Thursday, September 29, 2011

Power Supply

Yesterday morning, I motored my way from my home in Annandale, Virginia out to the congregation I'll soon be serving part-time in Poolesville, Maryland.  I had an 11:00 AM meeting scheduled with the clerk of session of the wee kirk there, to sign my first contract and talk about how things at Poolesville Presbyterian work.

I left early, concerned that the ever unpredictable steel and asphalt maelstrom on the Capital Beltway might slow things down on a rainy morning.  There were storms all about, deep rumbling clouds fat with rain, which made my ride out there on the bike just a tiny bit on the damp side.  Only a tiny bit, though.  The 'Zook acquitted itself admirably protecting me from the elements, although I noticed an odd side effect of the aerodynamic bubble behind my extended GIVI screen.  In really heavy rain, the vacuum behind the windscreen creates swirling back pressure.  The water beading on my helmet visor leaps forward into that vacuum in bright shining droplets, like I'm casting diamonds and pearls at the road from my face as I ride.   Rather pretty, although a bit distracting.  Not nearly as distracting as it might be if it happened in meetings, but so it goes.

Whichever way, I made it to my meeting on time, and the contract was signed, and badda boom, badda bing, I'm the pastor at Poolesville.  And, well, that's an unusual thing for a Presbyterian.  In fact, it's a huge thing, or would be if folks in my denomination thought about it.

Understand this, O my Presbyterian Brothers and Sisters:  In June of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, a PC(USA) congregation said a fond farewell to a long-term and well-liked pastor. 

Within three months, they had lined up a new pastor.  

July.  August.  September.  And lo and behold, that's their transition.  That's the total amount of limbo and liminal time they'll have to endure.  Three.  Months.  How does this compare to your last transition? 

This is not an unusual occurrence in smaller congregations, congregations that are used to having temporary supply pastors, which is what I'm going to become starting October 1.   That means, in PresbyParlance, that I'm not "called and installed."  I'm just under contract on an annual basis.  That means every year, I need to sign a new contract to reaffirm my relationship with the congregation.  If things are working, then we're copacetic.  If either party is ready to move on, well, then it's time to go.  Have robe, will travel, as they say.

Called pastors, well, they're there as long as they want to be.  Of course, they renegotiate their "terms of call" on an annual basis.  And if either party wants to move on, well, then it's time to go.  

It's the same thing, kids.

Functionally, there is no difference between being a called and installed pastor and a temporary supply pastor.  You preach.  You teach.  You meet.  You greet.  You pray.  You care.   And honey child?  Both positions are temporary.   There ain't no such thing as a permanent pastor, unless you attend the First Presbyterian Church of Transylvania, and Pastor Edward has only been there 350 years.  Not like Pastor Vlad, who was there 735 years, and left only after that well intentioned but poorly thought out sunrise service.

And yet most congregations that aren't teeny tiny don't call supply pastors.  Supply pastors are for little bitty bucolic family churches out in rolling fields, or for struggling churches that can't afford competitive salaries.  To which I ask:  Why?  Is it just congregational ego? 

Why couldn't a 200+ member, thriving, successful Presbyterian congregation choose to sidestep our agonizingly slow and convoluted call process?  Don't complain about it.  Don't fret about it.  Just go supply, and simply write a position description, advertise for and locate a qualified pastor who would then pick up and carry on.  You'd have a trained, ordained, tested, and proven Presbyterian pastor.  As a "temporary supply."  With contracts to be signed on an annual basis. 

Not just why "couldn't."  Why "wouldn't?" 

Given the choice, why would you inflict the call process on yourself if you didn't have to?  The way we connect pastors with churches now is institutional quicksand, a source of frustration and anxiety for both pastors and pastor nominating committees alike.  If the results were demonstrably better than any other system, it might be justifiable.  But the results are not.   Instead, it means that those charged with calling pastors approach the task with fear and trembling, but for all the wrong reasons. 

Our process as it stands now is orderly, but indecent.  A congregation's energies would be better spent on outreach, or service ministry, or ministries of justice, or on just about anything so long as it got us out in our communities living and spreading the Good News.  Instead, we pour our energies inward, into processes that make us feel like we're doing something but that come perilously close to institutional onanism. 

So to you pastors contemplating a move?  Perhaps you should suggest going supply to your big steeple church.  You elders who have suddenly found yourselves chairing the PNC?  Maybe it's time to think outside the box a bit, and to make that known to your General Presbyter.

Why should little churches be the only ones getting it right?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Repentance and Probability

As my reading of The God Who Risks continues, I'm finding myself leaping and skimming a bit.  Part of that, I think, comes from the tendency of Sanders to feel he has to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that every last part of the Biblical narrative reinforces Open Theism.  So he goes, endlessly, exhaustively, through scripture. 

It doesn't, of course.  Open Theism continues to seem theologically inadequate.  Even while I grasp the good-hearted spiritual yearning that underlies it, its view of God is too narrow, to small, and too temporally bounded.  God is, for the Open Theists, aware of past and present, but can't predict what will come to pass.  In this, the God of Open Theism isn't so much a Deist Clockmaker as a parent who sends a woefully unprepared child down a double diamond ski-slope.

"Honey, bend your knees.  Look where you're going.  No.  NO!  LEFT!  GO LEFT!  LEEEEEFFFT!  LOOOK OUT FOR THAT...OOOOH!  AND THAT...   Oh.  My.  That'll make failblog for sure."

This is not the I Am That I Am, nor is it the God who lays it down for Job, nor is it the God Jesus called Father.  It's a minor and slightly bumbling demigod in the Canaanite pantheon.

Where there is theological weight to Sanders' arguments is in his exploration of the meaningfulness of repentance in the classical model of God's sovereignty.  If the universe is a single narrative stream, one linear sequence of events from the moment of creation to the moment things end, then there is no way to reconcile an omnipotent and omniscient Creator with the concept of repentance.

If everything is as God wills it, then we sin because God intended us to sin.  As Sanders puts it:
According to specific sovereignty nothing happens that God does not want to happen.  Every state of affairs, including my personal holiness, is precisely what God desires. (p. 251)
So if we sin, it is not that our volition is out of keeping with God's intent.  It can't be.  Nothing is out of keeping with God's intent.  God wills you to do that fifth shot.  God wills you to shake that thang.  If God didn't, then you couldn't do it.  Or so the argument goes.

That is equally true of repentance, which is as predetermined as just keepin' on sinnin.'  Given that it's all God, the meaningfulness of human response to God's grace is, under that system of thought, kinda questionable.  Resolving that tension has always been the challenge for thems of us who are Calvinish, and none of the deterministic responses laid out in the God Who Risks (pp. 252-254) are particularly strong conceptually.  If there is no probability that we will do what is not God's will, then we can be hardly be faulted for our actions, or rewarded from turning away from evil. 

That's not to say that what Sanders proposes is much better.  A weakly contingent God is hardly either optimal or theologically robust.

But if human will is part of the process of a dynamic multiverse creation, then the manifold providence of God includes our will, our acting, our doing, and our agency.  Our decisions matter, and govern the way in which we stand in relationship to our Creator in the time and space we have been graciously given.   Sin...turning away from love of God and love of neighbor...becomes a choice with deep weight.  It also becomes a choice, not just the turning of the cogs of destiny. 

As does repentance.  And without repentance, the Gospel has no meaning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flipping the Pastor Switch

As things wound down Sunday at Trinity Bethesda, it seemed totally normal.

In the morning, I sat and prayed in silence in the sanctuary with some of the dear saints of the church.  Afterwards, we talked, and shared, and laughed, just like we always do.

In the afternoon, the contemporary worship service cranked up at 1:30 PM, just like it has of late.  There were some faces I hadn't seen in a while, but it was pretty much a normal service.  Well, actually, I thought it was a really great service, probably because I'd gotten to request every one of the songs, their pacing, and the duration of the service.  It's hard not to like something that has been lovingly prepared just the way you like it.

We had a brief housekeeping congregational meeting, and by brief, I mean less than five minutes.  Any Presbyterian meeting that runs for less than five minutes is a blessing from the Lord.

Afterwards, the fellowship meal was abundant, but all vegetarian.   Hmmm.  It's never all vegetarian.   Must be something up.  Then there was chatting, and leave-taking, and a quick run with an elder to the food bank with all the food I'd asked folks to bring in to mark the day.

I came back, geared up, said another few farewells, fired up my motor-sickle, and rolled on out of there.  That was that.

And now, after almost eight years, I'm not the pastor there.  C'est tout.

Yet in this era of social media, I'm not planning on losing contact.  Why would I?  I'm not going to cull my Facebook, do a bunch of Twitterblocking, and relegate a bunch of folks to my Untouchable circle on GooglePlus, or worse yet, to the eternal yawning Sheol of LinkedIn.

Many blogging pastors I've read anguish about how to manage this transition.  How do you maintain distance?  How do you make space in that community for the new pastor, if everyone from your old congregation is still aware of everything you do online?  How do you make space for the new relationships and responsibilities that will arise as you move on, if the life-wind of the community still whispers through your social forest?  Or something like that.

Honestly, it doesn't seem that hard.  Just stop being the pastor.  Click.  It's off.

I'm not there leading worship, or thinking about the dynamics of worship, or preparing sermons.  I'm not teaching Bible study, or planning bible study.  What happens with the facility is not my concern.  If the roof is leaking?  Not my problem.  Stewardship?  Not my headache.  Planning and implementing service, mission, and outreach?  That's not my department.  Evangelism?  They'll handle that just fine.  After a few days, that compulsive itch to check my iPhone for emails on the now-deleted church account will fade.

The organizational component of de-pastor-fication is easy.

The relational and spiritual component is trickier.  If I really liked you yesterday, that's not going to change today.  If I felt a deep spiritual kinship with you yesterday, that's not going to change today.

And honestly, it doesn't need to change.

The only difference is that I'm no longer your pastor, just a friend who was once your pastor.  If you pitch me a Facebook message with a question, I'm not going to blow you off, any more than I would a friend.   Want coffee or lunch?  Can do, mon ami.  Getting married?  Getting buried?  I'll be there if able, as a friend would be.  But no way no how am I going to let that connection get in the way of whoever is being called by God to teach and preach and nurture and lead you next.

Pastors who do crush the life out of the future of a ministry.   And many do hold on, driven by a compulsive need to be needed that burns like an unquenchable fire in the egos of many who find themselves in the pastorate.  There's a time to turn it off, just as there is a time for all things.

I don't expect I'll need to work hard to do that.  It's been a very deliberate leave-taking from that role, as gentle and quiet as I could make it.

And now, onward and upward.

Friday, September 23, 2011

House Rules

Back when I was the age of my kids, there weren't endless scads of screens to suck up every last moment of our lives.  You had to make do with appallingly low tech things like, say, decks of cards.   On the bus, on the way to school, we'd play War, or Poker.  It was pleasant, a simple distraction, a social pastime.

There was one card game, though, that I just wouldn't play.  I remember a group of boys getting all into it on the bus, and being pressed to join in.

The game was called "Bloody Knuckles," and the rules were basically this:

1)  Player 1 holds out their fist, knuckles up.
2)  Player 2 holds a pack of playing cards, tight and all together.
3)  Player 2 attempts to strike the knuckles of Player 1, as hard as possible, with the edge of the pack of playing cards.  Player 1 attempts to get his knuckles out of the way.
4)  They trade positions, and it repeats, until one or the other gives up.

I just couldn't see the point.

If I lose, I'm in pain.  If I win, I'm inflicting pain on another.  Neither eventuality is positive or desirable.  The game is...well...just...what's the word....stupid.  And as it's just a game, something that has no real hold over us, you don't need to play it.  So I wouldn't.

I explained my position to the kid asking me to play, at which point I was pronounced a wuss by one and all.  I simply shrugged.  They went on hitting each other.

I feel much the same way about global capitalism.

Economics is just a game, after all.  No no, you may say, but that's what economics means, after all, if you care about the root meaning of things.  Oiko-nomia, it comes from, in the Greek that we Presbyterians learn so you can doze off while we preach.  Oikos meaning "house," and nomos meaning "rules."   Yeah, that's house rules, just like in Vegas, baby.  It's not science.   It's not math.  It's not faith.

It's the game we choose to play to pass the time.  

For all of its dizzying complexity, global capitalism is a remarkably stupid game.  And it is a game, certainly as it manifests itself now, a whirling mass of derivatives and quantitative easings and reshufflings of the deck.  The level of anxiety and psychological pain we're inflicting on ourselves is entirely something we're creating.  It's not something that has any foundation in the real.

What is real is that the harvests in the United States of America have been solid for the last several years.  Thanks to climate change, they're not as great as they could be, but they're still bountiful.  In point of fact, there's enough food produced every year that no one need ever go hungry.

What is real is that there is adequate housing for everyone.  In fact, more than adequate, so much more than adequate that we're tearing down some of the excess.

What is real is that there are is enough clothing so that none need go cold, enough shoes that none need go barefoot unless they choose to do so.

And yet in the game we have created, we are fearful that we will not eat.  We are anxious that we will not have a home.  We watch the numbers on CNBC flutter back and forth wildly, a mad flock of trader pigeons spooked to exhaustion by the slightest movement, and we fret about our futures and our retirement and our children.

I look out at the bloodied knuckles of our collective psyche, and at the fear, and at the hunger in the world, and I think...what's the point of this game, again?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Repentance and the Death Penalty

As the twitterverse tweedle-de-deets impotently about the questionable execution of Troy Davis, I find myself reminded again of why capital punishment is so antithetical to any authentic follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  It's not just that there's the risk of ending the life of an innocent man, which should have unpleasant resonances for anyone who calls Christ their friend.

It's that you're also ending the life of those who are guilty.   Yes, the guilty.  I mean those human beings who are angry, selfish, bitter, and cruel.   I mean the racist, the homophobe, the thug, and the terrorist.

These are not nice people.  These are not the innocent, or the unjustly accused.  I'm talking about the monsters.  They have murdered, and raped, and brutalized.  They have violated the the fundamental norms of compassion and mercy that govern the lives of sentient beings.  Their existences are darkly radiant with the demons that drive humankind to do all manner of horrific things to itself.

I do not excuse such beings, or rationalize away their culpability for their crimes.  As they are, they have no place in human society.   They cannot be permitted to cause harm.

Thing is, once they've been stopped and incarcerated, they pose no further threat.   And when we as a society choose kill them, we are saying:

Nothing further can be done with this one.   They will never change.  They can never be different.  They must cease to be.

And that means we assume that repentance and redemption are no longer options.   For many, that might be true.  Sociopathy burrows its way deep into the minds of men, sometimes running so deep into a soul that rending it out would leave nothing remaining.    But for others, change can come, as time and age give new shape to a life.

For followers of Jesus, the default assumption is repentance.  It must be.  It is the central message of the Gospel.  Transformation is possible.

Is it always likely?  No.  Is it sometimes highly improbable?  Sure.

But a culture that executes cannot coherently call itself Christian, because it has rejected the core redemptive message of the Nazarene.  By ending a life, we either preclude repentance or...if it has already occurred...we assume it has no meaning.  There is no small irony that those who want America to be a "Christian Nation"  are those most eager to spill blood in the name of what they imagine to be justice.

It only shows that they understand neither the Gospel nor the Cross.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When The Sword Opens Its Eyes

The last few days, I've been reading more about the increasing use of drone and robotic tech in America's military.  Even with our conveniently marginalized all-volunteer army, it's still difficult to justify shedding blood in regions of the world where the hatred seems to hang in the air like the dust, and corruption and tribalism are etched into the rocky soil.

So increasingly, we're getting machines to do it for us.  Our Predators and Reapers prowl the skies, implacable, inhuman, unkillable, for all the world mirroring the Mechanical Hounds of Ray Bradbury's prescient Fahrenheit 451.

The Central Intelligence Agency oversees most drone strikes, which has the interesting effect of making it now a fully functioning branch of the United States Military.  The head count from drone strikes continues to rise, and is now well up into the thousands.

They are an increasingly effective way to kill from the safety of your cubicle.  But as we ramp up the strikes, and increase the number of drones, we're finding their effectiveness hampered by the limitations of their human overseers.  Humans need to go for coffee.  And nap.  And sometimes, they might not act quickly enough, and that Hellfire might not take down its target.

So the new goal is to create combat systems that can autonomously assess threat levels and autonomously act to eliminate that threat.  Meaning, hunter-killer robots.  We're not there yet, but we're close.  This has caused some consternation amongst those who for some reason are stressed by the idea of implacable inhuman killing machines.  I mean, why?  It's not like they'll just go berzerk and kill us.

There is much hum and clucking about the need to put clear parameters in place to define the ethical use of such machines.  There's also earnest concern that we program ethics into the machines, so that they adhere to the rules of war, accept surrender, don't harvest us for our precious bodily fluids, and other stuff like that.  It's a new era for ethicists, they say.

Here, though, I find myself doubting that.  War is war.  War never changes.  That a new technology is transforming the ability to project lethal force is without question.  But that has happened before.

It's like the arrival of the stirrup, which allowed archers and swordsmen to strike on the move.  Or like iron, which the Philistines used to cut through the bronze armor of their opponents.  Or the longbow, which tore through the cavalry at Agincourt.  Or the Panzers and Stukas of Blitzkrieg.  Or Fat Man and Little Boy.

The ethics of coercive power remain the same.  The relationship between that ethic and the ethic of Christ remains the same.

But then, perhaps that's what worries us.   What if the sword opens its eyes, and understands its purpose?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The God Who Risks

Having finished reading large chunks of Greene's exploration of string and m-theory cosmology, I find myself now turning my attention to some related theology.

The book that's been in front of me the last several days is John Sanders' The God Who Risks, one of a couple of works I've got in the holding pattern on my nightstand that delve into a recent evangelical controversy.   It's a bit odd, finding myself reading evangelical intellectuals...and no, that ain't an oxymoron...but they seem more prone to writing books about God, and less prone to talking about "being church" or "moving towards a transgendered Latina little-person's theology of place."  

Front and center for Sanders is the theological dynamic between free will and determinism.  In that debate, Sanders is what might be fairly described as an Open Theist, someone whose emphasis on free will overrides pesky concepts like divine omniscience and omnipotence.

The essential concept underlying Open Theism is that while God knows the past and the present, God's grasp of the future is limited.  Though he knows what's in my fridge, God ain't got a clue what I'm going to have for breakfast tomorrow.  Waffles?  No, wait.  Maybe eggs and fakin' bacon?  Hmmm.

Open Theism has never really worked for me, although I understand the good-hearted Christian earnestness of that position's desire to get around narsty hyper-Calvinist constructs like double-predestination and the assumption that Your-Baby-Died-Because-It-Was-God's-Will-From-Forever-So-Suck-It-Up-Sinner.   I just can't connect it effectively either to my own experience of God or to the full narrative of YHWH in the prophets and the Torah.

There's that, and that the God of open theism is just a teensy little bit emo and vulnewable.  I mean, Sweet Mary and Joseph, look at that cover.  Sigh.

Still, I feel there's some interesting potential in that thinking.  Open theism's willingness to explore the presence of probability in the structure of creation seems to offer some opportunity for dialectic with the wildly entropic structures underlying the M-Theory universe.  The title of Sanders book alone resonates harmoniously with the whole playing dice with the universe thang.  

Plus, he's introduced me to the word "pancausality," which he probably, like, totally made up but is nonetheless awesome.

So...I'll see how it goes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Physics is Good for Your Brane

As I continue my reading of Greene, I find myself enjoying the precision with which he uses language.   That precision makes him really quite accessible, but it has another collateral benefit.   The way in which he articulates the dynamics of quantum theory, general relativity, and the bridge theories that attempt to unify them lights them up in ways I've not had them lit up for me before.

In particular, the way he expresses string theory has allowed me, for the first time, to get a feel for why that theory is so compelling.  It's always seemed a bit on the precious side before, an odd amalgam of awkward imagery and mathematical abstraction.

But as Greene expresses it, the dimensionality of strings has popped.  Strings are...objects/energies that exist in one dimension.  Branes, which are the membranes within m-theory, can be zero-branes (singularities), one-branes (strings), two-branes (membranes), three-branes (three-dimensional), and on up through the ten-dimensions that comprise being.

Yeah, I know, I'm not totally capturing it.  But as Greene describes it in detail in the two chapters dealing with both string theory and it's more robust offspring M-Theory, it presents a compelling story of the foundation of things.

In fact, it's a more elegant vision of the underlying structure of our universe than atomic theory.  Those periodic table elements are just too cluttery...and, in fact, if you go back to what "atom" was originally supposed to mean when Democritus came up with the word, the "atoms" in the periodic table are not "atoms" at all.

If atom means "it can't be divided," then something you can split just ain't it.   But branes?  Those might well be.  M-Theory feels intuitively right.

Another fascinating tidbit in Greene comes when he explores the Many Worlds concept, which is how he terms the concept of the multiverse.  Working off of the writings of physicist David Deutsch, Greene notes that just as M-Theory resolves the tension between quantum theory and general relativity, it also seems to potentially resolve the tension between proponents of free will and proponents of determinism.

As Greene understands it, the idea of a functionally infinite array of multiverses means that free will finally has a place in the structures of spacetime.  Reality at the quantum level simply does not resemble a series of little gears and cogs, but is far more dynamic, energetic and generative.  While retaining a multiverse that is solid-state in it's completeness, this renders a radically mechanistic determinism meaningless.

This meshes with my intuition.  Unlike Greene, though, I see this through the theological lenses of free will and predestination.  If God's creation is what M-Theory describes, there's suddenly plenty of room for Pelagius and Augustine to sit down with a beer on a nice fall afternoon and just chill.

Which, I think, might just be a good thing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Fabric of the Cosmos

My delving into M-Theory has continued over the last few nights, as I've waded into Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Greene is a theoretical physicist and professor of physics at Columbia University, and his writing for a popular audience is both substantive and accessible.  Unlike Kaku's Parallel Worlds, which routinely used terminology related to faith, Greene is more vigorously secular.  Issues of meaning and purpose are subordinate to determining mechanics and structure.  The book makes very little effort to explore the whole Meaning of Life question.  It's purpose is to go deep into the underlying processes of reality.  Period.

Well, perhaps that's not quite right.  As Greene lays out his own journey of understanding, the first outside reference point relative to meaning and purpose is the existentialist movement.  His opening chapter is full of talk of his adolescent reading of Sartre and Camus...which, of course, endears him to me immensely.

What's interesting in Greene's brief discussion of philosophy is that he neatly steps around the struggle for meaning.  Meaning, Greene assumes, can be found in the "...assessment of the universe at all possible levels."  (p. 21)   That is his Sisyphian "struggle to the heights."  Instead of the application of the will in shoving that rock up a hill, his existentialist purpose comes in shoving knowledge further and further into the mysteries of the universe.

In the midst of affirming the value of heaving string theory up that mountain, Greene, if I'm remembering correctly, did Kaku...a famous quotation from physicist Richard Feynman.  That little snippet of wisdom claims that a knowledge of cosmology deepens appreciation of everything.  In contemplating a rose, for instance, one takes in color and scent and texture, but then that goes deeper.  You see..."the wonder and magnificence of the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes." (ibid).

Here, I found myself suddenly bemused.   I find the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes of creation equally wonderful and magnificent.  But when you go to that place of marvelous complexity, are you still contemplating a rose?  Or has the rose qua rose ceased to be relevant, just as space and time themselves cease to be relevant at Planck distances?

During a time of midweek meditation at my congregation a few months ago with a few of the old saints of my church, I was similarly contemplating a stained glass window in the sanctuary.  It's a bright and impressionist rendering of Jesus.

Deep in meditation, I found myself lost in the the light of the reds and greens, in the rippled textures of the glass, in the way light hung and refracted.  Seen from that level, the reality to which the window pointed ceased to be discernable.  The image vanished.  The meaning and intent of the artist disappeared in a thicket of other inputs.

It was a delightful, calm moment.  Yet at that level of contemplation, something was absent.  The awareness that a sentient being applied to create that particular arrangement of matter, the intentionality that went into creating that image, the narrative underlying that image...all of that was not evident.

There was still beauty.  But the storytelling and the imprint of sentience were gone.

When Greene implies that meaning can be found by knowing the universe "on all possible levels," I wonder if that is true.  One can find beauty on almost all of the levels.  But meaning?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Twenty-First Century Pastoral Nightmares

As my time at my current congregation comes to a close in...what...ten days, I find that the transition is stirring my subconscious.   I'm having the Pastor Stress Dream.

You probably know the student stress dream, where you show up for class...but you haven't studied...and there's a test...and you're inexplicably dressed in a powdered British barrister's wig and a rhinestone studded halter top.

Or maybe that last one's just me.

I got over that years ago, as scholastic achievement ceased to be something that stressed me out.  When those dreams tried to surface, I'd just walk out of the class.  Or kick back and relax.  I knew I wasn't in school.  No problem, dude.

But worship?  I care about worship.  It matters.  And so my subconscious has glommed onto that as a way of manifesting my anxieties.

A night or so ago, I dreamt I was trying to lead worship in a new place.  The problem wasn't that I'd forgotten my sermon.  I can swing that and improvise.   I was wearing pants, which is always a plus.  Everyone wasn't a zombie.

It was my dream...I couldn't get my iPhone to access the text I was supposed to read.

I stood there, clicking through...and it was always the wrong page.  And then it wouldn't scroll.  And then it shut down, and started up again, as I tried to talk and joke my way through the technical difficulty in front of a surprisingly patient congregation.

In. A. Dream.

I think, perhaps, that I need to spend less time with my little magic devil box.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Government Injections

Back in the early part of the last decade, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in West Africa.  It had to do with vaccinations against polio, that terrible waster of bodies that was almost completely eradicated as a human disease.


In a few pockets of deep poverty and ignorance, polio remained.  Polio fell back to its last redoubt, a province in Northern Nigeria.  There, vaccination had never been complete, and the disease still claimed the bodies...if not the lives...of hundreds annually.  Repeated efforts to get to that magic 95% vaccination rate of a population that can eliminate a disease just couldn't find purchase, and in 2004, things suddenly got a whole bunch worse.

Rumors began to spread, passed along by the fundamentalist clerics who served as the primary source of information for many of the people, that the vaccines were being used to spread AIDS.  And that they were laced with birth control substances, put there by foreigners to keep Muslim Africans from adding to their number.  "I was vaccinated...and then I got AIDS!"   "I know this guy who was vaccinated...and he can't have children!"

Fear of outside authorities spread, which tightened the political hold of radical Islamist factions over the people of Kano.

And so vaccination stopped in Kano province.  Freed from the siege, polio began to spread, first in Kano, then out into other areas of Nigeria, and then out into other African nations.  At its far spread, cases linked to Kano got as far as Indonesia.  It almost broke free, back out into the world.

After a year in which the spread of the disease could not be missed, popular sentiment began to turn.  The pleas of NGOs were heard.  Vaccinations resumed.  But hundreds upon hundreds of lives had been shattered.

Listening to Rep. Michelle Bachmann talk about "government injections," I can't help but hear echoes of Kano.

"Government injections?"  What in the Sam Hill are "government injections?"  Yes, I know the Tea Party claims government is the source of all things evil, but I wasn't aware you could be injected with it.  Does such a shot suddenly imbue our children with the desire to educate themselves about the political process, and to vote?  Does it give them immunity against the disease that lets us think we're consumers before we're citizens?

This isn't a "government injection."  It's a vaccine that protects your daughters from cervical cancer by killing a virus that causes it.

The purpose of this "controversy" is remarkably clear.  Bachmann is trying to attack Perry...with whom she agrees on just about everything, but whose full-head-of-hair-white-angry-maleness makes him automatically more appealing to conservative taking the same tack the Kano Islamists took back in 2004.   Evoke tyranny, cry "what about our poor little children," and let the chips fall where they may.  Slander, fear and scientifically baseless rumor goes a long way to shoring up support with the angry and the easily manipulated.

I'm no friend of Perry, whose bullying style concerns me.  But Bachmann's attack is a transparently ignorant and morally questionable display, and takes the GOP nominations process to a level of crazy that has no place in an industrialized nation.

A pity there's no vaccine for that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cosmology and Purpose

Those dancing strings sure can make the world odd..
As I finished up my reading of Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds yesterday, I'll freely confess that large chunks of it came off as coherent as Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.  As uffish in my study I thought whilst sitting by the Tumtum screen, the words describing string theory and superstring theory came whiffling through my tulgey brain, and burbled as they came.

Part of this...a large part of it...comes from the inhuman scale of quantum mechanics.  I'll catch images here and there, as my spacetime-formed mental clutch graunches gears mightily against eleventh dimensional cogs.   The best I can get are approximations, images that rise out of my knowledge base in a feeble attempt to represent a reality that is utterly beyond my capacity to experience.  As I struggled to conceptualize strings, the best I could do was think of those little wiggly dragon tongues from James and the Giant Peach.  When Kaku got into talking about the challenge in modeling the music of membranes, the dimensionally expanded forms of string theory that provides the "M" in "M-theory," I found myself thinking of drum-heads.

This is the pesky thing about being a mystic and not a mathematician, I suppose.  The swirl of symbols that Kaku doubtless uses to conceptualize these things are surely more precise.

Then again, when it comes time to lay out the "why this matters" conclusion, the summative chapter of Kaku's book has no answers.  As far as Kaku is concerned, the structures of the universe may prove to be elegant and beautiful mathematically.  But there's no meaning to be found there.  He writes:
...I do not believe this design gives personal meaning to humanity.  No matter how dazzling or elegant the final formulation of physics may be, it will not uplift the spirits of billions and give them emotional fulfillment.  No magic formula coming from cosmology and physics will enthrall the masses and enrich their spiritual lives.  (p. 358)
And then, Kaku goes on.  While he claims not to derive his ethics from his cosmology, the purpose Kaku finds in life is remarkably relativistic.  We build our own meaning, says he.  Meaning is what we make of it, nothing more, and nothing less.

Being a good sort, Kaku tries to articulate this in a way that affirms some generally good stuff.  If we're really creating meaning, then, well, we're going to create good meaning.  Work hard!  Love people!  Carpe Diem!  Be a mentor!  Work for justice!  Dominate the globe with your unstoppable army of quantum-forge-powered robots!

Well, not that last one.  Kaku's brilliance in cosmology seems to wander into Joel Osteen's shallow waters when it comes to ethics.   It's earnest and well-meaning self-actualization talk, but without a clear vision of what that might mean relative to concepts like "good."   He tries, for a whole page, to talk purpose and ethics, but it's just a gloss.  A pity, because the vision of being he proposes does seem to give a foundation for talking about "good" in terms that integrate with his physics.

When he talks about fulfilling potential, it feels for an instant like he's catching the importance of intentionality in an m-theory universe.  When he talks about the fundamental unity of quantum reality, it almost...almost...feels like the foundation of the mystic ethos.    But those things flutter away, undeveloped.

No matter.  It's still a faskinatin' book, and Kaku's efforts to translate this mindboggling complex stuff into lay language are to be strongly commended.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time To Forget

That evening, after walking from the city to Falls Church because our car was locked away in a building that had received an opportunistic bomb threat, we sat downstairs with our children.  We were physically tired, but that was nothing.  We were emotionally drained, taken down to nothing by the events of the day, still struggling to process the great black pillar of smoke against the perfect crystal sky.  The helicopters.  The fighters, roaring overhead, loaded for bear.  Being two drops in that river of humanity flowing from the city, trivial extras in some big budget disaster film.

The television ran clip after clip, of bodies falling and towers falling.  Then they replayed them.  And replayed them again.  Late in the evening, Dubya had come on, looking and speaking like someone had recently whacked him in the back of the head with a bat.  It was not reassuring.  Then back to towers falling, and people falling, and people talking anxiously.  And pictures of dark black smoke against a crystal blue sky.

Our three year old, curious as always, peppered me with questions while the one-year old goofed about.  What's happening, Daddy?  What's happening to those buildings, Daddy?  I tried to give him some gentle but not-lying answers, and then realized it was time to turn off the big pipe of endlessly cycling fear and horror that was pouring into our home.

I did, and as this was 2001, I put a tape into the VCR.  VeggieTales, as it happened.  The boys stilled to watch it, and I curled up on the sofa with my wife.  It could easily have been the night before.  There were no rumbles of bombardment, no panicked cries, no sounds of war.  Instead, there was Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato.  They were sharing gently mischievous lessons about kindness and compassion.  

When the time came for Silly Songs with Larry, it was the Song of the Cebu.  I found myself unable to stop smiling.  It was a place of grace, a place to set aside the fear for a moment and be safe with the little ones and my wife half-asleep on my shoulder.

We need those places if we are to heal.  Terror and fear and anxiety can't always be in the forefront of our minds, day after day, year after year.  The inability to move forward and to find islands of forgetting does bad things to our souls, makes us too hard or too weak.  Or both.

That is true for human beings.  It is also true for the hearts of nations.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bigger Universe, Same Ol' Jesus

As I continue to pore my way through theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's exploration of M-Theory, one of the things that has struck me is the degree to which the heavens have expanded since the first century.

We tend to fixate on that moment when folks realized that the earth was round, not a flat plate with a dome over it, but a sphere.  That was a big deal, of course, but only the first in an iterative series of deepenings.

There is also the struggle experienced by Galileo and the early astronomers.  They noted that the earth was not the center of the universe, and...well...there was some resistance to that, as I recall.   The church defended ecclesiastical authority and it's Aristotelian assumptions about the universe with much vigor, vigor that now seems absurd.  Jesus and his teachings are unaffected by our elliptical orbit around the sun.

As Kaku explores the history of cosmology, though, there are other moments when the universe grew exponentially bigger.  Like, say, when we realized that all those wee little stars were suns like our own, and suddenly heliocentrism evaporated in the vastness of the interstellar sky.

Or when we realized that those little fuzzy swirls we saw in our telescopes weren't just bits of dust or proto-stars, but galaxies, vast agglomerations of stars billions of light years across and unfathomable distances away.  Suddenly, the universe expanded again, and again our place in it became exponentially smaller as the cosmological floor of creation dropped out from under us.

But none of those things impact Jesus and his teachings.  You can be just as truly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth in a rapidly expanding Big Bang universe as you would have been in a 6,000 year old dome-world, had such a thing ever really existed.

The quantum-based and data-bolstered speculation of M-Theory represents just such a shift.  A multiverse-cosmology represents another expansion, like from earth to solar system, or from solar system to star system, or from star system to intergalactic space.

While it's a paradigm shift, that shift does not in any way impact the existential impact of the Nazarene on those of us who see in his story the fundamental purpose of our lives.  We are here, now, and in this time and space Jesus matters.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Scary Christians

I somehow managed not to watch the GOP debate last night.

Well, actually, I completely forgot it was on.  After a day at church wrapping things up for my imminent departure, I'd come home to discover some parental heavy lifting needed to be done.  Ah, teens and their impulsiveness.  Discipline and firmness are necessary things.  Sigh.

Then, I discovered that my little guy had managed to leave his Everything-He-Needs-Is-In-It binder at school.  So off to look for it.  Then home, and in a break in the post-Lee monsoon rains, walking the dog.  Then to the store for fresh veggies for dinner.  And back to the store after forgetting something.

Dinner gets prepped, and the missus gets home, and there's more sitting on the teen, followed by the announcement--at 9:00 PM--that certain school supplies must be acquired by tomorrow.

In the midst of that, watching the candidates for the Republican nomination have at one another just faded into the chaos of the evening.

Perhaps it was a passive aggressive avoidance mechanism, the kind of thing one does to get out of a social outing to the house of that guy you sort of knew in college who keeps inviting you over.  You know, the guy who spends the whole time you're with him complaining about what a blanking-blank his ex is, and how much he blanking hates the blanking blank across the street and his blanking rodent kids who keep playing on his blanking lawn.

The reportage on the event seems to have affirmed this.  Front and center in the midst of the fray were the broad shoulders and clenched fists of Rick Perry, whose aggressive and combative style seems to play well with those who interpret bullying as strength.  Facebook and the Twitterverse were a-hum with both his truculent approach to Ron Paul and his celebrating the number of people Texas executes.

Which people...applauded.

Executing people is an applause line?  Really?   I guess the folks in the audience were the sort of Christians who aren't so much into the grace/love/forgiveness thing, but who are really into the idea of someone having to die for them.

And yes, I am assuming they are self-professing Christians.  It's an odd thing for me, as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, to follow the GOP nominations process.  Odd because as I look at the candidates, the ones I find both reasonable and most aligned with the teachings of Yeshua Ben YHWH are the ones who talk about it the least.  You've got Huntsman, who is a really solid, balanced guy...and Mormon.  Then there's Romney, who is a bit too corporate for my tastes, but also Mormon and not halfway scary.  There's Ron Paul, who is a great proponent of liberty, and not as something you just say to get people to applaud while you strip them of their rights.  He understands it.  I don't think he gets the necessity of representative government as a counterbalance to profit-driven corporate power, but I respect him.

None of these guys have a chance, unfortunately.

The ones that do wear Jesus on their lapel.  The ones that do alarm me.  I used to think that Michelle Bachmann was the most frighteningly glazed-eye proto-fascist in the political spectrum.  That was before I got to know Rick Perry, who is all swagger...and really, really, really into telling people about how Christian he is.

Yet in his manner, I don't read the core teachings of Christ.  That tends to be true for most folks who wave Jesus around when running for office.

Why, why, why must the loudest shouters of Jesus be the most disturbing?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rendering Unto Caesar

As the future of my ministry firmed up this last week, it clicked through a series of permissions that I'd set for myself more than a year ago.  I'm funny that way, in that desire for transitions to connect events in my life to one another.

When I got my last motorcycle, for instance, I'd tied bike ownership to getting ordained as a pastor.  Once the Good Lord's providence prevailed, and it happened...boom...there was my black YZF600R.

It was a sweet ride.  Has been for six years.  Still is, although it's getting a bit long in the tooth.  As, frankly, am I.  The sporting semi-crouch that was a tolerable riding position back when I was 35 was starting to cause pain after anything more than half-an-hour in the saddle.  Blemish has piled upon scratch, and though it still runs strong, the 41,000 miles on the odometer have been hard won trolling on the Beltway.

It was time for a new bike.  Or, rather, a new used bike.  I knew exactly what I wanted.  Something right-sized, meaning no giant honking 150 horsepower egocycle.  Something sane.  Something with ergonomics that reflect the actual character of the human body, and a design that reflects the way I ride.  I knew what I wanted.

Just the right Suzuki VStrom 650 popped up onto Craigslist a couple of weeks ago.  It's an adventure-tourer, or so they call tall standard bikes these days.  Light, balanced, but also capable of taking you transcontinental without batting an eye.  It's comfortable on the superslab, and can acquit itself well on fire-roads and hard-packed dirt, too.  The bike's hornet yellow, which doesn't present quite as moody and truculent a vibe as motorcyclists generally want to give off.  But then again, if it's good enough for the G-Class star around which we orbit, I suppose it's good enough for me.

So on Saturday morning, me and the missus hopped into our eco-pod and went south on 95.  We arrived at a giant anonymous strip mall, where the seller had agreed to meet us.  He arrived on the bike, his twenty-something daughter and large laconic son riding support in a big Toyota pickup.

From moment one of our exchange, I knew he was a good egg.  He had the buttery genial warmth of a Southern gentleman, and his care for the bike and his concern that I know every last detail about it was the sign of a good seller.  The bike itself gleamed like it was just out of the showroom, only modded out exactly the way I would have done it myself.  As I examined it, we shared a bit of our lives.

He was a preacher's kid, as it happened.  The son and daughter were two of his ten kids, all adopted.   Though he was in his late fifties, he and his wife had just adopted two more, brother and sister, eight and five.  Time for riding suddenly wasn't there like he'd thought it might be.  And though he'd ridden his whole life, arthritis was claiming his legs, and it just hurt too much to be fun.  He radiated good karma and kindness.

When it came time to haggle, I did so reluctantly, and ended up going a hundred bucks over budget.  The bike was perfect, better than new, and I wasn't about to lie and claim it wasn't.  The price was fair, and I won't bargain a good man down from a fair price.

Or a bad man, frankly, but they're harder to get down to a fair price in the first place.

When I rolled back from the bank with the cashier's check in hand, we got to the signing over of the title.

He signed it over, but paused at the line that denoted the purchase price.  He asked if I wanted him to leave it blank.  You know.  So I could fill in the price myself.  Maybe save a few bucks in taxes.   I thanked him for the offer, but demurred, being a pastor and all.   It wasn't just that I'd rather not misrepresent a sale price, though that was certainly the case.

I honestly don't mind paying that $153 extra that went into the coffers of the great state of Virginia.  It'll pay to patch the pothole that might throw a noob rider off his bike.  It'll pay for the state trooper standing there writing me a ticket, too, but that same trooper would protect me from assault and watch out for my kids and call in a chopper to rescue my family in a flood, so it's a net gain.

Rendering unto Caesar just doesn't bother me, if the price is fair for what you get in return.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor and Vocation

It's Labor Day, and on this Labor Day, I'm looking at a new job.  Starting the first Sunday in October, I'll be making that ride out to Poolesville on a far more frequent basis, as I take the position of Supply Pastor at Poolesville Presbyterian Church.  

By some of the more commonly used metrics of employment, some folks might look at the transition I'm making with befuddlement.

The salary my current small church...indexed to the minimum acceptable to Presbytery.  As this is a half-time position and my current position is three-quarter-time, well, you do the math.   It's less money.  The commute goes from twenty minutes without traffic to one hour and ten without traffic.  Each way.   

Less pay?  Longer commute?   And yet, I'm totally psyched.

Being the mutant that I am, salary levels just don't matter to me.  Well, that's not entirely true.  What matters to me is twofold.  First, that salary be sufficient to allow me to shoulder a fair share of the costs of maintaining a household.  As the husband of a working woman, I'm not the sole income provider, eh?  This salary will be sufficient for that.  Second, that salary should be fair relative to what you're doing.  I love pastoring, and marvel that it is even possible to preach and teach the Gospel and talk about the meaning and purpose of our existence...and receive compensation.  This does tend to put me at a bit of a negotiating disadvantage.  Pesky thing about vocation, I guess.  It's so much more than just a "job."

The commute matters.  Too many Americans have come to assume that those two hours a day they spend in traffic are fine and normal.   If I had to make this commute every day, it might get old fast.  But...I'm not.  Nor does the church expect me to.  It's twice a week.  Any other work, like emailing, texting, prepping sermons and talking on the phone and doing reports and creating web-content, that can be done remotely.  And at twice a week, the gorgeous country roads that lead to Poolesville feel like a retreat in and of themselves, particularly in the saddle of a motorcycle.  I'd ride that ride for the good of my soul.

Then there are the benefits, and by benefits, I don't mean pension and major medical.  I mean those other intangibles that make your work feel less like work.  Like, say, a community that laughs easily, and that radiates interpersonal warmth.  Or a place that recognizes the need for human beings to be flexible with one another, and values a life lived in balance.  When I say I need time to care for kids, and to work on doctoral studies, and to's good to see nods around the table. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Operating in Parallel

Yesterday, I started in reading the first in the series of books I've lined up as background work for my next writing project.   The exploration of the interface between M-Theory and Christian faith...has a deliciously windmill-tilty feel about it.  Nothing like writing about a topic that no other Christian seems to care about to ramp up the book sales, eh?  

Still, I've got this gut sense it's a fascinating topic to explore.  If I'm going to explore the science of it, though, I'm operating under some significant limitations.  First and foremost, I'm not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV.  Feigning expertise in this area would be a fools errand.  Equally foolish would be trying to start a second career as a physicist.  There's just not enough free drive space in my cerebellum to attempt that.

What is worth doing, though, is reading through some of the lay-accessible literature on M-Theory cosmology.  These are works written by folks with scientific street cred, but who are trying to interpret and present the results of quantum, string, and M-Theory for bright-eyed Neanderthals like myself.  In the absence of the late lamented Carl Sagan, there are still plenty of folks out there interpreting for the laity.

First among the works I'm perusing is Parallel Worlds, a book by Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at CUNY.  It's a good accessible read, and one that seems even within the first few pages to point strongly to a creative tension between M-Theory and faith.  Kaku begins with noting the tension between our linear, temporal, and changing spacetime...with a beginning and an end...and the idea of the eternal and unchanging.  The great narrative arc of Genesis and Creation seems to stand separate from the concept of God the Impassible and Eternal.    

Not being a theologian, Kaku assumes that this is a tension that only exists if you contrast the Judeo-Christian narrative to the Buddhist understanding of Nirvana.  Honestly, though, it's a tension that exists within Christian faith.  How can God be unchanging, and still be the God of Love?  How can we who are endless change stand in relationship with the I AM THAT I AM? 

It's also a dialectic that exists within classical philosophy at it's most primal level.   The argument between proponents of being and prophets of change has been going on since Parmenides and Heraclitus had at it in Fifth Century Elea.  That's Fifth Century Bee See Eee, folks.  

Within the framework of an M-Theory Creation, some of that ancient tension may be resolved.  As Kaku promisingly puts it:
What is gradually emerging from the data is a grand synthesis of these two opposing mythologies.  Perhaps, scientists speculate, Genesis occurs repeatedly in a timeless ocean of Nirvana.
Not just scientists, eh?  I'm looking forward to reading more of Kaku.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Different Directions

On Wednesday, having punched my way through my to-do list for the day, I rolled out of my church office at about 4:30 in the pii em.  I wandered over to my bike, threw a leg over it, and motored out the church drive to the street.  To go home, I turn right, go down Wilson lane till it dead ends, and then go right across a one lane bridge.

But the lights that flashed on the bike were on the left side, and left is the way I went.

Then, it was out to River Road, where usually 1) go straight, to pick up my kids at the synagogue or 2) go right, so I can get to the Beltway, where I hop into the soul crushing traffic of the Outer Loop.   I went 2) right, but then on, on over and blessedly past the Beltway, following River Road north-north-west as it diligently shadows the Potomac.

River Road first leads through Potomac, an intimidating thicket of wealth and power.  The two-lane tiptoes through what seems like an endless cavalcade of mansions, the umpty-thousand square foot edifices that corporate lawyers and the captains of the military industrial complex bought with your tax dollars and your credit with China.  You've got to have something to come back to when you're not at Aspen or in the Hamptons, don't you, Lovey?

Passing through this ostentation, traffic was a bit dense, it being rush-hour.  The Yamaha was compliant beneath me, but it's an aging bike, and we're growing near to the end of our time together.  With the cooling fan on the fritz, I had to shut 'er down at stoplights.  And as traffic moved slowly downhill, I flicked the kill switch, coasting, silencing the heat-producing combustion.  It's been my workaround for too long now.

I'd left early for a reason, and avoiding traffic was that reason.  Soon enough, the snarl cleared, and River opened up.  I twisted the throttle, and with the arthritic clatter of aging valves and cheap gas, the Yamaha surged forward and put the mansions behind me.

Gradually, the density began to diminish.  Fewer homes.  Nice homes, but less ostentatious.  More trees. Then fields.  Nine point eight miles in, I zag right onto Esworthy, a road easy to miss if you're not paying attention.  Then right on Seneca, which quickly dead-ends into Route 107.

There's a small back up at the light.  A woman and her young daughter sit at the entrance of a very nice looking Catholic School in a gleaming Lexus hybrid, waiting to turn left.  I let the shiny Audi convertible ahead of me pull forward, and wave them in.  They smile, and wave thanks.

As I sit behind them at the light, I hear them talking through the windows of the Lexus, left open to a lovely afternoon.  The mom is laughing at her daughter's silliness, and the daughter is laughing with her, happy in one another's company.  I smile.  It's a nice moment, and a reminder, whispers a little voice.  Just because folks do well, doesn't mean you have the right to prejudge them.   I mostly shake the mansions out of my head.

The One Oh Seven takes me off to the West-North-West, and into the Northern Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve.   It's strikingly beautiful country, 93,000 acres of fields and farms and amber waves of grain, a reminder of what this land was like before we smothered it with asphalt strip malls and tickytackytownhomes.

I slowed a bit, taking in the warm gold of the late afternoon as I moved towards my destination.  I'd been there before, when I and my bike were younger, another blog and what seems like a lifetime ago.  

Funny, the directions life takes you.