Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year? We'll see about that.

Not being a big New Year's Eve partier, I'm at home for the evening, contemplating the year to come and the greeting typically exchanged on this evening.

Happy New Year?  In the United States it's going to be an election year, so probably not; at least the first ten-plus months promise to be quite unpleasant.  And to top it off, it's a leap year too, so there's an extra day of that joy.  In short, you're probably going to have to work to make it happy.

It's also an Olympic year, which makes some people happy.

For me, it promises to be equal measures of blissful enlightenment and outright befuddlement.  The exclamation "Oh, good Lord" may well be agonized or ecstatic, which I guess is a normal year.  I've been here just enough to know that I really don't know what's coming, and that's probably a good thing.  As long as the befuddlement does not too much outweigh the enlightenment, I guess I'm doing all right.

So, for all seven of you who read this blog, Happy New Year, wherever you are.

Friday, December 30, 2011


If you had told me five years ago that by now I'd be on Facebook, text regularly (if almost exclusively to my wife), and have a blog, I'd have first looked at you with a blank expression because I'm not completely sure I knew what any of those things were five years ago.  Once those things were explained to me I'd most likely have stared at you as if you'd suddenly sprouted alien tentacles from your nose.  Things do change, do they not?

I'm forty-six years old.  Not desperately old by any means (and not even that old to be on the fool's errand I'm on--I'm far from the oldest student here), but there's a good chance my life is more than half over, which is a jarring thought sometimes.  (For the record, I was born in February 1965, which if I have things right technically leaves me two months shy of being a baby boomer.  So there.)

In my teaching career I went from looking at classroom technology as mostly an opportunity for something to malfunction to being a regular user of PowerPoint for lectures (and sometimes I was even able to embed links in it!  Woohoo!) and able to use Blackboard to some degree, though probably not to the fullest extent that academic administrators probably hope.  I couldn't have taught popular music without YouTube, another thing I might not have understood five years ago.  (On the other hand, to the very end I was using long-playing records in class as well.  When you're into American music, not everything has migrated to mp3 yet.)

All of which is to say that while I'm not a complete technology failure, I'm probably a good five to ten years behind the curve most of the time, and that is probably a charitable estimate.  I'm not on Twitter, and a truly cutting-edge reader could probably rattle off maybe as many as a dozen technological innovations I haven't mentioned and conclude that I am hopelessly lame, which is probably true.

This is of course a challenge no matter what vocation one pursues, but it is a challenge of particular angst these days in ministerial circles, as the question of technological competency is inevitably linked to the latest missing generation in the church, the one born with iPhones attached to their index fingers at birth (or is an iPhone too hopelessly out of date?  I'm never sure).  The lamenting and angst and hand-wringing comes in several forms.

My current seminary in fact hosts a conference, every fall I believe, on this subject of technology and the church.  Of course, as any academic (professor or student) can tell you, hosting such a conference during the academic year can actually be the least beneficial thing for students on that campus because, well, they have classes at the time, and professors are loath to give up that precious time slot (a problem with which I have sympathy, as one who always felt I was skipping something essential every semester even without such class losses), so the student either misses class or misses the conference -- and since these conferences typically have registration costs involved you can guess which choice the student will make.

One of the conference speakers, though, did give a presentation to students before the gig began, which touched somewhat on the use of technology in the church and its life, though it often got sidetracked onto unrelated stuff.  This presenter is also involved in an "online worship" experience which I actually watched before the presentation.  Definitions of worship are touchy, difficult, and a good way to start a fight, I know this.  My impression of the program I saw, I have to say, was more of a really good talk show interrupted by music and DIY communion.  I guess some people find it worshipful.

This week I've been unable to go online without getting besieged by more rumination about technology and the church.  It comes in waves, I guess.  Adam Copeland, an inevitable moderator of PC(USA) unless he decides to remain among the Lutherans, offered up this thoughtful blog post on the subject, with particular attention to how a pastor or church might be tuned in to how a different generation's use of technology might influence worship in particular, right down to the tweeting of responses to the sermon in real time.  (An aside: our campus actually saw an experiment in this for one of our chapel services this fall, with tweets from the congregation actually being posted on-screen during the service.  I wish I could offer more comment on this, but the presentation software being used -- Prezi, I think? -- did so much swooping from one screen to another that I ended up with about a two-hour attach of mild vertigo, an issue for me dating back to 1993.  So I try not to think too much about that day; it just makes me dizzy.)  

Adam is quite good at asking questions, which is a good thing.  Certainly some flexibility may be in order, and I do believe that there are or have been traditions which included a time for responses to or questions about the sermon immediately after it was over, even without technology added.  I also have an initial concern about loading too many things into the hour, or forty-five or ninety minutes or whatever that a church devotes to formal (i.e. designated) worship.  Schoolteachers over the past decades might relate to how many functions got assigned to the classroom -- needful things, but not necessarily educationally oriented; even state-mandated standardized tests might fall into this category -- that the time for teaching and learning inevitably was damaged to some degree.  I'd hate to see that become a problem in worship, or to be precise more of a problem.  

Let's face it, there are already enough challenges that get loaded into worship, demands that really have nothing to do with worship per se -- positive reaffirmation, patriotic display, cultural conformity, musical "performance", clucking and oo-ing at how cute the kids are -- that it can be tough enough to get any kind of focus on the word and sacrament as it is.  To the degree that flexing our technology muscles becomes merely another distraction it is something to lament; to the degree that it becomes a source of division, even worse.  But I have no answers here, and I'm still trying to work out the questions I do have.

Another FB friend linked to this article from The Christian Century's "Tribal Church" blog section.  This post by Carol Howard Merritt is not strictly about technology itself, but in addressing the "generational roadblocks" of its title speaks to or alludes to technological issues that may -- quite unintentionally -- be hindrances to the more technologically savvy (I'd simply argue that this doesn't strictly have to be a "generational" roadblock; anyone of any age who knows their technology can be put off by how primitive some churches are about it).  

Some of these problems are really so trivial that we should be ashamed of letting them be roadblocks.  To cite only one example: why in the world, indeed, should it be a problem for someone to be in on a committee meeting via Skype?  Heck, I've had master's students who did their oral exams by Skype.  And again this might not be merely a generation issue; imagine the parent with kids who can't find a babysitter for Tuesday nights, otherwise they'd love to be on the (insert name here) committee.  If they have to get up and chase down their toddler before the cat gets flushed down the toilet, no harm done (except possibly to cat and toddler).  Heck, is there a good reason the whole committee can't meet by Skype sometimes?

From another corner came this "Tech Lament" on the "Daily Episcopalian" site, by a vicar named Ann Fontaine.  Fontaine finds herself despairing at an article (linked in her blog entry) observing that a major company has announced plans to go "zero email" within three years, shifting its working collaboration and communication focus to messaging and social network platforms.  I had to agree; thinking of email as outmoded and potentially obsolete was a bit of a jolt, and made me feel older than I usually feel.  But then, as I thought more about it, I had to admit that I really don't use email nearly as much as I used to.  I still get information from the seminary and from some professors that way (though some use Blackboard for information, assignments sometimes get returned by email), and I get plenty of more commercial email (from outright advertisements to newspaper headline emails and such), I don't really send a lot of emails.  

Herein lies a caution, methinks: the technology we so avidly embrace now becomes obsolete sooner than we think.  Not unlike a "contemporary" worship service that suddenly finds itself thirty years out of date, the church Facebook page or blog we prize now may become a white elephant before we know it.  It isn't merely a matter of catching up, but keeping up that becomes the tremendous hurdle -- or series of hurdles -- faced by the church that would be techno-savvy.  

Whatever all of these may portend, I (as usual) find myself thinking in another direction.  Strange as it seem, I'd be the last person to deny the usefulness of these social technologies for more than just funny cat pictures.  The genesis of this whole fool's errand owes much to being able to talk not only to real live people in the flesh, but also real live people whom I could only contact on Facebook, to ask questions ranging from the utter foolishness of walking away from a perfectly good life to do this, to specifics about the seminaries they attended and their virtues.  These are resources I wouldn't have had or known about five years ago, if this vocational nudge had happened then.  So far be it from me to dismiss social technology's potential altogether.

I would like to do one reversal of direction, though, if I may.  Where Adam Copeland's blog above wondered about what technology may bring into worship, I wonder if these social technologies may help us take more out of worship than we've done before.

For example: most churches nowadays have some means of posting each week's sermons online, whether by streaming media of some ilk or simple posting of the text.  How many of these might be enhanced with something as simple as a "comments" function as a means of continuing the discussion beyond the bounds of Sunday morning?  Many pastors I know do post their sermons to their own individual blogs, and I'm sure there must be some churches where sermons are posted with some sort of response capacity, though I'm less aware of these.

And by no means does this need to be limited to the sermon; what about a comment on why a particular hymn was chosen, or what the week's anthem adds to the service?  Or about the missional doings of the church and their relationship to worship?  Or the educational ministries?  If these social technologies offer the opportunity to tie the whole of worship together, to knit it more thoroughly into the life of the community of faith and beyond, and perhaps even to get people who may not ordinarily show for worship curious enough to want to come and see what all the fuss is about... well, this is something I can thoroughly get behind.

Unless I'm misreading things, one thing that the tech-savvy seeker is looking for is transparency -- to be able to question without fear, to know why things are instead of merely knowing that they are, not to be cudgeled by authority for not being certain or for (horrors!) disagreeing.  This is in fact a good thing, as long as the transparency goes both ways, and some genuine hard soul-searching will not be blown off as mere authoritarian posturing.  I don't think the minister needs to be the Wizard of Oz busily pulling levers and pushing buttons while hidden behind the great curtain; sometimes the best thing to do is open up the process and be able to show and say why we do what we do; why we believe what we believe, why we actually insist on something so off-putting as confessing our sins, why the Eucharist is too important to be restricted to a monthly observance, maybe even why an organ is a good thing for a church to have.  But again, this has to go both ways; if questions are going to be asked, answers have to be heard and listened to with the same seriousness and openness.

This is hard, time-consuming work to be sure.  I've consumed a rather large chunk of morning and early afternoon just writing this blog post, and this after several days of thought on it.  But if this kind of opening and connecting can be part of what social technologies can be in the life of the church, then by all means let's get on it.

I'd even be willing to learn how to do Twitter.  If it doesn't become obsolete first.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A quickie: What if the church really DID 'Twelve Days of Christmas'?

I am guessing that for many (at least in the Eastern time zone of the US), Christmas Day celebrations are either winding down or wound down quite a few hours ago, and the evening is turning into just another ordinary evening.  Here at the headquarters of the Fool's Errand, turkey has been consumed, dishes are in the process of being cleaned, presents were opened long ago, and if anything remains to mark the day it might be pulling out the DVD of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for viewing.  Then, for all practical purposes, Christmas will be "over" for 2011.

But what if that weren't so?  What if the church actually took its liturgical calendar seriously and continued to "be Christmas" until Epiphany?  Things would have to change, yes?  The typical one-day blowout wouldn't be sustainable over twelve days; we'd have to pace ourselves.  At the same time, opening up the full twelve days as a way to observe Christmas would be about as countercultural as you can get; when the secular world starts observing "Christmas" the day after Thanksgiving and ends at about noon on December 25, and the body of Christ is just getting started, unfolding the whole story of Christmas (massacres of children, strange prophecies in the Temple, all that), well, that's a witness.

Maybe I'm just feeling jealous of my Jewish friends for whom Hanukkah is a multi-night observance.  Or maybe I'm finding a certain level of dissatisfaction with The Way Things Are.  But for now, I can't help but wonder if this is the time to slow down and consider making Christmas a real live liturgical season in deed as well as word.

No answers here, just some things to chew on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, "Christmas Eve," and Getting Totally Gobsmacked By Grace

For a brief while we are in an activity lull.  With my wife's parents in town, we took them around to see a few of the sights of Richmond today, including St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry gave his "give me liberty or give me death" speech back in 1775.  The afternoon is fading, but the Christmas Eve service we will attend this evening is not until 9:00 p.m., so there is a small amount of down time suitable for thinking.

It is Christmas Eve.  Somewhere on the planet, the sweep of "midnight masses" and other late-evening observances of the transition from Eve to Day has already started.  Other bloggers have already covered the degree to which many of these services or observances will, in my evolving view, "get it wrong"; the softening and hypersentimentalizing of the Nativity, with creepily silent baby and odorless barnyard animals.  (I am again reminded of Iona community's John Bell and his reaction to the verse of "Away in a Manger" that declares, "But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes": "Why not?  What's wrong with him?") The whole thing gets "tamed," made much more domestic and acceptable to comfortable modern listeners who have busily been ignoring the prophets of Advent, with their insistence on a world undone.
And yet for all of that taming and softening and weakening, that spark is still there; not quite yet has the ember of Incarnation, that thing which makes this whole feast day worth bothering with, completely been extinguished.

Without getting into too much theological deep water or rehashing theological controversies stretching back nearly two millenia, I will simply acknowledge that the whole Christmas event draws its power from the notion that the baby born on that night ages ago was not merely a baby of solely human significance.  Whether one holds that God Godself was present in that child from birth (or earlier) or not, it remains that this child will be the extraordinary God-With-Us, Son of God, whatever term you choose to use.  God Incarnate, God enfleshed.  Presumably squawling like any newborn who ends up being put down for sleep in a manger instead of something more bed-like, with swaddling bands wrapped around as the only protection from the cold, who-knows-what smells wafting all around.

What then are we to do with this Incarnation, this "Word became flesh" as described in John 1?  Or what does it do in us?  Friedrich Schleiermacher published a curious little book (treatise? novella?), Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation, in which he seems to suggest that the most natural, most right response to the Incarnation is joy.  And if we have known that joy, the joy that comes of knowing God-With-Us really is with us, we live with one another in joy.  We share joy and give grace to one another.  We don't necessarily agree, we certainly don't all behave or believe the same way, but we share the joy of God being among us and showing us how to love one another by how God loved us.  (John comes back to that thought a few times in his gospel, and even the first epistle of John reiterates that point as well.)

While I'm still working my way through Schleiermacher's little tome (yes, I deliberately checked it out to read over and around Christmas Eve because, well, that's how my mind works), I am already haunted by its opening.  The assembled guests await the hostess, Ernestine, and her permission to enter the main room and begin the giving and receiving of gifts.  They are, not surprisingly, a tad impatient, but Ernestine has held them at bay, striving to set everything just so and to provide the utmost welcome and hospitality she can.  At last the doors are opened and the guests enter; when they do, however, instead of rushing in and grasping the gifts, they are in fact overwhelmed by what Ernestine has done; the arrangement of the gifts, the decorations, the lights, all is so right, so warm, so welcoming, and done with such taste and feeling (this is an early nineteenth-century German work, after all, so feeling is going to be a major concern) that the guests are drawn away instead to shower their hostess with embraces and gratitude.  In that simple unexpected moment of receiving Ernestine's labor of love, the guests are ministered with grace and given a moment, just the tiniest taste, the barest hint of the joy of the Incarnation shared by one (probably without realizing it as such) with all.  Indeed Schleiermacher's primary aim in Christmas Eve seems to be to show, rather than describe, what it means to be the body of Christ, bound together by this Incarnation joy and the love that flows from it.

It can hit you when you least expect it.  Even as I was reading Christmas Eve on Christmas Eve Eve, I found myself getting gobsmacked by a similar unexpected ministering of grace.  A gift, with contributions apparently coming from about eleven different sources (some of whom I literally have not seen since my high-school graduation night--talk about the incarnational power of Facebook!) through a couple of devious ringleaders, leaving me more floored and tongue-tied than I can remember being since...I can't even guess how long.  And yet, there it was, reminding me that more people care about this fool's errand than I can even guess (though I wouldn't presume that my becoming a Presbyterian minister--excuse me, teaching elder--is all that impressive to all of them, by any means), and that I'm a lot less cut off than I fancy myself to be sometimes.

Maybe your experience of this is different.  Sometimes it might look like something else, I suppose, only to be realized in retrospect.  Still, those unpredictable and unearned moments reward like few things can, in some cases all out of proportion to the size of the gesture and quite without regard to dollar signs.

Christmas Eve draws on.  The joy of the Incarnation awaits.  A blessed and joyous Feast of the Nativity to you all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jock Theology 101

The cliches are too numerous to count.  We'll go with the one that has a lot of currency where I came from: Football ain't a religion.  It's way more important than that.  And football (mostly college in the case of that quote) is hardly the only sport with its own "liturgies" and "creeds," so to speak.
Of late the news in Jock Theology 101 has been dominated by a certain quarterback playing more like a running back for the Denver Broncos.  [NOTE: since I believe in full disclosure, I will freely admit that I will never be inclined to give Tim Tebow a break, because he is a F'ing Gator.  Even if I have totally renounced all football on the (F)BS level until the B(C)S lies in a smoldering, decrepit ruin and they've either figured out a legitimate and fair way to come up with a so-called National Champion or quit pretending they're going to try, GatorHate is going to remain strong in my veins, like it does for any graduate of Florida State University.  So there.]  Tim Tebow has, all the way back to his F'ing Gator days and presumably even further, been a rather loud and public voice for a particular strain of evangelicalism, and has managed to cheese off a lot of people in the process.  He's also managed to cheese off a lot of NFL types by being a part of several wins for the Broncos despite being a really poor passer, though his latest few games do seem to be picking up in passing quality.  There's been a Tebow backlash, then a backlash against the Tebow backlash, and maybe now a backlash against both backlashes.  Quite the polarizing guy.
Mind you, there are several different outlets through one might make theological criticism of Tebow, but I'm going to stick with one (I really don't have that much time to write this blog entry after all).  By his words and behavior both present and past, Tebow seems to give the impression that God actually cares who wins athletic contests.
Perhaps God had a rooting interest in David vs. Goliath.  Otherwise, I can't find a shred of evidence in either testament, particularly in how the gospels present Jesus Christ to us, that this is at all a justifiable belief.  Even when Paul starts using running metaphors, he only wants to exhort his readers to finish the race (2 Timothy 4:7); he doesn't say anything about winning it.
While it might be amusing to accuse Tim Tebow of being a closet Pelagian, I really don't feel compelled to do much more than to link you, my two or three readers, to this fanciful Rick Reilly column from his days at Sports Illustrated.  It happens briefly, towards the end of the column (you might have to go to page two), but it's about as effetive a refutation of the notion that God is going to play "us vs. them" games with our games just because we do so.  While I'm always scared of putting words in God's mouth, even in a literary sense, I can't really argue with how Reilly shoots down that particular jock theology, after Christ has picked up a save for the Cincinnati Reds: "And please stop praying for wins. Put yourself in my position. If your kids were playing each other, who would you root for?" Hate to disappoint, but those folks on the other side of the line are your brothers, Mr. Tebow, if you're really serious about this Jesus business.
But in truth, my attention has been distracted from Tebow by a new entrant into Jock Theology 101: Albert Pujols, who seems to be enrolled in the class with his wife.  Pujols has never been quite so vocal and exhibitive about his religious faith, but has (let's be fair here) done a heck of a lot of funding and supporting a lot charitable and religious activities in the area.  The impulse is to appreciate Pujols's wilingness to "walk the walk" instead of putting that much energy into "talking the talk."  One could even argue that this is how it should be done, if you believe things like the Semon on the Mount (Mt. 6:1-6 in particular--you read that one, Tebow?).  
Nonetheless, after taking 254 gartanguo-gazillion dollars to swap uniforms for the next ten years from St. Louis Cardinals red to Anaheim Angels red, the family Pujols was apparently surprised that St. Louisians, the oft-proclaimed "greatest fans in baseball," weren't all sweetness and light about his impending departure, freshly-won World Series notwithstanding.  Pujols's wife Diedre apparently took their case to a radio station in St. Louis (not your usual sports-talk station, but a Christian station that had apparently once been partly funded by Pujols).  
Presuming that Diedre has not gone rogue, one learns very quickly that for all his good works and apparent sincerity of belief, Pujols may well be getting tripped up on a strange little belief to try to fit into a viably faithful way of looking at the world:  Dollars = Respect.  Or maybe it's Length of Contract = Respect.  Apparently an initial offer of a five-year contract for $130,000,000 (or about $26,000,000 a season) was insulting.  (Keep in mind that Pujols is 31 years old; not bad right now, but the end of that contract has the potential to be ugly for the Angels.)  Eventually the Cardinals offered ten years and something like $210,000,000, but by then the apparently wounded Pujols was ready to bolt for the big bucks and bright lights of southern California.  Diedre Pujols does a little bit of lashing out a fans and a lot of defending Albert, but unless I'm missing something that seems to be the gist of it.
Again, I'm straining to see how that formula works.  Maybe Pujols has major faith-based plans for all that moolah, I don't know.  But I gotta say I can't make the whole Dollars = Respect fit with anything I've ever known or learned about Jesus Christ.  "The laborer is worthy of his hire" and all that, but jeez louise, $26M/year seems a plenty worthy hire for a guy who plays a game.
I have got to admit that right now is one of those times I'm pretty happy not to have children.  I can't imagine trying to explain how Tebow and Pujols and their public deeds would fit with the things we'd have been trying to teach them all of their lives.  Oh well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A rerun of sorts: what Christmas is all about

About a year ago I was feeling frustration over what at the time seemed to me a boomlet of blogs and other sources that appeared to advocate jumping the gun and questioning the value of the season of Advent in the liturgical life of the church.  The lectionary readings for the third Sunday of Advent last season prompted in me a response and, I suppose, a defense of Advent (not that it requires a defense from the likes of me).  Since I wasn't blogging at the time, or at least hadn't admitted to blogging at the time, it got recorded as a Facebook note.  
I would not call it a sermon, yet; I'm sure I'd be required to exegete things differently now, and probably scolded for combining scripture passages and such.  Nonetheless, it still expresses some things I find important and valuable, and if perhaps it is of worth to anyone else, make of it what you will.
(Again, remember that the scriptures are last year's, not this year's.)

             I have long been a fan of Charlie Brown.  Even as a child, I “got” him.  I could understand where his perpetual frustration with the world and its inhabitants came from, because I felt it often myself. 
            My favorite of all Charlie Brown/Peanuts stories was, no surprise, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Even today I’m willing to hold that the existence of that show itself single-handedly justifies the existence of television.  For one, I’ve always liked the music, even before I knew anything about Vince Guaraldi or how unusual it was to use jazz as an accompaniment to an animated TV show.  But most of all, again, I “got” Charlie Brown’s frustration.  At the dramatic climax, when the tree he selects has been laughed and hooted down, and he finally lets out his exasperated exclamation “isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, well, I could feel where he was coming from.  I knew what I heard at church, and I saw what went on “out in the world,” and they didn’t match.  So yes, I could see where he was coming from. 
            Of course in the TV show, the absurdly philosophical Linus, having quickly memorized his lines under threat of violence from Lucy, takes center stage and recites the Christmas narrative from Luke (you can’t do that on TV today, that’s for sure!), and everyone is properly chastised; after one small setback the tree is decorated and all ends well.  Warm fuzzies safely delivered, everyone can go home happy.
            When I read the scriptures offered by the lectionary for this Sunday, the third Sunday in this irritant called Advent, I wonder if Linus has gotten things slightly wrong.  (Irritant?  It seems to me that this year I hear and see, depending on the media used, more and more people, even those whom I’d never think, looking for a way to edge out of the waiting and watching of Advent a little early and get on to “Christmas” ahead of time.  Or maybe I’m imagining things.  Anyway, back to the main point.)  Yes, Linus has given us a good summary—the best possible summary, you could even say—of what Christmas is.  I’m not sure, though, if he—or we—necessarily get from that what Christmas is all about.
            The reading from Isaiah 35 points to a day and a world we probably don’t recognize.  It is a world turned upside down and inside out.  A world in which the desert is blossoming abundantly is not the usual world of the prophet.  Words like “wilderness,” “dry land,” “desert” . . . these are not places in the biblical landscape typically associated with rejoicing and blossoming.  But the prophet keeps driving the images home:
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isaiah 35: 6b-7)

            But there’s more; it isn’t only the wilderness being undone.  We are also promised sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, dancing for the lame, and speech to the mute; even the infirmities and disabilities that afflict the body are turned around.  But beyond physical malady, even more emphasized is something not associated with the wilderness, or the desert: safety.
            Through this undone wilderness the prophet sees a road, one promised only to God’s people.  No threats will be found there; no lions, no predators of any kind.  But this promise is ultimately capped by the image of the “ransomed of the Lord…joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  All this undoing and turning upside down has a point. 
            If the prophet promises an undoing, the words of the Magnificat are a virtual assault on The Way Things Are.  The words out of Mary’s mouth exhibit no ambiguity at all.  God looks with favor on the lowly servant.  The proud are scattered in the “thoughts” of their hearts (here, I sheepishly confess, I kinda miss the old language; “imaginations of their hearts.”  Somehow that seems to get at the falsity of what we conjure up to comfort ourselves all too often.  But I digress.)  The powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up.  The hungry are filled, the rich sent away without.  The reversal of the world’s ways cannot be more explicit. 
            [Even if one opts for the appointed psalm instead of the Magnificat, one finds no escape.  Even the psalmist proclaims the opening of blind eyes, food for the hungry and justice for the oppressed.]
            If there is still doubt, Jesus echoes the very words of the Isaiah reading in his message to a weary, worried, wounded John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison.  One can hardly blame John for wondering.  After all those years in the wilderness (which was distinctly not blossoming and flowing with streams in his experience), it had seemed so certain.  Cousin Jesus, nondescript though he may have seemed, sure looked like he must have been the One, what with all those noises from heaven and things descending upon him. 
            But now, while Jesus was still preaching out in the countryside, John sat in Herod’s prison, a place people didn’t leave alive.  Is this how it ends?  Is Jesus really the One?  Have I wasted my life just to lose my head to this corrupt so-called king?  So he sends some of his disciples, maybe some of the very few left to him, and asks directly:  Are you the One?  Should I be looking for someone else?
            Jesus’s answer seems anything but direct, unless you remember your Isaiah.  Again, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.  Plus as a bonus, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised.  And then the last, cryptic comment:  “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11: 6).  Is that a jab?  Something only John the Baptist would understand?
            All of these witnesses proclaim in concert that the world as we know it is due for an undoing.  A world in which the poor and lowly continue to be oppressed and impoverished, in which the powerful continue to lord it over the powerless, in which the rich are filled to a point beyond gluttony and the hungry only get hungrier; this is not the world proclaimed in Isaiah, in the Magnificat, in the Gospel. 
            Is it a mistake to tie this world undone, turned upside down and inside out, to Christmas?  I don’t think so.  While it is no doubt tempting to sprint ahead to the babe in the manger, we do so at our peril. 
            For one thing, we risk failing to understand exactly what we’re embracing.  Even that babe in the manger makes no sense at all without the words from Isaiah, from the Magnificat, from Matthew.  Look at it this way: should Prince William and the princess-to-be Kate Middleton ever decide to produce an heir to the throne, where do you think that child will be born?  I believe we can be certain it won’t be at a feed trough in Yorkshire, not with all those palaces at their disposal.  That’s not how it’s done among those of high status (I hesitate to say “powerful” of the British royal family, but there is certainly still some status invested there if one judges from the tizzy over the engagement announcement).  Yet the One we call Messiah, Immanuel, Christ the King, was born in a nondescript setting in a nondescript town in a nondescript backwater of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere near Rome, the seat of earthly power.  Not in Jerusalem, the focus of spiritual authority.  This cannot make sense to us without the images and contrasts drawn by Isaiah, by Mary.  Even this babe is part of a world undone.  Herod in all his power could not stamp it out, though he tried, brutally.  The Roman Empire couldn’t comprehend it. 
            For another thing, we run the risk of finding ourselves—dare I say it?—on the wrong side of this world undone.  Very few of us think of ourselves as “rich,” or “powerful.”  We are most proficient at casting our eyes longingly at those with more than us: more money, more power, a better car, a bigger house, a hotter spouse, you name it.  But is it possible, just maybe, that we don’t always remember the poor, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the oppressed as being those blessed of God?  Are we too comfortable, too much at home in a world where the powerful just get more and more powerful, the rich get richer and richer, and the poor . . . well, the Bible itself says they’ll always be with us, right?  Are we too ready to accept that justice is a thing to be bought and sold, that the Golden Rule really does say “he who has the gold makes the rules,” and that the only way to cope with The Way Things Are is to play the game, grab as much gold and power as we can, and as for those less fortunate, well, tough luck, you obviously deserved it somehow? 
            If that way, The Way Things Are, has found so cozy and comfortable a home in us, then there’s a serious problem.  Isaiah’s blossoming wilderness, that desert with springs bursting forth, is forbidden to us.  We become the powerful who, Mary warns us, are brought down from our thrones and sent away empty.  If we’re at home with the way things are, then we have no part of God’s world undone. 
            And this, Isaiah and Mary and even Jesus tell us, is what Christmas is all about.  All the “Silent Night”s and “Away in a Manger”s are just noise if that babe in the manger doesn’t grow in us into the One Who undoes and throws down the powers and thrones we humans so adore.  Without taking time to hear the stern rebukes of the prophets, we risk turning Christmas into little more than a too-cute idolization of a highly sentimentalized children’s story, something too easily accommodated to The Way Things Are and, frankly, something far worse than the crass overcommercialized boondoggle so many of us vocally deplore.  That at least is a clearly false and sham “Christmas”; to trivialize the real thing, to try to take what Christmas is without the life-changing demands a true Christmas makes on us, is something like an abomination. 
            So then, if Isaiah and Mary and Jesus may be allowed to bump Linus from his spotlight, what then do we learn?  The desert blooms and flows with life-giving water.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The lame walk, even leap (and dance too, I’ll bet).  God’s people walk in safety.  The lowly are exalted.  The poor hear good news.  The proud are scattered, the powerful dethroned, the rich denied.  And those who are not offended at this undoing Jesus are blessed.
            And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-54
Psalm 146:5-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The winding down: a status report

For anyone keeping track:

There's one week of classes left in this inaugural semester of my fool's errand.  After that comes exam week; with all my exams of the take-home variety this term, that's not quite as meaningful but still represents a lot of due dates.  The break between the fall term exams and the beginning of the January term is only a little more than two weeks.  Whew.  I'm going to be really happy when June arrives, as it is really the only extended break in the seminary calendar.  Yeah, I got spoiled on that academic calendar in the past.

After a massive blowing off of steam last night on the part of a good chunk of the UPSem community in the form of Calvin Ball (no, not Calvinball), the last push resumes.  I am reminded again that I am very happy to be among the people I am among.  My last exegesis paper is puttering along, with progress slow but not nonexistent, as I get tangled in the vines of John 15.

After a relatively quiet term I ended up with multiple chapel responsibilities in the last portion of the term, from simple reading of scripture to nagging and wheedling the seminary choir into a processional hymn with handbells (completely stolen from my vague memories of such a hymn as done at First Presbyterian in Tallahassee, I think), to, this week, singing a recitative in Bach's cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61.  The miracle is that I'm in a seminary choir that will sing a Bach cantata; if the experience comes with the misfortune of the world hearing me flail through Bach recitative, it's a small price to pay.  The rush of chapel experiences confirms some things I already knew; I can read reasonably well, and the biggest charge I get in some cases is actually being able to choose hymns for a service.

My wife and I have been singing in the choir at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church for the last few weeks, and will continue to do so through Advent.  It is an interesting experience, musically challenging as we hoped.  After that we will resume visiting other Presbyterian churches in the area, and possibly settle in at a church for the Lenten season when that arrives.  It's a strange way to attend church, but for now it strikes the balance between the need to experience a church community over time with the need to cultivate possible places to do an internship down the road.  Whether this will continue for the longer term I do not know.

We had a lovely Thanksgiving with my relations, and will spend Christmas here with my wife's.  That has become the pattern of our lives.  It is a workable compromise.

Miss Piggy is still with us.  She is one incredibly persistent dog, approaching eighteen and a half years old.  The cats continue to rule.  No one with cats is surprised by this statement.

No earth-shattering revelations or ponderous ruminations tonight.  A simple status report is all.  Useful, though, to remind myself of where I am, and that behold, it is good.

Monday, November 21, 2011

When prospects become tragedies

For a baseball fan this is the dark season as it is.  Baseball season is over, and nothing awaits but a giant sucking void between now and the first rumors of spring training in February.  Awards are given out in November, which is nice, but arguing over what in heaven, hell, or earth that guy was thinking voting for Michael Young for AL MVP isn't quite the same as Miracle Day back at the end of the season, or watching the kids break in, or hoping that Matt Kemp might get the Triple Crown after all, or whatever part of the season provided that extra boost for you.

For a real, passionate baseball fan, other sports don't quite cut it.  Football, the brutalizing overblown spectacle that it has become in the NFL at least, is the antithesis of baseball (George Carlin nailed that pretty well).  While I can occasionally engage a little with college football (what was FSU doing Saturday night?) it's not there either, and the B[C]S is a pathetic excuse for a joke, which discredits the whole enterprise beyond repair.  Even if basketball were appealing to you, the NBA is in the process of self-immolation, and the college game isn't quite rolling yet.  Hockey (more antithesis) is rather shadowy these days, the NHL having in fact ceded its #4 position in pro sports attendance to Major League Soccer, believe it or not.  So for a baseball fan, these are bleak, sad days, with little solace on the horizon.

Things are bad enough, in other words, without real life intruding on the escape-world that is fanship.  And yet real life has intruded, violently and roughly, into the baseball fan's offseason in ways to make the mind reel.

First was the kidnapping in Venezuela of Wilson Ramos, a talented young catcher for the Washington Nationals.  A little awareness of international news will remind one that this sort of thing is sadly common in Venezuela these days, and other professional athletes have had family kidnapped there for hefty ransoms, but this is the first case I know of where the athlete himself has been the kidnapping victim.  This story at least had about as happy an ending as possible, as Ramos was rescued a couple of days after being kidnapped.

Today's story cannot have a happy ending.  Greg Halman, a young outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, was stabbed to death while at home in the Netherlands, not long after being part of a tour of major leaguers visiting and giving baseball camps across Europe.  Halman wasn't quite the talent that Ramos is, being too prone to strikeouts, but he had made the majors and still had the chance to make it for good.  The sadness of having to use the past tense to describe that chance stings, all the more for those who follow that team more closely and perhaps saw him play or maybe even encountered Halman, maybe got an autograph.

Let us be clear: following any sport with any kind of intensity is thoroughly escapist.  (Admittedly for some people it seems to be a substitute for real life, particularly among followers of certain teams or college football conferences -- coughSECcough -- but we rightly worry about such people and know something's not right with them, yes?)  What is supposed to be the fun thing about sports (besides its unpredictability) is that real-world fears are banished as long as there's a game going on and your team is still in it.  Murders and kidnappings and wars and bills and all manner of other stresses are left aside for a time, to root in common with people you wouldn't give the time of day to in real life but to whom you are bound by this one common passion.  The only thing you're supposed to be wondering about Greg Halman this offseason is if he can cut down on his strikeouts and be a contributor next year, not oh God, how can this happen? or any of the other questions we always ask when tragedy intervenes rudely in our lives.  That in this case murder seems the clear cause (and according to early reports, his brother is a suspect) only deepens the hurt and confusion and disorientation.  (This column by Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation suggests that Halman is only the third active major leaguer to be murdered in the history of Major League Baseball.)

No, it's not unique to baseball; a young tight end for the University of Arkansas football team died unexpectedly this weekend as well.  So far as anyone can discern foul play is not involved there.  There is something particularly disturbing about foul play being involved.  Part of the issue is, I guess, that celebrities (which certainly includes professional athletes), despite the increasing tabloidization of celebrity these days, still have a certain untouchability about them in our naive little minds.  Yeah, they can screw up their lives with the best of us (and it becomes more entertainment fodder these days), but being murdered still shocks in most cases (the bloodier aspects of hip-hop rivalry a couple of decades ago notwithstanding).

Baseball players are supposed to play until they can't play anymore, then go get old and show up for old-timers games and tell stories and all that romantic stuff.  They aren't supposed to get kidnapped or stabbed to death.  It's not supposed to be real life.  It's supposed to be baseball.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An impure God

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8

Even as I stagger to a break in our academic schedule around here--blessings on Union Presbyterian Seminary for calling off classes for the entire week of Thanksgiving--and even as I occasionally wonder if I'm somehow "not getting it" at times, I continue to be fascinated by the splintery history of doctrinal squabbling that is the story of the early Christian church.  As any historian will gladly note, even if it sounds a bit cliched anymore, you can learn from the past, or you can repeat it.  

One of the tendencies that seems to underlie much of the theological debate of the era from roughly the 300s to the 500s or so is the question of just how much God could actually be involved in the muck and mire of human nature.  No, this is not the theological question of how much God might be implicated in the sinful nature of the world--my brain is still short-circuiting on how to process that theological debate. Here the question is whether or not, given the sinful state of humanity, just how much can it be said that God--the Divine, the All-Powerful, the Transcendent, all that good stuff--could be said to have any direct involvement in the redemption of that sinful humanity.  This was a difficult thing for the ancients to wrap their early-century minds around, and I suspect it still twists a few minds these days (though perhaps in a different way).  (Bear with me, folks, this gets to be a bit of a thicket.)

Arius, the chap whose name has become affiliated with a particular and long-standing heresy in Christendom (heresy=the side that lost the debate in the long run, essentially), could not-like so many in his time, it should be noted--stomach the idea of a God the Father (this was the language of the time) Who was not a singular, indivisible, transcent, impassible Being above all, and most emphatically could not stomach any notion that the Son was in any way of like form or substance or equality with that over-all God the Father.  A large spectrum of the church of the time bought was Arius was selling, but a broader spectrum could not; such a distant Father and merely-a-creature Son made no sense from the point of view of salvation--what good could a mere creature do in that respect?  They may not have known exactly what they believed at this point, but they knew what they couldn't believe, and Arius's extreme subordination of the Son to the Father was more than they could accept.  Their response, eventually, can be found in no less a place than the very Nicene Creed still used in many churches today, with its assertion of a Son who was "eternally begotten of the Father," "being of one substance with the Father," "begotten, not made," "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."  The making of that creed, which took two different councils (not just the Council of Nicaea), a bit of imperial arm-twisting from Constantine, and a whole lot of argument (some of it quite bitter) to hash out, is one of those events which brings to mind the old saw that those who enjoy sausage should not watch it being made.  Nonetheless, it was made, and still hangs around today in confessional churches of many denominations, and is formative language for understanding how the early church got to a notion of a trinitarian view of God.

By no means was the church through haggling over the nature of Christ, however.  Even as the need to refute Arius was provoking the trinitarian refinement above, other early church thinkers were still continuing to struggle with its implications for understanding Christ and what it meant to speak of a Son Who came to be crucified.  How can an immutable, impassible, transcendent God conceivably be said to suffer?  What could it possibly mean for Christ to be both "fully divine" and "fully human"?  How could that even be possible?

Quite a few third- and fourth-century Christian bishops and such took a whack at this contentious question.  Apollinaris of Laodicea argued that the Word (or the Son) took on a human body only; no human mind or soul or will was involved, preserving an absolute unity.  This position was naturally found wanting; Gregory of Nazianzus busted that claim up with his effectively pithy formulation "what He did not assume He did not heal," meaning that if the Son did not in fact take on in some way the full range of humanity--body, soul and all--then the whole range of humanity--body, soul, and all--was not fully redeemed by the Son.  Again, the church was nudged into a particular affirmation it didn't quite know how to handle yet.  [Yes, I have borrowed the old-fashioned practice of capitalizing pronouns referring to God in some way, mostly because I find it helpful to keep track of exactly who or Who I'm talking about.]

The nudge became a full-fledged shove when Nestorius proposed his two-natured, Word-plus-man christology, in which Divine and human natures were present in Christ but were totally distinct from one another; the divine nature was not at all affected by the human nature, nor vice versa.  This did a very nice job of protecting the notion of an immutable, impassible, all-transcendent Deity, but again failed the sniff test where a saving Son was concerned; could such a duality possibly live up to John the Evangelist's eloquently direct phrase "The Word became flesh"?  Didn't that end up sounding more like "The Word got carried around in a flesh suit for a while" instead?  Hashing this one out was even thornier than before, but nonetheless the church could not quite let go of the idea of the suffering Son; after much back-and-forth Nestorius was enlisted in the ranks of heretics as well, and the church more or less settled on a position that established once and for all the necessary joining of Word and humanity, even if it at times had to concede that the nature of such a union was rather difficult to explain (and believe me, I've left loads of fun out of this quick-and-dirty summary, including the whole business of what role Mary played in it all).

What I find fascinating in all this tangle of theological debate is the absolute mania on the part of some to protect the absolute impassibility, immutability, and transcendence of God the Father.  I find it fascinating because these people (Arius, Nestorius, and the like) seem to be putting much more effort into that protection than God did.  The position at which the church finally arrived posits a thoroughly mind-boggling idea; that a God Who (as the church has reckoned) is indeed all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible, and all that stuff, was less interested in preserving that all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible dignity than in doing whatever it took to restore His fallen creation.  God would rather get down in the mud with us to bring us back to God, than preserve God's dignity.  This is mind-blowing, when you think about it.  God would rather go through the whole of human experience, from infant pooping his swaddling clothes to angsty teenager, single adult, itinerant preacher/miracle worker/vaguely insurgent type, to crucified criminal, than to see humanity continue to be cut off from God's embrace.  

This does remind me that Arius and Nestorius still have their comrades today.  How many people are horribly offended by the phrase "infant pooping his swaddling clothes" above in relation to Jesus?  Hmm? And yet, if we're going to talk about the whole range of human experience, how do we avoid the idea that eventually Mary had to re-swaddle the poor child?  Certainly today, whether from prudery or an inability to process the notion of a fully human Son of God, there are plenty of people who don't want to imagine a Jesus who, but for sin, lived a fully human life with all the embarrassments and degradations that implies.  For that matter, what about the Jesus Who engaged in the nasty habit of breaking bread with the scummier elements of society and giving the good church folk a hard time?  The urge is still there to protect God in a way that God does not seem interested in being protected.

This jumbled and ill-formed complex of amazement haunts me as we sneak up on the Advent and Christmas seasons, a time when Christianity marks the beginnings of this earthly intervention.  It's worth putting aside some of the frillier parts of the season on occasion to chew over just what it means to call Jesus Christ "the Word made flesh," who "emptied himself," the "fully divine" who became "fully human" and hung with sinners and tax collectors and eventually died about as gruesome and awful a death as humanity has ever devised.  It is difficult to conceive and more difficult to explain, and frankly we don't always live as Christians as if we truly believe it.  But it's there.  Think about it.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Civility? Unity? Um, good luck...

It's kind of a legendary thing.  You hear it pretty soon after you start telling people you're going to seminary.  You get warned about it in your preparation to go to seminary.  You may hear it from (in the case of my denomination) the presbytery's Committee on Preparation for Ministry, from folks at the school you choose to attend, from sources you might not even guess.

The Crisis of Faith.

It almost comes off as this inevitable Dark Night of the Soul, when some statement or study or reading shatters the foundations of a fragile faith, and the nascent seminarian finds the whole facade crumbling, and ends up wondering whether he or she is still even a Christian, much less fit for any kind of pastoral vocation.

Though it is early, I am happy to report that this particular kind of crisis has not yet set in on me.  No matter how much Marcus Borg might get thrown at me, I'm not yet showing any signs of slipping into the theological abyss.  I can get cranky about some things in class, but mostly when some readings don't live up to what I'd consider good scholarly standards (the ol' professor in me reacting as if to a particularly rancid paper submission).

New Testament I hasn't done it.  I've always got N.T. Wright to stand with.  Theology I hasn't done it.  Calvin and Schleiermacher might say some loopy things on occasion, and process theology looks promising for some theological weirdness, but no, no crisis there.  And no, Seminary Choir has not provoked a crisis of faith, just the occasional bad falsetto when a gospel number comes out (which might cause a crisis of faith in others, I suppose).

You know what does shake me a bit?  History of Christianity I, that's what.

Taught by the esteemed Rebecca Weaver, retiring as of the end of this academic year, History of Christianity I has so far covered topics including (these are right out of the syllabus and lecture notes, folks) martyrdom, orthodoxy and heresy, the Gnostic controversy, the Trinitarian Controversy, the Christological Controversy, the Donatist Controversy, the Pelagian Controversy, the Semi-Pelagian Controversy, the Crusades, the Great Schism, and (tomorrow) the Iconoclastic Controversy.  Do you sense a theme here?  And the Reformation is still a few weeks off.

If one came to seminary harboring some fantasy of the early church as some blissful harmonious commune living all sweetness and light, some Golden Age we moderns struggle vainly to recapture, ... well, you've had a sledgehammer taken to that fantasy by now.  Considering that the some of the Gospels leave a rather distinct impression of the disciples as a bunch of seriously dim bulbs constantly not getting what Jesus is telling them, one is hard-pressed to find a period in the history of the church that comes off as harmonious or peaceful to any meaningful degree.

The Church fights.  It fights over big issues, it fights over rather smaller points of doctrine.  It fights over who is to be let in and who is to be kept out.  It fights over music, it fights over imagery, it fights over who owns what.  Whether this should be so is hardly relevant; the church has a long and bitter history of controversy and schism.  Reviling schism hasn't helped; even elevating it up there with blasphemy as Most Major Offenses didn't stop early Christian groups from splitting and reforming, excommunicating one another left and right.  Poor Athanasius was excommunicated, reinstated, excommunicated again...or was that Nestorius?  It seems like such a long list.

Now if your considered destination is some kind of pastoral role in the church of today, such a long trail of division is hardly encouraging.  When the denomination in which you reside is already fraying and unsteady, the history lesson becomes downright ominous.  My denomination has its own encroaching fissure in the works as one group, having at last lost the fight over ordination to Those People, is now trying to figure out how to leave without actually getting blamed for splitting the denomination (or without losing buildings and pensions, for that matter).  One proposal out there calls for non-geographical presbyteries--governing entities which would allow the good, pure Presbyterians to avoid being soiled by actually having to live and work and cooperate with Those People.  (For the record, "Those People" would include me.)  The urge to purify the church has a long and ugly history, as any number of the above controversies might show, and it shows no signs of going away.

These fights get nasty, and lots of ugly invective and vicious denunciation gets tossed around rather freely.  The age of internet anonymity doesn't really help with this, to be sure.  But for all the gloriousness of something like City of God, Augustine could be downright brutal when denouncing Pelagius, not to mention rather tedious.

So for those who expect a civil discussion of those things which divide one church group or another, or those who somehow hold that the only thing that matters in such a fight is to preserve the unity of said group, know that history is against you.  We are not that much advanced from our brothers and sisters of decades or centuries or millenia ago, in too many ways.  You can't enforce civility.  It doesn't work, not even in the church.  And you won't find me in the crowd calling for unity at all costs, because unity is not, in the end, the end-all and be-all of a church.  Being as christlike as possible is the end-all and be-all of a church, and if some members of that body are going to hold others hostage with all sorts of unchristlike threats and behaviors and demands, well, then, the christlike thing to do might well be to wish them well and tell them not to let the door hit them in the butt on their way out. That might be better at least than having them come back with a denominational takeover plan and a mission to purge Those People out of their denomination.  It has happened before.  I know.  I saw it.

All that from church history.  But then, history has always been a thing of mine, I guess.  Even when it's frankly depressing.  But in the end, if you see all that it feels rather like a miracle that the church is still standing.  It also makes it crystal clear that the church does not rise or fall on the wisdom or righteousness of its human leaders.  I find that highly reassuring.  The church of Jesus Christ is just that--not my church or yours or anyone else's, and Christ alone is the One Who will sustain it through whatever challenges may yet come.  God will accomplish God's purposes whether PC(USA) remains intact or splits into seventeen different denominations.

Even I can't screw that up.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A quickie late-to-the-party thought on a Steve Jobs quote

A short thought--not even that, really, a question, a musing--well after most Steve Jobs mania has passed:

(Taken from Innoblog, October 7:)

One of our favorite Steve Jobs quotes came as his answer to the question: What market research did you do that led to the iPad? “None,” he replied. “It's not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

Hmm. Is this anything at all useful to church leaders of whatever stripe?

This is for the moment leaving aside the wisdom of equating church members with "customers." In my opinion, for good or ill, that ship sailed a long time ago for a lot of churches of whatever stripe. Even if one doesn't want to make that equation, is there still something of merit in the idea expressed by the late Mr. Jobs? Is it modifiable? Might the word "want" be swapped out for the word "need"? The quote seems to be cited typically as an example of Mr. Jobs's ability at innovation, or marketing, or design, or what have you; is it actually a form of leadership?

No answers here today: just questions to chew on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Random thoughts when I should be reading Calvin...

Not just Calvin, but Schleiermacher (who always needs reading twice).  And there's always that bit from the Gospel of Mark that is only partly translated.  And there's also Augustine awaiting.

One of the pleasures/pains of this fool's errand is that every day there's a chance for my mind to be blown.  Pleasure because it's the best kind of mind-blowing; new stuff, new possibilities, ideas that will be old hat to many but are new to me.  New Testament I in particular has been something else, particularly now upon entering the odd and tricky Gospel of Mark.  Just one class in and everything I'd ever thought about that book (which, admittedly, was not a lot) has been upended and strewn about the room, and the mess is glorious and wonderful and amazing.  My new favorite gospel, at least until we get to Matthew (I think that's next...), and then I think get the idea.  Theology I is a bit more challenging.  Calvin and Schleiermacher are the twin (reformed) systematic pillars in the design of this class, with other theologians of the church's history weaving in and out at various points on various topics.  (Schleiermacher ran with the Romantics just a little bit, and so I do find myself occasionally having flashbacks to some of those nineteenth-century German writers on music who occupied parts of my brain in my previous life.)  History of Christianity I is in many ways closest to my scholarly heart, with my history jones that has for so many years been trained on music re-focusing and adapting to the much more ancient and complicated history of the Christian church.  I get wowed on a regular basis.

That's the pleasure, and the pain too.  I run close to "wow burnout" sometimes.  It's sooooo much to take in and try to make sense of, coming so fast, and my slow brain gets overwhelmed trying to keep up.  (I mean that word very deliberately; it's a pretty good brain all things considered, but it is not a fast one; it takes me time to digest and work through new stuff, and then more new stuff is pouring in and wowing my brain, and the whole cycle keeps running and I keep dog-paddling.)

Those who know my past know that as seminary experiences go, this ain't my first rodeo.  Twenty years ago at this point I was into the first term of my final year at another school, one which is now the Voldemort of my academic experience -- "it which must not be named."  That was long, long ago, in a denominational galaxy far, far away, one in which the Rebel Alliance was sorely lacking in Luke Skywalkers and got crushed by the Empire swiftly and brutally.  (At this point twenty years ago I was trying to figure out if I was capable of getting up the nerve to ask this one girl out; we've been married over seventeen years now, which is to say that this prior seminary experience was not all for nought.)   The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond which sits across the street from Union serves as a regular reminder of that experience, born as it was out of the debris.  The overall negative vibe of that older experience has frankly caused me to block a lot of it out.  It was that depressing in the overall.

The experiences are different enough that comparison is frankly pointless.  I was pursuing a church music degree then, an M.Div. now.  (It really would not kill Union, or other Presbyterian schools, to include a little more systematic academic instruction in church music in their curriculum--a basic hymnody class, for example--but that's a different subject for another blog post, well into the future.)  Union is a much smaller community than that was.  And PC-USA is rather different than that denomination, to say the least.  And I am a rather different person, partly because of that experience at, uh, Voldemort.  In a perverse way, is it possible that the whole depressing Voldemort experience is part of why this beginning of this fool's errand is so satisfying and rewarding?  Was that necessary to make this work?  Ugh, that sounds rather predeterministic, and I'm writing this entry to put off reading Calvin for the moment, not to be a case study in it...

Whether being put on the spot to engage in a little dramatic storytelling of the first sentences of the Gospel of Mark, or getting that job in the campus library's Instructional Resource Center, or crowding in for tomorrow's community lunch, it's good for now.  I remain all too aware from that past of how things can turn ugly quickly, but that is not seemingly on the horizon for the moment.

Yes, I still miss Lawrence, and KU, and even musicology a bit.  But this is not only good, it's right. Call this a midterm progress report if you like.  And in the meantime I'm looking forward to seeing how my mind gets blown tomorrow.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Preacherman Uncensored?

As we've been setting in here in the Richmond area, we have been making visits to a handful of churches in the area.  Some are well into town, requiring a substantial trip and paying tolls and such; a couple are less distant.  As an inquirer in ministry under care of the Presbytery of Northern Kansas, I'm in the funny place of not really looking to "join" a church, as my membership and oversight technically remains back there among the sunflowers and such.  Still, having a church home, or at least a church home-away-from-home, remains desirable, and so we keep looking.

Today we made a visit to a church we had visited a couple of times before, but not in several weeks.  (One thing we've discovered in this process is that it's almost pointless to visit a church around here during the summer, as they virtually all seem to shut down to an amazing degree -- no choirs, reduced or altered hours of services, etc.; any picture you get from doing so will only be upended around Labor Day.)  It was a bit of an odd Sunday, perhaps best characterized as too many things going on.  Clearly we showed up in the middle of a sermon series (not my favorite thing, but to each his or her own).  A large flute choir had come in to provide several musical elements of the service.  Being the first Sunday of the month communion was being observed; not in an ordinary way, but at least nominally as part of World Communion Sunday, an event observed the first Sunday of October in a goodly number of mainline and maybe some other traditions, forwarding the notion that the Lord's table exists not only in this one particular church but in churches all around the globe, anywhere the body of Christ comes together whether two or three or by the thousands, all partaking of the same holy food and drink.  (Yes, I'm oversimplifying.)

The result in this particular case was a bit of a jumble.  All of the elements of this particular service seemed to trip over one another rather than flow together.  The mechanics of getting from one part of the service to another were complicated a bit by the flute choir, directed by the church's organist who sometimes had to cross from one side of the sanctuary to the other, leaving a bit of a gap.  The "World" part of World Communion Sunday got lost in the shuffle a bit, as only a couple of African-derived responses by the choir and the stoles being worn by the two ministers tipped off this aspect of the observance (frequently I've seen use of more music, including non-Western hymns, and more visual elements in the sanctuary).  The sermon got shuffled a bit to be directly leading into communion, and billed as a "communion meditation," despite not being particularly communion-themed at all.  It happens, sometimes; in the welter of extra things get out of whack.

In all of that, though, nobody told me who to vote for.  Hmm.

For those who may have missed it, today was in some circles designated as "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," in which a number of pastors were pledged or maybe recruited to use this morning's sermon time to engage in direct endorsement of candidates for office or whatever other official voting matters might be forthcoming, the premise being that the whole fussy business of separating state and church in this country is a demonic infringement on The Pastor's divine right to say whatever he wants to say from the pulpit (the absence of "he or she" there is in this case deliberate, as I don't see a lot of evidence that any female preachers were involved; if any were, I apologize.)  The New York Times included an article on the event, which apparently even involved recording the sermon and taunting the Internal Revenue Service with it; read it here if you like.

Now, I'm going to guess that there weren't many churches where "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" and "World Communion Sunday" were both being observed today.  Maybe I'm just not doing the right mental gymnastics, but the two impulses don't seem to have a lot of overlap; "I have the absolute right to preach whatever I wanna preach" doesn't seem to fit easily with the notion that, say, the communion table is not restricted to any one church or denomination or what have you.  In that sense the irony lover in me can't help but find that juxtaposition rather fascinating itself.

But my main point is the whole business about what a preacher can or cannot say from the pulpit.  To cite a specific sentence, from some guy named James Garlow, "The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion promised under the First Amendment means pastors have full authority to say what the want to say."

Let that one roll around in your brain for a minute.

I was under this confused notion that the First Amendment said, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."  The notion of pastoral authority seems strangely absent.

Of course, Mr. Garlow and his cohort are not truly claiming that they're going to be hauled off to jail for making political endorsements from the pulpit.  Apparently what they are targeting is something far more heinous; taxes.  Use of a church or a pulpit for political gain could of course be regarded as a violation of the institution's tax-exempt status, and apparently paying taxes is a far worse fate than going to jail or being executed.  It seems odd to me, though, that the threat of paying taxes is somehow regarded as a threat to freedom of speech or religion.  We ordinary folk out here pay taxes to various degrees, and go on functionally worshiping according to the dictates of each individual conscience and speaking as freely as we choose.  I suppose if you've built up a big ol' pleasure palace as Mr. Garlow's church seems to have done, then loss of tax-exempt status is a fearful prospect indeed.  But still, the degree to which that threat should be regarded as an impingement on either of those freedoms is pretty dubious to me.

And the bigger problem is this: if Mr. Garlow or his ilk truly is the servant of God he or they claim to be, then his freedom to say whatever he wants to say from the pulpit is already severely curtailed, and by a far more fearful entity than the Internal Revenue Service.

I'm admittedly new at this seminary business, but so far I can't find anything in Scripture, the tradition of the church, the teachings or writings of this or that theologian, the guidelines of my denomination or any other, or frankly anywhere that endorses the notion that having a pulpit from which to preach means having the freedom to say whatever I want to say.  I am free to preach the Gospel, as far as I can see.  The Good News.  The message of Jesus.  The Word of God.  And I'm having real trouble finding "whatever I want to say" in any of that language.

Paul spends a good chunk of his first letter to Corinth elucidating how many ways he has curtailed his own freedom as a proclaimer of the Gospel ("though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them" in I Corinthians 9:19 would be one example).  His own freedom, and his right to indulge in that freedom, is not even secondary, but so far down the list as to be irrelevant to the calling he followed under God's claim.  The only thing Mr. Garlow seems to be enslaved to is a particular political party.  I'm fairly sure, even though I haven't had New Testament II yet, that Paul didn't particularly mean that when he spoke of being "a slave to all."

I've had the experience of many thoughtful, skilled and inspired pastors who (though I didn't know it at the time) provided me with good models of how to speak the Gospel to issues in society, to the injustices which rule around so many corners, and to those who profit from such injustices, without bounding over the line of political endorsement or enslavement.  (I will be so bold as to cite Rev. Brant Copeland, of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida, for being a model of this form of preacherly engagement in particular, and will hope he forgives me.)  Speaking the Gospel will inevitably require a preacher to speak against injustice and its purveyors in our world.  That category -- "injustice and its purveyors in our world" -- will sadly include the vast, overwhelming majority of politicians and candidates for office.  Endorsing a candidate?  Extremely unlikely, when one is enslaved only to the Gospel.

No, I don't hold with any notion that Mr. Garlow made any kind of slip of the tongue in using that phrase, unless you're regarding it as one of the greatest Freudian slips of all time.  He was, in fact, saying exactly what he wanted to say.  If that's his great mission in life, he should of course feel free to pursue it.  And I'm sure that church can find another pastor.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Oh, my, did that just happen?

For those who follow baseball with much passion, Wednesday's waterfall of decisive games, epic comebacks, and grotesque collapses was a once-in-a-fandom event.  That kind of thing Just. Doesn't. Happen.  Teams don't lose nine-game leads for playoff position in September.  It's impossible to be that bad after having been so good, right?  Nothing is impossible, my friends; after that display even skiing through a revolving door begins to look conceivable.

For most the headline-grabbing event is the long, horrific fall of the Boston Red Sox.  Atlanta Braves fans are in the unenviable position of either suffering in silence or interjecting, "Hey, what about us?  We fell apart just as badly . . . oh, wait . . . ."  And in truth there are reasons that the Red Sox collapse is in fact a bigger deal, which we shall address anon.  But to the Braves first.

Earlier in September the Braves had an 8 1/2-game advantage in the chase for the wild card position, the final playoff spot in the National League.  The St. Louis Cardinals, the team trying to close that deficit, looked a bit disoriented and lost, and the Braves were riding their old-style formula of devastating pitching (now with a real bullpen, something the Braves teams of the '90s never quite mastered) and occasionally scoring a run or two to win the game.  After Wednesday's games, the Braves resided one game behind the Cardinals, looking at an offseason beginning sooner than anyone had anticipated.

At least as of the time their game ended, no one had frittered away such a large last-month-of-the-season lead and missed out on the playoffs, ever.  But if one were going to look for a team susceptible to such a collapse, the Braves weren't the worst candidate to pick.  So much of their success was bound up in their pitching, particularly a bullpen featuring a couple of young flamethrowers in Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, that if for some reason that pitching hit a rough patch there was no Plan B.  The kind way to say it is to call the Braves "offensively challenged."  Chipper Jones should cruise into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday, but he's on the downside of his career and so frequently injured or banged up as to be a shell of his former self.  Last year's rookie phenomenon, Jason Heyward, practically re-wrote the definition of "sophomore slump," to the point of losing the confidence of manager Fredi Gonzalez and being replaced for long stretches of time by a career minor-leaguer who had never really hit in the minor leagues.  (Here's a little-appreciated truth about baseball, particularly hitting: you can't get out of a slump by not playing.)  Dan Uggla, the slugging second baseman acquired in the offseason, played as if the last letter of his name had been replaced with a "y."  Aside from rookie first baseman and possible Rookie of the Year Freddie Freeman (no relation), there wasn't a lot of dependable offense there.  If the pitching faltered, even a little bit, the Braves were in trouble.  And that's exactly what happened.  It was hardly a total collapse, but Kimbrel and Venters became a little bit more hittable, the starters couldn't spare the rest of the bullpen by pitching eight or nine innings, and the Cardinals got hot at the right time to take advantage.  Now Cardinal fans can extend their good-byes to Albert Pujols a little bit longer.

Only an hour or two later, the Red Sox got the Braves off the hook, just a little bit, with their "yes we can!" answer to the Braves' "can you top this?" moment.  Boston completed a nine-game collapse with a loss to the Baltimore Orioles, while the Tampa Bay Devil Rays defeated the New York Yankees.  That rather mere description does not do justice to Wednesday night's turn (and turn again, and turn again...) of events.

Up to the ninth inning of their game, the Red Sox led, 3-2.  In the meantime, the Rays trailed the Yankees as much as 7-0 before beginning their comeback, which was not completed until the ninth inning with a barely-fair home run by one Dan Johnson, whose sole purpose in baseball seems to be to destroy the Red Sox.  In 2008 he hit a crucial home run in the Rays' pennant push, and did it again late last season.  In between, Johnson spent the 2009 season in Japan and most of the 2010 season in Durham, NC, home of the Rays' AAA farm team.  This spring something odd happened; the minor-league lifer actually got to leave spring training with the major-league team instead of shuffling off to Durham.  Faced with this unexpected karmic windfall, Johnson responded by mustering a batting average barely over .100 (in a sport in which a .200 average is a good sign you should seek alternate employment).  Quickly he was shuffled back to Durham, there to bide his time until the odd baseball quirk known as September roster expansion allowed him to return to the majors, in time to destroy the Red Sox yet again.

With the game thus tied, matters continued into extra innings, in which the 12th inning finally brought triumph in the form of a barely-fair home run from a much more conventional source, Evan Longoria, the Rays' most highly-renowned player.  This home run occurred just in time for Red Sox players to see it on their clubhouse TVs upon trudging dejectedly in after their ninth-inning loss, due to a sharp single by Robert Andino, who is now in the process of receiving a vulgar middle name in perpetuity from Red Sox fans, in the manner of Bucky Effing Dent (1978) and Aaron Bleeping Boone (2003).  Andino's single, appropriately enough, ticked off the glove of Sox left-fielder Carl Crawford, finishing up his own horribly disappointing first season in Boston as the recipient of a very pricey free-agent contract, allowing him to escape the horrors of playing for Tampa Bay.

Let the irony wash over you for few moments.  Enjoy that?  Good.

Now as to why the Boston collapse was so much more of an attention-grabber than Atlanta's:

The Red Sox, despite a history of being the plucky underdog to the Evil Empire in New York, are in fact their own Evil Empire these days.  Their payroll isn't a whole lot smaller than that of the Yankees, and their fan base has acquired the same level of smug obnoxiousness as that of the Yankees, despite trailing in World Series championships twenty-something to two.  Their chief offseason acquisitions before this year were classic examples of a large-market club plucking away the premium players small-market teams can no longer afford; Crawford from the Rays via free agency and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres via trade.  With such offensive improvements added to what was believed to be a solid pitching staff, the Red Sox were widely picked to waltz through the American League and into the World Series. surveyed a group of forty-five writers, analysts, former players, etc. and all of them--yes, all forty-five--picked the Red Sox to win their division, forget that messy wild-card stuff.  (The Braves were a frequent, but by no means consensus, pick to win the NL wild card; in other words, they ended up about where those ESPN foofs picked them to end up.)

It should be pointed out that as of September 1, those forty-five experts appeared to be right on the money.  The Red Sox were in fact in first place, something not true of the Braves in their division; this simply adds another level of incredulity to the overall collapse.

Meanwhile, the Rays, to put it mildly, spend less on their roster.  A lot less.  By all accounts the Cardinals in the NL were much likelier playoff candidates in the AL.  The Rays, despite playoff turns in 2008 and 2010, were not expected to make the playoffs at all this year.  Since nobody goes to games in St. Petersburg (the Tampa Bay area does not deserve this team) and the stadium, a goofy-looking lopsided dome, isn't a moneymaker in the mode of iconic Fenway Park, the Rays operate with a limited budget.  Besides Crawford, the Rays bid goodbye to one of their top starting pitchers and virtually all their relief pitchers over the offseason, for budgetary reasons.  Their two on-the-cheap free-agent signings were Johnny Damon, most notable for rocking the Jesus look during Boston's 2004 World Series run, and the erratic Manny Ramirez, who ended up "retiring" five games into the season due to being busted for performance-enhancing drugs.

So, on paper at least, the disparity between Boston and Tampa Bay was more impressive, by far, than the disparity between Atlanta and St. Louis.  And yet there Boston was, looking if though they had suffered some sort of collective mind-wipe that left them unable to remember how to play baseball.  The Rays had a good month of September, but not great; such was the magnitude of Boston's slide.  The Rays play at Texas Friday night, the Red Sox go home to wonder what happened.

If you've waded through this whole thing waiting for some grand theme or mini-sermon to top it off, you are about to be grandly disappointed.  There is no grand theme.  Such unfathomable swings and falls defy thematization.  (I'm certainly not going to bring divine intervention into it; I do believe God has a flair for the preposterous, but this?)  Folks, stuff happens.  Wildly improbable, statistically unthinkable things happen, and trying to extract some lesson from it is a bigger fool's errand than my own.  Enjoy it, if you're a fan of the Rays, Cardinals, or underdogs; suffer through it, if you're a fan of the Braves, Red Sox, or corporate oligarchies or whatever.  This is that thing that sport (particularly baseball) does, every so often, that makes them irresistible to those who love it.  It certainly doesn't happen every season.  Most years a team like the Red Sox prevails, and handily, while the Rays go scraping for change between the sofa cushions.  But not this year.  Sometimes the underdog wins, and there's not a whole lot to do but shake your head and wonder, and enjoy.