Friday, January 31, 2014

Listening to the Patient

After a cold...beaten a month ago...left behind a lingering cough in the chest of my 15 year old, we finally took him to a nearby clinic yesterday.  It's often too much of a bother going to a full-blown doctor, so I've started going to the nearby clinic embedded in a CVS.

Sure, it was "just" a nurse practitioner.  But they take their time, they listen, they do a thorough diagnosis, ask all the right questions, and can crank out a 'scrip from the clinic.  For things like sinus infections or the routine ailments of day-to-day existence, an attentive generalist works just fine.  We got there, filled out an electronic form, and the very moment I'd finished the form, we were seen.

As the pleasant Ghanaian nurse-practitioner ran her way through the testing and poking and prodding, she noted that my insurance card marked me as a "Rev."

"Oh," she said.  "You're a Reverend?"

I said that yes, I was.  "What church?"  I told her about my community.  "I'm Presbyterian too," she shared, smiling.  Cool, I said.  What church?

It was a nearby congregation, one I sorta knew.  You guys just got a new pastor, I said, talking shop.

"Oh yes," she said.  "We're very happy.  But I just wish that it hadn't taken so long.  I can't think of any good reason it should have taken so long."

And she talked for a bit about how her community developed a rapport with their long term interim, and lamented that they couldn't stay.  "We'd just gotten to know them," she said.  "And then it was like we had to start all over again.  It seemed like it was so much harder than it needed to be."

As she wrote up a prescription and printed out a diagnostic report, I marveled at just how consistent this feedback is.  Here I am, striking up a conversation about a new ministry, and what a layperson needs to report has to do not with hopes for the future, but with the unnecessary pain of an over-managed transition.

Yes, I know, I know, interims can be very valuable.

But at a certain point, no matter how much of an expert you are, you do have to listen to the patient.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sin of Being Small

An article made its way to me through my media feeds multiple times in the last week, so I bothered reading it today.   "Five Really Bad Reasons For Leaving Your Church," or somethin' like that.

It was a blog-missive from a church-plantin'-pastor type, admonishing Christians for some of the less-valid reasons they find to abandon a congregation, structured into one of those nice neat little lists that are a surefire way to drive web traffic.

It wasn't terrible, and I found myself agreeing with it, mostly, with one notable exception.

That exception came with bad-reason-number-two:  "The Church is Getting Too Big."   As a reason to leave, that tends to occur when a community is experiencing significant growth, and folks feel a sense of loss as the thing they valued disappears.

That, frankly, can be a major problem for some churches, as legitimate growth is sabotaged by human beings whose personal power within a community is threatened by newcomers.  On a more neutral front, it can be hard for others to find a way to let go of the sense of identity that a little fellowship provides.  There's real loss and mourning there, but that shouldn't prevent a community from being a place of welcome.

But the pesky thing with bloggery is that it tends to push us to make bolder statements.  Like, say, that: "Remaining small is a sad and unbiblical goal."  He then goes so far as to accuse those who like intimate communities of being "in need of repentance." As a small church pastor, that gets me dander up, it does.  But I took a few deep breaths, and tried to see it from his perspective.

Because even there, I can see where he's coming from.  We're not supposed to hide our light under a bucket, after all.  We are charged with going out into the world and spreading the Good News.

But organizational expansion and the Great Commission are very different things.  If I tell the Good News to another human being, and they are changed by it, that's the growth I seek.  I do not care if they choose to live that changed life out as a pledge unit in my community.  If I do, then the growth is about me and my desire, and not about the spread of the Spirit.

In point of fact, "remaining small" is paradoxically central to the growth of the Gospel.  This is why Big Parking Lot Churches so assiduously and carefully support small gatherings.  That's where relationship happens, and conversation happens, and sustained transformation happens.  It's where the Spirit moves most freely.  The big emotional hit of a perfectly choreographed crowd-worship?  That fades away as quickly as Psy's fame.  It is not growth.  The meat and life of the Way is in those places where you are connecting to other flawed, struggling, growing, beautiful souls, and walking the walk with them.

Those places are small.

"Growth is inevitable," he suggests.  It isn't, because it can't be.  Not every community is growing.  I recently spent a weekend in West Virginia, and as I wended my way down some lovely, twisty country roads, I passed dozens of small churches.  There is no sprawl there.  It's rural, and population is either stable or declining.

Churches there do not grow large, because they are not in the urban, suburban, or exurban places where growth in our culture is occurring.  Are these rural gatherings illegitimate?  Are they not places where the Gospel is needed and legitimately expressed?  I cannot believe either of those things to be so.  But it is easy, in our consumer culture, to equate numerical expansion with what is good.  This is not so.

"If you don't like big churches, you wouldn't have liked the first church, and you certainly won't like heaven," he suggests.

I'm not quite so sure on either of those points.  First, the "first church," assuming he's talking about the ones Paul and Apollos and Cephas and others planted?  Those were house churches.  Not large, not flashy, not hundreds and hundreds of souls.  By our standards, those were small gatherings.  So I'm not quite sure what that means.   And second: heaven?  I don't think it bears any resemblance to Big Stadium Worship.  Or anything we now understand.  I mean, seriously, dude.

Yes, I know American culture venerates expansion and growth.  Just look at our midsections.

But let's not cast aside the small without considering what we're throwing away.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The "Unharmed"

It was yet another in the endless series of shootings in the United States, notable primarily because it was so close and because it continues to be inexplicable.

This time, it was three dead in a skate shop in a mall in Columbia, Maryland.  The victims: A young man working at the store.  A young woman, the assistant manager, whose name was distinctive enough that I Googled her, which I'll sometimes do when a name is released.  I probably shouldn't, but it's hard not to want to know who a person was.

There she was on FaceBook, just a soft-eyed twenty-something kid.  There were pictures of her getting a large tattoo.  Mostly, there were pictures of her with her toddler son, a tiny little button of a boy.

And then there was the "shooter," a young man of the same age.  He'd shown no signs of any propensity for violence to anyone, not to friends, not to family.  When he'd bought his Mossberg pump-action 12 gauge from a Maryland gun shop, the folks there saw no warning signs at all.  He was genial, inquisitive, and utterly unthreatening.  He didn't seem like a gun-obsessive.  Just a completely average, normal, 19 year old.

But after using his brand new shotgun to kill two young people he did not know, he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  Which, I suppose, is why it took so long to ID him.  Home-defense-grade buckshot at point blank range doesn't leave much besides a mess.

Five more people were harmed in the event, all hurt in the process of fleeing.

One detail of this event, dropped almost in passing, has stuck in my mind this week.  There were four people in the skate shop.  There were the two employees.  There was the man with the shotgun.

And there was one other customer.   They haven't been named, of course.  All the articles have said about this person was:

"The other customer was unharmed."

Were they unharmed, though?  I cannot imagine that such an experience would leave a soul untouched.  You are in a small space with three other people.  Suddenly it is filled with thunder and blood, and then there is only you and the young man before you with a wickedly efficient little scattergun.

You have just seen people die.  Your death is imminent, right there about to happen.  You know how this story goes, because it is so familiar.

And then he puts the gun in his mouth.

Would you be "unharmed" by this experience?  If you were a sociopath, perhaps.  But most human beings feel the ripples of violence deep in themselves.  That experience...primal terror, the near-certainty of death, the trauma...would burn a deep groove into you.

This would be a defining moment, and one hard to move past. "Unharmed" seems an inadequate descriptive term, in the same way "uninjured" seems the wrong way to describe a young private who has just watched a IED tear the life from the guy he'd been laughing and gaming with the night before.

I wonder, frankly, if we as a nation are unharmed by these repeated experiences.  They are not immediate for most of us, sure.  But we are aware that pointless, random killings are now a part of our culture.  At any point, anywhere, and at any time, there might be a "shooter."

And so we think about it.  A lot. We are aware of it.  We maintain a patrol mentality, always on alert.  We feel the need to distrust, to be armed just in case.

And we, too, are "unharmed."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

God, Science, and The Multitude of Multiverses

As I continue to gently pitch my last book into the great yawning abyss of the interwebs, one of the ways I've been keeping engaged with the peculiar intersection between faith and multiverse/Many Worlds cosmology is through social media.  Every article, every new book, every bit of digestible information that is created exploring this wild new cosmology?  Thanks to the glories of the net, I'm there, and it gets added in to the list for reading or viewing.

One slightly older piece that I recently encountered was an article by an atheist/skeptic, who attempted to answer the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

The article lays out a sequence of answers that scientific cosmology has given to this question, playing out an array of different theories.  The idea of a Creator is included, of course, but it is quickly dismissed.  So it goes.  We all have our blinders, so there's no point in having a whack at that one.

What was more interesting was that most of the cosmologies described were one form of multiverse or another.  Because, brothers and sisters, there ain't just one multiverse theory.  There's the Darwinian multiverse, and the inflationary multiverse.  There's the branching Everettian Many Worlds quantum multiverse, and the "brane" multiverse.  There's the 10 to the 500 possible universes that might arise from string theory, or the quantum foam multiverse.

I've read through listings of these various competing theories before, and they're fascinating.

But what I found myself wondering, as I perused these explanations, was whether they are mutually exclusive.  Oh, some might just be plain ol' wrong, sure.  But then again, many of them may be right. Most of them might be right, because there seems room in these theories for interplay with one another.  Within each of these multiverse theories, there seems to be space for others.

Why not an evolving, bubbling, budding, splitting, quantum-branching multiverse, one that layers impossible complexity on top of impossible complexity?

On the one hand, that would be wildly dizzying, a yawning chasm in which no one view of creation could ever claim ultimate purchase.

On the other hand, well, at least it would mean science would never run out of ways to keep itself occupied, like a dog let off the leash into an endless field filled with squirrels.

"Go get 'em," says the Creator.  God can be cool like that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fake It 'Til You Make It

A few days ago, I found myself sitting around with a bunch of Jesus folks, talking about the impact of the prosperity gospel on folks who are struggling.  If being "blessed" is best understood in terms of material prosperity, then if you aren't visibly and materially prosperous, there must be something wrong with you.

We shared about folks we'd known who'd been presenting themselves as wealthy, when in fact they were financing their apparently comfortable lifestyle through credit card debt and an endless string of ever more punitive loans.

"Yeah," said one of my good sisters.  "You got to fake it 'til you make it."

The others in the group laughed and nodded.  The idea, as it got bandied about, is that if you project the image of prosperity, you are much more likely to prosper.  People will assume you're successful, and from that assumption, will treat you as if you were.  Work will come your way, and connections will be made, and you'll be in like Flynn.

That's the idea, anyway.  What happens with greater frequency is that our expectations of how we must appear to others drives us to make decisions that are ultimately our downfall.  Our debt-financed lives crash down around us.  The lies we tell the world about who we are back up into an unsustainable mess, and we crumble into nothing.  The only people this mindset serves are the folks who own us.

If the appearance of wealth and material prosperity are our goal, then our efforts to "fake it" will destroy us.  Just ask former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell about how that whole "fake it" thing worked out for him.

Then a day or so later, I found myself sitting around with another bunch of Jesus folks, talking about how we struggle our way through the relationships we have with those around us.  Those people who make themselves really hard to love, who are hateful and hurtful to us, who betray our trust and beat us down?  How are we supposed to deal with them, if we're serious about how Jesus taught us to love our enemies?

We all shared stories, about other church folks who'd done everything in their power to tear us down. How could we love those people?  How could we forgive those folks, when we don't really even want to try?

"Yeah," said one of my good sisters.  "You've got to fake it 'til you make it."  At which the others in the group laughed and nodded.

It was an interesting conjunction.

And I wondered, in those times where I've dealt respectfully with human beings I would really much rather have punched full on in the face in that moment, whether I was faking it.

I don't think so, not really.  In those exchanges...and I have had those exchanges...I recognize that my rage and my anxiety are a legitimate reaction to a broken thing.  I also recognize that the actions of the person in question aren't to be justified or glossed over.

But I also recognize that my primary allegiance is to my faith, and to the path that Jesus taught.  Even if I am required to discontinue relationship with someone, I cannot allow myself to imagine that they are irredeemable or that the possibility of their restoration is impossible.

If I rage at them, not just articulating my anger but being ruled by it, then I am acting in a way that would impede their healing and their growth.  I am reducing the probability of their transformation.

And given my commitment to the Gospel, I just can't do that.

It's hard, but it's not false, any more than duty is false, or faith, hope, and love are false.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why They Don't Grow Up

There's a whole bunch of fretting on the part of parents these days about helicopter parenting, that tendency of anxious, competitive moms and dads to micromanage every aspect of their child's existence.  It causes all sorts of stressors, and most recently has been cited as an impediment to the personal growth of millennials.

How can you ever grow, if your parents continue to manage your existence deep into your twenties?

I buy that, but I think there's something else at play here.  That something has to do with the nature and character of adulthood.

When I was a kid, I remember watching my parents.  When not working and maintaining a household, they did interesting things.  Their lives were filled with music and dinner parties, outings and gatherings with other adults.  They played sports with other adults, and had adult friends over for cocktails.

Their lives did not revolve around me.  Oh, they loved me and my brother, and paid attention to our schooling and our development.

But they had their own lives, which they enjoyed.  Their lives were theirs.  Because they were grownups.  They were grownups who'd grown up in an era when adolescence was a time to transition into adulthood.

Heck, look at any yearbook from the 1950s and 1960s.  These are high-schoolers, and they look like they're thirty.  I remember looking back at these old yearbooks and marveling at them when I was a teen.  These were my peers?  How is that even possible?

These were kids who wanted to be adults, to look like adults, to act like adults.  They wanted to engage with adult culture.  Adult culture wanted them to engage.

Yeah, I know, it was flawed.  Really flawed.  But flawed as that era was, at least people wanted to be adults.  There were jobs and careers.  There was a sense of purpose, and hope that things would be better tomorrow than they are today.

When the children of helicopter parents watch them now, what do they see?

They see parents utterly consumed with the busyness and stress of parenting.  They see parents whose adult relationships are often almost entirely defined by their children's activities.  They see an adulthood that has folded in around childhood like a collapsing star, crushing it under the gravitic weight of cultural expectations and social anxieties.

It's not just that helicopter parenting inhibits personal growth.

Perhaps our children do not want the adulthood we show them.  Is it any surprise they struggle to "grow up?"

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A World Full of Demons

Some news is just harder to hear.

It's been a few days since the story broke nationally, of a couple of young women in a townhouse in nearby suburban Maryland.  Neighbors had noticed that things were getting twitchy, that there were loud noises at night and that the women seemed "off."   Police were called, but nothing was found.

Eventually, a child was left outside in a car, and the women responded strangely and aggressively to those who tried to figure out what was going on.  A bloody knife was left on the ground, near children's clothing.  When the police intervened, they discovered that the women...with indeterminate histories of mental illness...had become convinced that their children were demon possessed, and had stabbed two of them to death.  The kids were one and two years old.  Tragic.

Hearing this bit of terribleness, one detail consistent in the reportage was that the two women had met at a small nondenominational church.  It was hard not to presume a connection.  Women obsessed with demons met at a spiritual community?  I became immediately curious about the character of this community.

I went to the web presence of Exousia Ministries, this story was nationally had been shut down after it exceeded bandwidth allowances on its ISP.  The Facebook page has nothing much on it beyond an invite to attend the birthday celebration for the pastor's mother, and the Twitter account has only retweets from folks like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.

Not to be deterred, I checked for cached data on Google.

What was remarkable about what I found was just how unremarkable the church was.  It's your standard storefront health-and-wealth ministry,  affiliated loosely with Creflo A. Dollar's prosperity church.   It was started by a pastor, who runs the church like a little family business with his mother.

I sorted through the cache for relevant sermons, but of course, this being a nondenominational church, there was no text.  Preaching is only done from outline, so what you get is just the skeleton of a message.

One did catch my eye.  It was from late last year, and entitled: "Fixing the Messed Up Mind."

That seemed relevant, so I skimmed the very brief outline.  It lays out a pretty standard lumpencharismatic approach to personal dysfunction.  Meaning:  Your internal struggles are because you are fighting Satan and demonic powers.

Ah.  There you go.  I've known evangelicals who understood the world--and mental illness--in exactly those terms.  Issues are not psychological, or psychopharmacological.  They are demons and the demonic.

But this tragedy highlights the big challenge with demon-talk.  As a metaphor, it has some utility.  Lord knows there are powers and principalities out there messing with the world, and I'll use that language myself sometimes.  And there are constructive therapeutic uses for "externalizing" or "naming" a dysfunction.  In narrative therapy, it can help depersonalize conflict, and help an individual see their agency outside of a consuming addiction or pattern of life.

But as a worldview, it can also play darkly with the souls of those prone to mental illness, creating the issue it purports to combat.  If you believe that vast and monstrous forces are controlling your life, it becomes easy to give up, and use that understanding to justify your drift into very desperate and broken places.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Open Letter to Kaye Kory

Dear Representative Kory:

Hi there!  Our neighborhood association recently circulated one of your emails, one in which you highlighted all of your legislative accomplishments over the course of the last year.  It was a good, solid list, one that generally represented your moderate/progressive record.  Education, transportation, and the environment are clearly important to you.

At the end of the letter, you invited feedback/responses/input, which is why I felt the urge to pitch you this little missive.  I'm sharing it with my small blog audience, too, as much as I struggle with the "open letter" as a tired and hackneyed net-theme.

My interest, as a progressive and a pastor, is the spread of title-lending companies in your district.  I've lived in this area for nearly forty years, and watched as Northern Virginia has grown and changed.  It's only within the last five years that title-lenders have started becoming a significant presence.  There are now four active title-lenders in the center of Annandale alone, and this is not a positive development for Northern Virginia.  It is a mark of blight.


Because these are predatory businesses.  There is no other way to accurately describe what they do.  They exist to lend desperate people money at outrageous rates, meaning annual percentage rates that are close to ten times what you'd pay on credit card debt.

The owners of these highly profitable "businesses" will argue that they're just meeting a need in the community.  This isn't true.  Like their payday-lending cousins, they are preying on the struggling and the weakest, with a "business model" that traps the vulnerable into an often inescapable cycle of debt.  Unable to pay interest exceeding 300% APR, these individuals lose their vehicles to title-lenders, a loss which drives them further into a cycle of poverty.

I'd encourage you to read this report from the Center for Responsible Lending, which details the impact of these "businesses."  Or this article at Bankrate dot com, which steers citizens away from these businesses.  Or this investigative piece from CNN.

But this is about more than just data.  As a pastor, I know the people who are impacted.  These "businesses" destroy lives.

I bring this to your attention...and to the attention of any Virginia progressives who might read this blog...because the rise of title lenders has been significantly supported by Virginia Democrats.  A review of the legislative history of the growth of these businesses shows that they have a powerful champion in your friend and Democratic colleague Senator Dick Saslaw, who within the last several years has sponsored legislation to allow title-lenders to lend on out-of-state titles.

You voted in favor of that legislation, Kaye.  

As a progressive pastor, let me tell you what your vote did.  It took a car away from a young addict who was struggling to pull their life back together.  It drove a recovering ex-con into a debt cycle that compromised his ability to pay child support.  These aren't canned anecdotes or hypotheticals.  These are people I personally know and pray for.

Not all Democrats have given legislative aid and comfort to these businesses.  Those who represent communities where the malignant presence of title-lenders has been felt...particularly African American Democrats in Norfolk and some of the progressives in Northern Virginia...have voted against the legislation that the Democratic leadership in the Senate has sponsored.  To be fairly nonpartisan, some of those who vote against the spread of these businesses are conservatives, who find their abuse of the poor to be against biblical values.

I realize that you generally champion progressive causes.  Your support of this "industry" seems out of keeping with the rest of your record.

So my question to you is simple: what are you, as my progressive state representative, going to do to defend the vulnerable from these predators?

Peace and Blessings,

Rev. David Williams

Monday, January 20, 2014

Forty Five

I hit the halfway mark yesterday.  Well, I might not have.  One never knows.

But yesterday marked forty-five orbits around the sun.  I've always assumed, given family history and cultural trends, that I'll make it to around ninety.  That could be cut short by illness or an errant meteor, or it could be extended by some random happenstance or cybernetic augmentation.

Still and all, the probability seems most strong that I'm right smack in the middle of my existence.  That can be a source of anxiety for many.  "I haven't done what I need to do!"  "It's all downhill from here!"  "I want to be young!  I want to be young again!"

In this place of midlife, we can become desperate.  We can scrabble for pieces of our former selves, clawing our way out of relationships that we falsely blame for our ennui.  We can try to consume our way out of aging, buying cars and shoes and boats and toys.  We can surgically alter ourselves, planting fields of hair plugs on our balding pates, or stretching and pulling our faces into a strained mask of youth.

If we are content where we are, and with who we are, those anxieties don't claw at us.  It's hard to resist, as our culture pours fears of our own inadequacy into us.  But so far, at least, I am mostly content with my rumpled, quiet little hobbit-life.

Am I midlifing?  Perhaps just a little bit.  I have found myself hankering for little red italian sportscars lately.  But that I'm still puttering around on a motorcycle that can run with vehicles costing more than my house diminishes that desire a little bit.

There's no reason to grasp for a sense of the self you have lost, if you've not forgotten that self in the first place.

I'm writing more, and reading more, and attending to to what I eat.  I'm fit-ish, enough that I feel good, but not so much that I'm futilely trying to stave off the advance of my mortality.  I am not twenty five any more.  That, I do not fear.  There is no point in fearing it.

And so, unafraid, I'm living slowly.  In that willful slowness, I think I'm fine being forty five.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Riding Like a Libertarian

I heard him coming, as did everyone for two hundred yards in every direction.  He came up fast on the right, slicing at speed between two cars and leaping over three lanes of traffic to lock himself into the crawling fast lane.

It was a Harley, a Street Glide, modded with a large single exhaust that amplified the already sufficient ruckus of Milwaukee Iron into a din that drowned out everything around it.

The rider was wearing the uniform that identified him as A Loner and a Rebel (tm).  The leather jacket.  The black leather stomper boots.  The little beanie helmet and the aviator sunglasses.  His face, as I caught it for a moment, was be expected in forty degree weather.  

It's why I wear gear designed for function, not to help me pretend I'm an extra on Sons of Anarchy.

He leaped to and fro in traffic ahead of me, roaring in front of cars, tossing himself from lane to lane in a futile attempt to get ahead of the pack. 

I signaled and moved my Suzuki to the far right.  Traffic is best understood in terms of fluid dynamics, like you're dealing with a thick semi-sentient particulate sludge, shoving itself through a pipe on tiny cilia and flagellum.  I knew, ahead, that there was an outlet, and that being in that place relative to the flow would gain me time.

I passed him on the right, moving easily with the new flow created by the exit.  His machine bellowed and snarled as he pointlessly bullied his way into each momentary advantage, and he fell behind me.

I wondered if the rider knew that he wasn't making the impression he thought he was making.  Loud pipes don't save lives.  They just make people dislike motorcyclists.  I'm sensitive to that, as a rider.  No one looks at the roaring, aggressive biker or the testosterone-addled crotch rocket pilot and sees freedom.  "Freedom" isn't the word people mumble under their breath as you tear past them, kids.

Which is a pity, because riding is freedom.

It brings out the libertarian in me, riding does.  I don't ride to be part of a herd or a group.  I have never understood the desire to be trapped in a column with a hundred other identically-dressed loners and rebels.  It looks less like freedom, and more like commuting, or marching in a military drill.

I ride because it's pleasurable, and because it feels freeing to be able to move through traffic like it's nothing.  And I do that, whenever I need to.  When traffic has locked down completely, when the grid has seized up in a vast steel stroke, I move out of it, and into the spaces in between.  Yeah, I know.  I'm a lane-splitter.  It's legal, sort of, meaning it's legal in Europe and in some states.

But I do so quietly and respectfully.  My bike is bright, tall, narrow, and quiet.  When I "filter," which I do in locked down urban traffic, I do so slowly and systematically, and in such a way that I'm not going to startle or upset anyone.

Why should I sit in traffic, if my vehicle allows me to move through traffic without harming others?  Why should I add to the problem, when I can flow through it like light through water, like a subatomic particle through matter?

Use your freedom, while respecting the liberty and integrity of others.  It's the only way you can really claim to be a libertarian.

Friday, January 17, 2014

It's All Good

No, it isn't.

I've been hearing that contemporary saying repeatedly over the last few weeks.  It's surfaced in both of my courses, as something of a mantra among many of my classmates struggling with stress and human mess.  It's been present in conversations outside of studies, and in engagement through social media.  I know it's a well-meaning thing, something people say as they're trying to shake off another one of life's kicks in the gut.  But every time I hear those words, I find myself struggling not to interject with a caveat or five. 

Because it isn't all good.

Oh, sure, bad things can become good.  I think that in every moment, the potential for good exists.  Things can get better, or be turned to a good end.  That possibility rests as a reality in the knowledge of our Maker.  It's also a significant, nontrivial part of the Christian understanding of suffering and redemption.  We can find ways to endure and overcome the challenges of our mortal condition, and in that enduring and overcoming, there is a deeper strength.

But it isn't all good.  There are states of being that do not represent the good.  There are decisions that are not good.  There are actions that deepen social injustice and personal brokenness.  There are choices that establish or reinforce patterns of subjugation or abuse.

When I think to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, or the lynchings in the American South, or children butchered in the Congo, I cannot find a place for such a saying in the reality of the human story.  I cannot look to them and say, "It's all good."

Neither do I see God's hand in any of these actions.  My understanding of God's power is complex, as complex as Creation itself, and from that I know that within the dynamics of that power space is made for us to deny the best graces of our Maker.  God does not force us to rest in the divine love.  We can cast ourselves into hells that lie far from the nature of God.

When we do, our actions are perversions of God's intent for us, the dark fruit of beings willing to use their God-given liberty in defiance of the one law that measures all human action.  These things are neither good, nor do they serve the good.

It reminds me of the popular saying that so miffed both Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the one that reinforced hopelessness in the hearts of the enslaved people of Israel.  This saying reinforces our sense...a wrong sense...that every moment is great, and that every moment is equal.  'Cause kids?  Some things just aren't good.  They never needed to have happened.

When we say that, and think that, it feels like we're getting it wrong.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Primal Church, Primate Church

Last week, I've cranked through the second-to-last class for my D.Min. program.  It's one of my two electives, and has been an opportunity to get out of the churchybook-leadershippy-organizational focus of my program and back into some heavy lifting scripturally.

The class itself was a deep look at Pauline literature, with a specific focus on the sociocultural dynamics of first century Greco-Roman culture.  Yeah, I know, but I love that stuff.  Totally floats my boat, it does, as Yoda might say. 

I've always found the historical context of our sacred texts deepened my sense of their reality, and knowing the culture that shapes a text really also lights up the texts in a different way.

Roman culture, after all, was not exactly like our own.  Understandings of what it meant to be in a household, what it meant to have honor and value in the culture, and even what it meant to be a person?  All of those things were different.  Knowing those differences is absolutely key to grasping the purpose of much of what Paul had to say to that gaggle of messy communities that started the whole Jesus movement.

What was particularly striking the class as we progressed was just how radically countercultural Paul's teachings were in the first century.  Teachings that tear down or subvert the social hierarchy might seem an easy thing to a culture that celebrates individualism, but in a rigidly structured society in which honor, shame, and rank were the primary currency, those teachings were more than just interesting.  They were borderline insane.  Doing for others, with no regard for yourself and your position?  Nuts. 

But for all of the differences between first century culture and our own, what is even more striking for me has been the degree to which we homo sapiens sapiens haven't changed as creatures in the millennia since Paul wrote.  Oh, we might like to think that we have.  We might like to think that the dynamics of power aren't the same in our world.  But power and prestige are still potent things.  We still curry favor, and view our relationships with one another in terms of power dynamics and our own advantage.  We still do favors with the idea that we will be the powerful patron, to whom subordinates will be grateful and loyal.

Having grown up inside the Beltway, and worked in the DC area, this truth is inescapable.

So as we reflected on the countercultural character of the Gospel in the first century, we also reflected on how it remains countercultural.  And I, in my usual introvert-mutant way, also mused on how that radical message of love for other is not just countercultural, but somehow runs contrary to our biological nature.

Because Rome and Washington may think of themselves as more complex than our primate ancestors, but really?  We're not.  We still align ourselves with strength.  We seek the power of the group.  We pick nits from that silverback, knowing that he'll protect us.  We align ourselves with those whose power matches our own, and together fling poo at those interlopers who are trying to mess with what is ours. 

And yet to we higher primates, somehow from a deeper place there has come the realization that this is not the best way of sentient life.  We show kindness to show kindness, not for our own gain.  We provide help not just to those of our tribe or group or family, but to those who might be viewed as competitors.

It's a very odd message.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Gods and Angels of Atheism

Having steeped myself in the writings and worldviews of the first century CE for much of the last week, an odd fragment that stuck in my head, one that came from the peculiarity of dipping my consciousness into a radically polytheistic pre-modern context.

Ancient Rome was a great heaping smorgasbord of gods and godlings, of peculiar beliefs from far off lands and odd mystery cults whose initiation rituals made joining the Masons look like applying for a library card.  It's worldview was a riot of magical beings and angelic influences, of spirits of the wood and stone and sky.  The world was rich with mystery.

Because my brain is peculiarly wired, I found myself taking that and playing it off of the secular assumptions of twentieth-century atheism about the nature of our cosmos.  There is no God, and there are no gods, and there are no spiritual beings, atheism asserts, with the certainty of empirical knowledge.

And yet, if Neil Degrasse-Tyson were to sit down with Cicero to describe what is known and expected about the nature of things, I wonder how that ancient would hear what he had to say.  Particularly when it comes to the heavens, and the gods.

Because in the heavens, most likely, there are living beings strange to us.  The cosmos is simply too vast to deny this as a probability.  Some may be simpler creatures, barely recognizable as life.  But some may have powers and capacities so beyond our own as to invoke Clarke's Third Law.  In fact, given the scope and scale of our time and space, the existence of such beings is not just possible, but likely.

This is why folks like Stephen Hawking would like us to maybe stop announcing our presence quite so loudly.  Who knows what beings lurk in the endless fastness?

Explaining what science knows and believes about existence to Cicero would just get a nod of agreement.  Oh, sure, he'd be a bit stunned at the size of things, but human beings adapt quickly.  I'm not sure the scientific view of the nature of existence would be quite as different from his worldview as one might like to think.  Beings more advanced than we?  Creatures inhabiting the heavens, with powers so beyond our own as to be indistinguishable from magic? 

Well, of course, the ancients would have thought.  You're describing the gods.

Funny, how little we humans have changed.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Consuming the Olympics

In yesterday's Washington Post, a peculiar article sat on the bottom of the front page.  It was an article about the upcoming winter Olympics, and the difficult news that one of the more promising Alpine skiers was not going to be able to compete due to an injury.

It's a terrible thing for that person, as I'm sure her whole life has been devoted to this pursuit.  What was peculiar, though, was the "spin" of the story.  It wasn't about her loss.  It was about the deep concern on the part of corporate America at losing one of the more "marketable" Olympians.  The expert quoted in the story was not an athlete or a coach or a former Olympian skier, but a professor of marketing at a business school.

Because what was most interesting about this athlete was not that she was highly skilled and gifted.  She was the standards of our culture...physically attractive.  "Runway-ready," as the article put it, and here they're not talking about airports, but about fashion and appearance.  "Sexy," as the article did not put it.  But we know what it meant, because..well..that's kind of the way our culture has framed this particular athlete.

And with her bowing out, those who view the Olympics as an opportunity to gather eyeballs to market product are concerned.  There are hundreds of other Olympians, of course, who've trained for their entire lives to try their skills in this contest of the best of the best.

But our consumer culture cares more about marketability than it does about talent and discipline.   Where are the pretty ones?  The "sexy" ones?  The ones we can slap into a swimsuit and use to sell our [stuff]?

I know we 'Murikans tend to roll our eyes at radically socialist Olympic systems, which seize on promising toddlers and take their lives away, driving them relentlessly.  Those systems seem disrespectful of their humanity, and their integrity as persons.

But our culture ain't exactly perfect on that front, neither.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Strange Songs God Sings To Us

I had a really solid conversation with someone who's planning on joining my little church this last Sunday.  It was technically the opening theological portion of my new member's class, but, er, I don't tend to approach that quite as systematically as other Jesus folks.   Fifteen weeks of theology before you're empowered to tag along for the ride?  Ack.  For some reason, I don't remember Jesus inflicting that on his disciples.  "Set down your nets and follow me, for now I will make you sit through twenty hours of coursework" just doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

I figure, you come, you connect, and when you hear the Gospel and want to join in the sharing of it, you're in.  You've got a lifetime to learn and grow.

My classes area bit more free-range than most, particularly if it's a one on one or just a couple of folks, which it tends to be in a small church.

So our conversation about the Trinity ended up touching briefly on music, and how odd it was that such a universal human thing could be so divisive.  Human beings tend to be musical creatures, and our love of song leaps across the boundaries of culture into every corner of every moment of our history.

It unites us as a deep commonality, or at least that's the idea.  But in actuality, it divides us. We sing, but we sing different songs.  And Lord, but does that bug us when it comes to sharing or being open to other forms.  The "music wars" in churches are legendary, as advocates of traditional music butt heads with those who like "contemporary" music.  Then there are those secular songs we sing in our societies, as wildly distinct as hip hop and country, as modern classical and pop.

I'll confess that I have my own preferences, which tend to be eclectic and wildly variant. I don't like consumerist treacle, I don't like selfishness, misogyny or the willfully simplistic.  But I try to be open, and I try to tolerate other musical styles and find what grace there is to be found in them.  I also can't help thinking how peculiar our arguments over song must seem for God.  Particularly those arguments had by faithful folk of every ilk.

The cultural differences between us, the ones that drive our musical aesthetics, these can't even begin to compare with the depth of the existential chasm that separates us from our Maker.  And as God sings to us, those songs aren't just the ones that we know and love.  Yes, God knows our tunes, and uses them.  But the repertoire of the Numinous goes deep.

There are songs God sings that use words we don't even understand, in languages and forms that are alien to our culture and to our sensibility.  We have to be careful, in our particularity, that we do not close ourselves off to those peculiar tunes.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"Is God Dying?"

A few weeks ago, with my son ensconced in his drum lesson, I settled in at the library across the street to do some light magazine reading for pleasure.  It's still satisfying reading things that aren't screens, although I'm one of an increasingly small number of folks who actually do this.

The magazine in question: the December issue of Scientific American, which teased me in with an article written by a couple of psychologists on a recent study tracking the impact of internet use on the human capacity to remember.  It was...well...about right.  The author suggested that humans evolved to rely on distributed social memory, meaning, if you didn't know something, your friend would.  That's just part of the way human beings think and store information.

Now, our "friend" is Google, and we're increasingly using it to store our memories.  I've written about this before, of course, but I also live it out.  That's the point of this blog, after all.  It's my cloud-memory, set to "share" so that it can be yours, too.

But that article led me to another article.

"Is God Dying," it asked.  

It was an article by an atheist/skeptic, writing on the varying different studies showing a decline of religiosity in developed countries.  It was, to be fair, not a polemic at all, just a teaser title to suck in the reader.  Because the idea of God dying because certain human faith traditions are diminishing/changing is absurd.  If God exists, our faith or lack of faith is immaterial to that existence. 

But the concept underlying the question sent my mutant brain on a related but unintended path.

God is not dead or dying.  But is God alive in the first place?

I mean, sure, yeah, we Jesus folk will talk about the Living God...but when we think about life, and what it means to be alive, I'm not sure our statements about the Divine really mesh with the way that we understand what it means to be a living being.

In a biological sense, living systems have certain characteristics.  As we look out into the immensity of our universe, humankind hopes that somewhere, somehow, we might find that we're not the only ones here.  And as biology has struggled to come up with ways to understand what fundamentally constitutes "life," so's we'll have some clue of what it is when we stumble across it out there in the vastness, they've come up with some fundamentals.

Like: Life changes.  Life grows.

Has that ever been a part of the way we understand God?  I'm not sure that it has.  The idea of immutability, unchangeability, and permanence are kinda sorta core concepts when we consider God's identity.  Even if we factor in the radical generativity and "fecundity" of the divine, that change and growth is bounded by God's atemporal nature.

Like:  Life reproduces.

Yeah, I know, we say Jesus is the Son of God, but Christianity has never meant by that anything like the whole "Zeus as a Goose doing the humpty-hump with Leda" thing.  God creates and begets.  God doesn't reproduce in the same way that organic systems reproduce.  You want to quibble with that, I'll invite you to engage with the millennia of orthodox Christian exploration of the concept.  When you're done, come back and let's about a hundred years or so.

I think, ultimately, that the idea of God being "alive" seems to be a category error, particularly if we understand life in biological terms.