Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Shell Game

I knew I should have said something.

My Dad-Spidey-Sense went off in the morning, as we bustled and hustled the kids towards their buses. The weekend's activities had been fun, in the "I'm going to share with my friends" sort of way.  Telling stories about the creepy evening in an old creaky house hunting ghosts was one thing.

But the weekend also involved target shooting at a range, which resulted in a whole bunch of shell casings being brought home.  The little guy, being a twelve year old boy and all, brought home a batch of them.  Trophies!  Souvenirs!

If I'd been twelve and had evidence I could show my friends of an afternoon firing an actual .357 Magnum revolver?  Of course I'd have been eager to have proof.  Proof I could show off.

So as they were fed and watered and prepped for school, a little subroutine piped up in my mind.  "Remind him not to take the casings to school to show to friends."  I know from public schools, and, well, I could visualize what might happen if he did what most boys his age would do.

That little voice got drowned out, though, in the chaos of a rainy morning.

And so, as I was picking up the big guy to take him to an orthodontist appointment, I got a call from my wife.

Who'd gotten a call from the principal's office, where my son was, having been found showing off the shell casings.  Teachers and counselors and assistant principals had been involved.  For casings, mind you.  Not live ammunition.  A spent shell casing is inert metal, and weighs nothing.  It's less dangerous than a rock.  Or a fist.  Or a tooth.

But our schools...being responsive to the anxiety of parents...are in that strange place where even a finger or a pointed cruller can get a child in trouble.

"Very serious."  "Potentially threatening."

But because he had a clean record, and is a born schmoozer, he was allowed to return to class, his trophies confiscated.  No suspension.  No expulsion.

No harm, no foul, I figured, winding down the parental defensiveness.  After dropping off my older son, I rolled by the middle school, and picked up the casings from the front desk.

Huh, thought I.  There were only four.  His collection of trophies had been many, some fired, some gathered off the ground.  .22, .38, .308, .45, and 7.62 millimeter.

But there were four.  One tiny .22 rimfire, three Thirty Eight Special.  I figured there were three options.  One, the school had lost some.  This seemed unlikely, given the public school persnicketiness factor.  Two, he'd left some at home.  This seemed unlikely, given my son.  Or Three, the .45 and the 7.62 mm casings were sitting in his pocket the whole time in the office.

When he got home, we had a conversation, after I'd talked him down a bit from his righteous dudgeon.  "A pencil is more dangerous than a casing," he said, speaking truth.  "It's tyranny," he said, getting a little hyperbolic.  We talked a little bit about needing to think about context and the craziness of schools.

As I handed over the casings, he said, "And I wasn't even showing them off.  I was just using them to play some Monte."

Good thing he didn't mention that in the office.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Home on the Range

Spending a full day with one's boys is a gift.  Teen and almost teen they are, and I can see that horizon of their adulthood coming into view in the far distance.

So that my Saturday was spent with them, the guys and me, was most excellent.  It was one of those memorable days, made more so by our delightful night-long bit of paranormal adventure in the darkened 1827 manse.

Amazing, how spending a long night in an intentionally darkened old creaky building can stir the imagination.   That was the stuff of hours, and gave us an hour of great footage for my "ghostbusting" history of that neat but...er..."well-worn" building.

But that was how our day ended.

Our day in Poolesville began with the outing I bid for and won in the church auction.   Shepherded by one of my stalwart Session members, it was a journey to the local chapter of a hunting/fishing conservation organization, just under two hundred acres of gorgeous Maryland countryside.

There, we were to spend time on a range, with a Whitman's sampler of different firearms.  It had been years, almost literally decades, since I'd fired a gun.  As a flagrant liberal, the sort of guy who shows up to the range in a Prius, wearing Chucks and an Ironic Jesus T-Shirt, I suppose it might seem somewhat out of character.  I've preached against gun violence from the pulpit, and I likely will do so again.

But I'm a liberal more than I am a leftist, so I like actually experiencing the reality of things rather than making pronouncements from a foundation of ignorance.

That helps understand them.   It helps, frankly, with the whole "love your neighbor" thing, which is kind of a priority for me.

Plus, I've not forgotten my boy-self.  It is still part of me.  I like fire, and smoke, and things that go boom.  Both of my lads are also boys, and so presented with the opportunity to go target shooting, they were thrilled.

My previous shooting had been, well, of the young and irresponsible kind.  I'd go out into the countryside with friends with my shotgun and a box of shells, we'd find an empty space far away from other human beings, and we'd just blast things.  We'd come back with grins and ringing ears.

But going to the range, well, that was different.  It was entirely volunteer run, but that didn't mean it was slack around the edges.

It was tight.  Once we were on-range, things shifted.  From the moment you arrived to the moment you left, a careful and intentional sequence of protocols established the framework for safety.  Safety posters with the NRA logo emblazoned on them were everywhere, and those rules and regulations weren't just window dressing.  Everyone responsible for the range was attentive to procedure, with the mutual and collegial understanding that these rules existed for a damn good reason.

Identification was required, as were forms establishing both awareness and liability.  Eye and ear protection were mandatory.  The range masters insured that everyone knew when the range was hot or cold, and that all appropriate preparations had been made for the transition between those two states.  The handling of the firearms was carefully observed, particularly with a gaggle of suburban noobs on site.  Nothing was left to chance, because everyone there knew and respected the firearms.  It was meticulous, but it was also mutual, with all eyes attentive for any risks that one set of eyes might miss.

It didn't get in the way of enjoying the afternoon.  Not at all.  It was a total hoot.

It felt free, but not chaotic.

"Well-regulated," one might say.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Manse - Liveblogging Ghosthunting

[6:14 PM EST]
Tonight, the boys and I are ghosthunting.

After a long and pleasant day, we've set up base camp in my office in the old manse.  Initial readings on the first room...EVP, Gauss meter, and temperature...read normal.  Some EVP anomalies in two locations, one corner, one in center of room.   Still nice out, a gorgeous late spring evening.

We're mapping the rest of the house now, laying out room charts to trace changes over time.   Will update the blog hourly, or as we encounter anything interesting.

[6:59 PM EST]
Mapping of the house interrupted by arrival of local media...Rande from the Monocacy Monacle.  A pleasant interruption.  We talk through some of the history of the house...it's 1827 construction, the reportage that it was one of many homes pressed into service as mobile surgical hospitals following the Civil War Battle of Balls Bluff.

We go into the old room above the abandoned kitchen, which he agrees is a tick creepy.  Pictures are taken.  I show him the old bookcase in my office, with the school bell and the handwritten records from the late 19th century.

The Gauss meter freaks out for a while, spiking relentlessly like it's being bombarded by EMF radiation.  Just put that battery in yesterday, but replacing it with one of our spares seems to resolve the problem.  Hmmm.

Back to our readings now.

[7:33 PM EST]
Finishing up baseline readings in the rooms.  No significant anomalies, although the Gauss meter continues to squawk and howl at us grumpily on occasion.  Rooms mapped by temperature, electromagnetic fields on graph paper, to track anything unusual.

Closets in the upstairs youth room seemed to yield odd EMF readings...my meter clicked over faster every time I ran it over the picture of Jesus on the door.  Go Jesus!  Ahem.

The sun is starting to set, and the house grows darker and cooler.

I'm kicking the heat on in the office, which we'll take into account when we run our second round of measurements.  We'll leave the rest of the house cool.  Less interference with the equipment that way.

I will confess to feeling slightly creeped out as I went back to put the room-map in the room above the kitchen.  Just a bit of nerves, I'm sure.

[8:13 PM EST]

We've settled into the office.  The boys are watching Youtube vids.  I walk the perimeter of the
property.  Two teen girls...likely the source of that laughter we heard earlier...are chilling in the gazebo.

I return as darkness settles.  Things are starting to cool down a great deal.

The motion sensor is now armed and in place between the two classrooms.  It's a tick hypersensitive, but I manage to slink away without setting it off.

It's a lovely, lovely night.

About another quarter of an hour, and we'll do another run through the house with the instruments.

[8:56 PM EST]

Reminder to self...turn off the flipping motion sensor before you enter the room where you have it set up.  That scared the bejabbers out of us.  Of course, if we'd turned on the lights instead of wandering through the house with flashlights, it might have been less startling.

But it's better video ambiance, I tell myself.

Readings are mostly normal, although there was a brief EVP pulse at the top of the stairs when we did our readings.  Mostly nothing, I'm sure.

[9:46 PM EST]

Getting tired.  Kids are tired.  House is quiet.  We've inflated the travel mattress, and the big guy takes a rest for a bit, as we all will in turns over the course of the night.

The question is asked...have people lived in the manse in the recent past?   The answer, of course, is no.  But the building was used to house a family of Vietnamese refugees after the war, part of the church caring for those in need.

"Vietnamese ghost people," I say, fuddling my words.

Next cycle of instrumented testing will be at 10:00 PM.

[10:35 PM EST]

We do the walk through, and the guys are clearly tired.  My brain isn't running optimally either.  We natter our way through each room.  It would be considerably less scary if I just turned the lights on, but I don't.  You know, because the lights might mess with the instruments.  Ahem.

We return, having pitched out our readings.  Few variable things this time out.  A peculiar reading in a closet, but nothing intense.  Normal stuff picked up by the thermometer and EMF sensor.  Cold spots by windows?  EMF intensity by electronics?  Who'd a thunk it?

It's surprisingly warm upstairs, we find.  But this is no surprise.  What is a bit surprising is that it is warmest in the room above the abandoned kitchen, which is the coldest room.  Not quite sure why that is, given that there's no heat on in either.  Residual heat, perhaps, but it's so late and there's not a lick of insulation to hold the heat in.

The house is full of creaks and cracks, not surprising given it's considerable vintage.  And the fact that it doesn't rest on a solid foundation, but a foundation made of cedar logs that rest on dirt.  It shifts and settles, vaguely fluid.

The heat comes on, and it clicks away.  The boys try to sleep.

[11:13 PM EST]

The boys succeed in conking out.  Very quiet now, with the exception of my older son's snoring, which briefly was like being stuck inside a large industrial percolator.

But even that has faded.  Now, it's just vaguely cozy.

I wonder what this house would have been like on such a night, a bright spring night back in the 1840s.  Eleven free souls, and four human beings who were property in the eyes of the law.

It would have been a house full of the sounds of sleeping, of snoring and...yawn.

Now, though, the house is simply quiet.

[11:38 PM EST]

Even the road outside is mostly silent now, as Poolesville grows still.  The boys remain sound asleep, and during a goodnight conversation with my wife I am reminded that perhaps I have underestimated the difficulty I'll have waking them.

Waking up a 15 year old and a 12 year old from deep sleep?  Hmm.

Maybe they'll get a better night's sleep than anticipated.

Or maybe, if I were a very slightly different sort of dad, I'd wake them in a faux panic, setting off the howling motion detector and messing with the lights.

But I never did enjoy pranks.  And neither, I suspect, would they.

I'll give them a few more minutes, and then we'll see whether they'll be rousable.

[12:13 PM EST]

I move to a couple of the spots where we got brief, flickering changes in the EVP meter.

The top of the stairs, for instance.  In the darkness, I do that "make a sign to show your presence" thing.   I video, and I wait.  It's spooky, sure, but otherwise there's just not much response.

Time to get a bit of shut eye.

[1:11 AM EST]

Though the kids are down for the count, I get up for a brief walk-through, checking the rooms.

House remains quiet.  Motion detector remains quiet.

[4:57 AM EST]

We're all up now, after a bit of fitful rest.  We do a full run through of the house, starting about half an hour ago, in the dead of night.

The house is cold, as it gets in this old and drafty building.  Temperatures are in the high fifties.  We do our last set of full detailed readings for the evening.

I ask a sequence of questions in each of the rooms we encountered EMF anomalies...in the hall, two classrooms, and the room above the kitchen.

We ask if anyone is there, and ask that they find some way to show themselves.

There's just silence.  The sensors reveal nothing.

Creeps us out, of course.  But other than that, nothing.

[7:14 AM EST]

The day rises, and the manse is brightening up nicely.

We walk to McDonalds, and nosh groggily.  On the walk back, we discuss our opinion on the building.   Creepy?  Perhaps, although it's nothing some repair work and straightening won't fix.

But haunted?  There were no events, no responses.  The sensors picked up nothing that wasn't explicable, and although the Gauss meter's freakout was a bit off putting, it was probably just a manufacturing defect.

The consensus among the team is that it's not likely.

This house is clean.  Paranormally speaking, anyway.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sounding Like a Buddhist

Yesterday, during a lovely extended lunch with two fellow pastors, we wandered from talking shop to talking Big Picture.  It was a delicious discussion, as we wandered into areas of theological complexity that I thoroughly enjoy.

At one point, things wandered into a conversation about predestination and free-will.  I used to be more traditionally orthodox Calvinist on the subject, but my view has...changed...over the past several years.  My engagement with Many Worlds and the multiverse understanding of creation has caused me to drift away from that old and unresolved argument.

Or perhaps that argument has drifted away from me.  It just doesn't seem relevant any more, a question that is as meaningless as asking about the sound of one hand clapping.

I was endeavoring to explain my viewpoint, but the burrito I'd just eaten was evidently taking up too much of the oxygen in my system, and I could hear myself not making myself clear.  Or I thought I wasn't.  So hard, it is, to hear with others ears.

Midway through an obscure sounding explication of the nature of God, one of my colleagues smiled to the other and said, "He sounds like a Buddhist."

I didn't respond, but smiled serenely, which probably didn't make me seem less Buddhist.

But I thought, hey, no, I sound like a Christian.  Christians sound like this.

In the context of that good company, that observation wasn't what it might have been in other Christian circles.  There are plenty of earnest Christians who might utter that phrase as a cautionary note to a brother or sister who's in danger of wandering off the reservation.  That was not its intent.  It was simply an observation.

I've always respected the teachings of the Buddha, and my depth study of it has only deepened that respect.  I see the value in the Four Noble Truths, and the wisdom of the Noble Eightfold Path.  But it is not the Way I have chosen to follow.   My intention and my focus is teaching what Jesus taught, and guiding people to follow him in intention and deed.

The reality I am describing is the same reality that Buddhism attempts to describe, sure.  But it's not my way.  That does not make it evil, or my enemy, or the enemy of my Master.  There are such paths, and I see their fruits in the world around me.  Those are worth opposing.

Buddhism is simply... different.

And there is nothing inherently wrong with difference.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Stephen Hawking, Specks, and Elephants

In a recent talk at Cal Tech, Stephen Hawking reiterated his cosmological assertion of a multiverse from that agglomeration of theories loosely called "M-Theory."  As he is wont to do, he then followed it with the attention-grabbing assertion that God is not necessary for the creation of our universe.

I am, of course, thankful to Steve for keeping this issue fresh, particularly given that my book on faith in the multiverse is soon to be released.  But I've also been thinking lately about scope and scale in the multiverse, and in particular the place of our time and space relative to what quantum theory suggests might be the actual nature of existence.

From that gazing out at the vastness, I find myself wondering about the wisdom of such an assertion.  God?  Not necessary?  Based on what?  Based on observations of the mechanics of our time and space, one might say.

But what does that really mean?  Oh, sure, our spacetime seems big.  And on the scale of humanity, it is really rather quite intimidatingly large.

From my musings about that, I find myself then forced to what would seem to be a logical assumption about how the entirety of our observable universe fits into the Many Worlds.  It is infinitesimal.  Small beyond smallness.  One of a minimum of ten to the five-hundred universes, Hawking himself has argued.

It's like observing one solitary lepton against the scale of our own space-time.

Given the wildly variant qualities of subatomic particles, and what may well be the wildly variant physical constants of universes, I found myself wondering at Hawking's certainty.

It's like the classic blind-men-describing-the-elephant story.  Remember that one?  What does an elephant look like, they are asked, as they each explore a different part of the creature.  "It looks like a snake," says the one observing the trunk.  "It's like a wall," says the one at the flank.   "It's like a tree," says the one at the leg.  "No, no, it's definitely a snake," says the one who...wait.

Oops.  That's not the version I meant to tell.  Ahem.

Anyway, you know the story.  As we observe our spacetime in this elephant of a multiversal creation, it's like we're observing a single electron in a water molecule in a fatty cell in the elephant's posterior.

From this, atheism's proudly certain proclamation of a godless multiverse seems an absurd overreach.

Remaining humble seems the best approach.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Islam, Violence, and The Log In Our Own Eye

One of the inevitable outcomes of the Marathon bombing has been another round of yarping from that portion of the American vox populi that is eager to lay the blame for the event on an entire world religion.

Islam, or so it is argued, is an inherently violent religion.  When the radicalized elder Tsarnaev brother became obsessed with jihad, they say, it was because this is the natural outcome of his being a Muslim.  In my twitter feed, which is intentionally and wildly diverse politically, those on the right fringe describe the brothers as "Chechen Muslims," as if they hadn't spent pretty much their entire lives in the United States.

In the ultraconservative pundit silo, much of this anti-Islam talk comes from souls who have made a career out of saying and doing things designed to polarize and give offense.  Ann Coulter, for instance, suggested that the widow of Tsarnaev should have been imprisoned for wearing a hijab.  We can throw her in prison with all the Amish women, I suppose.  But coming across as a neocon Disney villainess pays Coulter's mortgage, so that's not a surprise.   Others got into the act.  In his talk show, Bill Maher suggested that the issue was that Islam was not like other religions.

"There's only one faith that kills you or wants to kill you if you draw a cartoon of the prophet," said Maher.

The challenge for a culture that has considered itself primarily Christian, though, lies in Christianity's own frequently violent holy book, and our own unfortunately bloodstained history.

There's a whole bunch of smiting/slaying/butchery in the Bible.  Divine instruction that the Amalekites be killed down to their last chicken, and God getting cheesed off when they weren't.  Oceans folding in on armies.  Mass Firstbornicide.

That's hardly just the "mean ol' Testament God," either, thanks in large part to the Book of Revelation.  Lakes of fire, anyone?

Maher's statement is true now, sure.  But honey child, we've got history.  Taking our texts and our past into account, Christianity has a whole bunch of mess on our hands.  This is a hard thing to miss.

And many folks don't.  In fact, when they read through the Bible, they have the same reaction to it that I frequently had in my cover-to-cover reading of the Quran.   Being liberal, I feel that you have to actually and openly encounter something in order to make any kind of definitive statement about it, and the Quran...well...

It's a hard read.

But so is the Bible.

The issue, as I see it, is not faith itself, and it is certainly not any encounter with the Deep Real of our Creator.

It is the degree to which faith becomes corrupted by the human desire for power over others.   It is the degree to which we confuse God with the coercive power of the state.  Particularly our own state.  It is the degree to which we allow ancient biases and fears to govern our actions.  It is the degree to which we make a text our god.

Once we get that log out of our own eye, well, then maybe we can talk.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


"So who do you think is going to read it?"

I get this question, this question about audience, frequently.   As the final iteration of my manuscript sits in Dropbox awaiting the review of my publisher, I confess that I ask myself that question too.  Here's this book exploring a new way of understanding our universe, and the implications for theology.  The Multiverse!  God!  The Many Worlds!

It feels so wildly impractical, a great hoohah gulliwumpus of a book, so big and floaty and removed from our day to day existence.  It's the stuff of academe, of abstracted philosophical discourse.

And yet it isn't, which is why I've written it as accessibly as I know how.  We are creatures of story, we human beings.  We have been made to understand ourselves in terms of narrative.  The tiny spark of our lives as we burn our way across space and time creates that sense of narrative, after all.  

We begin.  Things happen.  We end.  

And in that sense of our own story, we experience all of being as story.  But what does that story look like?

The way we conceptualize Creation makes a difference.  It does.  If we view the universe as one great cosmic struggle between Good and Evil, with us as the Good and those who disagree with us as Evil, that impacts how we treat others.   Lord have mercy, but does that impact how we treat others.  

If we view the universe as a void, empty of meaning, just a great cosmic nothing that serves no purpose, then that shapes our actions.  If we see ourselves as simply mindless cogs in an impossibly complex machine, then we will treat other beings with that in mind.

So a book about faith and the nature of reality?  I can see the reason to read such a book.  If I hadn't written it, I'd want to read it.

And I do have a spiel, when asked that question.  People of faith who appreciate the insights of science, I say.  Spiritual seekers who want to understand their place in the universe, I say.  Folks who thrived on those late-night dorm room conversations that stretched their minds, I say.  I think those folks are out there.

But honestly?  I have no idea.  I'm going to have to wait and see.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom

As a part-time pastor, I often have time on my hands.  Not enough that I feel aimless, but life doesn't shimmer daily with stress and busyness.  I write.  I study.  I read.  I meditate.  I take walks.

That means, of course, there's no excuse for the laundry going occasionally undone.  Not that it does.  Ahem.

As spring has come again, I've found myself spending more and more time outside away from the screens and boxes.  I've been out in the dirt of our modest suburban lot, digging and planting and watering.  Another strawberry patch has appeared, across the drive from the one that went in last year.  A few more blueberry bushes now grace the front of our house.  A little bit of yard has yielded to a tilled stretch of earth, in which green beans are slowly germinating.

My wife calls me "Farmer Dave," although on this scale, it's really just gardening.

What it is not is a chore.  Mowing the grass?  That's a chore.  I do mow, of course, but the yard itself is just a living carpet.  A messy living carpet, at that.

Our lawn is not a bland monoculture, not a perfectly manicured patch of organic astroturf.  I run our four-stroke mulching mower at the highest setting, so the grass grows thick and shaggy.  Oh, the boys and I can still toss a football and run about on it, but it stays long.  More blade means more surface area for photosynthesis, way I figure it, and that's good for both the plants and creation.

It's mostly green, but in the spring, it's dappled with the colors of the other plants that I'm totally content having as part of the yard.  As I push our rusty but trusty old Honda across the yard on its tiptoes, the flowers remain as it passes over.   There are the purples of violets, the purple and white of irises, the soft pink-white of clover.  Here and there, the yellows of buttercups.

With the coming of warmer weather, across them now dance pollinators, bumblebees and...joy of joys this year...honeybees.  The honeybees had been missing the past few years, but they are back now, at least for the moment.

And those bees also stop at the strawberries...and next year, at the apple trees I'm planning on putting in.

It reminds me, just a bit, of the importance of letting things be.  When our lawn is perfect and uniform and devoid of any life but the life we have decided we will permit to live there, it may appeal to our desire for control.  But when we inflict that desire on the world, we break connections that we didn't realize were important.  No flowers in our yard means less to feed and attract the pollinators.  Fewer pollinators means a weaker ecosystem.

The ecology of congregations is a bit like that.  If a faith community is just one thing, uniform and devoid of variety, we make ourselves vulnerable spiritually.  That reinforcement might be reassuring.  Nothing validates our sense of self like wrapping ourselves in a blanket of sameness.   But it means we are less likely to adapt to the world, and less able to stand in meaningful relationship to the stranger.

And that isn't a healthy way for us to be.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Witnessing Witnessing

After some emails and some writing last night, I went on another long contemplative walk, meandering along a bustling bike path through the beautiful cool of a spring evening.   Dusk settled, slowly, the air full of the riot of springtime.  

As it grew darker, the flow of cyclists and walkers dwindled.  I moved quietly, mindfully silencing my steps, so that my own footfalls would not impede my ability to hear the world.  The whir of bat wings overhead.  The jogger, approaching from behind, whose breathing told me from ten yards that he was a man and tired.  The Tie-Fighter engine howl of bike tires on pavement, dopplering subtly as they passed in the twilight.

I timed my walking so that I would return to where my son would need to be picked up from his drum rehearsal about fifteen minutes before pickup time.

I arrived at the studio and sat, feeling quiet.   Two other souls were in the room, one, the pleasant  young woman who manages the office.   The other, a rangy, long-haired guitar instructor.   They talked, and I sat, noodling at my smartphone but mostly still in a place of listening.

He was deep into a shaggy dog story about some guy who robbed his house and escaped on rollerblades after crashing through a plate glass window.  "I mean, dude.  Seriously!  Rollerblades!  I was like, dude!"  He laughed through his wild tale, as did she. He was clearly happy to be having the conversation.

Then she told a story, one that involved mistaken identity and her boyfriend.  Listening to the spring air filled with text and subtext, I think this may have been how how he heard it:  "Something something something, I have a boyfriend, something something, I have a boyfriend."

And then it changed.  It became a conversation about church, and Jesus, him leading.   Churchy people suck, but Christianity is great.  He got an amen from her on that, and a story about how a small-town Baptist church they'd attended had driven her family out because her mom...taught ballet.

Lord have mercy.

So the conversation went on, as he talked about how much he'd liked a particular church.   He talked about how he couldn't stand judgmental churches, like especially ones that thought sex was bad.  But his church didn't!  "It's an awesome thing, man."   And then talk about how his church did this talking about faith event in a bar, and people had beer, and it was awesome, like totally real, not fake, just like, totally accepting.

You have to accept people, he said, because we're all sinners.   We need to forgive each other.  She agreed.

To illustrate this, he told another story.  This one was about how the single guy who fronted for the praise band at his church had been caught in a homosexual relationship.  "But, like, he repented, so it was, like, cool.  We totally forgave him.  Not like those judgmental Christians.  'Cause, you know, we're all sinners."

And though he kept going with his spiel, all the way through to pitching her the link to a pastor podcast, it felt as if the conversation cooled just a bit.

Funny, how hard it is for us to see our own biases.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Spiritual Deduction

I pay more taxes than I should.

I know this, and I do not doubt that it makes me a fool.

I was reflecting on it just last week, as I drove a day's worth of meals to my route for the Meals on Wheels program.  It's a small circuit I ride, varying between eight and eleven miles depending on who has been added to my route.  I know that every mile I drive can be tallied, and then counted as a charitable deduction.  Over the course of a year, it would add up, perhaps to a couple of hundred dollars worth of mileage, which would translate into a couple more twenties in the family bank account come tax time.

To accomplish this, I would have to keep a log.  Every time I went out, I would register my mileage in the log, and it would tell me just how much I stood to benefit from my bringing of meals and a cheery greeting to the homebound.

Cha-ching, would go Turbotax.  I think it actually does make that noise.  Cha-ching.

I can't bring myself to do it.

Oh, we do take advantage of our other deductions for giving.  The forms arrive from the synagogue and the nonprofits we support, and I put them in the year's tax file along with our 1099s and Dubya-Twos, to be entered during tax season.  I know it serves a public benefit, and I grasp the rationale for deductibility from the standpoint of the state.

But as I go from door to door, bearing food for those who need it, I do not want to be distracted.  As I act, I do not want to leaven my love of other with a little splash of self-interested book-keeping.   It changes my focus, shifting me from serving for the joy of it to serving for the profit of it.  It alters my perspective, turning me from a sense of duty towards neighbor and nation and towards my own self-interest.

Why should I care?

It's that Jesus.  That pesky, pesky Jesus.  But that he had never talked about giving at all.  What he taught matters to me, though, given that I've dedicated myself to spreading what he taught.

Before pursuing my call to ministry, I was steeped in the rarified thought-leadershippy echelons of the nonprofit world for a decade.   I came out of that experience wondering at the ferocity with which the interest groups of the insanely rich defended that deduction.    Folks with wealth that would make Croesus blush would protest that limiting the charitable deduction would force them to cut their giving.  Why would I put a small portion of my billions into a foundation that will trumpet my name if I don't get benefit from it, Lovie?

But giving out of self-interest is not, by the definition of the word, "philanthropy."  If it is not done for love of other human beings, it moves outside of the root meaning of the word, unless the anthrope you most philia is your own bad self.   Nor is it "charity," because it is not done from the foundation of love of other.

It's changed.  It feels like the involuntary "voluntarism" required of our children as they are forced by well-meaning school systems to rack up their community service hours.  Does that teach the essence of what it means to volunteer, to do a thing from the heart of your will?

And yes, it is complicated.  Good things do come from giving that's self-interested.  The hungry are fed by the grandstanding egotist, just as surely as they are fed by the saint or the bodhisattva.  Acclaim and profit can drive giving, just as surely as the coercion of the law can force civility.

Whichever way, I just can't do the log.  Fool that I am, it would...deduct...from my joy in the doing of the act itself.


I was disconnecting our too-costly cable yesterday, the five-hundred channels of nothing that we kept around as a pillow of media luxury in the fat years.  As I crated up the top box to return, I turned on broadcast to see if it still worked.

It did.  I almost wish it had not.

There, with the graphics blood red, were the images of Boston.  Smoke and fire, explosions, the runners falling, clutching their shattered eardrums.  First responders, already there, running.  In the smoke, figures flailing, flame-blackened ghosts in tattered clothing.  I switched among the old networks, and they all were the same.

I watched for a while, long enough to feel sick and angry, and to think of my wife and her running.  I've been there at the finish time enough.  Then the data stream started cycling, the same pattern of images, the same vision of horror, repeated and reinforced.  Professional talkers and thinkers appeared, to talk and think about the things that we had all seen.  But there was nothing more to know.

I checked my social media feeds, and they were suddenly brimming with prayers and fears for friends.

There was nothing more I needed to know, nothing that I could not glean later when there was actually more to know.

I shut it all down.  The television?  Off.  The media feeds and apps?  Away from my eyes.

 Lingering over such things feels like a sickness, a sickness that consumes soul and mind with horror.  It is a form of anxiety, this collective gnawing over the unknown and unknowable.  I have succumbed to that in past, because it is so easy to do.  Twenty-four-hour news cycle-profit-driven media and social media both magnify our fear, like we are trapped animals screaming in a steel-walled room.  And fear is the only goal of whatever blighted soul did this monstrous thing.

I drove the little guy to his drum lesson, and then, my smartphone off and forced into the silence of my pocket, I walked and thought and prayed.

Then home, where I prepared dinner for the family.  Then, an evening with my wife, watching Lincoln.

I will not be fear-full.

Monday, April 15, 2013

In Defense of Sermons

I've seen this thread surface in a variety of places, all stemming from the below post in Patheos:

The sermon?  She is dead.

The idea behind this is rather simple.  We no longer process information in lecture format.  Someone gets up?  Talks for a while?


We need snickity snackity multimedia interactivity!  None of this blah blah talkiness!  No one thinks this way, or processes information this way, we say.   This is teh age of teh inter webs, we say!  Time for us to reconsider the sermon!

I'll freely admit there are other forms of worship, ones that are more relational and conversational.  We should explore these, and celebrate them.  Praise?  Bring it.  Contemplative worship?  Absolutely.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.

But into that mix we need to consider how badly the oldline often fails to grasp the place of the sermon in the first place.  Oh, we do them.  But do we really know how to do them?

Because honey child, in the Big Parking Lot Churches where most folks now go to get their church on, the sermon is alive and well.  AmeriChrist, Inc. isn't doing away with it any time soon.  Those big shiny Jesus Nordstroms?  They're as culturally relevant as it gets, and still, there it is.  The sermon.  Oh, sure, they repackage it as a "message."  But a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

The issue here may not be that we no longer need the "sermon."  It may be that we've forgotten the importance of the spoken word.  I say this not as the world's greatest preacher.  Just give our podcasts a listen.  I mean, I'm OK.  Perhaps above average, in that Prairie Home Companion sort of way.

But my ability to deliver an effective sermon wasn't even considered as I worked my way through the ordination process.  It wasn't even a factor.  Oh, I had to submit an exegesis, and a homiletic treatment of said exegesis, which were then assessed as if they were a graduate-level written assignment.

I never once had to get up there and preach it.   Not once.   My capacity to convey the goodness of the Gospel through the spoken Word wasn't even a factor as folks considered my ability to be a pastor.

This struck me as a nontrivial oversight at the time.

The focus of the Patheos article approaches proclamation using a similar frame, that of academe.  That oldliners - Presbyterians particularly - use an academic lens to understand preaching is a significant part of our failing on that front.  A sermon should bear no resemblance to a lecture.  It is not a lecture.  It is not a carefully constructed academic discourse, in which information is conveyed and everyone takes notes so they'll be ready for the test later.  This is how we learn in college, or was.

Sermons exist to delight, enlighten, persuade, and inspire.  Data transfer is subordinate.  That, we can do through blogging, or books, or classes.  Those forms work better for conveying information relationally.

Preaching, brothers and sisters, preaching should not feel like a droning lecture.  Think of it like a TED talk.  Or Jon Stewart's opening monologue.  Or it should feel like spiritual standup.  Or it should feel like sacred beat poetry.  It is more akin to music, or to storytelling.  There should be laughing.  With, and not at, preferably.

I'm just not quite ready to give that up.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Your Children's Shoes

It happens more and more, as the boys get older.

Like, say, on Tuesday, as my little guy's School of Rock practice gave me time for both work and a long contemplative walk.  It was a beautiful evening, the perfect close to a summer-hot day, and I took the time to be in the world.  For an hour and a half, I walked slow and easy, tasting the air, feeling the breeze on my face as I walked with my Maker in the cool of the day.

 As that walk returned me to the School, I was met by the sounds of a smokin' hot jam pouring from the open windows of the second floor studio.  Solo guitar and drum, it was, and it was fat and tight and seamless.  The guitarist was spreading a sweet frosting of licks over some deep complex syncopated chocolate percussion.  A passer by in front of me, an older gentleman on an errand, stopped to listen.  I recognized the drumming.  This is my progeny?  The fruit of my loins?  How can that be?  I can't do that.

Or yesterday, as I volunteered to help sell tickets to my older lad's opening night.  It was his first high school musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and he'd ended up as Charlie.   My wife and other family were in watching, but I'm seeing the performance tonight and next week.  So as other eager parents left us over-staffed out front, I once again went for a walk, this time with the little guy.

We returned mid-way through the first act, and I couldn't help but peer in through the window of the theater door.  I watched the big guy launch into a song, one of his solo numbers.  It was great, not just sung but acted, sung in a softer and more childlike voice that nonetheless carried to the whole room.   My typical hyperanalytic tendency to anxiously deconstruct that which is most precious to me found itself shut down.  There is nothing at all wrong with this, said reason, impressed despite itself.  My heart just stayed quiet and swelled.

In the theater, my wife told me she was kvelling so hard she felt like she would die.  We both had the same thought.  I couldn't do better than this.  I couldn't even approach this.

This is the toddler banging away on Tupperware in the kitchen?  This is the preschooler stomping around like a dinosaur?

It reminds me of those shoes, the ones still left out by the kitchen door.

They've gotten bigger and bigger, until my feet slip into the largest ones like I'm a kid again, stomping around in my father's dress shoes.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Breaking Things

Yesterday as I did my walk around of the church grounds, it caught my eye quickly.   The portion of the church sign that announces service times was no longer hanging from the sign, but lying askew on the ground below.

Hmmm, thought I.  It had been windy.  Perhaps that was it.

But when I approached it, I saw two things.  First, that the screw-in eye-hook that affixed it had been pulled clean out of the socket.

And second, that on the ground by the sign was a bottle, a twenty-four ounce half-full plastic water bottle.  The bottle was significantly dented on the outside, and the top, when I picked it up, was both mashed in and dirt covered.

I briefly did that Sherlock Holmes adding-things-up bit in my brain.

Location and condition of bottle.  Sign position.  Trauma around hole that had held mounting hook.

Ah.  Most likely scenario: bottle thrown from passing car, sign as intentional target.

I searched the grassy ground delicately, seeking the rust-brown hook with hands and eyes.  It took a moment, but there it was.  Relatively undamaged.  Well, there was a few pennies saved.

I tested the hole that had held it, to see if the damage would prevent it from being easily reassembled.   With a little force and pressure, it dug in deeper, and held strongly enough to resist a sustained pull.  I reinserted hook into eyelet.  Good as new.

I have never understood the human desire to break things.  Well, actually, no.  I guess I do understand it.

We do so love that feeling of power.

Motorcycle Evangelism

Motorcycle evangelism is easy.

On Sunday, as spring pushed its way into the world, I fulfilled an easy fundraising obligation.   As part of a church auction back in February, I'd offered up motorcycle rides through the Agricultural Reserve around Poolesville.

It's almost 90,000 acres of low density farmland and gorgeous winding country roads, just a stone's throw away from the sprawling DC Megalopolis.  On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in spring, there's not a nicer place to ride for a hundred miles.

My little 'Zook is perfect for two-up riding.  The DL650 is light, tall, and nimble.  Passenger accommodations are excellent, with a nice flat passenger seat, decent sight lines, copious grab rails, and a Givi topbox that acts as a backrest.   You're not sitting on a hard flat four inch by five inch "pad" that is only intended to evoke the concept of "seat."  You're not crunched into that butt-out sport bike-passenger crouch like a female baboon on the prowl for a mate.  It's designed for two human beings who want to enjoy motorcycling.

And power?  It's a 650, but power is adequate, providing two up acceleration that matches a Mustang GT.

Given the hoots and laughter as I opened 'er up on Sunday, I'd say more than adequate.  As one of my sons put it, it's like having a roller coaster you can ride any time you want.

So for 20 minutes, we rode.

After the ride, the reaction was familiar.   My passenger wanted a bike.  Any sane person would.  It's  just too excellent.  When you experience it, you realize that it is inherently and self-evidently awesome. It is joyous, exuberant, and well worth doing.  Not without risk, of course, and something you need to approach mindfully.  But on a Spring day, motorcycling requires only to be experienced.  It is a Good Thing.

Which got me to thinking.  Good things, inherently joyful experiences, they speak for themselves.  Why is it that we have such trouble expressing Jesus that way?  Here's this way of encountering our world that calls us to radical compassion, to heartfelt service, and to joyous celebration.  It makes life better.   I enjoy living and sharing the Gospel just as much as I enjoy bucketing down a beautiful country road on a perfect spring day.  More, even.

It's just good, plain and simple.

Why we complicate and obscure that is simply beyond me.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Probability of Grace

Yesterday, there was one of those delightful cascades of randomness that change the arc of an expected evening.

After dropping the little guy off at drums, I wandered over to Starbucks for my weekly three hour writing session.  Only, when I got there, a single individual sat in the corner I usually occupy.  It's the corner with the table and the plug.   She had a giant stack of cards, which she was comparing to a photocopied list of cashed checks, individually filling out, addressing, and prepping for mailing.  Thank you letters for donations of some sort, it seemed.  Good work.

But it was the work of hours.  That wouldn't have been an issue, but when I flipped open my laptop, I was looking at a 24% charge.  I could have asked her to move, but her setup was complex and space intensive.  She was there first.

And so my flow for the evening changed.

I cranked out emails until the laptop blorted out a cry for mercy, and then mucked about on my smartphone for a bit.  In that mucking about, I came across a tweet, which led me to a review of a book by University of Oxford philosopher/physicist David Wallace.

Along with David Deutsch, Wallace is one of the most articulate proponents of the Everett Many Worlds hypothesis.  He views it as resolving many of the conceptual challenges of quantum mechanics.  The review for his 480 page, seventy five dollar book was glowing, albeit somewhat on the dense side.

How dense?  Well, one of the most exciting sentences for me personally was this one:
The second pass invokes a Bayesian approach to inference: Wallace shows that Bayesian updating applies unproblematically in an Everettian context, in the sense that agents who conditionalize on the data will take that data to confirm EQM in branches with aggregate weight close to 1.
Just rolls right off the tongue.

What it's saying, and what the review articulates further as it explores that "second pass," is that probability theory is the best framework for understanding the decisionmaking processes of sentient beings in a multiverse.

Yeah, I know.  That doesn't really make it much easier.  But it's both cool and important.

If this idea is to gain any meaningful purchase with human beings, it's going to need to be said in ways that more people can understand.  Physics and philosophy may be awesome, but the language used is too distant from the common tongue.  To...um...deepen the probability of this spreading, translation will be required.

Still, this is exciting to see from someone who is Someone, because integrating Bayesian probability into Christian ethical and moral processes has been on my mind for much of the last year.

If creation is...as I believe it to be...a theistic multiverse...then we need to understand our choices not in terms of absolutes or certainties, but in terms of establishing probability.  The probability of what?

"The Probability of Grace."

Not a bad working title for the next book, think I.

Being Edited

For the last few weeks, I've been working intensely with my editor, refining my manuscript into final publishable form.

I'd had it cloud reviewed, and my wife gave it a great first edit, but this is different.  This is professional, and it feels it.  Any unnecessary vagueness or meandering paragraphs are questioned and challenged.  Imprecision is honed, and conceptual sloppiness is cleaned up.

Not just that, either.  The epublishing house I'm working with is populated by well-read, intellectual Christians, and so my theological assumptions are also being challenged by a friendly but critical eye.  She's willing to simultaneously express her delight at an idea or turn of phrase and let me know that a sentence or thread of thought has wandered off into babbling incoherence.

As the sort of soul who thinks by writing, it's a bit like having someone muck about in your mind.  The whirling fragments of my thought and the flow of my conceptual narrative are altered and reassembled.

And what's perhaps most frustrating, given that my card reads Pastor David, Suuuper Genius, is that the inputs of my editor are making a real difference.

The book is better.

The parts that frustrated me?  Now they flow.  The instances of my compulsive humor that both mystic and scientist readers found occasionally overbearing?   Gone.  It's just plain old better, because it's not just me anymore.  It's me in conversation.  It's my thoughts, in encounter with reality.

It's striking, and it feels vaguely familiar.  In its small way, it reminds me of that encounter we are meant to have with God and our neighbor.

We need to be willing to be changed by those encounters, to listen, and to learn new and more gracious ways of expressing ourselves into the world.   If we're not doing that, if we cling ferociously to our words and our stories and won't let anything change them no matter what, then how can we possibly ever be transformed?

How could we ever turn away from those imperfections in ourselves that stand in between us and the Kingdom?

If we won't be edited, then we will not repent.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Suicide, Faith, and Purpose

Every now and then, I'll follow up on an old 'net conversation, one that I've had a while back and that was either particularly pointed or interesting.

A few months back, I'd checked in on an unfortunate exchange I'd had with a pastor who had decided that he was a new atheist.  It had genuinely baffled me, and I'd found myself wondering just how you could integrate being 1) a pastor and 2) believing that pretty much everything Jesus said was radically wrong.  It seemed odd.   The conversation, needless to say, did not go well.  I ended up walking from it.  It wasn't going anywhere, and I was perilously close to becoming a concern-troll.

I did remember the conversation, though, and tried to find it.  To my surprise, the blog...well trafficked, it was, unlike this one...was gone.  No trace of it.  I dug deeper, and what I found was another blog.  This was the new one, written by the pastor as a sustained part of the grieving process for his twenty-something son, who had taken his own life.  

It was raw and anguished, and as a father, it was impossible not to feel the pain of it.   On the one hand, it is unimaginable.  On the other, I have a good imagination.  Even the smallest taste of that darkness burns the mind.

I read through all of the entries, some several times.  There was nothing really I could say, as the faith that has sustained me in times of loss...of friends, of hopes...is not something I could share with him.  All I have to offer is my compassion.  It's a terrible thing.  Period.  It requires nothing other than the acknowledgement that it is terrible.

I'd been sharing that story with a friend whose brother had committed suicide over the weekend, and that afternoon came the news of another pastor having a child take their life.  It was the son of Rick Warren, he of megachurch and Purpose Driven Life fame.  His boy struggled with depression, and in a moment of intense anguish, he took his own life.

The irony is agonizing.  Here, a pastor whose entire ministry has been about articulating faith as that which gives purpose to existence...and his own child was unable to find that sense of purpose.   Clinical depression is such an implacable creature, and we pastors are not given the gift of forcibly imbuing purpose into a soul.  While I'm not on the same theological page as Rick Warren, that means nothing.  What matters is the pain he and his family feel at the loss of a loved one, period.  Shared sorrow and compassion are the only valid human responses.

As I reflected on those darkly harmonizing experiences, I found myself ruminating on how my own faith plays out against this terrible aspect of the human condition.

There are many reasons suicide is so wrenching.  It is wrenching because it assumes that we are not connected to one another, fundamentally, materially, actually and spiritually.   My own sons, and my wife, and my friends, they are a part of me.  Their reality shapes the arc of my existence.  The tragic untruth of depression is that it blocks us from seeing the deep, flesh-written love that others feel for us.

We cannot sense it.  We become numb to our interconnection.  I have known this state of being myself.  It is a terrible place.

The choice to commit suicide is also tragic because it presumes that there is no possible good future.  This is always not so.  There is, in almost every condition of human life, the potential for a  joyous path.  Only very rarely is the end so inevitable that we must choose the noble fall over the flames.

But we have trouble seeing that potential, being such limited creatures.  Those limitations are exacerbated by situational and clinical depression.  In either form, this blinds our imaginations to the possibility that pain will not be the only state of our being.  It closes us off from the moments of joy and reconciliation that could be written into us.

This is not said to judge tormented souls.  That is not our job, not ever.  But it is useful to hold in ourselves, for those moments in life when our own agonies seem unbearable.

So very often, that seemingly inescapable sorrow arises because we have lost the narrative of ourself.  We no longer know the story to tell.  Our career aspirations lie in ruins.  Our reputation is destroyed.  The relationship that we thought completed us is shattered.  Our future is nothingness, and meaningless, and as we lie there in the dark and our thoughts taste like battery acid, death seems a sweet release.

Again, this is not necessary.  It does not have to be.  But we need to be able...and some, Lord have mercy, are not...to listen for that new story that we ourselves do not yet know.

These things we need to hold, and hold fast.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert is Going To Hell, and Other Hard Truths

It's been a bad week for writers I respect and enjoy.  First came the news from Scotland that Iain Banks, one of my very favorite hard sci-fi authors, has terminal cancer.  There will be no more Culture novels from his fertile mind, no more glorious pan-galactic tales of sentient AI starships and brilliantly realized alien intelligences.

And then yesterday, abruptly, the news of the passing of Roger Ebert.  I go way back with Ebert.  As a budding teen cinephile, I watched him go at it with Gene Siskel every single week.  This was in that long-ago era when you needed to set your schedule to make time for something you cared about.  Things of value did not come to you streaming, anytime, anywhere.  

They were more coy.  You had to seek them.  His insights were worth seeking.

He translated well into the 'net era.  That bastard cancer took his ability to speak, but it didn't take his mind, and his reviews of film and insights into culture remained cogent, smart, and graceful.

Earlier this week, I came across the announcement that he was moving on from his reviews...and from there, suddenly, that he had passed.

In my feed yesterday, there was a beautifully written piece from Ebert's own pen about his sense of his mortality.  He saw his own end as inescapable, and nonbeing as his destination.   He wasn't a Christian, not any more.  

I wouldn't concur with his view of mortality, of course, but the grace and thoughtfulness that suffused his self-penned eulogy were inescapable.  He'd found his way to a humble realism.   As he put it:

"I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart.  All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it."

His worldview was not overtly my own, but from his own musings over the inescapability of death he'd come to that place where he viewed compassion and humility as central virtues.

Ebert's lovely benediction over his own life stirred interestingly in with some recent reflections I've been doing over my own work.  

Here I am, working with my editor on this absurdly ambitious book about faith and the multiverse, that fascinating new take on the nature of existence itself.  On my darker days, I look at what I'm writing and shake my head.  It seems so desperately impractical, written on a scale so far beyond the day to day as to be almost insane.

And yet on my lighter days, I find myself thinking exactly the opposite.  Thinking about being matters, because our view of the nature of things shapes how we live.  We are creatures of story, after all.   Our view of the universe, of creation, of the forces and shape of things, that view impacts how we live.  Most significantly, it impacts the choices we make, and the relationships we have with other sentient beings.

The story of life in the multiverse, for example, is one of freedom and generosity.  Such a creation humbles our certainties, stirs an aversion to speaking in absolutes, and offers us the joy of encountering realities beyond our own.   But there are other stories out there.

There are out there, for example, plenty of folks who would read Ebert's parting blessing to the world he loved being a part of, purse their lips, and shake their heads.  A pity, they'd say.  The cold hard truth is that he's in Hell.  Sorry, but that's just The Way Things Are.   For them, the universe is a binary equation, with their Truth on one side, and the fires of everlasting Heck on the other.  That is the story they tell themselves about their world, and it comes directly from their view of the universe.

As much as such souls might think they're serving the reality of my Teacher's call to radical compassion, I just can't see it.  Most dangerously, seeing reality in that way tears the grace and the mercy out of what he taught.  It shapes a soul away from compassion.

Other worldviews can tell equally dangerous stories.  There are those who see only themselves, and every other being is simply an object to slake their hungers and desires and greed.  There are those who look at the struggling and the poor and see only contemptible weaklings who deserve what they get.  There are those who look at the one with the funny accent or the strange clothing, and hate them for their difference.

But those absolutists, cold to compassion and dead to difference, are what turn our world into hell with their hard truths.

Ebert, bless his soul, was not one of them.   He had opinions, sure.  But he understood what made for a good story.  

Godspeed, and two thumbs up.

Oh, and like life, gaming is art.  But, as St. Peter reminded you recently, you know that now.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why Your Pastor Needs to Be a Geek

He really didn't want to be there.

But "Thou Shalt Talk With Thy Pastor to Get Thy Badge," saith the Cub Scout commandment, and so he was.

I knew it, because I remember being a kid.  I remember doing stuff I had to do, but with my mind half-a-billion miles away.  So he sat there, trapped by the moment in the pastor's office with his father, his body a mass of squirms and distraction.  If it was physically possible to wriggle your way through a hole in the space-time continuum, he would have.

His dad gently coaxed him to ask the questions that he'd thought about beforehand, and he did ask them, sort of.   His eyes fluttered around the room, and his voice semi-audible.

I answered the questions he'd prepared, good ones, they were.  But I could hear my replies going WAAA waa WAAA in his mind, the meaningless trumpeting of a Charlie Brown grownup.

Again, I remember being a kid.  It's important not to forget the wholeness of yourself.

So a few gentle, steering questions moved us away from me being the Expert Faith Professional talking about Important Church Matters.   What kid cares about Important Church Matters?  That's sure not where I lived when I was his age.

The conversation turned to greener lands, to where I lived when I was his age.  To where I still live in part, being a geek and all.

We found ourselves in Middle Earth, and the Shire, and the world that Tolkien had woven.  In that world, we talked about Power, and what it had done to Smeagol.  We talked about how even Galadriel and Gandalf knew how deeply it can corrupt the heart.

And from Tolkien, we found our way to Cair Paravel, as he learned that J.R.R. and Clive Staples were friends.  We talked Narnia for a while, and Aslan, and how Aslan's song sang in harmony with another story.

Then to Hogwarts, where J.K. Rowling helped us frame a conversation about self-sacrifice and redemption.

And he was there, the whole time.  He was present, engaged, interested, voice clear, eyes up, engaged and thoughtful.

For a conversation about theology.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Justice is Death"

Such a strange thing to say.

Earlier this week, that phrase fell from the lips of the prosecutor in the James Holmes case.  Holmes is the "shooter" who opened fire in a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve and wounding fifty-eight others.  Just in case you've got your shooters muddled.  It's so easy to do.

The state will be seeking death for this mass killing.  It was a horrible thing, without question, a terrible act of violence.

But how is this justice?  It can't be, at least not in the sense of setting things back into balance.  That balance is, after all, the whole purpose of justice.

Holmes may or may not be mentally ill.  It was a meticulously planned slaughter.  But his actions in the months leading up to the massacre were increasingly erratic and disturbed, to the point where the owner of a gun club that Holmes called in an attempt to join found his call so psychotic that he put his staff on alert.

He does appear to be an unbalanced soul.  But even if he were not, and he was simply a sociopathic monster, what would his death accomplish?

Take just one of the lives lost that day as an example.

Veronica Moser-Sullivan was the youngest person to die in that theater.  She was six years old.  She died next to her mother, who was critically injured.   An entire life and most of a childhood lay before that child.  That was shattered.  All of the life she could potentially have lived will not be part of our reality.  The friends she might have laughed with.  The boys who might have loved her.  The children she might have had, and their children.  Her family will see none of that.  None of us will, not in this life.

If Holmes is executed, how would that death restore the balance?   He ceases to exist.  That's it.  How is the ending of that blighted life recompense for the loss of an innocent?  It cannot be.

Punishment is not justice.  Revenge is not justice.

Justice, at least as those who follow Jesus understand it, goes far deeper.

Beyond death, even.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why Faith Needs Science

This morning, my wife called it "The Crazy Channel."

When it's time to wake up, I prefer getting it over and done with.  My phone alarm is the loudest and most annoying possible claxon.  And the clock radio by my bed is set not to the treacly sounds of smoov jazz or gentle classical, but to a Christian talk radio program.

That gets me up and motivated to turn off the radio, because the conversation makes me crazy.  Why?  Because I care about the teachings of Jesus, and the version I hear in the morning is, without question, completely insane.

The focus is invariably the End Times, and how they are almost immediately upon us.  Earnest callers talk with an earnest host, interpreting the shapes and patterns of their dog's most recent bowel movement as yet another indication that the Rapture is coming this next Thursday.

Well, not usually.  But that's not far off.

What's most distressing about listening in on this kind of Jesus conversation is knowing the impact it has on folks who are not Christian.  If you do not already view the Bible as the rule of life and faith, then listening in to the in-group chatter of a community that seems not to inhabit reality won't be compelling.  It will be disturbing.

Here, we're not talking "in the world but not of the world."  We're not talking about "now and not yet."    We're not talking about being a people oriented towards transcending ourselves and transforming the world towards God's most gracious intent.

The fundamentalist worldview simply does not describe creation.   It is utterly detached from what God has worked in the universe, and that has impacts on how Christianity is viewed.   If your interpretation of existence bears no resemblance whatsoever to what an objective observer can rationally defend, then sharing your message becomes a challenge.

For folks who aren't "in," things like a six-thousand-year-old universe are no less wackadoodle than the teachings of the Raelians.

If we're going to have a compelling message, Jesus folk need to engage with reality, and to do so in a way that is coherent and relevant.  Listening to the witness of creation itself is not a bad way to start.