Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sacred Space

It is no secret that my now 16 month old son Adam has an obsession with a silly little game called basketball which is, here in Kentucky, the closest thing we have to a tribal religion. I have written on this before.

Across the street from our house is a park with not one but two full court basketball courts. Every day he and I make our hajj, our pilgrimage, across the street to watch the spontaneous games on these courts. But never is he allowed to cross the white line which divides the spectators from the participants. Never is he allowed to cross the line dividing the laity from the clergy. He can only watch as the local priests of his religion celebrate their daily mass, offering up their humble prayers to the gods of hoop.

This past week it has been hot. Oppressively hot. So hot that it isn't exactly safe to take him on his daily (sometimes hourly) trip to the park in the middle of the day. He have to pick our spots, choose our moments carefully, avoiding the afternoon son which turns our fair skin into the scorched color of a boiled lobster. So, this morning, before the thermostat cranked its way up again, we took an early trip to the park, before anyone else was up and out.

We dropped by the playground, visiting his favorite swings and slides. He crawled under his favorite play structures, hiding in their shade from the rising sun, milking his time outdoors. We played our version of tag, with me yelling in a playful, taunting, sing-song voice, "I'm going to get you!" after which he always giggles and scurries as fast as his short, stocky legs will carry him. I catch him and swing him in the air, just like I always do when he decides to let me catch him.

After our play was done, even though the ballers haven't climbed out of their beds yet, we walked down to the basketball courts, our basketball courts. There was no game of hoop to watch, no religious ceremony to observe. Only the quiet, lonely sanctuary of the empty courts. As usual, Adam walked up to the painted white line that marks the barrier of one of the courts, the great divide between those who can ball and those who can't. Adam can't ball because he is, of course, still far too small. I can't ball, or at least I usually don't, because of a bum knee. Every now and then I play, schooling the hyper-athletic teenagers whose games, alas, are not as mature as their bodies. But most of the time I only watch, knowing that if I dare to play I might finally really need that surgery I've been putting off for almost a year.

But this morning the courts were empty. No one to trample Adam. No one to tempt me to push harder than I should - the competitive fires burn perpetually in those who have been seduced by the game - only to wind up once again on a surgeon's table. So we stood, like we always do, just outside the white lines, staring at the great divide. And with no one on the other side, we crossed over, onto the court.

The look on Adam's face as we passed through the barrier he's never been allowed to cross was one I'll treasure forever. He was like a new high priest of ancient Israel, passing through the curtain into the Holy of Holies for the first time. He stared up and the goal in awe, then ran up to it and put his arms around it, clinging to it in the sweet and desperate embrace of a forbidden love. He had arrived. He was on the court. And, at this moment, there was no one who could beat him.

I let him hold the goal for a little while, before I called him out to the free throw line to try to teach him a thing or two. That's how much of a sentimental fool I am. He's 16 months old, and I'm trying to teach him how to move on the court. Sucking the spontaneous fun out of his game? He ran around for a little bit, like a good child not listening to a single word his father said, so mesmorized was he by his sacred space.

Perhaps I'm projecting my own guilty idolatry onto him. My father is, among many other things, a baseball coach. For years I honestly believed that I loved baseball, so powerful was and is his love for that game. But the look of awe on my son's face seems sincere. His love for hoop starts early and runs deep. If it is as deep as it seems, then he will grow up in at least one of his father's many religions.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Moses and the Burning Bush: Existential Questions from the Divine-Human Encounter

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am." And He said, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am," He said, "the God of your father, the God of Abraham,, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

And the LORD continued, "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perissites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And He said, "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain."

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.'"

-Exodus 3:1-14 (JPS)


This story is very rich and full of meaning, and is found in a number of different contexts. The first context which we ought to look at, as a way of setting the stage for the story, is its context within the Torah.

Genesis, the book of beginnings, begins with a focus on the relationship between God and creation, then shifts to the relationship between God and humanity, before finally shifting to a focus on the relationship between God and a particular collection of humans. It ends with ambiguity, as these humans, through the aid of Joseph, whose story we ought to look at sometime, find themselves in Egypt, with limitless potential.

On the one hand these people are now strangers in a strange land, having left their home because of a famine. On the other hand, this new land is, at least for now, a land of salvation. Because they have connections with the power structure of Egypt, they are a protected people. Because Egypt, through the work of Joseph, had prepared for the famine, there is more than enough food for them to eat.

So, in the context of their relationship with God they have been led from their home to this strange land, to live for a time as strangers. But they are protected strangers, and well fed strangers, saved from the slow starvation of famine.

The ending of Genesis is then full of hope and full of promise. It is not unambiguously good, as so much has been lost when home was abandoned. But it is certainly not bad, and it fails to anticipate the beginning of Exodus.

Exodus, a book of liberation and formation, begins by disillusioning us of the hope promised at the end of Genesis. The strangers are protected no longer. Rather they are enslaved. What began as a land of salvation from famine has become a land of oppression and exploitation.

It is within this context that we find another context for our story: the life of Moses. While Moses was born a stranger in the land of Egypt, subject to infanticide, his life was spared as he was taken in by the ruling household. He grew up a part of the power structure of enslavement and oppression. Rich and powerful, sure, but his wealth and his power came at a price: the oppression and enslavement of his biological brothers and sisters.

Unable or unwilling to cope with the existential conflict which must have followed from the knowledge that all of his advantages came at the expense of his own enslaved people, Moses became a criminal, a murderer. On the lam in the wilderness, Moses carves out a new life for himself, removed from the wealth, power, politics and economics of oppression in Egypt.

But as we enter into our story, Moses cannot escape his calling. He cannot escape the dichotomy between his family of birth and his adoptive family, nor can he escape the moral duty to use his priviledge to help break the chains of oppression. Moses ran to the wilderness, and in doing so ran from himself. But in his running, and in his wilderness, he ran right into what Marcus Borg calls a "thin place," a place where the line dividing the secular from the sacred is very thin indeed. And in his thin place, Moses has an encounter with the divine.

Moses drives his father-in-law's flock to Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, a sacred place, designated the mountain of God. Not only, then, is he psychologically in a thin place, but he is also geographically in a thin place, a sacred place which helps facilitate the divine-human encounter. In this convergence of thin places, in this spiritual and physical space, he sees a strange sight. A burning bush may not be all that unusual in a desert wilderness, with the hot sun baring down on the dry twigs, scorching the earth and its vegetation. But fire consumes, fire destroys, producing heat, smoke and ash. This strange bush in this sacred space, however, while ablaze, was not reduced to smoke, heat and ash. It burned, but was not consumed, calling for Moses' attention and capturing his imagination.

And just when things couldn't get any weirder, a voice rises out of the bush, cuts through the space between Moses and the bush, and echoes inside his head, calling his name. Moses! Moses! cries the bush, and perhaps Moses wonders whether he's hearing an external and audible sound or just some voice inside his head. Encounters with the divine are like this, frustrating our expectations and undercutting our understanding. Is it real? Did it happen? Did that bush really say my name?

The description in our story is absurd, but no less absurd than any other human attempt to describe an encounter with the sacred, the divine. When we try to render these moments into language we start to see how our language, so efficient at communicating our shared experiences, is totally unable to share these strange moments, which can't be intersubjectively verified. Rather than using rational language, then, we aim for story, for metaphor. Rather than saying how it was, we say how it felt. And, more often than not, when we reach the end of our story we say something like, "It wasn't really like that at all, but that's the best I can do."

This strange encounter, this divine-human encounter, in which Moses stands before the sacred, in a sacred place, hearing a sacred voice calling out his name, drove him to ask a couple of questions. These questions are existential questions, and they are the questions which we all ask in the face of such meaningful and meaning-filled encounters. They are questions which cut to the heart of being and becoming. They are universal questions, and related questions. They are:

1. Who am I? and
2. Who are You?

"Who am I?" Moses asks God. "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" Perhaps this question, coming from Moses, isn't an entirely honest question. Perhaps he isn't asking for information as much as he is begging to be let off the hook. After all, Moses is beginning to get a pretty good idea who God thinks that he is. This is because Moses asks the question "Who am I?" the question which burns in our souls every time we wake up in the morning and stare into the face in the mirror, wondering who it is that's staring back, after God calls him to a mission.

Before Moses asks God who he is, God already tells him. Moses is an answer to a prayer. A prayer that those praying it may not have even known was a prayer, the silent desperate cry of the oppressed and exploited. But God heard this silent prayer, this desperate, voiceless cry, and God is now responding. But God's response is Moses.

This is a heavy calling, a calling which forces Moses to turn inward and ask, "Who am I? Who am I, that I should be an answer to prayer, God's response to suffering, oppression, exploitation and enslavement?"

Moses is asking an existential question, and existential questions rarely have rational answers. God cannot answer Moses' question with some fixed definition. God cannot say, "You are..." and have anything that follows make sense or help out. And, even if God could, Moses couldn't understand the answer.

Instead of answering Moses' question the way it was asked, God skips past the question and answers the concern, with a promise and a calling. Moses asks "Who am I?" and God answers "I will be with you!" In doing so, God affirms Moses' concern, while also affirming and holding him to his calling. Moses' identity is then to be found in the context of a relationship with God, a relationship that carries with it a calling, a journey, a task.

As such, this question, "Who am I?" is connected to the second question, "Who are You?" As Moses' identity is found in the context of his encounter and relationship with, as well as calling by the divine, so too the existential question concerning human identity is answered non-rationally by the divine-human encounter. As we ask "Who am I?" we also ask "Who are You?" The answer to these two questions are, by virtue of our interconnected and interdependent nature, linked to each other. We are found in the context of our relationship with the divine, and with each other.

"Who are You?" Moses asks God, and God answers, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." This is not a name, but a mystery. It neither defines nor describes God, but it does help us to explore the mysterious nature of God. This phrase is often translated "I AM THAT I AM," a translation which is good insofar as it captures the perplexing mystery of the answer. To answer the question "Who are you?" with "I am that I am" doesn't answer the question at all. It barely even pushes it back a step. After all, if we didn't know that you are, we wouldn't ask what you are.

But the static English translation doesn't capture the full, rich meaning of the Hebrew. The Hebrew, I am told, is not static. It doesn't speak to being, but rather to becoming. As such, it could just as easily be translated "I will be what I will be," an answer which while as enigmatic as the static answer does not even attempt to fix God into a single position. Not only is God a mystery, but God is a constantly moving, constantly changing mystery. God is not an undefined but fixed point, but is rather an unfixed enigma.

But the Hebrew, I am told, is even richer than that. The Hebrew is not just an answer, but a promise which continues on the theme of the first promise made by God to Moses. When Moses asks "Who am I?" God answers "I will be with you." When Moses asks "Who are You?" God again answers, "I will be with you." This is because Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh not only conveys "I am what I am" and "I will be what I will be," but it also communicates "I will be where I will be." And, God assures Moses, where I will be is with you.

Names are very important throughout the Bible, and nowhere are they more important than in the Torah. Take Moses' name, for instance. The Hebrew is Mosheh, which comes from the Egyptian for "born of," and is, according to the Jewish Publication Society, associated with mashah, "draw out." His name, then, is not only that by which he is called, but it also points to a fundamental truth about him, the dichotomy between his birth and his adoption. Born into an enslaved, oppressed and marginalyzed group of strangers in Egypt, but "draw out" into the dominant household. He is empowered, and with that empowerment comes his eventual calling. His name is significant, and certainly not accidental.

Elsewhere in the Torah names also have great significance, as do changes in names. See for instance the move from Jacob to Israel, and the change in character that accompanied the change in name. In the New Testament we see a similar change in a character, from Saul (a Hebrew name) to Paul (a Greek form of that Hebrew name). This change anticipates Paul's new role as an apostle to the Gentiles.

While names can change, names serve as a kind of definition of the character, communicating some deep truth about the character; their fundamental identity. This is why, so often, when there is a fundamental shift in the nature or calling of a character (see also the shift from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah) there is an accompanying change in name. So, even when names are fluid, while a name is in place it, in a sense, limits the character to the definition given by the name. It fixes the character, providing boundaries and limits on who they are.

Even and especially when names in the Torah are not exactly names, they are significant. For instance, in the second creation story in Genesis we are introduced to the mythological first pair of humans, a man called Adam and a woman called Eve. The Hebrew word adam, however, is not a name, but rather a generic term often translated "man" or "mankind," or in more gender inclusive language, "humankind" (thanks again, Johanna!). This word is related to a Hebrew word for earth or soil, adamah, which is significant because this creation myth tells us that God made adam, "humankind," out of the dust of the adamah, "earth." It is also significant because, in having a character in a creation myth literally named "humankind," we can be certain that we are here dealing with the character as a literary device representing a type (much like the apostle Paul's typological use of the "old Adam" and the "new Adam"), rather than a historical person.

There are throughout the Torah names given to God. Some of these names, such as El Shaddai (traditionally rendered "God Almighty," but probably originally meant "God, the One of the Mountain," and is well known in Cannanite literature) are even given to God by God. But when Moses inquires about the name of God ("Who shall I say sent me?") God, as we have seen, gives a name which isn't a name. A name which is fluid instead of static, and is so enigmatic and mysterious as to provide us with no information about the bearer of the name.

In offering only a mystery, and the promise of the divine presence, to Moses' two great existential questions, God frustrates our expectations. That frustration, that refusal to come out and define the divine and human natures, drives us to ask the existential questions with Moses, in light of our own mysterious encounters with the divine.

Like Moses, each of us from time to time wonder who we are, and who the Other is. Like Moses we long to have a direct encounter with that holy Other, and to ask those great questions. But from the Moses story we know that the answers to these questions are lived rather than said. But, as we study the story deeper, we can begin to learn how to live out the answers to our questions, and to find ourselves in the context of a relationship with the mysterious divine. This relationship comes with both a promise and a calling, and the two together, lived out are the answer to our questions.

When Moses encountered God at that sacred site with the burning bush, God said to him, "I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians..." How is God going to do this? "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharoah, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

God heard the cry of the suffering and the oppressed, those enslaved in Egypt, strangers far from home. And God decided to act. But while the Exodus story contains many "signs and wonders," many stories of miracles, plagues, and divine intervention; God principally chooses to act through Moses. Moses is God's answer to human suffering. Moses is God's answer to injustice and oppression.

In our own lives it is very easy for us, if we are honest, to identify people who desperately wish that God heard their silent screams. As Christians, people who identify with the mythos of the Exodus story, and who say that when we were enslaved and sorely oppressed, God broke us free from our bondage, we must understand that like Moses we who have escaped from our metaphoric Egypt are called to be God's answer to oppression and exploitation in our communities. Like Moses we who are privileged are called to see that much of our wealth was acquired by our participation in an unjust economic system. We who have advantages are called to see how those advantages have disadvantaged others. And, like Moses, we are called to face the worldly powers with the prophetic voice of our encounter with the divine, as God's answer to human suffering.

This calling, and the promise of the presence of God which comes with it, should not, however, make us morally arrogant. Rather, it should force us to ask, with Moses, "Who am I? Who am I, that You would send me?" Moses was not called by God because he was good. He wasn't particularly good. He grew up in Pharoah's house, oppressing and enslaving his biological family. When he couldn't live with the distance between the status of his birth (part of the enslaved community, marked for death) and his adoption (part of the enslaving community, doling out death), he lashed out in anger and killed a man.

In the same way, each of us have hands so stained that we need never look down on another just because we have a sense of divine calling. Our calling should instead drive us to look into our own nature, and finding it wanting, looking into the mysterious nature of God, which molds us, shapes us, and fills us with meaning. Then, in humility we should do our best to live up to our calling as part of God's answer to human suffering.

Songs You Can't Scream in a Crowded Theater

[disclaimer: this post was typed while listening to the Black Crowes, my love for whom has been rekindled by their recent reunion]

I'm almost finished with my promised treatment of Exodus 3:1-14, but I'll have to wait to write some more until Adam goes down for his afternoon nap. In the meantime, a question from rock history, with no correct answer:

What is the best rock song about fire?

Early nominees:

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (formerly titled Fire, in an earlier incarnation as part of Brian Wilson's Elements suite), by, of course, the venerable Brian Wilson

Burning Down the House by the Talking Heads

Fire by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

Light My Fire by the Doors

Any additional nominees?

Finally, a bonus question:

Should James Taylor's Fire and Rain make the list, even though technically

a.) it isn't a rock song (James Taylor may rock, but he doesn't exactly rock), and

b.) it isn't really about fire?


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Cry

This, courtesy of the AP:

VILNIUS, Lithuania - Lithuanian police were so astonished when they pulled over a truck driver and his breathalyzer test registered 18 times the legal alcohol limit, they thought their testing device must be broken.

It wasn't.

Police said Tuesday 41-year-old Vidmantas Sungaila registered 727 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliters of blood repeatedly on different devices when he was pulled over for driving his truck down the center of a two-lane highway 60 miles from the capital, Vilnius on Saturday.

Lithuania's legal limit is 40 milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood.

"This guy should have been lying dead, but he was still driving. It must be an unofficial national record," Saulius Skvernelis, the director of the national police traffic control service, told the AP. "He was of high spirits and grinning the whole time he was questioned."

Medical experts say anything above 3.5 grams per liter of alcohol in the blood is lethal for most people.

"A person this intoxicated should be in an intensive care unit, not behind the wheel," said Tautvydas Zikaras, head of the dependence illness center in the country's second-largest city, Kaunas. Zikaras said he had never heard or read of someone being so drunk.

Sungaila, who was slapped with a 3,000 litas ($1,110) fine and the loss of his license for up to three years, told police he had been drinking the night before and tried to freshen up by downing a pint of beer for breakfast.

Lithuania has one of the worst road safety records in the European Union. Last year, 760 people died in traffic accidents in this country of 3.5 million residents. Most were alcohol-related.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Another Year Older: Some (Semi) Random Observations on the State of Things

Today is my birthday. My wife, the most saintly person I know, has given me the greatest gift I've ever received: a day to be me. She's taken a personal day, giving me the gift of both her presence and some space from the kid. Today I'm not Super-Dad, I'm just Chris. But who is Chris?

Yesterday morning I preached at the early morning Communion service at 4th Ave again. This time, however, it was totally extemporaneous. I showed up at church like I always do, and I asked who was giving the message this morning. For once the answer I got was "I don't know," in a hushed in worried voice. The person who was scheduled to share wasn't there, and no one had heard from her in about a week.

I said, "Well, I could share something." So I did.

When I was the pastor of a small rural church in the middle of nowhere I was responsible for three services a week: a Wednesday evening Bible Study (which got me in a great deal of trouble because I didn't have the sense to keep from saying what I really thought) a Sunday morning service and a Sunday evening service. I was a liturgical preacher, meaning that in general, unless I had some pressing need to address, I preached from the lectionary, a set of weekly readings. Our lectionary contained four readings each week: a passage from the Torah, a passage from one of the Wisdom books, a passage from the Gospels, and a passage from one of the Epistles.

After a few weeks on the job, I fell into a pattern that suited me very well. Each Sunday morning I preached from the lectionary's Gospel selection, and each Sunday evening I preached from the selection from the Torah. But soon I became frustrated with the Torah selections. The skipped and jumped, providing only very brief sketches of some of the most important stories from our religious tradition, and overlooking some stories altogether. The lectionary was designed to move very quickly through a very large amount of material, but I felt that it didn't allow me to delve into the Torah with any depth at all.

Frustrated, I abandoned the lectionary readings at the end of Genesis, and started a new series completely on my own, on the life of Moses. I treated Moses in depth, providing both some historical context and some contemporary translation (by translation I mean a transplanting of the story from its context to our context, rather than a translation of the Hebrew text, as I lack the language skills to do that) of the story. I never really got to fully develop my treatment of the life of Moses, because all of the nastiness went down just as I was getting into it.

So, yesterday, armed with a great deal of perspective, and no longer having to cater to opposing theologies, I picked up the story of Moses again, using the first half of the third chapter of Exodus to communicate about the divine-human encounter. I hadn't planned on saying anything that morning, but what I ended up saying felt like the best sermon I've ever given. The story became my own for the first time since I dropped that ill-fated series under pressure from fundamentalists.

At some point I'd like to try to recapture that sermon here, writing out some of the main points that I drew out of the text. I'd provide a teaser here, except I know that would derail me from my main purpose in writing.

Today is my birthday, a landmark day on which I mark the passing of another year as others celebrate my continued existence. But I still don't know what I'm going to do with my life.

Last week I got a letter from the U of L Brandeis School of Law which confirmed some of my fears: the "paperwork error" (entirely my fault) which, as I've mentioned here before delayed my application, has cost me any chance of starting there this fall. If I ever become a law student, it won't be this year.

But that if is starting to be a big if. When I got the letter of rejection I felt more relieved than anything else. Sure, part of the relief was in finally having an answer to a question that had been burning inside me and creating a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. But a bigger part of the relief was, perhaps, the feeling of being saved from making a tremendous mistake.

When I left pastoral ministry many of the people closest to me, while affirming the feelings which gave rise to that decision, wondered if perhaps I wasn't running away from myself. I'm not sure that that decision was a running away, a am sure that my decision to try to become a lawyer required me to deny or suppress some aspects of myself which are essential to my very being. It felt a little bit like selling my soul.

I'm not knocking law as a profession. It is a noble and honorable profession. But I don't think that it is my profession. Not that I have a higher calling; no calling, if it is an authentic calling, is any higher or lower than another one. But it is not my calling.

Which brings me back to the question: Who am I? Who is Chris? To what is Chris called?

I have a meeting today with someone from my former seminary, setting up what will most likely be my great comeback as a seminary student. I am no longer planning to become an ordained United Methodist minister, but I do think that part of finding out who I am means returning to that campus and starting a new program.

Today I am meeting with the Marriage and Family Therapy program to see if that would be a good fit for me. I have a good feeling about this, but we'll see what happens. I'm no longer set on entering into a particular profession. Instead I am set on being and becoming a particular person, and allowing my employment, whenever, wherever and whatever it be, to be an extension of that person.

This is a long process of healing, but part of that healing starts today, on my birthday.

While I was downstairs writing this, it turns out, some Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door to try, I suppose, to convert my wife (good luck there!). When they asked if my family had any interest in religion, my wife replied, "My husband is a pastor." It has been a long time since she's said that, and a much longer time since she's said that with any pride.

She came downstairs to tell me that story, and also to explain why she said what she said. She told me that, whatever it is that I end up doing, I will always be, in my own way, a pastor. I may not be ordained, and I may not be employed by any church, but I will always try to pastor somebody. That is just a part of who I am, who I will always be.

I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. I don't know who will sign my paychecks, or what they'll be paying me for. And yes, on days like today, days on which I have to start getting used to a new number attached to my sense of self, days when I realize once again that even though by some people's standards I'm still young, I'm older than I've ever been; especially on days like this that uncertainty bothers me. But that bothersome worry is smaller than the joy I get when I see my wife and child and realize that even if I'm perpetually unemployed or underemployed, with little to no vocational direction, I'm doing something right.

I'm taking the rest of today off, to celebrate me with my family. This afternoon I'm meeting with the MFT program. Sometime in the next couple of days I will come back to a couple of themes:

1. Concepts of God as a human product of the divine-human encounter (thanks to DagoodS, who pushes me)

2. Theme 1 as seen through the text of chapter 3 of Exodus.

3. What the relationship between 1 and 2, among other concerns brought up in the text of Exodus 3 and the broader story of both Exodus and the Torah, have to do with personal identity. This is seen particularly in what I call the "existential questions" asked by Moses at the burning Bush, one of the products of the divine-human encounter which gives rise to these human concepts of God.

Until then,


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Is Plurality a Serious Problem for Religion?

In a recent post, John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity directs our attention to an argument by Austin Cline concerning why atheists don't believe in gods. My purpose here is to address the first section of that argument, which asserts that the plurality of religions (or the pluriform nature of religion) is a real problem. At some point in the future I may address Mr. Cline's broader argument, but that is not my purpose here.

Before I address the argument itself, however, I'd like to say that I am pleased to see an atheist advance an actual argument, rather than just refute the claims of others. While I know that atheism is by its very nature negative (the prefix a is a negative prefix, negating the theism, from the root theus, meaning God) it has disturbed me that many critics of the religious project have satisfied themselves picking the nits of the beliefs of others without actually advancing anything themselves.

This impression may be an error on my part - I am by no means an expert on atheism, and so cannot say definitively that advancing theories rather than just refuting them is the dominant atheist project. But I can say that it often, from my perspective, seems that way. Perhaps this is because many of the atheists with whom I interact are "deconverted" evangelical Christians. After all, many evangelicals (and I still consider myself to be an evangelical) make it their project to knock down everyone else's religion so that there will be nothing left to do but to convert to the only religion left standing. So perhaps the atheists with whom I interact retain some of the distasteful methods of their former religion while also applying those methods to even that religion. Turnabout, it is often said, is fair play. But this mode of religious discourse does little to either improve interreligious dialogue or to arrive at anything resembling the fundamental truth of the universe.

That said, here is the first section of Mr. Cline's argument:

Multiple Gods and Religious Traditions:
It is difficult to credit any one religion as being True or any one god as being True when there have been so many throughout human history. None appears to have any greater claim to being more credible or reliable than any other. Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism? Every position has had its defenders, all as ardent as those in other traditions. They can't all be right, but they can all be wrong.

The second section is similar to the first, and inherits the biggest problem of the first, so I will include it, too:

Contradictory Characteristics in Gods:
Theists often claim that their gods are perfect beings; they describe gods, however, in contradictory and incoherent ways. Numerous characteristics are attributed to their gods, some of which are impossible and some combinations of which are impossible. As described, it's unlikely or impossible for these gods to exist. This doesn't mean that no god could possibly exist, just that the ones theists claim to believe in don't.

The first section of the argument sees religions as principally in competition with each other. And, of course, many religious people feed into this belief. Rather than seeing our religion as one of many valid ways to experience the sacred, we too often see our religion as the only way, a set or rational and literal statements with a literal-historical truth-value. In the face of this, Cline asks:

Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?

and in doings so he echoes the concern of many religious people. But does he ask a question which is of use to the overall project of religion (to the extent that one can say that there is such a things a "religion," and that this thing "religion" has a project)? Is it, in other words, really the case that each religion is fundamentally in competition with each other religion, and that that competition (if it exists at all) is principally concerned with the literal truth-value of the epistemic claims of each religion? And, is it also the case that religions are fundamentally in disagreement with each other on more than just certain details, such that, for instance, they have as little in common with each other as each respective one has in common with, say, atheism?

To deal with the first question, the groundwork for an answer is laid by Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, and in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. Eliade, the famous historian of religions [note: religions, as opposed to religion, as Eilade did not wish to engage too much in reductionistic thinking], argued that (again, to the extent that there is such a thing as "religion," and to the extent that this things "religion" can be said to have some purpose, role or function - see this post for my reasons for making that disclaimer) the purpose of religion is to facilitate an encounter with the sacred. The purpose of James' famous book was to study those encounters, generally lumped under the broad category "religious experience."

Whatever the details of any religion, each religion as a religion has in common that it posits a Sacred, the Other or the More. Of course the sacred is not always seen as a god or many gods, and certainly not all concepts of the sacred agree on what the sacred is. But they do all share this: they fundamentally disagree with the project of atheism, and in their disagreement with that project they have more in common with each other than any of them has with atheism.

Another thing that they all have in common - and this is important for understanding my objection to Mr. Cline's argument - is that they all speak of the sacred principally in metaphoric rather than in literal terms. While there are certainly disagreements between religions on the nature of the sacred, and while it is obviously not the case that all religions say exactly the same thing (in fact it is obviously not the case that all expressions of the same religion say the same thing); in general when religions make claims they are not making literal or exclusive claims.

This is the main point which Paul Tillich makes in the section of his Theology of Culture concerning symbolism: that the nature of religious language is symbolic. And while Tillich has a deeper understanding of the word "symbolic" than the common usage of that word (it would, for instance, make no sense to Tillich to claim that a certain use of language is "merely symbolic," as though that were something lesser than the literal) it is pretty easy to grasp that by symbolic, at the very least, he means not literal. And, quite possibly he means greater than literal.

But referring to Eliade, James and Tillich doesn't by itself make my point. After all, most religious people have probably never heard of any of them, and would certainly disagree with their presentation of the nature of religion. It could easily be the case that Eliade, James and Tillich presented some sort of "best case scenario" for the relationship between individual religions in light of the plurality of religious expressions. To answer this concern, let's engage in an honest thought experiment.

Does the average religious person (to the extent that there is such a thing) believe absolutely in a non-symbolic concept of God (by which I mean something more than just the claim that is not only a symbol - I mean, does the person believe that God is more or less accurately described by a single description which is understood purely literally)? Given how often religious people claim that God frustrates human language and human understanding, I expect not. It may be the case that some people do believe that a particular description of God is literally true, exhaustive and exclusive, but I doubt that such people can claim to represent the consensus of religious people.

So, by and large, when we are dealing with language concerning God we are dealing with symbolic rather than literal language. We are, in other words, dealing with metaphor. And it should not be a surprise to us when metaphors conflict. They are, after all, our way of rendering into language that which cannot be rationally described. They are our way of representing something which cannot be understood literally. They are our way, in other words, of wrestling with mystery.

And religion is principally concerned with mystery. Religion is a way of trying to understand and articulate that which can't be completely understood or accurately described. Religious beliefs are our rational response to the ineffable experience of the sacred. Religious language is a mingling of the transcendent with the particular; a way of expressing that which can't be expressed in the symbolic language of a particular culture.

As such, even while religions do in fact disagree with each other, and while it is important to understand that those disagreements are very real and serious and should not be carelessly glossed over as though they do not exist; it is certainly not fair or accurate to say that religions are principally in competition with each other for some literal truth-value.

Plurality does pose a problem for exclusivism, but it does not pose a problem for the essential project of religion. That is because each religion adds its voice to the others, saying that there is such a sacred, and that the sacred can be experienced. In this they are united in their rejection of modern atheism.

This is where is real debate should be: Does the fact that the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history have believed in and experienced the sacred - even though they haven't all described the sacred with the same terms or concepts - point to the existence of something beyond the realm acknowledged by modern empiricism? How do those who deny the sacred explain the epistemic intuitions of almost all humans? I am sure that they have answers, and very reasonable answers. But the argument against plurality is at best a sort of strawman argument in which the worst form of religion stands in for religion as a whole, and gets knocked down without a fight.

That said, Cline does ask a serious question for pluralists like me to consider, which I shall quote yet again:

Why Christianity and not Judaism? Why Islam and not Hinduism? Why monotheism and not polytheism?

Part of this question is a category error: the pluralist does not say one "and not" the other, if by that we mean that one is "true" and the other "false." But the religious person, pluralist or otherwise, still must choose the tradition in which they experience the sacred, the way in which they wish to be religious. If truth-value (in the absolute sense, at least) is removed from the equation, how do we choose?

If we weren't talking about religion, this wouldn't be a problem at all. How, for instance, do you choose what to eat? The absence of absolute truth-value is not a problem. That you can't say "apple is true, and not-apple (be it pizza, burrito, orange, or whatever) is false" doesn't give one pause. But is food a good metaphor for religion? Like all metaphors it isn't perfect, but perhaps it isn't bad.

When looking at both food and religion, you need to consider nourishment. With food you consider the needs of your body, with religion the needs of what we often call your spirit or your soul. Of course empirical studies have taught us what our body needs, but there can be no empirical study concerning the needs of the soul. Absent that, how do we choose a religion in terms of nourishment?

People were eating long before science told them what to eat. How did they decide what to eat? Obviously some of that had to do with what was available to them, but much of it also had to do with intuition. Our bodies communicate our needs to us. Of course this form of communication, absent perfect self-awareness, is very imperfect. Our intuitions aren't flawless. But neither are they totally bad. In the same way, I think, we have spiritual intuitions which communicate what we need in terms of spiritual nourishment. Those of you who are religious, and who have struggled with how to be religious, know what I am saying when I say that we know when our way of being religious isn't working any more. If we listen to the inner voice which tells us that this isn't working, we change important parts of our religious life.

So, intuitions inform us of how particular modes of being religious nourish us spiritually. But we don't just choose food based on the nutrients in it. We also consider aesthetics. There is also an aesthetic component to religion, though I won't go into that here.

We consult many other things in choosing how to be religious, but of the ones not yet mentioned, ethics may be the most important. At some point in the future we may consider the possibility of ethical critiques of religious expressions. But for the moment I think that I have demonstrated that removing absolute truth-value from our consideration of religion still leaves us plenty of ground to choose our way of being religious, while also allowing us to see the cooperative aspects of plurality rather than just the competitive aspects.

When we choose one religion over another, we are not saying that our way of being religious should be normative. Instead we are simply saying that it is our way of being religious, the way in which we experience the sacred. That does not discredit any much less all of the other ways.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Zen Garden Review

While typing up my last post, salivating at the many remembered meals of Zen Garden, I decided to post the review of that restaurant that I wrote a few years ago in a college writing class. Here it is:

Vegetarian Heaven

Nestled in the heart of Crescent Hill, on historic Frankfort Avenue, is a culinary nirvana. Zen Garden, Louisville’s first and only Asian restaurant with an all vegetarian menu offers a welcome relief from the samsara that is the local Asian restaurant scene, an uncreative wheel of birth, death, and rebirth for menu items. Not only is Zen Garden run according to Zen philosophy, with a focus on the health of the consumer, the value of animal life, and a passion for the needy (their menu clearly states “all profits from Zen Garden will go to help others in need,”) it provides a nearly perfect dining experience.

We arrived at Zen Garden at about six o’clock on a Monday night, to no wait. We walked right in and sat at a table. Immediately we noticed the peaceful décor, full of Buddhist shrines, pictures, icons and literature. There was bamboo on every table, and the lighting was soothingly dim. The light music in the background, which could be used for meditation, helped create an atmosphere of relaxation and contemplation.

Our waitress arrived at our table promptly, though we were so comfortable I doubt we would have noticed or minded if she had been late. She was friendly, and explained what she could of the menu, but the language barrier might have been a real problem. She didn’t speak English well, and I don’t speak Vietnamese well, but, after a moment of awkward silence, we learned to communicate using smiles and gestures. She was extremely pleasant, and didn’t do anything to disturb the effect of the ambiance on our moods.

I have always believed that the best environment is one that facilitates silence, and the best relationships are ones that do not demand conversations. Zen Garden is one such environment, and it encourages peaceful relationships unencumbered by frivolous dialogue. While we were waiting for our food I enjoyed the bliss of not having to speak, and not wondering what my wife was thinking. We were free simply to be. To be in love, to be at peace, and to be out on the town.

However, this peace was soon disturbed by the incessant ring of a telephone. While the lack of a crowd was good for our wait time, there was only one waitress on duty, so when the phone rang while she was taking someone else’s order, there was no one to pick up the phone. This broke the Zen spell for a moment, but after she finally answered the phone (on the fifteenth ring!) we quickly retreated back to our contemplation.

Then our first course arrived. We had ordered an appetizer – a combination of steamed dumplings and pot stickers which they were kind enough to stretch the menu to provide for us. They were wonderful. The steamed dumplings were literally dumplings, filled with tofu and vegetables, then steamed until they were soft and sticky. The pot stickers were just like the steamed dumplings, only pan fried to provide a slightly different texture. They were topped with a ginger and sesame sauce, which was both sweet and tangy.

While we were still polishing up our appetizer, greedily lapping up all of the sauce we could, our entrees arrived. I had the Egg Plant in Curry Sauce, which was Asian egg plant, fresh soybeans, shiitake mushrooms and shredded tofu in a spicy curry sauce. She had the Thai Rice Noodles, a variety of veggie meats, flat rice noodles and stir fried vegetables. Both were artfully presented on humble flatware. Mine was excellent, particularly the soft but firm egg plant, and the rich shiitake mushrooms. However, the side of steamed rice proved necessary to dose the fire from the “spicy” curry sauce. I should have considered the description a warning – it was certainly not a lie.

My wife, on the other hand, did not really like the Thai Rice Noodles. While they were beautifully presented, they were topped with a generous helping of fresh chopped mint, which she said overpowered the rest of the dish.

For dessert we had a guilt free treat, plantains in coconut sauce, topped with shredded coconut. It was as good as I can imagine a dessert being, and the sauce was well worth spooning up long after the plantains we gone.

The portions were generous, which was surprising given the modest prices. Appetizer prices ranged from $2.95 to $4.95, entrée prices from $6.50 to $9.50. We left full, but not sick, and we were able to bring a few leftovers home.

The location was gorgeous, on Frankfort Avenue, within walking distance of Carmichael’s Bookstore and many other unique local shops. It could be improved by replacing the concrete in the front with a Zen garden and some outdoor seating, but I doubt that either of those improvements would generate enough new business to offset the enormous cost. The insides, even the bathrooms, were impeccably clean.

All in all, we had one of the best times we’ve ever had eating out, which more than made up for the overreaching on our entrees. I highly recommend Zen Garden to anyone who is looking to have a good, non-rowdy night on the town. It is like visiting another world.

If you’re eager for a taste of nirvana, visit Zen Garden at 2240 Frankfort Avenue, in Louisville, KY. You can call (502) 895-9114 for directions. They don’t take reservations (you wouldn’t need them, anyway) but they will take Visa or Master Card.

Bits and Pieces

Yesterday I drove Adam to Frankfort, KY, to meet my mother half-way to my parents' house in Lexington. She's taking Adam for the weekend, making this the first time in his life he's been separated from his parents overnight. So far I don't miss him quite as much as I thought I would, but that's probably because Sami and I have packed so many things that we've been meaning to do into such a small space of time that we - or at least I - haven't had time to notice he's not here.

On the Interstate on the way to Frankfort I say a bumper sticker that just has to be relayed:

If my smoking bothers you,

I can't decide if this is a really shallow and callous smoker accurately representing their own reprehensible position (and I've seen more than a few smokers who represented this position boldly!) or if this is some anti-smoking satire.

After I got home from handing my son to his grandmother, a woman who, free from the tyranny of her son and his wife, is certain to be spoiling my little boy as I type this, I took Sami out on one of our first real dates in his lifetime.

Dating as a parent is tricky, complicated. You already have less money and time to play around with, because children take up so much of both. On top of that, dates get more costly because you have to either

a.) take this kid with you, making it much less of a date, anyone, since your primary concern is with the happiness and well being of your child rather than on listening to and spending time with your spouse - and forget any romance, or

b.) find childcare, which usually uses up either favors, money, or both.

Using the traditional date formula of dinner, a movie, and then if you're lucky a little bit of dessert or a drink after the movie, my wife and I, until last night, had never managed to have a complete date during our son's life. For her birthday we did manage to squeeze in lunch and a movie, but nothing after the movie. That date also had these two conditions on it:

1. We were in Lexington, staying with my family, so that they could watch Adam while we went out. It was part of their birthday present to Sami, but it meant that our date felt somewhat chaperoned, as we had a cell phone on us at all times waiting (fortunately in vain) for some crisis to arise. Also, of course, we weren't in our town. Lexington, to put it mildly, ain't Louisville.

2. Lunch, even at the glorious Joseph-Beth cafe, isn't dinner. A lunch date feels rushed. It just doesn't have the time to play out like a dinner date.

But last night we got to actually go out on a date, a real DATE! (Not that I'm happy about that or anything...) We stared the evening at Zen Garden, my all time favorite restaurant. I first went to Zen Garden to write a review of it for a college writing class. I may have to post that review here sometime. It was even better than usual, with improved presentation, and, even more importantly for my wife, with the cilantro on the side of the plate instead of mixed into the food. Cilantro always gives her trouble, but she never remembers to tell them that when she's ordering. This time, it seems, they read her mind, so she didn't have to meticulously pick it out of her food.

After our lovely dinner we went to Baxter Ave Theaters, locally owned and operated, and specializing in the sorts of movies that major chains don't bother to carry. We saw Thank You For Smoking, quite possibly the funniest movie I've seen in the theater since Gross Pointe Blank. And like Gross Pointe Blank, this movie is a dead pan satire looking at ethical conflicts. I won't say anything more about it, except to reiterate that it was insanely funny, and totally unforced. Unlike many recent comedies, this one didn't go out of its way to tell you that it was trying to be funny. It was simply funny.

We then went to Heine Brothers Coffee, a strange choice since neither of us drink coffee. But we had a great time staying up late pretending to be adults (parents often, as best as I can tell, feel more like children. At least I do. After all, I spend all day every day with only a fifteen-month-old to keep me company. At a certain point I sink to his level because God knows he can't rise to mine yet. But I digress...) drinking our hot chocolate (what we un-cool non-coffee-drinkers get at coffee shops) and picking at a pretty good macademia nut torte. Pretty good my ass! It was awesome. Adam doesn't get to eat nuts yet, so it was the sort of thing we could never eat around him, once again creating the illusion that we were real adults instead of just some semi-adult sub-species, the parents of a young child.

We talked about how, since Adam wasn't home to need to go to bed early and wake up with the sun, we could stay out all night and then sleep in in the morning. But, as usual, we were all talk. By ten o'clock we were at home, falling over each other to see if we could make it to bed before we fell asleep. And, sure enough, by 7 am, no child to act as the alarm clock that I haven't needed since his birth, I was laying awake in bed, reading Jews and Christians: A Troubled Family by Walter Harrelson (a former religion professor at Vandy, and a Christian) and Randall M. Falk (an esteemed Rabbi from Tennessee), waiting for my wife to wake up so that I could get out of bed and start my day.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hard Core Gardening Granny

This story from the AP:

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. (May 11) - When a 5-foot alligator sank its teeth into her ankle, Connie Gittles fought back with a garden hose.

"I just whacked him right in the snout with the nozzle," the 74-year-old retiree said of the Tuesday morning attack. "After that, he took off."

Even though one of the three puncture wounds on her ankle went to the bone, Gittles finished her gardening before seeking medial attention.

"I'm a farmer's daughter from way back, so when I start a chore ... I finish it," Gittles said.

Wildlife trappers caught and killed an alligator whose teeth matched the bite marks on Gittles' ankle. State wildlife officials praised the retiree's reaction.

"She was spunky," said Jo Anne Adams, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Beating him in the nose was a good thing."

Wildlife officials say alligators are more prone to wander during mating season, which peaks in May. Alligators who have been fed by humans are also more bold.

Adams said Gittles was lucky to escape.

"He could have grabbed her leg, pulled her down and killed her," Adams said.

To which I can only say, DAMN!

Letter to the campaign of Andrew Horne

Here is a copy of a letter I just sent to the campaign of Andrew Horne, a Democrat running for a chance to oppose Republican Congresswoman Anne Northup the 3rd District's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. While I do not know Mr. Horne personally, he a member of Christ Church United Methodist, where I have preached occasionally, and is a friend of a friend of mine. I hope that he and his campaign seriously consider this short (for me, anyway) letter concerning his position on gay marriage and civil unions:

I am seriously considering voting for Andrew Horne, but I have one tremendous hang-up. While I suspect that he and I may agree on the moral value of homosexuality (that is, that homosexual sexual acts are not inherently immoral, and that their moral value does not depend on the sexual orientation of the parties involved, but rather on the nature of the relationship and internal factors specific to the situation, just as in heterosexual sexual acts) and that we agree on the basic humanity of homosexuals as persons; I am troubled by some of his quotes on social and legal issues related to the treatment of homosexuals.

To both the LEO and the Courier Journal he stressed his belief that while no one should be discriminated against on the basis of anything (which I took to include sexual orientation, though it was a very broad statement - "I don't believe in discrimination of any kind") he went out of his way to say that legal recognition of homosexual relationships was a state and local issue. While that may reflect his personal conviction (and I have no doubt that he is a man of conviction), it seems like a passing of the buck, or a ducking of a controversial issue.

Perhaps such passing and ducking is necessary when running a political campaign, but I wonder whether this is healthy. Saying of an issue related to discrimination and the recognition of the basic rights and humanity of any person that it is a "state and local issue" carries with it morally disastrous results. How long, for instance, was discrimination against blacks justified morally as a "state and local issue."

If the state of Kentucky passed an amendment to its constitution institutionalizing discrimination against, for instance, African-Americans, would anyone in good conscience be able to say that that is a "state and local issue" not subject to federal intervention? I hope not. And if homosexuals are, as homosexuals, a minority whose rights are to be protected rather that moral reprobates whose relationships are to be restricted by the state, we cannot say of their basic right to have legal recognition for their partnerships that it is a state and local issue.

I hope that, at some point in the future, Mr. Horne will be able to take a morally prophetic stand on this, just as he has on issues of economic justice. To do otherwise is to participate in institutional discrimination.

Chris Baker

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Word of God?

Here are some questions for discussion which came out of my post, Exodus as a Macro Story:

What does it mean to say that the Bible is the "Word of God," and do you ever say that?

If you say that the Bible is somehow the Word of God, what do you mean by that?

If you are within the Christian tradition, and do not use that phrase to describe the Bible, why don't you use it? What phrases do you use to describe the Bible? How do you approach the Bible?

If you are outside the Christian tradition, what do you think of a group holding up a work like the Bible as in some form a communication of God and from God?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear."

[note: This is my 100th post, which I suppose qualifies me for something, especially given the length of most of them.]

Today my wife Sami had her company picnic, a lovely opportunity for us to show off our cute son. On the way home from the picnic, since Adam, just like his Daddy, must be surrounded by music at all times, we listened to the Vigilantes of Love's album Blister Soul. Track three on that disk is called "Skin," Bill Mallonee's Vincent van Gogh metaphor for art, life and ministry. As I listened to it for, what, the 400th or so time, I knew I had to write something on it.

I've been staring at the lyrics for just a few minutes now, trying to pick some representative sample for you. But, like a good poem, I can't just cut some part of it out and let it stand in for the rest. It all kind of hangs together. Similarly, I can't exactly tell you what it's about. It isn't really about anything. Oh, sure, I could say that it is about this or that, and build an argument for that position. But as soon as I did, something would be lost. Force an interpretation on the song and, as soon as you do, all other potential interpretations are lost. I'm not yet prepared to do that.

So, in a gluttony of good words, I'm giving you the entire lyric. Like all great songs the lyric can't be easily separated from the music. But chopping off the music is less severe than chopping off the music and half the words. So, here is the lyric for the Vigilantes of Love's "Skin," written as always by Bill Mallonee:

now i'd seen him despondent
a few times as of late
sometimes the answer love gives
is the hardest one to take
now I know he was prone to paint the voice of his own fear
so vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

just look at yourself in the mirror
all rumpled red stubbled and gaunt
you walk a dead end path in a dry corn field
and now this morose response
and your princess
she don't want to see you
no your princess she don't want to hear
so vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

now look if you're gonna come round here and say those sorts of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thickest skin

sometimes you can't please everyone
sometimes you can't please anyone at all
sew your heart onto your sleeve
and wait for the ax to fall

now you there with the paintbox
you there with paper and pen
me I got this blunt instrument
i'm gonna play on till the end
and you come with empty hands
or you don't come at all
you deal your best hand out in the marketplace
and let the chips fall
and the package, it comes wrapped up
there is a lesson here
and vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

now look if you're gonna come round here and say those sorts of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
talkin bout sin and redemption
you better bring your thickest skin

This song really speaks to me, and I'm sorry that I can't give you the music to go with these words. A great song is singular; you can't break it into its component parts, dissect it, and understand it. You have to take in the organic whole and let it live with you for a while. Then you'll see that, if it is a really great song, it doesn't just communicate some cognitive message or some emotive experience. Rather, it hits you on a level which slips right past description, touching the you that you'd forgotten about. This song reminds me of who I am, without bothering to tell me who I ought to be.

But, as the lyric says, "there is a message here." While it is impossible for me to describe everything that the song communicates (in part because what it communicates is not limited to what I hear in it or get out of it), I can draw some simple communications out of it for you. So here are some things which I hear in this song:

The first verse sets up the image of Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear. Bill Mallonee is obviously not just relaying a historical event, but is instead taking an image from history and using it as a metaphor. Here it is easy to see how all the time we mythologize history. If history is merely relaying events, then it doesn't really speak to us, and there is no point in studying it. History is about the past, sure, but it is also about the present and the future. It is the past speaking to the present and helping to shape the future.

The van Gogh image is immediately, in the first verse, a metaphor for art. Vincent, when he picks up the blade and puts it to his ear, is doing it as an extension of his art. His art is very much like this act of self-mutilation. In his art he takes a part of himself, cuts it off or out, and places it - in paint on canvass - before us. He says, "Here, this is part of me. Take it."

This self offering is essential to art. It is the essence of art, as best as I can tell. And, as art, it transcends any particular artistic medium.

We in the blogosphere know a little something of this. One of the things which has simultaneously attracted and repelled me about blogging is that it blurs the private/public distinction. Blogging is often a very private act. It is a raw, unpolished, personal form of communication, often written like a private journal. Yet it is placed in public. Anyone with Internet access could theoretically read it.

This blurring of the private/public distinction has created many very bad blogs. I once, for instance, read a blog which consisted entirely of what a person ate for lunch every day. Clearly that blog was not interesting to a public audience, and as art failed. It should have remained private. As a creative writing teacher once scrawled on a particularly bad poem of mine, "Why should I care about this? If you need to say this, journal about it. But don't turn it in to me."

But there are parts of us, often buried deep inside us, which if made public can actually communicate something meaningful, which communicates to others. Finding these things, and presenting them in some form, can often feel very much like taking a blade to a part of your body and slicing it off. That act is a very private act. But when it is made public, both the public and the private are better off for it.

Ministry is very much like this. You could almost call it a work of art. Done right, or almost right, it probably is. Ministry requires a degree of vulnerability, a willingness to face all of those things that most of us don't want to face, and then having face those deep dark scary fears empowering others to turn and face them as well.

I remember once preaching at a funeral, meditating on my childhood fear of death. How, well... not quite ironic, but at least appropriate that I, who had once been so afraid of death that it kept me up at night, running in circles around my bedroom scared that if I fell asleep I might not wake up, was now staring straight at death on behalf of a community of faith. Wrestling with death, trying to existentially understand our impermanent nature, and lead other people to that same constructive understanding. It was, after all, what I'd been doing my whole life. My excessive fears, my crippling anxieties, were now being put to work in my ministry.

Henri Nouwen, in his great book The Wounded Healer, writes that our wounds are the only currency we have for ministry. Whether that's true or not I don't know, but it seems to be that they are at the very least our best, our most valuable, currency for ministry. The shape us, mold us into who we are. They are what we have to offer other wounded people. And we are all wounded.

But it takes some serious vulnerability to share our wounds with others. To say how we are wounded, where we are wounded. To admit that some wounds still hurt, still bleed. To be able to expose those wounds to people who may well, like Thomas, drive their fingers into the holes to make sure they aren't some saintly mirage. That takes vulnerability, and courage. What Paul Tillich called existential or ontological courage; the courage to be. To be who you are, to be yourself. To be yourself for others, living with authentic vulnerability before them. That is ministry.

But, as Bill Mallonee reminds us, if we're going to do that we'd better "bring our thickest skin." As a pastor my skin was not so thick. I made myself vulnerable, but I couldn't accept the fruits of that vulnerability. The inevitable rejection that you get from some people. And the problem with being your authentic self for others is that when they reject you they really are rejecting you.

Some people in my church once looked straight at me and called me an agent of Satan, sent to deceive God's people. Why? Because I faced the fears they wouldn't face, and had the courage to say that the theology I grew up with wasn't working? Maybe, but that makes me sound too much like a martyr. Whatever their reasons, the problem was that I didn't bring that "thick skin." I couldn't bring it, because I'd never found it. They helped me to find it.

I'm now embracing lay ministry, seeing it not as the loss of my standing as a pastor, but rather as the gain of my standing as an authentic lay person, part of the body of Christ with a mission and purpose no less valuable than that of the clergy. I am finding my new ministry.

Elsa Tamez, as I said in this post on James, turned my attention to a couple of verses which, to me, speak to the heart of lay ministry. I won't give a full treatment of the verses here, but I will challenge those of you who are not clergy and do not desire to be clergy, to consider how these verses impact your view on your relationship with the ministry of the church:

James 5:16

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

Notice that all in the community are called to give and receive confession. The task of hearing confessions, and the task of praying for others, is not limited to the clergy.

James 5:17

Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.

This is an even richer verse, and I cannot possibly here capture the depth of that richness. But there are a couple of things we should notice. First, while Elijah is perhaps the most revered figure in the Jewish tradition, he is, according to James, "like us." Just another human being.

On top of that, in terms of the clergy/laity divide, Elijah is (from a lay perspective) just like us. He is not a priest, or a king. But as a prophet, though he opposes both the religious and political power, he is one who speaks for God.

We are Elijah, and he is us.

My point is that the laity cannot defer to the clergy for "ministry." We are also ministers in our own way, and so these thoughts on ministry and vulnerability, ministry and art, do not just apply to seminarians and pastors and theologians. They apply to all.

Ultimately our very lives are our works of art and our ministry. They should be lived with a balance of vulnerability and thick skin. And when we interact with people, in some very real way, if we are truly present, we are almost cutting off a part of ourselves and trusting them with it.

That trust can become mutilated when, to go back to the van Gogh metaphor, the object of our vulnerable love takes a look at our wounds, our vulnerability, our severed ear, and decided that they can't handle it. The rejection stings, and it also leaves us with less to give the next time we decide to become vulnerable. Without grace, without mercy, without the forgiveness which is the antithesis of bitterness and resentment, our ear never grows back, our wound never heals.

I'm starting to heal. I'm finding a new ministry. This week I started as the chair of the Education team at my church. I am now responsible for (gulp) children's ministry, youth ministry, and all adult education programs, including Sunday School, small groups, and our Wednesday evening forum.

If I had not been through the pain of losing my vocation to pastoral ministry, I would not be able to do this vital job.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Migraine Madness

We've reached Kentucky Oaks Day (here in Louisville time this season is marked by the Derby) and I still don't have my first post for the month of May. So far two promises have been left unfulfilled, as the second half of my post on James (with a heavy debt owed to Elsa Tamez) and my treatment of Robert N. Wennberg's criticism of utilitarian approaches to animal ethics have never made it past the pre-writing stage.

We've had a good discussion on Exodus, and some theological issues which come out of our reading of it, which has been a delight. But, alas, most of my time this past week has been wasted fighting a migraine which has almost literally scrambled my brain. I can pull it together long enough to post a few comments, but I have been painfully unable to compose any new material.

Hopefully in the next week my inexplicable and inexcusable head will calm down long enough for me to catch up on my writing.