Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hiding From the Cross

Yesterday evening, my little church continued a tradition.  We gathered together to tell the story of the passion and crucifixion, a story of suffering and loss told in a small darkened room.

Songs of lament were sung.  Candles were extinguished, one by one.  Reader after reader rose to tell their portion of that old hard story.   It was mournful and musical and simple.

And I had nothing to do with it.  Oh, I was there, sure.  I was hidden away, up in the shadows of the old balcony, running the presentation whose text had been pulled together by our able choir director.   But on Good Fridays in the recent past at my church, the pastor has had nothing whatsoever to do with the service.  It's a laity run/planned/implemented worship.

It was an interesting dynamic last year, moving from a church where I was the primary engine driving Good Friday worship to being on the outside of it.   But as I mused over it this morning having done it twice, I found myself finding a peculiar harmony with the story of the cross as my tiny church tells it.

On Good Friday, I am no longer the Teaching Elder who teaches.  On Good Friday, I am not the Pastor who leads, or the Preacher who preaches.  Those titles and roles are stripped away, and I find myself hiding in the darkness, watching things unfold from afar.

It felt, as I prayed and sang, like being Peter.  The Rock!  The strong one!  Only on that evening, I was like Peter, in the shadows, as others witness to the story.   I was like the disciples, watching from afar.

It didn't feel good, because Good Friday isn't about feeling good.  But it did feel right.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Transubstantiate Everything

On my early morning constitutional walk with my dog, the air was still sharp and brisk, a reminder of how slow Spring has been in coming this year.  But the skies were beautiful, dappled with the colors of the rising sun.  The robins were hopping about worm-hunting, and the trees were pushing their buds outwards towards the hope of summer sun.

As I turned a bend, the light from the morning was just beginning to touch the tops of the trees on a nearby hillside.  The world felt bright and new and alive.

This mingled with the theology bouncing around in my brain.  Tonight at my little church, we're planning to have a simple meal together.  It's an Agape Meal, which sounds considerably less R-rated than a Love Feast.   Why are we having this meal?  Because it's Maundy Thursday, that day we remember that meal Jesus asked us to share with one another.

Being a Teaching Elder and all, I use the start of the meal to talk through some of the ways we disciples of Jesus have tried to understand what he meant by what he was saying.   I play my way through Lutheran sacramental union, Zwinglian humanist mnemonics and Calvin's pneumatological eucharistics, mostly because when I use those words they tend to take a loud room and stun it"reverent and prayerful silence."

But as I've studied the ways Christian homo sapiens sapiens have tried to articulate the importance of this event, I find that all of our disparate approaches kinda sorta work.   Even transubstantiation has a voice.  Yeah, it's an old Aristotelean way of looking at things.  But the intent isn't bad.  It's a valiant philosophical effort.  It says, somehow, something important is happening here.   Somehow, in these humble things, there lies the ineffable possibility of the fullness of what Jesus taught.

Oh, you could pick it apart forever and never find that hidden reality.  Every observable state of that hunk of challah or that cup of Welches Concord Grape Juice would not get you to it.

But that reality is there nonetheless.

Walking through the waking creation this morning, I found myself musing that Eucharist...that "good gift" meant to be how we see the entirety of our world.  The words "Transubstantiate Everything" rose up unbidden out of my subconscious, and it struck me a lovely way to conceptualize the Kingdom.

If we understood it, if we got it, if we registered it, we would encounter everything as suffused with the essential nature of our Creator.

Different Skies

I'm a DC townie.

That means I'm a pastiche of memories of our national capital, woven back across a generation.

This Spring Break week, we took the boys again to the most popular museum in DC.  They'd been there before, of course.   Many, many times.  The National Air and Space Museum is a veritable magnet for my lads.

But it was also a magnet for me, back when my parents took me to it the year it first opened.   I remember that visit, rather well, actually.

And the thing about memories is that they give you context for the present.  What has changed?  What is different?

Much has changed, and I found my man-self standing in the same place my boy-self once stood, thinking about those differences.

Those difference begin when you enter the museum.  I can remember that first entrance, passing quickly through the doors into that vast entry hall filled with rockets and spacecraft, that striking feeling of wonder and amazement at what we human beings could do.

Imagine being in the cockpit, and soaring!  Look at these!  We can fly!  We can fly!

Entering is different now.  You do not just walk in and encounter the wonder.   As my family took shelter, I stood in the rain to hold our place in the  long security line, as every bag was checked and you walked through metal detectors.

In 1976, the Air and Space Museum was about history, but it was also about the now.  Spacelab was spooling up.  The Apollo-Soyuz mission had just happened.  The Shuttle was in the works.  Human space exploration was fresh and alive with promise.

Now?  Now the museum is the story of our nation's past.  In some ways, that was heartening.  The row of ICBMs in one hall never represented a present I wanted to inhabit, as they stared up like daggers at the heavens.  Those daggers filled many a childhood night with atomic dreams.   But in other ways, the loss of that striving past feels like the loss it is.

Even the vast and imposing life-sized replica of the Hubble Space Telescope, still in orbit, carries with it a stark reminder.  Along with those gorgeous, inspiring images from deep space, a small sign noted that its operational lifespan extends through the far-distant year of 2013.

Because times have changed, the exhibits have changed to reflect the times.   The original model of the Starship Enterprise is out of the "exhibit space" and now in the museum store, for example.

But there are new exhibits.  One entire room is dedicated to "flight simulators," which were the big draw for my boys.  There were long, long lines for that room, for which you ponied up eight bucks a head to play an immersive 3D air combat shooter.  Outside the space, parents sat with their heads down, and texted or noodled about on their smartphones.  "It's just like that one we played at the beach arcade," I heard one kid exclaim as he came out of the simulator.

By the simulator space, a large section was cordoned off.

Above it hung a grim, unfinished display of reconnaissance and combat drones.    There were no signs, no explanatory text.  And no cockpits.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Supreme Court and Marriage Equality

I've blogged frequently and often about same-sex relationships, faith, and how that issue has stirred tensions both in congregations and in our body politic.  

I don't preach on it much, I'll admit.  From the pulpit, where dialogue is a bit more difficult, I tend to focus on those things that mattered to Jesus.  So I figure as I take his lead in teaching about the Kingdom, my preaching should reflect His stated priorities.  That means there is relentless talk about radically and unconditionally loving everyone, period.  If as a free human being you can't figure out where you need to take that, then you can explain that to Jesus when you get to the front of the line.  

As a liberal, my stance on this spiritually follows from this radical emphasis.  It shouldn't be surprising.  You can read it in its fullness by following the link after this comma, which lays out my scriptural and theological approach to the issue.  I'm for covenant commitment, for welcome, for inclusion, and for openness.  

This is a related but different kettle of fish than the one that's on many folks' minds today.  Today, the Supreme Court will be considering the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a popular referendum which overturned same-sex marriage in California.   A Reagan-appointed judge and a US District Court had both affirmed that Prop 8 was unconstitutional.  This being one of our favorite hot-buttons, though, the fight was always destined to go all the way to the top.

So here we go.

Looking at the issue, it remains as it was back when Prop Eight came down the pike.  Back when that went down, I went over some of the primary arguments against same sex marriage.  Here they are again:

1) Gay Marriage Threatens Marriage. This stance, which is a standard position, has the unfortunate character of being self-evidently wrong. 

Anyone who is married knows this. 

There are plenty of real threats to marriage out there.  Financial stressors, the insane overscheduled lives we lead, our own selfishness, and the hungers and insecurities that drive us to betray our commitments to others are real threats.  But same sex marriages are not.   The integrity of my heterosexual marriage is not impacted in any way by gay marriage, any more than it is threatened by Bosmer/Argonian marriages.  

If the state chooses to extend those rights to another class of citizen, that does not in any way abrogate my own rights. No matter where you stand on the issue, that remains true.  It also in no way impacts the sanctity of a covenantal union. If you believe that marriage is fundamentally a covenant between a man and a woman, bound together by the grace and power of their Creator, then the extension of legal and civil rights to gays and lesbians can in no way impact those covenants. One is an action of the state, and the other is an action taken from within the framework of faith.

What the Court is considering today is not the theology of covenant, thank God.  It's a question of constitutionally protected civil liberties and the State.  From the solely secular standpoint of the interests of the state, same-sex marriage does not jeopardize social stability.  Paired, committed, and legally affirmed relationships between couples are considerably less entropic.  They make for deeper opportunities for mutual care, and put individuals in a better position to cope with times of illness or economic hardship.  

And that's good for America, dagflabbit.  A strong, resilient citizenry might not be what a tyrant wants, but it is in the best interest of our free republic.  

Not that being single is evil or wrong, mind you.  That's not the case I'm making here.  But we need one another.  Be it a partner or a nurturing community, we are strengthened by mutually supportive relationships.  The Court should be able to recognize that.

2) Gay Marriage Stands Against the Will of the People. This is materially incorrect on a national scale.  Most Americans have come to terms with same sex marriage, either actively supporting it or realizing it has no impact on their lives.   In California, however, that may or may not be true.  A huge influx of ads and push-polls can skew the referendum process, but whichever way, Prop Eight did pass.

So lets imagine that the inverse is true, and that only a minority viewed this as impinging on their liberty.  Here, we need to consider the entire purpose of the judiciary in the American Constitutional system of governance. The judiciary exists to serve the law...and the Constitutional liberties of all Americans...over and above the will of the majority. That is the  special and particular purpose of the Court, which ideally -- if not always in practice -- exists to hold the principles of liberty above the whims of the populace. If a justice is doing his or her job, their fealty is first and foremost to the Constitution. Unfortunately, the case against gay marriage has little foundation in our Constitution, which stands as a clear bulwark against majorities who would impinge the freedom of minorities.

Here, there's an interesting tension for American conservatism, between the old state's-rights argument and the currently ascendant libertarian wing.  Do the the rights of a state trump the constitutional liberties of individuals?  Seeing where the court falls on this will be intriguing.

3) Gay Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty. This argument plays directly into the culture of self-entitled aggrievement that seems to define so much of American life. The argument goes like this: I believe, from my faith, that homosexuality is sinful. If I am required to provide benefits to gays and lesbians or tolerate their unions, the requirement that I be tolerant is a fundamental violation of my religious freedom.

This argument seems not to grasp the nature of freedom. Within our constitutional republic, the rights of every individual are protected, in so far as they do not impinge on the rights of other individuals. That's the purpose of the Constitution. There is no evidence that permitting same sex marriage in any way impinges on the rights of Americans to believe that homosexuality is sinful, any more than you are forbidden to believe that my drinking a perfectly-hopped Imperial IPA is a sin.

What might be limited is the right of a small business owner to deny health care benefits to same-sex partners, or to refuse to hire/rent or sell to/serve individuals who they view as basically evil. Here, those who resist same-sex marriage face a clear ideological conundrum. Within our republic, freedom is not without limits. If an individual acts in such a way as to restrict the liberty of another, they are using their freedom in a way that undercuts the freedoms of others. Again, the purpose of the government in a constitutional republic is to balance the liberty of all, at the least possible cost to liberty.

Against that metric, the socially conservative position clearly falters, particularly in comparison to the libertarian/liberal position. 

Gays and lesbians who seek legally recognized marriage are not meaningfully limiting the religious or personal liberty of those who view their behavior as undesirable. It does no harm to the liberty of a conservative, to the life they choose to lead, or to the faith they choose to practice. That's not the way it's going to be played, of course. But it is, nonetheless, true.

So now we sit, and we wait.  Let's see where this goes.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Spirituality of Underemployment

The last few months have seen a different dynamic in my household.

For years, we've had a pattern.  I've been the part-timer, the one with flexibility.  Laundry and bills and taxes and kid-shuttling are the tents I make as a part-time pastor.  Which, if you didn't get that reference, was me talking about Paul of Tarsus, who kept himself employed as a tentmaker as he spread the word through the Greco-Roman world.  It's not always been easy, and it's meant some "pastor-career" tradeoffs.  But it was necessary to keep our lives sane.

My wife was the full-timer.  She put in the 70 hour weeks, and worked late into the night to insure that what needed to get done got done.  It was lucrative but stressful, rewarding but sometimes overwhelming.  She was good at what she did.  She had my support in it, in all that she did, although I would occasionally suggest that slowing down might be good.

Ma'am, I'm going to ask you to step away from the smartphone.  Put it down.  Nice and easy.

And slow down she has now, thanks to the downsizing that was her reward for doing her job well.  There's been some consulting work, thanks be to the Maker, but we now find ourselves among the ranks of the underemployed.

For now, we're holding the line financially.  Our house is small, our cars are modest and paid off, and beyond our mortgage we have assiduously avoided debt.   In the fat years, we saved compulsively, driven by my inherently conservative view of financial well-being.  It's me Scots blood, laddie.  So the winter is upon us, but the granary is full.  But there are other impacts to underemployment, and they are, quite frankly, spiritual in nature.

Feeling like you have a sense of purpose is absolutely vital to the well-being of all human critters.  It gives us a story about ourselves.  It gives us a feeling of value.  It's vital.

Our culture has woven up our sense of purpose with our careers.  What makes us worthwhile human beings is our workiness, the degree to which we're out there getting it done and bringing home the bacon.  We work hard for the money, so you better treat us right.

Now, though, underemployment is everywhere.  Folks work jobs that don't even come close to tapping their abilities.  Either the hours aren't there or the work is simply mindless.  It is, among the generation that followed mine, almost inescapable.  How do we, creatures of purpose, survive those times without coming apart at the seams?

1)  Resist the chaos.  One of the most peculiar things about being underemployed is that it can involve a crazy amount of freedom.  Your day is yours.  You can do whatever you want.  Sleep late!  Eat waffles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!  Muck about on Pinterest until you're pinning things even when your eyes are closed.  Drop into a fifteen-hundred point Conquest server on Battlefield 3, and let those hours just vanish in a haze of FPS crazy.

You can do these things.  And people do.  But life is short, and flies on by.  Freedom is great, but it can quickly become aimless sameness.  You aren't doing anything new, but have fallen into a churning nothing.   You are free, but your freedom is joyless.

Here, be attentive to both framing ritual and intentional newness.  Having intentional patterns to your day helps.  There's a time to wake, and a time to sleep.  There's a time to work, and a time to take a shower, 'cause Lord have mercy, you're getting a little rank.  Be mindful about these things.

But also keep yourself open to the potential for newness.   Leave space for intentionally encountering new things, and don't let the prison of aimless chaos be your only guide.

2)  Take time to be creative.   Freedom and creativity are not the same thing.  If you are underutilized and underhoured, then view that extra time as a gift.  And with that gift, do the thing that lights you up.  Paint or sketch.  Study those things that fascinate you.  Sing.  Write music.  Write that novel.  Crank out those short stories.  Explore.  Encounter.  Pray.  Read. Contemplate.

Use your time, and don't let your time use you.  And it will, if you aren't wary.  Ours is not a culture that values creativity.  The consumer ethic will take your every moment of freedom and turn it into aimless hunger.  Which is harder to feed, given that resources and underemployment don't go hand in hand.  That leads to frustration, which leads to bitterness and resentment, which leads to dark places.

We are meant to be beings that give form and shape to our reality.  Don't let that part of our essential human nature fade because vocation is harder to find.

3)  Maintain human connection.   Our radically individualized society promises us anything we want, but at a price.  That price is other human beings, and the sustaining connections of friendship and community.

When the natural interactions of the workplace vanish, when those friendships we develop from working side by side with colleagues wane, it becomes all the easier to fold into ourselves.  We can become closed off in a media bubble, separated from the world by our feeds and our channels and our gaming and our pinning.  That can sustain us for a while, but it is, of itself, not adequate.  You need to get out there.  Talk and schmooze and klatch and chill with friends.   Resist that tendency to wrap yourself up in resentments or depression or anger.  Those pesky demons will eat you alive.  Best not to let that happen.

Church is a great place for that, as are community organizations, teams, and any group where you can share a genuine interest.  Do not neglect this.  We are, after all, not made to be alone.

4)  Care for your body.  
The absence of business means an absence of busyness, and that can mean not just social inactivity, but physical inactivity.  This has lasting negative consequences, because the Ancient Hebrews had it right.  Our spirits and our bodies are not totally separate things, any more than the oak and the soil and the sky are totally separate things.  If we're neglecting our physical well being, then our spirituality suffers.  We become more easily listless, and more easily lost.  Anxieties and angers and woes come more easily, and stick around longer.

So walk.   Lift weights.  Run.  Hike.  If you've got an old bike, use it.  These things aren't expensive, and they aren't hugely demanding, but they do keep you fit.  In an enforced fallow time, that's a vital, vital part of staying centered and gracious.

5)  Enjoy what you find yourself doing.   I worked for years as a dishwasher in a university cafeteria.  It was fiercely active, demanding, and low paying.   That conveyor belt brought trays by the hundreds, and at first, it was a bit overwhelming.  But as I did my work, I focused on it, got good at it, and found that it became almost a form of meditation.   I would be flying, doing the work of three, and yet my mind would be my own.  It was calming.  Pleasurable, even.

After I got my college degree, I was unemployed for a good long while, having entered the marketplace smack in the middle of the post-Reagan recession.  When I did find almost-full-time work, it was as a stock clerk in a small family owned restaurant and store.  I focused on doing the job, and doing it well.  That was what mattered.  Sure, the pay was low.  Some of my co-workers spent more of the day complaining than they did working.  So it goes.  We can choose to live defined by resentment.   But I let myself find happiness in the simple ordering of stocking shelves and racking up drinks, and let myself take pleasure in a neatly swept floor at the end of the day.

6)   Understand your worth unconditionally.   This is the Jesus part, and being a teacher of His Way, I'd suggest it's the most important.  When you find yourself working less or not at all, and scrambling for a living, our success-and-attainment driven culture tells us that we're nothing.  We have failed.  We are pathetic.  Survival of the fittest, baby.  Them's the breaks, weakling.  You just didn't try hard enough.  It's your fault that you're so useless.

This isn't real.  Oh, it's the reality we've created for ourselves, sure.  But the entirety of our economic system is our doing.  We've chosen to make it this way.

Christian faith resists that worldview.  It asserts that our value as sentient beings stems from our unconditional value before our creator, whose love for us is unchanging and inescapable.  Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Jesus was his relentless insistence on loving people who - according to his culture - didn't deserve it.  He loved the sick.  He loved women.  He loved the tax-man.  He loved the soldier serving an occupying army.

When you're wrestling with your own worth as a person, that's a word of liberation.  But liberation for what?

7)   Pay that worth forward.   Being a disciple of Jesus in the desert place of underemployment means not just receiving grace.  It is not meant just for us.  It is meant to be shared.   Take time to positively contribute to those around you.  That can be in words of kindness, or in attending to grace in your every relationship.  But it also means finding places where your hands are needed, and apply your energies there.  Beyond writing and studying, I've taken my own half-time work as an opportunity to drive for the local Meals on Wheels program, which brings food to the homebound elderly and those living with disabilities.

Meals on Wheels has been struggling recently to accomplish its noble purpose, because the homemakers who once volunteered were drawn into the workforce or the berserk activity-storm of our children's overscheduled lives.

Knowing this, and knowing that from that Deep Reality we are all called to give of ourselves, I've made a point of making time to serve.  

It's not easy, being underutilized.  But you can get through it.  It can be a place of grace.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Politics of the Accuser

We wonder sometimes, when we're given a moment to think, why it is that our political system seems like such a monstrosity.   Most of us claim that We Love America (tm), and yet when we look out at how America actually manages its affairs, we recoil.  Our national conversation is, well, it's just plain mean.

We're radically polarized, a mess of snarl and snark.  Those who disagree with us are always and invariably the Enemy, evil incarnate, the very embodiment of every single thing that is wrong with humanity.  Even those who *seem* to disagree with us must be monsters.  They are evil, agents of sinister dark forces who are diluting the Precious Bodily Fluids of America.  If that seems a little crazy, well, it is.

And not crazy in a good way.

We hate that it is this way.  And yet we perpetuate it.  We claim to want one thing, and yet our words and our actions show us that we are another.   Patience, forbearance, and mercy are not our political virtues.  Take, for instance, the peculiar tension between two different threads of thought that flittered through the popular consciousness this last week.

Thread number one came from a sequence of reflections recently produced by the Republican National Committee.  It was remarkably frank, challenging the party to recognize that radicalization renders a political philosophy untenable.  One excellent quote, included in a thoughtful piece by Dubya's speechwriter Michael Gerson, went thusly:
We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.
That's good advice, frankly, and not just for political parties.  There are countless churches that do the same thing, both politically and theologically.  If you are Not Like Us, stay away.  We have nothing to say to you, but plenty to say ABOUT you.

And yet, at the same time, there's the news that both the Republicans and Democrats have spooled up their cash-driven oppo research organizations for 2016.  The Democrats call theirs American Bridge, and the Republicans call theirs America Rising, but both are just old school oppo shops.  What does that mean, you may ask?  Well, having lived inside the Beltway most of my life, let me share it with you.

Oppo research is when you pay folks to dig up dirt on any and all possible candidates from the opposing party.  Real dirt is best, but even fake dirt is fine so long as it sticks.  If you're a good family man, or have put your life on the line for America, you'd think those would be strengths.  But poisoning that strength is what this game is all about.  Oppo research spins a goofy story about moving your family in a crowded car into you being an abuser of dogs and a hater of all things American.  Oppo research turns combat-won Purple Hearts into lies and treason.

All that matters is sowing doubt, discord, and suspicion.  It's anything and the kitchen sink.  Truth is irrelevant, so long as the credibility of your opponent is subverted.

What's always fascinated and horrified me about this is how familiar it is.

In the great story of the Bible, there's a character whose job it is to tear us down.  His task, as it was assigned in the Heavenly Court, was to prove the unworthiness of mortals.  He was the first and greatest of the oppo researchers, the angel charged with the task of convicting and bringing accusations against us.

He had a formal title:  The Prosecutor, or, more accurately, The Accuser.   Or, if wikipedia is to be believed, The Opposer.

In Hebrew, that title reads: Ha Satan.

No wonder our political system seems so messed up.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Keyword: Growth

I hate not quite being sure about something.

Years and years and years ago, when I was a young teen, I read an article about the Vietnam War.  I can still visualize myself, sitting on the top floor of my grandparents' house in Fire Island, leafing through the New York Times Sunday Edition.

The article was about the lingering effects of Agent Orange, as veterans of that war were increasingly suffering side effects from exposure.  Details from that reading still flit in my mind, about how soldiers would assuage concerned Vietnamese that the compound was harmless by drinking it.  

For some reason, I always assumed it would taste like Tang.

But the image that stuck in my mind, and that has always stuck in my mind, came from a short narrative about what happened to the jungles and rainforests of Vietnam after they'd been sprayed.  Agent Orange, or so I recalled, acted by massively ramping up growth.  Plants exploded in a riot of false fecundity.  Huge, pulpy, and misshapen fruit hung from branches.  Leaves became vast.   The forests, or so the article in my memory described, became almost alien in appearance.  Growth was everywhere...but also utterly unsustainable.

The plants would grow beyond their capacity to sustain the growth.  They'd burn through their own internal nutrients, exhaust their supplies of water and minerals, and quickly as they'd grown...they'd die.  It was the growth that kills.

As a metaphor, that image of Agent Orange has legs.  

Being a pastor and all, it makes me think of the bureaucracies of old-line denominational churches, the big cumbersome governmental structures that once matched our size but now drain energy and passion from our fellowship.  It makes me think of the gargantuan megachurches, arisen in an era of consumerism and cheap, easy transportation.  Which, as we know, will always be the case, forever and ever, AMEN.  

It makes me think of fossil fuels, which have allowed us to cheat Malthus for three generations.  God help us all.  

Problem is, for years and years I could never find reference to that article, or anything in general articles about Agent Orange that would confirm that memory.  Reliant on only that, it felt too hazy.  Maybe I dreamed it.  One never knows.  But I never quite followed up on verifying the image.

Until I realized that I should just Google it, and add "growth" to my search parameters.  And there they were.  Article after article, confirming that the best way the military ever devised to make war on plant life was to make it grow and grow with no hope of ever stopping.

Ah, the internet.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Another World, Another Me

Over the past few days, I've picked up another game for the PS3.  It's a bit outside of my usual pattern.  I rarely play JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games), but the reviews had been so good that I felt like I wanted to give it a try.

The game is Ni no Kuni, which translates into English as "The Another World," or "Second World."  It's a delightful little fable about a young boy who loses his mother after a tragic accident, and his journeys into a magical world that exists in parallel with our own.

What made the game super-extra tempting was that it was the first foray into gaming by Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant anime shop.  Ghibli has produced beautifully imaginative works like Spirited AwayHowl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and others.   I loves me some Ghibli, I do.

I've got about four hours of play in over the last week, and what's been most striking about this game's just so kind.  It's one of the kindest, gentlest games I've ever played.  It took a bit of getting used to, actually.  Given that gaming tends to involve headshots and your character tearing out the still-beating hearts of your adversaries, encountering a game where your main character tries to mend the broken hearts and minds of those around him is just...different.

The protagonist is a boy, and a gentle hearted soul, not some jaded soldier or vindictive demigod.  Your missions involve bringing reconciliation to families, encouraging a soul out of a deep depression, and driving off the demons that have consumed a bitter, self-isolated workaholic.  How?  You use magic to borrow the joy and hope and enthusiasm from souls who have an overabundance and are willing to share, and then you pour those healing things into the hearts of the broken.  As a pastor, I could seriously use some of that magic myself.

It's a deeply Christian game, even if it's hidden behind wands and wizards and faerie kings with lantern nose-rings.  George MacDonald and CS Lewis would have approved.

Playing this game about a parallel world as I'm working through the edits of my forthcoming book on the theology of the multiverse is also interesting.  In Ni no Kuni, souls are "paired" across worlds, sharing experiences.  Their destinies are not the same, but they are linked.

In my own meditation and prayer life, one recurring and idiosyncratic element is my awareness that within the infinite complexity of God's creative self expression, I do not have a single destiny.  I exist, in all of my possibility, before my Creator.   This is both liberating and terrifying.   When I pray, and I do, I ask not simply for God's will to be done.  I know, within the knowledge of my Maker, that there rests the living knowledge of who I might be if I remained most true to the teachings of Jesus.   For God, I am there in that place already.

What I seek in prayer is to be conformed to that self that brings the greatest hope and joy into the world.  Not my most materially prosperous self, because material prosperity can come at a cost, and guarantees no happiness.  Not my most ferociously partisan self, because that self does harm it doesn't yet understand.  But that self that is most generous, most kind, most gracious.  That self whose scars have healed, and whose heart is whole.  I know that I exist there, that I can inhabit that place.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Maryland and the Death Penalty

It's a funny thing, living in Virginia and working in Maryland.  The two states are like yin and yang, swirling around the "center" that is the Nation's Capital.  One Democrat, one Republican.  One liberal, one conservative.

I live in Ol' Virginny, the Land o' Cotton Where What Once Was Is Not Forgotten.   But I work in the People's Republic of Maryland.

To get to work, I cross the Potomac river.   There's one working ferry still crossing the Potomac, and given a recent decision by the Maryland State Legislature, I find myself wondering if the next time I ride that ferry back to Virginia I'll find Charon taking my cash.

According to the Virginia Department of Tourism, we're the second killingest state in the Union when it comes to executing prisoners, though Texas wins that honor by a country mile.   But Maryland, well, Maryland is different.  After hemming and hawing, the Maryland State Legislature recently banned the death penalty.

Being of a progressive bent myself, my position on this topic shouldn't be hard to figure out.   I've been pretty much set against it since I was old enough to form coherent thoughts.  None of the arguments advocating the death penalty ever made much sense.

Deterrence?  It is useless as a deterrent.  How do we know this?  How about taking a look at the entirety of recorded human history.  How many drawings-and-quarterings, stonings, hangings, lynchings, burnings, beheadings, electrocutions, and crucifixions have there been over the course of human history?  While you count those up, I'll ask: Do people still commit crimes?  Sure do.  Makes not a whit of difference.

Justice?  The death penalty has nothing to do with justice.  Why not?  Take that horrible BTK serial killer case from a few years back as an example.  That warped soul was named Dennis Rader, and he was a monster.  Here is a human being who murdered at least 10 people, who strangled parents to death in front of their children before killing the children.  How would killing him right that wrong?  Because we can kill him just once.  Even if you went all medieval on the cruel and unusual punishment thing--which in his case would have been tempting--there's just no way that balances out what he did to his innocent victims.  Justice...understood as a restoration of the balances...cannot be served by such a penalty.

Prevention?   Sure, execution prevents future crimes by that person, but that's nothing that a lifetime in a maximum security facility can't accomplish.  And sure, that costs something.  But when the price of something is our primary decision point for an ethical action, what does that say about us as a culture? 

What it boils down to is revenge.  And even there, the death penalty doesn't come close to cutting it.  If someone were to harm my wife, or my boys, my desire for revenge would be visceral.  I would want to destroy them, to tear out their throat with my teeth.  But if I did, that wouldn't ease the loss.  Not at all.  Revenge is a hunger that cannot be sated.

Beyond not getting it on those levels, the death penalty has never worked for me theologically, either.  I can understand using lethal force to stop an act of violence in progress against an innocent.  In that, I'm very Augustinian.  Once that immediate threat has passed, however, things get a little dicier.

 Killing a helpless individual, even if that individual has committed monstrous crimes, well, that just hasn't ever held any appeal from a Jesus-Is-My-Lord perspective.  As my theology has evolved over the past few years, that sense of the wrongness of it has gone even deeper.

If ethics are not about absolutes, but are about establishing or delimiting probabilities of suffering or joy, what does the death penalty do?

What the death penalty does is eliminate both the probability of grace and the possibility of repentance. That's a non-trivial decision on our part, because it flies in the face of what is most central to the message of the Gospel.  The death penalty says, you are done here.  No grace can enter you.  No sense of the actuality of what you've done to another can ever penetrate your darkness.

That may in many cases be true.  Sociopathy is notoriously deeply woven into damaged souls.

I simply cannot see that as a viable way to approach other beings, and nothing could be further from what Jesus taught.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Being Silly

The morning had been a bit flakier than usual, as I somehow managed to wander out of the house without 1) my checkbook to pay for the delicious lasagna I'd purchased as part of a church fundraiser and 2) the text of my sermon.  Doh.

Still, it was a good Sunday, one worship following another, the feel of them solid.  During the announcements at the second service, we shared the life of the community, and folks were in a good mood.

I goofed around as I tend to do, bantering back and forth with folks.  I went around the room, as hands were raised.  Opportunities for service and study and worship were presented.  Anniversaries were celebrated.  The births of grandchildren were proudly announced.  The room smiled and giggled.  Laughter and genuine warmth aren't a bad way to stir the heart for worship, think I.

At the last call for announcements, a little hand went up.  "Yes," I said.  "What do you have for us?"

"You're silly," piped out a tiny smiling voice.

And while it wasn't news, it was good to hear.   It's great to hear, in fact.  There are serious moments in the life of any church, moments of solemnity and struggle.  There are moments when it is essential that we be steely-eyed in our resolve.  There are moments of sorrow and mourning.

But a community that does those things well and is utterly incapable of silliness or laughter is not a community I'd want to participate in.

Which for some reason, makes me think of John of Patmos and his vision of our encounter with God.  One of the many things that I find jarring about that peculiar book is the coldness of it.  Yeah, I know, there's that sweet part about wiping every tear and all that, but John borrowed that from Isaiah.  But for the most part, there is so little recognizable human joy in that book, particularly as the encounter with God is described.  It's the vision of the Throne, and all is pomp and formality, carefully ordered and structured.  The mental image it invokes is vaguely animatronic.  Welcome to Dulac! C'est un Monde Parfait!

Perfect?  Maybe.  But it just doesn't seem joyful.  Nor, frankly, does it seem like the kind of place where laughter is either expected or permitted.  There is no warmth.  Regal?  Yes.  But if that was all there was, it would be as cold as Cair Paravel under the reign of Jadis.

This seems, to me, counterintuitive.  Encounters with our Creator are, in my experience, knee buckling, more than meeting your daily requirement of mysterium tremendum.  True enough.  I get that.  But encountering what God hath wrought also stirs both wonder and laughter.

Because what makes us laugh is the unexpected, the unanticipated, the thing that is so impossible that we never even considered it...but there it is.

Encountering the utterly unexpected, of course there is wonder.  And maybe weeping, the way we weep when joy overwhelms us.   But how could God not want us to laugh, and to dance, and to giggle?  How could we help ourselves?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ringing My Bell

At long last, I've read something by Rob Bell.  Meaning, not just a blog post or an interview or a Facebook status update.   An actual book.  Not his new one, not yet.  I will be, but I had some unfinished business.  I needed to read his last one, the one I made sure the graduating seniors from my wee kirk received before they went off to college.  I'd recommended that one on spec, and I figured it was about time that I actually knew what I was talking about.

Yesterday, I cracked open Love Wins at around one in the afternoon.  By three, I was done reading.

Not because I needed a break.  I was done.  Two hundred pages.  Two hours.  And that includes breaks to fold the laundry and do a huge pile of dishes.  It's always a huge pile of dishes in the Williams household.  They seem to breed like Tribbles.

Having recently read through a book by million-selling popular Christian author Stormie Omartian, I'd been struck by how simple and straightforward her prose was.

She has nothing on Bell.

Sure, he uses some more complicated vocabulary on occasion.  But the book itself was spare to the point of being spartan.   It felt, sometimes, like the kind of paper a professor might receive from their brightest student if all you'd given the class was a requirement for total pages.  The slightly large font coupled with lines that would occasionally be occupied by two word sentence fragments made for breezy reading.  It had less page density than, oh, gosh, something like "The Mouse and the Motorcycle."

This could have been a 98 page book, honestly.

But that didn't matter.  The white space was used judiciously and to good effect.

I can see, without question, why Bell succeeds.  He is, in my opinion, one of the best interlocutors for a more gracious Christianity out there today.  He seriously rings my bell, although quite the way Anita Ward meant.    Why?   Well, several reasons.

1) He keeps it simple.  It's easy to go all complex when dealing with theology, or with the nuances of faith.  Bell knows, either by instinct or experience, that doing this means you render yourself less and less able to speak to a broad audience.  That's one of the great stumbling blocks of the old-line, and one of the reasons our voice is fading in our culture.  We have, I am convinced, an awesome and authentically important Gospel message.  But we've been steeped in academe too long to be able to get that across.  Bell doesn't make that mistake.  He doesn't make it simplistic, and he doesn't dumb it down.  But he knows that if you think something is important, the point of writing about it is to share that.   And that gets to reason number two:

2)  He's a damn good rhetorician.  I say that not by way of insult.  Rhetoric is nothing more than the classical art of persuasive speech, and Bell is skilled at it.  Ancient rhetoric taught you to use emotion, reason, and shared cultural references to sway an audience.  Bell does all of these things.  He tells stories, real stories of his life as a person, to establish common ground.  He shows a deep grasp of scripture,  from a historical-critical and textual standpoint, and also just respecting it as sacred story.

But his writing connects on a human level, too.  Take, for example, this video for his latest book.  It connects, deeply, with pretty much every American who ever owned and loved a beat-up old car.  That's a lot of us.  His writing does that.  It's effective at conveying what he wants to convey.  It doesn't resort to in-group language, not ever, not never.   He speaks in ways that the world can understand.

That matters.

3)  He keeps his eyes on the prize.   Bell talks about what matters, and then he tells you about Jesus.  He is, without question, evangelical.  What is simply stunning is that he's telling the world about the Jesus I've known and encountered, in a way that feels both right and authentically faithful.   God matters.  Jesus matters.  Our faith matters.

He doesn't, for instance, talk about "church."  Or "being church."  The focus is not institutional, or structural.  It's big picture stuff, the stuff that's fun to talk about, the stuff that people who aren't already embedded in a faith community actually do think about.

I didn't agree with him on everything.  But danged if he doesn't get what's important.

That's what matters, eh?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Most Beautifully Various

Thomas Bayes was the Presbyterian pastor who came up with the equation underlying all modern probability theory, but he was also a Nonconforming Christian.

That meant a very particular thing at that particular place and time in human history.  In reading his short essay on God's goodness, I did find myself wondering about how that might have formed and shaped how he thought.

His faith meant that during his lifetime, he was legally a second class citizen of England.   He had chosen not to swear fealty to the state religion of his time, and that made him ineligible for public benefits and public office.

But that also made him free.  As a Christian, Bayes didn't have to hew to any particular and mandated patter of belief or worship.   Having attended a Free Church myself for a while as a kid living in England, I suddenly have a clearer idea of just where that came from.  That peculiar PresbyBaptiMethoCongregationalism of my youth comes from the very corner of Christianity that Bayes inhabited.

It also meant that his view of dogma, doctrine, and orthodoxy would have been shaped by a deep awareness of being different.  Of being outside of the acceptable norm.  And from that place, openness to the new and the different is considerably easier.

As I worked through his 1731 essay on God's goodness, his openness to the creative power of difference surfaces repeatedly.  He resists, in particular, the idea that there is only one way to be Good.   That, from his Nonconforming perspective, seems both oppressive and limiting, and too much like the state religion that tried to enforce a single order.   He writes things like this:
"If the universe were to consist of one uniform sort of beings, however happy they might be, 'tis evident that they could not in some respects enjoy so great happiness as they might by variety..."
As for Creation itself, he sees variation and difference as amazing things, and a necessary part of a loving God's creative power.  As he describes it:
"..a most happy universe is so far from being unbeautifully uniform, that it must be most beautifully various..."
From that place, seeing chaos as creativity and possibility wouldn't have been much of a stretch.  I think Bayes would have liked the multiverse.

Probability, Chaos, and Purpose

One sure-fire, guaranteed way to drive down the blog traffic is to post about things no-one else on the planet cares about.  

At this particular moment, the level of online buzz about obscure eighteenth century theological monographs you might expect.   Still and all, I've been forging my way through Thomas Bayes' complex monograph on the benevolence of God.  And it is complex, right down to the syntax.

Eighteenth century sentence structure takes a bit of getting used to.  Oh, sure, I use commas by the bucketload, but Bayes strings sentences together that take up entire pages.   You need to be a mathematician just to diagram them.   I wonder what his sermons would have been like. Lord have mercy on his congregation.

But when you get through all that, how is his thinking?  It's fascinating.  Enlightenment era rationality shines bright throughout it.  Yes, there are references to Scripture and Tradition.  But that's not how Bayes buttered his bread.  Logic, reflection and reason governed his thinking.  This is not surprising, given that Bayes was both a mathematician and a nonconformist Christian.  

Saying he was a nonconformist wasn't just a way of saying he did his own thing in his own time.   It was a legal category, meaning he was not in compliance with the Act of Uniformity of 1662.   Ah, to have been Presbyterian when it was a synonym for being a nonconformist.  Good times.

As a pastor and mathematician, Bayes was responsible for Bayes Theorem, the equation used by modern statisticians to determine probability.  Driving my curiosity about Bayes is this:  Given that the theology of the faithful shapes and forms the direction of their thinking, what in his theology made him explore probability?

What Bayes appears to have been responding to is a Deist pamphlet he'd received.  Again, what a different era this was, when it wasn't just Jack Chick who handed out tracts.  The Deist was apparently making an argument for God's existence from design, suggesting that the beauty and order we perceive in things was clear evidence for the existence of God.

Bayes seems to resonate with this on some levels.  He appreciates beauty in things, but his mind is too rational to stop there.  As he puts it, we have no "...reason to think that every being that perceives the same order and proportion in an object must have the same sentiments of its beauty."  Order exists, he suggests, but it goes far deeper than the limitations of human subjectivity.

We human beings see design in orders and symmetries and patterns.  But there is also, Bayes observes, order in things we perceive as less than lovely.  What he suggests, nearly two hundred and fifty years before chaos theory, is that there are patterns and structures in what we perceive as chaotic, ugly, or "imperfect."

Does our perception of the orders and symmetries that comprise beauty mirror Gods'?   No, not really.  We're limited, and what we see as disorder or ugliness is simply part of a greater pattern we struggle to perceive.   "Nothing can appear to Him confused and disorderly," says Bayes.   What appears to us to be chaos, Bayes seems to be saying somewhere in the thicket of some crazy-long sentences, is part of the divine creative purpose.

As he resists the classical design argument for God's goodness and power, Bayes starts taking theology in a different direction.  He talks of God creating creatures that are "capable" of happiness.  He talks of our having the "capacity" for goodness and joy.

He begins heading in this direction towards the end of the monograph, but takes it no further.  But where it seems to be leading is to probability, towards a God who gives freedom and options, and who creates the possibility of happiness for any who wish to pursue it.

Which is why I find Bayes so very fascinating.  Given the radical implications for human freedom that seem to be arising in my explorations of Many Worlds theory, this is some good stuff.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Twitter the First

Yesterday was satisfyingly busy.  Meeting followed conversation followed meeting, with working and thinking and sermon-cogitation woven in and around all of it.

And in the thick of it all, Twitter hummed away behind one tab of my browser.  My wanderings through the twitterness have continued over this month, and yesterday, I found myself experiencing yet another world event through this peculiar medium.

It really is like being in a scene from the Incredible Journey, sitting there in your tiny little nanosub and watching the neurons in the vast cortex around you light up and flash and blort out transmitters around you.

No, wait, Incredible Journey was the one with the dogs.  Um...what's that film know, the futuristic one with Raquel Welch playing the Helpless-Eye-Candy-"Girl"-Who-Will-Eventually-Need-Rescuing?  Um.  No, not that one.  Oh, right.  The Fantastic Voyage.

As there are many, many co-religionists populating my corner of the global brain, yesterday was an endless blorting yarp of Papal tweets.  Some were earnest prayer-tweets from Catholics.  Many were goofy metacommentary, as the addled popcorn brain of our social macroorganism nattered on about smokestacks, cannabis, and some random seagull.

It trended and trended hard, to the point where even tweeting teens who use Twitter to let the world know about their every self-absorbed moment noticed.  "What the [Freak] is all this [flipping] Pope [poop]?  OMG I dunt care abt disss [excrement]!!! #whocares"

When the selection came, though, what my Twitter feed almost instantaneously let me know was the name of the Pope, the name he had chosen, and that as a Cardinal he had his very own Twitter account.  Surely, surely that's a first.

What is this human being like, I wondered.  Traditional media outlets were talking Jesuit, and waxing on about St. Francis of Assisi, and talking about "care for the poor," and "spartan lifestyle."  It sounded promising.

But Twitter means he'll be talking about himself and what was important to him, so of course, I clicked and went there.  I'll admit that Twitter's not the very best medium for really knowing someone, but you can get a hint.  That I'm a slightly goofy pastor who's into quantum physics and theology would become quickly apparent, for example.

What I found were two tweets about his becoming Pope, and then a lot of prior tweets with hashtags en Espanol.  They consistently read things that would translate like #nogayadoptionever and #whygaysshouldn'tbeallowedtoadopt.   Oh Lordy, thought I.  Is this what matters to him?  It certainly seemed to be, as the peculiarly warped mirror of that social media presented Bergoglio to the world.

Couldn't it have been #behumble, or #loveyourneighbor, or #jesuslovesyou or #careforthepoor?   As the old hymn goes, They will know we are Christians by our #hashtags, by our #hashtags....


But I didn't give in to the temptation to tweet about it, because I don't really know Francis yet.  Wisdom holds it's tongue, and watches until it is sure.  Best to think, to stand back, to observe, and not to give in to the 24 second news cycle.  Human beings are complex creatures, not easily reduced to #hashtags or their most extreme perspectives.

A social media platform's got to know its limitations.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Faith, Prosperity, and Probability

Before wandering into some reading of Rob Bell, I'm taking a detour.

My recent completion of statistician Nate Silver's book clued me in to the existence of Thomas Bayes, an 18th century Presbyterian pastor/theologian/ mathematician/ wakeboarder.  Well, the wakeboarding thing is admittedly speculative, but we know so little about Bayes.  He is largely lost to history, having left us only two written works.  Even this picture of him isn't certain.  It might be him.  It might not.   It is also possible that he looked like this.  We're just not sure.  That this image is possibly him is sort of ironic.  Why?

One of those works gave the world Bayes Theorem, the probabilistic equation that has become the touchstone for all modern predictive statistics.   Bayes Theorem helps us account for the inherent uncertainty in all prediction.  I'm not so much interested in that one, not because it's not cool, but because it's not what floats my boat.

What I've found fascinating in doing more research on Bayes is that his work on probability appears to have arisen from a monograph on the sovereignty of God.   Back when I was a lad, obscure 18th Century monographs used to be hard to find, but Lord Bless The Internet, this is now some seriously public domain stuff.  So I went out and found a free eBook version and downloaded it to my Kindle.

It's got a typically catchy 18th century title:  Divine Benevolence, or an Attempt to Prove That the Principal End of the Divine Providence and Government is the Happiness of His Creatures.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?   Not quite sure that'd pass muster at Harper Collins these days.  "You know, Tom, we've been thinking about your title.  We need something that pops.  Our marketing guys have come up with this one, you'll love it, seriously, 'God is Cool: Seven Reasons He Wants You To be Happy.'  Oh, and that picture?  Do you have something better?"

The work itself is remarkably dense, a gleeful thicket of words piled one on top of the other.  We were wired differently in the 18th century.  With some adaptation, you can get into it.  As I've begun reading it, I can already feel how Bayes thought theologically.  Honestly?  I like the guy.

One of the questions he is clearly asking himself is data related.  Assuming we want to genuinely answer the question, what metrics would be reliable measures of Divine Benevolence?   Meaning, what would tell us that God is loving and good?

What's striking is the thing he immediately dismisses:  Material blessings.  As he reasons through it, he asks himself whether the giving of rewards is an inherent sign of goodness.

The answer: No.  No it isn't.

As Bayes sees it, rewards can be given by the manipulative to curry favor, or by a tyrant to cement their power.   They are not, in and of themselves, a reliable data point informing our assessment of another being's love or compassion.   So as he develops his argument for the probability that God is good, he rejects material blessings almost outright.

Fascinating.   Perhaps someone should tell Joel Osteen.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Learning to Speak Martian

Having now read through Stormie Omartian's The Prayer that Changes Everything (R), I can say that...well...I don't tend to read books like this.

Tillich's Systematics, this was not.  Nor was it the bare-knuckled mentally-demanding practical mysticism of my Teacher George MacDonald.

As I wended my way through this very, very straightforward book, it was clear that this was not written with me in mind.   She genuinely tries to be welcoming, to bring everyone in.  Her first chapter essentially reads: "Do you want your life to be terrible?  Me neither!  Here's one sure-fire way you can make it super extra awesome!"

In reality, not all beings are the same, and we encounter our Creator differently.   And no, it's not because she's Martian and I'm an Earthling, although when on page 154 she credits her faith in Jesus for getting her  "...through that extremely difficult transition from one planet to another," I did get to wondering.

We're just different folks.  How so?

I do not encounter creation in quite the same way as Ms. Omartian.   Really and actually, I do not.  I do not, for instance, have any issue with our having evolved from "monkeys."  One, well, we didn't.  We're hominids, technically.  Different family.  No tail, see?   I don't see the evolutionary process as lessening our value as children of God, any more than saying we're made of dirt devalues us.

Some of what she finds mysterious, I don't.  Like, say, how an airplane stays in the sky.  In one chapter, she recounts her fear of flying.  She doesn't get what's happening, and how it can happen, and it makes her anxious and afraid.  Then she realizes that she's trying to control things that are beyond her ken, and lets go and lets God.  That helps calm her.   I feel that same anxiety in planes myself, that same lack of control.   But what calms me is visualizing the reality of the airframe around me, and the thrust of the turbofans, and the physics of the Bernoulli effect.  I know the why of Creation, and that eases my mind. I save my praying for those times the plane is tossed around the sky like a leaf in a storm.  In that, we are not so different, I suppose.

Neither do I encounter scripture in quite the same way as she does.   For Stormie, God's Word is great because it means you don't have to worry anymore.  It just tells you what to do, which makes life a whole bunch simpler.   Scripture for her comes in snippets, verse by verse, here a little there a little.  It's all written for her, she says, a love letter from God.  I see in it the complexity of thousands of years of our encounter with God, sacred stories that need to be understood in their entirety, and in context.  My encounter with them changes me, but they are not mine alone.  Understanding their purpose requires both reason and the light of the Spirit.  The heart of it is simple.  But that simplicity is not always self-evident.

And worship?  I like a good worship, too, but here again, we're a tick different.

Omartian's first love is praise music, and so thats the focus of the book.  Praise worship is The Prayer that Changes Everything (R).   You just have to praise!   Meaning, 1) Sing!  and 2) Cry!   A great worship involves a great deal of Kleenex, and will both clear out your sinuses and change you forever. I've known folks who believed this was the only way to worship, and honestly?  Having been part of a church that was All About Praise (R) I know this isn't always true.  Some were fine folks, who really got the Jesus thing.  Others did a lot of emoting on Sunday, and went right back to gossiping and petty cruelty and bullying on Monday.   Or Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of the church.  Heck, some folks couldn't even make it through the fellowship hour.

Being Presbyterian, I worship differently.  For me, a great worship involves a great deal of Thinking, which we tend to do best with our eyes serenely closed in meditation.  That our congregation is nodding jerkily and drooling a bit during the sermon is just a sign they're Thinking Very Hard.  Or so I've been told.

After all, God speaks in our dreams.  My sermons just facilitate that.

But reading Stormie's writing, I found myself unable to get to that place of cattiness that makes for such good bloggery.  "Chill," said the Spirit.  "Listen to your sister."

Snark is easy, particularly when encountering a very simple and heartfelt faith.  What is harder is looking at a very different soul and saying, "Is there grace here?"  If someone believed and acted upon what was written here, how would they live relative to the teachings of Jesus?

I've known people like Stormie, and the people with whom her writing resonates.  They're good, practical people, and there are a lot of them.  They do read, a great deal.  But recommending that they read Tillich would be like telling me to rebuild a four-barrel carburetor.  Or, more entertainingly, having me lead a liturgical dance.   I've only done that once, but for all my pleadings, they won't take the video down.

Reading through this book, she doesn't appear to have a mean bone in her body.  She's been through a whole bunch, and she's perfectly open about how challenging her life has been.  In the face of those challenges, her faith has been hugely important to her.  Her encounter with Jesus prevented her from breaking, and kept her from becoming sour and vindictive and cruel.  Faith in Christ turned her soul towards a life of mercy and reconciliation.  So what she's doing is just sharing that.  I hear her, and as I read her, I see no reason to doubt it.

That, I think, is one of the primary keys to her success as an author.   Her writing about her experiences is simple.  Honest.  Authentic.  Practical.  Hopeful.  It speaks directly to the experiences of her audience, which is considerable in number.

Am I that audience?  No, not exactly, but that doesn't mean what she has to share isn't a good thing for many.  Do I agree with all of it?  No.  But that's the case with almost anyone I read.

Perhaps it's the name, which still amazes me, but reading this book I found myself thinking of Paul's preaching on the Areopagus.  When he got up on Mars Hill, he made sure to articulate the Message in a way that had purchase with the Athenians around him.

Long and short of it:  If you're going to speak to people about the importance of what Jesus taught, you need to speak in ways they understand.  And there are many, many ways to do that which preserve the essence of the Gospel.  That's the great strength of having so many different flavors of Christian faith.  That there are books out there like this one that reach folks I'd probably bore the bejabbers out of?  All the better.

Not all of us speak Martian.  But that some do?  Well, that's cool. 

My Mission to Mars

The first edits are back on the Believer's Guide to the Multiverse, and I'm psyched.  First, my editor seems to like it, which is a significant bonus.  And second, well, it's a small step closer to that place where I can for the first time in my life move past saying "I'm a writer" to saying, legitimately, "I'm an author."

But mixed in there is a bit of angst.    What I'm dreading is the reality that in order for a book to be read, it has to be marketed.

While I love writing, I wrestle mightily with marketing.  I hate the feel of it, the taste of it, the way that approaching another person with a pitch can dehumanize the soul you're encountering.   They can become an object, an implement, something you're seeking to manipulate rather than someone you're standing in relation to.

I'm going to have to get over that, or at least reconceptualize the effort that goes into marketing.  Ditching the word itself seems a good start.   To get the word out about something, you have to believe in that something.   It has to matter to you, not in a manipulative way, but in a genuine way.  I'm not selling you something.  I'm offering you something.  I'm not pitching you something.  I'm opening up a conversation.  It's not scripted prosthelytizing, it's real evangelism.  

But really, that effort to really connect has to begin as you write.  Whatever you're trying to convey, you also have to speak it in such a way that people can hear what you're saying.   If you're a writer, that has to happen on the front end.  Are you articulating what you care about in such a way that other human beings...literate ones, at least...will be able to receive it?

One lament I'll hear occasionally amongst progressive Christian writers is that, well, no-one seems to buy books anymore.  "Why does no-one read," we lament.  "They are all so stupid!  Stupid stupidheads!"  This is fundamentally not true.  Christian books still sell like hotcakes.

Take, for instance, the books of Stormie Omartian.

Though I try to be aware of all things Jesusy, I'd never even heard of Stormie Omartian before I went onto Twitter.  There, amidst the churning thickets of tweet-quotes, I saw the name...and needless to say, it piqued my curiosity.   I discovered that beyond having a name that is beyond epic, she's an amazingly successful Christian author by almost any metric of success.

If my wee book sells more than a couple thousand copies, I'll be quite pleased.  That doesn't even begin to hit the 30,000 copy metric I used to hear pitched for entry into the "successful" author club back in the print era.   But Stormie? Stormie's in a totally different league.

Her books, which she writes from the perspective of a nondenominational layperson, have sold millions upon millions of copies.  Her Power of Prayer books have sold so well that her publisher has copyrighted those words.    "The Power of Prayer (R)."   I'll have to remember that the next time I consider using those words in a sermon, I guess.

So after finishing up my time with philosopher/mathematician/theist Blaise Pascal, I went to the library. There, in the spirituality section, Dewey Decimal Code 248.32, right next to a Brian Mclaren book, was a pastel-hued hardback, which I dutifully checked out.  I could tell by the cover that this was going to be...different.

Time to take a trip to Mars.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A is for Amazon

As I typed in a search term today, I watched Google fill in the phrase for me, trying as it always does to anticipate my every thought.   Google knows where I live, and knows some of my search history.   Its great thrumming warehouse-banks of processors and complex algorithms carefully optimize every return, endeavoring to maximize the likelihood of getting me where it thinks I want to go.

But Google does not know me, not really, because my thought as I typed suddenly became:  If I took Google's suggestions on the first letter of my search and made an alphabet book for children, what would it look like?   

What would that say about Google?   What would that say about our humanity in the internet age?

And so I went through the alphabet, letter by letter. 

A is for Amazon, AOL, Apple, and Amtrak
B is for Bank of America, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and Bed Bath and Beyond
C is for Craigslist, CNN, and Costco
D is for dictionary, Dominos and Drudge
E is for eBay, ESPN, Expedia, and etsy
F is for Facebook, Fandango, and Fox News
G is for Google, Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Translate
H is for Hotmail, Home Depot, Hulu, and HHGregg
I is for Instagram, IMDB, Ikea, and iTunes
J is for Jetblue, JCPenney, J Crew, and Jennifer Lawrence
K is for Kayak, Kohls, and KMart
L is for Linkedin, Lowes, Les Miserables, and Living Social
M is for Mapquest, Macy's, MSN, and Maps
N is for Netflix, NFL, Nordstrom, and news
O is for OPM, Old Navy, Overstock, and Orbitz
P is for Pandora, Pinterest, Papa Johns, and Paypal
Q is for QVC, Quotes, Quizlet, and Quentin Tarantino
R is for Redbox, Ray Lewis, Redskins, and Rotten Tomatoes
S is for Southwest, Sears, Skype, and Sprint
T is for Target, Twitter, Translate, and Thesaurus
U is for USPS, UPS, United Airlines, and US Airways
V is for Verizon, Verizon Fios,, and Verizon Wireless
W is for Walmart, Weather, Wells Fargo, and Washington Post
X is for XBox, xFinity, Xbox Live, and X Factor
Y is for Youtube, Yahoo, Yahoo mail, and Youtube to mp3
Z is for Zillow, Zappos, Zero Dark Thirty, and Zara

Your results would vary, I'm sure.   But what a terrible, terrible alphabet book that would make.  It's the sort of alphabet book you might find in an Aldous Huxley dystopia, a classroom full of dutiful little Betas chanting it in unison.  It's the kind of alphabet book you'd find in a preschool in Hell.  

All except "J is for Jennifer Lawrence."  Such a sweetheart, she is.  

The Wager

The last few days, I've been working my way through Blaise Pascal's Pensees.   It's been a nifty read, a peculiarly rich mix of essays and fragments of thought, edited from the francais by none other than T.S. Eliot.   Not all of it I agree fact, much of it I don't.   Pascal's defenses of tradition and clear deference to royal authority are just not my cup of tea.

Still, there are minds I enjoy because they're just delightful to be around, and Pascal is good company.  Sipping wine and bantering with him would have been a delight.  Frustrating on frequent occasion.  But like Antonin Scalia after he's downed half a bottle of single malt scotch, it's highly entertaining.

In large part, my populating my Kindle with a free copy of the Pensees rose out of my interest in engaging with Pascal's argument for belief.  Pascal's Wager is a probabilistic argument for belief in God, one that sees faith in terms of the possibility of gain and loss.   I'm on a probability kick at the moment, as recasting our ethical response to existence in terms of possibilities resonates potently with a Many Worlds-friendly theology.

Should we believe or not, asks Pascal.   Let's think of it in terms of a bet, he suggests.  Our existence is finite, but beyond the boundaries of our lives lies either God or oblivion.  If it is God, then our believing during this finite existence will result in either reward without measure or punishment without end.   Finite belief results in infinite reward.   If, however, God does not exist, then our belief may be incorrect, but we have lost almost nothing.  In terms of a wager, it's like paying a dollar for a single lottery ticket when the payout is a bazillion gabillion dollars.    If we win?  Wow.  If we lose?  Eh, it was only a buck.

This is a cute argument, and Pascal presents it in prose that swirls and sparkles.

But as much as I enjoy him, I just don't buy it.   This is not because I'm not a gambling man, although I'm not.   This is because on a variety of levels, the Wager rings hollow.

First and foremost, Pascal's Wager seems too rooted in self-interest to mesh well with the core ethic of Christian faith.  "What's in it for me" is just not the right question to be asking when presented with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  The moment you make that your priority, you've missed the point.  You are no longer seeking first the kingdom of God.  That sort of grasping starts you off on the wrong foot, and things go tumbling from there.  

Pascal's assumption that we're to pursue things from the basis of our own desire for eternal reward seems strangely at odds with how Jesus actually taught us to live.  The ethos of self-giving and compassion, of a radical love for our Creator made real in our actions towards neighbor and stranger, those things don't click with the Wager.   

Second, I just don't buy Pascal's assumption that our finite existence is of lesser value.  As existentialist theologian Slim Shady once put it, you only get one shot.   That doesn't imbue the existence we inhabit with lesser value.  Instead, this existence is freighted with immense weight.  This is it, kids.  This life is the foundation of our eternity.  What exists outside of these moments is of less significance than what we do with the life we've been given.  If that were not true, then our actions within it wouldn't be so gosh-darned important, eh?

Third but related, Pascal's Wager assumes an ontological separation between ourselves and the question of God's existence.  Meaning, the Wager approaches belief as an abstraction, and as a transaction.  It cannot be this, not if it is to lead us to the kind of engagement with God that the Christian faith requires.  Faith is the orientation of the whole self, not a rational construct.  Faith is not a game we play with our minds.  It radically defines us.   We're all in, everything that comprises us, or we do not understand faith.

I'm willing to risk, and to risk all.  But honestly?  This life doesn't feel like a game.