Monday, August 31, 2009

The Dog Chapel

Darlene, JJ and I drove over to Vermont yesterday and visited the Dog Chapel.

We were greeted by a sign with these words: "Welcome: All Creeds. All Breeds. No Dogmas allowed."

The place is just wonderful, with trails, a dog swimming hole, agility course, and the chapel itself.

The chapel was covered with notes, postcards and pictures of their dogs, and messages about missing them. It was very moving.

(@left: JJ, checking out the Dog Chapel)

We then walked all around Dog Mountain. JJ ran around the trails and through every mud puddle, and Darlene and I ate too many wild Blackberries that lined the whole way.

It was a joyful day, but I couldn't help but again think about all of the people that responded to the death of Wil Wheaton's dog (see my last blog post), and story after story of peoples' joy over their dog's lives, and the grief and sense of loss when they leave us.

Not unrelated, I had a bad dream this was one of the short ones that happens after you first wake-up, but instead of getting up, you go back to sleep. I saw JJ get hit by a car in my dream, and the wave of anguish was unbelievable. I haven't been able to shake the bad image yet, but hugging the dog (and the cats as well) this morning helped.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wil Wheaton's Awesome Dog

I started Twitter on December 1st, 2008. Since then, I have occasionally run across Wil Wheaton's name (@wilw). I recognized his name immediately, and through osmosis learned that he had become a blogger and an author, but didn't really look into it.

For those who do not know, Wil Wheaton became famous in the Sci-Fi world as an actor by playing the part of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He and I were born the same year, so he was 15 when the show was first aired. Almost all of the actors on Star Trek (be it the original series or beyond), end up with a cult following of sorts. Things were a little different with Wheaton because Wesley Crusher was not particularly well liked (especially earlier in the series) thanks to some questionable writing: from his lines to the "let's let the kid solve the crisis" syndrome. This led to a small but vocal group of Trek fans who were particularly nasty towards Wesley (and not so indirectly, Wil Wheaton).

Wheaton has continuing acting after Star Trek, but has expanded to other areas as well. He became a proficient blogger, which led to three acclaimed books and numerous awards for his blog, including most recently being named by Forbes as the "14th most influential web celebrity," and now suddenly has over a million followers on Twitter.

Truth be told, I looked into him again thanks to learning that he would be guest starring on The Guild as the leader of a rival gaming party (see my post from last week).

So I checked out his blog, thinking I'd find something gaming or sci-fi related. Instead, I found this:
This was not words of thanks for fame, or fortune, or even compliments on his blog or writing, but thanks for the outpouring of emotion towards his sadness over the death of his dog. In very moving terms, Wheaton described the horrible "kicked by a mule wearing 1930s baseball spikes" feelings of grief over the loss of the faithful wagging of the tail and greeting of joy that dog owners come to know.

Our pets teach us so much about the joy and value of life: with their too short, yet so-full life-spans.

The series of blog posts by Wheaton says so much (in order of posting):
As I sit here at my computer, with a cat on my keyboard and the dog and another cat sleeping near by, I am thankful that so many others have, through their animals, learned of the preciousness of life. And I'm thankful that there are people willing to publicly share their grief, undaunted by what others might say. I think this creates more connection to other people who are hurting, as well as beginning the healing process. We never forget those we love, and we never "get over it," but instead we learn to live with the warmth of their lingering presence in our lives, even in the midst of the sadness of their physical absence. (Once again, two things that seem to contradict are both true.)

I'll be reading Wil Wheaton's blog regularly now, and I can't wait to get my hands on his books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically: as Literally as Possible

I just finished a book by A.J. Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically (2007). My wife picked it up at the airport, and I borrowed it from her every time she put it down. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, dreamed up a project where he would attempt to do everything the Bible says someone should do or not do, taking the text as literally as possible for an entire year. Jacobs, who says that he is "Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant," (p. 6) wanted to explore biblical literalism. He wrote in the introduction:

Millions of Americans say they take the Bible literally...but my suspicion was that almost everyone’s literalism consisted of picking and choosing. People plucked out the parts that fit their agenda, whether that agenda was to the right or left. Not me. I thought, with some naïveté, I would peel away the layers of interpretation and find the true Bible underneath. I would do this by being the ultimate fundamentalist. I’d discover what’s great and timeless in the Bible and what is outdated. (p.7)

It was clear from the start of the book that Jacobs was expecting to journey into the Bible (both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament) and expose literalists as agenda motivated, and come away with a funny book as well as a book critical one. In some sense, this happened, but so did other unexpected things.

The amazing thing for me was seeing Jacobs finding genuine humanity even within the most bizarre and the most closed people that he interviews. He keeps on meeting people with a sense of dread: that these people are particularly scary, or really exclusive, or flat-out wrong. While at times he comes away with a clear sense of “I don’t agree with this view,” he is constantly surprised to find the genuineness (and for the most part, gentleness) in religious people...something often missed in the quick overviews. He also encounters a level of respect from people that I think surprises him as well: people recognize that his journey is a biblical one, even if Jacobs didn’t realize it at the time.

Jacobs writes in the introduction:

Everyone---family, friends, coworkers---had the same concern: that I’d go native....In a sense, they were right to worry. It’s impossible to immerse yourself in religion for twelve months and emerge unaffected. At least it was for me. Put it this way: If my former self and my current self met for coffee, they’d get along OK, but they’d both probably walk out of the Starbucks shaking their heads and saying to themselves, “That guy is kinda delusional.”

As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could not have predicted. I didn’t expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn’t expect to discover such strangeness in the Bible. And I didn’t expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it. (p.7)

Highly recommended read!

(The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs, printed by Simon & Schuster, NY, NY, 2007)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Guild is Growing: Now with the Virtual World's New Theme Song

The Guild is already is the #1 Web-based show, and now they've just released a new video in preparation for Season 3, called "Do you want to Date my Avatar."

("Avatar": a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego in the virtual world.)

The video is now the #1 download on iTunes and, and broke the million view mark in two days.

What is amazing of all this is that it has been done without a major studio. The indie revolution. ("Indie": independence from major commercial labels and an autonomous, "do-it-yourself" approach to recording and publishing.)

Felicia Day is the "star" of all of this. She is often referred to as "the computer geek's dream girl": smart, talented, attractive, and a self professed nerd and a gamer herself . (Referring to the new video, she said, "Jed (Whedon) made the nerdiest people on the internet cool.") She first became really known in season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a continuing role as a "potential slayer." (For those unaware, any Buffy character has an instant following of sorts, thanks to the loyalty of the fans). She became web famous after starring in the Whedon's Dr. Horrible (alongside Neil Patrick Harris & Nathan Fillion), which is one of the best and most known examples of independent web films.

Instead of cashing in by focusing on landing television parts, Day turned her attention to independently writing and producing the web series The Guild on a shoestring budget, which is about a group of web gamers.

The web series and the new video are full of satire and irony about "safe" virtual world interactions that don't necessarily prepare people for the actual world. (Day admits to her own 2-year addiction to World of Warcraft). The characters of The Guild function seamlessly...until they all meet in real life: throwing both worlds into turmoil. We learn the truth that none of these people are actually functioning well in their real life, and we smile and laugh (a lot) at their awkward interactions.

The Guild is smart, humorous, and has plenty to say about real and virtual life. And people are noticing....

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wholly Foods!!!

The other week I was in Austin, TX, where I used to live. Since moving, the original Whole Foods Store has been completely redone. It is unbelievable! The largest and coolest Whole Foods I've ever seen! It was jam packed, not only with organic and earth friendly goods from around the world, but lots of local options as well. Most things had clear descriptions of how the product was sustainable. They actually roasted coffee beans there in the store.

I was sipping ice coffee afterwards in the outdoor seating (104 degrees), with the ornamental water sculptures off to conserve water for the summer, and was wishing for a moment that we had a Whole Foods store back in Littleton NH just like this one. Of course, a store this size makes little sense in Littleton (and the new, community owned Littleton Food Coop is wonderful...we're members), but I let myself dream for a moment.

Little did I know that Whole Foods would be in the news a week later...

The CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, called "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare." The lead in is a quote from Margaret Thatcher, "The problem with socialism is that eventually, you run out of other people's money."


Well, not surprisingly, this has stirred up a ton of reaction.

If you haven't been following all of this, read Heather Horn's excellent summary, "The Whole Foods Controversy in 15 Minutes" in The Atlantic online.

There's a lot going on here. I certainly did a double take when I read a Tweet that I remember as the "Bizarro world of having the CEO of Whole Foods against Health Care reform, and the CEO of Wal-Mart for it." So I read his opinion: it was snarky at times, and it's clear that part of his solution is "eat more healthy solutions like, for example, what we sell at Whole Foods." Overall, I don't think his suggestions will really help the poor.

This is not the first run in Whole Foods has had with its "liberal" cliental. Whole Foods continues to be anti-union, although their employees make better than the living wage, and their health care plans look good to me. Lackey also has a history of questionable tactics, including posting anonymous praising of Whole Foods, and criticisms of Wild Oats Markets...a company that Whole Foods later acquired.

It seems to me, however, that Lackey has every right to say what he said (especially since he wasn't shouting blatant lies), and that many people agree with him. I don't find his arguments compelling, but calling for a boycott of Whole Foods over the expressing of his opinion on health care? That seems to be going too far. (You would have a much better chance of swaying me to boycott Whole Foods over the other issues.)

I found an article by Dean Rotbart on this called, "Whole Foods is latest company inducted into ‘World’s Dumbest PR Blunders’ book." I wasn't expecting much from the article with that kind of title. After all, Rotbart is not someone I usually read, and I seldom agree with him. Despite the title, I found some of what he said really thought provoking:

What I think is the more enduring question for other businesses, senior executives and their public relations consultants is the wisdom – or lack thereof – of any prominent company executive voicing a conservative public opinion on a topic that is certain to rub his or her liberal customers the wrong way....

...Keep in mind that the Left and the Right don’t think or act alike in America. The Left will boycott any business, any cause or any person who fails to march (publicly at least) to the drumbeat of their doctrine.

The Right, in contrast – and in my opinion weakly – will continue to frequent movies that star Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and other conservative bashers; the Right will buy the albums of Barbra Streisand, the Dixie Chicks, and other ‘America is always at fault’ promoters; the Right will shop in chain stores and restaurants that flaunt their ‘green’ records as a response to fictional man-made global warming; and the Right will continue to watch NBC, ABC and CBS, even as their network newscasts serve as propaganda organs for the Obama administration and left-wing dogma. (

(Kurt Note: Did he really just say " a response to fictional man-made global warming" ???!!! Does he really mean all of that, or is he just expressing common phrases of the right? As I said, I seldom agree with him...)

I can't say I care for either "The Right" or "The Left" actions as described by Rotbert, but I have to admit there's some truth here. The way people often respond in these times when they hear things that they don't like, often seems to be either with reactionary rejection, or with hypocritical piety. I'm pretty sure that neither way is healthy for our ongoing relationships with one another...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flesh & Blood

My sermon from Sunday:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54)

This is a very difficult saying for anyone who hears it that’s not an insider to the church. It may feel a little to graphic for us this morning...eating flesh and drinking blood...we may not care for the sound of it, but we know what the point is. With our knowledge of the Eucharistic tradition of the Church: sharing the bread and the wine, and the Gospel claim that in the Eucharist Jesus dwells within us and us in him, we can put the saying into the proper perspective, and hear how Jesus fully gives himself to the whole world.

To those without that inside knowledge, the saying is shocking and completely offensive. The cannibalistic claim is only part of the offense. The notion of drinking blood transgresses one of the most fundamental taboos in the food laws of Israel. And the exclusive tone of Jesus...without this, you have no life in you...was sure to produce anger to anyone not part of the group.

Context, at this moment, is an essential part of fully understanding this passage. Wayne Meeks of Yale University describes the insiders at the time of the Gospel of John as a “...beleaguered little group of believers whose allegiance to Jesus has brought them to the crisis of separation from their neighbors and families, ‘The Jews,’ who now hate them.” (Wayne Meeks on John 6:51-58, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 3, Eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 359)

The outsiders keep asking questions throughout the Gospel of John: “How can anyone be born after having grown does one reenter the womb? (John 3) or this morning’s “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52) The answer to the riddle, so elusive to an outsider, is obvious to the insider. The way Jesus will give bread, or flesh, is the way Jesus will give of himself for the world. Meeks claims that this strange paradox is the center of the entire riddle of the Gospel of John, spelled out in the opening chapter. “The eternal Wisdom and Word of God came down from heaven and became flesh in order that he, as flesh, could give himself for the world’s life. The believers who speak in the Gospel have “seen the glory,” but only in the form of paradox. His signs “reveal it, for those in on the secret, but the event of glorification must wait through the entire narrative for the coming of his “hour.” And that glorification, that exaltation—the way the one who came down from heaven returns to the Father---is precisely his being lifted up on the cross.” (Meeks in FOW, 359) All of this is due to God’s love for the world.

So the believers...a distinct minority within their own culture...have the difficult task of living in this paradox. They are at odds with family and friends and appear out of touch with the common sense of the culture, and some people hate them for it. The temptation is to return that hate in kind, for the insiders to define themselves against outsiders, but the Gospel makes it clear that God loves the whole world, and the Christian is called to do the same.

It is essential that our modern readings of the Gospel of John hold onto love as the central theme, and not lose sight of the context of this Gospel. When Christianity became the dominant culture, no longer a tiny sect in Jewish communities, the story was subverted in anti-Jewish ways, often leading to deadly conflict completely counter to the Gospel message (Meeks again...). It is clear that even today, Christians use the Gospel of John as a battering ram for particular ideology, rather than paradoxical insight to an extravagantly loving God.

It is within this mindset that I turn to healthcare in this country.

The Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention passed a resolution on Health Care. Episcopal congregations have been called to undertake discussions of the issue of health care coverage in the United States, including:

a) recognition that health is multi-dimensional, with spiritual, social, environmental, and mental elements as well as physical,

b) reminder of personal responsibility for healthy life choices and concern for maintaining one's own health,

c) proclaiming the Gospel message of concern for others which extends to concern for their physical health as well as spiritual well-being,

d) responsibility as a parish to attend to the needs (including health-related needs) of others, both other members of the parish family and those of the wider community, the nation, and the world, and

e) recognition that there are limits to what the healthcare system can and should provide and thus that some uncomfortable and difficult choices may have to be made if we are to limit healthcare costs. (Episcopal Church General Convention 2009, C071)

We have not just been called to have our own conversations:

The Episcopal Church urges its members to contact elected federal, state and territorial officials encouraging them to:

a) create, with the assistance of experts in related fields, a comprehensive definition of "basic healthcare" to which our nation's citizens have a right,

b) establish a system to provide basic healthcare to all,

c) create an oversight mechanism, separate from the immediate political arena, to audit the delivery of that "basic healthcare,"

d) educate our citizens in the need for limitations on what each person can be expected to receive in the way of medical care under a universal coverage program in order to make the program sustainable financially,

e) educate our citizens in the role of personal responsibility in promoting good health. (EC General Convention 2009, C071)

The explanation from the proposers, the Bioethics Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, who believe that:

a) provision of basic healthcare for all is a duty of a nation of Judaic-Christian values and, furthermore,

b) the current healthcare delivery system of the United States is flawed in failing to provide comprehensive coverage for 47 million of our citizens and, furthermore,

c) our current system with its escalating costs represents a non-sustainable financial challenge to employers competing in a global market,

d) the steps we specify above are all necessary to address this problem adequately.

The Episcopal Church has said that we need to have these conversations.

The public sphere has been trying to have these conversations as well. Unfortunately, much of the public conversation has turned into angry yelling of misinformation, subverting the opportunity for serious dialogue into moments of grandstanding, and making health care reform likely to fail not on the merits of the plans, but on public perception and political implication.

I want to be clear that I am not asking you to back the current administration’s health care plan as is. Robert Reich, Former Secretary of Labor, Professor at Berkeley, writes that one reason the stream of misinformation continues to sway people is that the public plan currently lacks specifics that are critical to understanding what is being proposed. The President needs to be very specific about two things in particular: (1) Who will pay? and (2) Why the public option is so important -- and why it's not a Trojan Horse to a government takeover. (Robert Reich, How to Fight Healthcare Fearmongers and Demagogues)

The correlation between this morning’s Gospel and the Healthcare debate is twofold. First, there is no place for insiders and outsiders in this conversation. All Americans should have basic health care, and access to the real information to the healthcare proposals in a way that is clear without political agenda and bias.

Secondly, the Gospel holds us to a standard of behavior towards each other.

Brian McClaren, an evangelical pastor and author, wrote a web letter called "An Open letter to Conservative Christians in the US on Health Care." He writes:

But we Christians, it seems to me, have a high calling – to be radically committed to integrity and civility, even (especially) with those with whom we disagree. God, after all, is merciful, generous, and kind to “the just and the unjust”: How can we not have that same obligation regarding those with whom we disagree? Even if others resort to dirty political tricks and distortion of the truth through exaggeration and fear-mongering, we simply cannot. At the very least, we should be seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, not consumers (or purveyors) of propaganda – even if it comes from members of our own political party and people who quote a lot of Bible verses (often out of context). We have a higher calling.

I think McClaren is right, and I would further suggest that all Americans need to drop the shouting, name-calling, and grandstanding that has marked the Town Hall Meetings. Let us acknowledge the real fears (as well as the rumors, egos, and ambitions) that have been fueling these reactions, and instead create the space to have real discussion and debate on the health care issues that all of the people of this country face, so that we can find the right way forward for all Americans.

No outsiders or insiders.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Michael Vick goes back to work

Michael Vick, released after serving his time for a Federal Dog Fighting conviction, was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to be their backup quarterback.

I love dogs. JJ, the dog in my picture, is a terrific, loving and gentle dog who was abused by his first owners. Few things can upset me as much as those who abuse animals.

And yet, I believe Michael Vick should return to work.

Jim Capel is an excellent writer for ESPN. He wrote an article called "Vick is just another working stiff."

He addressed the thread found in many an article about Vick and other athletes that have either broken the law or made dubious ethical decisions should be suspended or kicked out of professional sports, regardless of fulfilling the legal consequences of their actions, because "it's an honor to be allowed to play" in each league.

Caple wrote:

Despite what many people say, it is not a privilege to play in the NFL, the NBA, the major leagues, the NHL or any other professional sports league. It is simply a job, a career that is not benevolently granted to athletes but one they earn by honing their talents through years of practice. It comes with benefits and negatives, the same as any other profession. Well, not necessarily the same benefits and negatives -- when was the last time 50,000 people cheered you for completing a TPS report or chanted "You suck!" for ignoring the "service required" light on the office copier? -- but it has aspects that are both good (cheerleaders and endorsements) and bad (frequent concussions and knee operations).

But just because pro athletes have careers we covet doesn't mean those careers come with further obligations than ours. Society's approval is not part of the job description any more than it is for a banker.

I think Capel is so right here. I think that those who are wealthy and famous (sports stars included) often get preferencal treatment, but this is not the case with Michael Vick who committed a horrible crime and has paid for it in many ways. He is free to pursue his career as a professional football player, just as anyone who serves their sentence should be free to do so.

No one in the NFL is obligated to have him in their franchise, but the Eagles should not be vilified for choosing to employ him. It's a's a's a business.

Capel again:

Yes, of course athletes should be good citizens, the same as everyone else. Yes, they should use their fame and prestige as a positive influence in the community: visiting hospitals, donating chunks of their enormous salaries to charity, avoiding shooting themselves or anyone else at a strip club. And yes, a commissioner hired to keep a league popular and lucrative should naturally be concerned about the behavior of its players.

But athletes are not required to do anything special just because their chosen career is one that gets regular play in the media and makes us feel joy, sorrow, anger and inspiration beyond all reasonable justification. It simply is unfair to declare that if a person wants to go into a particular field -- a career that in no way has any effect on our health, education, safety or livelihood -- he is also under additional moral obligations just because we think it would be cool to have the same job and convenient to use him as a role model.

Michael Vick does not necessarily deserve a second chance, he's not entitled to it, but it's still the right thing to do with him, or anyone who is willing to take the difficult road of walking beyond the wrong they have done: accepting the responsibility and consequences, and the realization that they must live with the past and never forget what they have done. Vick's walk is more public because his career is one so many people see and wish that they themselves had the talent to do. That reality should neither privilege or punish him.

It is worth saying that it is extremely difficult for any convict to get a second opportunity. I am pretty sure that is yet another failing of our prison system that preaches rehabilitation without providing the tools to go forward. (Please accept my apologies for the many people who do their best to help former convicts move forward...this is not an inditement of your work, only an acknowledgment that the resources are not there like they should be).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Care "Conversation" Gone Bad

"Out of Control Town Hall Meetings" screams the headlines on the internet, TV and newspapers.

The focus on the media has been the bad behavior: which for the most part has been rewarded with multiple showings and follow up interviews.

It seems to me that in some sense, the town hall coverage follows the "reality show" formula where the most outrageous and vocally tense (hear loud and confrontational) moments get the most air time.

You can find these accounts anywhere, but here’s one from CNN:

....disruptive protests are turning town hall meetings into shouting matches and drowning out discussion over what is and isn't in health care plans in the House and Senate.

Videos of the protests have been circulating on the Internet, showing raucous crowds heckling their congressmen, and carrying posters with devil horns drawn on lawmakers' heads, swastikas or Obama with Adolf Hitler's mustache.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who had a town hall meeting disrupted by angry protesters earlier this month, said he had never experienced such emotion in his 15 years of holding such forums. Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina even had a death threat phoned into his office. A caller said that if Miller supported Obama's plan, it could cost him his life, Miller told CNN.

The effects of these Town Hall Meetings are unclear, but everyone seems to feel unsatisfied. Again, from the same CNN article:

Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for TIME magazine, said on CNN's "Reliable Sources" (that the) protesters' gimmicks are grabbing the public and media's attention, and valid arguments over the cost and content of the proposals are being put on the back burner. "There needs to be a debate in America on whether we should have universal health care. There needs to be a debate on the president's ideas. If these protesters have ideas, great. Let's hear them. But if they're just stunts to cause a disruption that gets the media tripped in every time, again, I think it's bad for the country whether you want the president's plan or not."

The negativity is not only disrupting the debate on heath care, but it is portraying the nation in ugly light.

I am brought back to Brian McClaren’s excellent article on Sojourners called "An Open letter to Conservative Christians in the US on Health Care." He writes:

But we Christians, it seems to me, have a high calling – to be radically committed to integrity and civility, even (especially) with those with whom we disagree. God, after all, is merciful, generous, and kind to “the just and the unjust”: How can we not have that same obligation regarding those with whom we disagree? Even if others resort to dirty political tricks and distortion of the truth through exaggeration and fear-mongering, we simply cannot. At the very least, we should be seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, not consumers (or purveyors) of propaganda – even if it comes from members of our own political party and people who quote a lot of Bible verses (often out of context). We have a higher calling.

I think McClaren is right, and I would further suggest that all Americans need to drop the shouting, name-calling, and grandstanding that has marked these Town Hall Meetings. Let us acknowledge the real fears (as well as the rumors, egos, and ambitions) that have been fueling these reactions, and instead create the space to have real discussion and debate on the health care issues that all of the people of this country face, so that we can find the right way forward for all Americans.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Boring Letters?

Via Media is a formation series in the Episcopal Church. Via Media, or the middle way, suggests that the Anglican/Episcopal way (starting with a blend of Catholicism and Reformation) has always been a blending of traditions that make for a rather messy, but very real and engaging church. At its heart, I believe this is still true. The Via Media series features a group of Episcopalians sitting around a table discussing various things from Jesus, the Spirit, and sin. I’ve taught this class and watched these videos dozens of times now, and so certain memorable lines stick out: for better and worse. A woman was referring to the many different books and offerings found in the Bible. She reflected on how some books share the foundational story (like Genesis), how the four Gospels work to give a varied yet complete picture of Jesus, how the Psalms express both hope and fear, how the prophets speak of both present issues and timeless challenges, and finally, getting to the New Testament letters, she says:

“And the Epistles tend to read like a letter from a boring bishop.”

A memorable line for sure, worth exploring on a number of lines of thought.

First off, it reminds me that while the lectionary...the planned 3-year cycle of readings for each Sunday of the very helpful for exploring the vast breath of the Scriptures, it is often not kind to the Hebrew Scriptures in its tendency to match an excerpt with how it speaks to the Gospel at hand. The Epistles tend to fair only slightly better, for the excerpts we read often leads to more confusion about them than illumination. We end up with strange subject matter like circumcision, or with a section of thought that is missing its context. With the Gospels far more inviting and demanding for immediate commentary, the Epistles tend to be ignored, save for single memorable lines that get used in ways that are often not in the context of the compete letter.

To make matters worse, “letters from a boring bishop” is not as far off as you might think. The boring question aside, the Epistles are just that: open letters to a community that is engaged in an ongoing, previously begun correspondence. We do not know what prompted the letter: a reflection on the relevant news, a specific issue in the community, an observed place of struggle, or a full-blown crisis. We know not if a line like (I’ll choose a mostly ignored one) “women should cover their heads in church,” was a specific answer to someone’s posed question, an attempt to diffuse an out of control situation that had consumed the community, a point of contention over a specific power struggle, or perhaps even the author’s personal pet issue. We hear something like this, and perhaps think, “how in the world could this be important enough to be addressed by the Bible,” without considering the difference in culture or the context of the comment.

If we are to gain anything from our experience of reading the Epistles, other than arming ourselves with specific verses that reinforce our particular understandings and point-of-view, we must attempt to discern the “so what” of the letters. What is the point, why might this matter, and what does it mean to the communal relationship?

The passage from Ephesians this morning (Ephesians 4:1-16) seems to point towards a need for this community of Christ to reconcile. Who knows if it was specifically fractured by a particular event, or perhaps upset by a slowly building controversy, or maybe even tense over a bunch of little things that had been blown out of proportion? Ephesians starts, however, not with the call to reconcile but a review of life in Christ.

Richard Ward writes:

“God is at work in Christ throughout the first three chapters, revealing, choosing, adopting, sacrificing, and blessing in order to bring differing communities together into a new, unified body in the face of pronounced and pervasive evil. The claim is bold and remarkable, that through the death and resurrection of Christ, warring religious cultures (i.e.: Jew and Gentile), passionately divided by heritage, traditions, moral codes, and behaviors, have collided and now converged into a newly created order, a community that knows no barriers of race, class, or gender.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, Ed. by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p305

So the letter writer has established the vision that God has in Christ, and for the church. The next chapters of the letter explore pastorally how this all actually gets played out.

Our opening verse this morning starts with a call “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Eph. 4:1)

Paul Marshall claims that the call here is that Christ’s followers are to be bound by the highest standards of individual and corporate morality. Christ’s mission is the ongoing reconciliation of all humanity to God: something that both happened with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and something that still needs to happen in the infinite opportunities for humility, gentleness, and patient forbearance that we have with others. (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, p304)

The gifts given in this section of Ephesians circles around individual gifts that people have to serve the church community, all to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12)

Porter Taylor writes (using Markus Barth’s knowledge of Greek) that “...the equipping is not about accumulating skills of knowledge. Rather the word “equip” comes from the Greek noun katartismos meaning “the setting of a bone.” It derives from a verb meaning “to reconcile,” “to set bones,” “to restore,” “to create,” “to prepare.” To grow in one’s ministry, therefore, is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately, and to avoid being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 3, p304)

It must be noted that the verse (Eph. 4:14) that’s so often pulled out and used to defend the status quo, in context, becomes a call for growth and healing towards God in both individuals and communities.

Ronald Wilson of Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes:

In such communal living, diversity is not an obstacle but a vehicle for unity and maturity. The variety in the church does not hinder, but rather promotes the desired growth. Seminary professor Gerhard Frost used to say to students, “We need each other’s differences.” This was no mere nod to some fuzzy tolerance, but a tough-minded appraisal of the necessity for diversity, no matter how difficult that might be for us in the church. We may need God’s help to be mature enough to welcome differences among us with humility, gentleness, and patience, and to put up with one another in love as we are encouraged to do.

In such an economy, the many are unified by a common charge to build up, to stabilize, to enable growth. This structured unity in diversity is powerful witness to the rest of the world concerning God’s purposes for all creation. What is being set forth (in the dogmatic constitution of the first section of Ephesians) and called for (in the pastoral second portion we have) in this letter is not an impossibly unattainable ideal, but the conviction of faith that the church has been given resources to demonstrate unity, proclaim truth in love, and become whole in Christ.” ("Thinking and Practicing Reconciliation": The Ephesians Texts for Pentecost 8-14, Ronald Olson, Word & World Texts in Context, Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, 1997.)

“A boring letter from a bishop?” Perhaps it is, but it’s also clearly a timely one for the church and the world today.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Those Aren't Fighting Words, Dear

This was written by Laura A. Munson and published 7/31/2009 in the NY Times.

It is a fascinating account of hearing a spouse say "I don't love you anymore" after 20 years of marriage. The results, however, are not what you'd think.

Munson's insight to what was happening in her marriage isn't the cure all for troubled relationships, but it is a reaction full of grace and understanding, and an incredible example of patience without becoming a victim.

The line that strikes me: "What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?” This is a powerful question. It suggests a working through and a road forward that keeps a level of responsibility and honor even in the midst of potentially going separate ways. Truly a case of "if you love someone, set them free" without absolving them from all responsibility and connection.

Munson's reactions show an adult maturity that is often lost in our modern world. It's ironic that this is true. This just might be the beyond that was hoped for as we moved from the ethics of the Victorian age, as well as the 50s, where you simply put up with things as "your lot in life." The usual modern response in relationships is a lack of responsibility and fidelity: "Don't like your situation? Just leave: you're the only one that matters." That's not much better than the destructive pattern of remaining the victim.

Again, Munson was not being abused by her spouse (although his words and actions certainly caused her emotional pain). Munson chooses to walk through this with her husband without doing it for him, or overcompensating for him. She gives space, but makes it clear that he not only has a place with his family, but that she believes his place is WITH his family, and that she believes he still belongs. Ultimately, he must make a choice, but it comes not in the midst of battle, but in a place of thoughtful reflection and exploration that does not destroy the family.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Cone of Shame"

Poor JJ, my dog, has a "hot spot." An insect, most likely a spider, bit him, and JJ's licking (that's what dogs do) wore down the hair to the raw skin.

He's recovering nicely, but he won't leave the spot alone, so now he must wear "The Cone of Shame." The helpful device keeps dogs from licking healing spots and pulling out stitches. JJ's cone is at least clear plastic so he can see better, but he really doesn't like it much. He was really pathetic at first, bumping into things, but thankfully he's maneuvering better now.

This phrase may have been around from somewhere else, but I first heard of it in Pixar's great movie Up. Here's the scene with poor Dug.

Lots of websites out there using the phrase now...another case of pop culture becoming common place language.