Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Taste of the Kingdom Meal

Two or three times a month, I go to the nearby Baptist church.  I walk into the basement, nodding politely to the stressed-out-looking Korean ladies who bustle in and out, heels clacking, eternally late for their mid-day services.   In a small office in the basement is a delightful little octogenarian, a fiercely gracious former airline stewardess.  I talk with her for a bit, and then receive my instructions for the day.

I'm a delivery boy for Meals on Wheels.  I bring a day's worth of food to a half-dozen elderly shut-ins and the indigent disabled who are struggling to live on their own.   I do it because it's my duty as a disciple, and because I love doing it.  Honestly, I can't tell where the duty starts and the love leaves off.  

Serving those in need is a vital, vital thing.  It feeds and sustains me spiritually.

But it's not evangelism.

Some folks recoil at that word, associating it with judgmental shouty bible thumpers, weepy televangelists and predatory prosperity preachers.   "What right do I have to tell people what to believe," we say, tolerantly.  "I'm not willing to stand in judgement over another's beliefs."

We say this, and do nothing.  Though the meal we have is delightful, we don't invite others to the table.  And the light of grace in the world grows dim.  All the while, the darkness has no such compunction.  It spreads eagerly, whispering and gibbering and pouring itself into soul after soul.

I was driving back from my last dropoff of the day last week.  I'd delivered to house where an abandoned van sits in the driveway, where a gently confused woman about my age comes to the door and takes the food from my hands.  I smile, and wish her a good day.  She offers thanks, but her voice trembles with the uncertainty that comes from not speaking to others often.

As I drove away, I suddenly felt what it would be if we human beings all approached our world as Jesus would have us approach it.   What it would be if the vulnerable did not have to fear.

I mean, really.  I felt it.

It was not quite a theophany, mind you.  Just a sudden absence of darkness, as if the world were suddenly emptied of hatred.  A sudden absence of weight, as if there was no cause for anxiety.  In every car, in every home, I felt what it would mean if the compassion that is the greatest gift of the Spirit lived in every one of us.

It was as if, for a moment, I caught a glimpse of the Reign.   Those souls who are isolated and alone?  They wouldn't be.  Our stress, our anger, our discord, and our hatred?  Gone.   There'd be no reason for it.  It was as if I was in a world without war or poverty or fear, without the snarling, grasping pursuit of power.  

That blessed reverie lingered for a moment, and then I was back in traffic.

But it left a taste in my mind, a taste of the Kingdom meal.  This is what it could be like, if we made a point of inviting people to grace, and replacing fear.  This is what it would feel like, if we really did both live and speak Good News.

And Good things are worth sharing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dog Walks with Jesus

Our Ellie's a good dog.  She is.  She's a total sweetheart, even if she's a bit prone to moping about wanly.

Those growls and barks are entirely for show, because all she wants to do to anyone who comes near her is either 1) jump and give licky kisses or 2) cringe piteously and hide.

As a muttly mix of poodle, retriever, and mystery dog, we're not quite sure who her dad was, but I'm increasingly convinced he was a hunting dog or hound.  Why?

Because all that matters to her every morning as we walk is whatever scent she's picked up.  If she's snuffling along in pursuit of a smell, she'll blunder right past a squirrel, just yards away.  If she's tracking something, she'll completely miss the presence of a nearby fox, or a nearby deer and her faun.  Scent is everything, and it's as if all of her other senses just utterly shut down when she puts her head to the ground.

And most mornings when I walk her, I've got one idea about why we're going for a walk, and she's got another.  Her business is scent, period.  My business is making sure she does her business.

She's nicely housetrained, being a good dog and all.  But every time she gets around to doing number two, it seems to come as a surprise to her.

"That smell, it's...oh!  Sniff sniff!  And there it is again!  Sniff SNIIIIIF!  And we must be getting closer!  And OH!  It's still there!"

But as she fills her expansive canine sinuses with those fascinating esters and scent particles, the other half of her body knows this is its opportunity to be doing something else. 

Her hindquarters start to curl up and prepare to expel the organic material that I then get to clean up.  But she's still trying to move forward as her back legs lay on the brakes, and she comes to an awkward stop.  She keeps sniffing, trying to follow that scent, baffled that for some reason her forward momentum has been arrested.

"Wait...why am I stopping?  That smell!  I'm following it!  But I'm slowing down!  What's...going on?  That smell!  Oh!  Hey!  I've stopped!  What in the name of the Great Bahou is happening?"   

The other morning, watching this disconnect for the hundredth time, I found myself thinking it reminded me of Matthew 6:3.

"Let your right hand not know what your left hand is doing."  Jesus used that saying to describe how we should give to those in need.  He cautioned us not to use giving as a source of pride or power within a community, but to give for the simple joy of giving.  We seek the other's good because it is the Good, not because it will benefit us.

But that saying seems to speak deeper, to a willingness to care for others that goes so far down into us that it becomes almost reflexive.  It's our first response, our default, the habit of being that has woven its gracious furrow so deep into our being that we show compassion almost without thinking.

"Let your nose not know what your hindquarters are doing," probably wouldn't have the same ring to it, though.

Best leaving that one the way He said it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Efficiency, Growth, and the Killing Ground

The other day, I was running errands, as I tend to on the days I have off.  I'd had to take our aging 2002 minivan, as the wife was off at another interview.  As she was driving farther, she'd taken our hyper-efficient eco-pod.  Saves on fuel costs, eh?  It was a bitterly cold day, one of the few we've had in this wildly cycling pseudo-winter.

But when I got to the van, it was nice and warm inside, even before the errand began.  I didn't need to run the engine to warm it up.  I didn't need to burn those dollar bills that we pour into the gaping maws of our gas tanks just to have our engines idling, heating up so I could be comfortable.

That's because I'd parked it in the sun, and the sun had warmed it up nicely.  The energy had been freely offered from the vast fusion reaction that sits bright in the sky, dumping power onto our planet.

As I ran my errands, I made a point of parking the critter...not the most efficient beast, I fear...with its front untinted window pointed towards the sun.  I walked to get groceries, and then dogfood, and then an electronic doodad we needed to replace a failed electronic doodad.   When I returned, the van was warm again, free of charge, not a dime spent on fuel.

I do the same thing in the summer, but in reverse.  I'll go out of my way to park in shade, even if that means a longer walk to the store.  That means less compressor time to cool the car, less money spent, and less waste.

It's a habit, a pattern, a way of approaching things.  I simply would rather use less.  I don't want to have more, or to use more, or to consume more.  That's been a family focus.  In our flush-times, when resources are abundant, we've lived that way.  We save.  We keep below our means.  Where we upgraded, we upgraded to things that use less.  

Our goal is less, and smaller.  Because that's stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, more self-reliant.    That's peculiarly conservative, but it's something else.

It's peculiarly contrary to the "growth" measures of our culture.  The expectation that we'll spend every penny we make, that we'll consume right up to the edge of what we can manage and beyond?  That has been the dream of the oh-so-confident confidence men who sell us debt and credit and the illusion of easy, unearned wealth.

But that place is a dangerous place.  "Living large" in times of plenty means you are overextended when times are lean.  Though I'm not a military man, I find myself thinking of that in martial terms.  You find yourself vulnerable, deep into enemy territory, beyond your supply lines and with no way out.

Two thousand five hundred years ago, military theorist Sun Tzu had a word for that place.  He called it the Killing Ground.

Not my favorite place.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Popcorn Brain and the Oscars

I don't watch the Oscars, for pretty much the same reason I can't bring myself to watch the State of the Union address.   It's just too long and ritualistic, following a form and pattern that can't sustain my interest.  I find it tedious, no matter how the Academy attempts to make it edgy and entertaining.

But I like film as a medium, and do have some interest in the outputs of that long, long evening.

This year, I approached it in the same way I "watched" the State of the Union.   Meaning, I didn't watch it at all, but followed it on Twitter instead.  Putting it through that filter is fascinating, for a variety of reasons.

The variety of opinion was striking, particularly now that I've massively expanded my Twitter feed as part of my Lenten social media discipline.   According to my now intentionally diverse feed, Seth Macfarlane killed it/flailed miserably/was hysterical/was unwatchably cruel.   Shirley Bassey nailed her performance/was consistently flat.   Somewhere in there, there was a real event, but the twitterverse  was all over the place in interpreting it.

It was lighting up, though, and consistently.  That's not always the case, as the thousand plus folks I follow are wildly random.  But here was a shared experience that seemed to be picked up by enough of those that I've randomly added to my feed that it became a common theme.

Not all of us were lighting up.  The international portion of my feed really couldn't have cared less, reminding me that this is a North American phenomenon.  The tweeps who only tweep about one thing ever were still doing their thing, telling the world about the one thing they know how to talk about.  Typically, that's 1) themselves or, given my feed 2) Jesus.  Interlaced with the trending comments about the Oscars were the usual scripture quotations, snippets of song lyrics, self-indulgent teens telling me how they feel right at this very moment, and incoherent splurges of neurotransmitter twitterdata (omg @drzapper72 @rpgomalley #lefreak!).

Following the Oscars on twitter was like watching popcorn pop.  Or rather, like watching the global popcorn brain of the human macroorganism respond to what it is seeing.  "This is happening now!  Now this is happening!  Hey, look at that!  Squirrel!" Over the last several weeks, my strong impression of this social network has been that it's amazingly neural, and watching it last a period of high activity and high attention...only confirmed that.  

Years ago, at the dawn of the internet, I postulated in a Wired Magazine article that the internet was just the nascent structure of our evolution into a macroorganism.  This was a full decade before the arrival of social media, and Lord have mercy, does that feel more true now.

Encountering massive, culturally-shared experiences inside Twitter, I am reminded of nothing quite so much as the terse, staccato pulses of cells splashing out 140 character loads of virtual seratonin and acetylcholine.

It's fascinating.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Impairment of Goodwill

Corporations are strange things, these transhuman pseudo-entities that govern our economic life.  And as strange as they are, corporate accounting is even more peculiar.

This morning, I was reading through my newspaper, something I still do because I'm old school.  It's tactile and satisfying, and I'll encounter things that I wouldn't seek if I was just chasing after the things that interest me.

The article that struck me was a meta-article, as the Washington Post reported on the Washington Post's income over the last year.  It wasn't pretty, as the balance sheets reflected a loss of over $45 million.

What was odd, though, was the the source of the loss.  It was a $100 million accounting write-off, reflecting the financial impact of what was being called "impairment of goodwill." Otherwise?  Things weren't so terrible.  To which I said, huh?  "Impairment of Goodwill?"  I'd never heard that phrase, but I know what those words mean.  That couldn't possibly mean what it appears to mean.   You're monetizing how much people like you?

I looked it up.  From investopedia, the definition is given thusly:
Goodwill is seen as an intangible asset on the balance sheet because it is not a physical asset like buildings or equipment.  Goodwill typically reflects the value of intangible assets such as a strong brand name, good customer relations, good employee relations and any patents or proprietary technology.
So if you screw up, or your brand name takes a hit, you can announce to the world that you've taken a huge loss for the year, even if you've actually and materially turned a profit.  That helps reduce your tax liability, limit how much you might pay out in dividends, and all other sorts of other fun things.

Imagine for a moment if we mortals were allowed to do this.  The belovedspear brand, for instance, is relatively weak.  Should I be able to claim a significant loss, and reduce my tax burden?  If I succumb to a norovirus right smack in the middle of a worship service, and my reputation is damaged, shouldn't that be reflected somewhere on my 1040 this year?

No such luck.

I guess reality is different if you're a corporation.  I will say, though, that learning this did impair my goodwill towards corporate America and generally accepted accounting practices.  I'm sure they'll find some way to monetize that.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Between My Face and Your Face

Years ago, I wrote a children's novel.  It was in my third year at U.Va., and involved many an early morning working vigorously in the computer lab, a Super Big Gulp full of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew surreptitiously fueling my muse.

Wickersnides, it was called.

I'm old, so this was pre-Internet, and pre-cell phone.  The novel lived on a couple of five and a quarter inch floppy disks, one primary, one backup.  It's a silly thing, a story of a boy trapped in a vast store run by an oligarch who has cornered the market on everything.  That oligarch's final plan for world domination: a screen that showed you whatever you want to see.  You could even wear it like glasses.  In doing so, it subjugated you, bending you to desire whatever you were told to desire.

It also involved giant talking waterfowl.

I self-published the critter a year or so back, as part of a promise to my 1989 self.  It's sold exactly the way you'd expect a self-published, semi-edited, unmarketed eBook to sell.  Meaning, it didn't.  Is cool.

What matters is that I had the chance to read it to my boys when they were little, and they loved it.  And I shared it with friends, who, being friends, told me they loved it.

But life has caught up with it.  Looking at Google Glass, the marvelous and utterly desirable wearable contraption that augments your reality and makes the hearts of Google stockholders go pitter pat, I find myself suddenly reminded of that old story.  It's a wearable screen.  You can talk to it.  It can show you whatever you want.

On the one hand, neat.  I want one.  Scrolling my sermon on the HUD would mean never having to look down again.   I'd be Rev. Locutus of Borg, baby.  Seriously awesome.

On the other, well, I don't know.  How will this deepen our connection to the place we are?  Already, human beings with smartphones tend to drift, distracted, through the reality they inhabit.   Smartphone addiction is a real thing, that gnawing sense that something must be...hold on in that vast neural net we inhabit.

If it's right there, every moment, does that help?  Or would it be just a more effective delivery mechanism, the difference between snorting cocaine and crack, the difference between smoking opium and shooting up heroin?

It's not even going to be in your pocket.   It will be your reality.   Or, rather, it will be in between you and reality.

That's the challenge with all interactive and social media.  On the one hand, media can connect us with others and open our eyes.  It can deepen our experience of those we might otherwise not encounter.  It can change things for the good, as it did when those images of peaceful civil rights demonstrators being brutalized in the South poured out of America's televisions in the 1960s.

Or it can stand between us.

And that makes me think of that injunction, the one offered to Moses on Mount Sinai.  "You shall have no other gods before me."   Literally, the Hebrew of that passage tells us that we should put no other gods between us and the face of God.  "Let your experience of me be unmediated," said our Maker.

That's the danger of all media, and all mediating structures.  It can become the thing that does not augment, but distracts.  It can become not a path, but a wall.  It doesn't connect, but divides and shatters.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The It, The Thou, and The Tweeper

In social media use, one of the things that's perhaps most challenging personally, spiritually, and existentially is escaping the human tendency to view others as objects.  

Here is this spanking new medium, one that should allow us to connect with one another, in some wildly creative ways.  New ways.  Unprecedented ways.  Twitter can be like that, in its churn and whirl and global reach.  I can offer a word of affirmation to a South African, and drop a word of silliness with a colleague, and confirm the beauty of a sunset in Taiwan, all in thirty seconds.

But if social media becomes not about our encounter with the friend and neighbor and stranger, but instead becomes an instrument for furthering our own power, what is it?


And so we shout and flail about, doing the wild honkey dance with a box on our head, trying to get the world to Harlem Shake to our amazingness.  We provoke and we challenge, a hundred million trolls bellowing from under their bridges.

Worse still, we can come to see our "followers" as trophies, objects that validate our amazingness.  They can become not the sentient, self-aware souls that create those tweets and posts, but things.  Notches in our belt.  Kills on the side of our fighter.  Hair care products lined up in a row in our shower.  The bulging bag of stuff on the back of a wandering, homeless soul.

If we are like this, we do not say to them "Thou," as Martin Buber described life-giving human relationships.  We do not say, "I see the light of God behind your eyes, just as surely as it burns in me."   Instead, they can become "It."  They can become dead things, just instruments for furthering our own goals.

The distinction, I think, comes from direction of our intention.  If we approach social media as an instrument to further our agenda, then we are likely to think instrumentally about those we encounter.   We become like that corporation that focuses not on product, but on profit maximization.  We become like that government that focuses not on justice, but on order and power.   This is a loveless place.  It is a dangerous place, the alien wilderness in which our souls dissolve, consumed by the acid of their own desire.

If, instead, we view each human creature behind the tweet as a soul, our attitude changes.  That troll who howls out rage is just alone and in pain.  That catty remark comes because she's just had a bad day.  The beings around us remain as they were made, and our connection with them is deepened.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Destroying Your Silo: The Wrong Way to Use Twitter

So yesterday, in between prepping for Sunday, various and sundry kid-related errands, and checking in on my influenza-suffering wife, I went wide open throttle on Twitter.

I know how to use Twitter.  Or at least, I know how you're supposed to use Twitter.  It's a great medium for getting [insert your message here] splashed out there, if you follow the right people and get yourself followed by others.   There's lots of great advice about how to maximize your impact in the twitterverse, or whatever they're calling it these days.

I flagrantly disregarded all of that.  Instead of focusing in on a field, or carefully nurturing a sequence of well thought out relationships that I can use to market my [upcoming book/blog/self/soul], I just clicked wildly for an hour.

If the button said "Follow," I clicked it, across as wide a spectrum of political and religious opinion as I could manage.  I clicked and clicked, skimming account after account, sometimes so fast I didn't even have time to see who I was following.  I clicked until my wrist ached.

That went on until I hit the bump-stop, Twitter's spam-blocking rev-limiter, which prevents any user from following more than 1,000 people a day.  

Mouse smoking, I stepped back to look at the damage.  My feed was utterly different.  Random.  Strange.

No longer was it a blend of people I sort of knew either personally or professionally.

It was a great blurry mess, blorting out three-to-five new tweets a second, randomized and unpredictable.  A familiar face would pop up now and again, but it was mostly strangers.   Some were progressive, some conservative.  Some were profane, others dogmatic.  Some personal, others clearly fronts for businesses.  Many were in languages I don't even know.

Totally useless, one might say.  And one would be right.

And yet far more interesting.  Twitter had become, well, claustrophobic.  That silo of like-minded souls echoed with familiarity, humming the same tunes over and over again.  It was not reflective of reality, but instead was a projection of my own biases and predilections.  It was all about me, and in that space, I was far less likely to encounter something different.  Something unexpected.

That felt good, particularly given my recent reading of statistician Nate Silver's Signal and the Noise.  One of the core arguments in that book is that our tendency to silo ourselves, to only admit into evidence data that reinforces our out assumptions, that messes us up.  It makes us less likely to engage meaningfully with reality, and more likely to approach Creation unable to see it for what it is.

Having blown giant holes in that silo, it felt less isolating.  A place where one is more likely to encounter the stranger, and the other.  That is an important place.

This is a nontrivial improvement.

And heck, I still have another 900 follows to go before the Twitter-tenders cut me off.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Forty Days in the Twitterness

I have a low tolerance for twitter, one I share with my teenage children and most of their friends.  "Why would you even be on twitter," my teen son asked.  "It's only for people who think they're important."

It's always felt like chaos to me, a swirling miasma of fragmented conversations and bumpersticker-length teasers.   Spending time there feels vaguely like one of those times I'd be sitting in front of the TV as a child, late at night.  My asthma would have woken me, and in the absence of anything to do, I'd plop down in front of the tube and watch until the broadcast day ended.

And then there'd be the National Anthem.  And then static.  Just plain old noise.

Funny thing, though.  If you watch static long enough, your chest heaving for breath as your bronchioles slowly return to normal, you can see patterns in it.  There are whorls and spirals, as your mind tries to etch shape and meaning into the fuzz and pop of no-thingness.

Twitter feels like static, if you get all contemplative on it.  That means following broadly, following deeply, listening to the whole thing.  It's being in a room full of Pentecostals, all aglow with the Spirit, filling the air with an indescribable juddering chatter-din.  It's the hissing of wind through dry leaves.

It makes me feel a bit scattered, a bit torn, this shapeless thing.   It's a desert place.  It is tohu wabohu.  But even that can serve God's purposes, I remind myself.

And in this season of preparation, being b'midbar is a worthy thing.   So where others are fleeing their social media addictions and taking a break from the noise, it is into the noise that I will go.

On Ash Wednesday, I returned to my twitter account, and opened my ears, and begun to listen.   That listening begins with following, compulsively and relentlessly.   I've pored through the 140 character descriptor tags of hundreds and hundreds of tweeps, reduced to keywords and pithy descriptors.   If twitter suggests someone, I'll follow them, and then I'll follow the people who follow them, until the trickle becomes a roar.   I limit it, my following.  No empty eggs or nonpersons.  And I'm time delimiting it, because I must for my own sanity.

Will there be a signal in all of that noise?  What whispers will rise from the static?

It'll be...interesting.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The People Who Don't Wrestle

In the flutter of infotainment that flows by in an endless wash, one bit of data from last week stuck with me.  The decision of the IOC to drop wrestling from the lineup of Olympic sports seemed fraught with something, like one of those marker signals, a little flag,  a sad little yellow canary-carcass smudge at the bottom of a cage.

I never wrestled myself, although as sophomore in high school, I was asked if I wanted to.  I was small and naturally rail thin, in roughly the same weight class as Gollum.  I was good at it, but the rigors of practice would have gotten in the way of Lit Mag, school paper work, and pining after girls.    So I didn't.

Wrestling is an ancient sport, a primal sport, as old as recorded culture itself.   It was part of classical games in antiquity, meaning it's got cred and a deep history.  When modernity decided it might be a good thing to do a reboot of the Olympics, the inclusion of wrestling was a no-brainer.

But that was then.

Now, the Olympics are big business.   What matters is eyeballs and selling ad time, and wrestling?

Well, we're not talking the WWE here.

Real wrestling is physically demanding, intense, and focused.  But what it is not is flashy.  It's too tight, too tactical, too intimate.  Now, it must compete for permission to return to the Olympics.  But it's not big and OOOOH and powerboat leapy like wakeboarding.  It's inadequately telegenic, unlike the not-ancient Central-Committee-created-and-approved combat-useless weapon-dancing of wushu.

The Muckity Mucks Who Decide know this.  That is why they are not interested in wrestling.  It means nothing in their world.   If you're going to add value, and to maximize return, you want shine and sparkle so that you can entertain, and wrestling does not have this.  It is not marketable to the vast multinationals who are paying top yuan to put their product in front of the masses.

Physicality, intimacy, intensity, and a deep raw connection with the Other are not part of our market-driven lives.  The world as it is is not as it was.

But wrestling is what is always was.  It is dust and dirt, flesh on flesh, just as it was when Jacob wrestled in the darkness by the babbling Jabbok.  It is from wrestling that God's covenant people got their name, after all.  Yisrael.  The people who wrestle with God.

It's a pity we are in the process of forgetting this.  Wakeboard-A-El just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

King Lemuel's Valentine

One of the things I do, pretty much without fail every Valentine's Day and every anniversary, is prepare a card for my wife.  That card is handmade, typically with some high-concept idea behind it and with the skill and execution level of a precocious third grader.

In the card is a poem from me to her, pretty much every year.  Some are better than others, as my muse is a bit flighty.  But the poems are invariably meaningful, and they track out across the arc of our marriage in fascinating ways.  I'm not going to share any of them with anyone but her, ever.  They're between us,  and occasionally bawdy, and often speak into those places between us that are ours and no-one elses'.

But one card I can share.

About a decade ago, for an anniversary, I prepped a card with a Proverb in it.  It was a complicated card, involving the construction of a handcrafted binding assembled from paper purchased at a store specializing in artisan-crafted paper.  In it was written, in my own best hand, the final proverb from the Book of Proverbs, the saying of King Lemuel's mother.   It was an affirmation, on that anniversary, of one of the things I love and respect about my wife.

Lemmy's mom taught him what mattered in a woman, and it's a remarkable bit of wisdom from the heart of an ancient sacred tradition.

What it tells men to honor in the women they choose as their spouses.  To put it succinctly, it ain't the booty, and it ain't the drama.  What it also most definitively is not is a mate who is a subordinate.

The woman described in this little bit of scripture is notable for her competence.  She is not her husband's servant, but his strong and capable companion.  She is wise and hard-working, and not just around the house.

She's out there in the marketplace.  She's a public person, active and respected in the broader world.  She's a part of the economy, a human being who is known as a doer, and whose capabilities only bring more honor onto the wise and/or lucky sod who married her.

There was a time in my life, when I was an adolescent pup, when this was not what I wanted.  I was drawn to the messes, the shattered creatives, those who were complicated and just needed me on my white horse to come a-riding in to fix things.  Or so I delusionally told myself.  That didn't work out so good.  Eventually, thank the Maker, I stopped thinking like a child and set aside my childish ways.

After Lady Wisdom graced me with her presence, what I found myself seeking was not a subordinate.  What I was looking for was a companion.  An ezer, to use the Hebrew term from Genesis 2:18.  That means "helpmate," but not in the Mark Driscoll "I help get you a beer while you do important man-things" sort of way.   The word means "ally," as we see it in 1 Kings 20:16.  It is used to describe the help that comes from God, in Psalm 30:11 and 54:6.  It implies...heck, demands...strength.  It does not imply subordination.  It is the farthest thing from that.  Subordination is, after all, one of the curses of the Fall.  Only a weak soul seeks one weaker.

A capable and equal companion is what, if we're honest about reading scripture, makes for a good partner.

That's true no matter what her vocation is, whether she's caring for kids and home and hearth or jetting across the world to Important Meetings with Important People.

Living into that God-ordained reality requires some ego-checking, particularly when your spouse has through her diligence attained an income considerably higher than yours.  If you're a pastor of anything other than a Big Parking Lot Church, that's a likely reality.

But it requires more than that.  It requires that you affirm your partner's vocation as a part of what you value about her.  When she's doing her thing, the goal is to respect that thing.  Honor the gifts and abilities she's been given.  Let her know you see that as part of why you love her.  It's part of what attracts you to her.

It also involves prioritizing your relationship above the other demands on your existence.  Your work is important, but honey child, it ain't your wife.  You make sure you're making time, and giving her space to live out her vocation.  This is not particularly hard, any more than dishes and laundry and getting kids to the dentist is hard.

So give her those things.   Make room for her gifts.  And honor her, and praise her, and tell her she surpasses them all.  "I see what you're doing, my love, and you're amazing."

And now and again, tell her she's beautiful.  More precious than rubies, which should remind you of her lips.  That doesn't ever hurt, particularly when that beauty goes all the way through her.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love, Dust, and Ashes

With a peculiar admixture of St. Wuventines Day and Ash Wednesday churning about in my head, I found myself reflecting yesterday on an infographic on page one of the WaPo's Science and Health section.

"Love is in the Mind, Not the Heart," it proudly announced.  The graphic explored the neurology of variant forms of emotive response, wrapping up the concept of love in a neat package of chemicals and transmitters.

Attraction?  That thrill of love's first kiss, that whirring surge of excitement when you both realize that the other feels the same way?  That's a heady cocktail of dopamine, noradrenaline, and seratonin.

Sustained attachment?  The gentle contentment of a couple comfortable together after decades, or the deep heart love you feel for your child?  That's an output of oxytocin and vasopressin, the evolved neurochemical response of a social creature.

Now, all of that is true, and measurable.  But just as there are places where faith can stumble, let me say that despite science being a big bucket of awesome most of the time, this is one of those places it flails about miserably.

You can approach love this way, sure.  But it's clumsy and mechanistic, completely divorced from the experience of love.  You've missed it, and missed it completely.  It's like that smart but clueless friend who goes to see a brilliantly acted Shakespeare comedy, and insists on spending the entire time deconstructing the semiotics of meaning underlying patriarchal Elizabethan culture.  They don't laugh.  They aren't participating, or allowing themselves to engage.

And yes, we are mortal beings, creatures woven up of dust and ashes.  But sorting diligently through the dust will not bring you closer to the reality of the experience.  Analyzing the carbonized proteins of the ashes will not make your encounter with another being any richer.

It does not deepen our humanity, not in any way that I can perceive.

Ah well.  Nothing's perfect, I suppose.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Bad News of Jesus Christ

Yesterday morning, my alarm woke me as it always does, at 5:40 AM.  Ah, the joy of having a high-schooler with a crazy early schedule.

My clock radio is an ancient Sony the color of milk and caramel.  It's a DreamSmasher, or something to that effect.  It dates back to the mid 1980s, so it chargeth not my iPhone nor hath it any connectors, but it still gets the job done, dadblangit.  It wakes me either with a totally uncustomizable alarm klaxon, which works but is horrible, or by turning on the radio, which is a bit better.  I keep it set to the FM news station that pitches us traffic and weather on the eights.

It's good to know what's going on.

So when I woke, I woke to a conversation between a guest and a host, talking about the departure of the Pope.  They were talking about a potential replacement for Benedict, and going through a list of Cardinals who might be tapped to be the Servus Servorum Dei.

The guest seemed excited about a particular Italian Cardinal, who he was reasonably sure had a shot at it.

"I see what you mean," said the host.  "That could totally work.  So, if he does get chosen, when do you think that Rome will be destroyed?"

And I said, Hwwaaaaat?

Although the non-digital dial did not show it, I must have bumped the knob that adjusts the radio overnight, nudging it slightly up the dial.  I was no longer on 103.5 FM.  This was a Christian station.

The conversation went on, with both the guest and the caller actively speculating on the likelihood that the city of Rome would be destroyed by a small asteroid in the next few months.  "It seems that's where we're headed," said the host.  "That's certainly what the prophecy suggests," said the guest, citing some bits of John of Patmos.

They seemed sort of bouncy about it, excited that this papal transition might be a harbinger of the end times.   They were particularly excited at the prospect that an ancient, historic city, one currently home to two point eight million human beings, might imminently be obliterated by a large hunk of space rock.

What this sort of apocalypse-porn fantasizing has to do with being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is utterly beyond me.  If you were unfamiliar with what Jesus taught, and this was your first encounter with Christianity, what would this say?


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Papa Calls It Quits

So il Papa has resigned.  Pope Benedict the Somethingth, realizing that the limitations of his aging body and mind were making it impossible to fulfill his vocation, announced to the great sprawling fellowship of his ancient community that he's stepping down.

As a progressive, I'm aware that many leftists view him with snarky dislike.  I've nonetheless developed something of an appreciation for the current pontiff.  Yeah, he's completely wrong in a Jesus-would-be-pissed sort of way about women, and is a looooong way off on a number of other fronts.  But as he's talked about ecology, and nationalism, and militarism, and the radically imbalanced mess that our economic system has inflicted on humankind, I find myself in agreement with him at least as often as I am in disagreement.

Always best to live into that place of grace, eh?

And in showing the courage to stand down, I find my respect for him only increasing.   It's hard to step down.  Yeah, I know, there's precedent, and that it's been six hundred years in the Catholic Church is like two pastorates ago in most American Protestant churches.   But in an institution that has spent five centuries defining the Papacy as a vocation that only ends when you stop breathing, it takes particular boldness to stand against that expectation and to say: "This isn't working.  I'm not right for this any more.  I'm done here."

Having watched pastors cling to failed ministries, and watched churches cling to pastors who have long since passed their expiration date, I know how hard it is to let go.   Our individual egos and the collective sense of self-identity that can be woven up in a Beloved Leader often cripple the vibrancy of our fellowships.

A church can come to revolve around the story of that One Special Person, who steps in front of Jesus and becomes the embodiment of their identity.  It happens in countless fellowships, some small, and many large.  In the little church, and in the big, that individual becomes the defining feature of the community.  Their story becomes the story of the church.  Without them, the church is lost.  That's a dangerous thing.  Even if someone is blessed with particular gifts as a leader, a community cannot be a healthy fellowship if that is the case.

That way of being stifles the spirituality of everyone who participates in it.

Stepping down is doubly hard on the ego of the leader.  "I am the pastor of this church," we say to ourselves, and we say it enough that it weaves its way into our self-understanding.  We cannot imagine ourselves in the absence of that relationship.  We cannot envision what it might be like if another human being were to step into that role.

We can't bring ourselves to prepare a community for our leaving, even though we know that we are dust and ashes, and that the time for our departure will inevitably come.

Real leadership does that, but we often struggle with it.

So welcome back to being Joseph, Joseph.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sermon Dreams

Dreams are a peculiar part of our existence.  

They are the odd sputterings of our subconscious.  As our cerebral cortex sorts and shuffles through the memories and insights it has gathered, it spins and weaves those bits of data into peculiar narratives.  Our nightly defrag may be there to keep us sane and our psyches healthy, but it creates some fascinatingly fractal reflections on the various concepts we've encountered or experienced.  Interpreting and exploring them can be both entertaining and revealing.

Like, for example, the dream I was trying to process on Saturday.  That Friday evening visit from Morpheus involved me, sitting in a room, reading a strange book while wearing a veil. 

Given the stuff I'd been prepping for the sermon on Sunday, this was not surprising.  The images and themes were derivative from the texts and commentaries I was reading.  The veil imagery was clearly influenced by the "veil" (masweh) worn by Moses in Exodus 34:29-35, the passage I was emphasizing in my sermon.

When you've spent all week reflecting on and reading commentaries on a passage that includes a "veil," or whatever the obscure term masweh referred to, it is no surprise that a veil would surface in a dream.    Interpreting the underlying symbolic referent of that dream was straightforward, particularly in context.

Or it would have been, if it had been my dream.  

But it was my wife's dream.  She said, on Saturday morning, "I had the strangest dreams last night."  My wife, with whom I'd not shared/talked about/presented/discussed any of the things I'd worked on over the last week.  I generally don't for my sermons, her being Jewish and all.  And she hadn't seen the sermon, she couldn't have.  On Friday night, I hadn't written that part yet, though I'd thought about it.  

Why would her dream about me make total sense to me and be meaningless to her?

Well, that's a bit harder for me to figure out.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sabbath, Chaos, and Control

As I continue on through Bill McKibben's difficult, disturbing Eaarth, my reflections on Maryann McKibben-Dana's (no immediate relation) book about Sabbath continue to echo about in my head.

One of the threads that repeated several times in that thought-provoking book was the idea of Sabbath as that place where we permit chaos to enter.  Sabbath becomes that place where we stop pouring ourselves into the structures that frame our lives, the schedules and demands and expectations that leave us continually anxious, ever behind, always stressed and struggling.  It is energy, not form.  It is freedom, not order.

I feel that, but I found myself wondering if it is something else.  A Sabbath day is not random, and it is not disordered.  It is free, yes, but when I take sabbath time...long meditative walks, times to write or draw, times to read and grow...they do not feel like chaos.  They feel calm.  They feel serene and ordered and at peace.

It's a different order.

The structure of sabbath matches the intent of creation.  Our crazy, competitive, acquisitive stresstival of striving does not.   It is a poor match for the Creator's intent.  It feels like chaos, or at least like a structure so poorly suited to change that it shakes us violently, tossing us about as it itself is tossed.

What does striving look like?  What does sabbath look like?  My mind went for visuals.   And as I thought that, I found myself drawing out an image from a movie, as I often do.   It was from the movie "Contact," a delightful bit of hard sci fi direct from the mind of dear ol' Carl Sagan himself.

In the scene, Jodie Foster is being sent to meet with extraterrestrial intelligences that have contacted humanity, in a device whose design has been provided by those intelligences.  Humanity has made one modification to that design:  the command chair in which she sits.

That chair, my metaphor-mind suggested, is our scheduled life.  And sabbath?  Sabbath arrives at the three minute mark of this little video snippet.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sabbath Idling

This morning, it was cold and lightly drizzling, the damp dangling whisker of a winter storm that's pounding the Northeast.   But it wasn't raining hard enough to kick in Dad Protocol Tango, which involves me shuttling the kids down to the bus stop in the Prius.  Poor, fragile creatures that my boys are.  Ahem.

That doesn't mean that there weren't plenty of cars lined up.  There are pretty much every morning, more if it's raining, but there if it's shining, too.  They are running, their engines burbling for warmth and power, middle schoolers sitting in the back seat, waiting for the bus.  The parents are what appears a half and half mix of stay at homers and "Dear God Hurry Up Bus I'm Late" parents.

Today, it being just a few degrees above freezing and damp, there was a small line of cars, all idling.  Clouds of carbon-rich condensate filled the air as I walked past, leaving my twelve-year-old to stand by himself in the rain.

The next bus stop was the same, and and in front of a half-dozen houses in my neighborhood, vehicles sat idling and empty, anticipating the arrival of their driver.

Encountering this standard suburban behavior echoed peculiarly off of the two books I've been reading.

It's Double Down McKibben week for me on the Kindle, as I went from reading Maryann McKibben-Dana's Sabbath in the Suburbs to reading Bill McKibben's Eaarth.  Having read the first, the neurons in my brain that hold the word "McKibben" remembered I'd wanted to read the second.

The first is a book by a pastor in my neck of the woods, one who serves a church just a mile or so from the neighborhood where I grew up.  It's about the struggle to find sabbath time in a dual-career, multi-kid schedule-berzerker American suburban life.  It was a thoughtful, practical and nicely-written book, although I found reading portions of it peculiarly stressful.    Part of that may be that she's just so much more organized and driven than I am.  But perhaps it was more the way those dynamics reminded me of what life had been like before our full-time income disappeared in a downsizing.  Yes, this heartless-CEO-inflicted Sabbath time is nice, but in a few more months, it ain't gonna be so pretty.

The second is a book by an environmentalist, one that declares that climate change is no longer a threat, but our reality.  The title of the book derives from his suggestion that we've basically turned Earth into another planet, less Yavin and more Tatooine, less Bradbury's wildly fecund Mars and more like actual Mars.  He names that planet Eaarth.  The book has been pretty relentlessly horrible, in a "time to stock up on canned food and ammunition" sort of way.  I haven't yet gotten to the recommendations about how we can get by on Eaarth, but if he started talking about Rebreathers and the Water of Life, I wouldn't be surprised.

The common theme to both books?  Our deadly busyness.  The driving, striving churn of suburbia...the thing that makes us stressed and the same cultural engine that's pouring carbon into the atmosphere.

With two texts harmonizing in my head, there was a peculiar irony in all those rushed suburban parents in idling cars, slowly heating their children's world so they can be warm and dry in the moment.  If we were a little more sabbath minded and intentional, who knows what benefits might arise?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dealing in Absolutes

With the manuscript away and in the hands of my editor, I've found myself re-engaging with the Believer's Guide.  Some if it came as I wove in the excellent edits plugged in by my wife.  You think you've read a thing through enough to catch every typo...but no...

Some of it has come as I have seen that goldarned fifth chapter for what it was.  Ack.  It's a clumsy flesh golem of a Frankenchapter, knit together out of the bits and pieces of essays and bloggery as I struggled to reassemble a stolen manuscript.

But mostly, the concepts stirred about afresh as I explored the heady fusion of a Many Worlds cosmology and classical theology.

When you come back to something after a while, those renewed eyes mean you can enter into a conversation with yourself, challenge yourself, and reconsider your thinking.  In particular, I found myself wondering about one of the sustained themes of the book: the challenge to absolutism.   Drawing from the joyous, endless generativity and freedom implied by a multiverse creation, a core theme of the book involves challenging the idolatrous certainties of both literalist fundamentalism and militant atheism.   And, frankly, any system that assumes that it's got the one final answer.

Absolutism bad, as Multiverse Hulk might say.

But wait, I say.  I do make claims about truth.  Throughout the book, and particularly in it's exploration of ethics, I present a series of arguments for both Love and God.  Throughout, I make the case that the ethic of radical compassion is The Essential Law governing sentient beings, and that love is the essence of God and God's self-expression.

I also argue for the existence of a Creator, The Ground of Being that is and should be the focus of our existence.

So, isn't that an absolute?  Seriously.  Isn't that just the same thing I rail against?  I mulled that one over for a little bit.  Took a good long walk on it, in the brisk cold of an evening.

And on two significant levels, the answer was no.

First, faith---the orienting of one's existence towards God--is not the same thing as orienting oneself towards a finite object or a neatly, cleanly defined system or pattern of understanding.   If you think for a moment you've entirely grasped the full nature of what you have come into encounter with when you stand in the Presence, then you've missed the point.  The thing you grasp cannot be the completeness of it.  It cannot ever be, for God's completeness is without end or limit.

The rigid certainties of the absolutist bear no resemblance to faith.

And love?  Love...understood not as emotion, but as the state of seeking and engaging in a compassionate relation with another free also not an absolute.  It can't be, not if it's authentic, because the compassionate interplay between two free beings is not a finite thing.  Neither is bounded or delimited or set in stone.  Neither is an object.  Neither is an "it," and both are "Thou," as Martin Buber would have put it.

So the rigid certainty of the absolutist bears no resemblance to love, either.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Words and Pictures and Guns

Over the last few weeks, I've been intermittently playing around with images and text.  I think it was a sign that stirred it, one carried at a gun-rights protest in Austin, Texas.  "The Second Amendment is from God," it said.   I reflected on that concept in my blogging, but it stayed stuck in my mind's craw.  As did some of the other signs and slogans from that demonstration.

Funny thing, about signs.  They point to different things, depending on how you view them.   Like, say, the slogan:  "An Armed Society is a Polite Society."  Gun rights advocates see one thing.  But I see this:

Then there's the old Charlton Heston classic, "From My Cold Dead Hands."  That evokes this:

That Red Dawn fantasy (Wolvereeeenes!) slogan about defending against tyranny?  I see this, because tyranny in the 21st century?  It won't look like Hessians with muskets:

Tell me that a handgun in the house makes you feel safe and protected when your husband is away?

This guy.  Really.  He's into it.  He totally thinks that.

Here, I'm not so sure.  The attitude is totally right, and the gaming reference is perfect, but it feels a bit like it plays off of racist fears.  Which is ironic, but there's only so far one can run with that without actually being that thing.

So I go with this one instead.  Notice how it's the same picture.  Sure, the composition of the first one is better.  But it's the same attitude.  The same spirit.  The same game franchise.  Tell me that doesn't mean something.

And this one, this one I see clearly.  I wish I didn't.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Blest Be the Pensions that Bind

As the Presbyterian church continues to wrestle around with the realities of soaring medical expenses, an aging pastorate, and the oldline death spiral, the impacts of that reality hit hard now and again.  For pastors throughout the denomination, the latest bell that tolls for us is the announcement of a significant modification in the way that medical benefits are allocated.

Hard pressed by financial realities, our Board of Pensions has announced shifts in the way we fund and support pastor's medical care and the care for their families.  As has been the trend in employer-provided health care, the revisions to the plan put more financial burdens on those with families.  The change also hits harder for smaller communities, which already reel from the weight of providing care.  It transitions away from a system that subsidized smaller communities with the resources of the wealthier communities.   We're more and more like the marketplace in which we find ourselves.

It's not particularly fair, as many have noted, but neither is the bloated profit-driven health care "system" we endure in this nation.   That favors size and wealth and buying power, and has driven costs spiraling unmanageably upwards in the last three decades.  In this new, harder reality, the Big Parking Lot churches will fare well, and the midsized churches will get by with some belt-tightening, but wee kirks will find it harder and harder to manage even a half-time call.

But honestly?  They already do.   Family chapel congregations, small rural fellowships, and fledgling emergent house churches are already largely priced out of the "called and installed" pastor marketplace.  It's not that they're mean.  It's not that they're skinflints.  The resources simply aren't there.  Why?  You said it.  The rent is too damn high.

So perhaps it's time for little churches to look elsewhere.

Smaller congregations are already given the option of getting "off the grid" pastors.  That means stated supply folks like myself who operate on annual contracts, or Certified Lay Pastors who are charged to serve a particular congregation.  And for us?  Well, participation in the PC(USA) pension and health care system is great if we can get it.  But it's not mandatory.

And the world is changing.  At some point in the coming years, our slow-as-sludge move towards universal health care provision will hopefully make this a moot issue.  Coming at the end of this year, the first of the Health Insurance Exchanges will kick in under the Patient Protection and Affor...oh, shoot, under Obamacare.  These will provide citizens and small employers with other options for purchasing and securing health care.

For smaller congregations that want to provide care for the pastors that love them and teach them, it would be interesting to see how the price-point of access into that approach to care provision compares to the excellent but expensive Board of Pensions system.   That's difficult to ascertain at this point.  But given that many communities already aren't able to buy into the BOP offering, perhaps there are other options.

Because ultimately, the glue of our fellowship isn't pensions, and it's not health care.

Exchanges and excellent, not-for-profit oriented retirement 403(b) providers like TIAA/CREF might offer communities that have been priced out of the system a way to care for pastors and their families.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Oh, The Humanity

Just about every winter, our house gets mice.  It's an oldish rambler, and despite our best efforts to insulate it and seal it off from the world, there are always ways in.  It's warm and cozy and inhabited by both a dog and boys, meaning there are plenty of crumbs and debris lying around for the delectation of little critters.

The sound of them scrabbling through the walls and scratching at the floorboards is a sign that it's time to set out the traps.  Humane traps, they are, little clear hard plastic containers with one way doors.  Mouse goes in?  Mouse can't get out.   Simple and completely effective.  Over the years I've caught a few, which I then take outside and release.  Or perhaps I've just caught one stubborn one, who keeps getting recaught.  Hard to say.

Last year in the spring, a horrid stench filled our washroom for a month.  We looked all over for the source of it, and after a week or so, I finally found it.  A forgotten trap had humanely trapped a mouse, who had then slowly starved to death, and then rotted.


It was gnarly, and reminded me to keep better track of our traps.  I resolved to keep them clean and stowed in my workroom table.

So today, my son alerted me to the return of the little scritchy-scrabblers.  I went to the drawer to retrieve the traps.

There, snug away in the drawer in one of the baitless, hidden traps, was the corpse of another mouse in an advanced stage of decay.


Perhaps they work too well.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Such Offense in the Future

I don't make it to Presbytery meetings anywhere near as often as I used to.  I tried not to miss them, and for years and years did not.

But as I shifted from a two-thirds-time church to a half-time congregation, some things just had to give. Oh, I'm happy to make it out to committee meetings.  There, I feel the capacity to have some input.  But as much as I like the worship opportunity, and the chance to talk with folks, I'm aware that it's both work and a place where my presence is rather less than necessary most of the time.

If I'm attending to the terms of my position, then going will happen with less frequency.   Not to mention that the little guy has a packed and late-running schedule on Tuesday.   I'm the parent who handles that, and the meetings are almost invariably on Tuesdays now.  Ah well.

So I read the meeting agenda, and check on the meeting minutes, and listen to the social media hum as I perform my parental duties.

At this last Presbytery meeting, though, there was a public censure.  Technically, it was a "rebuke," a formal statement of institutional disapproval for an errant member of Presbytery.  And when I say, "formal," there is literally a form.  It's a Fill In The Blanks statement, drawn from our Rules of Discipline.  It goes like this:
Whereas, you, (Name) ________________________, have been found guilty of the offense(s) of __________________________ (here insert the offense), and by such offense(s) you have acted contrary to (the Scriptures and/or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)); now, therefore, the Presbytery (or Session) of __________________________________, in the name and authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), expresses its condemnation of this offense, and rebukes you. You are enjoined to be more watchful and avoid such offense in the future. We urge you to use diligently the means of grace to the end that you may be more obedient to our Lord Jesus Christ.
That doesn't happen often.  In fact, in the years I've been going to Presbytery, I can't recall seeing one.  There's been discipline, mind you.  But typically, it's involved booting folks for malfeasance or removing them from office.  They haven't stood there and taken it, in front of a gathering.

The rebuke was delivered to Tara Spuhler McCabe, a pastor who'd officiated at a same sex marriage, which while in conformity with the laws of the District of Columbia remains something we Presbyterians choose to study and debate.  And study and debate.

My position on the issue is reasonably clear, and has been for years.  If approached to bless the vows of a same sex couple, I'd be morally and spiritually obligated to do exactly what she did.  Perhaps I should keep a pre-filled out version of the form available for an Investigating Committee just in case.  Not that the Presbytery was eager for this.  Sigh.  What a mess.

In reflecting on this unfortunate bit of mess, I found myself wondering about which church it is that primarily governs us.   Yes, we stand in deep and transforming relationship with the sacred texts of Scripture, and in respectful dialogue with the faith confessions of those who have come before.  That is the church from which we spring.  It is our root, and our ground, and it still has much to teach us.  We should not be an offense to that golden thread of the True Kirk that runs through it.

But there is another church, one that is equally significant.  There is that church that is not yet.  There is the gathering of disciples who have not yet gathered, but who will be called into relationship with Jesus of Nazareth after we have passed.  And we will pass.  There are forms and patterns of following Jesus that we do not yet know, and depths of grace that we have not yet encountered.  As a church constantly reformed and reforming in response to God's Word, that's a basic bit of our self-understanding.

That church, I am convicted, looks at us now and is troubled.  Offended, even.  Why do we fight over this thing, which doesn't have a thing to do with what is most essential about our faith?  Why do we use it as an excuse to hate and exclude?  The world is filled with such real horror and deep brokenness...and this is how we waste our kairos?

Lord have mercy, but they'll think we're fools.