24 July 2005

Babel fish

This morning, I attended Mars Hill Church, a small, nondenominational, emerging church that gathers at Jammin' Java, a very cool coffeehouse in the middle of Vienna, Virginia. I'm still processing the experience, and may have more to say about it later, but it was one of the most beautiful and God-centered worship services I can recall attending. It was, to use Dr. Len Sweet's acronym for emerging worship gatherings, EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-based, and Connective. They included kids--and did it *well*, making it a good experience for both the kids and the adults. Everyone was very friendly--really! I think I have a lot to learn from these wonderful disciples, and I hope I can keep a conversation going with them.

But that's not what I wanted to write about, mainly. I wanted to share just a few of my thoughts on the teaching/discussion topic they chose for today: the Tower of Babel. Three kids (I doubt any of them were 10 yet) read the Biblical story (Genesis 11:1-9), then three other stories connecting it to the myths of other cultures (Greek and African) and to the New Testament story of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41). Then, after a short preface connecting her own life story to these readings, the leader opened up the floor for discussion. It was a great discussion, and I apologize for not contributing these thoughts at that time, but most of them didn't occur to me until the next section of the service, a free-form worship time in which were were encouraged to pray, write, and/or draw. (So it often goes for us introverts.)

Anyway, this is what I thought about as I sat in silent prayer. (Write during church? Draw during church?? Um, er, sorry, I'm still recovering from the lack of hard pews and kneelers.) ;-)

Recently, I wrote to Mother Blair (formerly the priest in charge of Adult Christian Formation at my church, whom I miss muchly) that, while I don't feel like I'm to a large extent actively "part of the problem" (you know, THE problem--all of our man-made ills), I don't feel like I spend much time being part of the solution, either. Instead, I continuously devote huge helpings of time and energy to being what I called "part of the distraction." Endless amounts of my toil and thought go into accomplishing things that, in God's terms, are pretty much meaningless. I may not be actively increasing the misery in this world, but when it comes right down to it, what does making sure that nothing (I mean nothing!) comes between the American consumer and his or her destined web advertisement have to do with the work that Jesus has given his disciples to do? What does it have to do with being a fisher of men? Sure, I can do my best to make sure that my fellows on the distraction brigade have as pleasant a time as possible getting ads (and, secondarily, news content) in front of people's eyeballs. I can (try to) be an example of Kingdom living to the folks I work with. But it seems like so small a contribution to the reign of God.

Similarly, the Babel folks weren't evil. There's nothing in the biblical story to indicate that they were oppressing anyone (any more than was customary in those days), engaging in violence or terrorism, or even living immorally. What they were doing was investing *huge* amounts of time and resources (human and otherwise) in a big, ambitious project that was completely and utterly beside the point, from God's point of view. They were very industrious! That's good, right? Here in Northern Virginia, we're all really, really industrious! We accomplish tons. We're breathtakingly successful! We juggle marriage, kids, and high-stress, high-workload, high-paying jobs with the greatest of ease (sleep being optional). We have expensive houses, expensive cars, and expensive shrink bills, and it's all good, because just look at our success!

And I'm not saying that all of this activity is bad--by no means! Marriage and parenthood are divine callings, no doubt about it. I pray that those of us with spouses and kids are devoting the time to them that they deserve, and that we deserve to have with them. And a great many of our high-stress, high-paying jobs are absolutely doing lots to improve the lives of our fellow creatures. But I think it's probably worthwhile to reflect (as I'm doing now) on how much of this effort is part of the solution--God's solution--and how much is part of the distraction. Having some experience myself with the whole "divine wake-up call" phenomenon, I feel for the folks at Babel. I hope they found a good path, a godly path, to tread, in community with the fellow speakers of their new languages. And I hope each of us can also find a godly path to walk, with friends, as part of the solution. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

23 July 2005

Cost of discipleship

After writing yesterday about Buffy and the cost of discipleship, I opened my daily Bible reading guide this morning and discovered that the passage for today was perhaps the classic Biblical text on that topic: Jeremiah chapter 20. Go read it. Yes, put Buffy on pause and read your Scripture--it's only 18 verses.

Wow, Jeremiah's poetry in that chapter is some raw, powerful stuff, to make an understatement. I've felt that kind of despair, but as a result of chemical-based clinical depression, not as a consequence of living out my call. Inevitably, this "dark night of the soul" will one day occur in the context of my discipleship. I pray that, like Jeremiah (and Buffy), I have the strength and courage to wail and weep and yet to trust and persevere.

Faith is not the absence ot doubt; faith is maintaining commitment in the face of doubt--even overwhelming doubt and despair. God, grant me that kind of faith. Amen.

22 July 2005

All I really need to know about discipleship I learned from Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Pop-culture piffle or profound meditation on the life of a disciple in the service of good? If you think it's the former, then you obviously haven't watched it, and here's what you need to do. Get thee post haste to Netflix or Blockbuster or your friend who knows better than you do, and start watching from Season 1, Episode 1. I'm not denying that it'll be quite a time commitment to make it through all seven seasons, but you may take as long as you need. Go now. Watch some Buffy. I'll wait.

OK, now I assume I'm preaching to the choir, which suits lazy me just fine. However, if you haven't seen the whole series, please note that BELOW BE SPOILERS. 'Nuff said. So: here's what I learned about discipleship from Buffy.

You don't choose discipleship; you are chosen. None of us gets to decide what gifts we're given, be they natural talents or spiritual gifts. Buffy never wanted to be the vampire slayer. She wanted to be a cheerleader. But she was given, Spidey-style, both great power and great responsibility as the Chosen One. What she did choose--and what she had to keep choosing again and again over the course of seven years--was to accept that responsibility and heed her call. The rest of the Scooby Gang didn't just choose their gifts either--Willow was naturally cut out to be both a computer geek and a witch. And similarly, we choose neither our original call, its shape, or the gifts we're given to respond to it--only whether to answer "here I am" and stay on the path.

Discipleship can be very, very hard. Buffy starts out at the beginning of Season 1 as a relatively carefree teenager who happens to be a superhero. By the later seasons, she is a weary veteran with the weight of a world she's saved again and again on her shoulders. She loses many friends and loves--some die, but others part ways with her because they can't live with who she is. She has to kill her true love to save the world. She sees both herself and her loved ones give in to awful temptations. She herself suffers death (twice), and is forcibly jerked out of heaven by her well-meaning friends. Buffy gets depressed, she despairs, she loses faith. For all the joy in her life--family, friendship, love--her calling is often truly a cross that she must bear. There is often a very steep price associated with discipleship.

Discipleship requires faith and commitment. As I mentioned, Buffy was tempted to abandon her calling many times. And who could blame her? But in the end, she shouldered her burden and soldiered on--largely out of commitment to her friends. And those friends, despite the stress and hurt they often shared, were similarly committed to her. Willow chose to forgo an ivy league education to attend UC Sunnydale and remain a soldier in Buffy's cause. Xander stuck by his friend Willow and redeemed her when she had embraced evil and was about to destroy the world. And none of them ever had any assurance that they would succeed or even survive, apart from their faith in each other and the cause.

Discipleship is a group activity. More than anything, I often think, Buffy is about the cost of discipleship. But I'm wrong. Just watch the show: what's Buffy about? Friendship. It's a show about friendship. No doubt. This is a show about a group of friends who love, support, challenge, hurt, even hate one another sometimes. But there's no doubt that they could not do what they do without each other. "What can't we do if we're together?" they ask in a big ensemble number in the deservedly famous musical episode. And this is how it's always been--Jesus didn't embark on his ministry alone. He did it with his friends--discipleship requires friends.

Discipleship requires laughter. Buffy never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Anya, the ass-kicking, 1000-year-old vengeance demon, is deathly afraid of bunnies. Every single episode contains humor. And why shouldn't it? Every single day on this earth contains humor too, unless we're too busy being serious to notice it. We need funny stuff to keep going, and to keep us humble. Jesus used humor in his parables and teaching: Camel through the eye of the needle? Plank in my eye? Do we often miss this stuff in our quest for Serious Instruction from God's Word?

Discipleship requires forgiveness. In the course of the show, nearly every major character does terrible things which harm themselves, their friends, and others. And so do we. All the time. Buffy and her friends have many opportunities to forgive each other, and they generally do so in the end. And so must we, again and again. Because sin and temptation don't go away just because you've decided to become a committed disciple. Thank God for friends and loved ones with the heart to forgive.

There are probably more discipleship lessons from Buffy, but that's a good start. Now, it wouldn't surprise me if a reader who happens to be a committed Christian is wondering, "OK, so just who is Buffy supposed to be a disciple of, exactly?" And it's true that the show is intentionally vague and equivocal about matters like God and Christianity. In one episode, a character asks Buffy if God exists, and she answers "The jury's still out." Crosses are effective against vampires, but it's never quite clear exactly why that might be. So? Would it have been a better show if it were explicitly Christian and seen by a handful of viewers on the Family Channel? I don't know. I do know that it's full of lessons about discipleship.

So have you seen it yet? No? What are you doing sitting in front of a computer, then? Go to Blockbuster or something. Get yourself some spiritual formation and top-notch entertainment all in one convenient package. And come away energized to be (if this is what you are) a member of Jesus' Scooby Gang.


I just mowed over a wasps' nest of some kind. I quickly received a clear impression that the wasps in question were less than pleased. I say "of some kind" because I never saw them. Just felt them, and again, and again...and then I abandoned the mower and ran. Now I have Benadryl cream all over my feet (where I got most of the stings), though they're still throbbing painfully, and I called Tina and told her I'm not going back there, even to retrieve the lawnmower.

This doesn't count as my weekly post. I just wanted to share my pain.

And I'm sorry, wasps. I didn't mean to.


16 July 2005

The Boy Who Mentioned Flow: A Fable

I was very pleased to recently run across an old edition of the little-known fables of the Greek sage Posea, known (to the few who know him) for turning well-known parables on their heads. This can be a valuable way to gain a new perspective, or perhaps a headache. In any event, one tale in particular was very instructive to me personally, and I thought I'd share it with my throngs of Constant Readers.

"The Boy Who Mentioned Flow"

Once there was a small village by a river. Most of the villagers were shepherds, making their living in the hills surrounding the town, but one young lad lived as a fisherman, spending his days by the river and supplying fish to the townsfolk. This boy was well-liked in the village. He was trustworthy and competent and thus earned their trust. He was friendly and thus earned their friendship. He valued harmony, and had harmonious relations with everyone. This was a boy who liked to get along and to see others get along, to "go with the flow," so to speak, and everyone felt that anything left in his hands was bound to go smoothly, with little muss or fuss.

One day, at a town meeting, the townsfolk spent quite some time complaining about another young man, a shepherd, who had recently amused himself by leading the whole village on a wild goose chase to fend off nonexistent wolves who were supposedly threatening the young man's flock. The fisher boy didn't think much of either the prankster or the town's reaction to him--just let it pass and move on, he thought. When they were finished venting, he mentioned casually, "By the way, the flow of the river is up this month. What with all the rain this spring, and the runoff from last winter, the water level's pretty high." The townsfolk greeted this news amiably, because they liked the fisher boy, and, as usual, he spoke as if everything was well and under control. "That's nice!" they said. "Hope it's good for the fish!" The fisher boy actually was a bit concerned about the increased flow, but he felt good that he had alerted the town, and since they didn't seem too worried, he supposed he shouldn't be, either.

A month later, at the town meeting, the villagers were once again stewing about the shepherd boy, who had pulled the same prank again. This time, they were contemplating some kind of reprisal, but the fisher boy suggested that the other lad had probably learned his lesson, and that they should let bygones be bygones. He also mentioned that the river's flow had increased even more, since the rains had continued, and that he'd never seen it so high. "Wow, how about that?" replied the townsfolk. Coming from the fisher boy, this didn't sound like anything to be alarmed about. Remarkable, maybe, but not alarming. The fisher boy himself had been more concerned than ever about it, but, well, he'd done his duty and informed them. Apparently they saw no reason for agitation, and he sure wasn't going to rock the boat.

The next month, the town met in the middle of a thunderstorm of Biblical proportions. Despite the weather, the townsfolk's spirits were up, because that joking shepherd had finally gotten what was coming to him, in their view: real wolves had attacked and, when the cynical villagers refused to come to his aid, had decimated his flock. The fisher boy again mentioned that the river was really, really high now. As they came out of the meeting hall, they were greeted, to their horror, by water rushing through the streets of the village! As a sheep floated by, baaing in terror, and the townsfolk began to run around shouting "Flood, flood!" and desperately attempting to salvage their possessions, the mayor grabbed the fisher boy by the arm. "Fisher boy, you work by the river every day! Didn't you see this coming? Why didn't you cry 'flood' and warn us?"

"But I did warn you!" replied the tearful fisher boy. "I've been warning you for months! You just didn't listen!"

So ends the fable. What I realized, after reading Posea's words, is that I'm the fisher boy! I do this all the time. Case in point: at home, I'm in charge of the financial spreadsheets, mainly because I have more patience for that stuff than Tina does. For a couple of months, I had been mentioning to Tina that we've been going over budget, our "cushion" was disappearing, I'd had to dip into our Christmas Club, etc. Finally, it came to a head and began to impact our get-out-of-debt plan. Tina was pretty angry and wanted to know why I hadn't said anything earlier--didn't I see that this was happening?

Another case in point: at work, we've been running out of space to store the huge files that contain our raw web server logs. For a long time we had disk space to store them all redundantly, but I've been telling my bosses and colleagues for months that we had run out of that space and now had them in only one place, and needed to seriously look at tape backup, etc. Today, we almost lost the only copy of the files for last September. If we had, it would have been fairly disastrous, and I'm completely sure that my colleagues would have felt that I hadn't communicated the fact that we were in a precarious situation, though I could produce an e-mail trail to the contrary.

I don't blame my wife or my co-workers about this one bit. It has to do with the way I unconsciously communicate, relate to others, and react to others' reactions, and now that I've perceived this pattern in myself, I'm hopeful that it won't be so easy for me to unknowingly repeat it. God, help me to discern that there's a time to cry "flood!" and to make sure I'm heard.

Eight-legged friend

We have an American House Spider (Achaearanea tepidariorum) living in a fine web that she (or he, but let's call her "she") built just inside our bathroom window. Yes, I said "inside;" that's where House Spiders like to live. Her body is about 1 cm long, and each of her legs is about 2 cm if she stretches them out. She's mottled grey/brown, and we know for sure what she is because we looked her up in our Audubon Book of Insects and Spiders and she looks just like her picture.

You may think this is strange, icky, or even alarming, especially since she's hanging right there above our heads when we take a shower, but from our point of view she's more than welcome. Our bathroom doesn't have a fan/vent (and since we rent that's not going to change), so we leave the window cracked much of the time. That's how she got in, and that's how lots of less-welcome buggies get in from time to time. Some of those, she eats, which frankly is A-OK with us, vegetarians or no. She's doing far more good than harm, and we're glad to have her there.

You may wonder if we've never heard of window screens. We have, but again, we're renting, the landlord is uninterested in such things, and our House Spider is both cheaper and more nifty. I wish her good health and a full tummy.

09 July 2005

Brief declaration of intent

OK, I want to try to make a commitment to post to this blog at least weekly. I think that by doing it publicly like this, I might be more likely to stick to it and find the time. On the other hand, the last time I blogged a life change I intended to make (see the post about born again vegetarianism) resulted in a, well, semi-solid commitment. But anywho, I do declare that such is my intent.

More on the Lord's Prayer

I remember the first prayer my mom taught me when I was a little nipper. It went like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

I prayed that prayer every night before bed, and I liked talking to God, but I must say that I prayed with a bit of trepidation. I mean, "If I should die before I wake?" Was that a likely occurrence? Why did Mom think it was a good idea that I pray that every night? Did she know something I didn't? I was, like, four years old, and I preferred to consider myself firmly in the "too young to die" category.

Although I prayed that prayer--er--religiously for quite a while, I admit I was rather relieved when Mom taught me another prayer. The second prayer I ever learned was the Lord's Prayer, and this one seemed much safer. I was praying for bread (which I enjoyed), forgiveness (which I sometimes needed), freedom from temptation (I wasn't sure what that was), and deliverance from evil (that might have seemed scary, but I was already starting to run into bullies and the like, and I thought I could really use God's help in staying away from them, not to mention the ghosts in the attic). I didn't really know what the stuff at the beginning about "hallowed" and "kingdom come" was supposed to mean; I think I figured it was praise like the doxology at the end. The Elizabethan language was a bit awkward but kind of neat, and overall this was a comforting prayer that I enjoyed praying, and I think it's safe to say that, as for many of us, it's the single prayer I've prayed most often as my life has unfolded.

So the Lord's Prayer was safe and comforting, and eventually it became familiar and rote as I prayed it again and again, until I think I was incapable of praying it at all--the words just tumbled out without meaning or emotion. It was like the Pledge of Allegiance. (Do people really think making kids say that over and over makes it more meaningful for them, instead of the opposite?) I think that's the way the Lord's Prayer is for many Americans--safe, neutral, something well known to "pray" when praying is called for. I think it's like that for my wife, who isn't a Christian and who usually avoids joining in when prayers or creeds are spoken, but who will say the Lord's Prayer because, I guess, it's a neutral (neutered?) part of the culture; it doesn't really mean anything or imply commitment or faith.

And I can't blame her--like I said, even my first impression of the Lord's Prayer was that it was safe and comforting and unchallenging. But is that the kind of prayer it really is? If you'll bear with me, I'd like to examine it a bit.

Our Father, who art in heaven

The prayer starts right off with one of Jesus' more radical (and, for him, fundamental) teachings: the God who is in heaven, who is Creator and Lord of both heaven and earth, is as near to us and cares about each of us as a parent, abba, our beloved father, "daddy". Now that is comforting, and it does make me feel safe, but it's not neutral or unchallenging. To us, the idea is too familiar, but to many of Jesus' listeners, his referring to the Creator and Judge of all, the Lord of Hosts (i.e., of armies), as "daddy"--and not just his daddy, but our daddy too--was radical indeed. Also note the plural--not "my" Father but "our" Father. The entire prayer is meant as a communal prayer--even when we pray it alone, we pray it with the communion of saints, past and present. And whenever we pray it in fellowship with other Christians, whenever two or more of us are gathered in his name, the One who originally prayed this prayer is there too.

Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven

OK, stop and think about this for just a moment. What are we praying for here, really?

In these lines, we pray for nothing short of the utter transformation of the entire world. Is that safe, neutral, and unchallenging? We're praying for the sort of world in which God's name is revered. That's a different sort of world than we have now. We're praying that the Kingdom of God--the Kingdom that Jesus always talked about in parables, the Kingdom in which all are radically welcomed, valued, healed, forgiven, and saved, in which God's will is done (and not just debated)--will come here. Now. On earth as it is in heaven. This is end-of-the-book-of-Revelation, new-heaven-and-new-earth stuff, but we're not praying that God will bring it about "some day"--this entire prayer is about "this day", as is explicit in the next line. This is saving the world, and this is what Jesus came for. I didn't get this until fairly recently, but now, whenever I pray this part of the Lord's prayer, it becomes a recommitment of myself to discipleship, to the work of bringing about this Kingdom on earth as in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

So we start by praying what I believe is our ultimate prayer as Christians and followers of the One who came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand: thy kingdom come. We've recommitted ourselves to helping to bring about that Kingdom. Now, in the rest of the prayer, we ask God for those things that we will need in order to do this work.

We start by asking for our daily bread. What we'll need first of all is freedom from the pressure of the present: we can't do the work of disciples if we don't have the basic necessities that allow us to survive the day--at least, not for long. This part of the prayer is phrased as an expression of trust: give us this day our daily bread--and I trust that tomorrow, you'll do the same, so I'm not going to worry overmuch about that right now; instead, I'll get down to the work you have given me to do. I've also read that it may perhaps be better translated "Give us this day our bread of The Day", explicitly connecting this line of the prayer to the previous lines and the eschatological theme of ultimate worldwide transformation--give us what we need to help Your Day dawn. And you thought it was nothing but a request for food!

And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us

After freedom from the pressures of the present, the next thing we need in order to do our work on behalf of the Kingdom is freedom from the pressures of the past: guilt over our own sins and mistakes, and anger and ill-will toward those who have wronged us. We need to be free of both of these in order to do our work as disciples; both can hold us back from devoting our full selves to the Reign of God. Sometimes we hold on to these things like they're our most prized possessions, so when we pray this part of the Prayer, we would do well to search our hearts: do we really want to be forgiven, and to forgive? Is this as safe and neutral and easy as we like to think?

Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil

Having become free from the present and the past, the last thing we need in order to be real disciples is freedom from the pressures of the future: fear and anxiety about evil that might befall us, and our tendencies toward temptation and sin which might at any time entrap us and take us off the path. As with forgiveness, we had better stop and think about this when we pray it to Our Father in heaven: do we really want to be free from temptation? In our more honest moments, don't we like temptation, at least a little bit? More than a little bit? Wouldn't we rather stay within the safe, comforting confines of the people we are today than be transformed like this?

For thine is the kingdom,
And the power,
And the glory,
Forever and ever,

So we've prayed for nothing less than the radical transformation of the entire world. We've prayed that God will free us from all tyrannies of the present, past, and future that might hinder us from being full, wholehearted, committed participants in helping to bring about that transformation (i.e., we've prayed that we ourselves may be transformed into transformers, or blessed so that we might bless). And now we finish with a powerful song of confidence in the One who alone has the power to bring about all this transformation. The one with the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. This is why we can pray this prayer, because of that One and because of our confidence in that One. Through God, even this is possible. Amen!

So, in the end, I think the common idea of the Lord's Prayer as a safe, neutral, meaning-free platitude is rather a colossal misjudgment. This is no empty, comforting prayer, though to pray it should be a major source of comfort (on the original sense of "strength") for a disciple of Jesus.

And, "dangerous" as it might be, I definitely prefer it to worrying about whether I'll die in my sleep. ;-)

01 July 2005

Letter to the Washington Post regarding the genocide in Darfur

On Sunday, June 26th, I attended a public worship service at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington. The purpose of this service was to call the U.S. news media to a sense of conscience and responsibility regarding the horribly devastating and shockingly underreported ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard much about this crisis, so when I became aware of this series of services (http://www.worship4justice.org/), I suspect that I might have dismissed it as yet another pet cause—a real need, but one among many, and surely not a pressing issue for me. Otherwise, we’d be hearing about it, right?

Thankfully, that was not my reaction, due in part to one lonely, prophetic voice in the media—one publication with the courage to draw attention both to this horror and to our indifference to it. That voice? I’m sorry to say it was The Onion (http://www.theonion.com/), the satirical online mock newspaper. The Onion (June 8th, 2005) printed a fake opinion piece entitled “Well, I Guess That Genocide in Sudan Must’ve Worked Itself Out On Its Own.” Its closing statement: “Evidently, the hatred has been healed, peace has been restored, and the perpetrators of this unimaginable crime have been brought to justice. It sure is good to know it all must've turned out all right. It's like they say: No news is good news! Right?”

Right? In this case, nothing could be farther from the truth. But you wouldn’t know it from the reporting in the “real” news media. What does it mean when we must increasingly look to comedic entities like The Onion and The Daily Show for the courage to speak prophetically and point out the emperor’s nakedness (or apathy)? What does it mean when the “serious” news sources report endlessly on the ravings of a manic, possibly delusional film actor, but judge mass slaughter to be not newsworthy? I just did a search on CNN.com for “Darfur”. It returned eleven stories within the past month, only six of which were primarily about this genocide. I did the same search for “Michael Jackson.” Five pages of results. Fifty-one stories.

President George W. Bush has used the word “genocide” to describe this crisis. The President was right. But he and Congress must act if peace is to be achieved and kept. They must strongly support an international peacekeeping presence in support of African Union efforts in the region. But if American citizens remain silent, then our government will not act. And the ordinary citizen will be silent if he or she is allowed by a silent news establishment to believe that no news is good news. This story must be told, and I hope and pray that our news organizations do not leave it to the comedians to tell the truth and wake us up. If that’s the state of affairs, then not a single thing about it is funny.