Thursday, June 26, 2014

Riding the Storm

Last night, after wrapping up a meeting at my church, it was time to go home.

But the wind was howling, the branches lashing about, and the flags on the house across the street snapped angry and horizontal.   The rain came, fat and fierce, a summer storm in the South.  It passed,  and I went out to the bike to head home.

I could see, looking to the southwest in the early summer twilight, that there was more coming.  In my path, the clouds were dark and towering and alive with lightning.  I geared up, put on my overgloves, threw a leg over the Suzuki, and rode towards the storm.

It started hitting hard as I reached the sprawling mansions of Potomac.  Rain in sheets, heavy and relentless.  The water streamed across the road in torrents, impromptu rivers and streams, splashing up in fountains cast by my excellent off road tires, against my legs, cascading down my waterproof boots.

Ahead of me, the cars slowed to a crawl, struggling to see, their wipers flailing wildly.  I have no wiper on my helmet visor.  Just a small blade, embedded in the thumb of my left over glove.  I wiped, but the rain was too intense.  It spattered past my visor, cracked to prevent fogging, and the taste of fresh summer rain filled my mouth.  It was warm and pleasant, the flavor of a water park on a hot day.

I followed the lights of the car ahead, half-seeing, my world a moist, incoherent blur.

Ahead was the highway, the Beltway.  I pulled onto eight lanes of open road, as the cars around me struggled with the downpour, the darkness, and the blinding rain.  And I got to the far left, and I opened it up.  The Suzuki snarled forward on her eager little engine.

Because I have ridden for a lifetime, I knew the reason I could not see the road ahead: I was moving too slowly.   I forced my way into the storm, and the wind of my progress drove the water from before my eyes.

The visor cleared, the beaded rain streaming away.  I could see again.

I pulled onto the high occupancy toll lanes, empty but for myself.

The road home was clear, and I rode on into the rain, as the lightning danced all around like fireworks.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Playing Like Jesus

After a long, long hiatus, this last week I've been taking my downtime and catching up on my gaming.  There's not been much new out there for consoles since the market began the transition to the next gen.  I'm not there yet, as I'm not motivated to drop a few hundred bucks on something I don't really need.

Instead, I'm going back, and playing games for the PS3 that I missed the first time out.  In this case, I'm finally getting around to the Mass Effect Trilogy.

I'd heard great things about the game when it came out for Xbox 360.  It was complex, and well acted, and well scripted, a wholly immersive space-opera that didn't make you check your mind at the door.  But I had a PS3, so I was--for years--just out of luck.  Now, though, I've remedied that.

Most interesting, to me at least, were the wildly different ways the story arc could play out.  This went beyond the roleplaying game standards, in which your character--a highly customizable version of a protagonist named "Shepard"--could be equipped and developed in myriad ways.

It was that the moral choices within the game completely changed the story.  There've been many games like this before, among the most notable being the gorgeous landmark fantasy game Fable, or the classic Star-Wars milieu Knights of the Old Republic.  But Mass Effect feels like it takes that to a deeper level.

Mass Effect plays that out through a relatively simple system, a dialog wheel that comes up whenever you're in communication with others.  There, in front of you, is the more gracious response, the neutral response, and what is typically an amusingly cruel smackdown.

If you play the Renegade side, hard and selfish, butchering enemies and bullying subordinates, and seeking advantage and wealth at every turn, it'll shape your story.  Certain avenues will open up, and others will close.  

If you consistently choose compassionately, trying to do as little harm as possible and showing mercy and a commitment to justice, the game plays out very, very differently.  Doing the right thing does not always get you out of conflict.  You can't always save every relationship, or insure that every friend and companion survives.  But going Paragon does make a difference.

Those choices run deep, and have a cumulative effect.  They create patterns of relationship that sustain through the whole of the first game, then are uploaded into the second, and then the third.

How do I play?  When I play these games, I find that I don't want to "act out" being cruel.  I just don't.  I'm not really even curious to see what might happen if I did.  My would I be curious? I know what that looks like, bitter and resentful and oppressive.  Why would I want a story to play out that way, if it doesn't need to?  I get enough of that in the news, and in the bitterness of virtual shout-fests.

It's not quite that easy in our day to day exchanges, those moments when we connect to others.  We don't have a convenient moral dialogue wheel that hovers in the air in front of us to guide us, although perhaps there's an app in the works for Google Glass that might remedy that.

But then again, perhaps it really is that easy.  We know our hungers and our angers and our resentments, and how those make us speak.  We also know, in part, that best self that we're called to be, and what it looks like when we act in accordance with that grace.

It's a bigger and infinitely more complex choice wheel, and a wildly more intricate story.  But as we shape our small corner of it, what we have to do is be intentional about making that right choice, every time it presents itself.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Circus, My Monkeys

I like this one, but my wife tells me it's a wee bit intense.
"Not my circus.  Not my monkeys."

It's a meme that's been making the rounds lately, based on a Polish saying.  The saying pungently evokes a moment and a mindstate.

There you are, and the street is filled with monkeys.  Monkeys everywhere, getting into everything.  They have presumably escaped from the circus, and it's chaos.

A storekeeper approaches you, in a panic, as the monkeys smash and leap and generally make a mess.
Perhaps this one.

"Can you do something about these monkeys?"

To which you say, nonchalantly:

"Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys."

It's a way of saying: "Really, this isn't my problem.  I have nothing to do with this.  Didn't start it. Don't need to finish it.  I've never met these monkeys before in my life, and I'm gol-danged if I'll stress about it."

More pointedly, the point of that saying is:  don't let yourself get anxious about other people's mess.  Which I'm fine with.

Zen Mojo Jojo. Hmmm.
But what if it is our mess?  What about those times when we can't look at something, and deny we're part of it?  It's so easy to walk, to push off responsibility, to shake your head.  This is particularly true when you do not agree with a position that the gathered group that you're part of has taken.

Or when a position requires you to have awkward and difficult conversations.

"They did it," we say, grumpily, when anxious people ask us about why something was decided.  "I had nothing to do with it.  Those sure aren't my monkeys."

My denomination took several difficult steps in the last week, ones that will require the aforementioned challenging conversations. Same sex marriage?  Israel/Palestine?  I mean golly, what could possibly go wrong during a conversation on those subjects?


It'd be easier--more comfortable--to push those conversations off.    "Eh, why talk about it?  We've got other stuff to do.  Not my circus"  It would be equally easy to have those conversations from a position of remove.  "Well, you know, that was the perspective of the GA.  But I wasn't there, and those folks aren't me.  Not my monkeys."

But as I followed the GA this year, the words kept echoing in my head:

"My Circus. My Monkeys."

And no, that's not any particular comment on the character and/or hirsuteness of the commissioners.

It's about belonging, even in difference.  It's about taking responsibility to speak grace into difficult, complex realities.

If we're serious about being a denomination in which relationships--particularly challenging relationships--matter, then we need to be willing to lean into that relationship a little more fully.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Having a Conversation about Israel

Midway through last week, I sat at the kitchen table with my boys.

That very day, my denomination was in the throes of some really tough decision-making about disengaging from businesses profiting from the peculiar military/correctional mess in Gaza and the West Bank.  I'd pitched in my two cents here on the blog, and I felt the need to sound my perspective off my boys.  It was just the three of us, as my wife had gone with my mother-in-law to sit shiva that evening with the family of the rabbi of our synagogue, who'd lost his father.

So that night it was Presbyterian pastor dad at table, having a dinner meal with his Jewish sons.

There are plenty of calls to have conversations to rebuild relationships between the Jewish community following the General Assembly, and I'm obviously in an unusual position to have such a conversation.  Judaism isn't just an abstract community for me, folks I know from meetings and gatherings.  It's not just that I "have Jewish friends."

It's the woman that I love.  It's the flesh and the blood of our children.

We chose, early on, not to do the half-and-half thing.  They would be raised Jewish.  Period.  And so, having made that nontrivial decision, I've had a nontrivial hand in their Jewish upbringing.  I found the mohel and made the arrangements for their brises.  I schlepped them for years to synagogue for Hebrew School, through the worst traffic in the United States.  I stood with them on the bema, and watched proudly as they were mitzvahed.

So I started in, asking them for their perspective.

Here's what we might be doing and why, I told them, laying it out as objectively as I could.  Here are the three American corporations we would no longer be investing church resources in, here are the specific products and services they are providing, and here is why we feel we can't be part of that.

What do you think?  Are we being unfair?  Is my church picking on Israel, or being anti-Semitic?

At sixteen and thirteen, neither of my sons are particularly shy about telling their father when they think he's being an idiot.  Believe me.  Not. Shy. At. All.   God help me.

My thirteen year old piped up first.  "Not even close," he said.  "Not everything that Israel does is right.  Why would you have to agree with everything they do?  Why would I?"  And then, because he is every once in a while prone to *cough* vigorously expressing his opinion, he went into a schpiel about how weird he thought it was that a Jewish state should have a large ethnic community within its borders that are unwillingly walled in.

"You know what that is," he opined after describing the West Bank and Gaza, gesticulating and raising his voice.  "You know what you call that?  You call that a ghetto.  It's a freakin' ghetto.  It's like Israel is turning into the freakin' Nazis.  If anyone should know better than that, it's we Jews.  Why is Israel acting like a bunch of freakin' Nazis?"

My older son, more inward, more measured, was a little more circumspect.  "That's not really a fair description.  What Israel is doing is not good, sure.  But it's not like the Holocaust.  They aren't being systematically slaughtered.  Israel's not like the Nazis.  It's just not the same."  He thought for a moment.

"It's more like what America did to the Native Americans.  It's like they've been kicked off their land and forced to live on reservations.  Israel isn't getting all Nazi with the Palestinians.  They're getting American on them."

There was more back and forth, with some of the heat and debate that always comes when my sons get into something, but after surprisingly little bickering, both agreed:

Israel is just being like America in one of her less proud moments, and it does not look good, and it was not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish to both point that out and to choose not to validate it.

And then they were off, disappearing into their rooms and their screens.

It was an interesting talk.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Hard Middle Way

Being a peacemaker ain't easy.

There's a temptation, in it, to try to be all things to all people.  You want to bring peace, to keep things graceful, and in doing so, you try to connect with everyone as if your position was their own.

"I believe exactly as you do," you say, to folks who are in conflict with one another.  "You and I are the same!"  You cozy up to one, and you cozy up to the other, and eventually, they realize your interest is simply in your own comfort.

That's the point of a favorite ancient story, told by an enslaved storyteller.  It's the story of the bat.  "The Bat," Aesop called it.  There was once a war between the animals and the birds, Aesop said.

The bat, seeking its own good, flitted first to one side, then to another.  On each, the bat insisted it was whatever they were.  Look at my wings, it said to the birds.  I'm one of you!  I'm on your side!

Look at my legs and my fur, it said to the animals.  I'm one of you!  I'm on your side!

They got wise, and saw the duplicity, and cast it out into the night.

Standing in the balance, though, requires that we be in the harder place in a relationship, that liminal place between competing claims.  It's both/and.  It's fire and chaos and conflict, the shimmering, living complexity of relationship between persons.  It's difficult footing, and lacks the shiny clarity of all-or-nothing polarity.

We don't take up the sword of either side.  We refuse, in fact, to take up the sword at all.  We are firm, but we don't seek the destruction of any.

That is the place where justice dwells.

To those who seek the middle way, a word of encouragement, in the hardness of that place.  Know that there, you're not Aesop's Bat.

You're Batman.

And Batman is awesome.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Zionism Unsettled and Conflict in Small Spaces

It's such a little place.

That's an American bias, but so it goes.  It's a little sliver on the map, a slender fleck nestled on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  Just a tick over 10,000 square miles, which sounds like a whole bunch, until you realize it's just a third of the size of my ancestral Scotland, and a quarter of the land mass of my home state of Virginia.

It seems odd that such a small patch of earth would have such an outsized influence on the global conversation and my own faith, and yet it does.  This is the land the Creator of the Entire Universe gave to his Chosen People?  This is where my entire sacred story arose?  Point Zero Zero One Eighth Of One Percent of the dry land on one tiny little planet in this functionally infinite multiverse?

Lord, you baffle me sometimes.

It's so small.  So fragile and precious.  Like that hoped-for child, born too soon, their frail body filled up with tubes, struggling for breath.

I was thinking about small things, yesterday, as I read through another of the books for my doctoral research.  My focus: small churches, those intimate communities in which ties of blood and relationship run deep.  I am not studying small communities through the lenses of the American Big Church, but rather looking at them for what they are: Little tribes, in little places.  Those communities can be beautiful, joyous, life-giving and intimate.  They function on a deeply human scale, unlike the giant shiny Jesus Malls of AmeriChrist, Inc.

In that, little churches have much to offer us.

But when a small community fights, it burns bright and hot with the focus that comes with limited space and longstanding relation.

In a tribe, you can't just take the American approach to conflict, which is to polarize and then storm off to some other place where everyone is exactly like you.

In a tribe, there is no other place to go.  You are defined by that network of relationships.  They--and the limited space in which you are both rooted--are you.  Conflict is inescapable in close quarters, and managing conflict effectively there is both hard and necessary.

As I read through the carefully researched principles of effectively moving through conflict in intimate community, it played out across my mind and resonated with my recent re-reading of a controversial publication of a subgroup of a committee of my denomination.

Zionism Unsettled, it's called.  There's been much discussion of the place of such a publication in the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Should we endorse it?  Should we disavow it?  Should we refuse to even distribute it?

This document comes as we Presbyterians are trying to find a way to make ourselves servants of God's peace in the thickets of a multigenerational level-five conflict in the Holy Land.  It's a mess, tight and hot as a family-church argument.

Zionism Unsettled speaks from one partner in that conflict.  It arises from the slightly misnamed Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which was established by the church for the express purpose of creating ties to the Palestinian Christian community.  That, it has clearly done.  As such, it articulates that position, and does so in a way that legitimately articulates the heat of the argument.  It's a more measured document than others I've seen, but it is explicit about its purpose: to express the pain of the Palestinian people.  It does that, and like all anger, it's worth hearing.

But against the principles of conflict resolution as they play out in tight-knit communities, it cannot be the basis for Presbyterian engagement with that conflict, not if we are true to our calling to serve peace.  Why?

Does it accept the faith of the Other?  It is hard to see that it does.  "Simply put, Zionism is the problem," it says.  Meaning that the hope for Zion--a central part of Jewish identity--is stated as the issue.  The issue is them, it says.  By defining the Other's best hope in terms that radicalize and demonize, it cannot be a foundation for deescalation.

Does it define the conflict neutrally and mutually?  It does not, because it speaks--explicitly and intentionally--from one perspective.  That is a legitimate perspective, and one that needs to be heard.  But it is not enough.

Does it clarify the point of conflict?  Sort of, in that it articulates the struggle to find a mutual place in the land, and expresses some of the tensions that conflict creates.

Does it reflect critically on self?  No.  Reading through Zionism Unsettled, there is no meaningful treatment of Palestinian violence against Israelis.  I will not, not for a moment, apologize for Israeli aggression or oppression.  It's a real thing, and a part of this conflict.  But there's no meaningful treatment of the mutual cycle of violence.  Terrorism, we hear at one point, was taught to the world by Israel.  No mention of Palestinian hijackings, or killings, or suicide bombings.  Nothing.

"O Lord, They have our blood on their hands" may be a true statement, but it is not the foundation for healing.  "Oh my God, I have your blood on my hands" is where that begins.

Does it establish a joint purpose?  It does not.  It is primarily a deconstruction of the Other, not a document that seeks vigorously and intentionally to build common ground.  That is implicit in its title.  Deconstruction has its place, but it ain't what you do when you want to build something.  Sorry, my pomo folk.  That only goes so far.

Does it celebrate and hold up places of agreement?  Here and there, it tries.  There are whispers of that hope throughout the document.  It is worth honoring that attempt, so hard to do from a place of such deep pain.

So how to relate to such a document?  I think it is important to hear it, and to stand in relationship to it.  To that end, it is important that we not tell those experiencing pain and oppression that they have to shut up, and that we will not share their voice.  It's good that we're no longer seriously considering removing that perspective from our denominational web presence.

But it is equally important to be clear: if we are to serve peace in the heat of that intimate, tribal space, we have to stand not with one party or another.  If Zionism Unsettled was presented as the official position of our denomination, we'd be doing just that.

We need to be clear that it is not.

It's a hard place to inhabit, those close quarters of relationship.  It is easier to go with the bright clarity of binary conflict, to let the certainty of pain and fear become your narrative.

But if we--friend to both, torn by our love for both--are going to step into the heat of a conflict in a small community, we need to do the harder thing.

Whether the fragile breath of peace survives in those little places is the business of our Maker.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Church Politic

For the last few days, mixed in with my readings for my doctoral project, I've watched the goings on of my denominational Mother of All Meetings from afar.  I've tracked the online chatter.  I've followed the #hashtag.

What has struck me, harder this year than before, is just how very much our way of being together is a political system.

Like, say, the websites set up by folks who were running for the esteemed position of Moderator of the General Assembly.  Oh, sure, there's not a party affiliation--not formally, not yet, thank the Maker--but these are exactly the same sort of things you see when your state senator is out there shaking the web for votes.

Or the wrangling on the floor and behind the scenes over procedural issues, the sort of back room wheeling and dealing that happens whenever human beings get together in huge groups to figure things out.  There's complicated commentary on rules, and wondering about secret agendas, and all of the [stuff] that rises from the organic life of parliaments and committees of the House of Representatives.

This all serves to remind me: in the way we structure our life together, we Presbyterians don't look anything like the sleekly focused corporate hierarchies of market-based megachurch Christianity.

Our way of being together?  It's not product.  It's the way of the polis.  It's political, in the same way that a constitutional republic is political.  It's just how human beings in large groups function, when there's no King or Emperor or CEO to call every last shot.

When I teach new members classes, or confirmation classes, I've tended to highlight that as a strength.  The foundation of our Presbyterian constitution arose from the same heady era as the Constitution of the United States, and that--for a very long time--was a great strength of"brand."

Now, though, I do find myself wondering if that's one of the reasons we struggle to connect with culture as a fellowship.

Here we have a culture that is worn out and disillusioned by the mess of political discourse.

It's always been boisterous, always, but that tendency towards rancorous hubbub has been amplified to bleeding-ear levels by 24 hour news cycles and the roaring partisanship of our online echo chambers.

That way of life, loud and divisive and messy, can be exhausting.  It can also be rewarding, in the complex way of human relationships, but demanding of our energy and attention.  It requires sacrifice.  No one gets exactly what they want, because in a relationship, that's an expectation that kills.

Here we have a culture, in which we live out our mess publicly and together, that has come to expect faith to look like a product.   We want what we want, with a couple of clicks and two day shipping.  Product does not challenge us.  It gives us what we want, or we return it.

And that's a bit challenging, when it comes time to tell people about this way of being we've found.   Come join our fellowship, we say.

It looks just like politics!


Israel, the PCUSA, and "Divestment"

Divestment?  From Israel?

That's the rumbling issue that's raising eyebrows, as the PC(USA) holds our biannual Meeting di tutti Meetings.

For all the kerfuffle, I don't know that what the Presbyterian Church is considering can even be meaningfully described as "divestment."  Sure, there are folks out there advocating for that approach, but that's not what's being done.  At no point has any proposal been seriously considered that would sell my old-line denomination's collective holdings in all businesses that operate in Israel.  That's just not gonna happen.

The question, for Presbyterians, is whether or not we can treat businesses who operate in Israel in the same way we treat business which operate in the United States.  For example, the PC(USA) does not invest in American businesses that build or design weapons.  We also do not, as a matter of principle, invest in the very profitable businesses that own or manage privatized prisons.

We don't hold stock in Lockheed Martin.  We don't hold stock in the Corrections Corporation of America.

Do such businesses serve the security of the United States?  Sure, on some level, as icky as it is. Would we be wealthier if we'd laid all our money into them?  Just click those links, and see how profitable human brokenness can be.

But as a free association of individuals, we are fully entitled to place our capital into endeavors that more clearly articulate our shared values as a community.  Because those values are fundamentally countercultural in this society, profitability and maximization of shareholder return are not our only metrics.  Far, far from it.

While that impacts the sorts of businesses in which the church invests, having a socially responsible investing strategy could not be sanely understood as "divesting from America."  Neither would it be rationally defensible to describe choosing not to invest in such business as a "slippery slope" to "divesting from America."

Similarly, choosing not to invest in businesses--American ones, I might add--that serve the purposes of coercive power in the Israeli/Palestinian mess does not mean that we are "divesting from Israel."

If a business is owned and operated in Israel, that's all well and good.  It could make funky and practical little sandals, or cosmetics, or gaming software.  These are not weapons, or part of an oppressive power structure within a nation state.  Those companies, the PC(USA) can still invest in.  They are simply creating products from the economy of a democratic ally of the United States.  If an American business works in Israel?  Also not an issue, so long as it doesn't do the same things there that would lead us to not invest in here in the US.

There are some on the left who call for more expansive punitive sanctions against the whole nation of Israel, the complete withdrawal of resources from any business that works with that state.  As a denomination, the PC(USA) has never seriously considered being part of the "BDS" movement.

More significantly, broad calls for blanket divestment make no sense in this context.  If an entire system is fundamentally and unworkably corrupt and oppressive, sure.  It's why people who care about the good do not invest in Iran, or in North Korea.

But Israel, troubled and imperfect though it is, is not in the same category as such states.   There is a viable parliamentary democracy in Israel.  Speech there is free, and the press is not muzzled or beaten into silence.  There is active and unsuppressed debate, including the voices of Israelis who are deeply troubled by the way a right-wing led Israel is treating the Palestinian people.

It would not be in the interests of peace--or justice--for the Presbyterian church to disengage from Israel.  If we have anything to contribute to the cause of peace, it is in respectful and honest conversations with our Jewish friends and colleagues.  There, we can share the pain we hear from our Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith, who yearn for peace even under the harsh conditions in which they live.

If we slam that door closed, using the power of our mammon to build a wall between us, then that role would be compromised.  Which is why that is not even close to being on the table.  Nor should it be, so long as Israel remains a state worthy of its sacred name.

The more radical BDS folks want to say that what we're doing is "divestment", because it would represent a "win."   Those reactionaries who want folks who care about Israel to be afraid?  They want to say this would be "divestment."  That fear of an isolated Israel conveniently obscures hard realities that they don't want seen or discussed.  But the reality of what's being proposed remains.

It's three American businesses, and if they were doing what they were doing in Israel in the United States--facilitating a peculiar mix of war and the incarceration of an entire people--we'd sell our stock in them.

All we're trying to be is consistent.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Walking Away From Iraq

When do you walk away from an irresolvable mess?  When do you walk away from a mess that you yourself made?

After over a decade of American military engagement, tens of thousands of American casualties and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, Iraq today is falling apart.

As U.S. forces have stood down, the nation that we've left behind crumbles like a drying sandcastle in the desert wind.

Mosul has fallen, as 30,000 U.S. supplied Iraqi troops fled the city before an advancing insurgent force of 800.  In the north, Kurdish rebels have seized Kirkuk.  So much effort, so much energy, so many lives, and it is not possible to say that it made anything better.  Different?  Yes.  Better?  No.

There are reasons for this.  Iraq itself was held together by despotism.  That--as in Tito's Yugoslavia--was what gave that nation-state cohesion.  Assuming that waving the magic wand of democracy over a people will suddenly change the social dynamics?  That was, is, and will always be a tragic neoconservative foolishness.  Democracy must arise organically.  It cannot be imposed.  Empire?  That you can impose.  But a republic must be the creature of the people who yearn to be its citizens.

Our adventurism there, undertaken under false pretenses and with amorphous goals, has been a disaster.  I feel that strongly for the Iraqi people, who have and do suffer mightily.  But I feel that equally strongly for the men and women of our military.  These are Americans, my fellow citizens, doing their duty with honor, and being sent--for decades--into a bloody fray that served no coherent strategic or national purpose.

Now that we're finally out, things are collapsing.  The false stability we provided--the illusion of a nation-state, maintained only through our agency--is gone.

There will be those, as there always are, who want to double down.  Our only weakness was lack of commitment, they will insist.

And yet I can't imagine, not for a moment, that America has a heart to throw itself back into that fray.  The mess there is ancient and deep, and goes well beyond the cruel despotism of a now-dead tyrant.  There are hatreds and lines of conflict that run deep into the culture of that region, ones that have not been worked through to the point of resolution.

That we broke through the surface of one mess does not mean that the problem was solved.  We just shattered the evil that was repressing another evil.  Had we been thinking longer term and seeing clearly, we'd not have acted as we did--or at least been willing to acknowledge our motivations.

So now, with one mess replacing another, we are left with mess.  We cannot spin it as success.  Nor, frankly, does doubling-down work.

From church life, I know this.  If a ministry or church is failing, and has critical flaws in its assumptions about life together, pouring energy into failed efforts does nothing.  Simply "doing it harder" does not work.  It must be done differently.  It must be re-created.

But if a failing community does not want to live together differently, then it will fail, no matter how much energy and noise it pours into the process of doubling down on "the way we've always done it."  That desire for change must be organic, rising intrinsically from a repenting culture.  In a church, that desire is a work of the Spirit, given freely, and responded to freely.

Where that change comes in a society?  I cannot say, as I'm not quite sure even our fractious republic has that one down yet.

Again, the values of the good culture--freedom, tolerance, mutual care and a sense of shared purpose--cannot be imposed.  They can be taught, and modeled, and encouraged.  But they cannot be imposed.

Which is why sometimes, if you've modeled and worked and tried, and still nothing has changed for the good, you need to walk away.

Friday, June 13, 2014

SBC, Transgender Identity, and Isaiah

It's been out there, fluttering around on the outskirts of my social-media awareness.

The Southern Baptist Convention, recently in gathering, elected to pass a resolution condemning and opposing transgendered folks.  This is not surprising, to the point of eliciting a yawn.

Here, a staunchly conservative denomination in decline elects to make a bold stand against a tiny minority of individuals who are sexually different.  My gracious, what a surprise.

I'm assuming, honestly, that there aren't that many transgendered Southern Baptists.  I can't imagine why, in a free society in which one may choose one's religious affiliation, there would be.  And given that the Southern Baptists--like all religious entities in this nation--can have no power outside of the power to persuade, I just wasn't sweating it.

So long as folks are clear that their authority over me extends no further than my authority over them, we're good.  Believe as you will, and do not force me to your position, and let our views engage in the field of a free and open culture.

I don't generally like kerfuffle, or see much point in getting into the thick of one of those online yell-fests, and so I was ready to let this one get filed away.

Until this morning, when the actual wording of their amendment flitted before my eyes.  In it, something caught my mind's eye.

There's a whole bunch of language that amounts to "loving the sinner" in there.  The SBC academics who drafted this position statement tried, they do, to be gracious about their position.  Take this language, for example:
RESOLVED, That we extend love and compassion to those whose sexual self-understanding is shaped by a distressing conflict between their biological sex and their gender identity; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we invite all transgender persons to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:15-16); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we love our transgender neighbors, seek their good always, welcome them to our churches and, as they repent and believe in Christ, receive them into church membership (2 Corinthians 5:18-20Galatians 5:14); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we regard our transgender neighbors as image-bearers of Almighty God and therefore condemn acts of abuse or bullying committed against them.
That, I can agree with.  Heck, that could be part of an MCC position statement.

But it's a strange welcome, because it is woven deep in the thickets of other, condemnatory language, language that makes the invitation seem a bit peculiar in context.  Words of invitation embedded in a diatribe against the person you're inviting have a tendency to be ignored.

"Hey transgendered people!  Your choices are evil, your hard-fought sense of yourself is an abomination, and you are an expression of all that is wrong and broken in the world.  We love you! Join us for the coffee hour after worship, and be sure to use the appropriate bathroom in the fellowship hall!"

Humans are so odd.

The SBC sociopolitical position is one I radically and fundamentally disagree with, but again, it is their right.  It is their house, so to speak.  I do not live there.  If they struggle with transgendered identity--and it is hard to grasp, for the vast majority of human beings do not experience that---but would not refuse transgendered persons acts of compassion and mercy, well, I'll let Jesus work our differences out between us.

None of those things struck me.  What bugged me was the misuse of scripture.

There are, to be fair and honest, many places one could go in scripture to justify opposition to sexual difference.  I know this, and therein lies the grist of much debate about scripture and the nature of its authority.

But the SBC used the book of the Prophet Isaiah to justify its position, in a couple of places.  That, I just can't let slide without dropping in my two cents.  Why?

Well, let's take one of the resolution-statements as an example:
RESOLVED, That we continue to oppose steadfastly all efforts by any court or state legislature to validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy (Isa. 5:20); 
The quote is, of course, just a single verse.  Just one.  This, in and of itself, tends to be a flag.  It's a snippet which says, basically, "Don't say evil is good and good is evil."

That's a moral principle, one to which I myself adhere.  But it doesn't have a single thing to do with the question at hand.  It does not illuminate.  Instead, it works under the assumption: "Our position is correct, and therefore the good."

If you knew absolutely nothing or very little about the Bible, and Isaiah in particular, you might just take that as authoritative.  But legalistic out-of-context prooftexting--a little here, a little there--is spiritually dangerous, as Isaiah himself noted thousands of years ago.

The problem you have with this, of course, comes when you read the Bible.  Because if you know Isaiah, you are aware that Isaiah is one of the books of the bible that talks about surgical gender modification explicitly.

Yes, it does. He didn't have much to say about smartphone addiction, or GMOs, or climate change, but Isaiah did talk directly to this particular issue.

Back then, it wasn't really a choice.  Being a eunuch was probably not most folk's first career choice, but it was a real thing in the Ancient Near East.  After what was probably not the most pleasant surgical procedure, individuals--now functionally genderless--were in a position to serve as overseers of concubines.

What was their place among God's people?

Isaiah spoke directly to them.  His specific message to them, and to the foreign stranger in the land: You are welcome in God's house.  Here's the quote...not one verse, but many, from Isaiah 56:3-7:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
What is Isaiah doing here, directly and explicitly?

To use the terms of the Southern Baptist Convention: He's "validating transgender identity as morally praiseworthy."

Sure, he's doing it with a groaner of a pun.  "Shall not be cut off?"  Dude, really?

But the point Isaiah is making is clear, and the context makes it directly applicable.

Those whose gender identity is nontraditional are loved by God.  If they embrace the covenant--which they are implicitly allowed to do--they should be valued as part of the community.  If that identity has been changed from the one into which they were born?

It.  Does. Not. Matter.

Isaiah does not bandy around, qualifying his language of welcome with thinly veiled contempt.  He just plain ol' welcomes the eunuch and the foreigner.  What matters is every person's commitment to the deepest truths of the faith: to justice, to mercy, to faithfulness in our relationships, and to a radical love for God and neighbor.

It seems so simple.

But the simple things are the easiest ones to mess up.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Looking Backward

I finished up a strange book last night, one that I'd randomly encountered in my other reading.

It was the novel Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy.  If you haven't heard of it, well, that kinda figures.  It's one of those lost works of fiction, one that was profoundly influential at the time but that has vanished into the mists of history.

It's 1873 scifi, meaning it's from the same heady era that gave us Jules Verne.  Here was an era when progress was sweeping humanity forward, and society was changing in unprecedented ways.  In the thickets of that industrialization, the world was a mess.

That sense of purpose, the sense of engagement with history, it was all in flux.  With the rise of the robber barons, things were miserable.  There was a wild and historically unprecedented imbalance of wealth.  The wild swings and irregularities of the free markets left most human beings in poverty, and made wreck and ruin a distinct possibility for all but the richest tiny percentage.

Nothing at all like today, in other words.

Bellamy reached forward with his imagination, and envisioned a future in which all of that mess had been resolved.

The far off year?  2000.  In 2000, humanity has figured it all out.  Sigh.

As he saw it, in that time there was no poverty.  There was no war.  Bellamy spells that dreamy vision out through storytelling that is very much crafted in keeping with his era.  The characters speechify at one another at great length.  "What is this new thing," asks the protagonist.  "Let me tell you," says the person from the future, "for the next four pages of monologue."  It's a different and peculiarly formal way of writing.

Like, say, the way Bellamy describes the protagonist in a romantic encounter with a woman of the year 2000:
"As may be supposed, I would have been quite content to waive explanations, but Edith was resolute that there should be no more kisses until she had been vindicated from all suspicion of precipitancy in the bestowal of her affections, and I was fain to follow the lovely enigma into the house."
Not quite how things went when the wife and I were dating.

In some ways, the society he envisions was modern.  Women were equals, fully self-sufficient and independent.  Industry was efficient and centralized, with goods being distributed via a central organization that seemed almost Amazon-esque.   They used pneumatic tubes instead of drones and UPS, but the idea seemed remarkably close.

Shopping was centralized, too, with the thousand tiny stores replaced by one huge one where you could get absolutely anything you wanted.  Walmart/Target, anyone?

Media was distributed and electronic, meaning that if you wanted to listen to music, you could choose whatever you want and listen to it.

Even churches were different.  In the year 2000 that Bellamy created, you'd listen to the sermon of your choice, pitched over the network.  Faith was entirely net-based, in other words.  Every pastor a televangelist, thought I, with some trepidation.

So in some ways, he seemed prescient.  In others, well, he missed the mark.

What was hard, reading the book, was doing so through the lens of history.

In Bellamy's 21st century, this had been done by ordering all of society as a single centralized corporation, drawing organizational structure and inspiration from the military.  It was all very rational, very scientific, very utopian.

Bellamy's ideals--and this bestselling book--gave brief rise to an American movement called Nationalism.  The movement tried to figure out ways to further the vision Bellamy pitched out there, which on the surface was hopeful, progressive, and deeply rational.  Everyone was equal, wealth had been functionally abolished, as had all of the waste of our struggling against one another instead of working together towards a common goal.

But Bellamy's nineteenth century nationalism--mingled with his utopian socialism--just kept echoing though my twentieth century remembrances.  A Nationalist socialism, structured like the military?  Why did that seem so familiar?


That, ultimately, seemed the flaw in reading through this vision of where humanity might head.  There was, within it, the assumption that human beings would willingly set down hatred in the name of reason.  There was, within it, the idea that power over others would suddenly become something human beings did not want.

We'd all just magically work together, because it's so obviously the best thing to do.

On the one hand, yes it is.

On the other, that has proven far, far more difficult than we human beings have imagined.  Perhaps that's why we struggle now with the idea of utopia.

Dystopia seems so much more us.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

America's Prayer After So Many Shootings

Dear Heavenly Father,

Here again there comes to us news of another school shooting.  Two dead this time, both kids.  That comes right on the heels of a psychotic right-wing couple killing two cops, both of whom were young and nice looking and had wives and kids.

Then they killed that concealed-carry guy who tried to help the cops, which totally blew a hole in most of my fantasies about being the hero.  Which came right after that guy with a shotgun opening up on students at a Christian college.

And then I think there was one before that, with the rich Youtube kid who hated women, and another one, maybe, but I kind of forget.

Dear Lord Jesus, they're getting to be something of a blur.

It just feels so relentless, so oppressive, and it feels like something has become more deeply wrong.  The world is broken, and I want you in your Glorious Power to just do something about it.

Heavenly Father, can you please space them out just a little bit more, or something?  I'd adapted to the previous schedule, but this is getting to be annoying.  It's getting me down, and making me not feel good about myself.  And how can I prosper and be blessed by You if I'm not feeling good about myself as your beloved child?

You know my heart, Lord.  I have no intention of making the changes that would stop this from happening, because, well, I don't want to. I've already accepted your Son as my Lord and Savior, and as pastor says, that's all I need.

But when these killings come so close and so fast, Father God, it's much much harder for me to tune out.

I want to blame violence in movies, but of course, I thought Captain America: Winter Soldier was pretty freakin' awesome, and I haven't seen that wild new Tom Cruise alien flick yet, so please, Lord, don't change that.   I know I've got the right to have a gun without any regulation or training or significant safety measures, because your son Jesus said so right there in the Constitution.  I want to blame violent video games, or crazy people, or anything other than just having a whole bunch of guns just lying around everywhere in a snarling, selfish society that has lost its way.

I'd blame Benghazi, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to make that work.  Don't think I haven't tried.

Honestly?  I don't want to even have to think about it, and there it is every single day.

So maybe if you could, Father God, just, you know, just put the shootings back on schedule so that it's every other month or something.  We'd pretend to be sad, and say now is not the time because it would be disrespectful in a time of loss, and forget, and go back to watching Duck Dynasty.

I realize that I cannot tell you what to do, because you are the Almighty God, the Alpha and the Omega, a Consuming Fire.  So if you don't want to change the predestined shootings, maybe you could, just, do something simpler?

Change my heart, Lord.  Turn me, Lord.  Set me to repentance.

Turn me so I just don't have to see anything about it at all.  Guide me with your Holy Spirit, so that I never watch the news and so that all of my Facebook friends only post about kittens and little kids getting up in front of the judges and OMG-You-Won't-Believe-What-Happened-Next.

Maybe throw in a dancing grandma or two, because old people are funny, especially when they do crazy stuff that doesn't make me think about how much getting old in America sucks.

Or maybe keep me angry about far away things that I can't do anything about.  Or obsessed about some person or group that makes me uncomfortable, because it's just so much easier to justify my inaction.

So there's my prayer, Father God.  If you could, just, make one of those things happen, that would be such a blessing on my heart.

In the name of Jesus I pray,


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tax Dollar Ferraris

It had been a lovely, lovely spring here in and around Washington, DC.  Summer is finally arriving.

We've not had one for years, as our winters have blanged right into summer.  One day, it's bitter.  The next day, it's fetid and cloying and oppressive.  Why our nation chose to build its capitol on Dagobah is ever beyond me, but I suppose we're stuck with it.

But this spring was a spring.  Gorgeous days, with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures.  Nights with a hint of lingering crispness.  You couldn't have asked for more.

And that meant that the Ferraris came out to play.

My commute to my little church takes me through some of the richest turf in Washington, and snakes along the beautiful country roads of the Western Upper Montgomery County Agriculture Reserve.

This spring, it feels like every Washingtonian who owns a trophy vehicle has taken it out on those roads.  They've been as omnipresent as the pollen.  That means, on my every commute, I pass at least two Ferraris.  And a Lamborghini.  Mixed in with the Mercedes and Jags and Lexuses (Lexi?) that are every other vehicle here, there are the toy cars.  Behind the wheel, men of a certain age, the tanned and toned silverbacks of industry.

These are vehicles that sit covered in the three-to-five car garages of the mansions that stretch for miles up the Potomac.  They aren't driven, not often, because though they are impossibly fabulous, they aren't meant for daily--or even monthly--use.  That's why you have your Audi or your Mercedes, which are as common in certain Washington suburbs as Chevys and Toyotas.

The Ferraris and Lamborghinis say: I am not just well off.  I am absurdly well off, so wildly and excessively successful that I can purchase a car that I drive once or twice a year.

It's the kind of car that you show off during a catered dinner party, as you bring a few select guests into the garage to ogle it over your third martini.

These are unquestionably beautiful vehicles.  I admire them, as objects of industrial art.  The boy in me finds them delightful.

Yet I wonder at them, too, because there is only one industry in Washington.  We are in the business of government here.  I have no beef with that.  Government has a role in any society.

But what's troubling--knowing how much the rest of the country still struggles with underemployment and the explosive deindustrialization of our nation--is that the resources that my fellow citizens are obligated to render under Caesar are buying these cars.

Perhaps it's my pastor's bias against ostentation and consumption, but if your position is that of a servant, then that implies certain things.  I look seriously askance at pastors who enrich themselves at the expense of their flock, and I have the same feeling about public servants.  Should they be desperate and hungry?  No.  But neither should they be Croesus.

The owners of these vehicles aren't public servants, though, not technically.  The federal employees and oft-reviled "bureaucrats" putter around in their Hondas and Fords and Subarus, and live in smaller townhomes and old ramblers.

The owners of these glistening trophies are the lawyers and politicos, the lobbyists and--mostly--the captains of those vaunted "public-private partnerships."  These are the businesses who took over so many of the tasks of governance from public servants back in the Reagan Years.  It was all done in the name of "efficiency," which is absurd.  Profit-driven systems thrive on inefficiency.  They feast on it.  What is profit, after all, but inefficiency?

And for those businesses, government has proven very, very profitable indeed.

That seems worth remembering, as those gorgeous tax-bought Ferraris are tucked away until the first beautiful fall morning in Washington.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Christian and Libertarian

At a conference this last week in Washington, DC, a group of Catholic bishops and thinkers gathered to discuss the deep schism between Catholic teaching and American libertarian thought.  The title of the conference laid out the core premise pretty clearly:

"Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism."

The speakers and presenters weren't there for dialogue with the libertarian movement.  They were there to present the Vatican's position, which is pretty solid.  That position is it is manifested in the United States right now...libertarian thought is fundamentally opposed to Catholic teaching.

The reasons for this are various.

The most obvious, is that the "libertarian" thought typified by Ayn Rand and some right-wing masters of global capital is utterly alien to the teachings of Jesus.  You cannot hold the poor, the outcast, and the weak in contempt and consider yourself a Christian.  You cannot have personal profit or "shareholder value" serve as your primary moral compass and consider yourself a Christian.  That cannot be so.

This is the thrust of the Vatican's case against what often passes for "libertarian" thought in American political discourse. What does this look like?

It looks like the cretin wandering through Target with a faux-assault long gun.

It looks like the CEO who couldn't care less about workers, customers, clients, or community, but only thinks about maximizing profits.

If you use your freedom to threaten or prey on others, Jesus has beef with that.  In that, I find myself in agreement with my Catholic brothers and sisters.

I'm not totally there, though, because I think it's easy to assume from the morons and magnates who tend to become the public face of libertarianism that that's all there is to it.  That's a flawed assumption.

I'm also aware that Catholicism is a deeply hierarchical and authority-based faith tradition.  If you are a traditional Catholic, all autonomy is erroneous.  Final authority for all spiritual matters rests with the Vatican.  One can resist, of course, or disagree.  And I know folks do, and still consider themselves Catholic.  But within that system of faith, autonomy is not a core value.

Or to put it another way, when Catholicism errs, too much freedom ain't the error.

While it is not possible to be an acolyte of Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman and also Christian, it is entirely possible to be libertarian and Christian.

I can speak this with confidence, because I've bothered reading the Bible.  Jesus has plenty to say about freedom and the law, in both his actions and his teachings.  While he honored the intent of the law in both his actions and his teachings, he was also not willing to be bound by authority when authority itself transgressed against the purpose of the law.

The Apostle Paul--not "deutero-Paul," but the Apostle himself--taught precisely the same value set.  Honor and respect the law, even if it kills you.  He'd say this.  But at the same time, he recognized that following Jesus meant we no longer felt under the pressure of coercive power.  There's one law.  Just one.  Other than that, we're completely free.

That's the same position held by the Letter of James.  The "Royal Law" is also the Law of Liberty.

The Gospels and Epistles make it clear: liberty exists so long as love is the rule of our life.  If we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, then the systems and cultures we create will become the enemies of our own freedom.

If this is how you live, valuing your neighbor's freedom as deeply as your own, then liberty is a meaningful value for you.  You're both Christian and libertarian.

If not?  If all that matters to you are your rights, your wealth, and your power?  It is not a love of liberty that guides you.

That so many in our culture choose to understand liberty otherwise creates an interesting and observable irony: profit-driven capitalist "libertarianism" is the enemy of human freedom.  It controls with hunger and fear, and zealously defends its selfish freedom even if the liberty of others is trampled in the process.

So we can talk endlessly about liberty, while doing everything in our power to destroy it.  It never ceases to amaze me how many novel ways human beings can come up with to screw things up.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Pentecost Divergence

On the cusp of Pentecost, I found myself with an evening open to read for pleasure.

Usually, when this festival day arrives in the year of the church, I'm scrambling to find a way to say things about the arrival of the Holy Spirit that don't sound exactly like the things I'd said the year before.  Or the year before that.  Or the year before that.

But this year, the liturgical calendar and the annual schedule for my tiny little church created a conjunction.  It's Pentecost, the Fiftieth, the day when the Holy Spirit pours down like fire from heaven, and the church itself was born.  On this day?  The kids of the church will be running the show.  Sunday School Pentecost, it will be.

I'll bless and benedict, sure.  But the readings and the prayers, the singing and the sermon?  That's all for the younglings to handle.  This is a good thing.

So I got to read for pleasure.  The book I blazed through, in three long inhales, was the book "Divergent."  I hadn't ever gotten around to it, despite it being just about everywhere for a while.  I do my own thing in my own time, man.

And sure, it's Young Adult Fiction.  Was it serious fiction?  Honestly, I didn't particularly care.  Sure, some snooty folks might describe it as "transparently trashy," but a fun read is a fun read.

This wasn't hard sci-fi, or even a realistic portrayal of how a future society might intentionally divvy itself up for optimal efficiency and management.

Factions?  In which every faction member is the same and has the same gifts and cultural place?  What is this, denominational Christianity?  C'mon.

We Presbyterians would totally be the Erudites.  AND the Ravenclaws.  Like, totes.  Srsly.

Oops.  Sorry. for the clumsy youngspeak.  Too much YA Fic, evidently.

If you want a better and more complex vision of an intentionally structured culture, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World serves up a far meatier and terrifying reality.  Not because it's dystopian, but because Brave New World is a utopian novel.  It is.  Read it again sometime.  What could be more alien and horrifying than a culture that makes the vast majority of those within it completely happy?  And...spoiler...leaves space for those who transcend it to leave in peace, so that they can be perfectly free?  Utopian.  It is.

What struck me, reading Divergent's simple, entertaining narrative, was that it played interestingly off of today.  The point of Pentecost, the entire purpose of the day, is the annihilation of the boundaries of nation and ethnicity.

Here we have an event in the life of the Way that tears down the boundaries between languages and cultures, where the fires of the Spirit burn down the barriers between us.  The great gift of Pentecost was that tearing down, that radical shattering of human categorical thinking towards one another.

It is a day of Divergence, where we stop thinking about why we are different, and recognize that what matters is God's fire, burning in all of us.

Way back when, when the Pentecostal Movement began on Asuza Street in San Francisco, that was the true gift of that movement.  In that wild revival, a worship that ran for *years*, what was notable was not that they spoke in tongues.  It was that all of the boundaries that divided them were cast aside.

Women preached and proclaimed.  African Americans preached and led.  Asian immigrants came and  exhorted.  And children?  Even the children were brought to the front, and listened to, and truly heard.

In this crass market era, when we are divided not just by nationality and class, but also neatly segmented into a countless array of market demographics, that's the gift of Pentecost.

It reminds us not to replicate those structures of control and division into our lives together.  We can't do that, if we want our Way to look like the Reign of God.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Missing Chapter: How to Level Up

So you’ve noticed, you have, that this one little bit of information was missing.  Here you have your guide to being a Christian Cleric, filled with spells and the wisdom of our Order. I’d promised, I had, that I would tell you how to level up.

I didn’t.

That little detail is missing.

How does the whole “advancement” thing work?  How do you go from being an acolyte, as wet and fragile and helpless as a newly hatched golden dragon, to being the Clerical equivalent of mighty Bahamut himself?  How do you know you’ve notched it up a bit?  How can you tell when you’ve advanced?  

How do you make that happen?

The answer, of course, is experience.

We advance in the Order when we do the things that the Teacher taught.  It is as simple and as basic as that.  It has to do with our actions, our deeds, the particular ways we embody and live out the Way.  It must be this, because the only way we serve our Teacher is by spending our lives doing exactly what he told us to do.

We are terrible at this.

Oh, we think we’re not.  We see signs that we’re changing, and we work under the assumption that we’ve cued in to what it means to move ahead.  We’re sure we’re leveling up.  We get more and more focused on taking out those heretics within our Order who’ve betrayed our Teacher, either with their regressive ignorance or their drifting apostasy.  We spend every day focused on going after them, casting our spells against them, spinning out shared dreams in the ethereal realm, speaking out loudly and confidently in earnest gatherings of like-minded clerics.

That path can lead to fame and fortune, glory and power.  But it’s also not the path of the cleric.  Sure, you’re leveling up and gathering henchmen and hirelings by the hundreds.  
But you’re leveling up as a fighter, not a cleric.

Or we can cast our Chant spells by the dozens, weaving out a spell of seduction and charm to the gathered throngs.  Be here and prosper, we coo.  Give, and give abundantly, and abundance shall be yours!  Look at how I prosper, we say, as our glistening palace and shining carriage stand as evidence of our blessedness.

And they will, come, by the hundreds, filled with hope and hunger, to hear the promises we whisper into their desperate ears.  They will give us all they have, each gold piece a downpayment on a magical blessing that we have no power to bring about.  We do these things, and we feel that we must surely be leveling up.  Look at all of the blessity-blessings we’ve been blessed with!  Our large oaken treasure-chests runneth over!

Sure, you’ve been leveling up.  As a thief.

To level up as a cleric following the Way of the Teacher, you must repeatedly act as he would have you act towards those around you.  That means showing love.  That means going full-throttle support class for everyone around you, with no thought given to your own reward.

Whatever spells you know, whatever abilities you have, whatever your ability scores, that truth remains the same.  Do what you’ve been taught.

Note what I did not say.  I did not say: believe what you’ve been taught.  I did not say: have a solid conceptual grasp of what you’ve been taught.

Those things do not hurt, of course.  If you believe, you are more likely to do, as our beliefs guide our actions.  If you understand deeply, you are likely to do effectively and skillfully.  But it is simply not enough to have the idea of what needs to be done in your head.  It is not enough to talk about it, or to write about it, or to hold long earnest conclaves about it.

Some will say that our actions do not matter.  They will justify this by pointing to the truth that our intentions are known to the Maker.  We must have right intentions, they say, and they are not wrong.  It is faith that matters, they say, not our actions.  There is truth in that.  But it is not the fullness of the Way, because the Way is everything that we are.

The Teacher once told a story, if I am remembering it correctly, about two dwarvish brothers.  Their father, Thane of the Dwarfhold, called them before the Council.  There, he asked them both to journey to a deep and long abandoned mine.  Word had come from a nearby tribe of wood elves that two of their children had gone missing, and it was thought that perhaps they had become lost in the rocky, labyrinthine depths.

The elder brother, knowing his position and right as Thane-First, knelt and honored his father with his words.  He spoke fiercely of the honor of the Hold, of the might of the Thane’s Hammer, of the practical wisdom of his teachings.  

“This shall be done, O my Thane, O my father!”  But the elder brother was also proud of his warrior nature.  He was Thane-First, heir to the hammer of his father.  He was in no rush to go play hide and seek with some woodland snickerers.  He would do it.  Just in his own time, when it felt right to him.  He returned to the meadhall, where he sang rousing songs of the Honor of the Hold.

The younger brother was dour and darkbearded, and a dwarf of few words.  He was skilled with his axe, and known for his ferocity in battle.  The Thane’s Hammer was forever beyond him, and he did not aspire to it.  He did not care for it.  “Why would we waste our time on these stupid elflings,” he mumbled under his beard.  “Stupid, lost, frail elflings, with their stupid songs and empty heads.”

And yet that very hour, he set out to obey the words of his Thane-Father.  He journeyed to the mine, set into the heart of the forest.  From the yawning mouth of that hewn pit came the smell of smoke, and the smell of goblin.  

In he went, axe in hand.

An hour later, out he came.  With him, the two elvish children, bruised but alive.  On his axe, the dark blood of a dozen goblins, who’d been at the moment of slaughtering the elves for their evening meal when he roared into the cavern.

“Which of these dwarves,” the Teacher asks us, “did the will of his Thane-Father?”

The answer is simple.  The one who did it.

It must be done.

If it is not done, it is not real.  If it is not real, it cannot manifest the Deep Real into this branch of the Material Plane.  If it does not manifest, then it does not count as experience.

So it is not enough for you to consider the implications of casting a Blessing on that orcish child.  You must do it.  It is not enough for you to reflect on the ramifications of Removing Fear from that disgraced merchant who comes to you--desperate and alone and in fear for his life--because he has been cast out of the guildhall for his dishonesty.  You must do it.

If the world does not experience your commitment to the Teacher’s path, you will not ever level up.

But if you learn to pattern your days so that your every action is mercy and justice, so that your words are grace and forgiveness?  Then things will change for you.

Not that you’ll be richer, or more powerful.  That’s not what we’re about, remember?  But you will change, and your effect on the world around you will be felt.

Each day, in every action, you’ll find yourself in a new place on the path.  And in every new place, you will find a new opportunity to grow and to serve the Way.

That’s what it means to level up.

Let that be so, for you, and for me.