Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Pope, the Scientist, the Fundamentalist, and the Aliens

It was a bizarre trifold juxtaposition, even by the standards of bizarrity that mark our Bizarro species.  Three different inputs cranked through my consciousness, all in one week.

On the one hand, there was my first encounter with the statement on the part of Pope Francis that he was open to both welcoming an encounter with alien beings and potentially baptizing them, should they be up for it.  I must have missed it the first time around, but there it was, from the mouth of the Pope. Sure, God loves aliens.  "Who am I to close doors," he said.  Honestly, if anyone could pull off such an encounter successfully, I think Papa Frankie could.

On the other hand, there was the statement by Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who in a recent talk reiterated his deep fear that an encounter with alien life would be catastrophic for the human race.  Alien contact should be avoided, and humankind should be more careful as it shouts our presence into the void.

We must be wary, Stephen Hawking warns, for out there in the deep there may be beings whose intellects are so far beyond our own that they will make us significantly less impressed by Stephen Hawking.

And on the other hand, there was Ken Ham, the lumpenfundamentalist responsible for the Creation
Museum, who kinda sorta sides with Hawking on the "don't mess around with the aliens" thing.  I know, that's three hands, but bilateral symmetry is such a terrestrial chordate conceit.  Ken Ham believes the search for alien life is a waste of time, because, well, the universe is only 6,000 years old and change, and was made only for humans.

If there are aliens, they're all going to hell anyway, because Jesus only came to save humans.  That Ken Ham's "God" would create a universe filled with doomed, hell-bound creatures is perhaps not surprising, given that his theology does that to pretty much all of us human beings, too.  

So the fundamentalist and the avowedly atheistic cosmologist worry about alien contact.  Why?

Perhaps because it would shatter the ground of their ethos.  Both fundamentalism and atheistic self-understanding are creatures of the modern era.  Both place human beings and empirical human forms of self-understanding as foundational.  We can grasp everything.  We are what matters.  Being creatures of high modernity, neither Ken Ham nor Stephen Hawking have room for self-shattering mystery.

Neither would hold up well in the face of an encounter with higher forms of being, which would shatter our humanity--and our particular history as a species--as a meaningful basis for a belief system.

But a more ancient form of faith, which hails back deep into the preindustrial memory of humankind?  The one that's rooted in a long tradition of exploring our encounter with the unknowable Numinous, and yet somehow manages to integrate and embrace science?

It sees no threat, and would approach more advanced beings with open arms.

Not a surprise, I suppose.  If you've come to terms with our encounter with an infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent being that transcends time and space, why would aliens bother you?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

God Fires a Warning Shot

This post was almost my last blog post.  And the last blog post you would have read.

It's funny, how oblivious we are as a species to our own near demise.

Individually, we take those things pretty seriously.  We're driving along the road, jabbering on our handsfree, and the truck in front of us drops a huge metal object that comes a hair's breadth from tearing into the passenger compartment.  We flee indoors, as the storm comes, and just a moment after we've moved away from the tree we were sheltering under, it's torn apart by lightning.

Those moments have existential weight.  "I could have died just there," we marvel, and that knowledge can change us.

That, in a nutshell, was what almost happened for all of us back on July 23, 2012.  A massive solar storm blasted a huge wave of charged particles directly through the earth's orbit, missing us by around a week.  Same storm, one week's difference?  Well, the world would be a very different place.

The last time a storm of that magnitude hit the earth was in the early industrial age, and beyond putting on a wild and amazing heavenly light show, it fried our primitive telegraph systems.  Now, the energies of a solar storm would blow out a substantial portion of our electrical and telecommunications grid, leaving us critically unable to play around on Facebook.  Or communicate in any way.  Or cook.  Or get food from the store.  Or use money.  It'd have been a massive and global catastrophe.

An identical solar-storm catastrophe provides the narrative ground for the novel I wrote last year for National Novel Writing Month, which--God willing and the contract shows up in the mail--will be published sometime in 2016.  From all of my research for that manuscript, I feel this particular civilization-shattering option pretty personally.

This ain't no zombie 'pocalypse.  This could really happen.

Humanity in the early twenty-first century is far more vulnerable to such an event, and as the science points to this sort of thing as being a normal part of solar activity, it's not a question of whether it will happen, but when.  Every couple of hundred years, boom.

And yet, as this news or our near demise whispers by our ears like a passing shiruken, humankind trundles on about our business as if nothing happened.  We're so busy screaming at each other, posturing, and killing one another that we don't even notice.

"Hey, everything you're fighting about could be meaningless tomorrow," says the Creator of the Universe.  "Hello?  C'mon, people.  Pay attention.  Wake up."

Monday, July 28, 2014

One Book Versus Many Books

This slightly murky meme popped for me in one of my feeds recently, and not for the reason that it was meant to.

I'd seen the comparison of the US Army wife (gun, flag, bible) and the jihadist (gun, flag, Quran) all over the place, so that it'd be repurposed for something like this is not surprising.  Memes beget memes, after all.

What this one was meant to be, I think, is a condemnation of people of faith and their "one books."

Reading many books, or so the visual implies, makes you more likely to have a telescope.

Because, well, science!

Or something.  It's not exactly the clearest meme semiotically.  Ah well.

There is, of course, another minor problem with this one, one that goes beyond the whole "correlation/causation" thing of which one would presume science-friendly folk are aware.

The man on the right, standing there like a book-cabinet centaur, he has...hmmm...let's count them.  Onetwothreefour...hmmm.  He's obscured some of his collection, but it looks like between 38 and 40 books, if you include the one book he's holding in his hand.  They're mostly textbooks, by the look of them.

The jihadist is presumably holding a copy of the Quran in the hand that is not carrying the gun.  That is correctly described as one book.  It is the writing of a single author, divided thematically into chapters, written over several years for a single purpose.

The soldier's wife is holding a Bible in her non-gun hand.  We get that word, "Bible," from the Greek words τὰ βιβλία.   "Ta Biblia," if you know a wee bit o' Greek, means "The Books."  It's plural, because the Bible isn't a book.  It's a collection of books.  That is what the word means.

Oh, sure, it tends to be all together in between one cover, but that means what, precisely?  One could do that with almost any literature.

What the Bible is, frankly, is such a wildly different array of literatures that to consider it inherently "one book" is insane.  Isaiah is not a chapter of that book, nor is Ecclesiastes or Job.  They were--and really, still are--independent and free-standing units.  They are, themselves, books.

Here, you have a remarkably varied ancient collection, sixty-six books in all.  They were written by dozens of different authors across thousands of years, in two very different languages.  They play out across cultures, representing both urban and rural views of life and meaning.  They represent poetry, history, wisdom teachings, and music.  They have--read on their own and objectively, outside of the blurred and idolatrous lens of fundamentalism--a wild array of different perspectives, styles, tones, and emphases.

And so, if you know the reality of the Bible, this is a slightly silly meme.  I am assuming, of course, that it is not a very subtle allusion to the necessity of historical-critical method in examining the texts of the Christian canon.  It's just trying to make a point, and doing so clumsily and inaccurately.

Especially given that the issue here isn't the books.  It's not the books at all.

It's the (Flags + guns) < (Telescopes + Maps) equation.  That's where the issue lies.

That's always been the issue.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The One Who Writes with Fire

It came in a moment of reflection.  It was a brief meditation over a concept, or rather, a meditation over the interplay between two ways of conceptualizing the divine.

On the one hand, the concept--often troubling--of God as a consuming fire.  Generally, we do not want to be burned.  Burning is bad.  Burning hurts, a bunch if it's you encountering a hot pan, rather more so if you're Servetus after a particularly contentious Presbytery meeting.   Despite all the emo-Jesus Christian Contemporary Music that tries to make it seem romantic, fire-language still feels more than a little bit too reminiscent of Tomas de Toquemada.

Plus, there's a strong negative theology of burning.  Burning is what happens to bad people.  Lakes of fire!  Hot coals!  Sinners get the weeping and gnashing, plus, did we mention you'll be on fire?

Mysticism, of course, has always embraced the divine fire.  It is that light that is kindled in us.  It is the light that awaits, and that we will embrace as it consumes us.

This is the mystic vision, in both Christianity and every other human religion.  It's what Jesus brought and lived out, and what Paul affirmed and spread.

But America is not a very mystic place, and the idea that we will be subsumed into anything annoys us.  That'll destroy our individuality, we grump.  America has always been fiercely self-oriented, but now, it's reached a fever pitch.  Our consumer culture needs us to be distinct and separate and conveniently trackable, more than any culture in human history.

Consumed by the Numinous?  Really?  How will Netflix know our preferences in heaven if it can't pigeonhole our demographic profile?  Think what being indistinctly suffused into the nature of the Holy would do to Amazon Divines business model!  And the Google AfterLifeAds?  They'd be completely random!

The horror.

To my reflections on this idea came another image of the divine, that of God as Author.  I like this image, for reasons that are very slightly transparent.  Yeah, I like to write.  So sure, I see God as an author.  And yes, there's a wee bit of projection involved.  I get that.  But I'm aware of the limits, and aware that it's metaphor.

It just happens to be an excellent metaphor.  The very best.  Ahem.

God is the storyteller, the one who spins out the narratives of our existence and of time and space.  He tells not just our story, but ourselves, writing us into being.  He has authorship over us, and authority, and yet allows us to participate in the telling of the tale, like a master DM spinning out an elegantly complex D&D campaign for a circle of dear friends.

Two different images.  There's the One who Writes.  And the One who Burns.

When I was a little child, those would have been very different metaphors.

But what struck me, in my reflection, was that "burning" and "writing" are now interchangeable words.  They have become synonyms, in this digital age.  Burning is how we write, how we set data into a physical medium.

The two wove up in a reflection, of a God who writes us out with fire, burning the truth of our life into creation.

All this before my second cup of coffee.  What a productive morning.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Three Ways to Adapt to the Pastoral "Vow of Poverty"

The article's been making the rounds in my social media feeds, which I suppose shouldn't be a surprise.

It's a piece in The Atlantic, laying out the reality that being a pastor in the 21st century means taking what amounts to an unintentional vow to leave the middle class.  The old system of the old-line, in which entering the pastorate meant chugging along in the middle of the middle class?  That's fallen apart, or so the article suggests.

Now, pastors are falling behind financially.   Oh, sure, there are a tiny minority who are filthy rich.  The Chief Executive Officer of your local AmeriChrist, Inc. JesusPlex makes out like a bandit.  But most pastors--meaning not just a plurality, but a vast majority--do not.  And within that group, there are many folks who struggle.

In that, the church is a microcosm of that reality.  The deindustrialization of America and the absorption of capital by a tiny minority has torn the heart out of our formerly thriving middle class.  The megachurch has done to the small church what Walmart has done to small business, and small American congregations are simply too strapped now to pay enough to sustain a family.

That's certainly my reality.  My little church is a blessing in so many ways, and its members are generous to a fault.  But there aren't enough of us to meet my denomination's minimum salary requirements for a full timer, not without critically impacting mission and our efforts to maintain our humble facility as a welcoming place for community.  And so I'm a half-timer, one of that huge cadre of folks who don't--and won't--make enough as a pastor to sustain a family.

I could live on what my church pays me, were it just me.  It would be a spare life, just me and one rented room.  Or perhaps I could live in the slave quarters in the old manse, that one tiny room up that little flight of stairs from the kitchen.  I've lived in smaller spaces in my life, and been content.  That's the stuff of my monastic daydreams.

With a family, though, that's just not my reality.  "Hey honey, let's the four of us go live in the old slave quarters" is not a sentence any sane husband says to his wife.  And so my wife's work is absolutely necessary to sustain our modest suburban household.  Oh, she'd work anyway.  It's who she is.  But I've had to accept the reality that my income was unlikely to be enough.

Thing is, I've known this the whole time.

It's always been my expectation.  From day one, the folks responsible for preparing me for this task were dead on clear about that reality.  "It's going to be next to impossible for you to find full-time work as a pastor in this Presbytery," they said.

They were wise, and they were right.  Though I didn't want to hear what they were saying, I knew it to be a hard truth.  Where things get messy, in my experience, is where those charged with preparing folks to walk the path of ministry don't make that as bright and clear as crystal.  You want to be encouraging and supportive of the gifts of your charges, sure.  But you also want to avoid being so insulatingly overprotective of the tender sensibilities of fledgling pastors that you leave folks with the expectation that this isn't going to be a wilderness experience.

'Cause it is.

So here, three things that you should know, entering the ministry in this more challenging age.

1) Know that You're Not the Exception.  Oh, we all think we are.  We know, in our hearts, that we're the most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.  We are the Special, dagflabbit, just like Emmett told us in the Lego Movie.  We think this.  I certainly did, ten years ago.  God had a plan for me, and sure, things were hard out there.  Everyone was telling me this.  But I was just so magical, so called and gifted and Spirit-blessed and innovative!  How could I not be the exception to the rule?  Surely, a church would see the wonder that was me.


It didn't take long for reality to disabuse me of that delusion.  My applications to churches with full-time calls vanished into a yawning chaos of other applications.  It was like the experience of trying to get my manuscripts published, only instead of form letters, there was only silence, as overtaxed committees of lay volunteers never quite got around to "wishing me well in my future endeavors."

If you like closure, this part is going to make you crazy.  It also lasts a very long while.

Oh, God was working.  No question.  And as I listened, and opened myself to other options, I was able to follow that calling.  But it was hard.  Expect it to be harder than you've imagined, because it will be.

It is, for most of us.  And, to use the Southern American colloquial emphatic double negative, you ain't no different.

2) Don't Go Into Debt:  This is absolutely central, and should be told to every single earnest soul with a calling on their heart.  Don't debt-finance seminary.  Do not do it.  Yeah, yeah, I know, forgive your debts as you forgive your debtors, but that ain't how student loans work.

You are entering a field of endeavor that can no longer pay you enough to service that debt.

It won't. Will. Not. That must be your operating assumption.

What that debt will do is add stress to your life, layering in mammon's anxiety on top of the challenges of ministry.  Worse still, what it will do is corrupt your calling.  I say that with all seriousness.  Seminary is important, and profoundly helpful in the reality of ministry.  It's worth the time, and the investment. But if you use loans to pay for seminary, those loans can become an impediment to God's work in your life.

You may well be called to a small, beautiful, intimate gathering.  You could be called to revitalize a struggling, tiny, broken-hearted church.  You may be called to start a cell church, or to be a pastor-member of an intentional house community.

But if you've got student loan debt worries gnawing at your soul, you will be less likely to consider those options.  You will be less likely to take joyous leaps, or Godly risks.  You will be more likely to use mammon's measure to select your "call," and that's setting you down the wrong path.

If you can't afford seminary, and you can't cobble together scholarships and grants, take it more slowly.  Work your way through it.  If the calling is there and real, God will give you the patience.  It will also be, in a way, your first experience of bi-vocational ministry, as you learn to balance the demands of your calling and work.

Should seminaries and denominations have a better approach to training their leaders, one that reflects this new reality?  Sure.  Absolutely they should. But right now, they don't.

No point in racking up the debt and then complaining about the injustice, 'cause what's real is real.  If someone tells you a car has no brakes, kvetching about it as you're careening down a mountain road does you no good at all.  As for praying about it?  Well, here I remind you of that overused story about the guy, the flood, the rowboat and the helicopter.  Your way out of that mess is to know the reality you inhabit.

The car has no brakes.  The system is broken.  There.  You know it.

Pay attention, and adapt to what you're facing as you pursue your call.

3)  See the Blessing this Represents.  That the full-time pastorate is no longer a safe, comfortable, middle-class career track is a good thing.  It should never have been that, because the career-ladder expectations that came with that way of viewing it do not reflect how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.

Funny, how that approach to the ministry always involved God calling human beings on to a slightly bigger church that paid slightly more.

What the pastorate is becoming is a vocation that is rare in the secular working world: an intellectually and spiritually rewarding labor that both shapes your identity as a person and allows for work-life balance.  It cannot be the only income for a family, sure.  But it can be a meaningful part of the income for a family.  It can be the labor of a part-time stay-at-homer, who mixes their call to the Gospel with the call to care for children.  It can be the labor of the dual-class pastor, who yearns for space to write and be creative, or to work in another area of vocation.

It can be the work--once congregations realize that the pastor is not the one "professional" Christian responsible for doing everything in the church--that allows you to have a sane existence with a working spouse.

There are very, very few jobs in the private or public sector that permit this.  And yeah, I realize that it's not the cultural norm to live creatively and in balance.  That's particularly true in my inside-the-Beltway neck of the woods, where dishing about overwork is a competitive sport, even among pastors.

But if you're going to provide gracious and centered spiritual leadership, you can't be shimmering with stress.  If you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, accepting that you are the half-income of a one point five income household can make the difference.

Embrace your call, but be realistic.  Don't let our debt culture leaven God's call on your life.  And see the blessing this new reality can offer.

Because the new reality of pastoring in America is where we are now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jesus and Vladimir's Putin's Soul

My son and I were on our way back from a music lesson, and talking about Vladimir Putin.

He'd been the most recent topic of conversation, as we talked about the remains of a Malaysian Airliner, which still smoldered in a Ukrainian field.  He was offering up his cynical explanation for those deaths, while Russian state-owned media spun out one obfuscating story after another.

"So, here's a hard question for you," my younger teen said.  "You're a pacifist, right?  Let's say you suddenly get super powers.  And you know that someone is taking actions that are going to get thousands and thousands of people killed.  Do you use your powers to kill that person, and save thousands of lives?  Or do you let them live, and let thousands of innocent people die?"

I'm not a pacifist, of course, not entirely.  But I also think that integrating violence into one's method for attaining justice is profoundly dangerous.  So we talked, and as we bantered around the question, I found myself wondering something else.  Just how does one deal--as a Christian--with those who wield power with cold eyes?

Vladimir Putin has always struck me as just such a soul.  And he has a soul, I think, despite Joe Biden's recent and entertaining statement to the contrary.  Oh, Joe.

I just can't take that route.  Assuming a person is just an automaton, or that they're somehow no longer human, that's a very dangerous call to make.  When we deny the soul of the other, we do so at the peril of our own.  So yes, he does have a soul.

It's just a very hard soul.  I cannot look at Vladimir Putin without seeing just how intelligent he is, how shrewd, how calculating.  Here, a human being who understands the dynamics of power, and understands--from history and experience--how to use power to his advantage.  That is his defining ethos.  That is who he is.

People who oppose Vladimir Putin die, or are imprisoned, or disappear.  Support him, and you'll be rewarded, or permitted to profit from that support.  Truth is immaterial, or, rather, it is known, but closely and cynically held.  If it is an impediment, it will be bent and spun to the needs of power.  He's a hard, hard man, leading a nation whose long history is filled with hard men.

But how, I find myself wondering, do you theologically approach folks like Putin?

Here, an individual whose identity--his whole self--is woven up with worldly power.  And it has worked for him.

Of what use are the teachings of Jesus to such a man?  Oh, the church and institutional religion are undoubtedly very useful, as they have always been to kings and emperors and tzars.  But the radical love of God and neighbor that is the heart of the Gospel?  What conceivable appeal can they have to him?

Though I know them to be true, I am reasonably sure that he would find that Way of being naive, weak, and childish.  Just as I find his way of being wrought of the dark hubris of coercive power, and inherently self-annihilating.

The final disposition of such a soul, of course, is not my call.

This, as my conversation with my son reminded me, is a good thing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Unwelcoming Neighborhood

It was a long walk, but I like it that way.

I'd rather not have walked it, because it meant an indefinite separation from my ailing steed, sidelined after yet another fueling problem surfaced.  One issue with riding a bike hard and year round is that they age a little bit more rapidly, and my formerly trusty Suzuki is feeling its age.  But whatever the circumstance, the three point six miles did me good, and at a moderately brisk pace, it took a little under an hour.

When you walk, you see things you'd miss as you barrel by in your cage.  In a car, you're focusing on the road and/or the blabbering inputs of your infotainment suite.  On foot, your pace lets you note nuance.  It lets you observe, and linger over an interesting thing.  You can't linger in DC, idling over to the side of the road like it's Mayberry.  Stop or slow down around these parts, and you'll have some ute-driving schedule-maddened DC parent/lawyer and the entire soccer team they're transporting yelling at you to learn how to drive as they swerve wildly by your stopped car.

Walking lets you see things on a human scale, and process them on a human scale.

I was at about the three-quarter mark on my walk when I came across the signs.

There was a row of them, on every house on a whole block, one trim little home after another on the access road off of Columbia Pike.

Well, every house but one.

They were neatly printed up, the sort of lawn signs you get professionally done if you're a small business startup, or a politician running for office in a little town.  "Say No to Bethany House Shelter," they said, one after another.  There was an address--the one house without the sign, as it so happened, sitting isolated on the edge of the block.  And there was a date, just a couple of days away, when there'll be a public hearing about whatever it was.

Because I was walking, I stopped, and lingered and looked.  I took a picture or two.

Beyond the signs, the houses were all very similar, in the face that they presented to the world.  Well maintained and clean cars were in every driveway, and--unusually for this area--they were almost entirely of American manufacture.  The homes--humble, straightforward, and of late 50s construction--were all primly kept.  Gardens were tidy and neat and tastefully conservative.  Lawns were mowed and edged.  Flags were in evidence on many doorposts.  These are people who are are proud of their homes.

Here, on the one hand, a group of neighbors, exercising their solidarity with one another and engaging in civic discourse.

On the other, it stirred my curiosity about the thing they were rallying together to oppose.  The name whispered hints.  A homeless shelter, perhaps?  Or a group home for the mentally ill?

I continued on, and when I got home, I went online to see what it might be.  As it turned out, it was a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence and their children.  The shelter already exists, right there on the block in that house.  Those women and their children are already there.  But it is--according to the exhaustive plans and zoning approval schematics available online--conducting a modest expansion to open space for two to three more families.

Why there?  Why in that neighborhood?  Well, directly across the street lies the answer: the Mason District police station, with rows upon rows of police cars and dozens of officers just moments away.  If you care about protecting women and their children from violent abuse, that'd be just about the best place to do it.  Siting in this instance is a no-brainer.

But of course, that has an effect on property values.  And even though a small army of trained and armed law enforcement professionals is right there where you can see them, it's also the kind of thing that makes people anxious.  Mammon and anxiety go hand in hand, they do, and that's where this ultimately lies.

I do not doubt, when that hearing comes, that there'll be other reasons presented.  It will destroy the feel of the neighborhood, they'll say, though other little houses nearby have been massively expanded or completely replaced.  Or perhaps there'll be ad hominem arguments against management, subtle insinuations of profit-seeking or incompetence.  There often are, when people are up in arms about something.  And of course, what about the children!  The children!  Someone always has to say that, even when you're opposing something that's there to protect children.  It's everything and the kitchen sink, when you get to that place.

And I can understand that reaction, up to a point.  Homo sapiens sapiens is such a fiercely territorial primate.

But what I don't understand--can't, frankly--is being the sort of human person whose pride wouldn't include protecting women and children.

"In my neighborhood, there is a shelter where women and children can come and be safe.  We've got first responders across the street to help out.  And we pitch in, keeping our eye out to help those kids and women stay that way.  That's who we are here.  We're a place of refuge.  We're a place of safety."

So there, a row of signs that proudly say the opposite.  Those signs are visible, to every battered woman and every frightened child that comes to that house now, or that is sheltered in that house now.

"You are not welcome here."

I stopped, and I noted it, because that little community wanted me to notice it.  They mark the place, and the spirit of that part of the neighborhood.

When you put out a sign, you need to expect that people will read it, and listen to what it is you're saying about yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Word "Tragedy"

The images of the scattered, burning debris of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 were still fresh, and the fires were still burning, as the first words describing the event were put out there.

And for some reason, a single word--or the nuance of the meaning of that word--just felt wrong.

A "tragedy," they were calling it.  "Tragedy."

That was the word from the White House.  That was the specific word used by Vladimir Putin.  That was how Fox News described it, and CNN.  "Tragedy."

And it was tragic, in the most rudimentary sense of the term.  Hundreds of dead, meaning thousands and thousands in mourning.  Here, scores of lives that were promising and full of potential, now ended.  In that, it is immensely sad, and a somber thing.

But tragedy has other connotations, deeper and more complex ones, and that's where the word seems to break down for this terrible event.

Classical tragedy, of course, is a narrative form that revolves around fate and human hubris.  A person has a single abiding flaw, one that is typically woven up with their greatest strength.  Their pride.  Their strength of purpose.  Their passion.  Their love for one another.  Their commitment to their promises.  Their desire to return home, having proved themselves worthy by killing bullies and oppressors just like dad used to do, and finding a wife who reminds them of dear ol' mom.  Their calculating, world-weary cynicism.

In a tragic narrative, that flaw destroys them.

But those who died yesterday had no such flaw.  In that classical sense, their deaths were not tragedy, not quite.

Tragedy weaves up deeply with the idea of fate, of an unchosen, inexorable destiny.  When an accident of fate places human being in harm's way, it is tragedy.  It is tragic, for instance, when thousands die because they happen to be small living things in the path of a tsunami or a tornado.  When a beautiful spirit succumbs to cancer, that is tragic.

But all of those deaths yesterday were not tragic, not completely.

They were chosen.  It was a choice that they should die.

A group of soldiers have been placed into a disputed region by a singularly calculating tyrant, who masks his involvement there behind a thicket of lies and subterfuge.  Operating in secret, they are equipped with a sophisticated weapons system, which they use to target a passing aircraft.  Their intent was to destroy that aircraft, and to kill all of the people on board.

That was precisely what they did.  Oh, sure, they weren't the people they'd intended to kill, any more than that gangbanger intends to shoot the little girl when he sprays gunfire from a passing car.

They believed it to be a transport plane, although no Ukrainian transport craft looks even vaguely like a 777.  Soviet-era radar guidance may not be quite so discerning, though.

And so they shoot down the plane they tried to shoot down.  They kill hundreds of Dutch, Australian, and Malaysian human beings, where they hoped to only kill dozens of Ukrainian human beings.

This is not tragedy.  It could be tragedy, but it is not yet.  Tragedy comes with awareness of the reality of what hubris has wrought.  It is Othello, realizing he has killed his faithful Desdemona.  It is Juliet, awaking to her dead Romeo.  It is Oedipus, tear-filled eyes wide with horror, the needles clutched in his hands.  It is the smell of the smoke in Jephthah's nostrils.  It is Eugene Onegin, seeing Tatyana's beauty too late, with new eyes.

I do not doubt that some of the men involved this morning feel that sense of tragedy, as the images of families and children from that flight play through the world's consciousness.  Those men may or may not be allowed to express their pain.  When you are acting covertly and in secret, agents of a power that wants your involvement in a conflict kept hidden, your ability to express regret is limited.

As for that power?

I am not sure that existential knowledge of the meaning of tragedy yet rests behind the cool, precise eyes of Vladimir Putin.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Being in the Present

It was just one of the bazillion memes and images to come streaming across my social-media consciousness yesterday, but it stuck with me.

It was an ersatz quote from "Lao Tzu," which you can read at your leisure right there where I put it so's ya could.

It's not Lao Tzu, of course, which was the first thing that caught my attention when I read it.  It does not sound like him, not at all, not if you've ever read the Tao Te Ching.

Pesky, pesky religious studies degrees.  They just take the fun out of everything.

This little nugget of pop wisdom can't be found anywhere in the writings of Lao Tzu, unless by "the writings of Lao Tzu" you mean "quotes I remember from that turtle-dude in Kung Fu Panda."

What struck me most about it, though, was not that it was wrong.  It was that it was wrong.

I should probably unpack that a bit.

That it's not Lao Tzu is just one bit of wrongness, you know, the empirical, factual sort.

There are other ways to be wrong.  Not the principle, mind you.  Being present, and being "mindful," these are good things.  And the point about not ruminating and not fretting?  Sure, it's pop wisdom.  But there be truth to that thar saying'.  Living in the present is important.

The bit of wrongness has to do with two things: reality and tone.

Tone first: Look how simple it is to be happy, the tone reads.  How easy!  Just be present!  You know, 'cause it's a gift, or something.

Finding the peace of being in the present, though, is hard.  Really, really, hard.  Hard because it requires intentional development of spiritual disciplines of self-emptying.  We are creatures of time and space, who weave our sense of self up from our sense of purpose and the narrative arc of our existence.  Stopping that storytelling is hard, as hard as focusing your full attention on the empty space between these two   words for an hour.  We do this with difficulty.

From my own fumbling efforts at mystic self-discipline, I know it to be well worth while, but it's not nearly as bumperstickery as this little quote suggests.

The "present," as least as understood as "this moment," is also desperately hard to grasp.  What is not past?  What is not future?  Try to find that, and you can drive yourself mad.  Time itself makes this saying almost impossibly difficult, as we can chase the infinitesimal present back to the point were it is as hard to grasp as a singularity.

And sure, I'm overthinking it.  But that's what we Presbyterians do.

Reality second: there are many ways we can be in the present that are not peaceful.  The dark shadow of mindfulness is mindlessness, and we succumb to that far more easily.  Mindlessness--in the form of rage or terror--silences both the truth of what has been and the possibility that might be.  Both are creatures of the moment.

The form of being present that transforms is not one that is just about being lost in the "right now."  Right mindfulness--similar to what Lao Tzu taught, and of the sort you learn from my Teacher--purposefully opens the present out, to where it embraces both what has past and what is to come.

Which, of course, sounds dreadfully obscure and esoteric, and not particularly easy.

And it'd make a lousy meme.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Returning to the Void

One of the unanticipated pleasures of my recent trip to the middle of the Pacific Ocean was the complete absence of the internet.

Oh, the scenery was stunning, and the wildlife--particularly under the surface of the water--was an amazing riot of living beings.  The food was amazing and very slightly overabundant.

But what I grew used to, in the seven days at sea, was the complete zeroing out of this medium.  No email, no texts.  There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no bloggery.  The 24 hour news cycle was obliterated.

Day after day where the routine of engagement with broader media was throttled back to nothingness, and the longest period of time I've completely disengaged from social media in years.  Honestly, I didn't miss it.

What did strike me, upon my return, was the degree to which my soul balked at re-engagement with my typical pattern of media engagement.  I did what I usually do.  FaceBook in the morning, and intermittently through the day.  Twitter twice, and then time on Buffer to populate my content.

As I "populated my content," though, I found myself doing so more reflectively.  Here I'd gotten through nearly two weeks of non-content-populating life, and the world trundled on unchanged by my failure to populate it with my carefully crafted content.

As I stared at Facebook, it felt, all of a sudden, slightly intrusive.  "Why do I feel compelled to bother with this every day," I thought.  It felt like an irritant, an alien object, an itch in my eye.

It felt like a television left on in the morning background, on which plastic people in overbright outfits sit around and feign enthusiasm for some trivial thing they care nothing at all about.  They chatter on, endlessly, mercilessly, dead to your presence, like some horridly creative PsyOps exercise at Guantanamo Bay.  I do so love morning television.

Well, not quite like that.  Social media felt different.  Hungrier.

Social media felt like being in the room with a void, an emptiness that pulls and tugs at you.  It felt like a darkly shadowed door in that old abandoned house, inside which something--just out of sight--sparkles as it catches the light.

"Populate me," it glowers, wordlessly.  "I have things you can hate.  I have reasons to be outraged.

I have pictures of kittens.  I have quizzes.  Or...other things you might like."

So, of course, here I am again.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Our Vehicles, Our Selves

As we approached for the second to last meet of the season, the truck sat near the entrance of the swim club.  It was hard to miss.

It was a late-model short-bed crew-cab Ram pickup, and it had been significantly farkled up with accessories.  It was painted in arrest-me red, and rode high on brightly-chromed wheels.  The back window was festooned with stickers, all of which reflected a particular worldview.

To the right, a sticker announcing patronage at a chain of well-known commercial bars.  Center-top was a skull and crossbones.   Next to it, a faux-university sticker, announcing that the occupant was a graduate/alumnus of "FU."  And on the left, an image of a young woman bending over, accompanied by what was meant to be a humorous pro-Chrysler message.

"Dodge the Father, Ram the Daughter," it said.

It struck me as peculiar.

Here, a human being has chosen to encase himself in a vehicle that sends a very clear social signal to those around him.  It consistently messages a cohesive sense of that individual.

"I am a terrible person," he is saying.

What an unpleasant being that must be, I found myself thinking.   And then I wondered, why would I think that?  Is it judgmental to do so?  Am I making assumptions about the nature of this person?

They are saying: "I feel strong when I present images of death.  I enjoy intoxication.  I hate you, and--more subtly--I mock education.  I disrespect both parental love and the integrity of women.

Plus, I've taken a perfectly useful American working truck and spent thousands of dollars to sparkle it up like a Kardashian on the hunt for a new mate."

I found myself wondering further: What does this person think of themselves?  What patterns of thought rest in their mind, that they want to present themselves this way?

Perhaps they see themselves as a rebel, and view all people and all institutions cynically.  Perhaps they are uncritically self-indulgent, and get what they want by being aggressive towards others.  Or maybe they find giving offense to others amusing, and take the resulting offense as a sign that other people are either weak-willed or judgmental.  This may be a mask for woundedness, an insecurity born of pain.  It could reflect a glazed-eye sociopathy.  It could just be aping what passes for "I am a strong individual" in certain demographics.

There's just no way to know.

But it still strikes me as odd that any human being would want to present themselves as a terrible person.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Unaccompanied Children

The crisis du jour, outside of the eternal mess of the Middle East, is the arrival of thousands upon thousands of children on the doorstep of the United States.

With bleak economic conditions and violence in their streets, central American families are giving their children up, sending them off to be abandoned at the border of the United States.

Over fifty thousand children so far this year, which in and of itself is a mind boggling number.  Our response, of course, is the usual.  From some quarters, the usual ones, there have been calls for crackdowns.  More border patrols!  More security!  Take the hard line!  That appears to be the course we're on, but it's a problematic one.

These are, of course, children, which makes the hard line just a tiny bit more difficult.  Sure, poverty and desperation are being manipulated by those who profit from the transporting of the children.  Rumor and mis-communication also haven't helped.  But those things are immaterial to the reality at hand.  If we take a hard line as a nation, turning a cold hard shoulder to children who arrive helpless on our doorstep, then we'll have crossed a line as a nation from "being concerned about our borders" to "being evil."  It's a tricky wicket for those who prefer fulminating absolutism as their response of choice.

What's hardest to grasp, though, is just why a parent would send a child off to a distant land alone.

It isn't an act of calculation.  It's an act of desperation.  If you have children, you know just how hard such an action would be.  How desperate would you need to be to take that action?  To pack your child up, and send them off to the mercy of an unknown shore?

How can we understand that level of desperation?  How can we frame it, particularly those of us who draw from the long story of my faith?

My own denomination has made earnest statements about the issue, both heartfelt and practical, although a little lacking in theology or clear grounding in our faith.  And that ground is there, without question.  One image seems to pop most cleanly for me from the great sacred story of scripture.

A mother living under intolerable oppression casts her child away to an utterly uncertain future, abandoning them to fate, hoping against hope that they will survive.  That child washes up at the feet of the powerful.

The scriptural analogy seems so obvious.  Am I the only one who sees this?

Perhaps it's the scale of it that makes us miss it.

Fifty thousand Jocheveds, and the Nile running thick with baskets?   What a strange and terrible age we must live in.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Dislocated

It's a funny thing, vacation.

We Americans are lousy at it, taking a day or two here and there.  Or we do the "staycation," in which we curl up in an exhausted heap next to the piles of laundry that will provide our entertainment for the week.

For the last eleven days, I've been on vacation.   By away, I mean, really, really away.  Genuinely and truly "vacated."  Not quite "Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters" away, but close.  Along with much of my extended family, I was on a small craft navigating in and around the Galapagos Islands.

For eleven days, I was in places that I'd never seen before.  Every single day was a different place, a different environment, different faces, and different people.  And as tends to happen on long and wandery trips, my mind adapts.  I become used to everything changing, every single day.  I become acclimatized to a great wash of newness, to encountering things that I've never before encountered.

It's probably just some peculiarity of my brain's wiring, as it makes space for new experiences and the unfamiliar.  Whenever I take a long trip like this, home feels...different.

Oh, all the things are the same.  The house is right where we left it.  The things that were left undone in the pre-vacation life still need a-doing.  

But when I've gotten used to things being different, my old patterns broken, and old familiar paths set aside, coming back into the old and familiar routines just doesn't quite feel the same.  Familiar roads seem unfamiliar.  The scent of my home seems different.  The sprawl and stretch of the DC burbs just aren't quite as they were.  I do not perceive them in quite the same way.

I reflected on this as I walked back from dropping off our car at a service station, as the flat tire we conveniently got the night before we left was being fixed.  Here I was, still in this mind state where I didn't feel particularly connected to any place or any location.  Even walking down my familiar street felt like I was encountering it for the first time.

"Dislocated," I thought to myself.  That word hung in my mind.   "I'm dislocated."  Not in the bones-out-of-joint sense.  But in the self-out-of-place sense.

In these few days before I readapt, I have a brief respite from a sense of belonging anywhere.  Or of anywhere in particular belonging to me.  After a few days, it'll go back to being as it was, and I'll move easily through the re-established patterns of the familiar. 

I wondered, too, if perhaps it might help if we felt that way more often.  Less like things were ours, or that places were ours.

So much of the mess we've made of things seems to come from being unable to see that.