my family and I visited several times and went completely undetected. We may as well have watched it on TV – which you can do now.

We addressed this problem last October in the post, “Dulled Ears.”

Robert Putnam’s important 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” was researched and written before the mobile-device explosion. But even then, Putnam pointed out that America had become far less connected than in decades past – more individualistic, less community-minded. People are less likely to form a worldview because, well, we aren’t viewing the world. Just our little corner of it. 

If community is what occupies the space between people, then we here in America and in the American church have lost a lot of community in favor of … well, nothing. We’re a bunch of individuals, simply co-existing in separate, noisy realities.

That’s not a very hopeful picture of a world where we are called to be salt and light. But it’s certainly not hopeless. People still need and want community. Where that used to happen without much effort, today it takes intentionality. It’s about not being too busy to have an end-of-the-driveway conversation with a neighbor. Hey, maybe it’s even inviting them over for dinner this weekend. Or – if you want to get really crazy – getting several families involved in planning a neighborhood party.

My wife and I aren’t great at planning social events. But you know, every time we’ve intentionally set aside time to do something with the neighbors, the evening always – always – ends with, “We should do this more often.”

You probably won’t root out international terrorists in your midst. More likely, you’ll develop friendships and your neighborhood will become a better place.

There can be long debate about that gospel question, “And who is my neighbor?” But I don’t see any way to exclude the people who live on my street.

Fort Apache

Posted: December 1, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, fortress, movies, pop culture
Tags: , , , ,

In the early 1970s, my brother and I owned a Marx Carry-All Action Playset. It looked like a painted steel briefcase, but opened into Fort Apache, loosely modeled after the 1948 movie starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda which, according to the trailer, celebrated “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.”

Inside, you got a dozen blue plastic cavalrymen and a dozen orange plastic Indians, plus all of their weaponry and luggage. My brother and I would take turns being the cavalry or the Indians. The cavalry occupied the fort and had cannons, rifles, horses and corner watchtowers. The leader looked suspiciously like General George Custer, walrus mustache and all. The Indians had bows and arrows, hatchets, a stray horse, a couple of tired-looking ladders and, inexplicably, a totem pole.

We’d set up elaborate formations of plastic figures, someone would yell, “Go!” and then … nothing happened. We quickly realized that, if you were the cavalry, your safest option was simply to station all of your men inside the fort and never open the steel gates. If you were the Indians, you were pretty much out of luck. The ladders always fell over before Cochise and his men could climb the fort walls and swing their limp plastic hatchets at a cannon.

This scenario hardly displayed “the courage and daring of a nation’s pioneer spirit.” It was simply about waiting for the other guy to get bored and do something stupid like, oh, opening the fort gates. If this didn’t happen, we’d sometimes allow the Indians to call in an airstrike … from the G.I. Joe Adventure Team Helicopter, which was almost as large as Fort Apache itself (these were the days of 12-inch G.I. Joes with Lifelike Hair, not their Lilliputian descendants). From the big yellow helicopter, Joe could drop Lego bombs – sometimes 30 or 40 blocks clustered together – and quickly wipe out General NotCuster and his confused comrades. One time we even bent the fort.

We didn’t know it at the time, but my brother and I were playing out the end of two eras. One was the era of playing cowboys and Indians — which has mostly vanished in a generational wave of good taste. The second was the era of the military fort. Throughout most of world history, the people with the best forts had tended to wield the most power and control. Any city-state with any hope of not being overrun by marauders was fortified with walls – depending on the time period, some combination of dirt, stone, wood, concrete, steel or briefcase sides – and ditches. You wanted your fort to be on the highest ground in the area, so the enemy couldn’t take up positions above you.

If a fort got large enough, or if multiple forts were combined, it was called a fortress. Somehow, the extra syllable made it sound more impenetrable.

Forts and fortresses didn’t work so well as technology advanced in the early 20th century. Back when adversaries wielded hatchets, bows and arrows, a solidly built, well-located fort was still golden. But now armies had gained more firepower – enough to destroy practically any stationary object and everything inside by lobbing bombs over the walls. Concentrating all of your side’s strength inside a fort made you more vulnerable to an overpowering attack.

As warfare became more mobile, the utility of frontier forts faded. Advancing armies simply could run around the fort and keep going. Then came the airplane, and everything changed. Someone quickly realized you could drop bombs right into a fort, and render its high walls useless. (Think: The G.I. Joe Helicopter.) Armies began to spread out along a long and mobile line, with offensive armaments just behind that line.

Today’s war zones have few working forts. Most forts are either military bases far from the front lines, or they are historical relics. What we do have, however, are underground bunkers. Terrorists use them. The United States and other countries have them in the event of nuclear war. They’re places to hide until perceived danger has passed. You can’t offensively engage the enemy from a bunker. You can plan an attack, defend against an attack, even order an attack … but you can’t launch one.

The American evangelical church seems to be growing out of a period marked by two ends of a spectrum: a heartfelt concern for the spiritual needs of the world, and an insular, protect-my-family-at-all-cost fear of that same world. A fortress, if you will. These work directly against each other, and for generations we failed to recognize that.

A friend and disillusioned Christian remarked to me once: “The evangelical church seems to be about building and provisioning a bunker.”

Much has been said and written about the Christian buzzword “missional.” And I suppose any term, once it begins to be overused, becomes more a brand name than a mindset. To me, it’s a hopeful opposite to the fortress culture: Christ followers genuinely living out their faith amidst the culture instead of waiting for the culture to come to church.   

It’s time we throw open the gates and get moving. Too many are losing their faith before they ever leave the fortress.

One of the most frustrating things for a journalist is needing to speak with a person central to a story – anyone from a police chief to a company CEO to a member of Congress — and instead only getting access to a public-relations person. PR professionals speak for their bosses, all right. But every word is carefully managed, with an eye toward protecting the boss’ image. All negatives are spun into positives. Problems become “challenges” or “opportunities.” Firing people becomes “downsizing.” Gambling becomes “gaming.” Knowledge becomes “awareness.” Pitching a story to media becomes “reaching out.” (In fact, PR people don’t even make phone calls any more. They just “reach out.”)

Any good journalist is left suspicious. Everything can’t be this perfect and managed. What are they hiding?

As a reporter, I once toured an auto-assembly plant and innocently shot some photos. The plant’s PR guy didn’t see me doing this, but was told about it later that day. He called me, and I quickly learned that the corporate world viewed this as akin to selling state secrets to Kim Jong-Il. They’d need to review those photos before any were published. Because they were shot on private property, my newspaper agreed.

Well. One of the photos showed an assembly-line worker wearing shorts. Another showed a worker with a Bart Simpson T-shirt. This wouldn’t do. What would the community think? (Thousands in the community worked in that plant, so about all they would think is that it was a hot day.) The paper ended up not publishing my photos, and I was left with the impression that the plant was run by a bunch of uptight people with no grip on reality.

Working in the trade press in the metal fabrication industry, Lincoln got a regular snoot-full of PR propaganda at trade shows and company-sponsored press junkets. A running joke at trade shows among the magazine editors was the “booth babes” – attractive (and often articulate) women hired to work the show floor and explain the virtues of the machine tools punching out parts behind them at decibel levels rivaling a Led Zeppelin concert. They didn’t actually have to know much – they just had to look good.

The best PR people we know are also the most honest and forthright. They know their job is to promote their company or organization. But they don’t need the PR doubletalk, because they truly believe in their employer and simply want to “tell their story” (to employ an overused but sometimes-accurate PR term). When news is bad, they say so, without hiding behind nondenial denials or silly terminology that’s easy to see through. In the process, they earn journalists’ respect and trust, because they are real.

Christians often look at themselves as PR agents. In a way, that’s correct. People form their opinions about God through what they see in his earthly representatives. But in another way, it’s warped because we act more as PR agents for the imperfect church than for a perfect God. We protect the company image at all costs. We simply can’t have anyone thinking that our lives aren’t always happy and perfect and worry-free, or that our churches sometimes deal with gossip, slander and … well, jerks. What kind of an ad for Christianity would that be?

In his book, “Ruthless Trust,” Brennan Manning writes:

“The great weakness in the North American church at large, and certainly in my life, is our refusal to accept our brokenness. We hide it, evade it, gloss over it. We grab for the cosmetic kit and put on our virtuous face to make ourselves admirable to the public. Thus, we present to others a self that is spiritually together, superficially happy, and lacquered with a sense of self-deprecating humor that passes for humility. The irony is that while I do not want anyone to know that I am judgmental, lazy, vulnerable, screwed up, and afraid, for fear of losing face, the face that I fear losing is the mask of the imposter, not my own!”

And so, while anyone with a brain can see that I often am a spiritual train wreck, or that the church is full of imperfect people, my PR voice shouts to gawkers, “Nothing to see here! Move along.” Only we aren’t even that direct. We use lingo that sounds weird to anyone outside the church, or anyone checking out the church. Christians don’t gossip, we share. If it’s something really bad, we speak the truth in love. We don’t talk in groups, we fellowship. We give love offerings (money).  And I know what it means for the church to be called the Bride of Christ, but I’m guessing an outsider is picturing the Bride of Frankenstein.

As a whole, the church has been slow to figure this out, but thankfully, it’s starting to happen. We’re learning to be real with people. We’re realizing that fewer people than we thought bought the story that we were selling. We’re realizing that Christian culture is being marketed to the public through saccharine radio stations, bad films and ridiculous TV networks. This might attract Ned Flanders, but most others will see right through it.

We have a lot of damage to undo. Or, in PR terms, we have a lot of people to reach out to. They need to see Jesus, and realize that we are his far-from-perfect representatives and that we’re OK with that.

Or, to keep it simple: Down in front.

Sarah Palin represents why a lot of people I care deeply about have no interest in Christianity.

In her new book, “America By Heart,” she (or more likely her ghostwriter) writes:

“Most of those who write for the mainstream media and teach at universities and law schools don’t share the religious faith of their fellow Americans. They seem to regard people who believe in God and regularly attend their church or synagogue as alien beings, people who are ‘largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,’ as the Washington Post once famously put it.”

As part of both the godless, commie media and godless, egghead academia, I can tell you she’s wrong about both groups, and that several statistically valid surveys bear that out. Whatever. My real problem with Palin is that she’s blissfully unaware that she’s part of a dying breed of Christian: the shrill culture warrior bent on political conquest.

In “The Next Christians,” Gabe Lyons writes that culture warriors “believe they have to take up proverbial arms against secularists who would pillage America’s Christian heritage. These devoted followers regularly consume newsletters, radio shows and magazines by Christian patriots, pastors and pundits. … If you disagree with their cultural posture, beware. You might be labeled unpatriotic or worse … ungodly.

“Culture warriors, many of whom are sincere and well-intentioned, simply don’t know how else to promote the ideas of their faith in the public square. Yet they are often unaware of how their tactics are perceived by others . … As the culture grows more ‘godless,’ the Christians have reason to circle the wagons. Caring little about any broader purpose in the world (other than seeking conversions), they shout their views at the world and huddle safely with each other – far away from a world they believe is literally going to hell.”

Most under-35 people I know – Christian or not – want nothing to do with Palin. And it’s not always that they disagree with her politics, or even her message about declining faith and morality in America. The problem is her delivery. It’s consistent with a generation of boomer evangelicals that got drunk on political power and forgot to read the gospels a little more carefully. It’s also why the authors of the book “UnChristian” found that 87 percent of young-adult “outsiders” see Christians as judgmental.

I know a lot of cynical journalists who love God. I know a lot more who haven’t completely abandoned the faith of their youths. They’re just not quite sure about it. At the same time, they are idealists, in our business to make the world a better place. They’re generally a little left-of-center politically, but where a lot of them land on particular “moral” issues might surprise you. And, they are genuinely committed to fair reporting, without any agenda.

So, when Sarah Palin tosses grenades at our whole industry (well, except for Fox News), how exactly does that make journalists more likely to check out the claims of Christ, or visit a church?

She thinks we’re all godless heathens? Well, pass the tea. I’m changing teams!

What Palin, conservative talk-show hosts and Christian culture warriors fail to realize is that when they lob their judgmental grenades into the media, or academia, or Hollywood, the Christians working in those arenas get hit, too.

Is that awkward and counterproductive? You betcha.