Thursday, April 30, 2015

Justice in a Tribe of Tribes

If I chose, I could ignore Baltimore completely.

Around me, what I encounter tells me only that it is spring, and that life goes busily on.  The only riot I see is a riot of pinks and whites, as the dogwoods explode into flower.  The only thing rising up is the grass, and the dandelions, and the bright little flowers in my strawberry patches.  When I listen out the window, no human voices are raised in conflict, though the birds fill the morning with their lewd and violent shouting.

I could ignore Baltimore, completely.  Just steer away from the news, lose myself in Buzzfeed and Colossal and and Avengers hype-fanboying, and it is gone, as if it didn't happen at all.  Which is where low-attention-span America will be, I'm sure, in another week.  Balti-what?  What state is that in again?

We, as a nation, are a tribe of tribes, a people of many disparate stories and histories.  We inhabit different lands, tell ourselves different stories from our family histories, and live out different lives.

What happens in Baltimore is far removed from the place, life, and story of my particular tribe.  It would be so easy to simply ignore it.

Only I have another story, one that I have both adopted and married into, which stirs and tickles and whispers warning to my soul.  It is the ancient story of another nation that was a tribe of tribes, a family of families.

In that story, there are rules laid out, rules that establish how different tribes are to live together under one roof.  Here is how you should keep the house in order, it says.  Here's how you keep the house together.  Oikonomia, the word is, in the Greek.  Economy.  "House rules."

For the peoples that made up Israel, a central rule for the covenant economy was this: do not let things get out of balance.  Do not allow one tribe to rule over all the others, either by the power of the sword or by gathering in the wealth of all the others.  If that happens, the nation will fall apart, ceasing to be a people of shared story.  Those with the wealth will separate themselves out from their debt-enslaved brothers and sisters.  Those who struggle will see and know only hopelessness.  Tribe will turn against tribe, in condescension or resentment.

And the people, weakened, will fall.

Israel and Judah, as it so happened, proved to be not quite so good at actually implementing that rule.

And neither are we.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Stranger at the Door

The knock came on the door late in the evening, well after eleven.

The dogs, of course, were set off a-barking, and I was summoned upstairs by my wife to see who it was.

Just about a minute later, we let her into our house.   She was lost and confused, but clearly no threat.  She was totally trusting, even though we'd never ever met.  Our dog...being a gentle but occasionally suspicious sort...took to her right away, but we're dog-sitting our dog-in-law, who can get aggressive with strangers, so we sealed her away in the kitchen.

We tried to sort things out with her for a while, and in the meantime, our unexpected guest paced around anxiously.  We offered a snack and water, which she eagerly accepted, guzzling the water like she'd not had any in weeks, after which she flopped around on the floor for a while and tried to get us to rub her belly.

She was a dog, of course, a big derpy and utterly trusting yellow lab.  "Luna," we learned, from her collar.  A neighbor from a few houses down was walking home from a late night of futbol at a local field, saw her running around in the darkness, and thought that she might be our dog.

Hence the knock, which is usually beyond the ability of yellow labs.

She was clearly friendly, so we decided the best thing to do was to host her for a while as we figured out where she came from.

We put in calls to the numbers on her tags and collar, and found our way to the family that was at that very moment driving around the neighborhood in the darkness anxiously looking for their dog.

Luna, I learned from the immensely grateful dad who pulled up just a few minutes later, had spotted one of the foxes in the neighborhood, and gone barreling off in pursuit, leaping fences and generally having a delightful adventure.

After she'd left, having been fed and watered, I found myself reflecting on just how neighborly she'd been, and how much she'd evoked neighborliness in us.

Not every dog is that pleasant, I'll admit.  But her assumption was that we were her friends, that we were there to help.  She wasn't anxious, or afraid, or aggressive, or defensive.  Being a dog and all, she was utterly oblivious to the endless whispering madness of our fear-based profit-media and our social-media hysteria.

Dogs may have co-evolved with us as social animals, but that part of what we are becoming as social creatures they have blessedly missed.  Not for a moment did she fret about us, or worry about accepting the shelter of our home.  She was just happy to take what hospitality we had to offer.

It's one of the reasons it's good to keep them around, I think.  They remind us of things we forget about ourselves.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Puppies, Babies, and Other Organic Processes

It was a little distractoid, one of the great torrent that flow across the part of my media consciousness set to "science."

It had to do with puppies, which is why it was circulating so much over the interwebs.  Because, well, puppies.  Awww.  It involved research recently published in Science magazine, which assessed the connection between humans and our canine friends.  The underlying concept: when dogs and people look at one another, there's a measurable neurobiological response.  Pleasure hormones are released and can be measured, in much the same way that they come a-popping into our cortices when we look at babies.

Awww.  Babies.

The concept behind the research: that human beings and dogs "co-evolved" in such a way that their socially-mediated responses to one another were tricked into registering cross-species eye-contact in the same way homo sapiens sapiens registers human to human eye contact.  Both humans and dogs register the same response, meaning that when you get the warm fuzzies from your dog looking at you, it is getting the same warm fuzzies from looking at a human.

Awww.  Humans.

On the one hand, I do find this sort of thing interesting.  Observing the way that human beings have developed a sense of connection with another species, and how we seem to share the same measurable reaction to one another?  It's what science does, and that's cool on many levels.

But on other levels, something jars in me when I see the interaction between living beings reduced to chemical process and learned behaviors.  If I perceive you perceiving me, there's something more at play than millennia of random selection and neurochemical reinforcement.  If we allow ourselves to primarily conceptualize those connections in that way, as about the sub-processes underlying our awareness, then something is diminished.

I am not engaged in a moment of playful delight with a furry pal.  "I" am an array of organic reactions participating in a complex sequence of evolutionarily mediated interactions with another organic system that has co-evolved to be responsive to the same social inputs.

This is true, of course.  It is.

But "I" become less present in that understanding, less engaged.  The relationship can become deconstructed to the point of non-existence.

We lose the soul of it, the geist of it, and in that risk losing our way.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Myth and Franchise

The interwebs are abuzz with chatter these last few days over the latest teaser-trailer for the Christmas-release-blockbuster of the next installment of the Star Wars saga.

Fanboys and fangirls are all squealing...or is that "squeeing"...over what looks like it might be an actually watchable movie.  A palate-cleanser, I suppose, after the agonizing prequels.

It's a professional grade reboot, clearly, from a practiced and proven rebooter.  There's evidence of character development and human-scale interpersonal narrative.  There's the evocative use of prior musical and visual themes.  There's the now-requisite "handoff" from the prior generation, with first-gen actors reprising iconic characters to give the imprimatur of canon.  Think Shatner for the Star Trek Next Gen films, or Nimoy in the first JJ Abrams Star Trek.

When Harrison Ford announces that "we're home," that's exactly the feel that's meant to be teased.  We have finally made it to that place we wanted to be.  This is going to honor the soaring myth of our childhood.  You will be able to embrace the renewal of the mythic tale with big fanny fan love. it myth?  Is it really?

Myth, after all, is storytelling, turned to the task of shaping purpose and self-understanding.

I wonder at this, because I do not believe that myth can be monetized and remain myth.

And Lord have Mercy, but is this myth marketized.  A major corporation purchased the franchise for $4 billion, after all.  Disney's absorption of LucasArts had nothing to do with the epic-scale space-opera mythopoetics that established these films as icons.  Or about storytelling as something that binds community together and creates a sense of common purpose, as a gifted protocol droid spins out a wonderful tale around a fire.

It's about the acquisition of a franchise with significant and proven ROI potential, an established global brand that can be leveraged to both increase Disney's near term shareholder return and increase quarterly profits on a five to ten year time horizon.  It's about creating ten consecutive quarters of rising share prices, representing a 100% increase in DIS market capitalization since LucasArts and its intellectual property holdings were absorbed, with a total rise in market cap of nearly 90 billion USD.

I can't seem, for the life of me, to forget that.  It'd be more fun if I could yield to the great orgy porgy of it all.  It really would.

Because as it is, I can't get past having a bad feeling about this.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Tomb of the Emergent Christian

I'm a sentinel of sorts, now, standing vigil over one of the last markers of a movement that flickered and died.

After a brief conversation, Presbymergent shut down its Facebook presence many moons ago.  As the remnant of folks left as admins all wanted to keep the page up as an archive of sorts, I volunteered to serve that end.  For a page to exist, there has to be at least one admin, and so that's what I've become.

I am the last Presbymergent on Facebook.

Emergence was a thing, for a while, a decade ago.  It rose out of two simultaneous threads.

In the old-line denominations, emergence was a reaction to the stultifying institutional inertia that can makes denominational ministry such an awkward, lumbering, graceless thing.  Be open to the new!  Don't crush everything under the weight of bureaucratic anxiety management processes and protocols!

For those who'd been brought up in the corporate dynamics of the megachurch world, emergence was a reaction to the synthetic falseness of business-model Christianity.  Be flexible!  Be organic!  Be less like a JeezMart, and more like a gathering of creative friends!

The spur to emergence in both of these milieu was the advent of new and dynamic media, which seemed to offer the promise of communities dynamically being amazing on the interwebs together.  It had the potential to stir the oldlines to new life, and bring authenticity to the groupspeak of evangelicalese.

And it didn't work.

Just didn't take.  The reasons were varied and complex.  Emergent folk weren't really... um ... how to put
this... "organizational" people.  Efforts to fuse the ethos of generative entropy with articles of incorporation and denominational schtuff proved untenable.  I know.  I was on that committee.

That, and we manifested the counterintuitive tendency of anarchists to over-organize, creating such complex structures to insure that every voice is heard that no decision can ever possibly be made.

There were other things.

There was a whole bunch of deconstruction, but not much construction or permission-giving to simply create together.  As the winds tousled our hair, we talked about how to make a sail, and lamented the incompetence and abusiveness of other sail-makers, and dreamed about new ways to harness the wind.

But we did not, in all of that, get around to making a sail.

And so the energy dispersed, like winds uncaught.

What I find fascinating, honestly, is that people still come by on social media.  For a while, folks would post stuff...political links, self-serving links.  Those, I deleted, and shut down unmoderated posting permissions.

Such is the task of a sentinel.

But other people still come and leave their "likes," expressing approval, one or so every week.  I love those little moments.

It's like the roses and cognac, left by masked visitors on Poe's grave, to honor what was.  Or those leavings on the grave of F. Scott and Zelda, little trinkets, wine and beads, tokens of respect.

Oh, this was a lovely thing, those likes seem to be saying.  What it could have been...

So it goes, when you stand vigil at the grave of a movement.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Moral Phenomena

I came across it, just a link to a story, part of the endless fountain of distract-o-media that some random algorithm creates Just For Me.

It was a random thing, a small but intensely painful tragedy, a bit of local news that fluttered briefly to the subsurface of the collective consciousness before floating down again into the dark realm of the forgotten.

It involved an Arizona mom of twin toddlers, walking them on a path on the side of a drainage culvert.  They were in their jogging stroller.

And a wasp or a bee started pestering them.  Just buzzing about, as stinging insects do.  The mom swatted at it, and it got angry, and she swatted more.  In that process, she let go of the stroller for just a moment.  And the stroller, being on an incline and being a jogging stroller, rolled down the sidewalk, then off it.  She raced after it, but could not catch her children.  The stroller tumbled into the culvert, filled with fast flowing water, and though she threw herself in after it, and desperately tried to wrestle it to the bank, the current tore the stroller from her grasp.

Both of her little ones drowned, still strapped into their stroller.  It was tragic, and heartbreaking, and absurd.  Here, a simple cascade of events, a moment of distraction...almost laughable, in how trivial and familiar and human it was...and utterly devastating.


We want to ascribe purpose to such things, to weave them into some plan or intent.  We want to feel that there's a reason behind them, some larger justification.  But I just can't believe it is so.  We are small, and we break easily, and we all die.  Two deaths every second of every day, or so the statistics about human dying go.  Some are expected, others tragic and untimely.  Every one, the momentous end to a story.  Every one, just a droplet diffused in the endless tide of our dying.

But are such tragic things imbued with purpose?

Meaning: are they part of some great moral narrative?

One the one hand, you can say, no, no they're not.  My ol' buddy Nietzsche certainly would.  "There are no moral phenomena," he'd say.  "Only moral interpretation of phenomena."  For those moments of mortal fragility, I'd agree.  There is no moral imperative demanding the deaths of those little twins, or the deaths of that pastor-couple who just happened to be driving under a bridge at the exact instant that part of our crumbling infrastructure crumbled.

The Tower of Siloam falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, say I, willfully mashing up my scripture.

But then there are those phenomena that only occur because sentience chooses them.  Actions taken from my moral purpose are non-random, and directly serve a moral end.  When I choose to do X because my faith demands it of me, that is a moral phenomena.  That act has ontological impacts, meaning, it's a real thing, dude.

Like comforting the bereaved.  That's real.  Like an embrace, or a kind word, or showing respect to a human being used to being mistreated.  Like a warm meal, given to an empty stomach.

Or words of forgiveness, delivered from a place where a curse might be expected.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Guilty of Being Not Guilty

The term has a strange Orwellian flavor to it:  "Unsubstantiated neglect."

That's the official reason that two parents from my metro area are being monitored by Maryland's Child Protective Services, after they keep insisting that their children should be allowed to go play in playgrounds by themselves.

It's radically countercultural in this era, and in this region in particular, where the roar and rotor-wash of helicopter parenting is the norm.  But with children being taken into custody by police and then transferred to Child Protective Services after concerned citizens report them "walking" and "playing," we're getting a sense of the kind of culture we've created.

It's the kind of culture that requires a governmental agency to monitor parents who have been, and these are the formal terms, "found responsible" for "unsubstantiated neglect."  What that means is: we did not find enough evidence to indicate that you are guilty of neglect, therefore, our finding is you are responsible for "unsubstantiated neglect."

We have no evidence, but we have a finding.  It's like saying you're not-not-guilty of a crime. We can't prove you guilty of anything, but you are now under surveillance.

Guilty of being not proven guilty?  It feels, on the surface, very newspeaky.

And as much as the idea that we have a system that makes this possible freaks the bejabbers out of me, I ask myself: how did we get here?

Good intentions.  Really.

Say you're a neighbor, and you've heard shouting and crying repeatedly from a house, the sounds of lives coming off of the rails.  After seeing a young child bruised and with a black eye following what sounded like a profanity laced tirade, you feel morally obligated to report it.  CPS investigates, but there's just not enough evidence to warrant a finding of neglect.  The house is neat, the kids seem quiet but otherwise fine, the parents have explanations.

Should CPS just shrug that off, or forget it?  How do you "mark" a concern?  And so you get the idea that the system should register "unsubstantiated neglect."  If it didn't?  What if that child ends up in the hospital in critical condition, and they said, well, sure, we had been called, but we didn't find anything?  That'd be a problem.  We'd have issue with it.

So as difficult as I find the police and official response to this, I can see where it comes from.  And why, in a saner culture, it might even make sense.

If our culture was healthy, and had healthy attitudes towards raising children, there'd be no issue here.

But we are...a little off.  We are desperately anxious, absorbed by fears that are carefully stoked by media and our unforgiving, willfully uncertain, ever changing culture.

So we cling to control.  We helicopter over our children.  And the state mirrors our culture, our anxiety, our carefully planned systems of insuring that everything is managed and nothing is left to chance.  We are suspicious, untrusting, ever on edge.  We want safety, security, certainty, above all else.

And isn't that a good thing, to want for your children?

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions.

Falling Apart

It was that sort of evening.  I was planning on getting to bed at a Ben-Franklin-approved healthy-wealthy-and-wise hour.  I'd read until fatigue took me, and turned in as the rest of the family still puttered about the house.  It was nice and neat and just so, an evening that followed the natural order of household evenings.

But just as I reached REM sleep, our dog started having another seizure and fell down the stairs.  Which we were trying to deal with, when my older son announced that he was starting to feel lousy, and lo and behold, he was running a pretty substantial fever.  Ack, we went, running around as our orderly expectations came apart.

From order to chaos, in less than ten minutes.

Existence, or so we are told, bends towards disintegration.  Chaos is, we hear, the very state and nature of the universe.  Order degrades, and all descends to entropy.  Things fall apart, as the recently deceased Chinua Achebe reminded us.  The universe is slowly, surely, declining, as columnist Michael Gerson wrote in a particularly reflective recent op-ed.

These things are true, and feel ever the more true as the years progress.  Few things remind you more of the gradual degeneration of being from order to disorder than your arrival at midlife, as your body aches and sags and creaksaround.

Yet in the face of that, there's the reality of life.   Not my own life, but life itself, as we can observe it.  Life seems to drive fiercely and intentionally in the opposite direction.  Life moves from complexity to complexity, growing ever deeper and more sophisticated as it grows and evolves and adapts.  From random bitlets of protein to cells to multicellular organisms to social organisms, from the flail-around-till-a-mutation-sticks adaptive spamming of evolution to the intentionality of sentience, life shows a peculiar trend towards more and more elegant systems, as it tacks hard through the waters and winds of chaos.

Life moves, as it moves, against the flow of the second law of thermodynamics, in ways that appear to be non-random.  It is being, standing in relation to being, seeking cohesion and order and continuity and memory.  And knowledge.  And will.  And personhood.

It is possible, I suppose, to consider sentient life as an anomaly, just a swirling eddy in the great current of entropy.

Or it could be something more.  Something that must be part of the system, and that arises from the great completeness of all being.

From purpose.   Or so it feels, even after those times when things have fallen apart.

Monday, April 13, 2015

When Your Allegiance Lies Elsewhere

There's something I've wondered about, here in this odd new net-era.   It has to do with the relationship pastors have with the communities they serve, and how that relates to the communities that form here in the interwebs.

Here we are in an era when we can shape and structure our networks of relationship any which way we please.  We can, if we so choose, seek out exactly the gatherings that affirm us, and only the circles in which we are surrounded by like-voices.

It is true for all net-connected souls, and that means it is also true for those who are called to shepherd faith gatherings.

We are, after all, professionals.  And so we must, like other professionals, be aware of the professional norms of our vocation.  We trundle off to conferences, and gather in conclaves, and nod earnestly in seminars.  For those in denominational structures, we sit in meetings and on committees and in councils.

In those places, we both learn our craft and create relationships.  This is a good thing.  Those relationships create the interconnection between communities that are the sinews and connective tissue of the body of Christ.  We become "relational" and "connectional," to use the Ptydepe groupspeak of my own denominationalese.

And those connections can be vital for both individual pastors and the church, because organic, local community can at times bear with it all of the frustrations of organic human relationships.  Life together means life through times of hardship, and times of hardship place stressors on every form of relationship.  Communities can be working through disagreement, or financial challenges, or interpersonal crises, or any of the things that strain both organizations and human relationships.

And when you're in leadership in such a place, seeking support and knowledge from networks outside in those times of struggle is helpful.  Necessary, even.  A pastor who has no supportive relationships outside of their congregation can easily be compromised when things get rocky or toxic.

But like so many good things, I wonder if within the goodness itself lies the possibility of our hubris, deepened by the always-on connection facilitated by social media.

Because in this new age of mediated relating, we can pour ourselves more deeply into the place of our choosing.  We can turn our energies towards the easier relation of our net-connection, and away from the more complex relationships of our face-to-face gatherings.   Rather than overcoming conflict, we can avoid it, or complain about it.  Rather than dealing directly with the ones around us, we can turn our energies, affection, and allegiance to those who always affirm us.

"I can be my true self around you guys," we say, "not like I have to be with them."

And you can be connected, always and every day, with those who are not part of your organic community.  You can seek that seeming perfection, that ideal Platonic-form place of like-thinkness, and live in it.  Within that social construction, the flaws and imperfections of your messier face-to-face relations can be cast into stark relief.  Those souls and that community seem so much worse, so inferior, so much less where you want to place your energy.

Again, they become a "them."  Not an "us."  Not a "we."

And when a living community has become a them to you, an Other in which you have only a formal connection, something essential has been lost.  From that place, it can become easier and easier to gossip or bully or sabotage, to allow whatever shreds of authenticity you share to be buried away, and to lose sight of the goal of not just being "staff," but being a follower of Jesus along with all those around you.

Not just the ones you hand pick.  But the ones you are with.  Even if they make you crazy sometimes, like those [gosh-darned fornicating male offspring of female dogs] in Corinth used to make the Apostle Paul crazy sometimes.  

I do not know if this is so, if the relation between a pastor and a faith community can be negatively impacted by the false perfection of mediated relationships.

But I wonder about it.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Emojenesis 1:1-5

I read an article recently on the recent rise of emoji as a means of human conversation.  Emoji, in the event you haven't used them, are those little smiley emotive-doodaddies that we now seem to tack onto most of our net-communication.  In the absence of face-to-face cues, we increasingly use those little symbols to help us express ourselves and to indicate that our statements aren't meant in a negative way.

That, and ending every sentence with an exclamation mark!  Because we're really happy to be talking with you!  And we don't want you to interpret our use of a common period to mark our muttering disinterest in you as a person.  We really don't.  Really.  Really!  Honest. ;0)

But emojis, which I use some variant of regularly, represent a strange devolution of language.  With the web-fed roaring flow of written words becoming almost unmanageable, we find ourselves falling back into a form of communication that is ancient and early in the development of writing.  Emoji are more akin to pictograms or hieroglyphics than modern language.

I learned of an effort recently to raise funds to convert the entire Bible into emoji, a Kickstarter from late last year that failed pretty epically.   But why?  Whey wouldn't we be interested?  I mean, if the Bible can be rendered in Klingon and lolcat and Esperanto, why not emoji?

The answer?  Because emoji just can't do it.  As symbols, they are...well...too simple.  Too clumsy.  While they can modify or flavor other language, they bear the weight of a story.  Or so I was reasonably certain.

But how to confirm that?

I went to an emoji dictionary, and to Genesis Chapter One, and took a swing at translation.   What does that first day of creation look like, rendered entirely in emoji?

It went something like what follows.

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 Image result for light emojiemojiemoji     emoji.  
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