Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anarchy FTW!

In the past few years Fort Morgan, the town I live in and where I am pastor of United Presbyterian Church, has seen a dramatic influx of Somali refugees. In a town of about 10,000 people we are now host to around 800 East African refugees. This has all happened within the past 2 years. You can imagine such a dramatic shift is causing some ripples in the community.

The Somali refugees coming to Fort Morgan are "secondary migration", meaning they were initially settled elsewhere in the United States, but moved to Fort Morgan for jobs. The largest Somali population center in the US is Minneapolis. So most of the refugees have come from there and have family and friends back in Minneapolis they visit on vacation. The attraction to Fort Morgan is our meat packing plant where most of them are now employed. After we had a small core of 100 or so refugees it attained critical mass and now we are seeing a continuing influx which is reshaping the demographics of our town.

I would be derelict in my duties as a minister in this situation if I wasn't trying to learn more about Somalia, the situation of these refugees and how to help my congregation adapt to this development. I am partnering with a variety of community organizations to host educational events about Somalia, and even more importantly face-to-face meetings where we can start to make friends and bridge the cultural/linguistic gap. As part of my research about Somalia I came across this article which I found fascinating.

In the article the authors argue that nearly 20 years of anarchy in Somalia has actually benefited the country. Obviously a statement like that comes with a lot of caveats. Somalia is still a deeply impoverished place. The refugees in my town all have stories of intense suffering experienced in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, the loss of family members to violence, and severe deprivation which caused their exodus. With that said, the authors note that all statistical indicators have improved more without a central government in Somalia than they did in the years previous of corrupt dictatorships. The article describes an elaborate, yet informal, system of customary law and commerce which reemerged in the absence of formal government with surprising success. As a result people live longer, eat better, are more secure, and have more luxuries like telephones and televisions than they did before.

I love what it says at the end about many governments being "vampire states" that prey on their people. Obviously, we'd like to believe that our governments are better, but I think from a Christian perspective all government is fundamentally vampiric. The principalities and powers are set against Jesus Christ and his reign of Shalom, and in some cases anarchy really is the best road forward.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Look Closely

An image that was rejected for the cover of Fortune magazine. Click on it to enlarge and get a really good look at the detail. It's exactly right.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: The Wasp Factory

I got turned onto Iain Banks by a good friend from Gamescape. I picked The Wasp Factory up first as it is the novel he is most famous for, though I had initially intended to seek out his science-fiction which he writes under the name Iain M. Banks. I will hunt down Consider Phlebas next as the start to his 'Culture' series.

But this book isn't sci-fi. Quotes on the cover call it "Gothic Horror", but I don't think that is right either. It certainly contains horrific stuff, but... the nature of this book eludes me.

Here is what I can say - it is extraordinarily well written. Banks gets you deep deep into the head of his main character, which is disturbing since the main character is a complete sociopath. Banks is clearly an amazing study of the human psyche. He knows who all of these characters are and exactly why they are cracked.

I wouldn't say this book was particularly enjoyable. Intriguing, yes. It had a heavy dose of mystery which drew me through the whole thing. You know from the beginning that something is... off, and you want to find out exactly why that is the case, but it isn't really a healthy kind of curiosity. Its the kind of curiosity that gets you killed in a horror movie.

The book has some very interesting things to say about human relationships, family, and gender, but I can't say much more than that without giving away too much. Suffice to say, if he can write science-fiction with characters as deep and complex as the characters in this novel then it will be some really addicting stuff. But I don't see myself handing this novel off to many friends, unless they have very peculiar tastes... like Doug.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Personal Update

You know why most people stay in the same place and keep friends they've had from High School their entire life? Because it is stupidly hard to make friends as an adult. Making friends seems to be primarily about playing together. In school you have time to play and you have people your same age with the same schedule as you who you can make time to play with. Making friends then is as simple as saying - wanna come play at my house? As an adult I keep inviting potential friends over to play and we keep running into scheduling conflicts. It sucks.

I am determined to succeed. I keep inviting and keep rearranging schedules. I think I am on the brink of having a regular roleplaying group on Friday nights. *fingers crossed* Something has gotta give. It has never taken me this long to make social connections anywhere else I've lived.

I am in self-improvement life-changing mode lately. There are a variety of things I am actively working on fixing.

Writing for example. I've been whining that I want to write, but not actually doing it. There aren't any good excuses - I mean yes, I've been busy, but when is that going to end? So I've written it into my weekly work schedule and so far (2 weeks) I'm keeping it up. I've got a nonfiction book proposal germinating, I'm trying to hold up my end on a collaborative gaming project with Doug, and I am going to blog more. Like I'm doing now.

As an addendum to the writing more thing, I'm also reading more. Can't really be good at one without the other.

Another thing that has to change is my eating habits. For one thing I just want to be a bit healthier. I want to have energy to do things like play tennis or go hiking with my Youth Group. For another thing I have long felt that there were some serious ethical issues with the way we eat in this country. Just watched Food Inc last night and had my convictions deepened. I'm living in a major hub of corporate agriculture, I may even do some educating in my congregation about our food system and how, well, bad it is.

Obviously, since I'm listing all this stuff I'm adding, I also have to give stuff up. In truth I'm giving up some time-wasting. I am surfing random sites less, reading fewer blogs, waking up earlier and stuff like that. My biggest chunk of time is less WoW. I was playing it quite a lot out of boredom. I've cut back to basically raid nights and another hour for some daily quests to get the gold I need to raid. On the work front I've just gotten more efficient at some aspects of my job giving me more time to do things like write.

If this all sounds overly optimistic - worry not, I will probably fail at several of these self-improvement projects. Most of these have been ongoing for the last several years. I've made progress in fits and starts and then fallen back and then picked it up again. Part of saying it publicly like this is to shame myself into sticking with it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy

Ever since a boy named Harry Potter blasted onto the scene the Young Adult publishing world has been on fire. Mainstream literature bores me. Romance, Crime, Mystery, Western & Horror are all genres that rarely catch my interest. I normally gravitate to Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but while there are some real stars out there (Neil Gaiman, China Mieville), there are many more producing slush (David Eddings, Terry Brooks).

Meanwhile the Young Adult category has come to be a place where any genre from romance to mystery to fantasy can go to be quietly reinvented in exciting ways. Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy is an example.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is the story of young girls and boys thrust into the role of protecting the world from dangers from beyond the grave. Nix writes with urgency and style. His characters, particularly the young female protagonists, are strong and compelling. The world the characters inhabit is mysterious and dark. He pulls you in with morbid curiosity. You desperately want to know what lies in the shadowy corners of this magical world and you know that it is going to be bad.

As is often the case in recent years, you need to ignore the "Young Adult" label here. These books are mature. They deal frankly and in depth with death, suffering, loss, and mortality. A frequent fantasy trope is the protagonist with a world-shaping destiny. Usually in such cases you are meant to feel pity for the protagonist, but it is difficult, because they get awesome powers, attention, fame and many other desirable things to compensate for the burden. In this series when one of the characters is forced to take on a task because of prophecy you genuinely weep for her. Nix makes all of his hero's pay to accomplish amazing things, and the price is never trivial.

One frequent complaint I have about fantasy novels is shallow magic. Too many authors treat magic as a story shortcut. It ends up feeling contrived and not at all magical. Not Nix. The magic in this story is wed to an entire metaphysical worldview which is consistent and more importantly beautiful. You never feel like magic is being used as a way of getting around story obstacles, nor is it mere flash and sizzle. Nix doesn't use magic as special effects. The magic is actually the basis of the story, and the more you begin to understand the magic, the more you realize how well it is all woven together.

This series is very good and I highly recommend it, but it isn't perfect. Nix sometimes rushes through things that need more space to breathe. He introduces a great many mysteries and story hooks which are insufficiently resolved in his hasty climax. I felt like he could easily have added 100 pages across the series in developing a few of the relationships and tying up loose ends. Perhaps he was writing to restrictions from the publisher, or perhaps he was so excited about his plot that he couldn't restrain himself. Either way it unfortunately diminishes the powerful impact his stories otherwise have.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Go Lutherans!

Justice marches on, as it sometimes does despite us.

Stupid Laws

It's appropriate on 4/20 to say that I am in favor of legalizing marijuana. It is less harmful than alcohol or a variety of over the counter medicines, to say nothing of prescription drugs with a much higher potential for misuse. The push to make it illegal came from the paper industry, not out of any noble desire for social purity. It's another failed experiment in prohibition.

In the same spirit there are a host of laws which are ostensibly about protecting society which I would repeal. These laws don't keep us safe. They don't improve our lives. At best these laws keep law enforcement busy and prisons full, but at the cost of criminalizing and disenfranchising large swaths of our society. A few examples:

#1 - Legalize sex-workers. The oldest profession is rampant and never going away. Criminalizing various forms of sex-work merely serves to enrich pimps and empower organized crime. The biggest benefit of legalization is that it then offers the possibility of regulation. Disease, violence, drug-addiction, trafficking, abuse of minors... we can tackle all of these problems when the women and men in this field can get legal protection.

#2 - Abolish Three-Strikes. Treating all felonies as if they were equal is a violation of one of the most important principals of justice - proportionality. Locking anyone away for life because of felony drug-possession is a travesty. These kind of laws do not deter crime, but rather lead to hopelessness and recidivism. Basing penal codes on sports metaphors is appalling.

#3 - Shut down the Sex-Offender Registry. People will probably think I'm crazy for defending pedophiles, but stigmatizing, isolating, and therefore punishing a person for life is wrong. Especially when you consider that public nudity can get you on this list right alongside the multiple rapist. The registry does nothing to keep people safe, but it does a great job of terrifying people and ruining the lives of those who are registered.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ordination Charge

Doug was ordained, believe it or not. Stacia made the awesome stole pictured at right. I gave the charge which went something like this:

Doug, you have been, since your childhood, a walker of worlds. You have explored the continents and oceans of secret planets and private universes, some of which you have shared with me, but some are known only to you. This is good. It will help you with what I am about to charge you with.

I charge you, Doug, to tell a story... or rather to live a story of two worlds. Two worlds that from the beginning have longed to be one.

I charge you to be a walker of both of these worlds. The one a realm of Shalom, where all is mended, all is full, all is joy and truth. The other... well, it's pretty good too.

But this is no mere hero's journey where you get to go through a wardrobe, have an adventure, and go back to exactly where you left off. This isn't even Frodo's story where you discover upon arriving back in the Shire that you are too changed to stay there anymore.

The story I am charging you to live isn't one where you go on a journey to a different place. It's one where God took two vastly divergent worlds and with wood, nails, chutzpah and blood hammered out a bridge between them. And now you've got to take people across that bridge and show them the world you have walked in. And you've got to teach them to build more bridges, and then shorten those bridges, and close that gap and bring those worlds together.

I charge you with making the fantastical actual.

I charge you with making the miraculous tangible.

I charge you with making one day right now.

Go, walker, and tell them that the consensual reality of the Technocracy can be bent and broken.

Go and show them how by laying down their swords they can confound and defeat Leviathan.

Go and teach them to believe that when they pray "Thy kingdom come" it actually does and we get that much closer to the day when every tear is wiped away.

As John says in his apocalypse:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I hear a loud voice from the throne saying:
"See the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away."

Go because this isn't a fairytale about a distant realm. This is the far country. Here there be monsters. But this is also our eternal home, for this is the very place where that other world is breaking through, and it falls to you to help peel back the barrier, to use your expertise as a walker of worlds, to show others the way, the truth and the life.

Go, walker, and may the Holy Spirit go with you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kung To The Pope

I haven't commented on the ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Church because it is too easy as an outsider to point fingers or be super self-righteous. Child abuse is a serious problem in society in general, not just in the Roman Catholic Church. My denomination is not exempt. A deep hypocrisy and credibility problem in the RCC is a problem for all Christians, not just those loyal to Rome.

All that is to say I think Hans Kung is exactly right in his recent open letter to Pope Benedict. Though I have no right to say what the RCC should do - I hope they listen to him.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Do You Want to Live A Beautiful Life?

This recent post, like many posts at Experimental Theology, is amazing. Definitely worth a read.

I love examples of evangelism that don't involve the usual cold-call, hard-sell method of manufacturing a fear (you will go to Hell!) and then calling for a knee-jerk reaction to that fear (I'll do whatever I have to do not to burn forever!). A colleague referred to this as "evangelism as fire insurance" and I think that was apt.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Lonely Hillside

I gave the following message with Rev. Greg Larsen at the community Good Friday service in Fort Morgan, CO yesterday. He played his guitar, finger picking behind the spoken segments, then sang verses of Harry Chapin's "The Shortest Story" at the points indicated.

Jesus labored up the side of Calvary Hill with his burden of timber on his back. Stinging from the whips, wilting in the heat, facing a humiliating, excruciating death among criminals, while those he loved abandoned him. He walked on.

Generations of Christians since have proclaimed this ugly moment, this black tragedy, as Christ’s moment of glory. We have asserted that he died once for all. That his death ended enmity and strife and ushered in God’s peace. But the crosses keep being built on the hilltops…

Verse 1
I am born today, the sun burns its promise in my eyes;
Mama strikes me and I draw a breath and cry.
Above me a cloud softly tumbles through the sky;
I am glad to be alive.

Not us, we think, and we say. We wouldn’t be with the crowd chanting ‘crucify’. We wouldn’t be with Peter denying we knew the man bound for death. We won’t and we don’t put people on crosses.

But while we say this millions are imprisoned. Millions more are living in war zones. Still millions more go hungry while we finish our lunch.

Before Jesus was arrested he told his disciples that one day he would come and say “You who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Verse 2
It is me seventh day, I taste the hunger and I cry;
my brother and sister cling to Mama's side.
She squeezes her breast, but it has nothing to provide;
someone weeps, I fall asleep.

As Jesus hung from the cross in his final moments he had the strength to forgive his persecutors, and then he cried “It is finished.” – by which he meant everything. The whole world. The entire order of things by which we had lived until that point in which some gain only while others lose. The system of violence and oppression, the division between peoples, the need for crosses on hillsides… it is all finished. Forever.

We make Christ a liar each time we build a new cross for the impoverished, the outcast, and our enemies.

Jesus said his invitation would be answered, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

Verse 3
It is twenty days today, Mama does not hold me anymore;
I open my mouth but I am too weak to cry.
Above me a bird slowly crawls across the sky;
why is there nothing now to do but die?

They cut him down and threw him in a tomb. They were done with him, but he is not done with us. He is still crying out that “It is finished,” hoping we will hear before we put another cross up. Before another child dies neglected. Before another bomb goes off. Before another person goes hungry, sits lonely in a prison cell, or spends another winter on the street.

We would not crucify the Christ we say. And he replies, “Truly I tell you whatever you do to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me."

Friday, April 2, 2010

Morbidity and Good Friday

After my post about dwelling in the story of Easter this will make more sense.

It is my experience that most Christians either accidentally or intentionally skip or diminish Good Friday.

It is skipped by all those who simply don't observe it in any fashion. They go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, greatly diminishing the entire story. Imagine if Star Wars leapt straight from rescuing Leia to the Award Ceremony after the destruction of the Death Star. Yeah, boring.

It is diminished by those who blend Good Friday into Easter or simply bring too much cheer into what is really quite a black day. Some pastors do this because they worry about getting maudlin or morbid and so they are quick to remind everyone that all the bad stuff which happens today is resolved in Resurrection.

I think it is important, on Good Friday, that we dwell on the crucifixion for the reasons I've stated, but this leaves me open to the charge of morbidity. I don't think it's a petty charge at all. My sister stays away from the church primarily because she finds it morbid. I myself find certain approaches to handling the crucifixion off-putting because they seem to do more than merely acknowledge the gruesome situation - they almost fetishize it. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ is an example of Christian torture-porn which I do not approve of.

It is a delicate balance in my estimation. I want to maintain an unflinching focus on the horror of crucifixion, highlight and even dramatize the human sin, the destructive violence, and the carnal reality of God in flesh dying on a cross. Somehow this gaze has to retain its original naivete and not become too desensitized, nor sensationalized.

Let no one ever come away from one of my sermons imagining that I approve of the violence even in the dim recesses of my subconscious. It is not aesthetically beautiful. It is hideous. And not hideous in a tragic way which nearly becomes beautiful. It isn't hideous in an exotic and interesting way, either. It is mundane brutality if there can be such a thing. Banal, bloody, and basic. Christ on the cross isn't an icon of transcendent suffering. He is exactly like the two thieves beside him - a hunk of meat skewered and left to bleed out.

It is the perfectly ordinary and base way that he dies which makes the christian claim that the cross is the pivot on which the history of the world turns so remarkable. If Jesus died by having his head torn off by a Golden Eagle while his entrails were removed with golden hooks in the hands of blind albino eunuchs you could see why it would cause a stir. As it is, he died a petty bandit, in the company of petty bandits, via ordinary state execution methods. Who remembers the last person to get a lethal injection in their state? Will you remember in a year? In 2000 years?