High School Football: an opportunity to observe social behavior

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I went to a local high school football game this evening. I usually try to catch a few of them each year. Brings back memories. So many of them. If you concentrate hard enough you might even be able to figure who that kid in the photo is. Go ahead. Give it a whirl.

It’s different sitting in the stands. I go because I enjoy watching the action on the field. I am learning that many attendees–particularly a large percentage of the Jr High and Sr high students–have other competing interests. It’s a rich environment for ethnographic observation.

Typically I sit high in the home stands on the east side, as far from the band and screaming die-hard student fans as possible. It’s still crowded, but at least there is some leg room. Students fill in empty spots all around me. They text incessantly, update their Facebook and MySpace statuses, gossip, flirt, show off their jerseys (freshman and JV players), run back and forth to change seats or see what’s happening in other parts of the stadium, get food, gossip some more, and generally flit about like the social butterflies so many of them are.

Not that all of them are like this. Just the ones seeking to be seen and noticed by as many people as possible.

It’s fascinating to behold, this social melting pot. There is a whole world of experiences that they come to expect when they attend a football game, most of which have nothing to do with football. It’s Friday night. A dance is scheduled immediately following the game. Who will they go with? Will they go at all? Beyond the west end zone are the grills cooking hamburgers. It’s a popular spot for kids to gather without the distraction of cheering and referee whistles. They focus on their friends and potential dates.

Behind the home stands younger kids hang out, chasing each other around, climbing on equipment, despite posted warnings to the contrary. When they get bored they go to the field east of the stands and chase each other some more.

I have witnessed these and numerous other social constructs played out over the years I’ve attended games at this particular stadium. Curiosity causes me to wonder at the implications. Maybe the onset of boredom contributed, as well. After all, the initially close game (22-18 at the half) devolved into a blowout by the fourth quarter (39-18 with 9 minutes left in the game).

However, for those who minister to people in general and youth and kids in particular, my point is this: observe the social settings of those whom you influence. It is rich with information which will deeply inform your preparations to impact them with the gospel.

Flag Waving American: Yet I have some concerns…

I am a flag waving American. It’s true. I love my country and the principles of liberty and justice for all for which it stands. I know the country has had problems from the outset. After all, it consists of people. Screwed up people. Like me. I will let you decide whether you belong in that characterization. Bottom line is that despite our principles we manage to make a mess of things and to contradict the very things we hold dear. I won’t make a list here because that is not the point. The point is: we are flawed. But I maintain that the American ideal of liberty and justice for all is fundamentally good insofar as it places God at the center of all that we are and do. What other country in history has attempted this?

Many pundits on the left side of the political and religious cultural scene have undertaken to highlight the very real and also the assumed (from a liberal perspective, e.g. guns, wealth for those who work for it, personal liberty to make choices and experience resultant benefits and consequences, etc) faults and by extension to deconstruct the validity of our nation’s formation (the fleeing of religious persecution in Britain, the Declaration of Independence, and the Revolutionary War), and later key defining seasons which sought to correct clear evils in our culture (the Civil War comes to mind, relevant because it sought to abolish slavery, as does the arrogant and horrific systemic treatment of Native Americans). I agree with some of their criticism, but not all. Nor do I agree with their conclusions which are motivated by unabashed liberalism and Christian progressivism.

My first loyalty is to the Lord God and to his Son Jesus Christ. My primary citizenship is heaven. Thus, I am present here and now on earth and as an American citizen, but my actions, attitudes, motives and their collective results will be judged by God alone. I know this. Likewise, I do not question the similar claims of those who disagree strongly with me. Only God knows such matters.

But what am I to do as I see the country I love denigrated repeatedly by the political, media, and religious power brokers of our time? How am I to respond when actions are taken which erode personal liberties, destroy initiative to be innovative and entrepreneurial, punish hardworking wealth earners by taking from them to give to those who will not work, and forcing people to rely on the state for income and health benefits (and taxing them as a penalty for opting out!), rather than their own work ethic?

Many of my friends would suggest that I should not get involved at all so that I do not burn bridges of friendship. Yet, those same friends continually encourage agreement with policies which appall me. Surely, burning bridges is not my intent and it certainly will not occur by my choice. But neither can I remain silent when a president of the United States seeks to destroy the foundation upon which this nation was built in order to make it more liberally palatable. That is, he seeks to create the perceived and real need for government intrusion into personal lives, business, the marketplace, and perhaps soon into religious institutions so that there is an equitible distribution of misery which cries out for help from the powerful: in the liberal matrix, the powerful are the aristocracy of politicos, media mavens and celebrities,  and also the social service agencies which are dependent on the financial considerations of their benefactors.

So, I wave the American flag today, praying for our nation, for our president, for our Supreme Court, for all of our elected representatives, and for the American people as we race headlong into the most critically defining election cycle in recent memory.

Don’t despair, those of you who may agree with all or part of my post. Just vote your conscience in November and encourage others to do the same. And to those of you who disagree with me, be sure to vote your consciences, too. Too much is at stake for any of us to assume that others will make the right decision without our direct participation in the process.

God bless each and every one of you and God bless America!

first steps toward learning your neighborhood culture

Culture is the living, breathing, ever-changing sum total of human experience. It encompasses the whole of who we are and how we relate to each other (or do not relate at all), whether for bad or good. We often hear about American culture as a whole. Yet, most of us understand that America is comprised of many cultures within its borders, and exponentially increasing sub-cultures beyond the major categories of ethnicity, geographic region, language, dialect, religion, social status, and so on. It is often possible to distinguish between certain parts of a city, noting differing attitudes, city codes, geography, bodies of water, transportation portals, cultural artifacts such as historical buildings or their lack, buildings and roads in states of repair/disrepair… All of these factors contribute in part to the overall culture.

Is it possible to learn the culture of a specific neighborhood, or even a section of a neighborhood? Yes. But it takes time and personal interaction with locals. The tools of your trade? Time; good, respectful questions; a commitment to listen with no other agenda but to understand; and careful observation.

Time Spend time with people. Become a regular at a gasoline station, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, garage sales, a walking/running/biking route, community activities, and so on. Engage people in conversation. Do life with them. Allow them to know you.

Questions Ask good questions when appropriate. Discover local traditions, favorite food places, the best places to take your kids or to exercise, the reasons behind unique characteristics of a community (architecture, geography, dialect, dress codes, vocabulary, rhythms of seasonal traditions and events, etc), to name  a few.

Listen well. Hear the stories, but also the heart which motivates the stories. Notices the interplay between personal and family stories and the larger local cultural narrative. How do they relate? Do they differ? Why?

Careful Observation Do their actions line up with their words? What added dimension do their actions bring to their narrative? As an outsider, do you notice things which seem contrary to the proposed internal ethos of the culture? For example, in Portland, I observe that much of its supposed wierdness seems more manufactured by a need to be noticed and marketable as a cultural novelty, than any real underlying fundamental difference from the human experience found in other urban cultures. It is wierd, to be sure. But not to the extent that they would have you believe, and to a greater extent than they realize for reasons they would be loathe to admit. I include myself in this appraisal.

Encouragement. Above all, love your neighbors as yourself. Especially those who hate you and treat you as their enemy. Especially them. Love in the way of Jesus. Have compassion in the way of the Cross. For perhaps in part this is the cross he has entrusted to you, so that he (not you or me) might be lifted up among your neighborhood, and among the nations.

graffiti on broken hearts

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon last year when I took these photos in Portland’s lower Central Eastside. Home to industry, railroads, and graffiti  painted on broken hearts, the area isn’t much different from other industrial zones in Portland, but it is more readily accessible and offers interesting subjects for photography.

Photograph by Glen Alan Woods

This road is SE Holgate near SE 26th as it passes over the railroad tracks. Not much to see in this view, although the discerning eye can barely make out Oregon Health Sciences University in the West Hills beneath the ominous clouds which threatened to dump heavy rainfall on me (a threat they soon executed with relentless force). The photos below depict various sights as I looked over the bridge railing down to the railroad yard. See the engine in the distance? There is  a certain kind of beauty I perceive in industrial environments. Wierd, I know. But then, as shown in the bottom photo, I noticed something else…and I wondered…

I wondered about the lives of those who tagged this wall. Gang members marking their territory? Kids wanting to express themselves? Creatives seeking alternative art installations? Most likely, the first two options are closest to the truth insofar as they go. I suspect it is graffiti on broken hearts. Who knows what plotlines drove them to this point? What are they expressing? Anger? Rage, even? Lust? Jealousy? Gang colors? Threats of vengeance? Brokenness in the midst of despair? Portland’s urban neighborhoods reveal much beauty, industry (as in these photos), creativity, colorful history, wierdness, and cultural diversity. Beneath the surface, however, there is revealed a pervasive brokenness in us all. The graffiti is merely a symptom, not the root problem. 

We paint over walls incessently, but ignore the call of people like Donald Miller and his Mentoring Project to mentor the fatherless. We attend committee meetings to complain about the homeless, but refuse to follow the lead of people like Steve Kimes  who pastors Anawim Christian Community (a community church for the homeless and the mentally ill and interested middle class folks in Portland, OR) or Ken Lloyd  who ministers and does life with the homeless downtown, and countless others who labor in obscurity by engaging the homeless intentionally and compassionately. We whisper about problematic neighborhoods which have pervasive crime, such as North Portland, Lents neighborhood in SE Portland, and Rockwood in Gresham, but we are content to watch tacitly as a few (e.g. Compassion Connect in Rockwood or The Bridge Church in North PDX) engage the culture in the way of Jesus’ love. 

We may even write blog posts like this one and then log off, thinking we somehow have made a difference while going on with our day, doing things which prevent us (intentionally, I suspect) from actually doing life with real people in the margins. You know, the people Jesus misses most. Whether they are homeless or forgotten in their homes; poor, middle-class, or wealthy, yet still marginalized from authentic community.  Shame on us. No, correct that. Shame on me for my selfishness. I’m far better at writing a good plot than living it. And that isn’t saying much. Time for me to go get real with God and do life with him even as I learn to do life with others. Pray for me. I will pray for you, too.

Don’t tarry. The clock is ticking…

what are the margins of culture and why do they matter?

Those who inhabit the cultural margins typically do so because they either do not have the social or economic capacity to remain in or penetrate mainstream society, or they choose to remain beyond the grasp of full engagement. There are also degrees of marginalization based on a variety of sociological metrics, ranging from personal income and being able to rent or own a home and transportation to language, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, among other categories, such as health, age, marital status, criminal record, and so on. It is not a simplistic issue. Yet, the net effect for many people is marginalization outside the preferred norms of the culture. It may result in a sense of isolation (as with many elderly who can no longer venture out to find community), expulsion from a home (as in gentrification in a neighborhood which once was affordable, but now has escalated its cost of living), living on the street, being mocked or ignored, and for many youth, seeking ways to gain a sense of belonging through gangs, the sex trade, drugs, violence, graffitti, or other kinds of unsavory behaviors.

There is a frequent assumption among affluent Christians (for purposes of this post, anyone with enough money to pay their basic bills and keep a roof over their heads) that the marginalized are getting what they earned, a ticket to poverty in some form due to unspecified nebulous past misdeeds. A dreadful attitude exacerbated by a lack of relationships with real marginalized people.

The margins of the culture are inhabited by people whom God loves. They have pulses. They have dreams and longings. They range from young to old, and span the full gamut of languages, religions, ethnicities, and even economic strata. That’s right, even affluent people can become marginalized in a certain sense. Just check your local police blotter or obituary column.

The margins matter because God cares about the people who dwell in their spaces. People like you. Like me. Think about the last time you felt isolated from people and God, profoundly lonely. Was it recently? Did someone penetrate that space as an apparent gift from God to bring you community and love? What did that do for your heart? Your view of God and his church?

Most people in the margins are honestly not aware they dwell in that space. It is normal life for them. Many do not know God. Or they worship something other than the God of the Bible. Perhaps they actively oppose him. Many have families. They may even have roofs over their heads. They simply try their best day-by-day to survive while striving to achieve their dreams. You know, sort of like you and me.

What would happen if someone kind, caring, and trustworthy were to enter their world with a giving heart and actions to match? Not expecting anything in return, but certainly willing to engage in the kind of sincere social give-and-take which is generative of authentic community. What would happen if that person, or better, those persons were Christ followers with no other agenda than to love as Christ loved, give as he gave, serve as he served? Sacrificially. Humbly. Boldly. In the way of an ambassador with access to the Father through Jesus and compassion to honor the sensitivities of the culture in which they are ministering.

What might this look like inhabited and energized by the Spirit of the Lord and incarnated in real community as Christ followers interact with those who will likely never step foot inside a church on their own?

Break camp and advance…

Five Ways to Learn the Culture of Your Neighborhood

Photo By Glen Alan Woods, September, 2011

Outreach without a foundation of relationships invariably leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is too often the norm for churches attempting to impact the neighborhoods in which their campuses are located. Good intentions are derailed by a failure to become a contributing part of a neighborhood. From the perspective of residents, we can seem like interlopers who zip in to hand out a track or give a show, and then zip out, leaving them to do damage control because of the distant nature of the outreach approach. No relationships have been nurtured. But hey, we got our photographs and our stories to share with applauding admirers in the church building, right?

But no relationships with the lost outside the walls our campus. One urban missionary says, “If you are not going to stay, please don’t come.” Sounds harsh, I know. But he has a point. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I offer below five simple ways to begin learning the culture of our neighborhoods. It is foundational to creating understanding. Rather than assuming we fully know the perspectives and needs of others, we should seek to learn them from the people we intend to reach. How might we do this? We should:

  1. Visit community events: Parades, fairs, carnivals, open air markets, flea markets, neighborhood discussions, movies in the park, sports events (especially for kids and teens), etc. Be present. Contribute. Ask questions and listen. Share in the local life and economy with no agenda other than to represent Christ with his love and kindness.
  2. Visit local restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, speciality shops, parks, and so on. Do life with people. Always listening. Always gracious.
  3. Identify local conversation partners. Ask permission for an interview. Assure them you are not wanting to preach at them, but that you do want to learn from them. To the level of their comfort, ask about their lives in the community. What is the ebb and flow of local life. How do they perceive the church? Is it considered a part of community life as a positive influence or do they feel it is separate, closed off? What are their immediate concerns, worries, hopes, joys?
  4. If it is available for your neighborhood, do an online demographic study. For churches in the USA, the website www.census.gov provides a large quantity of data relevant to the needs of local neighborhoods. Compare the data with that of your church attendance roster. How is it different? How is it similar? You might be startled at some of the findings. But don’t worry, God isn’t surprised.
  5. If you live in the neighborhood, try to do life with others outside the walls of your home. Go on long walks, particularly in the warmer months. Take time to visit with the woman watering her lawn or the man scratching his head over how to put on the wiper blade. Ask the young couple about the baby in their stroller. Admire the new haircut for the toy poodle who simply will not stop yapping for someone to throw his ball…. You know, life. Do it with them. And listen.

In this process, and undoubtedly through other means you might create, you will begin to recognize themes emerging. Phrases. Words. Cries from the heart. Previous to this, for example, you could not have known that about 50 percent of mothers within the neighborhood in which your church campus is located are single. The reasons vary, but how might your church respond in a loving, caring way? Just an imaginary example, based on real research from my doctoral dissertation.

So there you have it. Five simple things you can do to begin learning the culture of your neighborhood. Be sure to focus on listening rather than talking, and caring rather than thinking up ways to refute incorrect doctrine. If you do so, you will gain something of far greater value than a photo-op and a heroic story to tell. You will gain friends. Only then will you begin the process of learning how to offer a gospel witness into the local culture. Off you go. Your neighbors are waiting.

What do you think of this post? Do you agree? Disagree? Sound off here or find me on twitter.com/glenwoods.

God Bless America

Tomorrow is the 4th of July. For those who love liberty, who appreciate the sacrifices of our American founders and our contemporary patriots, who believe in the ideals for which America stands, it is a day of celebration. It is a day to sing, “God Bless America.”

However, for a growing number of younger Americans (especially younger evangelicals), this statement may be a source of embarrassment.  They point to the many problems which existed at the start of this nation and throughout much of its history and to problems which continue to exist to this day. The treatment of the indigenous Indian tribes (who themselves migrated to North America), the horrific African slave trade, and the onset of greed and crime related to the gold rush are just a few of the tragic situations which developed for a variety of reasons. These are important parts of our history which typically were glossed over in favor of placing America only in a pristine light. The criticism that American historians ignored our collective culpability in these situations is valid, but the critics also risk making the same error by ignoring what is right about America, and ignoring how far we have come in just a short 200+ years. Continue reading