What I Learn from Project Runway

I discovered the other nightproject-runway-05 at the Love Feast that I might lose a couple of friends if I betrayed who won Project Runway last Thursday. Life is now DVR’d so there is no shared sense of real time — I forget these things. I am forbidden to disturb the perfect isolation of someone’s relationship with the screen. So now that I am down a few lines and have issued the spoiler alert, it was Sean from New Zealand, not Amanda from Nashville, Kini from Hawaii or Char from Detroit.

I don’t watch the show because I root for a winner. I never know why someone wins anyway (although I do think it should have been Amanda this time). I watch the show for  it’s message. It is such a perfect piece of capitalist propaganda that it is a priceless manual for my mission field.

heidi klum womens healthI was talking about the show the other day and yet another person gave me that “I’m-trying-not-to-get-into-this-with-you” look. But they could not resist. “Why do you watch that show? Isn’t it about fashion design?” The unspoken question was, “Pastor, you are into fashion design? Aren’t all those fashion people the definition of godless?” I told them, “I watch it to learn things.” Yes, Heidi Klum is still beautiful and I am fond of Tim Gunn; and it is amazing that these artists can make practical art out of anything in no time at all — those are also good reasons to watch. But mostly, I am listening for what people are being taught and Project Runway sums up America in 90 minutes each episode — 45 of which I actually view. (Thank you inventers of the DVR; I can skip most of the relational drama the film editors concoct).

The Wellstone International Academy in Minneapolis did internet-world a service when they offered everyone the summary sheet they give their international students about U.S. Americans. They collected Concepts that Shape the American Way of Life, a “compendium of ideas developed by anthropologists and sociologists over the past 40 years.” As it turns out, the kids could have gotten the same thing by watching Project Runway for forty minutes. The show is a redundant indoctrination of all things Americans consider important. Here are seven of the concepts that we missionaries need to know about if are to have any hope of helping people learn to let Jesus shape their way of life.

1) U.S. Americans tend to be candid and outspoken in communication with others, and they seldom shy away from disclosing facts about themselves.  Thus, they make reality TV. They prefer “direct” questions and respond with “straight” answers. Thus, Heidi tells the designers each week that, “In fashion one day you’re in, the next you’re out.”  Thus, Tim Gunn is beloved for being gently assertive as he tells someone their design may need to be trashed. The dapper Mr. Gunn is also the one who delivers the news each week that the loser needs to pack up their stuff in the workroom and get out — pretty candid.

2) U.S. Americans assume that any challenge can be met, any goal achieved, if one works hard enough.  The motto of the Navy’s Construction Battalions (“See-Bees”) during WWII was:  “The difficult we do immediately;  the impossible takes a little longer.” Thus PR gives the designers $100 at Mood and one day to make Heidi a gown to wear to a gala. And they do it! They will perform the impossible for the chance at $100K. “Make a look from things found in a movie theater or on a movie set? Sure! I can do that in a few hours; I’m in America.” We are all supposed to have a dream and fulfill it by sticking with it. Almost all the losers tell the camera on their way out that they are going to keep believing in their dream.

3) U.S. Americans believe in individualism. They stress being separate. Thus, the designers always hate the dreaded group challenge. Americans stress personal responsibility and stress that each person must take their own initiative, so designers are always talking about “finding their voice” and Nina Garcia always says, “I can’t see you in that dress.” The show sets up the redundant formula to highlight these things again and again. We always see people hating group challenges (admit it, Amanda) and we always hear about people finding their voice. The judges reward them for individuality.

4) U.S. Americans measure their well-being in terms of the number of tangible things at their command that enable them to enjoy uninterrupted comfort and convenience. Thus, the PR contestants are put up in posh NYC hotels, they make elegant clothes, they get a cool car if they win. Plus, the winners get the promise of a bit of money and fame to start their own brand so they can drive cool cars to posh hotels like Heidi. We are taught to desire these things. We know the people who have made it and who rule the airwaves, if not our lives, have these things.

tim gunn5) U.S. Americans are deeply practical.  They want things, procedures, and people to meet the requirements of actual use in daily life.  The dreaded PR critique is, “It looks like a costume.” Because someone, somewhere must be imagined wearing this thing to Wawa or the Emmys. Thus, Tim Gunn comes by when you’re halfway done, looks concerned and says, “Make it work.” You can get that saying on a T-shirt.   Other people groups around the world give more weight to tradition, theology, morality, or theoretical consistency. None of that matters to Americans if what they’re doing wins or sells. The contestants will modulate their “voice” to get into the pages of Marie Claire.

6) The self-esteem of individual U.S. Americans is largely tied  to their ability to “get ahead” in terms of the recognition of their peers as well as material affluence and social mobility.  There is a deeply held belief in the U.S. that  anyone – through hard work, talent, and persistence — can rise well above the station in life to which he or she is born. Thus the creators of PR comb the world for rags-to-riches possibilities and replay the drama so we will keep believing that piece of relative nonsense. Heidi Klum comes out in some fabulous (if often tasteless) dress — she’s made it. Tim Gunn somehow made a name for himself. That’s the story, again and again. Sean Kelly moves to Brooklyn from the land of the Hobbits and six months later wins Project Runway. Get busy.

7) U.S. Americans tend to feel that time is relentlessly rushing past them. They attempt to “save time” by moving at a rapid pace, taking shortcuts, and improving their efficiency of operations.  They become anxious if forced to waste time. The whole premise of PR is about this anxiety. Only the swift survive. This season Kini remade much of the collection he brought to New York Fashion Week because the judges trashed it; we were impressed that he could sew like lightening.

I like the skillful people of Project Runway. It’s a fun, pretty-much-predictable-by-this-time show. But it is also so instructive! I need to keep my eyes and ears open. Because I am tempted every day to sink into the delusion that Americans live in reality. Reality shows remind me of just how crazy this place can be, and just how much we all need a Savior. That’s Who I am bringing into the mix, after all.





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Stand against the hand: share and pray

When capitalism organizes your money, it undermines community. Worse, when capitalism channels your desire it warps prayer. The main things our church may be lacking the most right now are money and prayer. There is a good, macro reason for that lack which we might not even notice: we are in the grip of the “invisible hand.”

Let me say right off the top, in case you don’t read too much further:

1) We cannot sustain community without sharing money. Practically, we have made commitments as a group that require money, of course. But more profoundly, if you opt out of contributing to the whole you diminish it, even mock it, name it unworthy. You put a hole in our mutuality. Give ten dollars or a tithe, but stay in the game with us. We could lose the game.

2) We cannot keep praying if we let the Jesus-free economy deform our desire. Practically, if the consumption-driven economy drives you, you have another god. If you have stopped praying because, in reality,  your “needs” are met by your place in the economy and your desires are driven by the market, you look like a foreigner in the Kingdom of God. Pray one minute or make praying your vocation, but connect with the Spirit. You could die. And the church could die with you.

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Paean to partners

Someone sabotaged our computer. We discovered what they did right before we wanted to do a few things for the meeting last night. Three of us were huddled in front of it lamenting, offering ineffectual suggestions and generally having some mutual anxiety — and that just before we were to lead an evening centered on “not worrying!”

Now that everything worked out fine-if-not-perfectly, I look back fondly on the scene – back on how our strange little partnership in the gospel was revealed in that moment. We were anxious about something only Jesus could get us together to be anxious about. Each of us had travelled a long distance geographically and culturally to become important in a new kingdom and tribe. I like it when I notice that blessing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being partners lately and feeling thankful. I think my feeling is a lot like what Paul felt about the Philippians when he started a letter to them with: “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:4). From the first day of Circle of Hope until now, I have had such amazing partners, beginning with my wife and family and then one person after another who Jesus drew together to form our incendiary community of faith: partners in building community, making disciples, showing compassion, doing business, inventing administration, weathering crises, sharing money and standing together in problems a lot worse than a sabotaged computer! What a blessing!

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Second Act

We’re warming up to enter the future. Lot’s of important dialogue ahead!

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An old story: loving our neighbor on Tenth St.

tenth and locust windowsWhen we first got started as Circle of Hope at Tenth and Locust I was determined to stay under the radar of the Philadelphia authorities until we were established. I did not expect them to understand us, much less love us, and I have been generally right about them.

So I was pretty horrified when I showed up late for a concert one night and about six police cars were flashing outside our door! So much for staying under the radar. I think it got too hot in the mosh pit so they opened up all the windows and welcomed the neighbors to enjoy the music. One of the higher up, white-shirt policemen was about ready to go upstairs so I asked him what was going on.

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Ambition in hard times with Teilo

teilos headWhen we went to Llandaff Cathedral, outside Cardiff, Wales, the lonely docent said we should go find a special cupboard with Teilo’s head in it. We found one in a musty, dark corner way in the back, behind the altar. When we opened the creaky old door we got a peek at a dusty skull. As it turns out, the famous skull was in another cupboard, as you see. I don’t know who’s skull we were disrupting. But we were still excited to make the connection. The great church planter’s skull was preserved in the church, displayed in memory of a life admirably lived. He died sometime after 560, which was not an easy time to live. He had helped establish the church in Wales. Feb 9 is St. Teilo’s Day. Church planting types should mark that one their calendar. We need all the encouragement we can get.

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The mustard seed — faith you have, not faith you don’t

Mustard-Seeds-PlantsHere’s another Bible problem for you. What’s with faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains?

We sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete 
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

Shouldn’t that little song come with a little warning label? Shouldn’t it say something like: “We don’t really think this is true!” Or “No mountains were injured in the performance of this song!”?

Why does Jesus say,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)

if He doesn’t really mean it?

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How to follow Jesus at work

Sometimes going to work can be tough for a Jesus-follower. Do we just shut off our hearts and souls and get the money, or do we dare to ask the questions that keep bubbling up? “Can I do what I am assigned to do and still honor Jesus?” Even harder, “Can I think as I am supposed to think as defined by my employer and still be a Christian?” We have to answer the question, “Can I dare to serve Jesus without reservation and still have a normal job?”

You’ve got to know who you are in Christ before you can know what to do. We are good trees that bear good fruit. So think about how Jesus-followers approach the idea of work.

We think everything we do matters

When we attend to our regular duties, they are made holy because God is with us in the process and we are in God’s world. We don’t do anything that does not matter. No matter what person or institution claims to own us, we know better — we are children of God. Even when we do wrong things, we know God can turn them to good because we love him. That’s how we go to our jobs.

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Eight reasons to feel better about what is happening in your ruined place

When I was on retreat last week, I felt guilty about being on retreat. Then I read an entry in my journal that said, “I am probably better for the church on retreat than I usually am in my office!” It was a good reminder. I felt less guilty about my luxuriant silence.

My review of my journal kept demonstrating other troubles that disturb my peace. Like how I swing from utter confidence in God to being “daunted” (that is the usual word). Silence overcomes what daunts. To be confident in God in the face of what is daunting takes enough silent time to recognize how God is present as I am present.

I am not sure I had enough time. I stayed in town, so now I remember why people go to the desert. But making the effort to retreat into some silence was richly rewarded, if only for the eight reasons I am about to share with you.

tree in concreteAs I meditated on my journal, looking for how Jesus has been leading me, these remarkable moments of grace kept popping up. Sometimes I feel, overall, like life is kind of overwhelming and my journal reflects that. It is like one of David’s Psalms where he is stuck in a cave somewhere and Saul is looking for him —  but then there is a paragraph in my journal entry that looks like the end of one of David’s laments when he, too, remembers how God has worked and praises him. “This is troubling…BUT God is glorious.”

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Our deep desire: non-chemical ecstasy

When we imagine the far reaches of prayer, it includes how we feel. There is plenty of thinking, of course, but it feels good to know God. We followers of Jesus are being transformed by our relationship with Jesus. We are opened up to the influence of the Spirit of God in places we are built to receive it.

The word ecstasy is not used in the Bible all that much, but people in the Bible are experiencing it. When people are having visions and are caught up into spiritual experiences it is called an ecstasy. So the word comes to describe an emotional/psychological place: “I am experiencing ecstasy. I am in ecstasy.” It is overwhelming feeling: happiness, joy, excitement. It is so overwhelming it can be like a trance, rapture, self-transcendence – it is beyond rational thought and self control. You might naturally associate the feeling with graduating, or falling in love, or having an orgasm. Spiritually, we might associate it with worship, speaking in tongues, or being brought to tears — the feeling of entering into a “huge space of grace” a friend once called it.

aguilera ramonesYou may or may not have had many experiences of ecstasy. You may not want to have them. There always seem to be two kinds of kids in high school when it came to feeling experiences. There were the Christina Aguilera kind who “just want to feel this moment.”  And there were always Ramones kind who want to be sedated.  I think most of us were in the middle somewhere kind of hovering on the edge of feeling and on the edge of sedation.

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