Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Little Universalist Library

I had a large backpack slung over my shoulder, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, reading "Property of Vulcraft Texas" (my employer 5 years back.)  It was likely that reference to a Bible Belt state that roused her suspicion.   



I'd stopped in front of a "little free library" . . . one of those tastefully done over-sized birdhouses stuffed with second-hand books for anyone who's interested to take from and deposit to.  This one happened to be stationed in front of a Unitarian Universalist Church. The lady who popped out of a side door and hurried up the sloping sidewalk toward me, quickly introduced herself as the minister and welcomed me to the library.  
After exchanging pleasantries, she seemed satisfied that I was not the notorious neighborhood evangelist, and proceeded to explain that she has been keeping an eye on the library from inside the building because someone has been trying to "Christianize" the book supply.  She made sure I understood that, as Universalists, they draw from "the wisdom of all religions."
"Christianity would have a place, then . . . right?"  I asked.  
"well. . . yes," she stammered, "but nobody is leaving any Buddhist books." 
"I see.  You're lookin' for more diversity."  
She quickly changed the subject, telling me about how a member of her church, who happens to be a Boeing engineer, designed that particularly snazzy unit.  It is pretty impressive.  We parted ways.  

After reading up on the minister here, I get the sense that she wouldn't mind Rob Bell so much, but that John Piper might get her frothing at the mouth.  Damn evangelicals, dogmatizing the book supply!

 

It would be fascinating to hear a Universalist leader explain their method of picking and choosing from a plethora of religions, most of which are collectives sourcing intrinsic value from a strong sense of exclusivity.  I suppose that believing in a cocktail mixer of principles and commonly held benign moral themes gleaned from multiple faiths, while maintaining that strict adherents of those faiths aren't bright enough to realize the overarching truth, would provide a very similar individualistic sense of relevance, or at least one of moral and intellectual supremacy.

If I ever feel like picking her brain further, I guess I could get my hands on an old-school Strong's Concordance, a few marked down titles by Mark Driscoll, and some Vaseline, and see if I can't get it all into the little "free" library censored by a universalist minister.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: The Open Wound

I have seen a lot of inflammatory interbuzz on both sides of the Ferguson story today.  There are Americans using the violent reaction to the grand jury’s decision to further bolster their racism.  There are Americans who do not want to lose the sense of self-righteousness that comes with blindly siding with minorities despite inconvenient details, and refuse to view Wilson, or any police officer, as a human being.  There are Americans who are using the verdict to justify violence, and there are Americans capitalizing on the violence—from media outlets, to looters, to manufacturers of tear gas and rubber bullets, not to mention the lead kind. 

Some believe that Wilson made some stupid decisions and got ‘too involved.’  Some believe that it is even more stupid to assault public servants, especially the ones issued pistols and authorized to use them in self-defense.  The grand jury believes Wilson did not commit a crime.  Based on the testimonies of key witnesses, physical evidence, and the laws and policies currently in place, they made the right call.  Judging by the tension filled run-up to the press release, America was expecting no less.

If Brown had been a homeless white man, this would have hardly ruffled feathers.  If Wilson were a black police officer or gang member, it would have been no less tragic, but would have gotten relatively little attention.  Skin color alone has been the catalyst to the drama.  Tragedy gave birth to disaster, as it reopened the wound caused by our country’s dark history of oppression. 

As a nation, the process of healing from something as inhumane and oppressive as slavery is a long, slow, painful process.  The oppressed admittedly bearing most of that pain, the oppressors (or their great-grandchildren) only the inconvenience of status-quo evolution.  It might not be fair to label pundits with the most power to enact change today as oppressors, but by the nature of their wealth and status they typically have the least incentive to change things.  You might call it 'passive-oppressiveness.'  That is why justice and equality are an uphill battle.  But the systems, policies, and practices that stand in our way are what we should be fighting.  They make up the machine that we can't escape, but in which we can choose to be indifferent cogs or conscientious ghosts, poking a (peaceful) stick into questionable spokes.


One life taken, another turned upside-down, now hundreds are dealing with property damage at the very least.  Where are Ghandi and MLK when we need them?  Rage-filled riots are doing nothing for progress, but maybe there is some benefit in the conversations that they spur across our nation today.  What if Wilson only had only been armed with a Taser or a can of pepper-spray?  What if there were affirmative-action type programs to promote diversity within the police force?  What if Michael Brown’s next door neighbors had been white?  Is segregation really dead?  Are public school funds fairly distributed?  The root of the unrest is much deeper and more complicated than the incident sparking the riots.  Maybe the most productive thing we can do in the now, is turn off our televisions and pray for Ferguson, their police force, the city officials, for justice, equality, and victory over our own prejudices. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Polishing

When life begins to lose it's sparkle, sometimes what we need most is a deep think, a meditative tuning-in to the chord of joy. It takes intentionality to reclaim the attitude of gratitude and mindfulness required to appreciate what we've been blessed with, where we are, and who we're becoming. It's like polishing a diamond smudged with the fingerprints of routine and familiarity that dull our senses.

can be overdone, though. No diamond sparkles beneath the Sham-Wow of constant introspection, despite the perpetual polishing. We can spend so much time trying to forge a perfect internalized identity that no one we come in contact with gets a chance to connect with who we are in the now . . . because we're too busy trying to figure that our ourselves.

The ability to consciously sharpen the mind as necessary, yet live outwardly and generously as joyful, yet imperfect, all-too-humans is a priceless art that takes a lifetime to master.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mary and The Witch




Medieval Princess Mary-Ann was strolling piously along the beach one humid, fish-scented day when she heard a small, somewhat cracked voice peeping just above the shush of the tides.

“Excuse me, Miss! . . . Madame!”

Mary-Ann gently scanned the beach with her royal retinas.  At long last she spotted a tiny witch with a characteristically crooked nose, orange skin, and a pointy navy-blue hat standing on the drawbridge of a respectable sand-castle just beyond reach of the high tide. She had no broom at hand, only God knows why.  There were several tiny goat-heads bearing long droopy tongues awkwardly perched on stakes rising from the moat, but that doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t pertain to the story, and Mary-Ann was very tolerant, not to mention fictional, like Harry Potter.

The tiny witch standing on the tiny drawbridge above the tiny moat adorned with tiny goat heads on tiny stakes was in a major pickle.  She was covered from fashionable flats to furrowed forehead in a densely sticky purple slime.

“Me Lady!  Verily, verily, I have been brutally, brutally, mauled by a bi-polar jellyfish and cannot move!”

Struck with compassion, Mary-Ann replied, “Art thou not freezing, dear witch-with-the-skin-of-a-tangerine?  Let me escort you to my ample water-basin in the royal outhouse for a proper cleansing of that abominable jellyfish’s violent violet marmalade excretion!”

“Oh thank you, me lady!”  croaked the witch as she burst into joyful forest-green tears of relief.

Medieval Mary-Ann carefully plucked the witch from the drawbridge like a mouse from a glue-trap and trotted elegantly down the shoreline as fast as dignity and Elizabethan whale-bone corsets would allow.  As they neared the royal outhouse--built of hewn boulders and stained glass with ample girth, beautiful lighting, and offensive ventilation--Sir Honeybucket, on guard duty, stood at arms adjacent to said marvel of medieval relief architecture.  He simultaneously hoisted his eyebrows at the site of the witch and acknowledged the presence of royalty with a solemn bow from the hips.

All of a sudden Mary-Ann and her purple-plastered passenger were overtaken by a flurry of thundering hoofs, horsehair, and armor--knocking and crashing like a barrel full of cymbals chasing a cheese wheel down Mount Sinai!  Mary Swooned.  The witch shrieked.  Sir Binjalot, the modest yellow knight! Temporarily blinded by Dutch courage and floating molars, he nearly trampled the princess, so desperate to train Thomas on the terracotta!

Sir Honeybucket would have nothing of this brash disrespect of the nearing nobility and her feeble friend!  Drawing his sword, the protector of the potty placed it smartly between the sanctuary door and the charging Sir Binjalot!  Pointing toward Mary-Ann with his free hand, he shouted at the top of his lungs,  “Pee not!  But her and jell-y sand witch!”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thoughts on Doubt

"Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action."
    -From The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton), by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman

Eugenio Colorni was the brother-in-law of influential economist Albert Hirschman and a big influence in his life.  I'd never heard of Hirschman until reading this article by Malcolm Gladwell.  I can relate to his fascination with so many different topics, eagerness to experiment, and geographically transient tendencies.  His warm acceptance of risk and doubt seem rooted in a humility that allowed him to comfortably accept the fact that he could be wrong or unsuccessful. When his curiosity birthed intelligent questions, this attitude allowed him to fearlessly explore possibilities.  He accepted the fact that there were limits to what he could know and understand, and that allowed him to test those limits.

As a Christian, Colorni's take on doubt got me thinking.  I used to view doubt, and certainly the admission of it, as weakness- something I wouldn't dare admit to others or even subtly reveal through questions asked in Sunday School.  Over time, however, I've come to view doubt as more virtuous than delusion.  Pastors who are secure enough in their faith to say "I'm not sure, but here's what I think and why. . ." instead of pretending they know, or avoiding hard questions altogether for the sake of unity (as if doubt is a communicable and spiritually terminal illness) stand out among many shepherds more motivated by fear of "wolves" and pride in numbers.  Even issues for which we won't come to a definite conclusion before the end of the world as we know it make great conversation!  Just don't pretend that your take on Revelation is golden, because it's not.

Every believer's soul is a custom collage of personal experiences, traditions, stigmas, superstitions, self-righteous hangups, unfounded convictions, goose-bumping 7-11 songs, denominational by-laws, cultural Christianese, Christian self-help lit, and an assortment of scriptural interpretations and misinterpretations in and out of cultural and literal context.  Even with that in mind, there's hardly anything more humbling, frightening, or liberating than to accept the fact that one's personal abstract composition of dogma/theology/spirituality is not God's Comprehensive Manifesto of Objective Truth.  Conversely, little is as cozily insulating, arrogant, divisive, or socially paralyzing as pretending that it is.

Does it take more faith for a Christian to attend church services three times a week, or to read and seriously weigh the thoughts and studies of Nietzsche, Ehrman, Dawkins,or Hitchens?  The former would indicate loyalty or devotion to a body of believers- good and healthy things, but I believe the latter would require more faith.  If one refuses to expose themselves to opposing viewpoints out of fear that their foundational beliefs could be uprooted (that is, the fear of doubt itself), are they really beliefs at all?  Maybe religion is just their security blanket woven from principles cherry-picked to live by that could go up in flames at the first spark of contradictory reasoning.  It's near impossible to truly believe in anything that one can't earnestly defend.  There's something to be said for familiarizing ourselves with differing viewpoints from the horses mouths (or pens) rather than haughtily focusing only on the smoldering straw-men propped and flopped in literature written by, written for, and marketed to believers.

Have the courage to consider things that a country-club church wouldn't dare sell in its bookstore.  When you get theologically frisky, do it prayerfully.  Approach it all as a respectful, doubtful skeptic.  It's very possible to find concepts that can't be proven, or that you don't agree with, intriguing and worthy of discussion without being utterly corrupted by them.  Actually believing (or disbelieving) something just because one likes (or hates) the way it sounds is just as stupid as believing something because a Christian rock-star sang it at a youth conference.  

The spectrum of Christian perspectives isn't as confined or well-manicured as you might think.  For a revolutionary take on what a church planted by the Apostle Paul might look like as opposed to the often heavily commercialized institutions,  consider Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity.  If you doubt that one person can sport a backbone, a heart, and an unapologetic stance with regard to the Bible, be inspired (or offended) by Douglas Wilson.  Explore the frontiers of faith (cautiously!) with some wild perspectives on emergent theology with the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, or be dazzled by a more mainstream and systematic approach to hard questions with Ravi Zacharias.  You might think Rob Bell has grown horns and a tail by the way he's been smeared by mainstream evangelicals over the past few years, but read his work and decide for yourself.  Ignorance never saved anyone.

Letting newly discovered ideas inflate the ego and make one feel superior to the seemingly less-enlightened can be a trip hazard to avoid.  There's something in all of us that wants to belong to a movement bigger than ourselves, and at the same time remain distinctly set apart in some way.  Adopting a provocative stance just to ruffle the feathers of others within your circle can be a sub-consciously tempting means of achieving such a position.  I believe that the realization of so many different takes on the same scriptures and the countless lines in the sands of grace between perceived legalism and lawlessness should have quite the opposite effect.  Opening one's eyes to see a personal black-and-white theology fade to gray in a sea of credible interpretations based on the same texts doesn't typically puff up.   

Accepting that the truth as we understand it will never fully come to terms with Truth as it stands should be humbling.  The overwhelming realization of our limited capacity for understanding can ultimately anchor hearts adrift in a sea of religious and philosophical ideas to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Grace is our only hope, love is the final answer, the rest is just fascinating.

The core of my faith can be simple and unwavering, while the rest evolves with discipleship, maturity, revelation, etc.  There are countless "truths" that I consciously and subconsciously believe,   but I'm more comfortable than ever before with the fact that believing isn't knowing.  If there's anything I'm sure of, thankfully, it's that if God's grace is enough to forgive my misdeeds,  it will certainly cover my misunderstandings.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Library



As one with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge ranging from instructional to useless fascination, a trip to the public library can be joyous, thrilling, overwhelming, frustrating, and humbling.  The experience usually follows in just that order.

At first, it’s like entering a Barnes & Noble with a gift card given to me by an elf named Infinity.  There is so much information at my fingertips in the form of the printed word, and it doesn’t cost a thing!  There’s how-to for dummies and idiots, foodie reads, social justice rants, freakonomical factoid collections, pop sociology, false-hope *ahem* I mean self-help,  reinforcement of every naïve political viewpoint . . . it feels so empowering to walk into the library.

About 45 minutes in, and I’m feeling so intellectual.  I just put a hold on Dallas and Melissa Hartwig’s It Starts With Food, now I’m scanning spines.  It’s good exercise for the body, too. . . it takes a lot of squats to review all those titles on the bottom shelves.

Another half-hour and the mood is beginning to shift.  I see yet another book I really want to read, but I’m already carrying five other hardbacks.  Without a financial consideration to help gauge my temporal capacities, I’ve got some tough choices to make.  A bookstore could be compared to a fancy restaurant where you choose one or two items from the menu, while a library is more like a free-for-all buffet offering all of the same food.  Instead of buying one expensive meal and relishing every bite, the dilemma becomes, “what of these limitless choices do I commit to my limited stomach capacity?”  My proverbial plate is filling up, and I still have 2/3 of the shelves to explore!  I reluctantly drop off What’s YourPoo Telling You? at the returns bin.

I’m overbooked.  Since I can only carry home what fits in my backpack, one title displaces another as I push through the books on politics, religion, self-help, psychology, and diets.  The gross absurdity of so many starkly conflicting viewpoints, approaches, and opinions intimately snuggling on the tightly packed shelves is getting under my skin.  Billy Graham’s biography sits a few feet from a Wicca encyclopedia and Killing The Buddah:  A Heretic’s Bible. 

When it comes to what you should eat, there’s ketogenic, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, locavore, Zone, whole-grain, no-grain, juice-a-phile, and plenty more.  Shallow political fluff from both sides of the aisle by Fox and MSNBC spinners is readily available.  It’s fascinating how various perspectives can fashion such a diverse array of tapestries by selectively weaving together threads of the same history we all share as the human race.  The older I get, the more malleable history seems.

The frustration of so many differing opinions in light of the fact that there’s only one truth is like a glass ceiling ultimately shattered by the humbling realization that none of us will ever master that truth.  We’ll never be as correct as we like to think we are, and we will always be more hypocritical than we like to admit.  So I pick up a book that goes against the grain of my personal roots, resolve to welcome and respect different perspectives, and head for the checkout.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Finding a Church: Mars Hill West Seattle



Mars Hill West Seattle pipes in Mark Driscoll from the main campus to watch on-screen from a pew in a full-sized church, sort of like you could watch him from your living room.  He has sound, Bible-based teaching, but the man is an insensitive jackass.  I had suspicions after seeing some clips online and reading up on him, but some of his remarks today were like, really?   Those things are hard to reconcile. 

There is rock ‘n roll style worship with a live band before and after the message, and they are really good . . . best I’ve seen yet in 3 churches visited here so-far, but got nothing on Jesse Pierce and his crew. . . for real . . . if America’s got talent,  the Love Church in Horseheads, NY was blessed with it. 

The local pastors at this campus (in more of a shepherding role than teaching) seem very genuine and good stewards with their funds- completely open and honest with budget details, goals, etc.  They present giving as a selfless act of humble worship without postulating a host of “incentives” for the giver, and I think that’s a wise approach. 

Communion is every Sunday-  they use the snatch and dip method, rather than shots and crackers.  You can dip in the wine or the juice, but only one kind of wine. . . sadly. . . I was hoping to be able to choose between a Merlot and a Cab (just kidding). 

The church’s style is very modern and very glossy, with professionally directed and musically drugged propaganda clips determined to present Christianity as radically cool and adventuresome (which it is, but not like that.)  I would say it's very much like an extension of a lively college & singles-ministry at a Southern Baptist mega-church I attended often in college.

They serve decent coffee, and they let you drink it over the carpet and upholstery in the sanctuary during the service, but the cups are too small- better suited for the communion wine (I'm only half-kidding.) 

I like the healthy balance of scripture and exposition vs. personal stories, ramblings, and fables, but the Spirit doesn't seem to have much freedom.  It’s high on the Word, intellect, transparency, chivalry, and showmanship, but seems low on enthusiasm, participation, diversity, and fire (a lot of hands-in-pockets, jaws barely moving.)

I went alone today, since Jenn had a gig downtown with a temp agency.  She’ll probably want to visit next Sunday, and could come away with a very different take.  Most of the people who showed an interest in me during the grueling thirty-second greet-your-neighbor interlude designed to torture introverts were too pretty to reveal my name to without her there.  I just flashed my ring at them.

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