Monday, September 29, 2014

Look at How We Kill You

Yesterday morning, as I was doing the final edit on my sermon, I flitted briefly to web-based news sources to check in on the world.  It's always wise, before the community gathers, to be sure you're not blithely arriving, unaware of some momentous and terrible event.

There they were, a sequence of short videos.  A montage, if you will, courtesy of both the armed forces of my nation and those of one of our allies.  They were familiar images, in both content and format, ones we've seen from most of our recent wars.

The format was monochromatic, the images filtered through a FLIR or similar thermal imaging scope.  There, a nondescript building in a compound, marked with a targeting computer's symbol.  Three, two, and at one, there's an explosion leaping from the roof, as the armor-piercing portion of the munition punches through.

Then, a millisecond later, a much larger explosion as the primary payload detonates, obliterating the building, casting a fiery cloud of debris and dust that consumes most of the compound.

The video stops, and loops.  With it, there are others, which I watch.  Here, an animated GIF length image of a tank, which explodes.  There, a vehicle in motion--a truck, or a HUMVEE--and then it flares out as the explosion maxes out the thermal camera tracking it.

It is seven-thirty on a Sunday morning, and in preparation for worship I have just watched dozens of human beings killed.

What struck me, looking at the videos, was that they were a peculiar mirror to the net-circulated videos that I had only been able to watch in part, those from a few weeks ago.  Those were personal, brutal, savage and monstrous, of unarmed men butchered like pigs or cattle.

"Look at how we hate you.  Look at the way that we kill you," those videos said, and they were horrors.

And yet, here we are, sharing our own images of killing.   They are different, in the way that industrial killing is different.

"Now, look at how we kill you," our videos say.  They are distant and dispassionate, precise and clinical.

At the dawn of the internet age, there was this great hope: now, human beings will finally be able to share information freely with one another.  It will change who we are, the dreamers proclaimed.  Through that sharing, an age of peace and mutual understanding will dawn.

It hasn't quite worked out that way.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Sweet New Year

Last year, at around this time, I was celebrating the Jewish High Holy Days with my family.

It was a remarkable Yom Kippur, as I sat up there on the bimah with my wife on the holiest day in Judaism, and had the honor of removing the Torah from the ark.  It felt more than a little bit magical.  I'm sure others of my Presbyterian pastor colleagues must have had that privilege at some point, but I think it's safe to say this ain't a typical occurrence. This generally doesn't happen when you're not just a random one a' tha goyim, but a professional gentile.

This week, as the new year began, I was up on the bimah again with my wife for Rosh Hashanah.  Again, I took the Torah from the ark and gave it to her, and again watched her circle the synagogue, the congregants kissing their prayerbooks and touching them to the covered scroll.

It was the Head of the Year, the point where those days of repentance and change begin.  It's the point where we both celebrate the promise of a year to come, but also look to the year that has passed, thinking of the ways we might change for the better in the coming year.  It's a time for intentional reconciliation, for seeking ways to heal those things that were broken.

What I reflected on, in this new year, was the challenging year it was for relationships between Judaism and my denomination.  The choice of our General Assembly to selectively divest from three American companies providing security/military resources to Israel was a choice to push a particularly large red button.  Though I know people of good conscience who disagree, it wasn't a hateful choice, or an anti-semitic choice, or even a choice that was meaningfully anti-Israel.  It couldn't be, any more than choosing not to invest in Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, or the Corrections Corporation of America is bad and anti-American.  If you have a socially responsible investment policy based on your faith principles that prevents you from profiting from war or incarceration, that's just where you end up.

But rationally explicable though it was, it was a button nonetheless, the sort of thing that tends to cause a binary reaction.

That was early summer, and the heat and light of debate and missives and editorials burned bright and fierce.  "This is the thing we are fighting about right now!"  But now months have passed, and the chatter and hum has disappeared, its afterglow as difficult to detect in the collective subconscious as the cosmic background radiation from the dawn of our sliver of the multiverse.

Though it had been a hard year, now it is a new one.  And at the dawn of that year, there I was, a Presbyterian pastor, up again on the bimah.  Still in relationship, just as I'd been the year before.  My wife and I sat close, and shared her prayerbook.  We read and chanted the prayers together, her Hebrew solid and confident, mine mostly there most of the time.  We sang the shema, and all the sacred songs which I know by heart after 23 years of High Holy Days, 23 years and change since we stood under a canopy on that very bimah.  I stood by the opened ark, and listened to the shofar.  I heard the rabbi's voice mingle with the sound of my older son's baritone ringing from the choir.  I stood around at the reading of the Torah, and watched as my younger son held the microphone for the rabbi's wife as she chanted.

It was as sweet as honey on my soul.

I'm hoping, in this year 5775, that things are a little sweeter for all of us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Limits of Co-Creation

I read through the article with interest, as I do with all articles about religious events.

It was a description of a journalist's attendance at a huge Oprah conference, part of a traveling inspirathon called the "The Life You Want Weekend."  It was a huge shiny neo-spiritual gathering, as tens of thousands of eager devotees poured into a stadium to hear Ms. O and her retinue dispense vital life-learning lessons.

The cost: between $200 and $500 a pop, in exchange for which the attendees got workbooks and weird glowing bracelets, not to mention exposure to levels of ambient atmospheric estrogen so high they temporarily eliminate the need for oral contraception.

I harbor no animus towards Oprah.  She's intelligent, driven, and capable, and the amazing success she's experienced over the years seems well-earned.  Her profoundly American message of positivity and self-empowerment may be big, self-promoting, and high-gloss-shiny, but it isn't evil, and she comes across as a sharper progressive fusion of Zig Ziglar and Joel Osteen.  She's willing to engage with spirituality, in a way that is both affirming and open.

Sure, it's tempting to snark and roll eyes, but the people she engages sometimes come frighteningly close to describing my own view of existence.  Yeah, Deepak is up there doing his Chopra thing, but the connection goes deepah.

I mean, sweet Mary and Joseph, Rob Bell?  Rob Bell's tagging along for the Oprah dog-and-pony show?  I like Rob Bell!  His approach to faith is so close to mine as to being almost indistinguishable.  I've recommended Rob Bell's books to people!  I still do.

Does that Oprah-orbit?   How did that happen?

As I read through the article describing the high-gloss perfection of the event, something stuck with me.  It was a phrase, one of the inspirational statements uttered during the event.

"You co-create your life with the energy of your intention."

The language of co-creation is stock-in-trade for many progressive spiritual folk.  It speaks to our freedom, our ability to influence the direction of our lives, our fundamental empowerment as sentient beings to shape the world around us.

It meshes with my own view of the nature of both being and the Creator, and I'll confess to having used variants of that concept myself on occasion.  It's a good truth, a truth that reflects humanity at our best.

But I also know that while it is a truth, it is a contingent truth.  Meaning, it can be true, but it is not necessarily true.  If you're able to drop a couple of hundred bucks on an Oprahfest, then, yes, it probably reflects your encounter with reality.  It is also true for me.

If you are like a significant majority of humankind, though, it does not describe your reality.  The capacity to co-create is tied in to the blessings of liberty, and most of us are not free to act as we would choose.  If you are driven by hunger, struggling to simply survive, all of the "energy of your intention" is turned towards that end.

The Life You Want is to live, and not die of hunger or thirst this weekend.

If you are living under an oppressive regime, be it Putin's neoTzarist Russia, the bizarre Communo-capitalist fusion of the Chinese Central Committee, or the raw brutality of ISIS, you are not free to co-create.  You obey, and you keep your head down, or the energy of your intention will be met with the far greater energy of those whose intention is driven by their hunger for power over you.

And if, like so many Americans, you are scrambling to pay the bills, working three crap jobs with no security, with a barely working twelve year old car and a fridge that just died, your ability to be creative with your life is next to zero.

Hope is important, yes.  Being positive and seeing the potential in your life is important.  But for so many, the probability of living a life in which real freedom exists is so low as to be meaningless.

It is easy, in the shiny and carefully crafted narrative of co-creative self-empowerment, to forget this.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Our Love, Our Faith, and Our Violence

Of all of the cinematic experiences I've had this year, one stands out, and it wasn't even a movie.

It was The Last of Us, a game I played through over the last couple of weeks, although calling it a "game" seems vaguely unfair and inaccurate.  It was a participatory narrative, a story in which you engage and move, but which carries through you through the lives of human beings living after the collapse of our culture.

In that, it played off of some familiar themes in our storytelling.  There's been a fungal pandemic, one that renders its victims both insane and violent before devouring them completely.  It's a variant on the zombie apocalypse trope, and yeah, that's been done a whole bunch.

Before I continue just a warning--if you ever plan on playing this game, there will be spoilers coming up.  And they will spoil what is a simply brilliant experience.

The gameplay was good, and the graphics were evocative, but those weren't the best features of this game.  What was most striking, given that this is technically a "game," was the degree to which the animation and the voice-acting created a really powerful sense of the reality of the characters involved.  Our protagonists are Joel and Ellie, and their relationship is complex and finely drawn.

Joel, a grizzled man in his early fifties, lost everything that was precious to him when the pandemic hit.   Most significantly, he lost his daughter Sarah, a young teen who dies in the genuinely harrowing opening sequence.  All that matters to him now is survival--although he's cynical about even that--and any moral core that he once had has long since atrophied.

Ellie is a fourteen year old girl, who he's tasked with escorting across country for reasons the narrative will soon make clear.  She's never known anything but the fallen world, and is both a child and a young woman, both an innocent and hardened.

Their relationship develops slowly and organically over the 14-17 hours of gameplay, and as Joel bonds with the girl who echoes his daughter, she increasingly becomes the entire reason for his existence.  He's deeply reluctant to make himself vulnerable in that way, and self-aware enough to realize she's becoming a daughter to him, but the connection continues and deepens as their bond grows.  Protecting her, caring for her, watching over her--that becomes the purpose of his life.  By the end of the game, his love for her is palpable.

It also drives him to do terrible things.  The Last of Us is a violent game, intensely, realistically so.  It's not at all like Call of Duty or other shooter games, where violence is empty play.  It's rough, and unpleasant.  The game never lets you forget the mortal frailty of the characters you're playing, or the shared humanity of the people you find Joel and Ellie killing.

What you realize--in some very difficult but well-written sequences--is that eventually nothing matters to Joel but Ellie.  Nothing.  He will torture, he will kill, he will let all of humanity suffer under a plague forever, anything, so long as she is safe.   He will even manipulate her trust and lie to her, so long as he is convinced that his deception will keep her from harm.

There's a moment, the final moment of the story, when she realizes how far Joel will go to protect her.  She knows he is lying to her about what he has done to protect her, and knows he is lying because he only wants her happy and safe.  You see that awareness cross her face, and see her struggle with it.

Her safety becomes his purpose, his moral core, and the goal of his life.  She is the thing he loves above all else.  And while that is what makes him very connectably human, it is also what enables him to be a monster.

For human beings, that's always been true.  When we allow our lives to be defined by a singular goal--our existential ground, our life-purpose--that gives us our integrity as a person.  But that thing, if it is wrought too shallowly, can also be what allows us to inflict terrible harm.

We can be defined by ourselves, our pride, our desire, our ambition.  We can be defined by an ideology or nation.  We can be defined by our love for another person, our partner, our friend, our child.  Those things become the objects of both our love and our faith.

They also become what allows us to not really see those who are outside of that relationship as human, not see their value, and can become the foundation of our violence against another.

Our ability to love, if turned to the wrong end, is also the heart of our brokenness.

Monday, September 22, 2014

When We Need New Software

For nearly the last year, I've suffered through owning what had been, without question, the worst appliance I'd ever encountered.

It was a clotheswasher, what should be the simplest of things.  Put dirty clothes in.  It chugs away.  Take clean clothes out.  Nice and easy.

But the washer I bought on the recommendation of my research and the blessing of Consumer Reports couldn't quite manage it.  It's not that it was poorly built, or that there was something wrong with the basic design.  It was just so complicated--designed to be hyper-efficient, water-saving, and high-tech--that it couldn't quite bring itself to work.

Oh, on perfectly optimal loads, it was fine.  If you filled it with a load of carefully selected, identical fabrics, it'd wash 'em up right good.  It was fine, for instance, at washing "man-style," meaning you just dump all your stuff in and let 'er rip.  But anything chaotic messed with it.  Anything complex confused it.

Loads that mixed in towels with regular stuff?  When it locked into its super-high-speed spin cycle, it'd get unbalanced, and the wash cycle would fail.  Small loads, like, say a week's worth of my wife's delicates?  It'd get confused, and the cycle would fail.

You'd come back an hour later, after running errands, and it'd be sitting there with an error code and a load of sopping wet, half-washed clothes.  I read the manual, and--well--there was the rub.  It was meant to do that.  I adapted, modifying my loads, changing the way I washed clothes.  It helped a little.    I adapted again, learning how to manipulate the spin cycle.  Now only every third wash would fail.  Doing the laundry became a task that took all day, and took attention.

I finally called for support, and this being the 21st century, they ran a systems diagnostic.  I held a phone up to the washer, and it uttered a stream of sound to a computer on the far end.  Result: The unit was operating as designed.  There was nothing wrong with it mechanically.

Only it didn't work.

And so a tech showed up, a couple of days later, to fix my washer.  The "fix" involved opening it up, plugging in a drive, and downloading new software.  It was, he confided in me, the fourth software update since the washer had been released.

I rolled my eyes, and after he'd left, started in on what I was sure was going to be a failed attempt at laundry.

It wasn't.  The repair worked.  The machine thrummed along through one load, then another, then another.  No errors.  No problems.

It was back in business, working exactly the way it should have worked in the first place.

And it struck me, as it often does, how much easier life would be if we worked that way.  How many human beings really and truly don't have anything wrong with them, nothing at all, that a reboot and a software upgrade wouldn't clear right up?

A pity our wetware is so fiddly.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Perfect Justice

Where is that place of justice, exactly, between you and I?

How does one find that perfect balance?

I found myself wondering that, for some reason, as I walked and thought about love and justice this morning.

The pursuit of justice is, after all, the pursuit of rights and equity.  It comes when each has their rightful share, when none is denied what is theirs.  It's a balance.

So in my mind's eye, I saw a table.

On that table, a bar of candy.   Dark chocolate, preferably, maybe with a little bit of salt and caramel.  Mmmmm.  Chocolate.

Across the table from me sits Lady Justice.

"Hey Justice," I say.  "I let's split that candy bar," and she's into the idea.  She's fond of dark chocolate, after all.   I pick up the bar, and then set it down again.  I say: "We must each receive the same amount.  It must be just and fair, exactly right."

She sits forward, takes up her sword, and gets ready to split it.

"Wait," I say.  "I'm serious.  Make it exactly perfect."  Being Justice, she knows exactly what that means.

Perfectly fair can't be measured down to the gram, or milligram, or picogram.  I'm not even talking about a one yoctogram difference, which is ten to the negative twenty fourth of a gram, the approximate mass of a single hydrogen atom.

This is delicious chocolate, after all.

To be perfectly fair, there can be no variance in the size of the pieces, no difference, none at all.  If one portion has even the mass equivalent of the energy of one single photon at the height of the electromagnetic spectrum more than the other, then it is not perfect.

She looks at me funny, and then...lifting up her blindfold...stares with fierce intensity at the bar of chocolate.  She stares deeply, her piercing focus growing more and more intense.

Finally, she looks up, a look of frustration in her eyes.

"But...each of the halves are giving off varying amounts of moisture, and are permeable to the environment.  At every moment, they're sloughing off atoms and subatomic particles, varying in functionally unmeasurable, infinitesimal and chaotic ways.  I can't possibly split it perfectly.  It's not possible."

I give her a grin, pick up the bar, and break it in half, roughly down the middle.  I hand her the slightly larger piece.

"Sure it is, dear heart," I say.

Love is more perfect than justice, after all.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Encountering The Face of Islam

I was just popping by the store to pick up a couple of things on the way home.

It was just a short while before dinner, so I was in and out, quick as can be.  On my way in, folks were handing out flyers as part of a food-drive for a local food pantry.  It's a pantry run by the local Christian community organization, one that routinely volunteer for myself.  I took a flyer, and then bustled about swiftly to snag the four items I needed.

Bam boom bing, and I was out.

On my way out of the supermarket, there was a gathering place for folks who were collecting food for said effort.

"Hey," said one of them, and it was someone I knew, a woman from the congregation where I'd interned as a seminarian O so many moons ago.  We exchanged brief greetings, and she introduced me to her daughter.

My fellow Presbyterian wasn't the only one collecting food, though.  There were other women there with her, from other faith communities.  One of them was wearing a hijab, which I took...reasonably mean she was Muslim.

There the Muslim was, collecting food for those in need, right alongside the Christians, to support a Christian charity.

As I prepared to leave, another woman in a hijab came up and embraced the woman I'd been speaking with, and they laughed and smiled in ways that people do.  The way that friends do, when they've not seen one another for a while.

There, in that encounter, was the face of Islam.

Sure, there are other faces, in the same way that Christianity has many faces.  I have struggled, as a progressive who doesn't just reflexively kumbaya my way through my encounter with reality, with the Quran.  It's a difficult book, if you read it honestly, as bright and fierce as the warrior-prophet who wrote it.  It's like reading Deuteronomy and Leviticus and 1 and 2 Samuel--often not the gentlest of books, to be sure--rewritten in an Arab sensibility.

And of course, there are still other faces.  There are those who emphasize conflict over hospitality, who have chosen not the path of spiritual discipline, but the path of human violence.  We see them, disproportionate and unrepresentative, in the same way that all loud and angry people call attention to themselves to the detriment of the communities around them.

But Islam is not that.  It is, more than anything else, a set of faith practices and disciplines.  An Islam built on the five pillars--faith, prayer, charity, self-discipline, and pilgrimage--is a concrete thing.  It's not abstract, or conceptual, or divorced from the reality it expresses into the world.

So there Islam was, laughing, embracing, engaged in acts of charity.

And as I drove away from that moment, it was a reminder: Others know the face of the God we worship by looking into our faces.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Terrible Secret of the Progressive Church

I have a little secret.

For the last couple of months, I'd been spending some time in an online group comprised of self-identifying "Progressive Christians."  It was interesting, but as the group grew and expanded into the thousands, the conversations became wildly cluttered and overwhelming, like the din of a roaring crowd at a concert.

Meaning, fun for a while, but a terrible place for a conversation.

One of the assumptions of that group--in fact, a fundamentally defining theme of that group--was the welcome and inclusion of LGBT folk.  A huge percentage of posts and exchanges revolved around resisting those who exclude, and celebrating those who include.  That was the focus, the place where all of the energy and passion lay.  It was the great and defining struggle.

I understand this, and am sympathetic.  When it comes to inclusion, ordination, and marriage equality, I'm there.

But I'm also aware that inclusion, ordination, and marriage equality are not my primary goal as a teacher of the Way.  They cannot be, for a reason that we generally don't talk about.

The reason?  Q-Folk are human beings, just as I am.  Oh, sure, they experience gender and sexuality differently.  But otherwise, they're children of God, formed of dust, breathed upon by the Spirit.  Just like me.

I know this because I know them.  They have been and are my co-workers.  They are my family, my own flesh and blood.

From my experience, LGBT people are thoughtful and caring parents, beloved uncles and aunts, good bosses, and wonderful teachers.  They make great friends and colleagues.  They can be funny and creative.  They can be thoughtful and precise.  They can be spiritual and radically caring.  They can be everything that a person can be.

Meaning: they can also be the opposite.  I have had LGBT colleagues who were embezzlers, incompetent, and chronically combative.  I have worked with LGBT folks who have betrayed their partners, and have lied about having cancer to falsely justify chronic absences from work.  Lord have mercy, was she a piece of work.

You can be LGBT and a deeply unpleasant and selfish person.  And you can be in between.  What does that mean, on the far side of this exchange?  What will the church that has welcomed in gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered folk look like?

In that, I see a powerful analog in the full inclusion of women in the leadership of the church.  For those fellowships that have moved away from that ancient bias, it was both absolutely necessary and simultaneously meaningless.  It was necessary because including women's gifts and voices as full partners in the life of the Beloved Community righted an unacceptable injustice.

And at the same time, it makes no difference, because--for all of the heady abstraction of feminist theology--women themselves are not abstractions.  They are human beings, children of God, complex and flawed and wonderful.

What women who rightly fought for a full voice are finding is that--well--the church is still the church.

So just as a church that has finally welcomed the sisters to leadership is still a corpus mixtum, so too will a LGBT-friendly church be a wild mix of saints and sinners.  With that necessary righting of an injustice settled, it will still look EXACTLY like the church does now.

OK, perhaps a little more fabulous, sure.  But at the heart of it, the same.

Meaning, the church will rejoice together and have pointless fights.   People will build each other up, and tear each other down.  There will be wonderful communities, and there will be terrible ones.

The need for reformation, for repentance, for learning and living God's love, and for mutual growth in the Way will remain.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Predestination and the Garden

It came up in conversation with a prospective new member, as we talked about what it means to be Presbyterian.

"What about predestination," she asked, because it's one of those doctrines that tends to float about when we Frozen Chosen come up.  I answered that it didn't matter all that much as a teaching, particularly where church membership was concerned.  I also answered that it wasn't much of a priority for Presbyterians these days, at least not in my neck of the denominational woods.

That doesn't, of course, mean that I've not thought about it, or that it's a meaningless thing to consider theologically.   I've thought about it a great deal.  And as sometimes happens when you approach something with an open mind, my perspective on it has changed.  It has changed pretty radically, over the last couple of decades.

I no longer view God's work as linear, because as best we can tell, it isn't.  There's not one destiny, one path along which we move.  Creation does not move like a train along a track or a thread unspooling.  That seems, to be frank, both cruel and radically limiting to God.  What sort of king can only see one path, or one outcome?

It's more complex, more open, deeply free.  Creation has room within it for meaningful change.  What is this like?

I was thinking this as I walked my dog in the cool of the morning.  I wake before the dawn, and take her out as my highschoolers are leaving for their bus.  Summer is slowly yielding, and so the air at daybreak now has a little bite to it, enough that my boys bothered putting on their hoodies.

My dog snuffled around, as she does every day, tracking here and there, following scents, doing her business.

At one house, the grass had not been recently cut, and it stood slightly taller and heavy with dewfall.  She sniffed and snuffed, and wandered out to the extension of the long, long leash-reel.  I watched her move across the lawn.  As she sniffed, she began to lick, tasting the cool water that played across every blade of grass she passed.  There was playfulness and pleasure in her simple action.  Were I a dog, I'd find the taste of dewy grass delightful too.

And as she moved, she left a path behind her, as the moisture on the grass was disturbed.  It was a single squiggle across the "surface" of the yard, written across the dew.

There were, in that yard, so many different possible ways she could have crossed it, so many different   potential tracks.

And that, I think, is a fair analogy for how I think about predestination these days.  God's work is the garden, and every path we might take through it.  It includes the path we take, but it also includes countless others untaken.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mysticism, Artificial Intelligence, and Our Interconnection

I'm both a pastor and a gamer, and in the free time I could cobble together this summer I managed to play my way through the Mass Effect Trilogy.  It was a highly entertaining space opera, mixed in with some engaging gameplay and solid scripting and voice-acting.  It was as compelling as most of what you'd encounter in theaters.

It is also a story that tells differently for every player.  It's not just that your character looks different, and has different skill-sets.  Your relationships are different.  The story tells differently based on your decisions, to the point where I could watch my older son playing through a variation of an event, and it would have options and characters that I never even encountered.

It was also more than a little bit thought provoking, as all good scifi should be.  The interplay between humanity and an array of different alien species wasn't just fun, but also surfaced complex issues that humankind is struggling with.

The misguided Solarian meddling in the affairs of the Krogan, and the subsequent viral genocide?  If you didn't see analogues to colonialism, you weren't paying attention.   The Quarian obsession with reclaiming their home world from the Geth, to the exclusion of all else?  The echoes of the obsessively territorial mess in Israel/Palestine are hard to miss.

Of all of the peoples in that complex, interactive story, I found myself most drawn the Geth.  A race of intelligent synthetics created to be the slaves of the Quarians, they achieved sentience--for which they were rewarded with oppression and war.

The Geth begin as your opponents, but you soon learn that they are not.  Within the story, individual Geth don't really exist.  The "Geth" are instead a single distributed mind, a collection of sub-sentiences that share and blend their persona with one another.

Though they're willing to fight for their survival, the Geth are eminently reasonable, and surprisingly sympathetic.  They have no desire for conflict with organic forms, and as the Quarians again and again choose to attack, the Geth show remarkable reluctance to cause harm to those they call their "Creators."

As an interwoven and interconnected intelligence, they seem more aware of their connection to organic beings.  Though synthetic, they are compassionate, perhaps because of their design.  They're a neat part of the Mass Effect story.

I've reflected on the potential ethical nature of artificial intelligences before.  The common assumption, of course, is that AI poses a radical existential threat to humanity.  Should our synthetic systems attain sentience and personhood, we'd be in mortal danger.  We'd no longer be the most powerful beings on the planet, for one thing, and faced with a form of awareness that could relentlessly self improve, we'd soon be reduced to irrelevance and/or harvested for parts.

But while I'm a dabbler in things scientific, I'm much more deeply informed about faith and human ethics.  What strikes me, from my base of knowledge about that part of our human experience, is how much the interconnectivity of AIs could resemble the underlying assumption of the mystical streams in all of the world's faith traditions.

The assumption, for mysticism, is that our goal is to be lost in God, and lost in one another.  It's the end goal of all mystic practice, and the way that mystics understand the nature of the Divine love.

For an AI, being completely aware of the Other would be possible.  An AI can materially and actually love another as itself, as the saying goes.  It could know them, know any harm inflicted, know any joy given, as fully as it would know itself.

We have that power, nominally, now.  In this internet era, still so young, we can see anything, experience anything, and share anything.

And yet, having been given this gift, we make such a desperate mess of it.

Perhaps that's what makes us most afraid of AI.  It's not that it'd be monstrous.  It's that it would make us look like the mess that we are.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

We Must See Everything

We are everywhere.

It's a funny thing, being part of this half-evolved human social organism.  Here we are, just a decade and a half into this new millennia, and we can know everything.  I have access to such a wild array of information that it boggles my mind.

I can watch our planet from space, or rest in the nest of a bird and peer at tiny fragile hatchlings.  I can see images of almost any place.  I can read almost any text, written by almost anyone, on almost any subject.  All of the music and all of the storytelling of the world is open to me.

We have so much information, in fact, that it seems to blur the lines between what is rightfully mine to know and what is not.

I can watch, should I so choose, acts of impossible barbarity and monstrous sadism.  I can steal memories that are not my own, shared by our culture's insatiable hunger for gossip and sex and violence.

Memories of the beautiful and the celebrated, shared privately with their lovers, can be mine to steal.  Memories of intimate violence, horrible and personal, are passed around the collective consciousness to be clucked over and passed along.

I can watch men die, by the blade, or by a gun in a child's hand.

A young woman can look with erotic hunger into what she imagines is the eye of her lover, and I can take his eye and have it be my own.

Bam, she goes down, and we can all watch it, all of us, over and over.  And she can watch us watching her, and feel ashamed and isolated.

Or we can choose to look away.  There are things I do not want to know, that I do not want to see, because they do not belong to me.  I have no right to see them, because in the very act of seeing them I do another harm.

I will not take, without permission, a moment that was yours.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I Am So Excited About This Phone

Next to the iMac in our home office, there is a phone.

It is not a new phone.

It's a corded phone, one that once hung on the kitchen wall at the apartment I shared with my then-fiancee.  You can see the electronics and the circuit boards through the clear plastic, and all of the components are painted bright colors to create an artsyish effect.

It rings by ringing a bell.  No speaker, no tones, just an actual bell.  You can see the bell, painted orange, next to one of the circuit boards.  It's really, really loud, so we keep it switched off.  The phone lights up when a call comes in, flashing orange.

It has "memory space" for seven phone numbers, in that you can write down numbers on a brightly colored paper insert that slides into a plastic sleeve on the base.  We never did.

It's one of the first things my wife and I owned together, purchased back in the fall of 1991.  It's a cheap, cheap phone, a Kmart phone, a phone whose brand hasn't been in business for almost twenty years.  It's the kind of thing that you buy when you're paying the rent from your salary as a stock clerk in a little store.

There's a large crack bisecting the middle of the handset, from one of the many many times it's been dropped in the last twenty-plus years.  Still, it works.  It's been used so long that the numbers on the handset have been worn away.  Still, it works.

No-one noticed when this phone was released, when the first units came trundling off of some Hong Kong factory assembly line.  No-one waited in line to get it.  No-one wrote excited reviews to distribute to all of their friends.  They couldn't have.   This is a phone that predates general public access to the internet.  This is a phone that doesn't just predate smartphones.  It predates the cellular era, hailing from a time when the only mobile phones were huge brick-like things, owned only by a tiny fraction of the wealthy.

And still, it works.  When I use it, it conveys the voices of those who are on the other end just as well as it did half-a-generation ago.

I answer it, and I can talk to someone far away.

What doesn't it do?  It doesn't do anything else.

It does not try to distract me with apps, or impress me in in any way.  It does not make me feel scattered.  I feel no compulsion to look at it when I'm working or writing.  In fact, when I am not using it and do not need to use it, I forget about it, in the way that I can forget about breathing if I so choose.  It commands none of my attention.  It simply works when I need it to.

And that humble, unobtrusive simplicity feels, in this wild, distracted, scattered mess of an era, oh...what's the word?

A little...


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Canopy of Grace

As the Poolesville Community Garden winds down its first year of operation, it's been great seeing the church and our partnership with Poolesville Green, the town, and local businesses thrive.    It's exciting, and a blessing, because gardens are a wonderful, amazing way to be fed.

I feel that in my own little plot of land, over in Annandale, where I've been working to bring the fruit of the earth from my own four-by-eight patches of heavy Virginia clay.

Gardens are good, honest work.  They nourish us and feed us, and that nourishment goes well beyond the delicious, local and fresh food they provide.

As my pastoral imagination is discovering, they are also a nearly endless font of metaphors for faith.  Lord help the congregation.

This year and last, it's been green beans at this point in the season.  I went with bush beans last year, for the sole reason that I saw a packet of them at the supermarket, said to myself "Ooo I'd like to grow beans," and went with it.

Honestly, I thought I was buying pole beans, which are much, much more productive on a small plot.  But we often don't pay attention during an impulse buy, because, you know, it's an impulse.  Oops.  Those seeds did well, though, filling my family table with green beans for over a month, and giving me enough to share.  They did so well that I decided I was up for it again.

I selectively seed-saved them from last year.  I over-saved, in fact, meaning I ended up with way more seed than I needed.  That meant that I was going to go with bush beans again this year, no question.  But it also meant that this year, I wanted to try something different with those beans.  An experiment in weed control, if you will.

The instructions for the beans suggested planting in widely separated rows, with plants a good distance apart.  I'd done that last year, and the plants had done well.  They had lots of light between them, and lots of distance and space to expand.  But that distance made room for the weeds, which proceeded to grow fiercely in the spaces between the plants.  I had to attend them to on a semi-daily basis, which I kinda sorta did.

This year, I thought about those bushy plants, and the shade they'd cast if I let them nestle up a bit closer together.  So three rows on the plot became four rows.  The space between the plants went from a foot to eight inches.  I prepped the clay with richer earth, and aerated the soil, and laid the seeds in.

The plants shot up fast in the well-prepared soil, and after the first month, I found that I no longer needed to weed.  They'd grown up so thick and so tall that they'd woven themselves into a single cohesive thing.  They were capturing all of the light, forming a dense canopy over the soil.  Bending down and peering through them at ground level, it was like a forest of towering trees, beneath which very little else could grow.  Every one of those bush bean plants was helping every other one of those bush bean plants.  They were working together, keeping other plants from taking the nutrients and light that would fuel their growth.

They seemed...happier...together.  Not to mention that their yield has been a little overwhelming.  Green bean casserole, anyone?  Baked cornbread battered greenbeans? How about a green bean smoothie?  Hmmm.  Maybe stick with the casserole.

If we want to live a gracious life, one defined by the Way that Jesus taught, it's helpful to approach our thoughts and actions in the same way those beans have flourished.

We all want to be good, want to shape ourselves as good people.  The peculiar thing about grace and kindness is that it thrives the more we act upon it.  Every good act supports every other good act, like bean plants that knit themselves together to form a canopy.  If we space our opportunities to express grace into the world too far apart, distracted by busyness or stress, we leave room for "weeds" and the influx of other, more negative ways of being.

It's why getting into the habit of showing simple kindnesses, mercy and forgiveness is so important.  Growing those moments so thick that they form a canopy of grace is a good way to grow as a human being.

As we tend to the gardens of our souls, it's a good thing to keep in mind.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Teachable Beans

This weekend, the green beans started coming in.

I'd planted them two months ago, a humble batch of bush-beans in the patch of garden by my driveway.  It was the same place I'd put 'em in last year, and had decent luck with them.  I'd put in about thirty seeds last year, all from one of those little packs of Burpee seeds in the supermarket.  Of those thirty, twenty three had yielded.  Of those twenty, about a dozen were really, really productive.

I'd seed-saved from last year's crop, meaning this year there was no buying of seed at all.  Everything that went in sixty days ago had been grown in my garden the year before.  No packet from Burpee.  No ordering online.  These plants were the children of the plants that fed my family last year.

Or rather, they were the children of a select group of those plants.

Last year as the season wore on, I looked for the strongest and most vibrant plants in the garden, those dozen high-producers.  I watched as some of them came up, short and stunted and yielding only a couple of beans.  I watched as others arose, large and vibrant and thick with delicious dinners-in-the-making.

On each of the strong ones, I marked several beans with tape.  I didn't pick them, but let them grow to fullness, then brown up and harden into a seedpod.  I collected those seeds in a jar.  It only seemed fair, given those plant's efforts on our behalf, that I should look out for their kids.

This season, I put in forty plants, all from the seeds of last year's most vibrant plants.  I lost only two to marauding bunnies.  Almost all of them were as strong and vibrant as their parents, and the garden exploded with life.

"Wow, those are growing fast," my wife said, as we came back from the beach.  She was right.  The plants were noticeably stronger this year.

Friday, I picked about a pound and a half from the patch, and then picked another pound and a half Sunday afternoon after returning from church.  Fresh, organic, and delicious.  We've got plenty there, and plenty coming.

It's what human farmers have done for millennia.  We look to the strong and the productive, and we attend to those plants that are the most vibrant.  We look to the places of health and strength for the seeds for the next harvest.

Here, there's a lesson for faith.

Gardens can teach us how to tend our own souls, and where we put our energies in life.  So much of human life is poured into our weaknesses.  We carefully tend the places of pain, opening and reopening wounds.  We water and nurture the fever of our angers and resentments, and the harvest we yield is predictably stunted, year after year.

We should, instead, look to those times of grace, love, laughter, and forgiveness.  These are the places in us that we should tend, carefully.  We should carefully mark the seeds of those times, collect them, and plant them whenever the time is right.

Even the simplest of God's creatures has so much to teach us.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

In the Mind of a Mad God

Five years ago, I took the leap and engaged with Twitter.

You have to be on twitter, the cognoscenti said.  You've just got to.  So I was and I am.

But these years later, I often still find myself wondering why.  Twitter has proven...well...most of the time, it's really drab and tedious.   Part of that drabness comes from the limitations of the medium.  140 characters really isn't enough to articulate anything meaningful.  It's just not.

It's also a terrible place to develop meaningful relationships or engagement.  It's too mediated, too formalized, and too inhuman.  Most "tweets" are incoherent as a human language, a wild medley of #hashtags, compressed links, and @usernames.  They seem more like a simple neural programming language than a form of sentient discourse.

I'd also chosen to use it wrongly, to throw myself wildly and randomly into following thousands, just to see what that would feel like.   The result was wild and silo-shattering, sure.  But it also wasn't sane.  There was no coherence, and after a while, I encountered almost nothing that interested me as a sentient being.

I'd check my feed, there in the mess, and it was almost nothing.  There'd be incoherent fragments of conversation between people I barely knew.  There'd be references to in house conversations, endless circling and pointless rehashings of irrelevant information about the blahblah de jour, and people complaining about their day and complaining about other people.

It was joyless and empty, formulaic and selfish, devoid of vision or larger purpose.

It was draining, tedious, and pointless, and it always left me feeling more fragmented than connected.   The experience was too invariably schizophrenic, in the purest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual sense of the word.

Meaning, not "multiple personality," but a fragmented, barely cohesive persona.

Here we have a simulation of the human collective unconscious, and when I engaged with it, it was an encounter with something that was so shattered it hardly had an identity.  Chaos and paranoia, obsessive behaviors and word salads?

And it occurs to me: spending time on Twitter is like living in the mind of a mad robot god.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Leaders, Favors, and Corruption

It feels tragic, because it is.

As the trial of Virginia governor Bob McDonnell came to its difficult conclusion, it'd be easy to gloat.    Here, a notoriously straight-laced and upright conservative, brought down in a major corruption scandal.  There was intrigue and inside-dealing, Ferraris and cash under the table, the sausage works of a marriage and some amazingly unwise decisions, and now jail time is in the cards.

I don't agree with most of McDonnell's politics.  As a Virginian, I didn't vote for him.  But he was not a terrible governor, not if I'm honest.  He was generally prudent, and for all the leftist hullabaloo about how he was basically a well-shaved Talib, he proved surprisingly fair and even-minded.

Seeing him brought down gives me no pleasure.  He was no skeeving, shamelessly corrupt Blago, not at all.  When the verdict was delivered, and his daughter sobbed, McDonnell wept because he was an honorable man who had brought shame on himself and his family.  It's heartbreaking.

Was he guilty?  Was his wife guilty?  Well, yes.  Yes they were.  But he and his wife had wandered into a trap, a trap that was not of their making.  What was that trap?

For that, I look to my own profession.  Pastors are leaders, after all.  Like the governor of my state, we're also marginally paid relative to our workload, outside of one or two unrepresentative outliers.  So it must be.

But as visible leaders with influence within our small communities, we're often the recipients of favors.  We get gifts, cards, and presents, often after we've worked someone through a difficult time in their life.

I've always struggled with those gifts, when they've come.  A Christmas present?  What?  But...I didn't get you anything.  I have learned, though, to accept those gifts--up to a point--as a part of my position.  They're just grace notes, heartfelt and well intended.

The danger comes when those gifts start having strings attached.  There's the invitation to the beach house, which of course assumes that you'll push for a pet project at the church.  There's the brand new car, which assumes that you're pretty much in that parishioner's pocket for the rest of your born days.

There, pastors have to be remarkably careful, and self-aware.  Is this influencing me?  Does this seem like a genuine token of thanks, or does it have a hook embedded in it?  The bigger the gift, the more likely there's a hook in there somewhere.

We're often responsible for raising funds, too, to both pay our salaries and keep the institution of the church from collapsing.

That can lead us to spend considerably more time and energy cultivating and connecting to the wealthy members of our community.  They become our focus, the people we go to with the intent of impressing upon them how simply wonderful they are, how very spiritual, and how very very much Jesus appreciates their generosity.  They are given more access, and then more influence, and then more access.

They become more important to us than the homeless stranger, or the members who scramble to get by.  This is when churches become woven up in the power dynamics of human wealth.  And when a member is given precedence because of their wealth, the church has failed.

What is true for the church is also true for our republic.

That's the trap that the McDonnells were snared in, because the truth of it is that they were simply doing a version of what every politician does in our money-hungry political culture.  They were returning favors to a money-bundler who'd crossed the blurry boundary between pouring cash into a person's campaign and pouring cash into the person the campaign supports.

Conservative defenders of the McDonnells have been quick--perhaps too quick--to note that this is just how the political system works, particularly now that the Supreme Court has opened the spigot for unlimited campaign donations.

This is a self-annihilating defense, though, because it surfaces the deepening reality of our political system.  It is a system that increasingly favors the powerful, favors the wealthy, and gives them greater voice and influence than others.  That is and has always been the measure of injustice and broken, self-dealing governance.

The further we go down that path, the more our regular political practice will be inherently corrupt, and unbefitting the best intent of our republic.

God help us.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Communities that Kill Their Elders

We've been part of our neighborhood swim-team since our kids were tiny, floppy little minnows.  My older son is one of the Fifteen-Eighteens now, having somehow magically become one of those huge towering gargantuan Seniors.

The demands of swim team are immense, requiring logistical complexity and high levels of coordination.  Either parents are engaged at a significant level, or it just doesn't happen.  And so summer is filled with that busyness.

Our son enjoys it, and it's fun.  But having done it for almost a decade, I can see the endgame coming.  In two years, this will no longer be part of our family summers.  And I notice something else, as he reaches the final couple of years of his engagement with the team as a swimmer.

What I notice are the parents who are no longer there.  I remember their kids, the teens who used to lead the raucous tribal ritual cheering at the beginning of every meet.  I remember them, running things, making things happen, busy and chatting and working hard together.

But they're gone now.  Those faces are no longer part of the circle.

It's a peculiar form of human gathering, this "team sport"/"children's activity" thing.  I look around the pool, and there are no elder statesmen, no wise-women, no-one past the child-rearing age.  There are just younger parents with younger kids, new faces one and all.  Nine years ago, we were those people.

Now, those little lights in our palms are starting to flicker, to make an obscure reference to a cheesy 1976 scifi flick.

There are echoes of former stars, up there on the wall of names.  But--with one or two exceptions--the tribe drives off its elders and its heroes the moment they "age out."  Those relationships fade away and die.

And of course, there are exceptions.  There always are.  There are parents who swam on the team, years ago.  There are the young coaches, back from college.  But they are the anecdotes, the outliers.

What does this say about our approach to community?

The activities and programming that fill the crowded lives of American parents and children are a fiercely demanding form of community, sure.  But they are a community that churns, that severs relationships, that builds ties that are as fleeting as youth itself.  The moment soccer or tae kwon do gives way to something else, those faces around you disappear.

And your children grow up, and you find yourself wondering--where are all those people I knew?

Such a strange, strange culture we have created.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Humans: It's Not About Us

It was the last night of summer, and we needed to mark it somehow.

So I and the wife and the lads went to see one of the big blockbuster films that we'd not quite gotten around to seeing over the course of our busy summer.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had gotten decent reviews, and I'd enjoyed the first one, so I found it playing at a nearby twenty-two-plex that I wasn't even aware existed.  Ah, the joys of living in a huge metro area.  We piled into the car, and off we went.

We got a large refillable popcorn and one large refillable soda between the four of us, and with our bucket of carbs and fizzy fluid, we settled in for the last gasp of summer.

The film itself was solid, and a better bit of cinema than its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  I found it completely enjoyable, and a good bit of storytelling.  It wasn't perfect, as it got a tick overblown and overlong at times.

Most notably, it shared the primary "flaw" of the first film in the series:  The humans just weren't very interesting.

It wasn't as noticeable as the first film, where the performances by the human characters were flat and formulaic.  There, we were stuck with James Franco sort of phoning it in, and...what...the guy who played Draco Malfoy?  I can't remember much else.

What you did remember were the apes, who were--despite being CG--compelling, emotionally affecting, and far more "human" than the humans.

That was also true in the second film.  The human actors did a better job, a solid, creditable job, but this wasn't their story.  It was the story of Caesar and Koba, of Blue Eyes and Ash and Maurice.  Sure, there was good and evil, trust and betrayal, justice and the dark selfishness of power.

Homo sapiens sapiens wasn't the focus of the tale.  We weren't the point.

Which, I think, is generally true of creation.

Oh, we can be part of the purpose of all sentient life.  We can participate in it.  We can choose to be aware, and connected, and creative, and kind.  We can seek knowledge, and justice, and then transcend justice with grace.

Or we can choose not to, as we do, more often than not.

But what we should never do, not ever, is imagine that we're as important as we think we are.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Doubtfully Stumbling Towards a Bumbly Fumbling Something

Maybe it's because I now and again go back and re-read Paul Tillich.  I don't know.  But recently, I was reminded of Tillich's assertion that to integrate doubt into faith is not just necessary.  It's an act of radical existential courage.

"The element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it must be accepted," he wrote, in one of his more lucid, less inaccessibly Germanic moments.  "And the element in faith which accepts this is courage."

This is sort of funny, I think, because just about twice a week, I'll read some earnest Christian or another talking about doubt.  Hoo boy, do we talk about doubt.

"I'm a Christian, but I'm really really awful in thus and such a way," they'll say.  "I try to follow Jesus, but here are five ways I have no clue what I'm doing."  "I wish I could say I truly believed, but in my heart of hearts I'm an aimless, struggling wreck of a human being."  "My church is a total mess, and here's why I can't for a moment believe it has a chance of survival."

On one level, I can appreciate this.  Of course we're all a mess.  It's my general operating assumption about most human beings, one that's empirically borne out in our complete inability to get our [excrement] together as a species.  We're selfish, confused, anxious, angry creatures.  Here, in this no-reason-it-can't-be-utopia horn-of-plenty world, we manage to both inflict hunger and war and interpersonal anguish on one another.

So yeah, I know, I feel you.  I've got my own things I'm working through.  We all do.  Sharing that on occasion is a good thing.  Keeps us real.

But what I hunger to know, honestly, is less about your dysfunction, and more about what's really and genuinely working for you.

Where is your joy?  Where is your lifegiving, hopeful place?  Where does God's Spirit move?  What makes you laugh from the sheer wonder of it?  Where are your creative, powerful moments of life?

Tell me those things.  Share them.  Teach me.  Tell me the good news.

Progressive Christians in particular seem to be remarkably bad at this.  We fret about church, about decline and bad things people have said and done to one another.  We spend our energies deconstructing ecclesiology and tearing down those we see as perpetrating injustices.  Church is terrible!  People are terrible!

We anguish over our personal doubts, dwelling on them, magnifying them to the point where they become the defining feature of our identity.

Is this doubt?  Absosmurfly.  Is this the doubt that manifests as the courage to transform both self and culture?

Is it the doubt that shapes our hope?

I don't quite think so.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mystery, Scripture, and the Need for Creation's Witness

As I walked through the steamy air of a late summer morning, I had John Calvin on my mind.

Lord help me.

It was a lovely morning, but for the burgeoning heat of what was to be an intensely swampy Southern day.  The sky was thick with clouds, the air was damp with the lingering wetness of evening storms.  Here and there, drops fell from the wet leaves above.

And I was thinking about Calvin.  More specifically, the thing that rose unbidden from my memories as I engaged with creation was a reflection on Calvin's Institutes, and one of the justifications for our Reformed focus on the Scriptures.

There were many reasons the Reformers felt that Christians should focus on the Bible.  First and foremost, being engaged with the texts of Scripture yourself meant that you were connected with them.  At that point in history, most Christians were illiterate, and the church made no meaningful effort to teach the meaning of the faith.  Going directly to the texts was a liberation, and a counterbalance on ecclesiastical overreaches.

But there were other reasons.  Among them was the argument from Creation.  The world around us was God's work, Calvin suggested.
"There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declare his wonderful wisdom; not only those more recondite matters for the closer observation of which astronomy, medicine, and all natural science are intended, but also those which thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant persons, so that they cannot open their eyes without being compelled to witness them..." (Institutes, I.v.1)
But creation is also wildly and deeply inscrutable, a profound mystery that could confuse and distract us in our smallness.
"It is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author.  Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no ways lead us to the right path.  Surely they struck some sparks, but before their fuller light shines forth these are smothered." (Institutes, I.v.14)
Thus, the need for Scripture, because we're just too stubborn, stupid, and self-absorbed to grasp the unmediated self-expression of the Creator.   We need something more, something to help us integrate that awareness into a cohesive purpose.

And there, the teachings of the Tanakh and the Gospels and Epistles come into play.  They become the lens that helps us focus, to see our purpose clearly.

I get that.  I do.  It's helpful to have a framework.

On the other hand, the same thing that structures our thinking can also be spiritually dangerous, for reasons that are implicit in Calvin's own argumentation.  The Creator of the universe speaks directly through existence, all of which articulates the Divine Intent.

And sure, it tends to blow our minds a bit.

But shouldn't it?  I mean, really.  Looking at the scale and wild complexity of our space-time, and the potentially infinite depth of a yawning multiversal cosmos, we are, as Calvin put it, "whirled and twisted about" by our encounter with a power that so vastly exceeds our own that we can feel utterly lost.  (Institutes I.v.11)

That's certainly the reality encountered by modern science, which--after a brief and heady period when it thought it had it all worked out--is beginning to surface complexities so impossible that they seem profoundly beyond our capacity to grasp.

And that, it strikes me, is a necessary part of a robust and authentic faith.  Sure, we need a framework.  But we also need encounters that are unmediated by that framework, encounters that shatter and reform us.  We need something that tears us from our self-absorption, that gives us a sense of scale and mystery and God's transcendent, numinous power.

Contemplating creation, as it so happens, is really good at that.