Thursday, July 30, 2009

Polarities

As I continue to slowly digest my way through the theopoetic stylings of Jalal-a'din Rumi, I'm reminded of a strange paradox that occurs in our faith traditions.

That paradox occurs at the outer edge of the world's belief systems, where radically disparate theologies end up looking pretty much identical in practice. Islamic fundamentalists are really not all that different from Christian fundamentalists, who share many characteristics with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who aren't all that different from Hindu fundamentalists. Within all of these movements, the "other" is viewed with suspicion and/or outright hostility. Different traditions are a threat to the integrity of faith. Faith itself is radically dependent on tradition, whether that be in a sacred text or forms of ritual practice. That faith is viewed in radically binary terms, which is often framed by the language of conflict. Though the ultra-orthodox in every tradition would deny any meaningful spiritual ties with the others, they are, in terms of how the rubber meets the road, functionally the same.

On the other polarity of the world's faith traditions, there is an opposite but very similar phenomenon. As I've studied the mystical traditions in Christianity, what I find is that there is very little difference between someone like Meister Eckhardt or Jacob Boehme and someone like Martin Buber or Jalal-a'din Rumi. For the mystics, the divine is radically unifying, even outside of the bounds of their tradition. Their radical love for and yearning for God shatters not just the boundaries of the self, but also shatters the ways they categorically define "us" and "them." More striking, the experience of God that the mystics articulate is essentially the same. It is flavored by the language and concepts of the tradition from which the mystic comes, true, but the underlying experience appears to be something that transcends culture and language. Mysticism steers away from conflict, which is typically seen as a sign of spiritual failure. Instead, mystical faith finds that in seeking union with God, union is found with others. It is suffused with gentleness and grace towards the other.

It would appear, then, that among our many paths of faith there are two poles towards which we can be drawn. Both articulate, in their own way, an absolute. But one leads one way. Another leads the other.

Monday, July 27, 2009

GodSnack

As I continue to read my way through the poetry of Rumi, I pranged against an interesting spin on one of the more challenging things about a mystic approach to faith.

The poem is entitled "Chickpea to Cook," and its focus is a reluctant chickpea, which doesn't want to be part of the stew a cook is preparing. The chickpea has no desire to be eaten, to lose its sense of self and identity. It doesn't particularly want to be cooked, either.

The cook, on the other hand, thinks the chickpea is being selfish. "I'm giving you flavor," he says, "so you can mix with spices and rice and be part of the lovely vitality of a human being."

What Rumi is articulating is a desire that weaves through all of the mystic traditions within each of the world's great faiths. It's the yearning to lose oneself completely in God, to be utterly subsumed into the glory of the divine. As it's expressed in this wee bit of theological whimsy, Rumi articulates our purpose in being as giving God "...something good to eat."

This, I think, is the problem most human beings have with mysticism. There is nothing, nothing, nothing that we cherish in the world more than our own sense of self. We don't want to cease to be as we are. We cling to the unique assemblage of memories that form us, enfleshed in our uniquely patterned organic neural network. It is our existence. It is us. We don't want to let ourselves go.

When we conceptualize heaven, this is why we want it to be a place where we remain eternally as we are. Maybe a bit younger or a bit older, maybe a bit thinner, maybe with a full head of hair, but still us. This has never really appealed to me, or made any sense theologically. Here in creation, our "self" is a complex intermixture of genetic predisposition, experience, and memory. But moving into a direct and unmediated experience of God would seem to be something of a gamechanger for us as persons.

We know that individual experiences or events in our lives can have radically transforming impacts on our sense of self. After that first kiss, you are not the same person. After the first death of a dear, dear friend, you are not the same person. Why would we expect not to be utterly changed by God's presence, which is several orders of magnitude more intense?

If God is, as we faith-folk tend to say, both infinitely good and infinitely loving, why wouldn't we want to lose ourselves in God?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rays, Part Two

It was the final day of our stay in Bermuda, and I was taking a little bit of time to pray.

Praying from a balcony on the twelfth deck of a cruise ship probably doesn't qualify me for membership in the Desert Fathers Monastic Ascetic Club. I hadn't spent the last 40 days sitting atop a pole. I wasn't wearing a hairshirt. Locusts had not been an option at the buffet that afternoon.

I was taking my usual approach to praying, meaning that rather than trying to come up with a nice little list of things I want God to do for me, I just tried to stop thinking and wanting and grasping for a while. As I did that, I looked out across the water of the King's Wharf Harbor, and...well...just looked at it.

It was late in the day, and the rays of light from the afternoon sun played like ten thousand fiery jewels across the surface of the sheltered water. The wind stirred and folded the water into ripples and whorls, and the sun shattered itself again and again across that stirring surface. It was so very simple, just the interplay of three basic elements in a tiny patch of creation. Yet it was also infinitely complex, as the patterns of sun-dapple shifted and changed on the waves in ways that were both logical and unpredictable.

As I contemplated it, I felt a strong sense of the interconnectedness of wind and air and light, how each one moved according to its connection to the other, and how each connection was both simple and almost unfathomably complex. Modeling even simple fluid dynamics is something that gives physicists headaches, and yet here it was before me.

The elegance of the dance between water and air and sun seemed, at that moment, just impossibly marvelous. These mindless things seemed so paradoxically mindful of their place, and of their relationship to one another.

If only human beings could move with such consistent grace.

Rays, Part One

On the last day of our cruise, our Great White Whale of a ship was shouldering its way through the northern portion of the Sargasso Sea.

Evening was coming, and the ship was a bustle of different events and activities. There was last-night-bingo, in which someone was absolutely certain-tively guaranteed to win up to $2,500 dollars. The casino was glistening and clanking and chiming away in all it's neon crackhead glory. The mini-mall in the belly of the ship was offering special sale prices on everything. The buffets were pouring out their bottomless cornucopia of calories. The bars were pitching something called a "Coco Loco," and for those of us who prefer gin and tonic, the G&T's were a good 20 ounces, and at about a 50/50 ratio. I'm fairly sure those folks who created that quinine-based drink as an antimalarial tonic did not originally intend to kill the mosquitoes by getting them drunk and having them pick fights with dragonflies.

The ship was a wild whirlwind of bright distractions for every possible appetite. Of the three thousand souls on the ship, almost none had their eyes turned to the great ocean that stretched from horizon to horizon around us.

Outside, the sea was strikingly still. The surface of the water was gently undulating, disturbed only by the 170,000 ton object churning past. It was flecked by patches of floating seaweed. This isn't the goopy green stuff, but Sargassum, the fecund brownish organic matrix that gives this portion of the Atlantic its name.

From our balcony, my oldest son and I watched that glossy sea drift by, as we took a respite from the phantasmagorical feast offered on board. With the colors of sky and sea shifting towards the end of the day, and a cool wind flowing across the balcony, it was a needed moment of stillness.

From twelve stories up above the water, I saw motion, a splash of silvery dots flinging themselves into the air away from the ship, away from the great terrible thing that had disturbed their world. Look, I was about to say to the big guy. Flying Fish! What an amazing eye I have, thought I.

But he said, instead, "Dad! A Manta Ray!"

And there it was, perhaps ten yards from the side of the ship, as big as a dining room table, inscrutably, marvelously alien as it fed at the surface of the deep blue water two hundred miles from shore.

It passed to stern in a few moments, and was gone.

It's amazing what you can see when you're not distracted.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cruise Ship Theology

As I look around at other pastors in the blogosphere, they're out there taking sabbaticals, or at least touring with church groups.

They're traveling through the Holy Land, treading out the very ground that the Apostles trod. They're feeling the brilliance of the Grecian sun as the dust from the ruins of Corinth fills their nostrils. They're feeling the water of the Jordan as it courses between their toes. They are establishing a deep sense of personal connection with the places and stories they know so well, so that they can tell them even more intimately upon their return.

Me? I went on a cruise.

To Behr-myoo-dah.

Me and the missus and the pups hopped on board the Explorer of the Seas last Friday, one of those great gleaming city-ships that stand as high above the water as Godzilla's armpits. It had four pools, and a seemingly infinite number of bars. It had so many bars that in some cases they were stacked on top of one another. In its immense gut, there was a mall...an actual mall...which was above the casino and right next to the ice-skating rink. It was a festival of gorging self-indulgence, from which I feel lucky to have returned only three pounds heavier. Urff.

Unlike a tour of the sacred sites of the Ancient Near East, it might seem that this seaborne temple of conspicuous consumption would be lacking any theological framework. This is not so. For me, everything is theological, even when my medications are working. This cruise was no exception.

There were a number of church groups in evidence. There was a gaggle of folks there to celebrate 170 years of "receiving God's blessings." That's what their t-shirts said, anyway. There was a cluster of men whose shirts were emblazoned with Jesus slogans which were either In Your Face For Jesus or suggesting that God Will Do Whatever You Ask Just Because He is so Awesome.

That first Sunday, there was a worship service on board. It wasn't in the chapel. The chapel, as best I can tell, is exclusively for on-board weddings, of which there appear to have been several. The worship service was described as "nondenominational," and was in the theater. Not the big theater. The slightly-less-big theater.

The worship service involved the ceremonial playing of a Joel Osteen DVD.

Perfect.

Friday, July 17, 2009

So, To My...Hair

Watching the recent Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, I've noticed an particularly important distinction between her and many of her questioners. Most of the progressive world has fixated on the fact that she is Latina, and they are white males. They have also noticed that she is, in fact, female, whereas they are males of the species. These are important differences.

What I notice, though, is that most of the Senators...the men, that is, and that still means "most"...have silver or grey hair. Judge Sotomayor has lustrous raven locks. It's night and day, ebony and ivory, living together in perfect hairmony. I'm so, so sorry. My pending vacation has addled my brain.

Whether that comes from genetics or a product entitled "Lustrous Raven," it...err..highlights...the painful truth about women, power, and hair. To have power in our culture, women must be young, or give the appearance of youth.

We males are permitted to show signs of age. While the gut that I so carefully cultivate is not viewed quite so positively, the traces of white that are popping out in my beard are a different story. Those first streaks of salt in our hair...assuming we have the good fortune to still have hair...indicate maturity and wisdom. They are also, Grecian Formula's efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, a sign of social status. Men who color their hair are trying too hard to be young, and if they're trying to be young, they must not have achieved status now. Silverback human males are at the apogee of their power in the culture.

Women, on the other hand, must be young, because a woman's power in our society is radically defined by her sexuality/nubility. Every image that pours from magazines and screens reinforces this, and women, who tend to define themselves by social expectation even more deeply than men, internalize this. They cannot be Georgia O'Keefe. They must be the Wonder Girls. Or at least Sarah Palin.

Age...the very thing that gives a woman wisdom and depth of knowledge...cannot be admitted. It must be hidden. Even women who have achieved positions of significant leadership feel the compulsion to carefully apply product. Why can't the Speaker of the House have her natural hair color? Why does the Secretary of State feel a societal obligation to wash that gray right out of her hair?

In large part, it's because a woman in our highly sexualized consumer culture is valued primarily by her ability to stir male desire. The depth of knowledge found in our grandmothers? Nah. We never see Grandma. We have Grandma stowed away in Soylente Greene Village, the Organic Retirement Community for FreeRange Seniors. The strong mature woman whose years have been filled with hard-earned wisdom about life and work and the world? She creeps us out, because she's all old and, like, nott hott and stuffz, ewwww.

Way I figure it, America will be ready for a woman as president when we've somehow managed to work this sickness out of our system. We don't appear to be there quite yet.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Life of the Dead

I've pretty much stopped writing.

It's a strange thing to say, given that I write almost every day for the twenty or so human beings who read this blog. But I used to write creatively, pitching out stories that burbled to the surface of my churning consciousness, yearning to be told. The last story I wrote was over a decade ago, and having failed to get it published, I've left it sitting out on the web as a reminder that I used to have some semblance of a creative spark.

It's still there, of course. I just don't give myself the time to play out the narratives that clamor to be put into print. One of my favorite unfulfilled tales isn't a book, but a screenplay concept that puts a different spin on one of the more interesting genres in moviemaking: the zombie flick.

Ever since the really-quite-amazing Night of the Living Dead, George Romero made zombie flicks something more than just horror. They are, in their own way, commentary about the human condition. Here's my twist on the genre: In my imaginary screenplay for Life of the Dead, zombies do not want to eat your brains. That never made a lick of sense anyway. Why not spleens? Why not hunger for toenails? It goes further, though. In my take, zombies not only don't want to use your brainpan as a snack tray, they have no desire whatsoever to hunt/eat/consume/harm anyone.

Instead, after the necessary terrible accidental release of a zombie-inducing biological agent, those who've been zombified just attempt to go about their lives. Being zombies, though, they are completely oblivious to one another, and to those few humans who haven't been infected. They are also really, really incompetent and aggressive, and being dead, don't really take their own mortality into consideration when going about their lives.

The narrative tension would come from the requisite rag-tag band of the unaffected, trying desperately to leave a major metropolitan area in which 95% of the human population has suddenly become undead. Easy? Imagine trying to cross a major highway on which zombies were commuting. Or the potential hazards posed by zombie airline pilots. Or avoiding zombie cops arresting whoever they could catch. Or zombie military personnel, randomly attacking everything in sight.

It's a bit like Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, a deeply absurd and humorous/horrible fable about our radical selfishness and complete lack of caring for one another. Only you wouldn't tell anyone that, because it might seem too hoighty toighty.

Given my tendency to put a faith-spin on everything, I envision a particularly delightful sequence early on in which one of the protagonists takes refuge at her megachurch....only to find it filled with a throng of zombie Christians, while the undead pastor bellows and grunts incoherently at his swaying, slowly rotting flock. Some of the hands being held up during zombie praise might not even be attached.

I'm telling you, this thing's got legs, baby. 150 million gross, easy, and that's before it hits DVD/iTunes distribution. Have your people call my people.

Cash for A Clunker

We pony up far more than any other nation for health care. We spend, per capita, over 44% more on health care than the Swiss. This is not because our care is 44% better than the care in affluent Switzerland.

There are people who argue this, who'll make the case that America has the best health care in the world. They'll argue that we pay Cadillac prices to provide Cadillac care. I'd agree, with one small caveat. Having actually experienced health care in America, I can state with authority that the Cadillac in question is a 1972 Coupe deVille with 375,000 miles on the clock. That you're pouring money into something doesn't make it inherently good.

And oh, are we pouring cash into our clunker.

Our "system" ends up costing us eight hundred and thirty six billion dollars more every single year than the care the Swiss get. That's close to three thousand bucks for each of us. Sure, we aren't paying "taxes." We're paying "fees" that are far higher than the taxes we'd otherwise have to pay. In the absence of those fees, even additional taxes (gasp) would end up saving us economy-saving amounts of money in the long run.

Clinging to the system we've got is like hanging on to that old beater that spends all its time in the shop or up on blocks. Yeah, our mechanic wants us to keep it. So does the Republican senator he pays to come around our house and talk to us about how much better they made cars in 1972. It's a classic! Those new cars are just too confusing! They're unAmerican!

But when all your neighbors are spending less to drive cars that are faster, more efficient and reliable, clinging to that money pit isn't a sign of independence.

It's a sign you're a fool.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Howdy, Stranger!

As you're reading this post, you have most likely just arrived from Facebook after clicking on the FB ad my church has been running.

So, hi! I'm David, and I'll be your blogger for today! I'm also the pastor of a little church in Bethesda, Maryland. We're Trinity Presbyterian Church, and we're an interesting blend of folks trying to muddle our way through what it means to follow Jesus.

What that means for me as a pastor really isn't very different from what it means for the rest of the folks who together form my church. It means that we find the stories that Jesus told and the reality of his life personally transforming. It means that we're convinced that there was something powerful and important and relevant about this person, even if he did live in a backwater province of a now-long-dead empire. The core Christian ethic of non-judgmental love towards others is a powerful, powerful thing...and we're convinced that finding ways to live a life governed by that love would make the world a better place.

Being a minister and all, I tend to think about faith, and write more about faith. Being human, I think about other stuff as well. Like, say, philosophy. Cosmology. Family. Politics. Beer. The important things. Those mostly-coherent musings are disgorged right here on this blog.

If you've had some bad experiences with Christianity, or if even the idea of faith seems alien to you, don't expect anything other than a sympathetic ear. Christianity has wandered far from the teachings of Jesus, into a place where the faith is either a front for a particular brand of politics or a form of magic that'll get us all the consumer products we so dearly desire. If you've struggled with this, I have too. Some thoughts on those subjects can be found here. Starting with the "Jesus" button over to your right is probably not a bad place, but if you're the sort of person who doesn't like to be fenced in, just search the blog. Can't find what you're interested in or what you're personally struggling with? Well, you can ask, if you'd like. Just drop me a comment.

Once you've gotten to know me a bit, feel free to drop by on a Sunday. You can learn more about us at the website. You know, directions and times and stuff. Or, if Sunday seems a bit formal and intimidatingly churchy, we've got other opportunities throughout the week. Can't bring yourself to do that? Well..stick around here for a while. Snag the feed for this blog, and join in on the conversation.

Poets in Hell

As part of my summer plan to catch up on some reading I've been missing, my bedstand is now occupied by a rather thick collection of the poetry of Jalalladin Rumi. Rumi is a contender for the title of Everyone's Favorite Muslim (c), and after spending an hour or so with his poetry, I can see why.

Rumi is perhaps the best known among the Sufi, that mystical strain of Islam that Westerners used to call "whirling dervishes." Though folks tend to think of mystics as austere, distant, and cryptic, Rumi is none of that. His writing wonderfully melds the earthy and the transcendent. It's full of fragrance and flavor and mischief, and through this articulates a deep and passionate yearning for reconciliation and reunion with God. While it's not Christian, sometimes...particularly when his poetry sings the praises of Jesus and the Holy Spirit...it's hard to tell.

What amazes me whenever I engage with someone from another tradition who is so obviously and self-evidently suffused with grace is how easily AmeriChrist, Inc. declares folks like Rumi to be hell-fodder. Sure, he's delightful and talented and gentle. Yeah, he yearns for and seeks reconciliation with God. He appears to have a deep and abiding respect for Christians and for Jesus in particular.

But having not heard The Jesus Prayer coming from Rumi's lips, our Lord and Savior is obligated to consign him to an eternity of listening to poetry that is 1) written by fifteen year old girls whose parents have recently divorced, and 2) sung aloud by Fran Drescher and Gilbert Gottfried.

Whenever I lament this rather peculiar understanding of Good News, I tend to get the same response from a particular wing of Christianity. That response is, basically: "Sure, but that's just the way it is. Either you come up at the altar call, or it's Fran and Gilbert forever." That's followed by a few choice scriptures, and an offer to earnestly pray for my evidently deluded soul.

As someone who both feels and regularly articulates the importance of Jesus of Nazareth, I know personally that deep certainty of His Wayness, His Truthness, and His Lifeness. It's a real thing. In Christ, the purpose and intent for all human beings is expressed. In him, it lives and breathes. By following that path, we find ourselves at one with God and at peace with one another. We have found the Way, and we walk it in confidence.

When others curse that path, and mock it, and live their lives in opposition to it, then I think all is not well with them. But when others come near, and smile, and speak and act well of the journey, I can't for the life of me imagine that Jesus...the source of all my grace...is somehow less graceful and less forgiving than I am.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Star Spangled Subversion

I've had an odd old daydream this summer, one that recurs now and again.

It happened before the recent Fourth of July fireworks display, but it's been mostly popping into my head at the beginning of swim meets. The meets begin with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. I have rather mixed feelings about the Star Spangled Banner. On the one hand, I strongly associate it with America, for some reason. It does, for reasons of repetition at events of significance, stir in me a certain patriotic feeling.

Then again, I'm not one to allow sentiment to get in the way of critical thinking, or of deeper sentiment. That thinking and my gut tells me, much to my dismay, that our National Anthem is a pretty undeniably craptacular song musically and lyrically. It's a pain in the voicebox to sing. It requires too much vocal range for most mortals, and while it can soar in the right hands, it can also collapse. While I can do it, I have to work not to drift into a warbling falsetto as I attempt to hit the laaand of the freeee.

That's true for most of us, and it's unfortunate, because the "land of the free/home of the brave" part is pretty much the only moment when it comes close to being a song that describes what's important about America. Otherwise, it's mostly a song about a flag with stripes and stars, and about kicking the behinds of those who oppose us. That's true of the first verse, which is all most of us know. Up until the very last line, it could just as easily be about the broad stripes and bright stars of the national flag of Uzbekistan.

It doesn't get any better when you move on to the other verses. In fact, it gets considerably worse. From the second verse, which contains such memorable lines as "where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes" to the entire third verse, which goes:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

It's blood and death and booyah flag waving, wrapped in archaic 19th century poetry. And again, up until that last line, this could be describing some particularly impressive Uzbek battle victory. That's fitting, because the song was originally not even about the flag or the principles of our constitutional republic, but a remembrance of a victory at Fort McHenry. It was, in fact, originally titled "The Defense of Fort McHenry."

So my fantasy, my daydream, my little Walter Mitty yearning, is that at some point, at some event, the person called up to sing the National Anthem will put their hand over their heart, look to the flag, and open their mouth.

What comes out, though, would not be "Oh say can you see, through the dawn's early light..." Instead, all those gathered with hands over their hearts would hear:

"O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain..."

I'm not sure how people would respond. Grumbling? Confusion? Likely. But I'm not sure there'd be booing, because we all love that song.

Quite frankly, that's because it's a more American song.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Buicks Are Part of Chairman Christ's New Five Year Plan

This morning over coffee, I was reading a review of a new book entitled God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. The review was written by a good sort, the estimable Diana Butler Bass, and it articulated what she saw as the core theme of the book: the mesh between religious liberty and progress.

It's a valid connection, and a hopeful theme in human society, but one particular quote jumped out at me as a wee bit off. Maybe I'm just oversensitive, so let me share the quote in question:

The book opens with an American evangelical-style Bible study in Shanghai, where the pastor proclaims: "In Europe the church is old. Here it is modern. Religion is a sign of higher ideals and progress. Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together. That is why we will win." These words echo the American view that economic prosperity meshes with religious freedom. This vignette supports the book's main point: that religion and modernity are not at odds, that, in the American mode, they can function together to create prosperity and individual freedom.

While I may be projecting a bit, I don't think what the Chinese evangelist is saying and what the book is arguing are the same thing. When an evangelical says: "Spiritual wealth and material wealth go together," they generally don't mean "religious liberty and material wealth go together." In fact, they pretty much never mean that.

They mean that being spiritual gets you material blessings. Period. You should be spiritual, because the 2010 Buick Lacrosse is a really fine looking car and Jesus can get it for you if you ask real nice. And given the choice between a brand new Buick and religious freedom for Muslims, I'm not quite sure how many Chinese evangelicals would choose door number two.

I agree that religious liberty is absolutely necessary, and a sign of a culture in which progress is possible. But religious liberty and evangelical Christianity worldwide have a somewhat interesting relationship. On the one hand, Christians value the freedom to worship and to share the Gospel. But when you believe that every other faith is a one way ticket to eternal damnation, your motivation level to support the rights of other faiths has to be somewhat impacted.

As the global marketplace becomes a stronger force, the danger for the integrity of Christianity is that it will become increasingly co-opted into the values and norms of the marketplace. The Gospel of Prosperity and the Word Faith movement are powerful, powerful forces in the developing world. The spread of a consumerist "Christianity" in which individual material prosperity is the goal is a real, and I would argue spiritually dangerous, eventuality.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

VBS: Christ's Convenient Summer Warehouse For Your Children

The signs have popped up everywhere now, in front of nearly every single one of the churches in the area. They're filled with grinning cartoon animals you've never seen before but that tie in to recent movie hits. They offer the promise of catchy, well-produced videos and perky counselors leading your kids through some good Jesus times. This year's crop of Vacation Bible School programs are now crankin' away.

VBS has always been something of an alien thing for me. I grew up going to an urban and very progressive congregation, and they just didn't do the VBS thing. It wasn't that VBS was viewed as unworthy. It was that it wasn't necessarily the best match for my church. First off, the church was downtown, which made getting there difficult. Second, the church ministered to an area that was mostly...in my youth...known for drug dealing, porn theaters, and prostitution.

After leaving church programs for the homeless, I had to actively run for my life on at least one occasion. As a teen, I found being part of ministry there...edgy. Interesting. Real. Most suburban parents, on the other hand, probably wouldn't have seen this as a big draw.

But then again, I'm not sure VBS was the same critter when I was a kid as it is now. A generation ago, VBS didn't seem like that big a deal. As a Christian phenomenon, it's been kicking around for just a bit over 100 years. Lately, though, my gut is that VBS is a very, very big deal. It's everywhere. It's one of the most visible church products out there. Why? Well, many reasons, but among them are several implicit purposes.

First, it's an "activity." It started as something that rose organically out of the life of churches to reinforce the basics of faith in their kids. It was also used to share the basic elements of the Good News with those for whom faith wasn't quite so well established. It still does that, but now it feels woven up into the culture of making sure our kids never have a single unscheduled moment.

Carefully packaged Jesus moments get scheduled into our children's tightly packed summer, along with swim team, SAT prep, Prep for SAT prep, soccer camp, math camp, scout camp, nature camp, full-day tae kwon do camp, and junior stress-management camp. My kids love that last one. Shaky the Stallion and Twitches the Turtle are seriously two of their favorite camp mascots.

While this is technically fine, and it's good that AmeriChrist Inc. is a presence in the professional parenting marketplace, something in me squirms at the "activity-ness" of it. It feels a wee bit like any other summer child-management option, just with a healthy dollop of ingredient J added in. And it shouldn't. Should it?

Second, there is the flawed assumption that many churches have: this will bring the precious families! The kids will come, and they will love the wonderfully designed program we bought from a publishing house just like all the other churches in a five mile radius. They will tell their parents, and their parents will come to church, and our church will finally, finally grow.

The truth of it is that healthy churches are ones that appeal to people as people, not to people as managers of progeny. If you run a great VBS program and a great program for kids, but your church doesn't resonate with adults who are seeking meaning and purpose in life, then you're not going to thrive. Once the kids grow, the parents will wander off.

Finally, having reviewed a good half-dozen of the slickityest VBS curricula around, I struggle with the idea that they really teach effectively. They're great at faith-o-tainment, and at teaching kids that following Jesus is super fun. This is fine if it's reinforcing the things a kid is already learning in a Christian community about the great sweeping story of the Gospel. It might be fine if it spurs an interest. And kids do like it. Then again, kids would try to subsist entirely on YooHoo and Slim Jims if you let 'em.

If it's a flitting moment, one thing to keep them occupied while spiritually disengaged parents juggle them and work...well...maybe it isn't all we think it is.

The songs sure are catchy, though.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Gaming, Creativity, and Society

I read a great deal of random stuff, and as part of that randomness, I'll occasionally peruse one of my wife's copies of Fast Company. It's a magazine dedicated to the amazing creative glory of capitalism, and tends to feature cool young people who've got the latest bleeding edge idea or product.

The June issue...now, of course, stale...highlighted the 50 most creative people in the business world. Among them were several gamer types, and the one with the most prominent picture was a Ms. Jane McGonigal, who does appear to actually be the free-spirited daughter of the Hogwarts instructor.

She's not so much a game designer in the classical sense, but rather, a games theorist and practitioner. Games include a whole variety of forms of play, not just those in the virtual world. In the words of her Fast Company interviewer:

She believes if people could experience the same emotional and physiological benefits in real life that they receive from gaming -- elation, adventurous thinking, focus -- people would be as engaged in their work and global issues as they are in World of Warcraft. However, for all the creativity that games can trigger, McGonigal concedes that they are only the first step. "Games are getting people to agree on a common goal and engage with that goal collectively for large amounts of time," says the self-styled happiness hacker. "But it's not like it's a magic button. They still have to do the problem solving when they get there."

She seems an endearing enough sort, but I'm not sure that gaming is quite so entirely positive. Yes, we learn through play. Yes, play trains us for the world. But gaming and organizing our lives around alternative or virtual realities may be, as Marx would put it, mainlining heroin for the masses.

Human beings are natural and collective problem solvers. It's what we do. More often than not, we mess up, but once we've cleared away the debris of our failed efforts, we organize again. It's that yearning for meaning thing. We find purpose in overcoming challenges, and in doing so together. That's what deTocqueville noted about us Amurricans at the very beginning of this fragile little experiment of a republic.

But gaming can be..well..a bit onanistic. We all know of the horror stories of young Koreans who forget to eat and die after a four day gaming binge. Or of pale pasty folk whose entire lives revolve around complex tables and throws of the dice. There are more subtle versions of this threat. Gaming can consume and redirect that desire to work towards a goal. Instead of providing the conceptual tools we need for the hunt or the harvest or the 2010 iPhone 3-GSXR or global hunger, we can become hermetically sealed away from reality in our gaming communities. Our creative energy and efforts can be consumed in a gaming phantasmagoria, leaving us nice and drained and ready for our life as a complacent cubicle drone.

I think the points she makes aren't inherently wrong. Gaming is...fun. Gaming can help us organize our thoughts and think strategically. It can certainly be used for training and indoctrination, or the U.S. Military wouldn't be putting so much effort into getting kids and soldiers alike to play America's Army.

But it ain't all virtual butterflies and flowers.

Friendly Neighborhood Blight

I've been more and more fascinated by the array of empty buildings in and around my Washington 'burb these last few weeks. It began last year, as the nearby grocery store folded. Another store chain was slated to take that place, but though the building has been gutted and prepared for a complete revamp, nothing much is happening lately. It's just sitting there, as windowless and wall-less as the DC Wasteland stores I wandered through while playing Fallout 3.

In that same strip mall, the costume shop is closed, and two stores down, the nail salon folded.

Across the street from the strip-mall, a 7-11 I've frequented for the two decades suddenly shuttered itself. This was a source of great dismay to my sons, for whom it was the great font of all Slurpee goodness. No more walks to get a cool treat on a hot summer day. It's down for the count.

Just a few dozen yards away from that, a Shell station has been abandoned, and to make it cheerier, the owners of the property painted the entire thing in a dark grey primer. I suppose the idea is that a new owner could paint it any color they liked, but the net effect is a little on the goth side. Properties don't move well if they seem moody and depressed.

This morning, as I waited outside a sporting goods store to buy the four-hundred-and-thirteenth pair of goggles we've had to get this summer, I looked out across the vast empty expanse of parking lot at the now-unused big-box electronics store that went bankrupt this spring. They deserved to go out of business, sure. But looking at the acre of asphalt in front of the store, I can't help but see the whole thing as a complete waste.

It's easy to get used to this absence, in the same way that I'm used to the vast expanses of empty pews in my oversized sanctuary. It reminds me that growth is not always good, that bigger that is not always better, and that we human beings have been overbuilding and overconsuming for thousands and thousands of years. We were certainly doing it back in the second half of the eighth century BCE, when the Prophet Isaiah laid into the endless consumptiveness of his fellow Jerusalem elites:

Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants..."

Not sure if an abandoned Circuit City counts as a great house or a fine mansion, but it sure is large and empty. And things are better here in the 'burbs of DC than in most places in the country.

Yeah, I know, it's supposed to be part of the "creative destruction" of capitalism. But real creativity produces beautiful things, not blighted mediocrity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vegetarian Mosquitoes and Other Theological Absurdities

In my battles against the tiny bloodsucking beasties in my backyard, I've followed that ancient adage: Know thy enemy.

My enemy, as I blogged yesterday, is the Aedes Albopictus. She, for the men are mellow flower children, exists for one purpose. She wants to get a snack for her children, and that snack involves my protein-rich vital bodily fluids. She's very, very well designed for that purpose.

Unlike the mosquitoes who were native to ol' Virginny, Ms. Tiger is a strong and nimble flyer. She does not emit a tell-tale whine as she swoops by my ear, because stealth means you don't get squashed. What is most astounding about mosquitoes is how elegantly they do what they do. Their penetrating proboscis is sharper than any doctor's needle, and is a complex array of razor-sharp microneedles around a central tube. It causes no pain, which, again, means Ms. Tiger doesn't become a bloody splotch on your palm.

But yesterday, as I was musing over my marvelous opponent, I found myself wondering about how Ken Ham explains all of this. Ken Ham is the director of the Creation Museum, the place where fundamentalist Christianity goes to reassure itself of its own sanity. You might ask, why is the mosquito a problem for Creationists? If you're just making the argument for complexity in design as evidence of a Creator, the mosquito is not necessarily a bad place to start. Yeah, it's annoying. But when you look at it deeply, it becomes marvelously annoying.

The problem for literal Creationists is that they argue that every creature in Eden was a vegetarian. They have to. It's right there in Genesis, clear as day. It ain't just animals, neither. It's everything that has life and breath.

As a vegetarian Christian, I enjoy this immensely, because it adds to my natural vegetarian smugness. Seriously, though, I do think it speaks to what it means to live together in peace, and to our ultimate purpose in Creation. The lion cannot lay down with the lamb if mint jelly is in that lamb's immediate future.

The Creation Museum folks make this case about pretty much every major carnivore. They all have to be originally intended as vegetarians. Lions? Bears? Those big teeth are actually designed used for...um...coconuts. Or opening bags of Doritos. Even Velociraptors, who they argue lived in peace with Adam and Eve, have those huge slashing claws so they can...um...dig for radishes, which then require razor sharp fangs to eat.

But the mosquito? They do try to make the argument that mosquitos were supposed to be vegetarian. According the Creationist narrative, God, as part of the curse of the Fall, made a few minor tweaks in existing creatures. But...err...that's pretty much a total change from what a mosquito exists to do.

It's proboscis exists to painlessly penetrate the living flesh of a target. A particularly persistent creationist would assert that this could also penetrate a banana. And you don't want that banana to feel anything. Problem is, the mosquito also injects an organic anticoagulant into it's prey. This substance serves one purpose: to prevent blood from clotting as it is consumed by the mosquito. Bananas and pomegranates do not clot. They just don't. That's a nontrivial part of mosquito design. It's their entire reproductive cycle.

Quite frankly, it's not coherently explicable even within the Creationist mindset. That ain't gonna stop 'em from trying. They live for vast, convoluted and ultimately unbiblical hypotheses in defense of their pointless and unnecessary literalism.

I confess to be amazed at the intricacy of a mosquito, and that amazement translates into a wonder at the vastness and complexity of God's creation. I am also give God thanks that as a sentient being, I can use what I know about the little buggers to take 'em down.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I am a Stone Cold Killer

I'd make a lousy Jain.

The Jain, for those of you who haven't taken any recent survey courses on world religions, are the Gentlest Faith(tm). They are, by belief, utterly unwilling to harm any creature. A Jain will pay close attention to where they walk, so that they do not inadvertently step on a bug. Some Jain will not eat root vegetables, like potatoes, because consuming them does too much harm to the plant in question.Link
For them, every creature is possibly divine, and all creatures are due respect and honor. I'm not quite sure if they've managed to persuade their autoimmune systems of this, but I don't doubt they anguish over every bacteria that's destroyed.

I, on the other hand, take a deep and barbarous pleasure in my ongoing battle against my mortal enemies: the mosquitoes.

When we moved into our house ten years ago, our back yard was a marvelous woody place, the sort of place that little boys delight in. We soon discovered, however, that the yard did not belong to us. It belonged to the Aedes albopictus, the Asian Tigers. They are an invasive species, which swept into our corner of Virginny about a quarter century ago. Fierce, hungry, strong fliers, they pretty much guarantee that you'll be covered in itchy welts as soon as summer arrives.

And ooh, I hates 'em. I've tried all manner of weapons. Six years ago, I bought a massively overpriced propane-powered mosquito trap, which managed to catch about two mosquitoes a day. Once you factored in the cost of propane, that priced out to, oh, maybe a buck a mosquito. Shoulda just paid my boys a bounty. It'd have been more effective. I thought about seeing if I could find a surplus M65 Nuclear Rifle, which would certainly have done the trick. But even in Virginia, those can be hard to come by. Plus, they aren't so great for property values. Since that effort failed, I've been on the defensive. I've cleared out gutters compulsively. I've lit citronella candles. I've slathered on the DEET. The yard still belongs to them.

Today, though, I'm trying a new tactic. Give them what they think they want. I've got an old sandbox in the back which has become a small pond of rather organically fragrant water. It's shaded and still, the sort of habitat that would look just about perfect to mosquito mamas. Rather than dump it out this year, I've left it...but with a little extra. That tempting stagnant water is now laced with an organic larvicide, a bacteria that is both targeted at and lethal to the little larval squigglers.

I'm creating, in essence, a Nursery of Death for my bloodsucking friends. They'll follow the clear trail of water vapor evaporating from the largest source of water in the yard. They'll lay their eggs. Then. They. Will. Die. I find if I say this while sounding like Emperor Palpatine, it's doubly satisfying.

As a basically compassionate person, and one for whom compassion extends into realm of many non-human critters, I occasionally pause and wonder if this is perhaps a bit..ah...bloodthirsty of me. But then I remember the itchy little squirrels and bitten chipmunks. I remember the crows that used to inhabit our neighborhood, but were annihilated by the West Nile Virus borne by the aedes albopictus. And I think to myself...sometimes, a pest is just a pest. It isn't a vessel for the divine. It isn't a marvelous example of God's providence. It shouldn't make you want to sing..MwaaaaaHaaa Haaayaaah, or whatever it is they sing at the beginning of the Lion King.

It's something that bites you. Taking them down is just fine.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Heart Religion

So the other day, I get e-mail notification of several comments on one of the videos my church puts up on our rather significantly un-viewed YouTube page.  So far, our videos are pretty much for our own consumption.  Just getting more than a dozen views is unusual, so getting three comments in a row was worth me paying some attention.

The video is of our closing praise music session a few weeks back, in which a group of our youth pitched out some Contemporary Christian music.  I'm not the biggest fan of CCM.  It's just a bit too simplistic for my tastes, but it's what my mostly young and mostly Asian congregation prefers/is used to, so I've learned to live with it.  More than live with it.  Sometimes I'm surprised at how much I've come to enjoy and be moved by it.

The commenter, who is apparently a young evangelical Christian woman living in Singapore, was pretty harsh.  Our youth praise team was "lousy."  Their praise was so embarrassingly bad, said our Singaporean sister, that she had to close her eyes, but even then, the music still was terrible.  It was a sign, she thought, that these kids did not have Jesus in their hearts.  Any "unbelievers" who showed up at the service would be so turned off by this flaccid display that they'd never come to Jesus.  This got my back up, for two different reasons.

The first was because it was yet another manifestation of web-based incivility.  It's really, really common for folks to cast aspersions and generally dish out verbal smackdowns to others in e-media.  It's easy.  It's impersonal.  It feels good.   Way I figure it, blog-rants and drive-by-insults make up about 35% of the text on the web, and take up nearly as much bandwidth as the emails from Mrs. General Tunde Babangi asking for help transferring $2.7 million (dollars) from her frozen account at the First National Bank of Icantbelieveyoullfallforthis.

But all that angrily typed bellowing is desperately, hopelessly negative.  Wrong, even, if what Jesus had to say about how we are to treat one another means diddly squat.   So for a Jesus person to do it, particularly to my youth, well, it got my knickers in a bit of a twist.  Pitching aspersions at a group of kids is...well...seriously uncool.  Yeah, they aren't professional.  Things could be better.  But they're trying, dagnabbit. 

I called her out on it, bringing the Bible to bear, and after briefly resisting, she offered up an apology.  That isn't always the result, so I appreciate her willingness to say "sorry" to a total stranger.

The other button that presses for me is the presumption that "real" worship requires emoting.  Yeah, I know, I'm Presbyterian, and of the partially unthawed variety.  We prefer our worships to be the kind of thing that you might encounter in the First Presbyterian Church of Vulcan.  Sermons are logical discourses that examine a fascinating exegetical quandry that only surfaces when you've delved into the Greek.  Footnotes are provided, and in many instances, actually read aloud.  Our music is classical, preferably Bach, because anything from the romantic classical era (Faure?  shudder!) might cause a breakdown in the order of the service.  And as our worship has been carefully planned to run between fifty-eight minutes and 12 seconds and sixty-two minutes and four seconds, any expression of passion might cause a disruption to this well-oiled machine.

That somewhat hyperbolic stereotype is one of the reasons we're not the church brand of choice these days.  People want FEEELING in church, because if you're FEEEELING it, it must be real.  There's some truth to that.  We shouldn't seem bored.  We shouldn't not care or be clinical about our worship.  I struggle with that sometimes myself.  Like this Sunday, when I had nothing going into the worship.  I was dead in the water.  Zero.  I was forcing myself to go through the motions.  But at some point, I realized that the scripture I'd selected and the sermon I prepared were speaking directly to me.  I felt it, and it made the difference.  To me, anyway.  I'm not sure all those closed eyes just meant folks were deep in contemplative prayer.

But emotional affect can be simulated.  It's often simulated, because it's expected.  Just because you're up there bawling like Swaggart or weeping like Tammy Faye or shouting "GAAAAAAAAHD" into the air in your best Shatnerian bellow doesn't mean you're more authentic.  It just means you're a good performer.   Similarly, just because you speak with total conviction about what you're sure is true doesn't mean that you have a clue what you're talking about.  Sarah Palin, anyone?

Really having Jesus "in your heart" goes far deeper than the ephemeral to and fro of our emotional states.  It's a change in our nature, a shift in our sense of purpose.  It engages the entirety of our being.



Friday, July 3, 2009

Mental Obesity

With all of the clucking and concern about the ever expanding American midsection, we're more and more aware that our endless diet of empty calories is having a critical impact on our physical well-being. Limitless helpings of beef and grease and carbohydrates have etched the image of the Fat American into the minds of European and Asian societies.

Are we the place where the huddled masses come, yearning to breathe free? Not any more. We're the place where we've got so much mass huddled around our midsection that we yearn to breathe freely after half a flight of stairs.

Well, we yearn for breath and a Krispy Kreme. Or maybe just the Krispy Kreme. Mmmm.

Though we're collectively stressed about our growing lardiness, I think that's not the most significant of our concerns. The American people's endless diet of empty calories is easily matched by our endless diet of empty information.

And this second one is far, far more dangerous to our republic.

I'm reminded of this every time I open my old legacy AOL account, and am bombarded by the latest information about John and Kate. Or when I go shopping and am assailed by fascinating new facts about Branjelina. Or when I go to CNN looking for news, and get only the latest irrelevant factoids about the passing of a pop star none of us would have trusted our children with. Is that an...interview? With a family member? Why? Just 'cause his name is Jermaine doesn't mean what he's saying is relevant, people.

I'm reminded of this every time I'm immersed in our commercialized culture. We're a society where Lucky and Stuff--all ads, nothing but ads--are magazines people actually pay good money for. The "information" within is nothing. It's the latest pitch for the latest product...but it fills and forms and directs our minds.

I am convinced that this endless media cornucopia of meaningless information is as damaging to the national psyche as bellying up for your second BK Quad Stacker. We are overstuffed with information that means nothing, gorged to bursting with irrelevance, and so mentally obese that we can no longer discern good from bad.

This is why Transformers 2 is the Feel-Good-Hit of the summer. This is why we go to big loud shiny churches.

It will not end well.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Too Esoteric, Even for Me

An utterly random thought from today, a clear indicator that summer has addled my brain:

This morning at poolside, I was redigesting something I'd read from a conference sponsored by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. It was a short presentation by Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome project at NIH and quite possibly the most articulate defender of the basic compatibility of science and faith.

In part of that presentation, Dr. Collins described what he saw as the dichotomy between the theistic understanding of a single, perfectly constructed universe and a multiverse. In his understanding, the basic structures of our universe are so marvelously interwoven as to be nonrandom. So many different elements of physics have to be just so if the universe is to "work," and it seems impossible that such an interplay could occur without intentionality. Ergo, God is responsible.

Against this, he suggested that the atheistic position was the idea of a multiverse, an infinite panoply of all possible forms of being, expressed across an infinite number of variant spacetimes. Within that approach, he felt that God ceased to be relevant.

Though I have big huge respect for Collins, I disagree with him on that front. I tend to think that a multiverse is the nature of being, and that it does two things. One, it makes the idea of God more than just an idea, but a very potential reality. Two, it is a theologically necessary correlate if we assume God is omniscient.

That thought lead to this morning at poolside, where I found myself wondering about the nature of the multiverse. I'd typically envisioned it as an infinite array of non-overlapping spacetimes, stacked and separate like a pile of paper as tall as Shiva's infinite lingum.

But today, for some reason, it felt more like a blossom, in which each moment has within itself the possibility of generating an infinite array of universes. Every moment, every choice, every infinitesimal twitch of a subatomic particle...all of these variances complete the fulfillment of all possibility. Each is, in its own way, as generative of what is to come as that first moment of divine self-articulation from singularity.

And we're a part of that. Our choices matter, because each choice leads to a particular future. Some more gracious, some more full of sorrow and horror, but all fully known to the One who made them all.

Sigh.

I suppose I should probably start thinking about something organizational now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

All for the Best

It was at about this point last year, in the midst of a prolonged exchange with a neoatheist, that I was first exposed to the word panglossian. Neoatheists love pitching out obscure vocab, because it makes you feel unusually potent and rational.

I had no idea what it meant, of course. I looked it up at the time, and it means a range of different things, depending on the usage.

One full rotation around the sun later, I found myself encountering the word "Pangloss" again in my reading, only this time in the original context. Gotta love that serendipity.

The word derives itself from Dr. Pangloss, the tutor in Voltaire's Candide. Pangloss is a second-rate philosopher who mooches off of the easily-dazzled court of a small provincial German lord, while simultaneously helping himself to the charms of some of the serving girls. He's found his niche, and a combination of Leibnitz and wenches have convinced him things are great, the best they could possibly be. That philosophical conviction continues, even when things turn considerably for the worse.

Generally, panglossian refers to the belief that every little thing is going to be all right. Or, rather, that the current reality is the best of all possible realities. It's Pollyanna fatalism, a passively cheery nihilism that sees no point in anything other than just thinking the current reality must be destiny, or Providence, and that nothing could possibly any different.

This almost works for me. Almost. It does have a certain stoic appeal, and it also sounds rather nicely off of the residuals of my Calvinistic tendency to view things as predestined.

But I'm not entirely Calvinistic. A mechanistic fatalism simply has no place in a faith that is directed outside of the processes of time and space. Christianity orients thems of us who follow the Nazarene radically beyond those processes that define the structures of being around us. While it can certainly give us a deep and abiding patience and ability to endure, it ultimately does not involve quietism.

"Letting go and letting God," as some Christian Panglossians might say, cannot mean just sitting on your hands and smiling feebly. If you're really oriented to and transformed by a reality that infinitely transcends our own, the impact that orientation has on your life does not involve passivity in the face of injustice, bigotry, greed, or any of the other poisons that eat away at our lives together.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: faith is inherently progressive.