Saturday, April 30, 2011

up against the wall

I am reconsidering my choice of career.

I don't mean my decision to become a minister or spiritual leader. I am given repeated examples that I do that well and seem to be uniquely qualified by my past to help people recognize the hopefulness surrounding us. at the same time, of course, I'm very conscious it's unlikely I can make a living doing only that, at least among unitarian universalists.

no, what I'm reconsidering is teaching.

let me be more specific: teaching is honorable and good. I've always considered myself pretty good at it, too, maybe especially so. and I've had scores of students who credit me with their new appreciation of reading or writing or learning, and there are few things more exciting to me than listening to someone argue himself into realizing something he hadn't before. my mentor in grad school, bill dyer, used to tell me the aim of teaching was to make everyone feel like the smartest person in the room, and if I haven't always hit that mark I've still aimed for it.

but I'm tired. I'm 50 years old and realizing that to remain in academe requires me to hustle every single semester for the next one. after 10 years and nearly as many interviews--there are so few positions out here--I've come to think of something for the 1st time or at least to put it this way for the 1st time.

I know a lot of very good tenured teachers. I know a lot more mediocre tenured teachers. I even know several lousy tenured teachers. I know a lot of lousy and mediocre non-tenured teachers. besides me, I don't know any very good non-tenured teachers. I'm humble enough to wonder whether thinking I could be the only one I'm familiar with is self-delusion.

I know there's a good reason to believe in oneself and I know that many of my students will argue that it's not just a question of good: I know I've opened things in them (and in myself) that no one else could and that can't be discounted or forgotten. it's hard to explain. I know I teach well and there are some people I can teach that other people can't. the image of one prison student suddenly understanding how satan is damned in paradise lost in the middle of a statement that started out a question is one I'll take to my grave, and I flatter myself no one else could have helped him get to that point. I know I've been there to help a few lives change drastically and for the better.

but I've also watched people move around and in front of me when it comes to full time positions. I don't begrudge them that, I know they're talented and have worked hard for their positions and deserve them. I'm not questioning whether I've worked hard or my talent: I'm questioning whether my talent is enough to deserve a position.

maybe it's as shallow as this: at 50 I'm aware I've hit the wall beyond which I'm simply too old to start a career and the best I can do is operate at the fringes of it where I know I'll never make enough money to afford allowing my wife to quit the job she hates or for us to retire. I live a better life than I expected to and I know there are a lot of people who live worse lives, so I don't want to sound like I'm bemoaning anything. when it comes to world population, I'm in the top percentage purely through accident of birth and the chances I've been given. I've been lucky I've been allowed to butt my head against the wall of education for a decade. but I'm in exactly the same position I was in in 2000 except with a better reputation and a sore head. a definition of craziness is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. maybe it's time to stop ramming my head against the wall.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

easter sunday sermon

this was today's easter sermon. I hadn't intended to post it --it's essentially a rewrite of another sermon I gave in 2006--but it received such a good reception at church I decided it was worth it.


In his movie Dogma, Catholic filmmaker Kevin Smith creates the ultimate Jesus icon in his new image for the Church: Buddy Christ, a winking, broadly smiling Jesus pointing to the viewer and giving him a big thumbs-up. This image was completely in keeping with the message of Dogma itself, in which Smith suggested that Christianity had become a happy-face, good-feeling repository of moneymaking and canons and rules to the detriment of the sheer joy we ought to feel at being alive.

My aunt Myrtle, a Bible-thumping, god-fearing woman of the old school, who objected to card playing as the Devil’s playground, and whose youngest son became a fire and brimstone preacher in her image, refused to have depictions of Jesus in her home. I remember staying with her one summer when I was about 9, and her railing against the Bible I’d been given to bring out to the farm to take with me to her church. My mother had given it to me, thinking it would show her sister that her own branch of the family hadn’t completely given up on religion—even if my parents had become Seventh-Day Adventists, their generation’s version of the Moonies—but the offending object had illustrations, and illustrations of Jesus moreover, and everyone knows illustrations are a form of idolatry, and when illustrations are combined with depictions of god or Christ or the saints, then you’ve got heresy. And my aunt Myrtle certainly wasn’t going to allow heretics in her house. The next thing you knew, we might start dancing. I kept the Bible in a box out on the porch for the duration of my visit, and used one of hers when we attended her thrice weekly services.

But what my aunt Myrtle and Kevin Smith have in common is that they both see Christ as a real, if supernatural, being. That’s lovely, but I think what’s lost in this, and indeed lost among the depictions of Jesus in both secular popular culture as well as in religious culture, is the reality of Jesus not as the Christ, as the Savior or the Messiah or the Redeemer, but as a teacher. Small “t” teacher, like me, and like many of us here.

That there was a real Jesus is posited by many historians, and not just Biblical historians. Until the unveiling of the so-called James ossuary as a forgery, it was looked upon as the first tangible, physical relic relating to Jesus as a person living in time. But even without physical evidence, we do have written evidence of Jesus’ existence. Both Tacitus and Suetonius in their histories relate stories told third and fourth hand accounts of a teacher called Jesus whose followers had proclaimed him the Christ.

Now of course Jesus was a very popular name at that time, sort of the Near Eastern equivalent of “Bob,” and you couldn’t walk down a street without tripping over someone claiming to be the Messiah. But like Erik Reece points out, “Somebody, after all, spoke the Sermon on the Mount, or on the plain, or wherever it was spoken, and somebody told fascinating parables that explained nothing and left everything up to ‘he who has ears.’” The Jewish writer Josephus mentions him frequently, as does the Roman administrator Pliny the Elder. None of these writers, of course, had themselves seen him, as all had been born long after Jesus’ putative death; but Biblical scholars speculate, based on linguistic evidence, that the Gospel of John was narrated, if not by John himself, then by a contemporary who was familiar with the day to day lives of people at that time and the terminology of the working-people who were Jesus’ followers. For instance, the author tells the story of miracle of the loaves and fishes using the word opsarion rather than ichthus—“pickled fish,” suggesting a vat of them, rather than “single fish”—a detail that ruins the miracle aspect but makes the story itself more likely.

On the point of the miracles, I’ve often asked myself: Is it necessary to believe in a supernatural Jesus to be a Christian? I support that it does, but my reason is more etymological than theological. The word from which Christian comes, Christ, is a Greek word meaning Messiah, Anointed One. I quote here from Anthony O’Hear and Judy Groves: “Luke (7:37-50) tells of a repentant woman sinner, who comes to wash Jesus’ feet with tears, wipe them with her hair, kiss them and anoint them with oil…This episode suggests the anointing of a king—and possibly a super-human one…For the Jews, the ritual anointing of a king with oil was a sign of God’s choice of that king. By the time of Jesus, the title of Messiah had come to be applied to the future individual who would initiate God’s kingdom. Some Jews…expected the Messiah to be sent from heaven, from a previous existence by the side of God. This figure was known by the title customarily rendered in English as ‘the Son of Man.’ This title is used by Jesus in the Gospels over sixty times, far more often than that of Messiah, to which Jesus answers directly and unambiguously only in Mark’s account of his trial…[Throughout] the Gospels, Jesus renounces direct political ambitions. It is not just that his kingdom is not of this world, but…that the kingdom he is interested in will bring about the end of all earthly kingdoms, probably in the not too distant future.”

Hence, to call Jesus the Christ is to seem at least to reference his divinity from the outset, which is to say one accepts that, however much he may have taken on flesh—and there’s considerable debate among theologians and among Christians, which after all is hardly a monolithic religion, not only as to what that means but to what extent “taking on flesh” requires we accept a mortal Jesus—Jesus was a supernatural being. I can’t go along with that myself, and maybe it’s a failing in me or in my belief system, but that such a teacher was outside the human suggests that his teachings were themselves inhuman, if not in application then in origin. I don’t want to accept that Jesus’ teaching requires a divine imagination. It seems natural that our better selves would act this way. Besides, if we accept a Jesus who was divine, then he had nothing at stake. The betrayal, the humiliation, the mockery and the crucifixion—these would have no more lasting effect on him than a broken leg would for one of us. It hurts at the time, but we’ll get over it eventually. The author James Salter points out, “heroes are the ones who have something at stake.” For Jesus to be a hero, and I submit he is, he has to really have something at stake.

Twenty-five years ago I knew a Jesuit teacher, a right bald jolly old elf with blazing eyes and hair that came out of his ears like puffs of smoke, who gripped his lectern and gave what is, for me, the definitive definition of the humanity of Jesus: “If you do not believe in a Christ who defecated and urinated, who had wet dreams and scabby knees, who got sick so the snot ran out of his nose like a river, who puked his first time drinking too much wine, then you don’t believe in a Christ made flesh. You believe in a Christ made pretty.”

So I propose he’s human. This will require a new term for someone who follows his teachings but won’t go so far as to accept divinity or resurrection. I propose Rabbinicism, both to celebrate his Judaism—Jesus thought of himself as a Jew first and foremost, and often said his teachings were only for the Jews, which is a teaching probably not very popular with contemporary Christians—and his existence as a teacher.

In Christian theological terms this is a heresy called ebionism, the notion that Jesus is just one in a line of prophets and teachers whose number includes Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. When Jonathon Wilson, in his treatise God So Loved the World, wants to make light of this idea he notes that ebionists would place Jesus on about the same level, perhaps a little higher, than Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, and L. Ron Hubbard. Nonetheless, the notion of Jesus as an inspired human is appealing, and in his article in Harper’s magazine discussing both Thomas Jefferson’s The Life of Jesus and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Erik Reece condenses Jesus’ teachings to a short list:

• Be just; justice comes from virtue, which comes from the heart.
• Treat people the way we want them to treat us.
• Always work for peaceful resolutions, even to the point of returning violence with compassion.
• Consider valuable the things that have no material value.
• Do not judge others.
• Do not bear grudges.
• Be modest and unpretentious.
• Give out of true generosity, not because we expect to be repaid.

Even three of the Gospel writers note that Jesus’ message can be condensed. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we read something similar to the following: A lawyer was listening to Jesus teaching and stood up, saying, “Rabbi, what’s the Great Commandment?” Now many contemporary Christians argue this was a trick to display Jesus’ ignorance or his self-aggrandizement, although what the lawyer was expecting to hear isn’t said. And Jesus answered, “Love the lord your god with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Everything the law says and everything the prophets said hangs on these two commandments.”

This is a remarkably appealing set of criteria, and perhaps if this were all he’d taught, I might be a Christian. My wife has often said of me that I’d make a terrific Christian if it weren’t for all the Christ stuff. That’s probably true—I’m very resistant to the idea of a divine Jesus, or, at the risk of self-aggrandizement, a Jesus who can lay greater claim to divinity than I can. After all, if we are playing on entirely different fields, how can we be said to be playing in the same game?

To be honest, I think it’s much easier to believe in a supernatural Jesus, a Christ, a Redeemer and Messiah, because it effectively lets us off the hook. I mean, of course Jesus could believe these things and act in this way. He was the Son of God, after all. That suggests that, not bearing divine lineage ourselves, we don’t have to aim for the same bar.

Reece goes on: “In all his teachings, the Jesus that Jefferson recovers has one overarching theme—the world’s values are all upside down in relation to the kingdom of god. Material riches do not constitute real wealth; those whom we think of as the most powerful, the first in the nation-state, are actually the last in the kingdom of God; being true to one’s self is more important than being loyal to one’s family; the Sabbath is for men, men are not for the Sabbath; those who think they know the most are the most ignorant; the natural economy followed by birds and lilies is superior to the economy based on Caesar’s coinage or bankers who charge interest.”

Again, tremendously appealing. You probably recognize this recapitulation of the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, it leaves out some of the other things, the prohibitions against divorce—well, right there I’m damned—against lust—damned again—or against laying aside fruits for tomorrow—I used to do that and if I continued I’d still be living in a van down by the river.

Some of you are old enough to remember sermons from other Christian churches that were popular in the past titled “Jesus, Our Contemporary,” and there’s even a book by Thomas Alitzer also called The Contemporary Jesus. But Jesus is certainly not our contemporary. Some of his teachings—that a man who has lusted in his heart has already committed adultery (that the thought is equal to the action), that to marry a divorced woman is to commit adultery, or that one should turn one’s cheek to someone who has already buffeted one once—these are not lessons that have modern applicability, or at least not applicability to the world in which we find ourselves today—and I’d speculate not so much to the world Jesus found himself in—and would make contemporary life difficult and perhaps, in the case of the last one of these, short. Jesus is not our contemporary.

But there’s a lot to be learned from him. If he isn’t our savior and he isn’t our contemporary and he isn’t, dare I say it, contra George W. Bush, a political philosopher—that “turn the other cheek” stuff pretty much makes a hash of foreign policy—then what is he? My answer: teacher. And like so many of our own teachers, some of what he teaches is adaptable to our lives and some not so much.

Jesus has great wisdom to share. Enjoy being alive. Treat everyone the way you’d like to be treated. Don’t put up with wickedness. If something needs doing, do it, even if it’s not your job or you aren’t the best equipped for it or even if you might get hurt. I have my own variation of one of Jesus’ teachings: A man’s is walking along the road one day and isn’t looking where he’s going and drops down into a hole. The sides are too slick for him to climb out and there’s nothing in the hole for him to stand on. He looks up and notices a theologian walk by. He yells, “Hey, buddy, can you help me out of this hole?” And the theologian looks down at him and says, “You obviously didn’t get put there so you must have done it yourself, so there really isn’t anything I can do. You’ll have to find your own way out.” And he scurries off. A little bit later a senator walks by and the man yells, “Hey, buddy, be a pal and get me out of this hole will you?” And the senator looks down at him and says, “This will obviously cost money. I’ve only got so much expenditure and it’s already earmarked for various road-fixing projects. This one will just have to wait for the next upturn in the economy.” And he scurries off. The man is really despondent now. He looks up and notices a teacher walking by and he gives it another try. He yells, “Hey, buddy, can you help me out of this hole?” And the teacher says, “Sure,” and jumps down into the hole with him. The guy is apoplectic. “What are you doing? I asked you to help me get out of here and here you jump in. Now we’re both stuck in this hole.” And the teacher says, “Yeah, but I’ve been here before and I know the way out.”

Just as no teacher is ever always right, but her mistakes and learning from them make him the better teacher, perhaps Jesus’ human fallibility is his most important lesson. This, rather than miracles or his relationship with god or arguments about eternity or everlasting life, is what we ought to remember Jesus for: that being human is not only enough, it is the best we can aspire to be.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

my worst essay?

last week my wife commented on a recent essay, "I think this is the worst essay I've ever written in my seminary career," and a friend noted, "technically, you've got to have a worst essay anyway so you might as well get it out of the way." he's absolutely right about that and this little story is intended to introduce the following, which I think is my worst essay of my seminary career, researched and written over about 24 hours after realizing sunday morning that it was due.


Context: I’m a product of the punk movement. My spiritual awakening came, not in a church or through a Bible reading or even in sitting zen, but in dancing alone on a southern summer evening to a scratchy tape of X’s Los Angeles album roaring out of a dusty boombox hotwired to the radio of the car I was living in. In that moment I saw myself as a part of everything and everyone, perhaps not in harmony with it all but in intimate relationship with it nonetheless.
Much of my ministry focuses on the marginalized—the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill—for whom some religion and scripture has a lot to offer if it’s relevant and presented on their terms. I look at my experience a few years ago, in CH 161, upon learning that it was possible to interpret the Exodus from the perspective of the wanderer who has come off the road, as a breakthrough I needed and am excited by.

My current ministry is divided between being a teacher and interning as a minister, and a lot of the people I work with in both cases are kids in their late teens. For them scripture is dry, it carries the weight of official interpretation, and is heavily judgmental, especially as against them and the people they know. For years I‘ve taken it as my responsibility, when I work with scripture from any faith tradition, to find as near a contemporary approximation of that original scripture as possible (allowing for a little tweaking when necessary). It’s rare, in my Unitarian Universalist context, for me to be called on to explicate a psalm, but I can envision using Psalm 46 and its contemporary corollary to reinforce a congregant’s feelings of safety and well-being.

Exegesis: Coming near the beginning of Book II of the Psalms, the so-called “Elohist Psalter” (“so named because it uses the generic name for God [Elohim] which has been systematically substituted throughout these Psalms for the proper name, Yahweh” [Caresko 287]), 46 is an example of what Kathleen Farmer (150), echoing Peter Craige (who credits it to Leo Krinetzki [:342]), calls a Psalm of Confidence: such psalms “present the community of faith with the bases from which succeeding generations of worshippers learn to recognize and to trust in the present involvement of God in their lives…[They] invite readers to recall their own previous experience of God’s steadfast love in their lives” (150).

Unlike a lament or a psalm of praise, 46 opens with a bold statement: “God is our refuge and our strength” (:1). Singing such a statement places both the listener and the singer in a state of assurance in the authority of the assertion. This is reinforced by the repetition of the lyrics “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” in :7 and :11. As Patrick Miller rather inelegantly puts it, “The whole point of the psalm is wrapped up in [this] line” (:42). Farmer cites scholars who posit that the term “’alamot is a technical term referring to women’s voices and that the heading [to the psalm] indicates that the psalm should be sung by women. If so, then women in the community of faith that preserved this psalm are being encouraged to claim [‘God is with us’ {Farmer’s emphasis}. Thus,] when the psalms are sung by women’s voices, when women claim the traditions as their own, then the…’God of Jacob’ becomes the refuge and strength of women” (:146).

The psalmist reinforces the statement both with a greater assertion and concrete imagery. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (:2-3). This serves to locate in the psalm what Walter Brueggemann calls the social construction of reality: “The world mediated by the Psalter, amidst the tensions of Torah conditionality and Jerusalem unconditionality, is a world always at risk but on which the community gathered around the Psalter bets its entire destiny” (:288).

Miller points out that the psalm “envisages the possible chaotic breakdown of the natural world (vv. 1-3) and the nations (vv.4-7)—all of which is caught up in the several references to ‘earth’…One of the ways [the psalmist emphasizes God’s refuge] is in the three uses of the verb mut, meaning ‘to shake, totter’…In the first case it refers to the mountains shaking (mut) in the heart of the sea; in the third case it refers to the nations and kingdoms tottering (mut). But in between those two…the poet uses the same verb with a negative to say that the city wherein God is present shall not shake or totter [:5a]” (:42).

“God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved…The kingdoms are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts” (:5-6). While the world around them quakes and trembles, the people of God’s community take comfort in the steadiness that comes of trusting in God. Brueggemann further points out that this psalm is also a “Song of Zion”—emphasized by Craige as a certainty by “implied association” with references to “city of God” and “holy habitation” (:342)—in which the “temple is celebrated as the place of YHWH’s residence and therefore is the guarantee of the safety of the city and of all who reside there…In the Jerusalem temple, YHWH is celebrated as Creator and King [whose rule] is constituted in justice, righteousness, equity, and mercy…YHWH’s city is the place of the Davidic King, YHWH’s regent…” (:285-6). This “Jerusalem focus,” Brueggemann later asserts, illuminates the relationship of the temple to the Psalms’ theme of orientation-disorientation-new orientation (:288-90).

The final section of the psalm returns us to more traditional hymn territory: “Come, behold the works of the Lord…” (:8a), a call of praise, is again reinforced by the concrete references to “desolations” (:8b), to wars ceasing, bows breaking, spears shattered and shields burned. This martial imagery is juxtaposed with the more bucolic images of the second section: “a river whose streams make glad…” (4), “when the morning dawns” (:5b), and “the earth melts” (:6b, this last a translation of muwg “faint” and translated in Psalm 65:10 as “softening”). Zion, the city of God, is a beneficent, peaceful place for rest in contrast to the desolation and war of the outside world. To be a citizen of Zion is to “Be still, and know that I am God!” As verses 1-3 are orientation, and verses 4-7 are disorientation, this section is Brueggemann’s new orientation which “celebrate the new world that is given in YHWH’s powerful generosity. In such psalms…YHWH is credited with a radical novum in the life of the world that is not derived from antecedents but is a fresh ‘miracle’ of YHWH” (:290).

Lesson Outline: Punk is divided into several camps and the one I am in focuses on the DIY—do-it-yourself—method of getting one’s message across. The patron saint of this style of punk is Lou Reed, a secular Jew from Coney Island, New York. In contrast to ancient hymns such as Psalm 46 and more traditional takes on it such as Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a contemporary psalm must take into account the complexity people living in modernity experience. We cannot say with the Psalmist, without opening ourselves to charges of naiveté, that “God is our refuge and strength… [and therefore] we will not fear,” as if faith in God alone is shield enough against metaphoric and physical assaults. When the earth shakes and wars rage, God alone will not quench our fear.

A more modern poet like Reed can neither bring himself to believe fully in a beneficent God nor to assert that all one needs is acceptance of God. However, in his song “Busload of Faith,” Reed, probably unconsciously, echoes the Psalmist’s iteration that what’s needed in the midst of devastation is exactly that faith. Although Reed wouldn’t identify it as a faith in God, or only in God—and in fact in lines 6 and 19-22 he discounts traditional religion itself—he might identify it as something God-related, something innate in people that is at least as powerful as “cruelty, crudity of thought and sound” (:29-30). It’s faith in this Unnamed Element—call his song the same as Craige does Psalm 46, a Psalm of Confidence—that Reed has. Despite the concrete images of betrayal and violence in lines 9-14 and, heart-breakingly, in lines 17 and 18, and despite his avowal that “You can depend on the worst always happening,” it is this faith that allows us to “get by.” This is a song meant to comfort. It’s a cold comfort but, like a song of confidence in which one takes confidence by the desolation God brings “on the earth,” but cold comfort is comfort nonetheless. Sometimes getting by is as good as it gets.

“Busload of Faith”
Lou Reed

You can’t depend on your family
You can’t depend on your friends
You can’t depend on a beginning
You can’t depend on an end
You can’t depend on intelligence 5
You can’t depend on God
You can only depend on one thing
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can depend on the worst always happening
You can depend on a murderer’s drive 10
You can bet that if he rapes somebody
There’ll be no trouble having a child
And you can bet that if she aborts it
Pro-lifers will attack her with rage
You can depend on the worst always happening 15
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can’t depend on the goodly-hearted
The goodly-hearted made lampshades and soap
You can’t depend on the Sacrament
No Father, no Holy Ghost 20
You can’t depend on any churches
Unless there’s real estate that you want to buy
You can’t depend on a lot of things
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can’t depend on no miracle 25
You can’t depend on the air
You can’t depend on a wise man
You can’t find them because they’re not there
You can depend on cruelty
Crudity of thought and sound 30
You can depend on the worst always happening
You need a busload of faith to get by

• Brueggemann, Walter. (2003.) An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
• Ceresko, Anthony. (2005.) Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
• Coogan, Michael, editor. (2007.) New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Oxford University Press.
• Craige, Peter. (2004.) World Biblical Commentary, Volume 19: Psalms 1-50. Nelson Reference and Electronic.
• Farmer, Kathleen. (1998.) “Psalms” in Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, editors. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY.
• Miller, Patrick. (1986.) Interpreting the Psalms. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.
• Reed, Lou. (2000.) Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics. Hyperion, New York.

Monday, April 18, 2011

psalm 22 imagined

this is a mashup I've done for worship in tonight's older testament class. it took me roughly 2 hours to do it, a little longer than I'd expected, but I'm happy with the result.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

saturday night reading

"[poet and computer afficienado brian] christian goes on to make the subtler, poetic point that human talk is not just an exchange of axioms, or even of emotionally coded abbreviations, but an activity of compressed communication and the nimbleness with which we compress it--between our knowledge that in everything we say we have to leave out a lot of information for economy's sake and our ability to make that economy itself eloquent and informative. an ideal instance of compression in balance with concision. what sounds to the outsider limited and repetitive is to the knowing listener as nuanced as henry james. when one eleven-year-girl says to another eleven-year-old girl, 'so then, like, the teacher got all, like, all of you, I guess, are, like, going to have to do a, like, I don't know, a makeup test. so! like, yeah,' she means: 'the teacher, becoming heated'--that's why she 'got, like,' rather than 'said, like'--'announced, in effect, that many of us (I suppose, at a first approximation, all) will, at some point in, as it were, the near future, have to take what actually amounts to, when all is said and done, a secondary makeup test. I have indignant feelings about this--as who among us would not?--but I recognize their essential futility.' all of this is completely clear to the knowing listener, but it's been impossible, so far, to teach a machine to, you know, like, really, like, get it."

--from "get smart: how will we know when machines are more intelligent than we are?" by adam gopnik in the april 4, 2011, issue of the new yorker

Thursday, April 14, 2011

to mask and unmask

I've spent the past couple days wondering why I'm so interested in this issue. I've written on it several times in the past but I've no clear connection to it: I'm not muslim, I'm not a woman, and I'm not even french.

it doesn't entirely strike me as an unfair law, one which puts greater emphasis on 1 segment of society than on others: society has a legitimate interest in people not concealing who they are in public (although it's notable that such things as motorcycle helmets and traditional masked costumes are exempt from the law). a few years ago marvel comics made exactly this argument the basis for their year-long civil war event and a part of what made that a good storyline was the reality that such laws would have just such an impact on the fantasy worlds of masked superheroes.

but it also strikes me that there is a more fundamental right involved, and that is the obverse to the traditional argument that "your rights end at my nose." my rights extend to my nose (literally in this case). I should be able to dress as I want--or to be undressed if I want--so long as I opt out of those activities where society has a legitimate stake in making my identity public (driver's licenses and id cards, for instance). this is less a libertarian stance and more anarchic: anarchy doesn't devolve other people's rights but raises an individual's right (while not harming others) until the individual becomes the state.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

memorial homily

I was asked last week to officiate at the memorial service of a friend of the congregation where I'm interning. while I've done several funerals and memorials in the past, this was a hard 1 because it's the 1st where I didn't know the person. fortunately, her widower had written up a 3-page biography which he gave me at our meeting midweek to discuss arrangements. from that and our discussion I felt informed enough to write the homily below. I've redacted names for their privacy and because I've always wanted to be a victorian period writer.

"It’s a cliché to say that death comes for us all. But we often say that. We personify the unknown because it is unknown and to say of something as final as death that it as if it stalked us and hunted us down, as if otherwise we would live forever, is an effective way of making the grief we feel when others die more palatable.

"But that it’s a finality we all face is true nonetheless. We all die. That’s the thing about life; not one of us makes it out alive. If you’re familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of our reactions to grief then you know we experience bargaining, denial, anger, and finally acceptance. It seems acceptance is always the longest in coming and that’s probably because what we must finally accept is not only the deaths of our loved ones but the death of ourselves. From our earliest experiences, as babies watching our parents from the highchair, as preteens watching other people drive, as adult workers learning our jobs from someone else, we know that what we do is based in large part on what other people do. Our lives are intimately tied up in others, for better and for worse.

"When others die we’re tempted to think it’s for the worse. Someone we love, we’re accustomed to seeing or talking with regularly, someone whose face or voice or touch has become a given in our lives is gone now. The chair she sat in is empty. We grieve that emptiness. We will never get her back. It’s hard, grieving. It should be. Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed. Nothing will be the same and everything is all too familiar.

"If we’re fortunate, although we do finally face death alone, we don’t face life alone, and life is scarier. After all, we don’t know anything about death—it’s the last great unknown territory and it’s that very ambiguity that powers both our grief and our acceptance—but we know everything there is to know about being alive and what we know should scare the pants off us. Surviving is easy—breathe in, breathe out—but living is difficult.

"If we’re fortunate we collect companions to deal with this frightening life with us. We get them from multiple places—places as unlikely as Granite Falls or Willmar or Fremont, Nebraska, or a tent in Montana; places a little more likely like Hamline University, a water-skiing school in Nassau or miles above the earth aboard Northwest Orient airplanes; and places as life-altering for the individual as a German Army base in Bavaria or life-altering for others as The Open School in St. Paul. Take a moment to look around you. The results of such a collection can be seen here today.

"If it’s true that every person’s death diminishes us, then the opposite must be equally true: that every life expands us. It’s natural for an animal, when it’s hurt, to withdraw from others, to curl in on itself. If there is something that separates us from other animals, it’s this: That we gather together in painful times.

"We gather together to share grief. We gather together to pass love. We gather together to look into one another’s eyes and hug one another’s shoulders. We gather together to hold one another up. We gather together to mourn and cry. We gather together to celebrate life.

"H___ told me V___ liked to listen. She was a quiet, intense listener to other people. She was a born hostess, loving to cook decadent, complicated food for other people. She was a passionate teacher, and as with almost every teacher she couldn’t know all the lives she touched, lives she changed, lives she helped find meaning. In our meeting planning this memorial her son D___ said, offhandedly, 'She cooked up a good life for us.' We should all hope to have such a thing said of us after we die.

"In lieu of a spoken prayer I’ll ask you to take the hands of the people on either side of you. Feel the warmth of each other’s hands, the coolness of some, the moistness of some hands, the crisp dryness of others. Concentrate for a moment and you’ll find yourself feeling the insistent thrum of other peoples’ heartbeats. Our lives are as fleeting and as real as that sensation. We’re each allotted exactly the same amount of time: a lifetime. No more, no less. Enjoy it, it fades all too fast."

Friday, April 8, 2011

common as mud

I was asked to lead worship for my internship class by presenting a mashup I'd done previously, but I decided at the last minute yesterday that as I had a few hours free I would make an entirely new one focused on the topic for last night's discussion about the difficulties of being a leader during change.

the mashup needed to be about 10 minutes and I had completed the first half by the time I left inver hills for the afternoon, expecting to complete it at united seminary. unfortunately, the wireless system there is always in a state of flux and I was unable to access the internet for new images (I had already uploaded the clip from do the right thing that morning since I knew I would use it), and as a result I was left using a few images and final video already saved to my hard drive. still, I am very happy with the result. not bad for an eleventh hour puttogether whose message was essentially created on the spot.

I want to speak for a moment to the photo of bill and hillary clinton dancing. the emphasis on his muffintop and her cellulite suggest to me that it was not intended to be a flattering picture, but it strikes me as exactly right in its composition and in the attitudes on their faces that these are 2 people who love and respect 1 another and so are a good example of a pair of leaders in the midst of great change. as with mlk, their flaws make them identifiable. leaders involved in great change are seldom plaster saints.