Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Robots, Drones, and Law Enforcement

Rolling into Poolesville this morning, I began my deceleration as I rounded the bend on Route One Oh Seven.  I was coming up on the local Catholic church, but my reduction in speed had less to do with that than the two speed cameras that flank the primary entryway into the sleepy little burg.

"Our Lady of the Speed Trap," was what one wit had called it, and so I make a point of keeping 'er at the mandated Thirty Em Pii Aytch as I roll by the sanctuary of my Catholic brothers and sisters.

Only today, one of the two Gatso cameras was clearly down.  A patch of black plastic was taped crudely over the front of the one pointing out of town, flapping in the wind like a large wounded bat.  As I passed, the source of the damage became clear.  A scattered pattern of indentations lay across the front of the unit, which to my untrained eye indicated that the source of the malfunction was probably not software, unless 12 gauge "double aught" buckshot counts as software.

Guess some local didn't take too kindly to that recent ticket in the mail.  Another reminder that Poolesville really really isn't Bethesda, I guess.

As effective as it can be, there's just something odd about automated law enforcement.   Surveillance cameras just seem so very dystopian.  Here in Montgomery County, there's plenty of it, as over the last decade speed cameras have sprung up like grey steel mushrooms.

Across the Potomac river in my home state of Virginny, things have been rather less intrusive, as the conservative distrust of government has so far trumped the conservative tendency to love all things law-enforcement.

Only now, that may change.  It looks like we Virginians are going to skip right over the cameras, and go straight to Predator drones.  Gov. McDonnell and some leading law enforcement officials think it'll be the bees knees.  It's just another tool in the toolbox of law enforcement, or so the spiel goes.  It'll be cost-effective and productive, says the Governor...although it's not quite clear what that means.  Cost effective would mean fewer human beings working as police officers, I suppose.  Productive would mean "more tickets, fines, and penalties," I'd guess, which would make up for all those taxes Grover Norquist won't let us pay to support the livelihoods of well-trained community law-enforcement professionals.

Which would bring us into that place where we'd be interacting less and less with law enforcement professionals, and more and more with automated systems and farmed-out-to-lowest-bid-contractor bureaucracies.  Not to mention living in a country where robot drones circle the skies, constantly watching for our infractions with their unblinking eyes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Americans Elect

This last month saw the inevitable collapse of another putative "third" party.  Well, sort of a party.  A "partique," perhaps.

Americans Elect was an effort to create an independent nominating process for a presidential candidate, one who was not beholden to the polarizing dualistic absurdity that is our current party "system."   It was well-intentioned, but doomed from inception for a couple of reasons.

First, it's nearly impossible to get people excited about a movement whose only banner is "we're not the other two."  Without an affirmative, clear, and direct message about identity and direction, no political or social movement has a chance.  Sure, our current approach is inherently flawed, and contributes directly to a lack of national direction and an unconstructively oppositional dynamic.

But saying "we'll stand for whatever we end up standing for" just isn't going to stoke the flames of the popular imagination.

Second, political movements that orient themselves towards national level elections first and foremost are getting it backwards.  Targeting the presidency first is politically absurd.  You need to build a movement from the ground up, focusing on generating energy at the local and state level.  Once that foundation is laid, you have a shot at a broader national audience.  Without that foundation, you may as well just be that guy who sits in his basement and writes long party manifestos while planning his rise to global dominance.

Ain't gonna happen.

So with this still-born effort, we find ourselves in 2012, inevitably back in the false tension between polarities that has come to define American politics.  Ah well.   Maybe we'll see the Bull Moose Party make a comeback in 2014.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Gift of Tongues

As a part-time pastor, I'm the member of the family with daytime flexibility.  That means laundry and kid-shuttling and gardening and cleaning.  It also means study and writing.   But it also means I can take time to work with the local Meals on Wheels, which provides nutrition to the homebound elderly.  Pastor though I may be, I'm not "in leadership" here.  This is just a dirt-under-your-fingernails opportunity to simply be a servant.

I take my marching orders from a dear old saint who has coordinated the program for years, first from a warehouse near a hospital, and now from the basement of the nearby Baptist church.

My job, as I've chosen to accept it? I'm the delivery guy.  My route fluxes and varies from month to month, as folks seek the service or move...or pass on.

This week marked my second delivery to an elderly Korean woman, who spends her days sitting alone in the walk-out basement of a townhouse.  She's frail, semi-mobile, and knows very little English.  When I arrived, she was perched in a chair by an open sliding glass door.

As I approached, she was still and expressionless, her long-view gaze taking me in as another passer by.

I came nearer, and she looked up, still solemn.

"Ahn-yang-hasaeyo," I chirruped in greeting, smiling broadly, using the words for greeting given me by a Korean-American friend.  I stretched out that last "OH" as I'd heard it spoken hundreds of times in the hallways at my old church, and as I hear it spoken into cellphones in Annandale's sprawling Korea Mall.

Her expressionless face lit up with a huge bright smile, and giving her a curt respectful bow while still smiling, I presented her with her meals.

"Thankyouthankyou," she said, beaming.

"Have a great day," I said, having pretty much exhausted my vocubulary.  Well, I suppose I could have counted to three, but I'm not sure it would have worked in context.

"Nehnehnehneh," she said, still smiling, clutching her meal.

That's "yesyesyesyes," I think.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Silos We Choose

Last week, I read through an interesting op-ed by a conservative Democrat.  Rep. John Barrow of Georgia wrote a piece lamenting the growing polarization and partisan paralysis in Congress.  Barrow is a Blue Dog Democrat, one of a dying breed of conservative Southern Democrats that unsuccessfully try to stand to the right of most of the rest of their party.  The decline of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans wasn't news, not to anyone who's been paying any attention to politics for the last Lord knows how many years.

What made the piece interesting was that Barrow suggested that gerrymandering...the questionable practice of recasting the political map to favor one party or another...might be at least partially to blame.  I'd never quite thought of it that way before, but there seemed some merit to the idea.

If political parties can select boundaries that concentrate sections of the electorate to favor a particular partisan outcome, then it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that one factor in our collective incapacity to work together for the common good is that our structures are inherently radicalizing.   The system rewards the extremes.

Which got me to wondering about church siloing.   'Cause do we faith folk ever silo.

Don't get me wrong.  I think our selection of where we worship and spend our faith-time has to be voluntary.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with engaging with a community because it speaks meaning to you, and you can be authentically yourself within it.  I think the religious richness of our pluralistic culture is a vast improvement over the oppressive monolith that was state religion.

Yet within every system, its strength is the heart of its hubris.  Our freedom to find the community that perfectly matches our predilections is not without dangers.   In making our selection, the moral and spiritual hazard lies in the tendency of self-selected communities to polarize, and to define that which was not-chosen as inherently inferior.

That was certainly a challenge in the denominational era, when congregational affiliation was structured along class lines.  But it is no less a challenge in this era of nondenominational, marketized Christianity.

Unless we intentionally press out through it, our choice can become the wall that prevents us from seeing the other, and from really engaging with the other.

And that, at least for Jesus-folk, is a very dangerous way to be.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Preaching and Third Rail Theology

This last week, I had a conversation I'd been anticipating with someone.   The question posed was where I stood on the whole "gay thing," and did I concur with my... um ... "evolving" denominational position on the subject?  And so we talked for a while.

I and my conversation partner did not share perspective on the issue, nor to my knowledge were any minds changed on the issue, but we did share prolonged conversation, and it was civil in disagreement.   Following the conversation, I found myself reflecting a bit on my own approach to preaching on the issues we argue about the most.   When it comes to the "gay thing," I really don't have it as a central theme of my preaching.  On occasion, I have.  I likely will again.  But it's not been a core theme for me.  Is this just pastoral wussiness?  Maybe.  But there are other things at play.

In part, this is because when I preach, I discipline myself to preaching from the fullness of the Bible. That means following the three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, which touches on the entirety of Scripture.   If you do that, well, the "gay thing" is just not a central explicit theme.  Our culture-war obsession with it is entirely out of whack with the narrative of Scripture.  On a verse-weight scale, it's of considerably less significance than menstruation, skin disease, and the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat.

So on 95% of Sundays, I stick to justice, grace, mercy, and Christ's radically inclusive love for the stranger and the outcast, and let folks figure it out for themselves.

But in larger part, it's because as much as I value preaching, I'm strongly aware that it has limitations.  If you're in a community of like-minded souls, or a community that has formed around one strong personality, then you can get away with preaching whatever you like, as did that preacher in the video making the rounds this week.  You know the one, the guy who suggested that gays should be rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  Sigh.  I have it on good authority that he'll be obligated to spend his forty-seven thousand years in purgatory preparing and delivering graphic Powerpoint sermons on menstruation, skin disease, and the sin of Jeroboam son of Nabat to a bored throng of texting succubi.

Whichever way, preaching can mask the truth of an exchange.  You can pitch out your passionately held position, and be strong and outrageous about the things you're "agin", and everyone will laugh and say Amen, except for those one or two souls who are silently seething on the receiving end.  I've inadvertently done that on occasion myself, and when I've been called on it, it's been a convicting moment.

But in authentic community, we're not all identical.  There's difference.  And where there's difference, there needs to be openness and conversation.  Otherwise, you're just monologuing.  I know, I know, you need to stand up and be counted.  You need to be a prophetic witness, an overturner-of-tables, a declarer of the Way Things Are.

I'm perfectly willing to do so in my writing here, and in conversations, and in small-group study.   And in sermons, but only if there's safe space for difference to be explored and expressed.   In these places, questions can be asked.  Disagreement can be articulated and explored.  I prefer it because it is both harder and the risk is higher.   The risk comes when you look at the other with eyes that are not glazed-over with the scales of your presuppositions, and see the depth of common being you both share.   Are we willing to have our assumptions about others changed as we engage with them across the boundary of difference?

The hardness comes in taking that into account.   This person you disagree with is another soul, no matter how you may differ, and even if you are strongly convicted of the inherent rightness of your position.   And if you allow yourself to really see them, and not have your eyes scaled over, then it becomes considerably more difficult to view them through the polarizing lenses of our adversarial, binary culture.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


During the opening of both services this last Sunday, I showed my congregation a picture.  It was a red picture, or perhaps just a "picture of red."  This was a reminder that the liturgical color for this next Sunday will be red, and any and all folk with red clothing to wear should take it as an opportunity to add a little bit of Holy Ghost fire to our gathering.

I then asked, for extra credit, who the artist was.  At both services, I got the answer:  Rothko.

Ah, Presbyterians.

During the Bible study that followed, I waited until we were a ways into our conversation about the Psalm we'd read in worship, and then asked:  " mentions chaff.  What's chaff?"

Of the gathered group of smart and well-edumacated souls, one person knew what chaff was.  This was one more than when I raised the same question in a Bible study at my last congregation.  In the conversation that followed, we talked a bit about the challenge that poses for modern-era humanoids as we engage with the texts of the Bible.

I know, cognitively, what it is.  But as a lifelong suburban denizen, I can't say I've ever felt chaff in my hands, or seen it blowing in wind.

We just know so very little about the earth.  It does not feed us, at least, not in ways that we notice.  Our lives are boxes within boxes, and we eat neatly formed and frozen objects that we take from boxes we've bought in boxes.  We move from one place to another neatly sealed away from the dirt and life of the world around us.

But the Bible spoke to people who worked the soil and knew the rhythms of the seasons.  So many of the images and metaphors used speak of living and growing things, of storm and pest and rain and drought.  We creatures with our screens and our boxes?  We don't grok quite so well to that any more.

I wonder what effect that has on our engagement with the ancient stories of our faith.

And while wondering it, I look to the little strawberry patch that now rests under the tender ministrations of the kids of my church, and think perhaps it serves more than one sweet purpose.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Humble Fountains

In the courtyard of the seminary, there is a fountain.

It's a simple and gracious thing, with a tall concrete bell-spire and three plashy-splashy jets that evoke the Trinity as they continually blort water heavenward from the surface of a rectangular pool of water.

 Over the many years I've spent at seminary, I've had many opportunities to sit nearby, and meditate on the movement and the noise of living water.

While circumnavigating it yesterday during a moment or two of centering, I noticed that there were not three fountains.  There were five.

Off to the sides of the spire and out of the primary focus of the fountain edifice, two humble PVC jets spewed water into the pool in opposite directions.  I'd seen them before, but I hadn't really given them a thought.

Their flow was not to make a show or a splash.  Instead, they created a circulating flow within the pool, keeping the water moving and clear.  Were it just the three primary fountains, most of the pool would soon become stagnant and stanky, as algae would form everywhere except around the fountains.

What makes the pool living water, water that is in motion and "alive," is the water that pours forth from the PVC protrusions.  They are as visually unassuming as a garden hose, and yet they are the true and hidden life of that place of contemplation.

There are lives like that, relationships we have with others that are like those humble fountains.  They are indispensable to our churches, and to our being together in grace.    We may not see them.  They do not leap and froth continually heavenwards.  They may not care whether they're seen.  And yet without them, things get unclear and stinky.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Commuting and Blessing

As my two weeks of intensive coursework continue for my D. Min., I find the pattern of my existence changed.   The day-to-day rhythms that have risen up over the last eight months of ministry out in Poolesville are temporarily on hold, and perhaps the most significant shift is my sudden return to DC traffic.


I've been spoiled by my rides out to Poolesville.  I look forward to that twice-weekly ride, to humming down country roads on my golden-yellow velocipede.  It's almost embarrassingly bucolic, all trees and fields and farms, cows and bunnies and horsies, roads dappled with sunlight through leaves, a festival of things green and living.

Getting into the city, on the other hand,  I'm slicing my way through snarls, routing around blocked and crowded intersections, and negotiating the barely contained steel and cell-phone chaos of our clogged transportation "system."

The last week has reminded me of and re-immersed me in a spiritual practice I used in those years when I was motorcycle commuting in and out of DC.  There's a strong commuter tendency, one I've fallen into myself on more occasions than I'd like to admit.  When the system locks up, and it's all horns and frustration, it's easy to get into a pattern of routinely invoking the Maker when commuting, coupled with a selection of choice words relating to the dynamics of human sexuality and the organic processes of excretion.  This can be exacerbated on a bike, where the opportunities to distract yourself from the [mess] around you are minimal.

Those bellowing yarps feel good for a moment, but the curses we pour out onto that system don't do anything.  Invoking a smiting upon that [unloved-by-our-creator fornicating fornicator] who just cut us off doesn't make traffic move any swifter, or make us feel any better or more spiritually grounded.  Instead, it heightens our sense of umbrage, deepening our sense of anxiety and frustration.

Instead of taking that approach, I force myself invert that reaction.  Encountering a snarled intersection, I offer up a blessing that traffic might flow and all might be at ease.  When I can tell that guy is going to cut me off, I offer up a hope that he have a peaceful and positive day.   Looking at a long line of brake-lights, I give thanks for my existence, and for patience.

It isn't a natural reaction.  Not at all.  The bared-fang monkey-anger snarl rises up much more naturally.  Resisting it requires practice and discipline, and I don't always remember.

But to be honest?  When I remember not to curse but to bless, and hew to that discipline, traffic doesn't feel as bad.  It just doesn't.   From my blessing-grounded subjectivity,  I am more deeply aware of it, and how deeply the stress of our system invokes stress in other human beings.  But when I arrive where I'm going, I'm not stressed or angry, and I've been less likely to inflict stress on others.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Gay Marriage and The Flip Flopper In Chief

No, this isn't about Obama.

It's about God.

We Jesus folk know that God is unchanging and eternal, of course.    God's Law...which can't be meaningfully parsed out from God's self...remains constant, sure, and absolute.  God never, ever, ever changes God's mind.

So we say.  It's true.  Up to a point.

Because that's not quite what the Bible describes.  God does change God's mind.  When Israel was whining in the desert, and God had seriously had it up to here, and was so going to smite them, Moses persuaded God to change.  If someone is wrong with God, showing injustice and predatory disdain for others and an unwillingness to show grace to the broken and the stranger, God is perfectly willing to change God's mind about that person, too.  So long as they change, that is.

God's relationship to us is not fixed, and God's attitude towards us is not unwavering.  To argue that it is would be fundamentally in opposition to the Biblical witness to the nature of our Creator.  But what makes for or stirs that change?  What causes the shifts we perceive in the relationship we have with God, and in God's attitude towards us?

The answer to that question, if we're being honest, is that God changes God's mind towards us based on how we live in covenant.  The key to change in our relationship to God is covenant.  If we're living in covenant relationship with God and one another, then God's attitude towards us is one of grace.   If not, then all is not copacetic.  But change in the character of that relationship is entirely possible.  Mutual change in our relationship with God is, in fact, the entire point of Christian faith.

So what does this have to do with gay marriage?   I mean, doesn't the Bible say that being gay is an abomination?  Torah does say that, I'll admit.  But given that the same term in Torah is applied to remarriage, popcorn shrimp, buying a dog, bacon double cheeseburgers, and jeans for women, I'm not sure that quite cuts it if we're trying to get to the heart of the matter.

If we're coming at this from a Jesus perspective, the heart of the matter is living into the Great Commandment, which is itself the highest principle of Torah.  You know, loving God with heart and mind and soul, and neighbor as self.   This is the highest order principle of our relationship with God, and it radically defines every other moral and ethical demand or expectation.

If this is the lens through which we understand God's covenantal attitude towards us...and it must be, if we are to follow Jesus...then what does this mean relative to God's relationship to same-sex marriage?  From what we know about God from this covenantal foundation, why might an "evolution" in God's mind?

Well, it does represent a real and significant shift in that "homosexual lifestyle" that some folks are so eager to go on and on about.   That lifestyle has been one forced deep into marginality and shadow by culture, and places of hiddenness and shadow can create some unpleasant psychological and spiritual dynamics.

Those dynamics are not manifest in the relationships gays and lesbians are now seeking in both church and culture.  Those relationships are of a very different character.  They are, in point of fact, covenant relationships.  When gays and lesbians seek to live in open, respectful, loving, and mutually committed relationships with one another, this is a new thing culturally.  When those open relationships are seen and understood as worthy of being blessed and guided by the love of God as expressed in a faith community, this is also a new thing culturally.

Covenant relationship is, in essence, the core of what gays and lesbians are seeking, both culturally and within the communities of faith that welcome them.   So here we see a change of life, a movement towards embracing precisely the dynamics of existence that are at the foundation of right relationship with God.

Why, then, given that most fundamental understanding of how God changes in response to us, should we not expect that God would not joyously flop the doors of grace open to such a new thing?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Loud Cell Phone Conversations About Laundry

Having done the evening reading for my D. Min. program, and taken a walk, and then walked some more, I found myself sitting waiting for the Big Guy to finish up swimming at the rec center.   Around me, the other parents sat poring over their smartphones, lost in the aether, utterly oblivious to one another.
The woman on the bench across from me stopped checking whatever she was checking, and made a call.  She was just a yard or so away, but as she reached her friend on the other end, her voice was at a volume such that I couldn't help listen in.  I had no choice but to hear her end of the conversation.

It was about laundry, and putting away shirts and socks.   

Yeah, she said, and we went through the drawers together.  Yeah, most of them didn't fit him.  Uh huh.  Uh huh.  I can't believe how many tee shirts there were.  Pause.  Yup.  Yeah, those were too big, too.  I don't know why.  No, I washed them.  Yes, I folded them.  And the socks.  I don't know.  Yes, all the socks.   Yes, the dress socks.  I think there were twenty pairs of dress socks.

And on the conversation went, about this shirt, about that shirt, about how she'd bought that shirt, yeah, about how hard it was to get him to help, but how he did help put them away, and no, he didn't want to, but he did.

It was an odd conversation, this conversation about laundry, all delivered in a medium-venue voice, projected out into the space so I couldn't help but listen.  I wondered who she was talking to.  I wondered...really...why this would seem interesting.  I checked the time.  Five more minutes before my son would be out.  Five more minutes of socks and shirts and folding.

And then she said, you know, there are just so many clothes.  He just had so many clothes.  Yeah.  Yeah.  I know.  I just always thought I'd know when...  He seemed so...I don't know.  I just didn't see it coming, he seemed so... Yeah.  And I can't get that day out of my...yeah.  Uh huh.  I know.  It hasn't been.  Uh huh.  I.  Yeah.  Yeah.

And she was crying a little bit now, softly dabbing at her eyes, trying not to be seen.

And I was reminded that we should always, always listen carefully for the whole story.

Quantum Immortality and Everett's Paradox

Yesterday, after a day of sociology and anthropology, I motored over to my in-laws on the SuperBee (what my little guy thinks I should call the Suzuki).

There, I chatted a bit with the mother-in-law about life and class.  Then, over a beer or two, I talked about waveform collapse and quantum mechanics with my physicist father in law.  It was a followon to a conversation with someone who kindly agreed to provide input to my writing, and it was...helpful.

Though temporarily sidetracked by writing and preparation for my D.Min. classes, the drafted manuscript for the Believer's Guide to the Multiverse continues to burble away happily on the back burner.   A few souls have read it so far, and feedback has been...well...the way feedback is when you put out that first draft of anything.

It's always a bit daunting, exposing the first tender shoots of a manuscript to outside inputs.   It's your baby, this tender delicate interweaving of ideas and hopes and concepts.  You've pored over it, loved it, struggled with it, and reached a point where you and your muse are almost content with it.

And then reality intrudes.  It's necessary.  It's a good thing.  A critical read over something is vital, and particularly a critical read from an expert eye.   For my little exploration of the implications of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the expert eye needed was from someone with a Ph.D. in physics...and, being Presbyterian, finding such a soul in my congregation was achievable.  

The inputs were both significant and useful, and will strengthen the manuscript, once I've stopped quietly sobbing to myself.  One particularly helpful insight was that in plowing through the works of contemporary "popularized" physics that gave my layman's mind insight into the multiverse, I'd managed to truck right past the physicist who came up with the idea in the first place.  Not a mention.  Not a peep.   A good catch, that.

The physicist in question was Hugh Everett, whose 1957 dissertation provides much of the conceptual foundation for the Many Worlds hypothesis/interpretation in quantum theory.    Everett was an interesting fish on many fronts, and some more exploration of his thinking will be plugged into the manuscript once time allows.

Today I found myself ruminating on one of the more peculiar elements of Everett's personal thought: his belief in what was subsequently called "quantum immortality," which arises from an odd variant of the Shroedinger's Cat thought experiment, from the perspective of the cat.  The "quantum suicide" thought experiment involves a weapon pointed at a tester.  The weapon is triggered by a quantum event, which is essentially random.  If it occurs, the weapon goes off, and the tester dies.  If does not, the weapon does not discharge.   In the Many Worlds approach to quantum events, the tester...or some iteration of the tester...will always survive.  The termination of consciousness will never occur.   It's interesting to think about, but it got me going in another direction.

The obvious limitation of this thought experiment is that the Many Worlds interpretation does not suggest a binary set of options.  It suggests, instead, that from every moment arise a functionally infinite set of variant realities.

For some reason, this got me thinking of Zeno's Paradox.  That classical brain bender, if you recall, notes that in order to travel a distance, you must first travel half that distance.  As any distance can be halved, the number of "halves" you'd have to travel would be infinite...meaning, technically, you shouldn't ever be able to get anywhere.

If the multiverse is as Everett suggests...what is the self?  That's always a fuddler, of course, even in our linear time and space.  Where is the "I" that exists in the flow of time?

But what is self if quantum splits occur from instant to instant?  If from every instant comes not just one but infinite iterations of every possible variant of probability, which one of the umpty-bazillion variants of ourself that pours from the prior moment is the "real" one?

On the one hand, that's an easy one.  Why, we are, of course.

Yet it makes the reality of our being...that we are, that we cohere, that we somehow have integrity as selves...feel even more astounding.  Miraculous, even.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pastor Feelgood

This last weekend, the local news in the Washington DC area included chatter about a worship service.   A local sports-o-tainment-megaplex was going to be filled to capacity, celebrating the arrival in town of Joel Osteen, America's Favorite Televangelist (tm).  It was a revival of sorts, called  Hopefully Hoping In Happy Shiny Joy Town America, or something to that general effect.

Osteen is arguably the best known pastor in the United States.  His church teems with tens of thousands of worshippers, sprawling across a campus as big as the Texas that spawned it.  His books sell by the truckload and Kindle-full.  And when he came to town, tens of thousands came out to see him.

Osteen also frustrates the bejabbers out of many other pastors.  His relentlessly chirrupy message of God's Big Hope-ity Wuv might be one of the few things that fundamentalists and progressives can agree on.   We both hate it.  O Lord, how we hate it.

We hate it because Osteen simply will not engage in any of the Important Issues that define so much of Christianity.   Abortion?  Homosexuality?  Politics?  He just won't get into it.  Nope.  Won't do it.

We hate it because what he preaches is sort of kind of the Word Faith movement, that nothin' to do with Christ's teachings gospel of prosperity in which God gives us all good things if only we trust enough to give ourselves to Him.  Oh, and if we give generously.  If you've got a need, don't forget to plant that seed!  The Lord will provide!

But even that is so watered down with such shiny shiny niceness that it somehow manages not to feel as crass and grasping.   Everything is washed out in the brilliant lens flare of his huge toothy smile.     Give us some exegesis, cry the pastors. Where's the context, cry the pastors.  But no.  There's little Bible talk.  There's just feelgood anecdotes and catchphrases, pouring out in a great firehose of affirmation, loving you in all the goodness that you are.

And it works.  Lord, how it works.  Folks come pouring in, which is perhaps the most frustrating thing for evangelicals and progressives alike.  That, and Osteen seems to have recently become the go-to-guy for faith stuff, making him increasingly the Billy Graham of this era.  What that says about this era I'll leave to your own ruminations.

A few years back, I took the time to actually read and review one of Osteen's books.  It doesn't really matter which one, because they're pretty much all the same.  What struck me most at the time was not that the book was utterly devoid of theology and only tangentially related to what Jesus taught, because I expected that.  Osteen is much more of a motivational speaker/presence than he is a theologian or scholar.  I also wasn't surprised that the book to say this nicely..."uncomplicated."

What surprised me was that I found myself obliged to admit was that much of the "life-livin'" advice meted out was not wrong.  Once you filtered out the 10% or so of Prosperity Magical Hoo Hah, the remainder of what Osteen focused on was just good advice.  Be positive, towards yourself and others.  Don't be selfish.  Try to find the good in any situation.  Give generously to others.

I also found myself forced to cede that a focus on negativity, conflict, and dysfunction leads, surprisingly, to negativity, conflict, and dysfunction.

Yeah, there's not a causal link.  Bad things happen to good people, Jesus being a prime example.   And just glossing things over with a happy varnish doesn't magically make them better.  It can have the opposite effect, in my experience.  Being blithely unaware of your own failings consistently gets you up poop creek without a paddle, no matter how confident you are in yourself and God's love for the Wonder that is You.

Then again, an orientation towards the good does increase the likelihood of the good actually occurring.   It's hard for naturally-pessimistic me to swallow, but positive inputs do increase the probability of positive outputs.  And Lord have mercy, is Osteen positive.

As much as he's not my cup of tea, and as devoid of substance as I find his writing and teaching to be, I just can't find it in myself to work up a good head of umbrage about him.  He doesn't teach people to hate.  He doesn't vilify or condemn or curse.

And that hair...I mean, really.  How can you hate that hair?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Gardener

As my schedule has become more flexible over the last six months, I've found myself spending more time in our garden.   We occupy the suburban standard quarter-acre, with a sunny and well-lit front yard and a treed and fenced back yard.  Neither saw particularly much attention over the first decade or so that we've owned the house.  With little kids and full-time jobs and grad school, just getting out and mowing was about as much care as I could provide.  Our back yard barely even needed that, as the frantic scramblings of our hyperkinetic dog obliterated what had once been a lush yard.  It reached a point where the yard looked more like a dirt lot, or a heavily used elementary school soccer field at the end of a long season.

There's a bit more breathing room in life now, and I began the season by working and reseeding our back yard.   Given some attention and watering, the grass is back.   But with the growing of grass, I found myself wanting to get more dirt under my nails.  So I have.  I've been able get out into the garden and do more than run a thrumming four-stroke mulching mower through a cloud of recently released cis-3-Hexenal.   With so much potential for growth, it seems silly to be using that time to just grow plants that don't bear fruit.

So over the course of the last month, a splotch of browning neglected elephant grass in front of our house has disappeared, and in its place has appeared the first growth of a strawberry patch.   A pair of planters in our back yard that were mostly used for growing a miscellany of weeds have also found themselves suddenly sprouting strawberries.   A blackberry and a troika of blueberry bush plantings now sit near a sun-drenched front wall of our home.  In the next month, the odds are good that a pair of dwarf apple trees will rise next to the two lovely dogwoods in the front of our house.

The dirt and the weeding and the digging is a welcome change from the omnipresent screen-time and car-errand-schlepping that can otherwise fill my day.  I like the feeling of it, frankly.  It changes the focus of life, and brings a deeper awareness of the natural cycles around me.   You feel a drought more when you're trying to get life to rise from the earth.  The rain feels more welcome.   Adding that to my pattern of living feels like it deepens my connection with the living world around me.

And that is welcome thing.