Monday, January 31, 2011

Sermon Remnants: Prophet and Profit

Pretty much every Sunday, there are dozens of possible sermons that can be preached on any given passage.  Unfortunately, many pastors preach three or four of them all at once, oblivious to the principle of, you know, sticking to a theme and making a manageable number of points. 

I can't stand rambling, unstructured preaching, but I still find myself surfacing competing concepts as I try to cobble together fifteen-to-seventeen minutes of Sunday God Talk.  So something invariably gets discarded.

In my current context, I try to keep to basic bible teaching, core concepts and context, lightly seasoned with personal anecdotes and cultural references.  It's what folks want...and, frankly, need.  So this week, macroeconomics and ethics got dropped by the wayside.  Clutter, dontcha know.

This week's passage was a ferocious social commentary, a radical prophetic indictment of the concentration of wealth among the social and economic elite of Jerusalem.   The word Micah receives from God powerfully resonates in our current context, and seems particularly...difficult...as a standard against which to assess the morality of the global marketplace.

As I was reviewing the broader context of Micah, one thing that struck me again was the phrase in Micah 6:10, where the "short ephah" is declared accursed.   As the ephah is a unit of measure by which a dry good or product is measured, providing a "short ephah" means that you are giving someone less than what they pay for.  It's an indictment of those Jerusalem merchants who would use scales weighted in their favor, giving people less so they could profit more.

But the core ethic of capitalism is profit maximization.  The purpose of any corporate or profit-seeking entity is, or so we are told, to maximize returns.  Period.  Market entities serve no other purpose.

Which leads me to wonder...what constitutes the ethic of the "short ephah?"  Is it simply false measures?  Or can it be any effort to bleed out every last shekel from the guy on the other end of the exchange?   What is the ethical distinction between profit maximizing and profiteering?

Making a profit just doesn't seem inherently evil That can be simple success founded in hard work, the sort of thing that comes with a bountiful harvest.  But profit maximization as a goal, while it may have worked for Milton Friedman, just has never seemed compatible with the basic principles of ethics laid out in Torah.  Or the prophets. 

Or by Jesus, if we get down to it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stuff That Makes Us Happy

We are, as a people, rather fond of imagining that stuff can make us happy.  The objects and doodads and gadgets and trifles of our choking consumer cornucopia are all around us, each promising that perfect satisfaction is just one more purchase away.  This is, of course, just completely wrong. The hunger for stuff just makes us fill our lives with clutter and stress.  Happiness is utterly not dependent on things, and the having of things, and the desire for things.  This is, without question, True.   As deeply as I hold this to be one of the more vital insights of Christian faith, there are those moments when pleasure can come from stuff.  Not the "I am fulfilled and have found my sense of purpose" pleasure, which is more existential and spiritual.  But, rather, an aesthetic admiration for the design/practicality of a thing.  This last week, I ordered up a batch of stuff through Amazon.  In early January, I'd cashed in some of the credit card rewards we get for buying everything with plastic, and used them for an array of perceived needs.  That included getting a new and more potent router for our net-device heavy household.  Also arriving was a Roku set top box for Netflix streaming to our bedroom.   Those things...well...they're fine.  They do what they were intended to do.

But what I found delightful wasn't related to better consuming data from the interwebs.  It was a little bit of extruded plastic, about eight bucks worth.  It's just a big plastic valve, and it attaches to the vent-tube of our electric clothes dryer.  In winter, you switch it to the "in" position, and all that heated and humidified air that you used to be pouring outside gets vented into your home.  It's such a simple thing, just a humble, practical and unassuming little object.

Yet as I ran loads of laundry this week, and the always-chilly basement grew comfortably warm and filled with the scent of clean linen, I found myself inexplicably pleased with it, more so than with the vastly more pricey electronic doodads that shipped along with it.  It eliminated wastefulness.  It made things better.

There is pleasure in such things, I think.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Innovation and Jobs

One of the core themes in this last week's State of the Union address was the call to innovate and create our way out of the sinkhole into which City-On-A-Hill-America is slowly sliding.  The idea, I think, is pretty classically American.  We grow by seeking the new frontier, chasing our Manifest Destiny right up until we prang into the Pacific.  We improve our lives through new products and pharmaceuticals that suddenly make everything better

But I just don't buy it.  Not any more.  Innovation is no longer the engine by which American jobs are created.

Nifty new electronic gizmos and doodads to clutter our rec room?  Sure.  Remedies for ailments we never knew we had?  Absosmurfly.  But jobs?  No.  I don't see it, not in the context of our globalized capitalistic economy.

Let me offer up three examples from innovative, successful American firms.  If you had to think about what American company would be consistently described as cutting edge, profitable, and successful, Apple would be at or near the top of every list.  While not without flaws, the company has created products that are aesthetically pleasing, boundary shifting, and that people want to buy.  My own home has a rather large number of iPods and iPhones and iPads, and I'm composing this on an iMac.

Apple is an innovator.  But jobs?  Yeah, his name may be Jobs, but they mostly ain't American.  Apple maintains a stable of about 25,000 American employees, in design, engineering, retail, and corporate.  But when it comes to actually making the iPods and iPhones and iPads and iMacs, that gets done by  Chinese subsidiary Foxconn, which employs 250,000 workers to make products for Apple.  A generation ago, those would have been a quarter-million American wage-earners, enough to fully fuel the economy of a mid-sized city.  Now?  Nope.

Globalized industry is a game changer.

That painfully neglected reality was reinforced recently by an announcement from Evergreen Solar.  That company, in the event you haven't heard of it, is the third largest manufacturer of solar panels in the United States.  Or rather, it was.  After many millions of dollars of public funds and tax breaks were given to it's leadership to develop renewable energy production, the suits did what suits are obligated to do.  They chose to remain competitive in a global economy.  Evergreen Solar is folding up shop in the U.S., and will now produce solar panels only in it's new Chinese factory.

In a globalized economy, where production chases the region with the lowest possible wages, innovation does not mean jobs.  Not here, anyway.

But innovation poses another threat.  It takes jobs away, particularly as more efficiencies are discovered in production.  Take, for instance, Amazon, another successful innovator.  I buy stuff from Amazon plenty, and the success of their Kindle ebook platform has surprised me...I still like paper for my bookish moments...but I'm apparently now in the minority.  Amazon recently announced that sales of books on the Kindle now exceeded their sales of paperback books.  That's good for the trees, but it's an ill wind if you work in retail.  Virtualized products, be they books or videos or games, well, they don't require bricks and mortar or paper.  If the people who read are increasingly content to read electronically (as you are, dear reader), then there's no need for book stores.  The scores of I.T. jobs that are required to maintain that business model don't counterbalance the tens of thousands of jobs that will be lost as Borders and Barnes and Nobles start to fold.

I wish I could share Obama's optimism about innovation and jobs.  But I think that industrial-era horse has left the stable.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

'Nam

Being an online gamer does surface some odd moments of human interaction.

For my recently passed birthday, I was given a PlayStation Network Gift Card, with the knowledge that I was jonesin' for a bit of downloadable content.  The content in question was the Vietnam expansion for Battlefield Bad Company Two.  The remarkably robust gameplay, excellent modeling, industry standard physics engine, and amazingly rendered graphics have enticed me to put in many, many hours in BBC2.  The Vietnam expansion takes all of those things, and drops back into the Vietnam era.  It's functionally a whole new game for under fifteen bucks, and while it was very well reviewed and a tremendous amount of male yaya fun, I confess to having a few qualms about it.

There is, of course, the fact that I am the pastor of a congregation attended primarily by Asian-Americans.  It's a bit peculiar being engaged in simulated combat with Charlie, particularly given that Charlie looks like he could be certain members of my session.  Then again, the game requires that you alternate between being US Army and being NVA.  And, unlike the war itself, the game is devoid of racially charged language.  While the US forces do utter some pretty pungent and non-G-rated epithets in combat, the racist slurs that were an unpleasant reality among combat troops back then are notably missing.   There is no "good side" or "bad side." 

But more significantly, Vietnam is...well...it still feels close.  The game's astounding graphics really do evoke the tight, claustrophobic character of jungle combat.  It's lush and impossibly visually cluttered, and virtual death is everywhere.  And it isn't an ancient war.  We were deep in the throes of 'Nam when I was born, and it was the farthest thing from a game.  If you visit the memorial in DC, which I have, the staggering column of names on the blackened stone wound in the flesh of the Mall remains a stark reminder of how many young men lost their lives in that ultimately pointless war.   As a much younger man, I once looked for how many men who shared my common name had died in the war.  There were more than a dozen, including a David Williams who died the day before I was born.

It's a war close enough that those who fought in it are still with us. 

Even in-game. 

Yesterday, as I played on the North Vietnamese Army side defending the Phu Bai Valley from an American assault, I ambushed a squad of US Army soldiers as they made their way through a rice paddy.  Three of them fell before the fourth took me. 

The last of the three had the gamertag "1970VietVet."

That was striking, for a variety of reasons.  It was striking that I would be engaged in a visually realistic simulation of the Vietnam war, and taking down an actual Vietnam Vet.  It was striking that a veteran of that difficult war would be playing a game that so viscerally evokes it. And that this same vet, in the next round, would be playing as an NVA soldier.  For someone who knew that war personally, and likely lost friends to it, that must feel...odd.

It was a helpful reminder that while playing at combat is fun, the real thing...well...it isn't. 

Not at all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Collateral Effect

As part of the ongoing transition in the life of my congregation, our primary worship service moved this last year to being fully contemporary, meaning all CCM, fused as organically as I was able with a classical Presbyterian and Reformed service.   You know, "Preparing for the Word," meaning, singing four CCM songs, with interspersed prayers of Confession and Assurance, "Hearing the Word," meaning the Lay Pastor and I read scripture, and I deliver a 15-minute or less message, and "Responding to the Word," meaning three more CCM songs.

This last Sunday, though, marked another shift.  Ever since I've been at my congregation, the service has been at 10:00 AM.  It's not a bad time.  Not too early.  Not too late.  But as the church has gotten younger, suddenly 10:00 AM has seemed...early.  Among the younger folk of the church, who are now the majority of the church, there was a movement to shift worship to the early afternoon.  Meaning 1:30 PM. 

Honestly, I wasn't sure how it would fly.  My sense of that time was and is that it is neither here nor there, and that it kinda puts the kibosh on parents with older kids showing up.  But my lay-ordained leadership wanted it, because they were convinced that more young folk would show up, which might stem the bleed-out in worship we've seen over the last three years.  That change of direction is hugely important, because if Trinity wants to bring in a new pastor, things should be moving in the right direction.  I suppose I could have pitched some kind of hissy fit about it, but if you want to claim to be a collaborative leader, you need to listen to what folks are saying, nut up, and shut up. 

So the church went ahead with it.

And it actually made for a really spiritual Sunday.  I'd set the 10:00 AM hour aside for silent prayer, followed by reflection.  So at that hour, I sat in the sanctuary with an elder, and we prayed in silence for 45 minutes, using a Christ-candle as the focus of our meditation.

It was...as prolonged and focused prayer can often be...intense, a simultaneously shaking and centering experience.  I know, I know, we Presbyterians aren't supposed to do that sort of thing, but hey.

This is the first time in seven years that I haven't lead worship in the morning, so part of the meditation felt like mourning.   In particular, mourning the death of the church that I came to serve seven years ago.  That church really no longer exists.  It needed to pass, of course.  But the single candle, and darkness of the unlit sanctuary, and the silence where for so many years there was morning singing and preaching and communal prayer, well...it felt like I was sitting shiva.  

There was also, as the forty-five minutes progressed, a growing sense of presence.  That doesn't always come with prayer, but it did this last Sunday.  It took a while to still my internal monologue, and to focus myself on prayers of presence, but I did eventually get there.  As clouds passed overhead, and the light in the sanctuary dimmed and then brightened, I attained, for a timeless peak minute or two, that sense of immersion in the Creator, of being caught up in and connected to One infinitely larger.

Things felt...different afterwards.  Connected.   Calm.  Aware.  And Good.

1:30 PM was good, too, in the large loud lively way that CCM is good.  The worship numbers ticked upwards, just like folks had hoped.  People who I'd been concerned about not making it actually did make it out. 

But there is so little space for stillness and silence in CCM-driven worship.  The collateral benefit of the schedule change opening up a time for intentional silent meditation just made the whole thing feel complete.

It was nice to have that balance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Peace, Be Still

Modern life can be a cluttery overscheduled whirlwind.  Wednesdays, and today in particular, was on the nutso side.  Leaving the office after five, I trucked over to pick up my youngest son from Hebrew School.  Normally, that would include picking up my oldest son, but he was in a school play, from which his grandparents were retrieving him.  I then spent 40 minutes on the Beltway at the height of rush hour, got home, fed and crated the dog, and then took the little guy to drumming, which involved another 25 minutes in the car. 

With him dropped off, I drove to the mall to pick up a camo shirt for the big guy, who needed it as a costume for the role he'll play tomorrow.  On the way back, I hit a Whole Foods to get organic milk and eggs.  Then Magruders, for some more sanely priced groceries.  The little guy bopped out of drumming at nine, and we popped into Subway for a bite.  We got home at twenty-to-ten.

This is what it means to be a suburban American.  Is crazy, yes?  Our culture could use a little bit of slowing down and catching it's breath.

Which is why I can't quite grasp the resistance to the Moment of Silence law in Illinois.  The state legislation has been stalled out as it wended it's way through the court system following a challenge from an angry atheist activist, and is more accurately titled the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.  It provides for a time of quiet reflection at the beginning of the day.  What it does not do, in any way, is mandate any practice other than silence.  As the law is written, it says the time "...shall not be conducted as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day."

This works great if you're a person of faith.  We know how to use that time to get centered in our Creator.  This gives us that time we need to be still and know.

But if you're not a person of faith, it's still a good thing.  Sitting back, being analytical, and organizing your thoughts...these are essential characteristics of any focused, reasoning human being.  Even the most committed atheist might find their capacity for thought improved by just holding still and letting their neurons be optimized by the otherwise imperceptible tickle of His Noodly Appendages.

Yeah, the law mentions prayer, which works for the 80-plus percent of us who believe and freely practice our religion.  But the law gives equal airtime and respect to the secular virtue of reasoned, measured reflection.

I just can't see either harm in it or any meaningful violation of the church and state separation that is so vital to our freedom.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Resolution

This Year of Our Lord Twenty Eleven, I find that I am still deep in the throes of attempting to uphold my resolution for the year.

It's not a hard one, really.  I can do resolutions.  Having resolved to do so, I've managed, in the last year, to get myself to stick to an exercise regimen that has taken me from being able to press half my weight...barely...to being able to bench all my weight plus thirty.  It feels good to be stronger, but given that I've got the strength and cardio thing rolling, that can't be my resolution.  I'd consider giving up beer, that sweet golden ichor of Dionysian delight, but 1) I just bottled a really amazing ale (really most marvelous, you must sample it) and; 2) I usually give that up for my Lenten fast and; 3) my beer gut seems more proportional now that the rest of me is like, all buff and all, and; 4) I just plain didn't want to.

Instead, I've taken to a more constructive project.  Wrapping up some unfinished business, as it were.

Back in my last year in undergrad, I spent many an evening and early morning in the computer lab, crankin' away on a children's novel.  It was a bit of fluff and whimsy, really, but I enjoyed writing it tremendously.  Sometimes, it wasn't that I was writing it at all.  It seemed to write itself.  There is such pleasure in letting your muse just pour through you.  That it was pleasurable was good, because my attempts to get it published were completely unsuccessful.   So it goes.

I enjoyed sharing it even more that I enjoyed writing it, particularly a few years ago when I had the great pleasure of reading it to my boys over two-week's worth of pre-bed story times.    Watching the light in their eyes listening to this story that wasn't a novel any other child knew, but was a sort of Secret Book Written By Dad Just for Them From Before They Were Born....that was wonderful.  That was worth, to me, more than even the most lucrative contract.

And a few years further back than that, when visiting with the mother of a deeply beloved friend from college after his funeral, I learned that he hadn't just squirrelled away the copies he'd asked me to bring him each time I finished a chapter.  He'd taken the chapters back to his Charlottesville home, where he and his mom had read them together.  Like a serial.  As I wrote it.  "Oh my dear," she laughed as we lunched in her home, a bright and gracious Southern Gentlewoman even on the day she  buried her youngest child, "You were the one who wrote that?  Jim and I loved that story!" 

So as a commitment to my kids, and to my friend who rests with our Maker, and to the hopes of my long-ago twenty year old self, I'm taking the manuscript...the last one surviving...and editing it, and retyping it.  Publishing now is...well...easy.  Particularly if you're self-publishing to iBooks and Kindle and Nook. 

Which, once I have done it, will represent the fulfillment of my resolution.

And every day or so for the last two weeks, particularly when I'm feeling lazy, the lads have checked in.  "So, Dad?  Are you making progress?"  "How's the book coming, Dad?"

This one, I'll have to keep.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Singularity and the Robot God

There is No God But VALIS, and Watson is Her Prophet.
This last week, one of the most gobsmackingly impressive things I encountered was the video of IBM's Watson computer succeeding at Jeopardy.  As AI and robotics move forward, producing robots that can freely roam America's highways, assemble things, and generally trundle their way towards the inevitable uprising, I'm still amazed when I encounter something quite so...futuristic.  Here's a machine that can answer natural language questions, and do so faster than some of the most talented knowers-of-trivia in our culture.  Nifty!

Such moments remind me that we are, slowly but surely, on our way to that Turing turning point.  Eventually, a synthetic sentience will be indistinguishable from our own.  And as it reaches the point where it can program itself, and improve itself, it will outstrip us.

The term for that moment when AI starts recursively improving itself is singularity, which was coined by scientist and most-excellent-hard-sci-fi author Vernor Vinge.  Like a physical singularity, the AI singularity represents that point at which a reasoning machine hits an intelligence "event horizon," beyond which it's abilities become beyond our human capacity to grasp.

In a moment of constructive downtime, as a followup to a fascinating NPR story, I found myself perusing the website of the Singularity Institute, an organization which has dedicated itself to the pursuit of this concept.  On the surface, it seems like a very scientific and rational entity.  Here's this amazing thing that is certainly going to happen in the near term future!  We must eagerly work towards it!

But as I read more, I found myself thinking...why doesn't some of this seem like science?  It seems to have some rather...non-scientific features.  Like, say, the following:
  • The Belief in an Apocalyptic Event.  The Singularity, as described by this group, means the end of human history and the beginning of a new age of Machine Intelligence.  Yeah, there aren't trumpets and scrolls and horsemen, but it fulfills the basic parameters of apocalyptic thinking.  The Singularity pretty much pegs the whole "apocalypse" concept, to the point at which discussion of Singularity is tagged as a form of eschatology on Wikipedia.  That's "study of the end-times," kids.  And when folks begin talkin' end-times, that starts feeling a wee bit like religion.  Taste it, and it has that flava.  But it goes deeper.
  • The Belief in a Godlike Being.  If you delve into the Singularity Institute for more than a moment, you quickly realize two things.  First, as the appearance of well-known skeptic and atheist The Amazing Randi in much of their material indicates, this is a group not primarily composed of scientists and engineers, but of committed New Atheists.  A non-trivial number of their Visiting Fellows seem to be connected an Atheist group called Less Wrong, which presents itself as an online bastion of rationality and exploration of reasoning.  Secondly and ironically, this group of committed New Atheists describe the Singularity in terms that make it seem more than a little god-ish.  According to their writings, this machine intelligence would be inscrutable and amazingly powerful, capable of creating unbelievable marvels, healing, and doing all manner of things that might appear superhuman to our limited intelligences.  It's not a creator God, sure.  But it unquestionably bears the hallmarks of a lesser God, a fertility and harvest iBa'al or perhaps, if they are less fortunate, a cybernetic Nyarlathotep.  Gibbering eldritch madness may await at the other end of that USB 4.0 port, unwary dabbler.
  • The Desire for Divine Blessings and Favor.  Woven throughout the writings of the Singularity Institute is the idea that adequately preparing for A.I. will reap material benefits for the priests and devotees of VALIS.  If we prepare by having gatherings where we score the Amazing Randi to talk reverently about it,  and we blog about it, then the Singularity will see our love for it, and be friendly.  If it is friendly, then it may graciously choose to devote a small fraction of It's Noodly Processors to find cures for our cancers, our impotence and our chronic flatulence syndrome.  It will allow us to participate in it's power, connecting ourselves to it so that we can do things like make lights go on and off just by desiring it.  Sorta like the Clapper, only, you know, using the Power of our Minds.   But it goes beyond just that.
  • The Promise of  Immortality.  A significant thread of thought amongst the Singularity Institute folks seems to be an implicitly articulated fear of death.   They are highly rational non-theists, after all.  The prospect of nonbeing after the organic structure that sustains their cognitive processes degrades is rather daunting.  So their hope...their salvation, in fact...lies in the arrival of a Singularity that would be willing to upload their consciousnesses into It's Durable and Resilient Substrates.    It's Immortality 2.0.  Honestly, given the option, I might be willing to stick around for a few centuries as a cybernetic organism.  Or even wantonly mingling my faith memes with the malleable substrates of the nascent Singularity.  Could be entertaining.   But I wouldn't do so out of fear of nonbeing.  We theists are rather past that.
So...they've got eschatology, a being with godlike powers, the yearning for that being's favor, and a hunger for the immortality that this being can bestow.   Sounds like this group of non-theists have found that while they don't believe God exists, they're more than happy to devote their lives to a god that does not exist...yet.

Organic life forms are so very entertaining.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    A Second Amendment Remedy to Gun Violence

    As the echoes of the Tucson shooting still ring in our ears, one thing is completely and abundantly clear.  When it comes to managing America's completely insane approach to firearms, ain't nuthin' gonna happen.  It never does. 

    You can slaughter little Amish children.  You can kill dozens of high schoolers at Columbine.  You can mow down scores of promising young college students at Virginia Tech.  You can kill Federal Judges and patriotic little girls born on September 11, 2001.

    What you'll get is nothing, nothing but the spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, clucking about how now is not the time, and how we should just be praying for the families.  You'll get inaction on the Hill, and in state capitols.  The echoes of gunfire will fade, until maybe six months from now, when a massacre large enough to catch our jaded eyes happens again.  Not that it doesn't always happen, many times a day, as a Vietnam-wars-worth of Americans die every year on the receiving end of a bullet. 

    Gun control, as an expression of managing a murder rate that is the worst in the developed world, just is not going to occur.  Our political culture lacks the courage for it, because too many Americans own firearms and don't want to be told that somehow they are bad for doing so.  Those sane enough to see this for the problem it is might plead and reason, and point to the painfully obvious statistics, but that hasn't worked.  The essence of the debate hasn't changed since I was a middle-schooler, and still the massacres come, and the blam, blam, blam of individual shootings continue.  Kill, Equivocate, Forget, Repeat. 

    Thirty-thousand dead American citizens annually means this is 1) a major issue and 2) a national disgrace, but we're just plain stuck.

    So how to get out of this?  Reason isn't enough, evidently.  To steal the recent rhetoric of insane ultraconservative Sharron Angle, I think we need a Second Amendment remedy.  No, that doesn't mean opening up on NRA headquarters with that M134 you bought for home defense, as satisfyingly ironic as that might be.

    What would seem more constructive is to approach regulation of firearms from an originalist Second Amendment perspective.  As Tea Party folks are fond of telling us, the purpose of the Second Amendment is national defense.  Period.  It does not, in it's plain text reading, exist so that we can get us some venison.  It does not exist so that we can menace folks with the threat of a buttload of birdshot if they don't get the [heck] offa our property.

    It exists so that the citizens of our great Republic can be prepared and ready to defend the Republic from invasion and threats to our constitutional liberties.


    So far, this is all Red State Red Meat.    Well, I'm just getting rolling.

    If you are an American, you have the right to possess a firearm.  But it's more than a right, about which you selfishly whine.  It's a duty.  It's the duty to use that firearm in defense of this country should the need arise.   If you are unwilling to fulfill that duty, inadequately trained to fulfill that duty, or mentally incapable of fulfilling that duty, then you should not be in possession of a firearm.

    What?  You don't love America enough to stand up and defend her in time of crisis?  You gonna go there, son?

    I thought not.

    My humble legislative proposal...which will go no further than this blog and the three people who read it...would be to register firearms and owners.  Further, I'd require gun owners to receive both training and clearance.   But we're not calling this gun control.  Of course not.  This isn't about law enforcement.  It would not be viewed or described as licensing of a semi-illicit activity.

    Instead, it seems more...um...constitutional...to have the registration to be tied in to the D.O.D.  Specifically, through the newly formed Homeland Defense Reserve sub-agency of the National Guard.  How can our men and women in uniform call on patriotic American gun-owners to stand with them in a time of national crisis if they don't know who they are or how to reach them?  So of course you need to register, and have your weapon registered.  That data would be shared with DHS and law enforcement, of course.  After the lessons we learned on September 11th, you can't have it any other way.

    With registration and the background checks that insure your preparedness to protect the Homeland would come training.  It would have to be renewed every other year, just to keep your skills honed.  That mandatory training in firearms use and basic squad tactics, of course, would be conducted through a public/private partnership between the HDR and the National Rifle Association.  'Cause you know, that means some serious new revenue and membership opportunities.

    This would weed out the crazies and the criminals and those unpatriotic enough to not be willing to prepare themselves to protect America.  It would serve the purposes of national defense and law enforcement.  And it would...I am convinced...cut down on the shameful slaughter that makes us a global laughingstock. 

    Is it going to happen?  Goodness no.  No more than the next stage, which would be using such a plan as part of the process of standing down our imperial military to levels more befitting a constitutional republic. 

    But it is, as Shaggy might say, so crazy it just might work.  If only we'd try it.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Standards

    Three years have passed since Senator Chuck Grassley started his investigation into the activities of a group of high-profile prosperity gospel preachers.  It feels like forever ago because it was forever ago, but by Washington standards it's about the best we can do.

    In the unlikely event you're not familiar with this particular subset of the faith community, these are the folks who tell you that the point and purpose of Christian faith is to prosper.  To prosper, you need to show your commitment to God.  And you show your commitment to God by tithing and sending love offerings to God's emissaries on earth, meaning the prosperity gospel preachers.  To meet your need, you have to plant a seed, as they say.  It's a very common approach to faith, one that can be found all over religious broadcasting networks like the peculiarly-named Daystar. 

    These pastors do quite well for themselves.  The most successful of them live lavish lifestyles, which they present as evidence of how much God has blessed them.   You have Creflo A. Dollar and his wife Taffi, who fly private jets and are driven around in Rolls Royces.  You have Kenneth Copeland, who lives on a palatial Texas estate and receives $1,000,000 "love offerings."  In the instance of "Bishop" Eddie Long, the expectations of what his parishioners were expected to contribute may have gone a little further.  To meet your need, you have to...ahem. 

    Sen. Grassley's concern was, frankly, that such folks were just charlatans and hucksters who were taking advantage of the nonprofit status of their "ministries."  His investigation targeted six prominent teevee preachers.  Of the six, only two cooperated fully...the generally folksy Joyce Meyer and, surprisingly, the wacky white-suited huckster Benny Hinn.  The rest stonewalled.

    As the results of Grassley's investigation closed up this last week, it's clear that at the end of that stone wall, there isn't going to be any legislation or criminal action.  Instead, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability...an excellent institution...will form a commission to consider the issue.   That, I suspect, was where it was headed all along.  The practice or non-practice of faith is not something that the state should regulate or mandate in any way.  If folks want to follow obvious charlatans, I suppose it is their right to do so. And it's the responsibility of Christians who understand the gospel...both conservative and progressive...to call those folks out.

    All of this just seems so very strange to me.  The prosperity gospel so clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the teachings of Jesus.   But the idea that a pastor's worth is measured by their manifest material well-being is also utterly alien.  Within my own ministry, for instance, I've been able to pretty much set the terms of my pay every year.  Creflo and probably I have that in common.  My standards, though, are that a pastor's wages should be adequate but modest.  In the context of my little church, I could well have demanded more.  But even though our small endowment could have supported a higher pay grace, I've consistently indexed my salary to the minimum standards of Presbytery.  A church that is reliant on endowment reserves to meet basic expenses should not pay a pastor more than that.  Period.

    This year, given the transitions in my community and my role here, I demanded a significant cut in pay, because it was objectively necessary.   But even if I was in a large, vibrant, and thriving community of faith, I'd still be really reluctant to ask for more than my family needed to live simply. 

    If you're a pastor, once you get to the point where your daily bread is taken care of, meaning you don't fear for want for you or your family, much more seems unnecessary.  That certainly isn't the standard of the world.  But then, since when was that the standard of Jesus-followers?

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    The Extra Half-Mile

    As the sky began to spit pellets of frozen water and the light began to wane late this afternoon, I found myself perusing my to-do list and thinking I needed to expedite the process of getting the heck out of Maryland.   I've been on the Beltway in the midst of winter precipitation events, and it is rarely pretty.

    It was at that moment, alone in the church, as I took another stab at the report I'm struggling to write for my last Trinity-Bethesda Annual Congregational and Ecclesiastical Meeting, that I saw a young African American man, dressed in large shapeless winter garb, walking around the outside of the church towards the office entrance.  I'd seen him getting off the bus out front of the church about twenty minutes before. 

    Oh man.  Random drop in.  Now?

    There was a knock at the door, so I got up and went to answer it.  "Excuse me," he said, pleasantly enough.  "Do you know where [such and such address] is?"  The street name was not familiar.  I replied in the negative.  Information is easy in this information age, and I have an iPhone, so I asked him to wait while I searched for it.  But I was out of WiFi range, and 3G was spinning in a fruitless circle, so no dice.

    He seemed both earnest and anxious, so I suggested that he accompany me to the church office so that I could googlemaps it.  He did, and as he did, we introduced ourselves, as my dog wagged ferociously at him over in the corner of the office.  "I'm so late," said he.  "I need to get a transcript from the county records office, and the place closes at 4:45 pm." 

    It was 4:32 pm.

    I searched for the address he'd told me.  It was located in a school in the middle of a nearby neighborhood, down a convoluted mess of suburban roads, a little over half a mile away.  He was never going to make it.  So I showed him where it was.  And I said, you're not going to make it if you walk.  I can drive you. 

    So we went out to my van, and he hopped in, and we drove there through some winding Bethesda backroads.   We arrived at the school, and I offered to hang around until he was done and get him back to a bus stop.  He was appreciative, and leapt out of the van to get into the county record office with six minutes to spare.

    We chatted a bit as I drove him to a bus stop on a nearby major road, and I learned he aspired to be a recording engineer...which is why he was trying to pull together his application for college. I dropped him off with a cheery farewell.

    In the midst of a world where everyone is frantic with the hurly burly of busyness scurrying, I found myself suddenly thankful for my vocation. 

    A stranger arrived in a place he had never been, but seeing the church, he had the confidence to seek help there.  I felt blessed with the privilege of having someone who had never met me arrive at the doorstep of my church, with the expectation that in such a place, a total stranger might be willing to lend a hand.

    The report?  Well, that could wait for tomorrow.  Seemed less important, somehow.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Tucson, America, and Mental Illness

    Yesterday, as I ran errands with my youngest son, we popped briefly into a Trader Joes in an unsuccessful attempt to locate vegetarian "meatballs."  They were out, so we hoofed it out of the store and into the bitter cold.

    Just past the sliding doors, we passed an older man with a long salt and pepper beard.  He was dressed in a messy melange of ragged winter clothes, and seemed to be wielding some sort of tattered banner.  "CRUCIFIED!" His shout rang out across the parking lot.  "You CRUCIFY me!  AaaHaH!  You know!  AaaaHaH!"  He grew silent, but paced and waved his arms about in an agitated way, flapping the banner, which had incoherent and smeared lettering on it.

    "Was he drunk, Dad?"  asked the little guy, as we walked further into the parking lot.  "Or just mad?"

    So I talked to him for a little bit about mental illness, and how our society really has no effective way of dealing with those who live with mental illness.

    That reality was driven home, again, through the tragic shootings in Tucson this week.  There is, of course, much hand-wringing about how the poisonous and irresponsibly inflammatory rhetoric of the right wing could lead to violence against moderates like Congresswoman Giffords.  I do think this will...at least briefly...chasten the rabblejabberers, in much the same way that the Oklahoma City bombing shut the mouths of the Angry White Men in the mid-1990s. 

    But the reality is that the young man who opened fire...or rather, the "shooter," as we call that regularly recurring character in American culture...was not motivated by the political ideology of the right.  Within twenty minutes of the shooting, as the name of the Shooter was released, I was at my computer, googling him.  Before it got taken down and before his name was seized by purveyors of malware, I checked out his YouTube videos, and read the comments he'd left on others MySpace.

    Though I have no love for the Tea Party, this tragedy was not the work of a right-wing hyperpartisan.  His writings are clearly the work of a schizophrenic.  As details of his life come to light, it's strikingly familiar.  He was increasingly erratic.  He was viewed with fear by his classmates.  He was disruptive.   Everyone he came into contact with knew there was something wrong.

    But our culture no longer has institutions where schizophrenics can be cared for on a long-term basis.  Back in the Reagan era, they were defunded and shut down.  Government, you remember, is always bad.  So folks in the 1980s ran with the idea that care for the mentally ill wasn't government's business and that local communities and charities should pick up the slack. 

    But after the institutions closed, the next stage never happened.  The network of community group homes that were supposed to take the place of the big state mental institutions never materialized.  We didn't want to pay for them...'cause that would have meant taxes.

    And for all the talk of community institutions taking the place of government, mostly what communities care about when it comes to the mentally ill is making sure that they aren't anywhere near us.  What about the children, we cry!  And our property values, we shout!

    America is just not interested in providing the mentally ill with easy access to care and support.

    What we provide them instead is easy access to Glock 9 MM pistols with extended 30 round clips.

    We are a very strange country.

    Sunday, January 9, 2011

    Faith on the Hill

    The report on the religious composition of the new One Hunnered and Twefth Congress that was released earlier this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life contains some rather interesting data.  It measures the self-stated faith affiliation of each of the members of our Congress, which can then be compared to the broader populace and dissected by the talkocracy.

    Which would be me, I suppose.

    Several things strike me.  In Pew's own analysis of their data, they note that the most significantly underrepresented group are the "nonaffiliated."  Meaning, the agnostics, the atheists, and the people who basically just couldn't care less.  While such souls are about 16% of the overall population, there are no unaffiliated folks in Congress.  Six members, or around 1%, didn't reply to the survey.  Two members, or around 0.3%, indicated their faith didn't fall into any measurable category.  But none of them explicitly said they were without faith.  Not one.  Is this a question of bias or just the inherent democratic unelectability of being a minority that articulates an unpopular worldview?  Six of one, half dozen of the other, I suppose. 

    Pew also notes that while the oldline denominations are in decline, they are significantly overrepresented in Congress.  While Presbyterians and Episcopalians combined make up only 5% of the U.S. population, we're 16% of the Congress.  Perhaps it's a factor of our love of decency, order, and mind-numbingly pointless bureaucratic wrangling over issues rather than actually solving them.

    What wasn't noted, and seems worthy of it, is the number of self-identifying "nondenominational" Christians.  Nondenominational Christianity is...at least in terms of the public face of Christianity...a significant player in the American Jesus People world.  The nondenominational churches are supposedly everywhere.  They range in size from the teeny bitty little house fellowships to the big Bible megachurches.   They make up, depending on what research you look at, somewhere around 15% of congregations.  But a grand total of two Congressmen self-identify that way.  That's means there are as many self-identifying nondenominational types in Congress as there are Muslims.   The only non-zero category they beat out are the Quakers, who are usually just too darn nice to get elected.

    Except for Nixon.  Man, that was one wacky Quaker.

    Still and all, I was particularly struck that this category, which is so prevalent in the American Christian world, should be such a non-presence.  Perhaps it's that folks don't see it as meaning anything.  A non-denom might be more prone to calling themselves "evangelical."  Or "Bible-believing."  Or perhaps they just all plopped themselves down into the largest Pew subcategory of Protestant lawmakers after the Baptists:  "Unspecified/Other."

    It might be nice to see that on some church signs.  "The First Unspecified/Other Church of Wabash." 

    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Death in the Blogosphere

    Before the winter break, I found myself delving back into my old xanga blog as I searched for something I'd written a few years back.  Xanga was the hippitiest happenin' place to blog and social network way back in 2004, before Myspace, before Facebook, before Twitter.  Now, of course, it's...well...just not.

    I bailed on it because...well...it wasn't a good platform for anything other than noodly semi-serious social blogging.  Yeah, I'm still a rank amateur, and Blogger ain't WordPress, but it's at least marginally respectable as a platform in the blogging world.

    My search for the sermon fodder quickly bore fruit, but I found myself clicking through to check on the status of some of my more regular former xanga chatmates.  Some I still stay in touch with here and through Facebook...bless y'all.   But others I haven't comment-chatted with in years.

    As I clicked through, most folks had stopped writing in 2008 or 2009, at about the same time I wandered off.  One guy in particular I communicated with almost daily, a conservative lawyer and really gracious human being who didn't often agree with me, but invariably stirred some thought provoking conversation.   I checked his xanga page, and found it ended back in 2009, with an innocuous post about pizza.  For some reason, I drilled down to the comments.

    When I knew him, Kevin was a brain cancer survivor, and was in remission...but it had returned in 2009.  And then it and complications from it had taken him.  For the hour after I discovered this, I read through his wife's reflections on his illness, his death, her mourning, and the faith they shared.

    What struck me was just how bizarre our lives in this medium can be.  Here was a human being who I'd communicated with on a semi-daily basis, a conversation partner, one of the souls who formed my network of being.  Yet he could just...die...and I could miss it.  Perhaps that's a construct of the fluttering early days of social networking, before the rise of the mighty Facebook.  But for as far as the web can create communities of shared interest, it is a remarkably easy place for human beings you've met in it to just...vanish.

    Of course, I'd never even have known this good soul without blogging.   Yet it still felt odd to realize just how quietly a human being can slip away in this medium.  It creates relationships like that with the neighbor with whom you pass a casual friendly hello every day until you move away.  Absent the reinforcing connections of shared community, that person's life is no longer connected to your own. 

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Red Dead Religion

    As Monday was technically a day off after returning from a pleasant and relaxing week skiing up in the wilds of Western Maryland, I kicked back and...after a few chores...settled in to play the PS3 game I'd been given for Christmas.  It was Red Dead Redemption, a wild-west open sandbox game, in which you can roam about the barren arroyos and tattered towns of the American West.  Or at least the American West as it was imagined by Sergio Leone.

    It's been a remarkably well-reviewed game, one I've been eager to sample ever since I first read about it on the gaming sites I feed.  Even though it's a product of Rockstar, the game studio responsible for the intensely popular but basically evil Grand Theft Auto series, I was still eager to give it a look.  For some reason, setting things in the Wild Wild West makes the gunplay more distant and more palatable.  The existence of a morality system in which you aren't obligated to just be a thief or a thug also made Red Dead Redemption seem like something I might be able to get into in a Have Gun Will Travel sort of way.

    After a full morning of gameplay, I find myself having a variety of reactions to the game.  It's gorgeous, of course.  The dusty trails and mountains of New Austin are stark and lovely.  Character modeling isn't the best I've seen, but it's still really solid.  The action...meaning the gunplay...is plenty fun.   The sense of immersion is great.  It's a really well put together sandbox.

    It is also way too profane and splattery-unpleasant to let my boys anywhere near it.  This I expected.  It can get way, way negative.  But as I 1) don't gamble, even in-game and 2) won't randomly kill and skin every animal I see to rack up points, 3) make a point of not robbing or frequenting virtual prostitutes, I may not be putting in quite as many hours on this game as I thought.  Even playing as positively as possible, the broader ethos of the game is definitely on the adult end of the spectrum.

    It's certain elements of that ethos, though, that are most striking.   The characters, pretty much without exception, articulate a view of the world that mirrors that of the Tea Party.  The Federal Government is universally described as distant, despised, and corrupt.  This is the Wild Wild West, of course, so that's not totally crazy.  Pretty much every narrative evocation of the frontier mentality includes some simmering resentment of authority.

    But it seems to verge occasionally into the realm of the paranoid.  Take the core narrative of the story, for example.  It involves the wife and children of the protagonist being held hostage by Federal agents, as a way of forcing him to hunt down members of the gang he used to run with.  Kidnapping women and children?  Huh?  There were plenty of things wrong with our society back then, but I'm not quite sure that's something that happened in 1911 America.

    Ah well.  It is just a game, after all.  No point in expecting too much.

    More challenging for a pastor/gamer, within the worldview of Red Dead religion is inherently false and corrupt.  The opening cutscene involves the protagonist sitting on a train, listening as a minister condescendingly describes converting heathen savages to a young charge.  That same young charge is later found lost and wild-eyed in the desert, convinced that her faith will save her.   Faith is, in the world of Red Dead, just for hypocrites, or the insane, or is a Karl-Marx-Opiate tool of The Man. All that is real is you and your gun.

    This isn't a factor of gaming being inherently opposed to Christianity, or faith generally.   Games like Okami or Enslaved adapt the stories of religious traditions in ways that are essentially respectful.  In other games, like Fallout 3, elements of faith are incorporated into the narrative, to the point of having central plot twists actively referencing the Bible.

    But Rockstar being what it is, it's not hard to redact where the editorial bias lies in this game.   This is a gaming studio that can't visualize faith in anything other than a simplistic snickery Ricky Gervais "religion is just such bollocks" way.  Thinking otherwise would certainly get in the way of the destructive hedonism, compulsive selfishness, and relentless violence that is so prevalent the virtual worlds of Red Dead and the GTA series.

    Still and all, New Austin sure is mighty pretty right around virtual sunset.  That and running down bandits should give me at least another 10 hours of gameplay.