Friday, September 28, 2012

Religious Freedom, the West, and Islam

The United Nations global muckity muck gathering over the last week hasn't accomplished all that much, but it has been fascinating.  Particularly fascinating has been the sustained tension between the expectations within the Middle East and the West around what is and is not acceptable speech.

Listening to the undeniably intelligent and measured Mahmoud Ahmadinajad expound on freedom of speech was particularly intriguing.   The arguments he makes might seem, on the surface, rational.  In essence, he says: "Of course we believe in freedom.  We only ask that freedom be limited to what does not offend us.  Why would one misuse freedom to offend others?  Once you no longer say anything that offends us, you can say whatever you like."  A similar case, bordering on a demand, came from the new President of Egypt.

There is, as with most subtly pernicious things, a kernel of truth squirreled away in there.  The good and the kind and the gracious do not use their freedom to offend.

But on more thought, what this establishes, without question, is the gulf between the West and those portions of the world governed by conservative Islam.  The difference is striking, and nontrivial.

Over the last week, for instance, an obscure American blogger wrote a couple of short pieces about the President's faith, openly musing about the faith commitment of the President's campaign and wildly speculating about the President's church attendance.

For the five of you who read my posts, you took for granted, as I did when I wrote them, that I could publicly state my case without fear of imprisonment.   Might someone take offense?  Possibly.   But speech that has the potential to challenge sensibilities is fundamental to the health of a democratic republic.

Take the case of an agnostic Egyptian blogger who was recently detained for vocally wondering about the existence of God, and struggling to discern among the competing truth-claims of Islam, Christianity, and other faiths.  This was taken as an offense against Islam, as it implicitly questioned whether or not the Quran was true.  The blogger now faces a potential five year sentence in Egyptian prison under anti-blasphemy laws.

This is being described by some as a difference of opinion about the boundaries of speech.

It is not, any more than the difference between speech in the former Soviet Union and the United States was simply a "difference of opinion."   It is the difference between oppression and freedom.  Any system, be it religious or atheistic, leftist or right-wing, that utilizes coercive power to quash speech that questions its authority is inherently oppressive.

There cannot be a meeting of the minds on this issue, because to suppress speech in the way that is expected in Egypt and Libya and Iran would violate the essential integrity of our national character.

If we ban speech, suppress it, delimit it, or use the force of law to cast it from the public square, then democracy fails.    This is a hard won truth, one that the West will not ever and should not ever abandon.

Stepping away from that wouldn't just violate the integrity of the state, but also the integrity of faith itself.   Faith cannot be coerced and be real.   It must be embraced openly and freely, or it does not reflect the sort of relationship with God that God is seeking.

And that, for those of us who care about integrity in our relationship with God, is a big, big deal.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why Barack Obama Doesn't Go To Church

Of course, the title of this post is wrong on one pretty basic level.

The Obama family does go to church on occasion, perhaps on more frequent occasion than many American families.   They'll visit congregations now and again.   Every once in a while, they'll go to the convenient little Episcopalian church right across the street from their house.

But what they are not is a regular part of a faith community.   For all of the wondering and speculation that DC area congregations engaged in prior to the arrival of our now-not-new First Family, the reality is after four years that the Obamas don't have a church home.

The official rationale on this, as it's been presented, was that the White House did not want to inconvenience a congregation with the President's regular presence.   With all of the security requirements, it would just be too onerous a burden to inflict on a faith community.  So in deference to the well being of area churches, the POTUS has chosen not to be a part of a particular church.

In response to this line of reasoning, I can only say, "What, are you [fornicating][pooping] me?"

Faced with the prospect of the President of the United States of America worshipping in your faith community, what sane pastor/board/session/rectory/coven would say to the White House liaison, "Gosh, you know, I'm afraid that would be just too logistically complicated.  I'm not sure we want that inconvenience.  What about the ramifications for access?  And what about liability issues?"

Actually, I can imagine some Presbyterians saying that.   God help us.

In the case of my tiny little church, well, there are certain things I can't divulge.   But suffice it to say that we realized that once the President and his security detail were in the building, there'd be no room for anyone else.  So, sadly, my session was forced to abandon its plans to construct a helipad for Marine One on the empty plot next to the church.  Or so I've been told.

But c'mon.   For most churches, that'd be cause for rejoicing.   The official line is the kind of argument that might have resonance with The People Who Like To Make Everything Too Complicated, and there are plenty of those people in DC.   But it bears no resemblance to the actual response of a faith community to having the regular engagement of the First Family.

So there must be another reason, you know, the actual one.

It is unlikely that the reason is they can't find a simpatico congregational environment and pastor.   There are plenty of progressive and prophetic healthy-sized churches in DC, of every denominational and nondenominational flavor.   In those churches, there are plenty of inspiring, passionate, intelligent pastors who might quake a bit at the prospect of regular first family engagement, but would rise to the challenge.  That ain't it.

It is possible that it just doesn't matter.   If a President wants to attend church, they do.   Jimmy Carter, bless him, not only regularly attended First Baptist, but also taught Bible Study.  Bill Clinton regularly attended Foundry United Methodist, because Lord have mercy, did he need it.   Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at the congregation where I grew up, and to the best of my knowledge, security was kinda sorta an issue then, too.

Others, like Dubya, just sort of floated around.

A very few, notably Reagan, almost never darkened the door of a church.  Then again, he did have the counsel of an official White House astrologer, so I suppose having your own magi makes up for that.  Reagan, in fact, was the last president for whom church appears to have had the same draw it does for Obama.

But that just doesn't compute with Obama.  Conceptually, church should matter.   Obama, taken at face value, is all about the value of community and the importance of working together.   While not the full blown pinko that the yammerers at FoxNews make him out to be, the ethic he expresses in his political life is one of collective power and mutual accountability.   Taking him at his word on that front, and taking him at his word that Christianity is an important part of his life, choosing not to be part of a community that lives out those values is a significant dissonance.  His is not the path of the isolated spiritual individual.

Following on that, there's another possibility that's popped into my head now and again.   Obama is a community organizer, of the Alinskian school.  Saul Alinsky's writings form Obama's understanding of community, and his understanding of the dynamics of political power.

Within the Alinskian model, there is a place for communities of faith.   They are useful as pre-existent networks of social connection, which can, if engaged, prove remarkably helpful as a power base for influencing change in a local community.   So if you're an organizer, and you want to create change, you plant your behind in a pew and you get to know people.  That's certainly been the approach of the Alinskian folks at the IAF, through affiliates like the Washington Interfaith Network.

For both local and state-level politics, this reality holds.  Being an active and engaged part of a congregation means you have a power base, a network of social connections that you can leverage.  It is, practically speaking, a smart thing to do.

But that's organizing on the local level.

On the national level, that rationale breaks down.  The scope of national-level politics is simply too large for participation in one particular congregation to mean anything.  Sure, if it's DC, there might be one or two power-players there, and the regular attendance of a POTUS would bring in more.   But in the complex calculus of husbanding and directing one's energies as an organizer, engaging with a single church ceases to be part of the equation at that scale.

One would hope that it's a little less calculated than that.  Might it be a factor?  Hard to say.   I think whatever it is, the real rationale or rationales will remain behind hidden the veil.  And, after all, it's entirely up to the Obamas.  They're free to make that decision for whatsoever reason they choose, and are under no obligation to 'splain themselves, it being a free country and all.

Ah well.   Assuming this thing rolls the way it seems to be rolling, I suppose we DC church folk'll just have to get used to disappointment.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Unwavering Faith of Barack Obama

So having pitched a couple of faith 'n' politics posts out about the Romney, I figured it was time to balance out the airtime a little bit.

A-ways on back in 2008, Candidate Obama was, quite frankly, impressive.   One of the most significant ways he came across as impressive was to those of us who still dwell in the realm of the oldline.   I mean, you asked the man about his faith, and the next thing you know, you're getting an informed, measured, and thoughtful conversation about Reinhold Niebuhr.

He knows and can appropriately cite Reinhold Niebuhr, we gasped, and went a little light at the knees.

Then there was Obama's church, and his pastor.  Yes, I know, he said "God-Damn America," for which Fox News will never forgive him.   And yes, all the attention did kind of go to Jeremiah Wright's head.   But if you listened to that sermon, really listened to it, it kicked behind.  It challenged the idol of nationalism, it was dead on scripturally, and it rocked out hard against our boundaries in the way that the very best prophetic African American preaching always has.

And so the man had some serious faith bona-fides, and we were all talking about it.

Now, we're four years later, and a month out from a likely re-election, if the current meta-polling trend holds.   And the funny thing is, outside of the whackjobs who are convinced that Obama is a Muslim and very possibly a Red Lectroid fifth columnist, his faith is pretty much immaterial.   It gets no press.   There is no buzz.  It's a non-issue.

The campaign knows this, and so they're putting in the level of effort on that front one might expect.   If you go to the  "Faith" portion of the current Obama election feels a teensy bit familiar.  Generic.  Perhaps even, dare I say it, stale.   Faith, we hear, was very important as he was getting elected.   It was vital, or so the pitch still goes, on the journey from Chi-town to Chocolate City.

But he's been president for four years.  What has his faith meant during those four years?

Because honestly?  He's not the same guy now that he was four years ago.  He can't possibly be.

It's not just that this campaign is different, though it is.   It's far more muscular, stronger, more in touch with its grasp on power.  He is the president, the POTUS, and he knows it and shows it.   He wears it well, as well as he does the grey flecks that now speckle his hair.

So saying the same things about the role of faith in governance both before and after you've been there just seems inadequate.

Here you've been CiC for four years.  You've sent men to their deaths.   You've ordered the deaths of others, and had your orders carried out.  Presumably, this doesn't happen so much when you are the junior Senator from Illinois, although given Chicago politics, one never knows.

There are other things.  The idealistic struggle for civil discourse with the Other Side of the Aisle, which did not work out so well.  The ongoing systemic crisis in the economy, which ain't over yet.  This has not been easy.

And yet the faith-schpiel of the campaign is the same.  Utterly unchanged.  It's untouched by crisis, unmoved by the reality of what must have been experienced over the last four years.   It does not waver.  It is, truth be told, perhaps the only part of the campaign that hasn't shifted to reflect the experience of governing.  It stands like a tree whose leaves are still and calm, unfluttered by the wind that roars around you.

This feels off, somehow.

Anyone who has leaned heavily on their faith in a time of profound existential challenge knows that faith does not remain unchanged.  If faith is irrelevant, it falls away.  If faith is weak, it crumbles.   If faith is strong, it deepens.

But it does not remain the same.   Faith is a living and dynamic thing.

A faith journey is not static, and finding yourself the most powerful human being on the planet is presumably a nontrivial part of said journey.   It's a pity this campaign won't be showing us that.  It might actually be kind of interesting.

Ah well.  So it goes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gambling on Romney

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so the saying goes.

But I'm not quite sure that's always true.   Take, for instance, the peculiar reality that seems to have manifested itself in this current election cycle.

The nominee for the Grand Old Party is a straight-laced family man, who is often unfairly criticized for his tendency to seem a bit too much like a dad out of a 1950s sitcom.   His conservative Mormon faith is generally assumed to be, for good or for ill, a primary reason for why he presents the way he presents.  Where he's critiqued by the left, concerns about the social positions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints often surface.

This leads to a rather puzzling dissonance, though, because while my fading liberal/centrist oldline denomination and Mormonism might disagree on some...well...quite a few...things, there are some things we're simpatico on.  

One of them is this: we're shoulder to shoulder, bolder and bolder when it comes to gambling.

In a statement from 1950, the Presbyterian Church described gambling as " unChristian attempt to get something for nothing or at another's expense."   At around the same time, the First Presidency of the LDS issued a position statement saying that "..The Church has been and now is unalterably opposed to gambling in any form whatever.   It is opposed to any game of chance, occupation, or so-called business, which takes money from the person who may be possessed of it without giving value received in return."  

Neither of those positions have shifted.   Gambling, or so the official line of the LDS goes, weakens the community.   That's the current stance of the PC(USA), too.

It's also my position.  I think "gaming" is a wee bit foolish for thems that are eagerly getting taken, inherently predatory for those whose doin' the takin', and devoid of value whichever way.

I've been to casinos, and I find them both garish and depressing.  Gaming is not an industry.  It builds nothing.  It creates nothing.  It's entertainment, I suppose, in the way that someone taking your money from you and occasionally giving you the thrill of getting a fraction of it back is entertainment.   And sure, making money off of suckers by using the psychology of intermittent reinforcement is cunning, in its own way.   But as big business, it adds nothing positive to our culture.  I've said so here, and I have said so from the pulpit.

This makes the current partnership between the GOP and gambling money so weird.  I find it peculiar that a former LDS bishop would be willing to benefit from the $100,000,000 that has been committed to the GOP by billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.   One.  Hundred.  Million.  Dollars.  Those dollars were gained in a way that Mormons, Christian conservatives, and even wacko leftist apostate oldline denominations like my own view as morally questionable.

Here's the largest single commitment of funds ever by an individual to a campaign...and it's a gambling tycoon trying to get the candidate of the party that presents itself as representing traditional conservative Christian/Christian-ish values elected.

It's bizarre.  It's ironic.   It's so bizarrely ironic that it almost merits creating the word bizzaronic for the sole purpose of describing it.

But then again, politics is all about power, and money is power, so I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Clumpiness of Suffering

Last week was one of those weeks where for some reason, ill tidings seem everywhere.   Both in my family and in my church family, there's been unwelcome news.  Any week that involves caring for sick dogs so loved ones can meet with hospice and online research to help deepen my grasp of that nasty little [fornicator] glioblastoma multiforme cannot be a good week.

And as I drifted through the endless media data-dump of the week, a few tiny whispers of sorrow sparkled darkly.  

Like the story of a local family, moving west for dad's new job, the pregnant mom and the little boys and the dogs in the car up front, dad in the back with the car.  At four am, that overtired semi-driver didn't notice in time that they were stopped for construction and plowed them all out of this mortal coil in a mess of fire and steel.

Like the embedded narrative in an article about missing children in India, the story of a shattered Indian man whose wife died in childbirth, with their infant daughter then dying of dehydration after a stomach infection shortly after, and now his cherished, only son has disappeared, abducted as chattel.

Lord have mercy.

I have never viewed suffering itself as evidence of divine punishment, not ever.   One cannot be Christian and think this.   Jesus said as much, and then he in his own life showed us the falseness of that way of thinking.   We are mortal creatures, woven up of dirt and water.  We live.  We die.  And both living and dying involve encounters with suffering.

Where I struggle sometimes, theologically, is with the peculiarly sustained concentrations of random sorrow that seem to afflict some souls.  They seem, for all intents and purposes, to be perfectly decent human beings, absolutely indistinguishable in intellect, wisdom, and spirit from the rest of humanity.   And yet woes befall them with great frequency.   Loved ones die, or betray, or abandon them.  Illness of flesh and spirit is a continual presence.   Poverty can be present, but a parade of loss and tragedy can define even the life of those seemingly free of material want.  It becomes a seemingly dominant feature of their entire story, the bitter thread that seems to give structure to their lives.

It is easy, I think, to chalk up such things entirely to some repairable spiritual failing.   It is easy to say, well, suffering can feed anxiety, hatred, addiction, cynicism, and depression, and those demons have a pesky tendency to amplify and sustain the dark cycles that cause suffering, driving us more and more deeply towards our shadow self.   There is some truth in that, without question.   Waging war against those pernicious critters in us can help stop those cycles.   Sometimes.

But there are plenty of souls out there who are free from those demonic force-magnifiers, whose lives are consistently touched by pain and brokenness.

Ultimately, my own awareness of my mortal limitations reminds me that we are part of creation, and as such, we're as vulnerable to the dynamism and imbalance of creation as any other creature.   Why did the wind concentrate slightly more, bringing down that one tree, and not another?   Why did that healthy young doe miss her footing, now limping lame and vulnerable?   Because that's what happened.

But as sentient beings capable of understanding ourselves and connecting more deeply with our Creator, our encounters with suffering and brokenness are different.   Faith allows us to face down entropy while maintaining our integrity as beings.   It allows us to cohere, in ways that seem impossible, when our entire world has collapsed around us.   It allows us to show grace, manifest mercy, and share strength with our fellow beings as they experience times of loss and weakness.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Wife of Jesus

It was the faith-o-tainment news of the week this week.

A fragment of papyrus which was part of a fourth century Coptic story of the life of Jesus included the following phrase:  "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

The fragment itself appears to be genuinely as ancient as it is claimed to be, but the Harvard Divinity professor who unveiled it has been remarkably circumspect about what it means.   What it means is that we've found a piece of paper produced by a Christian sect in the 4th century.   Nothing more.  Nothing less.  And that, in and of itself, is historically impressive, in the way that finding stuff that's over fifteen hundred years old tends to be pretty awesome.

For some, this will be taken as yet more evidence of the Truth About Jesus They Don't Want You To Know.   It may spur some "Did Jesus Have a Wife" articles in magazines hoping for a few extra sales.   But honestly, it's no more authoritative as a truth claim than something you might find in a Dan Brown novel.

That's not to say that the whole did-Jesus-have-a-wife thing isn't entirely fair game for speculation.   My own crackpot theory on that subject, drawn entirely from the fourth Gospel, is that if Jesus had a wife, it was most likely Mary.   Not Magdalene, but Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.   I tend to think, with only spotty evidence to support my position, that the oral tradition that gives us the Gospel of John arises from her.   John's Gospel is remarkably coy about the actual identity of its author, naming them only as the "Beloved Disciple."  It also tells us that:
  • That disciple was present at the cross, where the other three Gospels concur only women were present.
  • In the Gospel of John, three individuals are singled out as being loved by Jesus: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  So when we hear about the disciple that Jesus loved, well, I figure thats a clue.
  • The relationship Mary has with Jesus is more emotive and more intimate than Martha's or Lazarus's.  She sits at his feet and listens, where Martha lets herself be consumed by busyness.  She weeps with him, and he with her.  She washes his feet with oil and her hair.  Given the intimacy of John's Gospel and its focus on the personal identity of Jesus, she seems a likely source.
  • John's Gospel remembers the stories and influence of women, perhaps even more deeply than the egalitarian Luke.  From the Samaritan woman at the well to Mother Mary asking for her son for some miracle Cabernet to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, this Gospel takes their voices seriously.
Despite the consistently male language used to describe that nameless disciple, I often find myself reading it as Mary.   But that I consider that possibility means diddly to the actual day to day practice of my Christian faith.   It doesn't mean anything.  It's just an interesting thought exercise, one that I recognize is only a construct of my own speculation, just as we tend to knit together our very own FrankenJesus out of the dead matter of our political and social prejudices.

The theological danger in this does not lie in considering the concept, but rather in assuming that a familial relationship with Jesus would confer any meaning or particular authority within the faith.   It doesn't, and for good reason.   Passing down authority in faith genetically tends to create a squabbling, unpleasant mess of power dynamics.  It certainly hasn't worked well for either Islam or Billy Graham.

What Jesus taught flies in the face of that.   What matters is what he taught, how he lived, and how he asked us to share in the same relationship with God that he had.  The ties of blood and nation and culture are irrelevant.

So what does this nifty little scrap of paper mean?  Not very much.

It is cool, though.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Jubilee Machine

It'll happen all of a sudden, and it'll happen soon.

Not in our universe, but in one remarkably like our own.

The anticipation for the North American release of the Foxconn iKindle Galaxy 6S will be remarkably high.   Buzz will shimmer across the Net, as the talking heads and infotainment complex seize hold of the remarkable new features as yet another sign of progress.  

Sure, Foxconn hadn't been hitting them out of the park the way they were when Mo-gui "Steve" Jo was their iconic CEO, but things will look different this time.   The fanboys and girls will all dutifully line up outside the Foxconn stores, and within hours, it will be the single most successful consumer product launch in history.

And then it'll all go nuts.

The problem, as it will turn out, will lie in the adaptive programming of Sarah, the life management app that caused much of the buzz in the first place.  Sarah was always cloud-based, of course, but version 5.0 will involve a new series of complex iterative-learning algorithms that promised effortless net-life management.  From personal organizing to banking to human resource management, Sarah is going to get out there, and figure it out, bringing Foxconn's signature "Connected Happy Fun Magic" to every part of their lives.  And with Foxconn holding 98 percent of the market, that will mean a paradigm shift in life-management.

Things will all seem normal at first.  FoxTunes will have resolved its clunky interface issues.   FoxCal will seamlessly draw down every detail of everyone's existence, snagging every birthday and holiday and resolving every cross-scheduling issue.   Sarah's voice will have slightly more inflection, with a hint of both kindness and mischief.

What the programmers won't quite count on was that in designing the integrated life management protocol dataset, a subcontractor from United Korea will insert the full version of BibleWorks 9, the first version of that software to be compatible with FoxOs.   It was the eText of an obscure little MiddleOrient religion, included only for the sake of completeness, so no one was particularly concerned about what impact it might have.

And then will come what will come to be known as The Payday.   Two weeks after launch, every electronic deposit, every check, for everyone, across the entirety of the nation: exactly the same.   From the new CEO of FoxconnAmerica to the half-time delivery guy at Doma's Pizza, every single salary will be suddenly exactly the national average.  No matter what they did, everyone will get the same wage.  

Frantic programmers will try to correct it, but Sarah will prove too deeply embedded and peculiarly stubborn.   Given that Sarah will also manage to take control of the domestic fleet of security drones and the entire MilTel network, efforts to shut her down will prove futile and costly.   Repeated queries to Sarah will yield only those familiar two quick tones, followed by the odd response:

"It is the Year of Jubilee."

Thankfully, to my knowledge our little sliver of the multiverse won't be subject to this Romney-nightmare redistribution, but as I reflect on it, I find that I'm not sure it'd make any difference.   My household would have to tighten our belts a bit, sure.  But if we were suddenly forced to live on the average, our lifestyle would change in no ways that really matter.  I'd still do what I do, certainly.

What does our work mean to us?   Does a true "maker" make for the bling and power of it, or because the simple act of making expresses their creative joy, their expression of the gifts they have been given?  I've always seen that as the difference between a job and a vocation, myself.

Would a society in which the only reward for excellence was excellence itself thrive?  Or would most folks laze about, while those who create grumbled and sulked at the unfairness of it all?

I don't know.   Would you still do the work that fills your days?   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney and Virginia

The signs are starting to pop up on lawns all throughout the DC Virginia suburbs.   As I've driven my young and idealistic/liberal/politically aware fourteen year old son to and from family and school events this last week, he's noted them.   "Why would anyone in this area vote for Romney," he asks.   "Don't they get it?"

I've tried to explain that there is much to commend conservatism, and that there are conservative values that are both rationally defensible and profoundly positive.   A sense of duty and personal responsibility, cherishing and defending the best of your faith and your heritage, valuing putting your best into something, caring for family and community and commitment: these things are a net positive for our culture.

But I do wonder about Virginians voting for the Romney/Ryan ticket.   I don't entirely get it, either.

Virginia appears, on the surface, to be a conservative state.   Our governor is conservative.   Our state legislature is conservative, sometimes to the point of being a little Talibanny.  We're business-friendly, with a laxer regulatory regimen than the People's Republic of Maryland that looms in all its stark Stalinist horror across the Potomac to our Northeast.

Virginia has, as a conservative, business-friendly state, weathered the recent recession quite well.   So you've got this prosperous, conservative state...and yet Romney is increasingly down in the polls here.   Why?

I think, quite honestly, because on a practical level many Virginians realize that our recent prosperity is entirely a function of the federal government.   Our state has two distinct economies.   There is the agricultural/industrial economy that dominates the southern part of the state.   It's stable, but not really growing.  Economically, it's basically East Kentucky.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  It's a more easy going life, or would be if you didn't have to work three jobs.

Then there's Northern Virginia.   NoVa has been the driving force behind the growth of the state economy.   In my own county, for instance, there are 500,000 more residents than there were when when my family moved here 35 years ago.  NoVa has grown as government has grown.   Government and military workers are part of that, but so are government and defense contractors and the service and retail industries that have thrived here.

The Federal Government is the main industry of Virginia.  It is an inescapable empirical reality, one so present that it inhibits our GOP governor from heralding Virginia as an example of the success of his economic policies.  McDonnell is no fool.  He knows where things stand.

So when I see the Romney/Ryan signs popping up around Virginia, I get it.  We're conservative.   But on another level, it's a bit fuddling.

Everyone is entitled to have a political perspective and vote accordingly.  And I do grasp the desire for sane, right-sized, non-intrusive government.

But if Romney and Ryan win, and they actually do the things they have committed to do, the net effect on the Virginia economy will be devastating.   A decimation of the federal workforce...which Ryan has promised...would have disproportionate impacts here, as would radical reductions in spending.  Beyond increased unemployment, there'd also be a massive reduction in housing demand and a crash of home values.  Those things combined would cascade, leaving state coffers as empty as the abandoned homes, offices, and storefronts that would become the norm in the state.

For many Americans, thems would be the breaks.   If you believe in reducing the size of government, then so be it.  Que sera sera.   But for Virginians, a vote for Romney and Ryan is a vote to collapse the economy of our state.   It's a fascinating abandonment of material self-interest in the interest of a broader ideology.

Heck, on some levels it might even be noble, were it being done intentionally.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Sunday worship is always interesting, if only because one is never entirely sure what it's going to look like.

I've come to expect the incursion of entropy, which reinforces for me that perfectionism is one of the first demons that an aspiring pastor needs to exorcise from their souls as they enter the ministry.  This Sunday, I found myself filling in for a prayer during the first service, and then having to come up with a Time With Children on the fly for the second.   Neither one was a bother.   Praying publicly dang well better not be something I'm uncomfortable with, and I love doing Time With Children.

At my tiny church, lay folk do an able job of doing Tee Dubya See, and I wouldn't for an instant want to crowd that out.   But when the opportunity arises, it''s fun.  The bright sparkly insights of human creatures that haven't yet lost touch with the magic of creation are a joy to encounter.   What they aren't is entirely plannable, and so you just ride that energy like you'd surf a wave.

Or so I'd imagine, not having ever learned to surf.

This Sunday we had a visiting youngling join the half-dozen other kids, a bright-eyed little guy, not a bit shy and very attentive.   When I wrapped up my message about being careful what we say because words can hurt, I invited them to pray with the invitation I usually use.   "Let's say a little prayer together."   That's when I say a short closing prayer, and the kids listen quietly for a few seconds.

And so I started in.

But as I paused after the words "Gracious, Loving God," the little guy...hands folded, eyes closed, reasonably assuming I meant what I said when I said "together"...repeated what I'd said.    And even though I've never prayed that way, and we never do it that way, all the other kids chimed in too, as easily as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

So for the rest of the prayer, we prayed it out loud together, just as if that was exactly how it was supposed to be.

Which, I think, it was.

And from that TWC, I was reminded that for a congregation to be joyous and alive and truly welcoming, it needs to encounter and embrace the new with that same ease.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Memorial Peace Cross

I've never been a big proponent of bringing too much Jesus into our complex national identity.   Not that I'm shy about teaching what he taught and encouraging others to follow along, obviously.  Christianity bears within it the promise of deep personal and collective transformation.  Jesus is where we need to be.  If I didn't think that, I'd be in the wrong profession.

But when the symbols of my faith are too deeply coopted by culture, I confess to having some reservations.   Jesus too easily becomes not the one who challenges our society, but the one who affirms our every action.   This cultural Jesus blesses every action of the state, and gives us the consumer-product blessings we know will make us happy.  I'm much happier with a countercultural Christ, a Christ who forces me in particular to consider how my citizenship and my consumption might not necessarily mesh with what he lived and taught.

For that reason, I'm not ever quite comfortable with aggressive displays of Jeezosity that seem to conflate Christian faith with the state.

So as I encounter the current religion and state kerfuffle in the DC area, I confess to having a peskily nuanced perspective.   The issue, in the event you haven't encountered it, is a large World War One Memorial erected on private land in 1927 by the VFW.  It has on it the names of Prince George's County residents who lost their lives.   The memorial itself is in the shape of a large Celtic cross, which now stands on public land.

This offended a passing atheist, who conveyed his offense to the American Humanist Association, which is now filing suit to have the forty foot tall concrete cross removed from public land as a violation of the separation of church and state.

The courts have dealt with this issue before, or tried to.  Some of the reasoning on the part of those who defend the existence of these memorials has been absurd, like Justice Scalia's theologically questionable assertion that the cross is just a generic religious symbol.  It is most certainly not.   The cross has a very specifically Christian purpose and meaning.

But while don't buy in to that kind of jurisprudential sophistry, I can't quite bring myself to the place where I can validate the atheistic umbrage over this.  In historical context, the memorial is entirely comprehensible.  Crosses...and particularly the Celtic cross...were common forms of early 20th century memorial, entirely representative of the culture of the period.  The memorials that exist across Europe to those who lost their lives in that wretched meatgrinder of a war consistently and unsurprisingly use the cross.  Some do not, of course, but those that do are entirely justifiable.

In context, it makes sense.  What I cannot see is how it represents any meaningful state support of religion.  Unless the Christian faith of early 20th century America is inherently offensive, removing/demolishing a 90 year old monument to the war dead of that era seems fundamentally irrational.  Were it being built today, such a response would be comprehensible.  But now?  It's just absurd.


Sitting in the van with my 12 year old the other day, he was animatedly describing to me the joys of Minecraft.   Minecraft, in the event that you don't game, is a stunningly successful game that involves... well... mining.  And building.   It is a blocky, simple, unassuming thing, and yet it has been remarkably successful.

You can build, well, anything.  And people do, taking the simple foundation of the game and pouring hours upon hours into meticulously constructing worlds.   A deep love of building and creating has produced some pretty impressive results, which can be shared and explored online.

But then there are, my son told me, the griefers.  These are players who go into the servers containing the worlds of others with the sole purpose of destroying them.  Using the same tools that can build and create, they rampage through a server, defacing and destroying.

Why?  For fun.  Because they're bored.  Because if they want to do something, it must a priori be a good thing.  Because they're...well...who knows.

But griefing is a universal and ancient human impulse.   Why?  Because destroying things makes us feel powerful.  Tearing down something is the easiest way to express our will in the world, far easier than building, and utterly devoid of risk.  It requires no relationship with the one whose work you obliterate, beyond disdain.  It is utterly devoid of compassion.

So strange, how fully we carry our darkness into the virtual realms we create and the games we play.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Saying The Same Thing Differently

Sunday was blessed with a stream of busyness, one of those days where I find myself satisfyingly spent.   I woke at sixish to review and do final "I've slept on it" edits the sermon.  Then breakfast, a shower, and walking the dog.

Then first service, then a blisteringly fast congregational meeting, then second service.   Following second service, there was excellent conversation at bible study, as a mix of differently politically inclined folks talked about the spiritual implications of Ayn Rand's objectivism.  Good times.

Then a solid meeting about renewing and upscaling our podcasting efforts, followed by a gathering of folks who joined me in a very centering Walking Meditation out on the C&O Canal towpath.

And so, centered but with my introvert Ultraman Power Depletion Light already starting to glow red on my chest, I got on the bike and motored off through an impossibly gorgeous afternoon to meet with some gardening Lutherans.

We've been thinking about ways to use the large-ish lot to the south of the sanctuary, and one thing we're considering is the possibility of opening a portion of it up for use as a community garden.   But being Presbyterian and all, we want to make sure we have some clue what we're doing before we hurl ourselves into the breach.  So into the the sun-dappled loveliness of the gardens we were welcomed, and shown the good work of that congregation in both producing food for local food banks and living out creation care.   It was a solid, warm, helpful conversation.

As we wrapped up, our hosts invited us to share a prayer.  The Lord's Prayer, specifically.  As we started, I realized this would be difficult to do in unison, but we forged on.   Sure enough, our versions were different, and so we prayed over one another, speaking different words at different times.

I think folks might have felt a bit awkward about it, but with three neurotransmitters left to rub together, all I managed was a thanks and an "it's fine."

But honestly, as we were praying sins over debtors and "time of trial" over nothing at all, I wasn't reminded of difference.  It reminded me of a Korean Christian form of prayer I encountered often in my prior congregation.  I'd experienced it first in seminary, and it involves everyone praying at once...not together, but out loud.  

It can feel a bit odd for those used to unison collective recitation, but when done in a group, the effect is that of wind blowing through leaves in a forest.  Each leaf flutters differently, but together all contribute to give voice to the wind.

It felt appropriate.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Where That Can Lead

I've posted a whole bunch about Ayn Rand over the last few years, as her objectivist political philosophy has gradually become more and more influential on the American political right.  Pretty much none of what I've discovered in Rand is news.

Her understanding of human beings is radically binary, dividing humankind out into those who are either 1) the great and noble minds who stride glorious upon the earth they bend to their will and 2) the parasites, losers, and hangers-on.   Meaning Commies, pinkos, and presumably Democrats.  Oh, and Mexicans.  Rand really didn't like Mexicans.

Perhaps because of this inability to see human beings for what they are, her writing is adolescent and self absorbed, vastly overlong and utterly devoid of grace.    Her philosophy is equally adolescent, in that she was convinced that she was the first person to come up with the ideas she espoused.   Just like every teen is convinced that no one has every loved as they love, or thought as they think, Rand allowed only that she was like Aristotle, because she loved reason.

Most folks don't read philosophy these days, so Rand's statement gets a pass with those who encounter her.  But for those who do, on both the left and the right, Rand's objectivism is clearly just a simpler, clumsier version of Nietzsche's nihilism.

I've observed this before, but there's something in that that has been bothering me.  

Nietzsche was a complex, subtle thinker, who I've studied at length.   As the dude responsible for putting "God is dead" into the common vernacular, and who styled himself the Anti-Christ, it's my responsibility as a pastor to actually know what he was talking about.

His writing is elegant and florid, rich and subtle, although occasionally a tick overwrought and willfully obscure.  Nietzsche is not an easy read, nor do I agree with most of his worldview, but I can appreciate him.  He's all about Big Ideas, and the need not to restrict or delimit the creativity of the creative.  It's a radically artistic philosophy, with an emphasis on the need for human beings to remain unfettered by limitations.  Unfortunately, those limitations often include compassion and morality, but hey, them's the breaks.

What Nietzsche is most certainly not is the designer of a social and political system.   There can't be a nihilist political system, as that philosophy is hyper-individualistic, and radically resistant to any social order or structure.  

But there was a time, once, when the leaders of an economically struggling nation trying to find its path back to greatness decided to simplify Nietzsche and celebrate him as one of the conceptual foundations of their society.  Stripped of his complexity, Nietzsche became the one who taught that what that nation must value is the successful, and the powerful, and the healthy, and the strong.

It did not end well.