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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Spirituality of Terroir

Two years ago three colleagues and I were awarded a grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders to study the spirituality of terrioir. Not terror, terroir. The term comes from a french wine-making concept that means "taste of place." Terroir helps explain how wine produced in one location tastes different than one that comes from a different place. Both wines can come from the exact same type of grape, but they have radical differences in flavor. The type of soil and other environmental factors play a significant role. The concept of terroir is expanding across the foodie movement. Many top chefs try to find local foods and their desire is to let the flavors emerge. Chefs, organic farmers and winemakers are all speaking the same language. They say humbly, "My job is to get out of the way and let food do it's thing."

The problem with most food that is produced today is similar to the problems ruining the church. Today most of our foods are over-processed. The goal is not to let local flavors burst forth from different regions. Rather the goal is to create a substance that can be standardized and easily transportable. One cannot say, "The 2009 Velveeta produced a earthy undertones that we haven't tasted since the 1999 Cheez Whiz." The result of all of this processing is that most of our diets are based on foods cannot nourish or delight us. For example, you've probably noticed that one cannot purchase a decent tomato from a grocery store. In order to ship the fruit, it needs to have a thick skin and the thicker the skin, the less flavorful. In effect, we are over-fed and under-nourished. We crave for more than our food is providing so we eat more and are less satisfied.

Is the analogy apt for what is happening in the church? Many churches are losing their local flavor and beginning to look like every other church. Drive around town and you will see churches using the same Vacation Bible School curriculum. The church has simply become a consumer of pre-packaged programs for evangelism, small groups, stewardship, contemporary worship formats, you name it. We are forever looking for a magic bullet. We don't want to spend time creating something ourselves if something already exists and was written by professionals who had more time to devote to the project. With so many pre-packaged programs, are congregations in danger of becoming like local franchises of larger chains? Increasingly, denominational affiliation has less to do with the flavor of a church than the publishing houses of the programs that churches purchase.

Most successful church programs are not successful because they were purchased from somewhere else. They were successful because they grew out of a need in a local setting and lay people in the church decided to act. The really satisfying stuff grows out of local people sensing what is needed in their neighborhoods, their communities, their members. The good stuff has a terroir that cannot be duplicated and mass produced. Wine producers know that each variety of grape grows best in specific kinds of soil and climate conditions. You can't grow a world-class Pinot Noir in Iowa because the climate is too warm and the soil is too rich. But in Oregon the conditions are perfect. On the other hand, there are some varieties you dare not try in Oregon. If an Iowa farmer looked at the Pinot Soil, he'd say it's no good. Corn would never grow in it. However, the poor soil in Oregon makes the vines sink its roots deeper into the bedrock. The result is that the stress on the vine makes it go deep enough to pull out the minerals that give the wine a complex and satisfying taste.

It seems to me that any congregation that wants to produce a high quality ministry should ask terroir kinds of questions. Who is in our neighborhood? What are the cultural conditions around us? What grows well here? What are the gifts of our congregation? When we are stressed by lack of participation, funds, originality or conflict, do we let our roots sink deeper or do we throw up our hands in despair? Most of the answers our churches are seeking come not from a publishing house, but from the neighborhood and congregation itself. Taste and see.

Rev. Tim Diebel and I will lead a workshop on this subject at the School for Congregational Learners at West Des Moines Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Saturday, August 27.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Breaking Bad part 2

Breaking Bad

In hit TV series, Breaking Bad, Walter White’s slip into moral morass is a brilliant character study that highlights the human capacity for self-deception. In the beginning, we see Walter making noble sacrifices. He has the talent to make big bucks as a world-class scientist; instead he teaches high school chemistry. In a segment as powerful as any I’ve ever seen on screen, Walter chooses to undergo chemo-therapy that he doesn’t want because he empathizes so thoroughly with his wife’s needs.

His family desires that he extend his life by going through the treatment, but Walter makes a very compelling case that he needs to be thinking about quality of life and how he wants to be remembered. He wants to give all his energy in the time that he has left to those he loves instead of fighting the side-effects of chemo. He doesn’t want to leave his family destitute from uninsured medical bills. It is his decision to make, his body, his life. He announces his decision. In the next scene he wakes up alone in bed. No words are said. He looks at his wife’s night stand and sees the books she has been reading. She is pregnant and reading books about healthy babies. She has a special-needs son and there are books on his needs. On top of the stack is a book about battling cancer through healthy eating. Walter sees a jar of her lotion unscrews the cap and breathes it in. He shuffles silently to the kitchen and gently embraces his wife from behind. She is clearly frustrated, scouring the dishes. He simply whispers, “I’ll do it….I’ll get the treatments.” It is an act of pure love and tremendous self-sacrifice.

However, Walter decides that he will manufacture crystal meth to pay for the treatments. Here begins the tragedy of his moral life. Walter deludes himself into believing that all his actions can be justified because he is doing them for a higher purpose—pure love of his family. At first he is uneasy with the “ends-justifies the means” rationalizations. The decision to cook meth leads him into a violent and shadowy underworld where he is compelled toward deception and violence. In order to keep his newly found secret life a secret and to avoid being killed by drug lords, he keeps making unethical decisions all in the name of his noble effort to go through treatment and provide for his family.

He dare not hold the mirror up to his face to see what he has become. He dare not explore the moral rot too closely. Ever decision has consequences and leads him to more bad choices. We know it cannot end well for him.

I wonder about this ability to deceive ourselves. Walter is not alone. How many people chip away at their integrity every day? They don’t blow the whistle at work so that they can keep their income and provide for their families. They are absent from family functions because they are focused on making money for their family. We tend to think of ourselves as more noble than we ought.

During the show, it becomes clear that Walter likes to think he is doing bad things for a higher good. But he’s not. There are always choices for him. All choices have consequences. Walter breaks bad for many reasons. His new life is more exciting—even if it is dangerous. He can feel powerful and commanding instead of feeling like an uninteresting love and boring chemistry teacher. He feels more alive than ever and it covers regrets from other decisions he’s made.

Overall, the show is a summons for each of us to hold the mirror up and ask about our real motivations. What do we get out of the decisions we are making? Is it possible that we are not as noble as we want everyone around us to believe? Walter keeps breaking bad. We look at him so that we can choose to do otherwise and break toward the good. It’s amazing to think that every decision we make has a role in determining what kind of person we will become. Choose well.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Breaking Bad pt. I

What would you do if you discovered you were dying of lung cancer, had crappy insurance, a mundane marriage and career, a special needs child and another on the way? What if you felt like situations beyond your control (e.g., the economy, needs of your family, etc.) determined the shape of your life more than your own conscious decisions? The clock is ticking toward your end and you’ve never felt fully alive. There’s no money for treatment that may extend your life for a few months. You choose not to go through with the treatment. But your family begs you to change your mind.

AMC’s Breaking Bad shows Walter White’s wrestling with the issues of choice, sacrifice, morality and what it means to be a man. Walt makes a truly noble sacrifice out of love for his family to undergo the treatment. He cannot handle the thought that his death and puny pension will leave his family destitute when he’s gone. But he won’t accept charity—he feels that he must earn whatever he receives.

This is when Walt decides to “break bad.” To break bad is to choose to go to the dark side. He becomes a criminal. This is not your usual anti-hero show. Walt supplements his income as a high school chemistry teacher by cooking meth. Although he had always led an upright life and his brother-in-law is a DEA agent, Walt is lured by the big bucks trading hands every day in the drug culture. He produces meth in order to provide for his family; or so he tells himself.

Breaking Bad shows the moral decay of a decent man. It does not glamorize the drug culture—quite the opposite actually. Once he gets in, forces conspire to keep him involved. The series shows the effects of meth on the mind, body and spirit. It shows children of addicts, the crime, corruption and grisly violence that anchor this shadowy world. The lead character becomes more reprehensible with every episode and his moral decay is creeping in to the lives everyone he touches. It’s amazing that anyone would want to watch a show like this. But I love it!

There is a lot to love. The writing is superb. The acting is amazing. Bryan Cranston (Walt) won best actor Emmy for each of the 3 seasons. The cinematography is amazing, the sets believable and the comedy is spot on. But what I really love is that it makes me think. The show is forever presenting moral issues and the consequences of decisions that are motivated out of fear, regret and greed. The show is not preachy, but I’m a preacher and I want to reflect on some of the lessons we can learn from Walter.

Just to get it out of the way, I will just mention the obvious lessons: “Drugs are bad. Mmmmkay?” So is lying and killing. Once you start a secret life, the lies are unending and will trip you up. There is more to life than money and success. You need to have a moral center. I’m drawn to examining the subtle beliefs that are at the root of Walter’s demise. I’ll explore one now and more in the next post.

Walter believes that the primary responsibility of a man is to provide for the physical needs of his family. Hasn’t this always been the unspoken rule? Hasn’t it been built into our genes from caveman days? Walt knows he cannot provide for his family when he is dead. His treatment on a Chemistry teacher’s salary will leave them burdened with debt. This fact makes him believe that he has failed in his primary responsibility to his family. He cannot bear to let them down; he cannot live with his own sense of failure.

This dynamic rings true. Want to know why a pink slip or a downturn in the economy or an unexpected bill is so devastating to a man? It’s not because there is less money for “toys.” It’s more than that. We feel threatened. We may fail at our primary responsibility to provide safety, food, shelter and basic financial security for our loved ones. To feel like you have failed there, makes one feel like he has failed as a human being. It’s more than toys, men lose themselves at the deepest level. When so threatened, like Walter, we are capable of darker things than we’d ever believed.

“Breaking good” (turning to a good life) means that we have to break the myth of primary responsibility. Sometimes we panic and feel like we can never provide enough for those around us. What if the economy tanks? What if there is an uninsured condition, accident, etc.? Suddenly there is no such thing as “enough.” Walt is asked how much money he needs to provide for his family and he simply answers, “More.” We live in a time when men do not have to feel the burden of being the sole providers.

Too many men have thought that if they provided financial resources that was enough. More important than any amount of money we can provide for our families is our time, our example, our honesty, compassion and love.