Friday, February 28, 2014

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Earlier this week, our increasingly creaky van was in the shop for some maintenance and repairs.  Which meant that it needed to be dropped off two point seven miles from our house.  I could have asked the missus for a ride back, I suppose, but it was lovely and snowing, just about perfect for a brisk forty minute walk.

Way I figure it, why hit the gym for cardio?  I've got the entire planet as a treadmill.

So having dropped it off, I walked back home, through flakes of fluffy puffy snow, on backroads and through neighborhoods.  When the time came to go back and pick the van up, I returned on foot.

In one of those neighborhoods, I passed a little church, tucked away on the corner of a nowhere street.  Given the age of its construction, it had probably been some flavor of the old-line back in the 1960s.  Now it was Korean Presbyterian, a little independent jobbie, not affiliated with any particular denomination.  At the front entrance leading to the parking lot, there were a batch of signs in a neat little row.  Most I could not read, given my incapacity with hangul script.

But three I could read.

One smiled pleasantly.  Be faithful, it said.  Be encouraging!

I will assume, from my admitted ignorance, that the script above the English said exactly the same thing as the text I could read.

One of these days, I'll have to get one-a-them funky new instant translator apps for my phone.  So funny, this whole "living in the future now" thing that our culture often has going on.

But then there were two other signs, right next to the happy blue smiley sign.

Those two had a slightly different flavor.  Well, OK, a completely different flavor, a taste that is
perhaps best described as "Get offa mah property ripple."  Or "Don't touch my stuff crunch."

"If you park, and you are not one of us, you will be towed, and then billed for your towing.  Do not come here.  This belongs to us.  This is not yours.  We are watching you like a hawk.

And if you'd like to hear this message again in Spanish, please press one now."

Though I've certainly encountered this mentality in congregations that rose out of the Korean American experience...sweet Lord Jesus, but have I...it's hardly limited to that sub-community of Jesus-folk.

It is, in fact, very much the way many Christian gatherings express themselves into the world.

On the one hand, we have what we claim to be good news, our story of a powerful and transforming relationship with our loving Creator, written into being in the person of Jesus, and moving among us through the power of God's own Spirit.

On the other, we're kind of obnoxious about things.  We're tight with our stuff.  We get mean. We're territorial.  We're often cruel.   The way we live our lives in the material world in which our souls are rooted bears no resemblance to the stuff we say.

And this is important, because our every action is a sign, pointing out to others what it is we value and what it is that defines us.  When we set those signs out, people do notice.

The Pastor's Half-Million Dollar Home

The letter came in the mail yesterday, one of the few dead-tree items that wasn't just materially manifested spam.

It was Fairfax County's annual assessment of the value of our home.  It's not much to look at, really it isn't.  Our domain sits on barely a quarter acre, just a tick over 1,300 square feet of finished space, a squat and ivy-covered four bedroom and three-bath bit of suburbia.  It's brick and cinderblock and over-braced, sturdy and solidly built, representing state-of-the-art 1961 homebuilding.  The bedrooms are small, and the bathrooms are tiny.  But really, honestly, how large does a bathroom need to be?  It gets 'er done.

When we bought in, fourteen years ago, it stretched us.  Two part-time nonprofit salaries adding up to the equivalent of one and a quarter full jobs, as we juggled work and babies and sanity?  That meant that we really pushed to get our way to the $249,000 asking price of the house.  

Then things went crazy, and prices soared to wild levels.  In late 2005, houses exactly like ours were selling for $600,000.  Then...like everything else in that debt-fever housing bubble...they crashed, and hard, dropping back into the mid three-fifties.  It was not an easy time for those who came after us.  At the top of our street, a home still sits abandoned, where underwater peak-purchase owners fled and left it after their insane mortgage proved unmanageable.

And now, the values are up again.  According to the county, our home is worth sixty thousand more dollars this year than it was last year.  Four hundred and sixty four thousand, to be exact.  Not sure if that's oversharing, but hey, the data is out there.  My Zillow Zestimate is even higher, at just about five hundred thousand even.  Half a million dollars.

According to the values of our culture, this is supposed to be a good thing.  That's a minimum of another sixty thousand dollars of home equity!  And fifteen percent in a year?  Thats a pretty solid annual ROI!

But I can't see it that way.  Perhaps I'm just stubborn, or insane.  Most likely so.  I just can't help but remember being in my late twenties.  I have not forgotten the self that I was, when a home was something we were striving for.

That means I can't look at the resurgent price of real-estate with any joy.  The housing market has recovered, chirrup those who tell us what we're supposed to believe.  But it smells wrong, and tastes wrong.

Sure, I benefit, I guess.  But my own profit is meaningless to me ethically.  Like I said, perhaps I'm just insane.

I know two things about home prices.  Because I follow the markets, I know that the rise in prices now is not being driven by new homeowner demand.  Houses are selling, sure, particularly given the still-low cost of borrowing.  But they are being sold to wealthy investors and business concerns.

And I also know that salaries continue to be stagnant for all but the aforementioned wealthy investors.  If most of us are seeing one-to-two percent increases in salaries annually...if we're lucky...and home prices are soaring?  All that means is that houses become more and more inaccessible to the young people who are where my wife and I were a decade ago.

So the rise in home prices is like the rise of the price of gas, or of milk, or of bread.  Something we all require to live is now more expensive?  Hardly a cause for celebration.

And that I benefit from it, in my own self?  Again, irrelevant.  Meaningless, particularly if I attend to the teachings of my rabbi.  As he clearly taught, compassion is not the friend of profit.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Governor Brewer, Justice, and Coercion

Back when my kids were tiny little spuds, getting them to clean their rooms on a Saturday could take For. Ever.  Little creatures that they were, they'd drift about, picking up one thing and putting it away.  And then, ooh!  Look!  Lego!  And they'd start playing with the thing they were cleaning, right up until the point when Daddy would return to goad them back into semi-purposeful motion.

This pattern would repeat, over and over again.  Even though they had skin in the game, in the form of their allowance, it could take hours.  Hours.  It was crazy-making.

And so I instituted a new Daddy Room Cleaning Policy.  It was called Twenty Minute Panic, and represented a modification of the Terms and Conditions of their allowance.  In order to get allowance for the week, they had to clean their rooms in twenty minutes.  In a panic.  Failure to comply meant no allowance.  Period.  A timer would be set, and I would stay on them the entire time, shouting out times, pointing out uncleaned objects, shouting out more times, preferably in a dramatic voice.  Every once in a while, I'd throw in a line from the end of Alien.  "Auto-destruct sequence initiated.  Your allowance will detonate in Tee-Minus ten minutes. The option to override is no longer valid."

Parenting really can be entertaining, if you let yourself get creative with it.

Tiny people would scamper about, frantically doing what they needed to have been doing in the first place.  After the rooms got cleaned, I'd strut about like Mussolini, carefully inspecting and critiquing. It was a show, of course, to reinforce next week's Twenty Minute Panic.

Sure, it got things done.  The trains ran on time.  And it was a little fun.  But it also wasn't really cause for celebration.

What's cause for celebration is when they clean their rooms without you making them do it.   And with two teen boys, I don't know that I'm there yet.

I think, in part, that's why I'm not quite overjoyed at yesterday's decision in Arizona.  Oh, sure, it's great that this utterly pointless and destructive law was stillborn.

But the "why" of the decision strikes me.

Analyzing the rhetorical structure of Governor Brewer's carefully written full statement, and tracking the evolution of the arguments over the last few days, what was evident was that this was not a decision made willingly.  It was an economically coerced decision.

In setting the stage for her veto of the bill, she took five paragraphs to tiptoe up to the issue.  And tiptoeing rhetorically makes sense here, just as it does whenever you're negotiating a minefield.  She...or her speechwriter... only got around to establishing the rationale for her decision in the sixth paragraph.  "My priority is the business agenda," she says, clearly.

It was at that moment, if you knew the context of the influences and pressures on her, that you knew the veto was coming.

Because bias against same-sex relationships is increasingly anathema in the broader business community.   The loudest voices in Governor Brewer's ears, the ones she was hearing?  They were not the voices of advocates for the LGBT community.  Those voices came from large corporations and from within the Arizona business community, who were realizing that if...for example...the NFL were to pull the SuperBowl from Arizona...they'd lose a whole bunch of money.  If major corporations refused to locate in Arizona because of the potential embarrassment and/or legal exposure that might come if one of your employees used this law to justify bigoted actions, that wouldn't help either.

So the decision was clear, as was her basis for making it.

What is less clear, for me, is how much a coerced decision like this one is cause for celebration.  It is, unquestionably, better than the alternative.  Without a doubt.  But when someone does the right thing for the wrong reason, it's a relief, but it is not time to break out the champagne.

Grudgingly acquiescing to the rights of a long-oppressed minority out of economic self-interest is not a deep victory for equality.  Just a shallow one.

Because coerced justice is not yet true justice.  It does not represent...not yet...the heart-change that is the ground of real transformation.

And that, or so an old friend tells me, is what really matters.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Talking with the Spiritual But Not Religious

This one surfaces on a fairly regular basis, this saying.  I'll be talking with someone, and my identity as a pastor will come up, and they'll say, "You know, I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious."

I know what they mean by it, and I'm totally sympathetic.  What they mean is that they hate the institutional, political, power-centered character of most faith organizations.  They hate the carping, cutting, I'm-right-and-you're-wrongness of so much of faith discourse.

Here, perhaps I'm more innately nine-ish than some pastors who've been worn down by that statement.  I take a statement of spirituality as a positive thing, a sense of yearning that I share.  It's a great opening, and a place of commonality.

What I wonder, though, is what that means for the life of the SBNR person I'm talking to.

Let's get all definitional about this, why don't we?  What does it mean, if you are "spiritual?"  Let's pop out our handy-dandy online thesaurus, and crank through some of the many synonyms.  Some are cool.  "Sacred."  "Divine."  "Holy."

Others?  Well others are less so.  "Incorporeal." "Disembodied." "Unphysical." "Nonphysical." "Intangible."  Oh, and this troubling one: "Immaterial."

And then, given that "religious" has to do with religion, here's a clear definition of that term from dictionary.com:
Religion: A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional or ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
The difference between the two?  Both have to do with belief in the nature of things.  But one is enfleshed and enacted.  It makes demands on our lives.  It shapes our behaviors towards others.  The other is often not.

And that's the place where the the conversation between myself and the Spiritual One goes.

If you are a spiritual person, how does that spirituality shape and inform the way you live your life?  I do not ask it with snark.  I don't get all judgey.  We Jesus folk aren't supposed to do that, eh?  It's a simple thing, a worthwhile part of the conversation.

Here is a part of your identity, something meaningful, something vital, something important.  How are you living your spirituality out?

That's the question.  "How are you living your spirituality out?"

Then, I just listen.  Often, what I hear is a lament.  "I wish I had time to develop that in myself."  "I'm just so distracted."  "I'm just so angry and stressed at work."  "I feel like I've lost track of that part of me."

And there, there's space to talk.  Because a belief that is "immaterial" to your existence is a place of dissonance and frustration, and my job as a pastor is to walk with those souls as they find  more gracious and resonant pastures.

Other times, I hear how it has played out in healing a relationship or creating a healthy sense of self.  Other times, I hear how it drives someone to make a difference in their community.  Or how they make a point of taking time for disciplines of contemplation and meditation.

And I will smile, and tell them my own stories of similar things, and affirm them in their journey.

I do not mention, because it seems more than a little smug, that they are in point of fact "religious."

A rose by any other name, as they say.

Libertarians and the Paradox of the American Revolution

There's always been an odd flavor to the American libertarian.

The commitment to freedom and liberty as a primary value makes perfect sense to me, which is where my circle in the socio-political Venn diagram strongly overlaps with that worldview.  Oppressive governments and regimes are an offense to our created purpose, and can crush the joy and hope out of human existence.

But the idea that the only threat to human liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the gummint?  Pish posh.  The man with the uniform and the gun is nowhere near as dangerous as the man who pays him.  

Or, in the case of American society, the man who made the campaign donations that elected the man who pays the man with the uniform and the gun.  Power and wealth are the same thing.  Seriously.  They are.  Power is the ability to effectuate an action.  That's what capital is, eh?  It's the whole basis of our economy, and every society ever.

And if you don't think businesses can be oppressive, you haven't run a little mom and pop store in a small town when the Big Box comes to play.  Or spent any time dealing with a health insurance provider.  Or worked the floor at Foxconn or an Amazon fulfillment center.

So when I hear American libertarians talking about resisting the enemies of freedom, it sounds a little half-caf to me.  It's not quite totally libertarian.  Only sort of libertarian.  American libertarians are the skim-milk of liberty, to paraphrase Ron Swanson.  

That, however, is not the irony that hit me yesterday.  That went rather deeper, into the conceptual foundations of American liberty itself.   I was blogging about William Belsham, the guy who coined the term "libertarian" back in 1789.   

What hit me, hard, was a strange paradox of the American Revolution.

Belsham's essay, which presents the "libertarians" of his day as fundamentally irrational and ignorant, is steeped in the ethic of the Enlightenment.  Belsham found the whole idea that human beings had  free will offensive.  It was an insult to reason, and an insult to the Creator of the Universe.  And then things get strange.  Belsham, though British, was a strong philosophical supporter of the American revolution.  And yet he thought that libertarians were delusional and philosophically weak.

The "why" behind Belsham's seemingly paradoxical opinion was a little bit of a gut punch, theologically and politically.  Because the God of the Founding Fathers, the Creator of the Universe as understood by the Enlightenment Deism that helped craft our Revolution?  That God was the Clockmaker God. 

The universe, as seen by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, was a carefully crafted and seamless system.  It was remarkable, and intricate, and astounding.  It was also rationally comprehensible.  In those earliest days of modern science, that seemed clear.  Everything happened according to a particular order, an order which a reasoning being could come to understand through experimentation and deduction.

In that system, though, everything was predetermined.  Providence followed a single track.  Destiny was made manifest, but it was still immutable, inescapable destiny.  It was a vast and beautiful automaton, fashioned by a distant and unknowable Creator, in which our whole lives were cogs and wheels.

And it hit me: this is a really strange conceptual foundation on which to base fundamental principles of human freedom.  If your operating principle is liberty, and your view of the universe is linear, preset, and deterministic, there's an inherent dissonance there.

Most peculiar.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The First Libertarian

On a recent evening, I found myself digging around online for some baseline data on the term "libertarian."  It was probably because of a bit of sermon research that had involved Ron Swanson, America's Favorite Libertarian (tm).  As is often the case with sermon prep, I found myself swirling down a wild rabbit hole of concepts and ideas.

My interest, entirely unrelated to anything resembling the sermon that needed to be written: finding the root of the term libertarian.  Where had it come from?  What was its original meaning?  Given my preference not to wander far from theology in my preaching, I needed to do that on my own nickel.

Like most net-denizens, that meant starting out hitting wikipedia, where I learned that our conflation of "libertarian" with what amounts to a peculiar anarcho-capitalism is a more recent phenomenon.

The term first entered into broad usage to describe a particular flavor of communist.  The word "libertarian" in the late 19th century was primarily used to describe continental anarcho-syndicalism.  Or, if that term isn't exactly ringing a bell, it means the folks who trusted neither state nor big business, and who felt that a blend of radical personal freedom and voluntary association was the only way for a society to go.  

Still and all, it's a bit funny to know that the American conservatism of today not only uses a term that was a vital part of primal Marxism, but uses it in pretty much the same way the early Marxists used it.  This wasn't surprising.  If you've ever read any Trotsky...particularly where he talks about the curse of bureaucracy, or the need for every citizen to have access to guns...you know that there are some weird resonances between the very very far left and the very very far right.

But the first use of the term, as deep back as our wiki-brain could find it, was in a collection of essays by obscure British Enlightenment-era philosopher William Belsham.  Here, a big thank you to Google books.  Lord, but this one would have been hard to find twenty years ago.  But there it was, scanned and ready and part of our collective subconscious.    So of course, to that essay I went, looking to stand in encounter with the very first libertarian.

Which, after a few minutes of reading Belsham, I realized I wasn't.  It took a little bit, because the structure of Belsham's essay wasn't exactly immediately accessible.  To be fuceffful in furveying philofophical effays of that era requires getting past a different way of thinking and using language...and writing the letter "S."  I still can't read original texts of that era without imagining they faid ftuff like thif back in the Fixteenth and Feventeeth Fentury, which actually makes it a little more fun.

What became clear, though, was that the term was coined as an insult.  Belsham, very much a creature of his day, was using the essay to snipe at those who stood in opposition to the hard determinism of the Enlightenment era.  Divine providence and design were the nature of things, as established by the Necessitarians.  Necessitarians,  Belsham argued, understood that Divine Providence was immutable and as set as Manifest Destiny.

In the face of the insight of the greatest philosophers of the day, there were fools who suggested that the Deity was not in charge of every last instant.  Their insistence that we were free beings, able to make meaningful choices that did not hew to a single preordained order of being?  Absurd, and an insult to both reason and the clear design that could be found in the unchanging deterministic will of God and God's Providence.

To those fools, whose arguments against determinism were so absurd that they barely merited a response, Belsham gave a name.

"Libertarians."

So in what I thought were my wanderings away from theology, I found myself right back in the thick of it.

Funny, how often that happens.

Monday, February 24, 2014

"Good Servants, Not Good Bosses"

I'm almost done with my doctoral program, which I tend to jokingly describe as an Advanced Degree in Churchiness.

There's a kernel of truth to that, though, as for the last three years I've been engaged in a program on Leadership Excellence in congregations.  Over that time, I've increasingly come to view church leadership as something of a paradox.  Our culture loves leadership.  We're big into leadership, and building leaders, and creating leaders.  

Because being the leader is a power position, and it's the place we all want to be.

But in a community of folks following Jesus?  There are no power positions, at least not as our CEO-fetishizing culture conceptualizes them.  Wealth and glory and power...oh, and more wealth...are the fruits of leadership in the for-profit sector.  In the church?  They cannot be.  In fact, it's exactly the inverse.  You can lead, and you can have influence and the capacity to create change, but the sole purpose of that influence is to teach folks to be better disciples.

Meaning, it's not about being in charge.  It's not about climbing the ladder.  There is no ladder, people.  All there is out there are children of God who need a little bit of encouragement and support finding their way to faith and grace.

Our ethic, our raison d'etre?  It's radically different than the business world. Our bottom line ain't the same, kids. 

That is super extra double plus true for leadership.

This Christian leadership reality was part of a sharply loving little speech recently given by Pope Francis, who may run a somewhat large congregation, but still seems to get the ethic that needs to define it.   

First, he challenged his new batch of cardinals to remember that they're not part of a royal court, and to be wary of the temptation to get into politicking.  And second, he offered the reminder that no matter how far you get up into the church, how "important" you become, the task of Christians is to be "good servants, not good bosses."

This wasn't just a whack o' the pastoral staff on the behinds of guys in fancy robes and towering hats.  It also messes with we homo sapiens sapiens a little.  We like the other way of thinking.  We like aspiring to power, to control, to being Charles in Charge.  That status feels worth pressing towards, worth striving for, a gold ring worth seizing after we clamber over the corpses of the weaker ones.  We want celebrity, acclaim, to have fameandfortuneandeverythingthatgoeswithit.  That's our yearning, and our hunger.

Being a servant?  Being there just to help out, to try to strengthen and support others?  Meh.  

Our egos recoil, particularly if that's the destination.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Arizona, Faith, and the Definition of a Person

The faith-o-sphere is all alight these days with shimmering debate and umbrage about a-soon-to-be-enacted law in the state of Arizona, one which allows individuals to refuse to perform services that violate the integrity of their faith.  It's cleared the Arizona House and Senate, and now sits with Governor Jan Brewer for signature.

This puppy will be a law, at least in that state.

Amidst all the furor, I thought to myself, gosh, perhaps it might be a good idea to actually read the bill as it stands right now.

Hard to talk about it meaningfully unless I've actually read the danged thing, now, eh?  And so I did.

You can too.  Just follow this link.

There are many things that are challenging about this law, and many reasons folks are up in arms about it.  There are legitimate concerns that it...like another law passed in Kentucky...might permit waiters to refuse to serve customers who offend their faith.

"Hi!  I'm Ida Mae!  Welcome to PQ McQuackenbushes!  Hey, wait.  Are y'all friends, or are y'all gay?  'Cause if you're friends, let me tell you about our specials.  If not, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to move to that two-top over there so that slut Jolene can be your sinner-server today."   It feels just a teensy bit too much like segregation.  Just a tich.  Just a tad.

But I have another problem with it.

My concern, as a pastor and a person of faith, goes somewhere else.  It lies with how the bill describes what it means to be a person.  Because personhood matters in America, and our rights as individuals are central to the integrity of our republic.

But a person, according to this law, is defined as follows:
41-1493.5 "Person" includes any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.
And there, I have beef, as should anyone who takes faith seriously.

I have written on this before, but the assumption of corporate personhood bugs the bejabbers out of me when it comes to asserting faith and religious conviction.  Because as deeply as personhood matters in our republic, it matters more to our relationship with our Maker.  An individual can have faith.  We worship, we pray, we sing.  We are, ourselves, loved and culpable and redeemable and faithful.  We stand accountable before our God.

A corporation does not have faith.  It cannot.  It is a thing.

No, scratch that.  It's less than a thing.  An object is real.  But a corporation is not real.  It is a legal construct, an illusion, a phantasm that has no reality.  It cannot feel, or weep, or laugh, or be saved.  It is not sentient, or self-aware.  It cannot be held to account.  In fact, corporate structure exists solely for the purposes of escaping accountability, a mask that hides individual liability.  It has no soul, and with no soul, can have no faith.

A corporation is no more a person than a statue of Ba'al is a god.

And yet the Arizona bill as written asks us to understand that this soulless nothing can have a belief.  It can "sincerely hold" this belief.  It can "exercise" faith.

No, it cannot.

And yes, I understand the legal conceit of corporate personhood.  I do.

But that understanding doesn't make me less bothered by it.  Because if in the defense of "religious freedom", we are watering down what it means to be both faithful and a person, we're treading in some dangerous places spiritually.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Why the Olympics Make Me Miss The Soviets

I miss the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  I really do.

Watching the Olympics in Sochi, as I am here and there, reminds me of this.  Oh, there are plenty of things I don't miss.

I don't miss the brutal oppression of the Russian people under the Soviet regime, and the hard hand turned against the peoples of the USSR's satellite states.  In many ways, I don't need to miss it, 'cause it's still there.  Czar Vladimir has proven himself quite capable of maintaining that dark old habit.

I don't miss staring down the barrel of thousands of Soviet ICBMs.  That was the stuff of so many childhood nightmares, the kind of pointless, species-ending absurdity that only glazed-eye ideologues could embrace.

But I do miss the pretense of Communism and Soviet Socialism, because America needed it.  Our society has grown notably weaker and more dissolute since the fall of the Soviet Union, as the darker demons of capitalism are let play.

Why is this happening?  Because suddenly, there's no competition.

And I miss the competition, because as the Olympics show us, competition makes us stronger.

Who is holding us to our ideals?  If we claim to be a free nation, founded on principles of justice and equality, who's poking us in the eye if we treat a particular group like they're just a little bit subhuman?  Who goads us to excel and challenge ourselves, stirring us to reaching a strong arm up into the heavens and stand on other worlds?  Nobody.

And if we claim that capitalism provides wonderfully for all, and yet it clearly ain't, who's providing a potent...false, but potent...apparent alternative?

Our current enemies, such as they are, offer us nothing desirable.  The Taliban?  Al Qaeda?  Who would wish to be them?  Cold, ugly, backwards, ignoble, and hateful, there's nothing about their worldview that would appeal to the vast majority of human beings.  North Korea?  Lord have mercy.

But the Soviets did things.  Badly, often, but they did.  They felt like they were giving us a run for our money, and they drove America to suppress the darker demons of capitalism and to strive.  We're better than that, we'd say, and we were right.  We made sure we were right.

Oh, sure, correlation isn't causation, but I'm reasonably sure it's a nonrandom thing that the cradle-to-grave care provided by America's businesses vanished like a morning fog the moment the Soviet Union collapsed.  It's a nonrandom thing that American CEO pay has soared to Russian Oligarch levels since communism sputtered out and died.

Back then, no executive or Senator would have wanted the average American looking to the Rooskies and saying, "You know what, this whole mess is terrible.  Maybe them Commies ain't all wrong."

But now, now that we're all living in Potterville, stressed out and working two-dead-end jobs without benefits, up to our eyeballs in debt while we struggle to figure out how we're going to pay for the Xanax we need just to keep it together?

Now, there's no-one there to rub our noses in it.  Which is a real pity.

Because Khrushchev, as it turned out, was wrong.  They weren't going to bury us.  We're managing to do that ourselves.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Land of Shards

Excerpted from "Leveling Up: So You Want to Be a Christian Cleric."

A third example of casting Detect Evil came when I was traveling in the Northcountries several years ago, through the Freeholds of the Akirem’ha.  I had journeyed there in my youth, and marveled at the richness of the land.  

Their sorcerer-merchant guild had cast potent spells on their harvests, and spun their beneficent magics on road and home.  The people were industrious, self-sufficient, well-fed and happy.  Neat little villages were filled with running, laughing children.  Young men and women danced and flirted in the streets, which were filled with musics.  There was a sense of deep contentment among the people.  It became a place of hopeful legend, spoken of far and wide, and many wanderers made their way to the land in hopes of a better life.

I returned after a hundred moons, passing through the realm on my way to the Homehearths of Anadakh.  One of the greatest sorcerers of the Akirem’ha had spun a new magic across the land, and the stories of it had come to me even before I began my travels.  

Into a hundred thousand black shards of obsidian, stolen from the volcanic fires of Malboge, this mighty wizard had cast a deep and potent dweomer.  If you gazed into one of the shards, you could see whatever your heart desired.  You could speak into it, and hear back the voice of a loved one.  You could hold it to your ear, and it would sing the very song that your heart yearned to hear.  You could gaze into it, and it would show you the very thing you wished to see.

How happy the people would be, the sorcerer-merchants proclaimed!  Everything you have ever wanted, right there in your hand!  The spell had to be renewed, of course, for a few pieces of silver every moonrise.  But what a small price for happiness!  Two pieces of silver, and your every desire fulfilled!  What a magical thing, the guild exclaimed!

But as I journeyed northward through that formerly blessed land, my heart was set ill at ease.  The streets that had been filled with the laughter of playing children were silent and empty.  Young men and women would wander by, but they neither laughed nor smiled nor flirted.  Their eyes never wavered from the dark hell-forged glass in their hands, in which their every desire danced and whispered.  

I caught my breath, and stood on the silent, empty street, and there laid out a cast of Detect Evil.  It spoke to me what my heart had felt.  Yes, they had been given a great magic.  But a good magic?

Detect Evil told me it was not so.

My heart fell, and I swiftly hastened from that blighted land of shards.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Theology of Lego

This last weekend, I went to see The Lego Movie with my sons.  In that, I was tagging along with a whole bunch of other American parents, drawn into our Amuse-O-Plexes by the promise of a family-friendly, slightly sly, and wholesome good time.  The boys had been asking to see it, and I happily obliged.

That my boys are a tiny bit past the Lego age became obvious when we found our seats in the theater.  My big guy is now a Big Guy, at six-two and two-ten, a month shy of his sixteenth birthday, all legs and shoulders, built like a quarterback with a rich deep bass baritone.  My little guy is thirteen now, growing fast, with musical tastes that lean towards Floyd and Zeppelin, Beck and Radiohead, and cinematic tastes that are...well...Kubrick is his favorite director, although he's recently taken a shine to Wes Anderson.  So we're not quite the target demographic, so to speak.

But they wanted to see The Lego Movie, and so did I, because we all of us loved Lego when we were younger.  So we hit a cheaper matinee, and went unashamed into a theater full of parents with tiny sippy-cup people, and enjoyed the film.

As always, my pastor hat was on, though, and so I found myself taking note whenever anything surfaced that had theological implications.  Because pastors do that.  It's sort of a nervous tick, one drilled into us by years of sermon preparation.

There were spiritual and theological assumptions to the film, of course, as there are to everything.  I mean, how can you have a movie in which Will Ferrell plays a quasi-omnipotent character called The Man Upstairs and not see the theology in it?  So for those of you who've seen the film, I offer up the following little list.

It's spoiler-filled, chock-full of plot-line revealing ruination, so consider yourself duly warned.  Here you go:

1)  Everything Is Awesome.  Agh.  Argh.  Earworm!  Ack!  Seriously, that song just keeps bopping into my head, in that way that involves my subconscious endlessly singing, "Everything is Awesome! Something something something part of a team."  Sigh.

But as a theological statement, that works on a bunch of different levels.  It speaks to the view that the ultimate goal of Creation is something amazing.  It reminds us, in a poppy, chirrupy way, that having a hopeful and joyful attitude makes us more creative and more open to the possibility of creativity.

2)  You are the Special.  This theme surfaced repeatedly, as our little plastic protagonist struggled with his sense of identity.  Emmet Brickowski is no-one, the Everyminifigure, utterly unspecial...and yet not.  Like most Everyman characters, he's the bearer of truth...which, actually, is the meaning of his name in Hebrew.  That's the word emet, not the word brickowski.  Lord, but do we pastors overthink these things.

Emmet matters, the movie tells us, even in his simple, earnest plain-ness, because he has been gifted with the ability to create with what is around him.  Sure, his great creative vision is a double-decker sofa.  But even that has its place.

This concept gets pressed out into the almost completely nonviolent end to the movie, where even the villain is transformed by it.  There's no "kill-the-bad-guy" ending here, thank the Man Upstairs.  Instead, Lord Business is given the opportunity to be changed by Emmet, and turns to grace and creativity.  Here, the fundamental potential for good that is present in all human beings is affirmed, as is the capacity of even the worst of us to be transformed by grace.

I can't speak for other world faith traditions, but that's a pretty darned important part of Christianity.

3)   Believe.  This was the part of the film where Richard Dawkins walked out grumbling.  Belief is a hateful plastic brick delusion, he muttered to himself, while the audience laughed at the self-aware metabanality of a talking-cat-poster ethic.

And sure, it's simple to the point of seeming trite.  It's easier to critique and snark and immerse yourself in cynicism about life.  But so many good things are plain, simple, and hobbitish.  If you believe in a possibility, that is an absolute prerequisite for your moving reality towards it.  Simple?  Sure.  But true nonetheless, as much as we might want to overthink our way past it.

Faith...that there is such a thing as goodness, that there is a point to our existence...is an essential part of a healthy life as a self-aware being.  It centers and defines our humanity, and allows us to both endure and triumph.  It opens us to as-yet-unmanifested realities, in both ourselves and in our relationships with others.

4)   Rigid Linear Determinism Does Not Accurately Reflect the Nature of the Created Order.  I can't quite remember where this line surfaced in the movie.  I think maybe the UniKitty character said it when the film took us into Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Or maybe I'd just wandered off into my own mind for a moment.

This was, without question, a core theological assumption of the film.  Yes, the universe has structure.  In the case of the film, interlocking bricks of a near-infinite variety.   In the case of our time and space?  It's a little more complex, but close enough that the metaphor can't be missed.  That structure is in flux, ever changing, and open to our inputs and creative energies.  What it must not be is rigid, superglued into place by the desire to control it and to make it a single, unchanging, and dead "perfection."

In the theology of this little film, I see a bit of a throw-down challenge to both rigid scientific mechanism and religious fundamentalism.  There is not just one way things can be, it says.  Stop trying to imagine that your particular understanding encompasses the intent of the Creator.  And in that, I think it more accurately reflects the nature of creation than those who would limit God's work to just one story.

5)  Everything is Awesome.  Oh, c'mon.  Again?  Lord, but does this song stick around.

I can't let it pass, though, because this works with the other meaning of Awesome, too.  Everything...meaning the vastness of Creation...is remarkably, immensely, inescapably awe-inspiring.  It's amazing in its complexity, in its intricacy, in its gobsmacking vastness.  It's amazing in its potential, and in our ability to engage with the the portion of existence we encounter and to create with it.

Awesome, indeed.





Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Teaching Children Not to Be Democrats

Last month, I wrote a letter to my state representative, a Democrat.  That letter suggested that perhaps allowing businesses that prey on the struggling and the desperate to flourish in our state was the wrong course of action.  With the growing spread of predatory title lenders in the state of Virginia, both in her district and elsewhere, it seemed like the thing to do.

Being a pastor and all, I'll freely admit that the basis for my gettin' all uppity about this issue is rooted in Torah and the Prophets.  As a progressive Christian I don't approach the Bible literally, but I do take it seriously, as the saying goes.  Given my love-ethic-centered approach to scripture, I find the parts of Torah that challenge debt-slavery get all lit up by the Golden Rule.  I find the huge and sustained thread of invective against predatory economic behavior we find in the Prophets to be similarly simpatico with the heart of Christian ethics...as did Jesus, if his teaching is any measure.

I expected a response, of course.  Constituent care is a rather vital part of being in politics, and you can't let letters...particularly ones that are "open"...go unanswered.  And so, in due course, I got the response I expected.

Meaning, it was exactly the response I would have anticipated, given that the leadership of the Democratic party in the state of Virginia has been instrumental in the spread of title lending in the state.  It was spin and obfuscation.  Or a "difference of perspective."  "This is an extremely difficult issue," I was told, although if you care about the poor, it isn't at all.

It's a question, I was told, of individuals who have "nowhere else to go for badly needed money."  "I have yet to hear of anyone using a car title lender for any other reason," she wrote.  Um.  Er.  Sure.

My delegate endeavored to frame it as a binary choice.  Do we "deny access" to "badly needed money," or do we let it happen and "monitor it closely?"  Because as we all know, there are only two answers to every problem.

Alrighty, let's not deny access.  That sounds bad.  Let's monitor it.  Yup, still taking advantage of the poor, and helping keep people trapped in the cycle of poverty.   Thanks for the campaign donations, and carry on!

There was reference to a current bill, one that seems to kick the can down the road to local jurisdictions.  But I followed up on that.  HR979, as written, would do nothing to stop predatory lending in the state.  It just prevents new predators from muscling in on the action of those who are already established.

"I wish there were no market for such enterprises but that is, sadly, not the case," she said in conclusion.  Rule of thumb for self-declared progressives: when you start sounding like Grover Norquist, it's time for a gut check.

Without comment, I showed the letter to my wife.  Her response was the verbal equivalent of an eye roll.  But I also showed the letter to my thirteen year old, who'd had an interest in the letter-exchange because he'd been given an assignment to write a letter to his state representative in his civics class.

"What do you think," I asked.

"That's so stupid," he said.  This, from a kid whose self-understanding is that he's a Democrat, the kind of eighth grader who loves getting into political discussions with his more conservative classmates.  This, from a kid who...up until this point...would have considered "Democrat" as shorthand for his own progressive political identity.  Now, well, he's seeing things as more..."difficult."

"Of course people go there because they're desperate for money," he said.  "Duh.  That's like saying 'people go to McDonalds because they want food.'"  "Taking advantage of poor people is just a bad thing.  What's so difficult about that?"  He changed his letter, which he was presenting to his class...which is filled with the children of registered voters.

My exchange with my delegate, and her response, have reinforced in my politically-aware son the idea that party allegiance is not always the servant of justice.

Which is, perhaps, a good thing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Battle for Marriage in the State of Virginia

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage in the state of Virginia was unconstitutional, drawing the Old Dominion into a peculiar place.  On the one hand, if the law violates the constitutional rights of citizens, then it's right out.  On the other, if removing it does significant damage to the liberties of citizens, then it should be retained.  That'll be a matter for the Supreme Court of the United States, and when this ruling comes, it'll be a big one in my home state.

But that's the issue for the legal system.  As a pastor, my concern is marriage.  Not weddings, mind you.  The Wedding-Industrial-Complex is trucking along just fine, God help us.  I'm talking about marriage, the covenanted relationship that engages two souls in a lifelong commitment to one another.

That institution, as I see it, is in danger right now in the state of Virginia.

Last week's ruling, though, had no impact on marriage at all.  Whether or not gays and lesbians can solemnify their unions is completely immaterial to heterosexual couples.  It doesn't change anything at all, so far as I can see it.   Say you're a heterosexual Bible-believer in Virginia, married to your spouse for a couple of decades.  When you woke up the morning after the ruling, how had your commitment to your husband or wife changed?

Not at all.  Mine didn't.

Neither does it impact religious liberty in any meaningful way.  I cannot, as a pastor, be made to bless and solemnify the union of anyone I choose not to marry.  Neither can I be told what I am allowed to say or not say in a ceremony.  The state does not pay me, nor can it in any other way coerce my behavior within my faith community.  I am, as a faithful person, completely free.

But it's impossible to miss the threat to marriage, because marriages are coming to pieces all around us.  Committed, lifelong relationships are an endangered species, with divorce rates in our country at a painfully high and sustained level.

When I talk with folks who are struggling in their marriages, or folks who are living through the painful process of divorce, gay marriage just isn't a significant factor.  It isn't, quite frankly, a factor at all.

The odd stressors of suburban existence?  That's a powerful enemy of marriage.  The peculiarly joyless demands of anxiety-driven helicopter parenting?  That challenges healthy relationships, as parents neglect one another and forget one another in the stress-mess of activity-wrangling.  Our warped work culture, which drives both spouses to work impossible hours out of fear that we'll be let go the next time folks in the C-suite are looking to justify their absurd salaries?  Yeah, that fear is a factor.

Our consumerist obsession with self-indulgence, which has doubled down deep in the instant gratification of the internet age?  That's an enemy.  Our stresses about finances and debt, as somehow the groaningly abundant cornucopia of food, shelter, and entertainment around us doesn't translate into a sense of wellbeing?  That's an enemy.

In ten thousand ways, the state of mutual, covenant commitment that is marriage is under attack in our society.

But same-sex unions are not part of that war.

They neither threaten an individual's integrity as a person of faith, nor do they have any meaningful impact on marriage as a state of being.

I do not doubt that as this case moves forward, there will be a tremendous amount of heat and light generated by those who view this as a threat.  Much fear will be stoked.  This frustrates me, as a pastor, and not only because I view same-sex marriage as an overdue blessing.  Though I do.

It frustrates me because I care about marriage, and the more energy Christians pour into opposing same-sex relationships, the less energy is retained for the real battle.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“We Have to Burn a Muslim and Eat Him.”

The headlines have been particularly ugly, but they are not even close to the horror that lies within the articles.

The ugly news comes out of the Central African Republic, a landlocked but resource-rich African nation that is--despite its mineral riches--crushingly, desperately poor.   After an armed Islamic movement from the north overthrew the government and installed their own leader, the country has been trapped in a cycle of violence and retribution.  The conflict between the Muslim community in the North and the majority Christian communities of the South is spiraling out of control.

Most headlines articulate this as a war between faith traditions.  Islam and Christianity at war!

It's typically brutal stuff, so much so that it's easy to either turn away or tune it out, but one story really stuck with me.

It involved a single death, that of an unarmed Christian man who wandered into the wrong neighborhood.  He was killed by an angry mob, one that had, in the manner of mobs, become convinced that he was carrying grenades to attack a nearby mosque.

He wasn't, of course, but that made little difference.  He was hacked with machetes, and his throat was cut, and then he was hacked at some more.   Then his mutilated remains were dumped near a Red Cross base.

When his body was returned to his neighborhood, the reaction was intense.  The article reports fear, of course, and sorrow.  And rage.  Among the reactions noted by the reporter who observed the scene:
“All the Muslims will die in the country,” vowed one woman, shrieking loudly.
And as Pumandele’s body arrived in his neighborhood, a dirt-poor, mostly Christian community, one man yelled, “We have to burn a Muslim and eat him.”
That last statement just stuck with me, particularly given the assumption that this is primarily Christian/Muslim conflict.  When an angry, frightened human being screams such a thing, where does it come from?  A conflict between competing faith claims?  Is this a statement that reflects an interfaith disagreement?

I cannot see it as such, at least not from my side of the fence.

Rage at the loss of a neighbor and friend will stir such a reaction.  It's human.  If one of my friends or one of my children had been killed, I'd feel it too.  I'm not sure about the eating part, but rage does all manner of disproportionately horrible things to the object of a violent intention.

But as a reaction, the yearning for revenge is not a Christian yearning.  Oh, sure, Christianity has been used to justify all manner of terrible things.  Amazing, how easily a tradition can be warped.  At the heart of our faith, though, there is no justification for retributive violence against an enemy.  It is radically antithetical to everything we believe.

One can bend and warp what Jesus taught to legitimize vengeance or violent coercion, sure.   Or that sense of Christian identity can just be washed away in the blood-red fury that we feel when "we" are threatened, as a family, a tribe, or a nation.

But that reaction, very human, very primal, is decoupled from the teachings of Jesus in such a radical way that describing it as "Christian" seems fundamentally inaccurate.

It finds no foundation there.  Its heart lies more in the claims that power has over us.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Reason We Sing

I was wandering the halls of my son's school this last weekend, as I awaited what was to be the first in a series of performances by my teens.  The little guy...not so little, at 13...had managed to snag the lead role in his eighth grade play, a Roman comedy by Plautus.  Actually rather funny, as it turned out, and he did a great job with it.

It had been an American Suburban Parent afternoon, as I picked up my older son from an all-day rehearsal for District Chorus, and then drove him an hour-and-a-half across the worst traffic in America to swim team regionals, only to then turn right back around to make my younger son's play.

But as I meandered around his middle school, stretching my legs after three-and-a-half hours of kid-shuttling, I came across a sign.  "Music," it said.

Only the word was cast out across a series of other subjects, with the "M" in music being the "M" in math.

The implicit subtext: Music exists here because it helps us perform better academically.  This is a more and more common refrain, as a focus on testing and metrics drives things like art and music, dance and drama out of our educational system.  They are primarily useful, assuming they have utility at all, as a way to neurologically reinforce the important skills that we need to program into our children.

The next day, at my older son's chorus concert, before what was a strikingly beautiful performance, one of the choir directors talked about the importance of music for brain development in adolescents. There was nodding in the auditorium full of parents, and in my mind's ear echoed the words of several dozen conversations with other parents of teenagers.  Their brains are still developing, we say to one another.  The bucket of crazy we're encountering now is just reflective of neurological rewiring, we sigh.  If music helps with that developmental process, then it has value.

Maybe.  Drama teachers and music teachers are hard pressed these days.  Even in Fairfax County, one of the richest counties in the United States, the arts are being cut back to make room for more testing protocols and more administratalia.

And it strikes me, in all of this, that we're increasingly missing the point of both music and being human.

Music has value in and of itself.  It is not subordinate, or a supporting player.  In terms of our humanity, when we assume that the primary value of any activity is its contribution to our productivity, we fail to understand the goal of productivity in the first place.

Oh, we need to work.  Sure.  But once we've gotten a roof over our head and food in our bellies, we do not work so that we can work.  We work so that we can sing, and laugh together, and take time to share our delight in this little flicker of life that we have been given.

Music isn't a bit player, useful primarily because it prepares us for the workplace.

It's the point.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dear Atheist Mom

The picture of your child stuck out at me, most likely because it was supposed to.  After a recent and somewhat painful debate between a popular elocutor for science and a Young Earth Creationist, some of the Creationists put up images of their unanswered questions, written with markers on pieces of paper.

One might think people for whom the written word is a fundamental absolute would get the difference between "your" and "you're," but maybe they're too focused on translating from the original Greek.  Sigh.

But snark I must not, because Lord knows I still regularly mangle "its" and "it's."

So, of course, it could not end there.  There was a 'net sign exchange, in which atheists pitched up their rebuttals and challenges, with counterquestions written in Sharpie on pieces of paper.

Of the atheistic responses, yours was the one that leapt out.  There was your daughter, smiling and bright eyed.  These were not her assertions, of course, but likely assertions posed by you, her atheist parent.  There was some subsequent net-kerfuffle about the use of a child as a public prop, but the way I figure it, you view religion as a fundamental threat to her integrity.  I'm guessing you're the mom, too, given the handwriting.  From your fierce mom-love and your anger at what you perceive as a threat to her, you want your beautiful kid out there, as the face of the debate.  I'll admit to having struggled with that, myself, especially when it came to including her image in this post.  I prefer to keep my children's faces off the net, particularly around contentious issues where net-trolls can and do say terrible things from the safety of their basement lairs.  But I will follow your choice, and respect her integrity as a person in this post.

She's great, of course, and looks like a charmer.  I will take your black-marker list as a very legitimate descriptor of your hopes for your great little kid.  Just looking at her, one can see that she is full of wonder, and smart, and full of potential, and beautiful, as all creation is.

What such a delightful little sentient creature deserves, though, is our best swing at an accurate representation of things...and I'm not quite sure atheism is serving her well on that front, because atheism as a movement is not interested in truth so much as it is in refuting faith in all of its forms.  It exists solely as a negation, after all, which means it has a problem with non-binary thinking.

That can be observed in the statements in red-ink.  "According to Religion," it begins, as if that's a single and univocal category.  According to Buddhism, are the subsequent statements true?  How about Hinduism?  What about the Bahai?  Or Unitarians?  Or Wiccans?  Is it true for Native American religious expression?  Do Jews believe this?  What about Muslims?   Or Sikhs?

None of the above, I'm afraid, if you understand how the concept of Sin plays out across human religious expression.  It is an accurate statement for a painfully significant subset of global Christianity, most likely the subset that is the dominant culture in the area where you live.   But even there, is this what some corners of American evangelical conservatism teach children about themselves?  In some cases, yes, and that's a pity.  As a Presbyterian Teaching Elder, I can tell you that it is not even close to how the old-line denominations teach our kids, not by a long shot.

But I've reviewed conservative Christian curricula for children in my role as a pastor, and even the ones that are too literal for my tastes tend to go this way:

"Jesus loves you."  "God loves you."  "Here are some wild ancient stories with cool characters!"  "Did we tell you you are loved?  Well, you are."

So is the red-marker-list accurate?  No.  And we owe our children our best shot at accurately representing the world.

Then there's the list in black-ink.  "According to Science," it says.  But is the list that follows according to science?  It is not.  It is the romantic view of science held by most atheists, one that I can understand myself.  Science is awesome and cool, a vital and essential human endeavor that opens our eyes to the ever-unfolding, incredible creation we inhabit.

But "Wonder," "Beauty," and "Greatness?" These are not scientific terms.

"According to science," one could just as easily describe that bright little child as a delivery system for replicating genetic material.  Or as a complex organic machine, interacting with the world through a sequence of biologically and culturally mediated patterns, both learned and hard-wired.  Her smile?  The reflex of a social animal.  The "love" felt for her by her biological parents?  A neurochemical response to visual cues that identify her as a vulnerable near-infant, part of an evolutionary pattern that insures the aforementioned continuance of particular genetic traits.

Her beauty?  She is beautiful the way that everything is beautiful, meaning she is remarkably complex.  From a purely scientific standpoint, her self-awareness is no more and no less beautiful than the amazingly intricate processes of digestion and excretion, or the processes of the human body as it decays following the cessation of life.

You're not going to tell her that, presumably.  You just tell her she is loved, and teach her to appreciate and marvel at the astounding reality around her, and tell her that she is great.  But in that, I would ask you to consider allowing her to engage with the real complexities that are part of faith and religious practice.  Where certain religious communities would bully and belittle and reduce her to nothing, don't allow them to do so.  It's a fight worth having, and I'm there with you.  But if you want her to grow up respecting your guidance, I'd encourage you to allow her to engage with the depth and subtlety of human existence.

Binary thinking does not do that.

Oh, and if you're actually Atheist Dad?  Oops.  Sorry for my assumption and generalization.  You have very neat, rounded, lovely handwriting!  Nothing to be ashamed of, and mea culpa.

Still and all, everything I said still applies.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Church Is Terrible

A couple of weeks back, I was in one of the elective classes for my doctoral program, an advanced seminar in pastoral counseling.  It was, for the most part, an engagement with an array of different professional techniques in psychotherapy, with both an extensive study component and a practicum.

One of the techniques we got into was called Narrative Therapy, which guides individuals and couples in a problem externalization technique designed to depersonalize conflict and help decouple self-identity from dysfunctional self-understandings.

Or to put that in English, you give your Capital-P-Problem a name, and then you throw rocks at it until it goes away.  Sorta like having power over a demon by knowing its true name, dontcha know.

In that conversation, the class wandered into discussions of the Emergent Movement, which when our primary text was written seemed like a going concern.  But I was there for that movement, at least as it was expressed as a hyphen-mergent in my old-line denomination, and I watched as it blossomed and then withered away.

As the class talked about why the Emergent Church sputtered away into nothing, the mix of psychotherapeutics and churchy talk surfaced this little oddment:

One possible reason Emergence punked out:  When it came time for the Emergent Church to name the "Problem?"  It named that Problem "Church."  The energies of that movement were rooted in the postmodern deconstructionist ethos of academe, and so conversations were about critiques and exploring the brokenness of existing structures.  And yes, those are there.

But when it came time to build, to create, to establish something new and shared?  Well, therein lay the problem.  Oh, sure, everyone shared a love for fair trade coffee, microbrewed beer, and iOS.  That's not quite enough to create a new articulation of the Way, though.

Because when you build a community with the rituals that are necessary to establish shared identity?  When you create a shared ethos that provides cohesion and mutual direction?  You're creating "Church."  And of course, "Church" is the problem, so right back into deconstruction you go.

That a movement which understood itself as primarily about critique couldn't quite move past that mindset to create sustained community shouldn't be surprising, I suppose.  You go where you pour your energies.

Which is why being intentional about naming and developing our graces is of even greater importance than naming and deconstructing our demons.

That's not just an emergent issue.  It's a sustained challenge for the old-line churches, which are waning in our culture.  If our self-understanding is not oriented towards the gracious and the possible, we're going to pour our energies into what amounts to institutional anxieties.  We can become driven by fear and self loathing, circling the wagons and continually picking at our wounds.

Which means that our language is all about us, and that our eyes are turned inwards as we ruminate over failures, and that our hearts are ever and always anxious.  We worry about the Church.  We argue about the Church. We stress about how we are together failing and inadequate, and as our energies pour into our failure, we neglect those ways in which we are living and blessed with gifts.

In a person or relationship, that tends to trap us in our darkness.  In a community, that tends to do exactly the same thing.

If we believe the Church is terrible and joyless, and make that our focus, we will bend it towards that reality.  And I'm not sure that's quite what Jesus had in mind.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Rift Between Realities

It's been inevitable, as gaming has drifted further and further into realism, and our engagement with the 'net has grown more and more all-consuming.  At some point, the reality that exists beyond the edges of that screen might be utterly forgotten.

But now it's here, because the edges of the screen are disappearing.  That's happening courtesy of the Oculus Rift, a product that has many in the gaming world all a-flutter.  It's a headset, a pair of screens that you strap onto your noggin.  There are other products like this too, one from Sony, and another that ditches the whole screen thing entirely, and beams images directly onto your retinas.  Yes, it does.

But the Oculus is the most potent of them.  The unit allows you to not just see the gaming world you're inhabiting, but to look around as if you are immersed in it.  It renders the whole thing in 3D, and is sensitive to not just perspective...like a gimbaled camera on a fixed mount...but to slight shifts in attitude.   You can lean in closer to inspect something, or cock your head.

You are in that world, be that the open world of Skyrim, a map in Battlefield 4, or the cockpit of a starfighter in Eve:Valkyrie, the first game designed around the platform.

On the one hand, I want to experience this.  Like, dude.  Seriously.  Dude.

On the other, I'm a bit leery.  Leery because it already feels like the intrusion of virtual reality into our awareness is taking a toll on our capacity for meaningful relationship.  Leery because it feels like a wonderful way to keep us permanently distracted, lost forever in a world that is entirely our own fabrication.  Or, more significantly, the fabrication of others.

And yeah, sure, we did this plenty before.  That was the place of daydreams, and of good books.

But the idea that we can completely blot out everything around us?  That the world inhabited by our children, or our friends, the real place, should be so easily set aside?  Already, we wander around with  our screens, tuning out the world.

Taking it this step further seems more than a wee bit on the dangerous side.  And no, it's not because twenty years ago I wrote a kid's book in which an evil industrialist uses a functionally identical device to enslave others.  Although that doesn't help.

It's that when we allow our every perception to be fabricated, mediated and filtered, and we lose ourselves in the fantasies that are created for that purpose, it seems there's a real risk that we will wander off from creation entirely.

And those who want reality for themselves, who want us distracted and inattentive?  They'll happily oblige us.

As tech-friendly as I am, this seems worth watching with some caution.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Faith, Drugs, and Legalization

As our culture bumbles about trying to figure out a sane way to handle psychoactive substances, what's clear is that we're a long way from an answer.  The War on Drugs, started with such bright-eyed and martial certainty back in the 1980s?  That hasn't quite panned out, in the way so many things in the Eighties weren't quite the great idea we thought they were.

What this War has done is fill our prison-industrial complex with nonviolent prisoners of war, and while that's a great profit center for corrections corporations, it's not exactly a great basis for a growing and productive economy.  Neither, quite frankly, is spending the equivalent of an excellent vocational school's tuition on every prisoner every year a great use of tax dollars.

Also somewhat ironic, as someone who was in high school when this whole War began, is the reality that more kids are using psychoactive substances in school than they were when I was a teen.  They're legal and prescribed, of course.  But they are drugs all the same, ones used to suppress the very profitable spiritual pain our shambles of a culture inflicts on us.  Sort of like the sedatives one might mix into the feed for the stressed milk-cows in a factory farm to keep them from getting restive, I suppose.

Odd, odd society, we have created.

Now, though, we're walking the War back a little bit.  Blanket criminalization has been given a generation to work, and it has not.  Cultural attitudes towards certain substances, marijuana in particular, are beginning to shift.  After a dallying around with trojan horse tomfoolery around "medical" marijuana, that particular substance is now fully legal at the state level in both Washington state and Colorado, and that appears likely to spread.

In this in-between time and in this grey area, people of faith have to come to terms with the relationship between faith and psychoactive substances.  How can we be both faithful and engaged with a culture in which a variety of different substances are consumed, particularly given an inconsistent and morally ambiguous legal environment?

Here, it helps to ask:  what is the impact of a substance on the personhood of a child of God?

This is central to my understanding of the spiritual ramifications of substance use.  If a substance substantially compromises the integrity of a person, it needs to be avoided and resisted.  I'm talking about the whole person, meaning both one's physical integrity and one's integrity as a free being.

If a substance compromises health and physical well-being, it is to be avoided or consumed with caution appropriate to the level of risk.  Alcohol, for instance, can be consumed in moderation without major physical side effects, but if it is consumed regularly and in quantity, it'll do damage.  Taken in significant excess, it can kill you.  I'm Scots-Irish, and at least one branch of my family tree withered and died because of that substance.  Marijuana, on the other hand, is remarkably nonlethal.  You cannot overdose on it, although panic responses to the psychoactive effects are not uncommon.  But smoking it does have negative impacts on respiratory health.  As does smoking, generally, which is why I avoid the nicotine in tobacco.

There are other, more physically dangerous substances.  Heroin, as the recent tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded us, is astoundingly and tragically risky, as the dose required to cause the effect is perilously close to the dose required to kill you.  Meth?  Meth is a monster.  It devours your body.

And with meth, we turn to the second and more significant spiritual danger: your liberty and your moral agency.  There are substances that compromise your fundamental integrity as a person, which can come to dominate and destroy the will.  Their impact on our minds and bodies is so substantial that no free being should engage with them.

Meth is such a substance.  It is both physically destructive and profoundly physically addictive.  Heroin and other opiates can also create powerful physical addictions.  Cocaine, once a "soft" or "party" drug, is surprisingly addictive.  It's just powdered ego, after all, so I suppose that's to be expected.

The substances that are powerfully destructive of liberty...meaning a normal, healthy human being would be personally compromised by them...must be faithfully resisted.  Being followers of the Nazarene, we don't do that coercively and through the power of the sword.  That means avoiding their use personally, providing nonjudgmental and loving supports to those who find themselves trapped by those substances, and working to help addicts rebuild their lives.  It's a tough road, particularly with nasty beasts like meth.  The Christian response to such substances needs to be the same as our response to the Powers that destroy life.  Our goal is to set the captive free and to break every chain, after all.

But here as in most places, binary thinking fails, because other substances fall into grey areas.  Alcohol, for instance, can be fine for one person, and a life destroyer for another.  Marijuana can be casually consumed by one person, and another might fritter their life away with it.  Some personalities just tend more towards patterns of addiction.  Here, the Christian response goes beyond just providing supports.  As a faith-people whose love of liberty extends to those who aren't us, we have to insure that our own actions are not encouraging or creating opportunities for others to harm themselves.

Does that mean that we cannot consume alcohol, because alcoholism is a real and terrible problem for  many?  Does that mean, in states where cannabinoids are legal, that we cannot consume them?  Some Christians take that approach, and I'm willing to respect it.  I tend to take a relationship-driven approach, one that allows me to act in ways I know do not compromise my integrity.  But that approach is leavened by the fundamental duty of every Christian to care for others.  If I know the person I am with is an alcoholic, I will not take actions in their presence that might compromise them.  If I know my actions will shape a still-forming child's view of the world, I will let that knowledge guide me.

Their journey to wholeness I hold as of equal importance as my own freedom. 

 And that, as a friend once said, is the whole fulfillment of the law.






Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Liberal Christianity and "Sex Work"

Inara from Firefly?
She is not real.
Years ago, I found myself in Amsterdam.  It was the stopover point on a trip to west Africa, and I spent just about twenty four hours in the town, flying in one day, and flying out the next.

In the evening of that first day, I wandered the town, noshing on some forgettable Chinese in some dive restaurant, and then drifting about the streets taking in the sights.

One of the places my wanderings took me was the red light district.  I was in Amsterdam, and I was twenty, and I was curious.  What was this place like?  

Oh, I'd seen plenty of prostitutes before.  As in "seen with my eyes," and not "frequented."  Sorry, kids.  There's no Jimmy Swaggart salaciousness I can share on that front.

My home church, the place I was baptized and where my parents were married?  It's located on 14th street, which was smack in the middle of DC's flesh industry in the 1970s and 1980s.  You couldn't leave church after an evening event without getting propositioned for either sex or narcotics. 

It was not a safe place, meaning, it was exactly where a church needed to be.

But prostitution in Amsterdam was different. This was state-sanctioned. Safe. Respectable.

It was also, as I discovered in my walk through that neighborhood, really depressing.  There they were, in their makeup and lingerie.  Bored young women, sitting out in store windows, looking as sexual as a side of beef at Fuddruckers.  I thought about the women I knew, and saw my friends in those empty faces.  It was dismal.

There is almost nothing positive about sex work, something that was highlighted in an interesting recent piece in
This is real. She is 14 and homeless.
the Christian Century.  The author of that piece interviewed a sex-work advocate, who talked about the "business."  According to that advocate, individuals who work in that trade do so for two primary reasons.  

Reason one: they have been forced into it.  They are being trafficked, meaning they are either in debt-slavery or under physical coercion by an individual or group that is profiting from the sale of their bodies.  This is abusive, predatory, and monstrous.  It is also the primary face of sex work globally.

Reason two: they have been forced into it.  Wait, you say.  That was the first one!  Well, it's the second reason, too, only with a difference.  This coercion has to do with macroeconomics.  Meaning, individuals "choose" to become sex workers because they have no other economic choices.  They can't find work enough to sustain their lives and their families, and so they "choose" to fall back on what they perceive as their only remaining option.  It is a choice made of desperation, and reflective of the brokenness of the world around them.  It's like working endless, backbreaking hours on the line of a Foxconn factory.  Or an Amazon fulfillment center.  It is work of last resort.

Reason three: They're a member of a respected order of consorts, who roam the universe in a tastefully appointed shuttle, dishing out tea and sage advice to a carefully selected clientele.  Yeah, I'm sure in some universe that happens.  But in this one?  Not so much.

Given this reality, what confuses me, frankly, is the response of many of my liberal Christian brethren and sistren to "sex work."  There's much talk of supporting sex workers, of valuing them, of destigmatizing them.  This is all well and good.  Jesus doesn't ask us to take up stones, particularly against those who are powerless.  The way our culture penalizes and imprisons those who find themselves in that "business" is also absurd, given that it is almost never a chosen path.

But the elephant in the room, the one that many leftist Jesus folk seem unwilling to articulate clearly, is that sex work is fundamentally antithetical to a healthy, progressive, and faithful understanding of human sexuality.

It marketizes and commodifies human intimacy.  If we have a problem with the transactional character of our culture, and we value authentic human relationships, then this industry is one that is inherently problematic.  Wealth is a social proxy for power, and introducing it into sexuality fundamentally changes the character of what should be a God-given blessing.

It radically objectivizes other human beings, and does violence to their integrity as persons.  The same folks who defend sex work as legitimate have lately been describing oppressive and aggressively depersonalizing actions as "rapey."  Ever done that?  Then I'd challenge you now to go to Google Images, turn off Safesearch, and google the word "rape."  The people you will see are part of the sex "industry."  Once you've recovered from that horror, tell me that what you saw was a positive addition to human dignity and God's love for all God's children.

It relies on labor that is, outlier anecdotes aside, either physically or economically coerced.  As such, the best support for a "sex worker" is to provide either refuge or options to get out of the "business."

And then there's the whole Jesus thing.  If you believe that a commodified, depersonalized, coerced sexuality is a part of the Reign of God Jesus declared, tell me why.  Because no reading of any text or narrative tradition I am familiar with justifies such a belief as having integrity within the path Jesus taught.

Alright, fine, maybe Pope Alexander VI wrote favorably of it, but if that's where you're going, consider the company you're keeping.

Ultimately, the challenge for faithful Christians is not to demonize or condemn individuals who find themselves trapped in patterns of life that both depersonalize and are not chosen.  But neither is our job to affirm every path.