Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Headless Churchman

It's...John Wesley!  Aieee!
It's almost Halloween, and over the last few days, I've been delving into the deepest nightmare of every paid church professional.  No, not the one where you discover you're not only in the wrong church and have forgotten your sermon text, but you're also not wearing any pants.  That one just replaces the "I didn't study for the test" anxiety dream.

This is a more profoundly existential nightmare, one that isn't just a fabrication of your subconscious.  This terror lives in the real world:

Churches with no pastors.  None.  For pastors, we folk called to a serving and helping profession, here is a physical manifestation of the heart of our most gnawing fear:  You are irrelevant.  You are not needed.

Yet as I work my way through the research phase of my doctoral project, that's where I've gone.  I've been talking with small church pastors, folks who are in the same position as myself.  But I've also been contacting Christians living in other forms of authentic and intimate faith community.  I've talked with longstanding participants in egalitarian house churches, and gatherings of Jesus-followers that are intentionally without formal hierarchical leadership.

Yesterday morning on my way to church, for example, I rode down the dirt roads of the Dayspring community.  It's one of the gatherings that sprang out of the Church of the Saviour, a borderline-legendary community formed by Gordon Cosby.  Dayspring rests on a little over 200 acres of woodland and fields, most of which I got a chance to see as I nosed my motorcycle along gravel roads.

It was strikingly beautiful, as the wind cast leaves down like rain.  A good soul responsible for the facility walked me around and showed me each of the three spaces used for worship.  A spare, clean room with neatly stacked wooden chairs.  A pavilion open on three sides, at one end of which rested a huge stone hearth.  And an amphitheater, set into the woods, the boughs arcing overhead like the balustrades of a cathedral.

And all the worship, in all those spaces, is conducted by members of the community.

No pastors.  No formally trained and vetted professionals, no charismatic and hard-charging evange-epreneur driving the growth.  No One CEO/Manager/Counselor/Leader/Teacher to rule them all.  Just mutual labor, mutual accountability, and mutual teaching.  Is it perfect?  No.  But if the conditions are right, it can work.  It can be a beautiful thing.

On the one hand, this is intimidating, vocationally challenging for those of us in the "organizational" church in the most radical of ways.  On the other, it's strangely, wildly heartening.

It feels, if anything, like the goal.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Church as Theatre

As I drift about the web, it tracks me, as algorithms and data accrue to my browsing patterns.  The net knows me, and knows my interests, and so works feverishly to show me things I might want to buy.

Here!  Look at this car you just read about!  Here!  A self-publishing shop that'll charge you money to produce books you can produce for free!  Buy!  Shiny!  Ooo!  Ooooh!

Because I'm a pastor who writes, reads and blogs about faith, the daily pitch includes faith-products.  I'm routinely encouraged to click through to the products and services pitched out there by AmeriChrist, Inc. and its corporate partners.  Yesterday, I clicked through on one of them, as I encountered an faith-focused-ad from Regal theaters.

Movie theaters are increasingly the place to go when you're starting up a church, or when your gathering grows large enough to justify renting a space.  They're also struggling a bit, as the giant screens and surround sound systems that stream video into our homes take a big bite out of their margins.

So it makes sense, it does, for theater chains to actively market to church folks.

Convenient!  Centrally located!  Optimal for your purposes!  So chirruped the landing page, which then asked me to pony up more personal contact information in exchange for permission to proceed.  Hah.  You know enough about me already, I think.

I bailed, routed around, and hit the corporate site of Regal Entertainment Group.  Among other things, the main page touted the tenth anniversary re-release of the first Saw movie, along with the rollout of new extra-large King-sized recliner-chairs.  Kick back in the lap of luxurious comfort, whilst you watch a graphic portrayal of human beings being creatively tortured to death for your amusement!

And the next day, you can show up to praise Jesus from the very same comfy chair!  With cupholders!

I did a search on the site, and hopped URLs, going from "theatres backslash recliners" to "theatres backslash theatre-church," and there it was.

The marketing was all about magnifying your message, convenience, and being a comfortable and familiar environment.  It's culturally relevant!  And there's a huuuuuuuuge screen.  Huge.  So big.

But what caught my eye was the quote from a satisfied customer/pastor.
"The medieval church told the gospel story in pictures via stained glass.  Today, we tell our story on the big screen.  It's the perfect postmodern stained glass--a memorable and exciting medium that demonstrates the gospel story."
Now, I love cinema, and film as a medium.

But to call it "stained glass?"  That stuck with me, because as much as I also love the look of stained glass, I remember the purpose of it in the dark ages of pre-Enlightenment Europe.  It was pretty, of course, a splash of beauty and light in an often grim and difficult world.  It's art in its own right.

But the primary use of stained glass, when Christianity was passing through that period, was to give the most rudimentary grasp of Bible stories to a completely illiterate populace.  As a medium for narrative, stained glass told stories in a time when Christians were incapable of processing primary information for themselves.

What they were fed, instead, was just enough to keep them complacent to the powers that used the message of Jesus to reinforce their own authority.

It seemed, as an analogy, perhaps more nuanced than had been intended.

But at least the chairs are more comfy now, right?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Zimzum

In the morning, in a light-filled upstairs room of our old church building, I sat down with some of the kids of my church and began our confirmation class.  Our chatter was about confirmation itself, but I'd wanted to hear from them about how some of the pre-classes had gone.  Specifically, I was curious what they'd thought of the Nooma vids they'd watched.  These videos were old Rob Bell schtuff, nicely produced, thoughtful, and inviting, although pressing close on occasion to the edge of Velveeta.

They'd liked them, and had clearly retained information from them.  I shared, because it strikes me as odd, that the same Rob Bell who created those very helpful vids is now on tour with Oprah, part of her The Life You Want To Be Best Right Now This Weekend tour.

The class, as one, rolled their eyes in teen disdain.  "Oprah?"  Clearly, Ms. O is not regarded as the font of authenticity by the young.  They're not her target demographic, of course.  Few fourteen year olds can pony up $200-$500 bucks for a big stadium event, after all.

I pitched out another trial balloon, I mentioned the title of his forthcoming book.  My church has given out Bell's books to graduates in past.  They're solid, simple, accessible, and gracious.  This new one is a relationship book, co-authored with his wife:  The Zimzum of Love.

There was giggling.

I moved on, but filed that giggle away.  Reminder to self: if in the radiant yarp of this wild multiverse I ever find myself asked to tag along with Oprah on a tour, politely demur, lest the teens of thy congregation giggle at thee.

It got me thinking, though, about the word "Zimzum."  I'd not bothered looking into that term when I'd first encountered it on the cover of the Bell's book, assuming--erroneously--that it was some cutesy nonsense relationship word.  "The Dibbledop of Parenting."  "The OochGah of Growing Old."  Something like that.

But then I encountered it again providentially, in a science article about the dynamics of Many Worlds theory, of all places.  There, it was not presented as "Zimzum."   It was Tzimtzum, a term from Lurianic Kabbalistic theology that attempts to articulate how God makes space in being for that which is not God's own self.

So I looked into it further, as one should when serendipity serves up her peculiar harmonies.

As theology, tzimtzum is fascinating, and within authentic Kabbalistic practice and rabbinic conversation, it's a pretty sophisticated and heavily debated idea.  How can God be both present and not-present?  What are the self-imposed boundaries of that which is infinite and aware?  It's meaty, heady, non-trivial stuff, the kind of theology that bleeds over into scientific cosmology in ways I find pretty nifty.

And it's being repurposed, by a Christian, as a means of meting out relationship advice.  "Make space for your partner," it'll go, I'm sure.

I wonder at this.  I mean, it's not bad advice, generally.  It may well be a helpful book for some folks.

But the tzimtzum is an immensely complex, nuanced, challenging way of trying to understand the work of the Creator.  Will that complexity be honored?  Will the centuries of conversation about that idea be referenced?  We'll see.  I have not, after all, read the book, which isn't out yet.

I wonder further, though, at the co-opting of such theology by both Christians and pop-theology.  That wondering comes from my peculiar place as both a teacher of the Way of Jesus and the husband/father of a Jewish wife/sons.

The rabbi of my family's synagogue is a teacher of Kabbalistic understandings of Judaism, which come out in his storytelling.  He knows the language, and the stories, and the debates, the deep richness of that remarkably intricate and ancient way of understanding.  There is a dizzying, whirling, interwoven elegance to authentic Kabbalah.  It's a wild dance of ideas before the throne of God, as you lose yourself in concepts that swirl together like Sufis in qawwali ecstasy.  There is a depth to it that I honor.  But I also recognize that while it is a valid path, it is not the path I know well enough to teach.

If you don't have the depth and history and the complexity, it becomes something else.  It can become Madonnabalah or Oprahbalah, a shallow smorgasbord me-magick that is as removed from Kabbalistic practice as that fat golden prosperity Buddha at your takeout Chinese place is removed from the Noble Eightfold Path.

That's the challenge, whenever we take things from traditions that are not our our own.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing, Vocation, and Relationship

Last Friday, I took a walk to the bank.  It was a gorgeous day, a little warmer than I'd expected for mid-October.

In my pocket was a check, the depositing of which was the whole purpose of my walking.  Oh, sure, I could have driven.  Or I could have used one of those check-scanning apps my bank keeps pitching.  But neither of those things gets me out walking under a crisp blue sky on a beautiful day.

The check itself was something of a novelty.  It was the first half of the advance from my publisher in anticipation of my novel, which in and of itself remains sort of bizarre and unreal seeming.  By first-novel-author standards, it was remarkably generous, large enough to represent a couple of months worth of my appropriately modest half-time pastorly salary.

What struck me, as I took this...writing income...to the bank was that it marked the first time writing has yielded much more than nominal returns. So far, my efforts have yielded the kinds of income that has my wife patting me on the head and saying "That's nice, dear."  Then we'd go out to Chipotle to celebrate, and blow the whole wad on burrito bowls.

As much as I love to write, I'm fully aware that writing isn't the most reliable of professions if you're planning on eating and/or having a roof over your head.  It's a work of love, a thing I do because I like to do it.  I am not alone in this.  There are millions like me, millions, a sea of authors out there fervently cranking away on their novels and memoirs and illustrated books of Esperanto Haiku.  Por infanoj! Infanoj amas Esperanton!

Last year, when I wrote the manuscript for The English Fall during National Novel Writing Month, I was one of over 310,000 folks who completed a novel-length work of fiction.  I was a writer then, in that I was writing.  I've cranked out a number of silly little self-published books over the years, short stories here and there and a modestly received little ebook on God and the nature of creation.  Do they make me a writer?

Sort of, which is the peculiar thing about writing.  The act itself is not the fullness of being a writer.

Neither is the receiving of income.  Am I more of a writer now that I'll have to attend to it on my next tax return?  Now that, for this moment, at least, I can think of myself as...professional?

Again, sort of, but not entirely.

What makes a writer vocationally a writer, I am convinced, is not the act of writing itself.  That act is as intimate as a thought, as solitary as a daydream.

It is the relationship the written word establishes when others read what you have written.  You are a writer when those words you have crafted carry your dreamings over into the soul of another.

I am a writer for you when you see, in the eye of your imagining, something like the world I have seen in my own.  If I tell you, hey, I'm an author, that reality remains an abstraction until you have engaged with those thoughts, and let them play through your mind.  It is only real when you have known the voices of my characters, felt the road beneath their feet and the rain on their faces.

It's like saying, "I'm a pastor."  It is a vocation...a calling, a state of doing...that is only truly known when it is witnessed or encountered by another.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Cat Who Wouldn't Back Down

It was a bright and cold Sunday morning, and I was up at six, as I always am.  I dressed, clerical collar shirt and dress pants, with thermals under the dress pants for the ride to church later in the morning.

I put the coffee on, and stepped out to get the morning paper.  It being Fall before the Fall-Back, the sky was dark and clear, with just a single bank of clouds off to the east catching the first low light of the unrisen sun.  The moon was still a bright sharp crescent, flanked by stars.

My first cup of coffee downed, I leashed up the dog, and off we went down the street for her morning walk.  It's good thinking time, good time for reflection and stillness.

We got half a block down the street, and there was the cat.  The cat sat in the middle of the sidewalk, right next to a huge pile of tree-trimmings a neighbor had set by the curb.  We closed, slowly, as my witless pup snuffed and noodled around, oblivious to the feline shadow resting dead ahead.  Closer and closer we came, and I dropped my pace to give the cat time to bail.  I could see, by the light cast by a nearby streetlamp, that it was a tabby, a big healthy orange tom.

Finally, less than five yards out, it rose, and skulked off peevishly into the mound of branches.

Still, my dog noodled about, lost in some other scent, totally unaware.  Such a blissfully oblivious creature, she can be.

We walked on, our usual route through the morning darkness, and at one of her usual spots, she did her business.   I collected it up in a plastic newspaper bag, fumbling about in the dark, wet grass until I'd done my neighborly duty.

Our route returned us home, and we turned in and walked down the driveway towards home.

At the entrance to the carport sat the tabby, back on its haunches, blocking access to the door to the house.  Now, of course, the dog saw the cat, sitting right there, right dead on in front of her.  She snuffed forward eagerly, tail wagging with excitement.

I reined her in.  "Go on," I shooed at the cat.  "C'mon, scoot!"  The tomcat was going nowhere.

I eased in a little closer, waving my free arm, holding my utterly oblivious dog back.  "Shoo!  Go!  Tssssh!"

The cat only had eyes for the dog, and arched up, tail straight, hissing, fangs out.   It was not going to budge.  Fight or flight?  Pshaw.  It had backed down once, and now there was only fight in those eyes, no matter what that large hairless monkey was blabbering about.

We were at an impasse.  There, the only unlocked door to my own house, and I could get no closer without letting my softie claw-clueless-canine get into attack range.  The cat was getting all Martin Luther on me, all Gandalf the Grey.  There it stood, it could do no other, and we shall not pass.   It was dug in, back up, ready to go.

And then I realized, sentient primate with opposable thumbs that I am: I am carrying a projectile with a built in drogue for stability, and soft enough to do no harm on impact.  Still nice and warm, even.

I considered it, and found the option worthy.  I then judged the distance, and with a gentle underhanded toss, the sort of throw you pitch to your five year old when you first teach them how to use a bat, I tossed the bag at the cat.

It landed directly in front, and skidded--intact, thank the Maker--across the cement, dead on target.  The tabby leapt away, out of our path.

"What in the name of the Sweet Lord Bast is THAT," the cat's eyes seemed to say.  Then it scented it.  "You didn't just...you couldn't have...oh!"  And it scampered off, horrified at the raging indignity of such a barbarous act.  It cast us one look back, pure disgust, and disappeared into the night.

I'm not quite sure, because it was dark, but I think my dog cast me a look of wondering admiration.

"You threw...my poo...at a cat," it seemed to say.  "Humans.  Are.  So.  AWESOME."


Friday, October 17, 2014

Faith and High Beams

The church event was a lovely one, a celebration of World Food Day organized by our music director.   Folks from my little church, their friends, and representatives of local environmental organizations sat down and shared a potluck meal made of locally grown harvest.  It was both fun and heartening and yummy.

And when everything was cleaned up and put away, it was time to roll home.  I'd been worried about rain, just a little bit, as my little Suzuki's decided to get a little finicky about ingesting water.  But though rains had come through, and the ground was wet, the skies weren't dropping moisture.

I suited up, threw a leg over the bike, fired it up, and began the ride home through the rising mist.

Those late evening rides back from church are lovely, and the cooling October night was no exception.  Sitting smack in the middle of 93,000 acres of agricultural reserve, the little town where my church resides can be accessed only over miles of little country two-lanes.   The lights of houses are speckled here and there, down long gravel drives.  You do not pass, as you ride, the endless rows of tickytackytownhomes and flat-straight four-lane strip malls of 'Murika sprawl, but the fields and forests that were our landscape up until a generation ago.

At night, those deliciously ridable American roads are deep and very dark and lightly traveled.

It's high beam country.

And my bike has great high beams, two huge twin reflectors, mounted way up on its tall, lanky frame.  I snick that little thumbswitch by the left handgrip, and the little blue light comes on in the instrument pod, and the road lights up far ahead.  I cast, ahead of me, two tightly nested cones of light, enough to make for comfortable riding at a gentleman's express pace.

I love riding alone through the darkness.  Being that solitary speck of bright in a cool dark night gives a powerful sense of place, of being yourself in the world.  It feels wild and free.

But though it's a place of freedom, there are rules for riding in high beam country.

There are others who ride the same roads, but who aren't traveling the same way.  They've got other places to go, other homes that call them homeward.   You encounter their light first, as the forest or roadside around a distant bend lights up to announce their arrival.

And just before their light rises over the hill, or flares around the bend, you dip your own.  Snick, goes the switch, and the lowbeams are on, like a nod of acknowledgment or...in another era...the tipping of a hat.  You pass one another, respecting the integrity of the other traveler, until that moment you pass.  Snick, and the darkness ahead is banished again.

As I rode through the cool of the night, that blue light illumined, I found myself wishing Americans could grasp this sort of respect in our exchanges with one another.  We're not all the same, in our faith, in our politics. We do not have to be.  It's what makes the United States a wonderful place to live.

But as we live and move through our increasingly loud and crowded lives, it feels like we're all high beams, all the time.  We see that stranger, traveling in another direction to a different home, and we leave our beams on full.

Why should we dim our light, just because they're coming?  That's their problem, not ours, if our full blare brightness bothers them.  What right do they have, to make us do something?  No way will we tone ourselves down.   No way will we compromise.  Heck, if we had brighter beams, we'd use 'em.

So we rush blindingly at one another, lost in the retina-dazzle of our own stubborn selfishness.  And blinded, we lose our ability to see the road ahead.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Subpoenas and Sermons

The netrage is out there, about everything, about anything, and one rage-meme that's been popping a whole bunch in my feeds lately has to do with the subpoenas issued to five Texas area pastors for copies of their sermons.

The reason has to do with a fight over a Houston ordinance protecting the rights of transgendered persons.  A coalition of conservative megachurch pastors actively opposed it, using the same odd tactic that's been attempted in my region.  They also used their large congregations as their political base in their attempt to overturn the law.  After a petition attempt to put the issue on the next ballot as a referendum failed, the coalition filed a lawsuit to stop the ordinance.

So the lawyers for the city, acting in defense of the municipality against the lawsuit filed by the churches, chose to subpoena the sermons of five representative communities.

This has created the netrage, as the pastors now stand firmly on the principle of the separation of church and state.  It has nothing to do with the LGBT community!  This is about the Constitution!  This is about religious liberty!

Of course, this is also coming from pastors who are using their pulpits and their congregations how?   To engage in political endeavor.  Complaining about the separation of church and state when you've actively used your congregation to mobilize politically is...well...mildly ironic.

Two particular things seem problematic about this carefully cultivated outrage.

Thing number one: why would you ever need to subpoena a sermon?  If a congregation and/or their pastor is doing their job, a sermon is not a secret.  This isn't a closed business meeting.  It's something you share, not just with the true believing Pureblood Christians, but with anyone and everyone.  It's not "inside the silo" speech.  It's a message to the whole world.  Anyone can hear it.  You should never, ever, need a subpoena to shake loose a sermon, any more than you'd need to subpoena the front page of the Washington Post or the Houston Chronicle.

Sermons are public speech, and speech you should be willing to have out there in the world in front of everyone.

I post the full text of every single sermon I preach online.  Thanks to the good work of folks at my church, the audio is also available...on iTunes, streamable, and downloadable.  Every single one of those sermons is there, my weekly efforts to interpret these ancient sacred texts with as much accuracy and grace as I can. Why?

Because what I preach is intended to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That's the whole point of preaching, isn't it?  Not to affirm what my congregation already believes as we whisper to each other in secret, but to challenge anyone who hears me to be more loving, more merciful, more compassionate, and more gracious.  If I'm doing my job right, it's a message of grace to anyone...the stranger, the visitor, anyone.

If one so chose, you could keyword search through my sermons, looking for anything and everything.  Go ahead.  I stand by those words.  They represent my best effort to articulate the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the world.

So if anyone ever says to me, I demand a copy of your sermons?  Sure.  Here's the link.  Go to town, buckaroo.

Which gets me to thing number two:  It's an effort to shame us, the pastors argue, and to tar us as anti-LGBT bigots.  We're being bullied by those mean government folks, just because we've used our pulpits in an effort to overturn a law that prevents discrimination against a tiny minority of Americans.  We will never turn over our sermons, they cry.  They're just trying to shame us with our own words!  We'd rather go to jail than turn over our preaching to these shamey bullies!  Because...liberty!  Because...Constitution!

From a libertarian/anarchist perspective, I can sort of see that.  We don't like being told what to do, not by anyone, for any reason.  It's an affront to my sovereign individuality to force me to do anything.

But from a Gospel perspective, a servant-of-Jesus-Christ perspective, this is completely insane.  If those messages contain the Gospel, then they're nothing to be ashamed of.  I want you to hear them.  I want you to read them, whoever you are, wherever you are.

If what they are would appear hateful in the sight of a neutral, objective third party, then they're not the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Rome, laid that out pretty clearly.  What we do and say, if we are acting and speaking as Christians, must be noble in the sight of all.  Following Jesus is self-evidently loving, self-evidently merciful, self-evidently just.

As preaching should be, if it is really and truly the preaching of the Gospel.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Fire Next Time

I and a small group of intrepid members of my congregation have been heaving our way through the book of Revelation for the last half-dozen weeks, and it ain't easy going.  The convoluted mind of John of Patmos and the circuitous, repetitive pattern of his visions are notoriously unforgiving.

Even if you understand the symbolism and the Matrix-stutter narrative arc of that wild and hallucinatory book, it's still a hard one to crank through.  John's faith is bright and feverish, often seeming devoid of both logic and compassion.  Love your enemies?  Hah.  Love watching them burn, more like.  There's not a whole bunch of agape going down in Revelation.  But hey, what would you expect from visions brought by an angel who identifies himself as the Morning Star?

Well played, my wealthy, tasteful friend.  Well played.

Silliness aside, one of the charges leveled against the apocalyptic mindset is the degree to which it can disengage us from the here and now.   Why care about the mess we're making of our little planet, if that mess is all part of the end of things?  Why worry about the wars and injustices that we human beings inflict on each other, if they're just leading up to the final destruction of something that deserves to be wiped out?

"It's all going to be destroyed anyway," the refrain goes.  "Why should I care about saving it?"

For folks who'd really rather see things turn for the better, that attitude of willful resignation is seriously problematic, because it contributes to things getting worse.

Here's the rub, though.  Even if you think John of Patmos wouldn't have known the Jesus of the Gospels if you'd whacked him upside the head with them, he was right in this one thing:

The earth is going to be completely destroyed.  Wiped clean, and cast into a lake of fire.

Of this, there is little doubt.  I'm sure of it, in fact, so sure that I'm right now going to pitch out a timeframe for that destruction, with at least as much confidence as Harold Camping.

If we're lucky, we've got just about two point eight billion years.

Well, less than that, actually.  But it all wraps up then, as our sun exhausts itself and swells outward into its red-giant phase, devouring the inner planets in a wash of fading fusion fire.  Life will become impossible.  The earth--everything that it is, everything that it will be--is unquestionably doomed.

So why should we care?  I mean, really, why should we?  What's our motivation? We know with certainty that even if we make every conceivable effort and turn our little garden world into a perfect utopia, it's going to be obliterated.

The motivation comes from our integrity in the present, and our stewardship over the time we have been given.  It's the same motivation that drives us to care for our bodies, even though we know we're going to eventually die.  It's the same motivation that moves us to love our children, even though we know the same thing will ultimately happen to them.

In this time, with this awareness we've been given, our task is to live out the justice and compassion of God's Reign.  Period.  And sure, it's all going to end.  That might be two point eight billion years away.  Or tomorrow, when an errant round fired by a K'tall singularity cannon during the battle for the p Eridani system comes tearing in at point seven five of lightspeed.

No matter what, our task is to be good and just stewards, living lives that reflect the integrity of our purpose.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Word of the Day: Chramming

"Cramming," the word is, new to our modern vocabulary.

It's what happens when a large company--typically a telecom--bills you for services you didn't ask for and didn't want.  Oh, sometimes you've agreed to the charges, technically.  They're hidden away in the legalese of that fifty page terms-of-use you looked at for thirty seconds.  And then every month, deep in the thickets of your incomprehensibly complex bill, there'll be a line or two detailing those charges that you'll just pay because you're in a hurry.

Twice in the last couple of years, I've had to ferret those charges out of our cell phone bills, as AT&T has "accidentally" provided us with nonessential extra services for about $15 extra bucks a month.  Charges like "voice activated calling," which the phone they sold me already does for free.  Or a "star-somethingorother" information service, because you know a smartphone just doesn't give me enough access to information already.

"Gosh, how did those get there," AT&T has said.  "Of course we'll take them right out."

And so out the unnecessary stuff goes, at least until the next time they try to sneak something in there.

It's been profitable for AT&T to layer in the stuff we don't need, hidden away in an incomprehensible thicket of charges.  Hundreds of millions of dollars of profitable per year, actually, as a recent judgment against the company revealed.

Things like this are why we don't trust big businesses, because we know they're always trying to sneak something in that we neither need nor want.

It has occurred to me, though, that there's a Christian analogue.  Something that Big Jesus does when it's getting you in the door.   That thing?

Let's call it: "chramming."

"Chramming" happens when you're drawn to the essential goodness of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.  Compassion and grace, forgiveness and purpose and personal transformation?  Lived out in my own life, and in a community of others walking that path?  

That's what you hear from the good folks who tell you about Jesus, and it's a pretty dang good thing.

I want to be part of that!  Sign me up!

And so you sign up.  But you notice, when you start paying attention, that other things are folded in.  You have to believe God hates certain people.  You have to believe some pretty bizarre things about the nature of creation, things that you know just aren't so from looking at things.   You have to believe some pretty weird stuff about Satan and the Rapture and demons.

Huh, you say.  I don't remember signing up for that.

"It was right there in our terms of use," they'll say, right back.

But chramming in things that don't serve the heart of the Gospel does no one any good.  If you have a belief you have to "sneak in there?"  Honeychild, the odds are good that has nothing to do with what's important anyhow.

Better to just stick with the reason folks showed up in the first place.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Outrage


One of the oddest things about social media, at least the media that pours across my consciousness daily, is how very angry some folks seem about everything.

Some share life, simple and plain.  They offer pictures of children and the reality they inhabit.

But left and right, progressive and conservative, across the spectrum, I encounter souls who choose to use this new form of media to stir themselves to anger.  For them, it's an endless fountain of umbrage and disagreement, critique and attack, chasing after The Thing To Be Angry About Today.

It could be anything, something huge, or something trivial and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  It's the conservative, chasing down some violation of someone's rights somewhere, or some intolerable impurity of belief.  It's the progressive, finding an injustice in some small town somewhere, or something offensive said by someone on a blog read by five people.

It is as if some souls are in an endless quest to find something--anything--to be enraged about, someone-anyone--to become furious with.  It's a source of energy.  We feel alive when we are angry.  Our wetware floods with hormones, our hearts race, and we forget the aches of our bodies.  We are in conflict, we are doing battle, we are fighting the good fight.

Of course, we're also being sold things by professional provocateurs, being drawn in by our hunger for a sense of relevance.  So we're angry about things in communities where we do not live, and about people we do not know.  This is...unhealthy.

Decoupled from meaningful relationship, anger can have no constructive expression.  Our raging yarps into the chaos of social media become just an infinitesimal part of a great howling din.

That makes the anger easier, because we don't really have to do anything but be angry.

"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention," they will say.  Perhaps.  Sometimes anger is helpful, and healing, and necessary.  But if we are always angry, our anger is meaningless.   And attention?  We choose where to place our attention, if we are to be free beings.

This morning, I walked, and the fall air was cool.  It nipped at my arms, and I drank it like spring water.  The moon was full and fat and bright on the horizon, pure as snow, washing out the stars around it.  Around that moon, high clouds ringed it with a double halo.  The dawn was coming, and the morning light of our rising star touched the tops of trees, tinged with the first colors of autumn.

It was beautiful, and I was paying attention, deeply and completely.  I did not feel angry.

Not at all.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Loss, Death, and Paths not Taken

It was a rough day in Poolesville this last Wednesday, as the news of a young man's suicide hit the town hard.  It was a hard weekend, as one of the faith communities just a short walk from my own spoke out words of sorrow and blessing over that life.

I didn't know him personally.  But he was a child of the town.   In a community where people still know one another, it was clear so many of the folks at my church had been touched by his life. I feel their hurt and the resonance of his loss through so many people around me, like placing your hand on a bell that's been struck, and feeling it hum against your skin.

It's a difficult thing to process.  Here, you had a life that is unquestionably full of promise, and then that promise seems to have vanished like smoke in a strong breeze.  All those moments that you hoped to share, gone.

It feels both so unnecessary and so understandable, particularly if you've been through the fires of adolescence yourself.  Everything feels so immediate, so intense, so radically defining at that momen...and if you're struggling with something, that can feel like it's your whole world.

I remember that feeling, in the same way I remember being a kid and I remember being 25.  If we are to remain ourselves, we can't forget that feeling.  Life was intense, immediate, and the encounter with the pressing realities of adulthood had that radiance that comes from our encounter with the new.  There were moments of failure, and they were abject and abysmal.  There were moments of joy and passion, and they were everything.

And when you're struggling with something, particularly the dark veil of depression, it can feel like that moment of struggle is forever.  There's no escape from it.  The only way out, you think in that moment, is something irrevocable.

That's wrong, because it's not true.  It is not a reflection of reality.  The reality is that there are people who love you, who care for you, and who will be impacted by your loss.  The reality is that if you wait a day, a week, a month--life will seem different.

But it's also wrong because it doesn't reflect the reality of creation.  In the wild universe in which we find ourselves, there's always a different path.  There's always a brighter and more life-giving choice.  The God who makes all things possible does not just set one path before any of us.  There are paths that lead to sorrow, isolation and darkness, sure.  But we do not have to walk them.  We are free to turn away, and choose something different.  That isn't easy, particularly with the blinders of depression constraining our vision.  But it's real.  That potential is there, resting in the knowledge of God.

And that truth, so important to hold in our times of despair, is also important to hold when we have lost someone too young.  What we mourn isn't just the life that has passed, but the life we will not know.  We mourn the moments we will not share with them, that future which is now precluded.

There, from my own faith, there is a solace.  Because although that future is precluded from our knowledge here in this life, it is not precluded from the knowledge of God.  The Creator knows not just what have done and what we will do, but what we might have done and what we might yet do.   Though hidden from us, we can trust that those unfulfilled moments are not unknown to God.  God knows what that life would have been, with a knowledge so deep that it is not simply knowing, but being.

In the heart of God, everything that our loved one could have been is held as surely as the reality we inhabit is held, because there is nothing that God does not know in its fullness.

When we look to a life cut short, to possibilities that seem suddenly gone, there is comfort in knowing that just as the past is not forgotten, neither is that future.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ebola, Ignorance, and "Knowledge"

My stalwart adult ed class and I are cranking our way through the Book of Revelation these last few weeks, and it is going as one might expect.

John of Patmos has a wild, fever-dream way of articulating faith, and negotiating the complex and intentionally obscure mess of symbols and images that make up that peculiar book isn't always easy.   I'll freely admit it's not my favorite book of the Bible--not my least favorite, but certainly among the bottom five.  It's also not a book that any honest teacher will attempt to definitively interpret, so I don't.

I'll present the scholarly options, sure, and some of the most viable interpretive hypotheses.  I can also say that some interpretations--particularly those that respect the context and community that initially received the  book--are more likely than others.

What I've been especially intentional about NOT doing is interpolating any of John's wild mix of apocalyptic imagery into current events, or trying to say I know more than can be possibly known about the intent of that willfully obscure book.  That's always been the temptation for readers of Revelation, and it has always, always been the wrong way to approach that difficult book.  Can you?  Of course you can, in the way that we see images in the clouds or the face of our first lover in a rorschach blot.  But it's projection, not prophesy.  And we project when we don't want to really know or be changed.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the terrible spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, and its recent nudging out into our nation.

The smorgasbord of plagues and destructions layered on top of destructions that are served up in that Book get plugged into just about any catastrophe.  As, indeed has Ebola.  Of course, it's not clear which of the inchoate swirl of visions it might be.  Is it the last of the four horsemen, who brings pestilence in Rev. 6:8?  Or  maybe it's the work of the two witnesses, striking the earth with any kind of plague they want.  (Rev. 11:6)  Or perhaps it's the first cup poured out by the first angel.  (Rev. 16:2)

It's that latter one that seems to be making the rounds in West Africa these days, spread by those who want their own spin on the nature of things to actually be the nature of things.   And so we get a group of conservative Christian leaders in Liberia announcing, as things fall apart, that it's "homosexualism" that's responsible for Ebola.  Not directly of course, but the Creator of the Universe is so angry at gays and lesbians that a disease has been sent to kill innocent children and their mothers, as they hemorrhage to death in fetid conditions.  It's the first cup!  The end times are upon us!

That one can say that "God is Love" on the one hand and then "God Willfully Kills Children With a  Hemorrhagic Fever to Punish Us for Tolerating Gays" on the other isn't just hypocritical.  It's remarkably dissonant.  That kind of dissonance is the heart of madness, and what turns faith from the source of our hope to the source of our horror.

There's something more at play here, though.  The drive to plug terrible events into an existing worldview is basically, terribly human.  Our yearning to find a "why" behind this outbreak...to know the secret behind it...is both a fundamental human urge and a dangerous one.

The honest human yearning for deepening knowledge--as found in the epidemiology and the hard science behind serious efforts to find a cure for this terrible disease--is our hope in combating Ebola.  But the human tendency to want to imagine we already know, that fusing of our thirst for knowing with our hunger for power?  That's dangerous, both spiritually and materially.

It's not just my ultra-conservative African brethren who do this.  Ignorance knows no cultural bounds.  The whispering, paranoiac corners of the American internet are already buzzing and humming about how this disease is a genetically engineered plague, and about how government efforts to contain it are just part of a great conspiracy to keep us from the truth and to restrain our freedom.

Instead, we should place our hope in buying the "essential oils" being marketed by the hucksters spreading this "truth," and whispering subversion of those systems upon which our hope for restraining this plague rest.

Ignorance has always been the enemy of transformation, and the stumbling block we set before ourselves.

As terrible as ignorance is, willful ignorance is worse.