28 December 2005

Attention and commitment

TIME Magazine recently named Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates "Persons of the Year". I have to say that I couldn't be happier with the choices. These individuals are truly using their fame and fortune to enable the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in this world on an enormous scale. They may not think of it in those terms (though I think Bono does), but that's what they're doing. And thank God for them.

In a related article on "Charitainment", James Poniewozik opines that,
[T]he most valuable commodity in ending misery is not money or even will but attention. And attention is the celebrigod's lightning bolt. If the most fatuous celebrity plants himself near a problem, he may embarrass himself. But at least someone will see it. And someone will film it. And a few of us may, little by little, be moved to change it.
I heartily agree. The big problem isn't money. People in developed nations have plenty of money. The problem isn't will. Human beings want to be compassionate. We want to help, at least in the abstract. Both of these facts were illustrated in our response to last year's tsunami and this year's hurricane Katrina. But there's so much misery in the world and there's so much else going on in our lives. And we are eminently distractable. So we're like, "Oh, of course, I'd like to help - what did you say the problem is? Uh-huh? Gee, that's terrible - ooh, shiny!" And then we're on to the next thing. But what if the thing that wants to attract us is itself a shiny and glorious celebrity, capable of capturing and focusing our attention, at least for a little while? Then, as the TIME article said, maybe some of us will be moved to action.

But what happens when the next shiny thing comes along? The first challenge - and it's a huge one, so thank God again for Bono and his ilk - is to get our attention. But the second, even larger challenge is to hold it. To really make a difference in the misery of the world, we need people and groups who are committed - deeply and truly. And here, I submit, is where the Church comes in. Bono and the Gateses can call us to action, but it is part of the mission of the Church and other faith communities to call us to commitment and sustained work for change. I know folks who are deeply committed to compassionate action outside of the context of a faith commitment, including my wife and (to the best of my knowledge) Bill Gates. But nonetheless, faith communities - especially followers of Jesus, who are fundamentally people called to a mission of reconciliation and love - have a unique obligation and a unique ability to call people to compassionate commitment and to equip them for that commitment. That's not a complete description of the mission of the Church or of any faith body, but it's a fundamental part of that mission. Bono, Melinda, Bill, Angelina and the rest are doing what they can. We people of faith, who are answerable to God and who are called to love like God does - like God does! - dare not fall down on our own duty.

Loving God, help us to love like that: with commitment strong enough to keep loving despite our cluttered lives, and with love strong enough to call others into that same commitment. Amen!

24 December 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

My most excellent friends Jan and Shaw got me a book for Christmas called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which (despite having received it only a couple of days ago and being very busy with holiday travel and family revelry) I've almost finished. It's a page-turner, believe it or not, and the reason you might (if you’ve heard of it) be skeptical is that it's a book about punctuation. Nothing but punctuation. History of punctuation, proper usage, suggested vigilante actions against those who use semicolons ignorantly—you know, stuff like that. Its tagline is, "Sticklers unite!" and the agenda of the author, a self-important Brit journalist called Lynne Truss, is nothing less than to organize guerilla legions armed with magic markers ready to deface movie posters for films like Two Weeks Notice and supermarket signs advertising "Banana's On Sale" and add or remove apostrophes as necessary. What an insufferable snob. I love this woman. She's a hoot.

Now, you may rightly object that I have absolutely no business advocating punctuation sticklerhood. I write a blog; my blogging software includes no grammar checker; and I am far, far from infallible. But I just want to confess that I do think these things are important, that I do try to get them right. The many errors I make stem from carelessness, ignorance, or deliberate choice, but neither the carelessness nor the ignorance is itself a matter of deliberate choice or apathy--like I said, I do think clear communication is important, and I (usually) try to get things right, for the sake of understanding on the part of the folks I'm trying to communicate with. If you're going to bother to write anything, what on earth could be more important than that? So even when I'm instant messaging, I (usually) go out of my way to remember that IM is still a written, not an oral, medium, and therefore things like capital letters, spaces, and punctuation (used correctly) are still very helpful in conveying meaning. In a blog, even moreso.

I do sometimes make deliberate errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; and when I do that, it's for the same reason that I occasionally use profanity in my writing: I want you to notice it. I do that sort of thing for emphasis sometimes, or to adopt a particular voice, intending to enhance communication--but I don't doubt that they sometimes have the opposite effect, like when I set up a whole bunch of different e-mail addresses intending to make it easy for different people to communicate with me and was dismayed to find this only confused folks who wanted to know what my real address was.

But I do care about punctuation, and therefore I should probably come clean (for those who have, rather surprisingly, read this far) about some of my beliefs and practices in this regard.
  • In general, I try conform to U.S. standards regarding punctuation and grammar, since that's where I live. There are, however, some exceptions.
  • Just as the Brits, and other Europeans, get many other things right where we Americans get them wrong, they're inarguably correct about the placement of terminating punctuation outside of closing quotation marks. The American rule says that terminating punctuation is always placed inside closing quotes, even if the punctuation isn't part of the quotation. The British rule says: if it's part of the quote, it belongs inside the close quote mark; if it's not part of the quote, it belongs outside. The Brits are right. We Americans are wrong. Therefore, I follow the British rule. I honestly don't know how any computer programmer couldn't be mortally offended by the misguided U.S. rule. If you tried to write code like that, it wouldn't compile. This rule, and the awful habits that are created by its teaching in American public schools, probably singlehandedly explains the offshore outsourcing of so many U.S. tech jobs to India and other places where they're taught sensible language practices.
  • Incidentally, other things the Brits get right include measurement (the Metric system), date formats (2005 December 24 or 24 December 2005 but never December 24, 2005--what sort of logic does month-day-year have??), and time formats (24-hour; no silly AM/PM).
  • Back to punctuation: you might have noticed that I have way to much fondness for colons, semicolons, dashes, and (especially) parentheses. This probably explains why I liked this book so much. It probably also indicates that I'm a pretentious git. But that's the way I write. I take comfort in knowing several published writers (my Emerging Church friends will recall a certain Brian) who have similarly pretentious--though probably less extreme--styles and still seem to get books published and read. So maybe there's hope for me; if I ever really published anything, at least I'd probably have the moderating influence of an editor to tone me down.
So, on Christmas Eve, I'm blogging about punctuation. Every other day of the year, I blog about faith, and on the eve of our Savior's birth, I blog about printers' conventions. Oh well, this is what was banging on the inside of my skull this morning. This evening I'll go to church and will be in a different frame of mind. Merry Christmas, everybody!!

By the way, you can read the joke that explains the book's title here (third paragraph). Puncuation. Funny. Important. Who knew?

17 December 2005

The Missional Church // A Beginning Reader's Guide

Kevin Cawley has compiled an excellent list of books on Missional Church. If you're interested in Missional Church, and you haven't read much on the subject (and you have the wherewithal for some deep scholarly stuff), it's a great place to start.

Thanks, Kevin!

16 December 2005

I feel so ignorant

Until a few minutes ago, my blog looked like ass in Firefox. Boy, do I have egg on my face for not looking at it outside of IE and its derivatives. Why didn't anybody tell me? I fixed it. I also (belatedly) thought to check Safari. Looks OK. If anybody uses AOL or Opera or Lynx or whatever and my blog looks offensively bad, please let me know. Thanks!

Ah! Major Gaelic mensch.

The title of this post is my favorite anagram I've found so far (given about 1/2 hour of searching) for "Michael James Croghan". Perhaps "And humble, too!" is the appropriate follow-up comment. ;-) Anyway, the Internet Anagram Server (aka "I, Rearrangement Servant") is a fun time waster. Now I must go to work.

12 December 2005

Prayer for a Moral Budget, Redux

OK, I was lame and timid and forgetful, and I waffled too long, and now I'm not going to go get arrested, nor even take the day off to participate in the legal bits of the vigil on Wednesday at the Capitol. Nor did I get my act in gear and organize a vigil at one of VA's Senators' home offices. My sins of omission are multiplying of late, and it dismays me.

However, I do hope to attend the worship service Tuesday evening (19:00) at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which is here. I plan to take the Orange Line into the city and get off at the Capitol South station and walk from there (about three blocks, it looks like). If anybody who's in the area wants to come, please let me know.

11 December 2005

But what is this God-thing of which you speak?

Gary asked the question above as his parting shot in the longest comment-discussion in the short history of my blog. OK, Gary, I'll give you an answer, and it may or may not be the one you were looking for. As I said in another comment on that post, for me, the three major sources of knowledge about God are 1) the witness of other believers, 2) Holy Scripture, and 3) first-hand experience. So following that general outline,

God is the One who, through a two-way relationship of trust and love, shaped the lives and missions of Jalaluddin Rumi, George Fox, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Juliana of Norwich, Jim Wallis, Brother Lawrence, Desmond Tutu, the Christian peacemakers currently in mortal peril in Iraq, and many, many other great souls who I know only through their writings and from reports about them.

God is the One who, through a two-way relationship of trust and love, shaped the lives and missions of Papa Bert, Joe, Melissa, Abid, Jaimie, Sam, Grandpa Del and Grandma Marion, Rick, Blair, Lou, DeDe, Dwight, Sue, Frankie, Carl, Allen, Susan, Bob, Cheri, Patricia, Virginia, Christine, Joanne, Susan, Ann, Wally, Hazel, Janice, Shirley, Sandy, Frances, Eleanor, Charles, Jane, Charles, Kate, Lisa, Marlene, Suzanne, Marco, Kathy, Marlene, Norma, Ken, Peg, John, Carolyn, Mary, Mary, Betty, Ellie, Stu, Karl, Blaine, George, Jim, Jack, Chester, Linda, Israel, Sonja, Ross, Pete, Mike, Stacy, Deanna, Helen, Caryn, and many, many other believers whom I do know (or have known) personally (if in some cases largely electronically) and who have impacted my own faith journey.

God is the One who Jesus knew as his Father. Therefore, I know God through those passages in Scripture where Jesus speaks of his Father. (If you follow that link, you'll need to skim past the references to "father", not "Father", since the search isn't case-sensitive.) I also know God as the Holy Spirit and as Jesus himself, the one who emptied himself and became incarnate, fully in the world, as a helpless baby in a cold stable--and who went on to do the other things I mention in this post. Much of this "understanding" I get from the Bible (as well as from the folks I mention above), and all these stories and testimonies are like brush strokes that paint a picture of God that's much more impressionistic or abstract than it is like a technical diagram with clean lines that results in an unmistakably coherent mental picture.

Finally, God to me is the One who called me (and continues to call me), gifted me (and continues to help me discover those gifts), and sent me (and continues to send me) into the world on a mission of love. God has done this through all the people mentioned above and through Scripture, but over time my "knowledge" of God has come increasingly through a personal relationship of love and trust through which God shapes my life. But I hope I'm being clear that it's not really about "knowledge" for me at all. My faith has almost nothing to do with logical propositions about God which I can hold neatly in my head and feel like I have achieved Understanding. (Anyone who thinks he understands God is a virtuoso of self-deception.)

It's about relationship, love, trust, mission, service--these are things which need to be lived, not defined. I leave definitions to the philosophers--I'm no philosopher. As I prayed this morning, and as we pray every Sunday during the Sending portion of our liturgy, we have work that God has given us to do. I'll let the Buddha make my point for me.

God needs agnostics who are ready to get busy. Too much seeking after understanding and the poison arrow may never get pulled out--too much certainty and people tend to start jabbing it into other folks. But healthy agnosticism combined with a conviction that the world needs help and that even I should be helping--that's something God can use. Love is more important than understanding--love is perhaps the only reliable path to understanding. And if the understanding never comes or turns out to be flawed, but the love was real? In the end, I think that's OK with me.

09 December 2005

Really good theology for the not-already-committed

Elizabeth M., a reader of my blog and writer of (among other things) truly excellent comments/questions on the same, just finished reading Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy. She thought it might be a good try at convincing folks who were already committed evangelical Christians to consider allowing a bit more generosity into their faith, but asks,

So, I'm still wondering -- is there anyone out there who isn't only preaching to the choir?

That, my dear, is a really, really, really fine question. I think we're probably all in agreement here that the choir can use some preachin' to, but for all the emphasis in the Missional Church and Emerging Church conversations on evangelism, is there anybody out there writing postmodern, generously orthodox theology for the not-already-committed? Stuff that's not tying to do "the continuing conversion of the church" (like most Emerging stuff seems to be doing) and is also not (completely) beholden to the left/right dualism of modern theology? I know McLaren's got Finding Faith, but I haven't read it and don't know whether Elizabeth would like his approach in that any more than she did his approach in aGO.

I'm tempted to recommend folks like Tom (N.T.) Wright, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Marcus Borg, though the truth is that they're generally writing for the church too. But they do write stuff that's just good theology, not completely beholden to modern right-wing evangelical assumptions nor modern left-wing "mainline" assumptions (though their roots and theology will tend one way or the other--Willard right, Borg left, etc.). Also, they don't necessarily have an explicit agenda of trying to reform the church, like the Missional and Emerging authors tend to--an agenda, I might add, that's pretty much irrelevant to folks who aren't already part of the church. Maybe Tom Wright's "For Everyone" Bible study series?

I'm dismayed that I don't have a better answer to this question. Help?

08 December 2005

Claims about the Bible

Well, several of us ended up having quite a conversation about perspectives on Scripture (among other things) in the comments on this post on 1 Corinthians 13 which I made a few days ago, not really expecting a response. Shows what I know.

That discussion prompted me to think a bit about claims Christians have made about the Bible. What follows is a list of some of those claims, with my brief thoughts on each of them.

Christians have claimed that the Bible is:

Literally true. This is the idea that every word of the Bible that isn't obviously and explicitly metaphorical (such as Jesus' parables) is to be interpreted literally: it really happened exactly as it is described, word for word, and no fair interpreting anything symbolically. This is the point of view which leads to young-earth Creationism and other absurdities. (I'm sorry; I wish I could be more gracious to my fundamentalist brothers and sisters, but young-earth Creationism is absurd.) Obviously, I don't subscribe to this point of view.

Inerrant. This (as I understand it) is the claim that, while it may or may not be valid to interpret some parts of the Bible as symbolic or poetic language, when the Bible does make factual statements, it is not possible that those statements might be in any sense false. I don't believe this claim either. I think the Bible may well say things that are factually false, because it was written by fallible humans--inspired by God, true, but I know of no compelling reason to assume that this inspiration would necessarily prevent God's human collaborators from doing what humans are prone to do: screw up. For example, I think that when the Bible claims that the prophet Elisha used his God-given curse powers to summon two she-bears to rip apart some children who were teasing him (2 Kings 2:23-24), the human author of that story was simply factually mistaken.

Infallible. This, I think, is the claim that when the Bible makes a prescriptive statement that might influence a believer's thoughts or actions, it is not possible that those statements are not what God wants us to do, unless they've been superseded by a later Biblical statement. In other words, what the Bible tells us to do is always what God wants us to do. I think a slightly milder claim is that the Bible is Authoritative: its prescriptive statements always have authority over the believer. I think often when people say "inerrant" they mean these things too, and the reverse may be true as well. I don't hold with these claims either. For example, as much as I love and value the Sabbath, I don't believe that God ever really wanted God's children to kill their neighbors for breaking it, as is prescribed in Exodus 31:15 and elsewhere.

Inspired. This is the claim that God's Spirit was involved, to some extent, in some mysterious way, in the composition of the entire Bible. This I do believe. So what does this mean, practically speaking? For me, it does not mean that I need to believe that the Scriptures must always be interpreted literally and contain no non-obvious symbolic language. It does not mean that every apparent statement of fact must be factually true. It does not mean that every apparent prescriptive statement must reflect God's will for us. What it does mean is this: as a Christian, I believe that all scripture is inspired ("God-breathed") and useful for teaching, correction, etc. (1 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, it's my duty to grapple with "all scripture" (by which I mean the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament--other scriptures may also be "useful" but I'm not bound to study them) and to try to work out what truth the Holy Spirit wants to teach me through a given passage. It may be something different from the literal meaning, the facts presented, or the behavior prescribed in a passage. But as a Christian it is incumbent upon me to Take the Bible Seriously and work hard at allowing the Spirit to speak to me through its pages. And there's a further claim I'd make for the Bible: that for believers, it should be:

Identity-shaping. In brief, I think this means that the Bible should not just be a book we look to for facts, behavioral prescriptions, or even subtle inspiration: it should be a book that we allow to shape us, mold us, form us, sculpt our identity as Christians, and prompt us to both trust and action--to living its truth in our lives. It should be what Scot McKnight calls "living trustable truth", and at this point I'll just direct your attention to Scot's far superior post on this topic. Be sure to read the discussion in the comments on Scot's post. Good stuff.

OK, that's it for my thoughts on claims about scripture. Did I miss any major ones, or screw up the meaning of these? Did any of my perspectives on these claims irk you? Let me know.

02 December 2005

Current month's Daily Office

I don't know if this will be useful to anyone but me, but just in case....

I made a web page that will always send you to the current month's Daily Office listing (according to the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, Rite II) from Mission St. Clare. The URL is:


Why is this useful? Well, it's useful for me because I can set it up as an AvantGo channel in my Treo smartphone and always (at least, until they restructure their web site) have the current Daily Office prayers in my pocket without needing to do any manual steps. I don't know why it might be useful to you, but you never know.

Update: I've added pages that take you straight to the current day's morning and evening prayer:



Also, for a great discussion on the value of praying in this fashion, see Scot McKnight's blog: this post on Praying with the Church and some follow-up posts too.

01 December 2005

A Prayer for a Moral Budget

I'm seriously praying about taking the day off, going down to the Capitol and getting arrested on the 14th. Anybody want to come? Or, alternatively, does anybody who's in VA want to work on organizing a vigil in our state? (I'll probably give that one a few days to see if someone with half a clue gets to it first.) Anybody not in VA want to organize one in your state?

But maybe it's not an urgent matter. It's too bad Congress wants to cut things like food stamps and day care for low-income folks, but at least the tax cuts for those truly in need (rich individuals and powerful corporations) are sacrosanct--thank God!

Seriously, thank God instead for people like Sojourners who are working on behalf of "the least of these" and also (utterly trivially) on behalf of my Christmas spirit.

1 Chronicles 13

1 Chronicles 13 was the passage my daily devotional told me to read this morning. If you feel so moved, do me a favor and read it; it's only 14 verses. I linked to the GNT translation, but that site will let you pick other translations, both more and less literal, if you prefer.

I have to say I wasn't very satisfied with my devotional's commentary on that passage. And I'm not sure what I make of it. So I thought I'd try a dirty trick and try to get y'all to be my Bible teachers. What do you make of that passage? I don't care if you're Christian, Jewish, any faith or no faith--what does that passage say to you? I'm not (just) interested in attempts to harmonize it with our ideas of the loving Father of Jesus; if the passage pisses you off or makes you throw up your hands in disgust at God/the Bible/people of faith/Christians/oxen, I'm interested in those reactions too.

I give you a topic. Discuss. And report back by clicking on "comments" just below. If, as I say, you feel so moved.