Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Going Rogue

I face, it seems, something of a conundrum.

On the one hand, I feel obligated to be culturally relevant.  I have to know what the volk know, or I risk being out of the loop on the few broadly held social referents that define our net-fractured zeitgeist.

On the other, I honestly don't know if I'm up for an endless stream of Star Wars movies.

I was there for the first three, perfect in the completeness of their mythopoetic arc.  They were new and exciting and wonderful.

I read a couple of the expanded universe novels as a lad, and owned a handful of late 1970s comics.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spare brilliance of the Gennady Tartakofsky animated Clone series.

Then it just kept on going.  I groaned my way through the cluttered, commodified, soulless prequels.  I diligently went to see The Force Awakens, and struggled through its peculiar, sloppy, cannibalistic drabness.

I may be done.

"Oh, have another movie," says Disney.  "Just one more!  It's wafer-thin!"

But I know they're lying.  The movies will stack up to the far horizon, one profit-margin-padding tale after another, endless fractal franchise spinoffs spreading wider than a fangrrls bookshelf.  That prospect is exciting in the way that going to Starbucks is exciting.

It was, once. Remember that, those of you old enough to have experienced the spread of that franchise?  Oooh, a Starbucks, you'd say.  Now?  Not so much.  You go in, get your morning bump of stimulant fluid, and you're out. Or perhaps it's like the release of a new Apple product.  Remember when that was a thing, an event, a moment?  Now, it's just yet another expensive rectangle.

It feels like that.




Monday, December 19, 2016

Living Water

We take so much for granted, perhaps nothing quite so much as water.

It's right there, whenever we need it.  Want a drink?  Just head to your kitchen, and there it is.  Clean, potable, safe drinking water.  Oh, maybe we want to filter it, because we don't like something about the flavor.  Maybe we worry, if we're a regular reader of InfoWars or a character in Dr. Strangelove, that fluoride might be a communist plot to contaminate our precious bodily fluids.

But the truth is that we have all the water we need, whenever we need it, and gathering that water is so simple that it is almost an afterthought.  Of course it's there.  Of course.

For so many in the world today, that is not their experience of reality.  Getting water consumes a substantial part of the energy of a day, often in ways that are remarkably time consuming and physically demanding.  Think, for just a moment, what you would need to do to get water if the taps stopped flowing.   What would you need to do, if you couldn't just run to the store and buy it?  Couldn't load up your trunk or truck-bed with it?

I know, for my little house in Annandale, what that would entail.  There's a stream that runs at the foot of the valley where my suburban home is located, a stream that meanders along in the green Annandale valley of Sleepy Hollow.  It's about a half-mile from the house, all downhill.   There are small catfish in that stream, and the occasional crawdad.   It flows with mostly clear water, mixed in with some of the debris generated by a typical American neighborhood.  A soda can here.  A fast food wrapper there.  A couple of plastic bags undulating in the flow.

That's the closest source.  It'd be a half-mile there.  Then, you'd have to fill a container.  One gallon of water, if we'll recall, weighs eight and a half pounds.  I'd then need to figure out how much I needed per day.  The average American household?  To slake our oversized thirst, we use 400 gallons a day.  3,400 pounds of water, which at 50 pounds carried each trip, would mean 68 trips up and down that hill.  Even if we used half, or a quarter of that amount, living a saner and less wasteful life, it would still be more than we could manage.

Clearly, things would need to change, and get harder.  Life as we have come to know it would no longer be possible.

At the front of the sanctuary of our little congregation, there's a glass container, partially filled with water.  It's a reminder, week by week, of how our community is striving to provide clean and accessible water to a community as we partner with a nonprofit that will use our resources to dig a well for those who lack our wealth.

But it's also a reminder of how much we rely on one another, of how deeply we come to take our lives for granted.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Seven Ways to Survive a Solar Apocalypse


In my family, we have some apocalypse rules.  These vary, depending on the type of apocalypse.

If it's a pandemic, we sneeze into the inside of our elbows, and hide out inside the house for a month or two.  If it's zombies, Dad has a bite-proof armored motorcycle suit, a sledgehammer, and knows to go for the head.

If it's robots?  Meaning, an artificial intelligence that arises to challenge humanity after a singularity event?  The family rule is this: side with the robots.

Yeah, I know.  I'm a species-traitor.  But I always did kind of have a thing for the Borg.

But there are other, less familiar apocalypses, ones that call for different tactics.   The question was posed to me, in a phone meeting with my publisher: how would you survive a massive solar storm?   My novel When the English Fall examines the impact of such an event.  In it, our little world is hammered by an unprecedentedly massive coronal mass ejection, a wave of charged particles from the sun that fries the global power grid, shuts down the net, and compromises most electronics.

It's happened before, way back in 1859, when what's called the Carrington Event damaged telegraph systems, gave folks electric shocks, and put on an astounding auroral display.  If a Carrington-scale event happened now, the impacts on our technologically dependent culture would be catastrophic.  What would increase the likelihood of our surviving?  How could we cope?  What would the prospects be for our recovery?

Here for your amusement and survival advantage, I offer a listicle, your seven best ways to make it through that particular civilization-busting disaster:

1) Have emergency reserves.

This is pretty standard, but nonetheless key to most crises.  The question, simple:  how long could you shelter in place?  If you look at your stock of nonperishable food and water, how long could you last?  A week?  A month?  Two days, but only if you include that questionable Chinese food at the back of the fridge that you can't quite remember ordering?

A Carrington scale event might require four to six months to recover, but that first month would be key.  Could you and/or your household manage a month with no outside support?

If the answer is, gosh, we just never seem to have food in the house, then you really do need to change it.  Canned food, for several weeks.  Potable water, and a way to either purify or collect drinking water.  A heat source for cooking, with sufficient fuel.

With all electronic records either wiped out or inaccessible, we'd likely revert temporarily to a cash economy.  Your credit card/debit card/Applepay?  Utterly useless.   Having cash on hand as a reserve would be useful...assuming our culture maintains enough trust in one another that'd anyone would still take it.

And no, gold doesn't count, for all of the right-wing pseudo-prepper sites that pitch it in the event of currency collapse.  I mean, sure, you can stock up on the bullion and krugerrands if you want.  But when push comes to shove, gold won't be worth its weight in Chef Boyardee.

2) Keep physical records.

Our new net-economy creates all sorts of wonderful forms of connectivity, all of which would go away if our communications infrastructure was critically compromised.  That means no access to records, no evidence of your bank balance.  Full recovery from a Carrington-scale event would be a matter of nine months to three years, after which, what?

If everything you do is online, where would be the evidence of your culturally-held resources when things clambered their way back into normalcy?

So print a couple of things out, so you'll be able to prove you have those accounts.

And have a few books on hand that tell you how to do things.  You know, books?  Those analog repositories of knowledge that operate independently of any external power source?

On your shelves, have books that describe survival basics, simple horticulture, and first aid.  Maybe a map or two.  Those will be remarkably helpful.  Can you eat that mushroom?  How do you stitch up a wound?   You'll need to know those things, and Google won't be around to help.

Plus maybe a novel or three, just to take your mind off of things for a while as you read by candlelight.

3) Store a generator and key emergency electronics in a Faraday cage.

If you surround a carefully selected cache of vital electronics with a Faraday cage (a grounded structure of metal), it will channel the energies of an electromagnetic event into the earth.  That's be true for solar events, extra-solar energies (like a near-space supernova or a burst of focused energy from two colliding neutron stars in our galactic neighborhood), or a localized electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear device.

So find a place in your basement, take a bale of chicken-wire, some metal posts and grounding screws, some copper wire, and a drill, and then...

"I'm not going to do that," you say.  "That's nuts."  Well, fine.

That one's a little overly preppery, I'll admit, bordering on tin foil hat levels of survival paranoia.  But it would be efficacious.  Are you sure that you wouldn't even consider...

Right.  OK.

Here are a few more that are...less nuts.  Let's go attitudinal.

4)  Cultivate an attitude of resilience. 

We are an increasingly fragile people, torn by the empty anxieties and induced stresses of our consumer culture.  That level of emotional vulnerability would nontrivially reduce our capacity to survive any catastrophic event.  The sturdier we are personally, the more likely we are to be able to deal with eventualities in a level-headed way.  Panicking or freezing up?  We'd be SOL.  Focusing our energies on complaining about how unfair this all is to us or on our feelings?  Again, that does you not a damn bit of good.

If you're used to demanding "safe space?"  Understand this: apocalyptic events are not safe spaces.  You can't worry about microaggressions when the whole world is trying to kill you.  If you're obsessed with your rights, complaining endlessly about how unfair everything is?  The universe couldn't care less.

What you need to survive more than anything else is a strong, integrated, stubbornly hopeful sense of self.

In studies of survivors, that's the most powerful shared trait.  Survivors just believe, resolutely, that they're going to make it.  Then they work towards that goal.  That belief doesn't guarantee you won't bite it.  But if you give in to despair or panic, you significantly increase the probability you aren't going to make it through a crisis.

Faith, in other words, can be a powerfully beneficial adaptive trait in a crisis.

5) Know how to do something.

Personal competence at the things that matter helps.  And by this, I mean things that speak directly to the act of survival.

Can you repair things, be they electronic or mechanical?  Do you know first aid?  Could you stitch up a wound?  Could you build a fire?  Could you build a shelter?  Could you find your way somewhere without GPS? Could you find food in a patch of woods if need be?  Do you know how to fish?  Can you hunt?  Do you know how to grow anything, or what forage can be had in the nearby woods?

It might seem overwhelming, given the strange and existentially irrelevant demands that our culture places on us.

But given how many things you do know, it's really not that difficult.  You don't need to go the full MacGuyver.  Just be really good at one or two useful things.   "I can't," you say.  "Pish posh," I say.

Just repurpose all of the neurons you dedicate to knowledge of the Kardashians, or any and all data regarding NFL salaries.  Boom.

You don't need to know everything.  Why?  Well, here's why:

6) Know your neighbors.

In the aftermath of a solar storm, social connection would be key.  One human being is a vulnerable thing.  Ten humans, working together?  Much, much stronger.  Your skills join with theirs, and the community you create becomes a more robust entity.  So you need friends. Real friends.

Meaning, not friends on Facebook.  Not Snapchat, or Twitter.  Having fifteen hundred Facebook friends and twenty three thousand Twitter followers would mean diddly squat when the net went down.  All of the blabbering hyper-immediate irrelevance of our online social lives would cease to have any bearing.  What would matter is local connection.

So.  Do you have such a place of local connection?  Who is your tribe?  Are they human beings who live near you?  Or are they commuting co-workers who are nowhere near you physically?  Are they shuttle-activity-parents you've gotten to know from your kids various obligatory sportsball teams?  Those people will be nowhere near when the world falls apart.  The people who count are right there around you.

Make a mental map of your neighborhood.  Those souls, the folks who you likely don't know, who move like shadows on the periphery of your busy bee awareness?  That's your crisis team.

Yeah.

You've probably got work to do.

7) Continue to support space science and observatory infrastructure.

This is the biggest...and most counter-cultural...one.  Honestly, the best way for modern-era humanity to survive a solar storm is supporting science.  This flies against our 'Murikan tendency to view survival as an individual thing, as a rugged loner or pioneer family wins out against all odds.

But for cosmic events, the response needs to be at a national or global level.  It requires a sense of common purpose.

That is where we are now.  An array of probes and satellites currently provides us with significant advance warning in the event of a major solar storm.   NASA and other international space agencies maintain a constant eye on the star we orbit, both to better understand it and also to give advance warning in the event of a major solar event.

With those resources in place, we'd have a chance to prepare.  We'd have advance warning to unplug devices, to shut down and secure sensitive equipment.  It's the cosmic equivalent of getting alerts from the National Hurricane Center.  If you have three days to prepare for a Cat 5 Hurricane, the outcome is different than if it just roars up in the night.  It'd be the difference between Katrina and the 1900 Galveston hurricane.  Both were devastating, but one massively more lethal, with the difference being the time given to prepare.

One of the assumptions in my novel is that America has allowed both our transportation infrastructure and our space infrastructure to degrade.  Solar missions have a limited lifespan, and they're not cheap.  And infrastructure isn't "sexy."  We neglect it to our peril.

If we don't see the value in science, or we allow ourselves to drift down the rabbit hole of technological regression, we're vulnerable.  Good thing we have an administration and a Congress that understands the value of science, right?

So.  There you go.  Your seven handy-dandy tips for survival in the event of a solar storm.  Good luck!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Jesus, Shammai, and Divorce

As my adult ed/sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount continues, my class ran into the portion of that challenging, essential text that always comes as a gut punch.

It's Jesus, talking about divorce.  Just a couple of verses, sandwiched in between telling his listeners to be faithful in their relationships, and not to lie, but it still hits hard.

Divorce, Jesus says, should not happen, not unless there is infidelity involved.  Then and only then may a husband leave his wife.  Doing otherwise creates sin in both parties, Jesus says.  He is not gentle about it.

I've read this passage before, and interpreted it in preaching.  But I didn't do that again this Sunday, because I've found it's not the kind of thing you can just preach at people without offering the opportunity to talk about it.  I've watched as the good souls I know who've gone through the pain of divorce responded.  Seen that twinge, as if I'd just administered a mild electric shock.  And then me, up there, trying to interpret Jesus, but without the insights and reflections of their stories.  

So we talked about it in class instead, about how hard that teaching felt.  We talked about how divorce functioned in the context of a radically patriarchal first century near Eastern society, about the impact it had...disproportionately...on women.  And how in placing a radical demand on his male listeners to fidelity in relationships, Jesus was speaking up for the powerless in his culture.

But I had another minor revelation, as I studied.  I realized, in my own preparation to teach the class, that I was...with Jesus...for the first time agreeing with Rabbi Shammai.

Two great proto-rabbinic schools of thought shaped first century Jewish study of Torah.  There was the strict conservative school of Shammai, and the liberal school of Hillel.   Jesus almost always comes down on the side of Hillel.  

Take, for instance, the old Jewish tale of the student who wanted to know if the law could be summarized in a single sentence.   He goes to Shammai, and asks, rabbi, I'm a little thick in the head, can you summarize Torah for me in 140 characters or less?  Shammai was enraged at his insolence and stupidity, and drove him away with a stick.  The same student...now a little bruised...went to Hillel.  Hillel smiled, and said, "Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.  All the rest is commentary."

This sounds familiar, eh?  Hillel and Jesus tended to go the same way.  

Except when it came to divorce.  

There, the liberal school of Hillel suggested that a man could divorce his wife for any reason.  If he displeased her, she was out.  "Even if she just burns dinner," went the formulation, with a bit of a wink.  This, of course, consigned the woman to a place of social approbation, rejected by the family of her husband, separated from her own, and without any means of providing for herself.

Shammai, on the other hand, argued that you cannot break that commitment lightly.  You have a duty to that relationship, one that cannot be broken on a whim.  

The paradox, here, is that Shammai's strictly disciplined interpretation would have, in practical terms, ended up being functionally more gracious...particularly to those who found themselves lacking both a Y chromosome and power.

Liberal though I may be, it was a helpful reminder that justice and mercy sometimes may reside outside of my own way of thinking.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Nuclear Codes

It was one of those things I kept wishing people wouldn't say.

"You can't let him near the nuclear codes," went the refrain.  "If you can't trust him with a Twitter account, how can you trust him with the nuclear button?"

My take was and is a little different.

Imagine, for a moment, that America had been foolish enough to give an erratic narcissist access to our nuclear arsenal.

What are the odds they'd get us into a civilization-ending nuclear exchange?

My thought:  the odds are marginal.  It ain't gonna happen.

Why?  Because nuclear war is a zero sum game. Both sides lose.  The goal of the con-man and the narcissist is to win and profit at your expense, not to die.  Unlike a zealot or an ideologue, their survival matters more to them than anything else.  If you're a kleptocrat, you realize that the Wasteland isn't quite as lush pickings as a semi-functioning, gullible, and non-irradiated society.  If you're into real estate in major urban areas, nukes have a tendency to reduce the value of your holdings.

And if you're all buddy-buddy with the Rooskies, and likely eager to plant a few branded casinos in gambling-addled Shanghai, going toe to toe the other nuclear powers doesn't serve any purpose.

Yet the case was made, over and over again, that he'd get us all nuked.  As a talking point, that felt...stale.  Old.  That was a cold war fear, existing now in the realm of the childhood nightmares of aging Gen-Xers, an abstraction for most Americans.

Mushroom clouds aren't my primary concern for America's near term future.

What seems far more probable is a good old fashioned shooting war.  Most likely with Iran, as I read it, particularly with folks like Flynn and Mad Dog at the helm.  As Mad Dog puts it, war is a thrill, after all.

Getting that going will be easy.  We come up with justification, provoke a Gulf-of-Tonkin-style "incident," wave flags and fill the right-wing media with good old fashioned jingo, and then in go the children of the poor, the sons and daughters of the Red States.

It's not ICBMs flying, sure.

But when it's your son or daughter coming back in a flag-draped coffin, it may as well be.   For those families, for those mothers and fathers and children, the loss of that soldier in a war that serves no meaningful long term national interest might as well be a nuclear exchange.

When our children's bodies are laid into the ground, our world comes to an end, just as surely as if the whole world had come to an end.

So strange, in a nation that is weary of the familiar bloody banality of endless war, that this never quite came up.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Everything Wrong With My Novel

Writers are anxious people.  Or maybe they're not, generally.  I don't know enough of them to have a representative sample.

But I am.

I worry and fret over concepts, over how a thing works or does not work.   There'll be a great rush of creative energy, and then, the final product before me, I'll start picking and scratching at it.  What if this doesn't work?  What if this is useless and pointless?  Have I erred?  Am I a fool and an idiot, so lost in my own dreamings that the universe itself can't help snicker at me?  Am I getting this all wrong, on some fundamental level?

So.  Here are my anxieties about When The English Fall, which will be my first published novel, categorized for your schadenfreude:

1) The science of solar storms.  The key, transitional, apocalyptic moment of the novel is what appears to be a solar storm, one modeled after the Carrington Event of the late 1850s.  The Carrington Event...the largest observed solar storm of the modern era...was an impressive thing.  Telegraph systems were blown out.  People touching metal farm equipment were given electric shocks.  The resultant aurora were so bright that people came outside, thinking the sun had risen.  It was a big deal, and would be a major concern in our technological society.  That sort of catastrophic coronal mass ejection would completely devastate our vulnerable electronic systems.   Our power grid and the internet would be significantly compromised.  It'd be a big deal, one that we're unprepared for as a global culture.  

But would it have the extreme effects outlined in the book, which are largely modeled after the localized electromagnetic pulse effects of a nuclear blast?  That's not clear.  Aircraft, vehicles, and grounded systems might not be impacted as substantially.  Energies could have to be an order of magnitude higher to confidently project those effects.  Could a Super-Carrington occur?  Maybe.  But my inner Bill Nye has lingering questions about whether the G-type main-sequence yellow dwarf our planet orbits is capable of that kind of violence.

What science does show us is that such an event...as described, precisely...is entirely possible.  It might not come from our sun, but from extrasolar activity.  A nearby supernova or a burst of energy from the collision of two neutron stars in our galactic neighborhood would have catastrophic impacts that would equal or exceed what's described in the book.

We and our tender little jewel of a world are very, very small and breakable in the vastness of Creation.   That said, I'm sure some INTJ out there will roll their eyes and write a long and meticulously scathing review on Goodreads.

2) Lancaster County, PA.  I've taken liberties with the geography, in ways that anyone who lives in and around Lancaster would recognize.  I've been to the area, and gotten the lay of the land, more or less.  I've walked the town, stood in fields, puttered down roads on my motorcycle.  I've pored over GoogleMaps to map out movements and sightlines.

But I do not know the area in the way that you instinctively know a place you've lived.  It's "sort-of-Lancaster."  And sort of not, with the difference being driven by the needs of the narrative.

On the one hand, my perfectionist self is slightly embarrassed by this.  Surely, surely, it could have been more perfect.  On the other...well...it's creative license.  And I don't want this to seem like I'm calling out one particular Amish community, because it's not.

Which gets to area of fretting number three:

3) Amish Culture and Folkways.  My experience of the Amish is at a point of academic remove.  Meaning, I've read up on them, and not just on the interwebs or wiki.  I've studied the best academic ethnographies of their communities, both on my own and as part of a formal academic course of study.  I've read literature written by Amish voices, listening carefully to tone and perspective.  I've done everything in my power to accurately represent the dynamics of that life.  I have an informed take.

But I've not lived it.  As a writer and a Presbyterian pastor and a doctoral student and a stay-at-home Dad shuttling kids to and from swimming and drums and afterschool activities, I didn't have the time or the bandwidth to go and live with the Amish.

"Hey, honey, can you get them to rehearsal this evening?  I'm going to go live amongst the Amish for eighteen months."  One does not say that to any wife one wants not to become an ex-wife.

I also wasn't sure if it would have been a good thing.

First, because the Amish honestly don't like that attention.  They don't want to be viewed as a curiosity, to be observed and analyzed and photographed, tagged and released like some peculiar specimen.  It can feel, for them, a bit invasive.  Their culture lacks our individualistic love of attention, our net-era hunger for fame.  Our peculiar obsession with their chosen path can also feel like an invitation to that kind of pride, which is anathema to their way of being.  

And second, I'm not sure if that precision would help, given the complex and branching variance in Amish life.  There is no one definitive way of being Amish, no single Ordnung.  There are, instead, countless fragmentations, each arising from a point of decision in which one community took one path, and a group of dissenters took another.

What I've presented is an amalgam, a community that blends features of various different takes on that fascinating, unique form of life.  The core principles are there, and they're as cleanly presented as I can make them.  But it isn't perfect.

It'll read wrong, to someone, somewhere.

4) Jacob's Voice.  Having read Amish writings, and with a sense of the journaling in an agrarian context, I took my initial swing at writing what was then called The English Fall in the summer of 2012.  It's a first person narrative, and the "voice" in such a telling matters.

About eight thousand words in, I ground to a halt.  My first Jacob just couldn't tell the story.  It's not that the story wasn't there.  It's that he was so simple, so laconic, and so earnest that he wasn't...how to put this...interesting.  He didn't play with words, but instead used them simply as tools to record events.

He was too Amish, too plain.  He was too much like a 19th century farming ancestor, whose diaries my family has retained. Every day, my great-great-grandfather wrote entries about livestock, just a sentence or two, marking the relevant memories of the day.  When his five year old daughter fell ill with what was likely influenza, he described her decline with the same terseness.  A word here.  A short sentence there about doctors.

On the day she died, he wrote: "N passed today.  What a patient little sufferer."  That's it.  All he had to say, two matter of fact sentences, about the death of his child.   Authentic as it may be, it's hard to build a 54,000 word manuscript on such a voice.

I stepped back, gave it a year, and when I returned, Jacob was different.  More...English...in his use of language. More introspective.  Perhaps, again, he might not sound right in the ears of those souls who live in Amish communities.  But the needs of the telling dictated the dynamics of his voice.

5)  The Unknown Unknown.  There may be stuff I just don't know I'm getting wrong.  There very well could be.  Somewhere in there, a fatal flaw, a critical error of continuity and narrative logic that through some terrible twist of fate my excellent editors just...missed.  This is wildly unlikely and faintly insane.  But this year, wildly unlikely and faintly insane things have happened.

And so, I fret.   Guess that comes with the territory.







Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Prosperity President

What's most fascinating about the election of Donald J. Trump to be our 45th President is that it perfectly mirrors the evolving character of faith in America.

Donald is perhaps the first major candidate to arise from a new and significant force in American Christianity.  No, that's not being Presbyterian, because Donald is not one of us, no matter what he says.  Frozen chosen he is not.  He has none of our procedural rigor, none of our austerity, none of our tendency to overthink things so much that we never quite get around to doing anything.

Overthinking is not a Trumpian characteristic.

He more closely reflects the faith of another corner of the ever changing ecology of Christianity, one that has grown and flourished as the oldline has descended into anxious irrelevance.   Because this is not the era of the fading spirit of denominationalism, with its assumptions of civic duty and social order.  It is the age of the prosperity preacher.

The Donald is the first president whose worldview aligns with the Prosperity Gospel.  When we saw him during the campaign, surrounded by pastors earnestly laying on hands, they were mostly prosperity preachers.  When we heard a faith leader earnestly asserting that the Donald had found the Lord, she was a name-it-and-claim it televangelist.

Sure, he dabbled about with biblical fundamentalists and more traditional evangelicals, understanding that he can single-issue their support.  All he had to do was suggest that he opposed abortion, and their votes were his.  But he is not part of that stream of faith, and traditional conservatives know it.   He's an aging billionaire playboy who made a significant portion of his fortune from casino gambling, an unrepentant serial philanderer who cares about scripture in the same way he cares about anything you have to actually read.

His appeal, frankly, is the same appeal as the well-dressed pastor who strides across the stage of a 10,000 seat auditorium, who shows up to church in his Bentley or S-Class, and who lives in a house twenty times the size of the homes of his flock.

This frustrates the bejabbers out of those of us who've actually studied what Jesus had to say about wealth and how Jesus-people should live their lives, but as much as we cry out "charlatan" and "huckster" and "fraud," our words cannot compete with the sparkle of a well-played con.

Look at his success, they say.  He must know something.  Listen to what he says, they say, as he confidently tells them exactly what it is they want to hear.

Just want it, the pastor says.  All you have to do is really want it, and it will magically happen.  Just pray and want it, and give me both your hopes and your treasure as a sign of your faith.

In those churches, the guy up front does very, very well for himself.


Friday, November 11, 2016

The Angry White Man and the System

Yesterday it was midday on a November Thursday, and I had walked to the store to pick up a few things.

At mid-day on a Thursday, the crowd at the grocery store is...different. A smattering of moms, their little ones ensconced in their cart seats, little legs dangling. There's a whole bunch of white hair, moving slowly, leaning on their carts for support.

 And there are men. Forty and fifty somethings, dressed in ways that say they have no reason to care about how they look during the day. Shoes, a mess. Old, threadbare jackets covering stained shirts mismatched with ill fitting pants.

 Meaning I fit right in.

I filled my basket, and wandered over to the short line at the self-checkout, the machines that simultaneously let large grocery chains hire fewer workers and open up the option of not ever, ever talking to another human being face to face.

 In front of me, a man. A white man, maybe seven years older than I. Salt and pepper hair, unwashed, uncombed. A mustache and chin grizzle. He seemed agitated.

 I know the routine. Plug in your card number, the machine prompts you, first thing. He was trying to get through that stage, jabbing at the screen with his index finger.

 It wasn't working. He muttered, angrily, and tried again, jabbing harder.

 Touchscreens being what they are, that didn't have the desired effect.

 "[Fornicate]," he said, not quietly. He tried again, now pressing hard enough on the screen that if it had been flesh, it would have left a bruise. It didn't work. "[Fornicate]," he said, again, his voice raised enough that heads turned.

 And then he balled his hand into a fist, and punched the screen. Hard. The employee responsible for the self-checkout, an older black man, looked faintly uncertain as to what to do, and not eager to intervene. 

The angry man snatched up his basket and stormed off to one of the regular lines.

 "[Fornicating] thing doesn't [fornicating] work," he said to me as he left. 

I took my place at the machine. The screen wasn't cracked. I tested it. It was still working. I plugged in my number, gently. It took two tries, as it often does. But it took.

 I finished my transaction, and loaded up my backpack.

 When I left the store, the angry white man was at the back of the line, rocking slowly back and forth, eyes unfocused, staring off into the distance.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Profile of the Despot

Yesterday, as the nagging, snarling cough that has made the last week of my life unpleasant finally abated, I went down into the basement workout room/workroom/place to store random [stuff].  Finally, finally a chance to lift weights without sounding like a TB victim.

But while down there, I became distracted by something in a box that I was putting back where it belonged.  It was a box filled with the old comic books I inherited from my uncle.  Mingled in with them, I found an old magazine.  It was "Current History," which is still published today.  This particular issue, however, dated from July of 1928.  It contained a collection of essays about the world events of the day.  There were some pro-and-con back and forths from activists and constitutional lawyers about the Prohibition.  There were articles about global politics, and some writing about the upcoming election.

More fascinating still : a long reflection on a major global political figure of the day, written by an Associated Press journalist.  It is a character study, the observation of a seasoned journalist who had spent decades observing both the country in question and that leader in particular, and sought to report on this fascinating figure to an American audience.  What was he like, as a human being?  What drove him?  What are his demons?  Why was he so successful?

I read through the article, noting the key features of this historical figure's character.  From that snapshot in history, some of the quotes seemed particularly...relevant:
He is intuitive, but not profound; he has tremendous exploitative and organizing ability, but puerile analytical powers; he is forceful, but inconsistent; impetuous and at times incoherent, he is intelligent, but has no intellectual gifts... 
Here is a perfect extravert, a man always moving into his environment, never into himself, taking and transforming, but never giving.  He has no friends, no allies, no collaborators.  He is alone on [his] plane.  All others are lower, aides or assistants. 
[He] has little power of concentration...by nature a man fitted only for action, loves the boom and blare of new starts as much as he loathes the boredom of the less sensational later steps....His activity has the regular irregularity of certain fever charts.  A new "stunt" every fortnight or month, to be abandoned soon afterward through boredom, a change in adviser or greater interest in the immediately following project. 
One of [his] seldom contested claims to fame, if not to greatness, is his apparently inexhaustible vitality, his constant and tireless activity...his working day is seldom less than ten hours.  Often it exceeds eighteen. 
He is a master at posing whether before one, a thousand or a million watchers.  His skill is tremendous and seldom fails him.  His bag of tricks is inexhaustible.  Perhaps it is true that he acts to satisfy the appetite for drama and melodrama of the...people.  Unquestionably millions of persons...are captivated and disarmed by his consummately effective histrionics. 
He adores publicity and gloats openly, childishly, in the interest he produces. 
[He] is simultaneously profoundly suspicious of flattery and tremendously susceptible to it.  His vanity is colossal.
The year, again, was 1928.  The leader?  Not Hitler.  Not at all.

The journalist was the Associated Press reporter from Rome, and the personality he was describing was Benito Mussolini.

"Those who do not know history," as the saying goes.  






Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Peaceful Transfer of Power

This last Saturday, my wife and I went for a long walk with our dog.

It was a strikingly beautiful day, clear and perfect and touched with the first hints of our late-arriving autumn.   And though we've got some beautiful parks and wooded paths near our little suburban rambler, we got in the car and drove.

Our destination: the lovely fields and forests of a nearby National Park, the park set aside as sacred ground to remember the first and second Battles of Manassas.  It's a long walk, a whole afternoon, across the varying landscapes over which those battles raged.

On one great sweeping rise, rows of cannon sat silent.  A young mother and father, he a person of color, she of European heritage, followed their inquisitive little toddler as he ran free across the field.  "Not so far," called the mom, reflexively, but there was nothing to fear.  The field went on, and on, and there was nothing more dangerous to a child than soft grass and earth.

In another field, where the grass rose tall and golden, a bright blue Ford tractor pulled a baler, as two farmhands neatly loaded a large wagon with the harvested hay.  At the top of the hill, a line of pickups waited, good solid workingman's trucks, hitched to fifth-wheel flatbeds, ready to carry the hay to nearby farms.

The path across the fields brought us to woodland.

Those woods were filled with other Americans, walking and talking in little clusters of two and three.  Some were running. At the bridge over Bull Run, a bride in white, flanked by her wedding party, the bridesmaids in surprisingly tasteful blue, a professional photographer and his assistant snapping those hopeful pictures for a future life.

We walked deeper through the shadows of the peaceful wood.  And in one place, we came to a sign, which we respectfully read, as we'd read all of the other signs before it.

On it, a quote from a Union officer, describing the movement of his men through that same forest, less than two centuries before.

"We advanced, and the woods were filled with the bodies of the dead."

I looked at the wooded ground around the path, scattered with fallen leaves, and I could see it.  I have seen it, in photographs taken of that terrible war.

Young men, no older than my own sons, shattered and cold and broken by grapeshot and musket fire, their bodies stiffening in their own blood.  Those old tall trees, so calm and quiet, touched with the remembered cries and stench of death.

So hard to see with your soul, on such a beautiful, peaceful day.  So hard to imagine, that such a thing could ever be.

And yet can.

All it requires is for us to forget what violence really looks and feels like, for Americans lost in the dark spell of a demagogue to speak of revolutions and uprising as if they are fanciful abstractions, as if they are a game.
All it requires is for the reality of violent conflict to be glossed over by blithe romantic fabulism and the anger-blindness of our self-righteousness.

All it requires is for us to stop believing in the old good magic of our Constitution, to let cynicism and gossip-whispers tear down the trust and mutual respect that is the bedrock of our civil society.

How easy it is for peace to be broken, when we stop believing in it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Not Write an Amusing Caption For This

I saw the picture, and at first captions popped into my mind, because that's what my mind reflexively does.

I blame Mad magazine, and MST3K, and, well, my fundamental nature as a mischievous little monkey.  I can't see most things without thinking something faintly inappropriate.  I am a silly person.

"Wouldn't that be funny," murmured my snarkiness subroutines.  "Shareitshareitshareit," hummed the neurons that have been coopted by Mark Zuckerberg.

But then...I couldn't.

The impetus withered and died, because I haven't been feeling quite that way lately.  So much of our political life is defined by comedy these last few years, as people behind desks or prowling a soundstage say amusing things about the people vying for the Presidency.  Audiences laugh, and it's all in such fun.

And perhaps, perhaps that's comedy as prophetic discourse, comedy at the the thing that skewers our cultural delusions.   Comedy can be that.  So often, that's a healthy thing.

Perhaps that's comedy as release, as the tension of living in a culture that offers us no sense of shared purpose pours its hive mind dissonance into us.  We need to mock, or we would go mad.

There are things that humor helps us approach.  Politics is almost always one of them.

But not for me, not now.  The political jesters and wags and wits who seek to amuse us with their wry or bawdy commentary do not speak to where I am.  I have stopped watching them.

I don't blame them for it.  It's not their fault.  Perhaps for some, that is still helpful.  Maybe it makes this whole mess bearable.  I do not judge those who still find they want to laugh.

For me, the time feels wrong.

Like cracking wise at the graveside, when a family has lost a seven year old child to leukemia.

Like making jokes while you explain to a trembling young woman how and why you're going to use that rape kit.

I don't feel like laughing.  Not right now, at this strange, surreal, dangerous time in the life of our nation.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Forgiveness and Remembering

A few days ago, a friend posed the question:

"Where is the balance between forgiving and forgetting? Or should there be any balance at all? I'm having a hard time with this...like God is somehow telling me to completely forgive, and pretend like nothing happened? Is that really what turning the other cheek, and loving unconditionally is about? Are we called to be door mats?"

I was meditating on this question yesterday, as I sat in a tightly packed row at Yom Kippur services.  It is the Day of Atonement, the day when the mother tradition to my own faith ends a year and starts another by asking for and offering forgiveness.

We sat and we recited litanies of regret, in English.  We listened to them sung in Hebrew, my fingers tracing right to left across the page as the old seminary classes helped me track along through the prayerbook.

It's an important holy day, the holiest of holies, because repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of faith.

Forgiveness is essential for our spirits, but forgiveness itself cannot meaningfully exist if we imagine it requires us to forget our wounds.  When we are harmed, we remember that harm.  We remember it fiercely and completely, remember it as our flesh remembers sharpness with a scar.  We remember it as our gut remembers the scent and flavor of a poison thing that left us retching and dizzy and folded around a cramp-tight belly.

We remember it because remembering harm on a deep gut level is how we were made.  It is how we learn.  It is how we survive.

When we are hurt, when we are wounded, we are not made to forget.

We Jesus folk, however, are commanded to forgive.  It's one of the hardest things we're asked to do as disciples, but everything...everything...rides on it.  If we do not forgive, we are not ourselves forgiven.

How does this work?  How can this work, when that pain still hurts every time we remember, and that anger still flares?

Here, as I grasp it, it is important to understand that forgiveness does not imply forgetting.  As creatures woven from narrative, those moments of pain and trauma are a part of us.  When we are hurt, when we are betrayed, when we are lied to and manipulated and abused, we are not meant to forget those moments.  We are not meant to pretend nothing happened.

Forgiveness, instead, takes that moment of pain and changes it.  It allows us to open ourselves to seeing the sin-blindness of the other, to seeing how their own anxieties and hatreds have driven them to harm us, just as they themselves were harmed and misled.

This does not happen all at once, and it does not happen cheaply.  Forgiveness is a discipline, and learning it is neither easy nor simple.  It requires us to acknowledge the anxiety and blind rage that rise from those things that have traumatized us.

Having acknowledged those experiences, it then begins to redefine them.  That takes time, and intentionality.  When we turn the other cheek, the cheek that was struck still burns red from the blow.  We are not meant to have forgotten this.  Nor can we have.

Because forgiveness is not "being a doormat."  It is a fierce demand for rightness in a relationship, one that reframes our reaction towards the possibility of restoration.  It is not passive, or acquiescent to injustice.

If it is reciprocal, then even the most broken thing can be healed.  If there is repentance, genuine and heartfelt and sustained, then forgiveness can remake anything.  That is the heart of the Christian hope.  If our forgiveness is not met with a changed heart in the other, the forgiveness remains in our own.

We are not required to stay in intimate relationship with those who view forgiveness as an opening for predation, who seek their own power and pleasure at our expense, who come demanding forgiveness with an unrepentant heart.

Those people, we can still forgive, so that our souls are not filled with a bitterness that will sour our other lifegiving relationship.

So to my friend, I would suggest that yes, we are called to completely forgive, to bathe our remembered pain in that intention, changing not just our understanding of our hopeful future, but helping us to come to terms with our wounded past.


Monday, October 10, 2016

"You'd Be In Jail."


I didn't sleep particularly well last night, in the way that you don't after experiencing something particularly traumatic.
The trauma was served up by Donald Trump, who began the debate by pulling a Maury Povich stunt to distract from his recently revealed reprehensible treatment of women. He "apologized," the way that you apologize for being abusive by saying ISIS is worse and then calling everyone who notices a hypocrite. He "apologized," in the way that you apologize by saying your bragging about molesting women was just you lying to impress people you just met.
Amoral as his belligerent unrepentance was, that wasn't what left me sleepless.
What left me sleepless was hearing Trump, in front of a whole nation, promising to use the power of the Presidency and the legal system to harass and imprison a political opponent.
This goes beyond the chanting crowds of the aggrieved at the Republican National Convention. He has now publicly stated that he will appoint a special prosecutor for the sole purpose of finding a reason to incarcerate his opponent.
This is a new thing for America. As the sun rose today, I read through the transcripts of another series of debates from a difficult time, the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as the two men vied for an Illinois senate seat. With the nation just two years from a bloody civil war, neither Lincoln nor Douglas made threats against the person of the other.
Donald Trump has crossed that line.
This is not America, or at least, not representative of any vision of America that any freedom-loving soul desires to see come to pass. It is utterly antithetical to the vision of liberty laid out by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution. What Trump said is monstrous. It is a definitive statement of the intent towards tyranny, and a fundamental threat to what makes America great and noble and good.
And in saying this publicly, for the first time in my nearly 50 years of life as a citizen of the United States of America, I'm aware that there's a potential risk to my person in my political opinions and political speech.
Because Trump has also said, repeatedly during this dark campaign, that he will use the legal system to silence the media when the media is "unfair" to him.
In this internet age, we are all the mainstream media. Right here, as you read this, I am the free press, as are you when you share your opinions on your blog or through social media.
If Donald Trump does something amoral or colossally stupid, and you post or tweet against it, and it goes viral? Read by thousands? Now, if he finds your words "unfair," that means nothing. You have your rights under the Constitution, and laws that protect your speech. But there is a chance--fading, but not zero--that Trump might have all of the power of an imperial presidency.
All that power, coupled with the stated intent to imprison opponents and silence free speech?
That cannot happen. His personal threats against her are a threat to all of our liberty, in a real and material sense.
So I felt awake last night, very much so. And as much as I miss the sleep, it's an important time for us to be awake.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Tax Genius

Every year for the last thirty years since I turned 18 and became a citizen, I've paid my taxes.

I remember in that first job, selling tickets at a dive theater for minimum wage, just what a big bite that felt like out of my meager paycheck. 

Every year, our household drops a decent chunk of change into the federal government.  It's what we do, because it's part of being an American. 

I've heard, recently, some folks attempting to defend Donald Trump's avoiding paying taxes as evidence that he's a "genius."  They argue that he should somehow be proud of using every trick in the book and then some to keep his money.

I dug around in our files, and looked for the biggest tax year we'd had recently.  Our fortunes have risen and fallen and clawed back up over the last few years, with job losses and transition.  In 2012, we were flush, at the highest income point in our family history.  So on our 2012 family return, we paid $27,389 in federal taxes.  Donald Trump, being the smartest man in America, probably paid less than that.  Or so we'll assume.

As a matter of public record, and on the tax returns that they released in the interests of transparency, Bill and Hillary Clinton paid $3.6 million dollars in federal taxes in 2015, every penny of what the highest tax bracket would pay on the $10 million and change they made that year.

Some would say that's dumb.  They should have kept what's theirs, like Donald Trump did.  But what does that mean, when you get right down to it?  Our nation doesn't run on magic beans.  You have to actually pay for things.  Like what?  Here are some examples:

- When a American soldier loses a limb in combat, the surgeries and hospitalizations and therapy and rehab for that soldier costs money.  Over the course of that young soldier's lifetime, that can cost $1.8 million dollars per wounded warrior.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 tax payments would care for two wounded warriors for the rest of their lives.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave our wounded veterans nothing.

- In the simmering low-intensity conflicts, special forces are increasingly essential.  Experienced and well-trained elite warfighters make the difference in dealing with ISIS and the Taliban.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's tax bill paid the salaries and benefits for a full squad of Army Rangers.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave our best-of-the-best soldiers nothing.

- A few years ago, I traveled to NASA's Wallops Island launch facility with my boys.  There, we watched America launch a rocket, a swords-into-plowshares repurposed ICBM that roared on a tongue of fire through the night sky, on its way to explore the moon.  As my boys and I whooped and hollered with the crowd, it was one of my proudest moments as an American.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's tax bill would have paid for 10 NASA launch specialists, those proud Americans who work together to make our space program possible.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave NASA nothing.

- For driven young men and women looking to advance their education, federal Pell Grants help make it possible for them to attend college, with no need to worry about repayment.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 federal tax bill would have provided nearly 600 students with the maximum award.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave these striving young Americans nothing.

- With a massive hurricane bearing down on Florida and Georgia, all eyes are on the NOAA/NHC meteorologists whose 24/7 dedication allows us to prepare for these disasters and saves countless lives.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 federal tax payments were enough to support a dozen meteorologists at NOAA and the National Hurricane Center, as well as the salaries for pilots, crew, and the operating costs for one hurricane hunter aircraft.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave these quiet, studious heroes nothing.

I'm a pastor, and have been for most of my adult life.  There's a saying among we Christians, one Jesus himself taught.   "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Donald Trump talks a whole bunch about how much he loves America.

But when it comes down to it, to the reality of what it takes to make America great and not just his sales pitch, he appears to love his money more.

That takes a special kind of genius.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pastor Appreciation Sunday: The Body Count

Five years ago, we got our new pastor.  Never liked him much.  Too filled with big new ideas, always smiling, always pretending like he cares and wants the best for us.  He goes on and on about hope and love and Jesus.

He also keeps real quiet, keeps to himself, says he's an introvert.

But that's a lie.  He's not an introvert.  He's hiding something, something all of you need to know.

I know his secret.  I know what he is.

He's a murderer.  A stone-cold killer.  The evidence is all there, plain as the nose on your face.

As soon as he showed up, people started dying.

Out of nowhere, somebody got cancer.   And there he was, doing their funeral, getting paid money on the side for it, I don't doubt.

Then somebody else got cancer, and it's the same thing, all over again.  Who makes money off of that?  The pastor.

You got to follow the money.

Then there was this young woman in our community, pretty and lost, kind of a mess, you all knew her.  I saw him talking with her after church one time, and another time at the fellowship hour.  Next thing you know, they find her dead.  "Overdose," they said.  Yeah, right.

Pretty young woman like that?  I know what goes on.

Coverup, more like.

Because what had already happened?  Exactly the same thing, just twelve months before.  Young woman, related to a family of the church, and she suddenly dies.  "Overdose."  Who's at the funeral?  He is.  How much did he get paid?  Nobody knows.  There are no records.  Or they were destroyed, more like.

I went and I checked out his last church.  What did I find?  People died there, too, and there he was, doing the funerals, taking in money on the side.

And it gets worse.

He's got people coming to him all the time, telling him their secrets.  What's he doing to do with that information?  Use it for some nefarious purpose, like blackmail?  Given how many people die around him, you'd be lucky if all he did was blackmail you.

It's a clear pattern.  Once you see it, once you put all the pieces together, there's just no way around it.  Our pastor is a sociopath and a serial killer.

I've tried to tell you people at the fellowship hour, but nobody talks to me any more.  Everyone's drunk his Kool-Aid.  And every time I submit this article for the church newsletter, does it get published?

No.  Just part of the coverup, as his flunkies continue his corrupt reign.

How many people have to die, before people realize who this guy really is?

He's as bad as the Clintons.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Being a Human

The story has been bopping around out there, flitting near the surface of my consciousness.  It's the tale of this Brit who wanted to know...first hand and existentially...what it was like to be a badger.  What do badgers think?  How do they experience the world?

In order to accomplish this, he started spending his time snuffling along the ground like a badger.  He began to regularly eat what badgers eat, meaning he developed a sophisticated gourmand's grasp of the nuances of worm-meat.

The "eating worms" bit is a serious hook.

He also 'became' other creatures.  Stags.  Badgers.  Otters.  Swifts, too, apparently, although I'd love to know how he managed to fly well enough to catch gnats.

This, of course, makes a great pitch for a book.  Which, of course, was the whole idea.

It's fascinating.  Here, the effort to encounter reality from the perspective of an animal, something that's hard for we humans to get at, what with our big brains and our bipedal ambulation and our general disconnect from our own animal nature.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I was walking.

Or rather, I was walking again.  For years, I'd taken long walks as a part of my weekly routine.  When my younger son was in multi-hour rehearsals, I'd work for a bit in the library, then take hour-long rambles through neighborhoods.  It was time to observe, time to think.

When he stopped taking drums, I stopped walking as much.  The pattern was broken.  I spent more time driving.  More time on social media.  More time around the house.

And it made me...well...fidgety.  A little more anxious.  A little heavier.  A little less creative.

My soul felt it, that ineffable wholeness of self, meat and spirit woven up into the unique particularity of my person.  Not walking weighed on my soul.

I needed to walk.  So as I run errands, I walk.  They take longer, because I get out and use myself to get myself there.

And it struck me, as I walked, that the full engagement of my body was as strange to our peculiar mechanized way of life as being a badger or a stag or a fox.

As I walk, I am using my limbs as they were intended.  I am erect, my eyes and ears and nose alert to the world.  I am not encased in steel, the scents of tree and grass filtered away by climate control.  I am hearing the world for which I am so well evolved, the sound of wind, the hum of tire on the road.  I see light and detail, the crumbling granularity of American roads, the details of homes, the rustle of a deer in the underbrush.

When I choose to walk, I am not being maximally productive, not optimizing my time, not being efficient.

But I am being human.

It's a good thing, remembering what it is to be human.




Thursday, September 15, 2016

All Part of The Plan?


I listened as she spoke, and though my mind lit up with responses, I kept my mouth shut.

Sometimes it's important to do that.

I was sitting with other folks at my little church, as we together enjoyed a book presentation by my predecessor in ministry at my little church.

Well, "enjoyed" may be the wrong term.  Her presentation was engaging and often funny, and the book is well worth the read.  But the book is not an easy one. Her memoir has as its narrative fulcrum the telling of how she and her college housemates were systematically raped during a home invasion robbery.

What lit me up, among other things, were the particulars of the theological struggle she'd had as she'd processed her trauma.

As a person of faith, she offered up her wrestling with the challenge faith faces when it encounters horror.  Why, if God is a God of love, mercy, and justice, did that happen?

The first and easiest response is that it was all part of God's plan.  Somehow, that act of violence was necessary to accomplish some larger goal within the machinations of Divine Providence.  It all works together for the good, or so that line of thinking goes.

She'd stopped thinking that about her own trauma, and she'd stopped saying that to people who experienced major life trauma.

When God set the universe into motion 13.8 billion years ago, it was not part of the great cosmic Design of that she be raped.

I have to say that I agree.  That's not how God works.

Oh, terrible things can be turned to good ends.  There is no moment of being that cannot be shaped or turned away from darkness.  That is the essence of the redemptive message of Jesus.

But I do not ascribe the monstrous and the brutal to divine intent.  Those planes were not flown into the twin towers because God wanted it so.  God does not line you up to go into the camp showers.  God does not require that you betray a trust, or offer a cutting word.

That is our ill wrought choice, made because we know not what we do.  Our cycle of inflicting suffering upon one another is part of the self-annihilating character of sin.

Those actions are the result of our willingness to know evil, the bitter taste of the one dark fruit of Eden.  They need not be so, in the same way that the cycles of bitterness we inflict on ourselves in our own lives do not need to be so.


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Closed Circle Christianity

I sat deep in my comfy chair, a book in hand, and looked across at my wife, hard at work on her laptop.

I had a question drumming about in my head, as I often do when she is hard at work on her laptop.   The question was this:  We Presbyterians are a literate bunch.  We're readers and writers and users of words.  Wordsmithing is our happy place.

But what Presbyterians are out there now who 1) write and are 2) known as writers outside of our denominational circle?

I know the answer to the first.  I know many writers, excellent ones, who produce lovely books and excellent thoughtful blogs.

But so much of their energy falls back into the denominational system, into our conversations about "being church."  Much of that is necessary, particularly in a retrenching system that's remaking itself.  But that has impacts. Creativity turns inward, in towards the life of the institution, an all consuming vortex of committee work.  Language itself becomes the particular language of the tribe, as I've discovered working with the editors of my upcoming novel.

"Did you mean to say 'living into'?" they ask.  Well, um, kind of.  "You know," I say back.  "Like living into hope?  The CAAAPT iiiivEs FREEE!  You know?  That hymn?"   Just justifiable blankness in response.  That's happened more than once, and I never even used the word "missional."

Creatives inside systems shape themselves to the social and structural expectations of those systems.  It's just how humans function, but it can become a challenge if the ultimate goal is to speak a deeper truth to the broader world.

So I ran a list of writerly folks I know who are part of the denomination by my literate Jewish wife.  Capable writers all.  Names within the Frozen Chosen Circle of Trust.  Not a one of them meant anything to her.  Wait, you've mentioned her name to me, she said.  Oh, yeah, I think I remember you talking about him, she said.

But the ideas, the words?  The awareness of that soul as a creator of content?  Not so much.

Then I dropped the name I was sure she'd know, the one Presbyterian who seems to have regular purchase as a writer of things both literary and spiritual.

Anne LaMott? I said.  "Oh yeah," she said.  I know her stuff, she said.

I've had that reaction before, as I've recommended spiritual books to folks who love to read.  Here, a writer who creates books about faith that connect with a broad audience.  Lamott is Presbyterian, in that she is an active member of a small Presbyterian church.  If their webpage is to be believed, she teaches confirmation class now and again.

What she is not is deeply connected to the mechanisms of our polity.  Denominational identity doesn't mean all that much to her.  Jesus does.  Church does.  But the particulars of our tradition aren't highly relevant.  From what I have heard and seen of her, I can't imagine Anne LaMott at General Assembly, on some committee somewhere futzing over an amendment to an amendment to the first reading of an overture.

Well, I can imagine it.  It'd be...interesting.

Her networks as a writer are primarily extrinsic to her identity as a Presbyterian, which is present...but loosely held.  That loose holding seems nontrivial.

Because the tendency of institutions and organizations to draw us inward is a dangerous one, if spreading the good news is our goal.  If no words of hope radiate outward from the event horizon of our institutional life, then we're hardly a light to the the world.



Thursday, September 8, 2016

In Defense of Niceness

One of the more consistent themes amongst my coreligionists is an inveighing against "niceness."

Nice people are smarmy, treacle-mired milquetoasts, who do not understand the importance of The Battle.  They are weak, dull, and enablers of everything that is wrong.

You don't want a "nice" church, or so I am lead to understand.  You want a church that zealously defends the Truth, rooting out the blighted falseness of heretical imperfection.  You don't want a "nice" church.  You want a church that demands absolute justice, carefully checking the souls of every person for signs of noncompliance.

Nice people are too comfortable.

So afflict the comfortable, rises the cry, although I'm not quite sure who those comfortable people are.  I've not met many people who are really and truly comfortable.  Oh, folks might *seem* to be.  But open up a soul even the tiniest little bit, and you find anxieties and loss and struggles to find meaning.

Jesus, my coreligionists will often say, was not "nice."  He said things in anger.  He challenged the Powers that Be.  He was willing to present The Hard Truth, no matter how much that hurt.  There's truth to that, to be sure.  I encounter that every time He challenges me.   But the desire to be edgy, to tear down?  Is that the truth of the path? We must speak the Truth in love, I am told.  Because boy, is the Jesus Truth angry, and boy, do we love to speak it.

This is a common refrain among those most eager to tell others their failings, most willing to berate and belittle and claim the mantle of Jesus as legitimizing their rage.  But rage?  Rage makes you weak.  Easily guided.  Easily duped.

It also blinds you to complexity, because anger just ain't down with subtlety.  Anger just likes to hit things.

So I will rise, now, in defense of niceness, because niceness has power.

Take, for instance, the civil rights movement.  On the one hand, you had demonstrators, sure.  They weren't passive.  Dr. King was not shy.  Those who followed his gracious lead did not submit to injustice.  They were not submissive. But they were nice.  They were well dressed, in a way that signified to power that they were good and nonthreatening people.  They were politely insistent.  When they came to the counter to nicely order their food, they were kind and respectful and patient.

Around them gathered people who were not nice.  They cursed and acted out and generally behaved in ways human beings recognize as cruel.  They were obviously bullies, picking on nice people.

They dumped food on them.  Cursed them.  Sicced their dogs on them.  Knocked them down with firehoses.  Put them in prison.

Killed them.  We all saw it, and it was a horror.  Why are they doing that to those nice people?

When you are unyielding in your kindness, when you refuse to back away from being decent, it's not simple.  Being nice isn't easy.  Just as showing compassion isn't easy.  And as easy as it is to see kindness as a form of weakness, I'm not sure it is.

It's one of the reasons, boring as it might seem in this ever louder and angrier world, that I think it's so important for a community to excel in kindness.  To be nice, God help us.

I tend to think, honestly, that there just has to be space out there in the ecology of congregations for communities that mostly try to be kind to one another and to all those they encounter.  Places where kindness and compassion are practiced as the primary thing you do, above and beyond doctrinal purity.

Because the world does not seem to lack for zealots.  There seem to be plenty of those.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Most Evil Woman Who Ever Lived

As the Catholic Church canonizes Agnes Bojaxhlu, I find myself encountering a peculiar thing from the more radically left-fringe of my internet awareness.

Article after internet article, attacking the woman most of us knew as Mother Teresa.  If those articles are to be believed, she was a monster, a glazed-eye fanatic who abused the oppressed and cozied up to dictators for her own psychotic self-aggrandizement.  That way of understanding her life was first and most aggressively pitched by the late and much lamented atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens, who at least had the advantage of wit, a mastery of the language, and his own peculiar dissolute charm.

The latest wave of condemnation has none of his talent.

She is, by the standards of her accusers, a psychopath.  The most evil woman who ever lived.

The charges against her seem to fall into several different categories.

First, that she was anti-abortion and believed that divorce was problematic.  She also opposed contraception.  I personally don't share what was likely her perspective on some of these issues.  Why?

Because I'm not Catholic.  I mean, she was Catholic, after all.  Right?  And she's being made a saint in the Catholic church, right?  That a Catholic saint would hold orthodox Catholic positions seems rather a silly thing to get one's knickers in a twist about.  What matters to me...what matters to anyone grounded in reality...is what a person actually believes and how their belief impacts what they do.

That gets us to attack point number two.  She believed that there was an inherent nobility in poverty, and that enduring suffering has redemptive power.  This is also a Catholic position, pretty radically so.  It's also a pretty basically Christian position, one that I share.  She insisted on telling the poor that they were worthy, that their suffering wasn't in vain, and that they had value as human beings no matter what their condition.

Why is this wrong?  Well, because it must be wrong.  Spun the way her prosecutors are spinning it, her care for the poor was abuse because it celebrated suffering and did not challenge systemic injustice.  Saying that the endurance of suffering is noble becomes the foundation of the charge that she was a sadist.

Again, this seems absurd.  Faced with someone dying in squalor, you can either affirm their life or not.  You can frame their suffering as meaningless, as something inflicted on them by a power beyond their control.  "Your life up until this point, all the hurts and losses?  A waste of time.  Being poor sucks. Oh, you're dying?  Pity.  Hope oblivion works for you."

That's not to say I have a problem with being aware of systemic injustice, or of calling attention to it.

But more often than not in this #hashtag #activism era, focusing monomanaically on macro issues becomes a great way to do nothing.  Faced with a starving man, writing a tumblr post about food injustice and global imbalances of privilege and residual impacts of colonialism may not be wrong, but it is a hell of a lot less relevant to that actual human being than putting food in his belly.  Faced with an abandoned soul, you don't offer up a tweet about social isolation.  You take time for them and show them compassion.

It's the secular leftist equivalent of offering thoughts and prayers instead of real material care to another human being.  

Third, that in her actions she was an abuser of the poor.  Her clinics and hospices and orphanages did not meet acceptable levels of hospital hygiene, and often did not provide care that meets medical best practices.   Needles were boiled and reused rather than discarded.  Nuns who had not received nursing degrees tended to their charges.

So in the heart of desperate poverty, Western medical standards were not being met, and Mother Teresa is to blame for criminal malpractice.  

Again, this is more than slightly insane, unmoored from the reality of life in the global South.  In places of abject poverty, where resources are scarce, you have to make do.   If you're running a clinic in the South Sudan, it's not going to look like a clinic in a tony suburb of London.  Expecting it to do so and condemning it when it does not is fundamentally irrational.

Fourth, that she went to desperately poor countries that were run by the corrupt and by dictators, and she did not condemn those predators and dictators.  That, in fact, she may have been kind to them and said positive things as she and her order worked to build clinics and hospitals in places like Haiti.

From within the protective clamshell of laptop aggrievement, attacking her for this makes sense.  But if what matters to you is the alleviation of immediate human suffering, then maintaining a stance of absolute ideological purity doesn't get people fed and healed.  The starving and the sick and the orphan may not have the energy for revolution right now.

But still.  Do your justice work.  Fine.  Go team.  You work for that, while she makes sure the poor don't starve waiting for utopia to materialize.

What strikes me in this collection of absurdities, as it struck me when I read Hitchens' infinitely better written but equally preposterous character assassination pieces years ago, is how deeply the need to attack Mother Teresa rests in the mortal desire to avoid cognitive dissonance.

If faith is axiomatically monstrous, and you're just sick to [flipping] death of this [maternal copulation] nun being thrown back at you as evidence of the goodness of faith, then she must be destroyed.  Datapoints must be selected and assembled into a counterargument, one that allows one's understanding of existence to be unsullied by complexity.

And that's a problem.  It creates binary thinking, the dark and bitter absolutism that sours all of human life. 

Because reality is complex.  People who disagree with me on some pretty fundamental things also are capable of remarkable goodness.  I am not an atheist, but accept that atheists show compassion and grace.  I am not a Muslim, but can embrace the truth that Muslims feed the poor and welcome the stranger.  I can see the good in the stranger, and even in those who consider themselves my enemy.

Binary thinking does not permit that.

Mother Teresa was not perfect.  She felt that more than anyone, felt the dark nights of her soul, felt her own inadequacy, felt the emptiness of her own ego in the face of God's calling.

But that is how saints feel.  It is how they are.