Friday, March 30, 2012

An Excursus in Yellow

So here we are, within shouting distance of the end of this book.

Every day, down here in the study or slurping down coffee at a Starbucks, I've clacked away at a keyboard, immersing myself in thoughts of faith and the fascinating possibility that creation may be an infinite multiverse.  What does that do theologically?  Does Christian faith continue to be coherent in such a cosmos?  Does any other human being actually care about this, or am I so out on a limb that I'm functionally insane?  Hopefully not the latter.

It feels vaguely monastic, down here in my cave, steeped in Big Thoughts.  But the world rolls on.

Every weekday morning, for example, the pattern of the last year has been the same, one of those comforting furrows of life we groove on down.  I walk with the boys down the street to the bus stop, in tow behind our snuffling dog.  We talk, about school, about life, about gaming or what we've got planned that afternoon.  They say goodbye at the stop, and I wander on so that the pup can do her business.  We always stop at the same driveway.

But today, it felt different as we approached that driveway.  Both boys were wearing yellow, as would be many of the kids at their middle school today.   Yellow was the favorite color of the girl that up until this last week had lived in that house.  Earlier in the week, that girl...who we all knew, and who I'd watched grow up...was shot and killed by her father, who then killed himself.

The blood that stained that driveway may have been scrubbed away, but the pain has not.   Looking at the house, my heart just hurts for the mother of that dead child, her only daughter.  It hurts for the grandparents who so loved and helped raise that girl.  It hurts all the more to know that the pain I feel is just the faint albedo of compassion, as weak as the light of the moon next to the dark sun of loss that burns within that home.

And as I return to this writing, I find myself deeply aware that any theology that cannot speak to such a tragedy is worthless.

That's not to say that the first step in dealing with grief is to do theology.  Attempting this is the greatest mistake of the faithful.  It is a particular sin of pastors.  When someone's baby or grandbaby is dead, you weep with them.  You hold the grieving when they need to be held.  You hear their cries of anguish, and add your own.  You give them space if they need it.  You bring them food.  You mow their lawn.  If they're praying sorts, you pray with them.  You affirm whatever strength and faith they have.

You do not, not ever, not never, show up and start telling them what they should think and feel.  That has more to do with our desire to have power over a situation than it does with giving comfort.  Honor the need to mourn, really and truly mourn.

But questions may come, as a soul struggles to find a framework that will help it cope with an unbearable pain.  Here, faith must speak.  It must.  If it doesn't, it is [male cow excrement].

Seriously.  "I just don't know" simply does not cut it from the faithful in a time of that deepest anguish.  If your faith can give no solace or strength, and has no voice at the farthest place of human brokenness and suffering, then what the hell use is it?

That does not mean imposing your beliefs.  It does not mean insinuating that the other needs to accede to the All-Knowing Font of Wisdom That Is You.  It does not mean offering rehearsed platitudes, or little white lies that you don't really believe but that you think might be comforting because you read them in a book once.  

It means, when meaning is sought, that you can share what has given you strength.  You can offer up that which has allowed you to endure those moments of deepest hurt and loss.  That needs to be honest, caring, and direct.  Let them choose to accept it, or not, as with any freely given gift.

And so I look back across the words that I have written, and that you have plowed your way through.   It's all very heady and fascinating.  But it is more than just an intellectual exercise.   It is and has become a potent part of what I believe.  My Christian faith has been strengthened by it.

From this framework, how do we deal with the deepest loss?  How do we cope with mortality, and the inescapable reality of our human fragility?  Does this view of faith and the universe have anything to offer us?   It does, I think.  In some ways, it reinforces what the faithful have always known.  In others, it presents options for comfort that we may not have considered.

What hasn't changed?

What has not changed is that we can still affirm that nothing of a passed loved one is lost.   So much of the agony of losing a loved one is the powerful sense of their absence, and the sense that they are no longer with us.  In radically affirming the reality of God, and that God's knowledge of us is both existence and being, what we've explored together over these pages asserts that loss is only a matter of our perception.

From faith, I have always felt that we are etched forever into the fabric of being.  Nothing of what we are and were is ever forgotten.  That is true materially, but it is also true spiritually.  All of what we were, all of it, is utterly known to God.  In the connection with the Creator that we find in faith, the sense of loss we feel when we lose a loved one is not removed, nor should it be.  But it is leavened and gentled by hope and grace.  It is made more tolerable by the knowledge that they are not lost.  I find no reason within the dynamics of a multiverse creation that this cannot be so.

What has not changed is that we are dust and ashes.  What my own faith affirms is that we are knit together of the stuff of the universe, and as we come together, we come apart.  Our mortality is an inescapable part of our condition as human beings, one that we need to openly and honestly be aware of as we move from nonbeing to being to nonbeing.

We tend to blither our way through life, consumed by one moment and the next, forgetting that the span of our days here are limited.  Faith reminds us of that.  It prepares us for that reality.  It reminds us of how infinitesimally small we are, and yet teaches us to view our every moment here as absolutely precious.

Though our place in the scheme of a multiverse creation may seem even more impossibly humble, that reminder is a deeply necessary one.  Honor the time we have been given.  Accept that we are limited.

What has not changed is that there is a path of healing and grace from the place of suffering.  For the faithful, this traditionally involves the belief that "God will get you through this."  It is not a thing you rush.  Bopping in chirruping about how joyful you should be because Jesus is going to make it just peachy keen is always the wrong thing to do.

It's going to be hard.  It's going to suck.  It's going to hurt.  That's what suffering is like.

But it does not have to be forever.  There is a path of grace out of that dark place.  There is a place where you'll be able to live again.  In the self-perpetuating cycle of depression, that can seem impossible.   Yet all things are possible with God.  The reality of that statement only grows more powerful in a creation where all possibility can be known.  This can be healing, because having a sense of that as a possible reality can be, in and of itself, the key to the long journey of getting there.

The faithful have always said that God offers us that path of gracious hope.  Not all choose to walk it, a reality which has always been hard to grasp.  But the potential is there, as surely as we exist.

What has changed, just a little bit, is that God did not will their suffering.  This has always been one of the most awkward and counterproductive responses faith has to times of human anguish.  Saying "it was God's will" to a weeping widow or an anguished parent does more to drive people from God than almost any other statement of faith.

For the faithful, this may have been a necessary statement theologically.  If God is God, and the universe is linear and unchanging in its arc, then we feel compelled to say that.  For a few, this is comforting.  This is understandable on some levels, similar to simply saying, well, it is what it is.  I can do nothing about it.   It can help us let go of pain.

But for many, this is deeper anguish.  Instead of being the source of comfort and possible healing, the bond of grace and spirit that helps that circle stay unbroken, God becomes the one who inflicts the pain.  In our anger, in our suffering, in our despair, we flee not just the pain, but the God who would do this to us.

This is not a tolerable result.   If creation is as these last few chapters have described it, however, then it becomes more nuanced.  God remains God, but the particular anguish of this particular moment ceases to be an inevitable outcome of God's will.  Our mortal frailty and the compulsive human unwillingness to be excellent to one another become clearer causes.  The connection to God and the path out of suffering are less clouded, more obviously the source of hope and promise.

What has changed is that in God, it isn't just who they are that is preserved.  What they might have been is also preserved.   As my wife struggled to come to terms with what it would mean to lose a child, part of her own reflections included the loss of potential.  "But what about all your hopes for the child?  What about all of those things you knew they could accomplish, all those joys you hoped to share with them?  How do you ever get over losing that?"

For those left after a loss, particularly the loss of a young one, this is an immense thing.  It's not just the loss of the presence of the other.  It's everything that could have been.  It's every possibility in that young life, or every possibility in that relationship.

Recognizing this is an important part of mourning for the young.   But from faith, particularly a faith in which we recognize that our Creator is not limited to knowing only one way of being, there is the hope that in God, that potential is not lost.  If all things are known to our Maker, then the possibilities that are lost to us are not lost to God.  They are, in the endless creativity of God, as real as our own existence.

We'll still feel that loss, of course, in the same way that we feel the loss of that presence.  It is still a thing that calls for mourning.    But from faith there can be some confidence, in the face of the immensity of Being, that writ onto it is our best joy for that one we've lost.

And in that, and in the choice to turn our eyes to that, lies both hope and comfort.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lord Have Mercy

I woke this morning after sleeping solidly, and roused the boys.   The wife is off in Colorado Springs for a conference, so I'm it on "get the kids off to school" duty.

I put the coffee on, and then wandered out into the driveway to snag the paper.  There was no paper, I noted with annoyance.  Then I looked up the street, and saw the cop car, lights on, street blocked.   A neighbor bustled down the sidewalk, and let me know that the street was cordoned off.  There'd been a murder-suicide on our block, and five houses down the road there was heavy police presence.

With an on-the-case eleven year old by my side, we wandered down to look.  Lots of police, so many it was hard to tell where they were concentrated.  We didn't linger.  Up on a flatbed, a big SUV with big shiny rims.  I wasn't sure I recognized it.

Then back to the house we went, to figure out where the boys would need to go to snag the bus to get to school.   The flatbed rolled off with the ute, escorted by multiple motorcycle cops.  We watched a bit of footage from local news.   There were pictures in the darkness, and more details.  A 40 year old man.  A 13 year old girl.  Both found dead in an SUV in a driveway.  A father and a daughter.  Nothing more.  "No threat to the public," said a report, sterile as a needle.  "An isolated incident."

With the street opening up, I sent the kids up to the bus stop up the street, away from the scene.

I walked the dog, but once the walk was done, I watched the video again.

I realized which house it was.  Not the one I'd thought, but another.  And with that, I realized I'd seen the SUV there before.  And that there was a girl about my older son's age who lived in that house.  Her face grew bright in my mind's eye.  I've watched her grow up, in the home of her grandparents, the sweetest, kindest, most giving souls you'd ever hope to meet.

No.  It just couldn't be.

Out front of that familiar house, some folks I'd not seen before were scrubbing stains off the driveway.  They were polite, but didn't want to talk in a "no comment" way.

I walked back, and encountered their next door neighbor, who I also know.  I told her what I knew.  She'd not listened to the news.  What she knew was that that they'd heard what sounded like a shot, and been woken in the night by screaming, and then the arrival of police.  And that the SUV belonged to the girl's father, who they knew by name.

Lord have mercy.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Wuv Meetings

This last Wednesday night, I cranked out a nice solid eleven hours of work for my wee kirk, culminating in the monthly meeting of my Session.   Here's the thing, though.  I must confess it.

I like meetings.  I do.  I...I almost wuv them.

Being Presbyterian, I suppose this shouldn't come as a surprise.   But here, I think it's important to insert a couple of important caveats.

I love short meetings.  I'm getting something of a reputation on that front at my congregation.  I do not like long meetings.   I do not like them, Sam I Am, though I'm perfectly comfortable with Green Eggs and Ham.

The fact of the matter is that I find long, convoluted meetings to be a waste of the precious time God's given us on this beautiful little planet.  Meetings are not, as I see it, the place to hash things out.  That's what conversations are for, between two or three or four souls.  You do that FTF or virtually with the folks you're working with.   Need to really hash it out?  Long conversations are great.  They're awesome.   Can't reach resolution?  Well, table it, and work it out in the interstitial spaces between meetings.  But if you're gathered to make a final decision or get feedback, it's not the time for exhaustive deconstructing.  It's not time to explore all possibilities.  If you get that done on the front end, then all rolls smoothly later.

I love efficient meetings.  That means that meetings don't try to be worship.  They don't try to be bible study, or leadership training.   There are other places to do that.  Meetings are business.  A faith community just has to get that work done.  I always and without fail begin and end with prayer, because church meetings serve the purposes of the Body.   But I ditched the long meditation at the beginning of a meeting many a moon ago in my first call.   After a year or so of it, I realized: I don't really want to do this.  My session really doesn't want to do this.  God will shed no tears if I stop doing this.  So I just plain stopped.

The whole thing is God's work, if it's church, right?  So why not just get right to it?

The two rules of thumb, for a working meeting, is that it shouldn't:

1) Ever run more than two hours.  Ever.   After two hours of focus, our brains are jello.   We lose productivity.  We stop gettin' 'er done.  And so I make that a clear goal.  Don't pack an agenda so it runs past two hours.  That makes folks sad.  So I keep an air horn in my bag, and when the meeting hits two hours, I sound it, and I keep sounding it until everyone leaves the room.

Well, that, and I try to moderate effectively.  As of yet, I've not used my air horn.  Don't believe I have it?  Sigh.  Ye of little faith.   By that, I mean letting folks run a little bit if they want to, but calling it back after it's rambled a little bit.   Here, it helps to have a small church with a right-sized leadership cadre.   I also try...not always with success...not to yammer on too much myself.   Outside of a sermon, I prefer not to get caught monologuing.

2) Ever run past nine o'clock at night.  Every minute you go past Nineteen hunnred hours, you lose one percent of processing capacity.  So at ten, you're at forty percent.  By eleven, you're operating at a deficit.

OK, I totally made that up.  But when you're running meetings of volunteers with jobs and kids and spouses that they haven't seen all day, cranking into the late evening just isn't respectful of the lives they're leading.  How can I preach about living a life in balance if I don't model that value in my expectations of my Session?

It also doesn't help with decision making.  I get sloppy at the end of a full day.  So does everyone else.  Sloppy is bad.

But efficiency is satisfying.  It feels good.  It feels right.  Making that an operating norm for leadership teams takes some the dread out of being a part of such a team.

I love being around empowered teams.   If a leadership team is operating well, every member of the group has a clearly delineated role, and respects and supports the roles of others.  If a leadership group is big into second guessing and wordsmithing and trying to take control of the work of others, well, that's not so much fun.  Things bog down, and meetings become endless slogs.

But if everyone basically trusts and empowers each other, the meeting hums along.  Everyone reports in.  People notice stuff, sure, and ask for clarification.  But it's the clarification that comes from mutual accountability and support.

And it's not just the meeting that hums along.  It's the organization.  Being part of something like that is

Few things are more satisfying...even wuvable...than a good meeting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spiritual Teachers

Now that I am no longer a Minister of Word and Sacrament, but a Teaching Elder, I find myself ruminating on the folks whose writings and thinkings have guided me spiritually over the years.

As a child, that would have been Clive Staples Lewis, first as he lead me through the fields of Narnia, and then out of silent planets, and finally as I stepped into Mere Christianity.   As a fledgling, it was Fyodor Dostoevsky and Paul Tillich.  Oh, how I loved me some Tillich.  Must have been the dense Germanic sentence structure and the heady existentialism, all coupled with the use of obscure language.   I remember once looking up a word Tillich had used, because I had no idea what it meant.  In the dictionary was the definition, but as the example of how one might use the word, the dictionary presented...exactly the same sentence I was reading in Tillich.

That is some seriously epic vocabulary awesomeness.

Lately, I've been going to George MacDonald for spiritual guidance, and finding a remarkable amount of strength and grace in his words.  It's not for everyone, I'll admit.  But the past few years have often not been easy, and his ferocity of Spirit and his deep personal awareness of spiritual struggle come pouring out through and in between his writing.  On at least one occasion, he's stood between me and and spiritual disintegration.  Potent stuff, it is.

There have been others, many others, but I re-encountered one this last week who I'd not been in communication with for a while.  During the time of my coming into awareness of my call, I'd read her almost every day.  Her name was (is?) Deb Platt, and back in the mid-1990s she created an interactive online matrix of the most pertinent teachings of all of the mystics in all of the world's religious traditions.  You could read them sorted conceptually, by religious tradition (mostly Christian, but others), and sorted by religious teacher.  This was back when frames were cutting edge web-design, so it's been a while.

It was wonderful, grace-filled, and inspiring, and back when I was snarfing lunch at my desk at the Aspen Institute, I'd often move through the teachings she had intentionally compiled and presented.   It was half study, half meditation, and half prayer, in that 50% extra bonus sort of way.

Platt herself was consistently and utterly humble about her work.  She was not a spiritual guide, she'd say.  She was just a spiritually-inclined homemaker with some time on her hands, she'd say.  I'm not your teacher, she'd say.

But she was.

And then she disappeared.   Not raptured away, although that seemed a possibility, but as in stopped updating and building the site.  It sat for a while, fallow.  And then the account shut down, and all links lead to digiserve nothingness.  Emails got pinged back.

Years pass, but I haven't forgotten.  I'd search for her work, now and again, hoping it would resurface, finding nothing.

But then this last week, I found it on one of those wayback machine-type datamining sites.  It wasn't the last iteration, and the bleeding edge 1997 frames no longer really worked for navigation.  But the writings and ideas were there.

And so rise the stirrings of a possible next project, the one after my book is in final-ish draft, are born.  Because the Platt Mysticism Matrix would just rock as a deep, ornate interactive Prezi.  We'll see.

But whichever way, it'd be nice to do something that passes her work on.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Projectors, Images, and Imagination

This last week, a pastor from a church in my area dropped me a message, asking if she might be able to come by my little church and see how we used Powerpoint and our projector in worship.  My predecessor at Poolesville had been really creative in her use of multimedia in worship, and the word had been spread through the old-girl network of pastors in my area that maybe it was a good model for churches thinking about adding visuals to the mix.

I'd made extensive use of multimedia at my prior congregation in worship, integrating visuals, frequently preaching from Powerpoint/Keynote,  and even occasionally streaming a Youtube.  

But to this query, I had to somewhat sheepishly admit that for the last six months I haven't used the projector at all.   It's been used, of course, by members of this small and tech savvy congregation.  Not by me, though.  I've not even been tempted...yet.

Part of that might have been contemporary worship fatigue.  I can get spiritual meaning and uplift from a praise team and big-screen driven worship.  But that's because I'm easy.

I can also find God's presence in a Greek Orthodox service, or in a Catholic Mass.  God is there for me in the High Holy Days at my wife's synagogue, as the soft minor key yearning of the Aveinu Malkeinu rises from the gathered, who rocking and davit like live coral in the sea.   I can find God in silent contemplation, and in the practice of walking meditation that I learned from Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh.

Eventually, I'm sure the visual element of worship will be made a part of the life of my community again.  Visual media can be potent as bearers of meaning.  The ferocity of Picasso's Guernica, the deceptively simple depth of Rothko, the languorous intricacy of Klimt, or the fleshy, folded shadows of Rembrandt all speak, yet have no words.  Similarly, the stark mysticism of films like Ron Fricke's koyaanisqatsi or the sublime Baraka, the visceral tonality of Kurosawa, or the voiceless elegance of a game like Journey all give voice to the power of image to convey both emotion and symbolic meaning.

That, and you can show pictures of puppies.  Aawwww!  So kewwwtttt!!!

Where I struggle is with the assumption that you NEED to use the forms of contemporary worship.   Oh, sure, that makes worship familiar.  You need a screen, because, well, we're comfortable with screens.  Screens are how we understand the world.  Our lives are screens.  The screen I'm seeing this appear on as I write it.  The screen you're reading this on.  The big-bahonkus Fahrenheit 451 screen in your rec-room.  The little screen in your pocket that you check compulsively everywhere you go.  If you don't have a screen in front of you, then it's boring.  Old.  Irrelevant.  And if we don't have a screen, we also feel a little lost.  A little anxious.

This bugs me.

It bugs me because I love the written word, and the word spoken.  My teacher was a storyteller, and the idea that we have lost the ability to appreciate a well-woven tapestry of words would speak ill of us as a culture.  It bugs me because while visuals can and do add another creative option to worship, if we become reliant on them, then it feels like we've added nothing.  Worse, that we've somehow regressed, as the post-literate era dazzles us into believing that it is not, in fact, just as prone to distraction and manipulation as the preliterate era.  Worse, even, because at least preliterate humanity knew how to listen and imagine.

Authentic worship can take many forms, and if you must have multimedia to experience it, then you're no less limited than the ardent traditionalist, who sniffs and clucks at any worship that doesn't involve a choir and a hymnal.

I'm interested in being open to the new.  We have to be, if we're to leave space for the voices of the young and the creative.  But I'm also interested in being open to the ancient, to the rituals that still can bear meaning, to the music that reminds us that authentic faith does not begin and end with our moment.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


One of the simple delights of having a dog about the house comes every time I pop open a bag of empty carbohydrates.  It could be a bag of chips.  It could be a bag of cheezy corn puff doodles.  But with the first sound of the crinkling plastic, the pup arrives, eager to be at my side.

Ours is a bit of a wan dog, prone to brooding and a tick on the skittish side.  She's gentle as can be, and wonderful with the kids, but if she's in one of her moods, she prefers to keep to herself.  She doesn't come when called.  She doesn't fetch.  When she's being particularly distant, I'll accuse her of having feline ancestry.  

"Your dad must have been a cat," I'll say, as she wanders off yet again to sit in the sun and gaze wistfully out the window.

But a bag of crunchies brings her eagerly to my side.  

It's not a particularly healthy thing, I'll admit.  I should only feed her the foods that come in the big industrial sized bags for dogs, as opposed to the big industrial sized bags for humans.  What could I be thinking?

As I sit to game for a bit, or read, or blog, it's nice sharing a bite of food with her.  I'll pop a low fat potato chip in my mouth, and offer her one.

As I crunch down on the chip, so does she.  The taste of salt and fat and starch fills both of our mouths.  Both sets of teeth bite, and both tongues turn, and the crunchcrunchcrunch carries satisfyingly through the bones of our heads.

It's the same feeling, at the same moment.

There's something to be said for that.  It's a reminder that we are not so far removed from the creatures that surround us.  While we'd prefer to forget it, particularly as we factory-farm them, they and we are formed from the same dust.

That's one of the best things about having a dog, I think.  That reminder, without anthropomorphizing them, that they and we are not so far distant.

Dogs are good for that.

They're also good for reminding us that with the right attitude, starting a day with a bag of warm excrement can feel like victory.

But that's another post for another time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Over the years, the story of Jesus whomping on the moneychangers and the sellers of temple livestock has become one of my least favorite passages of Scripture.

There's a reason for this, of course.  Christians get all temple-cleansy when we're at our most vociferously self-righteous, when we're most eager to toss out the heretics and the unbelievers.   We all want to be Jesus, stomping into the temple and snapping his whip like Indiana Jones, while the Apostle Short Round scampers around around poking' 'em in the knees and generally being annoying.  We particularly want to be this way when we are faced with those who don't see the world the way we do.

I've heard that passage from Mark 11 pitched out by conservatives eager to rid the church of the apostate worldly corrupt influence of liberalism.  Clearly, the moneychangers represent the interpersonal decadence and corrupting influence of libertine culture.  I've also heard it mirrored right back by those on the left who are eager for the church to be rid of the hateful, bigoted voices of patriarchal oppression.  Clearly, the moneychangers represent the reactionary forces of cultural stagnation and capitalism.

It's the primary proof text we go to when we're looking for an excuse to fight, hate, and demonize others.  Given how often I see it paraded around, you'd think it was as important as the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety.  Watching it used as a biblical warrant for scorched-earth hatred on both sides in an intractable church conflict was deeply painful.

But this week, in perusing John's version of this story, I found myself noticing something I can't remember ever seeing before.  Sure, I might have seen it, but maybe I didn't remember.   As John tells it...and John is as ever the minority report in the face of the unified witness of the Synoptics...there was a detail that just sprang out and bopped me on the noggin.  John places the story at a very different place in the narrative, right near the beginning, reflecting the very different purposes of that Gospel.

That wasn't it, though.  I knew that already.

What got me were a couple of details that John has that are utterly missing from the other Gospels.  John is the only story to mention the whip of cords, a familiar image if we're visualizing the tushie-kickin' Jesus lays out.  There is another detail, though.

In John, Jesus does not use that whip to attack the sellers of animals.  Instead, he "drove all of them out," but by all of them, the Gospel writer means "both the sheep and the cattle."   He also poured out the coins and knocks over the tables...both objects, not people.  And he tells those selling doves to "Take these things out of here!"

He gets those dogies rolling, sure.  But what is most markedly lacking in the Johannine version is an attack on the persons themselves.   Jesus assails the system that comprises the ritual economy that has sprung up around the temple.  He actively disrupts it.  What he does not do is go a-whuppin' the people.  He challenges them, sure.  But as John tells it, he does not seem bent on driving them out, too.

That is a non-trivial difference.

We may not like that version as much.  It doesn't satisfy our hunger to put a hurting on those who oppose us.

But there are times when the minority report is worth hearing, just so we don't imagine that every conflict we want to justify is as important to God as we'd like to think it is.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Declaration of the Secession of New Virginia

Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of New Virginia from the State of Virginia

with thanks to the Confederate State of South Carolina
for the Idea and Most of the Text
Which Is Sort of Ironic
Given the Context
But Hey
What Goes Around Comes Around
The people of the State of New Virginia, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 2015, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Government of the State of Virginia, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the People, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the State of Virginia; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other free States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.
And now the State of New Virginia having resumed her separate and equal place among states, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act.
In the year 1765, that portion of the British Empire embracing Great Britain, undertook to make laws for the government of that portion composed of the thirteen American Colonies. A struggle for the right of self-government ensued, which resulted, on the 4th of July, 1776, in a Declaration, by the Colonies, "that they are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do."
They further solemnly declared that whenever any "form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was established, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government." Deeming the Government of Great Britain to have become destructive of these ends, they declared that the Colonies "are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
We hold that the Government rightly established is subject to those two great principles asserted in the Declaration of Independence; and we hold further, that the mode of its formation subjects it to a third fundamental principle, namely: the law of compact. We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.
In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that the Senators and Delegates of the Less Populous Counties of the State of Virginia have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.
The Constitution of the United States, in its first Amendment, provides as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made.  Yet as the People clamour for their right to liberty, the forces of the State do willfully prevent their peaceable assembly.   As the People seek to live according to the blessings of liberty in their own Persons, the State does enforce the edicts of the Fundamentalist Faith, asserting through the Sword and Coercion its ill-sought will to abrogate the Liberty of the People in the service of a Religion that is not freely and fully embraced.  In so doing, the Senators and Delegates of the Less Populous Counties do violate and willfully impugn the Constitutional Liberties of the gathered People.
Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the Less Populous Counties, and the consequence follows that New Virginia is released from her obligation.
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the  Less Populous Counties. Those Counties and the Party that they represent have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of personal liberty recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the basic freedoms of our individual persons; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to diminish the liberty of the citizens of other Counties. 
They have used the Power of the State to Harass and oppose the free practice of Science, and to willfully suppress the free distribution and presentation of Scientific opinion, and in so doing have shown a willful disregard for the Freedom of the press and of basic human liberties.
They have betrayed the essential purpose of the Medical Profession and the liberty of her practitioners; They have passed Laws to enforce Unnecessary Medical Procedures for the Sole Purpose of Oppression and the abrogation of personal Liberty; They have inflicted such procedures as a Secret Tax to enforce their Religion on those whose Liberty they seek to diminish.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms*  of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Power of those Gathered in Richmond, the means of subverting the Constitution itself.  
The State has rewritten the Electoral Map so that those in office elect themselves, and all the false and pernicious Districts so formed have united in the election of a man to the high office of Governor of the State of Virginia, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to Freedom, and of Senators and Delegates who do not serve the Freedom of the Citizens of this Great State, but their own interest, power, and Religion. 
In the Year of Our Lord 2010, this Party took possession of the Government.  
The guaranties of the Constitution no longer exist; the right of the People to fair redress of grievances has been lost. The Free People of New Virginia no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the State Government has become their enemy.
Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion in the Less Populous Counties has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.
We, therefore, the People of New Virginia, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the State of Virginia, is dissolved, and that the State of New Virginia has taken her position among the States of the United States of America, as a separate and independent State comprised of the non-contiguous jurisdictions of Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Albermarle, Loudon, Prince William, Norfolk, Newport News, Montgomery, Buckingham, Nelson, Brunswick, Greensville, Sussex, Surrey, Charles City, Henrico, Suffolk, Chesapeake,  King and Queen, Caroline, Essex, Danville, and Yea, even Richmond herself; with full power to contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
PS: Oh, and Sic Semper Tyrannis?  We get to keep that.  
Adopted May 17, 2015

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gaming and Spirituality

For significant chunks of today, I've been prepping for a presentation on gaming, part of a first-Wednesday of the month series of evening seminars at my congregation.   As a pastor and a gamer, I've got a strong appreciation for both the joys and the ethical challenges in gaming.

There are some ethical sinkholes in the gaming world, to be sure, virtual La Brae tar pits for the soul.  But to be honest, none of them are any worse than handing Ayn Rand to an impressionable teen.  Grand Theft Auto might make them a bit more thuggish, but at least it doesn't make them prone to bombastic, overlong, compulsively self-absorbed right-wing prose.

As I've been prepping for what will be a general survey of the ethics of gaming, I find myself wondering if this new medium can be a spiritual thing.   Games can tell wonderful stories, to be sure, filled with deeply real characters that genuinely move us.   Those of you disappearing into Mass Effect 3 this week know what I mean.  Games can make us laugh.  Games can be filled with wit and humor and grace.  Games can genuinely stimulate us mentally, forcing us to think as deeply as any brain twisting puzzle.  Games can be as creatively open and playful as a box of LEGOs in the hands of a child.  Games can be art.

But can they be spiritual?  Sure, an eight hour nonstop gaming session can put us into a pretty altered state of consciousness, but that's not quite the type of spirituality I mean.

Can a game give us that sense of wonder and mystery that comes with the most evocative music, or the most beautiful paintings?  Can it give a sense of being connected not just to the creative intent of the human being who made it, but the deeper reality of the Creator who formed that human being?   There is certainly art that does this, cinema and music that causes deep stirrings of the Spirit within us.   Ron Fricke's Baraka stirs that in me, as does the early work of Kurosawa and Bergman.  The music of Arvo Part also speaks it.

But games?

Some have come close.   The spare, subtle games produced by thatgamecompany seem closest to that for me.  Next week, I'm looking forward to the release of Journey, the latest in their series of remarkably elegant and haunting releases.  Like prior games flOw and Flower, each delightful in their own way, Journey seems less like a traditional game, and more like a powerfully primal meditation.   It's only three hours long, but the reviews so far have affirmed that those three hours are deeply memorable and affecting.

As with any unusually grace-filled thing, I'm eager to experience it.

Israel, Iran, and Yearning for Cyrus

As things continue to trundle inexorably towards military conflict in the Middle East...again...the inevitability of war is desperately frustrating.   As we bumble along in our aimless way, distracted by Kardashians and kontraception and zombie melodrama, America isn't paying attention.   The question seems to be not if there will be a conflict, but when.

A significant war in the region would involve someone, likely a nuclear-neo-holocaust-haunted-Netanyahu, going big-time preemptive, followed by a semi-prolonged exchange of medium-range ballistic weaponry.  Tel Aviv and Tehran would burn, but I think it'd be more than than.

There's no love between Tehran and the Arab world.  Iranians are Persian, not Arab, after all.  They share the faith of much of the rest of the Arab world, but they do so in the same way that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland shared Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century.   If a few Ghadr-110s and Shahab-3s found their way to the massive Yanbu refinery complex in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn't be surprised.   Four dollar a gallon gas will seem a bargain then, I'd suspect.

The way to defuse conflict between two parties is to find common ground or common interest, and that ain't easy in this one.  Iran isn't the most genial of nations lately, being unpleasantly prone to oppression and all the bad things that happen when faith uses the power of the state to enforce itself.  In the face of real existential threats, Israel has chosen for herself some highly aggressive far-right leadership.  On the one hand, you don't have to worry about Netanyahu being willing to go to war.  On the other, well, if war is the primary skillset of your leadership, then that's what you're likely to get.

Still and all, there is common ground.  You just have to go waaaay back to find it.  That common ground comes in the deep past, in the person and ethic of the greatest ruler of the Persian empire.   Cyrus the Great is a remarkable figure in world history.  He was an empire-builder who spread the influence of his people.  He was a warrior-king, who lead his armies into battle not from the confines of a desk, but on the battlefield itself.  What president or prime minister does that these days?  That's not what makes him most significant, though.   Warlords were a dime a dozen back when sword and bow and horse were the tools of the trade.

What made Cyrus the Great so great was that he was a remarkably gracious ruler.  He was, in the classical sense, a liberal.  His official policy towards other peoples was to tolerate their religious practices, to permit them great latitude in their cultures, and to be generous towards them.   His approach to other peoples was rather different than that of Ahmedinajad and the ayatollahs who rule Iran today.

But Persians haven't forgotten him over the millennia.  He's a significant part of their history.  One their oppressive leadership struggles with, particularly as he was likely a Zoroastrian.  But they can't forget him and maintain their identity as a people any more than we could forget Washington and maintain our identity as a nation.

Neither has Israel forgotten Cyrus.  The Tanakh sings his praises, both in the Prophets and in the Writings.  He was, after all, the one who Isaiah celebrated, who not only liberated the Hebrew people from Babylonian captivity but also bankrolled the rebuilding of Jerusalem.   Nehemiah worked for Cyrus, after all.

Folks in the Middle East have long memories.  It's just a pity those memories are so selective, seeking out the pain and discord and not going back to places of grace and hospitality.  You'd think the fact that the greatest Iranian leader encouraged Jews to rebuild Israel would be something you'd remember.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eating the Elderly

Last Friday, with my big guy doing a sleepover and the wife doing a mother-daughter overnight, it was just me and the little dude.   That night, he and I hit a restaurant, snagged some ice cream, and then together picked out the movie for the evening.  We'd initially thought we'd go with Godzilla, but he decided maybe that wasn't quite right.  And so, after much deliberation, I steered him towards Soylent Green.  It's one of the classics of sci fi, set in 2022.

Back in 1973, that seemed a ways off.  Now?  Not so much.

The film, starring a scenery-chomping Charlton Heston in all his toothy, man-slab glory, involves a detective living in a crumbling, overpopulated dystopia. Unemployment is rampant, and the vast majority of human beings are desperately poor, with a tiny minority of the wealthy controlling everything.  "The Greenhouse Effect" has turned the world into a desert-like hothouse, in which crops struggle to grow, and big corporations control the entirety of the food supply.  Most of that is now processed food.

So, yeah, total fantasy.  Nothing at all like 2012.  Nope.

The movie revolves around a murder, as Charlton finds himself trying to figure out why a muckity-muck in the Solyent corporation has been assassinated.  The answer, of course, is that he's realized that Soylent Green...the latest and last hope for the dwindling supply of protein...isn't made out of soy and plankton at all.  The seas are dying, and increasingly devoid of life.

If you haven't seen it, stop reading now.

It is, of course, reprocessed human beings, either those harvested from the streets or those who get old and volunteer to die.  Those who volunteer?  They're gently euthanized, given wine and beautiful images and music to soothe their passing.

My little guy wasn't quite sure to make of it.  "A good movie, but it's so depressing," he sighed.  "And it's not even European!"

But here's the crazy thing.  I'm not sure that the way that this horrific imagined dystopia dealt with its elderly is any less kind than the way our culture deals with the old.

As a volunteer for Meals on Wheels, I encounter the radical isolation of the old in our communities.  I take the time to talk, as much as they need, when I do deliveries of food twice a month.  What I experience is a life of closed blinds and clutter, as human beings spend the last of their days slowly fading to black.  Families are distant and distracted.  Friends are aging or dead.  Too often, it's life as a shade, as a shadow.

The Industrial Retirement Warehouses into which we put our grandparents and parents are no better.  They tend to look pretty for visiting distant family, but honestly?  That's just a whited sepulchre.  They're grim, grim places.  Some are passable, but most?  Most are devoid of the laughter of children, closed off from the sky and the air and the sun, smelling of stale flesh and antiseptic.  If this is in my future, then I'd almost rather be processed into a Tofurky.

And what to do about it?  Our consumer-cultural tendency to get us to adolescence as quickly as possible and to keep us there as long as possible means we're just not paying attention to the passing of time.  We cling to youth, blind ourselves to our own mortality, hide away from any hint of aging and dying...and then the next thing we know, we're alone in a room, estranged, confused, alone.

Fighting it seems both as necessary and hopeless as the wounded Heston's shouts as he's carried away at the end of the film, that we've got to do something, something, somehow.

Because it's made of people.  People.