Tuesday, May 29, 2007


My friend Aaron, who just lost his wife after a long battle with cancer, has a very interesting post on the sacramental nature of memory. While most of the post is personal rather than theological (and well worth reading, I might add) I found this nugget to be particularly interesting:

There is a curious moment in John chapter 11. John tells us that Jesus is coming to Lazarus, who is dead. When John says that Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, he takes a moment to say, “this is the same Mary who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped His feet with her hair…” But that doesn’t happen until chapter 12. Obviously, everyone already knows the story, and John is heading them off at the pass so they don’t say, “Hey, isn’t that the same Mary who…” You can see the scene; John sitting with a group of people who want to hear about Jesus. “Tell us again,” they say, “we would hear about Jesus…”

Sometimes we don’t really get that Jesus was tragically taken from His friends. We get too theological, too church-y. His death is an historical fact, a religious doctrine. But the only reason we have a doctrine or a church is because His friends have said for 2000 years, “Do you remember that time He…”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Celebrating Diversity on Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day that we Christians celebrate for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.

Today we are reminded that the Spirit of God is a wind that blows where it will, breathing life into moribund institutions, buildings and congregations. We experience this Spirit, this Divine Breath, as a refining fire, that both purifies and fuels us.

This morning in churches all over the world, we Christians read the famous story from the second chapter Acts, in which the Spirit blew through the meeting house where those early Christian had gathered, like a mighty wind. We read of strange images, like tongues of fire resting on heads. We read of the miracle that allowed each person gathered to hear each speaker as though that speaker were speaking in their native language, transcending cultural and linguistic barriers.

This is a strange story, and a vital story. Because it tells of the origins of the church, it communicates to the disparate churches of today something of an ideal. Something like what it means to be church.

Of course, this story - a myth rooted in our history - cannot be limited to a single interpretation any more than the God to whom it points can be limited to a single description, a single set of propositions. Good interpretations of meaningful stories do not seek so much to place interpretive limits on the story, as though it could have only one meaning. Rather, they seek to draw one of many possible meanings out of the story, and hold that meaning up to light, without denying the many other possible meanings.

That is my aim here: to see what this story might have to say to Christian churches in a pluralistic, multi-cultural context, wrestling with the challenge of plurality while trying to remain faithful to their own distinctive identity. This by no means exhausts the many possible interpretations of the stories considered here. It simply draws on those stories to speak to a particular issue.

I've written before that the Bible isn't a single book, but rather a collection of "many separate books which often overlap but sometimes contradict," written by many different authors in different locations over a vast expanse of time. As such, making connections between books in the Bible can be a sometimes problematic activity. That said, I think that it is safe to say that the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts can be seen at least in part as a book-end to the story of Babel in Genesis 11. In fact, many Christians teach that at Pentecost God undid this disunifying work of Babel. So, as we look to the Pentecost story to see how we might respond to plurality and diversity, it is useful to look also to the story of Babel.

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, "Cone, let us make bricks and burn them hard." - Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. - And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world." The LORD came down to look at the city and tower that [hu]man[ity] had built, and the LORD said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be beyond their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's speech." Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

- Genesis 11:1-9 (JPS)

Lest anyone take this story as literal history in some sequential order, it should be noted that in the description of post flood humanity found in the previous chapter (Genesis 10), humanity has already been divided into separate nations, each with its own language. See, for instance, Genesis 10:5:

From these the maritime nations branched out. [These are the descendants of Japheth] by their lands - each with its language - their clans and their nations.

So, if you try to see the whole of Genesis as a single text describing literal history in a linear way, you have real problems trying to reconcile the fact that in Genesis 10:5 humanity has already been divided into different nations "each with its own language," while in Genesis 11:1 "[e]veryone on earth had the same language and the same words."

Rather being seen, then, as part of a divinely inspired history text, this story is best seen as a myth, a myth that explains the origins of the dreaded enemy of ancient Israel, Babylon.

But, what is the sin of Babel (Babylon), which forces God to scatter all of the people around the earth, and to confound human language? What, in other words, has gone wrong here? This is an especially important question if you see the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts as a book-end or companion story to this one, in which God (at least to a certain extent) undoes what was done at Babel.

The most conventional (in Christian circles) interpretation of the sin of Babel is that it was pride. Intoxicated by their own power, these people built a great city, and in that city a tower that reached up to the sky, into the very heavens. The text even says, in the JPS translation, that they did this "to make a name for" themselves. That, coupled with the visual image of encroaching on the very space of God, sounds haughty indeed.

And pride has rightly been seen as a sin, and a very special kind of sin from which many other sins emerge. Pride has even been seen as a kind of root sin, the sin that lies underneath all other sins. But is this the sin of Babel?

In Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos notes that pride is the sin that is traditionally attributed to Babel; and, she argues, there is some textual evidence for this view. She writes:

The people depicted in this story are presumptuous in wanting to make for themselves a name, and God punished them accordingly. On a certain level, it is probably true that pride and arrogance, specifically as personified in Babylon, are here thwarted by divine intervention... Human pride and overreaching, especially as it was witnessed at the time shortly before, during, and after the Babylonian exile, are taken down a few notched in this story.

But there are also some problem with the view that pride - or, at least, pride alone - is the sin of Babel. It doesn't seem obvious what harm the pride of Babel caused here. It is certainly the case that the kind of pride that causes some humans to be blind to the needs of other humans, or that causes humans as a group to be blind to the needs of non-human animals and the natural environment, is quite harmful. But a flat reading of this story reveals only a kind of unifying pride that drives a community to excel. Where's the harm in building a great city or a great tower? Is God so thin-skinned that all human achievements are seen as affronts to divine dignity, in need of being smacked down?

In culling contemporary scholarship, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos offers an alternative view of the sin of Babel:

Some commentators conclude that the issue with which the passage is most concerned is the earth. The tower, seen as so central by many interpreters, actually disappears in the story to be replaced by the city. There is a problem depicted here and it is perhaps not the problem of human pride, but that of remaining in one place and building/making constructions that do not directly benefit the earth...

In our day this interpretation is quite compelling. We who live in cities that belch smog into the heavens can certainly see that construction projects that are blind to the divine command to tend to creation are inherently sinful. And we may be both frightened and comforted by the notion that God may intervene to bring such projects to ruin.

But, while that is a compelling view that offers a very meaningful contemporary interpretation of the text, that interpretation doesn't have much to say when placed in dialogue with the Pentecost story. While we could argue that God's restoration of communication has real value in our collective human effort to restore the natural environment, such an argument would fail to account for the fact that God confounded human speech in response to Babel. The interpretation, then, in that respect, fails to properly interact with the text. It might well be useful - and I'm all in favor of teaching anything in church that makes us more mindful of the environmental impact of our actions - but it might not be the most faithful interpretation of the text.

Recently I heard another interpretation of the Babel story; an interpretation, I might add, that is in Johanna's wonderful book, though I failed to properly take note of it. On Babel, my friend and teacher Rabbi David Ariel-Joel says that while Christians often interpret the story with an emphasis on pride, Jews look at the story quite differently. For them, he argues, Babel is not so much about pride as it is about forced conformity. It is about the sin of holding a single expression of humanity as the normative one, forcing all humans to look, dress, act, think, and speak alike. Babel, he claims, tells us that God favors a diversity of human expression.

This echoes an argument made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Grawemeyer Award winning The Dignity of Difference. Of Babel he writes:

It is the attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity. That is what is wrong with universalism.

Babel - the first global project - is the turning point in the biblical narrative. It ends with the division of [hu]mankind into a multiplicity of languages, cultures, nations and civilizations.

In this view, then, the sin of Babel is also a very contemporary sin: making a single expression of the plurality of humanity normative, the expression of humanity. In the face of this sin, God emphasizes diversity, the plurality of human expression. In the Babel story this means confounding language and scattering people. In doing so the artificial unity of Babel is smashed, and from it many different cultures and many different languages emerge.

This brings us to Pentecost. The Pentecost story tells us:

... suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Acts 2:2-6 (NRSV)

In Babel a single people from a single place were scattered across the face of the earth, their speech confounded and divided into a multitude of languages. At Pentecost, a multitude of people from every nation is brought together, and while they each speak different languages, they are able to understand each other.

It is important to note, however, that while each can understand each, there is no single unifying language or culture. No expression is made normative, forcing the plurality to become an artificial unity. Rather, the unity is brought about by God's affirming of difference. How does God affirm difference here? Each person hears each other person in their own native language. No language is lost. No group forced to deny the authenticity and validity of their expression of humanity. Rather, in the face of difference, the Spirit makes comprehension possible.

The story of Pentecost then affirms and celebrates diversity. While such diversity may pose a problem for us mere mortals, God is able to translate us to each other. God, in other words, is not threatened by plurality, but instead found in the midst of it, revealing to each the insights of the other.

This Pentecost, then, as we celebrate the birth of the church and the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us also celebrate the diversity that has been present since the very beginning of the Christian experience.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Charity v. Economic Justice

I had expected to take at least a little bit of heat for something I wrote in my last post:

...many who gladly give to Compassion International or World Vision are blind to the extent to which their daily economic activity exploits those whom their charity is designed to help.

After all, while evangelical Christians are among the most generous and socially concerned persons in the world, they are often characterized by people like me as being so interested in saving souls that they forget to save lives. I've heard many professors ignorantly declare that with their focus on the hereafter, evangelicals simply aren't interested in social justice. It isn't that simple. Evangelical Christians quite often are interested in the material well being of others. And many evangelical missions are at least as much about meeting present material needs as they are about saving souls. For many, many evangelicals, the two cannot be separated.

So, why would I say that many of them "are blind to the extent to which their daily economic activity exploits those whom their charity is designed to help”? And, perhaps more to the point, how have I gotten a free pass on that so far?

The second question is impossible to answer, so I'll tackle it first. Maybe my conservative friends have stopped reading this blog, or, at the very least, given up on trying to argue with me. Or, perhaps, they charitably granted my point, rightly noting that it is not their intentions or their charity that I am attacking, but rather their politics. They may disagree with my assault on their political and economic philosophies, but it might be refreshing to have at least one theological and social "liberal" grant to them at the very least good intentions. I've seen too many books come out this summer - riding, no doubt, a wave of anti-war sentiment for a more progressive politic - painting evangelical Christians as embodying everything that's going wrong in this culture.

But, in any event, the point remains: Evangelical Christians who mix conservative religion with conservative politics may indeed be quite charitable and quite generous, but their charitable generosity does not address the root causes of the desperate, grinding poverty whose pain their charity seeks to alleviate.

For my birthday (I turned 28 on Tuesday) my mother-in-law got me Michael Eric Dyson's newest book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. OK, really she got me the gift certificate that I used to buy the book, but that was thoughtful enough. In it he makes some compelling points, many of which may appear in future posts here.

Some of you might remember the sermon that was the beginning of the end of my pastoral career, "God of Wrath or God of Mercy: A Christian Response to Katrina." In it I argued passionately and, I had hoped, persuasively, against the poisonous belief that had infected my church, that God had used Katrina to destroy New Orleans for its sins and wickedness. Not surprisingly, Dyson has a chapter in his book titled "Supernatural Disasters?: Theodicy and the Prophetic Faith." I haven't gotten that far in the book yet, but if that chapter is worth exploring, God knows I'll explore it in an upcoming post.

But what, you might ask, does that book have to do with this post?

I'm so glad you asked. In Chapter 9, titled "Frames of Reference: Class, Caste, Culture, and Cameras," Dyson critically engages the media's portrayal of the impoverished black victims of the hurricane. The poor, and especially the black poor (53% of whom had no access to automobiles) were disproportionately victimized by the storm and the shoddy relief efforts that followed. Instead, however, of engaging the socio-economic forces that rendered these people unable to flee from the coming wrath, too often the media portrayed these poor souls who had been abandoned by their governments as fools, thugs, looters, rapists, and murderers.

In his discussion of the combination of race, class, and economic reality that created the oppressive situation that conspired to strand so many in a crumbling dome, Dyson notes the distinction between charity and economic justice. Many were charitable in the aftermath of the storm, giving generous donations. But their charitable contributions did nothing to address the economic structures that give rise to poverty. Dyson quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Then Dyson writes:

Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth - even if they decide to help the less fortunate - while others are shortchanged, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.

Evangelical Christians, as a group, are generous and charitable, giving a higher percentage of their income to charity than any other group that I know of. But, when they mix that charity with support for a political and economic system that steals from the poor to give to the rich, they undermine the work that their charity seeks to do. This doesn't make them intentionally bad people, nor does it make them especially worthy of shame or ridicule. But it does mean that those of us who share their interest in helping the poor should appeal to that interest when addressing their politics.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Bugs Me

A new friend - who stumbled onto my blog after doing a Google search for Marcus Borg - emailed me this week to ask me what bugs me about Christianity. Here is a part of my response to him. This response is plagued somewhat by the problems of turning a piece of personal correspondence into a more pubic communication, but I hope you enjoy it anyway:

One of the few things that keeps me connected to the church is my congregation's investment in community ministry - working with local social organizations to meet the concrete needs of our marginal, urban community. In fact, we are hoping to move from the suburbs back into the city to be a part of that marginal community around our church, hoping that our position of relative privilege will amplify the voice of the community, allowing the city to notice that real people with serious concerns that need to get noticed live there.

That brings me to the first thing that bothers me about some popular expressions of our religion: too often, we Christian are blind to real social problems. The more time I spend in predominantly white suburbs, the more I realize that we middle class, white Christians have created safe enclaves far removed from the problems of the poor, the problems of those on the margins. We are blind to our participation in a brutal system of economic exploitation, and are blind to the legacy of residual racism that keeps certain people trapped in grinding poverty.

As one pastor put it, we are so fixated on heaven that we're of no earthly good.

That isn't to say that many Christians don't share some good social concerns. Even and especially evangelical groups have organizations designed to help the global poor. But many who gladly give to Compassion International or World Vision are blind to the extent to which their daily economic activity exploits those whom their charity is designed to help. And, the focus on the global poor, while certainly honorable, is still too often blind to the problems of the local poor.

I'm also often bugged by the strange mixture of conservative politics with conservative religion, as I don't see what the two have in common. Supply side economics (as least as it is understood today) has little in common with a literal reading of the Gospels. Neither Jesus nor the apostolic church would approve of waging war for any reason, much less the flimsy reasons offered for our current endless conflict - reasons which are not only false, but which also fail to meet the barest standard for a Just War.

I'm bugged by the scriptural illiteracy of those who claim to venerate the Bible without ever actually reading it. It seems to me that if you claim that something is a direct communication from God, and the ultimate authority on all issues, you should at least dust it off from time to time to see what it says.

I'm bugged by the rigid dogmatism that tries to fix the divine mystery to a single set of comprehensible propositions. And, I'm bugged by the attempt to define faith as intellectually agreeing with that narrow set of propositions. As I understand it, faith is a matter of one's entire being, not just what goes on between one's ears.

I'm bugged by a narrow concept of what it means to be pro-life. As my Dad likes to say, life may or may not begin at conception, but it sure as hell doesn't end at birth.

Like you, I too am bugged by exclusivism, a position so odious that I won't even bother to try to explain why it bothers me.

I am also bugged by the notion that God is a white male who lives just outside the natural universe, looking down on us. There are, of course, many other attributes of this God, whom I often call Whack-a-Mole. But even the most charitable construction of this God, without the brutal desire to smash those of us who stray out of line, still denies too many people full participation in the Imago Dei.

All of these amount to a kind of arrogance that seems so foreign to my understanding of our faith; a faith that teaches me that God is God, and that I am not God. To reduce that God to a manageable mystery - and to a person who just so happens to agree with me all of the time. My God is a mystery, and a mystery that challenges my most basic assumptions. If I think I understand it, it isn't God.

This is the Healing

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a long time...

Mike Knott saved my life. Of course, he did so indirectly. But he saved it nonetheless, and a few years ago I finally got to tell him.

I was a desperate, depressed teenager. I wore all black, had at best limited social skills and a crippling anxiety disorder that I didn't understand. The mullet that clung to my head long after it stopped being anywhere near fashionable was symbolic of... well... something I reserve the right to figure out later.

Just before my fourteenth birthday I was "saved." But, while that salvific experience - a mystical encounter with the sacred understood through an evangelical and quasi-fundamentalist Christian theology - changed the course of my life, to be honest it didn't help that much. It just replaced old anxieties with new ones.

Unable to understand myself in a secular context, I began voraciously reading C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and other important figures in popular evangelical theology. I also started listening to "Christian" music, blind to the religious and spiritual implications of the music that I cavalierly dismissed as "secular" (read "evil"). I created a new world for myself, safe from the pressures of a social order that rejected me as surely as I rejected it.

This almost anti-social religiosity, coupled as it was with emotional/psychological issues and a near fundamentalist belief system, created some serious problems. I didn't understand the messages my body - gripped, as it was, by fits of anxiety induced panic that felt almost like heart attacks - was sending me. I grew, like many other teenagers, increasingly disaffected. And, to top it all off, my religion told me that life in the here and now had no meaning.

Of course, it didn't always mean to tell me that. But in focusing on salvation as purely access to a heavenly realm that awaits us in death, with the focus of the religious life being to take as many people with you to heaven as you possibly could, the message that I got from my religion was that this life was a sinking ship, and that the sooner I got off it the happier I would be.

That I found many life-long friends in the same church that had me convinced that the meaning of life is to die and go to heaven is a credit to the decency of many evangelical Christians. The brutal social structure of my school had no use for someone like me. But these evangelical Christians saw in me gifts and abilities that I couldn't even see in myself. They helped develop my strengths, in part my loving me despite my flaws, and providing an emotionally safe environment for me, so that I could flourish. But with each and every panic attack, each anxious fit, my desire to rip off this veil of sorrows only grew. Like the little girl in the movie Saved who darts into traffic so that she can go meet Jesus, I longed to escape the pain of this existence and meet my Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

So, where does Mike Knott fit into all of this, and how the hell did he save my life?

I first heard his music on his first mainstream(ish) solo album, 1994's "Rocket and a Bomb." It came out on Brainstorm (BAI), a division of the Christian mega-label Word. It was a big step for Word, embracing a controversial Indie figure who was most known for the performance art of his band, Lifesavers Underground. The content of the album made its distribution by Word even more of a shock. While it was sold in Christian bookstores and promoted within the evangelical Christian community, there was nothing overtly religious about any of the songs. They were all stories of colorful characters on the margins of society.

"Jail" powerfully exposed the criminal injustice of a legal system that creates many more criminals than it reforms. "Bubbles" was the story of a clown who was kidnapped on his way to rehab. "Kitty" was the (to say the least) colorful story of an older woman cooking a mysterious (possible cannibalistic) dish in her apartment. While one could certainly argue that the grace that runs through the telling of each of these and other tales is evidence of a deep and abiding faith in God, this album may have been better suited for Sub Pop records than for a division of Word. But because it came out on the Brainstorm label, it was marketed to kids like me, kids who locked themselves into a ghettoized sub-culture, waiting to be kept safe from the morally corrupting influence of "secular" music.

"Rocket and a Bomb" was more honest than any "Christian" album I had ever heard. It gave voice to doubts that I had long denied. But it also allowed me to voice and embrace those doubts. Whereas much of "Christian" rock sought to create a perfect world, this album told the stories that emerged from a broken world. And, despite my claim to salvation, I was nothing if not broken.

I fell immediately in love with Knott's music, and chased down any project of his that I could find. I went back in time (metaphorically, if course) to find old LSU albums that came out long before I'd ever heard of Mike Knott. I also followed him into the future, both through his subsequent solo albums and through his failed mainstream band, the Aunt Bettys. Everywhere I followed Knott's music, I found a stark honesty that reflected my spiritually broken reality, along with the grace needed to find God not in some idealized state of perfection, but instead in my present brokenness.

For me the most problematic Christian teaching concerns salvation. While salvation at its best offers the grace to be transformed, too often in my evangelical culture it is a mere fire insurance policy, whose value can be found only in death. In Mike Knott's music I found a powerful antidote to this model of salvation. Consider this lyric from 1991's "This is the Healing," by Knott's Lifesavers Underground:

You've bee seen with a stiff lip
It's happening to the best when the pain grips
You've been beaten by the bell
in all that you do
You thought hell was a place one goes to
But your hell on Earth is true

This is the healing
Give me the tears from all your bitter years
This is the healing
Salt the wounds, the healing will come soon

You've tried to philosophize your pain
But it hurts in your heart
and not in your brain
You could be hit by the Spirit
and be made new
You thought heaven was a place one goes to
But this heaven on Earth is true

This is the healing
Give me the tears of all your bitter years
This is the healing
Salt the wounds, the healing will come soon

While this is neither award winning poetry nor Earth-shaking theology, it was the first time I ever encountered the notion that heaven and hell can be used metaphorically, to refer not to metaphysical places, but to emotional and spiritual conditions. My anxiety, my depression, was hell. My salvation, my transformation and redemption in the here and now, was heaven. Heaven and hell may not be limited to these present conditions, but they can at the very least be found within them. In fact, I would argue, for any teaching concerning heaven or hell to have any meaning at all, they must be found within present conditions.

Mike Knott's willingness to tell brutally honest stories, coupled with his musical expression of an existentially meaningful concept of salvation, saved my life no less than if he'd pushed me out of the way of a train. And, as I noted at the top of this post, about four years ago I finally got to tell him.

Sami and I went to a Christian music festival - our last such trip - in part because two artists on the fringes of evangelical Christian music, Mike Knott (go ahead and use the link already!) and The Violet Burning were going to be there. He saw Knott play in a crowded tent. It was so informal - he said they didn't pay him enough to bring a band - that halfway through his show he asked if anyone could play drums. A sixteen or seventeen-year-old boy darted up to the stage, sat behind a kit that was set up for the following act, and started banging along to Knott's semi-distorted acoustic guitar. Folk-punk style.

After the show we hung around and introduced ourselves to Mike Knott. We then spent the next two hours talking about almost everything in the world. And, yes, he blushed when I told him - in all honesty, and with none of the sentimentality of a gushing fan - that he had saved my life. That conversation is one of my most treasured memories.

Those of us who wrestle to strike some kind of stable balance between faith and doubt should keep in mind the saving power of Mike Knott's honest witness to me. There is more redemptive power in embracing a struggle and making it public than there is in pretending that everything is all right while our life descends into hell.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My Faith Tells Me...

Melissa's visitation and funeral were this weekend, and we were blessed to be able to go to both. The funeral was in the church I grew up in, where I met both Aaron and Melissa. Many of my childhood friends were there. While, of course, we were in shock and grief over the reason for our brief reunion, thinking of once again seeing these people who were so instrumental in shaping the course of my life - even if I haven't ended up anywhere near where most of them would have liked for me to - made me smile and think of a line from a Lyle Lovett song:

I went to a funeral,
and Lord, it made me happy
seein' all those people
that I ain't seen since
the last time somebody died

Morbid, sure. But there's a comforting truth to it. Death provides you with some space to take stock of your life. It also provides you with a community. A community that helped shape you, then turned you loose. It was great to see how my friends had grown up. To see new spouces, new children.

Life goes on.

The funeral was a celebration of a life lived boldly and lovingly. And, while I don't always believe in a literal bodily resurrection, I can say that in church this weekend we could all feel the enduring presence of Melissa, a presence that gives powerful testimony to the resurrection. And that's what Melissa wanted: to be in death as she was in life a witness to her faith. Even from the grave she ministered to me.

We got back home last night, and went to church this morning. For our worship today, several "leaders" in the congregation were asked to bring water from home and to pour it, ceremonially, into the baptismal fount. Wonder of wonders, I was asked to participate in that. Along with pouring our water, we were each also asked to compose a single sentense to read to the congregation, starting with, "My faith tells me..." With life and death, faith and doubt, swirling around in my psyche, this is the sentence I chose to share with the church:

My faith tells me that we are found in and surrounded by the love of God; and that we are called to love as passionately and extravagantly as that divine love that is our very life.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Melissa Mansfield: April 9, 1971 - May 15, 2007

I type this with a heavy heart... My friend Melissa, the wife of my dear friend Aaron, died Tuesday night, after a long fight with cancer. She leaves behind not only her grieving husband, but two beautiful boys, ages four and six. I have no interest in making any sense of this. Death is simply messy, and to say otherwise is to lie in the most brutal way.

But, her family takes some comfort both in her faith - which they share - and in her last week with them. For those of you with the courage to stare into the face of grief, I suggest reading Aaron's most recent post, titled Melissa's Holy Week.

My semester is finally over, so I finally have some time to spend on my blog. However, for now I'm going to grieve the loss of a dear friend and a sweet woman, whose greatest desire in life was to be a mother. Her children are a credit to her, and are even now surrounded by her love for them. That is her lasting legacy.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bumper Sticker Watch: War Monger Edition

Tom just called me to tell me about his new all time (least) favorite bumper sticker. It has a peace sign, and the words:

The Footprint of the American Chicken

Clearly the hawk sporting this fine piece of propaganda has never tried to preach peace in our militant culture...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Bill O'Reilly's a Hypocrite? You Don't Say!

I'm taking a brief break from writing my final papers of the semester (pant, pant...) this fine Mother's Day to note this:

Perhaps science is most useful when it rigorously demonstrates what anyone with half a brain and a little bit of all too uncommon common sense already knew. Like, say, that Fox News' hyper-personality Bill O'Reilly, despite his fabled "No Spin Zone," employs a great deal of what could charitably be described as "spin."

The LEO, Louisville's alternative news weekly, pointed me to this study by Indiana University's Journalism Department, which found (shock of all shocks) that O'Reilly not only puts some serious spin on the news, but in fact employs all of the tools identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA for short) as "propaganda devices."

What next? A scientific study that shows that Bill Clinton has a loose relationship with the truth?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Right Livelihood

My family, like many other American families, is currently being ground under by the brutal and dehumanizing force that is the health insurance industry. Negotiating over the phone with those employed by this dishonest industry reminds me of the extent to which one who is by nature good can have their humanity subsumed by the Powers, Walter Wink's term for the spiritual (and generally demonic) aspect of corporate structures. The whole situation brings to mind the words of wisdom my Dad gave me as I left home to start my own life.

Bear in mind, as you read these words, that as an attorney, my father is a member of a similarly reviled profession, and so generally refuses to sit in judgment on how people choose to make their living:

As I walked out the door my father, who may have gone the last decade without so much as touching me, put his arm around me, looked deep into my eyes, and, voice trembling with the sort of emotion that he generally suppresses, said to me,

I want you to know you'll always be my son...
Unless you go to work for an insurance company.