Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The King You Have Chosen

During a conversation last night with another pastor who serves a congregation here in the Washington Metropolitan area, we found ourselves noting just everyone in DC is. Not everyone, mind you. There is plenty of poverty here. But when you step back for a second and look at the population in and around our nation's capital, you realize just how much money there is here.

That foundation of wealth just got a little bump upwards this week, as defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman committed to relocating it's headquarters to the Virginia suburbs of Washington. In fact, they're likely to locate themselves within walking distance of my home, right near my high school, in an office park where me and the missus...well...we used to...err..."hang out" in the empty parking lots there on occasion when we were dating. You know, talking about politics.


In the Forbes list of the wealthiest counties in the United States, for instance, six out of the top ten counties are here around the Beltway. That's a supermajority of American wealth, kids, the kind of majority that lets you ram any legislation you want through the hallowed [buttocks] of the Senate. Loudon, Fairfax, Howard, Fairfax City, Arlington, and Montgomery all have pretty stunning levels of wealth. How stunning? The median household income here in Fairfax is $106,000. Nearby Loudon County has us beat, with a median household income of $110,000. That's more than twice the national average.

Now, many of those households are two-income. Many fall below that level. It is worth noting that the folks who skew that median upwards are not federal workers, but rather the impressive array of industry lawyers and industry lobbyists and defense contractors. Civil servants aren't the folks living in the 10,000 square foot homes in Potomac and Loudon. Associate Vice Presidents of General Dynamics and Executive Counsels for Lockheed Martin are.

Honestly, though, the blame for this peculiar skewing of wealth to the power elites lies not with the increasingly fat cats here in Washington. This, my fellow Americans, is the government you want.

It's right there in the Bible, in 1 Samuel 8. We Americans have an obsession with defending ourselves, with being sure that we have the weapons and organization needed to protect our national interests. That's why military spending, which is the primary generator of inside-the-Beltway wealth, is entirely off the table as we consider ways to reduce our insane national debt. Only slightly crazy folks out on the margins like myself even think about cutting military spending.

That obsession should be familiar. It is the very same desire that spurred the demand of the Israelites for a king. We want that centralized power, because in that centralized power lies our ability to organize and plan and research the various ways to crush America's enemies under the boots of our shiny new orbital battle platform.

But, as with any king, our demand for that power has a cost:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive grows and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)
Jerusalem and Washington. Saul and the Military Industrial Complex. Six of one, a half dozen of the other.

For a nation purportedly steeped in Judeo-Christian values, it's impressive how utterly clueless we are about this.

"Those who do not know the Bible are doomed to repeat it."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gaming and Meditation

Yesterday morning, after running several morning errands, I squandered a significant portion of my day off on a recent acquisition. It was a gray and cool and rainy morning, so after walking the dog and popping by the store, it seemed a perfect time to drop into the deeply immersive FPS from Electronic Arts: Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It's a remarkably well crafted game, with a solid single player campaign and rip-snortin' online multiplayer.

As a lifelong gamer...I had an Atari 2600, back when that was the state of the art console...what I marvel at is just how immersively real games are nowadays. BBC2 is, from a standpoint of physics, simply astounding. Light shines off of surfaces convincingly. Trees and grasses move softly in the breeze. It has what gamers call "destructible environments," meaning there ain't nuthin' that don't blow up real good. Rather than relying on the preset animations of old-school gaming, the world of Battlefield is totally current gen. It has it's own physics, a set of virtual laws that mean things happen predictably, but they don't ever quite happen the same way twice.

It is also, once you get past the considerable blood and mayhem and destruction, rather beautiful. I've read several online reviews of this particular game in which the reviewers admitted to taking a break from the bangbangbang, and wandering off to a quiet corner of the map to explore the verdant virtual jungle in peace. That picture up above? That's what the game looks like. Putting down your pretend rifle, taking off your flak jacket, and walking back up that virtual Salvadoran hillside to find a secluded spot to sit and savor a cold cerveza has a certain appeal.

Yesterday, after four hours of nonstop high-intensity gameplay, I powered down my console and went to take my eldest son to an academic competition at a nearby school. Stressed-out helicopter parents were verboten in the room where the kids were showing their math chops, so I wandered off for a long, long walk in the surrounding neighborhood. As I wandered past the lush green lawns, speckled with the flower and color of a beautiful Virginia spring, I was...well...more aware of them than I usually am. When I go deep into an immersive FPS for a long session, it tends to induce an altered state of consciousness.

That's unsurprising. A meticulous simulation of a particular environment viewed from a first person perspective, rendered in high-definition, pitched through a large screen with surround sound and tactile reinforcement through a vibrating controller tends to create a powerful sense of place. Couple that with a surge of adrenaline, testosterone, and the intense focus and situational awareness that comes from simulated combat, sustained over several hours, and your state of mind is most certainly not what it would be normally.

From that game-induced state, I found myself deeply enjoying the reality around me as I walked. Though the neighborhood was a familiar one, my experience of it was as of a new thing. I was aware of the play of the breeze across my face, and the way that breeze could still be felt, softly, through the fabric of my shirt. I was aware of the intricacy of creation, of the scent and taste of it, and how deep it all went. I knew, though I did not do it, that were I to have placed my mouth against that telephone pole, it would taste of resin and dirt. I knew that if I touched that grass, it would be cool and dappled with moisture from the morning's rain. I watched the play of the leaves, and the cloud that wisped across the sky, driven by a distant storm. I was aware of my heart, my lungs, and the workings of my musculature as I walked. Everything was strikingly beautiful, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude at the mere fact of my existence. I felt very calm, very at ease, very present, and very centered, as much as if I'd spent the morning in meditation.

I'm fairly sure that's not how the Dalai Lama does it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gaming, Evil, and the Virtual World

Having recently read a blogosphere exchange about whether or not gaming can be art, several recent moments of online unpleasantness cause me to wonder if gaming can be actively evil.

As a pastor and a gamer, I try to steer away from games that are overtly negative. Meaning, I don't like games that require me to steal, or games that require me to harm innocents, or games that so deeply revel in horror that you can't play 'em without indulging in a fantasy of darkness. True, I do indulge in plenty of..err...aggressive games, and now and again wonder if my diet of simulated violence is entirely healthy.

Lately, though, I've been struggling with how to deal with my encounters with rather more concrete forms of gaming evil, namely, human beings. When you play online, you encounter all manner of blighted souls, and filtered through the medium of a game, it's a bit difficult to know how to respond to them.

I've played a little bit of a free online game called UMAG (follow the link, and you'll lose a few hours. You've been warned). It's a turn-based artillery game, in which folks fire shells at one another whilst texting comments that appear in little thought bubbles above your tank. It's simple. It's goofy. It's fun. Or it usually is.

Two nights ago, as I dropped into a game, the guy in position to strike at me texted the following to those around him:

[sumbuddy help me kill this Jew]

Suddenly, the game wasn't fun at all. With two Jewish boys and a Jewish wife and an extended Jewish family that I love more than I love myself, that kind of hatred tends to evoke a blind rage response. I took the guy out, of course, digging him into a hole and then dropping a MIRV on him. But that wasn't satisfactory. That sort of thing goes far beyond smacktalk, and into a dark place where play is no longer possible.

That was not the end of this week's online encounters with antisemitism. Last night, as I played through the delightfully frenetic FPS Battlefield: Bad Company 2, I found myself face to face with an opposing player whose avatar was named JEWSLAYER14.

Again, I took him out, with a fusillade of well placed rounds from the main gun of my BMD3 light tank. But again, that wasn't enough. Things were no longer fun. Someone who would choose that for their online identity is a person with whom I can't play, or have conversation. They are the Enemy, in a very spiritual way.

Electronic Arts, which publishes the Bad Company series, makes a point of booting such folks from their servers. Their Terms Of Service explicitly state that hate speech will get you thrown out...but folks like that still pop up. My hope is that my second encounter doesn't have 13 friends, but is number 14 because they've been kicked 13 times.

It does raise several conundrums about confronting virtual evil. First, it's very easy for evil to hide and reform and resurface on the interwebs. Removing a user for TOS violations is no more effective than deleting a spam email. They'll be back, with a different and equally offensive name, spitting out the same hatred they were before. There, I think folks in the gaming community are responsible for enforcing a community ethic. If someone goes beyond mocking you for your pathetic noobness and is expressing racial hatred, they're ruining the game for those around them. Gamers need not to tolerate that in their online friends, and if you're hosting a server and encounter someone who is eager to engage in pointless hatred, ban or block or kick them.

The difficulty comes with point number two. The "gaming community" is a pretty wildly diverse place. I've been on servers in the online game Warhawk, for instance, where everyone is screaming in Arabic, and the gamertags are things like jihad4ever1972. My suspicion is that a gamer with a tag like JEWSLAYER14 might not be booted from such a server.

Here, the question becomes how deeply a for-profit entity is willing to stand by the values of the culture from which it springs. The deep hatreds that have lead to such horrors in the meatspace world should be resisted wherever we encounter them.

If Electronic Arts and Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo put serious effort into keeping their gaming will remain a playground on which we can have all kinds of fun.

Freedom, the Burqua, and Women

Yesterday, as I picked up an inexpensive vacuum for the church at the local K-Mart, I found myself waiting by my vehicle as a woman loaded her kids into her own minivan. Her cart and her kids were right next to my door, so I just said a gentle "excuse me," smiled, gave a little shrug, and stood there. I've done the "loading up the Conestoga" thing with kids many a time, and there's just no rushing it. She apologized, and smiled, and bustled about her business.

In keeping with the diverse and varied nature of my close-in suburb, the woman was Muslim, and was wearing a headscarf. Her two young daughters were also wearing headscarves. The scarves were bright and lively in color, and both she and her daughters were dressed in a way that was both demure and pleasant.

As I motored away, I was reminded of the current struggles that secular Europe is having as it attempts to adapt to some of the dynamics of Islam. In particular, it called to mind French president Sarkozy's recent efforts to completely ban full coverage veiling of women. France has had a tremendous amount of difficulty assimilating Islam into itself, particularly in its most rigid forms. "Full coverage" and "women" just...well, it ain't French. But it goes deeper than that.

Sarkozy's central beef is that the burqua and requiring a face to be covered dehumanizes women, and that this ce n'est pas acceptable in France. Though I suppose as a progressive I'm supposed to be generally tolerant of all things, I find that I have a very similar reaction whenever I've encountered burquas here in the DC area. While I find headscarves for Muslim women no more degrading than head coverings for Mennonites, I find the burqua painfully offputting.

It is quite simply not possible to argue that they do not dehumanize women, because that is precisely what a burqua does. That's the purpose. It strips a human being of any identifiable features. They cease to have any visible traits that permit you to recognize them as an individual. Behind a full coverage veil, women are easily viewed as wraiths, shadowy beings that must remain silent in the presence of real human beings, meaning, men.

Confronted in this way, conservative Muslims tend to have two responses. First, they assert that it is their right in a pluralistic society to do as they wish, and that if a society wants to claim it is modern and open, it must be tolerant of such things. There is more than a little truth in this. We Americans tend to err on the side of tolerance, because it's a vital and central part of our history. The net effect is that Muslims in America tend to be more moderate, more open to others, and are much more vested in this nation and it's principles. People who bloviate about Islamofascism and the inherent evils of Islam and imagine that they're defending American values are, in fact, doing the exact opposite. American freedom is a far more robust and viral thing than they seem to recognize.

The "tolerate our difference" argument is, therefore, long as folks making that argument recognize that this "difference" is not something that can ever be coerced. Do you have the right to wear a burqua? Sure. But in a free society you also have the right, the very moment you realize the burqua is not something you want to wear, to take the damn thing off. And I use that word advisedly.

If you want to participate in a pluralistic society, and to enjoy it's many benefits, your faith community needs to recognize that here every woman is free to choose 1) what she wears and 2) whether she wants to be a part of your faith community at all. In the places where the burqua is worn by all women, neither of those two things are true. That will never, ever be the case in America.

The second counterargument is one that shuts the mouth of a significant portion of American conservatism. That argument is simple. Most conservative Americans are Christian. Most conservative, Bible-believing Christians will argue that women are theologically subordinate to men. It's right there in Genesis, say they. It's right there in Timothy. Women are beneath men. They can't be leaders.

And so in a proportion of American churches that I find quite simply mindboggling, women can't be pastors. They can't be elders. They can't be deacons. They are spiritual inferiors, who can teach the kiddies, but are expected to...sssshhh...not teach or lead men. In the most successful nondenominational megachurch in the capital city of the great Republic of the United States of America, for example, this is how it works.

"You see?" a crafty Taliban might say. "You Christians also understand that women have their place. We simply have a different way of expressing it."

And he'd be right.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Staring Into The Fire

One of the more paradoxical things that one encounters in the reading of mystics like George MacDonald is the juxtaposition of their earthy, grace-filled and open-minded faith with a rather ferocious and intimidating view of the mysterium tremens of the Creator. Though mystics glory and delight in the created order, the One from whom all things spring isn't presented in terms of butterflies and bunnies and huggy bear Jesus, all viewed through a warm fuzzy filter of wuv, sweet wuv.

God, as MacDonald says again and again, is a consuming fire:
He is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.
In this, MacDonald resonates with Merton and all those who have perceived the nature of God's love, including those few, brief flickers of presence that have formed my own faith. As I meditated on this yesterday, I found myself musing over how the Fire articulated by MacDonald relates to the teaching of the Dark Philosopher Heraclitus.

Heraclitus is the dude who came up with the idea that everything is change. "You can't step in the same river twice?" Heraclitus said that twenty-three hundred years before Disney Pocahontas sang it. He argued that nothing is constant, that everything is dynamic and ever changing, and that it is impossible to make any meaningful statements about being, other than that it changes. He's the father of postmodernity.

In his philosopical poetics, Heraclitus declared that underlying all being was an all consuming, all devouring fire, which he called the logos. Yeah, that logos, the same Greek term that English versions of John's Gospel translate as "Word."

I puzzled over this juxtaposition. There is nothing in mysticism that points to God as the engine of impermanence and meaninglessness. Nothing at all. Quite the opposite. Yet the imagery is so close...and the influence of Heraclitus on Western Philosophy so huge...that it felt like a non-random connection.

Perhaps it's a question of perspective.

We are creatures of change. As we view and perceive ourselves, we are ever changing. The organic processes of our bodies. The fleeting impermanent moment in which the light of self dwells. We are not the same being from one instant to the next...and yet, paradox of paradoxes, we are, and we cohere.

In our encounter with the One who formed us and in whose love we dwell, we are entering into relationship with that which does not change. As beings who are ever changing, we look at our Maker, and see that glory from the perspective of our own changing. Observing that endless, timeless presence in which lies all potentiality, we see terrible fire and change because we are changing. The Word is not flux and change. We are.

Perhaps, perhaps, we encounter God as we might view the tarmac beneath us as we book along on our motorcycle at 200 klicks per hour. "Wow, the road is moving fast," we might think. But it is not the road that's moving.

Though we perceive God as fire, that may just be...relative.

Mystic Bling

Another of the ways that mysticism tends to get spun in our consumption-addled culture is as a means to the acquisition of more stuff.

Why should the mystic walk barefoot up the mountain, when they could instead float...on the buttery smooth suspension of their eco-friendly Lexus RX450h, their holy tushie coddled warm against the heated leather seats, as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan serenades them through the astounding 330 watt Mark Levinson 15 speaker 7.1 surround sound system? Ah...such inner peace....

When you're connected to the universe in profound and mysterious ways, why shouldn't those connections result in the universe serving up some schweet, schweet schwag? After all, it's not what you know, it's who you know. And if you know the Creator of the Universe on an existential level, then why shouldn't you leverage your connectness, making Oneness with Being serve up some Oneness with Bling?

This approach to "mystic" faith can be found everywhere. It seems to have almost completely hijacked Kabbalah in the popular imagination, as folks traipse about imagining that the little red threads they wear somehow connect them with a future McMansion, or at a bare minimum will allow them to download Madonna's music for free.

This is, to use a delightfully archaic word, balderdash.

Though mysticism is earthy and practical and woven into the fabric of being, possessiveness is utterly alien to any true mystic. The desire to acquire is meaningless to those who yearn most deeply for God. As George MacD puts it:
The man who for consciousness of well-being depends on anything but life, the life essential, is a slave...
But it is not the rich man only who is under the dominion of things; they too are slaves who, having no money, are unhappy from the lack of it.
and, here sounding remarkably like a Scottish mystic Yoda:
If it be things that slay you, what matter whether things you have, or things you have not?
The mystic renounces desire for power in all of its forms, be it economic or coercive. They simply cease to seem meaningful. The unsatisfied, ever-empty hunger of the consumer is unknown and unwanted. That doesn't mean living a joyless, stale, or austere life. It simply means a different way of standing in relation to creation, one that is far richer and more abundant. As MacDonald puts it:
He who has God, has all things, after the fashion in which He who made them has them.
Next to the touch of a breeze, or the smell of the honeysuckle, or the laughter of your children, or the bright moon on a clear Spring evening, the cloying cornucopia of consumerism seems a rather empty nothing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mysticism and the Word

One of the ways mystics tend to get themselves into trouble is in their tendency to be... well... oblivious to the siren song of doctrinal purity and textual inerrancy. If your faith is grounded in the experiential and in deep contemplation, texts seem rather less satisfying.

It's a bit like having someone describe to you what it's like to spend a long evening eating steak fondue at the end of a beautiful summer day overlooking Lake Geneva. Hearing it is wonderful. But the hearing is not the thing itself. Neither are those symbols anything other than an imperfect vessel for conveying the heat of the oil, or the tenderness of the meat, or the cool breezes that played across the restaurant patio, or the way Mont Blanc stayed bright before the dimming sky.

It was really, really good, recalls now-vegetarian I, as the memory evokes a Pavlovian response.

That's one of the reasons that mystics are utterly unphased by the application of historical-critical method to the texts of our faith. As I continue my encounter with Scots mystic George MacDonald, I find he carries that same approach to texts. On the one hand, he respects them and is caught up in the story they tell. On the other, he acknowledges their limitations. They are limited in terms of technical accuracy in conveying an event. They also have within themselves the potential for spiritual danger, as he articulates here:
God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of His very words; and that not merely perhaps, because of the tendency of His children to word-worship, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but because He would not have them oppressed by words, seeing that words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant, and that even He must depend on being understood upon the spirit of His disciple. Seeing that it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with power to kill.
Human language is a marvelous thing. But the patterns of vibration produced by our vocal cords, the marks of ink on a page, and the patterns of pixels on your screen are intended to point beyond themselves. They are words, not Word. When we worship them and the patterns they form, and not the thing to which they attest, then we have wandered off the Way.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Practical Mystic

Mysticism is typically construed as being the faith of the esoteric, a faith full of odd chants and visions, of obscure dreams and convoluted ritual. Mystics are the folks who sit upon mountaintops wearing loincloths, muttering mantras in an ancient language as they delve into the stern and secret truths of the universe.

As I read through the writings of George MacDonald, I'm reminded again of how totally inaccurate that perception of mysticism is. Mystics are earthy folk. Thomas Merton certainly was, as was the delightful Jallaladin Rumi. For all of his passion and all of the depth of his engagement with Spirit, Christ, and Creator, MacDonald's deep sense of the reality of his faith does not pull him from connection with being.

Instead, it grounds and centers him, in both creation and in the practical needs of day to day existence. Take, for instance, the way he counsels those who are feeling distant from God:
"Troubled soul, thou art not bound to feel but thou art bound to arise. God love thee whether thou feelest or not. Thou canst not love when thou wilt, but thou art bound to fight the hatred in thee to the last...for the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that thou oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feeling: Do thy work."
As someone who has experienced many times that dark night of the soul, MacDonald has the way out quite exactly right. Don't anguish. Don't navel-gaze. Don't force it. Just do what must be done. It's an approach to faith that speaks to the here and now, to action in the meatspace reality of our being.

His delight in things as they are extended to his view of miracles. He doesn't reject them, mind you. He just sees such glory in the created order as to view all being as miraculous:
In all His miracles Jesus did only in minature what His Father does ever in the great. Poor, indeed, was the making of the wine in the...pots of stone, compared with its making in the lovely growth of the vine with its clusters of swelling grapes--the live roots gathering from the earth the water that had to be borne in pitchers and poured into the great vases..."
That fundamental wonder at all being is something that mystics of all religious persuasions seem to share. It is, once again, a pleasure to find a brother who shares my joy in experiencing the First Book.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

George MacDonald

As I fumble my way through the endless supply of stuff I Really Should Read, I've finally gotten around to George MacDonald.

MacDonald is a mystic Scot from the 19th century, one who was driven from the one church he ever served for his heretically open-minded views. He lived the life of a pauper and remains somewhat obscure.

His influences, though, are deep. Lewis Carroll might not have published Alice in Wonderland were it not for MacDonald. J.R.R. Tolkien acknowledged some of MacDonald's work as being formative. But it was C.S. Lewis who was most intensely changed by his intersection with MacDonald's writing and theology, to the point of declaring MacDonald to be his spiritual teacher. Given the influence Lewis had...and still has...over my own faith, it was high time for me to check out MacDonald's writings.

MacDonald was mostly a novelist, who spun tales of magic and mystery that were suffused with his faith. I'm intending to get to those later. No, really. I will. Phantastes and Lilith are going to work their way through my consciousness in the very near future.

Two of his books now grace my nightstand. One is a collection of devotional poems entitled "Diary of an Old Soul," intended to be read daily over a year. The second is C.S. Lewises own anthology of MacDonald's key teachings, the ones the were most formative to his thought.

I'm looking forward to it. A bit of reading is good for the soul, particularly if it's the right reading.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Demand

Last night, after the big guy got picked up for a sleepover at the home of an old friend, the remaining family settled in for a nice shabbas evening huddled around the soft glow of our 56" Samsung. On tap for the evening? Well, we didn't know. Something. Whatever we felt like. The PS3 was fired up, and we perused our way through the Netflix menu looking for something that would be just right for the night. After some back and forth, I proposed re-watching something I hadn't seen since I saw it at the old Ionic Cinema from the London of my youth. It was Dragonslayer, a surprisingly smart, hard-edged, and decently acted Disney flick from the early 1980s. Not for little kids, that one. Meaning, my ferocious barbarian of a 9 year old ate it up with a spoon.

From streaming HD from the PS3, my wife clicked over to our DVR, which is set to record...errr...America's Top Model. My mother-in-law arrived to watch the show, and I promptly recused myself to the study. I have tolerance for many things, but that particular show makes my brain bleed. I also worry that that level of media estrogen may result in significant and irreversible...well...what George on Seinfeld once called "shrinkage."

What struck me about last night was how utterly In Control we were. Our every need, desire, and whim for entertainment was met by the magic boxes in our home. Obscure 30 year old fantasy movie? Here it is, sir. The show you are usually too tired or busy to see? Recorded, and presented for your delectation at your leisure, Ma'am.

It's not what I experienced as a kid, but it forms the identity of this generation. They know no other way of being. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. Everything is on demand. Which is fun, particularly for control freaks like myself.

Unfortunately, it's not the way the universe works. Spring still comes when it wills. The tides still shift according to the pull of the moon, not our desires. Volcanoes still erupt under glaciers, and don't give a hoot about your travel plans.

Relationships are the same way. You cannot just serve up love on demand. Yeah, I know, you can buy it by the hour in Nevada, but honey, that ain't the same thing. You can't simply command another being to desire your presence, or even to agree with you. You can't make a community cohere, or stir the hearts of others simply because you want it. Though our media experience tells us otherwise, reality remains what it has always been.

If we've been trained to believe that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, we're just not ready to face it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Woo

As part of my daily blog feedage, I make a point of reading a mix of like-thinking progressives and mystics, but also spend time perusing the thoughts of the godless and the Pharisee. One of the more intriguing recent posts I've read recently was, again, at the In it, an atheist was struggling with whether or not to attend a local Unitarian Universalist congregation as a way of providing community for his family. UUs, from my own personal experience, are radically inclusive and tolerant of difference. Inclusiveness and tolerance are, in fact, the governing ethos of that community. That, coupled with a desire for social justice, is pretty much the only thing that UUs require for entry into their herd of friendly, purring cats.

Most remarkably, nearly all of the atheists who responded to this issue were incredibly supportive. There was a strong consensus that Unitarian congregations were atheist/agnostic friendly, and a great place to go to encounter other freethinking and open long as you didn't have a huge chip on your shoulder about folks who believe in God/Jesus/Goddess/Vishnu/Allah/The Force/Thingummy.

That pattern of thought took things to an interesting place. Nearly all of the respondents identified the one element of a Unitarian community to beware of as "the woo." A congregation might be to "woo-ey." Or have too much "woo." The word "woo" tends to evoke in me an image of a man down on his knee with a rose in his teeth. He's outside the window of a Victorian home in a small town, while a barbershop quartet sings Sweet Adeline in the background. This is not what they mean by "woo."

Or at least, I don't think so. I haven't been to a UU worship recently, and with them, you never know.

Instead, the Woo appears to be used to describe spirituality in any of its forms. Prayer. Candles. Dreams. Visions. Meaning, those things that tend to make we Presbyterians uneasy. As the Frozen Chosen, we're quite comfortable with process and structure and polity. We're also at home engaging in exegetical analysis of texts, preferably while providing citations from our favorite subset of scholars and referencing the Greek and Hebrew in ways that Show Our Superior Intellect. We're fine talking about social issues, be they from a liberal or conservative bent. We're practical people. We get things done.

But when it comes to experiential faith, to articulating those moments of trembling ecstasy, well, we clam right up. As someone who can officially declare himself a cradle Presbyterian, I heard talk of personal spiritual experience exactly zero times from the pulpit growing up. Not once. It was not spoken of in Sunday School, at any level. It just wasn't.

It's too disorderly. Too irrational. Too emotional. It lacks clear foundation in Scripture and tradition and process. It makes us seem...ugh...Baptist.

And we can't have that.

For those coming out of traditions that are all weeping and shouting and testifying and Feats of Spiritual Strength and weeping some more, that might seem a blessed relief. But for those coming up in our corner of the reformed tradition, I think it might be helpful for church to be...every once in a while...a place where we talk about those dreams and moments of numinous intensity, where we can share and pray and wonder. If we Presbyterians find themselves as unable to do that as atheists, then perhaps we should ponder whether or not this might be a factor in our struggles to revitalize our fading fellowship.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spiritual Bodies

Here's a little remnant of speculative esoterica from a recent meditation, one that came as I prepared to eulogize a recently passed member of my teeny little church. As I searched for a passage to illuminate the Christian understanding of death, I found myself musing over the paradoxical Pauline claim that we have "spiritual bodies."

That particular bit of theological fuddliness comes to us from the letter to the church at Corinth. It's a puzzler because it seems to describe an impossibility. The soma pneumatikon that Paul says is our true nature seems on the surface to be in unresolvable tension with itself.

The word soma describes meatspace reality, our bones and sinews and loins and giblets. It is material. Pneuma is classically understood as spirit, intangible, ineffable, and impossible to quantify and measure. How can it be that they are somehow the same thing? It seems an impossibility.

For those who would see Paul as a dualist, the kind of Christian who thinks Body=Bad and Spirit=Good, this passage is a serious stumbling block. And for good reason. Paul, being of a semitic persuasion, could not be further from that binary understanding of being. This existence matters for Paul. It matters infinitely. If it did not, then our actions in this short span of being would have little relevance to our eternity. As it is, though, this life is the seed, containing the fullness of our eternity within itself.

As Paul describes it, our spiritual body is different from flesh, but it is also different from our psyche.

As I read Paul with unabashedly mystical eyes, I hear him speaking to a self that transcends self. The boundaries of flesh and the boundaries of individuation do not define the soma pneumatikon. Instead, my sense of that reality is that it is the totality of our transpersonal being. Our awareness of pneuma, of the Spirit, is at it's most essential about our connectedness with both Being Itself and other beings. That would seem to give a particular shape and form to the seeming paradox Paul describes.

Our spiritual bodies are the fullness of our place in being, as our actions and intentions play their way across inanimate being and through the other seemingly discrete selves that we encounter. Those influences are permanently part of the reality of creation, from the intense passions and anguishes and joys of our first love to that cutting remark we offered to our lazy, good-for-nothing daughter to the careless touch of a hand brushing across a painted wall. Those things and their echoes and ripples are part of our eternity, as surely as the hands that type this are part of me.

We do not perceive them as such now, of course. We can't begin to fully grasp who we are. But we're on the other side of the veil.

Fortunately, I had the good sense not to ramble on about this at the funeral.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Productivity and Progress

This morning, as I chatted with a couple of moms at my youngest son's bus stop, they were talking about the struggles that one of them was having with the whole "going back to work" thing. With a kindergardener and a preschooler, there was a job opening that she was struggling with. Should she take it? Should she schlep across the metro area for hours every day to go to a part-time that might sprawl out into a full time job? Her life was already full of kids and household and pets, and the prospect of cramming work into it as well seemed intimidating. Yet it felt almost compulsory.

I'd actually been thinking about that over the last few weeks, particularly as more reports have come out describing the job market as the equivalent of a stagnant, algae covered economic pool. As workers are driven to be more and more productive in order to hold on to jobs, and businesses streamline their processes to make themselves more efficient and competitive, those pressures would seem to lend themselves to...well...fewer jobs. Or fewer total hours worked, rather. Yet we continue to scramble to produce more so that we can buy more.

Back when my parents were in the workforce, the vision of the American workplace of the future was rather different. Increased productivity would result in...more leisure. More taking it easy. If advances in technology allow you to produce in four hours of work what used to take eight hours, then you don't put in twelve hours of work to produce three times as much. The sane thing to do would be to take the remaining four hours and go for a nice walk in the woods. Or play with your kids. Or find some unmet need in the community and volunteer your time to help meet it.

We haven't done that.

Instead, particularly in my area, not only do we work longer, we now are ALL expected to work longer. Looking up and down my street of humble ramblers, I see households that used to only require one full time income to maintain. In those houses, there are now families that struggle to make ends meet on two full time salaries. The stressors that this produces are considerable. They take considerable toll on relationships, on parenting, and on marriages. Heck, on our happiness as human beings. We fret, and we struggle, and we worry, and things come apart.

So...why are we going backwards here? Why, if we are so much more productive, are we so incapable of living lives in balance? It all depends on how you define progress, I guess.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


One of the things about being a pastor is that you get to, now and again, be with people during important times of their lives. It's the responsibility that one seminary professor described to me as "hatch, match, and dispatch." We baptize the babies. We marry the couples. We say nice things at the funeral. It's what we do.

Over the last seven years of my ministry at my wee kirk, I've lead and participated in several funerals. I've spent time with folks who were suffering from mortal illness. I've prayed at the bedside of the dying. I've done vigil with family. But in all that time, I'd never been with someone at the moment of death. In fact, I'd never seen a human being die. Not that instant, the instant when breath stops, when a heart stops beating, when organic life finally, permanently, ends.

Last night, I scarfed down Chinese food and returned to the beside of a dear old member of my church. I'd known Dick for years. I visited him during his dear wife's decline. I'd been spending more and more time with him, as Dick was basically alone in the world. He couldn't hear, couldn't really see, and had no immediate family. Late last week, Dick took ill. I got word that he'd gone downhill badly, so I'd been out to see him during the day. I prayed for him, read the 23rd Psalm, and read Isaiah, and talked to him about life and church and Spring.

He was right at the point of passing when I arrived last night. Shallow, labored breaths. Changed skin-tone. After chatting with a nurse who had befriended him, I stayed by his bedside. I talked to him about passing. About not fearing it. About the need to let go. About rest and the grace that awaits. I held his hand, which was cool to the touch. I watched him breathe, watched a vein on his neck pulse and pulse and pulse. I said a few more prayers, prayers of preparation and transition. It was very calm, and I felt still and spiritually tranquil.

At around 9:10 pm, three things happened. First, his breath hitched, then hitched again. Then once again, and stopped. Then, the throb in his neck slowed, and grew faint, and stilled. But as these two things happened, a third thing accompanied them.

I found it suddenly hard to see him. I didn't feel faint or anxious or upset. It was just that, for a moment, it was as if there was too much light in the room. It was like stepping out into the bright gold of the summer sun, in that moment when your eyes struggle to adjust, only with no discomfort. I blinked and tried to focus my eyes, but it didn't do anything. Then, after a moment, my vision returned to normal. My perception of the light was gone, and so was he.

I stayed with the empty husk for a while, and then mentioned to a nurse that he had passed. I made a call or two, and talked with the staff, and then left them to their work.

I drove home feeling deeply peaceful.

VA Gov. McDonnell Declares May Genetic Health Month

Free United News Network
Richmond, VA
April 7, 2010

Following his recent and controversial declaration that April is Confederate History Month, an announcment which intentionally did not reference slavery, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) has declared the month of May Genetic Health Month.

In an address to the Virginia Genetic Health League yesterday, Governor McDonnell praised the state's pathbreaking work in optimizing the genome of it's residents. "Virginia has a strong history of encouraging our citizens to strive for genetic excellence," said McDonnell. "The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 expressed some of the best aspects of the Virginian spirit. It showed that our state is willing to be on the cutting edge of technological advances. That's why we're such a great place to do business. It also shows that we're deeply and passionately committed to eradicating the defects in our genome that now place such an undue financial burden on our health care system. Better genes mean lower taxes, and more money in the pockets of Virginians in these challenging times."

Some critics argue that Virginia's early 20th century commitment to eugenics and it's forced sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit was a violation of basic human rights. Reached for comment at the Virginia Genetic Health League's headquarters in Charlottesville, Dr. Charles Shifflett-Mengele III strongly disagrees. "As we learn more and more about the human genome, we're increasingly aware that it plays a powerful role in the economic success our society, " said Shifflett-Mengele. "Virginia was a pioneer in the field of practical genetics. Our efforts were a model for the global movement for a healthy genome, drawing in experts from Europe who were eager to put that model to work on a larger scale. Virginia had an impressive record of success in combating genetic disorders like Down syndrome, hemophilia, Turner syndrome, and blackness. It's one of the proudest chapters in Virginia history."

During a question and answer session following his Tuesday speech, Gov. McDonnell also responded to his critics. "There was so much more to eugenics than forced sterilization. I'd prefer to focus the month of May on the positive aspects, like hope and progress and the genetic health of our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Those are the things that all Virginians care about as we celebrate this unique and important part of our state heritage."

McDonnell's announcement comes following the 86th anniversary of the passage of the Racial Integrity Act, which was remembered with a parade of healthy white children in Richmond last month.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thought Crimes and Misdemeanors

In a recent piece in Vanity Fair magazine, the endearingly and eternally inebriated neoatheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens launched into a prequel of his new book project: dismantling and replacing the 10 Commandments. They are, as he would argue it, a rather quaint bunch of antiquated silliness. They are eminently replaceable. Any highly rational and enlightened individual would be capable of coming up with a vastly superior set of Commandments to govern the lives of humankind.

So that's what he sets about to do. First, of course, he has to explain why the existing Mosaic Decalogue is utterly unacceptable. He's got a bristling quiver of bon mots and whiskey-sharp snark at his disposal, and is as entertaining as always as he deconstructs the Big Ten.

It's not all negative, truth be told. He's OK with the not killing, not stealing, and not adulterificating. He even seems impressed to the point of doing homage when he talks about not bearing false witness. But Hitchens being Hitchens, there's a whole bunch of erudite smackdown going on. One of the more interesting arrows he lets fly comes at the end of his attack, as he goes after the tenth and final commandment. You know, the one about "not coveting."

The primary thrust of his attack is this: Unlike most of the other commandments, this doesn't proscribe a particular behavior. You know, like Don't Kill. Don't Steal. Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. Instead, the Tenth Commandment asserts that you should not feel a certain way. Instead, a particular pattern of human thought and emotion is prohibited.

Hitchens sees this, points his finger, and in a voice not unlike that of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, says, "THOOOUGHT CRIME!" As Chrisso sees it, mandating a particular pattern of thought is the nastiest tendency of totalitarian regimes. Your every thought must be of the Dear Leader! Those who do not think in this way will be re-educated!

It's an interesting charge, one that he then goes to further level against Jesus for his provocative statement that even thinking about adultery is as bad in God's eyes as adultery itself. How can you command people to not even think something? How can you say that a person needs to feel a certain way? It's outrageous! Oppressive! Inhuman!

Or so the argument goes.

Here, though, Hitchens seems to have made a rather significant conceptual blunder. He has forgotten the difference between laws and ethics. A legal framework stipulates a particular pattern of behavior, and provides for ways to take folks to the woodshed if they don't comply with that mandate. Laws have to do with specific material actions, with concomitant rewards and punishments. But legal frameworks are not the highest form of governing human behavior. A human being who does not engage in a particular pattern of behavior out of fear of punishment...and would happily do all sorts of unpleasantness if they knew they could get away with it...that human being is not truly moral. They are not "good," not in any meaningful sense.

Morality and ethics, on the other hand, have to do with a deeply internalized set of values. They might involve certain proscribed behaviors, true. But they are ultimately about not just the actions of an individual, but go deeply to that individual's motivations and desires.

When Jesus challenged his legalistic listeners to consider their own desire to schtupp the deliciously zaftig wife of the village rabbi as functionally adulterous, he was getting at the heart of what it means to be a moral being. If the only reason you don't do the humpty hump with another man's wife is because you're afraid of social approbation and/or being stoned to death, then you haven't internalized your own set of values. When you condemn others for doing what you'd do if given half a chance, you are being hypocritically self-righteous.

Further, the inward transformation of human beings is the core purpose of every great human ethical tradition. In the Buddhist Eightfold path, for example, fully half of the paths speak to the nature of our internal lives. Human beings are, according to that tradition, to have right views, to have right intentions, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All of the material manifestations of that system of belief are to flow forth from an inwardly transformed self.

In condensing the 10 Commandments into the Great Commandment, Jesus did essentially the same thing. That Commandment is all about our orientation as beings, as we approach our Creator and on our neighbor. It doesn't command a particular action or set of actions, but rather asserts a particular attitude of our whole being: we are to love God. We are to love neighbor.

While the 10 Commandments do tell us to avoid particular actions that are universal to human brokenness, they are also not an exhaustive legal code. They are a higher level set of guidelines, ones that overarch, encompass, and guide the nattering specificity of legalism. As such, they're closer to a defining ethos than they are to being a legal code.

So when Hitchens confuses a call for personal and ethical integrity with "prosecuting thought crimes," he's critically overreached.

Ah well. At least he's entertaining.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Touch

Earlier this week, I attended a seder. Not one a them Christian seders that progressive congregations love to dabble about in as a sign of their general openness to things. Those are fine, I suppose, but I prefer my funk uncut.

This was a seder at my wife's synagogue. It's an extremely progressive and inclusive Jewish community, but also one that is deeply connected with tradition. There's a strong preponderance of unapologetic Hebrew both sung and spoken, mixed in with singing and geetar and an openness to all. I enjoy it.

One of the things that struck me during the service was the use of a phrase during a prayer to describe those who really understood the value of the Passover event. It articulated thems who deeply get it as folks who have known "the Touch." The Touch, as it was used here, described that awareness of G-d's presence, that connectedness to the Creator that goes beyond abstract theological concepts and ritual formalism and doctrinal frameworks and into the existential reality of a person.

I found myself musing on that, and on how it relates to being a pastor. For many years, I struggled with my connection to Christian faith, which had...for all of it's much deep and abiding grace that I found it intellectually and morally compelling. As annoying as I found much of fundamentalist Christianity, I could see even in my annoyance that the core of the faith had ethical validity.

But that conceptual and ethical connection just was not enough for me to feel called to pursue the ministry. It was an appreciation. A sense of being simpatico with the teachings of Christ. But not call, either to be a disciple or a pastor teaching the faith.

Call was different. It came in moments of intense awareness of God's presence that turned my agnosticism's doubt in on itself. Then, in more moments, some vast and deep and infinitely calm. Or in dreams from which I awoke trembling and changed.

Without those, I would most likely still be attending a church. I enjoy the community, introvert though I am. I would certainly still be volunteering time to care for those in need. I've always valued that. But in the absence of that sense of God, that paradoxical connection with the infinitely transcendent grace of our Creator, I know I would never have pursued ministry. It would have felt inauthentic.

So, yeah, I'm a pastor because I'm a little "touched." No surprise there for anyone who knows me.

How important is an awareness of God's presence for those serving as pastors? Is it essential? Trivial? What thinkest thou?