Saturday, May 18, 2019

My Sweet Enemy



Honeysuckle
Is my
Enemy

Strangling my 
Dogwood
Murdering my 
Blueberries
Smothering my
Holly

And yet

As I watch

On a new summer's twilight

The young couple stops
And He
Laughing
Takes flowers for her hair

Then a woman
Alone

Presses her face
Into its warm
Sweet
Welcome

O my 
Enemy

How worthy you are
of 
Love


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.   One...John...is 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"...in 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 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]


Oh!

You say

Didyouknow
Didyouknowthat
theJapaneseuse
Gold
ToRepair
Broken
Pottery

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

And I smile
and I am 
Reminded

That in many
Cultures
They make
and 
Repair

Entire houses

With straw and mud and
[Crap]

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

with

More [Crap] 
than
Gold

by
That

I am
Strangely

Comforted


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 individual...an ant, or a snail...do 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.

Sigh.

Guess I should go post this to Facebook now.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Aggrieved



we are not
evil
we say

we are not
monsters
we say

it is that

the ones who
HURT US

the ones who
TOOK WHAT WAS OURS

the ones who
ARE TO BLAME

deserve it



The Omnipresent Multiverse

The multiverse pretty much everywhere you look these days.  Its' hold on the imaginations of popular storytelling is as nearly complete as Disney's hold over all entertainment.

In the Marvel Character Universe, it's how things work, as heroes and narratives weave not just one linear plotline, but as many as their screenwriters desire.  Want to do something differently?  Want Spiderman to be female, an anthropomorphic pig, or a noir detective?  Boom.  You got it.  It's the multiverse.  

It works, because everything works.  Kill off a character?  Three?  All of them?  Fans complain?  Doesn't matter.  Open a portal to a variant timeline where that didn't happen, and they're back again.

In the Star Trek universe, it's the same, and has been all the way back to those first few seasons on NBC back in the 1960s.  Look, here's the universe where Spock is bearded!  Oh, and here's another where Kirk is a subtle, thoughtful, understated captain who delegates well and is entirely comfortable with his expanding dad-bod.

That's the core conceit of Rick and Morty, where every universe gives us an opportunity to see how much worse it can get.  It's the operating cosmology of the bizarre, spotty OA.  And of more franchises than you can shake a stick at.

Leaping among universes is also a fundamental conceit of sci-fi and fantasy writing.  C.S. Lewis mucked around with the idea in the Narnia books, after all.  Narnia isn't just a different place in our universe...but a different spacetime completely.  In the Magician's Nephew, what is the Wood between the Worlds but an interstitial space filled with transdimensional portals.

Everywhere we look, it's multiverse, multiverse, multiverse.

The question arises: why?  Why all of a sudden is this peculiar slant on storytelling so familiar?

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Moment of Unfulfilled Potential

It was one of those missed opportunities, one of those moments of probabilistic energy that came and presented itself and then...poof... you've missed it.

I saw it there, this great floating soft pitch, the kind of pitch you throw your kid when you really, really want them to hit the ball.

The pitch was a question, at conference for journalists who write on faith.  I'd been invited to speak on a panel exploring the intersection between faith and science fiction.  Because, well, that's what I do, with varying degrees of success.  There, up on the stage, a cheerfully cerebral professor, a young Muslim woman writing about science fiction from the perspective of her faith, and a justifiably famous bestselling author of some seriously great space-opera epics.

And also, through the strange workings of providence, me, the small town, small church pastor who somehow got published.

We'd done our presentations, and were fielding questions.

To the mic came a young correspondent, and he asked this:

"So, has your reading and writing of science fiction ever turned you into a heretic, or caused you to believe differently?  If so, how?"

That's how I recall the question.  And Sweet Lord Baby Jesus, did I have an answer.

I'd written a whole book about it, in fact.  It leapt up in me.  It surged and boiled.  Ooh!  Ooh!  Yes!

But then I overthought, which I can do fairly rapidly, being both Presbyterian having had fifty years to practice finding ways to justify not doing what needs to be done.  Here are the three reasons I found not to answer the question we were just asked:

1) I was aware that I'd answered the last question at some length.  You're dominating the conversation!

2) I was also aware that I was feeling chatty.  My introvert's nervous energy...hundreds of strangers!...and the large cup of coffee I'd consumed before the gathering created the potential of me going on an overstimulated monologue. Again, you're dominating the conversation!

3) I was also aware that we were late into the event, and, of course, I'd be holding things up.

I waited for another panelist to respond.  None did.  I waited a little more.  And then, before it got too awkward and we moved on, I answered.

With a brief non-answer.  I said, basically, Yes.  Absolutely.  Science fiction has shaped my theology in significant and heretical ways.

But then, in an act of predictable self-sabotage, I didn't say how.  Or mention my book at all.  I played coy about what exactly my heretical take on faith was, which got laughs, and the moment passed.

The thing I did not say was this: The best science fiction storytelling, in my eyes, is both speculative and grounded in science.  It connects us to ways of understanding the universe that we might not otherwise consider.

And if science fiction has a recurring theme these days, an understanding that rises and rises and rises again, it is that we live in a multiverse.  Not a single universe, one linear narrative with a start and a finish.  But an infinite, endless, bubbling multiverse.

Taking this as one's understanding of creation does strange, strange things to theology, the sort of wild heresies that one only gets away with out on the margins of faith.

In some other universe, or perhaps in more than I could count, I answered that question.

That's some small comfort, I suppose.




theologies


Theologies

That are
No more and
No less
Than

Picking at our
Flesh

And Itching
At Our
Ill Imagined Categories

Furtive Chicken Scratchings
in the Dirt

Feel

They feel

Against the great
Yawning Wash
of the 
Infinite Deep

They feel

So



small



Sunday, April 7, 2019

Being Paid To Love People

As the adult education class in my congregation moves on to our next study, we're delving into the writing of Barbara Brown Taylor.

She's an Episcopalian, and a writer and speaker of justifiable and longstanding repute.  When I was but an earnest seminarian O so many moons ago, her book The Preaching Life was one of the primary texts in my homiletics class.  It's one of those books that stuck with me, her writing rich and alive.  Her articulation of the vocation to which I then aspired felt powerfully real, in both a spiritual and visceral way.

So she's where we're going next, as we explore with her the place of darkness in the life of faith.

But there was a caveat as I start reading her again after 20 years, one that I had filed away somewhere in the back of my brain.  She's no longer a pastor.  She set that aside, and moved on.  There was a book about that choice, because of course there was.  Leaving Church, it was titled.  It seemed worth exploring the why of that before we got into reading her.  You know, in case she left because she'd discovered her true calling was to be a Laveyian Satanic Priestess.  Or that she'd become a disciple of Ayn Rand.  Six of one, half dozen of the other.  

So...in lieu of adding that book to the stack...I went and listened to the NPR book tour interview I knew I'd find if I looked.

The reasons for her choice to move on were familiar.  

First, fatigue with the church as an institution.  As her church grew and expanded on the wings of her entirely justified reputation, it became more complicated.  More structures were required, both organizational and physical.  Things that are and should be simple became more and more complex.  It became too much.

Second, fatigue, period.  If you're the pastor, you're the one folks look to expecting them to do and be everything.  And unless you're one of that small number of humans who are actually made of coffee, that can't be sustained.  You get tired. 

Third, there was her acknowledgement that anxious introverts are often not the best pastors.  Lord have mercy, do I feel that one.

And then, finally, the last one: her gnawing, soul-subverting feeling that she was being paid to love people.  You know, being that you're the Official Certified Jesus Professional, what with your salary and your benefits and all.  You sit with people, you listen to them, you pray with them and share the most joyous and painful parts of their lives because, well, that's what they pay you for.

What that little whispering demon says to a pastor is this:  This is false.  You're faking it.  You take something radically personal and intimate, you commodify it, and in doing so, you kill the soul of it.  It becomes a drab, exhausting, inauthentic act.

That, as much as anything, was why Brown Taylor "left the church."

It's a good reminder to be ourselves, to let our care for others flow from a place of Christ-centered identity...and to be sure in all of that that we're being true to our calling.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Creation Care


The theme of the gathering was creation care.  We gathered, and we sang.  Drums were beaten, because we are liberal.  Good warm words were spoken, some of them Hebrew, because we are Presbyterian.  Earnest songs were sung, in delightful harmony.  At the end of the event, we were given a charge:  Go home, and share your reflections on creation care.

So I shall.

There is an assumption among religious liberals, and a well meaning one, that we care for creation because it is so terribly fragile.  Here we are, dumping plastic into our seas, and filling our shallow skies with the carboniferous flatulence of our strange, anxious busyness.  Poor creation, we think.  Poor dolphins and butterflies and baby penguins, we think.  We must protect our poor fragile planet, we think.

And we must.

There is also an assumption among religious liberals that we should protect creation for aesthetic reasons.  Because it is beautiful.  I don't for a moment dispute this.  Seas and stars, storms and aurora?  Beautiful.  Life itself, from the tiniest budding crocus to the serene majesty of a blue whale?  Amazing, complex, miraculous.  I am deeply sympathetic to this position.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, God's power throughout the universe displayed, as the old hymn sings it.

But these are not the only reasons why I drive a hybrid, nor is are they why I am vegetarian.  They are not why I live lean, or why I personally do what I can to minimize my impact on that which God has placed around me.

I also do these things because God's creation scares the crap out of me.

Lord have mercy, does no one read Jack London any more?

The delicate balance of our planet's ecosystem, to which we've spent the last couple of billion years adapting?  It's still harsh, but nowhere near as harsh as it will become if we do not shake the opium dream of our modern era hubris.  If we do not correct our foolish assumption that God's creation owes us anything.

Creation does not.  It is red in tooth and claw.  It is as implacable as the rising sea, or the storm that scours and shatters.  It is a terrifying thing.

And that's just our tiny blue speck of a planet.  When I say the words "God's Creation," I don't think of the Earth.  "Creation" is not a synonym for "Earth" to me.  Not at all.

I think of all of it.  All thirteen point something billion years of this spacetime, stretching gigaparsecs beyond the parochial scale of our imaginings.  And beyond, into a multiversal infinity that goes deeper still, deeps beyond deep.

God didn't just make this small rocky world, after all.  You look up to the twinkling stars, so pretty in the sky?  That's a great yawning vastness, filled with fire and emptiness and poison, where life hangs on by a thread.  In most of it, we homo sapiens sapiens can survive about five seconds, assuming there's no explosive decompression involved.

Creation is not just our world, and we need to take "care" of it in the way that we take "care" when we go swimming with a Carcharadon carcharias.

Oddly enough, the humans who lived at the time that the Bible was written were more than aware of this.  The storm and the fire and the sea were terrifying.  The One who made them all, even more so.  Life was short and death was ever present.

But we moderns are coddled fools, wrapped in a few hundred fleeting years of industrial agriculture and fossil fuels and a false sense of our own power.  We whisper lies to ourselves, in the closed mind of our #collectivedelusionchambers.

Our little bit of earth does not care about our desires at all.  If we sabotage our ecosystem, and the ensuing tumult of five thousand years of warming leaves another, less maladaptive species to rise in our place?  Creation would continue on.  The epochal spasm of mass extinctions that could wash us away would mean little to our world.  It would matter even less on the true scale of creation.

But what of God?  I mean, God does care, right?

Yes.

But.

God also lets us reap the harvest we have sown.  No matter what that harvest might be.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On Tone Policing

Things just seem get louder and more unyieldingly belligerent.

Every day, more outrage, more shrieking, more umbrage. In this interconnected era, when we hunger to silence the dissonance of the Other by forcing them to be as we are, there There is always something, always a trigger, because there has to be.  If we are not stirred and threatened and emotionally on edge, we do not engage obsessively.  And if we do not engage obsessively, our views cannot be monetized or added to a follower count.

in this interconnected era, when we hunger to silence the dissonance of the Other by forcing them to be as we are, anger is omnipresent.  We are, as a culture, addicted to rage.

It bends and warps reality, to the point where it seems genuinely insane.

If one notes this, though?  If a person says, hey, hey, let's turn down the heat a little here, try to be more civil?  We swat it down, because what right do you have to tell me what to say or how to say it?  "Of course I'm angry," you'll say.  "I have every right to feel this way!  And who the hell are you!"

The term we have created to silence those who'd like us all to just calm the [fornicate] down is "tone policing."

It isn't surprising that we've created that term, given that having our anger directly challenged always makes us angrier.  When you've got your dander up, having someone say "You need to calm down" always and invariably has the opposite effect.

That said, it is my observation that this cultural anger is fundamentally toxic to both our individual and collective souls.  It serves no purpose other than itself, like the roaring, suffocating inhalation of a Dresden firestorm.  Anger is a powerful energy, and it can have purpose.  But it also makes us reactive.  It makes us dead to nuance, and dead to disconfirming information.  It makes us more easily manipulated.  It calcifies our view of others.  It radicalizes, and polarizes.

And if it never, ever, turns off?  It becomes a form of madness.

I do not want it to rule my soul.  But there is a boundary to where I can make that happen.

The only place where I can govern tone is me.  I can say to my soul: you do not need to burn with the endless rage of outrage culture.  I can govern my own  reactions, and assess the tone and intent of those things I read and watch and consider.

I can police my own tone, because tone matters.  Tone opens the path to mutual understanding, just as it can wall off the Other.  It's a discipline, one that requires significant effort.  When I'm attacked, I have the same reaction as anyone else.

I cannot make anyone else do this.










Monday, March 11, 2019

The Q Word

Years ago, when I was a boy of eleven or twelve and living in London, I somehow fell in with a free ranging mob of boys one Sunday afternoon.  I can't remember if it was a party or a general gathering.  It's too long ago.  But what I recall is that we were playing.

First, King of the Mountain, which was a raging scrum as every boy tried to be the last one standing in a particular location.  I don't remember doing well at that game, as I was small, asthmatic and spindly.   I got knocked down a whole bunch.  We played that for a while, and then the idea came that we should play another.

The game:  Smear the Queer.

The rules were simple:  one boy was the Queer.  The rest of the boys would go after that boy.  Sort of like an inverted version of tag, only with quite a bit more pounding and tackling.  The group would then select another Queer, and the game would reset.

I didn't like the spirit of it, or the name of it.  I was already aware that Queer wasn't the kindest of terms, used primarily as invective.  I was also aware that it referred specifically to being gay, which is how that was described back then.  While at eleven I wasn't quite sure what I felt about gay folk, I knew that some people were horrible to them.  Meaning, it was not uncommon for them to be physically assaulted, and that seemed terrible and cruel no matter what.

That was the point where I bailed.  I just laid low while the other boys charged off in the woods after the first Queer.  Then I quietly left the group, and wandered back home.

Which leads me to my current conundrum.

I find the ever expanding acronym used to describe genderdivergent folk just ragingly awkward.

LGBTQIA, or so it's become.  EllGeeBeeTeeCueAyeAy just doesn't roll of the tongue.  It's a clumsy graceless letter-mass, a creeping categorical accretion.  It reminds me of how you make a German words by just adding one German word to another.  This works fine, until suddenly you're trying to say donaudampshiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, and you keep running out of air and passing out halfway through the word.

It's a lumpy fumbling aesthetic disaster, like most of my cobbled-together outfits most days.  There's a reason the show isn't called LGBTQIA+ Eye For the Straight Guy.

There's a better term.

Embedded in that acronym is a Q, which just stands for Queer, which seems to be all of the other things combined.  I note that it's used more now as a catchall, by Queer folk themselves, which seems like the right thing. 

But can I use it?  I am as gendertypical as they come, and the transition of "Queer" from its pejorative roots reminds me of, well, another word.  A word I don't use because it's inherently offensive to black people, one that occupies a strange place in our cultural discourse.  It cannot be spoken outside of the tribe.

So I wonder about this word.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Our Violent Hearts

There's a peculiar thing, in the midst of all of our cultural dissonance.

Say to a conservative, "Hey, what do you think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.?"  Generally, you don't get anything but praise.  Conservatives, in fact, find nothing but virtue in both of these persons.  They see in both of them discipline, focus, and an emphasis on reconciliation and the integrity of the person.  They see the best nature of human beings, and as that is a part of who we have been that we do not wish to abandon, conservatives want us to hold on to that nature.

Conservatism is, after all, the desire to hold on to what is good.

Say to a liberal, "Hey, what do you think of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr?"  Generally, you get the same thing.  Liberals see in them a radical call to justice coupled with a deep spirit of tolerance and grace.  They see the best nature of human beings, and as that is a part of who we wish to be that we don't want to abandon, liberals want us to hold on to that nature.

Liberalism is, after all, the openness to encountering the good yet unknown.

In my ongoing reading of Howard Thurman's meditations on the ethos that creates nonviolence, I feel more deeply aware of the impacts of violent thinking on our culture.  Because all is violence, an endless churn of vitriol and outrage, of mockery and shaming, of demonization and invective. 

And yes, sure, it's not physical.  But the crass, shallow brutalism of our discourse is violent.  It rises from a heart of violence.

For those who claim to be disciples of Jesus, this is a problem.  Because Jesus doth not give us permission to indulge in the sweet taste of hatred.  It's only words, Jesus, we might say.  I'm allowed to hate them and mock them, to let the fires of focused hatred govern me, so long as I don't actually beat the crap out of them, right?

No.

Jesus is pretty clear on that subject.  When our conservatism rots into the fever-swamp fantasies of the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda?  When our liberalism devolves into the fulminations of Robespierre on the floor of the National Convention?  It doesn't matter that those are "just words."

If we assert that Jesus has authority over our lives, we are not permitted to foster a heart of violence.  That does not mean we are to be passive.  But when we yield to rage and the reflexive diminishment of the other, we fail.

Because nonviolence is first and foremost an attitude of the heart.



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Not Fearing Death

When you read wildly and wantonly, you often encounter peculiar resonances and conjunctions.

 Last week, I was reading two books simultaneously.  Totally different cultural contexts.  Totally different purposes.

On the one hand, I was delving into Tsunetomo's IN THE SHADOW OF THE LEAVES.  It's an 18th century Japanese text laying out the Bushido ethos...the "Code of the Samurai." 

And it's, well, it's a complicated book.

In many places, it's remarkably graceful.  Wise, elegantly poetic, and thought-provoking.  It sings of detachment from the world, of stoicism and simplicity, of the moral rot of grasping, selfishness, and greed, and of compassion as the highest virtue.   I've collected the best of it here, if you're interested.

And at the same time, it's a book that celebrates both fanaticism and death.  Death, which is both inescapable and to be embraced.  Fanaticism, which is the complete unquestioning obedience to one's Master, to the point where death itself doesn't matter.  If your Master says, hey, go disembowel yourself with a sharp pointy object, you do, and you do so as a point of pride.  It tells story after story of brutal death and horror, all with a strange abstracted joy.  It's full of death, full of quotes like:
"Death is the only sincerity. It is said that becoming as a dead man in one's daily living is the following of the path of sincerity."
A strange bit of literature, the kind of book that you'd read for inspiration before climbing into your Cherry Blossom and flying it into the side of an American transport ship. 

While being both fascinated and weirded out by Tsunetomo, I was also continuing in my reading of Howard Thurman's MEDITATIONS OF THE HEART for my Sunday School class.  On the surface of it, this is a completely different book, from an entirely different culture, with an utterly different purpose.  Thurman's gracious mystic ruminations provided the spiritual foundation to his radical embrace of nonviolence...an embrace that both informed and transformed the civil rights movement in 20th century America.

The terrible brightness of Tsunetomo's warrior ethic seems the farthest thing from Thurman's radical commitment to peace and nonviolence.

What I discovered, in reading the two of them simultaneously, is that there were peculiar harmonies I did not anticipate.  The emphasis on calmness of soul.  The seeking of stillness, of dreams, of the value of poetry, of the natural world.  And...oddly, paradoxically...in their attitude towards death.

"Take no thought for your life," says Thurman, sounding for all the world like Shimeda preparing his little band to defend the village.

Both Tsunetomo and Thurman tell us that death is inescapable, and therefore not to be feared.  That death is meaningless to the unanxious person who understands their purpose in life, and who has lived every moment towards that purpose.  As Thurman puts it:
Finally, the glorious thing about man's encounter with death is the fact that what a man discovers about the meaning of life as he lives it need not undergo any change as he meets death.  It is a final tribute to the character of an individual's living if he can die "unshriven" but full-blown as he has lived.  Such a man goes down to his grave with a SHOUT.
It's a peculiar harmony, one that makes a certain sense given Thurman's context.  The nonviolent ethos of the civil rights movement required a warrior's courage, focus, and detachment.  Facing dogs and hoses and bullets and bombs cannot be done without an immense fierceness of conviction. 

Of course, there are nontrivial distinctions.  Thurman's daimyo being Jesus and all. 

Because war and the path of war is understood.  It is a form of power that has always defined human social struggle. 

The absolute refusal to use violence or coercion against another as an implement in mortal conflict is strange and terrifying.  More than a little terrifying.  As living creatures, we fear both pain and death, because of course we do.  We recoil at an ethos that tells us not to preserve ourselves, not to strike back, to stand instead with equanimity in the face of opposition and suffering.  To love our enemies, even to the point where we express that love as we are dying.

Tsunetomo often describes his teachings as the Way, which again, resonates interestingly.  Because that, as we recall, was one of the first terms used to describe the path of Jesus in the Bible.

If truth be told, the Way of Thurman...and of Jesus...seems harder. 

Fallen Leaves




Bits and pieces from Tsunetomo's IN THE SHADOW OF THE LEAVES.

The good bits.  Not the brutal, choppy, killy bits.  But the bits that can be reconciled with and resonate to the teachings of my Master.

-----


To hate injustice and stand on righteousness is a difficult thing. Furthermore, to think that being righteous is the best one can do and to do one's utmost to be righteous will, on the contrary, bring many mistakes. The Way is in a higher place than righteousness.

----
There is one transcending level, and this
is the most excellent
of all.

This person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply
into a certain Way
and never thinks of himself as having finished.

He truly knows his own insufficiencies and
never
in his whole life
thinks that he has succeeded.

He has no thoughts of pride
but with self-abasement
knows the Way to the end.

----

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

-----
..Someone said, "If we were to cast aside every man who had made a mistake once, useful men could probably not be come by. A man who makes a mistake once will be considerably more prudent and useful because of his repentance. I feet that he should be promoted."


Someone else then asked, "Will you guarantee him?" The man replied, "Of course I will."


The others asked, "By what will you guarantee him?"


And he replied, "I can guarantee him by the fact that he is a man who has erred once. A man who has never once erred is dangerous." This said, the man was promoted.

----
Learning is a good thing, but more often it leads to mistakes. It is like the admonition of the priest Konan. It is worthwhile just looking at the deeds of accomplished persons for the purpose of knowing our own insufficiencies. But often this does not happen. For the most part, we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing.

----
It is said that one should not hesitate to correct himself when he has made a mistake. If he corrects himself without the least bit of delay, his mistakes will quickly disappear. But when he tries to cover up a mistake, it will become all the more unbecoming and painful.

----
Calculating people are contemptible. The reason for this is that calculation deals with loss and pain, and the loss and gain mind never stops. Death is considered loss and life is considered gain. Thus, death is something that such a person does not care for, and he is contemptible.

----
What is called generosity is really compassion. In the Shin'ci it is written, "Seen from the eye of compassion, there is no one to be disliked. One who has sinned is to be pitied all the more." There is no limit to the breadth and depth of one's heart. There is room enough for all. That we still worship the sages of the three ancient kingdoms is because their compassion reaches us yet today.

----
The master took
a book
from its box.
When he opened it
there was
the smell
of
drying clovebuds.

----
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment .


Everyone lets the present moment slip by, then looks for it as though he thought it were somewhere else. No one seems to have noticed this fact. But grasping this firmly, one must pile experience upon experience. And once one has come to this understanding he will be a different person from that point on, though he may not always bear it in mind.

----



Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don't know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way oft.


Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one's door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.

-----
At times of great trouble or disaster, one word will suffice. At times of happiness, too, one word will be enough. And when meeting or talking with others, one word will do. One should think well and then speak. This is clear and firm, and one should learn it with no doubts. It is a matter of putting forth one's whole effort and having the correct attitude previously. This is very difficult to explain but is something that everyone should work on in his heart. If a person has not learned this in his heart, it is not likely that he will understand it.

------


Human life is truly a short affair. It is better to live doing the things that you like. It is foolish to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing only things that you do not like. But it is important never to tell this to young people as it is something that would be harmful if incorrectly understood.


Personally, I like to sleep. And I intend to appropriately confine myself more and more to my living quarters and pass my life away sleeping.

-----
At a glance, every individual's own measure of dignity is manifested just as it is. There is dignity in personal appearance. There is dignity in a calm aspect. There is dignity in a paucity of words. There is dignity in flawlessness of manners. There is dignity in solemn behavior. And there is dignity in deep insight and a clear perspective.


These are all reflected on the surface. But in the end, their foundation is simplicity of thought and tautness of spirit.

----
Covetousness, anger and foolishness are things to sort out well. When bad things happen in the world, if you look at them comparatively, they are not unrelated to these three things. Looking comparatively at the good things, you will see that they are not excluded from wisdom, humanity and bravery.

----
One should be careful and not say things that are likely to cause trouble at the time. When some difficulty arises in this world, people get excited, and before one knows it the matter is on everyone's lips. This is useless. If worst comes to worst, you may become the subject of gossip, or at least you will have made enemies by saying something unnecessary and will have created ill will. It is said that at such a time it is better to stay at home and think of poetry.

----
To talk about other people's affairs is a great mistake. To praise them, too, is unfitting. In any event, it is best to know your own ability well, to put forth effort in your endeavors, and to be discreet in speech.

----
The heart of a virtuous person
has settled down
and he does not
rush about at things.

A person of little merit
is not at
peace
but walks about
making trouble
and is
in conflict with all.

----
People with intelligence will use it to fashion things both true and false and will try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence . Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.

-----



Feeling deeply the difference between oneself and others, bearing ill will and falling out with people-these things come from a heart that lacks compassion. If one wraps up everything with a heart of compassion, there will be no coming into conflict with people.

----
It is bad to carry even a good thing too far. Even concerning things such as Buddhism, Buddhist sermons, and moral lessons, talking too much will bring harm.

----
There are two kinds of dispositions, inward and outward, and a person who is lacking in one or the other is worthless. It is, for example, like the blade of a sword, which one should sharpen well and then put in its scabbard, periodically taking it out and knitting one's eyebrows as in an attack, wiping the blade, and then placing it in its scabbard again.


If a person has his sword out all the time, he is habitually swinging a naked blade; people will not approach him and he will have no allies.


If a sword is always sheathed, it will become rusty, the blade will dull, and people will think as much of its owner.
----
People become imbued with the idea that the world has come to an end and no longer put forth any effort. This is a shame. There is no fault in the times.


As everything in this world is but a shame, Death is the only sincerity. It is said that becoming as a dead man in one's daily living is the following of the path of sincerity.

----
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

----
People will become your enemies if you become eminent too quickly in life, and you will be ineffectual. Rising slowly in the world, people will be your allies and your happiness will be
assured. In the long run, whether you are fast or slow, as long as you have people's understanding there will be no danger. It is said that fortune that is urged upon you from others is the most effective.