Monday, May 31, 2010

"Freedom Isn't Free"

In reflecting on this Memorial Day, I find myself contrasting two very distinct kinds of freedom.

Freedom A (American Freedom)
The first kind of freedom is the kind of freedom that we can rightly celebrate on Memorial Day. It is the kind of freedom that people must both kill and die for. Around 7 thousand American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, around 30 thousand US wounded, and by the very lowest estimates out there, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed.

This kind of freedom which we celebrate has a price - and it is primarily a price that our enemies pay. That is, we ultimately exact the price from others, even as some courageous few pay the price themselves.

Freedom B (Christian Freedom)
This is the kind of freedom that we talk about in church, and it is an entirely different kind of freedom in every way. This is the freedom we find when we are able to die to sin and to be raised with Christ. It is the freedom of giving up our lives in order to find true life. This freedom demands every shred of courage that going into battle demands, but what it does not demand, what it never demands, is that we would harm another person.

Just as most of us never go into battle for the first kind of freedom, to kill and to risk death, most of us never truly have the courage to fully find the second kind of freedom, which comes on the other side of a kind of death.

In both cases, I find I can respect great courage in the face of death and sacrifice without trouble. I do not have that kind of courage, and I can honor those who do.

It is much harder to honor the courage it requires to kill, however. And when I am called upon to honor those who "paid the price" for American Freedom, my sorrow also goes toward the many who paid that price but are never found in veterans' cemeteries or memorials - the civilians who always die in greater numbers than soldiers in modern war, and those we called enemy, who our young men and women killed for the sake of American Freedom.

In both cases, if we are to find Christian Freedom at all, we must find it in ourselves to love those who paid the price, soldiers included, but also civilians on both sides and our enemies.

In other words, as long as we cannot love our enemies, we will never be free in the way Christ gives freedom, but only the false freedom that the loaded gun can bring.

And the price of loving our enemies - which may cost our very lives - is one no one else can pay for us.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Neil Gaiman Mythologian

You know what life needs more of? Giants, dragons, gods, magic, alternate worlds, rainbow bridges, clever traps, illusions, and narrow escapes. I only stopped that list because otherwise that list would go on for the rest of this post.

Life needs these things not because of what they are, but because of what they represent. Neil Gaiman gets that and he doesn't merely write stories with giants in them he writes stories that tell you what giants mean and in so doing what life means. He is a mythologian.

I recently read Odd And The Frost Giants in about an hour and am now reading it aloud to Avery. It is so astonishingly pure. It is a reading experience akin to eating a handful of snow on a mountaintop far from any city or road. You think to yourself 'that is what snow tastes like'. This book is what stories taste like.

If you need more giants in your life - and you do - go pick this up at your nearest library and instantly improve any afternoon.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shun Security

A Baccalaureate Address for the 2010 graduating class of Fort Morgan High School.

Luke 12:15-34

I’m going to tell you something that your parents, mentors, and guardians would probably rather you didn’t hear. It’s okay because they’ve got the advantage on me. They’ve been giving you advice your entire life and they’ll get to keep on doing it long after today when you will have completely forgotten this meddlesome sermon. It’s also okay, because I am also a parent, so I know of what I speak.

Here it is, my reckless, unfashionable, irresponsible, downright crazy advice to you, graduates: Shun Security. Don’t spend 1 more minute of your life trying to be safe. Don’t waste energy worrying about your comfort. Don’t put money and resources into protecting your future. And never put your own life before the life of another.

I confess I feel a little guilty telling you this because up till now it is probable that adults have gone to extraordinary lengths to make you feel safe. Or at least they should have. That is their job as parents, teachers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and so on. They have tried very hard to get you to this day, healthy and whole. Many of them probably harbor dreams that you will lead a life better than the one they have had in terms of comfort and security. They want you to have a better education, a better job, a better house, and a better retirement than they have.

But you are bright individuals. By now most of you have seen behind the curtain and realized that life is not safe. Despite the best efforts of adults, danger has gotten through and you might be aware that we adults are afraid of an awful lot of things.

We’re afraid the stock market is going to come crashing down and wipe out our pension. If we have a pension. Cause if we don’t then we’re afraid of what happens when we get too old to work. Or our health starts to fail us, and that makes us afraid of the health care system. We’re afraid to take medications because of side effects and we’re afraid of not having medications. We’re afraid of surgery and we’re afraid of not getting the surgery we need soon enough to stop the spread of the cancer that also terrifies us.

We’re afraid of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes. We’re afraid that hail and heavy rain will ruin this year’s crop, or else we’re afraid that no rain will come at all. We’re afraid of global warming, or cooling, rising sea-levels, and disappearing glaciers. Or we’re afraid of scientists and politicians and experts pulling the wool over our eyes with fancy charts and numbers.

We’re afraid of terrorists, and drug czars, and cartels and dirty bombs, and other scary sounding words we hear on the news. We’re afraid of corporations and wall street and bankers, and we’re afraid of what would happen to our economy without corporations and wall street and bankers.

Every day of your life, in the back of our minds, we adults have been afraid for you. That any of these things from Asthma to Swine Flu to pedophiles might harm you or take you from us. Every time you scraped your knee or didn’t call home at curfew or studied too little, or studied too much, or had too few friends, or had too many friends… we worried. Because we wanted you to be safe.

And though this is a natural desire it is also tragic, because safety is an illusion. Despite all of the advertisements to the contrary there is no diet which will make you immune to heart attacks and cancer. There is no foolproof investment plan that will make you immune to a bad economy. There is no strategy to get you through life that will guarantee comfort, or longevity, or security. There just isn’t.

Like the farmer in the parable we heard read earlier – we build bigger barns and silos to hold the grain we’ve stored up, only to discover that our time has come and all the grain in the world won’t buy us another year. Security is an illusion – an elaborate, expensive, time-consuming illusion.

The worst thing about chasing the illusion of security is that along the way we do a lot of harm to other people. In the interest of protecting ourselves and our loved ones from danger we run roughshod over the vulnerable in our society. We make enemies and we go to war against those enemies and ironically we only feel less safe the more this continues. Struggling mightily to create for ourselves an illusory shroud of security we are continuously confronted with equally illusory dangers. Unable to tell the real dangers from the fake danger we see all around us, we tighten up or lash out ever more in a deadly and completely avoidable downward spiral of fear.

Fear, more than any other emotion, defines our culture these days, and I think it is high time for a culture-shift. I want you to live free from the fear that has plagued the generations ahead of you and this is the secret – to shun security; to let go entirely of the illusion that you, or anyone else for that matter, can make yourself safe; to realize that there are things which are much more desirable than safety and getting those things entails joyful risk, self-sacrifice, and an openness of spirit which fear will kill.

Here is something which is more desirable than security – beauty is more desirable than security. Not physical beauty. Not sexiness. Not the stuff they sell on magazine covers – I mean real beauty. The kind of beauty that makes some things Art and some things just things. The kind of beauty that cracks open your soul and makes you grateful to be alive. If you have art in you waiting to be given life, I want you to Shun Security. Don’t do the safe thing and become an accountant. Take risks for beauty.

Here is something else which is more desirable than security – Peace. Not peace enforced at gunpoint. Not the fake peace which is just fear of someone with a bigger arsenal than you. The kind of peace which comes from within and heals wounds and bridges gaps and increases understanding between people. The hard kind of peace which means saying I’m sorry, and I forgive you, and being willing to turn the other cheek rather than seek retribution. If you have the capacity to understand and forgive then I want you to Shun Security. Don’t do the safe thing and keep to yourself. Go where the suffering and the violence are and take risks for peace.

Here is something else which is more desirable than security – Love. Not infatuation. Not even romance, per se. I mean the kind of love which means giving yourself for other people. The kind of love which saves lives and souls because of its crazy generosity. The kind of love which lifts people out of distress and hopelessness, and shows them the impossible truth which is that there is more good in a single human heart than all the evil and all the injustice the entire history of humanity can muster. If you have love in you waiting to be shared I want you to Shun Security. Don’t do the safe thing and give only what you think you can afford. Give everything you have and everything you are and take risks for love.

Shun security. If the world is telling you to be less generous you need a bigger bank account – ignore it. Safety isn’t worth the loss of your kind heart.

Shun security. If the world is telling you to give up your passions and do the responsible thing – ignore it. Safety isn’t worth the loss of your creative soul.

Shun security. If the world is telling you there are problems too big for you to solve, and dangers too terrible to be risked – ignore it. Safety isn’t worth the loss of will to overcome.

Shun security. If after this baccalaureate people tell you I’m way off-base and you need to be realistic and take care of yourself first – ignore it. Safety isn’t worth the loss of your spirit of adventure.

Life isn’t safe. You haven’t been safe one day of your life so far, and you won’t be safe a single day from here on out. Shun Security and go for the things that really matter, and rejoice that you have been given the courage to do so. The world will forever be in your debt.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Ancient and Medieval Thesis: The World is in Continual Decay

My fanaticism around Middle-Earth and all things Tolkien is well-documented, and over the years I've steadily absorbed information about the subject. I have also been influenced by it. Middle-Earth is supported by a deep and complex system of assumptions about the world which is sort of gathered together out of Tolkien's medieval studies as well as his Roman Catholicism.

There is the Kalevala, eddaic literature, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Old and New Testaments (he knew some Greek and Hebrew), Thomas Aquinas and so much more all buried in there, as well as his own syntheses of these many influences in his own thought in ideas like mythopoetics, eucatastrophe, and what is the best thought on fantasy and "fairy stories" to date.

One of the assumptions that suffuses Middle-Earth is that history is the story of a long decline. It was a common assumption of medieval times that the greatness of the past could never be replicated in the present and that the "march of history" is in fact a story of slow, inexorable decay.

Our technological achievements might lure us into dismissing this out of hand, but I am not fully convinced that the corollary is true - that history is a story of steady progress.

Hand in hand with all of our achievements is our growing capacity for abject destruction. Now, I won't get into this argument because it has been said before. We've been shocked aware by two world wars and the threat of nuclear holocaust (weapons only the US has been willing to use, sadly and interestingly) and since the "march of progress" argument has rung a little hollow now and then. For every civil rights victory in the US there is an expansion of child sex slavery or repressive religious regimes or, frankly, a US-sponsored right-wing overthrow of an elected government.

What we don't seem to develop is the moral sensitivity to use our technology wisely. And never before has one nation been able to kill everyone, everywhere, many times over. Is that progress toward anything but absolute ruin? If so, I don't see it.

Perhaps we are heading toward some kind of turn, some realization that has been slowly and secretly building over time. Perhaps we have already set in motion mechanisms which will inevitably destroy us.

Either way, as I have been doing research and listening to lectures on Tolkien's work, and encounter this Medieval paradigm of decay over time again and again, I can't say I have a strong rebuttal ready. We have medicine and technology and information but most of the people on planet Earth don't have access to them anyway. A third of them don't have enough food or clean water. And I'm not clear that we haven't, in aggregate, created more problems than we can solve.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

By Contrast With Idolatrous Holidays

The crusader who originally got congress to declare Mother's Day back in 1870, Julia Ward Howe, wrote this: "A Mother's Day Proclamation"
Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly...
"Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Another Day of Sectarianism and Idolatry

Today is National Day of Prayer. This holiday is a mistake. There are ways it could be celebrated that I would potentially support. There are Biblical approaches to this holiday which would at least prevent it from being outright idolatry, but the way that the holiday actually is observed is not something I can support at all.

First the reasons why you should not observe this holiday:

1. It is an infringement on secularism. We are a secular republic and the state should not be in the business of lifting up any particular religion over another. Though the holiday is vague enough it could apply to a variety of faiths, in practice it is dominated by Christians. Last year every other prayer at the event held in City Park in my town included something about this being a "Christian Nation." Increasingly, secularism is also understood to mean not lifting up religiousness over a-religiousness. Even if the holiday were perfectly pluralist it would still be infringing on atheists who are part of our nation.

2. As it is usually practiced it is idolatrous. It is possible to pray "for the nation" in a way that is not idolatrous, but to lavish praise, swear an oath of allegiance, kiss or salute or otherwise honor symbols of patriotism and national pride like the flag, or refer to the United States or any nation as somehow uniquely important to God, belonging to God or held in special esteem by God is idolatry. God is not American. In fact, God is steadfastly against national identity, ethnic divisions, divisions of class, and gender. God is busily working to unite all people and the powers and principalities are God's implacable opponents in this world. It is doubtful that any kind of prayer, but a prayer of repentance is appropriate for a nation state.

3. The kinds of prayers which would be appropriate on a "National Day of Prayer" from a Christian perspective, are necessary all the time. Prayers of repentance. Prayers for justice. Prayers for peace. Prayers for the end of nations and the inauguration of the kingdom. We should be praying like that all the time, and we should definitely not be praying on a schedule dictated by congress and signed into law by the president. If anything we should be calling for Christians nationwide to hold prayer vigils around the anniversary of wars and actions that our country needs forgiveness for. We should call for non-participation of Christians in holidays like this one which serve to buoy national pride and entrench parochialism. National Day of Prayer, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, President's Day... these are days for us to boycott, not observe.

Now an approach to the holiday which would win my tepid support (not overcoming all my objections, but a start):

1. National Day of Prayer as a day of atonement. If we assembled prepared for mourning and repentance, dressed in sackcloth as it were, and did so in open areas devoid of any symbol of national pride or identity; if at such an assembly we said aloud and forcefully our many sins - the wars we have waged and are waging, the injustices of our economic system, the division of classes and racial and gender inequalities in our society, the fearful grasping after security, and failure to trust God's providence, the perpetuation of our identity over against imaginary "enemies" and the hatred of those enemies we have created - THEN we would be on the right path.

2. Following our rehearsal of our sins, we would hear from the prophets of the Old Testament warning the nation of Israel that God held them in no special regard, but would judge them for failing to be a light in the world. We would remind ourselves that God in Jesus calls the entire world to communion and we have no business coming to that table as Americans, or Brits, or Chinese, or Russians.

3. Finally, we would pray that God would forgive the sins of the whole world, end divisions and inaugurate an era of Shalom. We would repent of any national allegiance and vow never to take up arms against a neighbor so that we might have a place in that new world. Then we would go home weeping, knowing that it was too little too late.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another Closeted Bigot

Meet George Alan Reker. He is a former professor, and a big time activist in anti-gay circles. He was on the founding board of the Family Research Council with James Dobson. He has been an "expert" witness in testimony before congress, an adviser to the White House, and in the Florida ban on gay adoption. He speaks all over the world on teen sexuality and "Gender Identity Disorder". He has of course said that the Bible is the infallible word of God and homosexuality is a sin. He is also a humongous hypocrite.

You see he recently returned from vacations to Europe and Bermuda with a young male prostitute called "Lucien" for the purposes of anonymity. He initially said he'd brought Lucien along to carry his luggage since he'd recently had surgery, but since he found Lucien on a site called Rentboys (NSFW) where he had to scroll through a number of pornographic images and videos to find a candidate several pages in advertised as having a "perfectly built 8 inch cock" and "up for anything" as long as you pay the thousands of dollars per day a boy from this site costs plus all travel expenses... that is a very expensive porter.

Mr. Reker later added that it was for evangelism purposes. In other words he, a 61 year old man, scanned through pages and pages of pornography to pick out a 20 year old male prostitute to pay thousands of dollars to go to exotic locations to... convert him.

Look, I don't care what Mr. Reker did or didn't do in those joint hotel rooms in Bermuda and Spain with Lucien. Reker can join the long list of bigoted hypocrites who have been exposed like Paul Cameron and Ted Haggard. No surprise really. These men believe against all evidence and common sense that homosexuality is a terrible disease which can be cured by lunatic methods. It is evident that they are themselves very sick.

No, what concerns me is the huge number of Christians who despite constant overwhelming evidence and the repeated blatant hypocrisy of their brightest lights and leaders will continue to regard organizations like NARTH as respectable and continue to peddle the same bull to the great harm of LGBT people everywhere, and the shame of Christians around the world.

What makes all of this more disgusting is that I will get told I am abandoning the gospel and ruining the church because I want gay people to be able to visit their loved ones in the hospital or dedicate their lives in service to Christ through ordained ministry, while people will make all sorts of excuses for those who want to be able to buy barely legal sex-workers a third their age, and snort crystal meth off of their chiseled abs.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Penny Arcade and Drugs

This is kind of fantastic, and if you are curious about depression, worth watching. It also features Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade for the geeks out there.