Wednesday, September 3, 2014

top 10 books

I got tagged twice on Facebook and it's fun, so I might as well join in. (although one list said "books" and the other said "novels," so I'll try to stick to fiction as much as I can. I'll also try to avoid too much self-aggrandizement while discussing how much of a better person these books have made me.) I'm also going to cheat and put in a runner-up by the same author or on a similar theme. I own almost all of these if ever you want to borrow them.

1. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
I read this story about love and gods at exactly the right time in my life-- a time when my teenage self-absorption was reaching its zenith and my ability to relate to other human beings was reaching its nadir. It made me confront my own selfishness, and I think it's changed all subsequent serious relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) ever since. I'm also a sucker for a good twist at the end and a clever theodicy, which is probably why this book is #1.
Runner-up: The Chronicles of Narnia

2. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
My first exposure to Wendell Berry was in Jayber Crow-- which started me on my localism-loving life path that brought me to New Song and Sandtown-- but it was Hannah Coulter who challenged me to love the world around me in small, simple, faithful ways despite the evils large and small that are constantly trying to tear apart communities.
Runner-up: the short story Watch With Me

3. Good Country People  by Flannery O'Connor
I don't remember when I read this short story, but ever since I've written differently. More than anything else, she's influenced the way that I think about the end to which I write and how to incorporate the macabre-- which occupies a pretty decent stretch of my subconscious-- into what I write.
Runner-up: the short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" (which can be found in the same collection linked above.)

4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Sex, drugs, and techno-dystopianism. How could you read this living in the West after 1900 and not be influenced by it?
Runner-up: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

5. All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
A habit I'm trying to break (or adapt to) is my tendency to unconsciously mimic the writing style of the last thing I read. It was while reading this that I realized that I even do that in the first place and how I might be able to actively use that habit to refine my style.
Runner-up: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
I read a lot of books when I was young-- this list probably could have been populated exclusively by things I read before I was 12-- but Charlotte's Web will always have a special place in my heart.
Runner-up: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Sometimes you just need to be scared straight, and this book is exactly what every future missionary oughta read just so you can know how badly you can screw things up while doing things in Jesus' name.
Runner-up: Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo

8. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A lot of the stuff I read growing up fell into the "Christian Fiction" rubric that was a bit heavy-handed in places. This novel-- beyond its incredible characters and plot-- helped me see that there were other ways of communicating deep truths.
Runner-up: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

9. The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns
Getting into the nonfiction-- though this one reads more like a novel-- I read The Corner in my first year of medical school. It opened my eyes to the world of urban America and challenged a lot of the assumptions that I had grown up with about poverty & addiction.
Runner-up: To Live In Peace by Mark Gornik

10. Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot
Jim Elliott was just one of those people whose faithful dedication allowed him to sow the seeds of a great harvest in a short life. It's encouraging and challenging.
Runner-up: The Zanzibar Chest by Aiden Hartley

I won't tag anyone, but if you're one of the ten people who read this blog, feel free to take this as your excuse to do it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Trousseau Syndrome

I've been working on a novel about patients and doctors in Baltimore for a few years now and have decided to serialize it so that folks can read it even if I'm not quite finished yet. I made myself a fancier-than-I've-done-before Wordpress site for it and I'm really excited to be releasing fiction to the general public again. I have no idea how it's gonna pan out-- perhaps, like this blog, it'll have about 5 readers plus whoever wanders over whenever something crazy happens like "Downwardly Mobile for Jesus" or 33 Under 33, Continued (seriously, Peter Gaultney, what a guy.)

Anyway, enough talking: here's Trousseau Syndrome!

Monday, July 21, 2014

song post #10: "come out swinging"

Haven't done a song post in a while. This one may not be 100% there (and we definitely got off somewhere between the second verse and second chorus) but man I like playing this one a lot. As is usually the, much credit is owed to Peter on vocals, Tim on bass, Julian on the second guitar, Jon on drums, and Evan for the mixing magic.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

a few quick thoughts on "Downwardly Mobile for Jesus"

Al-Jazeera America recently published an article entitled Downwardly Mobile for Jesus about my church & neighborhood (thanks to everyone who shared it and talked about it!) The author, Lawrence Lanahan, is a local freelance journalist who has done a lot of great work, including The Lines Between Us, a radio series examining inequality in the Baltimore region that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is especially useful if you're one of those people like me who is suspicious about the way that "inequality" is thrown around in modern political discourse; I have found it very helpful in understanding the dynamics of racial inequality in Baltimore and how historic policies are still producing harm today. He & I initially connected after I wrote this post (it takes some kinda mensch to be publicly contradicted and still want to talk!) and I was really impressed with his desire to tell the story of Christian Community Development in a faithful way, using New Song & Newborn as a lens to look at how communities of faith can address inequality.

There were, of course, limitations: there's only so much you can say about a multi-generational, multifaceted movement in 3200 words. I still don't feel particularly comfortable with the fact that the first picture you see at the top of the article is me and my family; the story is about us to about the same degree as Star Wars is about C-3PO and R2-D2. Still, I'm happy with how it turned out and how the voices of remainers & returners (who were doing the work of social justice in Sandtown long before us relocators ever showed up) are prominent throughout the story and do a lot of the heavy lifting on some of the tough questions we face.

I read the comments [I know! Curiosity got the better of me. Don't worry, there weren't too many.] and I figured that responding to some of the common reservations might be a good way to advance the conversation.

1. What you're doing wouldn't be necessary if the government did the right things
Firstly, we do work with the government on a variety of levels: for example, New Song Academy is a public charter school and the ministry that I helped to start spent a lot of effort trying to get people signed up for Medicaid or the insurance exchanges. There are a variety of ways that the community and our work has benefited from public funding or city involvement and while we are all very suspicious of any help that comes from outside of the community, it's clear that when you listen to what John Perkins has to say (including any of his great books, some of which like With Justice For All & Let Justice Roll Down have previews of significant-length previews on Google Books), he (like most CCDA folks) think that the government has a role to play in achieving justice for inner-city neighborhoods like Sandtown.

2. It's okay to help people, just don't proselytize
This one is probably the silliest objection because it ignores the facts that the vast majority of community members already identify as Christians, a large number of people in Sandtown have helped to teach or disciple me, and (probably most importantly) proselytization is a pretty standard practice in these communities. Furthermore, while the historic injustices associated with coercive conversions are real, they have generated a backlash that connects with a variety of other modern prejudices to suppose that trying to make a compelling case for someone to change their mind about something (often while helping them) is morally deranged if you include religious content. However, this practice is used by a variety of public and private organizations to impart a smorgasbord of moral values ("the arts are valuable!" "don't discriminate against others!" "soda is bad!") to impressionable minds. There are lots of ways to do evangelism poorly, but just because it is inherently wicked in some popular moral systems today doesn't mean it's wrong if we do it.

3. The White Savior Industrial Complex
This one is the most bothersome because the article addressed it pretty directly. It is also the most appropriate because it is a constant threat to the life and character of our work. Yes, we have outsiders in leadership positions. Yes, I'm a white person with a lot of natural gifts and an agenda of my own that can (and has) overrun the agenda of my neighbors. No, we are not perfect and often need to repent to one another. But I am working to bless my neighbors and give them skills and power. I submit to their leadership as often as I can, give them the power to rebuke me when I'm out of line, and collaborate with them instead of barking orders. The work of reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation did not end the moment that my wife & I bought a house in Sandtown; there are endless layers (both personal and structural) to sort through and the best place I know to sort them out is at the Cross, where my neighbor & I stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

4. [UPDATE] Be ye not afraid of Al-Jazeera America, my people, for therein thou shalt find good longform journalism and analysis
You know what I'm talking about, guys.

You're always welcome to visit New Song on a Sunday morning if you're in Baltimore; come & see for yourself what God is doing in us and through us. You can also read about our history in To Live In Peace, written by one of the co-founders of our church. If you're still up in Harford County, keeping following Lawrence-- you'll be surprised what you might learn! My hope is that this article helps to challenge perceptions inside & outside the church; let's keep talking about how to love one another.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

around the web: Mere Orthodoxy

Mere Orthodoxy has been one of my favorite blogs for a while and it was an honor to get published there. I most recently participated in an episode of their podcast, Mere Fidelity, which you can subscribe to on iTunes or any other RSS podcast streamer! We discussed The End of the Nature, and specifically the first chapter of Oliver O'Donovan's book Begotten or Made? on nature, sex, technology, medicine, and how people are not like IKEA furniture.

I will hopefully continue to write for Mere-O as time allows, but here's what's been published on the blog so far:

The Poisonous Fruit of the Randian Sexual Paradise: In short, "free market" Randian sexuality is bad for us, as it privileges a certain strata of sexual consumers and the people who profit off of them. Boring sex is the most important kind of sex and marriage qua marriage isn't enough to protect a traditional sexual ethic from the financial-sexual juggernaut; we have to create an inclusive Christian community held together by marriages. I was trying to, in some ways, help to translate some of the ideas from Wendell Berry's seminal essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community for our generation. You can tell me if I succeeded.

Radical Rhetoric, Siege Warfare, and Christian Population Density: Last year, there were two very popular articles passing around the evangelical interwebs (one of which was written by Mere-O's otherwise brilliant proprietor, Matthew Lee Anderson) that tried to attack "radical" Christianity as is popularly expressed by smart, faithful guys like Shane Claiborne and David Platt. I tried to critique their critique and point out both the strength of missionary institutions as well as the ongoing need for more boring, faithful Christians to extend the work of these institutions in unreached places.

The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling Up What Is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ: There were just not enough people talking about the implications of Jerry Umanos, a modern martyr whose life and practice paralleled many aspects of my own. I wrote this tribute to build on the previous article's ideas.

Faith, Family, and the Dangers of Capitalism: There is not nearly enough suspicion about the effects that modern capitalism has had on the traditional institutions that us conservatives hold dear, and many are swayed by the power of The Market to do good. I sought to rectify that a little.

around the web: healthcare

No, I don't blog here very often. However, unlike most posts that start by talking about the infrequency of posts, this one's better: I'm writing here to let you know that I've been writing (and talking) elsewhere!

First off, here's me and my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry talking about what's wrong with healthcare in America (especially why doctors are monsters and welfare queens), how community health workers could fix things, and how libertarians and conservative ideas might add to the concept of public health:

This discussion is a good intro to another piece I wrote entitled The Future of Family Medicine: Some Sacrifices Required: I love Family Medicine. It is an honor to join as a board-certified member and I genuinely believe that more family doctors are needed to improve the health of our nation and our world-- and that belief is backed up by some strong evidence. I plan to spend my life teaching it in places that don't already have programs training doctors in this specialty. However, I also think Family Medicine in America needs to change some things and make some sacrifices before we are forced to make them by people who may or may not have our patients' best interests at heart. I laid out why family doctors in particular should give preventive care over to community health workers in this piece for the American Family Physician Community Blog.

Preventive care: It's so simple, my toddler could do it!

Also on the healthcare front: Local Hospital Sponsors 5K Fun Run To Raise Awareness About Iatrogenic Injury. I'm particularly proud of this one.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Baltimore, A Broken Heart Love's Cradle Is

There's no denying it: Baltimore, like many other cities, has serious problems. Terrible crime. Massive unemployment. Atrocious health disparities. Devastated housing. Leaders more interested in making a name for themselves than in properly managing the city's resources. The legacy of postindustrial economic losses and institutionalized racism are still quite real to many people in Baltimore. This is felt most acutely when people see little fruit for their hard work or have to live in fear of violence.
These are not concerns limited to the white & wealthy, as sharp as the divisions between the “two Americas” that David Simon has expounded on may be. Whether you are in Patterson Park or Sandtown, most residents want to be able to work, enjoy the many great things about the city, and commune with their neighbors without worrying that their safety will be threatened, their tax dollars will be mismanaged, or their fellow citizens will go hungry & homeless. In general, however, it is the wealthier people in the city who are able to agitate more loudly for change, especially since they are usually contributing what they believe is their fair share to the public administration.
The recent post from Tracey Halvorsen threw this fear into focus, giving us a broken-hearted perspective on Baltimore’s crime problem in particular. The pieces from Lawrence Lanahan and Tim Barnett have helpfully exposed some of the difficulties wrought by the privilege inherent in Halvorsen’s remarks. I found their articles helpful though a little less practical; for example, Lanahan calls inequality the real “elephant in the room” even though various public leaders have been discussing inequality quite a bit lately while Barnett calls us to love abstractly in a manner that’s stirring but a bit hollow. Mark Brown’s relentlessly pragmatic approach dovetails with City Paper’s 10 New Year’s Resolutions well to suggest a few policies that could make a big impact. These are all a reasonable place to start; I would also briefly suggest that razing more vacant housing and investing in more urban farms would probably help provide jobs in areas that need them, as is happening in my neighborhood.
I want to add to the conversation by talking about reconciliation, which is a crucial element that has been left out. I believe very strongly in the “air war” of policy to fight poverty and its attendant ills, but I believe even more strongly that no policy will work without personal, cultural, and environmental change that accompanies it. Policy helps to shape people, cultures, and our environment from the top down; reconciliation & relationships shape them from the ground up. My experience is shaped by the fact that I’ve lived in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood for the past 4 years, which is by many objective standards (including infant mortality & murder rate) not the greatest place to live. I would like to share a few of the things I’ve learned here from my neighbors about reconciliation.
There’s been a lot of talk about privilege in this debate; I don’t think haranguing someone about their privilege is particularly helpful once it’s been pointed out and we all acknowledge that our instincts for self-preservation can lead us to exclude others and even harm them unnecessarily. There has also been a lot of discussion around systemic inequalities and structures perpetuated poverty, which are also very important to consider. However, I think it is easy to forget that you can fall off either side of the privilege tightrope when talking about the poor: you can be “conservatively” apathetic about people ever escaping substance abuse & crime or you can be “liberally” overindulgent in a materialistic view of society that assumes poor people only need more stuff (which is not many of them say when you ask them what they need.) If we look at the billions that have been spent fighting poverty in America, it is clear that we have not invested in the structural reforms that will reduce poverty, nor have we created institutions that the poor in any way enjoy dealing with. Indeed, when you ask poor people around the world to describe what their biggest needs are, they overwhelmingly describe broken relationships & freedom from shame as paramount, not services or cash.
Thus, if Halvorsen's article and the responses to it teach us anything, it is that no desire of our hearts is so pure that it can't be twisted to harm others. Caring for the poor is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when we deny the agency of the poor in their own self-improvement. Cynicism about political and economic motivations is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when it chokes our passion until we are bitterly apathetic. Understanding the structures that stratify privilege is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when we incentivize victimhood and fritter away our energy with privilege-checking. Safety is a good thing; it becomes a bad thing when innocent people must suffer unnecessarily for us to be safe. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is instructive here: "You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride."
The poor are not, as some might implicitly desire, to be confined to areas where they might only hurt each other. However, they aren't helplessly in need of more money and fewer drug arrests from above, either. They have their own resources and capabilities that allow them to survive or thrive in difficult neighborhoods like Sandtown. My neighbors are thoughtful people who support one another through crises and want to make our block a better place. My love for my neighbors and their love for me is magnified by our proximity. My current work to bring better mental health resources benefits greatly from my presence in the community as I have stronger relationships with the people that I am trying to empower and help develop. I can learn from them far more effectively by living here and see how they are already working together to address the inequalities we face.
However, I also have neighbors whose individual moral choices- shaped by policy, culture, and environment- harm others or themselves. They are aided & abetted by others who either benefit from harming others (akin to the businesses that reap greater profits when more teenagers are locked up) or are too intimidated or unaware to exercise their own agency. These neighbors are often young men whose response to their own traumas, desperation, or stubborn pride is violence & intimidation. We can peel the onion layers of environment, culture, and personal decisions for quite a long time (and debate them fierecely!), but eventually we find a person whose relationship with himself, others, and God is broken.
Thus, if policies like more beat cops, fewer marijuana arrests, and a living wage are outside-in ways of reducing external motivations to harm others, reconciliation is the inside-out work of righting those relationships. This is a long and difficult work that is not easily accomplished in a program or a policy. It does not involve targeting just the most “at-risk,” for they live in a network of relationships that help to make up that risk. The people that are a danger to themselves and others become violent moral actors both through sheer relational neglect and through relational indulgence; if we are going to change the culture of violence in this city, we must address these relationships.
I would like to suggest that many of our policy failures have come about because we fail to recognize the strengths & assets that Baltimore’s poor have, especially in regards to relationships. The knowledge that a community has about each other when someone is in need works for the vulnerable when someone is ill or struggling; it works against justice when a desire to keep the peace results in zero tolerance for “snitching.” I have watched someone crash their dirt bike in the street and seen a brave soul move the bike to a hiding place before moving the injured man out of the road; the value system inherent in that interaction is telling. The ingenuity, tenacity, and fraternity shared by my neighbors is inspiring and challenging to me as it works itself out through these complex interactions. I cannot speak for them (though I enthusiastically support things that let them speak louder for themselves), but I can say that being here in Sandtown has challenged my privilege in a way that no college class or Upworthy video ever has.
Reconciliation happens across race, class, and gender in powerful ways when people share life together and work together in ways that respect the innate gifts of every person. It is very easy for me, as a privileged white dude with a graduate degree, to simply list off a helpful smattering of suggestions or scoldings for the problems that my friends face. It is been a discipline for myself to be silent, to listen, and to coax opinions from my neighbors as we try to address the devastation that a barrage of traumas has wrought. It is these personal interactions that have shaped the policies and programs we’re creating, and it is this sort of reconciliation—where I admit my culture’s tendency to fix causes harm and they admit their culture’s tendency to protect causes harm—that we can join together in.
My intention throughout this essay is to make reconciliation intensely practical, as I think it is easy to use a word like “reconciliation” as a careless pipe dream. Again, I think good policies like vigorous audits, more beat cops, fewer drug arrests, and accountability for slumlords are really important and I’m glad people are talking about them (most of them have some very strong component of fostering better relationships and more intimate knowledge of local communities.) All of these will not be as effective if those of us who are privileged aren’t spending more time in relationships with the less privileged in order for our outlooks to be changed and for the good things that we have to be shared in a more meaningfully.
It’s not just enough to spend time, though, as we will retain every opportunity to exercise our privilege that we can. We must build relationships in contexts where our power is stripped away and we can be equally vulnerable with one another. Having (hopefully) brought “reconciliation” out of the realm of empty political cliche, I want to turn to “love” and “brokenhearted,” which are also getting tossed around.
Your heart is not broken for Baltimore if you’re content to have zero crime in Patterson Park while Sandtown keeps up the same murder rate. Being in Sandtown, though, doesn’t really give me, my wife, my daughter, and our housemate the option to just work for justice & safety for people like us. We are slowly becoming enmeshed in a network of relationships and hopefully becoming part of the change as we learn to love our neighbors and they learn to love us. We weep with them when their children die and they weep with us when ours die. I know that it can be easily to idolize this sense of identification and I do not want to pretend that we have somehow atoned for our white guilt or erased our class privilege by buying a house in this neighborhood. (It is also important to acknowledge that the way for us was paved by other incredible pioneers who have given-- and received-- much more, such as the Tibbels family.) However, we have learned, taught, and loved in ways that I think will endure because we have been broken— for proximity has brought vulnerability to brokenness, and vulnerability to brokenness has in turn brought love. As the hymn says, "a broken heart love's cradle is."
Apathy is a bitterly prescient reality in many of these discussions. Just like we can twist our desire to walk to and from our cars in peace into a malignant “just arrest more” attitude, so we can twist our disappointed idealism into a soul-killing eyeroll. This is where I think Baltimore’s poor—who are overwhelmingly and enthusiastically religious— have the most to teach us.
The battleground of faith is where my story met Sandtown’s; I started attending New Song Community Church when I was in med school and moved into the neighborhood a few years later, as they strongly encourage intentional relocation for all the reasons that I have discussed above. It is faith that pushes many people I know forward; a relentless hope like that of Dr. King whose famous quote about “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is rooted in a fierce faith in God’s sovereign plan and eventual victory. While I know that faith is not a comfortable subject for many people, what the underprivileged and faithful people of Baltimore have to teach the privilege of the the privileged and faithless is this:
"So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos."- from Paul’s Letter to American Christians (don't miss the last 5 minutes of the sermon, rarely recorded elsewhere, where he talks about how he grapples with his own failures to love others and takes those to the cross.)
Faith in the justice of God gives us hope that things will be made right, but it also motivates us to change things for our neighbors in need as we are drawn into reconciling relationships with them. Jesus helps us to reconcile the broken relationships we have with ourselves and with God by forgiving our sins (so incredibly important for our neighbors who have harmed others or been harmed); as that inward relationship is transformed we then have the resources to change our relationships with others.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility [...] and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” -Ephesians 2:14-18
Jesus was the pioneer when it comes to moving into a bad neighborhood; when he “became flesh and dwelt among us” he shared our pain and the suffering that our sins deserved in order to accomplish this great work of reconciliation. Through the liturgy of church we move together from this inward reconciliation to outward reconciliation; we work out the difficult practicalities of life together only after we have stood side-by-side to worship at the foot of the Cross, where my neighbors and I have no choice but to stand on level ground.
So many great initiatives across Baltimore—from the ones we love in Sandtown to ones that get written up in fancy journals, many important works of community development are happening in and around churches. At New Song, we have emphasized reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation for over 25 years and some marvelous things have happened by faith and through grace. There are even a few young men whose lives have been changed by relationships and pulled them out of the dark trajectory of violence towards something far more beautiful; they are now my teachers. Come and see for yourself if you like. There are many people in Baltimore who have a lot to give us if we are willing to come to church and listen.