Thursday, June 30, 2011

Popcorn Brain

Today was unusually scampery, as the Thursday cavalcade of tasks was magnified by the presence of the summer-idled younglings.

Kids went to and from Swim Team for photos and a breakfast, for which muffins had to be procured.  Pre-vacation preparations were made.  Goggles, which are eternally lost and re-lost, had to be purchased in preparation for this weekend's swim meet.  Dog food needed to be gotten, to insure that our furry little girl will have nosh while kenneled.  Easy-prep summer kid lunch food had to be gathered, to facilitate them actually learning the rudiments of feeding themselves.  The lawn had to be mowed and the sidewalks edged and a few loads of laundry run.

In the midst of this, as the big guy had a friend over for Yu Gi Oh gaming, the little guy and I headed out with our bikes to the dirt trails around a nearby lake for 45 minutes of mountain-biking-with-Dad camp.   Which was, let me say, just awesome.  Then, off to a three hour drum lesson, during which I sat in Starbucks and worked on my last paper for my D.Min. intensive term.

In the thickets of that material busyness, there was less fluttering busy checking of the web.  And oddly, today felt more centered and productive.  Calm, even.

There's a recently coined term for that frenetic mindstate we get when we leap from email to Facebook to Twitter to Boxhead: More Rooms, then back to Twitter, then to texting on our iPhone, then back to Boxhead to just, like, kill a couple more zombies, man.

The term is "popcorn brain," in which we become so accustomed to continual input and stimulation that the pace of actual being becomes difficult for us to process.   This is part a factor of habit, but constant online inputs may also rewire us so that the physical structures of our brains are materially and negatively impacted.  Causality is unclear here, but it doesn't look good.

Chaos can be generative, the no-thing-ness from which creativity springs.  But it can also just be chaos.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Because What the Blogosphere Really Needs is Another Manifesto

On my day off, just because, it was editing day.

I cranked out another 5,000 words of that old novel I'm editing and typing up for Kindle publication, which I'm enjoying, as will maybe a half-dozen other people, my mother included.  OK, maybe not my mom.  She's not really the eBook sort.

And then I went back and reworked a bit of online theological musing I'd done several years ago.  The impetus for that was a probing conversation in a Sunday Bible study, in which a young member of my congregation asked about how and in what way the Bible had authority.

It was...well...a bit more of a dialogue than a group discussion, but as we'd already finished up examining the deeply challenging text from Genesis, and I'd asked for general questions, it was cool. 

The issue was coming to understand how our sacred texts can have authority if they are not literally inerrant, perfect and without contradiction or flaw.  This is a non-trivial issue, so obviously, it's taken some of my processor time over the years.  Long of short of it:  I view scriptural inerrancy as spiritually analogous to ecclesiastical inerrancy.  Both represent human failures to understand the nature of the relationship to God that Jesus calls us to live out.

And so the Neoreformationist Theses returns to the web, tightened up and ready to sit there and look pretty.   

It's particularly entertaining, given that a quick run through Google indicates that I'm the only homo sapiens sapiens who actually uses that word.  That renders the odds of another person searching for it...oh, gosh, let's see...essentially nil.

Ah well.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Worshipping the White Witch

As summer arrives, my first bit of reading for the season is some unfinished business from the winter.   I am, at long last, making my way through the rest of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.  MacDonald, the Scots Mystic who was C.S. Lewises spiritual teacher, isn't exactly the most entertaining preacher.   His sermons bear no resemblance to the form demanded by the consumers of AmeriChrist, Inc. inspirational products.

There are no canned jokes to warm up the inadequately caffeinated crowd.  There are no stories drawn straight from 1001 Garfield Sermon Illustrations.  There are no nice neat bullet points that tell you how to apply the Three Lessons Learned to Your Life Now.  It's just smart, hard, bare-knuckled and uncompromising theology, applied directly to the forehead with all the merciless intensity of a Scots intellectual.   And if preached, they'd run for at least an hour.

I love 'em.  MacDonald burns bright like fire, and he gets God in a way that goes well beyond abstract knowledge.

Here's da ting.  The last of MacDonald's Sermons I've been reading is entitled "The Truth In Jesus," and after over 100 years, it remains as fiercely heretical today as it would have been then.  MacDonald, as a mystic, had no patience whatsoever for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  By this, I mean the theological framework in which Jesus has to die because God's wrath against sinful humanity must be appeased.  A blood sacrifice is demanded, and so Jesus is killed, thus releasing those who believe in him from the heck-fire that we so richly deserve.

This is pretty roots-rock stuff for many evangelicals, but MacD viewed it as monstrous and essentially pagan.  He sees it as a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's person and teachings,  the central teachings of the apostles, and the nature of God.  For MacDonald, God is ferocious, consuming fire Love, and there's no way to reconcile God's essential nature with this theology.  And Lord ha' mercy, he's gonna be tellin' ya 'bout it.

As I read through his intense polemic, I've been wondering about the relationship between this clear and strongly held position and the place where I first learned about substitutionary atonement.

That place was, of course, Narnia.   I first read Lewises' Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by myself back when I was five.  Hey, it was 1970s Kenya, and in the absence of endless screen inputs, five year olds have time to learn to read.  From the fire and magic that is the gift of children, my memories of that reading are not of reading about Narnia, but of being in Narnia, like you remember a particularly vivid childhood dream.

I remember the Stone Table, and the hill, and the dark path leading there.  I remember watching with Lucy and Susan from a cleft as noble Aslan was led to an innocent death at the hands of Jadis and her howling mob of monsters.     That story laid the groundwork for my own theology, and my understanding of what Jesus means.  It's meant to do that.

So I got myself to wondering:  C.S. Lewis acknowledges George MacDonald as his spiritual teacher, and MacDonald radiantly, relentlessly, and repeatedly rejects the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  If that is so, is there any connection between what C.S. Lewis teaches us as children and what MacDonald taught him?

The connection, I think, comes in who insists upon the sacrifice, on blood shed as punishment for sin.  

It is not Aslan.  It is not his ever unseen father, the Emperor over the Sea.

It's Jadis, the Last Empress of Charn, the White Witch, the emblem of worldly power and control and the form of "justice" that is written in fear and the horrible balance of suffering.

No wonder I have so much trouble with that way of understanding God.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Deficits and the New Detroit

I hate debt.

When it comes to my household, I'm close to compulsive about not spending money that our family doesn't have.   We have one credit card, which we pay off completely every single month.  We buy our humble/practical vehicles with cash.   The one debt we do have is our mortgage, which was a big stretch 10 years ago but now feels manageable.  We live well, and want for nothing.  But our "well" is always ever-so-slightly below our means.

This makes me feel completely out of sync with the trajectory of my nation.  As Greece erupts in riots and strikes and outrage over austerity measures taken to try to shore it up financially, I can't help but see our national inability to confront our fiscal profligacy as precisely the same thing, writ large.  Eventually, we're going to have to fall back to a sustainable position.  It's inevitable.  Inescapable.   We can muck around with debt limits and putter around the edges of the problem to our heart's content, but the road we're on leads only one place.

And ultimately, when the debt hits the fan, the place it will hit hardest is my own home town.   Washington DC, with its increasingly dense suburbs and its sprawling exurbs, is one of the few places in the country where home prices have remained stable or consistently risen over the past several difficult years.   There's only one reason that I can see for this.

The money that we as a nation have borrowed to "jump start" our economy has tended to settle here in the Nation's Capital.  Much of the money that we as a nation have borrowed to fund our wars has also landed here.    If you want to be a global power, wealth will be drawn to the center of that power, even wealth that is only borrowed against our collective good credit.  That's the way it's always been, and just 'cause we choose our "king" doesn't mean we get a pass from that hard truth.

Because of that wealth, the area is filled with civil servants, who aren't the faceless bureaucrats that demagogues like to attack, but tend to be..well..bright, civic-minded, and hard working.  Our neighborhoods are also filled with military and Homeland security personnel and a vast array of DOD and other federal contractors.  That financial base provides the foundation for a thriving local service economy.

If America does what it will need to do to get things back on track, then things here are going to get more difficult.  Even if it's a sane balance, with cutbacks matched with a return to a pre-Dubya tax base and a focus on preserving our national commitment to care for the last and the least, the impact of right-sizing our budget will be felt here more intensely than anywhere else.

As I drive through the insane congestion and endless development in our over-busy region, I often find myself wondering what this will all look like twenty years from now.  Will areas of post-austerity DC be like Flint or Detroit, with vast sections of exurban overdevelopment crumbling and in decay?   Will the woodlands that were razed to build ticky-tacky-townhome communities and strip malls start pushing their way up through cracked parking lots and crumbled houses?

It's been strange watching the area grow so explosively since I moved here with my family in 1975.  It may be stranger still watching it fade.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being a Pastor and a Father

This morning, my Father's Day began the way it pretty much always does.  I woke at a tick before seven am, the last few tweaks to the sermon humming and nudging in my brain.   My wife woke too, and gathered herself up to go rouse the boys.

Father's Day without breakfast in bed, you see, would be a disappointment.  Not so much for me, but for the guys.  So for the better part of a half-hour, I lay in bed, awake, waiting as the breakfast gradually assembled itself.

Then, in came the boys with the coffee and the cinnamon rolls and the vegetarian pseudo-sausage.  Mmm, pseudo-sausage.   I read the card pulled together by the little guy.  The big guy asked if he could hang out and eat cinnamon rolls with of course I said yes.   My 13 year old wants to hang with his dad?   I'll take every moment of that I can get.

We hung and talked and ate for about 10 minutes, and then I scrambled to get ready and out the door and off to a 9:00 AM Contemplative Worship.

Father's Day is always a work day, if you're a pastor.

That, I think, is emblematic of one of the challenges facing any male with offspring who is called to serve a community of Jesus people.   The demands of community and call frequently stand in between you and your kids.   Almost all of the pastors I know are in a state of constant motion, leaping from a meeting to a visitation to a funeral to a counseling session.   We too often live the lives we tell our congregants not to live, out of balance and shimmering with the stress of being reactive to a thousand demands.

For kids of pastor-dads, this can often mean that dad is distant, disengaged, and distracted by the community that consumes them.   Given the male propensity to get completely focused on the task directly in front of them, the relationship between fathers and their Pii-Kay progeny can often be defined by distance, a distance magnified emotionally by the need for those younglings to perform and be Model Jesus Children in the display window of the pastor's smoke-and-mirrors-perfect family life.

It's an unworkable John Edwards-esque balance, being both "married to the church" and having kids with another woman.  But to be effectively a father and a Christian, it means having the courage to stand in the balance.  If you are going to serve the church, there are things that you just are gonna have to miss, just like I missed my sons' swim team time trials this Saturday because I was at a training retreat.   Or how I bowed out of an event to which I'd been invited by a church member, because I had a family gathering to which I had committed.  To be wise and in balance, things must give on both sides.  The most important thing that has to give is your pride, as you delude yourself into believing that 1) you can do it all and 2) you need to do it all.

Being a good father and a good pastor simultaneously means having the confidence to stand firm in both your calling to teach and proclaim and your calling to be present and aware of lives of your children.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pastor Weiner

Yesterday, as I juggled and sorted my coming summer schedule with the boys, I discovered one of those scheduling impossibilities that make life so highly entertaining.

On a well packed day next week, my little guy has an orthodontist appointment.  More significantly, my big guy is getting his braces put in, a non-trivial multi-hour exercise that allows us to continue paying the mortgage on our orthodontist's vacation home in Bermuda.   And the little guy has a three hour School of Rock band practice in the late afternoon.  And the wife will be in Seattle.

And this was the day I'd originally registered for the mandated day-long Presbytery sexual misconduct training, running from 9 in the mornin' to 4 in the afternoon.  Something had to give, and what gave was the training.  It'll happen in the Fall, and that'll work just fine.

This sort of training isn't, of course, something I haven't already done.  Sexual misconduct training was a significant part of the two-day retreat with which I entered into ministry.  It was there in the background as I went through the required psych assessment.  It was front-and-center during a significant portion of the required semester long Pastoral Counseling course in seminary.  In fact, it's so often present that at times it starts feeling redundant and, if I'm in a grumpy mood, a bit oppressive.

Again?  Really?  Sweet Mother of Pearl!

On first blush, it's easy to question this relentless tide of trainings and re-retrainings.  For all of the good heart behind them, the fact remains that trainings and seminars are unlikely to have a significant impact on the behavior of a sexual predator, or on the actions of someone who has no sense of appropriate interpersonal boundaries or propriety.  

Human beings who live into a dysfunctional sexuality will sit through the training, make a few jokes, and then go right back to sending inappropriately personal emails to that young woman who recently came to them for counseling.   Telling someone something is wrong and showing them what is right provides exactly zero guarantee that they'll act appropriately.

The endless stream of political scandals that mass media pitches out there to draw the attention of our nookie-addled culture is clear evidence of this.   Did Anthony Weiner know, rationally, that his tweets were inappropriate and would be disastrous for his career?  Did John Edwards know, rationally, that cheating on his cancer-stricken wife was wrong and would destroy his credibility?  What about Gov. Sanford?  Gov. Swartzenegger?  Senator Ensign?  How many trainings and counselings and consciousness-raising sessions do we suppose would have gotten them thinking with something other than their little brain?

I'm not fool enough to believe it makes a difference to them's who are inclined to act inappropriately.  Knowledge of the right is not doing of the right.

So are these sessions a waste of time?  If the predators and those who have a poorly developed sense of sexual self are not going to be changed, and those who are faithful will pay attention to the Gospel anyway, should churches spend so much time on this?

Short answer:  Yes.

They should spend the time because, as I see it, what matters is 1) clearly establishing acceptable norms of respectful behavior within the Beloved Community and 2) empowering those who accept those norms to both identify and defend them.

The purpose of these trainings, honestly, is more for those who aren't violating pastoral trust.  It's a reminder to remain constantly vigilant.  That includes empowering folk to be aware of inappropriate behavior in others, but also giving the awareness that if you're not attending to your own faith and maintaining balance in life, unChristlike things can happen.  Even to good people.  

It's a reminder that the integrity of the Good News is at issue.  It's a reminder that the church needs to attend continually to insuring that our communities are places where everyone is safe and welcomed.

Too much is at stake to neglect it.  And that is more than worth a refresh now and again.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Praying in Tongues

Tuesday afternoon, our part-time office manager asked me if I could go fix the timeclocks for the exterior lights of the church, which were once-again off cycle.

The timeclocks are ancient critters, electrically powered clock wheels with adjustable pins that physically throw a switch to kick the parking lot lights on or off.  They date back to Lord Knows When, and are a bit intimidatingly archaic, particularly as they're live with current and can give you a sharp reminder of the effects of electricity if you touch the wrong part of them.

Though they're older than me, they do work, unless there's a power outage, in which case they get thrown off.  So, as Resetter of the Timeclocks is one of my pastorly duties, I puttered off to make the necessary adjustments.

As I cut through the sanctuary, I was immediately confronted with the wordless keening of a high-pitched woman's voice.  The voice filled the space, and given the over-bright acoustics of the sanctuary, seemed to come from everywhere.


I looked around.  No-one was visible in the sanctuary.  Not a soul.

"Hmmm," thought I to myself.  "I'm really going to hope that when I move forward so that I can see around the drum kit and the plexishield, there's someone sitting there."

Preferably not this person, though.

And there was.  It was A.,  a woman who comes to use the sanctuary often during the week, a middle-aged Korean who I'll occasionally find asleep on a pew or reading the Bible.  She doesn't appear to be affiliated with anyone in the church, but as my preference is for a sanctuary to be a place of welcome and spiritual refuge for all who seek it, she's more than welcome to be there.

She was praying out loud, eyes closed, arms raised, uttering a wordless juddering percussive patter.  She noticed me.  She smiled, gave a slight bow, and said, "Ah, moksanim!"  I smiled back.  Then, she went right back to it.


I tend to have more patience with tongues and other forms of ecstatic prayer than many progressives.   Our languages, be they the patterned hum of vocal cord-generated vibrations in a nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere or symbolic representations of those patterns on a page or screen, well, they're not the language of Being.  They aren't the Logos.  They can point to it, or represent it, or signify it, or evoke it, but they're a step removed from the song that our Creator is singing in the First Book.

There are points, in our intersection with the depth of Being, when rationality, and even language itself, simply don't cut it.

And while glossolalia isn't really my cup of tea, neither am I willing to get all curmudgeonly about it, particularly so close to Pentecost.  It's not the gift of gifts, of course.  It's easily faked, or induced by a crowd-consciousness.  Worse yet, it can be presented, as it was in Corinth, as evidence of just how much more pneumatolicious you are than everyone else.

But done alone and/or with humility, it's no more negative than reciting a mantra, or working your way through rosary beads.

The next day, when I gathered my small Wednesday contemplative prayer group in the sanctuary, A. was there again, reading quietly to herself.  I invited her to join us, which she did.  Being quiet and still in prayer was hard for her, but she did try.

And as she whispered, softly, dadadadadada...nanananana..., I noted that the single flickering candle at the center of the sanctuary fluttered and danced in much the same way.

Tongues of fire, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Plowing through my Genesis commentaries this afternoon in preparation for the lectionary readings for this week, I found myself once agin' confronted with some of the more, shall we say, dated aspects of ancient Hebrew cosmology.

In particular, I found myself again pranging up against the concept of the raqi.  This word, which tends to be translated "firmament," is a solid dome into which the stars and planets were fixed.  It was also the boundary between the earth and the waters of chaos, which every once in a while would come plashing through and trash the place.  It surfaces here:

"And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.   And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so."  Genesis 1:6-7

Clearly, this doesn't come close to representing the nature of the cosmos, unless all those moon landing conspiracy folk are right and the first Apollo missions all just splatted into a cosmic wall, and Grandpa rigged up his nifty telescope with little fake Saturns and Jupiters.

There isn't an impermeable, impassable barrier between us and some primal chaos.  Of course not!

Being prone to silliness, though, for some reason during meditation over the passages this week I began visualizing the "vault of the heavens" and the "firmament" as something far removed from the retractable roof on the Great YHWH Superdome.

Instead, raqi started feeling more like the cosmological structures of our space-time itself.   Those structures certainly are both real and impassible, and all that we know and can know are fixed into them.  Even the deepest eyes of our reason and science can't see past them, any more than the eyes of an ancient priest could discern the planetary system around Epsilon Eridani.  And "beyond it," as if that spatial category has any purchase outside of our space-time, current cosmology suggests there lies such difference and chaos as to be utterly and literally inconceivable.

In that brief moment of contemplation, the firmament briefly, suddenly, felt quite real.

Of course, this is not what the Priestly storytellers had in mind.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flag Day

Today is Flag Day, and honestly, I'm not sure how many folks now really notice.   As we bustle about our day to day busyness, it's an easy thing to miss completely.

I, on the other hand, almost never forget a Flag Day.  It's one of those important days every year, but for reasons that are perhaps idiosyncratic to my own bad self.  It's our Dating Anniversary.  At around six o'clock in the evening on Flag Day 1989, after a long day running forklifts in an un-air-conditioned auto parts warehouse, I plunked my showered and freshly deodoranted self into the drivers seat of my parents old Volvo 240 Wagon.  Taking a few deep, long, calming breaths, I drove to the house of a girl I'd known and liked in high school, who'd agreed to dinner-and-movie it with me that night.  It's been a while since that Flag Day.  Honestly, I'm not sure I noticed it was Flag Day then.  Old Glory was not really front and center in my 20 year old mind.  I was, um, distracted.

Flags are funny things, and the flag of our constitutional republic is no exception.  As a symbol, it's actually rather unusual.

Many national flags have, at their root, some deep and profound meaning that articulates the character of a nation.  The first flag I remember, as a very little boy growing up overseas, was the national flag of Kenya.   That flag has design elements that mean a bunch of things.  Black for the rich dark peat of the African people.  Red for the struggle for independence.  Green for agriculture and natural beauty.  White stripes for peace and unity.  And in the middle, a Masai shield and crossed spears, representing their fight for freedom and their fierceness as a nation.

Our Grand Old Flag, on the other hand, has Stripes, which signify the original 13 colonies.  And then it has stars on a blue background, one for each state in the Union.

And brothers and sisters, that's as far as the essential, original, intentional meaning goes.  Yeah, folks of a patriotic bent have over the years have made all sorts of creative [stuff] up, suggesting all sorts of fanciful and florid meanings for each of the design elements.

Blue is for Liberty!  Red is for the Blood of the Patriots!  The stars are for each of Our Iconic 1960s Hollywood A-Listers!  White is for Liberty!  Wait...did I already say Liberty?  Well, this is America!  It's for Liberty AGAIN!  FREEEEBIRD!!!

But truth be told, what our flag says to the world is this:  There were 13 colonies.  Now there are fifty states.  Period.

We have other things that speak more powerfully to the deeper and more profound graces of our national character.  We have our Declaration of Independence.  We have our Constitution, though that's a wee bit on the practical side too.  And we have our freedom, a freedom you can feel on our soil every time you speak your mind without fear.  If you want to know us, and what makes us worth knowing, those are the places to go, to read, and to learn.

But our flag?  It's practical, straightforward, down to earth, and to the point.  It gets 'er done.  Just like the republic for which it stands, when we're at our best.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Former Selves

Today was strikingly gorgeous, one of those days-without-flaw when its hard to do anything other than bask in the Maker's work.   After a week of stanky moist Washington heat, this morning came crisp and perfect in the 60s.  Skies?  Blue and clear.  Clouds?  Intermittent and puffy as unspun cotton.

With the missus off in El Ay for a few days doing her jet-setting Executive thing, I herded boy number one off to the bus, and then wrangled boy number two to the bus stop, all prepped for Field Day.  From bus stop number two, I took our faithful pup for an hour long walk through the 170+ acres of heavily-wooded county parkland right near our house.  It was, in every way, lovely.

And then I came home, and settled in behind the keyboard, and kept up with a promise I made to my former self earlier this year.

This Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, I resolved to get a children's novel I wrote back in college into e-publishable form.   It's been a challenging year personally and vocationally, which has occasionally gotten in the way of getting things done.   But once I make a promise, I'll endeavor to keep it.  Even if that's a promise I made to me.

One manuscript remains.  Scanning it?  Too messy.  Even with good OCR,  I'd have to significantly edit it.  So I'm doing it the old fashioned way.  I'm retyping it as time allows.  One page here.  A couple of pages there.

Today, I worked my way through 12 pages of text.   It's a bit odd, like reading an old journal.  Here are these words, this story.  I wrote them.  But the "I" that wrote them was very different.  I was twenty-one.  I was half my age.    I knew far less than I do now.  I was in a long-distance relationship with the woman who would become my wife, in an era that was pre-email.  Pre-Skype.  Pre-anything-but-expensive-long-distance-phone-calls-and-long-handwritten-letters.    This "me" was very different.  I'd never seen a child born, let alone my own sons.  I'd never seen another human being die.   So much life had not yet happened.

Yet this was me.  I feel myself in the words.  They're somehow still mine.  It's my voice.  Different, but still my voice.

Typing it again, as I physically connect with the text by recreating it in the same way I created it, stirs so many memories.  Of being in a computer lab where not a single computer was connected to the internet. Of the feel of 5 1/4 inch floppy disks.  Of walking home to 1508 Grady Avenue in Charlottesville in the early morning after hours of writing, breathing the cool spring air as I walked dead center up the Lawn, alone,  towards the lit Rotunda in the darkness.

Sixteen thousand, five hundred words down.  Another fifteen thousand words to go.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Total Depwavity

So the question got pitched to me from a brother on FaceBook this week:  what did I think about the concept of total depravity?

For those of you not immersed in the language of 19th century Calvinism, total depravity is the idea that human beings are of themselves utterly irredeemable, so epically craptacular as to be completely incapable of being in right relationship with God and one another.

To repair that breach, there's just not a single thing that human beings can do.  Good works don't matter.  Trying to do right doesn't matter.  We're just out of luck.  In order to make things right, we have to just rely completely on Jesus.  We are depraved on account of we're deprived...of Jesus.  

This concept, derived from Paul and Augustine but mostly from John Calvin, gets quickly taken out to the conclusion that there's just nothing good about people at all.  We're just uniformly nasty, wretched, miserable hell-briquettes.  This truth extends particularly that chatty and affable Muslim guy you laugh with at the office.   Oh, and Gandhi.  Calvinist God hates him some Gandhi.

Here, though, Calvinism once again goes well beyond Calvin himself, and misses two key points of that admittedly challenging doctrine.

So let's play around in Calvin's brain for a while.  In his Institutio Christianae Religionis (XI.II.iii), Calvin does lay out where he stands on the subject.

First, Calvin clearly and repeatedly notes throughout the Institutes that nature, creation, and humanity itself are good things.  Creation is the first book, evidence of the glory and goodness of the Creator.  As part of creation, homo sapiens sapiens was made to be good.  Our reason is a blessing.  (VI. xiv.20)  Our purpose as human beings is not nastiness, and in our created nature, there is strong good.  Calvin hated neither humankind nor creation.  In fact, Calvin also kinda sorta loved the writing and thinking of folks who weren't Jesus folk at all, particularly Plato.   He was perfectly capable of seeing value in the works of reason, and of seeing goodness in the world.  As he puts it:
In every age there have been persons who, guided by nature, have striven towards virtue throughout life.  I have nothing to say against them even if many lapses can be noted in their moral conduct.  For they have by the very zeal of their honesty given proof that there was some purity in their nature...These examples, accordingly, seem to warn us against adjudging man's nature wholly corrupted, because some men have by it's prompting not only excelled in remarkable deeds, but conducted themselves most honorably throughout life.  (XI.II.ii.3)
Second, Calvin did argue that sin was a basic characteristic of humankind, but he wasn't doing this as an abstract theological exercise.  He did so for a particular reason.  According to Calvin, we just can't not sin.  (XI.II.iii.5)   Even the best among us are far from perfect.  That isn't, however, something that we're supposed to lord over other people.  The purpose of teaching depravity is not, not, not to condemn others.  This isn't something you sneer out at someone whose life is in ruins.

It's for those of us who might have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we're somehow better than the rest of the world.  It's a big theological smack in the chops for the pious, the reverent, the upstanding, and the church-going.  Calvin puts this out there for the same reason the Apostle Paul did, as a challenge to pride and self-righteousness among the faithful.

Personally, I still resonate to this for a variety of reasons, making me perhaps one of only two or three progressive Christians who don't just reflexively reject the concept.

I'm deeply aware of how intensely we are, as sentient beings, separate from one another.  The existential boundaries between us are an insurmountable wall, topped with electrified razor wire.  Like you and I, right now.  I can string together these symbols, which you can observe on your screen and understand as shared concepts.  If you're nearby, near enough to be physically present, I can talk to you.  I can see you.  I can hear you.  I can smell you, your stress or your ease.  That last one gets more intense in the summer months.  Hoo boy, does it ever.

But knowing you?  As you know yourself?  I can't do that.

At best, I get an approximation, an image, cast in my mind, knit together from observation and my own intuitive gut-sense.  For this reason, when Paul and Calvin tell us we can't uphold the Law, I don't think of Law as Torah.  I think of law as the Great Commandment.  How can I love you as I love myself?  How can that be, when my knowledge of you is so imperfect and filtered through my own assumptions?

So I fail before the Law, even when law is understood first, foremost, and only as love and grace.

But it goes beyond relationship, and into my own self.  I'm not what I could be.  I am deeply aware of my own limitations as a being, and also of my failings when it comes to living out of the value set that I profess to define my own existence.  Love of God and neighbor does not define my every action and thought.  Particularly thought.  There, deep writ in the neural firings of my cortex and the stirrings of my lizard brain, there are angers and lusts and anxieties that snarl and hoot and cower in most unholy ways.

From that self-awareness, I'm aware that my actuality and my potentiality are very different things.  The self that I could be, were I to be both internally and externally conformed to the radical compassion of Christ, exists only intermittently.  It is the state of being towards which I strive, but when in fleeting moments I do find it, I am deeply aware that finding it is an act of grace, a moment of mystic union, for which I cannot truly claim responsibility.  Those moments are a work of the Spirit.

So.  That's what I think about it.  That help, Kyle?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

With A Stranger's Ears

As I sat in DC rush-hour traffic on my way back from a visit with a church member yesterday, I found some comfort in listening to one of my more centering iTunes playlists.

Like most folks, I have a variety of lists, each of which serves a different purpose.  For working out, I tend to listen to one of two playlists.  "Wide Rhinestone Lapel" is a collection of 70's disco greats, and makes for great driving cardio background.   "Pomp and Bombast" is a collection of blaring loud overblown martial soundtrack music, the perfect ubermensch aural backdrop for chest presses and squats.

But there are others, for other moments.  "Mighty Dorkus" is a collection of the most delightfully overblown music for those times I'm feeling goofy.  "Mr. Wistful" is for when I'm up for a good cathartic emo wallow.  "Nicotine Cloud" is a collection of less-accessible Tom Waits works, which I mostly use to discipline the children.   "You stop pestering your brother NOW, or I'm putting on Frank's Wild Years again!"

In dense traffic, I make a point of staying away from my "Redneck Rampage" playlist of honky-tonk and southern rock.   Instead, I drop into a playlist called "Golden Radiance," most of which is music that reminds me that Jesus Christ isn't just something I say loudly when someone cuts me off.

Yesterday, I noticed something about much of that music.   A significant minority of that list comes from encounters with Jesus music outside of worship, and in the soundtracks of edgier cinema.  Three of the songs, for example, are drawn from Cohen brothers movies.   From "O Brother, Where Art Thou," there's the sublime Down to the River To Pray.  From the recent and quite solid True Grit, I have a pair of songs, both of which were used to reinforce mis en scene, and which play off the old American hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

Now, the Cohen brothers, well, they ain't Jesus folk.  In a recent interview, it was clear that they also weren't really practicing Jewish folk, either.   As with so many folks, it was Bar Mitzvah and out for them, pretty much.  

But the aesthetic sensibility they bring to their film-making seems to also give them something of a knack for identifying that which is most sacred or most evocative.  Perhaps it's something in their blood, some genetically ingrained temple-keeper way of knowing that gives them an instinct for the sacred.  Once a Cohen, always a Cohen.

But it may also just be 'cause they know the good when they hear it.

This, I would suggest, is a powerful measure of the value of a piece of Christian music.   If it's musical and aesthetic purchase does not extend beyond the doors of the sanctuary and the hearts of the already-faithful, then it's probably not the best vessel through which to connect to folks who aren't already inside the doors.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Delicious Meat

Two different threads of popular consciousness drifted across my feedreader this last week.

Meme number one was the lingering phenomenon of the neofeminist Slut Walk.  These events are a response to a particularly stupid and ignorant comment made a while back by a law enforcement officer in a rape trial, who suggested that a victim of a sex crime shouldn't have dressed provocatively.   Typically, the marches involve young women who are standing up against that completely unacceptable statement by affirming that women have the right to dress as hott and sexyyyy as they want.   Many of the march participants wear intentionally sexualized clothing, showing that they are empowered to do what they wish with their own sexuality.  They're also trying to make the point: Wearing clothes that are designed to draw sexual attention...or even being sexually forward...does not constitute permission to assault or violate.

And they are right.  Nothing excuses sexual assault.  Ever.  Period.

And here's meme number two.  Today there was another droplet from the endlessly spewing firehose of pop culture irrelevance circulating the interwebs.   In a pitching-the-movie infotainment industry interview with Chia LaBeef, star of the latest round of Michael Bay summer blockbuster Transformer loudness, he shared that one of the reasons that co-star Megan Fox may have bailed from the series is that she'd grown tired of being used as flagrant eye-candy to draw in adolescent or perennially-adolescent males.   To quote:
This is a girl who was taken from complete obscurity and placed in a sex-driven role in front of the whole world and told she was the sexiest woman in America.  And she had a hard time accepting it.  When Mike would ask her to do specific things, there was no time for fluffy talk.  We're on the run.  And the one thing Mike lacks is tact.  There's no time for 'I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees.'
The "article" goes on to dish over the actress selected as the replacement lump of womanflesh, calling her...apparently as a compliment...a "sexy, delicious piece of meat."

These two things are related.  

The problem I have with the SlutWalks is not with the point they're making about sexual assault.  It's that the new and sexualized version of feminism feels like it has uncritically embraced the mass-marketization of women's sexuality.   The point they're making is fine.  But the reason the events get media attention is the same reason that Michael Bay dangles succulent pulchritude in front of the slavering permadolescent American masses.  And I ain't down with that.

Women do not derive their value as human beings from their sexual desirability.  Being able to present yourself as sexually aggressive and desirable means exactly nothing.  

What gives a woman value as a person is her intelligence.  Her warmth of heart.  Her insight.  Her thoughtfulness.  Her life-gained wisdom.  Her independence.  Her musicality.  Her creativity.  Her depth of spirit.  Her way with words.  Her kindness.  Her gentleness.  Her tough-as-nails resilience.  Her ferocity.  Her hard work.  Her boldness.   The wisdom of King Lemuel's mother may be several thousand years old, but it remains an excellent metric of what bold, empowered women really look like...and what, if they are wise, men should admire in a woman.  

None of those things correlate with the firmness and desirability of their young, exposed, marketable flesh.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Hello!  We're running for president!
As the field of presidential contenders for 2012 slowly coagulates, several things are striking about those who are sort of rising up to do battle with Obama.  Most of the GOP offerings, and by this I mean pretty much all of them, well, they're a carnival freak show.

Gingrich?  His back story reflects a level of moral lapse that his conversion to Catholicism clearly hasn't cured.  I mean, really.  If he took his Catholicism seriously, I think the only words we'd hear out of his mouth between now and August of 2019 would be "Hail Mary, full of grace, our Lord is with thee..."  The 7,777,000 Hail Marys that the manual requires for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife take a while to choke out.

Palin?  Even Roger Ailes, head of Fox, is done with her remarkable lack of actual competence.  And Bachmann?  She makes Palin look like Marie Curie.

Honestly, though, there are at least two serious contenders.  Both Mitt Romney and John Huntsman are relatively moderate, intelligent, capable politicians.  Both have solid records of competence in governing.  Both look like they could be president, in that they'd fit seamlessly into that scene in the movie when the president comes on to rally our spirits in the face of the K'Tall protein harvester fleet assembling in low earth orbit.  They are tall, more or less handsome, with attractive wives and families.  They are generally decent, well-spoken, and completely electable.

And they're both Mormon.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has always been something of a bafflement to me.   Faith in God is inherently difficult to grasp rationally, of course.  The tenets of my own Christian faith are likely as incomprehensible to some as are the tenets of the LDS church.

From my own assessment of Mormonism, I end up at the same place as my denomination.  It's just too idiosyncratic to be within the bounds of Christianity understood historically.  However, even though many conservative Jesus folk get their knickers in a twist at the peculiarities of Mormon theology, I just can't bring myself to fret about it.  That Mormon theology isn't really Christian faith (in the orthodox, Trinitarian sense) is immaterial.   I've got no problem with folks who are Christian-ish or non-Christian being in elective office.  This is America, dagflabbit.  You can believe or not believe what you wish.

That's not to say I don't have issue with schtuff.  I'd prefer it if Mormonism's hierarchy wasn't quite so vigorously set against GLBT folk.  OK, more than just prefer.  But in that, it stands with most of global Christianity.  It's more a matter of social conservatism than anything else.

Then there's Mormonism's founding document, which is so disconnected with actual material reality as to confound even my generally open mind.   Forget about the everyone-gets-their-own-planet God-is-three-guys-who-hang-out theology.  Entire civilizations are described for which there is no evidence.

Sure, evidentiary issues exist elsewhere in the faith world.  We get the words of Jesus of Nazareth, for example, through a multi-generational game of oral and written Telephone.  There's significant imprecision in that process.  But Jerusalem was actually a city.   Bethlehem existed.  Rome was real.   People actually spoke koine Greek and Aramaic.

But "Ancient America?"  Inhabited by the Thirteenth Tribe of Israel, which spread into a vast empire that then destroyed itself?   It just never happened.  Not part of it.  Not the supernatural bits that the rationally inclined might struggle with.  The entire thing.  The Jefferson Book of Mormon is just a single blank page.

But honestly?  I'm not sure that it matters on a personal level.

As gobsmackingly improbable as their founding document is, the Mormon folk I've known have tended to be quirky, smart, creative and thoughtful.  They're the kind of people who'd help you out in a pinch.  Their engagement with their faith has tended to be on a more practical level, more focused on family and work and community.  They've been good folks, in the same way that Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists I've known are good folks.  My issues with Huntsman or Romney would be around their policies, not their personal faith.

Unfortunately for both Romney and Huntsman, I'm not sure a significant portion of the GOP base is going to be willing to cut them that much slack.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hard Science

Things here in the Nation's Capital continue in their endless quest to make this country better.  Like, say, the current Republican effort to derail improved nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches.    According to the hard-nosed logic of the GOP, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat offerings are just more expensive than processed food.  And times are tough.  We just can't afford budget-busting good food for our children in these difficult economic times.   Better to just have our first graders Do the Dew and Snap into a Slim Jim.  And Funyuns, well, they're almost a vegetable.   If our kids get used to eating right, that could really impact the well-being of our growing health care industry.   And that means lost jobs that Americans need.   See?  The GOP has your best interests at heart!

Oh, wait!  There's more!

Take, for instance, a provision offered up by Rep. Danny Rehberg, (R,Montana).  That provision requires that all FDA decisions be based on "hard science." 

Rehberg's efforts seem to have two primary targets.  First, there's a growing effort to regulate menthol in cigarettes.  Menthol cigarettes always struck me as a bit nasty, even back in the days when I'd smoke my way through a pack a year.   The impact of menthol, of course, is that it makes it easier to inhale without coughing out the little cloud of carcinogens you've just inhaled.   That's why it's included in cough drops, eh?  So, technically, menthol doesn't do any harm itself.  It just makes it easier to smoke.  So...hard science says...menthol is just fine!

 Second, Rehberg's provision would block regulation of antibiotics used in farm animals.  The overuse of those antibiotics is, according to the American Medical Association, one of the likely causes of the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  But agribusiness opposes those regulations, because, well, they bite into the bottom line and make it harder to factory-farm.  And the scientists who work for Monsanto and ADM, well, they question the validity of the AMA's concerns.  Based on science, of course.

As Rehberg puts it, there's a difference "...between a sociologist and a geologist."  Decisions need to be hard-nosed, clear, and rooted in indisputable facts, not the squishy malleable findings of social science.  Why go with the findings of a state university epidemiologist, when you could instead be looking at data from a tobacco industry biochemist?   Hard science is clearly better.

To which I feel compelled to ask a simple question of Rep. Rehberg, whose decisions are all based on the latest and best science.

That question would be: "How old is the earth?"

Not exactly, but roughly.   Here, I'll make it easier.  Here's a ScanTron form with two bubbles, which can be filled out with a number 2 pencil.  Bubble 1 says: "Less than 50,000 years old."  Bubble 2 says: "More than 50,000 years old."  One is true.  One is not.  What does hard science tell us?

As a Representative from a district that is as Red as Stalin himself, I'm sure his Bible-believing constituents would appreciate his clear, straightforward, non-vacillating answer based on hard science.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Glass Houses

My little fellowship is struggling with some pretty heavy existential issues.   With the help of the Presbytery, folks here are taking a hard look at where things stand, and particularly where things stand relative to the vast edifice of a building in which worship is performed.  With 30 good folks in worship on a typical Sunday, most of whom live nowhere nearby, the demands of facility are starting to weigh down on folk like a seven-thousand ton brick-and-mortar albatross.

With minimal connection to immediate community, the "why" of the building gets louder and louder.  There are some reasons to stick around, of course.  There's the wonderful little nonprofit that the church has been incubating, which provides services to international adoptive families.  At a recent event, that group pulled more people into the sanctuary than I've seen in my six years serving the church.  

There are also lingering emotional ties to the church for some, although those seem to be counterbalanced by the feeling of others that the building is haunted and/or cursed and/or built on top of a long forgotten maintenance tunnel leading to R'lyeh.  That certainly would explain the bizarre geometries of the church architecture.  It ain't non-Euclidean, but it comes close.

We'll see where things go.

Given that context, what was interesting to me this last week was the story of the financial collapse of a congregation that formerly shone bright as diamond in the Jesus world.  The legendary Crystal Cathedral, heart of Robert Schuller's ministry and a significant force in the Jesus Marketplace, is on the auction block.   Schuller preached a message of relentless positivity, a Gospel of blissful self-empowerment.  That plus charisma, well, it worked great in the me me 1970s and the greed is good 1980s.   That's the stuff that built empires in the booming days of California.  After Schuller retired, the church did what so many personality-driven churches do.  They handed over the reins of pastoral authority to Schuller's kids.

Leading congregations is a matter of call, not a matter of genetics, and so while this can sometimes work, it mostly doesn't.  When you make leadership of a faith community a family business, it becomes less about meaning and purpose and God, and more about living in the manner to which you are accustomed.  And honey, nothing annoys the Creator of the Universe more than PeeKays bellying up to worship looking for their cut.

So when the church was first given to the son, and then, when that didn't work, the daughter, it found itself unable to meet financial obligations.    They'd grown too much, had too many staff, and taken on too much debt.  And then the California economy tanked.  Despite have over 4,000 members, they just can't do it.  As the pastor of a church where getting one-one-hundredth of that in worship feels like a triumph, I stand aghast and in awe at that.

Four?  Thousand?  Members?  And you're struggling?  Sweet Lord Jesus.

Now this immense edifice, this legendarily glorious shiny shiny temple to the Gospel of Prosperity, well, it's in the hands of creditors.  The church has the opportunity to get it back, a bit like you might get back that big screen tee vee you hocked to Big Vinnie over at the Pawn n' Gun.   The story stands as a testament to the fact that sometimes positive thinking is just self-delusion, and that the single minded pursuit of growth produces some pretty rockin' hubris.

It's just so very American.