29 December 2008

dolphins really do win!

At the beginning of this NFL season, I told people I was predicting that the Miami Dolphins would be at least 100% better than they were last year. (Of course, they only needed to win two games to accomplish that.) Going from 1-15 to 11-5 this year, they not only tied the all-time record for best improvement, but they finished as the AFC East champs!

As happy as I’ve been with Miami’s amazing turnaround season, I’ve been just as unhappy with the disappointing Dallas Cowboys. (I don’t think HBO will feature them in their series Hard Knocks next summer!) I’m not sure which team was the bigger flop this season: the 0-16 Lions or the 9-7 Cowboys. For a team which many sports “experts” were saying would go all the way to the Super Bowl, their crushing loss at Philadelphia yesterday ended a season in which they too often underachieved.

I’m just glad I can answer my blog post of last year, dolphins win! dolphins win!, by saying, “Dolphins really do win!”

27 December 2008

hello, little sunny face

As with much of the northern US, we’ve had an ice storm or two in the past couple of weeks. There was a coating of ice on the sidewalks and streets that’s been difficult to remove. I’ve salted and scraped with a snow shovel the sidewalk in front of our house, but I’ve still been limited in how far I can walk my dog. After slipping a few times, he became more cautious.

Today the temperature soared into the 50s. Ice has been melting in abundance. And at 5:00 this afternoon, I noticed a single dandelion. It had sprouted in a place where, only a few hours earlier, snow and ice had control.

I will welcome the return of winter weather—in the form of snow, not sleet or freezing rain! But for now, I’m happy that a sunny little friend has been able to pay us a visit.

(The lower photo provides some perspective on where the dandelion sprouted in the yard: the tiny yellow dot in the center foreground.)

26 December 2008

years of a dog

The 28th, the day after tomorrow, signifies a number of things: the first Sunday after Christmas, the fourth day of Christmas, and the feast of the Holy Innocents (see Matthew 2:13-23). But there’s something else, as well. It’s our Shetland Sheepdog Duncan’s 12th birthday!

It’s only recently that I decided to challenge the conventional wisdom that one year equals seven “dog years.” That’s because, even though Duncan may have lost a step or two, he doesn’t resemble any 84 year-old I’ve ever met. And sure enough, veterinarians say that the “1=7” formula is quite inaccurate. After all, dogs reach adulthood at about one year from birth. A seven year-old able to conceive would be an interesting scientific case. (And interesting in other ways, as well…)

One website that puts Duncan’s age in dog years at 61 sounds about right. I can see him as a 61 year-old. Still, it is a rather inexact science, as another website places him at 64. (I guess that’s not much of a difference in “dog years.”)

Truth be told—and I know none of us are guaranteed tomorrow—I suppose I wanted to reassure myself. I’m not ready to lose him yet!

17 December 2008

an annunciation like none other

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Luke 1:26-38, the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. I believe what we routinely affirm in the creeds, that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary” (Apostles’ Creed)—that he “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” (Nicene Creed). Still, I’m also well aware that only Matthew and Luke among New Testament writers mention Mary’s virginity.

For many, that’s a problem. For me, my faith doesn’t stand or fall on whether or not Mary was a virgin. As I say, I believe the creeds, but either way, I wouldn't see it diminishing the honor the angel pays her with the announcement, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (v. 28).

Some say the idea of a virgin birth came from Greek mythology. There are a number of biblical concepts that have been borrowed from other cultures. Others say Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. Clearly, one of the sad facts of life during a military occupation is the rape of local women and girls.

Our local PBS station carries the Worldfocus news broadcast at 6pm on weeknights. (After watching that, it’s interesting to see how inward looking the other nightly news shows at 6:30 are!) Last night, they presented a story of a depressingly familiar reality, rape as a weapon of war. The focus was on eastern Congo, over which various armed factions have been fighting for a decade. Several countries are involved in what’s been called “Africa’s world war.”

What if Jesus actually were the result of such a violent conception? I don’t think such an occurrence would have to be true, but if it were, how much more could all the violated women and girls through history be able to identify with Mary?

The image is "The Annunciation" by Brigid Marlin.

12 December 2008

I'm just visiting

Who is Richard Jenkins? That may not be a name that reaches out and grabs you, but he’s an actor who’s been in, oh…about a million movies and TV shows. His role as the dead Nathaniel Fisher in the HBO series Six Feet Under is probably the one that would jog the memories of most people.

In the movie, The Visitor (2007), he plays an economics professor named Walter Vale. Vale, a widower, leads a dreary, nondescript existence. He’s sent by the chair of his department to a New York City conference to present a paper that he supposedly co-authored with someone else. When he arrives at his apartment in the city, he finds it inhabited by a young couple, a Syrian man and a Senegalese woman. Some unscrupulous character named “Ivan” has been accepting rent for the apartment.

After some initial confusion, Vale invites them to stay with him. It’s obvious who “the visitor” in this movie is. Haaz Sleiman plays Tarek, who introduces Vale to the wonders of the djembe, the African drum that’s one of the joys of his life. His other joy is Zainab, played by Danai Gurira. Another “visitor” is Tarek’s mother, Mouna, played by Hiam Abbass. (All of these actors are, of course, household names!) I suppose the greatest sense of being “the visitor” comes when Vale confesses to Mouna, “I pretend.” He pretends to be busy, to be a writer, to have a life. He’s a visitor in his own life.

This is a very fine film about the ways we pretend—the ways we sometimes hold back and say, “I’m just visiting.”

11 December 2008

acedia and me, truly

I’m getting close to the end of Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me. She describes many years of a journey—a journey of often painful self-discovery. She details her struggle with acedia, the “deadly sin” better known as sloth. Our friend Kathleen shares some wisdom of the desert monks in their battle against it.

In chapter 14 (p. 275), she speaks of John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435). “‘From acedia,’ he writes, ‘[are born] idleness, somnolence, rudeness, restlessness, wandering about, instability of mind and body, chattering, [and] inquisitiveness.’ If I allow myself to reach this stage I will be a distracted tourist rather than a pilgrim, and am likely to turn away from the very things that might bring me to my senses. I have learned that nothing will erase my susceptibility to acedia, for it is a part of who I am. But this does not mean that I am helpless. I can look for the seed of hope in my despair, and pray with the psalmist: ‘Bring my soul out of this prison, / and then I shall praise your name’ (Psalm 142:8).”

The so-called “seven deadly sins,” besides sloth, consist of envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath. Like Norris, I would have to say that my greatest temptation comes from acedia. On the first Sunday of Advent, I preached a sermon titled “Acedia, the Enemy of Advent.” Norris has especially struggled with the facet of acedia that manifests itself as depression. That’s really not me. In my sermon, I spoke of something else.

There can be the feeling that life itself is absurd. It’s the feeling that there’s no meaning to what we do anyway, so what’s the point? Acedia mocks the repetition of daily life. It says, “You get out of bed, eat food, do whatever you busy yourself with, go to bed, and do the whole thing again tomorrow. To what end?”

There have been times when I’ve been tempted by that dreary outlook. I’ve sometimes noticed it when I’m watching someone perform a job with repetitive motions, especially if I’m at a distance. I can’t hear them; I can only see them, maybe shuffling things around. And that outlook can be expanded to the entire world. People everywhere: being born, doing whatever with their lives, and then going back to the earth.

Giving in to that kind of outlook sucks the life out of you. It sucks the hope out of you. But for Christians, hope is not an option. Hope is a command; it’s a command to resist acedia—to say “no” to sloth…It calls us to welcome the One who comes—the One who, instead of letting us slothfully dream life away, gives us the grace to live the dream.

10 December 2008

a knight who really is dark

"Why so serious?"

I saw the Christopher Nolan-directed The Dark Knight (2008) twice in the theater last summer. Banu and I watched the film on DVD last night. I enjoyed his "memorable" movie Memento (2000), with Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss. Watching Insomnia (2002) as the fatigued Al Pacino chases Robin Williams makes me sleepy--but that's a good thing!

When he did Batman Begins (2005) with Christian Bale, I felt like I was seeing Batman the way he should be portrayed: as truly a "dark" and conflicted character, not the cartoonish buffoon we've too often seen.

As much as I like Christian Bale, it's the late Heath Ledger who is the star of The Dark Knight. He truly explores and inhabits the insanity of the Joker. If someone else deserves the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a name.

"Let's put a smile on that face!"

09 December 2008

a day for hope

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day. It’s also the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (That’s why the 10th of December is Human Rights Day.)

For a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the entire world was sympathetic towards America. We finally felt some of the pain they had become accustomed to. Even the Iranians sent messages of understanding! Rarely had there been a moment when we had the opportunity to work with our allies and enemies toward a common goal. But the Bush administration decided to go the other way. Bush belligerently bellowed, “Either you’re with us or against us.” Cheney famously declared that we would have to work “sort of the dark side, if you will.”

I’ve posted a couple of cartoons with the feeling that, as terrible as the past eight years have been, we aren’t inspired by endless rehashing of mistakes. I find that as tedious as anyone else. As someone who voted for Barack Obama, I actually am hopeful that a new era for America is at hand—one in which we really can take the time to listen to others, rather than loudly announcing how it’s gonna be! (And I really haven’t “drunk the Kool-Aid” of believing Barack can solve all our problems!)

06 December 2008

Counter Terror With Justice

Freddy Rodriguez does a voiceover on something we've become used to overlooking, as the video suggests.

05 December 2008

forever at night

In the early 90s, CBS had some rather cheesy late night shows called “Crimetime after Primetime.” Among them were Silk Stalkings and Sweating Bullets. There was one show, however, that I found myself watching on a fairly regular basis. This was when I was at seminary, and she who would later become my wife got me started on a strange show about a vampire detective (Nick Knight, played by Geraint Wyn Davies) who wanted to atone for his crimes and regain his mortality. Banu introduced me to Forever Knight! (An extremely devoted fan has a website dedicated to the series.)

The premise of the show required several leaps of logic. I wondered how Nick could have joined the Toronto police department to begin with. Don’t they have physical examinations? He explained his need to work only at night due to a severe skin reaction to sunlight. (I suppose that would be true.) But that’s part of what happens when I start analyzing shows like this!

I’ve now watched some of the episodes on DVD, and I’m brought back to those times when I had finished my reading and paper writing early in the evening. I always tried to get my work done sooner than later, so I could relax while my fellow students were cramming and killing themselves. Besides, what better time to watch a vampire show than at the midnight hour?