Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sick Kids

I'd been planning on a productive day Monday.  With one paper down for my upcoming D.Min. season, there's still several hundred pages of reading and prep to do for the next paper.  Between that and errands and laundry, it looked to be a busy one.

But the morning was an unusual swirl of entropy, even by the chaotic standards of a typical Monday.  The little guy was as slow as sludge.  It was grey and cold-drizzly.  The coffeemaker managed to produce about half a cup of black fluid that tasted mostly of burnt rubber before it seized up and died.  Not that I didn't consider drinking it, but the potential for self-poisoning outweighed the morning yearning for coffee.

And the big guy loped into the kitchen, fed himself, got ready, and then announced that he felt off.  Just cold, he said.  Really cold.  His temperature got taken, and it was normal, and so off to school he went.

With the kids away, I snagged some coffee from a local beanery, some for me and da wife.

Then the call came from the school.  First period, he'd gotten the shakes, been excused from class, and was now in the clinic running a fever of around 100-101.  Could someone come pick him up?

Sigh.  Yet another time when having a part-timer in the household has come in handy.  So off to get him I went.

There in the clinic he sat on the disposable paper-covered bed, shaking and a bit bleary eyed.  He was a bit slow to respond, but got himself together.  The whole way home his body shook and his teeth clattered, and he slumped over in the seat.

Once home, I helped him out of the van and he stumbled into bed, where he lay shuddering, eyes bloodshot, clearly hurting.   Taking his temp with our notoriously inaccurate in-ear thermometer, it first hit with a 105.6, which was a bit let's-please-not-have-to-go-to-the-ER.  Then 104, and 104.1, which was a bit more like it, but still raging.   I dumped some ibuprofen into him, and applied a wet cool cloth to his head for a while.  I then paced around for a while, too concerned about his temperature to focus on much else.  A half hour passed, and then an hour, after which I gave him acetaminophen to ladder the antipyretics.  Gotta get that fever down.

I realized, while doing this, that he hadn't been sick like this for at least two years.  Two years ago, he was a kid.  A big kid, but a kid.  Now, though, he stands a few inches taller than me, and is a great solid slab of a lad.  Not quite at his full grown height, but getting there.  He is no longer a child.

Recognizing this, it was different caring for him, and yet the same.  I told him what I was doing and why. I told him what the meds were doing, and why I was so focused on keeping his head cool.  When helping an ill adult, you owe them that.

Yet as he slept, and slept, and his temperature began to normalize, well...the relief felt much the same as when I could just pick him up in my arms.  

And I couldn't help but check his temperature, just once, the way I did when he was tiny, with a father's kiss to a blessedly cooling forehead.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Anders Breivik, Violence, and Violent Software

Last night, as we ate a late dinner following drum practice, I ran something by my eleven year old.  He and I both share an enjoyment of first person shooter games, and so I ran a bit of challenging FPS news by him.

That news came out of Norway, where the trial of mass-shooter Anders Breivik is underway.  Breivik, in the event you don't recall, is the man who walked into a youth camp with automatic weapons and proceeded to methodically kill seventy-seven unarmed individuals.

He's utterly unrepentant, viewing his actions as a necessary act of resistance against the forces of Marxist/Islamism, which he sees as all part and parcel of the liberal agenda.  In trial this week, Breivik claimed that he'd used FPS games to train for his attack, particularly Modern Warfare 2.  Video games facilitate violence, went the headlines.

So I asked my son what he thought of this.  He was skeptical on two fronts.  First, he noted that Modern Warfare 2 bears only a passing resemblance to actual combat.  It's frenetic, hyperkinetic, and not particularly representative of the dynamics of battle.   My eleven year old has a love of history, and knows that warfare itself looks and feels very little like the gaming experience.

Second, how much "training" do you really need to kill unarmed kids?   My son noted that the mass killing of helpless, terrified, fleeing civilians is not generally part of FPS games.  There, the game is about competition with equals, and testing your skills and reaction times against those of others who are equally empowered.   And it is simply a game.  It is not violent, because those playing it know and mutually assent to the rules of the game.  No physical or actual harm is inflicted to opponents.

The issue is not gaming software.

Nor, quite frankly, is the issue that Breivik is insane.  As the court has found, he is not.  We might like to think that the problem lies in some deep seated neurological problem, but the pathology of his monstrous acts has nothing whatsoever to do with that.   I've spent much time with schizophrenics in my life, and gotten to know those living with real clinical mental illness.  Some have been my friends.   From that context, it is clear to me that there is nothing wrong with the hardware of his mind.

I spent some time reading through portions of Brevik's 1,500 page manifesto yesterday.  Lord have mercy, what is it with these people and their manifestos?  It is "rambling," as they tend to be.  But it is not the work of a broken mind.

It is not the most original work.  In fact, it reads remarkably like the writings of other ultraconservative mass murderers, like also-not-insane Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh.  It also reminded me a bit of Ayn Rand.   It is utterly self-absorbed and convinced that it contains the One Great Truth Only The True Believers Know, wrapping a fundamental selfishness and disdain for other human beings in concepts like liberty and freedom.  It is the work of a mind in isolation, tuned only to those who echo its hatred.

The issue is the software.  Not the gaming software.  The wetware software.

What it is not is insane.  It is not mental illness that drove Breivik to kill, but a pattern of thinking that lead him down that path.  That pattern of thinking is not insanity.  It is better described as evil.  And it's OK to say that word.

Much has been made of Breivik being "Christian."  But his Christianity bears no resemblance to the teachings of Jesus.  Searching his manifesto for the keyword "Jesus" gets you some angry invective about how liberals have stolen Jesus, or are misusing Jesus to excuse being kind to and tolerant of Muslims.   The name of Jesus is dropped when he talks about being a Crusader or a warrior.  Where Jesus himself is mentioned at all, it is not in his core teachings of love, self-giving, or the Kingdom.  Instead, we get two painfully familiar proof-texts about how Jesus gives us the right to armed self-defense.

I say painfully familiar because a skim of Breivik's fulminations reads remarkably like the fury in the American ultraconservative blogosphere.  The same enemies are cited.  The same arguments are made.  The same anger is expressed.   Ultimately, it's an anger rooted in a transition-resistant culture, and its fear of loss.   Clearly, he was an isolated soul, who became so lost in anger and the silo of ultra-right-wing aggrievement that he stopped viewing other human beings as human.   That is true of any extremism.

And it is that programming, diametrically opposed to the love ethic, that has always been the heart of violence.

Andrew Sullivan and Disorganized Religion

It's as predictable as the clouds of tree-pollen in the early spring.   Whenever Easter comes-a-hop-hop-hoppin' down the bunny trail, major media outlets start preparing to have a provocative talk about Jesus.   With the chocowate wabbits and the pastels sitting in the supermarket seasonal aisle, we find our minds least a little the whole Christian thing, and so it's time for a bit of front-cover talk about the guy from Nazareth.

For Newsweek this year, the article was from Andrew Sullivan, talking about the Chrisis in Christianity as an organized religion, and the rise of folks just up and following Jesus on their own.

As a totally irrelevant aside, said Jesus appeared to be a hipsterish white guy, who appeared to have lead us into the middle of a busy intersection in the heart of New York City, where he's standing looking distant.  "Jesus?  Hey.  Um.  Shouldn't we be...HEY WATCH IT BUDDY...standing over there on the....YEAH WELL SO'S YER MOTHER...sidewalk?"

Still, odd selection of Jesus-location notwithstanding, much of what Sullivan said resonated, particularly if you've been around the churchy block for a while.   With the full recognition that the internet has moved on, I felt it was worth reflecting on.  As we're technically still in the Easter season, and that pound and a half we gained from sneaking our kid's chocolate bunnies is still in our midsection, I figured it was still worth talking about.

As examples of what we should be doing, Sullivan gives both Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi.   Jefferson was chosen because of his legendary cut-and-pasting of the teachings of Jesus into a more Enlightenment friendly form.  St. Francis?  Well, he's just sort of cool, out there in your backyard statuary with a handful of birdseed.

As examples of what we shouldn't be doing, Sullivan lays out a familiar and warranted list of problems with organized faith.  Churches are fusty and stale.  Churches are just political entities, proxies for this party or that party. Churches are just businesses.  Churches are totally out of touch.  Churches are just self help groups.  Churches get in the way of that transforming relationship we have with Yeshua Ben Yahweh.   And so, as the argument goes, we may as well just forget about organized religion, and focus instead on Jesus.   Stop fretting about power, stop this endless misuse of Christ's teachings to justify ourselves, and start being changed by his radical teachings.  Follow him with your whole self, heart and mind and soul, and you're getting what it's all about.

I get this.  I do.  It's pretty good stuff.

But I'm just not quite ready to abandon church...or, for that matter, organized religion.   There are a couple of reasons for this that go beyond me getting paid the big bucks to teach about him.

The first has to do with what happens if you take Sullivan's advice seriously.  Let's say you put your whole self in to the whole Jesus thing.  You start following Jesus.  You go where his teachings take you.  You walk the Way.   As you walk the way, you hear Jesus saying to you: Love your neighbor.  And, hey, love your enemy.

That means you have to look around a bit.  Following Jesus has implications for our life in relation to other human beings.  In fact, it has some pretty significant implications, ones that we won't notice if we're up on our mountaintop or down in our basement staring at our computer while we pour our Big Important Thoughts About Our Jesus into the interwebs.

To follow Jesus, we have to be aware of the other human beings around us.  More than that.  We have to love them.  Which means we have to listen to them.  To work with them.  To stand in caring and Christlike relationship with them.

Perhaps, I find myself wondering, church is that place where Jesus stops for a moment to let us catch our breath.  He wordlessly motions for us to look around.  Who do we see?  Who do we encounter as we follow, or discover standing right there at our shoulder?   Two or three, or twenty or thirty, or thousands, gathered together by the act of following.  That's church in a nutshell.

Sometimes Jesus seems a long way off, and as we walk towards his distant figure, we notice coming over a distant rise that there's another group, as small as ants, all moving together, coming from a different place but heading towards the same goal.   That's church too.

Then there are the times when the road is blocked, or we get tired, or we fall and our ankle hurts like a sonofa.  Those folks around us?  They pick us up, or offer to carry something, or bind up our ankle so we can walk on it and give us an arm to lean on.  That's church.

Sometimes, we encounter walls and cliffs that are simply too high to tackle on our own.  We figure it out, combine our efforts, work together, and help each other get over it.  That's organized religion.   Sometimes we encounter others on the way who are hungry, or who need clothing, or who've been hurt, and we figure out ways that we can together help them.  That's organized religion.

Or someone starts singing a song for the journey, and then we figure out the harmonies and the rhythms, and we start singing it all together because it sounds better together.  That's organized religion.

So I totally get Sullivan's point.  It's important for us not to get distracted in our walk.  But then again, organizing isn't a bad thing, not if you're doing it with that one goal in mind.  Sometimes it's easier to journey if we're journeying together.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Shuttle Goes Down

I was there the first time around.

As a lifelong Washingtonian, I can remember back to that day in the mid-1980s, as the shuttle Enterprise was flown around the Beltway on the back of a 747.  It was awesome, as a young teen, to watch as it soared by.  I stood on a bikepath overlooking the highway, and the jet roared low and slow overhead so everyone could get a good long look.

It was amazing.  That image, of the iconic silhouette, of the reality of the first orbiter, well, that's still burned into my cortex.  It's an important memory.

It was an emblem of America's commitment to peaceful space exploration.  Oh, sure, the Enterprise herself was just a testbed, a functioning prototype.  But it was a profoundly hopeful thing to witness with my own eyes.  Here was powerfully real evidence of our nation, committed to the future.  We were making it happen.  We were getting it done.   The prototype?  On her way to be stored by the Smithsonian at Dulles, where one day a museum would rise to house her.  Other shuttles, a fleet of them, promised to open low earth orbit to all manner of exploration.  And then?  The future seemed filled with possibilities.

Today, the shuttle Discovery made the same rounds.

Across my Washington DC area social network, there was much excitement.  Pictures snapped from smartphones and culled from local media sources popped and repopped on Facebook.  The local newsradio station hummed with shuttle sightings.

So exciting!  A real spaceship!  Right there in the skies above the Nation's Capital!

I can't quite feel the same excitement now.

In the place of the Discovery, there is nothing.  Oh, there are and were plenty of pipe-dreams.  We'll go to Mars, said a president!  We'll set up a moon base, said a candidate!  Sure we will.  That talk is nothing more than the yarns told by your always-broke uncle, spinning a story about how he's going to make it big from the same sofa he's living on in your grandparents basement.  It's just not real.

We've become a nation that has forgotten the effort required to make things like that happen.  Our drive for space has faltered.  Our capacity for heavy lift to orbit is functionally zero.  We have no real plans to get back on track.  NASA's funding is waning.

Heck, even North Korea, a starving, struggling, mostly insane backwater tyranny, shows more motivation to get into space.   We're content to stick out our thumbs and let the Russians do the work.    Or not do anything at all, except perhaps weaponizing the program so it can be funded covertly.  Going into space as a nation requires resources, which means paying for it, which means taxes.  We've forgotten how to do that after years of being told you can get something for nothing.  That is and always has been the easy lie of charlatans, quacks, and politicians.

So now we have nothing, and are too distracted and unfocused as a nation to even realize we should be ashamed by that reality.

The possibilities that the Enterprise represented have faded.  The future that the Discovery worked towards is not to be seen.

It may yet resurface.   I hope it does.  But today over the skies of Washington came a reminder of how quickly future becomes history, and how easily potential can be lost without both commitment and effort.


Having preached an Acts 4 sermon this Sunday on communism and Christianity, one of the things I encountered in my wanderings through the interwebs researching the somewhat bedraggled state of global Redness was the web presence of the Communist Party in the United States of America.  Their yearning for the great uprising of the workers continues, with the website proudly announcing that the rise of socialism as a dominant global system is just around the river bend....juuuust arouuuund the rivrbeeeeeend...

Sigh.   It's a little sad.

But of all of the things that struck me in looking through their materials, perhaps the thing that struck me the hardest was that that not a single one of the leaders of the the Communist Party in the United States of America appears to actually be a communist.

I cranked through their bios, and they appear to be an unsurprisingly diverse assemblage of social theorists and big-thinkery folks.   They are all, without question, socialists.  There is much talk about the need for government intervention to bring about justice for workers and the disenfranchised.

What I did not see, though, came when the bios described how the self-identified leaders of American communism lived.  They live with their   In urban areas.  What was lacking was any mention of participation in a collective.  Do they share their resources with a group of fellow-travellers, living out the fundamental operating ideal of communism, which is to ACTUALLY LIVE IN A COMMUNE?  Oops.  Sorry.  I seem to have accidentally hit all caps when I mentioned that being an authentic communist requires LIVING COLLECTIVELY ON A COMMUNE.

Oh drat.  Did it again.  Sorry.

There's no reason you can't be communist in America.  None whatsoever.  It's a choice that many folks make.  In fact, one of the more recent moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA lived in what's called an "intentional community," which is sorta kinda a Christian commune.   Monastic communities have always been communist.   Living that way requires individual and collective discipline, effort, and organization.   It also helps to be governed by an ethic of self-sacrificing love.   In the post-worship bible study on Sunday, we talked through some of the challenges and history of such communities, and how their lives together either work or do not work.

But digging through the web presence of the Communist Party in the USA,  I just couldn't find any mention of collectivism and communal living.  Not a bit.  I'm sure it was there somewhere.  It just wasn't front and center.  Which seems odd, if you call yourself communist.

Friday, April 13, 2012

What Ann Romney Did Not Say

Yesterday was a typical day.  I woke at around 6:30 am, creaked out of bed, and rousted both of my middle-schoolers.   They got fed, watered, and presentable, while I pulled together food for their lunches. Nothing gives you an appreciation for Moses in the wilderness with complaining Israelites like late-Passover week as you prep yet another matzoh-based meal.

I drink a cup of coffee, and out the door they go, bags of unleavened lunch in hand.  The dog gets walked.  I get back, drink another cup of coffee and straighten the kitchen.  From there, I water our fledgling strawberry patch, and then gather up laundry for the six loads I'll do during the day.  The laundry gets cranking, and after reading and writing a blog, it's off to deliver Meals on Wheels to seniors in my community.

After passing some time with both the elderly saint who runs the program, and getting to know the pastor of the neighborhood Baptist church that houses it, I come home.  This is followed by more laundry, folding and sorting and prepping.  That process is interrupted by the little guy, who calls furtively from his school to let me know that he's managed to leave his gym shirt at home.

Please, Dad!  Can you bring it?  It's next period!  Please?

And so I hop onto my motorcycle (more efficient, dontcha know) with a gym shirt, run it by the school, and on the way back run an errand I'd been planning on running later.  Home again means more laundry, and then the kids come loping down the street from the bus-stop.  Sweet Mary and Joseph, is it that time already?

We review homework status for the day, and then I mow the lawn, after which I water the back lawn where the East Coast drought is making re-growing dog-destroyed grass a bit harder, and tend to the drought-sensitive dogwoods.

Then the little guy needs to go to drum practice, and so off we go in the minivan to a three hour practice, most of which I spend in Starbucks reading highfalutin' churchy books for my next paper.

The day included some down time, some work-related emails, and some study for an advanced degree.  But mostly, I spent yesterday home-making.   It's work, folks.   I know, because as a part-time pastor with a full-time-plus working wife, that's at least half of what I do.  

In defending herself against a bit of ill-considered political class snarkiness from a talking head who claimed she "hadn't worked a day in her life," Ann Romney was correct to say that that choice does not represent the choice to sit around on your behind all day.  Homemaking makes for being a busy little bee.

It is, even in this driven and careerist era, a choice with value, and one that should be respected.   In many ways, a more traditional one or one-and-a-half income household allows for a more balanced and gracious existence.  There's more time to be present for kids.  There's more time to get out and be part of the fabric of caring relationships that makes for strong communities.  It is a good way to live, honestly.   In saying this, I do not intend to devalue the efforts of two career families.  But the more traditional arrangement...even if the gender roles are flipped...can make space for sabbath and life-balance in a way that two full time jobs does not.

I've been both places.  I know.

What Ann Romney is saying is correct, and progressives should respect that choice.

But there is something that she is not saying.

The choice to stay home is not a choice all of us have the privilege of making.  For many Americans, the choice to do what I do or what Ann Romney does simply is no longer an option.  That's because while I'm not part of the one percent, I am part of the ten percent.  We are, for the moment, reasonably well off.

If I did not work at all, we'd still be able to live a comfortable life from my wife's income.  We'd still have health insurance.  We'd still have dental, and be able to pay for the significant and necessary orthodontia my older son needs to repair the mess our genes made of his mouth.  We could still replace a full set of car tires and not blink.  Heck, we could buy a used car and not blink.  We're busily paying down our mortgage, on a house we bought long enough ago that we're fathoms deep in equity.  We can go on vacations.

Though our modest rambler and unpresuming cars might not tell it, I have the choice to stay at home because our family is upper class.  It's an easy choice if you're comfortably well-off.

But for much of the middle and working class, that choice has become more difficult to make.  It used to be that one income would cover things.  Even factory jobs paid a good living wage, with benefits.  If one partner in a marriage chose to stay home and care for the kids, a family could swing it.

But then those jobs got outsourced to China in the name of higher profits and efficiency.   Those benefits got cut in the name of profit maximization, as holding companies like, oh, let's pick one at random, Bain Capital, captured the resulting profit at the expense of living wages for most Americans.

Salaries fell.  Home prices soared.   Suddenly working America was working three-and-a-half jobs instead of one just to pay the mortgage and the utilities.  Not to mention those medical expenses from when little Tyler fell and broke his/her arm.

Making ends meet becomes an issue, and families are forced to choose between financial stress and life-stress, and often are forced to endure both.   There are many parents who would rather not be scrambling to the daycare center late again because something came up at work, or scrambling to figure out how to deal with a kid with the flu when there just aren't any sick leave days left and you just can't afford to lose this job.  But they don't have that choice.

They don't have that privilege.

And the choice to be a traditional family shouldn't be in the realm of privilege.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Political Differences

Last week, at the height of Holy Week, I officiated over the funeral of a member of my former church.   He was 92, and even though often at that age the circle of those who gather can be minimal, the service was remarkably well attended.  Family and friends and church folk were there in abundance, because he was a genuinely remarkable person.

He was a self-made man, who'd worked his way up to being a really rather successful lawyer.  He was also very staunchly conservative.  How staunchly?  Well, he represented Haldeman and Erlichman in the Watergate trials.  Or, rather, the Watergate affair.   A delightful poem I read in his honor by one of his daughters at the funeral included a reference to a family in-joke about an exchange he had with Nixon.

Conservative He and Liberal I had some rather significant political differences, which would surface on occasion in our conversations.

And yet none of it really ever seemed to matter.  He was a gracious host, remarkably supportive of my efforts as a wet-behind-the-ears youngish liberal pastor, and possessed of a flexible and engaged intellect.  Where we would disagree, there was a remarkable level of mutual tolerance.  What differences we did have just gave us a little more to talk about.

Getting to know him was a pleasure, and when I told the family I'd be honored to be a part of the remembrance his life, I wasn't just being polite.  It really was an honor.

It was also a reminder of how dangerous it is to get siloed.  If the only people we know are exactly like us, believe like us, and echo our every thought back at us, then we lose the ability to see the real and significant grace in others.  Particularly the others who are different from us.  When we do that, and allow our own preferences and predilections to calcify into disdain or active animosity towards those who do not share them, then our capacity for grace shrivels.

This is not a good thing, for us, for our culture, or...if we're Christian...for our congregations.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Over A Barrel

This was intended to be a short, vaguely smug post about just how awesomey awesome it is to be a Prius-owning/motorcycle-riding pastor type in this era of high gas prices.

I was also planning on noting that what really matters is "person-miles-to-the-gallon," my way of encouraging folks who have larger vehicles to take heart in the ability to carry more than one person at a time.  

Thinking in PMPG, for example, means my schweet eco-ficient motorbike gets on average 55 PMPG.  A Chevy Suburban with one passenger?  Only 13 PMPG.  But wait!  Before we get all self-righteous, let's add someone.  With two passengers, you're at 26.  That's subcompact efficiency.  With three, you're at 39.  That's hybrid efficiency.  Max it out at eight, and you're rocking it at 104 PMPG.   Of course, the Prius with four gets 220 PMPG, but still.  Sharing is efficient.  Those moms with their kid-transport-pools are doing their part, eh?  And carpooling with four in an Escalade is just as efficient as one in a Prius.

But as I got into thinking about gas prices, and looking at historical trends, I encountered something of a fuddler.  Back in 2008, as we all remember, gas prices soared to record highs, hitting 140 dollars for a barrel of light sweet crude and spiking at around $4.12 for refined go-juice at the pump.  At the end of last week, gas prices are at about $3.88 a gallon at the pump on average nationally, and just about $102 dollars a barrel on the market.

Take a look at these charts, side by side:

They're similar, but not identical.  A barrel on the market is 42 US Gallons.  In 2008 during the price-spike, $140 a barrel meant a market price of $3.33 per unrefined gallon, which means the differential between market and pump price was $0.79 per gallon.    In 2012, $102 a barrel translates into a price of around $2.42 per gallon of light sweet crude, which means the differential between crude market and refined pump price is $1.46 per gallon.

This is a very different margin.

Key cost factors for a gallon of gas are production, taxes, distribution and marketing, and station markup.  It's not taxes at the pump.  It's not less refining capacity, because refining capacity has not decreased.  It's not higher costs for drilling, because that would be reflected in the market cost of the crude.  It's not increased real-estate values over 2008 for gas station owners and franchisees.   It can't be distribution costs for transportation, because that would have been mirrored in the 2008 price surge.  Station markup remains low.  That's just not where your average service station franchisee or independent small business owner makes their money.

On some rather basic level, meaning that of addition and subtraction, this doesn't seem to work.  Somewhere in the system, transaction costs have gone substantially up.   Not so much that the graphs aren't similar.  But there's variance there.  It seems significant.  At 9 million barrels a day consumption in the US, that's around a $200,000,000 dollar drain from the economy.  Every single day.  Even by Washington standards, that's real money.

Huh.  Odd thing.  Anyone out there more informed than I about this?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Crowds and Mountains

The morning began early early.  I found myself rousing for the first service of the day.  The moon still hung bright and high in the sky, and my mind was semi-functional as I went about the morning preparations, my motions filtered through that slight faint metallic haze that accompanies any early morning wakings.  And by early, I don't mean seven, or six, or five.

It was a sunrise service, the first I've participated in since beginning my ministry.  You need to get up early for those services , and I'm usually up before sunrise anyway.  But this was an hour's drive away from Annandale.  So the alarm went off at four.

Waking at four for a four-thirty departure really does mark a day as different.   And so into the Prius I went, and drove through the dark traffic-less morning.  From the Beltway to 270 and northward I drove, quaffing coffee the whole way, as alertness began to seep into my mind.  From 270, I hopped off onto Route 109, and moved westward, into the Ag Reserve, that sweet expanse of land in the north of DC suburban Montgomery County untainted by sprawl.   The destination was a mountain, although this was hardly Denali or the Eiger.

It was the menacingly named Sugarloaf Mountain, which sits amiably in the Ag Reserve offering up lovely bucolic vistas to any with the courage and stamina required to drive up to the top.   At an overlook facing the sunrise, an amphitheater sits, and there every year in recent memory the pastor of the Presbyterian church in nearby Boyds, Maryland has organized a sunrise service, helping direct the joint effort of a team of congregations.

I arrived in the darkness, and walked over to the overlook, which sat in the faint light of a setting moon.   People milled about like shadows, and I settled into a semi-central position, where I chatted with another pastor for a while.  Cars arrived.  And arrived.  And arrived.  From the overlook you could see them coming, headlights clearly visible on the country roads.  The place began to fill up, and light began to brighten the air around us.

As the scope of the amphitheater became clear, it became equally clear that it would be a challenge to fill it with even my large-venue voice.  Open air is rather unforgiving acoustically, and no matter how good the sermon, it ain't nuthin' if folks can't hear it.

Thankfully, one of the five other pastors helping lead had brought a portable powered lectern and amp.   The light grew brighter, and then brighter still, and I realized that I wouldn't need to read my sermon from my iPhone after all.

And the gathered group grew, and grew, and grew some more.   It was a beautiful, beautiful morning, clear and crisp but not frigid, and the light cast into the sky seeped smooth and gold-blue even into the dark.   When the time came for me to preach...for preaching had been my assignment...I looked out over the gathered faces and realized that this would be the largest crowd I'd ever preached to in my just-over-seven years of small church ministry.  The tally, confirmed by thems who counted later, was somewhere around five hundred.  Five times the capacity of my sweet little church.   Not a wee kirk.  Not a family.  But a crowd.  A throng.


And yet not yikes.  My public speaking anxiety dropped away years ago, worn away to nothing by years of weekly practice.  Whether it's fifteen or five hundred, it's almost the same so long as you're prepared.


When you've gotten to know a little church, every face is familiar.  Every face has a name, and a backstory, and you understand the character and interrelation of the community.  But when you bump up over one-fifty, the group is different.  You do not know them, and even those you do know can get lost in the sea of faces.  They do not deeply know each other, not all of them, and while the web of human connectedness weaves them all together through mutual friendships and/or Kevin Bacon, they are a different sort of entity.

But that difference was difference in a good way.  As the organizing pastor put it, every one of them was only there because they wanted to be.  And that made the gathering a church in the real and best sense of the word.  So with the sun rising, we sang, and heard scripture, and when it came time to preach, I did.  

It was fine, in the best sense of fine.

And then we sang some more, and gathered up an offering for a local charity, and prayed, and with alleluias were blessed on our way.

It was a delightful beginning to what would prove to be a really joyful Easter day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse

Yesterday, the morning was a flurry of typing and hammering away at the keyboard.  With the passing of the noon hour, the draft of the manuscript I've been working on for the last month took it's final form.  Well, final form in the sense of being the final version of the pre-beta, unedited first concept of the book.   It's not quite ready to be shared, not quite yet.

But it felt like it had been birthed.

The question, then, now that I've got a bouncing baby book on my hands, was the name.   This had been something of a struggle over the last year.   I'd originally come up with a title that I was utterly unsatisfied with, which felt like it should work but just wasn't right.

That title was New Heavens, New Earth, the results of a semi-productive brainstorming session.   It felt like it *should* have been right.  Here's a book about a new theory about the cosmos and what implications that might have for people of faith.   So "heaven" and "earth."  And it came from scripture, which must make it good, right?   It seemed like it should be dead on.

And yet it just sort of sat there, flat and vaguely uninspiring.  I couldn't quite figure out why, but it felt off.

Maybe it was that it felt a bit too presumptuous, spiritually arrogant and full of itself.  C'mon, dude.  It's not THAT important.  Or perhaps it was that books with bible-titles always seem too in-house and self-referential.  Or maybe it was that the quote comes from John of Patmos, and just as I've got some favorite books of the Bible, I've got some least-favorites, too.

But then the bag containing the laptop containing 25,000 word manuscript was stolen, right as I was getting ready to do the final push to get it finished.

I was forced to reconsider the whole thing, and rewrite it.  In doing so, I realized that maybe a new title was in order, and eagerly dispensed of the old one.   A new one leapt to hand almost immediately, and I'll confess I like it a whole bunch more.

The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse, I'm calling it.   I kind of like it.