Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pace and Pacem

I've been reading Mark Twain's autobiography, in which he strives to be fearlessly frank in his representations of the people and practices of his era. I just read this morning about the new phenomenon in his day of "author readings," generally whole afternoons given to a steady flow of authors reading from their recent works. Twain describes it the way a citizen of London might some forty years hence describe the German blitzkrieg--unrelenting, ferocious, merciless, with nonstop droning as a sonic accompaniment.


It's taking me significantly longer than I anticipated to make my way through Twain's autobiography. I like it, but I must admit I'm a bit flummoxed by the pace of it. I can't, of course, blame the author; nor am I particularly inclined to blame myself. No, instead I blame society.

In the hundred years that passed between Twain's death and his autobiography's publication, things around these here parts have changed quite a bit. Reading is no longer the dominant entertainment; it's been replaced by radio, then film, then television, then angry birds. The nonfiction we read offers a takeaway per page spread or suffers our wrath; the fiction we read offers explosions or neck bites every other pericope or we move on to something more titillating. Even Twain's lovely daughter Susy - who is frozen forever in our cultural memory as an eleven-year-old devotee of her father and, her writing pedigree and aspirations notwithstanding, couldn't spell to save her life - would be aghast at how impatient we've all become. That's right, I said it: nineteenth-century junior highers were more centered and at peace than today's typical adult.

And while I would not be so naively nostalgic as to suggest that the nineteenth century (which gave us the U.S. Civil War, among other bloodbaths) was a period of peace, I would suggest that our hyperactivity in the present does not lend itself to the calm, reasoned settling of disputes, at the local or the geopolitical level. I read this morning of a fellow who murdered his neighbor because the neighbor's dog had pooped on his lawn. (I don't know the details because I didn't bother to read the whole article. The headline held my attention only for a moment.) We don't have time to be patient; we are too hot-blooded for peace. As Pope John XXIII put it in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, " One would think that the relationships that bind men together could only be governed by force."


Pacem in Terris was issued in 1963 as an appeal to peace in the face of conflicts across the world, from anticolonial revolutions in Africa and Southeast Asia to the Cold War conflict among the superpowers. It was published five days before Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail to white clergy who wanted him to calm down and shut up. The themes of the two documents are pretty similar, actually: they assert rights and call for a sense of duty commensurate with those rights. I've quoted King's letter here and here; here's more from the Pope:

The right to live involves the duty to preserve one's life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.

The twentieth century - particularly its last several decades - wound up being primarily about rights. We're generally better off for it, with whole countries and very nearly continents shaking off the shackles of oppression, with whole races finally having their voices heard and their humanity dignified. But along the way we seem to have lost sight of duty - the duty that attends to the gift of rights we are given by birth, the duty that an assumption of equal rights for all commits us to by default. By the end of the twentieth century, we saw no irony in singing at the top of our lungs, "You gotta fight for your right to party!" Pope John was prescient when he reminded the world,

Human society, as We here picture it, demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands, too, that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own, and induce them to share their goods with others, and to strive in the world to make all men alike heirs to the noblest of intellectual and spiritual values. Nor is this enough; for human society thrives on freedom, namely, on the use of means which are consistent with the dignity of its individual members, who, being endowed with reason, assume responsibility for their own actions.

And so, dearest sons and brothers, we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality.

So we have the duty to actively pursue the rights of our neighbors. And yet even that isn't enough; we also have the duty to be patient, to find a sustainable pace. John quotes Pope Pius XII:

Hotheadedness was never constructive; it has always destroyed everything. It has inflamed passions, but never assuaged them. It sows no seeds but those of hatred and destruction. Far from bringing about the reconciliation of contending parties, it reduces men and political parties to the necessity of laboriously redoing the work of the past, building on the ruins that disharmony has left in its wake."

John approaches his conclusion with the importance of resting in peace, by which we become channels of God's peace:

The world will never be the dwellingplace of peace, till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every man, till every man preserves in himself the order ordained by God to be preserved.

I never read John's encyclical when I was a kid. I did, of course, read the more impatient-friendly bumper sticker penned by Pope Paul VI: "If you want peace, work for justice." I also later read the less magisterial but still fast-paced bumper sticker "No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace." (See what they did there?) Given how elusive peace has become, both within us and among us, I think we might be due for another aphorism to chew on:

If you want world peace, work for inner peace.
If you want inner peace, work for world peace.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bringin' On the Heartache

Today, without warning, I was thrust into a Def Leppard kick.

You may recall Def Leppard, a new-wave rock band out of England in the late 1970s who were ultimately tossed in with the hair-metal crowd in the 1980s, experienced a brief return to the top in the early 1990s, performed with Taylor Swift in the 2000s, and are still touring and recording today. This morning two friends had referenced their hit song "Armageddon It" in their Facebook status updates. Now I can't get them out of my head. I'm in the middle of March Music Madness at my other blog, Strangely Dim, with a post going live today about "What Do I Do?" by alt-folk artist Sam Phillips - who could not be more different from Def Leppard - so the best I can do to honor today's idea virus is to give the band equal time here at Loud Time.

Loud Time is a better forum, to be honest. "Loud" is a claim to fame for Def Leppard - at least from their earliest artistic exploits. Their song "Rock of Ages," their requisite ode to rock n roll, opens with ""Gunter glieben glauchen globen" and then launches into a cowbell-heavy anthem complete with slogans like "What do you want? I want rock n roll!" and "It's better to burn out than to fade away!" It's hard to be an early-adolescent suburban boy in the decade of greed, hear that song and not want to break something. As nerdy and mainstream as I turned out, that song and the rest of Pyromania - really the rest of any Def Leppard playlist - is nevertheless part of my musical DNA.

I remember sitting in a second- or third-grade classroom, bored out of my gourd, reading the graffiti scrawled on my desk. Two bands had left their marks, thanks to some similarly bored student who came and went before me: "Led Zeppelin" and "Def Leppard." You see the influence of the former on the latter immediately; it's not all they have in common either, since they are two of only five bands to have sold more than ten million copies of more than one album in the United States. (Any guesses at the other three?) At the time I was more of a Kenny Rogers fan, but the scrawl made an impression. If I wanted to be cool, I'd better get to know these bands.

My sister and I bought my brother the aforementioned Pyromania as a birthday gift or a Christmas gift (I'm not sure which), but instead of wrapping it, we hid it and made him find it. (It was in the piano bench.) I don't think he liked that game very much, and we went back to wrapping presents from that day to this.

Def Leppard was part of the soundtrack as my friends and I drove aimlessly around Des Moines in our late adolescence. They secured a spot in my musical memory that I never opened up to any other similar band: no Bon Jovi, no Scorpions, not even Led Zeppelin themselves were let in to the extent that Def Leppard was let in. I'm not sure what that says about me, let alone what it says about them. But I'm happy to own it as true; I'm not f-f-f-foolin'.

So here's to Def Leppard: no serenade, no fire brigade; just pyromania! Come on! Long live rock n roll!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Charlie Sheen and the Return of the Catch Phrase

Rumor has it that, after all the hullabaloo, Charlie Sheen is in negotiation to return to Two and a Half Men this fall. I have one thing to say to that:

Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?

It's shocking to the point of scandalous, given all that's been said, that anyone on either side of the Charlie Sheen/CBS debacle would return to the table. But it's one thing Charlie said, and the way he said it in particular, that I think will seal the deal:

Winning!

It's Sheen's particular mad genius that led him at the exact right moment to drop that verbal whammy on us, in the tone and pitch and timbre that he did. And the fact that he could walk away from a show that supposedly generated close to $3 million per episode in revenue for CBS, say one weird and seemingly meaningless word, and parlay it into a reported $7 million profit for himself right out of the gate - not to mention the cottage industries and cultural blitzkrieg that have followed in the wake of this random utterance - was apparently enough to convince Les Moonves that "we need this guy back in our fall lineup."

(That's not a direct quote. Please don't sue me, CBS.)

Here's my concern: what does the success of this odd catch phrase mean for the future of the sit com?

It seems to me that we'd escaped the era of the catch phrase. I grew up with them: Gary Coleman had the aforementioned "Watchoo talkin' 'bout?" on Diff'rent Strokes. A young Jason Bateman had "You're gonna laugh" on It's Your Move. Emmanuel Lewis had a simple funky laugh on Webster. Happy Days' Fonzie had "Ayyyyy!" and Friends' Joey had "How you doin'?" and South Park's Cartman had "Respect My Authority!" and The Simpsons' Bart had "Eat my shorts!" And then . . . nothing.

The catch phrase had a long and storied career, but I thought it had run its course, and I thought we were better off for it. Oh, you'd still hear The Office's Michael Scott say "That's what she said!" over and over again, but I took that more as a statement by the writers on that show that the catch phrase was a cheap shot, the last resort of the not too clever - not a mark of good writing but rather early evidence that a show had jumped the shark. The Office, in fact, in many ways revitalized the form of the sit com, with lots of innovative shows following in its wake, none of them relying on audience anticipation of When's he gonna say it! It's been a great run for situation comedy over the past few years, till Charlie Sheen had to open his mouth and ruin it.

In the movie The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges plays a former radio DJ tortured by a taste of success and his public fall from grace, on a desperate search for forgiveness that he never quite realizes he's on. He's haunted throughout the film by the big break he didn't get: a sit com role, obviously beneath him intellectually, characterized by the melodramatic catch phrase "Forgivvvvve Meeeeeee!" It's a powerful film, and if I were Charlie Sheen's agent, I'd make him watch it. There are infinitely higher callings out there, I'd tell Charlie, than silly comedy with a lack of imagination; such a project could in fact distract a person from the most important role of his life: cleaning themselves up, conducting a ruthless moral self-inventory, getting right with God.

But that's not going to happen. And meanwhile, even if Charlie Sheen doesn't return to Two and a Half Men, even if Two and a Half Men doesn't return to the airwaves, I suspect there are lots of writers in and around Hollywood who are licking their pencils--or, more likely, dusting off decades-old pilots that never took off--in anticipation of the resurrection of the self-made cliche. To that I say, with all due respect to Flo from TV's Alice:

"Kiss my grits!"

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Words and Deeds and Vision

I like my job, in case you're wondering. I get to meet a lot of activists, people who organize and direct other people's efforts at making the world a better place. I get to interact with them as they try to translate what they've learned, in book form, for a broader network of people. I get a front-row seat, as their editor, for the stories that have been most seminal to them in their work, for the principles that ground them and that they wish they saw more of in the world. Sometimes I even get to tell them what I think they are wrong about, but that's not why I like my job.

(Well, maybe it's a little bit why I like it.)

I got together with one such mover and shaker today. He's in town for a writing retreat, which could easily be confused with a Starbucks bender. He actually carried a Starbucks coffee cup into the Starbucks cafe we were meeting at, like some highly caffeinated Groundhog Day. But I digress. We talked, among other things, about the difficulty of running an organization, caring for staff, advancing the work, and, uh, writing a book. One of these things is decidedly not like the others.

To make matters more complicated, he had gotten counsel from some other organizational activists that he should write not one book but three, because it's after three books that people start taking you seriously as a writer. Think about that: you spend the better part of every week championing a cause, hitting the streets, rallying people and making a difference; and you won't be taken seriously till you've written at least 120,000 words about it. And you're an activist--writing 120,000 words (at minimum) is like a prison sentence. Why would anyone willingly submit themselves to that?

Part of my job, then, becomes "the case for writing a book." And I think it comes down to whether service--the work of the organization--is enough, or whether and at what point a leader is called beyond service to influence.

A certain amount of influence is inherent to service, of course; you're modeling behavior for the people you serve, not to mention the activists you lead. But influence is nevertheless a separate category from service, in that leadership extends beyond any single act of service to the idea of what the world should look like, and that conversation necessarily takes place beyond the scope of the service. Influence takes place in conversation with those who don't already agree, who haven't already assimilated, or who need to be pulled further along toward a leader's vision of the world as it could be.

Again, that doesn't take place, at least in its fullest expression, on the street where you serve or in the halls where you already hold power. Such influence must be transmitted, and the best forum for a cohesive, integrated vision for the world isn't the offhand conversation or even the vaunted stage, but in a well-tempered collection of sentences and paragraphs and chapters, patiently and systematically laid out for the patient and systematic reader to wrestle with and come around to. Without engaging the nonparticipant, your acts of service, however noble and innovative, remain local and limited. Good deeds eventually need good words, or they close in on themselves.

Don't get me wrong: good words need good deeds even more. Talk is cheap and won't gain in value until they're backed up with (a) proof of commitment and (b) proof of effect. I'm less and less interested every day in reading the opinions of armchair activists; the cliche that pays for me, anymore, is "Put up or shut up."

That being said, once you've put up, it makes little sense to shut up. You're in it to mix things up, and comes from mixing it up with people who don't know of you, who never thought about what you're passionate about, who could be recruited to your way of thinking and thus to reshaping the world toward your vision of it.

So set aside some time and write a book, already. But before you write--even before you do anything--make sure your vision is actually good.

Love,
Your friendly neighborhood armchair activist

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Modesty and Other Cracked Eggs

I think I've gotten past the point where I attach my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville to every public acknowledgment or manifestation of the culture of narcissism. It started to seem a little desperate. And besides, I'm now in the mode of attaching my forthcoming booklet The Parable of the Unexpected Guest (great for individual reading and group discussion!) to public acknowledgments or manifestations of the lifestyle challenges of Jesus. But when someone sets me up so perfectly, as David Brooks did in this week's New York Times column "The Modesty Manifesto," I simply can't resist making the most of the moment. Call me immodest, if you must; David Brooks essentially already did.

In short, there's abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement - I'm no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me - to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.

The point of my book was to explore the intersection between this cultural phenomenon and the call to discipleship that begins in the book of Genesis and culminates in the book of Revelation. But if you read this blog, you already know that, since for the past couple of years I've reminded you of it at every opportunity. What I'm interested in from Brooks's piece this week--what I'd like to protest a little bit--is his association of growing levels of narcissism with declining levels of citizenship and civic responsibility.

I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project. . . . Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.

He may have a point. We may be eating, drinking, and being merry with gusto and prodigality simply because tomorrow we die, and who cares what happens after that? Under Brooks's scenario, narcissism is the egg that eventually yields the chicken of civic recklessness. But what if narcissism were the chicken; what then would be the egg?

Like me, Brooks relies heavily on the research of Jean Twenge, a social psychologist who analyzes the self-assessments of young people from different generations. What she has found is a stark shift in self-regard between the early 1970s (according to Brooks, she's since gone back as far as the 1950s) and the present day:

College students today are much more likely to agree with statements like "I am easy to like" than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a "very important person." By the '90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.

These are sample questions from the surveys that fuel Twenge's research, and the results suggest that, yes, we've gotten awfully fond of ourselves over the past several decades. But what else has happened in the interim includes a long list of failures and betrayals by the "national project" and "long chain" that Brooks would have us commit ourselves to.

* The Pentagon Papers case suggested that we can't trust the military.
* The Watergate scandal suggested that we can't trust the president.
* The Civil Rights Movement suggested that we can't rely on the powers that be and the civil structures of society to respect basic human dignities.
* Scandals involving sexual abuse and financial malfeasance in the church suggested that we're better off without religious authorities.

We believe in the institutions that demand our trust and obedience, and when they fail us, our belief--an impulse that demands an object--goes looking for a new institution. It's no small thing that John Lennon's seeming paeon to the self ("I just believe in me") is precipitated by all the things he doesn't believe in, because he no longer can:

I don't believe in Bible. . . .
I don't believe in Hitler.
I don't believe in Jesus.
I don't believe in Buddha. . . .
I don't believe in Kings.
I don't believe in Elvis.
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles.
I just believe in me. . . .
The dream is over--what can I say?

Nearly thirty years later Ferris Bueller cited John Lennon and declared, "Isms, in my opinion, are not good." And a respondent in Robert Bellah's research study Habits of the Heart professed her own, post-disillusionment era faith in "Sheilaism--you know, my own little voice." In the wake of failed isms, new ones will inevitably arise; we're addicted to isms as much as we're addicted to ourselves.

So while I would join David Brooks in noting that narcissism and Sheilaism are isms that are, in my opinion, not good, I would switch the order of things a little bit. Our self-absorption is, at least in large part, a product of the cracked eggs of all our prior confidences. The chickens, I'm afraid, have come home to roost.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Maybe Poverty Isn't the Problem

Friday night I was bored, and my wife had other plans, and I found out about a free public session of a missions conference in my area. So I went. I went by myself, which I thought was a little weird, but whatever. Fortunately I ran into someone I know, and I glommed on to the group he brought from his church. Made it a much better night--thanks, Mark!

The conference was OK, I think: probably the most ethnically diverse group I've been in for quite a while, with the event's leaders similarly encompassing a mix of ethnicities. The format of the evening was, however, pretty dyed-in-the-wool Western. We sat in rows facing the podium. We stood up to sing mostly European and American hymns and contemporary praise music. We clapped on the down beats. We applauded politely as each new person ambled up to the microphone. We listened to all men, most of whom were white.

But enough about that. What makes the event worth commenting on, to me, was a single statement from one of the speakers: Stephan Bauman, soon-to-be president of World Relief. "The opposite of poverty isn't prosperity," he said. "The opposite of poverty is community."

I thought it was clever, so I posted it to Facebook--as did, apparently, one or two other people in attendance. Turns out Bauman was perhaps quoting (or paraphrasing) theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who has said something similar in the past.

Anyway, lots of my Facebook friends liked it (at least one even retweeted it, if you don't mind my mixing social media), but one friend pushed back a little. Jamie Arpin-Ricci, who knows a fair bit about poverty and community (his book The Cost of Community drops this fall), reminded me that "the Franciscans would take exception to that!" He should know, since he's a third-order Franciscan or somesuch.

(Not that Bauman knows nothing about poverty or community; he's had a storied career of service to impoverished and otherwise suffering people. Also, for the record, his talk was really engaging and generally quite good.)

Anyway, Jamie's become a friend over the past year, and in the process of editing his book I've become, sort of, his student. So even when he punctuates his comment with a winking emoticon, I take it seriously. Add to that this morning's sermon from Ray Kolbocker about the vanity of prosperity as articulated in Ecclesiastes, and I'm all like "Quick! To the Blogger Dashboard!" I need to sort this out in my head, and anything that needs to take place in my head also needs the input from thoughtful people such as yourselves.

Here are the assumptions in Bauman/Moltmann's statement, as I see it:

* Community is a value.
* Prosperity is a desired condition.
* Poverty is a negative condition.
* Poverty has an opposite.

Here, as I see it, is how Jamie/the Franciscans complicate things:

* Prosperity is not a value. (I'm not sure they would go so far as to say it's a negative condition; you'll have to ask a Franciscan and hope they haven't taken a vow of silence or anything.)
* Poverty is a desired condition.
* Community is a value.

The story goes that St. Francis (who founded the orders now known as Franciscan) was a prosperous little hedonist who had an epiphany, gave all his money to the church and his clothes to a beggar, and set to work rebuilding a demolished cathedral. When his dad showed up to complain, Francis stripped down naked and permanently dissociated himself from his father's wealth. No longer prosperous, now impoverished, Francis was soon surrounded by repentant hedonists who wanted to be like him, so he organized an order and found himself in the thick of community.

There you have it: poverty and prosperity and community, all in the mix. Call me a hedonist, but I'm sort of poverty-averse and attracted to prosperity; meanwhile community seems hopelessly elusive as a definable value. I started to think that what I really need to wade through all this is some definitions. So here's what I came up with, for starters:

Prosperity is the condition of having plenty of what is generally hard to come by.

Poverty is the condition having little or none of what is necessary.

I haven't come up with a definition for community yet, but I'm leaning toward something along these lines:

Community is an interdependent and orderly network of people.

That would, of course, make my workplace a community, my church a community, and my neighborhood, ummm, something entirely different. So I'm not settled on any of these definitions, actually. But what I think is the main thing that strikes me is that poverty isn't necessarily negative; it's simply, largely, undesired. Likewise, prosperity isn't necessarily a desired condition, unless it's a value, which apparently it's not--at least if you were to ask St. Francis. The Franciscans court poverty--commit themselves to it--and they're not insane or anything. In fact, they're generally the type of people you admire and even emulate.

It does strike me, however, that given my working definitions, one can be prosperous and impoverished at the same time. One could, for example, have lots and lots of gold (which is hard to come by) and yet be in a desert with no water or food or protection from the elements (all of which are, arguably, necessary). Meanwhile, one might have no money or shelter (and thus be impoverished) but have a limitless supply of friends willing to open their home and hearth (and thus be prosperous). I think of Jesus, who said he had "no place to lay his head" and yet is found eating and drinking with all kinds of people all the time. Homeless, yes; without assets, yes; prosperous, yes?

This, I think, is what the Franciscans believe: their faith calls them into poverty but assures them that their needs shall be supplied. It's possible, the Franciscans demonstrate, to discover a kind of prosperity while courting poverty--just as, presumably, it's possible to discover a kind of poverty while courting prosperity. (You'll have to ask someone really rich and hope their lawyers will let them talk to you.) Some eight hundred years of consistent ministry have borne out the Franciscans' thesis, making prosperity look less valuable, if not in some ways undesirable.

So maybe what's throwing me off is my knee-jerk assumption that poverty is negative. Maybe it's not--maybe it's even, in some circumstances, desirable. Maybe poverty isn't the problem that we need to solve with prosperity or community or some other elusive opposite. Maybe we should consider instead what is the opposite of prosperity--and maybe what we come up with will make us desire it a little less.

***

I write this, of course, from the comfort of one of my household's three reclining chairs, on one of our three computers, while snacking on one of the I-don't-even-know-how-many kinds of crackers there are in my house. So whatever prosperity is the opposite of, I recognize that I'm that thing's opposite.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Big Issues, Smallish Ethic

I'm giving a talk later this week to some college students in Joliet. It's one installment in a series of "big questions"--all the usual cosmic suspects. Mine is "Can't We All Get Along?" And I'm having a hard time with it.

I came to the realization this morning that this week's perplexity is only the most recent example of a common (not quite universal) trend in my communication: I get about 75 percent of the way to where I think the topic needs to wind up. If the people I'm talking to can't provide the remaining 25 percent, then they're going to be frustrated, and I'm going to look like an idiot.

I think that's why I prefer the smaller venue to the larger venue. There's better opportunity for interaction, and so there's more opportunity to add the group's 25 percent into the mix, and consequently less likelihood that I'm going to leave this place looking like an idiot.

This has been a growing awareness for me; the big big stage has always had its appeal, and the big big crowd is an easy barometer of success--both for the speaker and the gathering place. There are also undeniable values to large gatherings--the energy of the crowd can lower some people's defenses but also protect the anxious; you can be either anonymous or social in a large gathering in ways that simply aren't possible in a small setting; there's a galvanizing effect in one message heard by hundreds, even thousands, whereas the same message among dozens or handfuls sounds more tentative, less assured.

But small settings have their own appeals, their own strengths, as well. To take my talk as an example, the idea of getting along is a theoretical question for a crowd of thousands, but it's real and pressing, even urgent, to a group of people who know each other--who know each other's strengths and weaknesses, charms and grating habits. And a large crowd dispersing is less likely to continue to process the question together, more likely to let it remain conceptual. Smaller groups are already stuck with one another, and so they stick together, and so the ideas they process together stick.

Maybe I'm biased. I'm small myself, actually; one of my permanent memories is of my eighth-grade teacher pointing that out to me and my parents, and as the years pass, I grow less and less confident of an imminent growth spurt. But also, as the years pass, I'm less intimidated by the big big stuff. My namesake King David of Israel, I occasionally remind myself, was a little guy, and he killed a giant and out-strategized a king and gathered himself a kingdom. And Jesus of Nazareth surrounded himself with a little community of relatively powerless people, and look what came of that.

So I'm hoping for a smallish group this week--or, if not a smallish group, then at least a smallish ethic. I'm hoping that we can get small even as we tackle a big question. And I'm hoping that the 25 percent my conversation partners bring to the table will lead to some real strategies for helping people get along, and that they'll stick to the strategies and see some really big stuff happen. That'd be a happy day for me, I think.