Monday, December 31, 2012

The Toys We Don't Need

As our seasonal festival of consumerist gorging comes to an end, that big pulse of buybuybuy that pushes the retail industry into the black for the year seems to have worked again.  Our houses are once again overloaded with material possessions that, by and large, we don't actually need but have been convinced we require for our happiness.  There's been a peculiar aspect of the surge of purchasing this year, though, one that is beyond me.

It's the great rush of gun purchases following the Sandy Hook shootings.  You remember that, right?  Yeah, I know, so-five-minutes-ago, but it's still having an effect, eh?  And the most immediate effect has been that assault-style rifles...meaning semi-auto, large magazine firearms that evoke actual combat weaponry...have been roaring off of the racks of gun stores this holiday season.  It's so intense that the profiteers are out in force, as folks pick up semi-auto AR-15s and Kalashnikovs and resell them for a healthy margin.   

That's not unusual for interesting new firearms, like the speculative rush on Keltec's KSG home defense bullpup shotgun over the last year, but this is another thing altogether.  This is actually a familiar trend, as the threat of gun regulation following mass shootings tends to lead to hoarding and panic buying.  It's always seemed a bit odd, but we're an odd people.

What has struck me in this current feeding frenzy is how peculiarly it meshes with another truth known to responsible gun owners.   The appearance of a gun is meaningless.  Oh, calibre matters, as do a range of other factors, particularly magazine capacity.  But in terms of lethality, a rifle is a rifle.  Urban leftists who are oblivious to the nuances between weapons look at all the pseudo-mil-spec farkling and tactical doodaddery, and assume that somehow makes a rifle more lethal.

It does not.  

Case in point: the most lethal soldier in the whole of the blood-soaked horror that was the twentieth century was a Finnish sniper by the name of Simo Hayha.  He used a Finnish version of the Mosin-Nagant hunting rifle...bolt action, five round magazine, iron kill over five hundred Soviets.   It's a sturdy, reliable, low-rate-of-fire weapon.  That rifle was the most lethal individual firearm in the history of modern warfare.  Lord have mercy.  It is also the kind of weapon that would be utterly unaffected by even the most stringent firearm regulations.

Of course, that's a hunting rifle, and not so handy in close quarters.  But for close quarters combat...the type of staving-off-the-serial-killing-burglar-rapist-Democrat fantasy scenario that sells so many American firearms...there's pretty much nothing better than a scattergun.  In the typical home on a typical quarter acre lot, you'd need nothing more.  And there's no better way to put shot on target than something like the humble but utterly reliable Remington 870, which happens to be...if those who I know who know guns are to be believed...a fine hunting shotgun as well.  Again, unaffected by gun regulation.

So here's what I don't get. folks who know guns better than I will invariably tell you whenever a mass shooting happens...there is no functional difference in lethality, why the rush on the tactical semi-auto farkle-guns?   These aren't real military-grade assault rifles.  They just pretend to be.  Why the panic buying of guns that are all about ego and threat-display, but are functionally no better at hunting/defending against invading armies/home-defense than far less showy firearms?

Why? Because they are the toys that we want.  They are toys that appeal powerfully to our egos, and to our fears.  They happen to be lethal toys, sure, but they are more about what they whisper in the ear of their owner.  

"Look at how fearsome I am," they say.  "You're strong and powerful," they say.   "You are a warrior," they lie.  "You could kill anyone who messed with you," they say, mixing a dark truth with the fantasy.  Because like all toys, they are mostly about fantasy.  They are all about the fantasy of war, of violence, and of power.  

And as my dear friend Wayne LaPierre put it recently, "Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?"

Perhaps that's what makes these toys so dangerous.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Words and Paper

This morning, I came bucketing up the long gravel driveway of my in-law's house in Western Maryland.  The five inches of snow already on the ground had been augmented by an overnight snow, and the flakes were still falling heavily.

Between the new tires on the minivan and a healthy dose of objects-in-motion-tend-to-stay-in-motion, it was only just enough muss and fuss to make it entertaining.

I was on my way back from the morning jaunt that has defined almost every morning since I started coming out here decades ago: The newspaper run.

The paper has always been a necessary part of any lazy flannel-jammie morning.  That newspaper run used to be earlier, years ago.  Back in the 1990s, I had to get out by no later than seven, and even then, there was always the risk that every single newspaper would be gone.

Now?  There are always papers, no matter how late I sleep in.  That form of media is fading.  We've moved away from physical media for our news, and now are increasingly moving away from it for our reading.  Books have also been a major part of any time off, and this year, for the first time, I find myself sitting at the Western Maryland house and reading an eBook.

I've read books online before.  I've read an entire book in a game on my PS3.  I've even published to Kindle.  But I've not made a regular habit of reading books that weren't paper and ink.  With the arrival of the lowest-end no-ad Kindle in my life, that's going to become a much more regular event.   It's lowest-end by design.  I don't want a tablet computer.  I don't want apps, or videos, or games.  I want none of those distracting, pointless bits of popcorn-brain electronic frippery.

I just want to read, to lose myself in a world spun of words.

The first of the books I downloaded was the latest in Ian M. Banks Culture books, a series of thoroughly enjoyable hoo-hah hard-sci-fi space operas.  Others will follow...more hard sci-fi, and likely some Teilhard de Chardin.

It's a different tactile feeling, having that light sliver of plastic in my hand.   But the reading experience is exactly the same.  I'm still immersed in that world, engaged deeply with the reality woven into being by that language.

That's the important thing, eh?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaming and Violence

Today, I'm standing down from gaming in all forms that in any way simulate violence.   There will be no shooting, first person or otherwise.  I will not jump on the heads of any Koopas.  I will not upgrade my archers in Kingdom Rush.  There will be no in-game violence, whatsoever, period.  In this, I'll be joining with thousands of other gamers who are choosing not to play any games that evoke combat, as a way of marking the impact of actual violence.

Which is fine by me, particularly the shooting part.  I've found that after Sandy Hook, my tolerance levels for media that involves firearms has diminished significantly.  It's a visceral, naturally occurring emotive response.  I just can't find any fun in it, not over the last week.  I'm not in the mood, any more than I was after 9/11.  One evening in October of 2001, I found just couldn't even watch this scene, encountered at random on cable, without thinking of all of those first responders.  I had to turn it off.  It just didn't seem fun any more.

That, more than anything, is why I'm standing down today.

Much has been made of the linkage between violence in media...particularly gaming...and the relentless dirge of gun violence in our culture.  The last two decades have seen the rise of increasingly involving and realistic virtual worlds, in which war and combat are a significant factor.  Battlefield 3 isn't Combat or Outlaw.

The depth, realism and immersive quality of modern gaming seems of a different character than any form of media that has preceded it.  The capacity to interact and participate in a virtual world is a new thing for humankind, and it's a little unsettling.   For many adults, it is also an alien thing, not a part of their experience of life.  As the United States flounders about grasping for some explanation for Sandy Hook that doesn't involve us having to regulate firearms, gaming has arisen as one possible cause.

We know, for example, that Adam Lanza gamed.   But what does that mean?  What does it mean that he was really into Starcraft?  It means that in that part of his life, he shared something with the vast majority of American kids. Objective research shows that 89% of American boys own game consoles...and 70% of girls.   Gaming is so pervasive that establishing a causal link between gaming generically and violence in our culture is not possible.

The linkage...based on data, objectively assessed...between gaming and societal violence seems tenuous, too.  That's not just because the rise of gaming as a cultural phenomenon tracks with a twenty-year decline in US crime rates.  When the United States Supreme Court took up the issue of banning violent video games last year, they found no evidence of a linkage.  You can read Antonin Scalia's opinion here.   When Antonin Scalia and Sandra Sotomayor exhaustively look at the evidence on an issue and come to the same conclusion, that says something.

That observation...that there is not enough evidence to come to find a causal or even a correlational link between gaming and actual violence...has been reinforced by the Journal of Pediatrics.

What we also know is that gaming is not a uniquely American phenomenon.  It is cross-cultural, totally pervasive throughout the developed world.  I know this on because I game, and I'll find myself occasionally on a server gaming with Aussies, or Brits, or Quebecois, or Germans.  None of those cultures come close to matching our rate of gun violence.  But I also know it statistically.  Presumably, a link between gaming and murder rates would manifest itself cross culturally, and it has not.  Gun violence is, in the developed world, a particularly American phenomenon.  We are the outlier.

Take, as a particularly potent example, South Korea, where gaming borders on being a national obsession.  Koreans are arguably the gamingest people on the planet.  What impact does that have on gun violence in South Korea?   None.   South Koreans have been known play video games until they die of starvation, to the point where time limits were put into place by law.   And yet gun violence is functionally nonexistent in that free and democratic society.  Their murder rate is just about half of ours.  Lord knows it's not because the broader Korean culture is calm and measured.   Sweet Mary and Joseph, is that not the case.  There's not a more fiery, passionate people on the face of God's creation.  Although nearly every Korean male must serve in the military, and is trained in firearm use, they don't kill each other with guns because they just don't have guns.  No guns? No gun deaths. That's why their gun-death rate is a tiny fraction of ours.  Period.

Still and all, that doesn't mean that gaming itself is without ethical challenges.  The potential impacts of gaming on an undeveloped or unstable child has never been a risk that I've been willing to take.  So over the years, I've monitored my boys and their gaming, something that I as a gamer am particularly able to do.  I know the dynamics of games, and which ones are less compatible with healthy spiritual and ethical development.

I've listened and watched their mental states, and seen as they've developed the capacity for empathy and rational thought.  I've talked with them about the difference between the real and the virtual, and listened to them as they've talked.   What types of games I've permitted them to play...and what movies I've allowed them to see...has been contingent on their development and their ethical awareness.

And while I'm comfortable having my intelligent, creative, inherently impulsive and inescapably hormonal pre-teen and teen sons around my PS3, I could not say the same for a gun.  One could, in a moment of foolishness, kill them.  The other could not.

For me, that seems Occam's-Razor-simple enough.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Connections, Probability, and God's Judgment

Yesterday, as I threw a leg over my bike to ride through warmish mid-December weather, I reached down to plug my heated gear into the side of my bike.  Snap, it went, as the SAE to BMW dongle failed.  The connection was broken.

There would be no connection between my heated insert and the bike's electrical system.  There would be no toasty warm glow about my torso, making it one of those rare days I was a little bit thankful for global warming.

And why?  Why did this happen?  Well, many reasons.  The part wasn't particularly well machined, and this is the second time one has failed.  The plug is right by my left leg, meaning I bump it on occasion, which torques the internals.   And I use it a whole bunch, not being one of those leather-bound "bikers" who only take their garage candy out twice a year.  Wear and tear is a factor.

Taken in combination, those factors establish a probability of failure.  When precisely they'll combine to cause that failure, however, is simply dependent on too many things to cleanly predict.

But the part did not fail because I had two craft beers the night before, or because I'm reading a book on quantum physics, or because I prayed the Lord's Prayer twice this morning instead of my usual once.   It did not fail because I'm raising my kids Jewish, or because I chose to go for a long walk yesterday.  Oh, sure, maybe in some sense they did have an impact, in that those things contributed to that moment...but they were not significant in establishing the likelihood of that event.  The flapping of a wing of a butterfly two meters away doesn't significantly increase the probability of you being blown off your feet.

I have some sense of the connections that created that disconnection, and why things failed.

As inevitably happens after horrible events, those among us who are Jesus folk and who have a sense of connection to our Creator are struggling for a sense of why things went wrong in Sandy Hook.  How can God permit a room full of innocent children to be slaughtered?  How can it be?  How can God do that to those parents, and to the first responders...moms and dads themselves...who must gather up those broken little bodies?

It's not an easy question, and the answers are not straightforward, lying deep in the shadowy admixture of our mortality and the way we free beings betray the freedom God has given us.

There is a strong tendency among some souls to see in the impossible horror of such tragedies evidence of God's displeasure with us.  If all was well, and the heart of our nation was righteous, or so the argument goes, then this horror would not have been inflicted on us.  But because it is not, the Lord has smoted us with a big smitey smiting.

And so, inescapably, we have the linking of the murders of those innocent children and teachers and the mother of that troubled young man to something wrong in the national character.  There is a connection there.  God is punishing us, or so some feel compelled to say.

But what is the nature of God's judgment?  What do we know about it, those of us who haven't entirely abandoned the concept?  Here, I think it's vital not just to deconstruct and critique and attack.  That's easy, but it's also lazy.   Yeah, it might feel pretty dang awesome to our angry monkey-selves.  But on some fundamental spiritual level, attacking and tearing apart seems less like a gift of the Spirit, and more like a gift from the Accuser.

Instead, it seems we should provide a clearer picture of the truth we know about our Maker.   What do we affirm?  To what can we say "yes?"

What we know, those of us who follow Jesus and attend to his teachings, is that suffering and death are not a sign of sin in the one who is suffering.   Suffering is not to be automatically equated with God's judgment.  The cross disabuses us of that, as do the deaths of those Christian witnesses who, guided by the Spirit, refused to take up the sword even in the face of violence.  They proclaimed peace and forgiveness, even as the world broke them.

We also know from the witness of scripture that the wicked do prosper, and that the oppressor does live in comfort.  That ain't right with God, but there are times when it does happen.  Rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike, as they say.

But what we also know is that where we violate the law of love, there are consequences, just as there are consequences if we think we're immune to the law of gravity.  That law of liberty is etched into the nature of all creation, as fundamental to sentient beings as the laws of physics are to inanimate objects.  It is the metric against which we are judged, both individually and collectively.

That judgement bears consequences.  Systems based on violence and injustice always fail.  Systems where power is concentrated in the hands of a few, be the power of the sword or socioeconomic power, those systems are radically out of balance.  They will tear themselves apart, and fall.  Scripture's pretty clear on that, as clear as it is on the ramification of our individual sin.

And what we also know is that just as love is its own reward, so too sin's reward rises from the nature of the sin itself.  The cup we pour is the cup we drink, as both the Beatles and a dear friend of mine once said.  Though the precise nature of God's justice is beyond us, it is ultimately not something that exists in the realm of magical thinking.  The events that create the probability of tragedy and horror, complex as they are, are not radically abstracted from their fruit.

Meaning, rather simply, that when a nation arms itself to the teeth, creates a climate of social isolation and fear, and stigmatizes the broken of mind, that is the cup we have poured for ourself.  It is the furrow we have dug into the surface of being.  When the storm comes, and the torrent flows down the path we've made for it, we shouldn't act surprised.

We may not know the fullness of the "why" of anything.  Creation is simply too complex.  But we can know enough to act, through the blessings of reason and the whisperings of the Spirit in our hearts.  And we can certainly know enough to act in ways that meaningfully reduce the likelihood of future horror.

Whether we make the way straight for God or prepare a path for sorrow is entirely our own responsibility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Mathematics

When I walked into the first service on Sunday, robe and stole more or less neatly on and sermon in hand, folks were relieved to see me.  I wasn't late, not technically.  I mean, seriously, the service wasn't supposed to start for another two minutes.  No sweat.

Well, there had been sweat, of the mental kind.  It wasn't just that I had to recraft my sermon following the horrific events at Sandy Hook.  It was that on Saturday, I rewrote it, and then set it aside, prayed and let it leave my mind, and then returned to it late Saturday.  It felt stale and dead and formal, so I anguished it into what could have passed for completion.   And then I got up early on Sunday morning, and again, it did not feel graceful or real or comforting.   So I wrote and rewrote paragraphs, deleting some, recreating others, until it felt close enough the sermon I needed to hear myself.

As I wrote, I was also doing some simple math in my mind, a little subroutine that clacked away in the background of my consciousness.  "If a pastor gets on his motorcycle and leaves his house in Annandale at 8:15 am, and his church is 37 miles away in Poolesville, what is the average speed that pastor will have to travel in order to arrive at his office five minutes before the church service begins at 9:30 am?  What if he leaves at 8:20 am?  How about 8:30?"   That equation kept shifting,  the numbers rising like the needle on my tach.   I finally left at 8:47 am, my prayers for green lights and open roads mingling with the eager snarl of a willing 650 twin that almost never gets to play, my eyes on the digital clock on the instrument panel.

I arrived at my office at 9:25 on the dot, no muss, no fuss, and no riding done that would seem alarming to my mother.  Or, rather, nothing more alarming than the mere fact of riding.  Who says pastors don't need math?

It was, I hope, worth it...but it was worth it when it came to my duty to my calling.  Great care and caution needs to be taken when you are endeavoring to articulate the Gospel into a tragedy.  It must challenge, but it must also be good news.  It must demand repentance, but offer grace.  It must speak from your heart, but be guided by that which transcends you.  It must call us towards that Kingdom that is Not Yet, but it must also be grounded in the reality of what is broken.

That, more than anything, is the burden so many pastors bore on Sunday.  It's why so many of the pastors I'm connected to through social media were struggling so mightily late into the evening.  If your heart is busted up and your mind is a mess, it's easy to fall back on old tropes and generic answers.

And those do damage.  More on that later.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Learning To Play A New Game

So the other day, I was arriving at my son's middle school, because... um... well... I sort of forget.  I think he'd left something at home.  Given the number of times I have to pick something up or drop something off that has been forgotten, it all gets blurry.

When I arrived, there was a circle of tweeners out front of the school.  They weren't absorbed in their iPods, or milling about aimlessly.  They were playing a game together, actual human beings, facing one another and interacting.   They would strike out comically at each other, either making contact or not...and if not, they'd freeze in whatever exaggerated pose they'd ended up in.

It was not supervised, organized, or parent run.  There were no release forms.  They were just playing, in a self-organized game.

Huh, I thought, as I brought whatever-it-was-I was-bringing to my son.  I wonder what that is.  I don't remember that game.  I really had never seen it, not through my entire childhood, on in any of my years of time around children.

On Friday night, I drove what seemed to be halfway across the planet to my older son's varsity swim meet, at a rec center pool deep in the heart of what had been countryside back when I was in high school.  I was going to be a timer, which is actually a great way to get up and close and personal with the action.  I've done it enough to know that I needed not to wear shoes.

As I waited for the meet to begin, I noticed that while some teens were sitting cliche-oblivious to one another, absorbed in their pocket mind suckers, my older son was standing in a circle playing exactly the same game with a group of other kids.   Girls, mostly.  Smart lad, thought I.  Then, they played what was seemed a similar game, but with different motions and rhythm.  There was laughter and silliness.  It was good to see kids playing together, particularly on that night.

On the way home, I asked my older son what the game was called.  Two games, he said.  The one I'd seen at both schools they called "Ninja."  The other was called "Wa," and it was a motion and rhythm game.  They may have been out there somewhere back when I was a kid.   But they were not part of the life of middle schoolers and high schoolers in Northern Virginia back in the day.  Now, kids are teaching them to kids.  It's part of their culture.

Kids have always had their own folklore, their own stories, passed from child to child as a part of the child-world.  The fables and myths and games of childhood exist in a place apart from the dull and clumsy world of adults.  I fear, sometimes, that our kids are losing that, that we're cramming them so full of prepackaged entertainment product that their minds are becoming consumerist foie gras.

But the games continue...and they change.  That was a hopeful thing, important to see and feel this week in which all has sometimes seemed so trapped and hopeless.  What makes the world so alive when you are a child is the newness of it.  So much of what you encounter is new, and as you encounter it, the process of growing and living requires that you engage with it and figure out how or how not to integrate it into yourself.

And because everything is new to us, a totally new thing...a game, for instance, or a new way of doing something...can be taken in and lived out.

It's a skill we need to better develop, because it would serve us well as a people.  And perhaps that's part of what my Teacher meant when he said we can only enter the Kingdom as little children.

How can we be transformed, if we can never learn to play any new games?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Tragic and the Evil

Yesterday, my boys came home, as they always do, slouching down the street from the bus stop.

It is always good to see them, but it was particularly good to see them yesterday.  Here are my children that I love.  They are alive.  In the scurry of life, that miracle can be obscured by a fog of undone homework and shuttle-child activities.  It takes a strong wind to blow that fog away.

Neither had heard of the shooting, so I told them.  Both had more or less the same reaction.  "Again?"

I offered up the opportunity for more conversation, because I needed to hear them talking and be with them.  We talked for a little.   And in that talking, my fourteen year old responded to one word, when, echoing the governor of the state of Connecticut, I described the events as evil.

"I don't know if it's evil, Dad.  The guy had to be insane.  And if he was insane, was it really evil?"

It was a good question.

I have my own "bad things" continuum, a theological framework that has always made sense to me.  There are tragic things, and there are evil things.  The tragic are those inevitable moments of human breaking and suffering that arise from our smallness.  We are fragile and complex and easily broken, a marvelous miniscule speck of organic bits and bones and mush that comes apart when the universe brushes against us even just a little bit.  We are mortal.  We always have been.  Accepting that is a necessary part of our existence.  

And then there is evil.  Evil, as I have understood it, comes when a self-aware being...a free being...uses that freedom to oppress, dominate, and destroy another self-aware being.  Evil exists within the realm of sentience, as the polar opposite of the One Law that is the best purpose of all sentient life.  For there to be evil, there must be freedom.  And for there to be freedom, the potential for evil must exist.  It is the terrible gift of our Maker, and the one warning of Eden.  We are free to sink our teeth into that fruit, and to know evil and shame and selfishness.  

But what was this?  A young man murders his mother, and then murders twenty six others, including enough little ones to fill a big-church-pastor's time with children.  He had to be insane, we tell ourselves.  Had to be, because sanity does not do that.  It can't.  Was this just a human storm, a human earthquake, an act of nature playing out through the soulless body of a broken being?

And yet.  And yet he left the assault rifle in the car, knowing that it would let him get deeper into the building, preventing the potential for a lockdown.   And yet he left the assault rifle in the car in the full knowledge that you can do all manner of harm with pistols in an enclosed space.  You can butcher teachers and small children quite effectively with pistols.  There was hate, and there was intentionality.

I do not doubt that there was mental illness involved.  Some form of autism, they are saying now, although it is early and things are unclear and that is an amorphous diagnosis that can mean any one of ten thousand things.

But I have worked with the mentally ill, and they are human.  They are persons, as surely as I am a person.  I have known them, and cared for them, and they have been my friends.  While recognizing the clinical reality of mental illness, something deep in me recoils at the idea of declaring that some human beings are simply objects, as devoid of awareness as a rock or a cloud.  That way of thinking about humankind has sparked and flickered in our minds in this scientific age, and where it has taken hold, it has turned us into monsters.

And so I am left unsatisfied, in a place of shadow and fog.  As my mind seeks answers across the framework that seems to make sense of suffering, I cannot alight on that one definitive answer that reason seeks.  My seeking mind is as restless and weary as Noah's raven, riding the skies over a world-sea of churning chaos.

So many things are simply beyond us.  Lord, have mercy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No Words

It's hard not to write about the events of today, particularly if you are the sort of soul that makes sense of things through writing.   But it's perhaps harder to write about that mass shooting, part of a seemingly endless cascade of gun violence in our culture.

What is there to say that has not been said?  Since Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, since that classroom full of little Amish children, since...but there are too many, and lists bore us.    And those are just the outlier events, not the deaths by the ones and twos that are just part of the ubiquitous background hum of every day.  You only notice on the mornings your street is cordoned off, and you walk by a man scrubbing the blood of your child's classmate from the ground.

What remains to be spoken?  Words feel empty and inadequate, hollow things, just scribbling.

It feels so familiar, so unsurprising.  Yes, they were children, including apparently an entire class of kindergarteners, bright little lights extinguished so terribly soon.  My heart moves my memory to my own children's classes, filled with tiny faces.  It bends the imagination past any familiar place.  All gone.  How could they all be gone?  What an impossible thing.

But for all of our claiming that our hearts are broken today, I'm reasonably certain that the heart of this nation is not broken by this tragedy.  We will, as individuals and particularly as parents, weep and feel a sense of horror.  The anguish in the faces of parents is too real for us to miss.  Individually, we are not monsters.

But together?   There will be funerals, and there will be a week or maybe two of handwringing and debate.  And then it will again become clear.  We as a people do not care.  It does not matter to us, not really.  We will do nothing, and then we will forget.   We the people will be unmoved.

The calculus of our body politic has already settled on these recurring events as a necessary part of our life together.  We know what we'd need to do to change it.  It is before us.   It is not complicated.

But it is our preference not to act.  Now is not the time, we will say.  It's too complicated, we will say.

We are comfortable with this.  We are at ease.  We will weep in the now, shedding the tears of the moment.   But like the soul who weeps at that praise song on Sunday, and goes right back to their life unchanged on Monday, our tears will bring nothing new.

It is easy to feel helpless.  It is hard enough to know that no words can be said that will bring those children back.  But it is harder still to feel that no words can be said that will prevent this from occurring again.

Another thing best left to God, because all that I am is not enough for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mortality, Mourning, and Social Media

Yesterday, my social media inputs were thrumming with the collective mourning of many of my Presbyterian colleagues.  Through Facebook and Twitter and blogging, we were remembering and celebrating the life of Cindy Bolbach, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.

Though I was not as close to her as many, I'd known Cindy, for, well, a while.   I remember her first from my home congregation, where she was a grown-up and I was still a scrawny little Presbypup.   Then, I mostly remember her being impossibly tall and imposing, and clearly a Person of Consequence, which remained true even when I'd grown up a bit.  When I was preparing to serve my first congregation as a pastor, Cindy called me on behalf of Presbytery to make sure I knew what exactly I was getting in for.   I didn't, of course, as much as I thought I did.  That you understand you're about to run a class five rapid in an open canoe with a paddle made of jello does not mean you know yet what it's like to actually have that experience.   But I did know that I was called to be there despite its hardness, and Cindy had the spirit to receive that.  So we had a pleasant conversation or two, and a laugh or three, and the brightness of her mind and laugh still linger.  She was, as Willy Wonka might put it, a good egg.  She'll be missed.

Musing over her passing over and how it has echoed and sounded across the virtual reality I inhabit, I also found myself marking the reality of death and suffering as it expresses itself through this peculiar new form of human communication.   Because as we share our lives through this substrate, that goes further than puppies and memes and pictures of dinner.  Life includes illness, and loss, and tragedy.  Inevitably, for we are all mortal, it will include death.

As the social media generation ages, this reality will only deepen.

For some, the loss and brokenness and tragedies of life will manifest themselves as withdrawal.  Feeds will go silent.  Statuses will go un-updated, silenced by death or sorrow or shame.   For others, this media will allow for openness and sharing of suffering.  It will...and does...permit us to cry out into our communities of care, and to know we are heard.

Already, this is so.  It's why pastors now must have a presence in social media.  It's a vital way of hearing our communities, both those that are physical and those that are virtual.  Already, I attend carefully, because those wrenching moments surface often on Facebook.  A father, suddenly in a coma and then just as suddenly passed.  A silence, as depression claims the vibrancy of a soul.

What will be interesting...odd, perhaps, for human when the wave of us who are fifty and fortyish become sixty and seventyish.   In that place of life, passing grows more commonplace.  But for this generation, social media is assumed, an integral part of how we interact.

"So many of my friends are passing," say those I know who are older.  Will that feel different, I wonder, when it is not just a circle of intimates?  Will it feel different when it is the echoes of five hundred acquaintances, as the electronically mediated network of souls that are the fabric of all of your relational knowing wanes into nonbeing, letting the breath return to the God that made it?

We'll just have to see.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer and Helplessness

He arrived on my doorstep yesterday, back from his journeying, haggard and with eyes overbright with his illness.

I kept the dog back, and stepped outside to speak with him.  He's a neighbor, and a neighbor in need, but his challenges are beyond me.  Where I can, I help him, driving him to the store or doing odd tasks around the house.  If I don't have the time or I am too depleted to focus on his need, I tell him.  Boundaries are there for a reason.

But mostly I just listen whenever I have time to listen, because he needs someone to listen.  We all do.

In his hand was a paper, a hastily drafted legal document that reflected his pursuit of a lawyer he is convinced is responsible for all of his woes.  I reviewed it.  It was neat, and tidy, and completely insane, a systematic recounting of the demons that have come to inhabit his mind.  

Are you sure you can file this, I asked?  He was sure he could.  But I gently demurred when asked for a ride to the courthouse, and then suggested, again gently, that perhaps the law was not a fruitful place for him to find succor.  I'm not sure he heard me.  In fact, I know he did not.

But he did hear my sympathy at his dental woes, and seemed genuinely surprised at the sympathy.  As we talked, I offered a reminder that perhaps there were folks who could help him in ways that might get more deeply at what actually ails him.

I sent him on his way, and promised to look for help that he might be willing to accept.  A tricky wicket, mental illness is.  So beyond us.   It is easy to feel helpless in the face of it.

And so I pray for him, for calmness for his agitated mind.  Why?  In praying, I remind myself to act as the agent of my Lord's grace.  What use is prayer, if it does not change and guide us in those places where we know we are out of our depth?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Salvation Army, Discrimination, and Reality

Last week, while shopping in Harris Teeter, I was wandering down the cereal aisle when I came across a small pile of cash lying on the floor.  It was a ten-spot and four ones, not exactly a found fortune but still real money.  I looked around.  There was no-one nearby.  It had probably just fallen out of a pocket, Lord knows how long ago.

So I picked it up, and set it aside from the rest of my cash.  Yeah, things have turned a little harder for my family financially over the last week, but I wasn't going to spend that found money.

A day later, while in another shopping center, I heard the bright ding-a-dinging.   I walked over to the elderly Korean gentleman ringing his bell by the red kettle, and put the fourteen bucks in.

I have a significant soft spot for the Salvation Army.

Years ago, I'd found myself in something of a hard place.  I was just out of college with a freshly minted bachelor's degree.  I was living in Williamsburg, VA with my fiance, and I was completely unable to find work.   We were deep in the thickets of the Reagan recession, as the crash following the debt-driven sugar high of 1980s greed and voodoo economics came back to unfairly haunt George Bush Senior.

For months, I diligently applied for every last thing I could find.  I even stopped mentioning that I had a degree, as the gas stations and convenience stores for which I was trying to night-clerk viewed that as a liability.   Nothing, for months and months.  My meager savings were running perilously low.

And then the Salvation Army hired me.  It was forty hours a week, driving a van to distribute bell-ringers throughout the Williamsburg area.  I was also the errand boy, running to and from the bank with money collected and doing odd jobs as needed.  It was minimum wage with no benefits, but it was honest work, and it paid my share of the three-hundred-and-forty bucks rent for the tiny townhouse we inhabited.  

As I worked with the Salvationists, I really came to appreciate the ethos of that evangelical community. The local Major was a cheery soul, always nattily dressed and always very busy, but he lived an astoundingly humble life on a wage not much different from what I was being paid.  In later years, as I worked in the field of nonprofit research, I'd discover that the payscales in the Salvation Army are amazingly low.  With the executives in other large nonprofit organizations being paid in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars, the head of the Salvation Army...a three billion dollar a year organization...makes only a little more than a cashier at Costco.  For all of its organization and diligence, its ethos is far more like a monastic order than a business.

I was so taken with the depth and authenticity of the Salvationist commitment to service that I briefly looked into joining it...and soon realized I couldn't.  I was a liberal, progressive young Christian-ish person, and I was engaged to marry a Jew.   That wasn't going to fly.  I just couldn't be part of that movement and be in an interfaith marriage.  Ah well.  So it goes.

Among leftist folk, there's recently been a thread of activist-driven resistance to giving to the Salvation Army.  They don't accept gays among their number, and that makes them hateful discriminatory bigots who shouldn't be supported.   I don't share that theological perspective, which is why I'm not a part of the Salvation Army.  But I also know that it in no way informs how the Salvationists treat anyone.  Those who imply that giving to the Salvation Army somehow is encouraging injustice are not meaningfully representing reality.  Reality is considerably more nuanced than the binary thinking of radicals.

Salvationist theology and their practice of it requires relentless commitment to the direct care of those in need.  Period.

I've seen, first hand, the good that the Salvation Army does in the world.  Here was the kind of conservative evangelical church that..while I worked for them.. would regularly send me to pick up a gay man living with both AIDS and poverty.  They'd pay for me to drive him to the clinic for treatment, and were helping pick up the tab for that treatment.  They couldn't have cared less about his orientation.  They knew he was sick, and poor, and that he needed care.  So they provided it.

Sure, I couldn't be part of the Army.  But neither could I be Amish, my beard notwithstanding.  That does not mean I can't appreciate the real Gospel good they do in the world.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury

It's been coming for a while.

Following a recent leadership transition at the tippy-top of my wife's organization, things started shifting in ways that augured poorly.   Despite an amazing work ethic, a deep knowledge of her field, and a track record of turning around a struggling area of her organization, the missus found herself today on the wrong side of a restructuring.

A new CEO brought in a bevy of highly paid restructuring consultants, with the idea of totally changing the entire business model of the organization.  Everything about the organization, or so this new CEO overtly told everyone on staff, has sucked.  I'm going to save it by being the powerful transformative leader you poor pathetic sods have needed all along.

Lord knows that's not ever a good sign.  In congregational leadership literature, that's an almost guaranteed mark of a pastor who's going to leave wreck and ruin in their wake, but the corporate world hasn't clued in to that reality yet.  Nor have many churches, not to mention the board of one particular nonprofit membership organization.

So my wife's reward for years of dedication, long work hours and demonstrated excellence in delivering the core competency of the organization?  A pre-holiday pink slip, one of dozens done today in a typically corporate style, with the CEO hiding away while their flunkies do the firing.  

That, of course, leaves our household with a nontrivial 75% drop in income.  Not being fools, we've prepared for this possibility, and have a healthy war chest stashed away.   And my wife is a remarkably competent and capable human being, who will find an organization that appreciates that.  Still, it stings, and the anxiety of not knowing where things will head is deep, despite the kind whisper of my Master's voice in my ear.

It also leaves me pondering the spiritual challenge of the day: forgiveness.  Having a heart of forgiveness towards those who have harmed you is absolutely central to the Christian life, and it's something I find I can practice without too much strain.   If you strike me, turning the other cheek is easy.  It is an act that defies both your anger and my own, and that refuses to let brokenness define being.

What I have found considerably harder is finding that heart of Gospel forgiveness for those who have harmed others, particularly those I love.   When someone harms my wife, or my child, I find forgiveness...harder.  Having watched the tears and the dismay of the last few months, my reaction is more primal, more feral.  Mess with my family?  I want your bloody head on the end of a pike.   I want the sky above your driveway to fill with eagles, which descend upon you in a shrieking cloud with razor sharp talons extended.  I want there to be a thunderclap, and a smoking pair of shoes where once you stood.  I don't feel merciful.  I feel as forgiving as a slighted Roma matriarch.  Even the fires of hell seem somehow inadequately hot.

Which is why it is good I am not God.

I remind myself, of course, to think systemically, and to understand the complex underlying dynamics that go into every human action.  I remind myself of the importance of looking towards the future in hope, and letting go of the things that cannot be changed.

And I remind myself that, not being God, I am not the one who is the measure of justice.  It is not for me to understand the balance.  That is best left to the Maker of things, whose capacity for both grace and justice...thankfully...exceed my own.

My Own Private Highway

Last night, following a most excellent presentation of her new book by the former pastor of my church, I prepared to motor homeward.  As I geared up for the long ride from Poolesville to Annandale, it was cold but manageable.  The sky was clear, the air bright and tart with the cold of a December night.

It was nothing my gear couldn't handle.  My little yellow VStrom is all farkled up for winter riding, and pumps sweet warm lightning through the handgrips, sending more coursing up a cable to feed my heated suit.  Warm torso and warm hands make for a warm and happy me.   And so, the bike murmuring contentedly to itself, I motored deer-cautious over the dark country roads of Western Upper Montgomery.   It was after nine-ish, and most of the first part of my night-commute is all high-beam riding, that sweet little blue "yer-in-the-country" light glowing in the instrument cluster, the twin-beam blaze banishing the night before me.  There were few souls on the road.

But the latter part of my commute has changed in the last year.   That part that is Beltway suddenly includes the option of using the High Occupancy Toll lanes, four lanes of pay road that have been added on to the asphalt circlet that crowns and bounds our national capital.

These are the dreaded Lexus lanes, so named because their cost varies depending on traffic conditions.  Want to drive them during rush hour?  It'll cost you a Decaf Grande Mocha Caramel Latte and a banana nut muffin, or the cash equivalent thereof.  That adds up, in ways that are likely to dissuade the hoi polloi from regularly using all that new asphalt.

At night, though, the lanes are utterly empty, because they're still charging a nominal fee.  Why pay eighty-five cents for a toll lane, when the regular lanes are clear and flowing smoothly?

There's no reason.  Paying for what you can get for free?  Who wants to do that?  So the lanes sit empty, as uselessly devoid of traffic as a Louis Vuitton boutique in the slums of Bangalore.

I, however, was riding a motorcycle.  And motorcycles use the HOT express lanes for free, 24/7, with no Smartpass transponder required.

So for the last stretch of my commute, across one of the busiest sections of road in the United States of America, I was the only person using an entire highway.

There was traffic on the other side of the divider, sure.  But the HOT lanes were mine alone.  For miles and miles, there no-one else using them.   They were emptier than the country roads on the front end of my commute.

Such a peculiarly profligate culture we live in.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Previous Tenants

The old church "manse" where my office can be found is a rickety, porous structure.  Unlike the carefully custom-designed bewindowed ministerial study at my last congregation, my nicely redone current office is the most well-maintained room in a very,"historic" structure.

In the winter, the building feels every one of its one hundred and eighty five years, with white siding and a metal roof that has seen better days and rooms that get real cold real quick if those baseboard heaters aren't clacking and humming away.  That's history, real history.

Back during the Civil War, or rather, what in these here parts would have been called the War of Northern Aggression, the manse was used as an emergency hospital for troops wounded during the nearby Battle of Ball's Bluff.

Those old floorboards really were once stained with the blood of the dying, which is one of the many reasons some church folk are reluctant to come into the manse after dark.  There are some odd creaks and thumps here on occasion, or so the stories go.

But the suffering of those who likely died in this house was not the only difficult memory that may hang around here.   At the back of the house, there's a kitchen, now used as a storage room.  In the kitchen, there are stairs that lead up to a small room with two small windows.  Though next to the house, the room can only be accessed from the kitchen.  It feels like a secret room, and it's typically kept locked up to keep kids in the church from...well...doing what kids do.

As church lore would have it, that room was the living quarters for the slaves owned by the family that lived in the manse.  Poolesville was a strongly Southern-sympathizing town back then, one of the reasons why there were 11,000 troops stationed here during the War.  It would make sense that there might have been slaves in this house, and it adds a peculiar resonance to the building.

The room itself?  It's a little space, maybe twelve by twelve, with sloping ceilings, and I have on occasion gone up into that room to pray and meditate.  What would it have been like to live there, I've wondered.  In my mind's eye, I visualized a woman living alone in that room, separated from the family for whom she would have been property.  What might she have thought or prayed in the dark of that small room?  I've sat in silence, and shared the space with the possibility of that soul's existence.

After a recent conversation with one of the elders of my church about that possible history, that elder showed up having done a bit of research.  The name of the owner had been found, and cross-referencing that with other historical records, it appeared that yes, that family did own slaves.  In 1840, the Census revealed one slave woman in the household, aged between 24 and 35.

But she wasn't alone.  As of the 1840 Census, also in the household were three slave children, two girls and a boy, all under the age of ten.  All of them would have been crammed into that one twelve by twelve room, which now suddenly seems a whole bunch smaller.

Were they a mother and her children?  It seems likely.  What was the fate of the father?  What were their names?   It's not clear.

But it is worth remembering that they were here, sharing this very same space.   They weren't just abstractions.  They were people, no matter what the misbegotten laws of the time may have assumed.  It's important not to forget that they lived, and that they were human beings as worthy of the love of the Creator as any of us.