Friday, December 24, 2010

Traditions, Loss, and Light

Each of us have our holiday traditions.  In my household, one of the primary Christmas celebrations comes with the Assembling of the Tree.  The Tree, in this instance, is carted down from the attic in my parents house, where it has dwelled in all it's marginally realistic plastic glory since 1978.   This year, the task fell almost completely to my boys, for whom the Assembling of the Tree is a touchstone of the season.   Then we have a carol sing, which culminates in a completely chaotic rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas, replete with dance moves appropriate to each of the days.   The celebration has evolved over the years.  We no longer read The Night Before Christmas, for example.  But as one tradition goes, another comes, and the event remains a blissful Yuletide hootenanny.

Those patterns of life, those affirmations of our identity, well, they're important.

As I put the finishing touches on the second of the two sermons for the week, and reflect back on the Christmas Eve service that just passed, I can't help but feel a teensy bit o' wistfulness about this season.  Back on Christmas Eve of 2003, I was part of my first Christmas service here at Trinity.  It was big, exuberant, and completely chaotic.  The week before was a whirl of planning and calling and patching things together.  It shimmered with tension and anticipation.  The night itself was joyous release, chock full of hope and music and lights and holy messiness. 

And tonight was good too.  But it is, without question, the last year I'll celebrate Christmas here.  Next year, I'll be somewhere different.  I don't have a clue where, but I know that most of the faces and the sacred spaces that have defined much of the last decade of my Christmases will not be the same.  As necessary as that change is, it remains nonetheless somewhat difficult to process.

And that awareness reminds me that for many, this season and its traditions can be intensely painful.  The rituals and patterns that can for most us evoke warm fuzzies around Christmas have a very different feeling for others.  For those who've lost jobs and struggled to find their footing, the consumptiveness of the season can leave them feeling stressed and helpless.  For those who've lost loved ones, this time of togetherness can be a powerful reminder of absence, as that expected presence...well...just isn't there.   For those who've had relationships collapse, this can be a reminder of times of intense pain.  For those who are just plain old alone, or struggling with depression, it can be a brutal time, when feelings of isolation are heightened.

Remembering those souls and their struggles is an important part of this season.  Not the buying.  Not the stress.  Not even the reconnecting with friends and family.  It's those souls toward whom the heart of this season is directed.  It's to those who are living in darkness that the light most intensely shines.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Good Without Aslan?

One of the latest salvos in the seasonal squabbles between atheists and Christians came as more "good without god" ads have gotten pasted onto the sides of buses in Texas. This is a reprise of ads run last year in London, but given that Texans gets a bit more riled when they think you're messin' with their Jesus, it's been testier.

The default response from certain wings of Christianity when asked if you can be good without God is, of course, no.  Typically, our response has to do with folks not being saved, that nothing good can exist in folks who haven't proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Unless you fall at the foot of The Bleedy Bloody Cross All Spattered With Gore (Hymn number 42 in the Really Old Hymnal), you're just S.O.L.  That's Salvation Out of Luck, kids.

More smugly erudite Jesus folks get into the philosophy of it, going back to teleology, ontology, and the purpose of Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma to make the case that without an noncontingent ground, there can be no meaningful definition of the good.  Lord have mercy on me, a smug and erudite sinner.

Whether you get all orthodox with the former, me...tend to obscurely think the latter, things can still get testy and self-righteous.  Which defeats the purpose of the whole Jesus thing.

What strikes me, in this season when yet another Narnia movie has been released, is how far the faith has wandered from the openness to the Good you can find on the green fields of Narnia.  I don't intend to see the latest movie, not in the theatres.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was passable, even if it leaned too heavily on the CG.  Prince Caspian just plain old bit as a movie.  Portraying Caspian as a smoldering Latin studmuffin was waaaay too much.  And it was appallingly dull, both loud and plodding.

Now the whole franchise has been sold off by Disney, with the rights transferred over to Fox.  The reviews don't make it seem worth my while, particularly given that for the first time, some significant liberties have been taken with C.S. Lewises narrative.  As a Narnian fanboy, I find this annoying.  The point of those liberties is to make it more overtly "faith-oriented," and to fold in even more martial imagery.  Given that Rupert Murdoch now owns the rights to the story, that's no surprise.  So...I'll wait until it's on BluRay.  Or not.  More likely I'll catch it in snippets as I pan through the channels on cable in six months.

In the Narnia books, though, it's clear that C.S. Lewis understood that goodness and overt statements of faith weren't always the same thing.  Narnia is a place far more willing to see the good in folks who might not have an orthodox grasp on Aslan.  Three characters from Narnia typify this attitude.

There is, for instance, the noble-if-a-tick-snooty war charger Bree, the eponymous horse from The Horse and His Boy.  Bree is quite convinced that Aslan the Lion is some sort of metaphor, certainly not a lion, representing some greater truth or reality or person, about which not much can be definitively known.  He'd be quite comfortable in an Episcopalian stable.   He is proven wrong, of course, and ends up feeling like an idiot.  But even in his liberal erudite smugness, he remains firmly and incontrovertably in the camp of the good.

Perhaps there's hope for me yet.

There is the red dwarf Trumpkin, who makes an appearance in Prince Caspian, is referenced in Dawn Treader, and is still kickin' around in The Silver Chair.  In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin is an atheist.  Or an "A-Aslanist."  Or perhaps..because "humanist" doesn't work for dwarves...just plain old "Narnian."  He believes that Aslan is a myth, an old wife's tale, and a superstition.  From his dwarvish practicality, he can see no reason that such a being actually ever existed, and he repeatedly and explicitly says as much.  He is, nonetheless, a strong, hearty, tireless, and cheerful supporter of Narnia.  When Aslan does arrive, Trumpkin gets tossed in the air a bit, but with love.  Even before Trumpkin's tossing, he's one of the good guys.  He's on the right side.

Finally, there is Emeth, the honorable young Calormene Lord from The Last Battle.   Emeth is an infidel, who worships the great and terrible Tash.  Here, Lewis makes his most pointed defense of the existence of the good outside of the bounds of the orthodox "us."  Even though Emeth has his whole life only ever worshipped Tash, his encounter with Aslan does not end up with him being kibble.  Instead, C.S. Lewis tells us that Emeth's noble life, while done in the service of Tash, nonetheless count as a life lived to the honor of Aslan.

As Aslan puts it, "...I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him."   That which is self-evidently good, noble, right and true belongs to God.  Period. Given that that name "Emeth" means "Truth" in Hebrew, Clive Staples is clearly making a point here. 

Despite many conservative Christian's embrace of Lewis for the wonderful, joyous and articulate way he proclaims Christian faith, his is not the stuff of rigid orthodoxy.  Lewis speaks a more gracious truth, one a far sight better than the shrill and closed-hearted literalism that seems to govern this benighted age. 

Ah well.  Even if he's wrong, I can imagine fewer folks I'd rather share a circle in the fundamentalist hell with than C.S. Lewis.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Stories That Define Us

As the last blog post about myth and story was pinging about in my head, I encountered those troubling images from yesterday's shooting in Florida.  You've seen the images, and watched the video of Clay Duke, as he threatens school board members, shoots wildly, and then is gunned down by a security guard

What struck me most wasn't that this angry man seemed unable to kill those around him.  If you've got a 9mm pistol with a full magazine, and you're two yards away from your target, even I'd have trouble missing.  When a woman attempted to disarm him...utterly ineffectually...with her purse, he also didn't shoot.  It wasn't the violence that was most striking.

It was, rather, that he spraypainted the "V" from "V for Vendetta" on the wall.  That movie, with it's themes of revenge and uprising against a totalitarian society, never struck me as particularly amazing.  It was a diversion, and occasionally amusing, but too often overwrought and adolescent, particularly in the goofy "we're all wearing masks now" hoo hah doltishness of the ending.  Oops.  Spoiler.  Although really, it ain't spoiling anything special.

Honestly, I'm more of a Fight Club guy. 

Not that I'll talk about it


I didn't say anything.

V for Vendetta and films like it seem to be a big deal for many frustrated souls.  I've seen, for instance, lots of Guy Fawkes masks as Facebook profiles over the years.  This is a movie that expresses the inchoate, formless rage of those trapped in our frustrating, dehumanizing culture.  For folks with little other hope and purpose in life, these movies become the myths that define their existence.   This story of violent revenge, of rising up against the powers, was clearly a story that spoke into the life of this man.  It spoke his anger, spoke his frustration, and ultimately, it was part of how he ended his life.

As I re-immersed myself in Joseph Campbell yesterday, one of the things he notes is that in our era, the idea of defining story has become shallower and more immediate.  We're defined by global mass media.  Movies and television have become our storytellers.  The stories that pour into us from that big pipe articulate who we are...but they are increasingly not something we share across generations, or even necessarily with those around us.  The buffet-table myths of the modern era are as scattered and shattered as our increasingly diffuse sense of identity in a global consumer culture. 

Yet another reason that I find the great and ancient story of the Gospel so compelling.  If you want to find your ground and your purpose, the whirling chaos of this mass media era is not the place to look.


Among the many faith feeds that pour into into my reader, there's lately been a little meme that's struggling to get off the ground.  It's surfaced here and there, mostly in significantly minor print news outlets.  It's fluttered around like a little fledgling knocked early from it's nest, almost catching viral air...and then falling back...and then almost catching viral air...and then falling back.

The faith "issue" in question was an ad buy by American Atheists, in which they pitched up a billboard showing wise men on camels, following yonder star, with Mary and the babe in a manger under a crystal blue sky.  It's really a very pretty scene.  Runneth the text: "You know it's a Myth...This Season, Celebrate Reason!"

It's provocative, or is intended to be, although the scene itself is so lovely that you end up getting lost in Christmas warm fuzzies evoked by those cool radiant azures.  


 But after that first day or so, it seems really cares.  Perhaps that's a factor of it being slapped up near New York City, where it's really a whole bunch harder to be provocative.  "Honey?  That's 'provocative?' Did you see that avant-garde performance artist, oh, what's his name, last week?  I still can't figure out how he got the entire narthex in there."  Even Fox News, after first taking the bait, seems to have gotten distracted and wandered away, which is saying something.  Shoulda done it in the bible belt, kids.

Oddly enough, I wish this effort had gotten more legs. 

Because the billboard is right.  The story of Christmas is a myth. 

Not, of course, in the shallow Mythbusters sort of way.  Myths are not urban legends.  They aren't trivial fabrications.  They aren't falsehoods told and retold and retold until finally some smart levelheaded soul shouts out that the Emperor is totally nekked.

Myths are the stories that define culture.  They are the stories that frame the identity and the purpose of a people.  They provide the overarching narrative of a society, and are told and retold as a way of reaffirming who we are.  Any competent historian or anthropologist can tell you this.  That's not how the reality television level of thinking understands it, of course.  But if you've been college educated at any halfway decent school, and have gotten a liberal education in the classical sense of the word, then this understanding of the role of mythopoetics isn't news.

We understand the world through narrative.  It's our nature.  The bright, sentient course of action is to celebrate in and rejoice in those stories that define us.  Sing the carols.  Feel the gracefulness of the season, its hope, its essential themes of promise and new birth and restoration.  It's the reasonable thing to do.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This last Sunday, I sat down with my session and finalized my commitment to depart my current congregation at the end of October of 2011.  As my request to provide interim ministry so that the church could openly seek a new pastor while I was still here was nixed by presbytery, there just isn't any other viable option.

Just dithering about and waiting for something to happen does no one any good.  Without hard and fast deadlines towards which a church can plan, things have a tendency to just float and stagnate.  It was a necessary decision, and hopefully one that gives folks here a fighting chance at making things work.

Still and all, setting that date has proven a bit troubling personally.  Finding options for ministry that don't involve me leaving the area is difficult.  There's an overabundance of ordained pastors seeking churches in the DC area.  And leaving the area isn't possible without leaving my family behind, which isn't really the most desirable scenario.  There is, after October 30, 2011, the very real possibility that I will no longer be functionally a pastor.  Yeah, I can do supply preaching.  Or something.  But it's still a large black hole of uncertainty, bearing with it the painful possibility of vocational unfulfillment.  Most significantly, I also don't yet feel...called...anywhere.  Meaning, I'm not yet getting the spiritual cues that show what door, if any, my Maker is opening.  Ultimately, where I go is not really up to me.

In the face of that unsettling possibility, I'd like to say that I was as serene as a cloud, detached and unaffected, confident that the Good Lord has a plan for me.  But lately, I've been feeling less and less like the nonanxious presence that I need to be, and more and more like a panicked cadet during a hull breach.

In the face of that rising anxiety, I reviewed my options.  On the one hand, I could just start pounding back forties of Colt 45 every evening until the world blurs to nothing.  For some reason, this seems like a mistake.  I could just let my anxiety feed on itself until I'm a useless twitching frozen mass of stress.  This also seems like a poor choice.

What I've recently done is expand my prayer life.  Yeah, I know, crazy thing.  To my usual morning and evening prayers (a simple mix of the Lord's Prayer and prayers of supplication and intercession), I've added time for chanting meditation. 

And I have all the time I need.  The way I figure it, I spend a couple of hours a day in a rolling monastic cell as it is.  My commute, reinforced over the span of six and a half years in this ministry, may be across one of the gnarliest stretches of eight lane in the country, but it's so familiar as to require just a small fragment of my mental processing power.  So I've shut off the jabberbox, and stopped making phone calls, and started using the time to pray.  In this era of handsfree bluetooth, I don't even need to worry about looking insane. 

What's amazed me, as I've spent a week chanting Taize music and other meditative songs for the entire duration of my commute, is not just that I feel more centered.  Not totally centered, but better.  It's not just that it echoes through my day, and seems to change the pattern and flow of things, as prayer does.  It's how easy it is to both drive and chant and still turn my thoughts to other things.

After fifteen minutes of singing the same refrain, it requires no effort at all.  My body just takes up the chant, and drives, and both just carry on by themselves.   I find, now, that as I both drive and sing, that there is space for intentionally praying over people, and for visualizing those in need.  It's a bit like layering prayer over prayer, the embodied chant harmonizing with the mentally vocalized prayers of confession and intercession, while some semi-autonomous subroutine in my cortex carefully checks the lane next to me, signals, and pulls over. 

Amazing things, our minds are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Manner To Which We Are Accustomed

Yesterday, as my ten-year-old came home from school, I watched him scamper past the front door and around to the carport.  He knew our van was in the shop, and that meant there would be a different car in the driveway.  And he, unlike my big guy, shares his dad's mostly unrequited love of cars.  A new car, a different car, well, that's something.

I watched him circle it.  I watched him smile and mutter something to himself and shake his head.  Then he burst through the side door, and with a tone of mocking exasperation, he proclaimed: 


Which I did.   A two-thousand-and-whatever Chevy Cobalt LT, as bland and nondescript a vehicle as can be imagined, the archetypal rental car.  It was red, which is just about the only thing even vaguely interesting about it.  It was permeated with that rental car smell, which I think comes from having someone apply a milliliter of cigarette-and-stress-sweat infusion to the carpets every other week.  The fabric of the seats was rough and ugly, the plastic hard and cheap and ill-fitting.   My boys, used now to the technological doodaddery of our Prius and the La-Z-Boy comforts of our aging but functional minivan, both observed this lowliest of cars with complete disdain.

It's a sad little car.  But I have a long memory, my memory of cars goes easily back to when I was ten.

Back in the halycon days of 1979, if you were the mack daddy, the J.R. Ewing oozing petrodollars across eight lanes of Texas oilscape blacktop, you'd be rolling up to the pah-tay in a shiny new red Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz.  It'd have set you back $16 grand, and those were 1979 dollars.

So...let's look at these two cars side by side.  Both are red.  Both likely smell like tobacco smoke.  The Caddy puts 170 horse to the ground, as opposed to the 125-ish of the Cobalt, but performance is essentially the same given the Caddy's considerable mass.  The El Dorado is quieter, but the Cobalt handles better, and has more interior room.  Both have the full suite of 1979 luxury must haves.  Dimming internal lights.  Power windows/locks/mirrors.  The Caddy has better seats, great pillowy things.  The Cobalt comes right back with four convenient cupholders, of which the Caddy has exactly none.  The El Dorado is arguably better looking, although much less sleek.  But then the Cobalt has a sound system that blows the Caddy's eight-track out of the water.

By pretty much every 1979 standard, the Cobalt is a luxury car.  Yeah, a bit noisy and not terribly well put together...but back in the late 70's, the only thing Americans could successfully put together was our feathered back hair.  Ten year old me would have been impressed.

We are strangely oblivious to how much we have.  Our culture serves up a cornucopia of riches, surrounding us with luxuries that would be mindblowing a generation ago, and the realm of science fiction the generation before that.   Even our humblest things would have been the reserve of the wealthy and the spoiled and the elite.

And yet we are never satisfied, never happy.  Am I alone in feeling this isn't a good thing?

Tweeting Tribalism

In an interesting crosspost over at Presbymergent and at his blog A Wee Blether, Adam Copeland pitches out a defense of social media as a means by which church can better be church.  By blogging and tweeting"facebooking," Copeland argues that we establish a profound and authentically spiritual connection to others and increase our awareness of others who share our faith.

There's real truth in that.  New media connects us to people we'd never have otherwise experienced.  There are folks I've known only online, and known for years, from whom I've been connected to writers and thinkers and music that have profoundly enriched my faith.  The ability to share and converse can be a serious blessing, and can enrich our ability to love God and neighbor.   It can be a powerful tool for grace.

As can a gesture.  As can the spoken word.  As can ink and paper.  The reach and immediacy of social media are different, though.  It has the immediacy of conversation, and the potential reach of mass media.

The spiritual challenge in social media is that it makes it easy for us to become tribal.  And we all want to be tribal.  It is our nature.   We like to be an "us."  We like to surround ourselves with sameness and the comfortable and the known.  In our global culture, there there are so many different voices.  Media can serve up the baffling and frightening reality that we don't necessarily hold Truth with a capital "T" quite as firmly as we might like.  We are not the center of things.  That shakes us.

So what social media offers us is a choice.  If we so choose, we can surround ourselves with sameness.  We can follow only those who interest us and agree with us.  We can fill our ears and lay our eyeballs only across those voices and words that reaffirm what we already know.   We can amass a vast array of witnesses who affirm our common knowledge, as our facebook friends, those we feed and those we follow all shout the same songs, and say the same things.  We can live our lives in the echo chamber din of the Daily Kos, or in Townhall.

In the relentlessly refreshing wave of tweets and status updates, we can become so lost in the ceaseless chorus of our own cyberclan that we lose the ability to see those different from us as anything other than our trollish enemy.  Yes, we yearn for the intimacy and comfort of the tribe.  But tribes, while great at being community, have a tendency to do a really for-crap job of being beloved community. 

There lies our other social media choice.  If we so choose, we can use social media to open ourselves up to the other.  Yes, we listen particularly to those who are called to openness, both to those called to be constantly reforming and to those called to hold on to what is good.   But we also listen to those with whom we disagree.  We follow those who are different.  We rss feed those who are supposed to be our enemies.   That doesn't mean we acquiesce.  We're allowed to still disagree.  But in listening, in understanding, we mindfully use social media to stir in ourselves both grace and compassion towards even our most implacable trolls.

When that becomes our habit of being in the strange virtual half-light, then and only then do we start moving towards a twitter theology, towards living through social media in a way that can be called authentically Christian.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Leaks, Secrecy, and the Kingdom

It seems like the last month has been dominated by the flood of classified and leaked documents pouring out of Wikileaks.  This odd little internet entity has sprung into the limelight based on what appears to be the sole premise of its founder, Julian Assange: We should know what our governments and the leadership of corporations are saying and doing.  Thanks to the ability of most human institutions to cause deep disgruntlement among people who have access to privileged information, Assange appears to have struck the motherlode.

Depending on what media outlet you rely upon for your information, this is either a fascinating source of inside information or a treasonous betrayal of our security.  Given Assange's recent releases, he now finds himself in a British prison, charged with being...well...a "person of interest" in a sexual assault trial in Sweden.  I don't know definitively about Assange, but for some reason, my gut responds to him in the same way that it responded to Mikhael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  He's in trouble because he's messed with powers and principalities.  He's likely not a saint.  But dang, is his story both real and compelling.

Assange isn't just in trouble because he's cheesed off some Russian mobsters, though he has.  In this country, fulminators on the right have gone as far as calling for his assassination.  Palin has, of course, but she's hardly the most pungent.  That award goes to columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer, who in an article about Assange recalled fondly how the Soviets murdered Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in the late 1970s with a poison ball shot from the tip of an umbrella.

He's not saying.  He's just saying.  Nudge nudge.

Amazing how consistently evil far right wingers can be, be they Soviet or neocon.

The Wikileaks phenomenon leaves me wondering a bit.  I understand the place of secrets in geopolitics, and in the dynamics of corporate life.  Nation states and profit-driven entities depend on secrecy to maintain advantage.  Lies and obscurity and deception are necessary aspects of every system of power, be it sociopolitical power or socioeconomic power.  That's reality.  It's really easy to understand.

But as I look at WikiLeaks through the lens of Christianity, I find it rather harder to condemn it or the actions of Assange.  Secrets and darkness and shadows are not the stuff of the Kingdom.  The Reign of God that we Jesus people proclaim has no place for the whispering machinations of geopolitics.  It has no place for the deceptive platitudes that mask predatory profiteering.

Children of light have nothing to fear from the truth.  We recognize that whispering obfuscation is a methodology of the Enemy.

However you spin it, that WikiLeaks should be so problematic to so many people is a sign of just how far we are from being close to the Kingdom.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I'm a fiscally conservative person.  I don't believe that debt is good.  Period.  While I'm happy to spend freely if the resources are there, I vigorously resist the idea of buying things I can't afford.  If I can't buy it now, I won't.  I would rather live simply than be in debt.

This is a foundational value.   I drive cars I can pay cash for.  I have a modest home.  My wife and I have have one credit card, which we pay off every month.  We live very slightly under our means, whatever those means may be.  Over the last twenty years, this has helped build a comfortable nest egg.  If you pay now, and build up savings with whatever remains, then life will be more manageable.   It is for this reason that I get, without fail, at least a dozen solicitations for new credit cards every week.  Every one of those solicitations is torn up unopened and recycled.

Looking at the economic state of our nation, I find myself completely at odds with both political parties.  The idea that government can spend without taxing convinced me long ago that the American right is completely insane.  It's been thirty years, folks, since the trickle-down and supply-side lurping of Reaganomics spread like sweet delusion across the gullible of this nation.  That hole is just getting deeper.  It isn't just a conservative problem, though.  The left is equally delusional.  Honestly, the point at which I first realized all would not be well with Obama was with the passage of the stimulus.  TARP, which was designed to be repaid, seemed necessary.  It unlocked a seized-up system.  But the stimulus just dug us deeper and deeper into hock, at a time when going into hock had nearly cost us our economy.  It was nuts.  It was as ill-advised as doing a couple of shots to ward off a hangover.    Heck, it was worse than that. 

It was the economic equivalent of meth.  Debt may be the engine that drives our economy, but it is a false energy.  Debt-driven spending is not real growth.   Yeah, it stimulates.  Stimulants like meth are great at that.  You feel real good for a bit.  Then, less good.   Then, crappy, but you'll do anything to feel slightly less crappy.  Eventually, you find yourself spent and broken and toothless, living on a stained mattress in some guy's shack in back country Gansu Province.

As Republicans continue to shout for lower taxes, and both Democrats and Republicans keep guzzling down debt to expand our security apparatus and our social entitlement programs, I find myself despairing for our nation.  The will to do what is needed to change direction...meaning, we pay taxes sufficient to provide for the common defense and support the general welfare, and reduce our spending to levels that make the income/outflow match...that will just isn't there. 

The last week has been particularly painful.  Watching the deficit reduction commission's recommendations get shot down, and then seeing the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush administration continued by our current administration is as agonizing as watching a dear friend on a self-destructive bender.  You know the type.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.  All they care about is their next fix.  Reality is nowhere to be found.  And we need to grasp reality right now as a nation.

To keep government at non-austerity levels, we'll need to pay for it.  That means ponying up, "patriot."  If you want to keep taxes where they are, then we need less government.  Not empty rhetoric about less government.  Real cuts.  That means across the board.  It means standing down our imperial military, and replacing it with something more fitting a constitutional republic.  It means reduced benefits for the elderly and those in need.  It means fewer subsidies for farmers.   Whichever way, there needs to be some level of diminishment, as we scale back to sustainable levels. It means effort, and struggle, and a bit of shared fiscal pain...not just by the rich, but by everyone.  Real recovery involves real effort.

But suggesting we all work together to shoulder a mighty burden doesn't get you elected.  It doesn't poll well.  

We'd rather elect reality television politicians, who'll happily pitch out sweet crystal fantasies until that morning America wakes up on that nasty mattress with a mouth full of rot and realizes we lurped America's greatness from our children.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Following on my post from the other day reflecting on something Carol said over at tribalchurch, why diversity?

I mean, yeah, leftys and lib'rals tend to go on about how important it is to be inclusive.  We could klatch endlessly about the liberation of transgendered Guatemalans living with dwarfism.  Sorry, "little people."  Or, oops, that's gente pequeña.  Or transexuales poco de GuatemalaSo hard to keep track of the lingo sometimes.

The reasons to care about difference, though, need to go well beyond simply wanting to include everyone because it's inclusive, even though that word makes us feel as warm and tingly as a hot brimming cup of fair trade Ethiopian Yergacheffe.

Here, I think Christian progressives tend to fall back on the language of secular liberal academe, and we do so to our failing.  To my eyes, the deepest justification for diversity comes from within Scripture.  The great narrative arc of the Tanakh, the Gospels, and the Epistles rings out with stories of how vitally important it is that we be open to the other.

Yeah, I know, you can spin it the other way.  You can get all Ezra and kick out all them apostate furrin' wimmen and their mudblood children.  If you're a social conservative in a strict constructionist sense, there are plenty of opportunities within the tradition to stand firm against the creep of "syncretism" and/or those voices that seem to chip away at the authority you know is your birthright.  You can use the Bible to keep those loud whiny women in their place.  You can scripturally shout down those uppity colored folk.  But just 'cause it's the truth that affirms you in all you've been taught doesn't mean it won't wither to writhing embers in the hellfire of God's inexorable love.

From within the core metrics of our faith, there are some key operating assumptions about hearing the voices of folks different than us.

First, there's the Exodus presumption in favor of the stranger.  At a bare minimum, those who are different and those who are outside of the boundaries of our culture and our should be met with welcome, grace, and kindness.  Why?  Because our mythopoetic memory is of having been strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. When we cried out for deliverance, it was the cry of the oppressed other that was heard by the Lord.   This is our story.  If we approach the other...any other...without a heart of compassion, then we have failed to understand the essence of the Biblical narrative and our place within it. 

Second, there's God's tendency to consistently use those who ain't part of "us" to school us, save us, or whup our behinds when they needs a whuppin'.  The prophets through whom God spoke stood outside of the structures of human culture and power.  They lived in the wilderness because those in power tended to drive them there, preferring instead the saccharine comforts of those who told them what they wanted to hear.   God goes so far as to use even those who aren't part of the faith at all.  When Israel forgot about covenant and justice and mercy, and got to be all about power and privilege, Babylon was an instrument in God's hands.  When Israel wept, helpless and lost and broken by the rivers in Babylon, Cyrus of Persia was an instrument in God's hands to save them.  God is not part of our culture.  God is not part of any society.  God is not "us."  With us, yes.  Working in us and through us, maybe.  But if the Biblical narrative is to be ours, then we must live into the truth that God is present and active even in those who are radically other.  If we want to hear our Creator, then we have to listen and be present with the other. 

Finally, there's Christ's redemptive work.   Yeah, that.  Jesus reaffirms and radicalizes the Exodus favoring of the stranger.  The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are oriented towards deep and God-centered engagement with the other, and in particular the other who is ostracized, hated, or powerless.  It is that baffling love for not just friends, not just family, but for the stranger and the enemy that makes Christianity a tradition that is 1) ever and always fundamentally countercultural and 2) worth following.

That isn't to say that Wuvvy Sparkleberry Jesus sprinkles lollipops and daisies on everyone.  Those who have worldly power, be it coercive or economic, well...Jesus has words for them.  Those words aren't easy ones.  Why?  Because defining ourselves in terms of society or the gun or the dollar turns us into adversaries of one another and of God.  Those forms of power make us approach others not in love, but with the intent of alienating them, or subjugating them, or profiting from them.

The more deeply we engage with those that worldly power declares other, the tax-collectors and the centurions and the lepers and the unclean, the more we manifest the Kingdom.

That, it would seem, is reason enough to make diversity a priority for Christians.