Friday, May 30, 2014

Richard Dawkins and "Secular Christianity"

It was a little odd, I'll confess, to see recent reportage of die-hard neoatheist Richard Dawkins asserting that he's Christian.

"Secular Christian," of course, but still.

If you've ever read anything by Dawkins, that statement might seem like a coding flaw in the Matrix, or perhaps a sign that the upcoming Left Behind movie is going to come out at a particularly auspicious moment.  No, actually, scratch that.  I think the last thing the studio wants is the Rapture right before it opens.  Poof, there goes your target audience.

Whichever way, here arguably the world's most famously strident atheist is saying: "I am a mumblemumble Christian."

It seems peculiar.

What Dawkins is trying to say, honestly, is something completely in line with a position he's stated and restated over the years.  He likes the ritual.  He enjoys caroling, and pageants, stockings and trees and Old Saint Nick. Even the churchy ritual itself, with vicars and funny hats and incense, there's appeal in that.  There's something comforting about it, something vewy Bwitish that puts him at ease, even if he thinks most of it is utterly absurd.

So there it is.  He's a secular Christian.

But can such a thing even exist?  Are there "secular Christians?"

On the on hand, of course there are.  There have always been.  Tradition and authority, pomp and ritual, these things have been a part of Christianity almost from the git-go.  Oh, it took them a few centuries to get rolling, but roll they have.

On the other hand, of course, I'm not sure that's what I would describe as Christian in the first place. Ritual means very little, unless it serves a deeper purpose.  The forms and structures of Christianity have often become nothing more than the ritual trappings of secular society. One has only to look at the rather awkward origin story of the Church of England for evidence of that.

Being Christian, as my teacher George MacDonald puts it over and over again, means nothing more and nothing less than doing what Jesus tells us to do. Nothing else matters. A disciple follows the teachings of their master. Period.

Ritual is only meaningful insofar as it reinforces that radical commitment.  What does that look like?

Live your life humbly and graciously.  Make decisions guided by a compassion not just for your family, friends, tribe, or nation, but for all beings.  Even enemies.  Particularly enemies.

Which means, oddly enough, that I think there can be secular Christians.  "I'm not sure about the God-thing," they say.  "But I can do those things that Jesus asks. I can live that way."  I don't know if Dawkins falls into that category.  It might be interesting to ask him.

Ultimately, I think that's what counts.  Jesus did too, of course.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Throwing Paul Under the Bus

There they were, the dad and his daughters, picnicking before an outdoor concert.  They were just a yard behind me to my left.  We were waiting together for the show to start, and as I sipped my refreshing pilsner and soaked up the late-day sun, I did some good old-fashioned eavesdropping.

Daughter One was tall and dark clad, sitting in front of Dad and Daughter Two.  Daughter Two was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties.  She was wearing a funky little hat and modest but graceful clothing, a pageboy bob framing her face.  Dad was in his fifties, trim and tan, with a Ron Burgundy mustache that was just a tiny bit too large for his pleasantly impish face, a face that could be seen echoed in his daughter.

 Dad was talking to Daughter Two about Jesus.

And Lord have mercy, was she not enjoying it.  She was enduring it, being polite, trying not to say anything encouraging.  It was one of those conversations that will be recounted later to Daughter One, I suspect, although describing it as a conversation isn't particularly accurate.

It was a monologue delivered at slightly more volume than was entirely necessary, the sort of thing that Dad had cobbled together at whatever church Dad was attending.  "How to Talk To Your Liberal Daughter Back from College about Jesus," or so I'm sure the pamphlet goes.

So he talked, talked about how radical Jesus was, how unusual he was for his day, that sort of thing.  It wasn't bad stuff, not really, but it wasn't a conversation she wanted to be having.  "Sure, Dad."  "Well, I don't know."  "Uh huh."

There was no asking, or any real back and forth.

Then, Dad started in about Paul.  How Paul had completely ruined Christianity, how he'd taken the radical things Jesus had done and messed them all up.  Jesus never said most of the things Paul said, intoned Dad, with Dadly Authority.  Paul really said some stupid things about women, Dad said, with Dadly Certainty.  Paul came later than the Gospels, said Dad with utter Dadly Confidence, and turned the Jesus of the Gospels from a revolutionary thing into something completely different.

Oh Lord, was it hard not to jump in.  Were I Russian, or Israeli, I'd have insinuated myself in a heartbeat.  And despite my near-pathological introversion, I almost did.  But as I watched them, drawn to theological conversation like a moth to a flame, Daughter Two saw me and met my eyes. She gave me a sheepish little smile.  "Sorry you have to hear this," it said.  I gave her a shrugging grin back.  "I feel you," it said, and she registered it.

I wasn't going to wade in, because it would have made her more uncomfortable.  "Now Dad's Getting Into It With A Strange Pastor."  Yeah, that'd help her a whole bunch.

It was still tempting, not just because Dad was factually wrong, though he was.  Wherever Dad goes to church, they clearly don't teach about the dating of Paul's letters and how the Gospels were written.

But because Paul deserves none of that rap.  None of it.

Oh, he gets that a whole bunch, as folks try to adapt the New Testament to our egalitarian culture.  It's a familiar critique, one I heard a whole bunch in the progressive church in which I grew up.  But it's just not right.

The more you get into historical critical study of the Bible, the more obvious that becomes.  Paul himself--not the followers who wrote in his name, but Paul himself--was certainly not Jesus.  But the heart of what Paul taught in the seven letters we can attribute to him with integrity harmonizes beautifully with the Jesus we hear in the Gospels.  If you really get into the scholarship--the serious, objective, critical scholarship--the Paul that emerges is a remarkable person.  Perfect?  No.

An Apostle bearing the same sacred and transforming message that Jesus himself bore, one that shattered cultural expectations, class lines, and gender roles?  Yes.

You just can't throw that guy under the bus.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Diagnosis

Another mass killing echoes in our collective consciousness this week, for a while, at least.

It's spun differently this time, as we chatter and screech in our social media trees like startled monkeys.  It is misogyny, this time, that has become the focus of our #hashtag uproar.  We also note that the killer had a small collection of guns, one of which was used in the killing.  And he was privileged--wealthy and lacking nothing materially. These are all certainly part of that horror, but his darkness seems deeper and more indiscriminate than all of those things taken individually.

Yes, he was a virulent misogynist. And yet four of the six dead were men.  Yes, he loved the easy power of the gun.  But half of those who died--his roommate and his friends, all Asian, all men--were stabbed to death.

There is more at play here.

The crass, hateful, and starkly self-absorbed rantings of the latest "killer-of-many" were remarkable only for their strange shallowness.  This is not the Unabomber, caught up in some falsely "noble" fantasy of bringing down the machine.  This was just a soul that had fallen in on itself like a black hole, lost in a remarkably banal hatred.

"Girls don't like me, and I desire them. That makes me feel powerless, so I'll kill all of them."  Like rape, these murders were just about power.

That was as far as his ethos went.  He had become blind to everything else.  At no point in his rantings, in his feedback loop of solipcistic self immolation, did he ever think that perhaps people did not like him because he did not like them.  He had lost awareness of women--or other men, really--as persons, as sentient and self-aware beings.

If you view people as soulless objects and/or projections of your own frustrations and hungers, they don't like that.  So. Very. Simple.  And yet that most basic knowledge was not in him.

"Girls don't like me."  It's so stupid, such an impossibly stupid thing to use as a justification for shattering the hopes and lives of others.  But as that dark old Boomtown Rats song goes, what reason do you need?

Ultimately, there are no valid reasons behind such horrors.

It was striking how little got through to him.  Those who view such hateful behavior as best dealt with with a good solid beating had their swing at him.  Police reports show that'd been tried.  He'd acted out, drunk at a party, striking and pushing women.  The other partygoers had beaten him to the ground, and kicked him into submission, as others called the cops.  That only deepened his hatred.

Those who'd talk it through, exploring feelings?  That failed, too.  He'd been in and out of therapy, as his concerned parents had tried to break through his increasingly toxic isolation.  He's mentally ill, in need of help and healing.  That was the thought, and at least it was hopeful, trying to set a life on a restorative path.  But those interventions, unless they cast a clear alternate future before a blighted soul, can do little.

I hear talk of mental illness being the cause, and yet I'm not sure it's so easy.  His rantings are not the word-salad of the schizophrenic.  He was able to mask it, easily, when confronted.

They were not incoherent. They represent an internally cohesive way of viewing the world. I have known many people living with mental illness, struggling with clinical depression or mania or any one of the many ways our complex brains can malfunction.  They do not yearn to harm others.

What was at play in Isla Vista represented an ethos, meaning a set of enacted beliefs that gives a person their integrity.

There is a name for that state of being, one that we seem to have grown strangely coy about using.

Evil, that word is.

We worry that this seems harsh, and that it seems judgmental.  Yet if there is good, there must be evil.  If we affirm that compassion, mercy, justice, lovingkindness, and graciousness are states of being that constitute a way in which we should live, then there are also ways in which we should not live.

Misogyny, for instance, is evil.  I would name it as such.  It is evil to simultaneously despise and objectify half of humankind.  Fetishizing violence over others is evil.  It is evil to desire the harm of other beings as an affirmation of your own power.  If we take those memes into ourselves, we become them.  We actualize them.  We are them.

Is it a sickness?  Yes, of sorts, but not necessarily one that's part of our individual meatware wiring.  Evil has to do with software.  It's learned.  It's socioculturally installed and updated.

It is chosen, then chosen again, carved into us until the furrow in us is so deep that we lose ourselves in it.

That is true for human beings, and for cultures as a whole.

It has always been our curse.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pews Made of Grass

I went to church last Saturday night.  Well, it was sort of church.

Every Memorial Day weekend for the last several years, my family has charged down the lawn at Wolftrap to snag a good pik-a-nik spot in that lovely venue.

It's a bit like the running of the bulls at Pamplona, only with liberals instead of livestock.

We've settled in to watch Garrison Keillor do his Prairie Home Companion thing, live on the air.  This year, it was lovely, perfect and clear-skied.  The lawn--the cheap "seats" out there in the grass, that are both cheap and the best--was wildly multigenerational, filled with families and couples and clusters of friends, the old and the young.

Keillor is aging, and he looks it.  My thirteen year old, who made a point of going up to him as Keillor wandered the audience singing before the show, said he looked so much older up close.  But his handshake was firm, said my son, and he looked you right in the eye.

"What will happen when he stops doing this," my son asked after the show.  "Something else, probably," I said. "But he's got a couple more years left in him."  "Good," said my son.

The stories of Lake Wobegon are well-worn and familiar, like the tales told by a beloved grandparent.  He's been around for a long time, but for the generations that didn't grow up with him?  For them, he's new, as the world is new.  I could tell by watching them.

My teenagers abandoned their screens, which does not happen often.  They listened to the stories and the radio stageplays, and laughed.  They took to our binoculars and marveled at the sound of live music from generations past. The twenty-something hipster-cluster sitting two blankets to our left nodded along and smiled at his gently meandering tales and drank their two-buck Chuck.

By the thousands and tens of thousands, folks were there to be part of that music and storytelling.  The lawn was full, totally full, not like the stock picture up there I snagged from Google for you to look at.

I wish church was more like this sometimes, I found myself thinking.

But it was church, sort of.  Faith language weaves in and out throughout Keillor's storytelling, which feel at times on the cusp of being sermons.  Before the show, there was singing, and mixed in with classic favorites and songs of national identity there were old hymns, to which the gathered thousands sang along.

And for such a liberal show, it was also paradoxically conservative.  Old music and old gracious stories mingled with a warm and nuanced patriotism and a gentle, tolerant faith.  It's progressive, I suppose, because you cannot make progress unless you hold on to what is good.

It wasn't an anxious event, not trying to be anything other than what it was.   Babies cried, toddlers squawked, and people laughed and talked softly, and picked their way through the crowd on their way to the bathroom.

There we were, sitting in the back pews, sipping our wine.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Sermon

It wasn't a particularly rushed morning, two Sundays ago.

I'd finished up the sermon, then putzed around with it for a few minutes as I always do before printing it up on a Sunday morning.  There's a final read-over, an edit here, an addition there, and I'm ready to go.

Some mornings, it's a mad rush, as I realize that I've botched a transition or failed to include something vital, which surfaces in my mind only at the very last minute.  But I was generally pleased with the manuscript, which I'd dance in and out of as I moved through the message.  There were the jokes, the images, the transitions, and the results of my review of scholarly commentaries, all woven up together.  I was content.

I went upstairs, showered, snagged another cup of coffee, and then went back downstairs to the study and hit print.  Out came the pages, one-two-three-four, single spaced, 1600 words and change.

I snagged them from the printer as soon as they printed out, then bounded upstairs.  I dropped them in my bag, suited up, and got on my bike to motor to church.

The adult ed study went well, as we wrapped up thirteen weeks of studying Paul's Seven Letters.

I bopped into my office with five minutes to go before worship, put on robe and stole and cross, and popped open my bag.  Out came the sermon manuscript.

It was a sermon.  But it was not the sermon.

It was the sermon from the previous week, which--as I discovered later--had still been spooled up in the buffer for the printer.  The actual sermon must have printed about ten seconds later, where it sat patiently all Sunday long wondering why I hadn't picked it up.


I reviewed my options.  Four minutes to worship.  The sermon was in the cloud, in my Googledrive.  I could get to it.  Only...I didn't have my laptop.  Hum.  Surely, surely I could access that through the browser on my iPhone.

I attempted this, sitting there in my office, but something wasn't working.  I tried again, as I sat there in the sanctuary.  Still not working.  Ack.  I found myself coveting, for a moment, an Android phone.

My music director finished the prelude, and nodded and smiled as she does to let me know to get my behind out there.  I went to welcome folks into the worship.  I was preoccupied, and could feel it distancing me.

During the first readings, I tried again to get to the sermon, but for some reason, it would only bring up an account affiliated with my older son's schoolwork.  I found a workaround, and got to my Google account, but then--with ten seconds to go before I'd lead the time with children--the browser crashed.

Ack, again.

And so in the all-too-short hymn before the sermon, my mind fished for the words I had used.  They were there, somewhere.  The echo of my writing remained, but it was imperfect.  How had I said that?  How had I started?  How had I worked that transition?

I can do off-the-cuff or improvisational preaching.  That, I'm comfortable with.  It's energizing.

But my mind was still on the words that weren't quite there.  I struggled through the message, I'd remember that I'd forgotten to say this, or forgotten to say that.  I was not in the moment or non-anxious, and I could feel it distorting and interfering with my connection to the good folks of my little church.  They were trying gamely to stay with me, they were, but it just wasn't happening.

Because to preach the Word, you have to be present in it.

Sigh.  There's always the next Sunday.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Righteous and the Unrighteous Alike

The day was hot, hotter than I'd expected, and I'd made the wrong call.

I-66 is often the wrong call.  It's a chaos-monster of a road, utterly unpredictable.  Oh, it'll always be jammed solid at rush hour, but one little twitch in the flow pattern of the universe, and it'll lock up completely.  Or, if there's another quantum-level twitch, it'll flow smooth and swift.  You just don't know.

I'd had that moment of decision, as I rolled back from seminary on my bike, the top-box filled with books from the library, research materials to fuel the next two weeks of my doctoral writing.  I could go left, onto Route 50, with its lights and stop and go.  Or I could risk Sixty Six.

I rolled the dice, gambled, and lost.

I knew I'd lost as I pulled down the exit ramp.  Exit ramps are fun, usually, an opportunity to let my bright little bike breathe deep into its willing cylinders, hooting out a rebel yell as I hit sixty in less than four seconds.  But this ramp had me slowing, and then notching into a stop and go line that stretched out as far as the eye could see.

It wasn't even bicycle pace.  A particularly motivated four year old could probably have kept up on their Big Wheel.  And the road was hot.  The sun had been bright all day, though clouds were coming in, and the ambient temps were in the mid-eighties.  Right there standing on the dark baked asphalt slab, surrounded by thousands of idling cars, it was much hotter.

I, of course, was in my trusty riding suit.  It's great protection, and in summer, it's perfectly cool.  So long as you're moving.  I'd unzipped the front zipper, and the vent zippers under my pits and across my back.  But we weren't moving.  I was becalmed.  I felt the sweat beading inside the helmet.  I felt the heat rising from the little motor idling between my legs.

This is no fun at all, I thought, among other unpastorly imprecations at myself for foolishly having risked such a random road.

A shadow fell across the road, and moments later, there was a sound of impact against my helmet.  "Spock," it went. "Spock," it went again, and there was cool moisture on my face.   Rain.  Raindrops make a percussive Nimoy onomatopoeia when they hit a helmet visor.  I looked up.  Huh.  The clouds didn't seem particularly like rain.

They were, though because then suddenly it was raining, tropically, heavy drops widely dispersed.

I could, I suppose, have received the rain as yet another annoyance.  Now it's rackafrackin' raining!  And I'm standing in the middle of an interstate.  On my bike.  Going nowhere. In the rain.

I chose to feel it differently.  Lord, it felt like a blessing.  I leaned back, and let the water strike my face and chest, tiny blows of grace on after another.  I felt the heat dissipate from the road, and from the air.

Rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, I recalled.  How we receive that rain, though? That's up to us.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Off Her Game

It was a bustling morning, scheduled up nice and tight.  Tighter than most.  I try to leave some flex most days, part of having balance and space to breathe, but it wasn't one of those mornings.  Instead, it was more the type of day most Washingtonians live, with one event clicking off right after another.

Up at 5:45 am, with first one (6:35) and then another (7:00) teen fed and watered and heaved out the door. Between 7:00 and 7:20 the dog got walked, and at 7:25 the last load of laundry from the previous day went in.  Then, one hour of writing and managing social media, (7:25 - 8:25) followed by cleaning of dishes, straightening, and some necessary yard work. (8:26- 9:30)

And then there were groceries, which needed to be gotten.  I mean, really had to be gotten.  You can usually cobble together something for a meal, but the larder was bare.  No eggs.  No milk.  No cereal.  No deli meats.  The dilithium crystals were critically depleted, and the NCC-3812 was barely capable of mustering impulse.

So shopping had to happen.  It also had to happen quickly, because after that I was delivering for Meals on Wheels (10:30-11:30), and after that, I had a meeting with my doctoral advisor in town that would restart the--um--"slightly delayed" march to my doctorate.  That meeting was the linchpin of the day, (12:30-1:00pm) after which there were several hours allocated for library research.

It was a tight schedule, a carefully structured set of cogs that all needed to work neatly together.  And at 9:45, I rolled into Harris Teeter, ready for some swift Man Shopping.  Having an XY chromosome and all, I do not like noodling when I shop, drifting and sampling and testing.  Shopping is a proxy for hunting, to be done intently and with dispatch.

I was feeling that primal rush as I systematically stalked the Harris Teeter, snagging the necessary fuel for our household.  It was far earlier in the day than I usually shop, which is perhaps why the music they were piping in was actual Muzak, treacly instrumental versions of the great classics of the 60s and 70s.

I wheeled my full cart up to the front, and there saw that there were only a couple of lines open.  Long lines.  Very long lines.  I had waaay too much to self-check, and so I watched the cashiers.  One seemed to be moving quickly, swiftly gettin' it done, precise and confident, quickly bagging, so I locked into her line as the clock ticked away.

Only at the end of the order she was working on, there was a problem.  Something wasn't scanning.  There was conversation.  A manager was called.  There was more conversation.  It didn't scan again.  The code didn't work.  I could see the cashier's frustration gathering, and I could feel my own.  I checked the time, and the other lines.  Still too long to shift over.

She resolved the problem, and moved on to the next customer.  That went smoothly, and we moved up.  Just one more person in front of me.  All was rung up, only this customer was paying with a couple of hundred in cash.  The cashier hit the button to open the register, and it stuck halfway open.  She tugged at it.  Nothing.  She pulled at it.  Nothing.  She banged it.  It closed, and then would not reopen at all.

I checked the time.  I was losing vital minutes.  In the lines next to me, the error of my selection was clear.  I was feeling my neat day slipping away from me.

Customer Service was called over the store speaker.  And then called again, her voice quavering a little bit with frustration.  On the third call, the manager arrived, and they struggled with it for a minute.

Now, finally, my turn.  Precious minutes had been lost.  And the choice, which fell to me, was what tone of being to present.  I could choose to press, to let my busyness and annoyance manifest.  What matters here?

Is it my schedule, my grasping, my hurry?

Or is it this harried young woman, frustrated and with her pride in her competence dinged?

 So I mutter a stilling prayer to myself, and let myself be calm.   I calmed.  It will be as it is, but I did not have to contribute to the stress she was feeling.

"I'm so sorry," she said as she started ringing me up, "for the delay."  "That's OK," I said, and let my voice and my posture show that I meant it.

As a bagger drifted up to help with my large order, she said to him, "I'm just so off my game today."  He nodded, and I chimed in.  "We all have mornings like that.  It'll pass."

She apologized again as I took the loaded cart.  I gave her a smile, and told her it was alright, and to have a better one.

She smiled a little at that, and started in on the next customer.

We all have days when we're off our game.

Which is why it's important not to let the rush and stress of being let us forget what the whole point of that game is.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Disagreeing with Your Teacher

I finished up reading The Weight of Glory last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It wasn't the thickest of books, but it was--as is all C.S. Lewis--rich and warm and spiritually nourishing.  I am the better for reading it, as I always am when I engage with his warm and gracious spirit.

What struck me, in the reading of his essays, was that I do not always agree with him.  Take, for instance, his essay entitled "Why I am Not A Pacifist."  I'm not either, not fundamentally so.  But I see this as a weakness in my nature, a flaw in my commitment to the radically healing and transformative message of Jesus of Nazareth.

Clive Staples, in his essay, elegantly and articulately argued against pacifism as a response to evil.  He brought the big guns of his Oxbridge brilliance to the table, reason and history, ancient story and the deep traditions of the church and her teachings.

But I could not help but notice that when it came time to deal with what Jesus had to say, he was a little more coy.  He danced around it, contextualized it, and did not linger there, because it was not a place he could linger.  To stay in the presence of the Christ requires us to set down our swords.  Period.  Tolstoy, who Lewis often quoted and deeply admired, he understood that.  Tolstoy was uncompromising in his advocacy of nonviolence.  But Lewis?  Well, he was living in a different context.

Pacifism is the way of Christ, but with National Socialism burning like a demonic fire in Europe, I can completely understand why C.S. Lewis would have discouraged passive nonresistance.  That does not mean I agree with tone of his essay, which did not touch on the depth of Christ's challenge to our desire to take up our father's sword.  But I can understand it.

Later, in another essay in the collection, Lewis waxes poetic about the natural state of things, which he views as fundamentally patriarchal.  Men are made to be in charge, he says, and egalitarian thinking exists only as a necessary counterbalance to our sinful nature.  He never quite gets around to explaining how this works with Galatians, don't think he quite wanted to go there.

I just can't see it, nor can I embrace his thinking.

So here I am, with the great teacher of my childhood and youth, and I have found places where I don't just nod along as he talks.

It would be easy, and in keeping with the spirit of this dissonant age, to slap labels on him.  He's dated and inadequately progressive, I might say, turning up my nose.  He's just another example of patriarchal hegemony, with its use of violence to oppress and subjugate, I might say.

But then I would be deluding myself.  If I focused primarily on the places of disagreement, I would miss the profound and transforming grace of his writings.  If I chose to attack and deconstruct, rather than finding the places of agreement, then I would get nowhere.

If we only choose to learn from and relate to those with whom we completely agree, we will never learn, and never grow.

And so instead, I shake my head at those few places where a wise old colleague and I disagree, and choose to dwell in the many, many places where he sings new and graceful truths to my soul.

It's always better to seek the gifts and graces.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Problem with Nonprofits

The past couple of nights, I've settled in to engage with an old friend.  Clive Staples Lewis was a major part of my childhood and my youth.  My encounter with his mind and with his faith left me with a Christianity that has been able to robustly engage with reality.  I do not fear science, nor am I troubled in my encounter with other faith traditions.  Much of that has to with the gentle, earthy, intelligent faith that radiates from both his fiction and his theology.

So I've been reading The Weight of Glory, a refreshingly short collection of his essays and "sermons."  His mind and his use of language continue to be taut and delightful, even after all these years.  It's one of the reasons I continue to consider him a primary spiritual teacher.

One thing hit me, straight off the git go, and that was a challenge in the titular essay to the idea of defining ourselves by negation.   Is the highest value "unselfishness," he asks?  He'd been hearing that, evidently, and had an issue with it.  

Why should we assume that "selfishness" has a right to dominance, with the good only existing in relation to a dark but more essential state of being?

Instead, it is more transforming and powerful to assume that our purpose is the good, which exists as a free-standing potential reality that is fundamental and positive.  This, he articulates as love, in the most radical sense of the word.  Let "love" exist as an affirmative, potent, gracious primacy in our self-understanding, Lewis suggests.

His observation sent my mind cascading off in several directions, which my mind tends to do.  One reaction touched on an old pattern of thought, having to do with the way our culture views actions taken for the benefit of others.  These are the things we do together for joy or for compassion.  These are the arts, and music, and working together for the good of all.  We make gardens.  We feed the hungry.  We visit the prisoner.  We worship and teach.  We sing and dance and share our stories and our art.

When we create organizations for the purposes of creating the good, we have a name for them.  Or rather, we have a new name for them.

We used to call them "charities."  Charity means "love," from the Latin root word caritas.  These were collective undertakings of love, community efforts done for the purpose of manifesting a more gracious state of being in the world.  But beginning in the late 1980s, our language began to change.

What mattered to our secular market culture was profit, and the power conveyed from the generation and accumulation of capital.  So what had once been called "charity" became defined as a negation, a shadow state of being.  They are not "love organizations."  

They are "non-profit organizations."  And so "nonprofit" became the defining term for that form of activity, something we do when we're not doing "profit," the thing that is most important in our culture.

Outside of our fiercely market-driven nation, an interestingly parallel semiotic event occurred in the social democracies elsewhere in the world.  

There, it is government that has primacy, setting the boundaries for culture through the use of law, regulation, and coercive authority.  In Europe and elsewhere, what had been known as "charitable" organizations now became increasingly known as "nongovernmental" organizations.

In both cases, what had been an affirmative statement became a negation.

For ten years of my life, before I entered the pastorate, I was immersed in the world of studying nonprofits.  The whole time, this negative ideation troubled me.  Well, not the whole time.  I did actually get some work done, when I wasn't musing philosophically out of the window of my office.  

This telling way of using language to indicate dominant cultural values really did stick with me.

Because business and government are all well and good.  But profit and power should not be given primacy of place in our self-understanding.  They are not our purpose.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sacred Baggage

Having finally finished my meander through MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe, I found myself enjoying it--mostly.  It was remarkably personal for a science-popularizing tome, as he talked openly about ex-wives and girlfriends, and his kid's enjoyment of Legos.  In that sense, I suppose, it was not a "serious" book.  Just a very human one.

And that worked for me.  Here's a science author who's just garrulous and a bit chatty, and who'll leaven his explications of mindspinning cosmology with an aside about the music he happens to be listening to as he's writing.

That it was Arvo Part's De Profundis didn't hurt.  Given that Part is also a favorite of mine, perhaps there's about Estonian sacred mystic music that evokes multiversal contemplation.

In Tegmark's book, I found it fascinating that he's almost--almost--stepping across the line into theology on several occasions.  Where he discusses the encounter of sentient beings with the deeper orders underlying the universe, and of a mathematical reality that both underlies reality and is ever beyond it, he's on the very cusp of being neoplatonic.  Am I reading Plotinus, or am I reading a 21st Century cosmologist?  It's hard to tell at times, and given how powerfully Christianity has historically resonated with both Plato and the neoplatonists, Tegmark's dabbling starts to get teasingly close to my own faith and multiverse writing.

There, though, Tegmark only almost--almost--touches the surface of faith.  Then he pulls away.  There are ways we understand the nature of being, he says, that are "baggage."  These are languages and forms that represent echoes of the reality we are encountering, but are laden with other understandings with no scientific basis.

He doesn't ever quite say: don't call this thing I'm describing "God."  He doesn't spend time chiding folks not to conflate their faith-language with the wild new possibilities of multiverse cosmologies.  Unlike deGrasse Tyson, Hawking, and other more vigorously atheistic physicists, that's not a fish Tegmark wants to fry.  It'd be too combative, too aggressive for his genial style.  That's not the journey he wants to take with his readers.

And yet, it's hard not to wonder if it might be more helpful to bring those forms of language along.  If you want people to embrace a new understanding of reality, and not to view it as a threat, it helps not to tear them from the language that they view as sacred.

Why not say, honestly, that the thing you've always declared as sacred and holy and wonderful may actually exist, in ways that are full of dizzying glory deeper than your wildest imagining.

Amazing, the things that a good bag can carry.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Loving Your Facility

It's right there in the heart of my hometown, if you can call the clumsy mess of stripmalls and tarmac that comprises Annandale a "hometown."  It's a modestly-sized Baptist church, one that is both gracious and clearly working just a tiny bit to maintain its facility.  Things are neatly kept, but as with all buildings that date from fifty or sixty years ago, it feels a little worn around the edges here and there.

As I wandered in through the side door to pick up the meals I deliver on Thursdays for Meals on Wheels, I was struck by one of the good-spirited signs that someone at the church puts up everywhere.

"Welcome to a Facility," it began, and that wording stuck with me.  Not "a church."  Not "a community."  Not "a congregation."

A "facility."

Because generally speaking, when the churchy people I know think of the word facility, we associate that word with bad things.

The facility is the thing that drains our energy and our resources.  The facility is the thing that becomes the albatross around our neck, the reason we don't do mission or evangelism, the drain on our budgets and our energies.  It drains our creative energies.  It makes us frustrated.  We start to think of it as something that exists as a distraction.  A facility can be a serious pain in the [tushie.]

Yet the root of the word has to do with abilities and gifts.  It "facilitates."  It makes things possible, in the way that a servant makes things possible.  As the dictionary puts it, it "affords a convenience or service."  Or it "permits the easier performance of an action."  Better yet, it describes competence, in that it is "readiness or ease due to skill, aptitude, or practice."

Our facility should contribute to our facility, which enables us to do and to be.  It is what allows to you to have a space that is welcoming, or to engage in acts of hospitality.  It is not something we cling to, or that drains us, or that stands as a fortress in which we hide away from the Other.

Seems simple enough.  Those Baptists in Annandale certainly seem to have it down.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Not Actually Garbage

They come cruising through the neighborhood every Wednesday morning, which is our Trash Day.  We live in a two-bin county, where we set out one vast rolling plastic container for trash, and another smaller blue plastic rolling container for recycling.

But other stuff gets set out throughout our little burb, and among the piles of consumer-culture detritus are huge plastic bags of lawn clippings and grass clippings.   Before the trucks from the county shows up, another truck arrives.  It's a beat-up old Chevy S-10, dating back from when I was in high school.  In it, two guys.  They troll up and down the streets, and wherever they see a home with a pile of bagged grass out front, they snag it.

The S-10 limps through the neighborhood, its ancient suspension sagging under the weight of several lawns worth of bagged and discarded grass.

Because that trash isn't trash.

Mixed with the right stuff, it's eight to 12 months away from becoming nitrogen-rich dirt, perfect for gardening and enriching the unforgiving Virginia clay that makes up most of the soil in our region.  Those two guys are taking that earth-stuff to a garden center, where it's being turned right into the healthy soil you need to grow.

I've been feeling that lately, as we've begun composting.  I've always mulched our grass back into the lawn, but now I'm taking some of it to add to a growing pile of soon-to-be-dirt in our back yard.  Mowing the grass feels less like a pointless ornamental chore, and a little more like harvesting.  That mindset has started to change how I think about many of my yard-duties.

The leaves that fall in such wild abundance from the trees in our back yard aren't a nuisance to be carted away after we've spent another afternoon grumbling and raking.  They're "browns," carbon-rich and a necessary ingredient of healthy compost.   The eggshells and carrot-shavings and coffee-grounds that used to go into our kitchen garbage?  "Greens," to be mixed in deep to fuel the constructive decomposition.

So many of the things we discard or cast aside are not actually garbage.  You just have to see them through the right eyes.

Sort of like people, actually.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Zionism Unsettled

The other day, I wended my way through rush hour traffic to get to a small church gathering that ended up not happening.

It was unfortunate, but a reality of the hurly burly of Washington existence.  It's just hard to get people to travel across the mess of traffic to get anywhere.  We've got a bazillion things to do, and we can't do it all.  This is why I don't even try to do it all.  Just the important stuff.

But the important stuff can get lost in the thickets of busyness.  We can be so intent on our doing that we forget to prioritize, or lose a sense of who we are becoming.  Relationships, those relationships that matter, have been neglected, have withered, and are no more.  We wake up, and we realize our children have grown, and we were so busy rushing around in a panic that we lost track of them.  From far away, they ignore us right back, just like we taught them.

Or we suddenly realize that our relationship with our spouse is a dead thing, suffocated under a mound of meetings and memos and the resentments that arise from functional abandonment.

The meeting in question had to do with Zionism Unsettled, a report from an affinity group of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one that will go before our General Assembly this summer.  It's an effort to speak to the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, which in and of itself is a worthy thing.

It's a mess, a level-five conflict, one with as many layers and tears as an onion.  In it, there is no question that Israel, a democracy, fears for its existence with legitimate cause.  There are some really unpleasant powers in the region that seek to do the Jewish people ill, that 1) use the Palestinian people as a proxy and 2) use that conflict as a distraction as they oppress their own people.

On the other hand, Netanyahu, Likud, and the Israeli far-right have only deepened the conflict.  Their radical nationalism and focus on security above human rights have generated some very real abuses of the Palestinian people.  Their aggressive policy of settlement expansion has also--to my eyes, at least--rendered the "two-state solution" unviable.  I do not believe that the current scattered assemblage of non-contiguous Palestinian ghettos can be woven into a nation.

Into this mess, a group of justice-oriented Presbyterians have attempted to speak.  The challenge with speaking, though, is finding the right tone.   It is our right to notice injustice, and our duty to say something.  But if we say the wrong thing, it will be actively counterproductive.  Say the right thing in the wrong way, and it will also be actively counterproductive.

I am convinced that if the Presbyterian church has a hand in the solution to this issue, it does not lie in our wealth, our political influence, or our numbers.  It has to do with our relationships.  In particular, it lies in our connections the American Jewish community, with whom we have constructively engaged for two generations.  Jews in the United States are committed to justice and democracy, and are supportive of Israel.  They can also speak to Israeli power with authority, in ways that Christians cannot.

In so far as we Presbyterians have influence to help restore justice in that region, it lies in our healthy relationship with the Jewish community here, and our capacity to open justice conversations.

Zionism Unsettled will damage that relationship.  It already has.  It is too easily heard as an attack on both the integrity and best aspirations of the Jewish people.  I do not believe it was intended that way, but having read the report, I can't help but hear it through the ears of progressive and justice-oriented Judaism, the sort of Judaism that defines the synagogue of which I--a Presbyterian pastor who has raised two Jewish boys--am a member.

It's going to be a bad thing.

Some will respond that this is only because Jews in America are hypersensitive to any statements about Israel. If you say anything with even a whiff of criticism of Israeli policies or politics, you are a hateful anti-Semite.  There's some truth in that, if we are honest.  Some folks go right to that button, every time.

But we also need to listen to ourselves, and to where our tone and language are taking us.  I think Presbyterians need to take seriously the folks who have weighed in supporting Zionism Unsettled.  If we endorse this report, we will have picked up a rather interesting group of fellow travelers.

Iranian state-run news media have picked our efforts up, and are lending their support.  Former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke has blogged admiringly of this report as a step in the right direction in the battle against the Zionist Occupation Government.  And on the website of Stormfront, the white power neo-Nazi movement in the United States, the chatter is that the Presbyterian Church is finally doing the right thing to drive Jewish influence out of America.

If active anti-Semites--delusional as they are--see this effort as supporting their aspirations, then we are doing it wrong, no matter what our intent may be.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Gird Up Your Mind

I've been continuing my reading through Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe these last couple of weeks, picking it up here and there in the evenings as time permits.

It's a chatty and occasionally scattered book, as Tegmark folds himself and his cheery Scandinavian sensibility into his explication of both our time and space and the wild and impossible complexities of multiverse theories.  And really, it's "theories," as he plays his way through the range of different ways a multiverse could exist.

Tegmark presents four distinct theses, all of which are being explored and considered by modern physics.  There's the inflationary "Level One" multiverse, into which a functionally infinite number of universes like our own are expanding.  There's the "Level Two," which is like the "Level One," but includes universes with radically different physics than our own.  There's the "Level Three," in which quantum branching means that every moment creates from itself an infinity of different results, each of which then produces an infinity, and so on.  Then there's "Level Four," in which there exists a multiverse that exists as pure mathematics.  Meaning, it looks more than a little bit like the Platonic realm of forms.

Thousands of years, and we're back to Plato.

It's huge and heavy stuff, and its been slow going.  Tegmark's readable enough, chatty in a late-night-dorm-room sort of way.  He does tend to wander off into math-speak more than folks like Greene or Kaku, but hey, that's the title of the book.

What really slows me down a bit more as delve into this stuff is that it tends to stir futile attempts to imagine it.  I'm a visual creature.  As my mind tries to wrap itself around the impossible churning complexities of this amazing creation we inhabit, it heats up like a laptop running Battlefield 4 with all the stops pulled out.

In one of my last readings, for example, I tried to visualize what is actually happening with our 13.8 billion year old time and space.  When we look out into the depths of our expanding space, what we're doing is not just looking out.  We're looking back.  The further out we peer, the older the universe is.  That I get.  But spatially, we're also looking back at something that is very much smaller.  Those early proto-galaxies were closer together, so it's like we're peering outward and inward at the same time, our view distorted by inflation.

And then I try to visualize singularity falling away from us, or rather, us falling into it, seeing the expansion as an effect less like the universe is growing and more like we're getting smaller and smaller relative to it.

Then, as that dizzying reality comes into mind, realizing that all we can perceive is an infinitesimal point in the churn of the multiverse, taking up no more relative volume than it did when it was a singularity.  Once you layer Everettian Many Worlds quantum branching onto that, it becomes so immense that the mind cannot conceptually track it.  There's just too much there to grasp, more points of data than I have neurons to receive.

Which, frankly, is why I find multiversality to be the best framework from which to approach God's work.  It's just more than we can know, ever, period.

Just what one might expect from a God who arrives in whirlwinds.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Practicing What You Preach

Over the last week or so, I've been waiting to hear back from a publishing house that's expressed some interest in my manuscript.  After some stalwart work by my agent, I had a really very pleasant conversation with their executive editor, who was quite complimentary.  Given that this is a house that has an excellent reputation and great taste in fiction, that in and of itself was heartening.

But the manuscript needs to run through a committee review, and so it is, at its own pace.

Having managed a highly selective proposal review process years ago in my secular work life, I will admit that this does not reduce my anxiety levels.  I know how things can work, how wildly unpredictable those processes can be.  Collective decision-making takes a while.  It often skews and shifts in organic and non-linear ways that can't quite be grasped, as the inputs of multiple lives flow through the process.

As a Presbyterian, this reality has been burned into my consciousness over several decades.  Lord, has it ever.

I would like to say that I am feeling calm and centered, that I magnanimously await whatever Providence brings.  I would like to say that I am serenely detached from things, at one with the multiverse, resting in a meditative state of enlightened detachment.

Apatheia, the Stoics called it, and it was the highest of their virtues.  The Stoic ideal was to remain unaffected, unmoved by the vagaries of existence, measured and unflappable. You were as cool as a cucumber, be it your wedding day or in the moments leading up to your execution.

Que sera, sera, as the great Stoic philosopher Doris Day once put it.

I am not feeling particularly Stoic lately.

It's the challenge when you're genuinely vested in a particular outcome, one that has seemed so remote as to be wholly in the realm of fantasy and now seems tantalizingly possible.  I do not know, of course, what dynamics are at play in the decision.  I cannot know the zeitgeist of a small collective of people whom I have never met, or how the tone and structure of a novel will resonate, or how it relates to other manuscripts under consideration.

And so in the past days I've been pacing about, and flit from task to task, and endeavor to center myself, with intermittent success.

Breathe in, breathe out, I remind myself.  Remember all those things you tell people about counting their blessings, and reducing anxiety in the face of the unknown.  Keep active, and don't let a thing over which you can exert no material influence consume you.

I do these things, and they help.


Friday, May 9, 2014

Following Jesus in a Boko Haram World

Boko Haram makes me struggle with my faith.

The conversations have been everywhere, about those girls, about their fate.  It's been a wild mess of a discussion.  

For the right-wingers, woken from obsessively muttering "Benghazi" to themselves in their twitching, disturbed sleep, the answer is simple:

Kill Boko Haram.  Just kill 'em good.  With drones, preferably, although if Vlad the Impaler can be somehow roused from his sarcophagus, his strategic inputs would also be welcome.  He was always such an excellent negotiator.

Done and done.  Now can we talk about Benghazi again?  There are Documents That Were NOT Released in a Timely Manner, Dagflabbit! 

Leftists?  Well, they're doing what leftists do.  On the one hand, outrage!  Racist America is silent and ignorant, and does not care about these young women of color!  We must raise awareness!  But also, Outrage! Because we are daring to speak about these Africans through social media, a clear sign that we are #slacktivist #privileged cultural imperialists!  But wait, Outrage! Because we allow these girls to be nameless faces, unaware of their identity as persons.  But hey, OUTRAGE!  Because we're naming these victims of sexual violence, thus exposing them to cultural shame.

The American left needs to get out more.  Or not.  Maybe not.  Maybe the aimless nattering chaos of #twitter is the best place for it.

Stepping outside of the din, and into encounter with this horror, part of the butchery of a madman whose methods even give Al Queda pause, I wonder at how to respond from the discipline of my faith.

Having spent time in Nigeria, I feel this one.  My mom used to personally teach young girls from our neighborhood in Ibadan-- a city 130 klicks northwest of Lagos--to read, inviting them into our home and providing them with materials.  This is a real thing for me.  I see the faces of those girls, as people I know.  

But I also know there is nothing that I personally can do.  Not here, not from this distance.  I can be aware, as I  try to be.  I can speak, as I am here.  I can pray, as we do when there is nothing material we can do.

When faced with such hateful, monstrous violence, though, I am torn.  The heart of Christian faith is self-sacrificing nonviolence.  It is the way of the cross.  This is radically, intensely, inescapably true, no matter how much we wish it not to be so.

Nonviolence transforms and restores.  Nonviolence heals cultures, just as Jesus healed.  I know this as a truth, because when we have had the courage to try it, it has had power.

Yet I hear the empty, feverish hatred in the voice of Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram "prophet," and I see no purchase for nonviolence.  I see only a maw into which peaceful and nonviolent lives would be poured.  I see only madness and the incoherence of a broken soul.

Perhaps this is just a failure of my faith.  It is easier to see such a person as little more than an animal, a being who has lost hold of the sentience that is our created nature, and now is no more responsive to grace than a rabid dog.  You put them down, as you would kill an animal that was threatening your children.

That's the easy way.  But it is a profoundly dangerous way of thinking, if you claim Jesus as your master.  You can never approach another human being as an object.  Ever.  No matter how hateful and monstrous they have become, your stance towards them must be grounded in the awareness that they have within them the same potential for relationship with God that you bear in your own self.

You must love them, as God loves them.  This is very, very hard.

Faced with predatory violence, I am still not sure that I could see the path of nonviolence.  Or rather, I can, but I do not know if I could take it.  I could see, perhaps, how after hundreds of nonviolent resisters poured themselves out in love...gunned down, assaulted, hacked to death with words of forgiveness on their lips...that such relentlessly gentle madness might make an impression on Boko Haram.  Might.

But I wrestle with how many kind, gentle, and justice-loving souls that would cost.

I also know, from faith, that we are fundamentally interconnected by God's love, which is the inescapable foundation of God's justice.  We participate in one another, in ways that we do not see in this life from behind our walls of existential isolation.  Allowing a blighted soul to spread horror sets them towards that horror as the defining feature of their relationship with God.  

The full reality of every rape, every mother's tear, every death that Boko Haram inflicts is their inheritance in eternity.  That will be Shekau's hell.  I know this as surely as I live and breathe.

Believing this, I wonder if using force to stop the madness of unthinking violence might be a mercy to the one who is inflicting harm.  With Augustine, this is where I find myself when it comes to protecting the innocent.  It is not an easy place.  Ending the life of a broken soul is like killing your own broken child, your own lost and prodigal son.  If it is not that hard, then you do not understand God's love.

And so I still struggle.  It is a struggle worth having.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Baphomet Comes to Oklahoma

The images have come across the more esoteric corners of my feeds for the past few weeks, peculiar pictures of a statue of a horned, goat-headed god with two children sitting enthralled.

It's a statue of Baphomet, a "satanic" figure commissoned by a Satanic Temple in New York City.  Satanists are...well...I've always found them a bit doofy.  Sort of like Raelians, only with a darker color scheme.  But so it goes.  One may believe as one wishes.

Their odd statue may or may not be put up at the Oklahoma capitol as a free-speech challenge to the presence of a 10 Commandments monument.

Whether it gets there or not, it's stirred a whole bunch of fulmination and controversy, which is great for earnest bloggery amongst the easily panicked right and the chiding left.  Standard blahblahblah, just another thing to keep us riled and distracted, or so it seems to my soul.

In all of the commentary and back and forthing, though, it was a passing comment from a friend that caught my eye.  It had to do with the historic roots of the name Baphomet, which are rather more complicated and interesting than one might expect.

Because when you go back into the roots of that name, you discover that no culture ever had a god named Baphomet.  There was no ancient cult that worshiped a horned deity by that name.  No pagans ever danced by the firelight around a shrine to Baphomet.

This is not Pan or Ba'al or Anubis.

Baphomet appears to be a Christian creation.

To be more specific, there's a significant historical consensus that the god "Baphomet" is just a mangled medieval attempt at the name "Mohammed."

It appears that when some of the Knights Templar returned from their Crusades, certain among them had stopped fighting Muslims long enough to listen to them.  Some had, apparently, developed a respect for the warrior faith of noble and estimable Muslims like Salah-ad-Din, to the point that they'd picked up a belief in "Baphomet," a deity they invoked with the magical word "Yallah."  Sounds remarkably familiar, eh?

Those Knights were killed by the church, of course, for their heresy.  That they'd become too powerful and threatened the church hierarchy was also a smidge of a factor.

The word "Baphomet" then got blended with lumpenchristian fears and fascinations about demons and the occult, and eventually...meaning the 18th and 19th centuries...was used in some fantastical art pieces by the occult-obsessed folks of the late Enlightenment and Victorian eras.  And lo, the horned god Baphomet.

On the one hand, I'm not sure telling Oklahomans that there's a statue indirectly referencing Mohammed in the works for their state capitol would make things better.  I'm also not sure how the darker corners of the Muslim world would respond to that one, either.  Here's an image that kinda sorta uses the name of your prophet, only we've slapped a goat's head on him.  You guys cool with that?

On the other, it seems strangely appropriate.  It's a statue whose very identity arises from the conflict between faiths, and the misbegotten fear that comes when we willfully demonize and misrepresent things we do not understand.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Winging It

I'd worked on the sermon most of the week, a solid concept having surfaced and presented itself Tuesday morning when I reviewed the texts.   That review had led to study, and a checking in with my archives to see what I'd said about that particular scripture the last time I preached it.

It was the road to Emmaus story, an old familiar tale of two disciples on a journey who encounter a stranger who turns out to be Jesus.  And so I wrote up my sermon, diligently preparing it throughout the week.

Only midway through the week, I found myself travelling after a death in the family.  In those travels, I encountered a peculiar stranger, and we talked about faith at the crossroads of a small Southern town.

That stranger's name, discovered as we parted and I stepped onto a train heading north?


But I'd already finished up my sermon.  There it was.  It wasn't bad, not at all.  1,450 words, reasonably crafted.  There were jokes.  It was timely.  Only it felt like another sermon needed to be preached from the story of my own life, having just met Jesus on the road and all.

I hemmed and hawed.  How was I going to write that up?  My Saturday was completely full, with a funeral and family obligations.  There was just no time to crank it out.

Back and forth I went, and finally--meaning half an hour before the service--I decided to just wing it.  Meaning, to go without manuscript or notes or outline, and just go with the basic outline of that sermon that had intruded on my nice neat plan.

So that is what I did.  Though I had my previous manuscript there in front of me, I left it unpreached.  What came out was just what came out.  It seemed to work.

There was a point in my life, a point I can remember, when that would have been a really hard thing.  It would have filled me with mortal anxiety.  Get up in front of people and talk, with nothing but my own mind between me and stuttering, rambling embarrassment?  Ay caramba.  As a pathological introvert, winging it was the stuff of my nightmares.

But I've spent years knitting together my wings, a feather at a time.

From the discipline of preaching, week in and week out, it no longer seems like the vast thing it once seemed.  Oh, it's still a big deal.  It's still a sacred thing.  But I've done it, and done it, and done it.  I've been blessed with the chance to play with it, to test myself with different forms and methods, to reach a point where I'm comfortable enough to just do it.  I don't always nail it.  But even those times I've publicly failed have been teaching experiences.  At a bare minimum, they've taught me not to fear failure.

In that, it's like the other practices of faith.  Maintaining disciplines of grace and forgiveness makes those acts come more easily.  The more we reinforce patterns of Christ-like behavior in our lives, disciplining ourselves to remain open to the Spirit, the more we are able to move graciously and kindly through times that might otherwise break us or poison us.

Kinda the point of this journey, eh?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Sweet Song of Chaos

For the last few months, I've been listening to just one playlist as I bustle about in our car, shuttling kids from one place to another.   Just one.

It's on an old iPhone, one that's had the sim card removed and every app and image deleted.  In their place, just audio files, thousands and thousands of songs.  I renamed it "Daddy's Tunebrick," turning it a single function device that only exists to store and listen to music without the bother of having calls or texts interrupt my listening pleasure.  

Hey...that sounds like a great idea for a product!  I wonder if anyone at Apple is thinking about such a thing.  Hmmm.

Anyhoo, my Tunebrick has one playlist at the moment.  That playlist is the whole of my music collection.  All of it, every single sound file I possess, set to random play.

Which means, as I drive along, I never know exactly what is coming up next.  If I'm not in the mood for what entropy serves up, I just punch the steering wheel control with my thumb, and we're on to the next thing.  It's not always music.  

Sometimes it's sound effect MP3s, gunshots and explosions that my son downloaded for use in videos.  Sometimes it's the Hebrew teacher who prepared my boys for their bar mitzvahs, teaching and singing her way through a piece of a torah-reading.  It's random. Really and truly random.

Like last night, as I drove my younger son back from his drum lesson.

We clicked through a couple of things, and then listened to a random mp3 from a sound-pack of faux movie trailer voiceovers.  "THERE WAS JUST ONE MAN," intoned the announcer in a rumbling basso, at which we laughed.  We then segued into Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb.  We sang along to that, he and I, as Floyd is his favorite band in the entire universe.  After we'd finished with that, entropy served up the theme song to The Love Boat.

We sang along to that, too, because it's just a bucket of delicious seventies cheese, and when that was done, the universe decided to pitch us Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor.

"I love this way of listening to things," my son said.  "It's like it's a game whenever we're in the car.  You never know what's coming next."

Just like life, I thought, in a Forrest-Gumpy sort of way.  Just like life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Chrome OS Church

The last few weeks, I've been playing with a necessary acquisition.  Our home, always cross-platform between Mac and PC, has now added in a Chromebook.  Meaning, it runs neither a MacOs or any flavor of Windows, instead opting for a Google-created operating system that's little more than a dandified version of their browser.  We're tri-platform now, I guess.

I needed a laptop that was mine and mine alone, as the family Macbook Air is now my wife's primary computer for her consulting work.  When I thought about price, and thought about what I actually use mobile computing to do, going with one of the waaay-cheap Chromebooks seemed a no-brainer.  Here was a robust, virus-free, and remarkably simple operating system, one that does every single thing I ever do when I'm out and about.

Plus, it was priced well for our budget, the kind of thing that you can purchase with amassed bonus points from a credit card.

And so the little Acer arrived on our doorstep from Amazon.  It fires right up, battery life exceeds a full workday, as advertised, and it seems completely able to do all of the writing and social media tasks I ask of it.

The machine itself is remarkably bare-bones.  Marginal RAM.  Only 32 gigs worth of solid state drive space, barely more than a modest flash drive.

Most of what it does is access the cloud, and that it seems to do perfectly well.  When I have to work offline, I can write in GoogleDocs, and access an archived version of my stuff.  Not much, but it worked just fine for all my needs on an 11 hour train ride.

As I've played around with the Chromebook, I got to thinking about it in terms of church metaphor. I do this more than is healthy.  It's some sort of pathology, I think.

What I like about this OS is just how uncluttered it is.  Oh, there's a whole bunch it can't do.  You can't install huge programs and play graphics-intensive games on it.  Neither can you edit a professional-quality motion picture.  But I don't do those things with a laptop.  I work.  I write.  Period.

And so far, this little device accomplishes the most necessary tasks, and does so well.

In the lives of congregations as organizations, it's really easy to mess up the easy things.  We get lost in the weeds or the aether, creating more and more layers of complexity to meet expectations that then require more layers of complexity, until the basic and most necessary things get lost in the mess of it all.

There's something to be said for keeping our expectations of things simple, straightforward, and easy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Amazing Spider Faith

I settled in on the Amtrak Palmetto for my half-day ride back to DC.  There'd just a handful of other souls on board at the tiny crossroads of Yemasee, the first stop on the line, and the front car was pretty much empty.

I found a seat that was optimally spaced at a window, all the better to watch the sweet decay of the American South roll by for the next eleven hours.

In between writing my sermon and prepping for a funeral, I read Max Tegmark's mindbending Our Mathematical Universe and...when that seemed to be bending my mind a little too much...mucked around on Facebook.  Next to me on the seat, a complementary USA Today, which I idly picked through.  

On the cover, there was a teaser pic and headline about Emma Stone’s ability to “stay Zen,” which led--once I’d read through the rest of the paper--into a lead-story bit of infotainment publicist fluff describing her meditation life.  She sounded bright and pleasant enough, but of course, this is just part of the massive media campaign to hype the latest summer mega-blockbuster.

It’s why she was on Fallon, as the many links I was pitched a few days ago marked for me.  When you see a person everywhere, someone somewhere is trying to sell you something.  When you see someone doing something OMG-They-Just-TOTALLY-ROCKED-IT with Jimmy Fallon, that is doubly true.

I half read it, then drifted back into social media.

And the first thing I saw was an article from the Religion News Service about the “faith of Emma Stone.”  Huh.  I clicked the link, wondering how the pitch would go.

Amazingly enough, the article mentioned that she might have faith.  Might. Sort of. It was curious about it. And then it mentioned that she had starred once in a movie that sort of referenced faith, in an indirect way, and Ms. Stone had commented on that indirect reference in passing in an interview years ago.

It certainly mentioned that she was starring in The Amazing Spider Man 2, potentially the biggest blockbuster of the summer.

But there was no evidence that Ms. Stone had actually talked to the Religion News Service.  Just that a media packet had circulated.  Which was dutifully passed on, as marketing is, lightly glossed to seem faith-esque as it was pitched to the faith demographic.

Sigh.  I suppose I did click on that link, so I’ve got no-one to blame but myself.