Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Ways Conservatives can Defend Marriage

It's been an interesting couple of days in the life of our body politic, as two consecutive Supreme Court decisions have continued to bend our nation towards accepting same-sex unions.  This week's decision means the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, has been significantly gutted.

There have been and will be two significantly different responses to this trend.  First, there will be celebration and relief among those myself...feel that same-sex marriage should be afforded the same legal status as my own marriage.   These unions, like my own marriage, can also be covenanted, meaning they intentionally represent a bond of mutual love and commitment that reflect God's intent for us as human beings.  That such relationships can increasingly be open and spiritually healthy is a good thing.

Then there are those who will take this decision as a source of confusion and spiritual anguish.  They will interpret this as yet another sign of the collapse of marriage, and the gradual decay of our society.  As the attitudes towards gays and lesbians continue to shift, it will become harder and harder for them to make headway in a democratic republic, and that will create a sense of increasing estrangement and isolation.

For Westboro Baptist types, it will likely become the primary explanation for the impacts of climate change.  Of course it's 117 degrees in Las Vegas today!  The Lord hath spoken in His Mighty Wrathy Wrathfulness!  Pat Robertson, bless his soul, has rumbled about God doing something significant at some point that might indicate displeasure.

Within my own denomination, the ultraconservative gadflies haven't yet figured out how to respond.  It's so hard for Presbyterians to process being not only out of step with the culture, but out of step with constitutional precedent.  We're just so danged law abiding.

But the truth of most conservative Christians, when you get to know them personally and not their stereotypes, is that they aren't monsters.  For all the cries of bigot and homophobe on the left, most I've known are not hateful people.  They simply aren't.  Not at all.  They try to hold on to what is good, as they've been lead to understand it, and they're deeply worried about losing something that is a deeply positive thing.

For those folks, I have a few humble and well-intentioned offerings:

1) Defend Your Own Marriage.  What you'll notice, in the months and years ahead, is that the legal unions of gays and lesbians have absolutely no impact on your own.  None.  But that isn't to say that there aren't challenges arising directly from our culture.  Financial stresses and the relentless pressures of competitiveness and consumerism drive us to live and act in ways that make sustaining a marriage increasingly challenging.

Resist those pressures.  Fight them from the heart of your faith.  Take time to delight in your husband or wife.  Treat them as the flesh of your flesh, and don't allow the anxieties and bitternesses that can arise from life's frustrations to tear you apart.  By maintaining a healthy, loving mutually-honoring relationship, you'll be showing the world what a relationship grounded in faith really means.  Rather than denigrating and cursing those who you disagree with, bless them with the truth you're living out.

2) Don't Go to Ground.  The temptation to circle the wagons is going to be a powerful one following these decisions.  With a culture that is moving further and further away from the position of the right, there is going to be a strong push to seal the bulkheads and lock down in the underground shelters.  There is a biblical basis for this, I'll admit.  If John of Patmos is your primary biblical author, then the task of every Christian is to maintain purity at all costs in the face of an irredeemably corrupt and decadent culture.  Retreating into an echo chamber does that.  But it also destroys your ability to proclaim and spread the good news.  If you cannot speak the language of Athens, you can't stand on Mars Hill and share the grace of the Gospel.

Paul...whose greatest gift was the capacity to communicate and a better guide. The Gospel is a robust and powerful thing, when grounded in the reality of God's work in creation. Stay connected. Stay in conversation. Stay out there in the world. Don't hide your light under a lampstand.

Because though I disagree with you on some things, I know I have much to learn from you on others.

3) Take Gamaliel's Advice.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Gamaliel was the venerated rabbinic teacher who saved Christianity.  When the Sanhedrin was in a position to annihilate the fledgling Jesus-movement, Gamaliel had a simple, wise counsel.  He reminded the Sanhedrin that every messianic movement had flamed out or collapsed, and suggested that rather than butcher these individuals, they should let God be at work.  If Christianity was of God, it would thrive.  If it was not, it would fail.  So rather than risk going against God's will, it would be better to simply let this Way stand or fall.

Gamaliel's teaching has purchase now, because evil and sin are self-annihilating.  Every movement or worldview that is grounded in self-seeking power and sinful hunger will tear itself to pieces.  It is the nature of sin that it destroys itself.

If the proponents of same-sex marriage are wrong, then it will prove a ruin.  You won't need to do anything.  If, however, they are right and this represents a new and more spiritually healthy way for gays and lesbians to live into the Kingdom, then this way of being will thrive.

So trust in the Creator of All Things.

Because the Christian calling is not to curse and destroy.  It is to be a beacon of grace, mercy, and kindness, so self-evidently good that those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are drawn to you.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Unwelcoming Faith

Although we don't live in New York, the New Yorker arrives in our mailbox on a weekly basis.  It's just such an excellent read, consistently engaging and thought-provoking.

This last week, it included an amazing article about a Japanese Buddhist priest, whose entire focus has become confronting and resisting Japan's suicide culture.  Ittetsu Nemoto works with individuals whose cultural and social isolation has brought them to the brink of self-annihilation, in a culture where taking one's own life is viewed as honorable.

Though there are many things to commend the article, one thing that struck me...hard...was the description of Nemoto's spiritual community, the monastery that formed and shaped him.

It was absolutely brutal.  Evangelism?  Feh.  If you want in, show up at the gates, and they tell you you're an idiot, and to go away.  Then you prostrate yourself there at the doorstep.  You do so for two or three days with no food or water, during which time a monk will repeatedly come out and berate you for being an idiot.

Persistence gets you in, and earns you years of hellish mockery and servitude, as shouting and beatings either 1) instill a deep sense of focus and discipline or 2) drive you away in tears.  Most folks take door number two, which is why the community stays small and deeply focused.

Though I'd read of the rigors of Zen initiation before, it had been a while.   What struck me, among other things, was how utterly unlike American faith communities this is.  There's no welcoming.  There's no inviting, or outreach.  If anything, it is the inverse.  The process is utterly unforgiving, to the point where not only would I not be able to enter such a community, but I'd be unwilling to inflict the rigors of such a discipline on another being.

And yet there was in this a paradox.  From this utterly heartless, brutally disciplinarian community life are shaped monks who are calm and deeply compassionate towards all...all but those who wish to join their number. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Prosperity and Abundance

As I keep my ear to the ground and listen to the chatter of global Christianity over the 'net, what continues to strike me is the deep and abiding success of the Prosperity Gospel.  These are the big boys and girls, whose huge sprawling campuses stretch to the horizon like the Disneyworld parking lot.  They're a festival of Jesus bling, selling books by the millions and powerfully defining the AmeriChrist, Inc. brand.  Heck, they're taking it global.

A range of things bug me about that approach to Christianity.  I'm not a fan of shine and sparkle and production value, for one thing.  I don't trust it.  Just because a thing is elegantly conceived, nattily dressed, inspires passions, and is perfectly choreographed doesn't mean it's good.  I prefer simple.

But primary among my beefs with Prosperity Christianity is that it totally misunderstands the teachings of Jesus.  Oh, you can shovel a verse or two out there, and make the claim.  But you can do that for anything.  Slavery?  Spanking?  Homophobia?  That the leader of your insane cult is herself God?  Flinging yourself from a tower to prove God loves you?

Individual scriptures can be bent and twisted together to do that.   But they're no more the real thing than a balloon dog.

If you honor the narrative of the Bible, and the whole thrust of what Jesus taught, it just doesn't ever translate into a pressing desire for material prosperity.  Not ever.

But wait, folks will say.  God doesn't want us to starve and struggle.  And God doesn't want us to hold back.  Live abundantly!  Aren't we supposed to live abundantly?

Sure, I'd say.  Absolutely.  I'm fine with our daily bread.  And I'm also down with abundance.

But it feels as if there's a fundamental difference between prosperity and abundance.

In the Gospels, the word "prosper" isn't used.  There's that.  It just isn't.  In the Epistles, or rather, in Acts, it's used once.  Just. Once.   And there, it's used to describe a former state of being.

Abundance does surface, but when it does, it is used one of two ways.  1) As a warning against having too many material possessions.   And 2) to indicate/evoke an overflowing cornucopia of...grace.

Because a hunger to do well materially...meaning, the desire to prosper, to have bucketloads of goodies for oneself...isn't abundant.  It's grasping.  It's self-oriented.  It's the yearning for power.  It is, in some ways, the very antithesis of the teachings of Jesus.

It is also not abundance.  Abundance is outwardly oriented.  It is radically giving.  It is interested in the joy, freedom, and well being of the other.  It pours out.

In that, the desire to be abundant arises from our connectedness to God, whose abundant, radiant work in creation is deeply giving, and radically generous.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Libertarian God

Libertarianism is a peculiar phenomenon.

As a movement within the falsely binary world of American politics, it's tended to lump in squarely with conservatism.  Freedom, as Libertarian Janis Joplin would sing it, is just another word for nothing left to lose, nothing, baby, if the market ain't free.

It has drawn some of its energy from those who define freedom as being permitted to hang on to old and bitter ways of being.  Don't tell me I have to accept you!  I'm free to hate you as much as I want!

Politically, it draws much of its financing from those who want restrictions on their power removed.  The counterbalances on the power of our corporate oligarchs chafe, and they think that crying "freedom" and "liberty" will distract the masses from the reality of their new masters.  They're largely correct.

That's certainly how it gets pitched out there by those who see it as a regressive force in our national dialogue.

But there's more to it than that.

For while the libertarian tends to recoil at regulation, they are equally not fond of corporate bureaucracy.  Yeah, long lines at the DMV annoy us, as do tax returns that seem to require a working knowledge of C++.

But we also don't like being trapped in an endless cycle of menus when we call about that lemon of a computer, charged a fee every time we breathe, and being [treated poorly] by our health insurer as they repeatedly reject claims to pad their profit margin.  We don't like Digital Rights Management, either.  Seriously.  Don't tell me I can't share music with my own children.

The libertarian, ultimately, is no more fond of the monopolist.  The Koch brothers will realize this eventually.

In that, there's an odd sameness between libertarians and anarchists.  Left wing? Right wing?  It doesn't matter.  Neither worldview is comfortable with the concentration of power, and the oppression and social fragmentation that such concentrations of power have always created.

I've often mused about the essentially anarchic nature of Christianity, about how the fundamental ethos Jesus lived and taught involves not just rejecting those who would have power over us, but also refusing to coerce and manipulate others.  Love, the Deep Love that is God's own Self, does not do that.  It is not a covenant grounded in threats and oppression.  That's the nature of grace, after all, and the essence of the Law of Liberty.

That anarchic view of what Jesus taught harmonizes well with the theology I've been writing and reading lately.  As I researched and wrote The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse, I found that many of the Jesus folks out there who were fascinated by the nexus between Christian faith and quantum cosmology were conservatives, but conservatives whose faith had taken them to a place as open and devoid of oppression as the most free-range progressive.

Meditating on the great, abundant, generous freedom of being, I find myself thinking of my Creator as a Libertarian Sovereign.  Or an Anarchist King.   God, utterly and absolutely free, will not oppress or coerce.

It's peculiar, paradoxical thing.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Driving in a Time of Austerity

We drive, we Americans.  But it helps, sometimes, if we pay attention to the folks we're driving past.

On my way home from church this Sunday, I passed through Potomac, bucketing down River Road as it parallels the flow of the river towards Washington.  I was on my way home for Father's Day, when vegetarian-I would have the pleasure of grilling burgers and chicken for the gathered family.

Such a peculiar vegetarian delight, to grill meat.  That smell.  Ah, that smell.  No wonder Abel's sacrifice was so much more satisfying.

As I motored along, I passed as I always through the land of the mega-mansions, huge estates and garganto-super-homes, in which the D.C. power-brokers and CEOs of large federal contractors live.

One in particular caught my eye, a 20,000 square-foot jobbie behind a gleaming picket fence, up on a perfectly manicured hill.  The circular driveway was full, packed with cars, more than a dozen.  Probably family, arrived for a father's day gathering.

I ran a mental inventory, quick from a lifetime of car watching.  Multiple Mercedes S Classes and BMW Seven Series.  A couple of Lexus LSes.  A Range Rover, and two Mercedes SUVs.  An Aston Martin.  Two Porsches.  Nothing more than three years old.

Again, Washington is a government town.  It's our only real industry.  That's your tax money, right there.  They're doing fine.

And today, I was driving again.

Being a part time pastor does a variety of things for me.  I have time to write.  I have time to pursue further studies.   I have time for laundry, and dishes, and yardwork.

But I also have time, fallow time, in which I can volunteer.  Meaning, do something I want to do, because it is self-evidently good and I enjoy doing it.  I choose to help out at the local Meals on Wheels.  It's my Thursday mid-morning activity.

I go to the nearby Baptist church, where a representative of a local coalition of faith communities coordinates the program.   Then I pick up meals, and drive them around to a half-dozen elderly and disabled folks.  It's a self-evidently valuable thing, assuming you didn't watch Logan's Run and think it seemed like a good idea.

Today, I drove eight meals in our rusting but trusty old van.  To a retired veteran, ninety years old, alone in his house.  To a tiny polite Asian woman, hands gnarled into clubs by arthritis. To others, all aging or struggling with disabilities.  Out front of their homes?  Many have no car at all.  Others, early 1990s Buicks.  A 1998 Corolla.  A rusted out van.

It is here that we have chosen to cut, as the Federal Government tightens our collective belt.  Support for these folks has been slashed.  In some rural areas, these humble meals are being eliminated, one of the few things permitting these souls the dignity of remaining in their homes.

We have to cut costs, they say.  We have to tighten our belts, they say.

When I see houses along River Road with clusters of Chinese scooters, well-worn Ford F150s, and high mileage Chevy Cobalts out front, maybe I'll believe it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Unfalsifiable God

For the last few weeks, I've been drilling down on Twitter, as part of a multi-front marketing strategy for the book. 

I'm using that form of media to keep engaged with conversations around Many Worlds theory, and it's opening me up to where that conversation is going on around the world.  I've also been dropping in with on-topic comments here and there when people seem interested in the multiverse concept.  Along with my comments, I drop a link to the book on the publisher's site.  It's like virtually going door to door, making me a bit like a faith-and-science Mormon/Jehovah's Witness.

"Hi, I'm from the Church of Jesus Christ Getting Along With Science!  I'm wondering if you've heard about how faithful people can be more open to theoretical physics!"

It's a tich more aggressive than I like to be, but one does what one must.  Some folks have responded negatively, which is their right.  "I can't believe you're pitching your book to me," said one.  "I'll flay the skin from your body and suck the marrow from your bones," said another.  

Door to door hasn't changed since I worked for Greenpeace, evidently.

But others have been polite, because though I'm there, I'm not pushy.  Still others have wanted to chat, and some have been downright grateful, and have bought the book.

Where it's more intriguing is seeing through Twitter where Many Worlds cosmology is getting "play" around the world.  It's a sustained and consistent thread in all contemporary scientific literature, but it has purchase beyond that.

Like today, for example, when the "tea party" portion of the Twitterverse has lit up with people sharing an article by conservative commentator Dennis Prager.  Prager attended a conference of physicists, and came away with a chip on his shoulder about multiverse cosmology.

His take on it, which he wrote up for the National Review, is familiar.  The Many Worlds hypothesis suggests realities that are beyond our capacity to observe.  Being a deeply conservative Christian, he takes this as justification for an attack on atheistic uses of the multiverse.

"Your atheistic multiverse is just like faith," Prager notes.  "It can't be empirically proven!  Gotcha!"

This is a standard counter to the Many Worlds hypothesis, one that I've seen used by faithful folk.  If you're making your primary argument for God's existence based on design, then the multiverse needs to be resisted.  It's the whole "anthropic" argument, the idea that our time and space are intelligently fine-tuned for life.

But to my ears, Prager's approach doesn't work particularly well.  "Hah!  You believe in something unfalsifiable, just like me! "   The problem with that line of attack seems pretty self-evident.

As a line of attack.  But everything doesn't have to be an attack.  Really.  It doesn't.  

Why not view our growing similarity as a place of connection?  Where one can say, you know what, you and I are not so different?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Faith and Freedom

Funny thing, freedom.

I've been reflecting on liberty a whole bunch this last week, as my book has extended a tender first sprout into the world.   Playing faith off against Many Worlds cosmology has left me with what amounts to a radical theology of freedom.  Given that "Liberation Theology" is already taken, I'm not quite sure how to describe it.  But it's pretty cool, in a creative, boundless way.

Whichever way, the assumption that we are created as absolutely free beings is a vital part of a faith that can engage with the wild, open creation in which we find ourselves.

Faith that redefines liberty to mean something quite different, that...well...that's rather less creative.  Rather less hopeful.  Just a tich.

Having listened to some of the speeches and followed the conversations at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's recent gathering, I do find myself wondering:  Why is there so much difference between how I understand liberty and how it's defined by this "teavangelical" movement?

I mean, shoot, as the World's Most Bourgeois Anarchist (tm), the words liberty and freedom are some of my favorites.  I think we're created free, each given both the gift and the immense responsibility of telling our own story.

But when I use the words "freedom" and "liberty," there are some assumptions that I make.

The first assumption is that freedom, by necessity, means we can screw up.  We aren't just free to live that best, most joyous, most gracious and noble life.  We can make the wrong decisions.  We can do real damage to ourselves and those around us.  We can take a bite of that fruit, and be cast from the garden.  If those things are not true, then we are not free.

When one says things like "Freedom means striving to be your very best," as was said at the conference, that's all well and good.  But it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of freedom.  Freedom is a peskily neutral thing.  Yes, it's a heck of a lot better than oppression.  It is not actively negative, abusive, or monstrous.  It is simply the absence of constraint.

Another assumption that I make is that my liberty cannot define yours.  I understand the good in a particular way.  I see value in duty, and responsibility, and commitment.  I do so because both reason and faith dictate it.  But if you see differently, and you approach existence differently, then my commitment to liberty dictates long as you're not impinging on me...I let you go at it.  I might disagree.  I might tell you so, or offer up a differing opinion.  But if you want to screw up, I cannot stop you.  I will not use the law to coerce you.  I will not bully or oppress you with my own personal power.

I also understand that just because you aren't me, that doesn't by necessity mean you're wrong. You are free to not be me.  You are free not to think as I do, and sometimes that's not you being wrong.  It's just you being different.  When we define liberty as just one thing, or just one set of values, then we just don't get it.  If we think freedom means "You are free to obey my rules," then somewhere, we've missed the point...not just of our Constitution, but of the way we were created.

A final assumption, related and absolutely essential:  to value freedom, you have to value the freedom of others.  So much talk of "liberty" is focused on "my liberty."  I want to defend "my freedom."  I want to be free to do what I want.  And of course, we do.  But if your primary concern is for your own right to do/believe/act however you please, then you don't really have freedom as a primary value.  You have your own power as your primary value.

To care about freedom, you need to defend the liberty of others.  Here, political movements don't do so well.  In defense of the "us," umbrage and outrage are turned outward at the oppressive other.  The ethics of victimization and manufactured oppression become a way to justify oneself.

If you're going to be faithful about freedom, and really attend to the Law of Liberty, then you do kinda need to steer away from that.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Marketing and Evangelism

So with the Believer's Guide to the Multiverse now hitting the virtual bookshelves, I find myself faced with something of a conundrum.

On the one hand, I hate marketing.  I just...ack.  Feh.  I'm not fond of it.  I have something of a Lloyd Dobleresque attitude towards selling things, and so the idea of spending the next six months as my own pitchman is genuinely anxiety-inducing.

It feels fraught with skeeve potential, as if every exchange might become me shucking and jiving like a QVC pitchman. I'd feel as false as the crowd in a late night infomercial.

But on the other hand, I genuinely want people to read this thing, for reasons that go well beyond the wee percentage I'll get of any sales.   One of the things that has really struck me about this book, as it's been edited and prepped, is just how much I've been changed by the process of writing it.

I'm one of those souls who thinks by writing, and as I've thought through the implications of this heady admixture of quantum cosmology and theology, I've found myself more and more enthusiastic.  It just seems such an inherently good way to think about faith, and to integrate faith into the dynamics of the universe we inhabit.

Faith in a God who'd give us a multiverse creation seems so necessarily open and creative, so fundamentally tolerant and uniting, that's something that feels kinda like good news.

And if there's one thing I enjoy, it's telling people Good News.

Kinda why I got into this biz in the first place, eh?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Hobbit Trailer and the Sermon

Sermons are boring.  Or so it is said.  The way we human beings receive and process information has been evolving and changing during this era of mass visual media, and as we move deeper and deeper into this form of storytelling, the old ways are increasingly archaic.  I'm painfully aware of this, as a regular bearer of the spoken word.

I was reminded of this last night when I watched, for the first time, the trailer for "The Hobbit: No, We Still Aren't Done."  Trailers aren't just intended to inform and stir interest.  They need to be stimulating, to create a sense of visceral excitement and engagement.

Perhaps it is that my mind is slowing as I age, but I find the choppy hyperkineticism of this form of media moderately irritating.  The pacing is alien to my way of thinking, and...even though I'm immensely fond of Tolkien and mostly looking forward to seeing this film...I found myself not excited. Just vaguely put off, the way I am when some fast-talker tries to sell me something.

It'll work for most of us, though.  It leaps out and grabs you, in a way that the spoken word just doesn't.  I mean, the above trailer is two minutes and four seconds long.  During that time on a Sunday, I've just about finished introducing the story/image/concept that I'm going to use to frame the text.

But the trailer?  It's a whirl of images, a great gusher of visual data that establishes an entire film.  In two minutes, nearly seventy separate shots.  You can watch it above, but I took a moment or two this morning to roughly catalogue them:

Hobbit Trailer Breakdown:

0:00 - 0:05    Corporate Logos, Fadeaway.

0:06 - 0:08 Hey, wait, is this a Paramount Film?  I thought it was WB/MGM/Newline.  Are they all the same now?

0:10-0:13 Little CG Dudes in CG Panoramic Longshot.

0:14 - 0:16             Real Dudes in CG Panoramic Longshot

0:17 - 0:19            Little CG Dudes in CG Panoramic Longshot.

0:20 - 0:23 Elf with Funny Hat Talks to Moody Dwarf.

0:23 - 0:26 Dwarves Falling.

0:27  Butterflies!  Oooh!  Pretty!

0:28  Dwarves Falling.

0:29 - 0:31 Elves Running and Shooting Arrows at the Aforementioned Falling Dwarves.

0:31 - 0:33 A CG Tree.

0:34 - 0:35 “Beyond Darkness”

0:36 - 0:39 Elf Sliding and Threatening to Shoot Arrow at Moody Dwarf.

0:40 - 0:42 A Bear!  Maybe.  The Hobbit Whips it Out.  His Sword, That Is.

0:43 - 0:44 Lady Elf!  Also, She Shoots Arrows.

0:44 - 0:46 Crane Shot of CG Town.

0:47 - 0:49 Elf and Lady Elf Talk About Fighting, Crane Shot

0:50 - 0:51 Hobbit Sliding.

0:52 - 0:53 Wizard in Derpy Hat Frets.

0:54 Crane Shot of CG Ruins.

0:55 - 0:59 Magneto - Wizard Whips it Out.  His Sword, That Is.

1:00 - 1:01 “Beyond Desolation”

1:02 - 1:03 Little CG Dudes in Longshot of CG Building

1:04 - 1:05 Smouldering Elf Eyes

1:06 - 1:07 Elf Walking towards CG Woodland

1:07 - 1:08 Some Dark Place.

1:09 - 1:10 CG Fighting, Zoom to Big CG Orc with Metal Chicken Hand.

1:11 - 1:12 Hobbit Hides from Large Spider.

1:13 - 1:14 “Lies the Greatest Danger of All”

1:15-1:16 Another Dark Place.

1:17 - 1:18 Moody Dwarf Slowly Rotates.

1:19  That Townie Metalhead You Knew in College Needs a Lozenge.

1:20 Wizard Slicing Enemies.

1:21 Elves Slicing Enemies.

1:22 Hobbit Surfaces.

1:22 Big Boot Stomps.

1:23 Dwarves Falling Again.

1:23 Orcs Slicing, Elf Dodging.

1:24 Elf Shooting Arrows.

1:25 Lady Elf Falling, Shooting Arrows.

1:26 Someone Jumps on a Wizard from Very High.

1:27 Lady Elf Dodges an Attack.

1:28 It's the Hobbit Falling This Time.

1:29 Moist Dwarf Swings His Sword at You. That’s 3D Right There!

1:30 - 1:31 Black Screen, Thunder

1:32 - 1:36 Dwarf Stands Up, Turns Around.

1:37 - 1:39 Dwarf Tells Us What We Already Know.

1:40 -  1:45 The Name of the Movie.  They Give Us Four Seconds to Read It.

1:46 - 1:56 Two Shots of Hobbit and Dragon!  Ten Whole Seconds!  Man, this is Slowing Down....

1:57 - 2:04 Studio Information.

This is what is needed to excite us, to stir us, to make us hunger for more stimulation.  But the spoken word just can't do what this does.

If I preached like this, I'd be barking out short sentence fragments and clauses, interspersed with barked monosyllabic words.  Which I guess some folk almost do.

Sigh.  So it goes.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Christian Pastor, Jewish Children

This weekend, my youngest son led worship.

As a pastor dad, it was an interesting service for a variety of reasons, the most significant of which was that he'd been preparing for it for years.  Though the kids in my little church did a rockin' job of leading worship for Sunday School Sunday this weekend, my son was not part of that event.  

The worship he guided was, finally, his bar mitzvah.  

Both my wife and my kids are Jewish, making me the sole gentile in my household, and both of my boys part of a rare breed: The Jewish Preacher's -Kids.  I'm not sure how many PKs are bar mitzvahed every year, but I suspect the numbers aren't high.

The little guy did fine, rolling unphased through even some unplanned hiccups in the service, ones that might have shaken more anxious souls.

He chanted Torah, chanted his haftarah portion, and delivered a challenging d'var torah in a tag team with his cousin, who was being bat mitzvahed at the same service.

I watched it all with pride in how much he's done, and with a deep awareness of where he is relative to faith.  He's a thoughtful, complex kid, and his views on faith reflect that complexity.  He's Jewish, but struggles with issues of suffering and justice and textual authority, and is honestly engaged with exploring his identity.  It's an identity I respect.

That I'm a Christian pastor with Jewish kids tends to spark questions with some folks.  How can I be such a thing?

It's not particularly difficult, honestly.

Judaism itself is so utterly compatible with my faith that I have no difficulty embracing it.  When worshipping in the lively, musical services at my wife's synagogue, there's not a single thing said or prayed that I find myself troubled by.  At least, not more so than I'd find worshipping with a similarly-oriented Christian community.  The emphasis on justice, forgiveness, faith, and repentance are completely in line with the teachings of my Teacher.   This is hardly surprising, given that he was kinda Jewish himself.   I am fully backwards-compatible, as they say.

I've talked about faith with both of my boys, and told them about Jesus and why he is so important to me.  They get it, I think, in a way that inspires some respect for both what he taught and who he was.

But I've not forced my faith upon them.  I don't do that, not with them, not with anyone.  I've argued for it, defended it as they've encountered those angry and bitter souls who use Jesus as an excuse for their hatreds, and presented it in a way that shows it is gracious and self-evidently good.  But evangelism is about manifesting and articulating grace, not about blunt force suasion.

Some might argue that I should be terrified for the disposition of their mortal souls, but I just can't get there.  Relative to their Jewish identity, Paul argues at length in Romans, the covenant with Israel hasn't been revoked.  Just expanded and deepened.  

And as Jesus himself articulates in Matthew, what matters isn't our ability to articulate complex theological positions or to defend the propositions of orthodoxy.

What matters is that the manner and nature of our lives express the fundamentally just and gracious nature of our Creator.   Living in the Kingdom isn't a cognitive construct.  It's existential, woven into our doing and being.

So far as my kids do that, they're fine.

And no matter what, I'll love 'em.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The God Who Tells Stories

My "right-before-you-fall-asleep" reading over the last week or so has been G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  Chesterton has flitted across the periphery of my consciousness for years, but I'd just never quite gotten around to reading him.

I'm glad I remedied it.  Chesterton is good stuff, wry and creative and thoughtful, and it stirs my own musings most effectively.  Whimsy and wit are necessary for good theology.

In last night's reading, Chesterton articulated a line of thinking that I've often expressed myself.  God, he said, is a storyteller.   As someone who loves a good tale or a good yarn, I seriously grok to this way of conceptualizing God's work.  It also speaks to the way that we exist, as creatures of narrative, spinning our own small tales across a flicker of time and space.

But as I've got multiverse on the brain lately, I found myself reflecting on the impact of my peculiar take on the nature of God's work and the whole "telling a story" concept.  Because I no longer see creation as just one single narrative, but as many stories.  As many as God can tell.

That's a lot, by the way.  She has a whole bunch of time on her hands.

What struck me about this was the way it plays out against two different views of storytelling in scripture.   It's the peculiar tension between John of Patmos (who gave us the Book of Revelation) and the Beloved Disciple (who gave us John's Gospel.)

John of Patmos ferociously defends the apocalyptic narrative he articulates.  If you add anything, or change anything, you're in some trouble, buster.  There will be smiting. 

The Beloved Disciple, on the other hand, ends their story...once, and then again...with an acknowledgement that there's more to be told.  So much more to be told, in fact, that the world itself could not contain that story.

One theology of storytelling only hears itself.  Another makes room for more.

Must be why I so love John's Gospel.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Nonlinear Christianity

In reading through the last issue of Presbyterians Today, I was fascinated by a sequence of articles on Islam and Christianity.  In part, it was because...having read the entire Quran last year...I still struggle with the dynamics of that relationship.  Though I was able to find places of grace in that encounter, it was ultimately somewhat analogous to reading through a particularly unforgiving section of Deuteronomy, over and over again.   The Quran was interesting...fascinating, even...but not quite the joyous love-fest that one might have hoped for.

This being a publication of a significant oldline tradition, there was much effort to talk about tolerance and openness and mutual forbearance, all of which was well and good.  But as I read, I was fascinated by what one of the writers suggested were areas of commonality between our two traditions.   To quote:
Muslims and Christians share a linear view of history, a belief in heaven and hell, and a belief in judgement, individual death, and the resurrection of the body.
Problem is, lately I find myself hanging up on that first one.  My recent thinking and writing on the intersection of Many Worlds cosmology and faith have left me struggling a bit with the whole idea of linearity, of creation only being the unfolding of a single preset narrative.  One beginning, one end, with every step on the way neatly and Calvinistically predetermined.

Fate is a big deal in Islam, as my reading of both the Quran and a deep sampling of the hadiths revealed.  Our destiny, our fate, is completely set by Allah, who knows ever last thing we have done and will ever do.  In that, the observations in the article were dead on.

Moving away from linear cosmologies and into the considerably more challenging views of the universe implied by quantum physics, that messes a bit with both of our respective theologies.

As I'm less of an expert on Islam, I can say that it may not be quite a mortal blow to Christianity.  For example, it isn't problematic for most of the teachings of Jesus.  The core and foundational obligations of the Great Commandment aren't touched by such thinking.  The declaration that the Kingdom of God is at hand still stands.  As does the call to evangelize, and the demand for us to hear the cries of the outcast and the oppressed.  The ultimate judgement of all of our actions is also not challenged, or the salvific power of the Cross.

But the whole "we already know how exactly this ends" schtick?  It doesn't fly so well in a multiverse creation.  Oh, sure, things might end with Beasts and False Prophets and Kirk Cameron floating off into the sky.  But it just as well might not.

If the future is actually open, which it needs to be if repentance is to mean anything, might not be exactly what we think.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Theologies of Abundance. And Mulberries.

Tonight on my Tuesday parenting jaunt to a drum lesson, I began my evening in a slightly different way.  Instead of ensconcing in Starbucks to read blog feeds, email folks, and natter over social networks, I walked across the street to the library parking lot.

I'd noticed something the last time I was there, and this evening I arrived with a small container and a little bit of time on my hands.

What I'd seen were the berries staining the ground on the outskirts of the parking lot, crushed by the thousands by the rolling wheels of passing cars.  They were falling from a couple of trees, and though I'd not given them a passing thought before, I found myself suddenly thinking: "Mulberries.  These are mulberries."

I did a quick check with my handy-dandy smartphone, just to insure that these were not the fruit of the North American Vomitberry tree.  Nope.  These were mulberries.  Cool.

I can't ever recall eating a mulberry.  Not ever.  So I popped one in my mouth.  It had a slightly sweet, subtle flavor...a bit like an Asian pear in blackberry form.   I had another.   Not bad.

And as the tree was a riot of them, I came today with a container, and spent some time berry picking on the periphery of a suburban-sprawl parking lot.   Something to add to the mix in the next batch of jam I make, I think.  Mul-strawberry jam might work.  Or maybe a Strawmulberry Smoothie.  Have to give it a try.

The tree itself was a riot of fruit, and I couldn't help thinking that as little as two generations ago, that would have been something we would have noticed.   Here is creation, pouring out sweetness for our pies and our jellies.  But in our chromed steel lives, we bustle on by, mashing the sweetness into the tarmac with our wheeled cages, or grumble as the fruit we tread underfoot stains our shoes.

As I picked a pint of them this evening, I found myself feeling vaguely transgressive.  As if my behavior was violating some sort of social norm.

While harvesting, I thought about our theologies of abundance.  We want abundant lives, and for God to fulfill our every desire.  We pray for our lives to be filled to overflowing.  But I struggle with that approach to abundance, because it is not actually a desire for abundance.  It is hunger.  It is a grasping emptiness.

The abundance we need to seek...or which I seek, I won't presume to speak for that abundance that pours self out as joyously and freely as our Creator pours out being.

The mulberry tree seems to get it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Strawberry Church

After starting it up last year, the strawberry patch in front of our kitchen window is now going like gangbusters.   A little water, a little weeding, and that five-by-five square of stolid Virginia clay has been a veritable cornucopia of sweet and/or tart berries.  So many, in fact, that for the first time in my existence, I spent my Monday morning alternating between prep work for my book release and making home-made strawberry jam.   Yummy, yummy jam.

A larger patch has gone in on the other side of the driveway, and though it's taken a hit or two from some burrowing critters, it's on the way towards producing a really rather nice yield come late summer.  More jam will be forthcoming.

I really enjoy growing strawberries, particularly when the tiny little cherub who lives next door comes over to check out how they are doing.   "Hello, neighbor," he says, in his tiny little voice, and then wanders over for one of those conversations that make me wistful for when my own lads were that age.

He's marveled at our blueberries, and squatted down and peered earnestly at the green beans, and looked at the riot of blackberry vines.  But the strawberries?  He loves those.

Sure, they're simple to grow, being a robust and unassuming little plant.   But to a preschooler, for whom the world remains bright with magic, a bursting strawberry patch is an amazing, marvelous thing.

A week or so ago, when I was first showing our little neighbor the first tiny budding green berries, it struck me that the strawberry is a particularly sweet metaphor for the kind of church I think I like the best.

Into my mind popped an idea for a children's picture book.

Well, sort of.  Not really a children's book.  More a book for pastors and seminarians and church planters, the ones who are still children at heart.   So I wrote the following, with half a hankerin' to publish it on Createspace.

 Anyone know a good illustrator?


The Strawberry Church
by Rev. Chauncey Gardner
as told to David Williams

When you were little, you heard stories about Jesus.

You thought, I like him.  What he says is good.

Now you are all grown up.

Being all grown up, you are thinking that you’d like to make a church grow, too.

But what sort of church will you grow?

There are so many kinds.

There are churches like corn in a field.  

They stretch, row after row under the big sky, all the way to where the heavens meet the earth.

They give us sweet corn.  

But you can get lost in them, and you need big machines and chemicals to make them grow.

And too much corn makes our souls fat with sticky syrup.

Some churches are like black mold.  

They live in wet dark corners, and send out spores that make it hard to breathe the air.  

Do not grow one of these.  


Instead, think about growing a strawberry church.

Strawberry churches are wonderful things.

Here are some things you should know about a strawberry church.

Because you are a grownup now, we will make a list with numbers.

Why do grownups like this?  

Maybe we like to count because it makes us feel smart.

I don’t know.

So anyway, here are the things you might want to know.

1) Strawberry churches grow almost anywhere.

You set them in the ground, and the next thing you know, you have strawberries.  

They grow in so many places.

Plant them in shade.  Plant them in a pot on the balcony of your apartment.

Put them in loam.  Put them in clay.

They grow.  

2) Strawberry churches aren’t big, and they aren’t proud.  

They don’t reach up tall to the sky.  

They just sit there with their little white flowers and their big leaves, and soak in the sun.

This is OK.

They will not make you feel like you are the best person ever.

This is a good thing, because that feeling will make you all full of yourself.  

But they will be good, in their simple way.

3) Strawberry churches are not complicated.  

They are very simple.  Give them a little water.  

Pull up a weed sometimes.  

Maybe put up a little fence so the birds and the rabbits will not eat them.

You will have to work a little bit.  

But not too much.

A church that makes you so busy you can barely breathe?

It’s not a strawberry church.

4) Strawberry churches are good for you.  

They are full of vitamin C.

They are full of fiber.

They are part of this balanced breakfast.

Life is better with them.

And you can share them with others.

5) Strawberry churches are sweet.

Grownups and children love strawberries.  They are delicious.

You do not have to say, I know it tastes terrible, but it is good for you.

You say, here is a delicious strawberry.

And they say, thank you!

6) Strawberry churches spread.

Put some strawberry in the ground, and what happens?  They grow, and then they flower.

Then they start making other strawberries.

They reach out, and touch the earth, and poof!

Another strawberry.  And another.

If you are not careful, they will take over your whole yard.

They do not want to live just in the patch.

They want to be everywhere.

Why do they do this?

Because they are strawberries.

7) Strawberry churches look like the Harvest.

Jesus talked about the harvest.


About how some seeds die.

About how some seeds are too high maintenance.

And about how some can’t find root in the soil.

Strawberries, with a little care, yield a hundredfold.

A thousandfold, if the patch is in good soil and sun and you care for it.

So look for these things in that church.  

If it is already there, look for these things.  

If you are planting it with friends, look for these things.

If it’s the church you’re in right now, look around at it.

Is it sweet and joyous?

Even in the hard things, does it feel right?

Maybe it is a strawberry church.

I hope so.

It will make you happy.  

Or maybe a raspberry church.   

Raspberries are pretty great too.