Thursday, December 31, 2009

Doug's Year In Review

This has been a big year for me. I usually don't sit down to look back intentionally on the past year around New Years Eve, but I felt like I should this time around.

Three quarters of this year was spent in Clinical Pastoral Education, pulling periodic 80-hour weeks working at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. I feel like CPE was a threshold for me. I can measure my preparedness for ministry before and after the experience and see a huge difference. I have a lot more confidence, and have had the chance to have a lot of things brought to my attention (over and over again until I got the message) that I continue to work on. I am more aware of myself and of others, and I have sharpened my skills in a lot of difficult situations. I have also made friends of colleagues and I hope to maintain those relationships for the rest of our lives.

During the course of CPE I started back on an antidepressant, first Prozac and then Celexa, which is what I'm on now. My experience of Prozac was amazingly bad. It was like a daily jittery train-wreck with me in the middle of it saying everything that came to mind like an idiot hyped on meth. I provided a lot of entertainment for my peers, lemme say, as well as some uncomfortably truthful moments. But CPE is all about uncomfortably truthful moments.

This year I also completed work on Parsec which began during the summer of 2007 after meeting a publisher at Origins who asked me for a concept document for an RPG. I have no idea of how much work I've put into the game between then and now - suffice to say that I'm pretty sure that when I'm paid, it'll be pennies per hour if I were to sum everything up. I'm really proud of completing the book. Looking at it now, I can also see a lot of areas where I need to improve, but I have to start somewhere.

After CPE came a difficult time with me unemployed and then underemployed and finally overemployed. For about a month I logged a total of six jobs and basically didn't sleep enough the entire time. For the record, I was a sales associate with Cutco, a barista at Starbucks, an employee at Panera, writing for Jolly Roger Games, writing for and working at the local game store as well.

I do not want to do that again. I think that was one of those times when you learn about a limit in life. I hit my limit, hard, and am still recovering physically from it. (I'm down to four jobs now. Ha!)

On the church front, in January I started circulating my PIF and learned that the world did not take any note of me whatsoever. After years of work, it was a very anticlimactic time for me. Over the summer I had a number of interviews with a church that ended up choosing not to extend an offer. In retrospect it was the right result, but at the time it was pretty depressing, losing what felt like the only real chance at a call I'd had in seven months.

And then, as it tends to happen, a couple of weeks ago I was offered a call at a church in OH and accepted. Everything happened far faster than I'd ever have expected. The COM even essentially fast tracked me and will be enthusiastically endorsing me to the whole Presbytery when I am examined. I came back from this whirlwind having to figure out how to move with three weeks' notice, and I'm in the thick of that right now. I cannot say how thankful I feel right now. I am also the kind of person who doesn't get hit by things until they are upon me. When I start, I will definitely freak out. My head will explode as it were. For now I'm excited but clear-headed about things, planning the details of a cross-continental move.

Looking to the coming year, I want three main things for myself, not counting the things that depend on other people. I want to be a good pastor. I want to write. I want to spend time with my loved ones.

That's about it. Simple enough? We'll see.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terrorism & Religion

Why are we so ready to see "terrorist" violence in a religious light if the religion in question is Islam? Islamic & Terrorist are colloquially linked like peanut butter & jelly. Sure there have been violent actions taken by Muslims which we have all decided to call terrorism. Some of those Muslims have given religious justifications for their actions, though generally there are far more prominent political justifications. But we fixate on the religious aspect. Osama Bin Laden, according to popular understanding, is trying to kill us because of his radical Islamic beliefs, not because as he has often said America has interfered politically in Saudi Arabia.

This distorted view we have of terrorism is really bizarre when it just outright contradicts the facts. It is not just that we emphasize the "Islamic" character of certain terrorists, but we start to define terrorism as a Muslim phenomenon which flies in the face of all the evidence. Jeffrey Weiss today, said that "100 percent of attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. (and, with the exception of the Basques in Spain, terrorists attacks on all Western nations) since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have been committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam."

Um. No they haven't. Firstly not all terrorist acts committed by Muslims have been done "in the name of Islam". Most terrorist actions, study after study has found, are predominantly politically motivated. Palestinians who blow up buses in Israel cite things like the illegal wall, settlements, and retaliation for violence by the Israeli military as their reasons long before they cite Islam. Secondly, there have been scores of "terrorist" acts committed in the time frame he gives by non-Muslims. Greenwald gives a good sampling:

"1998: Dozens die in Omagh bombing: At least 27 people are feared dead in the worst paramilitary bombing since the start of the Northern Ireland conflict three decades ago The blast in the market town of Omagh, County Tyrone, at around 1500 BST on Saturday, left more than 100 people injured or maimed" -- BBC.

"September 21, 2000: A rocket attack on MI6 headquarters in London is believed to be the work of dissident Irish republicans" -- BBC.

"In a series of court documents that were at turns chilling and bizarre, federal investigators said U.S. Army microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins misled government agents investigating the 2001 anthrax mailings, sent emails with language closely matching the handwritten letters sent to victims and had access to the strain of anthrax used in the crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the evidence, including hundreds of pages of unsealed documents, proves that Dr. Ivins was the sole person responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings . . . The most compelling evidence points at Dr. Ivins and his laboratory at the U.S. Army biodefense facility at Fort Detrick, Md." -- Wall St. Journal, August 7, 2008.

"Olympic bombing suspect Eric Robert Rudolph -- wanted in attacks that killed two people and injured more than 100 in the Southeast -- was arrested early Saturday in western North Carolina and faces a Monday morning court date. Rudolph has been charged in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Georgia; 1997 bombings at a gay nightclub and a clinic that performed abortions in the Atlanta area; and a bombing at a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1998" -- CNN, May 31, 2003.

"U.S.-born Jewish terrorist suspected of series of attacks over past 12 years: The authorities have arrested a resident of the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rachel for suspected murder and a role in a string of murder plots, according to details of an investigation revealed Sunday after a gag order was lifted. Yaakov (Jack) Tytell, who was arrested last month, is suspected of involvement in the murder of two Palestinians and the rigging of a bomb that seriously injured a boy from a Messianic Jewish family in Ariel. . . . Some of his actions were allegedly motivated by hatred for gays and lesbians" - Haaretz, November 3, 2009.

"The Jerusalem District Prosecutor's Office on Thursday charged alleged Jewish terrorist Yaakov (Jack) Teitel with two murders, three attempted murders and other acts of violence. "It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God," said Teitel at the Jerusalem courthouse. "I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased" -- Haaretz, December 11, 2009.

"Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv's Kings Square, a top aide confirmed. He was reportedly shot in the arm and back by a Jewish man in his mid-20s who is allegedly affiliated with right-wing extremist groups. . . . Amir confessed to the assassination and reportedly told investigators, 'I acted alone on God's orders and I have no regrets'." -- CNN, November 4, 1995.

"The chairman of the Jewish Defense League and a member of the extremist organization are accused of a bombing scheme aimed at the office of an Arab-American congressman and a prominent Los Angeles mosque. JDL chairman Irv Rubin, 56, and Earl Krugel, 59, were held without bail Wednesday after being charged with the failed bombing plot. Authorities said the two men held a series of meetings in October to plan the bombing of the King Fahd Mosque and the San Clemente office of freshman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif" -- Fox News, December 13, 2001.

"Professor Zeev Sternhell knows as much as anyone about the current threat from Jewish terrorism. His right leg is recovering from shrapnel caused when a bomb, believed to have been the work of right-wing Jewish extremists, exploded outside the front door of his Jerusalem apartment last week. While Arab-Jewish violence is common, the attack on the 73-year-old historian has shocked public opinion in Israel because all the evidence points to it being intra-Jewish. 'I consider it an act of Jewish terrorism,' he said in an interview from the modest apartment where the bomb exploded" -- Telegraph, October 3, 2008.

"A doctor who performed abortions was shot to death by a sniper in his western New York home Friday night in an attack denounced as 'terrorism' by the state's governor. 'It's beyond a tragedy. It's really an act of terrorism and, in my mind, a cold-blooded assassination,' Gov. George Pataki said of the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian.' -- CNN, October 22, 1998.

"A white supremacist suspected of targeting blacks, Jews and Asians in a deadly Independence Day weekend drive-by shooting rampage from Chicago to Bloomington, Indiana, died after a high-speed chase in Salem, Illinois on Sunday night, police said Monday" -- CNN, July 5, 1999.

"Mountaineer Militia leader Floyd Looker, convicted in an alleged plot to blow up an FBI fingerprint complex, was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison Friday" -- Ocala Star-Ledger, October 11, 1996.

This is just a selection. What kind of blinders are we wearing that "Islam" and "Terrorism" have become so closely identified? Why aren't people who bomb abortion clinics in Kansas called "Christian Terrorists"? Is it surprising that some terrorist violence directed against the US comes from Muslims when we are engaged in war in a variety of predominantly Muslim nations? Are we seeing straight at all?

[Repost] Dangerous Love

Continuing my periodic engagement in dangerous theological games withshe-of-the-Holy-Vignettes, I am going to reflect briefly on "What does it mean to say that God is loving?"

What does it mean to say that God is loving? I think I would talk about what I think love is, which is impossible to do definitively, but I think can be done constructively. Then, based on what I say about love, I think what I'd say about God being loving will be readily apparent.

1. Love exists in relationship.
2. Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved.
3. Love creates selfhood through selflessness.
4. Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision.
5. Love is victorious.

Love exists in relationship. You don't love in a vacuum. You can't love something you've never experienced. Love attenuates through separation. Love is fueled by proximity and interaction, by movement back and forth, by mutuality. It is possible to 'love' an object - say, in my case, Thai food or sharks, but this is not the kind of love I'm talking about, because God is not an object and neither are we. So God's love is inextricable from God's relationship, both in the trinitarian sense and in the sense of God's relationship to us. In other words, if God is loving then God cannot love while remaining separated, or wholly other.

Love passionately seeks the best for the beloved. This is a fundamental difference between love and infatuation - infatuation focuses on one's own gratification, on the wonderful feeling that being with the 'beloved' brings. Love, on the other hand, seeks the best for the beloved. The value of the lover is caught up in the beloved. The happiness and contentment and pleasure and fulfillment of the lover is inextricable from that of the beloved. If one suffers, both suffer. If one delights, both delight. This functions on a basic biochemical level in the brain even as it functions in the metaphorical or poetic sense. So God's love is inextricable from our own blessedness, our own fulfillment. God's love is God's desire for what is best for us. Simiarly, God's love is God's connection to us. We reject God through sin and God is wounded. We lash out and God bleeds. One who is impervious cannot love.

Furthermore, love does no harm. I cannot love you and willfully hurt you. I cannot love you and beat you. I cannot love you and abuse you. Violence is an absolute failure of love, and never an expression of it.

Love creates selfhood through selflessness. It is the great paradox of love that in surrendering in the above way to the beloved, we find ourselves at last. The ego is a prison, and love is the key, the way out. In making ourselves last, we find that we are first. In dying, we find that we come truly alive. In emptying ourselves, we find fullness. This paradox is embodied in Christ, at the very core of our witness. It is fundamental to love and I think it is fundamental to God. "I" am truly who I am when the "I" disappears. Love is the thing that puts the I to death, leaving only a vaster Thou. We are made perfect in love.

Love is both a helpless reaction and a conscious decision. This realization came out of talking to friends who were getting married and through my thinking about my own decision to get married. I realized that a lot of love, especially early on, is just a helpless reaction. You are smitten. You are attracted, with almost no control over who will attract you. You are chosen out, overcome, overwhelmed and overthrown. The chemical cascade is launched and inexorably leads to the experience of attraction. This reaction fades, however, over time. It fades in intensity and changes in nature - this is necessary. Can you imagine feeling the way you feel when you first fall in love all the time? So then comes the second part of what love is - the part where you choose love.

This is best represented by marriage vows. You do not promise to always be smitten - you have no control over that, and so it would be dishonest to do so. You promise, in essence, to choose love. To return to love again and again. I think that theologically, the first kind of love can be likened to "calling", and the second kind of love can be likened to "covenant", and both are part of what true love is. With only the first kind, the intensity never lasts, and you move from love to love promiscuously, never finding fulfillment. With only the second kind, it becomes a drudgery of merely fulfilling requirements, something you force yourself to do because it is right in a kind of Kantian martyrdom. True love is both.

And yes, I think God is smitten with us. Not because of our moral greatness or any perfection, but for the same unreasonable reasons that we love anyone, especially our children, despite profound flaws. I also think that God's love is expressed through commitment to love us even when we're entirely unloveable. I'd say that in its obsession with the second kind of love and blindness to the first kind, Calvinism is handicapped in this area, but that's another blog post.

Love is victorious. This is a faith statement. I say it because that is the world I want to live in, and because I cannot be certain it is not true. It is possible to overcome hatred with love, and I therefore take it as imperative that I seek to do so. That is the arc of salvation history, of which I am a small part - the final victory of love. I also say it because this is my experience. I have not experienced anything more powerful than love - including deep hatred, including agony, including loneliness. Sometimes, you know, its a close call, but I'm willing to say it nontheless - love is victorious. And in God's ultimate love, God is ultimately victorious. God's victory is the victory of God's love, that the love and goodness in which creation was born is still the end to which it moves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

[Repost] Tolkien and Theology: The Power and Limits of Evil

I'm exhausted, recovering from working a couple weeks of regular 19-hour days on very little sleep. I'm also working on moving across the country and starting a new job. Suffice to say, my muse is a starved little thing in the corner. As a result, I thought I'd repost some blog posts from the past on my now-defunct previous blog. Enjoy!


To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good.

The battles in the Apocalypse and "Paradise Lost," for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.

Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself. Sauron cannot imagine any motives except lust for domination and fear so that, when he has learned that his enemies have the Ring, the thought that they might try to destroy it never enters his head..

Taken from WH Auden's review of The Return of the King, "At the End of the Quest, Victory"

I was going to write some of my own thoughts, but I realized that it has already said better than I probably could. "Evil...has every advantage but one - it is inferior in imagination."

I have observed that the failure to find nonviolent solutions to problems is almost universally a failure of imagination. It is as if, given that we must not fail to resist evil, and that we must not become evil by doing violence against our enemies, there were nothing in between.

As if the Bible is absolutely true in what it says about sex, or gender, or the "end times", but completely idealistic and foolish in what it says about violence, or love, or justice, or mercy, or enemies, or neighbors.

I find that view impossible to abide without a great deal of frustration.

Tolkien wasn't a practicing pacifist by any means, and even he could imagine a great deal more. Even more than that, he could imagine a core difference between good and evil - that evil is such because it imagines only evil means - power, domination, violence, force.

A light shone into the darkness, but the darkness didn't understand it.

And still doesn't.

Karen Armstrong > New Atheists

...which should surprise no one.

I thought this article on religion was well-thought-out, and worth far more than it's weight in alcoholic blather from Christopher Hitchens.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Parental Preoccupation

I don't understand other parents. Now that my elder son, Avery, is in Kindergarten we have more cause to come into contact with other parents. Since Stacia and I had kids younger than many in our peer group most of my friends have not had children. Interacting with other parents of a variety of ages I am frequently confounded. It seems that I just don't think like them. Here are some examples:

Many parents appear to believe their own children are innately good. While I am extremely proud of my boys and tentatively think they are growing into fine human beings, I definitely don't regard them as little bundles of innocence. They are often selfish and sometimes violent. If an adult behaved as they do I would be horrified. Clearly they deserve extra license for being children, but that is just my point - why should we regard children as little angels when they're not? They require more tolerance than adults.

Many parents appear to center their lives around their children. The most important relationship I have with a human being is with my wife. I love my kids very much, but I also want them to grow up and leave my house and lead lives of their own and form bonds to people they love that supercede their relationship with me. They will hopefully outlive me and not be devastated by that fact, because though they love me I am not the most important person in their life. While they are young, of course, the parental relationship is paramount, but even at this age it is good, in my opinion, for them to know that the world doesn't revolve around them.

Many parents experience anxiety about their children suffering. I just take it as a given that my children will suffer. I don't see my primary role as a "protector". Yes, I want them to survive in good health and sound mind into adulthood. I'm not saying I don't care if they get hurt. I'm just saying I don't have any illusions that I'm going to be able to protect them from most pain and I don't have any guilt or worry about that fact. More than anything, actually, I want my children to be able to empathize with people who are suffering and how can they do that if they never suffer themselves?

Many parents say what they want most for their children is for them to be happy. What I want most for my children is for them to be good people who make the world a better place. I suppose you could say that true happiness comes from virtue and so these two things are the same, but I think the first one often gets expressed in ways I disagree with. For example, "I want my children to be better off than me financially," or "I want my children to have a better education than I had," or "I want my children to not experience the pains I have experienced (divorce, alcoholism, depression etc...)." I think it is possible to conceive of a person who is "blissfully ignorant" - someone who feels emotionally content, but is blind to their own complicity in evil. I want my children to grow up into adults who are both happy and good, but if I were forced to choose between the two, I would rather they were good than happy.

Perhaps more parents than I realize feel the way I do, but they just don't say so. Or maybe I am very deficient in parental affection. I don't bring it up to criticize other parents. Most of them are probably better than me. I guess I bring it up because it bothers me a bit to feel so out of sync with what a majority of parents seem to believe.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Conservatives Finally Declare Victory of Subjectivism

I'm not sure if you're heard of Conservapedia yet - it is the conservative encyclopedia created in contrast to Wikipedia, which, like the reality it seeks to describe, has a well-documented liberal bias. What I find most interesting about Conservapedia is that it flies in the face of every argument for objectivism I've ever heard.

It turns out that the best ideas don't in fact win out if you are a conservative. Consensual reality, as described by a community of mutually-critiquing peers, just isn't conservative enough. What you have to have are some ground rules to make sure that everyone experiences the right reality, describes it in the right way, and comes to the right conclusions.

This is a reality where Joseph McCarthy is a hero; where atheism is the result of moral depravity and all but guarantees mental health issues - not to mention a necessary tie to mass murder. It is a reality where Osama bin Laden is a prominent example of definitive Islam; where truly hilarious debates take place, like "How should Conservapedia avoid a conservative bias?" It is also where, in one paragraph, Reagan is described as the paragon of shrinking government as well as the progenitor of massive government dept and defense spending.

I wish any of this surprised me, but of course this worldview isn't hard to find. It is convenient, though, to have it all spelled out in one easy place.

Actually, as a side, I encourage you to play a game on Conservapedia called "Spot Osama bin Laden". He comes up in an amazing number of articles, speaking as an authority for the Muslim point of view. So far, I've found him mentioned prominently on Islam, the Crusades, and in Saudi Arabia as one of only two "notable Saudi Arabians".

See, what the victory of conservative ideas requires, apparently, is conservative control of how those ideas are investigated and expressed. It isn't enough to just sit down and talk it out, or have a huge, open wiki that can be edited by anyone and is subject to peer review at all times. That kind of thing is like the Bible - way too liberal for this crowd.

Maybe this is a first baby step, though, toward a wider world for some conservatives. It is clear that Conservapedia is a radical abandonment of objectivism of any kind. It is a total capitulation to subjectivism and a calculated attempt to control the type of subjectivity that will be allowed. It is a narrowing of reality and at the same time an admission of an infinitely broad one.

Reality isn't good enough, apparently. What we need is some conserveality.

Anyway, I encourage you to read some Conservapedia. It is like visiting an alien planet, both interesting and disturbing at the same time. Just remember, at any time, you can return to Earth for a breath of fresh air.

No Kingdom of Hell at Hand

h/t David Congdon

“By identifying the coming judgment as the coming of Jesus Christ, Christian confession entails the refusal to believe that what is ultimately defeated and rejected is ever other than the opposition, in whatever personal and corporate form of denial, betrayal, and crucifixion it takes, to being loved into freedom. . . . The eternally ‘rejected,’ the ‘unsaved,’ and the ‘lost’ is all that is within us and within the world which denies, betrays, and crucifies the love that comes to set us free. . . . Christian faith refuses to believe that the grace of being loved into freedom ultimately stops coming or ceases to be. . . . When such grace is confessed to have ‘descended into hell,’ then hell is acknowledged to have no dominion that can prevail. There is in the proclamation of the gospel no basileia of hell that is at hand, but only a basileia of heaven. Hell has no eternal dominion. If what God eternally rejects throughout all creation, with the fire of a love that remains unquenchable, is every opposition to our being loved into freedom, including our own, then the hellfire and damnation of Judgment Day is precisely the one true hope of all the earth. The old question of whether or not grace is ‘irresistible’ only becomes a problem when theology forgets Who it is whose judgment is confessed to be coming. What else is the Crucifixion if not the resistance to grace? What finally does a Resurrection faith refuse to believe, if not that the resistance to grace is ever its cessation?”

—Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994; 2nd ed., 2008), 340-41.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two-Faced Monster

Conservative Christians in America say they condemn homosexuality because the Bible tells them to. They will be quick to tell you though that they love homosexuals and only want to see them led to a better way of life. Opposing Gay marriage, ordination, adoption, participation in the military, and all of that stuff is just loving behavior. They would not, for example, advocate the literal adherence to scriptural sentences of death. Would they?

The writers and signers of the Manhattan Declaration want you to believe that their anti-gay speech, anti-gay political stances, and anti-gay behavior is all innocuous "freedom of religion" stuff. The problem is that some of the same people who are presenting the dovish face of homophobia in the US are supporting the hawkish face of it elsewhere in the world.

The African nation of Uganda is on the verge of passing draconian new legislation that makes homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment. Something called "aggravated homosexuality", defined as any sexual contact between gays or lesbians where one or more of the parties has HIV, is punishable by death. Never mind that HIV in Africa is virtually exclusively a heterosexual problem.

This law is backed by a group calling itself "the Family". Major supporters of "the Family" include Anglican bishops Orombi and Akinola. Rev. Peter Akinola who is one of the primary signers of the Manhattan Declaration. Furthermore, a lot of money has been pouring into "the Family" from American evangelical churches - money which is being used to help get this law signed.

Some prominent members of the right in America have distanced themselves from their former allies in the African church over this. Rev. Rick Warren deserves some credit for saying he opposed the legislation and had cut off ties to friends of his who are behind it. Exodus International also wrote a letter saying mildly that the law is "unhelpful". Clearly there are some who see how the coincidence of these two movements is potentially detrimental to their cause in the US.

Here is the problem from my perspective - it appears that for some (I don't say all or even most), the "love the sinner/hate the sin" line is a facade. Some conservatives, among them prominent signers of the Manhattan Declaration, would probably support outright persecution of homosexuals if they thought it was politically viable in this country. I say this because they ARE supporting persecution of homosexuals in other countries where it is politically viable.

This is my question to conservatives who really believe this "love the sinner/hate the sin" stuff: is this what christianity looks like to you? Bishop Orombi believes all the things you say are fundamentals of the faith - virgin birth, Jesus' miracles, biblical inerrancy, bodily resurrection, substitutionary atonement, homosexuality is sin etc... Is he the kind of Christian you want to be? If so, count me out. I can't stomach the hypocrisy and hatred.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sappho, Prudery & Sexism

History hasn't given us very many female voices to speak for themselves. Usually we have to hear about women from a male contemporary. We ought to pay special attention to the exceptions, therefore. Few voices are more exceptional than Sappho.

Sappho was a poet of the lyric age from the Isle of Lesbos. We know almost nothing about her biographically. There were no contemporaries who wrote about her. Most biographical information derived from later sources is very suspect as it relies mostly on the comedies who freely made up legends about her for entertainment. It would be like learning Scottish history from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Here's what we do know. She was a great poet. She composed hundreds and hundreds of poems, inventing her own style, and musical forms - even instruments to match her compositions. Later grammarians sorted her work into 9 volumes, each a different form of poetry. She was praised and revered by countless male poets who are better preserved. Plato called her the 10th muse. She was that good.

She was also a homosexual - or so it appears from her poems, many of which are very personal love poems written to women. From her name we get the adjective "sapphic" and from her example we have come to use the word "lesbian," meaning a person from the Isle of Lesbos, to mean a female homosexual. No one really knows the truth about her sexual activities, but it doesn't matter - her reputation is established.

And it is this reputation which led to her being trashed (or in later centuries - whitewashed) by prudish Christians. As early as 180 AD it was said of her that, "Sappho was a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness." In 380 AD her writings were ordered burned in Constantinople, and at various times through history after that. From Savonarola to Pope Gregory VII Christians never got tired of pointing out how lewd her poetry was and tossing it into fires. Worse than the book-burnings though, was the slander which led to her being so unpopular that her works were passed over by monks transcribing ancient manuscripts until most of the copies of her poems simply disintegrated.

Because of this, of all of her work only fragments remain - about 70 lines of verse and only one complete poem. Most of this is reconstructed from where she is quoted by other writers. We have all but lost her voice.

Here is a really ugly truth about Christianity - for most of our history we have been deeply misogynist. The censoring of Sappho is a perfect example of how sex has been a tool used for the benefit of men and the subjugation of women. The problem with homosexuality is that it undermines the narrative men of authority have written which is that women are designed for submission and men for domination. When a man has sex with a man, or a woman with a woman, this power structure is destabilized. Sexual prudery serves these interests by reinforcing the status quo in which only heterosexual men have genuine sexual agency.

Sappho is disturbing because she has such potent sexual agency:
O Gongyla, my darling rose,
put on your milk-white gown. I want
you to come back quickly. For my
desire feeds on

your beauty. Each time I see your gown
I am made weak and happy. I too
blamed the Kyprian. Now I pray
she will not seek

revenge, but may she soon allow
you, Gongyla, to come to me
again: you whom of all women
I most desire.
So self assured is she, that she warmly celebrates the sexuality of others:
Bride, warm with rose-
colored love, brightest
ornament of the Paphian,
come to the bedroom now,
enter the bed and play
tenderly with your man.
May the Evening Star
lead you eagerly
to that instant when you
will gaze in wonder
before the silver throne
of Hera, queen of marriage.
It is my intuition that what the Church needs, in order to escape our morass of patriarchalism, is a hefty infusion of sapphic love - a love which breaks apart this infernal game of dominance and submission that we've been playing, and demonstrates confident sexual agency. Love which isn't either prudish or pornographic, but celebratory and frank.

Monday, November 30, 2009

God is Sorry. Wait. No He's Not.

From BeAttitude

Does God ever feel shame and repent for his mistakes? Or is he a perfect God?

God apologizes, feels shame, feels regret, repents for his mistakes and openly admits that sometimes his perfect plan isn’t so perfect.

The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.
Genesis 6:7

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Exodus 32:14

And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.
1 Samuel 15:35

The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?

Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous.”

Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?” He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
Genesis 18:17, 20, 32-33

God is perfect. His ways and his word are without flaw.

As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.
2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 18:30

He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.
Deuteronomy 32:4

Wisdom ethics part 4: The approach and the matrix

Wisdom ethics part 4: The approach and the matrix

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

To Write Love On Her Arms

Rolling Stone Magazine taught me something interesting about ministry today. This article is about Jamie Tworkowski and his ministry, "To Write Love On Her Arms". It profiles him as a surfer dude and hip apparel salesman who decided his life's calling was to reach out to depressed teenagers. Combining t-shirts and hoodies with compassion, hugs and simple words of hope he is making quite a splash.

It makes me think about something that has been on my mind every now and then - the place of 'cool' in the church. It's easy to be too simplistic about this and either say "the church has no business chasing after fads" or "we'll be irrelevant if we don't appeal to the next generation". I have sympathies with both sides. I definitely see ministries that seem to be so busy being 'hip' that they are shallow and off-putting to someone like me. I also see ministries that are so determined to resist even the appearance of interest in pop-culture that it is no wonder no one can relate to them.

Ultimately there is room for all types out there. I like knowing that monks on Mt. Athos are living much as they did 1500 years ago. I like having words and songs in my worship that were written by John Chrysostom. I also like being able to talk to my people and having something in common with them. It's good when we can share a laugh about the Daily Show, or my teens can introduce me to new music and I genuinely enjoy it - not just feign interest. I've never personally been a very cool person, and the thing about 'cool' is that it can't be feigned. You just look like an insecure dork when you do.

What do you think? How much 'cool' would you want in your church? In your ministry? Do you make any effort to stay current with pop-culture - or is that a huge waste of time, or worse - a path to sin and debauchery? If a given minister is 'cool' does that make his ministry more or less effective? What about the gospel itself - is it cool?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wisdom ethics part 3: Applied to abortion

Wisdom ethics part 3: Applied to abortion

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Follow Up On GOP Doctrinal "Resolution"

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill;

This is hypocritical and false. Ronald Reagan and GW Bush both increased the national deficit by an order of magnitude, and between them was Clinton with his balanced budget. The only difference between the parties is that Republicans want a bloated Republican government and Democrats want a bloated Democratic government.

(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

This is false. It is very clear that the Republican Party does not support any kind of meaningful health care reform. They also regularly engage in willful misrepresentation of plans put forward, making hypocritical claims about "death panels" and so on that would theoretically come from aspects of the plans which GW Bush himself also put forward - no "death panel" comments then of course.

Republicans were in power without real opposition in any branch of government for 6 arduous years, and no "market-based" or any other kind of reform was forthcoming. Just a steady swelling of health care costs and a steady shrinking of pockets.

(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

Cap and trade is market-based. This one just doesn't make any sense. Unless by "market-based energy reforms" the GOP means "never denying an energy lobbyist anything s/he asks for and thanking them for massive campaign contributions" - because that is what the GOP actually does. Or we could ask politely that companies willingly reduce their bottom line so that we can have a cleaner environment. Let me know how well that works, and don't forget the fairy-dust.

(4) We support workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check;

Ok, why not? I honestly don't know what "card check" is and have never heard this term before, but maybe I just wans't paying attention. I've mostly worked in places where we're not allowed to unionize and are fired if we attempt to do so.

Generally speaking, however, the GOP is certainly anti-union. Again, I think that their fairy-dust would be sufficient to protect workers' rights, and the Industrial Revolution taught us nothing if not how trustworthy factory owners are when they don't have to answer to an organized workforce.

(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

Eh. I personally disagree with the characterization here, but this is at least consistent. The GOP would rather send people to prison for giving water to human beings in the desert.

(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

This is hypocritical. Victory was already declared years ago, and to this day, victory has never been defined. As far as I can tell, victory is when Iraq becomes Texas. What the GOP in reality supports is a constant state of low-level warfare in other countries paired with ceaseless reminders of the threat of terrorism so that everyone will vote out of fear and xenophobia rather than wisdom and a clear assessment of who will solve our problems. Every GOP campaign is fear-based, whether it is fear of Commies or Hippies or gays or terrorists or Nazi-Commie-Muslims like Obama.

(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

What I think the GOP actually wants is at least two or three enemies "on deck" - see number 6. We've also seen how "effective" containment of Iran and North Korea were under the Bush administration.

(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

This one is obvious, and is consistent with their strong stances against equal rights for homosexuals. One might draw parallels with past social movements meeting conservative resistance.

(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

This one drives me crazy, because I don't know what fantasy world the GOP lives in that it is not understood that health care is already rationed. The only difference is whether HMOs will ration it, in a situation where we have little or no choice who our health care provider actually is (I've never had one as an adult for example) or whether the government will ration it, and at least we can vote them out if we don't like it. Health care has to be rationed somehow because we don't have infinite medical resources. The difference is that the GOP thinks that for-profit companies will ration health care better than not-for-profit government programs. Of course, don't ask anyone on Medicare or Medicaid or MediCal or any other public assistance program, because they might not have health care at all if not for government intervention.

On the other hand, the stance against government funding of abortion makes sense. The GOP is right, people shouldn't have to have their tax dollars go to things they disagree with on moral grounds. I don't want my tax dollars to go to war, so I want the GOP to put forward a bill preventing government funding of the military. Oh no, wait, this one is hypocritical too. The GOP wants to serve it's "pro-life" base, but doesn't actually believe in any of that freedom of conscience stuff for anyone who disagrees with them on anything else.

(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership;

We've certainly seen this, with people bringing automatic weapons to political rallies, and then wondering why the rest of us think they're nut-jobs. What's next, packing heat at the PTA meeting? Bringing your shotgun to church?

The Second Amendment existed before we had a standing, professional army, so that we would have armed militias to fight off the British or the Spanish. It also existed so that the federal government would never be able to militarily repress us. If Great Britain invades us, I'll happily eat my words. If the government turns on us violently, you and your Glock won't make a difference.

Meanwhile, handguns in your home are hundreds of times more likely to result in your childrens' death than in the death of an intruder or attacker. We also have one of the most murderous societies on earth, per capita, and US citizens own more than one fourth of all the firearms on Earth. I think gun control makes at least as much sense as water quality or worker safety regulations - which are also things that conservatives fight against.


Anyway, just throwing my hat in. I don't think these resolutions meaningfully represent what Republicans actually do, and I disagree with most of them personally, but it isn't like the GOP is losing a vote there in most cases. Also, to be clear for those who don't know, I'm not a Democrat either. They're just hard to criticize as strongly because they are so utterly spineless and so rarely undertake to do anything, much less stand up for their supposed core values. At least the Republicans can name a few, even though I disagree with how they come up with many and how they are applied.

I also just like to vent the old spleen now and then.

Commence telling me why I'm wrong!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reagan's Unity Principle and The Five Fundamentals

There is currently a draft resolution circulating that would make the Republican National Committee adopt a list of 10 "conservative" principles and require any candidate seeking financial support to agree to at least 8 out of 10. This idea immediately brought to mind that sad event in Presbyterian history known as the Five Fundamentals. Here are the similarities as I see them:
  1. In both instances it is a group of conservatives within a larger body seeking to make the entire body conform to their own understanding of core beliefs.
  2. The "10 Principles" and "5 Fundamentals" are both lists designed to function as litmus tests for membership. The choice is subscription or exclusion.
  3. Both of these lists are historically myopic - they are not actually representative of the tradition they claim to be expressing. The "10 Principles" would be unrecognizable to a conservative from 50 years ago, and the "5 Fundamentals" include oddities like the virgin birth, inerrancy, and substitutionary atonement, instead of the trinity, or the Golden Rule, or the communion of saints, or grace, or resurrection, or ... I don't know something actually important.
  4. Neither of these lists represent accurate distillations of their tradition because they are occasioned, inspired, and utterly determined by opposition to specific contemporary issues rather than genuine timeless concerns. The "10 Principles" are a reaction to the defeat of the Republican party in the 2008 general election. The "5 Fundamentals" are a reaction to modernist thought becoming dominant in the church.
  5. Both of these lists are the expression of a fearful minority, whose anxiety is sparked by a perceived loss of control. These lists are hubristic attempts to regain power and authority, but in actuality they will accomplish only the further alienation and isolation of that minority until it falls away from the main body entirely and sinks into irrelevance.
These similarities make me wonder what it is about the conservative psyche that clings to this mode of expression: "lists," "fundamentals," "core principles," whatever you want to call them. When conservatives feel threatened they buckle down and attempt to enforce group cohesion by ideological subscription. Why is that?

And what is the progressive equivalent? What do we do when our power is taken away from us and we see ourselves as an embattled minority? Doubtless our responses are just as fearful and futile, but I'm having a hard time thinking of what that looks like.

Craig Ferguson

This is basically what I am trying for all the time when I open my mouth, for better or worse. If I can learn to preach like Craig Ferguson does this monologue, I'll be done.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take Note, Obama

This is what someone who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize looks like, fighting against our country's policy of training torturers and war criminals to go work in Latin America.

For immediate release
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Father Roy Bourgeois and SOA Watch Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

Father Roy Bourgeois, MM, and School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) have been nominated for one of the most prestigious awards in the world - the Nobel Peace Prize - for their sustained faithful nonviolent witness against the disappearances, torture, and murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians (peasants, community and union organizers, clerics, missionaries, educators, and health workers) by foreign military personnel trained by the U.S. military at U.S. taxpayer expense at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The candidacy of Father Roy and SOA Watch for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has been officially submitted to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The official announcement was made by AFSC representative John Meyer on Sunday, November 22 at 9am at the gates of Fort Benning (home of the School of the Americas) during the annual November vigil to close the SOA.

"We are deeply honored, and deeply humbled, to be nominated for this prize for peace," commented Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart recipient and a Catholic priest, who helped found SOA Watch. "This nomination is a recognition of the work of the thousands struggling against militarism across the Americas."

SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works through creative protest and resistance, legislative and grassroots media work to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America, to close the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that institutions like the SOA/ WHINSEC represent.

This weekend, SOA Watch is gathering by the thousands at the gates of Ft. Benning to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the killings of 14-year-old Celia Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and the six Jesuit priests she worked with at the Central American University in San Salvador in November 1989. Human rights defenders from Colombia and Bertha Oliva, founder of human rights organization COFADEH, Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, which has been actively resisting the SOA graduate-led coup as part of the resistance front.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Presbyterians & The Manhattan Declaration

In other news, a bunch of people signed a piece of paper this morning called the Manhattan Declaration. It is a conservative Christian manifesto saying in essence that the signers won't cooperate with any laws supportive of gay marriage or abortion. Read Halden's piece I posted earlier for something I agree with. Read the Layman if you want to know why this declaration is good and pure and holy.

At least three Presbyterians were among the signers: Carmen Fowler (editor of the Layman), Dr. John H. Huffman Jr. (of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in California), and Rev. Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York). I don't know any of these individuals personally and so I will assume them to be people of impeccable character and virtue. This is not a comment about them as individuals.

I am curious, however, about how their theology interacts with their ideology. Most Presbyterians I have known who wade in conservative waters have been absolutely insistent about the primacy of a particular method of reading scripture in making moral judgments or constructing sound theology. They would find statements like the following to be highly problematic:
"We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person."
Setting scripture alongside reason and nature as means of knowing the truth about God's will seems to be a primary objection of Presbyterian conservatives I know to almost anything a progressive says or does. Read this article about Achtemeier on the Layman to see what I mean. Using feelings, experience, reason or observations from nature to arrive at the truth is inherently suspect from their perspective. So I wonder if the Presbyterians who signed the declaration, or those currently applauding it around my denomination, have considered the theology of this document closely.

I really do wonder, because the more I read it (I've been through the whole text 5 times now), the more convinced I am that there is almost no theology to be had here. Certainly not a sound Biblical grounding.

In their discussion of "Life" where is the biblical notion that to be gained it must be given away? Where is their commentary on war, militarism, poverty, prisons, or injustice? Can one even read the Bible in reference to "Life" and not touch on these matters?

In their discussion of "Marriage" why don't they even so much as mention the volumes that Jesus and Paul had to say on the subject? They once again commit the mistake of making marriage the foundational institution and thus subverting the place of the church.

And what on Earth does "Freedom of Religion" have to do with anything? Do they have such a stunted ecclesiology mired in the bankrupt ideology of christendom that they must receive their license to be religious from the state? Did they really say they refuse to render unto Caesar what belongs to God and then miss the irony in their own statement? Point me to that which doesn't belong to God.

There isn't anything to this declaration from a theological perspective at all. So what could be so attractive about it to conservatives in my denomination? I have a hunch that it isn't the theology. It's the ideology. I suspect they would agree with any document that was anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion regardless of the theology, exegesis, or community behind it. Because at the end of the day their theological commitments aren't as deep as they claim, but their ideological commitments are deeper than even they know.

Christianity: It's About Gay Sex and Abortion

Halden knocks it out of the park again. From Inhabitatio Dei:

Today saw the release of the “Manhattan Declaration,” a sort of ecumenical conservative manifesto with 148 signatories from Roman, Eastern, and Evangelical denominations. Its a consolidated statement of the usual stuff super conservative Christians care about — abortion, gay marriage, and well, I guess the freedom to not perform abortions and gay marriages, they call this religious freedom.

On the one hand there’s really nothing that needs to be said about this. After all there is nothing really said here that hasn’t been utterly clear for some time. We all know that abortion and gay marriage, framed under the language of religious freedom are pretty much all the Christian political right cares about.

Naturally in the long tirades about a holistic ethic of life there’s no substantial discussion of poverty, let alone militarism and war. Likewise in the flowing praises of marriage as the bedrock of civilization and Christianity don’t see fit to mention any of the things Jesus or Paul actually had to say about marriage. This is standard sub-biblical conservative fare.

This is also precisely why stuff like this shouldn’t be considered a manifesto in any realistic sense of the term. The document styles itself as standing in the line of Barmen and even MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This is bullshit. Its simply a consolidation of widely-held conservative opinion. Hell, they even claim that their views represent the majority of Americans while they style it as a bold sort of minority courage against the powers that be. That’s the best thing about popular conservative Christianity. You can be an oppressed minority while still really representing pretty much all the real people.

Its actually painfully obvious what this is all about. Its simply another instance of the conservative Christian unrest that always gets shrilly trumpeted whenever there’s a democrat in the White House. As such this is actually a perfect example of the sort of anxiety I discussed yesterday. What animates this document is nothing more — and I really mean that, quite literally nothing more – than a gnawing fear about not being in a position of cultural power.

We are offered here a vision of Christianity completely and intentionally sold over to ideology. There is no proclamation of the living God, of the crucified and risen Christ here. All we are offered by this document and the movement it represents is a life ruled by the very powers Christ has freed us from. The desperation for control, domination, and security that this movement needs to be called what it is, a falling back into the elemental spirits of the cosmos, a return to the world system that Christ’s death and resurrection has made nothing. It is nothing less than the rejection of actual faith in the coming kingdom of the living God.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holier Than Your Violent Ass

One reaction that sometimes catches me off-guard when the subject of pacifism comes up is anger. Some people seem angry that I would dare to refuse to hurt them. Without sarcasm or exaggeration I'll do my best to explain where I think this is coming from.

The conversation usually goes like this: I say I am a pacifist. They respond with the usual hypothetical scenario about being a bystander to violence. I point out that there are a variety of nonviolent potential solutions to such a scenario. They push the hypothetical scenario to an extreme point where they allege the only options are violence or guilt by inaction. I say their scenario is contrived. They tell me I'm a horrible person for choosing personal holiness over the life of an innocent.

It's that last bit which is interesting. From their perspective the choice to commit to pacifism is ultimately about "personal holiness". They think, in other words, that a pacifist is a person who doesn't want to get their hands dirty; who would rather let other people suffer than risk their own purity. Pacifists are, in their minds, rather like the Levitical priest in the story of the Good Samaritan who passes the wounded man without helping to avoid coming into contact with something unclean. We are too holy for our own good.

It is a bizarre way of looking at an ethical commitment that is fundamentally about others. How is my determination not to harm other people construed as a self-centered choice of pride? Here is what strikes me as prideful - believing that you can ever see a situation so clearly that you are able to make a choice with the ultimate consequence for another human being, the loss of their life. How could you possibly have sufficient certainty in the heat of the moment, overwhelmed by adrenaline, that your actions were justified? Isn't it better to do everything in your power to prevent the death of another, even if that person appears to you to be a monster? Dead people can't forgive or be forgiven.

Furthermore, pacifists don't make such a commitment because we believe we are superior to other human beings, but because we know the opposite. I am not a pacifist because I am innately less violent than anyone else, but because I know how violent I am capable of being. As Stanley Hauerwas famously says "I tell everyone I'm a pacifist so that other people will prevent me from killing some son-of-a-bitch one day." If anyone has a superiority complex, it is a person who believes they are justified in killing another human being.

So when someone accuses me of self-righteousness based on my pacifism I think it reveals more about them than it does about me. It says that their conscience is troubling them, but rather than probe what could be the issue, they concoct a narrative to alleviate the sting. In this narrative, it is the one who offers no violence who is arrogant and blasphemous and dangerous, who must be crucified. Whereas those who cling to violence are tragic heroes, relieved of their guilt by virtue of the belief that it was done to protect the innocent - a terrible, but unavoidable cost. The only problem is that in order to continue believing this narrative they have to look away from the cross, where the alternative is on blazing display. And looking away they leave a trail of crosses in their wake.

Wisdom Ethics part 1: Introduction to the problem

Wisdom Ethics part 1: Introduction to the problem

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Monday, November 16, 2009


Nick was ordained this weekend, and this is what was preached.

Isaiah 52:13-53:9
Mark 8:22-26
1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

It is a pleasure and an honor to be with you for this celebration. What I’m about to say is for everyone here. Nick would be the first to point out that what we’re doing here isn’t all about him. These words about ministry are for any disciple, though I will be addressing Nick a lot, because… well it’s his name on the program.

Nick. This is not your ordination sermon. This is an unsermon. I had the perfect sermon nearly written for this occasion. It was about all of the problems you’ll face as an ordained minister. I was going to tap into my vast experience of one year of being ordained to let you know how arduous it will be, but that you can get through all of this if you just realize that Jesus is the answer. Because that is something you would never have heard before.

I can’t preach that sermon for strong and pressing reasons, you will soon learn.

If I had though, I know exactly how that sermon was going to go, and after 10 minutes or so of scintillating rhetoric I would have arrived at the dramatic resolution with this line from the end of Thessalonians, Paul’s farewell phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you.”

I would have pointed out that this is not a throwaway line Paul just tacks on for flourish. It is not just a stock farewell, like the word “sincerely” written at the end of a letter that is anything but sincere. Paul uses this phrase “The grace of Lord Jesus Christ go with you” as a benediction – a hope, a wish, even a prayer that the actual presence of Christ will accompany you.

In this sermon I’m not going to preach I would have told you that I’m praying the same for you, and if you pray hard enough yourself you can receive this grace and it will carry you through the trials of ministry – all that hard stuff I would have spent 10 minutes describing to you in lurid detail.

And then, I even had a list of ways which you can use as a test to know if the grace of Christ is actually with you, since presumably this grace is invisible.

The first is that you would find yourself filled with trust in God’s Love. If the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, you wouldn’t feel anxious or worried about the future, or what other people will think of you. You would know your true value as one of God’s Children and wouldn’t need to look for outside sources of approval to boost your self-esteem. You wouldn’t need to be in control all the time, but would be able to let the outcome rest in God’s hands. Like the suffering servant from Isaiah you could trust even when things look bad. That is one sign I would have listed in this sermon I’m not going to preach.

The second sign, that the Grace of Jesus Christ was with you, is that you would be unafraid to make mistakes. Like this story from Mark where Jesus is trying to give the blind man back his sight, but after the first attempt everything is jumbled and people look like Ents from the Lord of the Rings, but Jesus doesn’t get flustered or angry, he just tries again… You wouldn’t mind being fallible if you had the Grace of Jesus Christ with you.

If I had been preaching this sermon I would have said the third sign, which is much like the first two is a willingness to be vulnerable – to expose your true self to scorn and ridicule. None of us are lovely all of the time. As someone filled with the Grace of Jesus Christ you would be able to share your weakness with us to make us stronger.

Most importantly, and stemming from these other signs of Christ’s Grace – you would be capable of transcending suffering. Not skip it. None of us gets to skip suffering. But you would be able to transform it into source of good. When afflicted to look mercifully on your tormenters and say “Father forgive them…” That’s what you would do if the Grace of Jesus Christ were with you.

And in this hypothetical sermon which will never see the light of day I would have appealed to you to pray for this grace so that all of these virtues could be yours. But there is absolutely no way I can preach that sermon, for absolutely the best of reasons – it isn’t true. It isn’t true, even though it hides behind a charmingly cliché notion of grace, it isn’t the gospel it is just a heap of advice that you don’t need. Advice is something you’ll get plenty of… you’re sitting in a roomful of reverends. We are good at such things.

Contrary to what my sermon was going to be all about, this unsermon is truer, and in it I tell you that you can pray as often and as fervently as you want and sometimes grace won’t come. And without it you’ll fail. You’ll fail at every one of those things I listed.

Using my prodigious powers of prophecy I can guarantee you that you are going to fail at trusting God’s love. You aren’t going to believe you are worth what Jesus has given for you. You will be afflicted with a fragile ego that needs affirmation from outside sources, and you will seek approval. You aren’t going to trust the future to God either, you will try and control it and make it what you think it should be. You will often do this in the most noble and futile of ways, not out of some luciferian moment of hubris when you wrest the reins out of God’s hand, but in moments of genuine compassion you will think you are doing God’s will for the sake of others. Most of the time when looking at your ministry you won’t be able to tell if what you feel is the Spirit moving or if you just had one too many sips of communion wine.

You will fail also at being unafraid of making mistakes. I know you are an easygoing guy so this might seem strange to you. I remember sitting upside down in your Jeep Grand Cherokee, so I know you are accustomed to laughing at your own missteps – but I also know that you are going to experience honeymoon periods. You will be admired by people and it will be very hard for you to let go of their admiration. You also will have people that you respect, mentors, friends, wise or compassionate elders, your absurdly talented and intelligent wife. You will not want to disappoint them. You will try too hard, therefore to get everything right.

And when you are trying to get everything right all the time it is impossible to succeed at being vulnerable. You will hide your mistakes, your flaws, your petty and serious transgressions and you will do so for the best possible reason – because sometimes it really does seem like people need a leader, a hero, a wise, strong, cornerstone kind of a guy, and you will want to be able to be that for them, not for yourself – because you will believe it is necessary.

Having failed at everything else, most excruciatingly you will finally fail at transcending suffering. You will be in pain and it will not be the educational kind of pain. You won’t be a better person because of it. You won’t see any grand design. You will just hurt, and instead of saying “father forgive them” you will curse and complain and shout at the heavens… For the love of God! And many other words that I won’t repeat in the pulpit when I’m a guest in someone else’s church.

Why? You will ask. Why didn’t I stick with Graphic Design?

And when that happens, someone will come up to you and interrupt you, while you are in mid-tirade. It might be a little girl, or a cranky old lady, or a young man very much like you and I are today. My prophetic vision isn’t that precise. But whoever it is will tap you on the shoulder and say… “Thank you…. Thank you for sharing the grace of Jesus Christ with me.”

And that’s when you’ll realize that this throw away phrase at the end of Paul’s letters “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ go with you,” isn’t a wish. It isn’t a hope, and it definitely isn’t a prayer. It’s a promise.

And you’ll laugh through your tears as you realize that you haven’t been working at cross-purposes with God at all. That God somehow has been working in you essentially regardless of your awareness, or your faithfulness. That the Grace of Jesus Christ has been going with you the entire way and through you countless others have witnessed the Truth, that God is love and in him there is no hatred or darkness at all.

You’ll laugh because you’ll know how wrong all those pompous pastors (no offense to present company, Nick knows I am an expert at pomposity), those experienced ministers who tried to dissuade you from going into ministry using that old saw “if you can do anything else…” They were wrong and ministry isn’t a tiresome, thankless, never-ending, low-paying, dead-end job. It’s unequivocally the BEST job.

Because somehow through you Christ’s love is being spread. Even though you’re utterly inadequate, the grace of Christ has and does and will go with you.

As ministers, we, all of us, are vehicles of God’s grace. Though we despair. Though our conviction is feeble – or worse, all too strong. Though we talk too loud and listen too little, and we charge ahead when we should wait, and sit on our hands when we should be busy. Somehow in the midst of that Christ is working. Grace is available. Grace is with us and it is our spectacular good fortune to be present when others receive it, again and again.

It doesn’t get better than this. Today you get to stand here at this table and from your hands, deliver the bread of life and the cup of salvation to people you love.

So, thank you. On behalf of all of those who you will minister to in your future. Thank you for all of the ways large and small in which you will be a sign of God’s purposes in the world. Thank you for all of the hearts you will ease, and consciences you will raise. Thank you for your future ministry in its lumpy, stumbling, inglorious beauty.

You are well loved. Take heart in that and go boldly forth toward future failures, knowing that especially in failure, the Grace of Jesus Christ goes with you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Basic Family Unit

Gay Marriage was on the ballot again in Maine and Oregon and maybe other places. Once again there were conservatives in the newspapers and on television screaming that the "basic family unit" was under siege, that society as we know it was going to collapse. All hysteria and idiocy aside, what really surprises me about this rhetoric is that much of it comes from protestants who should know better. That is, they should know that a heterosexual couple with kids is not actually the basic family unit.

The usual religious line they spout is that God created man and woman to be "one flesh", to cleave to one another in marriage and "multiply". Cloaked in a bunch of faux sociology they then allege that the nuclear family is the most basic social institution upholding civil order. This conveniently ignores the fact that in most societies the extended family is the most basic social institution - that really only since the 1950's and the one-house one-family trend in the USA has the nuclear family been dominant. It also ignores a host of societies that are polygamous, or polygynous (including, you know, the Biblical one). It ignores a variety of popular and legitimate social ways to be single, from celibacy to widowhood. Really it turns human relationships in general into a caricature that bears no resemblance to reality.

But the reason that protestants in particular should know better than to parrot these talking points, is our historical protestant definition of marriage as a civil institution rather than a sacrament. For a long time marriage has been whatever the state defines it to be for protestants, whereas Catholics have traditionally been opposed to the civil institution altogether, holding it to be a sacrament of the Church. The reason for this, which I think is sound, is a look at Biblical perspectives on marriage.

The Bible doesn't give a single definition of marriage. There are all kinds of different marital arrangements in scripture, none of which are held up as absolutely normative. Most importantly for Christians marriage is given very low importance in the New Testament. Jesus is not married, neither is Paul. Paul extols the virtue of celibacy and treats marriage like a lesser compromise for those who can't keep their libido in check. Jesus tells us that marriage won't even exist in the kingdom. Jesus tells us to deny our father and mother (which given that whole "cleaving" theme seems should apply equally to spouses) and seek God.

The overwhelming point in all of this is that for Christians marriage and the nuclear family are most adamantly NOT the pinnacle of human relationship. The very definition of love that Christ gives is to sacrifice one's life for a friend - not a spouse. Jesus thoroughly restructures the emphasis in relationships around the community of disciples - the Church. The Basic Family Unit, according to Jesus, is the communion of saints, all other allegiances dissolve in the egalitarian brotherhood of the children of God.

So then, what is the place of marriage? It is certainly not a bedrock institution upholding society. It is as Paul says, about meeting human needs. As God notes in Genesis - it is not good that we should be alone. It is a gift that is gratuitous. One can live a full and joyful life without it, but if you feel the need, it is a welcome opportunity for you to give and receive comfort in intimacy. For those homosexuals who desire it, why are we withholding the gift? It has nothing to do with the basic family unit. I'll tell you that.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving Up On Self-Defense

Say you are a pacifist and the first thing someone will do is throw a hypothetical self-defense or defense of innocents situation at you. "What if a robber broke into your house and threatened to kill your wife and children..."

What this reveals is that for the most part violence is already understood to be illegitimate by most people in most circumstances. Very few are willing to argue in favor of unilateral aggression, or retributive violence. The difference between a pacifist and most people is that a pacifist says, " even in the case of violent threats I choose to refrain from responding violently." So we are not arguing about 99% of violent scenarios. We are arguing about 1%.

I could go into detail about various hypothetical scenarios, or historical scenarios arguing from a pacifist viewpoint. I could point out (as I have in the past) why these scenarios are dishonest, but here I want to make a different point about why it is crucial to give up on self-defense even in that vanishingly rare hypothetical situation. The reason is this: self-defense inevitably becomes a cover for other types of violence.

Think about the wars the US has waged in the past century. Which one of them was not justified on the basis of self-defense? Even in the most extreme cases of obvious unilateral aggression such as the most recent Iraq War the justification was "weapons of mass-destruction", "Iraq-AlQaeda link", "defending Iraqi people from an evil dictator" etc... The doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is just self-defense stretched beyond the breaking point. WWI? Self-defense. WWII? Self-defense. Korean War? Self-defense? Vietnam? Self-defense. We've been defending ourselves from Nazis, communists, and terrorists over and over again by spending billions of dollars to fly overseas and bomb other countries.

In the case of an individual - when am I entitled to defend myself with violence? When someone physically attacks me? When they threaten me with a gun? When they loom over me menacingly? When they verbally abuse me? Is me feeling scared a sufficient justification for violent response? How can I even make a wise decision about proportional response to danger when I am in a state of terror? It seems like begging for a tragedy to me.

As long as we keep self-defense on the table it will continue to be a universal justification for any kind of violence that we can pretend falls under that umbrella. We adamantly refuse to see ourselves as anything other than paragons of nobility and peaceful intentions beset by violent bullies on all sides. If you want peace the only option is to give up the ways of war.

Speaking theologically I think this is a reason we need to cling to some language about Christ that is repugnant to some feminists and liberation theologians. To understand Christ as submitting himself to evil, or as a willing sacrifice may indeed be problematic from the perspective of victims of violence and the oppressed. It certainly has been abused by those in power to encourage passive acceptance of injustice. I understand this critique - but is there anything more urgent for those who walk the corridors of power or for any budding peacemaker to grasp than the truth that we absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, return evil for evil? Is it not close to the heart of the gospel to say that we must endure calamitous injustice rather than lift a finger in retribution? Isn't that what Christ actually does on Good Friday and Easter?