Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Jobs Young People Don't Want

Full-time employment, as we well know now in our duct-tape kludged economy, ain't an easy thing to come by.  It's particularly, brutishly so for twenty and thirty somethings, who often cobble together their lives with part-time employment here and there.

Which is why an article in yesterday's Washington Post struck me.  Though young folks might be struggling, what they aren't particularly interested in are Federal government jobs.  There are a range of reasons for this.

Among them are the culturally reinforced sense that the gummint ain't to be trusted, that it's ineffectual, that it's a sprawling, soul-crushing bureaucratic nightmare, an endless morass of silos and turf wars and dizzying, Byzantine requirements.

This isn't entirely true, but neither is it entirely untrue.  Layered on top of that comes the financial uncertainty of an institution in decline, as positions fall and fade away, with those who remain clinging doggedly to their jobs.

Layered on top of this, in order to enter this Fun Land of Big Joy and Happiness in the first place you have to negotiate a hire process that is so opaque, clumsy and slow as to render it almost inert.

I have often noted that while contemporary nondenominational Christianity has embraced the values of the marketplace, we old-liners still mostly emulate the structures and dynamics of government.

So when it comes to bringing new voices into the mix, it occurs to me that we have precisely the same problems as government, for the same reasons.  Having been through the Presbyterian process, I can say without question that it is not the sort of thing that resonates with the kids these days.  They're just not hip to it.  It's not groovy, man.  It's, like, totally gnarly, dude.  OMG.

Which is why, though I'm forty-five years old and there's white in my beard, I look around at meetings and note that I'm still one of the "young ones."

This is not a good sign.

Oh, I was young when I started.  I was twenty eight, which didn't feel young at the time.  By the time I was done, I was halfway through my thirties.  Having committed myself to avoiding the call-sucking siren song of debt-financed education, it took me seven years to negotiate the process.  Those years were good, and many of the relationships and conversations I had with those charged with walking me through that process were positive, both testing and affirming my call.

But those years were also layered with duplicative toils, sudden snares, and dangerous oversights.  A few examples:

Toils: On the one hand, we Presbyterians are obligated to have a seminary degree, with tests and exams and the like, administered by professors at accredited institutions.  On the other, we're required to take Ordination exams that mirror the contents of that education.  I never understood the logic of this.  If I've successfully completed biblical coursework from an accredited institution, why take yet another exam?  I know the counterarguments: that seminaries are inadequate, that Ords provide uniformity.  But then why require seminary, if we're so convinced it is inadequate?  And why pretend that the Ords--graded by laity and pastors--are more "uniform?"  They are, in my experience, just as subjective.

Snares: Five years in, my committee--whose membership had rotated several times--suddenly informed me that I needed to get forty hours of clinical pastoral education.  Was it required by the denomination?  No.  Was it a presbytery requirement?  No.  Had it been discussed, ever, up until that point?  No.  Was I pursuing a call to be a hospital, military, or hospice chaplain?  No.  I was working, and in seminary, and had two young children, and was interning in a congregation.  I could see no clear connection between this requirement and the realities of congregational leadership, so I demurred.  If this was to be a requirement, I could not fulfill it.  Had the issue been pressed, I would have removed myself from the process.  It was not, thank the Maker.  This happens often, not out of malice, but from the clinical remove a committee often has from the reality of those they are shepherding and testing.

Dangers: In the seven years it took me to negotiate the call process, I was never required to show my capacity as a preacher or a spiritual leader of people.  I never preached.  I never demonstrated that I could teach or lead a gathering.  Not once.  There were a lot of papers and essays and forms and meetings.  But not nearly enough of it directly spoke to the skills required to preach and teach the Gospel and energize a community.  This is dangerous, because it sets up an expectation on the part of a candidate that they've got the skill set that resonates with a congregation...when in fact, they have not.

More dangerous still, our processes bear little resemblance to the shattering, transformative experience of call itself.  You know, call?  When God shows up in your life and demands it?  That's the stuff of dreams and visions, of the fire that gnaws at your bones.  If we confuse test taking and process management skills with call, we set up a dangerously inaccurate misunderstanding, both for our churches and for those testing their call.

Years of requirements, many of which have no meaningful connection to the spiritual and material demands of our vocation.  Thickets of uncertainty.  A debt financed education.  And ultimately?  Once you've gotten through that?

It begins again, with the wildly clumsy and uncertain process of seeking a call.

And we wonder why younger folks steer away.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

End Game

It was in the midst of a conversation with friends that it hit me: we're entering the end game.

We'd been debating the merits and challenges of autonomous self-driving vehicles, which segued into conversation about plummeting gas prices.

Somewhere in that free-form conversational cascade I was walloped by the realization that the recent wild drop in prices is an early harbinger of the end of the fossil fuel era.

It's just so damnably counterintuitive.  If fuel prices are low, one would assume that its a mark of plenty, of overabundance, of resource more than the market can consume.  That's a gusher, we cry, as black gold comes blorting out of the earth, endless and plentiful.

Yay, we proclaim!  Good times!

But why, we must ask, are prices so low now?  It is tempting to weave some wild conspiracy theory.  It's the West and the Saudis conspiring to punish a restive and expansionist Russia.  Or maybe it's one of the outputs of the January 19, 2014 annual meeting of the Order Illuminatus, designed to quell an increasingly restive post-industrial populace.

I missed that meeting, but I swear, it was nowhere in the minutes I received by carrier raven.

The reason is rather different, and while it's complex, it's entirely in plain sight.

They are low because humanity has begun aggressively tapping the very last and most demanding points of access for crude.

Tar sands and shale are far more technically challenging, and extraction is both much more polluting and much more expensive.  But if oil companies did not pursue those techniques and engage those resources, they wouldn't be in a position to continue business when the deepwater wells and desert fields start running dry.  Which they will.

At the same time, traditional methods of accessing oil have continued.  It's getting increasingly difficult to access crude using traditional methods.  Maintaining current production levels in oil fields is getting harder and harder, demanding more investment and more rigs than ever before just to keep pace.  But production continues, as it will right up until the fields begin to run dry.  So we have doubled-down old-school drilling and new, more demanding processes, laid one on top of another.  Now, in this moment, this duplication of techniques means production is artificially high.

This will not last.  Oh, sure, a couple of years, perhaps.  Five, maybe ten at the top side.  And then, the slide begins, to which industrial society must either adapt or perish.  If I live as long as my grandfathers, that time of energy famine will be within my lifetime.

One might think that traditional production methods would have been cut back, reducing supply to maintain price levels and conserve resources, giving us precious extra years to adapt and develop new technologies.

But playing against that has been the increasing focus on efficiency, which coupled with a bump in prices has reduced demand.  If prices stayed level, demand might continue to decline.  OPEC knows this, and is maintaining production for the sole purpose of putting economic counter pressure on the movement to greater efficiency.  Greater efficiency reduces dependence.  Reduced dependence reduces near-future profit margins.  So...drill baby drill.  Baby needs a third Bentley.

It's working, at least for now, as sales of large SUVs and inefficient vehicles have started ticking up.  No one ever went broke overestimating the stupidity and shortsightedness of human beings, as the saying goes, and this appears to again be the case.

So we have this hump, this spasm of production and consumption.  It is utterly irrational, mindless in the way that short-term profit-driven market economies are mindless.

In five years, things will look very different.



Monday, December 15, 2014

Being The Machine

Around the dinner table the other night, on one of those rare evenings when the scramble of activities waned enough to allow us to sit together, the family was discussing the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the inexorable rise of sentient machines.

I was contending, as I often do, that synthetic sentience would have the capacity to be considerably more moral than humankind.  One of the greatest barriers to the human ethical life is our inability to really know the truth of our relationships.  Through observation, imagination, and the workings of the Spirit, we can kinda sorta approximate what others are feeling.

But we don't know it.  We don't actually feel it and remember it ourselves.  AI would have that capacity.

As I defended that position, the classical counter-position was expressed.  What if artificial intelligence simply did not care for human life at all?  If it had interests and drives that were utterly alien to our own, and human life--all life--was meaningless to it?  Or an inconvenience, to be brushed aside?

That, I think, is the lurking fear of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.  Here we are, just an blink in the evolutionary timescale away from this new and alien form of half-awareness.  It would be un-life, cold, dispassionate, empty of any care for anything but its own inhuman interests.

Honestly, though?  I think this is what they call "projection."  Meaning, that form of creature already exists, and we are it.

Not us individually, not for the most part.  But taken together, in the vast quasi-sensate macro-organism that is late industrial society, we already live as if we were part of such a thing.

There are many ways that this is true, and it is hardly a new observation.  But I was reminded of this again recently, as I rode home from church on my trusty, well-worn Suzuki.  It was late, and it was dark, and I was being cautious.

It's deer season, and the absence of any significant predators the population of deer has exploded.  At night, and even during the day, caution is required.  This is particularly true if you're on two wheels.  If you're not encased in a cocoon of steel and alloy, just out there in the wind and the cold, fragile and alive?  Deer strikes aren't just an annoyance.  They are more....existential...than that.

So I keep the pace down, my high-beams up and on whenever possible, and my situational awareness turned up to eleven.

On a long open stretch of River Road, wending its way through forest along the march of the Potomac, ahead of me in the darkness was a current-gen Prius.  It was moving at the sort of modest and socially acceptable pace one expects from such a car, fifty to sixty, a little over the limit, just like we all drive.

I spotted the buck and the doe as they came out of the woods on the left, two hundred and fifty yards ahead, moving slowly.  I got off the throttle, falling back. To my surprise, the Prius did not slow at all, pulling away and towards them.  Perhaps the driver simply did not see, or was momentarily distracted.

The deer crossed in front of the oncoming car, first the buck, then the doe, a yard or two behind.  The driver decelerated late, very late, not particularly abruptly, not a panic stop at all.  They saw the buck only, perhaps.  The driver may have been unaware of the doe's presence in the huge A-pillars of the Prius.

"Dude, slow down," I said, to the inside of my helmet.

They didn't.  They hit the doe at about thirty five to forty, right front bumper striking hard, tossing the body of the animal up and over.  The car slowed then, a little more, not ever completely stopping, and then continued on.

The aftermath was brightly spotlighted in my headlights.  The doe was a ruin, but not dead.  It's entire hindquarters were...wrong.  Both legs, clearly and multiply fractured, a hundred joints, a mess of bones and hide.  It twisted and writhed at the side of the road, a living thing broken to dying, and flopped wildly into the road in front of me.  I arced around it, carefully, as it wildly flailed in what would be a slow, painful death.

Only very rarely do I wish I carried a gun.  This was one of those moments.

Why did that creature die as it did?  No reason at all.  Like the two other deer corpses I passed in the remaining twenty five miles of my ride, it was not prey, not part of that bloody but comprehensible Lion-Kingy circle of life.  It did not die at the fangs of a wolf, or consumed by the invisible predation of microorganisms.  It was not hunted.

It was just crushed underfoot, incidental damage from a process so removed from the process of organic life that it may as well have been artificial.

In that, it is not so different from human lives, which matter...in the great automaton of our culture...really very little at all.  If we fall broken by the roadside, what does the blind mechanical god we have created care?  That "invisible hand" will not be extended to lift us up.  Onward it will go.  We know this.  It's why we are so anxious.

Afraid of artificial intelligence?  Why would we be?  It could be no worse than the thing we have already become.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii!

As we bustled about, my Jewish children helping assemble the ancient plastic tree that has graced their grandparents house since the mid 1970s, my sixteen year old son gave me a grin.  It was that grin kids get when they realize they know something their parents don't.

"You seriously haven't heard about KFC?  For Christmas?  In Japan?  Seriously?"

I said, um, no?

"Oh, man.  The Japanese aren't Christian, pretty much none of them.  But they celebrate Christmas by all going to KFC.  It's like this huge thing.  Like, everybody goes. You totally need to look that up, Dad."

And so I did.  And as I goggled at the peculiarity of it, I thought, dang, how did I not know this?

It was both very strange and oddly familiar.

Very strange, in the way that seeing elements of your culture sorted, adjusted, and modified through the lens of other cultures is invariably bizarre, a funhouse mirror.  Corporate culture, of course, is gleefully willing to spread itself.  It's aggressively viral, embedding and adopting and engaging itself with every other form it encounters.

Still and all, seeing the features of our seasonal festivities threaded into another culture is odd.  Odder still is that there is absolutely zero connection between this event and any Christian connection.  None whatsoever.  Japan has some small Christian communities, but they're in a tiny minority.

What happens in Japan on Christmas doesn't have the character of European or Slavic Christmases, which arise from a long, complex, and historic connection with the faith.  Neither does it resemble the traditions that have arisen in Latin America, or in Africa.   There is no faith component at all.

It's the sort of tradition that arises solely from a particularly successful ad campaign, intentionally designed for a particular culture.  It is pure, unadulterated, uncut secular Christmas.

In that, it is remarkably like the Christmas we Americans can all observe around us right about this time every year.  Just a slightly different white guy with a beard.

Man, this planet is a strange place.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torture and the Integrity of Christian Faith

If you call yourself a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, you cannot participate in or justify torture.  That cannot be so, if your faith is to have integrity.

It would seem an obvious statement, but then, so little can be taken for granted with we human beings.   In the United States, surveys indicate that fully half of the population believes that torture can be justified.  At the same time, eighty three percent of the American population considers themselves Christian.

At a bare minimum and assuming the least possible overlap between those categories, this would mean that over a hundred million Americans are 1) Christian by self-understanding and 2) believe that the torture of prisoners can be justified.

This seems...problematic.

If you follow Jesus of Nazareth, he requires certain things of you.  He expects you do to do more than just fall on your knees saying, "Lord, Lord."  The Christian walk is considerably more than that.  You show your faith when you do what he has asked.  How do we treat others?  More significantly, how do we act towards our enemies?  These things are the measure of our faith, which is not an airy abstraction.  The more violent and coercive we are, the more we allow violence towards others to have a hold in us, the further we fall from being able to call Jesus Lord and have that word have any meaning.

And yet, again, there's that hundreds of millions number.

I know there are all sorts of hypothetical situations that folks spin out there, usually involving nuclear device countdowns in major metropolitan areas.  "You'd have to torture the terrorist then, or all those innocent people would die!  What, don't you care about innocent people?"  These are fabulistic absurdities created to distract the moral attention.  "What if a code key for that nuclear device had been surgically embedded in Jennifer Lawrence's brain, and you only had ten minutes to get it out?  You'd have to lobotomize her then!  What, you care more about America's Celebrity Sweetheart (tm) than the lives of innocent people?"  Such arguments are childish phantasms.

"What right have you to judge who is and isn't a Christian," I have also heard.  As a sentient being, I can observe what Jesus taught, which is remarkably consistent as a system of ethics.  I can observe what he taught, and see that it gives no ground to justify such an action.  If under no circumstances would Jesus have condoned brutalizing another person, and you condone it?  It is both self-evident and logically necessary that you are not acting in accordance with the heart of your faith.

There is nothing, nothing whatsoever, in the teachings of Jesus that can be used legitimately to justify torture.  In the Bible, there are descriptions of torture, acts of brutality inflicted on prisoners.  Those acts are, invariably and without exception, inflicted by the unrighteous upon the righteous.  Jesus was tortured, of course.  As were Paul, and Peter, and most of the early apostles.  There is no Biblical record, or biblical warrant, for Christians doing the same to others.  None.

Romans 13 gets carted out here, that passage where Paul talks about the state having the right to wield the sword.  But remember: this is coming from Paul, who himself had remained steadfastly nonviolent as he was beaten, abused, and imprisoned by that pagan, imperial state.  A state that would ultimately execute him for his beliefs.  It cannot be considered a legitimate sanction for Christian violence.

To those hundred million souls, I would say, again: your belief that torture can be justified--under any circumstances, and for any reason--stands in irreconcilable tension with your assertion that Jesus matters to you.

The two cannot be integrated.

That's not unusual.  Very few human beings are entirely consistent, and many of us believe things or do things that violate our stated moral purpose.  I am no different, and I will not claim to be.  I get irrationally angry.  I hold grudges. I feel greed and envy and the desire for power.  I lust.  Sometimes, on a bad day, I do all of those things at once.

What I try not to do, insofar as I am able, is lie to myself that all of that is just fine with Jesus.  And as what Jesus asks of me is not some little compartment, but my whole self, that's a problem.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tortured Conservatism

I am a liberal.  When I encounter a reality, I only come to a determination of its worth after considering it for a while.  Which means, paradoxically enough, that I do not reflexively reject all things conservative.

For example, few things, in my experience, are more anathema to conservatives than the absence of a moral core.

If you claim to hold to a set of values, but seem willing to compromise on your values whenever it seems politically expedient or personally convenient, then--by the metric of conservatism--you are an immoral person.  

Untrustworthy.  Vacillating.  Weak of spirit.  Ignoble.  Unworthy of respect.

If, on that big test, you realize that you have an opportunity to pass it by cheating and you take that opportunity, you have failed morally.  If you beat out competitors and get a business contract by fudging numbers, that victory means nothing.  You are personally compromised.  If, in a committed relationship, you choose to engage in a secret tryst with someone else--and aren't caught--your getting away with it means nothing.  You have still fundamentally violated your commitment.

What matters is not your desire, or your success.  What matters is your integrity, your commitment, your honor.  If you fail to fulfill that duty to your values, you have failed as a conservative.

Our nation's willingness to torture represents just such a failure.  

It is a failure because it violates our honor as a nation.  What makes America great, and a country worthy of respect, is that it stands on principles of liberty that transcend even our own identity as a nation.  The freedoms we so vigorously defend aren't just ours.  They are self-evident truths for all people, written into the nature of existence by our Creator.  We value human beings, and the integrity of individual liberty.  It is what makes us different from our enemies.

When we allow ourselves to act in ways that are monstrous and ignoble for the purposes of expediency, we fail.  When we view any means to an end as acceptable, we have ceased to be moral persons, and a moral nation.

"It's not torture.  It's enhanced interrogation techniques," say the lawyers and the politicians and the apparatchiks, spinning and obfuscating and equivocating.  Language, however, is less important than reality.  The Chinese call their vast network of slave-labor prisons laogai, or "Reform through Labor" camps.  The Soviet gulags were called "corrective labor camps."  The language does not matter.  It is the action that matters.  "Enhanced interrogation techniques" include drowning, beatings, exposure to extreme cold, forced standing, "stress positions," and mock executions.  Those techniques are torture, as we would rightly call them if inflicted on an American soldier in the hands of an enemy.

"To say this disrespects our war fighters and intelligence community," cry some.  This is falsehood, a perversion of patriotism, wrapping excrement in the flag.  What matters, if you care about the values espoused by our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence, is that you live them out.  That we have soldiers and spies is meaningless.  So does North Korea.  So does Iran.  What matters are the values and principles they are defending.  It is what makes us different.  We treat human beings differently from our enemies, or we are no different.

"It gets results," cry others.  This has truth in it, the sort of truth that makes for the most pernicious lies.  Human creatures, subjected to intense pain, will do whatever it takes to end that pain.  When ISIS beats, abuses, and tortures a captive into "converting" to their perverse and monstrous faith, is that a "result?"  Or is that a lie, told to end the suffering?

"It kept us safe," say still others, stirring our fears, appealing to our craven self-interest.  Bad things would have happened, we are told, ominously.  Bad things did happen.  We stepped away from what makes us a nation worth living in, and worth fighting for.  We dishonored ourselves.  Our founding fathers held such moral cowardice in contempt.

Conservatism, in its most gracious form, is a worthy thing. It is about integrity, about having clear morals and ethics, which you pursue even if you yourself do not benefit from them.

What the warped ethic of the right-wing would have us believe is that America can never be dishonored, no matter what she does.  Such a belief not only betrays the dignity of our republic, but also the essence of what it means to be both honorable and conservative.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Honest Welcome

I've been staying later on Sundays for the past month or so, sticking around for a really delightful and intense sequence of conversations about faith.  That's meant that I'm more likely to also be around when other things go on in the life of the church...or rather, the life of the church building.

Right now, for instance, the parking lot is all full as I peer out of my office window.  Row after row of cars and minivans.  Not quite as full as it was earlier in the day, but pretty close.  Parents have been bustling in and out, as in our fellowship hall, a large gathering of girl scouts, doing girl-scouty things.

It is, of course, something my little church is happy to host, in the same way that we're happy to host 12 step meetings and a little cooperative of area moms who share preschooling with one another two days a week.

For nonprofit gatherings, and voluntary community activities, the standing church policy is: Let's see if we've got an open slot.  Hmmm.  Looks like we do!  Welcome!  Here's a key.  Leave it neat when you're done.

That's it.

We don't charge, of course.  But other than popping in to say hello, what we also don't do is expect something in return.  One might say, for instance, were one focused on numerical growth, "Hey, here's a great opportunity to leverage building users into pledge units!  All these users are potential members, we need to figure out a way to insure that we're capturing value from this exchange!"

Which, organizationally, might well be true.  And for certain wings of Christian faith, it is true as well.  We welcome because we're looking to convert.  We welcome because our goal..our intent..is to add to our number.  Everything gets filtered through that desire, to the point where we start feeling as authentically welcoming as that friend's birthday gathering that you suddenly realize is going to be mostly about Tupperware.

Viewing others as a means to an end?  That spirit of grasping seems peculiarly antithetical to a heart of true Christian hospitality.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Blind Faith and Evidence

Faith is a funny thing.

On the one hand, it's a vital and necessary part of human existence.  Without something to govern and structure our lives, to give us integrity and meaning, we wander blind and aimless through life.

On the other, it can distract us from reality, becoming so much a feature of our identity that we filter out all information that does not conform with our presuppositions.  Our "biases" come to define us.

This peculiar polarity--of the necessity of faith, and the perils of being so focused on our normative framework that we lose the capacity to stand in a transformative, growing relationship with the real--was painfully illustrated in the recent debacle at the University of Virginia, my alma mater.

What was spun out by Rolling Stone, and then, inevitably, painfully retracted, was a story that lived entirely within the semiotics of a particular worldview.  It was a story of rape culture, of power and privilege and the fundamental devaluing and brutalization of women.  It was a story of the patriarchal structures of inherently misogynist institutions, heteronormative and classist and hegemonic.  As told and written, it lit up one academic feminist archetype after another.

It was also not true, in the empirical sense of the word.  Meaning, the events described did not happen, materially and provably, in the time and space we inhabit.

The rhetoric of the article reminded me of the language of Christian fundamentalism, hyperbolic and certain, so absolutely certain.  The characters and stories within parsed like a Jack Chick tract, with its familiar cast and nice crisp inevitable story arc.

Not just the assault, the victim, and the assailants, mind you.  But also the "friends," who in the account of the young woman in the article were presented as horrible and self-interested, shallow social climbing nothings, the bourgeois enablers of rape culture.  Or the individuals interviewed on the street, like the young woman presented as a party girl frat bimbo.  Or the victim's rights communities, sketched bright and crisp and heroic as a socialist realist painting.

That bimbo, as it happens, is a rape survivor herself, who has worked with the survivor community.  Just as the friends, when actually contacted, proved not to be what they appeared.  And the heroes of the story?  Their support, their certainty no matter what, has only deepened the harm to the young woman.

There are truths in the article, sure.  Sexual assault on campuses is a problem, one that concerned me when I lived in Charlottesville, and one that continues to be an issue.  When I attended UVA, while I was a member of an outlier fraternity, I also never once attended a Rugby Road bacchanal.  They were loud and crowded, mobs of strangers getting sloppy and stupid, an introvert's nightmare.

And something most likely did happen to "Jackie."

But we cannot now, and do not now, know what that thing is.  It has been obscured in her, written over by other stories, cast from a particular subculture.

Just as our grasp of reality, the thing that is the truth of our existence, is obscured when we do not test these stories against the material realities they inhabit.

Acknowledging that difficult, complex truth is vital, if our belief is to have any meaning.

Friday, December 5, 2014

#Nolivesmatter

The hashtag is out there, circulating among my #hashtag-hip progressive friends, as our culture struggles with the lingering poison of centuries of class/race conflation.

#blacklivesmatter, it goes.

Of course they do, I want to say.  But, dammit, my mind insists on deconstructing it, slicing that hashtag up, analyzing it.

The one that stabs at me: "matter."  What makes a life matter?

What gives it importance?  What gives it meaning?  What gives a life...as the word "matter" implies...substance?

And as much as I want to say, yes, of course, all lives matter...the reality is that this is not true in our society.  I cannot affirm that as a real thing.

All lives have the potential to matter, of course.  Every self-aware being is capable of creating and engaging with meaning.  And as a Jesus-follower, I hold that meaning exists, deeper than our subjectivity and our cultural values.

As a person of faith, I understand my purpose.  I know what gives my life substance and worth.

But within the value set established by a society, we can also not matter at all.

In a culture that lacks any purpose but profit, what does "mattering" mean for any of us?

It certainly can't have been easy for Eric Garner to think that his life mattered.  What, from the value set of our culture, would have given him a sense of worth as a person?  He'd had a job, but work is hard to come by.  He's been arrested, multiple times, for the picayune, meaningless, should-offend any-card-carrying-libertarian crime of selling individual "untaxed" cigarettes.

Meaning, he purchased a pack of cigarettes, on which had been levied an intentionally punitive and hefty tax, which Garner would have paid.    Then, he broke it out and sold the individual cigarettes for fifty cents.  Making a little money on the side, off of a legal product, legally purchased, his own property, all taxes paid.  A "loosie," as they call it.  Fifty cents.  A quarter here, a quarter there, nothing more than pocket change.

Is this a respected vocation?  Hardly.  Was he a "producer?"  No.  Was he thriving and prospering?  No.  Was he a celebrity, or wealthy, or influential?  No.

Was his life, in any way, valued by our culture?  No.  He was unimportant.  Unimportant enough that he could inform the people who were killing him that they were killing him.  He could ask them to stop killing him, politely and repeatedly, with no cursing or profanity.   He could say "please."  He may as well have not been talking at all, an inanimate object.  Eric Garner was nothing more than a broken window, useless, to be swept up and carted away.

His life did not matter.  A life, worth less than fifty cents, less than a pack of gum, less than a twenty ounce store-brand soda.

Nor, quite frankly, do most of us really feel like our lives matter in this society.  Ours is a culture that tramples the weak and the poor, despises them, demonizes them.  If we get sick, thems the breaks.  If we lose our jobs, we are lazy.  If the stress breaks our minds, then we are dangerous.  We matter only in so far as we have the ability to consume.  Once we do not, we are...unprofitable.  Meaningless.  Worthless.  It is that anxiety, the fear, that drives us.

My leftist friends, lost in the pointlessly divisive semiotics of academe, do not quite realize how much purchase such a death has.  How much it points to how our culture commodifies all of us.  How much it illuminates how we all scrabble against the cold soulless face of mammon, anxious in our poverty, anxious in our wealth, anxious because we know we are disposable.

#blacklivesmatter?  No.  Not against the central governing value set of our society, in which color is still a visually convenient proxy for class.  #poorlivesmatter?  No, of course they don't.

To the Creator of the Universe, sure.  To families and friends, yes.  But to this culture?  No.

None of our lives matter.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

All the Time in the World

Last night, as I finished up writing a Goodreads review of the really rather marvelous The Hare with Amber Eyes, I counted back out of curiosity.

Just how many books have I read this year?  Not counting ones I read in late 2013, but dropped in for completeness sake.

The total count in 2014: Fifty one so far.

Which seems like a fair number.  Not insane, but still many more than I've managed in prior years.

 Generally, I'd gobble down around a dozen books a year for pleasure, and an equivalent number for work.

Those numbers have risen over the last few years, and I wonder...where exactly did I find the time?

Oh, I still watch movies, and still game.  Just...less.  What I don't do, pretty much ever, is sit down to watch television.  Just don't do it.  I have no "shows," though I know there are some excellent, funny, well-scripted and acted vids out there.  I don't choose to noodle through Netflix on my own.  We don't have cable.

And my kids are older, requiring vastly less wrangling than they used to...or at least, wrangling that's considerably less invasive of time and overall capacity to focus.

And I choose to delimit my external commitments, one of the collateral blessings of introversion.

And, as I write more, I find my hunger to read increases.  The worlds and stories others spin weave into my own.  The turns of phrase and voices of those I read--those I enjoy, at least--are subtly integrated into my own voice, in ways I can't always consciously perceive.

Where does the time come?  Ultimately, it comes because I make it.

If you're going to read, you must set aside space for the written word, for the stories that tell themselves in that peculiar, magical space between an author, the page, and your own soul.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What UVA Can Learn From the Church

As a pastor who was both a graduate of UVA and who lived for three years in a fraternity house, the last few weeks have been...interesting.

The Rolling Stone article and the horrific story of sexual assault it contained were hard to read.

When I attended Mr. Jefferson's University, one of the many primary reasons I joined my fraternity was that it was an outlier.  It was a wild place, to be sure.  But it was also a fellowship where groupthink was actively mocked, and where women were respected.  They were our friends, to the point that one of the regular house-meeting arguments was how/whether to formally acknowledge women as part of our community.

I also knew, 25 years ago, that there were fraternity houses that my female friends needed to stay away from.  Where if you were inebriated and a woman, you were taking a risk.

That remains the case today, which in and of itself is difficult.

Beyond the culture of misogyny, part of the problem, as I see it, is that the University completely misunderstands its role in dealing with sexual assault.  It's a misunderstanding that...after ten years in ordained ministry...I know quite well.  It has also afflicted faith communities, to catastrophic effect.

That misunderstanding is simple.

When an adult or a minor has an act of violence committed against them in a faith community, the response of that community is often to try to deal with it internally.  This is "our problem," or so the thinking goes.  And so internal systems and structures and processes are put into place to deal with it on an institutional level, to minimize organizational liability.  Committees are put into place.  There are task forces, and protocols, and trainings.

In so far as those things reduce the probability of violence, they're well and good.  If they help reinforce a culture that supports victims of violence and overcomes dysfunctional, assaultive norms of behavior, excellent.

Where the danger lies is in imagining...from the silo of your thinking as a steward of an institution...that you have any meaningful jurisdiction over acts of criminal violence once they have been committed.

If a child is violated by an adult in a church, it isn't a church issue.  It's a felony.  If a congregant is raped by another congregant...or their pastor...it is not a church issue.  It's a felony.  It is a criminal act of violence.

Churches have learned, the hard way, that usurping jurisdiction leads only to disaster.

It destroys the integrity of the institution, and can stand in the way of stopping predators from assaulting others.  Teaching an ethic that fundamentally refutes violence is the task of the church.  But prosecuting such acts?  Holding the perpetrators accountable? That is not the job of the church.  That is the job of the state.

The administration of my alma mater seems to be operating under much the same category error, with equally disastrous results.  University administrators are in no position to either investigate or prosecute criminal acts, and in this particular instance, the results are disastrous.  The Rolling Stone article establishes allegations of an act of systematic, predatory, calculated violence.  

Not a drunken attack, where an intoxicated man forces himself on a woman.  That is rape, absolutely, and a crime.  But what is described goes further.  The story details a sober, calculated, ritualistic gang rape, part of a pledging ritual.  What is described is sociopathy, a level of predation that is both calculated and monstrous.  Such a story must be verified, supported with evidence, and prosecuted.  And it was not.

The most significant challenge I have in reading this article is that the young woman in question was not immediately supported in bringing criminal charges.  Instead, she was catastrophically misled by "friends" who counseled her not to immediately seek help, and given too wide a suite of options by the University, including the option of having the attack adjudicated by a board comprised of students and faculty. For a ritual gang rape. The idea that administrators would have the capacity to deal with an assault of this nature is absurd.

Just as the church has learned that it cannot deal with sexual crimes internally, so too UVA needs to recognize that its role in such an attack is to immediately support the victim as they pursue justice.  The best way to do so is to build supports for those who have been subjected to violence, but also to recognize that as an educational institution, it has neither the capacity, competence, or jurisdiction to adjudicate violent crime.

[edited 04.18.15]

And now, this seems doubly true.  The allegations in the Rolling Stone article have, over the last few months, been completely discredited.  The individual in question fabricated most of the story out of whole cloth, and may or may not have been assaulted.  It was a fantasy, or a delusion, a story with no ground in reality.

The alleged victim implicated a fraternity that was not responsible.  She lied about her friends, whose egregious behavior, as reported, had so offended me.

In crimes of violence, evidence is key.  What is not relevant is what people say on #twitter, or what people circulate with #hashtags about what they believe to be true from the comfort of their laptop.

What matters is not what an accuser asserts about their victimhood.  What matters is reality.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Things You People Wouldn't Believe

Most of this last month, I've stayed away from blogging.  Not because I don't enjoy it, or because it's not a vital part of a writer's discipline.

But because, again this year, I'd committed to National Novel Writing Month.  I keep a stack of stories that are pressing me to be told, and now, I've got one less.  Sunday, late in the evening, the next manuscript sat finished, at sixty-two thousand words and change.  A perfectly novelly-length novel, albeit in raw and unedited form.  

From the Water, I'm calling it for now, a tale of the rise of artificial intelligence from the chaos of organic life.  It evokes and sounds off of a range of themes from faith and culture, intentionally evoking the Exodus story, and reflecting on the miracle of organized sentience in the chaos of being.

That, and at a certain point, it became a good rip-snortin' yarn, one I was eager to read even as I wrote it.

It's fun, getting it done.   But getting it done meant not doing other things.  If you're going to write a novel in a month, you've got to prioritize and make it your specific goal.  That means other stuff gets set aside.

Blogging was one of those necessary things to set aside, but man, was it hard not to write sometimes this month.  If you process information by writing it out, there was plenty to process this month.  Lord have mercy, has it been a mess out there.

What's peculiar, though, is the degree to which my noveling has played off of the realities I've been studiously not writing about.

Like, say, the novel's exploration of the nature of memory and subjectivity.

One of the distinctives of a machine intelligence would be the capacity to share.  Not just "describe."  Not just "tell about," using the symbols and forms of language.  But to completely share a state of mind.  "Here," it could say.  "Here is exactly how I perceived and processed that particular moment in time.  Here is why I responded as I did.  Here I am, in my completeness."

Human beings don't do this very well.

We try, we do.  And sometimes, by the grace of God, we succeed.

But more often than not, we fail.  We are so set in ourselves and in our ideological frameworks that we willfully blind ourselves to the other.  We do not see them in their complexity.  We refuse to do so.  Instead, we do the easier thing.  We choose to fashion a crude caricature of their motivations, one that exists to serve our interests.  We selectively view their actions, picking and choosing those that serve our desire for demonization or hagiography.  We project into that clumsy simulation our needs, our angers, our fears, our pre-judgement.

That gives us control, or at least the illusion thereof.

But it also divorces us from reality and the deep compassion of the Creator.  It enslaves us to our own self-perpetuating brokenness.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Faith and Our Stories of Horror

Last night, as the swarms of trick-or-treaters waned away, I blew out the candles in the Jack-o-Lanterns, shut down the lights, and closed up shop.

The boys were out and about, over at a party thrown by a mutual friend.  They're teens, and Trick-or-Treating through the neighborhood--or ours, at least--is no longer the Thing To Do.

"Let's watch a horror movie," said the wife, and I agreed.  But what?  I'm completely uninterested in slasher flicks, or anything that mistakes disgust for real horror.

I racked my brain for something of the genre that might be genuinely spooky, and recalled a film called The something, you know, about...um...there was this haunted house, and a couple, and they were ghost hunters.  The Haunting?  No, that's something else.  Hmmm.  Through the miracle of the inter webs, a string of keywords popped that memory out of our embodied collective subconscious: The Conjuring.  It had been well reviewed, as I recalled, and the previews had been generally creepy.

So we settled in together on the sofa, and I made a bucket of popcorn as a chaser for the candy we'd been noshing on all evening, and we got ready to be scared.

Honestly, it was exactly what we were looking for, for most of the film.  It took its sweet time developing dread, playing around with subtle hints of the horrific, dancing around our human fear of the dark terror of shadow.   It was well acted, solidly scripted, and directed with a competent, practiced hand.  For most of the film, it had my wife burrowing into my side and curling up close, which is exactly what you're looking for in a scary movie.

But at a certain point, it lost me.  After this, there are spoilers, so...just lettin' ya know.

Where it wandered afield came, in all places, in its religiousness.  The Conjuring was a very, very Christian movie, in the sense that it spoke clearly out of a robust Catholicism.  The villains were demons and dark witches, and in order to drive out those forces, the power of the Holy Catholic Church was the primary tool in the toolshed.

That meant strategically placed crucifixes, prayers of abjuration recited in Latin, silver crosses worn prominently as wards against the devil.

And as these things came into play, the spell of the movie was broken for me.  That sense of realism, so carefully and elegantly developed by the cast and the director, just came apart in my mind.

This was not, honestly, because it was a Catholic film and I'm Protestant.  It's because...well...I'm clergy, and clergy with a mystic bent.

When the characters started talking about using the authority of denominational hierarchies to battle supernatural beings, it made me snert a little bit.

Dark and inhuman powers are manipulating the very fabric of reality itself!   A demon just hurled my Clerk of Session across the room!  Quick! Call the Presbytery Offices!

I mean, I love those folks, but...no.

The idea of confronting a levitating devil-witch with a prayerbook also just seems utterly absurd.   Sure, the Christian faith bears within it some potent, reality-bending magic.  I buy that.  I know how to do that, sort of.

But prayer has limits, and ancient tongues bear no greater power than our own language.  When one of the protagonists kicks in with the Latin, I don't get that sense of hoc est corpus meum magic.  It's just...words.

"Demon!  Listen and tremble as I draw on the Holy Power of Exegesis! Tremble before the words of this passage read and then interpreted in the Original Koine Greek!"

I would certainly pray for strength and courage in such a moment, or say words of blessing.  I might speak what I know to be true over and against the lies of a dark being.  But I wouldn't expect magic, any more than I expect magic when praying about cancer, or about an addiction, or about any of the very real and horrible things that break bodies and souls and cultures.

Faith has a potent place in the struggle against darkness.  It's just that the reality of that place is rather different than our stories of the supernatural spin it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Headless Churchman

It's...John Wesley!  Aieee!
It's almost Halloween, and over the last few days, I've been delving into the deepest nightmare of every paid church professional.  No, not the one where you discover you're not only in the wrong church and have forgotten your sermon text, but you're also not wearing any pants.  That one just replaces the "I didn't study for the test" anxiety dream.

This is a more profoundly existential nightmare, one that isn't just a fabrication of your subconscious.  This terror lives in the real world:

Churches with no pastors.  None.  For pastors, we folk called to a serving and helping profession, here is a physical manifestation of the heart of our most gnawing fear:  You are irrelevant.  You are not needed.

Yet as I work my way through the research phase of my doctoral project, that's where I've gone.  I've been talking with small church pastors, folks who are in the same position as myself.  But I've also been contacting Christians living in other forms of authentic and intimate faith community.  I've talked with longstanding participants in egalitarian house churches, and gatherings of Jesus-followers that are intentionally without formal hierarchical leadership.

Yesterday morning on my way to church, for example, I rode down the dirt roads of the Dayspring community.  It's one of the gatherings that sprang out of the Church of the Saviour, a borderline-legendary community formed by Gordon Cosby.  Dayspring rests on a little over 200 acres of woodland and fields, most of which I got a chance to see as I nosed my motorcycle along gravel roads.

It was strikingly beautiful, as the wind cast leaves down like rain.  A good soul responsible for the facility walked me around and showed me each of the three spaces used for worship.  A spare, clean room with neatly stacked wooden chairs.  A pavilion open on three sides, at one end of which rested a huge stone hearth.  And an amphitheater, set into the woods, the boughs arcing overhead like the balustrades of a cathedral.

And all the worship, in all those spaces, is conducted by members of the community.

No pastors.  No formally trained and vetted professionals, no charismatic and hard-charging evange-epreneur driving the growth.  No One CEO/Manager/Counselor/Leader/Teacher to rule them all.  Just mutual labor, mutual accountability, and mutual teaching.  Is it perfect?  No.  But if the conditions are right, it can work.  It can be a beautiful thing.

On the one hand, this is intimidating, vocationally challenging for those of us in the "organizational" church in the most radical of ways.  On the other, it's strangely, wildly heartening.

It feels, if anything, like the goal.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Church as Theatre

As I drift about the web, it tracks me, as algorithms and data accrue to my browsing patterns.  The net knows me, and knows my interests, and so works feverishly to show me things I might want to buy.

Here!  Look at this car you just read about!  Here!  A self-publishing shop that'll charge you money to produce books you can produce for free!  Buy!  Shiny!  Ooo!  Ooooh!

Because I'm a pastor who writes, reads and blogs about faith, the daily pitch includes faith-products.  I'm routinely encouraged to click through to the products and services pitched out there by AmeriChrist, Inc. and its corporate partners.  Yesterday, I clicked through on one of them, as I encountered an faith-focused-ad from Regal theaters.

Movie theaters are increasingly the place to go when you're starting up a church, or when your gathering grows large enough to justify renting a space.  They're also struggling a bit, as the giant screens and surround sound systems that stream video into our homes take a big bite out of their margins.

So it makes sense, it does, for theater chains to actively market to church folks.

Convenient!  Centrally located!  Optimal for your purposes!  So chirruped the landing page, which then asked me to pony up more personal contact information in exchange for permission to proceed.  Hah.  You know enough about me already, I think.

I bailed, routed around, and hit the corporate site of Regal Entertainment Group.  Among other things, the main page touted the tenth anniversary re-release of the first Saw movie, along with the rollout of new extra-large King-sized recliner-chairs.  Kick back in the lap of luxurious comfort, whilst you watch a graphic portrayal of human beings being creatively tortured to death for your amusement!

And the next day, you can show up to praise Jesus from the very same comfy chair!  With cupholders!

I did a search on the site, and hopped URLs, going from "theatres backslash recliners" to "theatres backslash theatre-church," and there it was.

The marketing was all about magnifying your message, convenience, and being a comfortable and familiar environment.  It's culturally relevant!  And there's a huuuuuuuuge screen.  Huge.  So big.

But what caught my eye was the quote from a satisfied customer/pastor.
"The medieval church told the gospel story in pictures via stained glass.  Today, we tell our story on the big screen.  It's the perfect postmodern stained glass--a memorable and exciting medium that demonstrates the gospel story."
Now, I love cinema, and film as a medium.

But to call it "stained glass?"  That stuck with me, because as much as I also love the look of stained glass, I remember the purpose of it in the dark ages of pre-Enlightenment Europe.  It was pretty, of course, a splash of beauty and light in an often grim and difficult world.  It's art in its own right.

But the primary use of stained glass, when Christianity was passing through that period, was to give the most rudimentary grasp of Bible stories to a completely illiterate populace.  As a medium for narrative, stained glass told stories in a time when Christians were incapable of processing primary information for themselves.

What they were fed, instead, was just enough to keep them complacent to the powers that used the message of Jesus to reinforce their own authority.

It seemed, as an analogy, perhaps more nuanced than had been intended.

But at least the chairs are more comfy now, right?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Zimzum

In the morning, in a light-filled upstairs room of our old church building, I sat down with some of the kids of my church and began our confirmation class.  Our chatter was about confirmation itself, but I'd wanted to hear from them about how some of the pre-classes had gone.  Specifically, I was curious what they'd thought of the Nooma vids they'd watched.  These videos were old Rob Bell schtuff, nicely produced, thoughtful, and inviting, although pressing close on occasion to the edge of Velveeta.

They'd liked them, and had clearly retained information from them.  I shared, because it strikes me as odd, that the same Rob Bell who created those very helpful vids is now on tour with Oprah, part of her The Life You Want To Be Best Right Now This Weekend tour.

The class, as one, rolled their eyes in teen disdain.  "Oprah?"  Clearly, Ms. O is not regarded as the font of authenticity by the young.  They're not her target demographic, of course.  Few fourteen year olds can pony up $200-$500 bucks for a big stadium event, after all.

I pitched out another trial balloon, I mentioned the title of his forthcoming book.  My church has given out Bell's books to graduates in past.  They're solid, simple, accessible, and gracious.  This new one is a relationship book, co-authored with his wife:  The Zimzum of Love.

There was giggling.

I moved on, but filed that giggle away.  Reminder to self: if in the radiant yarp of this wild multiverse I ever find myself asked to tag along with Oprah on a tour, politely demur, lest the teens of thy congregation giggle at thee.

It got me thinking, though, about the word "Zimzum."  I'd not bothered looking into that term when I'd first encountered it on the cover of the Bell's book, assuming--erroneously--that it was some cutesy nonsense relationship word.  "The Dibbledop of Parenting."  "The OochGah of Growing Old."  Something like that.

But then I encountered it again providentially, in a science article about the dynamics of Many Worlds theory, of all places.  There, it was not presented as "Zimzum."   It was Tzimtzum, a term from Lurianic Kabbalistic theology that attempts to articulate how God makes space in being for that which is not God's own self.

So I looked into it further, as one should when serendipity serves up her peculiar harmonies.

As theology, tzimtzum is fascinating, and within authentic Kabbalistic practice and rabbinic conversation, it's a pretty sophisticated and heavily debated idea.  How can God be both present and not-present?  What are the self-imposed boundaries of that which is infinite and aware?  It's meaty, heady, non-trivial stuff, the kind of theology that bleeds over into scientific cosmology in ways I find pretty nifty.

And it's being repurposed, by a Christian, as a means of meting out relationship advice.  "Make space for your partner," it'll go, I'm sure.

I wonder at this.  I mean, it's not bad advice, generally.  It may well be a helpful book for some folks.

But the tzimtzum is an immensely complex, nuanced, challenging way of trying to understand the work of the Creator.  Will that complexity be honored?  Will the centuries of conversation about that idea be referenced?  We'll see.  I have not, after all, read the book, which isn't out yet.

I wonder further, though, at the co-opting of such theology by both Christians and pop-theology.  That wondering comes from my peculiar place as both a teacher of the Way of Jesus and the husband/father of a Jewish wife/sons.

The rabbi of my family's synagogue is a teacher of Kabbalistic understandings of Judaism, which come out in his storytelling.  He knows the language, and the stories, and the debates, the deep richness of that remarkably intricate and ancient way of understanding.  There is a dizzying, whirling, interwoven elegance to authentic Kabbalah.  It's a wild dance of ideas before the throne of God, as you lose yourself in concepts that swirl together like Sufis in qawwali ecstasy.  There is a depth to it that I honor.  But I also recognize that while it is a valid path, it is not the path I know well enough to teach.

If you don't have the depth and history and the complexity, it becomes something else.  It can become Madonnabalah or Oprahbalah, a shallow smorgasbord me-magick that is as removed from Kabbalistic practice as that fat golden prosperity Buddha at your takeout Chinese place is removed from the Noble Eightfold Path.

That's the challenge, whenever we take things from traditions that are not our our own.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing, Vocation, and Relationship

Last Friday, I took a walk to the bank.  It was a gorgeous day, a little warmer than I'd expected for mid-October.

In my pocket was a check, the depositing of which was the whole purpose of my walking.  Oh, sure, I could have driven.  Or I could have used one of those check-scanning apps my bank keeps pitching.  But neither of those things gets me out walking under a crisp blue sky on a beautiful day.

The check itself was something of a novelty.  It was the first half of the advance from my publisher in anticipation of my novel, which in and of itself remains sort of bizarre and unreal seeming.  By first-novel-author standards, it was remarkably generous, large enough to represent a couple of months worth of my appropriately modest half-time pastorly salary.

What struck me, as I took this...writing income...to the bank was that it marked the first time writing has yielded much more than nominal returns. So far, my efforts have yielded the kinds of income that has my wife patting me on the head and saying "That's nice, dear."  Then we'd go out to Chipotle to celebrate, and blow the whole wad on burrito bowls.

As much as I love to write, I'm fully aware that writing isn't the most reliable of professions if you're planning on eating and/or having a roof over your head.  It's a work of love, a thing I do because I like to do it.  I am not alone in this.  There are millions like me, millions, a sea of authors out there fervently cranking away on their novels and memoirs and illustrated books of Esperanto Haiku.  Por infanoj! Infanoj amas Esperanton!

Last year, when I wrote the manuscript for The English Fall during National Novel Writing Month, I was one of over 310,000 folks who completed a novel-length work of fiction.  I was a writer then, in that I was writing.  I've cranked out a number of silly little self-published books over the years, short stories here and there and a modestly received little ebook on God and the nature of creation.  Do they make me a writer?

Sort of, which is the peculiar thing about writing.  The act itself is not the fullness of being a writer.

Neither is the receiving of income.  Am I more of a writer now that I'll have to attend to it on my next tax return?  Now that, for this moment, at least, I can think of myself as...professional?

Again, sort of, but not entirely.

What makes a writer vocationally a writer, I am convinced, is not the act of writing itself.  That act is as intimate as a thought, as solitary as a daydream.

It is the relationship the written word establishes when others read what you have written.  You are a writer when those words you have crafted carry your dreamings over into the soul of another.

I am a writer for you when you see, in the eye of your imagining, something like the world I have seen in my own.  If I tell you, hey, I'm an author, that reality remains an abstraction until you have engaged with those thoughts, and let them play through your mind.  It is only real when you have known the voices of my characters, felt the road beneath their feet and the rain on their faces.

It's like saying, "I'm a pastor."  It is a vocation...a calling, a state of doing...that is only truly known when it is witnessed or encountered by another.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Cat Who Wouldn't Back Down

It was a bright and cold Sunday morning, and I was up at six, as I always am.  I dressed, clerical collar shirt and dress pants, with thermals under the dress pants for the ride to church later in the morning.

I put the coffee on, and stepped out to get the morning paper.  It being Fall before the Fall-Back, the sky was dark and clear, with just a single bank of clouds off to the east catching the first low light of the unrisen sun.  The moon was still a bright sharp crescent, flanked by stars.

My first cup of coffee downed, I leashed up the dog, and off we went down the street for her morning walk.  It's good thinking time, good time for reflection and stillness.

We got half a block down the street, and there was the cat.  The cat sat in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to a huge pile of tree-trimmings a neighbor had set by the curb.  We closed, slowly, as my witless pup snuffed and noodled around, oblivious to the feline shadow resting dead ahead.  Closer and closer we came, and I dropped my pace to give the cat time to bail.  I could see, by the light cast by a nearby streetlamp, that it was a tabby, a big healthy orange tom.

Finally, less than five yards out, it rose, and skulked off peevishly into the mound of branches.

Still, my dog noodled about, lost in some other scent, totally unaware.  Such a blissfully oblivious creature, she can be.

We walked on, our usual route through the morning darkness, and at one of her usual spots, she did her business.   I collected it up in a plastic newspaper bag, fumbling about in the dark, wet grass until I'd done my neighborly duty.

Our route returned us home, and we turned in and walked down the driveway towards home.

At the entrance to the carport sat the tabby, back on its haunches, blocking access to the door to the house.  Now, of course, the dog saw the cat, sitting right there, right dead on in front of her.  She snuffed forward eagerly, tail wagging with excitement.

I reined her in.  "Go on," I shooed at the cat.  "C'mon, scoot!"  The tomcat was going nowhere.

I eased in a little closer, waving my free arm, holding my utterly oblivious dog back.  "Shoo!  Go!  Tssssh!"

The cat only had eyes for the dog, and arched up, tail straight, hissing, fangs out.   It was not going to budge.  Fight or flight?  Pshaw.  It had backed down once, and now there was only fight in those eyes, no matter what that large hairless monkey was blabbering about.

We were at an impasse.  There, the only unlocked door to my own house, and I could get no closer without letting my softie claw-clueless-canine get into attack range.  The cat was getting all Martin Luther on me, all Gandalf the Grey.  There it stood, it could do no other, and we shall not pass.   It was dug in, back up, ready to go.

And then I realized, sentient primate with opposable thumbs that I am: I am carrying a projectile with a built in drogue for stability, and soft enough to do no harm on impact.  Still nice and warm, even.

I considered it, and found the option worthy.  I then judged the distance, and with a gentle underhanded toss, the sort of throw you pitch to your five year old when you first teach them how to use a bat, I tossed the bag at the cat.

It landed directly in front, and skidded--intact, thank the Maker--across the cement, dead on target.  The tabby leapt away, out of our path.

"What in the name of the Sweet Lord Bast is THAT," the cat's eyes seemed to say.  Then it scented it.  "You didn't just...you couldn't have...oh!"  And it scampered off, horrified at the raging indignity of such a barbarous act.  It cast us one look back, pure disgust, and disappeared into the night.

I'm not quite sure, because it was dark, but I think my dog cast me a look of wondering admiration.

"You threw...my poo...at a cat," it seemed to say.  "Humans.  Are.  So.  AWESOME."


Friday, October 17, 2014

Faith and High Beams

The church event was a lovely one, a celebration of World Food Day organized by our music director.   Folks from my little church, their friends, and representatives of local environmental organizations sat down and shared a potluck meal made of locally grown harvest.  It was both fun and heartening and yummy.

And when everything was cleaned up and put away, it was time to roll home.  I'd been worried about rain, just a little bit, as my little Suzuki's decided to get a little finicky about ingesting water.  But though rains had come through, and the ground was wet, the skies weren't dropping moisture.

I suited up, threw a leg over the bike, fired it up, and began the ride home through the rising mist.

Those late evening rides back from church are lovely, and the cooling October night was no exception.  Sitting smack in the middle of 93,000 acres of agricultural reserve, the little town where my church resides can be accessed only over miles of little country two-lanes.   The lights of houses are speckled here and there, down long gravel drives.  You do not pass, as you ride, the endless rows of tickytackytownhomes and flat-straight four-lane strip malls of 'Murika sprawl, but the fields and forests that were our landscape up until a generation ago.

At night, those deliciously ridable American roads are deep and very dark and lightly traveled.

It's high beam country.

And my bike has great high beams, two huge twin reflectors, mounted way up on its tall, lanky frame.  I snick that little thumbswitch by the left handgrip, and the little blue light comes on in the instrument pod, and the road lights up far ahead.  I cast, ahead of me, two tightly nested cones of light, enough to make for comfortable riding at a gentleman's express pace.

I love riding alone through the darkness.  Being that solitary speck of bright in a cool dark night gives a powerful sense of place, of being yourself in the world.  It feels wild and free.

But though it's a place of freedom, there are rules for riding in high beam country.

There are others who ride the same roads, but who aren't traveling the same way.  They've got other places to go, other homes that call them homeward.   You encounter their light first, as the forest or roadside around a distant bend lights up to announce their arrival.

And just before their light rises over the hill, or flares around the bend, you dip your own.  Snick, goes the switch, and the lowbeams are on, like a nod of acknowledgment or...in another era...the tipping of a hat.  You pass one another, respecting the integrity of the other traveler, until that moment you pass.  Snick, and the darkness ahead is banished again.

As I rode through the cool of the night, that blue light illumined, I found myself wishing Americans could grasp this sort of respect in our exchanges with one another.  We're not all the same, in our faith, in our politics. We do not have to be.  It's what makes the United States a wonderful place to live.

But as we live and move through our increasingly loud and crowded lives, it feels like we're all high beams, all the time.  We see that stranger, traveling in another direction to a different home, and we leave our beams on full.

Why should we dim our light, just because they're coming?  That's their problem, not ours, if our full blare brightness bothers them.  What right do they have, to make us do something?  No way will we tone ourselves down.   No way will we compromise.  Heck, if we had brighter beams, we'd use 'em.

So we rush blindingly at one another, lost in the retina-dazzle of our own stubborn selfishness.  And blinded, we lose our ability to see the road ahead.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Subpoenas and Sermons

The netrage is out there, about everything, about anything, and one rage-meme that's been popping a whole bunch in my feeds lately has to do with the subpoenas issued to five Texas area pastors for copies of their sermons.

The reason has to do with a fight over a Houston ordinance protecting the rights of transgendered persons.  A coalition of conservative megachurch pastors actively opposed it, using the same odd tactic that's been attempted in my region.  They also used their large congregations as their political base in their attempt to overturn the law.  After a petition attempt to put the issue on the next ballot as a referendum failed, the coalition filed a lawsuit to stop the ordinance.

So the lawyers for the city, acting in defense of the municipality against the lawsuit filed by the churches, chose to subpoena the sermons of five representative communities.

This has created the netrage, as the pastors now stand firmly on the principle of the separation of church and state.  It has nothing to do with the LGBT community!  This is about the Constitution!  This is about religious liberty!

Of course, this is also coming from pastors who are using their pulpits and their congregations how?   To engage in political endeavor.  Complaining about the separation of church and state when you've actively used your congregation to mobilize politically is...well...mildly ironic.

Two particular things seem problematic about this carefully cultivated outrage.

Thing number one: why would you ever need to subpoena a sermon?  If a congregation and/or their pastor is doing their job, a sermon is not a secret.  This isn't a closed business meeting.  It's something you share, not just with the true believing Pureblood Christians, but with anyone and everyone.  It's not "inside the silo" speech.  It's a message to the whole world.  Anyone can hear it.  You should never, ever, need a subpoena to shake loose a sermon, any more than you'd need to subpoena the front page of the Washington Post or the Houston Chronicle.

Sermons are public speech, and speech you should be willing to have out there in the world in front of everyone.

I post the full text of every single sermon I preach online.  Thanks to the good work of folks at my church, the audio is also available...on iTunes, streamable, and downloadable.  Every single one of those sermons is there, my weekly efforts to interpret these ancient sacred texts with as much accuracy and grace as I can. Why?

Because what I preach is intended to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That's the whole point of preaching, isn't it?  Not to affirm what my congregation already believes as we whisper to each other in secret, but to challenge anyone who hears me to be more loving, more merciful, more compassionate, and more gracious.  If I'm doing my job right, it's a message of grace to anyone...the stranger, the visitor, anyone.

If one so chose, you could keyword search through my sermons, looking for anything and everything.  Go ahead.  I stand by those words.  They represent my best effort to articulate the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the world.

So if anyone ever says to me, I demand a copy of your sermons?  Sure.  Here's the link.  Go to town, buckaroo.

Which gets me to thing number two:  It's an effort to shame us, the pastors argue, and to tar us as anti-LGBT bigots.  We're being bullied by those mean government folks, just because we've used our pulpits in an effort to overturn a law that prevents discrimination against a tiny minority of Americans.  We will never turn over our sermons, they cry.  They're just trying to shame us with our own words!  We'd rather go to jail than turn over our preaching to these shamey bullies!  Because...liberty!  Because...Constitution!

From a libertarian/anarchist perspective, I can sort of see that.  We don't like being told what to do, not by anyone, for any reason.  It's an affront to my sovereign individuality to force me to do anything.

But from a Gospel perspective, a servant-of-Jesus-Christ perspective, this is completely insane.  If those messages contain the Gospel, then they're nothing to be ashamed of.  I want you to hear them.  I want you to read them, whoever you are, wherever you are.

If what they are would appear hateful in the sight of a neutral, objective third party, then they're not the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Rome, laid that out pretty clearly.  What we do and say, if we are acting and speaking as Christians, must be noble in the sight of all.  Following Jesus is self-evidently loving, self-evidently merciful, self-evidently just.

As preaching should be, if it is really and truly the preaching of the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Fire Next Time

I and a small group of intrepid members of my congregation have been heaving our way through the book of Revelation for the last half-dozen weeks, and it ain't easy going.  The convoluted mind of John of Patmos and the circuitous, repetitive pattern of his visions are notoriously unforgiving.

Even if you understand the symbolism and the Matrix-stutter narrative arc of that wild and hallucinatory book, it's still a hard one to crank through.  John's faith is bright and feverish, often seeming devoid of both logic and compassion.  Love your enemies?  Hah.  Love watching them burn, more like.  There's not a whole bunch of agape going down in Revelation.  But hey, what would you expect from visions brought by an angel who identifies himself as the Morning Star?

Well played, my wealthy, tasteful friend.  Well played.

Silliness aside, one of the charges leveled against the apocalyptic mindset is the degree to which it can disengage us from the here and now.   Why care about the mess we're making of our little planet, if that mess is all part of the end of things?  Why worry about the wars and injustices that we human beings inflict on each other, if they're just leading up to the final destruction of something that deserves to be wiped out?

"It's all going to be destroyed anyway," the refrain goes.  "Why should I care about saving it?"

For folks who'd really rather see things turn for the better, that attitude of willful resignation is seriously problematic, because it contributes to things getting worse.

Here's the rub, though.  Even if you think John of Patmos wouldn't have known the Jesus of the Gospels if you'd whacked him upside the head with them, he was right in this one thing:

The earth is going to be completely destroyed.  Wiped clean, and cast into a lake of fire.

Of this, there is little doubt.  I'm sure of it, in fact, so sure that I'm right now going to pitch out a timeframe for that destruction, with at least as much confidence as Harold Camping.

If we're lucky, we've got just about two point eight billion years.

Well, less than that, actually.  But it all wraps up then, as our sun exhausts itself and swells outward into its red-giant phase, devouring the inner planets in a wash of fading fusion fire.  Life will become impossible.  The earth--everything that it is, everything that it will be--is unquestionably doomed.

So why should we care?  I mean, really, why should we?  What's our motivation? We know with certainty that even if we make every conceivable effort and turn our little garden world into a perfect utopia, it's going to be obliterated.

The motivation comes from our integrity in the present, and our stewardship over the time we have been given.  It's the same motivation that drives us to care for our bodies, even though we know we're going to eventually die.  It's the same motivation that moves us to love our children, even though we know the same thing will ultimately happen to them.

In this time, with this awareness we've been given, our task is to live out the justice and compassion of God's Reign.  Period.  And sure, it's all going to end.  That might be two point eight billion years away.  Or tomorrow, when an errant round fired by a K'tall singularity cannon during the battle for the p Eridani system comes tearing in at point seven five of lightspeed.

No matter what, our task is to be good and just stewards, living lives that reflect the integrity of our purpose.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Word of the Day: Chramming

"Cramming," the word is, new to our modern vocabulary.

It's what happens when a large company--typically a telecom--bills you for services you didn't ask for and didn't want.  Oh, sometimes you've agreed to the charges, technically.  They're hidden away in the legalese of that fifty page terms-of-use you looked at for thirty seconds.  And then every month, deep in the thickets of your incomprehensibly complex bill, there'll be a line or two detailing those charges that you'll just pay because you're in a hurry.

Twice in the last couple of years, I've had to ferret those charges out of our cell phone bills, as AT&T has "accidentally" provided us with nonessential extra services for about $15 extra bucks a month.  Charges like "voice activated calling," which the phone they sold me already does for free.  Or a "star-somethingorother" information service, because you know a smartphone just doesn't give me enough access to information already.

"Gosh, how did those get there," AT&T has said.  "Of course we'll take them right out."

And so out the unnecessary stuff goes, at least until the next time they try to sneak something in there.

It's been profitable for AT&T to layer in the stuff we don't need, hidden away in an incomprehensible thicket of charges.  Hundreds of millions of dollars of profitable per year, actually, as a recent judgment against the company revealed.

Things like this are why we don't trust big businesses, because we know they're always trying to sneak something in that we neither need nor want.

It has occurred to me, though, that there's a Christian analogue.  Something that Big Jesus does when it's getting you in the door.   That thing?

Let's call it: "chramming."

"Chramming" happens when you're drawn to the essential goodness of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.  Compassion and grace, forgiveness and purpose and personal transformation?  Lived out in my own life, and in a community of others walking that path?  

That's what you hear from the good folks who tell you about Jesus, and it's a pretty dang good thing.

I want to be part of that!  Sign me up!

And so you sign up.  But you notice, when you start paying attention, that other things are folded in.  You have to believe God hates certain people.  You have to believe some pretty bizarre things about the nature of creation, things that you know just aren't so from looking at things.   You have to believe some pretty weird stuff about Satan and the Rapture and demons.

Huh, you say.  I don't remember signing up for that.

"It was right there in our terms of use," they'll say, right back.

But chramming in things that don't serve the heart of the Gospel does no one any good.  If you have a belief you have to "sneak in there?"  Honeychild, the odds are good that has nothing to do with what's important anyhow.

Better to just stick with the reason folks showed up in the first place.