Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why Worship Together Anyway?

I've been following this the discussion on this blog with great interest. The blog entry started with a reflection on a service that was held at Nexus Church where I am pastor. I wasn't leading the service that day, our Minister of Spiritual Formation Deb Wiggins, was. It was a great time of sharing in a very intimate setting.

Brian Smith, the blog's author, is a member of Nexus Church and a huge source of great ideas in our community. He is de-churched (my term). His experience with the churches he had encountered had almost turned him completely away from God [correction: from church attendance, not God]. I am pleased to know that he finds a safe place to find community and be in communion with other believers.

In our discussions on the topic I offered Brian my understanding of what communal worship is:
“The theological position I find most helpful is that communal worship is where we experience God as 'the body of Christ.' It’s where we let our guard down and explicitly (and sometimes uncomfortably) enter into a communal experience of God. It is where we embrace the power of Christ’s gospel as a people – and sometimes that has individual implications, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t have personal implications it always affects the community. That can’t happen if one is isolated from 'the body of Christ.' At its best communal worship should lead us toward an understanding of God’s will for us, (re)vitalize us to be the people of God, and help us find practical ways of communicating the good news – again, all of this in light of 'the body of Christ.' When the 'we/us' in the previous sentence becomes an 'I/me, worship is merely entertainment or self-actualization.”

Now, communal worship doesn't have to happen on Sunday morning – it just happens to be the time that most people in our society have set aside for that.

What is so threatening about that definition? The threat is in letting go of individualism to earnestly strive to find the will of God with others. That is a terrible and frightening thought to those who have been injured by the church – told that they are worthless in the eyes of God, told that they don't fit in with other “Christians”, told that they need to measure up or they will go to hell, told that who they are as a person doesn't matter...

(I'm typing this with my own hands, can't you see that I'd rather by TYPING IN ALL CAPS!!! - Gal 6:11)

My heart grieves when I encounter people who have been through that sort of abuse in the church. The thought of being in community is so dangerous to them because in that abusive relationship they were told they had to subsume to the community to be “righteous.” What has that produced? I'm afraid it has produced a generation of (in clinical, not accusational, terms) narcissistic untrusting cynics – and that makes me terribly sad. The uber-individualism displayed by this generation is a reaction to the pain of abuse. The thought of giving up that individualism within a group context (any group, not just the church) is terrifying.

The point of Christian (or Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim or etc.) communal worship is to explore what God is doing among the gathered people. It isn't to provide 'individual spaces' where people can get their spiritual groove on. On the other hand, when the church forgets that as a people it needs to encourage complimentary times, places, or events where people can have that sort of individual retreat it has forgotten the power Jesus found in solitude. It is another 'both/and' that is such a requirement to be 'a church' in the postmodern era.

Autonomous fellowships, denominations, and national organizations have failed to be authentic community when they have not provided space for individuals. Home fellowships, small groups, retreats, workshops, and other means of self-exploration are needed because we can only be true to a group if we are brutally honest with who we are. It is only when someone has gone through that level of heart-wrenching honesty that they are ready to fully contribute to a group/corporate setting. In my experience, anything short of that level of personal development in abused populations leaves victims with a sense of protected isolationism.

To that end I believe the organized church needs to step forward and specifically call out to and offer nurture and healing to those believers who see no need for church. I've encountered Fundamentalists Anonymous – people recovering from the abuse of literalism and legalism.

Maybe it is time for De-Churched Anonymous – a safe place for those still struggling with the pain of controlling church communities, ego-maniacal pastors, and doctrinal/dogmatic certainty. A place to talk about that pain. A place to heal. Mostly, a place to rediscover the grace and hope found in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ – and the ability to hear God within the assembly of believers. I've seen people come through this before – and like steel that has gone through fire they come out stronger, more certain of themselves AND more certain of the power found by being part of the Body of Christ.

Peace to you on your journey...

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Thin Places"

The peace of Iona whispers to many. Iona has been described as ‘a thin place’, only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual. Many people have tried to express the experience – and have come back again and again.

The experience of ‘thin places’ or ‘liminal places’ is one that continually intrigues me. The author of the above passage, Ron Ferguson, is relating to his experiences on the island of Iona off the Scottish coast. It is the place where the original Irish missionaries to Britain based their monastery and activities.

These types of experiences remind us of places and times when closeness to God and the spiritual are especially present. The ‘tissue paper’ separation is truly no separator at all. The word ‘liminal’ provides a metaphor of the threshold, or doorway, between the spiritual and physical; psychological and physiological. It is a gateway for some of self-understanding. For others it is God understanding. For many who strive to live in the sense that ‘all is God’ – it is an always present reminder of the Divine with us. We open our eyes and there is God – as best as we can understand. Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives – “take this cup from me” – is noted by many as an example of a liminal time.

My most vivid understandings of ‘thin places’ has come from relationships. The ‘tissue paper’ understanding of division is especially pertinent to that experience – we can’t cross over the threshold or truly enter into relationship if there is a wall of separation. It happens when we are gathered in conversation, in worship, and in prayer. It happens when we are at church, when we are at the grocery store, and when we are at lunch. It happens best when we see God reflected in the people around us. It makes us aware of the shared human need for relationship with others and with God.

Yes, there are unique places and events that remind us of the spectacular presence of the spiritual. The challenge of the spiritual life is to keep that threshold always near and to recognize God all we do, see and experience.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sleep Deprivation Moment - #152

Our 18mo old was up for 2.5 hours in the middle of the night. After my workout and shower I was about to put a little gel in my hair and realized I was pouring mouthwash into my hand instead. Minty fresh hair...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The UPS Guy

Has anyone seen the MADtv skit where Phil Lamar plays Jaq, the "UBS Guy"? It is a spoof on the "UPS Guy" - brown uniform, delivering packages, etc...

What is so great about this comedy characterization is the enthusiasm that Jaq puts into everything he does. His hyper-kinetic energy puts him into situations where a simple delivery or dialog turns into a sequence of hilarious scenes.

I was reminded of this character by our real-life UPS Guy - he's a little like that. Happy, energetic and seems to love his job. Wouldn't it be great if everyone was so happy with the work they do - or even when they see the dentist.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sleep Deprivation Moment - #147

I backed into my bro-in laws car tonight. Knew the car was there - at the end of driveway but totally spaced as I eased out of the garage. Our Saturn view had no damage but his Nissan Versa has a nice crunch over the rear wheel.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Linux is for Losers

Thought that title might get your attention...

Yep, Linux is really best suited to those who have been shut out of purchasing commercial operating systems and applications. As I thought more about the trials and tribulations of installing Linux on my NEW laptop that came fully loaded with a valid OS license and lots of applications (MS Works, etc.) for only $749 I realized that I am of the fortunate set.

While others who are as fortunate financially may love to use Linux systems, they are still at the “tinkering” stage. Sure, you can make the OS and applications work, but there is almost always a compromise.

The things I couldn't compromise were sound and music. While I'm no huge audiophile, my computer needs to be able to play, record and edit sound/video without too much tinkering. Sure there are Linux applications that allow you to do these things but they really didn't work all that well on my system without a bunch of kernel tinkering. Not worth it.

Others without the financial means to have a valid Microsoft/Apple OS will undoubtedly be happy with these systems. As far as I can tell, there is no huge difference between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice. For my usage, OpenOffice is much nicer in many ways.

Does Linux offer an advantage outside the cubicles of "tinkering" technocrats? Sure – in certified systems for those who can't afford a licensed OS and applications. I just checked an online PC configuration tool and without knowing the compatibility of all the components a fairly powerful “bare-bones” AMD/Intel machine can be assembled for under $400. I'm sure with volume pricing that could be much less.

So where would this free OS machine work best? Underfunded school districts, community centers, job training sites, etc. Would it be bleeding edge, no. Would it do 95% of what Macintosh/Microsoft systems can do – I believe so. As mentioned above, open source applications are awesome and I believe that certified systems would allow them to work without kernel tinkering which would put them on par with the big OS manufacturers.

For a radical experiment in open source computing and cheap systems see the One Laptop Per Child project.

So for now I'll stick with my statement that “Linux is for Losers.” But those who have been left behind by the sheer economics of entering the information age will soon catch up as open source systems become more available.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Vista to Ubuntu

I have a secret. It's one I don't let many people know. Like most secrets, I keep it to protect myself. So here I go, just like at the meetings - deep breath... “Hi, I'm Gregg and I'm a NERD.”

Yep, that's right a certified nerd (thrice certified if anyone is counting – by Cisco, Network Solutions and Sun/Java). Prior to my current career as a pastor I was a software product engineer in the digital printing industry. I was led into that field through a business I started in the early 90s called subZero Data Solutions – an Internet consulting firm. We mainly helped companies connect and secure their internal networks to the Internet. We also did a lot of development and sold software relating to network maintenance.

In those days a turf war was brewing – you were a “Microsoft Shop” or you were a “UNIX Shop.” We were the latter variety, installing and maintaining a number of UNIX type systems including the burgeoning Linux environment. We built custom firewall systems and network monitoring consoles using the free and effective Linux operating system, thereby reducing costs and introducing our clients to the wonderful world of Open Source software. Free software is good but as subZero and our clients found out, there is a cost to maintaining unsupported software. My nerd status was firmly established and a career in IT followed.

Fast forward fifteen years to 2007. Linux has advanced beyond anyone's wildest imagination and is really giving Microsoft a run for their money on the desktop and especially in server systems. A few companies (Red Hat, Debian and Ubuntu) have risen to the top of the heap as companies who provide maintenance for their Linux distributions, or vendor specific installations of Linux. Linux is still free, but companies like those mentioned package them into free installers and provide paid support for their distribution. It seems like the best of both worlds – a free operating system with lots of free software and a bail-out of fee-based support if you get stuck.

Back to the 90s again and the platform war – Microsoft vs. UNIX. In the UNIX community a strong loathing developed for Microsoft. They were monopolistic, their software was bug-ridden and vulnerable to hackers, they were slow to adopt standards, they didn't support their software well, they were predatory toward innovative technology companies. Microsoft became a pariah within serious Internet circles and only those who were forced to use their systems (Fortune 500 companies) would actually do so. Any self-respecting technologist chose anything but Microsoft when able.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. Microsoft dominates both the desktop and server markets in the US. Apple has come through with very strong desktop systems and wonderful operating systems although their market share is still fairly small. More recently Linux has moved out of the server room and on to the desktop with new distributions from Debian and Ubuntu.

Now a dilemma is upon those with a general disdain for Microsoft. One the one hand we can pay a 75-100% premium for Apple hardware. While I'm glad to “Think Different” - paying twice as much for a desktop or laptop system with the same specifications that a major PC manufacturer offers is just too different. Another option is to buy a PC and install one of the new and slick Linux distributions – thereby thumbing our noses at Microsoft and all the ills that Redmond represents.

So that is just what I did when it came time to buy a new laptop. I found a decently equipped HP Pavilion DV2415NR system and installed the desktop version Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) for AMD64 bit processors.

That isn't entirely true. I first tried out the install on my old laptop – the boat anchor 17” widescreen HP Pavilion ZX5180US. This Pentium 4 based system required that I use the x86 version of the Ubuntu system but in all other regards was the same. I searched the Wiki documentation regarding running Ubuntu on this hardware and found only one issue with the wireless networking card. No big deal (I thought). Just find and install the updated driver and away we go. How quickly we forget. In the UNIX world drivers are often embedded in the kernel – the core of the operating system.

After four hours that I didn't have to spare, multiple attempts at installing the Windows XP driver with the ndiswrapper utility, and a whole lot more online searching I found the answer on page 53 of 57 of the Ubuntu Pavilion ZX5000 support forum. I needed to obtain the fw-cutter application which would then be able to install the correct wireless Broadcom driver. (If all of that seems like it was written in Sanskrit to you, you are not alone. The documentation and support forums pretty much assume you are a UNIX programmer. Having a little experience in that field I wasn't so intimidated, but it is still really confusing.)

Success. My old system was working with few problems. It wouldn't play DVD movies but I assumed that was due to a codex problem, something that is common to Windows and Apple systems as well. Firefox, OpenOffice, Skype, Picasa – all working as expected.

Now to my new system. First of all, the HP DV2415NR is a sleek machine. To a nerd, one might even say sexy. Smooth lines, shiny case, aluminum trim – sweet! It too is reported to have similar issues with the wireless card so I prepare for some modifications. Run the Ubuntu installer disk and set it to completely destroy the Windows Visa installation that came with the computer. It formats the disk, installs the software and then reboots. Yep, no blue light on the wireless switch.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. This time the issue with the wireless card is a little different. It turns out my HP computer thinks it has Dell wireless networking hardware. I'm directed to the Dell support site to download the correct drivers, compile from scratch the ndiswrapper utility, and then install the driver. This time ndiswrapper works as expected and the computer finds all the wireless routers in my neighborhood. I put in my WEP key and then am prompted to secure it with a secondary password for its “keyring.” Seems redundant since all user accounts have passwords but I enter it anyway.

Reboot. The computer connects to the wireless router flawlessly (after entering in my keyring password) and starts doing what I want it to. I saw someone mention the “automatix” installer as a way to easily add software to your Ubuntu system. After downloading it I see that most of the software I would like is listed – Skype, Picasa, etc. But they are not native 64 bit (AMD64) applications so will have to run in 32 bit (x86) mode. No problem, right? I also see that automatix has a heap of multimedia codex files to install. I grab them all along with the applications.

Assuming everything is ready to go I pop in a DVD – Simpson's Season Five, Disk 2 – and prepare to give it a watch. What's that you hear? Nothing! There is no sound. None from the external speakers or from the headphones.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. I have to obtain and compile a set of drivers and libraries from “alsa” to have the Nvidia controlled sound on this system perform correctly. No problem, do as the FAQ says and sound works after a quirky negotiation of shutting down the system and restarting it with the power cord unplugged. Plug the headphones in to give a private listen and the external speakers don't mute. Sound is coming out of both interfaces.

Back to the Ubuntu support forums. Nothing. To the Wiki articles. There is one obscure reference to the need to use the latest “alsa” drivers but in their BETA state – RC4, or Release Candidate 4. OK, using the same FAQ instructions as before I download, configure, compile and install the RC4 drivers. Reboot. Sound is still coming out of the built-in speakers when I plug in the headphones.

A minor inconvenience I know, but in addition to that there are a number of other issues. Picasa crashes and burns when directed to pull images from a SD card. Skype won't even log me in. The DVD playback is sluggish. Banshee, the supposedly iPod compatible iTunes replacement, doesn't really work. If the built-in camera is activated the system hangs and necessitates a reboot – a cardinal sin in the UNIX world where systems are said to be stable enough to resist crashing applications.

I have another secret. I reinstalled Windows Vista on my laptop and completely wiped Ubuntu 7.04 from my system. I'm really glad I didn't destroy the “HP_RECOVERY” partition to make way for Ubuntu.

Everything works perfectly. OK, I did need to obtain an updated wireless network driver from HP. It installed seamlessly with utilities already included in Vista and I didn't even need to follow a three page FAQ. No crashes, the sound works correctly, the camera performs as intended, the track pad isn't hyper-sensitive, and movies play smoothly.

Don't get me wrong – I'm still a fan of open source. My office suite is OpenOffice. My browser, Firefox. Picasa will continue to manage my digital images. iTunes stores and organizes my music collection. I'll keep in touch with friends around the world with Skype while fearlessly using the built-in video camera on this system.

Did I sell out to He Who Must Not Be Named in Redmond? Maybe. I hope not. It's so confusing.

My estimation is that computer manufacturers essentially give away the operating system with their machines anyway. I made a point to uninstall every piece of included software that HP bundled with their system that wouldn't cause a system failure. At this point Vista is merely a shell for running the mostly free and Open Source applications that allow me to work better.

Another estimation. If time is money, the time I spent trying to get Ubuntu to work on these two systems (yes, I reinstalled XP on my old laptop after it failed to play DVDs) was probably worth the price difference that would have allowed me to buy a Core 2 Duo Macbook. Next time. I know there will be a next time because “My name is Gregg ('hi Gregg') and I'm a NERD.”

Friday, August 03, 2007

DisciplesWorld Article

As a follow-on to the photo-essay I did on the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Warren County (Ohio), I was asked by DisciplesWorld Magazine to do an article that showed how families were doing after they "graduated" from the IHN program.

The feature article is here and it was the cover article in the August issue highlighting poverty in America so has been posted to the web as free content.

I'm really happy with the look of the print edition and glad to continue to raise awareness of a great organization.