30 January 2009

here come da pain!

In chapter 15 of her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue comments on the passion—the intense agony and suffering—of Jesus Christ. And as it so happens, we each have our part, regardless of belief or ideology, in afflicting this one who welcomes all. “In Mark’s story of the Passion,” she says, “Jesus is mocked and tortured, dies a long drawn-out, torturous death at the hands of people who are serving their ideals, their idols, their good. Everyone in the story turns out to be against him: the fundamentalists, the liberals, the revolutionaries, the collaborators. And he is against no one.” (p. 183)

How can he not choose a side? One of the often repeated questions in today’s political discourse demands, “Where is the outrage?” Still, as Blue says, “The Son of God here looks nothing like the god who can’t tolerate unrighteousness, the god who must put to death what is against God. He takes what is against him. He takes it all over his body. Lets it rip his flesh, expose his vital organs, strip him naked, pierce him to his heart. It makes him bleed. He suffers it all, and it kills him.”

Wow! And I do mean, wow! If I’m not careful, I can be self-congratulatory if I write an email for Amnesty International! But taking what is against me, and embracing it, knowing that he/she/it/they will rip, strip, and make me bleed—well, that’s something else entirely.

She continues, “He doesn’t look like a martyr, someone trying to protect ‘good.’ If that is what he’s doing, he doesn’t do a very good job of making it clear what the cause is. He doesn’t make any clear statements before his accusers.” We all play our roles, posing as noble John the Baptist or ignoble Pontius Pilate, demanding that others clearly state who they are.

If they don’t match up with what our gods, our idols, dictate, then as Al Pacino famously shouts in the movie Carlito’s Way, “Here come da pain!”

26 January 2009

the Bible doesn't have to make us "blue"

In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue begins with observations on how we, so to speak, harden the word of God into “stone.” We take something living, something inspiring, and set it in concrete.

“Life, for most of us,” she says, “is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven. Idols help to make up for that deficiency. Life is outrageous. Idols help us know how to proceed. So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes. Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.” (p. 17)

She speaks of a particular form of idolatry known as bibliolatry. “It’s dangerous when people who don’t have all the absolute answers at their fingertips think they do. It’s dangerous when people believe they have access to the divine, to absolute answers, merely by opening the cover of a book. Instead of somehow inducting us into relationship with the living God, the Bible as an idol helps to uphold our ideologies, what we already know and think and believe (and provides justification for slashing and smashing what opposes that).” (p. 39)

Many people refer to “high” and “low” views of scripture. They’re theological differences, largely tied to one’s view of inerrancy. Debbie Blue’s view of scripture, that it “does not say the same thing throughout, that it contradicts itself, that it is garbled and weird,” would, by this definition, certainly qualify as a “low” view of scripture! (p. 59)

Those labels, “high” and “low” views, might seem to equate loving the Bible, despite its many crazy quirks—and even outrages—with holding that it contains no errors. (I guess I’ve betrayed my view on the matter!) In a sermon I preached in 2008, I said this: “Even though I love the Bible, to be honest, there are some scriptures that I find detestable. For example, I’m thinking of places that promote the abuse of women, not to mention places where genocide is advocated. But there is a way to help us guard ourselves, so that we don’t turn the Bible into a weapon. We can keep the life-giving word of God from becoming an instrument of death.”

Debbie Blue speaks of how we harden God’s word into stone. I spoke of how our reading becomes sick. “It is the written word which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. But the written word can also serve the powers of death, not life. It can become a weapon. To prevent that, we need the living Word…We, too, often have sick approaches to the written word. We feel compelled to do all kinds of harm: to keep certain groups of people in their place, to wage war, to keep our eyes firmly closed. If we come first to the living Word, our sick approaches to the written word will also be healed.” We must view the written word through the lens, the eyes, of the living Word.

21 January 2009

a confession of cynicism

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye” (Mt 7:1-5).

I find these words of Jesus especially appropriate for me. As I watched Barack Obama’s inaugural speech yesterday, and then noticed the many varied reactions to it, I felt almost like I was looking into a mirror. What I mean is that it’s easy to notice a cynical attitude when people make derogatory comments about the guy I voted for. I can self-righteously say that they haven’t even given Obama a chance, while his predecessor did one bad thing after another. But cynicism and mockery are hardly endearing qualities.

Cynicism is easy. It’s easy to find fault with others, especially those in leadership positions. (As a church pastor, I’ve had a tiny, meager bit of experience at leadership!) It’s easy to criticize while not offering anything constructive. Still, I myself must confess to cynicism on a too regular basis when making observations about politicians whose words and deeds I find offensive. As President Obama noted in his address, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

He speaks specifically of the political arena, but it also applies to who we are as persons. It applies to what kind of persons we want to be.

U2 at Obama inauguration concert

What else can be said? It's just a scene of great joy.

19 January 2009

let's get it started

I’ve been thinking about the word “inauguration,” especially since tomorrow we inaugurate Barack Obama as our 44th president. The etymology of the word has to do with consecrating to office someone by a Roman religious official who would foretell future events (an “augur”).

Some might find the religious / spiritual dimension especially appropriate this time. My faith isn’t in political figures, but I can understand why Obama has been so desperately awaited—not only in this country, but all over the world. I am simply another in a vast chorus of voices who say that George W. Bush has been the worst president in living memory.

Of course, no one human can possibly live up to the huge expectations—and the huge mess—foisted upon Barack Obama. If ever there were a time for all of us to “step up,” as they say in sports, now is the time. Let's get it started!

15 January 2009

the doctor is in

Our dog Duncan has not been able to escape this winter illness-free. Even though he dearly loves snow, as you can see in the photos, he recently had a couple of days in which he would sneeze four or five times in succession. I wanted to document one such fit (for purely medical reasons).

The diagnosis of Dr. Sheltie is that his sneezing fits were generated by a couple of dusty toys. One such culprit is seen at his feet. After removing the offending dust, our dog has been sneeze fit free.

maybe we can learn to care!

In the January-February issue of Utne Reader, there’s an article about “The People’s Professor.” He’s Dennis Dalton, a political science professor at Barnard College, the all-women’s school at Columbia University. He’s called that because he began encouraging people from Harlem, where Columbia is located, to attend his classes for no charge. The article goes into some detail about the man, his love for his students, and his passion for his teaching. I like what he says: “We don’t need more intelligence. God knows we’ve got enough on this campus. What we need is more compassion.”

Referring to the political theorist Hannah Arendt, Dalton says that she “saw the diagnosis for our diseased world as thoughtlessness, a lack of moral imagination certainly, and, above all, a lack of caring. The remedy? To construct a caring community, to empathize, to connect.” Dalton then invites a senior to discuss her thesis about Danish gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. When she’s finished, he adds, “The story of the Danes is the story of us if we will have it that way. We must transform the banality of evil into the banality of empathy.”

I remember a guy who was a senior when I was a freshman at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. (I transferred to Middle Tennessee State University the next year.) He was an Art major, and when he would get the usual question, “what can you do with that major?” he had a great reply. “I can get a job as a janitor anyplace I want!” He was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

I’ve often thought about the reasons people give for going to college, or more precisely, the reasons we’re given to seek higher education. Too often, what it boils down to is making more money. Most of the commercials on TV focus on technology and getting a good job. I’m not diminishing the need to study math and science, but there should be some balance. Not so long ago, the liberal arts—the humanities—were valued, not as a ticket to a wealthy career, but as ends in themselves. What’s wrong with learning to become a better person? To expand one’s horizons? Maybe even to learn how to care a little bit more!

13 January 2009

brains are better than brawn

We’re now in the final week of the Bush presidency. I’m not expecting any miracles from Barack Obama, but perhaps replacing the fear and paranoia of the past eight years with reason and trust in the rule of law would be close to miraculous. Assessing the damage done by the Bush administration, in most policy areas, is a lengthy business. I want to focus on the so-called “war on terror,” a war that by definition can never end, because terror thrives on war.

Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, says that the stain on America’s reputation among foreigners and, for that matter, Americans can never be removed. [Well, saying “never” is certainly an exaggeration!]

“And it sullied—not so much our reputation, because that's the obvious—it sullied on some level how we think of ourselves,” says Greenberg. “You can’t undo the damage that torture’s done. [Another exaggeration! We “can’t” undo the damage? More like, “it will be difficult.” I think she can make her point without overstating it.]

“You took something out of a box that has vast repercussions, and gave people a chance and a reason to defend a practice that brings out rather horrific things about human beings for very little, for no gain. So the way to go about the torture thing is in a very definitive way. Which is, we’re not going to do it. The policy prescription is not to have a policy. We don’t torture.”

Our methods in the war on terror, says Greenberg, expose a fundamental lack of faith in the ability of democracy to achieve policy successes. “The biggest cost of torture was that it eroded the confidence of the American people. Because if you choose bullying as your method, you are saying, we don’t trust ourselves to have the skills, whether they are the intelligence skills, or the law enforcement skills, to be the best in the game and the best and the brightest on the issues that are part of our national security.”

Imagine, we really don’t have to be bullies!

07 January 2009

gazing past Gaza

As I write this, we're almost two weeks into what many in the media are calling the "Gaza War." It began with Israeli airstrikes, followed by a ground invasion. Israel says that they're responding to continual missle attacks by the Hamas faction of Palestinians—who claim that they're responding to the Israeli occupation. Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong.

I won't delve too deeply into my personal opinion. I'll only say that Israel, backed by the US, has overwhelming military superiority over the Palestinians. Still, that doesn't make the actions of Hamas—or other groups that pursue the path of violence, especially against civilians—morally correct.

What is usually offered is the "two state" solution: an independent Israel beside an independent Palestine. Perhaps that's what may happen. It would certainly be a big step forward from what we have today. Still, I've always thought that a democratic, unified state of Israelis and Palestinians is what really needs to happen. It may take a while to bring about, but it seems to be the only endurable solution.

05 January 2009

icy heat

I realize that words like “visually stunning” get tossed around too often when describing movies, but in the case of Far North (2007), it is…visually stunning! Of course, I must admit my predilection for snowy, icy landscapes.

Michelle Yeoh, Sean Bean, and Michelle Krusiec star in this strange little tale of love, jealousy, and, reflecting the arctic terrain, desolation. I especially like Michelle Yeoh as the object of a shaman’s curse at her birth. But maybe she’s used to playing characters who are cursed! The characters she plays in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003) and Sunshine (2007) don’t have the best of luck!

In any event, there’s some icy heat in this film.

02 January 2009

old glory, unglorified

This image was “borrowed” from this article at Salon.com. It reminds us of how, during the Bush-Cheney years, we’ve become “surveillance” nation and “torture” nation like never before. Barack Obama has made some general statements about regaining America’s role of leadership in the world—about restoring our values—and to these tired ears, it’s long overdue. We’ll need to encourage (and remind) him to keep his promises.

01 January 2009

more than a new year

Most of the world thinks of today as New Year’s Day—and ignore that it’s also the 8th day of Christmas! And there’s something else about the eighth day; it’s the day that baby boys were to be circumcised (as we see in Luke 2:21). Therefore, today is also known as the Circumcision, or the Naming, of Christ.

There are some verses from a book that speaks of “times of much leisure and unbounded curiosity, when excitement of every kind is sought after with a morbid eagerness.” These words appear in the introduction to the book The Christian Year. They were written in 1827.

“The year begins with Thee, / And Thou beginn’st with woe, / To let the world of sinners see / That blood for sin must flow…
O bond of union, dear / And strong as is Thy Grace! / Saints, parted by a thousand year, / May thus in heart embrace…
Look here, and hold thy peace: / The Giver of all good / Even from the womb takes no release / From suffering, tears, and blood.
If thou wouldst reap in Love, / First sow in holy fear: / So life a winter’s morn may prove / To a bright endless year.”

The image is from an illuminated manuscript of a medieval French Book of Hours.