What I Learned from Final Phone Calls

 Photo by  Joanne Francis  on  Unsplash

In a few minutes on the morning of November 8th, a black arch reached from the Sierra Nevada ridge into the Sacramento Valley over Chico. One minute it was a sunny morning, the next it was dark and cold. It was the fire Paradise, CA had been fearing.

Ten households from Living Hope Fellowship lived on the ridge until that morning. Now they were on the roads fleeing for their lives. My job as pastor was to make sure we knew where our families were.

I hit the phone, texting and calling. Here’s what I learned from those conversations.

  1. God gave us family and community to save our lives.

Paradise was full of people who lived alone, often but not always the elderly. With her husband driving down the road, flames behind them, Sheryl told me that their elderly neighbor had been standing helpless outside. She had never used her cell phone, and never drove. Her car wouldn’t start. With propane tanks exploding around them, they gave the woman a quick phone tutorial, got her car started, and fled together.

My associate pastor Heath was only blocks away from Sheryl. Heath had pounded on doors and windows to awaken his neighbors, and with me on the phone was bellowing at his neighbor to leave. She wouldn’t. Heath’s baby was in his car, and his wife had already fled with their two other children. My baby can’t help himself, but my neighbor can. We hung up, Heath got in his car, and drove off.

Dave drove a school bus. His wife Irene, at work in Chico, kept me posted as he loaded elderly people onto the bus, and then physically carried them off when they had to abandon it. They crowded into other cars nearby, and he rode on a guy’s tailgate all the way to Chico. Hayley and I were texting as she drove four patients stop-and-go through the flames. She called when they got to Chico, her account of their escape interspersed with reassurances to the four older people, scared and perplexed in dementia.

It is not good for us to live alone.

2. God gives us strength when we face death.

On the phone with Beth, she described flames towering over the road. The road was jammed, traffic at a standstill. It was dark as midnight. Beth had seen a 90-year-old lady plodding through the flames with her walker, and the lady was now in her car. Beth’s voice was profoundly frightened, but she was calm, even joking about forgetting to grab her toothbrush. I prayed with her, then called Louise, her roommate one car ahead.

One of our young mothers was driving with her children. Her voice shook as she described how flames had leaped over their car. Her husband was ahead of them, and they had already doubled back after their first route was consumed by fire. Inching toward the main road, she had to hang up because her husband was calling. Authorities would tell them to abandon their cars and run, then to get back in their cars and drive. An hour later, the mother mistakenly called me, unaware that I was on the line. She was talking with her children calmly about their home as they inched through the flames, the wind howling outside the car.

All these told me later that prayer with them in the middle of the crisis was crucial to remaining calm.

3. When there is no hope, God gives us his presence.

At 11:47 AM, my brother texted me that Lou was at the church office. Lou had gone to Chico early in the morning, and his wife Rita was stuck in Paradise without a car. When I arrived at the church, Lou’s grandson had returned from trying to get to her. Authorities turned him back.

Then Rita called the church, her cell phone battery nearly dead. The flames were three houses away. Lou told her to get into the shower, turn the water on, and stay there. He told her he loved her. The battery gave out.

After Lou called 911 to report her situation, several of us gathered around him to pray. When we were finished, Lou told us that he felt the Lord’s presence and peace in a way that he had not before. Weeping, he started to call their adult kids.

At 5:55 PM, my brother texted me again. Rita was safe and reunited with Lou in Chico. While in the shower, she had seen sunlight through the bathroom window. She changed into dry clothes and left the house. Two minutes after she started down the street, the windows blew out. Someone had then picked her up and taken her to the authorities. She told Lou that the Lord had been present with her through the whole ordeal.

With this news, we knew that all of our households had escaped Paradise with their lives. Praise God, none of these phone calls were in fact final.

4. When we face death, there is only time for what we know. There is no time for opinion, speculation, or positive thinking. We either know the one who triumphed over death or we don’t.

Facebook and Human Nature

After dark revelations about how we use Facebook and how it uses us, we want someone held accountable. We have shared lies packaged as news. The lies came from shadowy groups seeking power. Facebook sold our information to some of these groups, like Cambridge Analytica, that enable other groups to microtarget their lies. Facebook and these groups, we think, have harmed our institutions and civility.

The story provokes three theological observations about human nature.

First, we look away from the obvious. The facts we “learned” about Facebook after 2016 are only “revelations” in the sense that we finally looked at what we already knew. We knew that information on Facebook was sketchy. We knew that Facebook was using our private data. But after 2016, we decided to be shocked—shocked—at what we had been doing all those years.

Second, we shift blame away from ourselves. The bad guys in Russia did evil. I can’t be blamed for my own online behavior. I can’t help feeling passionate about my causes. So when I troll people, heaping abusive names on them like “crisis actor” or “bigot,” I’m just telling “the truth.” The truth is that I joined a mob, and it’s my own fault.

Third, we imagine that technology will fix us. The Facebook and Google founders surveyed the world from under their hoodies, sincerely believing that they were making a global community where human goodness could finally blossom. Instead, they created a smarter delivery system for toxicity, and were surprised when the system worked. Telling ourselves not to be evil is not enough.

What makes these observations theological? The issue of accountability.

Suppose a pure, neutral observer were watching all of us online. That observer would only need a few minutes to form a judgment. We are all guilty of self-deception about our actions. We all invent ways to reject accountability for ourselves and demand it for others.

The observer exists, and has been watching us a lot longer than a few minutes.

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Who Are the Needy in California?

What some people are experiencing in Chico.

A few months ago, I talked with a single mother who heard gunshots in the street and dove to her apartment floor with her children. A retired woman who lives alone also hid in her apartment across the driveway.

These are some of the people our community depends on. Single mothers work hard—often at more than one job—to provide safe homes for their children, supervise their education, and create some fun amid escalating costs of living. Grandmothers support their adult sons and daughters and their grandkids, and are often the first responders in family emergencies.

I recently heard about an elderly woman who cannot do her shopping, even in daylight hours. She gets around with a scooter and is surrounded by people seeking handouts the instant she shows up at the shopping center. How much has this lady served the community throughout her life, only now to be unable to run errands safely?

Student representatives from Chico State recently made a presentation to the city council asking for more lighting on the streets around campus, where they walk to and from jobs and classes. They were not asking to “feel” safer. They were saying that the streets are not safe—a claim that is demonstrably true.

When we use the word “needy,” we usually refer to the homeless. We have responsibilities to help with that level of need. But having a home does not meet all your needs. If you have to hit the deck because of gunfire, or if you can’t leave your home, or if you fear for your safety coming and going from your home, your needs are profound.

The tool a community uses to start meeting the needs of housed and homeless alike, unemployed and the working poor alike, old and young alike, is called the law. Enforcing public safety is a matter of compassion for all citizens. For the sake of our most vulnerable people, it is time for us to criminalize crime.

A Look Inside the Harassment Culture in Sacramento

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Frank Erb is a pastor to legislators, staff, and lobbyists in California's state capitol. Behind heavy, ornate doors he holds nonpartisan Bible studies, meets privately with members of both caucuses, and prays with them about career moves, infighting, or family troubles. He is used to handling secrets.

The sexual assault accusations flooding Sacramento are becoming an important issue in his meetings. He has the immense pastoral challenge of sometimes counseling and praying with the accused, as well as counseling the network of colleagues who try to untangle their loyalties.

The accusations are part of a broken culture in the capitol--one of "late night events, alcohol, separation from families, flirtatious legislators, staff and lobbyists"--that Erb has been ministering to for years. There is a profound spiritual need among political leaders that should be a higher priority for Christians than lobbying for specific policies.

Last week I interviewed Frank about this issue, and you can find it by clicking the "Apple Podcasts" button at the top of this post. I hope you will not only listen to this interview but also subscribe my podcast.

 

A New Violin Concerto

I’m a freelance violinist, and it is not a glamorous life.

Last weekend, I played in the North State Symphony’s concerts in Chico and Redding, California. It went like this. Go to wedding rehearsal as the officiating pastor Friday afternoon, then directly to NSS rehearsal. Saturday, go to NSS rehearsal dressed for the wedding. Explain several times why I’m in a suit and tie. After the rehearsal, officiate at the wedding. Then play in the NSS concert. Sunday, preach in church, then guzzle coffee and a sandwich while my son drives me to Redding for the second NSS performance in the afternoon. Flee that performance to return to the church and teach again in the evening.

All of us are doing some version of that schedule every concert weekend.

To such disarray, add some existential angst. Orchestras are expensive to run and their audiences have conservative tastes. Most ensembles at the level of the NSS aim to deliver the standard classical repertoire with (maybe) some audience-building flair. Musicians like us are not usually playing risky new pieces (or even risky old pieces).

But, in this respect, the NSS has been a standout group from its first season in 2001. Kyle Wiley Pickett consistently programed modernist and new music, and he was able to challenge our audiences with good humor and wise dosage. Scott Seaton is building on this legacy in a big way. In his first two seasons, there was a work of new music on every single program. Last season, we participated in the premiere of a new violin piece by Libby Larsen, one of the most important contemporary American composers.

 Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston, the composer from Simpson University in Redding, has written a terrific violin concerto, which was brought to life last weekend by Chloe Trevor, a young virtuoso from Texas.

Pinkston’s piece is full of orchestrational gems, from well-chosen combinations of instruments to the addition of unusual sounds like water-filled crystal glasses tuned to a perfect fifth. He makes the orchestra by turns terrifying, haunting, and beautiful. Pinkston also weaves quotations into the piece from disparate sources — “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Pinkston’s own song, “Jesus Wept.”

An especially strong feature of the concerto is Pinkston’s violin writing. There’s this term violinistic that means, roughly, “appropriate for the weird way the violin works —with the bow, four strings, and no frets — and for the bizarre and obsessive frame of mind a violinist is in while playing.” Pinkston wrote a violinistic piece. He made the most of spreading notes across the strings, calling for different hand positions to create unusual harmonies. He also created many lyrical moments by placing the solo line in strong registers in relation to the rest of the orchestra.

 Chloe Trevor

Chloe Trevor

Trevor plays in a splendidly well-organized way. Even though Pinkston created a difficult violin part, she had no problem making music with it. Her tone is marvelous, both up close in rehearsal and in the hall. Her intonation is spot-on, and her facility with double-stops (playing multiple voices at once) is fine as can be.

I was curious how the piece was received by the audience, so I asked two colleagues who were in the hall in Chico to report in. Joshua Hegg (piano) and Matthew Weiner (violin) are some of the prime movers of Uncle Dad’s Art Collective, and their wheelhouse is jazz.

Hegg thought the work was “marvelous.” He especially liked the “woody percussive” sound of the snap-pizzicato in the cellos and basses. (This is pinching and then plucking the string up from the fingerboard so that it snaps back against the wood. Sounds like Robin Hood shooting an opera singer.) Hegg also noted the big dynamic contrasts. “I’m a sucker for the huge crescendos that go nowhere.” His only proviso was that the opening seemed “a bit scattered for my tastes.”

Weiner agree that the piece was “great,” singling out the water glasses for special praise. He said that they projected well into the house, though neither of us could figure out whether they were amplified. Weiner liked the “texture that they created when paired with the rest of the orchestra.” He also loved that a lot of the piece was “downright scary.”

Weiner said the audience seemed really enthusiastic about the concerto, and Hegg agreed — though he wondered if local pride might have played a role. Regardless, the audience response looked strongly positive to us onstage. (The only exception I could see was young lad in the front row, who listened with decided skepticism.)

Bringing a new work to an audience is always a fantastic experience, and especially gratifying when the risk pays off and the applause is genuinely appreciative. It makes the less glamorous aspects of a violinist’s life well worth it. Plus, the world has a new married couple!

The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.

Pastor Wilson and Gay Ballet

Doug Wilson has decided that ballet is “a few parsecs beyond the utter frozen limit.” It’s gay.

Before I get into that, here’s a little background on my artistic education.

The walls in my childhood home showed my dad’s drawings. Steve Raley is a singer-songwriter. When I was a baby, he did his music theory homework with me on his lap, teaching me how to analyze orchestration by listening to recordings of pieces by Ravel and Bartok. Dad has also been a trucker, a pilot, and a small business owner. We lived in a nice mobile home.

My Grandpa, Vere Raley, was a farm kid who played football, and who somehow got connected with vocal coaches. He learned to sing Schubert from a German lieder specialist in Los Angeles, and won an opera competition in San Francisco. When he wasn’t singing, he broke his own horse and ran his ranch. His day often started on the tractor and ended in the recital hall.

My violin teacher was a guy named Cal Rainey, who puttered around with fiddles the way some guys work on motorcycles. My orchestra teacher was Leonard Duarte, whose fiery temper laid low more than one jock who was too cool for music. He had no difficulty staring down the PC police of that day, insisting that we would perform blatantly Christian works as part of the Western classical tradition. He also insisted that we learn the vocabulary of musical style, like appoggiatura and other gay stuff.

Yes, as a violinist in a public school, I had every slur against homosexuals thrown at me. And there was always a caring evangelical on hand to make sure I understood how weird I was. But I was nurtured by men who didn’t have a chip on their shoulder about their identity or art, and there were many Christians who encouraged my musical work. With that support, hurtful remarks from others didn’t strike as deeply as they might have.

Still, when it comes to Pastor Wilson’s rant against a dance performed at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, I understand all too well what it is like for anyone, gay or straight, to be on the receiving end. Wilson writes:

“What is the problem with this [dance]? Summed up, it is that this performance is gayer than the kiwi queen at the Fire Island Fruit Festival. This performance is gayer than an HR memo at Google headquarters. How gay was it? It was gayer than an NPR tote bag full of rainbows. It was gayer than a unicorn parade through the Castro District. It was gayer than a lavender sparkly pen.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that Wilson worked pretty hard on those lines. Let’s ignore the charge of effeminacy against the dancers, whose physical strength in performance is obvious in their grace. Let’s also pass over the contempt Wilson expresses for entire classes of people. Let’s even withhold comment on his mockery of gays themselves. With a paragraph that flamboyant, Wilson is on his knees begging us to call him a bigot. He’s got more jokes, and he needs an excuse to use them. So why bother?

Instead, let’s focus on something very simple.

Silas Farley, the choreographer of the dance in question, is not gay. It took all of 45 seconds to discover his engagement to a woman in the New York City Ballet. I am sure that Phil Johnson, who found Wilson’s paragraph too scofftastic not to tweet, could have gotten the information even faster. Pastor Johnson is famous for his research prowess. What about the dancers in the video? Does it matter to these pastors, or to those who comment on their posts, whether the words they sling at the dancers are accurate?

Theological hotshots like Wilson, Johnson, and their fan base want to tell us about propriety in worship. But to them, apparently, an individual Christian like Farley is just cannon fodder in the culture wars. Their smear tactics show a breathtaking mixture of cunning and flippancy. I do not take sermons about aesthetics — or any subject — from slanderers.

I want to believe that Wilson can write posts that are not warped by belligerence. He has an intellect. But he seems to have left it behind flying too many parsecs into the frozen void of his obsessions.

The Churched and the Dechurched

The Barna Group reports that the Chico-Redding area is the 11th most “dechurched” region in the nation. Dechurched people used to attend church but have not in the last six months. In crucial ways, dechurched people are right.

In our region, about 41% of people have dropped out of church. 2 out of 5. Our churches not only fail to gain the “unchurched.” (We’re the seventh most unchurched region nationally.) We alienate our own attenders.

I spend a lot of time with people who stopped attending church, but decide to try again. Here’s what they say to me:

  1. Churches should go deep. Quit with the banners, cliches, and Christianish activities. There’s more to God than sentimentality and cheerleading. Talk to me about things that matter.
  2. Churches should be above politics. Christians can’t keep disrespecting each other when they have different views. If the church doesn’t believe in a power above politics, there’s no point in going. (I hear this from Iraq veterans shunned by progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters shunned by conservatives.)
  3. Churches should be safe. In the shallow, self-absorbed social worlds of churches, backbiting is incessant. Favoritism toward the rich and good-looking is rampant. If you are not secure in a clique, you are ignored. Why should I have to conform to someone’s Instagram fantasy in order to be accepted?

People may have poor reasons for dropping out of church. But these are the three convictions that I hear most from the dechurched who are trying again. And they are right.

Solving these problems will require a change of heart from everyone.

If church-goers continue to see themselves as consumers of programs, then even more people will conclude that churches lack integrity. If, by contrast, the followers of Christ see themselves as citizens of a new Kingdom, they will see different results. They will yearn for more depth in their knowledge of God. Because of that depth, their eyes will lift to the power beyond politics. In the fear of God, they will begin to love one another more than themselves.

This change is not only possible. I see it happening quietly. The alienation of church-goers can stop. But we urgently need to recognize that this problem cannot be solved by marketing, only by integrity.