31 May 2008

quite a memorial

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States. I realize that we observe it on the final Monday of May, but it falls on the 30th. The day originally was set aside to commemorate those who had died fighting in the Civil War. It was later extended to honor those who had died fighting in all wars.

Today, my wife and I presided at the funeral of a man who served in World War 2 as a Marine. During my occasional visits with him and his wife (who is a member of our church), I discovered that this Marine's opinion of our current president and the decision to invade Iraq was…well, let's just say that he was deeply unimpressed. (I won't use any strong language at this point!)

"Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle." That's the opening line of a report recently released—not by some left-wing Bush-bashers—but by the National Defense University in Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath. Their main campus is at Ft. McNair in Washington, DC. The report says, “The Congressional Research Service estimates that the United States now spends over $10 billion per month on the war, and that the total, direct US costs from March 2003 to July 2007 have exceeded $450 billion, all of which has been covered by deficit spending.” All of this, during an administration that continues to point the finger at Congress for wasteful spending.

The damage to our standing in the world is also addressed. “The war’s political impact also has been great. Globally, US standing among friends and allies has fallen. Our status as a moral leader has been damaged by the war, the subsequent occupation of a Muslim nation, and various issues concerning the treatment of detainees.”

In his webzine, journeywithjesus.net, Dan Clendenin quotes the late William Sloane Coffin, who said of war, “for every boy turned into a man…there are five human beings turned into animals.” That's why it's especially dangerous to have leaders who think that war is like the board game Risk, or like a video game. We have a president and vice president who've never seen the face of war, but the invasion they pushed so hard for will guarantee plenty more names to be remembered on future Memorial Days.

29 May 2008

diary of the dead? (let's hope not)

Yes, I know when you say "George Romero," you think "zombies." If he did nothing other than the black-and-white classic Night of the Living Dead, that would be enough to guarantee his enshrinement in the horror hall of fame. But he has continued to define the zombie canon, and Diary of the Dead (2007) adds a new touch.

In this installment, undead horror meets the blogosphere as some college film students document their cross-Pennsylvania travels in an RV (horrors!) after hearing that the dead are indeed not quite so dead. We get some socio-political commentary regarding the veracity of the government and media. (They actually lie to us?) Plus, there's a professor from England who is as proficient with bow and arrow as he is at drinking.

Diary of the Dead is a thinly-veiled description of the American public. If only there were some way we could be brought back to life!

23 May 2008

Living Colour, "Cult of Personality" on Arsenio

A great band doing one of my very favorite songs from the 80s, appearing on the show with the unforgettable announcer: "Arsenioooooo HALL!"

22 May 2008

some meditations of an introvert

I have taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator three times in my life. The first two times, my personality type registered as INTJ, the last time as INTP. That last letter indicates preference in getting things decided versus preference in staying open to new options. In the language of the type indicator, that would be Judging (J) and Perceiving (P), respectively. I've always been near the middle of the continuum on that: barely a J or barely a P.

However, that first letter indicates preference in focusing on the outer world, Extraversion (E), as opposed to one's own inner world, Introversion (I). I've always wound up near the extreme end of the scale of Introversion. But then, that's something I've known all my life. It's basically the difference between being energized while among groups of people or being by oneself, or maybe with one other person.

Introverts aren't necessarily shy, but we frequently are. When I was growing up, I never thought of myself as introverted (not many kids understand terms like that!), I just felt like I was shy. Achingly, agonizingly shy! I hated what so many of my classmates loved: "free time." That was when the teacher had nothing for us to do; for the rest of the class period, we could just talk. What came so easily for the other kids was a nightmare for me. I can remember many times thinking, "I hate the way I am." And yet, somewhere deep inside, I still felt like that this is the way I was meant to be. But those realizations don't mean the struggle isn't still painful. Somehow, I survived the hell of junior high and high school. Junior high, or middle school, especially sucked.

Now, as a 43 year-old co-pastor, I'm in a position I would have never dreamed possible back in those days. My wife, our church's other co-pastor, has helped me greatly. She is certainly more extraverted than I, but not so much that she doesn't also cherish her quiet time alone. We help to balance each other.

(By the way, my Shetland Sheepdog insisted on having his photo posted. He feels that he needs to have more exposure to the public.)

20 May 2008

when someone needs your love

My wife and I are oblates at the Benedictine monastery in Erie, PA. As such, we make annual commitments to follow the Rule of St. Benedict in our own lives and in our life in the world. Of course, we fall short, but what good is a goal if it can be reached? The Rule is divided into daily readings, and this is the first paragraph of today's reading:

"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue."

Some of Benedict's Rule (written in the 6th century) deals with the inner workings of a monastery, and so, may not seem readily accessible to us in the 21st century. But the Benedictine spirit shines throughout, and in my opinion, nowhere clearer than in today's reading. Every time it comes around (which is every four months), I'm filled with inspiration and understanding—that is, understanding that I have a long way to go!

"Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love." What would things look like if we live this way?

half-life of a father's love

I watched the DVD of Pu-239 (2006), a story about a plutonium isotope. Pu-239 is also a story about love, in particular a father's love. Paddy Considine plays a nuclear power plant worker in 1990s Russia, the husband of Radha Mitchell. Exposed to a lethal dose of radiation during a malfunction (one which he repeatedly warned his supervisors was imminent), he makes some desperate decisions in order to provide for his wife and son. Oscar Isaac plays a street thug in Moscow who, due to his bonehead associates, faces the prospect of meeting the Grim Reaper at about the same time as Considine's character. He, too, is willing to make some desperate plays out of love for his girlfriend, and especially, for his son.

The story line excels, but what really makes the movie great, in my opinion, are the voiceovers of Considine. Here's proof that physics and love come together in spiritual communion.

"An element loses a particle and becomes unstable. A chain reaction is set in motion. Pulsing waves of desperation in every direction. Perhaps the lost part is clarity or hope. In the fallout, the man-made elements appear—isotopes of fear and anger that cannot be handled safely or buried in the ground. They take the shape of a mushroom cloud started above a desert, that circles the globe and shadows us all."

"Uranium, Neptunium, Plutonium. They came from space; found their way here by comet and meteorite. No child ever wished this from a star. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl. Problems with half-lives forty-thousand years long. Half a life. Time takes half of us away and comes back later for the rest. We are children and then we are parents. We are long division. Slowly we decay into memory."

Even though the film has a gloomy feel to it (this is the early years of post-Soviet Russia), it "radiates" plenty of life. Okay, enough half-life.

16 May 2008


Being available, being present to others, can be a difficult thing. It can be irritating! Part of being present means really listening, not already planning an answer. In the journal Weavings (vol. 12, no. 5) Jan Johnson comments on a hard part of this: being present to enemies.

She says, “Being present to enemies—those who secretly wish we would drop dead, or at least move away—may be the most troubling. When people do obnoxious things to get attention, criticize in a public meeting, or interrupt throughout a telephone conversation, I have difficulty getting past their neediness. Why don’t they grow up? They cost us something—we feel our energy drain away. A part of us would like to pretend to pay attention, smile politely, and move on, but there’s that principle of being present to people.”

But when we dare to practice availability, there’s no telling what transformations will occur. It can be wondrous. It can be scary. We find out things about ourselves. Maybe that’s why we rarely practice it…at least, practice it wholeheartedly. There’s no limit to what can be when we make ourselves available. Are we willing to take the risk of being available: to the best within us, to our neighbors’ cry, to saying “no” to evil? Are we available to the wondrous things God can accomplish through us?

14 May 2008

spirituality (and politics) of fearlessness

As I was working through some files on my webpage “Zebraview,” I came upon a sermon I preached in October 2004. I was reflecting on Paul’s comment in 2 Timothy 4:16, where he says, “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” I compared him with the situation in our nation during that presidential campaign. This is what I said:

“It’s precisely because Paul is fearless that he can be a bigger man than those wishing him harm. And he can forgive those who’ve let him down. How badly we need people like that today in our country, with its politics of fear and its spirituality of fear.

“I watched all three of the debates between President Bush and Senator Kerry. (And I apologize in advance to those of you who thought they were very enlightening exercises!) Amid the dodged questions and repeated slogans, I thought there was one especially telling moment. In the second debate, the one in St. Louis, in which the candidates fielded questions from the audience, it was the final question that I found really revealing. There was a woman who asked the president if he could name three mistakes he had made…and (I’m paraphrasing) what he had learned from them.

“He couldn’t even think of one, besides regrets about appointing a few people to certain positions. But when it was Kerry’s turn, he didn’t do any better. He simply started listing mistakes that Bush had made.

“Neither man took this opportunity to admit that, of course, I have made mistakes. This woman’s question gave each of them a chance to show a little bit of maturity. They could have acknowledged, ‘Yes, I am human. I haven’t always gotten stuff right, and I’ve learned from it. Let me share some wisdom I’ve gained!’ But apparently, the fear of being labeled a ‘flip flopper’ prevents our political leaders from respecting our intelligence.

“The politics of fear is about much more than politicians afraid of being honest. Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population. A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work. In the 1950s, there was the Red Scare, in which a communist was behind every tree. After 9-11, there’s a terrorist behind every tree.

“Those who’ve read the book 1984 by George Orwell will remember how the government maintains a never-ending state of war. The enemies shift for no apparent reason. Those who ask questions are considered traitors. I wonder, can we learn to ask questions other than what the major political parties and the mass media spoon feed us?

“Fear causes the reptilian part of our brain to take over. That part of the brain is noted less for intelligence than it is for instinct. That’s no way to approach an election, and it’s definitely no way to approach our relationship with God.”

I’m hoping that we can ask more of ourselves—and our candidates for public office—stuff that really matters, not whether or not we’re wearing an American flag lapel pin.

10 May 2008

expanding our vision

We're nearing the end of what is, theologically, no doubt the most awesome season on the Christian calendar. Some say the Christian faith is too narrow. Maybe so. But if we have an expansion of our vision, those observations themselves will seem too narrow.

We're nearing the end of the Easter season, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ has broken the boundary of death itself. "Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died" (1 Cor 15.20).

Last week was Ascension. Christ has broken the boundary of the cosmos. As the cosmic Christ, he has broken the boundary of everything. Christ "fills all in all." Christ "ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things." Christ "is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Eph 1.23, 4.10; Col 1.17).

This Sunday is Pentecost. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father" (Jn 14.12). "Let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (Jn 7.38-39). We're given access to all of this.

That's quite a vision!

09 May 2008

nectar of the gods

I'm no fan of our culture's mania with multi-tasking; I don't advocate replacing sleep with double and triple shots of espresso. Actually, if I don't get enough sleep, I'm prone to mini-seizures, in which I'm unable to speak for about fifteen or thirty seconds. (That's due to the scarring on my brain from the surgery I had over twelve years ago.)

Still, there's no beverage as enlightened, and enlightening, as tea for that kick of caffeine for a little boost. And of course, there's a world full of varieties without that particular chemical--and they're equally delightful!

07 May 2008

we're in the valley

Of the Iraq war movies to be released since the invasion five years ago, I've been most impressed by In the Valley of Elah (2007). Tommy Lee Jones got an Oscar nomination for his leading role. Based on a true story, at one level, it's about a soldier who's gone AWOL and then found murdered. Dig deeper, and we get to the world of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then throw in the statements and mentality of politicians who know nothing of war.

The story that this film portrays is, unfortunately, all too common and all too ignored. And I must say, all too avoidable and all too predictable. I don't like being right about this stuff--how our military personnel are put through a meat grinder and wind up doing things they hate themselves for.

Perhaps ten or twenty years from now, this movie won't suffer any accusations of propaganda. There's a real spiritual depth that can allow it to endure.