Friday, March 27, 2015


Two very hard things played together across my soul these last two days.

The first, we have all experienced, through the joys of mass media.  It's the story of not just a single death, but of many, as one disturbed human being took not just his own life, but the lives of every single soul on the jetliner he flew straight into those mountains.

It was death and terror, inflicted by a human being who sat dispassionately in the cockpit, calm and silent, as the desperate screams of the doomed filled his ears.   Beyond the pure horror of it, there's the challenge in coming to terms with such a thing.  He was, to the best of our knowledge at this point, not motivated by ideology or some deep seated hatred.  He was a normal person, who...broke.  Somehow.  In ways that are frustratingly opaque.  He left no note, left no manifesto, no prior indication of sociopathy.  Just a bunch of confused people who knew him as a pleasant, competent person.

A pleasant, competent person who killed, through his utterly inexplicable actions, almost 200 other human beings.

Where is the boundary of his culpability?  We want to place blame, to have a clear reason, to affix responsibility.  But sometimes, as that old Boomtown Rats song goes, there are no reasons.  It's just that we break really easily, both our bodies and our minds.

And then there was another, a quieter passing, a voice known to me only through the filter of social media.  I'd known S. for years, in the strange way you know people who you've only met through this medium.  She was smart and creative and insightful, and she was living with mental illness.  It came and went, and then it came and overwhelmed her, drowning out hope, drowning out everything.  There had been many attempts, but this one ended her.

Should I cast judgement, on this soul, because she was unable to see her way through to hope, and to any possibility that she might find happiness?  I cannot see the purpose in that, or the grace, or the love.  I only feel sorrow at her passing.

Both of these things feel strangely beyond the realm of moral judgment, more tragic than evil, as a tearing, destroying storm is more tragic than evil.

But I also do not want to say, not ever, to a human being struggling with an illness of mind: you are not human. What makes you human is gone.  You have no will, no choice, no moral agency.  Can I say this, the flip side of decoupling a person from responsibility?

I do not think so.

And so I feel oddly in between, and must settle with that itching, difficult uncertainty.

It is one of those things that is beyond my ken.  Neither is it my task, the setting of the balances, the final determination.

Thank God for that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Being Paid to Love Jesus

It was an interesting conversation, as a recent post was shared around with others.  I'd kvetched a little bit about the idea that the sacred--music, in this case--could be copyrighted.  Copyright is about preserving profit, and fusing commerce and faith is dangerous, dangerous thing for the soul and for the integrity of the message of Jesus.

One of the commenters slyly suggested that this wasn't all too different from the whole "getting paid to be a pastor" thing, and man, do I feel that.

On the one hand, I've certainly got the makings of a pro.  I've got an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and a graduate degree in divinity and am about to get my Doctorate In Churchly Churchiness.  I've got more than a decade of minist'rin' under my belt, and professional certifications of various and sundry sorts.  That's taken time and energy and resources to accomplish, and it's been worth it.  If you're going to teach about the Way of Jesus of Nazareth, it helps to have a deep clue what you're talking about.  This has been an investment, one that has taken much of my now-half-over lifetime.

Neither could I do all of what I do and hold down a separate, full time job.  Well, I could, but then I'd be completely frazzled, unable to think or act or reflect in a creative and non-anxious way.

I've been paid to teach people about Jesus for the last decade.  I am a professional.  It's what I do.

As such, I am of course quite famil-yah with the skript-chah that most justifies my getting Pee Ay Aye Dee for Jesus.  I'm that ox, treading out the grain, although hopefully without quite the same stench.  Thanks, Paul!  Have any advice on how to set up a 409 plan or how to maximize my housing allowance without triggering an IRS audit?

The problem, of course, comes when you actually think and reflect about it.  Dagflabbit, brains are such pesky things.  Because money is a socioeconomic proxy for power, and power does strange things to our souls.  Jesus was always on about that, and he knew how the seductive power of mammon can burrow deep.

Not just into the strange souls of pastors like Prosperity Preacher Creflo A. Dollar, who if you encountered him in a novel would be utterly unbelievable.  A pastor named Dollar, for God's sake, who fleeces his congregation for Learjets and Rolls Royces and multi-million-dollar mansions, all in the name of Bright Shiny Golden Jeezus?  What a lazy, poorly crafted, and transparent caricature!   Totally stereotypical character development!  Who's writing this [poopy] soap opera, anyway?

The painful truth, for those of us who do this for a living, is that the dynamics of wealth can fold insidiously into the heart of our vocation no matter what the scope and scale of our ministry.

Our anxieties about family and material expectations natter and whisper and take control of what had once been a deep commitment to the Way.  They can govern our decisions about how to care for our communities, turning us away from taking wild Gospel risks.  We become managers and chief executive officers, interested primarily in organizational dynamics and branding and institutional structures.  We become development professionals.  We fret about giving, not because it's the common purse and part of our shared stewardship over our lives together, but because we've personally come to rely on the contents therein.  We attend to donors and assiduously court those who are wealthier, because, well, gosh.  We *need* them.  They are more important.  They are where the power lies.

Sure, that's how you run organizations.  That's good business practice.  When you're dealing with large and complex things, that's how you make 'em hum along.  It's the way you do Big Church, if you're going to do Big Church.  But as with all human endeavor, the strength that can be found in that approach is also its hubris.

Because the more we embrace and live those values out, the more the values of the worldly oikonomia suffuse themselves into the divine economy we're meant to be spreading, and into us.

The truth of what Jesus taught comes when all of the trappings of that other economy are torn away, when the lies of the sword and the whispers of mammon are gone and we are left only with the dangerous truth of grace.  That's the radical love that we see proven on the cross, unbroken and unbreakable.

The other kind of love, the kind that can be marketed and commodified, the kind of love that stops the moment you run out of Benjamins to slide into my ill-fitting garter?  I fight it, whenever I feel it rising in my soul, because that's not who we are called to be.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Care and Tending of Triggers

As spring came ringing in on a sweet Saturday, I and my 15 year old drove out into the countryside for a long and bruisingly fun afternoon of paintball.  I love paintball.

Physical, intense, team-based and tactical, I always come away muddy and banged up a bit, with the welts, bruises, and aches that let me know I've spent a good day at it.  It's wildly fun, a veritable hoot, and notable for the appeal to a broad cross section of culture.

It isn't without risk, of course, which is why folks wear the safety gear, and why they make you go through the various safety-checks on the front end.

Because, sure, it's plenty of fun.  But there's also risk involved, as there tends to be with anything--anything at all--that's worth doing.  The paintball marker "guns" fire marble-sized projectiles at several hundred feet per second, and though they burst when they hit you, they sting.  And if you're not wearing eye-protection and covering exposed flesh, they can do more than that.  They can draw blood, or do permanent eye damage.

Thus, the rules, laid out so that the event will be mutually enjoyable and involve no injury.  No firing at point-blank range.  Protective gear on at all times.  Here's how to call for assistance.  Here's how you lock down your marker so that it will not go off in safe-zones.

Keep your muzzle covered.  Keep the safety on.  And if you want to avoid accidentally hurting someone, keep your finger away from the trigger.  "The best way to insure your marker doesn't fire," said the eager young instructor, "is to NOT PUT YOUR FINGER ON THE TRIGGER."

After the day was done, as I felt the lingering ache in my quads from a day of crouching and crawling, I found myself reflecting on the idea of triggers.

"Triggers" are part of the lingo these days, the strangely calculated language of trauma, umbrage, and offense.  People have their "triggers," things that send them on wild and involuntary cascades of emotive response, overwhelmed by old unhealed hurts and wounds that lead them into bitter places.  We put up "warnings" that things might be "triggers," which seems--frankly--more like a way of advertising something guaranteed to get folks angry.

I have my own triggers, of course.  There are places I've been wounded or humiliated or helpless, or when a thing/relationship/person I loved was harmed.  In those "trigger" moments, there were people and patterns of behavior in place that can be mirrored in other life situations.  Someone can look or act in a way that reminds me of a person who done did me wrong,  Off I go.   Or an event can be going down in a way that reminds me of another time, when things went south.  Click.

When that memory-burned reaction is triggered, I can feel the urge to respond in ways that are neither gracious nor realistic, that have more to do with an old learned reflex than any real thing.

I can't change those things.  I have no control over when those outside events happen.  I just don't.

But that doesn't render me helpless.  Assuming that creates a spiritual danger.

If I believe the world must never, ever, set me off, and that it is the responsibility of other persons not to set me off, I have functionally declared: I am no longer a person.  My God-given personhood, I am saying, is subordinate to a set of reflexive emotive responses that have everything to do with context and nothing to do with me.  I am not free to choose how I react, and in the absence of that agency, I am not really a being with free will and the capacity to choose.

I become a switch, a binary thing, under the control of the Other.  I cease to be moral.

But I am that trigger.  It belongs to me, because it is me.  As such, I am responsible for how I respond when it is actuated.  More than responsible.  I have authority over it.  I have an ethical duty to deal with it appropriately relative to my whole-life commitments.  And I figure, if we're using a metaphor, we can extend it a wee bit.

I keep the safety on.  Meaning, sure, the trigger is there, but most of the time, I've locked it down with other parts of myself.  There are parts of me...those oriented towards radical compassion, that understand context, that can reason and see beyond the moment of that "click."  Those are my safety.  They are stronger than the trigger, and unless all systems are go and I give that trigger permission to work, it can't result in anything.   The trigger doesn't get to make the final decision about whether I let fly.  It is not my whole self.   Switching off that multi-switch safety requires intentionality, which requires thought, which generally de-triggers the trigger.  So to speak.

And I keep my own finger off the trigger, because more often than we'd like to admit, "triggered" responses involve our own finger, pressing down.  We assume attack is coming, at any moment, from any angle, and if we are always on, always looking for a potential assailant?  We're going to go off.  Our finger, on that trigger, because damned if we're going to get caught out again.  Trauma does that, turns on the fight or flight, and won't shut it off.  I work under the assumption: I could hurt someone if I'm not careful.

Knowing our triggers really, really helps, if we're not going to make the world a more pain-filled place.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Hymn I Did Not Like

The survey came to me from the denomination, as surveys so often do.  We're Presbyterian, after all, and we're all about that data, 'bout that data, 'bout that data.

It was exploring the intent of my little church to switch up hymnals, to move from the "blue" hymnals that were brand-spankin' new way back when in the 1990s.  Now, we've got a choose-your-own-color jobbie that's been recently hatched, and they're eager to get it out there.

Some folks, the people who grump about everything, will search eagerly for the hymns that are missing.  Outrage!  My favorite one is MISSING!  Heresy!   But there is, as Jesus once purportedly said in that utterly uncanonical movie, no pleasing some people.

As I wrote when I first encountered "Glory To God," it's a perfectly lovely little collection of sacred music.

Old gospel standards, classic Reformed hymns, Taize music, and a sampling of the better contemporary Christian music?  Excellent.  When I went through it looking for stuff I'd happily have my tiny church sing--because I'd like to sing it myself--I found well over a hundred songs I knew and liked.  That's plenty of Jesus-song to go around.

But when the survey asked me to comment, I realized there was not space there for me to rant about my one issue with it.

There was just one section of the hymnal that bugged me.  Really, genuinely pushed my buttons.  It's deeply heretical, representing a worldview that may never, ever, ever been part of any collection of Presbyterian sacred music before.  It possibly represents an unacceptable conforming of our sacred musical tradition to the blight of modern culture, and if left unchecked, it will potentially corrupt the very soul of the faith.

Alright, sure, that's more than a bit hyperbolic, but I'm trying to generate the requisite sense of net-rage umbrage here.

I am talking, of course, about the page after page of copyright information, permissions, and licensing legalese at the end of the collection.

This--whether in the context of hymns or Christian Contemporary Music--rubbed me a little wrong.  Worrying about copyright on songs of praise to the Creator of the Universe just seems off to my soul.  Attribution?  Sure.  Absolutely.

But ownership?  It seems dissonant, as if any Christian would ever be within their purpose as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth if they sued other followers of Jesus to prevent them from singing and sharing sacred songs.  And here, a whole section, dedicated to the idea of ownership over sacredness.

Grump grump grump, I went.

It got me to wondering: is this new?  I mean, really new?  That I've got a bug in my bonnet about it doesn't mean it's a real thing.  Is this one of those things we do now because the church is increasingly steeped in the values of the marketplace?  Is this yet another manifestation of the ever spreading blight of profit-driven AmeriChrist, Inc.?  Or am I just reading things in?

So I asked my church.  Not the people.  The church building itself.

My church remembers things, it does.  It's an old space, filled with memories of what the church has been.

I have bookshelves in my office, ones that contain hymnals that run waaay back.  Not all the way back to the 1847 founding of the church, but a ways.  So I looked in each of those, to see what they had to say.  I started with the familiar  The Presbyterian Hymnal, deep blue from 1990, which we're using now.  No such section, although there's a wee paragraph in tiny text at the beginning, and little tiny "permissions" text at the bottom of each page.  Copyright is there.

Ratchet it back to The Hymnbook, dating from  1955, back when we were the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the USA.  It's paradoxically Red in that Red Scare era.

But not communist, evidently, because there's the copyright notice, comrade.  Same deal as the 1990 hymnal, just a note in a wee font, and a tiny little blurp of text with each hymn where needed.

Then, back to the deep-green-blue of The Hymnal of 1933, which...wait.  Huh.  Just like the brand spankin' new hymnal of 2015, there's a section in it, a couple of pages long, acknowledging permissions from dozens of individuals and publishers.  Well, golly.

But my tiny church was a "Southern" church, in keeping with the very Southern town in which it was founded, so we've also got the deep blue and bold-Gothic-lettered The Presbyterian Hymnal rising out of the Southern church from 1927, plus a dozen or more copies of the words-only mini-editions.  That gets by with one short paragraph on p. II, and some brief attributions.

But wait! There's more!

My office is in an 1827 building, so there are older music books still, ones used by my church in the late 19th and very early 20th century.

There it is, Gospel Hymns No.s 5 & 6, plus several pocket-sized versions, dating back to 1892.  There's a little note, handwritten in a neat cursive pencil, in the front of one.

"Please do not remove from the Presbyterian Sunday School," it says.

The date: September 19, 1902.  113 years ago.

There, on the same page, there's copyright notice, three lines long, small print.

And older still, from 1880, A Selection of Spiritual Songs for the Sunday-School, the cover faded and worn from use.  It's battered and coming apart, and two of the three copies in my office have no remaining copyright pages.  But there, on a worn-away front page in the most complete copy, an announcement:

"THE PUBLISHERS deem it necessary to call attention the the fact that a large part of the tunes and musical arrangements of this book are owned by them..."   And so on, and so forth.

So this has been around for a while, evidently.  The "copyright song" is an older hymn than I thought, one of the few that have carried through the over a century and a half of my church-memory.

It's been the case ever since publishers have printed sacred books as a business, meaning all the way back deep into the modern and industrial era.  Not all the way back, of course.  The Gutenberg Bible makes no mention of it, but then again, Gutenberg did kind of have a corner on the market.

Perhaps my reaction is a strange function of my own newness, of being part of an era when music is everywhere and accessible.  Music itself, almost anything you can imagine, is just a quick skip over to Youtube away.  And sheet music/arrangements?  Those can be found too, right there on the interwebs.

Or perhaps it's that I also spend so much mental time back in the first few centuries of the church, when the passing along of sacred song and story was entirely separate from commerce.  I doubt the original author of that little hymn that the Apostle Paul republished in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians was too put out about lack of attribution.

In that peculiar fusion of the ancient and the net-age, the idea of ownership still jars strangely against both the ease with which we now share and the fierce, unfettered energies of the early church.

But the songs still get shared, I suppose.  Which is what counts.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Touching Edward Graebler

Ed stopped, three steps from the top.

“Hoo,” he said, as spots speckled his vision, and he wavered slightly on his feet.   He reflexively tightened his grip on the rail, set down his bag, and caught his breath, as the rushing sound of the ocean filled his ears.  Six years ago, these stairs had been easy.  Third floor condo?  No problem.

But damn.  Damn.  The sweat beaded on his pale, freckled forehead, which extended back to the middle of his cranium.  A few wisps of reddish hair were combed feebly across the expanse, like rescue lines thrown from a sinking liner.

He breathed in, breathed out, easy and clean, and felt his strength return.  One last deep inhalation, and he picked up his bag.  One, two, three slow steps, hand still on the rail, and he was on the landing.  In front of him, his door, nondescript except for the faded false plastic brass that announced this was apartment Three C.  

He fumbled in his coat pocket for his keys, which weren’t there.  He tried his other pocket, then his left pants pocket, until finally fishing them gruntingly, awkwardly out of the overtight right front pocket of his loose-fit Levis.  Formerly loose fit.  Man.

The deadbolt stuck, as it always did, and he strained at it, the edges of the key sinking into his soft hand.  “C’mon.  Dammit.  C’mon.”

It clicked, and he turned the knob and went in.  He set down the bag on the small battered wood parquet entrance, and wandered into the narrow, spare galley kitchen.

The wall clock announced that it was two twenty three am, meaning it was actually two seventeen.  Below it, a calendar, off by a month.  Next to that, a wall rack, filled with bills and letters, stuffed to overflowing, half overdue.

Hell of a day, that’d been.  The kid behind the ticket counter had no clue what he was doing, none, and had mangled the count.  Way off.  That, and the projector in theater two was acting up, and the regional manager just decides that today is the day he was going to show up?  Jeezus.  Hell of a day.

Ed opened the fridge, pulled out his three remaining Mickey’s Big Mouths, and shuffled over to the couch.

He settled in, grabbed the remote, and the tv stirred to life.  He fumbled with the top button on his pants, which gave way abruptly.  Oh, man.  That was better.  Musta shrunk or something.  He popped open the malt liquor, and absent-mindedly picked at a bit of the Hardee’s burger left over in the fading salty red of his moustache.

In front of him, there was jabbering nothing.  QVC.  Why was it on QVC?  Oh, right.  Must have been that show selling knives and martial arts stuff, those were pretty cool.   He’d had a pair of nunchuks like that once, and could have gotten good at it, too, if he’d kept it up.  

But now it was just jewelry, lousy cheap crap.  A bored older woman wearing clown makeup droned on about how LOVELY it was and how LOVELY it would look on anyone and what a WONDERFUL opportunity it was to get a bargain on a LOVELY piece like this.  

Jeezus. Jeezus H.  Just like the stuff that Debbie used to watch, late into the night, back when she was maxing out their credit cards and she wanted to hide away from him.  It’d been, man, what, six months?  Six months since she’d called, too late as always, crying as always?  He couldn’t remember.

Shoulda known from day one that wasn’t going to work.  Too needy, too much of a flake-a-zoid.  Twelve years of marriage, and for what?  No kids, not even friends at the end of it.  

From the apartment below, the sound of music, the faint rumble of bass from an overlarge stereo, the sound of young voices and laughter.  Stupid kids.  Mom must be working the night shift again.  

He turned up the volume, just a little, just enough to drown it out.  No point banging on the floor.  Punks would just turn it up.  No respect, none these days.  Jeezus.

He took a swig of the Mickeys, the shallow taste of cold and malt and a nice warm drunk.  He pressed the button, snicked through the channels, one after another, all infomercials and music videos and old lousy movies he’d already seen.  Jeezus.  Click.  MTV, stupid music, too loud.  Click. VH1.  Boring.  Click. More infomercials.  Clickclick.

Then a brief flash of some young thing with huge hair and wildly false breasts, and the clicking stopped.   “That’s more like it,” he muttered, to the emptiness of the room.  Figures Skinemax would deliver.   He sighed, feeling the exhaustion down to his lizard brain, and watched as pert young starlets delivered canned lines.  Jeez.  What was even the name of this?  Like it matters.  

Might as well.  Stupid movie.  Probably seen it before, but he couldn’t remember.  It seemed familiar, for some reason.  Most stuff did.  He yawned, stretched, felt the dull ache in his chest and the ache of his hips.  

He slugged back the rest of the Mickeys, popped open the next one, felt the fatigue suddenly on him like a weight.  

The light from the cathode ray tube flickered across the surface of his face, a scatter of photons playing across his forty-eight-year-old flesh, illuminating every crease around his dimming, fluttering eyelids.  In the kitchen, the cheap battery-powered clock snicked away the seconds.

It is two forty seven AM Eastern Standard Time, on what is now Saturday, November 18, 1989.  In twenty-seven minutes and forty two seconds, Ed Graebler’s heart is going to fail, and he is going to die.

I know, because I have now watched him die one thousand, four hundred and thirty one times. Just as I have watched him born, one thousand four hundred and thirty two times.  His death is always exactly the same, every time, without fail.  And I have record, deep and sustained record, of every time he has died since the Institute first began observing him.  

Since EG1, our first complete observation, we have watched Edward Graebler die seven hundred and thirty seven billion, four hundred and sixty two million, one hundred and forty two thousand, nine hundred and twenty three deaths.  Every time, he dies in exactly the same way, at exactly the same moment relative to the singularity that birthed his time and space.  Thirteen point nine billion years, with his death precise to sub-picosecond tolerances every time.  Terminus.  The death of Edward Graebler.

At seven minutes four seconds to Terminus, he falls asleep.  His breathing becomes more and more erratic, a result of the apnea brought about by the forty two percent increase in body mass he has accrued over the past five years.  His heart is already damaged from three prior cardiac events, none of which resulted in any medical attention or any change in the pattern of his existence.

At five minutes twenty two seconds to terminus, he stops breathing.  This lasts fourteen point one seven two nine seconds, at which point he startles, gasps in a breath, and heart racing but not fully awake, his eyes flutter open for a moment, and he utters his last word.  It is reflexive, a semi-conscious exhalation.


His eyes close, and he shifts on the sofa, slightly to the right.  He continues breathing for precisely twenty two seconds, then stops, as the mass of fatty tissue presses down again.  This always marks the conclusion of respiration.

His system, suppressed by the alcohol, does not react.  His heart begins to beat more rapidly, then more rapidly still.  Sudden cardiac arrest begins at three minutes forty seven seconds to terminus, as the four chambers of his damaged mammalian heart begin to beat wildly and at odds with one another.  He does not regain consciousness.  Remote-field telemetrics of brain activity indicate that his oxygen deprived cortex ceases measurable and meaningful activity at EG Terminus Zero.

And with Terminus, localized spacetime becomes disentangled from the Graebler Effect, and the quantum processes of the multiverse can operate freely again.

We still do not understand why this is the case.  Which is why I am here, and why we study him.

When the gathered intelligences of the Transuniversal Union were in our first hundred milennia of stepping between variant spacetimes for travel, trade, and exploration, it was assumed that the only points of dimensional crossover in identically-physicked universes were singularities and wormholes.

That was until, in our survey of this particular quadrant of this particular spiral galaxy, the Institute discovered Ed Graebler.  

Ed Graebler, who is now struggling to stay awake, his head bobbing on the gelatinous collar of flesh beneath it, barely able to pay attention as music plays and two young women wrestle topless in oil on the 27 inch screen eight feet in front of him.  

Ed Graebler, who every day seems to exist without any awareness of his passing life, who drifts from the labor he does not like to the apartment he hates in a car that he feels nothing about. 

Ed Graebler, who is an inextricable and inexplicably necessary component of the fabric of every known universe.

Of all of the astounding and marvelous things sentient life has discovered in exploring the infinity of the habitable multiverse, Ed Graebler is perhaps the most miraculous.

That first expedition, set on mapping points of intersection between different times and spaces, registered a strange damping of the quantum field in the outer arm of one nondescript but strangely recurrent galaxy, like all of the variant branes of the ‘verse had been tightly sown together in one spot.   Travel towards the rocky planet that appeared to be the source of the anomaly proved immensely difficult.  Unless a very particular and seemingly random path was pursued, vessels would fail, or spontaneously detonate, or have their drives shut down.  Or vanish into emptiness.

It was as if a field was cast from that world like a beam, not just in the time and space where it was first discovered, but in every time and space in which that world manifested.  Even going back across the temporal dimension, the planet resisted our efforts.  

Some strange, deeply alien, and unknowable intelligence was bending the fabric of time and space itself, casting out spirals of eldritch warping semi-awareness that bent probability.  

Fate itself was being constrained at a quantum level, forced into an order that shattered any effort to defy it.  It was terrifying.  We were stymied.  Some took that harder than others.

The Tzann Collective, after losing a reconnaissance mission to what appeared to be an intentionally-created fusion core meltdown, interpreted this as a willful act of war, and launched a vast armada of a thousand ships to annihilate the planet from which this energy emanated.  It was led by every member of the Tzann hereditary autarky, who staked their ten thousand year rule on exacting vengeance.  The entire fleet, autarchs and all, vanished twelve parsecs from their destination.  Just gone.  No debris.  Nothing.  The Tzann fell back into anarchy in all seven of their systems, and it was at this point that the Institute began trying different, subtler approaches.

We teased and prodded, angling our way in with small and shielded probes.  We discovered the world, this “Earth,” odd and backward and being slowly ruined by a barbarous, promising, semi-social biped.  And among these fleeting, short lived primates, just one seemed to be the locus of all of this distortion.

And there he is.

I watch him now, as he pops open his third Mickeys Big Mouth, which he drinks clumsily, pointlessly, spilling it down the front of his sweat-stained collar shirt.  He will be asleep in minutes, and the slight increase in his blood alcohol level will make the difference between his living and dying.  

He cannot be saved.  He will always die.  And yet we are helpless before him.  

We could approach and come close to observe, but only if Ed Graebler did not notice us.  Not simply that.  No-one he ever knew and nothing about his culture or anything he has ever known could register our presence.  Meaning, it was physically and materially impossible for that to be the case.  

No evidence of the Transuniversal Union or the Institute could impinge on who he was, and no amount of our effort could change that.  His life could not change, not by a single twitch of a single subatomic particle.  His awareness, and all of the biological processes and complex arrangements of matter that made his peculiar sentience possible?  It was a physical constant, seared by some unknowable and terrifying alien force into the fabric of all possible existences.  

After first observation, we moved to another spacetime with the same set of cosmological constants.  There, in a functionally identical spiral galaxy, we found him again, at precisely the same spatio-temporal coordinates.  Ed Graebler in his little apartment, divorced, overweight, mildly depressed and in a dead-end job.  He was the same.  Exactly, in every measurable way, with no quantum variances.  

It was unheard of.  It upended everything we knew.

As we have known for gigayears, most beings exist across times and spaces in an infinity of forms, with every possible reality being manifest in their different iterations.  It is what makes us free and sentient.  It is also amusing to cross boundaries and meet variant versions of yourself.  Most entertaining.

But though there are an infinity of times and spaces, there is only one Ed Graebler.  He exists in precisely the same way, unchanging and unchangeable, in every single universe in which he could possibly exist.  From the moment of his conception to the moment of his death, his whole existence is exactly the same.  

He is born at the same moment.  When he is five years old, he falls and breaks his leg.  When he is fourteen, he becomes hopelessly infatuated with the same girl.  He works the same jobs, fails in the same ways, and dies right on time at forty-eight years of age.

And now, in the monitoring field of a hundred carefully placed nano-observation units, Edward Graebler snores.  Duration, one point three seconds, at 87.723 decibels precisely, the snore aligning with every prior record of that same snore in every one of the billions of habitable universes in which we’ve encountered him.

For some reason that we do not yet grasp, he is entangled on a subatomic level only with himself everywhere.

And nothing around him can change if that change would change his awareness in even the slightest way.  Edward Graebler is a fundamental cosmological constant, from Edgenesis until Terminus, the moment of his dying.

There had been some argument among Graeblerist scholars as to the precise timing of Terminus.  Some, particularly early in EG Observation, had suggested that Terminus came with the complete cessation of all organic process, sometime between four and seven hours after the end of cognitive process.  This was a viable theory, and actively disputed, until the still debated intervention at the conclusion of Graebler Iteration 9.07B9z756.

Dr. K’zant Mr’aash of the School Insidious hired a Krant mercenary destroyer, which obliterated the rocky world precisely one second after Graebler brain death but while organic process was still underway, thus proving definitively that the damping effect on quantum variance was delimited by Graebler’s awareness.  

Brilliant, albeit genocidal.  Dr. Mr’aash was both awarded the Medal of Knowledge and duly censured for such mindless butchery of billions of sentient beings.

Nothing, absolutely nothing can change what Graebler encounters, so long as he encounters it.   His ex-wife Debbie is an excellent example.  She must be the same in relation to him, in every universe.  Every exchange, every conversation, every moment, the same.  Six months ago, after their last conversation, her life opens up.

In Graebler Iteration 9.07B9z756, for example, she is obliterated by the Krant destroyer, along with all of the other inhabitants of her planet.  In many, she simply lives alone and dies young.  In a few, she rebuilds her life.  In several--my sentimental favorites--we chose to make contact, and she became revered and honored, a transdimensional celebrity.  A goddess. Debbie Graebler, the closest being to the EG event.

He stirs, and his chest heaves, and he gasps.

“Jeezus,” he exhales, mindlessly.  The time is close.  Forty eight years, I have observed, hidden, and now Terminus is just moments away again.

Being hidden is vital, and my carefully managed shielding is all that saves me from annihilation.  The further away one is from Graebler’s awareness, the freer one is.  Close in?  You are only free if you remain hidden.  He defines all things he encounters.

This has leading to some unsettling speculation on the part of some more radical Graeblerists.  Why *must* anyone exist on this particular world?  Only if Edward Graebler’s life was impacted by them. This hypothesis has been tested in literally billions of studies, and it is both replicable and consistent.

But deeper: Why is every habitable universe a certain age?  Because of that show Edward Graebler must always watch on PBS nine years before his death, with the warm buttery voice talking about billions and billions of years.  

Why are some stars and planets and galaxies in certain positions at this moment in every spacetime, while others are not?  Because Edward Graebler observed them, or did not.

It’s just so damned peculiar.  

Now, now my sensor array indicates cardiac failure under way.  His brain is beginning to die, starved of oxygen, shutting down.

We have attempted to model and replicate what he is perceiving in these last moments, what this protean consciousness is processing as it dies.  It didn’t tell us anything.  Mostly, he is dreaming about a Hardee's bacon cheeseburger, his subconscious beginning to fragment as he ceases to be.  There is a moment of light, a surge, and then a cessation.  

I observe and record through a hundred sub-microscopic eyes and sensors, monitoring everything about him as he twitches and heaves his way to death.  It is strangely fascinating, and though I have observed it more than a thousand times, I always catch a new detail.  

The sweat.  The color his neurons are perceiving, in the spectrum of gold and the light of his world’s sun.  

He is still.  And...Terminus.

My monitoring array marks the energies around quantum release, as the fabric of the universe decouples from the Graebler Effect, different now.  I begin the process of preparation, drawing in the equipment for the next Graebler observation in the next spacetime, spooling the last of the data through the Institute’s transdimensional uplink.

His flesh rests, a lifeless mound of meat on the old threadbare sofa.

A single strand of fading red hair rests on his sweaty, slowly cooling face.  It flickers, slightly, in the changing light cast by the simulated primate copulations on the screen before him.

I deactivate my field generator, and move over to where I can see his face with my own organic sensorium.  I reach out with a tendril, and gently move the hair, as I have before so many times.  The familiar touch makes my vocal sacs thrum in the oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, involuntarily.

I am touching Edward Graebler.

“Jeezus.  Jeezus H.”

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I Have A Dog That Is A Cat

My dog is a cat.

There she is.  Clearly, she is a cat.

I realize that you might not have the sophistication to realize this, and that you might hold the reactionary and oppressive delusion that just because you label an animal as a "dog," it must fit to your stereotypical and outdated assumptions about "dogness" and "catness."

But this is simply because you are not as smart as me.  In your ignorance, you have chosen to remain mired in culturally-mediated bias, in which you have clung to backwards and shallow thinking about what dogs and cats are.

Let me explain this to you, simply, because, obviously, you do not share my remarkable insight into the true reality of my "dog."

My "dog" is a quadruped, a trait that is a clear indication of a cat.  She has fur, which, again, makes my assertion that she is a cat even more trenchant.  When I call my "dog," she often looks at me listlessly, or fails to respond entirely, choosing to stare out the window instead.    Can you imagine anything more catlike?  She likes to be petted, but only sometimes, and on her own terms.  How much clearer can it be?  My "dog" is a cat.

What?  You are unconvinced?  Sigh.  I will go on, although I find your willfulness tiresome.

Some of you have argued, from your shallow and limited understanding of biology, that dogs are genetically different from cats.  You have pointed out, in your simplistic way, that canis lupis familiaris occupies a distinct and separate place in classical taxonomy from felis silvestrus catus.

First, let me say that I am offended at the inherently oppressive character of that statement.  What right does Linneaus have to define what is "dog" and what is "cat?"

But I also know that science is on my side.  Having quickly googled it, I know that my "dog" shares eighty-two percent of her genetic material with the animals we both know as cats.  Eighty two percent!  That's a clear majority.  Genetically, my "dog" is mostly a cat, which entirely justifies my statement.   

See how right I am?  It cannot be denied, because Science.  Just...Science.


You still think I'm wrong?  Clearly, we need to end this conversation.  You have so much growing and learning to do, and I simply do not have the time to continue working you through your clearly deep-seated issues.

And anyway, I need to go walk my cat.

Friday, March 13, 2015

When I Can Turn You Off

And with a faint click, he vanished.

It was a peculiar moment, one worthy of reflection.  I'd engaged with this particular soul exclusively online, beginning years and years ago at the dawn of social media.  Sharp and smart and interestingly different, his voice was worth connecting with.  It tracked across several different venues, and at times was fascinating and profoundly enriching.  In those days, his thoughts and his suggestions were rich and alive, his person both warm and thoughtful and passionate.  I remember some of those exchanges specifically and fondly.

As the years went by, the character of the exchange shifted, as things often do when personalities age.  Or perhaps it was the transition of media formats.  

In Facebook's funhouse mirror, my encounter with him evolved.  His was an outsized presence, but one that created less and reposted more.  His own writing and the output of his considerable mind faded.  In its place, an outpouring, link after link, meme after meme.  Less and less like a person in conversation, more and more like a neuron firing or a muscle fiber twitching.  His voice--his person--felt relegated to his own comments section.

Some of those passed-on things were fascinating.  Some were not.

Increasingly, they were not, and as the years progressed, they showed the output of a life increasingly in dis-ease, lost in the machine, a scattered entropy of conspiracy thinking and anarcho-nihilistic outrage.  Opportunities for exchange died.  I watched from the sidelines as his soul paced back and forth, back and forth, a caged panther in a fading roadside zoo.

On one recent repost, for reasons I do not know, I commented on what seemed a strange dissonance between the post--propaganda from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party--and his fiercely independent anarchistic worldview.  In response, a dismissive snarl and a snap, which in both tone and semiotics surfaced a simple truth that was already known to me.  

I was not talking to a friend, who would take that friendship as an assumed foundation for initiating conversation.  I was a troll, just a faceless assailant to be labeled, dismissed, and batted down.

I reflected on a response, or a conversation, but then stopped.  Here, a human being who would not know me if I passed him on the street.  Why continue?  Why respond at all?  Why maintain connection?  I could no longer find a reason, or the desire.

So click went the trackpad, and the connection was gone.  

It was too easy.

I had one less...what?  Friend?  No, not really.  

I'm sure that his humanity resides somewhere, where his life has places of warmth and friendship.  But I was not connected to that part of his being in any meaningful way, so much so that I am reasonably certain that my quiet disconnection will go unnoticed.  I was just one of thousands of "friends," so far over the Dunbar number that my blinking out will go as unnoticed as if Cor Caroli simply ceased to shine in the night sky.

It felt--oddly so--like just turning off a television, left on in an empty room.  Not the complex agony of setting aside a Thou, with the deep latticework of real organic bonds.  It was just the consumer convenience of discarding an It.

So strange, this new media era.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Throwing Things At Each Other

It was an aside, one of those remnants that come with surprising frequency whenever I putter around in ancient languages as part of my sermon prep.

It was the story of Jesus going out to be tempted in the wilderness, to be tempted by "the devil."

Only the transliteration got all literal, and presented the Greek word diabolos not at the word "devil," but as its prefix and root.

He was tempted in the wilderness by the "thru-caster," it said.   Huh, I thought.

So I looked up the root of the word "devil," and found that it comes from the root word bolos, or "to throw," and dia, a polyvalent prefix meaning "through" or "between."

The "devil," then, is the personification of relationship projectiles.  It evokes a throwing-between, not in the "friendly game of catch" sort of way, but in the "I intend this to hurt you" sort of way.

Taken that way, the word speaks to both distance between souls and violence directed towards another, as we stand at a remove and lob hatred at one another.  That can be physical, or it can be verbal.

Diabolos can also mean "throwing through," which reminded me of the verb "to defenestrate," the act of hurling an enemy--or an object--through a window.

Again, it is the personification of violence, inflicted upon or directed towards an object of hatred.

Either way, it seems like a fair description of the heart of our blighted world's unpleasantness.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Wrong Tree

Having watched and listened to the dear departed Carl Sagan talking about our tiny, fragile world recently, I found myself watching the next video that spooled up on that particular YouTube playlist.  I love listening to Carl, who in his gentle warmth and wonder my soul, at much more inviting than Mr. Degrasse-Tyson, the celebrity scientist du jour.  Or maybe I'm just cheesed at Degrasse-Tyson for his one great scientific achievement, which was leading the charge for the demoting of Pluto from its status as a planet.  Grrr.

Sagan was not a theist, not at all.  A "strong agnostic," perhaps, with the weight heavily on the doubt. Most specifically, he had beef with two things:  

First, that human beings should have the arrogance to imagine that God--should such a being exist--is like us.  For that, he relies on that passage of Genesis where the Creator of the Universe makes us "in his image."

God, a bipedal hominid?  How preposterous!  Against this idea, he recounted the writings of the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who mocked the human propensity to create deities that resembled themselves.  If cows made gods, they'd look like cows.  When cultures make gods, they look like themselves.  How silly!  How arrogant.

Which would be fine, if that had been meant as a critique of theism itself.  Given that Xenophanes was one of the first Greek monotheists?   It's not.  

The core of Xenophanes' argument was not a critique of the idea of God, but of the absurdity of anthropomorphizing such a being.    It's the difference between Zeus and the I AM THAT I AM, between Storm from the X-Men and the One who Speaks from the Whirlwind.

So, sure, yeah, God's ways are not our ways.  We do get that, my friend.  Point taken. 

Second?  The second and more substantial thing that struck me was Carl Sagan's recounting of the story of the garden in Genesis.  In Sagan's telling, what happens in Eden is simple.  We are forbidden to eat of the Tree of Knowledge.  We are kept from truth, kept from exploration, kept from the joys of discovery.  Humankind in Eden exists in ignorance, willfully suppressed by an oppressive, controlling Deity.

In this line of thinking, the Eden of Torah may be perfect, but it is a dark perfection, in which we are denied the right to know and wonder and explore, trapped forever in a stunted, childish state.  This is recounted as an indictment against all of the faith traditions that arise from that story.  Even in our most primal story, we are oppressive, and the enemy of science. 

It's a familiar spin, casting out the second of the two Genesis stories as a functional variant of the Prometheus myth, with the serpent in the role of Prometheus, the giver of fire and knowledge.  In that telling, God is the dark demiurge, the one who would keep humanity eternally subjugated.  That's the take of the ancient Gnostics, who saw only malignance and oppression in the story of the Garden, and for whom the serpent is Christ.  Interesting folks, the Gnostics.

It'd be a fair critique, if the Tree that shows up in that story from Torah was the Tree of Knowledge.

But it isn't.   

In that story, the tree is מֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָ.  
It is me-esh haddat towb warah, the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil."  
What the adam, which means "creature of dirt" is warned against is not knowledge itself.  Everything already exists in the garden, in a state of primal, archetypal goodness.  All that--every creature, every plant, everything--can be known, explored, named, and wondered at.  That is, in fact, stated as humanity's purpose.  It is a place of learning and delight, in which every choice is good.
The warning is against being able to know and choose evil. God knows what is evil, what is broken, what will bring woe and hatred and oppression, and chose not to place it in the garden.

Which is why the story of Eden does not involve God being really cheesed off at the ish and the isshah for drawing up the specs for an unauthorized large Hadron Collider.  
The knowledge they get from that tree is social shame.  What they have learned is not the capacity to help and support one another--their created purpose--but the ability to pass blame and recrimination.

And there, from context and purpose, I must demur from the gnostic/atheist spin on that story.   It's just not what it says, or the reason for its telling.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lessons for a Small World

It was a reflection that came to me, as things often do, as I was walking.

I was musing on the seeming insanity of my devoting so much time to studying small faith communities, on what possible relevance that might have to the great wild churn of faith.  So much of what makes for viable small faith communities seems alien to the society in which I live, to success and expansion.  Think big!  Think corporate!  Think growth growth growth!

Small churches aren't that.  They're tribes and families, an old and deeply human way of being together.  But they're not reflective of the dynamism of our technological culture.  It feels out of step with both our globalism and our deepening ability to virtually surround ourselves with exactly the folks we want to be with.

If you don't like a faith community, your remedy is simple.  You just leave it.  If the pastor preaches something that isn't exactly what you think is true, or if someone does something that steps on your toes, you just go somewhere else.  Go to another church that better suits you.  Or stop going to church at all.  It's your choice.  We're all free to leave, thank the Maker.  Find the place that is exactly right for you, our society says, and so we do.

That's a good thing, on so many levels.  Being forced to remain in oppressive community is a nightmare.  Being forced to stay in a place where you cannot be yourself and authentic is a terrible thing.

And small can take work.  The work of seeking consensus, the mutual forbearance and patience necessary to sustain the life of little churches?  That can be hard, particularly if you feel passionately about X or have found your life's purpose in Y.  It is much, much easier to seek out the ideal, the community where X is everyone's passion and everyone around you believes Y.

You can't do this in healthy small churches.  You just can't.  There, kindness, patience, and forbearance must rule.  A willingness to show grace in authentic difference has to abide, or the whole thing comes apart.  Or it devolves into darker and unhealthy things, closed off and controlling, bitter and shallow and broken.

I can see the relevance of the small church to healthy family life and relationships.  It bears a strong resemblance to those things.  A willingness to live graciously with difference and not seek your own interest above your partner's life is a vital part of any marriage or relationship.  The same is true in the tribe.  Power and self-seeking tear the tribe apart.

But in the "grand scheme of things?"  I've struggled.  In my darker moments, tiny churches feel quaint, weak, and irrelevant cast against the grand bright scale of our world, where power and profit and growth and ideology rule.

Then, out of some deep recess of my subconscious, I remembered that little talk Carl gave once, about a little blue dust mote.  Oh, love him though I do, he and I aren't on the same page on a few things.  But that's OK.  We agree very, very deeply on this: all we know and everything we are exists in a tiny, limited space.

We are creatures of a small planet, just one.  And we can't leave, not yet, not in any meaningful numbers and not for any significant period of time.  When we imagine that the virtual worlds we create for ourselves are reflective of our reality, those places where we surround ourselves only with People Like Us (tm)?  We're deluding ourselves.  When we surround ourselves with like-thinkers, the hum of that echo chamber comforting in our ears?  It's a falsehood.

This world is itself a small community, a little tiny island in a vast and inhospitable ocean.  There is nowhere else for us to go.  We can't just pack up and storm off because of our passion for X or our belief that Y is the one true way.

We have to be connected, because we are.  We're stuck here together, on this tiny, tiny world.

And suddenly, the learnings about what it means to live graciously in smallness seemed relevant again.