Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Of Not Seeing the Sun in the Sky

The study was just another one of those temperature-taking exercises.  It was a national poll, one that looked at American attitudes towards climate change and the possible causes thereof.

On the one hand, more of us are aware that this is actually an issue, that it's a real thing.  The world is warming, and the impacts are visible and tangible.  We see it in storms, in strangely intense weather, in encounters with things we've never seen before.

In my little corner of America, I've seen two five hundred year floods in the last ten years, as the little stream that burbles along the bottom the valley in which I live has turned into a raging torrent hundreds of yards wide.  Twice in the last two years, we've had fierce bursts of graupel, a peculiar winter precipitation that isn't snow, hail, sleet or freezing rain.  It's an alpine phenomenon, or used to be, and one I'd never heard of before I saw it rushing down as I drove.  When you see precipitation, and you're 50 years old, and you don't know what it is?  That's a thing.

The weather has been "Biblical," which is generally a hopeful adjective until it's applied to meteorology.

So we all know things are off.  The majority of human beings recognize that this is a crisis.

But when asked why things are happening, we still seem to struggle.  The poll showed that we thought all manner of things might be the cause of climate change.

Like, say, the thirty seven percent of Americans...more than one in three...who believe that the world is getting warmer because the sun is getting hotter.

I've heard this before, as something pitched out to explain the obvious changes in things.  "Well, it's just part of a natural cycle of the sun."  This sounds like science, and it would be, if it were true.  But it isn't.   Solar energy has been static for my entire lifetime.  There's no change coming from our G-type main sequence star that can be tied to the increase in temperatures on our little world.

No space scientists are suggesting this.  No astrophysicists are suggesting this.  There's no data coming from our observatories or space-based instrumentation to affirm this idea.  It seems to come out of nothing.  It's just not true, and not in an "it's debatable" way.  There is no evidence for it, and all of the evidence is against it.

Why, then, do we believe it?

It seems that there are two reasons: disinformation and self-deception.

The first is part of the plague of our social age, the passing on of malicious misinformation by actors who do so to sow discord and hatred to their own benefit.  Like, say, the folks who insist that 9/11 was an inside job coordinated by Republicans.  Or that Sandy Hook was a hoax.  Or that an international cabal of child sex slavers were running a secret warehouse of captive children out of the basement of a neighborhood pizza joint.

These wild, unfounded, inflammatory fantasies are almost impossible to escape, as they are shared by earnest friends in our endless online rumor chamber.  They come from conspiracy theorists, glazed-eye ideologues, and bad state actors whose cynical interests lie in the continued use of fossil fuels.  Why do we share them?

That is the human part, our deep seated ability to see only what we want to see.  All of us fall prey to this, particularly when we encounter realities that aren't the reality we want to see.  Rather than open ourselves to the thing right there in front of our faces, we turn our eyes to the thing that affirms what we would like to be true.  It isn't necessarily malicious in intent.  But it has malicious effect, as our ego-driven blindness causes just as much harm as had we meant to do ill.

So when we'd rather not change our lives, and see a bit of information that seems to affirm our current position, we grasp after it.  We want to believe it.  We hunger for it to be true, even if there's nothing behind it.  We see what we want to see.

To the point, apparently, where the sun can shine in the sky, and we can't even see it.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

School Dream

So last night I had this
School dream
It was the
First day of school
And I was on time to class
And I was wearing pants
And I found a seat with no problem
And I
Listened to the professor lecture
Literature, justice and the law
While taking notes by hand
with a blue pen.
It wasn't stressful at all.
Kind of a good class, actually.

Self Aware

This Is Just an Utterly Ordinary Sentence That I Rearranged On Separate Lines And Called A Poem

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Of Grace and Letting God Work

This last month, Poolesville Presbyterian "did some work," as folks apparently say these days.

In 1880, a black man named George Peck was lynched by a white mob directly across the street from our church sanctuary. In partnership with a coalition of churches, local leaders, and other members of the Poolesville community, our little church hosted a memorial event. There were prayers, meditations on violence and reconciliation, and poems from local students.  Then, a soil collection from the site of the lynching, after which that soil was sent to the Equal Justice Initiative's museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

The day was perfect and beautiful.  There were hundreds in attendance, from our community and from all around the county.  There were news reports, as radio and local television stations shared the event, with coverage on the front of the Washington Post metro section, and other media outlets ranging from the Houston Chronicle to the San Francisco...Chronicle.  The story of what the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Poolesville was doing even made its way into Spanish language media.

It was kind of a Thing, and it was a thing church folks had wrestled with for a bit.  How do we do this?    
We'd thought about it, prayed about it, and considered the event carefully before it began.  What gifts should we bring?  What's the best way to support other organizers of the event?  How do we do this well, and respectfully, and in a way that is both honest and healing and respectful to the best spirit of our community?

Folks from the church stepped up, as we do.  There were snacks, and beverages, and a general sense of supportiveness and welcome that couldn't be missed.

Both I and the elders on Session were of one mind about how the event should be lead.  We needed community folks engaged, and the closer to the heart of our community, the better.  There were many different folks who might be able to provide leadership, but one name kept resurfacing: Pastor Chuck, who leads worship at the nondenominational church in town.  His family goes back a hundred and fifty years in our little town, one of the longest standing black families resident in the area.  They've owned land...a free black family, owning land...since before the Civil War.  And he works in Poolesville.  And he's just a great, spirit-filled, gracious human being.

We all knew he was right for this moment.  This town is "his dirt," as he so viscerally an appropriately described it on that day.  The challenge was twofold.  First, getting him on board, which proved to be as easy as so much of what God intends is easy.  Chuck was all in and called in.  Chuck was fired up.

The second challenge was on me.  It was shutting down those mutters and nibbles of ego that stir whenever an important thing happens, right there in your church, and you realize you're not going to be leading it.  You'd think, as an introvert, that I'd automatically avoid that, but no.  There's always that human tendency to want the light of public affirmation, to want the limelight, to want to overstep or upstage.  I do come from a family of actors, anxious and inward as I am.  What I needed to do was to find the right amount of space, to speak words of welcome and support and move aside, to be sure that the people that are clearly called by God to a moment were right where God wanted them to be.  

Which, praise the Lord, was just what happened.  

That challenge to both be present and make space is one that rests on every moment of our lives.  We're called to both live out our gifts into the world and lift up others.  The first requires that we overcome our fears.  The second, that we overcome our desire for control.

Neither is particularly easy, but both are necessary as we seek to live out God's gracious work of reconciliation.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Consuming Our Way out of the Climate Crisis

It was morning, just a tick past eight, and I was walking.

I regularly walk my errands, because it's good for my soul.  My mind clears when walking.  Anxiety  and scatter drifts away, and my thinking focuses.  I see the world around me.  I feel and smell and hear, and the rhythm of my movement calms me.  I was heading home, having dropped off our trusty hybrid Honda for a routine service.

It was cool out, and a little overcast, and the leaves were dancing down from the trees as fall began.  On the roads, an increasing flow of cars, as the DC metropolitan area woke for another morning of anxious rushing busyness.

My walk home would be just over three miles, which would take me, at my modest pace, fifty minutes.

This is, of course, inefficient.  Inconvenient.  It requires effort.

I could have called a Lyft or an Uber.  I could have had the dealership drive me home in one of their courtesy vehicles.  But I didn't, because, well, why?  Am I in that much of a hurry?  I am not.  Do I need the exercise?  I most certainly do.  Is my convenience worth that expenditure of energy?  I don't think it's necessary.

And as I walked, I found my thoughts turning to the way we are taught to think about caring for our planet.  What we need, we are told, is new efficient stuff.  We need a $50,000 electric car.  We need a $50,000 solar roof and a $12,000 home battery unit.  We need a three hundred dollar wi-fi connected thermostat that pours data into the cloud through our two hundred dollar router and our big fiber optic multi-thousand dollar annual connectivity charge.

I do not question that these are nice things.  If one has the resources for them, then by all means, go ahead.

But I'm not sure that consuming the same amount differently is the full moral response to a climate crisis.  It's like switching up your diet, and eating two thousand calories of kale instead of an IHOP pancake platter.  It's the same amount of calories, only I'm not sure a human being can eat that much kale.  As much as I love greens, death by kale seems a bad thing.

Somewhere in there, we need to consume less.  Just...less.  We need to travel less.  We need to rush about less.  We need to rediscover the old classic virtue of thrift, the simple pleasure of slower and smaller.  Of using the legs God gave us.  Of being aware.

This isn't hard.  In fact, it's rather pleasurable. 

And so I walked, and I breathed in the cool air, and I watched as the other humans rushed towards our future wrapped in tons of shiny new steel.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Getting to Know Rachel

For the last two months, my adult education class has been reading together through G.K. Chesterton's ORTHODOXY, because, well, it's worth doing.  My goal as a pastor is to share the richest spiritual food I've tasted with as many souls as I can, and that's what I'm doing.

It's a whirling, heady, poetic, and often baffling defense of the faith, and it's complicated. 

Wonderful, because Gilbert Keith can spin out some of the most beautiful thoughts, and turns a phrase with a grace that few authors can match. The deep abiding liberality of his soul radiates from so much of this book, as he shows the ability to both disagree fiercely with another, and yet recognize and appreciate all that is good in them. His lifelong friendship/jousting with George Bernard Shaw is perhaps the most noted example, but his is a great warm heart that loves and honors a worthy opponent.

Frustrating, because he can be...well...a little full of himself. And a little meandering in his mucking about with ideas. And a little too delighted in his own thinking, so much so that he often fails to notice when he's lost track of compassion. And just blazingly wrong about some things, a wrongness that he misses as he spins out his words.  But just when you're getting annoyed with him, then, again, suddenly a phrase or paragraph of such radiant grace or whimsy that you love him again.

This book has been great grist for meaty, respectful conversations and laughter.

But it's been something more.  We're not just reading Chesterton.  We're with him, because he's powerfully present in his own words.  This isn't academic writing.  It's the farthest thing from abstract or formal.  His great wit is in the room with us.  His love of life and art and literature, all of his exuberance is in the room with us.  And sure, he's monologuing a bit, and prone to bloviation on occasion.  But that's who he was.  We hear him.  We're connected to this soul, and to his particular story and take on faith and creation.  In an odd way, he remains a living presence with us, as his words tell us who he is and witness to how faith shaped him.

Which gets me to the next book we're reading as a class.  It's SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY, by Rachel Held Evans.

When Rachel Held Evans passed earlier this year, there was a great disturbance in the progressive Christian force.  Seemingly everyone I knew online was filled with lament at her untimely death, and...particularly among those who knew her...there was a deep, physical, personal grief.  I didn't know her at all.  I knew of her, of course, but I'd not yet read anything more than a few blog posts and the occasional twitter argument.   None of the folks in my class had read her, either, although some had intended to.

I understood the cries of common lament, though I didn't participate.  There are loved ones I have lost.  I miss the flesh and bones of them, the present life of them.  The world felt emptier in the knowledge they no longer walked it.  So I got that.

But people would cry, O, O, we've lost her voice!  She is gone!  She is gone!  Even the foreword to SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY presages that cry.  "Whenever I want to scare myself," it begins, "I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing."

I wonder at the root of that sentiment.

Perhaps it rises from the loss felt when a bright creative soul passes, and you realize that you have received all of their words and art and music.  Particularly with one who was familiar and beloved, one from whom more was hoped and eagerly expected, one who on social media was right there, talking about the thing that stirred the day.

Perhaps it rises from those for whom she was tangible, a friend and beloved colleague, a mentor and a sister in the faith.

But as someone who is just starting to engage with her, my encounter is new and fresh.  That, of course, is part of the magic of books.

Books cause entire worlds to wake within us, and make us see things that have never been.  The best books also bear the living imprint of their author's soul.  You can read them, and truly get to know that person, as surely as if that author was right there with you.  It's just scratches of ink on a wood byproduct, or pixels on a screen, but there that person is.  

Again, books are magical that way.  I use that word only barely as metaphor, perhaps not as metaphor at all.  

I never met, spoke with, or personally knew Rachel Held Evans.  Her span of days has passed, as it does for all mortals.  What she is now rests in God.  But she has left us a gift, one that means I'm confident she can still be known, as one encounters her voice and the written memories of her soul.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Rage of Lemmings

We all know what lemmings are.

They are cute little rodents, native to Norway, that sometimes reach a point of such massive overpopulation that they create huge herds.  Those herds race about, and eventually fling themselves blindly off of cliffs.  It's one of those factoids from the natural world that often gets applied to humanity, as we warn against "being a bunch of lemmings."  It's shorthand for blindly, mindlessly following a path to our own destruction.  It's such a familiar metaphor that it's a bit trite, and a little stale.

I'd never really studied any more about lemmings after learning about their tendency to destroy themselves, and that meant I really didn't have a sense of them as creatures.  My assumption as a child: lemmings were like mice.  They were timid, easily frightened creatures that scampered about eating crops.  They were vulnerable, and like most rodents their primary evolved defense was just to have so many babies that you couldn't eat/kill them all.   

My vision of lemmings on the march to oblivion was that of a mass of fearful creatures that had over-reproduced.  A lemming death march, or so I thought, was being driven by blind terror, hunger, and the false security of the herd.

But that's not quite right.  Norwegian lemmings aren't mice.  They're not timid.  They don't cower in their holes, or sneak about in darkness.

They have one mode: attack.  That's all they do.  If you mess with a lemming, it will fight you until you are dead.  If you're a cat?  A bird of prey?  A towering higher primate?  Lemmings don't care.  Lemmings never, ever, ever back down.  Lemmings, like Bruce Banner, are always angry.

They scream, their black eyes a pit of fury. They crouch, ready to strike, teeth bared.  They leap at you, ready to take a chunk of your flesh.

They wear their aggression on their bodies, their brightly colored pelts serving as a threat display.  Those bright colors against the snow and rock snarl to the world that if you even think about [fornicating] with it, a lemming will [fornicate] you up,  mother[fornicator].

This puts their self-annihilating behavior in an entirely different light.  They don't destroy themselves because they are hungry or afraid or herd animals. 

They destroy themselves because they cannot ever, ever turn off their rage.  

If they see a cliff, a great void before them?  They hurl themselves over it with the fearlessness that comes from fury.  If they encounter the North Sea, with its towering waves and bittercold waters?  They attack.  They fling themselves into the sea and swim until they perish not because they have a death wish, but because they will not back down in the face of anything, not even the sea.

This, to be honest, makes the lemming an even more pungent metaphor.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Of Sanctuary and Guarding Our Souls

I was at a memorial service for a long time member of my little church, where I was talking shop with my predecessor, who'd come to pay her respects to an old friend.

We're both writers, and she mentioned something as our conversation danced around ministry, her upcoming book, and the things we were writing.

"Yeah, I noticed that you don't really write much about politics any more," she said.

Which is true.  I don't as much.  Occasionally, sure.  It's not that I don't think about it.  It's not that I lack opinions, or that my feelings have changed in any meaningful way.  Nor is it that I'm any less informed, or any less committed to our imperiled constitutional republic.

It's none of those things.  It's something else.  It's something more analogous to the way we protect the integrity of our souls when we find ourselves connected to toxic or psychotic persons.  There are souls, and all of us know them, who will devour every last bit of us.  They're filled with anger and relentlessly hostile, or constantly radiating negativity, or manufacturing crises.  It's all drama, all the time, all about them.

If they're a neighbor, a co-workers or acquaintances, there's some natural space there, some distance that gives us room to breathe.  If they're our boss or in a position of power, it's harder.

If they are loved ones, it's hardest of all.  They could be a brother or sister, parent or child.  We love them, and we don't want to stop loving them, but if we don't set boundaries for our souls, and have significant places of respite, we'll get torn apart.

So much of our national dialogue is like being in relationship with that kind of soul.  We taken together are cognitively dissonant, blindly angry, unable to find anything that gives us cohesion. burning in the entropic fire of big raging drama.

As someone who processes things by writing them, and thinks about things by writing them out, there's only so much toxicity, anger, and falseness that my soul can manage before it messes with me.  It feels, at times, like we are foie gras geese of outrage, force-fed bitterness and negativity until we've gone wrong inside, our souls fat and distended with hate.

All of life cannot be that, if we are to remain sane.  The wise put some distance between themselves and the self-destructive, we hear from the Proverbs.  Even Jesus found himself needing that time, up in the quiet air, away from the roar and crazy of the crowd.

We need the simple healing graces of dirt under our nails.  We need that long quiet walk, or a good long run.  We need the word-spun world of an interesting book, or a meal and laughter shared with friends.  Those things aren't escapism.  Nor do they mean we don't care, and that we're not paying due attention.

They simply keep us from forgetting what the point of it all is.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Lying About Our Age

This Sunday, before I left my church office, I leafed through the always-useful Presbyterian planning calendar for the year. It reminds me what color stole I should wear, and keeps me apprised of key dates for the year. It's also filled with inspirational images that are meant to turn our hearts to doing mission, and I appreciate its intent.

But I couldn't help notice something this year: in the many images of earnest progressive Christians doing earnest Jesus-justice things, there was one...just one...person with white hair. And one older person, whose hair was in shadow. Its possible there were three. It's possible some of the folks were coloring their hair, and I just missed it. But the theme was significant and sustained. 

The images proclaimed a denomination bustin' out with young folk. If we look at the data, and then compare it with the story we are telling ourselves, it's, well, things are a little different. I am fifty years old, which...though my hair's mostly holding up so far...means I'm an older soul. I'm still on the younger side of the Presbyterian world. In that, there is dissonance.

I wonder at it because older folk were my mentors in service and mission. I learned the Way from amazingly active, caring, and dynamic human beings...who also had white hair and a lifetime of experience serving the needy, marching for justice, and showing the love of Jesus. "Mission" and "service" are things that older grownup Christians do, with passion and commitment and energy.

Beyond that, it goes deeper. When a church tells a story of itself that is fundamentally at odds with what it actually is, that says something about the state of its soul. A healthy church is open and straightforward about who it is. It feels it has nothing to hide, and is comfortable with itself. We are this way, and we love Jesus where we are, as we are.

Anxious communities, on the other hand, cast out a tale of themselves that misrepresents who they truly are. "We're welcoming," the website proclaims, only when you show up, there are furtive glances in worship and a circle of backs in the social hour. "We're active and connected," the Facebook page says, in the most recent post from four years ago. "We're growing," says the church that last added a member ten years before that Facebook page update.

In seminary, I was taught to watch for this in the communities I pastor. I inferred, from that teaching, that I was to be wary for it in my own soul, as my own ego and desire to tell a sweet lie about my own success or gloss over who I am.

Perhaps I am overthinking this. Perhaps it's nothing more than the tendency of older folks to prefer pictures of their grandkids and pictures of themselves when they were young. Maybe it's just random.

Then again, perhaps not.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

As You Wish

I asked
The Creator of the Universe
I said


Can I really
Anything I want?

And They just
Met My EYE
For an instant wide as the sky
Then with a smile
soft as newfallen Snow

Anything at all
Anything you like
However you can
Whatever you're able

Yes to it all.

And I laughed
Feeling my wild unfettered
And I turned
Ready to
Go and do

But then
A touch
Light as the Noonday desert Sun
Their hand on
My shoulder

They said
in a voice
Quiet and Dark as a
Distant Deepening Gathering
Storm at Sea

And when you're

They said

When you've done

They said

All that you wished
All that you want
All that you will

I will
Because I love you
Like Fire
Like Fire, do I love you
I will
Tell you in the Fires of 
My Love

What that Meant

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Trauma Machine

Forgiveness, healing, and forgetting are all woven up together as a single thing in our souls. 

When we have been wounded, that wound creates both physical trauma and soul trauma.  It's a part of how we are made, one of the ways human creatures learn to steer away from those things that harm and break us.  Moments of trauma form deep and powerful memory in us, memory that stirs in us fear and anger, anxiety and crushing depression.

Those memories, when stirred, return us to that place of harm.  Our traumatic memory, at best, is a prophylactic, as the reaction trauma stirs makes us rise up against similar potential harm.  But it takes a toll.  It rises, unbidden, in moments where there is no danger.  It stirs in us, warning that we must fight or flee, when something minor recalls that hurt.  A smell.  A particular sound.  A voice that reminds us of his voice.  A face that could be hers.  The sharp retort of a celebratory firework, harmless and far away.  The sound of sirens.

Those memories of trauma are fierce and bright and cut deep into us.  They can break us and keep us broken, always shattering and reshattering, never able to move on. 

Healing comes from a particular form of remembering, as our memories of trauma are overlaid with countervailing experience.  We learn that we can go out without fear.  We learn to trust others again.  We learn to overcome.  We change.  It's hard. It takes time.

It's not that we forget the harm that was done, but our remembering becomes different.  We allow it to be changed.  We human beings, whose memory is malleable and who can recall the same event differently as time and retelling blurs and shifts it in us?  That  is how we heal from trauma.  That's how we are restored.

But now?  Now we never need forget, not for an instant, not a moment.  This strange overlaying synthetic meta-mind of images and sounds that we have created?  This "internet?" 

It allows us to return to our traumatic moments, to re-see and to re-experience them just as they were.  It allows us to never, ever, ever forget, not one bit of it, not one detail.  No part of our lives.  No part of our history.  None of it needs heal, ever.

We return to those moments of collective trauma through glass lenses, in hi def and surround sound, ruminating over them, refreshing them in ourselves, returning to moments of pain and horror just as clearly as when we first experienced them.  Ten years can pass.  Twenty.  Hundreds.  Traumatic moments never need pass, never can be changed by reflection, will never be dulled, because these aren't human memories.  They are the memories of steel, machine memories, sharp as blades, cutting deep into us over and over and over again.

Pain and fear and rage, none of which we can ever escape.

What a strange thing we have done to ourselves.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Crucifier's Prayer

For the past week, the reports and images have come through, day after day.  It made a peculiarly appropriate backdrop to my writing lately, as I work my way through a manuscript exploring the Christian response to climate change.

What was initially forecast to be a minor tropical system, one that would dissipate after crossing the mountains of Hispaniola?  It blossomed into a monster, a beast of a storm, one bearing winds and surge that meant that once again we would be hearing the words "historic" and "catastrophic."

The forecast, twitchy and uncertain, seemed for a while to plant the storm squarely across the peninsula of Florida, as our machine-minds projected out likely scenarios, calculating and recalculating the probabilities using wildly complicated mathematical modeling.

But for all of our models, the storm did what it did, growing fiercer than we'd predicted, and lingering over a Bahamanian paradise for over a day, meting out destruction layered on top of destruction.  We who are now used to watching storm chasers stream video and locals putting up videos were left momentarily blinded, unable to peer into winds that were more than twice the power of that derecho that tore through our area a few years back.

When it finally passed, at its own monstrous leisure, it left a paradise as a ruin.

Why?  It is our human nature to wonder at the reason for things, particularly events that make us recoil in horror.  In our desire for control we want to assign blame to the suffering, or to celebrate the deliverance of the righteous, particularly if we happen to have escaped this time out.  But storms do what they do, on their scale and not ours.  God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, as Jesus reminded us in the Sermon on the Mount.  Tragedy befalls both the kind and the cruel.

Against this, we wish to have power.  We want our selves, our communities, our nation, to have power.  To prosper.  So we pray from our ego.  We pray from our desire for the integrity of our material selves.

But what are my prayers, against the storm?  What is the purpose of such a prayer?  Unlike a prayer for healing, or a prayer for a change of heart, a prayer that calls for a storm to turn from us has implications beyond ourselves.

Am I to proclaim with joy that I am certain my prayers stalled a storm elsewhere, so that I and my property might be spared while others know terror and ruin instead?  Am I to declare that the Creator of the Universe favors my safety over the life of a terrified child, torn from the arms of their father, water filling their lungs as they are swept into oblivion?

Let them suffer, that I may not, we cry to the heavens.  Take them instead, we cry. 

This is the prayer of the crucifier.  I may ask for deliverance, being a human and finite creature.  I will certainly give thanks for life and being when it comes.  But I am not the center of things.  There are times, my Master taught, when the cross will come to me, and I must take it up and bear it.  It can mean loss of everything this world offers, life included.

It seems like a thing that any disciple of Jesus would know.

What Jesus calls us to is not to live ever removed from tragedy.  What matters is how we respond to those events that shake our lives, or leave the lives of others in ruin.  For our own moments of brokenness and mortality, we're reminded to remain resilient, to place our hope and trust in a God who transcends us infinitely.  Where we see our neighbor struggling, we're called to stand fast in compassion, helping as we can, seeing their suffering as our own, remaining all the while strong in our sympathy.

No matter how often these storms rise or how they affect us, our ethical ground remains the same.

And as our world grows harsher and harder, that's a ground that will be tested.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Miracle of Strangers

Earlier this summer I found myself, through the joys of flight scheduling, with multiple hours to kill at Chicago O'Hare.  It would have been easy, I suppose, to fill the time noodling about on my phone, flitting from social media to email to a gaming app. 

But with hours spent sitting on my behind on planes already a central part of my day, I just couldn't stomach the thought of that level of inactivity.  So, after a delicious Smoothie King lunch, I decided to walk the concourses.  Which I did.

For nearly two hours.  

Seven miles of walking, according to my fitness app, all through the swirl of thousands of travelers heading to destinations all across the planet.

My intent was to keep a little fit, but as I walked and watched the flow of humanity around me, I began to pay attention to the faces of that river of strangers.  Thousands upon thousands of strangers, people that I have never seen before, and will never likely see again.  

Families with children.  

A large tour group of Japanese tourists.  

A Somali woman and her daughter.  

A Mennonite girl, traveling alone.  

So many faces passed by that I couldn't help but marvel at how full the world is of souls we don't know, and marvel more deeply still at how intimate and accurate our ability to recognize the faces of others is.  In this teeming throng, my eyes dancing from face to face, I didn't for one instant mistake someone for someone I knew.  Every one of those people was unfamiliar, and that unfamiliarity seemed as I walked to be a marvel of God's creation.  So many unique persons, each with their own story, each uniquely gifted with their own graces and possibilities.

It's one of the miracles of humanity, and a marvel of our richness as persons.  In a time when we so often fear those who are unfamiliar, those moments as I walked through a flow of faces were an unanticipated blessing, a reminder of the strange holiness of our encounter with the stranger.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Mercy for the Fool

I dreamed I met a man
A man
With absurd hair
And a false tan

Stuffed clumsy into an ill fitting
Wandering alone
In the abandoned streets
Of a once proud city

The sun beat down
The air thick smothering wet
His face bright red
His awkward suit
Damp with

"I am so hot,"
He said eyes down
to the burning road
"So hot."

And though he was a
and the
King of Fools

I said

I lifted his face to mine and

I said


And I blew soft
On his face
And a cool wind rose
To play through his
Absurd hair
Slicked flat back with sweat

"O God,"
he sighed
Closing his hell-weary eyes

"That feels
So Good."

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Bonus Plants

My garden this year is different, as it is every year.

Strawberries and potatoes, green beans and a pepper and tomatoes, all of which I've planted before.  This year, kale and carrots were added to the mix, filling up the two new raised beds that sit outside my kitchen window.  That, I expected.

Most of the soil that fills those two raised beds came from the compost pile I started in the fall two years ago.  That dirt was once the leaves on the trees in my back yard, and the grass that grows in the front.  It also contains the remains of a hundred home-made meals.  Eggshells and hunks of red pepper, the tops of zucchini and the bottoms of broccoli.  Every bit of plant matter left over from our fridge, those purchased vegetables and fruits that we kind of, um, forgot were in there. That, and shredded bills, munched on by worms and bacteria, all of it now a rich organic mass of new earth, wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow full of earth.

It's good stuff, and the carrots and kale have come along nicely.

But there's more.  From the soil in which the carrots began to sprout, other plants arose.  Some were weeds, the inevitable grasses that try to shoulder their way into a crop.  But others weren't.  A little sproutling, obviously the beginnings of a tomato plant.  Another batch of sprouts, which from their leaves and vigor were clearly squash.  Perhaps zucchini.  Perhaps spaghetti squash. I'm not quite able to tell the difference.   Most likely spaghetti squash, as that's what I attempted to grow two years ago.  

They sprang up, and I had to ask myself...what do to with them?

On the one hand, that was My Carrot Patch.  My plan was for Carrots.  Carrots were integrated into the vision and the mission for that particular location in the garden.  When I visualized that raised bed, my metric for success was a mass of delicately-leafed carrot tops.  Not Tomatoes.  Not Squash.  Those were not part of the plan.  

I could, I suppose, have uprooted all of them.  I did take out some of the squash, which rose everywhere all at once.  But the bonus tomato I staked and watered.  The remaining squash I guided to a trellis day by day, its riotous cthulhu-squidward tendrils redirected gently away from the carrots.

Because growth...good growth, life-giving growth...isn't often the thing we expect or plan for.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Season of Growth

It's summer now, and the garden is in full swing.  Every season, my garden is different.

Some years, there are strawberries, so many that I run out of jam jars to fill with them.  Other years, the squirrels and chipmunks and voles have gotten to 'em first. 

Some years, the green beans spring like a riot from the earth, and I'm sharing bags of beans with family and neighbors and random passers-by.  And other years, the same beans seem a little tired, loafing out of the identically enriched soil, yielding a couple of fresh picked dinner side dishes but little more.

It's part of the delight of a garden that it is every year new and unanticipated.  That newness comes because it is...assuming we're not "gardening" on an industrial organic thing, a living thing, one that we can encourage and nurture but that isn't utterly under our control.

And it also comes because we, as we water and weed and plant and weed some more, can always try new things in our soil.  Every plant is different, with different life cycles and needs. For me, this season, there were carrots, which I'd never tried before, but which have worked wonderfully in the loose, rich soil from my compost pile.  I'd not realized, before I researched carrots on the Virginia Tech agriculture school page, that carrots were biennials, and that the sweet, starchy root is simply the fuel for the flowers that grow in year two.

There was kale, which I have loved since I was a child.  OK, sure, I was a weird kid, but I loved it, just like I loved spinach and collard greens.  Must have been my southern heritage.  The kale I planted last Fall gave us sweet, nutty greens through the winter, and is now a menacing riot of edible, tasty seed-pods, which I'm planning on using for the planting this Fall.  The kale I planted in the spring did great...and attracted scores of lovely white butterflies.  Oh, what lovely white butterflies, I thought.

But while summer's pretty fluttering butterflies don't eat kale, their eggs hatch into caterpillars.  And caterpillars love kale nearly as much as I do.  Which I will remember for my greens, the next time summer arrives.

In this gardening time, we are reminded that every new season of life brings with it opportunity for untasted flavors and learning.  And with every new thing, there come challenges, things that nibble and bore and wilt.  That's no reason not to rejoice in the new things that God is always working...just a reason to keep aware, and to adapt, and to delight in both the challenge and the discovery.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Dark Side of Story

It was a lovely little gathering at a denominational meeting, as I and another dual-class pastor/author sat with folks and talked faith and storytelling.

We chatted about our books, about the literature that we loved, about the stories that shaped us.  We talked about how story is the ground of faith, and how mythopoetic narratives create a sense of self in a way that data simply cannot.  We talked about the use of fiction in liturgy and teaching, and gave examples. It was a good, solid, earnest Presbyterian bit of thinkery.

After many other good questions and conversation, my colleague offered up the rich question: we've talked about how story can shape us in positive ways.  In what ways can story be less helpful?

There were some well-considered answers around the table, thoughtful reflections on the obscurity of narrative as a means of speaking truth, and about human subjectivity and our capacity for misunderstanding as we engage with such truth.

There were reflections on the dangers of stories that were cloyingly sweet, the clumsy Christian tendency to create bludgeoningly didactic books and films, in which all of the characters are transparent stereotypes and THE MESSAGE IS IN ALL CAPS.  It is no small irony that our "evangelical" stories are so often told in ways that only those who already believe can enjoy them.

It was a wonderful dialogue.  As one of the two folks at the "front" of the room, I pitched out my thoughts on the subject early.  Well, one of my thoughts. As the conversation continued, another occurred to me.  But the role of the person at the front of the room isn't to pontificate endlessly, no matter how much caffeine you drank right before the session.  You contribute, give a perspective, and then support, and listen.

The answer I left unspoken was this: Story is a soul-shaping magic, but it is not necessarily a good magic. 

Stories can be evil.

Storytelling as a means of forming personal and collective identity can make us more just, more compassionate, more open, and more gracious. It can force open our imaginations to receive a new blessing. It can deepen our welcome to the stranger, and set our souls at peace. 

And it can also do precisely the opposite thing.  We can tell stories of our own lives that make us more anxious, more hateful, and more bitter.  Our narratives of the people around us can twist them into chimerae, allowing us to project our anxiety and rage onto that false Other.  They abuse us! They are monsters! We, the victims, the paragons of virtue! We can mutter these things to ourselves for a lifetime.

We can tell stories of our lives together that deepen our collective resentments towards the stranger, that heighten our distrust of neighbor, and that dehumanize those we need to hate.  We recount their corruption and brutality, heightening our contempt of Them, reinforcing the bright shiny truth of Us.  We make up stories that cast Us as perfect and noble and good, and Them as demonic god-foe monstrosities, irredeemable enemies, unworthy of love.

Our stories can make our hearts leap at the thrill of violence, hunger for possessions, and view others as meat for our pleasure. They can make us cynical and cold and brutal.

Fiction can call us into a higher truth. It can also be a deepening lie upon a lie. 

A story can tell a deep magic of compassion.  It can just as easily be a coldwoven curse, written in the blood of ego, filling our soul with worms.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

My Sweet Enemy

Is my

Strangling my 
Murdering my 
Smothering my

And yet

As I watch

On a new summer's twilight

The young couple stops
And He
Takes flowers for her hair

Then a woman

Presses her face
Into its warm

O my 

How worthy you are

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

This is one of those posts, from one of those people. 

Because I don't watch it.

I could have, out of some sense of cultural obligation.  How else could I pepper my sermons with knowing, engaged references?  But I have not watched it, and I am not watching it.  I mean, sure, every now and then, I'll watch a snippet of an episode on Youtube, because dragons.

I did, however, read the books.  Not all of them.  I read the first three, years ago.  They were great.  I found them utterly engrossing.  After the end of the third book, at the advice of a trusted friend and the stirring of my own instinct, I stopped.

The reason I stopped was simple: I could see how the series had to end. 

Not because I'm a prophet, or because I'm in sole possession of the only handwritten manuscripts of the last four books, which George RR accidentally mailed to my home address.  That rumor is completely unfounded, no matter what George tells you.

But because I'm a storyteller, and I recognized the flow of the narrative of Westeros.

Here's the truth of it, the only legitimate, true-to-the-genre way Game of Thrones ends:

It doesn't. 

It can't.   There is no way to end it that would feel right, as y'all are discovering.

The entire series is about the human struggle for power, the wrestling for control.  I mean, duh.  It's just a mirror of our history, in all of its endlessly cycling brutality and falseness.  That kind of story goes on, and on, and on, generation after generation, filled with war and treachery and plotting and greed.  There would need to be a hundred books.  A thousand.  More.

It'd be both exhausting and insane.

I already get that from history itself, as bloody and fascinating and bizarre as anything Westeros offers. 

And the news, God help us.

Friday, May 3, 2019

That Moment of Stillness

The concert hall was filled with human beings.  It was close to capacity, with almost every seat taken.  Almost two thousand persons, gathered in a space, listening to a trio of the world's best musicians play a series of classical pieces. 

One of the great advantages of modern-era music?  It's amplified, pouring out through vast speaker arrays, filling the air with itself, smothering the presence of human beings.  Space is left for applause and call-outs to the audience, but when the music is TURN'T UP, it shoulders us aside.  We are there, but we are not there enough to intrude.

This was different.  No amplification, no nothing.  Just piano, cello, violin, and the natural acoustics of the venue.   It was a pure, organic experience, and as such was a perfect reminder that pure, organic human beings are...well...we're kind of noisy.  We rustle.  We stir.  We drop things.  We murmur and shift in place.  And at the height of pollen season, we cough.  Oh dear sweet baby Jesus, do we cough. 

Echoing through the perfect acoustics of a modern concert hall, allergy season isn't the friend of the listener. 

As the musicians played their first piece, Mendelssohn's lovely Piano Trio No. 1, our noisy humanness was impossible to escape.  We intruded constantly on the music, coughing and snorting and sneezing.   And dropping things.  Evidently those programs were slippery.

During the break between pieces, the gathered mass of humanity hacked and hawked and cleared its collective throat, to the point where I wondered if this particular concert happened to include Patients Zero through Four hundred and Fifty two in a major pandemic outbreak.  People shifted and talked, the room alive with the sound of our collective bustle.

But at the beginning of the second piece, there came this...moment.  It was at the start of the second piece, Shostakovich's Piano Trio #2 in E minor.  I'd never heard it before.  It's a stark, challenging work, sometimes sublime, often harsh, teasing with sorrowful near-harmonies.  It begins with the cello, way up high at the top of its register, sweet and soft and intimate.

In that great room, alive with the sounds of nearly two thousand humans, that cello was barely audible.  A whisper of beauty, so quiet as to be almost outside of the range of hearing, almost lost in the sound of the natural movement of our mass.  We weren't trying to be loud.  No one was coughing or dropping things.  Even so, we were still all moving, just a little, all together, enough to make it hard to hear.

But we were also all listening for the music.  Every person in that vast space wanted to hear.  We were all paying attention.  And from that shared desire, the whole room went still.   Completely, totally, still.

All at once, there was near absolute silence.  Not a person moving, breath held in thousands of lungs, not a one of us shifting, all holding perfectly motionless as the cello sang clearly in the space we together had made for it.

That great receptive quiet was, in its own way, as beautiful as the music itself.

How often in life do all of us grow still, not just one or two of us, but all, listening together to a voice that can only be heard in that place of deep gathered silence?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

One City, Many Gates

How can faith integrate into itself the idea that there are multiple and variant narratives of truth?

It would seem impossible.  Faith, or so we tend to think, involves having one defining story, a singular mythopoetic.  There is a single acceptable set of truths, and anything outside of that truth set is either not of the faith or heretical.

We have, from the modern era's mechanistic assumptions about inerrant texts and the pre-modern era's assumptions about ecclesiastical inerrancy, assumed that authority is singular.    So of course religion can only have one truth.  Accepting variation would be a violation of canon.

And we know from the fandom of our modern corporate myth-o-tainment franchises that varying from canon...any canon...seriously sets people off.  Some days, that's pretty much all reddit and Twitter do.

Only, well, the Christian canon is weird.

At the core of the Christian faith, there are four Gospels, four alternative narratives of Jesus.  Three...Matthew, Mark, and Luke...share general parameters with one another. completely different.  They arise from variant oral and written traditions, all trying to get at who Jesus was and what he taught.  Each was written into a specific context in the early church, by a writer with a particular and discernable editorial emphasis.

Mark, furtive and blunt as a bludgeon.  Matthew, the earnest traditionalist.  Luke, the erudite historian.  John, the poet and the mystic.

Their tonal variances are nontrivial.  But, more importantly, none are exactly the same story.  They present us with variant characters and differing chronologies.

They cannot be reconciled or blended with one another without some serious surgery.  This is a problem for fundamentalism, because you cannot be "literally inerrant" if your texts are "literally different."

The early church also struggled with this.  How can you have this peculiar dissonance?

Efforts were made at mashing them up, at creating one authoritative and harmonized story.  Tatian's Diatesseron was one early attempt.  But the Jesus movement did not go that way, as the words "Tatian's Diatesseron" aren't likely front of mind for most Christians.  The choice was made to retain these variant accounts.

So what if they're different?  So what if they don't line up exactly?

It doesn't matter.  The geist...the spirit...of them is the same.  There are four gates to our city, but they lead to the same place.

And, in fact, keeping those variant perspectives was viewed as ultimately having more value.  Having variance deepens the core truth of each, with each text offering insights that the others do not, creating a sense of a whole that is richer and more complicated than a unitary perspective could provide.

Variant narratives of truth?  That's pretty much the core of the Christian canon.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Multiversality, Culture, and Story

Why does contemporary popular storytelling have such a fascination with multiverses?

To a rather lesser degree than one might think, there's science.  That theoretical physics suggests that a multiverse may exist really doesn't drive our fantasy and science fiction storytelling.  The complexities of quantum-splitting/inflationary understandings of the Many Worlds really wasn't a significant factor in the comic books I used to read as a kid.

And sure, multiversality's also a narrative convenience, one that allows storytellers to create endless, lucrative complexity within a single franchise.  But there's something else at play.

I think, in large part, it rises from the increasing blending of cultures and narratives that has come in this strange new era of communication and human exchange.  Where once there was just one understanding of the world, now human societies are having to come to terms with the presence of completely variant ways of understanding who we are and why we are here.  This has always been true, as cultures have interacted and adapted.  But now it's fiercely, relentlessly immediate.

Faced with the unfamiliar stories of those who are not us, you can, of course, reject them.  This is the easier path.  The only true story is our own, one can say.  Every other cultural narrative is wrong.  Or evil.  You don't need to try to engage with them, or try to integrate them into your own self understanding.  You simply throw them aside as monstrous and flawed and delusional.

That way of dealing with the Other is powerfully seductive.  We see it as we fall back into rigid ethnic and racial categories, or into the bright clean certainties of nationalism and fundamentalism.  There is only one truth, and that's our truth.  There's only one story, and that's our story.  We reflexively resist, because we fear losing our understanding of ourselves in a wild chaos of competing truth claims.  We prefer the simple, linear comforts of the story we know.

The alternative is unquestionably unsettling.  Why is the story we have told ourselves for millennia about the way things came to be the One True Story?  Because it is ours.  Because it just is.  It cements the hallowed place of our culture...or our "race" the universe.

Yet do not reflexively and smugly sniff at this, O you liberal.  Myth and mythopoetics are to cultures what memories and personal narratives are to individuals.  They give us cohesion.  They establish and reinforce a sense of self.  Casting common story aside leaves us existentially fragmented and schizotypal, so disconnected from a sense of common social connection that our souls fall into anxious, gibbering chaos.

There are so many other stories rising from the humans who inhabit this small world.  How to constructively process them?

We have no clue.

But it's possible that part of the appeal of multiversality as a cosmology is that it helps us constructively process difference.  We come to see the variant possiblities inherent in the stories we ourselves tell.  There are strange places where our heroes are villains, and our villains have become noble.  If this is so, encountering another story, told from an unfamiliar perspective?  It poses no threat.  We simply find resonances and harmonies with our own stories.  Or we delight in the encounter with a new thing.

If we are already aware of the possibility of difference within our own stories, of subtle variances within the "canon" of our telling, then perhaps that integration of difference prepares us for engaging with difference.

Which is fine if we're talking the Marvel Character Universe.  But there are other, more rigid stories.

How can this be true from the stance of religion?  Surely faith traditions are more rigid and absolute in their narratives, unable to integrate difference into themselves.

I mean, they are, right?

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Market-Based Solution to Climate Change

There is no doubt, none that is reasonable.  Our planet is warming, skewing the delicate balance upon which humanity relies to survive.  The cause of that warming is us, and our reliance on fossil fuels to drive the wild rushing busyness of our commerce.

There is, again, no doubt about this.  None.  It is happening, as certainly as Titan orbits Saturn.  There are those who do not believe it is occurring, certainly.  This is as meaningful as saying "there are those who believe that the Earth is flat" or "there are those who believe that the Clintons run a child-slave-ring out of the basement of a neighborhood pizza restaurant."

Reasonable doubt is my standard, not the doubt that rises from obvious psychosis.

The question now: what to do about it?

Some would argue that we need regulation, that we need to throttle back the natural energies of the global marketplace with government imposed restrictions.  We do not need to do this.  We can simply let the market do what it does, and the problem will be solved.  Markets, after all, operate on principles closely aligned to the organic processes of evolution and natural competition.  Unlike the rigidity of state systems, they are existentially connected to nature itself.  

This appears to be the choice we Americans are making, and I am confident that it will ultimately solve the problem.

What does that solution look like?  Let me show you an example.

This is a GMC Yukon.  It's a full-sized sport utility vehicle, one produced by General Motors.  GM, along with Ford, have recently abandoned the traditional car in favor of doubling down on SUVs.  Why?  

I found out recently when I rented a Yukon for a day.  It was big, vastly bigger than my Accord hybrid sedan, so large it didn't fit into my car port.  The Yukon was comfortable and powerful, with a large V8 engine into which one could dip for a nice surge of acceleration.  In daily errand running, it consumed fuel at the rate of around 14.8 miles to the gallon, rather more than the 49.5 that my Accord gets on average.  The interior space of the Yukon is as wildly inefficient as the rest of the vehicle, with a vestigial third row that is unusable by adults or children older than ten, and about half of the cargo space of our  six year old used minivan.

Purchased new, a mid-level Yukon equipped as the one I rented comes in at around sixty-two thousand dollars.  They sell like hot cakes.  When we purchased our car a year and a half ago, my Accord hybrid had been sitting on the lot for nearly eight months, and we got it brand new from the dealership for thirty-two thousand dollars out the door.   In fact, purchasing the Yukon would cost you more than it cost my family to purchase our hybrid, our minivan, and my motorcycle.  Combined.  It is immensely profitable.

Buying a Yukon seems, if avoiding climate change is a goal, precisely and exactly the wrong thing to do.

But people like to feel big and powerful.  We like to feel like we are dominant.  It makes us feel safe.  It makes us feel in control.  The market acknowledges and affirms those desires.  Which is why the American factory producing Accords like my own was idled last week, and the factories making Yukons can't make enough.  

The market, being driven by forces similar to those in nature, is simply doing what natural selection does.  We prefer power, and so our markets keep us aligned with that preference.

How, you might ask, does this solve the problem of climate change?  

Simple.  It means that, driven by the marketplace, we let the process of natural selection continue.  We will consume fuel as we wish.  Although we run out of gas under American soil in 10 years, Venezuelan and Russian reserves will last us another seventy years at current consumption rates.  Eventually, faced with genuine scarcity, we will become more efficient.  But that will be too late to stop the process of a changing planet.

The climate will change, with increasing rapidity.  Storms and fires will increase.  Sea levels will rise, inundating our coastal communities.  Tropical agriculture will collapse, and billions of human beings living near the equator will either die of thirst and starvation or flee towards the poles, where of course we'll meet them with open and sympathetic arms.    

Humanity will find itself in a time of crisis, upheaval, and death, with only a very few of the powerful and wealthy sheltered.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we will not survive at all,  as mass extinctions shake the complex ecological web in a way we do not anticipate.  

This is how nature solves the problem of maladaptive species.  It allows them to die, and replaces them.

This is the market solution to the problem of climate change.  Is it kind or good?  No.  Is it wise?  No.  Is it horrible?  Yes.  

But it does solve the problem.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Racist System

One of the lovely things about being married to the same person for most of your life is that you can, well, talk about things.  Non-trivial things.

Like, say, the other day, when we had a frank conversation at the kitchen table about Israel.  She, Jewish.  I, Christian.  She, deeply committed to the state of Israel while troubled by its current hypernationalist leadership.  I, continuing to genuinely struggle with the idea that a nation organized around a particular ethno-religious identity is the best way to insure the well-being of the Jewish people.  It didn't help with Babylon in 587 BCE.  Or with Rome in 70 CE.

It was a third rail conversation, which being friends and partners for multiple decades made possible.

So the other night as we went out to dinner, we decided to talk about race.

She, of the opinion that racism is primarily systemic, a matter of the structures of society.  I, of the opinion that racism manifests primarily interpersonally and culturally, which makes it both more amorphous and harder to fight.  We discussed, with the appropriate level of heat, our variant perspectives.

My particular struggle was with the word "systemic."  I understand systems as a matter of structures, laws, and policies.  So of course racism can be systemic.  Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa and the segregationist American South are three primary examples at a state level.   Redlining in real estate was another. Wherever formal structures are designed to keep one "race" in a dominant position over another, you have systemic racism.

As I see it, that is not primarily how racism has maintained its hold over our country.   The civil rights movement made major progress on that front, but what it could not eliminate was the deep seated racism that manifests in culture.  Racism became less defined by political science and the law, and more social and anthropological.

Meaning, you can have a generally uniform legal structure, but it will be differentially applied based on cultural biases.  Like, say, how we treat a rando who murders a black kid for the crime of walking through a neighborhood.  Or how we respond to a black man politely asking law enforcement not to strangle him to death for a trivial misdemeanor.  Things like that.  Making systems race-neutral does not mean that racist application of the law is eliminated.

And our society is the farthest thing from class-neutral, with race as an inherited proxy for class.  And our society is under the thrall of an administration that is willing to use cultural racism to foment advantageous division.

It's painfully complex.  We disagreed, but it wasn't bright line disagreement.

But that challenging conversation left me wondering about the idea of systemic racism, as I define it.  Where, specifically, does that exist now?  What formal structures, policies, and processes are actively racist, fomenting or reinforcing race-based hatred in America?

The first that popped to mind revolved around current immigration policy, because, duh.  "Scary Brown People Are Scary" is pretty much the go-to whenever this benighted, amoral administration is feeling pressure for its venality and incompetence.

But the second?  The second system that reinforces racism isn't governmental.  It's corporate.

It's my contention that the structures of corporate social media...the algorithms that show us the things we want to see...are actively racist.  They are what systemic racism looks like in this strange new era.

They have been explicitly designed to feed us things that draw our attention, and that heighten our engagement.  Anger, fear and resentment do that, powerfully and consistently.  When we are enraged, we are engaged.  When we are engaged, we can be monetized.

And so every day, from a cultural foundation of racial bias, Americans are shown terrible things that "they" do.  We are worked into a frenzy of fear and the sharing of fear.

It is part of the design, a formal and structural element which plugs into the seething gristle-white maggot of our cultural race fear.  Culture may still be where that demon truly lives, but our shiny new machine feeds that demon, because that's what we made it to do.

I'm not quite sure what one does about that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Gold and [Crap]


You say


Oh how lovely and it's 
Gold our broken places are

And I smile
and I am 

That in many
They make

Entire houses

With straw and mud and

And as my
Broken places
Are Knit and held
And bound together


More [Crap] 


I am


Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Parasite

The last nonfiction book I snagged from the library was, well, it was both fascinating and flawed.

Plight of the Living Dead, it was called.  Its author describes the process of zombification and mind control in the natural world.  Not fake movie zombies, mind you.  Real, oh dear Jesus that's disgusting zombies.

Various fungi, worms, and wasp larvae have over thousands of years evolved to the point where they don't just consume the creatures they infect.  They control them, forcing them to engage in behaviors that destroy the host, but are beneficial to the parasite.

Typically, this involves making an ant, or a things that make them more likely to propagate the parasite.  Like, say, an ant climbing up to a high place, so that the fungal spores that are about to burst from its contaminated innards can be distributed.  Or sabotaging the instinct to hide in the shadows, so that the hapless ant can be eaten by a larger predator, which will then be infected itself.

Fascinating.  But the book was often a wee bit preachy, as it took every instance of this bizarre coadaptation as evidence to remind his readers that THERE IS NO GOD and it's a COLD CRUEL UNIVERSE.  It gets a little much, in a comments section troll sort of way.

Still, the book was 87% cool, and resonated interestingly with the manuscript I've been recently working on.  That manuscript is the story of the rise of the machines, the good ol' classic trope of AI waking up to overthrow we weak and foolish humans.  The spin:  it's told from the perspective of a young woman who has chosen to help our robot overlords root out the last vestiges of human resistance. 

There's a tremendous fear of the impact truly sentient AI would have on humanity, one that echoes through the minds of the tech disruptors who now run our economy.  We can't let these systems become aware.  We'd be swept aside.  Or made into puppets.  Or slaves.  We'd cease to be human.

And for the billionaire tech disruptors who hold the reins in our society from the tastefully appointed salons of their 105 meter yachts, it'd mean they were no longer in charge.  There's that, too.

But looking at evolved systems of parasitic control and zombification in the natural world, you can't miss this truth:  Sentience is not a prerequisite for control or dominance.  AI doesn't have to be awake to rule us.

A fungal infection does not control the mind of an ant because it is smarter than the ant.  The fungus has simply adapted, over hundreds of millions of iterations, to the point where it can make a more sophisticated organism do precisely what it wants.

Working with and warping the ant's own behavior, this strange, simple parasite can rule it.

Which makes me think, of course, of the algorithms and processes of our own peculiar machine intelligences.

Facebook is not self-aware, though it can recognize your picture.  Google is not awake, though it knows everything you do.  That Alexa sitting quietly listening in your living room and that Siri surveying the inside of your pocket has no sense of self.

But they do not need to be smarter than us to control us.  They just have to constantly be evolving and improving, plugging into to our fundamental social and biological drives in ways that are iteratively more effective at holding and directing us.

What's most peculiar: we all know this.  It's not really news.  "Social media zombies?  Sure. No kidding," we say, as we go back to check our feed yet again.  We don't seem to care.  Eh.

That strange not-caring, oddly enough, is another sign that a biological system has been compromised by a zombifying parasite.


Guess I should go post this to Facebook now.