Sunday, July 01, 2012

It's coming...

So, I've been reflecting on the bloggy slump I've been in.  Because in all honesty, I haven't been too impressed with myself lately--and I've been inconsistent enough that I doubt many folk are even looking at it any more.

So what to do?  Abandon ship?  Put the ol' girl into dry docks and look for the leaks?  Put a shiny coat of, um, sea-worthy—paint?—and relaunch?  Ditch the extended metaphor?

Ok, yeah, definitely time to ditch the metaphor.

But I don't think I've given up on the blog.  In fact I have some ideas...  but I'm not quite there yet.  I may even do something shiny and new with the look, do a full reboot, change the name or something, um, creative and good.

So, watch out, world, it's coming...

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

Thursday, May 31, 2012

You Aren't Stupid

So, I know it's been a while, but here I am again, putting my two cents in.  I've been through an awful lot of change since the last time I posted--and although these changes are stressful they are also really, really positive.  I've started a new ministry with a new church in the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ. This new ministry led us to secure a mortgage and buy a house near Gettysburg—and move myself, my wife, and Samantha J Guinea Pig along with all of our things into the house, of course!
This means that this is the first post to my blog since I've started up my new ministry.  It's been a long time coming, I know, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, the blog has to come after the bulletin, the sermon, all the visitations, the newsletter, the... well, you get the picture.  For many weeks now, there has been no more time after the rest of my work was done—I have to eat and sleep sometime, otherwise I would starve and go mad. And then the blog would simply be gibberish, wouldn't it?

The second reason is that I've been struggling to find the right topic.  After all, with a new ministry comes (I hope) a new audience—one I haven't quite figured out just yet. And to be honest, the things floating around the internet and in the news lately have been just as horrific as they have been divisive. I feel like I should get my feet underneath me before trying to jump into the fray and so I've simply been at a loss as to what to talk about.

And I guess there's a third reason, too, now that I'm getting into it.  Maybe it's fed a little by the slight culture shock I'm undergoing, but I find myself more and more frustrated with politics, the media, humanity...  Someone close to me is so frustrated that she's about ready to argue that you ought to be able to pass an intelligence test to be eligible to vote—despite our country's history with literacy tests following the Civil War.

Here's the thing: more and more I've been noticing how rampent logical fallicies have become.

PhotobucketLet me explain, a fallicy is a misleading or unsound argument. And they're everywhere. It used to be that the easiest place to find a fallacy was in advertising—for example, McDonalds used to keep track of how many billions of costomers they've served. Now their signs simply say, "billions and billions served," but the point is the same—billions and billions of customers can't be wrong! Sure they can. Billions of people used to think the world was flat, too, but that doesn't make it so. This falacy even has a name, Ad Populum or "Appeal to Popularity." The other place where it has always been easy to find falacies, of course, is politics. And blogs. Oooh, and political blogs, those are ripe with... well, here, let me show you. I Googled the phrase "fallacies in politics 2010" and immediately ran across a piece on Real Clear Politics accusing Barak Obama of the fallacy known as Appeal to Novelty, which basically points out that "new" and "improved" are actually two different things. The author opens her argument this way:
Speaking to students at a Maryland community college, President Obama indulged one of the left's favorite vanities -- the claim to represent "the future." His topic was energy. The president warned against Republicans who want "an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past." He compared today's Republicans who are less enthusiastic than he about government subsidies for "wind, solar and biofuels," to the "flat earth society" and to President Rutherford B. Hayes, who supposedly disdained the telephone.
Hey, that does sound like an Appeal to Novelty. But I figured that most politicans speak for more than a paragraph, so I went digging. I went to The White House website and did a search for "an energy strategy for the last century that traps us in the past," because that was the longest direct quote in the whole blog entry—and lo and behold I found a transcript of the whole speech! Now, over the course of the speech he does mention Prince George's Community College, where he was speaking, even more times than Mick Foley at a wrestling event, which could possibly be taken as the fallacy of Appeal to Emotion—if he were using that emotion as proof for his argument. In all honesty, though, the logical arguments he makes seem pretty sound overall. He asserts that election year after election year politicians vow to reduce gas prices. He asserts that usually when asked what their plan to do that is, the response is "more drilling." He futher asserts that during his administration, "We've quadrupled the number of operating oil rigs to a record high." He finally asserts that "America uses more than 20 percent of the world’s oil. If we drilled every square inch of this country... we’d still have only 2 percent of the world’s known oil reserves... We’re using 20; we have 2." He concludes that "So if we don’t develop other sources of energy, if we don’t develop the technology to use less energy to make our economy more energy-efficient, then we will always be dependent on foreign countries for our energy needs." Those assertions are actually verifialbe facts, although the first assertion could technically be false on this election year. And if those assertions are correct, the conclusion would actually be true. That's a sound argument.

Then he goes on to ridicule his opponents with the language quoted in the Real Clear Politics piece. That section really is a fallacy, but not the one Real Clear Politics says it is. In this case, Obama is refuting their argument by personally attacking them—the fallacy of Ad Hominem.

On the other hand, the author of the Real Clear Politics piece refutes Barak Obama's sound argument by asserting that Obama doesn't know his history (Ad Hominem), and that several Eurpean countries are abandoning their alternative energy programs (Ad Populum), and that "As Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin told the Post, 'Everybody knows we can't go the way we've been going ... It'll break the bank.'" (Ad Populum and possibly Appeal to Authority if Miranda Schreurs isn't a legitimate authority on US energy policies.)

My point isn't political, however. My point is that more and more I see people simply pasting pieces like the one from Real Clear Politics into Facebook and then Sharing it all over the place without doing any kind of research or fact checking or simple reasoning. I know that I threw a lot of proper and fancy terms at you, but it doesn't take genius to wonder what Obama really said instead of taking the oppostions word for it. It doesn't take much for you to say to yourself, "wait a minute... does this argument have anything to do with facts? Does it make sense?"

My point is, think for yourselves. Watch out for wrong and misleading arguments and recognize them for what they are. Because what they are is an assumption that you're too stupid to know the difference.

And I know that you aren't stupid.

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh 053112

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Something Funny Happened...

...on the way to an interview. I was several states away from home already when I realized that I forgot to pack the belt that goes with my suit. So I needed to either (a) not unbutton my suit jacket for the whole interview or (b) buy a belt on the way to the interview. I was scheduled to be there for worship and then be interviewed, so I was anxious about time. Nevertheless I opted for plan b. Luckily there was a big box store open early enough to get in, buy a belt (one that fit!) and get to my interview just on time.

I swear, God has an awesome sense of humor. The sermon that morning was over Matthew 6:25-34—that's the part about not worrying. Jesus says not to worry about what you are going to eat or drink—or wear! And just an hour or two before hand I'd been very worried about having a belt!

On a deeper level, it made me very thankful for my parents, who have taken myself and my wife in while I'm looking for a new position. If it weren't for them I would be very worried about what I would be eating, drinking, and wearing as the state is receiving it's first snow tonight.

Don't worry
Be good to each other
Rev. Josh

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

All About Toothpicks

No, this isn't going to be a post about this clip from Rain Man—although a discussion of the depiction of autism and relationships in that film would make a fine post, now that I think about it. But not this post! Nor is this a post about this amazing piece of art created by Japanese public school students.
No, this post is about how toothpicks reminded me that one of the most persistent idol in postmodern United States culture is the idol of Business.

I'm currently between positions and looking for a new church to serve. The search process is a little bit like computer dating—my profile is out and circulating, and local churches have profiles that circulate as well. Where the metaphor breaks down is that instead of impressing a single person on my "dates" I'm actually dealing with a committee. So imagine computer dating a committee and you'll have an understanding of why the process is long and involved. It's a good process, but it takes a long, long time.

In the mean time, my wife and I have moved in with my parents. We're making the most of it, contributing to the buying of groceries with her income and generally pitching in around the house. Which is how I found myself taking a load of soda cans and bottles to the recycling center at the local grocery store. I dutifully shoved cans and bottles into the appropriate apertures, received the little paper slips, and went into the store to reclaim the deposits.

In this particular store, you reclaim deposits by taking the slips to a cashier at one of the registers—which means you have to walk through the most dangerous part of the store. The place where people get in a hurry and don't watch where they're going. The place where folk whip their carts around corners in a flurry to get to the next isle and the next thing on their list. The place where the lines for the registers get backed up. I keep thinking that there must be a name for that part of the store, but I don't know what it is—it's that place between the aisle endcaps and the register endcaps.

As I was navigating that nameless space, I noticed something unusual. There was a small girl—maybe four or five years old—squatting down in a the center of a scattered pile of colored plastic toothpicks very carefully picking them up one by one with the intense concentration of the very young. As I approached, I found a man I assume to be her father corralling an even younger boy with one hand and picking up toothpicks with the other.

Be honest with yourself for a moment. What would your very first instinct be upon discovering this scene? I think that most of us would do what I did—take a quick mental check of how much time you have and how long it might take to help pick up an entire container of toothpicks from the floor of the grocery store. Am I right?

Ah, but I had the benefit of being unemployed with nowhere to be except where I am. I too squatted down and began picking up toothpicks.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," says the father.
I shrug. "I don't have anyplace I need to be. I don't mind."

And so I spend a few minutes picking up toothpicks and observing. I notice how determined the little girl is to help. I notice how the little boy wants to be free of his father's arm and how his patience slowly erodes. I notice how well the father is actually doing at picking up toothpicks while keeping hold of his son. And I notice the people going by. I see the way they notice us in the middle of the floor and I see the way most of them studiously ignore us and go around. One gentleman even exclaims, "Pick-up sticks! That's what that looks like," as he walked around the mess without slowing. I definitely notice the good-natured way the father chuckles ruefully and allows that it does look a bit like a game of pick-up sticks.

At some point a woman I assume to be the mother returns with a grocery cart. We have a repeat performance of the "Oh, you don't have to do that," conversation. Then she helps to pick up the toothpicks, which are slowly filling their plastic box once more. The little girl is holding the box and gives it an experimental shake, clearly enjoying the rattling sound it makes. The mother deftly removes the box from her daughter, saying "Oh, we're not shaking that any more." I try not to smile.

Faster than you would think, the task was done. The family thanks me and I say "No problem" and we go our separate ways. It really only took up a tiny fraction of my day. Honestly, even on a busy day I could have spared those few minutes. If it were me it would have made a world of difference for someone to actually stop and help instead of ignoring me. Little things matter.

So I went home.

But first I took the extra 10 seconds it takes to return someone's grocery cart to the cart corral.

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

Friday, February 11, 2011

So Much Wrong Here

Every once in a while, something important takes the internet by storm, goes viral, gets picked up by major television news outlets—and I more or less miss it. I know that Emmi pointed it out to me when Nerdy Apple Bottom went viral with her "My son is gay. Or he's not. I don't care" post. But it somehow didn't sink in until one of my dearest friends linked the epilogue to the story.

The down and dirty summary is this: Nerdy Apple Bottom's 5 year old son asked to be Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, "not because it was a cross gendered situation, but because 5 year olds have a tendency to change their minds." she says yes. The child is ecstatic. Or at least he is until it's time to wear it to the church preschool he attends, when he becomes afraid that he's going to be laughed at. His mother encourages him after all, "...who would make fun of a child in costume?" Answer: Moms A, B & C. That's essentially the story from the first post, and really the only information that was given. I don't know where she lives, what denomination the church belongs to, and I certainly have no idea who Moms A, B or C are. I do know that the blog post went all atomically viral, and that it was even picked up by the Today Show.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As difficult as that whole story is, I am possibly even more deeply saddened by her "Epilogue" post. In short, her minister and the elders of her church took it upon themselves to, well, punish Nerdy Apple Bottom for her public witness. They claimed that she had broken the 8th Commandment—the one prohibiting false witness—in a series of meetings that culminated in an ultimatum: Write an apology to Moms A, B & C, take down the Halloween post, no longer write or speak about Moms A, B & C regarding these "accusations," and consider taking down the blog entirely or "be removed from the congregation and not be able to transfer to another church in our denomination in good standing."

That's right, excommunication.

The way I see it, the issue she raises is one of equality on several levels. The first is a gender equality issue. She names it by pointing out that if her daughter had dressed up as Batman, she wouldn't have heard anything about it. There's something insidiously wrong about the way our society dances around gender equality when it comes to clothing: women are supposedly equal to men today, and that's why they can wear "men's clothes." But if a man wears "women's clothes" it lessens him in the eyes of our society. So... women's clothes and men's clothes aren't equal? Women can become as good as men, but for a man to become like a woman is degrading? Balderdash!

Secondly, she correctly recognizes that the comments were coming from a place of rampant homophobia. She sums up her feelings on that quite well. A Halloween costume is not going to cause her 5 year old to "turn gay" any more than it would turn him into a ninja. And if it turns out that he is gay, he's her son, and she'll love him no matter what.

Thirdly, there's an inherent inequality in power in this story. It wasn't the words of another 5 year old that cut so deep—it was the words of several adults. An adult and a 5 year old child do not and should not have the same amount of power. This puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the adults to avoid harming the psyche of the child at all costs. Moms A, B, & C clearly had different views on what was in the best interest of the child—apparently their views were strong enough to confront the child's mother. It should be very rare for anyone to question the way other people raise their own children, and it should never, ever be done in front of the child. At best that undermines the authority of the parent and at worst it psychologically damages the poor child.

There is also an imbalance of power between her and her minister—how much of an imbalance depends on what tradition she comes from and what her beliefs are. If she comes from a Protestant tradition, she's more likely to be able to say, "Go ahead, excommunicate me, there's a UCC church down the road that'll take me in." If she comes from, say, a really conservative hierarchical tradition, it is much more difficult to break away because you'd be depriving yourself of the "real" sacraments, etc.

All in all, I can see how the gobs of attention might be really hard on the little guy. But I definitely see where his mom is coming from. She tried to teach her 5 year old that the world is a safer place than he knew it was. And when she discovered that it wasn't, she took it upon herself to do everything within her power to make it safe.

And let's face it, if he is gay, then having his Mom proclaim very publicly that he has her unconditional love can do nothing but help him down the line.

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Souperbowl of Caring

My fiancée recently brought the Souper Bowl of Caring to my attention as a possibility for our junior high youth group to participate in.

I have to admit that I said "sure thing" and kind of put it on the back burner at first. But she persisted and when I went to their website and researched what they were about, I was struck by two things. First, I was struck the fact that the Souper Bowl of Caring insists that everything you collect go directly to a local charity—the Souper Bowl of Caring defines itself as a movement. Second, it hit me that this was a perfect first project to kick off the interfaith youth program I'm trying to get off the ground.

The interfaith piece is happening on January 23rd; a panel discussion featuring representatives from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Unitarian Universalism. I am elated and excited by the prospect of it going off—and terrified that something will go horribly wrong! Ah, the joys of being in charge...

In any case, here's a wonderful video about the history of the Souper Bowl of Caring movement and the effects it has on its participants. My experience with it so far is absolutely fantastic, and I would encourage any group at all to try out the Souper Bowl of Caring!

Be good to each other,
Rev. Josh

Thursday, December 09, 2010